Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Get it straight. No, really.

For my 400th post, I thought I'd share something about the Gospel. (After 399 other posts, it's about time, eh?) I posted this earlier on Facebook, but it seems a little too deep for my usual Facebook fare. Anyway, here it is: 400 with a bullet.

There is a proper order to evangelism and outreach. First we must get the message straight. We do the unbeliever no favor if we lead him to a Christ who exists only in the imagination of our hearts. First we must be rooted in the Word of God. As the Church lives not on bread alone but "by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD", we must know what the Lord reveals to us about Himself through the Word. Only then can we reach out with the Word to the unbeliever with the Christ that actually exists, the Christ who makes Himself known through that very Word. Reaching out without first getting it straight may reach a goodly number of people, but you will not be bringing them to where they need to be.

The Reverend Alvin L. Barry, sainted President of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, put it this way: "Keep the message straight, Missouri! Get the message out, Missouri!" Don't talk to me about equipping the saints for outreach or about the evils of "incessant internal purification" until you can be sure that the message is straight--that the "love" you show won't lead your hearers to their death.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Sermon for 5/26/13--The Feast of the Holy Trinity




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

God is all about giving you things. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—each Person of the Holy Trinity is about giving you gifts. Just like our earthly fathers, our heavenly Father gives us life through our earthly fathers. And just as an earthly father is supposed to provide for and care for us, this too is the means by which our heavenly Father gives us what we need to live. And if your earthly father is no good at it, or doesn't do it, your heavenly Father won't forsake you but still take care of you some other way. But more than just clothing and shoes and food and drink and house and home, your heavenly Father given you the gift of His Son, Whom He sent into the world to save you from your sins. Your Father is the giver of gifts. 

The Son's gift to you is obedience to the Father. How is Jesus' obeying His Father a gift to you? Well, earthly fathers would take it as a gift if our kids actually did everything we told them to. But that would be a gift for us dads! When Jesus obeys His Father, it's not for the Father's sake but for yours. When the Father tells the Son to come to this world and save sinners, Jesus obeys. And that is what saves us. Jesus' gift to you is that He does the Father's will. His gift to you is that He takes on human flesh for you, takes on your sins, and suffers and dies for them on the cross to forgive them. The Son's gift to you is His being lifted up on the cross. His gift to you is His resurrection by which your death is defeated. All that Jesus does for your salvation is a gift from Him to you. He does it freely out of His own will of mercy and grace and in obedience to His Father.

And the Holy Spirit gives gifts. First of all, the Holy Spirit is Himself a gift who "proceeds" from the Father and the Son. The sending of the Spirit is another gift of Father and Son to us. The Spirit's gift is to make us children of God by giving us a new birth from above. This He does by sprinkling us with the blood of Jesus through the water and the Word of Holy Baptism. In fact, every gift the Spirit has for us is about delivering Jesus' forgiveness to you. He gives you the gift of new life at the font. He gives the gift of forgiveness in preaching and Holy Absolution. He gives the gift of Jesus' body and blood in the Supper. The Spirit's gift is to make you holy. And He does that by delivering to you the gift of the forgiveness of sins by water, word, body and blood.

So then we see what our sin is and what our repentance is on this Holy Trinity Sunday. At its root, all sin is idolatry. Sin is not just the breaking of rules; it’s when we refuse to fear, love and trust in God above all things. It's rejecting the gifts of the God who gives them to us. We have the Father who created us and takes care of us and sent His Son. Yet we love the things of this creation more than we love God. We love our possessions and toys and our money and most especially ourselves. These are the things we put first in our life. Christ gives the gift of Himself for our salvation, to forgive us our sins. Yet we love our sins more than such forgiveness. We would rather hold a grudge against someone or continue in our nasty habits than repent and have those sins wiped out. The Holy Spirit gives us the Word and Sacraments and we toss those aside for more exciting things, so that living daily in our baptism or hearing Christ's Word or coming to His Supper are no big deal. We can take them or leave them as if they're no more important than anything else we have or do in our lives. Every gift from the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit is so easily rejected. That is what sin is. We must repent of the idolatry that causes us to reject God's gifts.

