A Simple Gift – Sermon for July 27/28

A Simple Gift

Romans 6:1-11

6th Sunday After Trinity

July 27th/28th, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

baptism   Water is one of those things in our lives that we often take for granted because it’s around us all the time, and yet according to the scientists, water is actually a pretty amazing substance.  Take, for example, the three different states that water can be in.  We remember from grade school science that water can be liquid, which we see all around us, especially in the Great Lakes State; water can be a gas, which we see every time we take a hot shower on a cold morning and the bathroom fills up with steam; or water can be a solid, which, again, is a common sight in Michigan where people sometimes spend the colder months ice fishing out on one of our beautiful lakes.

But did you know that something amazing happens when water turns to ice?  Almost every other liquid known to man will sink if transformed into its solid state.  But not water.  Water acts the opposite.  When water is turned into its solid state of ice, it actually becomes less dense, causing the ice to float upon the water rather than sink to the bottom.  I’m sure all the fish and plants that live in these beautiful lakes are happy that the ice doesn’t sink.  If it did, they would all be crushed.  When winter rolled around, all the ice would begin sinking to the bottom of the lake, trapping all the plants that grow there, eliminating the source of food for some fish, and the source of protection for others.  Yes, the fact that ice floats on top of water is, apparently necessary for marine life to exist.

But from what I can tell, that might actually be the single most defining entry_contest_thumbnailcharacteristic about water.  It seems like at every turn, water is sustaining life.  It is one of the only substances on earth that is denser in its liquid form than in its solid or gas form, not only causing the ice to float, but also causing the rain to fall when the water vapor condenses in the clouds.  In its liquid form, it is one of the most solvent substances on the planet, which means water can dissolve just about anything.  Not only can water dissolve powder and sugar to make hot chocolate or kool-aid, it also dissolves gasses and minerals that support life.  It then transports those minerals and gasses to the various trees and plants that need them.  Quite literally, life would not be possible without water.

And yet we see it all around us.  We float on it in our boats or rafts.  Maybe we tear through it in our jet skis.  We let our kids splash in the pool.  We take an extra few minutes in the shower.  We wash our dishes and mop the floor with it.  We drink it to stay hydrated.  Life would not be possible without water, and yet when we look at it, it is a rather unimpressive substance.  When we spill it we say, “It’s only water.”  It’s modest looking, while remaining one of the fundamental elements of existence.  But our assessment of the appearance of this marvelous creation does not ultimately change what it does.  Whether or not we gasp in awe each time we turn on the drinking fountain, water will continue to sustain our life on this planet for as long as we are here.

And so it is fitting that water be the substance that our Lord instituted for use in his blessed gift of baptism.  Just as life on this planet would not be possible without water, so also our spiritual life in the Lord is given and sustained by the water of baptism.  There are countless connections to be made regarding the use of water in baptism.  The use of water in baptism is a reminder of the reality that in baptism all of our sin is washed clean, as Paul reminds us in Ephesians, writing that the church has been “cleansed by the washing of water and the word,”[1] an allusion to baptism.  The use of water in baptism is a reminder that in baptism our sinful flesh is drowned in water as was Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea.[2]  The use of water in baptism reminds us that it is through water that we enter our promised land just as the children of Israel entered the promised land by crossing the water of the Jordan River.[3]

Pouring water into glass             But it is the simplicity of water that I find most striking, the fact that we take water for granted that.  It is the fact that we use water every day, rely on it for our very existence, and yet almost never give it any thought unless we have to clean up a spill or our hot water heater breaks.  I fear that the same can be said of our baptism.  I fear that we too often fall into the temptation to minimize the importance of that water, and to attempt to rely on something else for comfort and peace in times of trouble.

Perhaps the temptation is to think the water too simple and instead rely on somehow measuring the holiness of our life.  We attempt to measure how much better we are today than we were a few years ago.  We attempt to measure how much better we are today than we were before we became serious about our faith.  But if we are looking for comfort in measuring our own progress in living the Christian life, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.  One of two things will happen.  One, we might convince ourselves that we are making good progress in living as we ought, and in so doing convince ourselves that we don’t need forgiveness as much as we thought.  We measure ourselves to people around us, not by evaluating ourselves according to our Lord’s holy Law.  But if that’s how we’re measuring ourselves, if that’s where we’re looking for our confidence, then we are only fooling ourselves.  As Paul makes clear in Romans, there is no one who is righteous, none does good, not even one.[4]  If we look for spiritual confidence by measuring the so called progress of our sinful life, we are blinding ourselves to reality and turning ourselves.

But there is a second possible result that might come from measuring the holiness of our own lives.  Perhaps our estimation of our own abilities isn’t so high as to convince ourselves that we have made any meaningful progress.  Perhaps we look at our actions and feel the sinful pride connected to them.  Perhaps we know the secret lust, the secretsecret greed, the hatred or contempt that festers in our own heart but doesn’t make its way into action.  When this happens, we can be tempted to despair, to feel like our sin is too great for forgiveness, leading us into a greater tailspin, spiraling farther and farther downward away from our salvation.  No, attempting to measure the holiness of our lives to find spiritual comfort and confidence is a recipe for disaster.

So maybe because we are unimpressed with a splash of water on a baby’s forehead we instead try to measure the strength of our faith here and now.  Maybe we look for spiritual comfort and confidence there.  But that is a path whose footing is just as uncertain.  Confidence in faith is unsteady because faith itself is only as strong at the thing it believes in.  I know I’ve used this analogy before, but I find it so helpful that I can’t help but use it again.  Faith is like a hand that reaches out and takes hold of something.  This past6297158-Summer_Ride_up_the_Ski_Lift_Red_River week my family and I spent time at a ski resort in Pennsylvania.  My family as a whole is not particularly fond of heights, so there were a lot of white knuckles gripping the safety bar as we rode the chair lift to the top of the mountain.  But our grip on the safety bar would be useless if the wire holding the chair failed.  If the wire snapped, the bar that we were holding would crash down while we were still clinging to it.  What mattered was not the strength of our grip, what mattered was the strength of the chair lift.

