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Monday, September 30 2013
Luke 16:19–31, 1Timothy 6:6–19
Our Gospel reading today is a well known parable by Jesus which most of us know as the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. So let me begin by telling you about a “Sunday School teacher who told his class about the story of the rich man and Lazarus. He highlighted the good end of Lazarus and the bad end of the rich man. He pointed out how one man went to hell and the other man went to heaven. He also pointed out how rich one man was and how poor the other man was. After the teacher taught his lesson he said to the class, ‘Now which would you rather be, the rich man or Lazarus?’ One boy raised his hand and said, ‘Well, I'd like to be the rich man while I'm alive, and Lazarus when I'm dead.’”
And all God’s people said, “Amen!”
Truth be told, I think that’s what we all really do want and hope for. The best life now, followed by an eternal home in heaven with God forever. Our hopes and our dreams for ourselves – and for our children – is that we live a life that is blessed. Nothing wrong with that. The bottom line is that we want to be happy. We want to live a life without regrets. Would you agree with me on that? Yes?
Okay. I want to talk with you today about a life lived where we can talk about being happy. And the first thing I want you to think about is thinking about what it means to be happy.
Now – being happy means different things to different people. So it’s kind of hard for me to stand up here and say this or that or the other thing will make all of us happy. No. It’s different for everybody. And that’s why before we dig into this parable about the rich man and Lazarus, I want to take a quick look at our reading from I Timothy.
The very opening line of this reading tells us, “Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.” Let me suggest right there that maybe – just maybe – what you and I are looking for is NOT happiness at all. “Wait Randy! What do you mean I don’t want to be happy? Of course I want to be happy, doesn’t everybody?”
Well – let me suggest to you that what I think you really want in this life is contentment. Right? Think about it. Paul is writing here to his young protégé Timothy, and he doesn’t say a word about wanting Timothy to be happy. The word he uses is contentment. “…there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.”
Let me remind you that happiness is an emotion. Happiness depends on things happening. So I need a lot of good things happening at the right time and in the right way in order for me to be happy. But contentment – contentment – is a way of being. Satisfied. One resource I read this week says that, “The Greek word for ‘contentment’ carries with it the notion of sufficiency — ‘enoughness.’” Now I know that that’s not a word – spell checker didn’t like it, but I really like it. Enoughness. “It implies satisfaction,…. In other words, people can be happy, but what they should really be pursuing is contentment.”
A number of years ago, one of our elderly members was hospitalized. And although she did recover, we didn’t think she was going to. But she was in the ICU with several of her family members there – she started talking to me. And we all heard her say this. And unable to open her eyes fully, and speaking in a just audible voice, she said, “Pastor, I just want you to know that my favorite sermon of yours was the one you preached about stuff.”
And we chuckled a little bit about that. Now, you remember my sermon on stuff don’t you? Of course you do. Actually, I’ve preached more than one sermon on stuff. Because most of us – including me – have way too much stuff. We are often focused on our stuff. That we build houses and other places just to store all of our stuff. And most of our time is used taking care of all of our stuff. You remember that?
But here is an elderly woman – expecting to die – wanting to die – preaching to me. “Remember your sermon on stuff, pastor. Life is not about stuff or having more stuff.”
Especially when you reach the end of your life, and you look back. It seems to me that life is not about acquiring wealth. It’s not about hoarding money or having the things that money can buy. No. Life is not about stuff. It’s about contentment – being satisfied – happy – can I say that? – with what you’ve got. A satisfaction that leads to contentment.
Now, you ask most people what it is that would make them happy, this is unscientific of me to say this, but I would bet that some people – maybe even many people – would say having more money.
There’s nothing wrong with money. It’s a tool. But that’s all it is. You need money – I need money – we all need money to use as a tool to buy the things we need. Food, shelter, clothing. It’s a tool that God gives to us – that God gives to me – so that I can take care of my needs – pay my taxes – and share what I have with others.
But what I want to point out to all of you today is that all of our readings today are warnings. They warn of the danger of loving money. Of falling in love with money. Of falling in love with wanting to have more money. Again, our reading from I Timothy says, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Please notice that it doesn’t say that money is the root of all evil. But the love of money. The love of money.
And I would guess that if I were to ask you today, what would you rather have – contentment – or a lot of money? And for our purposes today, answering “both” is not an option – and that’s not to say that you can’t have both – but if you had to choose, what would your choice be? Perhaps the better question would be, “Which would you rather pursue?” And since I look at my role as your pastor to be an encourager – let me encourage you to pursue contentment. It is a choice. Choose to be content. Choose sufficiency. Choose to be satisfied. Choose enoughness.
I came across an article this week on MSN.com. An article entitled “25 Happiest, Healthiest Cities in America” that listed Fargo, North Dakota 6th. Fargo! And whereas most of the other cities were noted for the number of folks who ate healthy, or worked out, do you know why Fargo ended up so high on the list? It was the only one listed with this as the reason. And let me give you a clue. A lot of Lutherans live in Fargo – in fact a whole bunch of Lutherans live in the whole state of North Dakota.
Fargo was indentified high on the happiness scale due to “very high scores in regular church attendance. Fargo's fans say the city's strong sense of community, which shows up in high scores for regularly attending religious services, makes up for [the cold winters.]”
“It's also a big clue to the town's warmth,” says Stephanie Tollefson, 35, a pastor at Hope Lutheran Church, which welcomes some 5,000 worshippers weekly. [Can you imagine 5,000 people every weekend?] “People say a generous heart is a happy heart, and I see that here. The more you connect with other people, the more joy you get back,” she says. “And the more joy you have, the more you want to give back.” In Fargo, she says, “people genuinely seem to want to belong to something that's bigger than just themselves.”
It really does boil down to attitude. For instance – going back to the Gospel reading about the rich man and Lazarus – notice that the rich man is not condemned for being rich. I want to be absolutely clear about that. But it seems to me that the rich man in this parable did lose sight of what it means to love God and love his neighbor – he lost site of what it means to connect with other people – specifically in this case the poor man named Lazarus.
As I shared with you a few weeks ago when the parable of the Rich Fool was the parable of the day, what was true of the rich fool seems to be true of the rich man in this parable. Both of these rich men kept everything they had for themselves. They lived as though God did not exist.
So what can we learn from all of these readings today? May I suggest to you that the life that really is life is not going to be found in accumulating wealth just for the sake of accumulating wealth. And what any of us do with our money – what any of us do with the wealth that is ours – is our choice. The rich man in the parable Jesus told apparently did not choose very well.
So although we don’t live in Fargo, North Dakota – we do know something about living in cold weather – but I sense here in this place a great sense of joy and contentment. And if it’s true that a generous heart is a happy heart, well, then I see that here as well.
So let me ask you a question. Are there people in your world – needy, hurting people, who need your attention? Maybe they’re within our own families. Or next door. Maybe it’s a fellow student at school, or someone that you work with. Maybe it’s a homeless person on the streets of Buffalo – or a child who goes to school hungry – or maybe your focus right now is on building a school in Haiti where kids can have a meal, an education, and a church where they can learn about Jesus. These are the Lazarus’s lying at our gates.
The bottom line is, if what you really want is contentment – if you are looking for real joy in your life – I guarantee you – living your life in such a way so that God is glorified – and for the benefit of others – that’s the real secret to a successful – joy-filled life of contentment.
In fact, may I be so bold as to suggest that God’s great desire for us is that we live a life of contentment, not happiness.
And by the way, we’re likely to be very happy when we learn this secret.
Tuesday, September 24 2013
Remember a few weeks ago, we heard Jesus tell us that in order to be his disciple, we must hate our father, mother, brother, sister – you know – the people who are closest to us. And we agreed that we weren’t crazy about hearing Jesus say that. I called it one of the hard sayings of Jesus. And if you weren’t here to hear the whole message – let me just say that what Jesus was really saying is not that we should actually hate our family members – like say, one might hate Brussels sprouts – but what Jesus is saying is that our commitment to Jesus – our commitment to following Jesus – is to be stronger than love for father, mother, brother, sister and so on. It’s one of the hard sayings of Jesus.
Well, today is another one of those hard sayings of Jesus. It’s a parable – hard to understand. And remember, that Jesus told parables in order to make a point. The challenge is to try to understand just what the point is that Jesus is making here. I almost chose the passage from I Timothy to preach on. That would have been the easy way out. But then – you would all be scratching your heads wondering – did we just hear what we think we just heard? What does this parable mean?
So in this story – this parable – that Jesus tells today, we read about a rich man who has a manager who is accused of wasting the rich man’s possessions. So he calls him in and asks him, “What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.”
The manager has been playing fast and loose with the boss’s money. Today we would call it embezzlement. So the boss has no choice – gives him – I don’t know – two weeks’ notice – but apparently doesn’t give him the pink slip right away.
And the manager says to himself, “What am I going to do? My body wasn’t built for digging ditches, and I don’t want to have to beg.” So he thought and he thought, and he thought some more. And the plan he thought up was this. He told the people who owed his master money to rewrite their bills. Do you see what he was doing? We think – we think that he may have been taking his commission off the debts that were owed to his employer. Either that or he was truly being dishonest in reducing those bills. But in either case he was looking for favors – making friends – who would be indebted to him when he no longer had a job!
And then – Jesus finishes the parable by having the manager’s boss praise the dishonest manager for acting shrewdly. Let me tell you. Theologians and preachers have been trying to make sense of this parable for years. Just what was Jesus – just what IS Jesus teaching by telling this parable?
There are three possible explanations.
One explanation is that this is a parable about forgiveness because the master forgives the dishonest manage. A second explanation is that this parable is a parable about money. At the end of this parable are these words: “You cannot serve both God and money.” Money is a great servant, but a poor master. We cannot serve God and money. They are both good points – and in keeping with Jesus’ overall message.
But what I want to suggest is that Jesus is using this parable to teach us about the need to take action when a problem or an opportunity comes our way. Because in no way can we say that Jesus is teaching us to be dishonest. BUT – and here’s what you really need to pay attention to – Jesus is using a story about dishonesty as a teaching tool to teach us something about being bold – about taking charge of a situation that calls for action.
This is hard, I know. I want you to know that I am having a hard time saying this just right. Pay attention now to how Jesus ends this parable. In verse eight we read, “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” In other words, he is praised for his shrewdness – certainly NOT for his dishonesty. Are we clear on that? And then Jesus says, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.”
And who are the people of light? We are. We are. Christ followers. Disciples of Jesus Christ. That, I think, is the plain meaning of this parable. This man took hold of his life and got himself out of a tight situation. He didn’t sit around wringing his hands, and worry – like – you know – so many of us do. Sorry – I had to say it. And neither did he spend a lot of time praying a prayer like, “O Lord, please get me out of this mess.”
In fact, we don’t know if the man prayed at all. But let me tell you, part of taking charge of any situation – good or bad – is to pray first. That’s always a good thing to do. Pray first.
A book I am reading for the second time as part of my daily devotions – a book on prayer called “Draw the Circle,” says, “Pray like it depends on God. Work like it depends on you.”
I think that’s good advice. Pray like it depends on God. Work like it depends on you. Now please don’t hear this as “God helps those who help themselves.” That quote is not in the Bible. That’s Benjamin Franklin. The whole point of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We are lost sinners who cannot save ourselves. For that we rely totally and completely on the grace and mercy of God which is ours in Jesus Christ. So this is not a “God helps those who help themselves,” message.
So what do we do when we find ourselves in a tough situation? First, it’s a good thing to pray in and for a certain situation. But here’s the thing. When you’re done praying, don’t expect God to do things for you that you are perfectly capable of doing.
For instance, it’s one thing to pray, “Lord – feed all the hungry people of the world.” Or, “Lord feed the hungry people in Buffalo.” Do you know what Jesus says to me when I pray a prayer like that? He says, “OK, Randy. I’ve put the answer to your prayer in your wallet. I know you can’t feed the whole city of Buffalo – but how much can you give to feed one hungry child for one day or one week? Randy – I want you to do what you can do. I want you to be shrewd. I want you to take action.” So every month I go to Wegman’s, and I buy a case of canned vegetables, four jars of peanut butter, and eight cans of tuna fish, and put it in our food pantry bin out in the hallway. It’s not much. But it is something that I can do because I care about feeding hungry people.
I’m also something of a news junky, so just this past week I came across two stories that I think might help. Two different stories about people who were caught in a situation, and acted shrewdly.
The first one involves Brian Holloway. Brian is a former offensive tackle for the New England Patriots. While he was in Florida over Labor Day weekend, his vacation home outside of Albany was trashed by anywhere from 200 to 400 teenagers. Can you imagine? These teens posted twitters about what they were doing – while their party was going on. Brian Holloway was actually able to follow in real time through Twitter what was going on in his home. Holes in walls. Grafitti. Carpets ruined. Things stolen.
Tell me, what would you do if that were to happen to you? Do you know what Brian did? He said, “Damage can be repaired. Stolen things can be returned. But we’ve got to do something about these kids.” So he started a website called “helpmesave300.com”. He isn’t looking for revenge. He’s not looking to punish. He said, “We need to get these young kids turned around.” Since he had the kids names from their tweets on Twitter, he posted the kids names on his website AND invited them to attend a party to clean up the place. I think he is acting rather shrewdly, don’t you agree?
Then there is this second story. Joey Prusak, a manager at a Dairy Queen watched as a visually impaired customer unknowingly dropped a twenty on the floor. A woman picked up that twenty – and stuck it in her purse. When she got to the counter to order, Joey refused to serve her unless she returned the twenty. She left in a huff, without returning the twenty. So Joey went to the man who had dropped the twenty, and gave the man a twenty from his own pocket. About two hours wages for Joey. Another customer saw all this happen, and sent an email to Dairy Queen. That email was forwarded to the owner of that particular Dairy Queen. Well, the news went viral. And since then, traffic at that Dairy Queen has doubled. Joey even got a phone call from Warren Buffett – second richest man in the United States – whose company owns the Dairy Queen chain. Folks have been coming in and giving Joey large tips, or just giving him money. He’s saving to go to college for a degree in business, but do you know what he’s doing with these tips and gifts he’s getting? He said he is giving it to charity.
Now folks, I don’t know if Brian Halloway or Joey Prusak are Christians or not. I don’t know if they prayed about the situation they found themselves in or not. But they certainly are modeling what it means to be a Christ-follower. And I mention these stories because I want to suggest that both of these guys acted shrewdly when faced with difficult and challenging situations. They were making a difference for someone else. In the one case – hundreds of teenagers who need to have their lives turned around. In the other case a visually impaired man who was stolen from was helped.
Jesus calls us the people of light. Good people, moral people, honest people. People who need to be where the action is.
When Jesus told this parable, he was talking to his disciples. And what he was telling them was this: “Look guys, I need for you to get out there and make a difference in the world.” And that – I think – is the message today for us too.
Does that help make sense of this parable today? Jesus is not commending this manager for being dishonest. He is commending him for his concern about the situation he found himself – and then taking action. For us – it means – well – taking action to touch hearts, change lives, and make a difference.
It is a strange little parable. But it’s a reminder that as long as we are disciples of Jesus Christ – that we need to take action. To pray like it depends on God – and work like it depends on us.
Monday, September 16 2013
As all of you know, every year, our volunteer fire company – the Clarence Center Volunteer Fire Company – hosts a fair on Labor Day weekend. Just a few weekends ago. There are rides for the kids; fireworks; a parade; a demolition derby (I’ve never been to the demolition derby); all kinds of food including their famous – world famous! – “Fireman’s Chowder.” I’m forgetting something. Oh yeah – and a beer tent. A beer tent.
Now I’ve been at this church 22 years – and I’ve lived here in Clarence Center for 20 of those years. And I want you to know – that I was at the beer tent a couple weekends ago for only the second time. I know – to some of you that may sound shocking – either number one, that I was there – or number two – that it was only my second time there. Even dragged my wife along – I mean – my beloved wife Nancy graciously came along with me when I suggested it would be a really fun way to spend a Saturday night.
And I saw a lot of our church family members there – at the beer tent. And I said to Nancy, “You know – I really like coming here. I get to see some of our members who I don’t see any other time of the year.” And she said – true story – she said “Yeah, that’s what you told me the last time we were here.”
Now I don’t know how any of you feel about your pastor going to the beer tent. You probably don’t care. After all we are Lutherans, you know! Hey! I had only one. And I did – I did see a lot of our members there. Some of you I saw from a distance. But I also had the chance to talk to a lot of you too – or just waved at some from a distance.
Now, as I said, I saw a lot of our church members who don’t often if ever show up here for worship. And you also know that more than one time I have heard people say to me, “Why is it that when I see you, I feel guilty.” I shared that much with you in a sermon a few months ago.
Let me tell you – sometimes there is great value in just showing up. Just to be seen. That perhaps maybe – just maybe – that by my presence it might get some of these – can I call them lost sheep? – it might get them to think about church – about God – or dare I hope – I always hope – perhaps even finding their way back to this place of worship and fellowship in Christ. Call it evangelism by just being there – or evangelism by just walking around.
And quite frankly – whether it’s at the beer tent – or at Wegman’s – or on the bike path – I have had many conversations where I hear – “I know pastor. I know I need to get back to church. We’ve been talking about it, and I want you to know we’ll be back.”
Our Gospel lesson for today is all about finding that which is lost. Two parables. Told by Jesus. One about a shepherd who goes in search of a lost sheep that has just kind of wandered away, while leaving 99 sheep to go in search of that one lost sheep. And a woman who sweeps the floors of her home looking for a lost coin. Jesus tells these parables in response to the religious leaders of his day who criticize him for eating with – well – they called them sinners. Those who perhaps didn’t obey the Jewish religious laws – or collected taxes for the Romans.
And as you listened to these two parables read to you – and perhaps followed along on the front screens – the first thing that I would hope you heard is that Jesus is telling us something about God – and about who God is. Because Jesus is not talking about sheep. He’s not talking about coins. He’s talking about people – he’s talking about people who need the Lord.
So let me tell you what I hear. I hear that God is interested in the lost. AND – what’s really great – is that God rejoices when a lost person comes home to Him. You know what that tells me? It tells me that people matter to God. It tells me that YOU matter to God. That God loves you. That God cares about you. In fact, He’s crazy about you. And that God rejoices – heck, even the angels in heaven rejoice – when those who have wandered away return to Him – or when those who are lost are found.
And since all of us – every single one of us – are or were – lost at one time or another – or perhaps just kind of wandered away – that God rejoiced – the angels in heaven rejoiced – when you and I were found. When you and I came home to God.
Now I know we live in a world of skeptics and skepticism – about God – about the church. One of the challenges we face in our society today is the growing number of agnostic and atheist voices who are writing books, becoming vocal, and quite frankly – evangelistic in getting people to agree with their world view – a world view that says the universe just kind of started and developed on its own – in spite of the evidence of what can be observed that the universe looks to be wonderfully designed and engineered by an intelligent being – a being that we know to be God.
And it is my intention to preach a sermon series – I’d love to tell you that I am targeting the weekends in Lent of next year for this – that’s my target – on why the atheists and the agnostics are wrong. I know that they are sincere in their beliefs – but I want to show why they are sincerely wrong. I’ve been doing a lot of reading in this area – and I want to preach a series on the evidence for God – the evidence for creation – the evidence for the resurrection. Anyway – stay tuned.
Because there is a lot of skepticism out there. Lost sheep who have wandered away for a variety of reasons. I can tell you that when I hear “Well, pastor, I just want you to know that I’m spiritual but not religious,” I think what they’re really saying is, “I believe in God – but I just don’t like the church.” Or “I don’t have anything against God. It’s His fans I can’t stand
There are many of us who have family members – husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters – who are in what we might call “lost sheep” status. Do not give up on them. I haven’t given up on the lost sheep in my family – and I can tell you that God does not – and will not – ever give up either.
How can I say that? Because Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. Last week I told you that we here at Zion Lutheran Church are in the business of making disciples. This week let me tell you that Jesus is in the business of seeking and saving the lost. And quite frankly – you and I are the tools he uses to go looking for those lost sheep. If God cares about the lost – then so do we. If Jesus is like a good shepherd who goes after that one lost sheep – if he makes that one lost sheep his business – then that one lost sheep is our business too.
Norman Vincent Peale once told about addressing a Methodist conference in Atlanta, Georgia along with a fine preacher, Bishop Noah Moore, and Pierce Harris, a much-loved local pastor. In his message Peale said that he believed that Jesus Christ could come into a life and change it, no matter how hopeless it seemed.
After the service, when he and the other guest preachers were gathered in the minister's office, they were told that a man wanted to see them. A somewhat disreputable-looking man, they were warned; unshaven, unwashed, poorly dressed. When the man did come in, he was reeking of alcohol, but his mind was full of the message he had just heard. “‘Do you really believe that Jesus can help me?” he asked.
“Without a doubt,” Peale replied. Then the man asked if they would pray with him.
So the four ordained ministers prayed with the man. When he went out, Bishop Moore said, a bit wistfully, “If that man changes, we'll all be surprised, won't we?” There it was, a flicker of doubt from one of the clergy wondering if change is possible for some people.
Six months later, Peale said he was sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Clearwater, Florida, when he saw a man coming toward him, leading two little girls by the hand. The man was immaculately dressed, and his daughters were exquisite children, attractive and well-behaved. At first Peale didn’t know who he was, but as he came closer, he recognized the former derelict from Atlanta. There was a smile on his face, and he was humming ‘Amazing Grace’ as he held out his hand in greeting. Peale said it was one of the most emotional and unforgettable encounters of his life.
How many of you believe that Jesus can and does make a difference – can bring about change in a person’s life? We know because our lives have been changed.
Let me share with you another story. There's an old story, about a little boy who cried out in the night. “Daddy, I'm scared!” Half awake his father said, “Don't be afraid, Daddy's right across the hall.”’
There was a brief pause and the little boy called out, “I'm still scared.” So his father said, You don't have to be afraid; God is with you. God loves you.
The pause was longer but the little boy called out again, “I don't care about God, Daddy; I want someone with skin on!”
Folks – people matter to God. And so God sent to earth a real live, flesh and blood Savior – His Son Jesus Christ. God in the flesh. God with skin on. In order to seek and to save the lost. It’s how we know that people matter to God.
Jesus is sometimes called the Good Shepherd. And when we know Jesus the Good Shepherd – the One who comes after us when we wander away – we know then just how much we are truly valued – how much we are truly wanted – how much we are truly loved.
And Jesus – the Good Shepherd – isn’t satisfied until all those who have been lost or who have wandered away – are safely back home. So no matter what you’ve done – no matter where you’ve been – no matter how long you’ve been away – there is a place for you here. Welcome home! Amen
Tuesday, September 10 2013
“Hey, wait a minute, Lord! This is good news? This is the Gospel of our Lord? I mean, Jesus – you want me to give up all of my possessions – every blessing – everything I own? You want me to hate my mother and father? My brother and sister? Well okay – my brother was a little nasty to me when he was 12 and I was 10, and… what? My kids too? You – you even want me to hate my beloved wife Nancy with whom I am well-pleased? I mean, come on Lord. She’s not going to be too happy with me – you know – 31 years of marriage and all – just this past Thursday. You remember. I even took her out to dinner at Gertie’s. And you know I could have spent a lot less money on her by taking her out to lunch at Mardee’s instead!”
Folks – that’s the kind of conversation I want to have with Jesus after reading this lesson from Luke. And let me tell you – if the selection of the readings that we have each week were totally up to me – I would choose only those readings from the Bible that would be easy to preach on – or only those Good News texts that are truly Good News.
But – we ARE on this adventure this summer with Jesus going through the book of Luke. And that means focusing on some of the hard sayings of Jesus. Today’s text is one of those hard saying of Jesus that, quite frankly, we don’t like to hear. We don’t want to listen to this stuff. Can you imagine if I had instructed our greeters to greet everyone who came through our doors this evening/morning with these words: “Hi! Welcome to Zion. You’re going to love the message today. It’s all about Jesus telling us we have to hate our families and give up everything we possess. Have a nice day.”
I think you’d have thought twice – maybe even three times – about coming in here this evening/morning.
And that’s exactly what Jesus wants you to do. He wants you and me to think carefully about what this thing called being a disciple of Jesus Christ is all about.
So let’s take a look at that word hate for a moment. I’ve gotta say something about that. The word hate as used here is not so much a word of emotion, of feelings of hatred for someone or something. No. As Jesus uses it here it’s meaning is more one of priority. In other words, to put aside things that might distract you from accomplishing something important.
May I suggest to you that Jesus is demanding that our love for Him – our allegiance to Him – should be so strong – that it is a love and an allegiance that is greater than any other love or allegiance to anyone else that we might have. And that includes love for our husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, children – well – you get the idea.
Now, having said all that – if you find that you really do love someone in your life more than you find yourself loving Jesus – let me just tell you that that is not cause for Jesus to boot you out of the Kingdom – and keep you from entering into heaven someday.
What Jesus is asking us for is our allegiance and our commitment to following him. You’ve heard me say this many times before. Being a Christian is more than just going to church on Saturday night/Sunday. Being a Christian is a way of life. And if we are going to be disciples of Jesus Christ – then he wants us to count the cost of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Being a disciple is more than just a matter of convenience. It’s more than just knowing that you are loved by God, that you are forgiven, and it’s certainly more than just hoping to go to heaven some day as important as all of these things are. In other words, there is some sacrifice involved in being a disciple of Jesus Christ. The question is, are you and I willing to pay the price – whatever that might be?
Now, here again, I need to say – and I cannot emphasize this enough – your ticket into heaven – your membership if you will in the Kingdom of God – does not depend on the cost that you and I make as disciples of Jesus Christ.
– That price has already been paid.
–That’s something that’s already been given to you as a gift.
–That sacrifice has already been made for you through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In fact, no amount of effort or work or sacrifice on our part can add to the work that Jesus has already done. And that’s good news. If our reading today from Luke’s Gospel doesn’t sound too much like Good News, just remember that at the heart of the Gospel message is that God loves you – Jesus died for you so that your sins are forgiven – and because he lives, we will live also. Now THAT’S Good news. That’s really, really Good News!
But we can’t gloss over what Jesus tells us today. Even if we don’t like to hear it so much – this is what Jesus wants us to hear – what Jesus wants us to know – what Jesus wants us to understand.
In other words, when it comes to following Jesus, he wants us to count the cost. I like what Martin Luther had to say about this. He once said, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.”
You know, tomorrow/today is the start of Sunday School. It’s also the start of confirmation instructions. And yet, we are not in the Sunday School business. We are not in the confirmation business. Let me share with you a story.
A number of years ago, a pastor by the name of Fred Craddock was chaplain at the Chautauqua Institute for a week. “One morning he told a story from the early years of his ministry in Custer City, Oklahoma, a town of about 450 souls. There were four churches there, a Methodist church, a Baptist church, a Nazarene church, and a Christian church (where Fred served). Each had its share of the population on Wednesday night, Sunday morning, and Sunday evening. Each had a small collection of young people, and the attendance rose and fell according to the weather and whether it was time to harvest the wheat.
“But the most consistent attendance in town was at the little café where all the pickup trucks were parked, and all the men were inside discussing the weather, and the cattle, and the wheat bugs, and the hail, and the wind, and is there going to be a crop. All their wives and sons and daughters were in one of those four churches. The churches had good attendance and poor attendance, but the café had consistently good attendance, better attendance than some of the churches. They were always there - not bad men, but good men, family men, hard-working men.
“Fred says the patron saint of the group that met at the café was named Frank. Frank was seventy-seven when they first met. He was a good, strong man, a pioneer, a rancher and farmer, and a prospering cattle man too. He had been born in a sod house; he had his credentials, and all the men there at the café considered him their patron saint. "Ha! Old Frank will never go to church."
“Fred says, ‘I met Frank on the street one time. He knew I was a preacher, but it has never been my custom to accost people in the name of Jesus, so I just was shaking hands and visiting with him, but he took the offensive. He said, ‘I work hard, I take care of my family and I mind my own business. Far as I'm concerned, everything else is fluff.’ You see what he told me? ‘Leave me alone, I'm not a prospect.’ I didn't bother Frank. That's why the entire church, and the whole town were surprised, and the men at the café church were absolutely bumfuzzled when old Frank, seventy-seven years old, presented himself before me one Sunday morning for baptism. I baptized Frank. Some of the talk in the community was, ‘Frank must be sick. Guess he's scared to meet his maker. They say he's got heart trouble. Going up there and being baptized, well, I never thought ol' Frank would do that, but I guess when you get scared...’ All kinds of stories.
“Dr. Craddock goes on: ‘We were talking the next day after his baptism, and I said, ‘Uh, Frank, you remember that little saying you used to give me so much: ‘I work hard, I take care of my family, I mind my own business?’’
“He said, ‘Yeah, I remember. I said that a lot.’
“I said, ‘You still say that?’
“He said, ‘Yeah.’
“I said, ‘"Then what's the difference?’
“He said, ‘I didn't know then what my business was.’”
Folks – it’s important for us to know what business we’re in. If you’re with us here for the first time today – or you’ve been here your whole life – I want you to know that we at Zion Lutheran Church are in the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ. And everything we do – from worship and Sunday School and confirmation instructions – to making sure the trash gets taken out every week – everything we do is designed to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Everything we do is designed to bring glory to God – for the benefit of others – and for our own good. That’s what our business is – to make disciples of Jesus Christ. And that includes evangelism – that is – introducing everyone we know – everyone who is willing to listen – to Jesus Christ – and then being – and showing others – what it means to be the followers that Jesus wants us to be.
And it may very well cost you something. You MAY have to give something or some things up. And I’m not talking about a giving up something for Lent kind of thing. I’m talking about anything – absolutely anything – that keeps you and me from being everything God wants us to be. It means making choices – setting our priorities – putting away the distractions – in short – it calls for discipline. In fact if you’ll notice – discipline and disciple are pretty much the same word.
It is this kind of Christianity Jesus is looking for. It’s not just something we do – or that we are – when it’s convenient. Faith in Jesus Christ – trusting Jesus Christ – being a disciple of Jesus Christ – is a way of life.
Jesus is looking for disciples. He is looking for people who will count the cost. People who will say, “Yes!” to the invitation when Jesus says, “Come. Follow me.”
Tuesday, September 03 2013
Luke 14: 1, 7-14
It’s Labor Day weekend, and you know what that means, right? The Clarence Center Labor Day fair and parade. School starts this week – and for most parents, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” and, oh yeah, are you ready for some football? The NFL's regular season kicks off this Thursday, September 5. And our beloved Bills begin on Sunday the 8th. At home. Against New England. And that’s all I’ll say about that.
But I came across some trivia this past week. Exactly 50 years ago, on September 7, 1963, the Pro Football Hall of Fame opened in Canton, Ohio. There were 17 charter members.
A man by the name of Jim Thorpe was one of them. How many of you remember Jim Thorpe? How many of you have at least heard of Jim Thorpe? He was the most famous athlete of his time, able to run with speed and power as well as pass, catch, punt and kick. After leading the Canton Bulldogs to three unofficial world championships, he became the first president of the National Football League.
By the way, he also played six seasons of major-league baseball and won two gold medals in the 1912 Olympics. King Gustav V of Sweden honored him during the closing ceremonies by saying, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.”
To which Thorpe replied, “Thanks, King.”
Today, success leads to excessive celebrations. You see it in the end zone after almost every touchdown. Sometimes they even mock the other team – as one of our own Bills players did a few years ago. That antic earned him and the team a 15-yard penalty. How different today from the days of Jim Thorpe and his simple, “Thanks, King.”
And it’s not just football – and don’t get me wrong – I love football – I love watching and cheering for the Bills – but there seems to be something going on in the world of sports – in the world of entertainment – that I find alarming.
• I think of Alex Rodriguez – one of the most talented men to play the sport of baseball. Not content to play the game on talent and natural ability, we now associate him with using performance enhancing drugs.
• I think of Miley Cyrus at the Video Music Awards and the sexually suggestive act she put on this past week. And thanks to her, we now have a new word added to our vocabulary – twerping. Quite frankly, I didn’t need to know that word or see the antics it suggest.
At the risk of sounding guilty of indulging in self-righteousness – which in and of itself is a form of arrogance, I know – but I want to ask, “What’s going on?” And I don’t mean to pick on – or condemn – any one athlete or entertainer. That is not my intent today. But I use these as examples of what can happen when a person – any person – it could just as well be you or me – but when a person gets caught up in an exuberant display of their own sense of importance.
Something like that is happening in our Gospel reading today. And I can’t help thinking that what we see going on in certain segments of our society today may be just what Jesus is talking about today when he says, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
When going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, Jesus said, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down in the place of honor.”
And here’s the kicker. Jesus is saying that someone more distinguished than you might show up, which would cause your host to come to you and say, “Give this person your place,” which would then mean you would have to move to a place of lower honor.
Instead, Jesus says, “When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” SO all of you sitting in the back row – come on up here! There’s plenty of room in the front seats. Oh! You’re okay where you are? Alright. You had your chance.
Anyway – this is an important lesson that we need to listen to. Maybe it’s even kind of a warning. Listen again. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Let me share with you another story that comes out of the world of sports. A few weeks ago at the Canadian Open, golfer Hunter Mahan left the tournament to be with his wife, Kandi, who had gone into labor three weeks early.
The really amazing thing about Mahan’s decision is that the thirty-one year old was leading the tournament at the time and had a real chance of winning the million dollar prize. According to Mahan the decision was easy, because he wasn’t focused on himself or the money, but his family.
“When I am done playing golf,” Mahan said, “I’d rather be noted for being a good husband and good father than anything else. Success comes and goes. Seeing your daughter every day, having a family – that is stuff that makes you happy to your core.”
Folks, may I suggest to you that that kind of attitude is what comes from knowing Jesus Christ. That Christ-like attitude is what Jesus is talking about today – an attitude that overcomes pride and the desire for – well a desire for attention that says, “Look how great I am.”
Look, we’re all gifted. We’re all talented. There is something that each one of us has the ability to do – at least one thing – that we can take pride in at the end of the day. And there is something quite good and healthy and necessary in hearing, “Good job. Well done.”
My wife, Nancy, is a good cook. When our daughter Special came to live with us from Liberia, Africa – she was 15 at the time, and that was 29 years ago – after an exceptional dinner, Special exclaimed, “Mean meal, Mom!” That’s become a Milleville tradition whenever there is an exceptional meal. “Mean meal, Mom!” Of course we never hear, “Mean meal, Dad!”
But there’s something good say to your son or your daughter who’s just played well in a soccer or baseball game, “You looked good out there today.” “Great essay for that school project.” Or “Wonderful presentation at work today.”
There’s something good in hearing someone tell you that you are valued. That you are appreciated. That you are loved.
But there’s that fine line between healthy pride and an unhealthy pride that leads to arrogance – and learning how to receive compliments graciously – without fishing for them. I know because I fish for complements all the time. I know, because I do wrestle with pride. I know that there are some Saturday’s/Sunday’s where I preach a sermon and I can tell that I have hit a home run. And I want to do a kind of victory dance in the end zone – you know – behind the altar over there. But don’t worry! I can also tell when my sermons are duds. And the confirmands who take notes on my sermons let me know. I guess it’s all a matter of attitude – a sense of what I might call healthy pride – and an unhealthy pride that leads to arrogance. It’s that latter attitude that Jesus is warning us about today.
But still – we like to be noticed. And we need to be noticed – but for the right things and in the right way. Let me share a story with you from a guy by the name of Terry Hershey.
A school bus was making its final round of the day. A young boy jumped off just as a man jogged by.
“Hey, mister,” the boy shouted, “can I jog with you?” The jogger wasn't in a hurry so he nodded and the boy joined in jogging. Within five minutes the boy gave the jogger pretty much his whole life story. His name was Matthew; he was ten years old, precocious and full of life.
Abruptly, however, Matthew stopped. “Look at this,” he ordered as he showed the jogger an 81/2 by 11 inch piece of paper that had been laminated. In big black letters across the top it said, “Fourth Grade Math Whiz.” Underneath was Matthew's name, the school name, the date and the teacher's signature.
His pride was undaunted. “I'm a math whiz,” he went on beaming, not waiting for the jogger to come to that conclusion by reading the card only inches from his face. “Last year my sister was the math whiz,” he continued, “but this year, I'm the math whiz!”’
“That's great,” the man replied.
“Yep,” said Matthew. “But you know what's really great? When I get home, my dad's gonna be real proud.”
And isn't that what we all really want? We want to make our father proud, our mother proud. We want to earn the esteem of family members and business colleagues, teachers at school and friends at church. And that's fine. Nothing wrong with that. But more important than all of these, says Jesus, is to make God proud of us.
Right there at the end of our reading from Luke today – we learn this when we look around to those who are helpless, hurting, the destitute, the hungry, the homeless, and do something for those who can do nothing for us in return. It's all right to want to be one of the beautiful people, says Jesus, as long as you understand who the beautiful people really are. They are not those who are always buying more trinkets to impress their neighbors. They are those who are using the blessings of life to bless others.
Worldly people seek to exalt themselves. But as followers of Jesus Christ we know that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” We all want – indeed we need – recognition. But recognition of the right kind – the kind that it is my hope that we will one day hear from Jesus himself – those words – “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
And turning to Jesus, we can simply say, “Thanks, King.” Amen