Sunday, June 26, 2011

2nd Sunday after Pentecost - June 26, 2011

What with the Brunsville Centennial and all, this has been a busy and fun-filled few days. Classic cars, beard contests, the crowning of the queen of Brunsville, dancing, rib contests and so on....  
Now on a weekend like this, it almost seems out of place to preach on something dark and awful.  And yet, that's what I'm about to do.  But that isn't to say that we have to be all grumpy about it.  In that spirit, here's a verse from the famous Bob Dylan song "Highway 61 Revisited" to get us started:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”

This morning, I would like to talk about the traditional Lutheran idea of how we understand God.  The understanding is this: There is ONE almighty God, but we have a relationship with him in two particular ways.  We experience God as a God of wrath, of violence, of mystery.  And we experience God as our great comforter, as our savior, as our father.  Martin Luther had a name for each of these.  The first he called “The Hidden God.”  The second he called, “The Revealed God.”  There is only one God, but we experience him in different ways and how this happens makes all the difference.

In our lesson today from Genesis, we see the God of Wrath, the angry God, the violent God, the God who smites.  This God demands of Abraham that he kill his own son, Isaac.  Who can understand this?

So let's back up for a second to get a look at the broader context of Abraham.  

Back in chapter 12 of Genesis, God chose Abraham to be the father of his chosen people.  God gave Abraham a series of promises. He promised to give Abraham many descendants; he promised to give Abraham a land; he promised that through Abraham the nations of the world will be blessed.  Looking into the future, Abraham is the father of Isaac, the grandfather or Jacob, and the great-grandfather of Joseph.  He is the ancestor of King David and Solomon, and the ancestor of Jesus Christ.  It is from the line of Abraham that all these people, and many more, come.  

Now, as you may recall, Abraham's wife Sarah was barren; she couldn't have kids.  And then she had grown old and the couple were childless.  But God promised them that they would have a son.  Finally, when Sarah was 90 and Abraham was 100, a son, Isaac was born to them.  It was through Isaac that all of the promises and all of the descendants would come.  

And that brings us to today, when God tells Abraham to go to the mountain and offer his son as a burnt sacrifice.  This is brutal and awful and makes absolutely no sense at all.  Why would God demand such a terrible thing?
And this brings us to the first part of Luther's understanding of God, what he called, "The Hidden God."  According to Luther, the Hidden God is beyond our understanding, therefore "hidden."  This Hidden God demands of us and judges us.  This Hidden God is powerful and mysterious.  This Hidden God is unpredictable and without mercy.  This is the only God that many, many people know.  This is the God that Martin Luther experienced early in his life and he hated him.  Martin Luther hated God because he could only see this "Hidden God."

This is where the Reformation began.  Luther began looking for a merciful God, not a judge, but a savior.  And slowly, in the pages of scripture and by the power of the Holy Spirit, this savior was revealed to him.

Which brings us to the second part of Luther's understanding of God, "The Revealed God."  The Revealed God is the God who speaks to us in his promises.  God chooses to show his mercy and his love in a particular way, not by showing us everything, not by explaining everything to us, but by giving us promises.  Another way of putting this is that God is not concerned with us understanding him; he is concerned with us trusting him and the promises he gives.

This is the key to the story of Abraham and Isaac.  Before our lesson for today begins, God has given Abraham promises.  He has promised him a Son.  He has promised him descendants.  He has promised him a land for those descendants.  And he has promised that through those descendants all nations will be blessed.  Abraham has heard these promises and by hearing them, he has believed them.  It took decades for Isaac to arrive after he was first promised, but Abraham believed and lo and behold, God delivered on his promise.
But then Abraham hears the terrible command from God.  (read verse 2) You would think this would tear him up, stir him to rebellion, cause him to doubt perhaps.  But instead of being torn apart by it, he continues to believe in the promises that God has given him.  In other words, he clings to the good news, the gospel, that God has given him, even when confronted by what he is commanded to do by God.

