Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sermon: Quinquagesima – 2017

26 February 2017

Text: Luke 28:31-43

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

“Your faith has made you well,” says our Lord.  He says this many times during His ministry as He heals the sick. In this case, our Lord restores sight to a blind man in response to his prayer: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”

Of course, Jesus made him well.  But notice that our Lord emphasizes the role of faith.  Jesus uses our faith to make us well.  Our faith is important, and paradoxically, our faith is also a gift of God.

So where does this faith come from?  What strengthens our faith?  St. Paul teaches us that “faith comes by hearing… the Word of Christ.”  And as we pray after receiving the Holy Eucharist, that God would “strengthen us through the same,” that is, through receiving the “salutary gift” of the Lord’s Supper, our faith is indeed strengthened.

This Gospel text is the very last one that we will hear in preparation for the beginning of Lent.  And Lent is the perfect time to focus on our faith.  Just as many people resolve to “get into shape” physically after the holidays or after the new year or before swimsuit season, Lent provides Christians with a perfect opportunity to strengthen our faith by being where Jesus is, by hearing Him proclaim the Law and the Gospel, by receiving His sure and certain Word of Holy Absolution, by partaking of the Holy Supper.  All of these things strengthen our faith.  And when we pray the scriptures, when we study the Word of God, we are also steeling ourselves for spiritual warfare, to endure the crafts and assaults of the devil that we face in this fallen and embattled world.

We modern people enjoy a lot of blessings, and we also carry our share of crosses.  In modern life, we don’t have to slave over farms from sun up to sun down.  Many of us are able to sit for long hours at a time – even as we work.  We don’t have to walk to a village well and tote buckets of water.  We have indoor plumbing at the touch of a handle.  We have machines and conveniences to do most everything for us.  We hardly even have to look at books anymore, as our phones seem to have all the answers to every question, and even some answers to questions that we never thought to ask.

We have unprecedented free time and entertainments, and we don’t have to move nearly as much as our ancestors.  

But these things have had unintended consequences.  Our muscles weaken and our bones become brittle.  Our hearts become feeble, and our lungs become frail.  And as a result, in order to strengthen our bodies, we now run on treadmills and ride bikes that don’t go anywhere.  We lift weights only to put them down again.  We take supplements and vitamins and minerals to acquire what our modern diets of convenience and comfort lack.   We have to work out artificially in order to be as fit as our ancestors, who would consider these things crazy.

Spiritually, dear friends, we moderns are also deprived of wellness.  

Our age is the most biblically illiterate in American history.  Our church attendance is more and more sparse.  The Divine Service: the preaching of the Word and the reception of the Sacrament, become less and less important in our lives.  Daily prayer has a way of disappearing. Family devotions become rarer and rarer.  Things that our grandparents took for granted: big confirmation classes, congregational retreats, the Walther league, youth lock-ins, large Bible classes, men’s groups, women’s groups, potlucks and church bazaars, pageants, special church services, neighbors that were overwhelmingly Christian, and the like, hardly describe our culture today.

We have no qualms about spending time and money on hobbies and entertainments, while begrudging God an hour a week or honoring our duty to be good stewards of the kingdom.  We think of ourselves first, and only afterward, do we think of others.  So often we have gifts that the Lord can make use of, but we squander those gifts on things that are passing and temporary instead of storing up treasures in heaven.

But this Wednesday, dear friends, we will be surrounded by reminders of our own mortality.  We are not well.  We are dying.  Our faith is weak.  We need to join with the blind beggar in praying: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”

And beginning this Wednesday, the Lord will call us to repent in stronger and more strident terms.  The Lord has given us opportunities to strengthen our faith: two Divine Services each week, resources like the Treasury of Daily Prayer and Portals of Prayer to help us order our devotional life, and we have ample opportunities to study the Word of God and strengthen our faith.  We can fast, and remind ourselves that we do not live by bread alone, but rather that we are dependent upon every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.  We can strive to be more patient, more kind, more tolerant, more helpful, seeking ways to be of service to our fellow man and to the kingdom of God.  

And when we fall into sin, we can repent and resolve to resist temptation, relying on the Word and Sacraments, once again, to strengthen this faith that makes us well.

Our Lord Jesus Christ has done all the heavy lifting for us, dear friends.  We sin, but He is righteous.  We have earned God’s wrath, but He endures the cross.  We deserve to have our blood spilled, but His blood is shed upon the cross and offered to the Father as the only oblation, the sacrificial atonement, to assuage our guilt and heal us – and what’s more, that same blood is given to us in a glorious, faith-strengthening sacrament.  He saves us by grace, and we receive this free gift through faith.

