Sunday, November 28, 2004

Sermon: Advent 1 (Ad Te Levavi)

28 November 2004 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 21:1-9

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today we join Christians around the world in beginning a new year. This Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent, the time of anticipation of our Lord’s coming. Of course, in many ways the world has already gotten a jump on us. Before Halloween (or should I say Reformation Day?), WalMart had already placed toys, trees, and treats for Christmas on its shelves. And certainly, by the time of the commercial world’s Solemn High Mass of the Day After Thanksgiving, all eyes look forward to Christmas. It is now officially okay in the eyes of the secular culture to dust off the Bing Crosby and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and to begin praying to St. Nicholas for a plasma TV.

Don’t worry, I’m really not Pastor Scrooge looking to tear down our Christmas traditions. But I do want to point out the Church’s being out of step with the world. While our culture is rapidly heading toward Christmas, we in the Christian Church are going another direction. While the secular part of us rushes, the churchly part of us lingers. While the world will soon be kicking off the season of office parties, the Church begins a time of penitence and expectation. While the secular world begins to decorate in red and green, the Church starts with royal purple [blue].

Furthermore, here at Salem, we join centuries of Christians today in reading these specific passages of Scripture to commence the new ecclesiastical year. Instead of a Gospel text that calls to mind the anticipation of the birth of Christ, we begin with Palm Sunday. Today’s Gospel is a familiar and beloved account of our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey amid palm branches and shouts of “hosanna!” Instead of being on our way to our Lord’s birth at Bethlehem, we find ourselves approaching our Lord’s death in Jerusalem.

There is a reason for the Church, in her centuries of collective wisdom, presenting us this text for this day. For to really appreciate and anticipate the glorious and mysterious birth of our Lord, we must come to grips with who he is.

So, who is this Jesus? This, dear friends, is the most important question in the history of the universe.

People all around us are eager to tell us just who Jesus is. Every year at Christmas and Easter it becomes critical for Time and Newsweek to tell us what they think about Jesus. It’s a priority for our non-believing friends to “debunk” the “myth” of Jesus. It’s also important for many people to use the name of Jesus as a curse word. Political groups are eager to enlist Jesus in their causes, whether it be animal rights or influencing what kind of car to drive. And I defy anyone to listen to a rock music station for a half hour without the name “Jesus” coming up in one context or the other.

So, what does today’s Gospel confess about Jesus that led the fathers of the church centuries ago to make this the very first Holy Gospel reading of the new Church year?

In short, it is that Jesus is the King of the Jews. Not that he is only the king over Israel, but rather he is the king of the universe who emerged from the Jewish royal line of David in fulfillment of the Old Testament. Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who is more than merely a prophet, teacher, friend, role model, faith-healer, or preacher. This Jesus is God in the flesh, the King of all creation. He governs all things. There is nothing out of his control – not even his own execution. This is the king before whom, on the great and terrible Day of Judgment, every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess as Lord – even the tongue of Pontius Pilate, whose name has been uttered by our tongues every Sunday in the Creed for nearly 1700 years. For even as he was on trial before Pilate, our Lord reminded him where Pilate’s own power comes from – from God himself. The power to execute Jesus did not come from Caesar, but from a higher King, the King of the universe himself. It is the divine Jesus who is in control – even while he bled to death beneath a sign proclaiming the truth of his kingship. And it is King Jesus who would defeat sin and hell once and for all by crushing the serpent’s head and refusing to recognize the rule of the prince of darkness.

While Jesus was making his way to his execution in Jerusalem, he remains firmly in command of all creation – from the fate of the mightiest empire, down to the movements of electrons. He miraculously provides for his royal transportation into David’s Royal City, giving his disciples instructions as to where to find the donkey’s colt that would fulfill ancient Scripture. King Jesus gives his disciples the royal right of imminent domain by attaching his royal name – that is “the Lord” – to the disciples act of confiscation. For being the King, all things are his property. Just as God himself richly and daily provides us with house and home, wife and children, land and animals, our Lord and King may indeed recall any of these at his royal pleasure according to his royal will. On this day, the King, the Lord, had need of two animals.

And so Zechariah’s ancient prophecy is fulfilled: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a colt.”

