Sunday, December 25, 2005

Sermon: Christmas

25 Dec 2005 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: John 1:1-14

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

John opens his Gospel using the very same words Moses uses to begin the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning.” He takes us back to the beginning of everything – of time and space itself. And notice that during this, the very first nanosecond of everything, we find that something was already in existence: the Word. Before the beginning of time and space, the Word existed with God, and the Word was God.

Isn’t this a great way to begin a Gospel? Instead of starting with Jesus’ genealogy, or the Christmas story, St. John talks in riddles.

But this is so important, because John is telling us about Jesus. Jesus existed before Jesus. Jesus existed before existence. Jesus is eternal, and not bound by time. In other words, Jesus is God. This is important because it sets up the wonder of Christmas! Jesus is not a created being, and yet when he was born, he took on created flesh. Jesus transcends all time and space, and yet he was born on a specific date at a specific time, and he occupied a tiny area contained within the skin of an infant. Jesus is almighty, and yet became all-helpless. Jesus is all glorious, and yet veiled his glory to the point of wearing diapers.

Why does God do this? This, dear friends, is the great question. The world gets it wrong. Time and Newsweek get it wrong. Sadly, a lot of Christian churches get it wrong. Jesus didn’t come to give us the law – Moses already did that. Jesus didn’t come to teach us morality, we all know right from wrong. Jesus didn’t come to be only a teacher – the world has seen thousands of great teachers before and after Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to advocate a political position, to advance a social agenda, or to tell us what kind of vehicle to drive.

God becomes one with his creation, he breaks into space and time, because there is a plan. There is a real and profound need for him to be here. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

Theologians argue about whether or not God would have taken flesh even if we had not fallen into sin. Who can say one way or the other? But this much we know for sure: “to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God… born of God.” He was “born to raise each child of earth, born to give us second birth.”

And what is the connection between the baby lying in a manger and our being born again? How are we born again? Notice what our Gospel text says: “not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” Our being born again is a lot like Jesus’ birth: it is supernatural, it is divine, it is mysterious. Our being born again, becoming children of God, is not a “human decision.” Nobody decides to follow Jesus or makes a decision to accept Jesus as savior. Rather we are “born of God.” It happens to us without our will, even in spite of our will!

Our epistle text speaks of how Christmas is tied to being born again: “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.”

We are born again not by our willpower, not by our good deeds, not by our decision to accept Jesus, not by some waterless baptism of the Holy Spirit championed by certain sects – but by a “washing of rebirth.” We are washed clean by water and the Word! This baptismal font is where the Holy Spirit hovers – just as surely as the glory of the Lord appeared as a pillar of fire and as a cloud over the children of Israel. When the water was poured on us with the Lord’s words, the Holy Spirit was placed on us, and we were indeed, in the very words of Jesus, “born again… born of water and the Spirit.”

So, the Word took on flesh, Jesus was born, so that we might be born anew. Through the washing of rebirth, Jesus saves us. And this is for no other reason than that God is merciful and he loves his whole creation.

John describes this incarnation of God as life and light. These are the opposites of death and darkness. The old priest Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, prophesied in words we still sing in the liturgy: “Through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high has visited us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Apart from Jesus, we sit in the dark, and wait to die. There is no hope, and no direction, no guidance. But with the coming of Jesus, the Dayspring, who has come to us on a mission of mercy, he brings us light and guides our feet. Jesus is the fulfillment of the psalmists’ prophecy: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” The Word, dear Christian friends, is Jesus. The Word isn’t information recorded in a book – the Word is the living, breathing Christ, God in the flesh, who has snatched us from darkness and death, whose light guides us to eternal life.

“The true light that gives light to every man was coming in the world.” Notice that John says the light is given to all men. And yet, not all men want it! It is as though a winning lottery ticket were distributed to every person, but most people decided they didn’t need it – some politely, others violently. The twisted response of the world to the coming of Jesus is testimony to the wretchedness of man. “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” The world rejects Jesus, rejects the Church, rejects the Scriptures, rejects the sacraments, and rejects eternal life itself. The world embraces the culture of darkness and death.

But thanks be to God that we baptized, reborn children of God have seen the light, and have received the gift of eternal life! “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Thanks be to God St. John has written a new account of “in the beginning,” that the fall of Genesis was conquered by the rising of Jesus. The degradation of human flesh by sin into the stuff of corruption and death has been checked and turned around by the One who has taken on our flesh, and yet who is incorruptible, and who has conquered death for all time.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. In six days, he created all things, and on the seventh day, he rested. But there has followed an Eighth Day, the first day in a new age of creation. That new creation has begun, dear friends. On the Eighth Day, the Creator became one with his creation. We are in the last days as we move ever closer to the end of the Book of Revelation, in which all darkness, misery, suffering, and death are conquered and overthrown.

For the baby Jesus, God in the flesh, was born in a manger – a food trough. He was born in a place called Bethlehem – literally, the House of Bread. He is the true bread from heaven, the new manna, which he bids us to eat. His blood is the blood of the new passover, the new testament, which he bids us to drink. His divine body and blood are melded with ours, raising us to himself.

This, all ye faithful, is the meaning of Christmas. The birth of Jesus, the Son in flesh appearing, has heralded a new age, the beginning of the end of time, the beginning of the end of death. God and man are one in flesh and in eternity. We are claimed as his own by holy baptism, and nourished by holy communion and holy absolution. The Word made flesh is a lamp to our feet as he proclaims his Gospel to us. Sin, death, and the devil have been conquered. The new heaven and the new earth are now under construction, and we are citizens of this heaven above.

“Glory to God in the highest! Oh come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.” Amen.

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

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Sermon: Christmas Eve

24 Dec 2005 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: various

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

All of history is divided into before Christmas and after Christmas. We use the terms BC and AD to indicate whether a year is Before Christ, or Anno Domini (in the year of our Lord). Even in non-Christian countries this convention is followed. In places that are outright hostile to the Christian faith, the same numbers for years are used – history is still divided between before Christmas and after Christmas, yet the artificial terms Before the Common Era (BCE) and Common Era (CE) are used. They think they’re being clever in removing Jesus from the very reason we divide history this way.

But the joke is on them. For there is some divine truth in their terminology! On the first Christmas, at the birth of our Lord, when God took on human flesh – this is indeed the beginning of the “common era.” For now, God and man have something in common that they did not have in the BC era – humanity. Human flesh. For almighty God “put our human vesture on and came to us as Mary’s Son.”

This commonality, this communion between God and man, between God and us, is especially remarkable because we had rejected God. Eve gave in to the serpent’s temptation while Adam watched and later participated. Adam and Eve wanted something that was not theirs: commonality with God. They wanted to bridge the gap between the almighty Lord and lowly humanity by their own deceitful act. They wanted commonality on their own terms. And since that day, we have been a fallen race, “banished children,” people sitting in darkness, cursed, and mortal.

And how does God react? In the fullness of time, in the reign of Herod in Bethlehem, “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” He, the “Savior of our fallen race,” the “brightness of the Father’s face.” And thanks to that light, we no longer sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. We, “the people that in darkness sat, a glorious light have seen, the light has shined on them who long in shades of death have been.”

Instead of destroying us “poor miserable sinners,” God became one of us, taking the name “Jesus” – “because he will save his people from their sins.” By our sins, we have made ourselves enemies of God. And the “stump of Jesse,” the one born in royal David’s city, has come to crush the head of his enemy. But he has not come to crush us! For we are no longer his enemies – because we have commonality, we have communion, we share our flesh with Immanuel – “God with us.” He has come to make peace with us, and to make war against the devil. He has come to crush the serpent’s head, and to undo the curse of darkness mankind had been under those many millennia before Christ, before the common era, before God took flesh to become our savior.

Dear Christian brothers and sisters: this is why we celebrate Christmas! This is why the devil seeks to destroy Christmas! The incarnation of God into human flesh is the greatest event in history – it separates every human endeavor into two halves – and it made commonality, union, communion with God possible – on his terms, not on ours.

In ancient prayer books, four words in the Nicene Creed were printed in capital letters: “And was made man.” For centuries, Christians around the world would kneel for these four words. “And was made man” is the greatest of all mysteries. This divine commonality that unites God and man to where they can never be separated again. And we continue to kneel before the Lord as did the magi presenting gifts, only we, dear friends, kneel before the Lord to receive his gifts – the gifts of his very flesh and blood, the gift of his humanity we take into our own bodies. God not only became human, but man became divine.

So celebrate the mystery with joy, feasting, worship, commonality with those with whom you share flesh and blood. And remember that you not only share flesh and blood with your kith and kin, but also with God himself, whose very flesh and blood becomes your flesh and blood today and every day when the divine commonality of God and man is celebrated through a holy and mysterious communion. Jesus is still incarnate, still among us, and still saves us from our sin and darkness, from our separation from God, and from death itself.

“Haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe the Son of Mary.” We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Amen.

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

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sermon: Advent 3 (Gaudete)

11 Dec 2005 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 11:2-11 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s Gospel deals with a man who is typically treated as a minor character in Scripture. Indeed, if the Bible were only literature, John the Baptist wouldn’t be very important – given that he’s killed off very early in the story. And yet, notice what Jesus says about him: “among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist.” Jesus submitted to John and was willing to be baptized by him. Jesus’ words about his courageous cousin are not merely polite commentary given at a retirement banquet. Indeed, this is very high praise coming from God himself.

But notice the circumstances. John has been put in jail, and he hears “about the works of Christ.” Instead of rejoicing, John – this greatest of all men, this bold preacher who took on the political establishment of his day – begins to wonder if he’s made a mistake. “Are You the coming one, or do we look for another?” Jesus, are you really the Christ, or are you yet one more prophet making promises. I heard about your works, Jesus, and that’s not quite what we all had in mind of our Messiah. So what’s the deal?

It seems like everyone misunderstood Jesus. Many Jews were looking for a political king to overthrow the Roman government. Herod certainly was. Certainly nobody expected the Messiah to be put on trial by Herod and executed by the Roman government.

So John is in doubt. How does Jesus reassure him? Notice he doesn’t go to John himself, but sends men, messengers, under the orders: “go and tell.” We sometimes describe ordination into the preaching office as “holy orders.” In order to comfort John, to assure him of his own work, Jesus sent two preachers.

And notice these preachers are told exactly what to say. They aren’t instructed to make small talk, crack a few jokes, and make up something to make John feel better. No, these disciples of Jesus are sent with a specific message. And that message points to Jesus.

Notice the increasing order of importance. They say: “Look, John, look at what Jesus is doing: he’s healing sick people, he’s even raising the dead, but there’s something even greater: he is preaching the Gospel!”

They are telling John that Jesus is fulfilling John’s own preaching: “Behold, the Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world!” This preaching unto the forgiveness of sins is the Gospel. And of all the miracles of our Lord, this is the greatest. It not only restores the flesh, but takes away the sin that places the flesh on a collision course with death! The miraculous preaching of the Gospel, and the offering of himself as the Lamb of God, that we eat in the Church’s weekly passover, is what Jesus presents to John to bring him comfort.

Our reading from Isaiah includes this word “comfort.” “Comfort, yes, comfort my people! Says your God. Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” The very next line in this reading is a direct prophecy of John the Baptist: “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Notice how the word “comfort” is used here. It doesn’t refer to air conditioning, heated leather seats, power steering and a built-in DVD player. Rather it is used as forgiveness and pardon. In fact, the Hebrew word translated “comfort” literally means sorrow and repentance.

So Jesus doesn’t remove John’s suffering to comfort him. He doesn’t save him from his upcoming death any more than he would later save himself from his cross in response to his mockers. He doesn’t send John blankets and pillows. No, to bring him comfort, he sends him preachers armed with the Holy Spirit-inspired Word of God – with the Gospel. In fact, the Greek name for the Holy Spirit is: the Paraclete, literally, the Comforter.

And notice Jesus’ final word sent to John: “Blessed is he who is not offended because of me.” Time and again in the Gospels we find people taking offense, being scandalized, by Jesus. How relevant this is today! Every Christmas it seems we re-fight the battle over “Merry Christmas,” Christmas carols, and the “inappropriate” displays of Jesus in “Holiday” decorations. The world is still offended by Jesus. Our flesh is still offended by Jesus. This is why Jesus is a scandal – the word translated as “offended” is literally “to scandalize.”

Christianity is scandalous. It always has been, and always will be. Why? Because our sinful flesh hates the Gospel. We’re proud. We don’t want charity and handouts. We want to be self-sufficient – so we can continue to hold ourselves higher than welfare-recipients and folks we consider to be moochers. We want to earn our salvation – or at least have a hand in it.

Also, like the Jews, we want a powerful, swaggering, “cool” Jesus. We want a wise-cracking macho Jesus like Will Smith or Bruce Willis. We don’t want a weak Jesus who goes silently to the slaughter. We don’t want a crucified Jesus. The cross is offensive and scandalous – Paul tells us so in these very words: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling-block (literally: scandal) to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.” The last thing you will ever see in a megachurch that has theater seating and cup-holders is a crucifix. This is because preachers in these so-called churches misunderstand the command of our Lord to his preachers to give comfort to his people. They don’t know what the word means. They think the word “comfort” has something to do with wearing khakis and golf shirts and sipping on a Starbuck’s during worship.

Dear friends, there is no greater comfort than to have the crucifix before our eyes at all times. Every room in our homes should have one on the wall – for it is the most powerful reminder of the Gospel, of our comfort. And yet, it is a scandal to those who don’t believe. Those who seek a different Gospel, a different Jesus, will always turn up their noses and roll their eyes at Christ crucified.

Now, after Jesus sent his preachers to see John, Jesus addresses the crowds. He confronts them with their motives for coming to hear John preach. “So, what did you people make the long trip into the dessert to see? Grass being blown around? A big-shot in a nice suit? Some kind of entertainment? No, you came to see a prophet, a preacher of the Word of God.”

Just as Jesus sent his preachers to bring comfort to John, God had sent his prophet John to fulfill our Old Testament lesson to bring comfort, that is, the refreshment of repentance, to his people. Jesus later sent out more preachers two by two. And just before he ascended, he placed the Eleven under holy orders, breathing the Holy Spirit, the Comforter on them, ordering them to fan out into the world spreading comfort, making disciples by baptizing and teaching. In turn, these apostles ordained future ministers to administer sacraments and preach and teach.

And so on it goes, and will go until the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world returns to be our Judge. This is what Paul speaks of in our epistle text when he tells God’s people to regard their pastors as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” That is to say, pastors are under orders to their master Jesus and are charged with serving, dishing out, the mysteries of God, that is, the sacraments.

So, dear friends, as we gather around the mysteries of God this Gaudete Sunday, a day of rejoicing within this penitential season of Advent, what did you come here to see? A reed shaken by the wind? A man clothed in soft garments? No, you came to hear a preacher proclaim comfort. You came to have the mysteries served to you. You came to hear Jesus himself speak his words, words of comfort, the Gospel, through his messengers. And as great as St. John the Baptist is, our Lord reminds us that paradoxically, in God’s Kingdom, the first are last and the last first. All of us who are the least in God’s Kingdom, are even greater than John. Our Lord sees us as, and holds us with the same high regard, as he does his servant John the Baptist who was faithful unto death. St. John the Baptist is no minor character, and neither are you, O baptized saints of God!

“Behold your God! Behold, the Lord, God shall come with a strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him, behold his reward is with him, and his work before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.”

O Salem, your warfare is ended, your iniquity is pardoned:

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

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Sermon: Advent 2 (Populus Zion)

4 Dec 2005 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 21:25-36 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

On this the 21st shopping day until Christmas, the secular world is beautifully decorated with happy and gentle images of smiling snowmen, winking Santas, joyful music, and beautiful decorations. There are songs of peace on earth and even shocking displays of the baby Jesus in places where at other times of the year this would be forbidden.

But what do we find in this church on the second week of Advent? What do our readings say? Well, in the Old Testament lesson, we have people burning in an oven, described as ashes under the soles of our feet, the coming great and dreadful day of the Lord, striking the earth with a curse. The Gospel reading is rather horrifying: signs in the sky, distress and perplexity among nations, roaring waves, heart failure due to fear, and the powers of heaven itself being shaken.


And then we have this epistle reading in which Paul uses words like comfort, hope, joy, and peace.

Advent is a confusing time in many ways. We speak of the anticipation of our Lord’s coming – but which coming? We reflect back in time on the Incarnation, that greatest of all miracles in which God Almighty wriggled helplessly as a gentle newborn in a swaddle-blanket being tenderly nursed by his virginal mother. We also look forward to the Lord’s triumphal second coming amidst chaos and suffering, trial and tribulation, and the physical persecution of the Church. This coming will bring history to a close, will result in the destruction of the world, and a new creation. And in the present, we reflect on our Lord’s coming here and now, in his Word and Sacraments.

All three of these advents of Jesus are physical. In the Lord’s first advent, he came to offer salvation to the world. In his ongoing eucharistic advent, he delivers salvation to those who believe. But his final advent will not be to offer his gifts, nor to nourish his Church through her earthly sojourn. No, indeed, the Lord’s second coming will be one of judgment, of separating sheep from goat, of eternal life for the Church, and eternal damnation for those who reject him.

The world revels in the imagery of a gentle baby as God (as do we). The world takes comfort in a helpless God who can be carried about (as do we). But is there comfort in Jesus the Great Judge, whose coming will be amid the descent of our world into total devastation?

That depends.

The world deals with our Lord’s preaching about judgment and hell with mocking and disbelief. They are in denial that the same gentle meek and mild baby Jesus would preach what he preaches to us today. But we dare not do this. In fact, the Church needs to listen to her master – especially in these days of increasing natural disasters, strife around the world, and a descent of humanity into a universal culture of death and evil. It should not surprise Christians when abortion is treated as a virtue. Or when even Christian judges and politicians do nothing while a handicapped woman is starved to death by court order. Or when homosexuality has been normalized to the point where “conservative” churches are now in various states of approval of this abomination. We ought not be shocked to learn that Christians are being persecuted around the globe, that magnificent and ancient cathedrals in Europe are empty today. Or that the Scriptures are being distorted by so-called Christian churches to the point where women dress up as pastors and mock the Lord’s office of the keys in repeating Eve’s sin of wanting something off-limits to her.

And, dear friends, there’s no reason to believe things won’t get worse. But what does our Lord say? “Now.” Notice, he begins this sentence with “Now.” “Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.” The worse things get, the more chaos spreads, we are to look to heaven, to look up in hope and expectation. For our Redeemer lives, and he is coming, and he’s coming not to destroy us, but to redeem us!

No matter what passes away – our life, goods, fame, child and wife. No matter if we lose our homes, our treasures, our family pictures, our heirlooms, our health, our mental capacities, and even our lives – there is something that will never pass away. Jesus says: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.” The Word of the Lord – the saving, life-giving, redeeming Word of the Lord is eternal. This is why we need to lift up our heads. This is why we ponder the Lord’s return on the great and terrible day surrounded by the color blue, the color of hope.

The Church pauses these few weeks to consider the end of the ages and the return of our Lord as a warning. Our Lord says: Take heed to yourselves.” He says: “Don’t get careless. Stay awake and watch. Abide in my Word!” We must not let sin drive a wedge between us and our lifeline – we must not let the “cares of this life” take precedence over being immersed in the Word of God. We are in the last days, brothers and sisters! When the time is expiring in a hockey game, the side that is behind pulls its goalie in a desperate attempt to stay alive. When a football team is down and the time is running out, the team runs quickly without a huddle. When a category 5 hurricane is bearing down on us, we do something extraordinary out of caution. We heed the warning!

Jesus is telling us to heed his warning. We must not get so bogged down by the “cares of this life” shopping for Christmas presents that we neglect the only eternal Christmas present! It is our Lord’s prayer that we be counted worthy to escape all these things and stand before the Son of man.

This word translated as “to be counted worthy” is not used often in Scripture. It’s used in Matthew 16 when Jesus says that the gates of hell will not prevail against his Church. And notice the context: this is right after Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ, and right before Jesus entrusts him with the office of the keys.

You, dear friends, are counted worthy – for you confess Jesus as the Son of God, as your Redeemer, and your confession, your faith is nourished by the office of the keys – the pastors of the Church. You are indeed counted worthy when you remain in his Word, when that Word is preached to you, when that Word is pronounced over you in absolution, when that Word is added to water and poured on you, and when that Word is given to you to eat and drink.

The Lord’s Word endures forever! Take heed, and remain in his Word, for that Word in Scripture is indeed for patience and comfort and hope. By that Word we are of one mind and one mouth as we confess that Word. By that Word we receive each other, and we too are received into the Kingdom. By that Word we Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.

So hold your heads up, dear brothers and sisters! “Now... now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

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

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Sermon: Last Sunday of the Church Year

20 November 2005 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 25:1-13 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today marks the end of the Church year – 1,975 years since the death and resurrection of our Lord. And as we end this year, we reflect anew on the end of all years – the end of the world, the end of time, and of the great judgment. And even as we prepare for the Season of Advent, in which we ponder our Lord’s first coming, we now ponder his second advent.

Our Lord preaches about his second coming in the form of the parable in today’s Gospel lesson. The fathers of the Church wisely determined that we Christians ought to be reminded of the Lord’s warning every year on the Sunday before Advent.

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins has a rather simple plot. Ten young girls are on their way to a wedding. The groom is picking them up. They don’t know exactly when to expect him, and as this is long before cell phones and instant messaging, they need to be ready. One of the things they need in order to be prepared is oil – which fuels their small, hand-held lamps.

Five of the girls are wise – having sufficient oil. Five are foolish – they are not prepared. Maybe they are lazy, maybe they are just procrastinators. Maybe they had their priorities out of order. But for whatever reason, the foolish girls are not prepared. The groom’s messenger shows up at midnight to warn them the time is at hand. The foolish girls want to glom off of the wise ones, but there is simply not enough. They will have to find a merchant, and buy their oil at this late hour. While they are out shopping, preparing too little too late, the bridegroom comes, like a thief in the night. The wise girls are let into the wedding with the groom. The foolish girls are locked out.

This parable is similar to Aesop’s fable, the Ant and the Grasshopper. Jesus may well have heard Aesop’s tale growing up. Aesop’s story is similar to Jesus’ parable – but there are differences as well.

Aesop’s story goes something like this:

Ants are hard-working, industrious critters. They prepare all year for winter. They slave away and store food. They repair their homes. By contrast, the grasshopper makes no such preparation, opting to sing and dance the summer days away – having fun, and procrastinating his work. Of course, winter comes suddenly, and there is no more time to prepare. The ants are warm and fed in their winterized homes, while the grasshopper is no longer so happy-go-lucky. He is cold and hungry, and asks the ants to take him in – but there is no room, and not enough food. The moral is be prepared, don’t procrastinate, and work, work, work!

The moral of Jesus’ parable is similar. We are to be wise and prepared. We are to watch, for we “know not the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.”

Our sinful flesh likes to believe we can work our way to being prepared – like the ants in Aesop’s story. And hard work is a good and wise thing in this world, but Jesus’ parable deals with the “kingdom of heaven.” If we could work our way to being prepared, we would need no savior. But again, it is easy for us to forget this, and sinfully read Aesop’s moral into Jesus’ parable – like the bumper sticker that says: “Jesus is coming – everybody look busy.” Indeed, church signs often ask us “Are you ready?” (which is certainly one of the questions Jesus asks us in this parable). But then they turn Jesus into Aesop by asking us: “Have you gotten right with God?” – as though we can do any such thing, whether by our own industry or wisdom.

Notice that in Jesus’ parable, only the foolish virgins are mentioned as toiling – in running out to buy oil. They have frittered away their opportunity, and now when it is too late, they want admitted to the wedding. They have been forced to rely on themselves, on their ability to buy their preparedness. And you can see where their work, their attempt to buy their way in, gets them – with a door slammed in their faces.

So, my dear Christian friends, how can we be prepared? How are we made ready for that Day of the Lord that will come as a thief in the night? How do we emulate the wise virgins, while at the same time, not relying on our own works to prepare us?

It’s no accident that our Lord used oil and lamps as examples in this story. Oil is not only fuel that allows a light to burn, it is a medicine that heals. The Word of God is indeed a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. But that lamp must have a means of burning, a way for the light to be made to shine for us. Oil is the fuel, the means to the grace of light. And just as Jesus is the light of the world, so too, our good works reflect that light. Jesus tells us not to hide our lamps under a basket, but put them on a stand, so all may be enlightened and give glory to God. Oil is also ointment used to heal the sick – such as in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. What did the Samaritan treat the victim’s wounds with? Wine and oil.

Wine is the element used to become our Lord’s Blood in the Holy Eucharist. Oil is that which the pastors of the church are commanded by the Apostle James to anoint the sick with. Oil was used to anoint kings and prophets. Oil was used in the early church as a sign of Holy Baptism, since bishops would “confirm” a baptism by administering oil to the baptized person – a custom which has come down to us today as the Rite of Confirmation.

And just as oil is a means to the light (the light of Christ), the Gospel and the sacraments are today a means to the light of Christ. The title Christ actually means “the anointed one.” Oil is a healing agent that cleanses our wounds and sterilizes us – just as Holy Baptism washes away our sins. We are prepared for the coming of our Lord by being well-stocked in the oil of Christ, his Gospel, and his Sacraments! We are prepared by being wise, by coming to this place where the oil of the gospel is distributed without charge and without limit!

The oil of God’s grace is applied to you into your ears as you hear the words of Holy Absolution, the reading of God’s Holy Word, and the preaching of his Holy Gospel! The oil of God’s grace is poured on your head in your Holy Baptism, and brought to remembrance every time you make the sign of the cross! The oil of God’s grace is poured into your very mouth as you take Holy Communion! Dear friends, we are being prepared for that great day – by being here and being filled with the oil of God’s love and mercy!

Those who choose to procrastinate, those who ridicule the wise virgins, those whose priorities are out of whack, those who are lazy and refuse the free gift of God’s grace will sadly find themselves unprepared. And when the day of grace finally ends, they will seek to buy the oil of God’s love and mercy – and they will find that it is not for sale. They will run around desperate like Christmas eve shoppers – in the end doing more work than their wise counterparts. They will learn the hard way that the Gospel is not for sale, it cannot be earned, and there will come a time when it will come to an end.

Jesus is warning us not to procrastinate, not to delude ourselves into thinking we have enough oil, not to figure we can always take advantage of God’s grace at a later date. For we know not the day nor the hour of our Lord’s return. And as Paul warns us, we ought not think 1,975 years is such a long time, nor should we fool ourselves into thinking the Lord will come back millennia from now, if at all. We ought not emulate the foolish virgins, nor Aesop’s grasshopper. For we all confess with the Church that the Lord will return, bodily, and triumphant against all sin. He will welcome the wise virgins, the Church, but will cast out the foolish virgins along with their true master, Satan, into hell.

And while the Lord’s warning is harsh and stern, and is clearly a call to repentance - what comfort we have knowing that it is not up to us to “get right with God,” that we are not obliged to buy our way into heaven. For the oil is a gift from God. It is the oil that enables our light to shine before men! It is the oil that enables us to do good works and acts of mercy without concern that we must do so in order to be prepared for his coming! This holy oil is given out to you, dear friends, every Sunday and every Wednesday in this sanctuary. And if you can’t get here due to age or infirmity, the Lord’s servants will come to you and refill your lamp where you are.

So, my dear wise virgins, rejoice, and continue to be prepared – by the Gospel! Because of the Gospel, we can indeed comfort one another and edify one another. You are all sons of light and sons of the day! And we will indeed enter with our Lord to the wedding feast that has no end! Let us leave behind this church year and enter Advent anew, with repentance, fully clad in the armor of salvation, glowing with the oil of God’s grace, and awaiting with hope and joy the new heavens and the new earth. Amen!

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

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Sermon: All Saints Day (Transferred)

6 November 2005 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 5:1-12 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s Gospel text is the beloved passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount known as the Beatitudes – from the Latin word for “blessed.” Jesus rattles off nine “blesseds” in this passage – and the characteristics that are blessed are pretty feeble in the eyes of the world. Poverty of spirit, mournfulness, meekness, and desire for righteousness aren’t exactly the goals of most people – including us Christians. And mercy, purity of heart, and peacemaking aren’t typically the kinds of things we naturally excel at. Even when we do these things, our sinful flesh is looking for some kind of compliment. And how about these last two? Persecution and reviling? You won’t find promises of persecution in any of the latest “Christian” bestsellers. Somehow, I don’t foresee a book called “40 Days of Persecution,” nor do I think the Left Behind series is going to change course and tell us that Christians are indeed going to suffer a great tribulation. Of course, our epistle lesson from Revelation uses those very words to describe just what those who “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb” have endured and overcome.

So why does Jesus preach like this, and why does the Church use this Gospel reading on All Saints Day?

Jesus is not giving us laws that we must do, that if we do it well enough, we get a prize. No, in fact, just as every faithful preacher, Jesus is preaching about Jesus! He is teaching us about himself!

He is the one poor in spirit, born in humble and scandalous circumstances – and yet he is the very king of heaven.

He is the one who mourns, weeping for his friend Lazarus and mourning over doomed Jerusalem – and yet he is comforted by the Comforter, the ever-present Holy Spirit.

He is the meek one, who takes the form of a servant, and yet who inherits the earth from his Father.

He is the one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness who was filled with that righteousness by virtue of his divinity.

He is the merciful one, to whom the Father shows mercy by raising him from the dead.

He is the one pure in heart, the one who sees God.

And he is the peacemaker, the one who reconciles man’s enmity toward God, and thus he is truly called the Son of God.

And he is certainly the one persecuted for righteousness, crucified on a cross with the word “king” on the sign, and he is the one who owns the kingdom of heaven.

So how does this apply to the saints, those here as well as those already in eternity? Notice how our Lord changes from third person to second person: he says: “Blessed are you.” For when youChrist is persecuted. are persecuted, And the blessings given to Jesus as the only-begotten Son of God are also given to you adopted sons of God.

And notice the three little words Jesus uses in describing persecution: “For my sake.” These words not only mean that we’re being hassled for being Christians, they also proclaim how we are blessed – “for my sake.” For we have all of these same characteristics as Jesus “for Jesus’ sake.” In other words, Jesus does the work, we receive the blessing. But notice that Jesus does say that we, the Church, will be persecuted for his sake. And when we are, we are to rejoice, for this is proof that we stand in the train of those who came before us: “souls in endless rest… patriarchs and prophets blest.”

Jesus is telling us what Luther would tell us 15 centuries later. One of the “marks of the church” is the cross that we bear, the suffering we endure at the hands of those who hate us. We can identify the Church because she is the one being persecuted. We’re not the rich, powerful, successful ones – no matter what the televangelists like to boast, no matter what the latest fad in the Christian bookstore is pushing. No, dear friends, we’re the harried ones, constantly under the “crafts and assaults of the devil,” not to mention the world and our own flesh.

Satan has waged war against God’s messengers and confessors since the Garden of Eden. And from righteous Abel all the way down to Christians who are being tortured and murdered at this very moment for the faith are proof that the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church is still God’s beloved and the enemy of the Devil. Not even the gates of Hell will overcome her.

This location of the Church amid suffering and tribulation is testified to in our Epistle. In his holy Revelation, St. John sees the enormous crowds praising God, all clad in white baptismal robes, waving palm branches, just as those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem. “They stand with palms and sing their psalms before the throne of light.” They join with angels and archangels, the watchers and the holy ones, all the company of heaven, falling on their faces before God’s throne. And who are they? “Sir, you know. These are the ones who came out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven by virtue of the blood of the Lamb. For when their blood was spilled, it was really the blood of Christ that was spilled. Be it by wild animals at the Roman Coliseum (as were the young mothers Sts. Perpetua and Felicity). Or by crucifixion at the hands of sadistic soldiers and deranged emperors (as was St. Peter). Or by burning at the stake by order of a church gone mad (as was Blessed John Huss), or even by diabolical Nazi thugs (as was the Blessed Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

For in all of these cases, it was Christ’s blood that was drained. For all of these saints drank his blood and ate his body - the very same body and blood born of Mary, put to death on the cross, and resurrected in the tomb! Their blood is the blood of Jesus, the same blood we will drink in a few moments. This is part of that great mystery, that great communion we have with Jesus, and through him, all the saints in every time and place, “of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues.” His body becomes our body, his blood becomes our blood. He fortifies us with his very own faith, faith enough to withstand the sword, the stake, the arena, and the cross. Faith enough to stand alone if necessary and take abuse for confessing Christ.

Indeed, the history of the Church is bloody – as bloody as the stains that still brown the floor of the Coliseum. Jesus tells us plainly to take up our crosses and follow him. And we see the witness of those who have born the cross for two thousand years. In the first century, the Apostle Paul was beheaded for preaching the Gospel. In the middle ages, Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered at Canterbury Cathedral as he prayed Vespers, and Fr. John Wycliffe was burned at the stake for translating God’s Word into English. In the early twentieth century, thousands of Russian Orthodox priests were put to death by the Communists. And even more recently, a young girl named Cassie Bernall was martyred in a place called Columbine when she confessed her Christian faith looking down the barrel of a gun.

This, dear friends, is how the Church grows – by a true confession of the faith, the one true faith, the Holy Catholic and Apostolic faith, the faith of the martyrs. And that confession is sanctified by the blood of the saints of every time and place – which is to say, by the very blood of Jesus. The Church is not about marketing schemes, entertainment, pins, pads, and pens, or other gimmicks. The Church has nothing to do with slogans and programs – whether approved by our synodical leaders or not. For Jesus doesn’t promise us success and wealth in the worldly sense – but rather ownership of the kingdom of heaven, by his blood, through the faith confessed by the martyrs and saints throughout these latter days.

One has to wonder what holy St. Polycarp would make of the “ablaze” program – considering this beloved soldier of the cross died in the flames of his persecutors. This single 2nd-century martyr, stooped with age, has spread the Gospel in ways that a website can never do. He confessed the one true faith. He washed his robe in the blood of the Lamb.

For that robe worn by the saints is nothing other than Holy Baptism. The blood which cleanses the garments of the saints is Holy Communion. And that which the saints proclaim and chant around the Lord’s throne for all eternity is none other than his Holy Word. They’re singing the Liturgy with us!

And we do well to remember that the word “martyr” simply means witness. Giving our witness before the world is to confess. It isn’t about a sales pitch, or clever arguments, or pestering people door-to-door, but rather our witness is in the blood – Christ’s blood, the blood of those in the Church whom Christ empowered to lay down their lives for his sake and for the sake of his Gospel.

And even if we are never called upon to shed blood for the Gospel, we are given the gifts of Jesus’ poverty of spirit, Jesus’ compassion in mourning, Jesus’ meekness, Jesus’ desire for righteousness, Jesus’ ability to show mercy to others, Jesus’ purity of heart, and Jesus’ will to reconcile and make peace. Only by Jesus’ doing, only by his grace, can we live out the beatitudes. For it isn’t us, but Christ who lives in us.

And as Christians we will endure persecution of some sort. But through this tribulation we will endure – not by our own strength (remember our meekness), but rather through the blood of the Lamb. And that Lamb will indeed dwell with us. “We shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike us, nor any heat.” The Lamb himself will shepherd us, and God will remove every tear from our faces.

This, dear friends, is why we celebrate All Saints Day. For the testimony of the saints, the confession of the faithful, is none other than Jesus. Their blood, and our blood, is his blood.

“The myriad angels raise their song, O saints, sing with that happy throng. Lift up one voice, let heaven rejoice, in our Redeemer’s song.” Amen.

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

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Sermon: Trinity 22

23 October 2005 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 18:21-35 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving steward is a simple story.

A man owes his master a lot of money, but pleads his way out of paying off the impossibly large debt. Having been forgiven, the man goes to a fellow servant who owes him a small debt, and ruthlessly demands payment in full. When the master hears of this, he is outraged at the servant’s hypocrisy, and restores his debt and sends him to prison.

Our immediate reaction is one of outrage. How dare this servant behave this way? What a hypocrite! Having been forgiven a huge debt, why can’t he just forgive the small one against him? A simple story, with a simple villain, and a simple moral.

But if only Jesus’ stories were truly simple! Let’s meditate on our Lord’s words, shall we, my fellow hypocrites? My brothers and sisters who have been forgiven the huge debt, and yet respond by our own refusal to forgive. For we all do it, and it isn’t quite so simple when we are the ones in the shoes of the unforgiving steward. And this is exactly why Jesus is telling us this story!

We need to understand the concepts of “debt” and “forgiveness.” Most of us understand debt in terms of percentages on loans. The kind of debt Jesus is talking about here is the debt of our sins (which is symbolized by a debt of money owed to someone else). When we pray: “Forgive us our tresspasses,” the original Greek word is actually “debts.” Just as it is in the next part: “As we forgive those who tresspass against us,” that is to say: “As we have forgiven our debtors.” Our sins are a debt owed to God – a debt that involves a cosmic interest rate so high, that we can never get out of debt by working off the loan. The interest rate exceeds our entire income. Try as we might, work as hard as we can, and we only get further into debt. We become like poor old Brer Rabbit, stuck hands and feet to the Tar Baby. The more we struggle, the stucker we get. Our only hope in this situation is a kind of divine bankruptcy, a holy chapter 11 that will enable us to once again clean the slate and be freed from the burden of debt.

Of course, this chapter 11 is actually found in chapter 27 of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus assumes our debts at his cross.

The other concept that we have to address is forgiveness. There is an old saying: “I’ll forgive, but I will never forget.” While it sounds very pious, this kind of forgiveness is not what Jesus is talking about. The word translated “forgive” in our text is often translated with other words elsewhere. It is the word translated as “let” or “permit” when Jesus tells his disciples “Let the little children come to me.” It is the same word Luke used to describe the fever leaving Peter’s mother-in-law when Jesus healed her. It is the same word that Paul uses for “divorce” in 1 Corinthians. It is the same word translated as “yielded” when Jesus “yielded” up his spirit as he died on the cross.

So the word translated “forgive” in our text also means to let or allow, to yield or surrender, to leave or depart, even to divorce or abandon. This doesn’t sound like the begrudging “forgiveness” when someone decides to “forgive” – while not forgetting, does it? It sounds like our Lord is calling for something more radical than simply deciding not to retaliate. He is calling for us to forgive and forget, to allow and let those who have sinned against us to depart in peace, to yield the hold we have on them because they owe us, and to surrender our victim status just as the True Victim, the one who forgave us, surrenders and yields his Spirit to his Father.

For does our Lord “forgive, but not forget?” Thanks be to God he doesn’t! For our Lord promises that when we confess our sins to him, our sins no longer exist. They have been abandoned, yielded, permitted to depart, and forgiven. As the Lord declares in Hebrews: “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” Through the Psalmist our merciful Lord proclaims: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” The word translated “removed” in this Psalm is the same Greek word used for “forgive” in our text.

Our Lord is calling upon us to forgive others the same way he forgives us: unconditionally, without reservation, to the point of forgetfulness.

This is not to say that we will never be angry, or hurt, or beaten down by evil. Far from it. We live in a fallen world, and evil lurks about everywhere – especially from ourselves. There are times when we ought to refrain from taking Holy Communion, since our anger is such that we are in a state of unrepented sin until we resolve it. There are times when we need to cool off, when no matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to forgive. So what do we do in such a case? What do we do when we can’t seem to forgive those who tresspass against us?

Confess! We need to confess our sinful refusal to forgive. We need to see ourselves in this parable, that hypocrite, that unforgiving servant who accepts God’s forgiveness in great measure and then refuses to give it in a small measure. We need to confess this sin to God – even if seven times. Even if seventy times. Even if seventy-times-seven times! For, dear brothers and sisters, here is the Gospel in this text: God himself does as he bids us to do. No matter how many times we fall into the same sin, he will not refuse us his grace, his forgiveness, his cosmic bankruptcy plan.

Our Lord has given us pastors to speak his word of forgiveness, of release, of surrender to you personally. And if you have to confess the same sin 490 times, seven days a week – then so be it. There is no limit on the Lord’s forgiveness. And the more we are forgiven, the more we can forgive.

For as that wise pastor St. Augustine astutely pointed out fifteen centuries ago, the sin of refusing to forgive is vanity. He declares: “Imagine the vanity of thinking that your enemy can do more damage than your enmity?” What he is saying is that it is pure selfishness to think our own refusal to forgive is somehow a lesser offense than what was done to us. Such thinking elevates us to the status of victim (which in today’s society is the highest social status). Victims get sympathy, victims get rights, victims get special treatment. Real victims do indeed deserve mercy and benefits. However, there seems to be a long line at the station of people trying to get on the “victim” train – whether they have a ticket or not.

And what a better way to extend our status as “victim” (even when it is deserved) by holding onto a grudge, by portraying ourselves as put-upon, day after day, year after year, decade after decade. Dear Augustine got it right – our refusal to forgive is nothing less than our vanity. And think about those whom we have victimized. There is a long list for all of us, ending up with the ultimate victim, our Lord Jesus Christ: who is both our victim and our priest. As victim, he is the payment for our sins, and as priest, he is the one who absolves us. Can our own victimhood hold a candle to our Lord, the one whom we victimized and crucified?

For how can we even see the speck in our brother’s eye with the plank in our own? Perhaps we should all focus on our “accounts payable” (the debts we owe God) instead of wallowing in our “accounts receivable” (the debts others owe us). Maybe we should think of the fortune of ten thousand talents our Lord has forgiven us, as opposed to our claim to the measly hundred denarii owed to us by our debtor.

Augustine was right about something else too: our refusal to forgive ultimately hurts us more than the person who hurt us to begin with. For a hundred years from now, what difference will it make who did what to us? Our own vanity and hypocrisy are more harmful to us (and to those we love) than even the most violent criminal, the most brutal dictator, the most evil enemy, or the person we’re angry with for whatever reason.

Dear Christian friends, let us allow our Lord’s Word to do its divine and holy Work. Isn’t that why we’re here? Let us confess our stubborn refusal to forgive – even up to seventy times seven times. “For he has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Let us allow our Lord to show us what is good through his Law, through his warning to us, and let us be receptive to his healing us through the ministry of reconciliation that he has given us from his cross.

“And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Amen.

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

Monday, October 10, 2005

Kyrie After Katrina

by Rev. Larry Beane

[An article published by Lutheran Church Charities. For pictures, click here.]

Lord have mercy upon us. Christ have mercy upon us. Lord have mercy upon us.

Mercy is a prominent theme in Holy Scripture and in the liturgy. When we gather for Divine Service, the first thing we sing after being absolved of our sins is the Kyrie: "Lord have mercy."

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, opportunities for giving and receiving mercy abound. People from many walks of life have joined hands and hearts to give aid and comfort to victims, to help in rescue and relief operations, and to show compassion to people who have lost so much. In the case of a small group of us Lutherans in the New Orleans area, the Lord created an unlikely team to go about His works of mercy.

New Orleans businessman Ramsey Skipper serves on the Board of Elders at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Metairie, LA. His home in the once-beautiful Lakeview area of New Orleans was destroyed by waters that engulfed the entire first floor of nearly every home in that neighborhood. After the hurricane, he had moved his wife and two small children to Houston. Upon returning almost two weeks later, Ramsey was determined to enter his home to try to retrieve some of his family's possessions - especially things dear to his small children.

At an impromptu staging area on Veterans Memorial Boulevard near the levee break that left 80% of the city under flood waters, Ramsey found a boat that many others had been using to get back to their homes. With the help of a French freelance photographer named Laurent Guerin, Ramsey piloted the boat to his home. He was able to break into a window and retrieve some items from the second story. Upon returning, some firefighters asked Ramsey and Laurent for their assistance in the recovery of both the living and the dead. Laurent, a self-described atheist, put his cameras down, and devoted himself to helping the effort. In spite of their differences in politics and religion, Ramsey and Laurent quickly became good friends, and were soon joined by Ramsey's pastor, Rev. Brad Drew, of Mt. Olive.

Ramsey realized that many people were desperate for help in retrieving irreplaceable family photos, crucial insurance papers, and stranded pets. The three men began an operation on their own, navigating the toxic waters, shuttling people to their homes, breaking into houses with axes and crowbars, and helping people move around their dark and dangerous homes.

Once inside, people were horrified and traumatized by what they saw: hazardous filth, mold, furniture ruined and overturned, dead animals, and the pervasive stench of rot. These were people not only in need of transportation, but of Christian compassion and mercy.

The team grew as others began to help. Rev. David Lofthus, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church, Harahan, LA, and myself, Rev. Larry Beane, associate pastor of Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA returned to the New Orleans area after evacuating our own families. We were looking for ways to lend a hand in the relief efforts. We soon found much to do in our ravaged city. We were later joined by Rev. Charles Keogh of Faith Lutheran Church in Olympia, WA who had made the long journey to help.

Also joining our group was Michael Lohr, a Hollywood, CA photo studio owner who had come to New Orleans to assist in pet rescues. He and several veterinarians and helpers hooked up with our team, which had been dubbed tongue-in-cheek as LEMA: the "Lutheran Emergency Management Agency."

Lutheran Church Charities heard about the operations, and immediately asked how they could help. We were all deeply moved by LCC's compassion and Tim Hetzner's efficiency in getting us what we needed. In response to a request for more boats and manpower, LCC rapidly sent us three flatbed boats, outboard motors, dozens of waterproof hip-waders, and many volunteers to help our growing team.

While the group continued running "missions" into the black rivers that used to be city streets, James Bennet, a reporter from the New York Times, asked if he could be put on a boat to write a story for the newspaper. Ramsey answered politely, but firmly: "No." The men were there to help people get into their homes, not to provide transportation to reporters. However, upon observing James' kindness and compassion toward the victims over the course of several hours, Ramsey relented, and allowed him to accompany himself and Laurent on a few sorties. They were joined by Lynsey Adario, a New York Times photographer more used to capturing scenes of devastation in Afghanistan and Iraq than in America. James' lyrical article about the unlikely alliance between the Lutheran layman, his pastor, and the atheist photographer ran on the front page of the Sept. 13 Times. The article included some of Lynsey's haunting images.

[Note: The London Times also interviewed some of us and ran an article as well.]

There were plenty of opportunities to show Christian compassion and mercy to people who were utterly distraught over the devastation of their homes, the destruction of their precious heirlooms, and the loss of their pets. People also gravitated to the pastors on the team who had plenty of opportunities to give pastoral care to the suffering and distressed.

At just the right time, the Lord provided our team with people with specific skills. Gregory Brown, a waiter at the well-known Barreca's restaurant, volunteered to serve as cook for the large group. Barreca's also provided the team with several meals free of charge. Henry Berger, one of my parishioners with expertise in Information Technology, helped us in getting our wireless computer up and running. Volunteers from all over the United States, many of whom were dispatched to us by the LCC, helped with the tedious work of cleaning and disinfecting our equipment. Rev. Brad Drew opened his parsonage to anyone who needed a place to stay. Mount Olive's gymnasium became a warehouse of supplies for people in need.

Our long days of work were followed by lively evenings discussing the Gospel - especially with our ever-inquisitive guests. Some of our most interesting conversations were with our atheist friend Laurent, a veteran of the French special forces - whose integrity, sense of humor, and resourcefulness we all grew to respect and admire. It was a profoundly moving moment when Laurent told us that had he met us sooner, he might not have been hostile to Christianity. Within a few days, he donned one of LCC's distinctive "Christ is Our Hope" T-shirts. Several non-Lutherans grilled us about what Lutheran Christians believe, teach, and confess. All three of us local pastors were able to conduct services at our churches that Sunday - and were blessed with visitors anxious to hear the Gospel.

As the waters receded, "LEMA" had a challenge. Boats would no longer be of use, and yet people were still flocking to us for help. One lady showed up looking for us, having heard what we were doing. She cried out: "Where are the Lutherans!" To the people in need of help, the name "Lutheran" had become synonymous with good works and acts of mercy. To meet the changing situation, we again appealed to LCC, this time for four four-wheel-drive all-terrain-vehicles, and a slew of equipment to run them. Although Federal Express was not even delivering packages in the New Orleans area at this time, LCC found a way to equip us in less than 24 hours. The very next day after our e-mailed request, everything was delivered to us by Rev. Dr. Paul Anderson of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Baton Rouge. LCC had also sent a semi truck full of food, water, clothing, toys, blankets, baby supplies, toiletries, etc., a wireless laptop to facilitate communications, as well as a 24-foot RV, driven by Allen Busse, to serve as a command center and housing for volunteers.

With our mission moving from sea to land, so to speak, we began pulling small trailers with the ATVs, driving through knee-deep water and over every imaginable obstacle in order to continue our work. We continued rescuing dogs, cats, birds, and even turtles and snakes - reuniting distraught children with their beloved pets. Sometimes we found ourselves on our hands and knees washing the toxic muck from people's feet. The gratitude of the people was overwhelming.

The pastors typically wore black shirts and clerical collars on these operations - a uniform which proved every bit as comforting to the faithful and useful for access as the camouflage worn by the National Guard troops who waved us into these restricted areas.

Every "mission" was unique, and we were filled with a driving desire to help every person who sought our aid. We were all greatly moved by the people we were helping: their grief, their sense of loss, their courage, their joy, their desire, and their gratitude. In the midst of the great destruction, there were small victories: the retrievals of pets who survived for more than two weeks with no food or water, the recovery of business and insurance papers, pictures of babies and ancestors, crucifixes, and irreplaceable heirlooms. There were also many people who were unable to recover anything - refugees with only the clothes on their backs. Thanks to the generosity of so many, we were able to provide food, clothing, water, and toiletries to those who lost all the material goods they own.

As the waters receded further, ATVs were no longer needed to get into homes. As folks came streaming back into New Orleans' devastated neighborhoods (including areas outside of New Orleans that were also subjected to storm surges and levee breaks), they needed help. Our churches became outposts of relief as LCC continues to send supplies that people so desperately need.

And if that were not enough, LCC continues to support Lutheran schools as they endeavor to reopen. LCC's unbelievable kindness and ability to cut through red tape helped make it possible for our school, Salem Lutheran in Gretna, to not only re-open, but to open our doors to a record number of students - nearly 300! We are able to bring the Gospel to many children whose homes have been destroyed, including many who have never been able to attend a Christian school before.

Thanks to our Lord's mercy - brought to us through the godly work of LCC - we have ourselves been blessed. Flowing from the Lord's mercy to us, we are humbled to be allowed to be instruments of His divine mercy to others "even as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36). The Church's ministry of mercy will be needed in our region for a long time to come. Lutheran Church Charities has played a crucial role in the rebuilding of New Orleans, and will continue to bring the Lord's blessing to us, our churches, and our schools for many years to come.

Thank you, LCC, and thanks be to our merciful Lord Jesus Christ!