30 September 2007

Homily - St. Michael & All Angels (Observed)

Not Ashamed to "Baby Sit"
Matthew 18:1-11

When you take a good look at the reredos, the wooden screen behind the altar, you see two six-winged seraphim. Just as Isaiah the prophet saw them for real in God’s throne room (Isaiah 6), we get to see six-winged seraphim depicted around the throne of God here at the altar. Yes, the angelic hosts surround us every time we gather for the Divine Service. In fact, God’s angelic hosts surround us all the time. You see, if we listen carefully to our Gospel reading today, we can hear our Lord telling us that the heavenly angels are not ashamed to serve us human beings. In fact, we might even say that God’s angels are not ashamed to “baby sit” for God’s children.

Now this is not to denigrate or put down the ministry of angels in any way! They have great work to do in the cosmic battle between God and the devil, between good and evil. St. Michael, St. Gabriel, and St. Raphael, are certainly mighty soldiers and messengers of God. They are certainly holy – set apart and belonging to God – because they serve in God’s unveiled presence, and they delight see Him face to face. And yet, these same sacred, mighty messengers are not ashamed to “baby sit” the likes of us, God’s human creatures, God’s redeemed children.

From the very first appearances of angels in the Scriptures, they get to “baby sit” us fallen human beings. Right after God evicted Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, He assigned the cherubim, an order of the angelic host, “to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen. 3:24). Yes, those cherubim had to watch and make sure that Adam and Eve did not get into something they should not get into, that is, the Tree of Life. You see, once they had fallen into death and sin, it would have been utterly disastrous for them to partake of the Tree of Life and live forever in their sin!

Then, some centuries later, two angels step into history to rescue Lot from the immoral, corrupt crowds of Sodom and Gomorrah. The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and their immoral, God-forsaken ways had reached God and He decided to take action. But first He wanted to rescue Lot and his family. So, the two angels come to warn Lot about the impending doom for the twin cities of sin. It’s as if Lot just cannot figure out a way to “get out of Dodge” before the sulfur and fire rain down from heaven. The angels almost literally have to lead Lot and family out of town by the hand.

We could mention the angel whom Balaam did not see, even though Balaam’s donkey clearly did see, and even spoke about (Num. 22). We could mention the angel who appeared to Gideon to assure him that God had not forgotten His people, and that the LORD would use him for some pretty unorthodox battles strategies to conquer the unbelieving occupiers (Jdg. 6). We could even mention the angel whom God assigned to bring calamity on Jerusalem as a consequence of King David’s prideful obsession with his numerical census of God’s people (1 Chr. 21). David repented in sorrow and God relented in mercy. And it sure makes you wonder about the wisdom of being obsessed with numbers in God’s Kingdom – it sure seems to breed arrogant pride, not humble trust.

When angels appear in Holy Scripture, they are not ashamed to watch after God’s people; they are not ashamed to “baby sit,” if you will. In fact, when the book of Hebrews mentions angels, it says, “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (1:14). Yes, angels have the God-given and God-pleasing vocation of taking care of God’s “little ones.”

And that brings us back to our Gospel reading today. We hear about angels only in the final verses, but the whole account still tells us about the ministry of angels. Jesus’ disciples wonder and worry about “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” You would think that they would have figured that one out by now, especially the three disciples who actually saw Jesus transfigured: Jesus is the greatest in the Kingdom, and He shows His greatness by humbling and lowering Himself. But for those who wanted to make a name for themselves and get their way from the Lord, Jesus gives a little object lesson. And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

That’s why God’s angels are not ashamed to “baby sit”: they get to watch over and protect God’s “little ones” even while they, the angels, joyously gaze on the face of God. And that’s why we need not be ashamed to be God’s “little ones.” Why strive for our own greatness? Why struggle to elevate ourselves? Why hold on to the temptations and the sins that only separate us from God Himself? No, our Lord Jesus invites us to turn and be like “little ones,” His “little ones” – “little ones” who humbly confess their sins, “little ones” who rely on His cross-won mercy and forgiveness.

Today, our Lord puts little Mary Esther in our midst. What a precious, little object lesson! As she is baptized, she shows us how God’s kingdom works. She is washed clean from sin, and God makes her His dear, precious “little one.” She is joined to Christ Jesus and His death and resurrection. Now she gets to live all of her life dying to sin and rising to newness of life. Our gracious heavenly Father even assigns an angel – a mighty, heavenly body-and-soul-guard – to “baby sit” Mary, to watch over her and minister to her by protecting her all the days of her life. That’s what our Lord has also done with each of us, no matter how young or old.

Let’s go ahead and think more of children in church. What a joy to have little ones squirming around in God’s presence! What a delight to hear them rustle around a bit – or sometimes a bit more. After all, they too get to receive the forgiveness and life of Jesus delivered through His water, words, and meal. So, when you see a child in church, don’t think poorly of him, no matter how noisy or squirmy he may get. You see, that little one is very precious to our Lord – so precious, in fact, that He assigns a big, burly, heavenly body-and-soul-guard to watch over him and defend him.

But God’s “little ones” are not just the ones who are physically small or chronologically young. Jesus talks of “little ones who believe in [Him].” He’s talking about each of us, each of His baptized “little ones.” Yes, He cautions us against “temptations to sin,” and He exhorts us to cut them off as if they were diseased body parts. You see, our merciful, humble Savior was Himself a “little one” when He took on our human flesh and rested in the manger and in the arms of His Virgin Mother. He was also cut off from God’s people and nailed to a cross. But in that cutting off, He restored us to life with our heavenly Father. And now His forgiveness frees us up to cut off whatever causes us to sin, whatever causes us to falter in faith toward our loving, heavenly Father, whatever causes us to look down on one of His “little ones,” whether they are 10 days old or getting closer to 10 decades old.

You see, Jesus is the greatest in the kingdom, because He became the humblest “little one” in order to bring us back to our Father in heaven. And now, in His grace and mercy, He makes us like Himself. As the Apostle John said, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are…. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:1, 3). That’s why God’s angels are not ashamed to “baby sit” the likes of us! That’s why we thank God for His marvelous gift of angels! That’s why we can think of them – especially the six-winged variety depicted on our altar – when we come to feast at the Lord’s Table. Yes, they join us and surround us even as we feast on our Lord Jesus in His meal of mercy and life!

So, as we learn to pray, both morning and evening, from the Small Catechism, God sends His holy angels to be with us, “that the evil foe may have no power over us.” God’s angels are His “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation.” And, no, they are not at all ashamed to “baby sit” us, God’s “little ones.” Amen.

29 September 2007

"Angel" Denotes Function

Here's an interesting and delightful little meditation from Gregory the Great (540-604) on the functions and names of the archangels, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. It comes from his Homily 34, 8-9 (PL 76, 1250-1251), but I'm citing it from For All the Saints, vol. 2, pp. 1322-1323.
You should be aware that the word "angel" denotes a function rather than a nature. Those holy spirits of heaven have indeed always been spirits. They can only be called angels when they deliver some message. Moreover, those who deliver messages of lesser importance are called angels; and those who proclaim messages of supreme importance are called archangels.

And so it was that not merely an angel but the archangel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin Mary. It was only fitting that the highest angel should come to announce the greatest of all messages.

Some angels are given proper names to denote the service they are empowered to perform. In that holy city, where perfect knowledge flows from the vision of almighty God, those who have no names may easily be known. But personal names are assigned to some, not because they could not be known without them, but rather to denote their ministry when they come among us. Thus, Michael means "Who is like God?"; Gabriel is "The Strength of God"; and Raphael is "God's Remedy."

Whenever some act of wondrous power must be performed, Michael is sent, so that his action and his name may make it clear that no one can do what God does by his superior power. So also our ancient foe desired in his pride to be like God, saying: I will ascend into heaven; I will exalt my throne above the stars of heaven; I will be like the Most High. He will be allowed to remain in power until the end of the world when he will be destroyed in the final punishment. Then, he will fight with the archangel Michael, as we are told by John: A battle was fought with Michael the archangel.

So too Gabriel, who is called God's strength, was sent to Mary. He came to announce the One who appeared as a humble man to quell the cosmic powers. Thus God's strength announced the coming of the Lord of the heavenly powers, mighty in battle.

Raphael means, as I have said, God's remedy, for when he touched Tobit's eyes in order to cure him, he banished the darkness of his blindness. Thus, since he is to heal, he is rightly called God's remedy.

St. Michael and All Angels

Today the Church remembers and gives thanks to God for St. Michael and All Angels.

In the festival texts appointed for the day (Daniel 10:10-14; 12:1-3; Revelation 12:7-12; and Matthew 18:1-11), we see St. Michael as God's "archangel general" who engages in battle against the old evil foe. As a result of this cosmic battle, "the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan" (Rev. 12:9). However, even the angels join the faithful in realizing that "they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony" (Rev. 12:11).

We also remember the other angels mentioned in the Scriptures - Gabriel (especially noted for his message to the Virgin Mary in Luke 1) and Raphael (noted in the Apocryphal book of Tobit for healing Tobit's eyes).

This hymn, from Lutheran Service Book (520), gives fitting tribute to the hosts of angels and proper thanks and praise to God for giving them to us as His "ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation" (Hebrews 1:14):

Stars of the morning, so gloriously bright,
Angels in heaven, resplendent in light,
These, where no darkness the glory can dim,
Praise the Thrice Holy One, serving but Him.

These are Your ministers, these are Your own,
Lord God of Sabaoth, nearest Your throne;
These are Your messengers, these whom You send,
Helping Your helpless ones, Helper and Friend.

Then, when the earth was first poised in midspace,
Then, when the planets first sped on their race,
Then, when were ended the six days' employ,
Then all the sons of God shouted for joy.

Still let them aid us and still let them fight,
Lord of angelic hosts, battling for right,
Till, where their anthems they ceaselessly pour,
We with the angels may bow and adore. (
LSB 520)

28 September 2007

Poor Rams!

I've always liked the Rams, first when they were in Los Angeles and now that they're in St. Louis. I've also like them through thick and thin. So, I'd say that gives me license to poke a little fun at them...especially now that they begin the season 0-3! And I hate to admit it, but that's even worse than Pr. Landskroener's Cleveland Browns. :-(

But this "breaking news story" may have something to do with their dismal season:


St Louis Rams football practice was delayed nearly 2 hours after a player reported finding an unknown white powdery substance on the practice field. Head coach Scott Linehan immediately suspended practice while St Louis and federal investigators were called to investigate.

After a complete analysis, FBI forensic experts determined that the white substance unknown to the players was the goal line.

Practice was resumed after special agents decided the team was unlikely to encounter the substance again.

27 September 2007

Reformation Repentance

This will appear in the October 2007 edition of my congregation's newsletter, "The Hope Lutheran."

The date of October 31 really means only one thing for us Lutherans – no, not “Halloween” with its trick-or-treating (though there is a connection), but rather Reformation Day.

On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther posted these “theses” (statements) for scholarly debate among his fellow professors and theologians, much as a university professor might challenge his colleagues to a debate on a certain academic topic even in our day. What did Luther want to discuss and debate? The practice of the medieval Roman Church called “indulgences.” Indulgences were pieces of paper that a person could buy from church officials in order to ensure that a person’s time in purgatory would be decreased. Of course, the more one paid, the more time was deducted from the time in purgatory.

Luther chose October 31 because it is the eve of All Saints’ Day. (That’s also the meaning behind the word “Halloween” – all halloweds’ eve – that is, the eve of All Saints’ Day.) It was customary in Luther’s day for relics of certain saints to be honored on All Saints’ Day, and another part of Luther’s concern was over the abuse of praying to such relics. Thus, Luther timed his “95 Theses” and his debate to coincide with this aberrant practice of his day.

However, Luther never expected or planned that his “95 Theses” would cause a big fuss, let alone a whole “Reformation.” He simply wanted to address some abuses in Church teaching and practice. Luther never intended to “break away” and “start his own church,” as many mistakenly think. No, he wanted to work on reformation, that is, toward correcting and reforming certain faulty teachings and practices that had crept into the Western Church through the Middle Ages. He wanted to reform the Church based on the Scriptural message of God’s mercy, life, and forgiveness revealed and given in Christ Jesus.

That’s why we celebrate “Reformation Day”: to thank God for the light of the Gospel that He shed on the Western Church through the monk named Martin Luther. No, “Reformation Day” is not about rallying the troops to rejoice that we’re not Roman Catholic. No, “Reformation Day” is not a pep rally to make us proud to be Luther’s heirs. Rather, “Reformation Day” is a time for us to rejoice that our gracious God makes His Gospel – His forgiveness, life, and salvation – known through His Church on earth. Yes, sometimes that Church on earth needs to be reformed and called back to the Gospel message. Yes, each of us personally needs to be “reformed,” that is, brought to realize, rely on, and rejoice in God’s mercy shown in Jesus Christ.

So, if we truly want to celebrate “Reformation Day” in the spirit of Luther posting his “95 Theses,” we can take a good lead from his first thesis. As someone once said, the Reformation was really about repentance. And sure enough, that’s what we see in the first of Luther’s “95 Theses.” Here’s how it reads: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther wanted the Church to focus more on repentance than on seeing how much money it could raise by means of indulgences.

Now, we may want to ask ourselves: “What is repentance?” Since repentance is what sparked and fueled the Reformation, it’s most helpful to know what it is. Thirteen years after Luther posted the “95 Theses,” the Lutherans made a good, bold confession of faith in the city of Augsburg, Germany. This Augsburg Confession is the chief doctrinal statement of what Lutherans believe, teach, and confess, and it gives us this explanation of repentance:
Our churches teach that there is forgiveness of sins for those who have fallen after Baptism whenever they are converted. The Church ought to impart Absolution to those who return to repentance. Now, strictly speaking, repentance consists of two parts. One part is contrition, that is, terrors striking the conscience through the knowledge of sin. The other part is faith, which is born of the Gospel or the Absolution and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven” (AC XII:1-5).
In other words, repentance means 1) having sorrow over your sins, and 2) trusting God’s mercy and forgiveness in Christ Jesus. That’s what marks every individual Christian. That’s what marks the whole Christian Church. Celebrating “Reformation Day,” then, means celebrating God’s gift of repentance.

On a personal level, this certainly entails a daily and constant repentance – a daily and constant routine of confessing one’s rotten sinfulness and pleading for God’s rich mercy. The tax collector in Luke 18 serves as our best Biblical example. He prayed to God saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13) Jesus commended him and said that he went home “justified,” that is, made right, forgiven, and vindicated before God. When we routinely confess our sinfulness and rely on God’s mercy in Christ Jesus, we also go home justified, forgiven, and vindicated before God.

This also leads us to treasure Private Confession and Absolution. No, Luther did not seek to “get rid of” it during the Reformation. Actually, he kept it, and he routinely went to Confession himself, even later in life, long after the Reformation teaching had spread. In fact, in 1537 (20 years after the “95 Theses”!), Luther said this,
Absolution, or the Power of the Keys, is an aid against sin and a consolation for a bad conscience; it is ordained by Christ in the Gospel. Therefore, Confession and Absolution should by no means by abolished in the Church….

But the listing of sins should be free to everyone, as to what a person wishes to list or not to list. For as long as we are in the flesh, we will not lie when we say, ‘I acknowledge that I am a miserable sinner, full of sin.’ ‘I see in my members another law,’ and such. Since private Absolution originates in the Office of the Keys, it should not be despised, but greatly and highly esteemed, along with all other offices of the Christian Church (Smalcald Articles, VIII:1-2).
Perhaps the best and truest way to celebrate “Reformation Day” is to see your pastor for Confession and Absolution. In fact, I’m certain that would be the best way to celebrate “Reformation Day”! A sharp increase in people coming to Confession would show that we are increasingly living in repentance.

One final thing of “Reformation repentance” comes to mind. Not only do we repent personally, but we also repent as a whole body of Christians. Of what do we repent? Many things, to be sure, but let me focus briefly on one. “Reformation Day” also reminds us of the sad reality of a divided Christendom. Yes, we need to live in repentance for this! Yes, we need to beg God’s mercy for our personal and collective sins that cause and continue breaches in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Yes, we can even pray – on “Reformation Day” – that God would graciously reunite us with our brothers and sisters in other Christian churches, such as the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Churches, and other Christian groups.

Am I saying that we should repent for Luther and the Reformation of the 1500s? Not at all. What I am saying is that we do face the tragedy of a divided Christendom. We can repent for that, and we can beg for God’s mercy to mend the rifts between churches. After all, didn’t Jesus Himself pray “that they may be one” even as He and His Father are one (John 17:11)? This “Reformation Day,” perhaps we need to take the same mind as Luther. We merely want to address and reform problems that have crept into the Church over time – sad divisions being one of them! – and we want the Gospel of Jesus Christ to predominate and rule the day. That’s what Reformation repentance is all about!

23 September 2007

Easter in the Green Season

I have come to view the 16th Sunday after Trinity (LSB One-Year Lectionary) as a little Easter in the middle of the Trinity Season (above and beyond the good ol' saying of "every Sunday, a little Easter," that is). Easter in the midst of the "green season" really hit me this morning as we sang our Entrance Hymn, "Thanks to Thee, O Christ, Victorious (LSB 548). I don't think that I have ever sung this hymn before, though the tune, Werde Munter, is certainly familiar. The hymn does not appear in Lutheran Worship, on which I cut my liturgical teeth, but it does show up in The Lutheran Hymnal (#207) as a full-blown Easter hymn. There it has six verses, but LSB trimmed that number in half (verses 2, 4, and 6 from the TLH version) and put the hymn under the "Redeemer" heading.

I find myself very fascinated in the phrase of verse 2: "Death itself is transitory." We normally think of things in this life as transitory (and rightly so!), but somehow we view death as more permanent. So, I love this little thumb poke in death's eye as we label it for what it truly is due to our Lord's saving works: "transitory." It ranks right up there with the great line from the evening hymn: "Teach me to live that I may dread The grave as little as my bed" (LSB 883:3).

So, here's some rejoicing in "Easter in the green season" via this hymn:

Thanks to Thee, O Christ, victorious!
Thanks to Thee, O Lord of Life!
Death hath now no power o'er us,
Thou hast conquered in the strife.
Thanks because Thou didst arise
And has opened paradise!
None can fully sing the glory
Of the resurrection story.

Thou has died for my transgression,
All my sins on Thee were laid;
Thou hast won for me salvation,
On the cross my debt was paid.
From the grave I shall arise
And shall meet Thee in the skies.
Death itself is transitory;
I shall lift my head in glory.

For the joy Thine advent gave me,
For Thy holy, precious Word;
For Thy Baptism, which doth save me,
For Thy blest Communion board;
For Thy death, the bitter scorn,
For Thy resurrection morn,
Lord, I thank Thee and extol Thee,
And in heav'n I shall behold Thee. (LSB 548)

Homily - Trinity 16

Here is what was proclaimed at Hope Lutheran Church, St. Louis, this morning. It's a reworking of what I did a couple of years ago, and I must give many thanks to Pr. Maxwell and Pr. Weedon for the great ideas of Jesus ruining funerals and hating death more than we do.

Jesus Ruins Funerals
Trinity 16
Luke 7:11-17

Did you know that Jesus ruined every funeral that He ever attended? Consider what we just heard. As Jesus approaches the city of Nain, He meets a funeral procession. Obviously, all of the funeral arrangements had been made. The dead young man was in his coffin. The pallbearers were leading the procession as they carried the young man out of the town. Behind the casket came the young man’s grieving mother. She had no other family members to help and support her, so close friends were escorting her as she wept. And there were, no doubt, the professional mourners, people actually hired to weep and lament the death of this dear young man—you know, put everyone in the proper mood for mourning. They had all of their fine funeral arrangements made, and they were going out to finish the service by burying the young man in the family tomb. But Jesus comes along and ruins this perfectly good funeral!

Some time later Jesus ruined another funeral—the funeral of Jairus’ daughter. When Jairus approached Jesus, he simply asked the Lord “to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying” (Lk. 8:42). Jesus was momentarily distracted and delayed by a woman ill from “a discharge of blood for twelve years” (Lk. 8:43). She touched Jesus and was healed immediately as power went out from Him. After Jesus had healed this woman, someone from Jairus’ house came and told Jairus: “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher any more” (Lk. 8:49). You would think that Jesus would respect that. Now the family needed to make funeral arrangements. But Jesus loves to ruin funerals, and so He decided to ruin this one before it even began. When He arrived at Jairus’ home, He took Peter, James, and John, and the girl’s father and mother into the house. He told all the mourners not to weep because she was only sleeping, but they thought He was crazy. They knew that the girl was dead! Then Jesus took the girl by the hand and said, “Child, arise” (Lk. 8:54), and she did. Jesus ruined this funeral before it even began!

And who can forget Lazarus! I mean he had had his funeral; he had been buried. Let him rest in peace! Let the family, especially sisters Mary and Martha, get on with their grieving. But no! Jesus insisted on raising Lazarus. Oh, sure, Martha and Mary believed that their brother would rise on the last day, but Jesus was talking about raising him now, four whole days after he had died. So Jesus wept and sighed and prayed, and then “He cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out’” (Jn. 11:43). And when everyone saw Lazarus come out of the grave, they knew that his funeral was all in vain. Jesus ruins funerals!

So, Jesus went to three funerals, and He ruined every one of them. All three funerals ended in resurrection. I sure hope that Jesus comes to my funeral, don’t you?

You see, dear saints, this is what makes Christian funerals different from any other kind of funeral. Jesus comes to meet death – your death and mine – head on. And when He collides with death, He conquers it, for you and for me. So, Christian funerals are not, as many people think, about celebrating the life of the deceased. No, Christian funerals are about the Life of Jesus—the life that cannot be held by His cross or His grave, the life that energizes the whole world, the life that transforms you and me and refashions us into God’s image. Let’s thank our gracious God that Jesus, His incarnate Son, comes to ruin our funerals, so that we can have life and fellowship with God.

Let’s remember these three funerals that Jesus ruined. Remember how He raised Jairus’ daughter. She was a young girl and barely dead. Remember how He raised the widow’s son. He was a young man, providing for his mother. He had been dead only long enough to be prepared for his the funeral but not yet buried. Remember how Jesus raised Lazarus. It’s thought that he was an older man, and he had been dead four days. Not only was he already buried, but, as people thought in those days, he was beyond hope of resurrection. What does all this mean? No matter how young or old you are, no matter how long you may rest in the tomb, Jesus still comes to ruin your funeral and raise you to life with Him. By His death He conquered death, and in His Resurrection, He gives life for all to have and enjoy.

Now, this is very good news, because we live in a world plagued with death. Six years ago death and destruction gripped our nation when terrorists attacked us on our own soil. Merely saying the words “September 11” brings to mind crumbling towers and 3000 dead. Two years ago Hurricane Katrina brought more death and destruction to our land, especially in and around New Orleans. We can’t say “Katrina” without thinking of death in some form. And, of course, death hovers over our land in the holocaust called “legalized abortion.” What a horrible spectre! Let the story of Jesus raising the widow’s son be your Easter hope in the midst of national death. You see, Jesus comes to ruin funerals; He comes to conquer death and give life; He comes to us who hate death because He hates death even more than we do.

But we don’t have to wait until we remember September 11, or the tragedy of New Orleans, or even ponder the abortion holocaust to worry about death. Each of us already faces death each and every day. You see, death lives in us. It’s what leads us to give in to our passions, those self-serving desires. It’s what leads us to turn from God’s merciful care. It’s what leads us to do wrong to another person. It’s what leads us to injure God’s creation. The death that lives in us causes us to “look out for number one” in so many ways. You see, when you are looking out for yourself, you are really trying to defeat death on your own terms, with your own ingenuity, with your own cunning. The disease of death leads a health nut to think that he can extend his life based on what he does or doesn’t eat. An overeater thinks he can keep death at bay and enjoy life the more he eats. The thief tries to keep death at bay by stealing and trying to find life in material goods. The town gossip tries to find life by putting other people down or spreading news, whether true or false. Yes, we all must face the death that lives in each of us, but we cannot conquer it; we cannot give ourselves life.

That’s why Jesus comes into our midst, just as He came into the village of Nain. That’s why Jesus stops not only our physical funeral processions, but also the processions of our daily attempts to give ourselves life. He tells us not to weep, because only He, the Son of God, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, can give life. When Jesus says to the young man, “Be raised,” He is also talking to you. He is raising you from the death of your sin. After all, you live in your Baptism. You’ve been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. That’s where He truly stopped your funeral procession and ruined your funeral long before it happens. And remember this when you come to the Lord’s Table today. When you eat and drink the Lord’s Body and Blood, you consume Life itself. There’s nothing better for ruining a good funeral than the Eucharist celebrated often and regularly. After all, it is the very medicine of immortality. As you eat and drink, this day and every Divine Service, remember that Jesus is putting His eternal life into you. He is giving you His life so that you can love Him and serve your neighbor. Even at this Altar, with this very Body and Blood, Jesus is already ruining your funeral.

The 4th century pastor Ephrem the Syrian said this about today’s Gospel reading: “The Virgin’s son met the widow’s son. He became like a sponge for her tears and as life for the death of her son. Death turned about in its den and turned its back on the victorious one.” Yes, Jesus soaks up our tears as we remember and mourn national tragedies and the devastating death that comes with them. Yes, Jesus soaks up our tears as we face our own mortality or as we confess the many sins we commit, vainly trying to give ourselves life. But remember this: Jesus soaks up our tears. In fact, He soaks up our tears by weeping with us, because He hates death even more than we do! That’s why He comes to ruin funerals. But also remember that Jesus came to be life for the dead young man, and for us. Yes, His death on the cross caused death to turn around and cower in its den. And the same goes for you. Jesus comes to ruin your funeral by giving you His life. And when He gives you life, He gives you back to each other so that you can serve one another and together rejoice in the life that He gives, both now and into eternity. Amen.

22 September 2007

More Growth in Grace

So there I was, minding my own business, wrapping up another Bible study for next Spring's Growing in Christ Adult Sunday School materials (CPH), and it hits me yet again, without warning or provocation. More growth in God's grace. More talk of progressing in the life in Christ...by Luther himself...(later Luther for those who keep tabs on such things)...and in our Confessions no less! Luther says that the new life in Christ "continually increases and progresses." In a previous post, I noted how Luther talks this way while teaching on Baptism. This time I caught him talking this way as he teaches us to treasure the Sacrament of the Altar:
Therefore, the Sacrament is given as a daily pasture and sustenance, that faith may refresh and strengthen itself so that it will not fall back in such a battle [against the devil’s temptations], but become ever stronger and stronger. The new life must be guided so that it continually increases and progresses. But it must suffer much opposition. For the devil is such a furious enemy. When he sees that we oppose him and attack the old man, and that he cannot topple us over by force, he prowls and moves about on all sides. He tries every trick and does not stop until he finally wears us out, so that we either renounce our faith or throw up our hands and put up our feet, becoming indifferent or impatient. Now to this purpose the comfort of the Sacrament is given when the heart feels that the burden is becoming too heavy, so that it may gain here new power and refreshment (Large Catechism, V:24-27; Concordia, p. 434-435, emphasis added).
Not only has our loving heavenly Father restored us to His image through the incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection of His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and not only has He begun our life of living and growing in that restoration via Holy Baptism, but He so graciously gives us the Sacrament in order that we may continue to grow in His grace. Or, to use Luther's words, He gives us the blessed Eucharist so that faith may "become stronger and stronger," and so that "the new life" may continually increase and progress.

21 September 2007

“The Tax Collector and His Friends”

As we thank God for His gift of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, we also praise Him for His boundless pardon and forgiveness for sinners. Patrick Henry Reardon brings this out beautifully when he discusses "The Tax Collector and His Friends" (in Christ in His Saints, p. 22-23). After he comments on the call of Levi and the call of Matthew being identical, he says:

It is much more significant, however, that all three Synoptic Gospels treat the call of the tax collector (Levi/Matthew) as a centerpiece bracketed between two stories about sinners: the paralytic being forgiven his sins and Jesus having dinner with notorious sinners. Thus set between these two events, the call of the tax collector represents above all the evangelical summons to repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

The dialogue connected with the meal at his house illustrates this meaning of the tax collector’s call. Jesus, criticized for his association with sinners on this occasion, explains that "those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick" (Mark 2:17). In thus addressing sin through the metaphor of sickness, the Lord strikes again the note recently sounded by His healing the paralytic as proof of His authority to forgive the man’s sins (2:5-12).

Furthermore, summoning sinners to repentance and salvation is not just one of the things Jesus happens to do. There is a sense in which this is the defining thing that Jesus does, the very reason He came into this world. This truth is affirmed at the meal at the tax collector’s house, where He proclaims, "I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance" (Luke 5:32; cf. Matthew 9:13; Mark 2:17). Again, it is in the context of the call of yet another tax collector, Zacchaeus, that Jesus says, "the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10).

One of those "lost" was the Apostle Paul, who remembered himself to have been "a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man." But then he recalled that the same Lord who received the friends of the tax collector also received him: "This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief" (1 Timothy 1:13-15).

Christ can call sinners, only because He can really do something about their sins. And He can forgive their sins precisely because He has paid the price of those sins. Therefore, Jesus’ forgiveness of sins is theologically inseparable from His dying for sinners. Correct repentance, then, brings the sinner to the foot of the Cross.

20 September 2007

St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

Tomorrow the Church remembers and celebrates St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist. This little verse from Lutheran Service Book 518:2 sums things up quite well:

Praise, Lord, for him whose Gospel
Your human life declared,
Who, worldly gain forsaking,
Your path of suff'ring shared.
From all unrighteous mammon,
O raise our eyes anew
That we in our vocation
May rise and follow You.

What's in a Label?

Labels are funny things! I recently listened intently as one person called me “quite conservative” to my face. Her words and her expression (even coupled with her bright smile) seemed to give that label – “quite conservative” – just a hint of undesirability. But when my ears heard the words, my mind silently and gleefully thought, “Well, thank you very much!” Obviously, for this lady “quite conservative” was not the most glowing compliment, but my ego rejoiced in it nonetheless. So, what’s in a label?

We seem to use labels to “put people in their place.” I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way; though it certainly can, and often does, mean that. What I mean is that we like to use labels to classify and categorize the people with whom we associate. Somehow it makes us understand them and where they come from. Somehow it helps us know how to relate to them. Perhaps it’s also a defense mechanism that allows us to keep our distance and not get too terribly close.

We also like to label ourselves so that we may be included with certain desirable people or groups and not be mistakenly identified with other people or groups. After all, one might proudly wear the label “conservative” just so he/she won’t be mistaken as…are you ready?…a “liberal”! (Ooooo!) And it works in reverse too: some may delight in wearing the label “liberal” (or even “moderate”) because, well, “conservative,” somehow just sounds too mean and nasty.

Such things may be quite commonplace in social and political realms, and, alas, they also rear their heads in the Church. But it makes me pause to ask: “What’s in a label?”

I mean, I really don’t mind being called “conservative” – even “quite conservative” – if that properly means preserving the faith once delivered to the saints, holding on to the true Gospel message of sins forgiven and true life given in Jesus Christ, and even doing my best faithfully to practice the Church’s liturgy, just as the Lutheran Confessions summon us to do. Call me “conservative” with whatever meaning-heightening modifier you wish. I’ll gladly wear that label.

However, if “conservative” somehow means something undesirable or negative, such as “stodgy,” “not with the times,” “unwilling to change simply for the sake of change,” then we’d better sit down and talk. I guess any word can be given a negative connotation so as to put someone else in a place that they may not wish to find themselves. I suppose a label can be plastered on someone so as to lead them into a position or opinion closer to one’s own. That’s the problem with labels: they end up being thinly veiled attempts at manipulation and/or control.

So, let me try on some other labels and see how they fit.

Laying “conservatism” (whatever that means) aside, I can also be “quite liberal,” if you know what I mean. The great, God-given message of liberated life in Christ, of sins freely forgiven, of boundless reconciliation with the Holy Trinity, of freely living as God’s redeemed child with all of His other children in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church – well, it’s just too good to preserve inside. I just have to let it out. I just have to proclaim it and deliver it through the gifts that God has given. I gladly, at least to the best of my limited ability, give out the message of God’s free, liberating life and salvation, and I do so quite liberally. I’ll do it every chance I get, both from the pulpit and in face to face conversation. I can be “quite liberal” – quite free – in proclaiming and delivering the grace and mercy of God that liberates from sin and death.

But somehow I doubt that’s what most people mean when they label someone else “a liberal.” Usually, the pejorative gear kicks into overdrive and the engine of suspicions becomes overheated. “A liberal” might be someone who plays fast and loose with conventional wisdom or accepted statements, values, or ideas, or at least seems to in the eyes of some. Perhaps we’d best be careful about such a label.

And just for kicks, let me try on a couple more labels just for size. I would be quite happy to wear the label “CATHOLIC.” (No, I’m not yelling; I’m just tweaking the conventional wisdom that says “Catholic” with big-C means one thing, perhaps not so acceptable to some, while “catholic” with small-c means something much more desirable. I say capitalize the whole word and avoid that silly little game! J) I know, for some, wearing the label “CATHOLIC” might give pause, but really it means something much better than submitting to papal authority based in Rome. I’d gladly wear the label “CATHOLIC” because it means that I’m identified with the Church “according to the whole,” with the teaching that has been passed down through the centuries, with the Gospel that restores and unites peoples and persons in the Body of Christ the whole world over.

And the final label I’d like to try on for size is “ORTHODOX.” (Again, not yelling; just trying to focus on more than the customary, inch-deep “big-letter vs. little-letter” debate.) I know it’s another label that can too often be said with a slur or that can conjure up foreign images (not to mention, icons?). However, “ORTHODOX” is a great label to wear, for it speaks of teaching and praising rightly. It speaks of holding to (can you say, “conserving”?) the right teaching of life with God that comes from Jesus Christ crucified and risen and was passed down to us through the Apostles and the Church founded on their message. It also speaks of right praise, right practice, right ways of freely giving out the gifts of our Lord’s blood-bought forgiveness, life and salvation (there’s that “liberal” notion again!).

So, what’s in a label? I guess it depends on whom you ask, or who happens to use the label. I suppose I cannot stop others from putting labels on me, but I don’t have to let such labels stick. So if you think you have me figured out, you might want to do more than just call me something like “quite conservative”; you might try sitting down to chat, and about things of substance. You never know, you just might find out that labels cannot replace really getting to know who a person is, where he/she comes from, and what he/she stands for. You never know, we may have more in common than first supposed, and we may learn, by God’s grace, to rely on Him to bring us closer together in His Body.

Until then, I’m just glad to be a “conservative-liberal-cATHOLIC-oRTHODOX pastor” who must rely on God’s grace in Christ Jesus just as much as the next person!

Any labels that you would like to wear…or love to tweak?

18 September 2007

Homily - Trinity 15

Another very fine homily from a seminary student, this time from Mr. Louis Boldt (and, of course, posted with his permission).

"Seek the Kingdom of God"
Luke 12:22-34 (parallel to Matt. 6:24-34)

Today’s sermon is based on our Gospel reading from Matthew, but from the perspective of St. Luke.

We live in a culture that teaches us to be self-reliant during every stage of our lives. It begins in our early childhood. How many of you asked your elementary school teacher if you could be a firefighter, an astronaut or the President of the United States when you grew up? If you did, you probably got the same response that I did, or one similar to it. “Well if you set your mind to it, study hard and work hard, then you can be whatever you want.” And we experience this same thing throughout our adolescence and our adult lives. We are taught that we control our destiny. It is up to us to create a plan for our lives, to implement the plan, and to bring it to completion. We become the MASTERS OF OUR OWN UNIVERSE.

So we live our life as the master of our universe controlling our destiny and then it happens… We hear about a natural disaster or a terrorist attack that claims innocent lives and destroys property. Maybe we get a phone call telling us that a family member has suddenly died. Maybe we find out that we have a major health problem during a routine doctor’s visit. And we start to realize… we realize that the universe doesn’t always function the way we want it to. We realize that we don’t control the universe. In fact… we realize that we are almost powerless and we become afraid. And these fears… these fears can be a driving force in our lives that prevent us from moving forward.

I know in my own life, my journey to the seminary was neither quick nor easy. It was filled with many fears. Fears about my own abilities, fears about knowing God’s will for my life and fears about financial matters. You name any financial matter you want and I had a concern. Tuition. Living expenses. Insurance. HOW AM I going to pay for it all? HOW AM I going to meet the needs of my family? We’ve worked hard to get out of debt and I am not going to put us back into debt. And Satan grabbed onto my fears and he started to work them… and work them… and work them. And if everything were left up to me, I can honestly say that he would have won the battle. I wouldn’t have made the decision to go to the seminary.

But, God does not want us to live our lives in fear being unsure about doing work in His kingdom. Now before I go any farther, I don’t want you to get the idea that the only way to work in God’s kingdom is to go to the seminary, it isn’t. In fact, everything we do in our lives as a parent or a child, as an employer or employee or as a close by neighbor or one who is far away is working in God’s kingdom. And God desires us to do this work with assurance and confidence, but when we rely on ourselves we become afraid and uncertain. This is why God tells us, “You shall have no other Gods.” He has given us this commandment to keep us from relying on ourselves and suffering in this way. He has given us this commandment to remind us to turn to Him and to rely on Him for our life and everything that we need.

As it turns out, we are not the only people who struggle with this problem. Jesus addresses similar issues in today’s Gospel reading. Here we find Jesus talking to His disciples in a discourse filled with commands. “Don’t be anxious.” “Don’t seek.” “Don’t worry.” “Fear not.” Now, you might be wondering why Jesus is saying these things to His disciples. Why would THEY be having these feelings? After all, when Jesus called the Twelve, they left their jobs, their homes and their families to follow Him and everything turned out okay. All of their physical needs were met. And what about their first preaching tour? Jesus gave them the power and authority to perform miracles and told them to go and preach the Kingdom of God, but He told them “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.” (Luke 9:3) He wanted them to rely on God to provide for their needs through the generosity of the people. They did and all their physical needs were met.

So, WHY DID Jesus say all these commands to His disciples? To answer this question, we must look at an event that took place a little earlier in Luke’s narrative. Jesus and the disciples were traveling to Jerusalem and they try to enter a Samaritan village, but Luke tells us that the people did not receive them. (Luke 9:51-56). This was the first time in their ministry that the disciples experienced rejection. And Jesus knew how they would react to this rejection. He knew they would question their ministry plan and question if their physical needs would be met. And Jesus knew that His disciples would face even more rejection in the future. So He tells them how to live their lives. He tells them do not be anxious, do not worry and do not be afraid because these feelings are the way of worldly kingdoms. And these feelings result from self-reliance and failure.

And Jesus tries to teach His disciples this truth. He wants them to know that THEY are not the masters of the universe. So He reveals who the TRUE master of the universe is. He does this by pointing to the world around them. He asks them to consider the ravens. See how they neither sow nor reap nor store up food. Yet, they are fed. Then He asks them to consider the lilies of the field. See how these mere plants grow without toiling or spinning. Yet, they… they are more glorious than Solomon is.

Jesus teaches His disciples that the TRUE master of the universe is the one who provides for all of creation. The TRUE master of the universe is the one who brought everything into existence with his spoken word - Yahweh, the Lord God of hosts. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. No. No, He teaches His disciples that Yahweh, their Heavenly Father, is not just the TRUE master of the universe; He is also the SAVIOR OF SOULS.

He is the One who promised to put enmity between Satan and humanity through a seed of the woman after the fall. He is the One who promised to restore His fallen creation through the Messiah. And when the time was right, God sent His only Son into the world to fulfill that promise. While all the events of Jesus’ life and public ministry point to Him as the Messiah, the disciples still don’t understand what must happen to Him. So Jesus teaches them as they travel to Jerusalem. He tells them that He will be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes. He tells them that He will suffer many things and including death, but He tells them that He will be raised on the third day. (Luke 9:21-22)

And because of their faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah, the one who would restore all of God’s fallen creation, Jesus tells His disciples that it is their Heavenly Father’s good pleasure to give them the Kingdom, a Kingdom that is not of this world. Jesus tells them that even though they live in a world filled with anxiety, worry and fear, He wants them to live their lives with the peace, the serenity and the certainty of the Heavenly Kingdom that their Father has given them.

And these words that Jesus spoke to His disciples still apply today. Like Jesus’ disciples, our Heavenly Father has given us the Kingdom because of our faith in Jesus Christ as our Redeemer and Savior. We too have the peace, the serenity and the certainty of the Heavenly Kingdom, but this does not guarantee a trouble free life. No. No, we will face trials and tribulations everyday of our lives, trials and tribulations that come from within us, from the world around us and from Satan himself. We will be tempted to live in this worldly kingdom as masters of our own universe, making our plans, being self-reliant and then becoming anxious, worried and afraid when our plans don’t workout.

But the TRUE master of the universe has a plan for our lives and the power to fulfill that plan, a plan where we are His children and He is our loving Father who meets all our needs. He provides for our physical needs through His creation. He provides rain at the proper time so the earth will yield its crops and the trees will bear fruit for our nourishment (Lev. 26:4). He also provides clothing for our comfort and protection (Deut. 10:18). But our loving Father doesn’t stop there. No. No, He provides us with even GREATER clothing. Clothing that meets our every spiritual need. He has clothed us with the blood and righteousness of His own Son in the waters of our Baptism. In the combination of the water and His word, we are cleansed, redeemed and justified. So when He looks at us, He does not see us as we are. Instead, He sees His Son whom He loves and with whom He is well pleased and we… we receive all of Jesus’ merits. For it is through Jesus Christ, that we become true children of our Heavenly Father.

God provides us with everything that we need for our lives. He provides for our physical needs through his creation, for our eternal salvation through His Son and for our on-going spiritual needs through the Holy Spirit. And because He knows that He is the only one who can truly meet these needs, He wants us to rely on Him in all things. But, what does this reliance on God look like? I’ll give you one small example. Consider prayer.

God has given us prayer as a way to communicate with Him. And just like an earthly father, our Heavenly Father wants to talk with His children openly and freely. He wants each one of us to bring all of our worries and concerns and all of our needs and desires to Him in prayer. (Phil 4:6). He wants us to pray boldly and confidently according to His will (1 John 5:14) and in the name of His Son. (John 16:23) His same Son who reassures us that “whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:24)

Prayer is a powerful tool in the life of a believer. I know in my own life, it was through prayer that the Holy Spirit helped me overcome my fears about entering the seminary and to resist Satan’s temptations. Prayers of my own. Prayers of my family and friends. Prayers of other Christians. Prayers that asked for calmness of spirit and clarity of mind so that I would understand God’s will for my life. Prayers that God answered. And when we face temptations, when we are not sure what to pray for or how to pray, God still provides for us. In these times, we can pray the prayer that Jesus taught His disciples – The Lord’s Prayer. And as we pray this prayer a little later in our service, I ask that you meditate upon these familiar words which Jesus Christ gave as THE model for all prayer. Amen.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

13 September 2007

St. John Chrysostom--Preacher with Gilded Mouth

Lutheran Service Book commemorates St. John Chrysostom on 27 January, but other calendars commemorate the great preacher today, 13 September. So, in the same spirit of striving for ecumenical concord that the Augsburg Confession displays (see AC, Preface, 10), we commemorate John, the golden-mouthed preacher ("Chrysostom" is Greek for "golden mouth"), with a sample of his preaching. (And you can be sure that we'll also commemorate him on 27 January! :-)

Here Chrysostom proclaims our Lord's Resurrection by tying it back to His Incarnation:
How can I recount for you these hidden realities or proclaim what goes beyond any word or concept? How can I lay open before you the mystery of the Lord’s resurrection, the saving sign of his cross and of his three days’ death? For each and every event that happened to our Savior is an outward sign of the mystery of our redemption. Just as Christ was born from his mother’s inviolate virginal womb, so too he rose again from the closed tomb. As he, the only-begotten Son of God was made the firstborn of his mother, so, by his resurrection, he became the firstborn from the dead. His birth did not break the seal of his mother’s virginal integrity. Nor did his rising from the dead break the seals on the sepulcher. And so, just as I cannot fully express his birth in words, neither can I wholly encompass his going forth from the tomb (Homily on Holy Saturday 10; cited in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, John 11-21, p. 336-337).
I sure wish that I could have heard such a preacher with such a golden-mouth way of proclaiming Christ crucified and risen. What a blessing he must have been to his hearers!

12 September 2007

True "Discipling"--Yes, the "Mission" IS Happening!

Pastor Weedon rejoices in his busy schedule of teaching Jesus to his flock. I must say that I certainly see where he comes from, and I share his joy! Yes, the hours get long, the energy often runs low, the cares increase, and the schedule gets just plain crazy. However, there is nothing more joyous for a pastor than teaching the things of Jesus to his flock. That's what this vocation of pastor is all about; it's what the Church is truly all about. Teaching Jesus - "discipling" - is the bona fide mission of Jesus' Church.

But we hear so much talk these days about being "mission-minded" and "missional" (who fabricated that word, anyway?), I really wonder if the missions "experts" even know what they're talking about. We often hear Matthew 28:19-20 quoted as an urgent command to get busy and merely bring more people into the church buildings, whatever the cost, whatever the method, however we must change our teachings, our practices, or even our identity (Should Lutherans really look and act like Pentecostals when they worship?). There also seems to be a thick layer of guilt attached, as if we Christians have never "discipled" anyone at all until someone from our recent generation unearthed the passage in Matthew 28:19-20, or as if to say, "Oh no, we'd better get busy and do this, or else the Lord will hold us accountable for other people's rejection of Him."

However, I find that when I keep the true meaning of "discipling" in mind, the true joy overcomes the false guilt. (I also find it easier to ignore the institutional and "missional" babbling and jaw-boning!) What a joy it is to realize that when I teach my flock the things of Jesus - whether that's from the pulpit on Sunday morning, in Bible class discussing the Augsburg Confession, in the day school teaching 7th-8th grade Theology, or catechizing a group of adults according to Pr. Bender's Lutheran Catechesis - then the mission IS being carried out. Yes, where and when the Gospel is being proclaimed, the Sacraments are being given out, and the teaching of Jesus is occurring, the mission of the Church IS happening!

This is why I find great joy in the following quote from F. Dale Bruner. While I too squirm a bit at his "decision" language, I appreciate what he says about "discipling":
"'Disciple'.... Interestingly, the usual missionary terms are not employed here: 'preach,' 'convert,' 'win,' etc. A slower, lower-profile verb is used, an almost scholastic, schoolish word, 'disciple.' To disciple means 'to make students of,' 'bring to school,' 'educate'.... The word pictures students sitting around a teacher more than it does penitents kneeling at an altar--an educational process more than an evangelistic crisis, a school more than a revival. The word's prosaic character relaxes and says in effect, 'Work with people over a period of time in the educative process of teaching Jesus.' Only the Cosmocrator can do the big things like convert, win, bring repentance, or move a person to decision [!]--all authority is his alone. But disciples can, must, and will do the little thing of 'discipling' others--that is, they will spend good time with people--in the confidence that sooner or later the Cosmocrator will create in these people the decision for baptism (or, in Christianized cultures, the decision to own baptism) and so to follow Jesus" (Matthew, Volume 2, p. 1096-97).
And I would be remiss if I did not include this quote from Bruner on "teaching," as he aptly summarizes the whole thrust of Matthew 28:19-20:
"'Teaching' is another slow word, too. All three of the main responsibility verbs in this commission--disciple, baptize, teach--are three slow or earthy ways of circling the same object, saying the same thing: disciple--take your time with people, work carefully with them, bring them along gently. First, we disciple by living among people and talking with the inquiring; then we disciple by baptizing the convinced; and then we disciple by teaching the baptized an ever-increasing loyalty to Jesus' commands" (Matthew, Volume 2, p. 1102).
Yes, the mission IS happening when faithful teaching of Jesus is taking place!

11 September 2007

A Brief Reflection on Tumbling Towers

So today we again collectively remembered the horrific events of six years ago, when madmen flew planes into the World Trade Center towers and another plane into the Pentagon. While it is most fitting to give solemn memorial to those who perished, both as innocent victims and as those who sacrificed themselves trying to rescue others, let's not miss this opportunity for repentance.

I cannot reflect on 9/11/01 without also thinking of Jesus' words in Luke 13:1-5. Some people put Jesus to the test over a horrific co-mingling of human blood with animal sacrifices. Their unasked question(s) would seem to echo our questions over 9/11 - Why this tragedy? Who's to blame? What will God do with the culprits as well as the innocent victims? And notice how Jesus deftly sidesteps those knotty (& naughty) questions: "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Lk. 13:3). And then Jesus adds His own horrific event to drive home His point: what about a tower that fell and killed a bunch of people? (Nothing new under the sun, right?) Again, Jesus sidesteps the issues of blame and who's worse vs who's better. Again He says, "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Lk. 13:5).

What are we to make of this kind of response to horrific situations? Indeed, what are we to make of such a response as we properly remember and never forget 9/11? As we reflect on the towers that came tumbling down six years ago, and as we give fitting tribute to those who lost their lives, and even as we thank God for those who did survive, we can also live in repentance and faith in the God of mercy and might. Not only do we reflect on the horrific tragedy and the human heroism of 9/11/01, but we also realize how deeply flawed and frail, how fickle and fleeting our fallen world is. Yes, times like 9/11/01 and our anniversary remembrances remind us that without our mighty God of grace and mercy, without the God who reveals Himself ultimately and most profoundly in the death of His Son Christ Jesus on the cross, all of life would be a never-ending 9/11.

No, this is not to place any blame, nor is it to say that those who perished as innocent victims somehow deserved what they got for some specific, unnamed sins. Not at all! Rather, it is to say that such tragedies, as with any event in life, are calls to repent of our own sinfulness, our own self-centeredness, and our own rebellion against our Creator and Redeemer. They are calls to rely on His fatherly goodness and mercy. They are calls to trust that even though we do not and cannot understand why He governs the world in these ways, or why He allows such things to happen at all, He will not forsake or abandon us!

Yes, our crucified and risen Savior Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords, and He does rule over His world (though at times we human subjects may not understand what He's up to!). Yes, our God has shown Himself to be not only almighty but also all merciful. And, yes, this same God has promised: "I will never leave you nor forsake you" (Heb. 13:5). As the book of Hebrews continues: "So we can confidently say, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?'" (Heb. 13:6; see also Ps. 118:6; Ps. 27:1).

Sometimes faith struggles to hold on to such wonderful promises in the midst of things we cannot understand, but the promises do remain sure and certain. And sometimes faith leads us also to pray for those who would do us harm. After all, if God can save someone like me, He can certainly save a radical terrorist.

10 September 2007

Homily - Trinity 14

This very fine homily comes from one of my seminary field-education students, Mr. Dan Pool. I post it here with his permission and consent.

Trinity 14

Luke 17:11-19

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Unclean! Unclean!” The law required that lepers of Jesus’ day cried out these disturbing words whenever anyone was too close. Leprosy was an extremely contagious and destructive skin disease, which literally ate away human flesh. Today there are treatments for leprosy; then, there were none. Because of the high risk for transmission, any kind of personal contact was forbidden. Lepers tore their clothing as if they were mourning and covered their mouths with a cloth. Their dress warned others to stay away.

Thus, they lived alone and in despair. Apart from the physical trauma, the emotional distress must have been dreadful. Isolated from their families and friends, they lived as outcasts. They were to be considered as the living-dead, corpses awaiting the day when leprosy would ultimately take their lives. People ran from their presence to avoid any kind of contact. And everyone hoped to avoid their fate. Lepers lived their own horror movie.

Can you imagine a life like this? Try it some time. Cover yourself in ash. Tear your clothes. Put a cover over your face and walk through the Galleria or Union Station yelling “Unclean! Unclean!” People will do more than avoid you; they will run away. You will quickly find yourself alone. The only attention that you will find is from security or the St. Louis Police Department. Okay, so maybe this is not such a good idea. But it would give some understanding of the social trauma with which the leprous lived.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Luke tells us of the story of ten lepers. Jesus was walking along the border of Galilee and Samaria, traveling to Jerusalem when these ten lepers spotted him, and they knew who He was. They had heard of Jesus and what He could do. They saw in Him the hope of a cure from their physical, social, and emotional maladies.

Now, before Luke tells us of the story of these ten lepers, he tells us about the healing of a different leper. In this miracle, Jesus did the improbable and impossible. He touched this leprous, untouchable man, and then He healed him. Luke reports that, even though Jesus charged this leper to tell no one, the news of Jesus’ miracle working power traveled quickly. Perhaps our ten lepers had heard of Jesus’ ability to heal, even to heal the dreaded disease of leprosy.

As I mentioned, lepers were to cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” Yet here in this passage, we hear that the ten lepers cried out something else. They cried out words of faith. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Martin Luther in his sermon on this miracle said, “Faith makes man bold…to bring his troubles unto God, and earnestly to pray for help.” Theses lepers offer an interesting example of faith. There was no pride left. They had nowhere else to turn. They were utterly helpless. So they lifted up their voices, crying out to the only One who could help! And Jesus heard them.

Now, because these men were unclean, the socially responsible thing for Jesus to do was to stay well away from them. Jesus could have treated them like the living-dead that they were and everyone would have understood. They certainly had nothing to offer to Jesus. All they had left was their disease and their uncleanness. But Jesus did respond to them.

However, He did not give them exactly what they were expecting. He sent them away to Jerusalem, but He sent them away unhealed. They had only their leprous bodies and Jesus’ command to show themselves to the priest as if they were clean. The law required that anyone who was fortunate enough to survive leprosy, to prove their absence of leprosy to the priests. So, off they went to Jerusalem, still leprous. Jesus put their faith to the test.

As they were walking, perhaps they remembered the story of the test and healing of Naaman. Do you remember Naaman? In 2 Kings we hear the story of Naaman who was the commander of the army of the King of Syria. Although Naaman was a mighty warrior, he suffered from the same dreaded disease from which our ten lepers suffered. Now, among Naaman’s slaves was a little Israelite girl who knew of the Prophet Elisha. God had performed many miracles through Elisha and at the young girl’s prompting, Naaman went out to meet Elisha.

However, Naaman received a greeting and a test that he did not expect. When he arrived in Israel, Elisha refused to come out and meet Naaman. Elisha rejected Naaman’s many gifts. Finally, Elisha told him to wash in the Jordan River.

Of course, Naaman was insulted and indignant. Who was this prophet to insult him with a command to take a bath in a muddy foreign river? While he was preparing to leave this obnoxious Israelite prophet, his servants convinced him to respond to Elisha’s simple request. As he reluctantly stood in the Jordan, he was cleansed from his leprosy. He walked out of the water clean. His skin had become like that of a little child. God healed him.

But our ten lepers, still walking to Jerusalem, very easily could have doubted. With the story of Naaman, Elisha the prophet made it very clear that if he washed in the Jordan, he would be clean. Unlike Elisha, Jesus was not so clear. Jesus did not explicitly say whether He would heal these lepers. There was plenty of opportunity for doubt, but they trusted in Jesus. They believed in Jesus and in what they could not yet see. And as they went on their way, Jesus healed them.

Now the Gospel does not tell us exactly what happened when the ten lepers were healed. We only know that just one returned to give thanks to Jesus. As much as we have recognized the faith of the ten lepers, we now see that their response to the miraculous work of Jesus was pitiful, at least for nine of them.

So why did only one return? Some have suggested that these nine were simply being obedient to the words of Christ and that they continued on to Jerusalem after the healing in order to see the priests. Others have suggested that all ten went to the priests. And it was the priests who convinced the nine not to return because the priests opposed Jesus. Regardless, there must have been some conversation among the ten lepers, and finally, the one leper found himself returning to Jesus alone. The nine had already received all that they wanted from Jesus, and now they were finished with Him.

Thankfully, one did return. And the one who returned offers us an excellent example of the response of faith to the fulfilled promise of God. He came back praising God in a loud voice, he fell at the feet of Jesus, and he gave Him thanks. Following Jesus’ inquiry into the missing nine, He proclaimed to the one leper, “Rise and go your way – your faith has made you well.” This verse might just as easily be translated, “Rise and go your way – your faith has saved you,” for faith receives the promises of God. Jesus told him that not only was his body cleansed, but his sin had been washed away as well. Although Jesus had cleansed him from the physical, social, and emotional maladies of leprosy, the cleansing he needed even more was the cleansing from sin.

See, unlike the ten, we do not suffer from a leprosy that devours our flesh from the outside. Nevertheless, we are leprous. The Apostle Paul in our Epistle lesson, names the leprosies from which we suffer. Our leprosies are “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” He continues, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Although we may not identify with everything on this list, we certainly all identify with something on this list. With these things, we have made ourselves unclean. We are leprous. We have been caught up into our own self-made horror movie. We are the living-dead. And this leprosy separates us from the Kingdom of God, and every Sunday we admit it.

We come to the Divine Service and like the ten lepers, we cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” Which, if you will allow me a little bit of freedom, may be loosely paraphrased in the words of our liturgy, “Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” And like the lepers, we cry out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

So what will Christ do with us, a group of poor miserable sinners? Like Naaman and the ten lepers, we have nothing to offer to Jesus. Yet, He does not treat us as we deserve. Because of our sin, we deserve the treatment given to lepers in Jesus day. We deserve God’s rejection and alienation. But Jesus treats us as he treated the ten lepers. Like the lepers, we experience a miracle through the words of Christ. Not the disappearance of a skin disease, but an infinitely greater miracle. Jesus cleanses us from our sinful uncleanness.

We hear Jesus say to us those amazing words, “Rise and go your way – your faith has made you well,” “your faith has saved you,” “your sins have been forgiven.” Through the Cross, the alienation is ended, and we are brought into a healthy and clean relationship with our heavenly Father. Through our Baptism He has washed our leprous hearts with water and His Word, leaving us without spot or wrinkle. Through the Sacrament of the Altar, the blessings of forgiveness are poured out on us anew. When we rise from the Communion rail, our Lord is again telling us, “Rise and go your way; your faith in Me and in the gifts of My Body and Blood has made you well.” Through His Word, we are made clean. Our horror movie has ended.

Unlike the nine, we join our voices with the one leper and respond. We fall at Jesus feet, giving thanks for what He has done for us. We are clean and “for all this it is our duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.” And we do so each Sunday, as Pastor proclaims, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” and because He has cleansed us we concur by saying, “It is right to give Him thanks and praise.”

Now may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

09 September 2007

The Augsburg Confession: No Declaration of Independence

Today in the adult Bible Class we will begin a study of the Augsburg Confession, reading it article by article and discussing what "Our Churches teach...." I remember doing this very thing in my private studies around 16 years ago, about a year or so after I had been ordained. I also remember how it opened my eyes! I remember saying to myself with a certain astonishment: "Wow! That's what we Lutherans teach?! That's what I have vowed to teach and uphold?! I'd better amend my ways as a Lutheran pastor!"

Oh, I had read the Augsburg Confession before that, to be sure. I remember reading it when I became a Lutheran in high school, and I still have that booklet copy that my pastor gave me. I remember reading it in college for a class on the Lutheran Confessions, where we tried to read it with "devotional glasses" as I recall. And, of course, I remember reading the AC in seminary classes, where we learned much more of the historical context and setting of the Confession as well as its theology. However, things hit me differently when I read it not for an assignment, but simply for what it says.

And what led to my astonishment of saying, "We really teach that?"? Certain articles that fall under the category of "doctrinal articles" but that also inform and now guide my pastoral practice - articles such as XI on Confession, XIII on the Use of the Sacraments, and XV on Church Ceremonies. These and other articles spoke loudly and clearly: we Lutherans are not trying to be different and branch off on our own; we are trying to stay in the singular stream of the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." We are not trying to invent new things, or be a new church, or do new and different things as a church; we are striving to remain true to the faith that has been handed down to us from those who have gone before us.

So, as I now say, the Augsburg Confession is really *not* a "declaration of independence" for Lutherans. Rather, it's our way of saying, "Yes, we hold to that one, holy, catholic and apostolic" faith and church that's been handed down from the earliest times." In fact, we could even say that the Augsburg Confession is also our way of saying that we are "prepared to discuss, in friendly manner, all possible ways and means by which we may come together" (Preface to the AC), that is, in salutary Christian concord.

Dr. Piepkorn said it well:
“For most of us, and for most people who know anything about the Augsburg Confession at all, the really significant part consists of the first 21 articles. In these the Lutherans confess the ancient faith of the Catholic Church, condemn the heresies which the Catholic Church condemns, and are at pains to prove that on no doctrinal point do they vary from the teaching of the Sacred Scriptures, the Catholic Church, or, as far as its approved literary representatives are concerned, the historic Church of the West. These 21 doctrinal articles we see as the great Lutheran witness to evangelical catholicity…as a clarion call to the Church to be what she had been for the first eleven centuries and to reaffirm her intention of being what she was in peril of ceasing to be.” (Dr. A. C. Piepkorn, “The Augsburg Confession for Our Time,” in The Sacred Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions,” p. 177-178).

08 September 2007

Big Day Tomorrow!

I know tomorrow is the Lord's Day and, once again, I am privileged to preside at the Lord's Table and distribute God's gift of life in His Eucharist. I even have a seminary student preaching a very fine sermon, and so my "load" will be lighter. And, to make it all that much more enjoyable, I'll begin a Bible Class study on the Augsburg Confession. (Talk about leading Lutherans to see just how "catholic" they really are! ;-) All in all, a very big day.

But these are not the things that occupy my mind through the hours of today! No, the coming "Big Day" that captures my attention today is...are you ready?...opening day for the St. Louis Rams' regular season!! Yes, NFL football is back, and am I looking forward to watching "my Rams" again. Oh, I've been a Rams fan since I was a kid, when they were the Los Angeles Rams (and when they'd always make it to the playoffs but routinely get eliminated by either Minnesota or Dallas). But now that the Rams and I are in the same city? Well, it makes for an awfully contagious enjoyment of football season! So, here's to a good season for the Rams - may they kick some...er, I mean, have a winning season!

By the way, do I have to go to confession for wanting to exit church as soon as possible to make it home for the 12:00 noon kickoff? :-)

07 September 2007

Speaking of Crossing Oneself

In the comments section from Wednesday's post, we ended up talking about making the sign of the cross. Rev. McCain reminded us of Luther's exhortation to make the sign of the cross each day when we pray. Here's a little tidbit from A. C. Piepkorn that builds on Luther's instruction in the Small Catechism:
[Speaking of reminding ourselves of our Baptism, and in a way better than using holy water:] ...we have a far better way of reminding ourselves suggested in our Small Catechism. The head of the family is directed to instruct the members of his household to bless themselves morning and evening after this fashion; "In the morning when you get up, and in the evening when you retire, you shall bless yourself with the Sign of the Holy Cross and say, 'In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.' Then, kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord's Prayer; if you wish, you may also say the little prayer, I Thank Thee." Let me call attention to the relation between this brief office and the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. The blessing with the sign of the holy cross corresponds to the signing with the holy cross at Baptism with the formula: "Receive the sign of the holy cross, both upon the forehead and upon the breast, in token that thou hast been redeemed by Christ the Crucified." The invocation, "In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost," reminds us that we are baptized into that name. The Apostles' Creed has always been the ancient baptismal symbol, as the Nicene Creed has been the ancient Eucharistic confession, and its use is designed to remind us of Holy Baptism's divine gift of faith. The "Our Father" recalls that in order to implore the blessing of Almighty God upon us, the minister laid his hands upon our head and bade the congregation pray with him the Paternoster with special intention for our eternal salvation. If thus at morning's dawn we consecrate ourselves anew to God and at nightfall plead again the perfect sacrifice of Christ, into whose death we have been baptized and into whose new divine life we have been engrafted, Baptism will mean more to us than a rite and we shall experience the constant power of the new birth's sanctifying operation ("The Lutheran Church--A Sacramental Church, in The Church: Selected Writings of Arthur Carl Piepkorn, p. 81).
Wow! All of that connected to one little gesture of making the sign of the cross! What a treasure to maintain and actually practice!

Check it out!

If you haven't seen the latest issue of the Lutheran Witness, please check it out. I'm talking about the story on the Sunday School children who sent posters to Africa. Yep, that's us - Hope, St. Louis! Awfully proud of my Sunday School staff and students for taking part in that...and very delighted that they can be showcased in the Witness. I'm especially glad that our Gospel proclamation reaches around the world!

05 September 2007

Grow in Grace?

This grows out of an ongoing conversation with Pr. Weedon and others, and yet another installment of that conversation today at lunch:

Do we actually grow in God's grace? Once brought to life and faith in our loving, merciful God, does God's grace actually change us, or transform us? Sometimes we may focus so much on the "forensic" character of God's justification of us sinners - a point that is quite true and essential indeed - that we lose sight of how His grace, mercy, and love also change or transform us. We should remember that it's not a matter of either/or, but rather a truth of both/and. Yes, God's grace does work to change and transform us!

St. Peter can give us such sweet Gospel (as in 1 Peter chapters 1 & 2) and yet still exhort us to "Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 3:18). St. Paul can teach us quite well on God's justification of the sinner (see Romans 3-5) and yet still exhort us, "by the mercies of God, to present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship" (Romans 12:1). Martin Luther can even teach us that Baptism means daily dying to sin and its desires and rising to newness of life in Christ (Small Catechism on Baptism). This must be why Luther can be quite comfortable explaining more in his Large Catechism, again when he discusses Baptism:
For this reason let everyone value his Baptism as a daily dress...in which he is to walk constantly. Then he may ever be found in the faith and its fruit, so that he may suppress the old man and grow up in the new. For if we would be Christians, we must do the work by which we are Christians" (Concordia, p. 431).
Not only are we forensically forgiven by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, but we also get to grow in His grace as His holy people, growing more and more into the image of Christ Himself!