10. March 2013
Laetare (Lent 4)
We are in the midst of difficult times as a congregation. We overspent our offering receipts from last year by eight thousand dollars, drawing these funds from our reserve. The current economic climate has not improved and 2013 offerings are already falling significantly behind last year. The “writing is on the wall” and significant revisions are needed to this year’s budget to prevent the depletion of our entire reserve. Difficult choices were made and we’ll need to continue to be attentive as the year goes on.
Some think we should, as a congregation, “go gracefully into the sunset,” a euphemism for closing. Others think that we should continue to slash the budget. Others think we can do fundraisers to make up the deficit. Some say that we should cut the pastor and return to a vacancy situation. Some would have us investigate how to share pastor(s) or merge with another parish. Fiscally and physically speaking, one can understand these suggestions. Responsible and frugal actions should be taken as responsible stewards of God’s material gifts, gathering up the what remains of His miraculous barley loaves.
Something critical is missing in these discussions. There is a great spiritual danger lurking underneath the surface. Answer this question: Who built this church? If you answer, “we did,” you’re both right and wrong. You’re right in that your hands, monies, and time invested in the life of this congregation. But you’re also wrong. The holy Christian church is not made with money, or hands, or even time but by God the Holy Spirit. The Holy Church is built upon Jesus: the Word of Jesus, the washing in the blood of Jesus, the forgiving touch of Jesus, and the bread and wine sacramentally united to the body and blood of Jesus.
The Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies the Christian church on earth and keep it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. We do not confess that building, utility bills, organs, lighting projects, air conditioning, parking lots, nor fellowship times make or break churches. Buildings come and go along with the congregations within them. Air conditioning systems break, roofs leak, pews get matted and torn, and hymnals fall apart. The things of this earth see rust, moth, and decay. But the church remains forever, built upon the immovable and sure prophetic Word. Your faith cannot be starved by physical hunger nor the Holy Church destroyed when steeples crumble.
God is providential and always gives us precisely what we need to hear, taste, and see. The Holy Spirit opens our ears to hear and our hearts to understand, applying the Word of Truth to our lives. Today’s Holy Gospel is no different. It is no coincidence that today’s lesson is given during the trying time of Lent. It’s no coincidence that today’s Holy Gospel fell a week after an “emergency” congregation meeting slash congregational spending. The Word of Jesus needs to be heard by us today for our confidence and comfort in the face of difficult times.
We have a bread problem. We’re hungry and we we’re going to satisfy the need. Compared to some we’re quite full and yet we still desire more and more. We’ve dined sumptuously on rich food, of marrow and wine. We have amassed closets of clothing. We build bigger and better houses. We “upgrade” our cars, our computers, and even our spouse. The engorgement never ends There’s a hunger deep inside us and it is never satisfied.
Saying “no” to the hunger is next to impossible. The cravings of our stomach, our heart, and our mind overwhelm us. They are irresistible. “Feed me,” says the ravenous beast within. Only later do we realize that satisfying our appetite actually increased it. “I used to get by on much less,” some say. “How did we ever live without that, “ others ponder. Our greedy sinner selves are insatiable.
This misplaced desire leads to sin and death. To want what is not given is to covet. To take what is not yours is to steal. To lust after another leads to adultery. To damage another’s reputation is to artificially inflate yours. To hate is to take life. To break God’s holy Law is desire what is not yours to have, to do, or gain. You do not want to know both good and evil but to have clean and pure heart, holy in thought, word, and deed.
Desire is not in itself evil. Only when desire is perverted into use contrary to God is it sinful. It is God-pleasing to desire your husband or wife. For your spouse been given to you for your blessing. It is God-pleasing to show love to the neighbor. This desire is a fruit of God’s love for you. It is God-pleasing to desire to help and not harm the reputation and income of the other. It is God-pleasing to desire to protect and wisely use the many gifts of body and soul He has given you.
Thus, desire can be used to be faithful to God and love neighbor. Or desire can be twisted to love oneself and hate God. Desire is always distorted. Because we are both sinners in the flesh and holy and righteous in the blood of Jesus, our desires are at odd. We both are faithful and despise God. We love and hate our neighbor. Simultaneously. Duplicitously. Even when we love what is given, we also seek to use it for our own self-interest. Even while we love our neighbor, we secretly would rather have nothing to do with him.
Confident that your desires are holy and right can only come from the Holy Word. Only by listening to the voice of Jesus can you accurately weigh your thoughts and deeds. The Word exposes the wickedness of the flesh, crushing the old Adam to death. The Word raises up a new Man, righteous and pure in the blood of Jesus. This Word is a refining fire, a two-edged sword, a bone-saw that exposes the joint and the marrow. The faithful desire to hear this Word so that their sin would be annihilated by Christ’s death and holiness be given by Christ’s Spirit.
The faithful act beyond reason and pursue this Word at all costs. They give up bread, clothing, home, family, and even their life to hear and meditate upon this Word. They will sacrifice everything to sit at the feet of Jesus and receive His life-giving bread. “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) By their Baptism they have undergone a priority reversal. Those under the curse think of themselves first and God enters the frame only to fill in the needed blanks. Those redeemed in Christ, “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33) knowing full well that all else will be given to due measure.
Thus five-thousand men (with women and children) left everything behind and followed Jesus into the wilderness. They pursued Him to hear His every Word and receive His gifts. They were not concerned about food for the journey, shoes to make the distance, water for the desert, or even a blanket to sit upon. They desired rightly every Word that proceeded from the mouth of Jesus. Whether they knew it or not, Jesus would take care of them. The would be fed with the Holy Word, bread from heaven, for their aching souls and barley loaves, bread of the earth, for their aching bellies. Like their fathers in the wilderness, they would have meat and bread as they needed. God even provided a soft grassy earth from them to recline and feast upon the Him.
You may have the inclination to wring your hands in despair or panic, to worry about what tomorrow may bring, or to give up and throw in the towel on Grace Lutheran Church. May it not be so! Hear the Word of Jesus: “Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack! The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” (Psalm 34:9-10) Learn from the faithful whose holy desire led them to purse Jesus into the wilderness, rightly desiring first to hear the Word of God, confident that Jesus would later take care of their other needs.
We do not know what is in store for our body, our life, or our congregation.We trust that He will preserve His Word and our faith until our end or He comes again. The fact that we here at all is testimony to the miracle of God’s grace and mercy. We give thanks for the multitude of blessings the Father has given our body and life. But we all the more store up the treasures of Jesus Christ, desiring first His Word and the holy Sacraments, confident that upon this bread from heaven, the church will remain forever.
In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church