Sunday, October 29, 2006

Reformation Sunday - Romans 3

- wma audio link -

(Beward the typos!)

Gosh. I’m excited this morning. Are you excited this morning? I’m excited this morning.

Do you know why I’m excited this morning? Is it because we brought in new members last week? Is it because there are more and more people stepping up to the plate to do the jobs that need to be done for this congregation? Is it because our sister congregation St. Paul’s has voted to keep funding us because they’re excited about Project Resurrection? Or is it simply Project Resurrection itself, the chance to challenge the shifting secular culture head on, to do something adventurous, a little bit risk, and yet tremendously hopeful?

These are all exciting things, but they’re not really the reason I’m excited this morning. I’m excited because today is Reformation Sunday.

Ohh…I can see it in your eyes. Now you’re excited too. … You know what this means. This means that we’ve just hit the beginning of one of the most exciting seasons in the entire Church year. This means that next week is All Hallows day, and then, within a few weeks, we’ll have Christ the King Fulfillment Sunday. From there it’s a hop and a skip to when Advent season starts, and we get to come to those beautiful Wednesday evening services, (such a calming and peaceful time for family to gather before God – while the chaos of the shopping season goes on out there – such a blessing to let it all fade away as we sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel”) And then, well, you know what comes next.

From here on out its down hill. A virtual smorgesborg of Churchly celebrations, and each one of theme a change to taste something a little stronger, a little more spiced than those dreary latter weeks of August and September which we’re coming out of.

And it all starts today, with the celebration of the Reformation. That alone is enough reason to be excited, because, after all, without the Reformation, where would we be? It almost wouldn’t be worth having church if it weren’t for what happened almost 500 years ago, this Tuesday.

Or am I wrong? Maybe you don’t really know what Reformation Sunday is. Maybe the entire concept of the Church seasons and their gorgeous flavors of worship life are something you’ve never really been invited to experience. Maybe you’ve even been dozing through all the festivities so far this morning. Maybe you haven’t even noticed that the paraments on the altar are red this week. (That only happens 3 Sundays a year, by the way!) Maybe to you, the term “Reformation” is meaningless, carrying little more with it than some image of Martin Luther with a hammer standing by a doorway. So what? Big deal. Who cares?

Actually, if the Reformation were really about some guy named Marty who took a hammer to a church door, then I think I’d pretty much agree with you. If it was just another time in history when people got kind of fussy about this or that, but its all passed and not that important now, then I don’t think I’d even be standing in this pulpit. But the Reformation is about so much more than that. The Reformation was one of the central most important moments in the entire history of the Church since Jesus left. Really. I’m serious.

Let me paint the picture for you. It’s going to take just a little bit of a history lesson. Just a little one. So it won’t hurt that much.

By the time the year 1500 came along, a lot had happened to the church. The entire “dark ages” had more or less come and gone. Western civilization was rediscovering itself through scholarly study of the classics of literature, like Plato and Aristotle, not to mention the great writings of the early church. It was an exciting age, when the learning curve of western man sky-rocketed to heights that hadn’t been seen for centuries.

But not everything that was happening was good. For over a thousand years now the organized Church had been a major player in society. Not only did it control the pulpits of the land, but the Popes were the ones who were looked to give the crown to emperors and kings. The office of the high bishop of Rome was the most powerful throne in the world, and this kind of power came with a price. By the 1500s, the seats of archbishops and cardinals – high ranking men in the church – had long been bought and sold to the highest bidder. Corruption dominated much of the Church’s trade. Pastors and priests were largely uneducated, and even the Lord’s Supper was generally something monks and “more spiritually minded” people in monasteries, rather than a gift to the laity for their forgiveness.

It was in one of these monasteries that Martin Luther, a slightly better than average monk (and I say that meaning that he was a top rate scholar in a very good, though very small school in northern Germany) – there, Martine Luther, like all those around him, devoted himself to the Church’s teaching on how to achieve salvation from death and hell.

Now Luther was a good man. He had a very active conscience. He knew sin when he saw it, and he saw it most often not out there, among the world, but in here, in his own heart. He saw, deep down inside himself, how, as much as he tried to love God, to serve him, and to submit and abandon himself to complete surrender, he couldn’t ever really do it. This tormented Martin immensely. But, what could he do? He listened to the Church. “Do penance,” they said. He prayed harder, crawled up staircases on his knees and took a whip to his back. It didn’t work. He saw Christ. He believed in Christ. But he hated this Christ, for this Christ was a judge who demanded of Martin something Martin could never achieve: perfection.

All of this would have probably come to very little had not something else happened. The pope in Rome wanted a new cathedral for his city, the Vatican. But, unfortunately, the treasuries were a little dry. The pilgrimages to the holy shrines and relics which brought in much of the cities money had tapered off a bit. And the black plague was having a nasty influence on whether or not people decided to travel. So, the pope and some of his high officials came up with a plan. A priest named John Tetzel was sent out to do the traveling himself, and he took with him a special offer, a special series of “indulgences,” quality letters signed by the seal of the pope himself, which promised complete release of you or any of your relatives from pergatory directly into the gates of heaven. And this wonderful blessing was free to anyone who wanted it (with a small donation of $9.95.) “When the coin in the coffer clings, the soul from pergatory springs!”

It was this traveling salesmen, selling forgiveness of sins, that really set Luther off. He’d been reading the Scriptures, particularily the psalms and the epistles of Paul, and he was increasingly being convinced by the words of Holy Writ that there was something missing from the standard teaching in the Church, something which the Scriptures themselves were very concerned about. Something which a pope selling heaven in order to build a church building really has no concept of: grace. Grace in Jesus Christ.

So…put off by this sorry state of affairs, and truly thinking that the pope was probably unaware of this charleton selling heaven in his name, Luther did what scholars of the day normally did. He started a debate. He began the debate in the usual course, by publicly nailing the opening theses to the large church doors – which was the place where news and information were usually posted in those days.

