Friday, July 30, 2010

Sermon for 8/1/10--Ninth Sunday After Trinity (LSB 1-year)

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

The steward had been entrusted with managing his master’s possessions. It was a position of respect and responsibility, and the rewards for faithful service were often considerable. But, that was about to change. He stood accused of wasting his master’s goods. The master sensed that something was not right. There would be an audit; the books would be opened and examined. With speed and shrewdness, he used the time that remained in his position to cut the debt of others and, thus, make friends with them. He called on each of his master’s debtors and cancelled a portion of their debt. Since he was still in the office of steward, his actions carried with them the weight and promise of his master. Although he did it to look out for himself, although he did it with someone else’s possessions, he was still commended by the master for his cleverness.

What does all of this mean? It doesn’t mean that God is teaching us to be dishonest. He has commanded that we not steal or even covet, but receive our daily bread with thanksgiving. What, then, did Jesus mean when He said, "For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light"? What was His design in saying to His own disciples, "Make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon"? There will come a time, and we all know this, when possessions will become utterly meaningless. They cannot provide for our eternal future. God is concerned about how we use the stewardship He has entrusted to us. As Jesus later said, “If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches”? His conclusion was that we cannot serve both God and mammon.

If God called for an accounting tomorrow, if the books were opened on your use of what He has entrusted to you, how would you fare? Are you ready for God’s audit? Would there be any grounds for an accusation that you have been wasting God’s gifts? In this place and this time in which you live, with all of the possessions that surround you, and knowing what it takes to make you content, are you ready for the Master to call in His accounts? Let him who stands take heed lest he fall.

If an accounting of our stewardship was required, would we not be in the same fix as that steward? He was focused on providing for himself; aren’t we? He had wasted some of that which His master had entrusted to him; haven’t we? None of that is what Jesus approved of. What Jesus was commending was this steward’s attitude when he recognized his predicament. The point of praise is not that he selfishly looked out for himself, nor that he pulled a fast one before he was removed from office. Rather, Jesus’ point of praise is this steward’s shrewdness, or wisdom, in depending on one thing and one only, and that was the master’s mercy. The steward knew his master and staked everything on the fact that he would be merciful to those whose debts had been cancelled. Would the master honor the cancellation of the debts he made? The steward trusted that he would, and his trust in that mercy was his only provision for the future. The steward was praised for knowing where his hope was found; in the mercy of the master.

The steward staked everything on the belief that his master would honor the words spoken in his name to cancel the debt. And the master did just that! That is the point of the whole parable: the mercy of the Lord. His is the greatness and the power and the glory. It is in His hands to make great and give to all. Both riches and honor come from Him. It is in this light that Jesus then calls for the sons of light, the faithful, to examine their own single-minded devotion to true riches. After all, the sons of the world calculate and plan and expend all kinds of effort for the sake of earthly security—riches that will always fail! Jesus would have us put the things of this world to an everlasting use in love towards our neighbor, making every effort for the sake of the kingdom of God, to bring eternal riches to others—the riches that will not fail!

Those riches are found in the One who speaks these words to His disciples. Those riches are an absolute trust in the mercy of God through the words and the saving work of Jesus Christ. For Jesus Himself was appointed by the Father as Steward of the Father’s grace. Accusations were brought also against Him. He was, after all, accused of blasphemy, the ultimate abuse of God’s name. While none of the charges were true, there did come a day when He was called to give an account of His stewardship. The court was seated, and the books were opened, and what they revealed was a wretched account of stewardship and life. The truth is, every greedy thought of ours, every withholding from God, every sinful desire to have ever more and more of this world’s possessions, every selfish word and action, every one of our sins, was there on the record. The holy Son of God stood accused of it all, and He was as guilty as sin. In fact, He had become sin for us so that, in Him, we might become the righteousness of God.

In His office of Redeemer, Jesus spoke a word of forgiveness to this whole world of sinners. Guilty of our sin, and not His own, He used His last hours to secure our future, not His own. On the cross He sacrificed Himself to make peace for us debtors with God. By His life and death he canceled all that we by our sins deserved. And just as the steward called his master’s debtors one by one, so Jesus calls us personally before Him in Holy Baptism. He calls us to Himself, and says, "How much do you owe? Take your debt, and write ‘canceled’ on it. Your Baptism, after all, is a Baptism into my all-sufficient death. You have been anointed with the oil of the Holy Spirit. Do not write a lesser amount; don’t write, ‘paid in part,’ but, ‘paid in full’."

