Sunday, September 27, 2020

Sermon: St. Michael and All Angels - 2020




27 September 2020

Text: Matt 18:1-11 (Dan 10:10-14; 12:1-3, Rev 12:7-12)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Today we commemorate St. Michael the Archangel and all angels: the real angels, not the angels of the movies and the cartoons.  Real angels don’t look like little naked babies, or fair-skinned girls with wings.  Real angels are not our dead relatives.  Real angels are spiritual beings that serve God outside of our material universe.  They are fierce and mighty.

In the creed, we say that God is the “maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.”  There is an entire invisible component to the Lord’s creation.  It is invisible because it isn’t material.  It is spiritual.

But that doesn’t make the invisible any less real.  Jesus Himself mentions angels in our Gospel reading.  He tells us that we need to become like little children to be great in the kingdom of heaven.  We need to stop thinking so highly of ourselves, stop depending upon our own bodily ability and mental powers.  For none of that matters in the kingdom of heaven.  What matters is our faith. 

And faith is where children excel and where adults fail.  To have faith is to believe – especially to believe what we are told even when we are tempted to disbelieve.  A rational adult is going to struggle with the idea that a wafer of bread is Jesus.  Not so with children.  They trust what they hear, and they do not allow their reason to get in the way.  We adults think that we’re so smart, we end up outsmarting ourselves to the point of stupidity.  A childlike faith trusts God’s Word – even when that Word doesn’t make sense to us.  God’s Word says that the bread and wine are Christ’s body and blood.  God’s Word says that Holy Baptism washes away sin and “now saves you.”  God’s Word says that our Lord’s death on the cross pays the price of our sins.  God’s Word says that those who are baptized and believe have salvation, that is, eternal life.  God’s Word promises that in Christ, we will rise bodily from death.

Children will believe what they are told because they trust.  Adults, having spent time among the liars and swindlers of this fallen world learn to question and to be distrustful.  But with God’s Word, distrust only leads to unbelief, and unbelief only leads to death and hell.  And so Jesus advises us to look to children, humbling ourselves by turning and becoming like a child in our trust in God and His Word, in our trust in Jesus and the cross, and in the Holy Spirit who draws us into communion with the Most Holy Trinity.

So what do angels have to do with any of this?

Our Lord says that we must not “despise” little ones, but rather we are to receive children in the name of Jesus.  Rather than seeing children as beneath us, we need to honor them and protect them from evil.  For “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in [Him] to sin, it would be better for him” to be drowned in the sea.  For “their angels always see the face of [Jesus’] Father who is in heaven.”

God protects his “little ones” – both literal little children, and we who are by God’s grace, children of God.  He protects us by means of angels.  Between our readings, we sang a verse from Psalm 91 – a Psalm used to cast out demons, by the way (demons being evil angels who are the enemy of God and man).  In this Psalm, we hear the promise: “He shall give His angels charge over you, to guard you in all your ways.”  So yes, we really do have angels that guard us.  God uses these ministering spirits, these “watchers and holy ones,” to oversee His universe – including His beloved people.  

“For the Son of Man came to save the lost.”  

Dear friends, we were lost until Jesus came into our flesh, died our death, and rose again from the dead for our justification.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep.  He rescues us.  And He uses angels to carry out this task.  They protect us from harm in ways that we cannot see.  They guard us in times of temptation.  They restrain evil as part of the Lord’s enforcement of His will.  They also call us home when it is our time to die, bearing us to Abraham’s bosom, as we sing in the hymn.

All throughout Scripture, the angelic host serves God, and God often has them serving us.  There is a very real spiritual war between the angels and the demons, between the Holy Trinity and the impostor mutineer Satan – who wishes nothing but destruction upon God’s creation – including our destruction, here in time, and there in eternity.

But once again, dear friends, Jesus “came to save the lost.”  

St. Michael the Archangel and his angels defeated the Old Evil Foe: “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.”  The angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven praise God for our Lord’s victory on the cross, for “the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.”

Satan means “accuser.”  But because of the cross, Satan may no longer accuse us.  He has no standing in God’s court.  He has been “thrown down.”  He has been mortally wounded by the “Seed of the Woman” (our Lord Jesus Christ).  For we have conquered “by the blood of the Lamb.”  

Everywhere God the Father is, there are the angels.  For they “always see the face” of the Father, as Jesus says.  Everywhere God the Son is, there are the angels.  They sang at His birth.  They ministered to Him after His temptation by the devil.  They served Him during His torment in the Garden of Gethsemane.  And they stood at the ready at the cross, even as the Lord did not call upon their legions to rescue Him, but rather He died obedient to His Father and in love for us, because He “came to save the lost.”

Angels were in the empty tomb.  And angels serve Him in eternity, at the right hand of the Father.  Angels continue to carry out their work of administering God’s kingdom, guarding us, and overseeing creation.

And what does it mean, dear friends, that “the Son of Man came to save the lost”?  We were lost because of our sins.  We stood accused by the devil.  We were destined for “temporal and eternal punishment,” that is, death not only in this life, but in eternity to come.  But God did not allow us to fall.  “For the Son of Man came to save the lost.”  We are saved by His blood, which is applied to us in Holy Baptism, and is received by us in faith – all by God’s grace, by His mercy, by His love.  

And the prophet Daniel, as was revealed to him by an angel, tells us about this salvation’s fulfillment on the Last Day: “And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time.  But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.  And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.  And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

Let us hear the angel who spoke to Daniel, and let us hear all of God’s Word, dear friends!  Let us hear of St. Michael’s victory, which is our Lord’s victory, and let us turn like children and believe in that victory.  Let us rejoice in the care and ministry of the angels, even as they are invisible to us for the time being.  Let us receive many children (of all ages) into the kingdom, and in so doing, let us receive Christ!  Let us join the heavenly host in praising God, “Raise the glad strain: Alleluia!” – knowing that when we die, we will be brought to the heavenly realm by the angels, even as we await the glorious resurrection, when we become once more united to our bodies, to enjoy an eternal life that not even the angels have: “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”  

Jesus send Your angel legions
When the foe would us enslave.
Hold us fast when sin assaults us;
Come, then, Lord, Your people save.
Overthrow at last the dragon;
Send him to his fiery grave.

Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.





Thursday, September 24, 2020

Magdeburg and Liberty

The Magdeburg Confession is a remarkable document.  

This Lutheran confession lays out a theology of resistance to tyranny based on the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate.  The brave autonomous city of Magdeburg, with its spirit of political independence and theological insistence on adhering to Lutheran theology, come what may, arguably saved the Reformation in the year 1550.  The city stood alone in refusing to surrender the Lutheran confession to Charles V's so-called Augsburg Interim.  Magdeburg paid for its tenacity by being put under military siege for a year, until the imperial forces backed off and negotiated a settlement that allowed the Lutheran confession to coexist with Roman Catholicism in the empire.

The Confession is a theological treatise, but it happens in a very real political context - and thus the narrative has not only ecclesiastical and doctrinal implications, but also serves to teach us political lessons in our world today.

Indeed, the world was very different in 1550.  At the time, there was no Germany.  That would not come until the late 19th century.  Europe was feudal, comprised of a patchwork of small governments.  What we call Germany today was part of the so-called Holy Roman Empire.  As is often said, the HRE was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.  It was a crazy-quilt of kingdoms, principalities, duchies, and free cities in what is today mainly Germany and Italy.  The emperor was actually elected by certain elector princes.  

