Friday, November 17, 2017

Waiting and Waiting and Waiting


This is the sermon I preached last Sunday, Nov. 12 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran churches. The gospel text was Mathew 25:1-13. 
This wedding doesn’t sound like any we’ve ever been to in this country, does it? While we wait together in the sanctuary for the bride to come down the aisle, we have an idea of how long we will have to wait. We don’t sit there for hours.

While living in the Holy Land, I was with a group of women who had the opportunity to wait together, not knowing exactly when the bridegroom and his men would arrive. We’d hear a sound. Excitement would fill the room. Maybe it’s him. Is it him? Someone would look to see. No, it’s not him. We’d wait longer and longer and longer. It seemed the groom would never arrive. Then there was a shout. There he was! Finally! Much like the bridesmaids in today’s gospel, we did not know exactly when the groom would arrive, only that he would.

In biblical times, a wedding was about the communal celebration of the promise of new life and commitment. Typical of Jesus’ parables, Jesus is not talking about actual people, but instead is making a spiritual point. In this case, it’s about the kingdom of heaven, God’s reign. The use of the wedding imagery suggests joy and fulfillment, not sorrow or dread. We see so many scary movies about the end of time that stir up fear within the watchers. Jesus is talking about the end, but his return is meant to engender joy and not fear for believers.

Both chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew’s gospel are about the final judgment and the return of the Son of Man, or, the establishing of God’s reign on earth; and teachings about delays.

Right from the beginning, we’re told that five of the bridesmaids were foolish and five were wise. All ten look and act the same, but only the wise ones were prepared.

Was the issue really about having enough oil? I think the heart of the matter is what the ill-preparedness of the foolish bridesmaids demonstrates. They had their own time schedule of when they thought the bridegroom should and would arrive. Everything should go according to plan, according to their schedule. No delays. They did not anticipate a sudden change of plan. It’s not like someone could phone ahead and let the women know they were running behind.

Another way to translate “delayed,” is “a long time coming.” Delayed presumes a pre-arranged, expected, set time when the bridegroom would arrive. At Jesus’ time, there was no such custom. The unprepared bridesmaids were determining the timeframe in which the bridegroom could be honorably welcomed with lamps fully blazing.

The foolish bridesmaids’ lack of preparation was disrespectful and insulting to the bridegroom.
They had not prepared for every possible eventuality to be sure of their presence at the wedding feast. Their concern was more for themselves and their convenience than for the bridegroom. They had not factored delay into their equation of waiting. “The feast was everything. This bridegroom was worth feasting with” (Mark P. Bangert).

What shall we do while we wait for Jesus to return? We are to wait faithfully. For the bridesmaids, it was a case of having enough oil for their lamps. For us, it may be the good works that our relationship with Jesus encourages in us. This is faithful and obedient discipleship.

The oil could represent the power that produces good works. Throughout scripture, anointing with oil was symbolic of God’s Spirit being upon the person. When we baptize someone, we also anoint them with oil, saying “…child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” We wait faithfully when we walk faithfully with God, allowing God’s Spirit to work through us.

That kind of faith-life indicates intimacy with God, the power behind our lives. In baptism, God entered into relationship with us, making us his own. But have we nurtured that relationship? Are we as invested in it as God is? God feeds us and gives us drink in holy communion. It is the body and blood given “for you,” for us. I love how personal and intimate that is.

The bridesmaids were all tired of waiting. It was not only the foolish, but the wise as well that fell asleep. We get sleepy while we wait a long time. This was certainly not what distinguished the wise from the foolish.

In the final verse of today’s gospel reading, we hear, “Keep awake…” Another way to translate this is “watch out.” The verb is present tense, meaning it’s to be an ongoing activity. It means “seizing the day, loving God and loving neighbors in each moment, not a passive or speculative stance that soon despairs of a delayed return” (Cousar).

Prepared? Me? Sometimes it’s hard to be prepared. We procrastinate or we just miscalculate the amount of time a task will actually take. It’s not such a big deal if we’re not ready on time for some things, like a few minutes late for a social engagement. But if we’re late for work every day, we may lose our jobs. What about if our lives depend on our readiness? They do.

