Monday, July 20, 2009

Another week in the life of a part-time steward of the mysteries

"Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God." -- I Corinthians 4:1

A few weeks ago I posted about my adventures preaching for a "black congregation" and what some would call a "high church" congregation. That went so well that I thought I would do it again, only this time running from Sunday to Sunday.

On July 12, I was at St. John Lutheran Church in New Orleans, Louisiana, for the second consecutive week. I had helped serve the congregation during their vacancy, and they welcomed me back when their "new" pastor, Pastor Ken Babin, took some well-deserved vacation time. It was wonderful to see the people again, especially the young child I'd baptized two years ago now and his family. (And the mother is pregnant again!) The Bible study, which was supposed to be based on the readings for the day, ended up being an extended tangent about past, present and future persecutions of the Church. In relation to that we discussed the legal ramifications of the seal of the confessional in a state (like Minnesota) that requires doctors, counselors, and pastors to disclose cases of child abuse. When I said that I could not in good conscience divulge what was said to me in the process of confession and absolution, even under pain of prosecution, it seemed to raise a few eyebrows. Such a decision is not an easy thing to have to live with, especially when a child is in danger, but pastors make solemn vows at their ordination (and repeat those vows at their installations), and those vows are binding to the extent that the divulging the sins confessed to me would be grounds for me to be removed from the ministry altogether. Thanks be to God that I have never been put in that situation. By the same token, should I be there, God help me to remain faithful to vows I have made.

The most draining part about all the preaching I do down here is the driving it takes to get to these churches. On average I drive about an hour and fifteen minutes to get to the churches where I preach, and that's just the trip there. The trip back, after I'm drained from the preaching and the inevitable heat exhaustion, can be a miserable experience, one in which I often find myself stopping for a bottle of Mountain Dew so that I can stay awake for the the whole ride. (I make these trips enough where the minivan could probably find its way home on its own, but Faith doesn't like it when I try to find out.) It's one thing to get up at 5:15 AM when you've got a ten minute ride to the church and can then sit at your desk for an hour before worship and Bible study. It's another to get up at 5:15 and have three hours of driving packed around the divine service and Bible study. Don't get me wrong. I'm not about to start turning down preaching opportunities because the drive is too long. (Down here, that would mean I'd NEVER get a chance to preach!) But it would be nice to get back into a situation where I get to get up, take my time getting ready, and then head to the church where I could be still and climb into the Word before the festivities begin. I do miss that down time.

I struggled with my sermon for today for most of the week, juggling sermon work with the kids and the full-time job at the Rec. It's weeks like this where I wish I had pastoral visits to do, as it always seems like visiting with parishioners helps to sharpen my homiletical focus. Sometimes the discussion even leads to a sermon idea. But I also had the extra looming pressure of preaching at the church where I've preached most frequently since I moved here. The people of Mt. Olive in Metairie, Louisiana, don't put any pressure on me themselves other than their hunger to be fed with the Word. Nonetheless, Mt. Olive has been a second home to me during a time when I desperately needed somewhere to belong, and . . . well, I put a lot of pressure on myself on their behalf. Anyway, the sermon came out in the end, and, as always, the people fed voraciously on the Word as though they'd never heard it before, despite the fact that they're faithfully served by their own undershepherd, Pastor Brad Drew.

The one sad part of the day was that I found myself having to exercise my office as steward of the mysteries by enforcing the Scriptural practice of Closed Communion. I won't go into specific details about this person, except to say that this individual is a member of a Disciples of Christ congregation. The Mt. Olive congregation has a statement in their bulletin which states that the congregation as part of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod and in faithfulness to Holy Scripture practices Closed Communion. When it was revealed to me that this individual was not a Lutheran and yet desired to receive Communion at this congregation, and me not their regular pastor, it was still up to me to execute the practice of the Church. I gave this person the same blessing I give to children who come to the altar. After the service I spoke with this individual, and they accused me of "shunning" them. (Yes, I know I'm using bad grammar, but to maintain the anonymity of this person I'll sacrifice my grammar snooties.) That was probably the high part of our conversation.

The exercise of Closed Communion, much like the exercise of excommunication, is not an occasion for joy. In the case of excommunication, it is meant to bring a sinner to repentance. In the case of Closed Communion, it is meant to keep an individual from receiving the body and blood of Christ to their judgment. This is not the first time I've had to execute my office of steward in this fashion, but being the "fill-in" pastor, it was certainly the most awkward. I pray that God brings true unity through the Word and the Spirit to the Church on earth. I look forward to the day when all the faithful, many of whom will not be members of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, will gather together as one at the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which has no end. In the meantime, God grant me courage and love to exercise my office as steward faithfully, no matter how painful it may be.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Sermon for 7/12/09 -- Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (LSB-B)

Losing Your Head
Mark 6:14-29

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

In the Gospel appointed for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, we encounter three people who are losing their heads. One of them, John the Baptist, had spent his life preparing the way for Christ. He had preached the message of repentance, a message which is never popular. He was finally imprisoned for preaching that message to what the world would consider the wrong people.

Those wrong people were Herod and his mistress, Herodias. Herod had set aside his own wife and separated Herodias from her husband, his own half-brother, Philip. It was bad enough that Herodias had married her own uncle in Philip. But then Herodias and Herod both left their legal spouses to come together. There was no way John could overlook such sinfulness, not even for someone in a position of great authority—not even for the sake of his own freedom or even his very life.

Rather than heeding John’s message of repentance, Herod, at the request of Herodias, had John arrested. Herodias wanted even more than that. She wanted John dead for daring to speak against her. She had lost her head. But Herod, despite his sinfulness in this relationship, apparently had enough of a conscience to deter him. Besides, he liked listening to John, even if he didn’t always understand or approve of what John had to say. He also believed, and rightly so, that John was a man set apart by God, and that killing John would call down upon himself the wrath of God. So he was content to keep John imprisoned. He’d call John into his presence from time to time to hear him preach; and John did what he always did: he preached the message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Herodias had already lost her head regarding John and his message. But she needed Herod to lose his, as well. She needed him to let go of the scruples which kept him from killing John. And when her own asking would not do, she devised a plan. She sent her daughter out to dance for Herod and his company. Influenced by his libido and desiring to impress his guests, Herod offered to give the girl whatever she wanted. At the urging of Herodias, the daughter asked for John’s head on a platter.

What his wife’s pleading could not do, his step-daughter’s dancing finally achieved. Herod lost his head, too. Herod knew then that he’d made a promise he shouldn’t keep, but he didn’t want to back down in front of his powerful guests. He caved. He ordered that John should be beheaded. So finally John lost his head, too.

This is a sordid tale, so disgusting as to make it worthy of being a plotline on a soap opera. But no soap opera would take it. After all, the problem is so much more than just infidelity. One of my favorite “evangelists”, “Saint” Paul Simon, once wrote, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” This is especially true regarding the Word of God. Herod refused to heed the Word of God which John preached to him, though he certainly liked to hear John preach; and Herodias refused to heed the Word of God, so much so that she wanted the messenger killed.

We can look with disdain at Herod and Herodias, but we’re just as guilty of the same sin. You see, it’s easy to heed the Word when it comes to matters of which we approve. “Thou shalt not kill.” Certainly, by all means. It’s wrong to murder a man. We all know that. But what about a fetus? What about embryonic stem cells? What about that guy who cuts you off in traffic when you’re already having a bad day? “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Fair enough, Lord. But what if she’s gorgeous? After all, Lord, you’re the one who gave me these hormones that affect me this way, so if you didn’t want me to be attracted to her, you shouldn’t have made her so attractive. And what if I’m not married; it wouldn’t apply to me, would it? “Remember the Sabbath day.” I guess I can come to church every Sunday. But do you really expect me to agree that closed Communion is a good idea when it means my druid cousin can’t receive the Lord’s Supper? And surely you didn’t mean us to believe everything you teach in the Bible; after all, a lot of that is so out of place with how things are in society today. And surely you don’t mean for us to hold to the Word if it means we’re going to face persecution or even death because of it, right?

The Word of God causes people to lose their heads. Some, like Herod, hear the Word of God and find it a mere amusement; others, like Herodias, hear the Word and seek to destroy those who bring that faithful Word to them because they don’t like the message it conveys.

And then there are people like John the Baptist. John faithfully preached the Word, regardless of the consequences. From the time of his birth, John prepared for that moment. His father had told him, “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the most high, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His way, to give His people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” But preparing them for forgiveness meant they had to be made to see their sinfulness. No one likes to have their sins pointed out to them, and some even react with violence. But John lived up to the responsibility placed upon him. He preached the message of sin and repentance. Many repented and believed through the Word which John preached. Not everyone received it as willingly, though. John’s head on a plate shows us that. The Word caused John to lose his head, too.

And the Lord calls upon us to show the same faithfulness. During the rite of confirmation the confirmands make confession of baptismal faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. Then the pastor asks, “Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?” Each of us has been or will be asked that question, and we respond, “I do so intend with the help of God.” Later the pastor asks, “Do you intend faithfully to conform all your life to the divine Word, to be faithful in the use of God's Word and Sacraments, which are His means of grace, and in faith, word, and action to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death?” We respond, “I do so intend by the grace of God.” These are weighty questions, and your response is a solemn vow, a vow which may result in you losing your head, just as John did.

John preached the Word as God graciously gave it to him. Even in the midst of his imprisonment John didn’t step down, knowing that a whim could—and eventually did—send him to his death. God strengthened him for this service. He does the same for us. We live in a sinful world, and we are sinful people. It is never easy to live according to the Word of God. That’s what makes it so easy for non-believers to think of us as hypocrites—it’s easy not to be a hypocrite when you don’t believe in anything. He knows how hard it is to remain faithful, especially when we face trials and persecutions. Who could understand that better than Jesus? He was put to death for preaching that He was the promised Messiah and the Son of God. But He rose again as well, so that we would have forgiveness for our failure to live according to His Word. When we repent of our sins, God is faithful to forgive our sin.

Our Lord understands all too well. He knows that we may be called upon to suffer, and maybe even die, for our faith. After all, they treated Him that way. He prayed that the cup of suffering could be removed from Him, though He drank it to its bitter dregs on our behalf. And knowing that we may be asked to suffer for the sake of His holy name, Christ gives us a cup to drink as well, a cup filled with His precious blood which, along with His holy body, forgives us our sins and strengthens us for this life and even unto life everlasting.

John the Baptist lost his head. Some would think of this as a bad thing; and to be sure, none of us desires to be beheaded or to face any other kind of gruesome death or persecution for the sake of Christ. But we thank God for John the Baptist and for the death which he died; for John died in faith, living according to the Word and suffering all, even death, rather than turning away from the Lord and the message God gave him to preach. God grant that we, too, may be faithful, even to the point of death; for the crown of life awaits us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Sermon for 7/5/09 -- The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (LSB-B)

Familiarity Breeds Contempt
Mark 6:1-13

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

While I’m not a big fan of tabloids, I do like to read biographies and watch biographical documentaries about my favorite athletes and musicians. These accounts inevitably begin with the customary interviews with hometown family and friends concerning what this person was like when they were young, how they developed, what kinds of signs there were that this person had the talent and ambition that would make them a world-famous success story. “There was always something special about them,” the friend says. “We knew all along that they would go places.”

Jesus returned to Nazareth, and He brought His disciples with Him. He came back to where He had grown up in the house of Joseph, back to His home congregation on the Sabbath. And naturally, the rabbi son of the congregation would be invited to teach. That was the custom in the synagogue, much like when a seminarian or pastor comes back to his home church.

We don’t know what Jesus preached on that day. It was probably from the writings of Moses or the prophets. And if it was like His other preaching in the synagogue, it probably was about how Jesus was the fulfillment of Moses and the prophets, and how His appearing signaled the moment of the world’s salvation.

But the congregation didn’t like what Jesus said to them. Questions filled their minds and distracted their thoughts as they listened to Jesus. “From where did He get all this? This wisdom, these miracles: where did all this come from? Isn’t this Mary’s boy, the carpenter? Didn’t we watch Him in His workshop? He grew up here. He played with us.” The more questions they asked, the more offended they became. This was no triumphant homecoming.

It wasn’t so much the power or divinity of Jesus that caused the trouble in this case. What offended the people was Jesus’ very humanity—His ordinary, earthly flesh and blood humanity. Jesus was one of them—ordinary, plain people, not the sort that claimed to be God come to earth or the Messiah, come to save the world. After all, Jesus put His robe on one sleeve at a time, just like everyone else. Just who did He think He was? God? The hometown crowd stumbled. The synagogue was scandalized.

The synagogue still stumbles today. The Jewish people today still refuse to believe that this humble carpenter of Nazareth is the promised Messiah, God’s anointed. They stumble over Jesus’ humanity, His humility, His suffering and death, His failure to restore Israel, His failure to establish a kingdom of this world. Some say nice things about Him, that He is a great teacher and a prophet. But the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God? No way. Jesus was too human and weak to be called those things.

The world stumbles over the humanity of Jesus, as well. It’s celebrated openly during Christmas. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” We even sing about it: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th’incarnate deity.” But if you were to push the average Christmas shopper about just who Jesus is, the answer could be anything: “myth” or “legend”, to “prophet” or “holy man”. But is He the God who came down in human flesh to take up our sin and give His life for the world?

We stumble too. Like the people of the Nazareth synagogue, we ought to know better. Yet still we trip over Jesus’ humanity and familiarity. We stumble when we see our Baptism as something from a long time ago. We stumble when we despise preaching and the Word of God by relying on our own opinions. We stumble when we reject individual confession and absolution as something too Roman or believe that Jesus has no desire to hear the sins that trouble us. We stumble when we see the Lord’s Supper as something that can become too familiar and so only offer it once or twice each month instead of every time we gather to hear the Word. Trying to be Christian without these means of grace is the same as trying to be a Christian without Christ. But to us, these things seem all too familiar; we don’t like it when God deals with us in ordinary ways.

“Familiarity breeds contempt,” we say. Jesus was so familiar to the people of Nazareth that they found it hard to believe what He had to say. Saint John tells us, “He came into His own, and His own received Him not.” Water and words, bread and wine—these things are familiar, ordinary, part of our daily lives. It’s so easy to miss what Jesus says and does through them. That is the scandal of familiarity. The things we are most familiar with are the things we value least. God reached down to touch us through the familiar and the ordinary in Jesus Christ. So familiar are these things that His work is despised and dishonored, so ordinary that we are prone to miss it.

Saving faith, a living trust in Jesus Christ to rescue us from sin and death, doesn’t come from miracles. It comes from hearing the Word of Christ. “Faith comes by hearing.” It isn’t a matter of believing more so that Jesus can do more. It’s trusting Jesus, even when there are no miracles, when He is despised and rejected, powerless, dead on the cross. Faith born of miracles needs signs and wonders to feed it. Faith born of gimmicks and programs needs gimmicks and programs to sustain it. Faith born of Christ needs nothing but Christ!

There were a few in Nazareth who believed in Jesus, a handful who clung to His words and were not scandalized by His familiarity. Jesus laid His hands on them and healed them. Jesus always has a few believers wherever He goes. Wherever His Gospel is preached, wherever His sacraments are being given out, there will always be believers. And He reaches out His hand and touches them, and He heals them.

Jesus hands are the good news, both for the few in Nazareth and for us here today. They are familiar hands, but they are precious in their power. They are hands that know the feel of grain and water. They are hands that know sweat and blood. They are God’s hands, reaching down to us. They are hands pierced for our healing by the nail to the wood of the cross. His hands are the hands of your Savior.

The hands of the crucified carpenter from Nazareth still reach down to us. They reached down to you and washed you clean and made you His own. They reach down to you in forgiveness and blessing. They reach down to feed you with His very own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. Trust these familiar hands, and flee from those who would have you trust anyone else. You don’t need novelty; all you need is the Savior who continually makes Himself familiar to you. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.