“Cleansing the Lens” – A sermon based on Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians

Have you ever reached a point in your life, when, everything that you thought was true and ‘right’ about the world, was indeed exactly the opposite of what you knew to be true? It’s a humbling feeling to have a life-long held value shattered by another’s wisdom.

The Bible is full of such wisdom, and by the word ‘wisdom’, I don’t necessary mean the wisdom books of the Old Testament like Proverbs and Psalms.

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The Holy Scriptures require a humble reader who shows reverence and fear toward the Word of God, and constantly says,‘Teach me, teach me, teach me…. The Spirit resists the proud.’– Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol.54, 379; Table Talk, 5017

By wisdom, I mean instruction for daily living.  It can be difficult to define wisdom, but people generally recognize it when they encounter it. Psychologists might tell us that wisdom involves an integration of knowledge, experience, and understanding that incorporates open-mindedness for the uncertainties of life. There’s an awareness of how things will play out over time, and it confers a sense of balance.

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But I wonder if that is how people of faith understand ‘wisdom’ especially as we encounter the Word of God from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

If you read the Bible and you’re not gaining in wisdom and understanding of God, I would begin to wonder about your approach to scripture.   When we read the Word of God, we expect the Holy Spirit to show-up and illustrate something fresh that we hadn’t already known about God; which is to say, to learn something about our own self in relation to God.

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Paul says that God’s acting through the cross of Christ isn’t found in worldly wisdom.  God bypassed the sages and scribes, the philosophers and debaters with all their learned debates and learnings. What we are talking about here is a mystery.  God is both revealed in the cross of Jesus, but God is also hidden.  It’s a paradox where both things are true.  So, Paul goes on to say   the Jews see only a sign of weakness in the cross… They want power like what they saw in the exodus from Egypt, or the crossing of the Red Sea. Might signs of Yahweh that liberated the people. But that’s not the power of the cross, where the power is in the weakness (yet another paradox, both weakness and God’s power are true).

And the ‘Greeks’ (the rest of humanity from a Jewish point of view) are seeking a message and a teaching that makes sense; a message that is logical and rational. For the ‘Greeks’ to take a man who was crucified as a foundation for one’s life seemed to them to be simply irrational.  It cut against the grain of ‘knowledge’.

Yet, Paul’s argument is that Christ crucified is the power of God and God’s ‘wisdom.’  Could it be, per Paul, the real problem with those who don’t understand his message of the cross and the foolishness of worldly wisdom is that we need a new way of seeing things.   Such that, it becomes totally necessary to cleanse our lens of seeing the world.  And reexamine how we understand the way of the world through the cross of Christ.

Lutheran Christians make that claim that as one reads the Word of God, one should do so through the lens of the Cross of Christ.  And that through the Gospel, we see the world has God intend the world to be.  Through the Holy Spirit, our lens of seeing is cleansed and we are given ‘ideal’ eyes by which to see the real nature of reality.

The more I write about this, the more Paul’s message of the cross makes sense.  When we lead our life with judgement and blame, we can’t see the world correctly.  When we lead with fear, we can’t see correctly. When we lead with shame, we can’t see correctly.  When we leave with domination and might, we can’t see correctly.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that later there isn’t a point of caution or even judgment, but to see clearly means that we can’t lead our life with them.  If we lead with a concocted or calculating mind, we will never get the chance to love and experience true love.  We’ll simply cut down and close too quickly; our heart is unable to remain open and we simply will not have a clean lens in which to see God. It has John of the Cross has said, “God refuses to be known except by love.”

It’s such a sad reality that the state of our culture and the deconstruction of our society is such a cynical response to the reality of what’s happening all around us.  As a people, we’ve become cynical about ourselves, our world, and our future.  For so many people life is lived devoid of meaning, purpose, or even direction.  And increasingly the case becomes that we are only aware of what is not and can we rarely enjoy what already is.   Do you hear the two ways of seeing in that statement?  What isn’t and what is… It’s a lens of seeing.

I think what Paul is getting at in this text is that the message of the cross leads a disciple of Christ to be enthusiastic about what is, and not to be angry about what isn’t.

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So, our first job as disciple of Christ must always be about seeing correctly who we are, and then to act on it. Don’t live in a false reality of who you’ve been created to be, BE YOU!  Live a true life, not a false-self. Don’t believe for a second that living into your true-self is an easy thing to do.  Some people wrestle with their true-self every day and are never fully aware of who the Creator has created them to be. It takes immense courage and humility to see ourselves correctly, and perhaps the most courageous thing we can do with our life is to accept with humbleness the mystery of our own reality.

Do you see the message of the cross in that?   Living in a way in which God wants me to live vs. how I want to live or what I want to get out of life.   They can very likely be two very different ways of living.

And this way of seeing is exactly what Jesus taught in the beatitudes.  Wisdom of the world is simply flipped upside down.  God’s way of seeing isn’t our way of seeing through the teaching of Jesus in which the ‘poor in spirit’ receive the kingdom of heaven, and those who ‘mourn’ are comforted.  Jesus’ message is not one of despair and gloom, but rather, ‘rejoice and be glad’.  Be glad when you are persecuted for righteousness sake and hurl all kinds of profanities because of our faith in Christ.  It’s not what we want to hear from Jesus, but that’s God’s wisdom.

Could it be that the message of the cross is that in seeing through a clear lens while gazing at the Cross of Christ, God is to be found in all things, even and especially through those moments that are most tragic, sinful, and especially painful.  Moments when we feel the absence of love are the moments when God is most close.  Like the moment of the crucifixion in which Jesus is at the same moment the most sorrowful and worst thing that could happen, yet it is also the best thing in human history.

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The ‘beautiful’ cross:  A paradox of faith.

And in the end, the paradox of faith always must be some form of crucifixion.  We can’t hold two equally true things together that are complete opposite of one enough.  Our minds are too limited.  Heck, consider Jesus crucifixion as the gospels tell the story – Jesus was crucified between two criminals one was a good thief and the other was bad.  Here Jesus hung somewhere between heaven and earth, between God’s shalom and the destruction of earth. And through the cross, Paul tells us in Ephesians that Jesus “reconciled all things to himself.”  (Eph 2:10).

Through the ‘foolishness’ of the cross, a mystery in which true life is found in a journey of death and where rebirth happens when we discover who God is we can let go of our need to be in control of what comes next.

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What I mean to say is that there is great meaning in the mystical words of our communion liturgy “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  And Christ will come again.”  At the end of our life, that is all we need to know.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Good News We All Want to Hear – A Sermon for Christmas Eve

The first words that announced the birth of Jesus were not words that expressed great joy and glory.  They were not the words, “Behold, a Child is born this day…”   they weren’t “Peace be with you” either.

The Bible makes it clear that the first words that announced the birth of the baby Jesus were, “Do not be afraid.”

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Luke 2 – An account of the birth of Jesus. 

Jesus birth occurred during a time when there was great persecution and threats to the Jewish people. It was a time when people lived in great fear because of the Roman occupation and oppression.  There was much more than just the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire… many feared the census that was decreed by the Emperor, Augustus and his authority granted by the Empire.  Still others feared for their lives, wondering when they would eat their next meal.  Fear for their family, despairing over the future and whether their children would have a life of fullness and meaning.

And not only that, there were many skeptics’ who spoke out regarding the established order of the Jewish society.

All this fear and anxiety makes its way into the story of Christmas through what was perhaps the most vulnerable people of the day – those who shepherd the livestock.  The shepherds, undoubted, were afraid of the sudden appearance of the angels and the glory of the Lord that shone around them.  Then, as it is now, such appearances of angelic beings are not every day events.

That– seemingly ordinary night– there upon a Galilean hillside, the shepherds kept watch over their flocks.   We can’t know what was in their hearts and thoughts, but can only imagine that there had to be something more to life.  Fears and anxiety about being in the wilderness alone, about personal safety, economic safety, societal safety.   Perhaps, just when they may have had enough fear, then the angelic hosts come and heap yet another layer of fear upon them.  “Don’t be afraid.” 

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And with those words, then the announcement comes that there will be great joy for people of the world.  Born is the messiah, the Christ.  And, at least for the shepherds, the even greater news that he is one of them…  He was born in a manger and wrapped up in scraps of cloth from what was found lying around.

The bible says, the shepherds when from their hillside position and traveled to Bethlehem to see the baby and his parents.  When they say for themselves, they made know all that they had seen.  In this baby, Jesus, there was a source of great hope.  Perhaps the message of the angels and the sight of the baby Jesus lessened their fear and anxiety of things to come.

Most of the fears that were around in ancient times have not been erased in our day.  Countless numbers of people still struggle for daily bread and the uncertainty of work; we worry about our children, families and for safety; we fear the unknown.

And in many cases, the fear has only intensified over the past two thousand years since the first Christmas.  This past decade has a host of founded and unfounded fears and threats for those of us who are Americans.  The threats and fears of terrorism, immigration, economic uncertainty, and a changing climate are real.  Our public discourse mirrors our fear, often degenerating into rage and putting down others who disagree with us.  Yes, we still have much to fear.

Fear, in many cases, is a natural and necessary instinct.  But when it traps us into believing that the best has already come, it prevents us from the seeing a vision of the glorious and forthcoming Light that is trying to break into this old hurt and broken world.

This Christmas, as it was for the shepherds, Jesus comes to the world not eliminate our fear and anxieties, but to enable us to a more life-giving response to what is happening in the world around us.  Let us not be naïve to believe that the shepherds fear melted away when they heard the angelic pronouncement of the birth of Jesus proclaiming, “Do not be afraid.”  But these shepherds after hearing these words, did not flee the scene, run and through their necks in the sand and hid; instead they “went with haste” the things that had taken place and to tell others what had taken place.

This witness of the shepherds leads us to consider our own fears.  What are they? And how might we respond to the fears we all face? How can we respond not with a “flight or fight” response, but with (and out of a place of) love? As the one who are called to share the Good News of the birth of the Prince of Peace, we also proclaim that no matter what the future may hold, our fear does not get the last world.

The angelic host announcement still abides.  “Do not be afraid.”  Later in the story of Jesus, at an empty tomb, to women who visit a tomb they believed to hold the dead body of this baby we celebrate this night, we hear again the words, “Do not be afraid… He is not here, for he has been raised.”

Hear again those great words of wisdom and hope… “Do not be afraid.”  Spoken from a voice that brings us great hope and liberation, but also a voice that starts in the dark of night by meeting the shepherds (and us) in our darkness and addressing our fears.

May the shepherd’s words be enough for us this Christmas as they announce God’s better way in Jesus Christ.  For the angel comes here, too, to stand among us.  “Don’t be afraid,” they say.

God is with you, so, for God’s sake, do not be afraid.

Peace, blessings and joy for a most wonderful and merry Christmas. Amen.

 

 

 

“The One Who is to Come? Really?” A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

We in the church have made our doubts into something that has become a negative word for many.  It is rarely used in a favorable way.  For example, if I say to you, “I have my doubts about something.”  You would probably surmise that I don’t think too favorable about the matter.   Faith, not doubt, is the great word of the church.  I love the following quote from Fredrick Buesner who said the following:

  “If you don’t have doubts you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith. They keep it alive and moving.”

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I have a suspicion that many among us have our doubts about matters of faith. Perhaps you do not share these feelings with anyone; but your doubts are there, and they are real. Your worship does not express your doubts, uncertainties, and skepticism. In facing this situation, all of us at times cry out with the man in the Gospel, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” This capacity to doubt can often lead to some of life’s most profound questions.

Times when I find myself doubting faith, I remember that doubt is not the opposite of having faith, in fact doubting is simply one aspect of having faith in something.  Take for example the main character in our Gospel text this morning.  Such was the case for John the Baptist.  His question – “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” – grew not out of his uncertainty, but out of his doubt. John the Baptist had heard about the words and deeds of Jesus, but what he had heard did not match up with his expectation of the Messiah.

