2009) Without God, Without Sin? (part two of four)

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The Miraculous Catch of Fishes, French artist James Tissot (1836-1902)

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          (…continued)  I have often quoted Ernest Hemingway, that strong and confident tough guy, who in declining health and strength finally had to say, “Life breaks us all.”  Life breaks us all.  The question for everyone is, “What do you do then?”  Hemingway, at the age of 61, grabbed his favorite gun and used it on himself.  Coupland’s characters are broken and lost and confused, but they are searching for a better answer.  Scout came to the conclusion that God is the answer.

            God wants each of us to know him.  He sent His Son Jesus to the world to make his love known to us all, and to offer us all eternal life.  God the Holy Spirit is always pursuing each of us, seeking to get through our rebellion, our doubts, our cynicism, our distractions, and our lack of interest.  And God has placed the knowledge of Himself within our hearts (Romans 1); God has place his Law within our hearts (Jeremiah 31); and God has placed a desire for eternity within our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3).  There is something in us, placed there by God, that knows that there has to be more to life than these few brief and uncertain years.  I was confronted by the truth of what I had begun to doubt about God.  Douglas Coupland’s character was confronted by the realization that he needed something more to fill his empty heart.  And in our Gospel reading for today, Simon Peter was confronted by Jesus Christ himself, in person.            

Luke 5:1-11  —  One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God.  He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets.  He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore.  Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.  But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break.  So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”  For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.”  So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

            The story comes early in the Gospel of Luke.  Jesus had not yet even finished assembling his group of twelve disciples.  He is just wandering around the small towns and countryside, proclaiming the coming Kingdom of God to whoever would listen.  And many people did.  In this story, he is preaching on the shores of a lake, and the crowd is getting so big, that it is pressing in upon him, says verse one.  I imagine him getting backed up into the water with no place else to go.  So Jesus asked Simon Peter if he could get into his boat, and from there, a little ways out from the shore, more people could see and hear him.  Peter brings his boat over, and Jesus gets in and finishes the sermon. 

            Then Jesus says in verse four, “Let’s go fishing Peter.  Go out into the deep water and let down your nets.”  Peter tells Jesus they just got back.  They had been out all night, and hadn’t caught a thing.  Peter knew the lake, he knew the fish, he knew the time of day, and he knew they weren’t about to catch anything now.  But Peter does say, perhaps with some irritation in his voice, “If you say so.”

            And then comes the miracle.  Peter and his crew catch so many fish that their nets begin to break.  They call for another boat to help, and they haul in such a large catch that both boats are in danger of sinking.  And these men weren’t fishing just for the fun of it.  There was no such thing as ‘catch and release’ fishing in those days.  Fishing was Peter’s livelihood, and a catch like that would mean a financial windfall.  This miracle was a fisherman’s dream come true. 

            Therefore, the next verse is puzzling.  Peter should be jumping for joy, hooting and hollering, and high-fiving everyone on the lake.  Instead, he puts a big damper on everything by going up to Jesus with a long face, falling down on his knees, and saying “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  What?  What does being a sinner have to do with any of this?  (continued…)

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Ah Lord, my prayers are dead, my affections dead, and my heart is dead:  but you are a living God and I commit myself to you.  Amen.

 –William Bridge

2008) Without God, Without Sin? (part one of four)

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From a sermon

           Douglas Coupland is a Canadian writer who has been called the spokesman for Generation X, those born in the years from the mid-1960’s to the mid-80s.  Some even say Coupland was the one who popularized the whole concept of ‘Generation X’ when he made it the title of one of his first books back in the 1990’s.  Coupland’s early works were edgy, cynical, and not at all spiritual.  His most recent book is different.  It is more introspective and contains a good bit of soul-searching and spiritual openness.  The title of this book is “Life After God.”  On the book cover description of what is inside, Coupland says this to those of Generation X:  “You are the first generation to be raised without religion.”

            Many of the ‘Baby Boomers,’ filled with the spirit of rebellion against all authority in the 1960’s, were very intentional about abandoning whatever faith they had been brought up to believe.  Coupland’s own parents were both raised in Christian homes, but then they made sure no religious faith of any kind would be a part of their home life or child-raising.  So God was not a part of Coupland’s childhood, or, adult life—until recently.  And now, this spokesman for Generation X is seeing a bit of searching for something many of them never had, but are beginning to feel a need for in their heart.  The book “Life After God” contains several short stories.  Coupland is still edgy, and I don’t think any of his stories will be made into Hallmark movies.  But God, or at least the absence of God, is what drives the characters in this book.  They know that their lives are lacking something, even if they don’t yet know what it is or where to find it. 

