Monday, August 15, 2011

Homily for Pentecost 9A (Proper 15) - Matthew 15:21-28

            This Jesus seems so wrong – no matter how many times we hear today’s text, no matter that we know how the story ends.  After all, we hear this Jesus call unfaithful Peter to walk on water to Him.  We hear Jesus refuse to send the 5000 away, making miracle bread so the crowd can stay with Him.  We hear Jesus scold the Disciples because they got in the way of the little children coming to Jesus.  But today Jesus sounds so foreign, cold, and distant to this Canaanite mother who brings her little daughter to Jesus in prayer. 
            She is not asking for a nicer house, more money, or better friends.  Her daughter is in the clutches of Satan.  The pain of knowing your child hurts is one thing.  But can you even imagine how terrified you would be if a demon possessed your little girl?  So she prays, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon” (Matthew 15:22).  She looks to the One stronger than demons, the Son of God who comes to destroy the Devil’s work.  I ask you, was there ever a request so pure?  A more noble request than this?
            And all the more noble since this is a Canaanite confessing Jesus as the son of David, the Messiah.  King David fought battles against the Canaanites.  They were descendants of Cain, the son of Adam who murdered his brother.  Israelites and Canaanites had a mutual hatred.  Jewish people referred to them as filthy dogs.  We do not know what the Canaanites called the Israelites.
Some might think that she is simply at her wits’ end, that she has tried everything else and figures this is her daughter’s last chance.  She has heard others praise and honor this Jewish miracle worker, and works to butter Him up by repeating what they say.  But no, as Jesus tests her, we see that this woman has honest-to-God faith.  She is a better student than the Disciples as she recognizes the Son of God!  “But He did not answer her a word.”
            She prays without ceasing.  She will not give up.  The Disciples cannot take it anymore.  They beg Jesus, “Just give her what she wants so she will leave us alone.”  She is an embarrassment the way she cries out.  But, by an accident of birth, she is not an Israelite.  She has no standing, no claim to make on Jesus.  Jesus says this in one of the most brutal declarations He ever makes, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 
            She refuses to go home disappointed, angry and self-righteous over what one might take as an insult.  She is now more determined than ever.  As surprised as we are to the way Jesus acts in this text, no less surprising is how she responds.  The harsh, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” drives her to worship Him on her knees before the Lord.  She will not release her grip on His Word, not matter how foolish or hard it seems.  She trusts Jesus is good.  On her knees she begs, “Lord, help me!”
            And Jesus still does not give in.  “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  What do you think would happen if you called some strange woman a dog to her face?  It was no less an insult back then. 
            But, you know, if the all holy Lord calls us a dog, that is actually a compliment.  We deserve far worse.  He has every right to call us filthy no-good, dirty, double crossing cheats and swindlers and liars and murderers.  Damned sinners, every one of us.  We have earned that.  We have no right to approach God.  He owes us nothing but eternal destruction, torment in the presence of the demons.  Do not think that He is impressed by you and your intentions.  You have behaved disgracefully, as wickedly as I have.  God says, “I gave you everything, and yet you rebel, seeking love and help and hope from worthless idols.”
            What do you and I say to that?  We really have only three choices, but the end result is the same for two of them.  You can get depressed and give up on God, and walk away, angry at yourself.  Or you can walk away angry at God, denying that He is right.  In self-righteousness you can say, “Who does Jesus think he is?  I’m going to find a better god that suits my tastes and says what I want to hear.”  You can proudly proclaim, “I will show you God!  I’ll cut myself.  And in my temper tantrum, I’ll choose Hell over worshiping You.”  And if you do, you will join the demons sooner than you expect.
