Sunday, October 23, 2011

Looking Out for Number One ~ Matthew 22:33-46

In both the Old and New Testaments, our fundamental duties toward God could not be clearer: we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength.  And we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  These two are the most important of all the commandments.  But they are also the hardest commands to obey—and the easiest commandments to break. 

Love is never as easy as it sounds. 

Love is more than just feelings.  It’s more than just affection and simply seeing the good in other people…

Love is more than being “nice.”  If God commanded us only to be nice to our neighbor, I imagine that we would do just fine.  Most people really are nice people.  It’s not that hard to smile and be polite to others; to say “please” and “thank-you…”  But God commands more of us than just being “nice.”  Being “nice” to others is just the beginning. 

God’s love for us goes beyond affection; it goes beyond simple acts of kindness…

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”  God saw that we were slaves to sin.  God saw that we were destined to die in our sin and be forever lost.  So God intervened.  We needed forgiveness, we needed redemption, we needed life—so God took those needs upon himself in the person of Jesus Christ. 

And God still takes our needs to heart.  God hears the groaning and cries of every human being—even those who do not know God.  Because God loves—God is not silent; God is not unmoved while people are in need.  God comes to us to minister to us in the times of our greatest need.  That is what love is.  And it is God’s amazing love for us that empowers us to love others.  God makes us loving persons by loving us and caring for us.

Love is nothing less than caring for others’ needs in the same way that Jesus cares for your needs.  Living in love means that the needs of others have equal priority to our needs. 

We can’t live in love and always be looking out for number one.  Love never asks “what’s in it for me?”  The question that love asks is “what does my neighbor need that I can give?” 

Love is a commitment to care for others’ needs—and as a commitment, love makes great demands of us. 

God commands us to love others even when our time, energy, and money are scarce…

God commands us to love others even when we have no guarantees that we’ll be loved in return…

God commands us to love others even when it means that we have to face people and situations that make us uncomfortable…

And finally, as our first lesson from Leviticus teaches us, we cannot live in love while taking vengeance or bearing grudges.  Love requires that we be gentle in confronting those who sin against us.  We must forgive and work towards reconciliation.  Love doesn’t mean that we have to feel affection for our enemies—but we still must care for their needs. 

All told, love is never the path of least resistance.  Love will always ask something of us.  But we give and we share out of the abundance that God has given us.  God doesn’t want us to give away all our food and starve.  God’s love assures us that we can be generous and our own needs will still be met.  With Christ in our lives, there is always something to be shared.  In Christ, we have the assurance that our deeds of love are never done in vain. 

And ultimately, living a life of love will benefit us.  It is God’s grace and love that heals this world.  So when you live in love, God’s awesome power is at work in you.  Your life will take on a whole new meaning.  Your greatest treasures will no longer be the things you keep to yourself, but the gifts that you share.

And as you live of a life of love, God has this promise for you: God loves you and cares for you every step of the way.  For in the same way that God sends you to care for others—God is sending others to care for you.  Your cup of blessings will be to the full. 

Every so often, people will ask me if I believe in angels.  When they speak of angels, they are speaking of divine beings sent by God to care for us.  Many persons believe in angels, many do not. 

But God’s love makes us all as angels who care for others in their time of need.   What an awesome way to live.  What an awesome way for us all to experience a little bit of heaven on earth.  What an awesome way for people to know that Jesus Christ is for real—as God uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Whose Image Do You Wear? ~ Matthew 22:15-22

Next time you’re out shopping, be on the lookout for all the products containing celebrity images.  You won’t have to look very hard…

In the world of marketing and advertising, it’s called “the cult of celebrity”—and for good reason.  All this celebrity merchandise exists so that you can transform yourself into the celebrity’s image.  This is their message to you: “Buy these things and you’ll be cool, you’ll be fashionable; you’ll be prestigious…  Everyone will see that you have good taste; that you’re a true gourmet…  People will envy you and want to be like you.  You’ll feel really good about yourself.”  But that celebrity name doesn’t come cheap.  It’s not just the product you’re buying…  You’re buying an image.  You’re worthy of that image if and only if you can afford the high price it commands. 

So it begs the question: if all you want in life is to be like that celebrity, has that celebrity become your god? 

If that celebrity image is more important to you than the item it’s attached to, has that celebrity’s image become your god?

Back in the time of Jesus, there was another celebrity who wanted everyone to worship him like a god—and that person was the Roman Emperor.  Every coin contained his image, along with the inscription “Caesar, son of god.”  By law, every adult was required to pay to Caesar the annual poll tax, using the coin that bore his own image.

This presented the Jews in Jesus’ day with some significant dilemmas.  Graven images owere strictly forbidden by the Ten Commandments.  Jews were to worship God and God alone.  So was it a sin against God to pay taxes to the Emperor?  Was it a sin to have these coins with the Emperor’s image in your possession?  These questions provided Jesus’ enemies with the perfect trap for him.  If he says it’s lawful to pay for taxes to Caesar, he’s guilty of blasphemy.  On the other hand, if he says that it’s not lawful, he’s guilty of treason against the Empire.  Both of these crimes were punishable by death.  

But when Jesus says “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, give to God what is God’s,” he’s doing far more than just embarrassing his accusers with a clever answer.  He is revealing God’s will.  Since the coin has the emperor’s image on it, paying the tax is simply giving back to the emperor what’s already his.  God’s will was for the people to pay their taxes.

The more important thing that Jesus said was to give to God what belongs to God.  To state it simply: we are created in God’s image.  Therefore, we give ourselves to God—because we belong to God.

This is good news to a world that defines self-image by what we own…  This is good news for those who can’t pay the high prices to buy the designer brands and celebrity merchandise the marketplace says you must have to really be somebody… 

As a person made in God’s image, you are absolutely loved by God.  There can be no question.  In God’s sight, you are precious.  God doesn’t see you only for your shortcomings and your failings.  God doesn’t see you only for your sins and look upon you with anger or disgust.  To see how much you are worth in God’s eyes, look no further than the cross.  Jesus paid the price to redeem your life from sin and death.  From the moment we are created, God gives us these treasures—all at no cost.

No other god gives anything to anyone without a price. 

Caesar demands worship in the form of his unjust taxes.  He robs the poor to fill his own pockets.  The gods of mammon are no different.  They take our money and make us cool—that is, until something new and different becomes cool—or the celebrity does something scandalous.  They take away our individuality to make us into whoever want us to be.  They take away our self-worth if we can’t afford to buy the stuff they say we need to be somebody.  These gods take—and give nothing of lasting value or significance in return.  Worship the gods of mammon and you’ll find you can never have enough, even with all the money in the world. 

The gods of mammon take our money and our dignity—but God takes away the sin of the world and nails it to the cross.  Our God takes our sorrow and our pain.  Our God takes away death and gives life. 

When Jesus tells us to “give to God the things that our God’s,” he is speaking of our obligation to God.  Because God loves us so much, we ought to love God in return.  But we must never think of this as a grueling and burdensome duty, like paying our taxes.  We’re giving ourselves to the God who gives us all that we need; who hears and answers our prayers; and whose Son gave his life on the cross for our salvation.    It is in celebration that we give to God what is God’s.  It is in celebration that we surrender our pursuit of worldly treasures and prestige.  It is in celebration that we go forth to serve God by serving our neighbors.  It is in celebration that we tell others of God’s amazing love that is at work in our lives. 

God’s generosity towards us transforms us into generous people.  That’s what happens when you hear the Gospel and receive Christ’s body and blood at the table.  Generosity is what happens when we come together as one Body in Christ.  God gives us the faith to see just how rich we are.  And God nourishes us with grace so that we can live out God’s generosity in our everyday lives.  Jesus Christ has taken away the sin of the world and forever conquered death, but God uses ordinary people like us to do awesome and powerful things in this world. 

Regardless of whether you have much to offer God—or little, God will use your gift to do things for you and for others that are greater than can ever be imagined.  Simple people and simple gifts are God’s instruments for healing this world.  Whatever it is that we give or that we do, God will do even greater things.  You won’t be the only one to be blessed.

So as we prepare for our annual commitment Sunday next week, this is a time for us to all be in prayer, asking God to lead and guide us in how we can give of our time, our talents, and our treasures to shine forth God’s love in the world.  But we all do this, not just by God’s command, but by God’s invitation.  This is God’s invitation for you to see God at work in your life.  It is God’s invitation for you to witness God’s healing power at work.  It’s an invitation to live in celebration of all God’s blessings, and share that joy with a world in need.  It’s an invitation to be rich with all the treasures of serving Jesus.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

What Not to Wear ~ Matthew 22:1-14

When I was in high school, I had a dream that absolutely terrified me:

I dreamt that it was my judgment day.  There was no dark tunnel or bright light in this dream.  I was being judged at the front door of our family home.

I was face to face—not with Jesus—but with a gatekeeper whose appearance I can’t recall.  I was expecting to hear the words “well done good and faithful servant.”  But the gatekeeper quietly told me that I would not be going to heaven.  I began to argue in defense of myself.  I cried that I had believed in my heart that Jesus was my Savior, that I’d gone to church and Sunday school, and that I’d really tried to be good.  “But you doubted” the gatekeeper replied. 

The front door of our house opened to a gigantic void of blackness.  I began to run upstairs to my room (but I couldn’t get away).  And my nightmare ended. 

That dream haunted me for a long time.  It had me questioning whether or not I was worthy for heaven.  It had me worried that God would reject me because I wasn’t good enough…

When I sat down to study this text earlier this week, I really identified with the man who was thrown out of the wedding feast for not wearing the appropriate attire.  He’s like a person falling short of God’s standards—and God rejecting them.  But is that what’s really going on in this parable?

With all the trouble the king had getting people to come to the wedding, we’d think he wouldn’t mind that one of the guests he brought in from the street wasn’t dressed in the proper attire.  But let’s think about it…

A wedding robe in Jesus’ day is basically the equivalent of the tuxedo in our day.  If you were invited to a wedding, you would wear a wedding robe to honor your hosts—especially when your host was a king.  Remember the royal wedding earlier this summer?  It would have been national news if one of the invited guests showed up in shorts and a T-shirt.  It’s more than just bad manners…  It’s an insult to their host.  It tells everyone that the invitation—and the hosts—mean nothing to them.  It’s like saying “I’m just here for the free food.”

So it’s really no different for the man who’s not wearing a robe.  So when the king asks the man why he’s not wearing the robe—and he has nothing to say for himself—his silence pretty much tells the whole story.  He doesn’t care.  If he didn’t own a wedding robe, he could have borrowed one from a friend—or from one of the king’s attendants.  But he didn’t even do that.  There’s no appreciation, no gratitude, no excitement about being invited to the king’s banquet.  And now he doesn’t care that he’s dishonored his host. 

So what we have here is not a parable about God rejecting human beings.  But it’s also not a parable about what happens to non-Christians who reject God.  This is a parable about insiders; about people who say “yes” to God and “yes” to baptism—but live a life of indifference to God.  It’s about us. 

We are a people whose sins have been forgiven.  We are reconciled to God.  We are united with Christ in his resurrection.  But would you know it by what we say, what we do, how we live?  Is there really anything that would set us apart from non-believers?  Since we know that we are saved apart from our own good works, are we all too content for God to stay out of our way so we can just do our own thing?   Are we too willing to leave discipleship and giving and serving to someone else?

