Sunday, June 24, 2007

Sermon: Nativity of St. John the Baptist

24 June, 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 1:57-80 (Isa 40:1-8; Acts 19:1-7)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today the Church commemorates St. John the Baptist, the one of whom our Lord said: “Among those born of women there has not risen one greater.”

Our Lord is not one to carelessly fling around flattering words. For consider what He says – there isn’t man born of a woman who is greater than John. Our Lord Himself was born of a woman, and so He is telling us John the Baptist is as great as Himself. Of course, John did not live the perfect life, or die for our sins, nor rise from the dead. But the faith he bears, the repentance he preaches, the condemnation he metes out to the unrepentant, and the Good News he gives to those who earnestly desire peace with God - is the very same faith, preaching, law, and grace worked by our Lord Jesus Himself. In fact, John is a prophet, the greatest prophet, the last prophet to precede the Prophet to end all prophets. John bears the very Word of God – the Word of God that is Jesus Himself.

This is why the Church throughout the world pauses to praise God for John’s life, death, witness, and preaching – his boldness, his suffering for the sake of Christ and His Church, his martyrdom, and his ministry of baptism.

But you will notice that we are not surrounded in the red paraments and vestments that commemorate the death of a martyr. Today, we do not focus on John’s faithful ministry and the laying down of his life for the sake of Christ and His Word – rather we focus on something John could never in a thousand years take credit for: his miraculous birth.

John was conceived by a godly elderly barren woman, St. Elizabeth. She becomes a New Testament reflection of the numerous examples in the Old Testament of the Lord’s favor shown to faithful women who have been subjected to shame for the sake of a fruitless womb.

John’s father, St. Zacharias, was a righteous old priest, who shared in his wife’s shame of not having a child. He faithfully carried out his ministry according to the laws and statues of God, giving the gift of absolution to the people of God based on the covenant of the promised Messiah – who was closer than Zacharias could have imagined. While obediently burning incense as an offering to the Lord, the angel announced that Zacharias’ and Elizabeth’s shame was coming to an end (which was also to mean the shame of the entire world since the sin of Adam and Eve was going to be made right through the birth of this child and his cousin).

For just as the elderly Zecharias and Elizabeth would have to wait no more for the blessing of a son, all the world would soon no longer have to wait for the blessing of all blessings, the birth of the very Son of God. It was to be Zecharias’ son who would point to the Son of God, and give us the gift of the canticle used in our liturgy: “O Christ Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world!”

The Gospel reading for this celebration of St. John’s nativity begins with rejoicing – Elizabeth’s friends and neighbors rejoice and celebrate the great mercy of the Lord shown to her after the birth of her son. In the midst of this rejoicing, Zacharias and Elizabeth still have an obligation to the law. As faithful parents within the covenant of God, they bring their son to shed blood through ritual circumcision. In this ceremony, their son John becomes an adopted son of God, becoming an heir to the kingdom. In this ritual, a young boy is given a name, for his identity is rooted not in himself and his accomplishments, but rather in being born into the family of God through the blood of the covenant.

Zacharias and Elizabeth shock their friends by naming the boy “John” – a break from family tradition, a name that means “God is gracious.” Of course, they did not pick this name, but God Himself did. “God is gracious” means “God is merciful.” It means “God is forgiving.” For this is God’s message to the world through the birth of His last prophet, the final messenger to herald the birth of God in the form of man. The Good News that “God is gracious” is proclaimed through a miraculous birth, a boy born to a woman who, according to science and reason, should never have conceived. John is not only the forerunner to Jesus in his preaching, but even in his very birth.

What makes John as great as any man born of a woman is not his faithfulness (though it is great indeed), not his martyrdom (which is certainly heroic), not his preaching (which is truly the Word of God) – but rather, the very birth our Lord mentions. John was “born of a woman” – and that miraculous birth, that proclamation “God is merciful” carried out by a helpless child born under the curse of the law to aging parents racked by shame – is where his greatness truly lies. John did not become great by what he did for the Kingdom of God, rather he was made great for the sake of what God did in establishing His Kingdom. John did not become St. John at his death, but rather John had already been St. John for nine months by the time he was born, circumcised, and given the name “God is gracious.”

“Among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist…”

John’s sainthood was a gracious gift to John when John could do little more than leap in the womb in confession of being near the yet-unborn Jesus. John’s sainthood was given to him when he was conceived, given birth, circumcised, and called by a name that is also a confession. And John’s life was a testimony to that grace of God, his good works a living out of that grace, his preaching a vocalization of the grace, and his death a blessed entrance to the Kingdom he heralded through the grace of the Savior to whom he pointed.

“Among those born of women,” says our Lord Jesus in tribute, “there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist…” However, our Lord doesn’t end his tribute to His cousin named “God is gracious” here. He goes on to say something curious, something that captures the mystery of the Kingdom of God. He continues: “but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Our Lord Jesus on one hand says “no one is greater…” and then says: “he who is least” is greater.”

The Kingdom of God is not like our fallen, miserable world in which we judge by appearances. It is not like our sinful existence in which each person has a different “worth” depending on usefulness to society, intelligence, material wealth, or any other criterion. The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of mercy, of graciousness, of gifts given. Greatness is a function of humility, the first shall be last, the last shall be first, “every valley shall be exalted and every mountain brought low, the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough places smooth.” What the Godless world calls evil, is in fact, good. What the world and its prince embraces as virtue, is in fact wicked.

