Sunday, July 26, 2009

Trinity 7

Sermon on Mark 8:1-9
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
July 26, 2009 (The Seventh Sunday after Trinity)

Following Jesus has consequences. Confessing Him in the midst of a world that would rather not hear it, including perhaps some of our own friends and neighbors who would rather not face the questions of sin and death and salvation and eternal life, all that has consequences. It sometimes means making decisions that run counter to what common sense would tell us is best for us. It means sometimes getting ourselves into situations from which there isn’t necessarily an easy way out, humanly speaking. It means sometimes setting ourselves up to be persecuted and slandered by the world around us. In some times and places, it has even meant the death of Christians, or at least arrest and imprisonment. It means sometimes being made to look bad even to our own fellow Christians so that we can patiently pursue the right solution to a problem rather than the easiest or most popular one. And even apart from criticism or hardship that comes from outside ourselves, we also have to deal with the energy-draining battle inside ourselves, the battle against temptation and sin and carelessness regarding God’s Commandments, and this too takes its toll on us.

For the crowd on the occasion recorded in our text, following Jesus meant getting themselves into a situation they didn’t plan for in terms of their own personal food supplies. Of course, unlike some of the situations I mentioned before, this wasn’t a matter of either following Jesus or denying their faith in Him; if they had followed Him only one or two days and then went back home before their food ran out, no one would accuse them of denying the faith. Nevertheless, to these people hearing Jesus’ preaching was so important that they were willing to risk starving to death rather than missing what He had to say. Jesus was the Messiah whom the prophets had promised for centuries. He was the One whose coming was the entire point of the Old Testament, the One whose birth was the entire reason for ancient Israel to exist in the first place. And He taught with authority, not like the scribes and Pharisees whom the people were accustomed to hearing. And so, even though it wasn’t a matter of either following Him out into the desert or denying Him, we still can’t blame these people for putting themselves in this situation in order to hear and learn what the Messiah had to teach them. In fact, we really need to seriously consider if we measure up to their level of commitment to hearing and following Jesus Christ, or whether we in our day have become too soft and complacent for that.

What Jesus says when He looks out at this crowd who had risked their lives coming out to hear him is a statement that could form the theme, not just of this text or of this Sunday in the Church Year, but of all Christian preaching in general. “I have compassion on the multitude.” Jesus has compassion. To have compassion means to be aware of others’ distress and to desire to alleviate it. Literally it means to “suffer with” them. After all, that’s what He came to earth to do: to relieve the distress that we are in because of our own sin and the sin of everyone else in the world around us by forgiving us that sin and taking us to a new, eternal life where sin and its effects no longer trouble us. And what’s more, he does that precisely by “suffering with” us, by living our life and dying the death we deserved. Jesus’ compassion on all of us, and on the whole world, is the entire point of what we come here to celebrate each Sunday.

But that’s not all that easy to remember, is it? After all, when push comes to shove, the devil, the world, and our own old sinful natures are right there, tempting us to see only the trouble and the hardship we endure, and to forget about the salvation and eternal life that await us after our struggle is over. The temptation then is to give up and give in. Eternal life seems so far away, and the troubles come with following our Lord so near. It is then that remembering that our Lord is right along with us is so important. He’s not just awaiting us at the end of our journey, He’s here all along the way to sustain and uphold us. Even though He might not always do a miracle to meet our physical needs like feeding 4,000 people with only a few loaves of bread and a few fish, He is constantly doing miracles to support our faith in Him and eternal life. Every Sunday His body is present in bread and His blood is present in wine for Christians to eat and to drink, and further, His body and blood are present on thousands of altars simultaneously, and given to millions of Christians. And no matter how many partake of Him Sunday after Sunday, His body and blood are never used up, just as the bread and the fish were not used up no matter how many ate of them.

