Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sermon: Populus Zion - 2017

10 December 2017

Text: Luke 21:25-36

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

There is the old illustration that shows how different people can look at the same situation differently: the glass with water in it.  Some people see the glass as half-full, while others see it as half-empty.  I was taught that this illustrates the difference between an optimist and a pessimist.

So what are Christians?  Do we see the water-glass of this fallen world pessimistically as half-empty, or do we see it optimistically as half-full?  I don’t think that the optimist/pessimist dichotomy is very helpful.  I think a better way of thinking about this is whether or not we believe our Lord’s teaching in Scripture.

For in a very real sense, we Christians are not optimists.  The optimists are the Communists and the Darwinists, the Fascists and the storytellers in Hollywood.  All of these people have a completely unrealistic view of our world and of humanity.  They don’t believe in original sin, but they believe in an innate goodness of mankind – even though these elites all inexplicably lock the doors of their mansions at night.  They see mankind in the midst of a cosmic evolutionary improvement leading to a universal Utopia.  Some believe technology will solve our problems and even make God obsolete.  Others believe that we are evolving into a kind of collective human supercomputer that will evolve to new heights of consciousness.  Others think that we can upload our minds into robots and individually live forever.

But of course, these are the same people that promised us that we should all have flying cars and world peace by the year 2000, and 2001 was supposed to be a great Space Odyssey instead of the year the World Trade Towers were blown up by Moslem invaders.

We Christians know better than to be optimistic, at least in that na├»ve Utopian way.  We know about original sin, the fall, Satan, and the second law of thermodynamics – that says things left at rest wear down and fall into chaos over time.  It’s funny how they think we’re the ones who are anti-science.

The optimists of the 20th century gave us a hundred million dead beneficiaries of their optimism.  On that great road to Utopia, they gave us the concentration camp and the mass grave.  But we Christians know better than to put our trust in princes and to see the world through rose-colored glasses.  We are neither optimists nor pessimists – we are realists.

We Christians believe what is real, because reality has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ.  He who created us and placed us in a perfect world, He Himself descended into that chaos that we made, so that He could rescue us from ourselves.  We killed Him, and He did not resist.  He submitted to the sacrifice of the cross out of love.  He rose again.  And now the launch sequence has started on the Lord’s reclamation and re-creation of the entire world. 

Meanwhile, we know that things are getting worse, and will degrade much more, dear friends.  Jesus has told us so: “There will be signs in sun and moon and stars… distress… perplexity… people fainting with fear… foreboding.”  Moreover, “the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

And this means the end is near.  The Son of Man will be coming on the clouds.  And while our deluded optimists and Utopians (who speak so confidently of “cosmic consciousness” and other New Age gobbledygook that they think is so sophisticated), they will find themselves curled into a fetal ball in a panic attack.  Instead, it will be the realistic Christians, who will recognize the signs of the times, who will “straighten up and raise [their] heads,” because, as our Lord has said, “your redemption is drawing near.”

The tables will turn.  We who are so often accused of being pessimists, people who are negative and judgmental and always interfering with the next planned Utopia, we will be shouting for joy, while they, the optimists, will find their bubble burst, as the reality that mankind needs a Savior, just as Christians have always known and confessed, sets in. 

Dear friends, this will happen.  It is inevitable.  The Lord is returning to this world to put an end to our misery, and to usher in something better than a Utopia: true eternal paradise.  This is the central lesson of Scripture, for as our Lord says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”  The Word of God, dear friends, is where you will find your bearings and your comfort amid change and chaos.  You will not find reality anywhere else. 

So watch yourselves, dear friends!  Stay awake!  Be ready!  “Look at the fig tree,” says our Lord, “and all the trees.  As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near.”  The proof is everywhere around us: the glass which is half-full and half-empty: the brokenness and fallenness of our world, but also the redemption of that same world in Christ. 

That is the power of the cross, dear friends.  On the cross, the Lord took our sins and imperfections and crucified them.  In exchange He gives us His perfection and righteousness.  The world is being recreated, not through evolution or unrealistic economic theories, but by the loving redemption of a loving Redeemer, by His Word, and by His very body and blood.  

So in that sense, we Christians also see the glass as half-full.  For in that tiny splash of water is the explosive Word of God poured upon us to deliver us from evil and bring us to eternal life.  This is the hope of Advent, the message of Christmas, and the good news proclaimed by the Church throughout the year, and through the centuries: we who see the glass as both half empty and half full, not Utopians but realists, who can indeed raise our heads amidst the chaos, for our “redemption is drawing near!”  Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Sermon: St. Nicholas of Myra - 2017

6 December 2017

Text: Luke 14:26-33

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

St. Nicholas is one of the world’s most beloved heroes of the faith.  He lived in the fourth century in Asia Minor, which is today Turkey.  Nicholas was a pastor and bishop and defended the Christian faith at a critical time.  In fact, he was at the council of Nicaea when the Nicene Creed was born.  Tradition says that he actually got into fisticuffs defending the doctrine of the Trinity – something we generally try to avoid these days.

Bishop Nicholas had a reputation not only for being a staunchly orthodox theologian and defender of the faith, but he had a soft spot for children and the poor.  There are many stories about his charity and kindness – including the giving of gifts to children.

And since the St. Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD – 1,674 years ago today – the Church all over the world celebrates his feast day today.  This being the case, the good bishop has been forever linked to Christmas, and the celebration of the Lord whom St. Nicholas served his whole life.

And so it seems weird that the Gospel reading chosen in honor of St. Nicholas’s feast day as we approach Christmas should be Jesus telling us to hate our families – including our children.

Yes, indeed, what could be more triggering than Jesus instructing His followers to “hate” – and to say this at Christmas time.  Why would our Lord Jesus Christ say to hate the children?  

Well, obviously, Jesus is using what is known as “hyperbole” – a form of exaggeration to get our attention.  What our Lord is saying here is tremendously important, for He makes us take a long, hard look in the mirror to see how many ways that we sin.  He calls us to repent of the most basic sin of all: idolatry.  He points out that our worst sins often camouflage themselves as virtues.

Our Lord Jesus Christ says, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.”

To be a disciple of Jesus, dear friends, means that Jesus is our number one priority – even more important than our families.  For we cannot serve two masters.  We cannot worship two gods.  And we have a habit of finding anything to worship other than the one true God.

Yes, even our families can become a false idol, turning us inward upon ourselves in our homes, and away from the Lord, where He is to be found in the Holy Scriptures and in the sacraments.  How often pastors hear that parents have to take their families out of church because of a soccer game or a dance recital!  It is as though anything and everything takes priority over hearing the Word of God and receiving His holy sacraments.  People who never miss work or pull their children out of school will routinely miss church – and will do so in a way that sounds virtuous: for the sake of their families, in love for their children.

Jesus calls us out on this false piety.  For if we really love our children, we will love God first, and we will raise our children to put their Christian faith before anything and everything.  Or as we say in the Catechism: “we should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”  “Above all  things,” dear friends, even above our love for our families.

Paradoxically, if we “love” our children more than God, we are really hating them.  And if we “hate” our children compared with our love for God, we are really loving them.

And in fact, to be a disciple of Jesus means that we even love God more than we love our own lives.  For our Lord pointed out the similar paradox that whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever would give up his life for the kingdom will save it for eternity.

This is what our Lord means that in order to follow Him, we must “bear [our] own cross.”  To follow Jesus means to make absolutely everything in this life subservient to Him.  No exceptions.  That includes our own lives, our families, and all that we hold dear in this world.  And this is real faith, dear friends.  To have faith in Jesus doesn’t just mean we think that He is a real person, or even that we intellectually acknowledge His historic work on the cross.  Rather it means that we trust Him, here and now unconditionally, even to place our most beloved people and things in His hands, knowing that in doing so, we don’t lose them, but in fact, save them. 

Jesus compares this life of discipleship to a building project.  If we want to build something, we get an estimate.  We make sure that we know what we are getting into before we commit and begin.  He also compares the Christian life to the calculations performed by military strategists.  How many troops do we have, and can we win?

Dear brothers and sisters, our Lord doesn’t want you to follow Him blindly, but knowingly.  To be a Christian is costly.  It will cost your life.  It means placing all things in His trust, and withholding nothing for yourself.  But it isn’t like you are leaving behind the things you love, but rather you are putting them in a kind of bank, into the hands of Jesus, as the ultimate act of trust.  Do you have faith enough in Jesus to let go of your most beloved people, and even your own life?

Well, here is the good news, dear brothers and sisters, what is important is that Jesus has exactly this kind of faith for us.  He loves God the Father and He loves us more than He loves His own life.  He bore His own cross and hated His own life in order to save us.  He counted the cost of building the tower to Heaven – not the phony tower of Babel, but the true tower of the tree upon which He was suspended between heaven and earth, in accordance with the Father’s will, and for the purpose of redeeming us.  He calculated the cost of the war between good and evil, determining that His blood was sufficient for victory.

Our Lord Jesus loved us and redeemed us by His blood.  He humbled Himself to be born of the Virgin Mary.  He came to the Christians in Myra sixteen centuries ago when Bishop Nicholas preached and officiated over the divine services, distributing the body and blood of Christ to those whom Christ loved, and our Lord continues to pour Himself out for us today, dear friends, challenging us and strengthening us with His Word, and instilling in us a faith capable of self-sacrificial love by feeding us with His body and pouring His blood into us, as the Holy Spirit works upon us as the gift given to us in Holy Baptism, uniting with us, and making us holier and more loving with each passing day in His presence, even as we do nothing but sit and kneel and be fed and nourished.

This is the lesson of St. Nicholas for us: that we poor miserable sinners, we children of God, receive divine gifts through the work of the Lord’s servants, giving us faith as a gift, calling us to love our children and our families not by idolizing them, but by placing God first and living out that divine love with our families, whom we truly love by our “fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”

That is the faith the Lord calls us to, the faith we confess in the Nicene Creed, the faith St. Nicolas preached, the faith of Jesus Christ given to you, dear friends, now and even unto eternity!  Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Sermon: Ad Te Levavi - 2017

3 December 2017

Text: Matt 21:1-9 (Jer 23:5-8, Rom 13:8-14)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Words are important.  Every year, there is a cultural battle over whether or not it is appropriate to say, “Merry Christmas” or not.  Sometimes the words of traditional Christmas carols are changed to make them more politically correct.  Some words are not worth fighting over, but some words are certainly worth defending, and contending for them to be said and understood. 

Many people put up trees and plastic snowmen and celebrate Christmas without knowing what the word means at all.  Christmas is “Christ’s Mass,” as He comes to us in the manger and in the sacrament of Holy Communion.

We have just begun the season of Advent – a four Sunday preface to Christmas. “Advent” means something very specific: a coming towards, or, an approach.  In Advent, we anticipate Jesus coming near to us: in the past in His birth, in the future in His second coming, as well as in the eternal present of Holy Communion.

And in this first week of Advent, there is another word that is so important that we say it in its original Hebrew.  This word is of such gravity that it was never translated into Greek or Latin or German or English.  It’s easy to forget what this word means.  On the one hand, we only encounter it in our readings on Palm Sunday, and the first week in Advent.  But we also hear it every single Divine Service in the Sanctus, when we say: “Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna, in the highest!”

This “Hosanna” was used to welcome King Jesus to David’s Royal City five days before His coronation as King upon the cross.  The crowds chanted “Hosanna!” as they waved their palms.  Our Lord rode a donkey into Jerusalem just as did another King who entered Jerusalem to be crowned: and that was King Solomon, the Son of David.

We might think that “Hosanna” means “praise” or “hooray” or “long live the King!” or something like that.  But it means something a little different.  And it is indeed an important word, for it sums up His purpose in coming, why He was born and why he died, why He came and will come again, and why He comes to us week in and week out in the Holy Sacrament.

“Hosanna” means “Save us!”

Whether they fully understood what they were saying or not, the crowds prayed for salvation as Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem as Holy Week began.  Whether we fully understand it or not, we pray for salvation as we await the Lord’s return in glory.  And whether we fully understand it or not, we pray for salvation each and every week that we partake of His body and blood in Holy Communion.  “Save us!” is our prayer, our motto, our hope, our joy, and our confident confession of who Jesus is, why Jesus came, and what Jesus’s mission was, is, and is to come.  “Hosanna!  Hosanna!  Hosanna!”

Jesus is inseparable from the salvation of sinners that is His mission, His Advent to us.

As St. Paul reminds us in our epistle, “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.”  Time marches on.  One year draws to an end, as a new year begins.  “The night is far gone,” says the apostle, “the day is at hand.”

He means “the” day, the day of our salvation, the day when Christ will come again.  For He has not come to condemn us, but to save us.  He has come to answer our Hosannas with salvation itself, to rescue us from sin, Satan, and death, from our fallen world and mortal flesh, from the darkness of a broken world and a heart turned in on itself. 

“Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna!”

“Besides this you know the time,” St. Paul says, “that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep.”

Jesus has come to awaken us from our slumber and to rouse us to the glory that is ours in Him: forgiveness, life and salvation.  These are exciting times, just as it was on that Palm Sunday when the people welcomed their King, humble as He was on a donkey; or when the shepherds welcomed their King, humble as He was in a manger, a food trough for donkeys; or when He comes to us as Eucharistic food, freely given to us who are stubborn as donkeys in our fallenness.  And so we Christians continually pray, “Save us!”  Hosanna!

And let us reflect on the prophet Jeremiah’s words for us as well, dear friends, as He spoke of our Lord and King and Savior Jesus as “David’s righteous Branch,” as a “King” who shall “deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”  For “in His days Judah shall be saved, and Israel will dwell securely.  And this is the name by which He will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”

What a glorious answer to our prayer of “Hosanna!” dear brothers and sisters!  For we are not saved by our own righteousness, but rather by His: “The Lord is our righteousness!”

