Saints, Cubs, and Preaching to the Preacher

“And if you ask, ‘Who is Amos or Abdias, or what is the number of the Prophets or Apostles?’ they cannot even open their mouths. But with regard to the horses or charioteers, they can compose a discourse more clever than the sophists or rhetors.” (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, LVIII).

I referenced this in my sermon on Sunday, Within the Octave of All Saint’s Day. I followed with the question, “Can you name the Twelve Tribes of Israel? Can you name the nine of the Cubs who won the World Series? Or 12 of the actors in your favorite movie?”

Pastors preach to themselves. Yes, I can name the 12 tribes…at least on a good day (frankly it is something I’ve been refreshing myself on as I read Genesis this month), but we still preach to ourselves. So we all look to our weaknesses and strengths. Knowing the Scriptures is pretty basic. Learning who the saints are is good.

In my vocation, I know the Scriptures, have a vocational, and avocational interest in the Saints, but I don’t remember and know Hebrew like I once did or should. So that’s my intent. I’m going back to basics, and by next year hope to be reading Hebrew at least as well as I do Greek, maybe better.

I’ve already started.

 

 

Gaudete Sermon 2013 (Advent 3)

Isaiah 40 is a wonderful chapter, a unique view into the mind of God. These are beautiful words. I spent weeks at the Seminary studying them once, diagramming them. I even drew a chart showing the connections between the words in each verse, and then a paper which explained the relationship. I swam in these words, and it is one of the best memories of my life at the seminary.

This passage is God speaking to Isaiah, but also to John the Baptist, but also to me, and to every preacher sent to proclaim the Word of God. Comfort, speak tenderly, the warfare is over. All flesh is grass, but the Word of the Lord endures forever. “Behold your God,” he tells us to say, and He is coming and his recompense—that means His Work, His Salvation—comes with Him.

Think of this as the ultimate “come to Jesus” moment. God calls Isaiah, the Prophets, the Apostles, the Preachers and Pastors into the back office, pulls up a chair and says, “OK guys. You have all kinds of things to do and say. I’ll tell you to speak against this or that nation, to proclaim other judgments, to teach many facts about me. You pastors—you will be like these priests who serve me, managing the gifts. All of you are busy with all kinds of things.

“But here’s the deal,” the Godhead says. “Comfort my people. Life is hard. Things go wrong. The forces of evil war against them. Cruelty and crime and beatings and even tortures are out there. You know this. Comfort my people.

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Speak tenderly to the Church. Be gentle with them because the world is harsh and death is the enemy. Tell them: Your war with God is over. Jesus is your peace. Your sins? All those failures and wickedness and disobedience and harsh things YOU’VE done to others? Forgiven! Forgiven! And you have double grace and love and forgiveness for every sin! Forgiveness in abundance!”

“John will make the way of the Messiah straight. So will you, O preachers of the Gospel. Work slowly and carefully. Don’t be a stumbling block, but help them hear about Jesus the Messiah, clear the way of false assumptions and show them Jesus.”

God continues to shoot straight with preachers:

“All people will see God—God in the flesh you will see with your flesh! God becomes a man! He stands before you and does all these things—and you will see His Glory! Glorified on the Cross for your sins, and Glorified in His Resurrection and Return.”

“Cry out,” says God to His prophets and apostles and preachers. “Remind them that all flesh is grass. Remind them of the Law. That their sins are killing them, even those sins which seem small and maybe even enjoyable. No, sin brings death. Remind them of this, so that they may know me—but so that they may know that all my promises and comforts and peace and tenderness lasts forever. My Word is stronger than death,” says God the Almighty.

“Now go!” He says. “Go and be bold to share this. Don’t be shy, but go up on a mountain where everyone will see you and hear you, so that everyone will know that God has come in the flesh for them!” Who is this God? It is Jesus, who came to serve you!

Finally, God concludes, “My way of salvation in becoming flesh looks weak. It’s not what you will expect, the Son dying on the Cross. But it is strength! It is might, for this is how I defeat the curse of sin and death and hell and satan forever. This is the end of all things, the beginning of all things, this is how I make all things new. This is my might and power: in giving myself over to the enemy for you.”

