Monday, November 28, 2011

Sermon for 11/27/11--First Sunday in Advent (LSB 1-year)

Here's the audio for the sermon below.

"Behold, Your King Is Coming"

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

The world celebrates holidays all backwards. Have you ever noticed that? All of the celebrating is virtually done before the day ever arrives. This is especially so with Christmas. All the feasting, the decorating, the nostalgia are done up front. You've got Christmas movies and Christmas music not only before Advent but even before Halloween! By the time the actual holiday arrives, Christmas seems anti-climactic. By December 25th, you're tired of the songs and the phony holiday cheer, and you're ready to move on—especially when things didn't quite live up to Hallmark expectations. It’s not unusual to see Christmas trees out with the garbage the day after Christmas!

The church doesn't celebrate a holy day until it actually arrives, and in the days following. The 12 days of Christmas that you hear about in the carol are the days from Christmas to Epiphany on January 6th. That's the real Christmas season. What we're in now is the Advent season, and Advent is a time of penitent and hope-filled preparation. Believe it or not, in the early church, Advent was a time for fasting. This is a time not for mere sentimentality, but a time but to dwell more fervently on the Word of God to make ready the way of His coming to us. We eagerly anticipate Christmas, of course; but now is not the time for the full celebration. Now is the time for waiting and discipline and focusing on the coming of our Lord in the flesh to save us.

That's why we have the Gospel that we do today. The Lord's triumphal entry into Jerusalem may seem out of place at first here in Advent, but in fact it dramatically emphasizes what this season is about. Advent means "coming." This Gospel teaches that our Lord comes to us humbly, whether on a beast of burden or in a lowly manger. Jesus comes not simply to be born; He is born to humble Himself even to death on a cross, to give His life to rescue us from sin and death and the devil.

Jesus rides two donkeys: an older one, the mother, and a younger one, a colt, the mother's foal. These two donkeys represent God's Old and New Testament people. First, Jesus rides the old, to show that He is the fulfillment of all that Israel was about and all that its prophets foretold. Then Jesus rides the new, which is born from the old. Our Lord comes to make all things new by dying and rising again. Out of the old order of death comes a new order of invincible life for us in Jesus. He unites all believers, from the Old Testament and the New, from every nation and race, together as His true and everlasting Israel.

And do not forget that you are the donkey: a very stubborn animal, hard-headed, set in your sinful ways, eager to go your own direction. You must be driven. Christ rides you; and gently but firmly He drives you toward the cross. He drives you to die with Him, to die to sin, so that you may also rise with Him to new life. He drives you to repentance through the Law, so that through the His redeeming work you may have His full and free forgiveness.

That's the sort of king you have in Jesus: not one who forces His subjects to serve Him, but one who lays down His life to serve His subjects. Every other king sends out soldiers into battle to fight on His behalf. But this King goes into battle Himself to fight on your behalf. He rides not on a stallion with glittering armor, but on an ordinary donkey, an animal of peace; for He comes to bring you peace. This King will ascend His throne, not by wearing a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns; not by defending Himself, but by becoming defenseless; dying so that you may live. This is the King who comes.

And do not fail to note that He's the One doing the traveling. You don't have to go out searching for Him, as though He were some far-off guru sitting high atop a Himalayan mountain. No, Jesus searches you out and comes to you. You don't come to God through your own spirituality or works or emotions. But God can and does come to you in His grace. He came down from heaven right to where you're at, taking up your human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. He even went so far as to come into contact with the filth of your sin and death on the cross so that you might be cleansed and rescued from them by His precious blood.

And the Lord comes to you even today to dish out all the benefits He won for you. But don't look for glitter and fanfare. You must learn to see the meek and humble ways in which Jesus still enters into this place and into your lives. This church is Jerusalem. And the gates through which Christ enters this holy city are the Word and the Sacraments. The King rides to you on the waters of Holy Baptism. He travels to you through His spoken and preached words. And indeed, you have the triumphal entry in every celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar. The Lord who came in His flesh and blood to Jerusalem comes also to you here in His body and blood to give you the forgiveness of sins which He purchased on Calvary. That’s why we sing the Sanctus which contains the very same words that were shouted to Jesus: "Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest."