            Scout, the young man in the last short story of the book, is the most open about what he thinks has gone wrong in his life.  Scout is remorseful over his many mistakes.  His marriage has stagnated.  He is trapped in a job he hates.  He has no deep friendships.  Life just isn’t what it used to be, or what he expected it would be, and he looks into his future with anxiety.  Finally, Scout comes to this conclusion.  He seems almost embarrassed to admit it, even calling it his ‘secret.’  He says, “My secret is that I need God—that I am sick and can no longer make it alone.  I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; I need God to help me to be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; and I need God to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.”  One reviewer noted that Scout, and his friends who are also troubled and confused and empty, hold a resentment against their parents for neglecting to instill in them any measure of solid faith or lasting hope.  The story is a fictional one, but from what I’ve read about Coupland, I would guess he is expressing some of his own feelings in these words.  He is certainly trying to describe what is going on in the hearts of many of that generation.

            Now, you know I am always up here telling you that you need Jesus.  That’s what I do here.  You expect me to do that.  You even pay me to do that; and so that could lead to bit of skepticism about what I say.  Some might say, “Pastors are supposed to talk that way, but the real world has moved beyond all that old stuff in the Bible.”  In previous sermons, I have told you about my own struggles with doubt and how I became convinced of the truth and hope to be found in Jesus Christ.  But Coupland tells a different kind of story, has had a very different journey, and his words have a different kind of credibility.  I went through a period of questioning everything I had ever been taught—that’s what many Baby Boomers did.  But Coupland says that many in Generation X, broken by life, are searching for something they have never known.  (continued…)

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Deuteronomy 4:29  —  If … you seek the Lord your God, you will find him, if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul.

I Chronicles 28:9b  —  …The Lord searches every heart and understands every desire and every thought.  If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever.

Psalm 63:1  —  You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.

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Lead, Kindly Light, amidst the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home —
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.

–John Henry Newman (1801-1890) Catholic cardinal, convert from Anglicanism

2007) A Complicated Conversation (part three of three)

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     (…continued)  On July 8, 1741, in Northampton, Massachusetts, Jonathan Edwards preached what everyone agrees is the most famous sermon in American history.  The title of it was Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.  It is all in God’s hands, says Jesus in today’s Gospel, and Edwards tells us to not take that fact lightly.  This sermon has been mocked and ridiculed by many foolish people who know very little about God.  Jonathan Edwards knew as much about God as any human being ever has.  He is universally acclaimed as the greatest theologian in the history of this nation.  And, Edwards says, be careful, pay attention, take this very seriously, because God can get angry.  The sermon is filled with Bible verses.  The tone of the sermon is a little over the top for me, but the Biblical warning contained even in the title is a true one– ‘Don’t trifle with God.’  God is gracious and loving and forgiving and patient and merciful and kind and compassionate.  All of that is in the Bible, and that is what we all want from God.  So look to God for that, and do not trifle with his warning, ignore his Word, or despise His commands.

     The Gospel is simple.  ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so; if I love him when I die he will take me home on high,’ goes the old song.  Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, says the Bible verse.  Simple, but it raises questions.  How do we love God?  What if it becomes hard to believe in Jesus? Could God really be angry with me?  How do I know if I am believing or loving enough?  Sometimes it can be very confusing and hard to understand—like in today’s Gospel story.  Why did Jesus answer that man in such a strange way, so as to confuse even the disciples? 

     I don’t know, but I do know if the man had not walked away, he would have heard more.  He would have heard that even though it was impossible for him to get eternal life, it was possible for God.  And then that, as I pointed out, leads to more questions, for which there are more answers.  This life of faith is not so simple that you are going to get it all on the first time through.  That is why the Bible says, pay attention, keep in touch, remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy, say your prayers, and so on.  Relationships are built by time spent together.  Don’t walk away sorrowful like the man in the text.  Keep listening. 

     “Faith comes by hearing the message of Christ,” says Romans 10:17, by hearing it again and again and again.  And the Holy Spirit takes that Word and brings it from our ears into our hearts and minds.  The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity we say we believe in when we say the Apostle’s Creed each week.  In his catechism explanation to that third part of the creed, Martin Luther said this:  “I believe I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in my Lord Jesus Christ or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and keeps me in the one true faith.” 

     Keep in touch, and God will take care of the rest of what you need.  But don’t walk away.  The Bible is filled with God’s Word to us, words of hope and words of wisdom and words of warning and words of caution and words of mercy.  And it is all in the context of that amazing grace of God’s love which is there for all who will have it.

     After all the confusion, today’s Gospel reading does end with a word of comfort and hope and encouragement to Peter and the rest of the disciples and to anyone else who was still listening.  It is too bad the man with the questions wasn’t there for it.  He walked away sorrowful before he got to hear the whole message.  He should have stuck around longer.