Jesus trusted absolutely in the Father’s mercy for us sinners. He trusted that in speaking words of forgiveness to us, the Father would honor those words completely. Indeed, in sending out apostles and pastors to speak in His name, that same trust is evident. The Master is merciful. The stewards of the mysteries of God are still there in the Savior’s name to cancel the debts owed to the Master. The word of the ones He has sent will be honored absolutely. This is the truth Jesus gives us in this steward who watched out for his own life and well-being. The crucial factor in all of this was the master’s mercy. He trusted that the master would honor the debts canceled in His name.

God strengthen our trust that our debt is canceled by the Word of Christ. He is still the Redeemer. He still speaks words of forgiveness and life. Risen and reigning over God’s kingdom, He continues to take our debt and write "paid in full," that we may be received with the saints into His everlasting home. Thank God for the mercy of the Master! 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.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Sermon for 7/25/10--Eighth Sunday After Trinity (LSB 1-year)

Good Fruit and Evil
Matthew 7:15-22

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

If you’ve ever seen “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”, which is the Charlie Brown Halloween special, then you may recall that Linus Van Pelt believes in the Great Pumpkin. On Halloween, as Linus believes, the Great Pumpkin rises from the pumpkin patch he deems to be “the most sincere”, and he flies around, bringing toys to all the good little boys and girls in the world. In hopes of luring the Great Pumpkin to his local pumpkin patch, Linus cries out, “Just look! Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see!” Linus may be sincere, but ultimately he is a false prophet: the Great Pumpkin does not exist. No amount of sincerity can create a Great Pumpkin to rise from the patch.

The Bible has plenty to say about false teachers. False teaching helped bring about the fall into sin, and false teachers have sought to do their work ever since. It began when the serpent said to Eve, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Adam and Eve did eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but the serpent had misled them. Though they did not immediately keel over, these people who were not supposed to be able to die were suddenly subject to illness and injury, suffering, and finally death. This has plagued the Church throughout its history.

False teaching is so dangerous because these false teachers tell us exactly what we want to hear. Paul diagnoses the problem for us in his second letter to Timothy: “They will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.” We’re not content to hear the Word of God as Spirit breathed it; we want to pick and choose what suits us. A man says, “Oh, she’s so pretty. So what if we’re both married?” So much for the Sixth Commandment. A woman says, “I’m pregnant, but I don’t want to be.” There goes the Fifth Commandment. Another says, “The Bible calls homosexuality ‘shameless’ and ‘an abomination’; but that’s just the product of a repressive society. We know better today.” Yet another bit of Scripture done away with.

The Church Militant is especially guilty of ignoring the Word of God. In fact, it is in the Church where false preachers do the most damage, because these false teachers claim to be speaking with the authority of Christ. The name of Jesus is a powerful thing, especially in the Church, where we are conditioned to believe what Jesus says and what the Apostles and Epistle writers have written in His name. It’s all too easy to attach the name of Jesus to opinions and pious desires and claim them as the true Word of God. Like Satan, these false teachers attempt to question the Word of God. They ask, “Did God really say what you think He said?” In the name of misguided love, in the name of gender equality, in the name of convenience, they set aside the truth of God’s Word. Yet on the Last Day, the formulators of these opinions will say, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name?” No matter how sincere they are, these are the ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing, seeking to consume the faithful, to lead them away from the truth, down the broad path that leads to the wide gate of destruction. And why are these false preachers successful in the Church? It’s because they’re saying exactly what we want to hear. We want to believe in a god who will reward a strong faith by making us healthy, wealthy and wise. We want to believe with Joel Osteen that God wants us to be prosperous here on earth. We want to believe that all people are basically good. We want to believe that we can earn our way to heaven. We desperately desire that evil fruit.

We are in that dark time when men will not tolerate the truth of God’s Word. False teachers have been so pervasive that these false teachings are seen as near-universal truth. Believers are misled by these teachings, and the faithless are confirmed in their errors. For these false teachers the Lord has only one response. He says to them, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.”

But the Lord doesn’t leave us in the midst of these false teachings without any recourse. He tells us, “You will know [false prophets] by their fruits.” These words of Jesus come near the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Up to this point He had taught His hearers about true righteousness, about faithfulness, prayer, and daily bread. After this he continued to teach the disciples about Scripture, and then He commanded them to baptize and to teach all nations “to observe everything I have commanded you”. He spent three years teaching the disciples how to recognize good fruit, and He commanded them to teach everyone else how to recognize it, too. False teachers are caught in their own web of lies. They have reason to doubt their eternal salvation. But you have been taught the truth. You have been taught by faithful pastors to recognize what is true, what is right, what is profitable for your salvation. You were given faith in your baptism, and that faith clings to the Word of God, allowing you to recognize and shun error, to confess the truth.

