Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Right Sort of Wishy-Washy

When I was in High School, I would normally eat lunch with two guys. We we tease each other theologically. My friend Scott was a Presbyterian (and is now a member of their clergy - copycat), my friend Jeremy was Evangelical-Free, and I, of course, was Lutheran. Jeremy and I would josh Scott, normally about all the various things that were Predestined to happen to him. Scott and I would josh Jeremy about how, well, the E-Frees just didn't believe anything. But I too would get what would come around.

I was a Lutheran - I was wishy-washy.

Now, perhaps some of you think, "How could he be wishy-washy? He's solid!" This is what they meant. The Lord's Supper - is it Christ's Body and Blood or is it Bread and Wine? I would say both - hence, I was wishy-washy. What needs to be preached, Law or Gospel. I would say both - hence, wishy-washy. Is Christ True God or True Man. Both - wishy-washy. Then they would generally jokingly tell me to pick a side (to which I would respond either with, "Why do I have to, Jeremy doesn't have to, he doesn't believe anything," or "I pick the side that is predestined to kick your backside!"

It's sad that today if we hear of a wishy-washy Lutheran, we think of someone who is soft on doctrine and doesn't hold steadfast to the confession of the one true faith. We think of someone who puts a finger to the air to figure out what he ought to do. We think of a two faced snake who speaks out of both sides of his mouth. That's the sort of wishy-washy we think of today.

Well, maybe we should be the right sort of wishy-washy - where we delight in the paradoxes that God presents us in the Gospel - True God and True Man, One God yet Three Persons, Body and Blood and Bread and Wine, Totally Just and Completely Merciful. The Christian life and faith is defined by these truths which are not either or, but both and.

Of course, if you are going to be rightly wishy-washy here - you can't be wishy-washy anywhere else. Maybe that's why it's not so popular.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Thinking on Galatians 5:16-24

I was a bad and lazy 1 year lectionary guy - I didn't observe Saint Bartholomew. . . or is it Saint Nataniel's day on Sunday (mainly because I didn't want to go into a long explanation of why it's St. Bart's day but the guy in the text is named Nate - this is not the way to introduce the various Saint's days.) Thus, instead I used the text for the 14th Sunday after Trinity. The Gospel is the Healing of the 10 lepers - that's what I preached, but this morning I'm pondering the Epistle.

Verses 16 and 17 read, "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the Flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do."

We don't get this in America - and there are two ways in which we don't get it.

The first, and perhaps the more common, is the antinomian error here - where we forget that the Spirit is opposed to the will of the flesh. We are in a consumerist society where what one wants is what one ought to get. Restaurants can even advertise "Get it your way, right away." Now - while there is nothing wrong with a business trying to satisfy its customer, it plays off of an aspect of American society that is dangerous. We set our lives on the basis of our desires and appetites.

This leads us to places we ought not go. If you look at the Commandments, the whole second table is about curbing your desires - lest you follow them into sin. (Or if you are too lazy to think about the Catechism - think about Return of the Jedi where they get trapped by the Ewoks on Endor - and why? As Han says, "Great work, Chewie, always thinking with your stomach." Desire leads to terrible traps!) But all too often, Americans, and even American Christians don't pause to evaluate their desires - but rather simply assume that what we want, what we would like, what we desire is something that is good. This leads to all sorts of problems.

Then there is the legalistic error - when the Law does hit home, and the Christian realizes that his desires have been off. . . and this is viewed as a surprise. Sometimes we Christians can be shocked that we want something that is wrong, when we desire to sin. This is because we can tend towards legalism, towards thinking that we are of course just good little Christian boys and girls.

We aren't. I'm a Christian - I want things that are stupid, wrong, and sinful. My Old Adam rears its head again - that's just what happens. Too often we view our Christian faith falsely in terms of what we do - and thus when we see our lack we receive a giant shock to our system. Foolish sinner - of course you have desires you need to struggle against. . . duh. But there can be much angst over this. It's hard sometimes to realize you aren't as perfect as you thought you were.

If only we would remember what Paul writes here - that while we draw breath, every moment, every day, we are going to struggle against sin. Period. Temptation and sin will be there. Period. And if only we would remember that this is precisely why Christ is our Savior, why the Christian faith isn't about our works but His - He is the One who can save us, not we ourselves.

Yes, my sin is daunting. Yes, by the power of God I strive to walk in the Spirit. But the Cross of Christ and His resurrection overshadows all of this, overwhelms it all - so we can walk boldly with the Spirit, trusting in Christ's salvation even when we realize we have forgotten to check our desires, even when the sinfulness of those desires comes crashing down upon us.

It really is all about Christ.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Once again into the breach by preaching

Trinity 14 – August 24th, 2008 – Luke 17:11-19

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost +
Of all the Gospel texts that we come across, this text this morning should be the most familiar to you. It’s one that we get twice a year, for Jesus cleansing the 10 lepers is also the reading we hear every thanksgiving. That is the tact we normally take towards this text – it is a text about thankfulness – how nine are unthankful, and how only one is thankful. We focus a lot on the lepers – and that isn’t a bad thing. Indeed, there is a time and a place to focus on the importance of thankfulness – and in fact, that is what Jay will do this thanksgiving when I have him preach this very Gospel on that day.

So today, this morning, let’s take a slightly different approach to this Gospel text. Normally we view it in light of, from the perspective of the 10 lepers. We examine them, their reaction, their thankfulness or lack thereof – this is what we apply to ourselves. That will come this November. Today, rather than focusing on the lepers – we will pay special attention to Christ, and in particular, Christ’s mercy.

