5 September 2010 - Pentecost 15 - Luke 14:25-35

The Fourth Commandment tells us, “Honor your father and your mother.” St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Ephesians, “Husbands, love your wives.” He also says, “let the wife see that she respects her husband.”

St. Peter says, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood.” And of course Jesus himself had said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” He also declared to his disciples:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”

We can easily resonate with these directives from God. We’re not able to live up to them, but we can understand them.

We appreciate the fact that we are supposed to love others - especially our family members - and that we are to think kindly and respectfully of all people. Even though we often fail in this, we know that we should aspire to it.

What are we to make, then, of the words of Jesus in today’s text from St. Luke?: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Is Jesus contradicting himself? That would be an easy interpretation. But it would also be a lazy interpretation.

Jesus is too smart to contract himself in such an obvious way - not to mention the fact that he is God in the flesh, and therefore cannot err in his teaching. With his use of these extreme expressions, he is laying out before us a stark contrast, for the sake of clarity.

He is making an important point. And What is that point?

In the First Commandment, God declares, according to the translations that are most familiar to us: “You shall have no other gods before me.” This is often taken to mean that we are, in a certain sense, allowed to have other “gods” of a sort, as long as the Lord Jehovah is, as it were, the first in line, and the most important.

These other “gods” - these other things of value, to which we are devoted to some degree - need to come after the Lord. They cannot come “before” him in our prioritizing of our “gods.”

But in our consideration of what the First Commandment is actually requiring of us, such an interpretation would fall far short of the mark. A more literal rendering of this commandment, from the original Hebrew, would go something like this: “You shall have no other gods before my face,” or “in front of my face.”

That is, you shall have no other gods in my presence, anywhere around me. I don’t want to see or hear you paying any kind of homage to anything, or anyone, except me - in any way, shape, or fashion.

The First Commandment does not simply call on us properly to prioritize our “gods.” Instead, it demands absolute devotion and submission to the Lord as our only God, so that the Lord Jehovah is everything to us, from beginning to end, in every aspect of life.

Jesus, in the somewhat shocking words that he uses in today’s text, is basically reiterating this point, in a way that will be unmistakably clear: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Think about that for a minute. There’s no way to explain it away or fudge it. Jesus, the Son of God, does not demand only your best effort, your most intense love, or your deepest loyalty. He demands all of your effort, all of your love, and all of your loyalty.

People often like to negotiate with God. “Lord, if you bless me in this or that way, then I will do this or that for you. If you save my marriage, then I will always go to church. If you get me a job, then I will donate generously to your work.”

But as Jesus explains the true depth of what the First Commandment requires, he shows us that we have no bargaining position with God. God demands everything, up front. He concedes nothing. Nothing in your life is to be of value to you in this way, apart from him - apart from your love for him, and your loyalty to him.

Most people in our society, when they answer religious surveys, will say that they do believe in God. But how many of them believe in God in this way? How many of us believe in God in this way?

The true God - who gave us the First Commandment, and who walked the earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth - basically comes into our life, filled as it is with all our prized objects, all our valued relationships, all our important ambitions.

He then “clears the table,” as it were, with a sweeping motion of his almighty arm, pushing all these things onto the floor, broken and smashed. And then he places himself on the table.

That’s all, just himself. Nothing more, to be loved and valued by us, except for him, and him alone.

But then God, in a sense, begins to open himself up before us - almost like the way in which a package is opened up, and gradually unpacked. And out of God, his gifts for us begin to be taken out, and laid on the table beside him.

The first gift is the gift of salvation in Christ, who died for our sins, and who reclaims us as God’s children. And along with this gift comes the gift of faith, by which we receive and enjoy this salvation from sin and death. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians:

“...God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ...and raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus... For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

And then, God continues to open up to us many other blessings and gifts - all flowing out of his grace and love in Christ.

If you are married, your spouse, with whom you are united in an honorable marriage, is God’s gift to you. Jesus said in regard to this, “What God has joined together let man not separate.” Your children, too, as the Psalmist declares, “are a heritage from the Lord.”

