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November 6, 2016 All Saints Sunday


Text:  2 Timothy 2:8a: “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead…”

Guest Pastor:  Rev. Larry Rockemann from Lutheran Heritage Foundation

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Who Is Running The Verbs?

October 30, 2016 Reformation Sunday


Guest Pastor:  Rev. Larry Rockemann from Lutheran Heritage Foundation

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Justified and Atonement

Audio Not Avaiable
October 23, 2016, Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Text:  Luke 18:9-17

Please look at this photo.

What do you see? Where is this? What’s going on?

If you think you see an escalator, you’re right. What you’re seeing is the inside of a shopping mall, near the base of the escalator. Where is this shopping mall? It’s in Bangkok, Thailand, a city of over 6 million people. Where then are all of the people? Where are the shoppers? What’s going on? Well, this mall was the scene of a fire in 1999. Since then, it has been abandoned. What’s going on there? Normally we would find the sight of an abandoned shopping mall to be a little creepy. Malls are supposed to be well-lit, shiny places, filled with shoppers. But in the case of this mall, abandonment doesn’t necessarily mean the place is totally dark, empty, and lifeless. That’s water you see at the base of the escalator. The mall has been slightly flooded. And what’s that in the water? That’s fish swimming around. Catfish and koi, deliberately placed in this abandoned mall in order to turn it into a kind of large urban aquarium.

Now, turn to the picture on the front of the service folder. What do you see? Where is this? What’s going on? What you see are the characters in Jesus’ story about a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee is the one on the left, standing off by himself. The one on the right is the tax collector, standing in the back by himself. Where is this? In the temple in the city of Jerusalem. One of the busiest places in a city of 100,000 people. The place where many people from all over the world came to pray, both Jew and Gentile. So, what’s going on? Where are all the people? Yes, the Pharisee and the tax collector went up to the temple to pray, but there had to be a lot of other people there.

Well, this picture does not tell the whole story about what is going on. But that is what we want to find out this morning. Jesus says that two men went up to the temple to pray, but only one of them returned home justified. The tax collector. In what way was the tax collector justified? Were his robbing, swindling, extorting ways of collecting taxes somehow justified? How?

On the other hand, the Pharisee did NOT return home justified. Now, that makes sense. There would have been other men in the temple at that moment, but the Pharisee made sure to “stand by himself.” He doesn’t want to touch any sinners like that tax collector. Doesn’t want to be contaminated. And his prayer sounds more like a lecture intended for the tax collector. Sounds self-righteous. There was no justification for his doing that.

Then, why do we find ourselves being envious of the Pharisee? Doesn’t the Pharisee sound as though he’s got it all together? He must be doing pretty well financially if he can afford to give a tenth of everything he gets. And he sounds like a very spiritual person. He not only tithes and prays. He fasts twice a week. And that’s not too bad for his waistline, either. He’s fit and trim. He’s healthy and wealthy. He’s got everything going his way, doesn’t he? Most of the rest of us live lives of imperfection. We cling to the fantasy that someday we’re finally gonna get it right. We’re gonna do everything right. Why do we cling to this fantasy? In the hope of justifying our existence through either our accomplishments or our wealth or our youthful good looks, or by the cool things we own, or by the cool places we’ve visited. And that, my friends, is trying to justify ourselves.

And it does not work. It is just a fantasy. We cannot justify our existence. Like the Pharisee, we cannot justify ourselves before our Creator. We cannot make things right with our Judgment Day Judge no matter how perfect we try to be, no matter how perfect we think we are. But, like this Pharisee, we hold others to that same unrealistic standard. Including those who are closest to us. We forget that what holds us together in marriage, in friendship, and as a church is not based on the other person being perfect, or even close to it. You forget that those who are most important to you stay with you, they remain with you not because you are perfect. They stay with you, because they love you. What holds us together in marriage and friendship and as a church is not perfection, but love and forgiveness in spite of our shortcomings. Because we are all broken. Every single one of us.

But then along comes Someone who offers to justify you, as a gift. He offers to justify you, to declare that you are of value and that you are of eternal worth to Him. And He offers the same to every person, even when we think that we are not of value, even when others think that we are not of any value, even when we see others as being not of any value. No matter how broken a person may be, He offers to justify them as a gift. Including this no good, double dealing, swindling, extorting, robbing tax collector. Now, what right does the tax collector have to ask for such a gift? What right does he have to ask for mercy? What right do any of us have to ask for mercy? None at all. We have no right to ask God for mercy. We are as the hymn writer says, “without one plea.” Why? Because God holds us to being perfect, and that is no fantasy.

So, then what is going on in this story that the tax collector is able to go home justified? Well, does the tax collector actually ask for mercy? Then he would have to use the word eleos as the blind beggar does later in this same chapter. Instead, in Jesus’ story the tax collector uses the word hilaskomai. Which in every other case it’s used in the New Testament is translated as atonement. “God, make atonement for me a sinner,” the tax collector says. In other words, “Cover all my sins. Reconcile me to yourself not because I deserve it or even just because I ask for it, but because a life has been given for a life. The perfect, bloody sacrifice upon Your altar was given for imperfect me.”

What is going on here that we cannot see in this picture? Jews like the Pharisee and the tax collector customarily went up to the temple to pray either at dawn or at 3pm. When the daily sacrifices were offered. The people would gather round and watch as a priest placed upon the altar a spotless, unblemished, perfect lamb. And then a priest would go into the holy place to offer incense, the smoke of the incense rising up to heaven, signifying that God would accept the offering of the lamb on behalf of the sins of His people. Then the priest would come back out to speak the blessing upon the people…The Lord bless you and keep you… Then, another priest would place the lamb upon the fire. And that perfect lamb would burn up. This was the sacrifice that covered the sins of Israel. Thus now the way to God was open. The faithful could now approach Him in prayer. Those gathered would pray silently. And it’s at that moment that the tax collector would have spoken his prayer: “God, make atonement for me.” Let this sacrifice of this perfect lamb cover all my sins, reconciling me to yourself through this bloody sacrifice on the altar. God, justify me. Not my sins. Justify me.

Which is our own prayer at the foot of the cross. Where the Perfect was sacrificed for the imperfect. A perfect life sacrificed for all the broken ones. That’s what atonement is. That’s what we cling to, mind and heart. And so we are justified as a gift from God.

Then what do we see? Where are we? What is going on? What we see is that life is sometimes more than meets the eye. God gives life a depth that we cannot always see just by people’s looks and money and wealth. Where we are is surrounded by the people in our life, who as imperfect as they are, they are also gifts to us from a loving Father, who declares that in Christ they are of just as much worth and value as we are. And what’s going on? We broken people go down to our houses today justified by God as a gift, our sins atoned for by the perfect Lamb Jesus, freed from the crushing burden of having to justify ourselves, we now free others from the unrealistic expectations to which we have held them. Amen


The Parable of the Widow and the Heartless Shameless Judge

October 16, 2016 Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost


Text:  Luke 18:1-8

The Parable of the Persistent Widow

18 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

The Parable of the Widow and the Heartless Shameless Judge

When the police are investigating a suspicious death, they look for clues. First clue: what is the person’s identity? Name. Address. Next of kin. But last December the body of a man turned up in the scenic countryside near Manchester, England. And the police have not been able to identify him, even all these months later. They checked for the usual clues. But he was not carrying any ID. Not even a phone or keys or credit cards. The things he did have on him only raised more questions. In his pockets, he had 130 pounds in cash, about $200 or $250, round-trip train tickets for London to Manchester, and a container that once held thyroid medicine. Though it had most recently contained strychnine. Which showed up in large amounts in his body when the autopsy was done. Was the man’s death a suicide? If it was, then why would he use strychnine, considered one of the most painful poisoning deaths possible? And why would he go all the way from London to the Manchester countryside just to commit suicide? And why was there a metal plate in his leg, of a kind used only in Pakistan’s surgical hospitals? The police are trying to solve this case by piecing together all of these clues.

So, what clues would help us to better understand this difficult parable in Luke 18:1-8?

The first clue is one we might miss. At the end of the parable is a question that appears to be an afterthought. As if it has nothing to do with the parable itself. Yet, it may be our best clue. Jesus asks, “But when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” Then look at the passage right before the parable. In Luke 17:30, Jesus talks about “the day the Son of Man is revealed.” Is that not the day the Son of Man comes? And is that not the Last Day? And is that not what Jesus is talking about at the end of this parable. These lines at the end of the parable about God giving justice to His elect and the coming of the Son of Man recall Jesus’ words from Matthew 24: “They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His elect from the four winds.”

So, in this parable is Jesus talking about His Second Coming? Is He concerned that to His disciples His Second Coming will seem delayed? That brings us to our second clue. A widow is one of the main characters in this story. The widow represents the most vulnerable persons in Israel at that time. If there was anyone who was in danger of being denied justice, particularly by the kind of judge who could be persuaded only with a bribe, then the widow was it. But the widow may also remind us that throughout the Scriptures, God’s people are portrayed as a Bride. The Bride of Christ. But after Jesus’ Ascension, when His return seemed to be so delayed, and the same now, the Bride of Christ may feel more like a widow.

What effect would this seeming delay have on Jesus’ disciples, then and now? What effect would it have not on the head part of faith, but on the heart aspect of faith?

This then is our third clue. When Jesus expressed concern about whether or not He would find faith on the earth upon His return, did He tell a parable to the effect that His lambs ought always to study and memorize and thus not lose heart? He didn’t, did He? He told a parable to the effect that His lambs ought always to pray and thus not lose heart. Jesus knew that as in the Garden of Gethsemane when He asked His disciples to keep watch by praying, that during this entire time of watching and waiting for Him prayer would be our weak spot.

I can say that this is a concern in my own life. Faith for me can become too much of the intellect alone. Faith in my life has a tendency to become more a matter of holding to right doctrine, of believing and thinking the right things. And it can be not as undergirded by prayer as it needs to be. Maybe this is your experience also. Or, is it simply that there are so many things for you to attend to, that prayer is crowded out? Or, is it that the issue of waiting for God’s justice is wearying. When we think about the disciples sleeping instead of praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, we usually think of their physical weariness, the heaviness of their eyelids. But in Luke’s account, it says the disciples slept because of the heaviness of their sorrow. Sorrow is an issue of the heart. Hearts may grow heavy as we wait and wait for Jesus’ return and for God’s justice. Heart heaviness and sorrow weariness can lead to a lack of praying. A lack of praying can then lead us to lose heart. And losing heart can lead us to lose faith.

Jesus’ parable was perhaps to say that God is not heartless. To His disciples, waiting for Him to return might seem like a widow trying to get justice out of a corrupt judge. Seems like it will take forever. After all, it was going to take quite a while for the Gospel to be preached to all nations first before Jesus returns. But Jesus wanted to assure His disciples then and now that God is not a heartless, shameless judge. He is our loving Father. And if even a heartless, shameless judge would eventually give a vulnerable widow justice against her adversary, how much more will our loving Father give justice to Jesus’ lambs against our adversary, that roaring lion.

The thing that throws us off though is when Jesus says “Will He delay long over them? I tell you He will give justice to them speedily.” We say, “What? If this parable is about Jesus’ Second Coming, then it has been anything but speedy.” It’s been 2000 years, and we’re still waiting. Yet, God’s justice would be punishment for everybody on the Last Day if the justice of His ways had not come speedily in one way. Just a couple of weeks after Jesus told this parable, the events of the Garden of Gethsemane would unfold. And then would come the upside down justice of the cross and the triumphant yet amazing justice of the resurrection, and, in them, the judgment upon our roaring lion adversary was sealed. Through the oppression and judgment that fell upon Jesus as He was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, God did justice. And He did it in such a way as to put His anger towards our sins far away.

And that’s what this line in verse seven actually says. In most translations, it reads “Will He delay long over them?” That is a poor translation. The key word is macrothumia, which does not mean delay. It means patience. It should read, “He puts His anger far from them.” Or, “He has patience towards them.” The way that God can give justice to His elect is by putting His anger far away from our sins through Jesus’ death and resurrection, thus bringing us to repentant faith in Jesus.  It’s like a king who puts his army far from the city. That way, if his subjects threaten to rebel and revolt, it will take a while for the army to arrive. And that will give the rebels enough time to think it over and repent.

That brings us to the final clue that tells us this parable is about Jesus’ Second Coming. Peter would use that word macrothumia to talk about the seeming delay of the Second Coming. Why had it not come speedily in our estimation? The word macrothumia. God’s patience. God putting His anger far away to give us room to repent. Peter would use that very word in his Second Letter. He writes: “Do not forget this one thing, dear friends. With the Lord, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:8-9)

Everyone. God is patient, desiring that the elect be everyone. That is inspiration for praying during this time of watching and waiting. Praying for the lambs that are straying or lost that they too would repent and receive on the Last Day the benefits of the justice of God’s ways. Praying that God would bring justice soon to this world. Praying from the heart of faith that God would finally put all evil where it belongs, for God is not a heartless, shameless judge. He is our loving Father, who hears our prayers.  Amen



October 9, 2016, Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost


Luke 17:11-19English Standard Version (ESV)

Jesus Cleanses Ten Lepers

11 On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee.12 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance13 and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16 and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”


Drive south from Egypt into Sudan, and your nose will sniff out the dry, dustiness of the Saharan Desert. Head southeast from there and towards the Red Sea, and you will smell salt. Not only the salt air of the sea but also the salt of the Danakil Depression, a flat desert below sea level, mostly made of salt, so dry it looks like the landscape of Mars. Average year-round daytime temperature: 120 degrees plus. Drive to the Ethiopian provincial capital of Mekele, and you guess that no one could live beyond that point. But then your guide takes you farther down the road to the village of Berahile. And in the marketplace of Berahile you notice that the merchants are handling and trading dirty white blocks of what? It smells like salt, because it is salt. Your guide explains that salt is the gold, the corn, of northeastern Ethiopia, harvested even farther out than Berahile. Your guide finds you a camel caravan to join. Smelly, stinky camels. You notice that the other camel riders carry rifles and knives. Your guide explains that three different countries border each other in this salt desert. The Afar people, the desert people of the Danakil Depression, are not united. Their villages range across all three bordering nations. The Afar fight each other as well as outsiders for the control of the salt trade. The caravan of smelly camels stretches on nose to tail in single file for two long, hot, slow-moving days until it arrives at an even smaller village, Hamed Ela. And then the caravan goes on for yet another whole day till you reach the place in the dry salt lake where men cut out salt in 30 lb bricks.

Ten men, ten leprous men, watched as Jesus’ caravan made its way to Jerusalem. No smelly camels. No smelly donkeys. On foot, Jesus and His disciples went. Not on a sight-seeing trip. They were not taking a walk in the sun from one picturesque town to the next. Rather, Jesus was striding along an embattled border, like that in the Danakil Depression, like that between Turkey and Syria, or North Korea and South Korea, or Ukraine and Russia. Jesus was picking His way along the desolate frontier of two peoples who hated one another fiercely, Samaritans and Jews. Jesus’ journey was His long, sweaty, slow-moving, and final journey to Jerusalem and a cross when He was spotted by the ten leprous men. The lepers kept their distance from Him in accordance with the law.

And because they smelled. Lepers may smell worse than the smell of camels or donkeys. Those who provide medical care to lepers say that’s the first thing you have to get used to. The smell. The smell of the infected, never healing, putrefying flesh of the leper. The lepers smelled, so they kept their distance and cried out in a loud voice for Jesus to hear them and have mercy on them.

We also smell. There are those who put a lot of pressure on themselves. Being good isn’t good enough. We want our behavior to be perfect, our friendships to be perfect, our work to be perfect. It seems the harder we try to live up to our perfect expectations, the more we need to hide. To hide our failings, to hide our smell. As ABC’s 20/20 co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas said in a recent issue of Guideposts magazine regarding her alcoholism, “The more I hid, the more I cut myself off from other people and from God. When I prayed, it was reactive – pleading to get through a stressful day…”

Reactive praying. Crisis praying. Crying out to God when in crisis but otherwise hiding from God because of the smell of one’s failings. Not praying to God as in a friendship. Crying out to God as from a distance. Standing at a distance. Keeping one’s distance from God and others. Hiding one’s smell, hiding one’s failings from God and others and even from oneself. Too busy trying to be perfect. No time to reach out to God or to trusted friends and admit that you’re just as afraid and struggling just as much as they are and smell just as bad as they do.

So, the smelly lepers stood at a distance from God and cried out to Him in their crisis. And Jesus cleansed them. They were made clean. Their smelly flesh made perfect. As perfect as a person who’s newly clean and sober. Of course, they didn’t need to stop and turn back and pray and give thanks. After all, they were now perfect.

But one of them did stop and turn back to pray and praise and give thanks to God with a loud voice. And he was a Samaritan. He must have surprised the disciples. He probably surprised himself. He had just experienced a breakthrough! He returned and gave thanks to God, because he had suddenly had an epiphany. He was undeserving of being healed, whole again, clean. He was undeserving. Because he was not perfect, yet God had made him well.

Undeserving. That’s a tough concept to grasp. Undeserving. Now, if a person hits bottom and is rescued. Or if a person receives one of those burning bush moments, one of those seeing-God-in-a-cloud-of-smoke-in-the-temple moments, then they have a real chance of experiencing a dramatic breakthrough in grasping the concept of being undeserving. But for all the rest of us, the bad things in life appear to us to simply be unfair. Life appears to be often cruel. And if those bad things somehow get reversed, then we just think that now life is being fair again. You don’t praise God in a loud voice when life simply flips back to being fair again. And so often then giving thanks is only about having the decency and good manners to say thank you, God. But that consistent gratefulness and daily joyful expression to God of thanks can remain beyond our grasp.

Except, there are small breakthroughs here and there. As when your day is momentarily lightened, when the burdens of the day are momentarily lightened when you realize you’re drinking water from wells you did not dig, eating fruit from trees you did not plant, receiving from a child, a friend, a spouse a smile that you did not cause, singing a song that you did not compose. Small breakthroughs, small glimpses of the meaning of that word undeserved.  

The funny thing about that word undeserved is that it cannot stand alone. It’s undeserved what? The what is something you didn’t earn, that you didn’t make, that you couldn’t make: the smell of salt air as you approach the ocean, the aroma of that bite full of food that you did not make and that you’re not sure how they made it so good, the ripe odor of a creature so weird that only its Creator would think to put a hump on it, the distinct sweet woodsy smell of the clothes the soldiers gambled for under the cross that was left from Mary anointing Jesus with pure nard. Undeserved what? Blessings. Small breakthroughs, momentary lightening of our burdens, that slowly on the long journey help us grow in grasping how that word undeserving applies to ourselves and thus helping us grow in being transparent with others and with God, giving thanks to God, being grateful, having a true and faithful prayer discipline, a talking friendship with the One who went on that final journey to Jerusalem and a cross to give us one day an extraordinary journey that will not end.