On the way to Jerusalem [Jesus] was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as He entered a village, He was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” So, there is Jesus – and He is traveling, He is on His way, about His own business – and suddenly lepers start calling out to Him. Have mercy on us, have mercy on us. A shocking thing. One didn’t deal with lepers – they were sick and contagious, they might make you contagious. They couldn’t go into towns, they were cut off from society, they were lower than beggars – at least beggars could be in public. Lepers were banished. If they came into the presence of people, they were to shout out that they were lepers, that they were unclean. It was simply a matter of safety, of the public health. The lepers might infect everyone.

And yet, these lepers call out to Christ. We are low, we are despised, our lives are ruined – have mercy upon us. It is an instructive thing for us – they call out to Christ for mercy. Christ, have mercy, Christ have pity upon us. Christ, save us! And it is astonishing – Christ speaks to them, Christ has mercy. When He saw them He said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” You see, when one had leprosy, when one was unclean, it was only the priest who could declare that the person was healed, was clean, was safe to return to society and the community. But there’s only one thing. Jesus hadn’t healed them yet. He simply speaks His Word, tells them to go – even while they still see their sores, still see their lesions. But at Christ’s Word, these lepers start off to town, trusting in Christ’s mercy.

That trust proves true. And as they went they were cleansed. This is one of the most profound and humbling things that I see in Scripture. The lepers walk into town, walk towards shame and ridicule and hatred and anger – for if one who is still leprous walks into town, that’s what they will get. They walk, facing all these things, because Christ said so – and they trusted in Christ’s Word. Astonishing faith – and Christ cleanses them. On the way, as they walk – they are healed. The Word of Christ proved true.

And now the part that we remember – Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks. Now, he was a Samaritan. One turns around to give thanks, the other nine in joy merrily run into town, eager to show the priests. One pauses to give thanks, the others are off and about in their excitement. And the one who comes back was even one of those lowly Samaritans. And Christ notes this – Then Jesus answered, “Were not 10 cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And He said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” 10 are cleansed, 10 receive the mercy from God that they asked for. Only one returns, only one gives thanks, only one gets the little, closing lesson from Christ. Your faith, your trust in Me is true – and you are now well, you are now saved – it’s the same word in Greek. Saved by faith. The guy returns to give thanks and receives, hears the Word of the Lord. And that’s how the text goes.

So, let’s examine this text in light of Christ and His mercy. The very first point, the basis of all the things that happen is this. Christ is merciful. When the 10 lepers call out to Christ for mercy, they are calling out to the right place. Christ is merciful, and He desires to show mercy – even to the poor, even to the despised, even to people who are as rank and lowly as lepers. This shows us the depths of Christ’s mercy, how free it is, how far it extends. And this is something that I don’t know if we realize or think about as much as we should when we hear this text. We don’t have lepers hanging around the outskirts of town – we aren’t used to seeing beggars running around – and the few times we do see folks begging in dirty clothes – what’s our first instinct? To be wary? To look down upon them? Christ is merciful. When Christ hears the cry of these lepers, when He sees them – He has mercy. He seeks to show love. He has compassion. This is the essence of what Christ does and how he operates. Over a decade ago those WWJD, what would Jesus do bracelets came out – and people were ooOOooing and ahhing over them. I wasn’t overly impressed – because it wasn’t a hard question. Christ would do what He always does – show mercy and love. It’s as simple as that – show mercy and love over and above what people would expect, mercy and love over what anyone would have the right to demand. If you demand it, it isn’t mercy, if you can demand it – it isn’t love. But Christ continually shows mercy and love even to the poor and miserable – even to poor, miserable sinners like us. Christ is merciful.

Another thing that we see from this text, what we learn, is that as Christians we are called to trust in Christ’s mercy, even when it is not obvious at first, even when it doesn’t have Technicolor signs attached to it. Jesus simply tells the lepers to go show themselves to the priests – and on the way, while they are going, they are healed. They hear the word and they believe – even though when they first start out – nothing looks different, nothing looks changed. This is the same situation that you and I are in. We simply trust in Christ’s Word of mercy. We aren’t to demand signs and wonders, we aren’t to seek proof. That’s sadly what too many people want – they want some type of worldly proof. How do you know that God loves you? Some people will point to wealth – ah, the hallmark of the TV preacher. If God loves you, you will have lots and lots of stuff – um. . . no, not necessarily. Peter walks away from a wealthy business, Paul is beaten and broken on account of Christ. Wealth isn’t the sign that God loves you. Some people will point to feelings – when you have that burning in your bosom, when you get that spiritual high feeling, that’s when you know! Um – these lepers didn’t have a spiritual high. St. Paul will write, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Doesn’t sound like a spiritual high to me. And there are other things that people will try to point to. Pentecostals will try to speak in tongues to prove that God loves them, Holiness churches will shake and babble, some out here will hold off on medical treatment and demand miracles. None of this is where we should look.

What is the sign that Jesus loves you – what is the sign that He indeed has mercy upon you? It’s not hard. Jesus loves me, this I KNOW. Why? For the bible tells me so. Simple idea, isn’t it? But, in reality, it’s one that can be quite difficult. We are to trust in God’s Word, trust His promises given in Baptism, even when we don’t have obvious signs that God loves us. If crops fail, if our businesses close, if we lose our jobs – has God’s Word of love and forgiveness for us changed? Not in the slightest. If we become ill, if our bodies fail, if our loved ones die – has God’s Word of love and forgiveness for us changed? No, not at all. If friends despise and forsake you, if relationships crumble, if they take our life, goods, fame child or wife – has God’s Word of love and forgiveness for us changed? No, they yet have nothing won – the Kingdom ours remaineth – for God has said so. The hard part is this – we can see so many other things when we should be focused upon the Word, upon what Christ says, what Christ has done for us upon the Cross. This is the difficulty – we walk by faith, not by sight. When Christ tells the lepers go – you will be healed, they go, even though they don’t see it right away. Likewise – when Christ says that you are forgiven, you believe, even if you don’t feel very forgiven. When Christ says that the treasures of heaven are yours – you believe, even though you feel aches and pains and sufferings now. When Christ says, “This is My Body, This is My Blood” – you believe, even though your eyes only see bread, only taste wine. Because we are called to trust and believe what Christ says.

And finally, one other thing to note. Only one leper comes back to give thanks – yet what does Christ say? Were not 10 cleansed? All ten are cleansed. Christ has mercy on all of them. This is an important thing to remember. We show thanks because God has mercy on us, we praise God because of what He has done – not the other way around. God does not have mercy on us because of what we do, because of our thanks and praise. There are times when that is lacking. There are times when we sin, when we fail, when we grumble. But that doesn’t change Christ – He is still the merciful One, and He shows us mercy not because we are good – but He shows us mercy because HE is good. All of this, even our praise and thanks that we raise this morning isn’t about us and how wonderful we are – it’s about Christ and how good He is to us. That is our focus – that we are determined to know nothing but Christ and Him Crucified, that our focus is to remain on the mercy that Christ shows to us sinners by dying upon the cross and rising again for our sake. That is who Christ is, that is the mercy He shows – and we are right to call upon Him for mercy, we are right to thank and praise Him – because of who He is.

Dear friends – remember today this simple truth. Christ is merciful – and He shows mercy to you not because you are strong, not because you are wonderful, not because you have impressed Him with either your strength or your praise. He shows mercy because He is the God who is merciful, the God who is abounding and rich in mercy, the God who will show His love to you even if it means facing the Cross and the grave. We who so often fail and struggle and flail about – we are saved by Christ and the power of His Word which gives us life and forgiveness. May God grant that we remember this, may God keep us in this faith in Christ Jesus that has made us well all the days of our life. Amen.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

No man is always right. . . excepting Jesus

One of my friends on a private blog put up a link to a rather coarse (so no link) blog essay about how damaging the phrase "the customer is always right" has been to American society - that it has destroyed a lot of simple decency in how we deal with people. If we are paying for something, we have the right to complain, even scream at people, if they don't do something we like. And they are supposed to take it, meek and mild, apologize (even if the problem is caused by the customer's stupidity), and kowtow. You've seen it - and you may have done it a bit. But this is not a union blog.

I think perhaps the vast downside to the more consumerist approach to Church that we've taken is that there is almost an undercurrent of "the parishioner is always right." Now, this is not Walther's contention that the laity should have a voice, or anything like this. Rather, there has developed the idea that because a parishioner gives to the Church, the Church should bow to his or her desires. Or meet their felt needs. Or validate everything they do.

Think of the anger that is generated when a pastor goes against what someone says or wants. No, we aren't have jugglers during your wedding. Um, unless you stop the co-habitation, you ain't getting your dream church wedding. I'm sorry, but I can't commune your daughter because even if she was confirmed her, she's a Methodist now. You are being hateful towards your neighbor and that is wrong. Um, no, we aren't going to sing that song because. . . it has no theological value whatsoever.

I think we can just chuck up the anger that arises to the "Old Adam" - and while that is true, it doesn't do much good in finding a way to beat down that old man. The Old Adam is tricksy and false and attacks from many different angles. And when we see the parishioner exploding after not getting his or her way, perhaps we should remember that Americans are always used to getting their own way, once their money is involved. Who are you - hireling - to contradict me - I pay your salary!

People can easily forget that while the Pastor's salary is paid by the congregation, while he is a servant, he still has authority. The solution to this is not to stand up and shout over and over again, "Respect my authority!" Even the wonderful example of, "Your taxes pay the policeman's salary but when he pulls you over you can't order him not to give you a ticket," while hitting the idea, isn't one to be used in a hot situation.

Rather this. That parishioner is probably shocked and angry that you would say no to them, that you would question them. It becomes a matter of a contest of wills. The thing is, they probably think that it is YOUR will verses there's. What is the pastor to do in this case? Like John the Baptist - decrease that Christ may increase - or in other words do your best to keep it impersonal (which is hard for us sinful folks when the person is screaming and us and/or seeking to do us harm) and point to the Word. In reality, it's not us they are angry with. . . it's not our will they contest, but rather God's.

(Of course the corollary to this is that if you can't point to God's Word or at least a logical conclusion there from -- they actually probably were contending with you and you might consider not being such a schmuck.)

We remember this truth. The parishioner is not always right (and yes, yes, neither is the pastor, please don't sic Captain Jack or Vehse on me) - so there are times that their wants and desires are rightly to be opposed. But never on the basis of what you want, what you like, what you think. That means you're just playing by the same consumerist rules they are. Rather this - the WORD, the WORD, the WORD. Let that be your shield and your sword - and if on an issue you find that the Valiant One and His Word isn't fighting for you, retreat.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

False hopes. . . oh, just call them idols.

If we Christians were to be honest about what we thought and what we hoped - if we were to be brutally honest about ourselves, we would see our sin much more clearly. As a brief example - think on the so called "false hope". I think of this as the LCMS is having a big meeting dealing with structure - often in Synodical politics there is a bunch of false hope. There are plenty of times we place hopes in things that are fleeting and futile - if we do X, our congregation will grow - if I do Y, the cutest girl in high school will fall in love with me - if we elect official X, everything will be better.

Let's be honest about what these are. These are idols that you think will provide the things you covet. We bow to the plan or person that will rub our back the right way. We don't think of these that way - but when it comes down to it, do we look to God to provide, or do we trust in princes, even though they are earthborn and soon decay?

Just something to think about.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

This morning's sermon

Back from vacation. . . 1650 mile road trip in 8 days!

Trinity 13 – August 17th, 2008 – Luke 10:23-37

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost +
It’s a sad question that we hear this lawyer use to put Christ to the test this morning. Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? What shall I do? What do I have to do to get this done? How much is this going to cost me? It’s almost as though the guy is opening up the doctor’s bill thinking, “How much did this set me back?” What do I have to do? Jesus turns it back at him. What’s written in the Law? If you want to know about what you are supposed to do – you look at God’s Law. And the man gives the right answer – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. Spot on. That’s what the Law demands of us – and if we were to do it, we would live, we would have life in ourselves.

And the guy’s embarrassed now – that’s a simple question. That’s one that the kindergarterners at VBS knew by the end of it – not the question worthy of a lawyer. So he starts scrambling around – okay, so who is my neighbor? And Jesus responds with a story. A man is headed to Jericho from Jerusalem. Now, the path between these two cities is short enough to make it in a day – but it’s rocky, and through hills, through passes – which means it’s a dangerous road. There are lots of caves for robbers to hide in, there are lots of blind corners for thieves to hide behind. And this fellow gets robbed and beaten, left for dead on the side of the road.

A priest is traveling – one of the religious hierarchy – a good, good man. Well respected. He sees the man beaten on the side of the road. What does he do? He speeds up – he gets on his way. Look, the robbers are out – I had best get a move on it lest they attack me too. A Levite comes by – one of the well to do Jewish folk – someone who would know the Law of God well. Same thing – time to skedaddle on by. And then a third person. A Samaritan comes by. Now, Samaritans were looked down on. They were the descendants of the old Northern Kingdom that had mixed and mingled with foreign folks – in the Jewish mind they were nothing less than half blood traitors, and were hated. Did you look down on anyone this past week because of the color of their skin – or the language they were speaking? That’s how the typical Jew in Jesus day would have viewed a Samaritan. And this Samaritan sees this man who is beaten and about dead. And the Samaritan’s thoughts aren’t about himself – the Samaritan doesn’t think to run off. Rather, this Samaritan, this hated person, has compassion. He stops, he tends to this man. He puts the man on his own animal. Do you see what this means? This Samaritan was probably a frequent traveler, the animal would know the way between Jericho and Jerusalem. If the robbers came, the animal would flee to Jericho, taking the man to safety while this Samaritan would be left to be beaten and abused – oh, and especially beaten and abused because he was a Samaritan. The Samaritan risks his own safety to care for this beaten man.

Then they reach the inn. The Samaritan continues to care for the beaten man. Then, as he has business to attend to, he pays the innkeeper two denarii – Enough to care for the man for a while, even tells the innkeeper, with whom he is familiar – if he needs more, give it and I will pay you when next I come through. Fantastic care and love – and all to a man so beaten and broken that he may not even know who helped him. The guy is probably still passed out – so the Samaritan isn’t wanting thanks, isn’t wanting praise – he helps the guy and then moves on.

So, which one is the neighbor? Which one does what God commands? The Samaritan. And see how he loves – fully, completely, well and full and even at cost to himself, even at risk to himself. That is what God demands in His Law. Do you wish to live by the Law? Then be prepared to work, be prepared to suffer – all for the sake of your neighbor, even the ones who despise you, even the ones who hate you, even the ones who wouldn’t have lifted a finger if they saw you dying on the side of road.

The Law isn’t easy to do. In fact, if you saunter on up and think, “I’ll just do what the law says” – you’ll get beaten down. The Law will beat you to death, leave you lying broken on the side the road. We sinful men can’t do it. You do realize that this is part of the story. When we think of a story of Christ, one that He tells, we should ask ourselves where we fit, who we are in the story. We’re the beaten man. We are the one who lies broken. Oh, most of the time we try not to think of ourselves that way, we simply assume that we are good folks who do things well. Well, how about it. Did you take a beating this past week? In the catechism we are instructed, in the section on Confession and Absolution, to consider our place in life according to the 10 Commandments. “Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?” How about it – did you take a beating this past week? Like robbers from their caves, the Law comes swooping in and gives us a walloping – blisters our backsides much worse than our daddy ever did. And it does it every time.

Do you know who you are? You are the man lying beaten and broken – because you are a sinful person and you can’t do what the Law demands – and so you are crushed by the Law. That’s where you’re at. Just how it is, like it or not. So, let’s ask this Lawyer’s first question. Lying beaten and broken, crushed by the Law, crushed by your sin – what are you going to do to inherit eternal life? Spiritually broken, spiritually left for dead – what in the world are you going to do? Same thing the guy in the story does – absolutely nothing. You are going to lie there, and why – cause you can’t do anything else.

Sometimes we like to think that we are strong – we like to think that our discipline, our heritage, our good name is worth something spiritually. It’s not. None of that impresses God. All those things just pass right on by – and if left to your own devices you are stuck on the side of the road. But then, along comes Christ – who while we were still destroyed by the Law, dead in trespasses, sinners through and through – binds up our wounds and leads us to safety. Just as the Good Samaritan risked life and limb to bring this man to safety, Christ indeed risks His life and limb to rescue you from the power of sin, from the crushing weight of the Law. His hands and feet are pierced, His limbs pulled out of joint upon the cross, and His life is given to rescue you. Christ beholds you, suffering under the weight of the Law – the Law that says, “Those who break these commands must die.” Christ says, “I, though innocent and spotless – I will die in your stead.” Sounds like Christ perfectly loves you, like He is your perfect neighbor. By His death and resurrection, Christ picks you up off the side of the road and carries you to safety – you are now rescued from your sin, rescued from the condemnation of the Law. All because of what Christ has done.

But it’s not just that Jesus helps you out once and then leaves you to fend for yourself. Nope. In the story, the Samaritan doesn’t just dump the guy off on the side of the road in Jericho and say, “Take care of yourself.” Listen again to the text. The Samaritan brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, “Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.” It’s interesting how the Church has interpreted this passage, even from its earliest days. Where are you brought to have your sins healed and forgiven? To Church. That inn is the Church – and here we are cared for. How? God’s Word and Sacrament. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Old and New Testament. Those are the two denarii that are used for our care here in this place – the means of grace by which God gives us forgiveness – the means by which God heals our sin.

Do you see how the Lawyer had it wrong from the start? It’s not about what you do – because if you want to rely upon your actions, you are left for dead on the side of the road. No, rather, focus on what God has done for you. It’s all about Christ Jesus who not only suffered and died for you, but who to this very day continues to take His forgiveness and bring it to you here in His House where your spiritual wounds are bound, are cured by His Word, are washed away in Baptism, and you are given strength and nursed to health on His own Body and Blood in His Supper. This is the care, this is the Love that Christ Jesus our Lord shows unto you. Christ Jesus our Lord showers His love and compassion and care upon you, no matter the cost to Himself, for He will have you with Him for eternal life. He does what is needed to win this for you, and He does it gladly. Amen.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The desire for an impersonal church

Too many people have a desire for an impersonal church. People can want a church that is big, large, and popular, but they don't have to have that messy burden of relationship with the other people, don't have to have that difficult burden of actually showing love to their neighbor.

Look at the approach to Evangelism that seems to be on the rise. Let's find a program, let's get a nice committee, and then people will flock to our church. If we just get the dynamic pastor, a good greeter, an entertaining service, people will flock to us!

Let me ask a question. How did you end up in Church? Most of us end up there because we were brought by our parents, or invited by a friend. I'm sort of an exception. My parents had me baptized but really had stopped going to church - but they sent me to the Lutheran day school. . . and I came home, asked my dad, "How come we don't go to Church like all the other families," and hit him with the biggest guilt trip in the world. Okay, the school sort of helped. . . but my dad already knew better, had already been trained. I was speaking law smacking him upside the head. . . but that's not "growing" - that's picking up a delinquent (even if he was someone else's delinquent technically).

No, we come to church via personal contact. The Holy Spirit uses the Word - but it is the Word (99% of the time) spoken by one person to another. The word of mouth we need isn't, "have you seen that smiling pastor with the perfect hair" but rather, "come, my friend, and hear what Christ has done for you."

But we want an impersonal Church. Father Hollywood has an excellent discussion looking at a "close" communion statement where basically it is a list of things. . . and if you believe it. . . just come on up.

How impersonal is that? A stranger can walk into your church and take communion, join in the most intimiate, personal expression of union amongst the members of not only the Church Universal but also the local congregation. . . without talking to anyone? Now, I could focus on how this is against scripture and how it is completely unloving to let a person potentially eat and drink to his judgment. . . but let's look at this idea.

What does it say about the congregation? What does it say about the pastor? Just come on in, we don't care who you are. . . just that you are here? What are you looking for - another body in a pew, maybe more cash in the plate - or are you seeking to show love to another human being? Do you see how impersonal it is? How it is so anti-relationship?

Or. . . dare I say it. . . what about these massive youth gatherings. Yes, there is something cool about being able to gather huge numbers - but is there time set for personal interaction. That was the thing I liked about Higher Things. . . I got to see other people I know. . . and they actually spent time talking with my kids. There was. . . personal discussion. It wasn't just a big old stranger up on a stage addressing thousands. . . it was. . . people talking, people interacting - people being together, literally together in the Word.

It's amazing what happens when God opens our lips and we declare His praise, speak to one another what He has done. But that implies that we actually have to speak, have to be with other people. The Christian faith isn't impersonal - for even Christ Himself becomes Man, becomes one of us in it. If we try to make it anything else, it ceases to be what it is meant to be.

There can be no such thing as an impersonal Church.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Getting ready for vacation

Well. . . the dots are "i"ed and the crosses are "t"ed. . . or however that goes. Thursday evening after the "Daniel in 1 Hour" class at 2, me bride and I will be headed off on vacation. I am looking forward to it - my mind is getting mushy and I need the rest. And I also am looking forward to hearing someone else preach and learning from someone else. That is a fine blessing that people forget Pastors all to often are left without. Oigh.

I'm not as spiffy as Pastor Hall so I probably won't have any predated posts (besides, they'd probably just be quite bizarre at the moment anyway) - but I may get to update the travels a bit. We will see.

But everybody else. . .

We can often read the Bible, especially the Old Testament with a bit of arrogance. Think on how we often read the book of Judges - and will think, "How can they keep falling?" We'll read 1 Sam and think, "How can they clamor for a king?" Here is what we forget. We spend 10 minutes reading a passage, but that passage might describe years, or even generations passing.

In that meantime, in that actual span of time that passes in between verses, lives are lived just as they are lived in our day. People will fall away and want to be like everyone else - but what we forget is that as Christians we aren't called to be like everyone else - we are called out of darkness into His marvelous light.

But the Church in every day and age has been confronted with the temptation to fit in with the way of the world.

I am becoming more and more convinced that the greatest danger the Church faces today is from the desire to fit in with the world - to look cool - to be hip. It's a desire to fit in - and it even hits us today.

IF you are interested, Father Hollywood has been all over a modern example. The Texas District Youth Gathering is trying to be hip - and we've got tons of non-Lutherans leading the thing. A gal was the "lead worshipper" - and did we mention she's a pastor at a non-Lutheran congregation? Well, now she's just the song leader. . . but still. Why are we pulling in non-Lutherans to teach our youth, to lead the worship?

And we wonder why kids grow up and leave the church - we teach them that it is okay at the youth gatherings!

Be different from the rest of the world. Don't look to fads, don't look to what is "cool", don't base your judgments on what feels good. Look to Christ, focus on what He does. . . and let everything else fall by the wayside.

Lord have mercy upon us all!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Never act out of fear

Scripture says that perfect love casts out fear. As such - a Christian ought never act out of fear. Our actions are not to be based on fear of what is to come, worry, what have you.

Every decision, every action you take - fear is to not be a factor. Why? Because if you are acting out of fear, you won't be seeking to show love. Simple as that.

Think on the times you have made decisions because of fear and or terror. Do they show love? Are they done well? Nope. Be calm, be focused on Christ - and act in peace and hope and love. Christ is in charge, He is in control - decide what is given to you with peace and calm. Never act out of fear of what might come, but with love and hope and the desire to use the gifts God has given you for the sake of your neighbor.

This is the Christian life.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Trinity 11 Sermon

Trinity 11 – August 3rd, 2008 – Luke 19:9-14

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost +
Well, the last few Sundays we have heard some direct Law from Christ. He weeps and gets angry. You cannot serve God and money. A tree and it’s fruit – depart from Me, I never knew you. An intense few weeks – lots of Law, and trust me, I get it as much, if not more than you guys do. Y’all hear it for 12, 14 minutes on Sunday morning, but I get to stew over it the whole week. Some blunt preaching of the Law from our Lord Jesus Christ.

The why is shown today. The reason why we Christians need to hear God’s Law, why we need to have frequent times of clear self-examination is shown in today’s Gospel lesson – the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. It is introduced by a simple sentence of profound import – “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” Our Lord speaks this parable to people who trust in themselves, who look at their own lives and think, “Yep, pretty good, all in all, pretty good.” Jesus speaks this to those who are full of pride.

This parable this morning is about the dangers of pride – for that is what the Pharisee is guilty of – he is proud over all the things he has done, he is confident and secure in how wonderful he is. And he’s lost. Jesus says at the end of the parable – “For I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his house justified, rather than the other, [the Pharisee}.” Pride goeth before the fall. We know the old adage. That is what Christ warns us of today. You see, just as sin in general twists us, turns us away from Christ, pride twists us as well, twists all that we think, twists all that we do, until we no longer see Christ, no longer see our Savior, but rather we are left worshiping ourselves. Let’s listen for the pride in what the Pharisee says, and see how it has shaped him, how it has turned him into something twisted and vile.

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. We will pause here to start. The Pharisee begins his prayer – and it’s almost okay. . . he starts by thanking God – sort of. Let me ask the question. How to you respond when you see other people sin? When your neighbor falls flat on his face, how do you respond? There have been many times where, when seeing my neighbor, I’ve been grateful to God that He has spared me from dealing with those temptations that my neighbor had to face. There are times when I see the struggles of another and I think, “I don’t know if I could stand up in the face of them, thank you Lord for sparing me.” And this is right and proper – there is nothing wrong with thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I” – nothing wrong with praying “Lead us not into temptation” – because in the face of some temptations we may not stand. But – that’s not quite what the Pharisee is saying, is it? Oh, he sees that he hasn’t fallen into the sin of theft or adultery – but instead of being humble towards God, what does he say? I am not like other men. He’s proud. He has pride in himself – he thinks that it is only because of his strength that he hasn’t succumbed to sin. He thinks himself stronger than King David, who fell to adultery, he thinks himself stronger than St. Matthew, who himself was a tax collector. It’s pride – and it’s twisted what should be sincere thanks to God into self-worship and self-praise.

And it just gets worse. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get. Two more things that the Pharisee does – and they are fine things. He fasts. He denies his body’s desires, he has learned self-control and discipline. I’m sure that there are plenty of us here who could stand to learn that a little bit better. He is generous – he tithes, a tenth of all that he has is given away. Again – a good thing. But yet. . . there’s something wrong here. His pride has gotten in the way. Instead of seeing, instead of understanding his self-control, his generosity as fruits of the Spirit – he has become prideful – and suddenly the Pharisee thinks that because of his self-control, because of his actions, God must be pleased with him. He approaches God thinking that he himself is worthy of praise. What would have been good works, pleasing to the sight of God, have become vile sins. His pride has destroyed them – and that fasting, that tithing has become a sin, worthy of damnation. All because of pride.

Pride is a danger to us, dear friends. The Pharisee should remind us of that. Pride is the snare that Satan uses to catch even those people who come to the temple to pray, what he will use to try to catch us here today. When we start looking at our lives with pride, when we start feeling pride in our actions – we forget about God and His mercy towards us. We approach God in arrogance and receive from the Lord only condemnation.

This is why God sends His Law, His pure, unfiltered, unwatered-down Law to us. To break our pride. It is easy for us as well to become prideful. We go to Church. We are blessed. I suppose that if we were vilely to compare ourselves to others, well, we could easily overlook our flaws and simply focus on the blemishes of our neighbors. And we could easily become full of pride, we could easily become cocky. But then God speaks His Word of Law – calls us to examine ourselves, not on the basis of what others are doing, not on the basis of what we do well, not on the basis of how healthy, wealthy, and wise we are. We are called to examine ourselves on the basis of God’s Law – we are called to examine whether we have been perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. And when God’s Law is applied this way – our pride is broken. Our pride is shattered. When your pride is gone, what are you left with?

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. When your pride is shattered, when your trust in yourself is broken – you are left humble and ready to rely upon Christ and His mercy. When you are not elevating yourself and your works, you are ready to be lifted up to heaven by the forgiveness of Christ Jesus. When you are humble, you are ready to see and receive God’s mercy.

Think about it this way. How many of you dislike going to the doctor? When I am sick, I hesitate to go, I want to just slug through it on my own – until whatever it is that I have has laid me low enough where I abandon that foolish pride and go see the doctor, normally because my wife makes me – and then my doctor can give me treatment, then I can be healed. Until I admit that I need help – I just keep getting worse and worse. There is a reason that we refer to Christ as the Great Physician of both body and soul. The simple fact is that we are never spiritually as healthy as we ought to be. The fact is we are always hounded by temptations – maybe not the temptations our neighbor is faced with, maybe not by sin that is broadcast throughout the community – but we all struggle with sin, we all fail, we all fall. If we, in our pride, ignore that – we’ll just fall deeper and deeper into sin, even to the point where we lose faith. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. Our pride can cost us our faith, drive Christ Jesus, He who is the Truth, away from us. But when we see our sin – we confess it, we go before the Great Physician for healing – and we receive forgiveness. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. God is ready and willing to forgive, indeed, he desires that we be forgiven. That is why He went to the cross, that is why He suffered and died, simply so that He could lavish forgiveness upon us.

Yet, why is pride so appealing – why can Satan so easily tempt us with pride? Probably because we want to feel worthy, we want to see value in ourselves, see how good, how worthy I am! We want to feel valuable – and so we trick ourselves into seeing only the “good” that we do – and take pride in that. But dear friends – you don’t set your value – and your value in the sight of God is not merely your utility, not merely what you can do for Him. Your actions don’t determine your value – and thanks be to God that they don’t, otherwise we wouldn’t be worth much. Your value to God isn’t determined by you, but God determines it, He has declared you valuable, precious in His sight. You have no need of trying to build up your own pride – for God has declared you to be worth more than anything else. How do you know? Let me be a broken record again – read and learn your Catechism! 2nd article of the Creed – “who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won we from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious, blood and with His innocent suffering and death.”

Do you hear the value-related words? Christ has redeemed – He has purchased you, you are a prize that He has won. And what with? Not mere gold, not mere stuff – but with His precious blood and His suffering and death. Christ Jesus, the Lord of Life Himself, out of His great love for you, even while you are still a miserable sinner, says that He values you more than His own life. Is that not wondrous, is that not mind-boggling? What need have you of pride in your own works – behold the value that God gives you! Indeed, He values you so much that He calls you to His table today to partake of that very same Blood which He shed for you so that you might be redeemed, forgiven of your sins. This is Christ’s love for you – and it comes solely from Him – solely a free gift, not based on works, so there is no need for your boasting, no need for your pride. Simply this – know and receive God’s love for you in humility.

Dear friends in Christ – be wary, be on the guard against pride, for pride would lead you away from trusting in Christ and rather into trusting in yourself. Flee from pride, and rather delight in humility, and gladly receive the mercy and love that God gives you. He desires your salvation, not based on what you can do for Him – but simply because He is the God who loves you and desires you to be with Him for all eternity. Rejoice in this, and in humility and confidence of His love towards you say, “God have mercy upon me, a sinner.” Amen.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Defined by gifts

On the way over the church to drop off mileage for July on today, my day off, a thought occurred to me. I think people forget that this is my job - that being a pastor is how I support my family, and that I do take days off, that I look forward to vacation even while I enjoy being a pastor.

Being a Pastor does not define who I am.

This is the thought that has been bouncing around my head. Being a pastor is a large part of my life - but it doesn't define me. We aren't defined by what we do - we are defined by the gifts we have received from God.

I have received the gift of faith and salvation from Christ. That defines who I am throughout all eternity.

I have been given a wonderful gift in my wife. My tombstone will reference her - I don't know if it will mention "Rev" - but it will mention me bride. I am defined by her.

I have been given a wonderful gift in my parents. All the days of my life I shall be defined as their son.

And yes, I am defined by the gift of the office to which I have been called to serve God's people - but there are others things that define who I am more so - and perhaps God will gift me with other definitional things - some that are above and beyond being a pastor (mayhaps I will be gifted to be a father one day), some that are alongside (mayhaps one day I will have a doctorate and teach, mayhaps I will become a househusband and devote myself to the care and education of my children, mayhaps I will have a stroke and have the gift of providing employment to folks in long term care).

But chiefly I am defined by Christ, who has claimed me as His own. It's not about what I do, who I am. It's about who He is and what He has seen fit to given to me. Thanks be to God for all His blessings freely given!

A cross-post

The following is a post I did on my other blog that I do with my friends from college. On a friend's blog, a large discussion about the Christian faith in general became somewhat heated (and my Roman Catholic friend acquitted herself rather well). However, to deflect and draw fire potentially from my strongly secular friends, I have made the following post. I figured I would put it up for your consideration here.


07:02 am - Why I hold to the Christian Faith

A brief look at why I hold to the Christian Faith, although in reality, it will be why I don't feel compelled to abandon the Christian faith or be ashamed of it.

To begin, one should understand that as a Lutheran, I hold that faith itself is a gift from God, not cause by man - a la Ephesians 2:8-10 - saved by grace through faith, and this not of your own doing - it is a free gift from God, not by works, so no man may boast. Or, as the Small Catechism puts it in the explanation to the third article of the Creed - "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, My Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel. . ."

So, to be clear - I reject, and in fact oppose all types of, "I have decided to follow Jesus. . . I gave my heart to Him" rhetoric that you might be used to hearing here in America.

Why am I a Christian - because it is who God has called me to be. I am no more responsible for the fact that I am a Christian than I am for the fact that I was born in America or born smart. Now - as I can cultivate my intelligence and put it to use, just as I can participate fully or not in the American political system, so too I may treasure and cultivate that gift of faith (which you might surmise I have), or I may let it remain fallow and see what happens.

In my studies of it - the Christian faith makes sense to me. I find that the doctrine of Original Sin is quite apt to explain human behavior. I find the warnings against self-justification and pride lead to a fine, if not always followed system of ethics and behavior. I find that salvation by Grace through faith is liberating - that I am not saved because of what I have done, but rather what Christ has done for me. Moreover, I find this liberating towards proper behavior. Rather than an excuse to sin, I can live in confidence, do what I think is best, and not wring my hands over everything worrying that it is a mistake. Show love - and if you mess up, confess your sins, receive forgiveness - and move on with the showing love.

It's a nice life. A difficult one - for I am compelled to show love at all times, even to people I don't want to. It is a difficult life, because should I become prideful and start to look at how wonderful I am, God's Word will poke holes in it - and I will see how everything I have pride in is tainted and tinged in this life. It leaves no room for boasting for me, it's not about patting myself on the back or making me see how I myself have value - it's about making me understand that, as we get in Romans 5, that while I was yet a sinner, Christ died for me. It makes me see the value that God has placed upon me - that I am more valuable to Him than even the life of His Son, Christ Jesus, who willingly suffers and dies that He might claim me as my own.

And that is liberating. Not from duty, not from responsiblity. Not from pain and hardship - for our Lord faced all those things. But it is liberating from guilt, from fear, from fear of death - for if the Son of Man sets you free, you are free indeed.

No, that wasn't talking about political freedom - it was talking about something bigger.

That is the why, or maybe it's better to say the wonder I see in the Christian faith, as I was raised to know it as a child from Luther's Small Catechism .

Now, to the second part - and the part I actually had planned to spend more time on, maybe I won't - but why I am not compelled to leave this faith.

What of the discoveries of Science! What of the atrocities done in the name of God! What of the fact that there are other beliefs out there!

This is where I look to History. What will the science of the day say in 50 years? Or 100? The thought of the day has changed many times. . . as it ought. Science is the quest for the the truth, for an understanding of how things work and why things happen - and it's a quest that is never done. With that perspective - I don't worry about. 100 years ago Archeology told us that there was no such person as a King David or a Pontius Pilate. Then. . . oh. . . um. . . yeah, um, inscriptions. Oh well. What will the next 100 years of scientific research yield - how will it effect our understanding of the world? Who knows. But my faith has remained through the pinnacles and heights of wisdom of more cultures than I care to name. I worry not about mine.

But there are the atrocities! On an August day nearly 63 years ago, a scientific program led to the instantaneous death of tens of thousands, and a painful death of varying speeds of tens of thousands more. Or before that - better engineering and better chemistry led to such carnage that we thought we had just experienced the war to end all wars. Another discovery is so shocking that a man takes his proceedes from his destructive discovery to establish an award for peace.

There. Are any of you in the fields of science now impelled to abandon your studies and work? By no means! Yet, those are atrocities made possible by science. Or, perhaps, listen to the rhetoric going on now - we're in Iraq for the sake of Democracy - shall we abandon democracy now? Stupidity and stupid actions are not the sole possession of the Christian Church (indeed, all religions have their good history of violence - in particular I find the history of militant Buddhist monks to be especially entertaining). So no, that doesn't impel me to abandon my faith.

But there are other beliefs out there. And there always have been. That's been part of the package since the beginning. And it doesn't bother me. I work on understanding mine own. Thus is life. I simply rejoice in who I have been called to be.