Monday, October 14, 2019

"...this world's walls no longer stay my eyes"

I love this poem from Malcolm Guite's soon to be published new cycle of poems.

I'm especially fond of several lines.

First, this one: "Then this world’s walls no longer stay my eyes..."

When heaven invades my world in Christ, previous limitations on my vision begin to dissolve. I see beyond my stunted world to catch glimpses of the eternal, of God, of other people made in God's image, as in need of love, grace, and mercy as me, of who I am by God's grace given in Christ. To use the words of another poet-musician, Bruce Cockburn (see below), Christ, not us, as Cockburn has it, kicks at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.

And then these lines:

"I see his tree, with blossom on its bough,
And nothing can be ordinary now"

Beautiful! I look on the One we crucified and pierced by our sin and see in it the way to a new life, blossoming, exploding with eternal possibilities. How after seeing that, can anything ever be ordinary again? If life can spring from so undeserved a death, God can bring undeserved new life to even me.

Holy Spirit, Scream Into My Heart!

I’m a bit behind on the Bible readings for my daily quiet time with God. I haven’t been keeping up with the assigned readings of the ‘5 by 5 Bible Reading Plan’ produced by Navigators. So, since today and tomorrow are appointed as days for reflection, with no assigned readings, I’ve decided to read two chapters, rather than the usual one, for today. This was important to me because I didn’t want to miss out on reading 1 Peter, one of the important and often overlooked gems among the books of the Bible. That’s wonderful because God showed me something I hadn’t really noticed before in the first two chapters of this book!

Look: “...Now that by your obedience to the truth you have purified yourselves and have come to have a sincere love for other believers, love one another earnestly with all your heart. For through the living and eternal word of God you have been born again as the children of a parent who is immortal, not mortal.” (1 Peter 1:22-23, Good News Translation)

The apostle Peter wrote the letter we call 1 Peter to the largely Gentile churches in Asia Minor, an area we now call Turkey. The churches there were facing some kind of rejection, although recent scholarship tends to think it was more like what we face in the United States: marginalization, not overt persecution.

Peter’s basic message in the letter is, “Hang in there, Christians! By your faith in Jesus, you are reposing your trust in God the Father, and no matter what happens to you, you belong to God and can be God’s credible spokespeople for the good news of new life through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus as you remain faithful to Him.”

In the two verses of 1 Peter, chapter 1, cited here, Peter says, first of all: “Now that by your obedience to the truth you have purified yourselves…”

Peter isn’t here talking about some moral or ritual law that the first-century Christians obeyed to be purified. The “truth” to which he refers is mentioned in 1 Peter 1:21: “Through [Jesus] you believe in God, who raised him from death and gave him glory; and so your faith and hope are fixed on God.”

The Christians of Asia Minor, Peter is saying, were purged of sin and its consequences--death, darkness, futility--by their faith in Jesus. To have faith in Jesus is to obey God. It’s also to know God and to have life with God. Jesus says, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:29, New International Version)

The obedience of faith in Christ ushers into the eternal presence of God. Why? Because, “The Son is the image of the invisible him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him...He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17, New International Version) Jesus explains things more succinctly in John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one goes to the Father except by me.” (New International Version)

(Peter, himself a Jew, points out elsewhere in chapter 1, that Jesus is precisely who the Old Testament prophets had been looking for.)

To have faith in Jesus will cause people to love the Church, Peter says in the next line of the verses above: “...have come to have a sincere love for other believers, love one another earnestly with all your heart.” Believers in Christ--the Church--are called to love one another because we are all sinners saved by grace through faith in Jesus. We have experienced the same love of God and are called to live it out together.

When the world marginalizes us or deems the gospel (the good news) too good to be true, or impractical, or difficult to accept, we encourage one another.

When our own faith is flagging or we fall into sin, the Church is there to call us to repentance and new life through Jesus.

Besides all that and most importantly maybe, the Church is Christ’s body in the world. To be contemptuous of the Church is to be contemptuous of God Himself. Colossians 1:18: ‘[Christ] is the head of the body, the church…”

But, if we’re tempted to think that all this obedience and faith and love he commends in these verses are our achievements, Peter reminds us of the truth: “For through the living and eternal word of God you have been born again as the children of a parent who is immortal, not mortal.”

I am given new life--born again--not when I decide to be obedient, faithful, and loving. If I could decide to be obedient, faithful, or loving, Jesus would not have needed to die on the cross.

But Jesus did need to die on the cross because I’m a big fat clump of sinful and unredeemed and dead humanity without Him. The “eternal word of God,” the word about Jesus to be found in the Law and the Prophets in the Old Testament, the gospels in the New Testament, and all the rest of the Bible, is spoken to me, in words and in the sacraments (Holy Baptism and Holy Communion) and, by the power of the Holy Spirit Who composes the Word and makes it possible for others to speak it to us--whether in simple conversation, the reading of the Word, the preaching of the Word, the imposition on us of water enlivened by God’s Word, bread and wine made to also be the body and blood of Jesus by this same Word, or by other means--brings us to never-ending life with God. By this Word, I am made the child of an immortal parent, the God revealed to all people in Jesus!

Listen: Peter’s words tell me that the main business I need to attend to in my daily life, whatever I’m doing and whether what I’m doing is deemed by the world to be “holy” or “churchy” or not, is to keep coming back to God’s Word.

When I turn to God’s Word, to Jesus, God the Holy Spirit rolls up His sleeves and goes to work on me. He pries open my will and lets Jesus live in there to change me from the inside out--often little by little and with frequent setbacks and near evictions of the Savior because I’m a great sinner who, despite all of God’s love, still want my way when it comes to...everything.

But the Word is powerful. “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) God’s Word does what it sets out to do: “My word is like the snow and the rain that come down from the sky to water the earth. They make the crops grow and provide seed for planting and food to eat. So also will be the word that I speak—it will not fail to do what I plan for it; it will do everything I send it to do.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)

And the truth is that Jesus, God the Son, is the Word that was spoken to primordial chaos to bring life into being (Genesis 1-2).

This is how the apostle John identifies Jesus:, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made...And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth...from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.” (John 1:1-3, 14, 16-18)

The incessant, consistent, unwavering, tenacious, loving, powerful Word of God in Jesus comes to us as it once did to the chaos on the first day of creation and creates us anew.

That happens every time His Word comes to me. He creates within me faith, obedience, and love. When I, weak, finite, mortal, and sinful, hear this Word again, I am born again, just as I was at my Baptism, all over again.

It’s all Jesus, not me. Thank God!

Respond: Today Father, as I face challenges, doubts, decisions, joys, temptations, or marginalization, when I’m tempted to give my opinion rather than speaking Your Word, or live out of my purported wisdom rather than Your truth,  cause the Holy Spirit to scream into my heart, “Turn to Christ! Turn to Christ! Turn to the saving Word!” In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Ten Healed, One Saved

[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio on Sunday, October 13.]

Luke 17:11-19
Our gospel lesson for this morning, Luke 17:11-19, is particularly well-known among Lutheran Christians, I think because it often serves as the text for our Thanksgiving celebrations.

The lesson does talk about being thankful.

But if we come away from this passage thinking that if we’re thankful, Christ will save us from sin and death, we completely miss the point

Such an interpretation would turn Jesus into a lawgiver who demands that we earn salvation. 

But, good Lutherans that we are, we know that we cannot be saved and will not be saved by anything that we do. Nor can we be made holy by anything that we do. 

To those tempted to think that we can be saved by works, the Scripture speaks clearly. 

Romans 3:21-22, for example: "But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” 

Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

If we could be saved from sin, death, and futility by good things that we do or by the attitudes we adop, Jesus wouldn’t have needed to go to the cross to offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins

And we would have no need of the Word that makes it possible for us to trust in Him or to be claimed by Him in Holy Baptism, where the Word of Jesus meets the water, or to receive Him in Holy Communion, where that Word meets the bread and the wine to yield the body and blood of Jesus Himself. 

Christ has done everything needed to save you and me from sin and death in His own death and resurrection

Then the Holy Spirit, preaching the Word about Christ to us in the Word and in the Sacraments, brings us the gift of faith, the capacity to believe that Christ did this even for you and me

This is how we are saved and how we are set apart to grow as people of God: by God’s grace through a faith in Christ constructed within us by the Holy Spirit. 

Listen: God doesn’t need our thanks

God doesn’t need our faith in Christ

But when we have been saved by grace through faith in Christ, we will be thankful

Thankfulness to God will be present in those who have been saved from sin and death, saved to live with God for all eternity.

I remember seeing this movingly exemplified in a man at a funeral visitation years ago. I watched him as he showed particular empathy to a young widow whose husband had died suddenly and tragically. Later, this man and I talked. He himself was a widower who had lost his wife about ten years earlier. He had been a devoted husband and her death had devastated him. But he had the hope of the gospel. I remember him telling me, “Pastor, every night before I go to bed, I kneel down on my bedroom floor and I thank God that He loves me and saves me even though I’m a sinner.” 

This man wasn’t trying to earn brownie points with God (or me). He wasn't abasing himself and serving up a fake humble pie. His words were the expressions of a man in whom God’s great grace given in Christ had created a great faith in Christ that resulted in great thankfulness to Christ.

We see this very phenomenon happen in a seemingly unlikely person in today’s gospel lesson. Take a look at it, please. Verse 11: “Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’”

In those days, you know, lepers were forced to move away from their families and communities for fear that others might be afflicted with the same often disfiguring skin condition. They lived in colonies on the edges of towns, dependent on people who, from a distance, might bring them food or other necessities. This particular colony of ten included both Jesus’ countrymen and at least one Samaritan. Samaritans were, as you know, often hated and disdained by Jesus’ fellow Jews. But when people go through common horrors, the petty prejudices we stoke when we don’t feel vulnerable often evaporate. I have often seen bigoted people with loved ones hovering on the point of death in hospital ICUs bond with the families of other ICU patients despite differences in their colors or religions that would have, under different circumstances, have had nothing to do with each other. When life knocks you down and reacquaints us with the fact that we are not invincible, it’s easier for us to see that we are all human beings made in God’s image. So, it was with these lepers all desperate for Jesus’ help.

Verse 14: “When [Jesus] saw them, he said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed.” Jewish ritual and civil law required that a priest had to certify that a leprous person had been cured before she or he could resume their normal lives or be in worship at the temple or the local synagogue. That’s behind Jesus’ directive to the men.

But more to the point of today’s gospel lesson, we should ask ourselves, “What exactly did the lepers do to deserve to be healed?” 

We might all ask: “What did I do, what could I do to be saved from sin, death, and darkness?” 

I could ask myself a similar question: “What did I do that God spared me from a heart attack that should have killed me?” 

The answer to these questions and others like them that we might ask is the same: NOTHING! 

There is nothing that we can do to earn God’s grace, His undeserved favor, or any of His blessings

As the ten lepers should have learned that day on the frontier between Galilee and Samaria, the blessings God gives through Jesus are not deserved and cannot be earned.

Ten lepers were cleansed--or healed--that day. But only one of them, it seems, came to believe in Jesus as God the Son, the One and the only One we need for salvation from our sins and life with God that starts now and goes on in perfection beyond the grave. Nine seemed to view their return to normalcy as only their just due, taking good health as something God or the universe owed them, even though this is a fallen world in which ill-health or tragedy or difficulty can strike any person at any time. But one man had a different perspective.

Verse 15: “One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’”

Those last words of Jesus in this passage are the key to understanding the whole thing

Jesus tells the Samaritan first, “Rise…” Here, in the original Greek in which Luke and the other New Testament writers composed their works, Jesus tells the man, “Ἀναστὰς…” This is a variation on a noun commonly used in the New Testament, anastasis. It often means resurrection. Jesus is telling the thankful Samaritan more than to rise up from the ground. “Rise,” Jesus is telling him, “from sin and death and futility. Rise!” And then Jesus says, “go,” go about your new life.

Now comes the absolutely most important thing Jesus says in this whole passage: “your faith has made you well.” 

Now, we may think, “Weren’t the other nine made well too?” 

No, they were only purged of their leprosy. 

The word Jesus uses of the end to all ten men’s leprosy is ἐκαθαρίσθησαν, meaning they were made clean. But when Jesus tells the grateful Samaritan man “your faith has made you well,” He actually says, “Your faith has saved you.” The word our translation renders as made you well is sozo, which means save

Friends, you can bet your whole life on this fundamental truth: WHETHER YOU ARE IN GOOD HEALTH OR BAD, WHETHER YOU LIVE OR DIE, YOUR FAITH IN CHRIST SAVES YOU!

Ten of the lepers were healed, but only one of them was saved. 

Ten received grace; one had faith. 

Ten heard the saving Word of God in Christ; one believed. 

Ten had the kingdom of God come to them; only one entered that kingdom. 

The thankful Samaritan wasn’t saved because he was thankful; he was thankful because Christ had saved him by giving him the gift of faith. He came to faith in Christ the same way we come to faith in Christ: His Word comes to us and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we believe!

Thankfulness is a hallmark of all disciples of Jesus. The Samaritan was so overwhelmed by God’s grace and goodness that not giving praise to God and falling at Jesus’ feet would have been unthinkable to him. 

Is it that way for us? I know that it isn't always for me.

In speaking of Psalm 147:12, which directs God’s people to “Extol the Lord...praise your God,” Martin Luther observed, “We have to be yelled at before we start praising the Lord. Even animals don’t live that shamefully! Pigs recognize the person who gives them their food. They’ll run after her and cry to her. But the world doesn’t even recognize God, let alone thank and praise him…”

It was based on these words of Luther that we used to tell our kids that the reason we prayed at mealtimes was so that we wouldn't be less than pigs. One day when our kids were about seven and four, we were out at some restaurant. The server brought us our food and Ann and I set out, as you do with younger kids, to cut up their portions and just get them generally ready to eat. Then we dove in. At that point, Philip, the older of the two realized we hadn't prayed and said, "We're pigs!"
When the Word of God came to the leprous Samaritan, he was desperate enough, helpless enough, and vulnerable enough, that when God’s undeserved grace came to him through Jesus, he proved to be precisely the kind of good soil that Jesus says elsewhere is needed for the seed of faith to take root and grow

The gift of faith in Christ made him thankful for being healed and that faith made him well; it saved him. 

May we always be desperate enough, helpless enough, and vulnerable enough for faith to take root in us, to grow in us, to make us eternally well, right with God. 

And may we always be thankful. Amen

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Wednesday, October 09, 2019


[This was shared this past Sunday during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Luke 17:1-10

The whole idea of humility, of being humble, is taking a beating these days. 

Snapchat and Instagram are full-up with selfies. 

We revere athletes, actors, and politicians who arrogantly look down their noses on the rest of the world. 

We celebrate and retweet the posts of those who specialize in unkindness and vindictiveness. 

And every day, you and I are tempted whenever we go shopping to judge and deem ourselves superior to those we see along the aisles and at the checkout.

Of course, our penchant for arrogance goes back to the garden of Eden. There, the serpent tempted the first human beings with the idea that, if they broke free from God, their loving Creator, they could create their own life apart from God: they could be their own gods. 

We’ve been mesmerized by this fiction ever since, inflicting a world of hurt on each other and on ourselves. 

All wars, 

every instance of child and spouse abuse, 

all the feuds between families and among families, 

all the prejudice and discrimination, petty egotism, snobbery, and gossip, 

every case of murder, thievery, adultery, covetousness, not to mention every time human beings bow down to false idols they think they can control by their sacrifices or piety or good works, 

every time we think that our race, ethnicity, nationality, or financial condition makes us better than others, 

every time a person looks on the vast cosmos and dares to say that there is no God, 

and every time a Christian thinks that God’s gift to them of faith in Jesus somehow makes them better than others, 

every time any of these things appear, we cave into this delusion that we can be like God which we inherited from Adam and Eve

It is our original sin. 

We keep trying to ignore, deny, or live around the simple truth that God’s Word teaches: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18) 

And why is pride so destructive? 

Because pride violates the first commandment. The proud have a false god: themselves. 

But we can only find life through repentance and faith in Jesus. So, when we worship at the altar of ego, we place our hope in a god that will die. 

A Christian songwriter put it simply: “Pride kills.”

We will either die in pride or we will live in humility.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus talks about humility as an essential element of Christian discipleship. Take a look at the lesson, please: “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.’”

The “little ones” Jesus refers to here seem to be the outcasts, those hated and disdained by society’s so-called “good people” with whom Jesus so readily interacted: People like prostitutes, extortionists, foreigners, beggars, the lame, and notorious sinners. 

Jesus is warning those of us who call ourselves Christians to take care that instead of inviting and welcoming society’s “little ones” into fellowship with Christ and with us as He tells us to do, we turn them away or cause them to sin all the more unrepentantly

This past week, several of us were talking about how often restaurant personnel hates working the Sunday afternoon shift because they know that the Christians taking in lunch after worship are going to treat them like garbage and leave either no tips or miserly ones. A disciple of Jesus understands that a Christian saint is no more than a recovering sinner undergoing reconstruction by the Holy Spirit. But an unbeliever will look at the parade of hypocritical church people eating lunch in their restaurant on Sunday afternoons and think, “If that’s what Jesus does to a person, I want nothing to do with Christian faith.”

Jesus says that when Christians act arrogantly toward non-Christians, we might as well put millstones around our necks and sink into hell. Proud Christians block the grace of God given in Christ not only to those they treat disdainfully but to themselves as well. “So,” Jesus tells us, “watch yourselves.”

Then, in verses 3 and 4, Jesus says, “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”

Refusing to forgive those who have genuinely apologized and sought our forgiveness is the height of human presumption and pride. And we will never be free until we set those who have apologized to us free from the debt they owe us. 

This is why Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” 

The word that Jesus uses for forgive in this passage is, in the Greek in which Luke wrote his gospel, aphiemi, literally meaning I release. When we forgive others as Christ forgives us, we not only release them of their debt to us, we also release ourselves from our bondage to sin. We let the forgiveness of God given in Christ flow into our own lives.

Skip down for a moment to Jesus’ words, starting in verse 7: “‘Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, “Come along now and sit down to eat”? Won’t he rather say, “Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink”? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

These words of Jesus may seem cryptic to us. But again, the theme is the essential place of humility in the life of a Christian. 

As is often true in His parables, the short stories with deeper meanings He often tells, Jesus here creates a scenario which, to his original first-century hearers, would have seemed outrageous. 

In that top-down society, no wealthy land-owner would tell his servant to take a load off his feet and eat with him. And he wouldn’t thank the cook on his payroll for doing his job. 

The obvious conclusion is that if a follower of Jesus loves a neighbor, or sacrifices for a fellow believer, or shares the good news of new life through repentance and faith in the crucified and risen Jesus, she or he does so not for applause, recognition, or thank-yous. They do these things because Jesus so lives inside them that it doesn’t even dawn on them to not love their neighbor, to not sacrifice for the fellow believer, to not share the gospel of Jesus with someone in need of Him

For them, such expressions of faith aren’t planned events. They’re simply the supernatural outgrowth of a life lived with Jesus in daily repentance and renewal. 

Humility, you see, is not an acquired life skill, it’s something that happens in the lives of those who seek each day to walk with Jesus

Our motives, our values, and the way we view everything get changed as Jesus takes up residence in the center of our lives when we take our gaze off of ourselves and fix our eyes firmly on God the Son, the Word made flesh, Jesus.

And that leads us back to the middle two verses of today’s gospel lesson. The apostles hear Jesus’ words and realize that, because of their (and our) inborn sinful nature, the kind of humility that Jesus commends in these verses is impossible. So, they make what seems like a reasonable request. 

Verse 5: “Increase our faith!” 

This may not be a pious request at all. It may be what can be called the “increase our faith dodge.” You hear it all the time. 

Christians who don’t want to heed Jesus’ call to follow or be servants in His Church or share their faith in Christ, will say things like, “My faith isn’t strong enough” or “Everyone else knows more than I do or can do more than I can do.”

I suspect that people don’t really believe these things as often as they say them. 

And I suspect that they’re really not that interested in having more faith or following Jesus or sharing Him with others. 

I think that often, these are the expressions of a false humility. People figure they sound pious and Christian when they speak of what they can’t do, can’t give, can’t try. And so they keep right on, not doing, not giving, not trying.

Jesus’ response to the apostles is direct. Verse 6: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” 

To follow Jesus, to heed His call to love and serve our neighbor, to get our minds off of ourselves and onto the God Who creates, gives us faith in Jesus, saves us from sin and death, and empowers us to live more selfless lives, is not about waiting around for God to give us more faith

It’s acting on the little faith the Holy Spirit has given to us in the big, loving God of the whole universe we meet in Jesus Christ, then daring to live the life of love, joy, and connectedness to others for which He has set us free. 

It’s only in those who respond when Jesus says, “Follow Me” that God grows faith: Only when we refuse to look at other disdainfully, only when we dare to forgive those who seek our forgiveness, and only when we heed His call to believe, to love and share Christ’s gospel with others in our lives.

C.S. Lewis observed that, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less.” 

Without our consciously realizing it, humility becomes part of us as His Word works in us to create faith and we think of Jesus more and of ourselves, less. 

When we turn to Jesus, humility begins to break through. 

And when humility breaks through, we not only know joy for ourselves, we will share it with others. 

We become the conduits of God’s grace for everyone we know. 

Turn to Jesus each day and the pride that can kill us will meet its master

Turn to Jesus each day and He will fill you love for Him instead of pride in yourself

Turn to Jesus and live. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]