Sunday, June 30, 2013

Homeless

Sermon on Luke 9:51-62
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 30, 2013 (Sixth Sunday after Pentecost)

Homelessness is an experience I don’t think we can quite comprehend.  Not to have a place you can call your own, surrounded by your own family, with your own possessions, and your own habits.  Not even having enough money for a hotel room, but needing to sleep in your car or even on the streets and then get up and get moving before others need to use the place you slept for other purposes.  It’s not a pleasant existence.  We are made to have a place we can call our own, where everything is familiar and we can relax.

But today’s Gospel teaches us that we are all homeless.  Well, not really homeless, but travellers living far from our true home. This is because heaven is our home, and we are only staying here in our earthly homes for a while, the way travelers stay in a hotel or even a campground or rest area.  In fact, it’s even more serious than that, because, as Jesus points out, foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.  We who are His followers also are to view ourselves as not having a home in this world but looking forward to our true home with Christ in eternal life.

In the beginning of this lesson, we see Jesus beginning the long journey to Jerusalem.  This just about the middle of Luke’s Gospel, and for the rest of the book, Jerusalem will be Jesus’ inevitable destination.  The purpose for which Jesus was going there was to die on the cross and to rise again on the third day.  Even though He would be triumphant, the experience would not be pleasant.  We see in the Garden of Gethsemane how much suffering and anguish Jesus experiences just thinking about His own crucifixion and death.  He prays several times that His Father would take this cup of suffering from Him.  Even earlier on we can be sure that moving toward Jerusalem was not something Jesus wanted to do.  But His love for His Father and for His creatures who needed saving compelled Him to do it, and so He resolutely aimed Himself in that direction.

From a human perspective, we might wonder why Jesus would do this.  After all, He had a pretty good home base in Capernaum, where He often preached the Scriptures in the Synagogue, and His missionary work throughout Galilee had attracted large crowds, many of whom were generally supportive of Him and His message.  Even though many of His followers didn’t realize that His purpose was to suffer and die for us, they mostly knew that Jesus’ enemies had their power base in Jerusalem, and that if He showed up there He was likely to get Himself into serious trouble and probably be put to death.  And so it doesn’t make any sense from a human way of thinking for Jesus to leave His home country behind and go to Jerusalem.

But Jesus isn’t motivated by the considerations that make sense to worldly people.  Capernaum wasn’t His home; Galilee wasn’t His home.  Jerusalem wasn’t even His home, even though as God the Son He had been present in the Jerusalem temple for centuries to hear the prayers of His people and to forgive their sins.  His home was above, with His Father, and even though He was always with the Father even while He was here on earth, it was His Father’s will that He suffer, die, rise again, and ascend into heaven for our sake.  And so Jesus sets out to do what He must for our salvation.

Even while Jesus had been living in Capernaum, and even earlier, while He had been living with His mother and Joseph in Nazareth, these places were not His home.  Now that reality is shown more vividly as He is denied even a hotel for the evening in a Samaritan town.  We are reminded of a similar occurrence in His ancestral home of Bethlehem on the night He was born.  Because He is heading toward Jerusalem, and He doesn’t want to stop for a while and let these people marvel at the wondrous miracles of this famous prophet, they refuse to let Him and His followers stay there.  James and John want to see the town punished for this insolence and blasphemy of rejecting the Son of the Living God, but Jesus rebukes them.  He is not on this earth to punish.  What the chief priests of the Jews together with Pontius Pilate did to Him by putting Him up on the cross was far more serious than a simple lack of hospitality on the part of a small Samaritan town.  And yet Jesus prays from the cross for those who crucified Him, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Granted there will come a time when all who reject Christ will be punished, but God is longsuffering toward His creatures and gives them more time than we expect.

As He journeyed, Jesus came upon several men who wished to be His disciples.  We can see in Jesus’ responses to each of them what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  To follow Jesus means that we become like Him, and that doesn’t simply mean that we ask ourselves what He would do when we face a moral dilemma or choice.  To be like Him means that our lives here are in many respects like His life.  Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.  Remember that the crowd of disciples that was following Him at this point were also turned away from that Samaritan town when He was.  Of course, our text says that they did find lodging in another village, so it wasn’t like they slept under the stars that night.  But the point is, the way we will be treated by the world is very much like the way He was treated.

