Sunday, July 29, 2012

Pentecost 9 (Proper 12B)

Sermon on Mark 6:45-56
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 29, 2012 (The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

“They did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”  The disciples had witnessed a miracle in which the Maker of heaven and earth had provided for His people in their hour of need.  Here they witness another miracle in which the Creator shows that He is master of those things that He has created.  And they still don’t get it.  They still don’t understand that the one who was walking around with them, talking with them and teaching them was not just an unusually gifted rabbi.  He’s not just a prophet.  He is God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.  He is God become man, to save us.

How often do we forget exactly that?  How often do we fail to keep in mind that the One who meets us here, in this very room with His Word and His body and blood is none other than the Creator of Heaven and earth, the one who made and continuously upholds reality itself?  After all, we gather here every week, and millions upon millions of Christians gather week after week in thousands upon thousands of houses of worship each Sunday, not to mention other services that are held on other days of the week.  It all becomes very ordinary after a while.  But that doesn’t change the fact of who it is we are here to meet.  We are here to meet with none other than the creator of heaven and earth.  We are here to eat and drink the body and blood of God Himself.

And what’s more, we carry around within our hearts, within our very bodies, God Himself.  As we go about our day-to-day lives, we are still those who have eaten the body and drunk the blood of God Himself.  We are still those who have in our minds and hearts the very Word of God which creates the reality it describes.  And this is true no matter what we are doing, whether we are asleep or awake, while we take a shower in the morning, when we eat our meals, as we go about our jobs or other daily tasks, doing the laundry, driving around town, walking around the grocery store, talking on the phone, working at our jobs, and whatever other things we do as part of our respective vocations in life.  We carry around within ourselves the very being who created the world itself and everything in it.

It’s bad enough that we sometimes forget that fact, but what happens because we forget that fact is often worse.  We lie.  We steal, if not overtly, at least in terms of coveting what belongs to our neighbors.  We get angry and even hateful towards our closest neighbors in life, the members of our own family.  We lust.  We speak evil about our neighbors, we use filthy language, whether that be taking His name in vain or whether it be simple vulgarity, or both.  We fail to help those who need us.  We waste the time for which our employers pay us, thus stealing from them when we get the paycheck.  We may even act doubtful or despairing of God’s goodness, reacting to problems and evils that happen to us as if God is no longer Lord of creation and we are helpless and hopeless in the face of whatever it may be.  And all this using the brains, mouths, eyes, ears, hands, and feet in which God has come to dwell through Word and Sacrament.

But it is precisely because we do all these things that He has come to us.  You see, He comes not in judgment but in forgiveness.  He comes not to strike us down for our unbelief, despair, and other great shame and vice, but to forgive us and heal us of it.  That’s why He became one of us and died in our place: so that we can be saved from the punishment we deserved by our sin and rise with Him to live eternally.  His entire point in becoming man was so that we could be saved, rather than destroyed, by His presence among us and within us.

And that’s the unique thing about Christianity.  We have a God who partakes of the best of both worlds.  Some religions claim to worship a god who is high, holy, and remote.  Islam is probably the most obvious and prominent example of this sort of religion.  In Islam, their false god is always far away, looking down at his worshipers, judging them for every little infraction.  Even those who reach the Muslim version of heaven never really get to meet their god face to face.  Other religions deny that there is a holy and transcendent creator who is distinct from his creation, but instead worship as god the creation itself.  The New Age movement, Wicca, various eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, and so on, fall into this category.  These religions have a god, or gods, who are not almighty and all-powerful, but have a god or gods who need our feeble help to flourish and thrive, if they even believe in a being called “god” at all.

Only Christianity believes in the God who is distinct from His creation, transcendent over it, who controls and upholds reality itself, even time itself, from outside of it, while at the same time believing that this God is not only knowable but that He has become a human being like us, walked among us, given His life for us, and now comes to meet us on a weekly basis, and dwells within each of us believers.  Only Christianity believes in a God who is absolutely powerful and transcendent and whose promises are thus reliable and dependable, and who at the same time dwells among and within His people, guaranteeing that His promises are not of punishment and destruction but of love and salvation.  Only Christianity gives you the almighty God in human flesh.

