Sunday, September 03, 2017

Sermon: St. Gregory the Great - 2017

3 September 2017

Text: Luke 4:31-37 (Ps 116:1-9, 1 Thess 5:1-6, 9-11)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we are living in a time of iconoclasm.  This means that literally or figuratively, people are toppling statues and redefining how we remember our ancestors.  In the past couple years, historic statues in America have been removed by governments or by mobs.  It has just been announced that the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC will be retrofitted with plaques confessing Thomas Jefferson’s sins.

Rather than honor our fathers and our mothers, we are smashing their images.  This iconoclasm happened at a couple of points in church history, as statues and icons of the saints were destroyed in the 8th century, and again during the reformation in the 16th century.  Once cooler heads prevailed, it was discovered just how many priceless works of art – and even the tomb and body of St. Thomas Becket in the Cathedral of Canterbury England – were destroyed and lost to us.

Just recently, a Roman Catholic parish and school in California has decided to get rid of statues of Jesus so as not to offend people.

Some iconoclasm is less literal, such as modern Lutherans cutting themselves off from their own history and tradition by refusing to honor our fathers and mothers of our own church history.  Some claim that honoring the saints is “too Catholic.”  This is not what our Book of Concord says.

We are not iconoclasts, dear friends.  When Luther himself was in hiding at the Wartburg Castle, iconoclasts began smashing statues in Wittenberg.  Luther came back and condemned such behavior. 

This is how it is that our Book of Concord and early Lutherans – not to mention our own Lutheran Service Book of today – honors Pope St. Gregory the Great, whose feast day is today.  St. Gregory was bishop of Rome from 590-604 AD.  He was a lawyer and politician who became a monk.  As bishop of Rome, he evangelized the British Isles and parts of Eastern Europe, he standardized the liturgy and the church year (some of our own short prayers known as collects date to his reforms), he brought what we call in his honor today Gregorian Chant to the liturgy, he was an able administrator, and true bishop to the people of Rome.  He was a writer and theologian and known for his advocacy of the poor.  But most of all, St. Gregory was a preacher and pastor.  His book on pastoral theology is till used in seminaries today.

What makes Christian saints great is not their own greatness, but in their confession of the greatness of Christ.  St. Gregory was just such a confessor – not because he could recite facts about Jesus, but because he trusted in and proclaimed Jesus.

In our Gospel text, a demon appears to be a confessor of Jesus, saying: “Ha!  What have You to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have You come to destroy us?  I know who You are – the Holy One of God.”

But there is a big difference between just knowing who and what Jesus is (even the devils know that much) and submitting to Jesus (the devils will not submit).  For it is one thing to confess Jesus as God, but quite something different to confess him as Lord.  To call Jesus “Lord” is to submit to Him, to be His servant, to acknowledge Him as one’s Sovereign.  It is to acknowledge one as a servant.

In fact, Pope Gregory was the first to describe his office as bishop of Rome to be “the servant of the servants of Christ.”  He saw the pastors of the church as Christ’s slaves, and he saw himself as their slave.  St. Gregory submitted to Christ, and that is the source of his greatness.

How do we submit to Jesus, dear friends?  Certainly, we don’t have to be bishops to do this?  We can and should submit to our Lord in all of our callings in this life.  It is not enough to simply say, “I believe in Jesus.”  For even the demons have that kind of belief.  Better to say instead, “I trust in Jesus for my salvation, and not in myself or in my works.  I submit in every manner of my life to Christ, for He is not just the Lord, but my Lord.”  This means that nothing in our lives is more important than Jesus, that hearing His Word, than being where He is present for us – in the sacraments.  It means being a servant of Jesus, and a servant of our fellow servants of Jesus.  It means more than just talk, dear friends.

It means the cross, it means the blood of Christ, it means confession and absolution, it means being washed in baptism and calling that baptism to mind often.  It means partaking of Holy Communion as if your life depended on it, because it does, dear friends.  And this explains the church’s urgency in mission work.  The world needs the Gospel.  We need the Gospel, dear friends!

This is why we honor St. Gregory.  He proclaimed Christ!  Gregory was not perfect.  If he were perfect, he would have no need of a savior.  He had his own flaws.  He made changes in the papacy that led to later corruptions.  He accepted some newer doctrines in the church that were essentially superstitions.  Who among us will cast the first stone?

And yet, dear friends, our Book of Concord treats St. Gregory with love and respect, as a father of the church, as an elder brother in Christ from whom we can learn.  Our saints are not perfect – which is the point.  We are all sinners made into saints by grace through faith.  And St. Gregory is a sinner-saint like the rest of us.

We are not iconoclasts.  We are grateful for our brother Gregory’s work and ministry, for his proclamation of Christ, for his tireless work for the kingdom.  We have no problem with statues in his likeness to remind us of God’s mercy in sending us faithful servants of the servants of God to look up to.  We are not going to tear down his statues or add lurid plaques to tarnish his image.  We are right to have his name mentioned in our hymnal and to honor his feast day today.

Let us all remember St. Paul’s words, words that St. Gregory knew well: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.”  And rather than tearing down as iconoclasts do, let us heed St. Paul’s further instruction: “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”

St. Gregory built up the church by his faithful proclamation of the Gospel, by his missionary work, and by the importance he placed on the liturgy.  But most of all, St. Gregory was a pastor: a shepherd who fed his parishioners with the Word of God.

And thanks to St. Gregory’s proclamation of Christ and the preaching of other faithful servants of the Lord who followed in St. Gregory’s footsteps, we can to this very day join the Psalmist in singing: “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous, our God is merciful!” Amen.

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

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