After all, Jesus was born not to royalty, but to a peasant woman. He did not function as a military ruler or one who lead with power and might, but as a servant. He came not as a judge, but as a forgiving redeemer. He did not bring condemnation; he brought God’s love. He did not associate with the religious establishment, but he went from village to village associating the marginalized. He spent his time and energy with the least and the lost. He was most concerned with the powerless: the blind and the lame, the lepers and the deaf, and the poor and the outcast. And Jesus dared to teach the weak occupied the most important place in the Kingdom of God.

John the Baptist became confused about the way in which Jesus talked about being the messiah. He had doubts about Jesus.  No doubt, he was concerned.  He spoke the truth to power and as a result he was imprisoned on account of his believe about Jesus.  His skepticism caused him to send one of his buddies to Jesus with the question: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Without pause, Jesus answers them,

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

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And that is one of the ways that we will have to respond to the One who comes to us during this season.  We will be forced to respond based on what we see and hear.  The One who is coming will not force himself on us.  No other person has the power to make us decide.  Our response will rest on what we hear with our ears and see with our eyes.  That was the way it was for John the Baptist and that is the way it is for you and for me.

There is a danger that we can look for Jesus in all the wrong places and listen to all the wrong voices.  The danger is that we look to the places of power, privilege and prestige as a sign of Jesus’ coming.  But chances are pretty good that we will not see Jesus in the halls of power and prestige.

Instead, Jesus will be found where sight is given to the blind, legs given to the lame, hearing to the deaf, and new life is found for the dead.  The Messiah is found wherever the powerless are given power.  Want to see Christ?  Look to the parts of today’s world where the weak are being made strong.

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It happens all the time, we simply need to open our spiritual eyes to see the power of God at work.  Weakness becomes strength for the homebound who receive a visit, for a homeless family who is housed in a shelter on a cold winter’s night, for a sick person who receives a visit from her friend, for a hungry child who receive nourishment because of the food pantry.

There is also a danger that we will not respond to the One who is to come because we do not hear his voice.  The reason that we do not hear his voice is because we are listening to the wrong ones.   Instead of responding to the voice of the Shepherd, we hear and respond to the voice of the commercial Christmas.  There are simply too many voices this time of year that appear so promising, alluring and so full of power, yet they are simply empty.  That danger for us is that we will listen only to those voices that promise us privilege, security, and power.  We buy into the idea that we need more stuff to live happy. And the greater danger is that we will not year the Voice of the coming One beyond and above the noisy crowd.

Only when we slow down and listen are we able to hear the voice of the shepherd. Only when we are alone, quiet and listen for the voice of Christ, does the story of Christmas make any sense.  Only then our doubts are overshadowed by our faith in Christ.

But, there is an even greater danger than the risk of looking in the wrong places and listening to the wrong voices. It is the danger of not looking afresh at what Jesus did and not listening anew to what he said. One of the ways that we can prepare for Christmas is to study again the deeds of Jesus and to read again the words of Jesus. Like John the Baptizer, we need to respond based on what we see and hear in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. If we do not study Jesus’ deeds and listen to his words, then we will make the coming One into something that he is not.

Because of his doubts, John the Baptizer introduced us to the One who is to come. And like him, we will have to respond on the basis of what we hear and see.

As we move swiftly through the rituals of the season, let us not fail to look and to listen. Not looking and not listening might cause us to miss the point of it all, and that would be a sad and terrible thing.

 

You KNOW What Time It Is- A Sermon for Advent I

It’s the same year-after-year.

On this most sluggish of American weekends when it takes many three days to recover from one day of gluttony, this lazy weekend when some people sleep in for four days in a row – it is this Sunday that the church decides to defy the culture and catapult us into a new year – smacking us first with judgment and then with demand.

It is this weekend that the liturgical calendar tells us to “Wake Up!” Life as we know it will eventually end.

Get up!

The world as we experience it will surely change.

Watch!

The God we think we know is about to become for us a God we have never met.

Yes, my friends, today is the first Sunday of Advent – the season of moving toward a God who will overrun our predictable world and shake us up.

I feel ready enough for this Advent. 

am ready to hear the stories and learn the lessons which this season has to teach us – stories about how to wait, lessons about how to repent, teachings about how to endure in the middle of the night, when burdens weigh down and anxiety overcomes.

 I am ready to figure out how to be a faithful Christian at times when Jesus seems far away and the world seems ready to fall apart.

Our Gospel text this morning comes from the section of Matthew’s Gospel that many people call Matthew’s little apocalypse.  He wrote about the end times.  The community in which he wrote was growing weary and lethargic of waiting on the return of Christ. 

They had lost the vision of God’s rich and peaceable kingdom on earth.  At the time of his writing, they had been waiting for about 80 years and not much had happened.   

First Jesus reminds us of how the Old Testament people in Noah’s time did not take God’s call to be ready seriously.  Like them, we too are relatively unconcerned about being ready for God’s coming, and we go on living in a business as usual manner, not being too concerned about the wickedness that is so rampant in our times.  Many point to the increase of natural disasters, or the increasing exploitation of the poor and the natural world, the general disregard for the law and ethics, our lack of faith as well as trust of one another.  The times we are in are not much different that of Noah’s time when the earth was flooded and there was a new beginning to the established order.

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The second illustration that Jesus uses is that of two people working beside each other.  When the Son of Man returns, one will be left and one will be taken, whether working in the fields or in the mill.  The text’s final example is the unwary householder who should have made preparations to prevent a break-in.

I think the lectionary provides for us at this new year in the church cycle the opportunity for us to reflect on the preparations that we make for the coming of Jesus.  Have we lived fully every day, making the most of what we’ve been given?  Have we done the things that we should have done?  Have we passed on to the youth the important truths about the Christian faith and given them the spiritual tools they need as they begin to wrestle with a demonic world?

