30 January 2022

Homily for Epiphany 4 - 2022

Authority to Calm and Restore 

Matthew 8:23-27


When Jesus reveals Himself to be the Son of God in human flesh, He also reveals our frailty and our fears.  It’s something like opening the curtains or blinds on the window to let in the bright sunshine. Not only does it brighten up the room; it also reveals all that dust on the furniture. Remember how we prayed in today’s collect. God knows “we live in the midst of so many dangers.” We admitted that “in our frailty we cannot stand upright.” So we pleaded with our Epiphany Lord to “grant strength and protection.” Only with His strength and protection can we find “support in all our dangers.” Only He can “carry us through all temptations.”

Matthew, chapter 8, introduces us to the authority of Jesus and how people react to that authority. Last week, we heard how He had the authority and will to cleanse the leper. That was followed by healing the centurion’s servant simply by speaking His powerful word (Mt. 8:1-13). Then He authoritatively healed Peter’s mother-in-law, helped many who were oppressed by demons, and healed other illnesses. He fulfilled the prophecy that said, “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases” (Mt. 8:17; Is. 53:4).

Then came a scribe. He wanted to follow Jesus wherever He would go. Jesus had to warn him: unlike foxes and birds of the air, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Mt. 8:20). The scribe could not conceive that Jesus was not about self-promotion or His own comfort. Nor could the scribe comprehend that following Jesus means surrendering all guarantees of a comfortable, secure existence in this fallen world. He missed it on the purpose of Jesus’ authority. That authority will lead Jesus to sacrifice Himself upon a cross. Those who follow Him may expect the same cross-shaped life of self-sacrifice.

Then came another of Jesus’ disciples. “First, let me bury my father,” he instructed Jesus. Sounds reasonable. But who knows how long until that would happen? This guy was putting family obligations above allegiance to Jesus. He missed it on the priority of Jesus’ authority. So Jesus gave a stern command: “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Mt. 8:22). Translation: Jesus calls those who follow Him to make their allegiance to Him the first and top priority. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:37), He would also say.

Now we come to today’s Gospel. It answers the question: what is the extent of Jesus’ authority? Jesus reveals He has authority even over storm and sea—in fact, over all creation. He also reveals the frailty and fear of His followers, yes, including you and me.

They’re all in the boat. A great storm arose. Great waves swamping the boat. Literally, the boat was hidden or covered by the waves. How did the disciples react? Remember, some of them were fishermen on this very lake called the Sea of Galilee. You’d think they would know the waters, the weather patterns, and how to handle the waves. Their reaction this time? “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” In Mark’s account of the same event, the disciples cry out, “Teacher, [don’t you] care that we are perishing?” (Mk. 4:38).

It’s what happens when you’re not so sure about the extent of Jesus’ authority. You conclude Jesus doesn’t care. You fear He’s not always there for you. You wonder if you will even survive. It could be a wind storm on a lake or a snow storm on land. It could be a personal diagnosis of illness or a global pandemic of a disease that still, after two years, has a survival rate of 99 percent. It could be the stresses of family conflict or the confusing, ever-changing policies and practices at work. It could be the constant drumbeat of fear by the news media or the arrogant antics of power-hungry magistrates. When your fear and frailty come out of the closet of your heart and mind, you too echo those disciples in the boat. “Lord, we’re dying here! Don’t you care? Do something! Save us!”

Where has Jesus been all this time during the boat-tossing storm? Sleeping. As though He had not a care in this blustery, tempestuous world. Calm in the midst of chaos. Actually, let’s thank Him for this revelation. This One truly is human. He got tired and needed rest, just as He got hungry and thirsty and needed food and drink. This is also a wonderful contrast. Winds blowing, waves crashing, boat floundering, sailors frantically flailing about. Yet Jesus sleeps with great calm. Even in sleep, Jesus is still in control. Soon enough, He would reveal His divine, almighty power and authority over winds and waves.

First, though, let’s ponder what He said after His fearful followers woke Him from His peaceful slumber. “He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’” His comment about “little faith” is not so much a measurement of their faith itself. It’s more of a “divine insult,” if you will—appropriate and accurate in revealing their frailty. He called them “little-faiths.”

What led them to being “little-faiths”? They were afraid. No doubt, we can relate. This is a curious term in the Greek. It’s not the usual term, phobos—the common Greek term for “fear,” which we use for our various “phobias.” When you look up this term in the dictionary, you get a different, perhaps deeper, slant with some related words. “Why are you cowardly, craven, vile, worthless, miserable, wretched, or unhappy?” It’s what fear will do to you—make you cowardly and miserable, wretched and unhappy.

After rebuking His cowardly Christ-followers, Jesus “rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.” The creation responded to its Creator. No, this Man is not the Father, nor the Holy Spirit. But He is God, nevertheless. “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Jn. 1:3). Since He made it, He can and does control it…and calm it. He rules over it and preserves it, even in its fallen, frequently dangerous, chaotic state.

The creation itself groans because it is subject to futility. Who subjected it? Adam in his original sin. Because of Adam’s sin, all of creation was also subjected to bondage of decay, danger, and death. No, the creation is not the “very good” place that God originally made it to be. Even the brightest noon-day sun and the most stunning evening sunset are actually muted and dull, compared to what they should be. And all because of us sinful humans. But, as St. Paul says, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19).

And Jesus in the boat has revealed Himself to be the very Son of God who will set free both the creation and you, His followers. When Jesus calmed that storm, He also made a promise to you, me, and all who trust Him. Not only can He still a storm on the Sea of Galilee, not only does He still the storms of sin, doubt, and cowardice within you, but He will one day also restore the whole creation to God’s good design.

This Jesus—this Man who is God; God with us; Emmanuel—He has the authority to repair the creation, undo the damage caused by sin and death. In fact, He has already begun His “fixer-upper” renovation project. You can see it begun in His death and resurrection—on the cross, in the tomb, and as He came out of that tomb on day three. “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt. 12:40). Just as Jonah was thrown into the sea and “the sea ceased from its raging” (Jonah 1:15), so also Jesus was thrown into the sea of our sin, the depths of our decay, the chaos of the cross, the tomb of our death. And He calmed the storm of God’s judgment raging against us. Not only does your Lord have the authority to calm storms, but He also has the authority to forgive your sins, calm your craven fears, and restore you to life with Him.

So you enter the boat of His Church through the peaceful waters of Baptism. You hear the calming words of His Absolution. You feast on His Body and Blood under bread and wine to be strengthened and sustained in the face of all things that cause cowardly fear. You may take courage and be brave. You live under Jesus in His kingdom. You “serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness.” What does this mean? You belong to Him. He grants you His strength and protection. He supports you in all dangers. He carries you through all temptations, especially temptations to craven fear. It also means that we “look forward to the day when sin, death, and the devil will no longer hinder us from serving Him with complete devotion in peace and joy forever” (Expl. of SC, #179). Amen. 

03 November 2020

Homily for All Saints' Day - 2020

"Jesus' End is Our Beginning"

Revelation 7:2-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

A pastor friend once said: “On All Saints’ Day we preach the parish’s funeral sermon.” That’s most fitting. This time of year our hearts and minds naturally gravitate toward the end of things. We experience shorter days and longer nights. Weather gets colder and leaves fall from the trees. We anticipate the so-called “death” of winter.

When we celebrate All Saints’ Day, we name those from our congregational family who have died since last All Saints’ Day. Today we remember Don, Leslie, Doris, Viola, and Jean. This also draws our attention to our own end, to our own death. It’s what we fear and fight at all times. In fact, our many other fears, no doubt, are manifestations and outgrowths of our fear of death. Why do we fear COVID so much? Ultimately, because we fear dying. We also fight and fear our own sins, our own sinful desires, the world’s contempt, the world’s persecutions. Now we are not being morbid or doom-and-gloom. We’re simply being realistic. In our realism we also learn to persevere. As we will soon sing:

Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.

