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.