Monday, August 27, 2012

Sermon for 8/19/12--Trinity 11

We Are Beggars
Luke 18:9-14

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Two days before his death, almost as if he somehow knew his end was near, Martin Luther wrote: “We are all beggars, it is true.”  What a strange way to add up a life, especially his life!  This was the man who stood up to kings and councils and popes and not only survived but thrived!  This was the man whose written work compromises dozens of volumes, whose translation of the Scriptures actually shaped the German language, and whose courage helped to reshape the geography of Europe.  Surely, at the end of such a life there must be time for a bit of boasting.  Yet, like St. Paul, his boasting was in his weakness and, above all, in the power of the cross.

“Not worthy.” Those words are almost like a liturgical refrain on the lips of all the beggars that inhabit the pages of the Scriptures, and indeed, the history of the Church.  There was Zacchaeus, who was content to merely get a glimpse of Jesus as He passed by, and received infinitely more.  The woman who suffered from massive hemorrhages did not dare to ask of Jesus.  “If only I can touch the hem of His garment,” she thought.  Mary, who sat at the feet of her Lord soaking up every word He spoke, was also one of the humble.  At his death, the thief on the cross chastised his cynical companion and humbly asked Jesus to remember Him.  Unworthy beggars, all of them, and yet each of them ended up more wealthy than they could ever dream.  They received those precious gifts of healing, forgiveness, and the presence of the Lord.  They received grace upon grace.  As surely as the exalted are humbled, the unworthy who come to Christ in faith are exalted.

And so it was that two men, one a Pharisee, the other a publican, a tax collector, came before the same altar of God.  Each of them prayed.  The Pharisee, no doubt a sincere man, thanked God that he was not like so many others, especially that tax collector over in the corner.  He laid out his many accomplishments for God to see.  Not only did he avoid dishonesty in his business and unfaithfulness in his personal life, but even exceeded the legal requirements in piety by fasting twice a week and figuring his tithe before taxes.  The publican, however, could find nothing worthy of boasting.  His only plea was for mercy.  And both men received what they asked for.  The Pharisee asked for and received nothing; He had no need for God.  The publican received just what he prayed for: mercy.

In a world that attempts to eliminate guilt, if not deny it altogether, and where most efforts are not aimed excusing sin or denying that sin even exists, the publican seems unnecessarily hard on himself.  It is difficult, if not nearly impossible for most people, maybe even some of us, to really understand the publican’s repentance, or when Luther described himself as “poor stinking maggot fodder.”  That is beggar language, and in most circles such language doesn’t get it.

But in the kingdom of God, the picture of a beggar is one with profound meaning.  It is an eloquent description of your relationship to God.  You come to God with nothing; neither morality nor religious affiliation mean anything to Him.  You come to Him poor and humble and empty, or you do not come at all.  You enter the waters of Holy Baptism as strangers and aliens, and that flood washes away everything to which a sinner would cling.  You emerge washed, cleansed, and named children of the Father in heaven, a gift that gladdens the heart of every beggar, large or small.  If being children of God depended on what you do, or how well you have performed, or even how sincere your faith happens to be, you can never be certain whether you have done enough.

You can read all of the best-selling pop psychology books you like, and everything that has been written about the power of positive thinking, and you will look in vain for anything that will help you deal with your greatest need; the need for mercy.  What happens when broken human beings find the “gospel of self” just one more burden to bear?  What happens when the great movers and shakers of this world falter?  When you have tasted the bitter tears of failure and have grown weary of trying to save your own life, there is little hope found in “positive thinking.”  That is when you turn to a Gospel for beggars, and learn of a gracious God who understands your weakness, and lifts your burdens, and delights in showing mercy.

When you gather for the Divine Service, the first thing you do is beg. It’s not pretty, but you have no choice—you are beggars. And so you say, “O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.  But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.” And when you come before God as beggars, He graciously gives you what you need. He speaks His Word of forgiveness and life to you, and then He feeds you with the body and blood of our Savior: a meal filled with forgiveness and joy and hope.  It is a feast of victory, a foretaste of the eternal banquet where, after a lifetime of begging, you will gather to eat as sons of the King, receiving all that is His.

Until that day, uplifted by His Word, filled with His Supper, you come to Him with empty hands awaiting His gifts to make things right, to make you right with Him, and to sustain your lives.  In all of life, as Luther said, “We are beggars, it is true.”  In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always.  Amen. 

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