We can participate in and celebrate the many comings of Jesus—his presence in the Word, in the Sacraments, in gathering together, in our sharing the good news with others, his presence when we minister to those in need. These connections keep our lights bright for witness and service.

What if while waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom, the women I was waiting with had given up? What if the bride said, “It’s really been too long. I can’t expect you to wait with me any more. It wouldn’t be right. Go home.” And what if we did? We would have missed out on a wonderful wedding celebration.

It sometimes seems as if God is delayed in his actions or hiding from us. Martin Luther described this as deus absconditus, the hidden God. God is at work, but we cannot see him. We would love just one little sign that he cares. We let down our guard because of this. Whether we are like the wise or foolish bridesmaids, we still must wait.

Especially in our violent day, when it seems like week after week there is a new tragedy. This week’s victims were people at church. We wonder why God waits so long to show up on the scene—and yet, God already has, in the cross of Christ. In the midst of the questions, suffering and pain of our lives, God is there with us and with all those who suffer.

But do our neighbors know that God is with them? We wonder what we can do differently as a church to be more attractive to a culture increasingly disinterested in organized religion (Lose). What if we offer ourselves as a community that will wait with those who are waiting? “Can we offer ourselves as a genuine community in a world where more and more people feel isolated? A community that celebrates together. That slows down to prepare together. And that waits together, making sure when the waiting is the hardest part that no one—not one person—has to wait alone?” (Lose)

I have experienced such faithful waiting from each of you. You know how long I had to wait for approval for surgery. You know how long I had to wait to come back to this pulpit and regular worship with you. You prayed for, encouraged and comforted me and my family. Now let’s kick it up a notch and keep on doing that with friends, neighbors and strangers, that all may be welcome into the wedding banquet of our Lord Jesus.
Amen.

Resources

Mark P. Bangert, Homilies for the Christian People
Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV- Year A.
David Ewart, holytextures.com
David Lose, davidlose.net
Rob McCoy & Eric Fistler, pulpitfiction.com
Rob Myallis, lectionarygreek.blogspot.com
Brian Stoffregen, crossmarks.com
sundaysandseasons.org


Friday, November 10, 2017

All Saints




 This is the message I shared with God's people at St. Timothy Lutheran Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church on Sunday, 11/5/17. The scripture text is Matthew 5:1-12.

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. We remember those who have gone before us in the faith as well as the living church of Christ, God’s saints today. Then we get to today’s gospel reading, the Beatitudes, the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It all sounds so beautiful and churchy, but what does it mean? What does it take to be a saint and to be among the blessed of the Beatitudes?

In my pre-Lutheran days, we used to talk about the Beatitudes being be-atttidues. It was how we were supposed to be!

Others put the values of the Beatitudes off into eternity because of their difficulty, while others strive and strive to obey them because they are Jesus’ commands. Luther’s view concerning the Sermon on the Mount is that it represents an impossible demand, much like the law. One may well then ask, “So why bother, since It is simply an exercise in futility?”

The Beatitudes are appointed for All Saints because they describe an unlikely group of people who find wholeness in God’s blessings instead of the values of the world. They are underdogs and true to form, Jesus always turns things upside down, showing that they, not the rich and famous are the blessed. There is more to the beatitudes than meets the eye.

First of all, what does it mean to be blessed? Is it that God loves some people more than others? After disasters we hear people who survived or were unaffected saying that they’re blessed. Does it mean those who died or suffered were not?

In the Hebrew Scriptures, blessing referred to the results of right living. Blessing was demonstrated by material things, good health etc. One who was blessed had more and better things than someone who was not blessed. So, the one who was blessed was above others.

However, Jesus pronounces God’s blessings on the lowly, the poor, the hungry and thirsty, the meek and the mourning. “The elite in God’s kingdom, the blessed ones in God’s kingdom, are those who are at the bottom of the heap of humanity” (Brian Stoffregen).

Blessed isn’t language we use today. Another way to translate the Greek for blessed is “greatly honored,” emphasizing God’s great reversal compared to the world’s standards. The world does not revere the meek and merciful, but they are honored by God and by those who follow God’s ways.

The Beatitudes are not to be read and understood as if, then propositions, but unconditionally as those who are x will be y. A Beatitude effects what it says. It brings into being what it states. Because of this, it is not a list of laws, but grace-filled gospel.

Jesus said the poor in spirit are blessed. Although there is an element of it, this is not simply about financial poverty. That’s why Jesus said poor in spirit. They lack arrogance and the sense of their own need. Blessed are those whose only identity and security is in God. The promise that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 3) may be translated “heaven’s rule is over them” or “heaven rules them.” The kingdom may be understood as the authority or power to rule as opposed to the place where one rules.

The mourning Jesus speaks of is far greater than sadness. It is that of having lost someone to the point of lamenting them. You have likely seen pictures of MIddle Eastern women who are inconsolable over the death of a loved one. Those who mourn find no cause for joy. They will be comforted, which is why they are blessed. The Greek grammar implies that it is God that will act, so there is no need to continue mourning.

We think of meekness as weakness. The Greek for meek can have a positive sense of humble or gentle, but can also mean the doormats and the powerless. They “inherit the earth.” Their blessing is not a reward one earns, but a gift one must wait for. The meek may have lacked earth or land. “They have been denied access to the world’s resources and have not had opportunity to enjoy the creation that God intended for all people” (Powell).

The Greek for hunger and thirst means continually hungering and thirsting. Righteousness means justice. Those who continually hunger and thirst for a justice they’ve been denied, include those who have no reason for hope or joy and no access to the resources of this world. Their needs will be satisfied by the future reversals God’s rule brings.

Mercy involves concrete actions as opposed to just an attitude. Basically, the merciful are healers, people who seek to put right what has gone wrong. They favor the removal of all that prevents life from being as God intends, such as poverty, ostracism, hunger, disease, demons and debt (Powell).

The merciful will receive mercy. They will receive this on the last day, but it may mean that they will see mercy prevail. The coming of God’s kingdom is a blessing to those who value mercy because that’s what God values. When God rules, what God values will become reality. (Powell).

The pure in heart are those who are truly pure, not just outwardly so. It is not a matter of avoiding impure thoughts, but rather single-minded devotion to God. The real accent is on integrity. Seeing God for the pure in heart is so appropriate because as those who truly please God, they have demonstrated what it is to be godly. “Those who will see God are those in whom something of God has been seen” (Powell).

Who are the peacemakers? They are agents of God actively establishing God’s shalom. In other words, they are “those who work for the wholeness and well-being that God wills for a broken world” (Jack Kingsbury). In the New Testament, peace generally refers to the relationship between people (Carter). Peacemakers make right relationships between people. They  will be called “children of God.” People are identified as God’s children when their conduct is like God’s. The acknowledgement that they’ve behaved as God’s children and done as God wills, is reward enough.

Being persecuted for righteousness’ sake refers to our human activity in participating in what God is doing. It is not persecution that is virtuous, but commitment. The promise for them is the “kingdom of heaven,” just like it was for the “poor in spirit.”

Then Jesus suddenly shifts the focus from the anonymous blessed ones to “you.” Up until now, the disciples have been following Jesus and more or less observing from the sidelines. Jesus has been speaking about others, but now he specifically addresses them. Why would they or you be reviled and persecuted and lied about? Because of your commitment to righteousness, to Jesus.

We may look at the Beatitudes as  “examples” or “case studies” of “life in God’s empire, visions of the identity and way of life that result from encountering God’s present and future reign” (Warren Carter).

Do the Beatitudes still seem unattainable? So it seemed to Martin Luther. In the Small Catechism wrote, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith.” If we cannot even come to faith in Christ by our own efforts, how can we live the Beatitudes on our own? We cannot! It is God at work in and through our lives who accomplishes any good thing.

Will we believe these promises for ourselves or not? Will we believe God will make all things right for us, whether we experience reversals or rewards? If so, we can obey the command to “Rejoice and be glad” because of the great rewards God has stored up for us. 