Today, God’s Word brings us face to face with the painful reality of how we live under God’s authority.  Far too often, we live as though God’s gifts mean nothing to us—even though our eternal destiny has changed because of them.  We should all be a little uncomfortable with what God’s Word is speaking to us today—but God’s Word is not a guilt trip.  Its purpose is not to give you nightmares like the one I had, to terrify you and have you questioning whether or not you are chosen by God for eternal life. 

Its message is simply this: our relationship with God is not something to be taken lightly. 

But God doesn’t use guilt or terror to persuade us into a life of true and faithful discipleship. God uses the promises of the Gospel.  And the good news is that God hasn’t just called us to be God’s own—God has chosen us.  If you’re sitting here, hearing this Gospel message today, you’re chosen.  If God has called you—or is calling you—to holy baptism, you’re chosen. 

So God doesn’t want us to spend the rest of our lives questioning whether or not we are chosen…  God’s question for us is “what does it mean to be chosen?”  What does God’s forgiveness mean for you?  What does Christ’s death on the cross mean for you?  What does eternal life mean for you?

As God’s chosen people, we have great cause for rejoicing each and every day.  No matter what may befall us in life, we belong to Christ.  God has washed all of our sins with the precious blood of Jesus Christ, so there’s no need for us to live in the shame because of the things we’ve done in the past.  And God is not some distant, far-removed deity up there in heaven while we’re down here on earth.  The risen Christ is here with us; never to leave us or forsake us.  There is so much cause for joy, so much to be thankful for.  God’s promises give us hope. 

You have been chosen for new life in Jesus Christ.  God has chosen you so that other people will know Jesus Christ because they will know you.  God has chosen First Lutheran Church so this community will know Jesus Christ because we carry forth the light of Christ beyond our doors to those who are in darkness.  If we keep the light to ourselves, the light will be snuffed out.  But if we carry forth the light of Christ, his light will burn brighter in us.  We will witness firsthand other people coming alive with hope and rejoicing.  We’ll see the darkness of this world being banished away. 

So where will you take the light of Jesus Christ?  How will your life shine for Jesus? 

Let us bring forth these questions to our Maker... And let us be prepared to follow Jesus when he calls us.  May our hearts and our ears and our eyes be open that we would know God’s will; may the Holy Spirit give us the courage and the strength to obey God’s call; and above all, may God’s grace continue to bring us rejoicing, and God’s peace guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 

Lifestyles of the Rich and Faithful ~ Luke 12:13-21

This past week, the world was shocked by the tragic death of Steve Jobs, the founder and CEO of Apple Computer.

Here was a man who dropped out of college, and started up a technology company in his parents’ garage that would grow into one of the world’s most successful corporations.

Jobs is being celebrated for his genius, his innovation, his persistence, his tenacity.  He’s being remembered as a man who set out to change the world and had the talent to do precisely that.  And not only is he the nation’s most celebrated business leader, he’s also one of the world’s richest men.

He will live on as the Great American Success story; a prime example of what you accomplish with hard work, creativity, and determination. 

I’d be inclined to think of the farmer in Jesus’ parable as I would Steve Jobs.  Here is someone with the skill, innovation, and sheer luck to reap a tremendous harvest; a harvest so great and so vast that he had to raze his barns and build new and bigger ones to store up his wealth.

But Jesus has no words of praise for him.  God calls him a fool.  And there are two reasons for that.  1) He kept his harvest for himself.  He gives no thought to those who are in need, nor does he give any thought to the fact that there could be a famine in the future, and he could feed hundreds if not thousands of people from his fortune.  2) He celebrates the fact that he’s completely self-reliant.  He’s got it made.  Since he has everything he could ever need or want, he has no need for God.

Now there’s nothing wrong with being successful.  It is truly awesome do be able to do what you love and succeed.  And success is a blessing from God, it is something to be celebrated. 

And I’m sure there’s no one here who hasn’t dreamed of being successful and rich and powerful.  We’d all love to be able to live the good life.  After all, with no money troubles, what is there to worry about?  A life in the lap of luxury without a care in the world…

But the truth is that those kinds of fantasies are just that—fantasies.  Life is fragile—even if you happen to be one of the great American giants of business. 

And Jesus teaches today that all of the success in the world means absolutely nothing if we fail to acknowledge God as the giver of all good things—regardless of whether we lead simple, ordinary lives—or rise to become the wealthiest person on earth.  Earthly riches count for nothing in the next life.  What truly counts in light of eternity is that we are rich toward God. 

But God’s riches aren’t accumulated; they aren’t earned through sweat and hard work and innovation.  God’s riches are received.

A person who’s rich towards God is one who looks to God for their daily bread.  It is seeing God’s presence in every good gift they receive; every single meal on the table; the clothing we wear; the homes that keep us safe and warm; and the people who love and care for us. 

As great as it is to not have to live with the uncertainty of not knowing whether you’ll have food and a place to live in the future, a lifestyle of dependence on God is a blessing.  A person who’s dependent on God sees God’s hand providing.  They experience God carrying them through desperate times.  These are the ones who are truly blessed—because there can be little doubt that they would have made it through without God.  This is a life of true faith.  The ones who cry out to God and cast upon God all their cares; even those who struggle to go on believing—these are the ones who are rich towards God. 

And finally, we become rich towards God not in the blessings that we keep, but in those we give away.  Giving and sharing are our duties—but they are not burdens.  We enjoy God’s gifts more fully when we share them.  We grow in our walk with Jesus, who gave for us his everything—by giving to others.  We celebrate God’s goodness by sharing.

It may be cool to be wealthy and successful, but it’s truly beautiful to live by faith; to trust in Jesus through every season and time of uncertainty.  And best of all, God’s riches are not just for a fortunate few, but for all.  We receive them before we even ask. 

So in this time of harvest, let us give thanks to God for our blessings.

Let us celebrate God’s blessings by giving and sharing. 

Let us place our trust in God through the coming winter.

Let us put our hope in God for the coming year—not knowing what the future may bring, but assured of the promise that God will be our provider.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Privilege and Responsibility ~ Matthew 21:33-46

If you’re a book lover like I am, a library is a little piece of heaven on earth…
Thousands and thousands of books are just waiting for you—and you can borrow as many books as you can read…all for free.  All you have to do is bring them back by their due date, and return them in the condition you received them.  What a privilege…

Unfortunately, many people enjoy this privilege but cast to the wind the responsibility it requires. 

A friend of mine who’s a librarian once told me of a patron who brought up a large stack of books to check out.  My friend told her that she had a number of overdue books, and that she had to return those books and pay the fines before she could check out any others.  To say the least, the patron did not take the news well…  After screaming at the librarian, calling her a “thief” and “a liar,” the patron slapped her across the face and stormed out of the building.

She gladly enjoyed the privilege of borrowing books at no cost—but she absolutely refused the responsibility that came with that privilege.  This is exactly what we see happening in the parable Jesus tells in our Gospel for today.

A landowner leases his vineyard to some tenants and goes off to another country. 

These tenants received some incredible privileges with this lease.  In return for their labor, the tenants would be entitled to a share of their harvest.  This was no ordinary vineyard they were leasing—it came complete with a fence, a wine press, and a watchtower.  They had the potential to make a lot of money working on a vineyard like this.  Naturally, these privileges came with certain responsibilities… Besides the obvious duty of tending the vineyard, they were responsible for rendering to the landowner his share of the harvest. 

The landowner certainly had authority over his vineyard—and over the tenants.  But that’s not how the tenants saw it.  Their authority was themselves—and their number one concern was the big money they were making from the vineyard.  The landowner was a nuisance who got in the way of their selfish desires. So when the landowner sends his slaves—and even his own son to collect his share of the harvest—they had to be dealt with.  They beat and murder to get what they want.

I wish I could say similar things don’t happen in our world—but they do.  We love our privileges—but how often we enjoy them without responsibility….

We have the privilege of driving (as so often our parents and drivers’ ed teachers have reminded us).  But we aren’t patient with other drivers; we deliberately disobey the traffic laws and put others’ safety at risk…  We just want to get where we’re going as quickly as we can—and all the other drivers and pedestrians are in the way. 

One of our society’s great ills is that we treat our privileges as personal entitlements to be exploited solely for our benefit.  We forget our privileges are just that—privileges…  We’re too busy thinking about ourselves to think of those who don’t have these same privileges.  We don’t care about how our getting what we want affects other people.  We demand satisfaction—and we don’t tolerate anything—or anyone—that would stand in the way. 

What we’re seeing here is sin, alive and well in our society—and in each of us.  Sin is far more than just the bad things we do.  Sin is a heart condition—our hearts and minds being so self-centered that we refuse to be responsible to anyone other than ourselves.  It is sin that makes God into a divine ATM machine, who should give us all the things we want because we believe we deserve them.  At the same time, it is sin that that flat-out rejects God’s authority over ourselves and the privileges we enjoy.  We love God when God gives us what we want.  But when God dares claim our selves, our possessions, and our futures, God becomes a nuisance…

Make no mistake about it—we are a privileged people.  From the moment God created us, we have been God’s beloved.  We are claimed as God’s own sons and daughters and washed clean of our sin.  We receive eternal life apart from our own merit.  God delights in our enjoyment of all of the good gifts we receive. 

Our privileges are given by God for our benefit—but for God’s purposes.  Let me say that again.  Our privileges are given by God for our benefit—but for God’s purposes.  They are not entitlements.  They are entrustments.  God’s gifts have been entrusted to us, in order that we would use them to do the work of God’s kingdom.  That is our responsibility.  And one of the most basic responsibilities of living for God is living for others. 

How blind we become when we’re so consumed with meeting our own selfish desires that we fail to realize the truth—that God’s purposes are good.  Isaiah reminds us in today’s first reading that God’s purpose is establishing righteousness and justice on the earth.  God’s purpose is meeting all forms of human need; establishing peace where there is division; creating hope where there is despair.  Paul reminds us in today’s second reading that God’s purpose for all persons is that they would attain the resurrection from the dead.  It is God’s will that each of us has a direct role in everything God is doing for us and for the world.

For Paul, anything in his life that would stand in the way of God’s good purposes Paul calls rubbish.  I wish I could honestly say as Paul says.  All I can do is lament how often I’ve treated my fulfilling my responsibilities to God like taking out the garbage—something that’s unpleasant and unrewarding, but necessary… 

Today’s Gospel is a harsh warning that we must all take seriously—if you want to live without God; if you insist on living only for yourself, you’ll get what you want.  If we throw God out of our lives like a piece of garbage, God will leave us to ourselves. 

However, if you know in your heart that you are guilty of rejecting God, know that God hasn’t rejected you.  God doesn’t reject people.  God gives you a Savior.  In Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.  God doesn’t care about your past, because the past has been washed in forgiveness.  God stands ready to give you a new beginning.  God is here to walk with you into a future in which you will witness God’s promises being fulfilled before your eyes.  We’re fools if we think we know what’s best for us.  Walk with God you and will discover how exceedingly greater it is to serve Jesus Christ than to serve ourselves. 

We are eternally privileged to be daughters and sons of God.  Our minds simply cannot comprehend the value of all of the treasures God gives us in Jesus Christ.  But with these privileges comes responsibility: and our responsibility is to give to God our everything.  We are responsible for surrendering our lives into God’s purposes for the universe.  This is a day-to-day challenge.  But we surrender through the grace and love God pours upon us each and every day.  God’s grace will help us to move forward.  The journey toward eternal life begins today—and there is so much more of God’s grace to be experienced on the way there.

So I ask you—what treasures can be gained here on earth that could possibly compare with a life lived in the promises of Jesus Christ?