Sermo Dei: St. Mark’s Day 2017

Posted on April 25th, 2017

Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana

2 Timothy 4:5-18

April 25, 2017


“The time of my departure has come.” Springtime at seminary prompts such thoughts. But your ministry will not be what you expect. For St. Paul, departure meant death. So it is for you. Your call is to go and die.

It’s the call of Baptism. “Follow Me.” “Take up your cross.” Come and die.


Paul summarizes his service as having been “the good fight.” More literally, “the beautiful, noble agony.”

What is this good fight? What is the noble agony? The fight is not with the people God gives you to serve.

Sure; we may find evil men fighting us. St. Paul mentions one, Alexander the Coppersmith. He hurt Paul. People will hurt you. But your battle, the good fight, is not with people.

Conflicts will come. But the good fight, the noble agony, is the one where you only care about the Word of God and the well-being of your neighbor. The evil fight, the ugly battle, is the one where Bible and by-laws are mere bludgeons to batter your foes.

It was no noble agony that divided Paul and Barnabas. It centered around Mark, whose feast we celebrate this day. Devolving into bitterness, they separated.

I’ve heard people use the conflict between Paul and Barnabas as a justification for schism in the church. Brothers, it’s there as an example for what we ought not to do. What kind of beautiful agony did Paul and Barnabas and Mark have to go through to forgive? What good fight brought this resolution? “Get Mark. Bring him. He’s useful.”

If Jesus is risen from the dead, why do we act like our conflicts cannot be likewise resolved? Is our struggle one that the Holy Spirit would call “beautiful, noble”?


The deepest locus of conflict is the one inside yourself. There, in your heart, is the arena of the good fight. There, the conflict with your concupiscence, is the noble agony.

In the great battle over the Lord’s Supper, Luther said that the devil began by sending him “coarse, stupid blockheads who can do nothing but lie and slander.” No problem, Luther said; St. Paul had it a lot worse. Demas, his good friend, left him. But, Luther warned, the real battle, the noble agony was still to come for the Reformation.

Moreover, when the really crucial battle with the devil begins, within ourselves, we must expect that some of those who are now the spearheads of our movement will fall, be it Luther or someone else. When we fight with Satan, it is no mere academic disputation. 

The “really crucial battle” is “within ourselves.” That battle Demas fought, and appears to have lost. “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me.”

What within you is in love with this present world? Will you be disappointed with your call? Do you think you’re suited for something greater? Is the town not the right size for you? Are you in love with this present world?

You are in love with this present world when you look with longing at a woman not your wife.

You are in love with this present world when you look with longing at a congregation to which you have not been called.

You are in love with this present world when you resent what others have.

You are in love with this present world when you grumble against your leaders.

You are in love with this present world when you argue with the wife God gave you.

You are in love with this present world when you are cowardly instead of faithful.

You are in love with this present world when faithfulness is synonymous with rudeness.

You are in love with this present world when you look at impure images.

You are in love with this present world!

You are not alone. St. Mark struggled with the love of this present world. Likely the rich young ruler, Mark went away from Jesus sad. He could not follow the Words of Jesus to him. “Go, sell what you have, and follow Me.” He was not ready for the noble agony. He was losing the good fight.

He was not yet sober-minded, part of Paul’s instruction to the pastor. Mark could have Jesus, but he still preferred his passions. Controlled by disordered desire, he was in love with this present world.

Finally, deserting Jesus on the night He was betrayed, Mark is stripped of everything. Mark loses his garment, and runs away. In the garden, Mark is naked and ashamed. Mark is Adam. Exposed, without excuse, dominated by fear, desires disordered.


But Jesus was not done with Mark. “You have Me,” Jesus says to Mark.

Jesus is not done with you. “You have Me,” Jesus says to you.

We want this present world, but God works on us so that gradually all of it is taken away. All our excuses, all our self-justifications, stripped away. Only the garment of Christ’s righteousness can cover our naked shame.

“See Me!” Jesus is saying to us. Crucified, naked, deserted, Jesus atones for Adam, Mark, you.


So when he was deserted, Paul could say he was alone, yet not alone. “The Lord stood by me, and strengthened me.” In the noble agony, we lose on our own strength. The Lord alone stands, the Lord alone strengthens.

In the agony, Paul’s life was being conformed to Christ. In the agony Mark’s life was being conformed to Christ. We do not conform ourselves but are conformed. The fight, the agony, comes upon us as God’s gift. We can receive it to our benefit, or rage against it to our destruction.


Confess today, with Demas, your love of this present world. Confess with Mark your love of money. Confess with Paul and Barnabas your strife and contention. Confess, and hear this:

Jesus forgives you. Jesus makes you useful. Jesus covers your shame. Jesus guides you in the good fight. Jesus comforts you in the noble agony. Jesus stands by you. Jesus strengthens you. Jesus died your death, and makes Alleluia your song, so that we go out and preach everywhere, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

✠INJ✠

 

The Resurrection of Our Lord—Easter Day 2017

Posted on April 18th, 2017

The Resurrection of Our Lord – Easter Day

St. Mark 16:1-8

April 16, 2017

Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia


On Friday, the weeping women heard His last words.