The blessing pronounced on the disciples in the Beatitudes is for the purpose of their becoming the agents of blessing to others. As today’s saints, God calls us to be the means of blessing others. Today’s sending song “For All the Saints,” concerns those of all the earth, including present and future saints of Honduras. I hope you will join us tonight for a wonderful meal and auction as we become change agents for God’s saints in Honduras.

Amen.

Resources
M Eugene Boring, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, Matthew

Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins

Mark Allan Powell, God With Us: A Pastoral Theology of Matthew’s Gospel


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Friday, November 3, 2017

Freedom

This is the message I preached at St. Timothy Lutheran Church on Sunday, Oct. 29. The gospel text is

John 8:31-36.

 

Today we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, a movement that not only impacted the church of that age, but all ages.

What one word would you use to describe the distinctiveness of the Lutheran movement? Is it grace, justification, the good works we do through Lutheran Disaster Relief, ELCA World Hunger, or something else? These are all good answers, but they are not unique to us as Lutherans.

The word freedom is the one most celebrated by Martin Luther. He was in bondage to a view of God as judge and went to great lengths to try to appease God by bringing his body into submission by extreme deprivation such as intensive fasting and beating himself with a whip. It was not until reading in the book of Romans of salvation by grace through faith that the burden of working to be saved was lifted from Luther’s shoulders. This is the freedom about which Luther wrote most frequently. In fact, he wrote a short pamphlet called “The Freedom of a Christian,” specifically about that subject.

Had is such a little word, but it packs a punch in today’s gospel reading. Jesus was addressing the Jews who HAD believed in him. They were not addressed as disciples, as current followers because they had not continued in Christ’s word. If they had, they would have been disciples who would have experienced the truth that would set them free.

These Jews, like all of us, needed to come face to face with the truth that we must come clean about our need. Can we receive freedom if we do not understand that we need to be set free? Freedom in Christ is only good news if we know our need.

Notice that Jesus’ audience declared they had never been slaves to anyone! Wrong! At the time, their land was ruled by the Romans. Earlier in their history the Jewish people had been enslaved by the Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians and others. They could not face the truth about their history or themselves.

Luther wrote, “For truth does not consist merely in hearing Christ or in being able to blabber about him at length but also in believing in your heart and in experiencing with your heart that Christ wants to set you free. This is what makes a true Christian.” It is this kind of person that experiences God’s freedom.

The kind of freedom Jesus speaks of has two aspects to it. First there is freedom from meaning liberation from all spiritual bondage. We are freed from saving ourselves and having self as center of the universe. This liberates us from estrangement with God and with one another.

The second aspect of such freedom is freedom for. In Christ we are set free for loving and serving others. It all boils down to relationship with God and one another.

Freedom in Christ is scandalous because it is not based upon who we are or what we have done. The scandal is that it is based on unconditional, not propositional grace.

Luther put it this way, “…if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death and the world…Pray boldly—you too are a mighty sinner.” In other words, we are not to sit on our hands for fear we may do something wrong. It’s like the business world’s statement, “Make sure that you generate a sufficient number of excellent mistakes.”

Today’s gospel reading is all about freedom. The Reformation is all about freedom as well. From Paul’s declaration that we have been justified by grace to Luther’s hammering his 95 Theses on the Wittenburg Church door to remind us of the supremacy of God’s grace—what the Reformation tells us is that there is nothing we can do, say or accomplish to earn God’s love. It is a free gift. We have problems when we forget that we already have love as a gift from God and try to earn it on our own.

Our futures are not determined by our regrets and failures, but by what God has done in Jesus’ resurrection—giving us new life and hope and yes, freedom. “So if the Son makes [us] free, [we] will be free indeed” v. 36)—free to love just as God loves us.

Amen!

Resources


Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 23: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 6-8, ed.  Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehman (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c: 1959), 23:400).

____________, Luther’s Works, Vol. 48, pp. 281-282.

Brian Stoffregen, crossmarks.com