September 30, 2018: 19th Sunday of Trinity

Let us pray: Dear Savior, Your Church runs on Godly forgiveness. Likewise, our lives are to do the same. So, when something interferes with that construct between fellow believers, it is vital that it be rectified as soon as possible. Otherwise, true healing cannot occur. Today teach us anew the importance of that truth and cause all of us to put it into weekly practice. Amen
GRACE MERCY AND PEACE ARE YOURS FROM CHRIST, GOD’S FORGIVENESS INCARNATE!
TEXT: Matthew 5: 23-25a: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift. Settle matters quickly with your adversary….”
Dearly Beloved By Christ:
A couple of weeks ago I was attending our synod’s bishop’s conference. Our discussion was about spiritual preparation before communion. I asked: “How many of you have preached directly on the lesson before us today?” I didn’t see any raised hands. So, I concluded that some Sunday I would preach on this issue. Today is that day.
Our text comes from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. In it He gives a host of practical advice to believers as to how to order their lives so that they can literally be: “sweet smelling incense to God.” Hopefully, your Pastor instructed you in confirmation class about the importance of preparing your heart before communion in order to receive Christ’s body and blood for maximum benefit. Our lesson is a prime example of what to do to make this happen.
I
Good Lutherans, like the sainted Pastor Schulz who confirmed me, have used Christ’s words as a blueprint for helping us commune rightly. The old catechism I was raised on had this passage included under such a heading. The image is of a parishioner who is making a public confession of Christ and also offering God a public gift. But then, a sin in some form comes to mind, so the parishioner leaves the gift at the altar. He goes and deals with what’s weighing on his mind, removing it, to show that nothing stands in the way of that gift—nothing blocks or sullies its heartfelt value. In short, all sins need to be repented of and cleansed before offering a gift to God otherwise that gift is tainted. Now, the ultimate gift we offer to God each week at worship is our hearts. That means we need to actively seek to cleanse our hearts from all sin via confession and absolution. We also need to bring forth fruits of repentance as part of our offering to God. Recall Paul’s words that “our bodies are temples of the Holy Ghost.”
So, if you have wronged another, or negatively impacted their faith by something you did or said and it weighs a bit on your mind, before communing you should seek to rectify the situation. Christ here goes so far as to say: “Leave your gift before the altar” and go and fix the situation first. In other words, skip the Holy Supper until you talk to your fellow believer and repentance and forgiveness has healed both your consciences. I’ll admit that it’s hard to swallow your pride and do so. It’s easy to rationalize such life disruptions and say: “Well, I asked God to forgive me, so He has and that’s the end of it.” It may appear so to you from your viewpoint, but what about the other soul involved? How has it hurt them? What is it doing to undermine their faith? You are your brother, or sister’s, keeper. And if you don’t go the extra mile to help them when it may well be your fault, well, is that true repentance or a sham?
II
The recently sainted former president of our synod, the Rev. George Orvick, was a good theologian and a practical Pastor. Once, at a General Pastor’s Conference, a young Pastor submitted a question about how to handle secret sins in the church among his people. Pres. Orvick uttered a great piece of advice! “The Pastor should not play detective with his people. Enough problems will naturally come to your door without you going out and trying to find them!” How true. So, I don’t try to play detective with any of you.
That being said, I know that unchristian behavior goes on. I know that all of you are weak at various times. I know that Christians have sex outside of marriage, that Christians get drunk, that they say abusive things, that gambling addiction afflicts them, too; that family squabbles can cause deep-seated division, and that marital discord can and does block faith. I know everyone is guilty of sins of commission and also those overlooked sins of omission. So, when one party catches another in an outright lie and both are believers, hypocrisy rears its ugly head. Then, when they blissfully go ahead and commune without addressing it, the hurting soul or souls begin to question both their faith and God’s goodness. All this is background to Christ’s words in our lesson.
III
I’ve never had a member come to me about this issue directly, but I believe I’ve witnessed it a few times. Many years ago I had a faithful member who skipped communing one Sunday. It was totally out of character for her. She didn’t appear to have a cold or to be sick in any way. She wasn’t under any church discipline. Her track record on communing was literally every Sunday. Why did she skip that week? I didn’t play detective. But I knew that there was extended family discord that she was privy to. I knew she disagreed with hard words that were being said among siblings. So, to this day, I believe she wanted to try to rectify that before she communed. I knew the Pastor who confirmed her. I knew he would have taught her the truth of our text. Apparently, she took it to heart before communion time came around again.
Such confession is good for the soul. It’s liberating to a troubled conscience. It’s why Jesus includes this little bit of Godly advice in the Bible. For even if you have done nothing wrong that your conscience convicts you of, what about the other person involved? Putting a roadblock in the Christian highway of another person isn’t pleasing to God. So, do you want to give God a dirt-stained offering of faith, or a cleansed one?
Jesus died on the cross for all our sins—even those of hurting another and overlooking that fact. John writes: “The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.” But when we ask our Savior to truly bless us, isn’t it just plain honesty to try our best to reconcile with those we have also hurt? Isn’t ignoring that truth tantamount to cheapening God’s grace?
So, today I’ve preached directly on this issue for the first time in 34 years! I trust it will deepen your faith, understanding and appreciation of both Godly forgiveness and Godly worship. Finally, in view of God’s mercy extended to each of you, heed Jesus’ words! “Settle such matters quickly” so that God’s grace can actively preserve your soul without hindrance. Amen

