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Sermon for Sunday 23 October 2016

FIRST READING Genesis 4:1-15

1Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” 2And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5but for Cain and his offering he had no regard So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” 8Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him.


PSALM Psalm 5

1Give ear to my words, O Lord; consider my meditation. 2Hearken to my cry for help, my King and my God, for I make my prayer to you. 3In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; early in the morning I make my appeal and watch for you. 4For you are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness, and evil cannot dwell with you. 5Braggarts cannot stand in your sight; you hate all those who work wickedness. 6You destroy those who speak lies; the bloodthirsty and deceitful, O Lord, you abhor. 7But as for me, through the greatness of your mercy I will go into your house; I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you. 8Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness, because of those who lie in wait for me; make your way straight before me. 9For there is no truth in their mouth; there is destruction in their heart; 10Their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue. 11Declare them guilty, O God; let them fall, because of their schemes. 12Because of their many transgressions, cast them out, for they have rebelled against you. 13But all who take refuge in you will be glad; they will sing out their joy forever. 14You will shelter them, so that those who love your Name may exult in you. 15For you, O Lord, will bless the righteous; you will defend them with your favor as with a shield.


SECOND READING 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

6For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
16At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! 17But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. 18The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.


GOSPEL Luke 18:9-17

9{Jesus} also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” 15Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 17Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”



Before I begin this morning, I think it’s good for me to point out that today we’re not going to be talking about salvation. Salvation, in the Lutheran understanding, is by grace alone through faith alone. Salvation isn’t something we can earn. It’s God’s free gift humankind through the atoning work of Jesus in His life, death and resurrection. The Christian life, the life of the disciple, on the other hand is different. It requires considerable effort; it’s the daily taking up of one’s cross and following Jesus. As I so often tell the Bible study groups, becoming a Christian is easy, that’s all God’s doing. However, being a Christian, being a disciple of Jesus, is hard work. It’s the dying to sin daily and rising again in Christ. That’s our call and that’s what we’ll be looking at today as we consider our epistle reading for this twenty third Sunday in Pentecost.
Years ago, a man acquired a gold claim in California. The claim was in a remote area in the mountains and when the man started to dig, he found evidence that a lot of work had been done on the claim in years prior. At the back of the excavation, he found an old rusted pick with its handle rotted off, but the point was stick firmly in the rocky soil. As he continued to dig where the other man had left off, to his delight and amazement, he struck a rich vein of gold, just a few feet beyond where he’d found the pick.
Later, he learned that the previous owner had invested many years of his life searching for gold. He too had begun with high hopes and great dreams. But those hopes dissipated into bitter disappointment when he labored without rewarded. It became harder, day after day to sustain that dream, to swing the pick and lift the shovel without evidence of progress. So eventually he quit, in what turns out to be just a few feet from striking it rich. Think about that for a moment. If he’d just persevered a few days longer, he would have been a very wealthy man.
A study was once done of a group of Nobel Prize winners. This study revealed that these Nobel Prize winners were no brighter intellectually than many of their colleagues. If this is the case, then what can explain their success? When their colleagues were asked to explain, the answer they gave was simple: the Nobel Prize winners were good finishers. That is, they kept working when others had given up. Today, I think it’s important for us to consider the importance perseverance has, in all of life.
In St. Paul second letter to the young pastor Timothy, he looks over his years of service to Christ and writes, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day–and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18) The first thing I’d like you to consider is, that in life, it isn’t where you begin, but where you finish.
Sometimes getting to the finish means we must “keep on keeping on” even when it would be so much easier to simply throw up our hands in futility and despair and walk away. It means that at times, we need to “hang in there” and “see it through” even when someone of lesser determination, lesser courage, lesser character, would “cut their losses” and run. This is true in a good marriage; it’s true in raising children; it’s true in pursuing your goals in your vocation; it’s true in battling disease and old age, and it’s true in a host of other areas of life, including your faithfulness to Christ.
In the words of the champion heavyweight boxer, Jim Corbett, the secret of success is often simply fighting one more round. Or as an aging Winston Churchill put it in a speech to a group of young men. “Young men, never give up! Never give up! Never! Never! Never!” There’s a delightful scene in the children’s movie Finding Nemo that highlights this same idea. For those who remember this movie, Dory was the forgetful, but tenacious regal tang fish.
In one particular scene, Dory tries to bolster the weakening faith of Marlin the clown fish. She wisely counsels, “Hey there, Mr. Grumpy Gills. When life gets you down, do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do? Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do?” she says, “We swim, swim!” That’s good advice for all of us, when life is seeking to pull us under–keep swimming. St. Paul would have simply said, never gave up.
Paul, despite shipwrecks, numerous beatings, and imprisonment was faithful to his calling to be a missionary and preacher of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Now he could look back over his life with satisfaction and say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness . . .” With this passage in mind, what are the lessons that you and I can learn? For one, we need to acknowledge that few things in life, of real worth, come easily. It doesn’t matter how much talent or natural ability we may have—for us to excel at anything worthwhile, it requires extraordinary effort.
There was an amazing athlete many years back named “Babe” Didrickson Zaharis. During the 1932 Olympics, Babe placed first in the women’s eight-meter hurdles, first in the javelin throw and she placed second in the high jump. Babe also excelled in baseball and basketball. Later she turned to golf where she again became a world champion. Was all this simply natural ability? Yes, of course, but there was also much more.
When Babe took up golf she sought out an exceptional instructor to teach her. She studied the game. She analyzed the ideal golf swing, she dissected it, and tested each component part until she felt she thoroughly understood it. When she went out to practice, she would spend as much as twelve hours a day, hitting as many as one thousand balls in an afternoon. She would swing and keep swinging until her hands were so sore that she could barely grip the club. That’s the method she used to perfect her powerful swing. It’s amazing how much natural ability you discover you have, when you’re willing to work at anything that hard.
English novelist, J.B. Priestly, was once asked why several gifted writers with whom he had been associated, in earlier years, hadn’t progressed in their work as he had. His answer was simple and direct: “Gentlemen the difference between us was not in ability, but in the fact that they merely toyed with the fascinating idea of writing. I cared like blazes! It’s this caring like the blazes that counts.” Few things in this life of real value are acquired without significant effort and consecrated determination. Dr. Kenneth Taylor was another who understood that.
It was Dr. Taylor’s dream to convert the New Testament into a format that nearly everyone could read easily. It took six years for him to accomplish that task. The first publisher he sent his finished manuscript to flatly rejected it, as did the second and the third. Finally, he used his savings and published it himself–but only 800 copies were sold the first year. But he remained undeterred; he continued to seek a publisher. Today there have been more than 40 million copies of Dr. Taylor’s work sold. Some of you may own a copy. It’s known as The Living Bible. Few things in this life of real worth come easily. As some athletes will say, no pain, no gain. St. Paul understood that.
Paul gave his all and today he’s remembered as one of the most influential men who ever lived. And here’s the second thing that needs to be considered: The real challenge in life is to be at your best even when it doesn’t seem to matter. Paul not only persevered, Paul gave everything he had and Paul’s life was a study in excellence.
Paul could look back on his ministry with satisfaction, not only because he had “fought the fight” but also that it was a “good fight.” That’s the measure of character. To be able to say, “I had some tough breaks and I had some heartbreaks along the way, but I gave it my best shot regardless of the circumstances.” Such dedication will always earn a reward.
Lee Buck tells about a young actor in a play many years ago. The play was called Up and Up . . . but the Up and Up was nearly down and out. It had received dismal reviews and the audiences were dwindling. In such a situation, it would be natural for any young actor to do less than their best. After all, what difference would it make? The play was a loser. This particular young actor, however, believed that it did make a difference. Someone once told him, “Whatever task lies to your hand, do it with all your might . . .” He believed that, and so he gave his best even in this dismal play. The play folded, however, and he went on to play in other small productions.
It was over a year later that he received a call from Hollywood from one Howard Hughes, who, at that time, was a major film producer. Hughes had been in the audience of one of the performances of the Up and Up. He wasn’t impressed by the play. He was impressed, however, by a young actor named Pat O’Brien who was giving all he had in the role he’d been given. Hughes remembered that performance and decided to cast Pat O’Brien in the movie The Front Page, the first of an impressive collection of films in which O’Brien would eventually star. We need to give it our very best, regardless of the circumstances! That’s a great secret of successful living whether you’re an athlete or an artist, a business person or a parent, a spouse or a follower of Jesus. Always give it your very best!
Some of you know the name Pele–the international soccer star who retired a few years ago. When Pele retired from soccer he said, “It’s the saddest moment of my life, but life isn’t all flowers. It’s much harder to end a career than to start one. What I did with my life in soccer was put my heart in my work.” That’s the key, isn’t it? “I put my heart in my work.” You could substitute the word “marriage” in place of work. “I put my heart in my marriage,” or “I put my heart in the raising of my children.” Or “I put my heart in serving Christ.” Few things in life of real value come easily.
The challenge in life is to be at our best, even when it doesn’t seem to matter. Which brings us to one more thing to be said. It’s vital, then, that we have a worthy purpose to which we give our lives. So what is your life purpose? What is your personal mission statement? Without a sense of purpose driving us, few of us will achieve a very satisfying life.
Denis Waitley in his book, The Double Win, gives us an excellent example of the power of purpose. He tells of watching the Today show one morning years ago, when his attention was captured by an interview between the host, Jane Pauley, and a Mr. Smith who was celebrating his 102nd birthday. Mr. Smith had brought his potted plants and was proudly referring to them as his upstarts during the brief conversation. Jane Pauley was becoming a bit frustrated. Time was running out and all Mr. Smith was doing was making a fuss over his flowers. Jane tried to bring him back to the main point. “But, Mr. Smith,” she said, “we all would really like to know to what you attribute your long life?”
Mr. Smith didn’t answer Jane Pauley directly. He went ahead talking about his flowers. He touched them, watered them, and concentrated on them while the audience watched and listened patiently. “This little lovely won’t bloom for another two years,” he chuckled, as Jane made one last attempt, before the cutaway to a commercial, to discover the elixir for his longevity. Finally, Jane Pauley made one last attempt. “What’s your secret for living so long and staying alive?” she asked. The old man replied with a question of his own. “Who would take care of these beautiful flowers?” he asked. “Jane sighed,” writes Denis Waitley, “turned a little pink, and Today took a time-out to sell something.”
You and I know Mr. Smith’s secret, don’t we? In his mind, he had a great purpose for living, to take care of his flowers. It’s the saddest of all conditions to have no real purpose for your life. St. Paul had a purpose–a purpose that helped him persevere when every earthly helper had forsaken him. He had a purpose that drove him to excellence in all things–even when it didn’t seem to matter. His purpose was to serve Christ. What a wise and fortunate choice that was.
We retire from our jobs. Our children grow up. Our life’s partners may precede us to be with God. But the service of Christ is for all eternity. St. Paul writes: “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day–and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” In the Christian life, finishing is everything. This life is but a prelude; the symphony is yet to begin. That’s the Gospel. This world is but a preparatory school. The real world is yet to come.
Gary Inrigh in his book, A Call to Excellence, gives us a beautiful analogy of this principle. He notes that in the Olympics several years ago a Japanese gymnast, Shun Fujimoto, was competing in the team competition. Somehow, during the floor exercises, he broke his right knee. It was obvious he would be forced to withdraw. At least it seemed obvious. In actuality, Fujimoto refused to give up.
On the following day, he competed in his strongest event, the rings. His routine was excellent, but the critical point lay at the end of this event. The ending requires the gymnast to fling himself through the air which makes for quite a jarring landing. Worse yet, the event can be won or lost by how gracefully the gymnast lands–and remember, Fujimoto had a broken knee. Can you imagine the reaction of the crowd when, without hesitation, Fujimoto ended his routine with a twisting, triple somersault? There was a moment of intense quiet as he stuck the landing with tremendous impact on his broken knee. Then came thundering applause as he stood his ground.
Later, reporters asked about that moment and he replied, “The pain shot through me like a knife. It brought tears to my eyes. But now I have a gold medal and the pain is gone.” St. Paul said, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” Then he added, “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”
Few things in life come easily. The real challenge is to give our very best even when it doesn’t seem to matter. And there’s one final thing I’d like for you to consider. It’s important for us to always do our very best, because you never know who’s watching and who we might encourage. As a father and grandfather, I’m always reminded that even when I don’t think the kids or grandkids were or are paying attention, they are. As my father was so fond of saying, “out of the mouth of babes comes everything that shouldn’t have been said in the first place.
Our lives should be an example for others. First to our children and grandchildren and even great grandchildren and then to the others we encounter each day. We must strive to be a reflection of Christ in us, no matter the cost or challenges. For Tyler, Amber, the family, and each one of us, this principle starts today with Tenley Ann’s baptism.
In a few moments, we’ll all once again be challenged and reminded of the importance of living out our calling as Christians, as an example for Tenley. We’ll agree to and accept the responsibility of bringing her to God’s house, for teaching her the tenants of the faith and for modeling a godly life. What greater purpose can a person have, except that of living for God and of being an example for our family and others? It’s vital that we have a worthy purpose to which we give our lives. And service to Christ is, of course, the worthiest purpose of all.

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