And in fact He does also provide for our physical needs as we follow Him as well. Usually it’s not in the form of miracles, but even the ordinary means of making a living and getting our daily bread are actually means that God uses to provide for us. Even such simple things as a helping hand from a neighbor, a kind word in the midst of a difficult time, are reminders to us of Jesus’ compassion on us. They are reminders to us of the fact that where we belong and where we are going, none of the troubles we experience now, neither those that are simply part of life in this old world, nor those that come upon us because we are following Jesus Christ, none of these will ever bother us again.

And so Jesus has compassion on us, especially in those times when our problems and troubles are a direct result of the fact that we’re following Him. He strengthens and nourishes our faith in Him by His Word and by His body and blood, which is a miracle even greater than the one we read about in today’s Gospel. And He provides for our needs even when it seems like He won’t or can’t do so. Sometimes the way He provides for us is by taking us to that place where we will never hunger nor thirst again, and very often it is by the ordinary things He gives us in this life. And He uses our friends and neighbors as well, both to remind us of the Word we have heard and the Sacrament we have received, as well as to provide us with more ordinary means of facing life in the world in terms of daily bread. Our God has compassion on us. He suffers with us and for us. And because He suffered for us, our sufferings will have an end. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Newsletter Article

This article is for the Olla Podrida, the quarterly newsletter of Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, our Lord:

As I've announced over the last several Sundays in the Divine Service, I've been extended, and have accepted, a divine call to serve as an assistant pastor at Lamb of God Lutheran Church in Pleasant Prairie, WI. There has been some confusion expressed to me by members at Our Savior as to what this means, so I decided to use this newsletter article to explain why this happened and how it will (and won't) affect my service to you during this vacancy.

Firstly, this is a part-time call. Pastor Smallwood (Senior Pastor at Lamb of God) and I have discussed the situation and likely I will only preach at Lamb of God once a month or once every other month. Lamb of God has a Divine Service on Wednesday evenings as well as daily chapel for Christ Lutheran Academy during the school year, and Pastor Smallwood has indicated that I can serve the congregation during those weekday services, leaving me free on Sunday mornings to continue serving as your vacancy pastor.

The reason why Lamb of God decided to extend this call is because I was previously on what's called "candidate status" in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. Pastors on candidate status are men who are eligible to serve as pastors but who do not have a current call to a congregation. Unfortunately, being on candidate status can be seen as a black mark on a pastor's record, since usually it means he resigned from a congregation without taking another call, which often means that the relationship between congregation and pastor ended badly. This can be due to bad behavior on the part of the congregation, the pastor, or both. But since most calling congregations do not know the situation and who may have been at fault, many congregations will instead choose to call a pastor currently serving a congregation, thus making it difficult for a pastor on candidate status to return to the ministry full-time.

I am not the only member of Lamb of God who was on candidate status. Pastor Gregory Grenyo, who resigned from his previous congregation in late 2005, is also a member of Lamb of God. He and I served for nearly a year as vacancy pastors for Lamb of God before Pastor Smallwood was installed last year. The congregation wished to tell the whole church that he and I are good pastors who don't deserve to be on candidate status, and the best way they could find to do this was to claim us as their assistant pastors. And so Pastor Grenyo and I were extended part-time calls as assistant pastors, partially to make it easier for both of us to receive full-time calls elsewhere.

I am aware that I am on the call list for Our Savior, and I do want to make it clear that my recent acceptance of this part-time call will not hinder me from considering a full-time call if one should come my way, since helping me to receive a full-time call was one reason why Lamb of God did what they did. I also want to make clear that this will not affect my ability to serve you during your vacancy. Pastor Smallwood definitely does not want this call to Lamb of God to disrupt my service to you at all.

Having said all that, I do believe it would be in Our Savior's best interest to proceed as quickly as possible with the call process. Whoever the congregation calls as pastor will need to be able to devote his full time to helping the congregation heal. There's a limit to what can be done when I'm only able to be in Chicago once or twice a week, and this congregation needs and deserves more than that. I realize that the call committee is waiting for the District President to return the call list, but it should also be noted that nothing in the Synod or District bylaws require a congregation to consult with the District before extending a call. Whoever the congregation decides to call, there is a limit to how long you can afford to wait before getting someone who can devote his full time to bringing you God's love, forgiveness, and healing. That's why God instituted the Office of the Holy Ministry. The church needs pastors, not just on Sunday morning, but full-time, because Christians need forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing not just on Sunday morning but full time.

Pastor Schellenbach

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Trinity 6

Sermon on Matthew 5:17-26
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
July 19, 2009 (The Sixth Sunday after Trinity)

The Pharisees were known for being “religious” in their day. The word “religious” is often used to describe those who are frequent in their Church attendance and who are seen as striving to follow God’s Law in their life even when it’s unpopular to do so. The thing is, often the people who refer to their neighbors as “religious” are those whose own consciences tell them that they have not done very well in these matters. Often, a statement will be made that goes something like this: “Well, so-and-so and his wife, they’re very religious people,” which tends to imply that the speaker is not so religious. And sometimes those who use the word feel that unless they also measure up to the standard set by these so-called religious people, that God will be displeased with them and that He will not listen to their prayers or give them any blessings at all in this life. And sometimes that sort of thought results in the further idea that since God’s already displeased with them, why bother even trying to follow His commandments or to be interested in what His Word says?

At first glance, this text seems to have nothing to say to such people, who know that they are guilty of sin and that they have not measured up to the standard set by their own friends and neighbors, let alone the ancient biblical scribes and Pharisees. “See there? See that? That proves it! God is angry with me because I’m not a religious person, and that’s why I feel so bad and so guilty all the time. That’s why He isn’t answering my prayers.” At first glance, this text only increases the despair of those who know that they aren’t righteous and who know that they can’t make themselves righteous by anything they do.

But that’s not the purpose here. Jesus isn’t trying to grind into the dust those who have already fallen spiritually and can’t get up. He is trying to point out to the so-called “religious” people that their own religiosity is not enough. He is saying to those who think that they are righteous and holy and who are proud of their own keeping of God’s Law that they still aren’t able to earn their way into heaven. No matter how good you are, you still aren’t good enough to earn God’s favor. No matter how much you do for the Church, it’s not good enough to make up for your faults. God’s grace and blessings upon us don’t come to us because we’re good people, because none of us are good people.

The fact of the matter is, as Jesus points out, that the righteousness which God expects isn’t necessarily seen in the fact that a person is careful to keep the Ten Commandments outwardly. Instead, this righteousness includes all the thoughts and desires of the heart, as well as the attitude toward the neighbor. Think about it. We learn in the Catechism that the Ten Commandments are supposed to be kept because they are how we show love to God and our neighbor. But if you are trying to do good or be religious with the motivation that God will be pleased with you and possibly reward you in some way, who are you really thinking of? God and your neighbor? Or yourself? A person who tries to be religious in order to earn God’s favor is really thinking only of himself when he tries to be good and to do good, because he’s thinking not of what he can do for God or for others, but what he wants God to do for him. A person who does a lot for the Church because he’s trying to show everyone what he can do, earns only condemnation for all his work. In this way the most religious and outwardly righteous person may in fact be committing the worst sins of all by their attempt to be righteous and to do good. They may be using their outward righteousness as a cloak to cover up the fact that they also know themselves to be horrible, greedy, lustful, murderous, hateful sinners inside. In fact, we all do that, whether we have been righteous or not. We try to do good in order to hide our sins, not only from other people, but also from ourselves. This is why Jesus says to go and be reconciled with our brother before offering our gifts to God, so that we don’t use our outward religious observances toward God as an excuse to try to cover up our sins toward each other.

