Talk to each other

Posted on August 31st, 2015

A great place to get BBQ in Alexandria is Sweet Fire Donna’s. They have a sign out front that says, “No Wi-Fi: Talk to each other.” I wish I had seen that before I wrote “The Tyranny of the Present,” my first piece for the LCMS Blog. Here’s a sample:

This obsession over the immediate present often renders us incapable of being present with the ordinary people in our ordinary lives. The pictures on the screens easily seem more attractive than unairbrushed reality. Yet intrinsic to our vocation is to be present where God has placed us. There may be a time for an electronic message, but it ought never be our default. What is important is right in front of us, as Lazarus was thrown at the gate of the rich man (Luke 16:20).

Read the whole thing here.

Sermo Dei: Trinity 13, 2015

Posted on August 30th, 2015

Two days ago, Pastor Eckardt and I stood above the grave of a woman we did not know. It was a beautiful, sunny morning, with the strange sounds you hear at Arlington Cemetery: the calm of all that open space, rare in our area, disturbed by the buzzing of aircraft that whirl around our capital. Nature is growing, humans are busy, but we are surrounded by dead bodies.

arlington national cemetery

“You have seven to eight minutes,” the cemetery official said to me as we prepared to walk to the grave. Now I love Arlington. It embodies—now there’s a loaded word!—it embodies for me everything beautiful about our country: Respect. Honor. Sacrifice. And I love working with military people. They understand liturgy, ritual, and devotion to duty.

But at Arlington, they are on a schedule. There are a lot of bodies to put into the ground. “You have seven to eight minutes.” Move it along. We’ve got a lot of dead bodies, and there’s nothing really we can do but put them into the ground.

“There’s nothing really we can do.” That’s what the Priest was thinking, in the parable of the Good Samaritan we just heard (Luke 10:23-37). “That guy’s in the ditch, and he’s going to die. There’s nothing I can do. If I stick around, the outlaws who attacked this man will do the same to me.” Soon a Levite comes along and thinks the same thing. “It’s so sad, but there’s nothing to be done.”

We’re all just trying to stay alive, which is why we refer to jobs and income as a living. But what we are getting is not a living, but a dying. The man in the ditch is all of us. He is anthrōpos, Adam, humanity, all collectively in the ditch. Every one of those bodies at Arlington, every bone in every graveyard, all are sons and daughters of Adam, the man who fell among thieves. Stripped of his righteousness, he and his wife hid themselves, for they discovered that they were naked and ashamed. The thief who lied to them turned them away from God’s Word. Our first father was wounded, and left for dead.

You feel his wounds in you. Cancer creeping away, but also the times you cry and you don’t even know why. The marriage that isn’t what you hoped, or the marriage that never comes. The children that turn away from you, or the children that never come. And the deepest wounds, the corruption in our souls that rages and is selfish, that wastes the few moments of this brief life on meaningless pursuits. We all want control, everybody wants to rule the world, but soon, so soon, we are thrown into that ditch. And even if strong men with crisp uniforms and polished shoes lower us gently into that ditch, it is still an end, an end to life.

“How can I get eternal life?” the lawyer asks Jesus. “How can I get a life that does not end?” Jesus points the lawyer back to the Scriptures. “What is written there?” He knows the answer; it’s a basic Bible passage we all should know by heart: “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’” These words are true and faithful – but the lawyer knows it’s too much, too comprehensive, too total: all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, all your mind are to be devoted to God – and the same then to your neighbor.

We recognize the goodness of those words – but know that the wounds in us mean we cannot measure up to that standard. Jesus will say elsewhere, “Be perfect.” So the lawyer does what lawyers do: look for loopholes, a way around this problem of human imperfection.

Jesus’ answer is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Is Jesus really just saying to the man, “Try harder”? No, Jesus is talking to this man broken by God’s demands, and He is also talking to us who are likewise broken, broken by the demands of God’s law, and also broken by this world of ditches and graves, evil people, starting with the one inside of me. Jesus tells this story not, first of all, to give us more burdens, but to show us how the burden is lifted away, by Him.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night in which He was betrayed, came down and fell among thieves. They stripped Him of His clothing and wounded Him with whips and knives, thorns and spears. They robed Him in the garments of mockery and derision. Jesus takes His place beside us in the ditch – indeed, He exchanges places with us. We call this the vicarious satisfaction, that He assumes our burden, our sin, our punishment, our death.

Jesus is at once God and man, the saint who takes the place of the sinner, the priest who becomes the victim, and so He who becomes the man in the ditch is simultaneously the Good Samaritan who comes to your rescue.

Those of you who come to individual confession, I know your wounds. When I go to confession, I am terrified to reveal my own wounds to another pastor. But what I get from the pastor, and what your Jesus wishes you to know, is that He is minded to you just as the Good Samaritan was minded to the man in the ditch: He looks at the wounds and He does not say, “He had it coming.” He does not say, “He should have been more careful.” He does not pass by. Jesus looks at your wounds, the decay in your body and the horror in your heart, and He has compassion.

Good Samaritan

Upon you He pours the cleansing oil, the anointing of Holy Baptism. Into you He pours the cleansing wine, the blood of Jesus which purifies us from all sins, the blood of Jesus which gives us a clean conscience. He brings us to His inn, the Holy Church, and He has left for us in this church everything we need. The means of the Spirit are here.

What are we to do with them? Is there something for us to do? Most certainly. Our Jesus, our Good Samaritan has given us the means of the Spirit, the two denarii, and He has given a command: “Take care of him.” Take care of whom? Of us – each one of us, from the pastors to the newly baptized, we all need ongoing care throughout this life, the care that comes from the continued healing of Gospel and Sacraments.

Dead bodies keep rolling into Arlington, but rescued people keep coming here to the holy church. Picture this church as a hospital, where we have doctors, nurses, and patients. We are all sick, and there is a terrible plague outside, and the worst part of it is that so many people don’t realize they are infected or have misdiagnosed their malady. We have work to do, work of being merciful in the world. That’s the “Go and do likewise” that Jesus says.

But it always begins with something we are never done with – remembering we are dead in the ditch without Jesus our Good Samaritan. So nothing you spend, nothing you do in Him is lost or wasted. Your life has meaning in Jesus, who is risen from the dead. He is returning. “Whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.” Come Lord Jesus, and be our Good Samaritan still, and make this Church Your place of mercy!

Bad preachers are lucky

Posted on June 23rd, 2015

From a letter of Dr. Luther to Phillip Melanchthon:

Bad preachers are lucky because every one bears with them and puts up with their stupidity. Even if people immediately sense or see that these preachers are crass fools, it doesn’t bother them in the slightest and people think no worse of them for all that. But the opposite is the case for true teachers, people lie in wait when listening to their words or watching their works as if ready to pounce. And where they can find the smallest splinter (even if it is only an apparent one), they make a huge beam out of it. This is not a case of patience, but vain judgment, detraction and contempt. This is why the lot of a preacher is a miserable one in which no one would last long if they were not motivated solely by God’s glory and the love of our neighbor. The preacher has to work, but let others have the credit and the gain and the preacher can expect trouble and scorn as his only reward. His lot is to love, not to enjoy, but also not to get annoyed. All this can only be done through God’s Holy Spirit; flesh and blood have no chance.

Luther Brevier, p191

Baccalaureate Vespers 2015

Posted on June 3rd, 2015

Excerpt from the 2015 Baccalaureate Vespers service at Immanuel Lutheran School:


Do we have time for one last Latin lesson? Graduation has gradus as its root. We get “grade,” like “8th grade” from it, but that derives from the word “step,” like stair-steps. And it all derives from an even earlier meaning, “to walk, go.”

The point is that graduation doesn’t mean you are done. It means now you walk, go to the next step on the journey. What’s the destination? For a Christian, the goal is the world-renewal that has begun with the resurrection of Jesus, which we heard Isaiah describe as when “the wilderness becomes a fruitful field,” when “the effect of righteousness will be peace.” God will bring about the great world-renewal at the resurrection of your body, when He makes new all things.


Click here to read the entire homily on the Immanuel blog.

The greatest and most useful work

Posted on June 3rd, 2015

Dr. Luther on child-rearing:

Married people should know that there is no greater and more useful work than they might do for God, Christendom, the rest of the world, themselves and their children than to bring up their children correctly. For this is the most direct path to Heaven…. But, likewise, there is no easier way to earn Hell than through your own children. There is no more damaging work that could be done by parents than to neglect their children, to let them curse, swear, learn shameful words and songs and to let them live according to their own will…. There is no greater scandal in Christendom than the neglect of children…. A false love of nature blinds parents, so that they give greater attention to the flesh of their own children than they do to their souls. Children are a wonderful and eternal treasure and God has commanded parents to look after them, so that the Devil, the World and the Flesh do not steal them and destroy them. At death and at the Last Judgement, a severe reckoning will be demanded.

Luther Brevier, p171

Sermo Dei: Holy Trinity 2015

Posted on May 31st, 2015

The stillness of a pleasant evening was interrupted by the repeated crackle of electric death. Last Monday night Kassie and I were giving the new pastor and his fiancée a tour of the church and school, and as we walked the grounds I was surprised that one of our neighbors would have a bug zapper.

It’s an ingenious device. Other traps lure prey in with an offer—meat on a bear trap, cheese or peanut butter on a mouse trap; once the offer is taken, the mechanism is tripped and death ensues.

But with a bug zapper, the prize itself is what kills. The alluring light becomes the means of execution.

Long ago, the devil speculated that human beings could be destroyed the same way. We are no better than bugs, drawn to what destroys us.

That’s what false worship is. It’s not a matter of breaking a law and so being punished. The law is there for the same reason a parent makes a rule: to preserve life.

The law is for our good, turning us away from false worship, teaching us to abstain from what can harm us, or kill us.

My son James is drawn to our piano. He has figured out how to lift off the lid covering the keys, but he often only gets it halfway. We are perpetually afraid that the lid is going to slide back down, crashing onto his fingers. The admonition “No, don’t touch that!” certainly seems unfair and cruel. But crushed fingers would be the truly cruel thing.

The law is for our good, turning us away from false worship, teaching us to abstain from what can harm us, or kill us.

We are drawn like bugs to things that zap us, like mice to bait that poisons or unleashes a bar that will crush us.

False worship is devoting ourselves to the thing that harms us.

False worship is not breaking a rubric, a liturgical rule. False worship is devoting ourselves to the thing that harms us. False worship is a trap, although sometimes in madness or folly we realize it’s a trap but embrace it anyway, throwing away our life for a moment of pleasure or power.

I’m working my way through a book by British scholar N.T. Wright called Surprised by Hope. In it he says, “Turning away from the worship of the living God is turning toward that which has no life in itself. Worship that which is transient, and it can only give you death” (p95).

The corollary to this is the worship of God. In Him is life. His desire is to give us life, in abundance.

This is the context in which we should think about the Christian Faith, how we should think about the work of Jesus in cross and resurrection, in Baptism and Supper, not as intellectual propositions to be analyzed and agreed to, but as the source of life, help, rescue.

We would not argue if, upon seeing our home in flames, we were told, “Whoever desires to be saved must call upon the fire department.” We would rejoice as the big red truck came screaming onto our street, and strong men and women rushed to extinguish the blaze.

If we were in a terrible assault by enemies, and a blackhawk helicopter came roaring in, and a soldier shouted to us, “Whoever desires to be saved, climb aboard,” we would rejoice at the arrival of a savior.

When the Athanasian Creed confesses, “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith,” we are being directed to the One who saves, the object of the catholic faith: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When the Athanasian Creed confesses, “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith,” we are being directed to the One who saves, the object of the catholic faith: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God who made us and loves us still despite our foolish ways, despite our worship of what is transient, of what can only give us death. Do you not see that your world is a fire of iniquity, that you are under attack by deadly enemies, that your life is in grave peril? Rejoice then, at the arrival of your Savior Jesus, and that He is minded to rescue you.

“Whoever desires to be saved,” this ancient creed says, “must above all hold the catholic faith,” must above all cling to the One who gave us life and offers it still. “And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.” In other words, the catholic faith is looking to the true God, turning away from the trap, the artificial light that electrifies, the alluring food that is secretly poison.

What is poisoning you? What is electrifying you? What is killing you? Repent. Turn away. No half-measures. You cannot be a little bit born again, born from above. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh,” we heard Jesus say [Gospel for Trinity Sunday, John 3:1-17], “and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Why are you trying to be both? How can you come to the Holy Communion on Sunday, and the next Friday or Saturday embrace what is contrary to that Communion? Do you not know that you are the temple of God? How can you defile your body with illicit sex? How can you defile your mind with unholy images? How can you defile your mouth with words of lust, rage, anger and despair?

Today we heard Jesus say, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Repent. Turn away from the things of the old birth. Although the artificial lights and poisonous things attract you, seeming to offer pleasure, they will only lead to your death. Worship God, for in Him is life.

So you have stumbled, perhaps grievously. So you have squandered your life, wasted your time, done harm to others and yourself. What now?

As you have heard in the past, the serpents came in and bit the Israelites when they rebelled. But God through Moses directed the people to look to the promise of salvation, the word of promise He attached to the bronze serpent.

Jesus crucified

We are invited to look in the same way to the crucified Jesus. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” we heard in today’s Gospel, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Worship what is transient, and you get transience: death. Worship the One who is Life, and you get Him and His life.

That’s why we look to Jesus, that’s why we cling to the catholic faith, that’s why we worship the Trinity. Not to keep a rule, but to receive life from Him. Worship what is transient, and you get transience: death. Worship the One who is Life, and you get Him and His life.

Little children, turn away from the things that are destroying you. Turn away from the artificial lights, and worship the true Light, the Triune God who gives you life.

“For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Pentecost 2015

Posted on May 24th, 2015

Pentecost presents an event that seems too fantastic to believe. Tongues of fire? People speaking in foreign languages they never learned?

This follows other events that seem equally not believable: A man dies on a cross, is buried, only to emerge from the tomb alive, and strangely changed? And then, this man after forty days is taken up into the skies, going beyond all sight of those with Him?

It seems more rational, more “scientific” to put this in the category of legend, myth, or perhaps wishful thinking.

How do we know anything? Things that are repeatable can be studied by science. If the temperature falls below 32º F., water will freeze. That same water, heated properly, will boil and turn to steam.

History is more difficult, for it studies unrepeatable things. How can we know what happened? What we cannot do is dismiss something because it seems too unlikely, too improbable.

Now nothing seems more unlikely, more improbable, than a dead man coming back to life. Yet at the same time it is beyond all doubt that a large group of people claim to have seen the man Jesus of Nazareth do just that. They themselves didn’t believe it at first. The first reports were met with derision. But these skeptics became convinced, not only that Jesus did rise from the dead, but that His cross and resurrection had inaugurated a fundamental transformation of the world. The cross and resurrection of Jesus was not just an event, however improbable – it was the event which changed everything.

What did it change for the men who had been with Jesus as His disciples? Not two months earlier, they had all run away when Jesus was arrested. They pretended not to know Jesus. They locked their doors and hid, afraid that they too would be nailed to crosses.

Now, Peter stands up and preaches the death and resurrection of Jesus. He would, in fact, be nailed to a cross, in Rome under the emperor Nero. But he was unafraid. For the death and resurrection of Jesus changed everything. He proclaimed from the prophet Joel on the Day of Pentecost, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” 

Saved from what? Cancer? Church politics? A loveless marriage? A dead-end job? From what do you want to be saved? From what do you need to be saved?

