27 November 2008

Sabbath Rest for Pastor and People

This little piece will come out in my congregation's December newsletter.

Sabbath Rest for Pastor and People

By the time you read this I will be starting a six-month sabbatical leave from pastoral duties at Hope. This time is intended to be a time of rest and rejuvenation. Yes, I will still remain your pastor, and yes, I will return after May 31, 2009. The purpose of this sabbatical leave is for me to return rejuvenated for longer service to Hope.

After Divine Services on November 9 the Board of Elders read a statement outlining my need for this sabbatical leave, and then that statement was sent to Hope member households. We are also including the statement in this issue of the Hope Lutheran, just in case you haven’t seen it yet.
In this column I want to focus on what a sabbatical leave is and what benefits we—pastor and congregation together—stand to receive. When I began learning in earnest about sabbatical leaves and their purpose, I came across a very helpful document from the Southeastern District of the LCMS. That document is called “Sabbatical Guidelines And Resources For Professional Church Workers.”

These “Sabbatical Guidelines” explain the purpose and rationale of a sabbatical leave in this prologue:
The word “sabbatical” is derived from “Sabbath.” Sabbath time is based on Genesis 2:1-4a in which God modeled and later required (Exodus 17:8-11) the setting aside of 1/7th of our time for re”creation” and restoration. For ancient Israel, Sabbath-keeping was a spiritual discipline that was designed to develop the Israelites’ ability to trust God. A person who kept the Sabbath exercised trust in God by abstaining from those activities that provided material resources. For one day each week, the Israelites would entrust themselves to God’s care rather than to their own ability to work. In short, Sabbath-keeping is a discipline of abstinence from those activities that make us more self-sufficient than God-sufficient.

Historically, in church and academia, the professionals were given a sabbatical every seventh year. The observation was that academic professors and clergy were so worn out after seven years of teaching and leading that they needed a time of rest, recovery, renewal, and reeducation in their field of endeavor. The assumptions were that it paid off for the professional person (avoiding breakdown) and that it paid off for the institution (re-energized and updated leadership). Professional church workers (i.e. Pastor, Deaconess, Director of Christian Education, School Administrator, etc.) need to recreate and restore what has been worn down by day-to-day encounters with stresses and strains of everyday life and ministry.

Nourishing one’s soul and regaining perspective requires a change of pace and place—a pilgrimage. Jesus provides us a good example to follow. He was always moving toward his Father—in prayer, in his teaching, in his travel and then toward the people in care and concern. And the apostles who walked with him were renewed day by day. That’s what sabbatical is about—a pilgrimage with Jesus toward our Heavenly Father. Journeying with Jesus we come to know that there is more to life than suffering or hopelessness. We are moving toward the climax and glory of what is to come. Like the early apostles, we can be recharged by walking with Jesus during an extended time of reflection, spiritual encounter, and community.

Sabbatical typically includes time for travel, rest, prayer, and experiencing different cultures. The best sabbaticals usually are more open-ended than rigid, allowing for the surprises, and possible new direction, that may come. Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness marked a turning point in his ministry. Moses’ time spent tending sheep helped change his perspective on his calling and life. David tended sheep and learned valuable lessons about God’s care and provision. Paul, struck down on the road to Damascus, disappeared into the desert of Arabia for three years, and emerged with a new vision. Therefore, sabbatical is a time to receive, to be nurtured, to reflect on your relationship with God and your own story, so that you can be renewed, refreshed, and revitalized for a life of service to others.
Shortly after this prologue, the “Sabbatical Guidelines” outline the benefits of a sabbatical leave. I was very encouraged to see how a sabbatical leave benefits not only the pastor who takes a sabbatical, but also the congregation. According to the “Guidelines,” here are the benefits for a congregation that grants a sabbatical to its pastor:
A. For the local congregation/school
1) An experienced professional church worker who returns from sabbatical with renewed energy and rediscovered zeal for ministry
2) An opportunity to develop congregational leadership and to come to a greater understanding of the congregation’s ministry by assuming some of the pastoral duties during the interim
3) An occasion for the congregation to reflect and assess their partnership with the professional church worker and ways to strengthen and improve ministry
4) An opportunity to show support and care for a beloved professional church worker and his/her family
5) A time for congregational members to reconsider their commitment and to assess their relationship to the life and witness of the congregation/school
6) Cost effective. When an experienced church worker takes a call and leaves, the congregation loses finances due to loss of momentum, expenses of interim church workers, potential loss of members during an interim period, cost of moving expenses of a new work, lost efficiency while new relationships develop, etc.
We want to be careful with #2, particularly the part about congregational leaders “assuming some of the pastoral duties.” According to Holy Scripture, pastoral duties are given to the pastors, while other tasks in the congregation’s work and life are given to others in the congregation. See Acts 6:1-6.

The “Guidelines” then outline these benefits for the pastor:
B. For the professional church worker
1) A needed break from long hours, high pressure, personal sacrifice, and the 24/7 nature of ministry
2) A time for prayer, rest, study, decision making [sic] and travel
3) A change of scenery and place which can help prevent burnout
4) An opportunity for the worker to discover the importance of doing what they do because of who they ARE rather than because of what they DO
5) The opportunity to develop greater self-awareness and spiritual depth
6) A time with family and friends, to renew and strengthen those relationships
These sound like great benefits for both congregation and pastor, and I look forward to all of us realizing such benefits.

Some have been asking, “Where will Pastor go to church?” Thank you for that concern for my being fed on the Gospel and Sacraments! I will not attend church here at Hope, but I will attend at some of our sister congregations in the area (I think there are a few of them ☺).

So for these next six months I will take “time to receive, to be nurtured, to reflect on [my] relationship with God and [my] own story, so that [I] can be renewed, refreshed, and revitalized for a life of service to others.” I covet your prayers during this time, and I promise that you will be continually in my prayers. I know that you are in good hands with Pastor Rosebrock and the others who will fill in for me. I also know that our Savior, the Lord of the Church, will continue to sustain us during this time of separation, and I am confident that He will use this time to strengthen our faith in Him and improve our life together in His Church.

God bless you, and the Lord be with you, dear brothers and sisters!

Homily - Day of National Thanksgiving

Holy Faith, Holy Prayer, Holy Hands
1 Timothy 2:1-4

A happy and blessed Thanksgiving to all of you! Soon the tables will be set for the feasting, and the food will use its enticing aromas to lure us to the table. Soon our stomachs will be content, or a bit full, or crying out, “Ohh, why did I let you stuff me so full?” On top of all this there’s the cornucopia of TV offerings—Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade or a movie marathon. But what do floats and pre-Christmas sales really have to do with Thanksgiving? No doubt the football games will glean a big harvest of watchers. But what do Lions and Titans and Seahawks have to do with Thanksgiving? The least they could do is schedule the Patriots vs. the Redskins. Now that would be a proper Thanksgiving theme. After all, isn’t that how it all started?

As Americans we have much to be thankful for. We have many luxuries, many amenities, many privileges and freedoms, even when the economy travels down a rough road, even when terrorists must be fought overseas so that they don’t bring the fight to our homeland. But today let’s set aside what someone once called “turkey theology.” That’s the kind of theology that sees the turkey and the trimmings on the table, quickly gives a formality of thanks to God for all the goodies, but only has eyes for getting to the food. Instead, let’s focus on a different aspect. We observe what’s called a “Day of National Thanksgiving.” Instead of focusing only on the giving of thanks, let’s focus on the national. And our Second Reading helps us do this. How do we Christians live in our nation and among the people around us? St. Paul’s answer is this: We live in holy faith, offering holy prayer, and using holy hands.

St. Paul starts by talking about praying for all sorts of people, especially rulers and authorities. But before we can pursue the holy prayer, we need to have the holy faith. You see, only God’s baptized children, His Christians, His people of holy faith, can offer holy prayer. Holy faith comes first, then comes holy prayer. If we don’t have holy faith, given by God, He really doesn’t hear our prayers. After all, as St. Paul says elsewhere, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Rom. 14:23).

This holy faith comes from the God who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” That’s the holy will of holy God. He has made us all. He has lamented our fall into sin and death, and yet He still loves us and provides for us. And He has sent His only Son to save us. He wants all people to know His truth—His truth that takes the shape of both judgment and mercy. His truth tells us that we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We don’t trust Him as we ought; we argue with Him in our complaints; we fight against Him to protect ourselves and our “turf” of life—which actually belongs to Him anyway, but, hey, let’s not confuse the issue with Scriptural facts. Even as baptized believers we still carry in our flesh those warring, fighting urges. Because of that Old Adam sinner that lives in us, the hostilities run deep between holy God and sinful us. So if we are to have any peace, we must have a mediator.

And here is God’s truth of mercy. As St. Paul says in the verse that follows our Second Reading, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:5). The man Jesus Christ brought both sides of the war—holy God and sinful us—back together. He worked out the greatest peace accord of all time. He took the sin and sins of all people of all time upon Himself. It broke Him and killed Him, to be sure, but that’s what brokered our peace with God, that’s what gives us God’s forgiveness, that’s what shows us God’s boundless love. Our Lord Jesus, born of the Virgin, nailed to the cross, and risen from the grave, brought us back to God, to peace with God. That’s God’s saving truth.

This holy faith, then, leads to holy prayer. Since we are at peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, we have access to God. We no longer view God as the unapproachable Judge; now we see Him as He really is, our loving Father who tenderly invites us to call upon Him. Now St. Paul’s words on prayer make perfect sense: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions….” St. Paul exhorts all Christians everywhere to pray. It’s the best thing we can do for our neighbor.

But for what do we pray? Too often we are tempted to pray only for ourselves, our individual wants and needs. We are tempted to look out only for our own interests, our own comfort. But notice how St. Paul directs our attention away from ourselves and to our neighbors—all people and the governing authorities. On this “Day of National Thanksgiving,” it is good, right, and salutary to pray for our nation, especially for our leaders.

Our nation and our leaders have been the center of attention lately, with the election, the wars, and the economic downturn and all. So they are perfect targets for our prayers. Multi-billion dollar bailouts of banks and other areas of our economy. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A new president assembling his administration to face great challenges; an outgoing president trying to avert economic disaster. It really doesn’t matter what our various political views are; our holy prayer is needed for our nation’s leaders. In fact, when St. Paul encouraged prayers for kings and leaders, he lived at a time when the Roman emperor was most likely insane and most certainly hostile to Christians. No matter who the personalities are or what the politics are the governing leaders are God’s servants. God Himself gives them to us. That’s why we pray for them. We pray for God’s wisdom and guidance for our leaders. We most certainly pray for them to come to repentance and have a change of heart for supporting things such as lax justice or abortion or embryonic stem cell research or policies that make “Joe the Taxpayer” bear the brunt of their greed. Most of all, we pray that God would use our governing leaders to carry out His will of ensuring our “daily bread.”

Now we move from holy prayer to holy hands. You see, in holy prayer, we practice our trust in God our Father to shower His gifts upon us. We trust Him to provide for our basic needs of forgiveness from Him and a peaceful life on earth. Listen again to the reason St. Paul gives for praying for all people, especially our president and leaders: “…that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Then the apostle talks about lifting holy hands, a gesture of prayer that’s not contaminated with anger or disputing.

As Christians we live in holy faith, trusting God’s love and forgiveness through Christ Jesus our Mediator. As Christians we offer holy prayers, our sacrifices that are most pleasing to God because we are exercising our holy faith. And as Christians we also live with holy hands. We live life right here where God has placed us in this world, and what we do is holy, because Christ makes us holy. We rely on His Gospel and Sacraments for life and peace with God—that’s how He makes us holy. He washes us with His holy water of Baptism. He comforts us with His holy words of Absolution. And He nourishes and enlivens us with His holy meal of Body and Blood. These things make us holy, devout, and please to God.

So we live with holy hands in all we do. As Christians, by God’s grace, we are sweet smelling sacrifices to God. God uses us and our hands to bring peace and quiet into this world, peace and quiet into the life of our neighbor—the grocer by providing food; the teacher by giving instruction; the parent by raising children well. The list could go on. The governing authorities have a similar job. God gives them to keep chaos and wickedness from running amok. That way we can live peaceful, quiet lives. And when we live peaceful, quiet lives—confident of God’s mercy and forgiveness in Christ Jesus—we bring peace and quiet into the life of our neighbor.

So, on this “Day of National Thanksgiving,” it is good, right, and salutary to appreciate the material blessings. But there’s so much more for which to thank God. He has given us the governing leaders to ensure that we may lead peaceful, quiet lives with holy hands. So our holy prayer is indispensable, and that holy prayer flows out of our holy faith in Jesus Christ who achieved the best kind of peace and quiet we can have—peace between our loving God and us. Now there’s something to be thankful for. Amen.

23 November 2008

Homily - Trinity 27

Here's today's homily, for both the Last Sunday in the Church Year and my last Sunday in the pulpit before sabbatical leave (I'll preach yet at Thursday's Thanksgiving Day Matins service).

Looking for Fulfillment
Trinity 27 – Sunday of the Fulfillment

Isaiah 65:17-25; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 & Matthew 25:1-13

Christ is risen! [R: He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!] I’ll bet you weren’t expecting that, were you? But today gives us quite a mixture of messages—a little resurrection of Easter’s joy of new life in Jesus mixed with a healthy dose of eager anticipation for Jesus to come again in glory. After all, that’s when we’ll get to see and live the fulfillment of our Lord’s Easter victory over sin and death.

And there’s more. In the Gospel reading, we hear of the wise and foolish virgins and the oil of faith as they await the Bridegroom’s coming. Jesus says, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” In the Epistle reading, we hear St. Paul’s exhortation on just how to wait for the Lord to “come like a thief in the night”—he calls us to be sober in our waiting and to put on the armor of faith and love and the hope of salvation yet to come. In the Old Testament reading, we hear God’s promise of what lies ahead: a “new heavens and new earth”; all joy, no more sadness; all life, no more death; all prosperity, no more need; all peace, no more conflict. And on top of all that, today is the last Sunday that I will be with you for the next six months. As you know, effective next Sunday I’ll be on sabbatical leave, a time for resting, reading, praying, and getting rejuvenated so that I can return and continue serving as your pastor.

How do all of these messages meld together to comfort and edify us today? On this “Sunday of the Fulfillment” we look forward to fulfillment, to full life, real life, restored life, in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Now, I’m going to stray a bit from one of my cardinal rules of preaching—I’m going to insert myself a bit this morning. No, I don’t like putting myself front and center in a sermon, let alone in the spotlight in general, but I also don’t want to ignore what’s on your mind on this last Sunday with you for a while.

As you heard two weeks ago, when the Elders announced my sabbatical leave, I’ve been wrestling with depression and burnout. I used to think that depression was mostly a matter of “having a bad day” or something. But I’ve learned that it comes as a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. For someone with depression even the best of days and happiest of circumstances can seem shrouded in cloudy gloom. For me that gloom has been going by the name of “Apathy.” My motto has been: “Ah, what’s the point?” I know that’s not the “normal me,” but I can’t just shake it with a burst of willpower. And the burnout? One source explained burnout this way: “a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion marked by physical depletion and chronic fatigue, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and by development of negative self-concept and negative attitudes towards work, life and other people” (Oswald, 59). Yep, that’s been me.

Why do I focus on such things on this Last Sunday of the Church Year? No, not to get you to think, “Poor, Pastor.” Please don’t. Though I do appreciate all of your support, your well wishes, and especially your prayers. Instead, I bring this up because it illustrates the need we all have—the need for our Savior to return and “graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.” You see, there may not be a big “S” emblazoned on my clerical shirts – you know, for “Superpastor” – and I know you’ve never seen that big “S” – but we pastors like to think we can do anything and be everything for every one else—run faster than a speeding sermon deadline, be more powerful than a hectic schedule, and leap tall buildings of personal crises in a single bound. However, I, your pastor, am realizing just how finite and limited I am. Yes, we all need such reminders. Yes, we all need the Savior who loves us and strengthens us. Yes, we all need the Bridegroom to come and usher us into His “new heavens and new earth.” Oh, I am so looking forward to His return and to our new life with Him!

When we started making plans for this sabbatical leave, one brother pastor wrote some comforting words in an email. I will always appreciate and treasure them. He said, “The Day is not far off when Jesus will make all things new forever, including us. God grant you already now greater glimpses of the coming rest and joy. Meanwhile, we’ll keep on limping along together on this pilgrimage, sharing in the sufferings of Christ, finding life and strength in Him.” That’s the message of this Sunday of Fulfillment. We may be “limping along,” but we’re also looking forward to our Lord’s fulfillment of all of His promises, His new, full, real, restored life.

For now we’re all “limping along together on this pilgrimage.” St. Paul hints at this in our second reading. The world thinks there is “peace and security” in the things of the world—a new president soon to take office, a stock market rally here and there, or a profitable holiday shopping season. And we Christians too often go “limping along” in trying to find our peace and security in this fallen world. But, as St. Paul says, “sudden destruction will come upon them.” It’s the same thing Jesus had to tell His disciples once (Mk. 13:1-2). As He and they came out of the temple after worship, one disciple marveled at the wonderful buildings and the wonderful stones. But Jesus had to remind them—and us—not to put confidence in such things, because, after all, it will all come crashing down on the Last Day. So St. Paul urges us to “keep awake and be sober.” We are but pilgrims passing through this fallen world. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to Himself” (Phil. 3:20-21). I don’t know about you, but when I—fallen, frail, limited, and limping human being that I am—hear that, I can’t help but eagerly hope and pray for it.

That’s the oil in the lamps of the wise virgins in our Gospel reading—the oil of faith. No, not just any old generic faith. No, not just faith in any old thing that comes along. Notice what those virgins were waiting for—the coming of the Bridegroom. Those wise virgins had a plentiful supply of faith in the Son of God who loved them and gave Himself for them. You see, the Bridegroom has already demonstrated His great love for us, His bride, the Church. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him” (1 Jn. 4:9). This Bridegroom, Jesus the Son of God, took on our human flesh—our flesh so shackled by any number of frailties and sicknesses and weaknesses, our flesh so prone to “limping along” in things such as depression and burnout and focusing on the fickle peace and security offered by the world. So the Son of the living God, our Lord Jesus, has restored our frail flesh. He, fully God and fully Man, also went to the cross to shed His blood for us. In His blood we find forgiveness and salvation from sin. In His death and resurrection we find healing, wholeness, and life—full life, real life, restored life—beginning now and realized in eternity. I don’t know about you, but I for one can’t wait until our Lord’s fulfillment, when He comes to take us into His wedding feast.

What will we find once we enter His marriage feast and the doors to this fallen world are shut behind us? Consider our first reading. What a picture! Former things, such as our sin and our weaknesses, will not be remembered. We, God’s Jerusalem, will “be glad and rejoice forever in that which [He creates].” Why? Because He rejoices in us and is glad in us, His people. That’s what Jesus’ incarnation, cross and empty grave tell us. It’s what His washing and His Meal deliver to us. Also, no more weeping, no more cries of distress. “He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). No more infants dying young, no more old men coming to the end of their days. In other words, life, full life, real life, restored life. And just in case we think it might get boring, as if there would be nothing to do, remember this: “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” We’ll get to enjoy living like we’ve never enjoyed it before. God also says, “My chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.” Yes, our working, our living, our growing will be such a joy—something that eludes us here and now, but something that will be very real.

But here’s something even better. God says, “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.” No longer will we speak, act, and live in ways contrary to God’s good will. Instead, we will be, as they say, “in tune”—perfectly in tune—with God the Holy Trinity, and He with us. It’s how we were created to live. It’s what Jesus came to restore through His life, death, and resurrection. It’s what we can look forward to with great anticipation. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to it.

Hebrews 4:9 says, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” That Sabbath rest comes in our Bridegroom Jesus Christ, and we will get to experience it fully on the Last Day. For now, even as we limp along, we rejoice in cross-won life and we look forward to His coming fulfillment of that life. Come to His Table, where He gives a foretaste of that feast to come. And while I must now leave you for a time, please remember that our Lord still keeps us together in His Body. After a time of “greater glimpses of the coming rest and joy,” I look forward to joining you again to look forward to our fulfillment in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

20 November 2008

A Sabbath Rest

Hebrews 4 has long been one of my favorite chapters in Scripture, particularly for the promise that "there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God" (Heb. 4:9). Just as God rested from His labors, says the writer to the Hebrews (and, yes, I like either St. Paul or Apollos for that honor), we too may look forward to a Sabbath rest. Of course, Hebrews 4 is speaking of the "rest" of our salvation and eternal life with the Holy Trinity.

However, I think this promised rest will take on more meaning these next six months as I will take a much-needed sabbatical leave - a.k.a. "sabbath rest" - from parish duties. Now that it's been publicized in my parish, I can speak of it here in this forum. Beginning 30 November 2008 I will take a sabbatical leave in order to rest, get rejuvenated, re-establish good study habits, and thus return to parish duties after 31 May 2009 with renewed vigor and focus.

You see, I must admit that I have been battling depression and burnout for the past couple of years. For those years I always thought, "I can shake this off," or "I can get re-focused," or other such self-motivational notions. But when you have that chemical imbalance in the brain that the doctors call "depression," such self-motivation just doesn't go very far or last very long. In fact, with bona fide depression (as opposed to having that gloomy day that hits everyone every once in a while), I have discovered firsthand that someone with depression can walk out the door first thing in the morning, greet a warm, bright, sunny, cloudless day, and it still seems as though the world is enveloped in a cool, overcast haze. My variety of depression has been marked, not by anxiety, but by apathy. Much of what I used to like and love (vocation, interests, hobbies, etc.) just hasn't mattered. "Ah, what's the point?" becomes one's motto with this kind of depression.

And then there's the burnout. I never thought of myself as a candidate for such a thing - never thought it would happen to me (You mean my clerical shirts aren't emblazoned with that big "S" for "Superpastor"? :-). But then, thanks to an article by Rev. Matt Harrison on sabbaticals, I decided to read Roy Oswald's book called Clergy Self-Care. As Oswald distilled several quotes on what burnout is, I'd swear the page in the book turned into a mirror reflecting the real me. Here's how Oswald described "burnout":
• Decreased energy—physically, the individual has difficulty keeping the pace.
• Decreased self-esteem—the individual feels a sense of personal failure related to work or vocation.
• Output exceeding input—the person has poured more and more of him/herself into a job or project, and the expected payoff or rewards are not forthcoming.
• Sense of helplessness, hopelessness, being trapped—the individual is unable to perceive alternate ways of functioning.
• Loss of idealism—the individual’s worldview has been shattered.
• Cynicism and negativism—the individual is down on self, others, the job, institutions, etc.
• Self-depletion—the individual’s resources to continue seem to be diminishing (Clergy Self-Care, p. 59).
Even though Oswald wrote and published those words back in 1991, I was sure that he must have been looking over my shoulder the past several months.

So, anyway, long story short, the past couple of months have been filled with seeing a counselor, seeing a doctor for the physical aspects (How about that, tests certainly can show imbalances and deficiencies in the body), discussing these matters with my congregation's elders, researching the whole notion of "sabbatical leave," and making plans for such a leave. (And that explains the paucity of posts here on the blog, a problem I hope to remedy real soon, perhaps with something of a "Sabbatical Journal" feature.) I must thank the Lord for giving me caring and understanding elders, as well as a very supportive congregation. This is new for all of us, but it's also an exciting time as we think of a renewed, refreshed relationship between pastor and people here at Hope.

What will I do for six months without the hustle and bustle of parish duties? I plan to spend Christmas - on Christmas - with my family in Oregon/Washington (something, of course, that we've not been able to do in 18 years of parish ministry). Reconnecting with family is supposed to be quite healing. I also plan to dive back into reading the Scriptures in their original languages, explore the new (for me) waters of early church fathers such as Ambrose, Chrysostom and others, sit in on a seminary class on patristic commentaries on John's Gospel, enroll in the "Doxology" program, and take some private retreats for prayer and study. Essentially, I'm looking forward to just being fed and "filled up" in order that I may return to my parish with renewed focus and zeal to serve the Lord and proclaim His Gospel.

And one final note before I share the statement that our Board of Elders has read and sent out. I've been amazed by the rapidity with which this news of my upcoming sabbatical has spread, and I've been especially surprised at how many people say, "Good for you!" But I must clarify one thing. The grapevine told me the other day that one report--from a branch on the grapevine most convinced of his "facts"--has put me "on disability." Well, to set the record straight: that's *not* true. I am not on disability; I will be on sabbatical. The goal is to rest and rejuvenate and thus avoid the whole disability thing. Please help the accurate details of my sabbatical story to course through the "grapevine."

Here's the statement that my Board of Elders has approved, has read after Divine Services a couple of Sundays ago, and has sent out to the whole congregation via postal mail:
Fellow Members of Hope:

For the past couple of months the Board of Elders has been discussing ways that our congregation takes care of our pastors. We call our pastors to preach, teach, give out the Sacraments, provide pastoral care to individuals and groups, and administer the day-to-day work of the congregation. This work often involves a seven-day-a-week schedule that sacrifices days off and time with family. Over time pastors need time for rest, renewal, and rejuvenation in order to keep serving the Church and our congregation.

Pastor Asburry has been serving the Church for 18 years, most of that time here at Hope, first as Associate Pastor and now as Senior Pastor. He prepares two sermons each week, one for Sunday and one for Wednesday. He teaches Bible classes, Adult Catechism classes, and a theology class at Hope School. He has also taught Youth Catechesis and Latin at the school. He regularly provides pastoral care to people who are shut-in and hospitalized; he prepares couples for marriage; performs Christian burials; and often provides pastoral counsel and deals with conflict resolution issues that arise. He carries out regular administrative duties and attends meetings of the Board of Elders, the Fiscal Board, the Board of Christian Education, and the Voters Assembly. In addition to this, for the past two years Pastor Asburry has been dealing with depression and burnout. Martin Luther once said something that describes what Pastor Asburry has been going through: “My head is like a dull knife. It just won’t cut anymore.”

The Board of Elders wants to take care of Pastor Asburry so that he can continue taking care of us with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Board has unanimously agreed to grant Pastor Asburry a sabbatical leave beginning November 30, 2008, and lasting until May 31, 2009. Sabbatical leaves flow out of the Days of Creation and are a good way for congregations to take care of their pastors. The 2007 LCMS Convention encourages congregations to take care of their pastors in this way and says, “A sabbatical is a time to receive, to be nurtured, and to reflect on one’s relationship with God so that one may be renewed, refreshed, and revitalized for a life of service to others” (Resolution 6-08). Pastor Asburry’s counselor has also recommended a sabbatical leave to deal with his depression and burnout. This sabbatical leave will give Pastor Asburry time to reflect on his work as a pastor, reestablish a regimen of daily study, reconnect with family, and rejuvenate himself to continue serving Hope Church and School. During this time he will enroll in the Doxology program for clergy study and renewal, attend several retreats and conferences, attend a class at Concordia Theological Seminary, and continue to see his counselor.

During Pastor’s sabbatical leave, Kantor Rosebrock will take care of the administrative duties at Hope, preach at Wednesday services, provide pastoral care for those in the hospital, and officiate at funerals and care for the grieving families. Pastor Preus will visit shut-ins and help with preaching. Pastor Egger and Pastor Maxwell will preside at Sunday Divine Services and, along with Pastor Fritsche and our seminary field education students, assist with preaching and teaching. This sabbatical leave will be financed by donations secured by the Board of Elders so that Pastor Asburry will continue to receive his regular salary and benefits and so that the congregation will not have extra expenses.

Please keep Pastor Asburry in your daily prayers during this sabbatical leave, especially that he may be rejuvenated and revitalized to serve Hope. Also, pray for those who take on extra duties to serve our congregation during this time. Finally, pray that God will use this time of sabbatical leave to enrich our life together as God’s people here at Hope.

Board of Elders
Approved, 3 November 2008
Read after Divine Services, 9 November 2008

12 November 2008

Homily - Trinity 25 Midweek

“Time to Wake Up!”
Trinity 25 Midweek (Series A, Proper 27)

Matthew 25:1-13

It’s probably the last thing that a child wants to hear, especially on a school day—mom coming into the room and saying, “Time to wake up!” But as children we needed to hear that ourselves, and as parents we know our children need to hear it.

It’s also what Jesus tells us in this evening’s Gospel reading—essentially, “Dear Christians, it’s time to wake up!” It’s time to be ready and watch. In Jesus’ own words: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Yes, Jesus is coming back, like a bridegroom coming to receive His bride, the Church, and take her home with Him. Yes, He has delayed these many years. And yes, we Christians tend to doze off and fall asleep, perhaps out of boredom, as we wait. But it’s time to wake up.

The ten virgins describe all of us and each of us quite well. When we become Christians, we are eager, ready and watchful for our Lord Christ. We go out to meet the Bridegroom. Some, though, are foolish and unthinking; others are prudent and street-smart. What’s the difference? The virgins all look the same. They all carry lamps. They’re all waiting for the Bridegroom. The difference is not in their good works or way of life. The difference is in the lamps. The wise virgins have oil in their lamps when the Bridegroom comes; the foolish virgins have let their oil run out.

You see, while they waited, “as the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.” The wise virgins knew how to set their lamps, but evidently the foolish ones did not. As they slept, the oil burned out. Then came the wake up call: “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet Him.”

Dear Christians, it’s time to wake up. Just as all ten virgins fell asleep, so do we. How so?

This waiting for Christ to return is serious business. When we are confirmed in the Christian faith, we are full of zeal and we confess Christ and the Christian faith. We promise that we “intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it” (LSB 273). But as we wait, we fall asleep on the watch. We stop praying or reading the Scriptures at home; after all, it takes so much time and we are oh, so busy. Besides, who can understand it? Some may choose to view Sunday morning as the “only time to sleep in,” or Wednesday evening as an odd time for worship, and the rest say, “Shh! Don’t wake them up,” or “We don’t want to bother them too much.”

How else might we slumber? When we hear news of the holocaust of abortion in our land, and the millions of little lives snuffed out before they can even be born, we yawn with thoughts of privacy and rights. When we hear news of another state allowing homosexual marriage, or even see such scenes on TV or in movies, we roll over to go back to sleep. Instead, we ought to be fervently praying, “Lord, have mercy on us.” We need to pray for and speak out for those who lose their lives to abortion. We need to pray for and speak God’s message for those who commit this holocaust. We need to pray for and proclaim God’s will to those who burn with the unnatural desires for the same sex. We need to stand on and confess God’s clear words and not compromise for the praise of men. We need to pray for ourselves, that we too may live in repentance and faith in Christ. But too often we simply hit the snooze button and nestle in for a little more slumber, wrapping ourselves cozily in our own little lives.

But perhaps the most dangerous way we sleep is when we doze off in the Divine Service. Perhaps we simply go through the motions and snooze through what’s happening in the liturgy. The Bridegroom comes in His words read and proclaimed. He comes right here to give us a foretaste of His eternal wedding feast. What an amazing thing! Heaven, right here on earth. The Son of God, right here in our midst. Yet we often walk away from worship as if we were sleepily walking from one chore to another.

Dear Christians, it’s time to wake up. Trim your lamps. The Bridegroom is coming. Ah, but some may find their lamps out of oil, and the wise ones cannot share theirs with the foolish ones. So, the foolish ones have to go shopping for their oil. What is that oil? Faith—faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us; faith in the Bridegroom who by His bloody death on the cross makes us His pure, unspotted bride; faith in the Lord Jesus who rose victorious to give us life with God, both now and into eternity. So, when the Bridegroom comes again, let’s not be the ones out chasing after the sales and merchandise. When the Bridegroom comes in His Gospel and Sacraments, let’s not be hypnotized by the world’s worship at the shopping mall. As the bumper sticker says, “The one who dies with the most toys still dies.” But the ones who are found waiting and watching when Christ returns, they will be brought into the great wedding feast of heaven.

It’s time to wake up, dear Christians. Our Lord Jesus has given us His gifts of forgiveness and life and salvation won for us by His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. He wakes us with a call to repentance and faith. Instead of getting so wrapped up in ourselves and our cares of life, He calls us to watch for Him, both as He comes now in grace and when He will come again in glory.

Yes, the Bridegroom already comes with forgiveness and mercy for our sleepiness. He says, “You may have gone to sleep on Me, but I have not gone to sleep on you. I have been watching over you all this time.” For us sleepy virgins who sometimes forget who we are in our Baptism, Jesus opens heaven’s door. He says, “Come on in. Join the festivities.” For us who get drowsy as we wait, our Lord prepares a sumptuous feast here this evening. He joins us to Himself in the eating and drinking. He gives us His crucified and risen Body and Blood to strengthen our weak flesh. So our lamps can be full of faith in His forgiveness and mercy.