And notice how unusual this King is! Lowly. Humble. Riding coach instead of first class! How many Hollywood celebrities could truly be described as lowly and humble? How many barons of industry? Senators? Football coaches? Shift supervisors? Pastors? What kind of a King is this who eats with tax collectors and sinners, and washes the feet of his subjects? What kind of a King allows himself to be nailed to a cross after being mocked with royal robes, beaten senseless with a scepter of wood, and a crowned with a wreath of thorns? What kind of a King gives his Body for food and his Blood for drink? This is indeed a king who rides a donkey as opposed to a fine stallion. This is a King like no other.

For this King had spent three years preaching what the Kingdom of Heaven is, and what it isn’t. And this King would stand bloody before Pilate and proclaim: “My Kingdom is not of this world!” And this King “will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.”

The people of Jerusalem are, like Christians in Advent, waiting in anticipation for their long-promised king. They, like us, sing “Hosanna…. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And like the host in heaven arrayed in white, “they stand with palms and sing their psalms before the throne of light.” And many of these same people, no doubt witnessed this King’s gory coronation upon a throne of wood, hearing his first royal edict: “Father forgive them!”

For unlike all other kings in history, this King is also prophet, priest, and victim. This King is truly man and truly God. This King is the only king we may indeed worship. This King is he whom we should fear, love, and trust above all things. This King has become the most lowly subject so that we might become Kings. This Prophet came to fulfill all prophecies. This Priest became the sacrifice so that we might become priests. He is the one sacrifice for all, whose death frees us from death itself.

So, dear Christians friends, let us eagerly anticipate the coming of our King, our Priest, our God, our Redeemer, confessing our sins and receiving his royal pardon. For he is truly Israel’s promised King who was to come at Bethlehem in a manger, who made his royal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, who came into his kingdom on the cross, who comes to us today in Word and Sacrament. He will also come again at the end of all time as the triumphant ruler, rescuing his people so that they might “be his own and live under him in his kingdom and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he is risen from the dead, and lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true!”

Even so, come Lord Jesus! Amen.

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

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Sermon: Thanksgiving Eve

24 November 2004 at Mount Olive L.C., Metairie, LA (?)

Text: Ps 116; Isa 61:10-11; 1 Tim 2:1-8; Luke 17:11-19

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

It is certainly fitting to give thanks for all that the Lord has graced us with. We live in a country that enjoys a great deal of freedom and prosperity. Most of us enjoy a lifestyle that would have been the envy of kings only a century ago: television, air conditioning, cars, computers, telephones, and air travel. While there are cases of horrific poverty even in the midst of our plenty, the vast majority of people in our country – even among the poor – are wealthier and more comfortable than even the average person in many other nations around the world. We Americans certainly have much to be thankful for.

It is indeed fitting to give thanks to God for these kinds of gifts that he shares with us – gifts we sometimes call “first article gifts” – the kinds of gifts our Lord gives us as part of his creation, from the first article of the creed. He gives us “clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all that [we] have. He richly and daily provides [us] with all that [we] need to support this body and life.” Were Luther writing today, he might add technology, medical breakthroughs, travel, and leisure time. And all of these gifts are given “out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in [us].” It is indeed our duty to “thank and praise, serve and obey him.” We ought to “give thanks unto the Lord for he is good,” and indeed “his mercy endureth forever.” This is most certainly true.

And this is why we traditionally celebrate with a meal, with a joyous feast of the bounty of the earth, of harvested fruits and vegetables, of creatures provided for us to eat, of baked goods and beverages made from the finest our Lord’s good creation has to offer.

But there is another meal we celebrate in thanksgiving for what our Lord has given us in his “fatherly, divine goodness and mercy.” We celebrate this Holy Meal tonight – a meal which is indeed a “first article gift” – a meal of wheat and water made into bread, and a meal of grapes crushed and aged into wine. This meal is called the Eucharist, from the Greek word: eucharisteo: “I give thanks.” But just as the bread and wine are not merely bread and wine, this meal is not merely a celebration of the first article of the Creed. For this meal is like no other. It is a celebration, a thanksgiving, a eucharist from the second article of the creed, of redemption. For our Lord uses creation itself, rising to redeem creation which had fallen. Our Lord becomes a Man to redeem fallen man by rising. Our Lord becomes creatures of bread and wine, so that creatures of bread and wine might become our Lord. Our Lord, in the form of creaturely bread and wine, is eaten and drunk by his creatures so that we join in his divinity. In this mysterious meal, the first and second articles of the creed come together. As the ancient church father Athanasius says it: “God became man so that man might become God.”

And so it is even more fitting that we should give thanks, that we should “eucharist” for our redemption than even for our material wealth, prosperity, and freedom. Not that we should forget about “clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home,” but we should keep these things in perspective. For while these things will all wear out and disappear, the “second article gift” of our salvation “endureth forever.” This is the Christian thanksgiving that the secular world would find pathetic when compared to a spread of turkey, dressing, and gravy. In the eyes of the world, a single wafer of bread and a single sip of wine is hardly a meal, let alone a Thanksgiving Feast. And yet, to those who are being saved, this is indeed a participation in the greatest eternal banquet of all time. And it is a meal of thanksgiving. For paradoxically, we show our gratitude to our Lord by receiving from him even more.

As our introit from Psalm 116 asks: “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits toward me?” That is to ask, “What should I give to God in return for all the wonderful things he has done and continues to do for me?” Notice what the answer is. “I will take the cup of salvation,” and “call upon the name of the Lord.” In other words, I will show my thanks to God by taking, by receiving, by enjoying his gifts. I will take the chalice of salvation and will drink his holy blood. I will eat his very flesh. I will join in the banquet he throws for me and for all unworthy people who deserve to drink a different kind of cup.

In Scripture, the image of the cup is usually not a good one. The “cup” is typically a vessel of God’s wrath. It is the cup of suffering our Lord asked to be taken from him. And yet it is this same cup filled with the wine of the grapes of God’s wrath that becomes for us the “cup of salvation.” For the wrath of God has passed over us, visiting death upon the firstborn, upon the only-begotten, sparing us. And this wrath, having been fulfilled by our Lord Jesus Christ, becomes a gift of salvation which is brought to us in a chalice and placed on our tongues in a wafer. This removal of wrath is what makes it possible for St. Paul to exhort in our epistle that “men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath.” For we lift holy hands in prayer in gratitude, as St. Paul says, in: “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks.” We give thanks to “God our savior, who desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” We give thanks to our Lord, the “one mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.”

And we give thanks further by singing the praise of him who saved us, of him who drained the cup of wrath to the dregs, of him who replaced the wrath with the fruit of the vine of his holy Blood. We join Isaiah in rejoicing in the Lord, he who has “clothed [us] with the garments of salvation” and who covers us “with the robe of righteousness.” In our Psalm, the next thing that follows taking the cup of salvation, is calling on the name of the Lord, that is prayer. We respond with prayer, and with more: “I will pay my vows to the Lord now in the presence of all his people.” Having received our Lord’s “first article gifts” of “clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home,” after enjoying the Lord’s gifts from the garden: “the things that are sown in it” and which “spring forth,” we give thanks. And having received the “second article gifts” of forgiveness of sins, of redemption, of communion with God himself through the life, death, and resurrection of God’s only begotten Son, given to us in his Word, in Baptism, and in the great thanksgiving of the Eucharist, we then, like the cleansed leper in our Gospel text, come back to Jesus week after week, Sunday after Sunday, to fall down on our faces at his feet, to give him thanks.

And this great thanksgiving is not only a once-a-year holiday, nor is it only a weekly Eucharist, but it is an eternal banquet. It is an ongoing festival of the gifts of creation and redemption that will have no end. And as Christians have prayed at the end of meals for centuries, let us pray:

“O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endureth forever!” Amen!

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

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Sermon: Thursday prior to the Sunday of the Fulfillment

18 November 2004, Chapel of Lutheran High School, Metairie, LA

Text: Luke 23:35-43

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

We Christians are counter-cultural.

