Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sermon: Feast of St. Cyprian of Carthage

16 Sept 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 6:24-34

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

When people say “Don’t worry,” they are usually offering gentle words of comfort. In today’s Gospel, our Lord’s injunction not to worry does indeed bring us comfort – but there’s more to it than that.

“No one can serve two masters…” He says, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon. Therefore I say to you, do not worry…” Notice how our Blessed Lord links worry to idolatry. If you put your faith in money instead of the True God, you will fret and wring your hands – especially about such things as where the food, clothing, healthcare, and housing will come from. And our Lord tells us such worrying is useless. He scolds us for our “little faith.” Worry is sin, and when we worry, we have transferred our faith to a false god that is doomed to fail. He pounds us with the law, but then comforts us. He gives us beautiful examples from nature and assures us that the Father cares even for blades of grass – and that He will do much more for us.

Of course, these are tough times. Money is an issue for just about everyone. There are many unanswered questions about our future. And for Christians, these are especially trying times. We live in a culture that is increasing hostile to God’s Word and even to common decency. We fret about whether or not our church will survive – and our synod’s panic has even translated to pressure to swap our traditions, hymns, and liturgy for elements of the godless popular culture, all out of worry that we are not “reaching the youth.” Such worries about the future have resulted in division and infighting about what we should do. Unity is hard to come by, whether in the Church or the secular world.

Cyprian of Carthage also lived in trying times for Christians. He was a wealthy pagan who converted to Christianity in the year 246 AD. He gave away his money and said goodbye to his former god Mammon. He was ordained a deacon and then a priest the next year, and by 249 found himself reluctantly the Bishop of Carthage in Northern Africa. The very next year, the Roman Emperor began killing Christians.

Trying times indeed.

Cyprian governed his church in exile for a time – for which he took a lot of flack. Eventually, Bishop Cyprian was arrested and told he had been condemned to death. The sentence was to be carried out immediately. If anyone had good cause for worry, it was the Bishop of Carthage on September 14, 258 AD. Cyprian responded with two Latin words: “Deo gratias” – which translated is: “Thanks be to God!” He calmly removed his vestments, paid the executioner, and confidently allowed his head to be removed from his body with a sword.

For the holy bishop knew our Lord’s words: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”

In his writings, one of Cyprian’s great themes is “unity.” His greatest work is called: “On the Unity of the Catholic Church.” Cyprian did not identify Catholic unity with the pope. In fact, he found himself at odds with the Bishop of Rome in his day. Cyprian wrote that the Bishop of Rome deserves respect, but he has no authority over other bishops. This is the same position we find in our Lutheran Confessions, which were published 1,322 years after Cyprian was called to his heavenly home. In fact, St. Cyprian continues to teach Lutherans today, as he is quoted directly in the Book of Concord!

It is a demonstration of true Christian unity that many of St. Cyprian’s teachings sound similar to Dr. Luther and the Reformers. Concerning the First Commandment, Cyprian wrote: “Whatever a man prefers to god, that he makes a god to himself.” In the Large Catechism, Dr. Luther writes: “Many a one thinks that he has God and everything in abundance when he has money and possessions; he trusts in them and boasts of them with such firmness and assurance as to care for no one. Lo, such a man also has a god, Mammon by name, (i.e.), money and possessions, on which he sets all his heart, and which is also the most common idol on earth.”

Not only does he sound like Cyprian, Luther repeats the words of our Lord when he adds: “He who has money and possessions feels secure, and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise. On the other hand, he who has none doubts and is despondent, as though he knew of no God. For very few are to be found who are of good cheer, and who neither mourn nor complain if they have not Mammon. This [care and desire for money] sticks and clings to our nature, even to the grave.”

Luther and Cyprian before him preached what our Lord tells us anew today: If we are worrying, we are serving a false god, and that idolatry “clings to our nature” and drags us down to the grave.

Cyprian also prefigured Luther by nearly 14 centuries when he wrote: “You cannot have God for your Father if you do not have the Church for your mother.... God is one and Christ is one, and his Church is one; one is the faith, and one is the people cemented together by harmony into the strong unity of a body.”

Luther also calls the Church “the mother that begets and bears every Christian through the word of God.”

For as Christians, as those who look to the eternal Father for sustenance, those begotten by Mother Church through the Word, and who do not look to ourselves or our money to preserve and sustain us, we see ourselves as one body, sharing one faith, redeemed by one baptism, and moving toward one glorious destiny as the bride of the eternal Lord Jesus Christ. We have been created, redeemed, sanctified, washed, claimed, and embraced by Almighty God. We have no reason to fear or fret, and every reason to rejoice and give thanks.

And though we do live in trying times, we are still God’s people. We are still the one church, the holy church, the catholic church, and the apostolic church. And though our eyes see division, sectarianism, denominationism, dissention, infighting, error, confusion, defeat, and everything but unity – we are in no more trying times than St. Cyprian, than Blessed Martin Luther, or than future generations of Christians who will assuredly find themselves being martyred for the sake of the faith. In spite of it all, the eyes of faith see the Church in unity and triumph.

We need not worry because we have the promise of God, the One who oversees His creation with intimate attention to the finest details. Wealth and mammon are worthless, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.

Our dear father in the faith, bishop of the church, brother in Christ, and martyr for the Word of God - St. Cyprian of Carthage - exhorts us to call to mind this unity that even transcends the grave. He wrote: “Let us remember one another in concord and unanimity. Let us on both sides of death always pray for one another. Let us relieve burdens and afflictions by mutual love, that if one of us, by the swiftness of divine condescension, shall go hence the first, our love may continue in the presence of the Lord, and our prayers for our brethren and sisters not cease in the presence of the Father's mercy.”

Do not worry, dear brothers and sisters. The Lord has promised to take care of us through the grave and beyond. We are the beloved children of God our Father and of the one holy Church our mother. The Lord has promised that His bride, would stand firm even against the gates of hell. And this is how it is that even in the face of trying times, of uncertainty, and even confronting death, we can joyfully and confidently say with our brother Cyprian: “Deo gratias – Thanks be to God,” now and unto eternity. Amen.

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

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