September 23, 2018: 18th Sunday of Trinity

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, it is very easy for us to get so caught up in this world that we lose sight of the one to come.  It is so easy for us to compartmentalize and wall off earthly life, divorcing what happens here from our spiritual life.  Lord, prevent us from doing that!  Otherwise, sin is going to overwhelm us and destroy any relevancy when it comes to Your truth, Your mercy, and Your love.  Amen

GRACE MERCY AND PEACE ARE YOURS FROM CHRIST, THE LORD OF ALL LIFE!

TEXT:  James 4: 1-10

Dearly Beloved By Christ:

90% of the average person’s hospital costs are incurred in the final 6 months of their life!  I’ve seen that statistic, and I’ll bet you have too.  It’s a whopping big number!  No wonder health care costs are a noose around everyone’s neck!  And exactly why is this so?  Boil it down and people are afraid to die and will do anything to cling to this world which is what they know.  So they and their families rack up 100,000’s of dollars in health costs just to stay alive for a few weeks or months longer.  I’ve never felt this way.  I’m really not afraid of dying because I know exactly where I’m going—to heaven, through faith in Jesus Christ.  In fact, many devote Christians that I’ve ministered to feel the same.  Some welcome death and hope it comes sooner rather than later.  I can’t tell you how many have told me: “Pastor, heaven sounds really good right now!”  So, if I develop some disease or malady from which there is  no recovery, let me die in peace.  It’s a much better alternative than stuck in a hospital bed with tubes and machines eking out a few more days here on earth!  I believe in letting God be God and not tempting Him by engaging in human measures contrary to His timetable.

I

In the church we often talk about “the world” and not in a good sense.  The world runs on totally different principles than God wants His people to.  Remember when Jesus said: “My kingdom is not of this world.”?  God’s kingdom runs on eternal truth, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and peace of soul.  All these are wrought by Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Who won them for us on the cross and gives them to us via faith.  And yet, they often get pushed aside from our daily lives by “the world.”  The Apostle James addresses this issue in our lesson.  One translation has a summation at the beginning of our lesson: “Do Not Love the World.”  But it’s easier said than done, isn’t it?

James begins: “Where do conflicts and quarrels among you come from?  Don’t they come from your cravings for pleasure, which are at war in the parts of your body?  You want something but do not get it, so you murder.  You desire something but cannot obtain it, so you quarrel and fight.  You do not have because you do not ask.  You ask, and yet do not receive, because you ask wrongly, so that you may spend it on what gives you pleasure.”