DUCCIO Pentecost

It’s surprising when you go to the prophet Joel and read the entire passage in context. The first thing you find is that the promise of salvation, read on this day of Pentecost—the end of the Easter Season—comes after the very first thing we read at the beginning of this larger season, on Ash Wednesday. There, Joel tells us to fast, and confess our sins. The Jewish custom of mourning was to tear one’s clothes, but Joel tells us to tear, rend something else: our hearts. Stop sinning and turn to God, he calls to us – and then, this haunting question with a very uncertain answer: “Who knows if [the LORD] will turn and relent,” who knows if He will stop the judgment we deserve, the hell we deserve, the death we deserve?

But by the end of the passage, which Peter uses in his Pentecost sermon, the uncertainty is gone: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Saved from what? Not this or that problem in your life. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved, saved from God, i.e., God’s judgment. We are saved by God, from God, for God.

If we kept reading in Acts, we would find that everything changed in Jerusalem for those who took to heart what Peter said. They were baptized, they received the Holy Spirit, and this changed not only their future but their present.

The future was changed because those who are joined to Jesus by baptism are joined to His death. And God’s promise, in Romans 6, is that if we are joined to Jesus in His death, we will be joined to Him in His resurrection.

The Paschal Candle, or Easter Candle, has been up at the altar since Easter, burning to celebrate the resurrection. Now it lives by the font, and we light it whenever there is a baptism. There’s one other time we light it: at a funeral. That candle preaches a beautiful sermon to you then: Jesus is risen, so your death doesn’t get the last word: your Jesus will raise your body.

That change of the future—that death’s power is stripped of its finality—means that your now is changed. All of our thinking that leads us to sadness and anger, lust and greed, the desire for revenge, the desire to quit – it all comes from giving death power it doesn’t have. We are angry and sad, we rage or give up, because it seems as though everything is out of control, that nothing will turn out as we hope. But when we know that the one hope, the great hope for the renewal of the world, has already begun in the resurrection of Jesus, and has been promised to us in the gift of the Holy Spirit, then no disappointment, no trouble, no loss can overwhelm us. These sufferings, be they ever so great, are like brief pricks of a needle when we get a shot or our blood drawn. Although unpleasant, we know it is but for a moment, and even the pain is working for our good.

So the hope of the resurrection made those Pentecost Christians ready to endure any suffering – even martyrdom. Because everything had changed with the change of Jesus from dead to resurrected.

That change also changed how they lived with each other. They sang – they sang Psalms and hymns; they shared – they shared their food, their money; they prayed – for each other, and for those who didn’t know Jesus; and they told – they told their friends, and their enemies, what Jesus had done by His cross and resurrection.

And that changed the world. The message spread, and the world began to change. The poor were fed and clothed, beautiful churches were built, and alongside them, hospitals for the sick. They loved their enemies, freed slaves, took in orphans, and swore not to kill children by abortion or exposure.

The world around us doesn’t look like this, for the unbaptized rage still, and even those who are baptized have forgotten what Jesus has done by His cross and resurrection, and grieved the Holy Spirit He gave on this day by selfish lives, foolish arguments, and giving in to harmful lusts.

Repent. Return. For the Holy Spirit given to you at Baptism still calls to you. Return while you can, and receive anew your Jesus who conquered death and gave you His Spirit and the remission of your sins. Jesus is risen, and everything is now changed. The Holy Spirit is returning to dwell with man, and you are now being changed. These words of Jesus, how can they not change everything? “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Rogate 2015

Posted on May 10th, 2015

God doesn’t need our advice. He knows what you need. So why does He command us to pray?

God commands us to pray not so that He will know what you need, but so you will.

We really only have one prayer, and the first words of that prayer drive us back to our identity. Saying Our Father reminds us that we have a Father to whom we are accountable, but also a Father who promises to hear us, provide for us, protect us.

Little children need to check in with their parents regularly. It may be just a quick hug – “pick me up and then immediately put me down again” – but they need that connection and reassurance that everything’s okay. I suppose it’s a healthy sign of development that we eventually don’t need our parents that way anymore – but then our alleged independence is revealed to be false when parents or grandparents die: you realize again that you are alone and that death is a monster far worse than the one you once imagined beneath your bed or in your closet.

We’re all little children, and it’s only the very young who realize this. Therefore when God tells you to pray, He’s not laying a burden on you. It’s a gift: when you begin to say, Our Father, He is saying back to us His word and promise: “I will be your Father, and you will be My son. Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will glorify Me. You are not alone, but I am with you through the valley of the shadow of death. When your father and your mother forsake you, I will take you in.”

St. Peter says, “Cast all your cares upon Him, for He cares for you.” What are your cares? Are they not the very things that Jesus warns can destroy faith? In the Parable of the Sower, “the [seed] that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity.” (Luke 8:14 NKJV) The cares will choke us, leaving us flailing and gasping. In casting our cares upon the Lord, we are learning to distinguish between what is needful and what is selfish.

But what shall we say when He does not answer? Jesus says, “Whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you…. Ask, and you will receive.” What then shall we say when we ask yet do not receive? How can we understand the disturbing problem of unanswered prayer? Remember how St. Paul asked God to take away his thorn in the flesh and was denied. Why? St. Paul himself came to understand that his tormentor was a gift, humbling him and so serving his salvation. From this, we can see why God may deny what we are asking: because it will not aid our salvation. Is God being cruel? No, just the opposite: it is a deeper kindness.

How many of you had mothers who withheld from you what you begged for? What made you cry and kick, you now see was all for your good. We were getting from our patient mothers not what we asked for, but something better, though we could not see it.

The central thought to prayer that Jesus is teaching us is not that we get to ask for anything, but anything in His name. This is not a formula that makes a prayer valid. The name of Jesus governs our lives. We are joined to Him in dying to sin and living to righteousness, in loving God and loving neighbor. So any prayer that does not serve these ends is not in the name of Jesus, though the word “Jesus” be in the prayer ten thousand times.

So perhaps everything we’ve been praying for is wrong – or at least approached in the wrong fashion. I love the way St. Augustine always points us to the deepest thing, which is to seek God not for what He can give us or do for us, but to love God and seek Him for His own sake, because He is not just good but goodness itself, not just beautiful but beauty, not just loving but Love. Augustine finds the culminating thought of Jesus’ instruction on prayer in those words, that your joy may be full. “Ask [in My name], and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” What is your joy? It’s not really in the things you are pursuing, the things of the world that you imagine will make you glad. The fulness of your joy is what can finally satisfy you.

All those other things don’t really satisfy. That’s why we see so many rich and famous people among the most miserable and broken: they gained the world and lost their soul, finding nothing in the world to satisfy. “You lower the bucket of greed into the well,” Augustine says, and when you pull it up to drink, you find yourself still thirsty.

What do you really need? “Having food and clothing,” St. Paul says, “with these we shall be content.” Everything, then, that leads to joy is contained in the Lord’s Prayer: forgiveness of sins, help in the time of trial, protection from the evil one.

And also this, in the opening word Our. When Jesus tells us to say, Our Father, He makes His Father ours, and He prays all the petitions with us. So we are never alone. And He puts us in the community of those who are adopted into the same household of God, as it is written, “He sets the solitary into families.”

Is Immanuel Lutheran Church an ideal community? Far from it. And therein lies our opportunity, and another focus for our prayers: By living in a community of sinners, we learn what it is to be disciples of Jesus by doing what the Church does: give and receive absolution.

So pray. Pray for your salvation, and the salvation of your home, church, and world. And be of good cheer, knowing that your prayer is heard and answered in the best way at the best time. +INJ+