Sunday, October 31, 2004

Sermon: Reformation Day

31 October 2004 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: John 8:31-36

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Freedom is very important to us Americans.

Our country was founded on the concept of freedom – freedom from oppressive government, as well as a commitment to individual liberty. Mark Twain once said, “In our country, we have those three unspeakably precious things: Freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either.” To my high school students, freedom is represented by summer vacation, a set of wheels, and rock and roll cranked up loud. To most adults, freedom is personified by job security, the ability to take a vacation, and the capability to buy nice things from time to time. It is the power to decide where to eat, where to go for entertainment, what kind of car to drive, and what movie to see.

Of course, freedom is also much more. Freedom includes the ability to worship without the government breaking into our church with AK47s. Freedom means not having to worry about a dictator’s thugs knocking down our door in the middle of the night to transport us to concentration camps.

Many people view the Lutheran Reformation as a great moment for political freedom. In the world’s view of history, Luther defied the pope and the church in order to empower the individual to think and worship as he pleases. Luther liberated us from the clergy, freed us from the burden of sacraments, and gave the individual the right to converse with God on his own terms. Luther rejected the old church and gave us a new one, where the individual is free to think for himself without the constraints of dogma and traditions of the past. So they say, anyway.

But the freedom Jesus speaks of in our Gospel text is something entirely different. It is something our culture cannot understand. It has nothing to do with human or civil rights, democratic government structures, individual choice, or even Harley Davidsons. Jesus speaks of a freedom that comes from the Truth, from the Son of God himself.

Just three verses before today’s Gospel text begins, Jesus explains his relationship to the Father – but does so in relationship to the cross. He says: “When you lift up the Son of man,” (that is to say, “when you look up and see me hanging on the cross,”) “then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself, but as my Father taught me, I speak these things. And he who sent me is with me.” In a tribute to the power of our Lord’s words, St. John testifies: “As he spoke these words, many believed in him.”

Our text picks up here, with Jesus preaching to the Jews who believed him. Jesus is not preaching to those who do not believe him. Rather our Lord preaches to the believers. But notice how they react to him. Jesus says: “If you abide in my word, you are my disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Our Lord tells his hearers – us included – that his Word is powerful, and if we abide in his Word, the truth – that is Jesus himself – will make us free. Jesus speaks of the release from sin, death, and the devil. Jesus, through his Holy Word, liberates us from our broken fellowship with God. Jesus frees us to escape this body of death, being transformed into new creatures who will live forever! But notice how these believing Jews misunderstand: “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone.” Look at how sin deludes us! These descendants of Abraham are also the descendants of Joseph, who was taken to Egypt in chains. Joseph’s descendants labored for Pharaoh for four centuries. These believing Jews are the descendants of those who were taken captive to Babylon. And even closer to home, these people are, like us, descendants of Adam, held captive by sin, and enslaved to death itself. And ironically, that slavery to sin makes them think they are free.

Our Lord cuts right to the chase: “whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.” There is no more powerful preaching of the Law in all scripture. For we all commit sin, because we are all sinners. And Jesus tells us that we are all in chains, we are all property of someone else, we are all rotting away in a dungeon unless a Redeemer comes and bails us out. Slaves don’t live in the house, but sons do. And the son of the slave master has the power to grant the slave his freedom. As our Lord testifies: “if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”

Our Gospel text ends here – with this magnificent statement of the Gospel itself. However, the rest of the conversation goes downhill. The Jews (and remember, these are the ones who believe in him!) are still angry at his characterization of them as slaves. Their pride has been wounded. Instead of humbly accepting the key to their fetters, and thanking the one who brings them freedom, Jesus’s listeners arrogantly deny that they were ever bound in the first place! Furthermore, they curse the one bringing the key! By the end of the conversation, Jesus’s listeners accuse him of being demonic, and try to stone him. Usually, we speak of people killing the bearer of bad news, but in this case, they are attempting to kill the messenger with Good News, the very Best News in all of history!

