Saturday, February 24, 2007

+ St. Polycarp of Smyrna, Bishop and Martyr +

Today is the Feast Day of St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. On February 23, 155 AD, Polycarp was martyred for refusing to burn incense to the Roman Emperor (and thus, he refused to recognize Caesar as a "god"). For this crime of "Atheism" he was burned alive at the age of 86, and courageously and faithfully went to his death as a witness to our Lord Jesus Christ, the apostles, and the holy catholic faith.

His was the first Christian martyrdom to be recorded outside of Scripture. His Epistle to the Philippians (ca 120 AD) is one of the earliest non-Biblical Christian writings. In this work, he quotes all four gospels as well as most of the corpus of the New Testament epistles. Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John, and was in turn the teacher of St. Irenaeus, the great bishop of Lyons who defended the incarnation of our Lord against the Gnostics and other heretics.

As our current culture is becoming increasingly intolerant of, and hostile toward, the Christian faith, the Rev. Dr. John Stephenson (general editor of the Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics series), has called St. Polycarp "the most pertinent figure of our time."

In 2002, a group of Lutheran pastors and laymen formed the Society of Saint Polycarp (SSP), a brotherhood bound together by subscription to a Rule that emphasizes daily liturgical prayer, the salutary use of the Holy Sacraments, and Catholic tradition - all within the context of those Christians, commonly called "Lutherans," who confess the Augsburg Confession (1530) and all the documents styled the Book of Concord (1580).

I currently serve as the Dean of the Society of St. Polycarp. If you are interested in more information about the SSP, please feel free to e-mail me at with any questions.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sermon: Ash Wednesday

21 February 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 6:1-21 (Joel 2:12-19; 2 Pet 1:2-11)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is warning us that we are in great peril.

We are being called to repentance for putting our trust in our possessions. We lay up treasures for ourselves on earth, although these possessions guarantee nothing. They can be swept away by storm surge, or by a tornado, or by a fire. Our wealth and riches mean nothing when we are diagnosed with cancer, or when our family members are in accidents, or people we love suddenly engage in self-destructive behavior.

Today we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. All of our earthly treasures will rot and decay. All of our accomplishments will be forgotten. We cannot buy happiness, not with money, not with reputation, not with self-esteem. In fact, on this day, we are reminded of how little cause we have of self-esteem at all.

We are indeed poor, miserable sinners. We offend God and neighbor numerous times every day – sometimes knowingly, other times we are too hardened and stupid to even see our own folly and sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. We justify our sins, we point the finger at others, we lie to cover up our misdeeds, and yet we are so quick to point out the transgressions of others. We focus on the Gospel even when what we need to hear at certain times in our lives is the Law.

So what are we to do? If we could stop sinning, we could simply do that, but we can’t. So if we can’t stop sinning, should we simply resign ourselves to hell? Should we turn our anger to a God who expects perfection from imperfect beings?

Hear the Word of the Lord, dear Christians! Listen to what our merciful Lord commands us to do!

“Turn to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” Fasting, dear Christians, is not simply a nice custom. Our Lord considers it to be an integral part of the Christian life of repentance and forgiveness. We must sever ourselves from the false gods we worship, our luxuries, our full bellies, the fulfillment of every whim. We are to meditate on our sins to the point where they become horrifying and grievous to us. We are to mourn because of our sins – and we can only do that by taking to time to ponder them, to allow the Law to do its work in beating us down.

We are indeed to take action: “Blow the trumpet in Zion. Consecrate a fast. Call a sacred assembly. Gather the people. Sanctify the congregation. Assemble the elders. Gather the children and nursing babies.” The people of God are to gather. We are to assemble in church, in a consecrated time of fasting. We cannot repent as individuals. Even the newborns, laden with sin, are to gather with the assembly to collectively repent and plead for God’s mercy. Nursing babes are called to seek nourishment at the breast of Mother Church.

“Let the priests, who minister to the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar; Let them say: ‘Spare your people, O Lord, and do not give your heritage to reproach.’” Pastors are to pray earnestly for their flocks, pleading for the Lord to show them mercy - and woe to them that shirk this responsibility.