There are many people in our world who simply don’t associate themselves with Christians, because they know that many of the things they do, and many of the things they like, are simply not acceptable to us.  If someone makes a point of sharing or confessing his faith in a public situation, he is, at the very least, given a strange look, and may even be treated with outright hostility.  And it’s not so much that we disapprove of certain moral vices which have become common among worldly people in our day, although that is often the excuse worldly people give for their hostility toward Christians.  What really causes worldly people to treat Christians badly is the fact that we are incomprehensible to them.  What motivates us is something that simply makes no sense to them.  We are motivated by love for our Savior and the hope of heaven.  While we do share in human joys and sorrows in this world, such attachments do not have the hold on us they have on worldly people.  We do grieve for the death of a loved one, but our grief is mixed with the joy that they are in a better place and that we will see them again.  We do have anxieties and stresses connected with jobs, finances, families, and health, but these things do not consume us, because we have already died to them and risen again to Christ Jesus our Lord in Holy Baptism.  What really makes us Christians strange to worldly people is that we don’t belong here.  This world is not our home.  Eternal life in the new heavens and new earth with Christ Jesus our Lord is where our home is.  This makes us oddballs to worldly people just as surely as Jesus’ resolute intention to die at Jerusalem caused the Samaritan village to deny Him and His disciples a place to stay that evening.

Being a Christian, then, means being homeless.  Not that we move out of our earthly dwellings and live on the street, but that we think of them as mere hotel rooms we occupy on our journey through this life.  Where your home is, there your heart will be also.  Our home is with Christ, because that is where our heart is even now.  When children leave for college, they seldom think of their dorm rooms as “home.”  To them, “home” is still their parents’ house, and even if their parents move during their years at college, when the student comes to visit them he is still “going home.”  One custom that many parents follow is to send a “care package” to their children at college, packed with snacks and goodies, especially of desserts made the way only their mom can make them.  When the student eats mom’s home-baked cookies, it’s almost like he was back home again sitting around the family dinner table with his mom and dad and his brothers and sisters.  In a much more real way, the Lord’s Supper is a care package for us as we move through this life.  It strengthens us as we must journey as strangers through this world, but it also gives us, not so much the experience, but in fact the reality of being around the heavenly dinner table with our Heavenly Father.  As Christ comes to us in His body and blood He brings heaven itself with Him, because that is what heaven is, namely to live in the presence of God eternally.  Home is where the heart is.  And our hearts are bound up in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

+Soli Deo Gloria+

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Politics

I've decided that I should probably post my newsletter articles here as well.  This is the one for the upcoming July issue of "Cross Words."


What is the Eighth Commandment?
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

What does this mean?
We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.

As I write these words, the election of the President of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod is being held over the Internet. This is a new procedure which was instituted by the 2010 national convention, replacing the election of the President at the convention itself. Instead of being elected by the national convention delegates, the President of the Synod is now elected by all those who were delegates to the 2012 district conventions, including myself and Bob Armbrecht from our own congregation. By the time you read this article, the election will be over, and we will already have found out who the next President of the Synod will be. I suspect that many of you have guessed this already, but I’m in favor of the current incumbent, Matthew Harrison (of course, I’m biased; I considered Pastor Harrison a friend even before he became our Synod’s Human Care executive, let alone President). Each of you will have his own opinions as well, I’m sure, including the opinion of “I don’t know any of these guys, and whatever will be, will be,” which is also a legitimate opinion, as many of you have more important things to worry about in your own stations in life than who the President of Synod is.

Of course, the political process within our Synod does not end with the election of the President. Once the convention convenes, there are the five Vice-Presidents to elect as well, along with many members of boards of regents of our colleges, universities, and seminaries, and governing boards of various other Synodical entities, including members of the Boards for National and International Missions, two powerful “umbrella” boards created by the 2010 convention. There are many resolutions to consider, some of which propose various changes to the structure of our Synod (none so radical, as far as I know, as the changes that were passed in 2010). There are resolutions affirming basic Bible truths, and basic tasks of Christians and the Church (such as evangelism and missions) and resolutions responding positively or negatively to various events and situations in the life of our Synod over the past three, six, or even more years. There are resolutions which propose various different changes to how our pastors and church workers are educated, not to mention the many others enrolled in our schools who plan to pursue Godly vocations that do not involve employment by the Church. There are resolutions responding to various changes and trends in our culture and in the political life of our nation. There are resolutions regarding finances (always a tough subject in the current economy), and regarding the worship life of our congregations. There are resolutions that propose different approaches to the various relationships between our Synod and other church bodies, including Lutheran ones. There are even resolutions either questioning or affirming our Synod’s requirement (which we as a Synod have in the past held that the Bible teaches) that pastors be male.

All of these elections and decisions, by their very nature, inevitably involve something that is often considered a dirty word, at least when it comes to the life of the Church: politics. The reason why it is considered a dirty word, and why it so often discouraged in connection with the life of the Church, is because politics can so often become sinful, as the proponents of one candidate or position are tempted to engage in “mudslinging,” or “negative politics,” a tactic which violates the Eighth Commandment by harming the reputation of his opponent, whether by telling outright lies, or by “spinning” points that are technically true in ways that give an untrue and damaging impression about a candidate or position. Such behavior has become almost universal in the world of local, state, and national secular politics in our country, and has also, unfortunately, been employed by those within the Church, and this is why the word politics itself has come to have such a bad reputation among Christians.

