15 October 2017

Homily for Trinity 18 - 2017

"Do You LOVE God?"
Matthew 22:34-46

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Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” … Do you love God? I don’t expect anyone here actually to say, “No, I rather hate God.” Who in their right mind would say that? But do you really LOVE God? Are you completely devoted to Him? Is He the One you think and daydream about all the time? Is there no one else on earth with whom you would rather spend your time than with God? Is there nothing that you’d rather do than be with God, talk with Him, enjoy His stories, and just revel in His company?

Or is God just Someone we learn about in Catechism class or Bible class or sermons? Learn about Him, but keep Him at a distance. Stick Him under the microscope of our quest for religious knowledge or in the petri dish of our fascination with things spiritual. Is God little more than an intellectual pursuit, once a week or whenever we happen to think of Him? Do we merely learn to say the right words about Him, such as He’s all-present, or all-powerful, or all-knowing? Is God simply Someone we talk about when we want to sound religious? Or do you truly LOVE God?

The Pharisees certainly claimed to love God. But when He came to them in the flesh, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, they put Him to the test. You see, they did not want this God, the One who took on our human frame to free us from sin and death, to get too close to them! They did not want God to get too personal or too intimate. So they tested Jesus: “Which is the great commandment in the [Torah]?” They wanted to reduce all five books of Moses to the bare minimum. They wanted a bumper-sticker slogan that would fully capture the law of God.

We fallen creatures like to do that. We like to defang God’s law—render the Doberman harmless. One speaker called it the “religion of St. Minimum.” What’s the least that I have to do to get by? How often do I really have to go to church? How often do I really need to pray? How much money do I really have to give? How much do I really have to know? What’s the bottom line? What's the bare minimum? The religion of St. Minimum tries to keep things practical, painless, and puny. It delights in loopholes. It bargains with God to be “fair.” “So, Jesus, what’s the one commandment that we really need to keep?” But that’s not love. What boyfriend, fiancĂ©, or husband could get away with telling his sweetheart, “I only want to spend the minimum amount of time with you”?

Jesus sensed the trap. He knows what’s in our hearts. He knows how we like to twist and turn, and wiggle out from under God’s commands. So He gives not one, but two greatest commands. The first one: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” That’s the Hebrew way of saying, “Love God with every last fiber in your being; hold nothing back.” Then Jesus said, “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The two go together. You cannot claim to love God if you don’t love your neighbor. When you do love God, you will naturally also love your neighbor whom God gives you. So Jesus does boil God’s law down to a minimum in these two simple commandments. But they are far from minimal in shaping our life. Love God with your whole being; and love whomever God puts next to you.

If you’re still looking for a bumper-sticker slogan, you can distill God’s law down to one four-letter word: L-O-V-E. As St. Paul said, “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10). But we even have troubles with this word “love,” don’t we? For one thing, we think love is a feeling, a warm-fuzzy on our insides. But love is not a feeling. Love is a deliberate action of our will toward another person. When we love God or our neighbor, it does not mean that we have certain feelings about God or our neighbor. Sure, feelings are there with us, but love is not essentially a feeling.

Another trouble we have with “love” is that we think it’s something that we “fall” into. We fall into ditches and holes filled with mud, but we don’t fall into love. Besides, falling means losing your balance, losing your control. Love is not an out of control, loss of balance experience; love is a deliberate action of our will toward another person. To love means deliberately to turn ourselves toward another person. One commentator explained it this way: “[Jesus] opens the hearts of believers, like flowers to the sun, to their living posture. We were made for love…. [Jesus] does not so much give an activity that can be calculably done as he gives a direction to face” (F. D. Bruner, Churchbook, 794). The Bible describes love in self-sacrificing terms: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

How do we love God and neighbor? Let’s count the ways. We love God by having no other gods in our hearts, by giving God our whole-hearted fear, love, and trust. We love God by using His Name in worship and prayer, and by giving glad attention to His Word. We love God by honoring the authorities He has placed over us, starting with our parents; by caring for the health and well-being of our neighbor’s body; by upholding marriage in the way we conduct our sexual lives; by helping our neighbor improve and protect his possessions and income; by upholding our neighbor’s reputation and not participating in gossip or slander; by being content with what we have rather than continually wanting what we don’t have. These are just some of the ways that we love God and our neighbor.

And so we reflect God’s love toward us—the way the moon reflects the light of the sun, or the way a polished mirror reflects the light that strikes it. When God first made Adam and Eve, they perfectly reflected His love. They were created in the “image of God.” God is love, and Adam and Eve were perfect reflectors of God’s love. But their rebellion ruined the mirror. Our self-centeredness and inborn desire to be little gods in place of God has distorted the reflection of God’s love. Just as fingerprints and gunk smudge the reflection in a mirror, so our sinfulness has destroyed our reflection of God’s love.

Do you LOVE God? Do you have wholehearted love for God, sacrificing your all for Him? Do you love your neighbor as yourself? You know you don’t love like that. Not even Mother Teresa loved like that. And here’s why we need the question that Jesus used to test the Pharisees. “What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?” The Pharisees knew that the Messiah, the Christ, would be a blood descendent of King David. But there’s more to the Messiah than a royal bloodline. He is also David’s “lord.” As David said in Psalm 110: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” The Messiah is David’s son, a human being, but He is also David’s “Lord.” He is both God and Man, begotten of His Father from all eternity and born of the virgin Mary. Jesus is talking about the mystery of His Incarnation. In Him God has become man. And in Him humanity is recreated and renewed. In Him people are restored to be what God intended them to be. He came to restore the image of God to our fallen race. He loves God with His whole heart, with His entire being, with His whole mind. He loves His neighbor as Himself.

St. John said it well: “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. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation—the means of forgiveness—for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:9-10). Jesus loved us to death on the Cross. It was the deliberate action of His divine-human will toward us loveless, unlovely sinners. In Baptism we receive God’s great love in Christ’s death and resurrection. In Holy Absolution, our Lord keeps telling us, “I love you by forgiving you.” And consider the great feast we’re about to enjoy. Here Jesus puts His own Body and Blood into our mouths so that we can love God with our whole being and love our neighbor as ourselves. After the Meal, we’ll even pray that God would “strengthen us…in faith toward [Him] and in fervent love toward one another.”

“We love—both God and neighbor—because He first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19). Jesus’ death and resurrection free you to love God and one another. You no longer have to love; you get to love. We don’t love God in order to obtain His love; we already have His love in David’s Son, Jesus. Now we get to love God with every fiber of our being and we get to love our neighbor as ourselves, reflecting the love that our Lord has given to us. Amen.

08 October 2017

Homily for Anniversary of a Congregation - 2017

"Hope for Years to Come"
1 Kings 8:22-30; Revelation 21:1-5; Luke 19:1-10

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Last year, President Matthew Harrison preached from this pulpit, leading up to our 100th Anniversary festivities. He said, “Happy Birthday. You don’t look bad for a hundred.” Now here we are a year later. Let me say, “You don’t look bad for boldly entering your second century.” And what a time to turn 101 as a congregation and be gaining steam as God’s dearly loved children who bear witness to Him and His works of salvation!
It was on this date, October 8, in 1916 that Hope Lutheran Church was founded—smack dab in the middle of World War I, the “war to end all wars.” Well, we know that did not happen. Human hopes of creating a perfect world, however grandiose or modest, just cannot change our fallen human nature or a world ravaged by human sin and ego.

Then, in a most counter-cultural move, our forebears actually spent good money to build this beautiful building just as the Great Depression was bearing down on the land. Receiving God’s gifts and singing His praises always takes precedence over what’s happening in this worrisome world.

And then there was the post-World War II era. War had struck again; austerity measures were fresh in mind; the fog and chaos of war had impacted many. Hope congregation, though, served as a place of solace for a growing number. I still remember a letter from a former choir director of Hope at that time. Several years later, he wrote back saying how the Gospel in sermon and song gave order and solace, even hope and healing, to many in those years.

And so it goes. God graciously gathers a people. He binds them together into His body, the Church, and in local congregations thereof. He continually comes to visit and restore, to forgive and give hope. How does He do that? Through the message and the means that He puts in those congregations—through the message of Christ crucified for sinners and raised for our justification, the message of a new Jerusalem awaiting all who come to faith through that Word, and through the Sacraments that actually deliver His eternal mercy. This is how our gracious God brings hope in a world given to despair.

It’s what King Solomon prayed for as he dedicated the temple that he built over 900 years before Jesus. Solomon confessed that the highest heavens cannot contain God. Then he asked if God would actually dwell on earth. The answer, of course, was—and still is—“Yes!” And God puts His name in and on the place where He dwells, so that His people have a place to pray and a place to listen to Him. As Solomon prayed, so God always promises: “And when You hear, forgive.” That’s what God does in the specific places of congregations. You see, we need specific places where God’s forgiveness reigns supreme. It’s that very forgiveness in Christ crucified and risen that brings healing and hope in our worrisome, fallen world.

It’s what happened to Zacchaeus when the Lord of the universe just had to stay at his house that day. It’s a divine “must” that Jesus had to carry out. You see, that is God’s nature, God’s character, God’s “M.O.”—His way of operating. When Jesus stepped into that house, salvation entered and reigned supreme. And Zacchaeus was a changed man. Changed by Jesus from a greedy, self-serving tax collector into a charitable soul who would serve others and even make reparations to those whom he had cheated. Jesus changed Zacchaeus and made him a man of hope, a child who could look forward to the age to come. That’s also what Jesus does when He enters specific places such as this. When He comes to visit with His grace and forgiveness, salvation enters this house. And we are changed—forgiven, given hope. And people we bring with us are changed. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” He gives the hope. He IS our hope, even in this world of despair. “Our hope is in the Lord.”

This is no mere hope for a better life now, in this world broken in despair and reeling with evil. We hope for much more than an end to hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes. We long for much more than simply no more mass shootings or disruptive demonstrations or painful racial tensions. We eagerly await much more than a medication or a therapy that can take away whatever disease or injury we may suffer, be it arthritis or cancer or paralysis or chronic pain. Yes, we certainly hope for a time when all of these maladies, and many more, will be a distant memory. But we also have to admit and confess that we human beings are not—and cannot be—the ones to make that happen. Sure, we can help others, we can give aid, we can improve, in some modest ways. We can even lessen and alleviate some of the symptoms of the things we suffer in this worrisome, fallen world. But we mere mortals cannot overcome the evil. We are powerless to fix the real brokenness.

So let’s be cautious—let’s be discerning—when we listen to the politicians, the talking heads, and the experts in various fields, especially when they talk about bringing about a more perfect world, a less evil place to live and move and have our being.

Our hope is not in ourselves, because we mere mortals are the fallen creatures. We are the lost ones whom Jesus comes to seek and to save. And He comes to seek and save us from ourselves. You see, each one of us has the very same darkness and evil in the heart as did the Las Vegas shooter, as do the political opportunists, as do the terrorists around the globe, as does every tyrant through history, as does every human being on the face of the planet.

We cannot hope in ourselves, but we can and do hope in Jesus Himself. You see, since He does indeed dwell on earth in His Church, He is also with us in the times of darkness. That’s when He gives us the greatest hope. He is there with us in the midst of the darkness and despair.

So cling to His promise in our second reading. Do you want a world without mass shootings and wars and terrorism and natural disasters? Look to the one Man who promises to deliver—and actually can deliver—“a new heaven and a new earth.” He who wept tears of sorrow for us who are so misguided, so enslaved to sin and death—“He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.” He who promises “neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore” actually went through all the pain that we endure—the pain of loss, the pain of grief, the pain of whips on His torso, the pain of thorns in His scalp, the pain of spikes in His wrists and feet, the pain of abandonment, the pain of suffocating to death. Then this one Man who suffered your death, my death, and the death of every mere mortal actually burst the bonds of death. This one Man—the salvation who comes into our house—actually rose from the grave. Only this one Man can say, “Death shall be no more.”

Only this one Man can give hope for a better life, hope for a new world free from evil and tragedy. In this one Man—Jesus the Christ, Son of God and Son of Man—God’s eternal promise is fulfilled and made real: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God.” That promise is very real now, as we walk by faith. One day it will be even more real, when we get to live it by sight.

So, dear people of Hope, you have hope in this world of darkness, despair, evil, and death. Jesus says, “Behold, I am making all things new.” He creates in you a clean heart; He renews a right spirit within you (Ps. 51:10). He restores to you the joy of His salvation, and He upholds you with a willing spirit (Ps. 51:12). And you have the privilege—the high calling—of living, speaking, and showing this hope for all to hear and see. He is making you new, and through you He is giving hope for years to come—hope for a whole eternity yet to come.

If it’s worth hearing once, it’s worth hearing for the one-hundred first time: “Happy Birthday!” Amen.

01 October 2017

Homily for Trinity 16 - 2017

"Innards of Mercy"
Luke 7:11-17

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We get a little Easter at the beginning of October. It really shouldn’t surprise us. After all, every Sunday is a little Easter. In this story of Jesus raising the widow’s son, we have a miracle that shows just who Jesus is. He is the great prophet whom God had promised for centuries. He is the fulfillment of their centuries-long hope for rescue from death. When Jesus comes, the age of Messiah—the new creation—has dawned. “The Creator Himself has come in the flesh to re-create His fallen creatures” (Just, 307).

Jesus, His disciples, and a great crowd—probably filled with joy that they were with Jesus—approach the little town of Nain. As they draw near to the town’s gate, they are met by a somber, tear-filled procession of death. A man had died. And not just any man. “The only son of his mother, and she was a widow.” What torture for her! Not only had she buried her husband however long before this, but now she was burying her son, her only-begotten son. Talk about ripping her heart asunder! Now she had absolutely no security in Israelite society. She would have no means of support. Everyone would ignore her. Everyone except Jesus, that is—that other only-begotten Son in our Gospel.

When Jesus sees her completely heartbroken, uncontrollably weeping, utterly despairing, He has compassion on her. This is key. It’s much more than feeling sorry or uttering, “Poor thing.” No, Jesus pours out His inward parts in mercy for her. It’s the same “tender mercy of our God” that Zechariah sang about at the birth of his son, John the Baptizer (Lk. 1:78). It’s the same outpouring of inward parts of mercy shown by the Good Samaritan to the beaten, bloodied man in the ditch (Lk. 10:33). It’s the same outpouring of the bowels of compassion that the prodigal father showed to his prodigal son when that son returned home in repentance (Lk. 15:20). So Jesus pours out His guts of mercy for this poor woman. God’s reign of grace and life is breaking into our world of misery and death.

Then Jesus tells her, “Do not weep.” Can you imagine? If I’m in this woman’s shoes, I’d be bristling at such an outlandish command at such a time as this. “Do not weep?! Sir, how can you even? I’ve lost my only-begotten son, my pride, my joy, my only means of support. Surely you can’t expect me to do a happy dance? Surely you can’t expect me to feel nothing, to be stoic? Of course I’m gonna weep! Of course I’m gonna cry out with the agony that overflows inside!” Now if any of us would say such a thing at a funeral, it would be quite insensitive. But Jesus can say it, and only Jesus can say it. You see, only Jesus can say it because only Jesus can do something about it.

Then Jesus does something verboten—forbidden: He actually touches the coffin-cot. Gasps all around! According to Jewish law, that would make one ritually unclean. But not Jesus! He is the very source of ritual cleanness, the true fount of genuine healing. He may very well take this young man’s death and uncleanness into Himself—soaking it up as a sponge, so to speak. But He also transmits His cleanness and His healing—and His life—into the lifeless man on the coffin-cot.

And Jesus’ words to the young man—“I say to you, arise”—say what they do and actually do what they say. By the way, the original Greek is different from the English. The English makes it sound as though the young man could muster up the energy and willpower to “arise” of his own accord. Not so in the Greek. It’s a passive verb. Jesus actually says, “Young man, I say to you, BE RAISED.” Not “raise yourself,” but “be raised”…that is, by Someone else. And who is that Someone else? Jesus, of course. And how does He raise this dead young man? By His Word, of course. His Word says what it does and does what it says, making alive, forgiving sins, and delivering salvation. As Jesus said elsewhere: “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (Jn. 5:24).

So when Jesus comes on the scene—whether in the flesh at Bethlehem or at Nain or on the cross, or even in our midst in His Word—He comes to pour out His guts to give His mercy. He comes to fulfill and complete all those other resurrections in the Bible. The prophet Elijah raised the widow’s son, to be sure (1 Kgs. 17). Then the prophet Elisha raised the Shunammite woman’s son (2 Kgs. 4).  Actually, God raised those two boys through His prophets. Jesus Himself would raise Jairus’ daughter (Lk. 8) and His friend Lazarus (Jn. 11). However, all those resurrections were only the “teaser trailers” or “promo videos.” Jesus comes to show that He is “the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25). He alone has the power, the only power, over death.

According to Martin Luther, the first and main thing to take away from this account of Jesus raising the widow’s son is FAITH—that we recognize our Lord Jesus from His works and believe in Him. Luther makes this application: “This and similar works of Christ should remind us that we must be very courageous and unafraid in times of sickness, pestilence, and life-threatening danger. At moments when the world says, All is lost, the Christian always responds, Not so, God still lives, and Christ rules at the right hand of God” (HP 3:25). The widow at Nain learned that she had a helper and Savior in Jesus. Her son who was resurrected learned that he had a Savior who overcomes death itself.

You and I get to learn and believe the same things, whatever our distress, whatever our lament or grief, whatever comes our way in our lifelong battle against the grave. And we have the benefit of having the rest of the story of Jesus. He showed how much He is our helper and Savior, how completely He has overcome death and the grave by going to a cross, by suffering death itself, and by rising on the third day. Even now in the Gospel and Sacraments—in words, and water, and bread and wine—our Lord spills out His mercy to comfort us, tells us not to weep, and raises us from our sin and death. What a great prophet and Savior we have! God has visited and still visits His people!

Then, according to Luther, there’s a second thing we can take away from this marvelous miracle. That is HOW TO BE MERCIFUL. Just as Jesus poured out His innards of mercy for the widow, and just as He touched the coffin-cot of the dead young man, we also learn to identify with those who suffer and spill out our innards of mercy for them. St. Paul put it this way: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). Luther drives the point home this way: “When my poor neighbor is sick it doesn’t only mean that I should gladly help him, but his suffering must become mine in such a way that I feel it as my own, as we see here with our Lord” (HP 3:26).

Now this being merciful actually goes in two directions. One is the physical, to be sure. The other is the spiritual. Showing mercy when physical tragedy and suffering strike is easy enough to see. Our neighbor may need clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, and so on. So we spill out the innards of mercy to help them.

But mercy is also needed in spiritual matters. What are we to do when young people are not being nurtured and raised to believe in Christ? What are we to do when grown people disregard Jesus coming in His Word and Sacraments? What are we to do with our multitude of neighbors who know nothing of Jesus and His pouring out of His innards of mercy on the cross and through the empty tomb? We weep with those who weep. We identify with them by getting to know them. We speak of Jesus and His works for them. Now and then that may involve confronting our neighbor with his/her sins. And, yes, that is merciful. After all, we don’t want our neighbor to end up separated from God for all eternity. Most of all, we want to carry them on their own coffin-cot of spiritual death to the one Man who can help, the one Man who can say, “Be raised.”

So the greatest lesson from today’s Gospel is this: not to despair when things go badly, especially when we face the grave. We have the greatest Prophet—the Savior Himself—who comes to help us and raise us. And the second is like it: that we, like Jesus, identify ourselves with our neighbor in his grief, whether physical or spiritual. May God lead us in pouring out our innards of mercy, just has He has done for us. Amen.