That’s what the disciples didn’t understand time and time again in the Gospels.  That’s what we find it so easy to forget as we meet here every week and go about our lives every day.  We are privileged to have living among us and within us the almighty God, the Creator of heaven and earth.  We eat with our mouths, hear with our ears, and speak with our lips the one who continuously upholds and sustains the entire universe.  And the point of all of this is that He loves us.  He wants us to have a relationship with Him.  He wants us to see His face for all eternity.  He, in short, loves us.  He loves us such that He’s willing to become one of us and die in our place.  He loves us such that he’s willing to suffer even death so that we can be resurrected to eternity and spend forever with Him.  That’s what we preach.  That’s who we are.  Those who are loved by the Creator Himself, and will dwell with Him forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Pentecost 8 (Proper 11), Series B

Sermon on Mark 6:30-44For Holy Cross Lutheran Church and Iglesia Luterana Santa Cruz, Elmwood Park, WI
July 22, 2012 (The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

You know, multiplying fish are not all that unusual. All of us know about catches of fish that are bigger when you tell others about them than they were when you first caught them, and about fish that are bigger in your memory than they were against a ruler. Fishermen seem to have this knack for making fish grow and multiply between when they catch them and when they tell their friends about what they caught. But there are differences between these multiplying fish and the multiplying fish which our Lord distributes in the Gospel lesson. The fish our Lord multiplied are real, not “fish stories.” Also, our Lord didn’t multiply these fish in order to brag or show off. He did this out of love and service to His people who needed to be fed at that time.

With the huge crowd that had gathered, it was probably a big question in just about everybody’s mind how Jesus could possibly provide food for all these people. Ordinarily God does indeed work through things in this world like jobs and money and the grocery store, or like hunting and fishing sometimes, to provide us with our daily needs. And so it seems perfectly reasonable to look for enough of those sorts of resources to feed these people. When these kinds of ordinary ways that God provides for us are functioning properly, that is, when he gives us enough money by means of our employers to buy what we need, when the production and distribution network of our nation are in good working order so that the products we need arrive in good condition to convenient locations where we can purchase them, or at the very least when we are able to grow or hunt or fish what we need—when all of these things are happening the way they are supposed to, it is easy to forget that behind all of this is God, fulfilling His people’s prayer to “give us this day our daily bread.” It is easy to think that it is really our own hard work that is behind the fact that we are well-fed and well-clothed. And then when we encounter a need which is not covered by these ordinary means, it is tempting to despair and believe that since we don’t have the resources to meet this need, whether its expensive medical care or the loss of a job or whatever, the need will not be met; we will not be provided for.

What we so often forget, is that He who is the Provider of all our needs is right here with us. Christ in our Gospel lesson had stopped to teach these people even though He Himself was very tired precisely because He had compassion on them. Now they needed food. He is God, the One who provides them with food and clothing and everything they need. Is it really conceivable that He will simply abandon them in their need simply because the ordinary, natural means of providing for that need have given out? Likewise with us when we experience hard times and difficulties in providing for our sustenance. He who gives His own body and blood for our eternal nourishment will sustain us even when the ordinary means of such sustenance have given out, whether through some extraordinary providence or through the charity of our fellow Christians, or even in the worst case, by taking us to that place where we will never hunger nor thirst again. God does provide.

But our most important need, of course, is not for earthly bread. You eat bread and fish (or steak and potatoes, or whatever else it may be), and you will get hungry again. His most important provision for us was accomplished by winning eternal life for us, giving us that food which will satisfy us for eternity. He became the first one to rise from the dead, and His body which was given for us and His blood shed for us is the beginning of an entire new creation, a new heaven and earth. Instead of staying to give people only the food which perishes, He gave all of mankind the food that does not perish by giving Himself on the cross. He now gives us that food at the altar, where His body and blood are presented to us to nourish and strengthen us, not just for this life, but for eternity.

