Friday, July 29, 2011

Matthew 14.13-21; Seventh Sunday after Pentecost; July 31, 2011;

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:1-21 ESV)

Grace and peace to you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

It’s really quite a party we’ve got here, all those people out there far from home. Just think about all the joy that’s going on as Jesus heals the sick. Jesus touching the folks who have a fever and the fever is gone. Jesus rubbing a red rash and poof the skin is normal. Jesus straightening a crooked limb and the straight leg dances with joy. Jesus speaking to a person who can’t speak and the still tongue begins to sing his praises. Jesus fixing all their problems. Jesus making all their hurts go away. Jesus doing what Jesus does.

The disciples must have been enjoying the moment, but then the something goes wrong. The good stuff lasts too late and it’s time for supper. Jesus’ disciples are getting nervous. They start thinking about something besides Jesus. They are distracted by the time. They think they need to give Jesus a nudge, a reminder. I can hear their conversation. “Peter, you tell him. You know how he is. He gets so busy helping folks he loses track of the time.” So they say to Jesus, “Send the folks away so they can buy food in the villages around here on their way home.”

But Jesus isn’t ready for the party to be over yet.

“They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

Now the disciples are in the thick of it. It’s probably the last thing they expected. Maybe they made a plan, “What should we do? We’ll ask everyone to pitch in.” If they were Lutheran they’d call for a pot-luck. But the best laid plans of disciples often go astray. Just look at how inept their efforts turn out. With five thousand men there and some women and children too, the disciples, doing what they do, come up with a snack pack. Five loves and two fish is the modern day equivalent of one of those little plastic packages with a tiny dish of cheese and a couple of Ritz crackers. Ok, so now picture the crowd, a hungry crowd of some five thousand people and more. With the disciples’ best effort, they don’t even come up with enough of a meal for one person, let alone five thousand plus. Well now the party is over. The mob won’t even fight over what they’ve found. They drop the ball. They can’t provide. The disciples have failed. The crowd is going to go away hungry. It’s a bit surprising that they even show what they’ve found to Jesus at all.

Jesus uses it all to make a point. Maybe the disciples should have just answered out of the gate, “Lord, we can’t do it. Only you can provide for all these people.” That’s just what he’s about to show them. Jesus makes the party. First, he tells everyone to sit down. He commands them to sit, in fact. He wants everyone to know for sure who is doing what and who isn’t doing what. He wants everyone to know who is in control and who is about to provide. “Don’t do anything,” he’s saying. “I’ve come to give you what you need.” Then he takes the snack, the bread and fish, and blesses it; he breaks the bread, and gives it to the disciples to distribute. And they do. And he does. I don’t know what it was like, whether every time someone took a piece of fish or bread another appeared or if the baskets refilled only after they were empty, or whether there were suddenly bunches of baskets, it really doesn’t matter. Jesus provides for the people in abundance. He could have done it without the snack the disciples found. They show who they are by their thinking that they actually can do something. Jesus shows who he is by providing. Jesus is the life of the party, literally.

There was another party too. St. Matthew tells us about it right before he tells us of this one. The author wants us to make some kind of a connection between the two. That’s why he starts out,

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself.

The “this” is the other party. It’s a party of a different kind. It’s King Herod’s birthday. It’s not difficult to imagine the difference. There’s drinking and carousing, and dancing, drunken laughter and over indulging of all kinds. Herod’s sexual fantasies are indulged. The daughter of Herod’s live in lover dances for him. It is quite a dance. Herod is so impressed or so moved that he offers her anything she wants. Who knows what he thought she wants. “What I really want, my King,” she says a death drips from her lips, “is John the baptizer’s head on a platter.” Her mother told her to as for that because John was telling everyone, in public, that she and the king were living in sin. He was causing such a stir that Herod had John thrown in prison. Now Herod is trapped. He made the promise right there in front of all of his guests. He doesn’t have the backbone to say “no.” He sends the solders to the cell to retrieve the gift. Just to show you what kind of a party it really is, just to show you what kind of people are living in the palace, when this young girl, this teenager, gets John’s head on a platter, it seems she calmly accepts it and takes it to her mother without any other reaction. Now that’s a party of a different kind.

Now we’d much rather have the first than the second. We’d much rather have Jesus fixing all our problems, Jesus balancing our checkbook, Jesus healing our cancer, Jesus smoothing over our arguments with our neighbor. And in fact, if you listen to those radio and TV preachers they’ll tell you that that’s what Jesus is really all about. Live for Jesus, find his purpose for your life and your life will be better. Obey God’s principals for living and God will give you health, wealth and happiness. Do such and such for God and he’ll be obligated to do such and such for you. Say this prayer 20 times a day and God will give you the desire of your heart. Jesus comes to make you all that you can be and give you your best life now. In fact, that’s what we might conclude by the feeding of the five thousand. But that’s only because we aren’t really seeing what’s going on here. That’s our sinful nature putting ourselves at the center instead of Jesus. We want Jesus to provide the way we want him to provide. “Jesus, if you’re not going to make my life easier, what good are you?” So when we see Jesus healing and feeding, our hearts naturally go straight to our own hopes and desires. We start thinking about how we can get God to do for us what we want him to do for us. That’s the kind of party we want Jesus to bring.

But lots of the time our lives really reflect the second party better. Oh, I’m not necessarily talking about the carousing. I’m talking about the suffering of John the Baptizer. John is hardly living his “best life now.” There’s not much victory in his severed head on a platter for a teenager. But that’s John’s whole life. He lived in the desert, ate bugs, and dressed in less than fashionable clothing. But look at what Jesus says about him.

Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:11 ESV)

And for all his trouble all his pointing to Jesus for all his greatness, John the Baptizer only loses his head.

Now what we might be missing is what’s actually going on in these two parties. That’s because we focus on ourselves instead of Jesus. Jesus provides for us. Of course he does. He became a man to provide for what we need. It’s right there in the story. Jesus tells the disciples to feed the crowds. They can’t do it. It’s the most basic need of people. They are helpless. They focus on themselves. They focus on the process. They focus on what they can do instead of focusing on Jesus. When they fail Jesus provides fully. John is helpless too. The thing is Jesus provides even in cases like John. The baptizer suffers. God is still providing. The baptizer dies. Jesus is still in control. It doesn’t matter if things are rosy in your life, or if things are sour. God is still providing. It doesn’t matter if you’re living your dream life, in your dream marriage, in your dream house, or if you’re life is at its lowest point ever. Jesus is still in control. That’s what faith is; believing that no matter what, God is providing what is most needed.

But our faith is weak. We are selfish, self-centered, self-focused. We read God’s word with our hearts looking for self help instead of looking for Jesus’ help. We are sinful people unable to provide for ourselves what we need most. We cannot remove our selfish sin from our lives. We try our own way but come up with a meager offering for God. We can change the external things and make ourselves look good, but the heart is still soiled and spoiled with sin. God doesn’t judge on external appearance. He judges based on the heart. Yours and mine are filled with sin. We fall back into it in a black heartbeat.

But Jesus provides. It just doesn’t look the way we think should. We think the first party; enough bread to go around; enough money to pay the bills; a little miracle here and there to keep our health up to par; a church that grows in numbers in spite of the declining population. But much of the time Jesus provides like the second party.

In fact Jesus’ life looks more like the second party. No not the carousing, but the suffering of John; Jesus suffering in the garden praying to God, the Father, for relief; Jesus suffering under the punishment of the Roman whip; Jesus suffering the humiliation of an unjust trial; Jesus enduring the pain of nails piercing his hands and feet and thorns in his head; Jesus dead on the cross, naked and bloody, stabbed and shamed. In all that suffering and death, Jesus is providing.

Jesus provides us with our greatest need. Like the bread in the wilderness Jesus gives us what we can’t possibly get any other way. Jesus provides for us the forgiveness of sins. You can’t get rid of the sin in your heart. Jesus can. He earns forgiveness for all people through his perfect life, death and resurrection. And he gives it to you and me, he provides it, as freely as he gave those folk the bread in baskets on the green grass. He provides it as abundantly as he did on that day at that party.

And we’ve got the party still going on today. Listen to how much it sounds like what we do here:

Then [Jesus] ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

You see, Jesus provides. He give you the forgiveness you need. But he doesn’t just make it available. He makes sure you know it is for you. He makes sure you know you’ve got it. Just like he broke that bread on the green grass, he breaks bread here. You open your mouth and receive what Jesus provides. Here he gives his very body and blood, the same that was bruised and beaten on the cross. You open your mouth and Jesus pours his forgiveness right into you. Jesus is the host of this wonderful meal. He is the provider here. Jesus is the host here, not your pastor. Jesus gives what you need, his body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.

This party, the one on the green grass, is a picture of eternity. God is providing. And this party, the one where Jesus is giving, the one that happened on that green hillside, the one that continues here at our altar, well it goes on forever and ever and ever. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Matthew 13:44-52; Sixth Sunday after Pentecost; July 24, 2011;

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa;

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Matthew 13:44 ESV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Well, there it is in black and white… well in some bibles it’s red and white, because it is Jesus words… Jesus tells us that if we want the treasure of the kingdom of heaven we should be willing to sell everything we have. Get out your check book and write the big one. You know the check that leaves the big goose egg in your account. Don’t worry you’re going to put some more in there anyway because you’ve still got your house to sell… that new car in the parking lot… the new computer you got last month with the ‘free money’ the government gave you to stimulate the economy. And you farmers get your deeds in order that farmland has to go too… all of it. Ladies your mothers good china that dad brought back from Korea. Your knick-knacks; your quilts; Guys your tools; trucks; tractors; lawnmowers; etc. It’s all gotta go. Don’t forget your personal jewelry, wedding rings, rings you inherited from your father, and the clothes; yep, all those extra shoes in your closet; the pants that fit; and even the ones that don’t. Am I forgetting anything? Well if I am that’s gotta go also. And then write out another check and close up the account. ‘Cause that’s what Jesus says. Isn’t it? Well, that’s what the parable says:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Matthew 13:44 ESV)

When you read this parable you read that the kingdom of heaven is like treasure in a field. The Kingdom of Heaven, isn’t that our salvation. Isn’t that all that Jesus came to bring to us? So be like the guy in the parable and sell everything you have and buy it. That’s what this guy does, isn’t it? He finds that valuable treasure in the field and he sells everything?

Well before we get out our garage sale signs maybe we should back up and talk just a minute about this short parable so we understand it right. So we understand it like the folks Jesus was talking to. How would they have understood it? Well, those days were not like these days in a lot of ways. First, be clear and understand that this guy in the parable isn’t doing anything illegal or underhanded. Back then when you owned a plot of land you didn’t own everything in it. Not like today with mineral rights and all that. You didn’t own anything in the field that you didn’t know about. So the treasure doesn’t ‘belong’ to the guy who owns the field just because it’s in his field. He doesn’t own the treasure because he doesn’t know about it. And there’s another very small detail to take notice of. The story doesn’t say that the guy picked up the treasure. It says he found it and covered it up again. That’s because, if he’s a hired hand, working in the field, everything he does he does on behalf of the guy he’s working for. So if he picks up the treasure it belongs to his boss. So he covers it up instead. Then he goes and sells everything he has to get possession of the field, and since he knows about the treasure, it’s his. Jesus listeners would have thought this man very wise, very smart. No one would have accused him of doing anything underhanded. It’s the way anyone there would have operated. This guy in the parable is the “good guy.”

Ok, so now back to our reading of the parable. Jesus says (doesn’t he?) that if you find the kingdom of heaven, you should be willing to sell all you have to get it. You should be as shrewd as this guy, as smart as this guy. You should be willing to sell all you have and buy treasure. Now if the treasure is God’s Kingdom, Jesus Christ and all that He has done for you, you know exactly where to find it. You know where to find Jesus. He’s here. Right here in his Word and Sacraments. The treasure isn’t even hidden in a field. So get crackin’; get sellin’; get moving the merchandise. Right?

Well, let’s ask a simple but important question. What if you sell everything and you don’t have enough to buy the land? What if you’ve disposed of all your wealth, all your possessions, all your worldly goods but the cloths on you back and you still don’t have enough to get the treasure? Well, that’s a real problem isn’t it? And in fact, that is our problem. The Bible tells us that we can’t earn our salvation or purchase it in any way. Our good works aren’t good enough and our money is worthless. So maybe Jesus doesn’t mean exactly what He’s saying here. Maybe the parable isn’t really about ‘getting’ the treasure but just about ‘wanting’ the treasure. Maybe he’s saying that we should be willing to sell all that we have to get the kingdom, or to get Jesus. Yea, that must be it. “I’ve Decided to Follow Jesus” as one hymn says. “I’d give up anything for Jesus.”

Hey, there’s a story about that in the bible isn’t there? Yea, it’s in Matthew 19.

And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:16-24, ESV)

Well, there’s a guy who just doesn’t get does he. He had the chance to do exactly what the parable says, and he tanked it. Jesus showed him the “treasure in heaven” he’s asking the right question isn’t he? What must I do to have eternal life? But in the end he walks away simply because he’s unwilling to sell everything he has to get it. Well, that’s rich folks for you; all they think about is their money. He could have easily spread the love a bit and made all those folks around Jesus happy, you know like the movies where the money from the stingy rich guy gets thrown in the air and everyone around gets a handful. But no, he thinks more of his money than the Kingdom of God.

Ah, but wait a second. Look at what the disciples say when Jesus says, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” They don’t say, “those silly rich people. They think too much of their money.” They say, “Who than can be saved?”

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:24-26 ESV)

You see, the disciples see something; hear something that we don’t see at first. When Jesus talks about a camel going through the eye of a needle he’s not talking about something that doable, he’s talking about something that’s impossible. You can tell by the disciples’ reaction. All of the sudden the disciples are afraid for their own salvation. And Jesus tells them they otta be. “With man this is impossible.” Jesus says. “You can’t do it, guys.” You can’t sell enough stuff to buy it. You can’t do enough good stuff to earn it. “For you it’s impossible,” Jesus says.

And now guess what? Jesus words reach right out of the pages of the book and grab you by the throat too. You can’t do it either, dear Christians, fellow members of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa. No matter how much you sell, you can’t sell enough to buy the field the treasure is in. You can’t do enough good stuff to make God like you and save you. You are a poor miserable sinner, deserving of God’s wrath and punishment. No matter how hard you try you can’t do enough to earn the treasure. And I’m not just talking about money either. You can write checks till you’re blue in the face. You can come to church every Sunday. You can sing in the choir (if we had one). You can teach Sunday school for years. You can be better, cleaner, less arrogant than the whole town of Creston, Iowa, but none of that will get you one lick closer to the treasure. You can want the treasure more than anything else but you can’t have purchase it, because you don’t have enough, and you aren’t good enough. Because for you Jesus says, “this is impossible.” It’s because the price of the field is too high. The cost of getting the treasure is too much.

If the treasure is salvation, the Kingdom of God, then the only way you could earn it is to be perfect. Jesus tells us that, too. “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.” Look how he pushes that rich young man to the brink of despair. Jesus keeps upping the ante until what he’s looking to get by his works is out of reach. Jesus does that in other places too. He tells people if they call people stupid, or even think it they deserve hell because it’s just the same as killing them. He says that if you look at a woman with lust in your heart it’s the same as sleeping with her, and you deserve hell. You see. To buy the field you’d have to do more than you can do. You’d have to sell more than you have to sell. And just wanting to do it, just having the desire to have the treasure won’t get you the treasure either. So… what are we to think? What are we to do? What is Jesus trying to do to us here? What kind of a parable is this anyway?

You know, it occurs to me that we might just be reading this thing all wrong. Well, at least I hope we are reading it all wrong. What is it I always say about reading the bible? Jesus is at the heart and center of it all. If you want to understand what the bible is talking about you’ve got to put Jesus Christ crucified for you at the center of your thinking. You know what, when I read the parable with me as the guy who finds the treasure that puts me at the center. How would I read it so Jesus is there instead? How about this? Jesus is the guy who finds the treasure. Jesus is the guy who sells everything he has and buys the field and then rejoices in the treasure. Then what is the treasure?

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17 ESV)

Now remember that “for God so loved” in this passage isn’t talking about the amount of God’s love but rather the way that he showed his love. God loved the world in this way… Jesus Christ humbles himself to be a living breathing man. He leaves God the Father’s side, the glory of heaven to suffer the same things that all people suffer. He cried. He had sore feet from walking and he was hungry. He was tired and weary needing rest. He lost loved ones to death, and was hated by enemies, and betrayed by friends. And this is where Jesus is different from you and me. In all of this he didn’t sin. He didn’t give up his relationship to God, the Father. He constantly obeyed God’s will for his life. He loved people selflessly always. In fact, Jesus human life, was perfect in every single way. That’s where you and I fall short. We aren’t perfect. We can’t be. We can’t sell enough to buy the field. But Jesus can. And he does. On a cross, a perfectly horrible means of punishment, created by Satan himself, Jesus bore the sin of the whole world, giving his perfect life in the place of imperfect people. He suffered punishment for all sinful, imperfect people everywhere. He bought the field. He purchased it with his holy and perfect, sinless, priceless death on the cross. He bought the field with his holy and precious blood and his innocent suffering and death. St. Paul told it to our Christian brothers and sisters in Philippi like this:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8 ESV)

Why in the world would Jesus do that? Well, to get the treasure, of course. So what’s the treasure? What is so valuable to Jesus that he would is willing leave heaven and walk the earth as poor, humble man? What has so much worth to Jesus that he suffers a criminal’s death, a sinner’s death, the punishment of hell for all human sin? What does Jesus love so, that he makes sure the story of what he did is told over and over again? What is Jesus’ treasure, the thing that he joyfully sold all he had in order to have it for himself? You. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Amen.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Cathedral at Strasbourg, France

I took these images are of the Cathedral at Strasbourg, France this week.  They say it is one of the most beautiful in all of Europe.  As far as I'm concerned it is, but it is the only one I've seen.  Construction began on this building in the 12th Century.  Can I say, "They don't make them like this anymore!

This summer there is a light show on the Cathedral coordinated with classical music.

This is just one of the small bonuses of attending the Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism and Human Rights this year in Strasbourg.