Let us, then, come forth to meet our King Jesus with heartfelt Hosannas. Hosanna means "Save now." "Save us, Lord." It is a cry of praise, a cry full of the sure and certain hope that the Lord will help you. Jesus comes to you here, to give poor beggars His royal and divine treasure. While the world madly rushes by seeking to create a perfect moment of nostalgia and find peace and comfort, let us receive Him who alone gives real peace and lasting comfort, who comes to you humbly and lowly. "Daughter of Zion, behold, your King is coming to you. He is righteous and having salvation!" 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, November 25, 2011

Audio: Sermon for 11/24/11

Here's the audio of today's sermon.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"What did I do to deserve this?"

I hope you'll pardon this departure from my usual fare. This has been on my mind for a long time, and it's time to get it out.

It was September of 1984, and I was coming off one of the best summers of my life. That summer my baseball team went 10-2 in the regular season and in the playoffs won the North Tonawanda American Little League minor division championship. Baseball was everything to me back then, and, in all modesty, I was a big part of why my team did so well that year. I was the star pitcher. Of course, it wasn’t hard to be a star pitcher when you’re one of the biggest people in the league and all you have to do is throw a baseball as hard and as straight as you can. Even so, it meant a lot to me, and that accomplishment had the potential to boost me into a great school year.

I don’t remember how it happened. Maybe my classmates had a meeting to decide who the whipping boy for the year would be. Maybe I did something really stupid on the bus on the way to school that first day—though I don’t recall doing anything any more stupid than usual. Maybe it was just that at age 10 or 11 you discover just how great is your potential to be beastly to someone else, and you want to try it out as often as you can. Whatever it was, from that first day onward throughout my whole fifth grade year, I was at the receiving end of daily bullying—and when I say daily, I mean every day, throughout the whole day. If the teacher’s back was turned, my ears would be finger-flicked or my back would be poked with anything from a finger to a ruler to the point of a pencil. Walking down the hall, I would be tripped or punched or kicked or pushed into a wall or mocked by a collection of my classmates. A couple of my more creative classmates made up a song about my underwear. In the lunch room, crumbs would be dropped on me or drinks would be spilled on me or my sandwich would be smooshed or my bag lunch would be taken and hidden or thrown away. In gym class and recess Dodgeball was the big game, and when we played with multiple balls, the biggest and fastest and strongest boys on the other team would line up with all the balls and throw them at me as if this were an execution and I was the one with the cigarette in my mouth and the blindfold over my eyes—and they didn’t even have the decency to give me a cigarette or a blindfold. I couldn’t avoid gym class, of course, but for recess, my teacher actually gave me permission to sit in our classroom, where I would play games on the computer while everyone else ran around and worked out at least some of their aggression on someone other than me. All of this took place at a Christian day school.

I don’t know how I survived that year. I guess, in a way, I was fortunate. I wasn’t the biggest kid in the school, but even as the youngest kid in our class I was one of the biggest. I wasn’t the fastest kid, but I was one of the fastest. I wasn’t the smartest kid, but I was one of the smarter ones. I did what I could to outsmart the fastest kids, outrun the biggest kids, and use my size to my advantage in dealing with the smarter boys. I couldn’t escape most of the time, but at times I was able to avoid some of the worst of the abuse. Nevertheless, it was a long year, full of physical and emotional pain and the constant demolition of my self-confidence.

The thing about bullying is that it doesn’t just affect you where it’s taking place, and it doesn’t just affect you while it’s happening. During the worst of the bullying, it wasn’t just that I was being hurt. I had trouble paying attention in class because I was constantly worrying about where or when the next attack would be. I sat in the front seat on the bus and tried to stay away from the rest of the kids—most of whom weren’t in my class, many of whom weren’t even from my school. When I got home, I didn’t say much to my parents, and I don’t think I ever told them why I was so withdrawn all the time. And I certainly couldn’t tell them I was being bullied—after all, I thought, who wants a son who whines to his parents about his problems instead of taking care of the problems himself? My teachers knew, and while one of them was at least sympathetic enough and let me hide in the classroom during recess, the other teacher (who doubled as the principal) seemed content to let it go, as if our classroom was the world of Lord of the Flies and my daily swatting was just a natural part of our world.

