Monday, October 28, 2013

Sermon for 10/27/13--Festival of the Reformation



Faith and the Truth

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

Any Lutheran should be able to say, “Good works don't get me to heaven.” But many wrongly say that “believing” is what counts. That makes faith into something that is about you. Here's where repentance comes in. Jesus says, “If you remain in my Word, you are truly my disciples.” The problem with making believing into something going on in our hearts means that we don't really need the Word. The fact is, people all the time say, “No, I don't go to church, but I believe.” They don't desire the preaching of God's Word. They don't receive Christ's body and blood. They don't learn and grow in the Scriptures. But they still say they have faith? Such a thing is impossible. It is the means of grace, the Word and Sacraments, which give us faith and keep us in faith. Without those things, faith withers and dies.

There is nothing we can do to be saved. Christ has done it all and given it all. But by despising and ignoring His Word, we can surely give it up and have nothing to do with it. When Jesus tells the Jews that they are slaves, they don't believe Him. They believe they don't need Jesus because they think they're free. We think the same way when we think we don't need the Word or its not important to come and hear and learn it. People say, “I don't need church,” or “I don’t need organized religion,” or “I don’t want to be around all those hypocrites,” or other silly things, as if they can still be Christians apart from what Christ gives through the Church. You can't. Let me be very clear: those who give up church and Christ's Word are cutting themselves off from Christ. Jesus Himself says so. If we don't remain in His Word, then we aren't His disciples, no matter that our names are on the member list of a congregation.

But there's repentance for all of us. For none of us cherishes and treasures that Word as we should. Ask yourself: What is it that keeps me from learning the Word of God? What keeps me from crying out constantly for the body and blood of Jesus? What keeps me from church? What keeps me from Sunday School? What keeps me from hearing and reading God's Word every day? What keeps me from learning and growing in it? No matter how much of the Word we think we have, there's always more! Such repentance is given to turn us to Christ in faith. True faith clings to Jesus and trusts in Him and what He gives. To have faith is not to stand around and say, “Oh, sure, I believe.” What do you really believe? Faith that believes in Christ lives every day in the promises of Baptism. Faith that clings to Christ confesses sins and rejoices to hear absolution. Faith that truly believes in Jesus comes to hear His Word and learn and grow in it. Faith that genuinely trusts in Christ eagerly eats and drinks the body and blood of Jesus. Faith that trusts in Jesus doesn't make excuses for not coming to receive Christ's gifts, for not demanding them constantly, while saying at the same time, “I'm still a Christian though.” In other words, faith is not found just in your heart, in your private thinking about God. Faith is found when Jesus returns you to the font each day, when He reminds you of your baptism. Faith isn't just some facts and information in your head; it's when Jesus brings you to confess your sins and be forgiven. Faith isn't your name on a list of some church; it's you, at the altar of Christ, feasting on His flesh and blood. Faith isn't you apart from Christ, it's you clinging to Christ and receiving what He has for you. Faith and the object of that faith go together. True faith goes hand in hand with Christ crucified, with baptism, absolution and the supper. False faith goes hand in hand with itself. True faith means that it is Christ who saves you. It is Christ who sets you free and makes you free indeed.

The Reformation is about Jesus turning you away from doing anything to save yourself and joyfully confessing that He does all things for your salvation. The Reformation is about learning to come to church for the right reason: that it is here that you receive the Word in which you are made and kept as disciples. It's about Jesus teaching you repentance. The Reformation Gospel, which is the Good News of Christ and the church of all times and places, is that it is on account of Christ that you have God's favor. It is because of Jesus that you are a child of God. It is for Christ's sake that your sins are forgiven and you have eternal life. Jesus and all He has done for you and gives to you—that is the foundation and center of your faith. Jesus is the Truth; Jesus sets you free. 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, October 23, 2013

GUEST POST: Waking up with Leah

Every so often I come across a real nugget of wisdom. Sometimes it's from pastors or seminary professors. Sometimes it's from a layperson. Sometimes it's even from agnostics or atheists. This time it comes from a former pastor and seminary professor who now works for a freight company.

Life as a Christian in the Church can be a lot more complex than one would think. Jesus said, "This is my commandment, that you love one another." Sinners that we are, we have a hard time with all of the commandments of God, but it seems sometimes that we have a very hard time with this one in particular. Chad Bird addresses what happens when one realizes that the Church on earth is not always what we would hope it would be. This post said a lot to me as I continue to struggle with the events of eight years ago.  (And I also like how, without directly saying so, it addresses those who say that they won't go to church because of all the hypocrites therein.)

Originally posted in his blog, you can read it here with his permission. If you would like to address Chad directly about his post, click the link in the previous sentence.


Waking up with Leah: Learning to Love a Disappointing Church

In the tiny Texas town where I grew up, sleeping in on Sunday morning was as inconceivable as rooting for someone besides the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday afternoon. Going to church made the list with apple pie and Chevrolet. My dad was a deacon; my mom a Sunday School teacher; and I was the typical daydreaming boy fidgeting in the pew. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and I found myself in a job where sleeping in on Sunday was highly frowned upon since the pulpit would’ve been quite empty without me. There I was: seminary trained, armed to the teeth with confessions and creeds, zealous to convert a world—or, at least, our Oklahoma town—to the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

Looking back at myself as that twenty-something pastor, I have to admit that I was almost as steeped in naïveté then as I was as a twelve year old boy. Sure, I knew plenty about the church, but it was heavily freighted with the good stuff. The good stuff of the ladies’ guild cooking casseroles for grieving families, youth groups pounding hammers in Mexico to build homes for the poor, a rancher showing up on the pastor’s doorstep with half a beef from his own herd to stock the freezer. But as good and giving and beautiful as the church can be, there’s a dark side, too, that at times can be dog ugly. The day I stumbled upon a secret meeting of the church leadership and one of the elders stood up and slammed the door in my face—that comes to mind. Over the years, there were the not-so-veiled threats of violence, pastors who broke the seal of confession, bishops issuing warnings about me, and occasional rumors about me so outrageous they could have been ripped from the cover of the National Enquirer. I learned plenty through those years, the most obvious lesson being that the church can be a place that’s just as mean and nasty and royally screwed up as the world.

Like the patriarch, Jacob, who after his wedding night, awoke to the wrong wife in his bed, I too one day opened my eyes to find that the Rachel with whom I had fallen in love, for whom I’d labored long years, was not the one beside me as the sun rose. I rolled over and came face-to-face with the uncomely, undesirable, older sister. And then I had a decision to make: leave the church, or learn to love Leah.

Have you been there? Maybe you too grew up with a congregation as your second home, perhaps even served in the ministry, but later encountered within its walls abuse or neglect or a whole host of other ills. While going through a divorce, or struggling with a sexually charged issue, you found not clasping hands of support but wagging fingers of accusation. As the shards of your broken life fell about you, when simply having a Christian show you they cared, when that alone would have meant the world to you, all you saw was the church’s back, turned away, walking the other direction. Or maybe you just slowly slipped away, skipping a Sunday here, a whole month there, and eventually never darkened the doors again, but not a single believer took the time to call or visit to reveal they missed you. You have your story, and I have mine, but all such accounts shoulder a common burden: the fellowship that is supposed to be a hospital for sinners can seem more like a religious country club, a xenophobic clique, or a horde of hypocrites. Call it what you may, it’s not been a church to you and for you. So what do you do? Do you leave or learn to love Leah, walk away from the church or stay?

I could’ve washed my hands of the whole affair and walked away. In fact, I gave serious thought to just that, and for several years, rarely planted my butt in a pew for, when I did, I could taste the bile rising up my throat. But over time, and through a whole lot of healing, re-wounding, and re-healing, I finally came to the point where I see and love Leah for what she is: a beautifully ugly church in whose arms I encounter the God who loves beautifully ugly sinners like me.

A beautifully ugly sinner like me—that’s where healing has to start, with an honest acknowledgement that there may be a slew of unattractive things about the church, but I’m no supermodel of holiness myself. Part of the way we humans deal with our grief or anger or guilt is to deflect any culpability from ourselves by blaming others for almost everything that goes wrong. And though there are important exceptions—such as the victims of sexual predators—most of us who’ve had a rocky relationship with the church must fess up to our own failings. There’s a good chance Leah finds me just as ugly as I find her. I see hypocrites in the church, but I see in my own soul times galore when I wore a mask of piety in public and a face of shame in private. I deplore how the church’s tongue can destroy a person’s reputation, but my own tongue loves the desserts of lies and rumors and gossip more than it loves the bread of honesty. In our society, where it seems everyone claims to be a victim, it needs to be said that we are all perpetrators ourselves. We struggle with the same faults with which we fault the church.