But things didn’t go the way he expected. He thought he was going to be commended by the pope for calling attention to the abuses and atrocities that were going on in the name of God. Instead, he found ,very quickly, that he had a choice of doing one of two things: shutting up, or being excommunicated.

But that presented a very specific problem. For Martin to shut up, he would also have to deny something he’d only recently become aware of. He would have to give up something he’d only in the last few years come to receive – an understanding God in which Christ was no only the judge, but the mediator, in which forgiveness was not something earned by the performance of rites and special works, but which was given, as a gift, for the sake of a man who died on a cross. He would have to give up, simply, what Paul said in Romans chapter three this morning:

The whole world is held accountable to God. But by works of the law, no human being will be justified in his sight [that means, by what a man does with his hands and his heart, not one of us will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and be acquitted, or declared innocent.) And yet, the righteousness of God has been revealed apart from the law, although the old testament codes bear witness to it – the righteousness of God is given through faith in Christ Jesus to all who believe. Beyond this, there is no distinction between men of any sort: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. [All have become unrighteous, and this is proven by our works, by the wickedness of our hearts and the way it spills over into our lives, into greed and envy, discord and discontent, anger and vengeance. All are born into this wretched estate, and none of us leave it until the day that we die in it.] And yet, it is given that man is justified [that is, declared innocent and free from guilt] by the grace of God, as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

“Eureka!” Luther exclaimed when he had first read words similar to these in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The answer to your sin, your despair, your death and your enemy the devil who seeks to drag you into the fires of eternal hell is not yourself and your penance and your work to prove that you are worthy of salvation. The fact that you need salvation means you are not worthy. But God has known this, and, because he is merciful, he has worked that salvation for you as a free gift in his Son Jesus Christ, whom God put forward as a propitiation [that means, a payment] by his blood, to be received by faith.

Jesus bought Martin Luther, and you and me, and all of the elect who will join us in paradise, with his very own spilt blood. And these words are only received by faith. Works cannot believe a promise. Faith can. And all of this is because God wanted to show his own [great and marvelous] righteousness, passing over former sins so as to be not only just, but also the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

This news, straight out of Paul’s letter to, coincidence of coincidences, the Church in Rome, hit the medieval world like a nuclear bomb. Wars were fought. Peasants revolted. People were burned at the steak and cut into pieces and hidden in castle towers. Princes and dukes were excommunicated. The Emperor himself got involved. It was madness. The madness of the Reformation.

And yet, in the midst of it, at the very center of it, this profound, almost unbelievable news: the news that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was gift from God given to mankind, not to demand that we stop sinning and earn forgiveness, but to take away the sins of the world by forgiving them – this Word of Gospel rolled like a tidal wave through the continent of Europe. Something big had started. Something big had been remembered. Something big was being preached loud and clear once again, for the life of the world, for the sake of the elect children of God, because of the mission of Christ which neither pope nor king nor darkness to death can stop or hold back. The cross of Jesus Christ as the promise of salvation by grace was being preached, and to this day it has not stopped.

Loud and clear the Reformation bells tolled, telling those who claimed to be Church that to be Church they better start preaching Jesus again. And many listened, and many believed. You and I believe. That is why we are here, named “Lutherans” by our enemies who do not understand that we are catholics who simply love the Evangel of God’s Gospel more than we love the seat of the pope.

That is what we celebrate today. That is why I’m excited. There is nothing more exciting than salvation by grace through faith. There is nothing more exciting than being justified, declared innocent, as a gift, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ. And this itself sets off a season of celebration in the Church – a season which will lead us passed the Church itself, to the very throne of God, and then beyond even that, to a manger, where a baby boy whose face was the face of God lay waiting for a day when he would take up a cross and make all things new. If that kind of future doesn’t make you excited, then I don’t know what will.

Today is Reformation Sunday. Today is living proof from history that though darkness come and the grass withers, though the organized church miss the point and the flowers fade, though all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, the Word of the Lord stands forever: you are justified freely, as a gift, by the redemption that is in Jesus Christ who has paid for your every last sin with his blood. Believe that, and rejoice, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Trinity 20 - Mark 10

- WMA Audio download here -

We have a difficult topic to face this morning. The topic of divorce, or, more specifically, what the Bible says about the topic of divorce, because, what the Bible says about the topic of divorce is especially hard for human ears to hear. And “what Bible says about the topic of divorce” says that just as much as it says anything else.

It all started when the Pharisees tried to entrap Jesus by asking him a sly question. Jesus, knowing what they were up to, wasn’t about to let them off the hook. Jesus doesn’t really ever let anyone off the hook when they try to pull a fast one on him. He shoots straight. He says it like it is. And, for that reason, today we have his own words on the matter. He said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce for his wife and send her away because of the hardness of the hearts of men.” Then he went on to say that, this is not the way creation is made to be. Divorce is not even a part of what marriage really is. It really doesn’t matter what the circumstances are in this broken world: divorce is always sin.

And we immediately recoil and say, “But…but…but….” Isn’t it amazing how often and how quickly we don’t like what Jesus has to say? And it’s not hard to think up excuses involving extreme circumstances with a completely innocent party who is abandoned and deserted, or abused physically. If we try hard enough, we can find a host of very real, very evident concerns about the difficulties of marriage in this broken world. And, it is certainly true that these should not and cannot be ignored in any discussion of divorce. In fact, the Scriptures do not ignore them either. But, when we take those real, hard realities, and put them up against Jesus’ words as if kind to bury them, to make them just go away, then we are very poor interpreters of Scripture indeed. We can’t say that “Jesus didn’t really mean what he said.” Yes…he…did. Jesus always meant what he said. He not only never committed adultery, he never lied either.

Thus we have it before us: Divorce, every divorce, is there because of one reason alone: sin. If there were no sin in the world, in the relationships between men and women, then there would never ever be divorce. That’s because if marriage is what it should be, then man and woman are, as we saw in Paul’s writing to the Ephesians weeks ago, one and the same flesh, united even as they were that day of creation in the garden of Eden, when Eve was taken from the side of her husband, and he exclaimed, “Yes! This is bone of my bone!”

In the garden of Eden, you can be sure, there was never even the thought of divorce. The word did not exist. It was promised then and there that forever onward, when God’s holy gift of marriage came to be, a man would leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they would never separate – not even death would separate them, because, when there was no sin in the world, there was no death.

That’s the way it should be. But, unfortunately for us, that’s not the way it is. And Jesus’ words get even harsher on issue: He wasn’t letting anyone off the hook: He said, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Whoever. Whenever. Where ever.

But even this kind of talk is child’s play when it comes to identifying adultery. Long before any of us have had the chance to get into a real, physical divorce, we have all become adulterers, for it is this same Jesus who said, “everyone, everyone, who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” That’s no joke. That’s Jesus calling you on the carpet for your sin, your daily, regular sin. And ladies, don’t think that just because you’re eyes don’t wander quite so frequently as the average man that this command doesn’t apply to you as well: for every dream you have of improving your husband, every attempt to change the way he behaves, to make him more like the ideal that you’d prefer him to be, is no less an infidelity to the promises of your wedding vows than all the times he has cheated on you in his heart.

So, here we all are, standing before Jesus’ words, accused of being adulterers. And not just accused. Convicted. Because Jesus doesn’t lie. Of course, the standard Americanized Lutheran routine at this point would be to say, “But Jesus forgives you, so it’s ok.” Yes, Jesus does forgive sin, but no, forgiveness never makes adultery ok. Sin is never ok. And that is why, truth be told, divorce is not “ok.” It’s just not. It is a blight on our world and our culture and our homes. It tears us apart. It devours not only those involved, but also their children, and their families and their friends and their churches. And once it happens, it never goes away. It’s always there to hurt us, to open back up the wounds of our heart and tear at the loss, and the rejection, and the failure.

Now, divorce can be forgiven. Better, divorce and adultery are forgiven, and in this we have a glorious freedom of conscience in the resurrected Christ. But woe be to us if we should therefore claim that divorce, any divorce, was ok. If it was ok, then it didn’t need to be forgiven. And Christ does not forgive those who think they do not need it. And so any divorce which claims to be ok shall not be forgiven, for in claiming to be ok it has rejected forgiveness.

So then, what are we to do? What happens when sin does occur? What happens when it is clear that it is sin, when we cannot hide behind our excuses and self-justifications? What happens when our eyes wander, when our ideals overrun, when spouses deserts, or abuse? What happens when the perfect goodness of God’s law can only leave us condemned?

Are you following me? Do you see how if we look at the perfect law of God as Jesus taught it, then even a person’s inability to keep the law because of circumstances beyond their control is no excuse? Simply because we cannot keep the law does not free us from our accountability to it. The innocent party in a divorce has still been a party to sin, even if he or she made every effort to avoid it, and nothing they could have done would have fixed or made it turn out differently.

The child born of sinful parents is a sinner condemned to death by God, regardless of what it has or has not yet done. That’s why babies die. Far beyond the topic of divorce, many times and in countless parts of life you and I and all of us are faced with choices we cannot avoid, and more often than not, though we would deceive ourselves otherwise, these choices put upon us the evil of our human condition. And so we must choose the lesser of the two evils.

Do we put 10% in the offering joyfully, or do we put it in grudgingly, or do we not put it in at all? To refrain from the gift you owe the Lord is sin. To give an offering grudgingly is sin. To do it joyfully is great goodness, but watch your step, for how easy it is to think you have done the right thing and therefore do not stand condemned – to make that error is to see your works as the thing which justify your actions and thus is the most heinous crime of all, for it denies your need for the forgiveness of Christ. So we choose between the lesser of two or three evils. And we do the one that is most right. But woe to us on the day that we convince ourselves that the lesser evil is not really after all evil.

So, this is where the Christian rubber meets the road. What do we do with our sins when we see them? Do we hide from them? Do we change the words of Jesus and soften the law of God in an attempt to justify ourselves? Or do we believe the other things our Lord has commanded? Do we believe that it his will that we cease trying to argue him out of the point and instead face the Truth of our sin with courageous faith, repenting, hating even our best actions for the selfish motives that are mixed therein, and crying out to God at all times and in all circumstances, “Yes, I have sinned in deed. I have done what, according to your good creation, O Lord, should never be done. Even though I could do no more, even though I never had a chance to keep this law because it was the actions of another which brought this condemnation upon me, even though from my forefather Adam I have been destined to fall short – even then – I repent. For my inability to have kept the law does not change the law, and the law is good. Therefore, it is I who am evil. And for that Lord, I ask your forgiveness. Where I have failed, I beg your mercy and pardon, not in order that I might justify my actions, but in order that I might know I have been justified by you.”

Oh, how hard it is to say those words. How hard it is to repent of the sins that are beyond our own control. How hard it is to admit that we not only “have not” and “did not,” but that we “could not” keep the law of God and yet still bear the blame.

Yet it is just there, when we look our worst, when it is clear how impossible it is for us to have avoided sin – it is there that being in Christ matters most. It is when we are sinners, who truly have sinned, not just years ago, but moments ago – it is then, in that weakness that we find the source of the power of God which is our salvation. For when we admit that we are all adulterers, that none of us have truly been faithful to God Himself, let alone to our spouse – then, and only then, can we begin to see the grace of the one man who is always full of fidelity. When we see that every human marriage since Adam and Eve has ended in the divorce of death, which as a curse and blight upon us all, tears apart what was meant to be - it is then that even the Scripture reading for today from Genesis 2 becomes a prophecy itself, given, before even the fall itself, in order to point us to the the answer when it came.

