Saturday, September 8, 2012

God-pleasing Worship Begins and Ends with Mercy

"Jesus Heals Ten Lepers"  by James Tissot
The text for today is our Gospel, Luke 17:11-19, which has already been read.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
Jesus is continuing His journey to Jerusalem, traveling along the border between Galilee and Samaria.  Just as He is about to enter into a village, ten leprous men come out to meet Him.  Observing the strict rule concerning infection, they do not come all the way to Christ, but stand at a distance, crying out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Some translations have the word, “pity,” rather than “mercy.”  But mercy is a better word.  In a recent Bible study, we discussed the difference between mercy and pity.  We decided “pity is feeling sorry for someone; while mercy is actually doing something about it.”  That’s why it is more accurate to say the lepers ask Jesus for mercy, rather than merely pity.  They know that not only will Jesus empathize with their plight, but He also has the power to do something about it.
But why should He?  What is it about them that should move Jesus to help them?  Is it their ethnic heritage?  It seems a terrible question even to pose in our day and age, but this event took place almost 2,000 years ago, in the area where Galileans and Samaritans went out of their way to avoid one another.  It was a popular notion that a Jewish Messiah would come only to save the Jews.  If that’s the case, why should Jesus help these lepers if at least one of them is a Samaritan? 
Is it because they’ve got a lot to offer in return?  Hardly.  They’ve got nothing.  They’re outside the village, literally rotting away and waiting to die.  They’ve got no satchel of money, no vacation home to use, nothing to attract Jesus’ help or offer anything in return. 
Is it because they’ve got a huge upside—that Jesus foresees all the good they will do in the future?  Again, the answer is no.  In fact, as the Son of God, Jesus already knows how ungrateful they’ll be—that only one of them will even bother to say thanks once He delivers them.
Is it because they are suffering worse than everybody else?  No.  I don’t know that they had a misery index for the time, but there are all sorts of people with all sorts of problems.  Nor are these ten the only lepers around.  They have it bad, but they haven’t earned God’s help by their suffering.
One more: Is it because they make the first move and cry out to Him for help?  Some will tell you that’s so.  They’ll say that the lepers name it and claim it—and that because they demand that Jesus help them, Jesus rewards their audacity.  (And they add: If you only believe as much as they did, Jesus will give you whatever you want, too!)  But that’s not the case, either.    
We don’t have the back story, but can infer a few things from the text.  Obviously, the lepers know about Jesus—at least, His mercy and healing.  How could this be?  Having no direct contact with the world outside of their colony, no opportunity to see Jesus’ healing ministry for themselves, somebody had to tell them.  In other words, they’ve heard the Word.  And what does the Word do?  It gives faith.  They only cry out to Jesus because He’s already given them faith in the first place.  They didn’t make the first move—He did.
So what is it about these ten lepers that makes Jesus help them?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing!  Jesus doesn’t help them because of who they are… He helps them because of who He is!
“Who He is” is the Savior.  He has come to deliver His people from sin and all of its wages.  Sickness and death are consequences of sin—so are the isolation and loss that these men suffer.  To demonstrate His power over sin and to deliver them, Jesus tells them, “Go and show yourself to the priests.” 
There’s one reason why a leper would do that—it’s if he were healed and wanted to be readmitted to society.  Thus Jesus heals them of their leprosy.  His Word sets them free from the wages of sin.  Thus Jesus hears their cries and is merciful.  Not because of who they are, but because of who He is.
Jesus is more merciful than they know.  For all but one, perhaps He’s more merciful than they want.  Healing from leprosy is a fantastic miracle—they’re clean!  They have their lives back!  But Jesus has greater gifts to give.  He’s still going to Jerusalem, headed to the cross to save them from eternal death and hell.  Again, He’s not doing this because of who they are, but because of who He is. 
Ten lepers had shown faith.  Ten lepers had been healed.  Ten lepers had received mercy.  But only one feels the need of turning back and giving thanks to the Healer, the One who has shown him mercy.  And when this man finds Jesus, he falls down on his face before Him, at His feet, signifying his willingness to be the Lord’s servant forever.  And all the while his mouth pours forth words of thankfulness.  He is worshiping Jesus!  This is God-pleasing worship!
The incident makes a deep impression upon Jesus.  In a bitter cry over the failure to return of the others, He says: “Were not ten cleansed?  Where are the nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
This question is a very important and serious one for all Christians.  The gifts of God which we have received from Him through the means of grace during our whole life amount to far more than a cleansing from bodily leprosy.  We have received, and are continually receiving, the riches of God’s unmerited love and mercy Sunday after Sunday, day by day.  And yet we are often very lackadaisical about the gratitude which we owe to Him in thoughts, words, and deeds. 
While our works and worship do not merit our salvation, they are an outward indicator of our faith.  And so the Lord dismisses the Samaritan with the words: “Rise and go your way: your faith has made you well.” 
So much for the ten lepers in our text.  How about we lepers who are gathered here today?  Yes, lepers—probably not physically, but certainly spiritually.  We are poor, miserable sinners—beggars at best.  Beware of every temptation that would have you think there’s something about you that makes God love you.  God isn’t merciful to you because of who you are or what you do or some potential that He sees in you.  This is not a particularly enjoyable truth; but it is the truth.  And once you get past the broken pride, it’s actually a great comfort. 
See, if God was merciful to you because of you, you could never be sure you’d done enough to earn His mercy.  You could never be sure that you were American enough or Lutheran enough.  You could never be sure that you had enough talent to get His attention, or that you’d been committed enough to keep it.  Worse yet, you could never be sure that you had suffered enough, or that you believed enough for the Lord to be merciful to you.
Such doubts may be far away from you now, but they are the poisonous fruit of assuming that God is merciful because of you.  Right now, those assumptions work to blight your faith, to make you overconfident of your own self-righteousness, to get you to seize glory that belongs rightfully only to Christ.  But when troubles and trials come those doubts will hound you.  When death draws near, those doubts will terrorize you.  The times that you most realize you need God’s mercy will be the times you also know you least deserve it.  That is why it is a blessing to confess the truth now: we don’t deserve the Lord’s mercy.
This mercy is given to us solely out of the mercy of the Master.  And He gives it to us in what is for many minds a most unexpected place… in worship.  This mercy comes to us as we gather for worship.  You see, the highest form of worship is in receiving the mercy and forgiveness of God.
And that, my dear friends, is one of the great blessings of the liturgy that we have inherited from our spiritual fathers through our mother, the Church!
Have you ever noticed how frequently the word “mercy” surfaces in our liturgy?  In the confessional prayer, we implore:  “O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended Thee and justly deserved Thy temporal and eternal punishment.  But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray Thee of Thy boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.”  Jesus responds with mercy, cleansing us with forgiveness through His called and ordained servant. 
The Kyrie is an extended prayer for mercy: “Lord have mercy upon us.  Christ have mercy upon us.  Lord have mercy upon us.” 
In the Gloria in Excelsis we pray for mercy: “O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.  Thou that takest away the sin of the world, receive our prayer.  Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father, have mercy upon us.” 
In the Agnus Dei we plead for mercy as we come to eat and drink of the Lord’s body and blood given and shed for us sinners: “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.  O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.” 
Then, having received these blessings in the bread and wine through faith we will speak of this mercy in The Thanksgiving: “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good.  And His mercy endureth forever.”
Mercy is the way that God works.  To the people of Israel , He declared Himself: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).  So, Israel would appeal to the sure mercy of the Lord in prayer and supplication, as we see in many of the Psalms.
In the New Testament, Jesus is shown as the merciful King who comes to save, so a Canaanite woman calls out to Him for mercy (Matthew 15:22), as does a blind beggar (Mark 10:17), and the ten lepers in our text (Luke 17:13).  St. Peter tells us that it is by God’s fatherly mercy that we have been born anew to a living hope, through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (1 Peter 1:3).
All of Scripture declares: God is merciful, and He bestows mercy on sinners.  God gives and we receive.  That is the pattern of the worship service.  That is the pattern of our daily Christian life.
Martin Luther scribbled a note that was found in his pocket upon his death on February 18, 1546.  It read, in part, that we are all beggars before God.  Indeed, we are all beggars before God.  We are all unclean lepers who do not deserve His love and mercy.  We do not deserve to even come into His presence and bow at His feet.  But the God in whose presence we stand is the Lord who delights in showing and doing mercy. 