Yes, it’s time to wake up, dear Christians. It’s time to realize that though we’ve been less than faithful, though we tend to fall asleep, our Lord still loves us and welcomes us into His wedding feast. Jesus bids us to bask in His loving presence and feast upon Him, the very Bread of Life. It’s really the only way to stay away and fend off the cold boredom of a long watch. It’s time to wake up and watch for the Bridegroom, our Lord Jesus, to come again. Amen.

11 November 2008

Homily - Trinity 25 (3rd Last Sunday of the Church Year)

Here's my homily from this past Sunday. Sorry it's late, but the RAsburry household has been pretty busy keeping up with falling leaves (not raking them, rather blowing them and sucking them--no, not with my mouth; with a leaf blower and vacuum :-), preparing for winter time (cleaning and organizing the garage and putting things away for the cold months), and getting the parsonage ready for much-needed new windows (which are being installed as I write).

Anyway, here's Sunday's sermon:

Kingdom Hidden, Kingdom Revealed
Luke 17:20-30 (Alternate Gospel)

Today we begin looking to the end of time, to the Last Day, when Christ will return. As we wait and watch, here’s a vital question: Which sense is more important for a Christian—the sense of sight or the sense of hearing? What takes priority in the Church—the eyes or the ears? The Bible says, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). It also says, “Faith comes by hearing” (Rom. 10:17). So, for the people of God, ears are the more important sense organs. The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts through the external words of the Gospel of Jesus, words that He speaks into our ears. When it comes to the senses, Christians are all ears.

But our Lord Jesus spoke against the Pharisees for being all eyes. They demanded special signs, and signs are seen instead of believed. The Pharisees did not trust in the Lord’s spoken words, but rather in their own vision and experience. They walked not by faith, but by unbelief that said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

In today’s Gospel reading the Pharisees ask Jesus about “when the kingdom of God would come.” They think it’s yet to come because they cannot yet see it. But Jesus tells them not to rely so much on their vision. They don’t see that the kingdom has already arrived. But Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of God is here, a present reality. It may be hidden and veiled from ordinary sight, but it’s still here. Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, there it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

God’s kingdom does not come with observation, Jesus says. We need to remember this in our culture of TV, Netflix videos, computer games, and virtual reality. We like to see things. That’s how we like to know what’s real. But the kingdom of God cannot be observed or analyzed with natural eyes. It cannot be identified with visible signs of power or prosperity. No, this side of eternity, God’s kingdom is hidden from normal human sight.

So Jesus tells the Pharisees that God’s kingdom is already here: “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” It’s already here, already present, because Christ the King is here. Since He’s the King, it’s His kingdom. We can even say that He IS the kingdom—the kingdom of God in the flesh. Yes, God’s kingdom hides behind and within Jesus’ true humanity. All of God’s fullness dwells in Him. He is God’s kingdom with all of its blessings. So, the kingdom of God is present wherever the flesh-and-blood Christ is—wherever He speaks His words to His people, wherever He gives His Body and Blood to His people, wherever He forgives sins and gives a share in His life. When we have Jesus, we have the kingdom of God.

But our fallen nature prefers to have something of its own making. It wants something it can see rather than trusting what Jesus says. We are very much like the ancient Israelites at Mt. Sinai in our first reading. Moses had gone up the mountain to receive the Word of the Lord. The people grew impatient as he delayed coming down. So they said to Aaron, “Make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses…we do not know what has become of him.” They did not want to walk by faith in an unseen leader. They wanted to walk and live by sight. And Aaron failed to be a faithful high priest and gave in to the people’s demands. He took their jewelry and fashioned a golden calf—a fertility symbol, an idol for sight, not for faith. They traded the true God for their own version of what they wanted God to be.

We also like to walk by sight. We also have our “golden calves” as we await the Lord’s return. We may not bow down to a symbol of fertility, but we do bow down to things we can see, things we think will lead us out of the wilderness of our sin and death. We might bow at the feet of growth and success and try to measure God’s kingdom and life in the Church by numbers and excitement we can see. We might bow at the feet of popular pastors and leaders who can draw great crowds. We might bow at the feet of making sure our 401(k)s and the stock market are always growing and shining with success.

Let’s remember, though, that when Moses came down from the mountain, when he saw the false worship and immorality, he took down the calf, burned it, and ground it into powder. Then he scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it. Even our golden calves—the things we trust instead of Jesus the Christ—will be torn down and crushed. Just as Moses came down from the mountain, our Lord Jesus will come down unexpectedly on the Last Day. We may be “eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage”; we may be “eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building,” but the Lord will still come to judge the fallen world. And our Lord’s coming will be quite a surprise for all who ignore Him and live by sight.

However, for all who repent and believe, for all of us who walk as yet by faith, our Lord’s return is not something to dread. Instead, we welcome it. You see, our judgment day has already happened. It took place when our Lord Jesus was nailed to the cross. There He suffered the judgment for our sin and unbelief. There He took our place and, out of great love and mercy, endured the weight of our sin and death. That’s why Jesus says in our Gospel reading, “first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.” His great love compelled Him to redeem us from our idols of sight. His shed blood purchased us as His own so that we can “live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”

Yes, our judgment day has come. It came on the day when Jesus said, “It is finished.” Just as the Lord provided deliverance for Noah and his family, and for Lot and his daughters, He has also delivered us from sin and death and brought us into His kingdom. His kingdom comes in Christ crucified and risen. All we can see in the cross is a bloody execution, but in that very cross our Lord reveals His kingdom of grace, mercy, and forgiveness. In that instrument of death our Lord reveals His victory over the grave. Yes, we can trust these words that we hear. After all, we walk not by sight, but by faith.

God’s kingdom does not come by observation, but our Lord does reveal it to us. He is truly present, and He reveals Himself by “hiding behind” ordinary water that washes away sin and death, behind an ordinary man’s voice that proclaims His mercies and forgiveness, and behind common bread and wine that serve as His heavenly food. The kingdom of Jesus may not come by normal observation, but when we let our ears do their hearing, we recognize that the Kingdom is in our midst—Christ Himself is in our midst. As Jesus says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (Jn. 6:63). His water is “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). And He also says, “My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me and I in him” (Jn. 6:55-56).

The kingdom of God may not come by observation, but it is revealed to us in Jesus Himself. So, we learn to trust our ears. Our eyes may see only sin and sickness, trouble and death. But when we listen to and trust the Lord’s words, we hear the hidden reality that we are His chosen people, His royal heirs of eternal life. When we listen to and trust the Lord and His words, He sustains us and strengthens us to endure these last days in His kingdom revealed. We walk by faith, not by sight. After all, “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1, NKJV). Amen.

06 November 2008

Homily - Trinity 24 Midweek

False Ways and True Ways for the Church
Trinity 24 Midweek (A-Proper 26)

Matthew 23:1-12

Tonight we hear Jesus give a stinging critique of religion in His day, but He also wants His Church today to hear it and learn from it. Let’s walk through Jesus’ words again and listen to what they say for the Church today. First, though, an overall outline. We can see two main parts to our Gospel reading: the false ways and the true ways—what not to do and what to do in our life together as Christ’s Body.

And what does Jesus say on the false ways? “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat.” That’s not a false way. Actually, Jesus respects the “seat of Moses,” after all, according to Jewish tradition Moses sat on the seat to teach the Law to Joshua, and other respected teachers sat on it after him. Jesus respects, even gives, those who study, interpret, and teach His Scriptures. Then Jesus says: “so practice and observe whatever they tell you.” Again, not a false way here. Jesus teaches us to hear and learn from our teachers in the faith, even put those teachings into practice. St. Paul was one such teacher. When St. Paul taught in a place called Berea, the Jews there “received the word with all eagerness, examining it daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). They listened to their preacher-teacher St. Paul and they did so with discernment—not only critically, but also not only receptively—but checking the teaching with the Scriptures. We do the same thing today with our pastors, our teachers in God’s Scriptures. It’s what Hebrews 13:7 says: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”

So, what’s the false way that Jesus warns us against? “Practice and observe whatever they tell you but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice.” The Bible teachers of Jesus’ day would teach God’s law—Jesus approves that—but they did not practice what they taught. Think of it as the preacher teaching, “Trust the Lord your God,” but then not trusting God himself. Think of it as the preacher saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but then not showing that love for the neighbors who hear his teaching. Yep, we preachers have a tall order!

Jesus gives another false way: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” They might teach people to pray, or fast, or give to the poor, or just to attend church and learn God’s Word—and these are all good things—but the false teachers make them burdensome tasks. They do not balance the burden with the Lord’s mercy. They do not show the mercy that God wants them to show as they teach.

Then Jesus gives a final false way: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others…and they love the place of honor at feasts.” In other words, they love the show. They love to show off their learning so that people will ooh and awe. They love the “great-ness-ism.” The phylacteries were little leather cases, or boxes, that would contain little scrolls of Scripture passages. They would be strapped to the arm, or even the forehead, as a reminder to learn those Scriptures. The fringes would be on their robes, and making them long would make people notice. Jesus teaches His teachers, in fact, His whole Church: “Don’t be ostentatious and showy; don’t look to be great and recognized.”

Those are the false ways. Jesus also gives us some true ways of life as His people, His Church. And once again, He zeroes in on the preachers and lets the same thing apply to all of His people.

For the first true way Jesus says: “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.” No, Jesus is not worried about what words we use to refer to our clergy. He is concerned about who the true Teacher is. Our Lord instructs us to beware of those teachers who promote themselves or who have followings based on their sparkling personalities or unique perspective. Jesus says, “you have one teacher.” Yes, there’s only one Teacher—Jesus Himself. And any faithful, true teacher and preacher in Jesus’ Church will teach and preach only what Teacher Jesus gives. He will defer to the one, supreme Teacher. “You have one instructor, the Christ.” And the true preachers and teachers will view one another as brothers. Even when there are levels of pastors to govern the Church, they are still equal brothers in Christ.

The second true way is very similar: “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” Again, Jesus is not worried about what words we use, whether we refer to our fathers in the faith or our biological fathers. Instead, He wants us to trust and rely on our heavenly Father. After all, all fatherhood, spiritual and biological, comes from Him. He is our Father; we are His family.

The third true way really sums everything up: “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” The way of life in Jesus’ Church—for both clergy and laypeople—is greatness by serving. It’s the way of Jesus for us. He did not come to be great, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many. He did not come to exalt Himself, but to humble Himself in suffering and crucifixion and burial. And when He humbled Himself, He was exalted at just the right time, the third day. His death and resurrection bring an end to our need for greatness. His dying and rising show us that we are forgiven for our “great-ness-ism,” and restored to serve Him our great Teacher, and each other as brothers and sisters.

As Jesus teaches us these words, He was indeed preparing to head to the cross, His place of being humbled for us. We are hearing these words as we get ready to hear about the last days and the end times before Christ will return. So, Jesus’ words on the false ways and the true ways of life in His Church especially apply as we look for His reappearing on the Last Day. As we wait, we rely on our true Teacher. We trust our true Father and His Father. Instead of looking for greatness, we look to serve one another. And instead of exalting ourselves, we follow His path of humbling ourselves. You see, we also have the promise that He will by grace exalt us and raise us to life with Him.