Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Gift of Sabbath ~ Luke 13:10-17 ~ Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost


It’s the late nineteenth century, and a sweet, cold treat known as the ice cream soda is taking America by storm…

Soda fountains are popping up in pharmacies all across America, to become just as ubiquitous as Starbucks is today.

And on Sunday mornings, after church, the flocks were flocking to the pharmacy to satisfy their sweet tooth.

This began to concern some of particularly pious town fathers in the city of Evanston, Illinois—who were concerned that “the soda menace” was desecrating the sacred Sabbath.  So they convince the city to pass an ordinance, outlawing the sale of sodas on Sunday.

But the law couldn’t suppress peoples’ appetite for the treat—so the pharmacy owners began serving ice cream with flavored toppings, minus the soda water (in keeping with the law).  They name the treat the Ice Cream Sundae, and the rest is ice cream history.

Flash back eighteen hundred years, and the religious leaders of the day were scandalized over a new threat to the Sabbath—but it wasn’t ice cream…

It was a man named Jesus who had been teaching in the synagogues before large crowds of people.  Standing in the crowd was a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years.  Seeing her, Jesus calls her to himself; he lays his hand on her, and she’s instantly healed. She stands up straight and begins praising God.

But the religious leaders, the Pharisees, are not happy.  Jesus has just committed, in the synagogue, an egregious violation of God’s law, straight from Exodus 20– “six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall do no work…

This is the third of the Ten Commandments instituted by God following the exodus from Egypt.  God’s people had been slaves, and the Egyptians were (literally) working them to death.  Pharaoh gave them no time to rest and pray and worship God.  Now that they’re free, God commands a Sabbath day to rest and be devoted to prayer, worship, and family. 

In the Pharisees’ eyes, Jesus broke the Sabbath.  He “worked.”  But in Jesus’ eyes, here was a woman with “a spirit that had crippled her;” in other words, she was a slave to her infirmity.  Satan had her bound.  Jesus set her free. 

That is what the Sabbath is all about.  It’s not merely a legalistic demand that we keep, under the threat of God smiting us.  The Sabbath is a gift.  It is time be unbound from commitments and obligations that demand so much of us.  Sabbath is God unbinding us from misery and fear so that we can be in the presence of God.  It is time to be released from what CONSUMES us, to be attached to the one who CREATES and RENEWS us. 

God gives us Sabbath because we need it.  We need Sabbath because we need God.

But it goes without saying that our world observes no Sabbath.  Instead of being a “stop day,” Sunday has become a “cram day” to do everything we want and need to do before Monday morning rolls around and it’s too late.  It’s the day to race against the clock—lest we fail to accomplish, to accumulate, and to experience everything that’s important to us.  And it’s our last opportunity to catch up on sleep and “me time” before, work, school, and schedules get us back in their grip.

How easy it is to push the invisible God out of our lives, to keep ourselves on the fast track to having it all, knowing it all, and doing it all.  How easy it is to just forget God because we’re bone tired and we have nothing left to give him.

And as obligations pile up, so does the stress and anguish of life.  And we become bound—by our obligations, by our desires, and by everything that brings stress and fear into our lives.

Life demands much from us—and we will never lead a life of any peace, purpose, or lasting significance unless we become bound to the author and giver of life through deliberate and consistent Sabbath-taking. 

We all need Sabbath—and not just for rest; we need it to be in the presence of God. 

Church on Sunday morning is a no-brainer—because God’s grace for the journey of life comes to us in Word and Sacrament.  And with so many brothers and sisters in vocations that put them at work on Sunday, we as a church need the Holy Spirit to guide us and equip us to give the gift of worship to those people, too.

But one hour of worship will never be enough.  We need unplug ourselves from the devices and technologies that consume our attention; we need to shut off the TV; set aside the housework and put a few things off so that we can be devoted to prayer and study of the Word.  God will always be with us, no matter what we do—but God’s presence won’t mean a thing unless we become present to God by listening and reading and praying.  And we must not do these alone; we must pray and worship and study as families, as friends, as sisters and brothers in our baptism. 

The miracle of Sabbath is that God’s presence brings us peace and joy and strength for whatever lies ahead.  Even if we’re busy and the pressures are high, God can use a little bit of Sabbath to change everything.

We need Sabbath—but so do our neighbors.  Even the unbelievers.  And not just Sabbath for rest; Sabbath to encounter the real presence of their creator.  We can give Sabbath to our neighbors by caring for their needs; by taking the time to listen to them and pray for and WITH them, by bringing them to church on Sunday.  We can give Sabbath even with the simplest acts of patience, generosity, and caring.  Imagine that; a little Sabbath for the waitress frantically trying to wait on ten tables; a little Sabbath for the cashier at the grocery store.  A little Sabbath for the person who needs a friend, a meal, a little encouragement, or a lot of forgiveness.  Unbind someone from loneliness, defeat, and despair.  It’s easy to give the gift of rest—and when you give that gift, you’re giving the gift of God—because God’s love is shining through you.

We’ll probably never again see a time when all the businesses close on Sundays.  Sabbath will never come easy.  But why not pray, then, for God to bring you Sabbath?  If God is going to COMMAND Sabbath, we can be sure that this is a prayer God will answer.  Sabbath for you, Sabbath for neighbor, Sabbath to rest in the presence of God.

This week, let’s be intentional about taking Sabbath—and don’t forget to give Sabbath, too.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Living in Division ~ Luke 12:49-56 ~ Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost


Shortly after my wife and I moved to the area, I visited a nearby franchise discount hair salon. 

As the female hair stylist began cutting my hair, she said nothing.  So I began engaging her in small talk—which eventually led to her asking me what I did for a living.  I answer that I’m a pastor, and she says “oh.”  Then silence. 

After about a minute or two, she says, “I hope you’re not offended by my silence.  We’re not allowed to talk about religion or politics with customers.”

I answered that I wasn’t offended at all—nor was I surprised.  It never ceases to amaze me how two persons can be engaged in the most wonderful conversation—and once the conversation turns to politics or religion comes up, the persons become worst enemies.  That’s just the way it is anymore…

Our country is engaged in a bitter civil war of beliefs, ideals, and convictions about what our country should be like, and the direction we should be pursuing.  We’re split on just about everything of Living in Divisionimportance to the life and future of our nation: from Social issues, economic issues, global issues, security issues, justice issues, to the role of government…

If this wasn’t bad enough, the scourge of division infects the Christian faith.  You have one side saying, “the Bible teaches this;” while the other side says “Jesus would have us do that…”

How glorious it would be if Jesus were to tell us that we can live completely at peace with others while at the same time living at peace with him.  But that will never be the case.  Today in our gospel, Jesus warns us in no uncertain terms that a life of discipleship will inevitably bring the pain of division—even in the relationships we have with those closest to us.  Jesus will be both the subject of division as well as the cause of division.  Peace with God will often come at the price of peace with even those closest to us. 

The reason for this is simple—we live in a world that is in a state of rebellion against God, and we ourselves are no exception to the rule.  Sin turns all of us against God and neighbor. 

But Christ transforms our existence to live differently from everyone else…

Instead of seeking instant gratification, we are patient.  Instead of looking out for number one, we look out for our neighbors.  Instead of returning evil with evil, we forgive.  Instead of pursuing the good life through social and economic prosperity, we receive a life of peaceful trust in God.  Instead of doing for ourselves what feels good, we do good to others.  Instead of living for what is visible, we live for what is invisible…

Therefore, it is inevitable that we find ourselves at odds with others. 

Yet division is also an inevitable consequence of a changing world—and the challenges those changes present.  Change and challenge ruin the sense of what we call “normal life,” and we become desperate and afraid.  There will be some who say that the solution to the challenge is change.  Others will say that the solution to the challenge is to fight back against the change, and preserve what was before.  Yet even those who argue for change will seldom agree on what the changes should be.  It is possible even for Christians to have drastically differing social, political, and economic convictions—and even differing convictions on the mission of the church—fully believing that the Bible supports their conviction, sometimes even over and against all others.  Once again, Jesus will be both the subject of division as well as the cause of division. 

Divisions and finger-pointing become the inevitable result.  So what do we do?

First of all, we must never treat division as something desirable, even as Jesus holds up division as a sign of the dawning of God’s Kingdom.  Division may be inevitable, but it is none less tragic.  Division is bad, because Jesus wants us to leave at peace with all people, as much as that is possible.  We are to live at peace with others—even if it means that we don’t get our way.  We must love people more than our convictions.  We must listen to them, to learn why they do what they do and why they believe as they believe.  We must honor the person, even if we cannot accept what they believe and how they live. 

We don’t need to create enemies, because there is one common enemy: and that enemy is Satan.  That enemy is poverty; it is disease; it is hunger; it is the power of sin that is alive inside of us all.

When we find ourselves at odds with our sisters and brothers in Christ, we must preserve the bond of unity that is ours as human beings and as members of the Body of Christ.  Different though we are in our personalities, our gifts, our needs, and even our beliefs, our diversity enriches the Body.  We are one people, of one faith, one birth, and one hope.  Never underestimate how simple love; simple grace; simple forgiveness can heal relationships and help us to live at peace even with people who say things and do things and believe things we believe are outrageous.

But if it comes to pass that you cannot walk with Jesus and remain in a relationship with those to whom you’ve come at odds, it may in fact be time to end the relationship.  If peace with others keeps you from living in peace with Christ; if there is no hope of reconciliation, if forgiveness cannot heal the hurt, then it is time to depart in peace. 

