Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Festival of the Reformation (Transferred)

Sermon on John 8:31-36
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 28, 2012 (The Festival of the Reformation - Transferred)

What Jesus says in today’s text centers around the concepts of “freedom” and “slavery.”  Those concepts are also important concepts for us as Americans as well, as both words have played a significant role in our history as a nation.  Americans value their freedom, especially since our nation was born out of the attempt to free those who lived here from the tyranny of King George III of England.  And, partially because of that background, the framers of our national Constitution were careful to add to that document a list of provisions, called the Bill of Rights, insuring that the government would not restrict our freedom in certain important ways.  For us Christians the most important is the freedom to worship according to our conscience without government interference or government support of competing or contrary religions, as well as the freedom to have and express our opinions publicly, including and especially unpopular ones, and sometimes the Christian testimony on a particular issue, such as abortion, will be unpopular.  Of course, since that time the freedoms we enjoy here have been misinterpreted as freedom to do whatever we want, whenever we want, no matter how offensive it may be to those around us.  It has also been misinterpreted to say that anyone who disapproves of someone else’s behavior needs to keep their opinion to themselves, or risk being accused of “censoring” the other person.  This isn’t what our nation’s founding fathers had in mind.

Now, as Jesus points out in today’s Gospel lesson, that which many modern Americans think of as “freedom” is in fact a form of slavery, slavery to sin.  Whoever sins is a slave of sin, as Jesus points out.  Sin has the capability to control us, to dominate our lives.  Certain kinds of sin have been labeled by psychologists and counselors as addictions, whether you are talking about alcoholism or gambling addictions or pornography addiction or whatever, but the fact of the matter is that every sin is addictive.  Every time you sin, it makes it easier to commit that same sin the next time, and in fact it breaks down your resistance to that sin and makes the desire to do it again stronger.  It dulls your conscience and begins to make you think that what you are doing is simply normal.  Sin is the ultimate addiction.

Now, of course, Christians have sometimes disagreed with the labeling of various sins as addictions, because such a label tends to make the person sound like a victim of a disease instead of being a guilty person who needs to repent.  There is some truth to that objection, because a person who is an alcoholic or an addict of some other sinful substance or activity is a sinner, and not simply the victim of a disease.  But at the same time we realize that sin itself is an addiction, a disease, and it is an addiction or a disease that we are born with.  You have all heard on the news about babies born already addicted to various substances because their mothers abused drugs or alcohol while they were pregnant.  Well, every one of us was born addicted—to sin.

This is the picture Christ is trying to paint for us when he says that everyone who sins is a slave to sin.  Now, the people Jesus was talking to, the Jews, were not, most of them, addicted in any obvious way that we know of to any specific sins; in fact, they seemed to be totally free of those kinds of entanglements, as they point out to Jesus.  Of course, when they say that they have “never been slaves of anyone,” they are conveniently forgetting about the Egyptians, the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and finally the Romans.  But more importantly they are forgetting the master who had a tighter hold on them than any of these earthly rulers, namely sin.  Even these outwardly righteous people are slaves to sin, because their behavior shows that they are constantly afraid of it.  The Pharisees built a hugely complex system of rules and regulations in order to prevent them from coming anywhere near sinning.  The fear of sinning which causes a person to do that 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 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 which drives 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 about the church war between the Lutherans and the Pope, even though it’s true that many of the concerns Luther raised with the Pope’s church 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 21, 2012

Pentecost 21 (Proper 24), Series B

Sermon on Mark 10:23-31
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 21, 2012 (The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.  And so, then, therefore, is the way to be saved to give up all our worldly possessions?  To renounce all of our private property?  To sell it and give it to the poor? After all, that’s what Jesus said to the rich man in the text which was scheduled for last week (but which was missed due to the confusion over LWML Sunday this year).  This text has been used to argue that having worldly possessions is somehow contradictory to Christianity.  It has even been used to argue that the Communists are right that nobody should have private property and that everyone should share everything, and that anybody who has any money or property and doesn’t give it away to those who don’t have it is, in effect, stealing from society in general.  Of course, that would contradict the example of the Old Testament patriarchs; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were very wealthy men, and yet the Lord identifies Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob throughout the rest of the Old Testament.  He wouldn’t have identified Himself as their God if they had not been saved.