That is how true faith works.  Faith is like a hand that reaches out to take hold of something, but our faith is only as strong as that thing to which it is clinging.  As we have already seen, faith in our own progress is ultimately uncertain.  So is faith in faith itself.  Confidence in my ability to believe or in the strength of my belief is not the same thing as faith in Christ and his gift of forgiveness.  And yet, perhaps because faith is something that we can’t see or touch or taste or hear or smell, the temptation is to place a higher value on faith than on its object.  Maybe it’s because we think that faith must be of more spiritual value because it seems more spiritual by nature, as opposed to something like baptism, which is physical in nature, connected to a physical earthly element, and one as common as water at that.

But just as our being unimpressed with water doesn’t stop it from being water, being unimpressed by our baptism doesn’t stop it from being the life giving waters of salvation.  It is, often times, misunderstandings such as these that lead people away from infant baptism.  They believe that water is too common a thing to do such great things.  Instead of finding confidence and comfort in the gift of baptism, they will look to the progress they are making or to the strength of their faith.  They tell us that babies cannot believe, that babies cannot make a decision for Jesus, and therefore should not be baptized.

But remember the time when people were bringing their children to Jesus so that they might be blessed by him.[5]  The disciples stopped the parents from bringing the children to Jesus, and as Mark tells us, when Jesus saw it he was indignant, upset at their actions.  “Let the children come to me” he said, “do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.  Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  In Luke’s parallel account, he emphasizes that people were bringing babies to Jesus, and Jesus said that for anyone to receive the kingdom of God, they must receive it as a baby.

As a father of 3, I can assure you that babies don’t do much for themselves.  Babies rely on their parents for everything – food, clothing, warmth, clean diapers.  This issleeping-baby how we receive the gift of salvation.  It sounds too easy.  It sounds unimpressive.  But our undervaluing it doesn’t change what it really is.  The nature of baptism emphasizes the reality that salvation is a gift of grace, a gift that, while it may seem unimpressive, in fact stays with us for our entire life.  As adults, we do not say “I was baptized” any more than a married person says “I was married.”  Just as what happens at a wedding ceremony stays with a person so that they say, “I am married,” our baptism stays with us so that we say, “I am baptized.”  And the reality given by God’s Word through this seemingly simple water stays with us and brings us safely to our home in paradise.

And so we find great confidence in Paul’s words about baptism: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”[6]  Death to sin.  New life in Christ right now.  Resurrection into paradise on the last day.  Yours through the water of baptism.  It sounds so simple – because it is.  It is a free gift of God accomplished through the work of Jesus.  While it may not have been simple for him, it is simple for us.  And so it’s given to us in the simple gift of water, water that truly does sustain life at every turn, even our life in Christ.

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[1] Ephesians  5:26

[2] Exodus 14

[3] Joshua 3

[4] Romans 3:10

[5] Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17

[6] Romans 6:1-5

Pound Your Chest

 

kill_your_gorilla

Do you ever pound your chest?  Gorillas pound their chest in an effort to show the other animals in the area how strong or intimidating they are.  It’s an action of aggression and self-promotion.  Athletes do the same.  After an important play or a significant win, grown men will often ape the apes by pounding their own chests in a primitive display of emotion.  In our culture, chest pounding conveys confident, aggressive behavior.  But it was not always so.

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells us of two men.  One of the men was proud, arrogant, and teeming with self-confidence.  He approached God boldly, considering himself secure in his righteousness.  He “pounded his chest” before God, thanking God that he was not like the other sinners in the world.  He trumpeted himself and his own supposed phariseeaccomplishments before God, drawing the card of his righteousness from a stacked deck by comparing himself with the worst people he can think of, then smugly pointing out that he is not like those people.  The other man approached God in humility.  He too came pounding his chest, but his was not a display of machismo. It was a display of repentance and humility.  The only words he could muster were, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  Jesus concluded the story with the words, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” [Luke 18:14].

There are obvious cultural differences when it comes to the way people show remorse.  We no longer tear our clothing or wear sackcloth in repentance; people pound their chests for different reasons these days.  But that’s the whole point.  It’s not simply that the physical action of raising my fist and striking my chest now carries a different significance.  Our problem is not so much that we live in a culture that has taken an action that used to indicate repentance and turned it into something that indicates pride or aggression.  Our problem is that we have taken sin itself and made it something to be proud of.  Like the people in the pages of Scripture, we too live in a world that beats its chest when confronted with its sin.  The difference is that now it does so in arrogance instead of repentance.  Now sexual sin is no longer called sin, it’s celebrated as diversity.  Financial sin is no longer called greed, it is applauded as initiative and ambition.  The sin of taking life is no longer termed murder, it is categorized as choice.  We live in a world that pounds its chest before God, defiantly daring him to do something drastic to demonstrate his dominion, for the world doubts that he is even there at all.

What are we to do in the midst of such chest pounding?  We pound our chests too, but we do so in humility and repentance, joining our voice to the voice of the tax collector and crying out: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  The world that exalts itself will be humbled when Jesus is revealed on the last day.  The children of God who humble themselves inprayer-at-cross1 confession will be exalted when Jesus, the one who truly humbled himself even to the point of death on the cross, is exalted for the entire world to see.  Then he will take his brothers and sisters in baptism into his Father’s house, to the rooms he prepared for them.

