Sunday, March 25, 2007

La Nouvelle Maison, La Nouvelle Vie

Moving is no fun, but in some cases, the payoff is great!

The Hollywoods have moved from the Suburb of Kenner (which meant a 17 mile commute each way on crowded I-10, crossing the Mississippi River via the toll-required Crescent City Connection Bridge) to Old Gretna - a block and a half from church.

Our lives have changed for the better!

If any of Father Hollywood's readers are strapped with a long commute, you may want to consider downsizing and moving close. For most of my adult life, I have had long drives to work - spending thousands of hours on highways, fighting with traffic, spending countless amounts of money in gasoline and car maintenance - not to mention increasing my risk of an encounter with a jack-knifed tractor-trailer or a drunk driver. But now, I walk to and from work - a three minute pedestrian commute. Since moving, we hardly drive at all. In fact, I had to stop the police from towing our Saturn which was parked in front of church. A neighbor thought it had been abandoned!

Maybe I should ask Al Gore to buy some "green credits" from me! I don't really know what a "carbon footprint" is, but I know that buying gas is a rarity for our family now!

In just about three weeks since we've moved, my pants fit looser, I have a no stress from "road rage," and (this is a huge bonus) I get hours and hours more time at home with my family! I can walk home for lunch, to fetch a book, or just to have a coffee with my wife. Mrs. Hollywood and Lion-Boy routinely amble into our church and school for a visit. The days of leaving for work at 7:00 am and returning home at 10:00 pm are over. If it weren't Lent, I'd exclaim "Hallelujah" at this point...

Our new neighborhood is known as "Old Gretna" - which a member of our faculty at Salem describes quite accurately as a "Little French Quarter." It is an old historic area with train tracks running right down our street. It usually passes a couple times a day - which Leo greatly enjoys. He sits on the porch swing and waves as the cargo-carriers rumble by blasting their horns.

On Saturday mornings, we walk the one block to the Farmer's Market. Locals sell everything from milk, eggs, and yogurt, to orchids, salsa, and fruit trees. There is always a band playing, usually classic Southern rock or Louisiana blues. It's in the open air, there are people of all ages, and lots of critters on leashes. And the farm fresh food is really better. You have to shake the cream-laden milk (since it isn't ultra-pasteurized) and the farmers can tell you which hens laid which eggs by name. The quality is mind-blowing - far better than any of the agri-business slop sold at WalMart that we've come to accept as normal. I have been converted to family-farm food. My goodness! You can actually taste the food, and it really has color!

One Saturday a month, Old Gretna offers another treat - the Art Walk. Just a couple blocks past the Farmer's Market, just south on Huey P. Long Avenue in the Neutral Ground (which is New Orleanianese for the green space between the northbound and southbound lanes of the street), local artists and craftsmen sell their wares - everything from expensive oil paintings, right down to decorative fleur-de-lis and ladies' jewelry.

Only one block from home (on the way to both the Farmer's Market and Art Walk) is Common Grounds - a local restaurant and coffee shop. Not a chain, but a real neighborhood establishment, CG even has a shoe-shiner, a bar with a TV, and back rooms with couches and comfy chairs. They serve everything from cheeseburgers to crawfish, from cappuccino to Dixie Beer. There are high ceilings and friendly waitresses (as opposed to friendly ceilings and high waitresses, I suppose).

Old Gretna is a safe haven in the midst of crime-ridden post-Katrina New Orleans. We lie between two police stations within a short walk. It's safe to go on foot even at midnight (which means I don't have to load a briefcase up at the end of the work day and make sure I have everything). The neighbors are friendly, and take ownership of the neighborhood.

Four blocks from our house is the mighty Mississippi. We can stroll on over to the levy and sit on the bench, look at the skyline, and watch huge ships cruise the River. The ferry station is right there. We can ride for free back and forth across the river. There's not much to see on the other side (at Jackson and Tchoupitoulas - and if you can pronounce the latter, you must be a true New Orleanian), but the view on the River is remarkable. There are also running- and bike-paths along the levy for many miles. It's a great place to get in shape without spending a dime.

Now, if we drive for a few minutes to Algiers Point, we can take the other ferry over to the French Quarter. We look forward to doing that later on. When Leo is a little older, maybe we'll ride bikes along the path and bring them onto the ferry - and save the five bucks it costs to park at the station!

Our house itself is very comfy. It's a "shotgun" home from the late 19th century. We don't know exactly how old it is, but it probably dates back to just after Reconstruction (the older post-bellum, not the current post-hurricane Reconstruction - which went on in Louisiana until 1877, and was so harsh, that our state has only had one freely-elected Republican governor in our history. Of course, Louisiana politics is a topic in and of itself!) These homes were originally built as apartments for railroad workers. The name "shotgun" refers to the design - they are long and narrow, and typically have no hallways. One could shoot a shotgun in the front door and have the shells fly out the back door (don't try this at home...). These old homes were solidly constructed out of treated cypress wood, have no basements (heck, even our dead are above ground here!), and sit on blocks . Our home has survived over a century of hurricanes - including Camille, Betsy, and Katrina. As a result of Katrina, our home lost merely a couple of roof shingles. It goes without saying that they don't make them like they used to.

Now, a lot of people might be shocked to find out that our home is only 930 square feet. It's small, but somehow it seems bigger than that. The rooms are large (14 x 14) with ten-foot high ceilings. We have nice modern windows and ceiling fans. There are no closets - so we do have to be creative. There is a very large, solid outbuilding - calling it a "shed" doesn't do it justice. Whatever we end up calling it, it does give us a good bit of storage. There is also an attic that is, so far, unexploited. The previous owners installed new stainless steel appliances and magnificent granite countertops. There is also a gas fireplace, and beautiful kitchen cabinets. Once again, there are no hallways. One room opens up into another room.

Of course, our library has had to be distributed around the house. A lot of our books will have to go into our limited storage. Maybe at some point we can build in bookcases, but now, we'll just have to be selective about what gets displayed.

We have a large deck out back, a porch, and a porch swing. Along with the trains, the air resounds with the church bells and carillon from historic St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church very nearby - which rings the Westminster Chimes, the Angelus, and magnificent hymns (including, for Lent, O Sacred Head Now Wounded, which was the first Lutheran hymn to appear in a Catholic hymn book).

The air is literally perfumed with the blossoms from our citrus trees. On the side of our small fenced-in lot is a magnificent little alley that looks like a courtyard. The stone walkway is lined with elephant ears and sago palms. There is a lemon tree and an orange tree, filled with sweet flowers and hundreds of fruits. There's also a bonus tree in the back we didn't know about when we bought the house - a tall, navel orange. The trees on the side are now nearly done, but the navel out back is just now filled with hundreds of unripe green fruits and blossoms. Whoever planted these trees had a great sense of planning. We'll not be lacking for vitamin C here!

Proximity is such a great thing for a pastor. I'm part of the community I serve. My neighbors see me strolling to church on Sunday mornings in my cassock - and contrary to what some might think - they dig it. Visiting shut-ins and making hospital visits no longer involve a long commute or extensive planning. I believe this move will ultimately make a better parish priest of me, and will allow both pastor and flock to be blessed by physical closeness to one another.

So, things are great here - thanks be to God! However, there are still a lot of boxes to unpack, and while our house in Kenner is still up for sale, we still have more work to do (though we do have a buyer now, God willing!). But even moving work isn't so bad when you can take a break, sit on the porch-swing sipping fresh-squeezed lemonade from your own tree, wave at the train conductor, listen to church bells, and breathe in the perfumed warm air with wife and son.

Vicar, Julius, Athena, and Churchill like the place too!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

From the Seminarian Hollywood Archives...

Before Father Hollywood was a cranky old smart-alec pastor, he was a cranky old smart-alec seminarian. I wrote the following back in 2001 B.B. (Before Blogging) and e-mailed it to a few people. Apparently, it made the rounds, and just today, a colleague in the ministry contacted me and asked me if he could send this on to someone else.

And yes, Peter, if you're reading, I imagine you scolded me then for being sarcastic and caustic, and I suspect you will again - but daggone it, I don't like being jerked around!

Anyway, here is my six-year-old rant that I think is probably still relatively current.

Fr. H.

Subject: Church Growth and our Synod

Dear Friends:

We were recently graced with a visit from a synodical official who was sharing his ideas regarding evangelism with us [seminarians]. In the course of his presentation, he suggested that we should modify the Divine Service so as to include "testimonials" from congregation members explaining what Jesus means to them.

I asked this gentleman how we might practically insert such a rubric into the liturgy of the Western Church.

He replied that we need not lock ourselves into liturgical worship, that to do so would be to "make the gospel into a law."


Anyway, I noted that the fastest growing Christian body in the United States is the Roman Catholic Church. For all of the goofiness that indeed goes on in Roman parishes since Vatican II, they don't have testimonials in the Mass. They do have a liturgical form. They don't mimic freeform worship styles of neo-evangelicalism in their Sunday service. They don't change the words of their worship service every Sunday or recite things like "Christmas Creeds" which were written in the 1960s.

The synodical official disputed my claim that the Roman Catholic Church was the fastest growing church body, claiming that the Assemblies of God is actually the fastest growing. So, I dug up the numbers from the 2001 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. Here is what I found on page 12 - which is a listing of the 10 largest denominations in the U.S. along with membership statistics:

In terms of raw percentages, the Assemblies of God did indeed grow the fastest: 1.9% - compared to the .6% growth rate of the Roman Church. This says to me that the synodical official is familiar with these statistics. However, percentages do not tell the whole story. In fact, percentages can be deceiving. For example, if you declare yourself to be the pope of the new Me Myself and I Christian Church(tm), and next year persuade five people to join, you will have increased by 500% - roughly at a rate 250 times faster than the Assemblies of God in the United States. Get the picture?

