Witness Always – Sermon for Lutheran Schools Week 2014

Witness Always

2 Kings 5:1-15

3rd Sunday After Epiphany

National Lutheran Schools Week

January 26th/27th, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Last Friday was another snow day.  Or, more like a cold day to be exact.  Since my girls were home from school, I stayed home too.  We worked on school projects, watched the Hobbit, got some pizza.  It was a nice day at home.  But as much as I like snow days, I don’t want one this next week, because this week is National Lutheran Schools Week.  It will be a week full of festivities.  There are going to be dress up days where I’ll get to wear pajama pants to work, there’s a scheduled volleyball game between staff and students, and most exciting of all, the circus is coming to town.  It promises to be a memorable week.

The theme for this year’s National Lutheran Schools Week is “Witness Always.”  It is the first in 3 year series that will draw from the Synod’s “Witness, Mercy, and Life Together” initiative.  This “Witness, Mercy, and Life Together” was introduced by our current Synodical President, Dr. Matthew Harrison – who will be our guest preacher the first weekend in March – and it emphasizes different aspects of our life as the church.  As a the Body of Christ on earth, we are people who witness, people of mercy, and people  who live together with the other members of the  Body of Christ.

In fact, you can see these three elements at work in today’s readings.  In the Gospel reading we see the mercy of Jesus as he heals the leper and the centurion’s servant.  In fact, we see the mercy of Jesus continually throughout his ministry on earth as he restores what is broken in creation: healing the sick, giving sight to the blind and speech to the mute.  As Jesus cared for those in need, so also we as his body on earth today do the same.  We hear of the second aspect, our life together as the Body of Christ, in Paul’s words to the Romans where we are exhorted to live in harmony with one another, have an attitude of humility, and overcome evil with good.  Mercy and life together are both important elements of living together in the Body of Christ, and we will hear more about them in the years to come.  But the focus of this year’s Lutheran Schools Week is Witness, which can be found most clearly in the Old Testament Reading.

Sometimes Christians get nervous when they hear the word witness because it makes them think of going door to door.  However, witness is a familiar word that should call to mind the image of a courtroom.  In a courtroom, the witness is someone who speaks to what they know.  If they speak to what they don’t know, the attorneys object or they are held in contempt.  Some witnesses are eye witnesses who speak to what they saw with their own eyes or heard with their own ears.  Other witnesses are expert witnesses who speak in a particular field, like a forensic scientist or a psychologist or a medical examiner.  In either case, witnesses only speak to what they know.

In this morning’s reading from 2 Kings, we see a few different witnesses.  There’s the witness of the Prophet.  Prophets were commissioned to speak to the people on behalf of God, so the message that the Prophet Elisha delivered to Namaan came first from God.  The prophet testified what he had first heard from God.  He was a witness who testified what he had heard.  There’s the witness of Namaan, who demonstrated what he thought he knew about how prophets and gods should act.  He arrived with his entourage and grand displays of wealth and prestige, and he expected a grand display of power in return.  Instead, what he got was a simple command to wash in the Jordan.  Unlike the centurion from the Gospel reading, who confessed that he believed Jesus could heal his servant with a mere word, Namaan expected something more majestic.  Both of those witnesses are worth more meditation, but in light of Lutheran Schools Week, it seems more appropriate to explore the witness of another person from today’s reading: the little servant girl.

She’s only mentioned briefly in the beginning of the reading, yet she plays an important role in how the story unfolds.  The rich and powerful Namaan is at his wit’s end.  When his Israelite servant girl hears that Namaan is in such trouble, she says, “If only my lord was in Israel, then the prophet would be able to help him.”  And with just a few words, the first domino is knocked down, setting into motion a series of events that ends with Namaan cured of his leprosy.  The words of a child were the first step.  The witness of a child was the first step.  But how could she be such a witness?  How did the child know what to say?  Where did she hear of the prophet?  If witnesses speak to what they know – how did the little girl know of Elisha?

The short answer is that we don’t know, but there seems to be a few reasonable possibilities.  The most likely answer is that her parents or some other adult had taught her about prophets at some point.  Prophets were more or less a common feature in those days, and the Israelites would certainly have known what the prophets did and who they were.  Much like our children today know what the President or an Astronaut does even if they’ve never met one, Israelite children would know what the Prophets did.  It’s also possible, although less likely, that she had had personal interaction with the prophet.  Either way, the important thing is that she knew what the Prophet was capable of, and she was willing to speak of what she knew.

That is the vocation of every Christian at any age.  It is the responsibility of Christian adults to speak of what we know, both to the world around us, and to the children in our midst.  We train them to be witnesses, teaching them to be both eyewitnesses of God working in their lives, as well as expert witnesses who speak to what they have learned about him.  And as any teacher can tell you, teaching something is a great way to learn it.  So as we teach our children these things, we learn them ourselves.

We teach them to be eyewitnesses by teaching them to recognize the ways God is active in their lives and ours.  First and foremost we teach them to spend time in his Word, for that is where he is most actively speaking and shaping.  We spend time in his Word with them, bringing them to the services of our Lord’s house and making time for family devotions.  Our school is a great gift to that end.  Each day students and teachers alike gather around our Lord’s Word.  There is chapel once a week.  The Word of God, the same word that cleansed Namaan of his leprosy, the same word that cleansed the lepers in Jesus’ day and healed the centurion’ servant, is living and active in our lives today.  It creates faith in our hearts, it helps us understand and make sense of the world around us.

We teach them to see the Lord at work in their lives through challenges and struggles.  Our world is always looking for answers in the face of hardship, looking for ways to deal with the challenges of life: with sickness, despair, guilt, failure.  We don’t pretend that these don’t exist, rather we recognize that in Christ we are a new creation, that we are destined for life in a new and perfect creation.  We recognize that the hardships in this life are nothing more than a drop in the ocean of eternity.  In short, we have an eternal perspective on temporal suffering.  And we share that with our children.  We teach them, and ourselves, how such instances of struggle can be sanctified when they drive us to our Lord in prayer.

We teach them to see the gifts of daily life that our Lord has given us.  Each breath we take is a gift from above.  The sun rises and sets without our approval.  We do not control the rain or the drought.  We do not cause our lungs to work or heart to beat.  These are gifts – our life is a gift.  When we teach our children to be eyewitnesses of God’s gifts, we are teaching them how to deal with whatever this life can throw at them.  As the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians, we teach them how to be brought low and raised up, how to be in want or to have plenty, how to live life in any circumstances:  We can do all these things, for Christ is our strength.  In this school we are doing more than teaching children reading, writing and arithmetic.  We are teaching them how to see God at work in their lives, how to be eyewitnesses of his mercy, and we are reminding ourselves of the same.

But we are also teaching them to be expert witnesses who can speak with confidence about what they have studied and learned.  Luther wrote about a threefold learning of the catechism.  You have to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run.  So also learning the teaching of the Scriptures.   It begins with the basics – simple memorization.  Children learn the Lord’s Prayer.  They learn the Creeds.  They learn the Bible Stories from their preschool days.  Even if they don’t understand what all the words mean, even if they have a hard time pronouncing “trespasses,” they are learning the words.  They are learning the stories.  They are learning to crawl in the faith.

After crawling comes walking, which is understanding the basics.  In Lutheran terms, this is where we ask and answer the question, “What does this mean?”  Here the students learn what we are praying for in the Lord’s Prayer, what we are confessing in the Creed, and what is required by the 10 Commandments.  But it does not stop with memorizing the meanings.  The third step is living the Catechism, taking the things learned and applying them to everyday life.  The words learned will strike the ears of an 8th grader differently than a senior in high school, or a recent college graduate, or a newlywed, or a new parent, or an empty nester.  The learning that takes place in these classrooms is the foundation for a lifetime in the faith.  We continue to grow in our Lord’s teaching every day of our lives.  We are gaining an awareness of what we know, so that when it comes time to speak of it to others, we are able.

And that is why we have a school.  As we enter Lutheran Schools Week, it is important to remember that here at St. John, our school is our mission.  It is fundamental to who we are.  It is a big reason that many of the new members welcomed this weekend first visited St. John.  It has produced many graduates who have gone on into the church as pastors, teachers, and musicians.  And even if they don’t pursue careers in church work, it has produced graduates who remain witnesses for the next generation, boys and girls who will grow into men and women who defend the faith in the world.  Our school is a great blessing and great responsibility to us.  Whether you have students enrolled or not, you are part of St. John Lutheran church, therefore you are part of St. John Lutheran School.  What a blessing that is.  What a blessing to have so many people praying for and supporting the work of this school.  What a blessing to have so many students praying for and supporting the work of this congregation.  What a blessing to have so many people working together to raise up the next generation of witnesses to the Gospel.

The theme for this year’s Lutheran Schools Week is “Witness Always.”  May we be just that – faithful witnesses who speak what we know both to the world around us, and also to the next generation in our midst.  For like the little servant girl in the story of Namaan, we never know when one of the kids in our midst will plant a seed that grows into fruitful faith.  We never know when one of the kids here will knock down the first domino that sets into motion a series of events that results in the cleansing of another person’s soul.  May we give them the words to speak, and as we train them to speak such words, we continue to learn those words ourselves.

Children in the Body of Christ – Sermon (Luke 2, Romans 12)

Entrusted to Our Care

Luke 2:41-52

First Sunday After Epiphany (One Year Series)

January 12th / 13th, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

I came across a story on line this past week.  Many of you may have seen it yourselves, but for those who did not, here it is:

 A member of the church, who previously had been attending services regularly, stopped going. After a few weeks, the pastor decided to visit him. It was a chilly evening. The pastor found the man at home alone, sitting before a blazing fire. Guessing the reason for his pastor’s visit, the man welcomed him, led him to a comfortable chair near the fireplace and waited. The pastor made himself at home but said nothing. In the grave silence, he contemplated the dance of the flames around the burning logs. After some minutes, the pastor took the fire tongs, carefully picked up a brightly burning ember and placed it to one side of the hearth all alone then he sat back in his chair, still silent. The host watched all this in quiet contemplation. As the one lone ember’s flame flickered and diminished, there was a momentary glow and then its fire was no more. Soon it was cold and dead. Not a word had been spoken since the initial greeting.  The pastor glanced at his watch and realized it was time to leave. He slowly stood up, picked up the cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire. Immediately it began to glow, once more with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it. As the pastor reached the door to leave, his host said with a tear running down his cheek, ‘Thank you so much for your visit and especially for the fiery sermon. I will be back in church next Sunday.’

 I’m not sure who wrote it, but when I stumbled across that anecdote I found it particularly helpful.  Like any analogy, it will break down if pressed too far, but it illustrates the importance of being connected to the body of Christ.  As Paul wrote in Romans 12, which we heard just moments ago, we are one body in Christ, and we are connected to one another.  In Hebrews we are exhorted not to give up meeting together, but to come together to encourage one another as we see the day of the Lord drawing near.  Being joined to the body of Christ means, in part, that you don’t try to go it alone, that you come together with other Christians to hear God’s Word and to receive the Sacrament.  Disconnecting yourself from this is hazardous to your spiritual health.  If you don’t eat, your body grows weak and prone to infection.  In the same way, if you don’t feed your soul with the life giving Word of God, your soul becomes weak and is not prepared for the challenges and trials that attack us on a daily basis.  By ourselves, we are like that single ember that grows cold as the fire stops burning.  To stay warm, to stay alive, we must be kept in the fire, connected not only to other embers, but more importantly, to be engulfed by the fire itself, to be fed by our Lord’s Word and Sacraments.

 And so I rejoice that you are here today.  I rejoice that you have had heard the Word of God read to you for the strengthening of your soul.  I rejoice that you are here regularly to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the fellowship of this altar.  But the importance of you being connected to the body of Christ is not what I want to focus on today.  Rather, I want to call our attention to other people who also need to be connected to this body, who need to be in the fire, to use the language of the analogy, and that is the children of this congregation – Christian children all over the world. 

 As my wife could tell you, I’m a dangerous combination of pastor and English teacher.  I have a bad habit of pointing out ambiguous phrases, especially in television commercials.  I love the emails and Facebook posts that draw their humor from a poorly worded phrase, and in my opinion, Headlines is the funniest thing Jay Leno does.  However, as much as I find humor in a poorly worded headline, I get frustrated by poorly worded theology.  I have learned to give people the benefit of the doubt, to take their meaning even if they haven’t expressed themselves as clearly as I would have liked.  Yet I can’t help but bristle when I hear well-meaning people speak of children as the “future of the church.”  Children are not the future of the church, they are the church right now.  Teenagers are not the future of the church, they are the church right now.  True, they will one day grow into adults who will have to take more responsibility in the leadership of the Church, but that doesn’t mean that they are not part of the church right now.  They are, and they need to be connected to the fire just as much as adults do.

             With that in mind, let’s take a moment to reflect on the Gospel reading for today,  because it presents an interesting source for contemplation.  We know that Jesus reconciled us to God.  We believe that has won salvation for us by fulfilling the Law of God in our place, dying an innocent death, and rising back to life on Easter morning.  But Luke chapter 2 reminds us that in the earliest days of his life, in order for Jesus to fulfill the Law of Moses on our behalf, he needed help from his parents.  I’m not saying that Mary and Joseph are somehow co-saviors with Jesus.  The gift of our salvation comes from Christ alone.  He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  He is the atoning sacrifice.  He is the one who fulfilled the Law that we could not.  But part of that Law required that every male child should be circumcised 8 days after his birth, and even though he is Lord and Creator of the universe, Jesus did not hop on the back of a donkey at one week old and take himself to the Temple for his circumcision.  His parents took him, for he was just a baby, a true baby in every way, yet without sin.  Just as you would not expect a one week old baby to take himself to the doctor’s office for a checkup, Jesus could not take himself to the Temple for his own circumcision.  The Law also required that 40 days after birth a child and its mother go to the Temple for purification.  Again, at one month old Jesus was not taking himself to the Temple, he was dependent on his parents to take him.  And they took him to the Temple, where they were greeted by Simeon and Anna.  The Law required that at the age of 12 children began attending Passover with their parents.  At the age of 13 Jesus would have has his “Bar Mitzvah,” where he would be considered a man in the eyes of the covenant and would be responsible for his own fulfillment of it.  But here, at the age 12, he is still dependent on his parents to take him to Jerusalem for the feast.  And take him they did.

             It is incredible that our Lord would become so helpless.  Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying that either Mary or Joseph is somehow responsible for our salvation in any way.  Yet they are part of the story in a unique way.  I find it fascinating that in order for Jesus to fulfill his vocation as Savior Mary and Joseph had to fulfill their vocation as parents by bringing the boy Jesus to the Temple according to the Law of Moses.  God gave tremendous responsibility to those parents.  What a powerful reminder of the incredible responsibility that God has given to all parents.  While he may not have called all parents to assist the Son of God in fulfilling the Law of Moses, he has placed the soul of another person into their care, the soul of their child.  What a tremendous responsibility.  How humbling it is that God has entrusted the souls of these littlest, most helpless people into our care.

             And yet the responsibility does not stop with mom and dad.  Obviously, the primary responsibility for the spiritual care of children falls on the shoulders of their parents.  As we are reminded every time we have a baptism here, parents are given the responsibility to remember their children in their prayers, remind them of their baptism, bring them to the services of the Lord’s house, place into their hands the Holy Scriptures, and come to the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood.  But the responsibility doesn’t stop with the parents.  Our responsibility for the children in the Body of Christ doesn’t stop when our kids move out and start families of their own.  As Paul says, we are all one body, and we are members of one another.  It is the responsibility of all members of the Body of Christ to recognize our calling as instruments for raising godly children in the Church.

             If it is the responsibility of parents to provide for the spiritual care and nurture of children by bringing them to the Lord’s House, it falls to the rest of us to make sure that we welcome these children into our midst.  We must repent of speaking an acting as if the worship of the church is somehow not for children.  It most definitely is, for through baptism they are as much a member of the body of Christ as any 30, 40, or 50 year old.  As wonderful and helpful as it is to have Sunday School, Youth Group for the teens, and various Bible Classes for the adults, we don’t have separate services for kids and teens and single adults and married adults and retired people.  And it’s not just because the pastors don’t want to write that many sermons.  It’s because the Divine Service, the worship of the church, is a place where all the members of the body of Christ, regardless of age, are united together around the preaching of the Gospel and the giving out of Christ’s Sacrament.

             True, kids might not be able to get as much out of the sermon as an adult, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t getting anything out of worship.  They are being shaped by worship.  They are in the presence of our Lord’s Word, which will not return to him empty, but which accomplishes the purpose for which it was sent.  To use the first analogy, by being here kids are in the fire with the rest of us.  Sure, they may get antsy at some point in the service.  They’re kids.  But when they can participate, they do so with great fervor.  One of my favorite sounds in the whole world is a chorus of little voices proudly reciting the Lord’s Prayer because that’s the part that they know.  Children are more than capable of singing refrains and repeated items in the service, as well as knowing that when the pastor says, “Lord in your mercy,” they say, “hear our prayer.”  And while it may be hard for the little ones to sit perfectly still through the service, they are nevertheless being taught the importance of coming to God’s house, of setting aside time in the week to hear our Lord’s Word and to meet with other Christians. 

 I’m always saddened to hear of parents who don’t bring their children to worship because they feel that the kids are too young or they can’t sit still or they don’t understand what’s going on any way.  I’m sad to hear parents say that they don’t want to come to church with kids because they spend all their time parenting and don’t get anything out of the service themselves.  To that I would say you are still getting the Body and Blood of Christ.  You are still praying and singing God’s Word with other Christians.  You are still in the fire.  But as sad as such cases make me, it is even sadder to hear of parents who don’t bring their children to the services of our Lord’s house because they don’t feel welcome.  May it never be said of us that we are a congregation that makes parents feel uncomfortable for having their children in church, for those children are God’s children, and they are as much a part of the body of Christ as any adult.  Rather, I pray that when people think of St. John they think of a place where all members of families are welcome, regardless of their age.

 We may not have the power to create faith in the hearts of children, but we can certainly be guilty of spiritual neglect.  Yes, parents have the responsibility to raise their children in the way of the Lord.  But that calling belongs to every other member of the body of Christ as well.  Our Lord Jesus came into this world not a full grown man, but a child, and in so doing he sanctified our own childhood.  “Let the little children come to me,” he said, “for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”  Children are members of the body of Christ.  His death on the cross was for their salvation as well as for the souls of adults.  His Word is for their ears as much as for the ears of adults. 

 We may not have the unique calling that Mary and Joseph had with the boy Jesus, but our calling is significant nonetheless.  May we as the Body of Christ embrace our responsibility to its youngest members, for their souls have been entrusted to our care.  May the parents and guardians among us take the spiritual health of our children as seriously as their physical health, working as hard to bring them to the Lord’s house as to sports practices and piano lessons, for their souls have been entrusted to our care.  May all the members of the Body of Christ in this place joyfully embrace all its members, even its littlest ones, even when they are a little loud and squirrely in the pews, for their souls have been entrusted to our care.  And may we be united in the Word of God as the body of Christ in this place, encouraging one another in the Lord, for there is but one body, and we are members of one another.