Friday, December 29, 2006

"Who's mission is it, anyway?" (June 2004)

The mission statement of Sesame Street's Cookie Monster reads as follows:
To rule the world, get lots of cookies, eat the cookies, and then get more cookies.
While some churches seem to be pursuing the Cookie Monster's insatiable approach of "getting" more members, more offerings, more land and buildings (the churches of never enough). Redeemer Lutheran is, by God's grace, fundamentally different in its approach to doing ministry in this community — ministry that truly pleases Christ and benefits Christian faith.
In the 1990s, mission statements for businesses were all the rage. Every incorporated entity, from IBM to the Girl Scouts to Weinerschnitzel had its own unique mission statement. This fascination with mission statements spilled over into the realm of managing one's own personal affairs, especially after the success of Stephen Covey's book entitled Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
However, written mission statements can never guarantee "success" or "effectiveness." Enron had a great mission statement that touted respect, integrity, communication and excellence, and everyone knows where they ended up. No wonder why the excesses of this "mission statement mentality" has been the subject of workplace humor, the best example continuing to be Dilbert's interactive "Mission Statement Generator" (see for an insightful commentary on the silliness of this aspect of the culture of corporate America.).
Even the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has not been immune from the mistaken belief that simply "jazzing up" a mission statement will get real Christian ministry any further down the line. (As a member on the floor committee that refined resolutions concerning mission and evangelism for the synod-wide convention held in Saint Louis in 1998,1 was surprised when so many on the committee were adamant in adding the word "vigorously" to the phrase "to make known the love of Christ" in the denomination's newly adopted mission statement.)
When Christ called his Church to graciously participate in his mission, he didn't command the disciples to "vigorously go and enthusiastically make empowered disciples." Why?
One of the precious treasures Christ has entrusted to the Christian Church through pastors and theologians such as Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, Martin Luther and C.F.W. Walther (the founding president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) is the proper distinction between the Law of God and the Gospel of God within the Holy Scriptures. That art of correctly understanding the fundamental difference between the role of Moses and Christ has been all but obscured in today's churches, especially when our old, sinful nature is capable of only loving our own efforts to try to vigorously keep all the rules and regulations announced by God (or anyone else) for our salvation.
When Martin Luther published his German translation of the Gospel Accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John he prefaced the sacred text with "A Brief Introduction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels." In this introduction Luther pleads with his reader (and each of us today):
Be sure ... that you do not make Christ into a Moses, as if Christ did nothing more than teach and provide examples as the other saints do, as if the Gospel were simply a textbook of teachings and laws. Therefore you should grasp Christ, his words, works, and sufferings, in a two-fold manner. First, as an example that is presented to you, which you should follow and imitate ... . However, this is the smallest part of the Gospel, on the basis of which it cannot yet even be called "Gospel. " For on this level Christ is of no help to you than some other saint. ... In short this mode [of understanding Christ simply as example] does not make Christians but only hypocrites. You must grasp Christ at a much higher level. Even though this higher level has for a long time been the very best, the preaching of it has been something rare. The chief article and foundation of the Gospel is that before you take Christ as example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a
present that God has given you and that is your own. ... Concerning this Isaiah 9:6 says, "To us a child is born, to us a son is given." If he is given to us, then he must be ours; and so we must also receive him as belonging to us. ... See, when you lay hold of Christ as a gift which is given for you for your very own, and have no doubt about it, you are a Christian. Faith [then] redeems you from sin, death, and hell and enables you to overcome all things. Oh, no one can speak enough about this! It is a pity that this kind of preaching has been silenced in the world, and yet boast is made daily of "the Gospel."
Now when you have Christ as the foundation and chief blessing of your salvation, then the other part follows: that you take him as your example, giving yourself in service to your neighbor just as you see that Christ has given himself for you. ... Therefore make not of this, that Christ as a gift nourishes your faith and makes you a Christian. But Christ as an example exercises your works and does not make you a Christian. (Actually, [good works] come forth from you because you have already been made a Christian.) As widely as a gift differs from an example, so widely does faith differ from works, for faith possesses nothing of its own, only the deeds and life of Christ. (Luther's Works 35:119-20)
In 1995, the synod in convention requested a study be done on the Church Growth Movement. The report of the committee formed to study the issue began with the statement:
"The saving presence of God the Holy Trinity through the means of grace (Word and Sacrament) is the heart and center of the Church's life, worship and growth." (7)
This is a critical period in the life of Redeemer Lutheran Church & School in Huntington Beach, California. Last July we as a congregation marked not forty years of great human efforts to make this a great congregation, but forty years of God's saving presence among us, gathering and maturing his little flock through the Scriptures, Baptism and the Lord's Supper - through the confession of sins and the forgiving of them. And as a new chapter begins to unfold, we need to be reminded that mission statements and vision statements and slogans and buildings and programs are nothing more than simple little human tools that need to be constantly re-measured by the Gospel of God's saving gift of grace - tools that are placed at the feet of Christ, who beckons us to put our faith in his mission, the mission given to him by none other than our heavenly Father.
During these summer months continue to keep Redeemer Lutheran (and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) in your prayers, asking God to continue to be gracious and merciful to us as he continues to send out his life-giving Word into our hearts and the communities around us. As we sing to God in the words of a favorite hymn:

0 Lord, once lifted on the glorious Tree,
Raise us, and let your Cross the magnet be.
(Lift High the Cross)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

What’s Left for Us After Christmas? Life After December 25th

Not much seems to be left for us after all the festivities of the Christmas season are gone. Christmas trees are turning brown and loosing their needles. Now they’re more of a fire hazard than anything else. Gifts given and gifts received have already been immobilized by dead batteries, exchanged at the store, or put away in the back corner of a closet. And as we are pushed back into the anything-but-special nature of our daily routine, we understand even more clearly than last year why Janaury is the month in which we are most vulnerable to feelings of disappointment and even depression. As we put the ornaments and Nativity set back into their weathered boxes a voice comes and asks, “What are you left with now?”
Well, for those who put their faith in Christ, the celebrations on Christmas Day do not have to end the morning of December 26th. The Church Year, which began with Advent and Christmas Day, continues its journey to Good Friday, Easter Sunday and straight ahead to Ascension Day, Pentecost and beyond. On January 6th the Christian Church around the world will celebrate again the Festival of the Epiphany of the Lord. The word “Epiphany” means “the display” or “the showing” and centers on the appearance of Jesus to the Gentiles -- to all peoples outside of the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This festival of the Epiphany of our Lord continues the celebration of Jesus Christ, with particular focus on the three foreign “wise Men” or “magi” who traveled afar to worship the announced Savior as he ruled from the manger. We too have been given the revelation from heaven that Jesus has been born for all people -- “a Light to the Gentiles and the Glory of his people Israel,” we often sing of Jesus during services.
To all of us threatened by the surrounding darkness and gloom of a Christ-less January, the Light comes to us again through the Scriptures to remind us that, just as the darkness was overcome when God created the world,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1, 4-5)

A blessed season of the Epiphany of our Lord to you and yours!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Expecting the Unexpected at Christmas

In the Name of Jesus

Dear Brothers and Sisters Baptized into the Birth, Death and Resurrection of Christ:

Are you expecting any unexpected visitors on Christmas Day?
"There here!" announce the children in front of the television screen in a famous science fiction thriller, and the news is far from good news.
Our reaction to the announcement that someone's coming towards the door or down the chimney all depends on the reason for their advent -- or why we think they are sudden appearing.
If we are expecting the plumber to call and stop the water from gushing out of the back of a toilet tank or the firemen to arrive and douse the fire in the attic, the sound of the doorbell is pure Gospel in the midst of quickly overwhelming chaos and destruction.
We welcome a house call with open arms and loud rejoicing if the dwelling housing those under our care is quickly filling with the smell of natural gas and a strong arm with the right sized wrench arrives to rescue all inside.
But these days, those called to visit our dwellings and rescue from certain calamity find it increasingly difficult to get any response at the door or even gain entry through a window.
Why does the fire truck find windows locked and covered with wrought iron grates? Why does the search and rescue unit find doors locked and bolted -- and double-bolted? Why do those sent to our homes to serve and protect find it impossible to gain access in order to save life and limb?
Deep down inside, we fear visitors. Southern California is not only known as the land of movie stars and stretch limousines, surfboards and fish tacos, it is the land of gated everything; front lawns sporting signs of warning from security companies; back yards darkened by the height of our razor-wire decorated cinderblock. Our neck of the woods has become the land of security cameras and pit bulls and metal detectors and unlisted phone numbers.
Deep down inside, we fear visitors. That's why especially at this time of year we see news reports of inhabitants dying while rescue personnel attempt to gain access to their fortified apartments and condominiums and houses. Neighbor-hood has been replaced by person-hood and privacy.
I remember making my first "pastor call" in Huntington Beach to a couple who had visited services here. I rang the door bell and thanked the family for visiting. In kind, they thanked me for thanking them and then ended the conversation by saying, "Thanks for stopping by, and, next time, please don't show up before calling first."
We don't want unexpected visitors; we want them to stay away and leave us to our own devices. It's almost like it's part of our very nature.
But Christmas Day flies in the face of all our little kingdom building and gate constructing and lock installing. God comes to rescue us, even though we may not yet know that we need a rescuer. God sends his merciful messengers to prepare us for the great visit of his only-begotten Son. We have been visited, not by aliens from another planet, but by harbingers with something heavenly: the Word of God. That's the way it has been since Adam and Eve were barred from Paradise by their own doubting thoughts and rebel acts under the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Word of God has come to every generation to announce: your redemption and your children's redemption will be sent from heaven, and through the seed of the woman you will be snatched from your own destruction.
Visits by bearers of God's gracious Word were the order of the day for Abraham and Noah, Jonah and Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, David and Daniel. God never tired of the resounding message of his love and care for the un-loveable and the uncaring. "The Messiah is coming. The Messiah is surely drawing near." cried the prophets.
Christmas is a season in which God's Word comes to level valleys and hills and make impassable roads ready for the feet of the Christ Child come to save. Christmas is a season in which God's Word comes to a manger to break down the walls and gates and locks we have constructed in our minds and hearts -- out of self-centered ambitions and spiritual fears.
"He's here!" proclaim prophets and angels, the messengers of God's undeserved mercy and forgiveness. "Despite the fact that you do not love God with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself, God still comes to take away your guilt and shame and bring back to Paradise all who receive his message in repentance and faith."
Christmas begins with heavenly messengers coming to Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph. "It is time. The advent of the Messiah and his fore-runner is here. Now, the Son of God will visit his people and take upon himself the crushing burden of their sin."
This is the message proclaimed this morning for all mankind, for all languages and peoples, from India to Indonesia to Indiana. From Cincinnati to Singapore to Sydney. A Savior -- for you -- is now coming to visit and rescue his people.
From an Australian paraphrase of the Bible, we hear the miraculous coming of salvation proclaimed in our Gospel this morning:
Mary didn't muck about. She got packed and ankled it up to a town in the hills, where she went straight to Zeck and Libby's place, so that she could say G'day to Lib. When Libby heard Mary's Cooee at the front door the baby in her womb gave a kick like a footie player at a grand final, and Lib was filled with God's Spirit. With a big grin, and a voice that could rattle windows, she said: "Good onya Mary! You beaut! God's chosen you out of all the sheilas in the world, and your baby will be God's toddler. But, stone the crows, why would the mum of my Big Boss, my Lord, come and see me? As soon as I heard the sound of your voice my little bun in the oven went bananas with excitement. Good onya for believing what God told you -- for believing that God can do what he says he can do." (Luke 1:39-45 The Aussie Bible)
By nature -- by our own fallen nature -- we guard our hearts and minds as much as we do our homes. We have convinced ourselves, "It's too risky to trust and care and give and give and give, only to be hurt again. This Christmas I'll play it safe and hang out with only those I know won't make things uncomfortable or draining or risky. No one's going to come and show up unannounced and do something unexpected."
But faith believes that God can do what he says he can do -- even with barrier-building children of Adam and Eve. Faith responds to the announcement of angels by saying, "Why would you send your precious Son, why would you send him to be born in my sorry condition, why would you do all of this -- for me -- for even me?"
Do you find yourself this day before Christmas a prisoner of your own making? Have you barricaded the door to your soul and welded an iron grate over your heart? Have you made yourself unable to open the door for God as he comes knocking unannounced?
The Good News only the Christ Child brings is the Gospel that enables us to do what we were unable and unwilling to do: receive salvation as pure gift, receive our redemption as pure grace, take into our sin-stained arms the babe born in our place to live our life and die our death -- all without trades or deal-making.
This is what Elizabeth and Mary began to put their trust in, the same trust God has created in your heart, and in the hearts of all who would receive the Savior as he comes unexpectedly in the wrappings of a manger.
You see, faith in God and the one he graciously sends simply says and sings of God and the one he graciously sends -- to the poor and undeserving.
And then Mary said, "My soul is as happy as Larry with God and my mind is just buzzing with God my Rescuer because he picked me -- me! And I'm about as important as a bottle washer's assistant! But from now on everyone who ever lives will call me well off -- looked after by God -- for the One who can do anything has done great things for me. His name is the only Name that matters. His gentleness rolls on like a river. He has done great things that would just knock your socks off. The rich, the stuffed shirts, the boss cockies, don't impress God; he knocks them off their perch. But those who don't have tickets on themselves he gives a hand to. He provides tucker for the hungry and sends the toffee noses away without a feed. He has wrapped his great arms around his chosen. He hasn't forgotten his kindness and gentleness. Exactly what he promised yonks ago is what is happening now."
Mary stayed with Libby for a few months and then nicked off back home again. (Luke 1:46-56 The Aussie Bible)
It could be said that this song of Mary was the first Christian hymn sung by the first Christian. No wonder why our hymnals contain no less than five different hymns based on these words from Mary's lips as she joyfully extols the greatness of God's kindness shown to all who are spiritually poor and needy and hungry, having nothing to offer a perfect and holy God save their many sins.
Mary will have nothing to do with extolling herself. She sings of what is most sure: what the Lord has graciously done for her through his unexpected coming.
Are you expecting any unexpected visitors on Christmas Day?
May Christ visit you this Christmas morn to tear down the barriers of sin and doubt and fear and speak his word of peace and forgiveness and reconciliation. I have come to rescue you, just as I had promised, unexpectedly, amazingly, through my manger and my cross, through my life and death and resurrection and ascension.
Christ shepherds from this thistled place / The flocks by thickets torn;
His pierced hands heal all your race / Sore wounded by the thorn.
Embrace the Christ child, and with songs / Bind up the hearts of men.
To shepherd-healer-king let throngs / Sing glorias again.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Is Jesus the Coming One? Luke 7:19