The HRE was more a loose confederation than an empire, one which offered maximum liberty because of the concept of competition.  There were no passports.  The countries were small.  The German language was spoken across a large swath of the Empire.  And so, if a prince was abusive, raised taxes too high, or impeded free markets - people could vote with their feet and move.  It didn't involve emigrating hundreds of miles away, securing work visas and a path to citizenship, and learning a new language.  

The economist and philosopher Hans-Hermann Hoppe argues that Europe's successes in science, exploration, economics, scholarship, and the arts was due to this vast decentralization.  He argues that a Europe today "made up of thousands of Liechtensteins and Swiss cantons, united through free trade, and in competition with one another in the attempt of offering the most attractive conditions for productive people to stay or move" is a far better alternative to the European Union, which he describes as "a gang of power-lusty crooks empowering and enriching themselves at other, productive people’s expense."

This kind of political decentralization existed in the HRE and it made the Reformation possible.  Had Charles V been an actual emperor instead of a figurehead overseeing a loose confederacy, he would have had no problem capturing and executing all religious dissidents.  However, the confederal nature of the Empire made it possible for local German princes to interpose in order to protect Luther and other reformers - to the frustration of both Charles V and the papacy.

The Reformation flourished, at least in human terms, owing to the economics of free competition in the marketplace of ideas.  Not only did churches and universities spread the faith of the Evangelical confession (as Lutherans were known in those days), but also the printing press and merchants who were free to sell printed material - thanks to free markets and capitalism.  A centralized state would have had far better success in banning books and pamphlets and crushing dissenting opinions than a confederation of small sovereignties.

It's no wonder that dictators and tyrants always have imperial dreams.  Managing a single massive bureaucracy is far easier than "thousands of Liechtensteins" when  it comes to exercising authoritarian control.

One can hope that Brexit will lead to other defections away from European centralization and a restoration of the polity that made Europe a great civilization: the envy of the world.

If Americans truly value their liberty, they too will look to find ways of decentralizing the country back to its original federalism, instead of the nationalism and consolidation that has taken root instead.  One path toward such a devolution is nullification (sometimes called "interposition") - which is what the Magdeburgers pioneered in 1555.  With our own patchwork of state and local jurisdictions, our spirit of political independence, and our constitutional system of federalism, we could conceivably restore the republic and become, once more, heirs of Magdeburg.

And so we stand at a crossroads. 

Will we move in the direction of centralization, stagnation, and slavery?  Or will be be sons and daughters of Magdeburg?  We should study this history and confession in both its theological and political frameworks.

Here is a link to the Magdeburg Society.  And here is a link to Issues, Etc.'s program: "Lutherans, Political Resistance and the 1550 Magdeburg Confession" with Dr. Ryan MacPherson.


Sunday, September 20, 2020

Sermon: Trinity 15 - 2020

20 September 2020

Text: Matt 6:24-34

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Anxiety is a terrible thing.  It can paralyze a person from even performing the basic functions needed for this life.  Anxiety medication is big business in America.  We see even young children suffering with anxiety.  It can be like a spiral that continues to drag a person down deeper and deeper, until it seems like there is no hope.

Being anxious is not something that someone can just will himself out of.  Anxiety is like being stuck in quicksand.  The more one struggles with it, the deeper one sinks.

And then Jesus comes along and says: “Do not be anxious.”  He says that having anxiety is to be of “little faith.”  And our Lord also ties anxiety to an unhealthy and sinful love of money.

I’ve heard people become almost cruel about this, telling a parent who is worried about a child who is suffering with illness to “repent” because “worry is a sin” – as if worrying about loved ones who are in danger is like drinking too much or committing adultery, and that they just need to knock it off.

Anxiety is indeed sin, but it isn’t that kind of sin.  It isn’t rooted in personal selfishness or a desire for worldly pleasure.  In fact, much of our anxiety is grounded in worry for others.  Similarly, in the Small Catechism, Martin Luther instructs us to say our bedtime prayers and then: “Go to sleep at once and in good cheer.”  Again, I have heard pastors say that if you cannot sleep at night because you are upset about something, that you need to repent of this sin.

So is it really sinful to be anxious?  Yes it is.  But it is sinful in the same way that being subject to death is sinful.  It isn’t something you can “fix” by just not doing it.  We live in a fallen world.  We live in a sinful world.  We are sinful creatures.  This means that we suffer – sometimes because we did something directly to deserve it, sometimes just because the world is fallen.

If you find yourself worried and anxious – for whatever reason – you cannot will yourself to stop it.  You can’t slap yourself on the hand and say: “Don’t do that!” any more than you can make yourself not sick by calling yourself to repentance.

So how can we deal with anxiety, dear friends?  By listening to Jesus.  His Word is truly therapeutic, in the supernatural and divine sense of the word.  Notice that our Lord begins His teaching about anxiety by saying, “Therefore I tell you.”  He tells us.  He speaks to us.  He declares His Word to us.  He teaches us how not to be “anxious about your life” – especially as it concerns our inability to know the future: “What you will eat or what you will drink” or “about your body” and “what you will put on.”

He reminds us that life is more than staying alive in the body.  He reminds us that there is indeed more to existence than chasing after material things.  He reminds us that we have a Heavenly Father who does provide for us.  He reminds us that we do not have a God who is distant, like the kind of god that Thomas Jefferson believed in who creates the universe and then just walks away and doesn’t care about you.

In fact, our Lord in His Word contradicts Jefferson by pointing us to nature: “Look at the birds of the air,” for “they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”  And our Lord asks the rhetorical question: “Are you not of more value than they?”  So many people today have allowed Satan to convince them of their worthlessness.  This is a diabolical lie, dear friends.  For you are created in the image of God.  Before the foundation of the world, the Most Holy Trinity willed that you would exist.  You are part of the plan of the universe.  So many people describe the experience of looking into the night sky and feeling small and insignificant, a fleck of dust in a vast universe.  But the reality, dear friends, is that you are created in the image of God.  You are alive.  You have a body and a spirit and the love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit that brought you into being, and still takes care of you.

And in spite of your sins – and yes, anxiety is part of that sinful brokenness that we all suffer – God the Son took flesh on our planet, and He died as a cosmic sacrifice for you.  You are beloved of God.  Indeed, “Are you not of more value than” birds, than the lilies of the field, than the planets, than the stars, than the galaxies?  Jesus took on our human flesh, for He came to redeem mankind – all of us.  He did not die just for someone else.  He died for you, and He rose for you, and He speaks to you – right here and right now.  He bids you not to be anxious, not to scold you for sinning, but to invite you to a more excellent way – the way of faith.

By living day to day in His Word, by living week to week in His Supper, by living each moment in your baptismal grace, you will be comforted because your faith will be strengthened.  We suffer worry and anxiety because our faith is weak.  And this is normal for everyone, dear friends.  Remember what God revealed to St. Paul in his weakness: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” and St. Paul replied, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

The “power of Christ,” dear friends.  This power “rests upon you,” because of the love, mercy, and providence of God.  

We become anxious because we feel powerless, and the future is unknown to us.  But by means of His Word and His Sacraments, we receive His grace, we receive the gift of faith, and the power of Christ rests upon us to drive out fear and worry and anxiety.

When Jesus speaks to us “of little faith,” it is not a condemnation, but an invitation.  It is an invitation to strengthen our faith by receiving the power of Christ.  For as St. Paul also tells us, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.”

We are tempted to look elsewhere to overcome anxiety, whether through mind-altering drugs or alcohol, through the escapism of entertainment, through looking to ourselves and our strength (rather than the grace that comes to us in our weakness), or by depending on money.  So often we think that money will fix everything.  And that is indeed the sin of idolatry.  Jesus even speaks about the rich man whose riches only cause him more worry.

We Christians do indeed have the antidote to the universal problem of anxiety: and that is Christ.  Pray to Him.  Listen to His Word.  Allow the Heavenly Father to feed you with the bread of life and clothe you with a baptismal gown of Christ’s righteousness.  And in Christ, no matter what happens in this world – up to and including death itself, and beyond – we can lay our anxieties upon Him who values you more highly than all of His creation, valuing you even to redeem you at the cross.  

When our Lord says, “Therefore I tell you,” let us listen attentively, dear friends, let us listen and be restored – even to life everlasting! 

Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Sermon: Funeral of Shirley Boutian - 2020

18 September 2020

Text: John 10:10b-15, 27-30 (Isa 25:6-9, 1 Cor 15:51-57)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Dear Bubby, Ron, Shirley, family, friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, and honored guests, peace be with you.

Your beloved Shirley has been called home to be with the Lord after a long and good life.  Bubby, you had the privilege of 64 years of married life with Shirley.  And even in death, Shirley was at home surrounded by loved ones.  She leaves a void that will never be filled on this side of glory, for she is terribly missed by all of you.

Some people will try to comfort you by saying that death is natural, or just a part of life.  That’s just not true.  God did not create us to die.  God created us to live forever.  We messed up the plan by our sin.  It all started in the Garden of Eden, and got worse from there.  For as Shirley confessed again and again in the church’s liturgy, “I, a poor miserable sinner… justly deserve your temporal and eternal punishment.”  Even the very best of us is plagued by sin, and this is why we are mortal, dear friends.

Shirley knew this, and this is why she attended Divine Service until her health made it impossible.  She received forgiveness  and heard the preaching of the Gospel, the Good News, that Jesus died for us and gives us what we cannot give ourselves: eternal life.  She received the body and blood of Christ as a guarantee of that promise.  I brought her Jesus on her deathbed.  Shirley believed the Word of God, and she was prepared to die. 

Of course, we survivors are never really prepared for the temporary separation that death is for us Christians.  We love Shirley, we miss her, and we mourn.  But we mourn in a different way than unbelievers.  We mourn with hope.  We believe the same promises of Jesus that brought Shirley to Divine Service week in and week out.  And we will see her again.  

We prayed the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd.”  For it is the Lord who shepherds us even through the “valley of the shadow of death.”  Jesus tells us that He is that shepherd in our Gospel reading from St. John: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

This is Shirley’s faith and confession.  It means that she is safe and sound with Jesus.  It means that we who share this faith will see her again.  Jesus says He came to give Shirley life, and to have it “abundantly.”

We Christians know that death is not natural.  It is our enemy.  But it is a defeated enemy.  Death was defeated when Jesus Himself died to destroy death, and when we left His own grave, just as Shirley will, just as all believers will.  St. Paul teaches us this in our epistle reading from 1 Corinthians: “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”  And this is why we Christians, even in our mourning, even through our tears, can say defiantly: “Death is swallowed up in victory.  O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?”  And we join St. Paul is thanking God, “who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  For this victory was won for Shirley at the cross.  It was proven for Shirley at the empty tomb that first Easter.  And it was given to Shirley as a free gift of grace when she was baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  For Jesus says: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”  Shirley has been saved from death and hell.  She has that abundant life as a free gift of God.

Of course, this is still hard.  We do feel the sting of death in being separated from our loved ones.  Death is not natural.  It is not a part of life.  But we Christians know why it happens, and what happens.  And we Christians know that because Jesus conquered death, so has Shirley.

And so we are all waiting for our reunion.  We are waiting for the resurrection.  For we Christians also understand that God made us to have a spirit and a body.  We human beings are created in God’s image, and we have flesh and blood.  This is why we confessed in the creed that we believe in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”  On this side of the grave, Shirley loved to be physically present with loved ones, eating and drinking, feasting and laughing, embracing family and friends.  God did not create us to be disembodied spirits, but to be resurrected in the flesh.

Isaiah speaks of the new heaven and the new earth in our Old Testament lesson, promising “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.”  This is because we will be raised bodily from the dead, in bodies that are perfect, without pain, without disease, without aging.  Our world will be restored to what it was before sin.  We will once more enjoy the perfection of the Garden of Eden.  This is God’s promise, the promise that Shirley confessed by attending Divine Services and be receiving Christ’s body and blood.  And listen to Isaiah’s good news, dear friends: “He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.  He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces… for the Lord has spoken.”

“For the Lord has spoken,” dear friends.  This is not my promise, but God’s promise.  This is not my gift to you, but the gift of Jesus to you – the same gift given to Shirley: the gift of everlasting life even in death.

And so we Christians do not embrace death, we don’t welcome it, and we don’t consider it anything other than what it is: our enemy.  But we also know that the enemy was defeated, and Shirley has victory over death and the grave.  Our Lord Jesus Christ, Shirley’s Good Shepherd, declared victory from the cross when He proclaimed: “It is finished!”  His victory is Shirley’s victory.  And we will see her again!

Peace be with you, dear friends.  Peace be with you!  Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Sermon: St. Cyprian of Carthage - 2020

16 September 2020

Text: John 10:11-16 (Ps 23, 1 Pet 5:1-4, 10-11)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

St. Cyprian was a shepherd of the flock who served the Good Shepherd.  And like all pastors, he was given the responsibility to “shepherd the flock of God.”  In other words, Jesus is our Good Shepherd – the One who “lays down His life for the sheep,” who knows His own, and His own know Him.  For as we all know from King David’s great comforting Shepherd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd.”

The Scripture speaks of the called shepherds through whom Jesus gathers, feeds, and protects His flock.  These shepherds are sometimes called “elders” and sometimes “overseers.”  The “elder” is not like our office of the Board of Elders.  When Scripture uses the word “elder,” – in Greek, πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros) – it means the ordained pastor.  A pastor, regardless of his age, is to be treated as an elder, as one who is a leader of the community.  The Latin version of this word is where we get the word “senator” from.  But lest the pastor let that go to his head, it’s also where we get the word “senile” from.  Presbuteros has made its way into English as “presbyter” and as “priest.”  And the word “pastor” is from the Latin word for “shepherd.”

Another word for pastoral service is translated as “oversight.”  It’s where we get the words “supervisor” and “bishop” in English.  St. Peter exhorts us pastors to exercise this “oversight” in today’s Epistle reading.  St. Cyprian served the church as a deacon, then as a priest, then as a bishop – overseeing the pastors and congregations in his diocese in North Africa.  As a writer and preacher, he wrote in powerful Latin, and his sermons and writings are still studied today.

St. Cyprian was certainly not the perfect shepherd.  Only the Lord is such a shepherd.  Cyprian served in a time of persecution under the Romans.  At one point, as Christians were being executed, Bishop Cyprian went into hiding.  Was this cowardice on his part?  Or was he thinking of preserving the shepherd of the flock for their good?  This is not an easy question, dear friends.  For the church needs pastors.  Should pastors – even bishops – seek to preserve their lives, or should they submit to the sword and leave the flock without a shepherd?

Bishop Cyprian was roundly criticized for his decision to oversee and shepherd the flock from safety.  And when the persecutions of the year 250 under Emperor Decius stopped, there was a lot of anger in the church about those who lapsed from the Christian faith during the persecution.  Some said that this was an unforgivable sin.  Others said that the lapsed should be immediately forgiven and brought back into the flock.  Ultimately, the church took the suggestion of Bishop Cyprian and welcomed in the lapsed, but only after a period of public repentance.

Bishop Cyprian also comforted the Lord’s flock during the time of a great plague, and of course, preached the Gospel of the Good Shepherd, in whose service Cyprian stood as an elder and overseer.  

For once again, the job of the pastor is to shepherd the flock on behalf of the Good Shepherd, and to proclaim the Good Shepherd, who is our Lord Jesus Christ, in his preaching – and to do so in good times and in bad, to continue in this Word and work even in times of plagues, wars, and persecution.  

And having shepherds among them, the flock must remain as a flock, to continue to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd through the proclamation and work of their shepherds in the Holy Office, to continue to gather for worship, to hear the life-saving Word of God, to partake of the Holy Sacraments, and to strengthen one another by being here, together, as a flock.  

For just as the pastor has his calling to gather the flock, the flock has its calling to be gathered.  If the pastor’s job is to pastor, it is the laity’s job to be pastored.  If you want the Lord to be your Shepherd, if you want to lack nothing, if you desire God Himself to provide you with “green pastures” and “still waters,” to “restore” your soul and lead you in the “paths of righteousness” – then you must be shepherded – here in the Divine Service, where the flock is fed the very Bread of Life, and they are watered with Holy Baptism, where the cup of the Lord’s grace in the chalice overflows with His merciful blood of the New Testament, of salvation.

For your shepherd – your pastor, but ultimately your Lord – shepherds you throughout your life in this fallen world, guiding you even “through the valley of the shadow of death.”  You can face every manner of things in this life: persecution, plague, and even death, fearing no evil, for God is with you.  His rod and staff comfort you, and that rod and staff are given to pastors and bishops, to be your shepherd, by shepherding you to the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for the sheep.

Bishop Cyprian ultimately imitated His Good Shepherd, the Bishop of His soul, our Lord Jesus Christ, by laying down his own life for the sheep.  Another persecution broke out.  Bishop Cyprian did not go into hiding, but continued to shepherd the flock of God.  He was arrested in the year 257 and ordered to sacrifice to the pagan gods.  He refused.  Because of his confession of the Good Shepherd, Bishop Cyprian was sentenced to death by the sword.  His response was “Thanks be to God” – which we sing at the end of the liturgy, just before the final blessing.  St. Cyprian received the final blessing of martyrdom on September 14.  Following the example of centuries of our fathers in the faith, we remember St. Cyprian each year on September 16.

As a theologian, St. Cyprian’s writings are not academic, but deal with real pastoral issues.  For above all things, that’s what St. Cyprian was in his life on this side of the grave: a pastor, a shepherd of the flock of God, a servant of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord.  

To be the flock of God is to willingly follow our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, in good times and in bad, when we are prosperous and when we are persecuted, when we are healthy, and as we go through the valley of the shadow of death, when we are loved by our countrymen, and when we are hated, when is costs nothing to follow Jesus, and when the cost of discipleship is to bear the cross and suffer even death.  

Let us follow Jesus, dear friends, whether we are called to be a shepherd or whether we are members of the flock.  For ultimately, we are all members of the flock of God, gathered as a church by the Good Shepherd, who provides us with our life, with everything that we need in this mortal journey, with shepherds to lead us, with preachers to exhort and encourage us, with the oasis and grazing grounds of the Divine Service, where we are fed and strengthened so that we too, when our last hour comes, may pray, “Thanks be to God,” and receive the blessing at the end of our service to God in his valley of tears, being gathered by our Good Shepherd into the flock of the Church Triumphant.

Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Sermon: Wittenberg Academy – Sept 15

15 September 2019

Text: 2 Chron 34:1-4, 8-11, 14-33

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

King Josiah began his reign at the age of eight.  He was one of the minority of kings of Judah who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.”  Moreover, he “walked in the ways of David his father; and he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.”  

When he was only sixteen years of age, King Josiah began to pray to the Lord.  At the age of twenty, he boldly destroyed the pagan idols of Jerusalem.  He ordered the altars of the Baals, that is, the false demon gods, to be chopped down.  

The Lord used Josiah in a great reformation, restoring God’s Word to the people after their previous leaders led them into idolatry, and a neglect of the Word of God.  The kings of Judah had even allowed the beautiful temple to “go to ruin,” and Josiah oversaw its restoration.  And you’ll never guess what turned up during the project: “The Book of the Law.”  It had been lost for generations.

It is no wonder that the country fell to idolatry.  They had neglected the Word of God.  “And when the king heard the words of the Law, he tore his clothes” in shame and distress.  Can you just imagine, dear friends, the Bible had not been read in so long, that the entire nation forgot what was in it!  Things had gotten so bad that there were not even any male prophets left, and Hulda, the prophetess, bore the Word of the Lord that Judah would be judged for this grievous sin, but that King Josiah would be spared, because he humbled himself before the Lord.

King Josiah ordered the people to gather and to hear the reading of the Word of the Lord.  The people repented, and the king restored worship of the true God to Judah.

Dear friends, this kind of reformation took place in the Church as well, as reformers in the city after which our school was named, restored the reading of the Holy Scriptures to the people, bringing the Word back to the people in the language of the people, teaching students the true Word of God and not pagan superstition.  But we must be careful not to rest on the laurels of King Josiah and Martin Luther.  For we must continue to hear the Word of God, study it, pray it, proclaim it, and take it to heart.  We must raise up young men and women who will, like Josiah, hold the church accountable to submit to the Word, who will raise children in the Word, and who will lead our country away from the idolatry and paganism that surrounds us and threatens us with divine wrath.  

Let us indeed take up the mantle of Josiah’s Jerusalem and Luther’s Wittenberg, centering our faith and life on the living Word of God, the Holy Scriptures that testify to the Word Made Flesh, by whom we have forgiveness, life, and salvation!  Thanks be to God! 

Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Sunday, September 13, 2020

Meditation: Trinity 14 - 2020



13 September 2020

Text: Luke 17:11-19

 [Note: this meditation was read by the deacon in the absence of the pastor]

Today’s Gospel is not a parable, but an actual turn of events.  But it reads like a parable, because Jesus uses it to teach us about the kingdom of God, about our sinful nature, about the Lord’s mercy, and about what it means to live the Christian life.

Ten lepers stand “at a distance.”  Their leprosy keeps them away from God.  Sin is like leprosy.  It may make us ashamed to be around God, or it may make us not care if we are around Him or not.  And yet, something inside us draws us to Jesus when we realize that we need help.

The ten lepers cry out for mercy, just like we poor miserable sinners to in the liturgy: “Lord, have mercy upon us.  Christ, have mercy upon us.  Lord, have mercy upon us.”  Jesus hears their prayer and cleanses them of their leprosy.  Jesus hears our prayer and cleanses us of our sins: by His sacrificial blood shed on the cross, by the waters of Holy Baptism, and by His powerful Word: “Go, and show yourselves to the priests.”  The Word of Jesus enables us to stand forgiven before the Law.

So then what?  Nine of the lepers are healed, but do not return to give thanks.  But the Samaritan, the lowly and humble former leper falls before Jesus in worship and gives Him thanks and praise with his voice.  And this is what we do when we gather around Jesus in Word and Sacrament.  Our life as forgiven sinners continues in the presence of Jesus.  The Christian life is a life of gratitude.  Our entire lives are lived at the feet of our Master, and we are always praying and always giving thanks for His mercy.  We find our healing and our life in Him, even unto eternity. 

To be a Christian is to be the Tenth Leper, and it is our joy to hear our Lord say to us: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”  

Amen.

 

 

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Sermon: Wittenberg Academy – Sept 8

8 September 2019

Text: Phil 1:1-20

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  This is how St. Paul opened his letter to the Philippians, and this is an appropriate opening to our 2020-2021 school year at Wittenberg Academy.  

 St. Paul begins this joyous letter with thanksgiving to God, calling to mind the “partnership in the gospel” that he shared with the Philippian Christians, as he addressed the letter: “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.”  And it is also my joy to begin this new year of grace in our educational journey together with you, the saints of Wittenberg, with the pastors and the teachers and all of the other servants of our school.  For we are all partners in the Gospel as we ply our vocations together: students, parents, faculty, staff, and administration.  

 And like St. Paul, I give thanks to God for our school, for those who teach, for those who learn, for those who serve, and also for parents, whose sacrifice in love for their children also makes it possible for us to partner in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 And though his letter to the Church at Philippi was joyful in tone, St. Paul wrote from prison.  And while none of us are in prison, dear friends, I know that many of our churches are still under strict restraints, and some are still unable to meet due to the virus.  We have all suffered in many and various ways as a result of this pandemic and the restrictions – not to mention our burning cities and deep divisions that plague our country.  And yet, we give thanks to God just as did St. Paul, for we “are all partakers with [him] of grace.” 

 And I know that the prayer of our school for our students as we set out on the journey of a new school year together, dear friends, is indeed St. Paul’s prayer: “that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” 

 Amen.

 In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Sermon: Trinity 13 - 2020

6 September 2020

Text: Luke 10:23-37

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Today’s Gospel is our Lord’s most famous story.  By this parable, Jesus has given nearly every language in the world a common expression: “Good Samaritan.”  A “Good Samaritan” is a person who helps other people voluntarily, and expects nothing in return.  There are various agencies that provide aid that go by this name.  Laws protecting volunteers who render aid to those in need from being sued are called “Good Samaritan laws.”

But this story was not always popular with everyone.  For Jesus targets the Jewish religious leaders, that is, the priests and the scribes – and calls them out for their hypocrisy.  To pour salt into the wound, in the story, they are shown up by a Samaritan – who was a hated ethnic minority of that time and place.  Our Lord’s story is not nice to the people in charge: it was seen as provocative, obnoxious, and as many scolds and finger-waggers like to say today: “inappropriate.”

So what is the point of this parable, dear friends?  Why did Jesus tell this controversial tale?  Was He trying to shame people into repenting and acting better?  Was He teaching us how to live out a life of faith and service?  Was He teaching us about Himself?

One of the beautiful things about Scripture – being the Word of God – is that it never runs dry.  You can hear this story read and preached every year at this time, you can read it again and again, and you will never exhaust what the Lord wants you to hear.

There is indeed a moral imperative to this parable.  After all, Jesus tells the listener to whom He tells the story, “You go, and do likewise.”  This is indeed a call to repentance to the lawyer who desired to “justify himself” by asking “Who is my neighbor?”  He wanted to earn his salvation, and so he wanted to know whom to love so that he could benefit from it.

Do you see how terrible this is?  “Who is my neighbor, Jesus, so I can go be nice to that person for my own sake, because I want eternal life.”  How twisted it is to seek to do a good deed for someone just so you can get a benefit for yourself.  This is not love.  This is not keeping the commandments.

Our Lord’s story exposes the hypocrisy of our lawyer by putting his indifference and his self-centeredness into the characters of the priest and the Levite.  And both were shown up by the mercy and love of the Samaritan.  Jesus is calling the lawyer to repent, to put his trust in the Lord and not in himself to be justified.  And in so doing, he would be freed up to think of his neighbor – who is anyone in need – and to serve that neighbor in love, even as God Himself has served him.

But what is Jesus teaching us, dear friends?  Well, there is a little lawyer in all of us.  We want to be praised by men.  We want God to take notice of our good deeds.  Of course, we want God to overlook our sins.  Even our desire to serve God is tainted with the sinful nature that sticks to us like glue.  And so, He calls us to repent, to stop trying to justify ourselves, and to love our neighbors.  All of them.

He is also teaching us how the Christian is to live his life.  He looks for ways to be a Good Samaritan – not for his own sake, but for the sake of those in need.  God knows we are surrounded by neighbors who need to hear the Good News, who need love, who need help in carrying out the things of this life, who are struggling with health issues, with home, with family, with finances.  There are people who simply need companionship and hope.  Everyone needs a Good Samaritan, and our Lord calls us to “go and do likewise.”  And by focusing on the needs of others, we don’t become obsessed with ourselves.

But once more, dear friends, this passage is like a multifaceted diamond that sparkles all the more as you twist it in the light and look at it from a different angle.  For remember our lawyer’s question – and a lawyer’s question is never really an actual question: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  If you inherit something, you don’t do anything.  You inherit something – including eternal life – when someone dies and wills it to you.  A lawyer, above all people, knows how inheritance works.  

If you want to inherit eternal life, you need to know who has it. He must will it to you.  Then he must die.  You need to stop thinking that you can do anything on your own to get it. 

Our lawyer also erred by trying to “justify himself.”  For once again, there is no action that you can do to “justify yourself.”  Rather we are justified by One who is just.  And the one who is just shows mercy.  If you want to be justified, dear friends, look to the Merciful One, look to the One who was despised by the priests and Levites, but who, unlike them, shows mercy to you when you are beaten up by this world and left half-dead, when you are bleeding, whether literally or figuratively, and when you desperately need help to stay alive.  And when the Law does nothing for you – the priests and the Levites – look for One who will help: and that is Jesus Christ our Lord.

We inherit eternal life because it is God’s will.  He wills it to you, dear brother, dear sister.  And that will is executed because He has died.  His death on the cross atones for you and gives you eternal life as a gift, as an inheritance from the one who wills it.  

You do not have to justify yourself, because our Good Samaritan is merciful.  Though we deserve God’s wrath, we receive His mercy.  He binds up our wounds when we are battered by the world, the devil, and our sinful nature.  And our bleeding flesh is salved with oil and wine – medicine from the Lord Himself.  And He carries us to our heavenly home by means of His own creatures – even bread and wine which are, by His Word, His very body and blood, and by water poured in His divine name, which washes us free from sin.  And He pays for the damage done to us, and by us, paying “not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.”  And He even promises to come back, just like the Good Samaritan in His story.

Jesus is the Good Samaritan, and He teaches us about Himself in this parable.  

So, dear friends, there is Law in this tale: the Law that calls us to repent and teaches us how to live the Christian life.  And there is Gospel here as well: our Lord Jesus Christ teaching us that we are saved by grace, through faith, by means of His Word, by His will, by His mercy.

Let us hear this Word, ponder this Word, rejoice at this Word, and thank the Word Made Flesh, our Good Samaritan, who binds up our wounds by means of His wounds, who pays our debts out of His own treasure, and who justifies us so that we do not have to attempt to justify ourselves by lying to ourselves.

And in gratitude, let us find our neighbor in need and serve him, being that Good Samaritan, being the love of Christ to those in need, being a neighbor to those who have been beaten half-dead by our fallen world.  And let us indeed “go and do likewise,” not in search of salvation or selfish gain, but in genuine love, remembering the command and the promise: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

And let us always thank, praise, serve, and obey our Good Samaritan, the One who shows us mercy.  

Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Sunday, August 30, 2020

Sermon: Trinity 12 - 2020


30 August 2020

Text: Mark 7:31-37 (Isa 29:17-24, 2 Cor 3:4-11)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Although the New Testament was written in Greek, sometimes the original Hebrew or Aramaic word is so important that it comes out in its original language.

The word “Ephphatha” is one of these extraordinary words.  St. Mark even provides us with the translation: “Be opened.”  Our Lord Jesus uses this command to open the ears of a deaf man, and to release his tongue.  And our Lord doesn’t tell the man’s ears to “open,” but rather “be opened.”  For they cannot open themselves, but are rather acted on by the Word of God: “Be opened.”

So why is this so important?  Why is this word said in the original language, like the words “Alleluia” and “Amen”?  

Dear friends, the man’s ears needed to be opened because they were closed.  His impediment prevented him from hearing the Word of God.  St. Paul teaches us that “faith comes by hearing… the Word of Christ.”  And this is what makes deafness so terrible.  His ears needed opened because they were closed.  The gateway to faith was slammed shut for this poor man.  And like every sickness, the culprit is sin: probably not his own sin, but the sin of the world, the sin of our ancestors, the sin that surrounds us and dominates our world.  The deaf man is a victim of sin, and thus a victim of Satan.  Apart from God’s grace, he is headed to a certain death, an eternal death, which is the rightful penalty for sin.

But Jesus has come into our broken world to fix it, to fling open the gates of heaven that have been closed to us.  He comes so that “the deaf shall hear the words of a book,” as the prophet Isaiah preaches.  For the words of the book of the Scriptures are life-giving – if you hear them.

Most people are not physically deaf, but spiritually deaf.  They do not hear God’s Word because their ears are filled with the clutter and noise of this world.  One cannot hear the Word, the live-giving Word, the faith-giving Word, the words of eternal life – if one is not present to hear them.  To those who do not follow Jesus, who do not gather where He gathers us: at the font, at the altar, and at the pulpit – they are deaf to the Word.  And they slowly close in on themselves, and their faith shrivels and shrinks, eventually to nothing.

Dear friends, Jesus comes to open our ears and our eyes.  The miracles of healing the deaf and the blind point to a greater reality: to cure us of our spiritual deafness and blindness, and to blast open that which was closed, namely, the gate to eternal life.  For even the closed graves will be opened, and the dead in Christ will rise.  

And so our Lord has compassion on this victim of sin and the devil.  He “sighed” with compassion at the state of this poor man.  He used His fingers and His spittle and His Word to restore this man to wholeness, to open His ears, and open the door to eternal life.

“Ephphatha… Be opened.”

And not only were his ears opened, and He could hear the Word of God, but so too was his tongue “released, and he spoke plainly.”  He could not only hear the Word, but also repeat it.  He could not only listen, but confess it.  The word “released” is very important.  It means that his tongue was previously enslaved or held hostage.  And it is only the Word that can release anything from this kind of bondage, even the tongue of a man suffering the kind of infirmity that even makes faith difficult.

But this is not difficult for Jesus, dear friends.  “One little Word” can fell the “old evil foe,” as we sing in the great hymn.

This idea of opening our ears and our mouths has been understood by the church as pointing us to Holy Baptism.  In St. Mark’s very short account of our Lord’s baptism, he speaks of the heavens being opened, and the Holy Spirit descending.  There is so much meaning packed into this word “opened.”  

For when a baby is baptized, his ears are opened to hear the Word of God.  And when an adult – who has already been converted by hearing the Word – is baptized, his ears have already been opened.  In some baptismal liturgies, there is actually a prayer called the Ephphatha, that goes like this: “The Lord has made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May He soon touch your ears to receive His word, and your mouth to proclaim His faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father. Amen.”

And this prayer would come before the baptism of an adult, and after the baptism of a child.  Holy Baptism opens the ears of a child to hear and believe the Word, and releases the tongue of the child to soon confess the faith and sing praise to God.  And if a person has heard the proclamation of the Word prior to Holy Baptism, his ears have already been opened, his tongue has already been released, and his baptism opens the portal to eternity by giving him the gift of the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life, with certitude and clarity, even as a baptized adult has heard this Word with his ears and believes it, and confesses this Word with his tongue and proclaims it.

The whole life of the Christian is an “Ephphatha” – constantly being opened to the Word of God by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He commands that our ears “Be opened” when our sins are forgiven, and when we hear the proclamation of the Gospel.  And by His grace, at His Word, we gather with others whose ears have also been opened, and our tongues, having been released by God’s Word, speak the creed, give thanks to God, sing praise to His name, and confess the good news in the hearing of others, “more zealously proclaiming it.”  

For we are baptized, our ears have been opened, our tongues have been released, the heavens have been opened to us, and the Holy Spirit has descended upon us.  And even as the “letter” of the law “kills,” even so, “the Spirit gives life.”  By faith, our hearts are opened by the Word, and the Spirit comes to us, our ears remain open and attentive to the Word, and our tongues are released to speak the good news.

Let us pray that we may never allow our ears to be closed by the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, but that the Word of God may continually open to us the way to eternal life!  Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Friday, August 28, 2020

Stupid TV

I quit watching TV a long time ago.  But a lot of people have told me that "The Big Bang Theory" is funny - especially in matters of religion.  So I watched some excerpts on YouTube.  What I watched was actually a sort-of prequel showing the formation of the show's character "Sheldon" as a child.

What I saw was comedically pathetic, and pathetically preachy.  It is nothing more than very bad Atheist Apologetics that depends on the ignorance of the viewer to be effective.  I watched excepts from this episode in which an 8-year old Sheldon takes on Christianity and dismantles it single-handedly, because he believes in "science."  The arguments were not just simplistic, but stereotypical and cartoonish.

The writers don't even know the basics, such as the fact that Baptists don't adorn their churches in colored paraments corresponding with the church year.  I know that there are exceptions to this rule, but so few as to be statistically insignificant - a concept that the writers should seemingly understand and embrace: math and science and all that.  Also, pastors typically do not field questions while preaching in the pulpit.  It makes one wonder if the writers have ever been to an actual church service.  There was also a scene in which the Baptist Sunday school children were reciting and praying the Lord's Prayer together.  This is also not how Baptists teach the Bible to children.  And they don't use the translation of the Lord's Prayer that uses the word "trespasses."  I mean, this stuff is so basic, that it shows that they have no consultant.  And why would they?  They clearly think they know everything.  They have this smug, cocksure attitude that corresponds to a writer insisting on not using a proofreader.  It indicates the haughty ego of the insufferable know-it-all.

After the discussion of the Lord's Prayer (which is in Matthew's Gospel), Sheldon cites "Chapter One Verse One" - while not naming the book (which is incidentally John's Gospel) to show what an idiot the pastor is, based on the translation of the word "Word" ("In the beginning was the Word").  He points out that this is actually the Greek word "Logos" - which "means knowledge."  The reality is that the word Λόγος - like many foreign words - can be translated into English in several different ways depending upon context.  The world's greatest scholars have been translating the Greek of the New Testament into the world's languages for nearly 2,000 years.  