I want to make clear the implications of what is going on.  By killing Isaac, reason tells us that he will have no descendants at all.  By killing Isaac, he will make void the promises of God.  And it is God himself who is commanding him to absolutely gut the promises, by killing his son.  This makes no sense!!!  It is not supposed to make sense. God has made no promise to Abraham that everything will make sense.  God chooses to remain hidden from him.  But in the midst of this, Abraham believes that God will somehow still keep his promises.  He believes this because God has revealed himself in those promises.  And so he goes up the mountain to kill his son, clinging only to faith in the promises.

When faced with this story, it’s hard not to be a bit repulsed.  It’s hard not to look at God and his actions and be appalled.  There are a lot of things that happen in this world that are cruel and terrible and it makes my heart sick to hear and see them.  And I don’t understand how it is that God can let such things happen.  Isn’t he ultimately responsible for his creation?

This is the reality of God, the Hidden God, as Luther called him.  We do not understand him; his ways and purposes are hidden from us.  But it’s no good trying to apologize for him or trying to deny that such things happen.  And it’s certainly no good to suggest that he doesn’t have the power to make things right.  He is the Lord of the Universe, after all. 

As it turns out, God has decided to make things right and he has decided to do this by revealing himself in Jesus Christ, the descendant of Abraham and Isaac.  He reveals himself in a rather similar story, in which it is his Son who is led to the top of a mountain called Golgotha.  But this time it is the Jewish leaders and Pontius Pilate, and the crowd, and us who have commanded the sacrifice.  And it is the son of God, Jesus, who is put to death there.

So the long and the short of it is this.  We will not understand God as we would like.  Life will sometimes be cruel and it might well be God himself who is responsible for it.  The reasons why will be hidden from us.  Nevertheless, we will cling to the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.  This God has given you a promise.  He has promised you that for the sake of his Son, your sins are forgiven.  The rest of it might be a mystery, hidden from our understanding, but be assured that this has been revealed to you; God has chosen you to forgive and he has given life to you.

The hymn that we just sang illustrates beautifully what I was trying to communicate in the sermon.  Look at that fifth verse.
Through all the passing years, O Lord,
Grant that, when church bells are ringing,
Many may come to hear your Word,
Who here this promise is bringing: (Who/which is bringing the promise here)
“I know my own, my own know me;
You, not the world, my face shall see;
My peace I leave with you. Amen.”
“You shall see my face,” says God, “because I have revealed it to you in the promise which the Word brings to you.”  On the other hand, “The world will not see, because apart from my promises, I remain hidden, inscrutable, incomprehensible.  Those who have not heard these promises cannot possibly see me.”  What this verse understates, of course, is even us who have heard God’s promises will not see the fullness of God; we won’t understand everything.  But we will surely know his peace that comes through faith. 

Now, there is an aspect of this verse which is troubling, “What about that world which cannot see?”  I don’t want to be in a small insider’s group that sees.  What about that world which does not see?  And this illustrates to us the Lutheran rationale for mission: Faith comes by hearing the promise, so we must be willing to speak it, to give it away freely to sinners!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Holy Trinity Sunday - June 19, 2011

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus has two kinds of words for us.  First, he tells us what we must do, “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”    Second, he gives us a promise, “I am with you always.”  These two types of words are found throughout scripture.  We call them, Law and Gospel. 

Law tells us what our obligations are, what we are to do.  Law is a measuring stick.  Law is a judge.   Law says, “This is the way things are supposed to be.”  When things are not that way the Law points its finger at you and me and says, “You have not measured up.  You should act the right way, but you do not.  You should do the right thing, but you do not.”  Most people are well aware of the Law in the Old Testament, like the Ten Commandments for example or the fiery sermons of the prophets in which they condemned the people for being unfaithful.  But there is also Law in the New Testament.  Jesus tells us, “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.”  And as we just heard in our gospel lesson, he tells us to go and make disciples.  This is Law.  He is telling us what we must do.