For even now as we approach Ash Wednesday and Lent, we are reminded of the Good News of the cross, of our Lord’s boundless love and infinite patience with us.  He does not keep score, but rather keeps faith.  He has not come into the world to condemn it, but to save it.  He did not tell the blind beggar that as a sinner, he deserved his ailment, but heard his prayer for mercy, drew near, and answered his prayer with just what he needed: to be well, to receive his sight, to be healed by the Son of David who is also the Son of God.

Dear friends, we come to this place as beggars.  We come blinded by the flashing lights of this world.  But we come nonetheless, in our need, in our mortality, in our sin, and we also pray: “Lord, have mercy upon us.  Christ, have mercy upon us.  Lord, have mercy upon us.”  And our prayer is answered.  He comes to us, to hear us, to speak His words of life over us, for forgive us, to heal us, and to give us the free gift of eternal life that He has earned for us.

He gives this to us by faith, and He gives us all we need to strengthen our faith, all the daily bread we need for this body and life – life that will have no end.

Let us cry out again and again, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” and let us again and again hear His Word: “Your faith has made you well.”  Amen.

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

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sermon: Sexagesima – 2017

19 February 2017

Text: Luke 8:4-15

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Our Lord Jesus tells a parable, a story that teaches us about the kingdom.  And this story is both ordinary and extraordinary.  For what can be more ordinary than a farmer planting seeds.  This activity has gone on without fanfare around the globe since the Fall into sin.

For we don’t live in the garden of Eden anymore.  Cursed is the ground.  In pain we eat of it all the days of our lives.  Thorns and thistles it brings forth for us, and we eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of our faces we eat bread, till we return to the ground.

And so year after year, the farmer, the sower, casts his seeds in faith that they will bear fruit, and through them, the Lord will provide sustenance and life.

In this story, we have a sower, and we have the ground.  We have a transmitter, and a receiver.  The one casting the seed is hardly remarkable.  He grabs the seeds and just throws them.  He has no power in and of himself.  All he does is cast the seed.  

And likewise, the soil is hardly remarkable.  It’s simply dirt. And most of the time, the soil provides impediments to growth, and the seed is prevented from bearing fruit, and in some cases, from even sprouting.  But even in the rare case where the soil is conducive to growth, there is no power in the soil.  At best, it doesn’t get in the way.

And so the power lies neither in the sower nor the soil.  But rather in the seed itself.

In a very real way, this transaction resembles radio broadcasting.  Even the word “broadcast” – which we associate with radio or TV (or even webcasting over the internet) – this word originally applied to sowing seed.  Just as a radio station broadcasts signals every which way hoping that they will be received by someone, so too does the sower broadcast his seed, casting it abroad, in faith and hope that the seed will germinate, break through the ground, grow, flower, and bear fruit.

For in the broadcasting of radio and television, there is a sender and a receiver.  But the really sophisticated thing, the part that has meaning, is the signal itself.  For the signal is encoded information.  It is broadcast by the sender, and it is received to the benefit of the receiver.  

And so is a seed, dear friends.  Seeds are encoded with information, strings of DNA data that cause the seed to germinate, grow, flower, and bear fruit.  This encoded Word is embedded into the very cell structure of the seed, and that implanted Word contains the explosive power to bear a harvest hundredfold.  From the tiniest of seeds grows the mighty redwood tree – all powered by the embedded and encoded data, placed there at the creation by the Creator, with instructions for growth and fruition.

And this is our Lord’s parable, dear friends.  

The kingdom of heaven is both ordinary and extraordinary, both mundane and miraculous.  For what is more ordinary than a preacher casting the Word abroad – what of that?  He doesn’t have much to offer of himself.  And what of the soil that receives this Word – “men who like or like it not”?  Some reject the Word outright to the delight of the devil who snatches the seed.  Some falls in rocky ground, initially showing promise, but quickly dying off due to a lack of being firmly rooted.  Some actually sprouts and grows only to be choked out by thorns: the cares and riches of this life.  And only the last kind of soil manages to get out of the way so that the embedded Word can do what it has been sent to do: to mature, to feed mankind, and to multiply and produce fruit.

And dear friends, what is more ordinary than dirt?  And yet we, mankind, were made out of this dirt, as Adam was fashioned from the soil itself.  

And while the seed seems so ordinary and lifeless, so small and inconsequential – it is anything but.  It bears life by virtue of carrying the divine Word, the instructions of creation: not merely the command to multiply, but the very means of multiplication itself.  The seed is the power, and the miracle.  The seed is how God created the plants of the field to reproduce, to multiply and to bear fruit.

And even in our sinfulness, even as we have corrupted the plants and cursed the soil, nevertheless, God Himself has provided the Seed of the woman to be cast upon the infertile soil of our fallen world.  This Seed dies and goes into the ground, only to rise again, and bear fruit a hundredfold.  And this Seed of the woman, is also the Son of Man, He is the divine Word by whom all things were made.  He is the one who commands and yet who provides the power to bring creation to fruition, all by His Word.

For our Lord Jesus is the Word, the Seed of the woman, the bread from heaven, our daily bread, the bread of life.  He is fruitful and multiplies, even as His Word is cast abroad, broadcast to every manner of soil on God’s earth: rich and fruitful soil, stubborn and rocky soil, soil that welcomes the Seed, and soil that closes itself up and refuses the Seed.

There are preachers to sow and there are hearers who receive.  There is the command to multiply, and there is the embedded Word that carries out that command in soil that doesn’t resist, in soil watered by baptism and fertilized by repentance.

Dear friends, the Seed is cast again this day.  It is sown by sowers in every corner of the globe.  This seed is cast upon you, here and now.  You are the soil that receives this broadcast, this Word of power and hope, this Word of repentance and of forgiveness, this Word that seeks nothing but to land upon good soil that it might do its work and bear fruit.

It is both ordinary and extraordinary.  For this has gone on since the Seed of the woman was first sown into the soil of the tomb.  For from the path, the rock, the thorns, and the good soil, the Seed is still proclaiming the Word of the Creator Himself, working redemption, and being for us the bread of life, won for us by the sweat of the face of the One who died upon the cross, whose flesh is offered the life of the world, whose forgiveness and life and salvation are borne by the preached Word, sown into your hearts, where the Word bears the power to yield a hundredfold.

And we pray, “Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word,” the Word made flesh, the Word of forgiveness, the Word who comes to you now and even unto eternity!  Amen.

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sermon: Septuagesima – 2017

12 February 2017

Text: Matt 20:1-16 (Ex 17:1-7, 1 Cor 9:24-10:5)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Our Lord wants to shock us.  He tells us a story that He knows is going to make us grumble.  He is deliberately setting us up by telling a story that strikes us as unfair, if not exploitive.  How can we not side with the workers in this story who feel cheated because they worked, in some cases, twelve times as long as other workers – including working at the hottest time of day – only to get paid the same wages?

No labor union would endorse this parable.  Nobody who has ever been treated unfairly by a boss is likely to be happy with the ending of this tale.  It just sounds like some kind of propaganda designed to justify unfair labor practices, a perpetuation of the power of the wealthy to lord over those who must work with their hands for a living.

The workers who felt cheated, “grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’”

And so we too might grumble along with them, and along with the children of Israel in our Old Testament lesson, unhappy with the leadership of Moses, who brought them out into the desert with no plan as to how they would drink water.

Is their grumbling unreasonable?

Dear friends, when we grumble at what God has given us, when we grumble because we covet that which God has given to others, we are grumbling at God Himself.  We are saying to Him: “You don’t know what You’re doing; You need to do things My way.”

But the children of Israel did get water to drink.  For God was with them, had not forsaken them, and was actually testing them.  By God’s grace and mercy, Moses delivered water out of the rock, and we are told by St. Paul that “they drank from the same spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ,” who allowed Himself to be beaten to preserve the lives of the grumblers.

This same Jesus explains the kingdom of heaven by reminding us grumblers that God is in charge; He determines what is fair, and He gives according to His will, His mercy, and His bountiful goodness.  All things belong to Him, and we have no claim on anything.

And worst of all, dear friends, is when we grumble because of the Lord’s mercy.  For if God is merciful to someone else, this does not affect us, any more than if an employer were to give a needy coworker a bonus out of the kindness of his heart.

God owns everything.  Is He not allowed to do what He chooses with what belongs to Him?  Who are we to begrudge His generosity? 

The parable has many meanings, but one of the interpretations is the fact that God opened up the kingdom to the Gentiles, to our ancestors who were worshiping trees and fictional mythical characters thousands of years after the true God had revealed Himself to the children of Israel.  For Jesus did not come to die for the sins of any particular ethnic group, but rather for the sins of the world.  

God used the children of Israel to be a blessing to all nations, even as our Lord came into our world as a Jew, a Son of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, from the royal line of Judah.  And while nobody deserves God’s grace, nevertheless, He offers it to all: to the loyal son who served the Father faithfully his whole life, as well as to the humbled and repentant prodigal son who has shamed the family and squandered his inheritance.  