“It is finished,” Jesus said, and they believed Him. It’s all over.

You’ve heard those words.

“Finish them!” the coach shouts, when the opponent is on the ropes.

“You’re finished!” says the boss, as you get fired.

“We’re finished!” she snarls, ending the relationship.

“It is finished,” Jesus said. They believed Him. It’s all over. Death wins.

So early in the morning, they do their duty. The women go to serve a dead Jesus. They show love and devotion. Yet hope is lost. They believe the jeers from Friday. “He saved others; Himself He cannot save.” 

They will honor Him with their spices. Sweet smells hiding a corpse’s stench.

“Who will roll away the stone?” they ask. What are they saying? “God has left us. Jesus is dead. And with Him, our hopes.”


Is there any of that in your life? I know there is. You set out, you came to this place with excitement. Here, at the center of the free world, is power, influence, opportunity. You believed you could make a difference, take your chances, and rise. You will change the world! But it changes you. You become squeezed into its mold. You’re a cog in the machine, and you’re easily replaced.

Who will roll away the stone? We’re the ones trapped, alive, yet already inside the grave. So quickly, it is finished.

So you look at your struggling child and weep.

You consider your relationships—or lack thereof—and despair.

The doctor has bad news for you.

Your stats are down.

You’ve passed your prime.

What else is there for you to do?

Go with your spices!

Weep in graveyards!

Anoint your dead!


“It is finished,” Jesus said, and they believed Him. But they were wrong. Jesus finished those very things that trouble you.

He bore your griefs, and they are finished.

He carried your sorrows, and they are finished.

He was wounded for your transgressions, and they are finished.

He was crushed for your iniquities, and they are finished.

So tell your accusers that Jesus said, “It is finished.”

What are you, death? You are finished.

What are you, grave? You are finished.

What are you, sins? You threaten me with my past, but Jesus buried you. You are finished!


Jesus said, “It is finished,” but He is not finished.

“Behold!” He says, “I am making all things new.”

Is your body growing old? Christ is risen, and your body too shall be made new.

Does your child struggle and suffer? Christ is risen, and He will not abandon Your little one.

Do you feel your life slipping away? Christ is risen, and today your life is made new.

Your body is not finished. Behold, I am making all things new!

Your life in the body has meaning. Behold, I am making all things new!


Whoever you are, whatever your story, this story is your story. In fact, you’ve already been written into it. This history becomes your present, with the three little words, “Go tell Peter.”

Peter thought it was finished, Peter thought he was finished. Jesus was dead, but if He was risen, that could not be good news. Why? Peter denied Jesus. He cursed and swore, “I do not know the man.”

Does Peter deserve friendship? Does Peter deserve forgiveness? No, no.

But the Word comes especially for and to Peter. Jesus is risen. Jesus forgives. Be at peace!

Are you anxious? So was Peter. Do you have doubts? So did Thomas. Have you thought you are better than others? So did James and John. Have you argued? So did they all, on the night Jesus was arrested!

Jesus sends words of comfort to them through the holy women at the tomb. They walked to the graveyard weary, finished. They ran home made new.

They ran home with a Word, and that Word is also for you:

Christ is judged, and you are acquitted.

Christ is fallen, and you are raised up.

Christ is spit upon, and you are wiped clean.

Christ is mocked, and you are praised.

Christ is hated, and you are the Father’s beloved.

Christ is finished, and you are begun.

Christ is killed, and you are reborn.

Christ is buried, and you are baptized.

The stone is rolled away, and the door to paradise is opened to you.

Christ is risen, and death is undone.

Christ is risen, and the demons are put to flight.

Christ is risen, and Adam and Eve are lifted up from hell.

Christ is risen, and you shall rise too.

Christ is risen, and He is making all things new.

So sing and dance, clang the cymbals and blow the trumpet, for Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Sermon Dei: Good Friday Passion Vespers 2017

Posted on April 14th, 2017

Eugène Delacroix, La Crocifissione, bozzetto, 1845, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia

Good Friday + April 14, 2017 + Luke 23:34-37


Who could have seen that it would turn out this way? “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10f).

Who could have seen that the one born on that day would be a Savior in this way?

It seems, as blood streams from His hands, His feet, His crown, His side, that this Jesus is no savior. “Some savior!” they sneer. “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ, the chosen of God.”

They laughed at Him. They spit on Him. They beat Him and jeered.


And all the while, what was Jesus doing? “They were raging, but he was praying” [Augustine].

If someone hits you, what do you want to do? Strike back.

If they laugh at you, look for an opportunity to take revenge. Pounce at the next opportunity.

If someone betrays you, then you may forever see that person as your enemy.

But while they were raging, He was praying.


They make Jesus an enemy, but He sees them as friends.

They shout “Crucify!” but He cries out, “Forgive!” “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”

Isaiah prophesied this most beautiful of prayers. “He bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).

Jesus makes intercession for transgressors, for sinners. Not made, like He did it once. He makes intercession, He prays, He goes to the Father and keeps on going. He goes before the Father and prays for the Centurion and the penitent thief. Jesus goes before the Father and prays for Peter who denied Him and the other disciples who ran away, and Jesus keeps on going, standing before the Father, praying for you and for me. Jesus right now is saying to His Father, “Forgive them.”

They stabbed Him in the side, and we stab Him with every cruel word. They crowned Him with thorns, and we cut Him with every act of selfishness. Mary laid Him in a manger, but our sins laid Him in the tomb. Yet still He prays for us, still he dies for us. St. Augustine said, “He was hanging from the cruel nails, but he did not lose his gentleness.”


One of the rebels crucified with Jesus said, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” He doesn’t know what he’s saying. Unwittingly, he prays the perfect prayer: “Save us!” That’s exactly what Jesus is doing. But He doesn’t save Himself. Everything Jesus did was to trade places with us. He doesn’t save Himself, because He’s making a swap. “I will die, and you will be saved.

The other rebel get it. So he says, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” The death of Jesus is how He saves us. So Jesus replies, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

These are the good tidings of great joy announced at Christmas. Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter all hang together. Jesus was born just so He could pray that prayer from the cross: “Father, forgive them.”


What do you think? Will the Father answer that prayer? Will He forgive us? Will He give us life and resurrection? Easter Sunday is the answer to that question.

So even on this sad day, when the decorations are gone and the pastors wear black – even on this sad day, we call it Good.

Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is crucified for you this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. INJ

Sermo Dei: Palm Sunday 2017

Posted on April 9th, 2017

It’s nice to talk about resurrection, but the words I speak at the time of death sometimes feel hollow. It’s all future-oriented, and while I believe it, we’re still left with the corpse. Someone has to call the funeral home, someone has to open the grave, and then there we are, looking down into the earth. Most of our life is so sanitary, and even at death, we farm out the dirty work to others.

But there, when the casket descends, and you see off in the distance the men waiting to come and close the vault and cover it with dirt – for just a moment, you see and you know that our clean lives are a lie. Squirt the anti-bacterial fluid, rub it thoroughly through fingers and on palms, but in the end your hands will be full of dirt.


Most of the Jews believed in the resurrection of the body, with teachings like Daniel 12: “Those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (v2). But they felt the same thing we do: the vanity and meaninglessness of a life that ends in a grave.


The Palm Sunday Gospel (John 12:12-19) we read outside began like this: “The next day.” Those are loaded words. The day before, Jesus had gone to a tomb. It wasn’t sanitized, meant to put you at ease and be comfortable. They protest when Jesus wants the door of the tomb opened. “No! It stinks.”

But then, Jesus does the unbelievable. Not the way we use the word. “Have you tried the pie? Unbelievable.” “Did you see the game? Yeah; unbelievable.” But Jesus does something that really is very difficult to believe. The stinking, decaying, entombed body, He calls forth and makes alive by the power of His Word.

That’s why Palm Sunday happens. That’s why the crowd has gathered to meet Him on the road into Jerusalem. They’re welcoming Him like it’s inauguration day, singing songs about Jesus being a King, waving palm branches for a hero. That’s why this happened. “The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign.”

This is why we also are here. We have heard that Jesus did this sign. Jesus raises the dead.


So to Him we come, with our broken hearts and troubled marriages, with our lonely lives and broken dreams. We come with sins that Lent has not eradicated. We come still having our disappointing boss, our hard-to-manage children, our failures and secrets that bring us shame.

We’ve heard that there’s one who raises the dead. What can He do for us? So we shout to Him, Hosanna! Save us now!

We bring to Jesus our children, as Charles and Megan brought Thomas this morning. “Help him, bless him! Hosanna! Save him now!”

We want our children to be normal, to be healthy, to be successful. What we should want above all is for our children to be Christians. But like a new car, roads with debris and parking lots with stray shopping carts begin to put dents in what was perfect. The new building begins to settle, and cracks emerge, faulty equipment is exposed. The world is filled with death everywhere, and in our children, we see death looming, and suffer guilt for the mistakes we made.

Into all that mess, into all the mistakes we made, into the graves we’ve dug, marches Jesus. He keeps on going, through the crowds, to His cross. Any other man would stop at the throne. He’d carpe that diem, he’d use the crowd to take control of the city. But Jesus goes instead to bear a cross, assume our guilt, atone for our sins, die our death.


“Look! The world has gone after him!” the Pharisees cry. Not really. But we should (go after Him).

What does it mean, to go after Jesus, to follow Him? Charles and Megan, do you realize that’s what you enrolled Thomas in this morning? Peyson and Josie, do you realize that’s what you’ll be pledging in just a few moments? Having a nice life, a good education, good home, good job, good family, good time – what does it get you? Where does it end? “You see that you are gaining nothing.” Go after Jesus.


The way of Jesus is the way of the cross. It’s the way of emptying yourself so your neighbor can be filled. It’s the way of humbling yourself so your neighbor can be lifted up. It’s a way that cannot be conformed to this world, because this world is all about filling yourself, satisfying yourself, lifting yourself up.

But you are those who have gathered here to meet Jesus. You are those who follow Him. His way will mean you lose the argument because you are more interested in peace. His way will mean you aren’t rich because you gave what you have away. His way will mean you aren’t owed anything because you forgave those who sinned against you.

This way is difficult. But it’s the only way we can go. We are disciples of Jesus. We go after Him.

And then, when we can go no further, and our own bodies stink and decompose, He will come and say to you, “Thomas Gregory, come forth! Josephine Angelina, come forth! Person Montgomery, come forth! All you who are joined to Me by Baptism into death, come forth! For sin and the grave have no power over you! You are mine forever.” INJ

Funeral Sermon: Paul Donald Ring

Posted on April 8th, 2017

Dear Ruth, John, Linda; dear brothers and sisters in Christ: Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee: He shall never suffer the righteous to be moved. (Ps 55.22)


When Don came out of church and shook my hand, he always made me feel like a million bucks. Some people say, “Good sermon, pastor.” Not Don. He would exclaim, “Say, you’ve got a strong handshake!” Then with a big smile he’d squeeze my arm, and make me feel powerful, muscular, manly.

Despite his stroke, which made conversation difficult, Don knew how to be friendly and nice. With a warm welcome he’d greet you at his door, and he always seemed genuinely disappointed that you were leaving.

But in all these years I’ve known him, you could also sense the frustration. He would struggle to find the word he wanted to use. Conversations were exceedingly slow. He sometimes just gave up. The words would not come.

He made me feel strong, but the strength of his own mind was enfeebled by the corruption affecting this death-ridden world. He served his country as an officer when the world was threatened by the Axis powers, and then he rose to the heights of his profession in the Federal Reserve, where he met his lovely bride. He was successful and strong. But the strength of body and mind always fails.


The Epistle to the Hebrews says, “When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet” (10:12f). These enemies far surpass the Germans or Japanese, or the economic perils of inflation.

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” says the Apostle. On his 90th birthday, Don lost his long battle with that enemy. But today we confess Jesus who won the battle we could not. Today, even in Lent, we confess: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

The moratorium on the Alleluias is broken, for the power of the grave is undone. We are an Easter people. Alleluia! is our song. The resurrection is the heart of our hope. Don’s confirmation verse is Hebrews 10:23: “Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised).” That profession of faith is a confession of hope based on what immediately came before: Jesus opened for us “a new and living way … through the curtain [of] his flesh.” 

The Old Testament way was an old and dying way. It always involved dead things – lambs, bulls, and goats. The blood of dead animals was shed again and again and again, a constant reminder that our sin leads to death. But the crucified flesh of Jesus is living again; He has emerged from the grave. The shed blood of Christ, flowing from His pierced side, now courses through His risen body, for He has trampled down death by His death.

The way of Jesus is now a living way. On this way Don walked; on this road Don ran; on this course Don persevered. The way of Jesus is now a new and living way, and He promises that this body, washed with pure water and sprinkled clean – this body shall live again. His dentures shall be replaced with teeth that will not decay. His revivified blood vessels will permit no stroke. His memory will be sharp, and words of praise to his Maker will flow forth without hesitation.


Dear friends, the Lord Jesus knows how you feel this day. When He came to the tomb of His friend Lazarus, He wept. He groaned and sighed, His insides churned with agony and lament. This was not the goal of His creation. Death is not just a part of life, or a natural sequence towards liberation from the material world. Death corrupts every good thing that God made, and so God in the flesh, God who Himself would suffer death – He weeps. He enters into your sorrow, and feels it entirely.

He goes and joins our death to His own, and what remains, what we still hope in, is the coming day when Don and all the faithful will be joined to His resurrection unto life. He will come to Don’s tomb and say the same thing He said to Lazarus: “Paul Donald, come forth!” And it shall be so.

So now we wait, having the Lord’s word “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev. 2.10).


In two days—Palm Sunday—we shall gather outside and shout, Hosanna! It’s a prayer; Hosanna! means, “Save us now!” But we no longer say it as a prayer. We shout it with certainty, for Jesus is risen from the dead, and we know He saves all those who sleep in Him.

Jesus is risen from the dead, and death cannot hold this body. Ruth, and all you who hope in Christ, hold fast to this profession:

Truly my soul waiteth upon God:

From him cometh my salvation.

Wait, and you will see the salvation of God. We will be glad in that day, and there shall be no more tears.  ✠INJ✠

 

Sermo Dei: The Funeral of Sandra Ann Keiser

Posted on March 24th, 2017

We are all shocked. No one anticipated Sandy’s death, and it’s hard to process.

But Sandy was a direct person, so let us speak directly about the matter: Death is God’s judgment for sin. The suddenness of death is a reminder to us all to prepare for our own.