Of course, the fact that Jesus went on and didn’t stay behind to keep giving these people perishable bread, does not mean that He was unwilling to help people in their needs for this life. It just means that everything needs to be kept in proper perspective. After all, He did provide miraculously for their hunger on this occasion, and healed and fed and otherwise miraculously provided for people on other occasions. What happened in our text, and the other times that Jesus did miracles, is that a little bit of what will happen in eternal life, leaked into our world. In heaven nobody will hunger or thirst, nor will there be any disease or death. Being in heaven means being where God is, being where we can perfectly praise and worship Him and where He can lovingly provide all our needs. Where Christ is present, both in first-century Palestine, and today in His Real Presence in the Word and the Sacrament, there heaven has come to us. There the hungry are fed, and the sick are healed, the lonely are comforted, and on and on and on. Many, many hospitals, schools, retirement homes, and other charitable organizations were founded by churches for this very reason.

Where Christ’s presence in Word and Sacrament as the crucified and risen Lord is the center of the Church’s life, of course there will be other activities and institutions founded, because where He is, there He will provide for His people. We need not doubt in tough times that He will be with us, even when we don’t have the obvious means to get by. Even the Church itself can sometimes have tough times. This congregation is smaller now than it once was, and it is often tempting to worry and wonder what will happen to it if the trend continues. But do not worry and do not fret. He redeemed us; He will provide for us in His own way, in His own good time. There is always the temptation that the other things that flow from Christ’s presence, either in their abundance or in their lack, will distract us from the one thing needful, Christ Himself. But Christ is still present in His Word and His body and blood to call us back to unity with Him. He is the one thing needful, and, having Him, we have everything we truly need, for this life, and eternity. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Pentecost 7 (Proper 10), Series B

 Sermon on Mark 6:14-29
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 15, 2012 (The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

Edgar Allen Poe once wrote a story called “The Telltale Heart.”  The basic idea of the story is that, after having murdered someone and hidden the body beneath the floorboards of his house, he begins to hear a heartbeat.  The guilt of what he has done bothers him so much, is such a part of his every thought, that he is convinced that the heartbeat belongs to the man he killed, and that everyone in the room (including the detective who is investigating the disappearance of the murdered man) can hear it, too.  Of course, the heartbeat he hears is his own, amplified by the blood rushing through the tissues of his own ears, driven by his own rapid heartbeat and high blood pressure due to the stress of the situation.  But it drives him mad.  He is so convinced that everyone in the room can hear the heartbeat that he begins talking to it, yelling at it to shut up and go away.  Finally he is forced to confess that he, in fact, killed the missing man and that the body is hidden beneath the floorboards, because the guilt of what he has done, taking the shape of a mysterious heartbeat, has driven him insane.

What happened to Herod Antipas in today’s text is somewhat like that. Herod knew that John was speaking the truth when he said that Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife was wrong.  He hesitated to hurt John, despite the fact that he had imprisoned him, because he knew John was a true prophet and that the word of Law John had spoken to him was just. He knew that his guilt would only increase if he added murder to the list of his crimes.  But, to protect his throne, he couldn’t let the man roam free and tell everyone what a horrible sinner he was, so he let John sit in prison.

But when his new wife Herodias asked, through her daughter, his own niece, his own stepdaughter, that John’s head be brought to her, he couldn’t refuse her.  He had sworn to give her whatever she wanted.  And so he ordered John to be beheaded and his head brought on a silver platter.  Now his guilt was driving him insane.  He knew he had killed the Lord’s prophet, and the thought just wouldn’t leave him alone.  So, when he heard of Jesus’ preaching and miracles, his mind jumped to the conclusion that John had risen from the dead and had come back to condemn him anew.

It’s easy to look at a story like this and simply see Herod as the bad guy.  And this is, after all, the same man who mocked Jesus when Pilate sent Him over during His trial early in the morning on the first Good Friday.  His father, Herod the Great, had killed all the baby boys in and around Bethlehem some thirty years ago, trying to assassinate the newborn King before He could become a threat.  The Herodian kings were all bloodthirsty dictators who were only concerned about their own power and about keeping the Roman occupiers happy so that they could hang on to their own thrones at whatever cost.  These really were evil men.

But it is in Herod’s place that we all too often find ourselves as we remember the wrongs we have committed against our fellow human beings and especially against our fellow Christians.  Most of us have not literally murdered anyone.  But Satan loves to paint our own sins as just as severe and deadly.  And, there’s an element of truth there. After all, before God’s judgment every sin is just as serious as murder.  And so the Accuser (that’s what the Hebrew word satan means, by the way) loves to paint our sins in as ugly and sickening a light as possible.  He loves to drive us to obsession and despair over the things we have done.  And if it weren’t for Christ, Satan would be right.  Our sins, no matter how small or insignificant they seem to our neighbors, really would send us to that place where gnawing obsession and guilt is all that is left to us, because the love of God the Father is completely absent.

What Herod imagined had happened to John really did happen, by the way.  Only, it didn’t happen to John.  There really was a resurrection in first-century Judea.  But it wasn’t the resurrection of a man killed unwillingly to come back and accuse a bloodthirsty, neurotic dictator of his crimes before all of his subjects.  The resurrection that did happen was of the man who Herod only thought was John raised to life again. The innocent Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity in human flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, rose to life again after having been brutally executed for his claim to be exactly what He was, the Son of God.  But he rose again not to condemn those who put Him to death (despite what many Jewish leaders feared even in our own day in connection with Mel Gibson’s incredibly graphic cinematic portrayal of His execution), but to give the world forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  His death destroyed death, and so His life is for the salvation of the world.

And so, what Herod feared really did come to pass only a couple of years later.  But it was for the opposite reason.  It wasn’t a mere prophet, but the true Prophet who rose from the dead.  And he rose, not for the sake of condemnation, but for the sake of salvation.  And His body and blood are presented to us guilty little herods, not as a result of our own bloodthirsty evil ways, but as a medicine that heals our twisted, rocky hearts and gives us new life and eternal salvation.  The resurrection of Jesus is not a ghostly specter that accuses us of our sins, it is a flesh-and-blood Savior and God who will raise us up with Him and bring us to His Father’s house to dwell with Him forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Pentecost 6, Series B

Sermon on Mark 6:1-13
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 8, 2012 (The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

It’s not the normal practice in the Missouri Synod for a young candidate from one of the Seminaries to be assigned to the church where he grew up.  Some of the people in the congregation may have a hard time thinking of him as the pastor rather than as the kid who misbehaved in Sunday School way back when.  But the real problem Jesus encounters with his own hometown of Nazareth is not simply a problem of how people react to a pastor who once was a kid they knew.  The problem is one of unbelief.  The real difficulty we see illustrated in today’s Gospel lesson is that people often find it hard to understand that God works through human beings.  How could such a wonderful message come through such an ordinary messenger?  This difficulty is only intensified when the messenger is someone they already know.

But that doesn’t excuse their reaction.  No, Jesus wasn’t just simply the carpenter’s boy from down the street.  He was—and is—the Son of God.  And even if he were just a “local boy made good,” so to speak, the Word He preached would still be the Word of God.  They ought to have listened and heeded his words even then.  How much more so since this “carpenter” was really God’s own Son!  But of course, the reaction of Nazareth to Jesus’ words and His actions as the Messiah is only a small part of the larger rejection Jesus experienced.  The entire Jewish nation was His own country, and they rejected Him, with a few exceptions, and their religious and political leaders nailed Him to a tree.  Since He was born of Mary and was made man, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was also human like all of us.  And even though the Jewish leaders were the ones directly responsible for His trial and crucifixion, the responsibility rests upon all of us, for ultimately all of our sins caused Him to give up His life on the cross.  We are all His kinsmen and neighbors and relatives, and we are all the same as those people in Nazareth who were offended because He was more than He seemed to be.

The interesting thing about this story is that Jesus did not get discouraged or give up when his hometown rejected Him, he simply went on with His ministry.  He left Nazareth behind and went to other places where the people also needed to hear the message of salvation.  Even when He knew that His message would eventually lead to His death, Jesus kept preaching.  He did not put concern for His own well-being before the needs of those He came to save, even though we know from the way He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane that he did feel the pain and the anguish of being rejected by men, stricken, smitten, and afflicted.  Indeed, that was the whole purpose of Christ’s ministry: to suffer.  To take upon Himself the griefs and sorrows and sins of all men and wash them away in His own blood.  This includes the sins of those people in Nazareth who rejected Him, those Jewish leaders who nailed him to the cross, as well as all of us.  It was His entire purpose in coming to this world to suffer for us to take away our sins.  And so, when He experiences rejection in His ministry, it is a sign that He is actually doing something right.  Instead of being a sign of failure, Jesus’ rejection by men is exactly what is supposed to happen.

But that doesn’t excuse those who reject Him.  What Jesus said about a prophet being without honor among His own people and relatives was a severe word of judgment against them.  And when He left Nazareth behind, it was not simply because He thought He would be more successful elsewhere; it was as a word of judgment against them.  The worst judgment God can give against a person or a group of people is to abandon them to their own devices, to give them what they think they want rather than what they need.  That’s precisely what hell is.  Think about it.  In hell, God gives those who are there what they thought they wanted, namely to be free from dependence upon Him, instead of what they need for their body and their soul.  Of course, as it turns out, being independent of God is a lot less pleasant than they thought it would be.  There is good reason why hell is described as eternal pain and torment.  That is what is left when God is not the one who provides our needs.  And so when God abandons a group of people to their own devices, as Jesus symbolically did when He left Nazareth behind without doing many miracles, It’s very serious.

Speaking of those miracles, by the way, isn’t it interesting that Jesus couldn’t do many miracles there, except heal a few people?  What does that mean?  Healing people seems to me to be a pretty great miracle, but our text says that He couldn’t do many great miracles there.  The answer is that bodily healings and other supernatural events aren’t even close to the miracle that takes place when a person is translated from unbelief to faith, from death into life.  It was because of their unbelief that Jesus couldn’t eternally heal them, that is to say, He couldn’t save them from their sins.
Of course we know that Jesus’ ministry did not stop with His death or His resurrection or even His ascension.  His ministry goes on today through you and me.  Through me, a pastor called to preach the Gospel and to distribute Christ’s sacraments to His people, and through you, Christians called to live as God’s hands and His mouths wherever you find yourselves in your day-to-day lives.  But because it’s precisely Christ’s ministry that is carried out through us, it’s not surprising that we experience many of the same difficulties and ever persecution that Jesus did.

But since it’s His ministry, He is with us and working through us.  Let the world do what it will.  “And take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife.  Let these all be gone; they yet have nothing won.  The Kingdom ours remaineth.”  If we end up suffering for the sake of the Gospel, those sufferings give us a picture, an icon, if you will, of Christ’s sufferings on our behalf.  Indeed, our suffering and our pain, not just those brought on by the world’s reaction to the Gospel but also the various hurts and illnesses and sorrows that go along with life in a sinful world, these sufferings may sometimes be the strongest witness to Him we can give.  In showing that God can sustain us in faith even through our trials and tribulations, we show that it is all to His glory and not our own.  God works the greatest works through the lowliest means.  In our simple Christian confession of faith, and in our day-to-day lives, He shines forth as the One who is strong to save and to preserve.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Pentecost 5, Series B

Sermon on Mark 5:21-43
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 1, 2012 (The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

Today’s Gospel lesson has to do with two women, both of whom were, in their own way, dead.  The little girl is obvious.  She’s just plain dead, and dead is dead.  She’s assumed room temperature, stopped breathing, and all of that.  But in what sense is the other woman dead?  After all, she’s still walking around, talking.  She is still a patient of several doctors, and once you assume room temperature, the only sort of doctor who will have anything to do with you is the guy who might perform an autopsy on you.  Other than that, you’re now cared for by the undertaker, not the doctor.  But I said before that this woman is dead.  How so?

Well, her condition is one that basically cuts her off from the religious life of God’s people.  You see, this was a “womanly” flow of blood, if you know what I mean.  And according to the law of Moses, during that sort of flow, a woman was considered ritually unclean and was not supposed to go to the temple.  Also contact with a woman who was experiencing that sort of flow also made a person ritually unclean, so observant Jews (including those who were regularly at the Synagogue on the Sabbath) would avoid contact with a woman during this time period.  Part of the reason the Law of Moses was set up this way, by the way, was because the shedding of blood was indicative of death, and therefore a reminder of the fallenness of this old world, even though the woman herself was in no way at fault for this.  In this particular woman’s case, however, things were a lot more serious than that.  This flow of blood wasn’t part of the normal cycle of things.  It was continuous, and had been so for twelve years.  And that’s bad enough.  It indicates a serious health problem, and would be the cause for a lot of consternation and many doctor’s visits and ever more serious and intrusive tests and medications and procedures, even today.  But it also meant that this woman had been ritually unclean for twelve solid years, unable to go to the Temple and even unwelcome at the Synagogue.  And so, as far as the religious life of God’s people was concerned, it was as if this woman were dead, even though her condition was not her fault.  She had still been touched by the death that reigns in this old world and thus was unclean and unable to cleanse herself.

But Jesus heals them both.  The little girl’s resurrection is pretty straightforward.  Jesus says to her, “Get up,” and she gets up.  God’s word does what it says.  This is the sort of “commandment” that is not Law but Gospel.  The girl, being dead, has no ability to get up, but the Word gives what it commands, and she gets up, and is alive again.  The woman merely touches the hem of Jesus’ garment, and she is healed from her flow of blood, and from the religious death that it had imposed on her.  More importantly, as Jesus points out, her faith saves her (the word translated “made you well” is actually the Greek word “to save”).  Her trust in Jesus as the Messiah gives her the eternal life won by Him for her, and for us, on the cross, and the healing of whatever malfunction in her body had been causing this flow of blood, is a sign of the complete healing and restoration she will enjoy with Him and us in heaven.

There are still a couple of strange things going on in today’s Gospel, however, that I really ought to mention.  The first is that Jesus says the girl isn’t really dead but sleeping.  Of course, she’s dead.  But to God, death is no obstacle.  The grave is not our final destination.  Actually, the English word we use to describe the place where graves are kept, is a reminder of this.  The word cemetery originally comes from the Greek word for “resting place,” or sleeping place.  It’s a word that reminds us that all will be raised to life again, and so from the perspective of eternity, death isn’t as permanent as we often tend to think it is.  And that’s the case here as well.  The girl is sleeping in the sense that Jesus, the Lord of life and death, the one who is immortal but who will die in our place and therefore will rise again in our place, is the one who is caring for her.  He is the true physician, who takes our death into Himself and heals us of it, eternally.

The other strange thing is that when the woman touches the hem of His garment, He feels “power” go out of Him.  It’s not like He isn’t aware of what is happening.  His healing power can’t be manipulated by people who pull it from Him unwillingly.  Rather, He knows what has happened, and has graciously allowed it.  It’s interesting, isn’t it, that when a woman who had been losing blood is healed, Jesus feels something go out of Him.  Remember that Jesus doesn’t just make sin and its effects disappear.  He takes them to the cross.  A flow of blood is healed by a flow of power.  This also is a reminder to us.  The flow of power from Jesus to heal us and give us eternity is enabled by a flow of blood.  The power to be forgiven of all our sins and live forever before Him in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, comes from the flow of blood and water out of Jesus’ side.  The blood that flows from His wounds heals our wounds.  The flow of blood from His side is where the Church is born.  The bleeding and dying of the Son of God gives us freedom from sin and death.  We are washed in that blood, we are drenched in it whenever the Word returns us to our baptismal death and resurrection.  We take it inside of us as we eat and drink it every Sunday.  The blood that flowed out of Him flows into us and gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation.  The power that flows out of Him flows into us and gives us eternity, with Him, forever.  Go in peace, your faith has saved you.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +