The 1%

Luke 15  Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance [ESV].

So which are you? The 1% or the 99%?

This text fools us much of the time. In the Church, we see this text applied often in the direction of those who leave a church or fall into lackadaisical reception of Christ’s gifts, or no reception of them at all. THEY are the wanderers. THEY are the 1%. This implies that WE are not. We must be the 99%. And that’s good. Or so we reckon.

The reason this is deceptive is because it causes us to miss what Jesus is really saying about the 99% AND, in the process, it causes us to miss where we are in this picture. By verse 7, Jesus has let us in on the 99 sheep as those who “need no repentance.” This is not a complimentary statement. It raises the question of who is who in the zoo. The 99% are not the faithful. They just think they are. What we conclude about being the 99% does not jive at all with what Jesus says about them.

Context is determinitive of meaning and in the broader context of the entire Gospel of Luke–as well as the narrower context of just Luke 15–the shepherd who goes after the one sheep begs a proper understanding of who that one sheep is. First we consider the broader context.

All through his Gospel, Luke makes the case for the salvation of the outsider. Implied in this term is the Gentile, who has no connection to Israel and its worship and history. But even more powerfully, especially in the run up to chapter 15, the “outsider” is to be seen as “outcast.” In Jesus’ society, these are the ones who the Pharisees continually refer to as “sinners” (tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, the demon-possessed, inter alia). If one comes to Luke 15 having read the Gospel straight through, the theme of Jesus scolding the “good people” of His day (namely, Pharisees, Scribes, and Jews with no disability that limits them) for not paying attention to the outcasts has been heard many times. In Luke 7, for instance, Jesus heals the slave of a Gentile centurion, repeats Elijah’s miracle of the raising of a widow’s son (the original miracle was done in Gentile country), and in a Pharisee’s house, Jesus is anointed by a woman who is likely a prostitute. The lesson Jesus gives to Simon the Pharisee is that He has been received more by the woman than by him. Jesus’ salvation is for those who need it. It is not for those who do not. The Pharisees continually assert that they do not need salvation as they believe they have had it all their lives. Indeed, they believe they have earned it or see it as some sort of birthright.

In Luke 15:1, the stage is set for three “parables” to hammer this point home. A crowd of two different constituencies comes together in verse 1: The tax collectors and “sinners” and the Scribes and Pharisees. Many commentators see this chapter as the theological center of the Gospel and by all estimations they are right. The action begins with the complaint of the Pharisees that Jesus “receives sinners and eats with them.” Thus the table is set for Jesus to teach.

In the first analogy, Jesus teaches of a shepherd who leaves behind 99 sheep in order to reclaim the 1 lost sheep. The angels in heaven rejoice over this one’s return.

In the second analogy, a woman sweeps a room looking for 1 lost coin out of ten. After finding it she alerts the neighborhood so they can join her in her rejoicing.

In the third, a son puts a death wish on his father, takes the inheritance, wastes it away, and returns in humiliation seeking his father’s mercy…and gets it. By contrast, the “faithful son” who never left the Father is seething in rage over his brother’s restoration.

The key is in the first analogy when Jesus refers to the 99 as not being included in the angels’ rejoicing because they “need[ed] no repentance.” So it is with the other brother, he too did not get a party from the father because he thought he was doing the father a favor.

The Pharisees and Scribes are angry with Jesus because He receives sinners and eats with them. The 99 sheep do not get the celestial celebration that the one lost sheep gets. The other brother cannot understand how the Father can kill the fattened calf for that ingrate brother of his who ran off and came back with his tail between his legs.

So which are you? The 1% or the 99%?

We do wrong to think that the 99% is the Church, the “choir.” These parables show us the difference not between faith and unbelief, but rather between true faith and false faith. True faith is demonstrated in repentance (turning around, sorrow over sin) and facing the Father again. False faith is the belief that we are the good people who would never wander off from God in the first place. True faith is demonstrated in the return of the one sheep. False faith is demonstrated in the self-righteous judgmentalism of the 99%.

Our “righteous” concern over all who have wandered away presumes our “righteousness” over against their lack of it. This is the error. The Pharisees were not righteous. They were self-righteous. Jesus rather cleverly uses the term “righteous” for the Pharisees all the time. If they want to live by the term, Jesus must figure, they can hang by it too. The term only means “self-righteous” when Jesus uses it of the Pharisees.

On Sundays, after the entrance hymn, we confess our sins. If we were the 99%, this would seem like a strange thing to do. After all, the other brother makes no apologies for his anger over the party for his ingrate brother. He has not sinned. But what we are saying at the outset of the Divine Service on Sunday is that we are not part of the 99%. We are the 1%, the ones who have wandered away, the ones who need the shepherd’s crook of the Word to draw us back. We have made a mess of our lives and we return to the Father, heads hung low, because perhaps He will have mercy on us.

Upon our confession, we are forgiven and the feast begins! Of course, if the Gospel is for all those other sinners who really need to hear it, then we are saying we need no party thrown for us. We always had it right.

But that’s not how it works in Luke 15, is it?

Be a sinner and sin boldly, but trust even more boldly in the grace of God in Christ Jesus.–Luther.

Waste no time denying your sins.–Luther

Better to be the 1% than the 99%. The party is for you.

Dear World (A Love Letter To A Lost World)

Dear World,

Once again it is Christmas and I set pen to paper to write my Christmas message to you. I hope you will read it, because it is the most important letter you will ever get.

I write this because I love you. I made you, forming humanity from the dust of the ground like a sculptor dedicated to his craft. I gave you paradise to live in and authority over it.  I never wanted anything but the best for you. Unfortunately, that paradise came to a sad end in your disobedience. Still, though, I want you to have the treasures of an eternal paradise and a new heavens and new earth.

Ever since that Fall, though, you have had an adversarial relationship with me. I have made many promises over the centuries and kept them all in the gift of my one and only Son. Either these promises are not good enough for you or you have simply overlooked them and ignored them. Even the gift of my one and only Son, you have sold away in your modern obsession with having it your own way.

You seem to want big, bold, glitzy, and glamorous. What you don’t see is how my Son’s birth among the animals and their sounds and smells, away from the noise of the busy inn, speaks the very peace He came to bring. The wood of his manger speaks an early prediction of the two pieces of wood He would bear–and would be nailed to–FOR YOU. He slipped under their radar screens then. He slips under your radar screen even now. You’re too dazzled by the lights. You’re too deafened by the noise. If only you could slow down, breathe deep, the power of my story.

Some of you who have noticed what I have done still call it “offensive.” How can my love for you be offensive? How can a love which lays down its life for you be so offensive? This is a story of humility and love for a world which can be so loveless. You even take my Son’s bride and blame your problems on her. She surely has not been perfect, but since your disobedience you have acted lovelessly–recklessly–not just toward my Son and His bride, but toward yourselves and everyone else.

I sent my Son to set this right. Still, you complain about “Christmas” and you prove what my apostle wrote about my Son’s cross being a scandal and an offense. Did I do this to you? Or have you done it to yourselves? Or worse yet, have you been led away by the one whose lies are never-ending and whose hatred for you often gets mistaken for a twisted sort of love, self-love?

Still, I have a gift for you should you open your eyes and see it. That gift is the forgiveness of sins which allows you to start again new today and gives you a ticket to another paradise of my making. You would not have this were it not for the story you find so offensive. But you can still have it. All I ask is that you turn from your ways, see the God who loves you, and live! With that life, you can have all the other goodies I have: joy, peace, love, hope, gentleness, self-control, et al.

After all, are any of the other philosophies, religions, “gurus,” motivational speakers, drugs, medications, screens, technologies, investments, political candidates, pleasures, helping you to heal? Are they? Do you really think you have come up with anything better than what I offer you? It doesn’t look like it to me. How sadly you have been deceived by my old enemy.

I love you. This is why I tell you the truth. [Love] rejoices with the truth (1 Cor. 13:6). When you’re ready to hear the truth, I have it for you. That’s the real story of Christmas, There’s truth in the manger, truth on the cross, truth in the tomb, truth risen and ascended on high. No other earthly leader can do this for you. Living under my Son, however, is joy itself.

Dear World, my precious creation, I will always love you. I just pray that you are not so busy being offended by my love that you miss it entirely. When you’re ready to admit you cannot save yourselves, repent and I will do it for you. I’ve already given my greatest gift, my greatest sacrifice, to make it happen.

Why? Because I love you.

Love,

Your Heavenly Father

Do You REALLY Know Who You Are?

More and more, I hear from parents of high schoolers that their kids are having to deal with friends who are professing themselves to be gay. It’s been tempting to self-reference it all and simply marvel at how much things have changed in 18 1/2 brief years in the ministry. This was almost unheard of in 1997, the year of my ordination. Now, it seems, it’s commonplace for high schoolers to have friends who are, by their own self-profession, gay.

When I stop marveling at how things have changed, though, I keep coming back to one question.

How can anyone at this age really know who they are?

I’m not saying high schoolers are unintelligent. I’m saying that I too was a high schooler, caught in a whirlwind both of hormones and uncertainty about any number of paths I could have chosen to go down. I would say I was a Christian, but could have been more committed at that age. (Indeed, becoming a pastor was not necessarily something I went into willingly. It would be better described as “kicking and screaming”). When I was 17, I can say with certainty that I had little to no idea who I was. Truthfully, having just turned 45, I must admit that while the Lord has been revealing this to me all along, I’m still not ready to say I fully know that even now.

In my opinion, it would be a shame to let something other than Christ and His salvation define a person at such a young age. The risk is extremely high for this to lead to a future of high regret. Never mind the medical risks of a life of sexual promiscuity, straight or gay. Because sexuality is a spiritual gift which brings joy to one man and one woman who are committed “until death parts [them],” just about any other form of sexuality is merely playing with dangerous power tools.

What I would say to most high schoolers today is, “you may think you know a lot about sexuality, but you know nothing about what I have with my wife.” Sexuality within the safe boundaries of a life-long heterosexual commitment between God’s glorious gifts of male and female and marriage, is safe, society-preserving, and guilt and regret free. It’s about more than the all-important orgasm. It’s about God’s gift used His way and the joy and blessings that come with that. Indeed, while same sex people have a myriad of words and testimonies they want to give us, I struggle to put what I have into words because it is so great it defies words.

Sadly, this points to the failure of a lot of “Christian” marriages and the identity crisis that actually fuels this earnest, yet misguided, desire for some sort of identity. Disengaged moms and dads, only available at the sports event or the sleepover, but locked into their own lives and the proliferation of screens around them, are doing much to make this identity crisis worse. I think many Christian counselors surely know that the youth with same sex temptations has other issues, deeper issues, which point back at the home. Time for parents, especially fathers, to step to the plate and be what Paul writes about in Eph. 6. But the point is simple, the popularity of gay self-identification is more about a yearning for identity than anything else.

The same sex lifestyle certainly is not the only option available to teenagers, but it is the hip and trendy one. I yearn for the day this sort of hip and trendy goes the same way of all hip and trendy, such as polyester pantsuits and bell bottoms. Unfortunately, this sort of hip and trendy promises to be much more harmful than those fads. One wonders what these teenagers will have to say about their identities when they are 30, or 45, or 60.

The irony is that, in retrospect, when I was 17 I thought I knew it all.

It’s only as I got older that I realized that I did not and that on many things I was just plain wrong. Again, not because I was stupid, but because I hadn’t lived enough to know better. And I certainly have my own regrets about certain things I did at that age, thinking I was all knowing and invincible. Thankfully, God spared me the harm that can come–emotionally, spiritually, and physically–from sexual promiscuity.

To the tempted teenager, I would say lovingly: “I’ll be honest with you. Please be honest with me.” At 45, the grace of God is still taking this sinful person [me] and making something of him and I have no idea what this is now or what it will be. I only look for the new heavens and the new earth. By God’s grace, I am a husband, a father, a pastor, and so many more things I don’t know but only that He has them in store for me. Now I lovingly ask you to be honest and reconsider whether or not you really are ready to say you know who you are by your sexuality alone. I’ll admit I don’t always know who I am, but I do always know whose I am. I belong to Christ and the joy I have in the forgiveness of sins, in my marriage vows, in my family, and in this love of God. If you’re struggling, let me just invite you to realize that you can have this regret-free, truly free, life as well.

Indeed, by God’s grace, I have come to see that identity is something defined by much more than sexuality. To define oneself simply by their self-chosen sexuality is an extremely limiting proposition.

To all teenagers: It would be a shame for you to be defined at such an early age by anything other than Christ and the grace of God. If you want to limit yourselves and do yourselves inestimable harm, just go ahead and convince us that you know who you are by your sexuality. Identity by any form of unmarried sexuality is a path that is closed-minded and full of trouble for the future.

Once again, you have the rest of your life to live. It would be a shame for you to shackle yourself now.

With love in my heart for all who struggle in this battle,

Pastor T.

“Love always rejoices in the truth.” (1 Cor. 13:6)

From The Past Through The Present Toward The Future

Eph. 3 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained. 17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform 1 Co 15:43–53

“>four lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

Christ’s church always ministers to the present situation. It builds on the foundation and lessons of the past. It grows on the hope of an eternal future.

Many congregations have a “past-present”-orientation. The ghosts or demons or failures of the past define their present situation. Today’s business often is the rehashing of yesterday’s business, the unsettled dust of mistakes, arguments, conflicts, etc. The future is an elusive dream, always hindered and hampered by this or that factor in the past. Pastors sometimes joke about churches which need exorcisms…or at least some effort to put the ghosts to bed once and for all.

Life itself can be like this. You and I can be haunted by our pasts and unable to move forward as a result. Regret, guilt, and shame can completely stop us in our tracks. Nothing halts present progress and clouds our future hope quite so well as the past. It can be a great teacher. It can also be a great pain inducer.

I told our PPC this past January that we needed to move from a “past-present”-orientation to a “future-present”-orientation. I explained that this meant moving from letting the past define our work today to letting the future define it. I explained to the Voters Assembly Meeting in June a very specific game plan for reaching this future. It involves setting goals, developing a strategic plan, developing a policy manual for our church staff, officers, and boards, and dreaming about new and exciting ministry possibilities for us to do.

Moving from the past to the future puts a lot of emphasis on the present. Paul wants us to strain ahead toward the prize in our text, but his advice is centered on the present. TODAY we push forward. TODAY we redouble our efforts to attain to the prize. TODAY we fix our eyes on the finish line and do what we must in order to reach it strong.

If the regrets and guilt of the past hinder us in this regard, it is important to remember that the fear of the future hinders us equally much. Christians are called to see Christ’s finish line, the finish line of eternal life as the end toward which we strive. Paul’s words say nothing about fear because it is not allowed. These words are fearless. As Christians forgiven by Christ, having our sins removed from us, we do not need to live in the regrets and guilt of past actions. As Christians set free from our pasts, we are able to live in the present and pursue the future fearlessly. Sadly, if this fear hinders, it hinders because people prefer the “normal,” the “comfortable,” even when every indicator suggests that the normal isn’t working anymore. Fear is the Bible’s term for the opposite of faith. Faith seeks the future. Fear does not.

Toward what end is the Church striving these days? Is it the end of a life that’s eternal and joyful? Or is it the end of destruction which Paul warns about in v. 19? For the forgiven Christian, the best is ALWAYS yet to come. So striving ahead, we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the end of our faith.

So often we forget to ask, “what is the Lord’s will for His Church?” It is, after all, His Church. The devil will try to use the regrets and guilt of the past to stop us. He will try to use fear of the future to stop us. Christ wants us to live freed from the past and hopefully toward the future. His will is for a successful Church in the present…TODAY. He called you and baptized you for this moment! He fills you with a hope that not even the devil and the gates of hell can prevail against.

NOW is the time.

Looking ahead to the finish line with all of you,

Pastor T.