The other word is called Gospel.  Gospel tells us what God has done for us and what God has promised.  Gospel is also found in both the Old and New Testament.  An example of the gospel in the Old Testament is when God says in the Book of Exodus, “I am the Lord your God.”  This is what God has done; he has chosen his people.  Another example is found in the Prophet Jeremiah, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”  This is a promise of forgiveness.

Now, the simple fact of the matter is that these two words, Law and Gospel, get confused all the time.  We tend to connect things that sound ornery or mean with the Law and we tend to connect things that sound happy and nice with the Gospel.  But this isn’t so.  The Law tells us what we must do and that thing might be very warm and fuzzy!  For instance, the following statement would be an example of Law, “Do unto others as you would have do unto you.”  This sounds very nice, and it is.  But it is a command.  It is the Law.  On the other hand, sometimes the gospel doesn’t sound all that great, “This is my body, given for you.”  When you really think about it, eating Jesus doesn’t sound all that great, does it?  But in these words he is giving us a promise, so it is the gospel.

Now why is all of this important?  Why would it matter if we were to get Law and Gospel mixed up?  It matters because the Law and the Gospel perform very different functions.  The Law sets out what is perfect and right and if you don’t measure up, then it accuses you, condemns you and kills you.  It doesn’t matter if you are a really nice person.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve done lots of good things.  It doesn’t matter if you had good intentions.  The Law is perfect and it demands perfection.  When you are measured against the Law you will be found wanting and you will be killed.

The gospel’s function is just the opposite.  The gospel goes around taking that which is dead and raising it up to new life.  The gospel finds sinners who are stuck, who are dead in their sins, and breathes new life into them.  How does this happen?  The gospel comes to us in the preached word.  It comes to us when we gather together as the church to hear words like this, “For the sake of Christ, your sins are forgiven.”

So why is it important for us to recognize the difference between Law and Gospel?  Because if we only hear the Law, then we will be accused, condemned and killed.  Faith withers when it does not hear God’s promises.  The Bible tells us that faith comes by hearing.  And so hearing the gospel, hearing the words of God’s forgiveness, is the most important event in the day to day life of a Christian.  This is the most important work of a pastor.  Back in February at my installation service, Wayne/Peggy said on behalf of the congregation, “You have been called to be among us to baptize, to teach, and to forgive sins.  You have been called to be among us to proclaim the good news.  You have been called to be among us to preside at the Lord's supper.”  You called me to give this good news over and over again.  This is what the church needs to hear, over and over again because by hearing it, we believe it, and by believing it, we have life. 

Now we come to the Synod Assembly which took place two weeks ago, a gathering of the church.  As I said earlier, I was disappointed by what I heard there.  My primary concern isn’t church politics.  My primary concern is that I did not hear the gospel.  Instead, I heard the Law over and over again.  During our Friday worship, the preacher said the following, “God sees their needs and looks at you, ‘So what are you going to do about it?”  This fit in with the message that called on us to serve the poor by giving financially and by volunteering and by, I quote, “your vote.”  We were not told explicitly what kind of vote this referred to.  In any event, the overall message was one that called us to action and talked about serving God with our actions.  These kinds of words are Law.  There were no words of promise, no gospel words that forgave our sin or promised God’s love for us. 

Taken by itself, I would have been disappointed by the sermon.  But one sermon does not reflect on the entire assembly.  Unfortunately, this set the tone for most of what followed.  Again and again words of Law were spoken, “This is what you should do...... God calls on you to do this...... We need to raise money for that...... These are the service projects that we have done......”  Taken by themselves, each of these things might have been fine.  It is right that we should help feed the poor and give out of our abundance so that they might have mosquito nets to protect against malaria.  These are good things.  But as these obligations piled up, one after the other, I began to wonder, “Are we going to hear any words of grace?  Are we going to hear anything about what God has done or promised to do?  Or will the entire assembly be about us and our actions?  Will the entire assembly be about the Law?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that what was happening was a confusion of Law and Gospel.  Helping the poor was being presented to us as the Gospel.  In order to encourage this help, we were being condemned for not giving enough, for being too prosperous, for being too comfortable.  In this scenario, God was no longer our Savior so much as he was the one who took the side of the poor against the rich.  In other words, as the rich and privileged folks, we were being condemned for not doing enough to help the people God loves, the poor.  But we were offered the possibility of fulfilling the gospel by doing and giving more in order to help the ones God really favors.