For as much as Jesus had to shoot straight with the Pharisees, he didn’t come to give the Law. Jesus came to create a new world. He came to take the world that was broken, and fix it. He came to take all the marriages that end in death and divorce, and to bind them to himself, so that in him, in is marriage to us, we could all live forever. And so even as the bride of the first Adam was created from his flesh and blood, pulled from his very side while he slept, – it was prophecy, words foretelling how – and oh, how beautiful it is – words foretelling how the second Adam, Jesus Christ, would come to give life by re-creating his bride, you and me, from his flesh and blood, poured from his very side while he slept the sleep of death. Pierced by a spear, blood and water flowed, a sacramental mystery that even today continues to make us who we are in Him, to bind us, to cleanse us, bring us and forgive us of all our worst works, and all our best ones too.

Thus, Jesus founded our salvation through his suffering, sanctifying even our very origins in his own flesh, and thus naming us his brothers, for we share in his blood. Through death, he destroyed both death and the one who holds the power of death, the devil. In that truth, you and I are delivered from the fear of death and our lifelong slavery to our own sin. Even as we see it, even as we feel it, even as we still must face it day by day, we need not fear it any longer, for we can name it, and confess it for what it is. And every time we do so,when we kneel at the cross and say, “Yes, Lord, it is I who have sinned again,” then blood and water flow from his side, covering us, cleaning us, healing all of our divorces.

Divorce and adultery are sin, and sin is never ok. But Christ died and rose precisely for the things in life that are not ok.

For the grass withers, and the flowers fade, but the Word of the Lord endures forever. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Trinity 18 - Mark 9

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In the name of Jesus. What does that mean?

John said to Jesus, “Lord, we saw someone performing miracles in your name, and we tried to stop him.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him. The one who is not against us is for us.”

Hey, that’s the ticket. Therefore, anyone who does anything in Jesus name must rightly be called a Christian, right? From the Christian pornstar who sees his work as a ministry of love (and this guy’s really out there,) to the most flagrantly unscriptural teacher who nonetheless boasts “Jesus is Lord!,” we’re all part of one and the same cloth, right?

Then again, Jesus did also say that, “Every Kingdom divided against itself is laid to waste and it will not stand. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather, scatters.” And Paul did write that adulterers will not inherit the Kingdom (contrary to the porn stars belief’s), and Peter did write that false teachers who secretly bring in destructive heresies exploit the believers with false words, with lies, lies like, “in Jesus name.”

Luther once put it well. He wrote: Perverters of the Gospel …are prouder than anyone else of the name of Christ, and they claim to be the most sincere…..[In fact] the holier the heretic seems …the more damage they cause. For if the false apostles ….had not claimed to be ministers of Christ…and sincere preachers of the gospel, they could not so easily have undermined the authority of Paul” in the church in Galatia. Paul, who in near panic exclaims to the Galatians chapter 1 of his letter, “Even if [I myself] or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached, let him be accursed.”

So in Christ, the one who is not against us is for us. And the one who is not for us is against us, and on the last day, according to St. Matthew, many will say to him “Lord, Lord, did we not do many marvelous things in your name.” And, he will say, “Why do you call me “Lord” and not do what I tell you?” For as Jesus said, “It is he who comes to me and hears my words and does them that is a man who builds his house on a rock. But the one who hears and does not do them builds his house on the sand.” And the storms come and the storms blow, and that man’s house “falls with a great crash.”

In Jesus name.

What does that mean? It is indeed one of the hardest questions for the Church in our days of schism and division. It is a question of “ecclesiology,” that means, a question of the “study of the church.” It is the question “where is the Church?” How do we find her? How do we know that we are her? How can we say where else she is or is not? These are questions long forgotten in a land where the norm is to make our own “church” however we darn well please. “We just teach what the Bible says!” we say. But do you ever think to ask someone who says that, “Um…what does the Bible say?” I’ve heard it more often than not: “Well, you need to make a decision for Jesus, pray the sinners prayer and have a believers baptism, by water then pray for a special baptism by the holy spirit after which you will speak in tongues and receive many gifts and an abundant life.” “Um…where does the Bible say that specifically?” “Well, it doesn’t say that in so many words, but we know that’s what it teaches.” And there’s the problem.

Almost everyone congregation says they teach only what the Bible says, but not everyone is teaching the same things. This either means that the Bible doesn’t really say anything, and we’re all making it up, or that someone’s right, and someone’s wrong. And to throw a real wrench in the gears, we must recognize that anyone who claims to only teach what the Bible says and nothing else really is lying from the start, because it is impossible to, literally, teach only what the Bible says. To do that, we could never speak anything but quotes from the Bible.

I have here a Bible study from a group that calls themselves “Community Bible Study” or “Bible Study Fellowship,” which claims to only teach what the Bible says. From what I understand, they are very intentional about making sure that pastors aren’t involved in these groups, because apparently, (contrary to what the Bible says, I might add) we pastors tend to get in the way of what the Bible really says. So goes their teaching only what the Bible says.

But I’d like to read a little bit of it from the introduction to chapter six of the book of Galatians. It says: “Like several other epistles of Paul, the Galatian letter was sent to address existing problems in a first century church.” That’s true. But guess what. If you’re playing by the rules, that’s not “only what the Bible says.” The Bible never says any such thing, especially not in the letter to the Galatians. This is an external bit of information taught in order to help understand what the Bible says. And again, it’s true. But I’m trying to make a point.

You see, to only teach what the Bible says, the way such as these are making the claim that they do, we’d actually need to throw out all explanations, (not just those made by nasty old pastors,) not to mention, we’d need to get rid of creeds, history, hymns and just about all songs. We’d need to just sit and read straight through the Bible over and over again. And if my memory of history isn’t too far off, such things have actually been tried. Needless to say, they didn’t work out too well.

But that’s why, the Evangelical Catholic Church, we Lutherans, while we certainly claim without doubt that our faith is guided and normed by Scripture alone, we don’t really make the claim to teach only what the Bible says in such a way as to throw out all other books and knowledge, much less to throw out pastors.

That’s because, and here’s the nugget, in order to really teach what the Bible says, we confess in our own words what the Bible means. It’s not magic incantation. It’s Word made flesh. And it is unavoidable. Every congregation that claims to be the Church has a confession, even if they think they don’t. They confess when they teach. They confess when they preach. And they confess when they believe and act. The big problem with congregations in America is that many are so hung up on ignoring this simple fact of language that they refuse to write down what they say the Bible says, and so no one there really actually knows what they all think they believe. The result ends up looking something like ten men on a football field, each playing his own sport. They all say, “I’m playing football!” But one is playing soccer, one is playing rugby, one is playing lacrosse, and so on.

But the catholic way, the Lutheran way, is to recognize that you or I can say what the Bible says in our own words, kind of like this Bible study does from the start, even though they claim they don’t. More so, we relish the fact that there was a time in the Church when some such statements were actually universally accepted as true. Words like, I believe in God the Father, almighty, maker of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ his only son, our lord, and so on.

So, when we Lutherans teach only what the Bible says, we are not afraid of letting those who’ve faithfully said what the Bible says, teach us, even across time and space. We know that he who was for Jesus then, is for Jesus now, and so long as what he teaches is in accord with the Scriptural witness, it is therefore what the Bible says. It is the pure Word of God. Incarnate in us, living, active, at work, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Now, this morning, I’m not going to pretend that that answers all the hard questions about ecclesiology, about the Church, about who is in and who is out. The devil is far too wily for that. Rather, this morning, it is instead my goal to introduce you to the great problem we face, and the one sure answer we have. But if you walk away a little confused about all that I’ve just said, then good. I’ve done my job. You see the problem.

He who is not for Christ is against him. He who is not against Christ, is for him.

So, how do we know where we are? How doe we know we are the Church? How do we know the name of Jesus is here in our midst, not just as a magic word, but as the working, active, Lord of the Universe.

The Church is here, and there is no mistaking it, for here we are unashamed of what the Bible says. We are unashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe. More so, we do not merely preach God’s Gospel, but we love God’s law, and so we have the entire council of God, his pure Word here among us. We know that it is good to have no other Gods but the Lord. We know that it is good to sanctify the day by coming to receive the Sacrament. We know that it is good to tithe 10% of our income to for the sake of that Worship Ministry. We know that it is good to preserve the sanctity of human life, defending the defenseless. We know that it is good to feed the poor, even if they don’t deserve it. We know that it is good to abstain from adultery, from theft, and from the endlessly wicked wagging of loose tongues. And we know that, above all, striving after such perfection, we fall short. We each and every one fail. But we know that we do not fall upon ourselves. We fall cruciform upon the image of a cross, where we have already died in the body of our very Lord and God.

Here then, you see the Church, and this is what she is wherever she is: not a religious club or a voluntary banding together of like-minded pious people, but the creation of God through his word, made by the water and blood which spilled from the side of his dying Son. We, the Church, live and die with him, die and rise with him, are incarnationally bound up with him, like a body tied to the head, like a branch grafted to the vine, like hunger satisfied by the finest gifts hidden under wheat and wine. The true Church, the oneness that we confess we are every week in our Creed, is here, hidden with Christ in God.

Therefore, wherever what the Bible teaches about baptism being the power of God’s Word given in water to regenerate you, and wherever what the Bible teaches about the Lord’s Supper being the body and blood of Christ, given as food to cleanse you, wherever Jesus’ name is spoken not just as a catch-phrase or magic a prayer, but as the name of the man who rose from the dead for the justification of sinners like you and me in the courtroom of the last day - in that place, you can be sure to find the Church, because those things are what make the Church who she is. Those things make the one who is not against Christ, for Him.

As it was put well by one recently departed saint in the LCMS, “Those marks of words and sacrament tell us that we are the Church, that the Church can be found here, among us.”And while the outward body of the Church, to the eyes of the world, is utterly broken, torn by schisms and holy wars, constantly falling astray into fleshly passions and arguments, looking no more like the saving place of God than a bleeding man on a cross looks like God’s only begotten Son – no matter, for the Church is united by a common faith which is the gift and work of our Lord, not of us. That faith does not see what we are as sinners, but believes what we are being made by the Word and Sacraments of Christ.

Thus, if we will only teach what the bible says, then we will be forced to confess that the Church herself is ever dependent upon the cross. It is not ironic that in the very next chapter of Mark’s Gospel from our reading today, faced once more by Jesus’ words about hell and fire and just how many will be cast into that sea, the disciples become exceedingly astonished, and they say to Jesus, “Lord, then who can be saved?”

They have wrestled with the same questions we have faced today. They have seen just how hard it is to make the practice of theology nice and neat and tidy, that is, to make it run as if it were a fine engine rather then a cross. They see the problem of the cross, the problem of the Church, the inability of man to ever get it all just the way we should, and then they say,

“But Lord, if it is about whether we are for you or against you, then no one shall be saved!” I have to hope our Lord smiled as he turned to them and said, “With man it is impossible. But not with God. With God, all things are possible.” "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

Sound familiar? It should. It’s the pure preaching of the Word of God. Starting to get it? Good. That’s what the Gospel does. It gives it to you.

He died. He rose. And now, we eat and drink that reality, not because we are perfectly for or against God, but because He has shown himself to be perfectly for us. That’s what the Bible teaches. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the Word of the Lord endures forever. In name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Mark 9

(audio link)

Jesus was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise." But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to ask him.

…They did not understand the saying? What's not to understand? Jesus said is clearly, "You know all these people who've been less than friendly to me,-Scribes, Pharisees and what not - they're' going to come and take me and kill me. And I'll really be dead. For three days I’ll be dead. But then, guess what, death will not be able to contain me, because, after all, as you have confessed, I am the Christ."