So let the world have its chest pounding, and we’ll keep ours.  While the world defiantly attempts to redefine reality according to its own passions, we will cling to the truth of Holy Scripture.  We will continue in the Word, for only then will we be truly free.  For in that word we are given Jesus Christ, the one who humbled himself in order that we might be exalted in him.

 

God Used It For Good – Genesis 50 (Sermon for July 13/14)

God Used It For Good

Genesis 50:15-21

4th Sunday After Trinity

July 13th/14th, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

             Each of us has a scar.  We all have bruises.  For each of us has undergone some form of suffering.  We have all faced adversity at one point or another.  Some have scardefinitely endured more pain than others, but each of us has shouldered a burden at some point or another.  Maybe cancer or some other disease attacked you or your family.  I know it has mine.  Maybe a car accident or some other sudden tragedy shattered your world as you knew it into so many pieces that it will never be put back together the way it once was.  I know it has mine.  Maybe it was a job loss that led to a home loss that led to an overwhelming sense of helplessness as you wondered where the money to pay the next bill was going to come from.  We have all experienced hardship, for in this fallen creation there is nowhere to hide from the effects of sin.  It is going to get to each of us.  It certainly got to Joseph.

Joseph experienced an avalanche of hardship throughout his life.  Like going to a water park with your kids and watching as the big drum of water fills up, waiting for it to turn over and drench anyone who happens to be standing under it, the first part of Joseph’s life reads like a story of waiting for the vat to be dumped again.  It was only a matter of when, not if, the next adversity would arrive.  In fact, his life story is so compelling that not only is it a staple in almost every single Sunday School Curriculum produced, it even inspired its own Broadway Musical.  Anyone who’s heard the story of Joseph will not soon forget it.  His brothers plotted to kill him, but instead of carrying out the murder they opted for the more financially advantageous opportunity and sold him into slavery.  The boy Joseph spent time as a slave before eventually rising to a position of authority in his master’s house, but it was only a matter of time before the bucket dumped out again.  Joseph held his position until false accusations led him to captivity once again, this time in an Egyptian prison.  While in prison he was betrayed by a man he helped, and ended up spending extra years in chains.  It was only after he interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream and saved Egypt from famine that Pharaoh exalted Joseph to second in command in the entire kingdom.  It was in that position of authority that Joseph was reunited with his family.  When his father died, his brothers feared retribution for the evil they had done to him.  And who could blame them, for their jealousy led them to knock over the first domino that set off a chain of hardship that characterized their brother’s life.  But Joseph’s answer to them was simple: “Am I in the place of God?  You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”[1]

Joseph’s life had indeed been filled with adversity and suffering, but in the end he recognized that behind it all God was working things out for the best.  That, in its simplest form, is the Christian’s answer to the problem of pain and CSLewissuffering in the world – a confession that behind it all God is working things out for the best.  The unbelieving world finds that answer totally unsatisfying, often accusing Christians of burying their head in the sand.  They say it’s too easy, and that we Christians are simply fooling ourselves.  The question of how a God who is supposed to be all-powerful and all-loving can coexist with pain and suffering is such a common question from unbelievers that it gets its own name in theological circles: theodicy.  Christians throughout time have pieced together all manner of justifications and explanations for the presence of pain in this world.  Some of them are, in my opinion, quite compelling and make for very good reading.  But that’s not the point.  Philosophical or theological rebuttals to such attacks are never the full story.  They may “justify God,” but they fall short.  For Christians, the truest answer to the presence of suffering and pain in the world is seen in Joseph.  It is trust that no matter what my life looks like from my perspective, God does have my ultimate good in mind, and that his understanding of good is better than mine, that his ultimate goal is going to be better for me than the one I might have for myself.  The Scriptures never promise that our lives will be easy or painless, only that in all things, be they easy or hard, our Lord works for our good.[2]  Faith’s response in the midst of struggle is to cling to this hope.

Through the pain and suffering endured by Joseph, our Lord saved a multitude of people who would have otherwise starved in the famine.  The suffering Joseph endured ended up being for the benefit of others.  Joseph recognized that because of his life, one man’s suffering saved the lives of many. [3]  Sound familiar? One man suffers so that many may live.  We have in the story of Joseph a beautiful foreshadowing of the life and suffering of Jesus.  Joseph is betrayed by his brothers who intend to do him harm.  Jesus is betrayed by Judas, one of his closest followers, who intends to do him harm.  Satan manipulates the actions of men so that they condemn our Lord, sending him to his death.  But not without suffering first.  Not without pain.  Satan wants to hurt our Lord.  Satan wants to make Jesus suffer, and so Jesus does.  Beaten.  Whipped.  Humiliated.  Mocked.  Nailed to a cross.

But as with Joseph, what they intended for evil our Lord used for good.  What they did with the intent to harm Jesus, God intended for the good of accomplishing what has now been done: the saving of many lives.  Every drop of blood that Jesus shed in his suffering was shed for you.  Every bead of sweat the dripped off the brow of our Savior in his agony was for the person sitting next to you.  Jesus certainly suffered, but the suffering that he endured was for each and every person who has ever existed, or who will ever exist.  The reality that even Jesus suffered gives us a different perspective on our hopesuffering.  As our Church President wrote in a reflection on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, in times sufferings we still lament, but because of Jesus we lament with hope.  We cry out, but we cry out with hope.[4]

We have hope.  Suffering in this world is nothing new.  It has been around since sin entered creation and wreaked havoc with a once perfect existence.  Suffering was certainly not God’s design for his creation, but now that this world is fallen, suffering is so much a part of it that our Lord himself did not escape it when he became man.  Yet in the midst of it, we have hope, for our Lord himself suffered.  The almighty endured pain.  Take that in for a moment – as Jesus was sustaining the life of men who have no existence apart from him (for in him all things live and move and have their being[5]), those same men are using their existence to press thorns into our Lord’s scalp, to ridicule him and smear his reputation, to turn his family and friends against him.  Yes, our Lord suffered everything that we suffer, and while the reality of our Lord’s suffering does not eliminate suffering from our lives, it certainly gives us a different perspective on it.

