4th Sunday after Pentecost

4th Sunday after Pentecost
June 17, 2018
Mark 4:26-34
“It’s What Seeds Do”

God’s grace, mercy and peace be to you all in the name of God our Father and our living Savior Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel lesson read earlier from Mark chapter 4.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

The sun rose on another early June morning chasing away the soft coolness of the night and promised a day with comfortable sunshine without oppressive humidity. It would be a perfect day for any outdoor activity: going to the beach, checking out a farmer’s market, golfing, going for a walk or whatever outdoor activity a person loves to do to relax. But not for Ted. Not today. Ted woke up with a clear purpose knowing exactly what needed to be done.
You see, Ted had spent the previous day planting his garden. Ted had spent the last month selecting his seeds for his vegetables, he had carefully spaced the rows to allow the tiller room, and he had lovingly watered in each seed the day before with a mixture of perfectly-blended water and Miracle Grow. Planting had gone without a hitch. Ted jumped from his bed that following morning and raced around the garage to his newly-sown garden spot just chomping at the bit to get all the necessary work done and turning the corner he saw…nothing. His garden looked the same way it had yesterday when he left it. None of the seeds had produced any vegetables. But Ted had done everything right! Where were the vegetables?! Disheartened, Ted fired up his garden tiller and worked all the soil up in hopes that next year the harvest would be better.
“What’s wrong with this Ted guy!” you might think. “He didn’t give the seeds enough time to grow! Doesn’t he know any better? Seeds don’t mature overnight; they need time to mature…it’s what seeds do.” I hope that you do think that, and will remember that in another 10 minutes.
Mark chapter 4 is the “parable chapter” in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus had recently concluded the healing portion of His ministry, and now comes the teaching aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus leads His disciples to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and a large crowd follows (4:1). So that everyone could hear, Jesus sits in a boat and pushes out a bit. He then told a series of parables and in today’s Gospel lesson we heard two of them.
Both parables for our consideration today are “Kingdom” parables, that is, Jesus is teaching a heavenly truth about God’s kingdom through human stories; people may not have readily understood the reality of how God’s kingdom worked, but they understood about sowing seeds. When Jesus is talking about “Kingdom” He doesn’t mean a physical territory like a garden spot or a farmer’s field. The “Kingdom” Jesus speaks of is wherever and whenever people are governed by God’s grace through faith in Christ Jesus. Therefore, the Kingdom was there for His hearers, but it is also here, right now, and there is more “Kingdom” to come (2nd petition of Lord’s Prayer).
In both kingdom parables something amazing is taking place – seeds are growing. We are part of generations that have witnessed tremendous advancements in technology, medicine, and science, which causes us to take for granted the miraculous mundane. I am sure that most farmers could tell you the inner working and anatomy of a single seed: coat, embryo, epicotyls, and so on. But what gives the seed its capacity to grow? What makes that seed grow? It is God, isn’t it? Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3, “…neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7 ESV). That verse is about faith, but it is also literally true in terms of seed growth.
That process from Paul is absolutely true and be believe it, we trust it, and we even explain it…and how quickly we forget it. As sinful seeds when we don’t see growth in our own lives, we panic. When things go the way that we don’t want them to, we fail to trust the true Gardner – the One who provides all growth. God has provided an ordered sequence in which seeds grow because that is what seeds do: seed, sprout, blade, ear, full grain (4:28). That is the way that God has created the seed to work, the way He ordains seed growth, and the way in which God provides the harvest.
As sinners we are bewildered at times by God’s grand plan for our maturity within His kingdom even while we are in the midst of it. When we don’t see the growth or maturity we expect in life, we are like Ted and we want to grind everything up and admit failure. God has a plan for forgiven sinners – for you – and you will not always recognize that. That’s what seeds do; they don’t always “get it,” but they are equipped to grow – to be built up – until they reach the point of full maturity that God has for them. It is true with corn, cucumbers, Chicory, and children.
God’s ways are often hidden – veiled – in ways we fail to recognize and never expected. He works through thorns and nails. He works through a cross. He is at work in water, in bread, and in wine. The spiritual growth that you and I experience – our maturation growth process – happens because of Christ Jesus crucified and risen again for our forgiveness and salvation. That redemptive act is the soil in which we are planted so that we can grow and reach maturity and produce the fruits of faith.
Your maturity in life and in faith is a divine process. Seeds need time to mature; it’s what seeds do. You’re not always going to see overnight progress or results. So, we patiently endure whatever God’s process is for us so that we can reach that intended maturity and produce a worthwhile harvest for Him. Of course there are going to be things that happen that we don’t understand. But we don’t have to understand to grow; we grow because that is what God does to us and through us. As His people – His seeds – we live by faith not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). God’s purposes for your life and fulfilled even when you have little proof to go on.
The harvest is coming. But until that time, be open to how God is maturing you and those around you. It’s a process with an ordered sequence; don’t get discouraged if you don’t know “why” God is doing this or that. Trust in God’s maturation process for you. Be patient in that process; give God time to facilitate your spiritual growth. Celebrate your growth and produce a bountiful crop for Him, because that’s just what seeds do. And for crying out loud, please don’t go home and till up your flower gardens or vegetable gardens or relationships or careers or hope. Give it time, just as God is giving you time to mature and produce fruit for Him and His glorious, eternal Kingdom.
Happy Father’s Day. Amen.