In addition to personal accountability, we’ve got to kill and bury any utopian daydreams we have about the church hitting the gym to tighten her glutes and getting a boob job so we have a hotter, sexier Leah. There has never been, nor will there ever be, a time when the church was flawless. Barely had Jesus ascended before the church descended into trouble. Squabbles arose, heresies spread, pastors played favorites, sexual immorality mushroomed, and hearts grew cold. In the last book of the Bible, there are letters from God to seven different churches. Although he commends those congregations for many good things, he also complains of them leaving their first love, holding to false teachers and teachings, spiritual death, and lukewarmness. And this while the church was still basking in the afterglow of the earthly ministry of Jesus! As long as there are people in the church, there will be problems, for if humanity is anything, it is problematic.

Therein is the reason I found my way (or rather, like a lost sheep, was carried) back to the church: because it’s a place pregnant with problems. Because of those imperfections, I fit in perfectly. If you’ve got it all together, have no struggles, live a full and happy life, free of sin, then the church is not for you. But if you struggle with selfishness, greed, lust, addiction, problem children, a cheating spouse, fear, loneliness, or anything else that plagues our race, then the church is the ideal place for you. For Leah struggles with all that crap, too. Don’t let the pretty stained glass and padded pews and vested clergy fool you; all around the church are wounded sinners wheeled about on gurneys, doctors sewing up stab victims, nurses checking IVs, and double amputees carried by the blind who are led by the mute while the deaf sing prayers for healing. The church is messy place for messed up people who are in dire need of a God who cares.

In uncomely, undesirable, older Leah, that’s just what you’ll find: a God who cares. You’ll find a God who was born of an unwed teen whose neighbors likely whispered was a slut. You’ll find a God who hung out with outcasts, welcomed whores as followers, touched untouchables, called bullshit on the holier-than-thous of his day, and walked eyes wide open into the clutches of those who would torture him to death so as to save a world that really didn’t think it needed saving. In the church you’ll encounter the God who takes all his beautiful and exchanges it for your ugly.

And so, after a few years of growing up, maturing in a some areas, and realizing a bit more clearly what life is all about, I can now honestly say, “Leah, just as you are—not who I want you to be, not who others say you should be—but just as you are: I love you.”

Monday, October 21, 2013

Sermon for 10/20/13--Trinity 21



The Word Speaks

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

When the Lord says something, His Word does what it says. If the Lord thunders and judges, His words bring despair and death. If the Lord speaks forgiveness and peace, then sins are actually forgiven and sinners are comforted. The Lord doesn't keep His Word to Himself. He send it out; He gives His Word to us. He gives us His Word as a gift which saves us. He gives us His Word as a weapon that defends and protects us and drives away the Evil One, to drive away all fear and doubt and despair and sin. God's Word is your Word, given to you as your life, your defense, your hope, your joy, your treasure, your sword, your salvation.

From nothing at all, our Lord speaks and all things are made. When the Lord says, "Let there be..." it happens. Light, sky, dry land, grass and trees, sun and moon, fish and birds, animals: the Lord speaks, and His will is done. The Lord's Word goes forth and it creates. It brings something out of nothing. It gives life. All things exist because God said so. Even after the Fall, the Word of God is the big deal. When Adam and Eve sinned, the Lord promises He would send a Savior. Later on, the Savior came, born of Mary. Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord promised Abraham and his descendants that they would become a great nation. And they did. He said He would set them free from slavery in Egypt. He did. He said He would give them a land flowing with milk and honey. They got it. He said he would punish them if they worshiped other gods. They were punished. Over and over, God speaks, and His Word does what it says it will.

But more important than even that, we must learn that when He speaks, it's for our good: for our salvation, for forgiveness and life. Just look what happens when Jesus speaks. He doesn't even have to be where the man's sick son was. He just spoke His word and it was done. Notice how John tells us that the man went home and figured out from his servants that the boy had gotten better at just the time that Jesus had said he was healed. That's the power of Jesus' word. When the Lord says, "Your sins are forgiven," then what happens? Your sins are forgiven!

But here's the Grand Prize: Jesus IS the Word of God. What He says and does, God Himself is saying and doing. Where He goes and what happens to Him is the Word of God doing its thing. When the Word-made-flesh hangs on the cross for sinners, that is God's Word at work. The Word goes forth in the flesh, and your sins are forgiven. Nothing stands against you; God's judgment is over. When our Lord, who is the Word of God in the flesh, gives His life into death for our sins, then our sins are gone! Just as He tells the thief on the cross that he would be with Jesus in Paradise that very day, so when our Lord rises from the dead, then the ruler of this world has been cast down. The last enemy has been defeated! The Lord's Word does what it says. It says your sins have been taken away.

