Sunday, February 27, 2011

Epiphany 8, Series A

Sermon on Matthew 6:24-34
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 27, 2011 (The Eighth Sunday after Epiphany, Series A)

This Gospel lesson stands as a reminder to us that, even when it seems like there’s a lot to worry about in the world, worry is still a form of sin against the First Commandment. Now, that may sound like a rather harsh statement. After all, when people worry they are suffering because of those things which they worry about. To accuse them of sin sounds a bit uncaring and callous toward the very real sufferings they endure. But it’s true. Let me read from a portion of Martin Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment as found in the Large Catechism. “A ‘god’ is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust in believe in that one with your whole heart. As I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.” So far Luther. One implication of this idea, that to have a “god” is to trust in someone or something for help in time of need, is that if you don’t trust God to give you what you need, then He’s not really your God. A person who worries about anything in this world is, by worrying, accusing God of not being able to provide for them, which is not an accusation that we can ever level at God without committing a terrible sin in so doing.

But simply saying it’s a sin to worry doesn’t really help all that much, does it? It only makes the one doing the worrying feel that much worse. After all, we all worry at some point or another, especially when events in this world and in our own lives give us plenty of excuses to do so. We all know in terrible and graphic detail the kinds of things our fellow human beings are capable of, terrible and destructive things which give our worries and fears plenty of ammunition. Even worse, for some of us who have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders, the neurochemical imbalance that results from our illness makes even irrational fears and worries physically impossible to dismiss at times without the aid of medication and/or counseling. To add guilt to that mix, only makes the situation worse for the person caught up in worries and fears. And so, in addition to admonishing us not to worry, Jesus reminds us of the reason we need not worry, namely God’s providence.

Providence simply means that God provides for His people. He didn’t simply create the world and then walk away from it, the way a watchmaker makes a watch so that it can run on its own without his help. Rather, He is intimately involved in His creation. His attention is given to every molecule, every atom, so that it continues to exist and serve His purposes. If He withdrew His gaze from any part of creation, that part would cease to exist. When God created the world by His Word of power back in Genesis 1, that wasn’t a one-time thing. Rather, the words that He spoke then are still effective, and His power still stands behind them to keep everything going in this world according to His will. To be sure, often things happen which are not what are His will for His creatures, namely sin and the results of sin, but even these things He makes to serve His purposes in the long run.

It is because of this doctrine of providence that He knows, better than we do, what it is we need. It is because of this doctrine of providence that we do not need to worry about what we will eat or what we will wear. God knows that we need all these things. And He will provide them in His own time and in His own way. What we are to be concerned about, however, is our relationship to Him. As Christ says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” After all, whether we have good times or bad during this life, we will all die sooner or later. And so our first concern should be with our eternal destiny. But even that, though it’s to be our first priority, is not something that needs to be worried about.

So what does it mean to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness?” If you ask most people what that phrase means, they will probably tell you that it means to try to live a good life, not do anything too terrible, don’t murder or commit adultery or steal or lie, and be kind and help people and so on. And those who, in fact, live up to those goals in some sense are to be praised, from the perspective of what make a person a good citizen or a good neighbor. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. The kingdom of God, and the righteousness of God, are not to be found in trying to live a good life. God expects perfection, and we are incapable of that. Those who look for the kingdom of God and the righteousness of God in their own works are sinning against the First Commandment just as surely as are those who are constantly worried about the things of this life, because they too fail to recognize that these things are free gifts of God and not rewards for our work. Not to mention that trying to achieve salvation by our effort will only increase our worry, since we constantly fall short.

The kingdom of God and the righteousness of God are found, instead, in God’s Word to you that tells you that His righteousness is already yours in the waters of Holy Baptism. The kingdom of God is found in His declaration that your sins are forgiven, wiped out, and done away with, and that Jesus’ perfect life is what God sees when He looks at you. To seek His kingdom is to be diligent in hearing the Word of God and eating and drinking His body and blood, because it is through these things that you receive your true eternal health and happiness. God’s kingdom comes to you as a free gift. His righteousness comes to you as a free gift. The gift is that your sins are forgiven for the sake of Christ’s death on the cross, and that you will rise with Him from the dead and live forever with Him in heaven, where we will never again be even tempted to worry about food or drink or clothing, let alone unemployment, disease, or disaster, because Christ will be all in all to us. Compared with that, the troubles and sorrows of this world are nothing. We have Jesus, and He is everything. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Epiphany 7, Series A

Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 20, 2011 (The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Series A)

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This sentence pretty much sums up the section of the Sermon on the Mount we’ve been hearing from in our Gospel lessons the past few weeks. It isn’t good enough to keep yourself from actively and outwardly breaking the various Commandments, you must sincerely love God and your neighbor and keep the Commandments from that basis. It’s not good enough to refrain from outright murder, you must actively help your neighbor in his bodily need, and do so from a loving heart. And, as today’s Gospel lesson points out, that’s true even when your neighbor is trying to harm you or use you or walk all over you. If it truly helps your neighbor to let him strike you, let him strike you. If he forces you to carry his stuff, offer to help him by carrying it even after he relents. If he takes something you need, offer to help him in any other needs he has as well.

Again, like last week, there are of course other considerations that come into play. The neighbors whom God has given you first and foremost are those in your own household, your spouse and children. And if helping a random stranger would severely disable you from helping them, they do come first. But even a random stranger, even an enemy, even the boss who is a jerk or the demanding and unreasonable customer or the guy who nearly ran you off the road because he just doesn’t care about other drivers, are all among those God commands us to love and to help.

The whole point is that perfection, as God defines it, doesn’t just involve outward actions such as making sure you don’t actually kill somebody or cheat on your spouse or take something that belongs to someone else. It involves being as loving as He is, being as giving as He is, being as self-sacrificing as He is. It involves self-denial of the highest order. Even the sort of self-mutilation we discussed last week doesn’t do it, because if a person cuts off his hand or eye in order to get into heaven, he’s still thinking of himself and his own reward in heaven rather than his neighbor. And that’s true of anything we outwardly do for others as well. If it’s not wholly and completely motivated by love for God and the neighbor, if there’s even the slightest hint of a thought of our own reward, whether in this life or the life to come, it’s not perfect. And if it’s not perfect, it’s not good enough.

Actually, there was only one thing that a Man has ever done for his fellow men that is perfect. That Man Himself said so. He said, “It is perfected.” Actually, that’s usually translated, “It is finished.” I’m speaking here of Jesus on the cross. But “perfect” and “finished” are both basically the same word in the original Greek. God the Son became man, lived a perfect life, and died an innocent death for you and me and everyone else in the world. That’s the kind of love we are talking about here. Love that caused God Himself to die for us sinners while we were yet sinners. Love that sends forth His Church to proclaim peace between God and man even when the world doesn’t want to hear it and actively rejects it. Love that can only come from God Himself.

I should point out here that even though the English Standard Version, which is what I read from this morning, translates it as “you . . . must be perfect, the original Greek can also be translated as “you shall be perfect,” as a statement of fact rather than a command. And when God makes a statement of fact, He doesn’t lie. Even if what He says wasn’t already true, it becomes true by the power of His Word. The blind receive their sight. The deaf hear. The dumb speak. The lame walk. The diseased are cured. This sentence from the Sermon on the Mount is a command, but it’s more than a command. Commands from God are always more than commands. They are His creative Word. “There shall be light.” And there was light. “You shall be perfect,” and you are.

Of course, that perfection, that completion, came at a price. Only when the Son of God dies does he declare that our perfection is accomplished. Only then does he say that everything is fulfilled. His rising to life again on the third day, His ascension into heaven, and His being seated at His Father’s right hand, are all proclamations of the victory that has been won, but the victory itself came on that cross. And that also reminds us of the sort of perfection we are talking about here: perfection in love and service to God and the neighbor. It is precisely in His death for us sinners that He is perfect just as His Father is perfect. It is precisely in serving we who were still His enemies that He wins us as His brothers and His Father adopts us as His sons. And, because His Word does not return void, that’s what you are. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Epiphany 6, Series A

Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 13, 2011 (The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Series A)

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” Is He serious? Are we really supposed to disfigure and maim ourselves in order to avoid sin? After all, His logic is inescapable. It really is better to go through life missing part of your body than spend eternity apart from Him. And if that’s what it takes to avoid hell and gain heaven, then yes, we really should remove the offending parts of our bodies in order to avoid sin.

If only it were that easy. If we really could simply blame all our hateful, selfish, lustful, prideful, or covetous actions on a specific part of our body and do away with that part. By the way, one pastor in the early church, a man named Origen, actually tried it. He didn’t cut off his hand or poke out his eye, however. I won’t name the part of his body he cut off, other than to mention that his bishop asked him to quit the ministry because he was no longer, technically, a man. And so Origen was no longer eligible to preach God’s Word because of how he understood, or rather, misunderstood, this passage from the Sermon on the Mount. And that’s the other problem with the idea that we can avoid sin by hurting ourselves: when we hurt ourselves we also hurt our ability to serve God and our neighbor in love. With only one eye, many of our vocations would become more difficult. The same thing is true with only one hand. And so there must be more to this passage than it would seem at first glance.

The real problem here. Is that sin does not originate in specific parts of our bodies. Sin originates in our sinful minds and hearts. And so instead of mere disfiguring and maiming, removing parts of our bodies that we can live without, what needs to be removed from us are those parts of ourselves that we cannot do without, our hearts and our minds. Stated another way, in order to remove the cause of sin from us we must be put to death. Nothing less, not even punishing ourselves or hurting ourselves in various ways, be they mental or physical, can do away with the cause of sin. Only death can do that.

But death is exactly what we instinctively try to avoid. And so we figure that if we hurt ourselves badly enough, we can dispense with the death part of the equation. And it’s not just obvious things like cutting off a hand or poking out an eye that we try, either. Monks during the middle ages would punish themselves physically in all sorts of terrible ways. Luther’s health was most likely ruined by how zealous he was at punishing himself during his younger days as a monk. Sometimes people believe that unless they’re completely miserable with guilt, constantly beating themselves up on the inside, that they’re not truly repentant of their sin. Mental self-mutilation doesn’t work any more than physical self-mutilation does, however. Death is still the only answer to the problem.

But not just any death will do, either. After all, we will all be raised up again, some to eternal life, and some to eternal judgment. Even suicide doesn’t stop that. And so what we need is the sort of death we can’t give ourselves, the only sort of death that will truly fix the situation, and that is a death that leads to resurrection. And the only way to get that is for God to give it to you as a free gift. And that’s exactly what He does, by dying in your place, and incorporating you in His death (and therefore also His resurrection to eternal life) in Holy Baptism.

And that’s what Christianity is all about. Not punishing ourselves, but Jesus dying in our place and taking us with Him. No matter how hard you try to improve your life, it’s never going to be enough. Now, I’m not saying that trying to improve your behavior is a bad thing. The less we are distracted and discouraged by our various pet sins and the guilt we experience over them, the better we are able to serve God and the neighbor in this life. But you can’t get to heaven by fixing your behavior. You can only inherit eternal life by being adopted as God’s sons. And that’s something that He does by making you His in His Son’s death and resurrection in which you became a participant at the font, and of which you eat and drink in the Holy Supper. Instead of maiming and disfiguring our bodies, we eat and drink His resurrected body which was maimed and disfigured for us. We eat and drink what was pierced with thorns, nails and a spear, beaten with metal-tipped whips, and suspended, exposed to the elements, in a manner that didn’t allow normal breathing. Even resurrected, as Thomas found out, He still bears the marks of His death for us. He was the one who entered eternal life maimed so that we wouldn’t suffer the fires of hell. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Epiphany 5, Series A

This is basically just a cut-and-paste of a sermon from a couple of years ago on Trinity 6. Since it references other Trinity 6 propers I ad-libbed a little in the pulpit so that I wasn't referring to the wrong Epistle reading, etc. One of the hazards of a part-time pastorate is that I don't have the time to devote to sermon writing that I otherwise would. God's Word of Law and Gospel was still preached, though, and that's what's important.

Sermon on Matthew 5:13-20

For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 6, 2011 (The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Series A)

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 +

Three Jobs, again.

Well, I haven't posted here for a while, and the Lutheran Aardvark reminded me I probably should lest I lose my BBOV status. Here's what's going on:

I'm still working for Walmart*, but I've transferred to the Kenosha location to save gas.

I'm still serving as a called assistant Pastor at Lamb of God in Pleasant Prairie, although I'm not there all that often for reasons outlined below.

I'm also serving as the vacancy Pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Elmwood Park, WI. For those who don't know, Elmwood Park is a small neighborhood just south of Racine and just north of the Kenosha County line. They are literally only five minutes away from the Castle Court apartments where Tina and I live. The congregation is caught in a bit of an unusual situation, and I was asked to help out.

Basically, a few years ago, their pastor retired, and the local Hispanic ministry congregation, Primera Iglesia, asked if they could share the building, and their pastor, Pedro Lopez, would also serve the Anglo congregation, since Holy Cross was no longer in a financial situation to be able to pay their pastor full-time. He then took a call, and for a couple of years they were served by a man in the Specific Ministry Pastor program who was recalled last year to his home district (N. Illinois). Currently, Primera Iglesia (which is in the process of renaming itself Santa Cruz, which means "Holy Cross" in Spanish) is being served by a fine confessional pastor from Venezuela by the name of Germann Novilli. Unfortunately, Pr. Novelli is not fluent in English, and he believes strongly (as do I) that both congregations need a preacher who is fluent in their own language. That's where I come in.

Unfortunately, Holy Cross is still not in a financial position to pay a full-time pastor, so I'm still working at Walmart*. Fortunately, they don't have very many shut-ins, so I can visit them on one of my days off and still have the other day off for rest, housework, etc. I do have to rely on other area pastors for emergency situations that come up. It's kind of a weird, unsettled situation, but I am happy to be serving a congregation again.

The congregation is currently on the three-year series, so the sermons posted here won't be on the same texts as previously. I hope to resume use of the one-year series in the future, but since Holy Cross and Santa Cruz do work together to some extent I'd like to talk to Pr. Novelli about it first (currently he's in Venezuela for a few weeks teaching at the Seminary there).

So, that's what's going on at the Wartburg Castle Court. Hopefully I'll remember to begin posting my sermons again. This morning's sermon is posted here for your viewing pleasure (even though it's a re-run).