And there is a reason why the First Commandment is first, and why the Fourth Commandment is fourth. Our duty to love and respect father and mother flows out of our original duty to have no other gods before the face of our Creator. God gave us our parents, to represent his loving authority over us.

And even our own physical life does not really belong to us. That, too, is something we enjoy, for as long as we do enjoy it, only because God has given it to us, and preserves it to us. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians,

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

All of these gifts, and all of these relationships, we honor and value, because God has given them to us. They are not what we bring to the table in our interactions with God. They are among the things that we take away from the table, as gifts from God.

Therefore, from this perspective, we are not only allowed to show love for spouse, children, and parents, but we are obligated to do so. Because when we love that which God has given to us, we thereby love God.

It is a sin to love these special people in our lives in such a way that that love comes into competition with our love for God. We must always be on our guard against this, because it is a form of idolatry when it does happen.

And we must then once again hear the warning of Christ: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

But when we know and acknowledge in faith that God’s claim on us is absolute and unqualified, and when we then see how God has given us people like this to love, and respect, and take care of, we are joyfully able to love God, precisely by loving those people.

This is one of the ways in which a Christian’s perspective on life is so totally different from the vantage-point of an unbeliever. An unbeliever is consumed by a compulsion for the acquisition of those things in this world that will make his life complete and meaningful.

But in Christ we know something that they, sadly, do not yet know. We know that Christ himself, our divine-human Savior, is all we need. We know that only he can in fact make our life mean something that will endure for eternity.

And we also know that once we do have Christ, and are baptized into Christ, and trust Christ, we then will have everything else too - that is, everything that he, in his love and wisdom, wants us to have. We therefore receive these things - these people, these relationships - with humility and gratitude, and in peace.

Our Christian perspective on the people we love, and on the relationships we honor, also gives us a serenity in the midst of trials, and a contentment in the midst of disappointments, that the unbelieving world simply cannot understand.

And that’s because our faith, given and sustained by God himself, is able to withstand the loss of anything and everything - parents, children, siblings, spouse, even life itself.

We can endure such losses, if we have to, because we know, in Christ, that what will not be lost is Christ himself. No one will be able to pluck us out of his hands. And when we still have Christ, we still have everything that matters for eternity.

“Let these all be gone. They yet have nothing won. The kingdom ours remaineth.” Amen.

12 September 2010 - Pentecost 16 - Luke 15:1-10

My wife recently finished a painting project at our house. My role in this project was limited. But one of my jobs was to move some heavy bookcases away from the wall, so that she could then paint the wall.

And when I did this, behind one of these bookcases I found a certain cat toy that has been missing for a long time. We have two cats, as most of you know.

It’s easy to imagine that if this cat toy had had consciousness, it probably would have enjoyed being lost, and out of the reach of the cats. Now that it has been found, and restored to their use, they are indeed using this toy - or rather, they are abusing it:

Clawing at it, chewing on it, tearing it apart, so that before long it will be destroyed - just like the several dozen or so other cat toys that they have gone through.

Maybe from the perspective of this toy, which was lost and hidden behind a bookcase for quite some time, being lost wasn’t really such a bad thing.

In today’s text from St. Luke, Jesus tells two parables about things that were lost, and were then found: the parable of the lost sheep, found eventually by the shepherd; and the parable of the lost coin, found eventually by the woman.

Both of these parables portray the lostness of the coin and of the sheep as something bad and undesirable. And they portray the finding of the coin and the sheep as good things, to be celebrated.

Of course, Jesus tells these parables as illustrations of what it is like when sinful people are lost - separated from God and, as it were, out of God’s reach - and of what it is like when God then finds these lost sinners.

Now, we might think that these are heart-warming stories, and would be surprised if anyone didn’t agree. But some people who feel themselves to be in a “lost” state don’t necessarily want to be found. They like being lost.

They find some sense of comfort in the thought that God doesn’t know where they are. Why would this be? Because of something that St. Paul alludes to in today’s Epistle, from the First Letter to Timothy, when he calls himself the “foremost” sinner, or the chief of sinners.

St. Paul’s conscience had impressed upon him something that is impressed upon all of us, if we are honest and accurate in our assessment of how our very unholy lives measure up to the holiness of God.

When all you know is that God is holy, and that you are not, it might not be such an inviting idea to imagine being found by him. You might prefer instead to be a bit like that lost cat toy, when it was still behind the bookcase: content in the thought that the one who intends to rip you apart in judgment, and tear you to pieces in punishment for your sins, doesn’t know where you are.

And one of the most common defenses of those with a guilty conscience, against the fearfulness of being found by God, is to persuade themselves - in their own minds - that they are not the ones who are lost, but that God is.

God did not lose me. I lost him. I lost my faith. I cast away my faith. And I don’t want it back.

So, I’m not going to be afraid that God might catch up with me again or rediscover me. I am in charge of this. And since I don’t want to find him again, I won’t.

People like this even write books, boasting of their new atheism. But these books actually remind one of a child walking through a scary, dark room, saying to herself over and over again: “There’s nothing here to be afraid of. There’s nothing here to be afraid of.”

If you say it often enough, it will be true. Maybe. Or maybe not.

But in spite of what someone with a troubled conscience may justifiably be afraid of, and in spite of the little lies that he might make up to protect himself from his fear, when God does find you, in Christ, it is indeed a joyous and wonderful thing. Because in Christ, God does not seek you out with a vengeance, in his wrath and judgment.

Jesus, the Son of God, absorbed that wrath and judgment into himself for you on the cross, so that through Jesus what we now see is the Fatherly face of God: like a loving shepherd, searching for a lost sheep in the fields and woods, and even like a persistent homemaker, searching for a lost coin in her house.

In Christ God does not seek you out in order to destroy you. In Christ he seeks you out in order to restore you to the fellowship of saints and angels where you belong; to bring you back into his family as a co-heir of his Son; and to establish you as a citizen of his eternal kingdom.

Remember the whole context of St. Paul’s sober admission regarding his sinfulness: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”

This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance by you too. Your conscience may very well be telling you that you are the foremost of sinners.

You have earned God displeasure. You deserve to have him rip you to pieces and tear you to shreds, like cats on a cat toy. But when God does find you in Christ, he finds you in order to save you.

And “I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” That is, there is joy in heaven over one sinner - like you and me - who turns away from the sin which is the cause of our alienation and fear. There is joy over one sinner who embraces the death and resurrection of Jesus as God’s gracious remedy for the sin, and for the fear.

And where and how does God “find” us when we are lost? First of all, remember that this is a metaphor or an image.

After all, God is omnipresent and omniscient - that is, he is everywhere, and he knows everything. So, literally, none of us is ever “lost” in the sense that the infinite God of the universe doesn’t actually know where we are. He knows.

Therefore, when Jesus teaches that God searches for those who are lost, and finds them, there is a certain amount of symbolic meaning in this. But the true spiritual reality toward which these symbolic images point is not hard to figure out.

The context of Jesus’ parables today shows us: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus],” St. Luke reports.

At a deeper level, God is actually “drawing near” to those who are - in their hearts and minds - lost, when they, by the prompting of his Spirit, “draw near” to his Word.

And at a deeper level, God is finding them, and saving them from their lostness, when they believe his Word, and when they know in faith that what God’s Word says - about forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ - it is saying to them.

Today, some of you who are sitting here may be “lost.” In your heart, you may feel that God is distant, and not really a part of your life. And in your conscience, you may be afraid of God, so that you’re not so sure that you would really want God to find you.

But guess what. The fact that you are here, right now, means that God is, at this very moment, finding you. And that’s because the Word of God - the divine message of forgiveness, and hope, and a new beginning in Christ - is being taught and proclaimed to you here.

The tax collectors and sinners in Jesus’ day, who had been lost from God, were supernaturally drawn to this message when Jesus himself taught it and proclaimed it to them. Through this message they were found, and rescued, and restored to a right standing with the Lord.