For when evening came, all received a denarius, all received the wages due for a righteous day’s work – even the unrighteous who only worked for an hour instead of the full twelve.  What matters is not what we think this worker or that worker deserves.  

What matters is God’s mercy. 

And instead of grumbling that God is not giving us more, we ought to be grateful for the denarius that He did give us: the denarius of the admission price to eternity, to everlasting life, a denarius not truly earned by our lifetime of labor, but rather by the all-atoning labor of our Lord upon the cross: His suffering, His death, His sacrificial atonement “for us men and for our salvation.”  For not a one of us truly deserves to receive the denarius of salvation.  For the wages of sin is death.  That is our just earnings; that is what we deserve by our works.  But instead, dear brothers and sisters, we are not paid according to our deeds.  Rather, we are all recipients of God’s mercy by Christ’s blood.

Indeed, while we identify with the twelve-hour grumblers who feel entitled to more, if we are honest with ourselves, we are really more like the seemingly-overpaid one-hour wonders who have won life’s lottery.  Instead of grumbling, we ought to devote our lives to showing gratitude to our benefactor, we who were invited to partake of the banquet while lacking any quality that would make us worthy to sit at table and dine with the King of the Universe.

This is what it means, dear friends, that “the last will be first, and the first last.”  The world has it entirely backward.  In God’s kingdom, all are saved by grace, and those who think they have earned their way to a large salary are fooling themselves.  “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.”  For to the one who knows that he is not deserving of the denarius will receive it – not as a salary, but as a gift.

And we dare not grumble, dear friends, for those who grumble do so because they know neither God not themselves.  They are wrong.  They know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.  For the power of God lies in His love, mercy, and forgiveness.  The power of God is the cross.  And it is in the cross that our wages of death are paid in full, paid to all not according to our perceived works, but paid to wipe out all of our very real sins.

And so when we are paid at the end of the day, and the end of the life, and the end of the world, we will not receive a just payment for our lives of labor, but rather the amount “that is right” – not according to the world’s measure of fairness nor our own inflated view of ourselves, but the amount “that is right” according to the body and blood of Christ – the body and blood slain and shed as a sacrifice, and also received physically by us as a wage for labor – not our own, but Christ’s.

So, dear friends, let us not be shocked and appalled at how our Lord treats us poor, miserable sinners, let us instead be joyfully surprised!  Let us not grumble, but let us give thanks!  And let us never begrudge the Lord for being merciful to those who do not deserve it – for though we do not deserve it, we are recipients of the gift of everlasting life!  Amen.

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

Friday, February 10, 2017

Atheism as Religion

I think that most people would consider Atheism to be outside of the bounds of religion.

After all, it is the opposite of Theism: the belief in God.  And if belief in a god, gods, or some kind of supernatural is within the realm of faith and religion, then it follows that the worldview of Atheism, materialism, naturalism, and the epistemology of reason alone comprises the very opposite of religion.

I'm also friends with many principled Atheists - people who simply do not believe in a supernatural or metaphysical realm, or at least reject belief in the God articulated by the Old and New Testaments of the Bible (or the Deity confessed by those who may reject the Bible but believe in a "watchmaker god" who created the universe and set the laws of physics in motion).

But even their Atheism is grounded in faith: faith that what they perceive in their senses and the conclusions that they draw from reason are real; that they are not "brains in vats" nor are they deceived by sensory or neural malfunction.  And the consequences of the worldview of materialistic Atheism include various outlooks and philosophies on what it means to be human, the purpose of life, and the big questions about the teleology of the universe - even as Theism likewise leads to such questions and systematic conclusions about existence.

My good Atheist friends and I have mutual respect for our differences in belief as well as for our common humanity and shared interests.  They respect my confession of a Deity, are not threatened by it, do not feel the need to convert me to their way of thinking, nor see a reason to take hold of the apparatus of government to stamp out the religious beliefs of other people.

However, there is another strain of Atheism, an unabashedly religious variation, complete with zealous evangelism and excommunication and an inquisition of sorts.  This is the Atheism that seeks to be The State Religion, with even the trappings of a clergy and "church" of sorts, and a desire to evangelize the world in its faith.

Sometimes this brand of Atheism prefers the label "Humanism" and sees itself in triumphalistic terms, seeking state recognition and using the public schools as preaching stations:

As John Dunphy wrote in an article entitled: "A Religion for a New Age" (The Humanist, Jan-Feb 1983):
I am convinced that the battle for humankind’s future must be waged and won in the public school classroom by teachers who correctly perceive their role as the proselytizers of a new faith: a religion of humanity that recognizes and respects the spark of what theologians call divinity in every human being. These teachers must embody the same selfless dedication as the most rabid fundamentalist preachers, for they will be ministers of another sort, utilizing a classroom instead of a pulpit to convey humanist values in whatever subject they teach, regardless of the educational level—preschool, daycare, or large state university. The classroom must and will become an arena of conflict between the old and the new—the rotting corpse of Christianity, together with all its adjacent evils and misery, and the new faith of humanism, resplendent with its promise of a world in which the never-realized Christian ideal of “love thy neighbor” will finally be achieved.  (emphasis added)
The American Humanist Association publishes a manifesto - the current incarnation being the third version.  The initial manifesto (1933) openly refers to Humanism as "Religious Humanism."  One of the signatories of that document was the Socialist John Dewey, one of the founding fathers of progressive education in America, the leader of school reform that transformed American public schools away from the locally-administered classical model of education to what they have become today.

Clearly, the Humanist sect of Atheism sees public education as an evangelistic outreach of their religion.  Christians and other adherents of traditional faiths should be aware of what has filled the vacuum when the diverse faith traditions of local communities were excised from local schools at the behest of activist judges in recent decades.  What we have is not a religion-free public school, but rather a parochial school system of the "Atheist Church - Humanist Synod."

Atheism can't have it both ways.  Either it is a religion, or it isn't.  And if it is a religion, with chaplains and tombstones and transcendent values and evangelism, it should not be given preferential treatment in public schools.  For the belief that one can have one's cake and eat it is not a matter of faith: it is a performative contradiction that defies the dogma of reason.

Veterans Administration religious symbols permitted on military gravestones
Note the religions of Atheism and Humanism are recognized

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Irony is not collapsing fast enough...

I saw someone actually wearing this tee shirt at Loyola University - New Orleans.

He is a young American white guy with the ability to attend a $60,000 a year university (an institution created by western civilization) run by the Society of Jesus of the Roman Catholic Church.  He is probably receiving financial aid, both private and taxpayer-funded.

Loyola is a sprawling modern campus.  The buildings are western in architecture: glass and concrete with climate control and technology-equipped modern classrooms.  Students can easily obtain food and beverages, and there is even an upscale Italian gelateria located on campus.  There are no shortages of restrooms, microwave ovens, refrigerators, freezers, computers, and flat screen TVs. Students live in dorms and in modern houses and apartments in one of the most lush and expensive neighborhoods in a great American city.

He was clad in the uniform of western youth: jeans and tee shirt, smoking a cigarette, enjoying the luxury to stand on the corner looking at his iPhone, powered by western technology and an infrastructure of cheap and plentiful digital data and wi-fi.

He probably listens to American pop music and probably watches American television and movies.

While sporting this shirt, he was not in fear that he would be beheaded for religious reasons, nor that a rival tribesman would attack him with a machete.  There was no danger that he would be incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital or gulag camp for wearing a political statement.  There was zero chance that he would suddenly disappear, with his parents being sent a bill for the single bullet put in the back of his head after a sham trial for expressing an idea in the classroom.  No university or government official was going to approach him asking for a bribe, or extorting him for money.  There are no roaming bands of thugs or drug lords on the campus, nor political revolutionaries threatening to round up the intelligentsia in order to execute them. And he was certainly not in danger of starvation or the rationing of necessary items.

As a student, he most certainly has health insurance, is not facing malaria, dysentery, dengue fever, or AIDS.  If he catches the flu, he is highly unlikely to die of it.  He has likely had a full gamut of childhood "wellness visits" and immunizations.

Fortunately for our friend, great civilizations do take time to collapse.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Sermon: Funeral of George Bastiansen

6 February 2017

Text: Luke 2:25-32 (Isa 25:6-9, 2 Cor 4:7-18)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Dear Ralph, Paul, Jane, family friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, and honored guests – peace be with you.

What has brought all of us together on this day is a confluence of events in our lives.  They all touch upon George Bastiansen.  He is responsible for many of you being alive.  Some of you worked with him.  Some of you spoke with him from time to time.  Others knew him extremely well.  To many of you, he was a huge part of your lives.

But it isn’t only the fact that George was involved in all of our lives that brings us here.  We all know it.  There is a sad reality that we can’t cover up with condolences and memories.  We are here in grief. Death has brought us to this time together.

