Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity – Matthew 6:24-34

            Do not worry. Easy for Jesus to say, isn’t it? He doesn’t have to worry about anything. He’s up there in heaven with His Father waiting for His Father’s summons to return to judge the living and the dead. He isn’t worried about anything because He’s not here with us. He doesn’t understand what life is like living in the trenches of daily warfare that is life. He’s not on the front line having to deal with other worried people as we hurry through our lives being worried together. How dare the Son of God say one thing about worry when He has no need to worry!

            That’s not the case. Jesus teaches you not to worry today because He knows, and He wants you to believe, that everything is under His Father’s providential care.

            But what about the pandemic? What about the rolling seven-day rate of positivity in Region Seven of Illinois? What about all those pernicious anti-maskers and unauthorized family gatherings and hymn singers in churches and indoor diners and lying government officials (or truth telling, depending on your perspective) and so-and-so and such-and-such and on-and-on until you’re red in the face and worried to death about everyone else and everything else? What about the upcoming presidential election? The future of our country is in our hands! What about the economy? Isn’t the Second Great Depression around the corner? What about riots and looters in Chicago and Los Angeles and Seattle and elsewhere? Don’t you think they’ll be on our streets soon? What am I going to do about all these things and Jesus tells me which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? What kind of fool is He?

            What kind of fool are you? You are worried about many things. Not one of them is under your control. You are not looking at what is happening now. You are anxious about the future. You won’t focus on what you have in the present. Jesus shifts your focus today by having you consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Take them as your perspective changer and see how they don’t worry about a thing. They know, unlike you and me, that they will be provided for by their Creator.

            Take a moment on your way out of the church building this morning to listen and look at two different things. Listen to the birds singing, if you are able to hear any. Not one of them has cable or satellite television to tell them what to think about anything. They do not have any access to social media to signal their virtue to their online fan club. The birds of the air are far too busy to be brainwashed and to brainwash others. They are gathering food for themselves and their young. They are building nests to protect themselves. Your heavenly Father feeds them. They sing because that’s what birds do. They work because that’s what birds do. You won’t hear any gripe from them about their life. They find food and shelter and care for themselves. Their Creator, our Creator, our caring heavenly Father, feeds them.

            As you hear the birds sing or fly through the air, think for a moment about how you are cared for by your heavenly Father. You have a house. You have income, even if you no longer work. You are able to afford the basics in life such as food and clothing. Yes, you may not have gourmet food and designer label clothing but you’re neither hungry nor naked. If that isn’t enough, your heavenly Father has also provided forgiveness of sins and eternal life in His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. His blood shed for you covers your sin and declares you righteous before God our Father. Eternity is yours in Christ. Death is swallowed up in His victory for you. So why are you worried about everything else when the one thing needful is taken care of for you?

            The other thing you should look at on your way out of the church building today is the giant oak tree to the south of the Pine Street doors. Autumn arrives this week and leaves are starting to fall from that oak tree. Every morning when I wake up and roll up the shades on our bedroom next door, I get to see that oak tree. In the winter it’s a dreary sight, but in the other three seasons it teaches me a lesson about God’s providential care for me and for that tree.

            Thursday morning I rolled up the shades in time to see a leaf fall from that tree. The first thing I thought of when that leaf fell was not that winter was on the way. The first thing I thought of was how wonderful it must be for that falling leaf not to have to worry about a pandemic or an election or any of our worries. It budded, it flowered, and now, having served its purpose in creation, it falls to the ground. I didn’t see a Trump or Biden campaign sign on it anywhere. It wasn’t wearing a mask. It simply fell to the ground having done what God intended it to do: provide shade for people and a home for animals.

            Animals and plants live in the now. They are not concerned about their past or their future because they have enough to concern themselves at any moment. You don’t hear fields of corn or soybeans wave in the wind complaining about how ugly they are. You never hear birds chirp a lament about this year’s vintage of worms or their need of silk plumage to cover themselves. They concern themselves with what is happening now. A crop is planted, watered, given sunlight, and then is ultimately harvested. Animals are born, are cared for, care for themselves and their young, and ultimately die. They don’t gripe about God and how He treats them. They are provided for and thus provide for themselves.

            You can be angry about current events. You can sulk about all the troubles in your childhood. You can fret about your offspring’s futures. You can also consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and learn something from their lack of care about all those things. They do not seek after wealth and all that mammon offers. They do not lament their unfortunate circumstances. They don’t even see their circumstances as unfortunate. They live their lives right here, right now.

            King David gives us a clue what it means to live in the now that our heavenly Father gives us when he sings: The eyes of all look to you, [O Lord], and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing. Another Psalmist says in Psalm 147: He gives to the beasts their food, and to the young ravens that cry. His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love. Those are the words Martin Luther teaches us to say at the table before and after we eat. Luther was a wise man because He saw that God provides everything we need to support this body and this life right now. It is futile to worry about tomorrow because tomorrow will take care of itself. You have enough to concern you today, right now, right this very moment. Your biggest concern is already handled in Christ Jesus. Your sins are forgiven. New life is yours. Everything else is extra sprinkles on the hot fudge sundae of life.

            God gives. You receive. His kingdom and His righteousness are yours. Love and live in those holy things He gives you and everything else necessary for daily living is yours. Jesus promises it, and He will deliver them for you.

Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity – Luke 17:11-19

            Life is full of transactions. You go to the bank. You make a deposit or withdrawal. You leave with more or less money in your account. You go to the store. You buy items. You pay. You leave with more items and less money. Transactions are becoming less transactional. Now you are able to shop anywhere using a device. You can even have your items delivered to your home. You need not leave the comfort of your favorite chair. Even if you never left your house to go to the bank or to the store, you’re still making a transaction.

            The giving of God’s gifts of the preached Word and distributed Sacraments are sometimes treated like transactions. You come to God’s house after a week of ups and downs. You sit in a pew, participate in the liturgy, hear God’s Word read and interpreted, receive the Lord’s Supper, and then go home. Now we have a camera that is able to bring preaching wherever you are. Even though you think you don’t have to come to church anymore because you can watch it on a device, you are still involved in a transaction of sorts, although it’s not really a transaction.

            It’s not accurate to consider what goes on here as a transactional event. Consider the ten lepers in Luke chapter seventeen. They engage Jesus as He travels through the border country between Samaria and Galilee. They believe Jesus is able to help them. They get His attention. Unlike an earlier encounter with a leper, Jesus does not heal them on the spot. He tells them, go and show yourselves to the priests. Off they go to their priests. Notice the plural, “priests”. We learn moments later that at least one of the lepers is a Samaritan. He does not go running to a Jewish priest. He’s supposed to go to his own priest to show that he has been healed from leprosy. He goes to a priest, but it’s not the priest you expect. He goes to the great High Priest, Jesus Christ.

            Here is where using the transactional model on the Church fails. There are two parties in the transaction. One is making an offer. The other accepts or declines the offer. There is consideration involved in the offer. Once consideration passes from one party to another, if a deal is made, the transaction is complete and both parties go their own ways. You’ve probably seen a transaction like this take place so many times in a congregation. One party comes to the house of the Lord for something. The other party, usually the pastor on behalf of the congregation, gives the other party what they desire. The two parties then go their own ways.

            What is missing in this so-called ecclesiastical transaction? The same thing that is missing from nine healed lepers: gratitude. Sinful people tend to get what they get from the church and think nothing of being thankful for what they have received. They treat God’s gifts as if they are magical totems at worst or occasional pleasures at best. There is no continuing gratitude on the part of the receiver. I show up, I get what I get, and I go home because I got what I got. When I need it again, I know where to go.

            When you see the giving of Word and Sacrament as a transaction, as a commodity, you’ll see it in the way of nine lepers. Where did they go? Where are they? You would think that because they are healed they would run back to Jesus and thank Him. No. They got what they got. Jesus is omniscient. He knows I’m happy with what He did for me. He knows, but He desires to hear you thank Him for it. Jesus desires to hear your gratitude not because He needs an ego stroke. He desires to hear your gracious words of thanks because those words of gratitude show both Him and your neighbor that you are the receiver of His precious promises. Your whole being depends upon His undeserved love for you.

            You’re quick to forget how things were when you were miserable. You are not worthy of Jesus to lift a finger to do anything for you. He should be unwilling to help you because of your sinful nature. In spite of sin, in spite of death, Jesus helps you. Jesus healed ten lepers knowing that nine of them would continue running and never return to give Him thanks. The one who did return, however, was a Samaritan. A Samaritan. Not a Jew. A person outside the people of the promise. The least likely person to return to give thanks to God’s only-begotten Son was a foreigner.

            Nine healed lepers, as it were, continue to run home every day. God continues to cry out to them in His Word. He desires them to return to Him not for the sake of a transaction, but for the sake of a relationship, a one-way love that He has for them. You have heard that call because you are here today. Maybe you still see this relationship as a transaction between a righteous God and an unrighteous human being. You give God your bad things, and He gives you His good things. Though this is true to some extent, it is not an accurate picture of what happens here.

            What is happening now is God’s Service, Divine Service. Note who is running the verbs. God serves you. God is giving you forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation. You speak to God the words He gives to you. How would you know what to say to someone if that someone didn’t teach you the words to speak? That’s what is happening here. God is giving you the vocabulary of grace, His undeserved love poured out on you not just in His Service here, but throughout your life.

            Your life in Christ is not one transaction after another. Your life in Christ is daily dying to sin, having your sin put before your eyes every day, constantly staring death in the face and seeing how mortal you are because of sin. Your life in Christ is being raised by God every day as a new creation. Though not rid of your sinful flesh this side of Paradise, you hang on to the promise God made you in Jesus Christ. Regardless of what you see, what you hear, and what you feel in this world, you are a new creation living in readiness for the Last Day. As God has shown you mercy in the blood and righteousness of His Son, Jesus Christ, you can’t help but speak to God the words He gives you to thank Him for His loving kindness. Take your cue from this Samaritan, who turns not to his priest but to His great High Priest, Jesus Christ, the Savior of both the Jew and the Gentile.

            Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well. Rise and go your way today and every day. Cling to the promise of forgiveness and life in Christ. Your conscience is clean and pure in the perfect life, death, and resurrection of the ultimate Healer, Jesus Christ. To God all praise and glory for His boundless love, even for thankless transactional people like you and me!

First Impressions from 22 Years Ago

22 years ago to the very day (Wednesday September 9, 1998) my F-150 and my dad’s F-250 were packed with my worldly possessions. I had signed off the airwaves two days before. It was time to begin a new chapter in my life as I moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana to begin formation as a pastor in The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

The decision to become a pastor had been long in the making. Once I had set my hand to the plow to do it, there was no turning back. I still have no regrets in my decision. The Lord’s hand guided everything.

I had never lived in a dormitory before. I was a college commuter student, taking advantage of living at home while driving 30-40 minutes each day for college classes. I was also working 30+ hours a week in radio. Quitting my job and focusing on one thing for the next four years was quite a change, especially when it happens nearly six hours from your hometown. I had to make new friends and prepare for new experiences. I had to open my own bank account and find an Internet provider (the dorms had Internet service the next academic year). I also had to learn to save my quarters to use the washer and dryer in the dormitory basement.

My parents and I got as far as Effingham, IL when, after breakfast, my dad’s truck wouldn’t start. We spent extra time in Effingham waiting for the Ford dealer to fix the truck. That incident made us late getting in to Fort Wayne. Technically I couldn’t move in because the move-in time had expired for the day. The friendly and gracious security guard let us move in anyway. That was my first experience understanding God’s grace at work beyond the chapel and the classroom.

The next morning was getting situated and saying good-bye to my parents. I wouldn’t see them again until Thanksgiving, ten long weeks away. I remember walking them out to the parking lot. It was not my mother who cried that late summer morning. It was my father. His son’s dream was coming true before his eyes. He also let go of his youngest child in order to let him become his own man. It was a moving experience (no pun intended) for all of us. I was told later that my mother couldn’t bring herself to go into my bedroom for a few days because she missed me so much.

The next few days of orientation were like drinking from a fire hose. So many things to learn about how things run at seminary. So many new people to get to know. Then came Holy Cross Day, September 14th. That was my first day of Greek class with the late Dr. Waldemar Degner. I spent ten weeks of weekday morning with him and many other men as we walked through the basics of Greek grammar. We were preparing to be preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The first fellow student I met whom I remember was my best friend from seminary days, Tim Hahn. Tim had just moved cross-country from southern California and was a couple of doors down from me in the dormitory. He, like me, was a Cubs fan. Thus began a friendship that continues 22 years later. We were first placed in congregations 30 minutes apart. Now we’re in congregations an hour apart. Only the Lord knew what was in store for us at that time.

I have no regrets about how everything went 22 years ago as I started seminary. Those four years were some of the best years of my life. God closed a door in broadcasting that day, but He opened a door into ministry that still amazes me to this day. The adventures I’ve lived, the people I’ve met, and the experiences I’ve seen are something else. Maybe one day I’ll write about it all. And to think it began with driving two trucks from Du Quoin, IL to Fort Wayne, IN.

Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity – Luke 10:23-37

            And who is my neighbor? All three men in Christ’s parable were the neighbor to the one who had fallen among the murderers. Only one of them, however, actually proved himself to be a neighbor. Only one of them showed the greatest Christian virtue: humility…and he wasn’t a priest or a Levite. He wasn’t even a Jew. He was a Samaritan. The name “Samaritan” alone was hard for Jews to say, let along consider as being merciful and humble. Even the lawyer asking Jesus this question cannot bring himself to say “Samaritan”. Instead, at the end of the parable, he responds to our Lord’s question with the one who showed him mercy.

            But isn’t it dangerous to show this man pity when there are murderers in the vicinity? Won’t I end up in the same place as this man if I help him? That’s the chance you take when you help anyone. Generosity always takes chances, especially before the eyes of people who believe generosity often is a waste of time and resources. Even I get caught up in thinking it’s a waste. There’s a man who stands in the median of Armour Road near CSL Behring now and then begging for money. I frequently see him there and wonder if he is a professional panhandler. It’s hard to tell whether or not the need is genuine. I see others helping him, but wonder if this man needs the help? As I consider my own lack of mercy to this man, I am reminded of Saint Paul’s words to Christians in Rome: Let love be genuine. True Christian mercy helps every person in need who comes in their way, whether friend or foe.

            Jesus points out in the parable that when the Samaritan saw this man lying there half-dead, he had compassion. The images we see on television of starving children or other people crying to be heard make our stomachs churn. We can’t help but want to help them. The place of compassion within us is our guts. It is an emotional appeal because there for the grace of God go you and me. You could be in that position at any time. The position you’re in right now is a position of ability to help as your circumstances allow. It might be prayer. It might be financial help. It might even be an opportunity to serve. No matter how you’re able to be merciful, it comes from a heart of service, a heart that is connected to Jesus Christ and His merciful, sacrificial death for your sins.

            Christian charity also sees the matter to an end. The Samaritan, someone from a people who forfeited God’s promise of salvation, shows us how enduring Christian mercy is by taking care of this half-dead man. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. Even when his vocation compels him to move on, he hands over care of this man to the innkeeper. He took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper saying, “Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.”

            The parable of the merciful Samaritan is so familiar that we may have become desensitized to what Jesus is teaching as He tells it. Often the point of the parable is reduced by some Christians merely to being nice and being a good helper. Being nice and being a helper can be done by anyone, whether or not that person is a Christian. Now the parable is turned into a lesson about virtue and humility, something any human being is able to do without needing a Savior. Instead of seeing yourself as the Samaritan, see yourself as the victim. When you are half-dead, lying on the side of the road, watching two people who ought to help go out of their way not to help, you see what Jesus is getting at in telling this parable to a lawyer who puts Jesus to the test and desires to justify himself. Jesus’ parable is a corrective to pride and self-righteousness.

            You could do all these charitable things without Jesus, but what good would any of them do without God’s mercy in Jesus Christ? If you think you will attain eternal life solely by showing mercy to your neighbor, you are like the lawyer who thinks he doesn’t need a Savior. If you think you don’t need to show mercy to anyone except the one you deem the neediest, especially if the one needing charity is a fellow Christian, you also are in the lawyer’s camp. What the lawyer does not know, or has conveniently forgotten, is that he is the one who needs compassion shown to him. He is not merely half-dead, he is completely dead in trespasses and sins.

            You are like the lawyer before Jesus comes to you and pours out His mercy and compassion on you. You pick and choose your neighbor. You may show compassion, but it is good for nothing before your heavenly Father without Christ’s compassion first being shown to you. Jesus comes to you where you are, picks you up, makes you His beloved child by proclaiming His Word of reconciliation into your ears, washing your sin away with His baptismal water, and feeding you His Body and His Blood under bread and wine for the forgiveness of your sins. Once you look at how it is with God’s mercy on you, you, in turn, desire to show the same mercy to your neighbor without distinction or discrimination. God’s infinite love and mercy is poured into your hearts through faith in Christ. Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. Your eyes have seen your salvation. Your eyes have seen divine mercy. Your eyes see Christ in your neighbor, longing for His mercy to be given to them as His mercy was given to you.

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity – Mark 7:31-37

            The one disturbing trend over the last few months, and actually over a long period of time, is the spread of fear. It is common in news reporting to hear the phrase, “If it bleeds, it leads”. Any story that gets your attention and puts fear into your life is worthy of hearing first. What happens when every news story, every social media post, and every conversation with other people centers on fear? You become desensitized to fear. You expect fear. You want to hear more fear because you are comforted in being afraid. You become jaded to any report of good news because you’re looking for the fear factor.

            What happens when perfect love, Jesus Christ Himself, casts out fear from a deaf-mute man? Where is the fear angle among those living in the Decapolis? The fact that the man can neither hear nor speak heightens your anxiety. What if you come into contact with the man? How are you going to communicate with him? You don’t know sign language. What if he can’t read your lips? Look at it from this man’s perspective. He sees other people’s lips moving and can’t talk to them. He can’t communicate his thoughts to anyone. For us, the worst part is that going to the synagogue is a meaningless event because he can’t hear the Word being read and proclaimed.

            So you think this man’s life is awful. Consider that the entire earth is a giant hospital. As soon as you are born, you carry the seed of death in your body. Many people suffer their entire lives. The nearer the end, the more frail you are. There is an end to suffering, whether through healing or through death. The deaf-mute man’s hope for life is Jesus Christ. The hope and fear of every human being has an end in Jesus Christ.

            We’ve seen over the last few months just how ingenious humanity is when it comes to sickness. What good does it do, though, when a drug therapy or vaccine therapy is only temporary? What good is any remedy for the so-called “long haulers” who continue to suffer the ravages of a virus long after the virus has run its course. What good is sin except to pay out the wage of death? No illness happens at random. God’s will is done even with sicknesses.

            That sounds fatalistic at best and disturbing at worst. It’s as if God has a bull’s eye on your back and cannot wait to afflict you. Not really. The intention behind the illness is to show you from where your healing comes. Human beings are clever at finding cures, but no human being has found a cure to the worst illness of all: death. There is an answer to death, but there are a lot of questions that are asked before death comes.

            An illness is an opportunity. You are still so that you have time to think about many things. How did this happen? Why did this happen? What have I done to deserve this? You ask questions like these with great interest. You may never know the answers to these questions this side of Paradise. What you know, however, is that there is an opportunity for healing, both physically and spiritually. You have time to hear the Word and chew on what you’ve heard. You have time to consider that ultimate healing comes in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

            What if you can’t hear the Good News of ultimate healing? That’s where the deaf-mute man is in Mark chapter seven. Those who bring him to Jesus believe He is able to get the Word of life into this man. They believe it because they have heard this Word of life for themselves. This Word found a heart willing to hear the Good News. The Seed plants itself in good ground and bears fruit. The fruit of the Seed is bringing this man to Christ. They begged Him to lay His hand on him. That is why this deaf-mute man is afflicted. It is an opportunity for Jesus to heal him, both physically and spiritually. The man was the way he was for such a time as this.

            When you are sick, it is for such a time as this. Sickness is the ideal time for Jesus to come to you. Jesus coming to you looks like your family, friends, and neighbors sending you a card or bringing food for your family. Jesus coming to you looks like pastor visiting you with the Word of God, with prayer, and with the Lord’s Supper. When you are well again, you recall the kindness of many who surrounded you with the love of God in Christ Jesus. You are strengthened physically, yes, but even more, you are strengthened in Christ. The Word proclaimed to you is treasured all the more because it was your help and strength in your time of need.

            Jesus takes the deaf-mute man aside, puts His fingers in his ears, spits, touches his tongue, sighs, and says to him, Ephphatha, be opened. As He says, it happens. His ears were opened. His tongue was loosed. He spoke plainly. Even though Jesus charges them not to tell anyone, they cannot help but proclaim what they have seen and heard. He has done all things well is their proclamation.

            Jesus Christ has done all things well. He has done all things perfectly. The Word Who makes the deaf to hear, the mute to speak, the sick to be well, and the dead to rise, does the same thing for you. His work on your behalf is not as dramatic as the work He performs in the Decapolis, but it is nothing short of miraculous. Jesus found you. He took you to Himself through the hands of loved ones in Holy Baptism by the hands of a pastor who applied water and the Word with our Savior’s mandate to baptize all nations. Our heavenly Father’s undeserved love was poured out over you that day.

             Our heavenly Father’s undeserved love continues to be poured out on you right now as He sends a preacher into your midst to tell you the Good News about the sickness of death. Jesus Christ has taken care of death, sin, hell, and every enemy that brings fear into your life. Do not be afraid. Jesus lives. His death is your forgiveness. His life is your new life in Him for all eternity.

            Saint Paul tells the Christians in Rome: we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. What you see as a handicap, God sees as an opportunity for healing. What you see as fear, God sees as an opportunity for peace, joy, and a living hope. When you believe bad news is good news, God sees an opportunity to proclaim to you the real Good News that the world is dying to hear. Fear is overcome in Christ. Death is swallowed up in victory. Sickness finds its ultimate healing in the blood and righteousness of the Word made flesh. He has done all things well…for you.

Eleventh Sunday after Trinity – Luke 18:9-14

            I saw a phrase this week on social media that hit the proper note for Christ’s parable in Luke chapter eighteen. The phrase is “creepy clannish Christian experience”. The context describes how this person, a Christian, felt about their child attending a Christian school. I’m happy to report the person is satisfied with their choice of a Christian school. It is, so far, not a “creepy clannish Christian experience”.

            Saint Luke explains why the Pharisee’s visit to the temple is a “creepy clannish Christian experience” in the first sentence of today’s Holy Gospel. Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.

            Two hallmarks that are noticeable among Christians because of their sinful nature are self-righteousness and hypocrisy. The Pharisee prays: God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. You could say that the Pharisee is right when he gives thanks to God that he is not like other men. He is well-versed in Scripture. He knows what God demands in His law. He tries hard to keep the law; so hard, in fact, that he adds to the law other little things that makes sure others see how steadfast he is in trying to keep the law.

            You are not like other men, but for all the wrong reasons. Jesus is showing you what self-righteousness looks like by putting the Pharisee before your eyes. He knows you say the same things he does. He knows that you will shove aside His righteousness acquired in His redemption. He knows you will apply your own righteousness in place of His perfect righteousness. Trusting in yourself, what you do, what you say, what you wear, and saying that’s how God has made me righteous makes you part of the “creepy clannish Christian experience” that my Facebook friend describes. Those who are outside the Christian faith can smell it miles away. Even those who are of the household of faith can smell it coming. When your focus is not on what Jesus has done for you in His life, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, when your focus is on making sure everyone sees how well behaved you are while all your actions and words and thoughts say otherwise, you are giving off the aroma of a creepy Christian experience.

            The creepy Christian experience shows that you do not reckon yourself dead to sin. The Old Adam, your sinful nature, wants to have a say in salvation. Old Adam’s say is that the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ is not enough. You’ve got to have your part. When Saint Paul says in Romans chapter six, you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus, you think that dead to sin doesn’t actually mean dead to sin. Maybe you’re in a deep sleep. There has to be a way for you to take some credit for missing hell. Paul leaves no wiggle room. You are dead to sin. God’s grace only works on those who are dead to sin. If you are able to lend a hand, then you are not dead. That’s why the Pharisee says I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get. It’s creepy that a dead person believes he can do something when he is dead.

            What about the tax collector? Talk about a dead man, this guy takes the cake! He takes more money from people than he should in order to live his rock and roll lifestyle. Yet he has the audacity to enter the temple and beat his breast while saying, God, be merciful to me, a sinner! Mercy? For him? You must be joking! It’s enough that the Roman Empire takes their share of tax money. This guy comes to my house and adds a little something to that bill and flaunts that extra something before me every time. Everyone knows that when he leaves the temple, he’s going right back to what he’s doing. At least the Pharisee gives us something to see when he fasts and tithes. I know he’s trying hard. This tax collector, however, doesn’t show any signs of trying hard to be merciful to others as God has been merciful to him.

            Looks can be deceiving. That is why our heavenly Father is concerned with the condition of your heart. The tax collector’s heart relies on the mercy of God, in spite of everything he does. Yes, he probably will leave the temple and continue to swindle money from people, just as the Pharisee will continue to display supreme piety. Yet listen to how Jesus deals with this scene. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. The tax collector is not justified due to his piety. The tax collector is not justified because he said the right thing. The tax collector is justified because he is convicted of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. The Word preached to him has done what it intends to do: convict. The tax collector is dead to sin, yet alive to God in Christ Jesus.

            Yes, the tax collector is a creep. But he is not captive to the “creepy clannish Christian experience” of self-righteousness and hypocrisy. He believes he is dead to sin. He believes that he will continue to sin even though he wants not to sin. He also believes that for as much as he sins, God’s grace is there to forgive his sins and cleanse him from all unrighteousness.

            As long as you are in your mortal body, you will not cease to sin. That was the Pharisee’s mistake. He thought he could stop sinning simply by making sure others knew how pious and overly devotional he was. After all, he was a teacher of the law. He knew what the commandments said. Yet he did not believe that he could not keep the law the way our Father commands the law be kept. This is what the tax collector believed. The tax collector is dead to sin. Even after he goes down to his house justified, he will sin again. You, too, will sin again. Like the tax collector, you, too, believe God’s grace abounds beyond what you mind can imagine. God’s grace raises the dead. It does not improve the unimprovable. God’s grace, His undeserved love of sinners, His favor over those who are dead to sin, is the antidote to the “creepy clannish Christian experience” that so many people see among Christians.

            As Saint Paul says in today’s epistle: I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve…. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. By the grace of God you are what you are: broken and dead to sin, yet alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. His forgiveness and life reaches out to you in the preached Word, in water, in bread, and in wine. His grace for you is not in vain. He has mercy on you, a sinner.

Death Is Absolutely All of the Resurrection We Can Now Know

The point of the parable [in Luke chapter 18] was that the publican confessed that he was dead, not that his heart was in the right place. Why are you so bent on destroying the story by sending the publican back for his second visit with the Pharisee’s speech in his pocket?

The honest answer is, that while you understand the thrust of the parable with your mind, your heart has a desperate need to believe its exact opposite. And so does mine. We all long to establish our identity by seeing ourselves as approved in other people’s eyes. We spend our days preening ourselves before the mirror of their opinion so we will not have to think about the nightmare of appearing before them naked and uncombed. And we hate this parable because it says plainly that it is the nightmare that is the truth of our condition. We fear the publican’s acceptance because we know precisely what it means. It means that we will never be free until we are dead to the whole business of justifying ourselves. But since that business is our life, that means not until we are dead.

For Jesus came to raise the dead. Not to reform the reformable, not to improve the improvable…but then, I have said all that. Let us make an end: as long as you are struggling like the Pharisee to be alive in your own eyes – and to the precise degree that your struggles are for what is holy, just, and good – you will resent the apparent indifference to your pains that God shows in making the effortlessness of death the touchstone of your justification. Only when you are finally able, with the publican, to admit that you are dead will you be able to stop balking at grace.

It is, admittedly, a terrifying step. You will cry and kick and scream before you take it, because it means putting yourself out of the only game you know. For your comfort though, I can tell you three things. First, it is only one step. Second, it is not a step out of reality into nothing, but a step from fiction into face. And third, it will make you laugh out loud at how short the trip home was: it wasn’t a trip at all; you were already there.

Death – for the third and last time – is absolutely all of the resurrection we can now know. The rest is faith.

Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, pages 343-344

Tenth Sunday after Trinity – Luke 19:41-48

God’s visitation of grace among us will not last forever. You can’t prove that by many people. Those who do not believe Jesus is Lord continue to live their lives. They life as if life begins at some point, goes on for a while, and then ends. There’s nothing after life ends. It’s over. Loved ones move on with their lives until it’s over. Some day there will be no lives left. Then there will be life after people, which is no life at all except for plants and animals if humans don’t wipe them out first.

Depressing to think about isn’t it. Yet that’s the way so many people live. Perhaps that’s why the phrase, “You only live once” is so popular. Do what you have to do right now because you only have one life to live. Once this life is over, there is nothing left to do and nothing left to look forward to. So make the world a better place while you can because you’re only here for a little while.

There is some truth to that, but what is left out is the life of the world to come. That’s what God’s visitation of grace among us proclaims to a world that seems to want to die rather than live. Death is not the end of things. YOLO, you only live once, is not true. For a Christian, it’s accurate to say, “You only die twice”. Talk about messing with people’s heads! I thought death comes only once? Death does only come once if you haven’t died the second death at the baptismal font, where new life is yours through water and God’s Word.

Yet the preaching of baptismal regeneration doesn’t go over well in the world. The preaching of God’s visitation of grace among us also doesn’t go over well in the world. You know from Jesus’ parable of the soils in Luke chapter eight that the Word planted in the soil isn’t received by three of the four places it is sown. Jesus doesn’t give us a reason. He says that no seed bears fruit in that soil.

So it is with the time of visitation Jesus laments in Luke chapter nineteen. Your enemies…will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation. When you point out the time of visitation to those who know nothing about it, some will become violent about it. They will find ways to cut out of their lives those who proclaim the day of salvation. They will find ways to hinder the righteousness acquired by Jesus Christ and freely applied to you in preaching and the Sacraments. Most, however, will shrug their shoulders and blindly go on living their lives. They won’t see it as a missed opportunity. They will be apathetic about it. Even some among the household of faith will think there’s plenty of time to embrace forgiveness of sins and eternal life. God’s Word was there when I was a child. Now that I’m a grown-up I know that there is a God, but that doesn’t mean anything to me. One day, maybe, I’ll get back to that. For now, though, thanks, but no thanks.

How could anyone say such a thing? It’s easy. Don’t think about it. Treat eternal life as if it’s child’s play at best or a fable at worst. Even among Christians it is easy to take the focus away from Jesus and what He has done for you and put it someplace else. It was already happening when Christ walked the face of this earth. Jesus entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.” You would think that’s enough to work repentance in the hearts of God’s chosen people. You would be wrong. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him. Shut Him down, cut Him out, even ignore Him, and He’ll leave us alone. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

One thing has not changed. They did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words. You can picture it in your mind’s eye. Jesus had their attention. They couldn’t wait for the next thing He had to say. Think also of the word picture this verb makes. You think of hanging your coat or another garment on a hook. There it is, suspended on something, keeping it from falling to the ground. The people were hanging on His words. They clinged to what He said so that they would not fall away. His words would not let them go.

His words will not let you go. Jesus’ words speak a promise, the same promise He made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and all of the Israelites, even those who heard Jesus speak with their own ears in His time of visitation according to the flesh. The promise Jesus speaks is the things that make for peace. His perfect life lived for your sake make for your peace. Your imperfection is borne by Jesus upon the cross. He gives you in return His perfect innocence, holiness, and righteousness. He gives you life, not merely a better life right now, but eternal life right now, and in your resurrection from the dead on Judgment Day.

When the devil, the world, and even your sinful nature set up a barricade around you on every side and tear you down to the ground, when you feel as if you’ve been torn down to your foundation stones in suffering and in sorrow, remember what Jesus says to you today. Those who do these things to you do not know the time of their visitation. You know that time of visitation. You know it won’t be a lively stroll down the garden path of life. You will suffer much, both physically and spiritually, this side of Paradise. Your enemies will try to take away everything. They cannot take away the kingdom of God and His righteousness. You are hanging on to those words delivered to you in Jesus’ gracious time of visitation. Those words are spirit and truth. Those words will not let go of you.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

Apply God’s Grace to Yourself

The difficulty in practice arises from the fact that, feeling that we are completely unworthy, we fail to relate the divine message of grace to ourselves. We heard Luther report about himself that he only dared to apply the consolation of absolution to his person when he was “accidentally” reminded by his “Preceptor” that God not only allows us to consider Him gracious, but God expressly commands us to do so. We therefore hear from Luther’s mouth, based on his own experience, the following instruction and admonition that has already saved many from deep distress: “You say: Yes, I would gladly believe it if I were like St. Peter and St. Paul and others who are pious and holy; but I am too great a sinner, and who know whether I am predestinated? Answer: Look at these words! What do they say, and of whom do they speak? ‘For God so loved the world’; and ‘that whosoever believeth on him.’ Now, the world is not simply St. Peter and St. Paul, but the entire human race taken collectively, and here no one is excluded: God’s Son was given for all, are are asked to believe, and all who believe shall not be lost etc. Take hold of your nose, search in your bosom, whether you are not also a man (that is, a piece of the world) and belong to the number which the word “whosoever” embraces, as well as others? If you and I are not to take this comfort to ourselves, then these words must have been spoken falsely and in vain. And surely, this has not been preached to any other than to humanity. Therefore, beware lest you exclude yourself and give place to the thought: Who knows whether it has been given to me? For that would be accusing God of falsely speaking in his Word. But, on the contrary, make a cross for yourself with these words, and say: If I am not St. Peter or St. Paul, I am, nevertheless, a part of the world. Had he intended to give it to the worthy only, then he would have had it preached to the angels alone, for they are pure and without sin. He could then not have given it to St. Peter, to David, or to Paul, for they were sinners as well as I. No matter what I am, I know that God’s Word is true; and if I do not accept it, then I am committing, above all other sins, this sin also, that I blaspheme the Word of God and the truth, and charge God with lying.” (Second Church Postil for Pentecost Monday)

– Franz Pieper, How Does A Christian Become Certain of His Eternal Salvation?

Eighth Sunday after Trinity – Matthew 7:15-23

Jesus says you will recognize false prophets by their fruits. Christians are supposed to have a judgment in the matter of recognizing false prophets. You are supposed to be able to tell a true preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ from a false preacher of Jesus Christ. But how do you know what the fruits are that you are supposed to recognize? What are the fruits of prophets, both true and false?

If you had to guess, you would probably answer “their works”. Every prophet, every preacher sent by God, should seek to prove his teaching with a godly manner of life. He should set a good example for the flock. Yet external works are sheep’s clothing. You can’t really tell whether or not the preacher is a true or false prophet simply by looking at how they deport themselves.

Let’s let Holy Scripture give us the answer to what are the fruit of the prophets. Jesus says in Luke chapter six: The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. When you want to judge the fruits of a preacher, you first look to the fruit of his lips, at what he teaches and what effects his teaching has on his hearers. If the preacher preaches from Holy Scripture, if his teaching is drawn from God’s Word and not from his own opinion or from the opinion of history or literary criticism or anything else that gets in the way of the Scriptures, then you know the prophet’s fruit is good fruit.

The problem for us today, however, is that we live in a Scripturally illiterate society. This is not a new problem. The closer we get to Judgment Day, the farther people stray from God’s Word and seek out another word that will make them comfortably numb. The pure, clear fountain of Israel that is Holy Scripture will continue to be poisoned by man’s so-called wisdom. Secular arts and sciences have their place. We can use knowledge drawn from them to observe the world and to understand who we are and how we live in this life. When you take these secular arts and sciences and use them to determine something different from the Bible than what God intends, you are on dangerous ground. When you put your fear, love, and trust in secular arts and sciences rather than on the Good News of forgiveness and life drawn from Sacred Scripture, you are on dangerous ground.

You’ve seen this play out these last few months. People now seem to put more trust in medical experts and scientific experts than anyone else. You take the words of certain experts more seriously than others. You look for ways to play one doctor or one scientist against another doctor or scientist. You choose up sides and stage a battle. Whoever outlouds the other wins the battle. The side who outlouds the other side more often wins the war. Even worse, you fear, love, and trust certain medical experts and scientific experts more than God Himself. Instead of being saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ as written by Holy Scripture, you are saved by Doctor Fauci through his television interviews as aired by your favorite cable news channel. Being saved sola gratia is now being saved sola scientia.

When you become more familiar with the words of the world and less familiar with the Word made flesh, you lose your God-given ability to judge the fruits of true and false teachers of Scripture. You look at thorns and thistles and think how pretty they look on the outside, but don’t consider the damage they do when you consider their fruit. If you are looking for grapes or figs, you don’t pick them from thorns and thistles. You go to the vine and the fig tree to pick grapes and figs.

So it is with spiritual matters. Don’t look so much at external beauty. Look at the fruit. If it is planted by God, it will bear witness to its author through the fruits of the Spirit. The work praises the Master. There have been many men who have stood in this pulpit through the years. Some of them you remember fondly. Others you may try to forget. Some of them had outgoing personalities. Others were not so outgoing, perhaps even shy and withdrawn. Some made you laugh. Others made you angry, but maybe for the wrong reasons. However you remember any pastor who preached and taught God’s Word to you, including me, you must cast aside your personal judgment about his personality, how he looked, or how he made you feel. You must consider the words he spoke to you. Were those words drawn from Scripture? Did they agree with what you were taught in Luther’s Small Catechism? Did those words convict you of sin? Did those words deliver Jesus Christ and Him crucified for your sins?

Those questions are how you judge a prophet. You may be tempted to look at how many people sat in these pews or how full the basement was for Sunday School or Vacation Bible School. You may even be tempted to look at old confirmation pictures and see how many children were instructed in God’s Word, yet no longer want anything to do with Jesus Christ and His forgiveness and life. Statistics and nostalgia are not how you judge the fruit of shepherds of the Good Shepherd’s flock. What did the pastor preach? What did he teach me? What did he teach my children? Did the man bring Jesus to me as my Savior from sin and death? That’s the questions you ask when you examine his fruit.

On Judgment Day there will be a lot of surprises. The day itself comes as a surprise even to those of us who are waiting for it with great anticipation. On that day the hearts of all will be revealed. Many prophets, many preachers of the Word will be shown to be false prophets. They will point to their many works. They will point to their large church buildings. They will point to their statistics of baptisms, confirmations, weddings, funerals, and other church acts. Numbers are meaningless to Jesus Christ. The one thing that is meaningful to Him, and to you, is whether that preacher preached Jesus Christ and Him crucified, not worrying about numbers, but opening the Book of Books to proclaim salvation in Christ alone.

From this pulpit, from that altar, at that font, is where the Living Word, Jesus Christ, is at work for you. These holy places reveal the one true God Whose plan of rescue by His grace draws you out of the death of this world and into the life of the world to come, the life you have right now for Christ’s sake. Pastors come and pastors go. Church buildings are raised and steeples are falling. Through it all, the Good News will be brought to God’s holy people as the Good Shepherd raises up His shepherds to stand in His stead and by His command to preach the gospel. God gives the growth in His time and according to His ways. Don’t take my word for it. Take His Word for it. I’m blessed to be the one who brings you that Word. It’s not for my glory, but it is all for His glory, for it is His salvation that is given me to proclaim.