So then St. Paul tells you to get all dressed up in the armor of God and to arm yourself with the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. That means that the Word which the Lord speaks is your weapon against sin and death. How do you use it? You have the Word of your Baptism. The Word declares that you are God's child, just as Juliana has become His child this very day. You have the Word of Absolution which declares that your sins are forgiven. You have the Word in flesh, the Body and Blood of Jesus for life and salvation. Against all sin and death and despair, you have the preaching of your pastor and the Holy Scriptures to fill your ears with the Good News that your sins are forgiven. God speaks His Word to save you. There can be no uncertainty here! If the Lord's Word says you are His baptized and absolved child, fed with His body and blood, then that's what you are. Use that Word to drive away all fear and doubt! Use that Word to battle the devil and your burdened conscience. Speak that Word daily! Let it be upon your lips and in your ears. Let it drive away the thoughts of despair and sadness. Come and hear it preached every week! Come and read it in Sunday School and hear it in Bible Study. Every day, open and read your Bible so that your ears and heart and mind would be filled with these holy promises of God which rescue you from sin and death.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, the Word of God is your treasure, given as a gift. The Word instructs you. It gives you wisdom. It blesses you. It corrects you and rebukes you and calls you to repentance. But most of all, the Word of God saves you. It delivers Jesus. It forgives your sins. It calls you God's child. Just as the Word created all things, so it has made you a new creation. The Word made flesh brought back to life a dead boy, and that same Word has given you life and rescued you from sin and death by His death and resurrection. Just as the Word spoken by Jesus sent the Devil running away, so now the Sword of the Spirit, Christ's Word, drives away your enemies. And it must be true, for Jesus Himself says so! 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, October 20, 2013

Sermon for 10/13/13--Trinity 20

Sorry. I was a little slow this time.



The Wedding Garment

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

It is not an easy task to get yourself thrown out of the Wedding Feast for the Son of the King. A guest has to work very hard to find himself excluded, especially since the guests are already the dregs of humanity: those whom the servants of the King find along the highways, people described by Jesus as “both good and bad.” Even those who are described as “good” are not the original guests. The original guests, those who refused the invitation, were the respectable people with whom a king would normally associate. But they refused to come, and in response the king sent his armies to exact justice for such a dishonor to his royal self and his royal son and the royal bride. The king knows the nature of the new guests. He told his servants to bring in the travelers and those who rest on the side of the road. They would be filthy from the dust of the road and the sweat of their exertion, and still the king invites them, and they come as they are. But when the king walks in, he orders his servants to bind one of the guests hand and foot and to take him out and cast him away. Why? This happens for the simple reason that the man refused to wear the wedding garment provided for him by the generosity of the king. This garment would cover the filth and stench which the guests would have picked up on the road. Instead the man dared to come to the wedding of the king’s son with the soiled and tattered rags he had worn on his journey.

This is a parable Jesus tells, and as is usually the case with His parables, it’s not hard to cast the characters. The King is the Father, and His Son is Jesus Himself. The original guests are the Jews, those to whom Jesus was sent in the first place but who refused His invitation. And the guests invited from the highway are you and me and all of mankind. And the man who is removed represents all those who refuse the generous gifts of God: those who despise Baptism, who despise preaching and the Word of God, those who have no desire or deny their constant need for this Holy Supper. That is what the wedding garment represents: it is the righteousness placed upon you through the waters of Holy Baptism, a glorious robe made white with the blood of the Lamb of God.

I want to remind you of something. The people who are at that wedding feast are both “good and bad.” That is, they are invited to the Feast without reference to how they live or what they do. Of course, we’re all sinners, but the point is that it isn’t more or less sins that get you an invitation. The grace of the host is what brings you in. Christ is your Savior, and He provides this feast is for you no matter who you are or what you have done or not done. He gives you the wedding garment of His own righteousness which covers everything. If you think you’re a good person, don’t worry: your whitewashed works are covered by Jesus. But the same is true of those we would consider bad people. Sinners and their sins are covered by Jesus. What gets the guy thrown out is that He rejects the garment. He rejects Christ, rejects faith, rejects Christ’s gifts of Baptism and the Supper. That’s our warning: do not toss off the wedding garment. Do not  neglect the gifts of Christ by which we are clothed and remain clothed with Jesus. Do not stop coming to church. Do not stop listening to Christ’s Word. Do not stop receiving Christ’s body and blood. You are an invited guest. There will never be a cover charge for this party. It’s all a gift with no strings attached. You do not need to bring a gift. The feast is for you, and it’s ready. Come as you are, for in the waters of Holy Baptism, Jesus has provided a white garment of His righteousness 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.          

