Saturday, June 25, 2005

Sermon: Trinity 5

25 June 2005 at Faith L.C., Harahan, LA

Text: Luke 5:1-11 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Although at first glance, today’s Gospel reading contains a single miracle, the miraculous catch of fish, in fact, there are a whole slew of miracles.

The events in today’s text not only changed the life of an obscure fisherman named Simon forever, it also forever changed the world. For this event led Simon from his secular career to enroll in seminary, to study theology for three years at the feet of a professor who also happened to be God Himself. Simon Peter’s studies were not simply in order to figure out the meaning of life, or to learn a new trade, or to help people lead happier lives. No, he studied from his master for one reason alone – so that he would catch sinful people like fish in a net, preach to them, and save them.

And notice what Seminarian Simon learned on his first day of classes: not how to conjugate Greek verbs, not Luther’s Small Catechism, not the right way to hold one’s hands to officiate at the Eucharist. No, Simon has something even more basic than that to learn: that Jesus is God, and that Simon is a sinner.

And what a way to learn! Jesus didn’t merely blast away at Peter, telling him what a rotten sinner he is, and by contrast, that Jesus is divine, perfect, and holy. Although Jesus had every right to do so, and sometimes he does use this kind of preaching, on this day, Jesus takes a different approach. He never uses the word “sin.” He says not one word about his divinity. As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words, and with an action, Jesus proclaims law and gospel, fills Simon with the conviction of his sins, brings about Simon’s repentance, calls Simon to a new life, calls Simon into the Holy Ministry, and begins to lay the foundation of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church on the foundation of the apostles.

Not bad for a morning of fishing!

But let’s back up to the beginning of the reading. We find something interesting. The whole reason Jesus is in a boat in the first place is a practical consideration: he needs the elbow room. He is surrounded by “multitudes” that is, large crowds of people. And why are they there? St. Luke tells us they “pressed about Him to hear the Word of God.” They are hungry to hear God’s Word, and where better to go to hear it than to God Himself, to the Word Himself? The Holy Spirit, who as Jesus tells us, is like a wind that blows where it wills, is drawing crowds of people who yearn to hear the Word of the Lord. It is the first thing in the morning, in the middle of the work week, and yet, crowds are assembling, having forsaken their morning routines, to that they may hear preaching and teaching.

Simon was wrapping up his third-shift fishing job, having had a bad night. He and his co-workers worked all night long, and accomplished nothing. It’s no wonder that Simon is a little grumpy. He’s probably very tired, he may be anticipating having to go to creditors to buy time to pay his bills. He may be dreading having to tell his wife that he worked all night for nothing. Obviously, his mind is not on spiritual matters, on this popular preacher who now asks to borrow his boat for a makeshift pulpit. Simon allows Him to borrow it while he goes about the tedious and messy job of cleaning the nets.

At the end of the preacher’s sermon, he asks Simon for another favor: “Simon, take your boat out into the deep waters, and let down your nets.” In other words, Jesus tells Simon to take his newly-washed nets, put them in the boat and sail out a ways, and go back to work after working all night. Simon’s less than enthusiastic response seems more than reasonable. However, after sighing and grumbling, Simon remarkably (and miraculously) agrees to the request of the preacher. This is how preaching is, dear Christian friends! It is miraculous. It looks crazy to the world, but preaching is different than all other forms of human discourse – preaching is supernatural, it creates faith. And look at the leap of faith Simon takes! He agrees to do what our Lord tells him – and notice why: “Nevertheless, at your word I will let down the net.” Although my reason tells me this is crazy, although my own will wants nothing to do with this, although my own flesh says “no,” nevertheless, because of Your Word, Jesus, I will do as you say.

Of course, what happens next is yet another miracle.

Simon and his men carry out our Lord’s seemingly silly request, his command that defies reason, and look what happens! They caught so many fish that the nets began to break and the boats started to sink. It must have been a comical sight to the crowded church on the shore to see a small group of fishermen running around like the Keystone Kops trying to bring in the catch. And all this on the word of a preacher.

But to Simon, this was no laughing matter. This was not merely a great turn of events that overturned a night of financial hardship. This wasn’t really about fish and work at all. There was something more at work here, and Simon realized it in the blink of an eye.