The Latin is rendered Verbum, German: das Wort, French: la Parole, Spanish: la Parabla, Italian: il Verbo, and even Esperanto: la Vorto.  See the pattern?  

When the kid says that "Logos" means "knowledge" - it seems to befuddle the pastor.  In reality, this idea of the Logos - in all of its fullness - is part of Christian christology.  Christ is the Logos - the intelligence behind the universe, behind creation, the Word "by whom all things were made" as we have been confessing in the Nicene Creed for just shy of 1,700 years.  The word "Logos" is part of the etymology of the word "Theology" and all other "-ology" words.  This is a confession of Christian truth, not a refutation of it.  This is not a startling revelation.  

Moreover, the first day that many of us set foot in seminary, we were learning Greek.  And even if Christian pastors don't have to study the New Testament in Greek, they certainly know the main Greek words used in Christian theology.  They don't have to be told this by a smart-aleck eight-year old unbeliever.

Sheldon also uses logic (also based on the Greek word "Logos," by the way) to "refute" the apologetic claims of the pastor.  Of course, this is all "funny" and "lighthearted," but if you were to remove the laugh-track, it would come across for what it is: cheesy, hamfisted, and manipulative Apologetics wielded against a straw man.  

One example is the pastor pointing out that many of the world's greatest scientists actually believed in God - including Charles Darwin.  Sheldon retorts by saying, "So Darwin was wrong about evolution and right about God?"  "Hahaha" screams the laugh-track as the doltish pastor looks bewildered at being checkmated.  But how is this an argument?  Couldn't one equally point out that Atheists also argue that Darwin was wrong about God, but right about evolution?  

In another scene regarding creation according to Genesis, Sheldon "trumps" the pastor by pointing out that light was created on Day One while the sun wasn't created until Day Four.  My gosh, how did we miss that?  We have been reading, thinking about, and commenting upon the Genesis text for some three and a half millennia - but it took a Hollywood screenwriter to refute the whole thing to a laugh-track.  "Hahaha!" and on to the next scene.

And of course, Sheldon's Christian parents speak with a Southern accent, while he speaks like he comes from the North.  Subtle, isn't it?  I would be willing to bet that many Americans get their view of Christianity and Christian Apologetics from the likes of this sloppy and intellectually dishonest TV show and their ignorant writers.

Finally, isn't it interesting that the writers target Christianity as their representative of "irrational religion" in opposition to "science" - while adopting a hands-off view of Judaism and Islam?  

So I've seen enough.  This confirms my premise that nearly all TV is junk food for the mind and rat poison for the soul.  Television seems to retard the intelligence of the viewer, who typically laughs on cue like a drooling Pavlovian dog (but convinced that he is now the smarter for it) and moves along to the next scene without asking too many questions.  

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Sermon: Trinity 11 - 2020

23 August 2020

Text: Luke 18:9-14 (Gen 4:1-15, 1 Cor 15:1-10)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Most of the greatest teachers in history were storytellers.  For that is naturally how we learn.  And so when Jesus, the greatest Teacher in history, wants to teach us about the kingdom of God, He tells stories.  

And most stories have a “good guy” and a “bad guy.”  A famous western added an “ugly guy” too.  But most morality tales include two types of characters: those that we would consider ethical, and those that we would consider immoral.  Our Lord’s parables often have this “good guy” and “bad guy” dichotomy.  And today’s Gospel certainly reflects this theme. 

But our Lord throws in a twist to really make us think about the kingdom of God in a different way.

He creates two characters in this story: a Pharisee and a tax collector.  Now it’s important to hear the story as His original hearers did.  When we say “Pharisee” today, we usually think “bad guy.”  That’s because we have been listening to Jesus.  But to really grasp how controversial this story was as our Lord told it, you need to clear your mind of what you think about the Pharisees.

Here is how our Lord’s listeners thought of the Pharisees: these were the really good people.  They were religious.  They took their faith seriously.  They attended synagogue and temple services all of the time.  They prayed even more than was required.  They were also the big donors.  When something needed to be done, they did it.  They sacrificed.  They worked.  They encouraged others to be hard working for the kingdom of God.  They strove to be good people.  They were the ones who helped out the poor.  They knew the Scriptures.  They were never ashamed of who they were.  They wore symbols of their religion.  They were no slackers.  They avoided worldly and scandalous behavior.  They were always careful to be pious in everything they did.

These were the ultimate “good guys.”

The tax collector is the only other character in this story of Jesus.  Now, nobody likes to pay taxes.  But in the days of the Jews being ruled by Rome, the tax collectors – especially if they were Jewish – were hated.  They were shunned.  They were shamed.  They were seen as traitors.  For they collaborated with Rome and their filthy money with the image of the false god Caesar on it.  They typically were permitted to take extra and keep it – so the more cruel they were with the people, the richer they became.

These were the ultimate "bad guys."

And so, you could not find two more opposite characters.  The Pharisee was not just good, but extremely good.  The tax collector was not just bad, but downright ugly.  

And in our Lord’s story, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”  If you are listening to this story with first century Jewish ears, your mind has already put together a picture.  You would be thinking that the Pharisee deserves to be in the temple.  He is a person who does many good works.  He certainly must love God, and God loves him in turn.  You would also be thinking about the tax collector.  Why that hypocrite ought to be afraid that lightening would strike him: the filthy traitor and cheat!  He isn’t even worthy to stand in the shadow of the good, religious Pharisee man.

And so let us listen in on the prayers that our Lord puts in their mouths.  “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you….”  You see, the Pharisee must be very humble.  He first gives thanks to God.  And he reflects on goodness: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”  Our Pharisee then calls to mind his own good works: “I fast twice a week.”  Wow, dear friends, once a week is what is required.  The Good Pharisee works twice as hard!  “I give tithes of all that I get.”  Wow, this means he faithfully gives ten percent of his entire income to the temple.  He gives to the poor on top of that!

What’s there not to love?

Well, let’s check in on our tax collector.  It seems that he, “standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven.”  Well, that’s good.  He’s a cheat and a thief.  At least he has the common decency to grovel before God and not to offend the Pharisee by getting too close.  He knows that he is a gross sinner.  He “beat his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”  And so he admits it!  

So the Pharisee focuses on his good works, and the tax collector focuses on his sins.  The Pharisee puffs himself up by thanking God for making him so much better than the tax collector, while the tax collector shows a contrite heart in confessing his sin and actually asking for God’s mercy.

Do you see what has just happened, dear friends?  The Pharisee is exposed as a shallow braggart who seems to think God should bow down to him.  The tax collector is humble, confesses his sin, and seeks forgiveness.  The Pharisee never asks for mercy because he thinks that he doesn’t need it.  The tax collector pleads for mercy because he knows that he does need it.  

And so the guy we thought was good is the phony; the guy we thought was bad is the one who is righteous – not because of his own works, but by God’s grace.  For Jesus, God in the flesh, says that the tax collector “went down to his house justified, rather than the other.”  And here is the point, dear friends: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

In the world, what makes you “good” is how you appear to others.  But in the kingdom of God, there is no-one who is good but God alone.  We are all poor miserable sinners.  We are all bad.  In fact, we are all ugly.  We just pretend to be good, and we expect the world – and God – to praise us.  But in fact, we are all like the tax collector deep down inside.  For we daily sin much in thought, word, and deed.  Not a single one of us is that person we like others to believe that we are.  What makes the tax collector actually “good” is his honesty.  He confesses.  He seeks mercy.  And because of his prayer, Jesus says that he is “justified,” that is, made righteous by God’s decree.  And having been justified, he is empowered to live a life of repentence, to turn from his sins, to be changed from the inside out.  For the ultimate mercy of God is found in the storyteller, Jesus, who is more importantly, the Savior.  He is the Rescuer.  His blood shed on the cross cries out to the Father, not unlike Abel’s blood from the first time a man killed another man.  For Jesus was killed by men, crucified, sacrificed, “died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,” so that we, who confess our sins, who seek His mercy, who receive Him in faith, “should not perish, but have everlasting life,” should not die an everlasting death, but will be raised, like Jesus, “in accordance with the Scriptures.”  The tax collectors who turn to Him will be raised to eternal life because of their heartfelt plea for God’s mercy.

In His earthly ministry as the Great Teacher, most of the Pharisees rejected Jesus.  Most of them felt that they had no sins to confess.  Most of them “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt,” and how wrong they were, dear friends!  It was the tax collectors (like St. Matthew, who wrote the first Gospel) who were drawn to our Lord’s call to repent and His promise of mercy.  It was the thieves and scoundrels, the prostitutes and drunkards – even the hated Samaritans and other Gentiles – who heard the Word of God and were transformed by His mercy.

For although our Lord tells stories to teach, His life is a true story that does even more than teach: His life, death, and resurrection forgives us, saves us, justifies us, and will raise us in the body on the Last Day – because He indeed hears our confession and our prayers for mercy.  That is the Christian life.  That is the kingdom of God.  Let us go to our houses justified, dear friends, knowing that we are saved by grace through faith – not by works of the law, not by personal religiosity, and not by appearances and the praise of men.  We are saved by humbly submitting to our Teacher and Savior.  

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”  Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Sermon: St. Bernard of Clairvaux - 2020

19 August 2020

Text: John 15:7-11 (Ecclus 39:1-10, Rev 3:7-11)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux is a complicated historical figure.  In some ways, it’s odd that we Lutherans should honor him with a feast day.  As a man of his times, he had a held to a superstitious view of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  And having become a powerful figure in the Church of his own day, he became entangled in internal political disputes involving church politics.  

And yet, our Lutheran confessions mention him eight times, and refer to him as a “holy father.”  

For in spite of his imperfections and foibles, St. Bernard understood the central doctrine of the faith: justification.  He said, “You must believe, first of all, that you cannot have the forgiveness of sins except by the forbearance of God; but add further that you also believe that through Him your sins are forgiven.  This is the witness that the Holy Spirit brings in your heart, saying, ‘Your sins are forgiven you.’  For thus the apostle concludes, that a man is justified freely by faith.’”

St. Bernard also confessed that good works flow from the free gift that is the forgiveness of sins.  As the abbot of many monasteries, St. Bernard understood that good works and self-sacrifice cannot earn salvation, but rather that Christian good works flow from being justified by grace through faith.  

And where does this faith come from, dear friends?  Why do we believe in this doctrine of justification?  How are we justified, dear brothers and sisters?  It all gets back to Christ, to His work on the cross, to His victory over Satan, to His sacrificial atonement.  And what is the source of all of this?  Why does Jesus die for the sins of the world?  What motivates God to save us?

Love.

St. Bernard’s hymns – two of which we are singing tonight – confess this love of Christ and our devotion to Him.  For Jesus said, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be My disciples.”

Our Lord speaks of good works as “bearing fruit.”  Our good works flow from our “abiding” in Him, and His words abiding in us.  Even if you were to renounce all worldly wealth, live in a tiny cell, and pray all day.  Even if you were to cut yourself off from every worldly pleasure, if you sacrifice all joys and pleasures of this life, if you gave up spouse and children and home and family in the pursuit of righteousness, it won’t mean anything at all without the love of Christ, without His Word, without faith, and without being declared righteous by God for the sake of Jesus.

Our Lord says, “As the Father has loved Me, so I have loved you.  Abide in My love.”  To “abide” means to persevere.  The love of Christ will carry us through all times of trouble and struggle in this life – and even unto eternity.  He abides in us, which means that we can abide in Him.  It is a week by week thing, a day by day thing, a minute by minute thing.  We Christians focus our lives on the life and love of Christ, remembering our baptism multiple times a day and praying, imbibing the Holy Scriptures, and abiding in His love through the miracle of receiving His body and blood in the Holy Eucharist.  And it is only in this context of abiding in Christ, in His love, that we can live out the Christian life according to our callings.  

Jesus says, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.”  And while we fail to keep the commandments perfectly (which is why we need the love and mercy of God and the salvation of the Son), we Christians rightfully resist temptation and turn to the Lord in such times, receiving Holy Absolution when we fail as a means to abide in the love of Christ.  And the only way to even begin to keep the commandments is to know them, for they too are God’s Word.  

Our Lord does not speak of the Christian life as the fruitless struggle to become perfect through works – which is the sad fate of the followers of every other religion in the world.  Rather, our Lord offers a radical alternative: grace and faith as gifts flowing from His own pierced side and from His own “sacred head now wounded.”  This justification by grace through faith is the Good News, it is how we abide in Christ and how Christ abides in us, it is that which fuels our faith, and dear friends, instead of life on a treadmill of failure, our Christian life is one of joy.

Don’t take my word for it.  And don’t even take Bernard of Clairvaux’s word for it.  Listen to our Lord Jesus Christ sum up his discourse on abiding in His love: “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”

Our first reading today comes from the Apocrypha, and it speaks of a person abides in the Word of God: he “devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High” and “will seek out the wisdom of all the ancients.”  He will “reveal instruction in his teaching, and will glory in the law of the Lord’s covenant.”  And all of his good works in pursuit of the Lord will bear fruit “if the Lord is willing.”  And, dear friends, this is why we honor the saints, such as the holy father Bernard.  For “many will praise his understanding, and it will never be blotted out; his memory will not disappear, and his name will live through all generations.  Nations will declare his wisdom, and the congregation will proclaim his praise.”  We honor St. Bernard because the Word abided in him, and through his preaching and teaching, the word abided in the many who heard his preach and teach and administer the sacraments.

The Church has honored St. Bernard for nearly eight hundred years because He was a preacher of the Gospel.  His sermons, hymns, and teaching point us to Christ and what He has done for us, the love of God, the forgiveness of sins, and how it is that we Christians live out our life of grace.  And ultimately, what makes Bernard of Clairvaux a “holy father” in the words of our Lutheran confessions is not his founding of monasteries, his work in trying to reform the church, his involvement in the crusades, or even his preaching and teaching, but rather the love of God in Jesus Christ, the gifts of grace and faith, and the Word that abided with him in all of his endeavors, and abides with him in eternity – the same Word that abides in you, dear friends.

Abiding in the love and Word of God in Christ Jesus is even more urgent in these dark and latter days than it was in the days of St. Barnard.  For as Jesus speaks to the Church in the last days: “I know that you have but little power, and yet have kept My Word and have not denied My name….  Because you have kept My Word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.  I am coming soon.  Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.”

Let us abide in the Word, in the Gospel, in the Holy Sacraments, in God’s love, in prayer, and in joy – in other words, let us abide in Christ Jesus our Lord.  

Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.