24 February 2014

Take Care How You Hear

Here's my homily for Sexagesima (23 February 2014), based on the day's Gospel reading, Luke 8:4-15, and including Jesus' words from Luke 8:18:

Today we hear Jesus say, “He who has ears to hear, let Him hear!” But what should you listen to? Better yet: how should you listen? And right after Jesus explains the Parable of the Sower, he says, “Take care then how you hear.” As we continue preparing for the Lenten journey, we need to take care how we hear.

Do you hear as the wayside soil—the seed of the Word bounces off of you and the devil rushes in to gobble it up before it even has a chance to grow? Or do you hear as the rocky soil—receiving the Word with joy but also with little root, and thus falling away in time of trial? Or do you hear as the soil under thorn bushes—the seed of the Word takes root and sprouts, but the cares, riches, and pleasures of everyday life choke out the faith that comes from the Word? Or do you hear, as Jesus commends, as the good soil—receiving the Word with a good heart, holding that Word in you, and thus bearing fruit?

Some people may very well have hearts and minds that are hard and unyielding to God’s Word. God’s sacred truths revealed in His Word bounce off of them as seed bounces when it hits a paved road. Unclean spirits and Satan himself have trodden such hard hearted and hard minded folks and they are quite sterile and unfruitful.

Some people might have hearts and minds more like the shallow, rocky soil. They hear God’s Word proclaimed, even Sunday after Sunday, but their faith and their religion have no root. They might sit in the pew, enjoy the surroundings, delight in seeing fellow saints. They take part in the sacred mysteries—the Gospel and the Sacraments—but perhaps with little attentiveness to what’s really happening, perhaps merely out of habit, perhaps only to be entertained or “personally fulfilled.” And when they leave church and go home, they easily and quickly forget the holy teachings that have been planted in their ears.

Some people might have hearts and minds like the thorn infested soil. The seed of God’s Word is planted in them, but it soon gets choked out by the cares, riches, and pleasures of the world. Making a decent living, paying for college, planning for retirement—they can very well choke out God’s Word. Anxiety about your health, your children, making ends meet, or about our decaying, self-centered, pleasure-seeking culture—they too choke out God’s Word and faith. You know the Word is being choked out when you view life from Monday through Saturday as the “real deal,” but Sunday morning is only an optional diversion. You know the Word is being choked out when you think more about your latest Facebook status than you do about your status before God and how He genuinely “likes” you in Christ Jesus.

Three kinds of hearers hear the divine Word to no fruitful effect. The fourth kind of hearer, though, is different. Some people have hearts and minds like good soil. When the seed of God’s Word is planted in them, they patiently endure the attacks of Satan. They persevere through the trials and persecutions. And they resist being ruled by the cares, riches and pleasures of this life. In other words, they bear much fruit. Life with God takes priority over the shallow kind of church life that sees Sunday morning as only a time with friends and familiar faces. Life with God sustains you when the scorching heat of trial comes upon you. Life with God helps you put the cares, riches, and pleasures of this life in proper perspective. Life with God bears fruit as you no longer fixate on your wealth, as you no longer get anxious when troubles arise, as you view life as a time of service rather than a time of pleasure-seeking. Life with God bears much fruit.

So “take care … how you hear,” Jesus says. How you hear God’s Word really IS a matter of life or death.

I’ve been using the phrase “God’s Word.” How many of you heard those words—“God’s Word”— and thought of “a book, the Bible”? Or how about “the words that come from the pastor’s lips”? Jesus does say, “The seed is the Word of God.” But what is that Word which is the seed? The Seed-Word is not primarily a book, nor is it primarily words from a man’s mouth. The Seed-Word IS, first and foremost, a Person. The Seed is the Word of God Himself—Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, the Word made flesh. The Father sows His Son in the world, and the divine Word—Jesus Himself—is received in these different ways. Now you see why it’s crucial to “take care how you hear”!

How can the Seed-Word be a Person? Well, God prepared us for this. In the Old Testament, God promised to bless Abraham and said, “In your [seed] shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). Then, in the New Testament, Galatians 3(:16), St. Paul shows us how to understand this one: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his [seed]. It does not say, ‘And to [seeds],’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your [Seed],’ who is Christ.”

About 1000 years after Abraham, God spoke to David in the same way. David wanted to build a house for God, but God turned it around and promised to build an eternal house for David. God told David, “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring [seed] after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.” (2 Sam. 7:12). That Seed is Christ, who would come 1000 years after David. Psalm 89(:29) even ties David’s throne with the Seed whom God will send: “I will establish his offspring [seed] forever and his throne as the days of the heavens.” That eternal Seed is Christ.

So “take care how you hear,” because you are hearing Jesus Christ Himself, your very life with God. The very Son of God is being planted in your ears, in your hearts, and in your minds to bring you God’s mercy and to enliven you with His own life. If you use the time during the sermon to read your bulletin or write out your offering check, you’re most likely putting up a hardened, footpath kind of soil, and the Word who is Christ simply bounces off. If you come to church, hear the words of Scripture, sing the hymns, and listen to the sermon, but really your mind is constantly distracted by what people in the pews around you are doing, then the Seed who is Christ cannot take very deep root. And while your Lord does want you to bring your cares and anxieties to Him, you don’t want those cares and anxieties to consume your attention while you hear the Word who is Christ. Yes, bring your cares and troubles to Jesus. He promises to take care of them for you so that they will not choke out your trust in Him. After all, He promises to make your burden light.

You see, when God the Father plants His Seed, His Son, the Word made Flesh in the world and in you, He wants to accomplish some amazing things. His Word who is Christ “shall not return to [Him] empty, but it shall accomplish that which [He intends].” The Seed who is Christ will always “succeed in the thing for which [the Father] sent [Him]” (Is. 55:11). God planted His Son in the world first in the womb of the Virgin Mary, but later He planted the Word made flesh into the ground itself. Remember when Jesus was crucified and buried? Right before He went to the cross, our Lord said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:24). He was talking about His own death on the cross and His own resurrection. So Jesus bears much fruit. In His death, your sin is trampled down and gobbled up, and death itself is choked out. In His resurrection, you also are made alive to God in Christ Jesus.

So think of the fruit that Jesus bears in your Baptism and in His Supper. As St. John says, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s Seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 Jn. 3:9). In your Baptism, you have been born of God. And in the Holy Supper the Seed who is Christ comes into you and remains in you. That’s how you can bear abundant fruit—the fruit of trusting God in trials and worldly cares, the fruit of enjoying life with God, the fruit of living together in love toward one another. After all, we all have the same Seed who is Christ in us.

In ten short days we will begin the rigorous journey of Lent. Last week we heard that the journey will be work, but work that receives the wages of God’s grace. Today we hear Jesus’ call to “take care how you hear.” Let’s remember to hear and heed the Word who is Christ. After all, He comes to bear fruit in us, and that fruit comes through patient endurance. We can and we will patiently endure the disciplines of Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—because the Seed who is Christ remains in us. So, get ready for the journey, for the praying, for the fasting, for giving to the poor, and especially for the repenting and being forgiven. These are the good fruits of Christ planted in you. Amen.

The "Wages" of Grace

Here's my homily for Septuagesima (16 February 2014), based on the text of Matthew 20:1-16:

Look at the altar for a moment. Notice the wooden screen behind the altar—called the reredos. All around the edge you see vines with grapes on them. It’s a nice reminder that you and I are called to work in Christ’s vineyard. You and I are called to work at different times of the day of this world. You and I are called to work for the wages of God’s grace.

Today we enter the mini-season of Pre-Lent. We have seen the goodness of God in Christ in the Babe of Bethlehem. We have witnessed our Lord revealing Himself as God in man made manifest. Now we turn our attention to a season of serious reflection on Christ’s teaching and kingdom.

The scene in today’s Gospel reading sounds a lot like the time of the Great Depression. People who lived through the Great Depression remember the days of standing idle outside of factories and offices, just hoping that a foreman would come out in the morning and say, “I need people to work today.” If you were fortunate, you would be told how much you’d be paid at the end of the work day. Then you could take it or leave it. If you refused the low pay, someone more desperate than you would gladly accept the job.

But rarely would you refuse. Any job was a good job. If you worked really hard, and if the foreman liked you and your work, then you might get invited back the next day, or the next time they needed workers. The dollar or two that you earned might have been the first cash you saw in weeks. In those days no one assumed they had a “right” to health care, or paid vacation, or retirement benefits, or even “income equality.” You took what you could get, even if it meant you had to leave your friend outside, standing idle in the market.

By our current standards, this was a time of “unfair labor practices.” Men and women did not get what they thought they deserved for their labor. And this was often true. Some employers certainly took advantage of the high unemployment to hire people for a pittance.

And yet there have also been times when some people got paid very well, and still they thought that they were underpaid. Even today, when you ask someone if they are getting paid enough, I doubt they will say, “Oh, yes, I’m getting paid a lot. In fact, I think I’m getting paid more than I’m worth.” Just doesn’t happen, right?

No, most people—no matter how well they are paid—will complain that they aren’t being paid nearly enough, especially compared to someone else. You know how it goes: it’s always the other person who’s overpaid and underworked, and it’s always you who are overworked and underpaid.

In God’s vineyard—the spiritual realm—things work much differently. The ultimate reward is living with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, along with all His saints. But you cannot earn this “reward” with hours of labor or “community service.” The wage is God’s forgiveness, and you receive it only by His grace in Christ Jesus.

So, let’s learn to picture ourselves as Jesus mentions in the parable: as unemployed, doing no works that profit us spiritually. You see, by birth, we stand idle outside the Vineyard of God. And our sinful self continually seeks to stray outside of God’s Vineyard.

But then in His kindness, our Lord Jesus comes to us and arranges for us to have profitable labor in His Vineyard. First, He announces the wage of His grace. God gives benefits for any and all who labor in His Vineyard—eternal life at His banquet table and the resurrection of our bodies on the Last Day. Like workers during the Great Depression, you and I get to view God’s call to work as an undeserved invitation to receive wages that save our lives in desperate times. So, don’t think you deserve to work for Him. And don’t think you can bargain with Him for wages or perks.

You see, you will receive all the “wages” God delights to give you. And you will not receive any more or any less than your fellow workers. God does not give one person half-pay and the other person full-pay. No, He gives only full-pay to all workers in His Vineyard. And what is that “full pay”? Forgiveness of sins, eternal life with Christ Jesus, and resurrection of your mortal flesh. There’s no way you can earn a greater or lesser “reward” than that!

So, if you have worked your whole life for the Lord, do not expect your Master to reward you with extra, even though you’ve borne the heat and burden of the day. Instead, be ready to joyfully receive your fellow sinners who come to faith late in life. Also, don’t look around the vineyard of the congregation and think, “I do more for my church than him or her! Who has worked harder, or longer, or at more events than I?”

Put these thoughts as far from you as the east is from the west. As Jesus says, the only worker who got what he deserved was sent away empty. Everyone who works in the Lord’s Vineyard is “overpaid,” always receiving more than he or she deserves. Yes, your labor in the vineyard of Christ’s Church is just that—undeserved wages of His grace and mercy. Thank Him that He has placed you in this world and in His Church to work for Him. Rejoice that you labor long and hard to love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, soul, and mind. Count it all joy when you love your neighbor as yourself … and get no earthly reward for your work!

And what happens if you fail at your work? ‘Cause you know you will. When you look at God’s Commandments, His “job description” for truly loving Him and your neighbor, you realize that you have failed to keep them fully. You always do. You always will. But don’t despair. You and I will never perfectly perform the work the Lord gives us to do. Yet God is kind and merciful. He still calls you to labor in His vineyard. He still rewards you with the wage of His grace: forgiveness of sins and life with Him both now and into eternity.

He has washed you in the water connected to His Word. His Spirit lives in you by the free gift of your Baptism. He feeds you week after week with His own Body and Blood to sustain you in your work for Him.  So, when you do fail to labor as you should in loving God and and loving your neighbor, your merciful Lord of the Vineyard still rewards you with forgiveness, resurrection, and life eternal.

So, when you fail to love your family and friends as you should, “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful.” Ask Him to make you a profitable worker day by day. If you have neglected your family and friends for years, or if you have borne the heavy toil of loving the people God puts in your life, remember that Jesus rewards with a feast of eternal life at His banquet table. And you get a foretaste of that feast here today!

Perhaps you fail to labor constantly as God wants you to. Perhaps you pridefully look down on your fellow workers, thinking you’ve done more than they have. Jesus still “pays” you from His treasure store the very same wages He pays to all. Christ is the One who labored and toiled, all the way to the bloody cross. Jesus is the One who bore the burden of your sins and the heat of God’s wrath. He does all the labor, and you get all the “wages” of His grace and mercy and forgiveness. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

So we come to this day with a funny sounding name—Septuagesima. It’s Greek for “About 70 Days”—about 70 days until we get to celebrate the joys of Easter, the joys of God’s banquet table and eternal life with Him. Until then, we labor in His Vineyard. Lent, the time for preparation, is coming. We labor in things like confessing our sins and returning to the Lord and His forgiveness.  We labor in things like fasting, giving to those in need, and praying. We labor in things like relearning and rehearsing the Catechism teachings. So, start planning now to take out your Catechism, and blow off the dust if necessary. Get ready to open up that Catechism and relearn the Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Then tackle the Catechism meanings and explanations. Then move on to the Sacraments of Baptism, Absolution, and Communion. Your labor will not be in vain. No, it will be very profitable. You see, you’ll relearn and rehearse the “wages” of God’s grace for you in Christ Jesus.

So, dear friends, the labor is not your own. Christ labors with you. In fact, Christ’s work—His life, death, and resurrection—make your labor profitable in body and soul. He is your great reward and your only benefit. And that benefit gives you abundant life. Christ comes to you, forgives you, and invites you into His Vineyard. Remember the vines around the altar. He promises you the wage of His grace, the gift of eternal life, even now.

07 February 2014

A great, concise, and spot-on post from Scott Diekmann, over at steadfastlutherans.org:

Thrivent: We Don’t Need Your Blood Money

February 7th, 2014 Post by
“Think of the things you can do with that money,
Choose any charity – give to the poor.
We’ve noted your motives – we’ve noted your feelings,
This isn’t blood money – it’s a fee nothing,
Fee nothing, fee nothing more…”
So said Caiaphas to Judas as they enticed him to betray Jesus in the 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.  We all know the ending of Judas’ story.  There’s a similar tragedy for the unborn lurking in the wings of the real life drama know as Thrivent Financial for Lutherans.
BJS previously reported on Thrivent’s position allowing Choice dollars and the Gift Multiplier program to be used in support of pro-abortion organizations .  Thrivent has now had time to reflect on their policies and have issued a new “neutrality policy” which reads in part:
Thrivent Financial is a membership organization of Christians and works with many different members who hold a variety of – and at times divergent – views and beliefs. It respects the differences of its members and does not independently or on behalf of its members, advisors or employees provide outreach funding or support to organizations and issues that distract, or have the potential to distract, from its common purpose, which is to guide its members and society to be wise with money and live generously.
According to Thrivent, if I designate my Thrivent Choice dollars to go to an organization that protects the unborn (which they no longer allow) I would be distracting from their purpose “to be wise with money and live generously.”  I can’t think of a way to live more generously than by protecting another human being’s life.  Today my wife and I cashed in the remaining funds that we had with Thrivent – we want no part of your blood money.  Abortion is not “neutral.”
It’s likely that Thrivent’s decision will prompt Lutheran organizations to discontinue their acceptance of funds from the Thrivent Choice Program.  Please consider supporting these organizations in other ways.  For those organizations that continue to accept Thrivent funds, you might consider sending them a helpful note reminding them that there comes a time when principle overrides profit.  Thrivent, we don’t need your blood money.