Sisters and brothers in Christ, what I’m asking you to do is to ask the question of yourselves once again, “How do I place Christ in the center of my life?”  Perhaps in order to answer this question, we need to reexamine what it means to be a Christian.  We might want to restudy what baptism and receiving Holy Communion are all about.  We might want to review what the Christian confessions and the creeds are all about.  We might want to explore again what the ministry of all the baptized, the priesthood of all believers, is about as we pursue our daily vocations and callings.  We do need to rediscover what it means to let go and let God.

Sisters and brothers, each of us lives in the shadow of the apocalypse – the dark reality of the end of our time and the end of the world’s time.  That is the warning of Advent.  But there is good news.  There is also the promise of Advent – the promise that in the darkness, in the shadows, in the unpredictable anxiety of our unfinished lives, God is present.  God is in control and God will come again.  With each Advent candle we light, the shadows of darkness recede a little more and the promise return of the messiah comes ever so closer.  With each candle we light, we are proclaiming that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome the light. 

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The promise is that wherever there is darkness and dread in our lives, wherever there is darkness and dread in the world around us, God is present to help us endure. God is in charge, and hope is alive. And as long and as endless as the night seems, morning will come – in God’s good time and God’s good way.

How often as a pastor have I talked with people who assure me they’ve committee their life in trusting God to lead the way, yet can sleep at night because of worrying of the problems and trials of this life. As I listen, in the back of my mind I think to myself that if someone says this and still have worries and anxieties then they probably haven’t given all their problems to god.  It’s so tough to trust God.  It’s difficult to say to God:  “Here are my problems, but I really don’t expect you to solve them, so I will continue to worry with you and in a way I can help you solve them, God.”  Yet when we let go and trust God it is to recommit our lives to Jesus; to know that there are no problems that God cannot solve; to struggle every day to place Jesus at the center of our lives, where Christ rightfully belongs, so that he can direct our lives and our days.

And so we have a choice. We can wither away with anxiety. Or we can wait expectantly. We can bury our fears in our sleep. Or we can wake up and watch the horizon. We can crawl into caves of dread and despair. Or we can find our way into the hallowed halls of hope. We can give up and settle for little. Or we can work diligently for the salvation of the world – trusting that God will complete our work with wholeness and abundance.


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My friends, this Advent season, we are called to embrace the darkness, to trust the Presence, to watch for the flickers of light, to wait for the sure coming of God in new ways. And – while we wait and while we watch – we are called hope, proclaiming that God is in charge and that one day the kingdom will fully come.


May it be so – for you and for me. Amen.

“Celebrating God’s Saints” A sermon for All Saints’ Sunday

All Saints’ Sunday is exactly as the name suggests; we celebrate all saints.  Saints living and those who’ve entered the church triumphant.   We remember how the saints have showed us what the Book of Acts calls The Way.  The first Christians were known as people of The Way.   Many of those saints we remember not because they sought to be rich or happy or well-fed or popular, but because they made sacrifices, often without knowing the names of those for whom they were sacrificing.

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Do we take their Christian witness for granted?  You bet we do.  That’s why we need days like today to remind us of the Christian forerunners of thousands of years who remind us even to this day to keep our lives’ priorities in check with the God’s values.  Those lives of the saints whom we’ve never met, but who put their lives on the line so that we might gather to worship the risen Christ.   Saints from hundreds of years, or even thousands of years ago who gave on our behalf.  Sacrificing their happiness for a greater joy that comes with serving in the name of Jesus Christ.   They sacrificed their own fulfillment so that others could be filled. They sacrificed their own need to acquire more so others might have enough. They sacrificed their own popularity in their fight for the well-being of others.

This is All Saints’ Day, a day we honor those saints who have gone before us and whose memory is precious to us. It is no accident that these challenging words from Luke are chosen for this special day, for it is wrestling with these words that we come to understand the faith of a saint.

Today’s Gospel tells us that death and resurrection are the great levelers. Status things which seem so important to us now — money, gourmet food, entertainment, and popularity — should not seem important to us in this world; and they will be worthless when we are saints in the life that is to come.

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We live in a time when winning and success are so important, that coaches who lose too many games are fired, the bottom line of a company’s profit-or-loss statement gets the most attention from stockholders, and even congregations are judged as “successful” or “unsuccessful” by comparing this year’s average attendance with last year’s. All Saints’ Sunday is a good time for us to hear once the sports cliché:  The question is not whether we won or whether we lost, but how we played the game.

Because, when we get down to it, we have to admit, it’s not easy living the life of a saint. Jesus talks about that life, and it just sounds backward. “Blessed are you who are poor,” but “woe to you who are rich.” “Blessed are you who weep,” But “woe to you who laugh.” “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” Oftentimes, these words get twisted. “What are we supposed to do?” we ask. “Be a doormat? Lie down and let people trample all over us?” How in the world are you blessed when things are going badly? We think we are blessed when things are going well for us and we’re healthy and happy and safe. But the saintly life isn’t about wealth, popularity, or comfort. It’s about faith and hope, resurrection and life, compassion, love, and purpose.

The saintly life is not just about staying out of trouble. It’s not passive. It isn’t wimpy to live as a saint. To live as God’s holy people takes courage. Turning the other cheek is courageous. It’s bold and it’s tough and it’s impossibly gutsy. “No,” it says, “you will not win. I will not give up. Jesus died for me, rose for me, called me holy, and I will not let that go. I will not let anger and revenge and sin get the upper hand.”

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That’s backward to our way of thinking. It’s not natural. What we want to do, what we are inclined to do, is still largely our selfishness talking, our fear talking, and our sin talking. The good, the noble, the righteous, the merciful, the generous, and the loving — that is God talking. That is God calling. To live the life of a saint is to live in God’s mercy. To live the life of a saint is to live in the often-uncomfortable paradox of being the sinners we know ourselves to be, and at the same time, being the holy person God says we are. Maybe you don’t feel especially holy, but you are. God is calling us to be holy. God is calling us to be his. God is calling us forward. It isn’t easy. It doesn’t come naturally. But God is with you and will always be with you, just as God is with all the saints. Amen.

