Straw is Good!

Greetings and blessings to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. Each spring we watch hay grow all around us. In farmers fields, they let the grass grow tall and strong. Then eventually they will start the process…you know what I mean. The hay is cut and spread out. It dries a bit and then is gathered up into bails. I remember with the only bails were rectangular cubes that could be thrown by someone into a wagon or a barn loft for storage. Now, of course, we see huge round bails that are held together by mesh netting and sometimes are left standing in the field. But some are loaded onto trailers to become feed for cattle throughout the winter. Since I have lived here in Hermann I have also learned that these bails can cause spontaneous combustion if they are stored in enclosed areas. There is a lot that a ‘city-slicker’ like me has to learn. But no matter the risk this straw is good. It offers winter feeding for live-stock and income for some farmers who sell the bails. Even while the hay is growing and it just looks like grass the cattle can graze in the field. If you are a hunter you know where to look for deer or turkey in the midst of this crop. The hay offers food and cover for them too. Luther wrote about each book in the Bible. He had concerns about the letter that James wrote and has been often quoted. He referred to James as “an Epistle of straw.” Many people have interpreted this as meaning that it has little value and is of questionable importance. I am not so sure that is what Luther is saying. Luther and Katie, his wife had a mattress that was filled with straw. Dirt floors were covered with straw to control the mud and dirt. This is what they fed their horses and used to light cooking fires. It had very simple and practical uses. It had common usage for the rich and poor alike and was available to everyone, no matter their status in life. I think that the same thing can be said for the letter written by James. It is practical, straight forward, and applies to everyone. James was one of Jesus’ brothers, also the son of a carpenter. He was not a theologian, like St. Paul, the Pharisee of Pharisees. But he was also a man of great faith. He grew up thinking of Jesus as his brother. It took a while for him to know that He was also the Savior of the world. But he did lead the church from Jerusalem for many years and would ultimately die a martyr for his faith. James wrote it to a world that already knew the message of Paul, so he is now adding a practical edge to the message. He is answering the question…what does this faith look like? “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” Wow! That is as basic as hay in your mattress. James does not say how to pray or what to seek…but you are to pray. Pray for “Forgiveness of our sins?” Pray for “relief from our suffering?” Pray in thanksgiving, that despite who we are and what is happening to us,,,Jesus gives us His life, His Flesh and Blood fir the nourishment of our souls. “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.” I had an aunt who was a real morning person. As she aged, her hearing went bad and her voice got louder. She could greet you for breakfast with the most cheerful greeting in the world. WELL…Kathy will tell you that I AM NOT a morning person. Her loud cheerful greeting was almost too much for me, but here is the Bible telling me, AGAIN, that I am wrong. Aunt Alice and I should have song praised to God because He has given us another day to be His workers in His kingdom. Her morning voice was one that raised praise to God even if all she said was, “Good morning.” “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” So that is what you do when you go to the doctor? You call the Elders and have them pray for you when you are sick? I wish…! In this day of HIPPE (sp?) laws the pastor and the Elders are rarely the first person to hear from a member who is hospitalized or having intense medical treatment. The hospital cannot call unless they are told to by the patient and family. So often we just stumble over the information that someone is at the hospital. So it can be hard to pray with someone. But that is the advice and recommendation of St. James and it sound like the right thing to do. But James is very clear, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” James uses the example of Elijah and we again wish that we could be as effective with our prayers as this great prophet. James reminds us, over and over again about our faith lives and operates in a very real and practical setting. “If anyone among you wonders from the truth…” here we have it…people are not found in church as regularly as they were 50, 30 or even 10 years ago. They live by what society is telling them…their truth is different from your truth which is different from my truth. If that is the case then there is no need to gather together to worship. The issues that I have do not really matter to anyone sitting in the same pew…there reality is different. That is a HORRIFYING view of the world. That view isolates each and every one of us and there is no way to lift and share each other’s burdens. Each person is left alone and may be just lonely. This leaves us all just cynical and disconnected from each other. This pattern of thought has been happening in the public sector for many years. In the 80’s President Reagan attempted to unite us and show us the greatness of our collective strength as a nation. Since then, we have been fragmented and subdivided over and over, so the point that an individual becomes a minority group/person unto himself. That too is sad and even depressing as we realize that our world does not even recognize that we have anything in common with each other. That having been said, what is meant by mutual defense treaties or alliances? IF it is not for me, as an individual, then there is nothing mutual about it. “Let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” Thus we see AGAIN that our faith is and always will be separate from our culture. James understand that we are often motivated by our own salvation, but this one is about getting the message out to a lost world. We need to make sure that the people we encounter know that God loves them. His love has been there since the beginning of time and there is nothing we can do to add to it or increase it. The Gospel of Mark puts it this way. “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Share, scatter and spread the truth like salt on food or to preserve meat. It mixes and changes, preserves and keeps. It is very basic and yet important in our lives. It is equivalent to that simple, warming, nurturing straw that takes care of the basics in life so that we can look after the complex and difficult knowing that the basic has been solved. That is what our faith is; Jesus loves me. I have a lot more to learn, but all that I need to know is that He loves me enough to die for me. Thanks be to God. Amen.

False Wisdom??!!

Grace, mercy and peace be to you, from God, our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. There are times when Scripture, without someone else interpreting it, hits you right between the eyes. Even here clearly in the New Testament, James is beating on us with the truth of our bad behavior. James is one of those books that make us squirm no matter what part we are reading. James is one of two books of the NT that were written by Jesus earthly brothers. The other one is also short – Jude. James was a late convert to The Way, yet he would also become the head of the church in Jerusalem. He led the church through some tough times, including near starvation, persecution by both the Romans and the Jewish leadership and the successful effort to support them from churches around the Mediterranean Sea. Sts. Paul and Peter helped gather funds so that they could survive and be the ‘home church’ for the other Apostles as they evangelized the region. The church was in a real danger, from an earthly perspective, of not surviving. The world was really squeezing them and they were barely hanging on. But by faith, they did hang on and through the work of the Holy Spirit the Good News was shared throughout the known world and then into some parts that were not yet known. Little vby little, the Apostles spread the message of Jesus.   You can read about each of them and tradition has them traveling far and wide. India, China, Rome and beyond, yes, all parts of the world. Each of them, except for St. John, were martyred for their faith, but that did not stop them. Some were killed by sword, others by arrows and the most gruesome – skinned alive. But that is not what James is speaking about here…or is it? “Who is wise and understanding among you?” Who indeed? This man would also be killed for his faith and that does not seem like such a wise choice. James is speaking to us about out personal conduct and attitudes. In some ways he reminds me of St. Paul in that he is calling us out for our bad behavior and in other ways he expands on it and is even more direct. Bitter jealousy, selfish ambition, boasting and false truths are attacked quite directly.   If you have doubt or thing there is some wiggle room James has an answer for that too. “This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exists, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”(vs 15-16) The problem that I have is that this description hits real close to home. I see that person all the time, but I find him in the mirror. He combs his hair and brushes his teeth and shaves his face at the same time as me. I see him and recognize him and wonder how could God love him? But He does and I am and will be eternally grateful. Then comes the question. If God loves someone like you and you and you and me…how do we respond? “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this; that your passions are at war with you? You desire and do not have.” And there we go…doing the things that we want, instead of the things that we know we should be doing. Our passions override the good that we would rather do and we find ourselves at war. Usually that war is within ourselves and it becomes a war that is impossible to win. Then loved ones, who know where to find our soft underbelly will attack us in the most painful way. That is how we do what James calls, spending our passion. He continues by addressing the people as an adulterous generation of people. This term grinds in our hearts very badly. Many here will jump up and say that they have never been unfaithful to their spouse…how could this man make such a claim and this Pastor suggest that it applies to us? That is a GREAT question. Sure some of us may know that someone has dealt with the sin of sexual adultery in their lives. But that is NOT what James is talking about here. Here he is accusing us of not living out our faith, but being unfaithful to our God and therefore adulterous before Him. This makes us friends with the world and enemies of God. He has given us everything and tells us to be His children, his family, His church…yes, HIS. In order to do this we are to live in such a way that people know we are Christians. This past week, we were able to put a new roof on the school building. This was done with the help of a special ministry from one of our fellow Christian churches. They have taken the gifts that God has given them and turned it into a ministry that helps others in need of their skills, their love of God and their witness. They came here and helped us with their expertise to finish in an economic way a new roof with a full set of roof vents spinning away in the wind. Recently, the PTL, our Parent Teachers League had a fund raiser to assist this church and school. It was a fun evening with good food and lots of silliness with the melodrama that night. Monday night, the Voters were presented a check for $1200 as profit for the dinner/theater. They also got other gifts in the amount of $120 that night. We also heard at the meeting on Monday that a hot-water heater at the