Now I want to pause to make something clear.  It is good and right that we help the poor.  God loves the poor and God does demand of us that we give out of our abundance to help those less fortunate.  I am in no way trying to say that we shouldn’t be doing this kind of work.  In fact, I am proud that our church takes this kind of work seriously. 

However, this work needs to be properly understood.  Feeding the poor is not the gospel. Taking care of the widow and the orphan is not the gospel.  If we try to make them into the gospel then what we are really doing is throwing away the gospel that God has given us in Jesus Christ.  In its place, we are setting up an idol, the idol of good works.  All idols are a form of the law because they are not the promises of God.  We will find ourselves condemned by this Law.  One hungry mouth half way around the world will condemn us because that is what the Law does; it demands perfection and then punishes imperfection with death.  Even if we fed and clothed everyone, with no exceptions, we would still be under condemnation because the Law leads to death under all circumstances.  It is only God who bestows life and he never does it through the Law.

The gospel is how God has chosen to give life.  God has chosen to forgive sins for the sake of his Son, Jesus Christ.  He delivers this promise, this life, in the preached word.  That is to say, someone gives this promise to you through your ears.  That is why the church gathers, to hear this promise and to have life.  If we gather together and do not hear this promise; if we gather together for the sake of good works or for the sake of being a social club then we do not have life.  If we lift up the Law and neglect the Gospel, then we do not have life.  So we must hold tenaciously to this proclamation of God’s promise, defending this truth against everything that would disagree.

I had a major problem with the Assembly because I did not hear the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed.  I did not hear that he died for me.  I did not hear that my sins were forgiven.  What I heard was that I needed to get to work, (God’s work my hands.)  Now this is only one Assembly, one weekend.  My intention in sharing this message with you is that we be vigilant, that we be paying close attention, that we contend for our faith.  We have been given the most precious of all treasures, the pearl of great price, the gospel, and we must cling to it with all of our strength.

Having heard all of this, I hope that you are saying to yourselves, “Well that’s all fine and dandy, but when are you going to give us the goods, Pastor?  You’ve talked and talked and talked about the good news, but you haven’t given us any.”  If you are saying that to yourself, then you are absolutely right.  There hasn’t been a lick of good news in this sermon; it’s all been teaching and warning and exhorting.  And to end it here would be to miss the entire point.

And so back we go to our gospel lesson for today.  Jesus commands the disciples to go and do mission work; this is the Law of course.  And then he gives them a promise.  He says, “Remember, I am with you always.”  Yes, there’s work to be done, and it is important work, but remember this, I am with you always to the very end.  The Lord Jesus is with us this morning as he promised.  And he is here not to condemn, but to give life...... to you.  Your sins are forgiven.  Amen.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Gallagan Wedding

Ryan and Bridget, when I think of wedding sermons I think of a few particular qualities.  They should be short. They should include personal stories.  They should mix in a little advice about marriage.  And they should end with encouragement.  This week, as I considered those qualities this, I thought to myself, “I am in so much trouble.”  Because that’s just not the way I write sermons.  But I’ll try to keep it short at any rate. 

Ryan and Bridget, there are two kinds of words that we find in the Bible.  Words of command which tell us what we must do, these words we call Law.  And words of promise which tell us what God has done, these words we call Gospel.  When we can’t tell the difference between them we can get into the weeds pretty fast.  Figuring out which is which makes a huge difference in any Christian’s life.  And even more so in the life of a Christian couple.

So with these two words, Law and Gospel, let us look at the scripture you chose from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians.

“Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.”  These are the five highly desirable traits that Paul lays out for the church at Colossae .  He tells the church members that they are to clothe themselves in these traits.  And you both believe that you are to clothe yourselves in these traits too, otherwise you wouldn’t have chosen the scripture.  I dug into the words just a little bit so that we could have a clearer picture of what they mean in practice. 
  • Compassion means to suffer with another person.  To enter into their sorrow and difficulty without blame nor condemnation.  
  • Kindness means to act with grace towards another person, to show them your favor.  Its opposite is severity.
  • Humility means to voluntarily submit to the other person, to be unselfish.  Its opposite is pride.
  • Meekness means a quality of gentle friendliness, strength that accommodates to another's weakness.
  • Patience means emotional quietness in the face of unfavorable circumstances. 

 These words that Paul chooses, these words that you have chosen, are wonderful.  Who wouldn’t want to have a spouse who embodied these qualities?  

The problem, as we all know, is that these are not easy qualities to have for oneself.  On any particular day it might not be so hard to be patient or kind or meek, but what about that day when you’re not feeling well and when your dearly beloved spouse is being a jerk?  What do you do then?  

Well, to be clear about this, St. Paul has laid out these five qualities as commands.  These five things will constitute, at least in part, the law of your marriage, the way that you’ve agreed to behave towards one another.  The thing about the Law is that it is dreadfully hard to keep.  And the failure to live up to these standards will start wearing on you.  “Bridget always does this......”   “Ryan never does that.......”  Grievances build up.  Bitterness creeps in. 

Luckily, St. Paul is no pie in the sky idealist.  He knows, just like you know, what human beings are really like.  He knows that you will fall short, just like we all fall short.  And so he begins to talk about forgiveness.  “Bear with one another, and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”  Forgiveness, of course, is the act that wipes the slate clean.  Forgiveness lets go of resentments.  Forgiveness gives up bitterness.  

But there is a problem.  And again, I’m sure you both know this.  Forgiveness is easier said than done.  Resentments can become dear friends.  Nursing a sense of grievance can seem very comforting and safe.  Forgiveness becomes impossible.  

At the end of the day, even though forgiveness seems like such a good thing, it is just another command, another thing that we are supposed to do, but find impossible.  This is the nature of that first word, the Law.  It seems good, but it is impossible.  

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul describes this situation very well, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”      

Now it is time for that second word, the word of promise, the Gospel.  Where is this word of promise in these verses that we’re looking at?  It is right at the beginning, the first four words.  “As God’s chosen ones.”  God has chosen you, Ryan; he has chosen you, Bridget, to be his.  He made a decision about your sin; he decided to do something about it.  Here is what he did.  He sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to become a servant, to suffer and to die. 

With this in mind, I want to repeat the five highly desirable traits that Paul has laid out.
  •  Compassion means to suffer with another person.  To enter into their sorrow and difficulty without blame nor condemnation.  Jesus has done this for you.
  • Kindness means to act with grace towards another person, to show them your favor.  Jesus has done this for you.
  •  Humility means to voluntarily submit to the other person, to be unselfish.  Jesus has done this for you.
  • Meekness means a quality of gentle friendliness, strength that accommodates to another's weakness.  Jesus has done this for you.
  • Patience means emotional quietness in the face of unfavorable circumstances.  Jesus has done this for you.
Jesus was all of these things.  He embodied these qualities.  And the result was that we killed him.  And it would be no good news at all if he had stayed dead.  But on the third day, he was raised from the dead,....... for you.  

What does this mean?  It means that you are forgiven.  It means that all your shortcomings are not counted against you.  It means that you have the promise of eternal life.  

“That’s well and good, but what about my marriage?  What does this have to do with that?”

God’s forgiveness of each of you individually is the foundation of your life together.  It does not mean that God gives you the power to do these things, to be compassionate, kind, humble, meek and patient.  God’s forgiveness is not some kind of power to be a better person.  