The fact is, however, that stuff won’t save us.  Our stuff won’t even come with us into heaven, no matter how much or little of it we have.  And if our stuff is more important to us than eternal life with God, that means we won’t fit into heaven.  Thing is, none of us can really say that we haven’t put our “stuff” ahead of our eternal relationship with our Creator.  Even the disciples couldn’t say that.  They got the point.  Who can be saved?  And the answer is, nobody.  All of us are too big to fit through the door into everlasting life we call the grave.  You can’t take it with you, as the saying goes.  But that’s the problem.  There is nobody who doesn’t try to take it with him, by nature.  We all want our stuff to come with us.  Even if we give up our physical possessions, we still try to take what is ours into God’s judgment hall.  If the rich man had been able to bring himself to give up all his physical possessions and give the money to the poor, he would have tried to bring that fact into God’s judgment hall as a good work that he could claim as his own.  And that’s still too much of his own stuff.  Even that good work, he can’t take with him.  Even that good work won’t fit through the needle’s eye.  It’s impossible to be saved by man’s reason and strength.

But all things are possible with God.  The funny thing about Jesus saying that is, He’s talking about Himself in the third person there.  And He’s doing that for a reason.  He’s not going to give away the answer to the puzzle that easily.  He could just come out and say, “Well, I’m God the Son, and I can save all of you.”  No, He lets his saying be a little more cryptic than that, because it will be His own resurrection that will clinch it.  Next Sunday’s text, if Reformation Day hadn’t gotten in the way, would have been another prediction by Jesus of His own death and resurrection.  The disciples, remember, tend to ignore those predictions, because Jesus is predicting something difficult and uncomfortable to think about.  They’d prefer to think about who will be the greatest, who will have the most power and authority and, yes, wealth when He establishes His kingdom on earth.  But it’s His death and resurrection that is the key to His whole reason for becoming man in the first place.  His death and resurrection is the whole point behind His becoming man, growing up, and His ministry as an itinerant rabbi.  It will be when He is raised from the dead that the clues will all come together in the disciples’ minds.  But even though He doesn’t come right out and say it, He’s giving them an important clue here.  With man it is impossible to enter the narrow gate that leads to eternal life.  But with God (that is, with Me, Jesus) all things are possible.  I will enter that narrow gate.  I will give up literally everything in order that you can have everything.  Even my clothing will become the property of Roman soldiers.  I will die in your place so that you can enter by that narrow gate.  I will save you, precisely because you can’t save yourselves.

Who, then, can be saved?  Everyone.  With God, all things are possible.  Which is to say, with Jesus, all things are possible.  No matter whether your net worth is in the millions or whether you owe more than you own, your sins were paid for by Jesus on the cross.  He is the only one who can go through the narrow way, and He did it on your behalf.  Your salvation comes as a free gift from the only one who can do it, God become man, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Funeral of Olive Beierle

Sermon on John 14:1-6
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 11, 2012 (Funeral of Olive Beierle)

Olive became a shut-in not long after I began serving Holy Cross as vacancy pastor, almost two years ago.  Her circulation had been steadily deteriorating, and her heart could no longer supply blood to her extremities well enough to heal wounds, such as the scrape she suffered on her leg Thanksgiving Day that year while visiting her grandchildren.  Over the last couple of years the problem has grown steadily worse, until she could no longer live by herself in her longtime home in Elmwood Park and had to move to a care facility for her final days.  The last time I was able to give her Jesus’ body and blood was at the hospital in West Allis, not long after having moved out of her old home here.  At that time she expressed to me that she really did not want to leave her house.  It was familiar to her.  She and her husband had spent many happy years there.  In fact, many times while her health was deteriorating and I would visit her every few months she would admit to me that she probably shouldn’t be living at home any more, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave her house behind until it became absolutely necessary.

