Sunday, June 30, 2013

Homily for The Fifth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 5)



Luke 5:1-11; 1 Peter 3:8-15; 1 Kings 19:11-21

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Regularly, I preach to you about the creative, performative, and life-giving power of the Word of the Lord. Therefore, today I will proclaim to you the effect that the Word of the Lord is to have upon you as children and disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. For, Jesus’ call, His Word to you, is simple enough: “Follow me.” But, what does that mean? Jesus’ “Follow me” means, “Stop whatever it is that you are doing; stop going down that path upon which you are walking, and turn around and follow me in the path upon which I will lead you.” That is to say, “Listen to me. Say what I say, and do what I do. Trust in me. Be my disciple – one under my discipline and instruction.”

For, what did the fishermen, Simon, Andrew, James, and John do when Jesus called to them, “Follow me?” They immediately left their nets and their boats and they followed Him. The Word of Jesus changed them in some significant ways. Now they would listen to every Word of Jesus and take it into themselves. They would meditate on it, pray with it, and do it, not in fear of judgment if they failed, but in the freedom of the Gospel that the Lord would work with them and through them and despite them if necessary to accomplish the work for which He was sent. They would still be fishermen, but they would be fishermen with a new motivation, purpose and goal. Jesus signified this change by saying to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” They would go to places they never would have dreamed of going to before, and they would do things that they never would have dreamed of before. And, they would go to these places and do these things without fear – fear of failure, fear of success, fear of bodily harm, fear of death. They would do bold things, even foolish things – like dropping their freshly mended nets into the deep after a toilsome night of unsuccessful fishing – at the Word of Jesus, without fear.

And, what did Levi do when Jesus called to him, “Follow me?” He rose at once and followed him, leaving his tax collector’s booth behind. Who would do such a thing, but one changed, emboldened, and empowered by the Holy Spirit through the Word of the Lord? Likewise, each of the other disciples, in their own way, hearkened to Jesus’ Word, left their old ways and lives and livelihoods behind and followed Him. For, to follow Jesus is to “come under His influence, to learn from Him.” It is to become a disciple, one “who lives under the influence of the Word of Jesus and consciously wants to do just that.”

The Churchly word for “calling” is vocation. Each of us has a calling, a vocation; indeed, each of us has many vocations. Your vocation is what you are called to do and to be. Your vocation is not merely your job or profession, though it is certainly that, but your vocation is God’s calling for you to do and to be as His child in this world. Most of your vocations are yours simply by virtue of who you are: Are you a son or a daughter? Are you a father or a mother? Then, being a faithful and obedient son or a mother is one of your vocations. That is to say, you are to not be merely a son or a mother biologically, according to nature, but you are also to be a disciple of Christ and a child of God in those vocational roles. Therefore, in your holy calling as a son or a mother, you will be as the disciples, trusting in the Word of the Lord, living under the influence of Jesus and consciously wanting to do just that.

Additionally, you have many, many other callings, vocations: Are you an employee or an employer? Are you a teacher? A police officer? A bank teller? A butcher? A baker? Or, a candlestick maker? Then, you are to do and to be your vocation as did the disciples, trusting in the Word of the Lord, living under the influence of Jesus and consciously wanting to do just that. That means that you will consciously see yourself and your vocation as something divinely given, as a gift of God and an extension of His grace, mercy, love, and compassion to others. Even the most mundane, inglorious, and boring work is holy and a means through which the Lord works to serve and preserve His people. Thus, Luther famously wrote about vocation saying that a mother changing her child’s soiled diaper is doing a holier work than any monk reciting his prayers. His meaning is that, though our God-given callings, vocations, are often not very glorious from a human and worldly perspective, nevertheless they are both necessary and glorifying of God when they are performed in Christian love, mercy, compassion, humility, and selflessness – not for one’s own glory, but God’s.

However, the as the result of our fallen nature, we are naturally impressed and drawn to miraculous signs and wonders. We also value and glorify things that are spectacular or that seem to be wise in our eyes. But, the power of God to save men is not in miraculous signs and wonders and other spectacles, nor is it in the wisdom of men, just as it was not in the wind and the fire and the earthquake which Elijah experienced, but, rather, in a still small voice. That still small voice is the preaching of Christ crucified, the Gospel.

Likewise, the preaching of Christ crucified is the net in the story of the Great Catch of Fish. Without the net, the disciples could catch nothing at all. And, even with the net, often it hardly seems sufficient to the task, even at verge of breaking so that all is lost. Yet, the preaching of Christ crucified is the “power of God and the wisdom of God.” The fishermen did as Jesus commanded, even though they thought it foolishness, having toiled all the night and caught nothing. Thus, they let down the nets into the deep at Jesus’ Word, and the catch was so great that the nets were breaking. Even when they called for help from other fishermen, the catch was so great that their boats began to sink. While the preaching of the cross will often seem ineffective and insufficient, there will be times when the success it grants will be so great that you will fear that you will not be able to manage it. Both results serve to remind you and to discipline you that it is not you at all, but the Word of the Lord that does the work and produces the fruit of faith. Moreover, you need not have the vocation of pastor to preach Christ crucified, but you preach this Good News in your vocations, whatever they may be, when you do them and be them trusting in the Word of the Lord, living under the influence of Jesus and consciously wanting to do just that.