First of all, he sees right away who Jesus is. He is not merely another wandering rabbi, not just another carpenter’s son. Not just another Jewish preacher. Simon is in the presence of God Himself – very God of very God. For only the Creator has this kind of authority over creation. And the next thing Simon realizes is that he has no right to be in the presence of God, to stand toe to toe with God, to look God square in the face. Simon has no right to wear a “Jesus is my homeboy” t-shirt, or put a bobble-head of Jesus in his rear window. Simon would never put on a CD of “contemporary” Christian music that reduces Jesus to a “boyfriend” figure, or comic book hero. No, Simon does the only thing a convicted mass murderer can do in the presence of the Judge who has the right to have him executed. Simon falls to his knees in fear, in worship, in reverence.

Being in the very presence of the divine is too much for Simon, who pleads for Jesus to go away. I am too sinful to be anywhere near You, O Lord. I am dirty and filthy, and You are immaculately clean. As was the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament when he was taken up into the throne room of God, Simon is convinced that being in the presence of the Holy One will be fatal. Simon’s act of worship begins with confession!

And notice what follows confession. Jesus absolves him. Jesus tells him that the thing making him afraid is no more. You have nothing to fear, Simon. For as John the Baptist declared, and as we repeat every Sunday when we poor, miserable sinners also encounter the physical Jesus at this altar: “Behold the Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world!” Jesus doesn’t tell Simon he is wrong to be afraid, Jesus doesn’t tell Simon to get up off his knees and stop worshipping him. Not at all! Instead, he takes away the very thing that instills fear in Simon. He absolves Simon.

Next, he calls Simon into the Holy Ministry. He tells Simon in so many words, “You’re going to be a second-career seminarian, and the skills you learned as a fisherman will help you in the ministry.” Jesus doesn’t use the “pastor” metaphor with Simon right now (that is to say, he doesn’t tell Simon he will be a shepherd of sheep). Rather, Jesus compares the Office of the Holy Ministry to another worldly profession: that of a fisherman.

Fishermen are gatherers. They are not salesmen with a pitch. They are not debaters winning people over with argumentation. No, a fisherman simply casts out his net, and what he catches he catches. Some will never be caught, some will be caught at first, but will wiggle away. And some will land squarely and securely in the net. The fisherman’s job is to take those in the net, and draw them out of the water. And notice what happens to the fish when they are taken up out of the water: they die. This doesn’t look like a very good metaphor for the Christian life, or does it?

When a Christian emerges from the waters of Holy Baptism, St. Paul tells us, he has been put to death with Christ, and rises anew to a new life. Jesus tells us the Christian is called to take up his cross, to forfeit this life for the life which has no end. Every one of us was netted by one of our Lord’s fishermen. Every one of us who dares to bear the name Christian was drawn up from baptismal water where we died to sin and were made alive again in Christ. Each one of us was caught by a fisher of men, by a preacher, by a pastor. Each one of us was netted by the Gospel!

And our sinful, natural reaction to being netted is to flap about trying to escape. Our corrupted flesh seeks to get away, to, in the words of Jesus, save our lives while forfeiting our souls. But in spite of our will, our rebellion, our flapping about on the floor of the boat, our merciful Lord knows what is best for us. He provides fishers of men for us to keep us in the net. Our merciful Lord continues to command his servants to cast out into the deep and catch men in the net of the Good News.

Every Sunday, we are privileged like Simon Peter to gather about the boat of the church, to physically see Jesus in Flesh and Blood, to hear his miraculous and cosmos-altering Word proclaimed. And we like Simon Peter have the opportunity to again kneel before Jesus and confess “I am a sinful man,” and to hear our Lord and God say “Do not be afraid. I forgive you all your sins…”

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

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Sermon: Trinity 4

19 June 2005 at Faith Lutheran Church, Harahan, LA

Text: Luke 6:36-42 (Historic)

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Just about everything in our God-given universe has an opposite. In his wisdom, our Lord created everything in pairs. Male-female. Positive-negative. Up-down. Life-death. Good-bad. Right-wrong. Win-lose.

In today’s text, Jesus presents us with a surprising pair of opposites. He decries hypocrisy as a sin to be avoided, and gives us its opposite, a virtue to be practiced. Now, the opposite of hypocrisy is not, as reason might tell us, honesty, or piety, or true religiosity. No, Jesus identifies the opposite of hypocrisy to be mercy.

At first, this makes no sense at all. For a hypocrite says: “Do as I say, not as I do.” A hypocrite might be a TV preacher who decries the immorality of our age and gets caught with a prostitute. A hypocrite might be a parent who tells his children not to smoke when he himself smokes. A hypocrite may gossip about his gossipy neighbor. A hypocrite may be like the joke about the churchgoing teetotalers who pretend not to recognize each other at the liquor store. We all know about hypocrisy, because we all practice it. Indeed, there are many people who refuse to come to church because they don’t want to be around all those hypocrites. We Christians have the perfect response: there’s always room for one more.

I don’t mean to make light of hypocrisy, as it is really no laughing matter. It is sin, it is rebellion against God, and it is Satanic. It clings to our nature like tar, and like Brer Rabbit, the more we struggle against it, the more covered in tar we become.

And just as hypocrisy is of the devil, its opposite is of God. And that opposite is mercy. As sinners, we have no business pointing the finger at other people, wagging our heads, and holding ourselves as more virtuous. When we see other people engaged in sin, rather than seizing the opportunity to blast them (and make ourselves appear better by comparison), the truly Christlike thing to do is to show mercy. We ought to love our neighbor who struggles with sin, even as we love ourselves. We ought to commend them to God and pray for them, lest they suffer for eternity. We ought to emulate the saintly attitude of the Apostle Paul, instead of mocking the sinner, rather saying “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Mercy is the opposite of hypocrisy.

This is why our Lord tells us “Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” This is why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” For the measure we use will be applied to us. If we insist that our neighbors be perfect, God will insist that we be perfect. But if by God’s grace we are able to exercise mercy, our Lord will be merciful with us. Mercy, not perfection, is the opposite of hypocrisy.

Jesus tells us right off the bat that mercy is a divine attribute. The theologians speak of God’s omnipresence (his being everywhere), his omniscience (the fact that he is all-knowing), his omnipotence (the fact that he is all-powerful). And these are all true indeed. God is eternal, almighty, immortal, invisible, and perfect. And none of these attributes are really all that good for us. The Sunday-school chant “God is good, all the time” or the Muslim chant “Allah akbar!” (which means the same thing) has nothing to do with the Gospel. In the book “Hammer of God” – written by a Swedish Lutheran bishop – a man lies on his death bed, and is convinced he is going to hell, that God will not forgive him. The young pastor struggles trying to bring peace to the man. The pastor blurts out: “But God is good!” The old man groans and says: “Yes, God is good, very good. It is just for that reason I am in such a bad way. Pastor, you do not know how good God has been to me. He has sought my soul and bidden me walk in the way of life. But I have not done so.” The perfection and goodness of God are not good news for us poor, miserable sinners – as the old man confesses on his death bed. For we, like the dying parishioner, are all hypocrites. And no amount of appeals to God being mighty, or good, or awesome are going to comfort us. Only the Gospel, the good news of God’s mercy can do that.

God is no hypocrite – he is the opposite. He is all-merciful. He is all-forgiving. In fact, he has every right to gossip about us, to judge us, and to condemn us. But he won’t. In fact, the ultimate show of the mercy of God is right there above the altar – the crucified Christ. For God loved the world in this way, that he sent his only-begotten son to die for us poor miserable sinners, for us hypocrites, for every one of us who lacks mercy toward his neighbor and love toward his brother. And our Lord implores us to be merciful. He points out: “A disciple is not above his teacher.” If our Teacher was merciful to the point of death, who are we to think we are above showing the same mercy – even if it means suffering at the hands of evil people? In our Old Testament lesson, Joseph shows this kind of mercy toward his hypocritical brothers. Remember, his brothers sold him to slave traders who took him to Egypt where he was wrongfully accused of rape. He spent many years in a prison, suffering a punishment he didn’t deserve. God allowed this injustice to happen so the lives of many would be saved from famine. For Joseph was released from prison to become Pharaoh’s advisor. He saved thousands of people from starvation – including his brothers who put him in the mess in the first place.

And notice the attitude of his brothers. These evil-doing hypocrites implore their brother to show them mercy, not to give them justice, but let them get away without being punished. And merciful Joseph, by the grace of God, is able to forgive them, and even provide for their children. This is truly the work of God, for this kind of mercy is something only God is capable of.

And notice what St. Paul says in our epistle text. When we suffer, we should not lash out. But rather we should remain focused on our eternal reward. For “creation itself will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” And this is why we cry out again and again in our liturgy: “Lord have Mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.” For even as we have crucified the Son of God, and deserve nothing but his wrath – we, like the brothers of Joseph can be so bold as to ask him not to punish us. Even though we sin again and again, hypocritically pointing the finger at others for their transgressions, we again and again can come to this place, drop to our knees, and beg for mercy. Even though our bodies are dying, corrupted rotting flesh, and even though our mouths are like filthy sewers, we still indeed have the nerve to come before this altar and open those mouths to receive the holy body and blood of Jesus whom we mocked and crucified. And that is as it should be.

It is our gracious Lord’s nature to show us mercy in “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over.” It is more than our humble hands can even hold. Our cups run over with the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness. We are shown so much undeserved grace that we can in turn show that kind of mercy to others. Not because we can do it of ourselves, but rather as a gift of God. For every time you hear the words of Holy Absolution, every time you hear the words of the Holy Gospel, every time you eat and drink of Holy Communion, you are being remade in the Lord’s image. When you were washed with Holy Baptism, the tar of your sins were washed from you – and when you return to that font by seeking his forgiveness, you are again and again washed clean.

On this side of the grave, we will never be completely free from the bondage of sin and the mortality that threatens our bodies. But as Paul says in our epistle: “we have the “firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.”

Indeed, God is not through with us yet. He continues to show mercy to us again and again. And he delights when we ask him for more. For indeed, God is good. He is good, perfect, and almighty. Like old man Johannes in “Hammer of God,” the Law crushes us. When the Law does its work, we can either cover up our sins with more hypocrisy, or we can confess them, and plead for mercy, as do the brothers of Joseph. And like Johannes, we can hear the Gospel, and receive the grace and mercy of God.

So, dear Christian friends, you have no reason to linger in hypocrisy. Confess your sins! Receive God’s grace! And that overflowing grace will well up in you, and the Lord will use you to bring reconciliation, forgiveness, and mercy to others.

Thanks and praise be to God that our Lord Jesus Christ is no hypocrite like us. In fact, he is the opposite. He is merciful! Lord have mercy! Christ have mercy! Lord have mercy! Alleluia!

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

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Sermon: Trinity 2

5 June 2005 at Faith Lutheran Church, Harahan, LA

Text: Luke 14:16-24 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

What can be worse than throwing a party, and nobody comes? You buy the food, the drinks, you meticulously clean your house, you decorate, you pay attention to all kinds of detail, you spend a lot of money, and you open your home to all your friends, but nobody shows up. The people you thought were your friends all have lame excuses – oh, I have to mow the grass that day, oh, I have to go to WalMart, oh, I bought some oxen and I have to check them out. Well, the last one would be a really lame excuse these days, but you get the picture.

To be snubbed, to be stood up, to be told by our friends that doing daily chores is more important than our company and our friendship is a bitter pill to swallow. Times like these show us who our true friends are.

Jesus tells us this story to make a point. This is exactly how we treat God. Our Lord created us, gave us a perfect world to make us happy, and what did we do? We rejected him. Our Lord sent prophets to speak to us, to put the world aright once more – but what did we do? We rejected his messengers. Our Lord sent his only begotten Son to bring the Good News, the Gospel to us, to invite us to an eternal banquet, to give us eternal life, and what did we do? We rejected him.

The Lord’s chosen people of the Old Testament were placed on a pedestal like a queen, robed in royal garments and given everything – and yet she behaved like a whore, dressed herself in rags, and chose instead the empty promises of idols. And when our Lord took human form, and came to lay down his life for his bride, she again spurned him. He invited her to a marriage feast, and she chose instead to stand him up at the altar. She would rather be an equal to God, she would rather be judged on her own merits rather than submit to her husband and receive the gifts he wishes to shower upon her.

And so our Lord tells this parable, of God throwing a party, and yet the invited guests, those whom God himself chose to be his friends, have better things to do. After all, why come to a feast on Sunday – even when Wisdom herself has slaughtered the meat, mixed the wine, set the table, and has invited her guests to eat the bread and drink the wine.

The master’s invitation has been spurned. The table is set with the feast, and those who have been invited have better things to do: maybe a soccer game, maybe fishing, maybe putting in some overtime to afford a nicer car or bigger TV. In a country of hundreds of millions of people, only a handful really want to drop to their knees and partake of the foretaste of the eternal banquet. Many more would rather attend a church to be entertained by emotionally-manipulative music and dancing girls. Very few wish to gather around a humble pulpit to hear a preacher proclaim the simple good news of Jesus Christ Crucified. Most would rather hear something uplifting, something relevant, something that will make them better at their jobs, happier, and more wealthy. Very few see the value in making the sign of the cross and calling to mind being splashed by water. Most would rather see a stage show of phony miracles and funny jokes.

And notice our Lord’s reaction. He is angry. He is hurt. Those for whom he died, those whose sins he offers to take away, reject him. Seminary professor Dr. David Scaer made a stunning statement that nobody goes to hell for committing sins. Rather, people go to hell because they reject the gift. They have an engraved invitation, and they choose to turn it down. Their sins are already atoned for – the real tragedy is that they don’t care, they don’t believe, and they don’t receive the gift. They spurn God.

And so the Lord directs his servants – which incidentally in Latin is “minister” – to go out among the people and issue the invitation to everyone – not merely those who were originally chosen. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” How? By baptizing them. By teaching them. By preaching the Gospel to them. By word and sacrament.

Dear Christian brothers and sisters – this is the very feast our Lord is talking about. In the eyes of the world, a wafer of bread and a sip of wine is no feast. But this food and drink bear the promise and the Word of God – “This is my body. This is my blood. For the forgiveness of sin.”

And notice how our Lord describes us, his late group of guests who were invited after others left room at the table for us by spurning God. We are the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind. This church, and all churches, are emergency rooms filled with sick, dying people. We are poor, coming to God as beggars with empty hands extended. We are maimed, having been crippled by sin and beaten about by the devil. We are blind, unable on our own to even see clearly how messed up we are. And notice how we got here, to church. By our own choice? By our own power? A bunch of blind, maimed beggars do not call the shots and make decisions. No, our Lord’s words are clear: we have been compelled to come in. The Holy Spirit drew us in here, not by our choice, but rather by his decision, his mercy, his divine and perfect will.

So let us feast like the homeless, sore-ridden, blind, deaf, and dying beggars that we are! Let us not think up excuses why we can’t accept our Lord’s gracious invitation. Rather let us cling to the One whose very word can heal us, make us whole, give us sight, and make us wealthy beyond measure! Let us rejoice every time we are privileged to hear the miraculous words: “I forgive you all your sins.” Let us give thanks and praise to our Lord every time we are permitted to again see the miracle of ordinary bread and wine becoming the very same body and blood of Jesus born of Mary and nailed to the cross. Let us feast as starving beggars every time our Lord permits us to come to this table and eat and drink the most precious and most glorious food ever served in the history of the universe.

And let the world scoff at us. We will still invite them to come to this table. Let those who persist in their blindness, poverty, and infirmity continue to make fun of us and hate us, for as the blessed Apostle John tells us in our epistle, “we have passed from death to life.” We ought not marvel that we are hated, abused, and ridiculed for clinging to the broken body and spilled blood of our Lord. For “by this we know love, because he laid down his life for us.” And as a result, we are able to lay down our lives for those who hate us and reject us. For our Lord’s love for us is perfect, not merely “in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.”

And the truth is this: we crippled beggars, unworthy as we are, have been chosen to come to the feast. Although we are dressed in shabby clothes, we are given a pure white baptismal gown to wear. Although we are dying bit by bit, and our flesh is rotting away (which is shown by every ache and pain we have), it is merged to his flesh, which is incorruptible. And through Holy Communion with him, our great physician, we are given food which is also medicine, the medicine of immortality, the medicine that makes us live forever.

Let us give thanks and praise to our Lord for eternity, for he has compelled us. He did not entrust us to our crippled, blinded reason, but brought us by faith into his kingdom, into the banquet hall, a banquet hall that we have right here and right now, and we will have for eternity! Dear Christians, eat and drink! Your sins are forgiven. You have eternal life. You have been chosen, and you have a place at the table unto eternity! Thanks be to God through the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen.

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