Sunday, October 30, 2011

Reformation Day (transferred)

Sermon on John 8:31-36
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 30, 2011 (Reformation Day, transferred)

Whoever commits sin is a slave to sin.  With these words Jesus shatters a whole world full of illusions and self-deception.  Most people think of the ability to commit sin as a matter of freedom and rights.  The more options you have open to you, the more choices you can make, the freer you are.  Especially in areas where Christianity and most other religions for that matter have identified your behavior as wrong.  That’s the way most people think.  To say that sin leads not to freedom but slavery, as Jesus does, seems alien to many people in the world today.

But it’s true.  God created us in such a way that we are to serve Him and our neighbor.  Our hereditary defect of sin, however, causes us to always be looking out for ourselves, to always be trying to figure out what I can get out of any situation.  And the sins we commit themselves capture us.  Habits form.  Even when we no longer want to be the way we are, it’s so much easier to keep making the choices we’ve made before rather than break those habits.  Even when we know its wrong, even when we know it will be hurtful to ourselves or to our relationships with each other or our God, we find ourselves doing the same things, committing the same sins, over and over again, often without even realizing we did it until after the fact.  Sin enslaves us.  It doesn’t seem so bad at first, but when the consequences catch up, they catch up with a vengeance, and usually only after the sin has become habitual and very difficult to resist.  Especially when you consider that even outward righteousness doesn’t really free you from this slavery.  Even the Pharisees, the most outwardly righteous people who lived in Jesus’ day, are slaves to sin, because their behavior shows that their decisions are dominated by it.  The fear of sinning which causes a person to follow an overly-complex set of man-made rules and regulations is itself a form of slavery, and it was also this kind of slavery from which Jesus came to free us, and against which Martin Luther later fought so hard in terms of the Roman papacy of his day.  The Pharisees followed their complex system because they were afraid of sinning.  The medieval church also created that kind of fear in the hearts of the people, as we can see from the amount of money they were willing to shell out for indulgences.  A person who is constantly afraid of sinning is dominated by sin just as much as is someone who is constantly giving in to the temptation.  He is simply not free.  And besides, often this extreme fear of sinning also causes people not to do good when they have the opportunity, for fear of sinning.  Fear of sin paralyzes a person and causes him to sin by not doing what he should do, because he’s afraid of sinning by doing what he shouldn’t.  And this only makes the cycle worse.

Over against the slavery to sin, both the slavery of indulgence and the slavery of fear of sin which leads to the sale of indulgences, Christ stands and promises to set us free.  “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  He is the one who can set us free, for He as God has authority over sin, death, and the devil which have enslaved us.  He is the Son of God the Father, and as the Son he can free those who are slaves.  The power of sin is not broken when we try our hardest to not sin.  The power of sin is broken when the sins we have committed, and those we will yet commit, are forgiven and no longer held against us.  This breaks the fear and the despair which lead us either into works-righteousness and paralysis or deeper into the addiction to actual outward sins.  Forgiveness carries with it the power of the Holy Spirit to amend our sinful lives, and to live as God’s free children rather than as hired servants in His world.

We have become the adopted children of God’s house because the Son of God became one of us and became our brother.  His innocent life, his suffering and death, and His resurrection and ascension set the pattern for our life, death, resurrection, and eternal life.  Where Christ has gone there we shall go, and in fact we have already gone through those things in Holy Baptism.  We already in this world partake of the feast of Heaven in the body and blood of Christ Jesus.  We already have a life that is free from sin, though while we yet live in this world this is hidden underneath the old sinful nature and the old troubles, pains and hurts.  But even while we are troubled by temptations and by guilt from our sins, and even while we suffer and must put up with life in this sinful world, we are already living the new life which Christ has given us.  We have already died and been raised with Christ, and this freedom gives us the ability to live as God’s free people in this sinful world.

This is the kind of freedom that the Reformation was about: not a political freedom, not a freedom from government authority, not a freedom to do whatever we want, and not even the noble freedoms we enjoy as Americans, but freedom from sin, freedom from condemnation, freedom from hell.  The Gospel, which grants us this freedom, is what the Reformation was all about, and it is still what the Lutheran Church is all about.  The Festival of the Reformation is not just a celebration of an old historical event or the Lutheran equivalent of a patriotic party.  The Reformation is not about bashing other Christians, even though we must recognize and clearly point out that many other Christian church bodies are indeed wrong about what this freedom means for us as well as about certain other things the Bible teaches.  The Reformation is not even about the church war between the Lutherans and the Pope, even though it’s true that many of the concerns Luther raised in his day are still a concern to us Lutherans today.  Instead, the Reformation is a commemoration of the larger war against sin, death, and the devil which was won by Jesus Christ by dying on the cross and rising again for our justification.  Sin, death, and the devil no longer enslave you.  The Son has set you free, and so you are free indeed.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, October 23, 2011

St. James of Jerusalem

Sermon on Matthew 13:54-58
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 23, 2011 (St. James of Jerusalem)

One of the main thing that distinguishes Christianity from all other religions is that the events that stand at the center of our faith took place at a specific point in history, at a time we can place not only from the accounts in Scripture but also from the writings of other historians who lived at that time, and they took place at a specific place that you and I can go and visit today. In other words, the story that forms the heart of what we believe as Christians is not a myth that begins, “Once upon a time,” or “A long time ago in a galaxy far away.” Rather, these are actual eyewitness accounts of things that took place at a definite time in the history of our world, the same world in which you and I are living right now.
Another way we can tell that these stories are not myths but real history of real people, is that, unlike mythological accounts, the history of God’s people is recorded not only in terms of the heroic or righteous things that these people did, but also in terms of the stupid or wicked or faithless things they did as well. These men are depicted not as heroes but as humans. And all humans descended in the natural way from Adam and Eve do stupid, wicked, and selfish things. Even those most closely related, humanly speaking, to the one perfect human, Jesus Christ, were sinners. James, whom the Church remembers today, grew up in the same household as Jesus Himself. Now, we don’t know for sure whether James was Joseph’s son by a previous marriage, or whether he was Jesus’ half-brother, the natural son of Mary and Joseph. There’s an ancient tradition that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life, and whether you think James is Jesus’ half-brother or step-brother will depend on whether you happen to believe that ancient tradition or not. But either way, James was raised as Jesus’ brother. You would think that a man raised in the same family as our Lord Himself would be a shining example of what Christians ought to be, and that the earliest Church in Jerusalem, which he later served as “bishop” or senior pastor, would be a model of what the Church is supposed to be.
Well, it just isn’t so. James didn’t become a Christian until after his brother and Lord had risen from the dead. On one occasion, he and his other brothers, along with Mary, came to get Jesus because they thought He wasn’t right in the head for calling Himself the Son of God. As today’s Gospel lesson points out, it is often those who are biologically closest to a prophet or preacher who have the hardest time believing what that prophet has to say, which is why it’s usually not a good idea for a pastor to serve the church he grew up in.
And even after James became a Christian and a pastor, the church he served, which was in many respects the preeminent congregation in those earliest times, since they were the church at Jerusalem, was divided by controversy. James is remembered perhaps most clearly as the pastor who presided over the very first “Synodical Convention,” if you want to put it in Missouri Synod terms, namely the first Jerusalem Council, which is recorded for us in the First Lesson today. And it wasn’t all sweetness and light, either. It was a divided council, and it dealt with a controversial issue, namely the question of how much of the old Mosaic law Gentiles should be asked to follow in order to be considered Christians. There has never been a time when the external church has been perfectly united and without politics and agendas and division coming from various places in her midst. There is no such thing as a pure and pristine early church which, if we could just be exactly like them and do things exactly the way they did, all our problems would be over. There have always been divisions and controversy in the Church. Every generation has had at least one, and usually more than one, controversy or division causing strife and political unrest in visible Christendom. The Church is made up of forgiven sinners, and it always has been.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? The whole reason Jesus became man, was born of the virgin Mary, suffered and died under Pontius Pilate, rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven is so that we poor, miserable sinners could be reunited with our Creator. The whole reason the Church exists is to distribute far and wide the forgiveness that Jesus came to win for us by His cross and resurrection. If there were such a thing as a perfect Christian or a perfect Church, such a creature wouldn’t need Jesus and the forgiveness of sins, and thus it wouldn’t really be a Christian or a Church. It is precisely because we are weak that God is glorified among us, because if we were strong, we could just as well glorify ourselves. It is precisely in our weakness that God’s strength is seen. As James himself reminds us in today’s epistle lesson, it’s precisely when troubles and trials and, yes, controversies come that God’s strength is shown in us.
I don’t know if Holy Cross congregation was in the habit of observing the various saints’ days when they fall on Sundays or not. What we are doing today may be a new thing for many of you. Rest assured, however, that when we remember the lives and the works of various men in the history of the Church, we are not glorifying those men, but rather we are glorifying God for what He has done in and through them despite their own weaknesses and sins. James wasn’t always a Christian, despite being raised in the same home as Christ Himself. And after he became a Christian and a pastor, he presided not over a victorious, growing, vibrant church, but a church scattered by persecution and divided by controversy. All he had to offer them was what he himself was given by his brother Jesus when He appeared to him after his resurrection: the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. That’s all we have to offer as well. But the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, while it may not seem like much while we live in this old world, is everything. It’s nothing less than being reunited with the One who has become our Father and His Son Jesus, who has now become our adopted brother along with James, and who will share all good things with us in the heavenly mansions forever. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Pentecost 18 (Proper 24), Series A

Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 16, 2011 (Proper 24, Series A)

According to today’s text, the Pharisees and the Herodians were not honestly seeking to learn from Jesus by asking the question they asked. They were trying to trap Him. They purposely asked a question for which both answers were problematic. If Jesus had said, “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” then He would have made an enemy of the patriotic Jews who wished to rid themselves of the hated Roman oppressors. In fact, that’s what many people thought Jesus was about: they thought He was going to kick the Romans out of Israel and restore the ancient Israelite monarchy, with Himself as David’s heir on the throne. Even His own disciples thought this way, as we can tell from certain things they said and asked Jesus throughout the Gospels. And so for Jesus to support the right of the Romans to tax the Jews, would anger just about everyone who supported Him, and lead to a riot. On the other hand, if He were to say, “No, it isn’t lawful,” then he would have been charged with undermining the Roman authorities, imprisoned, and executed. Of course, that’s what He was later charged with and executed for anyway, but if He would have said that, the charge would actually have been true. The question is a trap. Either answer is bad for him. It’s like the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” Either a yes or a no answer is bad for the person, because the assumption behind the question is wrong.
But Jesus gets out of the trap by pointing out that it was Caesar who issued the money in the first place. His face and his inscription are on it, and so it really belongs to him anyway. Since Caesar issued the money, he has a right to demand it back. But, by the same token, we are also to render to God the things that belong to Him. And that means that there are certain boundary lines Caesar should not cross. If Caesar demands that his subjects do things that are against God, those subjects have the duty to disobey him, even though they still obey him when his commands are within the sphere of authority God has given him. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
Now, that’s not to say that any one particular form or government enjoys God’s special favor. We happen to live in a constitutional republic (sometimes mistakenly referred to as a democracy). And, since the highest law of our land guarantees us the freedom of religion, we do give thanks that God has graciously allowed us to be relatively free of religious persecution here. This is a good thing. But obviously Jesus wasn’t talking about the United States here; it would be some 1800 years before our Constitution would be written. He was talking about the hated oppressor Caesar. Every government, even ones that we would regard as oppressive and horrible, are used by God to keep peace and order in society. Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was very effective from keeping the Islamic majority in Iraq from killing or driving out the Christians in that country, and ironically it was the ancient Christian communities in Iraq that suffered the most when his regime was ended. Even Communist regimes keep the roads paved and the electricity flowing, which are blessings even for those who have to worship in secret. And so governments are to be respected, precisely because it is God who is keeping peace and order in society for our benefit through them. That doesn’t mean we have to obey when they command us to sin; after all, “We must obey God rather than men.” But it does mean that we can simply disregard them just because they aren’t perfect and don’t always do a perfect job of respecting everyone’s rights and being fair to everyone, either.
But how to tell the difference? What does our Lord say? How do we know what things are Caesar’s and what things are God’s? The coin they brought to Him had the image of Caesar and the inscription of Caesar stamped upon it. And so, because it bore Caesar’s image and His inscription, it was Caesar’s. But how do we know what is God’s? The same way. By God’s image and God’s inscription. And where do we find that image of God? What things bear the image of God? We learn from Genesis that mankind was created in the image of God. This means that everything we are and everything we have is God’s, because we bear His image within ourselves. This isn’t just a matter of giving to Church or to charity, although one way we confess the fact that we are His is by giving generously to the Church and to those who need our help in our midst. This is a matter of confessing that everything we are and everything we have is His. There is no part of our life, no aspect of our being, that He does not claim. His image is upon all of it. We are created in His image.
Of course, mankind lost that image when he fell into sin. We have all inherited that sin from Adam and so are separated from our Creator. This is why He sent His Son Jesus Christ to die and rise again so that our old sinful nature could be drowned and die in Holy Baptism, and a new man come forth and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. In Holy Baptism a new name was inscribed on your hearts, the name of Jesus Christ. Christ claimed you again as His own, so that you could live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness. You were recreated, reborn, in that font, so that now you have once again the image of God in you, not only in your heart but in your whole being and in the living out of your life. Where do we find that which is God’s? Where His image and inscription are. Where are that image and inscription? On our hearts and in our lives. He has called us by name, and we are His.
As I mentioned before, one of the ways in which we show that we are His is by obeying those who are placed in authority over us. This includes not only the secular government, but whomever is in authority over us in society and family. This includes our boss at work, our parents, for wives it includes your husband, and in matters where the Word of God speaks it also includes your pastor, whose authority it is to speak that Word of God in your midst. To render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s is really one way in which we render unto God the things that are God’s, since He is the one who stands behind and upholds those in authority over us. “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.” This is the explanation Luther gives of these matters, in connection with the Fourth Commandment. It is God whom we are serving when we obey and honor those who are in authority over us.
But most important is to remember to Whom it is that we belong: God. Yes, that is a great responsibility, but it is also a great comfort. Part of the duty of the government is to watch over and protect us from those who would hurt us. But the police and the sheriff’s deputies can’t be everywhere at once, and even though in our nation we also have the right to keep and bear arms to defend ourselves, we also can’t be everywhere at once. Sometimes our fellow sinners are still able to take advantage of us, to rob us or even rape or murder us. But God’s vigilance over us never fails. Nothing happens that He does not know about and use for our benefit. Even the ultimate evil that could happen to us, namely death, is now the gate of life for us. We have eternal life itself, and so nothing in this world can truly harm us. How do we know we have eternal life? We have God’s image and His inscription. We belong to Him. And He will defend and keep what is His own. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Pentecost 17 (Proper 23), series A

Sermon on Matthew 22:1-14
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 9, 2011 (Proper 23, Series A)

This parable is a description of the Church. The wedding feast that is mentioned here is the great wedding between God and His creation, the wedding between Christ the heavenly Bridegroom and the Church His bride. This wedding feast will be celebrated eternally in the mansions of the Heavenly Father following Christ’s return to judgement. But most people in our world, even though they are invited to this feast, aren’t planning on attending it. Many simply don’t believe there is going to be a feast. Others don’t think that this wedding feast is something that is important to them, and so they ignore the invitation. Others get so angry at the messengers that they persecute and kill them. Still others may have heard some hint of the invitation, but what they heard was so garbled by false doctrine and moralism that the message never really got through. Still others simply have not heard the invitation yet at all. And yet, this wedding feast is important to everyone. To be invited and choose not to attend is to incur the wrath of the Heavenly Father who gives this feast, and he and His armies will destroy those who reject the invitation in the eternal fires of Hell. And so it is urgent that the invitation to the heavenly wedding banquet go out to all the world as quickly as possible.
This is the reason why the Church sends missionaries into foreign countries as well as into various areas of our own country where the Gospel is not currently being preached in its truth and purity. This is the reason why the Church encourages and exhorts all her members to share this invitation, this message, with all with whom they come into contact. This is why various organizations have been established to promote the mission of the Church, both by pooling funds and resources, and by encouraging local groups and projects which promote the spreading of this glorious invitation to the whole world. The Lutheran Women’s Missionary League is one such group, and in fact of all our Synod’s missionary auxiliaries, the LWML is the one whose local society, the “Cross and Crown,” is the most active in this particular congregation. We give thanks to God this day for the work of these ladies on behalf of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and we pledge our continuing support to their efforts to gather all who will hear together from the ends of the earth to celebrate with all the faithful the marriage feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom, which has no end.
But of course, we recognize from this parable that going to the world with this invitation is an activity that is not without its hazards. You can get killed doing this. Some of the servants who were sent by the king in the parable were killed by those to whom they were sent. Now, today, here in America, that isn’t the danger. The danger to us is that we will be treated spitefully and ridiculed. In some ways, it’s easier to give up your life for Christ once than it is to have to face peer pressure and ridicule against Him day after day after day. And so it is imperative that we band together, not only as a Church, even though that is the primary gathering of Christians to be strengthened and nourished for this battle, but also in other groups and organizations, so that we can be strengthened and encouraged for this battle. This is why we have Bible study groups as well as the Cross and Crown Society. Going out with Christ’s invitation is not easy, but when you do it together with others, God shows His help and care through those others, and it does seem easier.
