Thursday, September 23, 2004

Sermon: Thursday of Trinity 16

23 September 2004 at Chapel of Lutheran High School, Metairie, LA

Text: Luke 15:1-10

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

You might be shocked to find out that the Bible contains fiction.

In fact, the best-selling short-story writer of all time is not Alfred Hitchcock or Stephen King, but rather Jesus of Nazareth. There are 40 short stories credited to our Lord that appear in the Bible – and the Bible is the best-selling book of all time. Jesus’s fiction has been translated into every imaginable language.

Jesus’s works of fiction, though brilliant from a literary standpoint, are much more than good writing. These stories reveal great truths to us about ourselves and about God. These stories are worded so that oftentimes the “wise” of the world miss the point, but the so-called “foolish” of the world understand.

These stories are called “parables,” and they are filled with symbolism.

Last Sunday’s Gospel reading contains two such short shories: The Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. St. Luke is careful to tell us to whom Jesus tells the stories. There are two groups of listeners in his audience: the tax collectors and sinners group, and the Pharisees and scribes group.

The second group are the religious people. They were the oh-so-pious folks who would never be seen with the “wrong” kind of people (such as the “sinners” in the first group). These religious folks are shocked because Jesus behaves differently: “This man receives sinners and eats with them,” they grumble.

Aware of the two groups listening to him, Jesus tells two stories. The second of the two is the story of the Lost Coin. The Christian life (or as Matthew calls it, the Kingdom of Heaven) is like a woman who loses a coin. This coin is valuable to her, so she seeks after it. She makes use of the flashlight, takes up the carpets, pulls up the seat-cushions of the couch, drags a coat-hanger under the refrigerator, and even runs the vacuum cleaner and sifts through the dusty sweeper-bag. After all that work, you can just imagine her joy to see the glittering silver amid all of the filth. She rescues her coin, washes it off, wipes it with a clean cloth, and gently places it back in the box, and calls up all her friends to announce her good fortune.

Now we might be tempted to think that we are like the woman seeking the coin – the coin being the Kingdom of God. Maybe it’s up to us to rearrange our lives, go over every dirty spot, and work as hard as possible in order to find God. We seek and seek, and only after much striving, do we find him and are rewarded for our labors. But this is not what Jesus means. Rather we are the lost coin. We are the glittering and precious piece of silver that has rolled under the sofa, covered in dirt and dust. And God seeks after us relentlessly, lighting the lamp (as Christ is indeed the Light of the World), and sweeping away the dust in order to pull us safely from the dirt. He smiles at recovering his beloved possession, and rejoices with all of the angels at this, our repentance, our being found and made clean by God himself.

This same conclusion rings true in the first story in our reading. The Good Shepherd discovers one of his flock has wandered away. The lost sheep is in danger. There are wolves waiting to devour him. The shepherd loves his sheep, and is so devoted to them, that he leaves the rest of his flock to seek out and save the lost one, the one who needs him the most. He places the sheep on his shoulders, carries him home, and rejoices with his friends. This is really the same story of God doing whatever he must do to save the lost, to defend every one of us from the Evil One. Even if it means becoming a slaughtered Sheep himself, our Good Shepherd rescues us. And when he finds us, when he brings us back repentant, washed in our baptismal waters, he rejoices with his friends. Jesus invites all of us sinners to a grand feast, an eternal celebration joined by all of the saints and martyrs of all time – all other such lost coins and lost sheep – where they feast with the Good Shepherd for eternity.

And the two groups listening to Jesus’s tales hear very different things. Sinners who hear these parables of Jesus rejoice. For we know that as far away from the flock we have wandered, our Good Shepherd brings us safely home. And no matter how far we have rolled away from the rest of the coins, we know that our Lord will sweep and sweep until he finds us, and puts us back where we belong.

This Jesus who eats with sinners continues to eat with us. He invites us to his table every Sunday to join in the eternal feast, the glorious banquet of the Eucharist. At this banquet, we sing hymns with all the saints, we joyfully pray to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and we join Jesus at a Holy Table where we will dine with him and with all the angels, rejoicing for eternity.