            That is the common way to respond to God’s harsh Truth of His Law.  But there is a better way, the way that causes the holy angels in Heaven to rejoice.  You can repent.  You can agree that God’s Law is right.  You can confess, “Yes, Lord, I am a dog.  I wish I were not this way, but I am guilty and ashamed.”  That sorrow is the first step of repentance.  The second is trust in God’s mercy.  Without the second half of faith, it is only sadness and despair, only self-pity and anger at yourself.  Therefore our holy confession continues, “Yes, I am a dog.  I have no merit or worthiness in me.  I have justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.  But I believe that You are the Christ who has mercy upon us.  That You forgive.  That You are slow to anger and abound in steadfast love, therefore You will not cast me away from Your presence, nor take Your Holy Spirit from me.  I believe that through the death on the Cross, You will restore to me the joy of salvation.”
            That is not only how you respond to the Word of Christ, it is also how the Canaanite mother responded.  She throws herself upon His Word, even when it is harsh.  Like a bull-dog, she grabs on and will not let go.  “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  She knows God is exactly as Isaiah and Paul describe todau – a God who has mercy on all.  He brings even foreigners to His holy mountain.  His House is called a House of prayer for all peoples.  She knows Jesus is the Son of David who has not come for the righteous, but for sinners, to seek and save the lost.  With that faith she asks Him to save her daughter.
            And Jesus does.  Her daughter was healed instantly.  And this mother becomes a hero of the faith that the world has seldom seen.  That is what the Lord was up to, why He seems so strange to us in this text.  He was making an example out of the mother, a good one.  Our dear Lord Jesus is not willingly afflicting her, torturing or tempting her.  He was exercising her faith, strengthening her, teaching her to live by the Word of God and not by appearances.  In her suffering, Jesus draws her – and us – closer to Himself.  For in the end, Jesus does more than relent and give in to what she asks for.  Not only is her daughter saved, but she is given a lively faith that has been recorded as an inspiration for Christians everywhere.
              Demons still haunt our children and lead them away from the Lord.  Why do you think the chaos London is happening?  In part because the parents have swept their homes clean of God, and the demons have rushed in to make their homes.  Churches are empty and being used now as art galleries, restaurants, warehouses, or worse.  Better parenting and police action might help to make things better on earth, but in the end there is only one thing that will overcome the darkness we face – that is the suffering, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is stronger than the demons. 
            Last week at my Doxology conference, Dr. John Kleinig said that in Australia Christian parents and grandparents face the same problem as here – they feel guilty because they cannot get their kids to church.  They see their family members trusting the Devil’s lies that life is better apart from God, and these Christians want to know what to say.  Dr. Kleinig answers that we must not badger them.  He points to today’s text and says just like this mother carries in prayer her daughter to Jesus, so can we prayerfully bring our wandering and erring loved ones to Him.  As you pray for God to change their hearts, see yourself piggy-backing your loved one here to church, to the Lord’s Altar, and leave your loved one here in His presence.  From now on, if you would like me to specifically name your loved one among the lost, wandering and erring during the prayers of the Church, just let me know – even if you would just like me to use only part of their name, so others do not know.  But God will know. 
            You are not the only one who sorrows and struggles with this Cross.  Let us pray to the Son of David for our children with as much determination as this Canaanite mother.  Let us pray our “Lord, have mercy”s.  Trust as she did that Jesus will help and save.  For He does not ignore her, nor is He deaf to your prayers.  He came for sinners like you and me who could not stand on our own, who can do nothing to free ourselves from our sinful condition.  Jesus came to destroy the Devil’s work, to heal your wounds, bind your broken heart, and free you from Hell.  You now hear His word and He takes away your guilt, shame and regrets.  Receive His righteousness, holiness and innocence, especially as He invites you once again to come to His Table, to eat the Bread of His Body and the wine squeezed from His heart at the Cross.  Forgiven, renewed, sanctified and blessed, Jesus gives us far more than crumbs that fall from the table.  He gives us Himself.
            God grant each of you a bull-dog like grip on Jesus – faith like this Canaanite mother had – so that with your whole heart you firmly believe His Word and promises.  Amen.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