While the world is on its schedule: the upcoming busy holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, we’re on our own time-table. The Christian Church counts down the days until her own New Year, that is the beginning of Advent, this year on November 28. We will then ponder once again the mystery of Jesus coming in the flesh in Bethlehem – just as we have done every year for twenty centuries. We will also anticipate his second coming during the season of Advent as we prepare for the Festival of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ on December 25. But as for now, the church year winds down, and as it concludes, we spend some time thinking of the Lord’s promises about the end of the age, the judgment, and the completion of the establishment of his kingdom. This coming Sunday, the last of the church year, is known as the Sunday of Fulfillment.

Today’s reading takes us to the time and place where Jesus first established his kingdom, his Inauguration Day where he took up his throne and was crowned: crowned with thorns and enthroned on a cross. His jewels are his ruby-red wounds. His scarlet robe is his own beaten flesh. He is declared a king – if only in mockery – in three languages of the civilized world. He is mocked with royal bows, royal greetings, and royal robes. And yet, in spite of the spirit of mockery in which it is given, the sign above the enthroned Jesus reads truthfully: “This is the King of the Jews.” This is not only to say this is the King over the Jews, but also that this is the King who is the gift from the Jews to the whole world. This is he who was prophesied by the Hebrew prophets, he who came from the seed of Abraham the Hebrew, he, the royal Son of David: Jesus, whose name in Hebrew means “God saves.” This is he, the descendant of Abraham who was promised to be a blessing to all nations. And over our Lord’s crowned and sacred head now wounded, his kingship is proclaimed, not only in Hebrew, but Greek and Latin as well – in the language of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and of the entire Church. Proclaiming to all that the Kingdom of God has come.

The petty rulers of the Jews, proud of their handiwork, mock their King with a taunt: “He saved others, let him save himself!” How profound and prophetic are their words! For had our Lord saved “himself,” he would not be saving “others.” Had he abandoned the Father’s mission and come down from his cross, he would have “won” and we would have “lost.” The whole world would have “lost.” Completely missing the point, the Jewish leaders claim that if the crucified Jesus is indeed the Christ, God’s Chosen, he should do just that. He should leave his cross-throne and put off his thorny-crown. He should abandon his work of mercy toward us, and think only of his own comfort and vindication. Have they not read in their own Scriptures that it is by his stripes, his wounds, that we are healed?

And they further mock our blood-soaked Lord by offering him the very thing he offered to us as his own blood: wine. Only the wine they offer our Lord is sour. It is vinegar. It is spoiled - unlike the life-giving wine our Lord gives us: the very best wine, which has been saved for last: his very Blood which saves us. And so they taunt: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

One of Jesus’s fellow condemned criminals joins the taunt. Only he adds his own selfish motive to the insult: “If you are the Christ, save yourself, and us! He is praying for Jesus to save him, but it is a prayer not made in faith, but rather in spite. It is not a prayer that acknowledges the King, but denounces him. It is a prayer that has no expectation of being fulfilled. It is a self-condemning prayer that will indeed be answered by condemnation.

However, one person in this brutal drama figures out that Jesus really is a King. This one man acts out of faith and offers up true adoration and true worship of the true King Jesus. He pleads his case before the King, truly understanding that this King is his only hope of being saved. This condemned and crucified criminal, convicted of his sins by the law, confesses: “I have been condemned justly. I deserve this punishment. Unlike King Jesus, it is fitting that I should die and shed my own sorry blood for what I have done.” And yet, in spite of his confession, his own acknowledgment of his shameful unworthiness, the criminal boldly approaches the King and asks for a favor. He offers up a prayer to God who hangs next to him: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This is a prayer offered in faith, for it acknowledges the Kingship of Jesus, and offers an unwavering hope that this new reign, this new order of the universe, is soon to begin. This is a hopeful prayer of confession that seeks a hopeful absolution.

This prayer offered in faith is indeed answered. For our Lord and King issues the following decree from his gory throne. Our Shepherd, Priest, and Bishop proclaims the following encyclical from his bloody cathedral. Our God himself bespeaks the New Heaven and the New Earth into being with his mighty, and yet strained, Word: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Grant this Lord unto us all.

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

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Sermon: Second Last Sunday of the Church Year

14 November 2004, Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Metairie, LA

Text: Luke 19:11-27 (Isaiah 52:1-6; 1 Cor 15:54-58) (3 Year)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Our Lord speaks to us today in a parable.

And this parable forms a bridge between two well-known events as told by St. Luke – all of which are in Luke 19. Today’s text comes right after the delightful story of Zacchaeus, the little tax collector who shimmies up a tree to see Jesus. Upon seeing him, our Lord calls him down and demands to stay at his house. Zaccheaus repents of his sins and promises to restore anyone whom he has cheated four-fold. Jesus declares that salvation has come to his house, and that the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. And immediately after our text, our Lord rides triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey amid the royal cheers of the people: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” Of course, this royal greeting would ultimately see our Lord crowned with thorns and enthroned on a cross.

So why does our Lord tell this story known as the Parable of the Minas? Why does St. Luke – under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – place it between these two other well-known readings? What is our Lord telling us?

Parables can be interpreted in many ways. Our Lord elsewhere explains this dilemma by quoting the prophet’s great vision of God’s throne-room from Isaiah chapter six. After we hear the angels and archangels singing “holy, holy holy!,” God explains that Isaiah is to preach, even though there will be people who hear, and yet won’t really hear; they will see, and yet won’t really see. They have closed up their eyes and ears to the truth. Yet those who understand are able to “turn,” they are able to repent, and thus be able to be healed by Jesus. Jesus also quotes Psalm 78: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.”

In other words, our Lord preaches in parables precisely because they can be interpreted differently! Those, who like the prophet Isaiah, acknowledge their sin, those whose lips have been purified by the coals of the Lord’s forgiveness, not only hear the Word, but also understand it. The Word is preached by God’s appointed prophets, and is in turn received joyfully by those who hear and understand. And yet, this is the same Word that is rejected by those who hear, and yet do not understand, those whose hearts are hard and unrepentant, those who would rather warp our Lord’s words than surrender to them. And the Lord’s words – even those cloaked in parables – reveal secrets hidden until our Lord choses to make them known. Dear friends, there is saving truth in our Lord’s parables – if we listen and do not rebel. As our Lord often finishes his parables: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

Let us hear our Lord and hear him correctly, that we might understand, that we might turn and repent, in order that our Lord may heal us.

Again, Jesus has just forgiven Zacchaeus, the well-known sinner, and has done so publicly. He went in to his home, and ate with him. In response to our Lord’s reverse-hospitality, Zacchaeus repents of his sins. He does so publicly. His claim of faith is backed up by his deeds. He is not merely a hearer of the Word, but a doer also. Similarly, our Lord is a doer, and not merely a hearer. For he tells this tale of the servants and their minas as he is headed to Jerusalem, obediently fulfilling his task to die for us. In being a doer, and not merely a hearer, our Lord wins the forgiveness of sinners like Zacchaeus, like all of us. Our Lord goes forth to claim his kingdom, even though he, like the king in our parable, would be rejected by citizens who hate him, who say “we will not have this man reign over us.” Jesus promises that these enemies will eventually be slain before his eyes, that there will be a judgment when he returns: when the time for “doing business” is over. St. Luke links the forgiveness of sins, repentance, and good works directly to Jesus’ passion, cross, second coming, and the end of the world.

This parable involves the king’s servants who are entrusted with a considerable sum of money. Each received a mina – an amount equal to about three months’ salary. They are commanded by the king to “do business.” Upon his return from establishing his kingdom, the king calls in each servant so that he might give an account of the king’s money. Those whose investments were successful receive a promotion – going from slavery to authority, from being a steward to being a ruler. One servant was not faithful, however. He insults the king, calling him “austere” and accuses him of treating people harshly and unfairly, collecting what he did not deposit, reaping what he did not sow. The unfaithful servant acted in a passive-aggressive manner, clinging to the coin and refusing to even try to do as the king ordered. It is as though he says: “I will not have this man reign over me!” This servant chose to show the king who he thought was boss by rebelling and then making himself appear faithful. The unwise servant makes a mockery of the king whom he, like the disloyal citizens, has rejected. As the king points out, if the servant were merely lazy or not a wise investor, he could have at least put the coin in the bank and drew interest. But instead, the wicked slave shows contempt for the king, and even says so to his face – all in a way that seems very clever. The king is not fooled. The mina entrusted to the unfaithful servant was taken from him and given to the others. The king then orders all of his unfaithful subjects, those who reject his kingdom, to be arrested and executed.

Like any parable, this one is easily twisted and distorted. It is often quoted by TV evangelists who make promises of worldly riches and success based on a proper investment of money – an investment that involves sending the money to them to be invested in fancy homes and cars, TV studios and mansions. But is our Lord talking about money at all? Is this what the Kingdom of God boils down to: a Rolex and a home in the Hamptons? Is this the revelation of a secret that has been kept “from the foundation of the world”? When our Lord speaks of his servants “doing business,” could he mean something other than convincing TV-worshipers to write checks?

Another misunderstanding of the parable involves a misplaced emphasis. Some would argue that Jesus is telling us our salvation is based on what we do. That he gives us a little “prevenient grace,” an investment, if you will, and then we are to build on this capital by a form of “spiritual capitalism.” In other words, we’re like the contestants on the TV show “The Apprentice.” We’re given a little bit of money and a task to do. At the end of the day, the money is counted. The ones who turn the biggest profit (and that’s “profit” with an “f”) and seem to be the best salesmen and managers are rewarded, while the loser faces judgment in the Board Room in the form of Donald Trump’s humiliating judgment: “You’re fired!” To understand the parable in this way is to turn the notion of grace upside down, to make salvation something we earn. It encourages us to live life based on the fear of the Board Room, the terror of “The Jesus” berating us and telling us to pack our bags and leave the game, to go away to a waiting taxicab where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Of course, in the world of business, the winners are not necessarily the compassionate. The losers can even be the most honest and loyal. And in reality, to try to buy our way into heaven by our own savvy as “spiritual investors” and our own goodness as managers of what God has given us is a lost cause. As “spiritual investors,” we’re all like the sad person behind the curtain at a video poker machine hopelessly tossing all of our minas away in a vain hope of striking it rich.

So what is the lesson here? How can we hear and understand our Lord? How do we see and perceive? What is the secret revealed here that has been hidden until now, and even remains hidden to the hard of heart, to the unrepentant, to those who reject our Lord’s kingship?

We need to keep firmly in mind a couple things. First, the stewards in the parable are slaves. They are not their own. They belong to the king. They are not even playing with their own money. Everything they have is by the grace of the king – including the minas they have been entrusted with. The minas are both a gift, and a command. They are given freely, and yet are not to be dormant. They are grace, and yet packaged with the grace is the expectation of good works that flow from the relationship of trust between master and slave. Knowing the master is just and demanding, the faithful servants act as they have been told, never exerting their own will out of resentment or rebellion. In the same way, God gives us the Gospel as a gift, and at the same time, he commands his servants (especially his ministers, his stewards) to make the Gospel work like an investment, to grow the kingdom of God like a 401k plan. And if the investor himself is no apprentice of Donald Trump (most of us are not that great at financial planning after all), our Lord mercifully accepts this, and is satisfied with even our placing of our mina in the hands of the bank, where the return isn’t so great.

What our Lord condemns in this parable is the willful rebellion against his wishes, the lack of trust and faith – which is rooted in resentment of God being God and of our being mere servants. Such a servant acts out of a fear that is really more like hatred of the master. We’ll show God what we think of his grace. We’ll wrap it in a nose-rag and give it right back to him when he comes back. We won’t do any work on behalf of the kingdom itself, nor will we even support the work of those who do the work of the kingdom. We’ll wait for the hard-nosed king to come back, and we’ll show him what we think of his so-called grace and his so-called right to give us commands!

And so this is another way for people to misread this parable: to interpret it as “works righteousness.” In other words, our salvation is up to us to earn: we rack up a balance in our account by doing good works – and when we get to a certain level of wealth, we are allowed into the country club.

Of course, this is not what the parable is all about. And yet at the same time, the parable warns us that good works are not worthless. We Lutherans sometimes fall prey to the wrong conclusion that since we have God’s grace, we can wrap that grace in a hanky and present it like an admission fee to heaven. We use the grace of God as an excuse to be lazy, or even deliberately sinful – since what good is a “get out of hell free card” if you can’t enjoy a little sinful pleasure with it? However, our Lord’s parable tells us that good works follow grace as naturally as interest racks up in a savings account. In the words of the beloved Lutheran hymn: “faith alone doth justify,” and yet “works serve thy neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living.” To put it another way, we confess with St. Paul that we are saved by faith alone, and yet, we also confess with St. James that faith is never alone – faith without works is dead, it is a counterfeit faith. James also exhorts us to be “doers of the word, not hearers only” which James says is to deceive ourselves. We need to avoid the error of both extremes. We do need to understanding God’s grace as pure Gospel, and yet we dare not take that grace for granted by spiting the Lord in refusing to carry out his command to “do business” until he returns.

Dear friends, our Lord is not austere with those who confess their sins. Our Lord is merciful. And our Lord does not collect where he did not deposit, nor reap where he did not sow – as he is the creator of the world. It is all his! He has sown the entire universe into existence, and has deposited to us the faith that redeems us! He has created everything for us, and withheld nothing from us, his most bumbling and foolish servants – not even his own Son. Whether we are good or bad with money, or whether or not we are “effective” in the Church’s mission to spread the Gospel doesn’t take away from the grace he gives us. For we’re all born with nothing, and we all die with nothing – except one thing: we die with our baptism. And this deposit, this sowing, is given to us freely by our Lord, like a check drawn on the bank of the Blood of the Lamb. And when the day of reckoning comes, when the accounts are settled, we will collect the interest, and we will reap the bounty.

For as Isaiah points out in our Old Testament lesson, we sinners “have sold” ourselves “for nothing.” And yet we “shall be redeemed without money.” As our catechism confesses, we are indeed redeemed, we lost and condemned persons, “purchased and won… from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver,” – not with minas – “but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.” We can proclaim boldly with St. Paul in our epistle lesson that death has lost its sting. We know that God himself has given us “the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is a gift, not something to be earned through shrewd investment. And yet, we are reminded that we are to be “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that [our] labor is not in vain in the Lord.”

For we will indeed reap where our Lord has sown, and we will collect where our Lord has deposited. And when we hear the words: “Well done, good servant,” we know that it is really our Lord Jesus Christ who was, who is, and who ever shall be the only truly Good Servant. In gratitude for his mercy may we praise his holy name now and forevermore! Amen.

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

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Sermon: All Saints Day (transferred)

4 November 2004 at Chapel of Lutheran High School, Metairie, LA

Text: Rev. 7:9-17

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

This past Sunday, Lutherans celebrated Reformation Day – which honors certain saints of the Church – including Blessed Martin Luther – who risked his life so that the Gospel might be preached. On Monday, Lutherans joined the rest of the western Christian world to celebrate All Saints Day, a holy day set aside to praise God for all the saints: prophets, apostles, martyrs, doctors of the church, and examples of faithfulness and good works. Included also are the countless number of anonymous saints who have crossed over from this vale of tears to everlasting life and glory.

Our text gives us a snapshot into heaven, as we see a great multitude, more people than can be counted. They come from every race and nationality, speaking every language imaginable. They are in the very throne room of God, in the presence of Christ – the Lamb. Like the people who welcomed our Lord into Jerusalem as a king, this mysterious crowd waves palm branches. And notice how they’re dressed. They are not wearing cut-offs and t-shirts. They are not dressed like they’ve just gotten done working on their cars. They are in the presence of God, standing before his royal throne, and so they are dressed for the occasion. They are wearing the white robes of righteousness given to them at baptism.

And this mighty crowd cries with what seems to be one voice: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” This chant is so deafeningly loud, St. John, who sees this vision, must have wondered if his ears would pop. And the crowd of people are not the only ones there. There are also angels, who join in the eternal hymn: “Blessing and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen!”

Somehow through the noise, an elder asks John if he knows who these people are, this crowd too large to be counted. John is so overwhelmed that he can only blurt out: “Sir, you know.” The elder identifies these people as those “who come out of the great tribulation and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” These grateful people refuse to leave their Savior and King, singing his praises day and night for eternity. They have returned to Paradise, to the Garden of Eden. They are without sin, without hunger, without misery, without tears, and without death itself. And the one called the Lamb is their Shepherd – who leads his own lambs to living fountains of water. All memory of pain, death, sin, sickness, poverty, hunger, persecution, and hatred are wiped from their eyes along with their tears.

So who are these saints? Is this crowd only those whom the Church has canonized, people who bear the title “saint”? If that’s the case, how could the crowd be so large? Does this crowd only consist of doctors of the church, reformers, priests, nuns, pastors, deaconesses, professional church workers, and Sunday School teachers? Are these only martyrs and people of great faith? Once again, most of us do not have great faith. Most of us are spiritual weaklings and cowards – not noble humanitarians like Blessed Mother Teresa and Saint Francis of Assisi, not doctors of the Church like St. Augustine and Blessed Martin Luther, not brave martyrs like St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Felicity and St. Perpetua. Most of us are not patient and devout heroes of prayer such as St. Monica and St. Benedict.

Yet when Paul wrote his letters to the churches that are today books of the New Testament, he addressed all Christians as “saints.” All of those whose robes have been washed in Christ’s blood, who have been born again through water and the Word, who have come out of the great tribulation of this sinful world, are saints. Most will never be remembered by name by the Church – but every saint is precious and known by name to our Lord. Dr. Luther said that all Christians are at the same time saints and sinners. And this explains John’s vision, that these saints are not dressed in the clothing of their own deeds, but rather are wearing white robes given to them when they came into contact with the Blood of Jesus. The saints in John’s vision are redeemed sinners. They are grateful that they have been rescued by someone else’s blood – that someone else being the Lord Jesus Christ.

As the ancient hymn attributed to St. Ambrose called the Te Deum prays to God: “The glorious company of the apostles praise Thee, the noble army of martyrs praise Thee, the goodly fellowship of the prophets praise Thee.” And the hymn also mentions the rest of us: “The holy Church throughout all the world doth acknowledge Thee.” For the Church is not only those who perform great deeds: the heroic martyrs, God’s chosen prophets and apostles and the doctors and teachers of the church, but also the helpless baby at the baptismal font, the man with Alzheimer’s disease who wastes away lonely in a nursing home, and the woman who lives year after year completely paralyzed. This crowd of saints includes high school students who struggle with temptation and the pressures of fitting in. This crowd includes single mothers who live paycheck to paycheck, and prisoners, and the homeless. This multitude of saints includes even murderers who have repented and washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.

And so dear sinner-saints, it is proper that we praise God for the mighty men and women of faith whose works of love inspire us and set an example of godly Christian life for us.

For when we honor the redeemed, we are also honoring the Redeemer. The saints testify to the only true Saint the world has ever known: our Lord Jesus Christ. For it is his blood that covers our sin and allows us to stand in his presence with a palm leaf. It is being baptized into his death that gives us a white robe. It is his Word and Sacraments that usher us into the throne room where we will never again suffer or be unhappy.

And every Sunday the church gathers. We confess that there are not two churches: one here on earth and another in heaven. Rather we “believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” The oneness of the church is not destroyed even by the separation of death. For where Jesus is, there are the saints – those here on earth, and those who have “come out of the great tribulation.” The church on earth and the church in heaven unite around the throne of God and in the presence of the Lamb. When we gather around the altar on Sunday, we know that our deceased relatives and friends who have likewise “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb” are right there with us. When we sing “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,” we sing along with the countless Christians of every age. When we chant “Holy, holy, holy,” we do so with millions of the faithful from every time and place. And when we kneel before the Body and Blood of the Lord, we are united with those whom we wish we could speak to, but can’t. We kneel next to those whom we love but can no longer embrace. We are not only in the presence of Jesus, but are also surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, this host arrayed in white, those who fall on their faces night and day before the Lord himself.

Though we live in a mortal body decaying with sin, these bodies will be resurrected and made new. And though our worship is imperfect, it will be perfected. Though our voices crack, they will one day sing in perfect harmony with angels. Though we’re tired and distracted, hungry and bored, we will one day be so alive and filled with joy that we will never grow weary of joining this great crowd in heaven, singing and praising God.

Dear friends, let us continue to praise God, even in this time of sin and tribulation, even in spite of our unworthiness and doubt. For it is our Lord himself who clothes us with his righteousness, and shepherds us to the living waters of baptism into which we are declared to be saints, both now and forever. Amen.

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