3rd Sunday after Pentecost

3rd Sunday after Pentecost
June 10, 2018
Genesis 3:8-15
“Hide and Seek…With God”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the First Lesson read from Genesis chapter 3.

My dear friends,

What was your favorite board game growing up? I may depend on what decade you grew up in, although some games are timeless. For me, my favorite games were “Stratego” or “Risk”. “Sorry” and “Life” were close seconds. How about your favorite outdoor game as a kid? Again, for me…too easy. “Kick the Can.” It’s been a LONG time since I’ve played “Kick the Can.” It isn’t often that we think of our relationship with God in terms of a game. Indeed, to say that someone is trying to play games with God would almost sound blasphemous. And yet today we will think of our relationship with God in terms of the most basic of games…hide-and-seek. Doesn’t get any more simple than that.
In the Genesis 3 text we find Adam in the Garden of Eden hiding from God in fear because of his sin. Uhm, yeah…wouldn’t you? Adam, the first man, becomes representative of all mankind, in trying to hide from God. Just imagine if God Almighty Himself came strolling in here today looking for YOU, wanting to talk to YOU about that secret sin that only you and God know about. Where are you going to hide? Under the pew? Under the pew cushion? Good luck with that! There is nowhere – NOWHERE – to hide from God and His knowledge of your sin, even though we want to hide in recognition of the sinful things we’ve done and our unworthiness and shame.
One of my favorite books (I have 3 copies for some reason) is “The Screwtape Letters” by C. S. Lewis. The book is a series of letters from one demon – Screwtape – to his nephew demon Wormwood. Wormwood is working on a young man to turn him away from God, and the idea of holy fear is a favorite weapon of Screwtape. Screwtape writes to teach his nephew that a certain kind of guilt is healthy and beneficial in making mankind aware of the need for God’s grace and forgiveness. The trick, however, was for Wormwood to take this guilt and make it debilitating for “the patient’s” relationship to God, making the guilty patient feel completely unworthy and that the situation is hopeless and therefore permanently turn from God. The good news in The Screwtape Letters is that their tactics don’t work on the patient. God still finds the “creature” and they are found in a faith relationship much to the disappointment of Screwtape.
Adam hides from God because of his nakedness and the shame that goes with it. Before the fall into sin, nakedness symbolized human innocence. Adam and Eve had nothing to hide, either from God or from one another. Nakedness was not an issue…for anyone because there was no fear, no shame. But after the fall into sin, fear and shame took over and nakedness came to symbolize human rebellion and alienation from God. Would you want to stand naked before God? Allow Him to see all…know all? Talk about guilt and shame!
But before we throw in the towel and try to stay hidden in our own guilt and shame, we remember that in His grace, God seeks Adam. God calls out, “Where are you?” Wait…what? Why would God ask where Adam is? Doesn’t God know? Of course God knows…He’s God. God wants Adam to know that He wants to find Adam; God doesn’t desire that Adam stay lost forever, but that he knows God is seeking for him. Thankfully, God does not abandon us in our sin and guilt any more than he abandoned Adam in the Garden. In our sin we want to hide; He seeks us out in love. Like the Good Shepherd that He is, God came searching for his lost sheep, Adam. What God did for Adam did not depend on Adam’s worth, merit, works, accomplishments, or conduct, but solely by grace.
Remember how I said at the start of the sermon that the most basic of games is hide-and-seek? If you’re it, you’re not hiding. You’re seeking. The opposite is true as well. If you’re not seeking, then you’re hiding. It is as simple as that, but it does take both. In the same way, God’s grace is hidden under its opposite and it takes both. Divine grace is hidden under our sinful sorrow. Divine compassion is hidden under our sinful grief. Divine goodness is hidden under our sinful misfortune. Divine, holy, steadfast love is hidden under our earthly fears. Divine mercy is hidden under our daily troubles. Divine peace is hidden under our sin-laden anxiety. It’s no wonder that Martin Luther once said, “God is known in suffering.”
Today’s First Lesson from Genesis 3 has its own first – the first Gospel proclamation. The first Gospel promise is hidden in the veiled promise of verse 15: “I will put enmity (hostility/animosity) between you (serpent/Satan) and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall (crush) your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The battle lines are drawn between the offspring of the woman – Jesus – and the offspring of the serpent – the devil. The devil will strike the heel of Jesus when Jesus dies on the cross – a painful but temporary wound. In the April 2018 edition of the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, researchers found a 2,000 year old skeleton in northern Italy who had lesions that passed through the ‘entire width’ of the heel bone, suggesting death by crucifixion – a process that literally “bruised the heel.” By His crucifixion, Christ crushes the devil’s head, symbolizing his power. As a result, there is no reason to hide in our naked shame any longer. The cross is the symbol of Christ’s victory over sin and death, which is OUR victory. Our clothing before God is no longer a flimsy fig leaf, it’s the blood-soaked wood of the cross and unoccupied grave clothes. What a glorious garment!
And so the game of hide-and-seek with God continues. God wants us to come seeking him in his Word. What is more, God wants to be found where He promises to be…in His Word and the Sacraments!
I can remember playing hide-and-seek with both my young daughters and now my granddaughters who, when I took too long to find them, would make little squeaking noises to give themselves away. If you were playing hide-and-seek competitively (which IS a thing), you might wonder “what’s wrong with these kids? Don’t they know that the idea of the game is to remain hidden?”
But…is it really? The joy in hide-and-seek is not in staying endlessly hidden, but instead comes in being found! A hiding child wants to be found! And so does God! God is like a person who clears his throat while hiding making it so obvious that He is found in His Word and in, with, and under the bread and wine – and so gives Himself away. God simply can’t resist clearing His throat to bring us more quickly unto Himself! And oh my friends, what joy there is to be had being found by and with God!
And so, ready or not…here we come!
Amen.

