Sunday, January 22, 2006

Sermon: Epiphany 3

22 January 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 8:1-13 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

By virtue of our Gospel reading, we are today witnesses of two miracles of Jesus. Both involve physical healings. Both are illustrations of faith and humility.

In the first, a leper comes to Jesus. He addresses him as “Lord,” an Old Testament code-word for Almighty God. He comes to Jesus, to God, and he says: “If it is indeed your will that I may be healed, I know that it will come to pass.” Notice that he doesn’t come before God in anger, in rage, in a demanding tone of voice. Perhaps he has already gone through the normal psychological stages of a person with a serious disease, and has at last come to a peaceful acceptance of his condition. Perhaps not. The evangelist doesn’t give us this detail. But what we do see is this: the diseased man comes humbly, and he instinctively prays the petition from the Lord’s prayer: “Thy will be done.” He prays the same prayer of our Lord in Gethsemane: “Not my will but yours be done.” He knows the difference between the Creator and the creature.

And it is our Lord’s will to restore his fallen creature to wholeness, to recreate his damaged flesh anew, to roll back the effects of sin upon the skin of this humble, faithful man.

This fortunate man is certainly a Jew, for Jesus links his healing to the law of Moses – as he tells him to fulfill the law by going to the priest for a public declaration of cleanness. Notice that the priest doesn’t heal the man, Jesus does. And yet the priest is acting under holy orders by God-given authority to speak God’s declaration of cleanliness, not only to the man who has been cleansed by Jesus, but also as a proclamation of the good news to everyone who will listen.

Following this miracle, the healing of the leprous Jew and his public vindication by a priestly declaration and proclamation, another miracle happens. This time, it is a gentile, a captain in the army.

The captain, called a centurion (because he commands a company of a hundred men), asks for Jesus’ help. He has a servant who is paralyzed. Whether this was due to a degenerative disease, or caused by a sudden accident, we don’t know. But whatever the cause, he is suffering something ultimately caused by man’s fall into sin, the degeneration of God’s good creation into chaos, disorder, disease, and death.

Notice the centurion’s humility. Knowing that Jesus would have to break Jewish custom (and law) to enter his home (being a Gentile), the centurion suggests that Jesus perform the healing long-distance. “I know you can do it from here, Jesus. You are a soldier, like me. You command the forces of nature, and you can give an order and have it carried out by subordinates just like I can in army matters.” The centurion’s faith is so strong, he is willing to walk away from Jesus and trust him to carry out a miracle on his behalf in his absence.

Both the centurion and the leper pray to Jesus in humility. Hence St. Paul’s exhortation in our epistle lesson: “Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.” Indeed, both of our supplicants associate with the humble, as Jesus himself is humble. In their humility, they trust in Jesus. Jesus immediately sees their faith.

And regarding the centurion, Jesus announces that he has not seen such faith as in the case of this Gentile in all of Israel. He uses the centurion’s example of faith and trust in Jesus as a “sermon illustration” of how God will invite people of every nationality, humble Gentiles from east and west, into his heavenly kingdom with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while the “sons of the kingdom,” the too-often arrogant fleshly descendants of those patriarchs, will find the kingdom taken from them. Too often, their faith is only in themselves.

But by contrast, the centurion, praying to Jesus in a spirit of trust and humility, also understands something very subtle and powerful about Jesus. Our centurion “gets it,” that Jesus is a “man under authority” – divine authority. By submitting to the Father, Jesus in a sense has a “superior.” And so, Jesus acts under the authority of God the Father. And Jesus is also an officer in command of others – all others in fact, the forces of nature, hosts of angels, the workings of the human body, and all of space and time – not to mention his army of pastors under his holy orders. Jesus acts by the Father’s power and commands all of creation to do his will. Jesus works through means.

It’s no coincidence that for centuries people have prayed a slight modification of the centurion’s prayer when taking Holy Communion. As the host is elevated before our eyes, we pause, and like the faithful centurion, we pray to Jesus: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul will be healed.” And if you think about it, this simple prayer sums up the entire Bible! It confesses our unworthiness, our sin. It proclaims the incarnation, the coming of Jesus under our roof of space and time, of flesh and blood, of bread and wine. It declares the mighty and powerful Word of God, the limitless force that created the universe. And finally, it trumpets the Gospel, the fact that God, in his mercy, heals his humble, sin-sick, leprous, and mortal servants. Again, even as we grope for words as we partake of the divine mysteries of God, the Lord himself, through his very word, even through the words of a Roman soldier, tells us what to say. As God tells us through the psalmist, the Lord himself opens our lips, and we are empowered to declare his praise.

The kingdom of God is ours by the Word of God, through the healing work and ministry of Jesus. We cling to the kingdom by faith, in humility, and the kingdom ours remaineth – not by virtue of being able to trace our family tree to Abraham, but rather by being adopted sons of Abraham by baptism.