     An eager sophomore walks into the high school chemistry room for the first day of class.  He has heard about all the interesting and fun experiments he is going to get to do in that lab, he can’t wait to get started, and he has a million questions.  What is that poster with all those squares and letters?, he asks.  That’s the periodic table, says the teacher, we’ll get to that.  When do we get to do an experiment?, he asks.  Not for a while, says the teacher.  Where are all the chemicals we are going to mix together?, he asks.  Locked up, says the teacher, so you can’t get at them until you know how dangerous they are.  What is this for?, the student asks, turning a valve.  That’s the gas for the Bunsen burners, says the exasperated teacher, and turn it off before you blow us all up.  Learning about chemistry takes a while, and you aren’t going to get it all on the first day.

     Learning the faith and building a relationship with Jesus also takes a while.   Being saved can happen in a moment, but that is only the beginning of a life-long journey.  Stay on the path, even when it becomes difficult or confusing.  Don’t walk away, like the sorrowful man in the text.  Keep the faith, because in the end, the fact that it is all in God’s hands really is good news.  The best news you will ever get in this life.  Just stick around long enough for it to sink in.

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Philippians 2:12b-13  —  Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

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Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.  Amen.

–Ancient Jesus Prayer

2006) A Complicated Conversation (part two of three)

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     (…continued)  I don’t know why.  I am confused by Jesus’ reply.  And the man was discouraged, because the next verse says his face fell, and he went away sad, because he had great wealth.  Now, that was a bad choice on his part, because all his wealth is now long gone, but the eternal life he was asking about would still be his.  But why this confusing answer by Jesus?  I don’t understand it, and neither did the disciples.  And then Jesus goes and makes it even worse by saying, “How hard it is to enter the kingdom of heaven.”  First he said how hard it is for ‘the rich’ to enter the kingdom, but then Jesus says it a second time and this time says “How hard it is to enter the kingdom,” PERIOD.  Well, not quite period.  Jesus then adds that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.  And here we thought it was easy to be saved—a little water on the head after you are born, when you learn to talk just say, “Yes, I believe it,” and you are good to go.  Not so fast, says Jesus.

     At this, the text says the disciples were ‘amazed’ at his words.  Well, from what I remembered, this translation is a little weak on that word.  So I looked up several other translations, and they didn’t say ‘amazed.’  These other translations said the disciples were stunned, bewildered, astounded, staggered, perplexed, shocked, and even afraid.  So now what?  In the next verse it says the disciples said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”  Who indeed?  And Peter said, “We have left everything for you, Lord,” (and that’s not enough?).

     Verse 27 is the key here, but not in any simple sort of way.  The disciples asked who then can be saved, and Jesus said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God.  All things are possible with God.” 

     Well, there you go; so there is no problem after all, right?  It’s all in the hands of good old God, and so once again, we are all set to go for eternal life.  Salvation by grace, not by works, so, no worries.  Right?

     Well, Jesus did not say all of that.  He just said, “With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.”  It is all in God’s hands, but what should make us so sure we know what God has in mind?  So next, we have to ask what that means, and what that does to us.

     Well, first of all, this verse gives me hope.  I have known many people for whom faith seems impossible, or, seemed impossible for those who are no longer living.  They were not interested, or they could not bring themselves to believe, or they had some bad experiences with the church, or whatever.  But with God, says Jesus, all things are possible.  There is no guarantee here, but there is a word of hope.  Perhaps no one is beyond the grace of God.  Perhaps.  It is in God’s hands, Jesus said.

    But secondly, there is a warning here.  It is in God’s hands, so, are you right with God?  What does that mean?  Can we just assume we are all okay with good, old God, even if we have ignored, despised, and disobeyed God?  Do you know for sure how this all works?  Are you even paying attention?  Of course, I know some of you are; but I know some of you aren’t.  Sometimes someone will say to me, “Well pastor, you won’t see me too often, I’m not much of a church goer, you know—Ha, Ha, Ha.”  So I wonder, or perhaps even ask them, “Do you keep in touch with God in any ways, other than church?”  God gives his grace freely to all who will receive it, but God will not force himself on anyone who is not interested.  If you do not want anything to do with God in this life, God will not force himself on you in the next life—and you will be on your own.  And how do you think you will manage that once the coffin lid slams shut on your face? 

     The man in the text asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and after what was admittedly an odd conversation, he walked away sorrowful—and Jesus let him go.  If you choose to stay away or walk away from God, God will let you go.  That is a terrifying thought. 

     There is some comfort in this text—it is all in God’s hands.  There is a comfort in that because eternal life is more than I can manage.  There is also a warning in this text–it is all in God’s hands.  I better pay close attention to God and His Word and what he wants from me in this brief life, because there is nothing I can do on my own about eternal life.  I want to know what God says about how this works.  (continued…)

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Philippians 2:12-13  —   Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

Hebrews 2:1…3a  —  Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it…  For how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?

Acts 4:11-12  — (Peter said), “This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’  There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

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Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.  Amen.

–Ancient Jesus Prayer

2005) A Complicated Conversation (part one of three)

Mark 10:17-31  —  As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him.  “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.  You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him.  “One thing you lack,” he said.  “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell.  He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples were amazed at his words.  But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

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The Rich Young Man Went Away Sorrowful, James Tissot (1836-1902)

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     This story starts out with a question—a really important question.  “Good teacher,” says a man to Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  That is a question we should all want to know the answer to.  The life you have right now isn’t going to last very long, and what then?  Perhaps this man in the text has heard Jesus talk about eternal life, or perhaps he heard the accounts of how Jesus raised people from dead; and he wanted to know what Jesus knew about how this works.  How do we get from point A to point B– from this short and sad and uncertain life, to the eternal life in heaven Jesus had been talking about.  This man wanted to know.  We should all want to know that.  Someday, we will all need to know that.

     And the Bible gives some clear and simple answers to that question in several places.  In Acts chapter 16, a man asked it of the Apostle Paul and his co-worker Silas.  “Sirs,” he said, “What must I do to be saved?”  And they replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.”  Clear, plain, and simple.  If you’ve been around the church at all, this is not the first time you have heard this.  It is the basic, wonderful, Gospel message that we proclaim around here.  This is the primary reason that we gather together for worship—to keep hearing this message and reinforcing it in our minds, so that our faith may be strengthened.

     And where did we and Paul and Silas get that clear and simple message?  Well, we got it from Jesus himself, who said in that most famous of all Bible verses, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”  Right there is the plain and simple answer that the man in our text was looking for.  But that is not what he got from Jesus in Mark chapter 10.

     Rather, Jesus had a most confusing reply.  He said, “You know the commandments.”  Commandments?  What does he mean commandments?  John 3:16 doesn’t say anything about commandments, and we always hear we are saved by grace and not be our good works.  What is Jesus talking about here when he says commandments?  And besides, how should we know how well we have to do on those commandments?  We know we are not perfect, so how good do we have to be?  Well, if this response of Jesus seems rather odd, the man’s response to Jesus is even stranger.  “No problem there, Jesus,” he says, “I have been obeying all the commandments ever since I was a boy.”  Wow.

     The next verse says, “Jesus looked at the man and loved him.”  Jesus was probably thinking, “You poor, arrogant, ignorant man; what makes you think you have kept all the commandments?”  Seeing the need to continue the conversation, Jesus said, “Okay, then there is just one more thing.  Sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and come and follow me.”

     Well now, Jesus has everyone thoroughly confused, and, discouraged—everyone–the man who asked the question, the disciples, me, and just about everyone else who has ever tried to understand, apply, or preach on this text.  I don’t get it.  Paul says so clearly in 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.”  And Paul didn’t make that up, he got it from Jesus; and there is not one bit in those verses about commandments or selling everything and giving it all to the poor.  Nothing.  Why the impossible commands and wild goose chase from Jesus here?  (continued…)

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Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.  Amen.

–Ancient Jesus Prayer

2004) Was Jesus Part Irish? (b)

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     (…continued)  So now, let’s look at the first verse of today’s Gospel, Luke 13:31:  “At that very hour some Pharisees came to Jesus and said, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’”  Why is it that someone always trying to kill Jesus?  I don’t know why Herod wanted to kill Jesus.  It doesn’t tell us that here or anywhere else.  It is usually the Pharisees who are trying to get Jesus killed.  And they are trying to get him killed, at least in part, because he was too much like an Irishman.  Let me explain.

     There was a big part of Jesus’ personality and way of dealing with people that was cheerful, pleasant, open, and easy-going—like the Irish.  He could get along with everyone, and even sought out people that others, like the Pharisees, would shun.  For example, there were rules about diseased lepers staying away from the general population.  Jesus not only sought them out, but he touched them, healed them, and restored them to the community.  Tax collectors were despised and hated and avoided.  Jesus sought them out too, and even went into their homes, thus defiling himself according to the rules.  Adulteresses were to be stoned to death, but Jesus wasn’t in favor of that law; and after embarrassing the would-be executors of one woman, he sent them away.  Jesus was too easy-going for the Pharisees, and they worried about what would become of society if everyone was like that.

