Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sermon -- 11th Sunday after Pentecost (July 31, 2016)

ECCLESIASTES 1:2; 2:18-26


In the name + of Jesus.

      To read the words of King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, you would think that Solomon was one of the most dour and depressing people the world has ever known.  The reality is that Solomon is one of the richest people the world has ever known.  Solomon's annual income in gold was measured by tons.  In the days of King Solomon, silver was considered to have little value because there was so much of it.  In addition to his wealth and to his prestige as king, Solomon also engaged in many impressive building projects.  His most famous, of course, was the temple of the Lord.
     Despite all of that, Solomon was a realist.  He knew that the day would come when he would die.  When that day came, all of Solomon's treasures would be under the care of someone else.  As Solomon pondered it, he thought, “I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?  Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun.  This also is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19)  It is as if Solomon were saying, “What's the point?  You spend your life accumulating and collecting, and for what?  Vanity of vanities!  It is all meaningless.”
     Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities!  All is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 1:2)  The word “Vanity” conjures up images of a man who is full of himself—like Carly Simon singing, “You're so vain.”  Instead, the word here is related to the 2nd Commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” in other words, for no good purpose.  The word, “Vanity,” can also be translated “breath.”  If you think of a frigid January morning when you step outside and let out a giant breath, you see that cloud of vapor.  It hangs in the air for just a moment, and then it is gone.  That is what Solomon says that his toils and treasures were like.  They were a mist, a puff of air, for no enduring purpose.  They were enjoyed for a moment, and then gone.
     In fact, the evangelist James says in his epistle that we ourselves are like this mist: “What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 3:14)  For many people, that is what it all seems to boil down to—get up, go to work, collect a check, pay bills, and then repeat for decades on end.  All earthly toils, labors, and treasures are vanity and a striving after wind.
     Now, if this is all Solomon had to say, then he is the most dour and depressing man on earth.  Sadly, many live with this meaningless view of life.  If you count your treasures in dollars or in titles and then you realize how easily you can lose all of these things, you become grieved at how meaningless it all is.  Apart from Christ, it is all in vain.  Apart from Christ, there is nothing but to focus on how many treasures and pleasures you can accumulate in this world—and then you leave it all to someone else.  But God did not design life to be a pointless existence.  God gives you a treasure that is far better and more valuable than anything you can collect in this world.
     Apart from Christ, it is all in vain.  But you are not apart from Christ.  In our Gospel, Jesus reminds us, “One's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15)  On the contrary, your life consists in this: That Jesus Christ has taken possession of you!  The Lord was made man in order to exalt mankind.  He took on flesh and, in doing so, did not hoard the possessions that were rightly his as true God.  Jesus instead left the glories of heaven to take a place in this sin-corrupted earth.  Jesus gave up his time to people who were eager to see him, hear him, and begged for him to heal them.  Jesus treasured people and gave up all he had to redeem them.  Even the flesh that Jesus took on he gave up for you.  Jesus gave himself into death and his body to the grave in order to redeem you from sin, death, and the devil.  That is because Jesus treasures you!  Jesus ransomed you so that you are God's beloved people.  You are not your own.  You have been bought at a price.  You are God's possession, and so now you possess all of God's blessings—remission of all your sins, knowledge that God's favor rests upon you, wisdom for salvation, and the promise of everlasting glory.
     Apart from Christ it is all in vain.  But you are Christ's.  His bodily death pays for your sins.  And the body that was placed in a grave has also conquered it.  Because of Jesus' resurrection, you are also children of the resurrection.  For you are Christ's possession.  Everything that belongs to Jesus now also belongs to you.  Therefore, life is not one long, painful, and vexing march to the grave.  The grave has been conquered.  It will give you up as surely as it had to give Jesus up.  That is why your treasure is in heaven.  Jesus alone grants life that is not limited to a dying world.  Life is not about the accumulation of goods that go bad or the collection of possessions that slip through your fingers because of theft or storms or a bad economy.  Your treasure is Christ whose love, mercy, and grace never grow weak and never lose value.  His mercy endures forever; that is why your life shall endure forever.  With Christ, you have it all.
     Apart from Christ, it is all in vain.  But with Christ, even your day to day tasks find joy and fulfillment.  King Solomon writes, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.  This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25)  This is not to say that unbelievers don't have fun or that only Christians are happy people.  (And please don't try to convince someone who does not go to church that he is miserable.  That is vain in both senses of the word.)  Even the most devout Christian can find his work to be drudgery, and think that his life is aimless or his efforts are invisible.  Sometimes, this is just self-pity because the world does not celebrate you.  Other times, it is because you expect that your life is supposed to be some world-changing force.  Unless the Lord has given you some world-changing task, don't expect to change the world.  Besides, what makes you think the task he gives you is unimportant?  The Lord has given you vocations where you get to honor him and serve your neighbor.  And though they don't change the world, God is pleased with them.  However, if you are determined to find your joy from filling your wallet or feeding your ego, you will never be happy.  Apart from Christ, it is all in vain.
     However, your joy comes from being Christ's treasured possession.  That remains true no matter how much or how little you have.  It remains true whether you have your dream job or dread going to work.  It remains true if you are getting awards for your work or never get noticed for your work.  It remains constant no matter what you gain or lose.  The fact is, you are going to lose everything in this world.  Your goods, your loved ones, your abilities, your strength, and finally your breath—it will all pass away.  But the words and promises of God will never pass away.  You are always treasured by Christ and will always remain Christ's possession.  Even when you draw your final breath, the love of Christ will not be withdrawn from you.  For not even death will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:39)  
     So, if you should lose everything, you have ultimately lost nothing.  Even if you lose your life at a young age or lose a loved one at a young age, you have lost nothing.  God's promises will still stand.  The resurrection will come.  And eternal life is never cut short.  Apart from Christ, it is all in vain.  Apart from Christ, you get no comfort or hope.  But with Christ, you have all things.  By becoming the man who lived, died, and rose for you, Jesus Christ has exalted your humanity so that you are not a mere mist that exists for but a moment.  Rather, you are a precious creation of God whom God has ransomed for eternal life.  The Lord fills with joy and fulfillment which is not measured in worldly possessions or prestige, but rather in divine favor.  Your treasure is in heaven.  For there, you have a Savior who treasures you.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Local Tourist -- Historic Fort Wayne, Magical History Tour, etc.

Updated with a more accurate Post Title

This summer has been packed pretty well juggling five different schedules with only three cars, so the Local Tourist has had precious little time to be the tourist in the Detroit area he wants to be.  Nonetheless, we got out a few times this summer.  Here is a smattering of photos, with some commentary, from the various outings this past June and July.  Enjoy!

Dr. Seuss exhibit at Dow Center for the Arts in Midland, Michigan.
(I know this streches the "Local" in Local Tourist, but it was still in Michigan.)
The Tridge in Midland, Michigan.  Yes, it meets in the middle with three entry points.  Cool!
The Magical History Tour, an exhibit of Beatles memoriabilia, making its US debut at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.  Only $5 a person with our membership.  It will be on display here through Labor Day weekend.  A must for any Beatles fan!
A model of the Cavern Club where the Beatles honed their skills in Hamburg, Germany. 
One of several photos taken by a photographer who had asked to document the Beatles' coming to America in 1963.  The photographer, whose name I can't recall, worked without pay for the opportunity to get these photos.
Tour to Historic Fort Wayne in July, 2016.  This fort is south Detroit right on the Detroit River.  It is only open on weekends, and admission is only $5 per carload (secured parking).  Though guided tours are available, we did the self-guided tour.  It could and should be a featured tourist destination in Detroit, but is in a state of neglect and gets very little financial support to address many needed repairs, especially to the enlisted men's barracks (see below).  Despite the delapodated condition of many of the buildings, a great deal of this fort and its surrounding buildings still remain standing.  All support for Historic Fort Wayne is voluntary.  A generous grant or a large check from a benefactor could make this fort fantastic.
Entry to the star-shaped fort.  Beware of startled birds suddenly leaving their nests, resulting in startled visitors.
Some of the turrets still present (cannons aimed at Canada removed), as well as the barracks in the background.
The barracks building is still on good condition and is still used for various camps and re-enactments.
Peter enjoyed his visit to Historic Fort Wayne.  This, if I recall, was one of the officer's residences.  It was not open.
The fort jail is one of the few buildings still accessible for entry.
As you can see, many of the barracks have not been kept up and have suffered from years of neglect in the elements.  Please do not conufse this with the average neighborhood in Detroit (though many neighborhoods have similar looking issues.)

Friday, July 29, 2016

Something from ... Augustine on Good Works and Grace

          Something from St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (November 13, 354 - August 28, 430) on Good Works and Grace, noting that any good work we do is God working through us so that God rewards his own grace.  All of our salvation is God's doing, even our good works.

          “It is His own gifts that God crowns, not your merits—if, at least, your merits are of your own self, not of Him.  If, indeed, they are such, they are evil; and God does not crown them; but if they are good, they are God's gifts. ….
          “If, then, your good merits are God's gifts, God does not crown your merits as your merits, but as His own gifts.” (Augustine, Selections from “On Grace and Free Will,” chapter 15)

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sermon -- 10th Sunday after Pentecost (July 24, 2016)

LUKE 11:1-13


In the name + of Jesus.

      If it sounds strange that one of Jesus' disciples should ask Jesus to teach him how to pray, that's because it is.  The Jews knew how to pray.  It was a standard part of their life in the home, in the synagogue, and at the temple.  But Jesus had come proclaiming the message: “The Kingdom of heaven is near.”  And he had declared that he was the one who would be ushering in this kingdom.  So, the disciples were eager to know how they should pray in this kingdom and for this kingdom.
     Almost everything Jesus teaches about prayer is found in the first two words of the Lord's Prayer, “Our Father.”  “Our Father” tells us who God is, what our relationship to him is, and what his relationship to us is.  It tells us what we can expect from God, and what he desires of us.  He is our Father in heaven, and therefore, he desires what is best for us just as he desires what is best from us.
     Lord, teach us to pray.  Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father.”  He is your Father not just because he created you.  He is your Father especially because he redeemed you.  He loves you, and he demonstrated that love by sending his Son, Jesus, to do all that was necessary to bring you into his family.  Rather than give you want you deserve for your sins, God the Father gave Jesus what you deserve.  Rather than convict you because you are guilty—and you are—God the Father convicted and cursed his Son for your guilt.  Rather than forsake you for your continued weaknesses, God the Father forsook Jesus at the cross.  And now, rather than turn a deaf ear to your cries, God the Father turns his ear to you as any parent would heed the cries of a child in need.  Your Father in heaven has adopted you as his beloved children.  He is eager to hear his children call upon him.
     Lord, teach us to pray.  Jesus teaches us why we can trust our Father in heaven to hear and answer.  He told a parable of a man who asked his friend for a favor in the middle of the night.  It was not friendship that motivated the neighbor to act; it was because he was shameless in asking.  But God is not a friend who will only come to your aid reluctantly if you badger him enough.  He is your Father in heaven.  He summons you to pray, and he never finds your petitions inconvenient or burdensome.
     Lord, teach us to pray.  Jesus teaches us about the boldness with which we can come to our Father in heaven.  He says, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13)  Children will ask their parents for anything.  We parents often respond with an eye roll or a sigh because we find our children's requests to be an interruption or a burden.  Nevertheless, even sinful parents see to it that our children get what they need and what we believe to be the best for them.  That doesn't mean we give them whatever they ask for.  Some requests are unaffordable.  Some are just plain foolish.  But you would never give your children anything that is harmful for them.  And your children know that.  That's why they come to you and ask for anything.  Now, if sinful parents with limited resources, limited knowledge, and limited patience still know how to give their children what is good for them, will not your Father in heaven who is holy, loving, omnipotent, and omniscient give good gifts to you?  He will never give you want is destructive to you.  Whatever your Father in heaven gives you is ultimately for your good.  When the Lord does grant us a burden to bear, we complain about it.  Repent; for, the Lord gives us burdens to teach us to rely on him for the strength we do not have.  Your Father is the giver of every good and perfect gift.  He summons you to pray so that he will give you his gifts.
     Lord, teach us to pray.  And Jesus teaches you to pray with astounding confidence and freedom.  He basically issues a blank check to you.  Jesus says, “I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10)  Our sinful skepticism replies, “Oh, that's nonsense!  God will not do that much for me.”  But to say that is also to confess, “He is not really my Father in heaven.  He doesn't love me that much.”  Or, “He doesn't know me well enough to know what is best for me.”  Do not take Jesus' words lightly.  To believe Jesus when he issues that blank check is similar to the spirit in which children ask their parents for things.  Children are bold enough to ask for anything—whether it is candy or new shoes or a pony or a trip to Disney World.  Children do not crunch numbers or calculate the odds of getting what they ask for.  They just ask boldly.
     Now, your Father in heaven summons you to pray to him.  You are children of the Most High God.  He is your Father.  Therefore, you get to ask him boldly for anything—from a cure for cancer to rain for a green lawn to a faster morning commute.  And you get to ask with the confidence that your Father in heaven actually hears your prayers and will answer as is best for you.
     The Patriarch Abraham knew how to pray boldly to the Lord.  That's because he knew God's promises and he knew who God was.  Abraham did not pray for Sodom and Gomorrah, that they should be spared because God doesn't judge people.  Rather, Abraham prayed for the Church.  He prayed this way because he knew that God loves his Church and does not seek its destruction.  So Abraham held God to his word when he prayed, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  … Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked!  Far be that from you!  Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:23,25)  The Lord was not insulted by Abraham's prayer, but rather honored because Abraham believed God's word and held him to it.
     Lord, teach us to pray.  And he said to them, “When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.  And lead us not into temptation.” (Luke 11:2-4)  Jesus teaches you to pray not only for your daily worries and wants, he especially teaches you to pray for the spiritual gifts that God grants.  These are the good things that your Father in heaven wants you to have.  These gifts have everlasting value.  Your daily bread and your daily concerns are only for this momentary world.  Therefore, Jesus teaches you to pray that you would keep God's name holy with a pure faith and a godly life, that God would break and defeat every plan and purpose of the devil that would threaten us, that God would continue to be merciful to us in forgiving our sins, that God would lead us to demonstrate such mercy to other sinners, and that God would strengthen us against every temptation.  These are the blessings we need to strengthen and preserve us in the true faith until life everlasting.  And God the Father will never deny you these blessings; they are exactly what God wants you to have so that you will be his children both now and for eternal life.
     Therefore, when you pray, remember who it is to whom you are praying.  He is “Our Father” who loves us and has sent his Son to save us so that we will dwell with him forever.  If the Father wants you in his kingdom forever, then he certainly will care for your needs today.  We pray, holding God to his promises.  This honors him, and it comforts and aids us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sermon -- 9th Sunday after Pentecost (July 17, 2016)



In the name + of Jesus.

     Behold!  We are proclaiming the mystery of God, and that mystery is this: Christ dwells in you.  He has to, or else you are not saved.  He has to, or else you are unclean and under God's curse.
     That Jesus is your Savior is a great mystery.  It is not a secret.  A secret is something which is unknown.  But once a secret is revealed, you know all about it.  But a mystery is something that we ponder and will never unravel.  We know the message, but we can never truly grasp the depth of it.  We proclaim the mystery of God—that God has become man to dwell with sinners, to save them, and to dwell in them.  He has to; for, if God is unwilling to dwell with man, then there is no way man can ever dwell with God.  But Jesus is your Immanuel.  He is “God with us.”  He is God for us.  By faith, he is God within us—conforming our lives to his will, working in us to do good works through us, and sustaining us even through death to the resurrection to eternal life.  This is the mystery of God we proclaim.  We continue to ponder it, because our reason will never grasp it.
     Unfortunately, we lean on our reason to figure these things out.  We look for evidence of godliness, and we end up drawing faulty conclusions.  For example, your friends like you.  They speak favorably of you.  They might even say that you are such a good person that God will reward you for being nicer than most other people are.  Now, I am not going to tell you that you are not nice people.  Most people are nice.  But being nice does not save anyone.  Even felons can be nice, but they are still criminals.  Our senses and emotions prove nothing.  Our fondness for or dislike of someone should never be confused with God's judgment.
     This is what the Lord says: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)  Our hearts deceive us.  We credit ourselves with good intentions even when we do selfish things or think vicious thoughts.  We don't put the best construction on other people's words and actions; rather, we are quick to take offense that people do not regard us as highly as we regard ourselves.  If you don't think so, sit in the ER sometime.  You will see the people waiting ahead of you and wonder, “Seriously, what is their problem?  They don't look bad at all.  I am the emergency.  And why are the nurses so slow?  What's taking them so long?  Why aren't they tending to me?  They must take great pleasure in making me wait and watching me suffer.”  We assume the worst of others and despise them for not making us their first priority.  We are self-absorbed and self-important, and we still believe that we are good people.  The heart is deceitful above all things.
     But now, we proclaim the mystery of God, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.  Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Colossians 1:27-28)  Notice what Paul says: “Him—that is, Christ—we proclaim.” (Colossians 1:28)  You see, the kingdom of God is not about you.  Your sinful nature sure wants it to be.  You want to be exalted and praised and honored and respected and accepted.  You want God to notice you and tell you how he loves what you do.  But St. Paul reminds you that God's stamp of approval does not come because of your deeds: “You … were once alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds....” (Colossians 1:21)  The sinful nature never improves.  The sinful heart remains deceitful above all things.
     It is not that you have overcome what you once were; it is that you have been rescued from what you once were.  Christ has put his stamp on you, and that is why God approves of you.  That is why we proclaim the mystery of God, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.  Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Colossians 1:27-28)  With that, our focus and our gospel rest on the one who delivers us.  If we are in Christ and Christ is in us, then we are saved.  Then our hope remains firm.
     We proclaim the mystery of God.  Jesus Christ is God who became man, not merely to live with us, but to become one of us.  Our Lord desired your salvation to the extent that he united himself to you and took up your cause.  Jesus did the good that is supposed to be done.  Not only did Jesus' friends and strangers recognize the good he did, even his enemies could not deny his good works.  Pontius Pilate, who finally ordered Jesus' execution, repeatedly announced that he had done nothing wrong.  That's because Jesus was not merely nice, he was holy.  That holiness answers for you.  It is why you get to stand before God with the verdict Jesus has earned: holy and blameless and above reproach. (Colossians 1:22)  That is why we proclaim Jesus rather than ourselves, because salvation is found only in Jesus.
     We proclaim the mystery of God.  He has now reconciled (you) in his body of flesh by his death... (Colossians 1:22)  We proclaim the mystery: our God is a man.  He took our sins into his fleshly body.  Jesus' body was nailed to the cross for sinful acts he did not commit and for perverse thoughts he did not ponder.  He bled and died for you in order to reconcile you.  Jesus was forsaken by his Father at his death so that the Father will never forsake you at yours.  Jesus became “God with us” in order to bring us back to God so that we would dwell with him forever.  By faith, we even have our God dwell within us, creating in us a clean heart and renewing in us a right spirit.  All the good that we do is God working in us and through us.
     This is a mystery which we continue to marvel at, and the world continues to mock.  The world declares a work to be good if it benefits one's neighbor.  The world says it is good if you help people do whatever makes them happy, even if God forbids it.  The world will rebuke and reproach you if you fail to do so.  The world is outraged when we do not praise sins and is perplexed when we do not participate in them.
     God, however, declares a work good only if the one who does it is good.  In God's assessment, a wicked man cannot do good at all.  By his death, Jesus Christ has rescued you from wickedness.  By faith in Jesus, you have been declared holy and blameless and above reproach. (Colossians 1:22)  The blood of Jesus continues to purify you of all sin. (1 John 1:7)  That holy blood is the stamp that Jesus has put on you, and therefore, God approves of you and your works.  Now, if God will not reproach you, then you know that glory awaits you in the life to come.  To the world, that is an inexplicable mystery.  To us, it is the mystery of God which we proclaim, ponder, and put our hope in.
     We proclaim the mystery of God which also consists of this: God delivers his salvation to us through material things.  Just as God took on flesh to save us, so God continues to come in material things to deliver that salvation to us.  He attached his word to water to wash you clean of sin and guilt.  He attaches his word to bread and wine to deliver to you the body and blood which reconcile you to God.  He delivers his word through the mouth of fleshy ministers who bestow God's peace upon you.  Jesus does not divorce himself from these tangible things; rather, our Immanuel continues to be with us and to come to us through them.  For, God does not merely save spirits; he saves people.  Therefore, Jesus died in his body, but also rose in his body from the grave to redeem you completely so that he will raise you up completely in body and soul for eternal life.  And therefore, you serve him not just in spirit, but with your whole being.
     We proclaim the mystery of God: The man, Jesus, is God.  God is the man, Jesus.  He who became flesh takes up residence in your flesh to make you God's own forever.  Your goodness, your salvation, and your hope are found only in Jesus Christ.  And by faith, Jesus Christ is found in you.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

A Pastoral Concern -- Reflecting on 20 years at Good Shepherd

          Today, July 14, 2016, marks the exact date for my 20 year anniversary at Good Shepherd.  After serving for two years as an instructor at West Lutheran High School (now in Plymouth, Minnesota; back then it was in Hopkins), I was reassigned to a parish.  Two years of teaching in high school taught me that I am not a high school teacher, so I chose to do what I was trained to do--be a parish pastor.

          So, we moved on a beastly hot day from suburban Minneapolis to suburban Detroit.  After a week or two to settle in, I was installed as the pastor at Good Shepherd on Sunday, July 14, 1996.  Laura and I had only been married four years at the time.  The move to Novi was our 5th move already.  Laura and I were both eager to not see a moving van anytime soon.  I don't know if either of us expected that our prayers would be answered with 2 decades in one place.

          When we moved here, we had only two children.  Faith was coming up on 2 years old, and Nathanael was only about six months old.  Now we have six children who fill our house (as well as Isaac who was a still birth before Laura went full term)--Faith, Nathanael, Andrew, Caleb, Philip, and Peter.  No matter how often we tell them that we live in a parsonage and that the house is not ours forever, they all tell us that this is "home" and that we are not allowed to move.  It is the only home they know.
All the kids, Faith, Nathanael, Andrew, Caleb, Philip, & Peter
Nathanael's girlfriend, Charli, is included, too.
From May 2016.

          20 years of ministry in one place certainly has its share of blessings.  For one thing, some people who drift away from the church unexpectedly come back from time to time.  It is far more the exception than the rule, but you can't help but rejoice over every exception you experience; and then you pray for more of those.

          20 years of ministry also means watching children grow into adulthood.  I have had the privilege of confirming a good number of children I have baptized, and marrying several people I have confirmed.  I am not too far off being able to marry people I have baptized.  But 20 years also means that I have had to bury people whom I have regarded as dear friends.  This is the cold, hard reality that we are still sinners living in a sinful world, but even that does not erase the hope that all Christians have and which I proclaim at every funeral: "We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come." (Nicene Creed)

          Besides the joys of the ministry, I also get to live with my frustrations and regrets.  No pastor is flawless, and we all get to prove that we are not.  There are a number of situations over the past years that I have handled badly, even sinning against people whom I have been called to serve.  For the most part, the love of members has covered over my evils and they have either overlooked my faults or forgiven me for them.  Although I know that I cannot personally save anyone (I preach and teach; the Holy Spirit does the real work), I often fear that I have managed to drive some away either by poor pastoral care, neglect, or a poorly spoken word.  These are the things that haunt most pastors, and I am thankful that there is absolution following confession for my sins in this regard.  This is not a pity party; it is the reality of being a pastor who is still a sinner,

          A few weeks ago, the members here graciously honored me for my 20 years here and presented me with very generous gifts.  I consider this a tremendous act of love from people who delight in Jesus and treasure the ministers he entrusts to them.  After 20 years (and a good number of members have been here that long), the congregation is all too familiar with my mannerisms, quirks, and weaknesses.  Still, they chose to honor me, and they choose to keep coming to be served by me.  Laura and I have always been treated well here, and we are grateful for the congregation that meets here.  We are also hopeful that more will be added to our congregation so that we can rejoice together in God's good gifts.

          The greatest joy and privilege of being a pastor at one place for 20 years is to declare the mercy and grace of God over and over again to people who need it, crave it, and delight in it.  God does not tire of telling his children how great his love is for them, and he has ordained me to be the one who proclaims his promises, to administer his sacraments, and to comfort his people.  I am thankful that the Lord has blessed Good Shepherd through my ministry, and pray that he will continue to do so.  It is Christ's Church.  They are his promises.  And the people are his redeemed.  I do my best to never forget that, and the people of Good Shepherd have been kind enough to thank me for my part in that.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sermon -- 8th Sunday after Pentecost (July 10, 2016)



In the name + of Jesus.

      When an expert in the law asked Jesus what works he had to do to receive eternal life, Jesus did not tell the man to look inside of himself to feel what was good for him.  He did not talk about what his society viewed as good or evil.  Jesus pointed the man to one place: “What is written in the Law?  How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26)  God's commands are not a mystery.  God tells us distinctly what we must do to have eternal life.  He etched it in stone, and we have it written in print.  It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’  Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ (Deuteronomy 30:12-13)  
     Both of those verbs—hear it and do it—are important.  Neither is optional.  In order to know what is good and right so that you may do it, God must tell you what he is pleased with.  In order to know what is evil and warped so that you may avoid it, God must tell you what he forbids.  To be fair, some of these things are obvious.  This past week we heard about police who gunned down men in Baton Rouge and in Minnesota for seemingly wicked reasons, and we saw police get gunned down in Dallas for admittedly wicked reasons.  A lot of evil is recognized for what it is.
     Still, our society has influenced even Christians so that we no longer recognize sin when we see it, or we are afraid to call it sin.  To use as an example a sin which is all too prominent, consider what the Lord says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” (Hebrews 13:4)  Unfortunately, many Christians have adopted the worldly attitudes about this.  Even Christians now embrace fornication and cohabitation and are surprised or enraged when they are called to repent of these things.  Even worse, both those who engage in these sins and those who are friends and family of them issue warnings to the church: If you discipline the people who do these things, you will lose many families.  So, our acceptance of sins outweighs our love for God's word.  Our pride is greater than our fear of God.  And we even dare God to punish us for them.  Even pastors are more worried about losing members and offerings than the eternal welfare of those they serve.  Be warned, and repent.  For, it is God who determines good and evil.  God declares to you plainly what good and evil is so that he you can hear it and do the good and flee from the evil.  And God also enforces his law.
     This is what the Lord says, and he says it to Christians: “You may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.  Therefore, do not become partners with them...” (Ephesians 5:5-7)  Repent!
     The expert in the law who came to Jesus knew that something was expected of him to enter the kingdom of God.  He did not ask what he could get away with.  He asked what good he needed to do.  God gave his law to declare the good we should do.  It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’  Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ (Deuteronomy 30:12-13)  God makes no secret of good and evil.  We do not have to climb Mt. Everest to contemplate God's will; he tells us.  We do not need to sail across the ocean to know what God desires; he says so.
     The word is very near you.  It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deuteronomy 30:14)  God's word is not mere theory.  Three times in these short verses, Moses utters the phrase, “Do it.”  Though the hearing of God's Word, the Lord implants faith in our hearts.  But faith cannot just sit there.  Faith hears God's word which  aligns our will with his.  But then faith goes into action with love.  Love always seeks the good of others.  Only when love is united with faith are our deeds good.
     As we noted before, God's word always defines what is good and what is evil.  God's word, however, also highlights that we have not lived up to what is good.  We are guilty of evil.  Like the expert in the law, we are convinced that we have done good, but we are careful to limit our definitions of good, thinking that we are excused from doing good to people who irk us or from doing good all the time.  God's law convicts the whole world of sin, making us all stand guilty before him.  But this is good; for this means that you will not try to take pride in your good works.  And you don't have to waste energy trying to come up with reasons why your sins are not that bad.  Instead, you get to forsake every effort to defend or excuse yourself, and you flee to God for mercy.
     The word is very near you, and that is good news; for this is what guarantees God's love for you.  Many think that God loves everyone and either ignores or forgives sins, just because that is what God should do.  But that is salvation based on your thoughts.  You are not saved by your personal reflections, and there is no certainty there.  Nor are you saved because you simply want to be saved and the thought of going to hell is just too horrible to accept.  That may be what you want, but no one is saved just because he wants it.  There is neither salvation nor assurance in any of your thoughts, your desires, your efforts, or your dreams.  If you want to be saved, then God must act.  And if you want to be sure that you are saved, then God must say so.
    Good news: God does say so.  The word is very near you so that you can hear it, know it, study it, cling to it, and cherish it.  God does not leave you to guess what saves you.  He tells you in unmistakable words.  This is what the Lord says: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)  We have our children memorize verses like these so that it is in your mouth and in your heart... (Deuteronomy 30:14)  God gives us promises so that we can trust them and be comforted in them.  He points us to Jesus for our salvation.  Jesus is the one who saves us from the curse of the law by having kept the law for us.  Moses had given the command to hear God's word and do it; and Jesus has.  He is the Lord our Righteousness, and he has bestowed his righteousness upon us so that we are blameless before our God.  We are not blameless just because we want to be, but because God has said so.  Jesus has also saved us from God's wrath because of our disobedience.  We are not saved because we think we should be, but because God said so.  For this is what the Lord says: “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” (1 Peter 3:18)  The word is very near you, and it shows you that you are saved.  You have God's own word on it.
     Since we have been saved and set apart from a sinful world, let us live as those who are saved and set apart from a sinful world.  We recognize that God's law is good and is right to do; therefore, we conform our lives according to it, and the Lord in his word continues to guide us in paths of righteousness.  In this way, we get to love and honor our Lord and Savior, and we get to love and serve our fellow man.
     The word is very near you to hear it and to do it.  That is what we strive for.  But our comfort is always this: We are not saved by our merits, but by the merits of Jesus Christ.  He lives and reigns to be our Savior who forgives our sins, who declares us saints, and who confess us to be his redeemed people.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Something from ... Athanasius regarding the bodily resurrection of Jesus

          Something from St. Athanasius (c. 296 - May 2, 373), bishop of Alexandria, regarding the bodily death and resurrection of Jesus.
          Athanasius highlights the historical fact of Jesus' death, as seen by witnesses, so that they could know for certain that he was truly raised from the dead.  Since his resurrection had witnesses, also could also testify that he had truly died, then we have the confidence that death is truly overcome--and all who believe are victors and children of the resurrection with him.

          “Now death must precede resurrection, as it would be no resurrection did not death precede; so that if the death of His body had taken place anywhere in secret, the death not being apparent nor taking place before witnesses, His Resurrection too had been hidden and without evidence.
“Or how could the end of death, and the victory over it be proved, unless challenging it before the eyes of all He had shown it to be dead, annulled for the future by the incorruption of His body?” (Athanasius, Selections from “On the Incarnation of the Word,” paragraph 23, sentences 1 and 4)

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Sermon -- For the nation in recognition of Independence Day (July 3, 2016)

Focus on God's gift of our Nation in recognition of July 4.

1 TIMOTHY 2:1-7


In the name + of Jesus.

     St. Paul's first epistle to Timothy has much to do with the organization of a Christian congregation and of the Divine Services in it.  Perhaps it is surprising, then, what St. Paul highlights as one of the most important matters.  He writes, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2)  St. Paul urges Christian congregations, wherever they gather, “first of all,” to pray for their earthly rulers and authorities, whoever they happen to be.
     As Americans, we have the right to speak freely about our leaders and authorities.  We also seem to make it our duty to find every fault we can with them.  Though our leaders will have their faults—for, no one is faultless—St. Paul still tells us to pray for them.  Over the past 20 years, I have led the congregation's prayers for President Clinton, Bush, and Obama.  In about 7 months, there will be another name to add to that list.  We have also prayed for Governors Engler, Granholm, and Snyder.  Sadly, Christians have cringed at praying for these leaders.  Perhaps you have even withheld your “Amen” from those prayers.  If so, your problem is not really with those leaders as much as it is with the word of God.  For this is what the Lord says: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
     In praying for your leaders, you are not endorsing their policies, anymore than St. Paul was endorsing Caesar's claim to be Lord or imperial persecution against Christians.  The reason for your prayers is exactly what St. Paul says, “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Timothy 2:2)  We pray for peace that we may live in peace and proclaim God's peace.
     Perhaps one reason people are so passionate about politics is because people believe the government exists to fix all our problems.  It is true that the government serves to make life orderly and easier.  The police arrest criminals to keep communities safe.  The highway department is making I-275 a much smoother ride.  Congress distributes taxes to provide for community services and disaster relief.  But a government made up sinful people who serve a nation of sinful people is never going to fix everything in a broken world.  If you expect that, then the government is your god.  Or perhaps you despise your government, putting more effort into chest-thumping about your rights than in the responsibility of being an obedient citizen.
     The closest thing this world has ever known as a perfect government is when the Lord chose Israel as his special people.  In order to preserve Israel as the nation through whom the Savior would come, the Lord personally gave his laws to Israel.  And yet, the Israelites rebelled against God's rule.  They complained against God's spokesmen, Moses and Aaron.  They found God's laws to be oppressive.  They acted out in rebellion against the Lord and his word.  Eventually, they rejected the Lord's leadership and begged for a king so that they could be like all the other nations.  The problem was not the Lord, but the sinners under his care.  If that is what people think of government when the Lord is in charge, why would you expect anything better when sinners are in charge?
     No matter who is in authority, this is what the Lord tells us: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:1-2)  This does not mean every ruler or government is always right.  If they promote evil, it is God's place to avenge, not ours.  The sins of rulers and authorities do not give us permission to sin against them.  If we do make it our role to avenge, then we should not be surprised if we incur judgment from both God and the state.  The state cannot tolerate rebels, and God does not either.
     We submit to the government authorities in obedience to the 4th Commandment.  We submit to the government because we recognize it for what it is: God's servant which he established to serve for the good of those it governs—both to keep peace and to promote safety and justice.  This is what we pray for.  We pray for peace so that we may live in peace and proclaim God's peace.  Therefore, we pray for kings and all who are in high positions.  This is good, and it is pleasing to God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all... (1 Timothy 2:1,3-6)  If you desire to be set free from a broken world, then the kingdom you crave is found in Jesus Christ.  This world is broken because of sin.  People's lives are messed up because of sin.  The police department and the courts are necessary because they have to deal with people who have sinned against each other.  But worse—death and damnation come because people are sinners.  God's judgment is incurred by us because we have rebelled against God with our sins; and God does not tolerate rebellion.
     There is no government program that ends death or rescues sinners from God's judgment.  There is no law which will fix or set you free from a broken world.  Only Jesus Christ does these things.  Jesus Christ is the mediator between God and man; for Jesus is both God and man.  Jesus became man in order to live in our broken world and to render the obedience to the 4th Commandment which we have not.  Even though Jesus suffered unjustly before worldly courts, he did not spew out threats or curses upon these rulers.  Even though the likes of Herod and Pontius Pilate would act violently and wretchedly, Jesus never called for them to be overthrown.  Jesus was obedient to the governing authorities, even when they were cruel and unjust.
     But Jesus did all of this for us.  He submitted to the orders of both the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate so that he would pay the price for our rebellion against God and one another.  God does not tolerate rebels, and so Jesus was condemned and cursed for our rebellion.  He paid the price with his holy life.  Jesus, who was innocent, was crucified as a criminal so that we, who are law-breakers, would be declared innocent through faith in him.  But now Jesus is risen.  He lives and reigns in order to present us before God the Father as people who have been purified from all sin.  He lives and reigns to bring us out of a broken and sinful world into an eternal life in a glorious and flawless kingdom.  He lives and reigns over that perfect kingdom, and he is pleased to have us dwell in his kingdom forever.  You already receive some of those benefits now.  For, your sins are forgiven.  You live under God's favor.  You have the peace of knowing your verdict in God's judgment: You are redeemed, restored, and forgiven.
     We pray for peace so that we can continue to proclaim that peace through Jesus Christ.  While worldly governments rise and fall, the kingdom of our God endures forever.  No law can take away Jesus' sufferings and death; therefore nothing can take away your forgiveness.  No power can undo Jesus' resurrection from the dead; therefore, your resurrection to eternal life and everlasting glory always stands firm.  No ruler can take away God's love and favor from you.  Therefore, you get to serve God and your neighbor in peace.  This peace from God you always have.  This peace from God is what the world craves and needs.  Therefore we pray for peace in this world so that we can lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Timothy 2:2)  Then, by our words and actions, we can proclaim the peace of God which guards and keeps us in this life, and assures our place in God's glorious and eternal kingdom.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.