August 8 - 1 Samuel 24

(under the rubric of "better late than never")

The honor and integrity of David has impressed me in this text from the first time I heard it in Sunday School.  This is not the way man apart from the Spirit works.  Revenge!  Yet if David had filled Saul's grave, there best be a grave dug for David too.  God protects not only our possible victim, but also ourselves, by saying to us, "Vengeance is mine.  I will repay."  Those seeking vengeance may kill another person's body, but in doing so, they do worse damage to their own soul.

Back to the text at hand - on Monday I saw Christ in this text for the first time, the King of Kings who has us dead to rights.  How often is He in our presence and acts without us being aware of it?  How often have we sought after the death of the Son of David - and His Father?  We have, like Saul, been jealous of Jesse's Son, felt He threatened our power and popularity.  And this despite that we have nothing to fear - for He is loyal to us.

And yet He spares our life!  More than just slicing off a corner of our garments, He removes from us all the fig leaves and filthy rags of our supposed righteous works.  But not so that we would be unclothed, but so that we would be clothed in the flesh of Christ, great David's greater Son.

To Him be all glory and honor, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.  Amen.
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Monday, August 1, 2011

Homily for Pentecost 7A (Proper 13) - Matthew 14:13-21

        With the Lord there are no accidents.  He leaves nothing to chance.  Just think how doomed you would be if something could catch Him by surprise.  You get to the Judgment Seat and He says, “You know, I died to save you from all your sins I knew about.  But I NEVER expected you to sin the way you did on July 30, 2011!  So since I did not expect it, I did not pay for it.  Therefore, sadly, I am going to have to say you have to depart from Me.” 
          Rest assured, that terrible conversation will never happen, not with our all-knowing Lord and Savior.  Nothing surprises Him.  The Lord is in control.  Even during His earthly life, from the manger through the Cross to the Ascension, even when it seems as if everything is spinning out of control, Jesus is on top of it all.
          We need to learn this, especially after a week of things we cannot control – like debt ceilings and death.  The news of John the Baptist’s death had sent shockwaves throughout the region.  King Herod had arrested John and then ordered, “Off with his head!” because John dared to preach against his adultery.  When Jesus heard this, it caused Him to withdraw from the crowds who had listened to His parables. 
          I always thought it was to be by Himself.  And then, poor Jesus, His plans for quiet time get disrupted by thoughtless people who cannot let the Guy have a moment to Himself.  That just shows how much I need to learn that Jesus is in control at all times and never caught off guard.  The crowds following Him and demanding His attention were all according to His plan.  Jesus does not want them to go away because they are right where He wants them – so that He can do and speak and give the compassion His flock needed the most at the time of John’s death.
          The sheep who followed the voice of their good Shepherd are far less prepared.  They gave no thought to grabbing some bread and water for their journey – not even for the children.  No sippy cups or baggies of Cheerios.  They just came as they were – and Jesus knew that they would.
          As prepared for stuff as we like to be, as self-reliant and in control as we think we are, as ready for anything that we try and make ourselves – what happens when we are not?  When the unexpected disaster, disease or death catches us unprepared?  What happens when we are out in the wilderness, that desolate place, and the sun is going down, and we have no place to go?  What then?
          Then Jesus has compassion.  He does not lecture the people that they were dumb for not preparing.  No common sense wisdom talk about the value of planning ahead, which is probably what the Disciples had in mind.  Send the crowds away!  But not Jesus, the Good Shepherd.  He does not lead His flock into the wilderness unprepared.  He is prepared at all times to care for His sheep.  And this, His Disciples need to learn.
           We need to learn this too.  That when we are stuck in our wild and desolate places in our lives –feeling alone, forsaken, worried, vulnerable – that our Lord has not left us.  And more importantly, that we are not in that place by accident.  Our Shepherd has a plan for us precisely where we are at, in that unexpected place, to learn of Him and His care.  That we would not to rely upon ourselves, but on Him.  That we would trust that wherever our Shepherd leads us, it is good.  It is what we need.  For the Lord is still in control of it all, especially when it seems as if everything is going out of control.