And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.

Keeping our eyes focused on the end, on the goal, helps us persevere. On All Saints’ Day, our Lord Jesus gives His end-time promises to comfort us and strengthen our faith for our “new beginning” as His holy people.

Our first reading gives us a glimpse of heavenly glory to sustain us in our earthly pilgrimage. In the first portion, we get to see God’s view of His Church on earth. The living God knows His saints. No matter how bad things get for us and from our perspective, our Lord gives us His point of view. One hundred forty-four thousand are sealed—12,000 from each of the 12 tribes. It’s not a literal number; it’s the symbolic number of perfect completeness. When you hear the term “sealed,” think Baptism and the sign of the cross made on your forehead. It’s the mark of ownership and protection. God knows His own and keeps His own—the perfectly complete number of them.

In the second portion of this reading, we get a sneak peak of the Church in eternal triumph. God’s saints know their God. It’s a vast “multitude that no one could number.” More than that, this entourage is “standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” As you can see depicted on our wall, they are wrapped around with white robes. In the reading, they also carry palm branches of victory. They joyfully cry out with a loud, unified voice: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” In Christ, salvation’s victory is an absolute certainty.

You who now live in the great tribulation have a promise that gives you hope and courage to stare down all fear. Those robes washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb will be your glorious dress. The life you now have—life from God and with God—will be fully seen and enjoyed. Keep your eyes on the goal; it helps you persevere.

Our second reading gives us a personal promise to calm and purify us as we wait. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” True love begets true children. God declares it and makes it so, even for us who are so fearful and fatigued in the fight. What kind of love is this? St. John later says, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 Jn. 3:16). Our Lord engaged in the same fierce fight we must endure, and more. His struggle took Him to the long warfare of the cross—battered by betrayal, mocking, and isolation; injured by thorns, lashes, and spikes; and finally finished by giving up His own spirit. It was all love because it was all endured for you. And once He rose on the third day, it became clear for all to see. Your Lord, the Lamb, laid down His life and took it up again for you—to conquer your fears, your sin and sins, and your death.

It’s what makes you “God’s children now.” Oh, sure, you may feel more like an orphan, out of place and without a home in this fallen world. Your own doubts, trials, and fears may cloud your vision, and you may not always see yourself as God’s child. Don’t rely on your eyesight, though; trust your Lord’s promise. You will see clearly when He appears. And “we know that when he appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.” As John also tells you today, “Everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure.” You have been made pure in your Baptism—as pure as Jesus is—and you will get to see that when He appears. Keep your eyes on the goal; it helps you persevere.

Our Gospel reading gives us Jesus at the beginning of His ministry. He begins His teaching by giving us end-time promises to sustain us in our journey to new life. With your eyes on the goal, you can persevere. First, Jesus promises to fill all who suffer from innate emptiness. Note the words He uses to describe you, me, and all His followers—poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting. Your innate empty condition leads to the result of how you live. Because you are spiritually bankrupt—because you have absolutely nothing to offer to God—you live all of life mourning your own sin and the sin that infects the world. Because you are meek and lowly—truly in need of deliverance—you hunger and thirst for Jesus’ rightness.

Only Jesus can fill your innate emptiness. He does this in both the now and the not yet. Now He promises and assures you that His heavenly reign, with all its blessings, belongs to you. Now, by faith, to be sure. What lies ahead in the “not yet”? You will be comforted. You will inherit the earth, the new creation. You will be satisfied. All of that because you now have and will then have Him—your Savior, the Lamb who purifies you by His blood.

Then Jesus promises to transform His disciples with His very own life. Jesus’ mercy shown on the cross makes His Christians merciful. By His shed blood He creates in you a new and pure heart so that you will get to see God face-to-face. Since you are thus made a child and heir of God Himself, you now get to live, move, and have your being as a peacemaker. That’s another way of saying, “a bringer of the Gospel” to those around you. And when you are persecuted and reviled for belonging to Jesus, confessing Him, and being His faithful follower, you have a very real and powerful promise in the here and now: His heavenly reign, with all its blessings, still belongs to you. There’s no room for triumphalism in Jesus’ Church. Just as He reigns and blesses from the cross, so too you and I get to live under the cross. That’s what helps us persevere even as we keep our eyes on the goal promised by Him.

So come and be filled at His Table. Come and be transformed by Your Lord’s very Body and Blood. Here, at this Table, in this Meal, your Lord gives you the blessings of His heavenly reign: forgiveness, life, salvation, peace, and hope.

All Saints’ Day is not only the day of preaching the parish’s funeral sermon. It’s also the great Easter feast of the second half of the Church Year. On Easter we celebrate our Lord’s resurrection from the dead, His victory over death itself. On All Saints’ Day we celebrate and anticipate the coming fruits of His resurrection for us, His Church.

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.
Alleluia! (LSB 677:6)


26 October 2020

Homily for Reformation Day (Observed) - 2020

"Free Indeed"

John 8:31-36


Jesus says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Talk of freedom resonates with us Americans; our ears perk up. We love our liberty. Freedom is our national middle name, our country’s heart and soul, our very DNA. Everything from the year 1776 to the Fourth of July every year to freedom of speech and religious liberty proclaims our love for liberty. But when we talk of freedom, we must ask two crucial questions: 1) Free from what? and 2) Free for what?

In our national experience, our love of liberty is rooted in freedom from government tyranny—that is, from government presuming it knows better than you how to run your life for you. Think King George, Great Britain, and burdensome taxes and regulations in the late 1700s. Building on the notion that all people are created equal, our American founders built a governing system “of the people, by the people, for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln would say a century later. Think freedom for living by the God-given rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which means keeping your property.

In our Gospel, we hear of a different, deeper freedom. Jesus  teaches some Jews who had believed Him. They’ve heard His teaching and they believe that He is God’s promised Messiah. Exactly what they understood that to mean may be up for debate. So Jesus begins His sermon: “If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” At that all ears perked up. “Will set you free?” These good Jewish believers thought they were already free. We good Americans think that we are already free. What does Jesus mean by “free”? Free from what?

The Jewish believers who listened to Jesus could not stomach being told they were slaves. They pushed back: “We…have never been enslaved to anyone.” On the surface we might say, “Oh yeah?” Had they conveniently forgotten their forefathers who lived in Egyptian slavery  for 400 years? What of their ancestors who lived in Babylonian exile for 70 years? Must have slipped their minds. Did they have blinders on to the Roman Empire occupying their backwater little country even as they spoke?

Or they may have been thinking of something else. Even when they were enslaved in Egypt, they could claim they still belonged only to the God of Israel. Even when they were exiled in Babylon, they still belonged to and served Yahweh. Even as they lived under Roman rule, their self-proclaimed allegiance was to the true God.

Either way, Jesus had to redirect their focus. They were forgetting one undeniable truth—slavery to sin. We also conveniently forget that we are, in fact, slaves to sin. As Jesus says, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” We all commit our sins—insensitive words or deeds, uncaring, spiteful thoughts and feelings, neglecting to care for family or friends, gossip, greed, and so on. Jesus wants us to “abide in His word,” His word of truth. But we succumb to the slavery of our society and question if there is such a thing as absolute truth. We say with our fellow slaves in society, “What’s true for you is not true for me.”