“Do not be afraid;” Jesus says to you, “from now on you will be catching men.” Perhaps you do not feel worthy or up to the task? Good! That’s alright! In truth, that is where you need to be to be a disciple of Jesus – broken, unworthy, unable, having little or no faith, maybe even being an enemy of Christ! For, consider Peter. Peter was a common, ordinary fisherman. Still, Jesus called him, and Peter followed. Peter wasn’t perfect; in fact, he was far from it, unable to understand that Jesus had to suffer and die and rise again, and then betraying His Lord and Master three times on the night he was arrested and tried. And, what about Paul? Paul was an enemy and persecutor of Christ, arresting and even killing some of the earliest of Christians. Both men were common sinners, just like everyone else. But, the Church of Jesus Christ is not built on the foundation of our great works, our great faith, our great morals, or our great wisdom and intelligence, but the Church of Jesus Christ is built on Christ and the confession of Him as the Son of God crucified for the sins of all mankind and raised for our justification. The Church is a church of sinners, but also a source of forgiveness, where one can get help and be cleansed. Therefore, the Church is not a memorial for saints, but a hospital for sinners. And, as the saying goes, it can always use one more.

This is what Peter recognized and confessed when he fell down at Jesus’ knees and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” However, such a confession will not be left unanswered, but will always receive Jesus’ absolution, “Do not be afraid.” And, with the absolution comes a sending, a calling, a vocation, “From now on you will be catching men.” This is the ongoing vocation of all of Jesus’ disciples, carried out in and through the unique and various callings we all have. “However God calls us, he calls us for this: to be with Jesus and learn from Him, to live with Jesus and receive what only He can give.” It’s not about how great or little faith you have, but it’s about following Jesus, trusting in Him, listening to Him, saying what He says, and doing what He does. “The main thing is to stay with Jesus and follow Him. He takes care of the rest.” Thus St. Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.”

And, that you may be absolved, strengthened in faith, encouraged and uplifted in grace, and empowered to do and to be your vocations in Christ, your Lord and Master is present with His life-giving and sustaining meal of body and blood that you may eat and drink and be satisfied and that with ears to hear and hearts to believe you may be fishers of men to the glory of God the Father, in His Most Holy Son, through His Holy Spirit.

In + the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Homily for The Fourth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 4)



Luke 6:36-42; Romans 8:18-23; Genesis 50:15-21

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Why do we stand for the reading of the Gospel? We stand because the Gospel is the very Word of our Lord Jesus Christ. For, while “all scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” we afford the Words of our Lord Jesus the highest honor. And, when Jesus speaks His Word to His disciples and His apostles, He speaks His Word to you. And, when He speaks His forgiveness to repentant sinners, when He heals the sick, cleanses the unclean, and raises the dead, He speaks His powerful, re-creative, salvific, and life-giving Word to you. And, when He rebukes the self-righteous and the hypocrites, so does He rebuke your self-righteous and hypocritical Old Man that he may drown and die in the baptismal waters of repentance once again, and rise up to new life as God’s adopted son. Therefore, when you listen to Jesus’ Words in the Gospel, you must listen to Him as if He is speaking directly to you. For, He is. And, not with mere words does He speak to you, but with the living, powerful, and life-giving Words of God the Father. For, indeed, He is not merely speaking to you, but He is speaking into you.

And, Jesus’ Word to you today is this: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” If these words are just words, then Jesus might as well have commanded a stone to become bread! Ah, but therein lies a clue, does it not? For, Satan knew and believed in the power of Jesus’ Words. He knew that Jesus could indeed turn stones into bread by the power and authority of His Word alone if that were in concord with His Father’s will. Thus, when Jesus commands you to “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful,” He is not commanding you to do something that He is not at the same time empowering you to do! For, when He says to you, “Be merciful,” He is speaking His mercy, His Father’s mercy, into you. In fact, it is with His Father’s mercy, alone, that you are able to be merciful, just as, without Jesus’ Word, a stone is just a stone. However, with His Word and His Father’s will, even a stone becomes life-giving bread.

Likewise, the same is true with Jesus’ other commands in today’s Gospel: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.” You must note the conditional tie between your own attitudes and actions and the attitudes and actions that you will be treated with. And, though it may sound, at first, as if the Father’s attitudes and actions toward you are normed, ruled, and governed by your own attitudes and actions, I suggest to you that all of these conditional commands are normed, ruled, and governed by the first command Jesus spoke in today’s Gospel: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” That command is the key to understanding the others. For, again, your ability to be merciful is conditional upon the Father’s mercy shown to you so that, in truth, it is with the Father’s mercy that you are able to be merciful to others. For, apart from the Father’s mercy, you have nothing to show, nothing to give, and nothing to do. Apart from the Father’s mercy, you are like a stone. Likewise, apart from the Father’s judging you not, condemning you not, but forgiving you, and graciously giving to you for Jesus’ sake, you have nothing to show, nothing to give, and nothing to do, but you are like a stone, dead and lifeless.

Jesus illustrates this point brilliantly by saying, “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” Now, again, though it may sound at first as if Jesus is saying to you, “Give, then the Father will give to you,” that is not it exactly, for, you can give only of what you have first received. And, what you have received has been a “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over,” that is to say, the Father has shown mercy to you, has not judged you or condemned you, but has forgiven and given to you an abundance, even more than you need, so that you are overflowing with His mercy, His forgiveness, and His grace. In fact, it is with that surplus that you are able to show mercy, forgiveness, and grace to others; for, it is not your mercy, forgiveness, and grace, but it is your Father’s. Therefore, with the measure of your Father’s mercy, your Father’s forgiveness, and your Father’s grace that you show to others, will you be compensated, filled up again, to overflowing, that you may show it, and do it, again, and again, and again.

