Thursday, October 21, 2010

Lord Have Mercy

On Sunday, October 24, I'll be traveling from Cokato to preach and lead worship at a church that is just beginning in another Minnesota city.  I've been asked to preach after the following scriptures are read: Jeremiah 14:7-22, Second Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 and Luke 18:9-14.  I've been asked to lead a Bible study on Psalm 84 also. 

Here's a first draft of my sermon:
Luke 18:9-14
[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Draft of Sermon to be preached October 24 after the reading of Luke 8:9-14.

It's so predictable!

If you know even a little of the story of Jesus, you know the Pharisees are not the good guys.

Sing: I don't want to be a Pharisee! I don't wanta be a Pharisee!  'Cause they're not fair, ya see.  I just wanta be a sheep (ba ba ba ba)... I just want to be a sheep... I just want to be a sheep!  And I pray the Lord my soul to keep... I just want to be a sheep! (ba ba ba ba).

The Pharisees rejected Jesus because he was spending time with tax-collectors and sinners--with the guys like the tax-collector in Jesus' story who didn't have a prayer.  He (the t-c) had nothing good to say about himself at all.  He was desperate.  And it seems that's where the Lord wants us.  Desperate.  Helpless before God.

There's a great book on prayer by Ole Hallesby that says this:
Notice how graciously prayer has been designed.  To pray is nothing more involved than to let Jesus into our needs.  To pray is to give Jesus permission to employ His powers in the alleviation of our distress... The results of prayer are, therefore, not dependent upon the powers of the one who prays.  To pray is nothing more involved than to open the door, giving Jesus access to our needs and permitting Him to exercise His own power in dealing with them.  He designed prayer in such a way that the weakest can make us of it.  For to pray is to open the door unto Jesus.  And that requires no strength.  Will we give Jesus access to our needs?  That is the one great and fundamental question in connection with prayer.
So what are our needs?  It's the preacher's job to connect the scriptures with the situation of the people.  What are your needs then?  I don't know you well, but I do know something.  You and I have something in common... for one reason or another you or I have left churches that we've been part of to either join or help form other churches.  And because we've done that, and because we want to feel good about our decisions, we very well might be in need of hearing the message of this parable story today.  Because we might just feel like the pharisee, having made right decisions, thankful that we're not like others who have stayed.

As I read the gospel, today, I read it as speaking particularly to me.  I hope you will do the same.

I have left a church.  I believe the reasons I have left were good and right.  Others have left local churches and I have given them aid and comfort.

It has been a very hard thing, very painful.  But it's also dangerous.  It's dangerous because, in doing this, I can easily become like the self-righteous pharisee who thanked God that he wasn't like other people.

The gospel today brings me to my knees.  The gospel today reminds me of my sin.

God have mercy on me, a sinner.

I've recently been reading a book by Francis Frangipane.  In this book, It's Time to End Church Splits, Francis warns about the terrible consequences of church divisions.  He writes:
If you have ever been through a church split, you are all too familiar with the terrible churning of emotions and the inconsolable distress that accompanies this descent into hell.  Large factions of otherwise nice Christians will be pitted against one another.  They will participate in slander, anger, deception, fear, bitterness, hatred, gossip, unforgiveness, strife, rebellion and pride...
And even worse:
As rumors and details of the split reach the ears of the unsaved, the pettiness and politics that accompany a split remind the unbelieving world of why they are keeping their distance from the church.
This is true even when the reasons for leaving a church, or forming a new one, are good and right, even when, as Francis says in his book, withdrawing from a denomination might be a means of protest, done to protect Christ's people.  Sometimes, he says, it's necessary.  But, still...

God, have mercy on me, a sinner!

Things we do for all the right reasons have unintended consequences.  I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper this week.  It was an answer to Bishop Chilstrom's letter... his letter, originally, I think, in the Mankato paper... his letter said that the only reason he hears for people to leave the ELCA was because of sex... my letter responded with a list of other reasons... but my letter hurt some dear friends who are still in the ELCA and are trying to be faithful.  I feel terrible about that.

God, have mercy on me, a sinner!

How many times do I need to say that?  When can I stop?  I hope I never will.  I always need to be looking in the mirror of the law of God.  And that law will convict me again and again.  How often have I failed to love my neighbor as myself?  Even when I do it in the name of God, saying that I am just obeying the first commandment, to love the Lord with all my heart, all my soul, mind and strength... but if I do that without also loving my neighbor just as much as I love myself, I have failed.  I have sinned.

Lord, have mercy.

And I don't need to tell you how much we fall short when it comes to loving our homosexual brothers and sisters.  We have nothing to brag about.  We must hang our heads.  We are guilty as sin.

God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

So what can we do?  One thing is to keep noticing and being honest about our own sinfulness.  I heard that from Richard Mouw this week as he was talking about the terrible divides in our country these days.  How can we reach out in love to someone we honestly believe is involved in a sinful relationship?  How can we reach out in love to those who are going to feel judged?  There's only one way I know of, and that's to be transparent about our own sin, our own struggles, our own brokenness, our own confusion--to make sure no one thinks we are worthy or better in any way.  And we can't pretend that.  We can't fake.  We need to know how it is we are sinful now.

So let God's Word go to work on you.  Don't back away when it points at you and says you are guilty.  Let it bring you to your knees.  You and I, if we've ever wanted a woman or a man who wasn't our wife or husband, we are adulterers.  You and I, if we've ever said anything bad about someone else, we are slanderers and gossips.  You and I, if we've ever turned away from someone in need, we are thieves.  And, you and I, if we have driven cars or lived in houses that are larger than what we need, we are polluters and despoilers of God's good earth.  None of us has any rights with God.  Together with the worst, we cry out,

God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

And when we do that, and when we find ourselves loved by the God who gave his life on the cross for sinners, then we will be able to stand on level ground with all of our neighbors and our enemies, brothers and sisters linked by our unworthiness.  And then we can go knock on doors and ask people if we can pray with them and for them, to come to God with them and ask his gracious mercy, the mercy that we proclaim here at this church.

We cannot point to ourselves in any way.  Only to Jesus.  If this church or any church, especially churches that are staring fresh in this painful environment of church splits are going to be successful, there needs to be tremendous humility about ourselves, and absolute reliance on the grace and mercy of God--not only for ourselves, but for others too... for those who are still in ELCA churches, and for those who are confused, and for those who are just lost.  All the glory, all the honor, all the power, needs to go to Jesus.  Let God get all the glory, and let every man be called a fool.  That's the humility that will draw people to Jesus Christ.

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