Sermo Dei: Trinity 16, 2014

Posted on October 6th, 2014

Early Mosaic of St. Ambrose of Milan

Early Mosaic of St. Ambrose of Milan

St. Luke 7:11-17: The Raising of the Widow of Nain’s Son

October 5, 2014

On October 17, in the year 379, a man named Satyrus died. He had been a lawyer, and held civil office in the Roman government, but had given it up to help his brother Ambrose, when he became bishop of Milan in 374. A deep bond connected these brothers, and Ambrose delivered a funeral oration that is historically interesting and spiritually comforting.

Ambrose lived in a time of fear, recognizing that the collapse of the Roman Empire was near. “This [is a] time of common fear, when everything is dreaded from the barbarian movements.” He talks about the unselfish nature of Satyrus, flowing from Christ: “Christ died according to the flesh for all, that we might learn not to live for ourselves alone.” Christ’s death is a vicarious atonement, He dies for us; and not only does this rescue us, it also teaches us to be directed to the needs of others.

He is grieving; and when we lose something, we can become angry or depressed. But “I cannot be ungrateful to God,” Ambrose says; “for I must rather rejoice that I had such a brother than grieve that I had lost a brother … I enjoyed the loan entrusted to me, now He Who deposited the pledge has taken it back.”

None of this is said stoically. Ambrose is not without feeling, but he has watered his couch with tears. You know what that is. And it is not wrong to be sad over death, and sorrowful over sin. God knows your times of sadness, and what is more, He makes them His own. God became man and was Himself sad, weeping for us and with us in our own human nature.

Beyond sadness, there is also a loss, a strange new reality when someone you love has died. How do you go on living in the same house, visiting the same places? Have you ever looked for the dead, expecting them to still be where you frequently saw them? Ambrose says his brother’s absence was constantly in his mind; “[I] kept on turning my head seeking him, as it were, present, and seemed to myself then to see him and speak to him.”

In today’s Gospel we heard that there was a large crowd traveling with the widow to the grave. It is important to go to funerals and burials, to show those who mourn that we mourn with them. Ambrose thanks his congregation “that you esteem my grief as no other than your own, that you feel this bereavement as having happened to yourselves.”

That is how Jesus responds when He sees the poor widow on her way to bury her son, her only son. He has compassion. He makes her sorrow His own sorrow. And this account of the raising of the widow’s son is of great comfort to St. Ambrose grieving the death of his brother, his closest friend. There is “no doubt,” he says, “that Christ is moved to mercy” by our tears. “Though He has not now touched the bier,” (the bier is the open coffin; and he means the coffin of his brother, but by this language he is referring to the Gospel lesson for today, where Jesus touches the bier of the widow’s son) “yet He has received the spirit commended to Him… And though he that was dead has not sat up on the bier, yet he has found rest in Christ.”

When we hear about the miracles of Jesus, like the raising of this widow’s son, it is natural to wonder, normal to ask, Why doesn’t Jesus do this for us?

First of all, the miracles of Jesus tend to have a specific purpose. You wouldn’t need many miracles to prove that Jesus has divine power, or that He has the power of life over death. So why this woman? The text emphasizes that her young son is her only son; and then the knife twists in our gut as Luke tells us, “And she was a widow.” This means that she is all alone, no one to love, and no one to care for her. A widow without a son would be destitute, without an inheritance. Jesus is giving special help to this woman in a terrible circumstance.

Raising of the Widow of Nain's Son

But it remains true that the wages of sin is death, and so we all must travel that path. And we shouldn’t want just this, a return to life in a world still fallen, a revival of a body that will only die again. The resurrection that happens to this boy, this son of the widow of Nain, is not the ultimate thing, but a foreshadowing of the great work that is yet to come, the restoration of human nature to a condition without sin and without suffering. We aren’t looking merely for an improved life, a better politics, a healthier body; we look for the new heavens and the new earth, where sin will not be diminished but abolished, a world where the implements of war are put down forever, where the gates of the city need never be locked.

That’s why Ambrose says about his brother’s death, “Though [Jesus] has not now touched the bier, yet He has received the spirit commended to Him,” meaning the day is coming when Jesus will touch Satyrus’s coffin, and He will come to the graves of all those in Christ and give them back not a few more years, but eternity. “[My brother] had no need of being raised again for time, for whom the raising again for eternity is waiting. For why should he fall back into this wretched and miserable state of corruption, and return to this mournful life, for whose rescue from such imminent evils and threatening dangers we ought rather to rejoice?”

We live in just such a world of “imminent evils and threatening dangers.” And is there a greater evil than the one within us, the evil that clings to created things instead of the Creator? Is there a greater evil than your heart, which stands in judgment over others, withholding forgiveness? Look at this scene, of a widow who has lost her son. See the same thing unfolding all around you, every day, across this mad world infected with disease, lust, and never-ending war: see it all, unfolding within you, as your heart clings to dead things that cannot satisfy. “We are half-hearted creatures,” C.S. Lewis said, “fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us.”

Today Jesus doesn’t just address the widow of Nain. He speaks to you: “Do not weep. Rejoice in what I have done, take courage in what I will do; for I have pardoned all your sins, I have overcome the grave. Follow Me, and you will never walk in darkness, for I will transform your lowly body to be like My glorious body, and I will replace your heart of stone with a heart of flesh filled with wisdom and charity. Leave your weeping, abandon your anger, for great is My mercy toward you, I deliver your life from the depths of hell.” +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Funeral of Robert L. Smith, Jr.

Posted on October 3rd, 2014

ILC Church Directory

Philippians 3:7-14, 17-21; 4:1

October 3, 2014

Some years ago, at an anniversary party for Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a toast was offered: “To Smitty: the only man who can turn a short story into a novel.”

Mr. Smith was quick with a joke, a smile, and a story. But in my own experience with him, what stands out most is what he didn’t say. A few years after becoming the pastor here, a small controversy arose, where Smitty and another man disagreed with me about something. They actually strongly disagreed. And looking back, I know I should have handled the situation better. I was trying to make a point, you see; I had things to teach the congregation, improvements that needed to be made.

It took me too many years to realize that Smitty, and the other person, were teaching me. They taught me something about being a man, especially about how Christian men resolve differences. Smitty resolved the matter peacefully, privately, and by treating me with more respect than I showed him.

I was too young to recognize how much I should have respected him. And I think he knew that too, and showed grace to a young pastor. He served our country honorably in the military, continued serving our country in security and intelligence work, and kept it a secret. He spent a lifetime keeping us all safe during the long and frightening cold war, spent years loving a wife and raising four children, and then spent many weekends and evenings caring for the church property and tending to our school’s finances. Men respected him.

Smitty respected office, authority. He loved, deeply, the American flag, and everything good that it stands for; he took pride in being a citizen of the United States.

The Epistle reading we heard from Philippians was written by a Roman citizen, St. Paul. Paul knew what a valuable thing it was to be a citizen of the Roman Empire. Before he was put to death for being a Christian, Paul used his citizenship to appeal to the Emperor.

Yet as valuable as citizenship is, as honorable as love of country is, God’s Word teaches us there is something of infinitely greater worth. “But our citizenship is in heaven,” declares the holy Apostle, who then gives us this greatest of comforts: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

The end is not this casket. Mind fails, footsteps falter, and the heart ceases to beat. And as we visit the grave, we might be tempted to question like Mary Magdalene, for the stone of the grave seems large, oppressive, impossible to overcome. But we have their testimony, and the testimony of  so many eyewitnesses, that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, is risen. And by that power of His victory over death, Christ will transform this lowly body to be like His glorious body; Christ will rejuvenate, resuscitate, resurrect the body, for that is the right granted to citizens of our Lord’s kingdom.

Pastor Esget, Fred Pauling, and Robert Smith bringing trees for Christmas 2010

Pastor Esget, Fred Pauling, and Robert Smith bringing trees for Christmas 2010

That doesn’t take away the rottenness of today. Our hearts ache for you, Marilyn, and for your daughters and all your family. I hate it that you have to go on without your husband, your dad. Death is awful. Getting old is hard. The prophet Isaiah tells us what will happen after we all have grown old and the world groans with weariness: this old earth the LORD will make young again: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” Now, we struggle to remember forgotten things, but then, all that is bitter, painful, sinful, shall be forgotten.

When your husband or father dies, it would be natural to feel a kind of cosmic shift, a deep loss inside you. When Jesus says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, He feels all of that lostness – and of course more, the full weight of the world’s corruption. But to the forsaken in this life, God promises to Himself care for us: “When my father and my mother forsake me” (that is to say, “leave me behind”), the Psalmist says, “then the Lord will take care of me” (Ps. 27.9).  

That is the Lord’s promise to you, Marilyn, and all you who are joined to Jesus and the power of His resurrection: He will care for you, through this vale of tears, until the end. He keeps His promises, and on the day of resurrection we will rejoice and be glad in what the Lord has done. +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Trinity 15

Posted on September 30th, 2014

Photo Lisa Larson-Walker (

Photo Lisa Larson-Walker (

St. Matthew 6:24-34

September 28, 2014

Last Sunday in New York City thousands gathered for what was dubbed the People’s Climate March. Writing in the New Yorker, organizer Bill McKibben identified what was driving the participants: “I’ve always thought that … climate change caused a peculiar combination of deep dread and a sense of powerlessness. We area, after all, so small compared to physics” (Sept. 22, 2014). Deep dread, and a sense of powerlessness. We are small, and forces arrayed against us, dangerous and capricious, loom large.

That’s anxiety. Some experience it over a fear that the climate is changing. Others over disease raving a continent. Immigration. Militant Islam. Your mother-in-law.

It works by gripping our memory. When Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Do not worry,” He uses a term that means “remember.” Worry and remember are verbs, action words. When you make it into a noun, it becomes “tombstone,” which makes sense, because a tombstone is there to remember the dead. Isn’t it startling? When this life is over, your life is reduced to a name, a birth and death date, and perhaps a symbol or phrase chiseled in stone.

Memories fly away, and we sense that’s what is happening with us. Children grow up, old friends growing older.

But memories also gnaw at our minds, eating away at us. She promised! He lied. They laughed at me. If I had said this other thing, I would have gotten that job, and everything would be different. Why did I give in again to my rage, my lust, my despair? I should have spoken up! I should have remained quiet. If I get the chance, I will make him pay.

On and on we worry, and the worries become tombstones, so that we are dying even as we live.

Dread. Powerlessness. We are so small.

How can Jesus say to us, “Do not worry”? Because He is in control. He invites the birds and flowers to be our preachers. Every morning, the birds sing their song, gather their worms, then return to their nests. And what king ever had such beautiful clothing as a wildflower? And yet these things are nowhere near the value of a human being.

If God cares for these, will He not care for you even more? The bird has no anxiety. The flower has no fear. The sun gives light and heat. The earth spins. Although the world is in bondage to sin and death, yet still we see order in the cosmos, the created things fulfilling their function. Of all the creatures, only one is overwhelmed with dread: man.

Earlier in this sermon, called the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had expounded on the meaning of the Ten Commandments. The Commandments demand a perfect righteousness in us. Your righteousness, He said, must be perfect. The one who calls his neighbor an idiot, the person who is angry, the man who looks, just for a moment out of the corner of his eye, at a woman not his wife; the person who dislikes his enemy – all these have hell to pay. Such is the demand on your righteousness.

In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus now says, “Do not worry about these things causing you anxiety; do not build tombstones with the thoughts gripping your mind. Your heavenly Father knows everything that you need. Here is what you should concentrate on: ‘The kingdom of God and His righteousness.’” His righteousness, not yours.

His righteousness, God’s righteousness, is His love, His mercy, His pardoning work. The cross of Jesus is the righteousness of God. There all the anxieties of man, all the worries of our race, are jammed like thorns into our Lord.

That was a time of anxiety. The disciples hid behind locked doors, worrying that crucifixions were in their future. Here’s the thing: they were! In their future were loss of property, loss of livelihood, loss of friends, stonings, flayings, crucifixions. The resurrection of Jesus didn’t take away what they feared. The resurrection of Jesus took away the fear. Why? Because death and hell, Satan and sin had lost their power. Christ is risen, and they no longer had worries, for their resurrection was a certainty.

The first among these men, Peter, therefore wrote to us: Cast all your cares, your worries, your anxieties, on God, for He cares for you (1 Pet. 5.7).

Why do we worry? Because we forget, forget that God cares for us, and not only will do, but even now is doing for us better things than we can hope, desire, or understand.

None of this is to say, “Don’t be concerned about anything.” Rather, it means, “Be concerned about yourself, about being a faithful husband or wife, a faithful father or mother, a loyal citizen, an honest worker. Do what is given to you to do, and don’t worry about tomorrow, don’t worry about anything outside of your control. Those things will worry about themselves. “Tomorrow,” Jesus says, “will worry about its own things.”

There are unpaid bills. People are angry. We’re all going to die. But Christ already died for our sins, once for all. He is risen from the dead. By Baptism He is our brother. He is in us, and we in Him, in this Eucharist. Which means, truly, there is nothing—nothing—for us to worry about. +INJ+

A Facebook Kind of Love? The Marriage of Rachel Horne and Daniel Wanke

Posted on September 30th, 2014

Photo @beccagrawl



1 Corinthians 13:5

September 27, 2014

Social media is not evil. It simply magnifies the evil that is in the human heart.

Status updates rarely reflect one’s real status. We appear always to be doing fun things, important things, exciting things. We are witty, funny, snarky – or bringing a wise, contrarian take on everyone else’s idiocy. We post pictures of ourselves looking our best, and filter our shots to make our lives seem exceptional.

And then we are outraged. Outraged about politicians, outraged about the police, outraged about Israel, outraged about the Palestinians, outraged about religion, the other guy’s religion or lack thereof. And the outrage keeps us from actually learning anything from each other.

Then, when things get really bad? Unfriend. #Blocked.

And at this point you’re thinking, “Hey, I thought this was a wedding; why is this crazy preacher ranting about Facebook?” I’m getting there.

I like to send people pictures of James, my little boy. Someone said to me, “He’s always smiling!” Yes, I sent you the one good picture; I have a hundred others where he is not cooperating, or where you’ll see my house in all its chaos, because I don’t live in a Pottery Barn catalog.

It is in the messes that the marriage is made.

Daniel and Rachel, your life is going to be filled with messes. The best, and worst, parts of your marriage will never make it onto Facebook. But it is precisely in the messes that the marriage is made. It is precisely in the messes that the marriage makes you.

You were made for marriage. “It is not good for the man to be alone.” God made us to be like Himself. St. Irenaeus said, “God made man in order that He may have someone on whom to bestow His benefits.” Being made in the image of God means being made to be like God. Meaning, He made you to bestow your benefits, your love, your possessions, your life, on your neighbors.

Today you get a nearest neighbor, the neighbor that comes first. And their status updates, the decidedly non-exotic kind, become the most important of all. “Going shopping. Did you need anything?” “Cleaning the toilet. Again.” “Missed the deadline on that payment, now there’s a late fee.” And stuff we would never, ever tell the virtual world: “I’m just so sad, and I don’t even know why.”

There, in the mundane and in the messes, is where the marriage is made. The one-flesh union is so much more than sex. The two becoming one flesh will mean that Rachel’s hurts become your hurts, Daniel; and Daniel’s sorrows become yours, Rachel.

Right there is the tension. My own problems, fears, anxieties, addictions are bad enough. Now I have to deal with yours as well? And the day, the season, the year will come when you will want to #mute, #block, #unfriend, #unmarry this one, your nearest neighbor. In that hour, you remember that God put you here, God joined you together not only for companionship, help, and procreation, but also to teach you what it means to love.

God joined you together not only for companionship, help, and procreation, but also to teach you what it means to love.

The status of every life and every relationship in this broken world is always, “It’s complicated.” In the midst of all those complications is the call to genuine love which seeks not self-interest but my neighbor’s need. “Love is kind,” we heard St Paul say, and he means so much more than being pleasantly civil.

The concept of kindness is connected to showing mercy. The Christian idea of kindness means to go easy on someone. “Come unto Me,” Jesus says, “all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” This yoke, our Lord is saying, is kind; it causes no discomfort.

Most fascinating is how the term kind in the Bible is associated with uprightness. We have been conditioned to think about being upright as being uptight; slavishly following and enforcing rules. But by linking uprightness with kindness, we learn that the upright person is the one who shows mercy, goes easy on the other person.

What does this mean for your marriage, Daniel and Rachel? It means that you can be right and still be wrong. Which is to say, when you insist on your rights, when you try to win, you lose. Precisely by losing the argument, losing the decision, losing your desire, you win. For then you have put your nearest neighbor first.

We have made a terrible mess of this world. So into the mess stepped Jesus.

Marriage is made in the messes, and beginning with our first parents, we have made a terrible mess of this world. So into the mess stepped Jesus. His love for us is likened to a husband for his bride. He loves her throughly, completely, unconditionally, forgiving her sins and wiping the slate clean.

Love is kind, and God’s kindness is His attitude leading to action.

Even when we were dead in trespasses, [He] made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:5–7 NKJV)

That kindness, St. Paul says, becomes how you live with each other and for each other: “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32 NKJV)

So, for as many years as God gives you together, let this be your constant status update to each other: Please go easy on me, I’m a mess, I love you, I forgive you, isn’t it the best thing in the world that God in Christ forgives us?

May He bring you both, together and unbroken, to the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end. +INJ+

Psalm 96: Sing to the Lord a new song!

Posted on September 24th, 2014

Sing to the Lord a new song! A new song implies there are other, older songs. One suggestion is that the old song is the Song of Moses, which the children of Israel sang after crossing the Red Sea and beholding the Egyptian army destroyed by its waters. The Exodus, and the accompanying songs and rituals, are central to understanding the Hebrew Scriptures.

However, I suggest that the Song of Moses, which begins, “I will sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea! The LORD is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation” – I suggest that this is but the opening fanfare of the New Song which sounds the main theme in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The final stanza is yet to be sung, yet we sing it already, rehearsing for its performance at the final advent of Jesus and the resurrection of all flesh. The closing book of the Bible anticipates this event (Rev. 5), and gives us the lyrics to the New Song:

Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll,

And to open its seals;

For You were slain,

And have redeemed us to God by Your blood

Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation,

10 And have made us kings and priests to our God;

And we shall reign on the earth.”

So what is the old song? St. Augustine said, “The lust of the flesh singeth the old song: the love of God singeth the new.”

Last Friday my eye caught a sign as I drove home. It said “New church. New way to worship.” This new way to worship, it turns out, is a service centered around bluegrass music. I’m sure these people are well-meaning; but nothing about our self-chosen styles or tastes has anything to do with the new song. The sacred music of the church is never in service to itself, but always serves as a carrier of the Word, which is to say, a carrier of Jesus. As soon as the musician’s skill or style becomes the focus, we are sliding back into the old song of man’s hubris, which leads to man’s death.

The ultimate expression of the old song is in the funeral lamentations of a woman bereft of her husband, her father, her son. There is no one to help, and she dances alone, with grief as her constant companion.

To sing the new song of redemption, the Psalm says, “Bring an offering.” What offering does He desire, but that which David said? “You do not desire sacrifice, else I would give it; the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, these O God, you will not despise.”

The greatest paradox of this new song is that, calling us to repentance, we are then told, “Let the earth be glad.” Everywhere are prophets of doom; the dogs of war are again unleashed, as jets deliver missiles of fire and death. Yet still the church sings, “Let the earth be glad,” for the One who made heaven and earth shall make all things new, making wars to cease to the ends of the earth.

The temple was so organized that the Levitical choir sang outward from the court where the altar was to the court of the men, then the court of the women, then the court of the Gentiles. As the song traveled out, the good news of salvation went out into all the earth. The entire earth is envisioned as becoming the temple of God, the place where God dwells in peace with man.

The earth itself becomes the choir singing the new song: “Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord.” Trees held Jesus from beginning to end, for trees were shaped into a manger for feeding sheep, a boat carrying His disciples across stormy waters; a table for feeding His disciples; a crown of thorns to announce His kingship; and a cross for this King’s throne. These trees of the forest sang for joy: How we have been sanctified by the flesh and blood of our Maker! Praise the Lord, for He has come among His trees to redeem His people!”

All around us is cacophony, the song of lust and death. But your life does not dance to that song. You are baptized. You sing the new song of Jesus and His life.

Holy Cross 2014

Posted on September 14th, 2014

As Adam lay dying, his son Seth went to the border of Eden. There he said to the angel guarding the way in, “My father is dying; give to me from the Tree of Life, that I may bring it as medicine to him.” But the angel would not give him from the Tree of Life. Instead, he gave him a shoot from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. “When this bears fruit,” said the angel, “Adam will be fully restored.”

So goes the legend. And the legend continues, that this shoot, planted on Adam’s grave, endured as a great tree, whose wood finally became used for the cross, thus fulfilling the angel’s words, “When this bears fruit, Adam will be fully restored.”

So goes the legend. And it is but a legend. It’s a legend I would love to believe, on this Day of the Holy Cross. For the fruit of this tree, the tree of the cross, is the death of Jesus for the life of the world, by which Adam and all his children will be fully restored.

Why keep remembering the legend about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil becoming the tree of the cross? Because the legend conveys a truth, the truth that by the cross comes healing, restoration, the undoing of the fall.

There is another legend, closer to our own time, but still far distant. This legend is also closer to known facts, for it deals with the Roman Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena. Constantine, you may remember, issued the Edict of Milan, in the year of our Lord 313, granting religious liberty to Christians. In 326, his mother Helena went to Jerusalem to build churches on holy sites and to establish organizations to care for the poor.

Discovery of the True Cross

There, Helena discovered the hiding place of the three crosses of Jesus and the two rebels. Not knowing which was the true cross, the one on which Jesus hung, the leading official of Jerusalem, a man named Macarius, devised a test. Reasoning that the true cross would bring healing, he brought a noblewoman who had long suffered from disease, and while praying, they determined to touch her with wood from each of the three crosses. And, so the story goes, the instant one of the crosses was brought near her, she was made well. That must be the true cross.

It is a story, not at all certain. That’s the fun of legends; they spark the imagination. But theological legends do even more: whether real or not, they illustrate a truth: the cross heals.

The search for the true cross by Helena, along with the holy sites of the nativity, upper room, and holy sepulcher, demonstrate something vital about Christianity: the history matters. We’re not dealing with ideas or ethics, politics or philosophy. A real man was crucified on a real cross and laid in a real tomb. The search for the true cross is a search for a piece of that history.

Such searches are prone to superstition and fraud. Luther once said that if we gathered all the pieces of wood supposed to be from the true cross, we’d have enough to build a barn!

But if the authenticity of this or that piece of wood is doubtful, the authenticity of the event is not. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Pontius Pilate, an event seen by many and documented by eyewitnesses. And on the third day he rose, was seen by over 500. His resurrection was documented by eyewitnesses, whose testimony was written in blood.

If we had a piece of the true cross, we would surely keep it, because we preserve objects that remind us of special events. Brides preserve their wedding dresses, graduates keep tassels, parents take pictures on the first day of school. When someone dies, it can be very hard to get rid of their things. The objects remind us of the person. We want to remember.

In the church, the tokens of remembrance that were kept, both of Jesus and the saints, were called relics. Now there’s nothing wrong with saving an object. The problem comes when magic, or some kind of spiritual power, is attached to the object.

Fast-forward more than a thousand years, and you see a transformation from pious remembrance to superstition to ungodly abuse. In the Large Catechism, Luther slices through the fog of false worship and hammers home the key point:

The Word of God is the true holy thing above all holy things. Indeed, it is the only one we Christians acknowledge and have. Though we had the bones of all the saints or all the holy and consecrated vestments gathered together in one heap, they could not help us in the slightest degree, for they are all dead things that can sanctify no one. But God’s Word is the treasure that sanctifies all things. By it all the saints themselves have been sanctified.

God gives us His Word through the Bible, preaching, and Sacraments. The material of the Sacraments is not holy in itself; i.e., there’s nothing holy about the water for Baptism or the bread and wine for the Lord’s Supper. What makes these things holy, what makes them life-giving, is the Word of God attached to them. Jesus gives us His promises of new birth, the forgiveness of sins, and the Holy Spirit, in Baptism; and likewise, His Words instituting the Sacrament are what makes it His Body and Blood.

All that is directly connected to what St. Paul says in the Epistle for Holy Cross day: “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV). He continues, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23–24 ESV).

To say, “Christ was crucified” is not to say much. It says the history. History is important. But faith believes the effect of the history. What does the cross mean? Not, “Christ was crucified,” but: Christ is crucified for you. For your sins. He dies your death. He is cursed with your curse. He is punished with your punishment. He fears your fear. He endures your shame. And in exchange, He gives you His righteousness, His sonship, His life.

The Word of the Cross is, “Father, forgive them.” That’s folly, foolishness, if your life is wrapped up in the treasures and pleasures of this world. Forgiveness? Who needs it?

The Word of the Cross is, “‘Behold, your King!’ A wretched, pathetic loser in Roman or Israeli power politics.” We don’t want a mild king who forgives sins. We want someone who can play smashmouth, fight for our rights, win the election, win the war.


But all of that is wrapped up in the love of this world, the attachment to this world, which is really the attachment to yourself. We want to win. But the victory of Jesus is in being a Victim who forgives. He does not demand payment from you but becomes Himself your payment. He is King not by demanding a tax from you but by being Himself your offering.


Rising from the dead, He strips death of its power. Which means death is also stripped of its power over you. Not only in some distant future kingdom, but even now. As the world is frantic about death, and clings therefore to possessions and worries about legacies, the disciple of Jesus lives without bondage to all of that. You can forgive, for all claims have been released. You drop your demands upon others, for all demands have been satisfied on the cross.

The legend of Helena and the woman healed by the wood of the cross is a beautiful story. But Clive’s baptism is no fable. Today the Father makes Clive His son, the Son makes Clive His brother, the Spirit makes Clive’s heart His home. And when we witness a Baptism, we rejoice that all those gifts apply also to us.

Likewise this Eucharist is no fable. You are touched here with no piece of wood, but with the holy body and precious blood of Jesus, which cleanses you from all sin, and will heal your body completely at the resurrection.

So everywhere in church and home and school we hang up crosses and crucifixes, not to worship wood or metal, but to be ever mindful of the one thing in this vain life that matters: Jesus and His victory over death.

Jesus died on a real cross, was really dead, and really rose again from the dead. You are really baptized, your sins are really forgiven, and even when you seem to be really dead, such death will have no power over you, for you shall really rise again. +INJ+

Dreaming of a Christian community

Posted on September 11th, 2014

Idealizing people, politicians, pastors, and churches leads to disillusionment. Some go from church to church searching for the perfect pastor or small group, then move on when they discover problems. The same is true on a denominational level. In Life Together, Bonhoeffer addresses these longings for the perfect church and how such longings can make things worse:

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly.

The corrective is to recognize that the church is always a community of sinners, a hospital for those seeking healing from the contagion of their nature. Just as we would not be surprised to find sick people at the hospital, with the operating room a bloody place, so we should not be surprised to find sinners at the church, and sins brought out into the open and manifested so we can begin the healing process through the medicine of absolution.

Meditation on Psalm 94

Posted on September 10th, 2014

An appeal to the God of vengeance sounds exceedingly inconsistent with the Scriptures that present Jesus as bringer of shalom – peace. Yet that is how tonight’s psalm begins: “O Lord, God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, shine forth! Rise up, O judge of the earth; repay to the proud what they deserve!” Have not the storms of your heart similarly cried out for justice? The world is not fair, the rich and influential are invited to the table and you are left out in the cold. Someone at work, those scoundrels in government, someone in your own family has turned on you, and you would like to see the tables turned. “Repay to the proud what they deserve!”

What sort of psalm is this? The sort you can understand. The anger turns to questioning. How long, God, are You going to let this go on? “O Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?” How long, how long?

And then from questioning to receiving mockery: Your religion is worthless, you’ve trusted in something foolish.

But then God speaks. And indeed, He calls us fools. “Understand, O dullest of the people! Fools, when will you be wise?” Indeed, the Lord says, “I hear, I see, I discipline, I teach, I know … I know that your thoughts are like a breath: they last for a moment, are not seen, and soon gone forever.”

To all this, the believer responds: “Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O Lord, and whom you teach out of your law.” The person who began in anger, crying out for vengeance, concludes by crying for his sins. The first and necessary discipline was not on the wicked and proud; or rather, it was not on those other wicked and proud people, but on the wicked and proud man whom we see reflected in the mirror.

The Lord disciplines the one whom He loves; and so your cancer, your gray hair, your lack of recognition, your lack of the money you crave, your dysfunctional family and melancholy soul: it all is working for good, God is working it for good to turn you from the one crying out for vengeance to a person who cries out for mercy – both for yourself and for others.

The psalm is not done with the wicked, the legislators “who frame injustice by statute.” No, the Lord has use for them too: “They band together against the life of the righteous and condemn the innocent to death.” We can look upon the innocent babies condemned to death by the abortion industry; we can see the righteous, the saints in Syria being brutally murdered by crucifixion and beheading, after they see their wives and daughters raped.

But these are not ultimately who the Psalm means. The Lord Jesus is the righteous one, the only innocent one. He is the true victim of this Psalm: “They band together against the life of the righteous and condemn the innocent to death.” And we know how that ends: absolution and resurrection. This is the consolation that cheers us. As we go through the hardships of this life—and really, we know little of hardships compared to most Christians in most times and places—but as we go through our raging for vengeance, our impatience with God’s schedule, and finally come to see His discipline lovingly training us, then we can say aright, “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.”

Decomposing bodies, living bread

Posted on September 10th, 2014

planting seed

A gem from St. Irenaeus:

A cutting from the vine planted in the ground bears fruit in its season, or a kernel of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed rises and is multiplied by the Spirit of God, who contains all things. And then, through the wisdom of God, it serves for our use when, after receiving the Word of God, it becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ. In the same way our bodies, being nourished by it, and deposited in the earth and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time. The Word of God grants them resurrection to the glory of God, even the Father who freely gives to this mortal immortality, and to this corruptible incorruption. This is so because the strength of God is made perfect in weakness in order that we may never become puffed up, as if we had life from ourselves, or become exalted against God with ungrateful minds.


A new and real human fellowship

Posted on September 10th, 2014

Regarding “the question of truth,” Hermann Sasse observed that

The American concept of the church basically avoids this question. It surrenders dogma and liturgy as something unessential—“ trifling matters” as Goethe put it. For us, however, both of these belong to the essence of the church: the Word and the Sacrament, confession and liturgy. We understand the protest against an ossified orthodoxy and a dreary ritualism , and we agree with this protest. But we believe that the church possesses in the Verbum Dei [“ Word of God”] the eternal truth, over against all the relativism of human knowledge. And we believe that in the evangelically understood Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, that in the liturgical life of the church which is grounded on these things, the powers are present which are able to establish a new and real human fellowship, even in an age in which all human fellowships are unraveling.

Letters to Lutheran Pastors – Volume 1 (Kindle Locations 973-979)