Is Money a Satisfier?

After a few years in the ministry I realized that I didn’t know anything about leadership and administration.  Thus on the Monday after a January blizzard in 1975 I drove to Mankato, MN for the first of many seminars.  In one of those seminars we received a list of satisfiers and dissatisfiers.  The one I remember most clearly is “Money is not a satisfier but it is a dissatisfier.”

The Old Testament Reading in the LCMS for Sunday from Ecclesiates 5:10-20 according to the Revised English Bible puts it this way: “No one who loves money can ever have enough…When riches increase, so does the number of parasites living off them.”

The author adds that wealth can be lost through one unlucky venture.  We were born naked and naked is how we will depart this life.

The epistle from Hebrews 4:13 we read, “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”  Striving after money will not be anyone’s salvation; it is better to strive to enter the rest that God gives in Christ.

In the Gospel lesson the disciples ask Jesus, who can be saved?  Jesus answers, “For men it is impossible, but not for God; everything is possible for God.”  Jesus knew because that’s what the angel told Mary when she questioned how she could give birth since she was still a virgin.   Jesus knew about what God could do since he was God.

Just as our salvation comes from God so, Ecclesiastes concludes, does whatever ever wealth we accumulate.  Vicar Shults mentioned yesterday in his sermon that his salary as a vicar (no vicar in the LCMS ever got rich being a vicar) put him in the top 7% in the world and when he added his wife’s salary they fell into the top 3%.  The author of Ecclesiastes says, that our work, and our wealth are all a gift from God.  And Jesus reminded us last week that our wealth makes us responsible to care for the poor. Then we can be satisfied as we take joy in satisfying the needs of other creatures of God.

Let Go and Let God

Alcoholics Anonymous use the motto, “Let Go and Let God.”  The person needs to let go of the use of alcohol to overcome the guilt, and shame that drinking has brought upon them and let God take care of their life.

Jesus says much the same thing in Mark 10:23-31, the Gospel lesson for Sunday.  He tells his disciples that it’s difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.  The disciples are astonished and wonder who can be saved then.  Wealth was considered a sign of God’s blessings.  Jesus answers, “With man it is impossible, but not with God.  For all things are possible with God.”  Peter still doesn’t quite get it, “See, we have left everything and followed you.”

However, if wealth doesn’t give a person an inside track to the kingdom and poverty doesn’t either, then who can be saved?”  October thirty first is Reformation Day.  The motto is Faith Alone, Scripture alone, Grace alone.  Even if I’m able to give the right confess that I am saved by grace through alone, a part of me still wants some credit.  “I went ran the synod’s eight year gauntlet of college and seminary preparing to be a pastor.”  Surely counts for something.  “Forty eight years as a pastor and at least five were difficult congregations and that means nothing?”

Jesus then tell his disciples that anyone who has left home and family for the sake of the Gospel will receive a hundredfold in return in this life.  Well that makes me feel better.  But Jesus adds “with persecution.” Well, I didn’t count on that.  However, Jesus quickly adds the blessing, “in the age to come.”  So I have to wait and let God’s time play out.

Jesus concludes, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”  Now which am I?  Am I among the first who will be last or am I among the last who will be first?  Oh well, like AA says, “Let Go and let God.”

Leaving the Garden

I am coming to the close of the gardening season.  Tomatoes are still ripening.  But predicted lows in the upper 30’s this weekend in St. Louis means the plants’ days are numbered, as are my days for wearing shorts.  There are still plenty of green tomatoes on the vines, unfortunately as happens every year they have vastly outgrown the supports I provided and the vines lay mostly along the ground.  As a result I unintentionally provide fresh vegetables for young rabbits and squirrels.  I think they are eating healthier than I am.

It was still nice enough today to sit for a while in the backyard and read.  I’m preparing a course on baptism in the New Testament and the Early Church.  I shared the yard with the small butterflies and Bumble and Honey Bees who were still flitting around the seven foot Phlox.

Yesterday I raked up some of the golden needles which have fallen on my lawn and neighbor Kevin’s driveway.  With his permission I have a shade garden which borders his garage.  Most of those plants love the acidic mulch the pine needles will provide.  Besides it’s the one garden where I have been able to keep ahead of the weeds.

I was also reminded that while I am a brother of the second Adam,  my Lord Christ, who knew gardens as a place of prayer and burial and resurrection; I am also a son of the first Adam and his wife Eve.  My coneflowers had developed a disease this summer which caused them to shoot up multiple heads which came to nothing.  My only choice was to dig them up, which I did yesterday.  They now reside in a barrel waiting to be picked up Monday.

In Revelation 22, St. John writes of a vision of Eden renewed with the Water-of-Life River flowing from the throne down the middle of the street.  The Tree of Life grows on each side of the river bearing twelve kinds of fruit, one for each month.  The leaves provide healing for the nations. That sounds like peace and well-being for all.  I imagine that part of our ongoing worship will be to care for that shaded boulevard, with garden plants producing enough fruits and vegetables for all.  The flowers will bloom undiseased while bees, butterflies, and humming birds delight themselves to our delight.

Thus next spring, God willing, I will make my yearly effort to make our yard a prelude to that eternal and perfect Eden envisioned by St. John.

Grace Preceding and Following

When I walk our Newfoundland, Wisconsin, in the cemetery a block away up the street, I do my best to keep other people in front of us.  Wisconsin doesn’t like anyone behind him.  He turns his head and keeps watch.  Ever try to pull a 140 dog forward when he is more interested in what is behind?

If only Wisconsin could understand the first sentence of the Prayer of the Day from Sunday.  “Lord Jesus Christ, whose grace always precedes and follows us.”  Because while we are worried about the past and what may be sneaking up on us we lose sight of the future and where we are headed.

However, the prayer reminds us that grace covers our past even as we walk behind Christ into our future, or shall I say into His future.

The rich man who wanted to know what he must do to secure his future in eternal life was challenged by Jesus to give all he had accumulated in the past to the poor that they might have a secure future.  He was unable to divest himself of his earthly treasure in order to accumulate the treasure of eternal life in the presence of God.

We can apply the same thinking to the accumulation of wrongs and failures that pile up as we get older.  Give them away to Christ who made himself poor that we might become rich.  At times giving them away to Christ is as difficult as giving away our possessions.  For some reason we like to hold onto our failures and those of others toward us, as if they were to be treasured, and maybe they are, but we gain nothing by them.

The rest of the prayer has a broader scope than the earthly possessions we accumulate.  It also applies to our sins.  As we revisit the prayer for Sunday we do so with a wider application.

Lord Jesus Christ, whose grace always precedes and follows us, help us forsake all trust in earthly gain and to find in You our heavenly treasure; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. 

Give All You Have

Pentecost 20, Proper 23 Mark 10: 17-22

Jesus and his band of disciples were setting out on his journey to Jerusalem.  They may not have looked like much, but the One walking the dusty road south is He who kneeled in the dust and fashioned humanity and the rest of the living creatures.   He made the star cluster Pleiades and the constellation Orion.  He turns deep darkness to light and darkens the day to night.  This is the Lord who, “satisfies us in the morning with His steadfast love that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”(Ps. 90: 14)  But he also makes destruction flash forth against the mighty. He urged his people through the prophet Amos, “If you would live, make your way to the Lord.” “Turn to good and not evil…that the Lord, the God of Hosts of heaven may be with you, as you claim he is.”

The situation was so bad in Israel that the prophet Amos warned that the one who reproves those who seek evil would be hated; abhorred for speaking the truth.  Therefore, “In such a time…it is prudent to stay quiet.”  However, Jesus ignored the warning and advice of the prophet.   Jesus, the Lord, reproved the Pharisees when they came to him with their question about divorce.  He pointed to their hardness of heart, and took them back to the truth of God’s word in Genesis.

They hated and abhorred him for his reproof and truth. He would pay dearly for his indiscretion.  He also knows how many are our transgressions and how great are our sins.  He would pay dearly upon the cross for them too.

He also reproved his disciples when they sought to shoo away parents and their children.  He had instead welcomed them and gathered them into his arms speaking the truth that of such is the kingdom of God, and he blessed them.

Watching all that went on in the town east of the Jordan River was a person who was haunted by a lingering question.  He had heeded the word of the Lord through Amos in which God pleaded, “seek me and live…seek the Lord and live…Seek good and not evil that you may live…hate evil and love good and establish justice in the city gate…If you would live, make your way to me.”

He had spent his entire life turning to the Lord and holding onto the Lord.  It was his way of life.  He delighted in the commandments of God.  He was gracious, merciful and upright in his conduct.  He didn’t abuse anyone sexually.  He didn’t bring bogus lawsuits against the poor and then pay off the judges to rule in his favor so that he could get control of their land and lives.  He honored his parents.  He didn’t try to silence the preachers or implement policies which forced God’s people to go against their religious convictions.  He didn’t seek to raise the grain tax on the poor in order to finance his comfortable lifestyle at their expense.  He took it as proof of his faithfulness to the Lord’s commandment, when wealth and riches had accumulated in his accounts.  He had a house built by the craftsmanship of stonemasons.  He had planted pleasant vineyards yielding fine wine.  He was living the life of shalom, peace and harmony and prosperity.

He had everything that his heart could desire; yet the desire of his heart still yearned for something more.  He sensed he lacked something.  He wanted the Lord to be his dwelling place not only now but forever – from everlasting to everlasting. While Jesus was on the road out of town he made his way to him.  He kneeled in the dust before Jesus, like someone seeking healing.

He pleaded, “Good teacher. What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus deflects the question and asks, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

You and I standing by the side of the road observing this exchange want call to out, “But you are God.  Jesus you are good, all good.”  We’ve known that since the first verse of Mark, when we read, “This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.”  We heard it affirmed at his baptism when the heavenly Father spoke from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.  When he breathes his last breathe on the cross, the centurion affirms, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

But is it enough for us to stand at a distance observing the man kneeling before Jesus?  Ought we not to be kneeling in the dust with him?  The one kneeling before him wants to know if he is good enough to inherit the kingdom.  Are we good enough to inherit eternal life?  What else must we do?  What’s it going to take to make it happen?  Martin Luther also asked himself that question in his monk’s cell.   Before the fullness of the gospel was revealed to him he was haunted by the thought that no matter how much he did, he could not please Jesus the judge of our sins and transgressions.

We have already heard that the man in the dust at Jesus feet has led a blameless and righteous life before the Lord from his youth.  Yet, he was lacking the one thing needful, the thing that we all need, trust in God above all else.  Entry into God’s kingdom, eternal life is not about being good, but trusting in God’s good grace.

Jesus looked deeply into the man kneeling before him.  He didn’t judge him; he didn’t dismiss him as one more person trying to trap him.  He loved him, with the same outgoing love which God extends us.  It’s that love that would lead Jesus to extend his arms on the cross, the same welcoming arms he wrapped around the children.  He regarded the man kneeling in the dust with unconditional love, a never ending love, a love that greets us in the morning, accompanies us the whole day through, and watches over us during the nighttime hours.

Jesus identifies what the man is lacking.  It’s centered in the very wealth that God enabled him to accumulate.  But now it stood in the way.  “Sell all that you have and give it the poor.”  He should distribute his wealth to the poor that they might have more?  But then he would be among the poor.  Treasures in heaven may be all well and good, but how does that fill my stomach?  How does that feed my family?  Wasn’t that an extreme demand?

But it was no more extreme than the demand God had placed on His own son, Jesus.  In response to the pronouncement of forgiveness this morning, we joined our voices with all the Host of heaven in singing to the Lamb of God, “For Thou only art holy; thou only art the Lord.  Thou only, O Christ, with the Holy Ghost are most high in the glory of God the Father.” He gave up all power and majesty and glory.  Even his throne stationed above angels and archangels, where surrounded by the whole company of heaven he was the object of their continuous.  Jesus not only gave up his wealth but his very life for the world, including the rich man kneeling in the dust before him, including you and me sitting in our comfortable pew.

The man kneeling in the dust before Jesus was called upon to give all that he had, not to the church, but to the poor and then come follow Jesus.  At that point the man who ran after Jesus seeking the Lord that he might live trudged away.  Disheartened, he went away sorrowful.  He just couldn’t make the break, “for he had great possessions.”

Now the ball is in our court.   Invited to discipleship, we are called to be aware of the things that would keep us from following Jesus, “on the way.” We have already acknowledged this morning that Jesus “grace always precedes and follows us.”  On the basis of that grace we prayed, “Help us to forsake all trust in earthly gain and to find in You our heavenly treasure.”  If that was truly our prayer, what will we do when Jesus answers it as he has promised he will?

But remember while we wait.  We are God’s children.  Residents in God’s Kingdom.  Jesus holds us in his arms and blessed us.

When Jesus Speaks Hard Words

In my Friday morning Men’s Bible Class I told of a phone call from our second oldest son Aaron who is a Minister of Music in a church in Maryland.  He was working on the service for Sunday and was thinking about those hard harsh statements Jesus made in last week’s gospel and for this week.

Last week Jesus said, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”  This week Jesus says, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven and come, follow me.”

One of the members of the Friday morning class related that his sister, who is divorced and is Catholic, was angry with the priest for saying such harsh words about divorce. Her brother said the priest was reading words from the Bible.  He was reading Jesus’ words.  He asked his sister whether her husband had been unfaithful to her.  She said, “Yes,” he had been.  Her brother said that in that case divorce is permitted.

But Jesus words regarding marriage and possessions are still hard law.  Many people are divorced without a spouse being unfaithful sexually.  How many of us can really emulate the disciples and leave everything and traipse after Jesus.  So Jesus statements leave us with impossible expectations and guilt or even rejection of what he says and perhaps rejection of Jesus as being unrealistic. But that’s the thing about the law.  It is unrealistic.

Between these two statements is the account Jesus and the children.  Parents bring him children and the clueless disciples try to shoo them away.  But Jesus says, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God…whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Entry into the Kingdom of God is not dependent on us meeting the hard harsh law.  It does not depend on meeting God’s expectations.  Entry into the kingdom is being welcomed by Christ and despite all our failings to meet the law, we are able to trust him.  The kingdom is built on God’s grace and our trust in that grace.  Thus while the children were still children, that is immature, “He took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.”  The parents had just wanted Jesus to touch their children.  Jesus envelopes them in his arms.

Key Words

The following passages are from the lessons and psalms for October 11.  They contain key words that give us much to ponder as we prepare to hear them at worship on Sunday.

Amos 5, Turn to God, hold fast to God and live.  Turn to what is good and hold fast to that and not evil, that you may live.

They hate him who reproves in the gate and they abhor him who speaks truth.

Whoever is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time.

Mark 10: You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.

Psalm 112, Light dawns in the darkness for the upright; he is gracious, merciful and righteous.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, whose grace always precedes and follows us, help us to forsake all trust in earthly gain and to find in You our heavenly treasure;

Psalm 90, So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.  Return, O Lord!  How long?  Lord you have been our dwelling place in all generations…A thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past.

Alive with Butterflies and Bees

I have some fall blooming phlox in both my front and backyards.  The stems grow upwards of 7 feet tall and are filled with light purple-blue blossoms with yellow centers.  As I get up close I see that the plants are alive with small butterflies and bees darting about blossoms as the plants sway in the breeze.  Today, with sunshine and temps approaching 80 it’s the butterflies who dominate the action.  I find the scene mesmerizing and can stand for a length of time just watching.  The flowers, and flying creatures pay me no notice.

I am reminded of Jesus words about anxiety as recorded in Matthew 6.  “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”  The butterflies, bees and I myself spend all summer watching the plants grow.  All those months of waiting are worth it when the crowns of beauty blossom on the ends of the plants.  Standing and watching eases whatever anxiety may be lurking in the mind.  The phlox, bees and butterflies are working in behalf of one another, becoming a living though silent sermon.

Soon enough frost will come and Jesus words will find fulfillment.  “God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven…”  I won’t throw the frozen stems in our electric oven.  That would wreak havoc.  But they will be cut down and into pieces and placed out by the street some Sunday evening where they will await the yard waste truck to come by on Monday morning.  The stems will be composted and we wait through the winter for the cycle to start again.

Jesus reminds us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.  Yes, even the fall swaying phlox alive with butterflies and bees.

Psalm 128: Olive Shoots around the Table

I must admit that I never thought of our four kids as olive shoots as they sat around our table.  In fact when we went looking for a dining table we bought the most sturdy we could find. I can still remember our conversation at the furniture store in a small town outside Albert Lea, Minnesota. At that time we only had two boys. We anticipated they would be more like a quiver full of arrows than olive shoots as described in Psalm 127.  But that’s the way it is when a family has three boys and then adds a girl at the end.

I also thought it imprudent to refer to my wife as a fruitful vine.  But that’s what we have in Psalm 128:3 “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.”

The psalmist does not wish for wealth, power or prestige.  It’s not interested in “getting ahead.”  In the psalm the good life is envisioned with sufficient resources to enjoy the fruit of one’s own labor.  The image is of a descendant of fallen Adam bending over his hoe dealing with an uncooperative soil.  He who lives in the ways of the Lord will regard with simple joy being able to provide for his family.  The passage stands in contrast to Amos 5:11, “You have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.”

A further sign of blessing is a family.  Happiness is sitting with his wife and children around a table enjoying the fruits of his labor and the fruits of his wife’s womb until old age with a vision of grandchildren to enjoy and who will carry on the family name.

The psalmist ends with a blessing, “Peace be upon Israel.”  He hopes that living faithfully in the Lord would bring a repetition of such a scene of well-being throughout the homes and cities of the people.

Prayer: Lord Jesus make your church a fruitful vine, with many sons and daughters who will rejoice with you at your table and celebrate your goodness now and forever.

A Quiver Full of Kids

In Luke 2 is the story of twelve year old Jesus in the temple.  The story begins, “Now his parents went to Jerusalem EVERY YEAR at the Feast of the Passover.”  That was part of building their house, their family in the Lord.  Psalm 127 is a pilgrim psalm attributed to Solomon, “Unless the Lord builds the house those who build it labor in vain.”  Making a pilgrimage was about family building.

All human efforts must be founded on a firm trust in God’s grace and assistance in daily life.  Of course, these efforts of building a house and the vigilance to keep it in order is a matter of great toil, since we are children of fallen Adam.  We find we may be “eating the bread of anxious toil.” (v. 2) What good are we doing ourselves by rising up early and going to bed late?  No matter how much we anxiously toil, our food is a gift of God to his beloved children.   We acknowledge that when we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Rest in bed is another of God’s gift.

The psalm proceeds with some irony that one of the most important blessings of house building takes place in bed.  It is in the context of rest and the bed that God’s gift of children are conceived.  Children are purely a gift of God.  Children are the only fruit that we can produce.  That’s why Elizabeth told Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  No one else in the history of the world will give birth to God.

Our psalm says that children are like arrows in the hand of a warrior.  They are a support when the man sits and deliberates with his neighbors in the gate of the city over which the Lord keeps constant vigilance.

The psalm points us to the conclusion that whatever we do, do it in the name of the Lord, trusting in his care the blessings.  For we are caught between being children of God and children of Adam.  But if we disregard God, then in the end all we have is the toil and grief of the curse placed on Adam and Eve.