Sacrifice, Homeschooling, And Parenting

Genesis 22:2  “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

It’s been a couple of months now since our oldest son, Matthew, learned he was accepted at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. As our oldest child, this is one of life’s “firsts” for Jennifer and I; the first child to leave the nest. As many parents can relate, this is a “first” that engenders a lot of thought in the mind of a parent. Is he ready? Did we do a good job? Are we ready? Will he be successful?

I believe these thoughts have been complicated a bit for us by Matthew’s chosen field of study: strategic intelligence and national security. This area puts Matthew directly in the line of possibly becoming a part of what President Trump has called the “dark state.” Matthew stands a high likelihood of becoming part of “the apparatus;” the same apparatus we all love to criticize–government. He also stands to become a part of the most untrusted part of said apparatus.  It feels like we’re sacrificing him. It feels like we’re throwing him to the wolves.

It has raised another very penetrating question in my mind. Since we are homeschoolers and have homeschooled Matthew since he could barely talk: Is this what we were preparing him for? Did we know that one day we would be sacrificing him to the world? Is this what we were thinking when we chose to go down the homeschool path?

The answer is, undoubtedly, yes. It’s only now, though, that the reasons for our decision to homeschool have become frightfully real. Our decision to homeschool was not a statement against public education, nor was it a critique of Lutheran education. Jennifer and I both got good educations in public education and Jennifer herself went to Lutheran school until High School. While we have had our concerns about both over the years, we had no interest in making our decision some sort of political or churchly statement. (We still do not).

Our decision to homeschool was not motivated by an overly sheltering mindset that was intended to completely insulate our children from the “big, bad world out there.” While homeschooling does offer some protections for our children, we always knew these would not last forever and we always knew that they would face exposure to the world just by living in it. Yes. We were building a “safe space” of sorts, but it was never entirely safe. The idea was that they would leave that safe space and go out into the very unsafe space of this fallen world as Christians ready to engage. I doubt our kids will ever join the army of millennials who cry out for safe spaces. (The reason they do is that they either never had one, or were too pampered to imagine the unsafe space the real world actually is).

Why did we homeschool? Because we knew how important it is to train up children in the way they ought to go and then unleash them on a world that needs smart, competent, compassionate, Christians. We chose to use a classical curriculum so they would learn how to think critically at a young age. We raised the bar on them because it was going to be high bar they would have to meet when they went out into the world. My wife, in particular, scrimped and saved and sacrificed to make this happen. She especially gets credit for keeping us focused and for loving her children enough to get them ready. I have always used the word “fierce” to describe her dedication to her children.

As for me, I realize my sacrifice is not the same as Abraham’s. Nevertheless, the same promise Abraham held on to so tenaciously in Genesis 22 is mine as well. I do not know what the future will bring for Matthew. It does feel like a real sacrifice. Now, I can only listen to him, pray for him, and trust God to work out all things for Matthew’s good and the good of others who he works for and with.

I think the bottom line here is that we did not homeschool just for our children’s sake, but with the very strong appreciation that our children will one day make a contribution to the world in which they live. We are not neo-monastics with an itch to separate from the world. We raised them as we did with the high hopes that the world would benefit from their lives and service. We argued and deliberated and cried and prayed for them to engage the world for its good.

One might say that all parenting and teaching is at least supposed to be focused on the good of the world, but the world’s current chaos is the ultimate indicator of how well we are actually doing in this regard. Parenting is not spoiling our children or pampering them. In this day of “helicopter parenting,” spoiled children are emerging left and right, scaring even the most liberal of their professors. In our age, children have become possessions; not privileges to be nurtured and raised in a way that benefits all. Our nation’s current narcissism is an epidemic fueled by decades of parents’ teaching children they could have whatever they want. We now have almost two full generations of such myopia.

Faithful parenting is sacrifice. It’s going to the mat for our children, not so that they would have everything they want, but that they would have everything they need. To thrive in this world, especially as a Christian, means our children need a lot. They especially need their parents to love them enough to teach them the disciplines necessary to be the most competent people in the room. That was our aim.

Our heavenly Father established the paradigm. He sent His Son into the world to be the perfect sacrifice. Again, He had the world in mind. For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. As Christian parents, there is comfort that comes from knowing that our sacrifices pale in comparison to our heavenly Father’s. Our children are not called to save the world. They are called to engage it. Christ works through His children. When faith is restricted to the privacy of the bedroom, the world indeed suffers.

Many years ago, I attended a prayer breakfast with Tony Campolo. At the time, he was President Clinton’s new “spiritual advisor.” (The Lewinsky scandal was in full bloom). Mr. Campolo is not a theologian, although he is a Christian. He is actually a sociologist by trade. I could argue that sociology is a major contributor to all that is wrong with the world…and I’d be right. Still, that day, Mr. Campolo said something that was very revealing and I have never forgotten it. He said that the death of the family in America was a 20th century phenomenon, betrayed by societal shifts of a very high degree of magnitude. The first half of the century saw Americans still living mainly on the farm. Farmers had large families, which gave them cheap labor, and got rich! (With the exception of the Great Depression, the story of the “poor American farmer” has largely been a myth). The second half of the century saw Americans move to the cities… and then the suburbs. Family size got smaller in order to preserve wealth.

With these changes, parenting goals also changed. Ask an early 20th century American farmer what he wanted most for his children and he would have answered, “to be successful.” Ask a later 20th century parent what he/she wanted most for their children and the answer would be: “to be happy.” This latter option is still our answer…and the nation and the world are dying because of it.

Parents today need to explore in their own minds the correlation between success and happiness and recognize that it takes tremendous sacrifice to help a child get what he or she needs to be successful. Should all parents homeschool? I would not necessarily advise that. I would only say that they should insist on the highest standards for their children. They should teach boundaries and love their children enough to enforce them. They should see their roles sacrificially, knowing that there is a whole lot more to life than the 18 or so years we have to raise them to be adults. If we parents cannot see past graduation, our children will never see past it either.

As for Matthew, it is premature to say he will be successful. It is also premature to say we gave everything to help him be so. We continue to pray, with tears even, for his future and the futures of all our children.

And we continue to pray for our world, the world into which we always knew they would go. The world will always need smart, compassionate, competent Christians…because Christ is the one resource we can never have enough of.

 

 

Pro-Life: What Does This Mean?

I think I was somewhat unwittingly drafted into the pro-life movement. Not unwillingly. Just unwittingly.

I grew up in a Lutheran Christian household. My parents both agreed they were pro-life. I remember my dad saying a few disparaging things about Roe v. Wade when I was a kid. I would argue they were not passionately pro-life, but they were clear, clear enough for me to notice.

I didn’t rebel against the position. I went off to college at Concordia University Wisconsin nominally “pro-life.” My life experience now teaches me that what that means is that I was really only “anti-abortion.” That was what it meant for me to be “pro-life.” I am not denying that to be pro-life means to be anti-abortion. As the years went by, I came to appreciate that the term, however, means a whole lot more.

Unwittingly, God had conscripted me into a position on life that is much larger than I realized when, during spring break of my Freshman year, I applied to become an employee at Bethesda Lutheran Home in Watertown. I applied as a Residential Aide, one who attended most closely to the daily lives of the residents. Bethesda is widely recognized as a ministry to severely and profoundly cognitively disabled people. I had volunteered there in my Jr. High and High School years. God was probably already whittling away at my sense of what it meant to be pro-life even then. But now I would be teaching people to do basic life skills in order for them to move up to group home living: tying shoes, shaving, dressing, basic health and cleanliness disciplines, schedule maintenance. I think I always loved it. A bad day at Bethesda could be really awful. But a good day was great…and the good days far outnumbered the bad days. I was learning that I was enjoying the chance to work with people. I was learning from them as much as they were probably learning from me. With pride, I like to say that “I am a graduate of Bethesda Lutheran Home.”

These dear people still hold a special place in my heart. Imagine, if you will, working with such marvelous people and then learning, after I became a pastor, that doctors were encouraging mothers to have abortions if there was even a risk that their child might be born with Down Syndrome. The first time I heard this, I must confess I was enraged. I had come to see the people with Down that I had served as tremendous gifts of God. They were so precious to me. It was as if someone had threatened to take away my most precious asset, my wife, my children, my reputation. This level of professional callousness was (and still is) offensive to me.

All life is precious. I cannot for the life of me find it in my heart to view any handicap, any disability, any limiting factor as diminishing one iota from the value of human life. We are not the sum of our strengths or weaknesses. We are people, which means we will always be of immense value to one another. When one person dies, we are always the poorer for it. Darwin, in his infinite wisdom, advised that the handicapped be put to death for the sake of evolution. Do you get it? We live in a culture of death. It is all around us. And it is all justified in the name of progress or evolution

This death-culture is not evolution. It is devolution. It is devilish. But this thinking even invades the nominally pro-life Christian who hasn’t learned yet that to be pro-life is a much larger thing than being anti-abortion.

Case in point: Consider these sorts of statements.

“I’m stopping at two kids. Three will be the death of me.”

“Children are so expensive.”

“We need to build a wall to keep people out.”

“Why should we always be the ones to protect the helpless?” [Witness nearly half a million dead in Aleppo largely thanks to American inaction].

“I love my husband, but if he ever cheats on me he’s gone!”

“I’d rather commit suicide than go through this terminal illness.”

Some of these thoughts are so common that I’ve heard Christians express them, many times over.

God stretched my mind and broadened my horizons by conscripting me so unwittingly into life ministries. He stretched it even further by giving me five biological children, an adopted sixth child, and currently three sisters for whom we are providing foster care. People ask how we do it. Even that question strikes me as lacking a richly pro-life attitude. As long as we have life and breath, we are here for each other.

How far are you willing to be stretched? Are you ready to be pro-life? The world and its death-culture needs something better, from me, from you, from all who call themselves Christians.

I have never attended the pro-life march in D.C., but have always wanted to. When it happens soon, I will be reassessing my commitment to God’s gift of life. I pray you will too.

Lord, grant us all a deepened appreciation of the precious value of life!

 

 

Advent 1 Midweek Homily–Of The Father’s Love, St. 1

Of the Father’s love begotten Ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He, Of the things that are, that have been, And that future years shall see Evermore and evermore.  LSB 384, St. 1

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Recent brain research has revealed that the human brain is not able to process properly all the little data factoids we are bombarded with in the media. Fans of televised sports events know how the networks love to hit us with arcane statistics which, in the bigger picture, probably don’t have a shred of real relevance. For instance, the Cowboys are 13 of their last 14 on 3rd down conversions when it’s raining in Iran and the average Lake Michigan water temperature is warmer than normal? Almost 95% of such statistics don’t remain very long in the memory. They have a fleeting effect on us. Scientists have observed that they simply register in our limbic systems as something threatening. Our brains process data factoids as threatening. Remember that the next time you turn on the sports or news channels.

Even if we don’t process it in healthy ways, I think we are often fascinated by such data. We still crave it. Many know that watching the 24/7 news media is bad for them, but to get them to turn off the TV is like getting an addict to just up and quit. We’re drawn to this stuff. We love data. We love to categorize it. We love to process it. We love to try to figure it out. Quoting data statistics makes us feel like we know something, and our sense of power and control is often dictated by how much we know…or at least how much we think we know.

This Advent, beginning tonight, we’re going to turn off our limbic systems and their emergency, fight or flight, reactive natures. We’re going to relax and rest in the love of God the Father. We’re going to let the light of Christ shine in the darkness of this world and all its anxiety-producing spectacle. We’re going to meditate on things higher than the media’s incessant chatter. We’re going to contemplate the unexplainable. Rather than explain, we’re going to trust. There is a better message, a higher one, a deeper one. It’s the message of Christ.

No factoid or data or trivia can measure who Jesus is. He is true God and true man. He is God in human skin, flesh and bone. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. He is the Source and the Ending. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is eternal, timeless and limitless, while mysteriously still operating in a human body.

In the manger, Jesus is God in diapers. In the Temple at age 12, He is the expert befuddling the so-called experts. In the Jordan River, at John’s baptism of Him, He is numbering Himself as a sinner even though He knew no sin. He touches lepers and does not contract the disease. He preaches with an authority unlike the experts had ever heard. He shows compassion, but can be dismissive of pretenders. On the cross, He is God being shamed by humans. He is loved of God and forsaken by Him for our sake.

The mind cannot process it. In fact, it can’t even begin to process it. God’s love is a mystery. The worlds began to be as an expression of his love. His gift of a Son to endure cross and shame is a gift of love, and if we struggle to define and understand anything, it’s love. God is love. Christ is love, and as such, impossible to reduce to a meme, a factoid, a Twitter post, a statistic. Christ transcends all that.

And that is why His is the better message. The mind needs mystery. We need to know there is something bigger than us, beyond our understanding, past the limited scope of our thoughts. The Father loved the world and gave His one and only Son. Why He did that is beyond our understanding. The Son obeyed the Father perfectly and gave up His life to save us who could not save ourselves. Why He did that is beyond our understanding. The Holy Spirit teaches Christ and makes sinful humans holy, saints. Why He does that is beyond our understanding. The Son will return to give us a new heavens and a new earth where we will share thrones with Him. Why He will do that is beyond our understanding.

This Advent, we rejoice in a God whose ways are not ours, they are bigger and better. His love is bigger than your sins. His Word is bigger than your fears. His grace is bigger than your shame. His life is bigger than your death.

So rest in His peace. So celebrate in His joy. So luxuriate in His love. This Advent, this child, this Savior, this Lord is FOR YOU. And that’s all you need to ever know. AMEN.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Installation Sermon–Rev. Timothy Oswald–11/13/2016

Grace and peace are yours through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. AMEN.

The text is Paul’s words in the Epistle, chief of sinners saved by grace.

Dear Members of Hope, Pastor Oswald, and family and friends gathered today,

I was recently asked by one of the members of St. John’s in North Prairie where I serve how preaching a sermon is different from giving a political stump speech. The election was in full swing. The same person was just telling me she had watched speeches by both candidates as well as our Senatorial candidates. She observed there was definitely a marked difference between political speeches and the weekly sermons she is subjected to as a member of St. John’s! (Poor thing)! She knew what that difference was, but she asked me anyway because I think she understands that the sheep judge the shepherd. She was testing me to see if I had an inner Donald Trump or an inner Hillary Clinton. Hopefully she found neither.

I recall thinking after our discussion that my answer wasn’t very Biblical, even though our text might suggest it was. I told this dear woman that I thanked God that I was not a politician. I told her, and I think is pretty much exactly how I said it, that “I [didn’t] have it in me to give speeches about myself.” I don’t think it should be easy for anyone to look another person dead in the eye and say “vote for me.” One of the best things about being a pastor is that, especially when it comes to giving sermons, hopefully you learn the freedom of not preaching yourself.

Now I’m not sure how righteous my answer was. It could be. It might not be. All I may have been saying is “Thank God I’m not Donald Trump!” That would be far less righteous than many might think. It would be suggesting a righteousness at the expense of someone else. It would be hypocritical. It would be the same as saying “I may gossip, but at least I’m not a murderer.”

The Apostle Paul, writing to the young pastor Timothy, has none of that. The words of our text are autobiography. Paul is writing about himself. He doesn’t mince any words as he does so. He refuses to project his own self-righteousness onto the screen of another person’s sin. He can’t say, “at least I’m not a murderer,” because he was! He tells Timothy, rather bluntly, that he was a violent man acting in ignorance. Most notably, he writes about his former life before his conversion and Baptism in the past tense. He was those things. The grace of God means those sins are removed from him as far as the east is from the west.

But he goes on and switches to the present tense. He delivers a trustworthy saying: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I AM (not was) the chief.” Once again, Paul doesn’t project or reflect his own righteousness off others lack of it. He just speaks for himself. He is the chief of sinners. And then, for emphasis, he repeats the saying in the next verse. Twice in consecutive verses Paul refers to himself as chief of sinners.

We call this “repentance” and it is a synonym for the word “faith” itself. Where genuine faith is, repentance will always be the first word. It was Thesis 1 of the 95 Theses which kicked off the Reformation. It was the first word of the messages of the Old Testament prophets. It was the first word of John the Baptist’s sermons in the wilderness. It was the first word Jesus preached. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is among you.”

Repentance is the first word of our liturgy. When we are gathered together in God’s Name on Sunday mornings, we do not tell him what wonderful people we are. We rather confess our sins, like Isaiah did in the Temple, like Peter did on the boat in Luke 5, like Paul does in our text. We’re not in church because we are good people and those not with us are the bad ones. We attend Divine Service precisely because we are sinners who need what is offered there: grace in the forgiveness of sins. Without that grace, Paul would have nothing to say or write at all. And neither would any future pastors like Timothy or any of us up here this afternoon.

And as a first word, repentance has quite a legacy. Our Synod President, Matthew Harrison, has pointed out on several occasions that repentance was the first word of the most consequential moments in history. Real change, even at the societal level, doesn’t happen by forcing your sinner neighbor to change. If America feels like a hamster on a wheel right now, it’s probably because too many of us are doing precisely that. Real change happens when we all look inward, when we all recognize ourselves for the chiefs of sinners we are, when we take our sins to Christ and look for His perfect cleansing.

Pastor Oswald, on this day of your installation, we know there are many good things to say about you. Back in August, our mutual friend, Naval Chaplain Ryan Rupe, positively gushed about you with me on the phone. And I think we both know that Ryan doesn’t gush about people. He’s one of the most powerfully honest and forthright people I have ever known. And he’s one of those people who you love for all that honesty. He spoke about you as a great peer, a great chaplain. He spoke about your compassion and your listening ears. He told me he thought Hope, Twin Lakes was getting someone strong on pastoral care. He told me he’d miss you as a peer after your retirement. From someone like Ryan, I consider that high praise.

As American citizens, we should be thankful for your service in our military. I know I am. I would hope all of us in this room are. Thank you for your honorable service. God bless America and God protect our soldiers and give honor to our leaders.

Despite all that, Paul’s words still remind us that what was true for him is also true for us. There are no Messiahs except Jesus Christ alone. Pastors may have many virtues, but they also have sinful natures. We pastors will sin, sometimes even grievously. We don’t preach ourselves. We preach Christ crucified, at whose cross we leave our sins. Dying to sin every day and rising to new life, we gain the strength to go back in there and care for God’s people even after foibles and failures.

Christians too need to hear these words for what they say. It is common in congregations to project everything that is right or wrong with the congregation on the pastor. Yes. He may have many virtues. Yes. He is a sinner and makes mistakes. But when he fails, for you to make him into a chief of sinners is to fail Paul’s test in this text before us. You too are chiefs of sinners. You too must look in the mirror of God’s law and see the ugly reflection. The sheep may judge the shepherd, but the Lord judges us all and the standard for both is the Word of God. That Word judges you the same chief of sinners it judges me and all the men in white robes up here today. The great privilege we have as pastors is the privilege of speaking that grace to you when the Law hits with all of its force. Paul was given a grace that covered all of his sins through Ananias of Damascus who baptized him. It wasn’t Ananias’ baptism. It was Christ’s. It’s not our Word; it’s Christ’s. It’s not our grace; it’s Christ’s.

Christ. He came into the world to save sinners of whom we are the chiefs. He demonstrates His unlimited patience in the lives of repentant sinners. Luther famously said that “Christ dwells in sinners.” He may very well have been thinking of our text when he wrote that.

Today is not about Pastor Oswald. It is not about Hope Lutheran Church in Twin Lakes, WI. It is not about the mistaken notion of God providing a new superhero to lead us out and into a great future. It’s not about God providing a convenient scapegoat if we fail. It’s not about any of these things.

Today is about Christ. Today is about His sacrifice for your sins. Today is about His victory over sin, death, and the power of the devil. Today is about His salvation of sinners like Paul, like me, like Pastor Oswald, like you. Today is about how He, as Lord of the Church, has provided another undershepherd for you. Today is about His grace extended through the mouths and words and hands of His human instruments, the pastor. Today is about His grace which covers us all.

I guess I do thank God I’m not a politician. To preach oneself is to set oneself up for an inglorious fall. We do well to stand before God as the sinners we are, pastors and people. It’s not about us and what great people we tell ourselves and others we are. It’s about Christ, who saves sinners of whom I (and you) are the chiefs. Our lives are now hidden away in Him so that He is glorified in all our speaking and all our doing.

Now to the King, eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God be honor and glory forever and ever. AMEN.

The peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. AMEN.

 

Private Confession And Absolution: The Ultimate Safe Space

Once again, the media is placing a lot of attention on millennials as they react, rather than respond, to the election news. There are mixed reviews on today’s millennials. I tend to lean toward a negative estimation of them. I often think of the 18 year olds who stormed Normandy Beach on D-Day. Today’s average millennial knows nothing of that sort of courage. Of course, the problem with generational dynamics is the broad brush it employs, which smacks of the same sort of stereotyping that lies behind a lot of today’s “noise.” There are always exceptions, thankfully.

The Millennial call for “safe spaces” has also led to dubious behavior, especially among college students. College has always been about stretching minds, having your values challenged along the way. Even the most liberal professors have admitted that their students frighten them when they question–often with threats–what they are learning for its “safe”-ness. Ohio State University recently sent a message by telling students who had taken over one of the buildings demanding safe spaces that they had, indeed, created an unsafe space for the University’s employees working in that particular building. After threatening them with arrest and expulsion for their lack of forethought, the students left without further incident.

I would argue, though, that I agree with the idea of a “safe space.” I just don’t think there should be one at universities. Videos of puppies frolicking and coloring books with crayons on tables may appear to create a safe space. They also seem to invite plenty of valid criticism about the capacity millennials will ever show to engage the world as adults. Not everything in life is pleasant. Not everything is safe. Indeed, danger does have a propensity for bringing out some wonderful things in people, if we can silence our limbic systems enough to think clearly. The problem isn’t an unsafe world. It’s helicopter-parented youths who now face the future with fear rather than confidence in their own abilities.

The world can be a frightening place and, as long as it remains fallen, it will always be so. We should not seek to make it any more dangerous. And yes, there is a safe space. The ultimate safe space. It’s called Private Confession and Absolution.

In Private Confession and Absolution, a pastor sworn in his ordination vows never to divulge the sins confessed to him hears your confession of sins…lovingly. He speaks the Word of God to them and then announces that God forgives even THAT sin; the one you cannot seem to get over yourself.

In Private Confession, you have a place to go where you can speak of your sins without shaming or fear of being judged. Indeed, the judgment is “not guilty” after the Absolution is announced. To be forgiven is to be set free, strengthened to face the world and all its dangers.

I have a Lutheran pastor friend whom I greatly admire for managing to get such a practice started in the congregation to which he is called. Lutherans have long believed private confession to be “too catholic” because of a basic misunderstanding. Our Lutheran Confessions encourage private confession. We didn’t require it like the Roman Church did. When you free someone from the command to do something, they often forsake it entirely. I use Private Confession and Absolution as an essential element of counseling. I would LOVE to offer it daily to Christians who struggle with their consciences.

There is a safe space. The kneeler in my study is a place you can go with your sins. I will not punish you. I promise you I will listen. The forgiveness is God’s and I promise you that I will not hesitate to comfort you with it. When you leave, your past is in the past and I will be happy to see you Sunday or whenever I see you next. It’s God’s ultimate “safe space.”

#thebettermessage

Pastor T.peaceofchrist

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