And the consequences of that one year of bullying? Where do I begin? The next summer, playing baseball, my favorite thing in the whole world, I constantly had to fight the voices in my head that kept nagging that I wasn’t good enough—and at times those voices were too loud to overcome. I had a lousy season, and that, of course, ruined my whole summer. But that’s a relatively minor aftereffect. Much bigger than that was the horrible state my self-confidence was left in after that year. I had become mired in indecision, fearing where any decision would take me. I was riddled with self-doubt. Nothing I did was good enough. And I wasn’t good enough. Nothing about me was good enough. My relationships with family members and friends suffered because I felt I couldn’t talk to them about what was going on or what had gone on in school. And I tried never to stand out too much at anything, for fear that standing out would make me a target again. My lack of self-confidence helped cut-short or delay my dreams of professional baseball (which were probably unrealistic anyway, but dreams are allowed to be that way), teaching music, writing novels, and a great many of my other desires. I didn’t date at all in high school and very little in college, in large part because I never had the confidence to ask out even girls who seemed to like me. (And yes, as an adult I know that dating in high school can be rather silly, but tell that to my fifteen year-old self.) And the one girl I did date in college for more than the proverbial cup of coffee was someone who lived hundreds of miles away, and we seldom saw each other, so I always had time to screw up my courage and hide my self-loathing before we got together in person.

To this day I don’t understand it. Was it because I was the youngest person in the class? Was it because I was skinny as a twig back then? Did I stutter back then—or was the stuttering problem I have to this day caused by the bullying of that year? Were my classmates jealous of me for some unknown reason—and if so, what on earth could I have possibly had that would make them jealous? If it seems like I’m grasping at straws, it’s because I have absolutely no idea what it was about me that would make me a target. I think about the reasons kids are bullied today—homosexual tendencies, being the member of a minority in society, having different religious beliefs, coming from a poorer household, whatever—and none of those really applied to me. (And I’m not saying any of those traits make someone worthy of being bullied.) Oh, sure, my family didn’t have a lot of money, but that wasn’t really something we talked about back then. I wore sneakers and jeans and t-shirts or polo shirts just like everyone else.

It’s been twenty-six years since that school year ended. I’ve come a long way since then, of course—graduating high school and college, earning my Master of Divinity degree and my certification for Ordination, meeting Faith and getting married, surviving my unceremonious dismissal from a congregation I was Called to serve, having kids, managing a community center for three years, writing two novels, and a host of other accomplishments which my nine and ten year-old self would have thought impossible. But the aftereffects linger even today, whether it’s my discomfort on the telephone and in large groups of people, the fact that I’ve written two novels and nearly two-hundred poems and have never sought publication for them, my temper combined with my passive-aggressive nature, indecision… The list could go on and on; and as I said, I’ve come a long way in a quarter-century.

Some psychologist or some other mind-bender once said that bullying is as harmful for the bully as it is for the victim. In the sense of eternal life, I suppose that could be true. But as one who was bullied and who has fought for over twenty-five years to overcome the damage which being bullied did to my psyche, I doubt that the psychological damage done by beating up on someone day after day is as profound as the psychological damage done by being beaten up physically and mentally without reprieve.

I do not say all this to garner pity, and I don’t say all this because I hold a grudge. In the time that has gone by, I’ve grown and become a loving and God-fearing adult, and the man I am today has a lot to do with what happened in fifth grade (and seventh grade, too, by the way, though not as badly). And as for a grudge, I’ve since become friends with some of the people who participated in my bullying. Though I’ve never spoken this to them—why bring up bad memories for me or shame for them—I do forgive them. But there are lessons to be learned from all this.

The bullying on which the mainstream media seems to be focusing most these days is the bullying homosexuals receive—and rightly do they focus on it, because it seems to be the most pervasive bullying today. Numerous homosexual friends have commented about the bullying they’ve received from their peers and the complete condemnation they’ve received from the Church. As a Lutheran pastor who believes that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God, I cannot condone the homosexual agenda or the active homosexual lifestyle. That being said, bullying someone for their homosexual urges is evil, and we as individuals and as citizens of a nation that claims to be a melting pot must be more loving toward our fellow man. And as the Church, while we must of course continue to speak forthrightly regarding all sin and must not give in to the postmodern “tolerance” which says that each person decides what is right and wrong for himself, we must not fail to demonstrate the love of Christ, the One who loved all sinners so much that He died for them.

Bullying comes in all forms, and it is aimed at people of all shapes, sizes, races, colors, creeds, languages, and all other differences. You don’t have to be a homosexual or a racial minority or a woman or a Muslim or Jew or speak with an accent or have a physical or mental disability to be the victim of bullying. Sometimes bullies are people who are just like you.

But more important than that, bullying doesn’t have to be the end. It hurts. A lot. Believe me when I say that I know just how badly it hurts and how much someone being bullied just wants it to end. But what someone else thinks of you or even what someone else does to you doesn’t mean that you have to believe what they say, and you don’t have to allow yourself to be victimized by what they do. Tell your parents. Tell your teachers. If your teachers are unsympathetic, tell your principal. If your principal is unsympathetic, tell your school board. Tell a police officer. Tell anyone who will listen. Seek support from wherever you can. Don’t let someone else’s evil bring about your destruction. Don’t even think about ending your own life. There is more to you than what anyone else can say or do to you. And no matter what, even if you can find no other avenue of support, you can commend all this to your Father who is in heaven. He will never leave you or forsake you.

Be still, and know that I am God…
—Psalm 46:10

Monday, November 21, 2011

Audio: Sermon for 11/20/11

Click this link to download and hear the audio from my sermon for November 20, 2011. Or check out the sermon, which is embedded below.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sermon for 11/20/11--Last Sunday of the Church Year (LSB 1-year)

Wise Virgins

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

The point of today's parable is preparation. Simply put, there were five virgins who were prepared to meet the bridegroom and celebrate his marriage; and there were five virgins who were not prepared and were excluded from the festivities. Both preparation and the lack of preparation carry consequences in every area of life. The student who refuses to prepare for a difficult exam will likely fail the test. The athlete who neglects preparation will likely lose. But the consequences of the lack of spiritual preparation far outweigh a failed test or a lost game. As our parable shows us, the consequences are eternal.

Jesus calls the five virgins who were prepared "wise." Now, in the Scriptures, wisdom is not equated with a high IQ or great learning. One may be wise without being very smart. In the Bible wisdom is seeing things from God's perspective. It is no wonder, then, that Moses prays in Psalm 90, "Teach us so to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom." Moses' prayer is not simply that we might be smart, but that we might see our fleeting days from God's perspective. And so, five of the virgins were wise. They did not live for the moment. They lived as those who had been invited to a wedding. They did not know at what hour the bridegroom would come and lead them into the wedding hall. But they knew that the bridegroom was coming; they were his invited guests. So their lives are lived toward that wedding. Nothing else was as important as was that wedding. So they are prepared for the wait. They check their lamps. They buy extra oil. Their flasks are full. No doubt they seemed kind of foolish lugging around those extra jars of oil. Maybe they were told to loosen up and have a good time, instead of running back and forth to the oil shop. Nevertheless, these wise women paid attention to the oil and when the bridegroom finally arrived, they were prepared ready for the marriage feast. But it was too late for the five foolish virgins. The bridegroom arrives while they’re off to purchase oil. They are unprepared for the feast and unable to enter into the joy of the celebration. The door is shut and they are excluded.

What does this mean for us? Jesus' own explanation of the parable says it all: "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming." We do not know when the Lord will return. He will come with the suddenness of the flood of Noah's day. He will come with the suddenness which caught the unbelieving population of Sodom and Gomorrah off guard. So Jesus tells us to watch. Watching does not mean speculating about the day or the hour. In the early years of the church, the Apostle Paul had to correct the Thessalonians on this very point. At the turn of the years of both 1000 A.D. and 2000 A.D., the world was predicted to end. And, of course, we’re all familiar with the failed predictions of Howard Camping, who said the world would end two different times this year. And there are many more.

As surely as our Lord came in flesh and blood to suffer and die for the sins of the world, even so He will surely come again to judge the living and the dead. But we do not know the day nor the hour. God calls us not to speculate but to be prepared. Jesus says, "Watch." We are called to vigilance. A church that ceases to watch will lose the Gospel. A church that becomes lazy or complacent regarding God's doctrine is in danger of apostasy, of loss of faith. Therefore, the Apostle Paul writes to Pastor Timothy and all pastors: "Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers." Our watching is not a gazing up into the heavens, but attentiveness to the voice of our Good Shepherd as He speaks to us in His Word. Again Paul wrote to Timothy, "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from the truth to wander into myths." We are now living in that evil age. And so we are to watch. We are to watch by clinging to God's Word, hearing it, learning it, and taking it to heart. We, like the virgins in today's parable, are living in the evening of the wedding feast.