Instead, God’s forgiveness is something more like this: as his chosen ones, it means that both of you will be living as disciples at the feet of Jesus,  both dependent on him daily to give you all that you need.  This is the meaning of another famous saying of St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  

Bridget and Ryan, by your own efforts you would never be able to live up to the standards that you have set for yourself today.  This law of behavior is more than any man or woman could follow.  

But hear this good news, this gospel: it is Christ living in you, his chosen ones, who will show compassion and kindness.  It is Christ living in you, his chosen, who will be humble and meek.  It is Christ living in you his chosen, who will forgive and keep on forgiving.  And it is the love of Christ in both of you that will bind you together in a love of perfect harmony.  Amen.  

Sunday, June 5, 2011

7th Sunday of Easter - June 5, 2011

First, context.  For the past two weeks we have been in John’s gospel, listening to Jesus speak to his disciples during what we call, the Last Supper.  So this is at the very end of his ministry.  Jesus will be arrested in a few hours and killed the next day.  That is the broad context.

The more particular context is this, Jesus is preaching a sermon to his disciples.  This whole long section of John’s gospel is pretty much a sermon.  In this sermon are all kinds of things like illustrations, instructions, and encouragement.  The section we have today, our gospel lesson, is in the form of a prayer, but it is part of the whole sermon. 

Now, it might not seem like it sometimes, but all sermons are supposed to have a point.  And the Lutheran understanding is that this point of the sermon, the reason that it is being preached, is to give a promise.  What Jesus is trying to communicate in his big, long sermon is this, “Trust me; it’s going to be okay.  My father sent me to do the work of bringing salvation to the people he has chosen and I have done it.  You are among those people whom he has chosen.” 

The point of the particular section of his sermon that we have read this morning is pretty much the same thing, but instead of telling it straight to them, he is praying to God in front of them.  And these are some of the things that he says:

“You have given [me] authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given [me.]”

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me....... They were yours, and you gave them to me.”

And then also this, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine.”

These three bits all have the same core understanding.  Jesus is saying that God has chosen the disciples and given the disciples to him.  Do you notice how passive the disciples are in this?  God the Father and Jesus his Son are working on this salvation plan.  God the father chooses them, and gives them to the Son.  Jesus works on them, and gives them eternal life.  What are the disciples doing?  Not much!

Now it does say that Jesus works on the disciples a bit.  What does he do to them?  Mainly he preaches to them!  He puts words into their ears.  Here is what he says:

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me......”

“The words that you gave to me I have given to them......”

Jesus has been giving them words.  He has been preaching to them.  Why?  What good is that going to do?  Now in our culture we don’t necessarily have a lot of respect for words.  Think about expressions like these: “Talk is cheap” and “Actions speak louder than words.”  That may be so with people, but it isn’t with God.  God’s word is powerful and does what it says.  Take creation for example.  The Bible doesn’t say, “God rolled up his sleeves and got to work.”  No, the creation account in Genesis says that God created things with his words.  “And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.”  
So now, when Jesus has been preaching to his disciples he has been doing the same thing.  Except that instead of creating the physical world, Jesus is creating something a bit different.  Here’s how it works.  Jesus proclaims a promise to us.  Hearing that promise produces faith.  Simple.  So what has Jesus been doing with his disciples?  He has been busy creating faith in them by using words.

And this is exactly what Jesus reports.  Here is what he says:

“Now they know that everything you have given me is from you.”

And also this, “For the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.”

God’s word is powerful.  God’s word does what it says.  And so when Jesus says, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine” then that is so.  He has said it and so it is true.  And by saying it to his disciples, he is creating faith in them so that can believe that it is true.

Now I’d like to connect this with us.  What does this have to do with us?  Nothing has changed.  God still uses his Word.  I spoke about this in the newsletter this month when I explained the importance of the Third Commandment and the importance of coming to church.  Neither of these things are important because they are rules.  They are important because getting our ears to church means that we hear something that we need to hear.

And so here it is.  God has chosen you.  How do you know this?  You know this because I am telling you.  All of you baptized have been chosen by God for salvation.  That is God’s promise to you this morning.