Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Why "Father Hollywood"?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Now that more people are actually checking into my blog (including parishioners looking for past sermons), I guess I need to explain "Father Hollywood" to those not in on the joke. It's a sad, happy, funny, and yet tragic story. Like most things in this life, it's a little complicated.

So here's the quick answer: Last year, I worked at Hollywood Video.

If the quick answer takes care of you, please feel free to read no further. I won't be offended. Ite missa est. Go in peace. Serve the Lord. Deo gratias. If you feel like reading on, well, now might be a nice time to grab a cup of coffee, hot chocolate, tea, or of you prefer, a beer, wine, or other Lutheran beverage. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Now, isn't that better? Okay, so I was working at a Hollywood Video store last year.

The "why?" and "what happened?" makes the nickname Father Hollywood a little more interesting. How is it that a 40+ year old ordained minister and high school teacher with a master's degree finds himself wearing a purple shirt, working for 18 year old bosses, and earning minimum wage at a retail store?

Well, once upon a time...

My first call into the ministry in 2004 was to be a campus pastor at a certain Lutheran High School. I won't say which one or where it is, and if you know, let's just keep it "our little secret."

Let's just say it was a very "interesting" year. I had the opportunity to look at the call documents before being offered the call right out of seminary - as it was an unusual position. I wanted to make sure that I had health coverage for myself, my wife, and my unborn child. The call papers were a little confusing, but I confirmed with the head of the call committee (who confirmed with the rest of the committee) that the bottom line was that I would pay $360 a month out of pocket to cover the whole family. This is a lot of money - especially given that new pastors aren't exactly rolling in the dough. But I took a leap of faith and accepted the call.As I said, it was an "interesting" year. I was not permitted to exercise the office entrusted to me by that call document. To make the point that I was not being considered a "campus pastor" but rather a "teacher," some in the administration insisted on calling me by my first name (traditionally, Lutheran pastors are called "Pastor So-and-so") - in spite of my objection to such informality. I won't go into the ugly details, but thanks to the administration, my time there was, shall we say, less than salutary and inspiring.

And then it happened. Lo and behold, the administration discovered a "mistake" in my call document. A "mistake." Now, we Lutherans speak of the call document (a.k.a. The Divine Call) in hushed tones. The Call comes from the Holy Spirit, and is somewhat on par with when the College of Cardinals elects a new pope. But in my case, the Holy Ghost apparently just plain screwed up. Actually, someone in his office probably did. I'm sure it was an angelic oversight, probably a seraphic trainee or a cherubic office temp filling in for someone in the Heavenly Bureaucracy - for of course, the Holy Spirit (like school administrations) doesn't make mistakes (only He really doesn't make mistakes...). But there it was: a "clerical error" of divine proportions - signed by the call committee, the principal, and even the District President himself!

In order to keep the family on the Concordia Plan, my share of the payment was going to be more than a thousand dollars a month! However, to be fair, the school decided to change health plans at the beginning of the year, which would bring my payment down to a mere $750 a month.

There was no way to afford the Concordia Plan. I could not opt out of Concordia for myself, but I did have the option to remove Grace and Leo-to-be.

So, it seems that Pastor Beane's, er, I mean Larry's wife and unborn kid were on their own for health insurance. What to do? I suppose Grace having an abortion and getting a job would be the obvious solution in the non-Christian realms. Or perhaps Grace could take Leo and move back to Canada for a while (they are both citizens and entitled to health care). We didn't like either of those choices ("I could order the devil, but then again, the deep blue sea might be nice with the wine..."). So the obvious answer is a PTJ for PB: a Part Time Job for Pastor Beane. Once Leo was born, I purchased a health care plan for him and my wife. In order to pay for it, I had to go to work.

And that's where my connection to Hollywood began.

I began to employ my "full court press" method of job-hunting. I began to visit the store every day to ask for a job. I took my cue from the woman in Luke 18:5 who pesters the judge until she is heard. It didn't take long, and Chris, the 20-something store manager gave me a job. I am grateful to him to this day.

Obviously, it's not every day that a 41 year old clergyman is hired to hawk videos and DVDs. My co-workers (and bosses) were almost all high school and college kids. I can imagine their first impression on learning that a pastor their parents' age would be working with them. Yuck! Well, if they had any resentment, they covered it up well. In fact, the level of respect for myself as a person and for the office of the ministry which I held was remarkable.

One co-worker had a real problem addressing me by my first name. She was a Roman Catholic, and had a higher view of the office of the Lutheran pastor than some of my co-workers at the Lutheran high school (most of them did treat my office with respect). For the first couple weeks of my employment, she called me "Father Beane." Some customers thought it strange that Hollywood Video had a priest working the counter - until I explained that I was a campus pastor and high school teacher, and I needed the money to pay for health insurance. A lot of people struggle with health care costs, and they understood.

Eventually, Dee did manage to address me by my first name - which was just fine by me. We all got along really well. In fact, I had a blast. I doubt that my co-workers expected me to have a sense of humor - and I cracked them up all the time. I considered it my job to entertain the troops. In addition to Dee, I worked with Walter, Kelly, Kevin, Josh, Kristina, and sometimes Chris the boss-man. Since I had to be there, I was determined to make it a fun and interesting experience. I really came to have a lot of affection for my co-workers. And of course any time someone had a question regarding the Christian faith, I was the go-to guy.

It was a real eye-opener to be a 40-something guy working at a minimum-wage job. Most people had no clue that I had a master's degree and was a called and ordained pastor and high school teacher. All they saw was a middle-aged loser renting videos. Some people looked down on me, and others used language that they might not have used were I wearing ecclesiastical garb (indeed, a lot of people had trouble pronouncing "Meet the Fockers"). On the other hand, many of my customers were kind, respectful, interesting, and a delight to speak with.

It was a valuable experience for me in observing (once again) human nature from the point of view of someone not wearing a clerical collar. I would rather have had my family time - but the store is close enough to home that Grace and Leo came to see me often. As a bonus, we got free movie rentals - not a small perq when one has a small infant. We saw a lot of movies in that time. Maybe I really am Father Hollywood now after all!

The irony of it all still amazes me. God's sense of humor never disappoints. My ministry at a Christian school was miserable (though it certainly had its rewards). My office was not respected. My "divine call" was changed several times. I was given a disciplinary write up for simply doing what the Lord called me to do. The atmosphere was so venomous that two churches withdrew from the high school association because of the situation.

By contrast, my part time minimum wage job at a store named after a city that personifies sin and self-indulgence - was pleasant. I was treated fairly by my employer and I was respected by my co-workers. In other words, the high school was a terribly unchristian atmosphere, while Hollywood was more along the lines of the way a Christian employer should function.

There were other ironies. Some of my high school kids came in an rented videos and DVDs from me. They never ratted me out. The faculty never knew until two of my co-workers came in one Friday to rent a movie. They were utterly shocked to see the their campus pastor (whom they had rarely seen without a black shirt) standing there with purple shirt and yellow name tag that said: "LARRY" working a cash register and putting returned videos on the shelf.

I really expected the administration to find out about it and fire me. They eventually did fire me, but they never mentioned working at Hollywood as a reason. I was canned with one day left in the school year. I was left with two weeks pay - and a dependant wife, infant son, and mortgage. It wasn't a total shock. Two weeks before meeting Donald Trump in the boardroom, my impending termination was leaked to my students. Very professional, eh what?

I'm tempted to advise people not to work for Christians. Stick with the heathens - at least they respect a contract more than the Lutherans regard a call document. But I won't go that far. For the Lord always provides. Several area churches (especially Salem, Mt. Olive, Faith, Gloria Dei, St. Matthew, and Redeemer) kept me active in the ministry by inviting me to preach, teach Bible classes, and officiate at the Divine Services. Furthermore, after I was fired from the high school, I left Hollywood and went to work as a full-time software consultant for a man I truly admire, an elder at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church: Ramsey Skipper. It was a privilege to work for him and with him. His taking a risk and hiring me allowed me to provide for my family - for which we are all grateful - as we are to God Almighty for his abundant grace and mercy.

After summer was over, I was called back into the holy ministry and teaching profession full time by my current congregation: Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church and School.

Salem has taken extremely good care of me, my wife, and my son. They pay me what I'm supposed to be paid, they cover my insurance, and all of my co-workers respect the office of the ministry. We are loved by the parishioners here, and we love them in return. They stuck their necks out for us when things looked pretty grim. If it is the will of God, this will be my last call. I would like to serve the sinner/saints of Salem until I'm too old to hobble up the stairs of her grand marble pulpit.

Having said that, I have something to fall back on. My friends at Hollywood tell me again and again that I'm still in the computer, and should I ever want to come back to work, the door is open. Heck, they've even gone to an all black uniform! So who knows? If another hurricane hits us and renders it impossible for Salem to pay my salary (God forbid!), I know I can always go back to work at Hollywood on the weekends.

For a man supporting a family, it doesn't pay much, but it's honest work. And, the people respect the office of the holy ministry and actually behave like Christians in the way they treat one another. That, and free videos.

And I must confess, part of me felt it the work of God that hurricane Katrina blew away the local Blockbuster...

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Sermon: Laetare (Lent 4)

26 March 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: John 6:1-15 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

There’s an old Latin saying: “Vox populi, vox Dei,” the voice of the people is the voice of God.

This is something we Americans really take to heart. We boast about our democracy, and our elections are almost sacred happenings. Indeed, in our Declaration of Independence (a document treated with the utmost reverence bordering on worship), Thomas Jefferson tells us that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are our God-given inalienable rights, and that to secure these rights, we have a God-given right to overthrow the government – but only if this is the desire of “the people.”

There is much wisdom in Jefferson’s document, and the right of the people to vote has been a good thing. But does it follow that the voice of the people is the voice of God?

In our Old Testament lesson, the people were, as usual, grumbling against Moses. Look how fickle public opinion is! When they were in Egypt, they groaned against their yoke of slavery. And once liberated, they groaned against the burden of freedom – having to work to eat. They complain to Moses. This is shortly after God saved the children of Israel by opening the Red Sea to them as an evacuation route, and drowning the army of their enemy. With very short memories, they now tell Moses they would rather have died than live hungry in the desert. Had the Israelites had a right to vote, Moses would have been recalled. At very least, he would not have won his party’s nomination in the primary.

And yet, God does not oust Moses. Rather he gives the people that which they don’t deserve – he rains bread from heaven upon them. He preserves them by giving them literally their “daily bread.” Of course, the children of Israel would later complain against God’s generosity by wishing they had more variety in their free meals. Very little has changed among large numbers of evacuees over the centuries.

In our Gospel reading, God provides a New and Greater bread, a living bread from heaven: Jesus. Having given the people signs and wonders, Jesus has developed a following. While some understood the sign: “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world,” referring to the Prophet promised by Moses, others, however, have become more interested in the signs than that which the sign points them to. They seek Jesus not for salvation, not for forgiveness of their sins, not for reconciliation with God, but rather for free food and health care. The people seek to make him a king. The people have spoken: “vox populi…”

At this point, Jesus would be the envy of every politician running for office. His poll numbers are strong, he has momentum, and he’s proven he can deliver on his promises. The politicians in the synod and district would be thrilled with Jesus – look how many numbers he can rack up on the Ablaze website! Can you imagine how happy the Missions Board would be with Jesus right now? He has hit on a successful evangelism program.

All Jesus has to do is ride the “vox populi” to his throne. But what does he do? He goes to the mountains and shuns the voice of the people. For Jesus understands that presidents and prime ministers are elected by the voice of the people – but unless we’re talking about some Mardi Gras krewes, kings are not elected. The king is who he is by virtue of his birth, by virtue of his person – regardless of the “vox populi.”

The voice of the people is not necessarily the voice of God – since “we the people” are also “we poor miserable sinners.” There is only one Person whose voice is divine, and that is the voice of Jesus. Maybe we should say: “Vox Jesu, vox Dei.” That really makes more sense, doesn’t it? Jesus is God, public opinion is not.

Public opinion drives us to adopt wrong-headed priorities. We want so badly to fit in that we’ll become poor stewards by wasting money in order to “keep up with the Joneses.” Young people live in constant fear of not living up to the “vox populi” of their peers, to the point of paying a lot of money for clothes that don’t fit – pants that are so big that they have to waddle around like ducks with one hand holding them up – all the while, rich corporate executives in three-piece suits who own the clothing companies laugh all the way to the bank. The entire fashion industry is based on convincing us that we need to buy new clothes every year, if not every season, since that’s what’s “in” – “vox populi.”

Christians are certainly not immune to getting caught up in “vox populi.” We try hard to blend in with the world. We dare not be a square peg in a round hole. The Christian world is awash in polls and focus groups, trying to conform itself to “vox populi” from the kind of music sung in church to the way the sanctuaries are designed. Indeed, public opinion is the voice of God when it comes to the megachurch and the Christian bookstore.

This is why we have such a struggle in our church body with open communion. The “vox populi” of our times says we need to be open minded, we need to be inclusive, we need to be welcoming, we need to do what is popular and avoid what will upset the false God whose name is “populus.”

And when a faithful pastor cuts against the grain and preaches the Gospel, placing unrepentant sinners under discipline, refusing to open his church’s altar to people who shouldn’t commune just because that would be the popular and easy way out – the “vox populi” can become a tool of Satan. Such a congregation can simply reject the pastor God has given them by a show of hands, putting their faith in the buildings and political wrangling instead of putting their trust in the one the Lord provided them to give them the very Bread of Life. Indeed, how fortunate for us that the ministries of Moses and our Lord Himself were not subject to the “vox populi” of a voters assembly.

“Vox populi” is such an American institution that we American Lutherans – even in the Missouri Synod – allow doctrinal issues to be settled by voting in a convention. This is how we end up with such unscriptural practices as lay ministers and praying with heathens. But indeed “vox populi” is not necessarily “vox Dei.” For we find the voice of God not in majorities, but in his Word, in his sacraments, in the gospel proclaimed by his pastors. We find the “vox Dei” when we are told our sins are forgiven, that we are eating the flesh and drinking the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The “vox Dei” doesn’t come from conventions and voting booths, but from altar, font, and pulpit.

The “vox Dei” doesn’t come from the people’s demands that Jesus be enthroned, nor the demands that Jesus be crucified. Rather the “vox Dei” sounds from the Crucified One: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do!” For this King was not destined to ride in a plush chariot, but rather a on rustic donkey. This King doesn’t wear golden laurels, but rather a thorny crown. This King doesn’t sit on a pompous throne, but rather a painful cross.

And thank God that his voice trumps the people’s voice. For if the voice of the people was truly the voice of God, that would mean that the people are God. “Vox populi, vox Dei,” as much as we like the sound of it, is really idolatry. We see this sin again and again in Scripture.

In fact, the expression “Vox populi, vox Dei” comes from a very different context. It was coined by the famous Christian teacher and advisor to Emperor Charlemagne back in the 8th century: a scholar named St. Alcuin. Alcuin certainly knew the Scriptures, and he advised Charlemagne: “And those people should not be listened to who keep saying, ‘The voice of the people [is] the voice of God,’ since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.”

For Alcuin understood original sin. The mob does not speak with the voice of God, only Jesus does. And thank God for it! For we are not saved from our sins, redeemed, and given eternal life - by the crowd. And thanks be to God that our Lord does not give in to the mobs to become an earthly king. For his kingdom is “not of this world.” And the bread he gives us isn’t merely food for this life, but is truly the “medicine of immortality.”

For in spite of our grumbling, our Lord gives us that which we don’t deserve – he rains bread from heaven upon us. He preserves us by giving us literally our “daily bread.” And he further gives us the Bread of Life, which is his flesh.

Let us come to where we may indeed hear the voice of God. Let us continue to surround ourselves in the Word of God! “Vox populi non est vox Dei. Sed, vox Jesu est vox Dei.” Let us gladly hear and learn that Word of Jesus, that Word of God, now, and unto eternity. Amen.

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

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Wednesday of Oculi (Mid-week)

22 March 2006 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: 2 Sam 18:1-21, 31-33

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Ever since the day, recorded in Genesis 3:15, when God promised mankind that a Seed, a descendant of Eve, would conquer the devil, mankind has hoped, and been disappointed. For Eve herself seemed to think the Savior was to be the son she would soon bear, a little boy named “Cain.” Far from being a giver of life and a conqueror of sin, he was to be a dealer in death and a casualty of sin.

Again and again in the Old Testament, we see sons – sons of Adam, sons of Abraham, sons of Isaac, sons of Jacob, sons of David – all sons of men, but none of whom turned out to be the Son of Man. But while all of these men fizzled, failed, and fell – Jesus does not. For all of these men reflect imperfectly who Jesus is and what he does. And unlike his ancestors, what does, he does perfectly.

David’s son Absolom on first glance looks like he may be the Messiah. He is a son of David, a royal prince of Israel, a warrior, a mighty physical specimen, who is described as “the flawless one.” Of course, Scripture makes it clear that the sacrificial Lamb of God was to be a flawless Son of David.

And indeed, we see Absolom die a death – one that appears on the surface to be a sacrificial death. He is certainly paying the price for sin. He is a son of David riding on a mule. And this mule transported Absolom to the tree on which he would be suspended “between heaven and earth.” And while Absolom was hanging on the tree, his heart was pierced by a spear. Absolom’s body was put into a tomb and sealed with stones. The death of this son of David was called “good news,” that is to say “gospel.” And his father was greatly moved by this death, grieving over his beloved son.

Indeed, there are many similarities here, pointers to Jesus, the fulfillment of all Scripture. And yet, there are two crucial differences. First, Absolom’s death was a sacrifice for his own sins, his own follies. Absolom murdered his brother in an act of revenge after two years of plotting. He was also in a state of rebellion against the kingly authority of his father. Second, Absolom did not rise from the dead.

But let’s compare Absolom, the so-named “flawless” son of David, to Jesus, the truly flawless Son of David.

Jesus rode into Jerusalem, David’s Royal City, on a donkey. This beast, which spoke the Word of God in the Old Testament, was transporting Jesus, the Word of God to his death, where he would be suspended on a tree, “between heaven and earth” as the Son of Man was “lifted up.” Jesus’ sacrificial death was not like Absolom’s – as he committed no sins, no follies. Jesus did not lash out in rage toward his sinful brother, no indeed! In fact, Jesus dies in the very place of his sinful brothers and sisters. Jesus is in no way in rebellion against his Father’s kingly authority, no indeed! For Jesus fulfills his Father’s will, faithful unto the cross, drinking the bitter cup of pain and death down to the dregs. Instead of committing rebellion, the ever-obedient Jesus dies for those who rebel against his Father.

When Jesus, the “Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world” is pierced in the heart by the spear, no ordinary blood and water flow from him. The Blood of Jesus cries out to God on our behalf, and the water from the side of Christ testifies of Holy Baptism, which cleanses us of our sins and makes us all sons and daughters of the King.

And unlike the pointless humiliating death of Absolom, the humiliating death of Jesus is the very act that conquers sin, death, and the devil. For in humbling himself, he takes on our nature – only without sin. And in dying for us, he takes on our punishment. And in rising for us, he blazes the trail of our own resurrection and conquest of death.

For contrary to that of Absolom, no stony grave was able to hold the true, flawless, royal, faithful Son of David. Unlike Absolom’s lifeless body that saw corruption, the body of Jesus came back to life. Unlike the rocks that covered Absolom’s grave, the stone that sealed the tomb of Jesus was rolled away, cast aside, unable to confine the Son of David from his beloved Church.

For the risen Christ appeared to many. The Son of David made himself known. The resurrected Lord Jesus breathed on his disciples and gave them the authority to forgive sins, to preach, baptize, and administer the Holy Supper in his name. And the living, flawless Son of David continues to come to us bodily in the Lord’s Supper in a way that Absolom does not.

And notice the reaction of the fathers. King David, the “man after God’s heart,” grieves for his son. In spite of his sinfulness, he loves him. He wishes he could have died in his place. But aside from his emotions, there is no getting around the fact that the death of Absolom is “good news.” For it assures the continued existence of the kingdom. After Absolom’s death. After the demise of Absolom, Israel experienced a time of peace. And the Seed promised way back in Genesis 3:15 is still in place, waiting for the fullness of time to appear, to the time of Jesus.

Similarly, God the Father grieves at the sacrifice of his beloved Son. And yet, this is the plan of salvation, that Jesus should die in our place. And the grief of the Father notwithstanding, there is no getting around the fact that the death of Jesus is “good news.” It is the Gospel. That day of death and mourning is known as “Good Friday.” For after Jesus’ death, a state of peace has been restored between God and man. For the Seed, the Son of David, indeed matured, and grew, and was to crush the serpent’s head at the hill known as the Skull.

In spite of the failure of the so-called “flawless” son of David, in spite of his sin and folly, in spite of his pointless death, in spite of the fact that his body never left its rocky tomb, we are in fact blessed by him. For in his own way, Absolom points us to a New and Greater Absolom, a truly flawless Son of David, one with no sin and no folly, one whose death was far from meaningless. In fact, the death of Jesus is the most meaningful event in history. And his resurrection is the greatest vindication in history.

For unlike Absolom, Jesus is no mere symbol, no pointer to something greater. No indeed! He is the greater, the greatest! He is the flawless one! For he is God in the flesh! He is the one whose sacrificial death is good news to all who believe.

Dear Christian friends, as we continue to journey through Lent, let us ponder anew the follies of Absolom, his rage, his plotting of evil, his destructiveness, his rejection of authority, his refusal to repent. Let us ponder the grief he caused his friends and family. And let us see ourselves – the very same sins we harbor, the very same destruction we deal out in our refusal to repent. Let us look upon the lifeless, spear-ridden body of Absolom, hanging shamefully from a tree. And let us ponder that entombed body covered with stones – and let us see in the fallen Absolom what ought to be our own deserved fate.

But let us also ponder our Lord, his patience, his gentleness, his refusal to fall into temptation, his obedience to his Father – even unto death on the cross. Let us ponder the crucified, spear-wounded body of Jesus hanging shamefully from a tree, and let us ponder the tomb – seeing to what end Jesus was willing to go in order to redeem us “poor miserable sinners.” And let us look toward Easter, where not even the grave could hold the body of the flawless Son of David. And there, let us ponder the fate that awaits us: everlasting life in the very presence of God.

Thanks be to the New and Greater Absolom, the flawless sacrificial Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Amen.

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

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Sermon: Oculi (Lent 3)

19 March 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 11:14-28 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis observed that when it comes to the Devil, there are two mistakes we can make. One is thinking too much about him, and the other is not thinking enough about him.

We see the first mistake when people become fascinated with the occult. Especially these days when our culture is pushing the New Age Movement and witchcraft – especially marketing it as “empowerment” for young women. If you take a look at the children’s and teenager section of one of the large bookstores, you might be shocked at what you’ll find.

For us, the second mistake is probably more common. We really don’t give the world of the “unseen,” (as we confess in the Nicene Creed) a whole lot of thought. We tend to think of exorcism as a strange ritual of the past, and may even fall into the trap of believing that when Scripture speaks of demonic possession it means nothing more than epilepsy or mental illness.

It used to be the custom of Lutherans to invite the pastor over to bless the home. This was traditionally done when a new home was bought, or if something horrific happened in our houses, or even just an annual visit. Such customs today may seem downright superstitious or quaint.

But let’s make no mistake, dear friends, there is a devil, there are demons, there is evil. And while we Christians have nothing to fear from the devil, being that he is held back from harming us, it is equally true that he lurks about like a lion seeking prey. We ought not make either of the mistakes Dr. Lewis points out.

In our Gospel reading, our Lord is casting out demons. And as usual, his critics get it wrong. They accuse him of exorcising demons by being a demon himself. Jesus points out the ridiculousness of this claim by a simple appeal to logic. The devil doesn’t cast out the devil.

Notice how Jesus says he is casting them out: by the “finger of God.” Isn’t this a curious expression? It appears twice in Scripture, in the book of Exodus. The first is in our Old Testament lesson. As the plagues are ravaging Egypt, Pharaoh’s helpless magicians tell the wicked king that “this is finger of God.” And later in Exodus, we are told that the stone tablets of the Law were engraved “by the finger of God.” In the first case, exercising his power to overcome evil, and in the second, God is making his Law known to man, so that evil might be exposed.

God’s finger both points out evil, and casts it out.

Jesus is likewise exercising divine power, and overpowering Satan by God’s Word. Remember our Lord’s temptation? What was his weapon to turn aside Satan’s darts and arrows? Holy Scripture, the very Word of God.

Jesus warns us about the need to be vigilant about our ancient enemy. For once an unclean spirit is cast out, if he gets the opportunity to return, he will do so – and it will be even worse next time. This is why the Church won’t baptize a child unless the parents are committed to teaching the child the catechism, the Word of God, and making sure the child is brought to God’s house. For baptism is truly a form of exorcism. Luther’s ancient baptismal rite (which is being restored in the new hymnal) begins with an exorcism: “Depart unclean spirit, and make way for the Holy Spirit.” It is not enough to baptize a child, only to have his tender faith starved by parents who deprive their son or daughter of God’s Word. In such a case, it is better not to put a target on the child’s back in the first place.

Some may find such talk about the forces of evil, unclean spirits, demons, and Satan to be the stuff of fairy tales. But dear brothers and sisters, evil is very real. All we have to do is look around us. All we have to do is look to our own flesh. All we have to do is observe that accidents and natural disasters occur, that sickness and disease are all around us, and that we all die.

A good deal of Jesus’ ministry involved battling unclean spirits – and his body, the Church, continues to wage this battle today. Indeed, exorcisms of possessed people are rare – but they do happen. Typically, the devil and his minions are more subtle, tempting us behind the scenes, working through our sinful flesh to drive a wedge between us and God, chipping away at the stone, gradually eating away at us until we are alienated from God and don’t even realize it.

So how do we fight an enemy we can’t see? Fortunately, “for us fights the Valiant One, whom God himself elected,” the Valiant One who has already defeated Satan at the cross, the Valiant One who calls us out of darkness and exorcises our unclean spirits at the baptismal font, the Valiant One whose sacrificed holy Flesh and Blood are given to us to sanctify us and fortify us against the crafts and assaults of the devil.

And this champion, our Lord Jesus, fights on our behalf by giving us his very Word, his holy scriptures, the Gospel proclaimed and preached by his ministers, the glorious gifts of absolution, baptism, and the Lord’ Supper. We come to this church week after week to be strengthened against the devils and to be equipped to resist them.

There is only one way to be safe from evil: to be with Jesus. Listen to our Lord’s preaching in our text: “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.” We gather with Jesus right here. And like the mute person who was gagged by the devil, when Jesus casts out our demons, our tongues are loosed, and we can thank and praise God for his gift. We can tell the marveling multitudes just who it is who has delivered us. We can also raise our voices and our fists at the devil, and curse him to hell in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Only in Christ can we obey St. Paul’s exortations in our epistle lesson. For notice that Paul says: “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” That was then, this is now! Our days of being imprisoned to Satan are over. We have been released from our shackles and led out of the dark prison into the glorious light of Christ!

And this blessing from God is for all of those who “hear the word of God and keep it.” For as the woman shouts to Jesus, his Mother Mary is truly blessed. She is blessed by the very presence of Jesus in her womb and at her breast. As the Blessed Virgin sang (and as the Church continues to sing): “All generations shall call me blessed.” Indeed, the Mother of God is blessed by her Son’s real physical presence in her body. And notice what our Lord says. This blessedness is not only for St. Mary, but “more than that,” it is for all of us as well. For Mary is a type, or a symbol, of the Church, and the Church is indeed the pure virginal mother who, as Luther teaches us in the Large Catechism, gives birth to every Christian.

We too are blessed, just like our Lord’s mother. For we too carry the Lord’s physical presence in our Body as we partake of the sacrament of Holy Communion. And we too carry the Lord in our breast, as the Word of God is preached into our ears and rests in our hearts – fulfilling King David’s ancient prayer: “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”

Dear brothers and sisters, if we abide in our Lord’s Word, no harm can come to us from the evil one. For nothing can snatch us from the hand of God, the fingers of which cast out demons and point us to where our salvation was won: the cross, and to where that salvation is distributed: the font, the pulpit, and the altar. “Though devils all the world should fill,” and no matter how persistent, crafty, sneaky, and hungry the old evil foe is, truly “they can harm us none.” For Satan is already defeated, “one little word can fell him.”

Having been liberated from all your sins by our Lord Jesus Christ, you are now free to surround yourself in his Word and to partake freely of his sacraments! You are now free to be imitators of God, free to walk in love, and free to walk as children of light.

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Amen.

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

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Sermon: Wednesday of Reminiscere (Lent 2 Midweek)

15 March 2006 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: 2 Sam 13:1-22

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

The script-writers in Hollywood have really missed out by not reading 2 Samuel 13! Why, here is a story line that could give Crash, Brokeback Mountain, and Transamerica a run for their money in terms of “left coast values.” Indeed, this chapter in the Bible is not what we would normally consider “family devotional reading.” In one chapter, we have incest, rape, and fratricide (that is, murder of a brother). We also have deceit, intrigue, and a family so dysfunctional that not even Dr. Phil would know what to do.

And this is in the Bible! This is the family of Jesus!

Yes, indeed, sin is always lurking about the family of the promised Messiah, as the devil tries to confound the ancestors of Jesus and snuff out the Christ centuries before his birth.

For this lurid and yet true story isn’t preserved for us by the Holy Spirit and read to us this day for the purpose of appealing to our base desires to hear filthy and violent stories. And yet, here it is.

This dreary chapter of Scripture is a gift from God, not only to warn us about sin, not only to assure us that even the most seemingly pious and holy family is plagued with scandal and shame – but most importantly, this chapter tells us about Jesus!

How can this be?

One of the titles of the Messiah is the Son of David. And just as all of the heroes of the Old Testament are dimly-drawn foreshadowings of the One to come, even the fallen in their own way point us to the Savior. For just as Jesus is a New and Greater Adam, a New and Greater Moses, a New and Greater Elijah, he is also a New and Greater Son of David.

The past two Wednesdays, we have learned how the sons of David were weak, fallen, sinful men – and yet their stories point us to the coming Son of David who would be without blemish, whose death would not be a result of his own sin or stupidity, but of his love for us who are sinful, stupid, and fallen.

Today’s reading is the same.

For David’s beloved firstborn son, Amnon, whose name means “the faithful one,” falls short in ways that Jesus does not. Amnon transgresses where the Law forbids him to go. He is tempted by his fleshly appetite, and he falls, he yields to Satan’s lure, and he is ensnared in its web. This is in sharp contrast to Jesus, the truly “Faithful One,” who would likewise be tempted by the fleshly appetite as he fasted in the desert – only he was to overcome that temptation by hurling the Word of God at Satan, thus entangling the devil in a web of the Faithful One’s making.

Whereas Amnon sins by seeing not a sister, but rather an object of lust, our Lord Jesus looks upon all Christians as his mother and brothers and sisters. Amnon has no regard for his father, who would be terribly hurt and scandalized by his family’s conduct, and the consequences of this horrific sin. But look at our Lord, who obeys his Father’s will, faithful even unto death, an act of reconciliation for all of the children of God. Amnon’s selfish act of lust divided and destroyed his family, whereas our Lord’s selfless act of love bound every baptized Christian together into a New and Greater family, a family connected not by a family tree, but rather by the Tree of Life!

Consider poor Tamar. She was entirely innocent. She didn’t entice Amnon. She didn’t seduce him. She resisted him, but was overcome by force. Listen to her pain as she pleads to her brother not to rape her: “Where could I take my shame?” Even though she is the innocent party, she will be tainted physically, psychologically, and spiritually by this act. She will likely be treated as an outcast. She weeps and wears ashes in her pain.

An innocent woman bears the shame and devastation of sin.

But consider another woman, the adulteress brought to Jesus, whom the priests were going to stone. She too had nowhere to take her shame – except perhaps to a painful death and a scorned grave. While not innocent, she was about to pay the ultimate penalty for her sin. But what does Jesus do? He shows mercy on her. He takes away her shame and her guilt. He places her sin onto his own body, and remits her sin. He tells her to go and sin no more.

Through the New and Greater Son of David, this woman, this “sister” of our Lord, though guilty, is relieved of her shame and the devastation of sin.

In the case of Amnon, Tamar, and Absolom, the effects of their sin ripple outward, intensifying, until more violence would erupt. Absolom (a son of David who is described as being “without blemish”) is filled with rage. He seeks revenge. In the remaining verses of this chapter (which are not part of this evening’s reading), two years pass, and Absolom tricks his father David into allowing Amnon to accompany him on a business trip. Absolom orders his servants to slay Amnon – David’s firstborn son.

David’s family is left in tatters. The firstborn is dead. Another beloved son is a murderer and on the lam (and he would later rebel against his father and would be found dead hanging in a tree and pierced with spears. But this is another son of David for another time.

But look at how Jesus is truly the Son of David, the “one without blemish.” If anyone had reason and justification for revenge, it would be Jesus. He was rejected by the religious experts of his own people, was deserted by his own followers, was betrayed by one of them, was permitted to be tortured by a cowardly Roman governor and an effeminate deviant puppet King of Judea. He was tortured amid a mob of his own people, all for sins he never committed. But does this New and Greater Absolom, the Son of David who is truly without blemish, lurk and wait for revenge? No indeed. Instead, he prays “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And while he too hangs in a tree, and is pierced by a spear, he is no rebel. In fact, he obeys his father’s will even to his own death. As the hymn proclaims, he is the “Lamb who goes uncomplaining forth.”

Of course, it’s easy for us to throw stones at David for being such a poor father in many ways, and to throw stones at Amnon for his selfish lust and violence, and to throw stones at Absolom for his vengefulness and rebellion, but we dare not, for as we pick up our stones, we can hear the Word of our Lord, the true firstborn, the true one without blemish, the true Son of David telling us that whichever one of us who is without sin may indeed cast the first one.

For we too are lustful, violent, vengeful, and rebellious. And while our sins and scandals may not be written down in the best selling book of all time, nor will they likely be read in public places three thousand years after the fact, we know of our own dark side. We know full well when we look into the mirror of David and his family, we see our selves looking back at us – and it isn’t pleasant.

Like the father of this dysfunctional family, we need a shepherd willing to proclaim law to us, to call us to repentance. Like David, we need to come to grips with the accusing finger of the Law that says: “you are the man.” We need to be willing to confront the Amnon and Absolom that lurks within us. We need to admit that we are as frail and wretched as they are, trapped in our sinful flesh, and without hope. Well, not really without hope. For the New and Greater Son of David rescues us just as he rescued the adulteress. And like King David, we can sing “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me!” And this, dear friends, is only because of the sacrificial death of the New and Greater Son of David.

Let us pray again and again, “Lord Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Let us again and again return to the font, where Jesus disarmed the stone-throwing devil. Let us hear the words of absolution that flow freely like the blood and water from Jesus’ side. Let us eat the flesh and drink the blood of the crucified and risen Son of David, so that his victory is our victory, his purity is our purity, his eternal life is our eternal life. Amen.

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

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Sermon: Reminiscere (Lent 2)

12 March 2006 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 15:21-28 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Sometimes Jesus shocks us with his behavior. Today is one of those days. Look at what he does and says in our Gospel text!

A woman asks for his help. She cries out to him the same way we did this morning: “Lord, have mercy! Christ, Son of David, have mercy!” She did everything right, didn’t she? She came to Jesus. She acknowledged who he was. She pleaded with him – not for herself, but for her daughter who was plagued by the very enemy of our Lord.

Of course, what we would expect is for Jesus to have compassion on her, and immediately give her the miracle. But what happened?

Jesus ignored her. The disciples wanted her to go away. Jesus explains that he was not sent to give her anything. He was sent for the children of Israel. Jesus is refusing to help her because of her ethnicity.

Jesus’ behavior is, to say the least, baffling. But it gets even better.

The poor, dejected, rejected half-breed woman, not a Roman, not a Jew, a person on the bottom of society’s totem pole, refuses to go away.

She is familiar enough with the Old Testament to know who Jesus is and what he can do for her. She walks right up to Jesus, refusing to allow the disciples to keep her from their Master, and she worshiped him. She worshiped him! You don’t worship rabbis and preachers. You don’t even worship prophets. You worship God. She obviously knew who he was. Maybe she knew from her recollections of the Old Testament – as her ancestors were likely Samaritans. Maybe she knew him by reputation. Perhaps even the demon that plagued her daughter told her. However she found out, she knew. She knew this was God in the flesh. She didn’t merely hope this was the One, she didn’t hedge her bet – she flat out worshiped the God-Man, and was so bold as to ask him for a favor. “Lord, help me” she pleads.

So what does Jesus do?

He calls her a dog. Can you think of anything more harsh to call a woman? Even in our language, to speak about a woman in canine terms is about the most rude, insulting, and nasty things a person can say. Fights get started with this kind of language. In the culture of Judaism, it’s an even worse insult – since dogs are creatures that are ceremonially unclean! Jesus is not only calling her a beast, he is telling her she is filthy, and not worthy to be in his presence. Jesus tells her: “It’s not good to take the children’s bread,” that is himself, the very Bread of Life, “and give it to the little dogs,” that is, the filthy, unworthy, unclean Gentiles.

At this point, one would expect a woman so insulted to slap Jesus across the face and say: “This is no way to treat a lady!” If this incident were to happen today, Jesus would be called a sexist, or a racist, or at the very least, would be made to attend sensitivity training. I’m sure the synod and district would be less than thrilled if pastors were to speak this way. Fortunately for Jesus, he is one preacher that can’t be put on restricted status or removed from potential call lists.

But how does this dear woman respond to this curious behavior?

First, let’s consider how she doesn’t respond. She doesn’t lash out. She doesn’t argue. She doesn’t turn on her heels and walk away. She doesn’t report him to the authorities. No indeed, she acknowledges that Jesus is right. She is unclean. She is unworthy. It is befitting for her to be spoken of as a dog.

But she also knows the promises of the Old Testament. She knows that the Bread of Life is not only for Israel. She knows that the Messiah is promised to be a blessing to all. She knows that through the Son of David, all the world will be blessed. She knows that he is the one who will crush the serpent’s head, the same serpent that is at this moment wrapping its malignant coils around the vulnerable body of her helpless daughter.

And she responds: “Yes, Lord.” She gives him her “Amen.” She acknowledges his assessment of her. In this “yes” she is saying the same thing as Jesus is saying, expressing agreement. The Latin word for saying the same thing is: “confessio.” She confesses not only her sins, but she also confesses her Lord! “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.”

Look at the magnificent faith she has! She knows Jesus is the Bread of Life. She knows life, salvation, healing, and the conquest over Satan come from eating this bread. She knows she is unworthy to come to the Master’s table to eat this divine Bread. And yet, she knows that by God’s grace, all of fallen creation, even the filthy dogs, have redemption through him. By consuming even the very crumbs of this bread, she can lay claim to the kingdom of God.

She has passed the test. Notice how Jesus blesses her: “O woman, great is your faith!” He answers her prayer by removing the demon from her daughter.

Jesus’ great praise for her faith is reminiscent of the reading a few weeks ago in which Jesus praises the faith of another Gentile, the centurion whose servant was sick. Jesus was astounded, and could not find such faith in Israel.

The faith of the Canaanite woman is especially a marvel – considering the treatment she received at the hands of our Lord and his disciples.

She was being tested, she was being confronted harshly by the Law, and her faith carried her through. Notice I did not say her self-confidence carried her through – for she was willing to be compared to a filthy, begging dog. Notice I did not say her self-professed love of Jesus carried her through – for she didn’t come with high fives and hugs and kisses, but rather she fell on her face in an act of submission and worship. Notice that I didn’t say her good works impressed the Lord and purchased her daughter’s healing – no indeed. Jesus doesn’t praise her works, but rather her “faith,” her belief – belief that refused to be shaken even when it looked for all the world like Jesus was rejecting her and treating her like trash.

Dear brothers and sisters, what a great example this unnamed saint is for us this Lenten season. When confronted by the Law, and confronted harshly, she offers up a “Yes, Lord.” When her prayers seemed to have been ignored, she responded by persistence and by going to Jesus in worship. When even the disciples, the ministers of the church seemed to offer no help, she continued to believe. She holds the Lord to his promises. Having confessed both the faith and her own sinful nature, she comes to the Master’s table to receive the Bread of Life. She believes in the Bread above all else. She knows she is worthy even in her unworthiness. She knows that even a crumb of the Bread of Life is enough to heal both body and soul, enough to conquer the devil, enough to make a dog worthy to eat at the table with the Master.

Yes, indeed, what great faith she has!

And this, dear friends, is the same faith that we have when we confess our sins with a hearty “Yes, Lord” and “Amen” when confronted with the Law. This is the same faith we have when we confess who Jesus is in the Creed. This is the same faith we have when we come to the Master’s table and eat the Bread of Life, and drink his Blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.

This faith was won for you when the Lord, the Son of David conquered the very prince of demons when he defeated him on the cross. And that faith is given to you here, as his Word is proclaimed.

This kind of faith is not positive thinking, not “name it and claim it,” nor the “prosperity gospel” type of faith. Nor is it faith in ourselves, our works, our good intentions, our knowledge, or our worthiness. This kind of faith can’t be bought or sold (whether by medieval indulgences or the “seed of faith” offering to the TV preacher with his or her fancy cars and private jets). This kind of faith is given to you as a gift, is imprinted on you at baptism, is implanted in your ear by the preached Word and in absolution, and is fed and nourished by the Body and Blood of Jesus at this table.

So, my fellow dirty dogs, those of us whose families are beaten about by the devil, and whose prayers seem to go unanswered, who unworthy as we are to eat the crumbs, let us by virtue of the faith the Lord gives us, feast on the Body and Blood of the very Bread of Life at the Master’s Table.

“Great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” Your sins are forgiven, and you are released from the bonds of the devil…

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