We are living in the time when the oil of the Word is still available. In fact, there is more than enough oil. For the oil of the forgiveness of sins purchased and won by our Savior through His atoning death on the cross is for the whole world. There is no shortage of supply in His grace and mercy. This oil is distributed now in the preaching of the Gospel and the giving out of Jesus' body and blood in the Holy Supper. The wise cannot get enough of these for they always give us more of Jesus; and the more we get of Him, the more ready and eager we are to receive Him when He comes again in glory.

The wise know the One for whom they wait. The One who is coming is the Bridegroom, Christ Jesus. He is the Lord who loves His church "and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water and the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish." He is coming to take the Church as His holy bride. What awaits those who are prepared for the Lamb’s High Feast? What awaits us is a new heaven and a new earth; an end to tears and sorrow; the consummation of our redemption; the fulfillment of our salvation. But for now, we wait for the Lord. The Lord said, “Behold, I am coming soon.” And even as we wait for His glorious return we pray with John, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” 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, November 14, 2011

Audio: Sermon for 11/13/11

Click this link to download and hear the audio from my sermon for November 13, 2011. Or check out the sermon, which is embedded below. I'm using a different podcast service than before, and this one,, is so much easier to use.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sermon for 11/13/11--Second Last Sunday of the Church Year (LSB 1-year)

The sermon hymn this morning is The Son of Man Returns in Glory, which is based on the Gospel appointed for the day.

Sheep and Goats

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

Jesus is coming to judge. The task of judgment has been entrusted to Him by the Father in heaven. All nations will be gathered before His glorious heavenly throne; all the living and the dead from every nation, tribe, people, and language. All will be gathered before Christ, who will appear, enthroned in heavenly splendor surrounded by His angels. Everyone must appear at His summons—there will be no exemptions.

When you hear this Gospel reading, as it was with the Beatitudes last week, the natural reaction of your sinful nature is to take it as a set of guidelines for what you should be doing so that Jesus will allow you to enter heaven. Your fallen human nature concludes from the Word of God that you need do good works if you are going to be counted worthy to enter heaven. It is a constant temptation to take the Word of God and turn it into a list of requirements that you can fulfill that will make you right with God.

Your works will be judged on that day; but we will not be judged by your works. The judgment on that day will not be based on what you have done or left undone, but on what you are. Are you a sheep, or a goat? It really is as simple as that. What you are determines where you go, and the sheep on the right hand hear nothing but blessing. "Come, O blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” You will receive a gift that has been in the works since before the creation of this world. God was at work preparing this gift of salvation for you even before you were born. And please note that it is an “inheritance” that you will receive at God’s right hand, not wages for work done. An inheritance is a gift based not on what you have done, but on the good pleasure of the One who is giving out His gifts.

Simply put, this is the Scriptural doctrine of election, a teaching that unfortunately frightens more people than it should. God has been working for your salvation since before the foundation of the world. He made His promise to Adam and Eve in the garden for you and your salvation. For you He guided Israel out of Egypt and into the promised land. For you He caused His Son to be born of the blessed Virgin Mary, the Son who suffered and died, and rose again, for you. God brought you to His Word through Baptism. Everything has been worked out by God so that His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, could hand over the kingdom to you on that day, and say, “Here; it is all yours. Your Father in heaven has been working on this for a long time.”

On that day, the works of the sheep will be judged righteous. You will be lauded for your works. “I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me.” Actually, you have not done any of these things by yourself. Jesus did them, and He does these things for others even through unbelievers. After all, plenty of unbelievers do good works for the needy. What’s the difference? The difference is that Jesus receives those works done in faith as works done for Him. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” You will be amazed to learn that you were doing any of these things for the Lord. “When did we do these things?” you will say. You did not see Jesus when you did them. You saw only someone in need and did what anyone would do. Doing something for Jesus was the last thing on your mind. Faith gives food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, welcome to the stranger, comfort to the sick and imprisoned. Faith in Christ does what needs to be done even before the Law demands it. 