          The Shepherd tells His sheep to recline and rest in the green pastures by the quiet waters, and He spreads a table before them.  Out here the troubles of John the Baptist are far behind.  The hustle and bustle of life becomes a distant memory.  Out here, worldly politics and power struggles do not interrupt the taste of Heaven that breaks into Earth.  It is just the Shepherd and His sheep.  And it was just five loaves and two fish.  Yet that is more than enough for the God who “opens His hands and satisfies the desires of every living thing” (Psalm 145:16) on a daily basis.  It is more than enough for the God who fed His people with manna for 40 years in the wilderness.  It is more than enough – 12 baskets of leftovers after everyone had their fill!
          When Matthew tells us the five thousand men, besides women and children, “were satisfied”, it means more than that they could not eat another bite.  They were filled not only with earthly food, but with the Bread of Life.  They were not sheep harassed and helpless.  They were at peace.  The flock at the feet of their Shepherd.  There was nowhere else they would rather be.
          Sometimes it takes the wilderness, the desolate places in our lives, to get us to understand that there is no better place to be than under Christ’s tender care.  Certainly we hear this – we hear it from this pulpit, we read it from the Word during devotions.  But do we ever really believe we are helpless until we have to face it?  Until we have tried and failed to get ourselves out of the mess we are in?  The hard truth that we try to deny is that we are just as weak and vulnerable and helpless when life goes well, when we are cozy in our beds, with full tummies and refrigerators.  How easy it is to fall back into self-confidence and self-reliance.  Looking to ourselves for what we need, instead of looking to our Shepherd.
          And so out to the wilderness, the desolate times and places the Shepherd leads us – as individuals, as a congregation.  Right where He wants us.  Not to punish, but to have compassion.  So that we can see we have nowhere else to go, and look to Him for all that we need.  To turn the wilderness into green pastures, and the desolate times into His hour of blessing.
          With the Lord there are no accidents.  Nothing surprises our all-knowing Savior.  Even when it seems as if everything is spinning out of control, Jesus is on top of it all.  The Lord is spinning everything for us and for our salvation.  As we heard last week, everything, even all that tribulation, distress, persecution and death stuff, along with the nicer things in life – everything is being worked by God for our advantage, weaved by God into a beautiful tapestry of good for those who love God.  When He humbles us, it is so that He may exalt us.  When He takes, it is so that He may give.  He kills to make alive.  He uproots to plant.  He tears down to build up.  To do all of this, God calls us to repent.  To repent of our pride, our desires for control, our feelings of self-sufficiency and self-satisfaction.  To repent of all that we are, for we are nothing without Christ. 
          And the Christ who leads us to this place of repentance does not send us away empty or leave us there to fill ourselves.  He has compassion.  He who will not leave His flock alone in the wilderness to fend for themselves, He goes alone to the desolation of the Cross.  Not caught by surprise, not out of control, but in control, willingly, speaking of His free sacrifice ahead of time.  For the purpose of taking our sin away from us, to give His life to pay for ours, so that we may not only avoid punishment, but also live – with sins forgiven and death defeated through the very same body and blood that feeds us in this life at this Table.  That we may live knowing we are never alone with the Good Shepherd leading us through it all.  That we may live not with bellies full here for a while, but live forever in Paradise, the Kingdom which has no end. 
          For one day Jesus will lead us through the valley of the shadow of our own death – and He will draw others out to the desolate place of your funeral, so that once they are away from the hustle and bustle of their everyday lives, Christ would feed them with His Word as He has fed you.  And even during your funeral, He will be with you, and you with Him.  This is the reason He came to our world, to come to you and go through death and into life for you, to bring you, His sheep, from death to life.  That you may be His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.  So rest in this peace, knowing that the Lord has left nothing to chance.  Amen.