As you confess Jesus Christ who has come in the flesh, you do so as one in whom Christ dwells through your baptism, as one who belongs to Him. Because He has made you His own, you don’t seek after the false teachers and their bad fruit. Here in this place you receive the good fruit of the Word preached in its truth and purity. The Holy Supper in which you will soon partake is the best of good fruit, edifying your body and soul; and it feeds faithful sheep.

You know how to recognize the fruits of anyone who claims to be preaching of God. Does his teaching confess Christ as Savior? Does it confess Christ as both God and Man? Does it confess Christ as the One sent in the flesh to bear our sin and be our Savior? Does it confess that Christ died to bear our sins and rose again to bring us newness of life? If so, trust that teaching. Embrace it. Hold fast to it. And if not, then get rid of it. Flee from it. Run the false teacher out of your sanctuary and out of your life. The false teacher has no fruit that is edifying for you. He can only poison you.

Beware of false prophets. Test what they say, and flee from their teachings. Confess the truth as faithful parents, faithful teachers, and faithful pastors have taught it to you. What they have taught you is good fruit and is edifying for your soul. When you stand before Christ on the judgment day, He will recognize that good fruit in you as His own and will not send you away. 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.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A change in the tide

"The time's come: there's a terrific thunder-cloud advancing upon us, a mighty storm is coming to freshen us up." -- Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters

As you probably know by now, I am a pastor in the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod. The LCMS has just finished its triennial convention. For those of you unfamiliar with this process--and blessed are you--the Synodical Convention is where the "business" of the church body is transacted. Synodical officials are elected. Reports are given. Changes are considered.

And to say that changes were made at this Synodical Convention would be an understatement on a level with saying, "The Obama administration has been slow to act during the BP Gulf oil spill crisis." I don't think it an understatement to say that the changes made at the 2010 LCMS Convention will affect American Lutheranism for many years to come.

Let's start with change for the good, namely, the election of Matthew Harrison as Synodical President. For the past 9 years, the Reverend Gerald L. Kieschnick has been President of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod. President Kieschnick during his tenure has been fond of saying, "This is not your grandfather's Synod," and his decisions during his tenure have reinforced that statement. Early in his tenure, he gave permission for the Atlantic District President, David Benke, to participate in "A Prayer for America", an Oprah Winfrey-organized prayer service in Yankee Stadium in which Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Jews, and others prayed together to their various gods; and Kieschnick refused to discipline him for this blatant syncretism. When pastors and laypeople objected to these actions through signing the document That They May Be One, President Kieschnick considered the signers to be schismatic and sent a memo to the district presidents of the LCMS in which he encouraged the DPs to take action against the signers. It took five years for President Kieschnick to repent of that. Other events, actions and statements from Kieschnick have further led the LCMS away from its theological roots, including his crusade against what he calls "incessant internal purification"--in other words, the desire to continue to keep our doctrine and practice true to Scripture and the confessions. His desire for outreach by whatever means stands at odds with the history of the LCMS, where we have been encouraged to "get it straight" and then "get it out".

The 2010 convention saw the election of the Reverend Matthew Harrison as LCMS President. Pastor Harrison has served as Executive Director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care, the mercy arm of the LCMS, since 2001. He is skilled as an administrator, but more than that, he is a gifted theologian. He knows the Scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions, and the history of the Church--including the history of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod. When someone speaks about "our grandfather's Synod", Harrison knows what that means. His election as President is a shift away from the mainline Protestant leanings of the past nine years, and it has given hope to those whose concerns have grown over that time. I had hoped Pastor Harrison would win, and with his election and that of other solid confessional Lutherans to positions of leadership in the Synod, I am cautiously optimistic about the future of the LCMS.

