Friday, September 23, 2016

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31 I want to begin with the five brothers who were still living—who very much needed to hear what God had to say about the place of money in their lives.  Their rich brother had died and was in hell—Lazarus had died and was in heaven—and both of them would remain there forever.        But the brothers were still living.  There was still time for them to turn aside from the idolatry of greed and to faith in God.  And the question was:  would they listen to what Jesus had to say about money—or would they turn a deaf ear and end up in hell like their brother?
I begin there because that’s where we are and the same question asked of us.  When it comes to money, will we listen to Jesus or the world? 
Is it really true that we can’t serve God and money?  It seems like we do a pretty good job of trying.  Is the love of money really the root of all evil-- or is it possible to love money the right way?  Should we really be content with just the basics of life-- or should we strive for luxury like the world around us?  Does the desire for riches really plunge us into ruin and destruction-- or does it encourage us to be successful in life?
Just like the five brothers of the rich man in Jesus’ day, we are the ones who need to hear this story that Jesus tells about Lazarus and the rich man because the consequences of living a life devoted to wealth rather than to God are eternal and terrible.
Jesus said:  “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day.”  We hear the question often: What would you do if you won the lottery?  And the fantasy begins.  Having the best of everything.  Living a life of ease.  That's the kind of life the rich man was living–and there is no indication that it was ill-gotten gains that he was living on.  He apparently worked hard, invested well, and was enjoying life. 
There's much in this picture that appeals to us.  After all, he's living the American dream!  And if he forgot the God who blessed him–if he neglected those in need around him--well after all, he was busy with life and concerned for himself.
That’s not hard for us to imagine, is it?  Often times we grow complacent (rather than thankful) during times of prosperity, forgetting the God who blessed us and the poor who need our help.  But putting ourselves in Lazarus’ place--now there's a difficulty.  Jesus said:
“[At the rich man’s gate] was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.  Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.” 
Imagine this with me: You have no place to live.  You have no money.  You have no food.  You have no family to help you out.  And on top of all that, you have a horrible disease that disfigures you to the point where you can't even stand up.
The best, most compassionate thing that anyone can think to do for you is take you and lay you at the entrance of a mansion, hoping that someone will come out of those doors, find you, and have mercy on you.  That's the most you have to hope for, but what you receive instead, is a visit from scavenging dogs.
But rather than cursing your situation--rather than being angry at your desperate lot in life--you simply say "God is my help".  And most remarkably of all, it’s not just a slogan--you actually believe it—that is your confession of faith!  In the midst of this horrible situation, when you seem abandoned by God and there is no visible sign of his mercy or provision--you say, "God is my help."  That's what the name “Lazarus” means: “God is my help”. 
It’s difficult to imagine having such faith.  Especially because we know how just a few setbacks in life can make us begin to question God--to demand his help as we see fit, when we see fit--to forget everything that our Savior has so generously given in the past. 
Though they were completely different in life, both Lazarus and the rich man shared this one thing in common:  they were both mortal.  Their physical life came to an end.  Jesus said:  “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.  The rich man also died and was buried.”  No matter what their financial picture, they could not escape death—and neither can we.  Whether we are rich or poor, we will leave our possessions behind and they will not matter to us anymore because we are either in the joys of heaven like Lazarus or the unquenchable fires of hell like the rich man!
Just as they were different in life, so they were different in death and eternity.  When Lazarus lived, he was carried to the entrance of a rich man's house, only to be ignored.  When he died, his poor body was carried to a pauper's grave with no one to mourn his passing–forgotten by the world.
But God hadn’t forgotten him.  The holy angels carried him to his eternal home in heaven--a mansion far grander than the richest man in the world could ever imagine.  The pain of his life passed away never to be experienced again-- or even remembered --and Lazarus’ faith was rewarded with the riches of his heavenly Father.
But when the rich man died, how different was the scene in time and eternity!  His funeral must have been extravagant!  There were family and friends to mourn his passing.  There were people from the community to eulogize his life.

An ornate cloth covered his body and a large, beautiful stone monument marked his grave.  I'm sure he would have appreciated all the care and concern…if he hadn't been burning in the fires of hell.  But that was exactly his situation and it would remain so for eternity.  Jesus said that:  “In Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.” Please understand….