Sandy graduated from Immanuel Lutheran School in 1970. Upon the foundations of that school, a larger one is rising in its place. Someday, however, the whole thing will lie in ruins. Human civilization, like the human body, is crumbling. What can last beyond the ashes and desolation? The crucified arms of Jesus stretch out across the world and across all the expanse of time, embracing all the cosmos with His love, calling us all to confess our sins and be gathered to Him. He alone crossed through death, and emerged from the tomb. The Lord Jesus trampled down death by His death, and Him Sandy confessed, in Him she placed her trust.


No blind faith of an ignorant simpleton, Sandy’s faith was formed both by the conviction of the truth of Scripture and by the witness of Science testifying to a designer, a Maker, a Creator.

Among the many challenges when I became the pastor here at Immanuel was Sandy herself. She was not a problem; but it sure seemed a problem to me when I began to realize that she knew the Scriptures better than I did. I had studied them, but she had been living them, faithfully, year by year. I had a long way to go, to catch up to her.

If I didn’t know an answer to a Bible question, I’d try to fake it. And in her straightforward manner, Sandy would correct me. I didn’t like it. But it wasn’t personal with her. What mattered to her was the truth. I needed to apply myself with the same kind of diligence.


That diligence she exercised in caring for her mother in her declining years. At the time, that also seemed excessive to me. Why would she put so much effort into that? How foolish I was. She was teaching the whole world a lesson: this is what love does. Her own life didn’t matter; what mattered was what God had given her to do. And she did it, not only diligently, and faithfully, but cheerfully.

Then there was the mystery of the missing Luther volumes. Immanuel has a set of the entire original edition of Luther’s Works. And periodically, a volume would go missing. Where was it? Then it would return, with the next one gone. Somebody is reading these things, systematically, hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of pages. Who is doing this? Sandy.

“Who’s going to do the luncheon?” someone asked me a couple of days ago. And then this person reflected, “Normally we would ask Sandy to help with that.” She did everything, happily, without asking for any credit.


Now whether those who are with the Lord are aware of what we are doing is an open question. But I think at this point, Sandy would be growing frustrated with me. “Pastor, you should not be talking about me. You should be telling them about Jesus.”

Sandy’s Confirmation verse came from Psalm 55, which we prayed this morning. That Psalm begins with suffering, lament, and the throes of death. “I am restless in my complaint and I moan.” Why? “Because of the noise of the enemy.” The enemy we can identify variously as people who are out to get us, the sin and death lurking within us, and even trouble in the church.

Sandy lived through troubles in the church and remained faithful. This Psalm is a prophecy of Jesus Himself, who discovers one of His chosen Twelve has turned on Him: “It is not an enemy who taunts me; then I could bear it … But it is you … my companion, my familiar friend.” This is Judas, the familiar friend of Jesus, who turns on Him. Jesus experiences not a sudden and swift death, but an agonizingly slow one, made all the more horrific by the betrayal of His friend, and the abandonment of nearly all.

And what are we to do, when everything and everyone has turned against us, when life itself is being pulled from our grasp? “But I call to God, and the LORD will save me.”


Often the death of a dear one leaves us with feelings of guilt. “I wish I had said this, or done that; but now it is too late. If only I had been there!” We may then look for someone else to blame. Remember this is how the sisters of Lazarus felt; they even blamed Jesus for not showing up in time.

But you must not feel guilty. Jesus orders all in His good time. It is hubris to imagine we could change it. The best sermon we could hear was already in the prelude: Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit – God’s time is the very best time.

At the right time, Jesus speaks His Word, “Arise!” and it is so. If you do feel guilty, hear Him speak to you, “I forgive you!” And again, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace.”

So do what Sandy’s Confirmation verse said, and what she lived by: “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee: he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved.”


This faith she lived by, but more importantly, this faith, this Jesus, she will live by, for He will cause this body to be renovated and renewed, shining and beautiful in the resurrection; and we will rejoice with her and her Savior in the kingdom of God, when death, the last enemy, has been utterly vanquished.

I want to let Sandy herself have the last word today. The day before she died, she wrote a beautiful, three-sentence message that captures the deep truths of the Christian faith eloquently and succinctly:

I thank my Lord and Savior who gives me life and all that I have. I encourage everyone to put their faith and hope in Jesus Christ. To Him be glory forever.

 

Sermo Dei: The Inheritance (Vespers, Lent 3)

Posted on March 23rd, 2017

Bloomberg last week reported on a survey on trends with inheritances and expectations of heirs. More often, children are disappointed, because the amount inherited is less than anticipated. Undoubtedly the grandsons of Leona Helmsley were disappointed. She left $12 million to her dog Trouble, while leaving her two grandsons out of the will.

Perhaps you’re hoping for an inheritance. You may imagine it would change your life. And if you got everything you were hoping for, and more – I’m sure it would change your life. But would that be for the better?

The article notes what I’ve certainly observed – inheritances not only disappoint, but divide. Family members turn on each other.


The younger son in tonight’s parable (Luke 15:11-32) couldn’t wait for his inheritance. Literally. He asked for it up front, and what is more surprising, the father gave it. The extravagant love of the father was then squandered by the son. He lives prodigiously, which is to say, enormously, in a huge, colossal way. That’s where the term prodigal son comes from.

He goes to the city and, as our translation puts it, “squandered his property in reckless living.” I’m not sure reckless quite captures it. Other Bible translations have prodigal, wild, undisciplined and dissipated. The original word means incapable of being saved (Spicq).

We know – or think we know – situations and people like that. A person is incurably addicted, hopelessly corrupt. Incapable of being saved.

I once knew a man, an elder of the congregation, who told me, “Pastor, I don’t care what you say, what Bible passage you quote, I will never believe.” Not long before he died, he asked me, “Pastor, do you remember when I said I would never believe?” “Yes, very well,” I replied. And then he said some of the most beautiful words a pastor can hear: “I’ve changed my mind.” I gave him the Lord’s Supper, and not long after, he died. But I should not say died, for on that day he came alive, fed with the body of the living Christ, sprinkled on the inside with the blood that marks his door exempt from death.

What changed him? The Word changed him.

What changed the lost son in the parable? The memory of the loving Father.

It may appear to us like all is lost. But with God no one is incapable of being saved. The Father stands waiting. Day after day, looking and longing for his lost son. Waiting for you!


There are ways of squandering your inheritance beyond blow-outs in the big city. How much have you squandered through arguing and resentment, sleepless nights ruminating on words, emails, memories, festering with anger, imagining the worst about others?

How much time have you squandered in pursuits unwholesome?

How many relationships have you squandered because you could not forgive?

How much of your mind is wasted, filled with lurid lyrics, seared with impure images, endlessly distracted by texts and tweets?

We know not when our last hour shall come. Come then, let us spend our days running home to the Father, imploring Him to receive us home again. Look! There He stands waiting, with the ring and the sandals. The Lamb has been slain, the Supper is ready. That inheritance you once longed for was meaningless. Harmful, even. It could not keep you alive. This Father, His kingdom, His Son, His Table – that is the inheritance prepared for you. You will not be disappointed. ✠INJ✠

 

Sermo Dei: Reminiscere 2017

Posted on March 13th, 2017

“That was a nice prayer.” When people say that to me, I know I’ve failed. Prayer is not supposed to be nice. Prayer is confident desperation, shouted in the dark, or whispered while trembling.

Our prayers are too nice. In fact, they are so polite, they are rude. What else do you call it when our prayer before meals is rattled off like an auctioneer? Do you say the Lord’s Prayer with the enthusiasm of a funeral director reading the phone book? Are your private prayers basically a Hail Mary pass – it probably won’t work but you might as well try it?

Enough with polite, respectful, “nice” prayers! They betray an uncertainty that God is listening or will answer our prayer.


This Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel – she is not nice. She is not polite. And she is not quiet. She shouts. She cries out. And when her prayer is not answered, she is undeterred. She cries out all the more. The disciples are shocked that Jesus seems to lack all compassion for her. Not only does He not reply, He doesn’t even stop. He keeps walking. Hope is disappearing, and God appears not only unresponsive, but utterly indifferent.

Have you ever felt this way? I cry out in the daytime; I cry to God at night, but He is far from me, indifferent to the voice of my groaning.

This Canaanite woman is ignored. Nevertheless, she persisted. “Jesus, send her away with what she wants!” the disciples say. “Look, she is crying out from behind us!” This woman, rebuffed, is actually chasing after Jesus! The harsher He gets, the stronger is her appeal. Her prayers are not nice and polite; she expects something, not because of herself, but because she is convinced that He not only is able to help but that He is willing to help.

I believe that this exercise is a lesson for the disciples. Jesus uses this woman to teach them—and us—about prayer, and also that they are to join their prayers to hers. Jesus wants the disciples to appeal on her behalf. From this we learn that the prayers of the disciples, that is, the prayers of the church, are important and effective. This woman does not make her appeal to the disciples, just as we do not pray to the saints, but she does make her appeal in the church, just as you, when you have some need, bring it to me to present before the Lord in the company of the whole church.

Why does she keep praying? Isn’t it clear that Jesus doesn’t want to answer her? Not to this woman. Her prayer is the expression of her faith, her confidence, her trust in Jesus. Our prayers are the expression of our faith. And what does that say about our faith, when we are reluctant to pray, or cannot find the time, or pray for selfish things?


Jesus hid Himself from the woman to exercise her faith. “Ask, seek, knock,” the Lord says. This woman knocked on the door, and it was not answered. She knocked again, and was told, “Go away!” And the truth is, when we are praying, and the prayer is not answered, or we seem to hear God saying to us, “Go away, you little dog!” then we scurry off with our tail between our legs. We give up. It doesn’t work. What’s the use? But see what this woman does. She refuses to quit. The more her knocking is ignored, the louder she pounds. She will not leave, because she remains confident that the Lord will answer and give her mercy. She has no confidence in herself, but she has every confidence in the mercy, grace, kindness, and love of Jesus. Like Jacob, she has grabbed ahold of the heavenly Man, and will not let Him go until she receives His blessing.

“Faith … is exemplified by our willingness to beg” (Hauerwas), and this woman is not ashamed to beg. She teaches us how to speak to Jesus. She addresses Him both as “Son of David” (a reference to His human nature) and “Lord” (a reference to His divine nature). Her prayers are simple: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!”; “Lord, help me!”; and finally, agreeing with His assessment of her lack of worth, yet nevertheless counting on His compassion and mercy, she worships Him as God and says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”

Note how she does not bargain with Jesus. She doesn’t promise Him something. She doesn’t tell Him what she has done or will do that He should answer her prayer. She makes no claim, no statement of what she deserves; she asks only for mercy. (Anselm)  And that is what makes our prayers good. Dr. Luther put it this way: “We ask just because we are not worthy to ask; we become worthy to ask and to be heard just because we believe that we are unworthy.”


Now there are two kinds of things for which we pray: spiritual blessings and earthly concerns. When it comes to spiritual things, we know what the Word of God is and we should ask confidently, even demanding them from God. “Forgive my sins, help me resist temptation, lead me by Your Spirit, deliver me from the devil, bring me to the resurrection of the body.” These things are promised by God, and so we know that He wants to give them to us. But there are other things that are not clearly spelled out – finding a spouse, taking a job, healing our sicknesses, etc. In all these cases, are prayers must be prayed with an “if”: “If it is Your will, O Lord.” And in praying thus, we are asking also that our will would be conformed and submissive to God’s own will.

That submission culminates in the Sacrament of our Lord’s Table, where on our knees we beg for the bread we don’t deserve but nevertheless know Jesus wants to give us. So an old prayer before communion uses the image of this woman begging for crumbs from the table of Jesus:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.  (Prayer of Humble Access, Book of Common Prayer 1662)

Come then, unworthy little dogs, and let us receive more than crumbs, for our Lord has chosen to give you the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.

 

Sermo Dei: Invocabit 2017

Posted on March 6th, 2017

What would you do if you could do anything?

The great basketball coach John Wooden said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” It’s those moments when no one is watching when our true self emerges. When you can do what you choose, what do you do?

And if you could choose anything, what would it be?

Among the most common myths is that you can achieve freedom by having more resources and less responsibility. If you had more money and less work, then you’d be free. If you had more time and fewer people making demands, then you’d be free.

It’s a lie. Freedom is not found in time or money. And slavery is not in work or the demands of others.


Isn’t it amazing that the freest man of all, Jesus, chooses to not eat – to fast for forty days (Gospel, Matthew 4:1-11)? We are surrounded by food and drink—great storehouses full of it—but we are not free. We need it to stay alive, but we also often need it for reasons we can hardly understand: to satisfy our cravings, drown our sorrows, or drink to escape the pressure or the pain.

Freedom is not in eating or drinking whatever you want, but in not being a slave to the food or drink.

And then there are the other things your body craves. You keep going back, although you know that this way lies destruction.

There are the things that captivate your eyeballs, so that hour after mind-numbing hour, you stare, entranced. What do you do with your free time? You have made yourself a slave to the rectangle on your wall, or the rectangle in your pocket. Desperately refreshing, waiting for the affirmation of a like or a retweet.

And your mind fixates on the person causing you problems. You grumble about the grumbler, gossip about the gossiper, and the person you have made your enemy lives rent-free inside your head.

Who is that really, captivating your heart? It’s not God. These are the devil’s lies, saying to you what he said to Eve, what he said to Jesus: “God is holding out on you; His Law is slavery, and I offer you freedom.”

It is a lie. All sin is based on lies, all addiction is based on lies, your sadness and your shallow euphoria likewise all flow from falsehoods planted by the father of lies.

You will never be free by indulgence. You will never be free by pouting or rage. You will never be free by accumulation, strategy, or cunning.

Like every human being, you are enslaved by a nature whose desires are disordered and whose destiny is death.


But the Man Jesus revealed His freedom from what binds each of us. Hungry, He refuses food. Taunted, He refuses to boast or put His Father to the test. Powerless, He refuses to seize power. The rightful King, He accepts thorns for His crown and a cross for His throne.

And in that hunger, He was free. On the cross, He was free. No desire enslaved Him. No pride engulfed Him. No threats controlled Him. He was free.

What would you do if no one was watching? There is your bondage, there is your slavery, there is the lie that deceives you.

What does Jesus do? Nothing for Himself. He is free.

And He uses His freedom for you and me. He retraces Adam’s steps, and is tested by food. He retraces Eve’s steps, and confronts the devil. He walks in the desert, recapitulating the journey of Moses and Joshua through the wild places where Israel fell. David’s Son hears the praises entering David’s city, but does not indulge himself with a mistress as David did.

And yet He prays David’s prayers, feels David’s sin, and yours, and mine. Perfectly free, He becomes a slave for us. Perfectly innocent, He is declared guilty for us.

And coming to the perfect end of His deadly journey, He receives what the Father prepares: food, life, family, friends, resurrection.


So now who are you? What are you? What will you do, when no one is watching? Of course, that’s never really true. Someone’s always watching, namely, your Father. You are a man, a human being, torn between God and the devil, or at least God and your flesh. You feel the tearing, the testing, the tempting. Who are you? Whose are you?

It would feel good—at least for a time—to give in. Indulge; scream; pout; throw away your promise, your commitment; as Esau, sell your birthright for a bowl of stew.

It’s a lie. Stop believing the lie. Your Jesus has won the victory, but this is no excuse to keep on sinning. He says to you, you, “I forgive you; go and sin no more.”

So when the disordered desire rises up, when the tempter comes, when the lie is spoken, “God is not there for you,” you have the same weapon by which Jesus won the victory: the Word of God. It is written, it is written, it is written, speaks the Lord Jesus, and the tempter is driven away.

All the world has gone mad, calling evil good and good evil. It feels alone in your wilderness, in your anger, in your despair. But you are never alone. Remember how last Sunday we heard Jesus say, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem”? You are with Him, and He is with you, through all your dark hours, in every moment in the wilderness, and finally when the last hour comes. He is with you, and He is your champion when the enemy seems too strong.

Jesus wins. You are free.

Sermo Dei: Quinquagesima 2017

Posted on February 28th, 2017

It’s hard to love difficult people. And everywhere we go, we find them. At work. At school. On the road. Sitting behind you, kicking, talking, spilling their drink on you.

“A man’s enemies will be those of His own household,” Jesus says. He’s talking about people in our own families who go to war with us because our Christianity is causing problems. But we go to war over so much less, don’t we?

It’s hard to love difficult people. And people are difficult because they have difficulties. One person is sick, another has a disability, still another is frightened by something we cannot comprehend. It upsets our plans, disorients our days, disrupts our priorities. And this is all for the good, because our plans and priorities were centered on our own success, our own ideals, our own dreams. Our plans were not good for us, because the good they sought was a self-good. So God gives us other people to force us outside ourselves. For it is not good that the man should be alone.

 

Alone sat a man along the roadside (Gospel, Luke 18:31-43). He wasn’t alone, and yet he was. Surrounded by people, none were his friends. The blind man in the Gospel was a beggar. When he cried out for help, they silenced him. When he begged for mercy, they were enraged. “Be silent!”

How easily we condemn that crowd! But when a person needs help, do you step forward? Certainly you do when it is a friend, or a relative. But when the person is a difficult person – when he is annoying, when she is always negative, when it is going to really cost you something, where are you? You don’t love your neighbor as yourself. That’s the truth.


Here’s another hard truth: you are the difficult person. It’s hard to love difficult people, and it’s harder still to see the ways we are difficult. Our fears are rational, we suppose; our selfishness is justifiable, we imagine; there is little need to confess, for we rarely do anything wrong.

Noisy gongs and clanging cymbals are we (Epistle, 1 Cor. 13:1-13). St. Paul says, “When I became a man, I gave up childish ways”; have you? You are the difficult person.


Yet here is good news! When Jesus comes to the difficult person, He stops. Jesus silences the crowd that had been demanding silence. He pays attention to the beggar. He talks to him. He listens to him.

“What do you want Me to do for you?”

He said, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.”

That’s one miracle: Jesus restores creation. That’s His work, mending what is broken in this death-ridden graveyard. Healing the blind man is one miracle. But here is another: “And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.” Moments earlier they were yelling at the man to be quiet. They were annoyed. The difficult man was getting in the way of their aspirations, their desire for a Christ in their own image. But Jesus stops to care for the difficult man, and everything changes. Not only for the man whose sight is recovered, but everything changes for the crowd as well. Their angry shouts become songs of praise.

They have encountered not the idealized love of fantasy and imagination, but the real love that goes into the difficult situation and bears with the suffering, the smells, the sadness.

“Love bears all things,” the holy Apostle teaches us this morning, and we see that love lived out in Jesus Himself. “For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.” 

This is love bearing all things and enduring all things. Jesus loves the difficult people. Jesus dies for difficult people, even people as difficult as you and me.


And He’s not done with us difficult people. The blind beggar, having recovered His sight, becomes a follower of Jesus. It’s not a metaphor. The man goes where Jesus goes – and Jesus is journeying to His cross. Palm Sunday happens almost immediately after this. The cross is very near now.

The cross is near to you too. God has designed a cross for each of us. We don’t like it. That’s okay. Jesus didn’t like His. He begged the Father for another way.

But we get the cross designed for us, because this is how we are conformed to the image of Jesus. All is forgiven in the cross of Jesus. All is changed as you bear your own cross, and become as He is.

So you get difficult people to love, all around you. But the difficulty becomes easy as you realize this is exactly where God wants you to be. He who loves you teaches you to love. “Love is patient and kind…. Love bears all things … [love] endures all things.” That’s who Jesus is, and what He does for you. As we follow Him to His cross this holy Lent, we pray that He teaches us this same kind of love, and removes our blindness to His will.