2nd Sunday after Pentecost

2nd Sunday after Pentecost
June 3, 2018
Deuteronomy 5:12-15
“What’s the Point of the Sabbath?”

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The text that engages us today is the First Lesson previously read from Deuteronomy chapter 5 in which Moses encouraged the people to keep the Sabbath Day holy.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

Many days of the week seem to have their own personality, their own “feel” to it if you will, and you all know and remember what those feelings are like. First, there is Monday. Monday is back-to-work day, you know, back to the “grind.” Wednesday is called “hump day,” getting over the hump of the first part of the week and now beginning to move towards the weekend. Wednesdays are not as bad as Monday, but they are nowhere nearly as good as…Friday. Everyone likes Friday. “TGIF” and all that. Friday…that wonderful threshold for Saturday, and so far away from Monday you cannot even remember Monday anymore.
And then there’s today. What about this day – Saturday/Sunday – the day of worship, the day we gather together as God’s people? What kind of day is this? What personality, what purpose, what traits does our worship observance have? Our readings today center on the Sabbath…so, what is the Sabbath? Why and how do we keep the Sabbath? What’s the point of the Sabbath anyway?
The first actual mention of Sabbath is during the Exodus and the Israelite wandering in the desert. The Israelites were to pick up extra manna on the 6th day of the week because on the 7th day of the week – the Sabbath Day – they weren’t supposed to gather any. Exodus 16:23, the first mention of the Sabbath, reads, “(Moses) said to them, ‘This is what the LORD commanded: Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.'”
Moses was instructing the people there was to be a day of the ceasing of work in remembrance of when God rested after the 6 days of creation. In addition, Moses added in our First Lesson for today, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” The Israelites took this injunction, which later was given as the Third Commandment, very seriously. In Numbers 15, an Israelite man is observed gathering firewood on the Sabbath and the assembly of Israelites stoned him for working on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36).
But…you worked today too, didn’t you? I bet many of you showered and shaved and maybe fixed breakfast, got in the car, and maybe even drove a car (gasp!). That sounds like work to me! But I don’t see anyone gathering stones. So, to what extent is the Sabbath a day of rest versus work? Can we work if everyone else works too? Is it okay to work on the Sabbath or not? What’s the point of the Sabbath?
In today’s Gospel lesson from Mark 2, Jesus and the disciples were simply picking the heads off of grain stalks. Not exactly re-roofing the temple, mind you. But the Pharisees considered this work and then called Jesus out wondering why they were “working,” which was unlawful on the Sabbath.
This was not the only time that Jesus and the Pharisees would have this discussion. 6 times Jesus is accused of unlawfully working on the Sabbath. 5 of those 6 times Jesus is healing someone on the Sabbath. But that’s how the Pharisees and many other pious Jews felt the Sabbath should be kept. But get this…in a strange twist, for them the Sabbath was a day of work: their “non-working” was meant to work hard to keep rules and observances by which they thought God would accept them as holy. They worked really hard at not working in order to please God! Naturally they were offended when Jesus’ disciples didn’t seem to keep those rules as they thought they should be kept.
But don’t we also slip into this attitude? In our Christian piety, we imagine that somehow our church attendance, our prayers, our standing, kneeling, and sitting, our offerings, our manner of dress, our service in the church are what make us “good Christian people.” “I’m in church almost every Saturday/Sunday…I’m keeping the Sabbath.” Not necessarily. Keeping the Sabbath holy has more to do with attitude than appearance.
That kind of attitude poisons our relationship with God. What it does is turn our Sabbath into a “workday.” It makes God our boss and us the employees. And so, out of obligation, we drag ourselves to church and worship becomes our work to appease Him, to make God happy. Salvation becomes our “paycheck.” This is really a misguided, misunderstanding of the Sabbath. And so, what is the point of the Sabbath? God’s intention for the day of Sabbath is three-fold: (1) to rest, (2) to recall His redemption by hearing His Word, and (3) to devote the Sabbath to holy words, holy works, and holy living (Large Catechism).
First of all, the Sabbath is a day of rest. “Rest” means to stop working. God knows that his creation – people and animals – cannot work 7 days a week all year long. Both people and animals require rest. God wanted to give us a rest from work so that He could do the giving, just like the Manna in the desert. Today, God feeds you spiritually.
Secondly, the point of the Sabbath was for God’s people to reflect on our redemption through hearing God’s Word of His promised salvation. Remember that passage from Deuteronomy? God commanded the Israelites to remember his mighty acts of salvation; to remember how He had saved them from their time of slavery. Keeping the Sabbath consists of gladly hearing God’s Word and learning it and being reminded that we sinners have been saved from our slavery to sin by our Lord Jesus and His sacrificial death on the cross and His resurrection from the grave. The truth of our salvation by God’s grace through our faith in our Savior Jesus Christ is to be clearly articulated in our liturgy, our hymns, and in sermons. These aspects of our worship point to Christ, who is our Sabbath, our rest, our salvation, our hope, our life, our joy, our gladness.
Lastly, the Sabbath is not primarily kept by refraining from any kind of work. Jesus Himself dispelled that myth. Instead, the Sabbath is kept by keeping the day holy; devoting it to holy words, holy works, and holy living. It’s setting aside a day to rest and reflect on the gifts of salvation that we have through Christ Jesus and to thank Him for that through our worship and praise. God’s command to worship is not His ordering us around as our boss; it’s the commandment of the One who with a mighty arm on the cross won salvation and rescued us from sin and death. He is the gracious and merciful Giver who bestows this salvation through his Word, and our part is to hear it and learn it – to believe that our sins are forgiven, that Christ has died for us. We do that when we stop on the Sabbath and hear and learn God’s Word.
Let us keep the Sabbath in joy and true rejoicing. Let us gladly hear God’s Word and learn it on this Day of Rest and Gladness, for that, my friends, is the point of the Sabbath.
Amen.

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday/Memorial Day 2018 (B)
May 27, 2018
Isaiah 6:1-8
Here I Am. Send Me.

Grace, mercy and peace be yours abundantly in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, our great Triune God. The sermon today is based on the First Lesson read earlier from Isaiah chapter 6.

My dear friends in Christ,

On Dec. 30, 1944, US Army Captain Robert Trimble had just completed his 35th and final bombing run over Germany, and understandably he was elated that his tour of duty was over. As he landed his B-17 Flying Fortress in Suffolk, England, Trimble knew he was free to go home. The Second World War was coming to an end, his tour of duty was over, and he could now fly back to his family in Pennsylvania, where his wife Eleanor had just given birth to a daughter. But he didn’t. Trimble was called in by his commanding officer who made Trimble an offer: You can go home on leave for three weeks and then face the very real possibility of getting new orders that will put you in harm’s way again, OR you can take an “absolutely safe” job out of the combat zone flying planes back and forth from Poland.
No-brainer, right? Trimble accepted the new orders believing it would be a relatively risk-free mission with very little chance of combat or harm. Landing in Poland and checking in with the commanding officer of the small U.S. contingent there, Trimble asked, “Where are these planes that they want ferried back to England?” That’s when Col. Thomas Hampton dropped the bombshell, informing Trimble that flying planes out was only a ruse to deceive the Russians. Trimble wasn’t there to pick up a plane. Surprise! His real business in Poland was a top-secret mission, working with counterintelligence agents – spies – to find recently liberated American POWs and death camp refugees to help them get home.
Trimble was secretly sent into Russian-held territory to rescue thousands of British and US prisoners of war who faced new danger from Joseph Stalin’s Red Army in the frozen wastelands of Poland where many POWs were executed without mercy or sent to Siberian gulags and worked to death.
So Trimble, even though his time of active service commitment was up, began making regular trips into Poland hunting for survivors, starting at the Auschwitz death camp then scouring the snow-covered countryside, constantly dodging the suspicious Russian secret police. Trimble saved hundreds of Jews left in deserted death camps and 400 French women abused by the Nazis after being shipped east as forced labor.
Trimble used any means necessary – deception, stealth, bribery, even drunkenness – to smuggle out men and women alike from many different nations. By VE Day in May 1945, Robert Trimble had helped smuggle an estimated 1000 POWs and hundreds of civilians out of harm’s way. For his heroism and bravery the United States awarded Trimble the Bronze Star for heroic achievement in the combat zone, but that was done secretly and after the war. US officials feared that their new allies the Soviets would be offended by his efforts so his mission was publically denied. The French didn’t care and they awarded Trimble the “Cross of War”, a medal only given for acts of the highest valor in combat with the enemy. When someone needed to go, as hard as it was, Robert Trimble went. (the book of his mission is called “Beyond the Call”) When his country called, Trimble said “here I am. Send me.”
Speaking of calls, in today’s First Lesson, the prophet Isaiah around 740 BC was shown a vision of a heavenly temple thrown open to view, even to the most holy place, the Holy of Holies. The prophet, standing outside the temple, sees the Divine Triune presence of God seated on the mercy-seat, raised over the Ark of the Covenant, between the cherubim and seraphim, and the Divine glory filled the whole temple.
Isaiah heard the angels calling “Holy Holy Holy” – an extremely rare usage of a triple superlative that indicates the supremely holy and Triune nature of God – to one another as God revealed Himself in all His splendor, and that’s when Isaiah realized that he was in trouble. “Woe is me! For I am lost,” Isaiah despaired. That’s a very common reaction for beings in God’s divine and holy presence. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last. Moses and Gideon both despaired in God’s presence (Exodus 3 and Judges 6). Peter fell down at his Lord’s feet, and cried, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). Even the angels flying around are covering their faces in humility. Creation has always instinctively known this truth – because of our sin, no one can see God and live unless God allows it.
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” God asks this question, not as if He were unresolved whom to send, but that Isaiah might have an opportunity of voluntarily offering his service. Newly forgiven of his sins by God, Isaiah is now ready to be sent regardless of how difficult things might get.
Throughout the ages, mankind has heard the call of God and volunteered their service regardless of how difficult things might get. Men and women alike have left behind comfort and become missionaries in harsh and unpredictable lands. Men and women alike have left behind the safe comfort of home to serve in military service with no promise that they will return. And even if they do return, they face the horror of the battlefield on the home front because of PTSD. Every hour another veteran commits suicide because of PTSD and other stresses after their deployment. Men and women alike have left behind homes and lucrative careers in order to do the work of the church; to spread the Gospel as pastors, teachers, DCEs, and Deaconesses.
Isaiah heard the call to go and serve and so he did. In World War II, Robert Trimble heard the call to go and serve and so he did. And the call from our Triune God is a call to you as well. You are called uniquely to be His messenger of the Gospel and made holy by the sacrifice of Jesus. In addition to your unique calling – your “vocation” – there are some commonalities.
And what is God calling us all to do? “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:16). (Jesus said) “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life” (John 6:40). “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (John 15:9).
Are you starting to get the picture? God entrusts you with His divine call and His divine gifts to be a good steward of both. He calls you to believe and to love and to serve. He calls you to sacrifice and to give. He calls you to not just believe in His miracles, but to be a miracle in the life of another person just as Cpt. Robert Trimble did for 1000+ WWII survivors.
Happy Memorial Day everyone.
Amen.

The Day of Pentecost

The Day of Pentecost
May 20, 2018
Ezekiel 37:1-14
“Ready for Something New?”

God’s grace, His mercy, and His peace be to you all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. The text that engages us today on the celebration of the Day of Pentecost is the First Reading for today from Ezekiel chapter 37 which was previously read – a portion of Scripture commonly known as the valley of the dry bones.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

The beginning of this sermon is something brand new. I re-wrote the first 6 minutes on Thursday night because of what happened to our little 1-year-old grandson Elijah this week. A small rash on his back early in the week spread to his entire body and on Wednesday morning he was in the ER at Palms West in West Palm Beach. We raced to Florida’s east coast to help with the kids and in any way we could. As it turned out, Eli had a SEVERE allergic reaction to amoxicillin, and he is doing much better now which is good, because just a few days ago we were running pretty short on hope.
What is hope? The dictionary says that hope is “to desire with expectation of obtainment.” That’s a pretty clinical definition of hope, which is not always helpful when it’s your life or your family in crisis. What’s more important is to know what does it mean to have hope; to live with hope? Not so easy to answer, right?
You may be more familiar with the opposite feeling – to be hopeless, lost, alone, miserable, dejected. You might have to look hard each day for a reason to lift your head off the pillow. When you feel hopeless you’re consumed by powerful emotions: a loss of purpose, empty, lifeless, hollow. You find that you’re a shell of who you used to be or wanted to be but never were. Thankfully, we have the First Lesson for today. In Ezekiel 37 we are shown how our lives of hollowness and emptiness and uselessness can be made new; made alive again and how dry bones can be made into living flesh – by God the Holy Spirit, who revives and restores us daily.
Today is our celebration of Pentecost; 50 days after Easter and the day the Church received the Holy Spirit. One of the three chief festivals of the Christian Church, today – Pentecost – is just as important as Christmas and Easter. Everyone gets all excited for Christmas and Easter, but not Pentecost because maybe they don’t understand Pentecost or the Holy Spirit as well.
Today we focus on the work of the Holy Spirit. It was the Spirit who first called you to faith, brought you into God’s family in Holy Baptism, and through the Word continually comes to you in the means of grace. It is the Holy Spirit that enables you to call Jesus “Lord,” but then sin ravages us and we end up feeling lifeless and in need of something new. Sometimes that feeling comes because people remove themselves from God’s Means of Grace.
Today’s lesson from Ezekiel is actually a prophecy of how God will resurrect the children of Israel from their misery in exile in Babylon. God takes Ezekiel to the middle of a valley covered with bones. They are dry; they have been there a long time. In this scene of absolute and utter hopelessness and despair, God gives a word of hope to a hopeless people: He promises that they will arise. But, this resurrection will only occur by the Word of the Lord. God speaks and it is so…even with old, dry bones.
The man struggles to rise from his recliner. His recovery has been too slow in coming, and the reality is he may never recover. “I feel so useless,” he says. “I can’t do anything I used to do. My life is nothing but a waste.” Do you feel like that man? A widow, crippled with grief and loneliness says, “My children are grown. My spouse is never coming back. My friends have either died or left for the summer. I spend so many hours alone. What’s the purpose of my life now?” Are you that woman? A mother sighs, “I have no time for myself. Life is nothing but work from one day to the next. My life is busy, but really empty.” Are you like that mother? An employee complains, “How can I, with my supervisor constantly looking over my shoulder, stack boxes and stock shelves eight hours a day to the glory of God?” Are you like that worker? Are you a collection of bones – dry bones, lifeless bones, dead bones? Are you feeling cut off from life with no hope? Are you feeling ready for something new? We don’t necessarily need something new; we need what has always been there – the Holy Spirit.
He was present at the creation of the world breathing life – His ruach – into mankind, He brought a valley of dry bones back to life, He was present at that miracle of Pentecost (2nd Lesson), and He is here today in His Word and the Sacrament! He lovingly desires us to receive His Word and Sacraments, to be open to His Holy Spirit – His ruach – who would turn your dry bones into new, living flesh with a sense of purpose and a renewed sense of hope in Christ crucified and risen FOR YOU. That is how much God loves and renews you…through shed blood and a tomb-shattering resurrection. As that great hymn says, you can face tomorrow and life is worth the living just because Jesus lives!
Today we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Next week too. And the week after that. Too much? No way. Holy Communion is for sinners like you and me; people who need the “something new” that God offers us every day. His Word becomes our hope so that the world can see that we live life differently people, because we live life with hope – real hope; sins forgiven and eternal future – and that effects your words and deeds.
Earlier in the sermon we defined hope as “to desire with expectation of obtainment.” Maybe a better definition is that hope is a willingness to accept our conditions without needing to understand. Hope reaches out its hand in the darkness; faith knows that God is waiting to take that hand. Hope is stronger than fear; joy motivates more effectively than anxiety. God’s promise to Ezekiel does give us something new – a kind of hope the world cannot offer. Do you ever feel like a collection of bones? Do you want hope and life and a joyful spirit? Then come, for all things, new life and forgiveness of sins – hope – are ready for you just as they have always been.
Amen.

7th Sunday of Easter

7th Sunday of Easter

May 13, 2018

John 17:11b-19

“The Heat Is On”

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The text that serves as the basis of the sermon today is the Gospel lesson that was previously read from John chapter 17.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

HEY! Where did everyone go? What happened? Oh yeah, now I remember. This is that awkward time of year when everyone leaves Sarasota because it gets too hot in the summer. The average temperature in Ohio this month is only around 73 degrees; next month that jumps up to 83. By comparison, our average temperature this month will be around 86 but will quickly jump to 90 next month and will stay there for the next 4 months. And that’s why everyone leaves…because it gets too hot for them. It’s an awkward time, no? The stores and streets and restaurants are less crowded, which we like, but so many of our friends are gone for the next 4-5 months and that part we don’t like. Awkward time, is it not?

Today is also a awkward time in the church year. This Saturday/Sunday falls between the celebration of the Ascension of our Lord (which was Thursday) and the festival of Pentecost. This is kind of an awkward week in the church year. Given today’s temperature, some would say that it is already summer, but that’s not what the calendar says…the calendar says it’s still spring. In the church year we can say that it is still sort of Easter and not quite Pentecost. It’s all so confusing!

Today’s Gospel lesson from John 17 helps bring some clarity to at least the church year, but doesn’t help with the temperature outside…you’re on your own out there. John 17 is a portion of Holy Scripture commonly known as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. It is the prayer that He offered up to God the Father before the events of His passion began to unfold. Jesus knew what was about to happen. He had accomplished His earthly ministry, He knew that His suffering and death were almost at hand, and He knew that following that He would ascend back to the glory of Heaven. Jesus knew that after He ascended, we would be left in the awkward in-between time following Jesus’ ascension and His return. Jesus knew we would still be on earth, and He knew that the heat was going to be turned on and turned up repeatedly until His return. This prayer was offered up for many things, and among Jesus’ requests was that the disciples and us be prepared to live in this world during the awkward, in-between time when the heat would keep getting higher and higher.

And the heat is on. There is no denying that this world has been and is still hostile towards Jesus Christ. The world hated Jesus’ disciples and almost all of them died a martyr’s death. Peter was crucified on an upside-down cross. James was put to death by the sword. James the younger (son of Alphaeus) was thrown off the Temple tower. Andrew was crucified on an X shaped cross. Thomas was killed by a lance in India. As those first apostles went forth to proclaim the Good News of Jesus the heat was definitely on, and in many cases, they died as a result.

So much has changed over the last 2000 years, or has it? The chances are slim that you will find yourself on an x-shaped cross, at least not in the U.S., but world still has intense dislike for Christians and Christianity. The heat is on for the Christian Church. According to the International Society for Human Rights, in 2009 Christians were the victims of 80% of all acts of religious discrimination in the world. Closer to home, church attendance and membership numbers are shrinking. Over the last 20 years, LCMS membership is down 14%, a trend across Christendom. The Christian church has lost its voice in the public square having been shouted down by those who oppose the church. The number of children being baptized, attending Sunday School and getting confirmed is shockingly low. And in so many places, the church has abandoned its message of sin and grace and the cross in favour of entertaining people with praise bands and smoke machines. Churches stopped standing for something and so now its members fall for everything; they have no theological backbone. One of the questions of the confirmation rite is to ask the Confirmand if they “intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?” They say I do, by the grace of God…but where are they? They didn’t ALL go to Ohio. See what I mean about the heat is on for the Christian Church and its future?

It is easy to feel that way with declining membership and empty spots in the pews. It’s too easy to feel alone and unprotected. It is too easy to feel isolated and abandoned and helpless and hopeless. It is too easy to lose heart and give up when the heat is turned up in your life when you deal with the pain, addictions, anger, loss, and so on. The modern Christian church isn’t too helpful; contemporary pastors know more about guitar solos than dealing with grief. Being a Christian is hard in any time during any age, but today with the heat turned up even more, we truly walk in danger all the way.

The reality is that we are not alone. Jesus, our High Priest, has been praying and continues to pray for us. He also told us that not even the gates of Hell would prevail against His church! From John 17 we heard Jesus pray for His disciples and, therefore, He prays for us as modern-day disciples. Jesus prayed that His disciples would be protected from the world – please note that we’re not to be taken out of it – and protected from the evil one. The danger that we face is not so much protection from suffering. Suffering is a natural by-product of living in a world stained by sin. The protection that Jesus is praying for is that we would not lose our faith. When the heat gets turned up in our lives and things get difficult, Jesus’ prayer is not that we be automatically taken away and spared from any suffering. Jesus knows that suffering WILL come. But the prayer is that when the heat does get turned up, that we would not lose faith in Him and all that he did for us. He came to earth for us. He lived here amidst the pain and persecution and strife for us. He died on a cross for us. He rose again from the grave for us. Jesus prayed that we would be sanctified – the people of God made holy by God and set apart for God’s service by the truth of God’s Word.

God the Father has heard Jesus’ prayer. How do we know? Because we have seen the results! We have been given that joy that Jesus prayed we would receive (v. 13). We have the joy of sins forgiven! We have the joy of fellowship with each other! We have the joy of eternal life! Amidst the heat and danger of this world, we have been and are protected by the power of God’s name. Jesus prays for His church – and He prays for you – that we may live and have our sanctified being even in the midst of a hostile world. And there is nothing – NOTHING – no amount of heat, no enemy, can stop our faith or our church for we know the truth, and the truth has set us free.

Happy Mother’s Day everyone. Amen.

6th Sunday of Easter

6th Sunday of Easter

May 6, 2018

John 15:9-17

“In Jesus’ Love”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel lesson read from John 15.

My dear friends,

What do you think of when you hear the word love? Do you think of a couple walking hand-in-hand on the beach? Do you think of Valentine’s Day and a warm fuzzy feeling in your stomach? Today we want to understand that such a concept of love is just a very, very small part of the capacity to love and to be loved. Last week we focused on the shocking things that love can do. Today we want to explore the motivation of Christian love, a love modeled after the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.

What was love to our Savior Jesus Christ? What did Jesus think of when He heard the word love? Jesus would not define love with words, but with actions: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). “Having loved his own who were in the world, [Jesus] loved them to the end. . . . Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet” (Jn 13:1, 5). “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10). There you have it—that is love. Last week we considered the question “is love not shown still love?” The answer is NO! For Jesus, love meant nothing apart from deeds. Jesus didn’t just speak love, he did love. Love for Jesus was sacrifice. Jesus sacrificed his time, energy, personal comfort, and the sacrifice of his very life.

Jesus gave all of this love to us very unlovable, sinful human beings. Jesus didn’t choose us to love because we loved him first. No, people aren’t too good at that….not even the disciples. The night of our text—early that night, that is—Peter and all the disciples were sure they’d make any sacrifice for Jesus, even die with him. Well, you know how that turned out. The disciples were good with love that was words – they were “all talk” – but when it came time for sacrifice, to put their lives on the line, even their words bailed out: “I don’t know the man. I don’t know the man! I don’t know the man!” No, Jesus didn’t choose to love the disciples because they chose to love him. He’s quite emphatic: “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (v 16).

And Jesus did choose you—you who were no more lovable and reliable than Peter. You who bail when it’s time to tell your friends, right out loud, right there when he’s being mocked, “I love Jesus.” We claim to love Jesus but we’ve let the world re-define His intention for love and marriage. We’ve let our love for the unborn grow cold and watched them die day after day. We claim “we love Jesus,” yet find excuse after excuse to not attend church or Bible study regularly.

We weren’t lovable, but Jesus says, “I love you—your sins are forgiven.” Jesus says, “I love you—I lay down my life for you, my friend.”

What is love to you? How would you define love? Why do we love? First of all, we love because God commands us to love. It’s not an option. Twice in today’s Gospel, Jesus does not suggest that we love—he commands us to love. How do we love? We love as Jesus loved. Now that’s a pretty tough order. To love as Jesus loved means that we serve as Jesus served.

We love by sacrifice. We love not by words but by deeds. We love by laying down our lives for others. Not necessarily literally, but as we give of our time, our comforts, and our treasures, we are laying down our lives in love for others. We lay down our lives in favor of the needy when we visit a homebound member or give to All Faiths Food Bank. We love not to get something but to do something. Maybe we shouldn’t say, “I love you.” Maybe we should say, “What can I do for you?” Love without sacrifice is nothing.

The story goes that in 19th century England there was a daughter (Marie) of a princess (Alice, 2nd daughter of Queen Victoria) who was deathly ill with diphtheria. The mother was forbidden to kiss the child because of the almost certain danger of contracting the disease. In one of the many moments of pain for the child, the mother was so distressed that she took her daughter in her arms and soothed her into quietness. The daughter looked into the eyes of her mother with an expression of pure pain. This was too much for the mother’s heart. She took her child, pressed her against her body and kissed her. It was a kiss of death. Love is sacrifice without counting the cost.

Whom do we love? Anyone for whom we sacrifice is someone we love, starting with our spouses, children, and friends. We can love people whom we don’t even know. We sponsor a child through World Vision as do thousands upon thousands of Christians. How many people give money for the relief of those caught in natural disasters? That is sacrificial love. We love those who do not love us. We love as we do deeds in the name of Jesus Christ. We do because Jesus loved us first.

The sacrificial love of Jesus is hard for us to do. It takes effort, practice, and concentration. It takes open eyes to see the needs of others. How can you better love those at home, at church, at work, in your neighborhood? Love with the love of Jesus. Love because he loved you first. I love you. What can I do for you? May that question always be on your lips in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

5th Sunday of Easter

5th Sunday of Easter

April 29, 2018

1 John 4:7-11

“Ain’t it Shocking What Love Can Do?”

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Today’s sermon is based on the Epistle lesson read from 1 John.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

 

Internet bloggers who write about sermons say that a good sermon opening should include an attention getting statement or attention getting question so that the sermon becomes the most interesting thing in the room. Okay. How about this for an attention getting question: what do the introduction of Crack cocaine, the withdrawal of the Soviet Red Army from Afghanistan, and my wedding all have in common? Answer? They all happened 30 years ago in 1988.

Ah yes…1988. America 30 years ago. There were no Internet bloggers because there was no Internet; no Google, no Amazon. A gallon of gas cost 91 cents. Stamps were only 24 cents and a movie theater ticket would set you back $3.50. It was also a year when an up-and-coming singer was starting to get recognized. Her name was Whitney Houston. For those of you who have no idea who Whitney Houston was, she was a very famous and successful singer starting in the mid 1980s until addiction and a poor marriage ruined her career. Whitney Houston’s career ended badly in 2012. She had performed in England to terrible reviews that she was behaving in an erratic matter and seemed pre-occupied while on stage. Her final performance was on February 9th in Hollywood, CA when she took the stage with R&B singer Kelly Price to sing (oddly enough) “Jesus Loves Me.” 2 days later, on February 11, 2012, Whitney Houston was found submerged in the bathtub in the guest room where she was staying with a host of chemicals in her system, and not all of them legal. Whitney Houston died on February 11, 2012; she was only 48 years old.

When she was still sober and a rising star, Whitney Houston had a #1 song in 1988 that I heard again recently and it got me thinking as I prepared this sermon. The song is called, “So Emotional” and the refrain goes like this: I get so emotional, baby. Every time I think of you. I get so emotional. Ain’t it shocking what love can do?

And as I was thinking things over, that last phrase kept resounding in my head…ain’t it shocking what love can do? And I have come to the following conclusion…yes, it is shocking what love can do, and I think you will agree with me.

Yes, ain’t it shocking what love can do. Everyone here already knows what people do in the name of “love.” People steal and lie in the name of “love.” People rape and abuse in the name of “love.” People kill one another all in the name of “love.” What the world often considers “love” is actually selfish and self-centered. Many times our idea of love is a corruption of what God created as good. Ain’t it shocking what love can do?

Is that kind of love real love? Is that the kind of love that John was writing about in this letter? Absolutely not. John, Jesus in John 3:16, and Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 all use the same word for love (Agape). Paul wrote that true love is “patient, (it) is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, NIV). Wow…ain’t it shocking what love can do?

It is shocking what God’s love can do and has already done. In Genesis 2 we read about God creating Adam and Eve, the very first people. That was a very loving act. But in Genesis 3, God kicked them out of the Garden of Eden – Paradise – because they sinned. Is that loving? Absolutely. Really? It is shocking what love can do. For God loved His creation and knew that we could not spend eternity with Him in a state of sinfulness, and so in loving kindness, He again did something about it. We heard those words in 1 John: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” That is the kind of true love that God exhibits. He loves His creation so much, that He sent His only Son Jesus Christ into this world to live and die and rise again for us for the forgiveness of our sins; to fix what we broke in the Garden of Eden. Jesus dying on the cross is not a pretty picture, granted, but it is an act of love that forgives you and me and all of humanity! Ain’t it shocking what love can do?

The love of God is a forgiving love. The love of God is a sacrificial love. The love of God is a perfect love that doesn’t keep a record of wrongs, but keeps loving and forgiving because of Jesus Christ. And, as a result, we are encouraged to exhibit that same kind of love. 1 John 4:11 reminds us that, “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

Despite all of our selfishness and sinfulness, we are still loved by God and called to be His children in and through Baptismal faith. God’s love for us is not corrupted in any way, and in the same way we are to love one another. But is love not shown still love? God’s love inspires us to SHOW our love for God and neighbor. Stewardship is way more than the money you put in a plate. Stewardship is a way of life. We have an amazing opportunity right at our feet to show our love through our involvement at All Faiths Food Bank. Is this a significant opportunity? You bet! And what greater way for us to share and show our love than giving and serving our neighbor the same way God gives to and serves us.

You already know how human love can and does fail people. But God’s love inspires and maintains our relationships. We are inspired to love each other with the same kind of love that God shows His people ever since they were created. God has loved you, He forgives you, He bought you with the sacrificial life and death of Jesus. He loves you that you may now love one another and show that love to each other every day in your thoughts, words, and deeds.

Ain’t it shocking what love can do? Hey, just be thankful I didn’t hear “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, another 1988 hit song. Not sure to preach that one. I could always ask an Internet blogger I suppose.

Amen.