So what's not to understand? Seems pretty plain and simple to me. This is no sticky parable or double entandra [sic] old testament quote. This is patently ordinary language. "Hey. Me, Jesus, the one who has come from the Father, I'm going to die, soon. I'm going to be murdered, because that's what must happen, that's what I came to do. But get this: my Father will vindicate me against my enemies by raising me from the dead. Pretty sweet action in the long run, though it does grieve me now until it is done."

…Yet they did not understand. Maybe when Jesus rebuked Peter in last weeks Gospel lesson, the disciples got the message that it wasn't a great idea to argue with Jesus, especially when he got in these depressed, death-prophesying moods. You know how it might have been, “Hey Phillip, don’t bother him. He’s been real touchy about that dying and rising thing. You don’t want to get called Satan like Peter did, do you? Not in front of the women! He’s the Christ, yes, but he's only human after all.”

Meanwhile, rather than dealing with these plain and simple, albeit slightly baffling words from the Son of the Living God, what better could the spare time on the road to Capernaum be put to then a little debate about which one of us is the greatest. Enough of all this highbrow theological stuff. Let's talk about what’s really interesting. Let’s get the focus back on us.

…But before we get too ahead of ourselves, taking easy pot shots at the disciples for their lack of 2000 years of hindsight, maybe we should slow down just a bit, because it’s one thing to scoff at the near-sightedness of a bunch of men who had the Son of God telling them plainly what the Truth was but who just couldn't manage to get out of their inculturated minds around it. What's not as easy to admit is that we, right here, right now, are not really any different.

We, here and now, have, as much as they had then, the very Words of the Son of God. Granted, for us, they're recorded in Holy Scripture rather than spoken by a man – unless you actually believe a faithful preacher speaks for God like the Scripture implies that he does - but either way, the Words of the Bible are nonetheless there for us, usually in plain, simple language. And they are spoken, every week, at the first high point of our Sunday service - real words from God, given to you and me, without the peskiness of a preacher’s interpretation. It’s weird though - I don’t see us on the edge of our seat, eagerly awaiting the revelation to come when the Old testament and the epistle are read. I know we stand up for the Gospel reading, (with a groan and a sigh), but it’s not hard to see what a burden that kind of devotion is to us. When we listening to Jesus speak, it’s much more desirable to lean back in our chairs, cock the head to the side, and hope that it doesn’t take too long, because, after all, we do have other things to get to today.

It really betrays how incapable we are of believing all of these words we hear anyway. We read along in our bulletin skeptically, scheming carefully to find that nugget which we might deign to approve of, and carefully aware of how often we have to forget what’s said as quickly as its read, lest it burden our conscience. “If anyone slaps you, turn the other cheek.” “If someone takes anything from you, do not demand it back.” Yeah right. “Come now you rich, weep and howl for the miseries coming upon you.” “Blessed are the poor.” Uh-huh. “Women should keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak.” “Have the young women marry, bear children, and manage their own households.” Hey, now preacher. I’ll let you tell me I can go to heaven because of Jesus, but I will not let you say that kind of thing as if it is actually true.

It gets even better. Who hasn’t questioned the seven day creation account, or the claim that Jesus turned jars of water in to the finest wine ever to grace the pallete, or the psalmist’s prayer “Add to my enemies punishment upon punishment, let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.”

What do you do with those words from Jesus that you don’t understand? What do you do when your mindset, your opinions and your cultural limitations, force you into conflict with Jesus’ words? Is it your first move to impose Jesus’ words upon your opinions and the world, to say to yourself, “Get behind me Satan,” and to abandon your mind to the simple faith which says, “Who has understood the mind of the Lord?” Probably not. It’s far more natural for us to tame and constrict the Jesus we’ll condescend to believe in. We much prefer to make him our kind of Messiah, the superhero who does things the way we would do them, whose thoughts are our thoughts and actions are our actions. We make our God a God who can’t be bigger than us, can’t impose anything on us, a potter who has no power over the clay.

Funny thing is, before we know it, we’ve not only questioned God’s word about women in society or the manner in which the world came to be, but we’ve also begun to ignore, if only in general, other, hard to understand words: words about death and resurrection, words about a cross and an empty tomb. We don’t always pull a Peter and deny them outright. Instead, we just pretend he didn’t say them, and focus our attention on those things which are more amusing to us, like, say, talking about ourselves.

And we are pretty great, after all, aren’t we? Even as a congregation, small though we are, we’ve had some glorious times, haven’t we? Look at us. We’re not like those people out there who don’t know they need to come to church every week. We don’t ever horde our wealth or spend our God-given money on excessive pleasures. We put at least something in the offering plate, even if it’s not really 10% of our income. That should count for something, shouldn’t it? And we’ve built a building. We’ve sold crafts for the poor. We’ve fought for the mindset of the mission. We’ve gathered food and cans. We’ve supported schools and made sure our kids went through confirmation. We may not be the greatest church ever, but we deserve to be respected for all we’ve done. We’ve worked hard. We’ve sweated and bled. Darn it, pastor, you’d better recognize just how valuable we are.

It’s about this point that our Lord turns to us and asks: “What were you talking about on the road?”

What have you been talking about for the last several years of wandering here in Perryville? Have you been mostly busy pondering Christ’s death and resurrection, or his second coming? Have you been struggling in congregational conflict over how we might give even more of our funding to service in the community, to overseas missions, or to supporting Seminaries? Have you been encouraging each other to live on less and less luxury in order to feed orphans and widows with more than a few boxes of cereal a month? Have you been vigorously debating how together you might give up all that you have in time, talents and tithes, for the sake of the Kingdom, in order to bring even one more cup of water to a child in my name? Have you taken vows of silence and repentance, to force yourselves to cease boasting of your own works, in order to contemplate the goodness of our God in Christ? Have you done nothing but pray, kyrie eleison, “Lord, have mercy”?

Do you want to really want to be first line at the judgment, eager to point to all of your hard works, to stack them in a nice little pile and see just how much you amount to? What will happen if God grants you that wish? The Greek word gehenna, which we translate as hell, was the local name for the garbage dump outside of town, where spontaneous combustion meant that the fires were always blazing. It was full of worms and maggots, and it stank like nothing you’ve ever experienced.

Do you think God needs even one of your good works? Does the Creator need the creature? He could raise up children from stones if he needed to be praised.

I have heard it said that we here in Perryville have sweated and bled for the Church. I have heard it said that the Church has been built upon our suffering and sacrifice. I have heard it said, and as a Christian this language has made me cringe.

Why? Why does such language frighten to the bones this preacher? We have built this Church with our blood and sweat. Our blood. Our sweat.

On the last day, when you stand before the white throne of judgment, upon which Jesus Christ Himself will be seated, as the eyes of all who ever lived look on while you are asked how you will plead for the time you’ve been given, will you really point to your blood and your sweat? What suffering and sacrifice will you claim as mediation for the moment on that terrible day? Will you point to your tithes and offerings? Will you point to the service you’ve done your neighbor? Will you really claim that you bled for the life of the Church? Will you say, “See, God. I demand that you recognize me for my value.”

If you do, he will. I ask you now. Please, do not be such a fool

Blood and sweat. The Son of Man was delivered into the hands of men, and they killed him. He bled. He sweated. And on that rock He has built His Church, made not from stone or by the hands of men, made not from merely human suffering or the sacrifices of possessions and time, sheep and goats, but made from the living blood of the Son of God, the perfect sacrifice of the spotless offering, the suffering servant’s painful sweat and tears and water which flowed from a pierced side in order to free us from that terrible danger of standing before the throne of God and getting what we actually deserve.

So far as this pulpit is concerned, you will never get what you deserve, and that is because, so far as your God is concerned, in Christ you will never get what you deserve. On the last day, all that you have done, from the building of this space to the possible construction of any other, from guilt-driven giving up of your money to the freewill sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise, none of the above will enter in to the picture of the final Judgment you receive from Jesus, and this is good, good news. You have been released from the restrictions of the arguments you’ve had along the road. You’ve been set free from the futility of your own blood and sweat. You’ve been covered with the most holy blood and the more cleansing water which are the testimony of the Spirit, whose testimony is far greater than that of men.

And this is that testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. I preach these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

Beside that plain confession, it is only honest to admit that we kind of pale in comparison. The Son of Man was delivered into the hands of men, and they killed him. It was undeserved wrath for him. It brought undeserved grace for us. For when he was killed, after three days, he rose again. And we are in him. You are in him. He is the only thing that matters. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the Word of the Lord endures forever. Amen.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Trinity 16 - Mark 8

(Audio NOW avaiable!!!)

It’s hard to be a Christian. There’s no two buts about it. It’s just plain hard.

But it’s all the rage these days amongst Christians to preach and teach and believe quite the opposite. It’s very in vogue to believe that the Christian life is one of utter triumph over nature and the order of things as we see them. “If you have enough faith, then God will give you whatever you ask.” “You’re just not thinking in positive terms about what God can do…that’s why you haven’t succeeded.” “Have you really given your life over to Jesus…I know he’s your savior, but is he your Lord? Ah…that’s why you haven’t experienced the real baptism by the Spirit.”

Yes, it is not hard to find this kind of teaching. So prevalent are these human ways of thought that to the world out there, this kind of teaching is what the word “Christianity” actually means. And that is a sad thing. It was only the other day that I heard a man tell me how he gave a witness for Jesus to an old friend of his on the golf course. He said, “I told him how much life had improved since I decided to follow Jesus. I told him how much Jesus meant to me now.” And the result? The result was that the man didn’t really care at all. He just kept playing golf.

I had to bite my tongue then, but I will not hold it now. Of course the man didn’t care. One idol is as good as another. “If your fuzzy man in heaven makes you feel good, great, but my stone statue is taking care of me just fine right now. Maybe later, if I find that my present gods aren’t holding par, I’ll come around and give Jesus a try.”

But how much worse is that! Imagine, five years from today, the man needs a new household god, so he comes around and gives Jesus a try. He devotes his life to Bible study, to prayer and fasting. He makes Jesus his Lord with all of his heart. He casts himself into service and action. He witnesses to his entire family. And then, it doesn’t work. Rather than the golden life, he finds that he has taken up a cross. He thought to save his life, but he finds that he is losing it more than ever before. That wasn’t what he made a decision for. So off he goes, in search of the next best idol, and the final state of him is worse than the first.

Make no mistake. The Christian life is hard. The Christian life is a cross. And a true Christian witness for Christ is far from a pep talk about how much more peace and cuddliness you’ll feel if you start chasing Jesus’ shadow. Such words might be what they claim, “a witness for Christ,” but they are not a witness to Christ. They are not the Gospel.

How often do you hear the Apostle Paul, or Peter, or James or John, in all of their many letters they have written to evangelize the world, talking about their life prior to Christianity and then after? How often is their proclamation “what Jesus means to me?” I can answer that for you: almost never. The closest you can find is Paul, who from time to time, because of the attack of false teachers who claim he is no true Apostle at all, is forced to prove himself, and even in despair, calling himself a fool for the way he is talking, he boasts of his strength of character and conviction in Christ. And yet, even there, mixed with these very words, his boast is even louder that he is a failure since his conversion, that he cannot overcome his flesh the way he would if he could, that he is weak, broken, at the point of despair and on and on.

This is the Apostolic witness to Christ so far as their own personal lives are concerned. This is the claim they make as they carry their cross to follow him. But this is not the Apostolic witness in its fullness. No. As Paul stood on the golf-courses of the Roman empire, chatting with Greek philosophers and female cloth merchants, he saw not point in talking about himself at all. No. It did something far more lunatic than that. He simply talked about Jesus. Not Jesus and me, not Jesus and our relationship, not Jesus and the golden, triumphant life. Just plain, old Jesus.

Of course, if you listen carefully, plain old Jesus isn’t very plain old. As Peter confesses in the face of the stream of superstitious ideas, Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus, though rejected by elders and chief pastors and biblical scholars, though killed for his witness about himself – Jesus was the Son of Man, the child of prophecy, the completion of the Human Race.

How do we know? And what does that mean? What is the confession and witness we are to give to our neighbors and family and friends when they lend us an ear for a moment. It’s so simple, so basic, and yet it is so very hard to say.

Jesus isn’t dead.

Now, I’m not talking about fuzzy Jesus in heaven with feathers and cloud sandals. I’m talking about the son of Mary, carpenter of Nazareth, rabbi of Galilee, who under the reign of Pontius Pilate in Judea was, as a man like you and me, nailed to a cross until he was dead, dead, dead. Dead like Mohammed. Dead like Buddha. Dead Abraham Lincoln and Simon Bolivar and Christopher Columbus and Henry the VIII. But he didn’t stay that way. His body didn’t stay that way. After being left in a tomb for three days, in which his Apostles and followers had nothing to witness to but their own despair, the Son of Man, the child of Mary, opened his eyes, looked at his own scars, maybe even smiled, and then walked right out of that grave.

Now just stop listening and debate that fact. Swallow it hard in your head. Can you even imagine it? I can’t. No one could. When the tomb was found empty by his friends, there was still nothing for them to understand. Even the one, and there was only one, who believed, did not believe that Jesus had changed his life for the better, but that Jesus had changed life itself. A world in which death was and is the only inevitable outcome of all things had just been turned completely on its head. Millenium ago, God had created something new, and on this same day, this 1st day of the week, He had done it again. Only this wasn’t just the 1st day of another seven day week. This was the 8th day of the next thing to come. This was the precursor, the firstfruit. In the beginning, Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and now death no longer has mastery over him, nor over any who are baptized into his name.

That is the Apostolic witness to Christ, and would that we could learn to say such things on the golf course! Would that we could cease trying to convince people that they need a little Jesus mojo and learn to speak as if what we every week confess in the Creed were actually true! We walk around talking as if Jesus were merely the greatest of the prophets, the most righteous of men, someone with an extra bit of Spriit power. But he is the Christ. He is the Annointed one. He is the King of Israel. He is the Son of God. And he has taken on our very flesh in order to redeem it, to buy it back, to bleed from it in order to clean it for himself and his progeny forever and ever.

This is the faith once for all delivered to the saints, to believe these very words. To live life, not expecting great gifts of money and happiness and family values to fall out of heaven as if this planet was what life is really about. No. The Christian life lives knowing full well that this planet is passing away, fading like an old garment eaten by moths, withering like a tree with the root rotted out, dying like all the men who have ever walked upon it. All except one. One who died like the rest but simply did not stay that way. He opened his eyes. He folded his clothes. He walked out of his tomb, and told those whom he appointed that he was going away. He was going away, but he wasn’t going to stay gone any more than he stayed dead. And they were not to look for death to be their portal to eternity, but to look to that staggering reality that he was coming back.

He is coming back. This moment he sits upon a throne, his human mind empowered with godhead to rule all the heavens and the earth. His human eyes, communing with godhead to look down on all things and see them as if he were there, to look down and see us even now and smile upon us and say, “Behold, I have sent my messenger to tell you of me, that I am the first and the last, that I am coming soon to gather you like a hen gathering her chicks, for I am the root of David, the bright morning star, the Crucified One who was dead, and behold, I live. This is my witness of myself. This is my testimony. This is the Evangelism which is the power of my Father for your salvation and the salvation of all who I will draw to myself.”

Oh, dear friends, it is truly too much for the mind, for logic, for the flesh, for frail, fallen humanity to grasp and hold. But, dear friends, it is not too much to believe, for this witness is the stuff that faith is made of. This is the Word of God which creates. This is the word of God which teaches you to lose your life, for Christ your Lord has saved it.

And so, we come full circle. For who will believe such a message? Who will not look at you or I and think we have lost our very minds. When Paul stood on mars hill and said such words to the greatest of the Greeks, they openly laughed in his face. When Jesus said such words to the chief of his apostles, Peter took him aside to rebuke him. How much more so, being warned by our Lord, must we not expect ridicule, rejection, and sundering from the world? Take up your cross, he said, not your checkbook, not your investment portfolio, not your retirement, your cross. Are you saved by Christ? Yes. Then be assured your life here on earth is forfeit to the reality of His Kingdom. You are a sheep, which means you are given to be slaughtered on behalf of the world. Your life here is lost, because to gain this world is to gain nothing but dust and ashes. But your lost life is saved, in the man whose flesh will never to dust return.

For us here at Our Savior, for those of us who have lost even our very congregation, these words take on a definitive meaning. What is the perfect congregation worth, when it has sacrificed the true witness to Christ? What good are these pews filled to overflowing when the Resurrection is no longer preached? What good do we do to bring others into our midst if we ourselves have not believed? So then, Christ’s words speak true to us, even now, knowing what we know, believing what we do believe. Would we follow him? Then we shall take up our cross. Would we claim that he has saved us? Then we shall lose our hopes and dreams for glory in the here and now, for the sake of the Gospel itself, for the sake of the witness, for the sake of that spoken word that is so hard to say: Jesus didn’t stay dead.

Indeed, it would profit us nothing to grow this church, should we then forfeit our own lives in the process. But standing unashamed of the Word of God, standing unashamed of the cross, standing unashamed of being different than this adulterous and sinful generation, we know that Christ, our Lord, is unashamed of us. Though we may lose all else, though we lose all else, He shall not lose us. That is his testimony. That is his witness. That is his Resurrection. And though the grass withers and the flowers fade, that Word of the Lord stands forever. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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