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.