However, we simply cannot have an entity that is governed through the use of elections and resolutions, without some form of “politics.” Our Synod and our districts are governed in this way, as are our congregations. Even the elections of Holy Cross’ church board and officers, and the passing of resolutions by our board and voters’ meetings, are technically political, though often the political process, as with most other small congregations, is determined by who can be “roped” or “railroaded” into being elected and holding a particular office rather than by two or more candidates or positions competing for it. Politics is, in its best form, simply the promotion, the “speaking well of,” a particular candidate, position, or resolution. To be sure, it’s hard to speak well of one candidate, without at least sounding like you’re criticizing the others, if only by implication. And, in this old sinful world, there really is an extremely fine line, one which cannot always be clearly seen, between speaking well of someone and hurting the reputations of his rivals. However, those who choose to participate in the political process, either secular or Churchly, have a responsibility to educate themselves about the positions and philosophies behind the various candidates as well as the various other issues which face them. The way this education happens is to research what other people are saying about the various decisions which lie before them. Such education is actually helped by those who engage in political advocacy, as the more clearly the differences between various candidates and resolutions are seen, the better job the voters will do at selecting what they consider to be the best candidate or resolution. That is why political advocacy, rather than being inherently sinful as is sometimes alleged, is actually a necessary part the election process. This is why those who have strong opinions on a particular issue or candidate actually have the responsibility to engage in political advocacy for their preferred position: it actually helps the voters in their own vocation of making the best decision possible. Putting it another way: it is true that ultimately the Holy Spirit is in charge of who holds what position within the Church (and even the nation), but the Holy Spirit works through means, and one of those means is the education of the voters by means of political advocacy.

However, as I mentioned, it is nearly impossible to engage in political advocacy without at least sounding like you are criticizing those whose opinions and positions differ from your own. Even when someone scrupulously avoids negative politics, the impression is still given that the one doing the advocating has “something against” the other guy. And it is true that part of political advocacy is to highlight the differences between candidates and their positions, and that includes stating where one simply disagrees with another candidate. But, as I pointed out above, there is often a very fine line between stating a disagreement and mudslinging.

So, what is the Church to do? What are sincere, Godly voters to do? What are sincere, Godly men and women who wish to educate those voters to do? Firstly, they are to do the same thing they are to do in every other area of life: do the best you can, and trust that Jesus’ death on the cross covers up your sin when you don’t do it right. After all, that’s all we can do in any area of life. Even those with the best intentions cannot completely avoid sin. In this, the political process is no different than anything else Christians do in their various vocations. Second, forgive one another. One other unfortunate side-effect of the political process is that when one’s candidate or position doesn’t win the day, it is easy to carry a grudge that hinders working together once more in our vocations after the decision is made. While it is true that you can sincerely disagree with someone and try again to steer things in a different direction the next time around, and that some candidates and positions are simply incompatible with each other, we still have the vocation of helping one another and speaking well of one another where we can legitimately do so. Failure to do this is part of what has caused such complete political polarization over the last couple of decades in both our Church and our nation. As with any other area of life where people sin against one another, the forgiveness won by Christ on the cross is what keeps us all working together. It is that forgiveness, that cross, and that Christ, to whom we look even as we engage in the political process, and that forgiveness, that cross, and that Christ which will ultimately bring us to that place where there is no disagreement or strife: life with God in eternity.

Pastor Schellenbach

Edit 7/11/13: When I said "resolutions" above, I should have said "overtures."  An overture is a proposed resolution which is submitted by a congregation or other entity for consideration.  A resolution is a proposal from one of the convention floor committees that is formulated in response to various overtures.  The resolutions that will actually be brought before the convention are the ones prepared by the floor committees, although any overture (or even an amendment or substitute resolution written on the spot) can be moved and seconded and thereby brought before the convention from the floor, in accordance with Robert's Rules of Order.  The wide variety of proposals and opinions I mentioned in the article were reflected in the overtures rather than the floor committee resolutions.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Be Careful What You Wish For

Sermon on Luke 8:26-39
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 23, 2013 (Fifth Sunday after Pentecost)

I’m sure all of you have heard the expression, “Be careful what you wish for.”  The basic idea is that often when we get what we think we want, it turns out not to be nearly as good for us as we thought it was going to be.  Now, the expression was originally coined to refer to mischievous spirits, such as leprechauns or genies (both of which, to the extent they exist at all, are demons like those in today’s Gospel lesson), who grant wishes that turn out very differently than the wisher expected.  Sometimes it turns out that the one doing the wishing goes from the frying pan into the fire.

But even when we pray to God for various things we think we want, the expression can be applicable.  Sometimes we find out later that the reason God didn’t grant our request was precisely because He knew that granting it would cause us more problems than it would solve, and when that happens we end up thanking God that He didn’t give us what we wished for.  Sometimes even when we ask that God’s will be done, we find that God’s will, even though He promises that it will be for our eternal benefit, isn’t always pleasant to experience.  Now, of course this does not mean that we shouldn’t ask that God’s will be done.  He has commanded us to pray in that way, and has promised to hear us.  What it does mean is that we shouldn’t expect His will for us to be that we have our best life now.  Often God’s will for us in this old sinful world is that we have to suffer for His name.  Jesus wasn’t exactly experiencing His “best life now” on the cross, and we shouldn’t expect our lot to be any different than His.

The demons in today’s Gospel lesson made a request of Jesus, even though they had no right to.  Unlike human beings for whom Christ died and who wind up in hell due to their own rejection of Him, these were beings who were permanently destined to hell, without hope of redemption of any kind.  They had no standing, no right, to ask Jesus anything at all.  But, when they knew that they had no choice but to leave the man they were inhabiting, they asked Jesus for a favor out of desperation.  “Don’t send us to hell,” they say, “but send us into, uh, anyplace on this earth, um, like, let’s see what there is here around us, oh, um, how about that herd of pigs over there.”  And Jesus, knowing what was about to happen, grants their request.  He sends them into the herd of pigs, which, unable to tolerate the presence of demons inside their bodies, runs madly off a cliff and drowns, sending the demons to hell (the very place they didn’t want to go) anyway.  Be careful what you wish for.

Now, we would imagine that the people would be thankful that these demons were no longer around to disturb their peace and irritate them with the raving and screaming of this naked man who was bothering everyone who visited the city’s graveyard.  We would imagine that they had many times over the years asked God that these demons would be driven away from their city.  But here again, the way God grants their prayers doesn’t conform to what they thought He should do.  They didn’t want this herd of pigs destroyed, for one thing.  But that’s actually rather trivial.  What frightened and disturbed them even more was that the Man who had driven the demons away was powerful enough to command even demons so that they obey Him.  Being in the presence of Almighty God Himself is a scary thing.  God at a distance is safe.  God at a distance is something we think we can control, or at least ignore.  God walking among us, having His own will and His own ideas about what should happen to the very Creation itself that we live in and which He made, well, that’s just downright scary.  God living among us and doing what He wills is a threat to those who think that they have some measure of control over their own lives, or even over their relationship to Him.  That, even more than the destruction of this herd of pigs was what scared them and caused them to ask Jesus to just go away.  (By the way, what were Jews doing raising pigs anyway?  But I digress.)

This is where the danger lies with us as well.  Having God dwelling among us, and, in fact, dwelling in our very bodies and souls, having His crucified and resurrected body and blood become part of our bodies in Holy Communion, is intimidating.  Belonging to God’s kingdom involves us in a war, not just with the culture around us, but within our very bodies and souls, that is unpleasant in the extreme.  We don’t want to have to say no to virtually every change that happens in the culture around us.  We don’t want to look like the bad guy when we stand against sins that have become virtually universal in modern Western culture, especially when it comes to sins against the Fifth and Sixth Commandments (the ones which forbid murder and sexual immorality), not to mention the violation of the Seventh Commandment that takes place when people come to expect that other people’s money and property is something that they have been told they have a right to.  We don’t want to have to fight against temptation even within ourselves to go along with whatever our neighbors are doing.  It’s hard work, having that war going on all the time.  It would be so much easier not to have to worry about it.

But, be careful what you wish for.  To wish that God go away so we can control our own lives and make our own decisions about what is right and wrong, is a huge temptation.  But it’s a wish that has eternal consequences.  You see, outside of Christ’s death and resurrection, outside of our own death to sin and resurrection to new life with Him in Holy Baptism, is nothing but eternal death and hopelessness.  It’s only when that which is unclean in us (like pigs were to Jews) is drowned and dies with all sins and evil desires, that a new man comes forth and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  And so, asking Jesus to go away is a wish that takes a person from the frying pan into the fire.  The sins which looked so fun and attractive turn out to be desperate distractions from the utter meaninglessness of life without Him.  Asking Him to leave us alone so that we can live our lives in peace, results ultimately in the same fate as the demons who went into that herd of pigs.  Our choice is to be drowned and die eternally in the lake of fire, or to be drowned and die with Christ and thus to be raised with Him.

Of course, it’s not a choice at all, is it?  And that’s also something that can be both frightening and reassuring at the same time.  We can’t choose God.  He chose us.  We still aren’t in control of our relationship with Him.  He’s the one who invaded our lives, both two thousand years ago, as well as every time and place that His Word is preached and His sacraments administered.  He’s the one that’s in control of the whole thing.  And, while that can be intimidating, it’s also reassuring.  If it were up to us, we’d fail, and fail miserably.  But it’s not up to us.  As unpleasant as the Christian life can be in this old, broken, fallen world, it is God’s gift to us.  It is nothing less than being a new creature who will live before Him in righteousness and purity forever.  That’s what our God has given us.  While it can be unpleasant for a time (since what we have become is simply incompatible with what the world around us has become and is becoming), it means we have eternity with our Creator to look forward to.  And that’s not something we have to wish for, it’s something that He has already given us in His Son.  Amen.


+Soli Deo Gloria+

Sunday, June 16, 2013

She Loved Because She Was Forgiven

Sermon on Luke 7:36 – 8:3
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 16, 2013 (Fourth Sunday after Pentecost)

What’s she doing here?  She doesn’t belong here!  This is a holy and righteous house, because I am a holy and righteous man, and it’s my house.  She wasn’t invited, but she came in anyway, which only goes to show that she doesn’t have any sense of propriety or courtesy whatsoever, on top of the fact that she is a notorious sinner.  Hey, what’s she doing?  She’s wiping that controversial Rabbi’s feet with her hair!  Why is he letting her do that?  It’s bad enough that the woman is making a scene, but she herself is already an outcast from polite society.  Well, this pretty much confirms what most of the other Pharisees have been saying about him.  Not only is he not the Messiah, he’s not even a prophet.  If he were, he would know what kind of woman it is who is touching him.

We can imagine these kinds of things running through Simon’s head as he watched the scene that took place in his house in our text.  To us, who know the whole story, it is easy to sit there in the church pews and tell ourselves that we would never have reacted like Simon did.  After all, Simon was a self-righteous Pharisee, who couldn’t even see the fact that he himself was a sinner.  We wouldn’t be like that.  We wouldn’t treat the woman the way he treated him.  We wouldn’t judge God Himself the way he did.  Um, wait a minute.  Did you notice that this sounds an awful lot like what Simon himself said in our text?  In fact, the very fact that we can sit here and say that we are better than Simon proves that we are just like him, because we are doing to him what he did to the woman in our text.

The woman, on the other hand, is a different story.  She couldn’t fool herself or anyone else for that matter into thinking that she was basically a good person.  She knew what she was, namely a sinner.  We don’t know exactly what her sin was.  Many scholars have said that she was a prostitute or an adulteress, but the text doesn’t actually say that.  The fact that many people assume that her sin was a sexual, really tells us more about what is going on in their own heads than it does about this woman.  It doesn’t really matter what the woman’s sin was.  All we know is that she was known in this city as a notorious sinner.  And because she was known publicly as a sinner, she couldn’t escape the verdict of the Law.  She was a sinner.  It didn’t matter that those who talked about her behind her back and who judged her by their attitude toward her were just as much sinners as she was; it was still true that she was a sinner.  Because she did not have the luxury many people have of ignoring their own sinfulness, she had no choice but to recognize it and repent of it.

Even though she had a bad reputation in that city, she evidently still continued to come to hear the preaching of the Scriptures, and in those Scriptures she had learned that God would send a Messiah to take away the guilt of her sin.  She knew that it didn’t matter what the other people in the Synagogue thought of her, she just came to hear the Word of God, which was the whole purpose of the Synagogue.  When Jesus came to the town, she recognized Him as the Messiah who was going to take away her guilt and punishment, and she couldn’t thank Him enough for this precious gift of salvation which He would give her by dying on the cross.  She ends up making quite an embarrassing scene at Simon’s house as she tries to show her gratitude for everything Jesus has done for her.  But again it doesn’t matter to her what others think; she has found the one thing needful and is willing to do anything to show Him her love and gratitude.

Of course the difference between Simon and the woman is not that one of them was better than the other; they were both sinners.  Yes, Jesus seems to imply by the way He tells the parable that Simon is less of a sinner than the woman is, but that’s not really what he’s saying.  Simon was just as bad a sinner as the woman was; in fact Simon was far worse.  The woman had probably committed some external sin against one of the Fourth through Tenth commandments, perhaps the Sixth, but like I said we don’t know for sure, but Simon by his self-righteousness was breaking the First Commandment.  By treating the Son of God with contempt and not even extending Him the most basic hospitality, Simon was blaspheming God.  This was certainly a lot worse than whatever it was that the woman had done.  So this wasn’t the difference between them.

The difference between them was that the woman had been brought by the Holy Spirit to a knowledge of her sin and more importantly faith in her Savior, while Simon thought that he was a righteous man and didn’t need a Savior.  It has been said that if you want a real Jesus, then you’ve got to be a real sinner, and that if you think that you’re only a superficial, mild sinner, then you only get a superficial, weak Savior.  Now, this doesn’t mean that we ought to go out and commit some really big sin so that God will have something big to forgive.  What it means is that we already are great big sinners, and in fact if you don’t think you are a sinner you’re probably the worst sinner of all, if you were only able to see it and confess it.  Self-righteousness and reliance on your own goodness is a much worse sin than adultery, murder, and stealing put together.  The woman’s great love for Jesus was caused by His great love for her in dying on the cross.  Simon showed very little love for Jesus because he was unable to recognize and receive the love Jesus showed him.

By God’s grace the Holy Spirit has brought us to a knowledge of how great our sin is, and along with that a recognition of how great our Lord’s love is.  We are like the woman in our text, not afraid to be called a sinner, not afraid to do something that other people will think of as strange or embarrassing, because our Lord is the only one who matters to us.  Worldly people think that it’s weird that we all get up every Sunday morning to come to Church.  They think it’s stupid to give money to the Church and not get anything tangible in return, simply so that the building can be kept up and the minister can buy groceries and eat.  Even among Christians there are those who think that we Lutherans are a little strange because of the way we worship; instead of putting on a big, exciting production we do basically the same thing Sunday after Sunday, sing some songs together and even do this weird old thing we call “chanting.”  Even our everyday lives seem a little strange to worldly people; instead of putting ourselves first we live to serve our neighbor and help him in his every need.  But like the woman in today’s Gospel lesson, it’s not so important to us what everyone else thinks of us; we simply want to show our love and gratitude to our Lord in the best way we know how.  And the best way we know how is to hear His Word and to repeat back to Him what He has first said to us, as we do in the historic liturgy, and to serve Him by serving those around us who need our help.  Instead of serving our own selfish wants and tastes, we join with the Church of all times and places around the throne of the Lamb, receiving what He has to give us, and confessing back to Him what He has first said to us.  We show our love and gratitude to Him also in the way we serve our neighbor, and in so doing we serve God Himself, as God serves them through us.  The Christian life of worship and service to the neighbor might not make much sense to selfish, worldly people, but it is the life that God has given us in Holy Baptism.  It is the life that is caused by Christ’s great love which He has shown us in the forgiveness of our sins, and it is a life that will culminate in eternal life with Him.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Pentecost 3, 2013

Sermon on Luke 7:11-17
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 9, 2013 (Third Sunday after Pentecost)

This morning’s text is the story of a battle.  It is the story of the battle between death and life.  The funeral procession, a group of people mourning the death of a loved one, a group whose very existence is a witness to the power of death in this world, meets another group of people, a group of people led by the Lord of Life.  The results of this head-on collision between death and life is that life wins the victory over death.  But this battle isn’t the end of the story.  In what happens here we see a foreshadow of the greater battle that would take place on Skull Hill outside Jerusalem, a battle that would also result in death being swallowed up by the victory of the Lord of Life.  And that later and greater battle is the one that has eternal importance, not just for one person, but for all of us in this world.

At the head of the funeral procession is a woman who provides us with the classic picture of the effect of sin and death on humanity.  This woman had been affected by death perhaps as much as any human being can be without actually dying.  Her only family had been taken from her one by one, first her husband, and now her only son.  She has no one left to her, and because of the social structure of those days this meant that not only would she be lonely, she would find it very difficult to provide for herself.  But we should not think that she was a worse sinner than any other woman.  Rather we should see ourselves in her place.  We have all seen the power of sin and death rather graphically these past couple of weeks with the news from New Orleans, but we all know it in our own lives as well. Whether or not death has touched our families recently, we are all subject to all kinds of frustrations, hurts, and other problems of life.  Whether it is financial difficulties, poor health, alienation from some other person in our family or neighborhood or church, marital difficulties, or any other problem, we too have been touched by death’s shadow, for all these things result from the corruption of sin in the world, sin that will finally result in death for each of us.

But coming from the opposite direction is another group of people, Jesus and His disciples.  The two groups met in front of the narrow gate of the city.  A funeral procession, which is a graphic illustration of the power of death in our world, encounters a group of the disciples of  the Lord of Life, a group led by the Son of God Himself.  Death and life meet here, and there is a battle between them in front of the city gate at Nain.  This battle foreshadows that great battle our Lord of life fought against death on Good Friday.  Even as it was outside the gates of Jerusalem on top of Skull Hill, so it is outside the gates of Nain: death is swallowed up in victory, life is given in place of death.

The first thing we notice about this battle is what our Lord feels when he sees the woman.  He had compassion on her.  To Jesus, this was no stranger, whose problems were none of His business; this was one of His creatures, an individual who was near and dear to His Father and to Himself.  Jesus shows His compassion for her and urges her to stop crying, for He will make everything right.  God does not treat us as we so often treat each other.  He does not remain separated from His creatures’ problems and hurts, rather He cares more deeply for us and our pains and sorrows than any of us can ever imagine.  We can see this clearly in the way the Son of God Himself took an interest in the sorrow and the grief of this ordinary, poor widow from a small, backwater Galilean town.

As we look at the compassion our Lord showed on this occasion, we think ahead to the larger battle which would take place on Good Friday.  Why would the Lord of all creation, the God who has infinite knowledge and power, want to take on human flesh and humble Himself to become a lowly servant, even to the point of a gruesome, humiliating death on the cross?  The only explanation is that we have a God who loves His creatures so much that He is willing to suffer even this greatest pain and humiliation so that we can be saved from it.  In Jesus’ humble birth, lowly life, and innocent suffering and death, we see just how much our God cares for and loves us, and to what lengths He is willing to go to restore us to His fellowship.

The second thing we notice in our text is how our Lord puts his power where His mouth is, so to speak.  He not only has the desire to comfort the woman, to help her out in her pain and sorrow, but He actually has the ability to do so.  Immediately after telling the woman not to cry, he goes over to the coffin and tells the boy, “Young man, I say to you, get up!”  And the boy gets up!  The Lord of Life here demonstrates His power over life and death, giving back life to the boy.  Soul and body are reunited, and the boy is restored to his mother.  The separations caused by sin have been healed by the power of the Lord of Life.

Again this event, this victory over death, foreshadows the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  On the cross, Christ won the victory over sin and death.  He proclaimed that victory by rising again on Easter Sunday.  By overcoming the sin which separated us from God, Christ overcame all the effects of sin, too, especially the separation of soul and body which we call death.  He suffered so that we need not suffer, and He rose again so that we might also rise again.

Jesus has compassion on sinners trapped in a world full of death, a world corrupted by sin.  He has the power, as the Lord of Life, as God Himself, to win the victory over our sin and our death and give to us eternal life.  His compassion and His power do not stop there, though.  His mercy is what causes Him to come to us even to day to help us.  Since we are trapped from our birth in this world of sin and death, we cannot possibly hold on to His mercy and His victorious power on our own.  So He comes to us, to give us the faith which holds on to Him, to strengthen and renew us in that faith.  By Word and Sacrament His mercy and His power are shown and given to each of us personally.  Christ comes to us in Holy Baptism to join us to His death and resurrection.  The same thing happens in us as our own baptisms are daily renewed through God’s Word.  He comes with the Holy Spirit through the Word to strengthen and to teach us of what He has done for us.  He comes to us in the very body and blood which were given into death in order to win the victory over death; when we receive that body once sacrificed and that blood once shed, we receive the victory which was won by that sacrifice.  Every Sunday is a miniature celebration of our Lord’s Resurrection.  Even as He proclaimed His victory to the world by rising again that first Easter Sunday, so He now on this day proclaims and applies that victory to each of us personally in the Word and Sacraments.

In overcoming the sin that separates us from God, Christ also overcame the other separations that result from sin.  We have talked about how He overcame the separation of soul and body which is called death.  He also overcomes the other separations which result from sin and lead up to death.  The separations between persons that make neighbors into strangers, that make husband and wife into enemies rather than the closest of friends, that make co-workers into adversaries rather than comrades, that generally make our life so miserable, are also overcome.  No longer are we strangers to each other who do not care about one another’s hurts and problems.  Instead, now through us our Lord does the same thing he did when he comforted the widow in our Gospel lesson.  We have once again been given the ability and the desire to help our neighbors in their needs, to comfort them in the sorrows and problems of life, to overcome the walls of sin and hurt that separate us from each other.  Christ broke down the barrier of sin that kept us from God.  In so doing, he also broke the barriers caused by sin that keep us from loving and caring for one another.  Through Christ our relationships with our neighbors are also restored.  We ourselves have become new creatures in Christ who now live together as God intended us to.  And, just as the witnesses to the miracle at Nain, we also confess to the world, “God has come to help His people.”  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Pentecost 2 (Proper 4), Series C

Sermon on Luke 7:1-10
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 2, 2013 (Second Sunday after Pentecost)

I’m sure many of us have heard stories about men of great faith.  Frequently great heroes in the history of our Church or our nation are held up as heroes of the faith.  A list of people who are held up as examples for us in this matter would include just about every famous person in the Bible, Church history, and even our national history, from Noah to Moses to King David to Paul, down to St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and, in our own country, men like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and many others.  But when you think about it, what marks all the men we think of as having “great faith” is not the fact that they actually had a particularly strong faith in our Lord, because after all we can’t see into their hearts to see their faith.  In most of these cases, we think of them as great heroes of the faith because what they did during their lives was spectacular or heroic in some way.  But in contrast to these heroes of the faith stands the centurion in our text.  Jesus commends him as having a greater faith than any he had found in the nation of Israel.  But why did Jesus say this?  What made this man’s faith so great?

If you were to ask the Jews whom the Centurion sent to Jesus at first what made this man’s faith great, they would not have told you about his faith at all.  They would have gone on and on about his works; in fact they did so when they first encountered Jesus.  “This man deserves to have you [heal his servant],” they said, “because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”  The Jews who first asked Jesus to come to the Centurion’s house were not thinking of the man’s faith at all.  They were impressed by what he had done for the Jewish people.  They were impressed by his works.

How interesting, then, that the Centurion himself contradicts what the Jews said about him.  While the Jews went on and on about how much the man deserved to have Jesus do this, the Centurion tells his friends to tell Jesus that he doesn’t deserve to have Jesus come under his roof.  Indeed, he explains through his friends why he did not come to meet Jesus himself.  He sent messengers to Jesus because he is unworthy to stand in Jesus’ presence himself.  While others looking at the man saw his great works and assumed he was a great friend of Judaism and worthy of everything Jesus could do for him, the Centurion knew himself better than that.  The centurion knew that he was a sinner.  He knew that he was unworthy to stand in the presence of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  He knew better than to brag about his own works to Jesus.  Nothing he had ever done, or ever would do, to help the Jewish people and to further the Jewish religion would ever get him closer to being worthy of Jesus’ help.  He was still a sinner, and a Gentile sinner on top of it all.

This seems to us like an odd thing for a man of “great faith” to say.  Like the Jewish leaders who came to Jesus at first, we naturally think that a great hero of the faith would have some pull with God, some leverage that he could use to get God to do him a favor in return for all his good works.  But our way of thinking is wrong on this.  God is not impressed by all our good works.  Before God we are all poor, miserable, wretched sinners.  Every one of us is just as unworthy to stand in God’s presence as this Centurion was.  The trouble is that unlike him we all too often don’t recognize it.  We fail to recognize in ourselves what the Centurion knew about himself.  We fail to see that we are poor, miserable sinners who are unworthy to have God come to us at all, let alone that He give special attention to those of us who think ourselves better than the other sinners around us.  When we ignore our true status as sinners, we only end up demonstrating that we are sinful and worthy of nothing but eternal death.  Just as the Centurion realized that he was not worthy to have Christ heal his servant, so also we need to realize that we are unworthy for Christ to heal us eternally.

So what did make the Centurion a man of “great faith”?  We have already seen that it was not anything he had done that caused Jesus to praise him.  What was so great about his faith that got it such high praise from our Lord?  What was it that caused Jesus to mark this man out as a “man of great faith”?  In the first place, the man believed that Jesus would do something for Him despite the fact that he was a poor, miserable sinner.  Secondly, by his actions he showed His belief that Jesus is the Son of God, and that Jesus’ Word had the power of the Word of God, so that Jesus could even heal the servant at a distance.

What about you?  Are you a man or a woman of “great faith”?  You may be thinking, “Of course not, Pastor; you just told us we were poor miserable sinners!  How could we ever measure up to the example set by this Centurion?”  Yes, it’s true that we are all sinners.  But that doesn’t answer the question.  Are you a man or a woman of great faith?  Yes!  You are!  Remember, what made the Centurion’s faith great was not how strongly he held it or how noble his actions were.  The Centurion’s faith was a “great faith” because it was a faith which had been given to him by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word read and preached in the Synagogue Sabbath after Sabbath.  It was a faith which relied on the forgiveness of sins available because of Christ’s upcoming death on the cross.  It was a faith which relied on the power of the Word of God itself.

Every one of these descriptions of the Centurion’s faith is true of your faith as well.  The Holy Spirit has given you your faith through the Word and Sacraments preached and administered faithfully Sunday after Sunday.  This faith was originally given you in Holy Baptism, when your sinfulness was washed away and the Holy Spirit took up residence in your heart, making you a believing member of the Kingdom of God.  In Baptism you were put to death, being joined to His death for us, and you were risen with Christ, receiving the promise of your own resurrection at the last day.  Day after day you return to the faith that was given in Baptism.  Even when a person has fallen from the faith and returned many years later, he isn’t given a brand new faith, as if the faith God had given him in Baptism isn’t good enough; rather, he is returned to the “great faith” God gave him in the first place.

Like the Centurion’s, your faith is based on the Word of God.  The same Word which the Centurion heard in the Synagogue and which brought forth faith in his heart is preached and read to you as well.  The Word tells you of the eternal healing which Christ won for you by His death and resurrection.  The Word grants you the confidence to boldly hold on to Christ’s victory even when your heart accuses you of your unworthiness to stand in God’s presence.  The Word is the means which the Holy Spirit uses to come to you, to teach you of Christ’s love for you, to present you with the glorious doctrine of salvation in all its rich depth.

The Centurion confessed that he was unworthy to stand in Jesus’ presence.  However, despite the man’s protests, Jesus entered into the house to heal the servant.  Now, of course, He didn’t go into the house physically in a way that anyone could see him; our text says that after speaking the Word to heal the servant He turned and walked away.  But in, with, and under that Word, Christ entered into that house.  He enters into this building to heal us in Word and Sacrament.  Despite the fact that we cannot see or feel Him here, He is present in the Word and Sacraments, and especially with His body and blood in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  He comes to us despite our admitted unworthiness to give us healing infinitely more wonderful than the cure He gave the dying servant.  His body and blood are the “medicine of immortality,” a food and drink which heals us so completely that, once Christ comes again in glory, we will never be troubled by sickness or death ever again.

The Word you hear is the same Word of promise the Centurion heard in the Synagogue.  Like his, your faith trusts in the forgiveness of sins won for us by Christ on the cross and in the new life which is yours through the Resurrection.  It is a faith which trusts in the power of the Holy Spirit working through God’s Word to bring His glorious promises to fulfillment.  In every respect that really counts your faith is identical to the faith of the Centurion.  Like him, you have a faith which has been given to you by God.  And since it is our merciful and loving God whose promises we trust, how could your faith be anything besides a “great faith”?  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +