Sunday, February 28, 2016

Homily for Oculi - The Third Sunday In Lent

Luke 11:14-28; Ephesians 5:1-9; Exodus 8:16-24

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The great temptation of the Church of Christ is to accommodate and to assimilate Herself to our world and culture. For, the Church is tempted, pressured, and even attacked, both from without and from within, to compromise Her confession that Jesus is the only Name under heaven by which men must be saved, that He is Truth and the only judge of morality, of good, and of evil, who has not taken the Law of God away from men, but has fulfilled it for us, and that the Church of Christ is His body on earth in and through which His gifts are given and distributed: the forgiveness of sins, faith, life, and salvation. Indeed, the Church exists on earth today, as always, that men may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing they may have life.
But the Church, which is the body of Christ, goes in the way of Her Lord and Head Jesus. She is spoken against, mocked and ridiculed, She is persecuted, and hated, and there are not few who would love to kill Her. That’s ok, for Her Lord and Head took the mocking, ridicule, persecution, and hatred, even suffering and death to the cross where He died for the sins of the world and rose in victorious life for all men, even those who hate Him. Jesus has sanctified the Church’s suffering and has promised that, through it, we are more than conquerors through Him who loves us. So, as they did to Jesus, so will they do to you. They will take your love, mercy, and compassion, so long as you keep your faith, truth, and convictions to yourself. They will gladly use your hospitals, orphanages, adoption agencies, and soup kitchens, but you’d better not talk about truth, morality, or ethics. “Just shut up and give me what I want.” Because if you don’t, well…. They’ll call you every name in the book – ignorant, uneducated, bigoted, misogynistic, hateful, immoral, evil – because, along with showing compassion, mercy, and love to your neighbor you dare to say what you believe, what Jesus has taught, and what God has given in His Law, at the very least in the Ten Commandments. “How very un-post-modern of you.” Keep up the good work.
“Whoever is not with Me is against Me,” Jesus taught, “and whoever does not gather with Me scatters.” Is that a shocking statement to you? I hope not. Yes, Jesus really is that exclusive. He really is the only Way, the only Truth, and the only source of Life for all men, whether they believe it or not. But, He is for all men, without exclusion, whether they believe it or not. What lead Jesus to make this statement was that people were claiming that Jesus cast out demons and performed other miracles by the power of Beelzebul, that is, by the power of Satan. Though He was doing good, they accused Him of doing evil. Others tempted Him to produce another sign before they would believe Him. But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, taught them saying, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?” Essentially, He was saying, “Look, there is good and there is evil. Evil does not cast out evil. Satan is not going to work against himself.” Can you believe it? A man who was possessed by a demon and couldn’t speak is freed and healed and the crowd has the nerve to call Jesus an evil magician. It seems that post-modern relativism isn’t as new as we might think! When it comes to Jesus and our Holy Triune God, good is good and evil is evil – and that’s the Truth. It’s only the world of men that there are shades of gray. Thus, Jesus teaches, “Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters.”
It was a similar incident that occurred in our Old Testament lesson today where God made a distinction between His people and the Egyptians, between His servants and Pharaoh’s magicians, and between His power and the power of Beelzebul, Satan. In the first plague that God sent upon the Egyptians, He caused the Nile River and all the waters of Egypt to turn to blood without distinguishing between His people and the Egyptians. But, Pharaoh’s magicians were able to produce the same effect by their secret arts; Satan enabled Pharaoh’s magicians to copy the miracle God had performed through His servants Moses and Aaron. In the second plague, God caused frogs to cover the entire land of Egypt. Once again, Pharaoh’s magicians were able to do the same by their secret arts, but they were unable to then make the frogs go away. Thus, Pharaoh had to plead to Moses and Aaron to plead with their Lord to take the frogs away. Then, in the third plague, which was our Old Testament lesson today, God sent gnats or lice upon all the land of Egypt, and Pharaoh’s magicians were unable to do the same and they confessed to Pharaoh, “This is the Finger of God.”  This was a stunning confession, for the Finger of God is the Holy Spirit and, when the magicians say this to Pharaoh, it shows that they know there is a power greater than their own, yet it is a power that they do not honor and serve. In the following plagues, God began to set His people Israel apart from the Egyptians by sparing them the effects of the plagues while the lands of the Egyptians suffered.
