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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Holy Indifference!

God’s grace, peace and mercy be with you. … My focus is on Philippians 1:20 and Matthew 20:15. Paul wrote, “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” Jesus said, “’Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’”
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, the psalmist wrote, “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”[1] Now that our feet are within your gates, we rejoice to hear your Word. As we listen, may your Spirit enlighten our minds and move our hearts to love deeply as Jesus loved. This we pray to you, Most Holy Trinity. Amen.
I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy
Down in my heart - Down in my heart - Down in my heart
I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy
Down in my heart - Down in my heart to stay
"Down In My Heart," sometimes titled "I've Got the Joy" is a popular Christian campfire and scouting song written by a Unitarian minister, George Cooke.[2] Cooke’s song reminds us that no matter the circumstances, Christians are to be joyful.
The word joy appears over 400 times in the Bible and more than 12 times in Philippians. Indeed, Paul had joy in his heart when he wrote this letter, but do we know why?
We understand joy as an emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying.[3] For example, a mother feels joy at seeing her son's success. Joy can be a source or cause of keen pleasure or something or someone greatly valued or appreciated. Watching Troy Polamalu play football is pure joy. What were Paul’s joyful circumstances when he wrote, “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death”?
Examining Philippians in its entirety and Matthew in its greater context offers insight into the joy a Christian should feel when following Jesus.
First, Philippians. According to Acts 16:9, a vision summoned Paul to preach the gospel in Macedonia.[4] Unlike most cities where Paul preached, Philippi had no significant Jewish population or synagogue. His relations with this church were warm and affectionate, and the Philippians consistently supported his work. You see the warm relationship they shared in Paul’s greeting. Normally, to enforce his authority, Paul included the word apostle. In Philippians, he opened with “Paul and Timothy, servants (or slaves) of Christ Jesus.”
Paul wrote to the Philippians while imprisoned. He explained his reason for writing in chapter two. Paul wrote:
“I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. I am more than eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.”[5]
In other words, Paul reassured the Philippians who sent gifts with Epaphroditus that their messenger, who had a brush with death, was ready to resume his apostolic work upon return to Philippi.
In today’s passage, Paul conveyed that while imprisonment seemed to be a disadvantage, it served to advance the gospel.[6] Even nonbelievers knew Paul was imprisoned for Christ, and was not a common criminal. However, there were men who sought to cause Paul trouble, hoping to prolong his imprisonment. Quoting Job,[7] Paul assuredly insisted that though he knew not whether his sentence would bring death or life, God would vindicate him and bring him deliverance. Paul exuded hope – the virtue that waits with eager expectation – in his desire to glorify Christ through life or death.
Indifference to death is difficult to understand. We associate such indifference with the depths of despair and pain, but here it arises in a letter which, more than any other, exudes hope and joy. This gives us a glimpse into Paul’s spirit and motivation – that his life and identity were wrapped up in his allegiance to Jesus. That is why he encouraged the Philippians to boast joyfully – not because of what they could do as independent individuals apart from God but because of what God was able to do through them.[8]
Joyfully boast of what God can do through you. On that thought, let us end Philippians and turn to Matthew.
In its greater context today’s passage comes on the heels of the rich young man who asked Jesus what he must do to have eternal life. After assuring Jesus that he observed the commandments, the man went away sad, because he was not up to Jesus’ challenge to sell his possessions, give the poor the proceeds, and follow Him.
Jesus stated how difficult the rich find it to obey Him prompting Peter to reply, “We left everything and followed you. What will we have?” Jesus assured his disciples that when the Son of Man would sit on his glorious throne, they would sit on judgment thrones, receive a hundredfold of what they left behind and inherit eternal life. But before he told today’s parable, Jesus concluded, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” This saying concludes two successive sections in Matthew, but it does not supply the meaning of today’s parable.
… A denarius would feed one’s family for a day; anything less would be subsistent pay. In the parable, the master paid every worker enough to sustain his family for a day.
The first hired were paid last because the point of Jesus’ story depended on their seeing what the last hired received. Contrasting the two extremes, the first and the last, those who worked twelve hours and those who worked one, revealed that the master was strikingly generous. Every man could feed his family.
But when the last were paid, the first calculated how much more they would be paid. Against conventional expectation, they also received a denarius, the agreed upon wage. Equal payment is why the first hired grumbled about the master’s apparent injustice, expressed in their lament, “you made them equal to us.”
