29 December 2011

Get government OUT of healthcare!

HT to Anastasia over at Kyrie Eleison for her little post on "Medicare." Here's her post, in its elegant and poignant simplicity:


Item: When my husband went on Medicare, we assumed our insurance costs, now being footed by the U.S. Government, would go down. Shouldn't they? They went UP. It costs us more to be covered by Medicare than by our private insurance alone. Who do you think receives the extra money?

Item: We saw on the news last week that if a patient comes in complaining of having fainted, Medicare pays "only" $7,000 to the health care provider. This low figure has been tempting some health care organizations to instruct their doctors not to call if fainting, but to call it central nervous system something-or-other, because that diagnosis brings in many times more dollars from Medicare.

Fainting is a complaint my husband says can be resolved in less than half an hour at a cost of perhaps $50 to the doctor or practice.

WHO PAYS SEVEN THOUSAND DOLLARS for a fainting fit? You? Forget it. Your private health care insurance? Dream on. Only the U.S. Government.

And why? I defy you to make any sense of it without saying it involves corruption. The answer is, a lot of congressional somebodies are being paid a lot of money to funnel these kinds of dollars to doctors and hospitals.

ITEM: When my husband had his carotid artery operated on in March of this year, he spent one night in the hospital. The hospital's charge for this (not to be confounded with the doctors' charges, which are separate things) was $5,830.00. For one night. Without any particularly complicated care, as all went smoothly enough for him to be discharged the following morning. Medicare paid $3,000, which is still outrageous. And the remainder? The hospital, we were told, would write it off. Meaning it would receive $3,000 but, come tax time, claim a $2,830 loss.

The truth is, a major part of why the cost of health care in this country is so high is the federal government's corrupt involvement in it. Therefore the probability is, we would all, from infants to seniors, have been better off had there never been a Medicare. So yes, in that sense, I am against Medicare.

Does that mean I'm in favor of just dropping it? No, definitely not, because that would leave seniors, largely on a fixed income, defenseless in a sea of sharks. It ought to be dropped, yes, but only in the context of an overall reform in the American health care system. A real reform, I mean, not Obamacare. A reform in which medical charges bear some resemblance to actual costs, in which profits are not outrageous or extortionate, in which doctors and hospitals and pharmacies are paid directly by the patients, without any price-gougers interposing themselves between and dictating treatments. A reform brought about carefully, thoughtfully, and gradually.

We'd all pay less, seniors included, seniors especially.

Oh, and we'd also be living more nearly by the Constitution, which does not accord the federal government the power to set up or administer a program like Medicare.

27 December 2011

Homily for Christmas Day

For Christmas Day, we were privileged to have Pr. Daniel Preus (Executive Director of Luther Academy and Part-Time Assistant Pastor here at Hope) proclaim the Christmas Gospel in light of Titus 3:4-7 (the Epistle reading for the day). With his permission, here is the text of his fabulous sermon:

Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas! That word “merry” is a little antiquated. We don’t use it much any more. Apart from wishing a person a merry Christmas, when was the last time you used that word? You wives, when your husband asked you this morning, “How are you?” did you answer. “Oh, I’m very merry!.” We don’t use the word “merry” much any more but we still know what it means. It means happy, joyous, cheerful. And on this Christmas day we are happy, we’re joyous, we’re cheerful. We’re merry. Because what happened today? When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, what happened? He saved us! That’s what our text says. And this text is the historic epistle pericope chosen by the church for Christmas Day because the church historically has connected the birth of the Savior with the appearance of God’s goodness and loving kindness.

Throughout the Old Testament times God’s people had waited for this appearance. It is not that they were not aware of God’s goodness and loving kindness. But they knew that the full expression of that kindness lay in the future. They knew that the fullness of God’s love would appear when He saved us. And the birth of Jesus marks the appearance of God’s goodness and loving kindness toward us.

That’s why the angels sing; that’s why the shepherds come to the manger – because there is a Savior here, because there in the manger our rescuer is lying who will one day give His life so that “whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.” That’s why Zacharias the priest proclaims, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, because He has visited and redeemed His people.”

God became a man to redeem, to buy back from sin, death and devil all people. Apart from this incarnation of God’s Son, apart from the birth of the baby whose coming we celebrate today, there is no loving kindness of God toward us. Had this child not come, angels would never have appeared in the heavens saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom God is pleased,” because apart from the coming of His Son, God is not pleased with anybody. Apart from the birth of this baby there is no peace between God and men, there is no authentic spiritual joy, there is no good news for us from God, there is no Gospel, there is no hope of salvation or eternal life. All this appeared when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared. All this appeared when Jesus came. Every gift of God’s grace you and I enjoy comes to us in Jesus and only in Jesus and it is therefore at His birth that we celebrate not only God’s coming to us in His Son; we also celebrate His gifts of love and joy and peace and hope.

All this because the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared. Why? I mean, why did it appear? Our conscience does not encourage us to be hopeful when we hear that God is appearing to us. After all what does the Bible say. We read in Psalm 14, “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt. There is none who does good, not even one.” God should have been able to expect that He would find a people on earth who would honor him, a holy people who would have nothing to do with evil and wrong. After all, that’s the way he first made them. But what does He find? Among all those whom He has made there is not one upon whom He can look with joy and favor. They have all turned away. And that includes you and me.

If we believe the Bible, if we listen to our own conscience, how can we possibly react with joy when we hear that God has appeared to human beings? That can’t be good news! It’s not possible that he has come to show us goodness and kindness and love; surely He has come to judge us, to damn us, right?

No! He has indeed come to reveal his kindness and love to us, to offer us His mercy and forgiveness, because look how He comes. He doesn’t come in great power and glory. No He comes as one of us. Indeed, He has so bound Himself to our human nature, that from the moment of His conception on – through all eternity – God the Son is human, your brother and mine. How can we fear Him when He comes to us as our brother? In fact, He comes not only as our brother; He comes as our little brother. Yes, a poor, weak, helpless human being, a little baby lying in a manger, just like the poorest children of his day.

Now how can anyone be afraid? When you see this little boy, how can you look at Him sleeping in the manger and see God’s anger? How can you look at him in his mother’s arms and see God’s curse? How can you look at Joseph changing his diapers and feel fear or terror?

In this God in the manger, in this God who became one of us, we find nothing but kindness and love. Here we see only one who has come to help, to rescue and to save what is lost. It is no wonder that Martin Luther declares about this text (Titus 3:4-7), “I must say, that in all the Scriptures I have not read more precious words about God’s grace.”

But we still have not answered that question – Why? Why is God so kind and gracious to us. “Not because of works done by us in righteousness,” our text says. It’s certainly not because of what He sees when He looks at us. Our text makes that very clear. No, “according to His mercy” He saved us. That’s what Paul says. “Not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

Why has God been so kind and gracious to us? Last night we spent the evening with our daughter and her husband and their two girls. The youngest girl just turned a year old. You can’t believe how cute she is. And I don’t just say this as a grandfather. She is objectively a cute, little, darling girl. You just want to hug her and kiss her all the time, she is so cute. Is that why God is so kind and gracious to us? Because He looks at us and sees something so attractive and endearing, that He thinks to Himself, “They are such beautiful, wonderful, fine people I just can’t help myself. I must do everything for them that I can.” Is this what is in the mind of God when He comes to us with His kindness and grace?

No, we are not so cute that God just can’t resist us. In the verse immediately preceding our text for today Paul says to Titus, “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” Paul is not just talking about himself and Titus. He’s talking about all of us – the way we are by nature, by birth. We’re not at all like that little baby in the manger. Well, we’re like him in our humanity. But He’s without sin. Not us. I don’t know how often I have stood on a street corner and seen a sign on the other side of the street which says, “Don’t walk!” and I have walked. God in His law has said to us over and over again, “Don’t walk!” And we have walked.

Thank God His goodness and loving kindness appeared. It was the turning point in human history. The Son of God came into the world, lived for us, suffered and died for us, saved us and turned God’s love and mercy toward us.

Yes, that’s the reason, the only reason why God can look upon us with such grace and mercy, “not because of works done by us in righteousness,” but because of works done by Him in righteousness.” That’s why the Father sent Him – so that through His life, suffering, death and resurrection He could do what sinful people could never do. After all, He is God and He does everything right. And so He came to us, the perfect God-Man and was obedient to God’s law and took upon Himself our sin and offered Himself as a sacrifice for all people.

And for that reason God no longer requires from us righteous works and lives before He is gracious to us. Rather, for Jesus’ sake He pours out His grace on us freely. He looks at us and says to every one of us who confesses his sins and believes in Jesus and recognizes that little child in the manger as God and Savior, He says to us, “My grace, my love, my friendship belong to you. I don’t think about your sins any more. And so there is nothing in all the world that can separate you from my love and from entering heaven and from receiving that crown which I have prepared for you.” Now which one of us will not want to cry out, “Praise be to this Savior who has done all this for me”?

Yes, praise be to Jesus who not only came that first Christmas Day and then lived, suffered, died and rose for us, but who even now blesses us with the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Bible says, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.’” When a sinful man or woman or child listens to the message of the birth of the Savior, and repents and asks God for mercy, this has been accomplished by the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul says in our text that the Holy Spirit has been “poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” The gift of the Holy Spirit is part of that salvation which comes to us through the birth of the Son of God. The fact that God’s Son became a man for us moves the Father to pour out His Holy Spirit on us.

And He does that, says Paul, through the washing of regeneration, that is through Holy Baptism. Through Baptism the Holy Spirit brings us that goodness and loving kindness of God which appeared when Jesus came. Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ we have been made holy in Baptism and heirs of Heaven. As Lutherans we say that Baptism is God’s means of grace; it is the hand of God which offers us His grace. But the cause, the founder of this grace, the one who earned this grace for us and brings it to us is our Lord Jesus Christ. He became one of us and in Him God’s grace appeared and came to us.

One more point needs to be made before we conclude our attention to the Christmas story this morning. The Holy Spirit has been poured out upon us to give us faith in Jesus but when He does that, He also gives us a new heart and a new mind. When God’s love and kindness have shined into our hearts and filled them with their holy light, we as God’s children want to live for Him. We want to love Him and serve Him. It is a joy for us to do what pleases Him.

And if it isn’t that way for you, you may know the Christmas story, but God’s kindness and love for you, God’s salvation for you through Jesus, His Son, do you see that? That’s why He came – to save you so that you could belong to Him. As Luther puts it, “That I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true!”

May our heavenly Father send His Holy Spirit to open our eyes and our hearts this day so that every one of us can see in His Son Jesus our Savior; and confess Him as our only hope of forgiveness and life; and serve Him and glorify Him in all that we do. Then this Christmas Day will be for you and me a joyous one, a happy one, a truly merry Christmas. Amen.

Rev. Daniel Preus
December 25, 2011
Soli Deo Gloria

Homily for Christmas Midnight

At the Christmas Midnight Divine Service (11:00 p.m. at Hope), we get to hear the great account of our Savior's Birth as given in Luke 2:1-20. What a great mystery it is that the Son of God humbled Himself, took on our human flesh and blood to become true Man, and yet still remains completely true God. On this Christmas Midnight we found ourselves "Pondering the Mystery" as we connected our Lord's Birth with His comforting promises from both the Old Testament and the New.

To listen to "Pondering the Mystery," click here and download the audio file.

Homily for Christmas Eve

The celebration of our Lord's Nativity begins with Christmas Eve (4:00 p.m. here at Hope). At this service we hear Matthew's account of the Birth of Jesus--Matthew 1:18-25--the account from Joseph's perspective. This year I took on the bit of conventional wisdom that the Christmas season is "all about giving." As we discover from the Matthew 1 Christmas story, there's a different focus: "It's All About RECEIVING."

To listen to "It's All About RECEIVING," click here and download the audio file.

25 December 2011

Christmas at Bethany 2011

The choirs at Bethany Lutheran College, Mankato, MN, put on a fabulous Christmas concert each evening of 30 November through 4 December. Here are the recordings:

Part 1:

And Part 2:

23 December 2011

21 December 2011

Bach Society Christmas Candlelight Concert

Simply beautiful and joyously majestic!

These are the best words I can use to describe last night's "Christmas Candlelight Concert" by The Bach Society of Saint Louis at Powell Symphony Hall. Under the direction of A. Dennis Sparger the Bach Society treated us to a host of Christmas classics that clearly proclaim the Birth of our Savior Jesus Christ for our salvation, and it did so with such beauty, dignity, and grace that come only from God's gift of music. Hope's own Erica Rosebrock (wife of Kantor Stephen Rosebrock) is a "principal singer" for the Society.

The opening "Joy to the World," arranged by Randol Alan Bass, made me think, "This is what heaven's music will surely sound like." One does not often hear such majesty when singing this beloved hymn in annual Christmas services or caroling, and so it was quite the treat for ears, mind and heart. The Society also gave its premier performance of "Carol of the Holy Child," composed by Stephen Mager, Bach Society's composer-in-residence. Erica Rosebrock had a soloist part in this piece, and what an angelic voice! (I already knew that from her service at Hope, but what a delight it was to hear her in the concert hall as well.)

The crown jewel piece of the concert's first portion was  W. A. Mozart's "Exsultate, jubilate" K. 165. The featured soloist, Mary Wilson (soprano and Bach Society Young Artist 1997-1999), fabulously conveyed the meaning and emotion of Mozart's text as it calls for rejoicing and sweet songs at the birth of the Savior. I always marvel that God has blessed certain voices with the ability to soar so high and express so much joy.

The Society rounded out the first part of the evening with a Christmas Medley including "In
dulci jubilo," "Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine," and "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing."

After intermission, the Society treated us to "Candlelight Procession," arranged by A. Dennis Sparger. Members of the chorus carried candles (albeit battery operated, by necessity and for cleanliness, to be sure) and processed through the aisles around the audience. All the while they sang: "O Come, All Ye Faithful," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "Silent Night," and "Angels We Have Heard on High." Familiar pieces, all; but the dignity and beauty with which the chorus sings them is well worth the listen.

The audience was privileged to sing a couple of Christmas favorites as choirs changed places. Ron Klemm (of classic99.com) served as guest conductor for "The First Nowell" and "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen." Between these two songs, the St. Louis Archdiocesan Children's Choir, directed by Dr. Horst Buchholz, sang, "Laudamus te," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "Ave Maria." Talk about angelic voices, and such wonderful talent evident in these young singers!

The Society rounded out the evening by singing "Let the bright seraphim" (by Handel), two traditional carols ("Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head" and "Pat-a-pan"), "Love Came Down at Christmas," and, finally, "Star Carol."

This was the first time that the RAsburry family attended a Bach Society Christmas concert, but I can assure it won't be the last. It was a family Christmas gift to one other that will certainly have to happen again in coming years. After all, now that we've done it once, it must be well on the way to being a tradition. :-)

One thing that struck me through the concert last evening and through the day looking back on it. The Church would appear to have a grand ally in the arts community in preserving, treasuring, and proclaiming the joyous mystery of Christ's Birth. Nowhere could be found a hint of the two PCs--political correctness and pop-culture--that scorn and/or cheapen the Christmas message. The "Christmas Candlelight Concert" was pure, unabashed singing of the Christ Child and why He came into the world. How marvelous and refreshing it is to witness and hear, in a public place, the Christmas message without the embarrassed hush-hushing of anything resembling Christian, and without the vapid, vacuous songs that merely say "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas."

Another thing that caused this casual reviewer to marvel was the simplicity of the rich sounds and joyous strains. Simple vocal cords, vibrating strings, air through instruments, and well-timed percussion create such rich, soul-stirring, and peaceful music. This is a far cry from the blaring, technology-driven music, replete with eye-catching (-distracting?) special effects, to which we are so accustomed. There is certainly something to be said for the simplicity, beauty, joy and majesty of the gifts that our Incarnate Lord has given to His fellow human beings--many of them brothers and sisters in the faith, to be sure--for singing His praises.

With that thought it mind, Martin Luther's great words on music and God's Word provide a grand wrap-up for last evening's musical treat:
I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent gift of God which it is and to commend it to everyone.... Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions--to pass over the animals--which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them....

Thus it was not without reason that the fathers and prophets wanted nothing else to be associated as closely with the Word of God as music. Therefore, we have so many hymns and Psalms where message and music join to move the listener's soul, while in other living beings and [sounding] bodies music remains a language without words. After all, the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming [the Word of God] through music and by providing sweet melodies with words. (Cited in Treasury of Daily Prayer for December 21)

19 December 2011

Immanuel--at the Altar

Immanuel—at the Altar
It is Christmas. Have you found the way to Bethlehem? It is important to make straight the pathway of the Lord into your hearts. That duty is now done. Now take your pilgrim-staff and your gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. You will not have to stop off at Jerusalem to inquire the way. The Altar is your Star. There you find Bethlehem.

Bethlehem means “house of bread.” Indeed, “bread of life,” “staff of life.” You will come, then, as the shepherds came. You will kneel as they did in adoration. And if your vision of faith is clear enough, you will see at the Altar not merely bread and wine, but the Christ-Child, the Word made flesh. After Christmas? You will do the same as did the Wise Men. They went home by another way, not by way of Jerusalem. You will go another way, the way of new life. And with the shepherds you will make known abroad all that you have seen and realized. The confession—“Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man,” will be more than a vague truth, more than an historical event. Christmas will be an experience. You will truly understand the truth of the angelic words: “They shall call His Name Immanuel, which is being interpreted, God with us,” aye, Immanuel—at the Altar.

--Berthold Von Schenk (1895-1974) The Presence. p. ?? (Quoted in For All the Saints, III:135-136.)

Homily for Advent 4

Reredos at Hope Lutheran, St. Louis, MO
In the Gospel reading for Advent 4 (LSB One-Year) we hear the priests and Levites ask John the Baptist, "Who are you?" It's a fitting question for Advent, especially as we prepare to celebrate Who our Savior is--that is, the Word made flesh. John's answer is instructive to us Christians: "I am not the Christ." Who are you, Christian? Certainly not the Christ! But there is a Christ, and He has come for you. So, continuing the theme from last week, yesterday's homily focused on "Who Are You? Part II."

Click here to download the audio file and listen to "Who Are You? Part II."

Christmas Decorations Are Up!

On Saturday, 17 December, several gracious folks came to decorate Hope, St. Louis, MO (USA), for the coming celebration of our Lord's Nativity. Here are some pictures:

Lights going up on the tree.

High school & college students keeping ... busy?

One of the wreaths on the pillars.

A beautiful simplicity in the chancel.
Putting up the Nativity Scene.

The Nativity Scene (above the door way, visible as one leaves)

Nativity Scene from the choir loft.

A wreath goes up on the front of the loft.
Yep, they do get to work! :-)
The Christmas tree is done.
Ornaments on the tree.
The "reason for the season" ... and for our very life!

16 December 2011

Thoughts on 21 Years of Ordination

Twenty-one years ago today, the Church ordained a young, twenty-six year old man into the Office of the Holy Ministry ... and the Lord has been having His way ever since. That young pastor was going to take the Church by storm and help all kinds of people by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and administering His Sacraments.

However, as I recall hearing at one weekly, after-chapel symposium during seminary, "people don't want your help." And, as the Lord has been stressing for these past twenty-one years, He wants to keep and tend His Church in His own ways. I hold neither bitterness nor regret over this. That's how it should be for all pastors in Christ's one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. After all, serving the Lord in His Church is not a right to be pushed, but a gift, a privilege and an honor, all to be received with humility and thanksgiving.

You see, ordination is about being put "under orders" to be the Lord's man--not my own--and to carry out the Lord's bidding--again, not my own.

We usually mark anniversaries on the tens or fives--10, 20, 25, 30, 50, etc.--and last year's 20th anniversary was marked with the rite of "Anniversary of an Ordination" followed by a dinner replete with appreciative congregants, brother pastors, kind words, and treasured gifts. One of those brother pastors (you know who you are, TW) was even present, lo, those twenty-one years ago today. Not only am I honored he was there back then; I'm also honored to call him friend and brother in Office still to this day.

But what to do with a "21st" anniversary? Instead of letting the seeming oddity of the number, or the anticlimax after last year, overshadow, it strikes me that this is perhaps a more perfect number to remember the joys of ordination. After all, 21 is nothing other than the product of two Biblical numbers of completion: 7 x 3. So, sans anniversary rites and honored guests, today gives the opportunity to reflect on what being "under orders" in Christ's holy Church truly means.

Some Scripture passages come to mind. They have often guided, comforted, and returned me to the "core values" for the Office throughout these 7 x 3 years:
Acts 20:28 - "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."
1 Corinthians 4:1-2 - "This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful."
1 Corinthians 9:16-17 - "For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship."
1 Timothy 4:16 - "Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers."

2 Timothy 4:1-2 - "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."

1 Peter 5:2-4 - "Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory."
Of course, Article V from the Augsburg Confession has also been a concise, pithy, and oft-needed reminder of the purpose of the Office of the Holy Ministry and Who really works through it:
So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given. He works faith, when and where it pleases God, in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ's sake. (Concordia, p. 33)
In none of these passages do I find a hint of being successful, or being the man of the hour, or ascending the levels of acclaim, even in ecclesiastical guise. No, we pastors are but stewards--mere mid-level managers, humble table-waiters--for Someone else, namely, our Lord Jesus Christ. In Advent we are reminded of John the Baptist, Forerunner of the Christ. May his memorable words become the operating principle of every trustworthy steward: "He [Christ] must increase, but I must decrease." (John 3:30)

Other pearls of wisdom that have guided, comforted, and kept me on track these past two decades come from various sources. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a way of making such pearls stick when he wrote of "visionary dreaming." He speaks in general terms, but his words apply, I think, especially well to us pastors:
God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what He has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by His call, by His forgiveness, and His promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of His grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words or deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which binds us together—the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship. (Life Together, 27-29)
One of many pearls from Eugene Peterson comes when he critiques pastors in America for being "shopkeepers":
The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper's concerns--how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money. (Working the Angles, 2)
Peterson then goes on to give the proper corrective to this modern problem:
The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor's responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. (Working the Angles, 2)
Evelyn Underhill offers a priceless pearl of wisdom for pastors seeking to be faithful to Jesus their true Shepherd. Instead of calling pastors "undershepherds," she refers to them as "sheepdogs." Sheepdogs have become my favorite image for my God-given vocation, because, as Underhill observed on her way to her talk with Sunday School teachers:
They were helping the shepherd to deal with a lot of very active sheep and lambs, to persuade them into the right pastures, to keep them from rushing down the wrong paths. And how did the successful dog do it? Not by barking, fuss, ostentatious authority, any kind of busy behaviour. The best dog that I saw never barked once; and he spent an astonishing amount of his time sitting perfectly still, looking at the shepherd. The communion of spirit between them was perfect. They worked as a unit. Neither of them seemed anxious or in a hurry. Neither was committed to a rigid plan; they were always content to wait. That dog was the docile and faithful agent of another mind. He used his whole intelligence and initiative, but always in obedience to his master’s directive will; and was ever prompt at self-effacement. The little mountain sheep he had to deal with were amazingly tiresome, as expert in doubling and twisting and going the wrong way as any naughty little boy. The dog went steadily on with it; and his tail never ceased to wag.

What did that mean? It meant that his relation to the shepherd was the centre of his life; and because of that, he enjoyed doing his job with the sheep, he did not bother about the trouble, nor get discouraged with the apparent results. The dog had transcended mere dogginess. His actions were dictated by something right beyond himself. He was the agent of the shepherd, working for a scheme which was not his own and the whole of which he could not grasp; and it was just that which was the source of the delightedness, the eagerness, and also the discipline with which he worked. But he would not have kept that peculiar and intimate relation unless he had sat down and looked at the shepherd a great deal. (Evelyn Underhill, “The Teacher’s Vocation,” Collected Papers of Evelyn Underhill, Lucy Menzies, ed. (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., Inc., 1946), pp. 182-183.)
One of last year's treasured gifts is a small figurine sheepdog that sits here on my desk in the church study. It happens to be turning its head and looking backward to its right. In that direction on my study wall hangs a framed version of this passage from Underhill. I've titled it "Pastors as Sheepdogs" and included a picture of another sheepdog as well as an icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd. It truly is amazing how such visual reminders can keep us pastors anchored in our proper identity and work.

A final pearl comes from C. F. W. Walther, 19th century pastor, professor, and president of the Missouri Synod. Upon re-reading his Law and Gospel recently, he again reminds me - and all pastors - of what really happens in our day to day service and tasks.
It is a glorious and marvelous arrangement--one that surpasses all understanding--that God governs the kingdoms of this world, not by immediate action but through the agency of human beings who, in addition to all their other shortcomings, are far too short-sighted and far too feeble for this task. As such, it is all the more marvelous that even in His kingdom of grace, God plants, manages, extends, and sustains His kingdom not directly, but by means of men who are altogether unfit for this task. This is proof of God's loving-kindness, love for humanity, and wisdom, which no human intellect can understand. For who can measure the greatness of God's love, revealed in the fact that He desires not only to save this apostate world but also even to employ human beings--that is, sinners--for this task? Who can plumb the depths of the wisdom of God, who knows how to accomplish the work of saving people by--of all things--using other people who are quite unfit and unqualified for this work? And who can understand that He has previously gloriously pursued, and still is pursuing, this work? (Law and Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible, 42)
Thank You, heavenly Father, for Your wisdom and loving-kindness in using me, of all people, to proclaim Your saving words and works for twenty-one years. Thank You, Lord Jesus Christ, for suffering, dying, and rising again to redeem me, a lost and condemned person, and then honoring me with the lifelong task of dispensing Your gifts to Your flock. Thank You, Holy Spirit, for sustaining me in the faith, working through me in spite of my weaknesses and shortcomings (and plain old blunders), and granting the comfort and peace of Your life.

"Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen." (Ephesians 3:20-21)

15 December 2011

Homily for Advent 3

So John the Baptist, the Forerunner of the Messiah, questions Jesus as to whether He is the "Coming One" (the promised Savior). Why does John even ask? Does he not know? Was he having doubts? Was he questioning because of his lot of suffering in prison? Or did he simply want to send his disciples to follow the Christ? Or maybe he was still serving as forerunner even into death itself?

Sunday's homily, "Who Are You? Part I", comes at these questions from the primary question in the Advent 3 Gospel reading of Matthew 11:2-11. Who is Jesus? Who is John? And, equally important, who are you in light of this little exchange between Jesus and John?

To listen to "Who Are You? Part I", click here and download the audio file.

Pastors' Roundtable on Issues, Etc.

For last week's "Pastors' Roundtable" on Issues, Etc. we discussed the Gospel reading for Advent 3, Matthew 11:2-11. Why does John the Baptist ask Jesus if He really is the Coming One? How does Jesus respond? What does Jesus then teach the crowd, and us, about John? Listen to it here.