Satan is strong, but God is stronger. Pharaoh’s magicians were able to perform some powerful signs, but they soon met the limits of what they were able to do. Satan’s power now is but lies and deceptions. In truth, it is you who give him power, by believing in his lies and succumbing to his temptations. Jesus compared Satan to a strong man, fully armed, who trusts in his armor. But, Jesus is a stronger man who attacks him and takes away his armor and divides His spoil. Does it seem odd to you to think of Jesus on the offensive, in attack mode? Yet, that is exactly how He describes Himself in relation to Satan. And, that wasn’t the first time. When Peter made his bold confession of Jesus saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, Jesus commended him saying, “Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Did you hear it? The gates of hell will not withstand the attack of the Church, but they will fall before Her. What, did I shock you again? I hope not. I know, you’re used to hearing about Jesus’ love, mercy, and compassion, not His judgment against sin and evil. Yes, Jesus is God’s love incarnate for all men. Yes, Jesus loves all men without distinction or discrimination, even those who hate Him. Yes, Jesus loves all men, but Jesus hates sin. He has mercy and compassion on sinners, but sin is judged, condemned, and damned.
When you were baptized, the Stronger Man Jesus attacked the strong man Satan and ran him out of the palace he had made and guarded in your heart. That day you gained a powerful enemy in Satan who was not pleased to let you go. Jesus taught, “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.” How do you keep the strong man and his minions out of your heart? You gather with Jesus. That is, you gather where Jesus is present with His Words and with His Wounds. You gather with Jesus in constant repentance, in great humility, and in faith and trust in Him. For, Jesus is the Stronger Man, not you. He is your strength. He is your faith. And He is your victory over Satan’s temptations all the days of your life.
Further, you must mark, distinguish, and discern what is the Lord’s will and command and what is contrary to it. That is, as St. Paul writes, you must be “imitators of God, as beloved children” and “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” You are to be set apart from the world as were the children of Israel in Egypt, partaking not in sexual immorality, impurity, and covetousness, indulging not in filthiness, foolish talk, and crude joking, but instead giving thanks to the Lord for all things, “for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true).”
And, so it is that the Church is both attacked and She is on the attack. How does the Church attack? The Church attacks, not with violence, not with weapons, and not with force; the Church attacks, not with insults, not with slander, and not with libel; the Church attacks, not with politics, not with laws, and not with government; but the Church attacks with the Word of God and with Truth, for She is Christ’s body, and He is Her Head and Lord, and He is the Stronger Man who fights against Satan and his demons, who indeed has defeated them in His death upon the cross and sends them fleeing by His authoritative Word. And, as the Church suffers attack, she places Her trust and Her hope in Her defensive armor: The belt of Truth, the breastplate of Righteousness, the readiness of the Gospel of Peace, the shield of Faith, and the helmet of Salvation. Indeed, the only offensive weapon the Church has is the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Apart from this offensive weapon and defensive armor, you cannot hope to stand against the strong man, Satan. Staking your claim that you are a child of God, born from the womb of the Church in Holy Baptism will do you no good whatsoever if you do not have faith that clings to Christ, for there is no blessing in having the Church as your Mother if you do not hear the Word of God and keep it.
Dear Christian, you have been redeemed out of death by the Stronger Man Jesus Christ who passed through death for you destroying Satan’s armor in which he trusted. Still that lion seeks to devour you and he will use every manner of attack within his power to do so. Beware of his temptations, lies, and deceptions and strengthen your faith by gathering with Jesus where He is present with His Word, which is Truth, and with His Wounds which bring forgiveness, life, and salvation. These are your armor to protect you from attack. And, for a weapon, you have the Sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. Use it in love, that it may cut down the lies of the enemy and rescue those imprisoned by them. At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light, and the light of Christ will shine in and through you, exposing all manner of evil and deeds of wickedness, revealing in you the fruit of all that is good and right and true.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Christian Funeral for William Joseph Brennan

John 10:11-16; 2 Corinthians 5:1-10; Isaiah 65:17-25

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
 A “good shepherd.” Yes, I think that is a fitting description of Bill. Jodi, Brian, as your father, Bill was your shepherd, and you were his sheep whom he cared for, guided, and protected throughout his and your life because you were his sheep, not another’s, and he loved you. He would have gladly laid down his life for you if necessary. His goal was to shepherd you safely through the temptations, trials, and dangers of this world, which he knew very well due to his own experiences in the world. And, Barbara, you were also his sheep, too, even as you were also a shepherd with Bill, his partner in life, helpmate, and wife. Together you shepherded your little flock, your children and grandchildren, and provided for them a safe, loving, and nurturing pasture and home, keeping and protecting them from the dangers of this world and equipping them to withstand the assaults of the evil one and to know the contentment and peace of being a sheep in the Good Shepherd’s flock.
However, in order to be a good shepherd, it is necessary to be goodly shepherded. Thus, Bill could be found daily being nourished and strengthened in the good pasture of the Word of His Good Shepherd and heavenly Father. Bill could be found sitting with a blanket on the edge of his sofa reading God’s Word. In fact, he rarely read any other book. I did not know this about Bill until he passed, but I am not surprised. Bill was clearly a peaceful man, mild, thoughtful, caring, gentle, and wise. That is rare today. Some try to achieve it through eastern meditation, but it produces more of a self-centered detachment. Bill was the complete opposite of that. Bill’s meditation on the Word of God caused him to be humble and selfless, more concerned with the happiness and welfare of others than himself. That is the fruit of being shepherded by the Good Shepherd Jesus Christ. The Good Shepherd knows His sheep, and His sheep know Him. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep, and His undershepherds do the same for those under their care.
Bill was a family man. Time with his family was precious and mattered most. While Bill was a serious and dedicated worker, work was truly a means to the end of provided for and enjoying life with his family. He was sensitive to his family’s comfort and happiness. He knew the moment in which a trip to Lake George or a drive in the country for a change of scenery was just the ticket to lift the spirits. The grandkids could have anything they wanted for the price of a kiss. And, Bill’s kindness and generosity was not spent only upon his family, but it spilled over into his relations with others, and even to the church. When he arrived here at church Saturday evenings, the first words out of his mouth were “How’s the family? Everything alright?” I couldn’t have been more happily surprised when Bill offered to take some of our youth to LaGuardia as they departed for a youth conference and then pick them up on their return. He wasn’t even a member. He wasn’t even a Lutheran. But, Bill was a good Christian man, and he loved the youth, and he wanted to help.
Bill was a good man. That gets said a lot about a lot of people, but Bill is one of whom we can say that and really and truly mean it without any equivocation whatsoever. Bill was a good man, a good husband, a good father, a good grandfather, a good neighbor, a good employee, and a good friend. He wasn’t perfect – no one is – but, Bill was a good man. But that’s not why we are comforted today, is it? No. That’s not why we stood beside his bedside in the hospital and were comforted, knowing that he would be with the Lord, is it? No, it is not. Bill’s goodness has absolutely nothing to do with the comfort and peace we have in knowing that he is now with the Lord. No, our comfort and peace is in Jesus Christ alone, precisely where Bill found his comfort and peace in life and in death.
It’s no secret that Bill wasn’t in the greatest health. As good as his spiritual heart was, his fleshly heart was not so good, it was damaged. Not too long ago he told me that he had an inoperable aneurysm that was like a time bomb waiting to go off. One day it would burst, and that would be that. However, that didn’t get Bill down. He remained his kind, gentle, peaceful, selfless self. But, it wasn’t the aneurysm that took him, but it was a stroke, perhaps related to the issues with his heart. A week ago Wednesday Bill suffered a stroke that was bad enough, but then he suffered a second, worse, stroke in the hospital. Before that second stroke, however, there in the hospital ICU with tubes and wires all over him, Bill was still Bill. He asked, “Are you okay?” Still thinking of others, still caring, still loving, still good. Those may have been his last words. Not long after that you had the feeling that Bill had left us and only his body remained.
St. Paul compares our earthly bodies to a tent in which “we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling,” “for we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Bill knew this, and it brought him comfort and peace, even in the face of difficultly and unpleasant circumstances, that he might endure and persevere through all things. And, he could endure and persevere in peace, even with a smile on his face and a word of concern for others. The unbelieving world is astounded and confounded. “How can anyone remain so calm and at peace in the midst of suffering?” Undoubtedly Bill learned this from words of Scripture like these from St. Paul: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Bill could do all things through Christ who was his strength. And, so can you. No, this does not mean that you can do anything you set your mind and heart to, as the world and our culture tell you. But, like Bill, you will have strength to endure and to persevere through all things, even death, in contentment and peace. For, these gifts come from outside of you, from Christ, through faith. Christ is your strength when you are weak, and God’s power is made perfect in you when you are weak.
These are dark times – at least, that’s what most people seem to think, and I concur. However, all men’s days have their times of darkness. Nonetheless, God created “Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.” And, in His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has begun to make all things new, already, now: “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” Bill, and all baptized believers, have begun that new life already, now. That is why “we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling.” We have, we are, on the inside, according to the Spirit, new creations, born of water and the Word in Holy Baptism. We know the Word and will of the LORD and we want to keep it and do it, and we are capable of doing it, which pleases the LORD. But, we are saved, not by our works according to the Law, but by grace through faith, which itself is a free gift, in Jesus Christ. When we die, we shed the earthly tent of our bodies, and our new spirit goes to Jesus where there is only joy and peace instead of groaning, suffering, tears, and death. Bill knew his Savior. He knew where he was going. Therefore, he face good times and bad times, times of joy and times of tears, and even his own death with contentment and peace. And how does that make us feel? That makes us feel peaceful as well, for we are not like those who have no hope, but we fully expect to see Bill again, everlasting spirit and glorified body reunited once again. Not just a spiritual, ghostly Bill, but a flesh and blood seeable, touchable, hearable, huggable husband, father, grandfather, neighbor, and friend.
What do you think Bill wants most for you now? Do you think that he wants you to hurt and to struggle and to mourn? I don’t think so. The same Bill who asked if you were okay as he passed into eternity wants you to know right now that he is in a good place, the right place, and the best place. “Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on.” And, he wants you to know that you will see him again, in the Lord’s time. Until then, he wants you to be at peace and content, in the same things and the same ways in which he was content in his earthly life. You still have a Good Shepherd who owns you and loves you and will not let you go. Still He calls to you, “Come to Me and lie down in the green pastures of my grace. Come and be refreshed in the cool waters of my absolution. Come, eat and drink, of my body and blood which are true food shed for you for the forgiveness of yours sins, the strengthening of your faith, and for life everlasting.” Jesus is your Good Shepherd who has called his precious sheep Bill home to where sheep may safely graze. And, He calls you to abide in Him that you may have peace and contentment until you pass through the valley of the shadow of death into the Father’s house forevermore.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Homily for Lenten Vespers In the Week of Reminiscere (The Second Sunday In Lent)

 22:24-46; Genesis 22:1-14

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Our Lord Jesus teaces you to pray, “lead us not into temptation.” You confess in the Small Catechism, “God tempts no one. [But] we pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and to other great shame and vice.” “God tempts no one.” Therefore, what does the Scripture mean when it says “God tested Abraham?” Are not “testing” and “tempting” the same thing? Well, yes, and no.
Testing does not necessarily have a negative connotation. After all, you test your children in school with the intention of proving, or making certain what they have learned. The Scriptures use testing in the sense of proving the refinement and purity of precious metals like gold and silver. Gold and silver ore, when mined from the earth, are impure, containing bits of copper, iron, platinum, cadmium, and other metals and minerals. Impurities are removed from the precious metals by subjecting them to extreme heat. The gold and silver will melt without being destroyed so that the impurities, the dross, may be separated and filtered out. Similarly, God tests you with the extreme heat of trials and tribulations, not to punish you, but to prove you (to yourself!) and to improve you. Few of God’s children were tested more fiercely and consistently than St. Paul to whom the Lord famously said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
However, temptation is also a form of testing, but it is the type of testing that Satan brings, not God, though the LORD does permit it to befall you. Satan tests you by manipulating circumstances, within the limits that God allows him, in an attempt to make you abandon God’s will. Therefore, you must constantly be watchful and active against the devil, for he is always at work trying to make you fall. Satan’s desire is not to prove you and to improve you, but to destroy you. Thus, it is true that both God and the devil test you, but only one of these means the testing for your good and for the good of others that they might believe and be saved.
“God tempts no one,” but He does test you. When you pray, “lead us not into temptation,” you are asking that the LORD would guard, keep, and protect you from the temptations and testing of the devil through the means of the world and your own sinful flesh. Nevertheless, when temptation comes, the LORD promises that He will always provide a way of escape that you may be able to endure and persevere. As I said in my homily for the First Sunday In Lent, the way of escape, at times, may be death, for you are called to be faithful unto death with the promise that you will receive the crown of life.