Of course, doing all of these things, clergy and laity alike, will not atone for our sins. You can’t earn God’s mercy by impressing him. In fact, it’s actually the opposite. In acknowledging that we cannot impress God, in the realization that our own earthly treasures cannot help us, in owning up to our total dependence upon the grace and mercy of God – we are divesting ourselves of all of our false security.

Part of that divesting, part of that severance from self-delusion involves the three “whens” our Lord employs in our Gospel text: When we give alms, when we pray, and when we fast. For it is impossible to lead a Christian life without these things. To refuse to give to our fellow men in need is to embrace a false god and is evidence that we are not in a state of grace. If you never give to those in need, either with your time or your money, you are in grave peril. You must repent immediately!

Likewise, if you claim to be a Christian and yet never pray, you are not a Christian. Prayer is as natural and foundational to the Christian life as breathing is to the worldly life. If you go for days on end without praying, you are also in eternal peril. This is not child’s play. Satan is interposing himself between you and your Savior. If this is happening to you, now is the time to pray to God, asking him for grace to do better.

And likewise, if you never fast, you are in peril of falling into dependence on your own belly, your own riches, your own freedom of choice – rather than seeing every morsel of food as an unearned grace from God. Just as an athlete must train and watch his diet, so too must the Christian. Lent is a great time to deny ourselves, to prayerfully ponder just how ungrateful we typically are for all of God’s blessings, and to repent of our ingratitude.

Once again, dear Christian brothers and sisters, you cannot earn God’s favor by almsgiving, praying, and fasting. But by shunning these things, you are earning something else – a self-imposed separation from the merciful God who is pleading with you to return to Him. For He is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness.” He “relents from doing harm,” from repaying us with the wrath we deserve. For when we call upon the Lord seeking His mercy, he is eager to pour it out upon us abundantly: “Behold, I will send you grain and new wine and oil.” He blesses us with grains that become bread to be sanctified into His body, and new wine to be consecrated as his blood, as well as oil that heals and cleanses – just like the waters of Holy Baptism. The Lord is eager to shower mercy upon those who are contrite. But those who are not contrite do not truly give alms, pray, or fast.

In fact, the Pharisees made a great show to do all of these things in order to be praised by men. And they got just what they sought – but nothing more.

And what comfort we have in the words of St. Peter in our epistle for today: “Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” We have been gifted with all that we need to overcome our sins and false gods – gifted by virtue of the divine power of Jesus into whose name we are baptized! Only in this context do Peter’s words make any sense at all: “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things, you will never stumble, for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

“Supplied to you,” Peter says. Even your diligence, even your desire to give alms, pray, and fast are godly gifts. And notice Jesus is not invoked to simply pay you back what you’ve supposedly earned by being diligent. Rather St. Peter makes a point of using the title “Savior” for our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the rescuer, the champion, the one who gets it done on your behalf. If we could do it on our own, we’d have a paymaster, not a Savior.

So, my dear friends, when you give alms, when you pray, and when you fast, give glory to your crucified Savior who is merciful to you, who is eager to pour out his grace and forgiveness to you. He has done it all for you. And when you do sin, repent! Store up your treasure in heaven, and stop looking to yourself for salvation. “Rend your heart, and not your garments.” Take your sins seriously, and mourn over them. Come to this sanctuary, where the Lord may be found. Seek out absolution from the pastors the Lord has provided you by His mercy. And when you do repent, once more, give all glory to your Lord and Savior. For if you could repent of your own accord, by your own power, you would have no reason to thank Jesus. But we sinners have every reason to thank Him, serve Him, praise Him, and obey Him.

For we are indeed dust, and we shall return to dust. But we Christians return as sanctified dust. Our bodies have been made holy and set aside to rise on the last day, to be reunited with our spirits for eternity.

For our Lord and Savior has indeed “given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world.”

Let us unworthy sinners heed our Lord’s warnings, clinging to this promise. Even as we mourn over our sins, repent of them, and seek the Lord’s abundant mercy - today, this season of Lent, and all the days of this life under the cross. Amen.

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

Happy Mardi Gras, y'all!

A Blessed Mardi Gras to all Christians - whether or not y'all are in a position to celebrate this Christian holiday!

"Fat Tuesday" is the last day of feasting before Ash Wednesday. It is the pinnacle of the Carnival season (from the Latin for "Farewell to the Flesh" - referring to the preparation for Lenten fasting). Carnival begins on Epiphany (January 6) and concludes at midnight at the end of Mardi Gras.

This Mardi Gras has been very encouraging to New Orleanians. The numbers of people in the streets are way up over last year (though still below pre-Katrina levels). Contrary to what a lot of people believe, with the exception of the revelry in the French Quarter (which actually doesn't have any parades at all), Mardi Gras parades are family events, with children perched atop ladders (or in my case, Lion-Boy straddled across my now-aching shoulders) with hands extended crying: "Throw me somthin' mistah!" in expectation of being showered with beads, plastics cups, coins (not legal tender, of course), stuffed animals, and (most coveted by Leo) footballs. There are floats, marching bands, horseback riders, dancers, jazz bands, and lots of people in costume. Here's an article that sums it up nicely.

To say Mardi Gras is a big deal in New Orleans would be a classic understatement!

There are also a lot of ancient customs and pageantry that are very dear to New Orleanians. Kings and Queens are crowned (with the newspaper covering these events scrupulously). There are masquerade balls and fancy black-tie and gown affairs at a fevered pitch. Newscasters, some covered with beads and silly costumes are on the streets covering the action and joining in the celebrations. The front page of the newspaper is dominated by the likenesses of the newly-elected King and Queen of Carnival.

Needless to say, New Orleans and the surrounding areas completely shut down. In fact, most schools (ours included) are closed for the entire week.

In the typical hustle-bustle cookie-cutter American lifestyle in which people are overworked, overstressed, and lacking cultural cohesion, Carnival and Mardi Gras are a true blessing. The daily grind is temporarily halted. The crime rate (which has been dreadful in New Orleans) actually drops during the period leading up to Mardi Gras. Thousands of total strangers eat and drink together, children play together, people sing and dance in the streets, and share this common time of joy we have together. Smiles are everywhere.

It is fitting that we enjoy God's good creation in the time of this Christian festival, for the contrast makes for a more stark observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent. At precisely midnight tonight, the police will clear the streets in the French Quarter, and Carnival will abruptly end.

New Orleanians will be seen tomorrow with ashes on their foreheads. Fish will be served on Fridays in many establishments over the next six weeks. Churches will have special midweek services. The usual joie-de-vivre of New Orleans will be muted for these 40 days (Sundays excepted, of course), until our joy returns with the celebration of the Festival of our Lord's Resurrection.

Carnival provides New Orleanians with the opportunity to make distinctions in time according to the ancient rhythm of the church year. It is a shame that it is not observed everywhere. Perhaps liturgical Christian churches around the United States might start introducing "Fat Tuesday" as local Christian celebrations, along with emphasizing fasting and repentence during Lent.
But I'm getting ahead of myself! We still have nearly two more hours of Carnival and Mardi Gras left! I've posted some pictures of the parades that went by Salem Lutheran Church here, here, here, and here.
Laissez les bons temps rouler, mes chers!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sermon: Commemoration of Blessed Martin Luther

18 February 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 15:1-11 (Isa 55:6-11; Rom 10:5-17)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

By all accounts, Martin Luther was a great man. A truly great man. As secular a publication as Life magazine rated him the 3rd most important person of the past millennium. Given that our congregation has the name “Lutheran,” it’s no surprise that we hold him in great esteem as a Doctor of the Church. He died on this date in 1546, and as is the custom in honoring her departed saints, the Church celebrates today as his “heavenly birthday.”

Dr. Luther was a brilliant theologian, an expert scholar of Scripture, a world-class authority on Greek and Hebrew who also spoke fluent Latin. He was a man of profound integrity and courage who at the risk of his life, brought the Gospel of the mercy of God through Jesus Christ back to preeminence in Christian theology, both in the academy and in the congregation. He was a parish priest, professor, and guest lecturer; a devoted husband and doting father, a generous host and settler of disputes, a prolific author, a powerful preacher, an occasional cartoonist, a renowned translator, a gifted lute-player, and legendary hymn writer.

And yet, Luther’s greatest achievement was knowing how worthless all of these things are before God. Not a single one matters as a person draws his final breath in this life.

For there have been many great men, who, having been convinced of their own greatness, went on to self-destruct as prisoners of their own legends. But not Luther. For as bombastic and belligerent as he was, he knew where he stood before God – merely a filthy beggar. And this is Luther’s greatest gift to mankind. Not religious freedom, not the Bible and the Divine Service in the common language, not brilliant theological insight and discourse, but rather the simple reality of our unworthiness before God, and the undeserved rescue God does on our behalf in spite of our unworthiness.

Listen to Luther’s reaction when he learned that some in the movement to reform Roman Catholicism were being called “Lutherans”:

“We should not be called Lutherans but Christians. I was not crucified for anyone. St. Paul would not have it that Christians should call themselves Pauline, or Petrine, but Christians. How did it come about that I, poor, stinking bag of maggots should have the children of God called by my miserable name.”

As arrogant as Luther could get in the midst of debate with his opponents, he had no delusions of his own lack of merit before the Lord.

For what gives us life is not of our own doings, but we are merely branches of a great vine, as our Lord Himself testifies. We are connected to the vine by other branches, through which our nourishment comes. Like leaves on a plant, we are helpless on our own – no matter how glorious and green we may appear. We are connected by a thin lifeline that binds us to the Source of our life and our strength. “For without Me you can do nothing.” Anyone who severs himself from the vine invites death.

We Christians are to “abide” in Christ. We cling to Him. We hold on for dear life like a helpless leaf. And by virtue of this lifeline, a miracle happens – we “poor stinking bags of maggots” can, and do, bear fruit! We can indeed bear the fruits of good works in our lives for the sake of the Kingdom. By grace, through the faith that binds us to the True Vine, we are spared from being cast away, and we are made able to bear fruit pleasing to the Vinedresser.

Luther understood this.

The Church binds us to Christ, and to destroy that bond would be to invite death through starvation. The Church was in need of reform, not destruction. The Church was in need of pruning to bear fruit, not in being torn out by the roots as the radical element of the reformation sought to do.

This is why Luther never abandoned the Church, though she had become brown and shriveled, with very few good fruits to be found anywhere. Dr. Luther understood that Jesus brings gardens from deserts, and life from death. The only hope of a re-blossoming of the Church is spelled out in the Book of Isaiah which the good doctor knew so well: “For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”

The Word of God, the same Word of God through which all things were made, the Word that brought light from darkness, the Word that rose from the dead on the third day, was just as powerful in Luther's day in the 16th century as He was in the first century, as He was in Isaiah's time 7 centuries BC, is today, and ever shall be.

The Word of God was the only hope for a church that had fallen into error and compromise with the world, and yet remains the Church’s hope today.

Luther was only repeating St. Paul’s words “The Word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach).” Paul lays out just how life flows from Christ to the Christian, from the vine to the branches: “Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent.”

As brilliant and pious a man Dr. Luther was, his greatest strength was that he was a preacher of the Good News, a Servant of the Word, a steward of the mysteries of God, a minister in the priestly service of the Gospel. Of all the magnificent things he wrote, they are all worthless compared to the simple declaration found in our Liturgy, taken from the mouth of another preacher named John the Baptist: “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.”

Although we owe Luther a great debt for his role in the reformation of the Church, in the reclaiming of the light of the Gospel from the darkness of false doctrine and worldliness, and though we certainly agree with Life magazine that Luther was a pivotal figure in the history of the western world, and though we are grateful for the courage and fidelity of this great doctor of the Church - we understand where true greatness lies – in the Crucified One, into whose name we are baptized and by whose merits we are forgiven.

We are merely branches, struggling to stay green with life, and seemingly unable to produce fruit. But we imbibe nourishment and strength from the True Vine, as the grace of the gift of life seeps into our very cells, joining Christians from every time and place, along with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven as our individual branches extend down deep into the ground of Truth and reach upward toward the very heavens. By God’s grace, we have the promise of bearing much fruit for the Kingdom of God, grapes that are destined to become the sweet wine of the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb.

On our own inevitable and unavoidable “spiritual birthdays” when we will pass from this life, we, along with Luther in one of his last writings can, with great comfort and joy, assert: “We are beggars, this is true.” For we need not, and dare not, depend on our own strength or merit, but simply rely on the grace and mercy of Him to whom we beg: “Lord, have mercy.” And we too will be able to answer the final question put to Dr. Luther on his deathbed on this very date 461 years ago by his old friend and fellow pastor Justus Jonas: “Reverend Father, will you remain steadfast in Christ and the doctrine which you have preached?” As he slipped from this life to eternity, he replied audibly with a “Yes!” – that is to say: “It is so! Amen!”

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

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sermon: St. Valentine's Day

14 February 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 10:26-42 (2 Tim 2:8-13)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Red is the color of Valentine’s Day, but I suspect most people don’t know why. Valentine’s Day is a time of celebrating love – especially married love – but once again, I suspect most people don’t realize that this is an ancient commemoration of the Christian Church.

When it comes to the real reason for St. Valentine’s Day, red is not symbolic of hearts, roses, and little cinnamon candies. The red in this sanctuary is both festive and somber – for it is the red of flowing blood, blood spilled for the sake of the Gospel. For St. Valentine, or in the original Latin, Valentinus, was a Christian martyr.

He was a 3rd century priest in Rome who gave his life for the Christian faith. Part of his priestly duties, of course, involved consecrating the holy estate of marriage among his parishioners. And in the 3rd century Roman Empire, just like today, the government was interfering with God’s sanctified state of matrimony, trying to mandate something unnatural and unbiblical over and against what is proper and in accordance with God’s mandate in Scripture.

Emperor Claudius II felt that single men made better soldiers – so he forbade the marriage of his military. Of course, it is not sinful for a person who is called to live a celibate life to remain single, but this takes a special gift. Most people are suited to marriage and parenthood in the context of Christian marriage. As our Lord said: “What God has put together let no-one rend asunder.” It was Valentine’s sacred pastoral duty to continue to bless marriages – and couples continued to come to him in defiance of the imperial order. Valentine was eventually caught, was imprisoned, and was beheaded on February 14th.

Valentine is a reminder to us that love and marriage are not trite things, not merely warm fuzzy feelings, or forced sentimentality. Rather true love is exactly what our Lord tells us it is: a willingness of the lover to die for the beloved. The beloved is held more dear even than life itself. St. Valentine could have loved his own life more than his calling, he could have loved himself more than his flock. He could have loved his own comfort more than he loved our Lord. But he didn’t.

St. Valentine knew what our Blessed Lord said in our Gospel text: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” He also knew the words of another faithful priest and martyr who was likewise beheaded by a hostile emperor in RomeSt. Paul – who wrote to Timothy (per our epistle reading): “If we have died with him, we will also live with him. If we endure, we will also reign with him.”

For the perfect lover is our Lord Jesus Christ, who gives his very life for his beloved bride, the Church. Jesus sheds his ruby-red lifeblood to save the people whom he loves, and in turn, Christians are called upon to bear their own cross in this life, to serve others the way Christ served us. Our beloved martyrs, like St. Valentine, are the living embodiment of this divine love: “whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Valentine acted out of love for his people and in service of matrimonial love ordained by God. He suffered imprisonment and execution for the sake of the Lord Jesus who Himself suffered death for him and for all people nearly three centuries earlier. For we Christians can love because we were first loved. “God so loved the world,” God loved the world in this way, “that he sent his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” “God is love” St. John tells us. He loves us enough to become incarnate and to suffer and die for us and for the “life of the world.” He loves us enough to save us though we don’t deserve it. He loves us though we typically do not love him in return. He loves us not because we are lovable, but in spite of our un-lovability. He loves us because He is love, and He is merciful.

St. Valentine is a Christian hero, a pastor who lays down his life for his sheep just as the Good Pastor, the Good Shepherd, our Lord Jesus, lays down His life for His sheep. It’s time we put the “Saint” back in ‘Valentine’s Day.” It’s time the Church take back this holy day from the Hallmark people. For we Christians know what true love is. Love’s color is red because it is sealed in blood. True love is what awaits you here at this altar, as we poor miserable sinners, the Lord’s beloved, eat the flesh of the one who loves us, and we imbibe the blood of him who lays down his life for his friends unto the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life.

True love is not theoretical, but fleshly. It is not philosophical, but carnal. The married life is a beautiful picture of the incarnation. For husband and wife do not merely cooperate, work together, form an economic union, or assume one of many equal lifestyle choices. No indeed. The marital union is fleshly. Our Lord tells us the two become one flesh. Just like our Lord’s love for us is not mythological, but incarnational. We don’t worship an epic hero from a storybook, but rather a historic, fleshly Man who bleeds, forgives, dies, overcomes, and rises again to claim us as his beloved.

True love is not abstract. It is acted out in the flesh, in the real world. It is not about merely holding forth the right doctrine, but it is lived out in deeds of service. Love is manifested in every act of mercy from giving “one of these little ones even a cup of cold water,” right up to dying for one’s beloved.

Today, we take a moment in time to honor St. Valentine, whose love was not merely expressed with a clever verse in a greeting card, but rather by virtue of his deeds and by his blood. May we follow in the footsteps of this faithful servant of the Word, this humble martyr of the Church, whose name is synonymous with love itself. Amen.

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

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Unintentional syncretism

I've just finished officiating at a funeral for a former member of our congregation, a very interesting lady who had a unique life: growing up in East Berlin, being conscripted into the Nazi Army, escaping with a group of other woman soldiers to freedom in West Berlin among the Americans, marrying an American airman, jumping through all the hoops to come to America, and leading a long life and leaving behind a large family of relatives who admire her courage and tenacity to this very day.

Unfortunately, she had left our congregation many years ago during a divisive pastoral scandal. She drifted from congregation to congregation for a while. She maintained her belief in the Lutheran confession of the faith, and did so stridently, according to family members. I know this is a contradiction over and against non-attendance - but we poor miserable sinners do find all sorts of ways to mess things up.

In such a case, we can only appeal to baptism, and leave everything else in the hands of a merciful God.

Now, instead of the usual photographs of the deceased, there was a large flat-screen TV with a presentation on continual loop of old photographs and period music. The quality was stunning, and the production really captured the essence of both the deceased and her family. It was very well-done and impressive. I suppose we will see more of this, and I suspect not all such presentations in the future will be in such good taste as this one was. Technology is a double-edged sword.

The funeral home has no chapel, so the service was conducted in the parlor. There was no altar, only a lecturn with a candle.

In speaking a couple days ago with one of the family members who had requested that family members be permitted to eulogize during the service, I suggested that this could be done before the 1:00 pm service - perhaps at noon. After which time, the traditional Lutheran rite would take place with a homily designed to proclaim the gospel of Jesus into which the deceased was baptized. The relative said this would be fine.

Unbeknowst to me, there was someone else making other plans.

A relative, who is also a funeral director himself, had decided to put the Lutheran rite in the middle of other readings and several eulogies. I didn't find out about this until minutes before the service. I had hoped to not put on my vestments until the start of the Lutheran "portion of the program," but I was unable to even find a way to do this. So I was stuck.

The funeral director who served as the emcee (a very nice, well-intentioned man) gave a couple readings from a book called The Prophet by Khalil Gibran (who, it turns out, was a pioneer in the modern New Age movement). Interspersed with eulogies from friends and family were readings from the book, as well as exhortations to "breathe" and "center yourself" and to meditate and visualize. Of course, Jesus was never mentioned, and I don't recall even a generic "god" getting even a sound-bite (though I may well be mistaken). I had to keep a poker face during this contradiction to the one true faith.

He read from the Gibran chapters entitled: The Mystery of Death and On Joy and Sorrow. He also read a meditation from a Buddhist source, though I could not see the full title of the book. As you can read for yourself, the readings at this funeral service were antithetical to Christianity.

I had written my sermon yesterday, and as it turns out, without knowing what was around the bend, directly repudiated the feel-good New Age philosophy of Kahil Gibran. It is sheerly the miraculous providence of God that on this occasion certain specific tacks were taken in my proclamation. I did not have to alter or add what I had prepared to deliver from the "pulpit."

As it turns out, the family was overwhelmingly Christian, or at least it sure seemed so from the number of people crossing themselves. After the service, several people were profuse in thanking me.

Conducting a funeral for someone you have never met, whose shepherd you truly were not, is always a little dicey - and not easy. Of course, it is a difficult pastoral decision to proceed - in this case, I'm glad I did - though I would not have done so had I known what I was in for ahead of time.

I have no idea what spiritual state this lady was in at the time of her death. Calling a pastor was not a priority as she moved toward death in her illness. But when death comes, it seems that people are lulled from their own spiritual slumber, and then call upon one of our Lord's unworthy servants - and thanks be to God they do. In this case, the deceased was by all counts a staunch Lutheran - even if she was not part of Salem's flock for many years.

I can only trust that she never repudiated her baptism. I can also only trust that the living Word of God rings in the ears and the hearts of those attending the funeral, forcing out the New Age heresy, the diabolical delusions they heard as part of the same service.

And if I am to be penalized for syncretism, I should hope that it is a five-yard penalty (as opposed to the fifteen-yard "flagrant" personal foul), as it was completely unintentional.

And as the liturgy leads us to pray: "Give to your whole Church in heaven and on earth your light and your peace." Requiescat in pace.

Sermon: Funeral for Ursula Crawford

10 February 2007 (Saturday of Septuagesima)
at Clark-DuCote Funeral Home, Belle Chasse, LA
Text: John 6:37-40

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Dear friends, I want you to know how sorry I am for your loss, for your grief and your sorrow. How I wish I could have met you all in happier times. But such things are not for us to decide. The Lord has placed me here today to speak His word to you. The Lord has placed you here today to hear his Word.

Saying good-bye to a loved one in this way is the hardest thing we ever have to face. We all know death is coming, and yet it is never any comfort knowing that it is inevitable. Contrary to well-intentioned people who tell us such things, death is not natural, it is not simply a part of life. It is not a blessing. Death is brutally hard. It separates us from those whom we love. It causes us to mourn. It may make us angry. It may drive us to despair. It may cause members of our family to turn on one another.

Death is the devil’s best friend.

But I’m here to tell you that just like the devil, death has been defeated. I have good news for you, dear Christians, for Ursula has defeated death and the grave. She stands victorious today with our Lord Jesus Christ, whose resurrection gives us the promise of our own resurrection. She is not merely “in a better place,” she is in the best place, freed from all suffering, all sorrow, all pain, and all mourning – standing in the very presence of the living God - even though we linger behind and continue to deal with these things. All of these things: pain, sorrow, and even death itself belong to all of us poor miserable sinners because of our rebellion against God. Each one of us has offended God and continues to do so right up until this moment. And Scripture is clear that the wages of this sin is death.

And though Christians are certainly sinners and though they certainly die, they yet live. Because Christians are baptized into Christ, who also died and yet also lives – Christians need not fear death. They can look death in the face and laugh in triumph – just as Ursula does now in eternity. For listen to our risen Lord’s words from our Gospel reading once more: “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away.”

Decades ago, in Berlin, a girl named Ursula was brought to a baptismal font. She was carried to the same Jesus who said: “Let the little children come to me.” On that day, Ursula was born once more, born again spiritually, in the words of our Lord, by “water and the Spirit.” And as He promises: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” And listen to our Lord’s words again: “I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

These are promises, dear people, promises from the only Man in history to walk out of his own tomb by his own power. This Man is also God, and He is speaking to you today even as Ursula sings His praises today in eternal glory.

It is not God’s will that anyone should perish. Jesus offers eternal life to everyone – though people are certainly free to refuse it. The offer was sealed on Ursula’s head, dripping with water, so many years ago in a German church. The offer was validated every time Ursula received absolution from her pastor, every time she took the Lord’s Supper for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of her faith.

The gifts the Lord gives His people every Sunday are precisely for times like this. For just as we mourn today, others will mourn over us in the future. What Ursula experienced, we will all experience. But we are not defeated, dear brothers and sisters. Even though our senses tell us otherwise, even though Satan beats us down by tempting us to doubt, even though the cares of this world crush upon us. We, like Ursula, have our baptisms to cling to. We know that when water was poured upon us, and the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit was placed on us according to the promise of God, we were born anew as his children. And just as Jesus, the only-begotten Son of the Father, was raised, so will we.

There is nothing about which I am more certain in this life. Ursula lives forever. On the last day, even her body will be raised. We will all be reunited, and live a glorious new existence so wondrous and perfect that we can’t even imagine it at this point in our lives.

If you take nothing else from this service, dear people, remember this: Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, and by being baptized into His name, by taking Holy Communion, by confessing your sins and having your pastor pronounce forgiveness, by hearing the Word of God, you are made ready for anything. No enemy can harm you – not sin, not the devil, and certainly not death.

I’m here to give you the same gift of eternal life won for you by our Lord Jesus, the same eternal life our dear sister in Christ Ursula enjoys right now. “Whoever comes to me,” says our Lord, “I will never drive away.”

To those of you who come to Him today, whose hearts are burdened by sin, who seek reconciliation with God, who want to enjoy the same eternal life that Ursula has received – then listen closely to these powerful words that conquer even death itself:

I forgive you all your sins…

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

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Corrupta Mater

We use the term "alma mater" (nurturing mother) to describe our schools. The most natural thing in the world is to love one's mother, to appreciate all that she has done for us, to want to support her even when we are no longer under her immediate care and protection - a sentiment that carries over into the metaphorical academic motherhood as well. This may explain why we tend to be so fiercely loyal to our "almae matres" - sometimes nearly to the point of insanity during football season. And this is also why schools seek funding from graduates and alumni.

One of the institutions I've attended has dealt me a great disappointment. Although a school is only figuratively maternal, I find myself almost mourning over the matter, given that my school has truly been personified as a mother. I'm taking this disappointment personally, not merely being let down by another bureaucratic institution. For I thought of my school as something other than an "institution." Maybe that was a mistake on my part.

A former student (whom I have known for many years) has been treated very unfairly by the school and by its administration. The actions taken by the school, as well as the way in which the manner was handled, has tainted my esteem for my "mother." In fact, in doing what she did, she has shown to me that all of her "academic" maternal instruction regarding integrity does not hold up in the realm of "real world" politics, donors, and the preservation of jobs. See John 11:50.

Integrity is something that is proven under trial, and my alma mater is sorely wanting. And in adopting this new pragmatic ethic, she has sacrificed one of her most brilliant children in a way not terribly different than a woman pregnant with an unwanted child has an abortion of convenience. Ironically, the "child" she aborted was a loyal son, a child of promise - but perhaps one that was set to be born in difficult times. The mother took the easy way out, and will never know the cost of her actions. She also seems utterly lacking in remorse at this point. She has gotten on with her life.

This institution has lost sight of her mission, and is losing touch with the very people she is obliged to serve by her very existence. She no longer has one main mission with a few subordinate functions, but rather she is holding her moistened finger in the air to determine which way the political winds are blowing, seeking to fulfill the fantasy of those who are paying her for the night. This is so diametrically opposed to her attitude when I was at her academic breast that I almost wonder if my mother is suffering from mental illness. But alas, institutions don't have personality disorders or imbalances of the brain, but rather carry out the mission as envisioned by those running the institution, those who serve on boards, those who have influence, those who set policy, and those who pay the bills. She only appears to be an organism, when in fact, she is the product of her leadership.

Times have changed. Practicality has replaced integrity. Survival has replaced service.

I woke up one day to discover that my metaphorical mother is no lady. My mental picture of her is no longer true - if it ever was. This is a hard lesson, and it hurts in a way not unlike when a human being disappoints. Institutions are, after all, comprised of human beings whose motivations can be quite complex, if not baffling, at times.

While I have no intention to call my alma mater a prostitute in public (note that I am not mentioning any names here, but no doubt, some people familiar with the case will infer what they will), nor do I have any intention of going on a campaign or condemning her in any outspoken way, I really believe I am conscience-bound to no longer promote this institution, recommend students to this institution, or send or encourage the sending of money to this institution. I really wish this weren't so.

This isn't out of anger or out of any strategy of forcing the school to change. It's much simpler than that. I just can't in good conscience support what they are doing. If there is confession and repentence, I will be overjoyed, and will again rally around my alma mater. But unless such a thing happens, I'm not going to support this institution. I will not and I can not.

I don't think I'm alone on this. There seems to be a lot of unhappiness over the general direction of late, and I'm sure this latest incident will only further tarnish the school's already less-than-sparkling reputation. And although misery loves company, it offers no comfort at all.