Sunday, September 18, 2016

Set Free

Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
September 18, 2016
What would be worse, to be a slave or to be a prisoner? People normally don’t choose these stations in life. Who wishes to be a slave when one can be master of their own destiny? Who would willingly be bound in a cell when one could be free to live as one pleases?

The apostle Paul could speak to each, both being a slave and a prisoner. You may wonder when Paul had ever been a slave. He had been a Pharisee, and he was like the Pharisees in the Gospel reading. He knew his position and it was a pretty high one in the eyes of his Jewish compatriots. He knew he was blessed by God because his life was devoted to his God.

But then that same God turned his sight into darkness. He now had Paul’s attention. The very Lord Paul had been trying to stamp out was now calling him to be His apostle. And so, when writing the inspired words of Scripture, Paul would often refer to himself as an apostle. And yet, because he now understood that his life as a Pharisee had centered on himself, he was now just as at home calling himself a slave. He, an apostle of Christ, was by virtue of that calling, now a slave of Christ.

When writing to the Ephesians, though, he doesn’t refer to himself as a slave of Christ. As we see in the Epistle reading, he writes to them as a prisoner of the Lord. As he wrote to the Ephesians, he did so from a cell. But far from seeing this as a punishment of God, Paul saw it as a blessing. He was still able to make known the Gospel.

Having been rescued by Christ and called to serve Him as a Christian he now saw that he was truly free, whether he was journeying to countries to spread the Gospel or whether he was locked up in a cell. He had been set free by Christ. Being a slave of Christ was being truly free, whether or not he was a prisoner.

Paul had a stellar resume as a Pharisee. Had he been present at the gathering in the Gospel reading the host would have escorted him right to the front for the best seat. But Paul now saw himself for what he truly was. He was bound. He was wrapped up in his own sinful flesh, bound by the chains of his sinful desires. If all of his righteousness and unwavering dedication to God’s law couldn’t save him, he was happy to be humbled and now see himself, as he says in chapter 3 of Ephesians, “I am the very least of all the saints.” Paul had been one of those Pharisees Jesus was addressing. He now saw that humility is the order of the day when it comes to Christ.

We see in the Epistle reading his urging to the Ephesian Christians “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which [they had] been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

What the apostle Paul, the slave of Christ and prisoner for the Lord, was exhorting those Christians, was what Jesus was showing the Pharisees in the Gospel reading. One of them was one of the higher-ups and invited Jesus to his home for a meal. But this was a set-up. They were bringing Him into that setting so that they could scrutinize Him. They disdained His teaching and His ministry. Perhaps if they overwhelmed Him with their religious superiority they could get Him to cave, or at least diminish His reputation in the eyes of the common people.

They of course did not believe Jesus was Lord. Even though He was, when He was invited to a meal He did the opposite of the Pharisees. Instead of expecting to be waited on He takes on the role of servant and giver.

In contrast to all the Pharisees and religious teachers present, who basked in the light of their own self-importance, there was a man who came up to Jesus who had dropsy, a condition of swelling due to abnormal accumulation of water. It was the sabbath, the day of rest. Jesus wanted to know: Would it be right to help this man? Would it align with the sabbath laws to deliver him from his condition? Or would it rather be God-pleasing to observe the law of the sabbath rest and leave him in his plight? They couldn’t respond. What were they going to say? Don’t you dare heal him, that would not be pleasing to God? Even so, the very acknowledgement that Jesus could in fact heal the man put them in a position where they seemed foolish to continue to deny Jesus.

Jesus gave to the man what he needed. Jesus was showing what God had intended the sabbath to be for. It was a day of rest and renewal. It was a day in which God gives to you what you most need, restoration. Jesus healing the man shows what Jesus came to do, to restore people to God.

These Pharisees were so swollen with pride that when it was time for the meal they jockeyed for position. Their sense of themselves exceeded their awareness of their need for what Jesus had come to give them. Jesus pointed out to them the obvious, but it’s what they already new. We heard it in the Old Testament reading. Jesus is pretty much quoting that. But they are blinded by their own self-centeredness. They think so much of themselves that they don’t even see that if they seek to attain the highest place they will lose it and be relegated to the lowest place.

Rather, Jesus says, seek the lowest and you will be moved up higher and be honored in the sight of everyone. They would never lower themselves to take the lowest place, though. All they saw in Jesus was someone who was disputing their self-made righteousness. They needed to see themselves as approved by God because of how holy they viewed themselves. They didn’t see that they were bound by their sinful flesh. They were prisoners of the devil’s schemes.

You are not see free from your lowly status by attempting to achieve a higher one. You are exalted when you humble yourself. You and I ought to take note. You and I may not be in high positions such as those Pharisees were, but do we miss what Jesus is showing us? It would be one thing if He were simply telling them and us to be humble. But we’re prisoners, remember? We are often swollen with pride ourselves.

Here’s what Jesus has done. Far from simply speaking from heaven the definitive word, “Humble yourselves and you will be exalted,” He has come down Himself! He did the very thing He was impressing upon us. Jesus is the Lord, and yet He exhibits the very thing He was urging upon the Pharisees and us. He is God and yet bound Himself in a human body. Even more, He submitted Himself to suffer and die on the cross for the sin of the world. For all of those sinners, even, who think of themselves more highly than they ought.

In the Gospel reading we saw how Jesus when invited to a meal became the servant. Giving to a man who had been humbled by a debilitating illness reprieve. Restoring him to wholeness. Jesus is God and Lord, how do you see yourself before Him? Listen to His words and go to the back. Humble yourself before Him. Confess your sin.

And then see what He has done and know that He does so for you still. He humbled Himself to become man and to die on the cross. He now tells you to come forward, all the way to the front. He doesn’t simply invite you to a meal, He gives you a feast to celebrate with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. He doesn’t preside over His feast as the glorious Lord but rather as the humble servant, giving you His body and blood for you to eat and drink for the forgiveness of your sins.

He sets you free by forgiving you. You no longer are bound by your stifling thoughts of righteousness. You are, rather, free to dine with the Lord of all creation and all who have gone before you and who even now feast in glory. You are free because you know that your Lord, though He is Lord of all creation, never sees Himself as so far above you that He won’t help you but rather freely gives of Himself to you and restores you. Amen.


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be

Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
September 11, 2016
When I was growing up I remember people who said they remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when our nation was attacked on our own soil on December 7, 1941. I couldn’t identify with that. We had been blessed for many years not to undergo something like that again, and so I would just listen to those who spoke of the shock and the helplessness when they heard the news.

But I distinctly remember where I was fifteen years ago on this day, September 11, 2001 when I became aware of what was happening, that we were being attacked on our own soil by a foreign enemy.

Much of what happens in life fades away from memory. But certain things are seared into your brain and you will never forget them. When they come to mind you still feel the feelings you felt back then. Especially when it’s something that has been taken away from you. You still feel the loss. You still feel helpless. Your heart still aches, even though the years continue to take you farther away from what happened.

We’ve all heard stories about those who were part of the events of 9/11. Some were supposed to go to work that day in the World Trade Center but for various reasons didn’t, and so weren’t killed in the attack. Some just happened to be there on that day, where they normally weren’t and so lost their lives. Many of us don’t personally know anyone who died in that horrific event. Those who do still face the questions of why things couldn’t have gone differently, why did their loved one have to lose their life in a senseless and unprovoked act and so leave behind their spouse, their children, their loved ones.

The attack on Pearl Harbor and the attack on the World Trade Center touched the collective soul of our nation. They affected all of us. But for most of us it still doesn’t hit home the way it does when violence or loss or grief hit you personally. When the woman in the Gospel reading for today lost her son she must have felt like her whole world came crashing down.

Her husband had already died. He was no longer there to provide for her. In that culture, women generally weren’t self-sufficient but were provided for by the men as they made a living and the women ran the household. Now that her husband was gone she at least had her son who could provide for her welfare.

But then a cruel turn came to fruition when her son died. This is not the way things are supposed to be. She was supposed to live to a good old age and as God was ready to take her home her son would be able to say goodbye to her and express his love for her. But now she was the one burying her son.

When Jesus was entering this little town of Nain He came across this funereal procession. He saw how she was weeping in her grief. He knew that this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. His heart went out to her. His compassion for her led Him to go up to her. He said to her, “Do not weep.” When you lose someone you love, that’s not what you want to hear. When you’re comforting someone, it’s a good idea not to tell them to not cry. Crying, in fact, is a blessed emotional release in the midst of grief. It’s okay to cry.

But Jesus doesn’t come to her in the same way you and I would when we seek to comfort others. Oftentimes we don’t know what to say. But Luke tells us in the Gospel reading that this isn’t an ordinary person coming up to this woman. He calls Jesus the Lord. The Lord said to her, “Do not weep.” He’s not trying to make her feel better, He’s telling her that she doesn’t need to cry anymore because He is going to remove the cause of her grief.

He doesn’t tell the pallbearers to stop. He gently reaches out and touches the platform they are carrying the dead body on so that they will stop. His words to the woman to not weep will be attached to action which will remove her sorrow. His next action is remarkable. His action is one which won’t do any good for anyone. He speaks to the dead man. Sometimes people will talk to their loved ones who have died, but they are speaking to them because it’s comforting to be able to talk to them as they did when they were still alive.

But Jesus speaks to this dead man as if he will hear Him, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” But because Jesus is the Lord the dead man does hear Him and gets up and begins speaking. He is alive. Death is not the way things are supposed to be. Especially when people die young and parents experience the loss of their child. But we live in a fallen world, one in which people die. And when people die, they can’t overcome that. When you lose your loved one, you know they’re gone.

Jesus speaking to a dead man is not the way it’s supposed to be. People don’t come back from the dead. But Jesus is reversing the course of this fallen world. He is coming to bring true comfort to people in their grief. Not platitudes, “Don’t worry, things will get better.” “Don’t cry, things could be worse.” “You hurt now, but time heals all wounds.” These things don’t bring comfort. There’s no true sympathy here, let alone empathy.

Jesus comes with true compassion. He comes with compassion which is able to bring about joy in the midst of sorrow. He gives the young man back to his mother. She was the one Jesus was ministering to. He saw her in her sorrow and brought true comfort to her by removing the cause of her sorrow.

Of course, it’s glaringly obvious that the exact thing He did for her is not what He does for us. Those who continue to grieve the loss of their loved ones in 9/11 aren’t likely to get a visit from the Lord as the widow in Nain did. Those of us who still deal with the daily pain of losing those close to us shouldn’t be counting on a spoken word from the Lord, “Do not weep, I am going to bring your loved one back to life.” Her sorrow was turned to joy, what about for us?

It’s worth considering that while this woman was truly blessed, this was not the ultimate reason Jesus came. And there are hundreds and hundreds of other people who were touched by Jesus, recipients of His spoken word, healed, restored, and even raised from the dead. What this means is that there were millions more who were not. While Jesus came to carry out these actions, it was not for their sake alone. It was a part of His ultimate ministry.

It’s not the way it’s supposed to be, but His ministry is that He came to die. If His heart went out to this widow in her sorrow, perhaps it’s because He knew what His own Father would experience when His own life would cease on the cross. It would have been an enormous display of power if Jesus had come to go around to as many places as possible and heal as many people as possible and raise as many people from the dead as possible.

But this is not what He did. It’s not what He came to do. Instead, He confined His ministry to a mere three years of time and to a geographical area about the size of San Diego county.

No, what Jesus came to do was die. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. God is eternal. God is without beginning and without end. God does not die. He can’t die, He’s God. And yet, in compassion beyond our understanding, He became a man. He was born. He lived. And He came to a point where He willingly suffered Himself to be nailed to a cross and have to look down upon His mother whose heart and soul was wrenched as she saw her Son in agony and finally draw His last breath.

It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. But we weren’t supposed to sin, either. When we did, God in compassion came to us and said, “Do not weep.” It’s not a platitude. It’s a statement of authority, power, and compassion. It’s also an action. In speaking, your Lord brings you into joy you cannot comprehend.

And contrary to what it may seem, it is in the same way He did it in the Gospel reading. Paul says in the Epistle reading that God “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.” Certainly the widow at Nain saw that the Lord did more abundantly than she could ask or think. But it so with you as well. You were as the dead son in Nain. You were dead in your sins. In Baptism you died another death, brought by the Holy Spirit into the death of Jesus, who is your Lord. He raised you in those waters where His word was spoken to you, “I Baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

You were born in sin. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. But Jesus died so that you wouldn’t die eternally. He was raised from the grave so that you will be raised from yours. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be, but you continue to sin. It grieves your Lord, but He comes to you in compassion. You need to repent. You need to grieve over your sin yourself so that you may see that your Lord loves you so much that He is willing to give you Himself to bring about true joy. He gave His life for you on the cross and gives it to you in bread for you to eat. His lifeblood was poured out for you on the cross and He pours it into His holy cup so that you may drink the blood of life.

He forgives you, He restores you, He gives you true comfort, true hope, true joy. Amen.

Lutheran Service Book Lectionary: One-Year, Gospel