Thus it was that the LORD tested Abraham. As with the Canaanite woman this past Sunday, the LORD already knew Abraham’s faith. This was the man who believed God at His Word and the LORD credited his faith to him as righteousness. The LORD already knew Abraham’s faith. But, Abraham didn’t know his faith. The devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh conspire against you, tempting you to place your faith, your fear, love, and trust, in things other than in God, most often in yourselves. The LORD tested Abraham so that his faith would be strengthened, so that Abraham would know all the more that his faith was in the LORD and in His Word alone, and not in himself, or even in his faith.
The test was whether or not Abraham would trust the LORD and His Word, His promise, despite what his God-given eyes, ears, and reason told him. The LORD had promised Abraham a son from his own flesh – meaning, of his union with his wife Sarah, not with her handmaiden Hagar. Abraham had already doubted the LORD’s promise once and conceived a child with Hagar. But, then, the LORD kept His Word of promise and gave Abraham and Sarah a son, Isaac. But, then, to drive Abraham’s faith back to the Word and promise of the LORD, the LORD commanded Abraham to sacrifice His son Isaac. Granted, this is a pretty extreme test, but Abraham had already experience the LORD’s miraculous faithfulness. He knew that the LORD was both faithful and capable of keeping His Word, even if that required raising the dead.
This time, Abraham does not falter. Abraham’s faith is so incredibly strong that we are scandalized by it. He was actually going to kill his son and offer him as a sacrifice! He was going to do it. Don’t think for a moment that he wasn’t! He bound his son, laid him upon the wood, took the knife, and he was ready to plunge it into his son’s heart! But, why? Because he believed the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his strength, and with all his mind.
But, what did Abraham believe the LORD was going to do? How would the LORD keep His promise if Abraham killed his son? Well, we are given a couple clues to what Abraham was thinking, what Abraham believed. First, Abraham left his servants at the base of Mount Moriah and told them, “I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” Here Abraham indicates that, one way or another, he would return with his son. Either the LORD would spare him and provide a substitute or, if he had to go through with it, Abraham believed that the LORD would raise his son up again from death. One way or another, Abraham believed that Isaac would live, even if he had to die.
The second clue is Abraham’s answer to Isaac when he asked where the lamb was for a sacrifice. Abraham replied, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” Likely this is what Abraham truly believed all along – that God would provide a substitute, a sacrificial lamb, and spare his son Isaac. And, that is precisely what the LORD did. Abraham turned around and, behold, there was a ram caught in the thicket by its horns. Abraham released Isaac and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering to the LORD in his place. Then Abraham named that place, “The LORD will provide.” And, yet, that substitutionary ram was but a foreshadowing of what the LORD would ultimately do. Abraham’s only son was spared, a ram substituted in his place, in foreshadowing of the sacrifice God would make of His only Son, Jesus. There was no substitutionary lamb for Jesus, but Jesus was the Lamb of God’s self-offering, sacrificed for the sins of all people.
The LORD tested Abraham, and Abraham’s faith was strengthened. Abraham’s faith in the Word and promise of God was strengthened. But, that does little good for you. Abraham believed for himself. Likewise, you must believe for yourself. Is your faith as strong as Abraham’s? I know that mine is not. That is why I am thankful and grateful that the LORD also tested Jesus. The LORD permitted Jesus to be tempted by Satan in the wilderness as we heard in the Gospel for the First Sunday In Lent. And the LORD Himself tested Jesus in the garden in this evening’s reading from the Passion. In both cases, Jesus resisted and overcame testing and temptation by faith in the Word of God and in prayer. Jesus prayed three times that the Father might release Him from being the substitutionary Lamb for the sins of the world, but He submitted to His Father’s will and Word and was strengthened in prayer.
Likewise, Jesus exhorted Peter and the disciples to pray that they may not enter into temptation. And, this is what Jesus has taught you to pray saying, “Lead us not into temptation.” “God tempts no one. [But] we pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and to other great shame and vice.” May the God who has vindicated the innocent blood of Isaac in the innocent blood of His Son Jesus Christ preserve, guard, and protect you in faith through all testing and temptation.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.