Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sermon: Trinity 14

17 September 2006 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 17:11-19 (Prov 4:10-23, Gal 5:16-24) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

One of the most worn out clich├ęs in the English language is the “fork in the road.” In way it’s too bad that this expression has become so trite and tired – because it is a good illustration of the Christian life.

One of the oldest Christian writings is a book called The Didache, also known as the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. For a couple centuries after its writing, there were some Christian churches that treated it as Scripture. And although it is not actually part of the Word of God, it is still an important window into the way the Christian life was lived out as the apostles were dying off and handing the ministry on to other men.

The Didache begins with this sentence: “There are two ways (which can also be translated: “There are two roads”), one of life and one of death; but a great difference between the two ways.” The Didache goes on to explain that the way of life is summed up in the teachings of Jesus, whereas the way of death is summed up in breaking the Ten Commandments. The Didache, which is certainly at least as old as the year 120 AD, explicitly singles out the sins of homosexuality and abortion as examples of the “way of death.” Of course, the “way of death” includes other sins as well: bearing grudges, speaking but not backing up one’s speech by deeds, and by hating any person.

In our Old Testament lesson from Proverbs, the author, King Solomon, speaks similarly of a couple of streets: “Wisdom Way” and “Wicked Path.” Obviously, roads lead somewhere, and these roads lead in opposite directions. The author describes the result of taking a firm hold of wisdom’s instruction and avoiding the path of wickedness, and that result is life and healthy flesh. The path of wickedness is darkness and stumbling, it is trodden on under the influence of the wine of violence and the bread of wickedness, and in the end, it goes somewhere other than healthy flesh, to some place other than life.

St. Paul, in our epistle lesson similarly speaks of two opposite ways in which we can walk: “in the Spirit,” or in the “works of the flesh.”

And so, we find ourselves at a crossroads every day. In fact, many times a day, we have the opportunity to walk either path, to choose life or to wallow in death. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a Ph.D. in ethics to figure out which road our fallen flesh runs to every time. We want to do evil, which is why Paul exhorts us: “Do not do the things that you wish.”

Ever since our first parents chose the Way of Death, we have been plagued by death. Ever since they opted for the Way of Wickedness, we have been harried and harassed by sin. Ever since they chose forbidden knowledge over obedience, we have been quick to disobey and even quicker to think we know more than God. We in New Orleans, of all people, should be able to figure it out, as we have reaped the whirlwind, figuratively and literally. Our battered and bruised city today continues to stumble around, drunk with the wine of violence, with daily reports of mayhem, gunplay and murder. We continue to wandering aimlessly, out of control, down the Way of Death.

Not only New Orleanians, but every person on the planet must be exhorted to change paths, that is, to repent. This is what Solomon means when he says: “Do not walk in the way of evil. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn away from it and pass on.”

For left to our own devices, we “poor, miserable sinners” will always seek wickedness and destruction. We’re not good at making healthy choices, even though we know where the road ends. Dear Christian brothers and sisters, God is very clear in his Word. He is warning us to struggle against sin, to fight back against temptation, to walk in the Spirit. We are not to give in to it, or take salvation for granted. Above all, we dare not interpret the Lord’s mercy for license to do whatever we want.

Make no mistake, our stubborn refusal to struggle against sin puts us squarely on the path of death and hell. There will indeed be those who consider themselves Christians who will have no part in God’s Kingdom. And this ought to send a shiver down every spine in this sanctuary. But for those of us who fear and tremble, for those of us who are weak, for those of us who find ourselves pointed in the wrong direction, God not only labels the right road for us, he becomes the Road. “I am the Way (that is, the “Road,”), the Truth, and the Life” says Jesus. He not only points us to the Way of Life, he is the Way of Life.

And the Way, the Truth, and the Life himself also preaches the two ways in our Gospel text. There were ten men who were headed to death (as we all are). Their particular cross involved the disease of leprosy – in which the body literally turns on itself, in which certain cells, instead of being obedient to the purpose for which they were created, think they know better than their Creator, and in their arrogance and disobedience, begin to kill healthy cells. In the end, the spread of the disobedient leprous tissue overcomes the healthy flesh and results in death.

These ten desperate victims come before Jesus. They don’t want to die. They want to be healthy. They want to leave the path of death, and ask Jesus to heal them. Not only are they dying, but they are under the condemnation of the law – for they are forbidden to participate in the life of the healthy community for fear their rotting flesh will spread. They are, like every sinner, under the condemnation of the law of the ten commandments as well.

And so Jesus does what he has been sent to do. They pray to him “Lord have mercy upon us!” and Jesus answers their prayer. Then, he tells them to comply with the law and find priests to declare them clean. They leave. But one of them returns. He does three things: he glorifies God, he falls at Jesus’ feet in worship, and he gives thanks.

Jesus points out that this one, this Samaritan of all people, a man whose race makes him hated by the Jews, is the only one who glorifies God, worships Jesus, and gives thanks. Jesus gives him another blessing: “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.”

In declaring him well, Jesus means much more than that he is cured of his leprosy. For that had already happened with the other nine. Jesus is saying he has been made well in another way, spiritually, borne out by his faith. Jesus does not tell him that his actions of glorifying God, worshiping Jesus, and giving thanks have made him well, but rather his faith. But his works and the words that flow from his mouth, his prayers, worship, and grateful heart are all evidences that this man has left the Way of Death and is now on the Path of Life. “Go your way,” Jesus tells him, which is to say: “Keep going on the road you’re on.”

And notice the Samaritan is not told to go to the Old Testament priests for their blessing. He has received the blessing of the True High Priest himself! Notice that Jesus doesn’t demand that this man comply with the law, for as Paul tells us: “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law…. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such there is no law.”

Paul speaks of this life no longer under the law in these terms: those “who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”

How do we “crucify the flesh”? How do we rid ourselves of the “passions and desires” of the sinful flesh, this horrible litany of sins that Paul keeps listing to the point of our discomfort in listening to it: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissentions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like”? Surely, there are more than a few here that we Christians commit on a regular basis.

How do we give attention to the words of wisdom? How do we incline our ears to those sayings that lead to life and away from death?

For certainly, Paul’s scary warnings are written not to non-believers, but to believers. The desperate pleas to avoid temptation found in Proverbs aren’t written to atheists, but to the Church. We do not believe in once saved, always saved.

We need to fear for our eternal lives. We need to heed these warnings, and not be quick to dismiss them. These harsh and powerful words must drive us to the only place we can turn: to Jesus, to the cross, to confession, to daily repentance, and to where God dispenses his grace.

The example in our Gospel lesson is clear. We are helpless. Only Jesus can heal us. We cry to him: “Lord, have mercy!” He and he alone can cleanse us of our leprous sins and gangrenous evils. It is only by the grace of the Way, the Truth, and the Life himself that we find our feet on the right path. We cannot walk the Way of Life by our own willpower and strength. But through the healing power and words of our merciful Great Physician, we find ourselves made new, healed, and restored.

And so we come to Jesus where we find him today: in the Divine Service. We pray “Lord, have mercy upon us.” We worship him in his proclaimed Word and as he comes to us bodily as bread and wine in the Holy Sacrament (in which his perfect Flesh restores our sinful and leprous flesh, in which the Bread of Life overcomes the bread of wickedness, and the wine of the New Testament, for the forgiveness of sins, conquers the wine of violence). And finally, we sing thanks to him for all that he has done for us, and continues to do for us every moment of every day.

With the Samaritan leper, the Church of every time and place pleads for mercy, falls at the feet of the Lord Jesus, and sings out in gratitude:

Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done
In whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms
Has blest us on our way
With countless gifts of love
And still is ours today.

All praise and thanks to God
The Father now be given,
The Son, and him who reigns
With them in highest heaven,
The one eternal God,
Whom earth and heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.


In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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