30 July 2017

Homily for Trinity 7 - 2017

"Our Rich and Bountiful Lord"
Mark 8:1-9

Listen here.

What a rich and bountiful Lord we have! The people had been standing and milling around Jesus for three days while He sat and taught them. (That must have been some sermon and Bible class to keep them there for three days!) Jesus knew they had nothing to eat. So He said, “I have compassion on the multitude.” And He did not just speak of compassion; He did not merely say the right words. No, He did something about it! He took the seven loaves of bread and the few small fish, and He made a huge meal out of them. What a rich and bountiful Lord we have! “And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.” Not only were they filled to the full, but they also had plenty of leftovers to give away. What a rich and bountiful Lord!

Notice how our Lord nicely tangles up the spiritual realm and the physical realm. He was teaching them, and then He fed them. He was nourishing their souls, and then He sustained their bodies. You see, the Lord can tangle up the physical and the spiritual because, well, that’s the way He created His world. We heard from Genesis 2 how God put Adam in the garden to tend and keep it. Adam, Eve and all humanity were originally created to have the most intimate spiritual relationship with the Triune God, and they were also designed to tend and manage God’s physical world. What a rich and bountiful Lord to tangle up the spiritual and physical realms of His creation!

So why do we like to untangle what God has graciously tangled together? Why do we choose, time and time again, at home, at work, and at church, to separate the spiritual from the physical? Why do we insist on keeping a mental brick wall between our spiritual life and our physical life? What do I mean? Consider this example. After a typical Sunday service, when you go down to coffee hour or go home for brunch or dinner, do you talk about the Scripture readings, the sermon, the hymns? Sure, if something goes haywire or something goofy happens, we talk about such things then. But what about rehearsing with friends and family the divine truths we heard in the readings? What about discussing what the sermon was about, or how the hymns fed us on Jesus and His mercy? Or consider another example: When your paycheck comes, do you think first and foremost, “Wow, look how much money God has graciously given me, even though I don’t deserve a dime of it, because the money really belongs to Him”? Or do you keep God in His Sunday morning box and think that the money is actually yours? Do you write the first check for your thank offering to God and His Church, or do you first figure out how to pay the bills, how to fix the car, and how to play, and only then give any checkbook leftovers to God? See how easy it is to untangle the spiritual and physical realms that God has so graciously tangled together?

The disciples were victims of their own untangling of what our bountiful Lord has joined together. They looked at the crowd—4000 people! And they did not see any shops or stores nearby where they could buy even a little food. And the seven loaves and the few small fish? “What are they for so many?” (Jn. 6:9). Like us, they saw the physical things—the great need on the one hand, the meager resources on the other—but they failed to see the spiritual stuff tangled up with those physical things. They failed to see and trust that our rich and bountiful Lord would have compassion on the crowd and feed them. We also fail to see and trust our rich and bountiful Lord.

This is exactly why the disciples needed to see and take part in the breaking of the bread and the distribution of the fish. When we hear that Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, broke them and then gave them to the crowd, we certainly think of how He takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it and gives it to us at His altar. This physical meal for the 4000 sure opens our eyes to what’s going on in the spiritual meal before us today. Jesus still provides for us sinners. Even though we often fail to see and trust our Lord, He is still rich and bountiful to feed us in body and soul, to feed us on His mercy and life.

But the disciples also took part in the distribution. Jesus gave the loaves “to his disciples to set before the people.” Instead of letting His disciples wallow in their doubts and unbelief, Jesus made them part of His plan to provide from His bounty. The people were hungry and in need. He, our rich and bountiful Lord, had compassion to take care of their need. And He chose to work through the disciples. When it comes to the Lord’s Supper and Jesus feeding His Church on spiritual food, Jesus still uses weak, sin-laden disciples called pastors. And when it comes to Jesus feeding the multitudes on physical food, He uses all kinds of people, but especially His Church—yes, you and me!

Our rich and bountiful Lord provides for both our spiritual and our physical needs. He feeds us on His message of mercy, that is, the word of His sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection to life for us. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). And as our crucified and risen Lord feeds us on Himself, in Word and Meal, He strengthens us to live and do as the disciples did: to set bread from Jesus before the multitude. As St. Paul reminds us yet again today, we have been set free from sin and now we have become the slaves and servants of our rich and bountiful Lord. What a great honor it is to serve our Lord and bring His food—both spiritual and physical—to people around us.

St. Augustine had a nice way of tangling together the feeding from God’s Word with Christians feeding the multitude, that is, Christian works of mercy. Augustine told his congregation, “In expounding holy Scriptures, I am, so to speak, now breaking bread for you. If you hunger to receive it, your heart will sing out with the fullness of praise. And if you are thus made rich in your banquet, why would you then be niggardly in good works and deeds of mercy?” (Sermons on NT Lessons 45:1). When our Lord Jesus feeds us on His mercy and life in Word and Meal, He frees us from our sin to live with Him. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And once we have been made “slaves of God,” we are free to serve our neighbor in works of mercy. When our Lord gave the bread to the disciples to set it before the multitude, He gave us a picture of how His Church is to live and serve. Arthur Carl Piepkorn once wrote an essay called “The Life of God in the Life of the Parish.” Here’s how he tangles together the spiritual and physical realms of life: “The life of God in the parish implies an end of commercialism in the financial affairs of the parish. If we cook, it will be for the hungry; if we sew, it will be for the needy; if we collect clothes, it will be for the ill-clad; if we eat, it will be for the joy of being together as children of God and not to raise funds for Him who is the Creator and Owner of the world’s wealth. The kingdom of God is not buying one another’s pies, but in being faithful stewards of the gifts with which God has bountifully endowed even the poorest. The problem of parish finance is not getting into people’s purses, but getting God into people’s hearts” (The Church, 117-118).

Just as He did with the 4000, our rich and bountiful Lord has compassion on us. He so graciously tangles us up in His spiritual and physical life. He so wondrously feeds and sustains us, and we get to serve Him by bringing His food, both spiritual and physical, to people around us. Amen.

23 July 2017

Homily for Trinity 6 - 2017

"Exceeding Righteousness"
Matthew 5:17-26

Jesus says something quite astonishing—quite frightening, really—when you stop and think about it. He says: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The frightening thing about these words is just how good and upright the scribes and Pharisees really were—at least when you saw their outward lives. They sure appeared to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. They certainly did not utter His name in vain. They very faithfully kept His holy day and even listened to and learned His holy Word. They respected their elders. They did not abuse their bodies by being drunkards or gluttons. They did not live in sexual immorality. They did not steal from God by holding back on their tithes. In fact, they gave even more than what God required in His Law. They fasted regularly—at least twice a week. To all outward appearances, they were very, very good people. They were the sort of people that you would delight to have as fellow church members and neighbors. They did not “play religion” at all; they were very sincere, very zealous, and it showed. Yet the Lord Jesus points to them and says to all who follow Him: “Your righteousness must be better even than that!” What on earth does He mean?

Thankfully, He goes on to tell us what He means. He takes up the Fifth Commandment as His first example: “You shall not murder.” Now, every scribe and Pharisee could pride himself in having kept that commandment. God said, “Don’t go around sticking knives in people,” and the scribes and Pharisees could say, “Thank God, we haven’t done that. We’ve kept that one.” But Jesus raises His eyebrow at such a bold claim and says, “Really? You think you’ve kept the Fifth Commandment?” Then He asks some pointed questions: “Have you ever been angry with your brother in your heart? Have you ever hurt another person with the names you’ve called them? Have you ever insulted or put down another human being with malice in your heart? Oh, you have, have you? Well, then, you have smashed the holy Fifth Commandment to smithereens.”

You see, we look at the outside and judge only by what we can see. There’s just one problem. That’s not how God looks at us. He does not judge by the outside, at least not by the outside alone. He looks at the inside. He looks at the inner life, at the heart. As the LORD told Samuel when he was searching for a king to replace Saul: “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). That’s where Jesus’ real concern lies. Jesus even said, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mk. 7:21-23).

Now can you see why Jesus rejects all righteousness based on external behavior? We can certainly strive long and hard to do the right things and keep our evil inclinations in check. We can fight valiantly and somewhat successfully to not do what we would very much like to do at times. People around us may even think that we are good, upright, religious, and very pious. But we know the truth. We know what’s inside. We know what we would like to do at times. We know what we would do, if we thought we could get away with it. We know what we could do if the circumstances were just right and painting us into a corner. We just cannot quite control that heart and inner will so tainted by sinful self-serving.

So the real problem is our sinful hearts. We may have some limited control over our sinful actions; but over our hearts? Who can easily stop a fit of anger or jealousy or envy or pride by flexing the muscle of will power? No one! So, what is Jesus really saying? Is He saying that absolutely no one can enter the Kingdom of heaven?

Ah, but there is One Man from whose heart flowed nothing but pure love—pure love toward God above all things; pure love toward His every neighbor as Himself. Yes, there is One Man who has such a pure heart that He perfectly kept the Law without fail, and He lived all of His life in perfect love. There is one such perfect heart! And so there is also a perfect righteousness, a righteousness that did, and does, and always will exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes. That heart belongs to Jesus Christ, and so does the righteousness.

So, if we want to enter the Kingdom of heaven, we absolutely must have the righteousness of Jesus Christ. No, not a righteousness that is merely sort of like His. No, not a righteousness that only weakly imitates His. Not even a righteousness that says, “I tried.” You see, being “sort of like” or being “weak imitations” doesn’t cut it with God. Remember how Jesus summarized God’s will for us: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). If we are to enter the Kingdom of heaven, we need a perfect righteousness. We need the righteousness that belongs to Jesus alone—a righteousness that we can receive only by His grace and only by faith in Him.

St. Paul reminds us today that in Baptism we are joined to Christ Jesus—buried with Him into death and raised with Him to walk in newness of life. You see, Jesus freely gives you His righteousness. He who is totally sinless took upon Himself all of our sin, and the sin of the whole world. As He went to the cross, He owned all sin and every little sin we commit as His very own. He even divests Himself of His righteousness, His holiness, and He places it upon us in the water of Baptism. He clothes us in His very own perfection. What a blessed exchange! And now, because of the miraculous washing of Baptism, God looks upon us and sees not our sinful hearts, but rather the image and reflection of His beloved Son. He sees us clothed in the exceedingly perfect righteousness of His Son Jesus.

“But, Pastor,” you say, “my heart is still sinful. I still have those terrible desires, small and large. Sometimes I even act on those wretched thoughts! Surely, God doesn’t just overlook that, does He?” No, He doesn’t just overlook sin. But what does Scripture say? “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation—the covering, means of forgiveness—for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:1-2). That answers the question, doesn’t it? God wants to free us from our sin, and cleanse our hearts through faith—no two ways about it. And since that cleansing job is never finished this side of heaven, we joyously live under His pardon until the end. And His cleansing work just keeps going and going and going.

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Let’s give thanks to our gracious God that our Lord Jesus Christ gives us what we could never come up with or accomplish on our own: an exceeding righteousness freely given to us, an exceeding righteousness placed on us through the washing of water and His Word in Baptism, an exceeding righteousness placed in us again today in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. As we keep learning to live from this gift of God, our lives will be transformed more and more into His perfect love. And on the Last Day, when our Baptism is fully completed, our lives will be like His—love, pure and simple. As we will soon sing:

We thank You, Christ; new life is ours,
New light, new hope, new strength, new pow’rs.
This grace our ev’ry way attend
Until we reach our journey’s end (LSB 562:6).


16 July 2017

Homily for Trinity 5 - 2017

The Net of the Gospel
1 Kings 19:11-21; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Luke 5:1-11

Listen here.

Poor Elijah! He thought he was spent. He thought it was time to retire from his prophetic ministry. “Lord, I’ve served you all these years. Look how fruitless it’s all been. Lord, I’m all alone. I’m done.” But God does not play into Elijah’s pity party. “Now, now, Elijah. Just get up and get back to work. Go and anoint Hazael as king over Syria. Then go and anoint Jehu as king over Israel. And then go and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat as your successor.” Then God told despairing Elijah to stop fretting about the Church. After all, it’s the Lord’s Church, and the Lord promises to take care of her as He sees fit. Elijah just needed to stop wallowing in his self-pity and get on with what God had given him to do.

Then there’s Peter. If Elijah was seeking early retirement, Peter was trying to evade the calling altogether. “Lord, we’re the fishermen. We know how to fish, when to fish—at night—and where to fish—in the shallow water. We’ve been working all night and this fishing trip was just a dud.” And then, when the Lord demonstrated that He is the Lord of all creation—that even He can bring a great catch of fish, and in broad daylight and from the deep waters—then Peter slumped into his own pity party. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” This was most certainly true, of course. But still beside the point. Just as beside the point as Elijah thinking he was the only believer left on the face of the planet.

The point is not that Peter is sinful—he is. The point is that Jesus is gracious. The point is that Jesus is Lord of all creation and all of life, and He overflows with gifts for all. He showed this with that boatful of beautiful flopping fish and the torn nets that had been so carefully mended and stowed away earlier that day. No, Jesus was not going away, as Peter requested. Instead, Jesus wanted to take Peter and his fishing buddies away with Him. Now Jesus would take Peter on a fishing trip—not for fish, but for people. “From now on,” Jesus tells Peter, “you will be catching men.” Literally, it says, “you will catch people alive.”

So, with hearts uplifted and sins forgiven, Peter, Andrew, James and John, got up, walked away from their past, their careers, their incomes, even their families. “They left everything and followed Him.” They put one foot in front of the other and walked behind Jesus. And Jesus began their three-year intensive teaching. What was He teaching them? All about the net that they would toss into the sea of humanity to bring up a catch for God Himself. Let’s call it the net of the Gospel.

In our second reading today, St. Paul does some pondering on this net. Folks have always looked at the message of the Gospel with a good dose of skepticism. They wonder, “You really think you can do something with that—a message about a guy dying on a cross and somehow making you right with God?” “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The Word of the Cross. That’s the net that our Lord Jesus put into the hands of Peter, Andrew, James and John. It’s the net He’s put into the hands of His preachers and pastors in all the years and centuries since. It’s a net of words—nothing but words—cast into a world drowning in words. But these words are different from all the rest. These words—the net of the Gospel—actually have a divine power in them, a power to grab hold of people’s hearts and haul them out of the sea of sin in which they live and bring them into the boat of the Church. And once in the Church, people learn to live from those words and from them alone. “For [the Gospel] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).

This net, though, is an affront to those who think themselves “wise” in this world. God would actually choose to save people through “the folly of what we preach”? Now, this folly does not refer to the men who are preachers making fools of themselves in the pulpit (They might very well do that from time to time.). No, the folly refers to the content of the Church’s message. That God would choose to send His Son into the world and take on our human flesh and blood? That God would have His Son suffer and die on a cross? That He would actually rise again on the third day? That’s precisely the net of the Gospel—the content of the Church’s message. That’s precisely how God catches people alive and saves those who believe.

“Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom.” And we? “We preach Christ crucified.” And, by the way, the message of the cross is not about any empty cross, no matter what some well-intentioned but misguided preacher may have tried telling you. Not only were empty crosses a dime a dozen, but also empty crosses catch no one for God’s kingdom. Empty crosses can mean only one thing: that the person once nailed to it was taken away. We do not preach an empty cross. We preach a cross on which hangs the Crucified One. He, not the cross itself, makes the cross full of power and salvation. WHO is hanging on that cross and WHY He is hanging there—that’s the net, the story, we cast out into the world to haul people in for the Kingdom of God.

He who is on that Cross is “the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8). The Lord of glory confesses that He who is on the Cross is the One who created us at the beginning, the One through whom all things were made. “He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross. He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns. He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.” So the Church sings in an ancient hymn for Good Friday.

It is God-in-the-Flesh, the Eternal Son, our Maker, who hangs on that tree. That should lead each of us and all of us to wonder indeed. But the message of the Cross goes beyond the Who to the Why. “Lord, WHY are You hanging there? Why do You permit this outrage? Why did You come into our flesh in the first place? Why, O Lord?”

Are you ready for His answer? He says, “I came to be the Lamb of God who would take away your sin and the sin of the world. I had no sin, but I came to bear your sin and sins in My body on the tree. I came so that you might die to sin and live for righteousness. I, who had no sin, came that I may be made sin for you, that in Me you might become the righteousness of God. I came to pour out My blood and thus blot out the handwriting of the Law that was against you. I came to be wounded for your transgressions, crushed for your iniquities, that upon Me would rest the chastisement that brings you peace, and that by My stripes you may be healed. I came because you—every one of you—like sheep have gone astray, turning to your own way. So the Lord has laid on Me the iniquity of you all. Since you were under the curse—remember, cursed in the person who does not continue in all the things written in the Law—I came to become a curse for you, for cursed is everyone who hangs upon a tree. Thus I would free you from your curse by means of My own.”

So we cry out: “But why, O Lord? Why would you do this for us? Why would you embrace this suffering and death, this terror and darkness, to free us from what we clearly deserved?” And again comes His answer, both sweet and profound: “Because I love you. Because I want you to share with Me the joys of a life that never ends. Because I did not make you to live for a few measly years and then suffer and die. I made you to live in the joy of My Father’s house forever. And I am utterly committed to doing whatever it takes to bring you there. You matter to me, and I hold you precious.”

That’s the net! That’s the story—not a fiction, but it is a narrative—that He gives us to cast into the world. And is it ever one powerful net, one powerful story! We know its power first hand. After all, it has plucked us up out of the sea of this world and landed us in the boat of the Church. And we have come to believe this story and are even now being saved by the power of this story.

But once in the boat, He bids all of us also to join in casting this net of the Gospel, to bring yet more and more to know this story, to love this Savior, and to find through faith in Him that life that never ends. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching [people alive].” Armed only with this, our holy net, we go forth from this place to cast it with joy. After all, it is the power of God for salvation! Amen.