Remember that at the end of all his suffering, Joseph was blessed to see how everything turned out.  He was able to say with confidence that God worked it out for good because he was living in the good.  At the end of Jesus’ suffering, God and man had been reconciled.  The Temple curtain was torn in two.[6]  Sin had been forgiven.  Salvation had been won.  At the end of Jesus’ suffering, God had worked all things for the good of all people.  So also with us and our suffering.  We may not know what God has in store for us on this side of the grave, but we trust that whatever it may be, it will be for our good.  That is why the Apostle Paul can write, “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.”[7]  It is the comfort of Jesus’ suffering that lead the Apostle Peter to write to other suffering Christians, telling them, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share in Christ’s suffering, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”[8]

There is tremendous comfort in knowing that our Lord understands whatever suffering we endure.  There is tremendous comfort in knowing that our sufferings are swallowed up by the suffering of Jesus.  We know what resulted from his suffering.  And so we can rest in the confidence that eternal life in paradise will is waiting at the end of ours.

“Eternal life is all well and good,” you might say, “but what about now?  What does this suffering do for my life today, for my life tomorrow?”  When you struggle with such thoughts, it is helpful to remember some words the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in2-Corinthians-1-4-web-nlt Corinth, where he said that God is “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.  If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.  Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.”[9]

Our Lord comforts us in our afflictions with the promise of eternal life.  Our Lord comforts us in our affliction by giving us friends and family whose shoulders we cry on, whose ears listen to our complaints, and whose arms embrace us when we feel alone.  Our Lord comforts us in our affliction with the promise that even though we don’t understand how, he will turn even this moment of pain and heartache into something good.  He comforts us so that we in turn will be able to comfort others when they face affliction.  Now, knowing and believing that doesn’t make suffering hurt any less.  It doesn’t make the pain any less real.  It doesn’t remove hardship from our lives entirely.  But the promise of deliverance does give us the hope to persevere.  The promise of deliverance does give us the strength to remain faithful even during those difficult times.  The gift of faith clings to this promise so that one day, as we are being ushered into our eternal paradise, we too can look at Satan and all his minions and say with Joseph, “You intended to harm me, but God used it for good to accomplish what is now being done: the salvation of my soul.”

May God grant it to us for Jesus sake. Amen.

[1] Genesis 50:21

[2] Romans 8:28

[3] Genesis 50:20

[4] “A Hopeful Lamentation: President Harrison’s statement on the 10th anniversary of 9/11” http://www.lcms.org/page.aspx?pid=1216

[5] Acts 17:28

[6] Matthew 27:51

[7] Philippians 4:11-13

[8] 1 Peter 4:12-13

[9] 2 Cor. 1:3-7

Funeral Sermon for Edna Bock

Edna May Bock

Funeral Sermon

Hebrews 2:14-15

July 9, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 

It was built beginning in 1961.  It represented Berlin Wall 8 separation.  It stood as an icon of fear.  Although its existence was relatively short-lived in the span of global history, its impact is felt even to this day.  In August of 1961 East Germany erected a barrier to separate themselves from West Germany.  For nearly 30 years the Berlin Wall cast a shadow of fear and uncertainty across a city, a country, a continent.  There were guard towers strategically placed so that snipers could shoot anyone trying to cross over, under, or around the wall.  While many people did find various ways to the other side, others were killed in the process so that the wall began to represent death.  It evoked in people a powerful fear of losing loved ones, be it to the sniper’s bullet in a failed crossing attempt or to the Western side of the wall if successful.  For the residents of Berlin from 1961 until 1989, the wall was always there, casting a shadow over their lives.  A city was torn in two by its presence.  Families were torn in two by its presence.  It was a wall in the truest sense of the word: a barrier of separation.

While we live in the 21st Century United States and are not in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, we do live in the shadow of another great barrier, another great enemy, another giant chasm that separates us from the ones we love: we live in the shadow of death.  Even though the July sun is shining outside, in here the shadow is unmistakable, for we are here today because your mother, your grandmother, our friend, is now on the other side of the wall.  She spent 96 years with us on this side, making many wonderful memories with those whom she held dear, and those who loved her just as much, like her sisters and sisters-in-law, with whom she was extremely close.  She found great joy in golf, even experiencing something most golfers only dream of: hitting that elusive hole-in-one.  She loved to travel, both in the US and abroad.  But regardless of how many memories she made on this side of the wall, the glaring reality is that we are here today because she has gone to the other side.  We are here today because a wall of separation has barricaded us from one whom we love.

Although, if you think about it, the wall of death that separates us from Edna has more in common with the Berlin Wall than we might see at first glance.  You see, as time moved on through the 1970s and 80s, the citizens of East Germany grew more and more dissatisfied with their government and way of life.  Political unrest grew and grew to the point where most of the citizens of East Germany didn’t want to be there anymore.  They were being kept prisoner by the wall; the wall represented their great enemy.  On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan gave a speech as part of festivities celebrating the 750th Anniversary of the city of Berlin, a speech in which he famously said, “ Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”  And a short 2 years later, on November 9, 1989, the government of East

2009116205539661734_20Germany announced that it would no longer prohibit its citizens from crossing the wall, an announcement that was met by a flood of Germans from both sides of the barrier climbing up and dancing on the wall.  A massive celebration ensued, and for weeks residents of Berlin and souvenir hunters from all over the world took turns chipping away pieces of the wall, each one doing a small part to deconstruct the last enemy standing in the way of a unified Germany.  By October 3, 1990, East and West Germany were reunited as one nation once again.

It’s my understanding that many of you here today have a piece of that wall.  It’s my understanding that during one of their many excursions, Edna and her husband Paul went to Germany and brought back pieces of the Berlin Wall for their grandkids.  You well know that what they brought back was more than just pieces of concrete, what they brought back was a symbol of freedom.  It was a symbol of the end of separation.  It was a symbol of the beginning of relationships restored as people from both sides of the wall and governments from both sides of the wall began to live in harmony once more.  When the wall came down, the separation ended.

131218133657-01-berlin-wall-christmas-restricted-story-top

And that, dear friends, is also why we are here today.  We are not here simply because death has separated us from Edna like the Berlin Wall separated East Germany from West; we are here because like the Berlin Wall, the wall of death has been torn down.  That’s the message from the writer of Hebrews, who says that Jesus took upon himself human flesh in order that he might destroy death.[1]  Think of the story of Lazarus that we heard a few moments ago.  Jesus stood outside the tomb of the dead man and said, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”[2]  He then called Lazarus out of the tomb, he removed the stone barrier that was blocking the entrance to the grave just like the stone barrier of Berlin was removed.  But more than overcoming mere stone, Jesus overcame the true barrier that separated Lazarus from his loved ones – he overcame death.  He called Lazarus back to life.

He has promised to do the same for Edna.  He has promised to do the same for all his baptized children who die in the faith.  As the Apostle Paul so memorably wrote in Romans 6: All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.  And if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united to him in his resurrection.[3]  Jesus has destroyed the barrier of death.  He has knocked down the wall, first by raising others like Lazarus to life, then by raising himself, demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that he does in fact have the power over death.  And he has promised to use that power over death to restore life to his baptized.

He’s been giving that life to Edna for as long as she has been coming to our Lord’s house to hear the Gospel of her forgiveness proclaimed to her thirsty ears.  He’s been giving that life to Edna for as long as she has been coming to our Lord’s altar to be fed by his body Easter_Christ_is_risenand blood, given and shed for her.  And when Edna could no longer make it to our Lord’s house, our Lord sent his gifts to her in that little Bistro area of Sunrise where Edna continued to hear our Lord’s Word of forgiveness and participate in his Holy Supper.  Our Lord did not abandon Edna.  He kept giving her new life so that just like the residents of East Germany began to desire life on the other side of their wall, so also Edna’s new creation looked with anticipation toward what was waiting for her in the life to come.  It’s what’s waiting for us on the other side of the wall.  It’s life in paradise with our creator.  It’s life in a new creation with our Redeemer.  It’s life free from the fear that death casts like a shadow over our existence today, free from the tyranny of Satan, free from the separation we experience as we sit here stuck on this side of the wall.

But we will not be stuck on this side of the wall forever.  Yes, for now we continue to live in a time of separation from those we love who have gone before us.  For now we live in a time of grief.  But we do not grieve as those who have no hope; we have hope.  We have the same hope that Job had.  We know that our Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.  He will once again break through the wall of separation so that we will see him.  Yes, even after our skin has been destroyed, yet in our flesh we shall see God.  We shall see him ourselves, with our own eyes.  We shall see him, not another.[4]  You shall see him for yourself.  Edna will see him for herself, for Edna is a baptized child of God.

keep-calm-because-jesus-lives-3 Find your peace in that promise.  Find your comfort in that reality.  Death is swallowed up in victory.  The sting of death is sin, but your sin has been forgiven by the blood of Jesus.  Edna’s sin was forgiven by the blood of Jesus.  The power of sin is the law; but Jesus has fulfilled the law in your place.  He fulfilled the law in Edna’s place.  O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?  They are gone.  The wall has come down.  Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, for that is Edna’s resurrection.  May it one day be ours too.

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[1] Hebrews 2:14

[2] John 11:25-26

[3] Romans 6:1-11

[4] Job 19:25-27

Parables for the Lost (Sermon for July 7, 2014)

Parables for the Lost

Luke 15:1-10

Third Sunday After Trinity

Monday, July 7, 2014 (Rev. Mark Squire Preached Sunday)

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 My family and I like to go to Greenfield Village every now and then, a place where history comes alive.  We like to ride the old cars and the train, walk across the covered bridge, and take in the sights, sounds, and smells of a live action outdoor museum.  I find it easy to lose myself in the history, especially in some of the older homes and cottages on the property.  In fact, one of the highlights of the Village for many visitors is the Wright family home, the home where Orville and Wilbur Wright were living when they invented the airplane.  I heard an interesting story once about the Wright Brothers.  Apparently, when Orville and Wilbur Wright finally succeeded in keeping their homemade airplane in the air for fifty-nine seconds on December 17, 1903, they rushed a telegram to their sister in Dayton, Ohio, telling her of this great accomplishment. The telegram read, “First sustained flight today fifty-nine seconds. Hope to be home by Christmas.” Upon receiving the news the sister was so excited about her brothers’ accomplishment that she rushed to the newspaper office and showed the telegram to the editor. The next morning—so the story goes–the newspaper headline stated in black, bold letters, “POPULAR LOCAL BICYCLE MERCHANTS TO BE HOME FOR HOLIDAYS.”  The scoop of the century and the editor missed the point.

I suspect that at one time or another we have all missed the point, be it with our kids or coworkers, our spouse or parents.  I bet we have all had someone tell us, “You just don’t get it.”  I wonder if Jesus was thinking that exact thing when the Pharisees were grumbling about him in today’s reading.  “This man receives sinners and eats with them,” they complained.  Well, duh, we might say.  Of course he is sitting with sinners.  After all, he’s Jesus; sinners are the ones he came to save; it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But the Pharisees don’t see that.  They don’t get that, so they grumble and complain.

pharisees The self-righteous Pharisees were looking for a different kind of Jesus.  They didn’t want a Jesus who dined with sinners, they wanted a Jesus who dined with kings.  They wanted a Messiah who would vindicate the Jewish way of life, or at least the way of life that they themselves had passed off as truly godly – following extra laws and wearing your piety on your sleeve for all to see.  They wanted a Messiah who would tear through the shackles of Roman oppression and exalt the Jewish people for all to see, so that the world would know that the Jewish people had been right all along, and anyone who opposed them would get was coming to them.  This was the Messiah that the Pharisees were looking for.  They just didn’t get it.

So Jesus shows them just how far off center they truly are.  Jesus explains exactly what kind of Messiah he truly is, using stories to illustrate what the Pharisees don’t understand.  He is not a Messiah who came to exalt the Nation of Israel.  He is not a Messiah who came to validate all the man-made laws and regulations imposed by the self-righteous.  He is the Messiah who came to seek and to save the lost.  Jesus tells these parables to show what he is all about.  A man has a lost sheep, so he goes out and finds it.  A woman has a lost coin, so she cleans her house top to bottom in order to find it.  Finding.  Finding the lost is what Jesus is all about, and the Pharisees just didn’t get it.

But before we dislocate our shoulders patting ourselves on the back, we ought to take a moment to acknowledge that we don’t get it either.  Just think of what we call these parables.  The Parable of the Lost Coin.  The Parable of the Lost Sheep.  We talk about these parables as if the coin or the sheep was the point of emphasis.  But what does either one actually do, other than get itself into a bad spot where it needs to be rescued?  The coin just lays there while the woman lights the lamp, sweeps, cleans the house from top to bottom in a desperate attempt to find it.  The sheep just wanders off; it’s the shepherd who seeks it out, who braves the elements, who fights off the wild beasts and carries the sheep home.  The sheep doesn’t even walk home; the shepherd carries it.  These parables would probably be better named the Parable of the Searching Woman or the Parable of the Relentless Shepherd, for these parables aren’t really about us – they are about Jesus.  In the grand scheme of things it really makes no difference what these parables are named, far more important is what they say.  But we don’t seem to get that either.

These parables have a great deal to teach us about what Jesus, about who he is, about what he values, and about what he came to earth to do.  Jesus, by his own admission, came into the world not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a parable of the lost drachma Domenico Feti 1618-22ransom for many.  He came to seek and save the lost.  Jesus came into the world to find the lost, which is exactly what the main characters in these parables do.  The Pharisees had an inaccurate picture of what the Messiah came to do.  They were grumbling that he was eating with sinners, but the sinners are the very reason that Jesus came to earth.  The sinners were lost like a coin or a sheep, so Jesus kicked into gear and went to find them, to find us.  That is what Jesus is all about, and that is what the Pharisees didn’t understand.

But so often we don’t understand either, because while these parables primarily show us what Jesus is all about, they also teach us what repentance is.  After the coin and sheep are found, each parable ends with the sentence, “there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.”  Quite simply put, these parables show us bluntly that repentance means being found by Jesus.  But this isn’t how we tend to talk about repentance.  We talk about repentance as if it is something we do.  Our sinful flesh is always looking to take credit for anything and everything it can.  We want to make faith something we do, proudly saying, “I believe in you Jesus, aren’t you happy with me?”  We want to make our good works worth more in God’s eyes, boasting, “I helped so many people and prayed and read the bible, doesn’t that make you happy God?”  But more than anything, we want to make repentance our own work.  “Well,” we tell ourselves, “maybe I can’t save myself or forgive my own sins, but I am the one who is asking for forgiveness.  I am the one who recognized my sinful condition and my need for a savior.  I may not be able to make a decision for Jesus, but I can at least recognize that a decision needs to be made.”

And so we fool ourselves.  But the parables could not be any clearer.  Repentance is not my own work any more than faith is.  It is all Jesus.  My contrition, the fact that I feel sorry for my sins, is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  If it wasn’t for God’s Word I wouldn’t even know what sin is, much less that I am a sinner in need of salvation.  It is through God’s Word that the Holy Spirit gives me the knowledge of my sin and works in me a desire to be rescued.  This is all his doing, not mine.  And this is what he is doing, over and over again.976974  Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, including me – including you.  He still comes to us today.  He comes through the preaching of his word, coming to us with words of Law to show us our sin, to show us how lost and lifeless we are apart from him.  And he comes to us with the words of his Gospel, showing us all that he has done in our place, all that he has suffered in our place, showing us that he has come to earth to find us and claim us as his own.  He comes to us in the body and blood of this altar to strengthen us in our faith toward him and in our love for each other.

And what great joy this brings to us!  Now that we have been found by Jesus, now that we have the gift of his Spirit alive in us, we are being reshaped back into his image, brought back into the fold, put back into the coin purse with the other coins so that we may live life as it was intended to be – life in relationship to others.  We are no longer lost and alone, we are members of the body of Christ.  In this body we find strength in numbers.  We gather together to worship and encourage one another.  We mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice.  We build up others when they have been brought low, just as others build us up when we have been brought low.  The Pharisees were so concerned with their own behavior and so focused on their own righteousness that they were blind to the gift of the community of believers.  But there was great rejoicing in heaven when the coin and sheep were found, not simply because they were no longer lost, but also because they had been reunited with their other coins and sheep.  What a joy for us to be part of such a community on earth today.  What a blessing for us to be gathered together today as those who have been found by Jesus, those who have been brought home by him through his Word and Sacrament.  What a joy for us to continue to live in communion with him and with each other.

What was inconceivable to the Pharisees is indeed glad tidings of great joy for us.  We were lost in our sin, dead in our sin, alone in our sin, laying there like a lifeless coin, surrounded by the wolves of Satan like a sheep who has wandered from the fold.  But our Lord came and found us.  He paid the price for us with his own precious blood shed on Calvary’s cross, and now we belong to him.  He has brought us into the community of the baptized, joined us with his body of believers on earth.  And there is joy in heaven.  There is joy in heaven because we have been brought home.  There is joy in heaven because of the gift of repentance that Jesus has given us.  So let us rejoice here on earth as well, rejoice not in what we have done, but rejoice at all that has been done for us.  We have been found.  We have been claimed.  We have been brought home to our Lord.  In His Name.  Amen.

fatherhood

Peter and Paul, Apostles

Peter and Paul

Matthew 16

The Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles

June 29th/30th, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 As many of you already know, my wife and I spent this past week in New York City to celebrate our 10th anniversary.  We saw three Broadway plays, took the subway to Battery Park to look out across the Hudson River at the 2014-06-24 19.19.08Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, walked to Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorial, and even wandered the woods in Central Park.  It was a trip a few years in the making, so it was nice that it lived up to the expectation in my mind.  The weather cooperated, the shows were everything one hopes Broadway would produce, and the memories made will not soon be forgotten.

Of course, in order for us to stay where we did in midtown we had to set aside 90 minutes on Wednesday afternoon to sit down with a representative of a worldwide corporation specializing in vacation solutions.  Translation: we had to sit through a sales pitch for a time share.  What sticks with me most from the sales pitch is something small.  The salesman was asking his introductory questions, “Where are you from?”, “What brings you to New York?”, “How has your stay been so far?”  What struck me was that when he asked, “What do you do?” and I told him I was a Lutheran pastor, he had no idea what a Lutheran is.  He spelled it Litheran, with an “lith” instead of a “luth.”  Later in the conversation, he even asked me point blank.  “What is a Lutheran compared to all the other churches I see when I walk around the city with my wife?”  He wanted to know if we were more like the Catholic churches or more like the Baptist churches.

My answer probably sounded to him like I was dodging the question, but it was the best I could do.  What I told him is: “It depends on who you ask.  If you asked the majority of American Protestants, they think Lutherans are basically Catholic (because we believe that the sacraments aren’t simply symbolic but actually do something, we tend to have artwork and stained glass that many Baptist churches consider idolatry, and we tend to use a liturgy of some sort), but if you ask the Catholics, they probably think we’re more like the rest of American Protestants (because we don’t recognize the authority of the Pope and we have broken off from what is in their view the one true church).  Reality is somewhere in the middle.”  The salesman seemed satisfied with my answer and moved on to prepping us for how much his great offer would cost and how much he could save us if we acted right then, right there.peter paul

I was reminded of this conversation as I sat down to gather my thoughts for this morning.  After all, today we at St. John Lutheran Church are observing the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul.  That’s why the altar is decorated in red instead of the customary green.  We have set aside the regular readings for the second Sunday of the Trinity season to instead have special readings in commemorating two Saints.  But we’re not Roman Catholic, so why are we observing saints’ days?  The Augsburg Confession says this:

“Our Confession approves giving honor to the saints. This honor is threefold. The first is thanksgiving: we should thank God for showing examples of his mercy, revealing his will to save men, and giving teachers and other gifts to the church. . . . The second honor is the strengthening of our faith: when we see Peter forgiven after his denial, we are encouraged to believe that grace does indeed abound more than sin (Rom. 5:20). 6 The third honor is the imitation, first of their faith and then of their other virtues, which each should imitate in accordance with his calling.” [1]

First, we ought to give thanks to God for the lives and work of these two men.  These two men demonstrate different paths to the same destination as God’s children.  Peter spent many years with Jesus as his disciple, following him from the beginning of his earthly ministry.  Peter witnessed all the major events of the Gospel first hand.  He saw the transfiguration.  He saw Jesus raise the dead heal the sick.  He saw the crucifixion.  He saw the resurrected Lord.  But he also denied Jesus before others when the time got tough.  There in the courtyard of the High Priest Peter adamantly insisted that he did not know the man Jesus, only to be reminded of his betrayal as the voice of the rooster announced the arrival of the dawn, which brought with it the guilt and shame of betrayal.  And yet but a few days later Jesus sat with Peter on the shores of the Sea and told him: “Feed my sheep.”  Jesus forgave Peter’s denial, and Peter finally understood what forgiveness really is.  He understood who Jesus truly is.  He had known Jesus for years and was quite familiar with the Gospel stories, but the message took root in a different way when Peter experienced it on a personal level.

So also for many Christians today.  Many of us in this room today, myself included, have spent our entire life in the church.  I was baptized as a baby in a Lutheran Church, went to Lutheran preschool and grade school, Lutheran high school, Lutheran college, and finally Lutheran seminary.  I have never had what many would call a come to Jesus moment.  I have not prayed the sinners prayer or asked Jesus into my heart.  Rather than the flood Dripping-Faucet
gates of forgiveness overwhelming me, my experience, like Peter’s, might be more appropriately considered a persistent trickle or a slow drip.  I, as many others here today, have heard the Gospel of forgiveness proclaimed to me for my entire life.  Like Peter, who experienced Jesus first hand and was familiar with the story of salvation because he had lived it as a supporting character, many of us have been acquainted with the story of salvation since we were old enough to participate in our church’s Sunday School program since we were kids.  And like Peter, who even though he knew the story yet found himself in need of our Lord’s forgiveness, those of us who have known the story of salvation since childhood still find ourselves in need of our Lord’s mercy – mercy which he gives to us with the same care and loving kindness that Peter was shown all those years ago.  Yes, some of us are Christians in the line of Peter.

But others here are more like Paul.  Paul was an enemy of the Gospel for much of his life.  Not only did Paul personally reject Jesus as Messiah, he actively hunted and persecuted Christians as if his life depended on it.  Until, that is, he was met by Jesus on the road.  He experienced a conversion unlike any other – a true come to Jesus moment.  He saw the error of his ways and became one of the greatest advocates for the Gospel that the world as ever known.

tidal-waveThrough him the Gospel came to many nations beyond Israel, ultimately to the ends of the earth.  He was not a disciple from the beginning.  In fact, there were things he had done in his life that he was probably not proud of, things that probably haunted his dreams and drenched him in shame as they flashed before his mind’s eye.  But Jesus found Paul on the road to Damascus, Jesus forgave him and used him to spread the Gospel, and the world was never the same.

So also for many Christians today.  Many people even in this room did not grow up in a Christian home.  Many were not familiar with the story of Jesus and lived their life in ignorance of the Gospel.  But something happened, something burst forth in blinding light and shattered the walls.  While some people may speak of these conversion experiences as if they are a necessary ingredient to true Christianity, as if those who have been raised in the knowledge of the Scriptures are somehow less Christian that those who have come out of a life of sin and unbelief, the reality is that in both Peter’s experience as well as in Paul’s, Jesus was the key player.  Jesus was the one who brought forgiveness to both of these men, and who brings forgiveness to each one of us here today.  They are, as our confessions state, examples of God’s mercy, examples that show us how all God’s children are washed in his mercy, whether in a flood of a conversion experience like Paul, or in the slow persistent trickle of extended time with Jesus like Peter.  In either case, our Lord is responsible.  The stories of Peter’s extended time with Jesus are not stories about Peter – they are the history of our Lord’s persistent patience and mercy with a man not so different form us.  The history of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is not merely Paul’s history – it is the history of our Lord breaking through the shackles of sin and giving a man hope where there had been none, the same hope that he offers to us today.

Left to himself, Peter comes across as not much more than an impulsive man who gets himself into and out of scrapes.  That may make a good sitcom, but it’s not the Christian life.  Left to himself, Paul comes across as a man who experienced a tremendous change of heart and set about trying to make amends to appease a guilty conscience.  Again, a decent premise for a movie, but far from reality.  For the reality is that in either case, these stories are about Jesus, about being consistently forgiven by Jesus like Peter so that even if you can’t look back to that one moment where everything changed, you can cling to the gift of forgiveness received time and time again.  They are about being made new by Jesus, so that like Paul we too can put aside the foolishness of our former lives and ambitions, be made new by the work of Christ in us, and set about living the life he has created for us.  The example of these men strengthens our faith as we experience the mercy of our Lord active in our lives and as we attempt to imitate the way that each of them relied on Jesus for their forgiveness, and as each one lived a life of service as God’s new creation.

But our confessions also encourage us to praise God for the way these men used their gifts.  That is truly appropriate, for we have all benefited from what these men did.  In today’s Gospel reading Jesus assures us that the gates of hell shall never overcome the church.  Considering the church is found wherever the Gospel is preached and believed, keep-calm-remember-matthew-16-18and the Gospel went forth into the world through the efforts of the Apostles, especially Peter and Paul, it is safe to say that without their efforts, without their faithfulness to the point of death, without their insistence that the Gospel be proclaimed to the ends of the earth, you and I would not know of our sin or our Savior.  We would not know of all that Jesus had done for us.  We would not know that the gates of hell cannot prevail against us.  And so it is good to thank God for all that these men and all the Apostles did in their calling as Apostles, and it is good use that as inspiration to live faithfully in our own vocations.

For while we may not be Apostles, we are given our own vocations to fulfill.  If you are a parent, do so faithfully, recognizing that training up children in the fear of the Lord is just as important as getting them to the doctor when they’re sick or getting them to school so they can support themselves someday.  If you are a child, live faithfully recognizing that while you did not choose your own parents, God did choose them for you, so you ought to respect them and obey then as if you were obeying God himself.  We are all of us Christians, and are called to live lives of forgiveness and service – bearing with one another in love and forgiving one another just as in Christ, God forgave us.  We may not be Apostles, but because of the work of the Apostles who wrote down and first proclaimed the message of our salvation, we can live in the confidence that the gates of hell will not overcome our Lord’s church, a confidence which frees us to be faithful in our vocations as they were faithful in theirs.  Because of the work of the first Apostles, we can rest in the assurance that even when we fail in our  vocations, we know we remain covered by the blood of Christ, and we have the Holy Spirit alive in us, inspiring us to try again.

And that is why we take time out to commemorate Peter and Paul today.  It is not to worship them, for they are not God, but neither is their humanity a reason to ignore them.  We remember them not only because of their faithful service to our Lord, but because they are shining examples of our Lord’s service to those he loves.  We remember them to thank God for all that he accomplished through them, to praise God for all the souls who have been saved through their work, including our own, and to pray that the same God would make us faithful in our callings as he made them in theirs.  Today is the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles.  May the Lord of the Church continue to prepare us for our lives of service as he prepared them for theirs.

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[1]Tappert, T. G. (2000, c1959). The book of concord : The confessions of the evangelical Lutheran church (Apology of the Augsburg Confession: 1, IX, 4-6). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.