We hear it in His merciful words that withhold from us punishment that our sin merits and, instead, bestows pardon and peace.  In His mercy, God has saved us and given us a new identity as His chosen people, a royal priesthood, people who have received mercy.
God’s mercy in Christ Jesus is also the source of our vocation, our calling in life.  We are called by His mercy, from unbelief to faith, from darkness to light, from death to life.  Faith alone receives God’s mercy.  Love hands on the mercy that faith receives.  Those who receive mercy now show mercy.
Having been cleansed and forgiven of our sins, we don’t need to go to the priest.  We’ve already been in the presence of God.  We’ve already praised Him and thanked Him and worshiped Him.  So He sends us out to serve: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”  Go out and live your lives, showing mercy in your daily vocation, the various callings that God has given you.
We see this movement of mercy illustrated in the post-communion collect: “We give thanks to Thee, Almighty God, that Thou hast refreshed us through this salutary gift; and we beseech Thee that of Thy mercy Thou wouldst strengthen us through the same in faith toward Thee and in fervent love toward one another.
This collect reminds us that a Christian does not live in himself, but in Christ and his neighbor.  While our old sinful nature was curved in on ourselves, thinking only of our own needs and wants, our new man lives outside of ourselves, in Christ through faith and in our neighbor through love.  Faith is active in love and so takes on flesh and blood in service to our neighbor, just as Christ became incarnate not to be served, but to give Himself in service to the world. 
That’s why the post-communion collect has such a pivotal place in the liturgy.  It is the hinge that connects God’s service to us in the sacrament with our service to our neighbor in the world.  We are called by the mercy of God to saving faith, and that same mercy is now channeled through us to our neighbor.  Having received God’s mercy, we now are freed to live mercifully toward one another, bearing the burdens of the weak and needy, feeding the hungry, and bringing hope to the hopeless—for in serving them we are serving Christ. 
Mercy moves full circle from Christ to us and from us back to Him as He hides behind the mask of our neighbor to receive our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.  From start to finish, it is the mercy of God.  Indeed, all God-pleasing worship begins and ends with mercy. 
So, as Jesus said to the former leper, I now say to you: “Rise and go your way: your faith has made you well.”  You are forgiven of all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
Now may the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Your Lying, Cheating, Cold Dead Beating, Two-timing, Double Dealing, Mean Mistreating, Unloving Heart

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
If you look in the worship folder you’ll notice the sermon title listed as “Blame It on Your Lying, Cheating Heart,” a play on the lyrics of the Patty Loveless country hit from almost twenty years ago.  When Maxine asked me, that was the working theme I was using.  I’ve since had time to refine it.  Now it’s “Your Lying, Cheating, Cold Dead Beating, Two-timing, Double Dealing, Mean Mistreating, Unloving Heart.”  
I know; it’s a pretty long title for a sermon.  But it seems fitting for our Gospel for today, where Jesus gives a rather extensive list of sins.  Beginning with sexual immorality, Jesus combines twelve kinds of evil thoughts and actions in a dreadful litany of vices.  The first six are in the plural form and describe behaviors.   The last six are in the singular and have more to do with attitudes.  These twelve vices leave no doubt as to the wretched impurity of the human spirit. 
Let’s hear those words of our text, Mark 7:19-23, one more time:
“[Jesus said]: ‘Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’  (Thus he declared all foods clean.)  And He said to them, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him.  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’”
From Agnus Day, the only lectionary-based comic strip on the planet
“Whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him… What comes out of a person is what defiles him… All these evil things come from within…” 
I know, it seems counterintuitive.  Not at all the way that we would think about it.  We think that what makes us “unclean” comes from outside ourselves.  A man becomes a drunkard by taking in drink.  A person becomes an addict by taking in drugs.  A kid becomes a member of a gang by hanging out with the wrong crowd.  From our vantage point, we are defiled from the outside in.
That’s why what Jesus says in our text gives us pause.  It’s the opposite of what we expect.  We expect spiritual things to work just like everything else.  We expect spiritual purity to come with our efforts to “keep ourselves clean and pure.”  Read the right books, watch the right movies, associate with the right people, stay away from the “worldly things.”  That was the whole basis of monasticism: withdraw from the world, set yourself apart from the “unclean things,” and then you can be pure, untainted by the unspiritual, unclean world. 
That was also the wrong impression that religious Israel got when applying the purity laws of Leviticus.  It’s an easy mistake to make.  All those “clean” and “unclean” regulations touching almost every aspect of life—what you ate, what you touched.  There were certain animals considered “unclean” for food, things like pork and shellfish.  If you so much as touched them, you would be ritually unclean.  And all sorts of other ways, too.  So it was an easy, logical step to think that it was what went into you that made you unclean. 
The mistake is to confuse ritual purity with spiritual purity.  Ritual purity was what set Israel apart from the other nations.  They had a unique diet, unique regulations and rules governing every aspect of their lives, reminding them who they were—a peculiar, chosen people set apart for a purpose, that is, to bring forth in the fullness of time the Messiah—the Savior.  But none of these rules and regulations could purify the heart of the person spiritually speaking.  In fact, all the Old Testament rules served to show how difficult to impossible purity is.  If you could barely keep ritually pure, how on earth could you ever be spiritually pure?
Jesus turns it all upside down and inside out with this sentence: “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”  That’s right.  You heard it.  You become spiritually unclean from the inside out, not the outside in.  It’s what comes out of you, not what goes into you, that is the problem.
I hope you have an appreciation for how radical this concept is.  The crowd didn’t understand.  The disciples didn’t get it, either.  When they were apart from the crowds in the house, they ask Jesus about it, and Jesus seems to be a bit impatient with them.  “Don’t you get it?  Are you also without understanding?  Foods don’t make you unclean.  Food goes in, it gets digested, and is expelled as waste, never touching the heart (unless, of course, you include cholesterol and artery-clogging plaque, but even then it doesn’t matter because the “heart” Jesus is speaking about is not the organ of muscle that pumps life-sustaining blood to every part of your body.  The heart, as the word is used here, is the soul or spirit). 
As a little aside, St. Mark tells us: “Thus He declared all foods clean.”  This is a good verse to remember the next time someone asks you: “If you’re going to still follow all those outdated rules about reserving the marriage bed for husband and wife, how come you don’t still follow the Old Testament dietary restrictions?” 
Jesus declares all foods to be clean.  In effect, Jesus lifts the distinction of clean and unclean from the book of Leviticus.  He can do that.  He’s the Lord!  And He needs to do that, since the distinction of clean and unclean was only intended to pave the way for His coming as the Christ of Israel, the Savior of the world.  And with Jesus having come, the Old Testament laws with all their distinction of clean and unclean come to their fulfillment and end. 
But Jesus does something even more important personally for you than allow you to participate in Lobster Fest and all-you-can-eat crab legs or to eat barbeque ribs and bacon.  With these words, Jesus also indicts your heart and points the finger of the Law toward it as the culprit.  It’s not the world that soils you, unclean as the world may be.  The finger that points at the world and blames it for everything unclean is pointing 180 degrees in the wrong direction.  It is out of the heart, your heart, that sin proceeds.
Listen to the excrement that is expelled from your sinful heart: evil thoughts, sexual immorality (take your pick as to which variety), theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All this comes out of the heart that is unbuckled from God, the heart steeped in sin, the heart that is turned inward on itself. 
Evil thoughts are the beginning of all sorts of evil deeds.  Murder includes anything one may do to hurt or harm (or even fail to protect) his neighbor or support his bodily needs.  Adultery and sexual immorality include all kinds of indecent words and deeds as well as desires.  Theft is the consequence of covetousness, the sinful desire to have something one has no right to have.  False testimony seeks selfish gain or advantage at the expense of someone else.  Slander is an effort to promote oneself by running someone else down.  All these evils find their roots and beginnings in the filthy, dark recesses of your cold, black heart.
This is good to know.  You need to know this.  You’re prone to go looking outside and blaming others for your condition.  Like Adam and Eve in the garden.  “The woman You gave …” The serpent lied to us; it’s his fault…”  “The devil made me do it.”  And secretly in the recesses of your heart: “It’s Your fault, Lord.  You made this way (or at least You allowed me to be born this way).” 
But the finger of blame and responsibility needs to point back to where it belongs—squarely on yourself and your rebel will and your sinful heart that wants it your way instead of God’s way.  Out of this depraved heart of yours comes all the things you hate in the world—all the murders, adulteries, deceits, you name it—they all begin in the heart.
This then is not only the end of the Old Testament’s kosher laws; it is also the end of all “heart religion,” the business of giving one’s heart to God.  As Bo Giertz writes in The Hammer of God, “What sort of gift is that for a King, that rusty old tin can of a heart of yours?”  That heart of your is a septic tank by the words of Jesus.  It’s a sewer pipe with sludge spewing out of it.  So any religion that includes “following one’s heart,” “praying from the heart,” “the goodness of one’s heart,” or anything “from the heart” is on the wrong track.  You need a new heart.  A heart transplant, if you will.  The prophet Ezekiel says, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.  And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26).
It’s not as though you can rehab this old hardened sinful heart of yours.  You can’t.  It was steeped in sin from birth, from the time of your conception.  Your heart is hopelessly mired in sin and is the source of all the stuff that comes out of you—the corrupt thought, the loveless word, the ruthless deed.  This is the whole nature of “original sin,” or as the Lutheran Confessions call it, “concupiscence.”  You are conceived and born this way—with an unclean heart that gives rise to unclean thoughts, unclean words, and unclean deeds. 
This is a fundamental thing and something you need to keep straight.  You are not a sinner because you sin; you sin because you are a sinner.  It’s a heart problem.  It comes from your heart.  Even a tiny, “innocent” baby has this heart capable of all the evil things Jesus lists and then some.  The only thing that prevents him from acting them out is lack of development of gross and fine motor skills, of intellect and reasoning.  It’s only a matter of time before that little heart begins to spill out bilge, too—from a defiant resistance of a parent’s will to the willful assertion of her own will to do as she pleases.  And so it goes with you, too.  Out of your heart flows your own idolatries, adulteries, murders, lies, deceits, confess what you will, it begins in your own heart.
The answer lies not in your lying, cheating, cold dead beating, two-timing, double dealing, mean mistreating, unloving heart, but in the loving heart of God.  In the undeserved kindness and mercy of God in Christ Jesus.  A heart transplant.  A new heart.  A heart that beats to the rhythms of God’s Word and Spirit.  A loving heart—a heart that’s alive and burning with faith toward God and love toward neighbor.  That’s what God wants for you.  That’s what God gives to you!
And it’s not so much like a heart transplant where one heart is removed and another is put in its place.  If that were the case, you would already be without sin because the source of sin would be gone.  But then, He would have to kill you and raise you to life, which He will do, in good time. 
Instead, God does a kind of “piggyback operation,” and puts a new heart next to your old heart that is the source of all kinds of evil.  Those two hearts beat together for awhile, the old heart of Adam, the new heart of Christ.  Luther called this being at once a sinner and a saint.  To be certain, having two hearts is not an easy way to live.  It would be much easier to reject that new heart and just deal with the old, dying one.  But you know how that turns out, don’t you!   
So for the time being, God leaves you hanging in a bit of tension between the old and the new, between death and life, between sinner and saint, a life where by the power of the Holy Spirit you strive to live according to God’s will and Word, but repent and trust in God’s grace when you fail. 
And the Lord says to you: “Trust me, I am your God.  You are My child.  I have rescued you from your sins in the death of My Son Jesus.  I have washed you clean, baptized you with My Word, claimed you as My own.  Trust me, that I know what is best for you.  Don’t give Me your old lying, cheating, cold dead beating, two-timing, double dealing, mean mistreating, unloving heart; instead, I will give you My heart, the loving heart of My Son, Jesus, whose heart always beats to My will.”
It’s not what goes into you that makes you unclean.  But it is what goes into you that makes you clean.  Spiritual purity comes not from within, but from without, outside yourself.  Baptismal water poured on you.  Forgiving words spoken into you.  Christ’s Body and Blood fed to you.  Those are what make the unclean clean.  God alone can do it.  God alone has done it.  And He does it for you, here today through His means of grace.  
For the sake of Jesus and His ever-loving heart, you are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.         

Into the Wilderness

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskoy Click here to listen to this sermon. “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out ...