And what is the purpose of this going forth with the invitation to the wedding banquet? So that those who are thus invited can be united with Christ. Toward the end of this parable we hear about a man who somehow managed to get in to the feast without the appropriate clothing. This man is taken out and cast into the outer darkness. This seems like a harsh and judgmental picture, but it reminds us of what it is that happens when a person is united with Christ. Christ covers him like a garment, like a white robe of purity. Our sins, our selfishness, our lack of holiness and righteousness before God, are covered up with the white robe that God gives us in Holy Baptism. Without this covering, our sinfulness is offensive to our God and we are subject to destruction. But with this covering, with Christ becoming our white, pure, and holy robe, we are pleasing to God, and our presence is a joy to Him at the wedding feast.
And so it is necessary that those who come to the feast be given the wedding garment. All men are born sinful and must be covered with Christ’s righteousness in order to be acceptable to God. This takes place in Holy Baptism and is renewed when we hear the Word of forgiveness preached, read, and proclaimed to us. What we do when we invite those who are outside our fellowship right now to come and participate with us in the wedding feast is not a matter of getting as many warm bodies as possible in the pews. A missionary approach that focuses itself on the number of warm bodies in the pews and which tones down the seriousness of the Christian message of Law and Gospel, replacing it with motivational speeches for better living or the like, will only result in having more people who cast aside the white robe of Christ’s righteousness and try to remain in the wedding feast without it. In other words, seeking numbers at all costs doesn’t help the kingdom of God. It only hurts it. As Jesus warns us at the end of the parable, many are called, but few are chosen. We can’t get around that fact.
But for those who do hear the invitation and who do not cast aside Christ’s righteousness which is given to them but instead wear their wedding garment which God has given them proudly and thankfully, the blessings of being at this wedding feast are beyond compare. This wedding feast is nothing other than heaven itself. In fact, the bride is no one else than the Church herself. Which means that you and I are not just invited guests to this feast, we are, collectively, one of the parties to the union. The union between God and Man which takes place in heaven means joy and happiness beyond compare for us. Some religions teach about a god who is high, holy, and remote. Other religions teach about a god, or a whole series of gods, that is contained within creation, such as “mother earth” or something like that. Our religion is the only one that has the best of both worlds. Our religion teaches about a God who, even though He is high and holy and powerful, is not remote from us but rather has entered our existence and taken on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. God is not “watching us from a distance,” thank you Whitney Houston, but rather He is with us. This is the union that we celebrate in the marriage feast of the lamb which has no end. This is the union that all men are invited to. Nothing less than the love and the fellowship of the high, holy, and powerful creator of heaven and earth.
And this wedding feast isn’t just something that we have to wait for the end of the world to experience either, even though that is when our experience of it will be fulfilled and complete and eternal. We participate in this wedding feast, this union of love between God and His creation, every Sunday as we eat the body of our heavenly bridegroom and drink His blood. We, who have received the white robe of Christ’s righteousness in Holy Baptism, now enter into the fellowship of God Himself through eating His Son’s body and drinking His blood. We can’t see this aspect of the Divine Service, but it is real. We receive nothing less here than the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. For where there is the forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. We now partake of the marriage feast of the lamb, which has no end. Our own sinfulness does not hinder us from being here, for we are covered with the white robe, the wedding garment of Christ’s holiness and righteousness. Come to the feast! Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +