Do Not Grow Weary – Sermon for September 28/29

Do Not Grow Weary

Galatians 5:25-6:10

Fifteenth Sunday After Trinity

September 28th/29th, 2014

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 

Sisyphus.  Ever heard of him?  He is a character of Greek mythology who, because of Sisyphisthe arrogance that characterized his life, was sentenced to eternal futility.  Sisyphus was to spend his eternity laboring and working to roll a large boulder up a hill every day, only to watch it roll back down each and every time.  He was sentenced to an eternity of useless effort, of senseless sweat, and of humiliating failure each and every day.  He never met his objective, which was to get the boulder to stay at the top of the hill.  Instead, each and every time he made progress pushing the rock higher and higher, it ultimately ended the same way: the boulder bounding and barreling back down to the bottom.  How often do we feel like we are doomed to the same fate as Sisyphus?  We spend hours doing laundry, washing the dishes, and cutting the lawn only to watch the hamper fill up again, the dirty plates pile up in the sink, and the grass and weeds grow unsightly.  We spend hours, days, even years teaching our children how to behave, only to have them continually do the exact opposite.  We toil diligently on a project at work only to have our supervisor or client tell us it isn’t good enough, and we need to start over again.  The examples multiply themselves.  For every Friday afternoon that promises a weekend of rest, there’s a Saturday full of activities and a Sunday night that promises to throw you right back into the meat grinder.  With no end in sight, it’s hard not to get beaten down by it all.  It’s hard not to get tired.

The same is true of our life in the church.  Even here we can be tempted to feel condemned to suffer the fate of Sisyphus, a life of perpetually watching what we want to see done and accomplished remain as elusive as trying to capture the fog of a warm breath in the cold fall air.  Excitement builds when hundreds of people come out to the FunFest, but fades when fewer than 40 people participate in the voters’ meeting.  People come out of the woodwork to help with Fish Fries, but you could hear a pin drop any time there is a request to help with MCREST.  We get excited to see that giving is up this year and that we are taking in more offerings than we expected, but we still can’t seem to get our budget to the point where we can reach our potential by paying our staff what they deserve or by hiring in another full-time worker to coordinate family life programs and community outreach.  It so often feels like no matter what we do or contribute to the life of the congregation, there’s always something more to do.  No matter what we fix in this facility, there’s always something else that needs repair or sits in danger of breaking.  There is much to be excited about here.  There is a world of possibility and potential.  So why does it feel like no matter how hard we push that rock, it’s always rolling back against us?  It’s easy to look out at it all and throw up our hands in defeat.  It’s easy to sigh and allow the weariness to overtake us.

But, dear brothers and sisters, let Paul’s encouragement to the Galatians be his encouragement to us here today.  Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we will reap a harvest, if we do not give up.[1]  Perhaps part of our problem is that we have a skewed perspective of what that harvest actually is.  Perhaps we have photo-5-e1359318654713misunderstood what the life of the baptized is actually like both as an individual, but also as a congregation.  Perhaps that is why in the deepest darkest corners of our hearts, we kind of like to see ourselves as Sisyphus, for that gives us an easy excuse to rationalize giving up.  “If the rock isn’t going to stay on top of the hill anyway, why bother pushing it?” we tell ourselves.  If we can’t balance our budget as it is, why take on new costs?  If that activity doesn’t benefit me, why should I support it?  I’ve got enough to worry about without taking on the added burden of the things St. John needs to get done.  But perhaps that’s the problem.  Perhaps we are so focused on ourselves and our own boulders that we have blinded ourselves to the greater reality in play.

I think our problem is rooted ultimately in two places.  First, I think we have misunderstood what the Christian life is, and have therefore mischaracterized what a “successful” or “healthy” Christian life looks like.  The Christian life is not a destination, it is a journey.  It is a daily dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ.  Repentance and forgiveness is not a one-time event that happens when you arrive at Christianity or “give your life to Jesus.”  It is a habitual, daily practice, one which continues for as many days as you have this side of heaven.  But this is true not just when it comes to repentance and faith, it is true when it comes to the rest of our daily lives as well.  Perhaps we would find more joy in our tasks if we weren’t so focused on whether they were successful or not, on whether the boulder stayed on top of the hill, but on whether or not we were doing them to the glory of God and the best of our ability.