In the name of Jesus
Dear brothers and sisters baptized into the name of Christ:
Why aren't the pews filled on this third Sunday in Advent? Why aren't there more people to hear all the true and clear answers the Church has for faith in this life and the life to come? A big part of the answer is the fact that people aren't asking any of the questions the Church has answers for. That's true of Christianity in general and the Lutheran Church in particular. Martin Luther was, by God's grace, led to re-discover the Bible's answer -- God's answer -- to the central question, "How can I stand and survive before a holy and righteous God?" But people today are not asking that question. It's completely off their radar.
Modern western civilization has convinced itself -- with the help of TV evangelists and today's pop Christianity gurus -- that everyone is basically a good person. And when it comes to our little personal frailties, God just winks and pretends none of our fallen thoughts, words, and deeds every happened.
So either the Church caves in and starts preaching and teaching what the world and our fallen human nature wants to hear (what the world and our sinful nature has already convinced itself of) or the Church continues to be misunderstood and judged out-of-step, and increasingly irrelevant with the modern world and modern men and women in it.
That's no more apparent during two seasons of the Church year: Advent and Lent.
Santa Claus never needed someone to prepare his way (unless you count Rudolph's shiny nose). The Easter bunny never needed someone to get people ready for an egg roll and chocolate.
In any spiritual approach that turns God into nothing more than a jolly ol' man who threatens coal in your stocking but actually never follows through on his empty threats to uphold a clear distinction between good and evil, sin and righteousness -- for any of us who have morphed the God of Holy Scripture into an Aladdin's lamp or a divine vending machine that can be manipulated with a few coins -- there is no place for our friend John the Baptist -- or his message or his baptism -- or his coming Lord.
John was sent to prepare each of our hearts for -- as I have said before -- a Messiah we neither desired nor deserved, a Messiah that could not be domesticated with milk and cookies placed next to the fireplace.
"Are you the Coming One, or should we wait for another?"
Even John the Baptist and his disciples struggled with the Son of David born in a Bethlehem manger. In that respect he was no different that any of us here this morning.
Advent is a time to allow God to give each of us strength in our struggle between what we think Christmas and the baby Jesus and the angels and shepherds should be all about -- what our old nature thinks of December 25th -- and the reality of God's promises and the reality of God making good on those promises all in the person and work of his only-begotten Son.
"Are you the Coming One, or should we wait for another?"
"Can this Jesus of Scripture, can this Jesus that appears in weakness really be the Coming One -- the Messiah -- the Christ? Shouldn't we move on and look for another?"
That's not only the question the sinful,doubting, worldly nature of John the Baptist asked, that's the question our old nature asks, and will continue to ask until Christ comes in power to end the madness of this planet and put an end to all sin.
A part of each of us loves the sentimentality of the Christmas season. It loves a reason to jump with abandon into the excesses we see going on during any holiday season. There is a part of each of us that can only think of the gifts and glitter, the glitz and glam, the giddiness that attempts to erase -- or at least forget, for a while -- the chronic, spiritual disease that threatens to overtake our faith and our life.
So how does John -- and ultimately, Jesus -- fit into the next eight days? And how do we know it's the real John and his real voice and his real Lord we hear and heed?
As, daily, the darkness of the days of winter increases, it reminds us of the future of a world that will have less and less to do with the Christ of the Scriptures and the ones who are sent to announce his coming. (One example: Newsweek's annual Christmas issue this year attempts to suck out all the religious content of the occasion by focusing in on the relationship between December 25th and "family values.")
So the light of God's Word made flesh comes again this next week to call us to three God-pleasing things in these final days of Advent.
The collect, the prayer of the day that commemorates the death, the martyrdom of Saint John the Baptists reads like this:
Almighty God, you gave your servant John the Baptist to be the forerunner of your Son, Jesus Christ, in both his preaching of repentance and his innocent death. Grant that we, who have died and risen with Christ in Holy Baptism, may daily repent of our sins, patiently suffer for the sake of the truth, and fearlessly bear witness to his victory over death; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen
Did you catch those three things? They are quite different than the triad of "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." Daily repent, patiently suffer and fearlessly bear witness, all for the sake of giving glory to the God who sent the Coming One, the Christ, born to accomplish all by giving himself upon the gift-bearing, life-giving, heart-changing tree of Calvary.
What is your prayer on this third Sunday in Advent? Maybe it is the prayer that God would save you from a Christmas of your own making, from a Christ Child manufactured by the world and our own fallen nature.
John and his disciples were down-right confused. They had gotten dangerously close to giving in to the temptation of giving up on Jesus. Jesus fit less and less into their notions of what the real Coming One would look like or sound like or act like. How could Jesus begin his ministry at Nazareth preaching release to those held in bondage and still allow John to continue suffering in Herod's prison? How could the same Jesus who proclaimed the setting free of prisoners allow his servant John to die at the hands of evil men?
Maybe you're asking a similar question this morning. "I thought Christ came to bless me and rescue me and change me and make something great of all the junk in my heart and in my life. But I still suffer. I still struggle with my faith. I still fear and fall and flee from what I know pleases God and benefits my neighbor."
"Are you the Coming One, or should we wait for another?"
There is one indispenseable element given graciously by God that makes sense out of an Advent season that calls for fasting before the feasting, confession before rejoicing, listening to the Word of God before speaking a word to God, or to our neighbor. It isn't complete obedience and it isn't perfect submission and it isn't our sincerity or good intentions or good works.
It is God-given -- God-created and God-sustained -- faith. Faith is what the world needs now, but, sadly, will never understand or receive.
It is faith that says, "Despite appearances that tempt me to give up on my struggle with sin and doubt and rebellion, I will trust that the Son of God and Mary's Son is the Messiah, come to save.
Despite appearances, I will not give in to the temptation to believe that Jesus was mere example or mere coach or cheerleader on the sidelines of my life. By faith I will believe what God declares in his Word: the Coming One has conquered death by his own death and opened the gates of everlasting life to all who would but confess him, and place their souls into his merciful care.
Despite appearances, I will not believe the world's verdict on the CHristian Scriptures and Christian Baptism and Christ's own Supper. I will fight against the temptation to see them as empty symbols and dead rituals of an out-of-step religious tradition. I will, in faith, stake my life and my eternity on the clear Word of this Jesus, this manger clad infant revealed by heaven through a camel-hair clad prophet named John.
Pastor William Cwirla writes:
From Herod's prison John would ask the six million dollar messianic question, "Are you the One we were expecting, or do we look for another?" Jesus was simply not the kind of messiah anyone was expecting. Who expected the messiah of God to be rejected by his own people, by their religious leaders? Who expected the messiah to hang out with tax collectors and all kinds of sinner and criticize the religious for their hypocricy? Who expected the messiah to be handed over first to the religious court and then to the political court, be tried and convicted and crucified between two terrorists? I can assure you, there wasn't an Isaelite alive and breathing at the time of Jesus -- not John, not the disciples, not even Mary -- who expected the kind of messiah Jesus turned out to be.
And thank God for it! Thank the Lord that he rearranges our expectations and turns them on their head and spins them around until they are dizzy. We'd be putting a band-aid on this problem, and a patch on that problem. We'd be inventing religions to try to reach up to God, to get closer to him, to bribe him and win his favor. But Jesus takes all our religious expectations, all the things we lay on God, all the ways we have for remaking God in our own image and likeness, and he crucifies them. .... there in [Jesus'] dark death, there in the broken man of the Cross is God's messiah, his Christ, the strength of his arm to save you, me and the world from the enemies of sin, death, the devil and the Law.
Christ is the Coming One. In his birth he has linked his destiny to ours. He has come to be that Lamb of God who takes upon himself in weakness our sins that he might do his almighty work of clothing us with his perfect righteousness.
Almighty God, you gave your servant John the Baptist to be the forerunner of your Son, Jesus Christ, in both his preaching of repentance and his innocent death. Grant that we, who have died and risen with Christ in Holy Baptism, may daily repent of our sins, patiently suffer for the sake of the truth, and fearlessly bear witness to his victory over death; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Word of Christ in Our Homes