So, dear sinners, take heart. You are not lost forever, you wandering sheep and hidden coins. For we “poor, miserable sinners” are just the kind of folks Jesus hangs out with. If you’re not a sinner, you don’t need Jesus. If you’re perfect, you can ignore Christ. If you don’t need rescued, than Jesus’s stories make no sense. But like the old Billy Joel song says: “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.” For Jesus came for us sinners – not for the so-called righteous. He came for the wandering sheep and the misplaced coin – people who know they are hopeless without their Lord. And we will have an eternity to thank him for all that he has done for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Sermon: Trinity 15 (Pentecost 16)

19 Sept 2004 at Redeemer L.C., Mandeville, LA

Text: Luke 14:25-33 (3 Year)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

In our Gospel text, Jesus starts off with a large group of listeners. They are all “walking together” along the road, which in the Greek is closely related to our word “synod.” Jesus is enjoying an ideal situation for a synod that is obsessed with numbers, with worship and preaching designed to increase numbers, and various programs put in place to bolster numbers. So Jesus has a growing congregation, and what does he do? Does he entertain them, or tell them what they want to hear? Does he give them a simple message designed to keep the numbers on the upswing? Well, no, he doesn’t exactly do that.

Jesus is one of those preachers that District Presidents lose sleep over. Jesus tells his congregation to hate their families, to hate their own lives, and to bear a cross, or else they are out of the church. He compares being a Christian to being an architect who doesn’t get involved in a project unless he calculates the cost and determines whether or not he can pay it. He further compares the Christian life to being a military strategist, holding off going to battle until one has sufficient might to win the war. Jesus then gives the ultimate stewardship sermon, demanding that his parishioners renounce all possessions as a requirement for church membership.

Of course, such preaching won’t win our Lord a feature article in Lutheran Witness, nor make him a model of the Ablaze program. Furthermore, Jesus’ use of the word “hate” can be troublesome to Christians – many of whom will not even allow their children to use the word as though it were the foulest of four-letter words.

One can just imagine the reaction of Jesus’ congregation to this sermon. One has to wonder if the “great crowds” thinned a little at such harshness. A couple weeks ago, Jesus had similar things to say about division and families – telling us that he, the Prince of Peace, the one who admonished Peter to put away the sword, did not come to bring peace, but a sword. This same Jesus who orders us to love our enemies is now commanding us to hate our parents.

Non-believers point to such passages and call them “contradictions.” They gleefully tell us that the Bible is filled with such “contradictions.” In the Ten Commandments, we are told to honor our parents, only to have Jesus tell us to hate them. In one passage, Jesus tells us his burden is light, and in another he tells us we must take up our cross. We Lutherans cite Paul that we are saved by grace, through faith – and yet Jesus tells us there is a cost of discipleship, a cross that we must bear, possessions that we must renounce, family members we must hate. Again, the scoffers (those referenced by our Old Testament lesson) sit on the sidelines and mock. They tell us our faith is a superstition, that Jesus is a lunatic, and that we Christians can’t decide what we believe.

So, dear Christians, what are we to make of a Jesus whose remarks seem at odds with our own synod, with our own sense of devotion to family, with the world, and with reason itself?

Perhaps the first difficulty of this passage concerns the word translated here as “hate.” This word is very strong in English. It is closely tied to emotional rage, to prejudice, to violence. It is a word that conjures up images of concentration camps and burning crosses. And to complicate matters, “hatred” in Scripture often has this connotation. But there is another sense in which the word is used. It is often used comparatively. In fact, it often means “to love less.” It is a comparative word. It is along the lines of Jesus telling us we cannot serve two masters – one we will love, and the other we will hate. In other words, we can only fear, love, and trust one thing above all else – the rest we will “love less,” we will, by comparison “hate.” And of course, we should “fear, love, and trust in God above all things” – even above our prized worldly possessions, even above our own families. Jesus is speaking here not of a hatred that would do violence and hurls profanity – but rather a “hatred” that places God in a position of priority. And Matthew’s rendering of this same passage confirms this is how Jesus uses the word “hate.” Instead of hating our family members, Matthew writes of not loving our relatives more than God. The “hatred” Jesus speaks of here is a way of emphasizing our love for God, even over and above our families, our property, and our very lives.

And what about this cost of discipleship? How are we to understand the Gospel of salvation by grace alone when Jesus speaks of our bearing the cross? Why must we also be crucified if our Lord’s sacrifice on the cross atoned for all of our sins?

Many of you may be familiar with Dieterich Bonhoeffer. He was a brilliant young German Lutheran pastor and professor who spoke out against the Nazis. He would eventually be martyred while a prisoner of the Nazis only days before the end of World War II. Dr. Bonhoeffer’s most well-known work is called “The Cost of Discipleship.” In this book, he coins the terms “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Of course, grace doesn’t cost us anything. We Lutherans sometimes use the Latin expression “sola gratia” – by grace alone. This word “gratia” is where the term “gratis” comes from. It means “without charge.” So if grace is, by definition “free,” how can a Lutheran theologian speak of “costly grace”?

The answer is this: “free” does not mean “cheap.” In fact, “free” can mean “costly.” During the recent hurricane, many of us in the New Orleans area evacuated. We could not bring everything with us. We had to determine what was irreplaceable – maybe pictures, heirlooms, things of great value. Certainly, many of our most valuable things didn’t cost us anything. They were given to us by friends, or were willed to us by family members. The most precious things we have are often things we received for nothing, without charge, gratis, by grace. And yet they are not “cheap,” not trifles to be treated frivolously, not things to abandon like a dirty napkin when a storm threatens.

This is how salvation is. It is precious, though free – for us. But it was not free for our Lord. Grace is a gift that is given to us, but was purchased at the ultimate cost – the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our free salvation was bought and paid for with the flesh and blood of God. And so this grace, though free, is not cheap. Rather it is costly. Though it is handed to us, his heirs, on a silver platter – though we don’t deserve it – it was indeed earned by the blood, sweat, and tears of our benefactor. And like spoiled rich kids, we often see that which is given to us for free as “cheap.” We don’t appreciate how fortunate we are, how precious the gift of salvation is. We see sin as a trifle, after all, we get forgiven every Sunday – and don’t even need to confess in person to a pastor. We can come again and again to the rail to receive the holy Body and Blood of the Lord and we aren’t required to do anything. Like the playboy grandson or party-girl heir of the business mogul, we enjoy the good life without concern of the cost, the work, the sacrifice that earned the benefits we enjoy.

While our Lord indeed gives us all that he has with no strings attached, we can indeed spurn his good gifts by holding them in contempt. Can a person truly be a Christian without praying? Without reciting the Ten Commandments? Without receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood as often as possible? Without confessing the faith at every opportunity? It’s not that we earn the gift, dear friends, it is a gift. But if we are honest, we must all confess that we take the gift for granted. We “poor miserable sinners” love ourselves, our families, our property and hate the Lord. We fling down our cross and seek to serve the Lord carrying bags of loot instead. We cling to cheap grace and want no part of anything that calls us to repentance, that demands that we make the Lord a priority, that confesses the costliness of grace and our unworthiness as heirs. And, dear friends, this is why we are here. This is why our Lord preaches such an admonition to us. For when we confess these things, our Lord lovingly places the cross back on our backs and bids us to join him once again on the road. As Bonhoeffer puts it, when Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.

So what is this cross we bear? According to St. Paul, we share in the Lord’s cross. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me. And the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” In sharing our Lord’s cross, we share in his death and resurrection. How does this happen? Must we seek out suffering so we can share our Lord’s burden? Must we become martyrs in order to share in our Lord’s cross and resurrection? St. Paul again preaches: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

And this, dear friends, is how we are to “hate” our families, our lives, and our possessions, having a proper priority of God, being able to “fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” This sharing in our Lord’s cross, this living in the newness of life is also a gift, it is also grace, it is also paid for by our Lord’s sacrifice. It is given to us through water and the Word at Holy Baptism. This is the mystery of how our Lord’s burden is light, and yet demands our very lives. This is how we can be heirs who receive everything by grace, for free, and yet we are able to follow our Lord renouncing all that our sinful flesh lusts after. This is how we poor, miserable sinners can indeed love God over and above even our families. We are truly sinful saints, and saintly sinners. We are at the same time dead in sin and alive in Christ. We are certainly unworthy, yet worthy recipients of God’s grace.

For our Lord did indeed do the math for us. As the creator of all things, he indeed “counted the cost” and then paid it with his own body and blood. He did indeed, as a warrior-king, calculate the forces needed to conquer his enemy, and then proceeded to go into battle – without a thought of asking for terms, or seeking peace. Our Lord did indeed come with a sword to make war on sin, death, and the devil – and we unworthy sinners benefit from his warfare.

The truth of the matter is that Jesus has hated his family in obedience to God – even leaving his mother without a Son – and yet loving her enough to give her to John. Jesus did indeed hate his own life in order to save ours – allowing his flesh to be beaten and his blood to be drained, so that his Flesh and Blood could be given to us today. Jesus did renounce all possessions, as the king of the universe to be mocked as a false king, crowned with thorns, and enthroned on a cruel instrument of torture – all so that we might reign with him eternally, sharing in his glory and kingship, sharing with us his ownership of all of heaven and earth for eternity.

So, dear friends, let the synod search in vain for worldly formulas for the Church’s success, let the world mock our faith as a house of cards full of contradictions, and let our own sinful flesh, in league with the devil, argue that we are not worthy. Our Lord says otherwise. And as a result, we heirs with silver spoons in our mouths are free to walk with Jesus, free to give him thanks by serving him, free to let our light shine before men as a testimony to the very Light of the world, free to put all things into proper perspective, knowing that our Lord will tend to our physical needs and will take care of our families. We are free to love him who first loved us – even while we were yet sinners. We are free to revisit our baptismal waters every time we confess our sins and repent. Our Lord takes us by the hand as we walk with him, and he has promised not to let us go. We are his disciples not because we follow him, but rather because he leads us.

Thanks be to God!

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

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Sermon: Thursday of Trinity 13 (Pentecost 14)

8 September 2004 at Chapel of Lutheran High School, Metairie, LA

Text: 1 Tim 3:1-16

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

This week’s text (which is selected by the Church) once again deals with the ministry.

The Office of the Holy Ministry is in a state of confusion today. Pastors today are expected to be corporate CEOs, therapists, and motivational speakers. They are either admired by the public as great leaders, counselors, or peddlers of positive thinking, or they are derided as self-righteous hypocrites, busy-bodies, or people who only want to rain on everyone else’s parade.

In today’s text, St. Paul the pastor, the bishop, the apostle writes to his fellow pastor and bishop, St. Timothy. Paul explains carefully the qualifications for bishops and deacons. Notice Paul does not say a bishop or deacon must be a “dynamic motivational speaker” with a “revelant message” and a sure-fire way to “do church-growth ministry.” Rather, Paul says a bishop must be a man who has one wife, who oversees and leads his family well, who has a good reputation, does not abuse alcohol, is level-headed, and a good teacher.

Paul does not say that a pastor must be perfect, but rather that he must be respected by the community as a trustworthy person of good reputation.

If pastors are supposed to be CEOs, therapists, and motivational speakers, why should they need to have such a reputation to begin with? In fact, many corporate CEOs are far from faithful to one wife, many therapists are far from being “not given to much wine,” and many successful motivational speakers are colorful figures , hardly the “sober-minded” type.

So why does Paul harp on this reputation thing? It’s because pastors are not there to “run an organization,” nor to “raise levels of self-esteem,” nor to be a “corporate cheerleader,” but rather to be a minister of Jesus Christ, a proclaimer of the Gospel, and a provider of soul-care to redeemed sinners. Yes, the issue, once again, is sin. The pastor’s calling is to identify sin, call the sinner to repentance, and then forgive him. In order to do this, the people must trust the pastor. They must see that the pastor’s conduct reflects his commitment to reject sin and promote the Gospel.

The pastor stands in the place of Christ when he preaches, baptizes, gives out the holy Eucharist, and forgives sins. And our Lord is indeed blameless, the husband of only one wife (that is, his bride the Church), temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, and able to teach. And just as our Lord is all of these things, our Lord’s ministers, his servants, must likewise mirror this image – even if imperfectly. For the pastoral office is not just a “job,” but rather it is a gift from God established by Jesus himself.

The Lutheran confessions put it this way: “That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith, where and when it pleases God…” In other words, through pastors, imperfect men though they are, the Holy Spirit gives faith.

So a pastor has so much more to offer than a get-rich-quick scheme, or a slick program of church growth, or a sure-fire way to win friends and influence people. Rather, pastors offer the forgiveness of sin. They hand out eternal life to everyone in the form of the Gospel. They cleanse the dirty with living water, they give life to the dying with a medicine made of bread and wine, and they open and close the very gates of heaven with the keys entrusted to them by their Lord.

Of course, the world looks on and laughs. All they see is an unimpressive man in a silly robe, saying some words, and tracing a cross in the air. All they see is a wafer and a cup, a splash of water, and a boring sermon. Not very impressive compared with the high-powered preachers we can tune in on the TV any time of day. But what the world does not see are the tens of thousands of angels who rejoice when a person repents, the howling in hell as baptismal water flows over a tiny infant, and the throngs of saints who praise God in our very presence as we partake of a communion with Jesus that transcends the grave.

All of these gifts are given to the pastor – not for his own glory, but rather for him to give away. Just as our Lord gave of his very life for his sheep, so must a bishop likewise see to his own flock. And this is why Paul tells us this “faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.”

May our Lord bless the ongoing ministry of bishops and pastors around the world, both now, and unto eternity. For through their “good work” we receive the faith in Jesus Christ that saves us. Amen.

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

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Sermon: Trinity 13 (Pentecost 14)

5 September 2004 at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Metairie, LA (?)

Text: Luke 13:22-30 (Heb 12:18-24, Is 66:18-23) (3 Year)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s Gospel reading is scary. Jesus tells us the gateway to heaven is narrow, that many will not find that door. And the fate that awaits them is not pleasant. They will stand outside desperately pounding at the door while Jesus says: “I don’t know you.” He will also say “Go away, you evildoers, to a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Jesus is answering the question as to how many will be saved. At first glance, his answer is not encouraging.

But what does this mean that the door is narrow? Does it mean the chances of us finding it will be small? Does it mean that it won’t accommodate the number of people striving to get through the door? Will there be people in hell who genuinely tried to get through the door, but were forced out? Is this what Jesus means?

To be sure, Jesus’s warning about hell is very true, it is sobering, it causes us to think seriously about sin and about our friends and relatives who are alienated from the Lord, who reject the Gospel. But the narrowness of the door is really of comfort to us Christians. For we know that Jesus is the door. He is our gateway to eternal life. He is our assurance of heaven. The narrowness of that door assures that we are indeed on the right path.

The world is offended at Jesus’s assertion that the door is narrow. The world says there are many paths to God, many doors to heaven, many ways to bridge the gap that separates sinful man from the perfect God. In fact, the world says there are many gods – and your god is right for you, my god is right for me, and no god is better than any other. The world believes the gateway to heaven is wide – big enough to fit all people, regardless of what they believe. The world does not believe there is a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth – except for maybe a dozen dictators and mass murderers. The world believes that mankind is basically good, and that we will all enjoy the afterlife – Christian, Jew, Moslem, Buddhist, Sikh, Wiccan, and Atheist. For the world rejects our Lord Jesus Christ’s description of a narrow door – a door that is Jesus himself. A door that opens in front of the cross, a door that leads to the empty tomb. A door that welcomes guests into an eternal, heavenly banquet. For this door is exclusive, it opens only one way, and it does not open for anyone except those who confess Jesus.

This is the narrowness that our Lord speaks of. The door is narrow because it is Jesus only. And those who grab the doorknobs of other doors find the way locked. They can twist and turn with all their might, but they will never prove strong enough to break the lock. But the door of Christ opens without effort. It is easily opened by a tiny infant at the font. It is opened without exertion by a person on his deathbed, unable to even breathe without help. It is effortlessly opened by the weak and despised of the world who have been forgotten by the strong and powerful. “And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” In fact, if you try to open the Christ door using your own strength, the door will lock. The harder you try, the more worthless your effort becomes. Only when we depend on the strength which is not our own does the bolt fly open, and the door fling wide, inviting us into paradise.

And the way this door works is also hated by the world. According to them, it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t follow the world’s ways. The world says: “survival of the fittest,” “to the victor goes the spoils,” “he who dies with the most toys wins.” The world admires strength, wealth, being on top. The world despises a door that opens to the newborn, the elderly, the cancer patient, the one who struggles with sin, the average Joe, and even the mass murderer – and yet slams shut in the face of mighty emperors, pampered celebrities, barons of industry, and even the super-religious who rely on their own strength, their own clout, their own connections, their own ability to intimidate. For intimidation has the opposite effect on this door. Because the Door himself says: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” and “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

Another peculiar thing about this Door is that it comes knocking to us. While most doors remain passive, waiting for us to open them in our own sweet time, this Door speaks, calls, beckons, and even pleads for us to “strive to enter through the narrow door.” He doesn’t tell us to grope around in the dark looking for the doorknob. Rather, the Door comes right to us, no matter where we are – even if we are where we shouldn’t be.

Christ is the strangest Door in the universe. He is a Door that crosses space and time, allowing a baptismal font to stand in the shadow of the cross. He is the Door that leads from death to life. He is the Door that bypasses sin and leads directly to the throne-room of God. He is the Doorway that opens into the Great Banquet Hall where the eternal feast rages, with unlimited joy.

And for all of the wonders of this Door, whose miracles are offered freely to all, most people don’t care to use it. They seek a window, a fence to climb over, a different door, or they don’t mind staying right where they are. Some people don’t see the need for a door, because a door leads away from where they are. Others maybe see the Door as “too good to be true.” Regardless, they are content to stay in the courtyard of sin and miss out on the celebration of life. Even though remaining outside the banquet hall means exposure to the elements and starvation. Pride prevents many people from entering – although the invitation has been extended and the place at table has been reserved.

But invitations don’t last forever, doors eventually close, and those who reject the host must deal with the results of the prideful refusal of the greatest gift of all. There is no greater insult to a person than to reject an invitation. And those who refuse this invitation spurn God’s only Son, his beloved Son whom the Father sacrificed for the sins of the world. And in refusing this invitation, by their own choosing, they “sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” – a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” where “their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched.” A prominent Lutheran theologian observed that God doesn’t send anyone to hell for sins. The sins are all paid for. People send themselves to hell by spurning the invitation to heaven. And pride certainly goeth before the fall.

But what is the Church to make of this Gospel text? Should it frighten us? Should it fill us with doubt about our salvation? Is our Lord scaring us to spur us on to good works, to church attendance, to stewardship, to “getting right with God”? Certainly not! For we have been invited by name to pass through the Door – no matter how narrow, no matter how many others refuse. We have been sealed with the waters of baptism, one little splash of which is powerful enough to quench the fires of hell. We have nothing to fear. Now, our Lord’s sobering words may well encourage us to pray for those who are lost, to bring them to church so that they might hear the Word of God. We should continue to pray to our merciful Lord for the world that rejects the invitation, that seeks wider doors, that wants a door that opens based on the world’s standards. For the days of grace will not extend forever. Once we are safely inside the Banquet Hall, and the eternal meal has begun, those who have chosen to reject the Door will remain outside forever. God doesn’t force his grace on anyone.

So, dear Christian friends, don’t despair! For our Lord is merciful, and he continues to hold the Door to eternal life wide open for those whose invitation has been signed by the cross, sealed by water, and delivered with bread, wine, and his Holy Word. Like the door of Noah’s ark, this Door also protects the Church inside from the destruction that will take place outside. For we will “come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God” for all eternity – just as we do today. Remember our Lord’s promise that he did not come to the world to condemn the world, but rather to save! The narrowness of that Door should assure us that we are in the right place. There is one way to the banquet, and our weak, feeble hands are holding the doorknob – or more accurately, the doorknob holds us by the hand, refuses to let us go, and pulls us into eternal life. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Sermon: Thursday of Trinity 12/Pentecost 13

2 September 2004 at Chapel of Lutheran High School, Metairie, LA

Text: 1 Thess 2:1-20

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

St. Paul is writing to his beloved Christians in Thessalonica. He reports that he has been “shamefully treated” in Philippi. The reason for this is Paul’s boldness to preach the Gospel. And this is an amazing thing. Being a pastor is like being the guy who drives the van with a million dollars in prize money and gives it away. When a pastor preaches the Gospel, he gives away God’s free forgiveness of sin. He has nothing but the love of Christ to distribute to anyone who wants it. He doesn’t sell it. He doesn’t give it away with strings attached. He doesn’t cut deals. The preacher tosses the priceless gifts about like a farmer throws seeds. So why would anyone persecute a pastor for preaching the Gospel?

Our sinful flesh hates the Gospel. Why? Because to admit we need the Gospel is to admit our weakness. Instead of receiving charity, we would rather convince ourselves that we have earned God’s favor. Instead of a pastor preaching about our sinfulness that needs forgiving, we would rather our pastor flatter us with compliments. Instead of leaving our salvation in the hands of God, we would rather be in control.

This is why Paul and other preachers who stick to the Gospel of Jesus Christ are “treated shamefully.” But as Paul points out, preachers are “approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel.” And “so we speak, not to please men, but to please God.” Paul points out that he does not preach in order to flatter, nor out of greed, nor to be glorified by men. Rather, he preaches the Gospel out of genuine love and affection for his hearers. Like a nursing mother, faithful pastors see to the needs of their flocks. They are willing to go even beyond preaching the Gospel, to the very giving of themselves – not for any glory, or money, or approval – but rather out of love. And this love continues to motivate pastors even when it seems their flocks don’t seem to love them in return.

Paul compares his ministry to that of a father caring for his children. This relationship is why pastors have been traditionally called “reverend father.” A father loves his dear children so much that he will correct them when they need it. He will exhort them to be the best they can be. He will encourage them to act in a worthy manner before God. A father doesn't do this for money, or praise, or power. He does it out of love – both love for his children and love of God who has placed him into this vocation.

And as St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the troubled church at Corinth, love always “rejoices in the truth.” Love is not merely emotional, warm-fuzzy feelings, but rather love is faithfulness and integrity. A true father deals with his children as they are, where they are, giving each one the care he or she needs. A true pastor is a theologian who deals with his parishioners as they are, where they are, giving each one the care he or she needs.

A faithful pastor knows when to administer the law – to terrify and motivate those who refuse to repent. And he also knows when to apply the Gospel – to bring comfort and assurance of the love of God to a person who is willing to ask God for help.

And when a pastor preaches the Gospel – the good news that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, who was crucified for you in order to give you eternal life – he is giving you the Word of God – not the word of men. He is not giving you his own opinions, but rather the unchanging reality that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is not doing this to please men, but rather to please God who has called him – even when he finds opposition, hatred, or oppression. St. Paul suffered for the Gospel in ways that very few pastors today ever do. And yet he provides the example for being faithful as a preacher, as well as the example for all Christians: to persevere in the faith, to cling to what is true regardless of the cost, and to put our trust in the sure Word of God instead of the fickle opinions of men.

We are not to be people-pleasers, but rather we are to strive to please God. We are called upon to be faithful, motivated by the truth of the Gospel, and not by what is popular or politically correct. The Lord calls us to be willing to take our lumps in order that we may continue to put into practice Christian love, the same love our Lord had for us in going to the cross for us.

May God grant us the grace to persevere, to not lose heart, to always act in faithfulness and love – no matter how shamefully we may be treated as a result. And the grace of God is sufficient for us, through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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