     I don’t really think that a DNA test would have revealed any Irish blood in Jesus, but he had some of the best of the Irish ways in his personality.  And then again, maybe the Irish, who had at first been fierce and warlike, got their friendlier ways from St. Patrick, who converted them to Christianity way back in the fourth century, and Patrick got it from Jesus.

     At the same time, Jesus could also be like the best of what I saw in my German heritage.  He could speak the truth in love, and be very direct and demanding– and some, like the rich young ruler, went away sorrowful.  He could be very meticulous and exacting, and said he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and that not one speck of it should disappear.  Jesus was very focused, and said no one comes to the heavenly Father but by Him.  And he could be very strict, saying “You have heard it said, do not kill, but I say to you even if you hate your brother you are a murderer;” and to the woman caught in adultery, he said, “Go and sin no more.”  And, there were those who wanted to kill Jesus for being like that too, for being too much like a German.  In Matthew 23 Jesus called the teachers of the Law hypocrites for trying to appear so righteous on the outside but were full of wickedness on the inside.  When Jesus got done with that speech, Matthew tells us that the religious leaders began to scheme to arrest Jesus secretly and have him killed.

     This spectrum between the easy-going, friendly ways of the Irish, and the orderly, strict ways of the Germans illustrates the balance we have to keep in all of life.  Parents struggle with this all the time, trying to decide when to apply strict discipline to keep in the kids in order, and when to let the kids go and figure it out on their own.  And kids learn at an early age how to test the limits.  Keeping this balance takes wisdom and patience and many prayers that, in the long run, the child will respond well.  Sometimes people will say of a troubled child, “No wonder the kid didn’t turn out right, his parents were always too easy on him.”  And, on the other hand, sometimes people will say, “No wonder she is troubled, her parents were always too hard on her.”  It is a tough balance to keep.

   God has always had the same trouble dealing with the whole world, including you and me– when to be tough and when to be tender; when to be easy-going and when to be demanding.  Sometimes when I read the Old Testament I am shocked at how the wrath of God can erupt in explosive punishment on God’s disobedient people.  But just as often I am shocked at the rebelliousness of the people, and I wonder how God could keep putting up with them and continue to forgive them, time and again, giving them chance after chance.  I have heard people say they don’t like reading the Old Testament because they don’t like how God manages things.  They think God is unfair in the way He hands out blessings and curses.  I look at it this way.  I had a hard time raising just two kids in one house and trying to keep this balance.  Who am I to evaluate or judge God for how he deals with everyone in the whole world all at once?  What would I know about that?

     And when I read the New Testament and the words of Jesus, I am, in my own heart, moved back and forth between the demands of God and the love of God.  Anyone who reads the Bible will be challenged by the way of life God expects of us, and one can even become discouraged.  At the same time, one is struck again and again by the “amazing grace” of God, the unconditional love of God, and his ongoing offer of forgiveness when we are sorry for our sins.  We cannot let go of either part of the message.

     We must not let go of Jesus.  Jesus pleads with us, as he pleaded with the people of Jerusalem in this morning’s Gospel, where he said:  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

     May we all be, and remain, among those who are willing to let Jesus gather us in, now and forever.

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2003) Was Jesus Part Irish? (a)

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The next two meditations were taken from a sermon I gave on St. Patrick’s Day of 2019.

Gospel:  Luke 13:31-35  —  At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else.  Herod wants to kill you.”  Jesus replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’  In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! “

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.  Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

     On this St. Patrick’s Day, I will try to make the case that Jesus was at least part Irish.  I base this not on any historical evidence, but on the fact that Jesus could, at times, display some very Irish characteristics in his personality and ways of dealing with people.  If you bear with me for a little bit of silliness as I pursue this line of thought, I will, by the end, get around to today’s Gospel text, and perhaps make a serious point out of it all.

     Actually, I am a bit of an expert on the Irish, even though I am of 100% German descent.  I base my knowledge on the fact that I grew up with so many of them.  I grew up in a town that was made up of about half Germans and half Irish, and not much of anything else.  In fact, when I was in grade school, on the afternoon of St. Patrick’s Day each year, all classes would be dismissed and everyone would go to the gym for a basketball game—the German high school boys against the Irish boys.  What about the others, you might ask; didn’t they get to play?  That question never occurred to us, because back then in my hometown you were either German or Irish (for the most part).

     Even though the town was so ethnically and culturally divided, we all got along pretty well—that is, just so there was no intermarriage.  We all had strict orders from our grandmothers to not marry or ever even date anyone from the other side.  There were to be no German Lutherans marrying Irish Catholics, or it meant big trouble.  It happened all the time, of course, but it always led to an uproar.  In fact, this week’s local newspaper featured a married couple now in their 70’s, the Grand Marshalls of this year’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.  He is a one hundred percent Irishman whose family came from County Cork, Ireland, 150 years ago.  She is full-blooded German.  She said her dad ‘flipped his lid’ in 1966 when they told her parents that they were engaged.  Her dad hollered, he said many bad words, and then he refused to talk to the quiet young man.  The young man then went off to the Vietnam War for a year with that angry old German on his mind to worry about all the while.  After several years things got better, but that is how it was back then.

     Cross-cultural friendships were no problem, so along with friends named Schultz, Schumann, and Albrecht, I had friends named Flaherty, Murphy, and O’Brien.  We knew that we had different rules to follow at church.  For example, we had to memorize the catechism and they had to go to confession.  But none of that presented any problems for our friendship.

     It was working on farms that I noticed the differences most—first when I would work for different farmers baling hay and cleaning barn, and then when I was working for my dad picking up milk at dairy farms.  Generally speaking, the Germans were organized, meticulous, on schedule, and frugal.  Generally speaking, the Irish were easy-going, cheerful, generous, and didn’t watch the clock as close.  And, as you know, all personality traits have their advantages and disadvantages.  German milk houses were neat and clean with everything in order, and the driveways were always clear for backing the truck up to the barn.  The Irish farmers were usually not as tidy, and might not always get around to fixing things right away, so time would be wasted with things like blown fuses.  Sometimes I would have to back the truck in around the manure spreader, a tractor, and four bicycles that were left all over the yard.

     The meticulous Germans were orderly, but they could be difficult.   They weren’t always pleased about a kid picking up their milk, they watched me like a hawk, and they were unforgiving of mistakes.  The Irish were usually pleasant, relaxed, and more than happy to give the new kid a break.  Then again, the Germans were always done milking at exactly the same time.  You could depend on it.  But some of the Irish were very inconsistent and could make scheduling a route difficult and drive the milk hauler crazy.  However, when we baled hay, the frugal Germans would work us harder and pay us less.  The Irish made sure we brought a friend or two along for the fun of it, and, so we didn’t have to work so hard to earn the generous wages they paid us.

     It wasn’t that one group was better than the other.  Generally speaking, they were just different, and oftentimes, the same characteristic could be both a blessing and a curse.  I liked the easy-going nature of the Irish, but only to a certain point.  They could become sloppy and irresponsible.  I liked that the Germans were meticulous and dependable; but again, only to a certain point.  Sometimes they could be unreasonably uptight, demanding, and harsh.   And, of course, there were always exceptions to everything I just said.  That is why I kept saying ‘generally speaking.’  You could never say ‘the Irish are always like this,’ or ‘the Germans are always like that.’  But there definitely were those tendencies, for good and ill, in each.

     Just like there are different ways to be a farmer, there are different ways to be a Christian.  And some of these differences, generally speaking, can also follow cultural tendencies.  The German theological tradition has often been, as you might expect, thorough, orderly, comprehensive, and sometimes very narrow and strict.  Theology is important, Germans want to get things right.  Therefore,  if someone has something wrong we want to work it out, even if that means fighting it out, and there has been plenty of that.  The Irish theological tradition, sometimes now called Celtic Christianity, inherited from St. Patrick, is broader, less meticulous about the finer points of theology, and more a matter of the heart and spirit.  It is a more easy-going, cheerful, even playful approach to the faith, which can be good; but can also, at times, lack substance and be a little too vague for me.  Again, I am speaking in broad generalities.  And, I am not talking about politics, like the troubles of Northern Ireland where the political differences are unfortunately along religious lines.  Nor am I speaking about church structures and politics, Catholic or Protestant.  I am speaking about how serious Christians, in both traditions, have thought about, written, and lived out their faith, theologically and devotionally.  (continued…)

2002) The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life (b)

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     (…continued)  The sins for which the Good Shepherd died are not always dramatic or horrible.  They are often passive, sheep-like little sins.  But still they can lead us away from what is best; and we can, like sheep, end up wandering away from the Shepherd on whom we depend for everything.  The Bible has much to say about lost sheep.

     Did you ever feel lost?  How did that happen?

     Sheep don’t usually get lost by intentionally deciding to run away from the shepherd, bolting off in a sudden, rebellious attempt at escape from the shepherd in order to be free.  Sheep get lost by doing what sheep always do– eating, with their head down, not paying attention to anything but the grass ahead of them.  And bit by bit, or, bite by bite, they simply ‘nibble their way lost.’   And people don’t usually make a conscious decision to longer have faith in Jesus, to mess up their lives, or to get lost.  People, like sheep, often just don’t pay attention and wander away, and end up in trouble, far from Jesus.  Like the prophet Isaiah said, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way.  And the Lord has laid on Him,” on the Good Shepherd, “the guilt of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).

