Tuesday, October 5, 2021

No More Ranking - You're A Christian!

Text: Luke 14:1-11

In the name of Jesus: Amen. 

Doesn’t Jesus’ parable from the Gospel of Luke sound just like a Junior High Lunchroom, where everyone is ranked from the lowest table to the highest table?  You know what I am talking about – the lowest tables in Junior High are where the geeks and rejects sit.  And the highest tables are where the jocks and pretty girls sit.  

And so, each and every day in Junior High, kids are ranked from high to low.  Everyone wanted to sit with the jocks and pretty girls, and no one wanted to sit with the geeks and rejects.  But nonetheless, they all have to choose a seat.  

If a student is doing well in sports or started dating a new girl, well… they can move up and sit at a higher table. 

But, if a student said something embarrassing or acted in a way that was not cool, they have to move down to a lower table.  

To the point, every table have a rank from high to low.  And every person is ranked from high to low as well.  Youth are very much into ranking everyone and everything.  And we adults?  We are no different.  We like to rank everything as well.  Yes, EVERYTHING, even ourselves. 

From the houses we buy to the clothes we wear, to the cars we drive, to the schools we attend, to the farm equipment we use, to the jobs we have – and even the churches we go to – we, Americans, rank everything from high to low. 

And once everything is ranked from high to low, we Americans want everything ranked at the top.  We want to live in the best parts of town, with the newest-looking car and the most fashionable clothing, while our kids go to the most prestigious schools, while attending the hippest and cool church in town.  And to accomplish this, we try not to look weak, we hide our failures, we max out the credit card to buy the best and latest things, and we put metaphoric masks on to pretend that we are something special.

Now, keep in mind that we do not all rank things the same way, for we sometimes value certain things more than other things. 

For example, farmers don’t really care about wearing fashionable clothing, so they don’t rank clothing, but they will certainly rank each other’s farms – building large quonsets to store the most advanced and newest combines on the market.  Unlike farmers, soccer moms in suburban cities will rank their families by trying to out volunteer each other in their kids' events while also bragging about where they live and how big their houses are.  Men rank all the time too.  If they are not strutting around like a rooster with flexed muscles and puffed-out chests, they are comparing their toys – accumulating the newest guns, the fastest cars, or the biggest pickups.  Again, we are constantly ranking ourselves.

Dear friends, some things never change for humanity, for this ranking is exactly what Jesus was confronting in our reading from the Gospel of Luke.  

You see, the Pharisees that Jesus confronted in our reading from the Gospel of Luke were always trying to be in the seats of honor – to be the most important persons in the room.  And when Jesus showed up that day at that leader’s house, the Pharisees really struggled.  In other words, Jesus threatened their ranking system. They perceived Jesus as one who might take their spot at the head of the table. However, what they did not realize is that Jesus did not care what seat He sat in. The reason being, Jesus never was motivated in His ministry by pride, fear, or coveting. 

Dear friends, this is all really such a mess. 

Think about it a bit more with me. We fear sitting at the low tables – ranked at the bottom - because we fear being left out or rejected by others. We fear being weak.  We fear being looked down upon.  And we fear that we won’t be recognized for our imagined greatness. 

And the high tables?  Pride can inflate our ego, and we can think that we have earned the high tables – that we are more important or better than other people. To sit at the prestigious table, we know that we need to be great.  And so, we begin to pretend that we are awesome. We elevate ourselves to rank #1, while hiding our faults and exalting our strengths. And then, once we are puffed up, we sit in those high tables with elevated noses and smug faces shaking our heads in disgust and gossiping about those who are lesser than us.

But maybe, you are wise enough not to give way to the foolishness of pride.  Maybe you have a good check on your ego and pride.  Well, if you do, be careful of something else, called ‘coveting.’  You see, if we are not guilty of fear or pride, a covetous mindset can take root in our minds saying, 

“If only I could get to the top – if only I could get to the biggest and the best stuff, then I would obtain true bliss and happiness - contentment.” 

Dear friends, listen up! What an absolute mess we are! Our pride blinds us.  Fear paralyzes us with the thought of rejection at the bottom of the rank. And covetousness keeps us dreaming about the top while ignoring what is right before us.  

If we let pride, fear, and covetousness have their way, we will always seek to be at the top of the rank.  If we let pride, fear, and covetousness have their way, we will always rank everything, tossing others below us, striving for that which is above, while jumping from fear to pride, to covetousness, and then back to fear, pride, and covetousness.  Trust me, it is an endless circle of being afraid of the bottom, being prideful for the top, and then dreaming for the top – and then doing it all over again, and again, and again.  What a sick existence!  What misery – always ranking, seeking, fighting, striving, worrying, huffing, and puffing.  This is not freedom; this is utter bondage!  And yet, we all do it.  Just look around; we see this everywhere and with everyone.  

Baptized Saints, knock it off!  Yes, knock it off.  This is not who you are.  The kingdom of God does not operate based on pride, fear, or coveting.  The kingdom of God is not about ranking, as if some have a little more Jesus than others.   

And so, if you worry about being at the end of the rank, don’t.  If you worry about being alone, don’t. If you are worried about being a loser, don’t.  If you are constantly dreaming about contentment at the top – stop.  If you are consumed with pride – twisted with a thousand emotions, always comparing, ranking, and looking at your status among others – give it a break!  If you are more interested in acquiring rank than receiving righteousness, repent! 

Yes, repent.  

Baptized Saints, being a Christian, is quite simple.  There is no rank before Christ.  Either you are righteous in Jesus, or you are not. It is that simple.  And so, everyone – one and all – repent, and hear the good news.  Jesus does not do the whole rank thing.  He does the opposite.  Jesus set aside the rank of His deity and took on the status of a slave.  In His birth, Jesus did not claim any special rank.  Instead, He lived a selfless obedient life so that He might descend so low in the rank – by dying on the cross – that you might never escape His forgiveness.  You are in Christ – and with Christ you have complete righteousness.  God be praised! 

Dear friends, one and all, hear this loud and clear!  Rank does not matter for Christ.  In Christ, there are no divisions and no ranks of righteousness.  In Christ, there is no hierarchy of forgiveness.  In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female. And there certainly is not jockeying for position.  

It is quite simple – in Christ, you are in Christ.  And that is it.  That is enough.  

And so, if you sit in a high table or low table, it does not matter.  If you sit with the jocks or the geeks, it does not matter. If you have a nice car or a junky car, it does not matter.  If you live in a mansion or a shed, it does not matter.  It does not matter because you are in Christ.  And Christ is what matters, not what seat you sit at or your ranking in life.  

In fact, when you are in Christ, you need not walk around all high and mighty but are completely and totally free to sit at the lowest place to simply love everyone else above you.  Because of Christ, you are content to be simply be yourself. And if you do have a high rank – in Christ, you know that your rank is not for bolstering yourself but is intended to be used to serve and bless your neighbor in need.   

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Foolish Things Spoken At Funerals

Text: Luke 17:11-17

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

People say a lot of different things when death strikes. 

Sometimes we can’t help it.  

When death strikes, our nerves can cause us to talk a lot. Other times, we try to fill the quietness of death with meaningless chitchat – how’s the weather, did you watch the Vikings, aren’t those property taxes too high, and so forth. In other words, we don’t like silence. Death and silence make us uncomfortable because we live in a world that is busy and noisy. And so, we many times find comfort within the busyness and noise, especially when it can distract us from painful things like death.  

But what about the silence at a funeral? What do we say? 

As a pastor, I have no shortage of incredible stories, stories ranging from the deceased speaking to a relative the night before their funeral, with a message that needed to be shared from the pulpit to the deceased apparently showing up at a funeral service embodied in a fly. Yes, the deceased’s spirit was supposedly within an insect.  

Now, believe it or not, I am not very bothered or upset about these misguided and outlandish stories, because more often than not, it is the result of grief. You see, grief can do a lot of things to a person. And so, I am never too hard on parishioners, especially when they are crushed by the pain and sorrow of grief. It kind of makes sense when you consider the effects of grief.  

But what I am bothered by is what pastors say - or don’t say - at funerals. In other words, Christian funerals should at least be somewhat similar to the funeral that Jesus attended that one day in the city of Nain.  

In our reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus went to a town called Nain with His disciples and a large group of people. That day, though, as they approached the city, He was met by a funeral procession. Long story short, a man had died, leaving his mother all alone. And so, when Jesus saw this mother in her grief, He came right before the dead corpse and spoke. 

But what did Jesus say?  

Actually, let us take a moment and identify what Jesus did not say.  

Jesus did not say to the woman, 

“Here, here now. I heard that your son was a good man. I heard that he was a good employee and volunteered to help the poor. I heard that he was good at telling jokes and making people feel welcomed. I heard that he made a good barbeque and could really swing that good ol’ baseball bat.”  

No, my friends, our Lord certainly did not say that.  

But, perhaps, our Lord said something like this, 

“Dear woman, don’t worry, God needed another angel. Be comforted; your son is now looking down upon you with a smile. In fact, we better not mourn but we should instead celebrate his life. We shouldn’t focus oo to much on death, for that makes people uncomfortable. Instead, we should think about those good qualities and his achievements. We should keep things light.”  

My friends, no, our Lord certainly did not say this either.  

So, what did our Lord say that day?  

Jesus was filled with compassion, the kind of compassion that grabs hold of the gut. He was filled with compassion for the woman, which resulted in Him touching the dead body and saying, 

“Do not cry. Young man, I tell you: Get up.”  

And just like that, the dead son sat up and began talking. And Jesus, He presented the son back to the mother.  

Dear friends, let me be very blunt. Pastors sin against their flocks, and those grieving when funeral services put the deceased at the center stage. The pastor sins grievously in a funeral service when the words he uses are directed solely toward the dead person’s personality, qualities, and achievements.  

Now, this may sound a bit harsh. But truth be told, nothing is more unsympathetic, cruel, or unloving than to make a funeral exclusively about the deceased. The reason why? The person is dead, and nothing of the deceased person’s personality, qualities, and achievements can do anything about that. Sure, remembering a dead person’s personality is good, but it can’t raise the deceased from the dead. Celebrating a dead person’s qualities can make one feel proud, but it can’t make the deceased sit up out of the coffin. Making everyone aware of a dead person’s achievements is certainly impressive, but it can’t pull the deceased out of a grave. 

Does this mean that we shouldn’t mention the deceased at all in funerals? 

At a previous church, once upon a time, I heard through the grapevine that a family from a recent funeral was quite upset with the funeral sermon. They were telling everyone that Pastor Richard failed to mention their loved one. (Let’s call him Jimmy) Immediately, I felt terrible and condemned. That is until I looked at the sermon. When I counted, I said Jimmy’s name 18 times. Yes, 18 times.  

So what was the issue?  

The issue quite simply was that Jimmy wasn’t given center stage in the funeral or sermon. The words that were spoken were not about Jimmy, but they were about Jesus, who was and is for Jimmy.  

And so, to the point; at funerals, we do not talk about the deceased, for that does nothing about the sting of death. Rather, we talk about Jesus, who conquers death for us and gives us everlasting life.  

At Nain that day, Jesus told the woman not to cry. He did this not to be unsympathetic or a jerk – toughen up old lady. No, with Christ, death was not the end for her son, and death is not the end for us at our funerals as well.  

At my funeral, if you live longer than me, I beg you to show compassion to my family. And then, shut the casket and say, 

“Matt Richard was a poor damn miserable sinner. Ah, but Matt Richard is also one whom Christ has redeemed not with gold or silver but with His precious blood. Because Jesus lives, Matt Richard is one who will be bodily resurrected on the last day without sin or blemish.”

Yes, I beg you. Talk about Jesus. I am but dust. But Jesus resurrects dust.  It is not the memory of Matt Richard that will give my family comfort but the work of Jesus on my behalf.       

You see, it is only Jesus and the promise of His resurrection that can and will do anything about death. And it is only Jesus and His resurrection that grants comfort at funerals.  

So, it just does not make sense why a pastor would spend a whole funeral talking about the accomplishments of the deceased when He could be spending the whole time talking about what Jesus accomplished on behalf of the deceased.  

Perhaps a fair concern at this point is this: is it wrong to remember a person’s personality, qualities, and achievements? Absolutely not! We should pray that the Lord would bless their memory. But here is the point; this is not the main focus of a funeral.  

When that dead man encountered Jesus at Nain, Jesus was the One speaking. He was the One on the center stage. He was the One that had compassion on the woman. He is the One that gave hope to the woman. And that is what is needed in every funeral that you attend. You need to hear from Jesus in His Word. You need to hear that Jesus forgives sins. You need to hear that Jesus does not forget you in the grave. You need to hear that Jesus will resurrect you and the deceased baptized on the last day. You need to hear that just as Jesus delivered the son back to his mother that He will do the same for you and your dead loved one. Yes, Jesus will restore the dead to the living and the living to the dead. You will be reunited with all of your loved ones who have passed away in Christ. Death will no longer be able to separate you. 

Blessed Baptized Saints, just think, at the last day, Jesus will say, “Get up,” and the dead in Christ will be called out of their graves unto eternal life. All of us together in the presence of Christ will dance with new bodies while rejoicing that Jesus has defeated sin, death, and the devil. We will shout and laugh and jump and giggle like little children, for Jesus called us out of death, wiped away all of our tears, and gave us life – together and forever!

The story of Nain is a clear picture of our hope in the presence of death. And this hope needs to be shared at funerals by pastors and heard by the grieving, not denied.  

In the name of Jesus: Amen. 

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