 

“It Pays to Take Life Seriously” Luke 19:1-10

Paul writes it so tactfully, it’s hard to miss his point.

“Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth bay be silenced, and the whole world may be accountable to God. For “no human being” will be justified in his sight; by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.  But now, apart from the works of the law, the righteous of God has been disclosed….”

Of course, this text was the basis for Luther’s moment of spiritual breakthrough.  He could not earn his way to pleasing God any more than what he was already practicing.  He had discovered God’s grace through the words of Paul which set into motion a re-forming of the church.

Life has never been the same as the Spirit continues to move.

But, it was this revelation of God’s grace that cause Luther to understand that no matter how hard he tried to gain God’s favor, he failed.  There had to be a better paradigm.

It was his profound understanding of God’s grace that lead Luther to spark the work of the reformation and led Luther to stand for the Word of God.

Luther’s story is a parallel in many ways to the story we have today of Zacchaeus.  Many of us know the story of Zacchaeus well.  Every time I hear the word Zacchaeus my mind goes back to Vacation Bible School – the Zacchaeus song.

Now he may or may not have been short. The Bible just says he was short in stature.  And unable to catch a glimpse of Jesus who was passing through Jericho, Zacchaeus runs ahead of the crowd and climbs a sycamore tree.

Fact is, Zacchaeus was wealthy.  He made his wealth from his fellow Jews working for the gentile oppressors.  He collected their taxes and skimmed a little off the top and kept it for himself.  That’s how the system worked.   Except that Luke mentions that he was the Chief Tax Collector, so he had other do his dirty work, he just oversaw the process.

Certainly, Zacchaeus must have been a spectacle up in the tree.  A grown man dressed nicer than anyone else.   Just last week, heard Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the publican and that “all who humble themselves will be exulted.”   Here’s the example of a wealth individual giving away half of his stuff to get right with the Lord.

Zacchaeus is not a good guy at heart; he is a bad guy who encounters the transformative grace in the person of Jesus. It’s a reflection of the grace of God even upon those who’s intentions are not the best; for the “Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Jesus is concerned about the lost, even to the point where salvation happens instantly.  “Today salvation has come…”  Jesus says.  This is the time of deliverance and forgiveness.  Today is the time to open up our eyes and see what God is doing all around us.  When even one person is offered a word of forgiveness, hears a word of affirmation, clings to hope that life can be different, things can change for the better, or even resolves to live by a new set of values, there is the Kingdom of God at work.

We also know, there is a bit of justice in this passage that makes us side with the Jews in a misplace trust with Zacchaeus.  He was doing the work of the oppressor and making money off his fellow Jews.  We would expect Jesus to side with the oppressed, the marginalized, but he doesn’t condemn Zacchaeus, he offers him salvation because he, too, is a child of Abraham.

Jesus must have known what was in Zacchaeus’ heart.  The people were not going to forgive Zacchaeus, and therefore, Zacchaeus was caught in an enslaving prejudice that people would not allow him the space to change his ways.

Rick was a boy who never was able to escape his past.   He grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and everybody discredited him cause of his family name and the friends he hung out with.  He knew what he was doing was wrong.  He knew of the hurt he caused others.  He knew that the way he was living was not going to end well.  But he was also smart enough to realize that he was trapped by the system.

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The system that kept his enslaved to his wrong ways and the people whom he had hurt.   He needed to have a clean start, but that wasn’t going to happen while he hung around town.   He enlisted in the Army after he got out of jail and took life seriously.  He worked hard to change his ways when his superior officer took notice and believed in him. He worked his way up and achieved a new value to life.  He got married to a wonderful woman and after his service in the army he found work at a car dealership where he worked his way up to become the manager of the service shop.

Life was able to move on for Rick because he escaped the enslaving prejudice of people who believed that Rick couldn’t change.

Over and over in this Gospel story, we hear the whispers of the crowds, “He’s a wealthy tax collector.”   The people were impediments to a better life for Zacchaeus.  He was the one who needed liberation and it wasn’t until he met Jesus that life got better for him.

 

unknown-2This story can be true for so many of us.   Many of you can stand up and offer a testimony like Zacchaeus about how life was before Jesus entered your “house.”

Jesus stopped for a single person who found himself standing in the need of grace.  “Today” came for Zacchaeus because he wanted to see past his wrongdoings and shed his old ways for a better life.   Today can be filled with joy because God is still at work in the church and the world.  Reforming to bring about a harvest of righteousness and peace.

Words of God’s grace are still spoken and forgiveness can still be experienced.

 

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Remember on this reformation day to be kind to one another.  For we are all still works in process as we understand that even “Today” in Jesus, salvation has come at last even to us.

Amen.

 

Gaining God’s Favor? – Luke 18:9-14

As a parent, I often find myself encountering a situation I’d like to use as a learning example of “what-not-to-do-when-this-happens”.  Maybe you, too, know of similar situations, using the actions of others as a teaching example.

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Touching a hot stove can be dangerous to your child’s health.  Please don’t let your children touch hot objects.

If you touch the hot stove you will get burned.” This style of trial-and-error suited me well in my growing years.  I’m one who learns through experiences – positive and negative.   Those days are over, at least in this stage of life, and now I certainly learn more for negative situation than those that reward.

Yet, even still, as I’ve mature in my many facets of life, I learned to question what I’ve held onto to be true.   Particularly has I’ve grown to understand that:

  • The world doesn’t revolve around me.
  • Other people’s experience is just as important to my self-understanding as my own

What is regarded as truth for me might not exactly ring true for the other.

Jesus tells a parable about folks who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others as being wrong. Two men, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector are in the temple to pray.

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The Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple.

This is a parable from which we can glean much.  WE all have some well protected pocket of self-righteousness deep down in our self that reassures us of our personal worth and merit.  A certain level of ego is healthy, but when we are true self is shadowed by the mask of our ego, life becomes false and untrue.  Not wrong, but untrue.

