Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sermon: Trinity 11 and Installation of Rehema Kavugha

19 Aug 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 18:9-14 (Gen 4:1-15, 1 Cor 15:1-10)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

When reality isn’t what we would like, our sinful flesh does what it does best – it lies. Instead of coming to grips with reality – we evade, we deny, and we try to wiggle out from under the reality we refuse to confront.

Some resort to drugs, alcohol, gambling, promiscuity, or even pathological behavior in order to escape the truth. Others turn to criminal behavior to try to steal the reality that they covet. However, the most common response is to simply lie to oneself about the mess that we are all in. When it comes to self-examination, the devil is the greatest optimist in the world. He tells us we’re doing fine. We’re really pretty darn good people. In fact, when we compare ourselves to the druggies, drunks, and people with various addictions and morally reprehensible behaviors – we come out looking pretty solid.

Of course, it’s all a lie. It’s a front our flesh puts up to avoid the unpleasant truth that we are “poor miserable sinners” whose sin-corrupted flesh is on a crash course with the grave. We don’t want to consider that God is almighty and perfect, that He demands our perfection as well – so we create a happy-go-lucky god in our own image, a kind of George Burns or Morgan Freeman who doesn’t ask a whole lot from us. Of course, a George Burns or a Morgan Freeman never sent his son to die on the cross as payment for sin.

The kind of God in our Genesis reading that rejects the offering of Cain, who doles out a punishment more than Cain can bear, is not the sort of Old King Cole type god with dimples and laugh lines.

And yet, we do worship a God of grace. For as St. Paul points out in his epistle, Paul was a murderer like Cain. Paul was the enemy of God’s people on earth – and yet God showed him unmerited mercy – even making him an apostle.

The unbeliever will seize on these two extremes and claim that this is a contradiction in the Bible. Similarly, some within the Church create a dichotomy, a division, between the cranky, mean old God of the Old Testament and the happy, joyful, easygoing God of the New Testament. Or as some Lutherans like to put it: the Old Testament God is Law, the New Testament God is Gospel.

But such delusions are more diabolical tricks to separate us from the faith.

Our blessed Lord’s parable gives us the missing piece of the puzzle. For Jesus is the “Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world” – the whole world – not merely Abel, not merely Paul, not merely the tax collector in the parable. Jesus also died for Cain, for those who persecuted Paul, and for the Pharisee in the story. And yet, not all of them receive the grace of God that Jesus freely gives. For not all are repentant, not all acknowledge their own sin.

Cain’s offering was not accepted. Abel’s was. Both were sinners – and yet, only Abel offered a sacrifice of blood: an atonement for sin. Cain offered what he thought God would want. And yet God had made it clear that a blood sacrifice was the covering for sin. The Lord Himself made that first sacrifice when he killed animals in order to make garments of skin to cover the nakedness of Cain’s parents. In offering a sacrifice of his own desire instead of what God required, Cain was demonstrating his lack of repentance, his delusional flippancy regarding his own mortal sinfulness. And his offering was rejected. His unrepentant flirtation with the diabolical led him to murder his own brother as a result.

In our Lord’s parable, a Pharisee is eager to point to himself as an example of righteousness. He puts all of the eggs of his eternal welfare in the basket of his own perceived goodness and uprightness. He has deluded himself into believing his own flesh’s propaganda that he has achieved righteousness through good works. He puts before God the grain offering of self-satisfaction instead of the true satisfaction of the Lamb’s blood offered in repentance. He is so crassly demented that he actually looks down his nose at a truly repentant sinner – a man who sees reality for what it is, and confronts it in truth and honesty – even though the truth hurts.

The tax collector has no illusions of his own righteousness. He pleads for mercy, he beats his breast, his eyes are downcast. He knows from whence his help cometh. And our Lord makes no bones about the ending, the moral of the story: “I tell you, this man” – that is, the tax collector –

“went down to his house justified rather than the other;” says our Lord, “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Now, this is indeed good news for those who look at reality the way it is, those who join the tax collector in beating their breasts and begging for mercy, those who do not try to hide, evade, or wiggle out of the fact that we are sinful to the bone, in fact, right down to the depraved depths of our souls. This is good news, because it means that our offering is acceptable to the Lord – for it isn’t a grain offering of our good deeds, evidence that we are skillful at some occupation or another.

We who beat our breasts and confess our sins facing this altar will also kneel at this same altar and partake in the sacrifice that takes away our sins – the flesh and blood of the Lamb who died so that we might live, as Paul says: “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” Those who believe in their own righteousness feel no need to ask for mercy or plead the blood of the Lamb as a sacrifice to cover their shame. Those who are thus deluded actually see the shame of others while refusing to confront the reality of their own shame. This is to take the side of Cain and not Abel, to join forces with the proponents of the Law instead of with Paul’s proclamation of grace, and is to cast oneself in the mold of the proud Pharisee instead of the humble tax collector.

This, dear brothers and sisters, is exactly what Paul means when he says: “I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you -- unless you believed in vain.”

That Gospel, that good news that like the tax collector, we know our guilt, (but we also know we have been redeemed in spite of our unworthiness), that Gospel is why our church runs a school. We believe that even the finest education is incomplete without the Gospel being first and foremost, being taught in word and deed by faithful teachers.

That Gospel is why all of our teachers are here today. That Gospel is why Rehema Kavugha is joining our faculty. Music is a great and noble art – but apart from the Gospel, it’s only entertainment. When placed in the service of the Gospel, however, music is a tool of almighty God to save the world.

Our church and school stand united under the Gospel, facing the reality that we are “poor, miserable sinners,” that we, like St. Paul, are unworthy of the grace the Lord has shown to us. Like the tax collector, we face this altar with downcast eyes and plead for forgiveness. Like Abel, we know that only the blood of an Innocent restores us to communion with God.

And again, like St. Paul, we confess and proclaim with one voice: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” What a magnificent insight from Holy Scripture on this day when Rehema officially becomes part of our faculty, publicly confessing that all of her labors as a teacher and choir director are to be guided by Holy Scripture and normed by the evangelical confessions of the holy Church? For she is what she is, as we all are, by the grace of God. His grace toward us is not in vain, for our labors are not our own, but rather the grace of God working within us.

And while we can never boast that the godly work we do in His Kingdom is the result of our own righteousness, we do have the profound joy of knowing that in spite of our unworthiness, the glorious grace of God goes out to others through our labors, through the Lord working mightily through our humble vocations.

Each one of us can pray every day with St. Paul: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” Amen.

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

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