Through this same message - this life-giving and liberating message - you are now found, and rescued, and restored to a right standing with the God who sent his Son to die for you, and to reconcile you to himself in peace.

Notice also this accusation that the Lord’s opponents hurled at him: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” In saying this, they were more correct than they ever could have imagined.

The sacrament of our Lord’s body and blood is celebrated in our congregation on every Lord’s Day and festival. Those who have been prepared for participation in this Holy Supper through proper instruction from God’s Word, and who confess their faith in the Lord of this sacrament on the basis of that Word, are invited to participate.

And that list of communicants includes sinners. In fact, that list includes nothing but sinners:

Sinners like you and me, who have been found by God in Christ; whose sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ; and who have been seated at the table of Christ, where he, miraculously, is both giver and gift.

“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”

And so, with all of our fellow sheep, who once were lost, but now are found; and with all of our fellow coins, who have now been re-gathered and restored to the Lord’s heavenly treasury; we rejoice together in God’s mercy, and declare:

“To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.”

Chief of sinners though I be,
Jesus shed His blood for me;
Died that I might live on high,
Lived that I might never die,
As the branch is to the vine,
I am His, and He is mine.

Oh, the height of Jesus’ love!
Higher than the heavens above,
Deeper than the depths of sea,
Lasting as eternity.
Love that found me - wondrous thought! -
Found me when I sought Him not. Amen.

19 September 2010 - Pentecost 17 - 1 Timothy 2:1-15

Are men and women to be thought of as completely equal in every sense, so that no distinctions between men and women, or between maleness and femaleness, are ever to be made? Or are men and women to be thought of as different from each other, so that they would not always be treated in the same way?

In the world in which we live, very different answers to these questions are being offered from various quarters. We have all heard news reports about the almost dehumanizing way in which women are treated in some parts of the world.

Girls and women are often deprived of opportunities to receive an education. They often do not have equal standing under the law. They are sometimes brutalized in horrific ways, simply because they are female.

But on the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that we should not recognize the existence of any differences between men and women at all - or between maleness and femaleness. And so, out of this way of thinking comes the idea that a marriage between a woman and a woman, or between a man and a man, is not any different than a marriage between a woman and a man.

What does the Bible say about these things? Does God’s Word give us some guidance in navigating through this confusion? Does God reveal to us his own divine perspective on the issue of human equality, or on the issue of distinctions among men and women?

Yes, he does. And one of the passages in Scripture that addresses these topics is today’s Epistle lesson, from St. Paul’s First Letter to St. Timothy.

First, though, we need to spend just a little time talking about a matter of translation. In our English New Testaments, the word “man” or “men” does not always represent the same word in the original Greek.

Sometimes, when we see the word “man” or “men” in our versions, it is a translation of the Greek word “anthropos” - which refers more literally to a human being, or to humanity as a whole. This Greek word, in its singular or plural form, is rendered in some passages as “person” or “people.”

At other times, however, the English word “man” or “men,” as we find it in our versions of the Bible, stands for a more precise term in the original Greek - the word “aner,” which refers specifically to a male person as compared to a female person.

In different places in the Greek original of today’s text, both of these words are used. And in the way that St. Paul, under divine inspiration, uses these words - “anthropos” and “aner” - he thereby teaches us some important lessons from God concerning our common humanity; and concerning the distinctions that God does also make, in the life of the church, between men and women. Paul writes:

“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people - “anthropos” - for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people - “anthropos” - to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men - “anthropos” - the man - “anthropos” - Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”

Nowhere in these verses does St. Paul use the more specific word for a male person - “aner.” Everything he says about human beings, and even about the humanity of Jesus Christ, he says with the use of a Greek word that applies to all people.

Jesus is, of course, a male, and not a female. There is no such thing, in actual existence, as a generic human being. Everyone who is human is either a man or a woman.

And Jesus is a man. As a man, he stands in the place of the first man, Adam, as the founder and head of the new humanity of God’s spiritual children.

But when Paul speaks in today’s lesson about Christ’s role as a mediator between God and man - that is, between God and humanity - Paul’s use of the term “anthropos” makes it abundantly clear that women are not in any way excluded from what Jesus has accomplished as the world’s Savior.

Jesus is the mediator between God and humanity because he is, in his own person, both God and man - God and human. God’s Son became a man not only for the sake of other men - other males. He became a man for the sake of men and women, and for their salvation.

And so St. Paul uses a word that invites both men and women to believe that “the anthropos Christ Jesus” gave himself as a ransom for all. Paul uses a word that invites both men and women to believe that the very human blood that Jesus shed on the cross, was shed in atonement for their sins.

And of course, when St. Paul says in today’s text that God wants “all people” to be saved, that means all people! It includes those who are relatively high in their social standing: the rulers and the ruling class; and it includes those whose social standing is relatively low and unassuming: the common folk of every society.

And it means both men and women. As St. Paul writes elsewhere, in words of comfort and divine acceptance that are addressed to the whole Christian church: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

It is, of course, not enough for a man or a woman to know only that God sent his Son to be the Savior of all people, and to die for the benefit of all people. The salvation that Jesus procured for all is not automatically received by all.

It is received and enjoyed by those men and women who are humbled in repentance, under the condemnation of sin that God’s law declares to each human conscience. And even more so, it is received and enjoyed by those men and women who believe, for themselves, the message of pardon and peace that the Lord’s called servants declare in his name, to all nations.

That’s why St. Paul follows his statement about God’s wish that all would be saved, with a description of the way in which God implements and fulfills his wish in the lives of those who do hear and believe his Gospel. “For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle..., a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth,” the apostle declares.

But then, after this, Paul goes on to speak of the differences that do still exist between males and females in the fellowship of the church - according to the order of creation, and according to the offices and callings that God chooses to give to men and women. And what Paul says in this respect is not simply a reflection of his own cultural morés, without application to Christians in other cultural settings.

We know this, because he does not appeal merely to what is considered to be acceptable in his first-century context. He appeals to the way in which God originally created the human race, and to the order and structure in the human family that the Lord put in place in the Garden of Eden.

And what does this mean for the way things are supposed to be in the church of later times, including our own confused time? St. Paul tells us. And notice where he uses the Greek word - “aner” - that refers specifically to a male person:

“I desire then that in every place the men - “aner” - should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness - with good works.”

We see here an apostolic directive that only men should publicly pray - that is, lead in prayer in the public gatherings of the church. And Paul emphasizes that this directive applies to the church “in every place” - which includes the United States of America, in the twenty-first century.

Christian men in positions of pastoral or liturgical leadership do not pray only on behalf of themselves, or only on behalf of other men. In their Adam-like leadership among God’s people, they speak on behalf of all, so that all can and should say ”Amen” to their prayer.

In keeping with the order of creation, however, God does want men to fill this public representative role, and not women.

But as men exercise such spiritual leadership - when God calls specific men to do so in his name - they are not to indulge the impulses of their sinful nature in such a way as to succumb to a temptation toward “territorial rivalry” in the church, over against other pastors; or toward prideful contentiousness.

A man who is called to lead God’s people in prayer is called to a humble and humbling service - to a self-effacing, Christ-centered ministry. His own personality should not be injected into his liturgical leadership.

The most important thing for him to consider, is to make sure that the content of his prayers is objectively Biblical, so that those who hear those prayers, and join in with them, are properly edified in their faith.

In his apostolic instructions, Paul doesn’t ignore women in worship. He speaks of the need for modesty and self-control among women of faith.

Now, Paul is not setting himself up as the “fashion police” of the church, whether of his century or of ours. He is, as he says himself, really speaking of something of greater significance than outward attire in and of itself.

His chief point is that the lives of Christian women should be “clothed,” as it were, with good works - works of love and service to others. Sometimes that service may involve certain forms of teaching.

In his Epistle to St. Titus, for example, St. Paul says this: “Older women...are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women...”

But as St. Paul explains in today’s lesson, God does not call women to serve in a teaching office that would involve the exercise of spiritual authority over the whole church - both women and men. He writes:

“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man - “aner”; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived...”

The gifts of women can and should be used, where appropriate, in the larger life and mission of the church. But these gifts are not intended by the Lord who gave them, to be used in the pastoral office.

In the Large Catechism, Martin Luther refers to the church’s preachers and pastors as our “spiritual fathers,” who “govern and guide us by the Word of God.” It goes without saying that an office of spiritual “fatherhood,” as it exists according to God’s design, is not an office that is open to women.

Adam was the first “spiritual father,” or pastor. He had been divinely called to represent God’s authority on the earth, and to guide his wife Eve in the ways of God. She should have listened to her pastor, and not to the lying serpent.

There is, then, a distinction to be made among men and women. That distinction does not lay in the quality of the gift of faith and spiritual life that we all receive - equally - in our shared Christian baptism.

It does not lay in the shared fellowship in Christ’s body and blood that male and female communicants enjoy together at the Lord’s altar. But it does lay in the area of how God, in his infinite wisdom and goodness, chooses to arrange our relationships with each other in his holy family.

In the church we are not blended together into a homogenized mass of indistinguishable sameness. We are, rather, artfully knit together by the Holy Spirit into a patchwork of diversity and complementarity. With God’s help, we all fulfill the roles of service that he has given us through our individual vocations, in harmony with his revealed will.

According to our commonly-used translation, St. Paul concludes this section of his epistle in this way: “Yet she” - the woman - “will be saved through childbearing - if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”

This translation makes us think of the common experience of giving birth to children that women throughout the centuries have shared. But remember that St. Paul says what he says in this verse, in the context of his discussion of Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden.

And we know from the Book of Genesis, that after our first parents fell into sin and shame, God then spoke a word of hope and promise in their presence, when he declared to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

This first preaching of the Gospel pointed forward to the future miraculous birth of Christ - without a human father. It also pointed forward to the future suffering and death of Christ, in which the serpent would indeed “bruise” him; but through which the serpent, and his power over humanity, would be utterly “crushed.”

And so, with this in mind, this translation by the Lutheran Greek scholar Julian Anderson is more likely to reflect the important and comforting point that Paul intends to make: “But she” - Eve - “would be saved through the birth of the Child, as all women will be, if they hold onto their faith, and live sensible lives filled with Christian love and holiness.”

And what is said here regarding the salvation that Eve’s descendant, and Mary’s Son, brings, is a comfort not only to women, but also to men. We all so often fail to live up to the standards that God sets before us. We all so often overstep the boundaries that God lays down for us.

We all so often ignore or dishonor the callings that God has placed on us, and push ourselves instead into callings that belong to others - thereby bringing misery and conflict to our relationships, and to our own hearts. Jesus Christ was born among us, to save us from all these sins.

His death on the cross forgives all of us - men and women. His resurrection lifts up all of us - men and women - into the grace and enlightenment of our God and Savior.

And as the ascended Lord of his church, Jesus once again positions all of us - men and women - into the place in his family where he wants us to be. He renews our faith, so that in his strength we embrace his gifts, and follow where he leads. Amen.

26 September 2010 - Pentecost 18 - Luke 16:19-31

Today’s Gospel lesson from St. Luke is the familiar story of Lazarus and the rich man. Jesus tells us:

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.”

“The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.”

As I was looking through our hymnal this past week, trying to find hymns for us to sing today that would complement what this story tells us about life and death, I realized something that I hadn’t thought about too much before. Unlike poor Lazarus in today’s text, whose life on this earth was filled with misery and suffering, I actually enjoy life.

By American standards I am not a rich person, like the other character in today’s text. But from the vantage point of my faith in God and in his goodness, I enjoy the love of my wife and children.

I enjoy listening to good music or reading a good book. I enjoy watching a good movie, or talking with friends. I enjoy the sound of a cat purring, while I scratch its head. I enjoy being alive.

And I think that this is probably true also for most of you as well. We live in a land of unprecedented freedom, prosperity, and security.

It is possible for Christians to have a good life in America, filled with joys and successes. But this extraordinary blessing might cause us to forget that this has not been the experience of most people, during most of human history.

In most other times and places - such as in first-century Palestine - there would be a small group of elites sitting in ease at the top of the social structure, enjoying extravagant wealth and self-indulgence, while the majority of the population would be laboring and languishing under great privation, in great suffering, and with great weariness. Sickness and early death were a constant companion to almost everyone.

I remember my grandfather telling me, when I was a boy, what his father - an immigrant from eastern Europe - had told him. In the old country, he said, everyone was poor, and no one had any real opportunity to work himself out of poverty. My great-grandfather’s patriotism, as a naturalized American, was deeply informed by these experiences.

But again, we need to realize that the experience he had, growing up in a small village in the Kingdom of Hungary in the 19th century, was and is the norm of human existence in this world. What he found in America, and what most of us experience in our life in America today, is not the norm. It is the exception.

In my efforts to find some suitable hymns for us to sing today, it was difficult for me to relate to sentiments such as these, in hymns that were written in very different eras, by people who were living in very different circumstances. In speaking of the inevitability and closeness of death, one hymn stanza, originally from the 17th century, said this:

I’ve met with storms and danger, Even from my early years,
With enemies and conflicts, With fightings and with fears.
There’s nothing here that tempts me To wish a longer stay,
So I must hasten forward, No halting or delay.

In my experience, I have to admit that there are a lot of things in this world - good things - that do tempt me to wish for a longer stay on this earth.

And then there were these stanzas, from another 17th-century hymn:

Oh, how blest are ye whose toils are ended,
Who, through death, have unto God ascended!
Ye have arisen From the cares which keep us still in prison.

We are still as in a dungeon living,
Still oppressed with sorrow and misgiving;
Our undertakings Are but toils and troubles and heart-breakings.

But again, this does not really describe the way I feel about my life. I don’t have these overwhelming feelings of frustration and entrapment. And I don’t think these unhappy words describe the lives of most of you either.

But these unhappy words might describe the lives of some of you. And there are definitely other people in our world, in our community, and maybe among our friends, for whom these words of unhappiness and struggle express exactly how they feel.

They are very definitely like Lazarus - the poor beggar in today’s text. Their options for a better future seem to them to be gone. It is hard for them, emotionally, just to survive.

The opportunities and advantages of our free and prosperous land have, in large measure, passed them by; or left them in their wake, tumbling and sinking.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself right now, “I don’t really know anyone like that, although I know that there are people like that out there somewhere.”

Or, you might be thinking, “I know some people like that, but their predicament is their own fault - caused by their own bad decisions in life. So, it’s not my responsibility to do anything about it.”

Well, if that’s what you are thinking right now, please realize that this attitude is frighteningly similar to the attitude of another character in today’s text. The rich man seems to have been aware of the existence of Lazarus. When he saw him after death he recognized him, and knew who he was.

But during his and Lazarus’s mortal life, the rich man was oblivious to Lazarus’s real human needs. And he was oblivious to his responsibility, under God, to show compassion to Lazarus, and to help him with his problems.

He didn’t know about these human obligations. And he didn’t care that he didn’t know.

The rich man was a man with much money and wealth, but he was a man without God. And on the other side of death, when he found himself in Hades, he was still without God.

Even on the other side, his attitude toward Lazarus - and people like Lazarus - hadn’t really changed. Even then he saw Lazarus only as someone whose job it was to wait on him, and serve him.

“Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame,” he said.

The rich man was not spiritually lost and separated from God because he was rich. Abraham himself was a wealthy and powerful figure during his earthly life.

But in death, Abraham found a place in the Lord’s Paradise. He was there to welcome Lazarus, when he died, as today’s Gospel tells us.

In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus told us: “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

And St. Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle, from his First Letter to Timothy:

“we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.”

So, even though Abraham was wealthy, he didn’t serve his wealth, or love it. He didn’t live just to accumulate wealth and consume wealth.

