Saturday, February 24, 2007

Lent 1 - Matt 4

(wma audio download)

Jesus was led up by the Spirit, into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil.

This text is not about how you can beat temptation. This story is not about how Jesus sets the model for defeating the devil in your life with all the right Bible verses and a little bit of fasting. This text, simply put, is not about you at all.

What? It’s not about me? How then can it be relevant to my life?

Simple. This text is about Jesus.

Check it out. When it comes to temptation, you are a failure. Admit it. It’s not that hard to swallow your pride. You’re a Christian after all. And so you can be honest with yourself at least on the inside. No one else here can hear your thoughts. It’s just you and God. So admit it. You straight up are horrible at facing temptation.

I mean, tell me, if you hadn’t eaten for forty days, and you had the power in your little finger to turn stones into bread, you wouldn’t even need the devil to come and put the idea in your head. You’d have made bread the first day, with a nice house salad and a night cap to boot! You wouldn’t last one evening on a fast in the desert, even if the Spirit of God demanded it of you.

But the Spirit hasn’t asked you to do such profound things. All he has asked of you is that you live moderately in faith, refraining from seeking pleasure in this world and it’s possessions, and instead spending your money, not on yourself or your kids, but on the poor, the widows and the orphans. The Spirit puts plenty of food on your table. All he asks is that you don’t keep it to yourself.

But let me ask you: when was the last time you gave money to the poor and didn’t skimp out on your 10% tithe to the Church? When was the last time you didn’t skimp out on your tithe to the Church? When was the last time you gave money to the poor – and by that I mean more than $20?

When was the last time you didn’t spend that extra five dollars on desert, not because of your waistline, but because of your neighbor’s need? When was the last time you didn’t give your children every thing they “needed,” not because it’s a bad idea to spoil them, but because there are plenty of kids in America that don’t even get a good breakfast, and you could feed them? Symbolically then was the last time you said “no” to the temptation of making your own bread, rather than trusting that God will give you bread in your time of need?

My hunch is, you can’t even remember the last time you didn’t fail that temptation. Right along with this pathetic country you’ve completely given yourself over to the satisfaction of your flesh – pleasure is all that really matters to you. You only care to satiate your belly. Anything that gets in the way of that – ha!

It’s not enough to receive eternal life, forgiveness and the promise of paradise in a little bread and wine, you want to like it too! And if you don’t like it, what good is it to you? If it doesn’t give you power or pleasure, what good is it to you? If your narcissistic vanity isn’t petted and patted and swooned and cheered on, what good is it to you? If your pastor stands in the pulpit and calls you, you, a selfish glutton who ought to be thrown out of this Church, what good is it to you? Wouldn’t you just as soon get up and leave as listen to that kind of preaching? There are plenty of churches that would love to have you as a member, and why shouldn’t go there? They’ve got more to offer – more pleasure, more friendliness, a pastor that doesn’t expect you to believe or learn anything.

If you really are a Christian, why not go somewhere with few fewer stones and a bit more bread?

You want to, don’t you? You’d love to give right into that temptation. To find the perfect, flesh-fulfilling spiritual experience. What do you need with Words which come from the mouth of the Living God right here, when you when you’ve got whatever you want whenever you want it right out there? So what if out there is killing you? So what if it’s got you so mad-hopping-crazy that you can’t even breath? So what if your kids are more tired than you are from it all? So what if by ditching out on the Word of God in order to eat a bit finer bread, you are segregating yourself from the only thing that really matters? You aren’t going to fight against all these temptations, because you already know you can’t win.

What you’re going to do instead, is pretend you can win, but lose as fast and as often as you possibly can. And let me tell you, I don’t care if you do get the kids in Church every single Sunday, if you don’t care to fight the temptations of this narcissistic, self-center, pleasure-and-entertainment-worshipping satanic culture, you can bet every last penny you’ve spent on their nice clothes and toys and pastimes that when the devil comes knockin’ on their door, they won’t know the difference between his lies and the cry of their own hearts.

So it’s a darn good thing that this Gospel text of Holy Scripture isn’t about you and how you can beat temptation. Because, if it was, the game would already be over. It’s a darned good thing this text of Scripture never even mentions you, because if it did, it would be as irrelevant to salvation as the next self-help book on Oprah’s list. It’s a darned good thing this text is about Jesus, because without him, we’re all doomed.

Jesus was led up by the Spirit, into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil, and he won! After fasting to the point of starvation, he looked the devil’s temptation to abuse his Godly power straight in the eye and said, “Forget that.” After being taken to the edge of life and limb, he looked the devil’s temptation to test God by experience straight in the eye and said, “um, no.” And after being shown all the power of the dark side, placed in his hands as a crown of glory, he looked the devil’s temptation to be anything other than the perfect Son of God straight in the eye and said, “Get out of my face, Enemy. For I am good, and you are evil. And that means, I get to win.”

And that he did. For in enduring this temptation, Jesus Christ proved himself the fulfillment of all the Law and the Prophets of God, the perfect heir of creation, who loved the Lord with all his heart and soul and mind, and who loved his neighbor more than himself, even enough to take this flesh and with it endure temptation in order to go beyond temptation straight into the hellish punishment of all the wrath of God against all the failures to beat temptation throughout the whole human history on this world thrown into several horrible hours on one late day in the week where nails through his wrists and thorns on his head still weren’t enough for the devil to convince the Christ to stop having utter faith in the steadfast love of God the Father.

It’s a good thing that today’s Gospel reading is about Jesus’ work to beat the temptation’s and deceptions of the devil in your place, for you. It’s a good thing that Jesus perfect enough to die on the cross as the Lamb without spot or blemish, because with this victory Lent would be nothing but bitter. But Lent is not bitter. It’s bitter-sweet. The cross of Jesus Christ is bitter-sweet.

Allelu-…Wait. Don’t smile. It’s only just begun.

In the Name…

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Transfiguration - Matthew 17

(wma download link)

Can you imagine not casting a shadow? You probably don’t pay much attention to your shadow. I don’t pay all that much attention to mine. But at the same time, I know for a fact that you have never once lived a moment when you didn’t cast a shadow. Even when you’re not paying attention, even when you’re not trying, your shadow is always there.

Go ahead. Hold up your hand. Now…without turning it over, look at the underside. Crazy. A shadow. Now imagine for a moment what it would be like to not have that shadow there. No, wait. Go one better: Imagine being able to not just not cast a shadow. Imagine being able to cast more light.

Of course you can’t do that. You can probably barely imagine doing that. But one day two thousand years ago, on a mountain in northern Palestine, a man named Jesus did that. For a time, he not only stopped casting a shadow but he started casting light instead. He not only stopped blocking the light. He started creating it. And so great and wonderful was that light, which made his face shine like the sun, that even the other things he touched, like his clothes, became changed as well, not casting shadows themselves, but casting more light, not cloaking him with darkness, but glowing from him with glorious illumination.

This moment in time, witnessed by the Apostles Peter, James and John, must have been amazing. Here in a way more unique than even angels in the sky proclaiming the birth of a king, or storms being calmed at a word, the eternal glory of the Son of God in human flesh was revealed. From his Epiphany and his Baptism in the Jordan, through his miracles and profound teachings, the man named Jesus had been showing again and again who he was – God in flesh – and what that meant – he had the power to save – but here on a private mountain he gave his closest friends even more: a glimmering foretaste of the world to come.

For, get this, St. John writes his Apocalypse that the final perfect world known as Zion will be a whole lot more of that day in northern Palestine. The city we will live in will have no need of sun or moon to shine, for the Christ will be the source of light. Now a city with only one source of light doesn’t make all that much sense until you remember that Jesus’ light isn’t stopped by shadow, but even turns things that cast shadow into light casters. So there not merely clothes but walls and trees and rivers and you and me and all things will shine, transfigured, brought into the glory of Son of God.

With that kind of heavenly experience in mind, you really can’t blame Peter for not wanting it to end. You may not know this, but Peter had a bit of a knack for preferring heavenly experiences to regular ones. He was very much like you in that regard. In general, he preferred glory to suffering. In fact, it was less than 10 verses before today’s lesson that Peter not merely confesses Jesus is the Christ, but then also proceeds to explain to Jesus how Jesus has no idea what it means to be the Christ, and thus needs to change his plans – because Jesus was insisting that being the Christ meant death on a cross, and Peter wanted more glory than that. He wanted Jesus to dream bigger, to set higher goals, to vision-cast with a little more optimism.

On the other hand, Jesus knew that true glory is about a whole lot more than a light show. Pleasure-seeking as an end in itself is the highest end of complete childishness, and, self-gratification is a religion of hate – because it’s first and foremost all about you. It is Satan who is the lord of all “spiritualities” that have as their chief aim feeling good, being happy and finding success.

Yet, the reality is that you, like Peter, don’t want the religion Jesus has to offer; you want the religion Satan has to offer. You want a religion that lets you define what life ought to be like. You want a religion that sees your own good-feelings and pleasure as the chief end of all things. You want the religion that the lying god offers when he says, “If you will only bow down to me, then I will give you moment after moment of dynamic ecstasy, good food in abundance, and the power to do whatever you please.” You want to seek a “Kingdom of God” where you call the shots, where you aren’t shown a Transifgured Christ on the way to the cross, but a Transfigured you on the way to a paradise where you shine as the source of joy and light, and where everything that you touch prospers and turns to gold, and where you are the hero worshiped by men and angels alike.

But it’s just here, where you, like Peter, say to Jesus, “Jesus, you are so great… now, let me take over…” – it is just here where you are seeking first your own Kingdom, that God says to you, like Peter, “Shut up, and listen to Jesus.” And what does Jesus say? Jesus says, “Get your mind off the things of man. Look! I carry a cross. Follow me, and lose your life. That is what is means to save it.”

What does that mean? That means that it’s not about your experience now. It’s not about your best life now. It’s not about your purposes now. It’s not about your mission now. Because it’s not about you at all.

It’s about Jesus. And just like Peter, after the Father’s wrath put him down, you too must learn to look up in quietness, obedient to the command, and see nothing, no one and not a bit more than Jesus – human, untransfigured Jesus, saying, “I must suffer many things.” Saying, “I must be killed.” Saying, “Follow me to my glory – the cross. There, I give you my peace. There you have my promise.” Not flashy sights. Not dynamic sounds. Not constant, happy ecstasy. Jesus only.

The disciples looked up that day and they saw Jesus only because Jesus only is what Christianity is all about. Jesus only is what Christianity has. Coming to Jesus only will give you perfection, but not out there. You are given perfection in Jesus only. Coming to Jesus only will give you transfiguration, but not out there. You are transfigured in Jesus only. Yes, you have perfection and you have transfiguration – look there! They are there, in Jesus on the cross, dying for your sins.

And there, in Jesus, these gifts from God don’t just sit like some coins buried in the ground. Even as the light flowing from him could not help but transform his clothes, so as that light brings you face to face with the constant glory of the cross, as you lose your life, as you have less confidence in yourself, as you cease to trust the world, as you are forced to come back again and again to Jesus only, you will find, even as Peter finally did, that Jesus only is more than enough.

For his is the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Epiphany 5 - Matthew 13

(wma audio download)

The Reign of God, the way God rules, the Kingdom which is over all Kingdoms, the function of the activity of the LORD God in this world, is like a man who plants a good crop in his field. But when he is asleep an enemy comes and scatters the seed of weeds and brambles all amidst the crop so that when the good seed came up, they did not come up alone. Amongst the beautiful, fruitful heads of grain were thistles and thorns and all manner of useless crop, worthy of nothing but waste and casting into the fire.

So begins the parable. But gosh. Is it even worth going on? I mean, we’ve all heard the parables before, and we all know what they mean, right. Jesus even takes the time in the text to explain this one. And parables pretty much like primitive sermon illustrations, right? They’re self-sufficient. No need to explain, just tell the story. People relate to things like seed and weeds and such, and so there you have it: wam! Bang! Boom! Faith is made. We’ve got the Gospel. We already know all the right things. Why go over it again? Let’s pass the offering plate and focus on something a bit more relevant.

Or, wait. Maybe not. I mean, I guess that kind of thinking, which is no less than thinking that the teaching of Jesus in parables are a bunch of child’s play, is a pretty easy route to go if one is a self-righteous, cocky, arrogant fool. Since more or less of the time I certainly fall under that category, (and something tells me I’m not alone,) maybe we should exercise a little more caution regarding the Words of our Lord, the Word regarding which the Apostle tells us is the stuff that faith and peace and life are made of. Maybe Jesus’ words don’t ever get old. Maybe we get old. Maybe we get lazy. Maybe we have let sin have it’s way with us.

But if anything is clear, it’s that thinking that these parables are child’s play and common knowledge and even easy to understand is as foolish as planting a field of weeds. For the fact is clear that as many times and as often as Jesus told parables, not only the mass crowds, but even the disciples whom he taught day by day, consistently and without fail had no idea what on earth Jesus was talking about. “Explain to us,” they say, and, “why do you speak in parables” they say, and he answers them. “I speak this way so that the unbelievers, who have already chosen not to enter the saving Reign of God, those who are the cursed seed of the evil one – I speak in parables so that they will hear my words, and not believe, so they will see my miracles and my truth, and they will not understand it. They are to be kept dull with sin and faithlessness. Their eyes are to stay closed. And if I were to speak plainly, then they might open their eyes, repent, and I would heal them. And that shall not be.”

Huh? What’s that Jesus? Not exactly Church growth strategies. A bit unmissional. Rather mean…unfair, even, wouldn’t you say? That’s so the opposite of seeker-friendly that it is downright unloving and uncaring. But wait, this is Jesus. Isn’t Jesus the one who sends the mission? Isn’t Jesus the one who saves the unbeliever? Then, maybe, if what Jesus is saying sounds unmissional and unfair, then maybe it is we who have the wrong mission and the wrong understanding of justice. Maybe we disciples do not understand the parables so much as we like to think. Hear then, the parable of the weeds in the field explained by our Lord:

Jesus Christ sows good seed. He sows salvation. He sends out his Word and by his Word he chooses, he pinpoints, he elects men, women and children to be his own, to live under him in his Kingdom, justified by faith and purchased by the shedding of blood. Many are called, but few are chosen.

The field in which this sowing and reaping of new relationships with the living God goes on is this fallen world, with all its many perils and pitfalls and problems. You – you are the good seed. You are those to whom eyes have been given to see, those to whom ears have been given to hear: for listen, the Christ is raised, and you believe it. So, know this, then, as those baptized into that grace, you are the good seed.

Yet, in this mission field of a world, and therefore, also in this Church which lies in, with and under it, there is an enemy who has come; the evil one, the deceiver, Satan, as real and vile as the sins of Soddom and Ghamorra, an enemy as deadly as any you or I have ever had or known. And here, in the field from which we grow, he has sewn his own sons, the sons of the reign of perdition, who already stand condemned by the fall of Adam, who reject being the good seed, who have destined themselves to return to dust and perish in ashes. These are the hypocrites, the liars, the gluttons, the adulterers, the idolaters, who love greed and mammon and the work of their hands. And yet, see how they claim for themselves a place in God’s Reign, in this field, in this world, and, yes, even in this mission, the Church.

It is they who teach us to see the very Words of our Lord as unmissional. It is they who think the justice of God unfair. And as we grow up with them, they spare no expense to choke us out, to weigh us down with cares and worldly thoughts. For the more the weeds can destroy the good seed, the more the weeds can believe that they belong in the field, so much so that the very angels of God have asked, “May we go and destroy them! May we rip them up?”

Yet, in his missional Wisdom God has held back the hand of his servants the angels from segregating us completely. And why? Lest now even you, the good seed, be lost in the shuffle, and carried away with your enemies. For your own roots are so dangerously entangled with the unbelievers, so forced to sift between lies and deceptions, that you walk in peril all the way. Yes, so great are the weeds and so shallow and full of stones the ground that truly, were it left to you to stand against this wicked tide there is no doubt but that you would fall seventy seven times over and then fall again. And yet, hear the good news of these parables.

You are the good seed, for the purest and more righteous seed of all is Christ, and by hearing of him you have put your hope in his name, the one seed of the woman, born of a virgin, planted in the ground as one man, and yet, like the mustard plant, having come up again and blossomed to become the greatest of all shrubs of the field. And, in him, scattered in the dispersion like yeast mixed with flour, you are working your way through all of civilization, journeying not only through your own life, but through the lives of others, and leavening all you touch. For, in Christ, you are the good seed, branches bound to the vine. Yes, apart from him you can do nothing, you will bear no fruit and be cast into the fire. But you are not apart from him. He has planted himself in you, promising that you are his own by the word of his baptism, and reminding you that he is your own by the word of his meal.

And as the weeds grow around you, you are not them. You have been called out in order that you might shine like the sun, righteous in name, righteous in fact, breaking free from the mold and the weeds to produce the crop time and time over.

This is the meaning of the parable, and not all have been given to understand it. The veil of Moses which is the curve-in-on-itself heart of unbelief covers the faces of many, and they cannot penetrate this miracle of Christ uttered from the foundation of the world as the glory and power of God to save. And yet, amidst that field and its many weeds, there are more to be called the good seed. There are those in bondage to the evil one and his lies, already choked to the point of death. They too need what you have heard this day. They too must hear the life that is in these words. They are there. And the mission, dear friends, is that we join minds in one faith and one baptism under the one Lord who rules this harvest by his mighty Reign, and we go get them.

In the Name…

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Epiphany 4 - Matthew 8

(wma audio download here)

(and this is typo city!)

Well, I’m not going to talk about the Superbowl today, because something bigger happened last week. Last week, you, the congregation of Our Savior Lutheran Church, did a very brave thing. In one, bold move, you committed yourselves and all your resources to Jesus Christ, unequivocally. You took a blind step of faith, which may or may not bode well for the future success of this congregation. But that’s precisely why it was a step of faith. It was a decision based not on the reasons of the world, but on the simple mandate of the Word of God: Go. Teach. Baptize. And, yes, remember the poor.

It’s pretty stinkin’ cool. You said, “to heck with all this ‘trying to survive’ stuff, and all this ‘stockpiling our money in barns’ fearfulness. You said, ‘what good is it to be Church if, in order to keep ourselves going, we’ve got to stop being Church?’ And so you voted, unanimously I might add, on the first vote, to do two incredible things.

You voted to walk away from the building which you’ve called home for well over a decade in order to seek out not only a more manageable space (as if it were only about money) – but to seek out a space more conducive to the present time and context. You gave up being the militia cult hiding in the hills of south Dakota in order to be the prophet in the streets. You indeed are risking yourself, your very lives, rather than defending them.

And in doing this, you also voted to purposefully lose your money, maybe all of it. Who knows? But this is no gambling on horse races or even building a bigger barn for your own pleasure. You voted to do something almost unthinkable to most struggling congregations. You voted to start giving money away…to the poor.

And all of this, together, is, from the world’s perspective, a tremendous risk. To the eyes of any logical, humanly-minded person, what you have voted to do is idiotic. It makes no sense. You’re going to spend the money this congregation scraped and worked for in order to build itself a building on a store dedicate to aiding the poor? And you’re going to worship in the back? Why, that’s almost like they were doing in the first century? Isn’t that stepping backwards? The likelihood of this endeavor actually making money is not merely small, it’s practically impossible. Especially for the first 2-5 years, every single year, you are going to be simply giving money away, one way or another using this very land as principle for the balance.

Wait…I should amend all that just a little bit. You are not spending the money the saints of this congregation passed scraped together for a building. You are taking the money this congregation gave to God, and, rather than use it on a building that only a handful of people can use, you are going to help poor farmers and craftsmen in 3rd world countries feed their children and families by the work of their hands, and, what is more, you will with the same stone be opening a door for the unsaved people of this county to walk in the front doors of the Church. And frankly, if you spend every last penny that has been scrimped and saved, then and only then can you say that you have succeeded. Then, as worthless servants, you will have done your duty. Then, as sinners, you will be at the mercy of God (as you should be) rightly praying “give us this day our daily bread.” Then, you will know what it means to live by faith.

In this way, dear friends of Our Savior Lutheran Church, this means that no matter what comes, you can know that this congregation, at the behest of God’s harsh law, which I have no doubt wielded like a blungeoning tool among you this past half year – this congregation refused to content like a miser over his gold, counting it again and again until his cold heart stopped beating. No. You, the holy, catholic Church, have been blessed by God’s Word of forgiveness in Christ, and thus freed from that horrible, pitiful end. Like old man Scrooge on Christmas morning, you suddenly opened your eyes, and, while you are not yet dancing in the streets, you have, as I said, voted, unanimously to being sacrificing time, talents and treasures which before this time lay locked up in that kitchen, or somewhere darker still.