So this parable is attractive because Jesus shares a rejection of the absolutes by which the Pharisee is defined. The Pharisee displays a one-dimensional spirituality expressed through the obedience to the Law, and at the opposite side of the scale is the tax collector, a person who admits he has fallen short of the glory of his creator and prays for God’s mercy as he is a shamed sinner.

As much as we are conditioned to understand the Pharisee as the one who will be rejected, it is really the tax collect we should expect Jesus to condemn. Even though he was despised and considered low on the morality scale of Jews, as a fellow Jew he would have every right to be in the temple that day.

Jesus parable illustrates that God commends people who come to God for forgiveness. And that a surprise, because we, the readers, assume that it would be the Pharisee who is the righteous one, and Jesus shocks us we he explains that the despised tax collector is the one who, through his prayer of mercy, displays an attitude of humility and gratitude towards the Lord.

I saw a meme on Facebook this week that said, “People come to worship every week to see Jesus and we give them religion.”  The problem with religion is that it is based on figuring out how we good we are when we try to measure ourselves with the Law.   We try to prove how good we are by using a negative index.  “Thou shall not do this… or that”.

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Lutheran don’t understand the Law in this regard, we know the Law points us to our Savior– Jesus Christ, but Lutherans would never suggest we should self-justify ourselves by the Law, but only to the Light of Jesus Christ.

So then we attempt, like the Pharisee, to show how good we are by a positive index.   We examine our week by the good things we’ve done like:  I gave money to the Boy Scout, I helped hold the door for someone who was physically impaired, or…. Some other good dead. I mean, come on Jesus, for me to be right (or righteous) doesn’t someone else have to be wrong (or wretched)? I go to church, I put something in the offering plate most weeks, I serve on a committee or two, and when I have extra time I volunteer to serve those less fortunate. I clean up pretty well compared to most folks, don’t I? Surely I pass the righteousness sniff test in a world filled people who complain and don’t offer much.

And then we can judge our character by comparing ourselves to those who appear sinful.  We tell ourselves, “Well, I would never say such things about him.”  Or, “Can you believe she runs her mouth like that?”

But here’s Jesus’ point in the parable about being justified… Jesus says, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exulted.”  To receive God’s mercy requires that we can’t make it alone, regardless of how “religious” we might be.  We need Jesus.  Plain and simple.

Jesus rejoices in the very worst of us who reach out in humility for God’s forgiveness. To be affirmed as good we must act with humility, otherwise the opposite of what we hope for will happen.

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‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

I mentioned to you that when you come to worship God you should see Jesus.  So, what might this parable look like tomorrow (Monday morning) when you go back to work?   First of all, Jesus says we don’t need to be perfect by putting on airs or falsities.  You are created by God for a purpose and know that we are all with faults.  There’s not a single one of us who are perfect.  Stop trying to be!  Admit that you are standing in the need of God to help pilot your life. Be honest to yourself about who you are and your own need to repent for living a false life. It’s ok to take off your mask, God knows who you are and still loves you!

God’s upside down kingdom requires that to be affirmed to others we must act with humility.  Draw the circle wider to include those “other people”—thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax collectors.

Prepare to be amazed at how God can redeem and exalt the brokenness of others (and you!).  Amen.

 

 

 

 

Healthy Life Includes a Faith Component. Here’s Why… And How. – Luke 17

Faith. 

It’s what we Lutheran say is the only thing that will save us.  No measure of good works.  No earning your way to heaven.  It’s faith in Christ alone that will save us.  If this is indeed the truth, which I suspect it is based on what Jesus is saying today in our scriptures, then, logically faith is everything.  Nay!  it is the only thing. 

Every Christian at his/her baptism, or when he/she affirm baptismal promises is handed a blank canvas on which to fill their life. 

They can paint a picture of their life on the canvas without anyone assisting them.  We call that free-will and God’s blessed us the free-will to take control of the paints and decide best how to paint the picture of our life’s story.  At our baptism and when we affirm our baptismal promises, we must take the paint brush in our hand and get to work. 

Religion is never the goal of painting our life’s canvas but we must start there.  We call religious instruction in the church, confirmation and using the analogy of painting your life’s story, confirmation is nothing more the frame around your painting.  Religious instruction frames what the life of a Christian looks like. 

Now there are many names for religion.  At times we use the word religion, but other times we use other words to describe it.  Sometimes we might call religion “faith”.  Jesus spoke in terms of the “Kingdom of God.”  We profess that we are people of faith, the Church, Christians, or Disciples.  There are many names with various meanings but in the end they all describe the same thing.  We are a people of faith, faith in Jesus Christ to be sure, but faith nonetheless.

We in the Church aren’t a business or an institution.  We do not sell any products.  We don’t advocate an earthy cause. We serve no worldly authority.  We come to a building for worship that has been made by people and to do what? 

Simply put- we come to worship to practice our faith.  But we just as well could have met for worship in a home or in a park setting.

The head of our church is not here, not so that I can show him to you or offer you any sort of proof that our spiritual teacher and savior is here and exists.  This means that faith is all we’ve got. 

We are born through faith, live by faith, and we die by faith.  After I die, then and only then will I know in full, as the Apostle Paul’s speaks when I shall see Christ face-to-face.  Until then I’ve got to understand that this faith thing is all I’ve got. 

Sounds pretty darn daunting, doesn’t it?

But, here’s the good news from our text this morning:  Faith isn’t all that difficult.  Faith in Christ is what saves us.  Faith can set us free if we know how to live in faith.  Faith is the angel to your religion.  So how do you practice your faith and not religion?  Jesus offers those who seek to follow him an outline in the 17th chapter of Luke’s gospel. 

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This morning he’s offered us three ways of take small steps in growing tiny seeds of faith.  Three small steps to make up our journey of faith:

The first small step is learning to forgive.  I start with forgiveness because this is the one that is misunderstood the most.  We are told from our earliest moments that we are always to forgive.  Let me back up a verse or two that precedes this morning’s text:  Jesus tells teaches the disciples about the need to continuously forgive.  We always emphasis the sin and the times we are to forgive.  Forgiving is right and good and holy and needed, but we should never leave out the other word either and that word is “repent.”

We need to learn not just how to forgive but when to forgive.  Forgiving someone who has wronged you and when they have not repented of their sin may just be enabling to continue in the downward spiral of sin.  What I’m saying to you is that Jesus says to rebuke the sinner, but forgive her if she changes her way.  Take the steps and forgive when someone repents.  It is one of the primary things we do as Christians.

The second step we can take is to believing just a little.  Jesus doesn’t ask you and me to have a mountain sized faith; just a little seed’s worth of faith will do us well.  A mustard seed is really no big deal. But from this small seed grows a very large plant in a very short period of time. Using a tiny mustard seed, Jesus suggests a very remarkable thing. He says that if our faith is only as large as this very small seed, we can do great things, as great as moving a mountain from one location to another. In fact, he says, “Nothing would be impossible for us.” As Jesus talks to us about a mountain-moving faith, some of us possess a mountain of doubt.

Often people have doubts about God it seems to me they try to subject God to the limits of their own reason.  They want to place God in a box, on their own terms, according to their own reason.  They seem to say that if they were God, things would be done differently.  Maybe the crux of the problem is they see themselves as God.

Jesus is suggesting something radically different.  If we really want to get to know God, it is better to begin with faith.  Remember:  faith is everything.  So no matter how little our faith might be – even if it is smaller than a mustard seed – God is saying to us today that there is great potential to grow the seed of your faith.

The third small step that is a small one is serving others in Christ’s name is a calling.  Let me honest with you:  God owes you and me nothing.  And if it’s true that God owes us nothing, then we understand why self-righteousness is such a nasty attitude for religious people.   Self-righteousness assumes we are due God’s blessing and grace because of our good behavior.   Take a look at the second half of our gospel text this morning.  It’s a parable that teaches us to avoid a self-righteous attitude.  Imagine you are the owner of a farm with servants.  When the servant’s work is done for the day and he comes in from the field, are you going to wait on him?  Help him relax at his dinner table?  Prepare his meal? Serve his supper?  I don’t think so.  The servant is not the master.

Jesus drives home his point:  the master is under no obligation to say thank you to the servant. 

Why?  Because the servant was simply doing his job.  It is what is expected of him.  The servant is not worthy to receive any compliments when he does what is expected of him.  Now, this doesn’t mean that we should honor those who do good works.  It simply means it is our duty and delight to work in the kingdom of God and we are do nothing in return for our labors.  First and foremost, we live for God expecting nothing in return.

As our communion liturgy says:  “it is indeed our duty and our joy…that we should at all time give thanks and praise to god alone.”  Our duty as a those who follow Christ:  forgive those who repent, believe and cultivate the mustard seed sized faith and serve in the name of Christ who promises us the forgiveness of sins and the offer of eternal life.  Amen.

“The Good Things of Life”-Luke 16:19-31

I’ve been a reading blitz this year….and it’s not been work related!  It’s rare that I get a quiet moment to myself. Reading for the sake of reading, only.   It’s hard for me to find a novel that I want to read, and when I do, I’m hooked. As in, “I can’t put the book down.”  The lasted book I’m hooked on is a wonderful story entitled, “Homegoing”.  It’s a story that traces the lives of two African half-sisters who were caught up in the slave trade of the mid-18th century.

One sister was married off to the commander of the British Slave company who worked with the local people to sell the slaves and the other sister was sold into slavery.  It’s a wonderful, intense story as it develops the details of the two sisters and their families in a way that, although fiction, it certainly and quite plausibly is indeed historically accurate.

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Homegoing” The book I’m currently reading by Yaa Gyasi. 

The sister who was married off into the British officer lived a life of luxury in the court, while her sister sold into slavery lived in the dungeon beneath her as she was shipped off to the Americas.

 

The premise of the story is the story Jesus tells about the Rich ruler and the poor man, Lazarus in our text.   Like the book I’m reading, the parable of the rich man is heavy.

 

But not without reason.

 

How do we hear the truth of the parable?   What will it take to convince us that there is wisdom in this parable.  It’s something that we wrestle as those who are like the first sister in the novel “Homegoing” we all here have been blessed with, as Jesus describes, “The good things in life.”

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So, this parable for us should awaken us to the peril facing us, when by the world’s standards, we have arrived with the finer things in life.

 

Let’s talk about money.  We talked a little about giving last Sunday and I mentioned you can only do three things with your money:  you can spend it, save it, or give it away. Money is not dangerous or evil.  Money is only a tool.  But here’s where the danger comes in, it’s what we do with our resources, or perhaps more appropriately, what our resources do to us.   The Bible isn’t clear about what the rich man sin was about.  Only that it is implied the rich man never saw the poor man, Lazarus lying at his gate.

 

Jesus is trying to shock his listens with a different twist to what was expected to be heard.  They believed that riches were a sign of God’s approval and reward.  They also believed that sickness and poverty are a result of God’s punishment.   Not really much different that some of the theology that we hear in our culture is it?

 

Yet, we come hear from the prophet Amos, “Woe to you who are at ease in Zion.” And then Jesus pricks us with words that we really don’t want to hear.  His words reverse our expectations and shifts us from complacency to action.

 

Fact is if you know about Luke’s gospel and Jesus as the one who is Good News to the poor, you aren’t really surprised by this tough passage.  Jesus mission statement as record all the way back in Luke 4 was that “the spirit of the Lord anointed him to bring good news to the poor and proclaim release to the captives.” (lk4:18).

 

The danger for us is that we can become so smug with the good things in life, that we overlook the poor right outside our door.

 

So, the question that lies before us is will we heed the danger signals?  Will we look with our spiritual eyes upon the world as Jesus sees?  And will we respond in faithfulness to the needs of the world.

 

The question still haunts us, is it a sin to be wealth?   What was the sin of the rich man in the story?  Was it because he was wealth? His sin was that he had an “I” trouble.  Not eye trouble that is treaded with glasses or contacts.  His eye trouble was that he wasn’t able to look beyond his own nose.  He could not see the world beyond himself, beyond his own desires, beyond his needs, wants, or even “deserves”.

 

So his sin was what he did with his resources.  The sin here is not how much was in the bank balance, but that there were blinders that kept him for seeing the needs of those around.  The danger with any of us our wealth seduces us into thinking of our personal wants and into thinking that things can satisfy our spiritual desires. Or, that our believing in our possessions can provide our identity.

 

So, what will it take to convince us?

 

We have the scripture to point us to what God desires for us.  Rest assured, we have the needy at our gate:  people who are poor, hungry, oppressed, and those who have yet to hear and understand the gospel message.

 

What will it take to convince us?  Convince us of who we are in the parable? Convince us of our own blessings? Of our need to share?

 

It is the generosity and unconditional love and grace of God that gives us life and identity.  It is the generosity and unconditional love and grace of God that satisfies our souls.  It is the generosity and unconditional love of God that seeks justice for us as God’s grace calls and empowers us to live out our true identity while seeking the needs of the world. 

 

It is the generosity and unconditional love of God and grace of God that gives contemptment with what we have, meaning and hope for our lives, rich or poor.

 

Are you convinced?

 

 

How Behavior Affects Belief: Three Lessons from Jesus’ “Parable of the Shrewd Manager”- Luke 16

 It’s rumored that while reading the Bible, Mark Twain once said, “It is not the parts of the Scripture that I don’t understand that bother me.  It’s the parts that I do understand.”  There are plenty of passages of Scripture that speak to us and trouble us. 

But, for me this isn’t one of them. 

If you are confused with Jesus’ words of making friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” you are not alone.  It’s recorded that those in the early church didn’t know what to do with Jesus’ words either. 

His words, quite frankly, seem like gibberish. “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into eternal heaven.” 

Taken at face value, Jesus is telling us to buy friends so that when the money runs out these folks will let us into heaven.

Jesus told a parable about a rich man who had a manager who was accused of wasting his boss’s possessions.  So the boss calls him and asked him, “What is this I hear of you?  Give an accounting of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.” 

This much I can understand. 

The guy has been loose with his boss’ money.  So the boss has no choice but to give a pink slip. So, the manager says to herself, “hmm.  What shall I do?  My master is taking away my job.  I’m not strong enough to do manual labor and I’m too embarrassed to go on welfare.  I know what I’ll do.  I’ll use my remaining time and some of my boss’ resources to secure my future.”  So she calls in a couple of the boss’ clients and says to them: “How much do you owe my owner?”  The first client says: “100 gallons of olive oil.”  The manager says, “Hurry up take your bill and make it for 50.”  Then to the second client, “How much do you owe my owner?”  The second one says, “One hundred containers of wheat.”  So the manager say, “Hurry up and make it 80.

The more I think about the manager, the shrewder I think he is.  Of course, he’s dishonest, but he’s pretty crafty.  He knows the pink slip is coming so he was simply insuring he would have some friends who would be indebted to him when he needs to look for work.  

And here’s the shocker: 

The part that we don’t expect Jesus to say:  Jesus concludes this parable by the having the manger’s boss praise him for acting so shrewdly.  Isn’t that kind of upsetting?  Jesus seems to be giving approval to a shady character. 

So what’s Jesus’ point? 

Well, there isn’t just one point in the text this morning, there are many.  I’m going to suggest three things this morning. 

Let’s take a look:

First, Jesus explains the use of worldly wealth.  Do you not know one of the wisest things you can do with your money is to give it away?  It’s true!  Because, as the parable suggests, through giving generous gifts, you and I will be welcomed so much more into eternal dwellings.  In a word, if you give here you’ll be welcomed there.

Just this week, I received two parcels of mail wanting me to give some of my money to them.  They are both important organizations in my life and I continue to offer financial gifts to them because I believe in the mission of the organization.  As I thought about these two organizations, the thought occurred to me that maybe we in the faith community get giving all wrong.  We come up with all kinds of reasons why we should give.  We try the business approach.  We give because we need 5% more money this year to meet our budget. 

Or, we try the flattery approach – You have the means to give more.  You are wealthier than 95% of the world’s population.  We try ego – give so that we can name the building after you.  We try greed – You will get back more than you give. 

We give all kinds of reasons for giving expect the right reason.  We give because Christ gave above all else.  Giving because we are not truly human unless we give.  Giving to keep in mind the grace of God that is alive within us.  Giving because it reflects the nature of who God is.  Certainly those are the reasons to give, but Jesus seems to have a strange way of making his point.

The dishonest steward gains friends by cooking the books.  His master commends her for dishonesty.   Jesus doesn’t even call the manager dishonest. 

He calls her “shrewd.” 

Which leads me to my second point about this parable – character.  Trustworthiness.  Let me ask you a tough question:  in whom would you trust with your money? 

I think Jesus speaks to us all when he says that the person who can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.  Watch how someone handles the little things and you’ll know how they can handle the important things in life.   Faithful with little things and faithful with the big things in life.  It’s the acid test for our true character.  All the money and financial resources you’ve been entrusted with are little compared with true riches.

Listen again to the parable: 

If you have not been trustworthy with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?  That’s Jesus question to you and me and how we use earthly things tells our Lord how we use spiritual things.  Use your worldly wealth wisely.  Use it gratefully and responsibility. Your future true riches depend on it.

And that brings me to my third point about this parable.  Your service can only be singular.  Jesus said it like this:  “We cannot serve wealth and God.”  The family and friends and resources we have been entrusted with are only temporary.  God is eternal.  Don’t make the mistake of putting your trust in worldly wealth.  It will trick you and make you look the fool.  Don’t devote yourself to money because it shifts like the sand barges in the Mississippi. 

Billy Graham said it like this:  “When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost; all is lost.” 

If I were to sum up this parable the lessons that Jesus is trying to teach us I would tell you this:  we live in a temporary world that has eternal consequences.  Use the wealth wisely, be faithful with the little things and the large things and be devoted only to God.  Who offers us enough grace to see us through to the end of life.  Thanks be to him. 

Amen.