In our modern life, we try to sanitize death.  We often hear of it as just a part of life, just something you expect when a person is nearly ninety years old, or even as a good thing, the end of suffering or the solution to what people describe as a problem.  People mean well and often say generic comforting things about death.

But dear friends, my relationship with George was different than all of yours: it was spiritual and pastoral, grounded in our mutual Christian faith.  He was not my father or relative or coworker.  George was my parishioner, a Christian whom God placed under my care.  It was not just my privilege and honor, but also my pleasure to visit George in his home to bring him Word and Sacrament when he was no longer able to attend church.  And so I speak as George’s pastor when I say that death is not a blessing or a solution.

God calls it the enemy.

We were never designed to die.  Death separates us from our loved ones.  God did not bring us to this sad day: we did.  Our ancestors did.  Our sinful nature did.  All of us are guilty, and so was George.  Our Christian faith confesses the truth that we are all sinners, and death is our lot.  And no matter what kind of brave face we put on it, it is horrible.  It’s okay to say so.  It’s okay to mourn.

But the Christian faith doesn’t stop in describing death as the enemy.  It doesn’t just abandon us to this merciless foe. For in Christ Jesus, who Himself died as an atoning sacrifice for us, in Him, death is a defeated enemy.  Death doesn’t get the final say to those who have been born again of water and the Spirit, to those who believe and have been baptized, to those who receive the gift of everlasting life.

George didn’t earn it: Christ earned it.  I didn’t decree George to be a victor over death and the grave: Christ did so.

And so something else brings us together at this time and place: the good news that Jesus Christ died the death we deserve so that we would rise even as He has risen.  George was baptized into Christ Jesus and was therefore baptized into His death, buried with Him, “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His,” says St. Paul, then, “we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.”

“Certainly,” dear friends.  That is the word used in Scripture.  “Certainly.”

In my visits to George, we always celebrated the Mass, the liturgy of Holy Communion.  It was my joy to participate with George in the most holy body and blood of Christ – in the words of Jesus: “for the forgiveness of sins.”  We shared in this forgiveness, life, and salvation again and again.  We confessed our sins, heard the good news of forgiveness, received assurance that Christ’s blood atoned for us, and then we indeed participated in that body and blood.

In our Lutheran tradition, it is customary to sing what the Church calls the Nunc Dimittis, the Song of Simeon, from Luke chapter 2, after receiving Holy Communion.  This is our Gospel reading today.  It describes an elderly man who seeks God.  And he was told that he would not die until he found this God that he sought.  This God came to St. Simeon as a baby, as the child Jesus in the flesh.  And so, having received Jesus, Simeon was now ready to “depart in peace.”  This is the Christian life in a nutshell.  This is the Gospel in a few verses.  This is George’s life now and forever.  This is our blessed assurance from God Himself that we will see George again, and that meeting will be in the flesh.  

And so, dear friends, we mourn the loss of our beloved George.  We are saddened and we grieve.  But we don’t grieve like those who are without hope.  We have the hope – the certain hope – that George is with our Lord in eternity, and that we will see him again at the resurrection of the body, as the Prophet Isaiah describes, at a “feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.”  For God “will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces.”

As St. Paul taught us again today, this death that we suffer in our bodies, in these “jars of clay,” is a “slight momentary affliction” that is “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,” the things that are eternal.

This is what St. Simeon longed for, what George and I prayed for, and what we know is reality for George now that He has departed in peace according to God’s Word.

Jesus’ victory over death and the grave is George’s victory, and ours too, dear brothers and sisters.  And this is our comfort and our source of strength and even defiant and godly joy in the midst of our mourning.

And as George and I sang in the liturgy, and as Christians the world over continue to sing again and again, having received Jesus in His flesh and blood, we continue to sing in this life:

“Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.  Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen.”

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

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Sermon: Transfiguration – 2017

5 February 2017

Text: Matthew 17:1-9

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Peter, James, and John (and the rest of the disciples) were in for the greatest challenge of their lives.  They were going to be shocked and appalled to see their Lord and Rabbi – whom they confessed to be the Messiah prophesied in the Holy Scriptures – arrested, mocked, abused, convicted on fake charges, condemned, flogged, tortured, and crucified.  Their faith was going to be tested to the very core.

Our Lord Jesus Christ gave them just what they needed to bolster their faith and preserve them as leaders of the apostles as the Lord Jesus was to die and then rise again.

On this day, He lifted the veil and allowed them a peek into His true divine nature in a way that they had never seen before.