The wild-looking preacher in the desert is, according to God’s kingdom, a man of sober greatness. The poor prophet who eats bugs and wears camel hair is, according to God’s kingdom, a man of riches. The provocative teacher who comes across to kings and priests as a trouble-maker is, according to God’s kingdom, the one who ushers in the Prince of Peace. The child whose conception rendered mute a priest of the Old Covenant, was in fact one whose birth brought forth the inspired New Testament song of St. Zacharias, words of Holy Scripture that have been sung by the Church, by those redeemed by the Lamb, by fellow members of this topsy-turvy Kingdom in their liturgy of morning prayer that has continued for centuries:

Blessed is the Lord God of Israel,
For He has visited and redeemed His people,
And has raised up a horn of salvation for us
In the house of His servant David,
As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets,
Who have been since the world began,
That we should be saved from our enemies
And from the hand of all who hate us,
To perform the mercy promised to our fathers
And to remember His holy covenant,
The oath which He swore to our father Abraham:
To grant us that we,
Being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
Might serve Him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.

This glorious hymn composed by the father of John the Baptist on the occasion of John’s nativity is the very summary of the Kingdom of God, of the Christian life. For it is God who saves us, who is merciful, who visits us, and redeems us. He keeps his promises, he remembers his covenant – which means we have this merciful gift of holiness and righteousness, so that we may indeed serve him without fear all the days of our lives – just as the saintly example of his son John has been given to us to emulate.

Thanks be to God for the holy nativity of St. John the Baptist, with whom this day we yet again thank, praise, and worship the “Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world.” Amen.

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


From an actual resume...

Objective To ascertain a position as an educator, that will allow me to instruct and interact with students to obtain their maximum potential. To work assiduously with multi-diversified cultural ethnicities in a therapeutic environment that will be conductive to learning

As they say, if you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance...

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

On a personal note... is my 25th baptismal anniversary.

On 20 June 1982, I was baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit at the age of 18 by the Rev. Alvin Boehlke at Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. On the same day, I was confirmed by the Rev. David Belasic, and was given my first Holy Communion.

I was baptized with a group of about 6 or 7 other adults - everyone else was Hmong (Cambodian). It was probably the one time in my life I towered over everyone else. Of course, such a large number of adults being baptized at once was a rather solemn occasion. The sensation of water on my forehead reminds me of my baptism to this very day.

Of course, I'm grateful to all of my pastors - especially to Pastor Al Boehlke, a soft-spoken Seelsorger from Wisconsin, whose old-fashioned law and gospel sermons brought forgiveness, life, and salvation to myself and others under his gentle care. This kind and faithful pastor patiently taught the faith to me, and gave me a copy of the Augsburg Confession (which I still have in my possession). I read it in one sitting and asked to be baptized.

I spent this auspicious anniversary tutoring Latin students (for six hours), trimming weeds, teaching adult Bible class, saying Mass, and preaching a sermon. Afterwards, I came home, lit my baptismal candle and prayed a prayer of thanksgiving to the Triune God for keeping me in the faith through no worthiness or merit on my own part. My dear wife surprised me with a baptismal birthday gift of a fine beers from around the world and even finer chocolate (not to mention she baked me a cherry pie) - perfect gifts to celebrate the lavish and abundant life given to us by the Holy Trinity. To commemorate my second birth, I drank a Kronenbourg - a French beer from a brewery established in 1664 - exactly three centuries before my first birth.

Today was also marked by a milestone regarding my two-and-a-half year old son Leo (whom I had the honor to baptize into his second birth the day after I cut his umbilical cord following his first birth). It seems the little genius found my old digital camera, and on his own, figured out how to operate it. He shot quite a few pictures of, shall we say, random subjects. Grace helped him take a few more shots of actual things. Later on, I showed him how to line up images in the LCD viewfinder - and so he took his first two portraits - one of me, and one of his mother.

So, 25 years to the day after my own baptism (of which I have no picture), my son (whom I baptized with my own hand) has taken his fist snapshot of his father and pastor.

Milestones such as a 25th baptismal anniversary are times to reflect on the grace of God, as well as on the ironical fact that in the baptismal life of the Christian, time blends into eternity - where the very concept of marking time becomes meaningless.

And yet, just the same, today was a remarkable day for me to observe within the confines of time - thanks to a humble pastor, a shell-full of water, and the mighty Word of God that converged on my head 25 years ago today.

Baptizatus sum. Deo gratias in saecula saeculorum!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Technology, Chimeras, and the Devil

This article about inter-species cloning made me ponder the theological and ethical issues. Just a few thoughts out loud...

1) Technology can be a gift of God, or a tool of Satan to oppose God. There are sects of Christians, such as some Amish people, who believe technology is always a bad thing, and they generally seek to stop the clock of technology at the horse-and-buggy stage. They make the mistake of viewing God's gift of the mind and reason as completely evil, that technology is never a gift of God that can be used for good. On the other hand, our culture pretty much goes 180 degrees the other way, supporting unfettered technology. If we can do it, we should - especially if there are "benefits" to us.

Of course, there are always unintended consequences - and ethicists argue about how to manage these often unforeseen circumstances (think Jurassic Park).

Traditional Christians may want to remind themselves of the lesson of the Tower of Babel. In Genesis 11, the descendants of Noah were supposed to spread out and repopulate the world. Instead, a large number gathered into a city, began to see themselves as great, ignored the divine mandate, and using the cutting-edge technology of uniform baked bricks (instead of randomly-sized stones) and mortar, began to build skyscrapers. They sought to make a name for themselves by challenging God's dominion over heaven. Their building project became an idol. God did not approve, and confused their languages - thus destroying their lofty plans.

The Babelites used technology as a means to "play God" and in the end, their efforts came to naught.

2) God's mandate for man to multiply is under diabolical attack.
From the beginning, man was instructed to "be fruitful and multiply" and was given a rather pleasant natural method of reproduction (which incidently mixes the gene pool quite well and provides a nurturing environment for children).

However, there have always been those who want power of life and death - those who run concentration camps, those who engage in selective breeding and eugenics, those who sterilize "undesirables" etc. In recent years, "birth control" and abortion have become technological "solutions" to the "problem" of unwanted life. To be master of life and death is to truly "play God." The modern wranglings over euthenasia, assisted suicide, etc. are often cast as pure technological issues. In the twentieth century, even in otherwise orthodox churches, contraception became ethically acceptable. Ironically, in churches that allow, or even bless, contraceptive technology, their numbers are dwindling - a divine judgment brought upon themselves by the very technology they have embraced.

And now, technology has advanced to where living embryos and fetuses are able to be screened for flaws which may preclude their being born. Soon, parents will be able to manipulate genetic data to create their own "designer children" as though they are ordering toppings on a pizza. Not only is this "playing God," it will result in all kinds of cultural and sociological upheavals - e.g. generations of people obsessed with bodily perfection, unequal numbers of men and women, etc. The natural diversity of the human form will give way to a "super race" mentality.

3) The incarnation and the image of God are under attack with this technology.
The current fascination with mixing human and animal genes, growing them into living embryos for spare parts, for research, or for God knows what, is yet another example of the diabolical use of technology. Even in ancient times, the idea that mankind was created in the image of God was mocked by Satan through the crafting of false gods that mixed human and animal forms. For example, the Philistine god "Dagon" was a chimera of human and fish.

Not only do chimeras mock the in imago Dei of man, they also mock the incarnation. For when God takes the form of a man, man is exalted to the Godhead by virtue of Jesus Christ. Humanity is thus the very icon of the divine. What better diabolical mockery of this incarnational mystery than to not only confuse the Creator with the creature, but also to degrade man to the level of beasts not made in the image of God.

The ability to clone and splice genetic material from humans and animals - and create fertilized eggs incorporating both - is a way of drawing confusion between what God had separated in his order of creation. It is a way of taking the chimera out of the realm of fanstasy stone idols and making them real creatures.

While the general culture doesn't view an embryo as a person, the fact of the matter is that once again, scientists are playing the role of pagan priests challenging the hegemony of the True God, seeking to be creators, instead of protectors, of life. While they swear upon stacks of Darwin's Origin of Species that they will never allow such embryos to come to term, inevitably, the question "why not?" will arise. If there can be some "benefit" to the rest of us (for instance, spare organs, medical research, or even the creation of superstar athletes), eventually such ethical prohibitions will be lifted. And even if they aren't someone, somewhere, will try it.

Consider the horror of chimeras not only living as embryos, but actually being born. What will happen when we have a human mind stuck in the body of a cow? Will a cross between human and mule be given the right to vote, own property, and marry, or will such a creature merely be a slave and pack animal for anyone rich enough to buy him? Will such creatures be grown in veal cages and kept alive for organ harvesting?

Will such chimeras bear the image of God? Will they have human rights? Do we baptize them? Will God simply not allow us to take technology that far? Or will we destroy ourselves through unintended consequences of messing with DNA and "playing God"? Genetic tinkering is our generation's Tower of Babel.

All we can do is pray: "Come Lord Jesus."

Sunday, June 17, 2007

One Lutheran...Ablog!™: Innocence Lost


An extraordinary post by my friend, classmate, and brother LCMS pastor, Rev. Paul Beisel.

Paul is a delegate to the 2007 convention of The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. His observations about the politicization of our synod are frank and blunt.

Thanks for your integrity and courage to say what needed saying, Paul. I have no doubt that some folks are going to approach you and try to make you shut up and just go along with the program. The folks in our congregations need to know what goes on in their name with the money they have been assessed.

The Word of God and the Faith of our Fathers are not subject to the whims of a political process.

Sermon: Trinity 2

17 June 2, 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 14:15-24 (Prov 9:1-10; 1 John 3:13-18)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

In our Gospel text, our Lord Jesus spins a tale that could make Rod Serling take a long drag on his cigarette and nod admiringly on a little black and white TV screen. For this parable of our Lord is short and sweet, but it is one that can be studied and examined for a lifetime without exhausting its riches. It is a parable that reveals the grace and love of God and the nature of His kingdom. There is no more clear picture of the Gospel than you will find in this little narrative, which our Lord Himself has “submitted for your approval.”

Just before Jesus begins the story, one of His listeners proclaims: “Blessed is the man who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God! Of course, we Christians, we who feed on the living Bread from Heaven, we truly understand that the bread of which this man speaks is not ordinary bread (which is in and of itself a truly wondrous gift of God), rather this bread, the bread of the Kingdom is the flesh of Jesus given for the life of the world.

But the world rejects this bread, just as they rejected Him when they crucified Him, just as they continue to mock Him, to forsake Him, and to seek after other gods today. But Jesus is not only rejected by the world, by those outside of the church, we reject Jesus every time we sin. We reject the bread of the kingdom when we pay homage to our own worthless idols instead of submitting to Him who creates, redeems, and sanctifies us. We reject this bread when the invitations have gone out, when all things are ready, and when we find other activities to do that we consider more important than breaking bread with God.

For Satan is not only the father of lies, he is the father of excuses. Satan not only deceives those who openly reject Christ, those who do not believe: the mockers, the idolaters, those who worship gods of their own making, he also deludes believers by tempting them to skip the holy life-giving banquet here and there for the sake of something more fun, more fulfilling, or more lucrative.

One of my classmates and colleagues in the ministry received a note from one of his flock that said: “I guess if it were up to me we would be doing some contemporary worship and praise services on occasion… I wish we had the opportunity to do that more in some of our services instead of being told how we can’t do anything Sunday after Sunday, so we should just sit back and appreciate God’s gifts to us by going to communion.”

Blessed is the man who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God.

So important is it to the evil one that Christians not partake of the holy sacrament that he even deceived many generations of otherwise pious and devout Lutherans to see to it that Holy Communion was offered less than every week. Of course, all sorts of excuses are offered for not having communion on Sunday, all worthless excuses conjured up by Satan and his minions.

But before we become smug, dear sinner-saints of Salem, patting ourselves on the back for offering the sacrament every Sunday and Wednesday, let us examine ourselves honestly. Do we really see this Holy Supper as the most important meal we will ever eat? Will we go to any trouble, make any sacrifice, pay any price, rearrange our schedules at all cost, and completely plan our lives around the precious opportunities to “eat bread in the kingdom of God”?

If anyone in this sanctuary answers “yes,” you need to repent, for you are lying to yourself. Your sinful flesh will not allow you such perfection. On the other hand, if you answer “no,” you need to repent for taking God’s gift for granted, and for grieving the Holy Spirit. We all need to repent – which is why our Lord gives us this “blest communion” that promises the forgiveness of sins in the first place.

For ponder our Lord’s parable. The “certain man” invites many to supper. This is no ordinary man, but the Master of all things, visible and invisible. And this is no ordinary supper, but a “great supper”, a banquet thrown by God Himself. Following the invitation of the many, the RSVPs begin to come in with all sorts of excuses for not coming.

For the purposes of the tale, our Lord gives three examples. The first two excuses both involve business. The third involves a family obligation. Though work and family obligations are important, the master of the feast is terribly insulted. His feast ought to take priority over even these things. Taking one day off work is not much to ask, considering the Master has created us, has shown mercy to us, and given us eternal life. A Sabbath day of fellowship with Him, of receiving His gifts, of being a good son or daughter doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

The mercy of the master has been spurned. His gracious offer has been taken for granted. He has been treated rudely by those for whom He lovingly sacrificed, loved, and gave of Himself. He is hurt, grieved, and angry.

And so the master’s mercy is at an end.

What a terrifying picture! The life-sustaining grace of God is withheld. Instead, His wrath is exposed. The invitation is revoked. The master’s servants are told to find new guests at the table. The doors of the merciful Lord are swung open to all those who do not take Him for granted, while the doors are bolted shut to those who would rather engage in commerce or family activities apart from the table of the master.

The master drags in all sorts of disreputable people: wheezing bums, welfare wards, hobbling cripples, sinners, cheats, frauds, tax collectors, prostitutes, drug dealers, lepers, those with shady pasts, the dirty, the smelly, and the homeless. Last Sunday’s reading speaks of just who is invited to the banquet when the rich are too busy to come: a starving beggar on the street whose festering sores are lapped by filthy stray dogs.

The dregs of humanity amble their way to the ornate place settings and mountains of sumptuous food.

What a glorious picture of the church! How true it is, and thanks be to God for it. We are here not because we are spiritually rich, but rather because we are poor in spirit (and ours indeed is the kingdom of God). We aren’t here because it’s the trendy thing – in fact, the world mocks us (and even hates us as John tells us in our epistle text) for believing as we do, kneeling to receive a bit of bread and a sip of wine, and calling it a feast. Apart from faith it just seems silly. We aren’t here because taking part in this banquet will make us richer. In fact, we are called upon to give to the Lord with the same faith as the poor widow who gave her two pennies – everything she had - to the temple treasury. In reality, we own nothing, but are merely stewards of what belongs to God.

We are here because we, the unworthy, the sinful, the sick, the suffering, and the dying, have been graciously invited. By our own reputations, we don’t belong here. This is God’s holy house, and we are ragamuffins. This is a palace, and we are vagrants. This is a table fit for kings and angels, and we are criminals more fit for a jail cell.

And because we don’t belong here is exactly why we do belong here. For like a story on The Twilight Zone, there is an unexpected ending, a great twist, in this case, a happy exchange.

What makes you worthy, dear brothers and sisters, is your acknowledged unworthiness. Those who swagger their way to this table like they own the place will be turned back. Those who are convinced of their righteousness and fitness for eternal reward will be sent away on the Day of Judgment. But those who come with head bowed, with a self-conscious sense of not belonging, those who step falteringly with heart pounding to this banquet table, those who kneel seeking the forgiveness of Him whom we have offended – they are declared worthy, invited, raised up without shame, washed, clothed, and made rich beyond all measure.

The Master Himself invites you. Hear His joyful Word in our Old Testament reading: “Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine I have mixed. Forsake foolishness and live.” He has given us His bread, the bread of His body, and He has given us His wine, the wine he has mixed Himself, mixed and poured from His veins to place in the cup of salvation for our forgives, our salvation, and especially for our life. For we have “passed from death to life.” Let us forsake the foolishness of the devil’s delusions and excuses. Let us acknowledge our sin and humbly and gratefully join the Master in this most glorious feast that has no end! Amen.

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

Saturday, June 16, 2007

A backhanded compliment!

I ran across a traditionalist Roman Catholic's blog (and I am deeply sympathetic to his complaints about how non-traditionalists and their liturgical radicalism have truly hurt the faith and practice within churches of the Roman communion - we too bear a similar cross).

Anyway, I enjoyed his remark under the topic "Horror Stories"...

Another priest there used to insist that people consume all of the remaining sacramental elements after his mass, because he was "uncomfortable" with the idea of adhering presence. I told him he really ought to think about becoming a Lutheran, earning me an irritated look. He wasn't anywhere near good enough as a preacher to be a Lutheran anyway.

Even among traditionalist Roman Catholics (at least some), Lutheran pastors enjoy a reputation and respect for their proclamation of the Gospel.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Some Questions...

Am I being unreasonable in my belief that a young woman funeral home employee ought not be wearing a skin-tight miniskirt in my sanctuary during a funeral at which she is working and over which I am officiating? And would it have been proper to say something to her and risk making a scene in the sanctuary in front of the grieving family? [For the record, I was hoping to say something discreetly to her after the graveside service, but she did not go with the other workers to the cemetery. I considered making a visit to the funeral home, and still might - but I am honestly unsure of how to best address the situation. I'm not even sure she is an employee - she may actually be the daughter of one of the directors. Things were so much simpler when modesty was something to take for granted.] We do have to work with the folks at this funeral home, and I'm just not sure there is a way to address the matter without coming off as a jerk - especially considering that she may never show up again anyway. I can just imagine the scandal if she were to go to an Eastern Orthodox or Tridentine Roman church - or Moslem Mosque for that matter - so clad. Too bad such things seldom shock Lutherans these days. Ideas?

How is it that members of the Missouri Synod (that is to say, congregations, pastors, and lay church workers) can not only hold and teach false (not merely errant, but diabolical) doctrine - but further to actually publish such beliefs in the synodical convention handbook? The example I'm thinking of involves a congregation that is proposing that the LCMS allow the "ordination" of women. Instead of censure or removal from synod for deviation from Holy Scripture - the synod actually published their proposal! I will go out on a limb and predict that nothing, absolutely nothing, will happen to them as a consequence of their public repudiation of the Bible. Meanwhile, I know of a faithful pastor who was not long ago hauled before a super-secret LCMS tribunal and was nearly expelled from synod over a technical handbook issue that had nothing at all to do with false doctrine or moral turpitude. What if one of our churches or pastors sent a memorial to the synod proposing that we worship Satan, or perhaps proposing to add a fourth person to the Trinity, or maybe proposing that the resurrection of our Lord be considered merely a myth? Would the synod simply publish such proposals and forward them off to a committee for debate? Does this kind of thing fall under the rubric of Christian freedom according to our synod? What gives?

Has any pastor, congregation or other member of the LCMS been removed from the roster for advocating women "clergy"? If not, why not?

And while on the topic of priestesses, I'm disappointed that Concordia Theological Semininary (from which I graduated in 2004) will allow the pan-Lutheran Society of the Holy Trinity (STS) to hold its general retreat on campus. Women "pastors" will be staying in CTS dorms. Will they also be leading worship in Kramer Chapel? Will our beautiful campus be desecrated by the sight of women wearing clerical collars, cassocks, and ecclesiastical vestments on the grounds of the seminary and in the chapel? Will there be a joint communion service between ELCA and LCMS pastors (as the current Senior of the Society has written he supports happening at STS retreats)? Hopefully, the STS will be sensitive to their host venue's "Neanderthal" views on scripture and at least be discreet in their gender-bender abominations. Here's a shot from their 2005 retreat's communion service (picture this at Kramer, CTS grads)...

Of course, I know there are indeed faithful LCMS pastors (I know several) who somehow swallow hard and overlook the priestess issue and belong to the STS. I also know the seminary is financially strapped. But can anyone hold conferences and religious services at CTS if they just flash the cash?

And finally...

How could America vote to send Melinda Doolittle home? I know this is old news, yea, even ancient news - but man, I'm still puzzled. Mrs. Hollywood (who never asks for anything) has specifically requested that whenever Miss Doolittle records a CD, Mrs. H. would like to have it - regardless of what musical genre it is. She can sing anything, absolutely anything, with poise, elan, and sheer joy - and make it all look so easy. She also seems like a genuinely kind and humble person.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sermon: Wednesday of Trinity 1

13 June 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA Text: Luke 16:19-31

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

There’s an old saying: “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.” Our Lord Himself said as much in the Parable of the Talents: “For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.”

In our Gospel text, Jesus makes the same point by telling a different parable.

Of course, to our sinful flesh and to the world, the very opposite seems true. There are two men in this little tale. One is not given a name, he is simply called “a certain rich man.” He wears the finest clothes and eats the best meals. The other is a beggar. He is hungry, and his skin is covered with sores. There could not be a greater contrast between the “haves” and the “have nots” here.

But like all great short stories, there is a twist in the plot. Our Lord Jesus takes us to scene two. Both men die, and we find out that what seemed to be wealth, security, and happiness in the eyes of the world, as judged by our sinful flesh, was nothing more than an illusion. Our “rich” man was in fact poor. He had a few trinkets that wear out, and temporary comforts that are useless now. For he amassed “treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy,” forsaking the true treasures of the kingdom of God For where his treasure was, there was his heart. And his heart was with the gifts instead of with the Giver.

The poverty of our so-called rich man is apparent for all to see. For he is too poor to even buy a thimble of water, too poor to hire transportation to go the short distance that separates himself from Abraham’s Bosom. He is too poor to engage a messenger to warn his brothers of what is to come unless they forsake the path that leads to the poor rich man’s fate.

But consider the beggar. In the eyes of the world, his life was worthless. He wore rags. He ate garbage. His festering wounds were licked by dogs. He was despised, stricken, smitten, and afflicted. He was laughed at. People wagged their heads at him. He was rejected by his own people, the smug, the well-to-do, the spiritually arrogant. And yet, this beggar was truly rich – in spite of appearances, and in spite of the sinful world’s erroneous conclusions.

For what the beggar lacked in trinkets, in gadgets, in luxuries, in wasteful indulgence, in trust in his own possessions, he made up for in his faith. We know the beggar was a believer, for after his death, he was “carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.”

With the eyes of this sinful flesh, we see a loser, a man cursed of God, a person to be ignored or even trampled. But with the eyes of faith we see a man wealthy beyond all measure, a son of God, an heir of all things in the universe, a man whose treasure is in heaven.

The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. To him who has, more will be given. To him who has not, even that will be taken away.

Of course, this strikes us as terribly unfair. Why doesn’t God take a more Marxist approach and take from him who has, and share with him who has not? Why doesn’t God allow the rich man’s brothers to be warned? Why didn’t God intervene in the life of the rich man to prevent him from the torment he suffers now?

Our Lord Jesus addresses this in the shocking conclusion of the story. For God indeed did warn the rich man. For God’s messenger, the reverend Father Abraham tells the poor rich man: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” All the world has been warned not to be deceived by transient worldly riches, by all that glitters, by the passing things of this world. For material things are not bad – in fact, our Lord called all creation “good” at creation. But they do become bad when they are misused, when they become false gods, when they become impediments for God’s kingdom.

The rich man was so distracted by the shiny things of this world that he spent a lifetime ignoring the desperate pleas of God’s prophets and of the Holy Scriptures. God did indeed come to him in many and various ways, but the man would not listen. He chose to serve Mammon instead of the God who so earnestly wished to take him into Paradise, into Abraham’s Bosom.

The rich man protests to Father Abraham: “But if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Jesus delivers the punch line, the moral of the story, through the mouth of Father Abraham: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.”

Those blinded by riches, those who turn God’s good and gracious gifts into idols, those who serve their own bellies instead of their neighbors – will neither be convinced by Scripture, nor by the historic reality of the empty tomb. Their ears are shut up, their hearts are hardened, and they have decided to suffer eternal poverty for the sake of a few temporary comforts.

Dear brothers and sisters, our Lord is warning us. Don’t be deceived as the rich man was. Don’t allow Satan to win you over by tempting you with baubles. For the evil foe tried that with our Lord in the desert, and our Lord spurned him with Scripture. It was also in the desert that John the Baptist lived, and in baptism, you are given riches beyond measure.

Your baptism, your faith, your status as a son of God is of infinitely more value than anything this world can give. Any one of us can lose every one of our material possessions in the blink of an eye. But no calamity by fire or water can take away your baptism, can negate the Word of God, can undo the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Any one of us could end our life in this world with not even a bed of our own, covered with sores, in hunger and in pain. And even if the world mocks us or ignores us, we have treasure beyond compare.

We who are rich will indeed be richer. For our Lord is lavish. He shares all that he has with those whom he loves. But those who are poor (even if they appear rich to the world) will indeed be poorer. For our Lord pleads with them to come into His kingdom, he beckons, he cajoles, he woos. At times he uses the stick, other times he dangles the carrot. He himself is the wounded beggar who gives his life for those who reject him, pleading for them to repent and seek first the kingdom of God – promising that all other things will be added as well. But our Lord will not compel. He will not force. He will not drag a person kicking and screaming into true riches and into Abraham’s Bosom.

Let us store up riches in heaven, dear friends. Let us continue to hear Moses and the prophets – for they have good news for us, and many riches to bestow on us. Let us be persuaded by Him who has indeed risen from the dead, the beggar who is indeed a king, the One who promises to send his angels to carry us to Abraham’s Bosom. Let us hear the Word of God, and keep it. Let us rejoice in the riches of the sumptuous feast laid before us this evening. Let us enjoy the things of this world, while knowing where our true treasure lies. And let us remember our baptismal treasure that cleanses our wounds and gives us riches on top of our riches.

For the rich do indeed get richer, now and unto eternity.

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

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Sermon: The Feast of the Holy Trinity

3 June 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 3:1-17 (Isa 6:1-7, Rom 11:33-36)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

There are no non-Catholics in heaven.

Do you believe that? It’s what you said just a few moments ago as we confessed the Athanasian Creed: “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally.” And, “This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.”

There are no non-Catholics in heaven.

The Creed goes on to describe what the catholic faith is: worship of the Holy Trinity, and confession of the divinely incarnate, crucified, and risen Jesus Christ.

In the other creeds, we confess “one holy catholic and apostolic church” – though we American Lutherans have been saddled with a bad translation of the word “catholic” into English as “Christian.” For “catholic” – as properly translated in today’s Creed – is an important word. It means our faith, the saving faith, the one true Christian faith, is not an individual matter. Your faith is not “your” faith, but “our” faith (just as God is not merely “your” Father, but “our” Father).

The faith through which God saves, the faith of Jesus and the apostles, is universal, not limited by space and time, transcending language, culture, denomination, and nationality. It is the faith that has always been taught by the Church – which is herself a catholic entity – not limited to this congregation or that denomination, this synod, or that political affiliation. To be catholic means literally in the Greek language of the New Testament to be wholesome, universal, holistic, in its entirety, and one and the same regardless of time or place. In other words, the catholic faith is the same now as it was when the apostles preached, when our Lord Jesus walked the earth, when the prophets proclaimed the justice and the mercy of God, when the Triune God Himself created the world and called it “good.”

For apart from the recent superstitious delusion of atheism, everyone knows that creation logically requires a Creator. We can use reason to prove this much. But anything further requires revelation, a revealing, an unveiling of the Truth by God Himself. Without such revelation, men are left to wander and grope in the dark, guessing and inventing myths, speculating about the nature of God and the universe.

Consider Nicodemus in our reading. As a Pharisee, he did not cling to the catholic faith. His religious system denied the incarnation and the Trinity as well as distorted the revelation of God in Holy Scripture regarding grace and works. To his credit, Nicodemus knew that his religion was deficient. He went to Jesus seeking answers. As a lost and condemned person, he had to wander and grope about in the middle of the night in search of revelation. By God’s grace, he received it. But only because Jesus gave it to him.

“Unless one is born of water and the Spirit,” our Lord tells him, “he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” For, to hold the catholic faith is much more than simply being able to give the right doctrinal answer. Jesus informs Nicodemus (and us) that entering God’s Kingdom is not a prize for intellectual cleverness, not a payoff for memorizing the catechism. Quite the contrary, it is a birthright. Those who enter God’s kingdom do so not by their deeds, but by virtue of the silver spoon, having the right parents. You have to be born into this kingdom – born again of water and the Spirit. And having been born anew spiritually, Christians are then fed and nourished for their health and growth.

Christians are made at baptism and are nourished by lifelong feeding upon Word and sacrament - not made (and graduated) at confirmation, nor are they argued into the faith by clever debate or by the will to believe.

This is not something logic and reason can deduce. In fact, this “birthright” way of entering the Kingdom is illogical and contrary to reason. It strikes us as unfair and arbitrary. That is why

God saves us through “the catholic faith” and not through “the catholic logic.

We can no more comprehend the Trinity, understand how the Holy Spirit delivers eternal life through water and Word, grasp the mystery of how bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ, and plumb the “depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God” than a little child can understand the Law of Gravity. And yet, we can confess this catholic truth and trust God’s Word in spite of our reason’s objections just as a little child can trust that somehow he will not fall off the face of the earth even without knowing the first thing about physics.

For just as our Lord verbally teaches, instructs, reproves, and encourages Nicodemus, and reveals the catholic faith to him, he likewise reveals knowledge of Himself and of the other persons of the Holy Trinity to us through His proclaimed Word to the apostles and through the written Word of Holy Scripture.

And while God reveals some things about Himself to His chosen people, the Church, some things remain a mystery. In fact, the pastor’s work in distributing Holy Communion is called “stewardship of the mysteries.” As St. Paul asks rhetorically in our epistle lesson from his letter to the Church at Rome: “How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor?”

There are those things that have been revealed to us, and there are those things that remain mysterious. And yet, we know enough to know our own limitations. By God’s boundless grace, we can indeed confess what we don’t fully understand.

We don’t know why the Lord is merciful. It is indeed a revelation of the Father when, per our Old Testament lesson, Isaiah finds himself standing before God’s awesome and terrible throne room, doorposts shaking, angels cowering and flying to and fro, incense smoke swirling, eternal divine liturgical worship of the Triune God who is not merely holy, but “holy, holy, holy.” Without anyone preaching the law to him, Isaiah is suddenly overwhelmed by his sins. He is merely feet away from the Almighty, and he knows that he is destined for total annihilation and destruction. But notice what happens: God instructs an angel to carry a holy element to Isaiah’s sinful lips, and Isaiah’s very real uncleanness is burned away by this communion. Reason tells Isaiah that he is “undone,” but the revelation of God tells Isaiah “your iniquity is taken away and your sin purged.” By virtue of his office as a servant of the Word, the angel is empowered to forgive Isaiah’s sin and allow him to stand before God.

Forgiven Isaiah can now “worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.” He can now believe. He can now confess the faith. He can now hold the faith.

This is the catholic faith. This is the saving faith. This is the very faith of which St. James writes in his epistle, the living faith that yields good works. For the Athanaisian Creed further defines the catholic faith in this way: “those who have done good will enter into eternal life and those who have done evil [will enter] into eternal fire.” Our works flow from our faith, and the catholic faith is a mystery.

No amount of clever philosophy or sophisticated scientific inquiry can draw such conclusions about the mystery of our perfect, merciful, triune, and incarnate God. The catholic faith is a revealed faith. It is a confessed faith. It is a lived faith. It is the faith that bears the fruits of repentance and service to neighbor. It is the only faith that bears the promise of eternal life and the boundless forgiveness of sin. It is the faith held by the faithful angels before Adam and Eve were created, and it is the faith rejected by unfaithful Lucifer when he refused to submit to God’s created order. It is the faith lovingly delivered to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and it is the faith that was deemed of less value to them than a bite of a forbidden fruit that delivered knowledge not meant to be revealed by God. It is the faith of the New Adam, “perfect God and perfect Man,” the One who submitted to His Father’s will, having become the atoning sacrifice for the sins of all.

For the wants, desires, and yes even the well-intentioned faith of the individual are the enemies of what our Creed calls both the “Christian truth” and the “catholic religion”. The individual in his pride battles against submission to what God has revealed and what the Church of every time and place has always confessed. Even the word “church” in Greek, “ecclesia” – is an assembly, a group. The Church is not an individual thing, but rather as we confess in the Apostles Creed, a “communion of saints.” Our Lord Himself speaks of believers as a diversity of sheep in need of being herded into a flock. He warns of the dangers of those individualistic sheep who become separated, and of the need of shepherds to seek out the lost and the wandering and bring them back to the fold.

The opposite of the catholic faith is the faith of the heretic. The catholic faith is faith in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as confessed by the church catholic, whereas the faith of the heretic is a faith in himself, in his own private interpretation of Scripture, in his own claimed revelations from God. The world is full of cults and sects who have wandered from the catholic fold and have no idea the danger they are in.

An individual Christian, even one who prays and reads his Bible faithfully, but who avoids coming to church, is living in a state of false security. He trades the catholic faith for a faith of his own invention. He is destined to become food for the lurking wolf and prowling lion. For as we confess in our Creed, the saving faith is not individual, but catholic. It is not held privately, but confessed collectively and in public. We are branches of a common Vine, not separate plants. The true faith is not modern and contemporary, but timeless and eternal. It is not the Missouri faith, nor the Lutheran faith, but rather the catholic faith – having been confessed before there was a Missouri Synod, before the birth of Martin Luther, before the incarnation of our Lord, and even before Adam was formed from the earth.

The saving faith, the catholic faith, is not whatever the individual dreams up, interprets, or desires – but rather is a submission to what God our Father and the Church our mother have taught and continue to faithfully and unchangingly teach their children. For we children are born of water and the Spirit, cleansed by the Word and the mysteries, confessors of the same true faith held by all who have been made worthy to stand in the throne-room of the one true God, whom we worship both in His Unity and in His Trinity, through the incarnate Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, in the Unity of the Holy Spirit, now and unto eternity. Amen.

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

Friday, June 01, 2007

"A Tale of Two Oh!s" or "TGIG!"

I just made the long commute from church to the Presbytère (the Hollywood Rectory) - a three minute trek on foot. Having wearily wiped the blazing Louisiana sun from my presbyterial brow (I love the smell of hyperbole in the cool of the afternoon), I espied a glimpse of a heavy-laden mailbox. What could this be? Perhaps a care-package from my father who has been helping me re-establish my ham radio station (today is Day One of Hurricane Season, after all)? Maybe a book that I've ordered from Amazon and forgotten about (which is always a treat)? Might could be (which is, O Purist, a proper Southern verbal construction) a package ordered by Mrs. Hollywood?

So, with a newfound vigor, I bound up the steps to the porch and make a lunge for it. And what, pray tell, do I see? A shrink-wrapped bundle of Teutonically stiff papers with the LCMS Corporate Logo(tm) emblazoned in its nausea-inducing purple-and-pink glory on the front. According to the verbiage on the cover, it is the "Biographical Synopses & Statements of Nominees Submitted by Committee for Convention Nominations 2007." As if I'm going to interrupt my summer reading of Augustine's City of God to slog through several hundred pages of mind-and-soul-numbing bureaucracy.

"Oh crap!" I exclaim out loud, crestfallen (and please, dear reader, don't ask Fr. Hollywood to make a grammatical clarification as to whether or not the above sentence is proscriptive, descriptive, or merely interjectory).

I begin to shrink faster than Governor Blanco's approval rating.

However, like (hopefully) some Lutheran sermons, this little tale doesn't end on a downer, but makes the shift from Law to Gospel. For the Good News, by the grace of our benevolent, blessed Lord (who is not only merciful beyond measure, but who also bears a sense of humor), is that another package emerged underneath the one that elicited the excretory exclamation. In fact, within less than one second, my sighing "Oh crap!" was turned into a singing "Oh yeah!" The two outbursts were literally uttered in the same breath. What could more precisely embody the Christian life than that juxtaposition of interjections?

With King David and our blessed Lord, I could now proclaim in full Gregorian goodness: "Convertísti planctum meum in gáudium mihi" (Ps 30:11).

This Gospel came in the form of my latest issue of Gottesdienst. It arrived in a weightier package than usual, as I've recently upgraded to a bulk subscription of ten - so as to make them available in the narthex of our church. Gottesdienst is a journal that champions solid, traditionalist theology within the Confession of Augsburg - especially pertaining to the sacred liturgy of the Church catholic.

And, to my delight, further confirming the divine sense of humor, the back page of the current issue (Trinity 2007) of Gottesdienst is a tongue-in-cheek account of the "LCMS Convention Procedings for the Year 2025."

Indeed, the Lord laughs at the folly of men (Ps 2:4).

"You have turned for me my mourning into dancing!" (Ps 30:11, as rendered by the NKJV in the secular English as opposed to the heavenly Latin). Or, if you prefer, you could sing the refrain from the Hymnal Supplement 98's version of Psalm 30 at the risk of getting the "And like a good neighbor, State Farm is there" jingle stuck in your head for the next three hours - the choice is yours...

Anyway, if you still aren't getting Gottesdienst, what are you waiting for? This solidly Lutheran(and very reasonably-priced) publication is by far a more valuable use of your time than poring over, shall we say, other kinds of mail that you will receive.

Oh yeah! TGIG: Thank God it's Gottesdienst!