Many Lutheran pastors, myself included, struggle to preach sanctification well. I never want the focus of my sermon to be about the things we do, but on what God has done. It is the gospel, Jesus’ righteousness for us, that gives us the peace and the strength to live a new life in Christ. The law might scare or guilt us into proper outward actions, but it never changes the heart. We also recognize the weakness of the law in this: the law always accuses and crushes, so even if the gospel is the center of the sermon, the encouragement to do something will always accuse us when we do not. (For more discussion on the law and gospel, I suggest this lighthearted Lutheran podcast: https://www.letthebirdfly.com/2017/06/06/episode-11-law-and-gospel-a-first-pass/ .)
However, no pastor can preach the whole counsel of God without giving the encouragement to live in accordance with God’s Word and his will. I spent last week studying Isaiah 58:6-12, and you cannot read those words without seeing how poorly you live up to the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Even as I sit and write this, I am surrounded by the comforts many Americans take for granted. I write on a new computer, sitting a sectional couch; my six pets are all nearby. In my garage sit a nice motorcycle and a new, albeit very practical, crossover SUV. When my daughter asks, “What’s for supper?” We always respond, “Food.” Then she complains, “We always have food for supper.” Isn’t that amazing? Life is so much better than I deserve.
So, what do I, what do any of us, do with Isaiah 58? Can any of us really say we put those words into practice? Isn’t God rebuking us? Most of these questions are answered in my sermon found here: http://www.corvallislutherans.org/site/file.asp?sec_id=180003462&file_id=180465866&table=file_downloads and on our Facebook page.
But now for what is lacking in that sermon: what does that look like? How do we do it? How do we put the words, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” into practice in our lives?
Are you already a little uncomfortable? I am, and not just because I know how much I need grow in my life of faith. This topic, helping the poor and homeless, has sadly become political. So, let me try to dismiss that right away. I have opinions on the politics of a good society, but I don’t have the answers; God doesn’t tell me what form the government should take, other than a good government maintains peace and order and all government is under God’s authority. So, while I have opinions, I also make this assumption: I believe that a majority of people from every political angle and direction care about the poor and homeless, but they disagree on government’s role in solving the problem. So, if you believe that our government can be a force for helping the needy and you are happy to pay higher taxes, knowing how those programs help people. That is very reasonable and loving. But that doesn’t excuse you from living in a way that helps the poor and needy in your personal life. If you believe that government is a bad way to help the poor and needy, and citizens choosing to work together on their own causes by their own powers is a better way. That is also reasonable and loving. But then, you need to do what you say helps and live according to the command, “Love your neighbor”.
The other reason this might make us uncomfortable is this: we wonder why our own congregations don’t do more to feed the hungry and help the needy? This is a serious question. If Christians are called to love our neighbors, then shouldn’t it follow that group of Christians gathering together would be always thinking about helping the needy? But is it that simple? The Christian will want to live according to God’s Will and “Love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” Have you ever noticed how hard that is? It is impossible! We cannot do it. We can’t even come close by our own powers. We need the power of the Holy Spirit to live that way. And the only place we can receive that power is through the means of grace, God’s Word and the Sacraments. The only place we receive the Word and Sacraments for you in all their purity is within a faithful congregation. To forfeit this work of your local congregation for community service will not increase Christians ability to love their neighbors but decrease it. Doing community service in such a way that seems to make a difference in our community, can be an all-consuming work, one which most congregations cannot undertake and one which other organizations in your communities often might do better. So is it wrong for a congregation to do these things? God forbid! Some of the most encouraging times I have had with my fellow Christians is when we serve the Lord and our neighbors together. How wonderful it is for our communities to see how much we, as a group, love them! Let’s continue to ask, What can we do together to let our light shine among men?
Finally, the reason these words make us uncomfortable is they leave us no way to escape. Whenever the Bible talks about loving your neighbor it is talking to each of us. It doesn’t leave you any room to hide in a group or pass the responsibility to someone else. It doesn’t leave you with any excuses. This is what you are supposed to do. The way you are supposed to live. It is up to you, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to put those words into practice in your own life. The way I try to put them into practice in my own life is by giving freely to charities and groups that I know will use my money wisely. What’s your personal approach?
As I have thought through these things in the last week, there is so much more I could say. Christian vocation fits in with loving your neighbor, too. You love your neighbor when you do your work well, whatever it is. We can give God the glory in “whatever we do”.
May God give us strength to live according to his will.
To Him Alone Be the Glory