This week, there are a few things to lay out before we dive into the Word.
Today is the first of three Sundays that we at Shepherd will reflect upon financial
stewardship as we prepare ourselves to make pledges, or at least estimates, of our
offerings for the coming year.
We will give these pledges during worship on November 24, and celebrate them with a
brunch together following.
On these Sundays, we will continue hearing from the gospel of Luke, including stories
we usually miss because of Reformation and All Saints.
What does this mean?
It means that when my Mom compares her pastor's sermon to mine, it won't be
based on the same gospel reading, and now she knows why.
Finally, today is Martin Luther's birthday; he turns 536, so let's start with him.
Luther kindled the Protestant Reformation with an insistence on the doctrine of
justification by faith, the beautiful and unbelievable and usually untrustable truth
that we are right with God only and completely because God says so.
We cannot earn or deserve or diminish God's grace; it is all gift and no reward.
This is excellent theology and terrible fundraising.
Luther unleashed this insight at a time when the church was busily granting indulgences
in exchange for monetary gifts—essentially selling God's forgiveness.
To be fair, it was a bit more nuanced and complicated than that, but most people didn't
know that, and almost everyone assumed, like our Pharisee, that their offering had
some kind of influence in heaven, that God noticed and cared.
The indulgence industry was fueling a rather ambitious capital campaign.
Perhaps you've heard of the Vatican.
St. Peter's in Rome was under construction, with significant funding coming from
indulgences, and friends, Michelangelo ain't cheap.
To have some rogue monk publishing that indulgences are unnecessary and deceptive
because salvation is free is not smart business.
Lutherans have struggled with stewardship ever since, thanks be to God.
The challenge is that stewardship does not begin with us.
It begins with a strange, frivolous God who justifies tax collectors and blesses
helpless children while ignoring the impeccable religion of the Pharisee.
It is hard for us to appreciate what a good guy he really is.
He fasted and tithed more than he needed to—twice a week instead of once, and
a tithe of his entire income, not just the required portion.
He kept himself at a distance from the tax collector to keep himself ritually clean,
separate, set apart, or to use the Scripture's word, holy.
He prayed a standard Jewish prayer of thanksgiving, which would strike none of his
contemporaries as unusual or arrogant, giving God the credit for his holiness and
thanking God, which is something the tax collector never does.
He is honest, loyal, generous, conscientious, educated, disciplined, faithful—a pastor's
He stands in absolute contrast to the scoundrel in the shadows, a pitiful sack of sin
carrying on with his desperate plea for mercy, sounding just like the pleas he
ignores multiple times a day when he shakes down his fellow Jews for tax money
they can't afford, money he passes on to the empire or keeps for himself.
He is a professional rogue, a thief, a traitor, a man who in a way commits daily adultery
against his own people.
And Jesus gives us not a whiff of indication that he repents or changes his ways.
He simply goes home right with God while the Pharisee does not.
Grace is patently and absurdly unfair.
In case you are having trouble getting your mind around this, the same way I do every
day, Luke doubles down and follows this parable with a scene in which Jesus
The only thing more pitiful than a tax collector is a child.
Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh explain:
Contrary to our ethnocentric and anachronistic projections of innocent, trusting,
imaginitive, and delightful children playing at the knee of a gentle Jesus,
childhood in antiquity was a time of terror.
The women in Luke 18:15-17 who bring their infants to Jesus are almost certainly asking
him to touch them because they are sick and dying.
Children were the weakest, most vulnerable members of society.
Infant mortality rates sometimes reached 30 percent.
Another 30 percent of live births were dead by age six, and 60 percent were gone by age
Children were always the first to suffer from famine, war, disease, and dislocation...
Children had little status within the community or family.
While a minor, a child was on par with a slave, and only after reaching maturity was he/
she a free person who could inherit the family estate.
The orphan was the stereotype of the weakest and most vulnerable member of society.
The term "children" could also be used as an insult.
Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the
kingdom of God belongs.
The kingdom of God belongs to lonely traitors and helpless babies.
It cannot be bought, sold, influenced, leveraged, commodified or transacted.
It can only be received as a gift.
You don't have to give a cent.
You don't have to give a rat's backside.
You don't have to give anything at all because it is not about you.
It is all about God and God's lavishly loving, absurdly merciful, impossibly beautiful,
outrageously generous heart.
This is not how the world works, of course, or how Pharisees like me want it to work.
We so automatically assume and insatiably want or worry that everything depends
So the world needs to hear this wild, wonderful gospel from the church because no one
else will say it.
The church needs to hear it and live it and practice it because we can't trust it either.
We need to hear the gospel every day, Luther said, because we forget it every day.
That is one reason to give offerings, to finance the telling of the truth.
Another is to give thanks, but every stewardship reason is a response to what God
does for us, always the cart, never the horse.
And those reasons can wait till next week.
First and foremost, you, dear sinner, are completely and eternally loved.
You, precious and gifted child, are right with God, right now, and forever, because God