And this is the hardest thing for preachers to accept. We give out the Good News to all who will listen. Yet most will ignore it, and some will even become hostile and hateful. It is a symptom of our sinful nature that we are too proud to admit we’re in need, and too haughty to accept help. We think we can do it on our own. We think we can overcome any obstacles by pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, with good old American ingenuity and elbow grease. If we just roll up our sleeves, we can do it all the old fashioned way: by earning it. We don’t want charity. Like old Blue Eyes, we like to do it “my way.” Why? Because then we call the shots, we get the credit, and we owe no-one. This is the monster of original sin itself – and that part of us hates Jesus and cannot abide the Gospel.

This is probably why this text was chosen for Reformation Day. While our sinful nature wants to earn God’s favor and merit our own salvation, Jesus tells us we are passive recipients of the gift of freedom, given to us by the Way, the Truth, and the Life in the flesh himself. It is by grace, not by our own striving. And just as the ancient prophets were rebuked and tortured for their proclamation, just as our Lord was crucified for speaking not merely the Law but also the Gospel, the 16th century Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther likewise became a target. His rediscovery of the Gospel in a day and age when the church was content to grow fat and rich off of folks who had been misled into believing they could earn, or worse yet, buy their freedom, set off a slew of events – some good, and some bad.

We rightfully celebrate the proclamation of the Gospel – which includes the reforms of Luther and his courageous colleagues at Wittenberg University. It is meet and right to bring out the red stoles and sing the familiar Lutheran anthems. We honor these beloved saints of the church who refused to compromise with those who hated the Gospel, with those who made money off of the captivity of the people. But we also mourn the divorce that the Reformation brought. While the Reformation brought peace to individual sinners, it brought a sword to the churches.

We have been “separated brethren” in the Western church for five centuries now. Hundreds of thousands of Christians died in the wars that followed the Reformation. And Luther’s conservative movement gave way to radical expressions of Christianity that to this day deny the power of Baptism and reject our Lord’s presence in the Holy Supper, and even some who embrace women’s ordination, homosexual unions, and the right to abortion.

As Lutherans, we must remember what Luther’s mission was: not to create a new church, not to introduce newfangled teachings, not to give people the “freedom” to replace divine worship with entertainment. But rather Luther’s mission was to bring back true Catholicism, true Christianity from those who held it captive. The freedom Luther proclaimed was not the freedom of the individual, nor the freedom of the mind of man, nor political freedom from tyrants, nor even the freedom to preach – but rather Luther championed the freedom we have in Christ.

We are freed from sin, death, the devil, our flesh, and hell itself. And we are free to worship using the forms and rites the church has always used. We are free to receive Holy Communion – in which the Lord’s saving, precious, holy, divine, and miraculous Body and Blood are physically present – under both kinds, forgiving our sins and uniting God’s Flesh and Blood to our own, every week. We are free to hear the Word of God preached in our own language – not mere information, not simply pious God-talk, not puppet shows and dancing girls – but rather the saving reality of the proclamation of the Holy Gospel. We are free to have pastors absolve us of our sins in private confession. We are free to remember our baptisms with the sign of the holy cross. We are free to do good works, not out of a greedy sense of “what’s in it for me,” but rather out of gratitude and love – the fruits of repentance and sanctification.

Dear brothers and sisters, we are free! The Son has proclaimed it, and sealed it with Blood and Water – the same Blood and Water that flowed from his side comes to us in the font and from the chalice. When the crucified Jesus cried out “It is finished,” we were freed.

And as our Lord tells us, “if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” And we are free not because of Luther, not because of the Book of Concord, not because of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, but only because of Christ, only for the sake of Christ, only through Christ, and only by Christ. We celebrate Luther only because he pointed to, pleaded for, and preached only, Christ. Solus Christus – Christ alone. The Son has made us free, and we are free indeed! Thanks be to God! Amen!

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

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Sermon: Trinity 19

21 October 2004 at Chapel of Lutheran High School, Metairie, LA

Text: Luke 13:18-21

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

A thousand years before the coming of our Lord, the Psalmist wrote: “I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old.” Jesus himself speaks in parables, uttering sayings that confuse those who refuse to listen, but creating faith in those who will believe.

Our Lord gives us two parables today, two short explanations of the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ listeners were perhaps more familiar with the planting of seeds and the kneading of bread dough than we are today, but the message is still there. Faith looks tiny, but is, in fact, great and mighty. Faith starts small, but in time, spreads, grows, and provides food and shelter to many. Faith is not a human process, but a mystery that is under the loving direction of God himself.

Let’s start with the first point: faith looks tiny, but is, in fact, great and mighty. God often uses the humble and weak to work his powerful deeds. The incarnate God who would crush the head of Satan didn’t look like much as a newborn in an animal’s smelly food trough. And yet within the flesh and blood of this baby is the very essence of God himself. The defeated, dying convict gasping naked on a cross being mocked by those who hated him looked like the biggest loser in the world, and yet at that very moment, he was destroying death and sin for all time. Faith itself works is this way. To the world, Christians look like the world’s biggest fools, falling on their knees to pray, reading an ancient book, and taking part in rituals involving water, bread, and wine – and yet there is more than meets the eye. The Christian faith makes men and women fearless in the face of death and empowers them to mighty works of compassion. Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a tiny mustard seed. And yet, buried in that speck is the God-designed DNA that makes a tree out of seemingly nothing – a feat that modern man in all his glory can’t even come close to doing. The Kingdom of God is like yeast – a microscopically-tiny living organism that can convert flour and water into puffy, nutritious bread. For all of our modern technology, we still make bread using these same humble ingredients.

The second point is that faith begins small, but over time spreads and grows, providing food and shelter to many. The Christian faith began with a pregnant teenage girl from an obscure village in Palestine. In her womb was a tiny seed, even smaller than a mustard seed. This miraculous child grew to manhood, carried out his Father’s work on earth, and then passed this ministry on to a small band of followers, the church. In a short period of time, this faith took the Roman Empire by storm, converting men and women around the world. Today, the Christian Church is the largest organization in the world. Every day, people come into communion with the living God, just as the birds in our Lord’s parable find shelter in the branches of the great mustard tree that grew from such a humble seed. The Gospel goes forth like leaven in a lump of dough, resulting in nourishment for the life of the world, the Bread of Life who came down from Heaven – “take and eat, the Body of Christ, given for you!”

The third point is that the Kingdom of God is mysterious. We cannot grow the church by our own means no matter how hard we try. Just as our brightest scientists and best chemists cannot create a mustard tree, but must rely on the mysterious God-created process of seed germination, our sharpest marketeers and slickest salesmen can’t make people come to Jesus. How people come to faith is a mystery. The Holy Spirit blows where he wills, using the same mysterious, God-created process of Word and Sacrament, and men and women come to faith. It is all done, as with a seed, on God’s plan, in his time, using his old-fashioned methods. Similarly, we have no modern chemical that will cause dough to rise. The finest restaurants in the world still employ God’s tiny pre-programmed bread machines called yeast cells in order to carry out the mysterious process of making bread. The church still grows by the preaching of the Gospel – just as it did in 30 AD.

This sense of mystery makes the Christian faith an adventure. The process is not our own. We don’t know where we will end up, what we will do, or how the world will be a different place because of us. God uses each of us in his own mysterious way. There is comfort in this. For no matter what strange and terrifying turns our lives take, we know that God is working out his plan – even though his plan is a mystery to us. We don’t have to know the “whys” and “hows” of the Kingdom of God any more than we need to know the “whys” and “hows” of a seed becoming a tree, or a lump of dough becoming a loaf of bread. God does all the calculating and programming, using us to mix the ingredients, wait, and enjoy the results.

So, dear brothers and sisters, don’t be deceived! When the preacher tosses about God’s Word like tiny seeds, beware of the power contained therein! When the little wafer comes to you, along with a small sip of wine, remember the mighty work done by microscopic yeast. For what seems tiny is really great, and what seems weak is really the most powerful thing in the universe. And when you are tempted to think of yourself as not of much consequence, remember that you are also a means by which God works mysteriously in the world to spread his kingdom, to give shade and rest to the people of the earth, and to bring the leaven of the Good News of Jesus to the entire world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Sermon: Trinity 19

Date: 17 October 2004 at Faith Lutheran Church, Harahan, LA

Text: Luke 17:1-10 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Dear Christians, our Gospel text is quite a lot to swallow. We’re told we can’t do the impossible, and yet we’re told to do the impossible.

Jesus tells us it is “impossible that no offenses should come.” What a powerful statement of original sin! What a harsh way to point out our inability to not sin!

In the early centuries of the church, a famous debate happened between two well-known theologians. They lined up on opposite sides of the question: “Can a person not sin?” On one side of the argument was a very pious, strict, and popular churchman named Pelagius. Upset by the bad conduct of Christians, Pelagius argued in the Latin of his day: “posse not peccare” – it is possible not to sin. On the other side of the debate was a bishop named Augustine – a man who admitted to numerous sins in his life, including the keeping of a mistress outside of wedlock for many years. Augustine’s position was, not surprisingly, “non posse non peccare” – it is not possible not to sin. Their debate has been remembered for centuries, and will always be called to mind by historians long after the names George Bush and John Kerry have been forgotten. For although governments rise and fall, the church will continue unto eternity. And the debate between Augustine and Pelagius touched upon the most central teaching of the Bible, God’s grace.

In the end, Augustine, the great sinner who argued that it is impossible not to sin, won the day. His position was that of the “one holy Christian and apostolic church.” Pelagius, the pious and devout man who claimed it was possible to live a sinless life, was condemned a heretic by the church. His heresy – “Pelagianism” is also known as “works-righteousness.” And it would later be our own Reverend Doctor Martin Luther – a monk of the Augustinian order, followers of St. Augustine – who would point out the church of his day had once-again fallen into the trap of Pelagianism – the belief that one could reach up to God by not sinning.

And the heresy of Pelagiansim continues to plague us. We find it all over so-called “Christian bookstores,” in the lyrics of so-called “contemporary Christian music,” and among respected and revered Christian preachers. This emphasis on our good works, our righteousness, our holiness, and our faith always obscures the work of our Lord, the Gospel. It turns Christians into self-righteous moralizers and hypocrites. It saps the Christian faith of the very thing that saves us: the atoning sacrifice of our Lord. And it reduces Jesus Christ, God in the flesh who became the sacrifice for the sins of the world to the status of a mere great moral teacher. It takes our eyes off of the cross and onto ourselves – with the false hope that our works will impress God. Scripture tells us our so-called righteousness is only “filthy rags” before our Lord.

As much as our flesh would like to believe we have the potential not to sin, the revelation of our Lord himself says otherwise: “It is impossible that no offenses should come.” Non posse non peccare. But our Lord doesn’t say that since it is impossible not to sin, we’re off the hook, we’re not responsible. In fact, he says the opposite: “Woe to him through whom they come.” If you are a sinner, and your sins draw others into sin, our Lord says you would be better off dead. You deserve to have a millstone put around your neck and be tossed into the sea. So, it is not only impossible not to sin, it is impossible to weasel our way out of responsibility for the evil we cause, the sins we induce in others, the destruction we bring about by our own rebellion against God. “Take heed to yourselves,” says our Lord.

And if that weren’t enough, it gets better!

We are ordered by our Lord to forgive anyone who sins against us, even seven times a day. So a person can hurt us, lie about us, steal from us, and make our lives a living hell. They can do this over and over, again and again, and we are to forgive them over and over, again and again – based on nothing more than their claim: “I repent.”

And this is probably the most difficult instruction our Lord has for us. We are to forgive – even if the same person commits the same sin against us time and again. We are not to retaliate, we are not to reply in kind, we are not to carry around hatred. Rather, we are to do as our Lord tells us elsewhere: to turn the other cheek. But even more, we are to forgive them.

The apostles must have been flabbergasted at our Lord’s words. In four verses, Jesus tells us we cannot escape sin, that those who do sin deserve death, and when people sin against us, we are obliged to forgive them in an unlimited manner. It’s no wonder the apostles cry out: “Increase our faith.”

They know they don’t have the kind of faith – in and of themselves – to enable them to live the kind of life our Lord demands. They know whose faith they need - not their own doubting, sin-ridden faith - rather they need true faith: the faith of Jesus.

In our Old Testament lesson, the Prophet Habakkuk asks the age-old question: “Why is evil allowed to persist in the world?” Our Lord responds to him: “The just man, the righteous man, he will live by his faith.” The kind of faith that does overcome evil is the faith of a righteous man. And we know there has only been one truly righteous Man, one truly just Man – and ultimately we know that our faith comes from Him, is grounded in Him, and finds its fulfillment in Him.

And speaking of faith, our Lord compares faith to a mustard seed. To the senses, it doesn’t look like much - but contained in the tiny DNA of the seed is a mighty tree. Faith is often hidden from the eyes, appears weak and not of much consequence. But as our Lord testifies, a tiny seed’s worth of faith can lead to a mighty yield, even miraculous works. And faith’s being packaged this way, like that of a tiny seed, allows men to scatter the seed, sowing faith through the preaching of the Word.

The apostles, who at times seem to have no faith at all, are entrusted to sow these mighty seeds. As the servants, the very slaves of Jesus, they are called to sow faith in the ground of their listeners. And though faith is mighty, though the apostles are given charge of something potent and powerful, the apostles are reminded of what they are: slaves. They are not to take credit for any work that they do. They are not to think of themselves as masters. They are not to seek the praise of the master for simply doing what they are told to do. As pastors sow the seeds in their preaching, they are not to pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves on their “effectiveness.” They are not to look for success in programs or sing the praise of their own efforts. Rather, they are to give credit where credit is due. And all of the credit is due to our Lord Jesus Christ, who packs the seeds with his own faith. The preacher is only the scatterer of the seed. He is only a parrot who repeats our Lord’s words. He is the humble instrument for the forgiveness of the sins of the world, though he himself is as flawed and as sinful as anyone else.

For the only gift the preacher has that is worth one red cent is not his eloquence, nor his speaking voice, nor any quality of his own. Rather the only gift he has that is worth boasting over doesn’t come from himself at all. It is only the gift given to him at his ordination, the gift of the Holy Spirit handed over to him in spite of himself. Paul mentions this gift in our epistle lesson: “the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands."” This gift, along with the gift of the Christian faith itself that came from Timothy's devout mother and grandmother, are the only gifts the pastor Timothy has that can bring anyone to salvation.

A recent ad in a synodical publication claims that we can, like Martin Luther, make things happen. The ad proclaims: “Luther did it then… You can do it today… we will set the world Ablaze! for Christ.” Of course, Martin Luther would only shake his head in puzzlement if he could read such things today. For Luther said, “I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word… did everything.”

Our impressive-sounding words, our catchy slogans, our red-hot programs, our Madison Avenue marketing schemes, and our grandiose boasts are only so much hot air - but the words of our Lord are truly powerful. The words of our Lord make his Body and Blood present with us for eating and drinking. The words of our Lord forgive sins, uprooting even our offenses that seem as tall and permanent as a mulberry tree, and sending them sailing into the sea, drowning them forever. Even demons are obliged to obey the words of our Lord on account of the faith of Jesus – even faith as tiny and seemingly insignificant as a mustard seed.

And so we, like the disciples, must continually pray: “Lord, increase our faith.” Like the disciples, we know “to whom shall we go” – to the one who has “the words of eternal life, alleluia.” While TV preachers prance about and boast of the great deeds attributed to their own so-called powerful faith, we know the nature of true faith. It is a gift. It really isn’t “our” faith at all. It is the faith of Jesus himself. We poor, miserable sinners are faithless of ourselves. In fact, the greatest act of faith is to acknowledge our lack of it, to confess our deficit, and to plead with our Lord for him to give us that which we lack.

And though our Lord responds to our sins by rebuking us with his Law, he also has something else for us. Even when we come before our Lord seven times a day to confess our sins, to repent over and over - we know that our Lord himself does the impossible. Our Lord has the faith that we can only get from him. This faith of Jesus contained in the seed of the Gospel forgives us, over and over, without limit, world without end.

Jesus keeps his promises. He does what he exhorts us to do. Our Lord must forgive us. He is faithful, and he will do it! And the mulberry tree of our sin is ripped out by the roots and hurled headlong into the mighty waters of baptism.

And so the church continues to pray with the apostles: “Lord, increase our faith.” Amen!

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