And now, the troublesome change, namely, the restructuring of the LCMS. President Kieschnick pushed hard for a restructuring of the LCMS under the guise of cost reduction and building consensus in the LCMS. (Because really, our problems in the LCMS have been about structural inefficiency, not about a departure from the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions.) My concern about restructuring is that it seems to me to be a departure from the traditional LCMS polity of congregational power and a recension of the Treatise on the Power and the Primacy of the Pope. I'm sure there will be those who will say I'm dealing in hyperbole. However, for 470 years, the Lutheran Church has seen the dangers of centralizing the authority of the Church in anyone but Christ Himself. With the passing of Resolution 8-08 and other resolutions from the Synod Structure and Governance Committee, based on the work of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synod Structure and Governance (also known as the BRTFSSG[HIJKLMNOP]), we have given the President of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod more authority than anyone in the history of the LCMS has wielded . . . possibly even more than Martin Stephan wielded before he was exiled. Perhaps I am an alarmist. Perhaps I am reading this wrong. But I have a great deal of concern about this. I'm less concerned than I was when I believed that President Kieschnick, the man behind the BRTFSSG[HIJKLMNOP], would be wielding that power, but even with a man I believe to be the right man for the job, I've experienced first-hand how great power can be abused by a synodical bureaucrat. I can only pray that the Lord will preserve the LCMS and President-Elect Harrison from that kind of abuse of power.

And now for one more troublesome note from the LCMS convention: the Red Chair videos. The purpose of the Red Chair videos was to demonstrate the power of forgiveness in the life of the Church. In and of itself, this is a good thing. However, in the practical application of these videos, it can be interpreted that some of the district presidents who spoke in the Red Chair videos have violated their Ordination vows--namely, where they vow never to divulge the sins confessed to them. I have gone to private confession and absolution, and I have done so with a man who is now a district president. The thought that he could possibly have spoken of my sins in front of the Synodical convention was mortifying to me. Even having been given permission by those who confessed to them, they are violating their vows. These sins are no longer to exist. They are to be removed from the penitent as far as the east is from the west. Pastors are never to speak of those sins again. God help all pastors to remain faithful to our Ordination vows.

I will admit that I am hopeful for the future of the LCMS. I believe that President-Elect Harrison will be good for the LCMS and for Lutheran Church throughout the world. That doesn't mean I am without concerns about the future of he LCMS. We have always sought to faithfully confess the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord. We must also be strong to faithfully reject error. Confession of faith and rejection of error: that is the format of our Lutheran Confessions, and that must be our work in the Church today.

"Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better." -- Richard Hooker

Sermon for 7/18/10--Seventh Sunday After Trinity (LSB 1-year)

Miracle Bread
Mark 8:1-9

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

The miracles of Jesus always startle and surprise us. That is because they take us, for a moment, from our world of sin and weakness into the world of the completely divine. And so it is that the miracles of Jesus tell us who He is. If we had no other reason to know that He was the Son of God, the miracles should do that for us. He once told the Pharisees that even if they would not believe His Words, by believing His works they could learn that He was truly the One sent from God.

So often, however, we focus our attention more on what the miracle is or does, which really means that we focus attention on ourselves, for we are the ones who receive the benefits of the miracle. While the substance of a miracle is not unimportant, to be sure, what is even more important is that we never lose sight of the One who does the miracle. The wonder of the miracle itself and the joy it does give us should always direct us to the supreme miracle, that God has taken on human flesh in Jesus Christ, and has come to this world to redeem us and all the world from sin and its horrible consequences.

To help set our eyes on Jesus in this miracle, perhaps it would be good to compare this miracle to an event in Jesus’ life that we may not readily associate with this miracle, and that is His temptation. The purpose for the temptation of Christ was to prepare Him for the ministry He would carry out, one that would be full of temptation and frustration, and would eventually lead to the cross. As you will remember, part of His temptation in the wilderness was physical hunger. For forty days, in the searing heat and the loneliness of the wilderness, He was without food. He endured His temptation in the presence of both the Father in heaven and the great adversary, Satan. Of course, Jesus could have easily satisfied His own hunger. Satan knew this, also, when he tempted Jesus to turn stones to bread. Such a miracle would have shown Jesus to be God, as He truly is, but it would also have thwarted the Father’s will to send redemption to this fallen world.

The way Jesus responded to that part of His temptation tells us something of immense importance when it comes to understanding this miracle of the feeding of the 4000. He told Satan, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” The significance of the miracles of Jesus, whether it be this one or another, goes well beyond the thing that is done. The miracles open before our eyes the divine, the work of God, His power and glory and might, which are always meant for salvation. Whether the miracle is the provision of bread, or the giving of sight, or even the raising of the dead, it is not merely the what that is important, but the who! Who provides bread? Who gives sight to the blind? Who calls the dead to life? It is not bread alone that matters, but every Word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, endured hunger as a part of His temptation. He did so that He might understand our needs as He feeds us not only daily bread, but also the Bread of Life, Himself, in both Word and Sacrament. His redemptive work was to restore and make whole that which was squandered and broken by our sin.