Monday, October 07, 2013

2013 Reading List: September

It's that time again. With the beginning of the school year and the resumption of Catechism instruction and Sunday school, I let myself relax my reading schedule a bit this past month. With no ado, here's my list for September. (By the way, despite my usual narcissism, I have to say that my main reason for re-reading "A Great and Mighty Wonder" was because of my appearance on KFUO's BookTalk show. My third novel will probably be on my list for October for the same reason. And then November will be even slower than September because I do intend to work on another in a new genre for NaNoWriMo.)

  1. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1998.
  2. Ferguson, Craig. American on Purpose. Harper Collins Publishers, 2009.
  3. Quinn, Caisey. Girl on Tour. Self-Published Kindle Edition, 2013.
  4. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1999.
  5. Zelazny, Roger. The Trumps of Doom. Arbor House, 1985.
  6. Kavouras, Dean. Nine One One: The Aftermath. Lutheran Heritage Foundation, 2002.
  7. Watson, Galen. The Psalter. Self-Published Kindle Edition, 2012. (Awful. How many heresies can one author fit into a 383-page fiction novel and pass them off as truth while writing off the actual truth is the product of conspiracy theories?)
  8. Kornacki, Alan. A Great and Mighty Wonder. Self-Published Kindle Edition, 2012.
  9. Swank, Denise Grover. Twenty-Nine and a Half Reasons. Self-Published Kindle Edition, 2013.
  10. Gunhammer, Jessica. A Summer to Remember. Limitless Publishing, 2013.
  11. Cagle, Erik. Gross Misconduct. Self-Published Kindle Edition, 2007.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Sermon for 10/6/12--Trinity 19



Your Sins Are Forgiven

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

The man was paralyzed—unable to move, unable to free himself from the shackles which bound him. But he had friends who were willing to go to great lengths to insure that this man got what he needed. The Gospel According to St. Mark tells us that they lowered this man through the roof to make sure that he got into the presence of Jesus, the great Healer of body and soul. Jesus, upon seeing their faith, said to the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” At first glance it is easy to think that Jesus missed the point. They hadn’t gone through so much work for Jesus just to say a few words over him! That’s how we might look at this. They brought this man to get something, and Jesus simply gives them words.

From our perspective, this forgiveness of sins is cheap. Those are just words, and anyone can say words. But it is far easier to heal the body than it is to heal the soul. Then again, Jesus is God Himself; so He does both. First He forgives the man his sins, and then He heals the man of his disease. First he does the hard thing of forgiveness, and then He does the easy thing: healing the body. In His mind, the two go together. Forgiveness leads to resurrection and new life.

We just don’t see things that way. Throughout the history of the world there has been a fascination and almost an obsession with healing the body. Doctors are held in very high regard in probably every culture in the world. When we think of police and firefighters and emergency services personnel, we rightly say that they are a gift from God Himself to be able to protect us and save the body. We should hold these people in very high regard. They are doing God’s work. For remember, Jesus is the Great Physician. It is God’s work to take care of our bodies, as we confess in the First Article of the Creed. But we often forget to look beyond the healing of the body. We obsess about the things of this life, and we forget the greater questions. We discard or count as unimportant how God heals both soul and body through the forgiveness of sins.

Forgiving sins is harder than healing the body. Those words, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” aren’t just words. They are words bought with a price—the very blood of Jesus. These words may seem cheap. They may be easy to take for granted; but those words are the most expensive words in the entire world. This is the treasure that God gives us through Word and Sacrament. The treasure is forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. The treasure is Jesus Christ Himself, and His work on the cross for you. This treasure is priceless, worth far more than health of the body, for with these words come healing—and not just healing for the moment. With these words come healing that reaches beyond the grave. With these words God heals your soul and body. With these words God gives you the greatest treasure of all.

That is the nature of God’s mercy. God comes down and gives beyond our wildest dreams. He gives His Son over to death, so that you might receive this great gift. In this house of God, things may not always seem as they really are. From the naked eye you may look out and see a band of sinners. You may see people you like and dislike. But we can truly say with Jacob, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven!” In this place, hidden behind simple words, hidden in water, hidden in bread and wine, the God of the Universe comes to you to forgive your sins. These are the hardest words in the world to say, but because of Christ’s work on the cross, God says them to you: “I forgive 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.