Jesus is hidden behind the mask of “the least of these My brethren.” The One who fasted for us in the wilderness is hidden in the hungry. The One who cried out from the cross, “I thirst,” is hidden in the thirsty. The One who came as a stranger, despised by His own people, is hidden in the stranger in our midst. The One who became sick unto death with our sin is hidden in the sick. The One who became a prisoner under the Law in our place is hidden in the one who is in prison. Jesus became the least, so that through His poverty we might become rich in God’s mercy. When we love the least, we love Him whose love for us took Him into death.

For the goats the situation is entirely different. They are cursed instead of blessed. “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” The goats hear nothing but condemnation. They rejected the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and imprisoned because they rejected the Christ who was hidden in them. They rejected the One who comes, humbly hidden in water and Word, in bread and wine. They did what comes naturally to unbelief; they refused and rejected the gifts of God. Though God desires none to be condemned, the faithless have rejected God’s goodness. There is no place for them in the Kingdom.

This parable demands a question. Are you a sheep, or are you a goat? Your sin and the Law tells you that you are undeniably a goat by nature. You have neglected those who have required your care; and whatever you have done is not enough. And yet, your Baptism and the Gospel tell you that you are sheep. You have been “branded” with His cross, the seal of Him who died for you. Through His Word, God raises His sheep, those who trust in Jesus and not in themselves. He buries the goat in you in the death of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He raises the sheep in the life of the Lamb who now lives and reigns forever. This is what the Christian life is about. Scripture calls it “repentance.” And it is what this parable is intended to work in you; to turn goats to sheep. That does not mean that a sinner can make himself into a saint. The sinner must die, and the saint must rise. Only God can make sheep out of goats.

Repentance means to be turned around, to be changed in mind and heart, to have a new name and a new way of seeing things. Once you saw yourself as a goat, with Christ as your Judge. Now you see yourself as sheep with Christ as Your Savior and Shepherd. Remember, you are not judged by what you do, but by what you are. You do not do good works in order to inherit the kingdom; you do them because God’s kingdom is already yours through faith in Jesus Christ. What you do reflects who you are. And the Lord tells you that you are His blessed sheep! 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, November 10, 2011

I've been there, too!

I don't remember what it was that first gave my wife cause for concern. Make no mistake: my wife has always been more perceptive about our children than I am, though I would guess that comes naturally after bearing them in the womb for nine...well, in this case, eight months. Anyway, I don't remember what it was that Faith noticed, but after visits with the doctor, a hearing specialist, and a neurologist or three, my son finally received an official diagnosis just before his third birthday: autism.

When the twins were about a year old, before we had noticed that something wasn't right, I remember saying a prayer in which I thanked God for giving us healthy children. I am not a brave man, I admit. Especially after having been forced to make a long-distance move so late in the pregnancy, I had been terrified that one or both of the twins would be born with a developmental disability or some rare disease, something that would require of me reserves of courage or strength or patience or strength of faith (or all of the above) that I'm not sure I have. So when we received the diagnosis of autism for Michael, it was a bit of a kick to the stomach.

So we began to run the gamut: speech therapy, occupational therapy, special education. Meanwhile, here we had a three year-old boy who has all the physical size and strength of a six year-old (Michael may someday play on the offensive line for the Bills or Saints), but he was unable to communicate to us his needs except through screaming fits and tears. Very seldom do Faith and I have opportunities to spend time together alone outside the home. We can't leave Michael with just anyone. It's not that we don't trust our friends or congregation members, but if one of us (or his maternal grandmother) isn't around, it's an invitation to a screaming fit that won't end until one of us is there to comfort him. And taking him out in public isn't always a very good option, either, because he still does have those crying and screaming fits. (Have you seen the dirty looks people give when they hear a screaming kid in a public place? And how long before they call Child Protective Services?)

Michael turns six next month. It's been three years this month since he received his diagnosis. Michael has come a long way. He willingly looks us in the eyes more often. At times he asks for things using complete sentences, though even when he asks for what he wants with one or two words ("grey" or "yellow" meaning jellybeans, "two breads" meaning two slices of bread, etc.), it's still a vast improvement over what used to be crying and screaming jags that could last a half-hour or more. He smiles more often. He kisses us more often. He has even made progress with potty training, though his current "Angry Birds" addiction has put a damper on that. (Long story.) We still don't get out much, though we're thankful that Michael has been able to go sometimes to worship and Sunday School (which Faith is teaching).

I don't write any of this to garner pity. One of the real blessings of all this is the understanding we've been shown by those around us, especially by the members of the congregation I've been called to serve. I've had to regretfully refuse a lot of offers from members to watch the kids--again, not because we don't trust the members of the church, but because of Michael's reactions to the unfamiliar. The members of St. Peter Lutheran in Campbell Hill, Illinois, have been wonderful in their understanding and acceptance of the unusual circumstances surrounding their pastor's family, and that has made our life here so much easier.

God is good. Even in the midst of affliction, tribulation, trouble, our Lord Jesus Christ remains our Rock, our Refuge and Strength. Nothing--and since death can't do it, autism certainly can't: not screaming fits, not crying jags, not changing diapers at an age where most children have been potty trained for over half their life, nothing--will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

For an excellent insider's view of autism and how it affects parents and families, listen to this November, 2008, Issues Etc. interview with Pastor David Petersen of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Right-click on this link to save it to your computer and listen to it at your leisure, or hit play on the embedded player below. Perhaps the most comforting part of this interview for me was knowing that someone else out there can relate, someone who can say, "I've been there, too. Hang in there. You're doing okay."

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Sermon for 11/6/11--Feast of All Saints (observed)

Matthew 5:1-12

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

You’ve all heard the hard sell before—the laundry list of benefits that will be yours if you will only do or buy or be a part of something. “Join this fitness club! We’ll make you into the best you that you can be.” “Apply for this job! We pay top dollar and let you make your own schedule.” “Come to our college! Not only will we give you a full scholarship for a top-rate education, but we’re the best party school in the nation.” But here’s the best one: “Follow me! Be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus! You'll be hated and persecuted!” Wait a minute. That doesn't sound very much like an enticing benefits package. Jesus had all this great stuff to say about being a Christian: be comforted, inherit the earth, see God. That all sounds great—except for the whole “they're going to hate you and kill you” part. Seriously? Does Jesus actually want disciples? If so, this doesn't seem like a very attractive sign-on bonus to advertise. It doesn't seem like a very good way to bring in new folks. And the older you get, as you face a world that really could care less that you're a Christian, or worse, hates you for being one, it's going to seem like the glorious things of the kingdom of God are farther and farther off and the hassles of being a child of God are less and less worth it. Now at this point, a cheerful and happy and worldly preacher like Joel Osteen would tell you: “Just hang in there. Stick it out with Jesus, and everything will turn out all right.” If he mentions Jesus at all, that is.

In many ways the Beatitudes are among the most misunderstood, misapplied words in Scripture. And if they are read wrongly, they can suddenly snap shut on our unbelief with the strong jaws of God's law. If they are romanticized into a pretty slogan appropriate for a wall poster, they suddenly leap from the page and engage us in a battle over who we are and who God is. With that way of looking at the Beatitudes, the Christian faith becomes a religion of payoffs. "God, this morning I was really humble and contrite and sorry. Just look at my face! Now will you give me what I'm asking for?" "God, I pray each day. I study hard. My modesty is a beacon in this dark night of vanity and arrogance! Now will you give me an 'A' on the exam of life?"

We may not be quite as crass as all of that, but the fact is, we live the Christian life grudgingly, with getting a payoff from God the only goal in mind. If I do these things, then I'll be blessed by God. And it's just at this point that the words of the Beatitudes suddenly snap closed on us, for Jesus told His disciples how they were to keep these commands and all other Laws of God. "Be perfect, therefore, as Your heavenly Father is perfect." Jesus didn't say just be good. He said be perfect. You can't mess up even once. Thus, the Beatitudes are no longer words of blessing, but words that curse. All of us are sinful from birth. The "If/Then" formula condemns us, for no one can live by that formula.

On the other hand, if the Beatitudes are just slogans placed on a wall with a pretty picture, read once in a while and forgotten or ignored, then a person is trying to live in two worlds. One is a spiritual world that only exists on Sunday, and not even all day on Sunday. And the other is the real world where the practice is "Blessed are the rich in things, for theirs is prosperity. Blessed are the ones who seek pleasure, for they will always be happy. Blessed are the proud, for they are the movers and shakers. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for more at any cost, for they shall succeed. Blessed are the powerful, for they will never need anything from anyone. Blessed are the impure in heart, for they will keep one step ahead of everyone else. Blessed are the cut throats, for they are the winners."