As I told her many times during my visits with her, including the very last one at the hospital in West Allis, she has a home that can never be taken from her.  Her house here in Elmwood Park is, of course, no longer hers since her death, and it will be sold to someone else who will live there at some point.  Eventually it will be destroyed or torn down, whether at the day of Jesus’ return in glory or before that, as will everything we have in this old world.  The world itself is temporary, as is everything we have in it, because everything has been corrupted by sin, and therefore things deteriorate, accidents, fires, and floods happen, and people die.  None of that would happen were it not for the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, whose sin has been passed down to us, along with the death that entered this world because of sin.

But, as I said, she has a home that can never be taken from her.  She has a place where she belongs that will never be torn down, where no one will break in, where no fire will destroy, and no accidents or trips and falls will ever happen.  That home is the place prepared for her by our Lord Jesus Christ in His Father’s house.  He became homeless so that we who believe in Him will have an eternal home.  He who knew no sin became sin for us in order that we might share in His righteousness.  He suffered death in order that we might have eternal life.  He gave up everything so that we could have everything.

And so Olive is finally in her true home, the one we too will inherit as believers in Jesus Christ.  We will join her there at the end of our lives, or when Christ comes again, whichever comes first, so long as we trust His promises that His Son’s death has paid for our sins and that our fellowship with Him is restored.  In the meantime, of course, we mourn the fact that we are separated from her for a time.  We can no longer talk with her or see her as we did before her passing.  Death was never supposed to be part of God’s creation, and so it’s natural that when it afflicts those we love, we mourn.

But we don’t mourn as those who have no hope.  Because the home Christ has prepared for Olive, and for each of us who believe, is a home that is ours even now while we continue on in this old world.  After all, Olive is with Jesus.  And Jesus is present wherever two or three are gathered together to hear His Word and receive His body and blood.  There is only one Jesus, after all.  And the Jesus with whom Olive now dwells in her true home, is the same Jesus who visits us every Sunday in His body and blood.  That’s why the Lutheran Church’s liturgy confesses, “therefore with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven we laud and magnify Your glorious name . . .”  Olive is included in the whole company of heaven who are present with us, worshiping the Lamb who was slain as He gives us His body to eat and His blood to drink.  Our heavenly home, and Olive’s, comes down to earth and dwells with us wherever and whenever we celebrate the Sacrament of the Altar.  The same feast of victory, the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end, in which Olive now partakes eternally, is the feast we share as we gather around His body broken and His blood shed for us.  Our heavenly home, and Olive’s, is not so far away as we might think.  Christ dwells with us, and He gathers us all together with Him.  He will return in glory, and we will experience that glorious reality fully at a later date, but it belongs to us now.  Our eternal home, which will never be taken from us, is already ours.  Olive is already there, and we will be as well.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Pentecost 19 (Proper 22), Series B

Sermon on Mark 10:2-16
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 7, 2012 (The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

Most children are able to trust what you tell them more easily than adults can, because they have not been exposed as much as adults to the effects of sin on people’s relationships with one another.  The word for this is “innocence.”  While it’s true that children are afflicted with original sin just as much as adults are, nevertheless their Old Adam is not sophisticated or mature, for the simple reason that they are not sophisticated or mature.  And just as they are not capable of committing very sophisticated sins, they are not likely to suspect others of sophisticated sins either.  This means that unless they’ve experienced it, children aren’t as likely to suspect that you are lying to them or trying to cheat them in some way.  They are able to believe what is told them without nearly so many doubts or questions arising in their minds.

This is illustrated by our Gospel lesson for today.  There is a huge contrast between the attitude of the Pharisees, who only asked Jesus questions in order to test or to trap Him, and the attitude of the children whose parents brought them to Jesus to have Him bless them.  The Pharisees thought of marriage and the family, intended by God as a gift, as an occasion for more rules and regulations, splitting hairs as to what was or was not permitted, and looking for loopholes in the Law.  The attitude which asks whether divorce is permissible and under what circumstances is not an attitude which shows love for one’s spouse.  Rather, such questions come from a heart that sees the Law, whether it be regarding marriage or property or any other area of life, as something that can be sliced and diced in such a way that one can figure out what is the minimum one must do for God and our neighbor in order not to break it.

As we look at ourselves, we must acknowledge that the same sinful nature that lives in the Pharisee lives in us as well.  Granted, many of you have not cheated on your husband or wife or even considered leaving them, but how many of you find yourselves thinking sometimes that dealing with your husband or wife or raising your kids is a burden which you would escape if you could, rather than an opportunity given to you by God to show His love in your life?  For that matter, how many of you think that way about your jobs?  The stain of original sin in us makes us think of God’s gifts, God’s opportunities to serve Him in our daily lives, our daily work, and our families, as burdens which weigh us down.

How different is the attitude of a small child.  Children have so much more trust in their parents and their teachers, and this gives them so much more joy in life.  Now, to adults, sometimes the expression of that joy, that exuberance can be seen as annoying or distracting.  But even when a child’s excitement and exuberance comes out at an inappropriate time or place it still shows us something of the relatively carefree innocence that belongs to children.  As Jesus points out, children are a model for all of us in our relationship to our heavenly Father.  The trust and the innocence that young children show toward their parents and teachers is a model and good example for us all in our life of faith.  Ultimately faith is simply trust in God’s promises.  Yes, there is a lot of knowledge that is part of faith as well; people spend their whole lives studying Christian doctrine.  But such complexity has only come about because of people like the Pharisees who have been constantly questioning and distorting and improvising on the central truths of Christianity.  The faith that God gives you today through His word and sacrament is simple and pure, that is to say, childlike.

Even the smallest child can have faith.  To believe in Christ doesn’t require any amount of mental ability or reasoning capacity at all.  Faith and trust can be present even in those who are so small and helpless that the only thing they can do is trust.  Infants are the most helpless and weak members of the entire human race.  They cannot do anything for themselves; everything must be done for them.  Everything you do for an infant is pure gift, because they have nothing they can give you in return except to trust you and receive your love.  That is our relationship to our heavenly Father.  There is nothing that we can give to Him that is not corrupted by sin, but He gives us His dearest treasure, His own Son, to forgive that sin and grant us eternal life.  God accepts our praises and our worship, as imperfect and corrupted by sin as they are, and that fact is itself a gift to us, for it is only through the forgiveness that God gives us that anything we do at all is acceptable to Him.  We are His little children, and our relationship to Him is one which simply, humbly, and trustingly receives His gifts to us of forgiveness and eternal life.

As I mentioned before, one of the gifts which God gives us is the family, which is, along with the Church, the most central and important group of people in our lives.  The family is the basic building block of civilization.  While the Pharisees’ questioning and testing attitude treats solid and stable families as just one more law to be pushed and prodded and poked, the institution of the family is vitally important.  You see, the trusting nature of children does have a downside, since we live in a sinful world.  Trust can be taken advantage of and abused.  In order to grow and become strong and healthy, these most helpless members of our society need an atmosphere of love and forgiveness, an atmosphere where God’s Word of law gives structure, but where even more importantly God’s Word of Gospel and forgiveness is there to give the life and the love which keeps that family structure strong and stable throughout the times of trouble and difficulties which come in a sinful world.  This is why Jesus’ seemingly harsh words about divorce were necessary.  The family is simply that important as the place where faith grows and is nourished.

We are all children of the heavenly Father.  As children, we are in a position where we can only receive His gifts, trustingly and lovingly.  He gives us the gifts of salvation and eternal life, even as He gives us the gifts of those things necessary to support this life.  Our praise and thanksgiving to Him will be sinful and imperfect, and sometimes we will act like the Pharisees in our text and look God’s gift horse in the mouth, to see if He is really being straight with us.  But out of the goodness of His fatherly love He forgives even these faults and continues to give us His Son for the forgiveness of our sins and for our continued strengthening and growth in the faith.  He will receive us to Himself at the end of our days, and we will live eternally with Him, our heavenly Father.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +