Sunday, April 30, 2006

Sermon: Misericordias Domini (Easter 3)

30 April 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: John 10:11-16 (Ezek 34:11-16; 1 Pet 2:21-25) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

All throughout Scripture, Old and New Testaments alike, God uses a metaphor. He speaks symbolically about his people, calling them sheep.

Some people are quick to read all sorts of things into this symbolism. How often do we hear devotions and sermons which speak of various qualities of sheep: they’re stupid, they’re slow, they’re nearsighted, they lack judgment, etc. But God is not using this symbolism to say any of these things about his beloved people. For indeed, we have been made above the animals, we’re made in God’s image. Jesus himself is called the Lamb of God, and far be it from us to claim our blessed Lord became stupid, slow, nearsighted, or lacking in judgment.

No, this metaphor of sheep has to do with vulnerability. Sheep face enemies much more powerful than they. Predators are constantly lurking to eat them. They survive by flocking, and by having shepherds protect them. And when Jesus took on human flesh, he did become vulnerable. He became subject to suffering, to temptation, and even to death.

And this, dear friends, is the point of the comparison. A sheep which gets lost, or wanders away, or thinks he doesn’t need the fellowship of the flock for safety is doomed. He is in danger. He is in harm’s way. A flock that has no shepherd to guide it to grassy pastures and cool waters and protect them from attacks will soon find itself in peril.

And so, what greater image of divine love and care, of nurture and protection, could there be than to picture us, the Church, as a flock of sheep, and our God himself as our “Shepherd and Overseer” of our souls, of the “good Shepherd” who lays down his life for the sheep, of the very Shepherd-God who seeks out the scattered and the lost to bring them to safety?

As our Old Testament lesson proclaims: “Indeed I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out.” God doesn’t move us like chess pieces with magical force. Rather he becomes incarnate, takes the shepherding staff in his human hand, and walks in our midst – protecting us from the predatory devil – and goes around the world drawing lost and scattered sheep into the safety of the fold.

He says: “I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and bring them to their own land.” The Lord gathers the lost and scattered, the sinful and fallen, the hopeless and mortal from every land and tribe and tongue, and he binds them into one people, protecting them from the evil one. There is safety in numbers, and our Good Shepherd gathers us and brings us home.

The Good Shepherd also feeds us! “I will feed them in good pasture… they shall lie down in a good fold and feed in rich pasture.” He provides our daily bread, and gives us the Passover Meal of the flesh and blood of the Lamb to eat. He fills the hungry with good things. He opens his hand and satisfies the desires of every living thing.

As the Psalmist writes, the Lord is our shepherd, and we lack nothing. He leads us beside still waters, living water, baptismal water – water that strengthens and nourishes the flock. He anoints us with oil, and our cups overflow – even as the Lord’s goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives.

And according to the shepherd-prophet Ezekiel in our Old Testament lesson, the Lord says: “I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick; but I will destroy the fat and the strong, and feed them in judgment.”

Part of the pastoral ministry of our Good Shepherd is to go out and seek the lost, the wandering, those who can be led back to the fold. But to those who are fat and strong, who rely on their own strength and material well-being, who feel no need to join the rest of the flock – they will be slaughtered and used for food. There is both evangelism and judgment in this passage.

For Jesus is the ultimate pastor, the Good Shepherd, the one who truly lays down his life for the sheep. He places himself physically between the predatory devil and the vulnerable flock. He stands at the gate of the sheepfold armed with his shepherd’s crook, ready to crush the serpent’s head, or repel the wolf, or even to beat back the roaring lion who lurks about seeking whom he may devour.

Jesus is the owner of all the sheep, and thus treats every sheep as his property. He does not die merely for a few hand-selected sheep, but rather is himself the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the entire world, of all sheep – even those who refuse the gift of what he offers.

The Good Shepherd is unlike the hired hand, who is only there to earn a wage, who at the first sign of trouble, cuts and runs. For as our Gospel text proclaims, the hireling “sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them.” Our Lord tells us that the hireling doesn’t care about the sheep, and thus, he is not willing to lay down his life for them. But Jesus is no hireling, but is the very Lamb who is slain for all the sins of the sheep. He is the one of whom he himself speaks when he says: “greater love has no-one than this, than to lay down his life for his friends.”

The Good Shepherd knows his sheep by name, just as surely as he knows the Father by name. And as Ezekiel prophecies, the Good Shepherd doesn’t merely lay down his life for this flock or that, but sees the entire world as his flock. He spreads his Gospel around the globe to draw in all sheep, to offer the safety of the sheepfold to everyone – even though there will be those who are fat and strong in their own self-image and imagination, who see no need for a Shepherd – and those will be destroyed.

St. Peter, speaking to all Christians in our epistle text, also employs this sheep and shepherd metaphor. This “first among equals” and leader of the apostles, the one whom Jesus first gives the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, the one whom Jesus three times tells him to “feed my sheep,” has this to say to us: “For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”

Dear Christian friends, we are not left to our own devices. We aren’t simply thrown out to fend for ourselves. Jesus himself pastors us, shepherds us, herds us into the safety of the churchly sheepfold. He places his own body in harm’s way, even to the point of death on the cross, in order to protect his beloved sheep. When we wander, he beckons us. When we lose our way, he is there to guide us back on the path. When we are injured, he binds up our wounds. When we hunger, he feeds us in green pastures. When we thirst, he gives us to drink of the still waters.

We never have to worry about whether our blessed Lord will flee from us. For he is no hireling. Jesus never received a paycheck for his shepherding duties, but in fact accepted the wages of our sin, which is death. Jesus never accepted wealth (though it was offered to him by the devil), but was rather himself sold for thirty pieces. Jesus is not the hired hand, but rather the owner of divine hands which bear the imprints of nails, hands which bless us, hands that shepherd us, hands that protect us, feed us, water us, and give us everlasting life.

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

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Entertainment is our Youth Program (encore)

[Note: this is a reprise of an earlier article which disappeared mysteriously. It won't be exactly the same, but I'll try to hit the same points. Some contents may have settled during shipping. Batteries not included...]

I just received my district newsletter from a former Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS) district in which I lived. The front page splash is:

District Youth Gathering Establishes Attendance Record

which is, of course, consistent with the districts' almost obsessive-compulsive focus on numbers. But the part that I found most poignant involved an assessment by a lady DCE (Director of Christian Education) who wrote:

Over-all the event scored another high approval rating from the participants, enjoying great Christian fellowship and excitement about the high energy worship celebrations led by our gathering band FUSEBOX and an awesome Servant Event.

Key words here include:

"Christian fellowship" - which doesn't mean fellowship in the biblical sense (koinonia - a sharing of Christian doctrine bound together in a sacramental communion), rather this is a euphemism for "having fun."

"excitement about the high energy worship celebrations" - which doesn't refer to the miracle of the forgiveness of sins when a pastor exercises his divine office, opening the gates of heaven unto eternity (boring!), nor does it mean the breathtaking miracle of the physical presence of our blessed Lord during the Sacrament of the Altar to bring us eternal life, salvation, and conquest over sin, death, and the devil (you've got to be kidding!). No, these adjectives refer to the entertainment quality of the rock band.

To paraphrase a beer commercial: "It's all about the entertainment."

This is what is front and center in our approach to bringing Christ and the Gospel to young people. Entertain them. Style over substance. Does FUSEBOX share our particular confessions of the Christian faith? It's a fair question, given that they led the hymnic portions of the Divine Services. On their website, they speak of "making a decision for Christ" - which is a common way of speaking for many Protestants, but is not the way we Lutherans describe the divine operation of grace.

In fact, we speak of grace as "divine monergism" - a work (energy) that is done only (mono) for us by God (divine). The lady DCE is not using the word "energy" to describe the miraculous work of a gracious God for unworthy sinners. No, once again, she's talking about the entertainment factor of the rock band.

Now, please don't get the idea that Father Hollywood does not approve of fun and loud music. Far from it. "Back in the day," my friends and I were "regulars" in the heavy metal bars in Akron, Ohio. Our friends in the local band U.S. Metal used to enjoy having us hop on stage to sing Kiss and Judas Priest songs with them (as a side note, the band's lead singer went on to actually become Judas Priest's lead singer - I considered showing up at their Fort Wayne show in my clerical collar when I was a seminarian - get it? Priest? Anyway, I didn't go. I probably had too much homework and not enough money...).

My friends and I listened to the old classic rock from the 60s and 70s, and spent all our money on concerts and albums of our favorite "mullet rock" bands from the 80s: Cinderella, Poison, Whitesnake, Led Zeppelin, Warrant (who also came from Akron), the Kinks, AC/DC, Def Leppard, Steppenwolf, Dokken (who?), Aerosmith, Triumph, Rush, Alice Cooper (who is today a Christian), Van Halen, Metallica, the Who, the Stones, Quiet Riot, Pink Floyd, Twisted Sister, Black Sabbath (with and without Ozzy), Deep Purple, etc. etc.

I still love the old rock classics, and there is a lot of newer stuff (I really enjoy Three Doors Down and Foo Fighters) that is worth cranking up nice and loud on the way to work (which, these days, means in the baby-seat-and air-bag-equipped super-safe-mini-van on my way to the church office).

On another side note, Mrs. Hollywood was also quite a headbanger in those days. She rode the tour bus with Iron Maiden, and was even backstage with Metallica (she brought her mother, a very proper former nun who is quite the Pink Floyd fan - and the pictures are priceless).

So, it's not the rock and roll I object to. But I do think "Christian rock" is a little like "lite beer." It's never really as good as what it tries to imitate. But more troublesome than the esthetic issue is the doctrinal issue. Most "contemporary Christian music" is at best very weak and banal theologically, and worse, is often downright heretical. Music is powerful, and the early Lutherans realized the ability of church hymnody to proclaim the Gospel. It's why the Lutheran Church is sometimes called the Singing Church. It's not for nothing that Johann Sebastian Bach was a Lutheran music director. Music used in worship is nothing to trifle with.

I became a Lutheran when I was at the very pinnacle of my rock and roll years - my teens and early twenties. I would come to church on Sunday on my motorcycle (which had a stereo with a tape deck) playing Motley Crue or the Who. I would take off my helmet, and my shoulder-length locks would fall out around my leather jacket. I loved Sunday mornings, because I would leave behind the old world and walk into a new world. We chanted the Mass from page 15, sang hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal led by a traditional choir and a medieval sounding pipe organ. The service was by no means a high liturgy, but it was a traditional liturgy. Reverent and ancient. There was no rock and roll to be found. It was wonderful. It transported me to heaven. This was not the concert hall, the basketball court, or my best friend's back yard.

Later on, a "contemporary" service was added, and it just sounded lame. I avoided it like the plague - which may have seemed odd to some folks.

After the traditional worship service was over, I would leave the holy sanctuary and return again to the secular world of the parking lot. I would put on my helmet, pray for divine protection, cross myself, put the Motley Crue tape back in, push the ignition button, and zoom off.

So, once again, I by no means gainsay rock and roll - but it has no place in divine worship. We do not go to Divine Services for entertainment.

This is what is missing in today's secular and ecclesiastical culture: contextual propriety. These days, what is considered acceptable in the locker-room is likewise seen as proper in the boardroom or classroom (even among politicians coming from religious services). The manner of speaking to one's friends in a bar is now considered equivalent to the way we speak in formal settings or to superiors. The way one dresses at a barbecue is now considered fine for Sunday church services. The manner of walking and carrying oneself while mowing grass is now considered proper as conduct in the sanctuary - even for altar boys and pastors. Music that is proper while washing one's car is now considered meet right and salutary in a worship setting.

We live in an age where people consider it acceptable to be wed in shorts or shod in flip-flops when invited to the White House.

The reason this is harmful to the church is that we now no longer confess the holiness of the physical space of the church sanctuary. Everything and every place have become ordinary and common - which is the definition of profane. The altar is merely a table - no need to reverence it. In fact, we can put stuff on it when it's not being used on Sunday. No reason to treat the chancel and sanctuary with any special respect - it's just a place where something merely ritualistic happens - God is everywhere, right? There is nothing holy, nothing set-apart, no other-worldliness about the nave of a church. Just who would want such a change in our church's culture? (Hmmm. Can't you just see the Church Lady from SNL cocking an eyebrow and asking that question? Could it be...?).

And in our zeal to bring young people to church we are willing to sacrifice the holiness of our altars upon another altar - the Altar of Entertainment. Being entertained is our new sacrament, rock musicians are our priests, and having fun is our new High Mass.

This what has led to abominations like having parts of the liturgy "rapped" and children hurling rolls of toilet paper as Holy Communion is being distributed at our national youth gatherings. No contextual propriety, no sense of the sacred, no realization that a miracle is happening, that God is physically present doing his saving work through Word and Sacrament. No, instead it's all about the 'high energy" entertainment. Like Jennifer Anniston's boss in Office Space said, "It's about fun." That about sums up 21st century American religion.

There truly are two opposite paradigms about worship operating in the world today - and it transcends confessions and denomination.

I think of this every time I give pastoral care to the sick and dying - as I did these past few weeks as a family patriarch faded away, finally leaving this life for the glory of heaven. In visiting this close-knit family, I was able to bring them the comfort of the Gospel and the assurance of the resurrection - not because I'm such a great and inspiring guy (I certainly am not), but because I brought them the Gospel. I vested in churchly garb, and we celebrated the Mass in the hospital. The family communed together, spoke the liturgy together, recited the creed together, confessed their sins together, prayed the Lord's Prayer together, and sang hymns together. And now, when they commune together on Sunday mornings, they do so with their unseen and yet still beloved husband, father, and grandfather who is now part of the Church Triumphant. What comfort! What peace!

Had they not had the liturgy to fall back on, what would I have had to offer them? Entertainment? A FUSEBOX song? Some jokes? Meaningless fluff-songs like "Shine, Jesus, Shine"? People who are dying (and their relatives who are suffering with them) don't need entertainment - they need the Word of God. You cannot get that only at the death bed. We prepare for the death bed every Sunday as we sing the liturgy. As the Psalmist writes: "O Lord open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise," the Lord Himself tells us what to say.

I do wonder what will pastors do a half century from now for the kids who are at LCMS youth gatherings today. For there will come a time when they will be on the death bed. Shall we sing them long-forgotten rock songs and do a little liturgical dance? Will they even know the liturgy? Will the pastors even know the liturgy? Will the church even have a liturgy? What we teach them today is all they will have then. Scary thought.

As I said, I still listen to rock and roll. But in church, I want (no, I need, I yearn for) something of substance, something deeper and more profound than shallow entertainment, something transcendent. There is nothing that proclaims the Gospel with more dignity, reverence, and clarity than Gregorian chant and sacred chorales. This kind of music isn't entertaining, but then again, Jesus never claimed to be David Lee Roth or Jay Leno.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Father Hollywood Recommends...

I'm a sucker for movies about the clergy. They usually aren't very good. Often they are laugh-out-loud bad - both in terms of the way the clergy are portrayed, as well as the obvious gaffes in sets and costumes. More often than not, the clergy are the bad guys, the Church is evil, the Christians are ignorant or violent, yada yada...

Or, you get the Exorcist wannabe movies, complete with cheesy special effects, goofy lines (often with botched Latin) and clerical garb that looks like it came from Toys R Us.

But every now and then, Hollywood puts out a flick that really gets the complexity of human nature, the struggles of those trying to remain faithful, the burden of the ministry, and the triumph of good over evil, of faith over disbelief, of the Church over the world, and of love over self-centeredness. Every once in a while, Hollywood (or in this case, Toronto) tells a story involving the church and the clergy in which Christians remain faithful in the midst of persecution - sometimes from their own superiors in the Church.

There is such a movie out now on DVD called The Confessor .

It's by no means a blockbuster. This is not a film that will be nominated for any awards. Christian Slater is the only actor I recognize, and he's hardly an "A list" star these days. Nevertheless, he did a believable and commendable job playing a Roman Catholic priest in the midst of a crisis of faith and loyalty. The other actors were likewise convincing for the most part, and the story - a murder mystery - moves along at a rapid clip, and held my interest up until the end.

This is a good movie to rent and watch on the small screen. Most of the reviews of the film range from mediocre to above average - however, I have to give it a B. Perhaps there are subtleties about the film that reflect a theology that just aren't going to be picked up by a general movie audience. The meat and potatoes of this movie isn't the murder mystery, but rather the theme of a clergyman who has lost his faith, and is struggling to find it again.

Slater plays Fr. Daniel Clemens, who does not serve in the parish ministry, but is rather a hotshot church bureaucrat. His fundraising skills land him a cushy district, er I mean, diocese job with credit cards, expensive tastes in champaign and apartment decor, and a Cadillac. He works closely with the district president, er I mean, bishop to look after the church's PR matters.

Life is going along smoothly for our flashy bureaucrat - until one of his colleagues in the ministry - a parish priest - finds himself on trial for murder. He maintains his innocence, but due to restrictions on revealing sins confessed to him, he cannot offer testimony to help himself - sort of along the lines of the Hitchcock movie I Confess (a truly great film). The church's bureaucracy is more concerned with PR and spin than actually helping the accused pastor. They can't believe he would actually guard the seal of the confessional, and attempt to make him break the seal for the sake of the church's image.

Daniel, however, becomes convinced of his colleague's innocence. He insists on taking over his colleague's parish - which places him into real ministry for the first time - actually doing the gritty work of preaching, saying Mass, and interacting with the flock. His belief in the accused priest's innocence and his subsequent shunning of fundraising in favor of Word and Sacrament ministry puts him at odds with the church brass. This results in his being ruthlessly fired - costing him his credit cards, car, and even his residence. The parish where Daniel was working is closed, and Daniel is threatened with being defrocked for his disloyalty.

The rest of the movie involves Daniel and a reporter (who turns out to be Daniel's ex-girlfriend) trying to get at the truth. The ending involves a twist in the plot somewhat reminiscent of "I Confess." The ending not only solves the murder mystery, but also brings resolution to Fr. Clemens' crisis of faith.

Like I said, this is no Oscar-winner, but it's a decent story told well. It does have value in exploring the ramifications of the confessional, of the price of serving the Lord in the parish vs. the more glamorous and lucrative world of church politics (in which the temptation to corruption and power is ever-looming).

I find much in this movie to be true to life. Mrs. Hollywood and I were pleasantly surprised and pleased at the treatment of the Holy Ministry in this film.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The annual re-crucifixion of our Lord

Every year at Easter, the ivory-tower world of the academy and tweedy liberal theologians attempt to "debunk" the "myth" of Jesus. This year, they're joined by ever-so-important Hollywood moguls. Such a strange obcession for "sophisticated" people who believe Christianity is nothing more than a fairy tale. Some of these "scholars" devote their entire lives to attempt to disprove what they claim to be a myth. "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

Check out this thoughtful article by Steven Greenhut, a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register.

There is only one explanation for the singling out of Christ and the Church for this kind of treatment. Think about it.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Sermon: Easter

16 April 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: Mark 16:1-8 (and Job 19:23-27, 1 Cor 5:6-8) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Since the ancient Enemy was not able to destroy Jesus, to crush the Church out of existence, to silence the proclamation of the Gospel, he relies on another strategy: the lie. One of the most dangerous of these Satanic lies looks rather innocent.

How often have we heard people explain that they believe in life after death, but when asked to explain, they tell you that they mean the spirit and not the body? Why is this bad?

Because it denies Easter and distorts the creation of the universe. Let me explain.

God created some creatures to be servants. They are called “angels” – and they have no bodies. They are pure spirits. But then God created other creatures – animals – creatures of flesh and blood into which he breathed his spirit, animated and brought to life. Finally, he created the pinnacle of creation – man. Mankind is like an angel – in that he is a spiritual being, but he is also like an animal – since he has flesh and blood. But man is something more: he was made in God’s image.

So, mankind is above both the animals and the angels.

Since we have physical bodies, we can physically touch one another. We can feel the warm sunshine and the cool breeze. We can move around in contact with God’s good earth, as our spirits are contained in these wonderful bodies. We can eat, we can see and hear, we can appreciate beauty. We can sing and enjoy music. Some of our race can even create things of beauty – reflecting the creativity of God in whose image we have been made.

The physical body is a glorious and good thing.

But how many times have you heard the big lie (from Christians and non-Christians alike) that Christianity hates the body, condemns pleasure, is against anything that feels or tastes good? How many times have you heard the charge that Christianity is against sexuality (which begs the question as to how more Christians are made…)?

How many times have you heard the lie (from Christians and non-Christians alike) that when we die, we cast off our bad old bodies in exchange for a better “spiritual” existence? Some even say we become angels. There is an underlying assumption that the spirit is good, and the body is bad.

Every false religion of the world teaches this. In fact, the Greek and Roman pagan religions taught it – and Christians were persecuted for denying it. The Eastern religions say that the goal of religion is to shed off the body and live as pure spirits. Science fiction likes to fantasize that human consciousness can exist in a computer program – without a fleshly body. The New Age religions claim we can transcend the limitations of our bodies with lucid dreaming, affirmations, and visualization.

None of this has anything to do with the Christian faith.

For in the Book of Genesis, God creates a physical world, and blesses it on each day of creation, calling it “good.” When the whole creation is complete, he calls it “very good.” He makes physical man, rather than the angels, in his image. He gives us the gifts of food, of our senses, of beauty, even sexuality – to be experienced physically – not merely talked about or imagined.

Now here is where the lie is so damaging: to promote the separation of man’s spirit from man’s body is to promote one thing only: death. If we hold that the physical is bad and must be gotten rid of, well, death fixes that, doesn’t it? Do you see how perverse this is? This false dichotomy between body and spirit is a diabolical lie of the worst sort. It is a damnable lie. And it is the linchpin of our culture of death.

How often do we hear such nonsense at funerals: “Uncle Bob will live on in our hearts,” “Aunt Mary will never die as long as we remember her.” “Bill may be gone, but his memory lives on.” All of these things make resurrection sound like it’s not a resurrection at all, but rather only the fact that we remember them. Isn’t that a clever way for the devil to get us to deny the resurrection of the body?

But what does the word of God say?

Job, who wishes “Oh, that my words were written! Oh, that they were inscribed in a book… engraved on a rock…” (yes, Job, ask and you shall receive!) testifies: “I know that my Redeemer lives… and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

In other words, it has been revealed to Job that we will be resurrected bodily, ourselves – not reincarnated over and over again, not separated from the flesh, not simply as some sort of ghostly or spiritual way. We won’t simply live on in the thoughts, memories, and hearts of those left behind. And this revelation has been written for all to read – according to Job’s prayer.

Why is this important?

Because Satan seeks to undermine God’s work. He wants us to undermine God’s creation as defective, that our imperfections are a design flaw rather than our own sin. He wants us to see death as a solution, and not as a consequence of our own failings. And once death is a “solution,” look at the “problems” it can fix. An “inconvenient” child can simply be “fixed” with abortion. An elderly person who is not dying, yet whose treatments are expensive, can be “fixed” by pulling the plug. A wife on a feeding tube whose life is an impediment to one’s desire to remarry can be “fixed” by exposing her to legal murder by dehydration and starvation – while all the world watches – some in sympathetic horror, others with demonic glee.

Indeed, the separation of the body from the spirit is death. It is ugly, unnatural, and waiting for all of us.

But does God leave us in this situation? Thanks be to God, he does not! For we know our Redeemer lives! We know he redeems us from our sins, and destroys death on our behalf. The reason we are here this morning is because we too know our Redeemer lives. He walked out of his tomb, angels told Mary Magdalene, who then told the apostles. And they were afraid. They knew something earth-shattering had happened. But they did not fear for long, because Jesus physically appeared to them. “By his death, he has destroyed death, and by his rising to life again, he has restored to us everlasting life.”

Jesus wasn’t merely doing a magic trick, or settling an old score with the devil. For in his victory is our victory. In his conquest of death, we are more than conquerors. In his resurrection, we too are born to everlasting life, through being born again by water and the Spirit. For we are both physical and spiritual creatures, and the Holy Spirit quickens us in the body by real, physical water at baptism.

Today is celebrated by the Christian Church as a “feast” day. In our liturgy, we sang “This is the Feast of Victory for our God.” St. Paul, in our epistle reading, implores us to “keep the feast” of Christ’s Passover sacrifice for us. What is a feast? It’s not merely a celebration, not only a time of joy. A feast is only a feast if we’re eating a meal! We humans can feast because we have bodies. The angels can’t feast. They don’t know the sheer pleasure of a glorious meal, the fellowship and contact of eating with others. They don’t know what it’s like to taste, to dine, to drink. They will never have that sheer pleasure that we humans have. Not even the former highest of angels, Lucifer, will ever have this pleasure that we take for granted every day of our lives.

Our eternal existence in heaven is described by Scripture as a feast that never ends. But one can’t feast without a body. This is why we Christians treat the dead with reverence and respect. A Christian’s body is a sacred relic, holy, sanctified by baptism and by eating and drinking the Lord’s body and blood.

And this is precisely how our risen Lord comes to us, becomes part of us, has physical contact with us – in this feast we call the Lord’s Supper. Our blessed Lord comes to us in a holy meal – not symbolically, not spiritually – but rather physically. Although we have corrupted our physical world with disobedience, though we misuse the gifts our Lord has given us, though we are mortal because of our sin – we have a physical Redeemer who physically restores us through being with us physically in physical elements of bread and wine – which are truly his physical body and blood.

Jesus re-consecrates and re-sanctifies the fallen world. He restores our fallen bodies. Anyone who claims the physical world is bad, that our bodies are something evil, that our spirits must get rid of, is telling you a diabolical, Satanic lie. For the Psalmist implores us to “taste and see that the Lord is good!” – even as Job tells us we shall see God in the flesh, with our eyes.

Jesus dies to take on our corruption and sin, to pay the penalty we deserve – and that is death, the removal of the body from the spirit. And since Jesus dies and pays that price, we have the promise of eternal life. Jesus distributes this newness, this restored body and soul, to us every time we gather in this holy, and yet very physical, place. You can’t get the benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection remotely. They can’t be sent to you as an e-mail attachment. You can’t watch it on TV. You get the benefits of our Lord’s sacrifice in the flesh – your flesh and his flesh, at the hands of a flesh-and-blood pastor.

My dear Christian brothers and sisters – we not only see the resurrected Jesus, we not only hear him speak – we, by virtue of his Holy Meal, this paschal feast, unite with him in flesh and blood, mingling his resurrected and perfect flesh with our mortal and sinful flesh. We are physically renewed and re-created by this supernatural encounter – an encounter we can see, smell, and taste.

“By his death, he has destroyed death, and by his rising to life again, he has restored to us everlasting life.”

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

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Sermon: Easter Vigil

16 April 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: John 20:1-18

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Victory has come in the most unlikely of all places: a tomb. The dead body of Jesus lies in a lonely, deserted, cold, stone vault. Tombs are dark, musty, clammy, and creepy places. Tombs are places we avoid. They are reminders of our own mortality, and they hardly bring us joy.

But this tomb is like none other. Number one – it’s empty. Number two, it’s empty because it’s occupant of his own divine power got up and walked out of it. Number three – this tomb is no longer a place of death, but is today a Christian Church, a place where the real and physical Jesus appears to all who join there, giving them eternal life.

In this day and age, all sorts of so-called scholars and moviemakers, and even some who call themselves clergymen – do not believe what St. John has testified, the account of the resurrection of Jesus and his empty tomb. Some will tell us that Jesus’ apostles stole the body in order to create a religion – a religion that would see all but one of them dead because of their belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Some will say Jesus faked his own death – a rather tricky thing to do with professional executioners and Roman soldiers everywhere. Still others claim that Jesus was never put into a tomb at all, that he simply died and the animals consumed him – which might be a good explanation were it not for the ancient empty tomb in Jerusalem – along with contemporary non-biblical accounts that explain that Jesus was in fact put into the tomb, and that he turned up missing on Sunday morning.

My favorite recent Jesus debunking came about a week ago. Some scholar figured out how Jesus did his water-walking trick. Simple. It was a cold winter that year, and Jesus simply walked on the ice – somehow fooling all of those people into thinking he was doing a miracle. You know, wouldn’t it be easier just to claim the whole story was made up rather than come up with stuff like this? But they can’t make that claim – for the evidence for Jesus and the truth of the Gospels is utterly overwhelming. So people who choose not to believe have to come up with some pretty silly explanations.

But look at what our texts point out: Mary Magdalene was the first person to see the risen Lord in the flesh. But it didn’t stop there. Jesus appeared numerous times to his disciples – leading them from being a terrified group huddled in the corner into a courageous band of preachers. And furthermore, Paul identifies some 500 eyewitnesses, who testify to the resurrection in spite of the fact that Christianity was persecuted by the Empire, and the Jewish synagogues would refuse to take care of those who confessed Jesus.

And the amount of historical and eyewitness evidence simply won’t convince people that it’s true. Jesus once said tongue in cheek, “Someone could even rise from the dead and confirm everything I’m saying, and some people still wouldn’t believe me.”

And there’s nothing I can say to make anyone here, or anywhere else, believe in Jesus. I could cite all sorts of historical evidence, and it wouldn’t matter. Some people will scoff, others will believe, and some will simply ignore the matter entirely and just click through 329 channels of satellite TV in a vain search for something interesting.

That makes my job as a preacher easy. All I have to do is proclaim the Gospel – and God takes over from there. The Word of God has power of its own, and it does amazing things – bringing people to belief, calling people to repentance, and teaching them to scoff at death and to no longer live in fear of their own graves.

Let me be blunt. A lot of you only come here once or twice a year. Maybe you believe all of this Jesus stuff, maybe not. Maybe you’re a life-long member of this church, maybe not. But here’s the deal: God has placed you here, right here and right now, because he wants you to hear this. You might as well listen. You are going to die. Every last one of you. The oldest and the youngest. Some of you will die in your sleep of old age, others will suffer long and painfully. Some will die of terrible accidents, and others will be crushed by disease. It’s going to happen.

Why does this happen? Even reason tells us we can’t exist only to die. There must be some explanation. If you’re inclined to believe the Scriptures, we brought this death thing on ourselves, by our sin, by our rebellion against God. By making ourselves a priority instead of serving him who gives us life – we are choosing the opposite of life. And as a result of our rebellion, we choose death over life, condemnation over salvation, we choose to be afraid of death rather than to destroy it.

How do we destroy death? How do we laugh at death?

Well, to be fair, we don’t destroy death. I just read to you how death was, in fact, conquered. Jesus took all of our death-producing sins to the cross, suffered for us, and defeated death by dying. And he further conquered death by coming back from the dead – in front of hundreds of people, causing even his enemies to scramble to explain it. Jesus has changed the world, and his Gospel continues to change the life of everyone who hears it.

Jesus is not only God, but also Man. Jesus is our champion. He has defeated death once and for all, for all of mankind. He has several ways in which he transmits this victory to you. Holy Baptism isn’t just a chance to see a baby and take pictures. It is a serious and cosmic event in which the person is welded to Jesus, so that his victory is ours. When God’s called and ordained pastors proclaim the Gospel, he works miracles into your ear to bring you to faith. When you confess your sins and the pastor absolves you, something supernatural happens. And as our risen victorious Lord has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the world, he is physically and bodily present here at this altar when we participate in the miracle of Holy Communion.

Just as when the Israelites were literally stuck between the devil and the deep Red Sea, God comes to the rescue. His prophet Moses snatches life from the jaws of death, and squeezes out a resounding victory when it looked for all the world like nothing was left to do but say goodbye and wait for the inevitable. And look at the joy that resulted from this victory over death! The Israelites were freed from their slavery, were released from their fear of the once-powerful and awesome Pharaoh, and they could point back in time at this episode as evidence of God’s grace and favor upon them.

In response, the children of Israel worship God, participate in his holy covenant, and listen to the Lord speak to them through his prophets and priests. What a joy to live day by day in this victory, surrounded by God’s holy angels to protect us and watch over us!

And look at what St. Paul tells us in the epistle reading. He tells his listeners that the Gospel that he himself preaches to them, saves them. It saves them from the chariot-mounted Pharaohs in their lives: from fear, the devil, doubt, and even death and hell itself. And what is this Gospel? Unfortunately, this word “Gospel” is often misunderstood. It’s not a style of music. It’s not simply a way to say that something is true. It’s not any generic good news. No, the Gospel is the Good News, the Good News that is being proclaimed and sung this morning – that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has died for us, rises for us, and lives for us.

Paul delivers to his listeners – which includes us who hear him preach through the Scriptures – that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures.” The risen Lord was seen by hundreds, and is believed today by billions.

All of our sins, our debts, our doubts, our frailties – have been abolished by the one Man who ever got up of his own accord and walked out of his grave. On this day, billions of people – Christians and non-Christians alike – around the world pause and remember. And in Christian Churches, more than mere remembrance happens – and even more than celebration happens. Every Sunday is a reunion between Jesus and his followers – and Easter is the highest celebration of the Gospel of the year.

So welcome to the Lord’s house! Welcome to the place where the Lord works miracles year-round!

And so, dear friends, if you want to laugh at death, come to this place – and more than once or twice a year. Come often for these miraculous means that our Lord established. For the strengthening of our faith, the forgiveness of sins, the power of the resurrection – are made available week in and week out. These gifts are expensive – for they cost our Lord Jesus his passion and death. But they cost you nothing. These gifts are freely distributed every week, every year, every century by the Church. And unlike FEMA money, these gifts literally have no end.

Obviously, Easter draws us here, to Jesus, to the church, to holy things, to thoughts about death and resurrection. And Easter happens not only once a year, but actually, 52 times a year. Every Sunday is another Easter, a commemoration and celebration of our Lord’s victory over sin, death, and the devil. I invite you to come back next Easter – that is to say, next Sunday! For every Sunday we proclaim the Easter Gospel, we hear his Easter Word preached, we eat and drink his holy Easter body and Easter blood, and we hear those precious Easter words that destroy death and recreate our unblemished relationship to God:

“I forgive you all your sins...

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

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Friday, April 14, 2006

Sermon: Good Friday

14 April 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: John 18:1-19:42

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

John’s account of the passion, crucifixion, and death of Jesus reads like a Greek tragedy. It has all the elements of a classical tale of betrayal, injustice, heroes and villains, drama, tension, a final conflict, and a tragic ending.

We, like the disciples of Jesus, perhaps feel a sense of loss and mourning – with the black paraments and drapery in our chancel, with the ending of our Gospel reading on a note of death and burial, of seeming defeat, of the hopes and dreams of an entire world shattered, with our battered and bloody Lord once and for all entombed and assigned to history as yet another dead hero.

Of course, we have historical hindsight to lead us out of our sadness. Unlike the disciples, we know how the story ends. We endure Good Friday knowing full well what is to be the day after tomorrow. For us, this recounting of the Gospel of Jesus is a rerun. And so we know our sadness is temporary. The pain we feel upon looking at the black drape over the statue of our blessed Lord on this altar is only a hint, just a taste, of the devastation the first followers of Jesus had on that original Black Friday, as the real Jesus lay in death’s strong bands.

But even knowing how the story ends, we linger here at the cross and tomb for a while. We meditate on our Lord’s five holy wounds, we ponder this sacred head now wounded, we sing of him who was stricken, smitten, and afflicted. We venerate the suffering servant Isaiah saw 700 years before Good Friday actually happened. We worship the one King David witnessed in his messianic vision a thousand years before the events happened as David relates them in the 22nd Psalm.

For we know Easter is meaningless without Good Friday. The Sunday lilies are not fragrant without the Friday stench of death. The joy of the first day of the week would be diminished without the most devastating of all Sabbaths – that Friday and Saturday in which the impossible happened – the day that God died.

For the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is held like a diamond by the setting of our Gospel reading. In fact, all of Scripture is like a beautiful case in which the diamond of Christ Crucified is mounted and displayed. This moment is where all of human history has led to, and it is the very event in history that leads to where we are now. The entire history of man is compressed into this the longest and darkest day in history.

Our Lord was betrayed by one of his best friends, denied by the leader of his students, abandoned by nearly every friend he had. Our Lord was illegally arrested by the phony religious authorities and sham priests – the very same people whom Jesus exposed for the liars and hypocrites they were. Jesus is bounced back and forth in kangaroo trials between Jewish and Roman authorities and convicted on testimony everyone knew was bogus. The conspiracy was universal. The same adoring crowds who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday have become a bloodthirsty mob, screaming like rabid dogs for the release of a terrorist. Pilate is in way over his head, trying to keep the emperor’s peace, even if it means a miscarriage of justice.

Pilate asks “What is Truth?” – a strange question indeed for a judge. If a person doesn’t know the difference between truth and falsehood, what right does such a person have to judicial robes? Pilate knows the truth about Jesus’ truthful claim to kingship, as he confesses it on the sign above Jesus’ head: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Pilate knows the truth of Jesus’ innocence – for he seeks to release him. Pilate knows full well what the truth is, as well as what the right thing to do is – and yet he doesn’t have the guts to do it.

The soldiers have a part to play. They may claim they are “just following orders” – but the testimony of Scripture is that at least some of them know the evil that they are carrying out in this execution.

Among all the cowardice and lying and ruthless politicking that leads to Jesus’ death, there are few heroes: Jesus’ faithful mother who stays with her gory and dying Son, John the Apostle who remains loyal at the foot of the cross and who takes in Jesus’ mother, Nicodemus, who provides spices for our Lord’s embalming, and Joseph of Arimathea, a Council member who courageously asks Pilate for the body of Jesus and donates his own tomb to the fallen Lord.

And this is where our narrative ends – at least for today. The ultimate act of cosmic injustice, a seeming rift in the Holy Trinity that seems to pit divine Father against divine Son. Religious and secular authorities with blood on their hands. A mob whose sympathies lie with a terrorist rather than a miracle worker, prophet, and messiah. Scattered and frightened disciples with no master.

It looks rather grim.

And yet it is all within the divine plan. What seems to be chaos is clearly orchestrated by God. What looks for all the world like an act of unspeakable hatred is in fact the greatest display of love in the history of the universe. What seems to be defeat for the Man of Sorrows, is in fact vindication of mankind, as one of our own human race has redeemed mankind and defeated the oldest enemy of God: Satan. What appears to be hopeless is in fact the greatest time of hope since the fall of Adam! The death of Jesus is not the end of the story, but only the beginning of the victory of Jesus, a victory won for all mankind.

For as the prophet has proclaimed anew to us tonight: “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…. He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed.”

The cosmic debt of all of us, payable only by our death and descent into hell – has been paid in full by the one whose “visage was marred more than any man.”

And what has the apostle yet again testified in our presence? “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, old things have passed away, behold all things have become new.” God has “reconciled himself us to himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” There was a method to the madness. There was a strategy in this greatest of all battles between good and evil. St. Paul sums it up: “For he made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”

In other words, even as the innocent Lord absorbs our sins – as well as the consequences for them, he transmits a newness, a cleanness, a righteousness to all of us. He swaps his obedience for our disobedience, his holiness for our corruption, his eternal life for our miserable mortality.

For only an act of injustice could save us. Justice would only see us condemned. What led to this injustice is our own sin – which should drive us to sorrow and repentance. Ultimately, the mobs and the authorities are not the only ones responsible for this greatest of all injustices – we are.

And so when we ponder the passion account of Jesus, any anger and outrage should be directed at ourselves. For we are the ones Jesus redeems by his cruel death. It’s only in this context that such a horrific day could be called “good.”

Dear Christians, never forget what your messiah has done for you. He not only died to pay for your sins, but has given you his righteousness through baptism, the preaching of the Gospel, the absolution of your sins, and the partaking of his stricken, smitten, and afflicted body and the blood that flowed in streamlets of love and gathered in pools of mercy at the base of the hill known as the Skull.

The price the Father was willing to pay for your redemption from slavery and salvation from death is impossible to express. It cost the very life of his incarnate Son. It took the worst miscarriage of justice in history to miscarry the justice that should have been visited upon you and me.

It is indeed a great mystery, how it is an act of sacrifice of the innocent Son of God can justify the guilty ungodly. It is a great mystery how death defeats death, and in weakness is the greatest of strength.

My dear brothers and sisters, ponder this mystery. Treasure it in your heart like the Lord’s Blessed Mother. Every time you look upon the crucifix, look at the injustice that saves you, the act of love that redeems you, the blood that pays your debt.

And when you return here triumphantly on the third day hence, the victory of the cross will be even sweeter, as it will give way to our Lord’s victory of life over death – a victory he gives to us at baptism. The Lord’s triumph over death will open the vault of heaven yet again as we join anew with the saints and angels and the Holy Triune God himself in proclaiming with joy and singing not only the paschal mystery, but the paschal victory.

Let us ponder this great mystery in the words of the ancient prayer: “By his death, he has destroyed death.” Amen.

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

Pope Takes Aim at our Satanic Society

The following article reminds me of an anecdote during the War Between the States. As the Confederate Army marched through Maryland, a couple Yankee ladies were watching the gray column marching through, led by the gallant General Lee on horseback. One woman said to the other: "Oh how I wish he were one of ours!"

Christians around the world should pray for Pope Benedict to have a long, long life, and that our presidents and bishops speak with such clarity and conviction.

The Church must be in the forefront of ethical dialogue in matters of life and morals, just as she was in the early days of the Roman Empire. As technology becomes more and more of a Frankenstein Monster, Christendom must stand up and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. The Church must also condemn the slide of our popular culture into evil, amorality, focus on the self, lovelessness, and death.

Pope Benedict is doing just that. He's going to make a lot of enemies - as paradoxically, all faithful Christians will.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Sermon: Maundy Thursday

13 April 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: 1 Cor 11:23-32 (Ex 12:1-14, John 13:1-15; 34-35) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

On Maundy Thursday, the day before his crucifixion, Jesus does something that would make any seminary professor gasp. Against all conventional wisdom, Jesus makes a sudden and radical change in the liturgy.

While in the preliminary rites of the celebration of the high holy liturgy of Passover, Jesus takes bread, gives thanks, and distributes it. But then he says something that had never before been said in the Divine Service: “Take, eat. This is my body.” He then takes a cup of wine, tells all of the disciples to drink from it, and says: “This cup is the new testament in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

And the world has never been the same.

Now, the last time Jesus spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, he upset people out so badly that a third of his followers turned on their heels, and left him. They thought he was some kind of a lunatic. In fairness, those who tell people to eat human flesh are generally not going to win friends and influence people. Furthermore, this talk of drinking blood was utterly horrifying to Jews who were forbidden to even eat meat that still had blood in it. Again, if Jesus had to take a course in pastoral practice, this kind of thing would not earn him a good grade. Indeed, it seems natural to frown on preachers who sound like cannibals and vampires. They tend not to be successful pastors. Jesus never was a very good example of a church growth preacher.

But then again, Jesus’ mission is different, isn’t it? He has not come to impress people with slick marketing campaigns, or to rack up big numbers on a website, or make people laugh, or teach people practical suggestions for living. Rather Jesus’ mission is to suffer and to die – and to do so in our place, for our sins, at the hands of the same sinful people he came to save – all in accordance with the will of his Father.

For Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the final Passover Lamb, the culmination of the thousands of sacrificial animals slain in history. He is the one sacrifice that the others pointed towards – including very first Passover recorded in our Old Testament lesson.

For we too eat the flesh of the Lamb without blemish, the one that was killed by the whole congregation of Israel as the Sabbath twilight approached. We eat of this Lamb in haste, for death is always lurking and brooding over us, even as the devil seeks to devour us. And we who are marked with this true Passover blood are saved from the angel of death that ravages the world with sin and decay. The deadly wages of sin (which we deserve) pass over us wanderers and pilgrims, even as we tromp through this worldly desert on our way to the Promised Land.

In our sojourn through this wilderness, our Lord provides for our daily needs, and this supernatural bread, this manna from heaven, strengthens us for the journey. In fact, St. Paul reminds us that this communion with the divine is nothing to take lightly. Life and death hinge on a worthy use of this great and mysterious gift, this medicine of immortality. Like the Ark of the Covenant, there is power, there is might, there is the very glory of God which we cover with a veil on the altar.

This is why we Christians are so reverent at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. We bow and genuflect. There is a hush in the church every time our Lord’s Words are intoned to bless and sanctify the bread and wine. We look upon the consecrated elements with awe, and we eat and drink them in the same grateful, even desperate way, that a man bitten by a deadly poisonous snake consumes the antidote. This sacrament is the most important thing in our lives. We come to this holy place week after week, kneeling, begging, and thanking God for this miracle of his divine mercy.

This miraculous Supper is the fulfillment of hundreds of generations of Israelites who robed themselves in the covenant. It is the true fountain of youth, the very medicine of immortality. It’s greater than the philosopher’s stone. And it is a breathtaking mystery that transcends space and time – for in this mystical meal, Jesus is literally and physically present on earth with us, and we are literally and physically present with Jesus in heaven, surrounded by the cloud of witnesses, the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. We cannot see them through the veil of space, time, and mortal flesh - but they surround us just the same. We commune not only with God most high, and with one another in this congregational family, but with all of our relatives and friends who have fallen asleep in the Lord. We eat and drink with saints and martyrs of every age, great and small, famous and unknown – in an unbroken chain from the apostles right down to those whom we have lost this past year. Together, we take part in the heavenly feast that has no end. In this sacrament, we slip into eternity, taking part in heaven itself, standing before the very throne of the living God!

Our senses observe only bread, wine, our fellow sinners, and this fallen world. But with the eyes of faith, opened by the Word of God, we see the underlying reality of the risen bodily Jesus, our fellow saints, and the magnificence of heaven.

But this miraculous, mystical meal isn’t here to dazzle us or to make us forget our physical selves. For just as Jesus came as a helpless baby, was a target of gossip and scorn for 33 years, and died as a condemned criminal, he continues to come to us today by humble means. Just as Jesus takes human flesh and becomes visible (even though his divine glory was veiled behind his human form), Jesus likewise takes the earthly forms of bread and wine, veiling his glory under simple fruits of the earth, created things that are common and ordinary.

Jesus comes to us as food, as something we can experience with our senses, as something to consume and make part of ourselves. Our eyes see the bread and wine, we feel the wafer on our tongue and the liquid poured into our mouths. We can, in the words of the Psalmist, “taste and see that the Lord is good,” we can smell the fruit of the vine and feel the burning sensation in our throats as our sins are purged away. Jesus gives himself to us in a physical and tangible way.

No-one has to tell a New Orleanian how sensual, and yet how spiritual, eating and drinking are. There is something almost sacred even in our ordinary meals – the sensation on the palate and the fellowship of those with whom we dine. Sitting down at table with someone is so much more than simply a process to put vitamins and minerals into our pie-holes so that we don’t starve to death. There is an intimacy, a communion, a celebration of life with every meal. In the wonder of creation, our Lord created food not merely to be a source of nourishment, but also source of life, of pleasure, of unbridled joy. And it was a lust for food that was our downfall – food that was forbidden. It was food we ate under the guise of a lie, of disobedience - food that brought us death.

But look how merciful our Lord is! Look how he undoes what we have done! For food, which once was our curse, is now our blessing. Though food once brought death, it now brings life! Food that destroyed fellowship with God now becomes a shared meal with God, a shared meal that reconciles us to God, a shared meal that is God.

Indeed, in sharing this holy meal with each other, we are bound in love. Not only the love of him who died for us, but also the love we Christians have for one another. For we eat together with those with whom we have fellowship. There is a visible unity between us who come to this rail, kneel beside one another, and eat and drink together.

Even as Jesus gave us this wondrous sacrament for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, he also gave us a command: to love each other. This love is borne out in service to one another, in binding ourselves to one another, in forgiveness and concord. This stands in opposition to the extreme individualism of our culture. It’s not unusual for each member of the family to have his or her own television, and for family members and church members to spend much of their time alone, or segregated in small groups – usually by age. Young people spend almost all of their time with their peers, even as the elderly are hidden away in nursing homes. How do we carry out our Lord’s commandment to love when we insist on being strangers to one another?

Sadly, our sinful nature has corrupted the gifts that the Lord has given us. Families often do not even eat together – too often choosing instead to wolf down convenient and individualized meals served on plastic, disposable dishware – instead of sitting down together to eat a family meal in common, instead of using vessels that convey a sense of dignity and importance. Far too often, rather than dining in unity, we fill our faces in acts of convenient individualism – and this thinking can even find its way to the Lord’s Supper. In our epistle reading, St. Paul complains about such flippant and self-centered thinking regarding the holy sacrament among the Corinthians.

The easiest sin to fall into in our culture is thinking everything is all about me. My choice. My preference. My comfort. My rights. My desires. I can segregate myself into my own little world and not care about anyone else.

But our Lord has given us a different way, a better way, a way that leads to life instead of death – and that is the way of love. Love seeks to serve others, to share, to partake of the common cup of both suffering and joy with our brothers and sisters, and even with those who hate us, even when it is inconvenient. Even when we must put our individuality on the back burner. For we are indeed one body, and we come together physically to partake of this meal. It’s a communion, not an individual preference.

Our Lord indeed jolted us out of our selfish and small thinking when he washed our feet and gave us his very body and blood to eat and drink. For Jesus didn’t merely change the ritual of Passover, he fulfilled it, he brought it to fruition. He is the true Passover feast, the Bread of Life, our hope, our Lord, our God, our Savior, our priest and our sacrifice. In his Supper, we partake of him. He pours his lifeblood into us, even as we are members of his holy body.

Thanks be to our Lord Jesus Christ! For even as he prepares for his passion: to be tried, tortured, and crucified, he takes this Holy Thursday to dine with us, to sit at table with us, and to give us the very finest and most expensive meal that God has to offer. He withholds nothing from us! He forgives us our sins, he purges away our self-centered individualism, and preserves and strengthens us unto life everlasting.

“In Him is salvation, life, and resurrection from the dead. By Him we are redeemed and set at liberty.” Amen.

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

Monday, April 10, 2006

More-on Bumper Stickers

Memo to the woman driving down Williams Blvd this morning who had the "Jesus is my Co-Pilot" bumper sticker...

First, just because you think Jesus is your co-pilot doesn't mean that he's going to take the wheel while you talk on the cell phone in traffic, and almost cause two accidents by swerving out of your lane twice.

Either Jesus really isn't your co-pilot, or Jesus is a lousy driver.

Memo to the witch commuting on I-10 Eastbound this morning...

We do get the point that you're a witch. The "my other car is a broom" sticker gets the point across - as do the other 22 bumper stickers plastered all over your non-broom vehicle. Sometimes brevity is the soul of wit.

Regarding the one that claims "obedient women are never remembered in history," there is some truth to this - and not just regarding women. Jeffrey Dahmer, Lee Harvey Oswald, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Chairman Mao, and Caligula are all examples of disobedient men who have been remembered in history. Indeed, a great way to get into a history book is to be a murderer, thug, dictator, or other disobedient type.

Most men (of both sexes) will never be written about in a history text - especially those who don't make headlines for cannibalism or mass murder. In fact, the best way not be be remembered in secular history books is, as the witch of I-10's bumper sticker proclaims, be obedient - especially to God's law. And indeed, our secular culture hates women. Femininity is discouraged, motherhood is mocked, maternal devotion to husband, family, and divine mandate is held in contempt. Law-abiding women who are obedient indeed, like their law-abiding obedient husbands, will likely never have an entry in Encyclopedia Brittanica.

But there is one genre of history where the bumper sticker is flat-out wrong: Church History. Indeed, if witches really want to find history books that honor womanhood and elevate femininity to the realm of the pedestal, one can study the history of the Christian Church. Read how womanhood is honored in Proverbs 31. Read the stories of great women in Scripture who, obedient to God, find themselves with an incorruptable crown of glory, not to mention being extolled in the best-selling book of all time. Indeed, the most adored woman of all time is the Blessed Virgin Mary - whose obedience and humility endears her to all Christians. She is a saint for all to love and emulate. She is the Mother of God. No man could ever claim such an honor.

In Church History you can read about great women, courageous and obedient women, faithful women, who have been canonized and made heroines to men and women alike. From the days of martyrdom in the Church at the hands of bloodthirsty pagan zealots, right up until the present, women continue to serve God as obedient nuns or as obedient wives and mothers.

Obedience and womanhood are not popular these days, except, for example, among traditional Christians - who hold both obedience and womanhood in the very highest esteem.

Too bad paganism, witchcraft, and the secular culture hate women and hold womanhood in contempt.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Sermon: Palmarum (Palm Sunday)

9 April 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 21:1-9; 27:11-54 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey.”

For centuries, the Old Testament Church, the daughter of Zion, heard these prophetic words proclaimed in the Temple and in the synagogue. It must have seemed so distant, so far away, so remote as to not even seem real – that is until they saw Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. St. John’s Gospel tells us the disciples didn’t realize the full impact of Jesus’ majestic ride into Jerusalem until after the resurrection.

But obviously there were lots of people who did get it. First, the multitudes who waved their palm branches to welcome Jesus to David’s Royal City. They get it. They see with their own eyes as Zechariah’s prophecy is fulfilled. For they shout the same greeting as their ancestors did a thousand years earlier as King Solomon took his throne. “Hosanna! God save the King!” And notice they cry out: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” – since they know Jesus is their true and rightful King. This is the true Son of David, the one who is destined to bring David’s eternal Kingdom to fruition. They get it.

The scribes and Pharisees, in spite of their stubbornness, also get it. They know exactly what this entrance on a donkey with palms and cries of “Hosanna” means. And it frightens them. They like their old king, their false king Herod, and their comfortable existence under Caesar and Pilate. They like their old priests, Annas and Caiphas. They like their old Temple made of stone. They like being the spiritual leaders of Israel – and they aren’t about to step aside as a new and greater Prophet, Priest, King, and Temple unseat them. They aren’t about to enter into a confrontation with the Romans over the nature of this new and greater King of the Jews. As the high priest profoundly said, it’s better for one man to die than all of the people.

The demons get it. All throughout Jesus’ ministry, they identified him as the Holy One, the very Son of God. Satan knows very well that this is the Seed who has come to destroy him, the One who is to crush the serpent’s head.

And this dramatic entrance into Jerusalem begins the final battle in the war between God and Satan.

But how different that battle was when compared to everything everyone expected! The disciples had not long before been arguing over who was going to get the best jobs in the Jesus administration. King Herod figured this Messiah was a threat to his puny and phony throne. The multitudes believed this meant the end of Roman occupation and a new day of political independence. And it seems like the devil himself was to be fooled, as he believed that killing Jesus would be a Satanic victory, when in fact, the death of Jesus on the cross was to be the devil’s defeat.

Isn’t it interesting that the same crowds who hailed their King with singing and palm branches and cries for his long life are the very same mob who less than a week later mocked their King with cursing and spit and demands for his crucifixion? For they really weren’t interested in God’s Kingdom, they wanted their own kingdom. They weren’t interested in a Kingdom “not of this world,” they liked the world just fine – along with their flesh and the devil. They didn’t want a savior, they wanted revenge against their oppressors.

Pilate is most confused. He sees an innocent Man on trial, who says nothing in his own defense. Pilate’s wife has been tormented by nightmares about it. He sees right through the sudden loyalty to Caesar displayed by the Jewish leaders – knowing full well they would have supported Jesus if he were a terrorist. But this Jesus is no terrorist. There is something about him that gives Pilate pause. Pilate wants to free him. He sees no threat to the government in this Man. He sees no crime this Man has committed. While convinced of Jesus’ innocence, in the end, Pilate caves in to the mob. Even so, he understands that this King’s Kingdom is “not of this world.” And Pilate confesses as much by making the sign above Jesus’ head read: “This is the King of the Jews.”

And while Jesus prays the Psalms and forgives his tormentors from the cross, the mobs continue to shout. No longer do they hail their King with Hosannas, with cries of “God save the King,” they now challenge their King to save himself. They claim he cannot. And they are right. He can not. I say he cannot not because Jesus lacks the power to come down from the cross, but rather he cannot come down, because that would allow the devil to win, it would prevent the salvation of all of us. Indeed, the people are right for the wrong reason when they say: “He saved others; himself he cannot save.”

Strange things happen as Jesus is on the cross. There are signs in the sky. The sun no longer gives its light for a period of three hours. There are earthquakes, and a resurrection of the dead. The temple curtain is ripped in two, and one of the mocking thieves on the cross miraculously comes to faith and is absolved of his sins by Jesus.

Even one of the guards, a centurion, a hardened officer in the Roman army, as well as his men – perhaps the very unit in charge of driving the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet, plunging the spear in his side, and mocking him on the way to Calvary – witness these things and confess: “Truly, this was the Son of God.” Christian tradition says this centurion converted to the Christian faith, and was himself martyred for confessing Jesus.

And so, dear Christian friends, we enter Holy Week with this narrative on our minds and lips, pondering the mystery of a different kind of Kingdom, and a different kind of King. Today we mark Palm Sunday while processing into this sanctuary while singing “Hosanna!” We joyfully mark the triumph of Jesus over evil, even as we know what this coronation means for our blessed Lord. For though we join the crowds of that first Palm Sunday singing “All Glory Laud and Honor” to our King, we also know that by our sins, by our rebellion, by our refusal to submit to God’s Kingdom, we daily join with the mobs at the cross, demanding our Lord’s crucifixion. We “poor, miserable sinners” also beat our Lord with a stick, crown him with thorns, and spit in his face every time we sin. We flog him, we crucify him, and we mock him hanging on the cross. His blood is indeed on us and on our children.

And thanks be to God for that!

For our Lord did refuse to save himself for the purpose of saving others. His holy blood that we have shed has become our salvation. His blood is on us and on our children – blood that atones for our sins. “Father forgive them. They know not what they do.” Jesus absolves us of all our sins, so that his blood is, for us, not a curse, but a treasure. His holy and perfect blood is infused into our anemic and dying blood. His perfect and incorruptible body is given to us to eat, even as we are made new and incorruptible in body and in soul.

Indeed, the Kingdom of God is unlike any other kingdom of the world. The King dies for us, gives us all of his wealth, then rises again from the dead, crowning us all as his co-regents who will reign forever. King Solomon at his mightiest was a pauper compared to this Son of David. The Roman Empire at its most glorious was a speck of dirt compared to this unworldly and eternal Kingdom.

And Satan, the chief of all the angels who took upon himself the desire to be greater than God, has been defeated once and for all by of all things, a lowly human being, who took the form of a slave, and came in our human likeness.

How humiliating for the once-greatest of all creation, Lucifer, to be humbled and defeated by one who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”

For every king of this world, there is only a short time of glory. In glorious Rome, we see emperors being murdered and replaced by cunning relatives – who are themselves killed off by other ambitious folk. We see constant warfare and rebellion. And in the end, every great king and emperor must succumb to death – often in great pain and humiliation.

But look at this different kind of King in his Kingdom not of this world. “God has also highly exalted him and given him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and those on earth, and those under the earth.” Every knee will bend before this King. Pilate will kneel before Jesus. Herod will kneel before Jesus. The mobs who mocked him will find themselves genuflecting before him, as will the priests, Pharisees, and scribes.

And so do we, dear Christians. But we genuflect in joy, as our King gives us his very flesh and blood. And it is our privilege to come to this holy place, this embassy of God’s Kingdom, every Sunday to “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey.”

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

Friday, April 07, 2006

Signs of the Times

There is a lot wrong with our culture when a ten year old girl is protesting against her school for the right to wear a mini-skirt with the blessing of her mother.

First is the disturbing sexualization of children. Why are little girls wearing mini-skirts to begin with? The mother pushes the responsibility off on retailers, reasoning that if these items are sold in stores, they must be decent clothing choices. Mom is allowing fashion designers and advertising executives to make parental choices for her. As a teacher, I'm often shocked at the kinds of movies young children are permitted to see, as well as the clothing they wear when not in their school uniforms. Teenagers, preteens, and even very little children wear shorts with writing on the buttocks - as though encouraging young boys (and perhaps even dirty old men) to stare at their behinds is something that needs additional encouragement.

Young children, especially girls, also mimic the sensuality of pop music stars - while parents find this "cute." Even something as wholesome as cheerleading by grade school girls sometimes raises eyebrows when it comes to dance moves and choices of music.

My students often walk around singing graphic rap lyrics - many of them probably blissfully unaware of the meanings. I wonder if their parents know - or even care - that their sons and daughters are being robbed of their childhood in this way. It's little wonder that there is an epidemic of teens and preteens engaging in sexual behavior. They're surrounded in it, immersed in it, with very little encouragement from role models for modesty, chastity, and good taste.

There is also an element of the diabolical in this matter with regard to a lack of respect of authority. Notice the almost sacred use of the word "choice." In our postmodern culture, all choices are equal. No-one has the right to criticize another's choice. Pregnant? Abortion is a choice. If you have the baby, breastfeeding and staying at home is one choice, but an equally acceptable choice is bottle feeding and going to work. Marrying across biological lines of sex (by the way, people don't have "gender," that's a grammatical term) is also a matter of choice. Hetero- or homo- are equally valid lifestyle options.

And so the little girl with the miniskirt is seem as a sort of Rosa Parks or Joan of Arc - a strong female figure fighting patriarchal injustice - instead of a spoiled child who needs to learn to obey those in authority. She obviously doesn't realize she is being made a pawn in the sexualization of children - and her mother apparently doesn't see it, or perhaps worse, doesn't care. She thinks it is good, right, and salutary to "stick it to the man" - even when the "man" is a godly authority trying to protect her from leering boys and perhaps even dangerous predators.

God established a hierarchy for our protection. He is highest authority, and mankind is below him. Within humanity, there is a pecking order: father, mother, children. And man has dominion over the animals and over the world. This is for our good. Submission to those above us is divinely mandated - unless, of course, the authority above us asks us to do something immoral or is overstepping its rightful authority.

This is why we have such Satanic chaos in our culture. God's authority is ignored, mocked, and shunned. Man sees himself in the place of God. Feminists buck against submission of women to men. The homosexual agenda wishes to muddle up the familial hierarchy (as do sexual predators of children, who confuse the God-given familial roles). The extreme animal-rights movement also bucks against the God-given hierarchy, trying to impose an equality of man and animal (some even arguing that man is inferior).

We see elements of this rebellion in the Church, where human reason strives for superiority over Scripture (instead of its God-given role as servant of Scripture). We find government seeking to dominate the Church - even though God has never given the state such rights (which led to the oppressive conditions in the Church of Sweden). We find laypeople bucking against the authority God has given His bishops - pushing for open communion, cohabitation, and adopting a hire-and-fire mentality regarding their pastors.

Our Missouri Synod finds itself in chaos as we don't have episcopal authority (having shunned it for congregational supremacy) - which leads to confusion in both doctrine and practice. On the other hand, we also have synod and districts abusing the authority they do have - with the result of bitter factions and divisions.

It will be interesting to see if the principal capitulates, and allows little girls to sport mini-skirts. What cannot be far behind will be little boys wishing to wear mini-skirts - with the blessings of their fathers.

Come, Lord Jesus.