Schisms, divisions, and broken relationships are some of the greatest tragedies we’ll ever experience in life.  But the good news is that when you suffer the loss of valuable relationships; when the people you love turn against you and you’re all alone; when this maddening world feels like an impossible place to live;  you belong to Jesus Christ.  You are baptized—and because of that, God will never call you an enemy and be disgusted by you, even when your sin is enormous and others cannot forgive you.  And someday, Jesus will heal us of the rifts and take away the hurts that cut us off from one another.  By God’s grace, we will one day live in the total peace of God, at peace with each other.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Jesus the Thief? ~ Luke 12:32-40 ~ Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost


Many of you I’ve told that my grandfather served the church as a lay minister.

When he was in his thirties, the old Pittsburgh Synod sent him to a tiny congregation in rural West Virginia that could not financially support its own pastor.

After worship one Sunday, he greeted a family that was quite discouraged that a brother and his family hadn’t been coming to church.  My grandfather asked if they would like him to visit, to which they quickly replied “no.”  “He’d probably run you off the farm,” they explained.

Yet my grandfather was up to the challenge.  I guess he figured a visit to a stranger’s farm couldn’t be any scarier than serving in the Army Air Corps during WW2.  So he drives to the family’s farm, and immediately he’s struck with how beautiful and well-maintained it is.  But before he even gets to the front door, a large man wearing overalls comes storming out the front door, with a double-barrel shotgun in hand. 

But my grandfather doesn’t go running away.  He gently introduces himself and explains why he’s come.  And wouldn’t you know it, but he visited the man and his family for nearly two hours—and they were in church the following Sunday…

But what if you were in the farmer’s shoes—and Jesus was your uninvited guest?  Would we receive him—or would we chase him away?

This question would be a no-brainer if the Bible precisely pinpointed the time and place of his coming—and if he showed up in a dazzling display of lights and music.  But that’s not reality.  Jesus comes as one we would not expect—at a time we would not expect… 

“You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour,” he says.

Jesus likens his coming to a thief who breaks into the master’s house and steals the master’s treasures when the master lets down his or her guard. 

Imagine that: Jesus the Thief…  And that’s not all: Jesus the Thief comes seeking treasure…  That treasure is your heart—and not just your heart, but you.  All of you.

But Jesus is not your typical thief who robs you blind.  Jesus claims you, and in exchange, he gives you the Kingdom of God; a treasure in heaven that’s completely safeguarded from the thieves and robbers that stalk this world.  And not because you’ve asked for it, or not because you deserve it, but because it is God’s good pleasure to give it to you as a gift…

The question is, do we see Jesus’ coming as the greatest gift of our lives, for which we’ll wait in joy?  OR, would we treat Jesus as a thief—a direct threat what our hearts treasure most? 

Trouble is, the kingdom comes to us as a promise.  We cannot yet dive fully into this treasure in heaven—but not so with the treasures of the here-and-now. 

Regardless of whatever your situation in life may be, we all have our treasure troves.  There are, of course, the treasures of possessions; the things we buy from the fruits of our labor, believing that they’ll fulfill our needs and make us happy.  There’s the treasures of time; a treasure demanded of us by so many others that sometimes we keep very little for ourselves (like money).  There’s the treasure we call freedom—to live life on our own terms. 

Jesus brings us the Kingdom of God as a promise—but do we trust that it’s a greater treasure? Do we trust his promise?  Because if we don’t, and we truly believe that the world’s treasures are the key to happiness, we’re going to chase Jesus away.

Furthermore, if there’s anything we’re keeping watch for, it’s for opportunities to have it all, know it all, and do it all:

·         To own the latest, greatest, fastest, fanciest stuff

·         To know what’s happening in our world, and know what’s going on in everyone else’s lives

·         To capture every thrill, every joy, and live the best of all possible lives.

It’s easy to miss Jesus’ coming if our fear is missing out on the best of what’s around. 

Jesus comes, like a thief to claim what is most precious to him—and that treasure is us.  He comes to give us a free gift that is eternally greater than any treasure we can ever have or hold—and that treasure is the Reign of God.  And does it surprise anyone that the one who comes as a thief would be crucified between two thieves?  Jesus’ love for us is a love like no other. 

Today, Jesus comes bringing the Kingdom of God.  The gift we receive comes as a promise.  It’s hard to trust that promise in light of the troubling realities of our time.  But we’re not without help—because Jesus has come into your life. 

Jesus gives you his Word so that you can know him in a personal relationship.  Jesus gives you his body and blood as a sign of the promise that your sins are forgiven and that you will live forever.  You can pray to him at any time, for any reason.  He will hear you, and he will take care of you. 