Homily for Pentecost 6A (Proper 12) - Romans 8:28-39

(With thanks to Rev. William Cwirla for the thoughts in this sermon)

        “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).  As we continue this summer’s journey through the book of Romans, we come to a text that is about everything and about nothing.  It is about nothing in all this world being able to separate the baptized believer from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.  Nothing, not even tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, nor sword.  Not even death.  And this text is about everything working out for good in Jesus.  Everything, even all that tribulation, distress, persecution and death stuff, along with the nicer things in life – everything is weaved by God into a beautiful tapestry of good for those who love God.  And nothing can separate us from His love.
          Do we actually believe this?  In the face of real troubles and distress and danger, do we as God’s baptized children trust that God will make everything wrong in our lives to be right in the end?  Do we actually live as though God has given a divine purpose and meaning to our sufferings? 
          If you have ever wanted to know why God allowed something to happen in life, I have good news and bad news for you.  The good news is that He gives the answer in Romans 8.  The bad news is that you are going to have to stay with me here, because we are going way beyond the simple Sunday School Bible stories of God making it all right in the end – we are heading into the deep waters of God’s wisdom and love.
          Paul writes that those whom God foreknew, He also destined in advance to be conformed to the beautiful image of His Son, in order that Christ would be the firstborn of many brothers (8:29).  What does it mean to be predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son?  It means that the Father looks at Jesus and sees in His Son perfected and glorified humanity.  In the beginning, God made man through His Son to reflect His Son’s image into the world. 
          Adam epically failed as he let temptation separate him from loving God and listening to His Word.  That sin drew us into all this tribulation, distress, danger and ultimately death in a Hell that was never intended for human beings, but prepared for the Devil and his demons.  Adam stopped reflecting Christ into the Creation.  Sin brings about God’s wrath, and He is plenty angry over it.  Your sin deserved damnation, and we must not think that we can talk our way out of this mess with some excuses and good deeds.
          Especially since the Father has already embraced our sinful humanity in this way – “He did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all” (8:32).  Despite the world being filled with sinners like you and me, He gives His only begotten Son to die, so that whoever believes in Him, trusting in life through death and resurrection, you will not perish in Hell one bit, but will have eternity with God.  This is your destiny that God gives you in Christ, a destiny the Lord worked out before He began creating the world.
          It all happens in Christ who undid what Adam did.  In Christ you were foreknown by the Father.  Apart from Christ, the Lord at the gates of eternity says, “Depart from Me.  I do not know you.”  In Christ, even before you existed you were destined to be conformed to the image of Christ, who is the image of God.  That divine plan was worked out long before you had any say in it, the Holy Trinity's plan from all eternity to save the world in the death of God's eternal Son in our flesh.
          In Christ it is all a done deal.  You were called in Christ, baptized into His death and resurrection, having heard the good news of Jesus which has worked its good way with you.  And that good news is that you are justified.  The blood of the Son takes away your sin.  Therefore the judgment from God’s throne is that you are innocent.  All you can say to that not guilty verdict is “Amen.”  So be it.  Do not bother arguing, trying to excuse your sin.  You do not have a case.  Besides God has said that in Christ any need you have for justifying yourself is taken away.  If God says you are innocent, that settles it.  This very moment, as I speak, you stand before the all-holy Judge, who is a consuming fire.  You stand before Him spotless and blameless.  For you are clothed with the perfect life and death of Jesus.  That is what it means to be justified.
          Apostle Paul does not stop there with that blessing, so neither can we.  “Those whom [God] justified He also glorified” (8:30).  Note that all these verbs are done by God, and they are in the past tense, done deals.  He takes everything eternal out of your hands.  He foreknew, predestined, called, justified, glorified.  Even as you sit here with all your earthly distresses, you are now already seated in Christ at the right hand of the Father in glory as Ephesians 2 declares.  You are glorified in the glorified risen flesh of Jesus.  He embodied you in His perfect life, death and resurrection – and now He embodies you in His ascended glory.  As Paul says elsewhere, your life is hidden in Christ.  When Jesus appears again, then your glory will be seen by all (Colossians 3:1-4).  You see that all by faith.  But sight sees you in yourself, and it is not all that glorious.  In your self, you suffer, you sin, you die.  But in Christ you are glorified, pure, and holy.
          Because all the above is true, because you are foreknown, destined, called, justified and glorified in God’s beloved Son, what on earth can mess you up?  You are safe in Christ, wearing Him like a spiritual bullet-proof vest – or bodysuit, really.  If God is for us – and He is in Christ – then who can be against us?  If God gave us His own Son, how will He hold back on giving us the lesser things of everything else?  If we are justified by God, declared righteous with all charges laid on Jesus, who can condemn us?  Jesus was literally damned on the Cross in our place.  He who hung to death with our sins now lives to intercede with the Father for us.  He never lets the Father forget those nail-marks which He still bears.  And Jesus never lets us forget the wounds that earned our salvation either, as He gives us that gift in His Body and Blood.
          So who can condemn us?  Satan is left with no true charges to bring against us.  Who else can condemn us?  The world?  We ourselves?  Yes, it certainly happens that the human mind condemns us – but only because people get it in our heads that we are greater than God.  For when you say, “I cannot forgive myself” in reality you are trying to overrule God.  The Bible says not one word about forgiving yourself because that is not the way it works.  True and holy forgiveness always and only comes to you from others.  So repent.  God forgives you.  See yourself as God sees you in Christ, not as you see yourself.  Stop disagreeing with Him.
          “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (8:35).  Do you actually think it is possible to make Christ stop loving you?  Throw everything at His love – tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword.  Bad childhood.  Broken marriage.  Failure to be wholly devoted to God.  Sickness.  Think of anything – even death, devil, angels, earthly governments; the past, present and future.  High things, low things, any and every thing.  The Apostle tells us that in all these things we more than conquer – we literally “hyper-conquer”.  Not by ourselves.  But in Christ who loved us enough to conquer these things for us with His painful death.
          On this side of our graves, our victory can look an awful lot like defeat.  That is why Paul emphasizes the “in Christ” stuff so much.  It must be trusted and believed for Christ’s sake.  In this world, you must walk by faith in Him and not by sight.  For the victory Jesus gives looks like a Cross and a tomb.  No matter what other people say about the victorious Christian life bringing success for all the world to see, most of the time it looks nothing like that.  Paul describes it as being filled with failures, tribulations, distresses, persecutions, famines, nakedness, dangers and violence.  Paul makes sure we know that this is not just his idea, but that the OT people said it too.  Psalm 44 describes the godly life as facing death all day long.  The sheep following Good Shepherd Jesus are seen as sheep being led to the slaughter.  Hardly what the world would describe as victorious.
          Thus Paul emphasizes how important it is for us to be in, with, and under Christ.  For only there is your destiny, your justification, your glorification a done deal.  At your baptism, God put you into the safest place there is – the death and life of Jesus.  Only here is everything worked out for your good.  Only here can you say to your dying day: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Amen.