God’s Praying People – Sermon for Feb 21/22, 2016

God’s Praying People
Matthew 15:21-28
2nd Sunday in Lent (Reminiscere)
February 21st/22nd, 2016
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

            Lent is a time of repentance. For many Christians throughout the history of the Church, that repentance has taken specific forms in the season of Lent. The most widely lent_iconknown of these is fasting, or giving something up. Christians historically have fasted during the 40 days of Lent to remember the 40 days Jesus fasted in the wilderness, or the 40 years wandering of the Israelites. As we heard from last week’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that where our treasure is, that’s where our heart will be too. Lenten fasting is one way Christians repent of how attached we grow to the things of  this world, a reminder of where we tend to think our treasures are, and where they actually are. Similar, but maybe less widely practiced today, is the practice of giving alms, or charity. Christians historically have given more money to the poor and destitute during Lent, a reminder of all that our Lord has given to us. Here at St. John we designate a special mission to support during the Lenten season. Again, this practice is not as common as it once was, and it’s not as common as fasting, however, it does have roots in the history of the Christian Church.

The third discipline of Lent is the one I want to focus on today – the discipline of prayer. You see, Lenten fasting isn’t just about not eating something or about giving something up, it’s also about adding in time for prayer and the study of God’s Word. Rather than just not eating lunch, instead you spend your lunch hour in God’s Word and in prayer. Prayer is so basic to the Christian life, and yet we so often find it difficult to pray. We so often find ourselves failing to have a regular prayer life. We so often fall victim to the temptations not to pray.

C.S. Lewis shed some light on the struggle Christians have when it comes to prayer. In his book The Screwtape Letters, Lewis gives us a glimpse into the other side of the battle we face. The book is written as a series of letters from an older, wiser demon to his young nephew demon. The older Demon is mentoring his nephew in the art of temptation. He guides the young demon into the path of greatest success, a path which results in the greatest destruction for the child of God. When it comes to prayer, the older demon encourages his young apprentice to do the following to his assigned Christian. First, he is to make sure that the Christian always struggles with the idea that prayer is absurd and couldn’t possibly work. It’s a struggle that I think every Christian deals with on some level at some point in their life.  Second, the demon is to tempt his mark to only think of prayer in a heads or tails fashion. That way, if what he’s praying for doesn’t happen, then it must be because prayer doesn’t work. And if what he’s praying for does happen, blogscrewtape2then the demon should tempt the Christian to see the cause of the answer in other means, planting the idea that “It would have happened anyway, even if I hadn’t prayed.” Or better yet, lead the Christian to believe that an answered prayer for healing ought to be attributed to the doctors and medications, that an answered prayer for daily bread should be chalked up to the hours he himself put in at the office, that an answered prayer for companionship is really the result of the friend who set you up on your blind date, or that an answer to a prayer for peace is really the result of the politician who brokered the cease fire. In that case, even a “yes answer” can help undermine the Christian’s belief in the power of prayer. All of these temptations will work together to drive people away from prayer, and nothing gives a demon a greater sense of accomplishment than tempting God’s children away from their Heavenly Father.

The reason this discussion on the temptations we face when it comes to prayer is so compelling is that prayer is truly a struggle for Christians, especially when Satan tempts us to believe that the ongoing nature of prayer is a sign of rejection. And prayer is ongoing; it has to be. Once one prayer is answered, there’s another one waiting in the wings. If a prayer hasn’t brought about the result we are praying for, we keep on praying. The truth of the matter is that as long as we are the children of God in this life, we will be in prayer, and those prayers are seldom answered immediately. That is not a sign of rejection, that is simply the reality of life this side of heaven. But as we consider our own personal struggles with prayer, the example of the Canaanite woman from today’s Gospel offers some helpful insights.

First, when the Canaanite woman cried out for mercy, the Lord seemed to ignore her. There are times when the same is true for us. There are times when we pour our soul out to God above and ask him to take away a disease, to spare a dying loved one, to give us peace in a tumultuous relationship, to take away the shame or guilt of sins committed, to deliver us from temptation to the sins that beckon us down the path to destruction. And for all our fervent pleas for mercy, there are still sick and disease ridden loved ones in families all throughout the world; there are funerals on a daily basis; there are sleepless nights and sobs of grief over the anger and fighting in our homes; there are the skeletons in our closet that whisper to us in the shadows of the night, the pounding of the telltale heart that we have foolishly tried to bury under the floor; there are the moments of shame when we have scratched that sinful itch one more time, the one we promised never to indulge again. There are times when, like the Canaanite woman, our cries for mercy seem to go unanswered.

Second, when the Canaanite woman confronted Jesus on why he was ignoring her, he told her it was because she was unworthy. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, not to little Canaanite dogs like you.” How could Jesus say something so harsh? It’s hard to fit these words and this interaction into the nice little picture of Jesus we 0e1140933_blog-jesus-calls-a-canaanite-woman-a-dogpicture on the front of a religious card. But how ready are we to admit that, of ourselves, we deserve nothing better? What right do we have to ask our Lord for anything? Are we really worthy that our Lord would listen to us? Aren’t we the ones who profane his holy name every time we side with the culture around us when it’s at odds with God’s Word? Aren’t we the ones who profane his holy name by the words that come out of our mouths, words dripping with the vinegar of self-righteousness and bitterness and blame far more often than with the sweet nectar of forgiveness. Aren’t we the ones who have blinded so much of the world to the love of our Lord by the lack of love we ourselves show in our lives? Are we worthy to ask the Lord for anything?

In a word, yes. But not of ourselves, for of ourselves we are indeed unworthy of anything but judgment and condemnation for the way we have treated our Lord and his Word. But it is not our worthiness that matters here – it is the worthiness of Christ. Worthy is the Lamb who is slain. His blood, not mine, sets us free to be people of God, and that’s exactly what we are: the people of God. That’s the third thing we learn from the Canaanite woman. When Jesus told her she was unworthy to receive anything from him, she did not tell him to go jump off a cliff. She did not say, “Only God can judge me.” After all, she was talking to God, and his judgment is blameless. No, she agreed with Jesus’ assessment. “Yes, Lord,” she said, “I am unworthy. I am a dog. And yet, even the dogs eat the scraps that fall to the floor. Just give me scraps, Lord. Just give me crumbs. Just give me something, anything at all from your table. For even though I am unworthy, I know you alone can give what I need. I am unworthy, so have mercy on me, and at least let me have the scraps.”

Such is the attitude that faith works in our hearts. Yes, we are unworthy to ask anything of God, and we deserve only judgment from him. Yet faith opens our eyes to this reality so that we can stop hiding from it. Rather, we confess the truth of our unworthiness, begging the Lord for his mercy, recognizing that he will answer our prayer not because we deserve it, but because he is merciful. And because he alone is worthy, because he alone is God, he will answer our prayer in his own way and at his own time, according to his calendar, not mine, according to his plan for my life, not mine. He knows what is best for us, even when we don’t.  We are unworthy, so we trust his answer.

And so from the Canaanite woman we learn to pray in patience and humility.  This woman was rejected by Jesus twice before he finally gave her what she desired. We too must be patient in our prayer, not a mere two times, but as long as it takes, even if that means we go the rest of our earthly lives never seeing the answer we were looking for. prayer-at-cross1We are patient in prayer, trusting God’s timeline. We are patient in prayer, and this patience is brought about by humbly acknowledging our unworthiness to even ask anything in the first place. Of ourselves, we can ask nothing. Yet because Christ became our brother, we are now the sons and daughters of God through faith. And because we are fellow saints and members of the household of God, we approach his throne confidently according to the worthiness of his Son. We don’t demand that God bend himself to the whims and desires of our hearts, but we humbly present our requests to him, always praying, “Thy will be done.”

We also learn from this woman to be fervent and unceasing in our prayers.  The Canaanite woman did not give up when she did not immediately get the answer she wanted. We too must be fervent in prayer, not throwing in the towel if we don’t see an immediate response. We continue to pray for healing, even when our loved one shows no signs of improvement; we pray for peace even while the battles rage; we pray and pray and pray, not growing anxious about anything, but presenting our requests to God, confident that he will hear and answer us in his own time. Such waiting teaches us humility. It teaches us that we are not the ones in control. It teaches us to rely on our Lord to provide for all our needs of body and soul. We don’t take our ball and go home when we don’t get our way; we continue steadfast in prayer.

And finally, we learn to trust and cling to the promises of God’s Word above the feelings and experiences of our hearts.  As C.S. Lewis so hauntingly portrayed it in The Screwtape Letters, Satan would have us trust the nagging sense of doubt and despair that clings to our sinful hearts. He would have us grow despondent. He would have us lose hope. He would have us give up. When our heart wants to give up, to question God’s judgment, to wallow in the idea that God’s not being fair to me or that I don’t deserve this, we learn to trust the promise of God’s Word more than those sinking feelings. For God’s Word is clear. God will work all things out for the good of his baptized children – and that’s you. God has told us to call upon him in the day of trouble, for he will answer us. He has told us not to be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, to make our requests known to him. For he is our loving Father, and he has promised to hear and answer us.

Take heart in the realization that if God did not want our prayers, he would not have commanded us to pray. When the disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray,” he would have said, “Don’t bother. It doesn’t do anything anyway. God’s not really even listening.” But that’s not what he said. Rather, he said that when we pray, we call out to our Father, knowing that he is truly our Father through our brother Jesus Christ, so thatpolls_05_08_12_cross_at_sunset_web31_2742_684070_answer_1_xlarge with all boldness and confidence, we can ask him as dear children ask their dear father. Such was the boldness and confidence of the Canaanite woman; such boldness and confidence is yours through our Lord Jesus Christ.

May the Spirit of God fill us with such confidence in our prayers, that we might be as unceasing, patient, and humble as the Canaanite woman, trusting fully in the merciful God to hear and answer us.



Mercy in the Church

Mercy in the Church

Galatians 6:1-10

Lent Midweek II

February 17, 2016

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI


Mercy. That’s the theme for our reflection this lent. Mercy. Compassion. Love. Mercy that is more than a feeling or emotion, but mercy that expresses itself in action. Mercy that is fundamental to the identity of God himself and to his church. The very same mercy that we plead for at the beginning of the Divine Service. The service begins with the invocation, then a confession of sins, for we are indeed sinners who stand in need of forgiveness. Then, having our sins forgiven, we stand and, in peace, we pray to the Lord, “Lord, have mercy.” For this holy house and for all who offer here their worship and praise, we pray to the Lord, “Lord, have mercy.” The prayer for God’s mercy includes petitions for the peace from above, and for our salvation. It includes petitions for this holy house, but also for the peace of the whole world, for the wellbeing of the church of God, and for the unity of all. All around us in this world we see the results of hatred, envy, lust, and greed. So we, the people of God, plead to the God of mercy on behalf of the whole world. It’s the prayer of God’s people, a prayer that no one else is going to pray. It is a simple prayer, only 3 short words, simple enough that even the youngest in our midst can pray it with boldness and confidence. Yet it is a prayer of incredible depth, a prayer whose reach stretches as far as the consequences of sin in this creation, a prayer whose richness we could never hope to unpack in a single lifetime.

There is indeed incredible depth to the mercy of God. There is incredible depth to the mercy he calls us to as his people. We will spend the next several weeks merely scratching the surface of  implications this prayer holds for God’s people. Mercy for the sick and ill. Mercy for the family. Mercy for life. Mercy for community. Mercy for the church. But in meditating on the depth of God’s mercy, let us not miss the forest for the trees. Let us not miss the obvious right in front of us. Let us not miss the simple truth essential to any act or display or example of mercy: Mercy is never in isolation. Mercy requires a community, or two people at least. You can’t be merciful unless you have someone to be merciful to. You can’t show compassion unless there is someone who needs compassion. Mercy needs company.

Which is why the reading from Galatians for today is so interesting. Any student of the English language can tell you the frustrations of trying to learn our native tongue. As one picture I saw on line last week put it, in English you put I before E except when you run a feisty heist on a weird beige foreign neighbor. Or if that’s too abstract, simply reflect on why the plural of goose is geese but the plural of moose is not meese, and why mouse become mice but house doesn’t become hice. Yes, there is much to trip up someone trying to learn English. But one of the most confusing elements to our language, even for those of us who have spoken it from birth, is that if I am talking to one person, I am talking to you, and if I am talking to a group of people, I am still talking to you. When we come across the word “you,” context dictates whether we’re talking about one person or a group of people, and there are definitely situations where it is hard to tell which is which.

Like, for example, Paul’s exhortation read a few moments ago. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Is that a you you, or as they say in Texas, a “y’all”? “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” You? Or Y’all? “Bear one another’s burdens.” You? Or Y’all? You get the point. The not so simple fact is that throughout this section, Paul is switching back and forth between “you” and “y’all,” demonstrating both the corporate and individual elements of God’s mercy that is alive among us as his people.

Look again at the text. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, all y’all who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. But let each of you personally keep watch over yourself, lest you too be tempted. All y’all work together to bear one another’s burdens, but let each one of you individually test his or her own work, for each one individually will have to bear his own load.” Paul is emphasizing this simple truth about the mercy of God and of his people: it requires a community, more than one person, to show mercy, for there has to be someone to be merciful to; but mercy is more than a community reality, it is required of each of us individually within the church of God.

The church is called to live in mercy, yet we are failures when it comes to showing mercy. Take, for example, Paul’s first admonition.  “If any of you is caught in the snare of sin, let the whole church restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” When’s the last time we did that as a congregation? That’s the pastor’s job, right? I’ll just keep my mouth shut. Or worse yet, when I see a brother or sister in Christ ensnared in sin, I’ll post cryptic things on social media. I’ll whisper in the hallway so that everyone else can share in the joy of knowing that at least we’re not as bad as that person. Greed? Well, who am I to tell another person how to spend their money? After all, the tithe isn’t technically commanded in the New Testament anyway, so who am I to judge. So what if we just read where Paul says that the one who is taught the word should share in all good things with the one who teaches. So what if we are willing to pay plumbers and electricians and doctors and lawyers for their services, willing to pay the for the knowledge they have acquired through study. But pastors and teachers and musicians and other church workers? We don’t need to pay for their spiritual guidance, after all they’re doing the Lord’s work, and that should be its own reward. Why should I put money in the offering plate to support the needs of those who work for the church? There’s enough people here that someone else will foot the bill.

Now, full disclosure, I don’t particularly like preaching about money and stewardship habits because as someone on the congregation’s pay roll, it always feels a little self-serving. But this text can’t be avoided. If you look at it in the original Greek, today’s reading is loaded with financial language. The language of debts and burdens and sowing and reaping and sharing good things, these are all money terms. While they certainly have a spiritual aspect to them, the fact of the matter is that Paul is writing to the Galatians about stewardship. It is writing about stewardship in the church. We are called to show mercy in the church, and according to Paul, that includes giving money to the ministries of the congregation. Or as one commentary I read put it, “Genuine concern for others must also include a willingness to share of one’s wealth.”   We are willing to provide toys for tots each winter and water for the people of Flint, all of which is good and right. Those people need those things, and we absolutely should be reaching out in their time of need. There is almost always a huge outpouring of support whenever there is a tragedy or crisis that demands our attention. And yet according to most recent surveys the average Christian gives only 2% of their income to the church. Why do we only show mercy when the crisis is catastrophic? What about the day-to-day mercy that happens in this building? Is that not worth supporting?  Considering how much we’re typically willing to pay for HDTV, vacations, cell phones, restaurants, Starbucks and the like, we can most likely find some money to contribute to the household of faith. Can we truly consider ourselves people of mercy when we fail so spectacularly at showing it when there is no tragic headline to tug at our heart strings? 

Because the stewardship Paul is writing about, the stewardship that is ours as God’s people, is not ultimately about money, it’s about mercy. It’s about growing in mercy.  It’s about providing a place where hurting people can hear the gospel of forgiveness. It’s about giving financially so that there can be a place where people can walk up and find a pastor in the building on a random Tuesday morning. We get people during the week who want to talk to a pastor, people struggling from PTSD, people hurting over the death of a loved one, people who feel lost in the confusion of this world. Maybe not every day, but often enough. Supporting the ministry here is not simply about keeping the lights on, it’s about having a hub where people can come find the mercy of God.  It’s about having a school where boys and girls can be raised in a Christian environment, immersed in the word of God and an atmosphere of forgiveness rather than the culture of bitterness around us. It’s about mercy, providing a place for those who cannot provide for themselves, a place of mercy, a home for the Word of God, where the truth of God’s Word rules the day. It’s mercy required of us as a congregation, and required of each of us individually.

And for all our failures to live out such mercy, thanks be to God that nothing compares with the mercy we have been shown by God himself. He didn’t give sparingly of his own mercy. He gave his all, his very life itself, in order that we might have life. He became obedient unto death, even death on a cross, that we might have life. And now, through the precious water of baptism, all that is mine becomes his, and all that is his becomes mine. My sin. My selfishness. My doubt and unwillingness to trust. All of that is his. And what’s mine are his righteousness and holiness, his brazen trust in the Father and faith in the Father’s word, faith that shows itself in action. Jesus’ command to love one another as he has loved us is one that I can never fulfill on my own. Yet because Christ lives in me, that command is already fulfilled in God’s eyes. 

Because we are united to Christ in Baptism, daily we are being shaped into his image. When Christ is alive in us through the preaching of his word and the gift of his sacrament, we begin to look more and more like him each day. We continue to be shaped into people of mercy, people growing in mercy.  In the words of Paul, we do good to all as opportunity arises, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. We support the needs of people around the world when the time comes, but we make it a special priority to support the work of God in this place we call home each and every day, for this is our church, our school. If we’re at 2% giving, maybe we won’t make it all the way to 10% in a year, but maybe we make it to 3% next year, and 4% the year after that.  God will help you grow in mercy. If we’re simply throwing an occasional ten or twenty in the plate from time to time, maybe we make it a priority to establish a regular giving pattern, maybe $50 a month. God will help you grow in mercy. After all, we are the people of mercy, people who belong to the God of mercy.

And ultimately the mercy of God is what truly matters. Maybe we never quite make it to that level of giving and trust that our Lord asks of us. Maybe we never fully embrace the attitude and life of mercy our Lord has placed before us in his church. That won’t change the fact that he had still embraced us. He has claimed each of us in the water of baptism, and is working each day to shape us into people of mercy. Whatever your attitude toward stewardship and giving was when that process began in you, and whatever it is when the process ends, God is still at work in you. You still belong to him. And because he is a God of mercy, he will make us to people of mercy, he will inspire mercy in his church. 

May he who has begun this good work in us bring it to completion today, and in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. +INJ+


Trust Not in Princes – Sermon for Feb. 7/8

Trust Not in Princes
Isaiah 35:1-10
February 7th/8th, 2016
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI


Election 2016 Button Illustration

Election 2016 with USA Flag in Map Silhouette Illustration

It’s election season again, and has been for some time. We are now several debates in, and the Iowa Caucus is behind us.  We will continue to hear much over the next several months about Bernie and Hillary, about the Donald and Ted Cruz. As the election gets closer, the tensions will get higher, debates will get more heated, and the stakes will continue to rise.  As we brace for the storm, God’s people are called to remember a few things.

First, we have been given the vocation of citizen and owe it to our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as to those outside the church, to participate in the election process. Even if we don’t fully embrace the world of modern politics, we still vote our conscience according to the Word of God as children of God and citizens of this country. That is a good and godly thing to do.  For if we take seriously our confession that God has created us, then we also have to take seriously the details of our lives. Just as our gender and other physical traits are not an accident, but rather are the specifics of the life God has given us, so also our citizenship is not something to be lightly tossed aside.  We were created to live in this time and place, not in Tudor England or the Byzantine Empire. And this time and place asks the citizens of this land to elect its leaders, so that’s what we do.  We are called to cast our vote when the time comes, and then to live in the 4th Commandment by respecting the authority given to those who end up elected. For there is no authority except that given by God, and those authorities that do exist have been instituted by God. We pay taxes to whom taxes are owed, we give honor to whom honor is owed, and respect to whom respect is owed, for that is what it means to live in this world.[1]

But as we go about our lives as members of this earthly kingdom we remember the words of Isaiah that we heard just a few moments ago. I invite you to have those words open in front of you if you’d like, because as you look at them they might not strike you as political words on first glance. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Encourage those who have an anxious heart, for God is coming to open the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. Waters will break forth in the wilderness and the burning sand will become a pool and springs of water. What exactly does that have to do with elections or presidents or the nations of this world?

Quite a lot, actually. For Isaiah 35 is written as a foil to Isaiah chapter 34. These two chapters go together. In chapter 34, the prophet calls the nations and people of the world together and pronounces God’s anger on them. The prophet declared that God had given these nations over to judgment and destruction. He said that they would be like P7EvBJgleaves falling off a tree, that their soil would be turned into sulfur, and that her land will become a desolate wasteland. It will become the home of hawks and porcupines, for no crops will be able to grow there, and it will be useless for grazing flocks and herds. Castles and fortresses will decay into ruins covered with thorns and thistles, and the entire land will become a haunt for jackals and hyenas and other wild animals. In short, the land that was inhabited and governed and shaped by the nations of this world would become a desolate place, an abandoned place overrun by thorns and scavengers.

But chapter 35 gives us the promise of restoration. Following on the heels of the prophecies of destruction and desolation, God gives the promise of a garden, a promise of restoration and reconciliation.[2] The contrast is clear: whereas putting your trust in the rulers and nations of this world will result in a desert, trust in God results in a garden. It results in a place where waters break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert; a place where the burning sand and the thirsty ground will be saturated with so much water that it can’t hold it all, resulting instead in pools for people to drink from whenever they wish. If you look at the beginning of chapter 35, the verses that precede today’s reading, the Lord promises that the desert will rejoice and fill with blooming flowers, that it will become a fertile plain like that of Lebanon or Carmel or Sharon. That’s like saying the desert of Arizona and Nevada will become as fertile as the fields of Kansas and Nebraska, or even the plush rainforests of South America.

If you continue past today’s reading and look at the rest of the chapter, you see that the prophet declares that in this land of restoration there will be a highway, and it will be called the Way of Holiness. It will be a highway that the unrighteous will not be allowed to travel. It will belong to the people of God.  The fools who say in their heart that there is no God will not be allowed to travel this road. There will be no lions or ravenous beasts to frighten you on this road; it will be a path of safety. It will be a highway to Zion, a road travelled by the people of God as they return to the presence of their Lord. Unlike chapter 34, where the ground ruled by men becomes rocky and full of burning sulfur, making it difficult to travel, this ground is perfect for the people of God coming together. The sin of man divides; the holiness of God unites.  The way of man is to make this world uninhabitable; the way of God is to take what is desolate and make it abundant.

In the part of chapter 35 read today the prophet promises strength will be given to feeble hands. These feeble hands aren’t necessarily weak or old hands, but more like hands that have been thrown up in frustration, hands attached to hearts that have given up and thrown in the towel.  When confronted with the nations who use their power ruthlessly, what else is a person to do except throw up your hands in exasperation. To such hands God’s word of encouragement will restore hope. Isaiah 35 promises it will be so.

Because these two chapters are poetic, we shouldn’t spend too much effort trying to assign specific identities to the different details they contain. Rather, we hear their massage, and their message is clear: “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man in whom there is no salvation.”[3]  As citizens of this nation we are indeed called to participate in the election process, but if we think Bernie or Hillary or Ted or Trump will solve our problems, then we are severely mistaken. For as Psalm 146 reminds us, when these rulers die, so do their plans and visions. Here in America, we don’t even have to wait for them to die, just until someone else gets elected. For all the talk we hear these days of cutting through bureaucratic tape in the name of getting things done, I wonder how many Executive Orders issued by the current administration will last the test of time.  History has taught us that the plans and policies of politicians have a shelf-life; they will all come to an end one day.  Someone else will take office, and no matter who that someone is, they will not be able to solve the problem of sin either. They will not be able to cure the wickedness and selfishness of the human heart. They will not be able to rid the world of poverty or hunger or disease or war. Problems such as these are far too deeply rooted, woven into the very fabric of a sinful world.

Rather than trusting in princes to deliver us from earthly struggles, we put our trust in the one who will deliver us through them. As today’s Gospel reading reminds us, the Son of Man went to Jerusalem to save us from the sin of this creation. He was delivered over to the Gentiles. He was mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. He was flogged andMy-Hope-is-Built killed. But death could not hold him, and on the third day he rose back to life. He conquered the grave. The princes of this world will never conquer the problems of this world. In the end, regardless of who wins the next election, each of us dies.  Our problem runs so much deeper than a political solution could ever hope to touch. But we have the promise of true and lasting deliverance from the struggles and failures that haunt our existence. We have the promises of Isaiah 35, the promises of existence in a new and perfect creation.

Those promises fill us with hope. They don’t excuse us from taking a stand against the oppression and sin we see around us. We do still reach out to those in need, offering the mercy of our Lord by providing for them. We don’t just throw up our hands in defeat, but we continue to speak the truth of our Lord’s Word, even if we feel like no one is listening. We vote our conscience according to the Word of God. While we are looking past the struggles of this world, we don’t retreat into hiding. We don’t ignore the problems of this life and simply bide our time until heaven gets here.

But neither do we act as if worldly solutions to worldly problems will offer the final cure. No, that will come from Christ alone. Regardless of whether our efforts in this life succeed or fail by worldly standards, Christ has won the victory. It is finished – he said so himself. We put not our trust in princes, but we rejoice in the ultimate salvation that is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord, not hiding from our responsibility to this world or pretending like it’s not there, but also not idolizing this life, or its problems, or its solutions. Regardless of what outcome we see from our efforts in this life, the outcome of this life itself is secure, for it rests on Jesus alone. He has promised us resurrection. He has promised us restoration. He has promised us life.

May he who has begun this good work in us see it through to completion in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.


[1] Romans 13:1-7

[2] Much of what follows is adapted from John Oswalt’s NICOT Commentary on Isaiah 1-39 (p. 618-627)

[3] Psalm 146:2

Life in Peace – Funeral Sermon for Lori Bargowski

Lori Bonita Bargowski
Luke 2:25-32
Funeral Sermon
February 4, 2016
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

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“Lord, now you let your servant go in peace. Your word has been fulfilled.” Peace is one of the great gifts from God. Our world speaks often of peace, but our world can’t ever understand the fullness of peace. To our world, peace is the absence of something. The absence of war. The absence of heartache. The absence of strife. But the peace of our Lord is so much more. It’s not about what’s not there, but about what is. More accurately, the peace of our Lord is about who’s there. It’s about Jesus. Where Jesus is, where Jesus has done his work, where Jesus has created faith and reconciliation, there is the fullness of God’s peace. There is the peace that passes understanding. There is the peace that cannot be overcome by the changing winds of this life. There is true peace.  It is that peace that I think of when I think of Lori. Lori lived in the peace of the Lord. Lori has now departed in the peace of the Lord.

Of course, for those who knew Lori, peace might not be the first word that pops to mind when you think about her personality.  Mischief, maybe. But peace? She seemed to find great joy in disturbing the peace. After all, she was the one who taught her granddaughters how to shoot the wrappers off their straws in the restaurant. And if that wasn’t help enough, she would always send a few straws home with them, just a little ammunition to help them disturb the peace around their own dinner table a little. She was the one who had dancing Santas and huge light displays set up for Christmas, not to mention the crazy hats she would wear for the holidays. Silent Night? Sleep in heavenly peace? Not in Lori’s house.  She struck me as the kind of person who might get out the sharpie if she saw you sleeping too peacefully. She was a wonderful woman, a true joy to be around, always smiling her contagious smile, always joking around, and often up to something.

So maybe life with Lori wasn’t always the most peaceful, but I still think that’s because she was a woman who was filled with the peace of the Lord, with the true peace that passes understanding. She was a woman who knew her salvation rested safely in the hand of the Good Shepherd, and that knowledge gave her peace. That took off the yokes and shackles of this life so that she could be a fun-loving trouble maker, the kind of woman who makes you smile when she walked in the room because you always wonder what she would do or say today to make you laugh, the exact kind of woman you always wanted around to liven things up. And she was around a lot.  She gave selflessly of her time. When the news began to spread throughout the congregation that Lori had died, more than one person asked me, “Is that the lady who worked at the library?” She was Sunday School Superintendent at her former church. She was part of the leadership for the Fraser Historical Society. She helped around here with VBS. She joined in for the 150th Anniversary skits in the gym. She sang in the choir. She was an active woman who embraced life, who embraced relationships, who embraced joy.

And I believe that is because she was filled with the peace of the Lord that Simeon sings about in the Gospel of Luke.  Whatever else was or wasn’t happening in her life, Lori knew she was a child of God.  On May 7, 1950, Pastor Winterstein at Huntington Woods Lutheran Church baptized Lori into the family of God.  The gift given to Lori that day shaped her attitude toward life. She knew that her salvation was secure. She knew that no matter what failures or shortcomings might be part of her life story, her Lord would not fail her. He would fulfill the promise the made to her that day. He would sustain her in the true faith unto life everlasting. And so Lori lived a life rooted in the promises of God.  She was a combination of Mary and Martha, both sitting at the feet of our Lord hearing his word, while also actively serving him by serving the people of this world. She knelt at this very altar to be strengthened and nourished by the body and blood of her savior. And when she returned to these very pews after communion, she would join the body of Christ here singing the words we heard just a few short moments ago. “Lord, now you are letting your servant go in peace. Your Word has been fulfilled. I have seen my salvation.”

God was at work in her, and that filled her with peace. That is our peace today, too. For as many memories as we have of Lori, as fun as she was to be around, the sad reality remains that her time on this earth was always destined to come to an end. That day will come for each one of us. None of us will escape it. But for those of us who hold Jesus in our hearts through faith like Simeon held him in his arms, the promise is that we too will depart in peace.  For that’s what our Lord does. He takes hold of us in baptism, covering us with the robe of his own righteousness that covers all our sin. He comes to us through the proclamation of his Word to speak peace into our chaotic lives.  Not a peace that is the absence of busyness or strife, but the true peace that comes from being united to our redeemer. The peace that fills us from head to toe, even when we don’t feel particularly peaceful. For it is not a peace that relies on us or our emotions or our schedule or our circumstances – it is the peace of the Lord. It is the peace that comes from knowing how the story ends – with the resurrection of the body into life everlasting.

That peace is yours, for Jesus is yours. That peace allowed Lori to look past the struggles and burdens of this life. She had more than her fair share of health concerns. Her poor body had been through so much in the last few years. And yet she kept her eyes focused on Christ through it all. In the words of the Apostle Paul, because she was raised with Christ through faith, she set her mind on the things that are above, where Christ is. She knew that her life was hidden in Christ with God. And she knew that when Christ who is her life appears, then she also will appear with him in glory. That is the promise she is waiting for now, resting safely in the hand of our Lord until the day of resurrection.

Let that same promise of Christ fill you with peace in this time of grief. Lori used to tell her grandkids that she loved them. When they would reply with the same, she would say that she loved them more. When they would reply with the same, she would say, “No, I love you more because I’m bigger.” Well, Jesus is bigger still, and his love is stronger than death.  He loves Lori and will raise her back to life with all those who have gone before her in the faith, and with all those who will come after her. Let that promise fill you with peace amid your grief today. You will see your mother, your grandmother, your friend again in the resurrection on the last day.  Let the promise of your own resurrection fill you with peace in the days to come.  For the promises of this world are fleeting, and the peace of this world is fickle. From one day to the next, the peace of this world waxes and wanes.  We’re always chasing after it, but will never catch it. “If I can just get the right job, or take the right vacation, or buy the right house,” we tell ourselves, “then I’ll have peace.” But that peace will never last. It is not true peace.

True peace comes from our Lord, form being united to him, from holding him in your heart through faith. And that’s exactly what he’s given you. That’s what he gave Lori. I have no doubt about it. In those last days of her life, when I had the opportunity to sit with her in the hospital and talk to her about Jesus and forgiveness, when I had the opportunity to give her communion one last time, she gave me two thumbs up. She was at peace.  She knew where she was going. She knew Jesus had her.  May the same peace fill your hearts and minds today.  For the same Jesus that has brought Lori safely home is guarding you too.


Sticks & Stones and the Word of God

The Word of God
Isaiah 55:10-11
January 31st/February 1st, 2016
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I remember saying those words as a kid. I remember hearing other kids say those words. I remember feeling like I should believe those words. If not those words, then others intended to convey the same idea: “I don’t care what people say about me.” “They’re just words.” But are they? Are they really just words? Are words really powerless? We like to pretend that they are, and yet when reality sets in, I don’t think we really believe that. We know somesticks-and-stones words to be incredibly powerful. “You have cancer.” “You got the job.” “You’re fired.” “You’re going to have a baby.” Just words, yet so much more. Words have the power to fill us with joy and grief, with hope and despair, with anger and relief. Words have the power to change your reality. A perfectly good day can be ruined by words of bad news, and a perfectly rotten day can turn around when you hear those words you’ve been longing to hear. Words change reality.

Even more so the Word of God. The Word of God is always changing realities. At the risk of sounding overly simple, that’s simply what it does. At least, that’s what God himself told the Prophet Isaiah in today’s reading. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” The Word of God changes realities. It was even responsible for bringing reality into existence, for God spoke creation into being. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was. God said, “Let there be land, and trees, and fish, and birds,” and there was. God said, “Let us make man in our own image,” and he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.

The Word of God not only spoke creation into existence, but the Word of God created the reality surrounding the trees in the Garden, most of which were given to Adam and Eve for food, one of which was given to Adam and Eve so that they could remember what God had said about that tree, that it was not theirs for food, but theirs to remind them that they did not create themselves, that they survived only by the grace of God, that they depended on him for their needs of body and soul. There was nothing inherently sinful or poisonous about the fruit of that tree that they needed to be protected from. It wasn’t a cursed tree. Rather, even the word God spoke concerning that tree was a good word for Adam and Eve, for it taught them to trust God’s Word over the appearances of this world, over their own estimation, over everything and anything else, whatever that may be. The Word of God created those realities. It gave Adam and Eve the gift of life, and then it taught them what it meant to be alive.

The Word of God does that, for the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. No creature is hidden from its sight. It exposes all to the eyes of God himself, to whom we must give account. The Word of God creates our reality. The Word of God teaches us what it means to be alive.

It teaches us the design of our Lord’s creation. It teaches us that he alone is the true God, and that anything else is simply an imposter. It teaches us that our Lord has revealed himself to us not so that we can try to manipulate him or call down his vengeance on our enemies, but so that we will call upon him in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. It teaches us that our existence is incomplete if it is without time to Worship, to study our Lord’s Word, to be fed by him. The Word of God teaches us these things about reality. It teaches us how we are designed to live in faith toward him. It shows us the right relationship between God and man, the relationship first built into this creation before sin messed things up.

But beyond even that, the Word of God teaches us the right relationship with others, a relationship characterized by love and service rather than manipulation. It teaches us how to receive those in authority over us as a gift, not a curse, and how to treat others if we find ourselves in positions of authority. It teaches us to love and protect the physical wellbeing of other people rather than wallowing in hatred and bitterness or giving into the anger and desire to harm. It teaches us the joy of sexuality and the bond of marriage, rather than the self-indulgent, narcissistic, childish view of sexuality peddled by our world. It teaches us the peace that comes from knowing your property is not only safe, but that as a gift from God, it is to be used in service to others. Rather than being enslaved to the almighty dollar, we are created to provide for our families and those in need, not piling up money for money’s sake, but using the money we have to actually do something – for our families, for our church, and for the world. It teaches us the importance of reputation and the damage that lies and half-truths can do. And it shows us the disquiet and sadness that characterizes a covetous and dissatisfied life, a life characterized by missing the joy of what you do have because you are obsessed with looking at what everyone else does. It is the Word of God that reveals this reality to us.

Even more, the Word of God reveals the myriad of ways we have failed to live according to God’s design. In the words of Hebrews, it lays us naked, free of excuses. It calls us out from hiding behind the bushes. It exposes our greed for what it is. Our lies and self-justifications. Our lust. Our bitterness. The Word of God shows us reality: the reality of our sin; the reality of our Salvation. That’s what God sent it to do, and the Word of God mirrorwill accomplish the purpose for which he sent it. It will show us our sin. It will show us our Savior. It will tell us the truth of who Jesus is and what he has done for us, that he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, that because we could not save ourselves God sent one to live, suffer, and die in our place. That even to this day, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the Holy One. It tells us of the forgiveness and new life we have through the water of baptism. It tells us that it is by the grace of God we have been saved. Without the Word of God we would know none of this. The Word of God cries out in the street, in the markets, at the head of a noisy street and at the entrance of the city gates.  The Word of God guards the paths to justice.

Yet we live in a world that continues to reject that Word. We live in a world that would rather stay in the bitterness and frustration and anger that characterizes so much of our daily experience. We live in a world that calls good evil and evil good, that calls a man woman and a woman man. We live in a world wise in its own eyes, a world that discredits any claim to the truth by shrugging it off as “just your perspective.” We live in a world that refuses to take a stand on anything solid, but prefers to be left adrift on a sea of changing opinions. We live in a world that encourages us to embrace our sinful desires, claiming that the church exists solely to make people feel guilty for being who they are. We live in a world that hates the Word of God and seeks to silence it.

But that shouldn’t surprise us. For Satan knows what’s in there. He knows the Word of God is ultimately a word of forgiveness, a word of Christ. He knows that the Law serves its purpose only when it prepares us for the Gospel. He knows that the Word of God will accomplish the purpose for which it was sent, and he knows that purpose is to create faith and bestow salvation, for he knows that faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. So Satan seeks to silence the Word. He tempts us to listen to the voices of the political analysts and celebrity activists before listenting to the voice of the Lord. He tempts us to listen to our hearts and let our conscience be our guide, rather than listening to the Word of the Lord. He tempts us to listen to anything and everything that he can use to take our eyes and ears off the Word of the Lord.

Which is why we cling to it ever more firmly in these confusing times.  Which is why we need it now as much as any people ever have.  Even though we live in an age of relative comfort and convenience, even though the distractions pile up higher and higher, when social media and online magazines and extracurricular activities and binge sessions on Netflix all want our attention, we make time for God’s Word. Even as the rules of the game continue to change, as it becomes more and more culturally inconvenient to be a Christian, as the price of operating a church and school continues to rise due to changes in health care laws or potential taxation of religious property, it remains incredibly important to stay the course. The sower simply sows the seed. The Word of God will accomplish its purpose. The seed sown will grow into the fruit of faith.

As we conclude another Lutheran School’s Week, we are reminded why our school is so important. It’s not the test scores in math or reading or writing, although our students score well in those areas. It’s not the athletic opportunities available to students who might be passed over in a larger school. It’s not the music or art or anything else that our students get, although those things are indeed noble pursuits. What matters most is the Word of God. What makes our school important is that each day children of God are taught to see reality as God created it rather than as our world seeks to redefine it. What matters is that children of God are taught the reality of their sin and the joy of their salvation. What matters is the Word that goes forth in this place.

St John Logo - 150th & BEYOND - transparentThe same is true of our church. What matters most is not the food bank or music program or anything else, even though those things are good and necessary. What matters most is the Word of God. It is God’s Word that makes us who we are. It is God’s Word that will guide us through this life and into the life to come. It is the Word of God that gives us Jesus, that gives us his love, that gives us his forgiveness.  The Word of God creates these realities. It changes our relationships. It changes our outlook. It changes our lives.

Sticks and stones may indeed break your bones, but words are never just words. They are powerful. They are important. The world has its words, and our Lord has His. Thanks be to God for the Words he has spoken to us. Words of forgiveness. Words of reconciliation. May he continue to speak such words to us, and through us to the students in our school and the people in our pews, until the day of his return.