Our Merciful Father – Sermon for June 19/20

Our Merciful Father
Luke 6:36-42
4th Sunday After Trinity
June 19th/20th, 2016 (Father’s Day)
St. John Lutheran Church and School, Fraser, MI

39bb9b550d8cde0cd41297e206a1ad25Today is Father’s Day. And in honor of Father’s Day, I’d like you to think for a moment about what quality you think most accurately describes or defines fatherhood. If pop culture is any indication, it seems that most people place fathers squarely into one of two types: He’s either a bumbling buffoon who’s never actually sure of what’s going on around the house, nothing more than a big goofball who can barely tie his own shoes, or he’s absent – either emotionally absent and lost in his work, too busy to be a dad, or he’s literally absent, leaving mom and the kids to fend for themselves. I read this past week that over half of all children in America spend part, if not all, of their time without a father. Also included in that same resource was the observation that one theme that runs through all popular music, whether its rap, pop, or rock, is the theme of abandonment and the emotional baggage of life without a father. Apparently, it’s a universal enough emotion and experience that kids all across America can identify, regardless of what type of music they like.[1] Put it all together, and what we have is a very broken picture of fatherhood – and that broken picture is the only picture a lot of people get to see.

That broken picture of fatherhood begins to spread its poison even into the church.  How could it not? After all, Jesus uses the word “Father” to refer to God more than any other word. Fatherhood is the most common touchpoint we have in our understanding of who God is and how God works. Many people in our culture think that dads are either dopey or deadbeat. This has a tremendous impact on their understanding of their Heavenly Father. You see, most people tend to assume that when God called himself Father, and that when Jesus calls God Father, he is simply using language we do understand to help us grasp something we couldn’t otherwise understand. The assumption is that earthly fathers exist, and since we understand earthly fathers, Jesus is telling us that God is like an earthly father so that we can understand God by comparison.

But that’s backward. In reality, God is the true father. Earthly fathers are simply quote-George-Bernard-Shaw-a-happy-family-is-but-an-earlier-89240reflections of him. Earthly fathers are true fathers only insofar as they reflect the nature of the true Father in Heaven. If we want to reclaim the word Father and reshape our culture’s understanding of what it means to be a father, the only place we can start is with our Heavenly Father.  And Jesus’ own words from today’s Gospel reading are as good a place as any: “Be merciful, even as your Father in heaven is merciful.”[2] To be a father is to be merciful, for our Heavenly Father is merciful to us. He loved us while we were yet sinners, sending Christ to suffer and die in our place. He is the father described in last week’s Gospel: the loving father of the Prodigal Son.  That parable is part of a series of parables, each of which emphasizes how important it is to God that all of his children spend eternity with him in paradise. He is like a shepherd who goes out to find a missing sheep, and when he finds it, carries it home rejoicing. He is like a woman who searches high and low for her lost coin, and rejoices when she finds it.

He is like a father who endures the insults and injuries hurled by his children, and rejoices when they are restored. He endures the insults of his younger son who wishes him dead and leaves with his share of the inheritance. And he rejoices when that son who was dead to him is restored. According to the cultural shape of fatherhood in first century Israel, the father should have written his son off for dead and not given it a second thought after what he did to the family reputation. And yet the father in Jesus’ parable flies in the face of cultural expectations, and rather than writing off his son for dead, he spends each day looking for his son to return. And when he sees his son coming, he hikes up his robes and runs out to embrace him, again flatly ignoring cultural expectations which would have said a man of his stature should never show his legs, never hike up his robe, and certainly never run. But Jesus wasn’t interested in conforming his image of God to what people around him heard when he used the word “father.”  No, the Heavenly Father doesn’t care about what expectations we have invented for earthly fathers, he demonstrates what a true Father is by greeting his son and welcoming him home. He is merciful.

He endures the insults of his older son who criticizes his father’s mercy toward the younger brother. He endures the public shame caused not only by the younger son, but also by the older son who refuses to follow his father’s lead in welcoming his brother home, choosing instead to stand outside and pout. And when the father beckons him to come and celebrate, that son insults the father further in front of his guests. Yet the father Jesus-the-Good-Shepherdis still merciful. His mercy knows no limits. He loves his son, and wants him to join the celebration. That is the picture of fatherhood we get from Jesus, that is the description of the Heavenly Father, that is the pattern earthly fathers are bid to follow.

Yet this call is not only given to fathers, it is for each of us as children of our Heavenly Father. For when Jesus bids us to be merciful as the Father is merciful, he’s not just talking to dads. He is speaking to each of us. He who has ears, let him hear. Are you merciful as your Father in Heaven is merciful? How well do you endure the insults not merely of your sons, but of all people? How do you respond when people abuse the gifts you give? How do you respond when people waste your time? Or get on your nerves? What do you do when people take your kindness and respond with anger and bitterness, basically taking your gift and squandering it in a far off country with extravagant living? Do you lash out in return? Do you write them off? Do you leave them for dead?

How do you respond when you witness the forgiveness of others? Do you truly want to see those people brought into the family of God? Those abortionists? Those homosexuals? Those bigots? Those republicans? Those democrats? Those who, for whatever reason, fall outside your standard of what the family of God ought to look like? Are you standing outside the celebration of our Lord, refusing to go in because you don’t want to associate with those people?

Repent, and hear the words of our Lord: “With the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”[3] If we live in bitterness and grudge holding and anger and judgment, then we have removed ourselves from the forgiveness and grace of God. A tree will be known by its fruit. If we are skimpy with forgiveness, then skimpy forgiveness is all we will receive.  It’s like a bag of potato chips. You get this huge bag of chips, and when you open it, it’s less than half full. Is our forgiveness half full? Do we talk a good game, presenting our forgiveness as if it’s a big bag of chips, when in reality the actual forgiveness and mercy in us is less than half full?

Repent. Be merciful as your father in heaven has been merciful to you. Like the younger son who deserved to be written off but was welcomed back into the family, we too deserved to be written off but have been welcomed back into God’s family.  God’s forgiveness is not a half full bag of potato chips, no, it is a carry-on suitcase stuffed so full that it’s overflowing.  It’s one more T-Shirt crammed into an already full drawer. It’s one more bag stuffed into an already full trunk.  It’s the best grain, good measure, pressed crossdown and packed in to fill every nook and cranny and yet still running over, a container overflowing with mercy. Mercy for you. Forgiveness for you. Welcome for you. Rejoicing that you have come home and been reconciled to your family – to your Father in Heaven. God rejoices over the forgiveness of your sin!

The primary concern of our Heavenly Father is that all his children are part of the family. We earthly fathers can take our cue from that. We continue to provide for our families, working to put bread on the table, to pay for the heat bill and the sports camps. As the book of Hebrews reminds us, we bring up our children in the instruction and discipline of the Lord, making sure his Word gives shape to their lives and relationships by bringing them to the services of the Lord’s house that they may hear again and again of the true Father in heaven, the one who loves them unconditionally and who desires nothing more than to welcome them into eternity.

But this is not simply a call for earthly fathers. It is for each of us, for each of us is the son who squandered his father’s gifts and the son who self-righteously scolded the father for his mercy.  Yet for all our failure, the simple fact remains that our Father is a God of mercy. He is a God of rejoicing, bidding us come to the celebration. He has forgiven so much in us. He has measured out to us more forgiveness than we can hold. And just when we think we’ve had all the forgiveness we can take, he presses it down even more like we press down the wrapping paper into the trash bag on Christmas morning. Our Father presses down that gift of forgiveness and keeps pouring more and more upon us to the point of overflowing.

That is the mercy we receive. That is the mercy we give. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Let your life be marked by forgiveness, for your father has forgiven you. Do not live in bitter judgment, for your father does not live in judgment over you. Do not condemn others to hell, for your father has not condemned you.  He has run out to greet you and welcome you home. He pleads with you to join the celebration of his love. The table is set, the meal is ready. Come, let us join with angels and archangels and all the company in a feast to celebrate the mercy of our Father.

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[1] Gene Edward Veith & Mary J. Moerbe Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood (Chapter 9 – The Office of Father)

[2] Luke 6:36

[3] Luke 6:38

The Fear of the Lord (Sermon for June 5/5, 2016)

The Fear of the Lord
Proverbs 9:1-10
2nd Sunday After Trinity
June 5th/6th, 2016
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

What are you afraid of? What terrifies you? What is it that haunts your dreams? Is it spiders? Clowns? Birds? Is it cancer? Heart Disease? High Blood Pressure? Is it war? Terror attacks? Nuclear weapons? What are you afraid of? Is it Donald Trump? Or Hillary Clinton? Or Bernie Sanders? Is it the unknown? Is it the known? What are you afraid of? What fills you with fear?  While we sometimes like to be scared, like riding a roller coaster or watching a Hitchcock film, people generally don’t like to be afraid. Truly afraid. Filled with the kind of fear that grabs your very soul. That kind of fear we try to avoid at all costs.

And yet in today’s reading from the book of Proverbs we are told that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”[1] There’s that word: fear. And it’s not talking about fear like being scared of spiders.  It’s talking about the kind of fear that grabs the bottom of your FEAR1soul. That doesn’t mean it’s talking about terror or dread. There is a difference between healthy fear and unhealthy fear. Unhealthy fear cripples us so that we cannot move. Phobias like being afraid of crowds or sicknesses can paralyze people or send them into panic attacks. That is not the fear of the Lord.  The fear of the Lord is a healthy fear, and it is the beginning of wisdom. The fear of the Lord “is reverence for God and spiritual worship of him.”[2] The fear of the Lord is a healthy fear, like the fear of heat or electricity. A healthy fear of heat protects you from grabbing the roasting pan out of the oven without oven mitts. A healthy fear of electricity can save your life.

Notice how each of these healthy fears requires a certain amount of knowledge and experience. A child does not understand the danger of heat, so it’s the parents who become a nervous wreck whenever the over door is open. A child does not understand the danger of electricity, so it’s the parents who fret about outlet covers in the plugs throughout the house.  They say ignorance is bliss, and they might be right – for there is no fear quite like knowledge.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  Knowledge of the Lord is the beginning of fear.  It’s like a person who sets up a tent to camp in a forest completely oblivious to the fact that there’s bears in those woods. If someone asks them, “Hey, aren’t you afraid of the bears?” Their response will be, “Well, I am now!” Fear of the unknown is real, but fear founded on fact can be even worse. No one feared cancer until they knew what it was and saw what it can do to a person. Knowledge of the Lord will inevitably lead to fear of him. That may sound strange to say, but it bears repeating. Knowledge of the Lord will gods hand creationinevitably lead to fear of him. How could it not? How numb have we become to the notion that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present God who is sustaining each breath we take! I am completely powerless to sustain my own existence. Are we afraid of cancer or disease? Isn’t it the Lord himself who controls those things? Shouldn’t we fear him more than them? Even if I’m the picture of health, I don’t cause my heart to beat or my lungs to work – I am totally and completely at the mercy of this all-powerful God every second of every day.

And it’s not just me. It’s not just you. It’s not just people. The universe itself would either collapse in on itself or expand to the point of explosion if this all-powerful God were not upholding it’s every instant.  To make matters worse, this creation has been ruined by sin, sin of which I am a part, sin for which I am responsible. I remember how scared I was as a child when I had to tell my parents that I ruined the flowers in the front yard when my football went sailing into the flower bed. I know how upset I get when something I’ve worked hard on gets ruined. Now we have to deal with the almighty creator and sustainer of the universe whose creation we have broken?

Yes, I think it is indeed fair to say that knowledge is the source of much fear, and that knowledge of the Lord certainly ought to frighten us a little. But the fear of the Lord is not an end unto itself. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  I once heard another pastor describe it like this: Imagine yourself driving home from work. Your mind is filled with different fears and anxieties.  Some of those fears are immediate. You are afraid of how upset your spouse or will be if you’re late.  You’re afraid, on some level, of what will happen if you get into an accident – that’s why you stop for red lights.  You’re afraid of running out of gas or having your engine fail – that’s why you watch the gas gauge and get the oil changed regularly.  Maybe you’re afraid that the store will be out of the specific brand of tea you like to drink.  Maybe you’re waiting for test results and you fear they won’t be good.  Some of those fear are more existential. Maybe you’re afraid of the heart carjackingdisease that runs in your family, or wondering what that exhaust billowing from all the other cars will do to you. There are any number of fears that buzz around in your mind like flies on a cow. You may raise your tail to swat one away, but it will inevitably return to resume its place beside the others that never left. Fears buzzing everywhere.  Then, as you are stopped at a red light, you hear a tapping on your window. You look over to find yourself staring down the barrel of a gun. Suddenly, the buzzing stops. All the other fears drop out of existence. The only thing that matters now is that gun, the person holding that gun, and what exactly that person holding that gun expects you to do. One fear takes precedence. The rest fall away.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Knowledge of the Lord leads to fear of the Lord. Knowledge of my sin and the judgment I deserve conjures fear in my heart. The simple fact is that God is our most pressing danger. Everything else pales in comparison to him. Recognizing that is the beginning of wisdom.

When the gun is pointed at you, all other fears drop out of existence. Their buzzing is silenced. In that silence, when the Lord has your full attention and fear, he points you to his Son. He proclaims your forgiveness.  He says to you, “Now that I have your attention, now that nothing else matters, now that you aren’t worried about your job or your health crossor anything else, now that you fear me alone, look to my Son, for there you will see how much I love you.  Now that you fear me above all else, fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of your salvation.”

It’s truly a remarkable shift, an incredible gift. The Lord consolidates all our fear and then removes it. That is the beginning of wisdom. Fear of the Lord, not terror or dread, but fear of the Lord drives us into his word. It drives us to repentance. It drives us to the gifts he freely gives for our forgiveness and reconciliation. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but wisdom has more to say. The book of Proverbs lays out for us the joys and blessings to be found in the wisdom that comes from God.  That’s what verses 8 and 9 of today’s reading remind us. “Reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be wiser still. Teach a righteous man and he will increase in learning.”[3]  The Bible’s definition of wisdom is being willing to hear our Lord’s word and to be shaped by it. To take instruction. To be rebuked. Our world teaches us to follow the desires of our heart, but the desires of our heart will always end in death. Everything in this world ultimately ends in death. The wisdom of the Lord is to hear and receive the eternal gifts he brings. To have our relationships shaped and formed by reconciliation and forgiveness. How can we hold grudges against each other when our Lord has forgiven so much in us? The fear of the Lord shows us our own sin. The Word of the Lord shows us our forgiveness. The wisdom of the Lord teaches us to forgive others.

So while it may sound odd to say, rejoice in the fear of the Lord. Rejoice in the wisdom of his Word. For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. While we were out in the 1325915347196streets and alleyways, our Lord brought us into his banquet. We who were once separated from Christ have been brought near by his blood. He himself is our peace. He has killed the hostility. He preaches peace to all, to those who are far off, and to those who are near.
He binds us together in his Church, building us into a dwelling place for his love. And it all starts with the fear of the Lord. So rejoice in that fear. Fear, love, and trust in God above all things. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the holy one is insight. Insight into the forgiveness and reconciliation that is ours through Jesus Christ. May God grant such fear and wisdom would be living and active among us.

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[1]Proverbs 9:10

[2] Luther AE 19:13

[3] Proverbs 9:8-9

Funeral Sermon for Hilda Quandt

The Lord Is My Shepherd
Psalm 23
Funeral Sermon for Hilda Quandt
June 6, 2016
St. John Lutheran Church and School, Fraser, MI

            The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. They’re familiar words. They’re comforting words.  They’re words that were near and dear to Hilda. We would sit in her living room and talk about all sorts of things. She would tell me about her trips to Eastern Market to sell produce from the family farm, and I would tell her about my own family’s trip to the market to buy flowers. She would tell me about her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and I would tell her about my own kids. She would ask about her friends and how they were doing. She would always ask about Alma, the lady who she used to meet up here to clean out the pews each week to get them ready for Sunday morning. And I’ve heard stories about how that used to look. Those of you who know Alma know she was a sparkplug, a fireball of energy.  Hilda, on the other hand, lived at her own leisurely pace. So Alma would barrel through three sections of pews in the time it took Hilda to finish one. But no one was upset. That was Hilda, gentle, sweet Hilda. She truly embodied the words of her confirmation verse: “Be kind to one another and tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

 

I really enjoyed the time I was allowed to spend with her. This past week her children pulled back the curtain for me and gave me a fuller picture of who she was.  I heard stories about E-Z Bake Ovens and Jellyfish. I heard about family trips to Grindstone City and the Wisconsin Dells. I heard how mom used to be able to soften up dad, so the kids would go to her first and let her get a head start before they asked him for something. I had to laugh when I heard about how she would take all three kids to pick beans at Aunt Jenny’s, but had to hurry home and get everyone cleaned up in time so that dad didn’t find out. I heard about the stray cat that she would allow the kids to treat like part of the family during the day, but had to go back out when dad came home. I didn’t realize she was hiding a bit of a rebellious streak, but then again, all those stories just further demonstrate something I already knew, which is just how loving she was as a mother, as a grandmother, and as a friend.

But the last few times we visited, Hilda didn’t want to talk much about Eastern Market or anybody’s kids. She simply wanted to hear some Psalms. Especially Psalm 23. She must have told me a dozen times in that last visit alone that she wanted Psalm 23 to be the text for her funeral sermon. So here we are. Remembering all that Hilda meant to us, and she is still pointing us to Christ. It’s as if she’s saying, “Stop talking about me already, and start talking about Jesus – the Good Shepherd.”  She found such comfort in the words of that Psalm. Today, we find comfort there too.

For the Lord is our Shepherd, and because he is our shepherd, we shall not want.  He provides all our needs of body and soul. He leads us into green pastures and beside still waters. As most of you already know, sheep are not intelligent creatures. They have a hard time fending for themselves. Without the shepherd to lead them, they would not find Jesus-the-Good-Shepherdgreen pastures for food. Without the shepherd to lead them, they might try to drink from rushing waters and be swept away by the current. But the shepherd guides them to green pastures and still waters where they can eat and drink and find their strength. That is what the Good Shepherd did for Hilda – that is what he does for you. He leads us into the green pastures of his Word. Hilda fed on that Word Sunday after Sunday sitting in these pews hearing the truth of her sin and her salvation. She fed on Christ himself at this very altar in the bread and wine that are his flesh and blood, and through that sacred meal her faith was strengthened and her sin forgiven.  She became a member of her Lord’s flock when she was baptized in May of 1928 just up the road at St. Peter in Macomb. From that point on the Good Shepherd fed and nourished her as his precious little lamb with his life giving word of forgiveness and hope.

He restored her soul so that it was no longer a lifeless soul of sin. He restored her soul and filled her with the gift of his spirit, leading her into the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Like the Good Shepherd in Luke’s parable, like the shepherd described by the prophet Ezekiel, our Lord restored Hilda’s soul for his own name’s sake, because he is a loving and merciful God who delights in steadfast love.  When the cares and concerns of this life wear you down, the Lord restores your soul with the promises of his Word.  He restores your soul today with the hope of resurrection and the comfort of eternal life. When sickness or disease or grief or sadness make you feel less than whole, the Lord restores your soul with his life-giving Word.  The Good Shepherd is always watching over his sheep.

It is truly a comfort to have such a shepherd, for this life is fraught with dangers. This life is, indeed, the valley of the shadow of death. And yet in the midst of this valley, we fear no evil, for Lord is with us. We fear not even death itself, for death could not hold our Lord. When our Lord saw that we were lost to death, he left to find us. And once he found us, he carried us home.  In baptism we are united to the death of Jesus, and if we are united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united to him in a resurrection like his. That is the promise God made to Hilda in her baptism, that is the promise he makes to you in yours. Therefore, even though our lives are a journey through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil, for the Good Shepherd has found us. He has rescued us. He is with us still, protecting us with his rod and his staff. They comfort us, for we know that no matter what else happens in this life, our salvation is secure.

It’s not only a promise of future deliverance. It is also a promise of present joy.  It’s a promise of present comfort, even in the midst of the chaos that surrounds us.  For while our enemies are ranting and raving against us, we rest in the protection of the Good Shepherd. We have his forgiveness. We have his name on us in baptism. We have his rod and staff. We are protected, we are safe. We are so safe, in fact, that while the enemies of I-Will-Comfort-You-jesus-17382873-245-326sin, death, and the devil are fighting to get us, our Lord prepares a table for us to sit and eat. “Fear not,” he says, “for they cannot harm you. You are mine.” And he is so certain that we are safe in him that he prepares a table for us right in the midst of their attacks. He bids us come and eat. Sit and rest. He has taken care of everything.  The Lord has prepared a table for us, and the meal on that table is the paschal lamb, Christ himself both the host and the meal, given in order to destroy our enemies completely. While the world continues attack, even then we sit down at the table of our Lord, eat of the paschal lamb, drink of the fresh water, and joyfully sing: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” We are his favored guests, so our head is anointed with oil as a sign of the honor he has bestowed upon us by bringing us into his flock. Our cup overflows with his mercy and his love, more than enough to cover the sin and shame that clings to our flesh.

Hilda found tremendous comfort is found in these words. We do too. Because we live in the flock of the Good Shepherd, his goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  That is where Hilda is today: living in the house of the Lord, surrounded by his goodness and mercy. Find your hope in that. For that promise is not only for Hilda, it is for you too. It is for all those who are baptized into the flock of the Good Shepherd. That same shepherd is guarding you with his rod and staff. He is feeding you on the promise of his Word, revealing to you the truth of your sin, and restoring your soul with the promise of salvation. He leads you into green pastures and beside still waters. His goodness and mercy follow you all your days until you dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Hilda found great comfort in the words of Psalm 23. Let those words fill you with comfort today, too. For Hilda’s soul and the gift of faith in her has indeed been guarded and protected her whole life by the Good Shepherd through his Word. She is now alive in the house of the Lord. All we who are also part of the Lord’s flock through faith will also be in that house one day. We will look upon the Lord in the land of the living. We will see Hilda again in our Lord’s paradise.

So may the God of all comfort grant you peace in your grief, and may he fill you with the hope of resurrection, that as you continue on your own journey through the valley of the shadow of death, you fear no evil, but rest in his protecting hand until the day when you join Hilda in the house of the Lord forever.

 

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