31 October 2007

Homily - Reformation Day

"What is Reformation?"
John 8:31-36 w/ Revelation 14:6-7 & Romans 3:19-28

This morning, as we gathered for the Divine Service with the school children, one of our bright students asked me: “Pastor, what’s Reformation?” Something tells me that he knew, after all, the school children have been learning about Martin Luther and the Reformation for a few weeks now. I think this student just wanted to see what I would say. So I said, “Well, that’s why we’re here today, and that’s what I’ll talk about in the sermon.”

It’s a great question for us here this evening too. What is Reformation? What is it all about? We might be tempted to say, “It’s about Martin Luther and the many great things that he did.” And what great things would those be? Well, many may say Luther single-handedly put the Pope in his place. Others may think that Luther stood up for the rights of individual believers, over against some church hierarchy on steroids. Still others may claim that Luther was a brave soul who decided who break off from the big, bad church of his day and start his own church. But all of these would be false, very false! And celebrating Reformation Day is not at all about celebrating the unique achievements of Martin Luther. That’s nothing against Luther, not at all.

Consider our first reading, about the angel flying overhead. Here you have a good example of how this is not about Luther. As I’m told, some artist actually painted this story, and the angel, strangely enough, looked a lot like Martin Luther. But I think Luther would certainly say, “Not so fast!” While he was certainly a faithful teacher of God’s Word, Luther would not want Reformation Day to be about him.

So, what is Reformation Day about? Notice what the angel flying overhead does in this passage. He carries “an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him the glory….’” That’s what Reformation is all about – the eternal Gospel for everyone on earth, the message that leads us to fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

Tonight, we also hear from St. Paul. It’s that classic “Lutheran” Bible passage (if we can say such a thing): “Now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” That’s what Reformation is about, but what does it mean?

Here’s where knowing Luther’s story comes in handy. We gather tonight, on the 490th anniversary of Luther’s act of posting his “95 Theses.” Dr. Luther was a university theology professor who wanted to engage his colleagues in some scholarly debate over some problems in the church. His studies of the Scriptures led him to see some problems, some abuses, in the church of his day – problems such as a fictional place called “purgatory,” where souls would wait and purge away their sins before entering Eternity; problems such as indulgences, the practice of selling and buying time out of purgatory, basically buying one’s way into God’s good favor; and problems of “relics,” the buying and selling of bones of the saints or supposed pieces of Jesus’ cross.

Here’s why Luther chose October 31 to post his challenge for debate. It’s the eve of All Saints’ Day – “All Hallows’ Eve” or, as we know it now, “Halloween” (Okay, there, I mentioned it! ☺). In Wittenberg, where Luther lived and taught, All Saints’ Day was set aside for setting out the relics for all to adore. It was an impressive collection, but Luther wanted to debate and say, “That’s not what the Church is all about!” Here’s what Reformation is all about – refocusing on what the Church is and how she lives from the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This is St. Paul’s message: we are not justified, or made right, before God by our human achievements of trying to placate God, or appease Him, or buy Him off. No, we are set right with God purely and solely by Jesus Christ crucified and risen. And we cling to that radical righteousness by faith, by trusting that our God truly is gracious and merciful. That’s what Reformation is about.

We also hear some soothing, sweet words from the lips of Jesus. “If you abide in my word,” He says, “you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” And what truth is that? Listen to Jesus again: “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” That’s our real problem. We sin, and we show, beyond all reasonable doubt, that we are enslaved to sin. Just think of any sin you’ve committed just today, and you have incontrovertible evidence of this slavery. And just in case you think you haven’t sinned today, you’d better look more closely, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And I doubt you want to call God a liar!

But Jesus then applies the healing medicine of more truth: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” That’s what Reformation is all about! No, not the kind of freedom that says, “Oh, goody, I can do whatever I darn well please – come to church when it’s convenient, treat everyone as I see fit, live life to its fullest in feeling good for the moment.” No, not that kind of freedom. Besides, that’s not really freedom; that’s the old slavery yet again. Rather, Jesus talks about freedom from our slavery to sin, freedom to be the human beings that God created us to be, not the self-absorbed minions of Satan. “If the Son sets you free – from sin, from death, and from Satan himself – you will be free indeed.” That’s what Reformation is all about.

Luther preached it this way in the Large Catechism: “For when we had been created by God the Father and had received from Him all kinds of good, the devil came and led us into disobedience, sin, death, and all evil. So we fell under God’s wrath and displeasure and were doomed to eternal damnation, just as we had merited and deserved. There was no counsel, help, or comfort until this only and eternal Son of God—in His immeasurable goodness—had compassion upon our misery and wretchedness. He came from heaven to help us. So those tyrants and jailers are all expelled now. In their place has come Jesus Christ, Lord of life, righteousness, every blessing, and salvation. He has delivered us poor, lost people from hell’s jaws, has won us, has made us free, and has brought us again into the Father’s favor and grace” (LC II:28-30). That’s what Reformation Day is all about.

The slogan that goes with Reformation Day says, “The Church should always be reformed.” How is the Church, the Body of Christ, always being “reformed”? By the eternal Gospel, by the message of God’s gift of being made right before Him, by the Son’s victory over sin, death, and Satan to set us free. The Church is always being reformed and restored by the message of sins forgiven in Christ Jesus and in His life-giving Body and Blood. So far, so good. So let’s not rush to aim our theological pea-shooters at our brothers and sisters in, say, the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, let’s first turn our prayers and desire for reform on ourselves. Yes, the Church always needs to be reformed, especially when we struggle with the aberration of church-men turning a church into a coffee house, or with pastors and congregations that abandon the Church’s liturgy for something, well, “more contemporary and relevant.” Many claim that we “must” do such things for the mission of the Church, that is, to attract people in through the front doors. But these, dear friends, are problems no less serious than what Luther faced. Doing “whatever it takes” for the mission of the Church draws our gaze away from Jesus and His eternal Gospel just as much as indulgences and relics did in Luther’s day. Man-made visions for innovative churches and liturgies are just as man-made as purgatory and indulgences. Reformation is about getting back to the Gospel, the eternal Gospel, the message of being right with God, the message of being set free from sin, death, and Satan.

So as we sing the “battle hymn of the Reformation,” “A Mighty Fortress,” look for how it paints the picture of our battle. We do not battle against our fellow Christians; rather, we battle against the forces of sin, death, and Satan. “But for us fights the valiant One, Whom God Himself elected.” And who is this? “Jesus Christ it is…He holds the field forever.” That’s what Reformation is all about! Amen.

True Reformation Battle and Victory

Today we Lutherans celebrate “Reformation Day” (okay, many of you celebrated it this past Sunday, but you still celebrated it). It is customary on such a celebration to sing the so-called “battle hymn of the Reformation,” which is none other than Luther’s great hymn “A Mighty Fortress.”

As I ponder the hymn “A Mighty Fortress,” I notice two things about it. One, it is so ecumenical and catholic, in the best senses of those terms. It does not beat some specifically “Lutheran drum” as if to cheer, “Luther, Luther, he’s our man, if he can’t do it no-one can!” It so happens to be written by the Reformer, but its not about him. We might also want to take note of how many other Christian communions, even our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church (at least so I’m told), also sing this hymn with great gusto and for great comfort.

The second thing I notice is that “A Mighty Fortress” places the focus of the battle right where it belongs – on the battle against sin, death, and Satan, and not on Christians taking aim on each other. “Reformation Day” is not about taking aim at fellow Christians in other communions; it is about celebrating God’s victory over sin, death, and the devil.

I don’t want to minimize the genuine theological differences between communions such as Lutherans and Roman Catholics, or Lutherans and American Evangelicals; however, at the same time I don’t want to overstate, exaggerate, misrepresent, or caricature the differences either. In fact, instead of taking aim at each other and launching our “Reformation salvos” at brothers and sisters in Christ, perhaps we need to consider sitting down at the table and trying to sort through the differences – figure out where we very well may misunderstand each other, where we genuinely differ, and, yes, where we actually share some common ground.

But back to “A Mighty Fortress,” for it reminds us where the true battle lies. On this “Reformation Day” we do well to remember who our true enemies are: sin, death, and Satan. Then we also do even better to remember whence the true victory comes: from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Here’s how Luther penned it, and here’s how every Christian can sing it:

A mighty fortress is our God,
A trusty shield and weapon;
He helps us free from ev’ry need
That hath us now o’ertaken.
The old evil foe
Now means deadly woe;
Deep guile and great might
Are his dread arms in fight;
On earth is not his equal.

With might of ours can naught be done,
Soon were our loss effected;
But for us fights the valiant One,
Whom God Himself elected.
Ask ye, who is this?
Jesus Christ it is,
Of Sabaoth Lord,
And there’s none other God;
He holds the field forever.

Though devils all the world should fill,
All eager to devour us,
We tremble not, we fear no ill;
They shall not overpow’r us.
This world’s prince may still
Scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none.
He’s judged; the deed is done;
One little word can fell him.

The Word they still shall let remain
Nor any thanks have for it;
He’s by our side upon the plain
With His good gifts and Spirit.
And take they our life,
Goods, fame, child, and wife,
Though these all be gone,
Our vict’ry has been won;
The Kingdom ours remaineth. (LSB 656)

30 October 2007

The Communion of Saints - a la von Schenk

I continue to be amazed by how Pr. Berthold von Schenk directs all of Christ's saving work and all of the Church's life to the Communion at the Altar! Here's a little section on the Communion of Saints, part of which I just typed up for my congregation's November newsletter. What a great preparation it is for celebrating All Saints' Day (November 1), which my congregation will do this Sunday in the Divine Services!

To countless Christians the reality of the Communion of Saints has been an unfailing source of love and joy in the face of otherwise heartbreaking bereavement. We must find our way into this reality. The Risen Saviour, the new found Resurrection Presence, was more to the disciples than their old companionship in Galilee. We must discover with the disciples this life-transforming secret. Then we will begin to realize the joy of the Communion of Saints.

The living Christ creates and guarantees this joyful fact. It is Christ, and not just our wistful hoping, Who assures us that nothing can pluck out of His hand those who loved Him and trusted Him. Our faith here rests not in any idea of the mere prolonging of existence. It is found in these words, “Because I live, ye shall live also.” We cannot declare exactly what details of our life here below our beloved departed share with us; whether they see, as we see, every item of daily life, our little cares and successes, our problems and tears, our laughter and joys. They may be like elders working upstairs at some greater task, simply confident that for the time we are working at ours in the world below, serene in the same keeping. The great thing is that we are one and not separated, that the one great Love [Jesus Christ] is the center of all our lives.

When we are bereft of dear ones, it is a tremendous shock. For a time we are stunned. Not everyone can feel at once their continuing companionship. We should not for that reason despair. An adjustment must take place in our lives, reaching deep into our habits, emotions and thoughts. Some souls may make this adjustment quickly. For most of us it comes slowly and hard; many an hour is filled with loneliness and agonizing doubt.

By ourselves we can never make this adjustment. We must come to a sense of the continuing presence of our loved ones, and we can do this if we realize the presence of our Living Lord. As we seek and find our Risen Lord we shall find our dear departed. They are with Him, and we find the reality of their continued life through Him. The saints are part of the Church. We worship with them. They worship the Risen Christ face to face, while we worship the same Risen Christ under the veil of bread and wine at the Altar. At the Communion of Saints we are linked with Heaven, with the Communion of Saints, with our loved ones. Here at the Altar, focused to a point, we find our communion with the dead; for the Altar is the closest meeting place between us and our Lord. That place must be the place of closest meeting with our dead who are in His keeping. The Altar is the trysting place where we meet our beloved Lord. It must, therefore, also be the trysting place where we meet our loved ones, for they are with the Lord. How pathetic it is to see men and women going out to the cemetery, kneeling at the mound, placing little sprays of flowers and wiping their tears from their eyes, and knowing nothing else. How hopeless they look. Oh, that we could take them by the hand, away from the grave, out through the cemetery gate, in through the door of the church, and up to the nave to the very Altar itself, and there put them in touch, not with the dead body of their loved one, but with the living soul who is with Christ at the Altar. Our human nature needs more than the assurance that some day and in some way we shall again meet our loved ones "in heaven". that is all gloriously true. But how does that help us now?

When we, then, view death in the light of the Communion of Saints and Holy Communion, there is no helpless bereavement. My loved one has just left me and has gone on a long journey. But I am in touch with her. I know that there is a place where we can meet. It is at the Altar. How it thrills me when I hear the words of the Liturgy, "Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven," for I know that she is there with that company of Heaven, the Communion of Saints, with the Lord. The nearer I come to my Lord in Holy Communion, the nearer I come to the saints, to my own loved ones. I am a member of the Body of Christ, I am a living cell in that spiritual organism, partaking of the life of the other cells, and sharing in the Body of Christ Himself.

There is nothing fanciful or unreal about this. Indeed, it is the most real thing in my life. Of course, I miss my loved one. I should miss her if she took a long holiday trip. But now, since she is what some people call dead, she is closer to me than ever. Of course, I miss her physical presence bitterly. I miss her voice and the sound of approaching footsteps. But I have not lost her. And when my sense of loss becomes too great, I can always go to our meeting place at the Altar where I receive the Body and Blood of my Lord that preserves my body and soul just as it has preserved her unto everlasting life. Do learn to love the Altar as the meeting place with your beloved who have passed within the veil. Here again the Sacrament is the heart of our religion. The Blessed Sacrament links us not merely to Bethlehem and Calvary, but to the whole world beyond the grave as well, for at the Altar the infinite is shrined in the finite; Heaven stoops down to earth; and the seen and the unseen meet (The Presence, pp. 129-132).

28 October 2007

Direct the Groping to the Altar

Here's another pearl of a quote from Pr. Berthold von Schenk. What he wrote in back 1945 is just as true - or even truer - for the Church in 2007:

In these days men are again groping for faith. Their experience has told them that there is something fundamentally wrong in the world. They are turning to the Church for guidance. The Church will fail in its great opportunity as she has failed so often, unless she can direct these groping souls to the Altar where they will find the living Reality, the risen Saviour, the source of Christian life. The revival for the love of the Altar will change the whole face of the Church of Christ. It will help to lift our groping, blind leaders, both of clergy and laity, out of the mirk of materialism and methodism to a vision of the supernatural (The Presence, p. 109).

Homily - Trinity 21

Clinging to the Words of Christ
John 4:46-54 w/ Genesis 1:1-2:3 & Ephesians 6:10-17

This side of heaven the Church is always the Church militant, the Church “under siege.” Two weeks ago we heard about the paralysis of our unbelief. Last week we heard about the struggle of answering Jesus’ invitation. But the Lord Jesus Christ gives the victory. First, His forgiveness puts us in motion. Next, He persistently invites us to His wedding feast and gives us His perfect, pure, royal garment.

Today we hear about how we wrestle with trusting God’s words for our healing. When Jesus heals the official’s son, He teaches us to cling to His simple words. In our Gospel reading we see how one official, a community leader, simply trusted the Word—Jesus—in the face of death. This official had heard of Jesus, perhaps he had even heard Jesus preach. After Jesus’ first miracle—turning water into wine at Cana in Galilee—word of the Savior spread. The official may have heard the word of the Lord who turned water into wine. So, Jesus’ words and actions gave faith to this man.

This official then exercised his faith by imploring Jesus. Jesus returns to Cana, where He did His first sign. The official lives in Capernaum, about 12-15 miles away over mountainous terrain. But he doesn’t let the distance stop him. He seeks out Jesus for help, because his son is sick to the point of death. This is not just a stressful time. This is time for faith to go to work in prayer, in imploring the Lord for help. The great cry of faith always says, “Lord, have mercy!” So, the official trusted Jesus in the face of death.

Jesus also draws our attention to faith in His words and healing. But we fallen sinners want something else. We want spectacular signs and wonders. We want God to prove Himself on our terms. How we want Him to show that He loves us by making life easy and prosperous for us. That’s our sickness!

But Jesus seeks simple trust in His simple words. He does not rebuke the official, but He does rebuke the crowd for expecting miracles. “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” In Luke 18, Jesus teaches on prayer and then asks, “when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” What matters to Jesus? Not what you might expect—not glorious buildings, not grand, trouble-free living, not multi-million dollar church bureaucracies, not even peace among nations. What matters to Jesus? FAITH—simply clinging to His simple words.

You see, Jesus’ words bring Jesus’ results. Remember what God said through Isaiah, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is. 55:10-11).

Today we see one result of Jesus’ words. The official’s son lived and his family believed in Christ. Jesus is true to His word, the lad lived, and the family believed not just in the miracle, but in Jesus’ healing. Faith always has an object. True faith trusts only Christ and His words and works.

Well, Jesus also makes you alive to believe His words. You may be tempted to take Jesus’ words lightly. You may not see them as that vital for every nook and cranny of your life. But let St. Paul remind you to “not [be] ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). When God makes you alive, He gives you faith to cling to His Word, Jesus. And clinging to Jesus means learning and growing in God’s grace.

Why should you cling to God’s Word in the flesh? Because He—Jesus—is living and active to make you alive. And His words do things. Do you remember that old childhood rhyme: “Sticks and stone can break my bones, but names can never hurt me”? Well, it’s just not true. Words can and do hurt, because words do things.

God’s words do great things. His words created the heavens and the earth. Each day of creation God said, “Let there be…” and it happened! On Day 1, He made light. On Day 2, He made the seas and sky. On Day 3, He spoke the dry land and plants into being. On Day 4 came the sun, moon, and stars. On Day 5 came fish and birds. And on Day 6 God made animals and, most importantly, humans. God speaks and things happen.

And never forget that God made everything out of nothing. We need materials before we can make something, but God doesn’t. He spoke, and He created everything out of nothing.

God recreates us in the same way—both by speaking and out of nothing. As the psalm says, “Create in me a clean heart.” God creates in you the heart to trust Him. He creates it out of nothing, out of no previous good disposition, out of no religious inclination. He creates in you a clean heart that clings to Him. Basically, God says, “Let there be a clean heart in you!”

You see, when you cling to Christ’s words, you really cling to Jesus Himself. He is the Word of God in the flesh. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1). Jesus is God’s message of rescue in human form. He is true God and true Man. As perfect Man He lives the life that we could not live, and He dies in death so that we won’t die eternally. As perfect God He conquers sin, death, and the devil. Only God can give life. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).

Just as Jesus is both divine and human, so are His words. He speaks a divine message of love and forgiveness, and He uses ordinary human language to do it. He uses ordinary language, syntax, grammar, and history, and yet His message is perfect, makes you alive, and creates faith in you. You don’t need to look for signs and wonders. You don’t need to yearn for spiritual dreams or inner messages. Jesus’ Gospel words are exactly what you need. You can cling to Him for life.

So, let’s learn from the official. Jesus spoke simple words to the him: “You son lives.” It happened just as He said. You may also expect great things in simple gifts of Jesus’ words. Jesus’ words joined to simple water in Baptism actually make you God’s holy child. Jesus’ words joined to the pastor’s lips in Absolution actually give you a clean conscience. Jesus’ words joined to bread and wine in Communion actually forgive your sins and strengthen your faith. You can cling to Christ’s words because He uses them to make you holy.

Why else should you cling to Christ’s words? Because His words are your armor for spiritual battle. The official faced a spiritual dilemma in the sickness and imminent death of his son. Sickness and death are signs of our spiritual warfare. We live in a world of sin, a world fallen from God’s favor. St. Paul said it this way: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” It’s no small thing when we wrestle with trusting God’s words! Our wrestling has cosmic significance. When you cling to Christ, the Word made flesh, you have life. But if you don’t cling to Christ, all is lost.

So, Jesus gives you the battle armor to stand. You need to know how to put the armor on. You need to know the armor and the arsenal that protects you. What is that armor and arsenal? God’s Word! It does you no good just sitting off in the corner. No, you need to wear it and use it. That’s why coming to the Divine Service is so important. And so is Bible study. So are family times for prayer. It’s why we put the “Daily Prayer” guide in the bulletin—so you can use it. This armor of God’s Word helps you to STAND. Christ has already won the war. So, you and I get to defend Christ’s victory and stand strong.

As Jesus healed the official’s son, He also heals you simply by speaking His words. He teaches you to cling to His words and trust Him. “O from our sins, Lord, turn Your face; Absolve us through Your boundless grace. Be with us in our anguish still; Free us at last from ev’ry ill” (LSB, 615:5). Amen.

St. Simon and St. Jude, Apostles

Hymn Verse (in "By All Your Saints in Warfare")
Praise, Lord, for Your apostles,
Saint Simon and Saint Jude.
One love, one hope impelled them
To tread the way, renewed.
May we with zeal as earnest
The faith of Christ maintain,
Be bound in love together,
And life eternal gain. (LSB, 518:28)

Collect of the Day
Almighty God, You chose Your servants Simon and Jude to be numbered among the glorious company of the apostles. As they were faithful and zealous in their mission, so may we with ardent devotion make known the love and mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Lutheran Service Book: Collects of the Day)

26 October 2007

And now for something completely different

I had no idea there was a "World Toilet Association," let alone a mayor who would choose to live in a toilet-shaped house to promote such an association. Check it out here. (Okay, and no wise cracks about my blog going down the toilet! :-)

The Church: Fellowship in Holy Things

This brief reading comes from George Florovsky (from his book Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View) and is paired up with 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 (today's "Reading II") in the prayerbook For All the Saints (pp. 1011-1012). One wonders how familiar Florovsky was with the Augsburg Confession and what it says on both the Church and the Sacraments.
Moreover, Christ Himself belongs to this community, as its Head, not only as its Lord or Master. Christ is not above or outside the Church. The Church is in Him. The Church is not merely a community of those who believe in Christ and walk in His steps or in His commandments. She is a community of those who abide and dwell in Him, and in whom He Himself is abiding and dwelling by the Spirit. Christians are set apart, “born anew” and re-created, they are given not only a new pattern of life, but rather a new principle: the new Life in the Lord by the Spirit. They are a “peculiar People,” “the People of God’s own possession.” The point is that the Christian community, the ekklesia, is a sacramental community: communio in sacris, a “fellowship in holy things,” i.e. in the Holy Spirit, or even communio sanctorum (sanctorum being taken as neuter rather than masculine – perhaps that was the original meaning of the phrase). The unity of the Church is effected through the sacraments: Baptism and the Eucharist are the two “social sacraments” of the Church, and in them the true meaning of Christian “togetherness” is continually revealed and sealed. Or even more emphatically, the sacraments constitute the Church. Only in the sacraments does the Christian Community pass beyond the purely human measure and become the Church. Therefore “the right administration of the sacraments” belongs to the essence of the Church (to her esse). Sacraments must be “worthily” received indeed, therefore they cannot be separated or divorced from the inner effort and spiritual attitude of believers. Baptism is to be preceded by repentance and faith. A personal relation between an aspirant and his Lord must be first established by the hearing and the receiving of the Word, of the message of salvation. And again an oath of allegiance to God and His Christ is a pre-requisite and indispensable condition of the administration of the sacrament (the first meaning of the word sacramentum was precisely “the (military) oath.” [sic] A catechumen is already “enrolled” among the brethren on the basis of his faith. Again, the baptismal gift is appropriated, received, and kept, by faith and faithfulness, by the steadfast standing in the faith and the promises. And yet sacraments are not merely signs of a professed faith, but rather effective signs of the saving Grace—not only symbols of human aspiration and loyalty, but the outward symbols of the divine action. In them our human existence is linked to, or rather raised up to, the Divine Life, by the Spirit, the giver of life.

The Church: Fellowship in Holy Things

This brief reading comes from George Florovsky (from his book Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View) and is paired up with 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 (today's "Reading II") in the prayerbook For All the Saints (pp. 1011-1012). One wonders how familiar Florovsky was with the Augsburg Confession and what it says on both the Church and the Sacraments.
Moreover, Christ Himself belongs to this community, as its Head, not only as its Lord or Master. Christ is not above or outside the Church. The Church is in Him. The Church is not merely a community of those who believe in Christ and walk in His steps or in His commandments. She is a community of those who abide and dwell in Him, and in whom He Himself is abiding and dwelling by the Spirit. Christians are set apart, “born anew” and re-created, they are given not only a new pattern of life, but rather a new principle: the new Life in the Lord by the Spirit. They are a “peculiar People,” “the People of God’s own possession.” The point is that the Christian community, the ekklesia, is a sacramental community: communio in sacris, a “fellowship in holy things,” i.e. in the Holy Spirit, or even communio sanctorum (sanctorum being taken as neuter rather than masculine – perhaps that was the original meaning of the phrase). The unity of the Church is effected through the sacraments: Baptism and the Eucharist are the two “social sacraments” of the Church, and in them the true meaning of Christian “togetherness” is continually revealed and sealed. Or even more emphatically, the sacraments constitute the Church. Only in the sacraments does the Christian Community pass beyond the purely human measure and become the Church. Therefore “the right administration of the sacraments” belongs to the essence of the Church (to her esse). Sacraments must be “worthily” received indeed, therefore they cannot be separated or divorced from the inner effort and spiritual attitude of believers. Baptism is to be preceded by repentance and faith. A personal relation between an aspirant and his Lord must be first established by the hearing and the receiving of the Word, of the message of salvation. And again an oath of allegiance to God and His Christ is a pre-requisite and indispensable condition of the administration of the sacrament (the first meaning of the word sacramentum was precisely “the (military) oath.” [sic] A catechumen is already “enrolled” among the brethren on the basis of his faith. Again, the baptismal gift is appropriated, received, and kept, by faith and faithfulness, by the steadfast standing in the faith and the promises. And yet sacraments are not merely signs of a professed faith, but rather effective signs of the saving Grace—not only symbols of human aspiration and loyalty, but the outward symbols of the divine action. In them our human existence is linked to, or rather raised up to, the Divine Life, by the Spirit, the giver of life.

Christianity by Consumerism?

Thanks to Get Religion for directing us to an interesting review in the Wall Street Journal on consumerism in religion. In her review titled "A Congregation of Customers" Naomi Riley discusses the book "Shopping for God" by James B. Twitchell. Judging from the review, Twitchell seems to believe that things religious in America can ultimately be boiled down to a consumer-driven "brand allegiance," even for men with their love of sports. (Hey, I like my sports too, but give them to me "straight up" when I'm at home, not mixed in with the more meaningful - and "meaty" - matters of faith and life with God.) Appeal to the consumer in Americans, so the notion goes, and those Americans will gladly become Christian, or at least religious.

However, we can rejoice that Ms. Riley questions this consumeristic presupposition. First, she questions that a merely "evangelical 'product'" can truly draw folks into a meaningful - shall we say "authentic" or "genuine" or "real"? - kind of faith or spirituality. People do willingly sacrifice for truth, but not for fads and ever-changing consumer products. Ms. Riley says:

But what is it about the evangelical "product" that makes it so desirable? Any number of scholars have noted that, in recent years, it has been the churches that demand the most of people--tithing, bowing to firm doctrines, observing strict rules of conduct--that have grown the fastest. There seems to be something in our nature that requires from religion not just feel-good spirituality but strong moral direction. We are willing to make sacrifices to live by the dictates of a religiously grounded truth.

Ms. Riley then concludes her review by intimating that true, authentic faith and religion must
come from somewhere other than "brand allegiance." She says:
If you can find a way of seeing religion primarily as a form of consumerism--skipping the (how to put it?) faith and truth part of religious belief--then Mr. Twitchell's analysis makes some sense. And in fact there are churches out there self-consciously engaged in marketing. They hire consultants and public-relations experts to "grow" their flock, and they obey a market discipline. Mr. Twitchell notices a sign hanging in Mr. Hybels's megachurch office that quotes Peter Drucker, the business guru.

But consultants can only do so much, and the point of church outreach surely has less to do with improving "brands" than with saving souls. Mr. Twitchell concludes by noting that, "in the Land of Plentitude, the customer is king." Thus he asks: "Why should religion be different?" The answer to that question comes from another book.
While many people may indeed value their religion/Christianity in much the same way they value shopping at Target or Macy's, or dining out at McDonald's or Burger King (or whatever "fine dining establishment" you prefer), there is something more - so much more!

There is true, real life, historic Christianity - you know,
  • the one handed down through the centuries (What passing consumer fad can claim that?),
  • the one that maintains her long-standing, historic creeds and confessions, such as the Apostles', the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds (How many "consumer creeds" end up in the trash or paper shredder when "Christian customers" get home and throw the "worship folder" away?)
  • the one for which millions have sacrificed themselves in times of persecution (Something tells me that future persecutors in America won't haul Christians away for having a coffee shop in their church - or turning their church *into* a coffee shop!),
  • the one that keeps its liturgical roots firmly planted by the streams of living water, Jesus Christ, and in the fertile soil of the Church's historic practices (I dare any liturgy that's new week after week to feed people on Jesus Christ in order that they can be rescued from sin and survive the sleep in the grave!),
  • the one that focuses on converting lost, dead sinners into found, living saints before God (You mean there's something more to life than feeling good for the moment?),
  • the one that focuses on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the restored life with God for all eternity (It's not about "having it your way"; it's about receiving Jesus and His gift of life with God!).
No amount of shallow, fad-driven consumerism and customer-pleasing-mindset can compare with the steadfastness of God's mercy given through His Son, the Word made flesh! No amount of "brand allegiance," however religiously it may be packaged, can compare with the love of God in Christ Jesus - the "Calvary Love" as one pastor called it - authentically wrapped up in Baptism, Absolution, Eucharist and the preaching of the Gospel.

I for one easily tire of the consumer fads and gimmicks launched my way just on TV and the radio. Why would I want such shallowness insinuating itself into the Church and infecting my faith? Give me Jesus Christ, with His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation, and the precious, soul-soothing liturgical life in His Church any day! Some pastors may strive, plan, and "vision" for a "congregation of customers," but I'll take God's gift of a congregation of sinner-saints and faithful sheep who want to hear the voice of their Good Shepherd Jesus any day!

25 October 2007

"Dueling" von Schenks

In several posts Pastor Weedon has gone to quoting Pr. Berthold von Schenk, from his book The Presence, and it would seem that Pr. Weedon just can't put the book down. (I wish I had that problem - I don't want to put it down, but, well, circumstances in life force me to! :-) Since The Presence is such a great book, there are so many juicy quotes to choose from! So, perhaps Pr. Weedon and I should just begin a session of "Dueling" von Schenks.

Here's another great von Schenk quote:

"We are to be one with God through our faith in Christ--by our surrender to Him. This union with God through our Lord Jesus Christ is to be so real, so complete, that the very love with which the Father loves the Son, that is, the very divine Love itself, the love of Bethlehem, the love of Calvary, is to RADIATE IN AND THROUGH US. That is our destiny. There can be no other destiny than this. We are to be so completely at one with God that our weak love is caught up with His divine love. And the result is that we become channels of the divine love to others. Not a love like the divine love, but the very divine love itself" (p. 46, his emphasis).

P.S. My own personal copy of The Presence is on its way, so I'm sure that more quotes from von Schenk will be appearing in this forum too! :-)

Baseball and Religion

With the World Series underway, here's a fascinating article over at "Get Religion" on the Christianity and the character of the Colorado Rockies team. I must say that I appreciate this kind of a distinction. The owners are not looking for "Christian baseball players," per se, but rather for players with good character and values (and they just happen to be Christians). In such a setting - a business setting, a secular setting, an entertainment venue etc. (and let's face it, professional sports is all three!) - that's how Christians shine best. Just do the job to the best of one's ability and with character informed and shaped by the Love of God in Christ Jesus, and, hey, some pretty amazing things can happen. Although I do wonder if we'll see similar articles about how the Christian character of a team or its individual players helps them and sustains them during the rough times, such as times of losing the World Series, or being less than successful (or even, as my favorite football team is now experiencing, a winless season)!

23 October 2007

Gerhard on Imitation of Christ

At our recent Pastors' Conference in Jefferson City, one brother and I enjoyed some of God's "First Article gift" of really good single malt Scotch and discussed how we need not divorce Jesus' saving work from His example for all of the Christian's life. It would seem that Gerhard can also hold these two Scriptural truths together:

"The holy life of Christ is the most perfect model of virtue we can have; every action of His is rich in instruction for us…. Unless thou are willing to be a disciple of Christ, thou wilt never be a true Christian. Let the passion of Christ be thy merit, but at the same time let His holy life be the model for thine" (Johann Gerhard, Sacred Meditations, Meditation XXX, “The Imitation of Christ,” p. 169).

22 October 2007

Homily - 2007 Missouri District Pastors' Conference

I had the distinct honor of officiating and preaching at the Monday Matins Service at our 2007 Missouri District Pastors' Conference (21-23 October, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Jefferson City, MO). The conference theme is "Pastor, Who Do You Think You Are?" and shows the focus of the two main presenters as they present, dialog, and answer questions from brother pastors on the identity and work of the Office of the Ministry. Here's my humble exhortation to tackle the issues of the Pastoral Office with God's gifts of humility and charity. (The clip art shown here is what we on the Planning Committee chose as our "logo" for Conference materials.)

Exhortation to "Calvary Love"

Acts 20:17-18, 28-32

St. Paul sure knew how to plan and conduct a pastors’ conference! Even in the midst of his hurried journey to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem and deliver famine relief to the saints there, he takes time out to meet with his brothers in Office from Ephesus. And they gladly take time out of their hectic schedules of tending their flocks to meet with the Apostle and chief-missionary to the Gentiles. What a great message we pastors hear from the Apostle! What great love and support among clergy we can see in the Pastors’ Conference at Miletus in AD 56.

But before we unpack the Apostles’ exhortations, let’s back up for some context. It’s his third missionary journey, and St. Paul continues to proclaim Christ crucified and risen for the life of the world to any and all he can. When he arrives in Ephesus, he encounters some who have never heard of the Holy Spirit, and he baptizes them “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (19:5). He then enters the synagogue in Ephesus to speak boldly, “reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God” (19:8). Some gladly hear him and receive the message of Christ crucified and risen for sinners. Others, though, become stubborn and slander “the Way.”

Soon after, St. Paul’s Gospel preaching results in a great disturbance in Ephesus. Those who sell religious goods and services for “the great goddess Artemis” – a grand and successful enterprise, to be sure – fear that she will soon “be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence” (19:27). The Christian message routinely overthrows the gods of the culture. The abundant life in Christ is simply incompatible with – and infinitely better than – commonly accepted spiritualities. So, St. Paul has to leave Ephesus, but only after he trains and appoints presbyters, or pastors, to preach the Christ in Ephesus.

After some time in Macedonia and Greece, St. Paul begins his return journey to Jerusalem. Now we return to our text. St. Paul’s words to his brother clergy gathered in Miletus are sage words for us gathered here in Jefferson City. St. Paul reminds them and us how he had served “with all humility and with tears and with trials.” That’s a universe apart from the triumphalistic, success-driven talk we hear so much today! Let us pray our gracious Lord to give us the same humility that waits upon Him and His gracious working, the same tears of repentance that water the seeds of His Gospel, and the same trials that drive us to rely on Him rather than on ourselves and our strategies.

Then the Apostle gives some necessary exhortation. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock.” Heed how you live and what you teach, you pastors. Be careful how and what you study and preach, how you live and interact with the flock that God has given you. And, yes, pay careful attention to your flock. You see, that flock is not yours to do with as you please, he says. As he tells the Ephesian pastors and us: “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” That congregation, that circuit, that district, is not some grand opportunity for you to put your dashing personality or pious skills on display for all to see and admire. It doesn’t really matter if you think your skills are leadership-driven and “missional,” or if you fancy your leanings to be staunchly conservative and confessional. That flock is God’s flock; those blood-bought sheep belong to Him. He wants you to tend them as He tends them: with humility, with self-sacrificing love. After all, our Savior did not spare His own blood on behalf of the flock, and He poured out His healing blood to reconcile enemies.

Then the Apostle gives a stark warning. “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Yes, watch out for the wolves – wolves from without and wolves from within. St. John Chyrsostom explained it this way: “Look, not only does he mention ‘wolves’ but adds ‘fierce,’ thereby hinting at their excess and recklessness. Even worse, he says that these wolves will arise from among themselves. This is exceedingly difficult to bear, since it is also a civil war” (ACCS, Acts, 254).

And just who are these wolves that arise “from among your own selves”? What is the civil war of which Chrysostom speaks? Just look around here this morning. To paraphrase the 20th century comic strip character Pogo: “We have seen the wolves, and they are us.” How many of us are here to see a “battle royale” between our two presenters? Theological discussion and debate are certainly good, as long as they lead us more and more into the Truth and Love of our Savior God, and into His gift of love for one another. But how many of us have chosen our side and want to “stick it” to the other? How many of us plan to rejoice in points made that resonate with our position, but will certainly stir and grumble with points that don’t?

And what shall we say about the ways in which we act like wolves with our brothers in Office? One hears of pastors asked to resign their calls because they are not “effective leaders,” or merely because some in the congregation may be unrepentantly upset with their pastor. One hears of congregations that do their “mission work” right in the back yard of a sister congregation. One hears of brothers who say, “I cannot commune with Brother ‘So-and-So’; he’s on the ‘other side.’” But then there’s that dirty little secret: we already commune with each other every time we celebrate the Supper in our own congregations. We can also think of how we delight in welcoming members, most likely disgruntled, from a sister flock – whether it’s innovative and “missional” or confessional and traditional. Some of us cause great stumbling by adopting and adapting worship that’s Pentecostal in style and substance. Others of us cause great stumbling by using our Confessions and the Church’s liturgy as a weapon against our brothers, instead of a weapon against the devil, the world, and our own sinful pride. Some of us use our Lord’s “Great Commission” as license to institute various innovations and excitements, as well as a club to use on those who don’t. Others of us grow cold to our Lord’s mission in the name of righteousness by doctrinal purity. Some of us sure seem to worship the mission more than we worship the Holy Trinity, while others of us fiercely defend our own position at the expense of bringing lost sinners into the very life and love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. My brothers, these things should not be. We have met the wolves, and they are us! So, as St. Paul says elsewhere, “if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15).

Instead of consuming each other, let’s repent, one and all. After all, that is where we will find our comfort, our hope, and our unity as overseers of God’s flock. As St. Paul tells the Ephesian pastors, he also tells us: “Now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” We certainly want to capitalize and personalize that word “Word.” St. Paul commends us to the Word – the Logos – made flesh. Jesus Christ is the “Word of God’s grace.” He poured out His innocent blood to reconcile us who are at enmity with each other. His cosmic victory over sin, death, and Satan, handily overcomes our little civil wars. His humility in death conquers our arrogant pride. His glorious life resuscitates us to love Him and one other. And He – the crucified and risen Shepherd of the sheep – is able to build us up in His eternal love and give us His inheritance of mercy, grace, and mutual love.

In 1945 Pastor Berthold von Schenk called this love of Christ “the Calvary Love.” He also said that we find this love at the Altar. This Altar-centered love is the true source and shape of the Church’s mission. I’ll let Pr. von Schenk have the last word:
At the Altar is the cresset where we get our fire of the Calvary Love. How this love is needed! We have lost much of it. We have to invent all kinds of methods to attract the people. We must advertise, we must entertain. Why? Because the Church has lost its way to the Altar it has also lost its way into the heart of the world. For the pure love of Calvary alone can save the world. It is that love for which the world is aching. But we must first recapture it ourselves.

Let us find the reality of Calvary, of love, by the way of the Altar. There we can again touch the wounds of Christ; and by touching the wounds of Christ, we shall touch the wounds of the world” (The Presence, 91).

21 October 2007

Homily - Trinity 20

The Right Clothing
Matthew 22:1-14
(with many thanks to my good friend Pr. Weedon, for most of this!)

What in the world is this parable about? Does it make sense to you? I can understand the King sending out his army to slay those who ruthlessly murdered his servants. After all, his servants only came to bring an invitation. But why does the King get so worked up over the man who shows up without a wedding garment? He did come to the great feast at the King’s own invitation. But to end up bound hand and foot, taken away, and tossed into the outer darkness – all because he wasn’t wearing the right duds? Talk about being superficial! Talk about being super-strict and overbearing! What’s up with that? Does it make sense to you?

Well, this little dilemma does invite us to think about our clothes and what they mean in the Scriptures. So, let’s go back to the very beginning. When Adam and Eve rebelled and broke off ties with God, when they selfishly seized what God had not given them, they lost the clothing of the glory of God. They had been created to wear it for all eternity, but they threw it away like some tattered old rags. Suddenly they realized that they were naked, and they were ashamed of that nakedness.

So how did they deal with their shame? They decided to make their own duds – fig-leaf fashions – as they tried to cover up their nakedness. It didn’t work too well, though, did it? God came into the Garden one day, in the cool of the day, and they played a little hide and seek. Their fig-leaf fashions could not cover up their distrust of the God who loved them. They could not hide their fear and shame. So, Adam and Eve were left naked – exposed, vulnerable, and ashamed. You see, that’s how it always works with the clothes that we design and sew to cover our nakedness and our shame. They never really do the job.

So, what are your fig leaves? What do you use to cover up your nakedness of turning away from God, your shame of being self-centered, self-serving, and just plain self-ish? How do you try to make yourself presentable to others and to God? Do you dress up in money and think that those little pieces of paper, or even smaller pieces of credit card plastic, can cover your nakedness and your shame? Do you dress up in working out so that you can keep a fit, trim, and beautiful body? Do you try to cover over your selfishness and shame by trying to please everyone around you so that they all really like you? Do you don the garments of gossip, thinking that if you invite others to ogle over someone else’s shame and folly, they won’t really notice yours?

Oh, we all play dress up – no question about it. And just like Adam and Eve, when God comes to call, we soon discover that our self-designed duds, our personal line of fig-leaf fashions, just doesn’t cut it. God sees right through the fig leaves. And we are left quite naked, quite exposed, quite vulnerable, quite blushing, and quite ashamed. We know that we are just plain naked, because we routinely live as if God does not matter, and as if we matter most.

But God did not leave Adam and Eve in their nakedness, did He? No, He graciously clothed them. He gave them duds that fit and covered much better than fig leaves. But instead of plucking from a fruit tree, God decided to kill an animal. “And the LORD God made for Adam and his wife garments of skins and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). God had told them that the day they ate of the one fruit, they would surely die. But now look what happened. Instead of Adam and Eve dropping dead on the spot, an animal – an innocent victim – was sacrificed in their place. From that death they were given garments to wear – garments bought with the price of blood.

Now we can go back to the parable Jesus tells us today. Now we can properly ponder the wedding garment. If you want to make sense of the King’s anger at the man who comes to the wedding feast without the proper attire, you have to keep the story in the Scriptural pattern of clothing. You see, the King graciously supplied the wedding garment. And that was not an easy task, mind you. That wedding garment was not made from sheepskin or goatskin or cowhide. No death of an animal would do for this luxurious garment. No, the wedding garment was made from the innocent suffering and death of the Son of God.

You see, the Son of God clothed Himself in our flesh and blood when He was conceived and born of the pure Virgin. Then, when He went to the cross in our place, He was stripped of His garments of cloth. He hung naked on the cross to provide the pure, seamless garment of His own holiness for you. Why would He do this? Because He loves you with an everlasting love; because He wants to welcome you to His Great Wedding Feast, just as He invites and wants all to come.

So what you wear to the Great Wedding Feast does matter, especially when the King comes to inspect the guests. If you are not wearing the garment and the holiness of the Son of God – the garment and holiness that He bled and died to give you – then watch out! You won’t be able to stand before the King. You won’t be able to stand before Him clothed in your own personal line of duds. That would show the greatest contempt for this priceless gift from the King! And, yes, that would arouse His anger. In fact, that’s the only thing that arouses it – contempt for the priceless garment of holiness given by the Son of God.

So what are you wearing today? When you were baptized the Great King did more than invite you by name to His Great Banquet. He also gave you the perfect wedding garment. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). He dressed you in the holiness of His Son. He wrapped you up in the glory of Jesus’ own perfect life of love. He gave it to you as your very own garment for time and eternity. And He invites you to wear it with joy and gladness all the days of your life.

The Church used to show that glorious new garment by wrapping the newly baptized in a white garment after Baptism. We still show it by clothing our pastors in the alb or surplice. These white garments do not testify to any personal holiness of the pastors, but rather to the holiness of Christ Himself – the very same holiness laid on all of the baptized.

You need to wear something to live in this world; we know that well enough. Well, you’ll also need to wear something when you appear before God on the Last Day. As the hymn says:

Lord, when Your glory I shall see
And taste Your kingdom’s pleasure,
Your blood my royal robe shall be,
My joy beyond all measure!
When I appear before Your throne,
Your righteousness shall be my crown;
With these I need not hide me.
And there, in garments richly wrought,
As Your own bride shall we be brought
To stand in joy beside You. (LSB 438:4)

So, remember and trust that God Himself has clothed you with His Son. He has wrapped you up in His life. Never take Him off; never be found naked without Him. Instead, remain clothed in Him, and come forward to the Foretaste of His Great Wedding Feast. You have a most certain welcome to the Feast in the Kingdom that never ends, and that Feast begins even now at this rail. Come, you who are clothed in the perfect garment of Christ Jesus! Amen.

Playing Tag

Well, apparently I've been tagged by Anastasia, who was first tagged by Pastor Weedon. I'm told that the challenge is to say seven true things about myself, as Anastasia has done (though I don't remember Pastor Weedon doing so before he tagged her! :-)

So, here goes:

1. I grew up in the state of Oregon ("Or'-e-gun" not "O-ree-gone'"!) and lived in that beautiful state until I moved away to go to seminary. Unofficially, I belong to the "Society of Native Oregon Born" (S.N.O.B.)! :-) I sure miss "God's country" (especially during horrendously hot and humid St. Louis summers!), and I hope to get back there someday for more than just a vacation visit.

2. I am the only clergy-type in my family, so that makes me the hands down candidate for "black sheep" of the family! :-) My dad was a civil engineer, and my mom did clerical work for math professors at a university. They're both happily retired now.

3. God has blessed me with a beautiful and gracious wife (she has to be gracious with me around!) and with two bright, intelligent, caring teenage children (okay, sometimes that "caring" part and that "teenage" part don't always appear simultaneously! ;-). I love them all very much.

4. I adore my beagle boys, Porthos and Gimli. They are fitting successors to our former beagle, Shadow (that's a tribute for another blog post someday).

5. My favorite sports teams include the St. Louis Rams (even when they don't do well), and the Portland Trailblazers (ditto!). (Did someone say "theology of the cross"? ... 'cause there sure aint no "theology of glory" with either team!)

6. I love to read and learn and grow, especially in the areas of theology and church history, and always wish I had more time to do all three. Why is it that there are so many good books and so little time?

7. And, saving the best for last, I am incredibly grateful (and often ineffably so) that our gracious God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - has seen fit to rescue the likes of me from sin, death, and the devil through the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. And I constantly pray that somehow, purely by His merciful working, He will lead us Christians to swallow our sinful pride so that we can mend the rifts in Christendom and present a united witness for the life of the world.

Now that I've been "it" and given my seven truths of life, I'll tag Pastor Christopher Hall and Pastor Tim May. Let's see what seven true things you can tell us about yourselves!

19 October 2007

This just in...

...high drama in the St. Louis Domestic Court (we think :-):

A seven-year old boy was at the center of a St Louis County court room drama yesterday when he challenged a court ruling over who should have custody of him. The boy has a history of being beaten by his parents and the judge initially awarded custody to his aunt, in keeping with child custody law and regulation requiring that family unity be maintained to the highest degree possible.

The boy surprised the court when he proclaimed that his aunt beat him more than his parents and he adamantly refused to live with her. When the judge then suggested that he live with his grandparents, the boy cried and said that they also beat him.

After considering the remainder of the immediate family and learning that domestic violence was apparently a way of life among them, the judge took the unprecedented step of allowing the boy to propose who should have custody of him. After two court recesses to check legal references and confer with the child welfare officials, the judge granted temporary custody to the St Louis Rams football team, whom he firmly believes are not capable of beating anyone.

18 October 2007

Homily - St. Luke, Evangelist

Here's a little something from last year as today we remember and thank God for St. Luke, the Evangelist, the physician, and the missionary companion of St. Paul.

Physician of the Soul
Luke 10:1-9

On this day the Church commemorates St. Luke the Evangelist. He wrote the Gospel account that carries his name, and he wrote the sequel that we know as the Book of Acts. In his first book St. Luke did his historical research and interviewed eyewitnesses to tell “all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up” (Acts 1:1-2). In his second book St. Luke records how the Holy Spirit began leading the Church into all truth (Jn. 16:13) by making the apostles “witnesses [of Jesus] in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). As St. Luke gives us the life of Jesus and the life of the Church, he shows us that he is God’s gift as a physician of the soul.

We know from the Bible that St. Luke was not a Jew, but a Gentile. He was also a physician, schooled in the medical arts. In the Book of Acts St. Luke shows up as a companion and missionary partner of St. Paul. When others had abandoned St. Paul, St. Luke remained faithful and brought comfort to the apostle.

According to Church Tradition St. Luke was born in the town of Antioch in the country of Syria. This is also the city where the followers of Christ were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26), and there were probably quite a few Christians there at that time. Church Tradition also says that Doctor Luke heard about Christ and traveled to hear the message of salvation from the lips of the Savior. And while Holy Scripture doesn’t name the 72 preachers whom Jesus sent out, Tradition says that Dr. Luke may have been one of them. And it may very well be that Dr. Luke was also one of the two disciples whom Jesus met on the road to Emmaus and taught after His resurrection. At that point Dr. Luke certainly would have learned that it was “necessary that the Christ should suffer [death and resurrection] and enter into his glory” (Lk. 24:26).

When it came to writing his Gospel account, many in the Church have held that St. Luke learned the details of Christ’s life and saving work from St. Paul and even from the Virgin Mary. And in addition to writing the Gospel and the Book of Acts, St. Luke is said to have preached the Gospel in various countries and suffered martyrdom in the city of Thebes.

So while we do not gather to worship St. Luke, we do thank God for this great physician of the soul. We do honor him for faithfully proclaiming the Great Physician, Jesus Christ Himself. It’s because of St. Luke that we have the beloved account of the Holy Spirit coming to the Virgin Mary to announce the Birth of the Savior. It’s because of St. Luke that we get to hear the Christmas story every year and learn how the Son of God became Man to restore us to God’s image. It’s because of St. Luke that we learn many parables of Jesus and how He, the Lord of Life is the Good Samaritan who rescues us from our death of sin on the side of the road. It’s because of St. Luke that we learn to trust God our Father who welcomes us prodigal sinners back into His family and puts on us the robe of Christ’s righteousness. It’s because of St. Luke that we can rejoice in Jesus as our atoning sacrifice, saying “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” And it’s because of St. Luke that our hearts can burn within us as we know and receive the risen Lord “in the breaking of the bread.” These things that Jesus began to do and to teach are the healing medicine for our souls, and St. Luke, the doctor of the Gospel, delivers the soothing balm.

It’s also because of St. Luke that we can rejoice in the Church and the Holy Spirit coming to give us Life with God. Just as the Spirit breathed life into the Apostles to proclaim the forgiveness of Christ, even in the face of opposition and persecution, He also breathes life into us to “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of [our] sins” and to “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

The Higher Things devotion for today invites us to thank the Lord for St. Luke. Here’s how it reads:

“Thank the Lord for St. Luke! He is one of the men that the Holy Spirit used to publish the Good News of Jesus to the ends of the earth. St. Luke carefully listens to the eyewitnesses of Jesus birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension. St. Luke is used by the Holy Spirit to write down for us the Good News of Jesus' life and death in our place. He records Jesus' words and work, which the Lord spoke and did for our salvation. St. Luke, in the Gospel that bears his name, has given us a record of the salvation accomplished by Jesus for us.

“Thank the Lord for St. Luke! He didn't just stop at the cross or grave. He didn't end his writing with salvation accomplished. He also recorded salvation delivered! St. Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. In this book, he records the preaching of Jesus by the apostles, the conversions of Jews and Gentiles, and the ministry of St. Paul, who brought the Gospel of Christ to the very heart of the Roman Empire. In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit, through the writing of St. Luke, teaches us God's grace in saving us through the preaching of the Holy Gospel, through Holy Baptism, and through the Lord's Supper. The Holy Spirit teaches us what the church is and how He has founded it: upon the preaching and teaching of Christ by the apostles.

“Thank the Lord for St. Luke! The Gospel that bears his name and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles are the Lord's gifts to us so that we may hear the Good News of salvation in Jesus and be pointed to where that salvation is given to us in His holy, Christian Church. Thank the Lord for St. Luke! In the Name of Jesus. Amen.”

17 October 2007

St. Ignatius of Antioch, Pastor and Martyr

Today the Lutheran Service Book calendar commemorates Ignatius of Antioch, as does the Roman calendar. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church gives Ignatius’ dates as c. 35-c. 107. According to Origen, Ignatius was the second Bishop of Antioch, succeeding St. Peter, but according to Eusebius, Ignatius was the third Bishop of Antioch, succeeding Peter’s successor, Euodius, c. 69.

St. Ignatius is best known for his seven letters written to various churches and for his journey to Rome to be executed for confessing Christ Jesus. In his letters he gives wonderful testimony to the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ and to the blessings of harmony and unity in the Church. In fact, in the mind of St. Ignatius, these two things – living in the grace of Christ and living united and harmoniously in the Church – go hand in glove. Here are some selected snippets as we remember St. Ignatius this day:

Glorifying Christ by being united

“It is proper, therefore, in every way to glorify Jesus Christ, who has glorified you, so that you, joined together in a united obedience and subject to the bishop and the presbytery, may be sanctified in every respect” (To the Ephesians, 2).

“For Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the mind of the Father, just as the bishops appointed throughout the world are the mind of Christ” (To the Ephesians, 3).

“Thus it is proper for you to act together in harmony with the mind of the bishop, as you are in fact doing. For your presbytery, which is worthy of its name and worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop as strings to a lyre. Therefore in your unanimity and harmonious love Jesus Christ is sung. You must join this chorus, every one of you, so that by being harmonious in unanimity and taking your pitch from God you may sing in unison with one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father, in order that he may both hear you and, on the basis of what you do well, acknowledge that you are members of his Son. It is, therefore advantageous for you to be in perfect unity, in order that you may always have a share in God” (To the Ephesians, 4).

“I was doing my part, therefore, as a man set on unity. But God does not dwell where there is division and anger. The Lord, however, forgives all who repent, if in repenting they return to the unity of God and the council of the bishop. I believe in the grace of Jesus Christ, who will free you from every bond. Moreover, I urge you to do nothing in a spirit of contentiousness, but in accordance with the teaching of Christ” (To the Philadelphians, 7-8).

Necessity of being in the House of God

“Let no one be misled: if anyone is not within the sanctuary, he lacks the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two has such power, how much more that of the bishop together with the whole church! Therefore whoever does not meet with the congregation thereby demonstrates his arrogance and has separated himself…” (To the Ephesians, 5).

“Therefore make every effort to come together more frequently to give thanks and glory to God. For when you meet together frequently, the powers of Satan are overthrown and his destructiveness is nullified by the unanimity of your faith” (To the Ephesians, 13).

“Continue to gather together, each and every one of you, collectively and individually by name, in grace, in one faith and one Jesus Christ, who physically was a descendant of David, who is Son of man and Son of God, in order that you may obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undisturbed mind, breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die but to live forever in Jesus Christ” (To the Ephesians, 20).

The Gospel of Life

“Be deaf, therefore, whenever anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, who was the son of Mary; who really was born, who both ate and drank; who really was persecuted under Pontius Pilate, who really was crucified and died while those in heaven and on earth and under the earth looked on; who, moreover, really was raised from the dead when his Father raised him up—his Father, that is—in the same way will likewise also raise us up in Christ Jesus who believe in him, apart from whom we have no true life” (To the Trallians, 9).

Hunger and Thirst for Christ and His Meal

“I take no pleasure in corruptible food or the pleasures of this life. I want the bread of God, which is the flesh of Christ who is of the seed of David; and for drink I want his blood, which is incorruptible love” (To the Romans, 7).

“Take care, therefore, to participate in one Eucharist (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup which leads to unity through his blood; there is one altar, just as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow servants), in order that whatever you do, you do in accordance with God” (To the Philadelphians, 4).

(All quotes taken from The Apostolic Fathers, Second Edition, translated by J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, Baker, 1989.)

14 October 2007

And let me properly introduce...

...Gimli (left, with blue collar) and Porthos (right, with red collar), as they patiently wait for their favorite time of day: meal time.

Doggedly Determined

So last week I was playing around with my two favorite Beagles (okay, they were playing and I decided to butt in on their fun :-).

Just for the record, their names are Porthos (red collar) and Gimli (blue collar), and, yes, they are actual brothers, or litter mates. The name "Porthos," of course, comes from the Three Musketeers (but I must admit that we stole the idea from Star Trek: Enterprise, in which Captain Jonathan Archer's beagle is named Porthos). The name "Gimli," of course, comes from the entertaining dwarf in Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" Trilogy. (Hey, we wanted to be original! :-)

So, I joined my dogs at play, when they were wrestling each other and chasing each other over a milk jug. (Recyclables are great...and inexpensive...toys! A bit like the hours of fun my brothers and I had with the cardboard box that the new refrigerator came in, I suppose.) Well, Porthos and Gimli weren't just going to let me take their new favorite toy away! And they kind of add new meaning to "doggedly determined," as you can see here (yes, they are hanging about 8-9 inches off the floor!).

Luther on Becoming and Healing

This is one of my absolute favorite quotes from Martin Luther:

“This life is not godliness, but growth in godliness; not health, but healing; 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 has begun; this is not the goal, but it is road; at present all does not gleam and glitter, but everything is being purified.”

Martin Luther,
“A Defense and Explanation of All Articles”
(AE 32:24).

Homily - Trinity 19

(A little "sanitive lingo" for Pastor Weedon! :-)

Healing by Forgiving
Matthew 9:1-8

The Bible commentator F. Dale Brunner summed up our Gospel reading quite well. He said, “To forgive a person is to enable a person to move.” Today Jesus shows us how He forgives us and heals us from our paralysis of sin. That authority to forgive sins is given by God to His Son, and by Christ Jesus to His Church on earth. Yes, forgiveness of sins happens right here on earth, and God has given such authority to men.

As Jesus sits in a house teaching God’s Word, the crowd around Him packs the house, eagerly hearing His words. When four friends bring their paralyzed pal to hear Jesus and be healed by Him, they cannot get in to see Jesus. So they go up to the roof, tear a hole in the roof, and lower their friend on his cot right in front of Jesus. Remember, the paralyzed man cannot move. He cannot by his own reason or strength come to Jesus Christ.

But Jesus does notice the faith of the man’s four friends. They are the Church. They know that Jesus heals by forgiving, and they want Jesus to grant His forgiving healing to their friend. Now, that’s true evangelism! They bring another person paralyzed by sin into the presence of Jesus to be healed by His forgiveness. And Jesus does just that. He heals the man by saying, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” That’s it.

That’s it?! Where’s the actual healing? Doesn’t Jesus know that first you take care of the physical problem, and then, only after that, can you address the spiritual problem? Doesn’t He know that you can’t get too spiritual with people too quickly? Doesn’t He know that you have to lure people in by some other enticement, and then, only then, can you give them the real stuff about Jesus and His Gospel?

Actually, here’s what Jesus knows. He knows that any physical problem, any mental problem, any psychological, emotional, or social problems, are merely the symptoms. The real root disease is the paralysis of sin and death, the paralysis of being separated from God. Jesus also knows that His forgiveness is the only real cure for that paralysis. “To forgive a person is to enable a person to move.” Jesus knows that when you start with and focus on forgiving sins, that’s the best way to help and heal other people.

When Jesus freely and fully forgives the paralyzed man, the religious people have a fit. They grumble among themselves. “This man is blaspheming,” they say. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mk. 2:7). You see, all they could detect in Jesus was a mere Man. Oh, they were fine with God forgiving sins up in heaven. But here on earth? A human being actually forgiving and absolving another human being? Well, that was just out of the question! “Only God can forgive sins!” they would say.

That’s the way we work too, isn’t it? We look at our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church, and they practice that thing called “going to Confession.” We squirm at the notion of confessing our sins to another human being. We revolt at the notion of another human being saying, “I forgive you your sins,” especially in a private, person-to-person setting. But when we squirm and revolt, remember that we squirm and revolt against Jesus and His healing of forgiveness. When we squirm and revolt, we merely show our paralysis—our paralysis of sin, our paralysis of pride. We are so paralyzed by being curved in on ourselves that confessing our sins seems so repulsive.

When St. Augustine was near death, he begged one of his friends to paint on the wall opposite his bed the words of Psalm 32: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Ps. 32:1-2). Ah, there’s nothing more precious than clinging to God’s forgiveness in Christ Jesus! Augustine knew it. The paralyzed man knew it too.

When Jesus forgives and heals the paralyzed man, His healing also sends a message. If the Son of Man can heal – and people knew He could – then it proves that He can also forgive sins on earth. God truly has given such authority to the Man Christ Jesus!

So Jesus asks the religious types: “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? At first we might say that saying “Your sins are forgiven” is easier. After all, when we hear those words we don’t see any physical or social change. Perhaps we get used to hearing them, and we don’t treasure them. Perhaps we tune them out because we hear them so often. Truth be told, we’d rather see that other person shape up his/her act before we forgive yet again. That’s our paralysis. At least if someone says, “Rise and walk,” we can see if it works. If the man gets up and walks, then we know we have a great healer in our midst. If nothing happens, then we know we have a quack.

But is forgiveness really that easy? We might want to say, “Pastor, Jesus is God, and God can forgive.” But the religious types only saw a Man. Besides that, what really brings our forgiveness? Is it the fact that Jesus is true God? If so, then why did He choose to suffer and die such a bloody death? No, forgiveness is very hard! It comes at a great price. It cost Jesus His very life. He suffered rejection and torture. He suffered the paralysis of hanging lifeless on the Cross and lying dead in the tomb. That’s what brings forgiveness. God in Christ loved you, His neighbor, by dying for you to forgive you. And then, on the third day, He rose again to bring His life, His healing, His immortality to light.

That forgiveness heals your paralysis. And now Jesus gives you, His Church, that authority to forgive sins. “To forgive a person is to enable a person to move.” Jesus authorizes you, His healed, forgiven people, to heal others by proclaiming Christ’s forgiveness to them.

And just how does Jesus dispense His cross-won forgiveness? The same way He did for the paralyzed man. He speaks His words of Absolution. Many people think that Lutherans don’t “believe in” Confession and Absolution. Actually, I say it’s the best-kept secret among Lutherans. Yes, we Lutherans actually do teach and prize “going to Confession.” You see, when you go to Confession, you receive the precious treasure and healing of Jesus’ cross-won forgiveness.

The Small Catechism (V:1) says it this way: “What is Confession? Confession has two parts. First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.” Our Augsburg Confession (XI:1) says it this way: “It is taught among us that private absolution should be retained and not allowed to fall into disuse.”

So, when was the last time you went to Confession? When was the last time you sought out your pastor to hear your confession and to pronounce Christ’s forgiveness to you? I know, you can certainly confess your sins privately at home. That’s true, but what do you hear in response? Remember, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). The paralyzed man did not just imagine himself healed. He heard the words of Jesus. Those words forgave and healed him. Such is the authority that Jesus gives to His Church and her ministers. As the hymn says,

“The words which absolution give
Are His who died that we might live;
The minister whom Christ has sent
Is but His humble instrument.

"When ministers lay on their hands
Absolved by Christ the sinner stands;
He who by grace the Word believes
The purchase of His blood receives.” (LSB 614:5-6). Amen.

11 October 2007

Theology of i-Fruit

Apple Computer is certainly making a mint as it sells us those ever-present and oh-so-popular "i"-gadgets - i-Macs, i-Pods, and most recently i-Phones. And once a person heeds the call of wisdom and switches to using a Macintosh computer (as I recently have :-), Apple's "i"-centered world expands greatly in the software - iTunes, iCal, iChat, iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, iLife, and iWeb.

Could there be a theological point hiding in these "i"-gadgets and "i"-programs?

The comic strip "Mother Goose and Grimm" may very well have hit upon a theological message. Whether it intended to or not, I don't know, but I can't resist pointing it out. You can see the MGG strip from 9/7/07 at the archive section of the MGG website - www.grimmy.com. (Click here and select the strip for 09/07/07.)

The strip shows Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve hands an apple to a puzzled-looking Adam and says, "It's the latest thing from Apple...it's called an i-Fruit."

Now I never would have seen this, had not a former member sent it in her regular mailing of comic strips to our church office. I probably wouldn't have thought much of it, had not I just taken the plunge into the new, invigorating world of Apple's gadgets and software. And I certainly would never put down the way cool computers, gadgets, and software of Apple!

However, "i-Fruit" most certainly captures the ego-centered seeds and self-serving fruits of the Garden of Eden! Once Adam and Eve took their bites from the forbidden fruit, their eyes were opened to see themselves in the place of God - to be "like God." Instead of focusing their fear, love, and trust - as they were created to do - on the blessed Holy Trinity, human beings would instead focus their lives on a not-so-holy trinity - Me, Myself, and I. The seeds of "i-Fruit."

From those first bites of that single forbidden fruit have come bushels and bushels of pains, illnesses, hurts, broken relationships, diseases, disappointments, destruction, devastated lives, and even death itself. All because human beings - Adam, Eve, and we ourselves - are so focused on "Me, Myself, and I." As Luther expressed it, sin is being "curved in on oneself." "i-Fruit."

For this reason, I thank God that He did not leave us to wallow in the fruits of our "i-Fruit"! When the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, took on our human flesh and blood, He was certainly not curved in on Himself. No, He directed His full attention to His Father and His equally full attention to us - to healing us from the poisons of our "i-Fruit", to "un-curving" us so that we can love the God who first loves us.

As we trust and rest in the forgiveness that our Lord Christ has won on the Cross and gives in His Gospel and Sacraments, we are given a new fruit - the juicy, sweet fruit of His eternal life. That fruit and that life help us take our eyes off of ourselves and put them on God and on our neighbor. As our Lord teaches us in Matthew 22, our lives are best lived - indeed, designed to be lived - as we love God above all things and love our neighbor as ourselves. No mention of loving self. No mention of "i-Fruit." Now that is a different, more salutary kind of fruit!

So, one way to enjoy these wonderful gadgets and programs from Apple may be to just ignore that little "i" in front of them. Certainly the best way to enjoy the life that our God gives us is to ignore that little "i" in ourselves - at least as much as God in His grace and forgiveness enables and strengthens us to do so. Life is best lived with faith in God and in love toward those around us.

As for truly enjoying my Apple gadgets and programs, well, I'll just keep in mind that the Bible doesn't say that the fruit in the Garden was an apple - it just says, "fruit." And as for the bite taken out of the apple in the Apple logo? Well, let's just remember that both Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit - and that means at least two bites. :-)