Those who were the immediate recipients of this miracle were in the midst of a temptation of their own. We have difficulty holding our attention to a service that may last a bit over an hour. Our minds want to wander. "When does golf coverage begin?" "Did I remember to turn of the oven?" "I hope this sermon will be short so I can call Tommy and we can play baseball." Can you imagine being with Jesus for three days in which much of the time was spent simply listening to Him? The supply of food they had brought with them was nearly gone by now. What could be done? To send them away would have been dangerous to them. Many had come a long way. This “desert place,” as it was called, this place of isolation, was a long way from any supplies of food. The disciples ask in their bewilderment, “How can one satisfy these people with bread here in the wilderness?” Surely, the same thoughts were running through the minds of at least some of the others who were there.

Whether or not they recognized it, the disciples were perfectly positioned to receive the greatest benefit from the miracle about to be done. It may sound trite, but it is still true that when things are at their worst, at least as we see them, God is at His best. When we are weak, God is at His strongest. When our need is greatest, God’s provision is at its most abundant. When we are in the presence of Jesus, there is always an answer to every need, to every concern, to every pain, and to every sorrow. Again, what He does is important, but what is even more important is that He is who He is; the eternal Son of the heavenly Father, the One sent to redeem us and all the world from sin, death, and hell, the one who is Himself the answer to every question, the solution to every problem, and the provision for every need. And this One who broke bread with them and satisfied their hunger is the very same One who feeds His Church now.

Our needs, of course, are very great. We are more like those people in the miracle than we may realize. We can be as isolated as they were. Theirs was, of course, a physical isolation, while ours is most often spiritual. We may be surrounded by others, as we are at this moment, and still be isolated. Sin is a wilderness that separates us from God and even, at times, alienates us from each other. We can be surrounded by the goodness of God, both His material and spiritual blessings, and yet have no sense of that goodness. And that is, to be sure, an isolation of the worst kind.

And, like Jesus’ disciples, we find it very hard to see how our needs are going to be met. But, He breaks bread with us. It is of the greatest importance that we keep this order straight. We cannot meet our needs of body or soul. He meets them. He feeds us both in body and soul. We have been taught this in the Lord’s Prayer. Remember Luther’s explanation: “God gives daily bread indeed without our prayer, also to all the wicked; but we pray in this petition that He would lead us to know it, and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving."

Jesus also breaks with us the bread of His own body, His life given for us. Our ears and hearts feed on His Word, and then, as He will again this morning, He gives us His very body, nailed to the cross, and the very blood that flowed from His wounds, all given and shed for the remission of our sins. He feeds us with these until all our needs are met; until we are fully satisfied. Jesus feeds us, and our isolation is over. Jesus feeds us, and our wilderness breaks forth in life and joy. Jesus feeds us, and we see His hand in all of life, and we rest finally in the hope and confidence that He will never fail to meet our every need until He gathers us together in that Paradise of the new heaven and earth. 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.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Sermon for 7/11/10--Sixth Sunday After Trinity (LSB 1-year)

Sufficient Righteousness
Matthew 5:17-26

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

“Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” So . . . how much righteousness is enough? When it comes to righteousness is it quantity that is important, or is it quality? Jesus brought in the scribes and Pharisees as an example of the righteousness that will not gain the kingdom of heaven. What did righteousness mean to them? Put simply, it meant performance of duty, and the better the duty was done the closer one came to the kingdom of God. All of this was laid out in a commentary on the Ten Commandments called The Mishnah. Nearly 600 different applications of the commandments of God were discussed in The Mishnah, and the righteous Jew did his very best to keep them all. And yet, that was clearly not enough. “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Luther said that one of the things that troubled him most about the teaching of the Church he was trying to reform was what he called the “monstrous uncertainty.” How much righteousness is enough? Have I been forgiving enough to those who have sinned against me? Have I held my tongue from unkind words in response to those who have been unkind do me? Have I helped my neighbor enough? Have I obeyed my parents enough? When have I done enough of those works which are pleasing to God that I can be certain of my entrance into the kingdom of heaven? What Luther realized, and what every human heart knows, is that the question can never be given a certain answer. If the question of righteousness is a question of quantity, you can never know if you have done enough.

But look at the setting of this text. It is a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. What is the Sermon on the Mount? It is a portrayal of the life of righteousness. It is an account of the way Christians will live. It is a running description of the various attributes that will mark the lives of Christians. How much different is this from the approach of the scribes and Pharisees? Both sound as if righteousness is a matter of doing, a question of quantity. What is the difference?

The difference is found in this statement from Jesus: “Do not think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” Jesus Christ is righteousness in Himself. All righteousness is found in Him. As St. Paul wrote: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” It was Jesus who came to John the Baptist and insisted that He be baptized by him to fulfill all righteousness.

For Jesus, righteousness was a matter of doing. It was a matter of being born in this world, a helpless Babe in the manger. It was a matter of living out His life according to the will of the Father in heaven, the will to save His human creation, creatures who had gone astray and were now trying to save themselves by every manner of self-righteousness. It was a matter of suffering and dying, both doing what was necessary according to the Law of God, and enduring everything that hateful, evil men would do to Him. It was matter of bearing to the cross the sins of the world, and then resting in the tomb for three days, only to rise again on the morning of the third day. It was matter of ascending to heaven, there to reign over all things for the sake of His Church. In doing all of this He was fulfilling the law and the prophets, and in this way fulfilling all righteousness. And it is this righteousness that He would give us, the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. It is for us a righteousness not of quantity, for we have done nothing to gain it, but one of quality, for it comes as a gift from the Savior of the world.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we have a problem with all of this. Our problem is that we rather like the idea that we might have some hand in our own salvation. The truth is, we much prefer to trust ourselves than Jesus. We are not always confident He knows what He is doing; we would much rather keep our own hands on the controls. Even with all the shortcomings we see in our own righteousness, we would rather have that than to entrust our souls to someone else. Even if it means that our righteousness is of our own doing, we seem to find that more appealing than simply receiving the gift of righteousness from someone else. We are rugged individuals; surely we can make it work for us.

And we feel the same way when it comes to others. We cannot possibly see how a gift of righteousness is going to benefit others. If we have unruly children, the way to handle them is to make more rules for them to follow. If something is amiss in the nation, surely the answer is to pass more laws. And even in the Church, there must be some way to get people to be more obedient to God’s Word, to take more seriously the life of the Church. Surely, there is something to be done, more rules and laws and directions that will bring in line what is out of step.

But righteousness is really not a question of what we do; it is a question of who we are. We are not righteous because we do righteous works. We do righteous works because we are righteous through the gift of righteousness from our Savior; the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation which He gives us through faith in Him. The righteousness which comes from Jesus Christ, His gift of Himself and all He has done to save us, is all that we need. Because when we have Him and His righteousness, we have everything! When we have Jesus Christ and His righteousness we have all that is needed. As St. Paul wrote to the Romans: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” When we have Jesus Christ and His righteousness then what will follow is a righteous life, peace, joy, hope, and all that He would give us in His grace.

How much righteousness is enough? The righteousness of Christ is enough, the righteousness He gives us—the righteousness that was placed on you in Holy Baptism, the righteousness restored to you in the words of Holy Absolution, the righteousness fed to you in the body and blood of Jesus this day. This righteousness is sufficient for 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.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The fear of the Lord--the wrong way

When I was younger and a lot more vain than I am now, I used to believe that I was the kind of person in whom famous people could find unqualified friendship. I believed I had no desire to be famous, after all, and believed myself incapable of vanity, so these people could confide in me without the fear that I was using them as a ladder to fame for myself.

I've long since disabused myself of the notion that I'm incapable of vanity. (If you ever find yourself believing that you possess some virtue that makes you particularly ideal as a choice for some role in life, that would be your vanity speaking.) I have more "fame" than I could ever want as a pastor, by the way, as proven by the fact that I've had people stalk me online, trying to find fault with "the man of God". I've also become jaded toward the notion that most celebrities are people with whom I would want to find friendship, were I ever to meet them. There are, however, a few with whom I believe I would enjoy a conversation over the beverage of choice.

One such man is Alan Alda. I've been fascinated by Alda for as long as I can remember. M*A*S*H began its run before I was born, but I remember watching the finale on our old black and white television. Alda's character, Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce, was intriguing, even as young as I was. I certainly didn't understand everything that went on, but even I, callow youth, could tell that Hawkeye was a complex character, and the man who played him made the character believable, no matter how far-fetched the situation seemed. Age has only allowed me to see with more clarity just how rich a character her portrayed, just how brilliant his portrayal.

I recently purchased the two books he has written, his memoirs. I was disappointed, but not terribly surprised, to read that he was no longer a Christian. He had been a practicing Roman Catholic, but He departed from the faith in his twenties. He describes it this way:

I was still going to mass every Sunday, because I believed that if I didn't, I would take a one-way trip to hell. I was twenty-two, and the nuns' words from my adolescence still burned in my ears. I envied people like Arlene and her father, Simon, who seemed not to need to believe what someone else told them they had to believe. Simon was a quiet man with a twinkle in his eye and a stomach that showed a strong belief in food. Hew had a simple rule that covered politicians, clergymen, and insurance salesmen. "They're all a bunch of fakers," he would say with a sweep of his hand that gave them the official brush-off.

I couldn't take the priests so lightly. They had a list of things you could burn for, and once you had heard the word, not believing it was at the top of the list. I didn't want to burn, and I didn't want to take the chance in believing there was no such thing as eternal fire. I kept thinking of what William James said in a gallant attempt to be pragmatic about the unprovable: "Faith is a bet you can't lose." I supposed he meant that if you get to heaven after a life of belief and you find out it isn't actually there, well, nothing lost. I turned that over and over in my mind, until I thought: But what if you spend real time doing things you wouldn't do if there really was no afterlife? What about endless novenas and countless trips to the altar? What about meatless Fridays, and what about people who lock themselves up for life in a monastery? Is that nothing lost?

Still, I was locked in by belief. Every exit was blocked by a sentry in black with a wimple and three nostrils, holding a yardstick.

Then one day, the heavens opened for me.

It was a sunny Sunday morning in spring. I kissed Arlene good-bye and took the train up to Fordham, where there was a little chapel I still went to for mass. There were fifty or sixty people in the pews. We knelt, we stood, we sat, we knelt. In the hundreds of masses I had been to, I never could remember when you were supposed to stand and when you were supposed to kneel, I watched and did what the others did. And when I couldn't figure out which it was they were doing, I put my behind on the seat and my knees on the kneeler and did the all-purpose half kneel.

Then the priest reached the moment when, after consecrating the host and holding it in both hands, he lifts it above his head. I looked at it. I had always looked at it. But this time I noticed that the other people in the chapel were bowing their heads. Maybe I should be bowing my head, I thought. But, no. If you're not supposed to look at it, why is the priest holding it up? We're going to be swallowing it in a minute; why can't we look at it? This led to a train of thought I had never taken before: I wonder how many of these people bowing their heads actually believe that this is the body of Jesus? Do they realize you can't regard it as just a symbol? And suddenly, in that moment, I remembered what the Jesuits had taught me. "No matter what," they said, "you have to follow your conscience." And I thought: I don't know what these other people believe, but if I'm honest with myself, I do not believe the priest is holding anything but the same piece of unleavened bread that it was a few minutes ago. I was like the boy of fourteen again, refusing to rise from the pew, holding stubbornly to his right to think for himself.

And then I remembered a second thing the Jesuits had taught me: If you don't believe in transubstantiation, you're automatically excommunicated.

I'm out, I thought. I didn't quit; they don't want me. They let me go. I'm fired.

A ray of sunlight fell across the chapel, just the way it did in The Song of Bernadette.

It always haunts me when I hear that it is fear that has motivated a soul to practice Christianity. It's not that we have nothing to fear apart from Christ and His Church--indeed, the opposite is true. But if a man does not move from fear to joy, he will find himself questioning God, His grace, His gifts. He will bend beneath the burden of the Law. He will doubt. And then he will break. He will depart--with cynicism, or with that same fear.

It saddens me that this is how Alda experienced the faith. I hope someone has the opportunity someday to speak of the love of God, the joy of faith, the peace of God's gifts. I pray that for him . . . and for all who have departed in fear or cynicism. I am not vain enough to believe I will be that man. But if God gives me the opportunity, I'd love to try.

If nothing else, I think we could be friends.

[The excerpt above comes from pages 81-82 of Alan Alda's book never have your dog stuffed, (c) 2005, 2006 by Mayflower Productions, Inc.]

Friday, July 02, 2010

Sermon for 7/4/10: Fifth Sunday After Trinity (LSB 1-year)

Do Not Be Afraid
Luke 5:1-11

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

Fear is very powerful. In the midst of crisis or calamity, it seems the only thing stronger than the event itself is the fear experienced by those in the midst of it. When two airplanes struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, it was not the airplanes that caused people to jump from the highest floors; rather, it was fear of a fiery and horrible death. For many teens, high school especially is all about fear—fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, fear of loneliness. Right now, there are a lot of people in the Gulf region who are living in fear—maybe not for their lives, but certainly they are worried about what the continuing catastrophe will mean for their livelihood and their future. Fear is, sadly, a regular part of our daily lives, one that can overwhelm our spirits at any moment.

The life of a sinner is a life of fear. Simon, the man we know as Peter, shows us this all too clearly in our text. There he is, living his life the way he always does. He’s a fisherman, and of course he’d be working on his equipment after a long night of labor, no matter how fruitless that labor may have been. Then this Jesus commandeered his boat; and more than that, He told Simon how to do his job. Simon was an experienced fisherman; Jesus was a carpenter and a rabbi. Nevertheless, Simon did as Jesus said. And the results were beyond belief: two boats so full of fish that they were near to sinking. Simon fell to his knees in fear and said, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Peter had every right to be afraid, for God has an extensive track record of dealing justly with the sins of his people. He exiled Adam and Eve from the paradise of Eden when they succumbed to temptation. He drowned the world according to its sinfulness, sparing only Noah and his family from death. He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah in fire and brimstone. When the children of Israel spoke against God in the wilderness, He sent fiery serpents among them. And that is just the barest taste of the judgment of God on His rebellious and wayward children. Peter knew all of this; he knew that God is a righteous and holy judge. And through the great miracle he had just witnessed, Peter knew that Jesus was holy as the Father is holy. Peter could not stand in the presence of God.

Could you? Are you righteous before God? Are you sinless? Were Christ to return in glory at this very moment, could you stand before Him and bare your soul to Him and say, “Lord, I am worthy”? No. We could no more stand in the presence of Christ than Peter. The psalmist prays, “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” No one could truthfully claim to be worthy to stand before God without fear of His righteous judgment. Before the fall, Adam and Eve could look God in the eye without fear. They knew what it was to be at ease with God; but even these two, once they had sinned, knew they would no longer see Him the same way. Adam told God, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.” The face of God is too terrible for a sinner to behold, even for Adam and Eve who had already seen it. And we are their heirs, inheritors of their sin. Like Peter, like Adam, we must hide ourselves from His face or beg Him to depart from us. But in asking Him to depart from you, you are shoving away from you the very One who brings you forgiveness. We cannot keep Christ at a distance—indeed, we must not keep Christ at a distance—for a god who is far off is a god who does not care about you. Bette Midler had it wrong: God is not watching you from a distance. Your heart is the temple of the Holy Spirit; God is present here, and He is watching you, and He desperately desires to forgive your sins and remove your fear from you.

When you are weighed down, burdened, stuck in your sin, that is precisely when Jesus says to you, “Do not be afraid.” It is precisely when you believe you are unworthy of God and do not deserve to be in His presence that Christ comes to you and says to you, “Do not be afraid. I forgive you all your sins.” If you are comfortable in your sinfulness, you are not yet ready for this Word of blessed comfort. But when you know you are a poor, miserable sinner; when you know you are not worthy to stand before the holy and righteous God; when you bring all your sinsto the Lord and confess them—sins which you cannot get rid of yourself—it is then that He is gracious and merciful and forgives your sin.

You see, not only did Jesus tell Peter not to be afraid. He also Called Peter to be a fisherman of live people. In other words, He Called Peter to speak the same word of comfort to everyone else that the Lord first spoke to Peter. And after Peter and the other Apostles, He has also Called men to serve as pastors and shepherds of the flock, sinners like yourself, yet they also stand in the place of Christ to announce to you, “Upon this, your confession, I, by virtue of my office as a Called and Ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you; and in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

As the Apostle Paul once wrote, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” When you are weak in sin, it is then that Jesus makes you strong in the Word of forgiveness. As we have already heard, the psalmist prays, “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” But then he continues, “But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I do hope.” When your conscience is weighed down beneath the burden of your sins, it is then that the net of Holy Absolution comes down and pulls you into this boat, the nave, the sanctuary, with Jesus. It is in this boat that you witness Him carrying your sins to the cross, bearing them there for you. It is in this boat that you witness Him dying on that cross the death you deserve. It is in this boat that you witness Him being laid in the tomb, which makes holy the tomb in which you shall rest. And it is in the boat that you witness Him rising from the grave, ensuring that you shall rise from your grave with Him on the last day.

“O Israel, hope in the Lord; for with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is abundant redemption. And He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” Jesus is present here: present where two or three are gathered in His name, present in His Word, present in the water of Holy Baptism, present in His own body and blood of the Holy Supper. Jesus is here. Do not be afraid. 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.