Saturday, October 19, 2013

Ever-Ready, Always-Listening, Endlessly Merciful

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Barnesville, MN
Pentecost 22-October 20, 2013
Luke 18:1-8

If the parables of Jesus don’t leave you chuckling with delight or shaking your head in bafflement or just a little hot under the collar… probably haven’t heard them in all their richness and glory.   Because—whatever else we may think of Jesus’ parables—in the first place, they’re simply “thumpin’ good” stories!

And the parables are proof positive that Jesus was willing to go to any length to get his point across.   Jesus was always ready to skate right on the edge of propriety, in order to draw our attention to what God is up to in our midst.

So this morning we have before us a parable inhabited by two indomitable, unforgettable characters.

First there is this judge who always, it would appear, operated as a law unto himself.   

This judge neither fears God nor respects people.   He is not bound by religious principles. Nor is he beholding to the latest opinion poll. 

This judge must have had a lifetime appointment!

He reminds me of the ruthless banker in a small town, who doled out loans with a legendary stinginess.    This banker took peculiar pride in the high-quality glass eye he had—a glass eye that almost perfectly matched his one good eye in both size and appearance.    

So one day a poor dirt farmer, hat in hand, humbly came to the banker’s office, seeking a loan so he could plant his spring crop.    The farmer, stammering, made his case while the banker idly stared out the window.

In response to the farmer’s plea for credit, the banker replied that he’d help the farmer out if he correctly guessed which of his two eyes was the glass eye.

After carefully studying the banker’s face for several moments, the farmer guessed that the glass eye was the banker’s left eye.

Amazed that he’d guessed correctly so quickly, the banker asked the farmer how he knew his left eye was the glass eye.  “Because when I studied your left eye—compared to your right eye—I thought I detected some compassion in it!”

Just so, in Jesus’ parable, the unrighteous judge was a hard-nosed, unsentimental bully, accustomed to having his own way, as he stingily doled out justice.   Folks hearing Jesus tell this parable would have had this man “pegged.”   Each hearer, no doubt, could think of someone they knew who was just as bull-headedly arrogant as the unrighteous judge.

And then there’s the pleading widow in this parable.    In terms of the power dynamics of this story, she clearly operated at a disadvantage, compared to the judge.  

This widow was utterly powerless.   She was a woman in a rigidly male-dominated culture.  Moreover, she was a widow—bereft of the husband who once provided her with standing in the community. 

This poor, pleading widow had only one trick up her sleeve.   She was utterly shameless in her persistence before the unrighteous judge.  If he turned her down one day, she was back again the next, continually knocking at his door.

Perhaps you have known such persons.   When I was senior pastor at Our Savior’s on the blue-collar north side of Moorhead, we had a steady stream of needy folks coming to our church office for financial assistance in making ends meet.   Some of their faces became familiar to us, and I grew to appreciate their tenacity--their utter lack of shame in pleading for help.   As our long-time church secretary once told me:  “These folks  are so focused on putting bread on the table for their children that they will do anything to piece together a living…”

So the pleading widow exercised the only power at her disposal—the power of persistence…

….and in the end, that proved to be enough to win out over the judge’s refusal to do the right thing. “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,” the judge muttered to himself—“yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’

Sometimes even an utterly unrighteous judge will execute justice—despite himself!

And then who had the last laugh—the powerful man or the powerless woman? 

Now, my friends, that’s just a thumpin’ good story, told with an economy of language that makes the point unmistakable.

And what was that point?   More specifically, why did Jesus spin this particular yarn?

I think simply this:   to reveal God unfailing mercy by painting a vivid, memorable image of how God does not—never, ever, ever—treat us.

The unrighteous judge is the exact mirror opposite of our ever-ready, always-listening, endlessly merciful God.

When I was a seminary student many years ago I had two professors of preaching.  One of them had completed no formal graduate work in homiletics, the art of preaching.  But he was a great preacher, and we seminarians soaked up all sorts of learning simply by hearing him preach.

The other professor had a doctorate in homiletics but was abysmal in the pulpit.  He couldn’t preach his way out of a paper bag.  

And yet I figured out a way to learn from him nonetheless.  I found that if I as a budding preacher did everything the opposite of how he did it—I just might become a fairly decent preacher.

It’s been said that no one is utterly useless; you can, after all, always serve as a horrible example to someone else!

That would be the unrighteous judge here in this parable.  

Carefully trace the outline of this awful judge’s face—and then reverse that image, turn it around 180 degrees….and you’ll catch a glimpse of God, who doesn’t need to be brow-beaten into responding to us, who sits on the edge of his seat—eager to hear us, who starts to answer our prayers even before we give them voice!

Whenever you make your case before God, whenever you throw yourself “on the mercy of the court” before God--you will never walk away empty-handed.

And we’re talking about more than just your personal “wish list,” here.   We’re talking about the big, wide, deep prayers that bubble up from deep inside of us---prayers for God’s merciful, sustaining presence with us…pleadings for the advent of God’s peaceable kingdom among us….longings for God’s good and gracious will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The first century Christian community for whom Luke wrote his gospel probably knew what it was like to be backed up against a wall by persecution.   They no doubt lived with the nagging frustration of crying out to God and not getting the answer they sought as quickly as they wanted it.

Jesus told and Luke retold this parable to bring them—and us—the courageous trust we all need, sooner or later--to believe that God never turns a deaf ear toward us and that God will never leave us hanging high and dry.

In fact, our faith will run out long, long before God’s tenacious grip on us will ever give out.  (I take that to be the thrust of Jesus’ final question here in our gospel lesson.)

And even then, when our knuckles are bruised from knocking, when our voices have become hoarse, when laryngitis stops us dead in our prayers, another voice will pick up where we leave off--the gentle whisper of the Spirit who continually pleads for us “with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). 

My friends, when it seems that you and I just can’t pray any longer, let us remember Who it is we’re praying to--the One “who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us--will he not with him also give us everything else?”  (Romans 8:33)  

When we lose heart in our praying, let us not forget that Someone else will pick up our petitions and plead our cause before God the mercifully responsive righteous Judge who will never, ever, ever send us away empty-handed.

In the name of Jesus.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Finding God's Focus

Breckenridge Lutheran Church, Breckenridge, MN
October 13, 2013—75th Anniversary
Luke 17:11-19

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Have you noticed how much unfocused pain and anger there is out there—floating around in today’s world?

It’s unsettling, how accustomed we’ve become to news reports about terrorist bombings or mass shootings that seem to pop up almost weekly.    Angst over the mess in Washington DC—a paralyzed, gridlocked Congress, a government shutdown—our national frustration with that has “settled in” like so much background noise.   And there are always multiple, personal versions of this unfocused pain….our prayer lists always brimming with new sufferers, fresh grief, the latest “situation” that makes us wonder if hope is still alive.

There always is lots of unfocused pain, unfocused anger, unfocused frustration in this world….

….and that’s exactly where this story of the Ten Lepers begins.  

Jesus happens upon a scene that was all too common in the ancient world:  a small leper colony, pitiable souls afflicted by a disfiguring skin disease that carried with it extreme social ostracism.  Lepers in Jesus’ day were treated like “the walking dead.”

I picture these wretched men constantly voicing their unfocused heartache, their unfocused longing for healing and restoration.   Day in, day out, whoever passed by could hear their distant moaning, pleading, imploring anyone who might come within earshot.

Wherever Jesus traveled he brought focus to such unfocused suffering.

For Jesus, voices of sufferers never get lost in the crowd….the cries of the injured and the sick never, for Jesus, fade away into so much “background noise.”

Jesus heard, Jesus noticed, Jesus saw with laser-like clarity each of these ten sorrowful men….Jesus allowed them to come into sharp focus…not merely to pity them, but to transform their situation…to dispatch them on a new journey from despair to healing.

And as that happened….as the ten lepers daringly took Jesus at this word and began making their way to the local holy man who could certify them as healthy….on the way to their restoration they were healed.

…so that, suddenly, the unfocused pain of these ten lepers was transformed into equally unfocused joy..  Ten men about as down on their luck as men could be—suddenly thanking their lucky stars!

But one of these men, for some odd reason, believed that more than luck was in play here.  This tenth leper—a despised ethnic outsider, no less—this Samaritan focused his rejoicing, realized this was not all happenstance, returned to Jesus, and gave thanks—focused thanks where thanks was due.

My dear friends, as we celebrate the 75th Anniversary of Breckenridge Lutheran Church, I invite us to ponder all the ways in which this congregation, and indeed every living congregation, brings focus to all the experiences of our lives.

Congregations are communities of Christ where all that is unfocused in our daily lives becomes focused, properly focused, on the God who forgives, heals, restores, indeed resurrects us in Jesus.

Whether you’ve always realized it, Breckenridge Lutheran has functioned like a lens for your lives for three quarters of a century.  This congregation has offered focus to all that has come your way.

So children are born or adopted…wanderers, lost souls are found by God…and the natural rejoicing that accompanies such new life finds focus—time and again—when we gather around this baptismal font where hundreds of persons have been born again to a living hope in Jesus Christ.  

·      Think back--how many baptisms have you witnessed here at Breckenridge Lutheran?  

·      And as you embark on a mission planning process, how will the people of Breckenridge Lutheran move out even more imaginatively, more energetically to be God’s seeking, saving voice, hands and feet in this community?

But those who’ve  been found by God and baptized into Christ don’t just stay frozen in time.   We grow, we unfold, we learn in the community of Christ.  We’re more like rushing rivers than stagnant pools, thank God!  And all that growing and learning has found focus here as the scriptures have been opened, to add color and texture to the fabric of faith.  

·      How many Sunday school lessons, catechism classes, Bible studies, confirmation Sundays have you been part of here at Breckenridge Lutheran?  

·      And as you launch into the next leg of your journey together, what new paths of discipleship will you embrace as God brings focus to your lives by passing on the clarifying, vivifying “lens” of faith in Jesus Christ?

As this life of daring faith unfolds, though, we will continually encounter challenges and opportunities, roadblocks and open doors…..and all of that finds focus here as this community of faith tackles issues, jumpstarts new ministries, takes on risks and obligations for the sake of serving God’s mission. 

I’m struck by the fact that this congregation was born in the decade of the Great Depression, during FDR’s second term as president, on the eve of World War II.   Breckenridge Luthearn was birthed in hard times…and through the years you’ve weathered more hard times.  I still remember my brother-in-law Roger Johnson’s video footage from the flood of 1997, as Roger and Linda paddled a canoe from their old home on 8th Street down to where Krebs Motors used to be!  

Hard times didn’t prevent the founders of your congregation from taking the risk of starting a church.  They found focus in the Good News of Jesus Christ—focus that gave them courage.   During the flood of 1997, your congregation showed how Christians view hard times—as the raw materials for ministries of caring and hope, service that matters in the midst of a natural disaster.

·      So, how many brainstorming or planning meetings have you been part of here at Breckenridge Lutheran—generative conversations aimed at finding ways to respond to the challenges and opportunities plopped down in your laps?

·      And as you step forward from this anniversary year into God’s future, how will your congregation continue to make a difference in God’s name here in Wilkin County?

Death has also crept into our lives, time and again, as fellow travelers have been snatched away from us whether by disease or accident….and all that grief and loss and wondering has found focus here where hundreds of baptized children of God have been commended to the arms of their Savior. 

·      So please ponder:  how many funerals have you attended here at Breckenridge Lutheran over these past 75 years?

·      And how will your congregation continue to be one of those few places in the world where people are honest about death and even more honest about the Resurrection that God has in store for all of us, in Jesus Christ?

All along the way I’ve been describing….all along the way life throws both its best and its worst at us….and we respond constantly, in delight or despair.   All of that finds focus here in this house of prayer, because like the Samaritan, like the Tenth Leper we know Whom to turn to in the ups and downs of life. 

·      How many times have you prayed here in this place, bringing into sharp focus all the thanksgivings and intercessions you had within you?

·      And pondering the decades to come how will your prayers take you to the new places, the promised future that God has in store for us all?

So much of life that might otherwise pass by us in a blur or a haze becomes, focused, sharpened, clarified, “tuned up” here in congregations like this.  In a few moments we’ll sing about that in these words:  “Come, thou Fount of ev’ry blessing, tune my heart to sing they grace…”  (ELW #807)

Thanks be to God for Breckenridge Lutheran Church!   Thanks be to God for this community of faith, gathered in this place week in and week out so that our eyes might be focused and our hearts tuned to sing God’s grace in Jesus Christ our strong Savior, compassionate Healer, loyal Friend and daring Guide.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.