     To the eternal, almighty, Holy God, we could be as worthless as a six dollar hat or a $60 dollar sheep.  We could be hardly worth putting up with, much less, worth dying for.  But we are the ones to whom these words of John chapter ten are spoken: “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  That the amazing grace of the Gospel—Jesus gives his life for a bunch of ignorant and indifferent sheep.

     Several months back, somewhere in the Mideast, two missionaries were killed.  It was a husband and wife team, living far from home and family, spending their lives trying to tell some otherwise unreached people about Jesus.  Then, in the prime of their service, after years of training, learning the language, and earning the trust of the people they are there to serve, they were gunned down, killed for the sake of some political agenda, by some of the very sheep they were there to serve.  It is not an unusual story.  That sort of thing, ignored by a news media uninterested in the persecution of Christians, is going on all over the world, all the time.  Are the sheep those Christians are there to serve worth so great a price?

     In 1905, at the age of 30, Albert Schweitzer was already an international success, having received world-wide acclaim as a musician, historian, and theologian.  He was in a comfortable university teaching position and would have been able to go anywhere and do anything he wanted, admired by all who knew him.  But then Schweitzer heard about the suffering of the people in Africa, and about their need for better medical care.  Schweitzer was inspired by Jesus to do something about that.  So he resigned from his lucrative job, left his world famous reputation behind, and went to medical school so he could become a doctor to some unknown Africans.  He went deep into the jungle, set up a clinic, and stayed there until he died at the age of 90.  Schweitzer went back to Europe only twice for brief fundraising trips for his clinic and hospital.  He gave up everything the world had to offer, in order to offer himself to some forgotten sheep.  Are sheep worth so great a price?

     In human terms we may well wonder about the sacrifices of Albert Schweitzer, that missionary couple, and Rita.  We can hardly imagine anyone willing to do that.  But have we grown so used to hearing about the death of Jesus on the cross that we take that sacrifice for granted and hardly give it a thought?  But that must not be taken for granted.  The Bible says we are sheep, and hardly worth such a sacrifice; but still, such a sacrifice was made for us.  Paul in Romans puts it even stronger, describing us in chapter five not as timid little sheep, but as rebellious enemies of God.  Nevertheless, Paul wrote, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us so that we might be saved (Romans 5:8, 10)-0.

   In John 10:27, Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice.”  We have heard that voice.  And what a privilege it is to know Jesus is still willing to call us, and still willing to receive us.  Sheep spend their days with their heads down, seldom looking up.  But all they have to do was stay within hearing of the shepherd’s voice.  They know that in him is their safety and security.  If they can just hear his voice, they would be all right.

     God’s Word works like the voice of the shepherd.  As we keep ourselves within hearing distance of that word—in prayer, in Bible reading, and in worship—we find there the words that give us the only eternal hope, comfort, and security:

That voice says, “Even to your old age and grey hairs, I will be with you” (Isaiah 46:4).

“Whether you live or die, you belong to me,” the voice of the shepherd says (Romans 14:8).

And, “Come to me all who are burdened and weary, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

And, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).

And, “Cast all your cares on God, for he cares about you; and he will uplift, strengthen, and restore you” (I Peter 5:7, 10).

     “I will lay down my life for my sheep and they will hear my voice,” says Jesus to you.  And what a comfort that is for anyone who is listening.  It is the only sold ground we have.  All else can slide out from under us at any time and be gone in an instant– except for that voice which says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  Someday, everything will be taken away, but even then, Jesus has another place prepared for us.  Everything we have is from that Good Shepherd, blessing after blessing in the good times; and a strong, steady, certain voice of comfort and hope for the bad times, and even for the end of our time.

     Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me; and I give them eternal life and they shall never perish and no one shall take them out of my hand” (John 10:27, 28).

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My Lord Jesus Christ, you are indeed the only Good Shepherd, and I, alas, am a lost and straying sheep.  I have fear and anxiety.  I would gladly belong to your flock and be with you and have peace in my heart.  I hear from your Word that you are as anxious for me as I am for you.  I am eager to know how I can come to you to be helped.  Come to me, O Lord.  Seek me and find me.  Help me also to come to you and I will praise you and honor you forever.  Amen.  

 –Martin Luther

2001) The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life (a)

     Under her senior picture in the school yearbook, Rita was given the distinction of being ‘The Most Likely to Succeed.’  I don’t know if they do that anymore in yearbooks, but in 1977 Rita was the one for her class.  She was a friend to everyone and she was brilliant.  No one was surprised when she was named the class valedictorian.  Rita’s parents were wealthy and they made sure she was given every opportunity to succeed.  She got into a top Ivy League school and had big plans for an important career.

     In the summer after her third year of college, Rita did some volunteer work at an inner-city church.  When it was time to return to school, she decided that what she was doing in the inner city was too important to quit; so she decided to quit school.  For the next two decades Rita dedicated her life to her work in that broken neighborhood; finding homes for abandoned children, getting teenagers into drug counseling, breaking up fights, getting women out of abusive relationships, helping families find affordable housing, and teaching Sunday School.  There was always more to do, and she kept trying to do it all, literally working herself to death.  She was not quite 40 years old when she died of overwork and over-caring.  After the funeral, one of Rita’s high-school friends said, “What a waste.  She could have done so much with her life.”

   Jesus once said to his disciples, “I am the Good Shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for his friends.”  Was that a waste?  Perhaps Jesus could have done something better with his life.  Jesus added, “The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep.  So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away.  But I am the Good Shepherd.  I know my sheep and my sheep know me; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”  In almost all of that tenth chapter of John, Jesus is describing what it means that he is our Good Shepherd.

     We are the sheep.  This is a common Biblical image for God’s people in the Old and New Testaments.  The ever popular 23rd Psalm also uses that image of a shepherd and sheep.  But what does it mean to be compared to sheep?  In our culture, it is an insult to refer to someone as a pig.  In the 1960’s policemen were often called pigs by the young radicals who despised them.  Eating too much or too fast is sometimes called ‘pigging-out.’  My wife sometimes says the inside of my car looks like a pig-pen.  None of these references are complimentary.

     The Bible’s use of the image of sheep for us may not be intended as an insult, but I don’t think the image was used primarily to enhance our self-esteem either.  There were sheep all over the place back then, and people knew what sheep were like.  Actually, sheep are much dumber than pigs.  Pigs are some of the more intelligent of domestic farm animals, whereas sheep are among the dumbest.  On a cold night, for example, sheep will pile themselves on one another for warmth, which isn’t a bad idea.  But sometimes they will make such a pile as to smother to death those on the bottom, which isn’t a good idea for them.  Sheep are so dumb they will run right off a cliff if they are frightened, and it doesn’t take much to frighten them.  Sheep are not particularly clean, nor are they very cuddly, except perhaps when they are small and just had a bath.  Pigs will least get vicious and mean in a fight to protect their young, but sheep are timid and helpless.

     Yet, Jesus refers to us as sheep.  And Jesus  says, “I am the Good Shepherd.  The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”   Why would anyone give up his or her life for one, or even a whole flock of sheep?  What a waste that would be!  It is one thing to give one’s life for one’s family, or best friend, or for one’s country.  But to sacrifice one’s life for sheep?  Is any animal worth so great a cost?  Why should a shepherd risk leaving his wife a widow and his children fatherless for some sheep?  It is an outrageous thought.

   Jesus went on to say: “The hired hand who does not own the sheep sees a wolf coming and runs.  He runs because he does not care for the sheep.”  But when you think of it, maybe the hired hand runs simply because he is a good judge of the value of his own life over and above the life of some sheep.  That sounds to me like good common sense.

     I read one time about a man who had gone out in a boat fishing with some friends.  It was windy and the man’s cap blew off.  He impulsively reached for it, fell into the icy water, and drowned.  What a waste for a $6.00 cap!  Every once in a while we hear on the news of someone falling to their death while posing to take a selfie.  Again, not worth it!

     Jesus pushes this illustration to the extreme to show what it meant for him to die for us.  “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  For sheep.  For whom did Jesus die?  For the crowds that shouted “Blessed is He” and “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday, and “Crucify Him” on Friday of the same week, all following the herd this way and then that way like sheep.  Jesus died for his twelve disciples, and for the many others who abandoned him; for all who scattered like scared sheep when the going got rough, just like Jesus said they would.  And Jesus died for Pontius Pilate, who condemned Jesus after declaring him innocent because Pilate was afraid; timid, like a sheep.  And Jesus died for us, timid as we are with our lukewarm faith, half-hearted obedience, and lack of trust.  (continued…)

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John 10:11-14  —  (Jesus said), “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep.  So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away.  Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.  The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.  I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

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Shepherds search for their lost sheep, but for their own profit.  Men seek their lost property, but out of self-interest.  Politicians visit foreign countries, but only out of political calculation.  But why have you searched for me, O Lord?  Why have you sought me out?  Why have you visited this hostile world where I live?  Why have you ransomed me with your blood?  I am not worthy of such effort.  Indeed, in my sin I have willfully tried to escape from you, so you would not find me.  I have wanted to become a god unto myself, deciding for myself what is good and bad according to my own whims and lusts.  I have provoked you and insulted you.  Why do you bother with me?

–Tychon of Zadonsk, Russian peasant monk  (1724-1783)

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