“And I will be your shepherd and tend you and be gentle with you.”

This is what God would have me and every pastor, every preacher speak to you. This is what God is all about. This is the heart of God. It’s not all of Him, to be sure. His ways are beyond our understanding. He does so much more. But this is the heart of His revelation to us humans.

So dear friends, this is what I preach. When you ask yourself, “When will this misery end? When will the pain be dulled?” When You wonder when it will be that every moment, every object, every story will not bring it to mind. It doesn’t matter if it’s a divorce, a bad break-up, a tragic death, it’s the same. Catastrophic illness or war. These are the worst times of our lives and what we need then is relief.

When all these things are roiling in your life. Remember that God addresses this. There is an end. It will not last forever. This life, these days are coming quickly to an end. Christ has come and brought double blessing and forgiveness for all your sins and suffer. And the day will dawn fresh and new and the pain will subside and it will seem like a nightmare, and then a shadow, and then just the memory that once there had been trauma. And for you, even more comfort because God is bringing Christ to you. Today. This is His healing I speak of, His gift, comfort, recompense and joy. The joy of His Word to us through all the Scriptures and prophets and preachers. Comfort to you, God’s people. Comfort to you.

Advent 1 Sermon

In the Romans commentary, Martin Luther noted that the Scriptures talk about sleep in three different ways. There is sleep which means death as in the Old Testament where it says a king would “sleep with his fathers.” There is the sleep which is blessed, the rest He gives to us in the night. The kind of sleep of grace our Lord had in the boat with the storm raging all around Him. Psalm 127:2 says, “ It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. (ESV)” The ability to sleep even when the world is crying and pulling their hair out in clumps, because we know our Lord is King of Creation and that all things are Christ’s.

Then there is the sleep to which we are called to cast off. Wake, O Sleeper! The sleep that looks like living, the sleep that looks like activity and busyness but is a blindness to reality. This is the sleep we must fight against.

We hang the lights and set up the displays. We plan for weeks the gift lists of giving and receiving. We plan the dinners and the parties. We fret about the time that sped too quickly this year and make our end-of-year donations. We buy our tickets and watch the weather. We begin thinking about 2014 and your personal and work objectives. You are people living in the moment, living in this glorious time of year that looks a lot like Christmas. The longer your to-do lists, the bigger your purchases, the more intricate your plans, the more diligent you are.

And this is a dream and fool’s gold, the Spirit of God warns us. Here we are in the season of Advent, and what do we see? As St. Bernard wrote, “For the unhappy children of Adam, turning aside from serious and salutary reflections, give their minds only to that which is perishable and transitory.” These words cut to my heart when I read them. What perishable and transitory things do you reflect on? Oh, we could name this or that, like sports or politics, like music and celebrity gossip, like salt water fish tanks and cars and guns and fabric. But the problem is not one of these as an idol, but the gallery of transitory worries and obsessions and accumulations which gather around ourselves and our spirits and numb and lull and sedate ourselves into. It’s all of it. And as much as we rail against 94.Whatever playing Christmas songs beginning in early November—early November!— we are part of that slumbering system of consumerism and sedate pleasures.

Wake up, O Sleeper! Arise and shine. Open your ears to those things of permanence and imperishable joy and goodness. Open your eyes to that which Christ has prepared for you. You are surrounded by saints and angels—and these images remind you of this. Your name is in that Book of Life, cradled by the Cosmic God-Man Jesus Christ—see that is an image of it, to remind you. You are part of the Creation and Salvation of God, gathered in this body, this mystical body of Christ I see in front of me. You have been pulled from darkness and slumber, from rot and decay by this blood of Christ which is given to you this day. Christ’s death and rest in the tomb has reversed death, has made the dead alive, has brought the Spirit into this world, has reversed the curse and inaugurates you into the imperishble Kingdom of Heaven which is right in front of your eyes, which is preached into your ears, which is placed in your hands and on your lips and of which you are royalty.

Jesus has awakened you from the dream of death, that dream that made Adam think he could be like God. Jesus has awakened you from the dream of decay by opening His own tomb and giving you Himself to wear. Jesus has awakened you from the dream of sin, that claustrophobic desperation of feeling and seeking joy in those deeds of the flesh, in those things of the night, so that awake you may step outside and see the infinite of heaven, the light of joy, the openness of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus has awakened you from the dream of the devil, who lulls you fear and desperation.
Awake and watch for Jesus. Make no provision for the flesh, as St. Paul says. Here in this season of decadence and feasting and fudge and peanut brittle and gum drops, turkeys and Christmas geese we have this warning. Tryptophan may do more than make you sleepy.

So how do we carry out this great awakening to the promises of Christ in this wasteland of consumerism? We don’t want to loose our Christmas traditions, do we? No, but let us temper this with the Advent observances. Start the Advent wreath at home. Limit your television time. The Orthodox Christians have a strict fast during Advent that rivals Lent. Here in the west, the tradition of Friday Fasting and Abstinence can be renewed in Lent, as well as the Ember Days: this year, December 18, 20 & 21. As Luther says in the Small Catechism, fasting is good outward preparation for receiving the gifts of God.

Of course we rely on the Grace of God for the strength and help and forgiveness in living as wide-awake Christians. Self denial and spiritual disciplines are only tools for us, not merits to earn. Ultimately we set our eyes and hopes on Jesus above all.

Easter 4 Sermon

Disclaimer: I usually don’t publish my sermon manuscripts. Sermons are proclaimed to a specific people at a specific time, and I don’t believe they are for “general consumption.” Additionally, I write my manuscripts early and by Sunday morning they serve more as outlines than a transcript of what I proclaim. Keep this in mind. Your mileage may vary…

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Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:

That alone should encourage the crew.

Just the place for a Snark!

I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true.”

Lewis Carrol wrote this in his poem “The Hunting of the Snark.” There’s something to it on a few levels. Repeated phrases, repeated things are important. Once, twice. Three times a lady. Repetition is the mother of learning, the Latin phrase goes.

It’s even more important when Jesus says it—when Scripture records something three times. And so the strangeness and awkwardness of our Gospel reading takes on a different light. “A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me because I go to the Father.” This phrase, this strange phrase repeated three times.
Three times a truth.

We sound just like the disciples. What in the world is Jesus talking about? Why did John find this so important that three times in a row it is repeated? Why did John want this truth, this saying etched in our memories and understanding? “A little while and you will not see me, and again in a little while you will see me.” This text cuts in two directions, has two meanings.

Jesus is speaking about His death and resurrection.

Jesus is speaking about His death and resurrection. St. John places this speech on the night of Maundy Thursday, after Judas had left to go betray Him, Jesus says these things and more to the disciples gathered around. And so Jesus is telling them, “Hey, in a few hours I will be taken from you. And the world will rejoice, and Herod and Pilate will become friends, and the Pharisees and Crowds will yell ‘Crucify him.’ And you will be in denial and confusion and fear. But then in a little bit, a few days, you will see me again, because I will be raised from the dead.”

And three times John records this so that we may know it. So that the Cross and Tomb are at the center of our lives and understanding. This was the work of Jesus, to give His life for us. This is the work of Christ, to take our sins from us. To defeat the curse of death for our sake. His three days rest is the center of our faith and His return to us the focus of our life and worship together. So much, that in many senses, every Sunday we celebrate Easter. For Christian worship, every Sunday is a day we celebrate what happened that First and High Sunday of Jesus’ return to life.

Jesus is speaking about Now

But there is another angle to all this, and the reason we hear this reading today, weeks after Easter and Holy Week. Jesus is also speaking about now. These days. Right now. He is saying, “Hey, there’s going to be a little bit—fifty days or so—and I am going to go to the Father. But then in a little while again I will be back. Now the world will be glad I’m gone. There will be trouble. It will be like a woman in the midst of labor, but then I will return and it will be like holding that little infant in your arms, and your joy will cast away all sorrow.”

Is He Right? It seems like Jesus was wrong. Wait, we’re good Christians. We wouldn’t say that. It seems like I’m wrong in putting these words in Jesus’ mouth. Except I’m not. No, Jesus speaks this way about the time between His Ascension and Return all the time.

A Little While

First, it is a little while. Not by our standards. Nothing compared to the three days in the tomb. But by God’s standards, this is short. His days are not our days, after all. By our standards, Jesus has been gone so long it’s like He never came. But do not let that temptation capture you! No, He tells us to think of this as just a short time. And your 70 or 80 years here is compared to eternity. The 2000 years since He ascended is short compared to the generations before He came and to eternity with Him.

The Return

Second, He is correct. He is returning. We are foolish sometimes when we don’t consider this or live like it. Even as Christians who affirm so much, we often go through life as if we have forever to repent, and as if the world will continue forever. But it will not. We confess it every single Sunday. “And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead.” Woe to us if we have been giving lip-service to this the whole time.

Yet He comes to judge the living—and that means you. Despite our sins, you and I are the living ones. Our demerits and sins and blinded actions are forgiven and washed in the waters of baptism. Christ has died for you and counts nothing against you. Not even living as if He is gone forever. He counts nothing and comes to judge you, living one, and give you heaven! A judgment of innocence, a decree of His own righteousness!

The Travail

Third, these days of His absence from us are troublesome, like a woman in childbirth, just like He said. Think of it this way: as Christians we desire everyone to repent and believe in Christ, to find the joy and freedom we have, to be freed from the decisions and sins of fear, to be freed from the way of emptiness. We desire peace. Our kingdom is not of this world. Yet we live in a world of chaos. Of bombs. We live in a world where children are murdered and we are accused of hate because we oppose it. We live in a world where Christians are disregarded, mocked, sidelined, our beliefs held in derision and called barbarians, and in some nations jailed and executed.

The Presence

This is where our Eucharistic prayer is so powerful: I hold aloft the Body and Blood of Christ and say, “As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup…” and you respond “Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus”. This is eschatological— this is pointing to the End days. They are here and Christ has not left us. He is Here in Body and Blood, giving us life and joy, even in the midst of sadness and chaos and blame and confusion. He remains with us even in these days, even in these short days, holding Him aloft and receiving Him ourselves.

Now the Peace which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Worship and the Senses

Here’s the last in the sermon series Historic, Sacramental Worship. As with all sermons, the homily as proclaimed was different than the one written here. In this sermon, the ending proclaimed was much stronger, tying up the incarnation and resurrection with our own lives and promises in Christ.

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

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

You sit on the examining room table, the paper covering crinkling and sounding 50db louder than it is. The foot rest is always too low for your feet, and lying back on the table is uncomfortable, so you sit with your legs hanging and feel like you are in second grade again.

Finally the doctor enters and begins a monologue and you tell him your ears hurt and your throat is sore and before you know it he’s sticking sterlized plastic into those orifices, and it makes it hurt worse and you gag, but you do it because you know it will make you feel better.

What would you do if he stuck his fingers in your ears? What would you do if he spit on his fingers and stuck those in your mouth?

So we hear our Gospel reading and this inner dialogue begins: “Wow. That’s kind of gross. But it’s Jesus. Yes…but it’s still gross. He died for your sins, you know. Yes, but spitting? You drink his blood. I know. He’s the Lord. But couldn’t he use, I don’t know, plastic gloves or something?”

It’s kind of hands-on for Jesus, isn’t it? Spitting and ear wax and sighing to heaven. Hands-on. Kind of like nails in the hands and feet and slow asphyxiation on the cross. Kind of like nursing and having diapers changed. Kind of like us.

We don’t like to think about these things though. We’re antiseptic, private people. We avoid personal space and cover our odors and smells. We don’t do bathroom talk. And we even like our religion to be antiseptic and “spiritual.” How many churches have blank walls and furnishing and simple crosses and look like schools on the outside? Not us, but far too many. How many of you are offended by Jesus’ body hanging there on that cross? How many of us would rather say a prayer than kneel, or think about Jesus far away in heaven rather than help a homeless man?

But Jesus won’t let us keep our religion away from our bodies and from our world. He became a man for human kind, for men and women. He was born in blood and tears and died in blood and tears. And just as Jesus became a man with flesh and blood and hair and reason and senses, He died for our flesh and blood and reason and for our senses too.

Let’s look at how those senses receive God and worship Him:

First, our ears, where the Word of God enters and converts us and convicts us and comforts us. With our ears we hear God speak through His Word. With our ears we hear the Word set to music, we hear the bells which draw us to the words of institution and the bread made body and the wine made blood.

And our tongues, which praise God, which respond in faith, which confess, which sing and which receives the Word of God too. The funny thing about our text: Jesus touches our tongues every Sunday too. Not with his spit, but with His blood. We taste and see the Lord is Good here at communion, in eating and drinking.

And our eyes see the elevation of His Body and Blood. They see the vestments, which cover me and show the office I have. Which cover the personality and convey the Office of the Holy Ministry. Our eyes see the cross and images of His death and resurrection for us. They show us the cloud of witnesses, the saint and martyrs depicted in glass literally surrounding us as Hebrews 12 describes.

And our bodies feel the one another in handshakes and hugs. They stand in honor of the Gospel and kneel in repentance and faith. We use our hands to make the sign of the cross over ourselves, to remind us of the cross for us and the cross we bear, to bless ourselves with the presence and forgivness of Christ on the cross.

And smelling, when we use incense. Using incense in worship connects our sense of smell to worship. Now, I know it’s a little more touchy than the rest of the senses, because we are not as used to it. But it is Biblical too. Incense was commanded by God in the Old Testament to burn from sunrise to sunset in His temple. Jesus worshiped smelling incense when He went to the Temple and taught the Word of God with it burning all around Him. Incense is a sacrifice, literally burning something of value for God. Incense is a smell and sight to remind us of our prayers ascending to heaven, as it says in Psalm 141: “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” Incense is mentioned in Revelation when St. John sees a vision of heaven: And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, 4 and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.

Incense is our prayers, Scripture says.

Now, to be pastoral about using this sense of smell in worship, here is what I will do. I will mostly use incense in the 8:00 worship service as we do now. On occasion, we will use it in the late service. But here’s what we will do: whenever incense is used, it will be publicized in the bulletin & e-blast and on Facebook, and there will be one service where it is not used, so if it really bothers you, you can still attend worship and not be bothered by it. I am also exploring some alternative charcoal, lighting techniques and incense blends that are less prone to aggravate sinuses. This is really important to me because I’ve got seriously terrible nasal allergies too.

While it irritates even me sometimes, I think it is important to use incense. And it’s not just a “catholic thing.” Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans in America (a few), but many in Scandinavia and Germany use incense all the time, as did Christians going back to the earliest days of our faith and Israel even before that. It’s biblical and godly and historic and traditional and adds to our bodily worship of God.

 

Incense Sermon in the Can

So I preached the last in the sermon series on worship, this last one being “Worshiping with the Senses.” It went pretty well. The late Divine Service in particular was very responsive today.

I was a little nervous, considering about a third of the sermon was covering using the sense of smell with incense in worship. Now, it really helped that there is a thurible hanging in the sanctuary next to the altar. That, and my predecessor was swinging it for some time before he left. A no-brainer, right? Yet it is a touchy subject and some have strong feelings about it. And since Beecroft’s departure, it has not been swung too much at all.

I heard some positive feedback, and know there is some negative too, but I think the plan to announce and publicize which service will have incense may really help those who have a bad reaction to it.

I’ll be posting this sermon in a few days.

What the Fathers Preached

Trying out a new series here: sermon fragments from the Church Fathers. Hope you enjoy.

Luke 14:16-24 (Trinity 2) The Parable of the Great Feast

Augustine: John, when he said: all that is in the world, is the concupiscence of the flesh, and the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life, begins at the point where the gospel ends. The concupiscence of the flesh: I have married a wife. The concupiscence of the eyes: I have bought five yoke of oxen. The pride of life: I have bought a farm. A part is standing for the whole, the five senses have been commemorated by the eyes alone; which hold the chief place among the senses: four sight, though properly of the eyes alone, is wont to be used of all five senses.