Living by faith is acting on the promises of God, trusting that they will all be fulfilled.  And the more and more you act on God’s promises, the more and more you’ll see the presence of Jesus in your life.  You will be surprised as he works in new and unexpected ways, to love you and care for you.  Your joy will come in the great gifts he gives you.  The treasures you once guarded so fiercely will come to be as nothing when compared to the all-surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus and doing his work. 

It is God’s good pleasure to give you God’s Kingdom.  There’s nothing to fear; nothing that God’s going to let us miss out on.  Let Jesus be your treasure.  Give alms; care for those in need; tell others of the treasures in heaven that God has in store for us all.  Trust him, serve him, wait for him, and watch—as God’s Kingdom dawns on our world.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A New Pursuit of Happiness ~ Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23 ~ Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Right in the middle of the Bible is a book whose name is probably one of the hardest to pronounce of all the biblical books.

Some call it the book of “Ecclesiastics.”  I’ve even heard it pronounced “eclastics” or “elastics…”

Yet the name of the book, Ecclesiastes, is derived from a Greek word meaning “teacher” or “preacher.”

And this book of the teacher has much to say about the life the teacher had lived…

Here was someone who had it all: all the wealth and possessions a person could ever want.  The teacher worked as hard as a person ever could; studying and amassing all knowledge and wisdom.  This was the greatest possible experience of life—but the teacher is not impressed…

“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” the teacher cries.  Having it all, knowing it all, and doing it all—wasn’t what it was cracked up to be.  There was no peace, no passion, no purpose—no happiness.  Apparently “the high life” was not the “good life…” was not to be found.

The teacher’s words were a blatant contradiction to the popular wisdom of the day.  If you had health, wealth, and prosperity, it was because God favored you;  if you didn’t, God was displeased with you. 

Has much really changed in 2,500 years? 

On the shelves of big-box stores, and all over the TV and radio, popular and powerful Christian voices continue to perpetuate this “wisdom” that health, wealth, and prosperity are signs of God’s favor.

What’s worse is how much our culture glamorizes fame and fortune.  There are reality TV shows, books, and magazines dedicated to the proposition that being rich and famous is the best possible life you.  On top of that, we see thousands of advertising messages every day, promising us the good life (provided that we can pay the price they demand). 

How easily we’re fooled into believing that we can live “the good life” with what we buy, what we know, what we do.  And then, when you have a bad day and you need a little relief, what do you do, but look for quick fixes, cheap thrills, and fleeting pleasures?  Indulge the worldly appetites?  To try and find a little bit of happiness, as quick as we can get it?

We may find some happiness—but even if we do, it never lasts.  So much of what we treasure in life is here today, and gone tomorrow…

The teacher’s lesson for us: life is meaningless, and therefore, our best hope is to enjoy ourselves whenever we can, however we can.

And while this may sound like the ultimate in despair, there’s good news in these words: God is present in our lives.  Even while we scramble around looking for happiness and spend every last bit of ourselves in pursuit of the world’s ideals of the good life, the Giver of Life is already with us.

Even as the world goes mad; as life spirals into chaos; and even when we suffer the loss of everything and everyone good in life, God’s presence is the one unchangeable truth.  The life we need each passing day, and even at the hour of our death, is found in Jesus Christ and him alone.  God is with us to bring us the peace and calm we need so desperately—we need only to go into our room, close the door, and pray.  We need only to feast on the Word of life here in this church, where we breathe in the presence of God in our worship and our fellowship.

It is God’s presence that brings peace and purpose to an otherwise meaningless life.  Amid all the changes and challenges of life, God is here—and God is up to something good.

Amid natural disasters, as terrorism and warfare ravage nations; as our economy teeters on the edge of collapse; as civilization becomes more uncivilized, God is here—and God is up to something good. 

So instead of looking for happiness in stuff: stuff to buy, stuff to know, and stuff to do; what if we just simply took care of each other?  What if we Christians made a daily commitment to serve our neighbors, even in the simplest of ways?  One person at a time; one minute; one dollar at a time…

Just think about that for a moment: one minute; one dollar.  Not much you can get for yourself with that dollar, outside of the dollar store.  But you can certainly give far more than you can get with that dollar: a dollar in a tip jar; a dollar to the homeless person begging in the street; a dollar in the Salvation Army kettle.  What if everybody did that?  Surely we would not be in the mess we’re all in…

We can’t keep up the futile rat race much longer, trying to have it all, know it all, and do it all…  We’ll only shipwreck ourselves while trying to make our proverbial ship come in…  Thankfully, God has given us another way: we invest ourselves in God, the giver of life—and we invest ourselves in our neighbors, the people through whom we give and receive God’s love.  Faith, hope, and love will never fail us.