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!

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Sermon: Trinity 20

9 October 2005 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 22:1-14 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

When it comes to food and dining, few people in America come close to New Orleanians. The old joke is that we spend lunchtime talking about where we will eat dinner. While food is, strictly speaking, a way for our bodies to be nourished – it is also so much more. Eating is a celebration of life – of the gifts our Lord has given us – going all the way back to the garden of Eden. God could have made eating a mindless activity of survival, but instead, in his divine love for his creation, made it what Louisianans might call “joie de vivre” - the joy of life.

A French writer named Valéry writes:

“What is more important than the meal? Doesn’t the least observant man-about-town look upon the implementation and ritual progress of a meal as a liturgical prescription? Isn’t all of civilization apparent in these careful preparations, which consecrate the spirit’s triumph over a raging appetite?”

This is, perhaps, why eating is traditionally accompanied by so much ritual, formality, and manners. In the ancient world, dining was a social statement. Great care was taken not to eat with certain kinds of people – and placement at the table was a way of expressing honor and importance. Jesus scandalized the religiously upright people of his day by eating with various kinds of sinners. His acceptance of “table fellowship” with prostitutes and thieves was controversial – to say the least.

In our more democratic culture, such concepts as “table fellowship” might seem quaint. One of the few times we revive this notion of a pecking order at the dinner table is at a banquet – where typically, guests are seated in order of importance – with the really honored guests being segregated at a head table.

Our Gospel reading is a parable of Jesus that is centered on a banquet.

The father, who is a king, arranges his son’s wedding – and of course, there will be a reception. Invitations are sent, and preparations for the party begin. Food and drinks need to be purchased. The hall must be decorated. Servants must be scheduled. It’s a lot of work, but finally, the big day comes. But nobody shows up. Imagine the insult to the king! Imagine his hurt feelings. Imagine the disrespect shown to the prince and his bride-to-be!

At best, the invited guests mock the king and his son, and tell him they have better things to do. Other invited guests are downright violent – beating and even killing the king’s messengers who have come to remind them of the wedding. It goes without saying that the king is furious. He judges those who have been so ruthless and disrespectful. But, as they say, the show must go on. The wedding will proceed, followed by the reception. Only there will be different guests invited to the banquet. On such short notice, the king has little choice but to fling the doors wide open and invite everyone. He sends his servants into the streets, and beckons everyone to come to the feast: the good and the bad, “come and be glad, greatest and least, come to the feast!”

No more is the banquet to be only for those connected by ties of blood to the king and his son. The banquet is not merely for the upright in the community, the religious, the wealthy, and the well-connected. No, this feast is for all, including the poor, the sinful, those without family ties or business connections. People from all walks of life come into the hall to eat the finest of the king’s bread and the choicest of the king’s wine. Can you imagine the sense of joy to those who never thought in a million years they would be deemed worthy to dine in the palace?

In the midst of this joy and thanksgiving, an intruder is spotted. He’s easy to point out because he is not wearing the proper attire – for at this banquet, there is a dress code – and the king himself supplies the raiment. But this fellow is not wearing the wedding garment, and thus he was not invited to the feast. Perhaps he was one who had earlier spurned the son and shown disrespect to the father. Or maybe he just wanted to join the feast on his own terms, in his own garments that he thinks are as nice as those supplied by the king. Maybe he just likes to stand out and be noticed for who he is – and not be just another face in the crowd wearing a wedding garment. Who knows? But for whatever reason, this person is not welcome at this feast. He is bound and put into a prison of darkness. For many are called, but few are chosen.

Those listening to Jesus preach knew what he was talking about. The Jews knew their own history of spurning the Father and beating and killing his messengers: the prophets. Jesus is himself the Son in this parable. Jesus is being wedded to his bride: the Church. The banquet is the ongoing and eternal heavenly feast. The Lord had called his people Israel through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He continued to stand by them even in their unfaithfulness, even as they sought idols and murdered the prophets. But when God sent his Son, they rejected him, they turned down the invitation to the wedding feast, they mocked those who confessed Christ and they persecuted Christians in their own midst.

And so, God flung the doors wide open, going out into the byways, preaching the Gospel to those who would listen – largely to Gentiles. Jesus himself reached out to sinners that respectable religious people would never sit down at table with. Jesus invites all to his feast – the good and the bad, greatest and least are bid to come to the feast! Though Israel’s priests and scribes would not eat with the likes of us sinful Gentiles, the Father himself bids us to come to the feast. It doesn’t matter what our genealogy, race, ethnicity, station in life, occupation, or even reputation are. Our past sins are irrelevant. We are invited, and clothed for the occasion. For we are clothed with the righteousness of Jesus at our baptism. And that white baptismal gown is a meal ticket that grants us admittance to the feast. That baptismal garment makes us worthy to kneel at this rail and eat the finest of the king’s bread and the choicest of the King’s wine.

The Lord implemented his holy supper as an appetizer of eternity. Using simple, earthy – and yet sublime elements: bread and wine – Jesus himself dines with us, gives us his very flesh and blood which is the one all-availing sacrifice for our sins, and bids us to remain at his table – with all the saints and angels – for all eternity. There is a Greek icon of the last supper that is entitled: “The Mystical Meal.” Indeed, the Lord’s Supper is mystical, it is supernatural, it is the eternal God breaking into our space and time, allowing us to sit at table with Jesus just as surely as did his disciples.

Our Roman Catholic brethren speak of the “miracle of the Mass. And we agree with them on this point, as our own Lutheran Confessions forcefully declare: “Our churches are falsely accused of abolishing the Mass. The Mass is held among us and celebrated with the highest reverence.” We Lutherans, as did the early church, see ourselves as a eucharistic community – a gathering of people around Christ in his sacrament. We can no more not celebrate Holy Communion than we can decide not to breath air and drink water. Indeed, this holy banquet, this mystical meal, this miracle of the Mass is truly a eucharist – a feast of thanksgiving. Just as every Sunday is a mini-Easter to the Christian Church, so is every celebration of the Lord’s Supper a mini-Thanksgiving feast. Indeed, one of Martin Luther’s “marks of the Church” (that is to say, how to identify the true Christian Church) is the centrality of the sacraments. Holy Communion isn’t merely an add-on to the liturgy, it is our very life and breath. It is indeed how we can come to Jesus, and how he comes to us. It is our discipleship in action. And Jesus himself tells us how we are made disciples: by baptism and teaching. There is no other entrance into the church – not accepting Jesus as one’s savior, not by answering an altar call, not by living a life free from sin (as though any of us could truly do any of these things).

No, indeed, there is only one way to gain entry into the wedding feast of the Son. Those who seek to gain admittance to the Christian Church by a side entrance, by trickery or deceit, those who rely on the splendor of their own garments instead of depending on the king’s charity, those who seek admittance by their own means and according to their own abilities will find themselves in the prison of hell.

But what comfort we unworthy sinners have knowing that the King himself supplies the pristine white robe that covers our nakedness and filthiness! What a blessing that we have been called and chosen not by our own merits, but rather by the grace of God himself! And what joy we have knowing that we can partake of the foretaste of the feast Sunday after Sunday, joining Jesus at the table, at the mystical, miraculous meal, participating in the heavenly banquet that will have no end!

My dear brothers and sisters: The feast is ready. Come to the feast! The good and the bad, greatest and least, come to the feast! Now, and unto eternity. Amen.

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

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Sermon: Trinity 19

2 October 2005 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 9:1-8 (Gen 28:10-17, Eph 4:22-28) (Traditional)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s gospel lesson contains two miracles: the forgiveness of the paralytic’s sins, and the restoration of his health. Both miracles are wondrous, both are healing to the paralytic, but Jesus works the miracles for two different reasons.

Notice what Jesus’ first priority is: the first thing Jesus says to the ailing man is: “Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven.” It is doubtful that the paralytic and his helpers sought out Jesus for confession and absolution. More likely they came seeking only a physical healing of the man’s paralyzed flesh. However, Jesus understands full well that sin is the cause of the man’s paralysis. Jesus, God in the flesh, the Word who was with God, and who was God, in the beginning, understands that sin is the root cause of all disease, of all misery, of all pain, of all natural calamities, and of death itself. The man’s paralysis, his brokenness, was merely one more step on our common march toward death, toward the final corruption and breakdown of our flesh.

And so Jesus gets right to the heart of the matter: “Do not fret, my son, your sins are forgiven.” Jesus, the Son, takes the role of the Father. He is acting under the divine authority of his Father. Notice that Jesus refers to the one he is absolving as “son.” Reverend Father Jesus is speaking as a pastor, as a father-confessor, to the one he is absolving. And this is what upsets the teachers of the law. For a man to speak on behalf of God – especially to forgive sins – is seen as blasphemy. What the lawyers, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the rest of us hypocrites cannot grasp is the incarnation – the fact that God himself would take on human flesh. For human flesh, as we all know, is corruptible. All human flesh is headed toward death. Since the fall, all of our flesh is nothing more than rotting meat.

A perfect illustration of this is cleaning out our refrigerators after the hurricane. All matter that was formerly alive – animal and plant life – is now a horrific sight: rotting, stinking, infested with mold, utterly ruined, and repulsive to our senses. This ugly sight, dear Christian friends, is a picture of ourselves. For we are fleshly creatures, infested with sin, and inching closer to our own corruption day by day.

Jesus links the man’s dying limbs, his muscles that will not move, his corrupting flesh, to his sinful state. And the first thing that needs to happen to cure him is to forgive his sins. And Jesus is himself flesh – but without sin. Jesus is the one the Psalmist prophesies as the one who will see no corruption. For the greatest miracle of all the ages is that God would take on flesh and die in our place, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the sinless for the sinful. And so Jesus carries out this ministry in our text by absolving the man of his sins: the greater of the two miracles.

Jesus’ second miracle – the healing of the man’s paralysis – was what St. John would call a “sign.” Jesus performed this miracle to prove a point. He did it to demonstrate his divinity. For they can grumble all they want about Jesus’ word of forgiveness, they can cast doubt upon its validity – but it’s hard to argue with a cripple leaving his mat behind and walking home. Although this is the lesser miracle – it is the miracle that shuts up his critics.

Our own sinful flesh seeks after, even lusts after, such miracles. Our unbelieving flesh seeks after signs so we can be convinced. I recently met a devout young Christian who told me I should leave my call here at Salem and come with him to be a missionary in Africa, since God is working miracles there. If reports are to be believed, there are many sick people being cured miraculously as the Gospel is being spread there. This may or may not be the truth, but even if it is, why should I abandon my flock to see it? Such miracles are merely signs to convince people of who Jesus is, of his power. Such signs are for unbelievers. The greater miracle happens every day around the world – including here at Salem. The greater miracle happens when Jesus’ ministers – his corruptible fleshly servants – become your father-confessors and forgive your sins. The greater miracle happens as Jesus’ incorruptible flesh and blood are placed into our mouths. The greater miracle happens here at our font, as [will happen today as / has happened today as] Skylar is carried (just like the helpless paralytic) to Jesus to receive healing and forgiveness of sins. The greater miracle happens when the preaching of the Gospel creates faith in the hearers of that miraculous Gospel.

Dear friends, the Christianity that permeates our culture is the kind of religion advocated by the teachers of the law in our text. Many a TV preacher will promise you all sorts of prosperity: health and wealth, fame and fortune, if you only have enough faith. And you can demonstrate that faith with your checkbook, can’t you? And these same folks would no doubt gasp and call us blasphemers because our pastors claim to forgive your sins. The same people who believe a man in a white suit can blow on people and cure them of their diseases will not accept a man in a white robe making the sign of the cross over people and forgiving them of their sins – which has been the church’s ministry since the day of Pentecost in 30 AD.

For the Church exists to bring people to Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. We need no other “mission statement” than that.

And notice how the crowds who witnessed Jesus’ miracle react. They are filled with awe, they praise God. Why? Because God “had given such authority to men.” Notice the word is “men.” This is plural. God has given the authority to speak on his behalf and forgive sins to men. Jesus himself gave this authority to his apostles, who in turn ordained future ministers for this work. And this divine ministry of forgiveness continues, and will continue until the final trumpet sounds. And nothing will stop the ministry of our Lord’s Church. Nothing. Not a hurricane, not a dozen hurricanes. Not scoffers and unbelievers. Not sickness, not paralysis, not sin, nor even death itself. For our Lord promises that not even Satan and hell will overcome the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

My brothers and sisters, this is the ministry of the Church. Our work is to support the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments for the forgiveness of sins. For every redeemed paralytic will walk again and be made whole according to the Lord’s timetable. Every one of us, with all of our aches and pains, our worries and our distresses, our illnesses, and our inevitable day of death – will find ourselves like the paralytic in our text made whole. For we have already had the first miracle, the greater miracle, the eradication of our sins and the deliverance of this gift to us through our Lord’s chosen means.

You don’t have to turn on a TV preacher or make a trip to Africa to see the Lord working his greatest miracles. These miracles happen to us week after week at this altar, font, and pulpit. These miracles happen to us day after day in our homes as we confess our sins, repent, and remember that we are baptized.

So let us praise God that he has given such authority to men. Take heart, my son. Take heart, my daughter. Your sins are forgiven.

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