Our King who was born in Bethlehem is our righteousness and our salvation, Hosanna!  Our King who rode into Jerusalem and was crucified, died, and rose again is our righteousness and our salvation, Hosanna!  Our King who will come again with glory is our righteousness and our salvation: Hosanna!

And what’s more, dear friends, even as we ponder His miraculous birth and as we expect His return, we do not live in the past or the future.  For our King is with us here and now, in His Word and in His sacrament: our righteousness and our salvation, Hosanna!

Words are indeed important.  And the Word of God, the Word Made Flesh is most important of all, dear friends.  For He has come to answer our prayer and to save us!

“Hosanna in the highest!”  Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Sermon: Last Sunday - 2017

26 November 2017

Text: Matt 25:1-13 (Isa 65:17-25, 1 Thess 5:1-11)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Our America is the land of extremes.  And our religion is no exception. 

On the one hand, American preachers are famous for their “hellfire and brimstone” sermons. In 1741, the Rev. Johnathan Edwards famously preached his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon.  It was filled with frightening and lurid images of Hell, including inviting his listeners to see themselves as spiders being helplessly dangled by the thinnest of webs over the flames to be burned alive.  A hundred years later, it was common for American churches to have an “anxious bench” in which sinners were forced to sit and be antagonized and frightened until they made their decision for Jesus.

On the other extreme, Americans also produced a denomination of Universalists, who believed nobody actually ever goes to Hell.  And today, there are many people across all denominations who believe this, and therefore, see no need to actually obey the commandments or to “fear God’s wrath” as our Catechism warns us that we should do.

And then, there is the “extreme middle,” where people believe there is a Hell, and it’s really bad, but only a select few Hitlers or Stalins ever actually make it there.  Such people typically believe they are good enough by their own works and deeds so as to avoid being cast into Hell. 

Our readings today on this last Sunday of the church year expose the weaknesses of all of these “extreme” positions.

In fact, our Lord Jesus Christ kind of sounds like Jonathan Edwards in His Parable of the Ten Virgins.  It is a frightening story that makes it clear that Hell is not a metaphor, nor is it restricted to just the vilest of all humanity.

In fact, in the story, five young women are shut out of God’s grace and are told, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”  Can you even imagine the horror of hearing those words from Jesus on the Last Day?  Dear friends, our Lord is warning us to repent, now, while we have time.  He is not trying to scare us into repentance, but He is honestly warning us what awaits the “foolish.”  And what made these maidens “foolish” vs. their wise counterparts?  They were not prepared.

Our Lord’s story is in some ways similar to Aesop’s fable about the ant and the grasshopper.  The grasshopper played and sang and danced all summer, while the ant labored and set aside food for later.  When winter came, the ant was prepared for the cold weather.  The grasshopper was unprepared.  The ant survived the winter, but the grasshopper did not.

But our Lord’s story has to do with eternal life, dear friends.  It is a sobering story, which is the very word used by St. Paul in His letter to the Thessalonians: “Let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”

Lest we forget, we are in the midst of a war.  God and His angels are in a cosmic battle against Satan and his demons.  And here we are, dear friends, in the crossfire.  Within our own flesh and spirits we are waging a civil war, as Paul himself admitted.  This is why the apostle tells us to put on our breastplate and helmet, the armor we need to wage war.  We need to be prepared! 

So what prepares us, dear friends?  Are you prepared for spiritual battle just because you aren’t a Hitler or a Stalin?  Are you prepared for battle because you’re physically here this morning?  Do you pray when you wake up and when you lie down to sleep?  Do you pray before meals?  Do you read the Scriptures and study God’s Word?  Do you faithfully take part in the sacraments, and do so often?  Do you look for opportunities to love and serve your neighbor?  When you look in the mirror, do you see someone who is prepared to meet the Lord when He comes “like a thief in the night”?  Or do you comfort yourself with delusions about being a “good person”?

The good news, dear friends, is that Jesus is not toying with us.  He is warning us.  It is His desire that all ten of the young women in His story join the Bridegroom for eternity and that none should be lost.  But He also respects the fact that these young women are free to make their own choices and decisions.  He does not force Himself on them, but rather calls to them, urges them to come to Him, and warns them of the consequences of being unprepared.  But ultimately they are free to live their lives.

The five wise young women were wise because they were prepared.  They used their freedom wisely. They knew that the Bridegroom was coming.  And they did not assume that they had time to waste.  They had their lamps trimmed and their oil stocked.  They lived their lives prepared for the unexpected coming of the Bridegroom. 

Or to use the warrior metaphor, they had their armor on and were ready for battle: the faith and love that protects the heart of the Christian, and the salvation won for us by our Lord upon the cross, a gift that guards our minds and covers the thoughts of the prepared and the wise.

And lest we think the Christian life is only about avoiding Hell, the prophet Isaiah gives us a glimpse of the world to come, the world promised to the prepared, to the wise, to those who do not squander the Lord’s gift of grace: “new heavens and a new earth,” freed even from the memories of sin and suffering and death. The prophet describes the destiny of the wise and prepared, those who receive the Lord’s mercy, using words like “joy” and “gladness,” with no “weeping” and no “cry of distress.”  The prophet describes a world of fruits and wine and pleasant houses and ancient trees, of rewards for work, and of peace that we can’t even imagine where even predatory animals graze with their former prey.

Jesus has come to give us this everlasting life, dear friends, the cure for death itself.  Do you miss your loved ones who have gone on before you?  Are you tired of pain, or regrets, or disappointments?  Would you like to live a full life without frustration or discomfort or fear?  Can you imagine living forever in a perfect world that exists just as God always meant it to be?  This is what God has destined for the wise, the prepared, those who gladly hear and receive His Word, those who repent and do not foolishly reject His free gift, His mercy, and the means through which He gives you these gifts.

The Lord is warning us not to be foolish, but to be wise; to redeem the time that we have left, to repent and receive the wondrous gifts the Holy Spirit has for us through the Gospel, given to us in Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion, to be armored up for battle, to get our priorities in order, and not to foolishly wait.  For now is the day of salvation.  Now is the time to have your lamp filled with oil and trimmed, dear friends – not tomorrow, not next week, not next year. 

For we are neither led to dismay by sermons designed to frighten us, nor are we led into a false sense of security by assuming Jesus is our “homeboy” or our genie in a bottle who does our bidding.  Almighty God has spoken, and He has sobering words for us, but He also has comforting words for us, dear brothers and sisters.  He went to the cross so that you can indeed put on the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of salvation.

Hear these extreme and true words of faith and love and salvation, and be wise, dear friends.  Be prepared for His coming. Turn away from your sins, receive His free and limitless gifts of love and mercy and forgiveness and eternal life!  “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Sermon: Thanksgiving Eve - 2017

22 November 2017

Text: Luke 17:11-19 (Deut 8:1-10, Phil 4:6-20)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

In our Gospel, 90% of the people that Jesus served didn’t really understand the mission of Jesus at all.  One of the ten, a guy most people would dismiss as a “foreigner,” did understand Christianity.

I think today’s numbers are worse.  Even among Christians!

Most people think of the Christian faith as “being good” – or perhaps more so today, being “nice” or being “inclusive.”  Being a Christian is, in the eyes of many, being a Democrat or a Republican, being an American, or being critical of America, being a capitalist or being a communist.  In fact, being a Christian is transcends all such understanding.  To be a Christian is to give thanks, and not just one time, but at all times, constantly, in fact.

And likewise, many like to pontificate about Jesus, in a sense, attempting to create a God in their own image, instead of letting God be God, the God who took human flesh, died for the sins of the world, and who comes to us in the manner of His choosing: the cross, the font, the pulpit, the altar, the confessional, the vocations of those who serve God and neighbor, and by the words of the Holy Scriptures.

But what does this have to do with the grateful leper in our Gospel text?  What does this have to do with us, or this holiday of Thanksgiving, with football and turkeys?

Dear friends, our problem is death.  Our problem is sin.  Our problem is that we are broken.  We can’t fix it with medicine, technology, ecology, will power, therapy, education, or any other way.  We can’t fix it, period.  We are like lepers suffering with a debilitating disease.  In a very real sense, we are all dying of a terminal disease.

And so along comes Jesus.  The Word of God who becomes God in the flesh, the Creator who has become the Savior, the one who has been sinned against but who comes to put things right through forgiving us, the sacrificial Lamb who dies the death we deserve.  He heals us like He healed the ten – He declares it done, and it is so.  Our healing, our salvation, comes from the mouth of the Lord.

What do the ten do with their new bodies, their renewed minds, their newly freed spirits?  Well, nine of them don’t return – and Jesus is clearly aghast: “Were not ten cleansed?  Where are the nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Dear friends, the Christian life is that we “return and give praise to God” by leading lives of gratitude for what Jesus has done for us.  We give thanks because someone has done us a good turn and given us something.  And in the case of Jesus, that Someone has given us eternal life, victory over the grave, dominion over the devil, a second chance, a new lease on life, a transformation in body and soul that no force in heaven or on earth can take away from us!

He died for us on the cross and washed us from our old sinful dying nature through Holy Baptism.  He proclaims this gift to us through the preaching of the Good News.  He liberates us from this body of death by Holy Absolution.  And He invites us to the greatest Thanksgiving feast of all: Holy Communion with Him in His body and blood – for the word “Eucharist” is literally Greek for “Thanksgiving.”

And having been cleansed, we turn back, “praising God with a loud voice.”  And we do this when we serve our neighbor by our deeds, when we worship God and praise Him for His mercy, when we support our congregation by our sacrifice of thanksgiving, calling on the name of the Lord in the Divine Service.  We do this when we fall at Jesus’s feet by studying the Scriptures, by praying, by learning all that we can about Him and His kingdom, and when we teach our children and the children of others how Jesus has saved us, cured us, and gave us everlasting life.

This is the Christian life, and it is a life of joyful service, not begrudging rule-following.  It is a life of the desire to be where Jesus is, not a life of complaining that we “have to go to church.”  It is a life of the freedom to love our neighbor in many and various ways because we have been set free to do so, not a life of trying to be good enough to get into heaven by selfish "good works” – because you’re just not that good, and neither am I. 

The Christian life is the life of the tenth leper.  And far from being a life of drudgery, it is a life of liberty and celebration, a life in which every day is a Thanksgiving Feast, a cheerful acknowledgment that we have been cured of the leprosy of mortality and the ultimate end of death and hell – even though that is what we deserve.

We have so much to be thankful for, dear friends.  We live in a prosperous and free country.  We enjoy the pinnacle of technology and comfort.  We are free from the sword of the invader on our soil.  We revel in luxuries and riches that even kings and queens could not have imagined in our grandparents’ days. 

But even more than that, dear friends, we have a God who is also our Savior, a merciful Lord who is also our Salvation, our Priest who is also our Lamb, our Great Physician of body and soul who comes directly to us and answers our own plea: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us,” by marking us with the sign of the cross and declaring us off-limits to the devil, compelling death to pass over us as we enjoy a meal celebrating our exodus from slavery, so that “you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”  The Christian life is a Thanksgiving Feast that never ends!

This is the Christian life, dear friends!  It is a bounty, a feast, a celebration of life, an eruption of boundless and eternal joy!  For “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  

Let us give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good!  And His mercy endureth forever!  Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Meditation: Trinity 26 - 2017

Note: This meditation was delivered by Deacon Richard Iverson at Salem Lutheran Church

19 November 2017

Text: Dan 7:9-14, 2 Pet 3:3-14, Matt 25:31-46

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Daniel has a vision of heaven.  He meets God the Father, whom he calls “the Ancient of days.”  His white hair is a symbol of wisdom.  He is so ancient that He is eternal.  He is surrounded by fire, and tens of thousands worship Him.  He is the judge, and He opens the books of the deeds of men.

Evil is destroyed with fire, and evil’s dominion is taken away.  And then comes another heroic figure: the Son of Man, a title that Jesus claimed for Himself.  This is the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who is given dominion and glory and a kingdom by the Father.  And His kingdom has no border.  It consists of all “peoples, nations, and languages” who serve Him.

His kingdom is everlasting.  It will not pass away.  It shall never be destroyed.

In our Epistle reading, St. Peter writes about what things will be like as the final judgment of the Ancient of Days and the dominion of the Son of God are coming.

He says that in the “last days” there will be “scoffers.”  People will mock Christians.  They will say, “Where is the promise of His coming?”  They think that everything will just continue as it has always been.  They think that evil will continue to have its way.  But they are wrong. 

They are willfully ignorant, they “deliberately overlook” the fact that God created the universe just as the Book of Genesis reveals.  They laugh at people for believing in creation.  They mock the idea that God judged the world with water in the flood.  But God will judge the world with fire. 

And while it seems that Jesus is taking His time in returning, God doesn’t treat time the way we do.  A thousand years is nothing to God.  It’s actually an act of mercy that God is taking His time.  For He is giving the wicked time to repent.  Let us pray they do!  For when He returns like a thief in the night, it will be too late to repent.

Our Lord Jesus Christ speaks to us of these things as well in our Gospel reading.  In the judgment, the sheep will be separated from the goats, the good from the evil.  We have so many opportunities to do good works in this life, just as we have many opportunities to sin. 

This is why our Lord came to earth to rescue us, to die on the cross to forgive us, to rise from the dead that we may live new lives of good works: not to earn salvation, but to thank God for His mercy and serve our neighbor.

If we see people who are hungry and thirsty, alienated and in need of clothes, sick and imprisoned, and we show them love – then God is working through us, His redeemed people, to show mercy to those in need. 

But if we see people who are hungry and thirsty, alienated and in need of clothes, sick and imprisoned, and we do not show them love – then we are demonstrating that we are lacking in God’s grace. 

We do well, brothers and sisters, to examine our lives, to repent of our sins, to pray the Lord to send His Holy Spirit to us, to participate in Word and Sacrament, and to hear the Gospel, so that we might be continually transformed from darkness to light, from sinner to saint, from evil to righteous.  We cannot do this on our own, but we must pray that the Son of Man would use His dominion to instill faith in us.  And true faith produces true good works, so naturally, that we don’t even think about it. 

Dear friends, we are in the Last Days.  The Lord may return at any time.  Let us repent of our sins.  Let us plead for His mercy.  Let us joyfully serve our neighbors.  Because when we were hungry and thirsty for righteousness, when we were alienated from God and naked in our shame, when we were made sick through sin and imprisoned by death and the devil – Jesus gave us the food and drink of the Sacrament, welcomed us to the kingdom, clothed us with His righteousness, visited us with His mercy, and came to us in prison to set us free. 

Indeed, His kingdom is everlasting.  It will not pass away.  It shall never be destroyed.  It is yours by the blood of the Son of Man, by His cross.  And you are His sheep!  Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sermon: Trinity 25 - 2017

12 November 2017

Text: Matt 24:15-28

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

As the shadows lengthen and the days grow shorter, we approach the end of the church year.  Our readings direct us to darker themes about the Last Things.  In the words of one of the ancient prayers of the church, we ponder: “the end of the day, the end of our life, the end of the world.”

For the unbelieving world, these are frightful topics to be avoided at all costs.  We extend the day into the night with bright lights and “night life.”  We extend our youth ever longer through medicines and cosmetics, refusing to appear old.  And we fantasize about colonizing other planets to extend our human civilization in fear of a meteor or solar flare that may one day wipe out our planet.

The unbelieving world doesn’t deal well with conclusions.  In fact, nearly every day we read headlines about how scientists are trying to upload human consciousness into computers so that we can live forever in cyberspace.  Isn’t it interesting how eternal life is sought after by those who scoff at the idea of an eternal God? The world fears death, but at the same time, seems enthralled by death.  They accept evolution, which is driven by death.  They embrace abortion and euthanasia which treat life as a problem and death as a solution.  Only the still, small voice of the Christian church speaks for the unborn, the mentally ill, the elderly, the sick, and yes, the dying.

The church understands that our world had a beginning, and it will have an end.  The church understands that there is an eternity, and our place in eternity has been revealed to us in Scripture and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We are not merely blobs of carbon and oxygen brought together by random accidents.  We are creatures with a will, a psyche, a soul, and we have purpose in this vast universe – because we were created by a Creator with a will and a plan.

But as for the Last Things, Jesus is blunt with us: “there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.”  The mess that we poor, miserable sinners have made of the world over the course of six thousand years will grow worse and worse.  The warfare between good and evil will come to a final head.  And then there will be false Christs and false prophets, they will “perform great signs and wonders” to try to lead you astray.  We are being warned right here and right now, dear friends: don’t believe them!  They are liars.  For when our Lord Jesus Christ comes again as He has promised, everyone will know.  There will be no doubt or ambiguity, “for as lightning comes from the east and shines in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” 

The world will see the coming of Jesus with dread, knowing their judgment draws near, “deeply wailing,” as we sang in the hymn, they “shall their true Messiah see.”  But for those who confess Him as Lord, those who are baptized and who believe, those who place their trust in Him alone, this will not be a time for wailing, but of rescue, of joy, of vindication, of the blessings of eternal life to come, as we sang in the hymn, we will see Him and recognize Him in His coming, by His wounds, the marks of the cross, “those dear tokens of His passion,” and “with what rapture, gaze we on those glorious scars.”

For the judged, this will be a time of wailing.  For the redeemed, this will be a time of rapture. 

So yes, we will have trouble in this world, tribulation, persecution, and events that we cannot even fathom as those days draw near, and yet, St. Paul encourages us to stay the course, urging us not to “be uninformed.”  There is no reason, dear friends, for us to be ignorant about the most important things in this life.  God has revealed these things to us in Scripture.  We hear it proclaimed in the Divine Service.  We study it in Bible Class.  We meditate upon it in our homes.  We pray and sing it in our hymns.  The Word of God is not hidden from us, unless we hide it from ourselves.  St. Paul says, “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.”  And the apostle reveals to us that we, the dead and the living, will then “meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”  We will be in eternity with Him whose “dear tokens of His passion” serve as our passport to everlasting life.

And while the world is terrified of such things, seeing them as disasters to be avoided, we Christians ponder this promise with great hope and expectant joy.  As St. Paul says, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

Unlike the world, we do not “grieve as others do who have no hope.”

Unlike the world, we truly do have hope, dear friends.  The world puts its hope in technology, in politicians, in medicine, in entertainment and possessions, in the passing pleasures of the flesh, in the delights of a debased culture, in riches, and in all of those things that will not mean a thing at “the end of the day, the end of our life, the end of the world.”  But our hope is in Christ and in His promises, His blood shed for us at the cross, His forgiveness of our sins.  “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again,” says St. Paul, “even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.”

So death is neither a solution to a problem, nor a problem to solve by our own efforts, but for us Christians, it is a temporary annoyance that has been fixed by Christ, through His death that atones for the sins of the world, into whose death we are baptized, and according to the promises of Holy Baptism, we believe, and through this belief, this faith, we have the promise of eternal life.

That is our Christian hope, dear friends, no matter what chaos or hatred or tribulation surrounds us.  

So as the shadows lengthen and the days grow shorter, and as we approach the end of the church year, as our readings direct us to darker themes about the Last Things, let us indeed ponder: “the end of the day, the end of our life, the end of the world,” and let us do so with hope, with expectant joy, with our eyes fixed upon Jesus and the cross, praying for the world that rejects our Lord that they may turn and be saved, living out our lives of hope in this fallen world, knowing that we are drawing closer to that day when we will sing to Christ one final time, describing what we are seeing in real time: “Lo! He comes with clouds descending…. Alleluia!  Thou shalt reign, and Thou alone!”  Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

On Privilege, Truth, and Critical Theory

This is a video that is described as "powerful" in explaining the concept of "privilege" - often styled "white privilege."  This is an expression of Critical Theory that posits that a certain subset of people enjoy an unfair economic advantage over other groups.  The typical nomenclature is that the privileged groups are "oppressors" and everyone else is "oppressed."  Such notions are indeed powerful modern expressions of Marxist social theory (cultural Marxism).  There is no question of the power of Marxism.  It is truly a force to be reckoned with.

The video depicts a race with some people getting a head start - mostly white people.  It begins with what seems to be a spontaneous group of joyful young people innocently showing up for the race.  At the starting line, the announcer calls out various life conditions that result in some racers being able to take steps forward before the race begins, while others must stay where they are.  It includes emotional music, and as the various privileges are awarded, the camera zooms in on the anguished faces of those who don't enjoy the privileges.  As the video progresses, the happy faces give way to discomfort and looks of shame and guilt on the part of the "privileged."

The first two privileges called out involve having married parents and a father figure in the home.  The rest of the questions involve such things as education and money.  One of the questions pertains to scholarship opportunities (interestingly and inexplicably, excluding athletic scholarships).  After the advantages have been doled out, the announcer asks those in front to turn around and look at their relative starting positions compared to others.  He tells them that their places have nothing to do with anything that they have done - implying that one's advantages and disadvantages in life are completely arbitrary, just random dumb luck - or perhaps a conspiracy among the privileged.

Three fourths of the way into the video, the announcer finally brings race into the soliloquy (the "black dudes" who would "smoke you" in the race were it not for "white privilege"). Moreover, in this race, the prize is a single $100 bill.  So in reality, every single person, black or white, "privileged" or not, other than that single winner, is a loser who walks away with absolutely nothing.

This is indeed an emotionally powerful video, but does it correspond with reality?

In real life, does only one person walk away with everything, while nobody else gets anything?  Is real life like the game of Monopoly, in which one winner takes all and everyone else ends up bankrupt?  The reality is that life is not a zero-sum game.  When Rockefeller made a fortune in oil, when Gates and Jobs became billionaires in microcomputers, when Ford became rich manufacturing automobiles, all mankind benefited: especially the poor, who almost instantly had increasingly inexpensive tools to allow them to compete in ways that formerly excluded them.  In the words of John F. Kennedy - addressing this very economic idea: "The rising tide lifts all the boats."

And what about athletic scholarships?  Why were they arbitrarily excluded from the concept of privilege?  Universities routinely award millions of dollars in scholarship money for sports and athletics.  In fact, many of the nation's wealthiest and most revered heroes are athletes - the majority of which are black.  Are we to conclude that this racial disparity is a discriminatory conspiracy, or should we rather conclude that the team owners are greedily hiring the best people regardless of race, because they want to win championships?  Is this unfair?  Should professional sports teams be required to allow people like me - a 53 year old white guy - to share playing time with Lebron James in order to countermand his "privilege"?  Should Usain Bolt have to run twice as far as the other Olympic runners to offset his obvious advantages?

But the unspoken reality is this: economic advantage and disadvantage overwhelmingly flow from the first two questions in the video: concerning married parents and a father in the home.  And this is not arbitrary and accidental.  These are overwhelmingly choices that we make in our lives that affect us and our children.  Instead of a scenario of allowing people with married parents and fathers in the home to receive what is perceived as an unfair advantage, what if the presentation featured everyone at the same starting line, but people who are promiscuous being told that they and their children will now have to run their race with shackles around their legs?  What if other handicaps were applied to children if their parents (or they themselves as young adults), instead of investing in their and their children's education, chose to spend their money on concerts, vacations, alcohol, drugs, tattoos, cars, jewelry, cable TV and sports events?

Is it fair that people who sacrifice and do the right thing should then have to give money to people who made bad decisions, spent their money on short time-preference pleasures, and acted selfishly and foolishly toward their own children?  Is it right that young people, whose parents remained married and invested wisely - and taught their children to do the same - should now be treated as if they were "oppressors" and be taught that their skin color is a disease upon the planet?

The research of black scholar Thomas Sowell demonstrates that the destruction of the intact black family has had devastating and generational economic consequences for modern black Americans, and that the welfare state has created disincentives for the very thing that helps children the most: intact families (the first two questions in the video).

The reality is that our decisions in life - good and bad - do not affect only ourselves.  We don't live in a vacuum.  We do grow up in a cultural paradigm forged by the intactness of our families and the economic investments we are willing to make.  And this is not arbitrary.  It has to do with our choices.

We can learn from various cultures who value marital morality, family cohesiveness, and long time-preferences with money and resources.  Asians are often successful in America - even as immigrants or first-generation Americans.  Why?  Are they taking advantage of some kind of "white privilege"?  Or is it because their culture values intact families and sacrifice?  Why doesn't their status as "people of color" or their "otherness" or even their linguistic diversity result in their being left behind?  And is it "unfair" that people who are motivated by a cultural work ethic reap economic rewards - especially as their children learn these lessons as they live out their lives?  Why didn't the announcer mention things like: "If you worked two jobs while going to school while your friends partied, take ten steps forward"?  "If you opted out of cars and vacations and season tickets to put your children in a private school, take ten steps forward"? 

Work ethic and sacrifice are never mentioned in this video.

If we truly valued diversity, we would look at the success of Asian immigrants to the United States and figure out how we can replicate their success.  But videos like this one would rather penalize and stigmatize people racially and imply unfairness and oppression rather than admit that people handicap themselves and their own progeny by making poor choices in life and with their resources.

The typical leftist solution is to vilify the successful, penalize the thrifty, and demonize the hard-working, while sowing seeds of dissension between groups of people based on superficial differences such as the amount of melanin in the skin.  This only serves to reward destructive behavior and encourage sloth.  Taken to its extreme, political "solutions" to the problem of "inequality" can take the form of Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron" - which symbolizes the very philosophy espoused by Critical Theory.

Instead of attacking the real issue, the privilege video implies that the solution to the hangover is more booze.  And it uses agenda-driven propaganda, emotional manipulation, and rhetorical sleight of hand rather than factual argumentation to make the case.  Unfortunately, young (and not so young) people, largely deprived of classical education, lack the intellectual skills and the knowledge of Economics needed to see through the rhetoric and to think critically about the video.

We are surrounded not merely by propaganda, but also by deliberately-crafted deceptiveness - willful lies in other words - to push a political agenda.  This has become normalized even by professional journalists and reporters.

The recent visit of Donald Trump to Japan is a clear case in point.  Mark Dice exposes the duplicity of the mainstream media - more concerned with political manipulation than objective truth.  Worse even than the amoral reporting is the willful ignorance of the consumers of what used to be called "news" - which in reality has become Soviet-style agitprop and Orwellian mind control.

Like government, we get the media that we deserve.  The consumer is king and has the power.  But like the cowed townspeople in The Emperor's New Clothes, we allow ourselves to be gulled.

Unless and until the concept of objective truth, over and against subjective feelings and desires, returns to our intellectual and public life, and unless and until there is a social cost to dishonestly and duplicity, as well as a restored valuation of integrity and truth-telling regardless of agenda, we will continue to deal with "fake news" and people being led by the nose to disastrous political and economic consequences, having been intellectually, culturally, and ethically disarmed, unable to be truly critical and to actually question authority.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Sermon: All Saints Day (Observed)

5 November 2017

Text: Matt 5:1-12

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Today’s Gospel, known as the Beatitudes, is one of the most beloved of all passages in Scripture.  Even unbelievers love the sentiments expressed and the poetic sound of the Lord’s words.  “Blessed” is translated as “happy” in some modern translations, and the word “blessed” appears ten times.

In fact, some might think that the Christian life is a life that is always happy.  Jesus even winds down the beatitudes with an invitation to “rejoice and be glad.”  In the words of the popular TV preacher, you can have your best life now!

But there is also a word that appears three times – once in each of the last three verses: “persecute.”  Now that is something we really don’t want to hear.  Persecution is for Christians who live in Saudi Arabia or China or Sweden or some other place thousands of miles away from here.  It’s certainly nothing we Americans have to be concerned about.  Yes, we pray for persecuted Christians, like Asia Bibi in Pakistan, as we have been doing now for some seven years – but we don’t want to dwell on her case too much because it might make us feel bad.  The beatitudes are about being happy.  Or so we might want to convince ourselves.

Dear friends, persecution is one of the marks of the Church.  We are the enemy of the evil one.  If Satan sought to destroy our Lord, should we expect any less hatred from the prince of this world, seeking whom he may devour?

Indeed, our Lord says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Persecution was always lurking around the corner for the early Church.  John the Baptist was beheaded even before our Lord was crucified.  St. Stephen was stoned to death under the watchful eyes of St. Paul before his conversion.  St. Paul would himself die as a martyr, along with St. Peter, in Rome.  Eleven of the Lord’s apostles would be martyred.  We know all about the cruelties of the madman Nero in the 60s AD, and of the bloodthirsty Domitian in the 80s and 90s.  The persecutions were so bad that even normal Romans, who hated the Christians, felt sorry for them: especially the women and children who were tortured for sport.

But does this talk of persecution apply to us?

Our Lord’s last Beatitude is: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account.”  Notice that He doesn’t say “if” others persecute you, but “when.” 

The Church is persecuted on account of Christ.  And though the level of persecution varies in time and place, never fall into the trap, dear brothers and sisters, that the world loves you.  The world is not your friend.  The world hates Christ, hates the Church, and hates you.  But what does our Lord say?  He does not say to hang our heads and wring our hands.  He does not say to react with hatred or to persecute others in response.  He does not say that we are to feed our enemies to lions or behead them or crucify them.  In fact, He tells us to love them, pray for them, and forgive them.

And when we are persecuted: be it fed to lions, ridiculed by coworkers, sued by activists pursuing (which is the actual meaning of the word “persecute”) Christians whom they know will act in accordance with their consciences, shunned by family members, arrested by the government, mocked by the pseudo-righteous in Hollywood, or marginalized by a society that claims to be tolerant and inclusive – our Lord tells us that we should “rejoice and be glad.”  For this is how it should be.  If we are persecuted – not for being evil but for confessing that which (and whom which) is righteous, we are doing what we are supposed to be doing.  Can we expect any less, dear friends?  Is a pupil above his Master – especially when his Master died on the cross for the sins of the world?  Didn’t our Lord tell us to follow Him by taking up our own crosses?

Indeed, the Christian life is not for the fainthearted, and yet we are blessed – especially when we are spiritually impoverished, mourning, meek, and longing for a righteousness that is alien to this world and to our own flesh. We are indeed blessed when we show mercy to others, when our hearts are pure (as they can only be by God’s grace and forgiveness), and when we seek peace instead of violence. 

We are blessed, dear friends, not because suffering in this life and world are happy, but rather because our Lord has overcome the world!  Our suffering in a very small way is a sharing in His suffering, and His suffering is how we have been reconciled to God: by the cross, by the blood of the Lamb, by the satisfaction of the wrath of God by the Son’s perfect life and atoning death.  What an honor to be counted worthy to suffer for the Holy Name of Jesus Christ!

This is what is means to be a saint, dear friends: to be a forgiven sinner brought into communion with our Lord by dying with Him in Holy Baptism, and rising with Him to everlasting life according to the Word and promise of God.

This is why we rejoice, as the saints, and with the saints.  We stand as part of the long chain of forgiven sinners, of those who have suffered for the kingdom and been counted worthy because of the blood of the Lamb, who is worthy.

We remember our heroes of the faith, known and unknown; great and small; men, women, and children; those of “all tribes and peoples and languages,” all who pray with us, on earth and in heaven: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

For indeed, “These are the ones coming from the great tribulation.  They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  We rejoice, dear friends, because they have won the victory, “and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Blessed are you, dear saints, blessed are you!  That is the Word of the Lord and the promise of the living God.  “Rejoice and be glad.”  Amen!

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Sermon: Reformation Day (Observed Wednesday)

1 November 2017

Text: Matt 11:12-19 (Rom 3:19-28)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Five hundred years is a long time.  We’ve seen quite a few changes since 1517.  Obviously, technology has gone from the Gutenberg printing press to the Internet. We have progressed from the wheel to the satellite.  We enjoy heat and air conditioning, indoor plumbing, entertainment, refrigerators, cars, planes, and medical advances bordering on the miraculous.

The Church had a lot of changes as well, which we call the Reformation.  It has been both good and bad: good because the idea that forgiveness is for sale or can be earned has been refuted by the Scriptures – which are available in our own language.  We also worship in our own language, have Bible classes, and lay people are encouraged to participate fully in the Lord’s Supper.  The Reformation did have some bad changes as well, as many reformers went too far, and now we have lots of denominations, many of which teach false doctrines.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is sin.  We are still poor, miserable sinners as we have been since the fall in Eden.  And sin leads to violence.  Violence is a shortcut to get what we want.  Instead of earning money to buy what we desire, we can steal or intimidate other people to give us their money.  Or we can have politicians steal for us.  In the last century, we saw both fascism and communism commit totalitarian violence and destroy entire nations.

Violence quickly followed the fall in the Garden of Eden.  We see violence between even married people, as God told Eve that this would happen.  We see brothers killing brothers, as happened between Cain and Abel.  We see the world becoming so violent, that God Himself violently wiped out nearly the entire population of the world.

In the Reformation, we saw Christians murdering other Christians.  Luther was himself threatened with being burned at the stake. 

And today, we suffer a lot of violence, as the recent terror attack in New York, committed in the name of a false god, serves as a grim example.

Jesus said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”  John was beheaded for the sake of his preaching the Word of God, and his testimony of Jesus.  John was the first martyr – even preceding our Lord’s own crucifixion.  The violent think they can take the kingdom by violence, in the same way that the violent kill their enemies and rob possessions belonging to others.

But God’s kingdom cannot be won by violence.  The stake and the concentration camp do not make Christians. 

But there is an irony at work in the cross.  For the kingdom of God came to us through an act of violence.  For the violent sought to lord over the Lord by violence.  But what happened was that the Lord used that act of violence to redeem us by His grace.  The universal symbol of Christianity is the cross: an instrument of cruel and violent torture that has become a symbol of grace and merciful love.  The violence of God’s wrath has been laid upon Jesus, the “Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world.”

The cross is central to the life of the Christian.  Jesus said that to follow Him, we must bear our own crosses.  One cross that we must bear is to live in this world of violence and hatred – at least on this side of the grave and until the return of our Lord. 

The Lord’s observation of the world’s fickleness is still true today: “John came neither eating nor drinking and they say, ‘he has a demon.’  The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at Him!  A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’”

Dr. Luther taught the same Gospel as the Roman Catholic Church of the days of St. Augustine, a thousand years before his own day, and the leaders of Rome called him a heretic.  Dr. Luther and we so-called Lutherans continue to practice the liturgy and the sacraments, and we are accused of being “Romanists.”  Yet, as Jesus says, “wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

Dear friends, we continue to live our Christian lives according to the confessions and principles of the Reformation, not because they are “Lutheran” ideas, but because they are Biblical ideas, or more accurately, they are Christ’s ideas that the Church has confessed since the days of the apostles.

You cannot have the forgiveness of sins by violently taking the kingdom.  Rather, forgiveness is a free gift.  You cannot buy it, earn it, or treat it as a commodity.  It is the merciful disposition of God toward you for the sake of His Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. 

There is nothing to steal, to lust after, to plot to take, to buy, or to seize from another by violence.  The Good News is that we “are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received in faith.”  Through the cross, we have peace with God, and we receive mercy and pardon by a gracious act of God.

That is the central message of the Reformation, our confession for five hundred years.  We do not put people to death or coerce them by violence.  Christianity is the Religion of Peace, even as Jesus is the Prince of Peace.

Indeed, many things have changed in five centuries, but the truly important things have not, chief of which is the fact that though we are sinners, God loves us, and redeems us by His Son.  And we, the Church, are charged with proclaiming and spreading this Good News.

Let us pray for the grace to continue in this nonviolent confession and life for the next five hundred years, and beyond, even unto eternity!  Amen!

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sermon: Reformation Day (Observed) and Confirmation of Bryton Powell

29 October 2017

Text: Rom 3:19-28

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

In 1948, an American professor named Dr. Richard Weaver wrote a thoughtful and widely-discussed book called Ideas Have Consequences.  In 1517, a German professor named Dr. Martin Luther wrote down some ideas that he thought needed to be discussed. 

And there were indeed consequences.

The world has had five centuries to consider those ideas and their consequences.  As with most ideas, there have been both good and bad consequences in history.  The bad news is that our once fairly united western church has been broken into pieces, like a mirror dropped on a marble floor.  But the good news is that the western church that had become hopelessly corrupt and consumed with false doctrine, has had to take a long hard look in the mirror.

Dr. Luther’s original idea was that the practice of selling indulgences seems to be a very bad idea.  His idea was to talk about it among the professors.  And so on the eve of All Saints Day in 1517, he put up 95 debate topics on the bulletin board, and even wrote them in Latin so that they would be limited to the classroom.

But someone translated these debate points, these 95 theses, into German, and then printed and published them using the latest Gutenberg technology.  The post went viral, and all of Europe was soon talking about these ideas about selling indulgences.

Now, an indulgence was a decree of time off of Purgatory based on prayers or good works.  But by 1517, you could buy and sell the good works of the saints, and the church discovered that this was a good racket.  It made so much money as to finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Nobody is proud of this today.  Nobody defends this practice.  A lot of people really didn’t like it even at the time, but Professor Luther’s post is the one that went viral. 

The debate spurred on other ideas and questions: Are pastors and bishops above the Bible, or must they too submit to Scripture?  Is there such a thing as Purgatory in the first place?  And finally, the really big questions that emerged: How do we get access to Christ’s forgiveness of sins?  And is justification given as a gift that we receive through faith, or is it something we earn?

And that last question quickly became the real heart of the matter.  There is no possibility of compromise.

Dr. Luther and his colleagues at Wittenberg University, as well as other theologians and princes began to study the actual words of Scripture as they were written in the original languages.  They pondered these ideas and their consequences in light older writings of the church fathers.  And for the sake of their honest inquiry, they were accused of heresy; they were ordered to stop; their books were burned; some of them were themselves burned at the stake. 

And yet they continued to read and study and preach and teach, even as St. Paul proclaims to us anew this day: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight…. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law… through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

We may read this today and take it for granted.  But in 1517, this was a dangerous idea, an exciting idea, and a liberating idea.  These simple words from the Bible – read in our own language – clearly state that we are not saved by works, by pilgrimages, by certain prayers, by decrees of bishops, or by transfer of money.  We can’t buy love, and we don’t earn love.  Love is freely given by the lover to the beloved, unconditionally.  If it is bought, it is no longer love.  If it is earned, it is no longer a gift. 

And so we are “justified by His grace as a gift.”  And this is Good News, which is what the word “Gospel” means.  In Latin, Gospel, is “Evangelium” – and so this rediscovery of an old idea gave us the nickname “Evangelicals.”  Our opponents thought that was bad PR for their side, and so they called us “Lutherans” instead – which horrified Dr. Luther.  But the name stuck.

Luther was not just a professor, but also a pastor and giver of “soul care.”  He was preacher of the Gospel.  He understood that the Bible is a Bad News/Good News story.  One example is our text: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Bad news.  But we “are justified by His grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received in faith.”  Good News!  Evangelium!  Gospel!

This evangelical way of reading the Bible is nothing new.  It was precisely how the great bishop and doctor of the church, St. Augustine, preached and taught and wrote and lived his life a thousand years before Luther was born.

And so five hundred years after Luther’s post went viral, we are still proclaiming this Gospel and faithfully teaching the Word of God.  We are still forgiving sins in accordance with the command and authority of Jesus.  We are still eating His body and drinking His blood, as means to that grace which we receive through faith.  We are still refusing to buy and sell forgiveness.  In fact, pastors forgive in the name of Jesus for free.  That forgiveness has already been paid for by the blood of the Lamb.  It’s yours as a gift!

While we would prefer to be called Evangelicals rather than Lutherans, we honor Dr. Luther for his theology, his courage, his faithful preaching and teaching, his translation of the Bible into the language of the people, his catechisms, his hymns, and his tireless emphasis on the Word of God and the Gospel.

In fact, his Small Catechism still provides us with Christian instruction for young people, like our dear brother in Christ Bryton, to prepare to confess this Gospel and join us at the communion rail, even as he will today.  What a fitting day for a confirmation into the faith: not the Lutheran faith, but the Christian faith, the universal catholic faith, the faith of the Bible, the faith of the Gospel, the faith of the holy apostles, the faith of Jesus Christ!  Bryton will publicly pledge his life to the truth of God’s Word and to “continue steadfast in this confession and church, and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it.”

Moreover, he will join us for the first time at the altar to receive the holy sacrament, having studied and confessed Luther’s catechism, not because it is Luther’s, but rather because it teaches the Word of God.

The great idea of the Reformation is the truth of the scripture that the Gospel isn’t about us: what we can earn or buy or do.  But rather it is about Jesus: what He has earned by His perfect life, what He has bought with His death, and what He does in redeeming us by the Gospel. 

“Then what becomes of our boasting?”  Asks St. Paul, just before answering his own question: “It is excluded.  By what kind of law?  By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.  For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

That idea has consequences, eternal consequences, evangelical consequences, consequences for Luther, the early Lutherans, for us, for Bryton, and for all Christians including those yet to be born five hundred years from now and beyond.  And those consequences, dear friends, are not just good news, but rather the best news ever: that Christ saves you by grace, through faith, by His blood shed on the cross, and His Word is the infallible, iron-clad promise written in Scripture.  Here we stand!  God help us!  Amen!

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.