But, then, Jesus changes the direction of His teaching to another point: “You must be holy, that is perfect, as your heavenly Father is holy and perfect.” Now, Jesus does not say that, exactly, in the Gospel, but, in so many words, he reiterates what Moses taught in Leviticus 20:26. What Jesus does say is this: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” Jesus’ point is, as Bo Giertz has written, that “He who takes the commandments seriously will cease comparing himself with others. The Law demands instead that we compare ourselves with God. We ought to be perfect as He is perfect, merciful as He is merciful, holy as He is holy. The law does not allow any possibility for us to be satisfied with ourselves.”

A little over a decade ago, much ado was made of God’s purpose for each one of us, thanks to Southern Baptist mega-church Pastor Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life. Warren was right in at least one thing, God does have a purpose for each one of us, and Jesus proclaimed that purpose clearly, summarizing the Torah, saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Unfortunately, Warren must have believed that would have made too short of a book, and so he went on to write hundreds of pages filled with advice and counsel on how to find our what God’s purpose for you is and then how to do it.

But, that’s precisely where Warren, and all who seek to do the Law of God, get it wrong: The Law of God is not something for you to do, but it describes what you are to be in Christ Jesus. For, when it comes to the Law, you have more than a log in your eye, you are a disciple and not the Teacher, and you are as blind as anyone else on this planet. Only Christ, who is not corrupted by sin, can see the Father’s Law clearly and do it and be it. Therefore, Christ alone is the Teacher who’s Words must not be spoken merely to you, but into you, that you may truly be His disciple, and one day be like Him. Likewise, only Christ, whose eye is clear of sin and guilt and shame, can remove the log of sin, guilt, shame, and death from you that your eye may be clear. Then, forgiven and washed clean in His blood, restored to sight, and disciplined in the Law of love, you will be equipped and empowered to lead, and to teach, and to remove the speck of sin from the eye of your brother. For, this is your Father’s purpose for you, that you might serve your brother and neighbor in love and glorify Him in Christ Jesus.

Another thing that Warren gets wrong, however, is that, if you are doing and being what God has purposed for your life, all will go well, or at least mostly well, with you. Actually, quite the opposite is true; don’t forget Jesus’ teaching, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” After all, what did Jesus’ mercy, forgiveness, and grace get Him: Ridicule and mocking, scourging, crucifixion, and death. That is why today’s Gospel about what you are to be in Christ through your attitudes and actions towards your brother and neighbor is coupled with Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers and Paul’s comparison of “the sufferings of this present age” to the “pains of childbirth”. For, after all that his brother’s had done to him – throwing him in a pit and telling his father he had been devoured by lions and then selling him into slavery – after all those years they believed him to be dead, and how he so missed his father and his young brother Benjamin, in the end Joseph confessed, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Likewise, Paul confessed, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

Beloved children of the Father: You are loved that you may love others. You have been shown mercy that you may show mercy to others. You have been forgiven that you may forgive others. And you have received from the LORD a “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over.” Your Lord Jesus is speaking directly to you, His disciples, His brothers, and friends today. Yet, He does not merely speak to you, but He speaks into you His powerful and empowering, creative, and life-giving Word that you may be as He commands, for He will be these things for you and in you and with you. Even now He is present with His life-giving Words and His healing Wounds that you may receive Him into you physically and spiritually, that you may remain in Him, and He in you, that you will bear much fruit. And, His fruit is love, the fulfilling of the Law. Go in His Peace.

In + the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Homily for the Third Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 3)

Sin Boldly Lager


Luke 15:1-10; 1 Peter 5:6-11; Micah 7:18-20

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

In a letter to Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther famously wrote in Latin “pecca fortiter,” which, in English, is commonly translated, “Sin boldly.” Now, it is true that many Christians have misinterpreted Luther’s meaning in these words as being an endorsement, even an encouragement, to sin. Indeed, the saying can be found upon numerous t-shirts, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers, and is heard uttered by too many a Lutheran in justification of their beer, scotch, and cigar smoking habits, or worse. However, all of this is to entirely miss Luther’s point. For, pecca fortiter, sin boldly, is not an endorsement or an encouragement to sin, but it is, rather, a confession that one is a sinner – a confession made in steadfast faith that it is only sinners that can, indeed, be saved.

That Jesus “receives sinners and eats with them,” is what the Pharisees and scribes were offended by in today’s Gospel. Therefore, Jesus told them three parables about how important, how precious, and how dear the lost truly are to His Father that they, too, might confess their sins boldly and find mercy and forgiveness that makes the angels of heaven rejoice.

Jesus’ first parable is quite simply absurd. He asked, “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” The answer is simple: No man would do that! No man would do that because, a man is going to count his cost and conclude that it is better to keep what he has than to worry about the one that he has strayed away. But, God’s ways are not man’s ways, and His thoughts are not man’s thoughts. God doesn’t view you as His possessions, but as His children. He doesn’t want to own you and have your obedience because you are a slave, but He wants you to know and to receive His love, and to love Him in return by being obedient and by loving and serving others.

You see, the Pharisees and the scribes were the undershepherds of the children of Israel. It was their job to care for God’s people by teaching them His commandments and by guiding them in repentance to forgiveness. But, for the most part, they were bad shepherds, for they were most interested in merely keeping enough of God’s sheep in the flock that they could feel good about themselves and look good before the eyes of others. They were not at all concerned with those who strayed or fell away. Thus, when Jesus had the shepherd in His parable leave the ninety-nine to go and seek for the one that was lost, they were surely offended and thought Him absurd. And, when Jesus said to them, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance,” surely they were outraged, thinking, “What kind of heaven must this be, where the righteous are disparaged and sinners are exalted?” For, they considered themselves righteous and worthy of higher regard, and they understood all too well His meaning.

Jesus told this parable that they would see themselves as the shepherd who had lost the LORD’s sheep that were entrusted to their care. He wanted them to see the great responsibility that they had been given, that the sheep, the people, over whom they had been given charge, were not their own, so that they would become humbled and confess their sins in repentance, that the angels of heaven might rejoice over them too. For, it would be humbling for a shepherd to make a big deal of the fact that he had lost a sheep. As absurd as it would be that he would leave the ninety-nine to seek and find one lost sheep, even more absurd it would be for the shepherd to announce this publicly to his friends and neighbors when it was found. Jesus wanted the Pharisees and scribes, His undershepherds, not to boast in their righteousness and good works, but, rather, in confession of their sin and weakness. He wanted them to sin boldly – to boldly confess their own sin and lostness – that He might rejoice over them and carry them safely to His Father’s home as their Good Shepherd.

Then, immediately thereafter, Jesus launched into another parable of absurdity, though absurd in a somewhat different way. This time it’s a woman who has lost one of her ten silver coins. It should be understood that these coins were very valuable, each one equaling a day’s working wage. Moreover, it would have been most unusual for a woman in Jesus’ day to have responsibility for that kind of wealth – the implication being that her husband put great trust in her to keep it safe. These cultural insights come from Kenneth Bailey, and, assuming that he is correct, they shed much light on this woman’s predicament and her diligent searching of the house when she lost one of those precious coins – for, she had lost an entire day of her husband’s working wage. What would he say when he returned home? Would he throw her out of the house and disgrace her? He trusted her, and she had failed him so badly. This would be a scandal, not only in her home, but in her community, for she would bring disgrace, not only to herself, but to her husband and their relatives for his misplaced trust in her.

With this understanding, it’s not so absurd that the woman lit every light and the house and searched and searched until she found the coin that she had lost. Instead, what is absurd is that, when she found it, she called all her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” What is absurd is that she did not try to hide or cover over her guilt and shame, but, rather, that she shouted it from the rooftop, saying, “I failed! I lost my husband’s wage with which he trusted me! I sinned! But, I have found the coin that I had so foolishly lost! Come, rejoice with me!” To put it another way, she sinned boldly – the woman boldly confessed her sin and lostness. And, once again, Jesus adds, “I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

As it goes, all three of Jesus’ parables in Luke 15 are about repentance: The Lost Sheep; The Lost Coin; and The Lost Son (commonly known as The Prodigal Son). Indeed, they are much less about that which is lost, the sheep, the coin, and the son, as they are about the one who has done the losing and the humbling, public, and even absurd actions they took to find what they had lost, and then, the selfless rejoicing in the presence of everyone that they had found that precious thing or person that they had lost.

In His third parable, which was not read today – though which, ironically, is most appropriate for this Father’s Day – the parable of The Lost Son, the main figure is not the lost son, as is commonly supposed, but, rather, his absurd and prodigal father. Indeed, the father in the parable of The Lost Son is the consummate example the sacrificial selflessness and humility to which God has called all His children. From the beginning, and throughout this parable, the father does the most absurd things imaginable. First, he gives his younger son the inheritance he demanded. No first century Middle-Eastern father would do this. The request itself would be an insult meriting disownment by the father and banishment from his house. Nevertheless, though his son treated him as though he were dead, and though he had no regard for his older brother as the rightful heir, the father gives the boy what he asks. Then, after the boy squandered everything that he had and, effectively, sold himself into servitude in a foreign land doing unclean and disrespectful work, the father received him back into the family and restored him fully to all honor, rights, and privileges as his son. Jesus even heightens the absurdity of the father’s actions by having him see the boy coming from afar, run to him, and embrace him, clothe him, receive him, and restore him upon his confession of his sin, but before he could offer any pledge of work or service in return. Then, lastly, the father held a feast in celebration of the return and restoration of his lost son. It was the grandest of feasts to which the entire household and community were invited. He sent his servants to tell them all, “My son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

Who would do such an absurd thing? No one, according to man’s values and wisdom. And yet, this is precisely the kind of Father and Good Shepherd we all have in God. Reckless, foolish, absurd, and scandalous love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness He showers upon you with no thought for Himself and with no concern for what men count as righteousness. Seeking and saving the lost – that is God’s kind of righteousness. That is why the angels of heaven rejoice at one sinner who repents, for that is the way of God and the nature of His kingdom. And, this was Jesus’ lesson to the Pharisees and scribes in His parables, and this is His lesson to you today: In Jesus, God the Father has come seeking His lost children. Therefore, the only way to be found is to be lost – that is, to confess that you are a lost, poor, and miserable sinner; that is, to sin boldly, to confess your sin boldly, with no care for how you are seen by others, but with confident faith and trust in the reckless, foolish, absurd, and scandalous love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness of your God, Father, and Shepherd in Jesus Christ.

For, in this last parable, we have a father who is looking to find not 1% of his flock, not 10% of his coins, but 100% of his two lost sons (Yes, there were actually two lost sons in that story!). Surely the Pharisees and the scribes knew well who the first lost son was, the scoundrel who treated his father so poorly and lost everything – they are the tax collectors and sinners that they despised. However, did they understand who Jesus implied by the second son, the son who self-righteously said to his father, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends?” For, that elder son was meant to describe themselves, who took their heavenly Father for granted and despised the lost children of Israel whom the Father loved. They made excuses for their behavior and justifications for their lack of compassion and mercy. They clothed their dark hearts and deeds under a veil of false-righteousness. They did not sin boldly, but they sinned under cover of darkness, convincing themselves that they were not sinning at all.

All of this is to cause us to ponder the words of the Prophet today: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. [He] will cast all our sins in to the depths of the sea.”

Children of God, I encourage you to follow Luther’s exhortation and sin boldly. Do not sin in order to be forgiven – that would be an absurd blasphemy – but confess your sin boldly, in bold and confident trust and faith in God your heavenly Father who showers upon you reckless, foolish, absurd, and scandalous love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness through His Prodigal (that is Exceptional) Son Jesus Christ. Sin boldly as did so many whom Jesus forgave and healed as they cried, “Kyrie eleison,” “Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner!” For, only sinners can be saved; only the lost can be found. And, your Good Shepherd Jesus is present with you now to care for His sheep, to tend His sheep, and to feed His sheep, even as He is the self-offered fatted calf, sacrificed by His Father, that you may partake of the feast of forgiveness, life, and salvation, as a foretaste today, and but eternally in heaven. For, “This man [Jesus] receives sinners and eats with them.” This is most certainly true.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Speech delivered at the Eighth Grade Commencement of St. John Lutheran School–Staten Island, NY on June 12, 2013


Pastor Russell, Principal Palisay, teachers and staff, parents, and you students, the 2013 graduating class of St. John’s Lutheran School: Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God the Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ. I am honored to be with you today, and I bring you greetings from your brothers and sisters in Christ at The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Christ the King in Pawling, NY.

First, I wish to offer you congratulations on a job well done! You have progressed successfully through eight years of formal education in which you have learned the necessary fundamentals of Grammar, Language, and Spelling, Arithmetic, and History. In the last three years, undoubtedly, you moved beyond these fundamentals into logic and critical thinking, applying what you have learned to the study of the world God has made in Science, learning to evaluate the truth and strength of the claims and arguments of others, and to articulate and defend those of your own. You have learned to take what you perceive and experience and know from the world in which you live and express it in art, music, and poetry. Additionally, you have learned about God’s will and purpose for you and your life through the study of His Word in the Holy Bible and through worship in chapel. You have been disciplined and instructed in accordance with the traditional values and virtues upon which our nation was founded, themselves drawn from God’s Word, which are the fruits of God the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

You have grown and matured physically, mentally, and spiritually these past eight years. You have done well! The recognition of that fact is why we are all gathered here this day. We congratulate you and rejoice and celebrate with you, and we give thanks to God for you, and we pray for you, that God, who has begun this good work in you, will bring it to completion in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. For, though it is accomplished through the minds, words, and hands of these, your teachers and parents, and through many others, it is the LORD’s work, as you are the LORD’s work, and He has a purpose, indeed many purposes, for each one of you to the glory of His Name in Jesus Christ. You will discover what His purpose for you is by looking to His Word, by praying and asking for His guidance, and by being in His Word and receiving His Sacraments in church, where He is present to forgive you, renew and strengthen your faith, and teach you His will and His way.

For, second, you are embarking on a new leg of the journey that is your life. You are heading to High School – an uncharted world of new experiences, new learning, new opportunities, new challenges, and new dangers for you. You have good reason to be excited and anxious, hopeful and cautious. In high school, you will experience more freedom than you have had to date. This is because you are older and more mature, and you have been instructed in right and wrong and in the proper ways in which to treat other people with respect and dignity. Therefore, you will be given more responsibility, for yourself and for your actions. You will have many opportunities to rise to the occasion or a challenge and to meet it, overcome it, and excel. Even when you fail, you will have an opportunity to learn and to grow. Which leads me to speak to you about one of the greatest challenges you will face in high school – knowing who you are and remaining true to yourself.

You will encounter pressure, often intense pressure, to change your behavior, your opinions, and your beliefs to what someone else, or some group of people want you to do, think, and believe. Sometimes it will be good for you to change; sometimes it will not. How are you to know? You will need to know yourself. You will need to know what you believe and why, what’s right and what’s wrong, not based upon what you feel, but upon what you know to be true. God has made each of you a unique and special soul. He knit you together in your mother’s wombs and He has numbered the hairs upon your heads. He has loved you to the fullest extent imaginable, laying down His own life that you could be His own. And, He has promised to never leave you or forsake you, but to keep you and preserve you through good and through bad, even through death when it comes, unto eternal life with Him in His kingdom.

Therefore, though you will surely face many challenges, trials, and temptations, you do not need to be afraid. For, the Lord has faced all challenges, trials, and temptations for you and has suffered the worst that can happen and has overcome, so that, now, He can walk with you through the valley of the shadow of death, that is this life and world, and support you, and help you, and keep you until you are safe with Him in His Father’s house.

And, along your pilgrim way, you are to be as light, leaven, and salt. You are the light of the world, as the light of Christ shines through your words and deeds into a world of darkness and shadow. Where His light shines, there is no darkness, and neither you nor those you enlighten will stumble and fall. You are leaven, even if but a pinch, leavening the whole lump of this world. One kind deed, one compassionate embrace, one helping hand can impact a life, even many lives, in ways you could never imagine. And you are salt. Your God-given gifts and talents, used in service of your neighbor to His glory, can change lives and livelihoods, even cultures, civilizations, and the world.

However, the key thing is to continue to be what God has made you, and called you, to be. You must know yourself, and you must be true to yourself in accordance with God’s Word, not man’s word. And, do not be afraid, for there is nothing to fear but God, and He is on your side. Fear, love, and trust in Him above all things. He will bless you. He has blessed you. And He will continue to make of you a rich blessing to others.

The third truth that I want to share with you today is this: You are not alone. The 16th century English poet John Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island.” By this saying, Donne was communicating that all men are interconnected, even dependent upon, each other. Simply think about this truth: No one of you was born into this world alone. Each of you has, at the very least, a mother and a father. That means that you also have, or had, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great grandparents, etc. Most of you likely have siblings, aunts and uncles, and cousins as well. You have all of these relations as part of your life, entirely apart from your own willing or choosing. Moreover, your gender, ethnicity, where you were born, even what country you were born in, were all things over which you had no control, no say, could make no decision, and had no choice.

You were born where God wanted you to be. You were born who God wanted you to be. And, you are good as you are, as God wanted you to be. That does not mean that you are perfect, for you are not. Indeed you, and I, all of us, sin daily and are, daily, in need of God’s forgiveness. But, what I mean is that, God didn’t create you that way – sinful. God created you good. Like the bumper sticker says, “God don’t make no junk.” (Ugh! Doesn’t that bad grammar make your ears hurt?) God created you as part of a family, a community, and a nation. He did not create you to be an island, but part of a continent, itself part of the entire planet earth. This means that your life and livelihood is dependent upon others, and likewise, other lives and livelihoods are dependent upon you. Therefore, you matter; indeed, you matter a great deal! God has a purpose for you that will benefit both yourself and, more importantly, others. I don’t know what that purpose is specifically – whether you will be a doctor, a police officer or fireman, a teacher, a mother or a father, a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker – I don’t know. No one knows, even yourself. But I do know this: Whatever you are to be, you are to be it as a Christian. That is to say, that in your vocation (that’s a “churchy” way of saying “your job” or “what you will be or do”), in your vocation, you will be the heart, and the hands, and the mouth of Jesus, showing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control to others, whoever God causes to cross your path. In this way, you will be light, leaven, and salt, changing the world, for the better, for God.

Now, that’s a tall order, to be sure, and anyone worth his weight in salt would find it a daunting and heavy burden. But, again, I say to you, “Do not be afraid.” For, you will not bear this burden or carry this task alone. Jesus goes with you. He shares your burden with you. In truth, He bears most of it for you, for He has already born the burden of all humanity and walked the way of man that leads through the valley of the shadow of death, defeating that enemy, and passing through into life in His Father’s house. That means the victory is His. And that means the victory is yours too.

And, to help you to remain strong to bear your burden and serve your neighbor, God has given you another birth, into another family, the Church. In the Church you receive the forgiveness of your sins, the strengthening of your faith, comfort and fellowship from those who depend upon you as you depend upon them, and, most importantly, communion with your God who created you, who gave you life, has redeemed your life, and preserves your life, even through death, unto eternal life with Him in heaven.

That is the perspective that you must keep in mind throughout your life – that there is much more in store for you than what happens between birth and death. In truth, this life is preparation for true and lasting life, to purify you from all impurities and to refine that which is most true and good – to bless you, and in blessing you, to make you a rich blessing to others, to the glory of God, in Jesus Christ, through His most Holy Spirit. Amen.

Congratulations! Christ’s peace go with you. Amen.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Second Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 2)



Luke 14:15-24; 1 John 3:13-18; Proverbs 9:1-10

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The setting for today’s Gospel is the house of a ruler of the Pharisees to which Jesus had been invited for the observance of the Sabbath. However, Luke tells us that this was no friendly invitation, for the scribes and the Pharisees “were watching Him closely.”

Knowing that He had their undivided attention, He took the opportunity to teach them by example. There was a man with dropsy before them. Dropsy was a form of edema, a retaining of fluid causing swelling of organs and tissue. Jesus asked, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” Of course, the answer is, “Yes! It is always lawful to show mercy, love, and compassion, because love is the fulfilling of the Law.” But, they remained silent, so Jesus took him and healed him and sent him on his way. Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” Still, they had nothing to say.

You see, they knew that Jesus was right. For the scribes and the Pharisees, the question was not so much whether it was lawful or not to heal on the Sabbath, than, rather, who it was that was to be healed. What they would unquestionably do for their own kin or possession, they would not do for someone they judged to be of a status beneath them, unworthy, or unclean.

Next, Jesus instructed them about the godly virtues of humility and selflessness. Noticing that they chose the places of honor at the banquet table, Jesus said to them: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, 'Give your place to this person,' and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher.' Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Similarly, Jesus said to the man who had invited Him: “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

This teaching addressed the same problem as the first: selfishness, self-righteousness, and pride. When you love yourself, you cannot love your brother and neighbor in need. And, as we heard in last Sunday’s Epistle, “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

All of this serves as the context and setting for today’s Gospel. It was immediately following Jesus’ teaching about showing mercy on the Sabbath and the godly virtues of humility and selflessness that one of the Pharisees who reclined at table with Him said to Jesus, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Jesus did not correct the man, for, indeed, he was correct, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” However, what the man was incorrect about was who would be in attendance at that banquet: the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame, not to mention, Gentiles from every tribe, people, language, and nation. Therefore, Jesus answered the man by telling a parable, the Parable of the Great Banquet.

“A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready’.” At first, the invitation went out to a few selected guests, the children of Israel with whose father, Abraham, God had made a covenant of grace, counting his faith in His promise to him as righteousness. That covenant was passed down to Isaac and Jacob, to Moses, and all the way to David. The covenant was for the children of Israel, but it was not only for them. Indeed, the children of Israel, themselves, were chosen for the redemption of the entire world.

God’s covenant with Abraham included these specific words: “In your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” Israel was blessed that they might be a blessing. They were chosen to be a beacon light in a world of sin and darkness. They were to be leaven, leavening the entire lump of sinful humanity. And, they were to be salt, seasoning the world with the Word of the LORD that men might repent and be adopted into His covenant of grace as sons and co-heirs.

Of course, that covenant, and all of its reiterations over the course of 1,500 years of history, was fulfilled, not in the son of Abraham, but in the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom He put forward and offered up as the full and perfect sacrifice for the sins of world. And, that is precisely what the scribes and the Pharisees did not accept, would not, could not, and refused to believe – that the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame, not to mention, Gentiles from every tribe, people, language, and nation, would recline with them at the banquet of the King in the kingdom of heaven.

The man reclining at table with Jesus was indeed correct: “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” However, he did not know or believe how correct he was. For him “everyone” did not include everyone. Particularly, his “everyone” did not include the man with dropsy whom Jesus healed, the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame, the Gentiles, nor, increasingly, even Jesus Himself.

In Jesus’ parable, the man giving the great banquet sent his servant to call his invited guests saying, “Come, for everything is now ready.” But, they all began to make excuses. Each of them had something they deemed to be more important, or of more value to them presently, than eating bread with the master at the great banquet to which they had been invited.

Perhaps the significance of the invited guests’ refusal is somewhat lost on us in our culture, for such a refusal in first century Israel would have been a great insult, not only to the master, but in the eyes of all the people. It was customary in Jesus’ day to first invite guests to a feast weeks or months in advance and, later, when the feast was prepared, a message was sent to those invited to come to the feast. It was the second invitation that the invitees in Jesus’ parable rejected.

But, remember, this is a parable. Therefore, the master of the feast is the LORD, and the invitees are the children of Israel. Moreover, they were invited, first, through the covenant of grace that the LORD made to Abraham. Then, in the self-offering and sacrifice of His Son, Jesus, all that was necessary for them to join in the great banquet in the kingdom of heaven was prepared, finished, and complete. The LORD sent His Son, just as the prophets had proclaimed, to announce this Good News and call the invited guests to the feast. This was the second invitation, which they rejected.

Therefore, the master, the LORD, has extended the invitation to those that the first invitees were to have invited on His behalf: the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame, and the Gentiles. He sent His servants, His prophets, pastors, evangelists to go “to the streets and lanes of the city” and “to the highways and hedges” and call the people, no, to compel the people, “to come in, that [His] house may be filled.” And then, following that rich proclamation of grace, Jesus adds the harsh result of the first invitees’ rejection: “None of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.”

God’s invitation to eternal life and salvation is universal. It has been signed, sealed, and delivered to the world in Jesus Christ. He is for everyone, without exception, and that is the Truth. All who trust in Him with Spirit-given faith, all who cling to Him and do not let go, all who receive His Baptism and do not reject Him will be saved. Therefore, why do so many people say “No”? They say “No” because they are idolaters, fearing, loving, and trusting in created things before and above the LORD and Creator of all things. They say “No” because they falsely judge themselves righteous, or at least better than others. They say “No” because they believe that, by their good works, they are secure in their invitation to the great banquet in the kingdom of heaven saying, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Yet, as true as that statement is, another is also true: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

“Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wine; she has also set her table.” This is a biblical wisdom way of saying, “Come, for everything is now ready.” The LORD’s Passover Lamb, Jesus, has laid down His life in sacrificial death for you that you may come, eat, and live. All that was necessary for you to join in the great banquet of the kingdom of heaven has been prepared and accomplished for you. Come, and eat. Come, and drink. “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

The Lord invites you this day to partake of the feast He has prepared as a foretaste of the great banquet that is yet to come. Receiving what God gives is the highest form of worship.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The First Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 1)

rich man & lazarus


Luke 16:19-31; 1 John 4:16-21; Genesis 15:1-6

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

In many ways, the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a conflation of several of Jesus’ main teachings. It includes Jesus’ teaching about the one thing needful – namely, faith in the Word of God. It also includes Jesus’ teaching against the love of mammon, or wealth, and the praise of men. It includes Jesus’ teaching on mercy, compassion, and love for those who have nothing. And it includes Jesus’ teaching that “Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Additionally, outside the Book of Revelation, this story includes, perhaps, the clearest teaching we have on what we can expect after death – and that teaching comes from the mouth of our Lord Jesus Himself.

To summarize a story that you likely know very well, there was a rich man who dressed well and feasted sumptuously every day of his life. Now, there is no condemnation of being rich and dressing and eating well; indeed, some enjoy such blessings from God. Likewise, there is no explicit statement indicating that the rich man was mean or selfish or an unbeliever. All that we know is that there was a poor man named Lazarus who begged near his gate, who desired only to glean from the leftover scraps from the rich man’s feasts. For all we know, the rich man was unaware of Lazarus, or maybe he ignored him. Whatever the situation was, the poor man simply wasn’t on the rich man’s radar screen.