For in His earthly ministry, our Lord is a bit like a spy who blends in behind enemy lines to carry out his assignment.  Jesus is, of course, fully human.  He is not a hybrid half-god-half-man like the pagans had in their religion.  He is completely human, and yet His humanity is the True Humanity – perfect, glorious, in the very image of God – a glory that has departed from us poor, miserable sinners.

Jesus veiled this glory in His earthly ministry even as Moses wore a veil to prevent the reflected glory of God from frightening the people.  Jesus’ veil is His setting aside His glory.  His veil is in His ordinary face.

But on this day, this transfiguration day, up on a high mountain, our Lord showed Peter, James, and John something that they would never forget: the glory of the  perfect Man who is also God in His magnificence.  

His appearance was changed in accordance with what was normally hidden from them.  The most interesting thing to happen was that the Lord’s face beamed with a blazing light, “like the sun.”  This calls to mind the blessing that the Lord gave to the priests of the Old Testament to pronounce over the people: “The Lord make His face shine upon you…”

Jesus is that Lord.  His face is that face.  The light observed by Peter, James, and John is that light.

Moreover, the three blessed apostles saw something else: our Lord Jesus Christ in conversation with Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, of whom our Lord is the embodiment and fulfillment.

And if that were not enough to confirm in their minds the reality that this Jesus, this Messiah, is truly God in the flesh – no matter what shocking scenes of death they were yet to see – there was more to this divine revelation.  For a “bright cloud overshadowed them.”  And out of this mysterious cloud came a voice: the voice of God the Father repeating the pronouncement made as Jesus began His ministry, at His Baptism: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.”

Jesus is not only God, He is the Son of God.  He is the Father’s beloved – and no matter what they are going to witness on another mount – a craggy hill of punitive death called “Golgotha” – God the Father is indeed “well pleased” with the Lord Jesus, His Son, pleased at His obedience in saving the world from sin, death, and the devil by His very blood, by the sacrifice of the Lamb, a gift of salvation offered to all who would believe and receive the good news.  The Son is not abandoned by the Father, even though the Father’s wrath is to be channeled to the Son as He bore the curse of sin, the weight of guilt, the consequence of death – our sin, our guilt, our death – which were all placed squarely upon Him whose form would be transfigured upon the cross, transfigured into the bloody form of a condemned criminal.

And so, dear friends, on the mountain of Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John saw the Lord as He truly was, and is, in His glory.  And because of this glory, they were afraid.  And they were right to be.  They stood in the very presence of God – and they would live to tell about it – but not until “the Son of Man [was] raised from the dead.”  They “fell on their faces” in terror. 

“But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise and have no fear.’  And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”

Dear brothers and sisters, it is right that we fear God.  This is the beginning of wisdom.  Indeed, we should “fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”  We cannot stand in the glory of the Son of Man, in the mighty power of the Father, in the righteous energy of the Spirit – because of our sins.  But let us not forget what Jesus – Jesus only – has done for us.  He has forgiven our sins, removed our guilt, and taken away the punishment of death that we deserve.  Jesus likewise touches us – giving us His fleshly body and blood – and He speaks to us in His Word of the Gospel and of Absolution, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.”  He comes to us in this Divine Service, and while His glory is veiled under the spoken Word and in the forms of bread and wine, we know of His glory.  For Peter, James, and John did indeed “tell… the vision,” testifying to what they saw and heard and experienced on the mountaintop.  “We have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

And as we receive Christ in Word and Sacrament, and when we lift up our eyes heavenward, we do not see the angry cloud of God’s wrath.  We do not hear the frightening voice of God coming to condemn us.  We are not blinded by a light of righteousness that threatens to burn us up like grass in the fire.  No indeed!  We cast our eyes to the heavens and we see “no one but Jesus only,” the merciful Lord who has taken our place at the cross.

Jesus only!  For there is no other name in heaven or on earth by which we are saved.  Jesus only!  There is no other Messiah who fulfills the Law and the Prophets.  Jesus only!  There is no other begotten Son of the Father who has pleased Him by fulfilling all righteousness.  Jesus only!

Jesus only.  Amen.

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

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Sermon: Wednesday of Epiphany 4 – 2017

1 February 2017

Text: Jonah 1:1-17

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

A person that is always followed by what seems to be back luck is sometimes called a “Jonah.”  Of course, this comes from our Old Testament reading about the prophet who was called by God to preach to the wicked people of Nineveh in order to call them to repent.  Jonah was not enamored by this prospect.  Our text doesn’t give a reason.  Maybe he hated the people there, or loathed their culture.  Maybe he just wanted to go elsewhere, or maybe he was afraid of how they would react.  Whatever the cause, “Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.”