Equality is what is offensive and scandalous about Jesus’ parable. Equality is what is counterintuitive and remarkable about the reign of God.[9] In God’s Kingdom there is no room for self-promotion, no occasion for competition, no basis on which one disciple can say to another, “I have no need of you” or “I am more important than you are.” The master treats all workers the same, and owing to God’s grace, there is no distinction on the Last Day.[10] Even the apostles are simply laborers in the vineyard.
The parable was a reminder to Christians, especially those with authority, who saw themselves and their congregations as special, that like the first followers of Jesus, we are all simply laborers in His vineyard.
Finally, what do Paul and Matthew teach us today? What lessons do we learn about joy and grace? Do we feel like singing Cooke’s campfire song? Do I have joy in my heart when living through unfavorable circumstances? Do we recognize the difference between generosity and grace? If imprisoned for practicing my faith, would I acknowledge that God’s ways and thoughts are higher?[11] When evildoers assail me and extract a pound of my flesh, am I confident about my deliverance, my salvation, my redemption?[12] When God shows mercy to people who damaged my reputation, am I joyful or resentful? If my fate lay in the hands of those who hate me, do I prefer life, death or God’s will? In a word, am I indifferent?
By indifference I do not mean apathy or a “who cares” or “whatever” attitude. On the contrary, holy indifference means total openness to the will of God in one’s life.  In other words, whatever God wills for me, I will strive with all my heart, mind and soul to conform to His will. I will not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short one.
How did Jesus expect His disciples to attain holy indifference? How did Paul achieve acceptance of God’s will? How did a sentenced Paul bring glory to Christ? Through a constant, dynamic prayer life which led them to total confidence in God and a willingness to give themselves wholly to the Trinity.
They were indifferent because they knew God directed them. Their love for Father, Son and Spirit was so deep that all obstacles between God and themselves were removed to the point that they knew how to use things properly, for example, money, property or talent, to glorify God. They were able to do so because they recognized that all things came from God, that all people were from God. Hence, Paul not only withstood his enemies’ inflictions, but welcomed them if they brought glory to Christ and His Gospel.
As laborers in the vineyard, we have much to learn from today’s Scriptures. We have much to learn from Paul. We can all learn from others who accept their fate and witness for Christ.
Consider what we can learn from Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman raised by her Ethiopian Orthodox mother after her Muslim father abandoned them. Her cousins claimed Meriam committed adultery and apostasy by marrying Daniel Wani, a Christian. The religious court in Sudan sentenced her to death.[13]
Meriam was always a Christian, but the prosecution claimed she should have followed the faith of her absent father. It demanded she abandon her Christian faith and believe in Islam. The judge gave her three days to do so, but she refused, arguing she was a lifelong Christian, and could not abandon her genuine personal faith at the request of a court.
Meriam’s story is tragically dramatic because when arrested she was the mother of a young boy and pregnant with a daughter. Since the court considered her son a Muslim, he could not remain with his Christian father but rather lived in a bug-infested prison cell with his “Muslim” mother. Worse, the court did not admit Meriam to a hospital to give birth. She delivered her daughter in her cell while shackled to the floor. Shockingly, the court ruled Meriam could live for two more years to nurse her daughter. When weaned, Meriam was to be hanged. … International pressure allowed the family to emigrate to New Hampshire where they live with Meriam's brother-in-law.
Imagine if a court gave you three days to embrace Islam to save your life. It was an easy choice for Meriam, but she refused, declaring: “I am a Christian and I will remain a Christian.” Yes, heroic, saintly courage still exists in our world.
While we witness demonstrations over the deaths of Palestinians used as human shields by Hamas, and the UN holds inquiries on Israel for defending itself against Hamas, why is the world silent at the barbarous slaughter of Christians in the Middle East and Africa?[14]
While demanding respect for people like Meriam and religious freedom for Christians around the world, should we not welcome trials that test our faith? Should we not pray for deliverance and holy indifference? Should we not joyfully accept what comes as long as God is glorified? Should we not rejoice that God extends His grace to those who have labored one hour to our twelve?
God’s activity insults us when we shift our gaze from our Triune God to our fellow laborers. We must pray for strength to keep our eyes fixed on God, to avoid envious eyes and see through joyful eyes His grace at work in our world, even in the midst of trials.
I conclude with a meditation found on a Confederate soldier.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity, that I might to better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need for God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life; I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing I asked for – but everything I hoped for. Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered. I am among all men most richly blessed.
This week, consider how blessed you are. Thank God for your trials that you too might be most richly blessed. And when you do, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] Psalm 122
[2] I've Got the Joy Joy Joy Joy from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
[4] Vincent M. Smiles, The Letter to the Philippians in New Collegeville Bible Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press (2009), p. 620.
[5] Philippians 2:25-30
[6] Philippians 1:12
[7] Job 13:16
[8] Smiles, 624f.
[9] Ibid., 991.
[10] Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Matthew 11:2- 20:34. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House (2010), 988.
[11] Isaiah 55:9-9
[12] Psalm 27

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

3rd Commandment and Luke 4

Attending a conference on youth ministry some years ago, the speaker addressed the thought some express regarding worship. Why do I need to worship in church when I can find God in the woods? True, we can find God in the woods, but the deeper question for those who say that they prefer finding Him there is, “Do you worship Him there once a week?” The unspoken answer is unfortunately, “No.”
In America, fewer people are attending church and more are embracing atheism, agnosticism or nothing at all. While the Explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism states that God has not specified any particular day, it does remind us that He requires Christians to worship together. The church worships together on Sunday because Christ rose from the dead on Sunday.[i]
In today’s Gospel, Jesus embraces the bosom of Judaism. By his faithfulness, Jesus affirms the Sabbath, the Scriptures and the synagogue.[ii] He not only attends synagogue services regularly, but also participates by reading the Scriptures and commenting on them.
The synagogue was not only an assembly for worship, but also a school, community center and a place for administering justice. Here, Jesus felt at home with relatives and friends, but he is unwelcome quickly as wonder turns to wrath.
Without retelling the story, we must ask what infuriated the mob to reject Jesus. In presenting two well-known passages from 1st and 2nd Kings, Jesus reminded His hearers that in spite of the pressing needs in Israel, God directed the prophets to nourish and cure Gentiles.
Prior to his arrival in Nazareth, Jesus was in Capernaum. To us, it seems like no big deal, but to the good people of Nazareth, it was. They viewed the people of Capernaum with disdain because of the number of Gentiles living there. And the good people of Nazareth assumed the privileges God worked through Jesus – signs and miracles – should be reserved to themselves. That is what infuriated the mob.
Jesus went to the Gentiles not because He was rejected by the Jews. Jesus was rejected because He had gone to the Gentiles. Jesus spoke the truth in love and the good people of Nazareth welcomed it like a stick in the eye.
Jesus, a Jew and the son of Joseph, transcended their limited view of God’s grace, power and mercy, and they did not like being reminded of that by some clever guy who could cite how God actually works in the world.
What does all this have to do with The Third Commandment and us? We need God’s grace, power and mercy. We receive it when we gather here for worship. We simply open ourselves to God’s invitation and we carry His grace, power and mercy into a world that badly needs it.
Some people will eagerly welcome us because we carry God’s Word to them. Others will welcome it like a stick in the eye. It is not that we try to give offense. Rather, some prefer Satan, sin and self to the Gospel.
This evening, take time to reflect on how our presence in the world transcends how people identify us. Do people see us as men and women of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church or the grace, power and mercy of God working through us? Do we prefer it when people speak well of us and marvel at the gracious words that come from our mouths or do we prefer being driven out of town?
Let us pray that when rejected like our Lord for the sake of the Gospel we may count on His protection. May we keep the Lord’s Day holy by holding His Word sacred, gladly hear it and learn it by heart. And when we do, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[i] Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House (2006), 67ff.
[ii] Fred Craddock, Luke. Louisville: John Knox Press (2009), 61.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Follow Me, Brothers!

God’s grace, peace and mercy be with you. … My focus is on Matthew 16:24 and Romans 12:10. From Matthew, “Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’” From Romans, “Love one another with brotherly affection.”
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, the psalmist wrote, “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”[1] Now that our feet are within your gates, we rejoice to hear your Word. As we listen, may your Spirit enlighten our minds and move our hearts to love deeply as Jesus loved. This we pray to you, Most Holy Trinity. Amen.
The cartoon depicts Jesus clarifying his statement to a would-be disciple, “No, I am not talking about Twitter. I literally want you to follow me.” The cartoon illustrates a lesson about language. Words change meaning overnight, over decades, centuries, and millennia. So, let me begin by examining a few words from our texts - from Matthew, follow, and from Paul, fraternal or brotherly affection. Then I will tell you how two war-torn enemies became brothers, setting an example for us.
First, follow. The cartoon quote is funny because one can misconstrue our Lord’s words as social media chatter. The word follow comes from the Old English folÄ¡ian or fylgan.[2] Follow has several meanings today. It means to come after in a sequence, such as B follows A in the alphabet. It means to go after, pursue or move behind in the same path or direction. Follow that car!
When you operate a new power tool, follow the instructions. Fans follow an event (World Cup), a team (Steelers), or an activity (You following me, camera guy?). As Jesus used the term, He was not reciting the alphabet or selling Sham Wows. He used follow to urge devotion to Him, His Way and His teaching.
People quit their careers and families to follow Jesus. His closest disciples sat at His feet.[3] They travelled by boat and foot to hear Him teach and witness Him heal. During His darkest moment, some followed at a distance and stood at the Foot of the Cross. A group followed His Body to the tomb and returned to anoint Him. After His Resurrection, the apostles followed Him to Bethany and stared into the sky as He ascended.[4]
Today’s passage, however, made it difficult for some to follow Jesus any further. It was the first time Jesus predicted His passion.
The passage also marks the turning point into the final section of Matthew, who wrote his Gospel for believers who knew the outcome of the story. Here, Matthew illustrated the reaction people had to Jesus’ revolutionary and unexpected teaching.
In its larger context, we see that Jesus’ original followers were common, ordinary men and women, but they knew and understood God’s plan for Israel and the world. They accepted Jesus’ teaching and witnessed the power of God working through Him. They saw His teaching and work evoked faith from the crowds and provoked persecution from religious and political authorities. With these parties plotting His demise, Jesus and His disciples retreated to a remote spot off the Sea of Galilee where He asked them who they believed Him to be.
Hearing the answer, Jesus showed His enlightened disciples what was required of Him – depart to Jerusalem to suffer many things from the elders, chief priests and scribes, be killed and raised on the third day.
Is it no wonder why – in this peaceful spot – Peter and the disciples reacted as they did? Why confront your enemies? Why provoke politicians? Why suffer? Why go to Jerusalem to be killed? These normal human theological questions arose from their sinful human minds. “If God’s mercy is to be found in Jerusalem’s Temple, then mercy and not murder awaits you there. That is how God works, Jesus!” said Peter, the man who declared Him the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
Peter was not simply confused, but took a firm stand against the Lord. Peter articulated God’s activity in the world in a satanic way, expressing the ‘things of men.’[5] When reprimanded, the only thing Peter could do was get out of Jesus’ way and not cause Him to stumble into disobedience that would have led to disaster for Israel’s lost sheep and the world. By getting out of the way, he learned what it meant to follow this Christ, this Son of God.[6]
Because His disciples misunderstood how God works in the world, verse 24 is the heart and summary of Jesus’ teaching. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” … Only by yielding to His Father’s will and His opponents, and accepting suffering and death by crucifixion could people and creation be saved from sin and death. That is how God works in the world.
The primary obstacle to following Jesus was not in the world, but deep within the heart of every disciple. They had to reject the tendency of insisting God conform to their ways and deal with evil according to their expectations. They had to reject the tendency that if in charge, they would make things right. They had to learn that criticism, competition or quiet, prideful comparison disguised as sinful human ambition embraced and exalted not the Cross of Christ, but them. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
The first disciples who followed Jesus learned they could not pre-determine the type of difficulty, suffering or martyrdom they would face. As early Christians who worshipped the Trinity and renounced Greek and Roman gods, their neighbors hated and rejected them. Ultimately, some Christians found their way to crucifixion or some other gruesome form of death.
Peter deemed himself unworthy to die the same way as His Lord, and requested to be crucified upside-down. Others, like James, died by the sword,[7]
Of course, not all Christians were martyred. Christianity spread throughout the world, and to Rome, the setting for my second point, “Love one another with brotherly affection.”
Love one another with brotherly affection. Paul’s advice begs the question, “What was Paul trying to accomplish in these final chapters of Romans?” Paul was teaching Christians how to conduct their daily lives through the power and structure of grace.
Romans reveals God’s relationship to rebellious creation; how Christ reversed what Adam did; and how His death broke the power of sin. As human beings freed from the domination of sin and the law, we are now dominated by the Spirit. In chapter 9, Paul pointed towards the future and explained how from the beginning God’s plan of gracious election was at work, culminating in Christ who brought the law to an end by incorporating its goal in Him.
In chapter 12, Paul wrote about grace, which triumphed over human rebellion. Grace does not mean that anything goes. Rather, there is a structure to living the Christian life as individuals and communities. There is a structure to denying yourself, picking up your cross and following Christ.
If the Christian community responds appropriately to the structuring grace at work in it, it will display unity. Unity, however, is not uniformity, as Paul emphasized the necessity of diversity based on the abundance of God’s grace. Diversity is not simply a few people with special skills contributing to the community. All church members have spiritual gifts, and are responsible for discovering what gifts they have and use them to glorify God.[8]
In Rome, people mixed ego with grace. Some saw their gifts as more important than others’ gifts. That same problem arose in communities through 21 centuries across the globe. The solution to the problem of pride and over-inflated egos is love.[9]
Love one another with brotherly affection. That includes your enemies and those who displease you. Why? Because while we were enemies with God, we were reconciled to Him by the death of His Son.[10] The point of heaping burning coals on your enemy’s head is not to get back at him. Rather, you feed and refresh those who displease you because it is how Christians effect reconciliation with their enemies. A small gesture compared to how God effected reconciliation with us, His rebellious enemies.
Paul’s advice was not to withdraw from the world into seclusion as an individual or Christian enclave. Instead, Paul encouraged Christians in 1st century Rome to live among others, but with a different set of values. Attempting to reconcile and win over your enemies through kindness, compassion and brotherly love was not an action people embraced, but Christians did.
Christians of 1st century Rome believed Jesus Christ died for their sins and rose from the dead. They believed that they, once rebellious enemies of God, were reconciled through Christ’s death and resurrection. When the Paschal Mystery is embedded in your heart, mind and soul, you do what God asks or commands. You even deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Christ by loving your enemies with brotherly affection.
All well and good, but what do the readings have to do with life today? How do we deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow Jesus? How do we love enemies with brotherly love?
Let me tell you a story of two men, intent on killing one another in war, who became as close as brothers. While serving as pastor in Oakmont, PA, I met Howard Hamilton in the spring of 1998. By December, he died from a long illness, but he should have died in 1943. Instead, he and his wife, Gerri, had three sons and a daughter, and Howard, after a distinguished career in manufacturing, became professor of electrical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh.
You see, during World War II, on his 19th mission as a bombardier in the Army Air Corps, Howard’s B-17 was hit by enemy fire on October 10th. It punctured his lung. He lost consciousness and regained it only to have his parachute pack strap catch on the door handle. He dangled as the plane spiraled. He did not have enough strength to free himself. His co-pilot risked his life to set him free.
Howard landed in a tree. The Germans captured him and took him to a hospital where he lay on a stretcher for 12 hours until an officer in charge of prisoners of war begged the one lone surgeon to treat him because he would die before morning.
In captivity for 19 months, initially in a hospital and then in Stalag Luft on the Baltic Sea, he was liberated by the Russians on May 1, 1945. After the war, Howard went to college on the GI bill, began his career and family.
Howard lived a successful life professionally and personally, but that is not why I tell you this story. You see, Howard and the German officer who begged that he be treated did not forget each other. The officer looked him up after reading a book about the raid. The Hamilton’s visited him in Germany, and he visited them in Pittsburgh.[11]
If two men, intent on killing one another, can reconcile and treat one another with brotherly love, who of us cannot reconcile with people we dislike and love them, as Christians should?
Friends, we may never fly as bombardiers, encounter our enemy on a gurney, or spend years as a P.O.W., but we have relatives and neighbors, co-workers and colleagues, who wronged us. Some owe us money because they rent space in our heads. And although sin keeps me from reconciling, I bear the cross of reconciliation behind Christ. Because of Him and His grace, we can reconcile with people we dislike because God reconciled with us when we were enemies.
This week, treat one person you dislike with brotherly love, and when you do, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] Psalm 122
[3] Luke 10:39.
[4] Luke 24:50-51
[5] Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Matthew 11:2- 20:34. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House (2010), 840.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Acts 12:2
[8] Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans. Louisville: John Knox Press (1985), 196f.
[9] Ibid, 198.
[10] Romans 5:9-10
[11] Eleanor Chute, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Education Writer.  Obituary: Howard Britton Hamilton. Wednesday, December 02, 1998.