On Sunday, November 12 the assembled congregation of Redeemer Lutheran, Huntington Beach bowed their heads in the sanctuary and prayed,
Almighty God, everlasting Father, you created your people to offer thanks and praise to you. Grant your blessing upon these copies of your holy Word and the Lutheran Service Book, that they may be for the author of our faith and instruments of praise by which may we may worthily magnify your holy name; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen
Even though this happened in the sanctuary, our prayer was not only for Bibles and hymnals under the roof of the sanctuary, but also the Bibles and hymnals that would be placed under the roofs of our homes.
It was the Reformer Martin Luther who prophetically announced that if the re-discovered truths of the Reformation did not make their way into the homes of Christians, all would be for naught, and so it is with the Christian Church today.
Our focus as a congregation gathered around Christ and his Word and his Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion is not only on what happens in the sanctuary and the Sunday School room one or two hours on Sunday morning. We are called to "let Christ dwell in us richly" (Colossians 3:16) each and every day -- especially in our homes. The same guideline we have as a worshiping church family (the family should worship together on Sunday morning) is the same guideline we should have during the rest of the week (the family should worship together in the home).
Our guest speaker November, Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto, powerfully reminded us that we live in an age of rampant individualism and a culture of "me, me, me;" an age and a culture that threatens a healthy balance of family identity -- on Sunday and every other day of the week.
We've all read the bumper sticker: "The family that prays together stays together." I would submit that the family that remembers it's Baptism together, the family that hears the Word of God together, the family that received God's blessings at the Communion Rail together, stays together.
For generations now we have enjoyed the convenience of hymnals and Bibles sitting in the pews, waiting for us to use them on Sunday morning. But the temptation is greater than it has ever been to begin believing that hymnals and Bibles are only for Sunday morning. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
A few months ago I visited a woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease. It was difficult to begin a conversation with her. She could not remember where she was or even what year it was. She couldn't remember the names of her children or the name of the Lutheran church she was baptized and confirmed in. I began to think that my visit would be for naught. But then I began to recite the Apostles' Creed. "I believe in God, the Father almighty ... ." She joined me in that confession of faith immediately, and continued with even a stronger voice when I lead the two of us in the Lord's Prayer.
What passages of Scripture are we tucking into the deep corners of our heart, that they would be there when we have forgotten or lost faith in everything else? What word of Christ do we remind ourselves of on a daily basis, that they would be close at hand when we find ourselves fearful or lost or alone?
God created us as creatures of order and predictability. That truth should be reflected in our families as well as our church families. What do you remember from your childhood? Table prayers? Christmas and Easter hymns? The songs of Vacation Bible School or Sunday School? Parts of the liturgy?
Christians have had hymnals in their homes since Old Testament times. The Book of Psalms was the Church's first hymnal (and Jesus' first hymnal), and that tradition should continue in the homes of our church family.
The Reformation under Martin Luther fought for the Bible and the Catechism and the Hymnal to be available in the language of the people and in the homes of the people. Recent articles in The Lutheran Witness have highlighted the opportunities each of us have to make use of the Bible and the Catechism and the Hymnal in our daily lives.
The early church got it right when it said, "Lex orandi, lex credendi" -- the way we worship shapes the way we believe. If you're making a New Year's resolution this year, why not make prayers and Scripture readings part of meal time or wake-up time, or go-to-bed time? Let's grow in our Christian faith together -- on Sunday morning and throughout the rest of the week -- with a Bible in one hand, and the Catechism and the Hymnal in the other!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Sermon on John the Baptist - Luke 3:1-20 - December 10, 2006

In the Name of Jesus
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
1. Advent is a season of ...... what? Our old nature has quite a different answer than our new, Christ-like nature when it comes to answering that question. Even for those who consider themselves Christians Advent is the object of more and more apathy. "Why do we have these restrained weeks before Christmas? Why can't we just get on with the fun and merry-making?" The temptation for any one of us is to give in to the world's approach to December 25th.
2. And what is the world's understanding of the next two weeks? Basically, it's "fourteen more shopping days before Christmas." Hurry and feast and celebrate and consume until the credit cards just can't take any more! The world has made Christmas "Gift-mas," and it's all beginning way before the Friday after Thanksgiving Day. (Just think of the first days you started hearing "Deck the Halls" and see the Christmas displays in the stores this year.) It is weeks and weeks and weeks of buying and selling and empty promises with the stolen tunes from the Church's Christmas hymns to hawk everything from kitchen blenders to snow tires.
3. Advent is such an odd season of the church year because it's prophet is so odd. If the three wise men are the poster-boys for the Epiphany season that immediately follows the 12 days of Christmas, John the Baptist has been ordained to be the official spokesperson for the weeks leading up to Jesus' birth.
4. The most strange and neglected guy of the entire Advent/Christmas season? John. If we took the baby Jesus out of the nativity set or the stained glass window, someone would call the police, but if we took John the Baptist out of the nativity set, no one would notice. John the Baptist has been orphaned. He's not on any Christmas card. He's not included on anyone's front lawn or roof. John the Baptist is not depicted on any of our tree ornaments. He's not part of any of our Christmas plays or Hallmark holiday specials. Burl Ives never donned a camel hair garment and ate locusts and wild honey for any of his Christmas specials, and Andy Williams never dressed up like John the Baptist to sing, "It's the most wonderful time of the year."
5. John was such an odd duck because he had one foot in the Old Testament and one foot in the New. Jesus himself acknowledged John as a prophet in the line of the Old Testament prophets that were sent before him. But something was different about John. He was called the fulfillment of not only the ministry of Elijah but the fulfillment of all the prophets -- the greatest of those given the honor of pointing God's people to the One that would surely come and take away their sins, the sting of Satan's accusations, and give the promise of the resurrection of the dead and life eternal in heaven.
6. Advent is such an odd season because it's message is so odd.
"A voice in the wilderness, crying (out)." But what is he crying out? It's something very different than "Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry." Everyone wants the Christian Church and its pastors to be more prophetic these days, but what should they cry out as prophets? "The word of the Lord came ..." It came to Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea, Joel and then John. The message: God will come to condemn all doubt and rebellion and give the gift of faith in the substitutionary sacrifice of his one-and-only Son. The last of the prophets cries out: "Allow God to prepare you for his unexpected coming! Allow him to create and sustain faith in Jesus' birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension in your place."
7. Being prepared for something to come can be a good thing. In a world of instant gratification, waiting for anything has become a curse. "Dear God: I want patience -- and I want it now." It all began when we began asking our parents if we could open just one present before Christmas Day. We knew that if they'd give in to the opening of one gift, we had 'em right where we wanted them. Learning how to wait went all down the drain from there on out -- and our inner child has never looked back. The gap between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New is a time of waiting for the forerunner of the Messiah. The last chapter of the Old Testament (Malachi 3) and the first verses of Luke 3 have the same object and the purpose.
8. Christmas Fire and Christmas Flood and the Great, Redeeming Exchange. There's fire and flood in preparation for the coming of the Savior. John the Baptist announces that the saving Kingdom of God will come with water and with fire. It will come with the faithful heeding the cry for repentance and cleansing; it will come with the unbelieving receiving the same judgment as the unbelievers in Noah's day, with water and the fire of God's wrath. But for all who say amen to the call of this roughly-clad, locust and honey eating prophet, a great exchange awaits. The fire reserved for them is exchanged for another fire that purifies and makes us acceptable before a holy and righteous God. For it is this child, whose birth is proclaimed by the prophets, that takes upon himself the fire and hell of an entire rebel race. Through his baptism by water and his baptism by blood, Jesus brings peace and joy to Christmas Day through, of all things, his Cross. December 25th is the feast of God coming in human flesh to pour out his own life-blood in order to make an everlasting satisfaction for every one of our sins.
9. John's cry is God's cry -- and God's cry is Jesus' cry and the cry of his Church. "The Redeeming Savior is near! He is coming soon! His road-straightening work in our hearts brings forth the fruits of faith: repentance, expectation, alertness and joy. We are given the privilege of being voices announcing in the wilderness within our families, within our workplaces, within our neighborhoods: "Allow God to do his prepatory work in your heart through his life-changing Word. Repent. Turn back to God and his gracious Word with water. Turn back to God and his merciful Word in, with, and under bread and wine. In repentance and faith, return to the Lord and receive forgiveness. Be prepared for the coming of the Christ child, born to save." This is the message all year long at services and in Bible studies and in Sunday School -- and even Christmas concerts.
10. The world's version of Christmas will continue to be: a big birthday party for Jesus. It's all been twisted into a holiday that revolves around the shepherds bringing cake and ice cream and the wise men bringing gift cards, while balloon-bearing angels sing "Happy Birthday Jesus." This is why there's no place for John the Baptist two weeks before the Feast of the Incarnation. As far as the world's concerned, there's not only no room in the inn for Jesus, but no room in the Christmas season for the one God has sent to get us ready for the Christ child and all the gracious gifts he brings.
11. But if there's no John, there may very well be no Jesus. John the Baptist and his cry is more indispensable to Christmas morning than any tree or eggnog or mistletoe or yule log (whatever that is). How did we ever think that the baby Jesus would come without a proper introduction? Christ deserves an introduction commensurate with the greatness of his person and the work he has come to accomplish.
12. Whoever rejected the divine work of John the Baptist rejected the work of the One he came to announce. Not everyone went out to the Jordan to submit to the Word of God announced by John. "Repent and allow God to cleanse you in preparation for the advent of his Son!" Some thought they didn't need to repent and be cleansed. Some were doing just fine without John (or Jesus). "I'm already God's child. I'm a leader of God's people. I've racked up numerous points by doing so much for God's church. And I have a Bible displayed on my coffee table and my great-great grandfather on my mother's side was a Lutheran pastor in Copenhagen. And, besides, I memorized something from Luther's Small Catechism when I was fifteen.
13. We don't know just what to do with John the Baptist. We don't mind hearing about him one Sunday of the Church Year, but we don't think we'd be very comfortable if he suddenly came and sat next to us in the pew. We wouldn't mind getting a Christmas card from him (after going over it with a disinfectant wipe) but what would we do if he suddenly showed up for Christmas dinner? John is about the most misunderstood and under-understood person in the entire season of Advent and Christmas. And the danger is: as goes the introducer, so goes the greater one who is being introduced. That's the way it was with John and all the prophets. Because they were called to be bearers of the Word of God, they were mishandled and mistreated and wound up sawn in half and stoned and dropped in cisterns in the ground and left for dead. John was silenced because he looked for the One to come. We don't know just what to do with John the Baptist -- but God does. He sent him to get us ready for our redemption and the wold's redemption.
14. John the Baptist heralded the Incarnation. Pastor Harold Seinkbeil tells the story of a little girl was jarred awake suddenly one night by loud crashes of thunder and the bright flashes of the accompanying lightning. She cried out for her father, who came into her room several times to comfort her, only to hear her call out again as the thunder drew closer. "Don't you know God is with you?" he asked her. "Yes, Daddy, I know that God is with me," the little girl replied. "But I'd rather have someone with skin on." John the Baptist announced someone coming after him who was not only mightier than a thunderstorm, but someone who had skin on. Taking our human flesh, Christ has come to embrace our sin and death and all the consequences of our rebellion. He is Immanuel: God with us. He knows our distress and carries all our sorrows. He comes among us in his Gospel preached and his Sacraments administered -- to silence troubled hearts and grant us peace.
15. And with John the Baptist and all the prophets we pray in these strange days of Advent: "Stir up our hearts, O Lord, and make ready the way of your coming Son, even Jesus Christ."

It's Not Easy Being a Christmas Tree

Kermit the frog is not the only one who quickly found out that it's not easy being green. I'm a standout among trees just for that very reason. While other trees have lost their leaves and meet the winter winds completely exposed, I'm most often referred to as an evergreen. That's a position of honor, but that's why, weeks before December 25th, the woodsmen sneak up and chop me down and leave behind the seemingly mighty (but dead-looking) oak.
They just jump out of nowhere and start sawing your roots off. No apologies, no anesthesia. And that's only the beginning. After the chopping work is complete, it's a real drag -- all the way to the bailing machine, where they feed me in trunk first, wind up all my branches with bailing twine and they shoot me through to the next humiliating station: where I'm either drilled at the now bleeding base of my trunk, or nailed with wooden slats that will later keep me from completely tipping over.
Now that the prisoner is completely immobilized and unable to put up any kind of resistance, next they throw you either on the top of a car or on the flatbed of a truck to begin a journey to who-knows-where. And as your taking a final look at the little neighborhood where you grew up from a little seedling, you know deep in the heart of your trunk that you'll never see the likes of your own home again.
The next thing I remember after coming out of a fairly comatose state is having fake snow sprayed all over me and a screw twisted into my trunk immediately followed by a bath into hot water. You wouldn't believe what they put into that hot water either: everything from aspirin to brown sugar to mineral oil. Just think what that does to your system! Then comes the chopping off of my top. Inevitably, whoever purchases me remembers the height of their ceiling to be a half a foot higher than it really is. The result? I get my top chopped off. How humiliating. All this is to prepare me for the strings of lights applied to me with pinching clips and the itchiest tinsel you can imagine. And the end result of all this torture? My needles dry out, fall off, and then I'm quickly carted off to the nearest dumpster. The end. Take my word for it. You put up with a lot of stuff if you're a Christmas tree.
But, you know what? Despite all the sacrifice and suffering, it's actually kind of good to be a Christmas tree.
People give me the best place in their homes, in the heart of their living room because I hold gifts freely given and freely received with thanksgiving. Gracious gifts, even for those who have been less than perfect that year, even for those who have been downright bad that year.
I'm allowed to be a constant reminder during the Christmas season that there is one great Christmas Gift that all others point to: the Gift wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. As my branches point all to heaven, I remind people of the place that Christ left to live a life of humiliation in our place. It is our Savior who left all the glories of heaven to be surprised and arrested, tied up and put on trial, only to be nailed to pieces of wood and displayed to an entire world on Good Friday. It was his head that was laid low with not only a crown of thorns but with the weight of our sins. He was covered with the rebellion of all fallen children of Adam and Eve, and by his suffering and death we are covered with the white brightness of his righteousness. The water that helps keep me green and alive reminds people of the saving waters of Holy Baptism that gives the promise of eternal life to all who would receive it with the empty hands of faith.
Whenever I think about how tough it is being a Christmas tree, I remind myself about how much tougher it is being the Christ Child, the only-begotten Son of God who lived and died and was raised up again to redeem you. He did everything, gave everything, suffered everything, put up with everything, that you might sing God's praises, not only on Christmas Day, but forever in heaven.
It's tough being a Christmas tree, but, now that I think of it, I wouldn't change that for anything.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Funeral Sermon for Arvid Latuska - December 2, 2006

In the name of Jesus
Dear brothers and sisters baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ:
It was the year 1965. And -- as a 27 year-old Arvid would mix mortar and plumb lines and move courses of bricks on yet another job, he would listen to the songs of the day on his transitor radio. He would listen to songs about humanity, songs of war and songs of peace, songs about the hopes and dreams of regular-kinds of people in regular-kinds of families doing regular-kinds of things. And he would listen to the lyrics of the musical group "The Byrds," who sang about the stark, biblical realities of life and death in this fallen and darkened world. And contrary to much of what was thought during the 60's, not much has changed in the last three or four thousand years when it comes to the lives of the children of Adam and Eve. As it was for King Solomon, so it is with the kings of our day. As it was for his family, so it is with husbands and wives, sons and daughters and next door neighbors today. The world, broken and cursed from the unbelief and rebellion of our first parents, continues to turn, turn, turn, turn. Everything that's new and fresh and full of life is, at the same time, already winding down and being replaced and quickly on its way out.
Arvid was a master mason. And if there was anyone who knew there was a time to build and a time to tear down, it was Arvid Paul Latuska. His childhood and his apprenticeship, his service in the Air Force and his encounters with all kinds of people as he moved to different cities, all of this had taught him that everything depends on the integrity of a straight line, a true measurement, a solid foundation.
On more than one occasion Arvid had to be straight with a prospective customer and tell him that everything needed to be taken down and built anew if things were going to be straight and true and solid -- and lasting. "It's gotta come down." he would announce. "It can't be just patched up if you want it all to come out the right way. The first thing I need to do is remove the whole thing and start from the ground up."
Arvid wasn't shy about announcing the weaknesses and dangers of walkways and walls, and he wasn't shy about announcing the weaknesses and dangers of his own fallen human heart and the less than perfect things it often produced. Arvid was a big bear of a man, but it didn't stop him in recognizing his shortcomings and mistakes and failures. In his own, Arvid kind of way, he lived a life that increasingly acknowledged the cracks and crevices of his own soul, while, at the same time, he looked to his gift-giving, gracious Lord to "create in him a clean heart and renew a right spirit within him."
Arvid might have had an occasional issue with the slow tempo of a hymn during worship, but never with the inclusion of the confession of sins at the beginning of every Sunday morning service.
Arvid might have expressed an opinion about wearing a suit and tie to church every Lord's Day, but never shook his fist at the God of the Old and New Testament as he came and said to Arvid -- as he comes to say to each of us here this morning -- there is a time and a season for every purpose under heaven. A time to stand up, and a time to kneel. A time to lay down the law, and a time to lay down one's own interests for the interests of one's neighbor or family. A time to plead with God's direction in life, and a time to accept where he is ultimately leading.
There is a time to build up, and a time to tear down. There is a time to be born and a time to die. And although there is a time to wrestle with God, there is, finally a time to surrender to his Word, a time to let go and let God.
That's a truth that people like King Solomon and Jacob were called to receive and accept. That's a truth that all God's people are called to receive and accept -- and ultimately be at peace with.
During his 68 years, Arvid took to heart the straight scoop when it came to understanding the weak and fallen and sinful nature of a humanity bent on building its own stairway to heaven, but he also, by faith, took to heart God's revealed but seemingly reckless, foolish-sounding solution for the leaning wall of our spiritual life and the crooked path our doubt and rebellion against God's Word has taken us.
Arvid was not too big a man to get down on his knees to pray, to accept forgiveness from Christ, and to receive strength and hope from his Savior.
On more than one desperate occasion, this child of Adam did not bargain with God, did not demand from God, did not make a list of excuses before God. He simply poured out his soul and placed his desperate condition into Jesus' hands, trusting in his Word to help and protect and rescue. This is the God-given legacy Arvid has entrusted to his family and his church family.
Whether he was stranded in a ditch during a Colorado snowstorm or completely lost in the seemingly endless parking lot of a county fair while carrying a sleeping daughter, Arvid looked not to himself but to his Redeemer for rescue. It is as Saint Paul proclaims to the Church at Ephesus:
You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked ... . But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. ... By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
By faith Arvid's parent's brought their son to the saving waters of holy Baptism. With trust in Christ Arvid confessed the Christian faith at his confirmation and his attendance at services in God's house. By faith he did not give in to the temptation of running after religious organizations who foolishly attempt to earn their way to heaven by building their own temples and bridges and towers to God. By faith he brought his own children to the baptismal font and brought them to be instructed in that same Christian faith. By faith he knelt at the communion rail and, simply opening up his mouth, received Christ and Christ's saving work in the place of sinners.
His God-given faith was the empty hand that looked to and received salvation built on the one true, the one straight, the one strong foundation, even Jesus Christ the Cornerstone.
This morning, we take time to give Christ thanks for the good gifts given to his servant during his earthly life: his love of family, his dedication to his work, his willingness to serve his neighbor and Christ's Church. But we can't give thanks for the gifts without giving thanks for the giver of those good gifts, especially when it comes to saving trust in one's Baptism, saving trust in the Word of God, saving trust in the Supper of our Lord, that "foretaste of the eternal feast to come."
The next days and weeks and months will be difficult as we grapple with the times and seasons of our lives. Today, Christ calls us to put our trust in his promises and his life, death, resurrection and ascension in our place as we abandon our fallen attempts to build something great for God, and look to his Son for that eternal house built with his own hands.
Saint Paul summarizes the times and seasons of not only Arvid's life but our lives and the lives of all his people when he declares:
Therefore remember ... that you were ... separated from Christ, alienated ... and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God ... . But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has ... broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility ... , that he might ... reconcile us ... to God ... through the cross ... . ... For through him we ... [now] have access ... to the Father.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.
Giving thanks for the trust and confidence in Christ God placed into the heart of Arvid, confessing our own need for forgiveness and with joy in our Savior's death and resurrection-- and our connection to it by water and the Word -- we pray in the words of the hymn:
Lord Jesus Christ, the Church's head, / You are her one foundation;
In you she trusts, before you bows, / And waits for your salvation.
Built on this rock secure, / Your Church shall endure
Though all the world decay / And all things pass away.
O hear, O hear us, Jesus. Amen

Thursday, November 16, 2006

"Why do we have new hymnals?"

Besides the fact that Mr. Krueger has faithfully given endless hours to repairing our red and blue hymnals, twenty-four years of use has naturally taken its toll. Our congregation was ready to send in reinforcements -- it was only a matter of what would take their place.
The Lutheran Service Book has been ten years in the making, making it the most field-tested hymnal in U.S. history. Many of the hymn tunes that were almost impossible to sing have been exchanged for more singable ones. Much of the traditional language of addressing our Lord using "thee" and "thy" has been restored. The page numbering has become more naturally ordered. And on top of that, more than 100 hymns have been added.
These hymnals are an important addition to the worship life of our congregation, not only for Sunday morning services but also for the devotional life of us as individual Christians and the devotional life of our families.
If the hymnal is to be cherished among us, it must remain an indispensable resource not only in the sanctuary but also the Sunday School room and the youth group room and the Priscilla Circle room and each of our homes -- around the table and upon our children's bedside table.
Listen to the encouraging words of Saint Paul when he writes:
"Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." (Colossians 3:12-17)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

"Why is the Gospel being Read in the Midst of the Congregation?"

On Reformation Sunday this year something different happened when it came to the pastor reading the Holy Gospel. Pastor Herman, Bible in hand, followed the processional cross and the altar candles down the center aisle into the center of the congregation. "Why this new Gospel procession?"
Processions into the church and recessions out of the church were observed on special worship days since earliest times. The "mini-parade" with the reading of the Gospel has been documented back to the fifth century. Martin Luther spoke of the importance of recognizing the presence of Jesus Christ in the reading of the holy Gospel. "For the preaching of the Gospel is nothing else than Christ coming to us, or we being brought to him." (Luther's Works 35:121)
As we recognize, by faith, that Christ is present during the service, especially in his words from the Gospel, we are dramatically reminded in the Gospel procession the fact revealed by the Holy Spirit through Saint John the Evangelist: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14a)
Processions get our attention and focus it upon important things: Christ and his Word come to save us. This is why we as a congregation stand in reverence as the words of our Lord are read, either from the lecturn in the front of the church or from the middle aisle in the midst of his baptized people.
In the same way that making the sign of the cross and processions at the beginning and end of the service communicate to little children the festive and grand nature of divine worship, so Gospel processionals are great opportunities for us as a congregation to teach and model Christ's redeeming presence among us through his Word -- his Word with water (Baptism), his Word with bread and wine (the Lord's Supper) and his Word as it comes to us in the reading of the Holy Gospel.

Friday, November 03, 2006

"Why is Jesus still on the Cross?"

Over the last several decades, it has become less and less fashionable to have a crucifix in the sanctuary, even in Lutheran congregations. We seem to be more and more embarrassed to have this image among us on any day except Good friday.
When your child asks about images on the processional cross or in the stained glass depicting the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the question might come up, "Why is Jesus still on the Cross?" or "Why is Jesus still a baby in the arms of Joseph?"
The Lutheran Reformation affirmed that art and sculpture and images in the church were not to be removed or banned if helpful in pointing us to our Savior and his saving work. God-pleasing images do not go against the Ten Commandments, but were part of the worship life of God's people since the days of the Exodus.
Picturing Jesus on a cross is not confessing that Jesus is still on the cross, just as picturing Jesus in the manger is not confessing that Jesus is still a baby.
When it comes to our salvation and Jesus' ministry on earth, his sacrifice on Good Friday is the center-point around which everything else must turn. Saint Paul said it best when he wrote, "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." (1Corinthians 2:2)
The images of Jesus in church and in our homes are not magic images to keep away vampires or medallions to keep bad things from happening to us. Just like the Creed, they are a confession of who Jesus is and what he has done in our place. They are indispensable reminders that Jesus is God in the flesh, who alone is our atoning sacrifice and, as such, is our only source of true hope and eternal comfort.

(Please see the Rev. Dr. Stephen Mueller's "The Theology of the Crucifix" in "Let Christ be Christ" - ISBN 0967498902 -- for one of the best presentations on this subject.)

Friday, October 27, 2006

Funeral Sermon for Mavis Pietila

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Dear brothers and sisters of our crucified and risen Savior:
God has gathered us into his house and around his altar this afternoon. God has gathered us in the face of loss and suffering and death and confusion to not only affirm that all of us are in desperate need of forgiveness, but to also clearly proclaim again that that there is sure and certain forgiveness offered to all who would by faith receive it -- even in the face of death and loss.
Despite the tragedies we read about in the daily paper, despite the cruelty and power struggles we experience within the places where we work or study, despite the self-centeredness in the secret corners of our own lives, despite all the darkness and sickness and burdens and hurt outside us and within us, God comes to speak a word of mercy, and loving-kindness and forgiveness and restoration.
That word of forgiveness is strong and clear in Jesus' announcement of who he is and why he has come to us.
The Holy Gospel According to Saint John, the sixth chapter:
Jesus said to them, "Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures unto eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal." Then they said to him, "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." (John 6:27-29 ESV)
In the midst of all our misplaced hungers and fallen desires, Jesus has come to feed us with the life-giving Bread from heaven, even himself, as he gives his all for such people as Mavis -- for such people as you and me.
In the midst -- in spite of -- those secret cravings and unstoppable habits only we know lurk in our heart, Jesus has come to truly satisfy our deepest spiritual hungers for lasting peace and genuine hope and eternal rescue.
This hour is not set aside for us to pour over and rack-up the number of outwardly good works Mavis Pietila performed in the 59 years God granted to her. We are not here to preach her into heaven or give 101 reasons why she was better than her neighbors down the street.
God has gathered us to reveal anew the double work he accomplished in the life of Mavis and the double work he continues in our own lives as well: the work of holding the mirror of his divine law before our eyes, that we would despair of any human attempts to patch things up or make things the way they were. The verdict? All who are born of fallen parents, all who doubt the goodness of God, all who attempt to run away from his fatherly hand, all who try to do what God commands but fail on a daily basis -- all are in desperate need of God's forgiveness in Christ Jesus.
That need of forgiveness Mavis confessed privately, and publicly as she joined the congregation in the words:
Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. We justly deserve your present and eternal punishment.
For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways to the glory of your holy name. Amen
The Good News this memorial service proclaims -- the Good News Mavis Pietila put her trust in -- despite her fallen human nature -- is the Good News that God declared at her baptism and on each day she heard the pastor announce: "Upon this, your confession, ... in the place and by the command of Christ, I forgive you all your sins."
In spite of our pitiful mistakes and costly blunders, in spite of our wrong choices and faulty decisions, in spite of our less-than-perfect personalities and the doubts that gnaw on our consciences, despite our daily predisposition to wander from the grace and heart of our Good Shepherd, we can have comfort and hope and strength and even peace in the midst of impossible odds and the most desperate of situations.
Through Mavis' life Jesus called her to take her eyes off of herself and her own attempts to make everything right with God and neighbor.
And throughout our life, Jesus calls each of us to take our eyes off of ourselves and our own attempts to make everything right with God and neighbor.
Jesus comes to be the object of our trust -- even in the midst of all our unspeakable failings -- our regrets -- our shortcomings. This is why we memorized as little kids the meaning behind the third article (the third paragraph) of the Apostles' Creed:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith ... and will at the last day raise up me and all the dead, and give unto me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.
Through his grace, we give thanks for the salvation offered by Christ -- salvation offered to Mavis and taken to heart by faith.
Mavis loved the children of the Church and she loved the music of the Church, because she loved the giver of all good and saving gifts: the Lord of the Church, even Christ Jesus, who's heart is pure and true and compassionate and all-giving.
She sang those gifts of Christ and played those gifts of Christ and taught those gifts of Christ, not only to her family and to children and to adult Christians, but she sang and spoke and played and taught those saving gifts of Christ back into her own heart as she looked to her redeeming Lord and his merciful, long-suffering, patient, life-giving heart.
Christ mercifully heard the prayers of his servant Mavis and has made good on his promises for her salvation. And what about each of us?
We can find rest for our souls as we find rest in what God has done and accomplished and completed in time, for eternity -- for your eternity through the giving of his only-begotten Son unto death.
We shall find rest for our souls as we find rest in what God has declared on account of his Son: "I have called you from eternity to be my dear child. Before the heavens and earth were formed I formed the plan to redeem you from your sins. Listen to my Son as he declares again this day:
"All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of the Father, that everyone who looks upon the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day." (John 6:37-40 ESV)
The first word when it comes to Mavis and her salvation is also the last word: Mavis was baptized by God -- through the Holy Spirit -- into Christ's death, and, therefore, into his resurrection.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Monday, October 16, 2006

Between Wittenberg and Bethlehem: Living the Christian Faith from Reformation Day to Christmas Day

"Can it be November already?" I was just getting into the habit of seeing "September" on calendars and writing "October" on the date line of my personal checks. Can it be just one month away from the last month of the calendar year and the first month of a new Church Year: December?

The ramping up of all things busy is now officially under way. Thanksgiving is coming. Christmas is coming. New Year's Day is coming. And that means get busy. Get busy with writing Christmas cards and making eggnog. Get busy with decorating the house and the church. Get busy with deciding which day will we visit each relative's home and which day they will visit ours.

It's one thing to take a look at our schedules between October 31st and December 25th, but what about our spiritual life for these several weeks? Have we allowed the Gospel re-discovered in the Reformation, the Gospel born as a man in a manger to give us the direction and strength and perspective and trust we need to meet the feverishly busy days that lie ahead for us and our families and our church family?

If there was ever a time of the year in which we need God's saving, uplifting action in our lives, it is between Reformation Day and Christmas Day, that time of the year that it is so easy for us to scurry around so frantically we either (a) forget what all our busyness is all about, (b) allow the frantic nature of the world to crowd out our appointments with the Word of God taught, preached and confessed (or maybe a mixture of both).

One of the remedies for the rat race that calls to each of us between October 31st and December 25th is one prescribed by the Christian Church for generations and generations: the observance of the final Sundays of the Church year and the observance of the season of Advent. Both herald "the coming," the coming of our Lord to do his saving and defending and judging work. Once in humility, again in unstoppable power.

Redeemer Lutheran Church and School have made provisions for such a time as this. We will gather around a new hymnal and a new pew Bible, each more clearly announcing Christ and his gifts with water, bread and wine. Thanksgiving Day Eve and Thanksgiving Day services will give each of us an opportunity to stop and hear the soft yet steady voice of God reminding us for yet another year that he is the source of all good and perfect gifts. We as a congregation will then say "farewell" to the Church Year that began last December as we celebrate "The Sunday of the Fulfillment," a day that points to Christ and his final coming to end all suffering and hopelessness and persecution of his dear children on the Last Day.

And then there's Advent, one of the most peculiar yet necessary seasons of the Church Year. A season of stark simplicity, a season of purple and blue and preparation for the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, as well as special Wednesday services preceded with fellowship and the traditional soup suppers.

God in Christ through the Holy Spirit wishes to bless us all in the coming weeks and months ahead. To that end, take time to be where he promises to be present to bless and forgive and strengthen: where his Word and Sacraments are celebrated -- especially in the midst of the busyness of this time of year.

See you at services.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Does the Reformation Mean Anything for Us (and Our Neighbor) today?

The Reformation begun under the re-discovery of the Gospel by Martin Luther in 1517 seems a long time ago. It happened way before our parents or even their parents were living, and in a country that more often than not thinks history began in 1776, October 31st continues to be for most merely a day of trick-or-treating.
A fellow pastor once commented that the problem with the Lutheran church today is that no one is asking the questions about salvation that Luther answered in his Ninety-Five Theses and in his sermons and in his other theological writings. "People are asking other questions, and it seems the Lutheran church has no answers." he quipped.
Well, truthfully, we need the Word of God in our lives not simply to answer the "questions of our age," but in order to know what are the right questions to even ask.
The Christian Scriptures reveals everything we need to know about our salvation. That is the starting point in any discussion about questions of salvation and God's answers to questions of salvation. That's why we don't take a vote on whether or not we will talk about the forgiveness of sins on Sunday morning or whether we will celebrate the Lord's Supper only twice a year or whether we throw out the Lord's Prayer or the Creed or the hymns of the Church.
And what is the basic question that Scripture presents, that Luther re-discovered, that Redeemer Lutheran Church & School holds up as central to a basic understanding of salvation according to Christ? "How can I attain spiritual happiness and comfort?" "What do I need to do for God to then save me?" "How can I better imitate the example of Jesus?" "How can I have just a closer walk with God?"
Each of these are fatally flawed questions to build salvation upon. Each of these questions are dead-ends when it comes to enjoying a gracious God and his life-giving presence in our lives and hearts. The question of salvation that only God and his Word can enable us to ask ourselves and God is this: "How may I, a lost and condemned creature, stand before a holy and righteous God -- and live?"
This was the central theological question revealed in the Old and New Testaments and re-discovered, by the grace of God, during the time of the Reformation.
The Church's festival of the Reformation on October 31st isn't a day of celebrating the assertion of the individual Christian conscience or the Christian freedom to throw out anything in the church that doesn't pass the trendy test. Luther's legacy was a return to the Bible and the central teaching of the Bible. He didn't make up some new teaching or doctrine. He wasn't the creative innovator of 1517.
This year our congregation celebrates some important and unique events. We will welcome a Lutheran missionary dedicated to the truths of Scripture and the Small Catechism (The Rev. J. May on Sunday, October 15), we will hear about our calling as "the priesthood of all believers" (The Rev. Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto on Sunday, October 22), we will celebrate Reformation Sunday with special music and a Reformation Book Fair (Sunday, October 29), and we will prepare for the dedication of new hymnals, pew Bibles and the sanctuary organ on Sunday, November 12th!
A few months ago someone at Redeemer was a little discouraged about the less than stellar numerical growth exhibited in this year's membership figures. My response: if we would only be blessed with a greater appreciation for the good and saving gifts we already possess for the glory of God and the salvation of many, we would find it a lot easier to be excited, "contagious" Christians among our family and neighbors and co-workers.
God grant that this Reformation season Christ will grant us deeper understandings of his grace, mercy, forgiveness and patience as he continues his work of "calling, gathering, enlightening and sanctifying" Christians within the fold of his Church.
A blessed Reformation to each of you.