The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

September 9, 2018

St. Matthew 6:24-34
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

 Katy Perry is not part of my musical diet. Yet a song of hers caught my ear when it was commissioned as a promo for the Rio Olympics. It employs a line from today’s Gospel, “O ye of so little faith.” It’s an inspirational song for the American Religion. Against all odds, you can succeed: “I won’t just survive / Oh, you will see me thrive … Oh, ye of so little faith / Don’t doubt it /Victory is in your veins.”

This is the American faith: through determination and grit, you can prosper. This faith is a faith in self: victory is in your veins. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that if you’re competing in the Olympics, a lawyer walking into the court room, or wrestling with a diaper that’s overflowing. A little self-confidence is called for there.

But when Jesus says, “O you of little faith,” He’s not talking about believing in yourself. This faith is entirely outside the self. This faith directs us to God the Father who promises to be Father to us. This faith is in the Father who will do what a good father does: protect, provide. He doesn’t let his children starve. His focus is the well-being of his family.

Faith in God the Father is directly juxtaposed today with anxiety about the future. “You cannot serve God and mammon.” The service of mammon is more than just greed, the desire for more and more money, or power, or status. Serving mammon is looking to anything or anyone besides God as the source of good. Luther says in the Large Catechism, “Whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.”

I recently reread Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it, but this time I noticed something I’d never seen before, right at the end. Bilbo Baggins is back home, and he hears news of what happened to a very minor character, the Master of Lake-town.

The old Master had come to a bad end. Bard had given him much gold for the help of the Lake-people, but being of the kind that easily catches such disease he fell under the dragon-sickness, and took most of the gold and fled with it, and died of starvation in the Waste, deserted by his companions.

The dragon-sickness is the love of treasure and the inability to share it. “The old Master” becomes rich, but the riches don’t make him free, they make him a slave, and he dies alone.

The dragon Smaug is an important figure in the book, but I wonder if dragon-sickness isn’t Tolkien’s allusion to the dragon in the Bible, Lucifer. In the book of Revelation, that dragon is the one who “deceives the whole world” (12:9) and who “make[s] war” with those “who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” [12:17].

How does that dragon try to deceive you? He makes you worry about your future. Not only about what you will eat, what you will drink and what you will put on, but worry about your children, worry about your church, worry about your country, worry about your health, worry worry worry.

And all that worry is really saying, “I do not have a God. I do not have a Father who will care for me. I am alone.” But it’s a lie. It is the Lie spoken by the dragon from of old, that God does not have your best interests at heart.

The antidote to worry is to listen again to your Father’s Word. I have found repeatedly, to my own shame, that my own times of inner turmoil are when I’ve stopped taking God’s Word seriously. It’s easy for a pastor to read the Bible “professionally,” as it were, so that he can teach a class or have something to say for a sermon. But the times of peace, when anxiety flees, are the times when I hear God’s Word as directed to me, personally, as the Word of a Father to His anxious child.

So what is He saying to you and me this morning? “I know what you need. Don’t you see how well I provide for the birds and the flowers? And haven’t I counted the number of hairs on your head, which is more than even the most devoted parent does?”

But the Lord does allow His doubting servants to come even to the brink, that we might learn to drive the doubt of God’s goodness from our hearts. So the poor widow of Zarephath is down to her last bit of flour, and her last drops of oil. She is going out to get specifically two sticks for a fire, and she and her son will eat the last bit of bread and then die.

Job loses his property and his children. Abraham and Sarah wait for a child until they are old and barren. Noah spends years and years building the ark, and each passing year must have raised the intensity, wondering when the storm would finally begin.

For each of us, too, it is a gift when He allows the struggle to deepen. He is preparing us to see just how far He will go to care for us, and just how deep His love is for us. And He is driving out our own dragon-sickness, our belief that our gold can save us, that self-confidence can save us, that strength of character and persistence of effort is our hope.

Finally, the Father shows us in Jesus that He is with us even in the hour of despair. That moment when Jesus feels most alone, when He cries out, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” – precisely then is the moment when He is providing for the salvation of the world. He does not abandon His Son to the grave.

Your God is the God who raises the dead, who forgives your sins and gives you precisely what you need when you need it.

Here are His answers to the questions: What shall we wear? The royal robe of Christ’s righteousness, the garment given at Baptism. What shall we eat? The bread from heaven, the body of Christ. What shall we drink? The wine which is the blood of Christ, cleansing us from all our sins.

Therefore do not worry. Everything you need has been provided already for you in Jesus. ✠inj✠

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts in Christ Jesus.

 

The Rev. C.S. Esget, Pastor

Immanuel Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

September 2, 2018
St. Luke 17.11-19

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Like last Sunday’s Gospel, we can understand today’s Gospel as about what we do, or, about what God does. Nowhere is the distinction more revealed than in the last sentence, “Your faith has made you well.” Where is the focus? On the believer, or on the One who is believed in?

We naturally want to put the focus on our own believing. The phrase, “salvation is by faith alone” thus comes to mean that our believing accomplishes our salvation. That’s wrong.

Faith doesn’t work if the objective of faith is unreliable. For example, you may have complete faith in your doctor – but he still might botch the surgery. A coach may have faith in a quarterback – who proceeds to throw an interception when the game is on the line. Have you ever had faith in a person, only to see that person betray you? Faith means nothing if the object of faith does not come through.

You’ve probably heard people say that they cannot believe in a god who would do this or that, e.g., “I cannot believe in a god who would condemn anybody to hell.” Here you see that it is the person’s faith that creates or manufactures a god. In the free marketplace of American religion, you can purchase a made-to-order faith so you can “live your truth.”

But none of that is Christianity. We have a Creed that does not change, because Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. The Creed isn’t made true by our believing; rather, we place our confidence in what is true.

So faith doesn’t save; Jesus saves. Faith didn’t heal the leper. Jesus healed the leper. He healed the thankful leper – and He also healed the other nine. There is no reason to think that the nine lepers who didn’t return were unaware that Jesus healed them, or that they were not grateful for it.

The one thankful leper didn’t have his leprosy cured because he believed hard enough. Jesus commends him because he saw in Jesus the merciful God. God had shown pity on him, and therefore the leper was glad. I imagine they all were glad, because they were healed. But the thankful leper was glad not just for his healing, but because he had found God. He wanted to be with him. This kind of faith ceases to be about the believer and becomes all about the object of belief. The Christian, then, never talks about his own faith, but the Christ in whom his faith is.

Christian faith is not simply a confident optimism, where you always look on the bright side of life. This faith isn’t about gazing inward and finding the god within. Christian faith looks outside of the self to the work of Jesus. This faith is in the Jesus whose blood atones for our sins and whose strong Word will carry us through the valley of the shadow of death through to the resurrection of our leprous, decayed, worm-ridden bodies, transformed into the likeness of His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subdue all things to Himself. We look to history in what Jesus has done. And we look to the future Jesus has promised. In between that history and the future is the life of faith: doing battle with the lusts of the flesh, living instead by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

The Gospel forgives sins, but it doesn’t leave you there. It’s just like the leper cleansed from his disease. Now that he’s free, he can begin living the life he was meant for, back in community.

For nine of the lepers, they were content to go to Jerusalem. But one of the lepers had figured something out. “This Jesus who healed me, that’s where I want to live. That’s where I want to live.”

So when he returns to give thanks to Christ, he is not being polite and saying “thank-you” as his mother taught him. He is, in effect, saying, “Lord Jesus, You are the object of my faith, the One who shows mercy and compassion. You are the enfleshed God. You healed my leprous skin, Your cross will heal my sin, and only You can keep me from bitter death and the agonies of hell. Heaven is where You graciously are, and so there I wish to be. Having You, I neither want nor need anything else. Bring me to the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.”

And that, my dear friends, is precisely what we should be saying when we go to the Sacrament. Like the leper, we have been ruined, cut off from God, estranged from our neighbors. Our sins destroy us from the inside, and harm our relationships with all around us; and the sinful nature is wreaking havoc within our bodies, for the wages of sin is death, and it is creeping upon us always. An unseen, cancerous tumor; a gradual hardening of the arteries; the madness of old age; a random act of violence – our faith in the things of this world will never sustain us.

Coming to His Supper, we confess, “Dear Jesus, I am lost, and soon, too soon, the darkness of the grave will be upon me. I have no excuse for my horribly sinful life.” “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

Dear Jesus, my Lord and my God, save me from my flesh, save me from this world, save me from the hell I deserve. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Speak only Your Word, and my soul shall be healed; wash me with Your Baptism; nourish me with Your saving Body; refresh me with Your life-giving Blood. Absolve me, and at the last, carry me home on Your mighty shoulders, stretched wide in death to deliver me from death.” “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

And then, on the last Day when the trumpet sounds, we shall hear the same words He spoke to the Samaritan: “‘Arise, go your way,’ into the kingdom of My Father.” ✠inj✠

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts in Christ Jesus.

The Rev. C.S. Esget, Pastor
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia

The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

Rev. Christopher S. Esget
August 26, 2018
St. Luke 10:23-37

In his book The Vision of the Anointed, Thomas Sowell sets forth two ways to see the world. The vision of the anointed sees society as the source of our problems. These problems can only be fixed by the “anointed,” society’s elites who alone can bring the world to perfection. We can call this the utopian vision. By contrast, the tragic vision sees that the world’s problems are not just the result of bad social engineering; there are fundamental flaws in mankind. Man is selfish. Societal actions always involve tradeoffs.

The Vision of the Anointed is not a book about theology, although theology undergirds that basic distinction between the utopian vision and the tragic vision. The parable of the Good Samaritan begins by acknowledging the tragic vision: there’s a man in the ditch. He’s dying.

The story is not just about a single man. The man in the ditch is man; he is mankind. He is anthropos, the name given to our first father, Adam. Thus the man in the ditch is you and me. This is the tragic vision, which in theological terms we call original sin or inherited sin.

It’s the source of the lust you feel, and the anger that sometimes rages. Inherited sin drives you to pride and despair, envy and self-righteous indignation. It leads to name-calling on the playground and in the bedroom, it drives divorces, ends friendships, starts wars, and fires that ravage all that we once held dear. The tragic vision is the force in man and the world that leads to violent rebels stealing what another man has, beating him to the edge of death and dumping him in the ditch to die, alone. The tragic vision, original sin, inherited sin, ends with anthropos in a grave, man returned to the dust from which he was made.

There is another vision besides these two. The utopian vision is folly; we cannot create heaven on earth through better government. The tragic vision is real. But there is another vision that sees beyond the tragic vision. It’s what Jesus speaks of when He says at the beginning of today’s Gospel, “Blessed are the eyes which see the things you see; for I tell you that many prophets and kings have desired to see what you see, and have not seen it.” This vision, the eyes that see, is the Vision of the Messiah, or today we could call it the Vision of the Good Samaritan.

Into the wasteland comes a hero. To a bleak world of muggers and mugged, abusers and abused, comes a Messiah. There are moral lessons to learn from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, to be sure, but the story is about something much deeper. It’s about someone who comes from the outside, a foreigner, who rescues the dying anthropos, who brings healing to a mankind incapable of freeing itself from its self-made tragedy.

Jesus is the Good Samaritan, and He comes to you, in your ditch. He comes to you with your heart problems, and to you with your heartbrokenness. He comes to you with your struggling child, and to you with your family strife. He comes to you in the darkness of the night, and to you at the end of your life.

At the heart of God is mercy. He will not leave man in the ditch.

But first comes the Law. The Priest and the Levite pass by the man in the ditch. On a human level, you can’t blame them. The man is going to die, and the same thugs who did this are probably lurking nearby. But the story isn’t about two selfish men who look out for their own interests, followed by a nice Samaritan who helps, with the moral, “Be the nice guy.” Verily you should be the nice guy. But the story is about these men in their office.

The Priest and the Levite are officers of the Law. Not the civil law, like policemen or judges. These are officers of God’s Law. The Priest and the Levite govern the affairs of the temple. And all of the temple sacrifices were previsionary and insufficient. You’ve heard the demands of the Law: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’”

These demands are comprehensive: all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, all your mind. What you focus on and obsess about, that is really your god. You have loved yourself first, and your neighbor second if at all. It is a delusion that you are a good person. It is delusion to suppose God is pleased with your life. Thus the priest and the levite pass by. The Law cannot help you. You have been judged and found wanting. The verdict of God’s Law is guilty, and you are left in the ditch to die.

The Good Samaritan then comes, and he is no parabolic figure of the utopian vision, as though if only more people would stop and help, we could make this world perfect. The Good Samaritan is a figure instead of what I’m calling the Heroic Vision or the Messianic Vision. The Hero comes from the outside and rescues us.

But it’s not just a vision as in an idea. Jesus says to His disciples, “Blessed are the eyes which see the things you see.” In other words, they’re seeing it. They are seeing the parable play out before their eyes. In Jesus, the Hero has come, the vision becomes reality. The Hero has not just come to our ditch but entered into it. That’s the incarnation, when God comes from the outside and becomes Himself anthropos, God is made man and enters the tragic vision, becomes part of the human tragedy.

The crucifixion is the deepest playing out of the human tragedy, where a man is abandoned by his friends, mocked and ridiculed, beaten and stabbed and killed. But the Hero emerges from the grave not just alive, but made perfect. And now He is preparing a place for us, the place where the tragic vision is just a bad dream which dissipates as the fog of night recedes.

The Messianic Vision is real. Jesus is our Hero who is the answer to all of societies ills and all of our sins. He became sin, He became death, and the power of it was destroyed. The ditch has lost its power. The thieves cannot hurt you. He has carried you on His own donkey to the inn, the Church. He has provided for our healing, and He has promised to return to finish the job.

Rejoice, and laugh in the face of tragedy. Jesus is returning. And the Church says, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” +INJ+

St. Mary Magdalene 7/22/18

Pastor Esget

“If there’s a feminist figure from the Bible for the #MeToo era, it could very well be Mary Magdalene.” Thus begins a March 2018 article from The Independent, a London-based news organization. (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/mary-magdalene-feminism-metoo-jesus-disciples-apostle-christianity-judaism-pope-francis-vatican-a8281731.html) The article is on the rehabilitation of Mary Magdalene’s reputation from the tradition that she was a prostitute.

In St. Luke’s Gospel, there is a woman who anoints the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume, then tearfully washes His feet and dries them with her hair. A similar account appears in all four Gospels, and in John’s Gospel the woman is identified as Mary Magdalene. In Luke’s Gospel she is called “a woman in the city who was a sinner” (7:37), which is one way you could describe a prostitute.

Certainly it’s possible that the same thing happened twice, and Mary Magdalene and the other woman got conflated. Now it doesn’t much matter if Mary Magdalene wasn’t really a prostitute; we don’t need to prove she was as though some article of faith rests upon it.

But the reasons why pseudo-scholars try to change the story are important. Listen to what’s going on as that article from The Independent develops:

[Mary Magdalene] was long maligned in the West and portrayed as a reformed former prostitute. But scholars have adopted a different approach more recently, viewing her as a strong, independent woman who supported Jesus financially and spiritually.

The idea behind this is that Mary Magdalene is maligned—made out to be a wicked, evil woman—because she is characterized as a sinner. But that’s the whole point! It’s not that Mary is made out to be a bad person – God’s Word describes all of us that way! No one who has honestly read the New Testament thinks that it’s the prostitutes that come off bad. It’s the “strong, independent [women]” – but more often, the strong, independent men who are the villains of the piece. In the account of the prostitute who washes Jesus’ feet, it’s the Pharisee—the respectable man who everybody thought was a good guy—who is shown to be the great sinner. The people who seem to be morally upright often have the hardest time seeing the sins deep within them, sins like pride.

Here is the way the Bible speaks about sinful people: “There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God…. There is none who does good, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10-12).

Okay, so hold that thought in your head—that the Scriptures speak of a universal sinfulness that condemns us all—and now listen to one more quote from the article I mentioned:

“Historical tradition says she was a prostitute from Magdala,” said Jennifer Ristine, director of the Magdalena Institute at Magdala. “Reanalysing that reputation that she had we can see she was probably a woman of greater social status, higher social status, a woman of wealth….”

What’s going on here is not an approach driven by scholarship, a quest for the best data, but rather, the article states clearly, an attempt to rehabilitate her image. And here’s the problem with that: We cannot be rehabilitated by hiding sin or wishing it away. The true rehabilitation is in the radical, total, complete forgiveness Jesus gives to us. We don’t make Mary Magdalene into a better woman by rewriting her story to make her an upper-class woman with money and connections. We don’t get to be saints on our own terms. We are saints by the declaration of God who forgives us. Jesus says to the woman in the city who was a sinner, “Your sins are forgiven you.” That is the rehabilitating word. Whether you’re a prostitute or a pornography user, whether you have a heart of pride or venom on your lips, this is the rehabilitation you need: confess your sins, and hear the Word of Jesus for you: “Your sins are forgiven you.”

Listen to how Luther talks about this:

[Christ] pronounces over the woman a merciful remission of sins and makes her a saint; but he commits Simon, the Pharisee, to the devil…. The miserable harlot he frees from sin and clothes her with heavenly grace. He shows the proud Pharisee his sin, and burdens his conscience. [House Postil 3:371]

Whatever the real identities and lifestyles are of the various women in the New Testament, we don’t make them better people by expunging their sins from the record. If we want to be Christians, we need to see in ourselves that we are the sinners. With Cain, I am a murderer. With Saul I am jealous. With David I am an adulterer and liar. With Matthew I am a tax collector, i.e., a cheater and a traitor. With Peter I am boastful, but when the time for action comes I lie about who I am and deny Jesus. With Judas I’ll sell Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver. With Pilate I’ll consent to an unjust judgment to save my job. And with Mary Magdalene I’m a sinner.

Luther said, “God grant that we not be found among sinners who refuse to be sinners” [House Postil 3:372]. The death of Jesus was for sinners. The resurrection of Jesus is for sinners. Confess that you are too – and then hear the eyewitnesses testimony of Mary Magdalene. “Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stopped down and looked into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.”

Two angels at either end of a slab – what does that remind you of? In the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant was made of acacia wood, and overlaid with gold inside and out. On top was a golden slab called the mercy seat, or the place of atonement. On each end of the mercy seat was an angel, also fashioned from pure gold. This ark with the mercy seat was placed inside the Holy of Holies, and the high priest would go in once per year, on the day of atonement. With clouds of incense swirling, he entered with the blood of the atoning sacrifice, and sprinkled it on the east side of the mercy seat. The book of Leviticus says, “So [the high priest] shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins.” (16:16). Sins aren’t written out of the story, but it takes blood and death to atone for them.

So what does Mary Magdalene see when she stoops down and peers into the tomb? The sinner sees the slab where the corpse of Jesus had lain. Two angels on either side proclaim the death of Jesus is the mercy seat. In His grave atonement was made. The death of Jesus is the power to take away sins. But Jesus is not there. Because unlike the goat and the bull slaughtered on the day of atonement, unlike the lambs offered every morning and every evening in the Jerusalem Temple, this sacrifice lives.

Christ is risen, and today that resurrection is delivered to Anna Claire. Today she becomes a disciple of Jesus. Today she possesses His promises. And that’s true for all you baptized. Though you stumble and fall, though you sin and doubt, Jesus is always your Jesus, His Father is your Father, His resurrection is your resurrection. His death remains for your sins.

Jesus is the rehabilitation you need. His punishment suffices for pimps, prostitutes, and politicians. His atonement covers your anger and arrogance. His sacrifice is for your selfishness and how you’ve squandered the gifts He gave you. His death is your life. Jesus is your rehabilitation.

All this Mary Magdalene sees when she sees the risen Jesus. She is an eyewitness, together with Peter and John, and more than five hundred disciples. Christianity is not a theory or a philosophy, an ethic or a culture. Christianity is grounded in these historical events, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, crucified in Jerusalem under a Roman governor to whom history attests, and was seen by eyewitnesses after His resurrection.

We believe not fables but history. And we believe the effect of the history: Christ died for us. His death is our death. His cross is our rehabilitation. His resurrection shall be our resurrection. So with Mary Magdalene and all the eyewitnesses, let us confess our sins, repent and rejoice, for Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

+INJ+