He lived for God, and he loved and served God. He believed the promises that God made to him: regarding the son, the nation, and the Savior, who would all come from him.

If you are like Abraham, blessed by God with faith in your Savior Jesus Christ, and blessed by God also with material possessions, your attitude toward your possessions will be like the attitude of Abraham toward his possessions, and not like the attitude of the rich man, in today’s story, toward his possessions.

You will be aware of the fact that God has given you the things he has given you, and you will be thankful. And, you will be aware of the presence of people like Lazarus in your life.

You will notice them. You will notice their needs. And as the Lord enables you, you will help to meet at least some of those needs.

And it’s not just people who are deprived of money who should be on the radar screen of your Christian love. Some people have enough money, but they are emotionally drained.

Their lives are weighed down with grief, or remorse, or shame, or loneliness. Or maybe they are discouraged by chronic illness, or irreversible injuries. It is a struggle for some people just to push themselves through each day.

What they need is your friendship - not a pretense of friendship, but a real friendship: the kind of friendship that takes a genuine interest in the needy person, and that invites the needy person to share a certain part of your life with you.

The rich man in today’s text was incapable of this. In and of yourself, according to your sinful nature, you would be incapable of it too. Our sin turns us in on ourselves, and mixes a selfish and self-serving motive into everything we do.

What makes you capable of befriending others in a deeply genuine way, is the friendship that God has shown toward you in his Son Jesus Christ - by which your sins have been forgiven through his atoning death; and by which a new nature, which wants to serve God and man, is engendered in you by the power of his Word. Jesus said:

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”

When God gives us a new nature in Christ, he gives us a “new set of eyes” by which we now look at the world differently, and notice things we didn’t used to notice. With these eyes, we see the suffering that is all around us, and we are moved to a godly compassion for those who are hurting.

But what we also see, is that apart from Christ, all of us would be, and were, deeply impoverished in spirit. All of us - the materially poor as well as the materially prosperous - without Jesus and his generosity, would be like Lazarus in our souls: sick and wounded, homeless and lonely, hungry yet never satisfied.

But, as St. Paul writes elsewhere: “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”

In Christ we become rich, as Lazarus was rich in divine mercy, even when he was poor in health and property. We cease to be poor, even as Lazarus, with his citizenship in Paradise, and with his fellowship with the saints of old, ceased to be poor.

At the conclusion of today’s reading from Luke, the rich man, from Hades, said this to Abraham: “I beg you, father, to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house - for I have five brothers - so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.”

And [the rich man] said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” [Abraham] said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”

Dear friends, we do have Moses and the Prophets - and also the Evangelists and the Apostles - who warn us from the pages of Holy Scripture about the misery of those who close themselves off from God, and who thereby also close themselves off from other people.

But at the same time, we hear and heed the wonderful promises from God, which also come to us through the Scriptures, regarding the joyous pathway of faith and love that Jesus has opened up for us by his death and resurrection.

And the crucified and living Christ - who did rise from the dead - does indeed fortify us with faith, and inspire us in love, as he abides with his church in his Gospel and Sacraments. And as we find ourselves in this holy fellowship of God’s people, we do care about the things that are important, and are of eternal consequence.

We care about God’s Word. We want to hear God’s Word, and confess God’s Word, and live and die in God’s Word.

And we care about other people - the rich and the poor; the healthy and the sick; those who are at home with us now in God’s family, and those who are still alienated and alone. We notice all of them, and we care about all of them, because God in Christ has noticed us, and cares about us.

And in God’s church - God’s family - we sing and pray together:

Yea, Lord, ‘twas Thy rich bounty gave, My body, soul, and all I have
In this poor life of labor.
Lord, grant that I in every place May glorify Thy lavish grace
And serve and help my neighbor.
Let no false doctrine me beguile, And Satan not my soul defile.
Give strength and patience unto me, To bear my cross, and follow Thee.
Lord Jesus Christ, My God and Lord,
In death Thy comfort still afford. Amen.