That is clearly the choice that the Beatitudes present. Either be blessed by the world's standards, or be blessed by the Lord. And so we see a war raging between the Preacher of the Beatitudes and the world. The Beatitudes, then, are fighting words. They have to do with attitudes, with our style of life, with the way we believe and think and live. It is a war against the proud, against those who worship themselves and make themselves gods, against the forces of evil that bless rebellion against God. In either case, when the Beatitudes are misread or misapplied, they lead us to a sense of helplessness. And the Beatitudes are meant for those who know they are helpless! The Beatitudes are meant for those who know they are helplessly lost in sin. And then, once we are helpless and know it, we know where our Help is! Then and only then do the Beatitudes become blessings. If they are read rightly and understood through the eyes of humble faith in Jesus Christ, then they describe the life of blessedness that God has already bestowed on us through the atonement of His Son.

All of Holy Scripture tells us that Jesus is the true Blessed One. He is the Poor in Spirit. He is the One who mourns for the earth. He is the meek and gentle Jesus of Nazareth, God in the flesh, who humbled Himself to be born of a Virgin and was laid in a manger in Bethlehem. He is the One who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, for it is only because He fulfills all righteousness as our Substitute that we can be blessed. He is the merciful One, for only by God's mercy can sin be conquered and forgiven. He is the pure in heart who is holy, the lamb without spot or blemish who takes away the sin of the world. He is the Peace-maker who brings us peace with God. He is the persecuted One who suffered and died for our sins. And that is where the battle ends, the battle between the world and Jesus with His beatitudes. It ends at the cross where Jesus was despised, mocked, and forsaken. At the entrance of the empty tomb, we realize that the Preacher on the mountain was not a mere teacher who spoke fine words. He is the Word made flesh. He is the Savior who spoke and acted for our blessing that we might receive the Beatitude, that we might receive Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Through Him we receive every blessing.

The Beatitudes are the promises of the Kingdom, and they are yours already now through Jesus Christ. Blessed are you who know, believe and trust in Jesus Christ. Blessed are you who have been baptized into Jesus Christ. Blessed are you who receive Holy Absolution from the mouth of the one who speaks in the stead of Christ. Blessed are you who receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ in His Holy Supper. Blessed indeed are you, for you live before God in the righteousness of Jesus Christ! 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.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

HYMN: O, Come and Let Us Sing (Venite: Psalm 95:1-7)

I was sitting in the family minivan yesterday, waiting for Pastor Buetow to return from a meeting so we could do our Greek Study on the pericope for the observation of the Feast of All Saints this coming Sunday. While I was waiting, I thought about Setting Four of the Divine Service in Lutheran Service Book and how the canticles have been made into hymns. I thought about the Matins service and how the Te Deum has been hymnified more than once (my favorite is "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name", Hymn 940 in LSB). But I've not seen the Venite written as a hymn. It exists, I'm sure, since it's Psalm 95, and every Psalm has been hymnified by someone or other. But I don't remember ever singing one.

Since I'm supposed to be working on my novel for National Novel Writing Month, of course a hymn idea popped into my head. Take this for what it's worth, since it took about, oh, twenty minutes to write. But here it is, anyway.

Oh, and yes, I do know that "hymnified" isn't a real word. I made it up myself, and I like it. Sue me.

O, Come and Let Us Sing

1. O, come and let us sing
Unto the Lord Most High,
And praises to the Rock we bring
Who brings salvation nigh.

2. O, come before His throne
To thank Him for His grace.
O, shout to God, for He alone
Is worthy of our praise.

3. The Lord our God is great—
Above all gods the King.
The deepest depths He did create.
The hills His wonders sing.

4. His are the earth and sea—
He formed them by His Word.
O, let us bow and bend the knee
Before our holy Lord.

5. O sheep, with heav’nly host,
Let us our voices raise.
To Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
Forevermore be praise.

© Rev. Alan Kornacki, Jr.
SM (66 86)
Tune: ST. THOMAS (LSB 651)