Friday, September 30, 2016

The 125th Anniversary of Saint John's Lutheran Church, Kiron, Iowa (Luke 16:19-31)

“‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning, the 125th anniversary of Saint John’s Lutheran Church in Kiron, Iowa, is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, in death as well as in life, the rich man had no regard for the Word of God. It was in no way sufficient for him, and he suspected that it would not be sufficient for anyone else. What he understood was the language of power, the voice of money, his wealth and prosperity that made his life worth living. His eyes told him what was important, what would impress, and even in hell, having left all of his wealth behind him on this earth, he remains a theologian of glory. There, all he understood was the wonder of miracles, great signs and wonders that could convince any stubborn heart. On this earth, he trusted in his money; he thought that his wealth showed him (and everyone else) that God favored him, that God had blessed him. In hell, his money is gone, but he still trusts in appearances, he still relies on the big show. Only a miracle will bring his brothers to faith—this he knows. And so the strongest words spoken in our text are against the Word: “No, father Abraham!”

The Word is not sufficient; it doesn’t work, it can’t work. Wealth and miracles, power and signs, influence and wonders, those are the only things that can do any good. “No, father Abraham!” Who puts their trust in the Word, anyway? What can the Word alone possibly do that money cannot buy, that miracles can’t achieve? The church of the rich man takes great pride in beautiful buildings, the church of the rich man rejoices in schools that are bursting, the church of the rich man boasts about fancy sound systems and professional quality music. The church of the rich man dresses its pastor in a thousand-dollar suit, the church of the rich man gives him a brand new car and a massive house, the church of the rich man carves the pastor’s name in stone on the sign. The church of the rich man sits in a prominent neighborhood in a major city, the church of the rich man is well-known and respected in the community, the church of the rich man has successful businessmen and trusted politicians on its rolls. Trust in the Word? “No, father Abraham!” Trust in full pews, and full offering plates, trust in the power and influence of the Church upon the world. Trust in what your eyes see.

The church of the rich man has great optimism, the church of the rich man promises miracles, increase, prosperity. The church of the rich man declares that if you pray enough, that if you believe hard enough, that if you give enough, great things will happen. God will act. Miracles will come. That is how you know if your congregation is healthy and thriving, by the wonders you see, the blessings rolling in. In the church of the rich man, your own personal wealth, your own personal success, your own personal health is a sign that God is working in your midst, that God is actually present when you gather for worship. The church of the rich man has success stories left and right, the church of the rich man can point to numerous miracles, the church of the rich man has full pews and full offering plates because the church of the rich man can promise you both health and wealth. Trust the Word? “No, father Abraham!” Trust in full bank accounts, and full health, trust in prosperity promised and delivered. Trust what your eyes see.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? What do your eyes see? Your eyes don’t see full pews, except for today, they don’t see full offering plates. Your eyes see rural areas emptying out, your eyes see fewer and fewer children getting on the bus. Your eyes see a former pastor, wearing the same suit and driving the same car as he did before—the only thing that has changed on both is the miles. Your eyes see a congregation that won’t make the news, that in the grand scheme of things seems pretty insignificant and out of the way, far from power and influence. Your eyes look at your own life, and you see bills that need to be paid, appliances and vehicles that will need to be replaced, you see failing health, you remember those whom God didn’t heal. Your attendance at worship, your prayers and your faith, they haven’s seemed to accomplish much. The church of the rich man seems mighty impressive next to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Kiron. Even 125 years doesn’t seem too impressive when you compare it with the church of the rich man; they celebrate ten years with much more fanfare. You look at your history, you page through the memory books or look at confirmation pictures, and it often seems that the glory days are far in the past, they have passed by, today seems in some ways to be only a day for nostalgia, for sighing about what used to be.