In fact, it isn’t by accident or coincidence that we see a type, a foreshadowing of this baptism in our Old Testament lesson, as Naaman is told to go to the waters of the Jordan River to wash away the effects of sin, manifested as leprosy. Of course, this isn’t just any water (a fact Naaman misses by complaining that there’s other water besides the Jordan’s waters), it is water combined with God’s Word and promise! Once again, it is no accident or coincidence that God’s preacher Elisha, through a messenger, directs Naaman to the same river where Jesus would centuries later himself be baptized.

And notice how else Naaman drops the ball: he doesn’t understand why he is directed to wash in water, and bristles at the suggestion. “Can’t the prophet just wave his hand over me and cure me? Can’t God work without means? Isn’t it inconvenient that I must go to where God promises to be present sacramentally under the water?”

In spite of his gripes, Naaman goes to the holy waters of the Jordan. He encounters God sacramentally, where God promises to be found, and Naaman is healed.

Again, we see God working through preachers, messengers under divine orders who point the sick, the diseased, and the dying to the waters of life, to the means through which God works his miracle of restoration. The Lord does it through his means, using his ministers, on his own timetable. The Spirit blows where he wills, and what else can we creatures do but bow down before him humbly and pray: “Thy will be done.”

Dear friends, our Lord continues in his ministry of rolling back the corruption of this world and of our flesh. He continues to work through water sanctified by Jesus, water combined with the Word of God. He continues to speak his word through New Testament prophets who point to the means of his grace and proclaim his word to the world to Jews and Gentiles, to Naamans and centurions, to those who believe and those who do not believe. He continues to work through New Testament priests, men likewise under orders, who declare us clean – not by their own power to cleanse, but rather by their God-given authority to apply the Word of God to those of us who have been washed of our leprous sins by water and the blood of the Lamb.

And so, just as the faithful and humble centurion prays, let us continually pray to Jesus: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul will be healed.” Amen.

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

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Sermon: Circumcision and Name of Jesus

1 January 2006, Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 2:21 (and Gen 17:1-14; Gal 3:23-29) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Circumcision isn’t a topic we typically address in polite conversation. In fact, when the topic comes up in, say a sixth-grade religion class, there’s usually some nervous laughter going on. And yet circumcision is a pretty major thing in the Scriptures – both Old and New Testaments.

In the Old Testament, circumcision is established by God with the patriarch Abraham as a sign of the covenant, an Old Testament sacrament that initiates a boy into the promise and people of God. And by virtue of that boy growing up, it initiates his wife and daughters into the covenant as well.

In the New Testament, a dispute over whether or not Christian men need to be circumcised threatened the very existence of the Church even before the New Testament had been written! It caused St. Paul all sorts of headaches, to the point where he wished his opponents would do even more to themselves than administer circumcision. Only a meeting of bishops in Jerusalem, as recorded in Acts 15, would prevent the Church from dividing over the issue of circumcision.

And notice that the Church in her wisdom has decreed today – which the whole world now recognizes as New Year’s Day – to be a commemoration of the circumcision of our Lord Jesus Christ. So important is this considered that our Gospel text for today is only a single verse!

Why all of this fuss over circumcision?

In our Old Testament lesson, God establishes circumcision as a sign of his covenant with Abraham. Every male descendant of Abraham, every son of the promise, must submit to this ritual bloodletting. Any son of Abraham who is uncircumcised has forfeited his standing as a son of the promise, and breaks the covenant.

Why did God choose such a sign? He doesn’t tell us. But we do know that circumcision is a permanent sign. It can’t be undone. Perhaps it serves as a reminder to a descendant of Abraham that his body is holy to God, and any offspring he procreates is also a child of the promise. In any case, this is the sign, an Old Testament sacrament that joins the Word of God to a physical element bringing grace and salvation.

This sign, this sacrament, this guarantee that the son of Abraham has not broken the covenant was fulfilled, as was the rest of the ceremonial law, by Jesus. Jesus is the Promised One, the Messiah, the True Son of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the one man who truly keeps the covenant as a man, just as he is also God who likewise keeps the covenant from God’s end of the deal.

Our Lord’s circumcision was the first shedding of his holy blood, a foreshadowing of the draining of all his holy blood on the cross. And in this first shedding of blood, this event which calls to mind the sacrifices of the Old Testament, was done to fulfill the law. Ever obedient, our Lord submits to a covenant he himself, as Yahweh, established. The circle is complete, and the ceremonial law is no longer binding on us children of the covenant. In fact, we have a new sacrament of initiation, one which is administered to male and female children alike, one which permanently marks us as children of the promise, one which, like circumcision, can never be undone: Holy Baptism.

When a boy was circumcised, he was also named. Today is known to the Church as the Circumcision and Name of Jesus – as our Lord was named according to custom, on his eighth day of age at the time of his circumcision and initiation into the people of God.

Our Lord’s name “Jesus” is also of great importance. It is a Greek rendering of his Hebrew name: “Joshua.” Remember that Moses, the great lawgiver, could not bring the people of God into the promised land. His own sins held him back. That task was given to a general named Joshua, the successor of Moses, who by right of conquest led the children of the covenant to the Promised Land.

Jesus is a new and better Joshua, another successor of Moses, who fulfills the Law, who conquers sin, death, the devil, and hell. He leads his people into he Promised Land as a conquering general and king.

The prophet Zechariah tells of another Joshua, who served as high priest as the children of Israel were returning from exile. In a vision, Zechariah’s sees Joshua, the high priest, standing before the Lord in filthy garments while Satan accuses him. But Satan is rebuked, and Joshua (whose name in Greek is Jesus) is clothed with new garments, priestly vestments. God tells him he is given “charge of my courts” and “right of access among those who are standing here.” God says: “Hear now, O Joshua, the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men who are a sign: behold, I will bring my servant, the Branch.”

Jesus is the greater Joshua, the general, the high priest, the Branch, the maker of the covenant, and the fulfillment of the covenant. He is the maker and the fulfillment of the law. He is the alpha and the omega. He is the one whose name is above every other name, who was named as the angels instructed: as Jesus – whose name means “savior.”

All of these signs of the Old Testament point to Jesus, and are fulfilled in Jesus. The ceremonial law of the Old Testament – including circumcision – points us to their fulfillment in Jesus. For as Paul tells us in our epistle text, “the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” Circumcision is there to lead us to Christ. Once it has done that, once our Lord fulfilled it, we have outgrown it. For we are not sons of Abraham through circumcision, but rather as Paul tells us: “you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

You are all sons, and as sons, you are heirs. You, dear Christian friends, men and women alike, are adopted sons. The kingdom is yours, not by virtue of circumcision and the Law, but by virtue of baptism and the Gospel. For notice what Paul says: “There is neither Jew nor Greek” (remember that Jews were circumcised while Greeks were not). Paul says: “There is neither male nor female” (though women benefited from circumcision, they didn’t directly receive it). Notice what Paul concludes: “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

In other words, dear brothers and sisters, in baptism, you have all been “circumcised” and are all sons of Abraham –Not by virtue of your own obedience, but by virtue of Christ’s obedience. Not by virtue of your own flesh, but by virtue of Christ’s flesh. Not by virtue of your own shed blood, but by virtue of Christ’s shed blood.

And that holy flesh and blood of Jesus is yours, for just as you share in our Lord’s circumcision, and just as you have been given our Lord’s name in Holy Baptism, you have been given his body and blood to eat and drink in Holy Communion.

We worship a real, flesh and blood God. We don’t worship a distant, far off character from a story book. We worship a God who was a baby boy, who bled at his circumcision at the age of eight days, who was given a name, who fulfilled the law, who died in the flesh, and who rose from the dead at the age of thirty-three years. He still lives in the flesh, still bears the scars from all of his holy wounds, and who will come again in glory to raise our flesh from the dead and to once and for all rid the universe of the devil and his followers.

Our God, the only True God, is a man. He is the new and better Adam, one who did not yield to the serpent’s temptation. He is the new and better Moses, who completes and fulfills the law for us. He is the new and better Joshua, who defeats the enemies of God and leads his people forth in joy. He is the new and better high priest, who not only stands as a man before God, but is both man and God. He is a high priest who is also the high victim. He is the sacrificer, and the sacrifice.

Dear friends, welcome to a new anno domini, a new year of our Lord. We are indeed another year closer to the fulfillment. While making New Year’s resolutions and striving to keep them is certainly a good and noble thing, there is only one New Year’s resolution that will never be broken. That is the covenant, the promise our Lord made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the promise whose sign was circumcision, the promise fulfilled when a little boy named Jesus was circumcised, and when an innocent grown man named Jesus was crucified.

In the Garden of Eden, God made a promise, a resolution of sorts, to the devil that the seed of the woman would crush his head. God spoke the same promise to Abraham when he promised a savior from his seed. God spoke the same promise to Moses and all the prophets when he told of one who would fulfill the law. And God kept his promise by taking flesh and dying for us, by achieving victory over the devil on the cross, and by fulfilling the destiny of his name by keeping the law for us. And God continues to keep that promise with you, and for you, by giving you his flesh and blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of all your transgressions of the law.

You children of Abraham, rejoice in the circumcision of Jesus – for the flesh of that baby boy is your salvation! You children of God, rejoice in the divine name of Jesus – for there is no other name by which we can be saved! For you who have been baptized into Christ are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus! Amen.

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

Happy New (Orleans) Year!

Hope y'all are having a great new year! So far, no hurricanes - so 2006 is a great year here in the Big Easy up to now. ;-) We thought we'd share with y'all our amusing New Year's Eve in Post Katrina N'Awlins.

In the afternoon, with the weather a beautiful seventy-something degrees and sunny, we decided to go "out" and do something "normal." Things have not been "normal" around here since the end of August. So, we decided to visit the only store where Grace likes to shop: "Prima Donna's Closet" - a consignment clothing boutique. This was our first Post-Katrina visit.

The owner is an outgoing lady named Stephanie - who on this day was wearing a "Make Levees Not War" T-shirt. She recognized us from our Pre-K visits to her shop, and immediately were exchanged The Two Questions, viz, 1) How d'ya do? (translation: do you have a home?) and 2) Where d'ya go? (translation: where did you evacuate to?). We learned that one of her two stores was completely destroyed. However, the store we were in was doing well. Grace went all out and bought a skirt for four bucks. I read Swedish while Leo pointed at, and chatted with, the caged birds around the store.

We decided to head to Magazine Street for Indian Food. Magazine Street is on the edge of the French Quarter, and is lined with shops and bars. However, we arrived five minutes after the buffet closed, so we had to activate Plan B, which in this case was "Igor's Buddha Belly Bar, Grill, Laundromat, and Game Room" (that's what it's called, no lie). There was an older man at the bar reading the paper. The loudly-dressed barmaid was conversing with him about new movies. As a result, the topic of gay cowboys came up. We settled at a table near the window, and ordered burgers and beers. Some more patrons came into the bar, and the older man began involving a twenty-something guy in his discussion about gay cowboys. Soon the topic was changed to rock and roll music.

The bar/grill/laudromat/gameroom sported a large laughing Buddha, a video poker area, and humorous signs. One read: "Gentlemen: No Shirt, No Service. Ladies: No Shirt, Free Beer." I asked Grace if Leo needed to nurse...

Just outside the window, a couple drank beer, read the paper, and discreetly smoked marijuana. Three cops on motorcycles stopped in front of the bar. Two of them preceded to block the street while a third came into the Buddha Belly. He hastily ordered three burgers, and rushed out, promising to be back in a few. New Orleans' Finest were blocking the street for a parade. Along they came, the Pussyfooters and Highsteppers with their little brass band. They were followed by a couple dozen malt-beverage-equipped citizens. The parade was completely over and done in about five minutes.

We strolled on over to the Boulangerie (a French bakery) across the street. We took a table outside and enjoyed the sunshine, the breeze, and the strolling crowds lingering after the parade. I got in line. There was a large sign above the counter that read: "Le patron mange ici" (the boss eats here). In front of me, a middle aged woman spoke in French as her young-adult daughter responded to her in a mixture of English and French - with no rhyme or reason as to when which language was being employed. The owner spoke French with the employees and with some customers. Beautiful large round loaves and delicate pastries were for sale, as were "gateaux de roi" (king cakes) - a French/New Orleans tradition of a festive cake with an effigy of the Baby Jesus baked inside. King cakes are signs that Carnival (the pre-Mardi Gras time of partying) is near. It officially begins on Epiphany Day (January 6).

I took our order outside (coffee, blueberry tarte, and an apple-cinnamon danish).

People from all walks of life promenaded by - some with pets. Several people hooked their dog leashes to a pole out front, which made Leo happy. A couple of guys walked by, one of whom was carrying his large pet hen in his hands. Nobody batted an eye. The two guys took the chicken into a bar (I suspect many of these types of jokes originated in New Orleans).

We drove around and ended up in the French Quarter. Being New Year's Eve, it was rather busy. By happenstance, we found our minivan right in front of the main stage that was being set up for the evening's festivities. Arlo Guthrie was strolling by with his long curly white locks blowing in the breeze. We drove around the French Market and saw a lady wearing a "Christ Is Our Hope" T-shirt - the slogan of Lutheran Church Charities headquartered in Addison, Illinois. I have spent the last three months working closely with this wonderful organization. I hollered out of the window: "Lutheran Church Charities! Y'all do good work!" The lady was stunned that someone recognized the shirt. I told her I was a local pastor. She was in New Orleans with a group of volunteers from Chicago.

Before dark, we went home. We watched Dick Clark on TV. We went to bed at about 12:30 am. We really enjoyed the return to "normalcy," but all in all, we had a pretty boring "normal" time for New Year's Eve. But that's not so bad - we've all had enough excitement here in New Orleans for a while. But hurricane season is only six months away!

Bonne annee, et laissez les bons temps roulez! (Happy New Year, and let the good times roll!)