And so, whether you are seen by others as a “religious” person or not, today’s Gospel lesson is frightening. Your righteousness must be greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees. Even the best and most outwardly righteous people in the world don’t cut it when it comes to God’s standards of holiness. How can we mere common people measure up? The answer is provided by St. Paul in today’s epistle lesson. You do measure up because when God looks at you He sees Christ. You have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. You have the righteousness of Christ Himself. This white robe, which covers the stains of your sins, was put on you in Holy Baptism. Your sins, which would have kept you out of the Kingdom of Heaven, were transferred to Christ through the water of the Baptismal Font, and in their place His perfect and complete righteousness and holiness is now yours. You have been raised to new life by Christ through the Holy Spirit’s power, so that this righteousness of Christ which has now become yours is, in fact, lived out in lives of love and service to the neighbor.

Now, that’s all well and good, you say, and most if not all of us here have been baptized, but what about the fact that we have not always been righteous even after our baptism? What about the fact that even though we have been baptized Christians for many years we have still lusted and hated and stolen and otherwise sinned against our neighbors, if not in our outward actions, then at least in our hearts? Are the promises God makes to us in baptism null and void because of that? No! Baptism is not merely a past event, a one-time event that only gets you started in the Christian life and then stops there. Baptism is the reality of the whole Christian life. God’s righteousness is available to us even though we have left it behind many, many times. He still restores us to His righteousness and His kingdom, not by baptizing us again, but by returning us to the “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all” that we received in those first few moments of citizenship in God’s kingdom at the Holy Font.

Every time you hear the Word of forgiveness proclaimed to you in Holy Absolution, every time you hear the blessed Holy Gospel through the proclamation of God’s Word, every time you are reminded of these things through your personal devotions and readings in God’s Word, every time your brothers and sisters in Christ remind you of this forgiveness, this Gospel, through their encouragement and conversation with you—every time these things happen, you are restored to God’s Kingdom. You are restored to the righteousness of Christ which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. Every time you partake of Christ’s body and blood you enter into the kingdom itself which this righteousness has won you. When you eat and drink of Christ Himself you are one with Him and with His Father and with all of those, both those living among us and those who have fallen asleep, who, like you, have received His righteousness in place of their sin. You cannot earn your way into God’s kingdom with your righteousness, or with anything that you do. But God has already given you a righteousness that is much greater than your own, and even greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, the righteousness of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Trinity 5

Sermon on Luke 5:1-11
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
July 12, 2009 (The Fifth Sunday after Trinity)

“Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” With these words Peter expresses the first reaction of anyone who knows that he is not perfect and holy upon realizing that he’s standing in the presence of the holy and perfect God who made heaven and earth. Of course, it’s a natural reaction. We know that to be sinners and to stand in the presence of a holy God, is to die. And we don’t like that idea. And so it’s so much more comfortable for us to not be reminded that we are in God’s presence or in His sight. Even though God is everywhere, we’d like to pretend that there are some areas of our life that He can’t see, so that we can pretend, at least for a little while, that He isn’t watching our pet sins or our habitual failings. And so we try to fend off His wrath by beating Him to the punch, by hoping that if we make a big show of punishing ourselves, He will just leave us alone.

In this case, it was actually a great blessing from God which prompted Peter’s wish that Jesus go away. Simon Peter and his coworkers, James and John, had just experienced a miracle which could only have come from God. After a long night of unsuccessful fishing, Jesus had used one of their boats as a pulpit and then asked Peter to take Him fishing. Despite being in the wrong part of the lake, during the wrong time of day, they caught an unbelievable number of fish, so many that their nets were breaking and their boats were sinking with the effort of bringing it all to shore. It wasn’t human wisdom or ingenuity or fishing experience which had provided all these fish; it was God. Of course, He is always the one providing for us even when the things we need for this life come to us in the ordinary way. But on this occasion it was obvious that it was God Himself who was with them in their boats, and despite the great blessing He had given them, His presence made Peter uncomfortable.

That’s the way it is sometimes with us, as well. It is precisely in giving us His greatest blessings, namely the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation itself, that God can make us the most uncomfortable. You see, the old sinful nature doesn’t want to die. He’s got the same self-preservation instinct that God originally created into us (after all, he is us), and so he would rather come up with all sorts of plans as to how he can make it better, cover over his sin, work his way back into God’s good graces, invent his own punishment, and otherwise keep God at arms length and himself in charge. But God wishes to give us salvation and eternal life as a free gift. And that means that the old self, which wants to work for God’s gifts, either by doing lots of good things or by punishing ourselves so that maybe He won’t punish us, must die. That’s the only way we can be reborn as those who fear, love, and trust in God above all things: if the self who fears, loves, and trusts in himself above all things is put to death. And putting to death the old self isn’t pleasant. The old self would rather just avoid God instead, or pretend that he is good enough to earn God’s favor. The crucifix upon which he was nailed when you were baptized, isn’t something he likes to see.

Of course, that tactic only works for so long. Really, it doesn’t work at all, because God is everywhere; even apart from His gracious presence, He’s still there. But He hides His presence most of the time, and so people delude themselves that He’s not there watching them, or that He doesn’t exist at all. But the day is coming, either when Christ returns as judge, or at each person’s own death, when that delusion will be stripped away. He is there, and He has always been there. Those who are not in Christ will then be completely exposed with their sin before His righteous wrath.

But those who are in Christ, who have been put to death and raised to life again in Holy Baptism, whose old Adam is continuously put to death by the Holy Spirit through the law and whose new Christ is continuously raised to life again through the Gospel every day and every moment of their lives, react totally the opposite from the way Peter reacted here. Since you are new creatures, your reaction is the same as the reaction of the psalmist who wrote the verses included in the antiphon to today’s Introit. “Do not leave me nor forsake me, O God of my salvation.” In Christ’s presence is precisely where we need to be. Those who wish Christ to depart from them must face His Father’s wrath over their sin without His help. But those whose sin has been covered by Christ’s righteousness, whose punishment has already been taken by Him on the cross, are shielded from His wrath by that white robe of righteousness which Christ has given them. Having died to sin and been reborn to righteousness, then, we wish to be in His presence as much as we possibly can, to receive again His Word and His body and blood by which He again gives us that new life and salvation which we so urgently need in order to face the battle that is life in a world messed up by sin, including the sin that remains in our own hearts.

And that is, of course, what happens here, today. Christ comes to you. He is here. Wherever two or three are gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of them. We don’t come together as the Christian Church simply to talk about Jesus. We come to hear Him speak to us in His own words on the mouths of His chosen shepherd as well as ourselves and each other, as we sing and speak back to Him what He says to us. We come to be refreshed in the new life He has given us in Holy Baptism, and His Word of forgiveness restores us to the water and again drowns the old Adam so that the new man in Christ can arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. And we come to eat His body and drink His blood, by which he sustains and nourishes us and gives us the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation He won for us, not just in our hears and our minds, but in our whole selves including our bodies. He is here among us today. He will be in you when you eat and drink Him shortly. And that’s not something to be afraid of. The Lord’s Supper is not something to fear, to put off until we feel really holy or spiritual. That’s the old Adam talking, wanting to fix the situation himself and for God to stay at arm’s length until then. Rather, the Holy Supper is something that we need as often as we can get it, especially when we’ve been dragged down and around by the battle against sin, death, and the devil, because by it our Creator comes to us and dwells within us, giving us salvation. “Do not leave me nor forsake me, O God of my salvation.” And indeed He will not. He will stay with you, and you with Him, in our Father’s house, forever. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Trinity 4

Sermon on Luke 6:36-42
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
July 5, 2009 (The Fourth Sunday after Trinity)

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” What does that mean? How merciful is our Father? While we were yet sinners He sent His Son to die on the cross for us. That’s how merciful He is. How are we ever to live up to that? After all, even if we have good intentions of being merciful just as our Father is merciful, the old self is still right there. We remember what our fellow sinners did to us, and whether justified or unjustified, intentional, or unintentional, and we want to get them back. And rightfully so, sometimes. Joseph would have been perfectly justified to have taken action against his brothers for what they did to him. He was the ruler of Egypt. And his brothers were guilty of a conspiracy to commit murder, of kidnaping and fraud, and of wrongfully selling Joseph into slavery. It would not have been wrong for Joseph to do exactly what his brothers were afraid he would do.

And God would be perfectly within His rights to destroy us all right now, or to condemn us all to the same eternal torment that is reserved for Satan and the other fallen angels after our deaths. We deserve it. There’s not a one of us who doesn’t. But that’s not what He does. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Not after we had repented, not after we had turned around and decided we were going to do things God’s way. While we were yet sinners. That is how merciful our Father is.

But that’s not how merciful we are. We hold grudges. We try to get back at the guy who embarrassed us or got in our way or won the argument. We assume the worst about what somebody’s up to because we think we know them and we think we know how they operate, even though we haven’t asked them what their intentions are. We bring up people’s old mistakes again and again and again, and badmouth anybody who tells us that’s wrong. We get treated that way, and we do the same thing in return to the guy that’s doing it to us.

As I said, that’s not how God operates. And it’s not how He would have us operate. He would have us overlook and forgive the mistakes of those around us. Yes, we are to confront sin when necessary because we don’t want people to harm themselves or those around them by whatever it is they’re doing wrong, but we aren’t to hold grudges or let old arguments and animosities determine how we think about that person or act toward them. This is what Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel lesson. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Of course we can’t do that on our own. We’re selfish. We worship a false god, one who identifies himself by the triune name of “me, myself, and I.” And that false god, like any false god, doesn’t tolerate rivals. When the false god within our own hearts is offended, look out. And there’s nothing we can do from our end to change that. Yes, we can hopefully improve our behavior somewhat, but the old grudges, the old hatreds, the old prejudices are still there in our hearts. The old idol in us needs to be put to death, and our true God, Jesus Christ, needs to take its place.

And so, that’s what God does to us. He puts us to death. He drowns us in the baptismal water, not just once when we were first baptized, but daily (we need it daily, because, as Luther pointed out, our old sinful nature is a good swimmer). And he doesn’t just put us to death, He puts us to death with Christ on the cross. Which means that He raises us up with Christ, too. God’s mercy upon us is not just some great example for us to try to follow (though we should examine ourselves using His example as a standard, certainly, as Jesus tells us to do in today’s Gospel). If it were just an example for us to follow by our own reason or strength, however, we’d fail every time. What our Father’s merciful example is, and what Christ’s own merciful example towards the sinners he encountered in his ministry is, is more than an example. It’s a prototype, a pattern, a mold according to which God graciously and lovingly recreates us.

After all, it was His mercy that led Him to send His Son to suffer what we suffer in this old, messed up, broken, sin-filled world, and to die in our place despite the fact that He committed no sin. It was His mercy that led God the Son to willingly obey His Father even to the point of death on the cross. And it was His mercy that led Him to have compassion on those whose sinfulness was obvious and blatant to everyone around them, the tax collectors and other “sinners” who were avoided by the “religious” people of that day.

That incredible standard of mercy and love toward one’s neighbor is how God actually sees us in Christ, because that’s the standard that Christ lived up to. And that standard is therefore also what we really are according to our new selves. God says we are merciful, because He sees us in Christ who is merciful. But He doesn’t lie. His Word does what it says. Which means that we really are recreated according to the prototype that Christ gave us.

And that means that we who now are merciful will inherit the greatest mercy of all. We who now see our brothers and sisters in Christ as fellow heirs of eternal life (even when they don’t always act like it) are ourselves heirs of the “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over” which God gives us. God will provide all our needs, not just for this life, but for eternity. Before we are even aware that there is a need, it will be filled. And that is especially true of our need for His presence and love. We may be capable of having mercy on those who wrong us, but we usually don’t like it very much, and we often don’t necessarily like to be around that person a whole lot for fear he’ll do it again. But we who were sinners, for whom Christ died while we were yet sinners, He wants to have us around. He wants us to be in His presence forever. That’s how merciful our God is. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +