Sunday, August 29, 2004

Sermon: Trinity 12 (Pentecost 13)

29 August 2004 at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Metairie, LA

Text: Luke 12:49-53 (3 Year)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s Gospel reading is the kind that pastors make jokes about. Jesus is speaking very harsh words, preaching about divisions among people, even families being at war against one another – after which, the pastor sings: “This is the Gospel of the Lord!” Today’s Gospel is a text that seems to be missing the Gospel. It seems that Jesus has very little good news for us at all today.

Although it has probably been like this all along, it really seems as though we are more divided today than ever before. The Supreme Court hardly makes any decision that isn’t settled by a 5-4 vote. Presidential elections are so close that the candidates will spend millions upon millions of dollars in order to secure a majority of what may only be a couple hundred votes. Unruly children are in rebellion against their parents, and these days, we even have responsible and upright children in rebellion against their parents who came of age in the divisive 1960s.

The Church is terribly divided as well. These days you cannot take for granted that a church believes in the resurrection, or in the miracles of Jesus, or even in the Gospel that our Lord, who is both man and God, died on a cross to forgive sins. In our own synod we are in a civil war over participation in prayer services with non-Christians, worship styles, the role of the synod, closed communion, the nature of the office of the ministry, and the role of women in the Church.

And our Lord brings us strange words of comfort today: “Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division.” He tells us that not only nations and cultures will be divided, and that Christian churches will be in a state of disunity – but even families, those tiny building blocks of society where children are nurtured, will be plagued by disharmony. Parents against children, children against parents, and in-laws against in-laws.

But dear Christian friends, this is a word of Gospel – though it is of the type we would rather not hear. As distressed as we are over division and strife among our families and institutions, we can take comfort that our Lord is himself distressed. He does not leave us to suffer alone. It is Jesus who takes our suffering upon himself, manifesting itself in his upcoming baptism – not a baptism like ours of water, but rather a baptism in blood – his holy, precious, and saving Blood – the very same Blood we share today. The baptism Jesus refers to is his crucifixion, the ultimate division, the baptism that would bring forth fire upon the earth. Jesus dreads this baptism, and the raging war and its fallout troubles our loving and compassionate Lord in a way we will never truly experience.

For this really is good news. This baptism of blood, this crucifixion, this death of the very God upon a cross as a criminal is good news. The world does not understand this. As St. Paul reminds us, Jews see our crucified Lord as a stumbling-block, while the Greek world of the Gentiles see the crucifixion as foolishness. The world looks at us Christians shaking their heads at us, people who put images of a condemned criminal with nails in his hands and feet on our walls and around our necks. They find it inconceivable that we describe the day our Lord and Master was tortured to death as “Good Friday.”

But dear friends, this is indeed the Gospel. Our Lord describes his crucifixion not only as a baptism, but as a fire upon the earth – and the Greek word for fire is where we get the word “purify.” The Lord’s cross is the very thing that purges evil from the universe. The tongues of fire that appeared at Pentecost are part of that fire that emanates from Calvary, from the bloody baptism of our sacrificial Lamb upon the altar of the cross.

But evil does not go quietly into the night. Fire is violent, and it results in combustion and heat, it changes the very chemical properties of that which it consumes and purifies. The result of the cross, the result of the Gospel, is the division our Lord speaks of. For the Gospel to which we cling is a confession. It is a line in the sand. It is not negotiable, and it is not something we can compromise about. The certitude we Christians have about our faith is interpreted by the world as arrogance, as exclusiveness. This confession of the truth is what fuels the hatred against the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament martyrs whose blood was shed by those on the other side of the line in the sand.

The reason for all of this is sin. Sin rejects the good gift of our Lord. Sin mocks the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Sin refuses to believe that such grace from God is real. Sin causes the purifying fire of our Lord’s crucifixion to be spurned, to be hated. Sin is the real cause of all the strife our Lord describes. For instead of surrendering to our Lord’s will, to our Lord’s plan, to our Lord’s grace – sin rebels. It asserts its own way. It makes war on the co-worker and brings hatred against family members.

This same sin caused the prophets of old to be murdered for their testimony. This same sin has caused millions of faithful Christians – the “great cloud of witnesses” in our Epistle text – to be martyred for the faith. This same sin causes us heartache and strife today – in our nation, in our places of employment, in our churches, and even in our families.

And yet this division makes a clear distinction between good and evil, between our Lord and Satan, between the world and the kingdom of God. We are engaged in this war, and we dare not give in to the temptation to retreat, to make a deal with the enemy, to surrender. We must continue to confess our Lord with integrity and clarity, we must proclaim the saving Gospel with boldness – even when it brings division and hatred.

But how do we do this? Must we wage this war alone? Is it up to our will power, our courage, our might? If that were the case, dear friends, we may as well lay down our arms right now and hoist the white flag. But it isn’t up to us. For Jesus himself sends the purifying fire. Jesus himself endures the baptism of blood for us. For our baptism of water links us to Jesus’s crucifixion, and our participation in the Lord’s Supper connects his Flesh to our flesh and his Blood to our blood. And by his Word – the Word the prophet Jeremiah compares to fire - we are tempered and steeled for battle. When we are absolved of our sins we are prepared for combat.

Many of you here have been in military combat. It is not glorious. It is not beautiful. It is not a happy endeavor. There are casualties. There are wounds. There is blood, sweat, and tears. The Christian’s combat with Satan is no less bitter and relentless. But our Lord uses a word today that tells us the victory is ours. He says that his distress anticipates his bloody baptism’s being “accomplished.” Just as a successful military campaign results in a “mission accomplished!”, our battle with evil, our struggle for the faith, our war against sin, death, and the devil has already been won. The very same Greek word Jesus uses here that is translated as “accomplished” is the same word in John’s Gospel as our Lord’s last word from the cross: “It is finished!” As our Lord dies on the cross, he shouts to the entire universe that the mission has been accomplished.

There, dear friends, is the highest expression of the Gospel. Jesus has died for you. Jesus has forgiven your sins. Jesus has conquered the Evil One and has restored paradise. We live in the great “now” of the victory, but the “not yet” of its completion. The war has been won, but the treaty has not yet been signed. Those who align themselves with evil continue to rebel, while our Lord, in his mercy, continues to beckon to them to lay down their arms. Our Lord, with open arms, offers a great amnesty to the whole world. But in spite of this glorious offer for full pardon and full citizenship, those who bring division continue their guerrilla tactics.

But the Church must not become distraught by the division. As our Epistle text reminds us: you must “consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” No, the Church must not despair – for her Lord has already won the war. Christians must continue to confess the faith firmly, without wavering, and without compromise. She must demand with her Lord nothing but unconditional surrender by those who resist our Lord’s dominion. And yet Christians also have the luxury to be merciful, to speak the truth in love, knowing that her Lord still controls the field.

Though divisions torment us, we have the Gospel. And the divisions are a blessing in disguise. For if our faith were not met with resistance, we would not be carrying out our Lord’s work.

So take heart, my dear brothers and sisters. By virtue of your baptism – which joins you to our Lord’s, and by virtue of his Flesh and Blood which he joins to yours, you are free to boldly confess the faith, and you are empowered to show mercy to those who continue to hate us. For our Lord reminds us: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” And so we rejoice and are exceedingly glad as our Epistle text encourages us: “Strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Sermon: Thursday of Trinity 11 (Pentecost 12)

24 August 2004 at Chapel of Lutheran High School, Metairie, LA

Text: Phil 3:1-11

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

In last week’s text, St. Paul waged war against teachers in Galatia who incorrectly turned the Christian faith into a series of rules and regulations. In today’s text, he writes to Christians at Philippi, warning them of these same false teachers – whom Paul calls “dogs,” “evildoers,” and those who “mutilate the flesh.” These are the people who trust in their own flesh as a source of righteousness. These are the people who believe they are actually capable of overcoming sin on their own, by their own will power, or due to their own high station in life.

St. Paul tells the Philippians: “Look, if anyone could be saved by doing good works, by associating with all the right people, by keeping all the rules, that would be me!” Paul lists all of the things he has going for himself – and it is an awesome list. Most people would be impressed by St. Paul’s accomplishments. But what does Paul call all of these things? Compared to his confession of Jesus Christ as the Lord, Paul considers all of them to be “rubbish.” This is actually a cleaned-up version of what the Greek text really says.

Paul gets right to the point, the central point of the Gospel. Paul cuts to the heart of who Jesus is and why he’s still important today. Paul sums it up like this: my righteousness, or my “right-ness” before God does not come from myself. It does not come from my obedience to the law. It does not come from my ancestry or obedience to certain rituals. It does not come from my accomplishments. Rather, my righteousness, my being right with God, comes from God himself. It’s not about me at all. Paul calls it the “righteousness from God that depends on faith.” In other words, God is so merciful to me, that as miserable, as guilty, as undeserving as I am, God gives me a gift. And that gift is his own goodness. So when God the Father looks at me, he doesn’t see the poor, miserable sinner that I am, but rather he sees his own Son, his perfect Son, his obedient Son. God credits my account with the righteousness and perfection of Jesus, and he also removes all traces of my sin, my guilt, my punishment.

This goes for St. Paul, it goes for you, and it goes for me. This is the gift that comes wrapped in baptismal water and given to you on the day of your second birth, on the day you were, in the words of our Lord, “born again of water and the Spirit.” This gift comes tied up in a cross-shaped bow, and presented to you with a card engraved with your name on it. The extreme obedience of Jesus in going to the cross becomes your own. This is why we make the sign of the cross when we recall our baptisms.

And Paul points out that this amazing act of mercy comes with yet another gift attached to it – the gift of eternal life. As we say in the Creed, the “resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” And we remember this gift when we make the sign of the cross at the end of the creed. For this gift is bundled together with the first.

These gifts make all other worldly things seem like trash. The gift of the righteousness of Jesus Christ makes anything we can do, anything we can earn, any high position we have, seem like garbage. There is no amount of money, no position of power, no status symbol that can even look like anything other than rotten banana peels and used milk containers when placed next to the glorious treasure freely given to us at baptism. And that priceless gift is this: Your sins have been forgiven, not by your actions, but rather by the death and resurrection of God’s Son for you. You have been freed to be a blessing to others instead of worrying about your own soul. We Christians are free to do good works for others out of sheer gratitude – not out of a “what’s in it for me” attitude.

This is why Paul tells the Philippians to rejoice! They have gotten a great gift. They have cheated the hangman. They have received more than all the combined wealth of the world as a present from Almighty God himself. Well they should rejoice. And so should we. Amen.

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

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Sermon: Thursday of Trinity 10 (Pentecost 11)

18 August 2004 at Chapel of Lutheran High School, Metairie, LA

Text: Gal 5:1-15

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

There is nothing on this earth more misunderstood than Christianity.

Most Christians even miss the point. If you ask the average person to define Christianity, they will say it is a religion of obedience to ethical rules. They will put Jesus in the same category as the Buddha, Mohammad, and Oprah Winfrey. Most people think Christianity is all about “being nice.” Don’t get me wrong, being nice is a good thing! Being obedient to the rules is a good thing. I don’t think any of you in my classes would accuse me of being in favor of letting you do whatever you want whenever you want. But if God came into our world for the sake of teaching us to “be nice,” to give us a series of “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots,” why did he choose to die on the cross? Why not just leave us a list of rules, be a good example, and go back where he came from? Moses already gave us the Law, why did Jesus have to go to all the trouble that he did? Why did Jesus allow himself to be handed over to Pilate, to be whipped almost to the point of death, to be stripped and mocked on the cross as a criminal, dying an agonizing death?

This sacrifice of the God-man on the cross is the main point of Christianity – and in this church, it is the focal point above our altar. It is the first thing you see when you come into my classroom. This is no accident. But it is also a scandal to those who “don’t get it.” Why not have a plain cross instead of this bloody statue? Why not have bunny rabbits, smily faces, kittens, and sunsets instead of a sweaty, bloody man with nails in his hands and feet? Why can’t we just ask “What would Jesus do?” and be nice to each other – why this whole “cross” thing?

This disconnect from the crucified Jesus is frustrating for preachers of the Gospel. So many people see Jesus only as a theoretical moral example and not as a flesh-and-blood sacrifice on our behalf for our sins, that we preachers can become inpatient.

St. Paul had just this problem with the church at Galatia – which prompted the text I just read. In this congregation, there were people who misunderstood Jesus and his mission. They saw the Christian life as following a series of rules and regulations. These folks were hung up on the Jewish ritual of circumcision, which was done to little boys when they reached 8 days old. To them, this issue became definitive of the Christian life. Instead of the cross and blood of Jesus – which forgives us all our sins and enables us free access to God – they fretted over the Old Testament laws. They caused St. Paul such headaches that Paul expressed a very impious thought toward them in verse 12.

Instead, Paul stresses the freedom we have in Christ – which is what the Gospel is all about. He tells us the important thing is “faith working through love.” This faith (the faith of Christ) comes to us through God’s Word and through God’s Sacraments. Faith is given to us at Baptism, in confession, and at the Sacrament of the Altar. Faith is given to us when we hear God’s Word, God’s “Logos” proclaimed and preached. The Christian life is all about what Paul calls “the offense of the cross.” The Greek word translated here as “offense” is “skandalon” – which is close to the English word “scandal.” A scandal is something shameful and embarrassing. Those who believe works of the law – like circumcision, like “being nice,” like obeying the Ten Commandments – will bring you close to God or admit you to heaven when you die – believe the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is a scandal. Because the focus is no longer on themselves, but on Jesus. Not on what we do, but on rather what he has done for us, and continues to do for us.

We Christians are free from the law. But Paul reminds us that this freedom is not merely “an opportunity for the flesh” – which is to say, an excuse to do whatever we want. Rather this freedom is given to us as a gift that we should use wisely, taking care of each other in love. We don’t do this because there’s a rule to obey, but rather because Christ frees us from our selfishness so that we can be free to show our love for one another by serving each other. Where the love of Christ reigns, there is no need for a rule to force you to love, to compel you to “be nice,” or to make you do good works out of a guilt trip.

And if you want to be reminded of true love, eternal love, love that never withers or wavers, never runs away when it gets tough – look to Jesus on the cross. For to us Christians, the crucified Lord is not merely a great person to imitate, nor is he a scandal to be ashamed of, but rather he is God in the flesh who not only creates us, but who also protects our lives, brings us into fellowship with God, and uses us as instruments by which he shares his love in this world.

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

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Sermon: Thursday of Trinity 8 (Pentecost 9)

12 August 2004 at Chapel of Lutheran High School, Metairie, LA

Text: 2 Cor 1:1-11

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

As St. Paul the pastor greets his flock in the City of Corinth, so now I greet all of you here in Metairie: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.

In our text, Paul preaches about affliction and comfort. He tells us that we Christians will suffer, and yet we Christians will receive relief – relief by which we are free to comfort others.

By the world’s standards, this is a strange sermon, isn’t it? Why talk about things like suffering and affliction at all? It doesn’t exactly make the Christian life look appealing. Why doesn’t Paul say that by becoming a Christian, you will be popular and wealthy, you will never have school problems, parent problems, or friend problems, no acne, nothing physical about us to be made fun of, we will never lose a sporting event, or be embarrassed? Why doesn’t Paul guarantee us no problems of health, no problems of sin and guilt, and especially, no death itself? Why bring up the “suffering” thing at all?

According to our culture’s ways, shouldn’t St. Paul try to sell the message of Jesus the way TV ads sell french fries and athletic shoes? Maybe the Church should hire McDonald’s and Nike to help us make Jesus and the Christian life more marketable, more acceptable. Maybe Paul should do a better job of telling us what we want to hear. In the eyes of the world, this Christianity stuff is really pretty stupid.

But the beauty of Christianity is it tells us the truth. While our popular culture snuggles up next to us and whispers in our ear just what we want to hear, that we can have it all, we can be rich without responsibility, we can be popular without being merciful, we can buy whatever we want, and enjoy youthfulness forever – the reality is different. The serpent hisses sweet lies to us, tells us what we want to hear, and sells us a false Jesus, a Jesus who is a genie in the bottle, a Jesus who does not tell us to take up a cross, a Jesus that looks and sounds like a Hollywood celebrity or rock star.

But St. Paul tells us the plain truth. It may be a truth we don’t want to hear, but it is the truth. We will “share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings.” Because of sin in the world, ours included, we too will be bullied as was our Lord. We too will have our own cross, as did our Lord. We too will die – just like our Lord. And the world laughs at such a silly notion. Why would anyone be part of such a religion of weakness, when one can be “empowered” by crystals and mysticism, or by money and possessions, or by doing whatever we want whenever we want?

But the truth doesn’t stop with our suffering and death. No, St. Paul promises us “comfort… salvation… unshaken hope… deliverance…. blessing.” Through Jesus Christ, God truly empowers us in a way no silly crystal or sports car can: for since we “rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead,” we Christians have already overcome everything that will hurt us: including death itself.

Our culture tells us to rely on ourselves. But there has never been a self-reliant person who was able to walk out of his own grave. But Jesus Christ, relying on his Father, did just that, and gives us the same gift of eternal life. Because we have been transformed by his Flesh and Blood, by virtue of having been baptized into his death and resurrection, we are indeed more than conquerors, able even to overcome death and the grave.

This is the comfort Paul gives us. It’s not about you at all. It’s not about your strength. It’s not about your ability to be perfect. The Christian life won’t eliminate your problems, but rather Christ himself will carry you through the good times and the bad. My dear friends, let us remember that all of the burdens and struggles we will face together in this coming year are for the purpose to “make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us.” Amen.

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