Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 11)

Luke 18:9-14; 1 Corinthians 15:1-10; Genesis 4:1-15

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is not intended to teach us how to pray. Jesus gave us His own example and The Lord’s Prayer to teach us that. Thus, the Pharisee is not bad because he positioned himself for prayers at the front of the temple where all could see him, and neither is the tax collector good because he stayed in the back and didn’t draw attention to himself as he prayed. No, the parable is not really about how to pray, what to say and do when you pray, or even how to worship properly at all. What the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is about, however, is justification, that is, how we are made right with God.
Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were religious, and treated others with contempt,” and He concluded the parable saying of the tax collector, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The Pharisee placed his trust, not in God, but in his own goodness, in his obedience, in his works, in his tithes, and even in his worship in the temple – He exalted himself. Moreover, in his pride he treated others with contempt whom he considered beneath him and unworthy: extortioners, the unjust, adulterers, tax collectors, sinners of all sorts. Again, it was not the Pharisee’s outward actions that condemned him, but it was the pride and self-righteousness of his heart which prohibited him from bearing the fruits of love, mercy, compassion, charity, and forgiveness towards others. Moreover, because he trusted in his own righteousness, he could not receive “the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees,” righteousness that comes from God in Jesus Christ.
Righteousness and justification do not come from our obedience under the Law, good works, piety, prayers, worship, or anything else that we do, but righteousness and justification come from God in Jesus Christ and are received by Spirit-created faith and trust in Him. It’s not about anything that we have or anything that we do, but it’s all about what God has done. That is why those who have next to nothing often find it easier to believe and receive, and why those who have much often struggle to believe. Abram’s faith was said to be great because he had great wealth, land, and possessions, and yet he believed and trusted in the Word of the LORD when He called him and sent Him to an unknown land, promising him a son and heir through whom all the nations of the world would be blessed: “Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD credited it to him as righteousness.” Similarly, Jesus taught that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, not because there is anything inherently wrong with wealth and possessions, but because wealth and possessions do not make for righteousness and justification, but can actually become obstacles and hindrances.
So it was that a tax collector, who was most likely quite wealthy, having extorted and embezzled his own people under the authority of the Roman government, who maybe gave tithes to the temple, or maybe didn’t, who may have prayed and fasted, or maybe not, went down to his house justified. The tax collector knew that, when it came to a right relationship with God, he had nothing to offer, but that he was a sinner and he placed no trust in his obedience under the Law, good works, piety, prayers, worship, or anything else that he did. It was not his prayer posture of kneeling and bowing his head in the back of the temple court that justified him, for those were but the outward signs of the humility and unworthiness he felt and knew in his heart, but it was his faith and trust in God’s Word of Promise and mercy that justified Him. The tax collector believed the LORD, and the LORD credited it to him as righteousness.
You know, it’s entirely appropriate that this parable, and this Gospel theme, would be the focus of my final Divine Service and sermon with you, for I truly believe that this fundamental Christian doctrine of Justification, how we are made right with God, which Luther called “the doctrine upon which the Church stands or falls,” has been the focal point and emphasis of my ministry among you the entirety of my fifteen years at The Lutheran Church of Christ the King in Pawling, New York. When I arrived at Christ the King, young(er), green, and inexperienced as I was, nevertheless, I quickly observed that there was a fundamental problem here – a lack of identity, of who we are and why, as Christians and as a congregation of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Therefore, I set myself to the task of teaching, through catechesis, Bible Studies, topical studies, sermons, meetings of the Council, the Elders, the Congregation, and through personal conversations, and also through some less obvious means such as liturgical catechesis, actions, and vestments, building improvements, community service, and more. All of this was aimed at forming and confirming our identity in Jesus Christ crucified, risen, and reigning incarnationally through Word and Sacrament in His body, the Church, of which we are all members through baptism and faith. Through this ministry I sought that you might find your identity in Christ first and foremost and that this identity would be self-evident in the fruits of your identity and faith in Christ, love, mercy, compassion, charity, and forgiveness towards others to the glory of God in Christ Jesus.
Many of you have surely heard my cliché dictum, “When visitors come to worship at Christ the King, at the very least, while I hope for more, at the very least I want to have them walk away saying, ‘I don’t know what these people believe, but it’s extremely clear that they believe something special and important is happening here’.” Visitors know this because it is self-evident in the reverence we show when we worship. It is, in fact, a confession of what we believe about Jesus’ real presence in our midst, just as the tax collector’s humility was a confession of both his unworthiness and of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. You see, we can’t see into anyone’s heart, which is why, seemingly, the only immutable law of our age is “Don’t judge.” However, because we can’t see into anyone’s heart, we have to go by their words and their deeds, and it is a confessional principle that what we say and what we do are an outward expression of what we believe, teach, and confess. Therefore, people expect that what they see and hear us doing is what we believe. May our worship together always communicate to visitors, to our community, and to each other by what we say and do that Christ is present here in a way He is not present anywhere else, in grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness, both spiritually and physically, even as He is the Word of God made flesh for the life of the world.
There will be great pressure and great temptations to change what you say and do, particularly in worship, in order to accommodate the contemporary world and culture and bring in the lost. These temptations will be couched in very spiritual and pious sounding language, delivered always with the best intentions, and seeming all so wise according to human reason and wisdom and the best business practices of the day. Beware of such talk, as surely Satan’s temptations sounded reasonable and wise, even good, quoting the Scriptures themselves! You must remain firm on the solid rock of God’s Word and what it means, as opposed to what you think it means, and what you think it means, and what you think it means, …. As a congregation, and as heads of households, as families, and as individuals, you must hear, learn, mark, and inwardly digest God’s Word as food and oxygen and water that you may be able to withstand temptation when it comes upon you. Moreover, you can only give to others what you first have yourself. And, Christ’s Church cannot be a light shining in the darkness if it blends in with the darkness. You are called to be in the world, not of the world, and to not be conformed to the ways of this world, but rather to be transformed by the renewal of your minds.
That is to say, you must keep things ordered the right way, the way of the tax collector in Jesus’ parable. The tax collector knew that he had nothing to bring to the table, unlike the Pharisee who boasted of his real and true works, which were but filthy rags before the LORD because they did not flow from faith and trust in God and His Word, but from self-righteousness and pride. The tax collector knew that he was a sinner and that he was worthy of nothing but temporal and eternal punishment. Therefore, he threw himself on the mercy of the LORD. This, in itself, is an act of great faith and trust. The LORD saw his faith, and He credited the man’s faith to him as righteousness, just as the LORD credited Abram’s faith to him as righteousness. Notice, however, that neither Abram or the tax collector, or you or I, are said to be righteous, but we are credited, counted, considered, and declared to be righteous. Whenever we come before the LORD, we come as unworthy sinners, yet unworthy sinners forgiven and declared to be righteous in the blood of Jesus Christ. For this reason, I think of the Church of Jesus Christ in this way: “This church is not a memorial for saints, but a hospital for sinners.” Only sinners can be forgiven. Only the sick can be healed. Only the unrighteous can be declared righteous. Only the dead can be raised. Forgiven, healed, righteous, and alive forever: This is our identity in Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ alone.
C.F.W. Walther said “Man’s justification by the Gospel is not a deed which man himself does, but which is done to him by God. It is not something which goes on in man’s heart, but something which goes on outside man, in God’s heart.” Walther also said “Man’s justification by the Gospel is not to be compared to an actual cleansing from stains, but to the putting on of a beautiful white garment which covers the stains.” When we come to the Divine Service, we come to be so served by our loving, gracious, merciful, and forgiving God. In Holy Absolution He forgives our sins anew and cleanses us of all impurities, restoring us to our baptismal purity. Through the reading and preaching of His Word He strengthens our faith even as He rebukes, comforts, and exhorts us in it. In the Lord’s Supper we actually commune with Jesus and share in all His blessings and benefits including Sonship with the Father, His Kingship over heaven and earth, and His life that cannot die. This is why the German Lutherans called our worship Gottesdienst, which means God’s Service; God serves us in the Divine Service, and He sends us to serve our neighbors with His Divine Gifts.
And so, I leave you with the same point of doctrine I brought to you when I first came to you: Your identity, your life, is in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, apart from whom there is no life, there is no relationship with the Father, there is no Church. However, I do not believe that you are the same as you were then, and neither am I, but we have grown together as a family of faith, fed, nourished, sustained, protected, equipped, and sent forth with His God’s blessing to be a blessing to others as He has richly blessed us in Christ Jesus. I have been blessed, honored, and privileged to be your pastor, but I am only a pastor, and that means that I am an undershepherd of the Good Shepherd Jesus Christ. Our Good Shepherd has many, many undershepherds who stand in His stead and by His command to bring to you His gifts. While I know that you will miss me, and I will dearly miss you, you must know and understand that a pastor’s call is from God through the Church, and through a congregation of the Church specifically. That call can, does, and should change from time to time, for the Church is not mine any more than it is yours, but it is the LORD’s. The LORD will raise up for you another pastor and undershepherd, and he will feed you and care for you and give you Christ’s gifts just the same, for the Good Shepherd loves and cares for His flock, even as He laid down His life to save and keep it for life with Him and His Father and Holy Spirit.
Ultimately, your identity is not in a pastor, or even in a congregation, but your identity is in Christ and Him alone. This does not, must not, and cannot change. As we sang in our 50th Anniversary Hymn “The Church of Jesus Christ Is Pure,” which we will sing once again at the close of this service, “Our Bridegroom and our Lord is He, Who gives us our identity; And He whose promise can’t grow old Has nothing that He will withhold. For this is He who did ascend And preaches still to all earth’s end Through all His preachers who proclaim Salvation in our Savior’s Name.” I have desired to preach nothing among you except Christ and Him crucified, risen, reigning, and returning, and His life lived in and through you as a light shining in the darkness of this world that others might know and come to Him who is the life and light of men to the glory of God. May God continue to bless you richly in His gifts of Word and Sacrament, and may He continue to make The Lutheran Church of Christ the King and all of you a rich blessing to the community of Pawling and the communities beyond to the glory of His Most Holy Name.

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

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