Lazarus didn't go to heaven because he was poor–there is no moral value in poverty.  The rich man did not go to hell because he was rich–there is nothing immoral in wealth.  There are many rich people like Abraham in heaven and there are many poor people in hell.  People don’t go to heaven or hell because of their wealth or lack thereof.  Where we spend eternity is determined by what we have lived for and where we have placed our hope and trust and faith in this life:  in Jesus or in the things of this world.
Lazarus knew that God was his help and lived his life, as difficult as it was, with his eyes of faith fixed on that promise-- and when he entered into eternal glory his faith was proved true.
The rich man lived his life-- as if this world was all there was.  How very wrong he was!  God's Word plainly teaches that eternal torment in hell is the punishment for those who turn their backs on Jesus and serve instead some false god such as money or pleasure or success. 

Now you would think that in hell people would come to the terrible realization that all they had believed and lived for was wrong --and repent of it in tears.  But they don’t.  They exist in hell as they existed in life–separated from God–turned in on themselves–unconcerned for others.  The rich man said: 
Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this fire.”
Even in hell the rich man still saw Lazarus as some one who exists to serve his needs, demanding that he leave the peace and joy of heaven to come to the agony of hell to bring a drop of water for his burning tongue—still concerned only for his physical needs, with absolutely no thought of the pain he caused others.  As he lived on earth–so he would remain in eternal death and damnation.  There would be no relief from the fires of hell for him–then or ever.
“Abraham said, Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.  And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” 
It’s a frightening picture isn’t it?  It’s meant to be!  Jesus tells us this story because he wants us to be reflective about the direction of our life before it is too late.
Have we lived our lives like the rich man?  Have we put our desires, our wants, our needs before those around us?  Has our selfishness caused pain for others?  Have we lived our lives on this earth, as if this life is all that matters?
Through the voice of the rich man crying out in hell’s torments, Jesus speaks a stern warning to us this morning.  He says:  Turn away from selfishness!  Turn away from greed!  Keep your lives free from the love of money!  Open your eyes to the needs of others!  Live with eternity in view!  Look to me alone for help!

Just like with the rich man’s brothers there remains for us a gracious, God-given opportunity to hear and heed the words of Jesus and change the direction of our lives.  Today is the day to remember and take to heart that, just like with Lazarus, God is our help.
Despite the scarcity of our loving concern for others, our Father has given of the riches of his Son’s holy life in place of our self-serving life.  Despite our desire to selfishly hold onto our blessings, God has poured out upon us the blessings of his grace and mercy by forgiving our sins on account of his Son’s bloody death on the cross.  And despite our unwillingness to see the needs of others, he has not only seen our need for salvation and forgiveness and new life, but has met that need through his Son’s resurrection from the dead-- so that life-- not death-- is our eternal future.
God gives us the riches of his grace as a free gift through his Son Jesus Christ and it is this risen Savior, witnessed to by Moses and the prophets, who calls us today to live a new life like his, concerned for others.
And so, we go forth into this new week as disciples of Jesus Christ with our eyes fixed on heavenly, not earthly values---looking for opportunities to show our faith in Jesus through loving and generous service to others.  May God grant this each of us for Jesus’ sake! Amen.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Faithful in a Little, Faithful in Much

Luke 16:1-13 The story that Jesus tells is simple—the scheme that it reveals could be the headline in the Wall Street Journal.  The manager of a business has mismanaged the owner’s money and possessions and he is about to get fired.  His options are limited.  No one’s going to trust him with a similar position.  He is unable to do physical work.  He is ashamed to beg.  What is he going to do when he loses his job?  And so he comes up with a scheme. 
He tells all of those who owe money to the owner to take their bills and reduce what they owe so that then they will be indebted to him for saving them money and feel obligated to take him into their homes when he loses his position as manager.  When the owner finds out about it, with a kind of rueful grin and shake of the head, he commends the man for the shrewdness of his scheme.
It’s important to note that when Jesus tells this story he is not commending the manager for his poor management or his dishonest solution.  He is not commending the folks who got a good deal dishonestly.  He is not commending the owner for his appreciation of the manager’s cunning. 
Jesus simply says:  this is how the world works when it comes to money.  Everybody is working an angle—everyone is scheming—and even when they get taken in, they can at least appreciate the subtlety of the scam. 
But while Jesus does not approve of either man, he does use this story to make a judgment about us and about our use of money.  He says, “The sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.”  In other words, this man at least knew how the world’s economy works-- but much too often Christians do not know how the “economy” of God’s kingdom works and the role that money plays in their lives in time and eternity. 
