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Sermon - "Stewardship Sunday?"
Our Lord, open our ears to hear what you have spoken to us. Give us hearts to believe you and rest in your promises, in the name of ┼ the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There's a dynamic that emerges in the life of a Christian. We see that we are in a master-servant relationship. And unlike what we might sometimes wish, unlike what our hopes and dreams probably are, we are the servants. I know we would all like to be kings and queens, important people, the kind of people who can demand honor and respect, the kind of people who get their own way. And we easily forget that being a person of importance often means you don't get your own way. Yet we as Christians don't necessarily have that burden. We're on the other end of the relationship.
In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul introduces the idea that the apostles are stewards. I wonder if we remember what a steward is? Often we're told about "stewardship" and given the idea that it involves saving our money. We may have seen situations, there may even have been such situations here, where there is a "Stewardship Sunday." That's typically a day when a church says how much money it needs for the budget then tries to get the congregation to pledge support. I've seen it turn into a kind of emotional gut-wrenching scene where the totals pledged are added up publicly and the service isn't dismissed because the church hasn't met budget. What kind of faith do we have, after all? How are we going to reach our world for Jesus if we won't even open our bank accounts for his use? Don't we trust God to provide our needs?
That isn't stewardship. That's wheedling. That's urging people to trust in the atmosphere of the moment rather than in the God who has given them wisdom to use resources wisely and aggressively. Did I say "aggressively?" Yes, I did. Sometimes we're taught wise stewardship means earning all the money we can and putting as much of it aside for the future as possible. Now there's some wisdom in that. There are times I wish I did it better. But that can turn into a miserly attitude very quickly. It's easy to start trying to accomplish something with nothing, not because you have nothing, but because you don't want to use anything.
Yet money isn't all there is to stewardship. A steward is someone who takes care of affairs for his master. He generally runs the household, the associated properties, the businesses of a wealthy landowner. This is how Paul says the apostles see themselves. So what do we know about stewards?
The responsibility of a steward is limited. It may be great responsibility. Yet it is limited. The steward is not the master. He has authority only as it has been given to him by the master. The apostles also know their responsibilities are limited. Some people will use an illustration of two circles to picture this. I'd like you to imagine with me a big circle. You might even want to draw it in your bulletin. This big circle is the circle of concern. In the circle you can put all the things you're concerned about. And there are a lot of issues which belong in that circle. You may be concerned about the economy in the Middle East. You might be concerned about the safety of people in the new country of Southern Sudan. You might be concerned about whether it will rain or snow this afternoon. You might be concerned about how you are going to do with a project at work, or about the outcome of your next attempt at baking a pie. There are all sorts of things to be concerned about, both big and small. You'll never have trouble putting enough things into that circle of concern.
Now, draw a smaller circle inside the circle of concern. This is your circle of responsibility. I guess some of us find out that our circle of responsibility goes outside of our circle of concern, but that's a different problem. What fits into your circle of responsibility? How about tomorrow's weather? No, that doesn't go there. How about whether you have ice melting salt to deal with tomorrow's weather? Yes, that goes there. What about the price of food in a war-torn country? No, you probably can't do anything about that. You're concerned but you are not responsible for it. What about how you choose to use money which could go to feed hungry people? Yes, that's yours to deal with.
We're concerned about a lot of things. We're responsible for only some of those things. That's our area of stewardship. God has not given us stewardship over everything. Only over some things. Yet we can look at his mercy and grace and see that our Lord and Savior has taken on the responsibility for all things, whether they are in our circle of responsibility, our circle of concern, or outside of our concern. He, in fact, lovingly cares for them all, putting some of those cares and the stewardship of them into our hands.
So the apostles are stewards of God's mysteries. We see also that the apostles see and hear all manner of issues. Yet they leave God to judge. Remember? They are stewards. It is God who judges, and who will judge righteously. Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who came to earth to reveal God's mysterious salvation to us, died for our sins and rose again from the dead in part to show us he is in fact the Lord who is able to overcome the world. So what do the apostles do when they see and hear all things? They do not judge. They leave it to God to judge. And our Lord has made judgment. He divides righteousness and unrighteousness. He divides truth and error. He divides between sin and salvation. He hears and judges rightly. We are the stewards. He is the Lord who is responsible for everything. Again, we see the circles of concern and responsibility. He has given some things to us, but not all.
So how are the apostles viewed in their stewardship? Paul's statements here to the Corinthians seem stunning, almost biting. The apostles are held in dishonor due to their humility. They have considered themselves as lowly servants of their Lord. Then the people who hear them also consider them as lowly servants.
It's all right to be lowly. It's a noble thing to be the steward. It's a good thing to be the servant of all. Jesus came to be the servant of all. A steward might not look like much. At times his work seems demeaning. Yet how important is that steward to the rich man? When the master has a document which needs care, he gives it to the steward. When he needs to be sure his will is done in a business transaction, he tells the steward what to do. When he needs to gather money, account for money, or spend money, there is the steward. The steward may be a servant, but he may also be the one who prepares and safeguards food and drink, health, and life for the master. It's been said that the king's barber is the most powerful man in the kingdom, every time the king needs a shave.
The apostles are stewards of God's mysteries. And God has given his mysteries, at least some of them, to each one of us. May he make us faithful to do his will, to look to him in faith, and to delight in the good of the works of his hand, even as he performs those works in and through us, bringing us his blessing and using us to bless others.
Lord, have mercy on us. In the name of ┼ the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon - "How Holy?"
Lord, grant us your wisdom, that we may see your glory and be conformed into your image, in the name of ┼ the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Be holy! Be perfect! Build with the right building materials! Show yourself approved! God pours out his commands on us, over and over again telling us to attain to his perfection. Years ago, when I was involved in a very conservative Protestant denomination, I lived on a steady diet of these commands. We were taught to do all sorts of things, good things, things which are pleasing to God. Yet we were taught to do these good works, works like prayer, fasting, meditation on Scripture, evangelizing, and teaching, not simply because they are good and pleasing to God, but because they served, in some way, as a measure of our spirituality. Are you someone the Lord is blessing? Then you'd better be having that "quiet time" in prayer, the first good hour of the morning, praying for all the missionaries you can think of and for all the unbelievers you know, specifically. Didn't the Holy Spirit wake you during the night by laying a burden on your heart for Sister so-and-so? Maybe the Lord isn't working in you so much right now then. And it goes on and on. It seems that in our current culture either we are told that we prove our righteousness by the works we are doing or the supernatural signs we receive, or else we are in that portion of Christianity that says God doesn't actually care what we do, that he issues the Ten Suggestions which are good guidelines for what he'd enjoy.
We don't have permission from God to go either of those directions. He has made his demands very clear. Be holy. Be perfect. Build rightly. Your failure will be obvious to all one day, and your failure will cause harm. Our Lord demands nothing less than perfection. Only that which is perfectly holy can stand in the last day. Without perfection, the world is doomed to destruction. In the beginning it was all created perfectly. God proclaimed the world "very good" and he expects and demands nothing less.
We who are recipients of God's commands are aware of our Lord's holiness. We are aware of his perfection. We know that he himself is the perfectly holy one who will not allow that which is impure in any way to stand in his presence. Our Lord is a consuming fire. He will come in the last day in judgment. He will reveal our building materials and their nature by fire, testing our work. This is a serious judgment. Just as we confess that we are sinners, just as we realize that we have failed to do some of the good our Lord demands, just as we realize that we have done what is wrong in the sight of the Lord, and that we have done it on purpose, we realize, deep down, that we also deserve God's condemnation.
What hope is there, then? We have much hope in every way. Consider the fondation on which we build, the foundation of Jesus Christ. He himself is the ground of our faith. Jesus Christ, God the Son, is the one upon whom we build. In fact, as the Scripture portrays us as living stones in God's temple, we can say that Jesus is the one upon whom we are built, set up together, as God ordains it. Jesus is the foundation. Because he is rock-solid and secure, we are also secure. Because Jesus has given his life to pay the penalty for our sin, we live in him. Because our Lord has risen from the dead, we who have died to ourselves have been recreated in him, living anew. We live to Christ. Because our Lord has given us his name when we were baptized in the name of ┼ the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we are partakers of his nature. And as we pray, "hallowed be thy name," we are praying not only that God's name will be exalted, but that it will be exalted in us, who are partakers of his name. We have much hope in every way, for we have been transformed into the image of God by faith in Jesus Christ. We have become partakers of his divine nature. Look around the room for a moment. Do you see what our Lord sees? God looks upon his people and he sees people who are chosen in him, who are partakers of his nature. God the Father looks at you and sees God the Son.
How does our Lord work out his holiness in and through us? How does he carry out this perfection in our world? There's that sermon title poking out. "How holy?" So we are not asking "holy to what extent" because we already know that. We are called to perfect holiness, and our Lord has provided that because we couldn't provide it ourselves. But we're asking "how" meaning "in what way."
As we read in Leviticus, God shows his holiness through his people in the way they act toward their neighbors. You see that God provides for the poor and needy through you. You see that God uses your integrity to protect your neighbor's assets and good reputation. You see that God uses you to keep people safe from harm. You see that God uses you to show kindness. He shows his holiness by using us to fulfill his command, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19.18b, ESV).
So is this the end of the story? Because we are created anew in Christ we look in the Bible and see what God's commands are and we then do them? Do we keep our justification in this way? Not at all. The Bible paints a picture of our relationship with God which is dynamic. It's living. Our life of service to our neighbor as God's hand extended changes day by day and moment by moment.
Our Lord gives us a will to do good. We who have been created in Christ have been chosen in him for good works. Our Lord has placed in us a desire for the good of those around us. We are God's instrument, doing what Jesus did, which is for the good of our neighbor.
Our Lord tells us in his Word what is his good will. He tells us what is right and wrong. And he is quite definite about right and wrong. It isn't our choice. We don't have to come up with the principles. God has revealed to us what is good and what we ought to be doing. Some examples were here in Leviticus today. And we see others all over the Bible.
Our Lord corrects us in our sin. He tells us what is good. That ought to be adequate, right? If we are busy doing what is pleasing to God and living a life of humble and obedient thanksgiving we probably won't have time or energy to depart from God's perfect will. Yet God also tells us what is displeasing to him. Again, we don't have to look too far into Scripture to see the attitudes and actions that fail to hallow God's name. So God gives us a will to do good, tells us what is good, and corrects us in our sin.
Then our Lord forgives us and confirms us in righteousness. Did you ever think of how useful correction without forgiveness or affirmation is? Not to compare believers to dogs, but I think there's some similarity. When training a dog, what does the wise owner do? He affirms every good behavior and every attempt at obedience. Then what happens when the dog misbehaves? The sharp, "NO," the glare, the stern attitude are all effective. If all the dog knows is correction and rebuke the dog will never know how to bring delight to the owner. If the dog knows forgiveness and confirmation the dog will learn to be pleasing. Likewise, when we repent, we are forgiven. We know the forgiveness is real because God's Word says it is real. We know Christ died to bring us healing and life because he told us what he would do, then he did it. We know he is nourishing us as partakers of his name because we are reminded of it all the time, not the least as we are partakers of his body and blood in communion.
How does God show his holiness then? He gives us a will to do good, he tells us what is good, he corrects us in our sin, he forgives and confirms us, and he uses us as his hand of mercy. We who believe are in fact reaching to our world as Jesus himself reaches to the world through us. We show God's mercy to those around us. We bring words of comfort. We act in ways of comfort. Have I seen believers helping one another to stand and walk to receive communion? Have I seen believers assisting one another in receiving blessing from God? Could I expect to see you sharing God's grace, peace, and mercy with one another and with your neighbors? "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." And our Lord closes his command with a reason in Leviticus 19.18. "I am the Lord."
Let us stand to pray.
Our Lord, you have loved us. You have placed your name upon us. And as we ask that your name should be hallowed, we confess that we have acted in ways that bring shame upon you rather than honor. Forgive us our sin. make us to walk in your paths. And as we see that you are the Lord indeed, may we have your grace to love our neighbors. Reach out to our world through us as you live in us and love our neighbors. We pray this in the name of ┼ the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon - "Yes or No"
Our Lord, grant us ears to hear and a heart to believe, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Bible is full of distinctions. Our world reflects this too. We can look at the world of work, where one person is hired, another isn't. One person gets a bigger pay raise than another. Not everyone is promoted at the same rate. Not everyone has the same job. And this is good and right. Or we look at the world of education. For the past fifty years we've been teaching children that it's good to be non-competitive. Everyone gets to play, we'll try to avoid having winners and losers. That is, until we start playing football or basketball. Or until we start looking at college admissions and scholarships. Then everyone wants to be the best. In fact, from what I hear as a teacher, every one of my students is the best, all of them are deserving of top marks in every area, each one is a top student and should get into the most prestigious college with a full scholarship, and if the student is not at the top of the class there must be something wrong with the way I am teaching him. Hmmm.
Our world is full of distinctions. And here, in Matthew 5, we see some very stark distinctions. Not everyone is the same. Our actions and the attitudes that underlie them do matter.
Before we dig into this text, I'd like to address a misconception about the Sermon on the Mount, this passage from Matthew 5-7, very briefly. Especially in the late 1800s and the early part of the last century, Bible scholars had a tendency to look at Matthew 5-7 and say it was a restatement and reinforcement of the Ten Commandments. We can look at today's passage, Matthew 5.21-37, and see it has a passing similarity to a commentary on God's commands about murder, adultery, and bearing false witness. But the overall passage talks about concepts that are not addressed specifically in the Ten Commandments. It also is missing some of the Commandments. Jesus does not seem to be restating the Ten Commandments here. He has some other purpose in mind, namely showing that he is the Lord of the Commandments, the one who will show how deadly sin is, and how in fact he is the one life-giving God. So the purpose of this passage is a little different from a re-statement of the Commandments.
We first see Jesus' proclamation of the value of life. It was a well-established fact that God's people were to value life. But in verse 22 Jesus increases the stakes. Can we be guilty of murder without laying a hand on anyone? Jesus says we can. Through our insults, through our slanderous speech, we may render ourselves guilty in the same way we would be guilty of murder. We're all familiar, I trust, with the passage in Matthew 18, where Jesus tells us to go to our brother who has sinned against us and ask him to repent and be reconciled with us. But sometimes we forget this passage, Matthew 5.23-24. If we realize someone might have something against us, going and being reconciled is more important than trying to make our gift at God's altar, the thing God has commanded most strictly. We are considered outcasts from God's people if we are not striving to be at peace with our brothers.
This is the passage that led to the rise of the "pax Domini," the asking of the peace of the Lord, in our divine service. It's right before the service of communion for a reason. Unfortunately, many people have misunderstood that practice, and misunderstood it so seriously that, after discussion with the leaders of the church, I chose to leave part of it out. You may have noticed it. We'll have to consider whether we can bring it back next week and try it or not.
Wishing the peace of the Lord is not the same as welcoming someone. It is not the same as a quick fellowship break. We have a time for shaking hands, checking up on people, and whatnot. It's called the time before the start of the prelude or after the end of the postlude. That isn't part of the divine service.
Asking the peace of the Lord is more than that. When Jesus sent his seventy disciples out to heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom of God, they were to ask God's peace upon the household where they would stay. If it was not a worthy household, God's peace would rest on the disciples but not on the household. This is a picture of what we call performative speech. When we turn to one another and ask God's peace, we are seeking reconciliation and healing of relationships. We are granting our neighbor the gift of God. We bless those who curse us, and we pray for them. Can you imagine what the Lord will do in our midst as we believe that the divine service is a time of forgiveness and healing? Can you imagine the blessing you are asking on your neighbor when you pray God's peace on him as he prepares to take the Sacrament? It isn't a "let's be happy, welcome one another, shake hands, and make friendly" time. It's a, "may the Lord watch over you and grant that you should be reconciled with me and with all the other people who have sinned against you" time. Wow.
This is a hard thing. But our Lord has said we are to make peace with our brothers. It is more important than bringing our offerings. What's the promise? Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has seen our state. He died for us while we were yet sinners, while we were haters of God, while we were at enmity against God. He left his gift, he came to us, and he was willingly rejected and despised by men.
Very quickly now, we have eleven more verses to look at. What about Jesus' teaching about adultery? He says it isn't merely physical. He says it starts before there's even physical opportunity. He says the covetous attitude is every bit as important as any action we can perpetrate. He says it condemns us to hell. Why is adultery so important in God's eye? For many reasons, but probably most of all because the Scripture paints God's people as his bride, his dearly beloved one whose very best fortune is to be faithful to him. Adultery, apostasy, departure from the faith, they are all painted as one thing in Scripture. Again, what did Jesus come for? He came to rescue us from sin, to bring us into a true and faithful relationship with the Father, to purify us as the bride of Christ. We are to flee adultery. And as we are claimed in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we would never wish to do something that would drive others into such a situation. We banish it from our lives. Are we successful? No. So again we see we need a savior, one calling us to repentance, and one granting us repentance to faith and everlasting life.
What about the oaths, the swearing falsely from verses 33-37? Let God be true. Our promise, the oath we can swear, this pledges ourselves to do something, often offering a pledge we are not able to provide. See how the examples of oaths Jesus gives all seem to offer security which is something we cannot offer? Rather, we simply make our promise. We say yes or we say no. We know there's a distinction. We may be able to accomplish what we try. But we may not. We're back to those distinctions again, aren't we? And those distinctions, that "yes" or "no" is what works in all our lives. We see God holding out before us life and death, good and evil, blessing and cursing, the distinction between a spiritual and a carnal life, the difference between God's commands and our attitudes, the difference between the power of God's work and the ability we have to work.
In the end, this Christian life is all about what Jesus has done. He is the one who has made reconciliation. He is the one who claims us as his pure bride. He is the one who makes promises and can guarantee that he will keep them. He is the mighty one of Israel. He is the one who has given himself for his people.
Let us rise to pray together.
Our Lord, you are the fulfiller of all your commands, and you have fulfilled them on our behalf, in our stead. By placing your name upon us you have claimed all your righteousness for us. Turn our hearts that we may live and walk in the righteousness you have placed upon us, rejoicing in your presence with us, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon: "It's God's not Mine" 1 Corinthians 2.1-12
May we see Your glory and Your priorities rightly. May we be conformed to your image by Your mighty power, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We take joy in our personal possessions and in our creations, don't we? I remember my wife starting to learn to sew. She was so very pleased to be able to say that she made something herself. And we can do a lot of things that we take some pride, probably a positive kind of pride in. I remember when I made a bookcase unit that exactly fit one entire wall of our home. It worked neatly around the window in our master bedroom. It even had one shelf that was extra deep right at the side of our bed so I would have a nightstand built in. Everyone liked it and I enjoyed the fact that people liked it. How about a parent's knowledge of and pleasure in a child? We're rightly proud of our children's accomplishments and the positive fruit we see in their lives. And we know them in some ways better than they know themselves. Certainly we know them better than any stranger would know them. We know what makes our children tick.
How well does our Lord know this world he has created? He has complete, intimate knowledge of it. He knows what is right and wrong. He knows what is good and productive. He knows what makes it tick. And he takes pleasure in that knowledge, in that understanding of his creation. He takes pleasure in what is good for this world. God, in fact, knows how life and salvation work. And he defends it, nurtures it, rejoices in it.
So why is it that we seem to think it would be a good idea to be God for the day? I've recently been reviewing Luther's Small Catechism on the 1st Commandment. What's the first commandment? (wait for response) What does this mean? (wait for response) We should fear, love and trust in God above all things. This means that we let God have his say. We let him govern this world that he created, understands, and redeemed. We take God's attitudes seriously. We ask him to conform us to his image, rather than trying to conform him to our image.
Here are just a few of the differences I noticed between God's attitudes and our attitudes in today's readings.
God says that all sin is deadly. We would rather characterize sin as just a mistake, normally not important.
God says that our works need to be entirely consistent. We do things and say we really didn't mean it. We might think we could worship an idol or do some other act that denies God but not mean it.
Our Lord indicates that true worship releases us from bondage. It's about God and his activity. We tend to think that worship is really about us and the way we feel.
God pictures himself as truly involved in this world and all its affairs. We quite frankly think that we don't want to bother God with the details of our lives, our fears, our hurts.
In Matthew 5 we see that God views his Law as perfect. We'd rather think that God is suggesting things or giving advice.
Our Lord pictures a world in which we are truly bound, obligated, to obey God. We tend to think obedience is merely good, genuinely optional.
And as we get to 1 Corinthians 2, we see that the Gospel is simple. Paul pictures the Gospel of Christ as something that can be understood by anyone. We have a tendency to think that good teaching is a difficult thing, that most people really won't understand anything that is important, at least not if we try to explain it clearly and in detail. I don't know where we get this idea. After all, if you tell someone about something clearly and in detail, the person really should be expected to understand, right?
We see that Christ crucified for sin actually changes us. This is the Gospel that Paul is talking about. It's good news. Jesus Christ, given for our sin, really does take away our sin and change us. However, we seem to think that Jesus is just here as an object lesson, that we merely learn from Jesus' good attitude and love.
The message of Paul in 1 Corinthians 2 is that God's wisdom never changes. The same Gospel which has been operative since the foundation of the world is still in effect, it is still God's power. We seem to think we need to come up with good new things, and that whatever is old must be ineffective.
The message of the Scripture is about a God who reveals himself, who has revealed himself in these last days in the person and work of Jesus Christ, crucified for sinners, dead, buried, resurrected, and ascended, who will come again. Salvation begins and ends with the work of Christ. Our message sems to be that we are the mediators of our life and salvation, that we reach up to God and prove our worthiness to him.
When Paul came to Corinth he made a point to stick to the message, God's message, Christ crucified for sinners. This is the Gospel we look to as well. We look to the Gospel shown here and now in bread and wine, body and blood. We look to Christ's death applied to our account, bringing us life and salvation.
May the Lord ever confront us with his Gospel, Christ crucified for sinners, God's sufficient answer to our sin. Let us pray.
Our God, we thank you that you have given us your Gospel. We thank you that you have revealed your love for your people in these last days by providing for life and salvation, giving your Son to take our place in death for sin. Draw us to you in faith, believing that you are indeed the one who redeems the world to yourself. This we ask through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.