Jesus wants us to abide in His Word. He wants us to remain in His truth. He wants us to dwell in His message of the liberated life. But all we need to do is examine our daily routines and priorities. Daily routines of work and school tend to crowd out time spent dwelling in Jesus’ Word. Our slavery to our schedules drives us to say, “I don’t have time for worship, for Bible study, for family prayer.” We are slaves to thinking we are in control of all things in life. We are slaves to our calendars, our commitments, and our self-imposed goals and priorities. We are slaves to the very computers, devices, and smart phones that are supposed to make life more free. We are slaves to ourselves—to imagining that we must control everything in life, even God Himself.

So Jesus says, “the slave does not remain in the house forever.” No slave—no sinner—gets to dwell in God’s house—that is, no sinner-slave who is not freed by Christ Himself. Our sins hang around our necks and weigh us down. Our guilt for putting ourselves in the place of God shackles us down. We cannot move. We need help. We need Someone to liberate us.

So, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. Jesus Christ, true Son of God in the flesh, comes to set you free. How so? By taking the chains of your sin and your guilt off of you and putting them on Himself. And He takes not only your chains, but also the chains of the people around you, the chains of all people of all times and all places. These chains of sin shackled Jesus to the cross. And bound there by His eternal love for you and for all people, He was crushed under the burden. But then He rose from the dead. And you are free. Free from what? Free from sin, free from a guilty conscience.

Now we can ask: Free for what? Luther and the Reformation give us a great blessing: the Church always refocusing on God’s unshackled grace in Christ Jesus. In Christ we have all of God’s boundless mercy and love. In Christ Jesus we have freedom from sin, death, and hell. Now what? Now that we no longer have to impress God, butter Him up, or buy Him off, how do we go about life? For what are we free?

It’s sad but true that in our liberty-loving land of America, freedom has come to mean “free to do whatever I want.” Many in our land love freedom so much that they trash and defame the very country that gives them freedom. It’s even sadder that we Christians do the same with God’s rich, sweet, life-giving mercy. How often do we use the freedom of our Lord’s forgiveness to slip back into our sinful ways? What of the times when we either think or act as though hearing our Lord’s Word and receiving His Body and Blood were somehow optional, rather than necessary for life?

St. Paul captured this dilemma. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Rom. 6:1-2) Shall we use our freedom from sin to sin all the more? Of course not! St. Paul goes on: “Having been set free from sin, you become slaves of righteousness.” (Rom. 6:18). Yes, you are freed from sin for living a better life, a different kind of life. You are freed from service to self so that you may live as God designed you to live.

Luther expressed it this way during the Reformation: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Here’s the paradox of our freedom in Christ. We are free before God—free from sin, guilt, and eternal death. We are completely free to relax in God’s presence. At the same time, we are also free for living as God’s servants. We are completely free to practice the kind of humanity that God designed for us. That means trusting God above all things and serving our neighbors in love.

For what has Christ set you free? He has set you free for service to other people. You are free to serve one another. Parents, you are free to serve your children, especially by teaching them God’s life-giving Word. Children, you are free to serve your parents by honoring and obeying them. Workers and students, you are free to put your best efforts into your work. Supervisors and managers, you are free to take care of your workers. As Christians—God’s free forgiven people—you are free to be slaves—slaves to people around you, free for service.

By God’s grace, may it be so for you—free from sin before God, free for service to your neighbor. If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. Amen.


19 October 2020

Homily for St. Luke, the Evangelist - 2020

"Physician of the Soul"

Luke 10:1-9


“Neither you nor I could ever know anything about Christ, or believe on Him, and have Him for our Lord, unless it were offered to us and granted to our hearts by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel” (LC II:38). So writes Martin Luther in his Large Catechism on the Third Article of the Creed. The Holy Spirit’s work is to sanctify and heal us by bringing us to Christ and Christ to us.

This is what St. Luke, the Evangelist, proclaimed by his words and his vocation. Luke, of course, wrote the Gospel bearing his name as well as the Acts of the Apostles. He gives us the beloved Christmas story, many powerful parables, and the encouraging accounts of early Christians. He traveled with St. Paul on his missionary journeys, and the Bible calls him “the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14).

In our Gospel reading, St. Luke fixes our eyes on Jesus and His healing for our souls. As we prayed in the Collect, Jesus called “Luke the physician to be an evangelist and physician of the soul.” The Church and her pastors have a singular task—to bring us “the healing medicine of the Gospel and the Sacraments” so that Jesus Himself “may put to flight the diseases of our souls that with willing hearts we may ever love and serve [Him].”

Early Christian tradition says St. Luke was probably one of the seventy-two whom Jesus sent out. These men were in addition to the Twelve Apostles. Jesus sent them out “two by two” to establish the evidence of their witness. He told them not to take moneybag, knapsack or sandals, because they were not going on a vacation. He said not to greet folks on the road because their mission was urgent.

Jesus sent them out to do what He Himself would do. They were to proclaim, “Peace be to this house!” They were to stay in the house that received them, not going on progressive dinners searching for the best cook in town, because “the laborer deserves his wages.” They were to “heal the sick” and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near you.” Jesus also told these pastors-in-training that they would be sacrificial “lambs in the midst of wolves.” When we read on in Luke 10, Jesus even prepares His evangelists and ministers that some stubborn souls just will not receive them or their message of peace and healing. When that happens, He says, just wipe the dust off your feet and move on.

Jesus ties Himself to the work of these pastors and evangelists. “The one who hears you,” He tells them, “hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me, and the one who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me” (Luke 10:16).

You see, Jesus knows what you need most. What you need is healing—in your soul. You need peace—in your soul. You need to hear, believe, and know that “the kingdom of God has come near to you.” And when Jesus says, “kingdom of God,” He’s referring to Himself.

You and I need Someone—the only One—who can come and put to flight the diseases of the soul. Remember, Jesus called Himself a physician: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Lk. 5:31).

So what diseases of the soul do you have? Consider the times you doubt God and are not sure that He loves you and does everything for you in mercy—even in times of widespread sickness and chaos. Consider the times you neglect to call upon Him in trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. Consider the times you grow cold or indifferent to holding His Word sacred and gladly hearing and learning it. Consider the times when your neighbor—at home, at church, or at work—taxes your patience and stretches your ability to love to the point of snapping. Consider the times when you truly are sinned against and end up wallowing in victimhood or stewing in the juices of anger. As Jesus said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Mt. 15:19-20). Such are the diseases of the soul.

The Augsburg Confession calls this “concupiscence”—“a disease and original vice that is truly sin” (AC II, 2). On the one hand, we are inclined to live our lives “without the fear of God, without trust in God.” On the other hand, we feverishly seek to live our lives “with the inclination to sin” (AC II, 1).  

So St. Luke, the evangelist, the beloved physician, gives you the Great Physician, your Lord Jesus. When He was born, the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (Lk. 2:14)—uniting heaven and earth with His peace and healing. He is your Good Samaritan who binds up the wounds of your soul, pours on the oil and wine of His Word and Sacraments, and brings you into the inn of His Church where you may convalesce and receive His healing (Lk. 10:33-35). He is the loving shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep in the pen to go looking for you. And when He finds you, aching and hurting in your diseased soul, He takes you up in His arms, He rejoices, and He restores you to His Father and His flock (Lk. 15:3-7).

And when your Great Physician hangs on the cross, wounded by lacerations and spikes, by mockings and betrayals, He utters the most healing, peace-giving vaccine we can ever hear: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). Yes, that includes you! There’s your healing medicine! “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:4-5).

Now you can rejoice with the thief crucified next to Jesus. You get to hear the same hopeful, peaceful, soul-healing words: “You will be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). Oh, you say you still have doubts about God, His Word, or His will for you? You still struggle to call upon Him, praise Him, or give Him thanks? You still have dry times in hearing and learning His Word? And loving your neighbor is still difficult? You still have diseases of the soul? That’s what the promise of Paradise is for! “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Is. 35:5-6). That’s when the full and final healing will come.