From the story, Jesus shows us that in the kingdom of the world there are owners and managers of others goods—that money is important--and that a day of reckoning comes when managers will have to open up the books and give an account of how well they have managed the owner’s money.  That’s how the world works.
In the same way, in the Kingdom of God, in Jesus’ “economy”, there is an owner—God—and there are managers or stewards—you and I—and how we use money is important because there will be a day of reckoning for us when we will be called to give an account of how well we have managed God’s money.
Jesus says that many who follow him fail to exercise the same wisdom regarding money and what is spiritually valuable-- as unbelievers do when it comes to what they value--especially when it comes to the future.
The manager knew that his time as a steward of another man’s possessions had come to an end and so with an eye to the future he made plans to make sure he was in good shape when his money ran out—that he would have friends to welcome him. 
Jesus says that we ought to think the same way when it comes to our life as God’s stewards-that we ought to manage God’s gifts with an eye towards our eternal future.  Jesus says:   “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” 
What does Jesus mean by that?  After all, we know how to make friends in the world’s economy.  We take clients out to lunch.  We give Christmas bonuses.  We give discounts to our best customers.  We shop with this guy and he shops from us.
But how does this idea work spiritually in God’s economy?  How do we make friends for ourselves eternally? 
The first thing that we need to realize is that there will come a time for each of us when, in Jesus’ words, “unrighteous wealth fails us”—that is, when money will no longer matter—and that is when we die.  All those things that the world values so highly (salary, possessions, investments) will not matter to us in the least because our life as God’s steward will come to an end. 
BUT…what we have done with God’s money in this life will matter very much indeed in the life to come!  While there is nothing holy or righteous about money in and of itself (it is simply a tool that we use for a time here on earth)-- money can be used in ways that matter eternally to us and to others. 
How is that?  How do we make friends for ourselves through our use of money —friends who will welcome us into heaven?
We do it when we give money for works of mercy and for works of mission—works that show our faith in Jesus Christ—works that benefit those around us for time and eternity. 
In the story of the sheep and the goats found in the 24th chapter of Matthew, Jesus gives us a vivid picture of the final judgment and the evidence that will be presented about each of us concerning our faith in Christ. 
A large part of that evidence involves the way we have used the material possessions that God has granted to us for a time:  whether we have fed the hungry and clothed the naked and sheltered the homeless and cared for the sick.  True Christians did.
On the day of reckoning, when the Lord reads from his ledger, no good deed that we have ever done in the name of Christ for the good of those around us is forgotten.  Not one dollar that we have ever spent to help someone in need goes unaccounted for in the final judgment.  And those Christians who have received our care (even if we never met them in this life) will be part of that welcoming committee that receives us into heaven.
All the offerings we have given over the course of our life so that the Gospel can be preached and the sacraments administered here and around the world—mean that there will people who will be in heaven to welcome us home because of our generosity in giving to the work of the Lord’s mission. 
So, do we do these things and give this money to be saved?  NO!  We do it because we are saved.  We are merciful and generous and giving to others because Christ has been merciful and generous and giving to us—sacrificing his entire life for us on the cross—and we are called to be sacrificial with the money entrusted to us.
It’s just plain old money that we receive in our paychecks—the same money that unbelievers use and misuse in so many different ways that are not pleasing in God’s sight —and yet that same money (used by the child of God) accomplishes eternal things in the divine economy of the kingdom of God. 
Whether we always recognize it or not, there is a strong connection between the faithfulness of our stewardship of money and our faithfulness to Christ.  Jesus says:
"One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.  If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?  And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own? 
            We heard earlier in the sermon about the similarities between the world’s economy and the divine economy of the kingdom—but there is also a huge difference between the world and the kingdom:  and that is the value that is given to money.  In the world’s economy, money is counted as pretty much everything—but in the divine economy money itself counts for very little. 
Compared to the forgiveness that Christ won for us by his death and resurrection, what is money?  Compared to the Word of God and Baptism and Holy Communion, what is an offering?  What is earthly wealth compared to eternal life with God? 
Money is a small thing compared to the spiritual treasures we have in Christ and yet the way that we handle our money says much about our faith in Christ—whether it is real and living-- or a pious lie.  Jesus says:
"One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.  Jesus’ point is this:  the way we use money says something about us completely out of all proportion to the money’s actual value—something truly important. 
Our giving reveals what’s in our hearts—what we truly believe in.  The confession of faith we make in the words of the Creed is important—but so is the confession of faith found in our checkbooks.
So who is the faithful steward?  It is the one who uses money in such a way that it shows that he recognizes and lives by kingdom values in the divine economy—who believes that God is the owner of all things and that we are managers—that money and it’s use will come to an end and that we will one day give an account of how we have used God’s gifts. 
The judgment of the Jesus is this:  No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money."  
The Good News for us today is that even though we have sinfully tried to have it both ways—serving God and money--Jesus Christ forgives us—not by taking away our debt in part like the unfaithful steward-- or using someone’s else resources to pay it--but by taking the whole thing away and paying our sin debt by his shed blood on the cross.
You see, Jesus is the faithful steward of God’s treasure-house of love and grace and forgiveness.  It is these most precious gifts, received in faith, that open our hearts and our hands and our wallets and makes us wise and generous stewards of God’s gifts.  Amen.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Jesus Receives Sinners

Luke 15:1-10 Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus.  And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them."
            There were two distinct groups of people around Jesus that day.  There were the “sinners”—people known in their community for their sins.  And then there were the self-righteous—people like the Pharisees and the experts in the Law who looked down on everyone else who didn’t quite measure up in their eyes.  “Sinners” and the self-righteous standing in the presence of Jesus-- and their responses to Jesus and to his words could not have been more different.
The sinners were drawing near to Jesus to listen to what he had to say and the self-righteous were standing apart from Jesus grumbling about what he had to say.  Two distinct groups of people—two distinct reactions to Jesus. 
And believe it or not, the sinners actually had a spiritual advantage over the self-righteous—because at least they knew the truth about themselves.  They couldn’t hide their sinfulness under a fa├žade of piety.  Their neighbors knew, and they knew, just exactly what they were—they were sinners.  And that was a distinct spiritual advantage when it came to benefiting from Jesus’ message. 
To recognize that we are sinners is still a spiritual advantage—because then at least we know we need forgiveness.  We begin each Divine Service confessing the reality of our own sinfulness—we enter into the presence of God already acknowledging that in thought, word, and deed we have not done the good he expects of us and instead have done the evil that he forbids us to do. 
The sinners around Jesus knew exactly what they were and so did their neighbors and so when they heard Jesus preach and teach about forgiveness for their sins and a new life in the Kingdom of God for all of those who were sorry for their sin and came to him in faith—they wanted to hear more--and so they drew near to him and listened to what he had to say and many turned from their sinful ways and came to faith in Jesus.
The self-righteous were actually in worse shape spiritually than the notorious, public sinners because they didn’t recognize their sinfulness—not because they didn’t know the righteous requirements of the LORD written in the Law—they did, better than the sinners knew the Law by far—and not because it hadn’t been preached to them—it had, countless times as they attended synagogue and temple worship. 
But rather than take God’s Law to heart, as a word spoken to them too--they took God’s Law—a word of divine judgment that always condemns even the best that humanity has to offer to God--and they twisted it into a word that approved of the way they lived their lives.  They worshiped on the Sabbath.  They tithed.  They didn’t blaspheme or murder or commit adultery.  They were outwardly righteous.
But they had either forgotten-- or chosen to ignore-- the fact that God doesn’t only care about the outside of our lives—but also cares deeply about what’s on the inside—about what’s in our hearts and minds. 
And that’s where they had a real problem.  Jesus said that they were white-washed sepulchers (graves)—white and clean on the outside but dead on the inside—standing in need of forgiveness and new life--no less than the public sinners. 
And so Jesus, out of love for them too, taught them that it wasn’t only the one living with another’s wife who was guilty of adultery- but also the one who lusted in his heart.  It wasn’t only the killer who was guilty of murder- but also the one who was angry and bitter towards one another.  It wasn’t only the pagan who was guilty of breaking the first commandment- but also the worrier and greedy.
He taught them what they should have already known from the Old Testament:  that God expects holiness of us through and through—inside and out.  Hard words of law to be sure—but they were spoken by Jesus to bring them to repentance.
We are not immune from this sin of self-righteousness—and we ought to take it seriously for it can imperil our souls.  Very few people are as close to committing the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit as are those who persist, unrepentant in self-righteousness. 
Why is that?  Because so long as we continue in self-righteousness-- we are denying the work of the Holy Spirit who labors to convict us of our sins through the preaching of the Law and we are denying the work of the Holy Spirit who labors to bring us to faith and convince us of our need for a Savior through the preaching of the Gospel.  Self-righteousness denies our sinfulness on the one hand and denies our need for a Savior on the other—and is spiritually deadly.
The self-righteous that day were in such a profound state of denial regarding their own spiritual condition that they were grumbling against the Savior who had been sent to save not only the notorious sinners—but the outwardly holy as well.
So where do we find ourselves in that crowd around Jesus?  Are we the sinners or the self-righteous?  Do our sins grieve us-- or are we among the self-righteous, believing ourselves a little bit better in God’s sight than everyone else? 
At some point in our lives most of us have probably spent a little bit of time among both groups and that is why it is such Good News for us today that no matter which group we are in—the sinners or the self-righteous—Christ loves us all and wants to forgive us of our sins and self-righteousness and the parables he told were meant for all us—sinner and self-righteous alike.
So Jesus told them this parable:  "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?  And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.   And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.'      "Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it?  And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' 
            These stories are simplicity itself.  Both of them tell the story of searching for and finding a lost thing and the joy that comes from finding it—something that we all have experienced—earthly stories we can connect with—but with a heavenly meaning. 
The first parable describes Jesus’ gentleness with lost sheep.  For the first 15 years of our married life Caroline and I had this orange and white English Pointer named Hemingway.  A better dog you could hardly ask for UNLESS he got out the front door and then he was off—running like a madman through the neighborhood.  I would like to say that when I finally caught up with him I was like the shepherd in the parable, gently carrying him home-- but I wasn’t--and he got it.
But that’s not the way of Christ.  He gently takes that wandering sheep of a sinner in his arms and carries it to his flock and cares for it as a shepherd.  For those of us who are sinners--this is the best possible news of all.  We don’t have to be afraid to come to Christ for forgiveness and new life, wondering what kind of welcome we will receive.  Turning from our sins in sorrow-- and believing in him for salvation and forgiveness-- we can be certain that he will welcome us with gentleness.
The second parable describes a woman’s persistence in finding a lost coin.  When Caroline and I were dating, I bought her a little pair of shell-shaped 14k gold earrings.  Tiny little things that didn’t cost much.  She dropped one in the carpet one day putting them in and we spent hours looking for that earring until I finally gave up.  But she never did.  I told her that I would buy her more-- but it didn’t matter—that was the one she wanted –it was hers--and she kept on looking for it for years.  She finally found it the day that we were packing up to move from that house to another.
For those who are sinners, our Lord’s persistence in seeking us and finding us is the best possible news of all.  Not only have we wandered away from him- but we have done it again and again.  Not only have we sinned- but we have done it again and again.  Not only have we stood in judgment over others- but we’ve done it again and again.  And we can’t help but ask ourselves:  Won’t Christ get tired of seeking us and finding us?  Won’t he simply give up on us at some point along the way?  NO!  Jesus calls us to come to him again today and promises that he will receive us.
And why does he do that?  Why is he so gentle and kind to sinners who have done wrong?  Why is he so persistent in seeking us out even when in our self-righteousness we don’t think we need seeking out?  It is because we belong to him—like sheep to a shepherd and like money to a homemaker—we are his. 
God the Father has given us our earthly life--God the Son has laid down his life for us on the cross—and God the Holy Spirit has given us new life through the Gospel.  We are the treasured possessions of him who seeks the sinner with gentleness and persistence. 
Those were the parables that Jesus spoke to the sinners who drew near to him that day but the self-righteous also heard these words and the parables were intended for them too.  And so what did Jesus especially have to say to them as they stood off to the side grumbling about the company he kept?  The words that were especially spoken to them were these:  Rejoice with me-- for what was lost has been found—Rejoice with me here on earth and know that heaven shares my joy over these sinners who have come to me.  He said:
There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance…there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
            For the self-righteous that day this had to be stunning news—that this attitude of Jesus towards those who were sinners wasn’t some kind of moral laxity on his part-- but also the attitude of heaven --and their self-righteous grumbling stood in sharp contrast to the righteous rejoicing of God and his angels in heaven over those who repented.
            Jesus loves the self-righteous no less than he loves the sinful and he spoke these words to get them to see the truth about themselves:  that their good works and their piety and their religiosity was not able to save them—that they needed his perfect righteousness that only comes by faith in him and we know that some of the Pharisees eventually did become his followers.

            The charge against Jesus that day was that he welcomes sinners and eats with them—and that’s absolutely right—he did—and still does.  To all who are sorry for their sins and put their faith in him for forgiveness, Jesus says come to me—enjoy this feast of forgiveness that I have set before you today.  Amen.