Is the Word enough, is it sufficient? “No, father Abraham!” we cry. Give me a sign and a wonder, give me some health and wealth, bless this place, make the pews and offering plate burst! Then we will know that God is with us, then we will know that God cares for us. “No, father Abraham!” But father Abraham will not give us what we want, the things the rich man lived on. Instead, he gives us the Word. “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Take comfort, my child, father Abraham tells us, God’s Word is sufficient for you. Do you want wealth? Your congregation is immeasurably rich, for St. John’s Lutheran Church in Kiron, Iowa has the treasure of the Word, a treasure that will never run out, a wealth that this world cannot understand or have, the treasure that the church of the rich man forgot, to his sorrow.

Here, in this place, humble as it may be next to the church of the rich man, the greatest treasure that this world has ever known is given freely to you who gather. Here, in this place, the forgiveness of sins is poured out on you, a treasure that no money can buy, a pile of wealth that cannot be found anywhere but where Christ’s Word is proclaimed. This is the only wealth, the only treasure, the only inheritance that goes beyond the grave, for this treasure actually defeats death. And it is found here, in this place, on Sunday mornings; this place, along with all other places where this Word is purely preached, is the most important piece of real estate on the planet and it has been, for 125 years. For in this place Jesus is proclaimed, the same Jesus who spoke this parable, the same Jesus who was going to the cross bearing upon His shoulders all the sins of the world.

Do you want miracles? Someone did rise from the dead, Jesus Christ, the crucified One, the One who gave His life into death for the life of the world. The Word is sufficient for you because it proclaims to you the only miracle that matters, the only miracle you’ve been promised, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You need no other miracles, for this miracle gives us all that you need. Jesus rose from the dead to pour out forgiveness, life, and salvation into every corner of our world, that His name may go forth in every century, to every tribe, nation, and language. Jesus rose from the dead to raise you from the dead, to give you the promise and the guarantee that your destination is the same as Lazarus. “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.” As I stand here again in this familiar pulpit, I am reminded of the dear saints who have been carried to Abraham’s side, who we commended to Abraham’s side here in this very sanctuary. That is the reason this congregation exists, to shepherd Christ’s flock through the turmoil of this life to the side of Abraham. This place is here because our world is dangerous, and Satan wants to shipwreck the faith of all the baptized; you need the Church to bring you the Word and Sacraments, which alone can keep you in the faith.

It doesn’t matter how impressive your church looks before the world; it doesn’t matter what the weekly attendance or offering is. What matters is the Word, and the Word alone. A faithful congregation is more vital to this dying world than any church of the rich man, and no faithful congregation is greater than another, no matter how much they differ by any outward measure. Each one is an outpost of the Gospel, a place where people gather to hear God’s Word, where the Word is sufficient for them, because the Word brings them Jesus, the Word gives them the promise of the side of Abraham. Each congregation, each Christian, is Lazarus: looked down upon by the world, covered in suffering and struggles, but given the promise of the banquet of heaven, the guarantee that one day they will rest at the side of Abraham. Appearances are deceiving. We do not trust what our eyes see, or else we become like the rich man, who even in hell was still a theologian of glory, who still put his faith in great signs and wonders. We trust what our ears hear: the Word, which proclaims to us a God who loved the world in this way, that He sent His only Son to suffer and die, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.

For 125 years, this congregation has been a beacon of hope, an outpost of the Gospel, an embassy of the kingdom of God in a foreign land. For 125 years the Word has been proclaimed in this congregation, in two different locations, by 10 different pastors, three of whom are with you today. At this font, countless children have been baptized into the faith, the Word has been joined with water to put to death the sinful man and raise up the new man to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. In this congregation, the very Body and precious Blood of Jesus has been put into the mouths of His saints. This is what we celebrate this day: the faithfulness of a God who put Saint John’s Lutheran Church in Kiron, Iowa to deliver His Word to people in desperate need of it. The Lord gave you this congregation; it is His gift to you, and a quick stroll through the cemetery, to learn the names of all those resting in the bosom of Abraham, tells you that you are not alone, that on the Last Day, there will be many who will rejoice that God used this congregation to bring them to the side of Abraham. Yes, father Abraham, the Word is sufficient for us, it is enough, because it gives us everything. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

No comments: