31 January 2008

All You Works of the Lord...

You dews and frost, bless the Lord;
you frost and cold, bless the Lord;
you ice and snow, bless the Lord:
Praise Him and magnify Him forever. (LSB 931:5)

What a wonderful blessing our gracious Lord and God has sent the St. Louis area: SNOW! At last a winter storm we can be proud of (at least for a day or two, until it melts off in this crazy, up and down St. Louis weather)! Some may fear such a phenomenon (watch out for many St. Louis drivers on snowy days), others may not like playing in it very much (see Pr. Weedon's blog - but I'll give him a break since he was probably returning home from, and thus properly fatigued from, celebrating The Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord two days early :-), however, I love it! Here are some pictures from my neck of the woods on this glorious snowy evening (Oh yeah, did I mention the snow day we get tomorrow? No school, and a relaxed pace for getting things done...or having snow ball fights, etc.!).

The parsonage at Hope. (The church is to the left, across the parking lot.)

A cool view of the side doors into the church at Hope.

The side of the church, across "our" parking lot from the parsonage (Yes, it's "our" parking lot, and we loan it to the church for those who come for services and other activities. :-)

Gimli after playing in the snow for a while. (Just before the picture was taken, he had a much fuller "snow mustache" on his whiskers.)

Porthos sporting some snow tossed on him by my daughter.

And a favorite snow day tradition in our home: "snow ice cream" (made with milk, vanilla, and sugar mixed in).

Pastor Why...? - Gospel Processions

In the January 2008 edition of my congregation's newsletter, The Hope Lutheran, I began a regular column designed to instruct readers on why we Christians worship the way we do, dealing with some of the "nuts and bolts" of the various things we say and do in the liturgy, whether Sunday after Sunday or as the liturgical seasons change. It's intended to be a sort of "Liturgical Question Box" that gives me the opportunity to teach the flock on specific details of our corporate worship. I hope that it will give a greater appreciation for what we do in the liturgy and why we do it, and especially for how our various liturgical words and deeds draw our attention to Jesus Christ, the Author and Perfecter of our faith.

I've decided to post such questions and answers here for the same purposes of instructing and edifying, but also for any good discussion that may result. This forum will also give me the opportunity to write up a question and answer when I think of it. So, here's the first installment of "Pastor, Why...?"

This month I begin a regular “side-bar” column dealing with things we do in our weekly worship. Since the Divine Service and our corporate prayers (such as Matins and Evening Prayer) are the living, beating heart of our life together as God’s redeemed people, it always helps to know and appreciate why we Christians worship the way we do. Our liturgical texts and actions carry great meaning as we receive our Lord’s gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus Christ. After all, they shape and mold us as God’s holy people. So, look for this regular feature to address the “whats” and the “whys” of our weekly worship. And if there’s something specific that you would like to learn about, please feel free to jot it down, in a note or an email (And be sure to ask “Pastor, why…?” with eagerness to learn! ☺), give or send it to me directly, and I’ll do my best to address it in an upcoming edition of “Pastor, Why…?” Now, our first installment:

Pastor, why do you sometimes read the Gospel reading from the center aisle?
At certain high points of the Church Year (Christmas, Easter and its season, and other festivals) we have a “Gospel Procession.” The pastor and his assistants process down the center aisle with the cross and the Gospel book to the middle of the congregation, where the Gospel for the day is read. This liturgical action symbolizes the Word of God, Jesus Christ, coming into our midst in His words and actions. The “Gospel Procession” also highlights the Gospel reading as the high point, or climax, of the Service of the Word. Hearing the words and works of our Lord Jesus is the focal point of the first part of the Divine Service. The “Gospel Procession” adds some healthy ceremony to heighten our hearing of God’s saving works for us.

30 January 2008

A Meme

It appears that I have been tagged by Pr. Hall with a little blogosphere fun. Here are the rules that he gives:

1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

The closest book to me at this moment is “The Augustine Catechism: The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love.” (You’re probably glad that it doesn’t happen to be the “24” novel that I began just the other evening! Everyone needs a little lighter reading, after all. ☺) Let’s see how this goes.

The first sentence on page 123 (actually beginning on p. 122 - remember theologians like to say a lot in one sentence! ☺) runs the first half of the page (no kidding!), and the fifth sentence carries over to page 124. So, stretching the rules just a bit, here are the three sentences that follow on page 124:
“Therefore it is here that we accrue all the merit or demerit that can either support a person or weigh him down. But nobody should hope to gain in the sight of the Lord after death what he has neglected here. So the customs of the Church in praying for the dead are not contrary to the mind of the apostle who said For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil (2 Cor 5:10); for even the possibility of benefiting from them was won by each person while living in the body.”
(Disclaimer: Since I’m only about half way through the book, I find this quite interesting, though I don’t know the context leading up to it. So, now I’m anxious to speed up my reading to see what St. Augustine is talking about here! ☺)

BTW, what is "a meme"?

Now, I’ll tag these five: Pr. Cwirla, Priestman, Pr. Fish, L P Cruz, and Fr. John.

29 January 2008

Lucrative Shut-in Calls?

I really do love visiting the sick and shut-in in my congregation, just on principle. I didn't just vow to do this in my ordination; I really do enjoy it too! Not only does it get me away from my desk and the various paper shuffling duties of writing newsletter articles and editing the weekly bulletins and so on, but it keeps me "in touch" with members of the flock. Most of all, I love being able to bring Jesus to the shut-ins via His Gospel and Sacraments. What a joy to give the life-giving, sin-forgiving Body and Blood of Christ through the week!

On top of all that, shut-in calls can be quite "lucrative" on occasion! Several shut-in members will often send their offering to the church back with me. Yes, it's great to see their commitment to their congregation even though they can't usually attend Divine Services. Occasionally, one or two decide they want to give the pastor a little gift. (For a while I protested, but then decided that I didn't want to insult or hurt them by refusing their generosity!)

Today's visits proved quite "lucrative" in another way, though! Well, okay, only one visit. Not only did this gentleman send his offering for the church back with me, but for the second straight time he insisted that I take several pieces of really good chocolate for myself and my family. (Okay, I'll admit it, I'm trying hide this batch from the teenagers in my house! ;-) However, this time, this particular shut-in member really out did himself. He also insisted (yes, insisted!) that I take home a bottle of 12 year old Glenlivet Single Malt Scotch!!! (No, I'm not kidding!)

Who says that parishioners no longer "pay" their pastors with necessary food stuffs? :-) All I know is that I'm being treated much better than I deserve! :-)

And on a related note…

...this blurb will appear in my congregation's February 2008 newsletter:

The court date for the case to challenge the biased and misleading ballot title certified by the Secretary of State and the State Auditor is set for February 20, 2008. Once the case is settled, signatures will have to be collected quickly to meet the May 5th deadline of approximately 150,000 valid signatures. For more information visit www.nocloning.org or the new blog mocureswithoutcloning.blogspot.com. Please pray that the court would see the truth and not allow the deceptive language. Please pray for God’s direction and blessing on the pro-life efforts.

Lutherans for Life is hosting a training session at Christ Memorial Lutheran Church which would enable you to obtain petition signatures for the “Cures Without Cloning” initiative. Missourians Against Cloning is working to have the initiative on the November ’08 ballot to amend the MO constitution to ban cloning. The “class” will meet on Feb. 12 from 7:00 – 7:45 pm. Anyone is welcome.

Here's A "Must Read"...

...and a "must add" to your favorite, most-visited blogs! I just came across a new blog - started in December 2007, for the group "Missouri Cures without Cloning." As you may recall, the 2006 elections gave Missouri a horrendous constitutional amendment that supports "embryonic stem cell research" - that is, the practice of harvesting human embryos - a.k.a. little human lives! - for the purpose garnering their stem cells with the distant hopes that someday some cure for some disease may eventually be discovered. Well, now pro-life Missourians are trying to reverse this unethical, immoral amendment. You can find out more about the issue in general and the specific progress of "Missouri Cures without Cloning" here. Looks like a lot of good and helpful information, and I've only scratched the surface.

Please bookmark the blog, add it to your Bloglines feeds, and tell others about it!

Here's their inaugural greeting and message from 12/4/07:

Welcome to the Missouri Cures Without Cloning blog!

We've designed this blog to bring you regular updates of our efforts to enact a common sense prohibition on human cloning in Missouri.

Who are we?

Missouri Cures Without Cloning is a coalition of concerned Missouri citizens, doctors, and academics have launched an initiative petition effort to close a loophole in Missouri law that allows for human cloning in Missouri.

Cures Without Cloning seeks to:

  • Prohibit human cloning.
  • Continue to search for cures and treatments using ethical stem cell research.
  • Prohibit tax-payer money from being used for human cloning experiments.

To learn more about us, please visit http://www.mocureswithoutcloning.com/.

Be sure to check back soon!

27 January 2008

Homily - Sexagesima

A Tale of Two Seeds
Luke 8:4-15

Our Lord Jesus tells us a parable about a farmer who went out to sow his seed. Then, after He tells us about the different kinds of soils that receive that seed, our Lord tells us what that singular seed is: the Word of God. But before we go any further, it might help to realize that this familiar tale really deals with two different and opposite seeds. At its heart this Parable of the Sower is truly a tale of, not one, but two seeds.

What do I mean by that? Let’s go back to the beginning, to Creation itself. As Johann Gerhard said, “In His Creation, God the Lord not only made the earth fruitful with various and multitudinous seeds, but He also sowed a noble Seed into the heart of the first two people—it was, of course, the image of God” (Postilla, 199). God’s image – that was the first seed that our gracious Lord sowed in Adam and Eve. Gerhard continued: “From this Seed within their hearts there was supposed to sprout up and grow forth the noble fruits of divine knowledge, as well as a perfect love for, and heartfelt praise to, God. Indeed, the fruit of eternal life was to grow forth from this Seed in their heart” (Postilla, 199). Not only were Adam and Eve perfect in that they had no sin or death, but they would also sprout, blossom, and grow to be more perfect in loving and worshiping the God who loved and created them.

But something insidious happened. The serpent slithered into God’s noble creation and sowed his own seed. Let’s call it the serpentine-seed. Through the serpent’s seduction, Adam and Eve rebelled against their loving God. The serpentine-seed of pride and unbelief sprouted and blossomed into the poisonous fruits of rebellion, stubbornness, fear, self-absorption, self-indulgence, hatred, and even death. And this is the seed with which all of us are born. We inherit this serpentine-seed from our parents, and they from their parents, all the way back to our first parents. In fact, when each of us is born – when any little baby is born – this harmful serpentine-seed lies hidden, just waiting to sprout forth with its prickly, bitter fruits of stubbornness, disobedience, lies, rage, pride, disregard of parents, lewd, crude words and deeds, self-indulgence, and so on. Yes, we inherit these serpentine-seeds from our first parents, and we pass them on to our children, to our seed.

Now we know – yes, even we city slickers – that a small seed packs a powerful punch as it grows into, say, a large tree. A little acorn turns into a mighty oak tree complete with limbs, branches, leaves, and, yes, the fruit of more acorns – more of its own kind of fruit. That’s also the way the serpentine-seed works. It started out as a small acorn of believing the lie that “you shall be like God” (Gen. 3:5). Now it has become the huge tree of a fallen humanity intent on ignoring God, always trying to refashion God in its own image, and every individual thinking, in one way or another, that he or she is equivalent to God.

However, our gracious and merciful God did not want His human creatures to perish. He never has and never will. So He planted a second Seed, a divine Seed – His beloved Son – in order to overcome the poisonous serpentine-seed. Right after the fall into sin, He sowed the seed of His Gospel promise. The Seed of the woman would conquer the seed of the serpent. In fact, the Divine Seed born of the woman would stomp on and crush the serpent’s head. And like a seed planted in cold winter soil, the seed of God’s Gospel promise lay dormant for many centuries, waiting for the warmth and moisture of spring to begin sprouting, growing, and coming to fruition. And all the while, all through the centuries, God made sure that His Divine Seed would come to fruition. God’s saving Seed would come from the offspring, the seed, of Abraham, and God would bless all peoples through Him. God would raise up for King David an offspring, a seed, Who would establish an eternal kingdom with an eternal place of worship.

Then, finally, the warm, fruitful spring of God’s saving plan came. He sowed His Divine Seed – His beloved Son – in the world as He was conceived and born of the Virgin Mary. Our Lord Jesus recklessly scattered the seeds of His teaching, His grace, and His mercy as He walked and talked among us, as He healed many, and as He endured the scrutiny of all poisoned by the serpentine-seed. But most of all, our Lord, the Divine Seed, was planted into the ground of this world in His suffering and death on a cross. As Jesus said just days before He went to the cross: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:24). And just look at the fruit! Look at the great, mighty tree of life that sprouted and blossomed and now bears fruit in His Resurrection!

And God’s Divine Seed of a Savior brings forth fruit of His own kind in us. Yes, the Seed of the Word made flesh is planted in us and makes us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). That is, the Son of God is planted in us and makes us children of God. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2). Yes, God has re-sowed and re-planted the Seed of His image in us. From this Seed come the fruits of hungering and thirsting for God, of perfect love for Him, and of heartfelt praise to Him. From this Seed come the fruits of confessing our sins and receiving His full, free, cross-won forgiveness.

Now the question is: How do you and how will you receive this Divine Seed that your Savior plants in you? It’s a good question to ponder just ten short days before Lent begins. Will you receive the Divine Seed from your Savior as the first soil – the hard, footpath soil – just letting it bounce off, just letting Satan gobble it up before it can work in you to change you and bear fruit in you? Watch out that you don’t merely hear the Message of Christ outwardly, but inwardly that Seed bounces off due to a hardened heart.

Or will you hear the Divine Seed as the second kind of soil – the shallow, rocky soil – letting the Seed penetrate and take root, but then letting it wither and die when the heat of trials comes your way? Remember this, though. Just as seeds in the ground need the sun’s warmth to grow, so also God makes His Divine Seed grow and bear fruit with the heat of temptations and trials. As St. Peter said: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:12-13).

Or will you hear and receive the Divine Seed as the third soil – the one with thorn-bushes in it – receiving it with joy, but then letting worldly cares and pleasures and the anxieties of our hectic lives choke out the life that God gives in His Seed? Watch out for those prickly thorns of worldly success and wealth, and all of the ways that the world makes you anxious by compelling you to consume your time with whether you have the right insurance, the best computer, the coolest cell phone, the newest car, and so on. Yes, our hearts need to be rescued from such prickly thorns.

In fact, our Lord Jesus is also the Divine Sower who prepares us to receive the Divine Seed of His image and life. He plows up the hardened soil of our hearts. He breaks up the rocky soil so that His love and life can penetrate more deeply. He rescues us from the prickly, choking thorns, so that His life can grow in us. That’s why Lent draws our attention away from ourselves and places it squarely on things like Baptism and Confession, on hearing the Divine Seed and praying to our God.

You see, your Lord Jesus wants to make you the good soil, so that you can receive His life and forgiveness with joy, but also so that you can sprout and grow, endure and persevere, and blossom and bear fruit, now and into eternity. So, come to the Table where your Lord will plant Himself in you yet again. Come, receive the Divine Seed of His image that He gives in His Body and Blood, and let it bear abundant fruit in you in faith toward Him and fervent love toward one another. Come, receive the Image of Him who overcame the serpentine-seed. Come, receive the Seed of His forgiveness and life, and let Him bring forth His fruit of love, mercy, and life in you. Amen.

26 January 2008

St. Titus, Pastor and Confessor

For the third day in a row Lutheran Service Book gives us a festival relating to the Office of the Holy Ministry. First came St. Timothy (24 January), then came the Conversion of St. Paul (25 January). Today it's St. Titus, another young pastor recruited by St. Paul. Here are some reflections on the readings for this feast day:

Acts 20:28-35
The first reading for today gives us St. Paul's exhortation to pastors (shepherds) in general: "Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood" (v. 28). The shepherd's job is simply and faithfully to care for the Good Shepherd's blood-bought flock, feeding the lambs on the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That sounds simple enough, until we read on to discover the real challenge of the the Office. Fierce wolves, a.k.a. false teachers, self-serving preachers, etc., will insert themselves into the flock of the Church. They will come from without and within. The latter - the fierce wolves that come from within the Church - may be the more dangerous. You see, such fierce wolves speak twisted things, things that sound true, Scriptural, or churchly, but things that draw attention away from the Good Shepherd. Why? Because those wolves really want to draw away the lambs after themselves. Watch out for the personality cults of any shape, size, or stripe. Watch out for those who are more "effective leaders" than they are faithful shepherds. Watch out for those who receive the accolades of being "a godly man" while they say very little about the God-Man who lived, died, and rose again to redeem the flock from the clutches of sin, death, and the devil. Instead, as St. Paul directs our attention, look to "God and the word of his grace," because that "is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified" (v. 32). Thank God for the true "godly men," faithful pastors and confessors, because they will be the ones that tell the flock, "Don't look at me; don't praise my work or my qualities! Rather, look to the true godly Man, the God-Man who actually shed His blood to cleanse you and redeem you!" The Church (flock) and her pastors (shepherds) have but one mission in life: helping those who are weak in their sin and death and remembering and proclaiming the words of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Titus 1:1-9
Now we meet St. Titus himself, through the words of the Apostle Paul. Paul greets Titus by appealing to "the faith of God's elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began" (vv. 1-2). Paul's work, and by extension Titus' work, focuses on God's eternal will for all people. The ministry and the Church are far different from - and far above - the programmatic, business-like pursuits that so often mark modern churches and 21st century pastors. The ministry and the Church get to proclaim and revel in the life of heaven here on earth - the true life that God intended from the beginning, the true life that He restores in the death and resurrection of His Son, the true life that He delivers in the Gospel proclaimed and the Sacraments given out, the true life that comes to full fruition and complete revelation on the Last Day.

This is why St. Paul left St. Titus on the island of Crete - to make it an "outpost" of eternity here on earth, a "colony" of the life of love from and with God here in the day-to-day life of battling sin, temptation, evil, self-serving, death, etc. And notice how Titus - the overseer (episkopos) - was to carry that out: by appointing elders (presbyterous) in every town. We may not have a specific command to follow this kind of church polity (a wink and a nod for those who get nervous twitches at the mere thought of a command! ;-), but we certainly have a salutary example, a description of a reality worth regaining. And then St. Paul reminds Titus and all pastors/priests of those characteristics and habits that best befit their office. My, how we clergy need that list! My, how we need the reminders - from bishops (not bureaucrats!) - to care for our wives and children (instead of being "married" to the congregation or denomination and its plethora of extracurricular activities), to be stewards of God's things, to be above reproach, humble, patient, sober, calm, and content with the crumbs that fall from the Master's table. My, how we clergy need to be hospitable, lovers of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. Most of all, my, how God's shepherds need to "hold firmly to the trustworthy word as taught," that is, to the Word made Flesh who dwelt among us long ago and still dwells among us in His Body and Blood on the Altar.

Luke 10:1-9
In this reading our Lord Jesus sends out the seventy-two to proclaim the Gospel. (Okay, some manuscripts say "seventy." Big deal! What's two more preachers of the Gospel here or there? Hey, the more the merrier! :-) Our Lord's missionaries - the ones sent by Him - go out as laborers in His field, as lambs who may very well be easy prey for vicious wolves, as men who need not worry about their wallets, their suitcases, or their shoes. After all, if God could preserve and provide for the Israelites, and their shoes did not wear out, for 40 years, He can certainly take care of His "sent ones" who proclaim His kingdom of mercy, grace, and forgiveness! Our Lord's missionaries - the ones ordered (ordained) by Him - are to imitate His ministry of healing the sick and proclaiming that the Kingdom has come...in Him. Sounds like another way of saying, "Preach the coming of Christ here and now, and bring people to the healing life of God in the Sacraments"! Some may receive it; others may not. However, the Lord's missionaries are to let Him worry about those who reject Him. He will deal with those who reject the Kingdom and its healing; His missionaries are simply to wipe the dust off their feet and move on. After all, the Kingdom of God and His healing of forgiveness, life, and salvation cannot be forced on those who insist on rejecting it. That would not be the way of Divine Love! (And neither should the message of the Kingdom and the King's healing be changed, altered, or amended so as to appeal to more masses and fill more pews. Setting that message on the shelf in the back room while we (pastors) find other ways to lure people into our churches ("missions") may very well be tantamount to not receiving the King!)

And in verses that follow the assigned reading (Luke 10:17-20), we discover that the seventy-two actually had some "success" in their mission of preaching the Kingdom (Jesus) and healing the sin-sick (Sacraments). But Jesus tells them not to let their achievements go to their heads. Yes, as they labored in His field, He "saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven"; yes, they had authority over serpents, scorpions, and all the power of the enemy. But they were not to rejoice in these things. Yes, when a faithful pastor dutifully proclaims Christ crucified and risen, when he baptizes, communes, and absolves, Satan's domain is greatly weakened and toppled. But let's not rejoice in such things that are beyond our control. Instead, let us join the seventy-two and rejoice that our names are written in heaven! Let us rejoice that our Lord Jesus makes us part of His Kingdom and grants us healing from our many sins and weaknesses, faults and failures. After all, that's the only thing we really have to proclaim and confess!

Hymn Verse
All praise for faithful pastors,
Who preached and taught Your Word;
For Timothy and Titus
True servants of their Lord.
Lord, help Your pastors nourish
The souls within their care,
So that Your Church may flourish
And all Your blessings share. (LSB 517:11)

Almighty God, You called Titus to the work of pastor and teacher. Make all shepherds of Your flock diligent in preaching Your holy Word so that the whole world may know the immeasurable riches of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

25 January 2008

Most Interesting

A few weeks ago my secretary showed me an ad in the local paper. It announced a "Roman Catholic class" led by a Roman Catholic priest at St. Paul's *Lutheran* Church in Des Peres (a suburb of St. Louis). That piqued my curiosity and interest! "Why would a sister Lutheran Church hold a class on Roman Catholicism?" I wondered.

Well, it turns out that St. Paul's regularly holds their "Institute on Theology," organized by Dr. James Voelz, for the parish and the community. This round is titled "Roman Catholicism in the Early 21st Century: Which Way under Pope Benedict XVI?" (the paper did not quite get it right! :-) and is led by Fr. Gregory Lockwood, a former LCMS pastor now Roman Catholic priest here in the St. Louis area. In fact, Fr. Lockwood is a student of Dr. Voelz and the two of them have continued and maintained their friendship and their theological conversations over the years.

Anyway, these sessions are most interesting in getting to know the Roman Catholic Church from the honest and open perspective of a Roman Catholic priest. If you are interest in partaking of these informative and thoughtful presentations, you can listen to them here, at the website of St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Des Peres, MO.

The Conversion of St. Paul

Today we thank God for the conversion of St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. Not only does his conversion story show that God can convert even the worst of sinners, but also that He can and does recruit and use just about any kind of person for the proclamation of His Gospel. Much can be said about St. Paul, his conversion, and his subsequent ministry of preaching and teaching the Truth of God in the Flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ, but here I'll simply give some reflections on the readings given for today's feast in Lutheran Service Book (p. xxii)

Acts 9:1-22
What an amazing miracle! God converts a persecutor and murderer into a believer and apostle! He who persecuted Christians - and thus also Christ Himself - is now turned around by God's grace and mercy to proclaim Christ crucified and risen for sinners. Yes, persecuting Christians is tantamount to persecuting Christ. However, God can change those who persecute His people. This gives some added insight into Jesus' command to pray for those who hate us and persecute us. After all, God still wants them in His kingdom too, and God even uses them to promote and extend His kingdom. What an amazing miracle!

And what a miracle for Ananias as well. I can't even imagine the horror he must have felt, when God told him to go to Saul. After all, he knew Saul's reputation as a persecutor and murderer. If he went to this man, would he, Ananias, be summarily arrested, handed over to the Jewish leaders, or even killed? Yet Ananias also shows the miracle of God's grace: trust in the Savior, even in the midst of perilous circumstances. And God used Ananias as His earthen vessel to proclaim the Gospel to Saul. Humanly speaking, Ananias brought the soon-to-be Apostle Paul into God's kingdom via the laying on of hands and Holy Baptism.

As a result of being filled with the gift of the Holy Spirit, St. Paul - his new name meaning "little one" - proclaimed that Jesus is the Son of God. The miracle we celebrate today is this: the man who persecuted the Church became one of its greatest proponents and Apostles. If God can do such great things for St. Paul, He can certainly free us from our pasts, no matter how sordid or shady; He can certainly liberate us from the sins and death that blinds us to His goodness and forgiveness; He can certainly use us, with all of our weaknesses, faults and foibles, to proclaim His Son and His forgiving mercy. What an amazing miracle!

Galatians 1:11-24
Here St. Paul relates more about his ongoing conversion, if you will. The amazing miracle of Acts 9, the divinely given revelation of Jesus the Son of God, is followed by yet more learning and growing. The Apostle was certainly called by God's grace, but I would sure like to know what he did and learned when he went away into Arabia. What did the Apostle learn and study for those three years before he went up to Jerusalem to visit Peter? I'd like to think it was a time of prayer and study on how this crucified Jesus truly is the Son of God, the King of kings, the Lord of lords. Whatever happened, the great thing about Paul's conversion is that "He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy." Because of this, God was glorified!

Matthew 19:27-30
On this day when we thank God for His gift of a persecutor turned Apostle, we also get to hear what our Lord told Peter about leaving all to follow Him. When Peter wanted to hold on to a little something that he had done for Jesus - leaving everything and following Him - Jesus reminds him, and us, that "everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life." We need not fear losing all this side of eternity, because we have already received all of eternal life in our Lord Jesus Christ.

St. Paul's own words explain this truth quite well: "Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own tha tcomes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith" (Philippians 3:7-9). What an amazing miracle to lose everything in this world and yet to gain everything in Christ Jesus!

Collect of the Day (LSB):
Almighty God, You turned the heart of him who persecuted the Church and by his preaching caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world. Grant us ever to rejoice in the saving light of Your Gospel and following the example of the apostle Paul, to spread it to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

O God, by the preaching of your apostle Paul you have caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout th world: Grant, we pray, that we, having his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show ourselves thankful to you by following his holy teaching; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer)

O God, who didst call Saul, the persecutor of the Church, to be the Apostle Paul, and to proclaim the gospel of thy Son Jesus Christ to the Gentiles: Grant that, as thou hast called us also, we may be true to our calling, and count everything loss for the gain of knowing Christ Jesus as our Saviour; to whom with thee and the Holy Spirit be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen. (Church of South India; quoted in For All the Saints: A Prayerbook for and by the Church, v. III, p. 1298)

Hymn Verse:
Praise for the light from heaven
And for the voice of awe;
Praise for the glorious vision
The persecutor saw.
O Lord, for Paul's conversion,
We bless Your name today;
Come shine within our darkness,
And guide us on our way.

24 January 2008

Gospel Pot-rattlers

Reflecting on St. Timothy in particular and the Pastoral Office in general reminded me of a most excellent quote that I have treasured for years. It's certainly not intended to lead the preacher to give in to the temptations of his own laziness in sermon preparations. Rather, it's intended to comfort the preacher that his homiletical task is to feed the flock and to do so in a faithful manner, using the gifts and talents that he has received from God. Once again I give thanks and credit to Robert Farrar Capon for a most excellent insight, especially in giving me the phrase (and the mindset) of a "Gospel pot-rattler."
After all the years the church has suffered under forceful preachers and winning orators, under compelling pulpiteers and clerical bigmouths with egos to match, how nice to hear that Jesus expects preachers in their congregations to be nothing more than faithful household cooks. Not gourmet chefs, not banquet managers, not caterers to thousands, just Gospel pot-rattlers who can turn out a decent, nourishing meal once a week. And not even a whole meal, perhaps; only the right food at the proper time. On most Sundays, maybe all it has to be is meat, pasta, and a vegetable. Not every sermon needs to be prefaced by a cocktail hour full of the homiletical equivalent of Vienna sausages and bacon-wrapped water chestnuts; nor need nourishing preaching always be dramatically concluded with a dessert of flambéed sentiment and soufléed prose. The preacher has only to deliver food, not flash; Gospel, not uplift. And the preacher’s congregational family doesn’t even have to like it. If it’s good food at the right time, they can bellyache all they want: as long as they get enough death and resurrection, some day they may even realize they’ve been well fed. (Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace, Eerdmans, 1988, p. 92)

St. Timothy, Pastor and Confessor

Today the Lutheran Service Book calendar thanks God for St. Timothy, Pastor and Confessor. It's more than just a "Commemoration"; it's a full "Feast and Festival" with three readings appointed for the Divine Service (Mass). Here are some reflections on those readings.

Acts 16:1-5
In the first reading for this feast day, we read how St. Paul first met Timothy and how he recruited Timothy to join him in the service of preaching the Gospel. Timothy was "the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek." How interesting that Timothy came from a family of one pious parent and one parent who was, well, we just don't know, aside from his nationality. For whatever reason, most likely his father's will, Timothy was not circumcised. So as St. Paul recruited Timothy into the service of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he chose to circumcise Timothy in order that the Gospel might have a hearing among the Jews. From this reading we see that God most certainly can and does use us weak, earthen vessels, with all of our family and personal baggage - actually, despite all our baggage! - to proclaim His goodness and mercy in Christ Jesus crucified and risen. After Timothy joined St. Paul's missionary entourage, "the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily." A great testimony to the Messiah and the message that St. Timothy was called to preach!

1 Timothy 6:11-16
In this reading St. Paul exhorts Timothy on being a faithful pastor, that is, a shepherd of souls. He urges the young pastor and confessor to flee the self-serving, wealth-seeking ways of the false teachers (6:3-10), and then he lists severals things that are to characterize faithful pastors: "righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness." St. Paul urges Timothy - and, by extension, all faithful pastors - to "fight the good fight of faith" and "take hold of the eternal life to which you were called." While the pastor may indeed serve and help people in this life, even with bodily needs, his ultimate aim, his chief goal, for himself and his hearers, is faith and eternal life - that is, life in communion with God, both now and into eternity. As Timothy also learned from St. Paul, the pastor's main business is to make the good confession. And what a great example of the good confession the Apostle gives to Timothy in verses 14-16! How different this is from so many modern views of the pastoral office that urge us to be congregational CEOs, junior psychotherapists, company men always on the lookout for the next faddish way to excite people, lure people, gather crowds, etc. Faithful Pastor Timothy shows us what truly matters: confessing Jesus Christ crucified and risen, "the King of kings and Lord of lords."

Matthew 24:42-47
While the Gospel reading does not mention St. Timothy, per se, it does extol the pastoral office. Just as Timothy was, so are all pastors called to be "the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time." The pastor is certainly set over his congregation, but only as the servant of the Master, answerable to Him. No, not a servant who kowtows to the whims of the fellow servants and merely seeks their momentary pleasure and all-too-fleeting approval. Rather, the servant who does the Master's bidding for the spiritual benefit and eternal life of his fellow servants in the Master's household. And what is the "faithful and wise servant" - the pastor - given to do? "Give them their food at the proper time." Of course, he is not to mistreat his fellow servants, nor lord it over them, etc.; but neither is he free to give them whatever faddish pablum or worldly false nutrition that he can innovate on his computer or unveil from the denominational corporate office. Like Timothy, the faithful pastor is to give out the Master's food - the very Bread of Life - the Master Himself in His Body and Blood and in the "bread" of His Gospel message. And once again we hear a clue about the ultimate aim of the pastor's work: not this life, but eternal life - life with the blessed and holy Trinity. He is to keep his fellow servants awake to the life and love that God gives in His Son. His message is this: "Here comes the Lord Himself, both now - in the Gospel's message of mercy and in the Sacraments of water, bread and wine, and absolving words - and on the Last Day - when the Master returns."

As St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy: "The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task" (1 Timothy 3:1). What a "noble task" this Office of the Holy Ministry is! What a great example we have in St. Timothy! Thank You, Lord, for Your saint who learned from St. Paul and who passed on the "good confession."! And so, for all pastors who want to be faithful and follow in the footsteps of St. Timothy, we can do nothing better than emblazon on our minds and hearts the words of 2 Timothy 4:1-5:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Hymn Verse:
All praise for faithful pastors,
Who preached and taught Your Word;
For Timothy and Titus
True servants of their Lord.
Lord, help Your pastors nourish
The souls within their care,
So that Your Church may flourish
And all Your blessings share. (LSB 517:11)

Collect of the Day:
Lord Jesus Christ, You have always given to Your Church on earth faithful shepherds such as Timothy to guide and feed Your flock. Make all pastors diligent to preach Your holy Word and administer Your means of grace, and grant Your people wisdom to follow in the way that leads to life eternal; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (LSB Collects of the Day)

21 January 2008

Homily - Septuagesima

God’s End to Our Bookkeeping
Matthew 20:1-16

This year the Epiphany season was very short, and now we enter the season of Pre-Lent. Now it’s time to start preparing for our Lenten journey to begin in two and a half short weeks. To this end, the Church gives us the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. Yes, God brings us into the vineyard of His kingdom by His grace, and, yes, that also involves work, especially during Lent. So, let’s prepare to get busy in the works of repentance and living in our Baptism. And to help us prepare, let’s hear the Parable of the Workers with a modern twist. What you are about to hear comes from Robert Farrar Capon (Parables of Judgment, Eerdmans, 1989, pp. 51-56) with some slight modifications.

There was a man who owned a vineyard. His operation was not on the scale of E & J Gallo, but it was quite respectable: let us put him in the Robert Mondavi class. We first see this gentleman on the evening of the second Sunday in October. September has been a perfect month—hot and dry, bringing the grapes to 20º brix—but his meteorological service tells him that the weather is about to turn into cold soup. So what does our friend Robert do? He gets up first thing Monday morning, goes down to what passes for the local hiring hall and contracts for as much day labor as he can pick up. Unfortunately, every other grower in the neighborhood uses the same weather reports, so he has to promise higher pay to attract the workers he needs: $120 for the day is the figure that finally guarantees him a crew….

No,… $120 is not a ridiculous figure. A denarius was a day’s pay; I have simply taken the liberty of making it a good day’s pay….

Anyway, Robert loads his crew into a couple of old school buses and puts them to work, chop-chop. Just before nine A.M., though, he gets another weather bulletin. They have moved the start of the three weeks of rain from Wednesday back to Tuesday: he has one day, not two, to get the harvest in. Out he goes at nine, therefore—and with increasing panic at noon and at three—to hire on still more hands. Each time he succeeds in rounding up all the available help, giving them the by now practiced line that he is Robert Mondavi, the famous payer of top dollar who is also Mr. Fairness himself: whatever is right, they will get.

It’s a huge harvest, though, and with only one hour left before dark, Robert realizes he won’t get it in on time without still more help. So out he goes again, but the hiring hall is closed by now and the village square has only its usual crowd of up-to-the-minute losers hanging out in a haze of smoke. You know the types: lots of leather, some girls (and their boyfriends) with more mousse than brains, six-packs everywhere, and music that ruptures the eardrums. What the [heck], Robert thinks in desperation: it’s worth at least a try. So he walks up to the group, ostentatiously switches off the offending ghetto-blaster, and goes into his spiel: he’s Robert Mondavi; he’s famous and he’s fair; they could probably use a buck; so what do they think? What they think, of course, is also What the [heck]: whatever he wants them to do, it won’t take long; and whatever he pays, at least it’s a couple more six-packs for the night. Off they go.

Now then: run your mind over the story so far. I’m sure you know exactly what happens each time one of those new batches of workers gets dropped off at the vineyard. Before they pick even a single grape, they make sure they find out from the workers already on the job the exact per diem amount on which Robert Mondavi is basing his chances at the Guiness Book of World Records. And since they are—like the rest of the human race—inveterate bookkeepers, they take the $120 figure, divide it by twelve and multiply it by the number of hours they’ll be working. Then and only then do they lay hand to grape, secure in the knowledge that they will be getting, respectively, $100, $70, $40, and $10.

Robert, however, has a surprise for them. At the end of the day, he is a happy man. With his best and biggest harvest on its way to the stemmer-crusher, he feels expansive—and a little frisky. So he says to his foreman, “I have a wild idea. I’m going to fill the pay envelopes myself; but when you give them out, I want you to do it backwards, beginning with the last ones hired.”

Once again, I’m sure, you know what happens. When the first girl with purple hair gets her envelope and walks away opening it, she finds six crisp, new twenties inside. What does she do? …No,…She does not go back and report the overage; she just keeps on walking—fast.

But when her shirt-open-to-the-waist boyfriends catch up with her and tell her they got $120, too…well, dear old human nature triumphs again: they cannot resist going back and telling everybody else what jerks they were for sweating a whole day in the hot sun when they could have made the same money for just an hour’s work.

The entail of Adam’s transgression being what it is, however, the workers who were on the job longer come up with yet another example of totally unoriginal sin. On hearing that Robert Mondavi is now famous for paying $120 an hour, they put their mental bookkeeping machinery into reverse and floor the pedal. And what do they then come up with? O frabulous joy! They conclude that they are now about to become the proud possessors of, in order, $480, or $840, or even—bless you, Robert Mondavi--$1,440.

But Robert, like God, is only crazy, not stupid. Like God, he has arranged for their recompense to be based only on the weird goodness he is most famous for, not on the just deserts they have infamously imagined for themselves: every last envelope, they find, has six (6) twenties in it; no more for those who worked all day, and no less for those who didn’t.

Which, of course, goes down like Gatorade for the last bunch hired, like dishwater for the next-to-last, like vinegar for the almost-first, and like hot sulfuric acid for the first-of-all. Predictably, therefore—on the lamebrained principle that those who are most outraged should argue the case for those who are less so (wisdom would have whispered to them, “Reply in anger and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret”)—the sweatiest and the most exhausted decide to give Robert a hard time. “Hey, man,” they say; “you call this a claim to fame? Those punks over there only worked one hour and we knocked ourselves out all day. How come you made them equal to us?”

Robert, however, has his speech in his pocket. “Look, Pal,” he says. (Incidentally, the Greek word in the parable is hetaire, which is a distinctly unfriendly word for “friend.” In three of its four uses in the New Testament—here, and to the man without the wedding garment in the King’s Son’s Wedding, and to Judas at the betrayal—it comes off sounding approximately like “Buster.”) “Look, Pal,” he tells the spokesman for all the bookkeepers who have gagged on this parable for two thousand years, “Don’t give me agita. You agreed to $120 a day, I gave you $120 a day. Take it and get out of here before I call the cops. If I want to give some pot-head in Gucci loafers the same pay as you, so what? You’re telling me I can’t do what I want with my own money? I’m supposed to be a stinker because you got your nose out of joint? All I did was have a fun idea. I decided to put the last first and the first last to show you that there are no insiders or outsiders here: when I’m happy, everybody’s happy, no matter what they did or didn’t do. I’m not asking you to like me, Buster; I’m telling you to enjoy me. If you want to mope, that’s your business. But since the only thing it’ll get you is a lousy disposition, why don’t you just shut up and go into the tasting room and have yourself a free glass of Chardonnay? The choice is up to you, Friend: drink up, or get out; compliments of the house, or go to [you fill in the blank]. Take your pick.”

…It is the evil eye, you see—…the eye that loves the darkness of its bookkeeper’s black ink, the eye that cannot stand the red ink of unsuccess as it appears in the purple light of grace—that is condemned here. Bookkeeping is the only punishable offense in the kingdom of heaven. For in that happy state, the books are ignored forever, and there is only the Book of life. And in that book, nothing stands against you. There are no debit entries that can keep you out of the clutches of the Love that will not let you go. There is no minimum balance below which the grace that finagles all accounts will cancel your credit. And there is, of course, no need for you to show large amounts of black ink, because the only Auditor before whom you must finally stand is the Lamb—and he has gone deaf, dumb, and blind on the cross. The last may be first and the first last, but that’s only for the fun of making the point: everybody is on the payout queue and everybody gets full pay. Nobody is kicked out who wasn’t already in; the only bruised backsides belong to those who insist on butting themselves into outer darkness.

For if the world could have been saved by bookkeeping, it would have been saved by Moses, not Jesus. The law was just fine. And God gave it a good thousand years or so to see if anyone could pass a test like that. But when nobody did—when it became perfectly clear that there was “no one who was righteous, no not even one” (Rom. 3:10; Ps. 14:1-3), that “both Jews and Gentiles alike were all under the power of sin” (Rom. 3:9)—God gave up on salvation by the books. He cancelled everybody’s records in the death of Jesus and rewarded us all, equally and fully, with a new creation in the resurrection of the dead.

And therefore the only adverse judgment that falls on the world falls on those who take there stand on a life God cannot use rather than on the death he can. Only the winners lose, because only the losers can win: the reconciliation simply cannot work any other way. Evil cannot be gotten out of the world by reward and punishment: that just points up the shortage of sheep and turns God into one more score-evening goat. The only way to solve the problem of evil is for God to do what in fact he did: to take it out of the world by taking it into himself—down into the forgettery of Jesus’ dead human mind—and to close the books on it forever. That way, the kingdom of heaven is for everybody; hell is reserved only for the idiots who insist on keeping nonexistent records in their heads. (Robert Farrar Capon, Parables of Judgment, Eerdmans, 1989, pp. 51-56)

Longing for the Saints

In his book The Presence, Pr. Berthold von Schenk has some pretty interesting, and insightful, things to say on the communion of saints. If I didn't know better, I'd think that he were writing today, in 2008, not "way back" in 1945! I guess some things just don't change that quickly after all! :-)

Pr. von Schenk begins by saying that "the connecting link between Heaven and earth is the Holy Communion.... It is the ladder by which the risen, ascended Saviour comes down to us" (p. 123). Then he discusses the saints, first by clarifying that they were not some kind of spiritual supermen or wonder women [my phrase], but rather people who were tempted and who struggled and suffered just as we do.

Then von Schenk says, "It was a sad loss to the church, a grave mistake, when a few stupid people pushed the saints out of the picture. It was a sad mistake when they took them out of the life of the church, but it was even a greater mistake to place them into the niche of supernatural people. What has the church substituted for the saints and their glorious triumphant lives? Perhaps respectability, which is not holiness" (p. 124).

After critiquing such "respectability" in the church, von Schenk continues to lobby for the usefulness of the saints in the life of the church: "In place of that smug, cold, soulless respectability we must put the passionate love, first for Jesus, and then for sinners for Jesus' sake. We must have a reckless, supernatural, sacrificial love, supernatural in its vision; supernatural in its power to transform our lives; supernatural in its power to heal the souls of men. Let us get off that pedestal of respectability and fall on our knees and learn to be saints!" (p. 125).

I think von Schenk may be on to something here. Instead of groping for respectability in the eyes of the world and/or people around us (even respectability measured by mere numbers or even mere increasing numbers!), let's learn to be saints - those who live only by the grace and mercy of our God and Savior Jesus Christ, those who learn to love Him and the people around them with a sacrificial love, and, yes, those who even suffer trials, temptations, and even death for the sake of confessing Christ crucified and risen. As von Schenk also says, "The saint has only one motive. This motive is the love of Jesus guiding and dominating everything he does or says. It is not his life, but Christ's life" (p. 126).

And I just cannot resist including this snippet from The Presence. It really puts things in perspective. We don't need more humanly derived notions, plans, and programs to save the church! We need the divine Love, the Calvary Love, the very love that sparked and warmed the saints, the very love that unites us with them. Here's von Schenk's juicy little morsel:
"What men have done men can do again. The world needs saints; men who will free themselves of self, who love with the divine love. Church leaders are looking for [something] to save a declining Church. They start all sorts of campaigns, drives, calls of the Cross. And while the Church is deliberating, men's hearts are aching, are hungering for the supernatural, for saints, for glimpses of heaven, for romance. Conferences, synods, arguments, eloquence, committees, campaigns are merely stopping leaks in a weak dam. The world needs saints; it needs the mad vision of saints, which alone can keep us sane, the supernatural vision which will turn the world, which is upside down, back to where God wants it. The saints are not mere figures in history; they speak today. They are part of the Church, the mystical Body of Christ. Certainly the Body of Christ cannot be divided. Death cannot separate the members of the Body of Christ, the Church. The Church on earth knows of no separation from the Church beyond the grave. What is this bond of union? Why, the Communion. At the Altar we link ourselves with the saints. Here we are caught up with them. The Blessed Sacrament is the link which binds us to our risen and ascended Lord, and the whole company of Heaven. Here at the Altar I get a glimpse of the saints. Here I am united with them, and here heaven is made real to me as my faith is nourished" (pp. 126-127, emphasis original).

19 January 2008

Confession on the Ascent

Here's a most interesting article on the comeback of saying, "I'm sorry" - that is, the comeback of Confession. The article quotes LCMS Ohio District President Rev. Terry Cripe on the value of Confession and Absolution: "There is such power in getting things off your chest. But that's only part of the equation. You must seek absolution. You can't do better than God's forgiveness." Great quote!

I rejoice at this now second article that I've seen on the reemergence/resurrection of Confession and Absolution, and both of them refer to the resolution from last summer's LCMS Synodical Convention commending the practice of Confession and Absolution. However, I also take it as a clarion call for greater teaching and improved practice regarding this soul-comforting and faith-strengthening Sacrament. When I ponder people "confessing" in an anonymous online venue, or in a shopping mall venue, or even turning to the likes of Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura (for all the good that they certain do for many), I must pray, "Lord, have mercy!" They're missing out on the greatest part of Confession: the Absolution!

So, thank God for the resurrection of Confession and Absolution, for both Lutherans and Roman Catholics. Thank God for this prime opportunity to return to the proper care of souls that occurs in Confession and Absolution. And I especially rejoice in what our Lutheran Confessions say on this Sacrament (and, yes, they even call it a Sacrament!):
It is taught among us that private absolution should be retained and not allowed to fall into disuse. However, in confession it is not necessary to enumerate all trespasses and sins, for this is impossible. Ps. 19:12, "Who can discern his errors?" (Augsburg Confession, XI)

It is taught among us that the sacraments were instituted not only to be signs by which people might be identified outwardly as Christians, but that they are signs and testimonies of God's will toward us for the purpose of awakening and strengthening our faith. For this reason they require faith, and they are rightly used when they are received in faith and for the purpose of strengthening faith. (Augsburg Confession, XIII)

If we define sacraments as "rites which have the command of God and to which the promise of grace has been added," we can easily determine which are sacraments in the strict sense.... The genuine sacraments, therefore, are Baptism, the Lord's Supper, and absolution (which is the sacrament of penitence), for these rites have the commandment of God and the promise of grace, which is the heart of the New Testament. When we are baptized, when we eat the Lord's body, when we are absolved, our hearts should firmly believe that God really forgives us for Christ's sake. Through the Word and the rite God simultaneously moves the heart to believe and take hold of faith, as Paul says (Rom. 10:17), "Faith comes from what is heard." As the Word enters through the ears to strike the heart, so the rite itself enters through the eyes to move the heart. The Word and the rite have the same effect, as Augustine said so well when he called the sacrament "the visible Word," for the rite is received by the eyes and is a sort of picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the Word. Therefore both have the same effect. (Apology, XIII:3-5)

Thus we teach what a wonderful, precious, and comforting thing confession is, and we urge that such a precious blessing should not be despised, especially when we consider our great need. If you are a Christian, you need neither my compulsion nor the pope's command at any point, but you will compel yourself and beg me for the privilege of sharing in it. (Large Catechism, A Brief Exhortation to Confession, 28)

If you are a Christian, you should be glad to run more than a hundred miles for confession, not under compulsion but rather coming and compelling us to offer it. (Large Catechism, A Brief Exhortation to Confession, 30)

Therefore, when I urge you to go to confession, I am simply urging you to be a Christian. (Large Catechism, A Brief Exhortation to Confession, 32)

(All quotes from the Tappert edition of the Book of Concord. I'd love to quote from Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, but for some strange reason, the editors decided to omit some of the key quotes on this subject! In AC XI, they go with the Latin and thus omit the phrase "and not allowed to fall into disuse." And in Luther's Large Catechism, they omit the whole section called "A Brief Exhortation to Confession," which follows the section on the Sacrament of the Altar.)

Homily - Transfiguration of Our Lord (Observed)

Okay, so I'm a bit behind schedule for posting this homily. Due to the truncated Epiphany season this year, we celebrated the Transfiguration of Our Lord at our Wednesday evening Divine Service on 16 January. Here's the homily:

Delivered and Transfigured Matthew 17:1-9

Peter thought he had a great plan. “I will make three tents here, [Lord,] one for You and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He thought it was only natural for the glory of this magnificent event to continue. He thought it would be great if the Lord could remain transfigured before them. He certainly believed that this is where he and his buddies should be. Forget all that stuff the Lord had mentioned earlier—that nonsense about going up to Jerusalem, about suffering many things, about being killed! Here, up on the mountain, they could escape from and avoid all that messiness, all that sorrow.

But Jesus had a different plan. His plan was to carry out the mission that He undertook when He was baptized by John in the Jordan River – the very mission He undertook when He took on our human flesh and bone. You see, John also had a different idea about how Jesus ought to do things. But Jesus told him, “Thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” So now, from the glory of His Transfiguration, Jesus would continue to carry out His mission of fulfilling all righteousness. He would descend from the mountain. He would continue on His way to the Cross, to His suffering, to His death.

However, this brief moment that He shared with Peter, James, and John was necessary. He gave them a glimpse of His glory—not to terrify them, not to show off His power, and certainly not to distract their thoughts from His mission of suffering and dying. After all, He had told them time and time again that He must do that. No, our Lord showed them His glory as a sign and foreshadowing of the victory that awaited Him on the other side of the Cross and Tomb. He gave them a foretaste of the glory of His resurrection. And He gave it to comfort and strengthen them on the dark path that would soon lead them through His suffering and death.

Our Lord did not do all this to show off His power. He did not do this to inspire His followers to do something for Him. No, He did it because He knew their frail condition. He knew the weakness of their flesh. He knew the afflictions they would go through. He knew the sufferings they would endure. He wanted to assure them that He had come to deliver them and rescue them.

Our Lord gave the same message in His vision to Moses about 14 centuries earlier. Our Lord appeared to Moses on the mountain of God, in a bush that was transfigured yet not consumed in a flame of fire. As He told Moses, “I have seen the afflictions of My people. I know their sufferings. I have heard their cries for help. And I have come to deliver them, to save them, and to bring them to a land of rest and refreshment.” And that’s exactly what the Lord did. He led His people out of their bondage in Egypt, because they could not save themselves. He brought them through the waters of the Red Sea. He showed them the way to the land of their promised rest.

You know the story. After their miraculous deliverance, the people grumbled and complained in the wilderness. After being saved from their terrible condition, they rebelled against God on their way to the land of promise. They didn’t like the harsh conditions of the wilderness. They didn’t like all the trials and afflictions that confronted them there. They had a different notion about how life should work. They longed for the comfort and security of Egypt. At least there they could escape and avoid all the messiness and sorrow of that wilderness. But our Lord remained faithful to His promise. He brought His people to the land that He promised.

Now come back to our Gospel reading. Again our Lord was working to deliver His people—in fact, all people—from a greater bondage and to bring them to a greater Promised Land. He did so because of His love and mercy. You see, all human beings are under bondage to sin and can do nothing to save themselves. But our Lord knew their sufferings—not simply because He saw them, but because He Himself went through them. Not only did our Lord clothe Himself in our humanity, but He also carried and absorbed the sin that held us in bondage. And that is why He continued His path to Jerusalem. That is why He came down from the mountain and proceeded to His suffering and death on the Cross.

Yes, our Lord’s path on earth was a path to the Cross, but it was also a path to the glory of His resurrection. So the light of the coming resurrection breaks through on the Mount of Transfiguration. It’s just a little sneak-peek of a light, but it is what lies ahead for Jesus. And that light comforts and strengthens His disciples and us. But, dear friends, we have something more sure. We have the prophetic word and the testimony of the witnesses. They bear witness to His resurrection from the dead. They announce our Lord’s saving work on a cross to comfort and strengthen us. And we sure need that as we continue on the path of this world’s wilderness, to the Promised Land of heaven.

But all too often we are too much like the Israelites, aren’t we? We often complain and grumble about the harsh conditions of this life, about the people who just won’t do things our way, about all of the messiness and sorrow that keeps crashing into us. All too frequently we rebel against God under the trials and afflictions we have to endure. And all too often we are like Peter. We think we have a better plan, a better notion of how things should work in our lives. We long for the comfort of our Egypts, even if they are the places of slavery to our sins. We crave the security of our mountains perched above all the messiness and sorrows of this world.

But our Lord knows us. He knows our situation. He sees our afflictions. He understands our sufferings. And still He comes to save and deliver us. Not by showing off His power or terrifying us with His majesty, but by giving us a glimpse, a sneak-peek, of His glory and by going to the cross for us.

And yet He does show us His glory, even now. He shows us His glory, because heaven and earth are full of His glory. They are full of His glory especially where He puts His crucified, risen, glorified Body and Blood given and shed for us. And our eyes see His salvation even as our tongues taste the bread that’s His Body and the wine that’s His Blood. It’s the Light to lighten the Gentiles. It’s the Glory of His people Israel. It’s the glory of His very own transfigured, crucified, resurrected and living Body. That Glory made flesh and blood comforts and strengthens us here and now. It preserves us until He brings us to the Promised Land of heaven. And just you wait: He will transfigure and transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body. Yes, our transfigured Lord makes us co-heirs with Him in His glory. And He will bring us to the fullness of our inheritance with Him in heaven. Amen.

16 January 2008

Homily - Baptism of Our Lord

This homily was delivered by Seminarian Carl Lehenbauer for the Baptism of Our Lord on 13 January 2008, and is posted here with his permission.

Matthew 3:13-17 “A Picture of Perfection”

Dear friends in Christ,

It’s more of a picture than a story. Our Gospel text this morning takes us to the Jordan River for a holy Kodak moment, a picture so powerful that no film would be able to capture it, and even the inspired words of Matthew are not quite enough to portray the splendor of Jesus’ baptism. We see the Jordan River flowing around Jesus, as the Son of God stands up and the pure water pours off of him, reflecting the light like crystals. A dove, white as snow, is descending from heaven, the Holy Spirit of God. The river bank stretches out behind him, earthy and subdued in the background. We look to the top of the scene, but human language is not enough to fill in the gaps, and so our imagination does its best to sketch in a sky that has been physically torn open. Maybe we use light, blindingly white, as bright as we can visualize, to show us the glory of heaven bursting through on Jesus. We can’t see it, but we can hear the words. The Father speaks in a voice we only begin to imagine. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” resonates across the river valley.

And then, after our eyes have adjusted to the glory and our hearts have stopped pounding at the voice of God, after we have torn our eyes away from the face of Jesus, wet with the water of his baptism and shining with the glory of his divinity, perhaps then our eyes will find their way to the face of John. Our pupils have compensated now, filtering out the brilliance of the moment, and gradually the hazy, shaded, sun-burnt face of John the Baptist comes into focus. His eyes, too, are taking in the scene. But what do we see in his face?

Matthew doesn’t tell us. The gospel writer keeps the focus exactly where it should be, and the picture he paints shows us the King of kings and Lord of lords, dripping wet with the radiance of God’s glory glowing around him. But it is the face of John that beckons us to come closer, to examine this painting for details in the artist’s blurry background. The face of John beckons us closer, because in truth we are searching for ourselves. In the blurs, and shadows, and the pale background, we must find the face that we recognize as our own. And so our eyes rest on John’s face.

Perhaps we see eyes widened with fear. His lips are parted slightly as he gasps for the breath that has been suddenly snatched away. His hands, raised to his face to block the assault on his vision, the brilliant glory streaming from heaven, reflected from the water, resplendent in the man he just baptized. The glory that threatens to consume him like light vanquishing a shadow. The words, “This is my beloved Son, with Him I am well pleased” are still echoing in his ears, and the downturn of his mouth tells us that the man in the river has found himself lacking. He is bent at the waist, leaning away from Jesus, and his overpowered posture cries out with Peter, “Away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

This was the face behind the blur for Isaiah when the prophet stood in the throne room of heaven. This was the face painted in the background of Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. It is the face of the man or woman who suddenly sees the way things really are. A God who burns with wrath against sin. Fire from heaven destroying a city of sinners called Gomorrah. Water from the deeps drowning the sin of the world in the righteous, indignant anger that cannot be appeased by anything in you or in me. All of it is written there in the glory streaming from heaven, inches away from the sin stained hands of the one who just baptized the Son of God. It is a face that too often we don’t recognize until it’s too late, until the last tears have been cried, the bottle of pills emptied, the casket closed. Despair is the name of that face.

When we come face to face with the all-consuming glory of God, what can we do but despair? If God truly does hate sin, if God truly does burn with wrath against the sinful man I was born as, then the glory streaming from heaven is nothing less than my destruction. And so this would be a picture of despair. This would be a picture of John, in the shadows, searching desperately for some safe place to hide himself.

Maybe that’s why Matthew doesn’t mention what John saw. In fact, none of the Gospel writers tell us what anyone besides Jesus saw. Only Luke implies that others may have seen the glory of God, and even he doesn’t say so explicitly. So maybe John was shielded from the glory. For his eyes there was no terror in that day, no reason to despair at his sin. Then all his eyes could see was the water that dripped from Jesus just like it did from everyone else he had baptized. The heavens opening were for Jesus’ eyes only, and in John’s view the sky held together, blues and grays carelessly mingled like any other day.

Maybe this is where we find our face in the painting. John’s eyelids are drooping just a little bit. You can see the weariness in the slump of his shoulders. A few lines of disappointment crinkle his forehead, and the hands that were expecting an electric sensation at the touch of the Christ are limp, now, at his sides. The water that drips from his fingertips melds with the river the same way that it drips from Jesus, and the turn of John’s head betrays the fact that in his eyes the world hasn’t changed.

This is the face we know from Nicodemus, who brought his hopes and his questions to Jesus in the night and turned away puzzled at the answers that did not seem to fit. This is the face of Naaman, the leper who traveled mile after mile for a miraculous cure from leprosy and instead received instructions to bathe in the river seven times. But we know it even better as the face in the mirror. We have seen these downcast eyes return our gaze when days, weeks, and months pass, and the miracle does not come. Doubt is the name of that face.

If we had the photograph of this moment, maybe that is what we would see. Doubt blanketing John’s face, or despair overthrowing him in a moment. But we do not have a photo, instead we have the words, the inspired, holy words of Matthew. And so we can’t search the background of this painting until we find our face in John’s. Instead Matthew rushes us onward, this picture of the glory gives way to another and another and another. First the wilderness, the temptation, the sinless Lord. The healings, and the perfect Jesus Christ. Food for thousands from the hands of the flawless Son of God. Storms calmed, water becoming a sidewalk, a mountain transfigured in a blaze of glory and there, always there, always in focus, the guiltless Messiah. Image after image, and each picture reflecting in one way or another the fact that this is the beloved Son with whom God is well pleased.

And then the filmstrip stops. The image freezes. Something has gone wrong. The peaceful face of sinlessness is contorted in righteous anger. A whip hangs in the air and animals flee from the temple. Then the image changes again, the face is wounded, red streaks trickle from the forehead. Another shift. A new image. The face is red and purple, swollen and in agony. It’s been abused, almost past recognition, and yet there is something familiar there. The lips curled, the eyelids are drooping, the mouth open in a shout. No longer, “This is my beloved Son,” this voice cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And there it is, bleeding through the agony, the face you recognize: the face of doubt, the face of despair, the faces of lust, and greed, idolatry, deceit, immorality, rage, hatred, gossip, everything that God hates all poured at once into that perfect face. Here at the cross, it’s easy to find our face in the painting. No matter who we are or what we’ve done, it is here, revealed behind swollen eye sockets and innocent blood. It is not his face on the cross. It is ours, contorted by the wages of sin. We have found our face at last.

And so, with trembling hands, we turn the page. And Matthew has another image for us. A tomb stands empty. A Savior stands exalted. And then we gaze at Matthew’s last image. The hands of Jesus raised in blessing, final instruction on his lips: Go. Make disciples. Baptize. The last image takes us back to the first, and we find ourselves again at the water, staring at the painting where the whole journey began. The heavens torn apart. The dove on Jesus’ shoulder. The beloved Son of God, His face tranquil and at peace.

But now we know where to find ourselves. We’re not hidden in the background or in the face of John. It’s not the pale, shadowy backdrop that conceals us. No, we are hidden in the glory itself. The pure glory that consumes sinful men, like light vanquishing the shadows, pouring down on Jesus. There you see the face that belongs to you. There, where the same water drips from Jesus that fell from your forehead. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, baptismal water carries you into that picture. The faces of despair, and doubt and everything else that separates us from God, washed into the glory of the cross and vanquished, darkness fleeing from light. And so you see yourself in Matthew’s portrait, in the face that’s turned toward a rift in the sky, that’s turned toward indescribable glory.

It’s the face of Jesus, but also the face of Naaman, who left the river cleansed of leprosy and believing the God of Israel. It’s the face of Jesus, but also the face of Nicodemus, who left that night full of questions, but found his answers in the cross and empty tomb. It’s the face of Jesus, but also the face of Isaiah, cleansed by the sacrifice from the altar. The face of Jesus and of Paul, by faith a child of God.

There’s a purity in that face. The concerns of this world are smoothed away from the forehead. The lips are parted in perfect worship of the Almighty God. The eyes gaze unblinking into the light. The ears are turned toward heaven to catch the words, words intended now, for you, “This is my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.” Through Jesus Christ our Lord, to the glory of God the Father, Amen.

09 January 2008

Homily - Epiphany of Our Lord - Midweek DS

At our Wednesday evening Divine Service tonight, we will celebrate the Epiphany again (yes, stretching the "liturgical girdle" just a bit, but, hey, Epiphany is well worth the repetition for folks who may not have been able to make it on Sunday :-). This homily actually comes from last year's Epiphany Divine Service, on 6 January, but here it is with a little spit and polish for this evening.

O Holy Light
Matthew 2:1-12

Tonight we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord. Centuries ago, Epiphany used to be bigger than Christmas. It used to be more like Easter. In fact, for churches in the East, places like Russia, Greece, and the Middle East, Epiphany is Christmas. The word “Epiphany” means “revealing.” On Christmas we celebrate Jesus being born in the flesh of the pure Virgin Mary. On Epiphany we celebrate Jesus revealing Himself, making Himself known, as the flesh and blood Savior of the whole world. If Christmas is about the “O Holy Night” when Christ was born, Epiphany is about the “O Holy Light” when Jesus, the bright Morning Star, reveals Himself to the world.

And notice how our Gospel reading is chuck full of night and light, of dark and day. First, we are told that wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” We need to remember that this happened after Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The wise men were not there the day when Christ was born. Instead, they were in the east. They saw the star at the time of Jesus’ birth. Then they set out to travel to Jerusalem. And why go to Jerusalem? Well, it seems to make sense. Aren’t kings born in large, luxurious palaces? Don’t rulers live in the capitol cities? But the stargazing magi were a bit mistaken. They saw the star in the east. That got them headed in the right direction, but then their own thinking, their own wishing, their own assuming got in the way. Their own dark notions eclipsed the star’s holy light.

So the magi asked King Herod where the King-to-be might be. Probably not the wisest thing to do! A bit like asking the current president if you can talk to the next president! King Herod—who was disturbed in more ways that one—inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. You see, dark, disturbed King Herod unwittingly helped the wise men to see the light once again. The preachers told Herod and the wise men, “The Savior is supposed to be born in Bethlehem of Judea.” Not in the nation’s capitol, but in a little, back-water bedroom town. And what was the holy light that told this to the wise men? The Word of God from the prophet Micah. The light of God’s Word had to dispel the darkness of the wise men’s personal opinions about Jesus.

But as the light dawns on the wise men, Herod’s night only gets darker. In this great story of Jesus boldly revealing Himself, King Herod wants to deal in secrets and undercover operations. “Psst! Go and search diligently for the child.” As if the wise men would do something else, now that they knew where to look? “And when you have found him, bring me word.” “But why, King Herod?” “That I too may come and worship him.” Now, is that the kind of thing you want to keep secret—worshiping the King of the Jews, the Savior of the nations? Only if you live in darkness! Only if your darkness is hiding something you don’t want the wise men or King Jesus to see!

After the wise men listened to the dark, disturbed king, they proceeded on their journey to the King of holy light. Now that they had heard God’s Word and promise, they also had the star leading them once again. How marvelous! God’s Word—preached, read, sung, poured over you, spoken to you, and put in your mouth—that is the true guiding star. Notice that the wise men did not find the house where Mary and Little Jesus were on their own. No, the star led them there. And what happened next? When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. O holy Light! The star’s light led them to the Light of the world, the Light made flesh to dwell among us. Once in His bright, glorious presence, the wise men fell down in humility and worshiped. They saw His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

What does all this mean for us? The first thing is this: the wise men give us a good picture of ourselves. They saw the star in the east, and so they set out to follow it. But they were a bit confused about the light. God opens our eyes with the light of His gracious forgiveness, life, and salvation. Then we set out to follow it. But we often get confused about the light. We think it’s supposed to lead us to the large, luxurious, capitol city glories of Jerusalem. We want our “religion” to take away life’s struggles or burdens or confusions. When we hear the Gospel message, we want it to be a means to success, or some kind of easier, better living. We have our own personal, private ideas and opinions of Jesus—who He is, what He should do for us. In other words, we often want Jesus and His Gospel to be more our earthly treasure than our heavenly treasure.

Here’s a second thing this Epiphany story means for us. Dark, disturbed King Herod also gives us a picture of ourselves. It disturbed Herod that the wise men were looking for a king other than him. He was going to be replaced?! Nobody likes being replaced. But when Jesus comes to rescue you from your dark, disturbed sinful state, someone gets replaced. That old, dark, Herod-like sinner in you gets dethroned and replaced. You see, we all want to think of ourselves as king or queen. So much of our life revolves around “me, myself, and I.” We want all the people around us to bow to our leading and guiding, to our wishing and desiring. And this dark royalty can sound so religious and devout: “Of course I want to worship Him too.” But ulterior motives abound! Herod wanted to preserve his dark reign by killing Baby King Jesus. We want to preserve our selfish reigns by making Jesus fit our moulds. But that way He’s not the Savior; that way He’s only our palace slave. Each of us is born with this dark royalty. But being dark kings and queens will only lead us to eternity with the prince of darkness, Satan. And his destiny is hell, separated from God forever.

The wise men had their personal opinions of Jesus and where He should be. And so do we. Herod did not want to be replaced. Neither does our sinful self. But, you see, the personal opinions don’t amount to anything. They lead us on a goose chase that ends up in wrong places as we search for the Christ. The sinful self tries to replace Jesus instead of letting itself be replaced. It’s a cursed darkness. So, yes, we truly need the holy light of God’s Word who is Jesus.

Epiphany is about Jesus revealing Himself and where we can find Him. And Jesus reveals Himself in His grace and mercy. Once the wise men heard the Word of God telling them where the Christ would be, then they held fast. Well, God is equally gracious with us. He likes to reveal Himself to us—not in grand, majestic, ecstatic ways, but in humble, Bethlehem, ordinary-house ways. Where does Jesus reveal Himself to you, to bless you and forgive you? In His house, the Church. Here we get to cling to His words. Here we get to adhere to the preaching of His Gospel, to His washing of Baptism, to His words of Absolution, and to His meal of life in the Holy Supper. With these “holy lights,” we see the Christ. With these divinely appointed “stars” guiding us, the journey in bright, heavenly forgiveness and life is clear. Because of Jesus—born of Mary, revealed to the wise men, crucified under Pontius Pilate, and risen the third day in bright glory—your sins are forgiven. God sees the Light that is Christ in you!

And we respond as the wise men did. We bow down and worship Him. See how the Light of Christ leads to corporate worship—not to every individual having their own private, little faith, their own private, little church. No, the wise men worshiped together. After seeing the holy Light of Christ, they wouldn’t miss out on bowing down for all the treasures in the world. In fact, they were glad to give their treasures to the Tiny-tot King—no, not to win His favor, but because they already had His favor. The gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were sacrifices of thanksgiving. There’s no better way to thank little King Jesus for rescuing you from your dark self and dark sin than by bowing down and worshiping where He lives in His house! There’s no better way to enjoy the holy light of God’s mercy and life than by clinging to Jesus’ Gospel preached from His pulpit and the Sacraments given out at His altar!

Isaiah preached it well: “And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Is. 60:3). The holy light of Epiphany, the exceedingly great joy of Jesus and His mercy, is not to be stored away in a safe. By all means, bring the nations here to Jesus’ house to see His holy light of mercy. By all means, bring your family and your friends to see Jesus reveal Himself as their Savior from dark sin. It’s a dark world out there, but here in God’s house we receive the light of God’s Truth. So, let’s all say, “Come on in. Come, leave your darkness behind. Christ shines the light of His mercy on you.” Here you may worship and adore Him. Here you may receive His gifts.

May God grant us His grace to see His marvelous light in Christ. May He strengthen us in clinging to His Son and His ways of revealing His “O Holy Light.” Amen.