Here's the rest of the story using real numbers:

In 1999 (the most recent year with such statistics in the 2001 yearbook), the Roman Catholic Church gained 373,048 members. The second greatest number in terms of growth came from the Southern Baptist Church, with 122,400. The Assemblies of God came in with a positive growth of 48,719 - which is less than 8% of the Roman Church's growth. When the stats from 1996 thru 1999 are compiled, the picture really starts to gel: The Roman Church grew by 2,466,885 - not a lot less than the total membership in the entire LCMS! By comparison, the Assemblies of God grew by: 186,549. So, between 1996 and 1999, the Roman Church increased in membership by 13 times as much as the Assemblies of God. There are today 2.2 million more Catholics than AOG members than there were back in 1996. That paints a little different picture, doesn't it?

Now, the church growth people tell us we need to emulate the worship practices of the churches that are growing. The big elephant in the parlor that no-one wants to acknowledge is the growth of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. Yes, we Lutherans have our theological differences with Rome - and they are not to be minimized. However, Wittenberg is a direct scion of Rome. We are Western Christians in the tradition of Aquinas, Gregory, and Augustine. We have more in common with the sacramental theology of historic Christendom than we do the heretical, Montanistic worship style of Pentecostalists. We are not Arminians, and so have no reason for a mourning bench and subjective testimonials. We are not Calvinists, and hence we recognize the physical presence of Christ in our midst - and should conduct ourselves accordingly in public worship (that is, unless we no longer believe in the Real Presence...)

I don't accept the premise of the church growthers. I don't think we should alter our worship practices based on the Barna studies and Gallup polls du jour. However, the church growthers are being fundamentally dishonest with us when they ignore the growth of the Roman Catholic Church - as well as the smaller, but significant numbers being posted by Eastern Orthodox Christians. They tell us we need TV screens, theater seats, praise bands, and happy-clappy worship (the alternative is to "make the gospel a law..."). If their own premise is true, maybe what we need more of are vestments, candles, crucifixes, and centuries-old ceremony.

Some seminarians raised valid concerns with the direction Rome has been going since Vatican II regarding their worship practices. These are valid issues. However, the charismatic movement in Rome is still small; the parishes that experiment with happy-clappy music, balloons, and TV screens are likewise not the norm. And even in those cases, the liturgy is preserved, such as it is, by canon law. No Roman Catholic pastor writes his own Sunday Mass. There are no celebrations of Sunday services in which the Eucharist is not offered in Roman parishes. There is no place - even in the Novus Ordo Mass - for "testimonials." The reality is that Roman churches are more liturgical than LCMS parishes - and certainly more liturgical than the Assemblies of God churches - and they are outgrowing the pants off of both! Why don't the bean counters ever suggest incense and chasubles? It would be consistent with their stated goal of increasing numbers.

Finally, someone else brought up the point that immigration has brought numbers into the Catholic Church. Well, if we are to reach immigrants with the Gospel, what works? Immigrants - especially those from Roman Catholic countries - wouldn't recognize the services in many LCMS parishes as even remotely Christian - our common historical ties to the Western rite notwithstanding. If we are going to preach to immigrants, should we give them the liturgical forms they can pick up through repetition (in spite of the language barrier), forms they may recognize from their own worship back home, and ceremonies which they may find comforting and familiar - or are we going to give them words which change every week and a service that seems crassly commercial and unchurchly? One also has to wonder about the current conventional wisdom that says we must use happy-clappy worship in foreign missionary endeavors. If this is true, why has immigration resulted in explosive growth of the Roman Church?

Again, brethren, I don't accept the numbers game. Numbers go up, numbers go down. Our job is simply to sow the seeds and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. There is no mention of a bean-counter in the Parable of the Sower. But by the same token, I bitterly resent being lied to by "experts" intent on abolishing the liturgy and turning the Gospel into a mockery.

If LCMS officials want testimonials and hand-waving, there's a Baptist or Pentecostal Church near you. Like we say in Georgia, "Delta's ready when you are!"

Larry Beane

PS: The LCMS - with all of its church growth experimentation in recent years - lost 11,964 members in 1999. We have lost 12,115 members in the same period that Rome gained 2,466,885 in the United States.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Sermon: Wednesday of Laetare (Lent 4)

21 March 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Passion Narrative (IV: The Praetorium) & Holy Baptism

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

After His arrest and following His kangaroo trial at the home of the high priest, Jesus is brought before the Roman governor of Judea to finally come before the Law. His Excellency Pontius Pilate stood as a representative of Caesar Augustus himself – to be known after his death as the divine Augustus, Augustus the god. This minister of a false god is, ironically, given real authority by the true God to execute justice.

Jesus, the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets, has been treated by the priests and children of Israel in the same disgraceful way as the prophets of old, and now, he stands accused by the law, being put on trial by an unwitting minister of the true God to execute divine judgment upon the scapegoat for all the sin of the world.

The old saying “lex semper accusat”, that is, “the law always accuses” holds true yet again – even when the one being accused is God in the flesh.

Pontius Pilate is a study in contradiction. He finds Jesus “not guilty” in a criminal trial, and yet allows the innocent Prisoner’s execution to go forth. He is a servant of the false god Caesar, and yet his wife has great sympathy for Jesus (she may herself have been a Christian). Pilate has been vilified by name every day around the world for two millennia as Christians recite his infamy in the Nicene and Apostles Creeds, and yet Pilate is eager to acquit and release Jesus (in fact, there is a tradition among some Christians that Pilate later became a Christian himself).

This complex figure is known for his famous quote: “Ecce homo!” – “Behold the Man!” as he presents to the world the true King of the Jews, the true Divine Emperor, the One who wears a crown of thorns, a royal robe of mockery, and the bruises and blood befitting His royal sacrifice.

Pilate is also known for the gesture of washing his hands. For even as the fastidious and self-righteous Pharisees mocked Jesus and the disciples for refusing to take part in a hand-washing ritual designed to place oneself in the spotlight, Pilate washes his hands in a ritual designed to remove himself from the spotlight: “I am innocent of the blood of this man; see to it yourselves.” The mob replied: “His blood be on us and on our children.” Unwittingly, in praying a curse upon themselves, they were recognizing Jesus as exactly what He is: the living and incarnate fulfillment of the lamb sacrificed for the sins of Israel. For on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would literally throw the blood of the lamb onto the people.

However, the true Lamb, the “Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world” – is Himself the once-for-all Victim and the highest Priest, whose precious blood covers the sins of all mankind, who offers it and sheds it of His own accord. While Pilate believes he has ultimate power – it is actually Jesus who is the executor of justice. And while the Jewish mob claims to enforce the Law of Moses – it is actually Jesus who fulfills the Law of Moses.

Pilate is the law. He puts Jesus on trial and finds Him innocent. And yet, the law still accuses. The law of God, the debt of our transgressions, the wages of sin, fall squarely on the gory back of Him by whose stripes we are healed. For in spite of the law’s verdict of “not guilty,” the Lamb goes uncomplaining forth. The Imperial Governor finally washes his hands in a bowl of water before the very people who pray for the blood of the Lamb to be upon them and their children.

We are like Pilate in many ways. How often we have had the opportunity to do what is right, but out of cowardice, laziness, or a desire to not make waves, we wash our hands of our obligation to bear the fruits of repentance and good works. How often we wash our hands rather than stepping up to the plate and following in the footsteps of our Lord and carrying our cross. How often we think that our ineffectual attempts to appease the enemies of Jesus somehow absolve us from our duty to confess the faith in word and in deed.

And so, just as the law accuses our Lord, the law accuses us. And if the law condemns our Lord, dear friends, what does the law do to us? If the law brought forth the passion, the cross, and the death of our perfect and divine Lord Jesus, what do we deserve?

Even as we hang our heads at our unfaithfulness, our deceit, our misplaced priorities, our weakness, our own inability to stand up for what is right, our own desire to make nice with the enemies of the cross – we too wash our hands of our guilt.

More accurately, our Lord washes our hands of our guilt. Our High Priest washes our hands, by throwing His blood on us, he washes our bodies with water that isn’t merely the external removal of dirt, but rather the washing of regeneration.

For we too are washed in a basin and declared innocent of the blood of Jesus, innocent of all transgressions of the law, and yes, even innocent of our own Pilate-like cowardice and shameful treatment of our Lord.

And in that washing, the priestly blood of Jesus is truly “on us and on our children.” However, to those who confess Jesus as the Messiah, as the Lord and God, the presence of the Lord’s blood is not bloodguilt, but blood-innocence.

And as a result, we are all not only like Pontius Pilate, but also like Barabbas (whose name means “Son of the Father”), whose own worthy sentence of death was commuted by the substitutionary death of the One who allowed Pilate’s weakness and the mob’s bloodthirst to work out the very will of God. For our blessed Lord outwitting the wily devil by trickery, cheated death by dying, and abolished sin through submitting to the worst sin imaginable: Deicide: the murder of God.

It is fitting that in the creeds, especially the Apostles Creed, the creed confessed at baptism, the name “Pontius Pilate” is repeated by the Church again and again. For his act of infamy led to the washing of many hands – indeed, every hand in the body of Christ. It is also fitting that we make the sign of the cross with our sacramentally-washed hands to remember our own baptism – for under the authority of the Roman governor of Judea, under the execution of the law by God’s accidental minister Pontius Pilate, our Lord was sent to the cross, where his blood was shed for the sins of the world, where it was indeed poured out in mercy on us and on our children. It was under Pilate’s order that the King of Creation bore the title “Rex” above his head, even as he wore the thorny crown and sat upon the throne of the cross.

The law always accuses, and always finds us wanting. The law demands payment, and the wages of sin is death. But the good news, dear Christians, is that the tab has been picked up, the debt has been paid. The accuser’s gaze has been redirected to the Lamb upon whose thorn-encircled head, that sacred head now wounded, our sins have been laid. We, like Barabbas, guilty and deserving of death, sons of the Father through Holy Baptism, walk away with a resounding verdict of innocent.

For we have washed our robes in the blood of the Lamb. We have washed our hands in the holy font, those same hands that trace the sign of the holy cross upon ourselves. We are declared innocent by virtue “of the blood of this man.” His life-giving blood is on us and on our children: the blood of Christ, shed for you.

“Ecce homo!” Behold, the Man! Behold your King! Behold your God! Behold your Savior! Amen.

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

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sermon: Laetare (Lent 4)

18 March 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 6:1-15 (Exodus 16:2-21, Acts 2:41-47) (One Year Series)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Our sinful flesh is never satisfied. The more of anything we get, the more it becomes expected, and the less we appreciate what we have. This is nothing new. In the Garden of Eden, mankind had everything his heart could desire. Our first parents lived in complete and total bliss and had nothing to bother them – no fears, no sickness, no disease, no pain, and no death. They enjoyed the richness of the fruits of the earth, and complete freedom. Well, almost complete freedom. The one thing they could not do was to unseat God.

All the gifts of God became expected and unappreciated, and the one thing they could not do became the thing they desired. And like the dog in Aesop’s fable who saw his own reflection in the pond and greedily went after the image of the bone belonging to his reflection, mankind lost everything. Bored with the bounty of God, mankind chose to trade it all in for sin, death, and the devil.

It’s a very old story, one that is told again and again.

It plays out historically in our Old Testament lesson as God has given his chosen people freedom after 400 years under the Egyptian yoke. Leaving behind the cruelty of slavery, of centuries of exile only being able to dream about the land promised to their father Abraham, after what seemed to be a situation devoid of hope – the Israelites were set free. They were led by God’s powerful prophet Moses. The children of Israel witnessed miracle after miracle and sign after sign of God’s providence and grace. They saw the plagues visited upon the Egyptians. They were passed over from the wrath of God as their own children were spared while the Egyptian boys were cut down. They saw first hand God working through Aaron and Moses to part the Red Sea, keeping them safe while destroying their enemies. And now, they find themselves on the road to take possession of the Land of Milk and Honey promised to Abraham.

But in short order, this was becoming old and boring. “Then the whole congregation of the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.” The wonders and mercy of God had become familiar, taken for granted, and worst of all: boring. The menu was so much better in Egypt. There was a variety at mealtime that is missing here in the desert. And imagine how the d├ęcor just isn’t cutting it!

In His patience, the Lord provides them the miraculous bread from heaven, the manna, that will sustain them on their journey. He also blesses them with quail meat that falls into their hands with no effort – not unlike the way food was provided in the Garden of Eden. And since it was all being provided, there was no need to hoard. And yet, some did. And so the grumbling people of God respond to God’s grace by being unappreciative and greedy. And we really haven’t changed much, have we?

In our Gospel reading, the New and Greater Moses, is leading the New Israel to the Promised Land, to the recreated Eden, by doing what God has always done: sustaining and feeding His people, giving them their daily bread.

It was nearly the Passover, the commemoration of God’s miraculous deliverance of His people from slavery in Egypt. Great crowds are there to listen, but they have no food. Jesus slyly points out that money will not resolve this situation, the bread He plans on giving them is not for sale at any price. And as He did through Moses, God provides bread and meat for His people through the signs and wonders of His prophet – in the case of Jesus, “the Prophet who is to come into the world” – the very Bread of Life Himself, in the flesh and in the loaf.

Jesus Himself gives thanks, and orders the distribution of this holy bread to those who follow Him, who hear His Word, those burdened by their sins and who wish to be disciples of this Prophet of all prophets, this fulfillment of Moses, this living Bread from Heaven. He uses his ministers to distribute the food, and to reverently collect what is not consumed by the people “so that nothing is lost.” The people believed in Jesus by this sign, by hearing His Word, and by eating the bread He distributes through His servants.

But in spite of all the Lord has done for them, in the face of all He has taught them, in the aftermath of this miraculous sign, the Lord’s followers are still sinners. They misconstrue this sign, and seek selfishly to crown Him king. Instead of seeing a kingdom not of this world, and a King who is Creator, Prophet, Priest, and Redeemer – these sinful disciples of Jesus see a welfare program, a politician who can hand out free food. And Jesus proves He is no politician, for rather than form an exploratory committee and hire a PR firm, He slips away to be alone.

Dear friends, we are like the children of Israel, who grumble in the face of God’s extravagant mercy and lavish gifts. We are like the five thousand insofar as we want God to provide us with goodies of this world rather than treasures to be stored up in Heaven. We are no different than Adam and Eve, wanting what was not ours and showing contempt for what has been given us. We need to repent of our inability to be content, our hoarding, our blindness to what is really important.

These passages of Holy Scripture are a mirror, and in them, we see every flaw and blemish writ large upon our very faces.

In the early church of our reading from the Book of Acts, we also see a gathering of God’s people, of signs, and of bread. First, these people were baptized. Then, they heard the doctrine of the apostles, followed by fellowship with their brothers and sisters in that faith. And that fellowship is nothing other than the liturgy: the breaking of bread and prayers. And these early Christians did not hoard, but shared of their bounty. Instead of having less, they had more – not unlike the twelve basketfuls left over after our Lord fed the five thousand. “The Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”

In baptism, in preaching and teaching apostolic doctrine, in fellowship, in the liturgy, and in storing up treasure in heaven by sharing with those in need, the Church was blessed with growth. The early Christians made no provision for grumbling, for a sinful desire for variety and for satisfaction of the selfish craving to be entertained. The church did not water down doctrine to appease the tolerant and deviant Roman culture. They did not only think of themselves, and jealously guard their time and possessions. They took comfort in what might have been seen as boring by others: by the reading of Scripture, the preaching of the Word, by the participation in the sacraments, by prayer and the singing of praise to God in pious hymns.

And though the Book of Acts is describing the people of God of nearly two thousand years ago, God is still doing the “same old same old” – and thanks be to God that He is! For we are also the “same old same old” - rebels from the gifts of Eden, whiners and complainers in the face of grace and plenty, seekers of earthly treasure and a desire for others to provide for our wants, and despisers of the Word of God and the sacraments. We are poor reflections of our forbears in the ancient Church, who lived in times of peril, of martyrdom, who never had the luxuries we all enjoy today, and yet who served as saintly examples enshrined in Holy Scripture of what the Church is expected to be, yes, even what she shall be for all eternity when this flawed earth and heaven pass away.

In a few moments, God will once again provide sustenance for his rebellious wanderers in the desert, for us complainers and hoarders. The Lord will once again break bread for the many and will use His unworthy ministers to distribute the Bread of Life of His body to you. They will likewise pour the very New Testament of His blood into your mouths. And just as the children of Israel were sustained by this miracle, so too will we. And just as Jesus was physically present to His people in the Book of Acts in the liturgy, so too He is for you today.

So, if you find the liturgy boring, if you want Jesus to give you something worldly instead of eternal life, if you want to break the commands of God in the delusion that you can be like God through your disobedience, repent! God is giving you the miracle of everlasting life, right here, and right now.

And this is why we call this Sunday in Lent “Laetare.” It means “to be glad.” For even in Lent, even as we ponder our sins, even as we struggle to deny ourselves and take up our cross, even as we come to grips with our grumbling, unbelieving flesh – we are glad.

As we sang upon our entrance, our Introit, into this house: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord.’” For this house is the House of God, the House of Bread, the House of Peace! “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad with her, all you who love her; that you may feed and be satisfied with the consolation of her bosom.” Amen.

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

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Sermon: Wednesday of Reminiscere (Lent 2)

7 March 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church in Gretna, LA
Text: The Passion Narrative (Gethsemane) and the Apostles Creed

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Christians are not “either/or” people, but rather “both/and” people. To say that something is both one thing and another at the same time is a matter of faith. For we see with our eyes, hear with our ears, we measure, we poke, we prod, we weigh, and we scope things out on sophisticated technological equipment to find out just exactly what something is. But with the eyes of faith, we conclude something different, sometimes even opposite, of what our senses tell us. Then we say both are true at the same time.

Jesus is a human being. We hear in the passion account that he suffers. He is ridden with anxiety. He sweats blood in his flesh. He prays to God that he doesn’t want to do what His Father asks of Him. Jesus does not want to be in pain, and He doesn’t want to die. Jesus is completely human.

In the Creed, we confess that Jesus was conceived, born, suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried. These are all completely human things. Jesus is completely human.

In fact, skeptics agree with us that Jesus is completely human. So much so that they are dying to “prove” that Jesus’ body can be found in an ossuary in Israel. Of course, even the most world-renowned non-Christian scholars reject such silly claims made by hacks and showmen. Sadly, we Christians can tell these people exactly where the body of Jesus can be found – on our altars – but they choose to stop up their ears and believe in fairy tales instead.

We, along with the skeptics, confess the completely human Jesus: Jesus the teacher, Jesus the preacher, Jesus the pastor, Jesus the son of Mary, Jesus the stepson of the carpenter Joseph, Jesus who thirsts and hungers, Jesus who is tempted, Jesus who weeps, Jesus the Man of Sorrows, Jesus who is nearly stoned by a mob, Jesus who is unjustly tried and condemned by corrupt men for a corrupt world, Jesus who is flogged and crucified, and Jesus who dies and is entombed.

These are all historic facts, are attested to by eyewitnesses, and are hardly controversial.

But our Creed doesn’t stop there: for we Christians confess that Jesus descended into hell to proclaim His victory over death and Satan, He rose on the third day, He ascended into heaven to take His place alongside God the Father as ruler and judge of the universe, and He will come back again to execute judgment, to give eternal glory to those baptized into His name, to restore corrupted bodies back to incorruptible glory. He does this through the forgiveness of sins, and this bodily resurrection is part and parcel of everlasting life.

In other words, Jesus is completely divine. He is, in the words of the longer Nicene Creed, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God. As our passion account testifies, Jesus, though His human nature is appalled at the cup He must drink, His divine nature embraces the will of the Father. Even though the man Jesus knows exactly who His betrayer is, the Lord Jesus refuses to save Himself from Judas’s treachery. Though Jesus faces His own impending death, He still preaches and prophesies, showing love and devotion to the disciples who were going to abandon Him. Jesus is completely divine.

Jesus goes to His own arrest without resisting, determined to carry out the mission of His Father’s will. Even during His arrest, He takes the time to work a miraculous healing of the ear of Malchus the servant. He tells Peter to sheath his sword, reminding him that He, Jesus, has command of legions of angels. Jesus is completely divine.

Jesus is both completely human and completely divine.

This is how Christians can eat what is both bread and the Body of Christ. This is how we drink what is both wine and the Blood of Christ. This is how we are to live in the world, but not be of the world. And it is truly how we poor miserable sinners are at the same time saints.

The Christian faith is indeed a both/and faith, because, once again, Jesus is both completely human and completely divine.

But it is the divinity of Jesus that scandalizes the world. It is the divine atoning death of the Man Jesus on the cross that pays for the sins of the world, that the world Jesus came to save, rejects. It is the supernatural element of Jesus that is a stumbling block to skeptics the world over. For divinity cannot be measured. It can’t be hooked up to a meter and be proven by data on a computer printout. It cannot be ascertained by eyes and ears, but is something that is believed. It is a matter of faith that Jesus is divine in addition to His being human.

This is why the Creed is a confession. To speak these ancient words that summarize the catholic faith that has been handed down to us by the apostles and by generations of Christians is to express belief, faith in something that simply cannot be measured. For though there were thousands of eyewitnesses of Jesus’ miracles and actions in His divine nature, accepting this divine nature still boils down to a matter of faith. Faith which is a gift of God. Faith that is known without empirical proof. Faith that is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

This faith in Christ, this faith of Christ, this justifying faith, this faith by which the just shall live, this faith through which we are saved, this faith of which Jesus is the “author and perfecter” is, in the words of another Creed, the Athanasian Creed, “the catholic faith” – that is to say, the universal faith clung to, believed, and confessed, by Christians in every time and place.

And furthermore, “whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith.” The catholic faith is indeed a both/and faith. It embraces Jesus, the Man, the one who is conceived and born in the flesh, who teaches, preaches, suffers and dies. It also embraces Christ the Lord God, who rises from the dead, who commands all things in the universe, visible and invisible, who forgives our sins, who recreates all things anew, who defeats Satan, and who will indeed destroy evil for all eternity.

This faith is also our confession. We do indeed hold the catholic faith in our hearts, and we confess it with our mouths. And it is most certainly a faith, a belief. It is knowledge without proof. It is hope borne of that knowledge. And it is life borne of that hope.

We all believe in Jesus Christ
His own Son, our Lord
Possessing an equal Godhead, throne and might,
Source of every grace and blessing;
Born of Mary virgin mother,
By the power of the Spirit,
Word made flesh, our elder brother;
That the lost might life inherit,
Was crucified for all our sin
And raised by God to life again. Amen.

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

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Sermon: Reminiscere (Lent 2)

4 March 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 15: 21-28 (Genesis 32:22-32, Rom 5:1-5) (One year series)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

This second Sunday in Lent is known by its Latin name: Reminiscere. This is the first word of our Introit in Latin, which comes from Psalm 25, and begins with the prayer: “Remember, O Lord...”

It seems strange to ask God to remember something. Surely God doesn’t need to tie a string around his finger, have his archangels put appointments on Post-Its around the holy throne room of God, or scribble notes in a divine electronic PDA. He’s God. It seems to be a no-brainer that he has a good memory.

In fact, we may worry, like King David, that the Lord’s memory is too good. For in the next verse after he prays: “Remember, O Lord…,” he turns around and prays: “Do not remember…” – just as we did in our Introit.

For like David, we all want God to remember some things: like his promises to us, while forgetting other things, like our sins: “Remember, O Lord, Your tender mercies and Your loving-kindnesses, for they are from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions; according to Your mercy remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord.”

I suppose married people can kind of relate to this “remember, don’t remember” contradiction. We all want our spouses to remember anniversaries, birthdays, and the things we have done right, but we want our spouses to forget all the times we have let them down, hurt their feelings, or forgot something important.

We, the bride of Christ, likewise want a Spouse with a selective memory. And this is what Reminiscere Sunday is all about.

Our Old Testament lesson is a very weird encounter that Jacob has with God. A strange Man shows up in the middle of the night and wants to wrestle. They fight to a draw all night, until the Opponent whacks him on the hip, and leaves Jacob limping. The Opponent asks to be released, but Jacob refuses, and instead demands that his Supernatural Adversary give him a blessing. And so He does. The mysterious Wrestler also changes Jacob’s name to Israel: “He who wrestles with God.” This solves the mystery of who the Wrestler is.

God was testing Jacob. He asked Jacob to go away, but Jacob would not. Jacob demanded that the God of his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac keep his word. God was pleased at this demand – just as any loving father looks upon his children in adoration when they call to mind the father’s promise made out of love for the child. Jacob “won” this wrestling match with God, not because he was bigger, stronger, or a better grappler – but because he clung to the Word of God. God reveals his Word, God keeps His Word, and God is pleased when we demand that God remember His promises.

Nineteen centuries after this historic grappling match, the descendant of both wrestlers (the Son of Jacob and the Son of God) is involved in a similar scuffle. This one was not physical, but mental. Instead of wrestling a man, this time, God, the Word made flesh, debates a woman. Instead of the father of the nation of Israel, this time, God goes toe-to-toe with a daughter of Gentiles.

The woman prays to Jesus, just as we do every Sunday, “Lord, have mercy!” For like us, she is being harassed by evil. Like us, she has family members who are in eternal peril, thanks to the ministrations of the devil. She pleads her case directly to the God-man, the same Protagonist that gave Jacob a gimpy leg. For Jesus is the only Wrestler capable of binding the strong man that holds her daughter hostage. Jesus is the Fighter who will not merely strain a hip tendon, but will fatally crush the skull of the evil one. This Gentile woman loves her daughter, and humbles herself in order to get help.

But Jesus ignores her.

The disciples pick up on this, and actually ask Jesus to send the annoying woman away. It seems that Jesus has no mercy to give, and the disciples don’t seem to have any of their own to spare. But this is only a strategy on the part of our Lord. For He is indeed merciful. For as we prayed in the Introit: “Good and upright is the Lord, therefore He teaches sinners in the way.” He has a lesson to teach this Gentile woman, the disciples, and all of us. The Great Teacher then engages the woman in a debate.

“I was not sent,” says Jesus, “except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Unfazed, she initially replies not with words, but with deeds: she worships Him. Thus she confesses that He is indeed God. Only then she pleads: “Lord, help me.” Our Lord takes the initiative, and counters: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” He reminds her that she is not a daughter of the promise according to the Old Testament. She is little, and she is of no more consequence than a mangy stray canine. But here, our Lord’s worthy opponent proves her mettle, she delivers the winning blow: “Yes, Lord,” notice that she again confesses the divinity of her Adversary, and continues: “yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.”

What a remarkable day! A Gentile woman has “outwitted” God. Of course, “outwitted” is in quotes. She hasn’t won because she is smarter or more gifted in rhetoric than God. Rather, she persists, she refuses to take the bait, she hangs in there, and she holds the Almighty Lord to His promises. Even as we sing in the Liturgy with St. John the Baptist: “Behold, the Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world,” For though she is not a child of Jacob, our blessed and merciful Lord indeed gives “crumbs” to the entire world, the whole kosmos. She, like Jacob, refuses to concede the struggle, and in fact, demands a blessing.

And she got it.

For the Lord delights in His people holding his holy, blessed, nail-punctured feet to the fire. And He further delights in giving us poor, miserable sinners, us little dogs, crumbs from the table. For we are all mangy strays, but we are the Lord’s strays. The pedigreed and pampered purebreds think they need no Savior, but we lost and hungry mongrels know better. The “crumbs” He gives us have fallen to us like holy Manna, and come from a table prepared for us in the face of our enemies. For we all approach this altar with another adversary – not a God who wrestles with us or debates with us, but rather with a true enemy, a hateful roaring lion who seeks to devour us. And so we take these crumbs from the table, realizing that these Crumbs are indeed the Body of Him who defeats the devil, who conquers death, and who vanquishes sin. These crumbs fall from the Master’s table, and the Master delights in giving his children good gifts. He delights in his children when they persist, and demand that the Master keep his promises, that he abide by his own Word.

Lent is a time for us not only to wrestle against Satan, not only a season for us to struggle against our sinful flesh, but also a time to go to the mat with God. We, like Jacob, demand that God bless us, through his very promises found in His holy Word. We, like the sainted Gentile woman, demand that the Lord show us mercy and heal us from the ravages of the devil through the sacramental crumbs that fall like manna from the Master’s table.

In so doing, we can indeed, as St. Paul exhorts, “glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

To those cry out “Lord, have mercy,” our Lord keeps His promises. For His mercies are tender and His loving-kindnesses are from of old. He indeed says to those who seek forgiveness, life, and salvation: “Let it be to you as you desire.” Amen.

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