For any congregation to make such a decision as this, to truly put everything on the line and say, “Well, God. It’s up to you,” – this is an act of faith. And I, as your Pastor, am very proud of you.

Of course, I’m nervous too. Like I said, we’re basically about to start giving money away – and much of it we probably won’t get back. And if we do, it will be our job and duty to just give it away again! Maybe that will mean owning another building in order to do so. Maybe it won’t. But in any case, there is every possibility and, in fact, probability, by worldly standards, that the money will one day run out and we will be left destitute. Against this end we must pray, and trust in the Lord’s mercy to sustain us. But we must also remember firmly that there is an equal probability that tomorrow won’t even come, for our Lord Jesus could descend from heaven to end the world this very night – even before we act on our plans.

And this is precisely why you have pledged to do the right thing. And this bold, right thing, with prayer and in faith, right thing will be a benchmark for our community for years to come. Even as we are calling our new actions Project Resurrection, our very hearts and minds have been resurrected with our Lord Jesus Christ, to see the world in a new light, a free light, a light which says to the fears of the world, “Leave off. You have no power here, for here, faith in Christ and in his Word rules!”

And all of this has very much to do with our Gospel lesson for today. It is a famous one. Jesus calms the storm.
And I have no doubt that as often as most of us have heard it, we have also heard it explained something like this: Jesus has the power to calm the storms in your life. The storms are something like doubts and fears or problems in life, and, so the interpretation goes, if you will just trust in Jesus, then he will overcome those things for you.

That would all be really great, if only it were true. But it’s not. There is no promise in Scripture that Jesus will calm all the storms in your life. Jesus doesn’t always make hard times. Even doubts or sins don’t go away, at least, not in the present evil age. The disciples had very little faith when they sat frightened in that boat, much as we likely sit frightened in the face of our journey to come. And the point is not that we should learn to wake up Jesus so that he makes it all work out. The point is far more amazing than all that selfish in-gazing.

The reality of this text demonstrates that Jesus doesn’t just have the power to calm the storms in your life. Jesus has the power to calm storms. Jesus can make waves and wind lie down at his very command! Who is this man who walks the road with us, who teaches the Truth to us, who died on the cross for us? This is the Creator of heaven and earth, who crafted clouds and hills and trees and stars with his voice. And look, he is here, in our midst, by his Word, in the flesh by his body and blood, in our hearts, by his Spirit.

This, truly, has both no bearing and absolute bearing upon our “little faith” pending move into Clinton. Investing our talents and monies in mercy to the poor is no guarantee that our storm of congregational survival will suddenly be healed – though that certainly is our “little faith” prayer! But the point is so much bigger than us! The Lord of the heavens and earth is a God who has not stopped every little storm on every little sea and in every little heart because he has taken his great power and done something far greater! He has stopped the breaking of the universe. Lifting up his hand into the crack which had breached existence itself, submitting that hand yos piercing and bleeding, as an atoning sacrifice for all unfaith and little faith, He has held the breach at bay and brought the good of creation back together in himself. That is what his resurrection means. He conquered death! Where the whirling creation was spinning out of control, he said “Peace, be still,” and, see it or not, believe that it is, for it will be seen as just that forevermore on the Great Day when He comes again.

We, his disciples, can do little but sit and marvel, as we struggle with our measly little trials, worried more about bank accounts than about those who have not heard this great news! Has he been with us so long and we yet do not know him? Look, he is Jesus. There, on that cross, dying for your sin, is the man you voted to put your trust in last Sunday.

As one, you have laid your monies and your mortgages at his feet. Was it because you, like the disciples, were afraid of the storms you saw coming? Was it because you know that evangelism and serving the poor are simply the right things to do? It doesn’t matter. With your little faith, given by the Law and Gospel of God, it has happened. Repentance has made our community reliant upon Christ once again. And you are forgiven for the rest.

The truth is that the One who controls the wind and the waves has taken control of you, and of this congregation. Now, all things are possible: Death. Life. Both. And then some. You are in the boat with Christ. Though we succeed or fail, though we shrink or grow, though we live or die, no storm, even death, will ever sink him. In that word, even you of little faith, have nothing more to fear.

In the Name…

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