As the story goes, both men died. The rich man found himself in torment in hades, and Lazarus found himself reclining upon the bosom of Abraham, a place of comfort akin to the paradise promised by Jesus to the repentant thief on the cross. We see that the rich man considered himself a believer, for he appealed to Abraham as “father,” and, in turn, Abraham answered him as his “child.” Yet, even in hades, the rich man, if he noticed Lazarus at all, considered him of a lower status than himself, as a servant. He asked father Abraham that he might send Lazarus to serve him by cooling his thirst with a few drops of water.

Now, if we were to dissect the story thus far in light of Jesus’ teaching elsewhere in the Gospels, we would discover that the rich man, while not entirely without faith and love, placed his faith and love in created things above and before God, the Creator and giver of all things. We see this in the fact that the rich man feasted sumptuously every day, presumably even on Sabbaths and Holy Days – there was no fasting for this son of Abraham. Further, he did not show love for his neighbor in need; perhaps he did not even recognize his needy neighbor. Lazarus, on the other hand, was not after the man’s riches, or even his sumptuous feast, but desired only “to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table” – that is, the scraps that would be thrown to the dogs, the crumbs that fell from his master’s table.

In hades, the rich man pleaded with father Abraham for mercy, whereas mercy is precisely what he failed to show to Lazarus, the archetypal poor man, in his life. Even in torment, still he did not consider Lazarus in mercy, love, and compassion. Further, the rich man was looking for comfort in Hades, just as he had in life, in all the wrong things – not in the Word of God, but, rather, in physical comfort. And, since his priorities were out of order, and he had made of physical comforts an idol, father Abraham directs him back to what the rich man truly loved saying, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.”

Then, perhaps one of the most chilling statements in Jesus’ story are these words of father Abraham, “And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” On one level, this may very well indicate something real and true about the relationship of paradise and hades, or heaven and hell. While, on another level, and probably more to the point, there is a great separation between trust in wealth and material possessions and trust in God’s Word. The former brings only death and damnation, while the latter gives life and eternal salvation.

Upon that invalidating judgment, the rich man began to plead that Lazarus be sent to his brothers. See, he is caring and compassionate about some people – people like himself. Father Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” That is to say, let them hear and trust in the Word of God which testifies about Jesus. Shockingly (not really), the rich man objects saying, “No! Not the Word! There has to be some other way! I know, why don’t you send Lazarus back from the dead? Then they’ll believe! Anything but the Word of God!” Truly, good works, genealogy, piety, tithing, speaking in tongues, meditation, giving to the siding fund, serving on council, attending lots of Bible studies, coming to church every Sunday, visiting the homebound, giving to charity, even feeding and clothing the poor, and anything else that you can think up, dream of, or imagine that you might place before and above faith and trust in the Word of God – these, no matter how good they may be, will not deliver you to Abraham’s bosom, paradise, or heaven; they will not deliver you to Jesus. Indeed, Abraham replied, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets [if they do not hear and trust in the Word of God], neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”

You see, the rich man wasn’t a bad man, he was just an idolater, just like you are too often tempted to be. For, the first and most important Commandment is “You shall have no other gods.” Luther explains this commandment in the Small Catechism saying, “You should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Did you hear that? “Above all things.” That is to say that nothing, absolutely nothing, not even good and beneficial things, are to be permitted to get between you and God.

For, when things do get between you and God, the inevitable consequence is fear. Does this surprise you? Perhaps you think that I must be wrong about this? However, is this not what St. John is teaching in today’s Epistle: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in Him. […] There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” The commentary in the Lutheran Study Bible on this passage is spot on: “Love is the work and will of God and the fruit of faith in God for the salvation of every human. In this, there is no fear. Jesus is God’s perfect love that has come to seek and to save, not to condemn. In Christ, God’s love reaches its goal; love is perfected in us when we believe in Jesus and no longer fear that God might still be angry with us because of our sin.”

If you have placed your fear, love, and trust in something other than God and His Word, then your love is compromised, because you can only love others when you have been loved by God and have loved Him in return. “We love because He first loved us,” writes John. Indeed, it is with His love that we love others – that we are able to love anyone at all. Therefore St. John continues, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” And so, the rub of all this is that, if you love God, you will love others. In fact, it is in loving others that you love God. That is why no one can hate his brother and love God. Hate is the antithesis of God, and hate is what your enemy, the devil, would have you feel, and be, and harbor in your heart against your brother and your neighbor. And, the only cure for hate is repentance and forgiveness. Therefore, if you harbor any hate against your brother or your neighbor, you must confess it and ask forgiveness. And, your Father in heaven will forgive you, for Jesus’ sake.

Therefore, you have nothing to fear but God. And, fear, love, and trust in Him will cast out all fear. How can you know this? It is written, in His Word. Indeed, Abram himself once feared that he would not have an heir to inherit his covenantal blessing, but God promised Him in His Word, “Fear not, Abram, I am you shield; your reward shall be very great. […] Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. […] So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the LORD, and He counted it to him as righteousness. So, through your own faith and trust in the Word of the LORD, everything that rightly belongs to Jesus is counted to you: righteousness, holiness, Sonship, eternal life, and communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. May you, like the poor beggar Lazarus, whose name means “God is my help,” desire to be fed with crumbs that fall from the table of the Lord, for you will find, instead, that you have feasted sumptuously upon God’s gift of love and life Himself, His Son and Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.