school had been repaired. The company that did the work reduced the price for the benefit of the church and school. That bill was presented to the Voters in the amount of $1320.01 In other words, the Lord gave us an opportunity to collect the entire amount needed to pay for that repair, without having to dip into our already tight budget. Oh, by the way, it was short a penny, God has a sense of humor too. With this wonderful example, how can we ever think that we cannot do anything that God wants us to do? Yes, I know that the church has lots of different words that sound fancy and maybe seem unapproachable. But what I just talked about is called STEWARDSHIP. God gives us the gifts we will ever need. He gifts us and prospers us and provides us with everything that we need for our salvation. Our problem is that we rationalize, raise up new theories of our abilities and become what the world thinks we should be – in other words we follow false wisdom. We become exactly the people found in James’ warning. We become pour stewards of God’s gifts. The truth is that God has already done all the work. All we are to do is make good use of His gifts in RESPONSE to what He has done. Step out in faith, take a few risks based on that faith and live out the truth of His expectations for us. Our response is what we call our own Stewardship. We are to give back to God a portion of what He has given to us. He has given us time and we are to give Him 10% of our time. So how good are you at that? Do you give 2.4 hours of each day, or 1.6 waking hours back to God? We are to give our talents. That is exactly what was happening this week when the Baptist Church helped us put a new roof on our school. They knew what they were doing and shared that knowledge with all our members who were up on the roof with them. The third part of Stewardship is called financial stewardship and is what most people think we are talking about when we use the word stewardship. But that is only a portion of this big word. We are to make the best use of our earthly resources, work hard at school, be a good employee, even pay our taxes, all because God has blessed us with the ability to do all those things. As I said before, He has done all the work already, all we have to do is respond and live under His grace. And our response is – thanks be to God. Amen.

My Unbelief

Grace, mercy and peace be to your, from God, our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. I personally enjoy reading the Gospel according to St. Mark. It is so fast-paced and quick moving so that you almost think it must have been written by a modern writer. Mark had been a first person witness of much of Jesus’ ministry and yet he was not among the 12 Disciples that we know so well. Most scholars think that he was the young man who ran away from the Garden of Gethsemane after the soldiers grabbed onto his cloak. He subsequently was listed as a traveling companion for St. Peter and learned what he had not seen – from Peter himself. So when we hear, “Help my unbelief…” it is easier to understand when you know and appreciate that the human author here; Mark, ran from danger in his own unbelief. He had the same issues that we do. It is easy for us to say to someone, “I just don’t believe you.” That fact can be painfully heard or turned into a challenge…depending on how the person says it. Some of you may remember way back in the 1960’s when President Kennedy announced that the US would land a man on the moon and return him home by the end of the decade. It seemed like a wild promise…maybe even one of those awful campaign promises that you know will never happen. Much of the population would have been seen as saying, “I don’t believe that can ever happen.” But, as we all know, Neal Armstrong did walk on the moon in 1969 and NASA became one of America’s success stories. There was great pride in that accomplishment and a whole bunch of products and ideas came into existence because of the effort to reach the moon. We remember when Tang was the orange drink associated with space travel. I suspect that the computer on which I write this message would not exist were it not for the space program. There are so many new products that have grown out of the great effort that they have essentially paid for NASA several times over. But the doubters became believers as the years went along. Then it became almost routine…to the point that no one seemed to pay any attention to the later moon-landings until the near disaster of Apollo 13. The odd thing is that there are still some people who believe that we did not land on the moon; the whole thing was just an elaborate Hollywood hoax. So what is Mark saying to us? Well, actually, he is relating the story…but the question still remains; “Why?” When you look at these events, please think of them as about you rather than just something that it occurred over 2000 years old. When we examine it that way, it has a different slant. Let us consider it further. The disciples failed to heal the sick young man; which meant that they were not able to drive out the demon that possessed him.   We do not know what they did, or should I say – did wrong. We can imagine the disciples yelling at the demon and telling it to go away or come out of him. And it did not work. The did not know how to deal with this type of demon. How often do we just tell someone what to do and expect it to happen? Or maybe we give our ‘good advice’ about something and are surprised when it is ignored or disregarded. You are disappointed and maybe angry. If the advice you gave turns out to be right, then your friends will fail if they do not follow your suggestions. This is what happens to the Disciples…they get it wrong and are not able to drive out the demon. They look weak and impotent to accomplish anything. We are just as likely to think that Mark is telling us something with a different twist. “There is nothing impossible for a man of faith.” So what is he saying? A man of faith can accomplish many things. But this too can be seen from a human perspective. We see it all the time in our lives and get contradictory messages. These days we see popular preacher telling us what this looks like from their point of view. This is played out in what is called a Prosperity Gospel. This message is essentially saying that if you have enough faith then you will succeed by earthly standards. You might become rich. You are likely to have a great job and family. You will be able to travel as much as you want and thing will be just hunky dory in your life. Then if things do not turn out as you wish there is an obvious reason…you did not have enough or a proper faith. Others might say that you were not actually saved and therefore “once saved, always saved” does not apply to you. Man sets the limits and tries to decide for himself what is right and what will be better. It does not take much more than a huge ego to satisfy the desire to be prosperous. It is always based on human perceptions, not the plans and desires of God. The Prosperity Gospel distorts and destroys the truth of God’s love in our lives and gets it all wrong. As we return to the text we see what the father says to the Lord. “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us!” IF YOU CAN…o give me a break…that is the point here. This is God and He can do anything and everything that He desires. It has nothing to do with mankind. It is God being God. Jesus responds as you would expect. “If I can! All things are possible for one who believes.” You can read this so many ways. He could be getting testy with His audience and essentially saying, “How dare you ask such a thing.” Is He glaring at them? Maybe He is waving His arms and looking frustrated. Or maybe He is sad and disappointed. It is here that the father cries out, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” Now we have the proper perspective. There is nothing that cannot be done by Jesus, no matter what our human understanding and ideas may say. This father should trust Jesus and His power to do what is right and to drive out demons who seek to ruin or destroy His creation. It was once said, “He declares that he believes and yet acknowledges himself to also have unbelief. These two statements appear to contradict each other, but there is none of us that does not experience both of them in himself. As our faith is never perfect, it follows that we are partly unbelievers; but God forgives us, and exercises such forbearance towards us, as to reckon us believers on account of a small portion of faith.” And that faith is in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior So we can identify with this father who is experiencing both the pain of concern for his child and the wonder of amazement as our Lord promises to carry out the man’s heart desires and restore his son. The message continues as Jesus explains to His followers what had happened so that they were unable to drive out the demon. This type of demon can only be driven out by prayer. The power of prayer is confirmed for us. Prayer is more powerful than this demon and something that any of us can and should use at any time. When seeking the help and assistance of our Lord, it begins with prayer. It does not matter whether you are attending business meetings at church, Elders meetings, Council meetings, Bible Classes, or worship. We invoke the Lord’s name and prayerfully ask that He be part of our work. When we do that we have the power of God with and among us. Sure we can say the words, but we must also turn loose of our personal plans and ask the Lord to guide what we do…THEN DO IT. We too are subject to doubts and unbelief. We too use the right words without actually committing to do them with our hearts. We must, along with this father pray, “I believe, help my unbelief.” Then we turn to Him in prayer, knowing that this is our conversation with Almighty God and He is listening and He is ready to help us to achieve the things that HE HAS PLANNED FOR US. Thus prosperity defined by God is real prosperity and real hope and real belief. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Which Neighbor??

Greetings to you, in the name of Jesus, our Lord and Savior. Amen. The end of our Epistle reading for today is often a difficult verse for Lutherans. “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, it is dead.” (vs 17) We want to jump out of our skins and say, “What about salvation by grace alone?” Is Scripture contradicting itself? Heaven forbid, that cannot be the case. Well, you are right, it is not the case. Scripture is accurate throughout.   If fact James makes it clear what he is saying in the next verse, “But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (Emphasis added) It is up to us to demonstrate our faith by the way we live. If we do not then we will be demonstrating that WE DO NOT HAVE ANY FAITH. That is an uncomfortable even startling conclusion! Unless we are willing to work and put our faith out there, then it demonstrates that we don’t really have any faith. It is NOT a measurement of our faith, rather a demonstration that we have it. This is certainly easier for some of us than others. But it is not impossible. “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” This is how James begins this reading. We cannot show favoritism, preferences or give someone a pass when they do wrong things. This includes political figures, business acquaintances, people of all stripes including leaders or anyone holding public office. A 19th Century Lutheran theologian once wrote, “Christ nowhere enjoins on political rulers as such a share in the management of his church. On the contrary, he has appointed some person in the church for the performance of every duty enjoined on the church. Hence, when by an unhallowed union of Church and State, civil rulers as such assume the privilege of exercising certain ecclesiastical rights, they perform duties which the Head of the church (meaning Christ) assigned to others. If civil rulers possess the qualifications required by scripture for any office in the Church, they ought undoubtedly to be eligible to office as well as others, yea, their high standing and extensive influence among men, afford them the special opportunities of actively promoting the kingdom of Christ. Yet, when they act as officers of the church, they do so not by virtue of their political station, but of their ecclesiastical election. And if they bring disgrace on their brethren in Christ…they ought to be disciple by the church, regardless of their civil office.”[1]   Now this is an understandable separation of Church and State. Use your public influence for the betterment of God’s kingdom and that is ok. Use your public influence to build yourself up at the expense of the church and it is the responsibility of the church to see that you are subject to church discipline. That having been said…who is our neighbor? This question, when asked of our Lord, produced the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In that case, the neighbor was the one who showed mercy. That then begs the question, what about you? Have you without reward helped your neighbor or maybe you have invited your neighbor to church with you? I hear some of you have been working on your neighbor for quite a while and they still resist. But that is good for you and for them; for you because it reminds you to witness with your life that you are a Christian – all the time. Good for them, because they too need to hear that they are loved by God and that He wants them to be in worship. You too are then being God’s witness and a good neighbor at the same time. So here we are on Labor Day weekend and I am telling you to be a good neighbor. The church has the best message the world has ever heard…God loves you enough to die for you and you and all of you. He was and is able to carry the burden of our misdeeds all the way to a small hill outside of Jerusalem, where He let the Roman soldiers nail them to that cross. There HE bled and die for you. All you have to do is accept His invitation to be His people and you too will be saved. The world around us will tell us that this is too exclusive and not broad enough to accept everyone in this world. They will tell you that a loving God would never exclude huge portions of the population with such strict expectations. I will tell you clearly that they are only half right. Yes, this salvation is EXCLUSIVE and yes, we have a loving God. But our salvation is also so special that He limits the availability and reach of this gift to His people. Think of it this way; there are only few special hand-made items. If I ask you, many of you can probably name some of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. If I say Stradivarius, you may know that is the maker of really special, rare and valuable Violins, Violas and Cellos. Remington will bring up rifles, Rolls Royce will conjure up images of a luxury auto. The names Picasso, Rembrandt or Salvador Dali also imply great wealth and valuable art work. But knowing these things or possibly owning any of them does not make you more valuable in God’s eyes. Years ago, we had a President who tried to unite this nation because of all the good things and the positive benefits of being a resident. He has been called “the Great Communicator,” and his style was one that gave us a sense of unity and purpose that I miss. Since then we have divided and segmented our population into Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, bi-racial, Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, Christians “right-wing” conservatives, Liberals and every other possible segmentation. There is no sense of unity or nationalism. But we still have the same issue…who is your neighbor? Our neighbor is anyone who needs the Word of God and the Salvation won by Jesus Christ in the Cross of Calvary; in other words everyone who does not reject Christ’s call to repentance. The person can be rich or poor, any skin color, any occupation, or without one, any age, either gender – anyone who has had their sins paid for by the blood of Christ. That is VERY broad definition because it includes everyone…yet, some still refuse to listen. I hope that we all welcome visitors into our midst. But we also need to be intentional about inviting others to be here. This place is where you can have your sins forgiven publicly before God’s altar. This is where you can come to share your burdens with other forgiven Christians. This is the place where you are certain to find God, His Word and His love for mankind. Worship is NOT about Labor Day, or any other holiday, it is about your personal, private relationship with the Lord. He has invited you here and He has forgiven your sins. He is the one who takes your burden away and says, “Now, go and sin no more.” Then and there we know that our neighbor is anyone we talk to and why hears the Good News of Jesus Christ. Go and welcome them and know too that you are welcomed by the same invitation. Thanks be to God. Amen. [1] Schmucker, Samuel, The Lutheran Manual on Scriptural Principles. (Gettysburg, Theological Seminary, 1855)