Previous posts on Thrivent related to this issue can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

06 February 2014

Sasse: The Church is Not Built by Us

Another great quote from Hermann Sasse, in his 1933 essay, "The Lutheran Confessions and the Volk":
But if one proceeds from God and not from man, not from human religion, nor even from the Christian religion, but from the Gospel, as do the Reformation confessions, it is possible to understand the church. If one has understood what faith in the Evangelical sense is, worked by the Holy Spirit himself, and never "by my own reason or strength" [SC, Creed, 6]; that the Holy Spirit creates faith in the Word of God; and that this is quite different from all human religions within the bounds of pure and practical reason, then it is possible to understand the church as the Reformation understood it. This church is not built by us. It is created by God himself. And this is so as surely as God is God, as surely as Jesus Christ is the Lord, as surely as God's Word is the Word of the Creator and Consummator, the Judge and Redeemer, the greatest power on earth.

The concept of the church of Luther and Lutheranism originates from faith in this Word. In this definition of the church, man, as individual or as Volk, can never have a founding or co-founding role. He is passive. One does not decide to join the church; he is rather called to the church. We do not build the church ("Arise! Let us build Zion!"); we are only the stones used to build it, or at most the tools used to build it. (Hermann Sasse, "The Lutheran Confessions and the Volk," in The Lonely Way: Selected Essays and Letters, Volume 1 (1927-1939), p. 130.)

03 February 2014

Another Look at Pastors and Giving Records

Cross posted from Steadfast Lutherans:

Should a pastor be concerned with and know details of what members of his flock give in the offering? Pastor Karl Weber offers one answer here, and that answer has generated a good amount of discussion in the comments to his post. In the interest of continuing the discussion, allow me to take another look, from a different angle, at pastors and giving records.

I certainly understand and respect Pastor Weber’s approach, as well as the heart-felt concerns that laypeople may have with their pastor knowing how much they give in the offering and, especially, with a pastor misusing that data. In fact, for many years I have shared Pr. Weber’s reticence at viewing offering records. I have given the same reasons and continue to be leery of the very temptations he mentions.

However, I would suggest that a pastor viewing and knowing the offering records of his members is not necessarily the sure-fire nosedive into sin and misuse that we might suspect. In fact, I submit that, done with responsibility and humility, such knowledge can and does aide the pastor in shepherding his flock.

A Matter of Christian Freedom

First, let’s admit that a pastor viewing and knowing what members of his flock give in the offering is neither commanded nor forbidden in Holy Scripture. I know of no clear passage in Scripture that actually tells a pastor, “Thou shalt not inform thyself of thy congregation’s offering data.” Hence, it is a matter of Christian freedom. And, as with all matters of Christian freedom, it may be practiced for better or for worse depending on the motive(s), integrity, and good sense of the individual pastor.

On the other hand, neither does Scripture command a pastor to view and know his congregation’s offering records. So I will not bind anyone’s conscience either way. However, I will give the gentle reminder that Jesus and the New Testament writers do teach us about money, not only dangers of dealing with it, but also ways to use it in a salutary fashion for the glory of God and to serve our neighbor.

Not Necessarily

Pastor Weber’s reason for not wanting to know how much his members give in the offering is that he knows the sin that lurks within his heart. He would not want to be tempted to pride or to showing partiality and catering to the higher givers. These are indeed valid concerns and should be acknowledged. Such pride and partiality should certainly be avoided in God’s flock in general and by pastors in particular.

However, let’s not forget that the faithful laypeople who serve as treasurers, who count the offerings, who record the dollar amounts, and who send out the year-end statements have the same sin lurking within their hearts and are also tempted in the same ways. Yet they are still trusted with such monetary information. We simply expect them to be discreet, responsible, and respectful regarding the various life situations and giving levels of their fellow Christians. Perhaps a pastor can also muster the same sanctified discretion, responsibility, and respect? Perhaps he can even model sensitivity and charity? After all, he likely knows other details of people’s life situations and daily deals in discretion, sensitivity, and charity.

An analogy may help. A pastor (or any Christian) could very well be tempted to drink too much wine and get drunk. Should he therefore avoid wine altogether? Not necessarily. Moderation, responsibility, and humility (i.e. knowing one’s limits) are key. The same is true for a pastor knowing the offering records of his congregation. The temptation to sin may certainly be there, but that does not necessarily mean that he will give in to that temptation. God-given moderation, responsibility, and humility are key.

Whence This Cloak of Secrecy for “My Money”?

Many a parishioner may say, “It’s my money. What I give in the offering is between me and God. It’s none of the pastor’s business.” But I ask: What is the real root of this cloak of secrecy regarding our God-given cash? Who says that “my” money-matters are “only between me and God”?

Could our desire to keep our cash under a cloak of secrecy actually be a 1 Timothy 6:10 problem? St. Paul says, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”

Could it be that we strive to keep money-matters secret, and out of the pastor’s view, because we actually love it far too much, more than we “fear, love, and trust in God”? Are we afraid that this misplaced love of money might just be exposed for what it really is: idolatry?

Could it be that we, pastors and laypeople alike, seek to keep our money-matters “only between me and God” because we have wandered from the faith and have an inordinate and idolatrous love of this mere medium of exchange? After all, money is only a convenient means of exchange. We all know everyone has some, in varying amounts, and we all know that we must use it on a daily basis. Why the mystique? Why the secrecy?

Could it be that we pastors actually encourage this sinful “love of money” and the piercing pangs it brings by tacitly agreeing to this hush-hush on what is really God’s cash? Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” My money is not “mine.” It belongs to God; He owns it. He merely calls me to manage it for Him so as to promote His Gospel and serve my neighbor. So what if other people happen to know how much of God’s money I give in the offering for God’s purposes in the congregation? (No, I don’t recommend shouting it from the housetops either. We must avoid the temptations to pride and partiality on that front too.)

Pastors and Money-Matters in Scripture

Some may claim that the pastor should not know the offering records of his members because he should focus instead on things spiritual. The pastor, they say, should not involve himself in money-matters whatsoever. This is nothing new. Dr. John H. C. Fritz addresses this in his Pastoral Theology (1932), when he discusses “Christian Giving”:
Some say that the financial affairs of the church are none of the pastor’s business; he should look only after the spiritual needs of the members and not meddle in money-matters. This is not as the Lord would have it. We learn from the Holy Scriptures that money-matters play a very important part in the spiritual life of God’s children. When in the church of Jerusalem financial troubles arose, the apostles did not say that this was none of their business, but called a meeting of the congregation and had the financial irregularities of the church adjusted, Acts 6, 1-4. (Pastoral Theology, 260)
We also have the example of St. Paul himself in 2 Corinthians 8-9. As he managed the relief fund drive for the famine-stricken Jerusalem church, he referred to the Macedonian Christians as he encouraged the Corinthian congregation to make good on its promised free-will offering. The apostle may not have mentioned a specific amount of money, but he apparently knew something of what the Macedonian congregation had given. He said, “their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will” (2 Corinthians 8:2-3).

St. Paul’s apparent knowledge of the Macedonian offerings allowed him to encourage the Corinthians to give generously as well. A pastor knowing his congregation’s offering amounts can very well be used for salutary purposes.

Pastoral Care via Offering Information

How might knowing what his members give in the offering aide a pastor in caring for the souls in his charge? Let’s consider some congregational and individual examples (by no means exhaustive).

Congregational Examples
  1. If a congregation is located in a wealthier town, or part of town, and many members are higher paid professionals (doctors, lawyers, business owners, etc.), but the offerings are quite low, the pastor may need to gear some of his preaching and teaching toward more generous giving in order that they, as a congregation, may serve their needy neighbors.
  2. If a congregation is located in a poorer town, or part of town, and the members give generously, even beyond their means, the pastor will certainly want to thank God and commend his congregation (as St. Paul did the Macedonian Christians in 2 Corinthians 8).
  3. If a pastor knows the giving records and patterns of his flock, he can properly advise them when it comes time to prepare the congregation’s annual budget. Perhaps the congregation needs to scale back its spending because the money just isn’t or won’t be there. Perhaps the congregation can give more generously to outside missions and charities because the money is or will be there.
Individual Examples
  1. If the offerings of a typically generous giver (individual or family) suddenly plummet, the pastor may rightly suspect that something has changed for that person or family. Perhaps one of his flock suddenly lost employment. Perhaps an elderly couple recently moved into a senior living facility (which sucks up their money!) and/or their adult children are managing their finances and don’t know or share their parents’ giving habits. Learning such details certainly helps the pastor apply the Word of God to the souls in his care.
  2. If the offerings of an individual or family are typically low or even non-existent, the pastor may see an opportunity to assist the poor and needy in his flock. Perhaps that individual or family just does not have much income from which to give. In that case aid from the congregation may be offered and could be very appreciated. Perhaps that individual or family wants to give more in the offering, but first needs help getting out of debt so that they can be better managers of God’s gifts. The pastor and congregation may want to find a way to address such needs.

The matter of a pastor knowing the giving records of his congregation is neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture. While such knowledge could tempt a pastor to sins of pride and partiality, he would not necessarily give in to such temptation. In fact, a faithful and godly pastor may very well use such information for responsible pastoral care.

"Purified and Presented"

My homily for yesterday, 2 February 2014, when we celebrated the Feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Jesus:

Okay, I’m confused! Didn’t we put Christmas away a few weeks ago? Sounds like we’re going back in time. Or maybe we never really left Christmas behind?

Okay, so you’re confused. You look at the bulletin and see this super long name for today’s festival—“The Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord.” Almost looks like two different event titles smushed into one. What, couldn’t those hymnal folks decide on one short, easy-to-say name for the day?

Well, there are two big events (actually three) that we hear today. And when we take them together, we find that we are the ones blessed by this tapestry of Christmas stories on this 40th day after our Lord’s Birth. In fact, Mary’s purification and Jesus’ presentation really show that you, too, are purified and presented before God Himself.

First, let’s take up poor Hannah in our Old Testament reading. Well, she was poor Hannah, but now we see her much more joyous. Hannah was barren. With aching heart she poured out her soul before God: “Lord, please give me a son.” “And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked for him from the LORD.” (1 Sam. 1:20). God gave a son to Hannah, and today when we meet her, Hannah is giving her son back to God, for service in His presence in His tabernacle. 

It’s the perfect preview and teaser trailer for God’s even greater gift. The whole human race goes on with aching heart and some of us even pour out our souls for God’s deliverance from sin and death. And God hears our centuries-long prayer. He gives His Son to Mary as well as Joseph. That’s the joy of Christmas, and that joy continues to this 40th day since.

Now we fast-forward to about 5 B.C. and we transport to the temple in Jerusalem. A humble couple of low-estate brings their Son to the house of God’s presence. Actually, it’s the proper place for this 40-day old Infant Savior. The temple is His proper place because He Himself is the new temple, the Word made flesh to dwell, or tabernacle, among us.

Mary and Joseph come to keep the Law of Moses, but Infant Jesus, who cannot even walk or talk, comes to fulfill the whole will and law of God. After Mary gave birth, she had to stay in a social seclusion for seven days. Kind of like we tell post-partum moms in our day to take it easy, don’t lift anything heavy, and let others do the cooking and wash the dishes. Then, on the eighth day, when Jesus was circumcised, Mary got to rejoin her normal domestic domain.

Well, then she went through a second time of seclusion—this time a period of ritual quarantine. For 33 days young mother Mary was not allowed to have any contact with the sacred domain. We would call it staying away from church and the Divine Service until the 40th day, until the day of ritual purification.

Now, God was not being mean to young mothers who had just given birth. No, He was protecting them and setting them apart. In Old Testament times the surrounding culture had a much different view of maternity and child-birth. Some pagan religions viewed the mother and the functions of her body in giving birth as some source of supernatural, cosmic life-power. Can you say, “The force be with you” through the messy birth process? So, God did not want the mothers among His people to participate in such pagan nonsense. No sorcery, no magic spells in the messy, bloody birth process. Instead, God’s people were to deal with reality—all that mess made them unclean. Such is life in a sinful, fallen world. But God would make them clean. God is the life-giver. God is the one who takes the messy business of giving birth and makes it a miracle of His mercy and grace.

So on the 40th day Mary comes to be purified by God’s grace and restored to her status in the Holy Place of God. She and Joseph offer the required sacrifices for purification. Two offerings were prescribed. Normally, a lamb would be offered for the burnt offering. That’s the offering that delivered atonement with God, access again with the Almighty. And then a bird would be offered for the sin offering. That’s the offering through which God worked cleansing, or purification. But our Gospel reading says they offered “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” God made allowance for poor people to offer two birds instead of a lamb and one bird. It just goes to show that our Savior grew up in and came from a family of meager means. Yes, He can relate with all of our poorness and meagerness.

But here’s something even more amazing and meaningful. Mary and Joseph were not required to bring Baby Jesus for the purification. It’s not part of the Leviticus law, but they brought Him just the same. And so He was also presented to God at this time of purification. Dr. John Kleinig from Australia gives this most precious insight on what this means for us: “Luke quite deliberately connected Mary’s purification to Christ’s consecration, for she was purified by her son—as are all the saints—for access to the heavenly sanctuary.” (Leviticus, p. 270)

Did you catch that? Mary went to the temple for her ritual purification, and who purified her? Her own Son, of course! After all, it was not by her own blood (that messy birth or after birth stuff) that she was purified. It would only be by the blood of her Son. And so it is for you and me. This Infant Savior grows to live a most normal and humble life. Then He goes to a cross. Why? To shed His blood. That’s the only blood that purifies. That’s the only blood that restores any of us to access to God in the presence of God in the house of God. The very Infant Savior who was carried into God’s house that day is the same Suffering Savior who carries us into God’s presence by shedding His blood on the cross.

What is it that makes you unclean and ritually separated from God? That dark, dirty, angry thought? That unkind word spoken before thinking? That hasty action that hurt a friend or family member? Well, those are certainly filthy things, but they’re only symptoms of what really soils you. What makes you soiled and unclean, what separates you from God is the toxic pollution of sin that dwells within you. Each of us learns to say, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Ps. 51:5) But then, because of Jesus Christ, the Infant Savior who becomes the Suffering Savior, we learn to say, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Ps. 51:10) And He does. The same Lord who purified Mary also purifies you. Jesus offers Himself as both the burnt offering and the sin offering for you.

And the same Lord who was carried into God’s temple and presented to God carries you into God’s presence as well. Here’s where the account of Simeon is great joy! Simeon holds helpless Infant Jesus. And yet he can see—in this ordinary, flesh and blood, softer than soft, cuter than cute Infant—he can see “the consolation of Israel.” He can see—with the eyes of faith—the salvation of God.

Well, you and I have much more than a tiny baby. You and I have much more than an infant-sized present of promises yet to be unpacked. No, you and I have the grown-up Jesus, the cross-bound Savior, the resurrected Lord, the ascended King. You and I get to see with the eyes of faith that Christ has been crucified for our forgiveness, that He has risen from the grave and kicked in the fangs of death. You and I get to “hold” the crucified, risen, and glorious Lord when He puts Himself on our tongues and in our bodies.

Ponder that as you come to the Altar in just a bit. As your Lord Jesus feeds you on His Body and His Blood, under this ordinary bread and wine, He is actually presenting you yet again before His Father in heaven. And just how does He present you? As fully forgiven of all sins. As completely cleansed from all impurity of your iniquity. As perfectly purified to live as His holy child. Especially ponder that as you sing the very same words that Simeon said, “Lord, now You let Your servant go in peace; Your Word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which You have prepared in the sight of ev’ry people.”

So, you see, Mary’s purification is not just about Mary. And Jesus’ presentation is not just about Jesus. Both events really show that you, too, are purified and presented before God Himself. Now you may depart this place in peace. You are purified in Jesus’ forgiving blood. You are present to God as holy and clean. Let's end with a hymn verse for our prayer:

Jesus, by Your presentation,
When they blessed You, weak and poor,
Make us see Your great salvation,
Seal us with your promise sure;
And present us in Your glory
To Your Father, cleansed and pure. (LSB 519:3)