More on that in a minute.  First there’s a something else I think we often miss about our Christian life: this is not a journey we take alone.  An isolated Christian is a contradiction in terms like a female brother or round square.  We were never designed to go it alone in this life.  Take today’s reading, for example.  Paul teaches the Galatians, and us, to restore one another.[2]  But that requires more than one person.  It requires a helping-hands2community.  An isolated individual cannot restore anyone else, and neither can they be restored.  The Church of God, the Christian life, is lived in community.  But how connected are you to this community?  Are you comfortable enough with people here that you would be willing to listen to them if they followed Paul’s instruction and pointed out something in your life that needs correcting?  Are you comfortable enough to be the one helping a fellow believer by restoring them in a spirit of gentleness?  Or would you rather that everyone here just left you alone and let you have your hour of private time on Sunday morning?  This is just speculation on my part, but I’ve always believed that part of the draw of the mega-churches is the anonymity.  You can go into one of those places and not know a single person.  You can sit in the back, get your spiritual fix, and leave without interacting with another individual.  You can be a regular at those places without being part of the community of the baptized.

But this is not the life our Lord has called us to lead.  Our Lord has called us into community, fellowship with him and with one another in this place.  Part of that fellowship is building relationships with those around you that are deep enough that you rejoice when they rejoice and mourn when they mourn.  Part of that fellowship is confessing your sin with one another and receiving forgiveness together.  Part of that fellowship is being united together by being united to the same Jesus as he feeds you individually and his entire body in this place at his altar.  As an isolated Christian, it is impossible not to grow weary of doing good!  Our efforts would never be enough.  If we are going to approach our Christian life alone, then we might as well consider ourselves children of Sisyphus instead of children of the Heavenly Father, for we will never reach our goal.  Rather than of trying to “roll the rock” to the top of the hill by ourselves, we are called to recognize that God has established a community of believers to work together.  One person pushes the rock for a while.  When that person is too tired to push any longer, the rock does not need to roll all the way back to the bottom of the hill; rather, let someone else push.  Hand off the task.  In this way, you will not grow weary of doing good.

So, are you getting tired and ready to hand the task off to someone else?  Are you ready to step up and take the task being handed to you?

Either way, never forget this is a community of sinners.  The church is in many ways a spiritual hospital and rehabilitation center.  We have been washed in the water of baptism so that we might walk in newness of life, but as long as we are this side of heaven we will never be fully free of the consequences of sin in our flesh.  Pride will flare up.  Greed will cloud your imagination.  Anger and frustration will boil under the surface.  Stubbornness will render heels and opinions unmovable.  You are a sinner surrounded by sinners, so you can expect to experience sin.  You will have your feelings hurt, and you will almost certainly hurt others despite your best efforts not to.  The person who takes on the task might not do it exactly the way you would have.  If you take on a task, you might not want to listen to the wisdom of those who have walked this road before.  When there are this many people involved, you can expect disagreement and debate over which course of action would be best for the congregation.  You can expect that there will be bumps in the road.  But that’s ok.  powerThat’s life in the body of Christ, for our unity is found not in that we agree about the best way to operate as a congregation, but in that we are all united under the same Jesus Christ, who is our head and chief cornerstone.  And so while you can expect bumps in the road, you can expect forgiveness even more, for we are first and foremost the forgiven children of God in this place.  We are the sheep of our Good Shepherd.  Here you can confess your sin to the people here when you have hurt them, and they will forgive you.  You will be free from the shame of having wronged another person.  Here you can forgive those who sin against you.  You can be free from the bitterness that eats away at God’s gift of joy for you.

And make no mistake about it, there is much joy to be found in the body of Christ.  Jesus is the vine, we the branches.  We are the body of Christ, rooted and growing in him who is our head.  Left to ourselves, we may be destined to futility and failure, for there are only so many hours in a day, only so many years in a life.  We will never be able to keep that boulder from crashing down alone.  That is why we live and work together.  Even the unbelieving world knows the value of providing for those who will come after us.  Our society has become so conscious about not using up all the non-renewable resources on our planet; there is so much talk of what our carbon footprints and rain forests and melting ice caps will mean for the next generations.  Why do we not speak the same way of the work God has given us to do as his people?  Regardless of what happens with carbon footprints or rain forests, the kingdom of this world will come to an end one day.  But Jesus is the ruler of the kingdom which has no end.  Through baptism and the gift of faith, we are part of that kingdom.  And what’s more, God has chosen to use our imperfect hands to do the work of his kingdom on this earth until that time when we enter into the new and perfect creation to spend eternity not fruitlessly pushing a rock up a hill, but rather using our talents and abilities to the glory of God and in service to the other people in that kingdom, just like Adam and Eve were first designed to do on this earth.  What a joy to be part of this eternal reality!  What a joy to be able to use our talents and abilities in service to those around us, to use the gifts God gave for the reason he gave them!  This is what makes it possible for us to not grow weary in doing good, for we know that through us, God is doing work of eternal significance.

This eternal reality is the foundation that Paul laid in the first 5 chapters of Galatians, and upon which he builds here in chapter 6.  It is the eternal life won by Jesus through his death and resurrection, which become our death and resurrection in the waters of baptism.  This eternal reality is what fills us with endurance so that we do not grow weary in doing good.  We are part of something bigger than ourselves, grafted into the vine that is Christ himself.  Our daily life and efforts have value that far exceeds anything the world can offer, for God is at work through us.  We are part of the body of Christ that extends back into the past, reaping the benefit of what was sown by the Prophets and Apostles and passed down to us through the generations of the faithful.  We are reaping the benefits of those who built and maintained this church and school for its first 150 years.  But just as we are reaping the benefit of those who came before us, so also we are members of the body of Christ that extends into the future. We cannot say how much longer until Jesus comes back, but neither could those Christians in the first 20 centuries since Jesus.  Maybe he comes back tomorrow, maybe it will be 10,000 years after we all die.  We can’t say.  But what we can do is make sure that if there does end up being several more generations of believers, we provide for their wpid-Photo-Aug-29-2008-710-PMneeds as we have been provided for.  We provide them a house of worship to come hear God’s Word, receive the gift of their forgiveness, and respond with songs of praise.  We provide them a school to train up their children in the Word of the Lord.  Our work is not only for those who are among us today, but for those who will come after us too.

And in this way, we do not grow weary in doing good.  We do not grow weary because even if we don’t personally witness the fruits of our labor, we know that God can use them for good in the future.  We do not grow weary because even in those moments of weakness and frustration we have the gift of confession and forgiveness to restore broken relationships.  We do not grow weary because we remember that we are working not merely for ourselves, but for our Lord.

“Therefore, do not be anxious, saying, “What shell we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?”  Your heavenly Father knows you need them all.  But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”[3]  “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.  And as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially those who are of the household of faith,”[4] both the household that is around us today, and also the household of believers yet to come.

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[1] Galatians 6:9

[2] Galatians 6:1

[3] Matthew 6:31-33

[4] Galatians 6:9-10

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Funeral Sermon for Fred Adler

Fredrick William Adler

Funeral Sermon

Psalm 23

September 22, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 HomeSweet

The date was April 13, 1917.  The place, Ruth, MI.  Fred Adler was born to a farming family.  He spent his childhood on the farm.  It’s where he learned to walk.  It’s where he learned to speak.  It’s where he learned the value of a hard day’s work.  The farm was in his blood a little for the rest of his life, not only in his work ethic, but also in little things like the joy he found in taking his grandchildren strawberry picking and apple picking as a way to spend time with them.  He lived on the farm 17 years before enlisting in the Army.  They were foundational and formative years, but the farm was not ultimately home.

Fred spent several years in the service, serving in World War II.  He spent time in France, Austria and Germany.  He was a decorated soldier.  He spoke proudly to me of 0_0_300_300his time in the service, never with any details, but one of the biggest smiles I ever saw on his face was the day he brought out his commemorative cane and his shadowbox of medals.  The Army was important to him, but the Army was not ultimately his home.

After the service, he moved to Detroit with his new bride and settled in to a 41 year career working at Parke-Davis.  He and Helen lived in Detroit for 30 years, raising a family together there.  They retired to Fraser, where they lived until their passing, Helen a few years ago, and Fred just last week.  During their time in those places, he lived a full life.  He would work at his workbench, fixing up old toys for his grandkids.  He would travel to Port Sanilac for summer get always.  But as good as the times were, neither of those places was ultimately home.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  It’s not that he was unhappy in any of these places.  I got the impression in my conversations with him that he had a very happy life in all the places he lived.  But these places were all temporary.  His time in each of these places was always destined to come to an end.  But there is one place that Fred has called home for almost 97 years: the house of the Lord.  On November 11, 1917, at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Ruth, MI, Fred was united to the body of Christ through the water of baptism.  Since that day, he has been at home in the house of the Lord.  He was raised in the house of the Lord, being confirmed at Immanuel in 1939.  He was fed and nourished in the house of the Lord, Sunday after Sunday, year after year.  Sunday after Sunday, year after year, he heard the story of Jesus.

It was a story he loved, for he knew it was ultimately his story too.  Our opening hymn was one of Fred’s favorites.  He requested multiple times that it be sung the day of his funeral.  “I Love to Tell the Story!”  What a wonderful story it is.  The story of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love, is why we are here today.  There are many ways that the world observes the death of a loved one, but we are here today because of the story of Jesus.  We are here today because precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his children.  We are here today because Jesus’s story gives us have hope in the midst of our grief.  For the story of Jesus is not only that he was conceived by thejesus-died-for-you2 Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, but that he did those things so Fred could spend eternity with him in paradise.  His story in not simply that he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, but that he endured those hardships for Fred.  From heaven above, our Lord and Savior Jesus was sent to show God’s love to every sinful creature upon this earthly place.  Christ is the gift from heaven, God’s great gift of grace for Fred, and for each and every person here today.

But the story of Jesus doesn’t stop there.  The grave could not hold Jesus.  Jesus lives.  Jesus reigns with the Father.  But the story does not stop there, or “do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”[1]  Through Baptism, Fred has been united to the story of Jesus.  Through Baptism, Fred is now living in the house of the Lord under the care of the Good Shepherd.

The Lord is our shepherd.  He was Fred’s shepherd, and he is yours as well.  The Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want.  The Lord will provide.  He will provide for our physical and spiritual needs alike.  He takes us to the still waters and green pastures of his salvation.  He restores our soul with his life-giving Word so that we are strong enough to walk with him down the paths of righteousness.  He does this without any merit or worthiness in any of us.  He does this totally and completely out of his mercy.  He does it for his name’s sake.  He did it for Fred, which gives us a ray of light amid today’s darkness; it gives us hope in the face of today’s grief.

Today we see more clearly than usual the sad reality that is the valley of the shadow of death.  Above every step of our journey through this fallen creation hang the clouds of death threatening to burst forth in torrential rains and to make the way necklace_Psalm23IC_MAINimpassable.  Ultimately, the way will eventually become impassable for each of us.  For some, this happens at a tragically young age.  For others, like Fred, the Lord grants nearly a century’s worth of days this side of heaven.  But like Fred’s time on the farm or in the service or in Detroit all came to an end, our time this side of heaven will come to an end.  That threat is always before us.  Yet in the midst of this valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil.  We need fear no evil, for our Lord is with us.  The shepherd is with us, guiding us, protecting us every step of the way.  That’s why he has his rod and staff, to fend off the predators hiding in the shadows.  We need not fear the shadow of death, for our Lord has been swallowed up by death.  Jesus was swallowed up in death.  But death could not hold him, and now death cannot hold those who belong to him.  It could not hold the shepherd.  It cannot hold the sheep.

For this is not our home.  Our home is in the house of the Lord; our home is with our Lord in paradise.  He has prepared a table for us in his church, and even though we are surrounded by enemies at every turn, we are given a foretaste of the feast to come in the supper of Christ’s body and blood.  When we feast on this Holy Supper, the Supper which Fred received faithfully right up to the last days of his life this side of heaven, we are being given a piece of heaven on earth.  In this supper, our Lord is anointing our head with the oil of his forgiveness so that all the world knows we have been chosen for eternal life through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in our place.  That was true for Fred, and it is true for all the baptized.  Our Lord has given us so much mercy that it overflows the cup in this life.

Through the blessing of this supper, through the blessing of being united to Christ, through the blessing of being a sheep in the flock of the Good Shepherd, goodness and mercy follow us all our days.  The goodness of God follows us as he is continually forgiving, loving, and sustaining us.  He mercy follows us as he continually provides for our needs of body and soul.  Ultimately, the Good Shepherd will lead us safely home, to our true home – our heavenly home.  Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all our days in this life, but the days of this life will come to an end.  Yet even though these days end, we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  Fred’s days here may have come to an end, but he is now dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.  Find your comfort in that.  Find your hope in the promise of the Good Shepherd who has been watching over Fred for 97 years already, and who will continue to do so for eternity.

Psalm-27-13-web Fred is finally at home in the land of the living, a home which will remain his home forever.  Oh, what his joy and his glory must be!  He is in the new J erusalem on the mountain of the Lord, in the land where the covering of death has been swallowed up forever by the resurrection of Jesus.  He is in the land full of joy and blessing, where his every desire is fulfilled and his every prayer answered.  Every tear has been wiped away from his face, for he is in the place where Jesus has made all things new.  May God grant us comfort in our grief, for Fred is at home in the house of the Lord.  And in the midst of our grief, may the Lord of life establish us in the hope of being reunited with Fred and all the faithful in the land of the living.

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[1] Romans 6:2-5

Thou Shalt Not . . . God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized (Part 2)

NAT-VEN-Venison-SausageImagine a situation where a woman was asked to try venison sausage for the first time.   She ate the sausage assuming it was made from pork or beef, and was in the process of enjoying it when she found out it was venison.  She apparently did not know what venison was, so as she took her next bite she asked someone sitting next to her.  When she found out she was eating deer sausage, she spit it back out onto her plate and exclaimed, “I can’t eat Bambi!”  Never mind that she had already eaten and enjoyed well over half the sausage; when she found out what it was, she couldn’t bring herself to take another bite.  I guess for her, ignorance was bliss.

We are sometimes tempted to treat the Law of God in the same way, to act as if we would not be responsible for the consequences of breaking the Law if we didn’t know what the Law said.  The implication is that God was somehow doing us a disservice by revealing the Law to us, and that we would have been better off if we would have been allowed to continue in ignorance.  Paul offers a completely different perspective.  Paul says that those who die apart from knowledge of the Law still die, which is proof that they are under the Law whether they know it or not. [Romans 2:12]  He also says that the Law was given because of the transgressions, to demonstrate to us the reality of our situation. [Galatians 3:19]  The point is that ignorance of the Law doesn’t undo its effects any more than ignorance of the type of meat in a sausage changes the meat.  As we saw last month, the Law describes the right relationship between God and his creatures.  Much of the world hates God’s Law and spits it out, wishing he had not revealed it in the first place.  But in the life of the baptized, this revelation is a gift.

The Apostle Paul addresses this reality marvelously when he points out that the Lawmirror was given so that every mouth would be stopped. [Romans 3:19]  When we read what God has revealed in his Law, the Law acts as a mirror by which we can see ourselves for what we truly are.  Just like we tend to use mirrors to find out which of our hairs are out of place or to see how much lettuce is stuck in our teeth, the Law clearly shows us our imperfections before God.  When the Law has done its job, we don’t like what we see.  The law accuses us with its unrelenting demand for perfection.  Because of this accusation and the sense of failure and shame that it brings, many people have grown to hate or resent God’s Law.  They don’t like that it makes them feel bad, so they reject it altogether.

But for the baptized, this knowledge is received as a gift.  Ignorance does not change reality, so the baptized rejoice that our Father has not left us unaware.  Neither has he simply written the Law on our conscience and left us to figure out the rest for ourselves.  Instead, he has revealed to us the depths of our sin so that we might understand our need for a Savior.  This is not a one-time event, but it is the pattern of life for the baptized: continually be driven to our knees in repentance by the truth of the Law, and being continually raised up by the promise of the Gospel.  As Jesus said, those who do not see their sickness will not seek a doctor.  Jesus came to save the sick.  We are all sick with sin, but will not seek help unless we are first given an accurate diagnosis.  This is the primary role of the Law in the life of the baptized: to diagnose our sin and show us our need for a savior.

Next month we will explore what happens when the baptized, having been shown their sin and forgiven from it, set out to live life as God designed it.

Depart in Peace – Funeral Sermon for Bea Neu

Bea Neu

Funeral Sermon

Luke 2:25-32

September 3, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

             There’s a recent trend in the corporate world.  Consultants are being brought inAQ7O9KNW8UCBR9FB70BI to companies worldwide to give seminars on the newest trend.  These consultants are paid tens of thousands of dollars for these seminars, money that the companies feel is a sound investment in improving their customer relations, strengthening the morale among the workers, and cultivating a better work environment.  But here’s the thing about these consultants: their message isn’t really new at all, it’s actually quite old.  They preach servant leadership.  They instruct corporations and their workers in the joy to be found in an attitude of service rather than entitlement.  The joy of service is a reality that the church has known for years, since the beginning of time, in fact.  So while it may be cutting edge to the secular business world, it is quite familiar to those of us in the body of Christ.  We see it in action all the time.  We saw it in Bea, whose servant heart shone through in all she did.

She was always looking for ways that she could chip in or help out.  Whether it was something special, like helping organize the chancel flowers on Christmas and Easter, sewing costumes for Boar’s Head, or just the regular weekly responsibilities of being part of the Altar Guild, Bea found ways to help.  But it wasn’t just at church that her servant heart shined.  She had such deep love for her family, a love that I experienced each time I visited her and Marlin at home to bring them communion.  I heard the stories that can only be told by a woman deeply proud of her children and grandchildren.  Her love and concern for her family was so strong that in the last few weeks, while her daughters were by her side day and night, she even asked to be put back in the hospital so that they could go home and get some rest.  But that was Bea.  Always selfless.  Always thinking of others.

It is good to remember those things today.  It’s good give thanks to God for all that good that he did through Bea.  But that’s not ultimately why we’re here today.  The Easter_Christ_is_risenmost important thing to remember about her today is not what she did for others.  Wonderful as those things are, the most important thing to remember about Bea today is what our Lord did for her.  He who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many, he served Bea.  He worked for her salvation by taking on human flesh, being born of a woman, being obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  But death could not hold him.  He defeated that great enemy and rose to new life again.  He became the first fruit of the resurrection, but we will be the harvest.  Because of all that he has accomplished, we know that those who are baptized into his death will also share in his resurrection.

That’s Bea.  That’s your wife.  That’s your mom.  That’s your grandma.  That’s your comfort and your hope.  Your strength to meet the days ahead comes from the knowledge that she was baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus on February 26, 1928 at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Detroit, MI.  God strengthened the new creation given to her in those waters and nurtured her through the regular proclamation of his holy Word.  She heard that Word throughout her life as she continued to come to our Lord’s House, where she feasted on his body and blood given and shed for her for the strengthening of her soul.  For 73 years, since her confirmation in April, 1941, each time she left the table of the Lord she heard or sung these words: “Lord, now let your servant go in peace.  Your Word has been fulfilled.  My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people.”  Lord, let your servant go in peace.  For 73 years Bea came to the table of our Lord’s Supper, a foretaste of the feast to come, and left singing of peace and joy.  Today she is at the feast itself.  Today she is experiencing true peace and true joy – all because of what our Lord has done for her and given to her.

There is the source of hope in your grief.  There is your consolation.  Jesus promises us that the one who endures to the end will be saved.  That was Bea’s confirmation verse, a verse that is so appropriate to remember today, for Bea did indeed endure to the end, and now she is enjoying paradise.  Now she has been saved from the cancer that attacked her body.  Now she has been saved from the death and decay that hang over this creation like a storm brewing on the horizon.  We still have more storms to endure in the days, weeks, and months ahead, but as we prepare for these storms we can take our cue from Bea.  She endured to the end because even though she was always looking for ways that she could help do something for those around her, when it came to her salvation she left it all up to our Lord.  He is faithful.  He keeps his promises.

He is indeed a great and wonderful God.  In the words of the Psalmist, he is the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas, the one who by his strength established the mountains and the seas so that all who dwell on earth marvel at his signs.  God’s marvelous creation has inspired hymns about being so humbled at the sights of the world around us that our soul cries out, “How great Thou art!”  But as magnificent as the creation is to behold, the true greatness of God is seen in the cross of Christ.  As the hymn writer put it:

And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee, “How great Thou art!”

Our soul sings because it is in the death and resurrection of Jesus that our death becomes the birth into the life to come.  Bea knew this.  Bea believed this.  And so she departed in peace.  She departed to peace.  Her eyes are now seeing their hopesalvation as they never have before.  Her soul is now singing as it never has before.  She is experiencing the inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, unfading, and kept in heaven for her by God’s grace.  Those of us who are still this side of heaven will miss her.  We will mourn her death, but not as those who have no hope.  We have hope, for in the water of our baptism we have been promised the same inheritance.  We too have been promised life in paradise with those who came before us who died in the faith.  Find your comfort in that promise.  Find your comfort in that hope.

Bea was indeed a selfless and loving woman, so if you want to pay tribute to her memory, doing something helpful for someone else is certainly a good place to start.  She certainly had a servant’s heart.  But even more than that, she was a child of God.  More important to her than the things she did for others were the forgiveness, life, and salvation that were hers through all that our Lord had done for her.  Through her work, her memory will live on.  Through the work of Jesus, Bea herself will live on, not merely as a memory, but as a restored child of God in the new and perfect creation.  We who endure to the end will join her there.  May God grant you the faith to trust this promise as you mourn Bea’s death, and as you look forward to seeing her again in the life to come.

Finding Joy in Work – Sermon for Labor Day Weekend

Finding Joy in Work

Ephesians 2:8-10

Eleventh Sunday After Trinity

August 31, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 

LaborDayCard1            It’s Labor Day Weekend, one of my favorite long weekends of the year.  I went fly fishing on Friday, to the Michigan Game yesterday, and don’t have to get up early for work tomorrow.  It’s one last taste of summer before the school and church calendars get really busy.  Of course, even when the calendar gets crazy, there’s still the weekend.  For many, weekends in the fall will mean trips to the cider mill, hay rides, and corn mazes.  They mean Friday Night Lights and College Football Saturdays and NFL Sundays.  So much of our lives feel like we’re living weekend to weekend.  The atmosphere in the school hallways on Fridays is noticeably different than it is on Mondays.  On Fridays, the students and parents alike walk down the hall just a little quicker, excited at the prospect of a few days off.  Mondays, on the other hand, generally find the students dragging their backpacks instead of carrying them, tired days where the students and parents alike are a little worn out from the weekend’s activities.  But I don’t think that experience is confined to the hallways of a school – I bet you see the same dynamic in your workplace, and in office buildings across the country.

For me, it makes me contemplate the nature of work, a topic especially appropriate this Labor Day Weekend.  As we know, Labor Day is not just an excuse to barbecue one last time before summer ends, it is a holiday set aside to honor the contributions of the American work force in the development and ongoing support of this nation.  It is a holiday to honor all that is accomplished by those who work.  But reality seems to be that we are living for the weekends, for the vacations, for the times where we are not at work.  If that’s really what we think of work, then why honor it?  Aristotle believed that “we work to have leisure, on which happiness depends.”  He believed that we work in relaxingbeachorder not to work.  He believed that happiness was to be found not in the tasks we accomplish, but in the time we spend relaxing.  For Aristotle, and I think, if we’re beinghonest, for most of us, work is a means to an end.  We work for money so that we can buy food, home, clothing, and the other necessities of life.  We work so that we can afford to go on vacation.  We work so that we can retire in comfort.  We treat work as a necessary evil, working primarily so that we don’t have to work anymore.  And many of us, if we had our own way, would stop working altogether if we could afford it.

But the more I see this attitude in myself and in our culture, the more I think it robs us of the joy that our Lord would give us in our work. The more I study what our Lord’s Word has to say about work, the more I see this necessary evil mentality is really a gross perversion of what our Lord intended our work to be.  If working is truly a necessary evil, then it must somehow be an obstacle to who we truly are.  But that contradicts what our Lord says about work in the Scriptures.  Remember the story of creation as recorded for us in the book of Genesis: “Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.  And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. [. . .] The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”[1]  God created Adam for work.  God told Adam to work in the garden before sin corrupted the creation.  Work can’t be just a necessary evil that is yet another burden we must bear as a consequence of sin’s corruption.  God instituted work before the fall, so it is part of his design for who we are as humans.

God’s attitude toward work is exactly opposite that of Aristotle.  In the words of Luther, “Man was created not for leisure, but for work, even in the state of innocence.”[2]  Work was created before the fall, before corruption, which means it was created to give us joy.  Certainly work has been corrupted by sin, just like everything else in creation.  Again from Genesis: “And to Adam [God] said, “Because you have . . . eaten of the tree . . . cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you . . . By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground.”[3] Work was not tiresome or frustrating until after sin corrupted it, but it was there.  Adam and Eve were put in a perfect creation, and part of that perfection included working.

This has tremendous significance for how we approach the tasks that face us happy_workerseach day.  It is encouraging and uplifting to remember that work is part of our Lord’s design for us.  It’s not just a burden we bear so that we can have money for food or clothing or shelter.  Those things are important and necessary, but there’s more significance to our life of work than that.  It’s not intended to be something we must tolerate just so that we can go on vacation.  It’s not merely something we do just so that we can retire.  Work is an essential part of being human, a basic part of who we are.  The attitudes toward work that permeate our culture are a perversion of a once perfect gift, and they rob us of the joy found in a job well done.  In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon wrote that He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income, for these things are vanity.[4]  Perhaps this is why so many people in our world find their work unsatisfying.  Solomon makes the problem clear.  If we work only for the money and live only for the weekend, we will never find fulfillment.  We will never be satisfied, for we’re chasing after vanity.  As another pastor put it, “Chasing after vanity [will give you] no rest.  The soul grows weary and uncertainty increases because in the depths of our hearts we know that temporal things have a habit of disappearing.  Stock markets crash.  Cars break down.  Banks go under. Economies suffer recession and depression.  Jobs are lost.  With them goes the certainty we once hoped for.  Despair overcomes us.”[5]

So what are we to do?  How do we find joy in our work?  The answer is to remember first and foremost that our identity is rooted not in our life’s work or accomplishments, but in God’s completed work for us. The work he completed for us, when he cried out on the cross, “It is finished” supplies us with perfect righteousness, pays off all our debts to God, and opens up the door to everlasting life, where we will enjoy perfect health with glorified bodies in a restored creation. But if that creation is really a restoration of this creation as it was before the fall, we won’t be sitting around playing harps all day.  We will be praising God through work, through using the talents and abilities he has given us in service of him and those around us.  That’s the way to find joy in our work today.  The work our Lord did in us when he gave us new life in the water of holy baptism, giving us a new creation to live and work before him in righteousness and blessedness, the work he will do in us yet again in a few moments when he will feed us with the body and blood of Jesus Christ to strengthen our souls not only gives us the promise of joyful work in a paradise of the future, it also redeems our work for today, tomorrow, and every day on this earth.

We will find no fulfillment in our world’s understanding of work because this is not work as our Lord designed it. We need to repent of viewing work as a means to an end and return instead to Eden, and to the proper understanding of vocation.  God gave us talents and abilities not so that we can make money to buy stuff for ourselves, but to love and serve our neighbors.  Think back to Eden once again.  Not only did our Lord create work before the Fall, he created it before he created Eve.  He put Adam to work the garden by himself, stressed-out-workerbut then looked and saw that it was not good for man to be alone.  It wasn’t good for man to be alone because then there was no one for Adam to love and serve with his work.  If Adam was in the garden by himself, then all his work would be for himself.  But this is not who our Lord created us to be, so he gave Adam Eve.  So also we tend to feel frustrated in our work when we are overly concerned with our own personal fulfillment or recognition.  We feel frustrated because there is no end to that journey.  There is always another promotion to chase, always another raise to pursue, and always another challenger nipping at our heels.  However, when we realize that we are not truly working for ourselves, but for the people around us, we will begin to experience the fulfillment of life as our Lord designed it, a life of community and mutual concern.

Our readings today emphasize our inability to save ourselves.  Cain’s sacrifice was unacceptable because it was not offered in faith, trusting in God’s promise.[6]  The Pharisee trumpeted his own accomplishments to God, who was unimpressed, while the tax collector who humbled himself in repentance went away justified.[7]  Paul does not mince words when he tells us we were saved by grace through faith, apart from works, so that no one can boast.  But don’t forget verse 10 at the end of that reading: “We are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”[8]  What does it mean that God prepared good works in advance for us to walk in them?  Does that make us like characters in a cosmic video game who are being controlled and moved to the places God programmed us to be?  Does God have some master checklist of divinely orchestrated opportunities to perform good deeds he expects us to do each day?  No.  Paul is talking about vocation here.  He is talking about our everyday life.  He is talking about our work.  For as insignificant as our efforts are when it comes to accomplishing our own salvation, our Lord has placed us in a startlingly high position when it comes to our practical, everyday life.[9]

eph2_10Think about it.  God upholds this creation from generation to generation, but he has chosen to give people a large role to play in that process.  Children aren’t spawned from the dust of the ground, they’re born from parents whose vocation it is to raise those children who will one day become parents themselves.  No man is an island; we live in a community of interdependence, and that’s exactly the way God designed it to be.  Those are the good works he has created in advance – the work that needs to happen for life to continue, and not only our personal lives, but also the life of the community.  He created a world that needs parents and farmers and doctors and engineers and mechanics and garbage collectors and politicians and a whole host of other people to function.  He prepared those good works in advance, and then created people like you and me to fill those needs.  It works the same in the body of Christ.  Our Lord has created his church to be a place that needs pastors and music directors, but that also needs ushers and acolytes and trustees and elders and evangelism boards and stewardship boards and assimilation teams and treasurers.  He prepared those good works in advance, and now he has created you in Christ Jesus as his workmanship to do them!  He has created us to be a community not of mutually independent people, but of mutually dependent people who rely on each other to get things done.  We rely on those people sitting in around us as the members of this congregation with us today.  We rely on the people we never met who kept St. John open and running for the last 150 years so that it could be here for us today.  And we do our work humbly acknowledging that, Lord willing, there will be people here in another 50 years who are reaping the fruit of what we sow today.

Each of us can find joy in whatever work we contribute to the whole, for “God ordained that human beings be bound together in love, in relationships and communities existing in a state of interdependence.  In this context, God is providentially at work caring for his people, each of whom contributes according to his or her God-given talents, gifts, opportunities, and stations.”[10]  Each of us becomes a mask of God, for behind our work God is hidden, upholding and sustaining his church, indeed, his entire creation.  We find no joy in our work when our primary concern is whether or not we have received enough recognition.  We find no joy in our work when we are only concerned with the immediate results here and now.  We find joy in your work when we realize that because we are now redeemed and set right with God, because we are his workmanship, He is now using our efforts not only to sustain our lives and the lives of the people around us, he is sustaining those in the future who will one day benefit from our efforts without our ever knowing.

Embracing this work won’t get you a better seat in heaven, but it is the life God intended for you on earth.  It is the path to joy in your work because you’re not primarily concerned with how much money you can make, but rather you embrace using your talents and abilities, the ones God himself personally gave you.  They are yours on purpose; they are no accident.  Find joy in accomplishing the tasks that need to get done daily in order for life happyemployee-370x229to continue – in cutting the lawn or washing the dishes.  Find joy in putting effort into other things that needs to happen, like family picnics or trips to the park.  Find joy in doing what needs to be done for future generations, rejoicing in all that was done for you by generations since past.  Find joy in all your work, for in all your work, God is at work in you, using you to bless those around you.  Our work may not be for our salvation, but it is still important, and that fills our work with joy.  May God grant such joy in your work this Labor Day, and for all the days ahead.

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[1] Genesis 2:7-8,15

[2] Commentary on Genesis 2:15 (AE 1.103)

[3] Genesis 3:17-19

[4] Ecclesiastes 5:10

[5] Pastor Tony Sikora – Sermon on Mark 10 (http://steadfastlutherans.org/?p=23816)

[6] Genesis 4:4-5; Hebrews 11:4

[7] Luke 18:9-14

[8] Ephesians 2:10

[9] Veith, Gene. Spirituality of the Cross p. 72

[10] Veith, 74