Where, then, is our hope in this True God forgiving us? Well we already said He gives us His gifts. Jesus tells us that the flesh is idolatrous and self-loving. But you have something else. You have a new birth from above by water and the Spirit because the Father has sent the Son and the Son was lifted up for you. The same Father, Son and Spirit who give you every good gift—He gives those gifts to save us from our idolatry, to put to death our sinful flesh and give new birth to us by water and the Spirit and the Word. In Christ, by Baptism, you are a new creation. Baptized in Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, you are now a child of God. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, your pastor speaks the Word of Christ to forgive you all your sins. Your Father loves you. The Son loves you. The Holy Spirit loves you. They provide for you, forgive you and make you holy. No other god can even pretend to come close to what the True God is and has and does for you. Every false god demands something from you. But the True God is all about giving His gifts to you—now and forever. 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.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Sermon for 5/19/13--The Feast of Pentecost



Keep My Word

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

There is both a sense of triumph and a sense of wonder that accompanies the celebration of Pentecost. He who died for our sins and was raised to life on the third day has returned to the right hand of the Father in heaven. And from there He has sent the Holy Spirit to His Church, as He had promised. The coming of the Spirit means that our Savior has been crowned in heaven with eternal glory, and that He rules over all things for the sake of His Church. The Introit for the day voiced some of this: “Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered…” In Jesus, sin, death and hell have more than met their match. Whatever failures we experience along the way are only momentary, because the ultimate victory has been won, and heaven has been secured for the saints of God.

It still amazes us to consider what has taken place, to realize that at one moment we were looking into the gaping jaws of eternal death, and the next we see that the kingdom of heaven has been opened wide to all believers. On that Day of Pentecost, wonder was accompanied by amazing signs: a heavenly wind; tongues of fire on the heads of the disciples; and then the unlearned ability to speak the languages of the multitudes gathered in Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven.” Suddenly, amazingly, the Gospel was making its way out into every corner of the earth through those who were gathered that day.

But Pentecost is also a solemn day. Pentecost was the first step in a long, hard road. The Apostles could not let themselves be deceived. Jesus told them what things would be like after He was gone. Just as His had been a hard-won victory over sin, death, and hell, the Church’s eventual triumph of faith would also be hard-won. Even with the triumph and wonder of the Day of Pentecost, the operative words for Jesus followers were—and still are—“If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up His cross, and follow Me.” And now, before leaving them, He said to them: “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not Your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” Peace is the promise. But make no mistake: after He was gone, there would still be battles to be fought and won.

In the light of Christ’s glorious resurrection and ascension, and with the Spirit’s work at Pentecost, the disciples soon found ways to carry on and even thrive in what their Master had left for them to do. The very same is true for us. We know that we are absolutely dependent on our Lord Jesus Christ. The thought of being without Him is one that would lead us to utter despair. And yet we know that He strengthens us, and that by His Spirit, who does His work with and in us by the Word and the Sacraments, we are able to carry on in peace in the course our of vocations.

Peace is one of the gifts that comes with Pentecost. What did “peace” mean to those disciples on that eventful day? What does it mean to us now? The giving of peace was the common form of greeting in those days. Perhaps it had lost much of its significance in common usage, as is true with so many things. But coming from the lips of Jesus, the word “peace” was once more given all the fullness of meaning God had intended for it. The peace of God never simply means the absence of trouble. Indeed, God’s peace can be at its fullest when we are surrounded by trouble. The peace that Christ gives is the peace that is all for our good, every blessing of body and soul from God. By contrast, the peace the world would offer us is the peace of escape, the peace that comes from the avoidance of trouble and refusing to face what life hands us. We wonder at times how those disciples were suddenly so bold and courageous in their witness. This is the reason. At Pentecost, with the coming of the Spirit, what Jesus had promised them finally began to sink in and take root in their hearts.

Do you know what it’s like in the eye of a hurricane? It is a strange sensation. Not many miles away, the storm is raging with destructive force. But in the eye there is a sense of peace and calm that is almost unearthly. If it is daylight one can look up and see clear, blue sky; if it is night one can see the stars. Of course, that peace is momentary because the storm is always on the move. The peace that Jesus leaves with us, the peace that is one of the unique gifts of the Spirit at Pentecost, is like being in the eye of the hurricane. Around us, the world may be breaking apart, but in the eye there is the peace that surpasses understanding, the peace won for us at the cross, the peace which the Spirit brings now to the faithful of Christ. But unlike the hurricane, this peace stays with us. All around us the storm wails away, and yet our peace is never broken. When Jesus ascends, peace is what remains. And that peace of Christ is what sustains us until we see Him face to face. 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, May 16, 2013

Three years later

The date was March 14, 2010. I had preached at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Metairie, Louisiana, and then I stayed to enjoy fellowship at the Mt. Olive stand at Metairie's Saint Patrick's Day Road Parade, so I was leaving the city later than normal. I was just about to get on I-10 heading west out of New Orleans, and I called my wife. (Yes, I know that talking on the phone while driving isn't the safest thing to do. Let it go for now.) We were on the phone for about ten minutes, and while we were talking, someone kept trying to ring through. Finally Faith and I got off the phone, and the phone rang again. It was the Reverend Mark Buetow, Pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church in DuQuoin, Illinois. Pastor Buetow had been serving as the vacancy pastor of St. Peter Lutheran Church in Campbell Hill, Illinois, a congregation about a half-hour from his own. At a meeting to select a pastor to replace the one who had left right before Christmas, the congregation voted to select me! Pastor Buetow was calling to notify me of their decision. Poor guy. I think my shout of joy damaged his eardrum.

It was not a hard decision to make. Faith and I took a road trip up to Illinois to visit the congregation, and while we were there I announced my acceptance of the position. We determined my Installation as the Pastor of St. Peter Lutheran Church would take place as soon as possible.

A little history here: I left my congregations in North Dakota three years to the week after I was Installed, which I know now was much sooner than I should have left. (Hindsight is always 20/20, of course.) And as for my congregation in Ohio...well, I had very little do to with the timing of my departure, but I was only there for a little over two years and two months. You know, I never wanted to be one of those pastors who moved around a lot, and I always had a little bit of contempt for those who jumped from place to place. After all, a pastor who leaves a place too soon really doesn't get to know his congregation as he ought. Nevertheless, I was that guy.

Pastor Buetow was reluctant to let go.
For four years, seven months, and four days I had been a pastor without a congregation. That sad streak ended with my Installation, and today marks the three-year anniversary of that wonderful event. (And Pastor Buetow's Installation sermon is still as fresh today as it was three years ago.) I've now been here as long as a pastor as I've been anywhere, and, Lord willing, it shows no signs of changing any time soon. We've found a home here with the saints of this congregation. We've found love in Christ, a warm welcome, an acceptance of our family's odd circumstances, and a place where we feel like we're putting down roots. (The cows are so relaxing!) There's no urgency to go anywhere else; this is home. The time has passed very quickly, as time is wont to do when things are going well (even with the challenges we face) and one is having fun. I am so thankful to God and to the people of St. Peter for bringing us here to serve them and serve with them.

Here's to three years. God grant us many more.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Pastor's Heart in War with Death

I've been a pastor nearly thirteen years now. In all that time, the hardest thing I've ever had to do is bury a child. This was in my first parish, and I'd only been a pastor for about a year and a half. I received a phone call late in the evening from the father of the family. His wife had been delivered of a child, but she died that same day. The baby had been baptized by a pastor who was in the hospital that day--thanks be to God, for the sake of the child and the family both, that they have been able to take comfort in Baptism. But it fell to me, as their pastor, to bring the Word of God to bear, to try to bring comfort in the midst of a time of terrible affliction. I stayed with the family in the funeral home the evening before the funeral, bringing the Word to them and praying for and with them. And then the funeral was the next day. I don't remember very much of that day (except for a fortuitous meeting outside the church after the committal as I was leaving for the dinner), but I do remember parts of the sermon (which is sad, because I quoted "Away in a Manger" and I still can't sing it without tearing up) and I remember the tiny little coffin as it rested in the front of the sanctuary. I've tried to lay my own grief to rest concerning this child, but it never fully goes away.

A lot of that came to mind today as I carried my congregation's funeral pall into the sanctuary of a neighboring congregation. Four children from a nearby community died in a fire set by an arsonist this past weekend, and as it so happened, the children were baptized members of a Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod congregation. As I walked in, I could see the four caskets lined up at the communion rail. The funeral director and his colleagues were there, working on the logistics and arrangements. I took the pall to the pastor's study, and we came out to the sanctuary to figure out with the funeral director how to make a full-sized pall fit on a casket less than half the size of the usual casket. That was when the funeral director broke down--probably not for the first time, and certainly not for the last. When the pastor and I took the pall back into the office area, I asked how he was doing, and he mentioned that this funeral was on the heels of two other funerals, one of which was done on short rest after ministering to this family after the fire. He said that the funeral he did that day--a funeral for a mature Christian who lived a full life and was a lifelong member of the congregation--would usually have been easy, but that he was emotional during that funeral because of this situation. I certainly understand that. My only involvement in this funeral is delivering a pall, and I found myself getting emotional.

Being a pastor can be pretty easy at times. Preach a sermon; lead the liturgy; teach Bible study; hold Catechism instruction; visit the hospital; see the shut-ins. Even things like funerals are usually not so bad, because usually it's an elderly member of the congregation who has lived a full life, or it's a member who has been sick and suffering for a long time, and the suffering has now ended. But burying a young person is hard--and I can only imagine burying four at the same time is exponentially harder. There stands the Law. This is the wages of sin laid out before you in as horrible a manner as you will ever see it. You can close your eyes or try to look away, but it's not going anywhere. You stand convicted. This is your fate. This is what you've earned. As the pastor in this situation, you are in that odd place where you are both a mourner and the one expected to bring comfort. You are expected to display a certain professionalism, and yet you can't help but remember holding them over the baptismal font, praying with them them in Sunday School, teaching them the catechism, and all the other times you've shared time with them over the course of their short lives. Reminders of the joy of baptism help ("I am baptized into Christ! I'm a child of paradise!"), but at that moment death and the grave seem very powerful.

A pastor has a heart. (In my case, I've had the x-rays to prove it; otherwise there are those who might not have believed it. *wink*) It doesn't turn off when he performs pastoral care, and it often works overtime for funerals. Even Jesus wept as He performed His duties. Displaying the love of Christ to the congregation he is called to serve means a pastor can't help but be overcome. That does not make him weak. That does not make him a poor pastor. He is doing what he has been chosen by God and selected by the congregation to do, and his own sorrow will not keep him from doing what he has been Called to do. He loves you with the love of Christ...and maybe even with a bit of his own love. Pray for him; share the Word of God with him; remind him of his own baptism; love him with Christ's love. More than anything, that is the greatest blessing you can give him, especially when he is called upon in times of tragedy. I can assure you, he prays for you, especially when death draws near.

In your prayers over the next little while, please remember the family and friends of the four Owen children who died in Percy this past week. Please also remember Pastor Janneke and the members of St. Mark Lutheran Church in Steeleville as they bring the comfort of the Word to bear in this terrible situation, and also remember Mr. Bill Wilson and his colleagues at the wonderful Wilson's Funeral Home as they serve the family. It is not easy to bury children--not for the family, not for the pastor or congregation, not for the funeral director.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sermon for 5/12/13--Seventh Sunday of Easter

No audio this week. Recording error. Sorry!

Faithful Witnesses

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

The disciples knew they were standing in the presence of the Son of God. Though they did not understand everything, they believed that He had the words of eternal life. They had been with Him almost from the beginning. They had walked with Him and had seen and heard much. The sick had been healed, the blind made to see, the deaf to hear, and even the dead to rise. Sinners had come to Him to hear His words of forgiveness and to have their feet set on the way of righteousness. Now they were to be bearers of His glad tidings of salvation to the world. He was placing tremendous confidence in them! As the scene in this text takes place they had not yet seen His cross and resurrection, but those, too, were coming in short order.

Jesus did not leave His disciples in darkness. He prepared them for what was to follow. He told them, “They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service.” Witness to faith in Jesus Christ invites persecution and affliction. The disciples faced this. If you have not yet, your time is coming. Just consider the words of the Book of Revelation, words spoken about the Church on earth: “These are the ones who come out of great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Jesus knew the confusion that continued to trouble the hearts of His disciples. The promise He now gave them must have gladdened their hearts. “When the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father…He will testify of Me.” Whatever was to meet them on their way, their hearts would always be able to rejoice that Jesus was their Savior. We cannot measure how much this means to the Church’s witness today.

Ours is an age of spiritual skepticism and do-it-yourself religion. God’s means of grace need to be brought front and center. The significance of Baptism needs to be lifted up. Through Holy Baptism we are born into a new life, brought into the life of Christ Himself, and made partakers of eternal life. How often our stumbling witness must fall back upon the grace of our Baptism, upon those promises of God that never fail. He who believes and is baptized shall see the Lord’s salvation. The comfort and strength of our Baptism will give us courage to move forward even in the face of death.

The significance of the Lord’s Supper needs to be lifted up as well. In the body and blood of the Savior we are partakers of His death which cleanses us from all sin. The Holy Spirit does His blessed work therein, strengthening our faith, giving weight to the witness we bear to the world. But St. Paul also tells us that in our eating and drinking of the body and blood of our Savior we are proclaiming Christ’s death until He returns. Though it may seem ordinary, let us never underestimate the significance of what is taking place when the faithful of the Lord gather around His Table, not only for their own sake, but for the sake of the world, as well.

For our witness to be clear and faithful, powerful and unafraid, faith must be anchored in the Word of God. The Word of God is the fountain of life from which our souls must continually be nourished. It is the source of our strength. It permeates and gives power to every faithful effort we make. It is the Word of God that reveals to us the way to eternal life. It reveals the love of our heavenly Father in Jesus Christ. The Word of God condemns sin, but it also leads us to the foot of the cross where the one sacrifice for sin was made. The power of the Word of God projects itself beyond the confession of our lips into a life that is lived to the glory of God and for the blessing of our neighbor. The Word of God reveals to us the blessing of prayer. In our helplessness we may go to Jesus and ask for the Spirit of Truth, who bears witness to Him and gives power and grace to the words of witness we speak.

By our side stands the Son of God. Though He is ascended to glory, He remains with us always, even to the ends of the earth, as He told His disciples. And even as in years gone by He has stood by the host of Christians who have borne faithful witness to Him, our Lord now stands with you, even amidst persecution and affliction and death—and it will be so even to the end of the world. 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.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Sermon for 5/5/13--Sixth Sunday of Easter



The Victory

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

Most of the time, when Jesus is talking, the disciples say, “We don't know what He is saying.” Now He tells them that He's speaking in proverbs, but the hour is coming when He will speak plainly to them. He's going away to the Father and they can ask anything in His name. That’s when they say, “Now we know you're speaking plainly!” They behave as if they have it all figured it out. Well, it does sound clear, doesn't it? Jesus said we can ask anything in His name. All right! "Dear Lord, please give me a winning lottery ticket!" But then Jesus goes on. “You're all going to fall away and leave me alone.” This is the heart of the matter: We think we understand God, but then the bottom falls out and we wonder why God doesn't do what we want Him to.  What Jesus says won't make sense until He suffers, dies, and rises again—not to them, nor to us. We're not going to understand anything about Jesus until we realize that the true work of God is our salvation.

Jesus says, "You will have trouble in this world. But take heart: I have overcome the world." There are the simple words that demolish every false notion we have about this world and how it's going. There are no "good ol' days." This world has been under the curse of sin since Adam's fall. But there is Jesus. There is a God who overcomes the world. Now think about this carefully: the same Jesus who told us to ask for anything in His name also asks His Father to remove the cup of suffering. So what does it mean that the Father doesn't take it away? What does that say about the things for which we ask? Jesus doesn't overcome because He gets what He wants; He overcomes because He does what the Father wants. He overcomes the world by being the Lamb of God who comes into this world and suffers at the hands of sinners and redeems this world with His blood. Jesus doesn't overcome the world the way we think it should be overcome: the bad stuff doesn't stop happening. Rather, Jesus overcomes the world by taking the bad stuff and doing something good with it. What could be worse than God dying? But by His death, Jesus gets rid of our sin and turns His suffering and death into the way of our salvation. And then He rises as proof that He really has overcome this world.

When our Lord lays it out, there is a real promise. "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart; be of good cheer. I have overcome the world." There is our Christian faith and life. In this world we have trouble. But our Lord has overcome the world. There is no trouble in this world which can take you down. Jesus has overcome the world. We know we’re going to have trouble—all kinds of it: personal, physical, spiritual, mental. Look at your life and you will find plenty of trouble. So the question is this: How can we be sure our troubles don’t ultimately matter? How can we be sure that we will overcome them with Jesus? The answer is that you don’t look at the troubles! If you’re sick, for example, with something that will kill you, you don’t say you’ve overcome it when you get better or that you haven’t overcome it if you don’t. Rather, you say that Jesus has overcome it by dying and rising for sinners, to give you eternal life. The proof of that is your baptism. No matter what trouble you’ve got going on in this world, your Baptism says Jesus has overcome the world for you. That’s what Holy Absolution means and what the preaching of Christ’s cross is about and what the Lord’s Supper promises. Jesus has overcome the world—for you. Those gifts prove that it’s true.

And so what about that praying stuff? Go ahead and ask away—but not for lottery tickets. Is your world so small? Instead, ask for the victory of Jesus to be yours. Ask that it may so fully rescue you from the troubles of this life that you never lose your joy. Ask in Jesus’ name, and the Father will give you all good things. Sure, you’re going to have trouble in this world. But take heart; Jesus has overcome the world. That’s not just a nice way of saying, “Butch up, sissypants!” Instead, it’s a promise that when you have those troubles, you’ve already won because Jesus has already won. In the name of the Father and of the Son (†) and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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