His escape plan included boarding a boat in Joppa and going the other way.  

And here is where the term “Jonah” comes from.

While onboard, the ship seemed to be cursed.  For “the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.”

This was seen as a payment for some kind of religious disobedience.  Lots were cast to see whose fault it was, and the lot fell to Jonah, who confessed that he was “fleeing from the presence of the Lord.”  So, they found their Jonah, the cause of their suffering, and Jonah suggested that they throw him overboard.  The men, to their credit, did not want to do this.  They tried rowing harder, but eventually realized that they would all perish without appeasing Jonah’s God, to whom they prayed: “O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for You, O Lord, have done as it pleased You.”  The act of throwing Jonah overboard brought peace to the tempestuous sea, and saved their lives.

And so “the men feared the Lord exceedingly and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.”

We all know what happened next: Jonah was swallowed by a great fish from whose belly he would re-emerge on the third day.

Of course, there is a lesson in here about obeying the Lord – especially for those whom the Lord has called to preach and teach.  Rebelling against this calling is not recommended.  There is also an example of how disobedience not only affects the disobedient one, but others around him as well.  There is also a lesson in here about the mercy of the Lord, who rescued Jonah by means of a fish.

But all of these lessons are secondary to Jonah’s pointing to Jesus.  For Jesus is the New and Greater Jonah, who Himself referred to His own death and three day rest in the tomb as “the sign of Jonah.”

Jesus is our Jonah.  For though He was obedient to the Father, and though He did not flee His assignment to call the wicked to repentance, and though He committed no sin, nevertheless, He became sin for us.  Our Lord took upon Himself the curse of Jonah, the curse of Adam, the curse of fallen mankind.  And He did so in order to save us through His own body being thrown overboard into the grave by the very people whom He came to save, those who killed Him and yet received His grace, mercy, forgiveness, and life.

No great fish came to rescue Jesus.  He was swallowed up instead by death.  Like Jonah, He laid down His own life rather than see others die, but unlike Jonah, He emerged from His three day sojourn by His own power and authority, conquering not only death, but also the curse of disobedience and the effects of sin and guilt.  And in so doing, our Lord calmed the stormy sea of the Father’s righteous wrath against the sins of mankind.

Jonah became a sacrifice, a funnel of the Lord’s wrath, one who deserved that wrath.  Our Lord Jesus likewise funneled unto Himself the wrath of God for the sins of the world – for yours and mine and all of those ever committed or to be committed, in thought, word, and deed, sins of omission and commission, the very mortal nature that we have inherited from our ancestors.  Jesus suffered all of this wrath, and was willingly thrown into the grave to be devoured by the devil.  And our Lord willingly became this sacrificial offering, appeasing the Father’s wrath and restoring us to the calm of communion with God.  

And like the great fish, whose belly churned and ejected Jonah upon the land, Satan could not conquer the crucified Jesus, and though he had wounded the heel of the Seed of the Woman, the Lord Jesus had mortally wounded the fiendish serpent’s head.  And on the third day, the Lord Jesus Christ, the New and Greater Jonah, re-emerged on the terra firma of the earth, the world He Himself had created and redeemed, populated by the very people whom He saved and atoned for, by His sacrifice upon the cross.

And we repeat the prayer of those men saved by Jonah’s sacrifice: “O Lord, let us not perish for this Man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for You, O Lord, have done as it pleased You.”  For the innocent blood of Jesus – far from condemning us, saves us.  And instead of perishing for His life, we are saved by His death.  And indeed, by the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, we “fear the Lord exceedingly,” and we too make offerings and vows, thank offerings for His saving blood, and vows to support the continued preaching of the Word, of the Gospel, of repentance, and of Jesus Christ, our New and Greater Jonah.  We repent at His Word and we partake of His sacrificial flesh and blood.

Since the days of the Roman Empire, the fish has been a symbol of our Lord Jesus Christ and of our Christian faith.  There are many reasons for this.  And even though Jonah is not an explicit reason for this, there is great value in seeing these symbols on the property and homes of Christians and calling to mind that our Lord Himself considered the account of Jonah to be a sign of His death and resurrection.  For Jesus is truly our Jonah, the New and Greater Jonah, the innocent bearer of the curse of our sins, who was hurled into the grave only to rise again on the third day, having released us from the wrath of the Father, bringing us to repentance, forgiveness, and everlasting life.  To Him be thanksgiving, praise, and glory even unto eternity.  Amen.

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