It’s also why your Great Physician gives you His Body and Blood as healing medicine for your soul. It’s “a pure, wholesome, comforting remedy that grants salvation and comfort. It will cure you and give you life both in soul and body. For where the soul has recovered, the body also is relieved” (LC V:68).

Speaking of the body being relieved, we also thank our Lord, the Great Physician, for His gifts of health care workers. As we thank our Lord for St. Luke the physician, we also thank Him for our brothers and sisters here at Hope who serve as health care workers—Gabrielle, Colin, Sally, Donna, Chad, Joel, and Christina. (If I have accidentally missed someone, please forgive me!) During this time of pandemic, our health care workers have been serving on the “front line.” At least two of our Hope members have served patients suffering from COVID. In a few minutes we will publicly thank our Lord for you and give you our own heartfelt “Thank you.”

Your Great Physician Jesus comes to heal you. He sends His ministers, such as St. Luke, the beloved physician, to deliver His divine healing medicine in water, words, and meal. That’s why today we thank our Lord for His servant Luke, as well as others who practice the art of healing the body. It’s also why we praise Him that, even in our day, He gives servants who dispense and administer the healing medicine of Jesus, our Physician of the soul. Amen.

12 October 2020

Homily for Trinity 18 - 2020

"Where Does Your Love Face?"

Matthew 22:34-46

It’s been a rough few days for Jesus! On Sunday, He rode into Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!” and then cleansed the temple. That angered the religious leaders. On Monday, He cursed the fig tree and taught some Greeks. Now, on Tuesday, He’s had His authority questioned. He’s had to teach some hard things by means of parables. And He’s been peppered with gotcha questions to test Him. Would He pay taxes Caesar? Does He really believe in the resurrection?

Now some self-righteous teacher of God’s Law tests Him about the greatest commandment. It’s the ultimate gotcha question: “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” Would they finally catch Him or trip Him up? Would they confirm that He’s actually on their side against the Sadducees? Jesus gives a “two-for-the-price-of-one” answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The two go together, hand in glove—love your God and love your neighbor.

What does this mean? Bible commentator Frederick Bruner gives a helpful picture. When  Jesus gives this “love command” as supreme, Bruner says, “he opens the hearts of believers, like flowers to the sun, to their living posture. We were made for love…. [Jesus] does not so much give us an activity that can be calculably done as he gives a direction to face.” (Churchbook, 794). When our Lord commands us to love our God and love our neighbor, He does not so much give us things to do; He gives us a direction to face. Of course, that direction to face bears fruit in things to do.

Where does your love face? In the first and greatest commandment, Jesus says your love must face God-ward.

That’s easier said than done, though. You see, you and I are so accustomed to looking in the mirror and taking selfies. We’re quite efficient at looking out for number one. Martin Luther used the Latin phrase “incurvatus se”—being curved in on oneself. We might also call it “navel gazing” or “belly-button-itis.” And what happens when you walk around in life with your face directed toward your belly button? You run into lots of things and get hurt.

We are accustomed to the “love God” command showing us our sin. As our catechumens learned last week, when God gives His commandments, He demands full compliance, perfect completion, no exceptions whatsoever. In God’s grading scale 100% is the passing grade; everything else—even 99.99%—is a failing grade. We do not love God as we should because we cannot. It’s rather difficult to face God-ward when we are so prone to facing self-ward.

When Jesus says, “Love God,” He says, “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” We can also say, “With all your will, with all your emotions, and with all your reason.” If you love God with your whole heart, you make God’s will your will. If you love God with your whole soul, you fully desire God more than anything else. If you love God with your whole mind, your every thought is continually directed toward God.

Whoever loves God with the heart but not with the whole heart is straddling the fence. That’s not love for God, because God wants to fill a person’s whole heart. Whoever loves God with the soul, but not the whole soul has a lukewarm love. God will spit that lukewarm love out of His mouth. Whoever loves God with the mind but not the whole mind does not yet know God as their highest good. That person may suppose to love God, but really only loves God’s gifts and creatures.

Where does your love face? In the second greatest commandment, Jesus says your love must face neighbor-ward. This is the pure extension of love for God. As Paul said, “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Again, this is easier said than done. Just reflect on how every human being loves himself or herself—on how you love yourself. You do not merely love yourself, but you love yourself sincerely; not coldly or lukewarmly but ardently. You never seek your own hurt but always your own safety and benefit, even when it’s most difficult to achieve.

So to love your neighbor as yourself, you must think the same way toward every other human being—whether he’s a friend or enemy, whether he’s godless or devout. Your Lord commands you to love each person as sincerely, as ardently, and as continually as you love yourself. He calls you to defend your neighbor from all harm, just as you would protect yourself. He summons you to seek the profit and benefit of your neighbor as though it were your own profit and benefit. A person loves his neighbor as himself only when his whole life and all his actions have the purpose of serving the neighbor, even to the point of giving his life for the neighbor.

Where are the Christians who can say that nothing but God’s love dwells in them? Where are the Christians who can say that their whole life is only and always a joyful service to their neighbor? Where are the Christians who first face only God-ward and second face only neighbor-ward? When you examine yourself and are honest with yourself, you must join David in falling on your knees and confessing: “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Ps. 143:2).

So it’s a good thing we have another question before us today: Where do you face God’s love? The first part of our Gospel reading is all Law; the second part is sheer, sweet Gospel. The first part of our reading brings us a gotcha question from the Pharisees to Jesus. The second part gives us a gotcha question in the other direction—from Jesus to the Pharisees. He asked them: “Whose son is the Christ?” They thought the question was too easy: “The son of David,” of course! Okay, then, why does David also call Him, “Lord”? “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’”?

Yes, the Christ is David’s Son, fully flesh-and-blood human. That means He’s also your neighbor who loves you as Himself. He has faced you in His incarnation, in His life of love and humble service, in His crucifixion and in His resurrection. “See from His head, His hands, His feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down” (LSB 425:3). He is also David’s Lord, “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God” (Nicene Creed). His perfect, divine love has also faced His Father from eternity and for all time. It’s the same love that led Him to come down from heaven for us and for our salvation. It’s the same eternal love that meets us face-to-face in the washing of rebirth, in the words speaking forgiveness, and in the meal giving His very Body and Blood for healing and living in love.

Where does your love face? Both God-ward and neighbor-ward. Of course, you and I are most imperfect in loving God with our all and loving our neighbor as ourselves. That’s why we seek our refuge not in our love, either for God or for our neighbor. No, we seek our refuge, our comfort, our confidence, our very peace in His love for us. “Love so amazing, so divine,” it “demands my soul, my life, my all” (LSB 425:4). Amen.

05 October 2020

Homily for Anniversary of a Congregation - 2020

"That We Might Have Hope"

Revelation 21:1-5

Just over a century ago, mail carrier William Eickoff noticed that some homes in the developing Southampton area were receiving Lutheran periodicals and letters from Lutheran churches. A Lutheran himself, Eickoff became acquainted with those Lutheran families. Soon they discussed the possibility of starting a new Lutheran congregation—our congregation. With the help of the old Western District of the LCMS and students from Concordia Seminary, the new Lutheran mission opened and dedicated its portable chapel on October 8, 1916. The mission’s first name was “Southampton English Lutheran Church.” Four months later—February 22, 1917—the new congregation held its first Voters Assembly meeting. Led by their first pastor, Rev. Martin Engel, the new mission chose a new name. Three names were proposed: “Faith,” “Hope,” and “Good Shepherd.” The name “Hope” was chosen by an overwhelming majority—“Hope English Lutheran Church.”

Perhaps our congregation’s founders were echoing Martin Luther when he said: “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope. No [farmer] would sow a grain of corn if he hoped not it would grow up and become seed…. [No] tradesman would set himself to work if he did not hope to reap benefit thereby.” We humans do seem to function best when we have hope—when we can see the purpose of our efforts, the end of a struggle, or some other light at the end of the tunnel.

We see a more explicit reason for naming a congregation “Hope” from 79 years ago, when our forebears celebrated our 25th anniversary. “The story of Hope is not complete unless we realize that hundreds, perhaps thousands of those to whom Hope Church, through the preaching of the Gospel, gave the opportunity to live here in this evil world with real hope will someday by the grace of God in Christ Jesus be translated to the Home Above where hope will change to reality, where faith will be changed into seeing, where everlasting peace and contentment will dwell.” (25th Anniversary Book, p. 19)

Why name a congregation “Hope”? To fix our eyes on the most meaningful purpose of our lives, to comfort us with the best and brightest light at the end of the tunnel. The Apostle Paul said, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). Hope for more than getting through the day or to the weekend. Hope for more than merely surviving a pandemic or slogging through another election year. Truly, hope for a better existence, a better life, and a better creation than we’ve ever known. This is the light we see shining so brightly in our second reading from Revelation.

Anytime we hear from or read Revelation, we must remember one crucial detail. This last book of the Bible is not a road map of the End Times, as so many teach it these days. Instead, Revelation is a book of comfort and hope.

First century Christians were being persecuted—hunted down, locked down, and put down—by the Roman government. St. John had been exiled on the island of Patmos, just off the coast of modern-day Turkey—whisked away to waste away for confessing Christ. So God revealed His message of the victorious Lamb, Christ Jesus, to give comfort and hope to His embattled yet faithful people. The Revelation to St. John gives comfort to suffering Christians. It encourages them in their faithful witness. It does so by means of symbolic images and prophetic portraits of the victory that is already ours in God’s risen and living Lamb, our Lord Jesus.

After the Lord told him to compose letters to seven churches and their pastors, St. John saw several visions of things happening on earth and in heaven. On earth the church lives under great distress. The heavenly visions give God’s view of all the goings on. Fast-forward to the end of the book. Babylon, the earthly enemy of God and His kingdom, is fallen. There’s great rejoicing in heaven as the victorious soldier—our Lord Jesus—comes riding triumphantly on a white horse to receive His bride, the Church. Satan, God’s spiritual enemy, is bound and defeated. Now John leads us to look beyond the end of the first world to the creation of “a new heaven and a new earth.” To what end? That we might have hope.

This present heaven and earth were good as first created by God. But we know how Adam, Eve and all humanity have spoiled and ruined it with sin and death. Just read, mark, learn and inwardly digest your Bible stories. Just observe what happens around you in your home, in the workplace, in society. Just pay attention to times past and current events. This world is not a good place. It’s broken. People suffer. You and I suffer. And none of us can change it, no matter how hard we try. Let John’s vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” give you hope. This broken creation is not fit for you who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, for you who are sealed to be resurrected. John sees the broken creation passed away.

He also sees that “the sea was no more.” Does that mean no water sports or no water to drink in the new creation? Probably not. After all, bodies of water were part of God’s original creation. “No more sea” is a biblical way of saying that everything that separates you from God will be gone, no longer a thing. All of the fear and terror evoked by “the sea” of this fallen world will be sent packing.

Next John sees “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” That’s you; that’s me; that’s all of God’s faithful who are redeemed by Jesus. Because of Jesus’ ugly, bloody death, you and I and all the redeemed are made clean and beautiful. Now that’s something to look forward to!

Then a voice rings out: “The dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God.” God binds Himself to His people in an incarnational and sacramental way. Remember the Word becoming flesh and tabernacling among us. It’s what He does now in word, water, and meal. Now we receive Him by faith; then we will get to see Him dwelling with us face-to-face.

Next John gives us a most curious way of describing this coming new heaven and new earth. It’s described in negative terms—what’s not there, what it’s not like. No tears, no death, no sorrow, nor crying, nor pain. All of these things that are now part and parcel of the fallen creation and our fallen existence will be no more. It’s as if we could never really comprehend life without tears, sorrows, pain, crying and death. That’s exactly the way it is. That’s why we need hope, the light at the end of the tunnel. We cannot even imagine what life would be like without disappointments and diseases, without chaos and corruption. But we do have our Lord’s promise, that we might have hope: all of that will be gone.

Finally, as John views “a new heaven and a new earth,” he hears the voice of God the Father. It’s only the second time the Father has spoken in Revelation. The first was when He identified Himself as “the Alpha and the Omega…who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8). Now He gives a creative word. Just as He said in the beginning, “Let there be…,” and there was, now He will say, “Behold, I am making all things new.” All things will be made new and improved, of much better, far superior quality than we can even imagine. “All things” means earth, heaven, creatures great and small, and even you, me, and all believers. God will not throw out His creation as some sort of trash. Instead, He will recreate it, transform the old into the new. And that includes you, that you might have hope.

How does John’s vision affect our faithful witness? We keep hearing how we live in “challenging times” and “unprecedented times.” You can hear the hopelessness in those words. It’s what happens when humans go it alone  through this broken, fallen world, without God. And that’s why our victorious Lamb has put us here, in this place, at this time. That others around us may have hope. That those around us may be brought to life in Christ Jesus through His shed blood. What’s truly unprecedented is the new creation awaiting in Jesus.

It was only two years after Hope English Lutheran Church was founded that the Spanish flu pandemic hit St. Louis. I can find no record of how those challenging months impacted our toddler-aged congregation. But we do know this: the people of Hope endured it, survived, and thrived. They went on to proclaim Christ crucified and risen for sinners. And because of their faithful witness, we too have hope. Now we get to look forward “to the Home Above where hope will change to reality, where faith will be changed into seeing, where everlasting peace and contentment will dwell.” Amen.

28 September 2020

Homily for St. Michael and All Angels (Observed) - 2020

"Seeing the Battle"

Luke 10:17-20

Blurry vision is better than no vision at all.

So I discovered this past Friday on my early morning bike ride. As I began my ride in the dark, I could see it was foggy. The further I rode, the soupier the fog became—like pea soup, as we say. The longer I rode, the more the moisture collected on my glasses, blocking my vision. When I stopped at the light at Holly Hills and Morganford, I removed my glasses and used my cycling jersey to wipe off the condensation. Well, that moved the water droplets around a bit. I had to stop again, after another mile and a half; then again after another mile. I even tried using my fingers as “windshield wipers” on my glasses as I rode. Finally, I decided simply to remove my glasses, put them in my jersey pocket, and ride the final five miles with blurry but better vision. It was much safer than riding with vision cut off by countless tiny water droplets and some finger smudges.

In a way, the 72 disciples of Jesus had to learn this lesson too. Jesus had sent them out to “Heal the sick…and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Lk. 10:9). He had enlisted them in the very same combat mission in which He was engaged. The difference between Jesus and His 72 sent out ones is this: He can clearly see the battle that’s raging. His fallen-but-redeemed human messengers? Not so much.

You see, wherever Jesus goes, whatever He does, He goes marching into battle. Remember when Jesus entered this fallen world. King Herod tried to snuff out the life of Mary and Joseph’s Child. By God’s direction they fled to Egypt for a time. Remember about 30 years later after Jesus was baptized. He was “led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil” (Lk. 4:2). There He battled the arch enemy over some food, some physical protection, and a whole lot of earthly glory.

When He returned to His hometown of Nazareth, He used His synagogue sermon to set out the agenda for His ministry. He would proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to the captives. The blind would receive their sight, and the oppressed would be set free. He would proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Lk. 4:16-19). At first His hearers marveled at His gracious words. But then He confronted them with their own pride and unbelief. So they drove Him out of the town and tried to throw Him off the cliff. But He passed through the riotous crowd and walked away.

Then came the teachings and healings. Every word He spoke and every person He healed was a frontal assault on the ruler of this world. He spoke of God’s gracious reign entering—that is, invading—this world so darkened by suspicion, hatred, discontent, violence, and death. He spoke of the God who loves and forgives His fallen people, even though those same fallen people are prone to ignore Him. To those who do receive His message of divine grace, mercy, and forgiveness, He also spoke of not being judgmental but rather loving one’s neighbor in many and various ways. And the healings! Folks were liberated from various captivities: demon-possession, leprosy, paralysis, withered hands, sicknesses leading to death, even death itself.

Wherever Jesus goes, whatever He does, He brings the age-old battle to the enemy—the great dragon, that ancient serpent. The 72 were sent out with the same battle plan: to heal the sick and proclaim the coming of God’s gracious kingdom in Christ. When they returned to Jesus, they took pride in what they had done. “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” They were giddy in their apparent victory and success. But their glasses were covered with the pea-soup fog of pride.

Yes, Jesus did see Satan fall like lightning from heaven, both at the beginning of creation and every time His sent ones proclaimed His kingdom of mercy and forgiveness. Yes, Jesus had given them authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and even over all the power of the enemy. He even promised that nothing would hurt them. But they needed to remove their glasses fogged up with pride. “Don’t rejoice that some junior devils are subject to you when you proclaim Me,” Jesus says. “Instead, ‘rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’”

It seems a bit counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Engage in the same war Jesus is engaged in, but do not focus on victories in the minor skirmishes? We do need to remove our glasses fogged up with the pea soup of pride. We do need to see with better clarity even if, to us, it’s still blurry.

You see, we are at war. Not against nations or terrorists. Not a ground war, sea war, air war, nuclear war, or war against a microscopic virus. Not a war against flesh and blood. We are at war “against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). It’s cosmic, spiritual warfare. We can see it only with blurred vision, which is better than not seeing because of pride.

In our Old Testament reading, we see the battle lines drawn. It’s the wise versus the wicked. It’s the kings of the earth lined up against the people of God. But they are not the only ones on the battlefield. There’s also Michael, the prince of God’s people. He and his forces confront and engage the antichrist.

This picture comes into clearer focus in our reading from Revelation. Michael and his ranks of angels do battle against the dragon and his fallen angels. And they defeat the the dragon and his evil minions. The victory comes in a most unexpected, unanticipated way. “They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev. 12:11). Our Lord Jesus, who had seen Satan fall like lightning from heaven, finally conquered the old evil foe. He who was higher than the angels became a little Child, humble, trusting His heavenly Father, and obedient unto death. By dying on a cross and shedding His innocent blood He conquered the ancient serpent. That with His resurrection on the third day crushed the serpent’s head. That’s the victory we can clearly see.

But the fighting is not over. Between that victory on Calvary and the Feast of Victory after the Last Day, the devil and his forces are still in the world doing their dirty work. Remember, “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion” (1 Pet. 5:8). He and his forces will do whatever it takes to further their cause. They’ll use pandemics and responses to pandemics to turn people away from Jesus, prevent them from hearing His Word and receiving His Sacrament, and sow seeds of suspicion and division among people. They’ll use highly charged politics in an election year and violence in the streets to make fears and anxieties grow.

This is why, in our Gospel reading, our Lord warns His disciples not to become pawns of the evil one. How might you and I become pawns of the dragon in his battle against our Lord and His Church? By succumbing to pride. By desiring greatness and acclaim. By forgetting we are the Lord’s “little ones” who can see only with the clarity of faith, even as we have the blurred vision of physical sight.

As the Church engages in the struggle against Satan and his demonic forces, she does so with St. Michael and the holy angels at her side. In Holy Baptism, we become God’s “little children.” Our Father hears our prayers and sends His angels to guard us in all our ways. In Holy Absolution we hear our Father’s word of pardon for our offenses, including our offenses against weaker members of His family. In the Holy Supper we participate in the Feast of Victory and are fed with Life Himself as our living Bread from heaven. And in the liturgy we are brought into the very presence of our Lord Jesus and join the angels and archangels in their unending hymn of praise.

Let this St. Michael and All Angels Day remove your lenses of pride and improve your vision. We may not be able to see the battle against the spiritual forces of evil nor the holy angels themselves. But your Lord, by His blood, has conquered the evil foe. Your Lord sends His angels to serve as your powerful protectors. Rejoice that your names are written heaven. Amen.

21 September 2020

Homily for Trinity 15

"Liberated from Anxious Worry"

Matthew 6:24-34

A Swedish proverb says, “Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.” How true that is! This odd year called 2020 is conditioning us to make and live in lots of big shadows. Remember when the pandemic started and we endured the big shadow of toilet paper and paper towel shortages? I still have no idea what a run on paper goods rolled on cardboard tubes had to do with COVID, but there it was—that big shadow.

One anonymous source tried to calculate just what makes people anxious. According to that source,
40% of the average person’s anxieties focus on things that never happen;
30% of a person’s anxieties focus on things of the past, things that cannot be changed;
12% of one’s anxieties are over criticisms, which are mostly untrue;
10% of a person’s anxieties are over health issues, and those health issues only get worse with stress; and
only 8% of the average person’s anxieties are about real problems.   

We fallen creatures seem to relish giving small things a big shadow. Or, how about this picture for your worries and anxieties: Worry is like a rocking chair. It may give you something to do, but it gets you nowhere.

Our Lord knows this. He also knows how His disciples, both then and now, are so very prone to anxious worry. So He invites us to learn from the little birds and the tiny lily. He woos and invites us to be liberated from our anxious worry.

First, Jesus gives us an “either/or” lesson for looking at the world. Just before our text, He said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:21). Then with His first words in our Gospel, He says: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” You cannot divide your loyalties. You cannot simultaneously serve God and money. You cannot simultaneously serve God and anxious worry. There is only room in your heart for one lord and master. Will it be God, or will it be your anxious worry? As Luther said, “The confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol…. [W]hatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god” (LC I:2-3).

Next, Jesus gives us His wonderfully simple object lessons of the little birds and the tiny lily.

What can we learn from the little birds? One time Martin Luther was overwhelmed by the vast variety of birds in God’s creation. He pondered how much it might cost God to feed them all with so many different kinds of seeds and berries. Wouldn’t a few standard types of birds be more economical?, Luther wondered. There are robins, ravens, jackdaws, crows, canaries, cardinals, wrens, finches, and so many more. Yet God knows each and every one of them. And no petite hummingbird falls to the ground dead without God knowing it. They neither grow nor harvest their own crops, nor store their food in barns. “Yet,” Jesus says, “your heavenly Father feeds them.”

So who among you, people of God—people more valuable than those little birds, people bought back with the blood of Christ—who among you can add a mere 18 inches to your long-distance marathon of life? After all, you live your lives under the Father’s care. You live your lives with the Son’s cross-won forgiveness. Why be anxious? Why worry about a new disease that we now know has a 99% survivability rate? Why worry about destructive riots and devastating wildfires? Oh, I know, many in the media and some of our leaders keep stoking the fires of fear and anxiety. But they cannot overrule your Father’s promises in Jesus.

As Proverbs reminds you: “Anxiety in a man's heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad” (12:25). That good word is your Father’s love through Christ crucified for anxious sinners. The psalmist also reminds you: “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep” (Ps. 127:2). You may rest safe and secure in your Father’s care.

What can we learn from the tiny lily? Now this is not the splendid, fragrant Easter lily, tall and proud. No, this is the tiny little flower you see growing in bunches in the grass along the roadside. This tiny lily grows as a creature of God. This miniature flower does not make itself grow, but God makes this lily grow. It is entirely dependent upon His goodness and provision. So it waits on God for its growth and strength. And it accepts God’s good design. It knows it is not a mighty oak tree. The tiny lily is not impatient. It has no hurry or fluster. It has a deep quiet and a strong peace.

We might think also of Mary’s Baby—quiet, hidden in her womb for nine months, and growing as God provided. Then after He was born, He grew into a young boy, He would go to school, play, help around the house, and perhaps play with the tiny lilies, without a care in the world. Remember this when you get flustered, impatient, and overshadowed with anxious worry. Remember the tiny lily. Especially remember the lily of the valleys, your Lord Jesus, who came from Mary, the rose of Sharon (Songs 2:1).

Not only is this tiny lily in Jesus’ object lesson a creature of God; it also lives solely to God. It has no anxious toil for security and safety in life. It does not spin or store up in banks or retirement funds. It does not worry about where to get clothing, food, drink, or toilet paper. It simply finds its fulfillment in living with the design and purpose given by God. Even its appearance and beauty is a gift from God. That’s what makes it more splendid and beautiful than Solomon in his luxurious glory.

But notice what else Jesus says about the tiny lily: today it’s alive and tomorrow it’s thrown into the oven. The lily can die quietly and without complaint. In death as in life, the lily lives only by God’s design and only with God’s purpose.

So too, the lily of the valleys, our Lord Jesus. He came into this sin-cursed world, this creation that groans under the weight of sin and death, to live God’s purpose of rescue and healing. He was crushed by the curse and thrown into the oven of crucifixion. He died without complaint, as He died for you and your salvation. And you know the rest of the story. He also rose again! His resurrection means your resurrection. His life restored means your life restored and creation restored for all eternity.

When it’s your time to die, you may die quietly and without complaint. This is true whether you die from natural causes, from COVID, in the path of a riot, or a wildfire, or a hurricane, or from something else. No need to be anxious, because your Father cares for you.

Jesus is drawing and wooing and inviting you to be free from all anxious worry over all of your needs. How can you do this? “Seek first the [reign] of God and His righteousness.” Receive His blessing and His calling that come only through Jesus. Keep seeking Jesus where He promises to be found. Keep seeking His gracious rule in the forgiveness of sins. You seek His reign when you seek His Gospel in the Scriptures and the Sacraments. You seek His reign with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Together you are joined to Jesus in your Baptism. Together you gather to hear His Word of life that makes anxiety dissipate. Together you receive His Body and Blood for forgiveness, life, and salvation.

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3). Amen.

15 September 2020

Homily for Trinity 14

"Lepers Cleansed"

Luke 17:11-19

The ten lepers are us, and we are the ten lepers. They suffered from physical leprosy that ravaged their bodies. We and all people suffer from spiritual leprosy that ravages both body and soul. These ten lepers give us a picture of the human race infected with the leprosy of sin.

When we hear the term “leprosy,” we usually think of Hansen’s disease—a bacterial infection that can affect nerves, skin, and eyes and then lead to a loss of feeling and even paralysis. In the Bible, leprosy certainly included that, but it probably also included illnesses such as eczema—a skin rash—and dermatitis—scaly, flaking skin and itchiness.

Our sin is like leprosy in several respects:

  • Leprosy affects and destroys the whole body. Sin totally infects, affects and destroys our strength in both body and soul—nothing sound from head to toe.
  • Leprosy is a disease that spreads. So does sin, coming into the world through one man and spreading to us all. St. Paul calls it “the works of the flesh”—with all those nasty symptoms of “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger” and so on—all those symptoms that even present themselves in us.
  • Leprosy cannot be healed by man’s efforts. Today, treatments may prevent the disease from getting worse, but they cannot reverse the  damage. And remember the story of Naaman. He sought healing from the King of Israel, but the King of Israel cried out, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive?” (2 Kgs. 5:7). Sin absolutely cannot be healed by human means—not by doctors, paramedics, or politicians. After all, those “desires of the flesh are against the Spirit.”
  • Leprosy is a viral disease that spreads to others who are healthy. Modern medicine may quibble with just how it spreads. Sin itself does spread its contamination. Consider the many ways our fallen world infects us all in thought, word and deed to think, speak and act in ways that go against God’s Word, ways that lead us to distrust God and be unloving to our neighbor—“rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and things like these.”
  • And leprosy, once it takes hold, eats its way more and more through the body. Likewise, sin. Because of this infection we all have, one sin leads to another, and that one easily to yet another. First, the desire; then the misdeed; then the excuse; then the cover-up; then the lie; and so on.

If it weren’t for our leprosy of sin, we would not need police officers, laws, penalties or rulings of law courts. If it weren’t for our leprosy of sin, we would not have to endure racial tensions, injustices, pandemics or destructive rioting.

In the Old Testament, God instructed His people on how to deal with lepers. Lepers had to separate themselves from everyone else because their diseases of infected, decaying, rotting flesh could infect others. When healthy people walked by, the lepers were supposed to warn them by crying out “Unclean!” When a person was infected with leprosy, he had to show himself to the priest. The priest would pronounce him unclean, and the person would have to quarantine in the leper colony outside the city. Social distancing, Bible-style!

When a leper was healed of his leprosy, he would again show himself to the priest, the priest would offer the appropriate sacrifices, and then pronounce him “clean.” In Leviticus 14, cleansing of lepers happened, first, by killing a bird in an earthen vessel over fresh, living water. Next, a live bird, a piece of cedarwood, and a scarlet yarn were dipped in that water mixed with blood. Then the priest, using the live bird wet with blood and water, would “sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease” (Lev. 14:7). As God said, “Thus the priest shall make atonement for [the leper], and he shall be clean” (Lev. 14:20).

So, let’s imitate the ten lepers as Jesus comes passing along between the Samaria and Galilee of our lives. Let’s lift up our voices and cry out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” And let’s listen to and heed Him when He bids us to show ourselves to the priest. No, not those priests at the Jerusalem temple, but Jesus, our great High Priest who has passed through the heavens (Heb. 2:14). “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 2:15).

How can we be healed and saved from our spiritual leprosy? Only by finding our way to Jesus, the sole physician for the soul. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 2:16). “Offered was He for greatest and for least, / Himself the victim and Himself the priest” (LSB 637:1). Not only is Jesus both victim and priest for you, He is also the dead bird and the living bird for you. He is the One who cleanses you “by the washing of water with [His] word, so that He might present [you] to Himself in splendor” (Eph. 5:26-27), cleansed of your leprosy of sin.

Actually, we don’t have to find our way to Him. He has found His way to us! Just as the ten lepers were cleansed before they found their way to the priests—not by their own reason or strength, nor by their decision or will—we are cleansed in the bath of our Baptism—not by our own reason, strength, decision or will. Our baptismal bath sprinkles us with the very blood and water that flowed from the side of Christ crucified. He is the One who was crucified outside the city. He is the One who comes by water and blood; not by the water only but by the water and the blood (1 Jn. 5:6).

Now let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the one cleansed leper who returned to Jesus. Let’s take our cue from him on how to live all of life in our Baptism. I’m sure the other nine former lepers were generically thankful as civic courtesy and politeness would dictate. But they went on to live their lives apart from Jesus. The Samaritan, however, “turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks.” He did more than just give thanks. He gave praise to God. He returned to the Giver of the gift of cleansing. He was not merely content to enjoy the gift; he wanted to enjoy and be with the Giver.

That’s living your baptismal life. Not just a generic thankfulness for a quick healing. Not just a slight nod and a mental note that something special happened a long time ago, but then getting back to “real life.” No, the baptismal life is about living all of life in Jesus, with Jesus, and in the presence of Jesus. Daily contrition and repentance. Drowning that Old Adam in you. Making him die with all sins and evil desires every day. And then—thank the Lord and sing His praise!—emerging and arising every day to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Your one-time baptismal cleansing becomes your daily hygiene routine—not a burdensome routine, but a joyful living in the blood and water that continually heals and cleanses.

We all wrestle with sin every day. That leprous disease keeps flaring up even in us who are cleansed by Jesus’ blood and water. We will keep wrestling with our leprous sin until Jesus returns on the Last Day. It’s not a matter of Jesus’ healing not fully doing its job. It has! It’s a matter of living in faith, continually receiving His cleansing, and thus praising Him as did the Samaritan.

Martin Luther confessed this in the face of those who deny that sin remains after Baptism. The fact that sin remains after Baptism undercuts every notion of perfectionism—that is, thinking you can be free of sin or attain a sin-free life this side of heaven. It also topples any notion of “once-saved-always-saved.” While the healing for that Samaritan and the other nine was instantaneous, Jesus chooses to heal us over the long-haul. The sin is forgiven, to be sure; Jesus’ healing, though, is ongoing. Here’s how Luther expressed it:

“This life…is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.” (“A Defense and Explanation of All Articles” [AE 32:24]).

So we return to Jesus yet again, at His Table. “Draw near and take the body of the Lord, / And drink the holy blood for you outpoured” (LSB 637:1). We return to receive the healing He gives. We return to give praise to Him.

“Let us praise the Word Incarnate,
Christ, who suffered in our place.
Jesus died and rose victorious
That we may know God by grace.
Let us sing for joy and gladness,
Seeing what our God has done;
Let us praise the true Redeemer,
Praise the One who makes us one” (LSB 849:3).


31 August 2020

Homily for Trinity 12 - 2020

"Freed from Isolation"

Mark 7:31-37

The deaf and mute man was cut off from everyone around him. Other people could talk, but the deaf man could not hear them. He could try to speak in his muffled, muted speech, but people around him could not understand a word he said. This poor man was isolated, alone in his own little world. Quite the lonely life. Until Jesus. When Jesus healed this man, He freed him from his life of lonely isolation. When Jesus restored this man’s hearing and speech, He also ushered him into a new and vibrant life of hearing and talking with God and other people.

Just as our gracious Lord healed the deaf and mute man, He also heals us. What He did physically for the deaf man in Gentile territory, He does spiritually for us week in and week out. Not only does He open our ears to hear Him and His message of mercy, but He also rescues us from our isolation. Not only does He loose our tongues to sing His praises and confess Him to others, but He also ushers us into vibrant life with Him and with each other.

The man’s deafness was certainly a result of Adam and Eve not listening to God in the Garden. His physical state of being tongue-tied was surely a result of Adam and Eve using their tongues to taste the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge—that one tree for which God said, “You shall not eat of it.” So when Jesus takes this man aside, puts His fingers into his ears, spits, and touches his tongue, our Lord reverses the age-old plague of sin and death. It’s a plague that closes our ears and shackles our tongues. It’s a plague that isolates us from God and from one another.

Perhaps you’ve noticed this plague of isolation when you talk with other people. Think of times when you and a family member are just not communicating well. You’re both speaking English; your mouths and ears are functioning fine, giving and receiving sound waves. You can hear and understand each other’s sounds and syllables. But for some reason he or she is not hearing what you’re saying; you’re not getting what he or she is talking about. You’re isolated from each other.

Such conversations lead to frustration and misunderstanding. Then, instead of listening to what the other person is actually saying, you’re planning your response to something just said, or you’re strategizing how to make your next point or “win” your case. Or, worse yet, as the other person is talking, your mind is off in a galaxy far, far away, wondering what’s for dinner. Your ears and tongue may be functioning just fine, but you’re still in isolation.

Our isolation really shows up when we get upset with what other people say to us. A friend may say something as a matter of fact, but you take it as a put down or an insult. You might take it as an obstacle to some dream or hope that you have. Perhaps you invite your friends over to play cards. They respond, “Sorry, we can’t make it. We have a prior commitment.” In your isolation, you start wondering, “Am I not good enough?” or “What’s wrong with me?” It’s the isolation of our sin and death.

This isolation especially separates us from God. When we get so wrapped up in our own little world of daily demands and hectic schedules, listening to God in His Word is far from our minds. We may talk a lot with loved ones, friends or colleagues, but talking with God in prayer? We tend to put that off, tell ourselves we don’t know how to pray, convince ourselves we’re not that good at it. Do you ever feel like your tongue is shackled when you pray? It’s our isolation of sin and death.

It’s the isolation that Jesus comes to heal and wash away by His blood. As Jesus healed the deaf-mute man, He also heals you. As our merciful Lord had compassion on the man isolated in his deafness and silence, He also cares enough to rescue you from your sin and death. This same Son of God joined Himself to our human flesh and blood to restore it to God’s original design. This same Lord of mercy endured the isolation from His closest disciples as they fled from Him. This same Lord hung on a cross carrying the full weight of humanity’s sin all by Himself. This same Savior plunged into the deep, dark isolation of death in order to open the graves of Adam, Eve and all the dead so that His vibrant life might burst forth for all to enjoy.

This same Jesus comes to you in your Baptism. He puts His fingers into your ears, spits, and touches your tongue even as the Spirit-filled waters cleanse you from sin and give you life. With your ears opened and your tongue loosed, you are brought into the Lord’s Church. Here you are no longer alone, no longer isolated. Here you get to enjoy the vibrant sounds of God’s Word and the joyous notes of praise sung by people around you. Here you learn how to live in harmony with others healed as you are.

This same Jesus comes to you in Confession and Absolution—and not just the general Confession on Sunday mornings, but especially when you come to receive the Holy Absolution in private. Here you get to confess those specific sins of not listening to God or to your loved ones, friends, or co-workers. Here you get to confess your many ways of isolating yourself from God and your fellow Christians by your self-centered thoughts, words, or deeds. And when you confess, your pastor speaks our Lord’s healing words into your ears. Yes, your pastor is a sinner like you, but what matters is what your Lord does. In the words of Absolution, your Lord Jesus again puts His fingers into your ears to open them up. And when your ears are opened in the forgiveness of your particular sins, you get to enjoy the vibrant sounds of life with God and renewed life with people around you.

And in the Eucharist, your Lord Jesus again touches your tongue so that it can speak and sing His praises and then build up your neighbor. Think of that as you come to the Lord’s Table this morning. With His very Body and Blood under the bread and wine your Lord looses your tongue from those unkind, bitter, even judgmental words you speak against someone near and dear to you. Unshackled from such sins, your tongue has new life to thank and praise God. Your tongue has new life to speak kindly to and graciously about people around you. Strengthened and fortified by Christ’s life-giving Body and Blood, you may use your tongue to declare the wonderful deeds of our Savior. As the hymn leads us to sing:
“Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace!

My gracious Master and my God,
Assist me to proclaim,
To spread through all the earth abroad,
The honors of Thy name” (LSB 528:1-2).
The daily prayer liturgy of Matins begins with these words: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise.” That’s what our tongues were made for! “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Rom. 10:10). But we don’t do that in individual isolation. No, we get to speak, sing, and praise in the Lord’s Church even when we pray alone at home. The Matins liturgy also sings what our ears are made for: “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it. Lord, I love the habitation of Your house and the place where Your glory dwells.” When our Lord opens our ears and looses our tongues, we are rescued from our isolation. We are restored to life with Him; we are rejoined to the people around us. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Now we get to listen well to our loving Lord and to our neighbors. Now we get to speak God’s wonderful deeds and build one another up in love. Amen.