Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Growing Faith!

OUR BIBLE study this week discusses the gospel reading for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. The lesson offered expresses faith as a quality given by God, but like a seed planted… faith must then be worked by us in the Spirit.
“And he (Jesus) said to his disciples, "Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.
 Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive him." 
 The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" 
 And the Lord said, "If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, 'Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.
 Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come at once and sit down at table'?
 Will he not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink'? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 
 So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'" (Luke 17:1-10)
Of Little Faith?
In this Lukan account, we find that Jesus teaches his disciples about faith expressed and its resulting outgrowth. First told is the warning against those offending the children of God. This section, found in all of the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, is even passed over by one Lutheran lectionary rotation, but this section is important in that in these words Jesus issues strong condemnation against those who lure disciples who are infants in the faith into sin. The text also warned those who would refrain from forgiving them when they repent.
 On the topic of faith, as requested by the disciples, Jesus related similarly to that which was seen in Mark 9:28 and Matthew 17:19-21. In response to apparent disappointments and perceived failures in ministry, which were felt both here and in the other gospel witnesses… faith was described by Jesus as a small seed that is sown. Jesus used this rather fundamental agricultural example in teaching, but it contained a profound meaning. He related that if the kernel of faith is received and cultivated, a faithful characteristic would emerge and provide great opportunity for future growth. Hence, the illustration of a tiny seed growing to become a huge tree is significant for our present day discipleship. The tree described, being planted in baptismal style in the waters of a restless sea that even may be hostile because of its saltiness… was seen as great potential growth for the church.
 Related next, but only in Luke, Jesus then questioned his followers about their sinful, individual expectations. Through example given, he reprimanded against a false theology of personal glory. He taught that this errant theological thrust would give many persons the impression that foremost is individual reward for efforts. Instead, our Lord described a theology of the cross. In this way he taught that the role of the whole church, including those individual and foundational disciples, was planted toward a faith expression that would unexpectedly move them into an abundant future.
Why So In Luke?
We may ask rightly here why this latter text existed singularly in Luke? What lesson can we learn from Luke’s particular message to his diaspora churches in the Roman Empire in the latter days of the first century A.D.? In seeking answer, first we find that using the apostolic example... a warning was sent to Luke's churches and thus our own… against the quest for glory. The text revealed that already there were in the apostolic age, those who sought personal gain in the new found faith expression of Christianity. We are called therefore in today’s church to pay close attention, just as those ministering  in those early days.
 We must also note that we work in a sinful world where prosperity theology tempts us greatly. We find that we are not to use the worldly measures of church attendance and great treasure accumulated as signs of our personal or corporate fidelity. Instead, as we nurture those new to the faith we are to heed this dire warning. We must adhere to a different spirit.
 In this lesson, Luke related from the common “”Q” source that our Lord described faith as that quality given by God as seed. He tells us that faith given by the power by the Spirit may grow into a great work. But faith and its growth were portrayed as occurring in everyday happenings cultivated willingly through the Spirit, worked out of a thankful response to the call that is given to all disciples. Faith, because it is given by the Holy Spirit, is not a trait nurtured and shown as an individual possession. Faith possessed is not a foundation for boasting. Faith is a work of the Holy Spirit that should be expressed by both individuals and the church… through lowly service. This faith expressed is the basis for forgiveness and restoration of the world around us.
 We in the modern church must note that the gospel message is yet to be preached. Forgiveness of sin is to be made available again and again… to those who around us who may soon repent and turn. Thus faithful partnership in our work within the kingdom will be indeed blessed by the Creator through Christ our Lord. The kingdom will be forthcoming as promised, both now and in the future… as formed by the Holy Spirit. Surely it is God who indeed planted all this through the waters of baptism and the gift of the Spirit.
 
 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Impossible Abyss?



THE HOLY GOSPEL for many Lutheran churches on the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost comes from Saint Luke. In this lesson, the story of eternal fate for persons both rich and poor is told. The story ends in prophetic words spoken that relates to the out pouring sacrifice of Christ…

"There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 
 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.' 
 But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil 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.' 
 And he said, 'Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.' 
 But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' 
 And he said, 'No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' 
 He said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.'" (Luke 16:19-31)


Opportunity Missed
Luke tells us that our Lord spoke to a mixed audience of Pharisees and disciples, and related a story about the death and eternal fate of two men. Not told by Jesus as a parable, however, the story described of the fate of a rich person over against the future, restful abode of the poor. Therefore, we today may say that the characters represent the socio-economic strata of the persons to whom the story was originally told, and also may be applied to similar persons in the world today.
 We note that after his life in which the rich man had ignored the plight of the poor, and saying nothing else about the character of the two men... the telling revealed that the poor man was carried by angels to heaven, while the other was received by the grave and Hades. The heavenly location was depicted by Jesus as being graced by the presence of Abraham. There, in the company of the audience's faith ancestor, the poor man received eternal comfort.
 The story told that across the chasm that existed between the two realms, the rich man was plagued by the sight of the poor man. He thus also asked for relief. Getting no respite from his capture and torment, he then asked that his family that he had left behind might be warned, so that they may learn to live differently.
 We can safely say that at this point in the story, that those gathered around Jesus already had been given a warning… for it was expressed in the Law and the prophets. This pressed hard upon the hearers that as a sinful and stubborn people, they... and we also today… do not take our Lord’s words of future judgment into account. We do not adhere to God’s warnings told.
 At the last portion of the story, where the rich man asked that someone may be sent from the dead to warn them... when the audience heard this, they likely knew that this request went against the dictate of Hebrew scripture, in that it was written…

Surely for this word which they speak there is no dawn. They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry; and when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their God, and turn their faces upward; and they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness. (Isaiah 8:20-21)

Thus the scriptural tradition upheld rightly that the wide chasm between the two realms is indeed fixed. It is not possible for the rich, the poor, or Father Abraham to cross from death unto life. The great divide can only be crossed by the power of the One who created, and yet creates… all things… even the heavenly chasm that cannot be crossed by human toil. At best the story reveals that those who go into punishment can behold the eternal comfort of those who are saved; whereas, no such vision is claimed for persons in the heavenly realm to "look down" upon persons still striving upon earth. Does this image counter the commonly held belief that our dear and departed relatives can watch over us?

Possible For God!
The question then arose in scripture, however..., “If that Holy One who set the corners of the chasm in place, should cross the divide… would persons who consider themselves as rich now believe?” Thus Jesus ended the story with a very prophetic word. The question was indeed prophetic for the answer spoke of Jesus’ own death and Resurrection. The question pointed beyond the telling of the story to the eminent crucifixion event… and the denial of its sacrificial character of Jesus' death by those who believed they could earn their way to the heavenly realm. Jesus thus warned his listeners that day by saying…

'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.'"

  Now… lest we stand in judgment of the rich Pharisees, the impoverished, or the disciples who listened to this story, we must recognize that these words of prophecy are revealed to us today only by the power of the Holy Spirit. And, as scripture tells us…

“And we have the prophetic word made sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”  (2 Peter 2:19-20)

Thus we are called to carefully note that this was... and yet is... the revealed message of salvation through Jesus Christ’s death and Resurrection. The message was given by Jesus and then later told by Peter and the disciples after Pentecost. This lesson thus now becomes a prophetic message to us. The words guide us to understand the salvation offered through Jesus Christ.
 Take note! Just as in Luke’s day, when this story was related to the disciples of the churches in Rome, Greece and Asia Minor, we also now may come to know the sure and certain hope that God has reached in love across a chasm that has been fixed and is unmovable. God did send someone to save us. Jesus himself came back from the dead to retrieve those who will believe.
 Also note! Jesus related to his audience that like Lazarus, we are saved by nothing that we do. We must rely solely on the grace of salvation which is made available through faith. For this reason, we recall happily from the story that the angels took Lazarus to his heavenly rest due to no earthly apparent reason other than his dependence on God's abundant grace.
 What then are we to do with this story? Since we work as the baptized in the Church., we are called to carefully note that the Greek word for angels (angelos) is interpreted as both as "angels" and “holy messengers”. Thus we know that the messengers from God are those beings who are grace revealing spirits. They are thus those who repeat this wonderful story and help to carry the “poor in spirit” toward the heavenly realm.
 Remember! In Luke we know that the poor are those who knew they surely could not buy, or do anything to earn their way to heaven. Consequently, we sinful creatures who thought ourselves rich, but found out rightly through the gospel told that we are really the impoverished. By hearing, we became like the angels… the right messengers of God. We are witnesses like the angels! We stand to be right messengers of God for others who yet walk the face of the earth!
 Through this story told, therefore, we as disciples know that those who walk the earth today can rely only on graceful faith in Jesus Christ. We are messengers that can relate to others the faith given to us by the Holy Spirit… for that faith was and is not built by any works that we do. It is a gift granted only by God... let us all just ask for it... and also give it away freely for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen!


Monday, September 12, 2016

Doing Dirty Deals?



OUR BIBLE study for the Eighteenth Sunday of Pentecost comes to us from the Gospel According to Saint Luke. The text contrasts doings in the realms of this sinful world and the kingdom of God…
He (Jesus) also said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a steward, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his goods.  And he called him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.' 
 And the steward said to himself, 'What shall I do, since my master is taking the stewardship away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that people may receive me into their houses when I am put out of the stewardship.' 
 So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he said to the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' He said, 'A hundred measures of oil.' And he said to him, 'Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.' 
 Then he said to another, 'And how much do you owe?' He said, 'A hundred measures of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, and write eighty.' 
 The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness; for the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.
 "He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is anothers, who will give you that which is your own?
 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 mammon."
  
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed at him.
 But he said to them, "You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.  (Luke 16:1-15)


Hard Choices?
The gospel for this week comes nested between the parable of the Prodigal Son and the heavenly residence of the servant Lazarus. Nested so amid the lessons that were given along the road to Jerusalem and the cross, the gospel illustrates further the differing character of the “two sons”. The Prodigal parable is summed by its ending.

 And he said to him (the elder brother) , 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'" (Luke 15:31-32) 

By ending the Prodigal story addressed to “tax collectors and sinners and all drawing near to hear…”, the author has set the stage for this parable deliberately aimed toward our Lord’s disciples. Thus the instructional has focused intent for us today, for we are now the called and baptized of the church in this world.
The Lord tells a prophecy for future, yet foreseeable events, for the two classifications. In this parable, a rich man had a servant who was not producing the results appointed. The servant, being cast from employment, shrewdly acted to ensure his own rest with dishonest creditors. Thus his crime gained accessory personalities. Instead of being prosecuted and punished, the servant then earned reward in that he was clever and would be embraced by eternal reward.
 We must note here, however, that the final destination described for the servant’s efforts does not necessarily indicate the entire gang will be located in the heavenly realm, but simply they would be together in a tent or habitation where all were gathered.
 The illustration to the disciples who were with Jesus, the churches of Luke, and also those who come after them, shines a light of guidance, The Lord revealed with whom they should be counted. The question we must ask ourselves is… “Do we serve as faithful servants for our own accrual of wealth.., or to God?” To whom do we look for our salvation? Shall we join the great collective of the lost habitation, or shall we be gathered as the saints of God. In so many words, I might ask, “To whom shall we of the modern church be faithful?”
 Finally, we take note that those who eavesdropped upon the conversation when Jesus taught... objected to the dismissal of those who were “seeking a fat portfolio” as their personal security. In answer, Jesus told them…

"You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”

 Therefore, we of the modern Christian church need rightly learn the priorities of faith and wealth. We need put all things in their proper places in the kingdom hierarchy. The parable reminds us first concerning the Law. Within the first commandment given by God to the nation Israel gathered, stands our financial instruction…

“And God spoke all these words, saying, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:1-6)

 Let us be reminded that the pursuit of wealth and it’s acquisition often becomes a false god that is not alive in the way that we define “life” today. However, wealth is a god which once set up, can take on a life of its own. Be aware! We dare not place any monetary gain or false righteousness on the altar of a false god, intent on worshiping that god in the place of our merciful Creator.
 Please know that this malady is subtle, as many sins are. For example, as in the days of Luke’s community wherein keeping “kosher” often took precedence over being “kind”, the kosher rule was shown to have grown in stature to become its own god.
 But lest we Christians throw stones at the ancient fools, we are reminded that this reading tells us that what occurred for them, can happen to any Christian... no matter what our economic station. As Christians, we are called to know that we are a people set apart... saved by grace to worship only God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So it is, and so it shall be.