Quarrels come from wanting things: “My way.”  They stem from pride and arrogance.  “My way” brings you a sense of superiority and thus prideful pleasure.  If we don’t get things to go “my way” we may not physically murder someone, but we do end up holding a grudge and/or hating another human being.  The Bible says that’s akin to murder.  (Of course, in the process we end up murdering our soul, don’t we?)  Considering what’s going on in Washington with the Supreme Court today, I wonder how many souls are angrily committing spiritual suicide?

We often don’t get our way because we pray wrongly for it.  James says that we often ask for things that massage our ego and thereby give us pleasure.  That’s a worldly viewpoint not a Christian one.  God knows our real motives better than we do.  That’s why He sometimes doesn’t give in to us.  That’s also why: “Thy will be done” should be part of any and every prayer.  Christians understand this.  The world does not.

II

Adultery isn’t always sexual.  It can be spiritual and psychological, too.  It’s really having an intimate relationship outside of what God intended.  Hence, our next section: “’Adulterers,’ don’t you know that friendship with the world means hostility toward God?  So whoever wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.  Or, do you think that Scripture has no reason for saying that the Spirit, who lives in us, yearns jealously?  But he gives greater grace!  That is why it says, “God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble.”

Each of you is God’s dearly beloved child through faith in Christ.  Each of you has had your soul redeemed by His blood.  Each of you has been born into a new life by the washing of water and the Word via the Spirit’s power.  So right now, each of you is a  living temple of the Spirit of God!  He’s your eternal Friend and He expects you to cling to Him in such friendship.  That’s also why the Spirit yearns to protect us from being corrupted by this world and jealously works at preventing it from doing so.  Yes, humble repentance, putting Godly principles first in your decision making must come first.  To help make that happen, He gives grace to the humble.  For unless you empty your hearts through humility there will be no room for His grace to reside…..

III

Now comes the final Word of Truth: “So, submit yourselves to God.  Resist the Devil, and he will flee from you.  Come near to God, and he will come near to you.  Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded people.  Lament, mourn, and weep.   Let your laughter be changed into mourning and your joy into gloom.  Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up.”

The world says: “Eat, drink, be merry, and don’t worry about death.  There is no afterlife.  There is no God.  There is nothing but you.  Look out for #1.  Take advantage of any and all situations.  Grab for power.  Grab for money.  After all, he who dies with the most toys wins!  And if anyone else is hurt in the process, tough.  Your life comes first.”  If this life is all there is, we can well understand the logic of those statements.  But you know better!  Say NO to Satan.  Right here God promises that the devil will flee from you because you’re armed with God’s Power.  Think beyond yourself and what’s good for me, and don’t try to straddle the line of playing with certain sins while acting pious and blissfully believing that God doesn’t care.  Don’t abuse God’s grace!  Take it seriously and cleanse your body and soul with repentance.  It’s O.K. to mourn the frailty of your flesh, too.  What good is earthly joy over ill-got gains compared to the price of your soul?

And finally, finally, as we fight the good fight with all our might, our merciful God will “lift you up” out of this spiritual morass.  We know that to be true because Jesus Christ was lifted up from it at Easter and later Ascended into glory to prepare a heavenly mansion just for you.  So, to go back to the beginning of this homily, why fall in love with “the world” and cling to it when heaven awaits?  Contrary to popular opinion, this life is but darkness masquerading as light. So, let’s get ourselves ready for the real thing!….Amen

September 16, 2018: 17th Sunday of Trinity

Let us pray: Dear Savior, in good times it is easy to pledge allegiance to the source of those good times.  As Christians, this means: we confess You to be our Lord and Savior.  But in difficult times, we begin to doubt Your goodness and sometimes even go back on our confession of You.  Lord, remind us again today that such fickleness is all the result of sin in our lives.  And also, move us to stay steadfast in Your mercy and focus on grace alone, even when doubts come knocking at our door.  Amen

GRACE MERCY AND PEACE ARE YOURS FROM CHRIST, THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE!

TEXT:  Mark 8: 27-38

Dearly Beloved By Christ:

There is a dichotomy, a difference, between head knowledge and heart knowledge.  I know, both are a part of us.  After all we’re not two human beings, but one.  Yet, knowing something with your brain and knowing it with your heart are distinct.  I happens all the time—especially when you love another person.  Your heart loves a friend or a child—even when your head tells you: “They are lying behind your back, cheating you out of money, and spreading false stories about you.”  You may know all those things with your head, but the heart still pulls at you and influences how you treat them.  This dichotomy helps explain why an abused spouse continues to stay with their abuser.  The head says one thing and but heart says another.   Life is complicated, isn’t it?

Peter was a microcosm of this complicated dichotomy.  He was also a microcosm of us.  One minute he boldly confesses Jesus as his Lord and Savior and soon thereafter Peter attempts to persuade Jesus not to go through with God’s plan for that salvation.  He see-saws between extremes, and so do we.  This lesson was written by Peter and dictated to Mark, for us to learn to avoid the same mistake with its subsequent emotional upheaval.

I

It all starts out really well.  Jesus has just healed the blind man of Bethsaida.  The miracle worker has struck again!  Wow!  Everyone is excited.  After a few days, Jesus asked the disciples a question to ascertain what they have learned from all this.  “Who do the people say that I am?”  Where’s their faith?  What’s their attitude?  Peter speaks up by recounting some of the answers they have heard.  “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and still others, one of the prophets (come back to life).”  Then Jesus probes a bit closer to home: “But what about you, who do you say I am?”  Again, Peter responds for them all: “You are the Christ.”

Here is a great confession of Jesus as the eternal Son of God, the long prophesied Messiah.  For that is what “Christ” means.  Peter did here what we did earlier in our service.  We, too, confessed openly to all within earshot that Jesus is God’s Son, our Savior, Who bestows complete forgiveness for all sins upon us as a gift and ultimately will take us to a heavenly home.  This ability to confess Christ from the heart is worked in us via the Holy Spirit.  Recall the passage: “No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Ghost.”  What an emotional high this must have been for Peter and the others!  How sure they were of their faith.  After all they had heard and seen; nothing could dissuade them.  Their head knowledge and their heart knowledge merged together as one and they were content and confident.

II

But then, Jesus decides to lay out some hard truths for them.  This work of saving souls isn’t just about the crowd’s acclamation over miracles.  It’s going to take blood, sweat and tears.  He tells them about His coming passion, His suffering and His death on a cross.  Now, they should have known all this since it was part of the Messianic prophesies in the OT.  But apparently Jesus is very blunt with these truths.  “He spoke plainly about this.”  Now, however, Peter becomes conflicted.  Head knowledge and heart knowledge collide.  So, “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”  Has this ever been you?  Have you or do you readily accept certain truths from God’s Word but reject or ignore others? –Especially ones that might seem more unpleasant or hard to understand right now?

Peter’s great confession withers on the vine in the face of difficult truths.  So, Christ rebukes him: “Out of my sight, Satan!  You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”  Satan is all about sowing seeds of doubt within us.  This is especially true when it comes to the fact that God loves us enough to send His Son of suffer and die to save our souls.  Yes, the Gospel cannot be understood with the head but must be apprehended with the heart.

III

Next comes a Godly explanation of this seeming paradox of how lost humans are saved.  “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

Our brains tell us that this is nonsense.  No sane person thinks they can save their life by losing it.  Likewise, we don’t imagine that by losing our lives we can save those lives.  But this is where the heart comes in.  The heart ultimately doesn’t care what the brain says.  The heart knows and believes that certain things are worth dying for.  Heroes on the battlefield put duty, honor, and country before their lives.  Certain things are bigger than we are.  And so it is with the Gospel.  The truth of God’s salvation is bigger than any of us.  Suffering for it is a privilege and not a burden.  Dying for it is an honor because thereby we’re linked to our Savior Who died to save us.

The soul cannot be quantified.  It cannot be dissected or totally understood.  Yet, all humans know it is their most priceless possession.  So, now Christ picks up on that fact and weaves it together with the importance of an honest confession of Him.  For after all, He came to save our souls eternally.  “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?  Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?  If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

The logic of that statement is impeccable.  The conclusion is inescapable.  And the point of it all is this: Confessing Christ alone as my Savior is great for the soul because it comes from the heart.  Moral to the story: We cannot think ourselves into heaven with our brains, but need to believe in Christ, instead……  Amen

September 2, 2018: 15th Sunday of Trinity

Let us pray: Dear Savior, although we humans base our opinions of others based on externals, today we thank You for not doing that with us! We thank You for looking deep inside of us and examining our hearts for evidence of faith. For it is what’s inside of us, what You have placed inside of us, that makes us blest human beings. Today, reiterate that truth. Amen
GRACE MERCY AND PEACE ARE YOURS FROM CHRIST, WHO LOVES US WITHOUT RESERVATION!
TEXT: Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Dearly Beloved By Christ:
You’re traveling alone. You walk into a diner for a bite to eat. Only two seats remain—both at the counter on either end. On the left, the person who will be sitting next to you is a burly truck-driver type in work clothes. On the right, the person who will be sitting next to you is dressed in a business suit and immaculately turned out. So, which seat will you take? Who do you want to eat by? Who do you want to engage in chit-chat while munching on a burger? Most people would pick the fellow in the business suit. Every day we all make snap decisions based on external appearances. You do it on the commuter train. You do it on the T. You do it in stores while shopping. But are you always correct in your first impression? The trucker might well have been a wonderful family man with a heart of gold. The “suit” might well have been an arrogant jerk. Appearances can be deceiving.
I
In the OT God proscribed various dietary restrictions on the Israelites for very good reasons. Some food was off-limits and branded “unclean” like pork, shellfish, and the like. Those ancient peoples did not know about the pork parasite called: trichinosis, but God did. (Which has been wiped out in modern swine herds.) Likewise, they did not know about “red tide” which infected shellfish and could make you sick or even kill you. But God did. Hence His directives.
Likewise, those ancient people did not know a lot about germs, microbes, bacteria or viruses. But, God did. So, He also set up directives about washing your hands before eating and washing the body to cleanse it, which then carried over into washing before religious ceremonies to mark you as clean before God. This external cleansing was to illustrate internal cleansing. In the church we call that: repentance. But, humans always seem to get carried away and embrace the external by tossing aside the internal. This is the basic problem outlined in our lesson.
The Jewish Pharisees were all about external show. If you looked pious and holy then obviously you were—at least to them. They externalized their religious principles to the extreme. And they branded anyone who didn’t as “unclean” before God. Basically they were OT Puritans who nit-picked about everything. And once you adopt that attitude, you quickly become a self-righteous religious jerk who thinks God is impressed by your actions instead of the attitude of your heart. So, when these men saw the disciples diving into some food with ceremonially unclean or unwashed hands, well, they got on their high-horse and criticized them and by extension, Christ. In their minds, they were obviously more holy.
Jesus replied to their jibe by quoting Isaiah: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain, their teachings are but rules taught by men.”—That’s because what the Pharisees had elevated to Godly standards of behavior wasn’t in the OT, but merely Rabbinic traditions added over the centuries. Then Jesus added this: “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”—Which of course, is self idolatry. Or as the prophet Samuel said in 1 Sam. 16:7: “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Considering that all of us do stupid and sinful things, have warts and pimples and cellulite, lose our hair and get wrinkles—well, it’s a good thing that God can look past externals isn’t it?
II
Now Jesus takes this opportunity to teach them and us about real sin. Sin alienates us from God. But the core of sin isn’t about what you see, it stems from deep within and corrupts the entire human being. We call this: original sin because we inherited it from our first parents. “Nothing outside a man can make him unclean by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him “unclean.”” And finally, to drive home this concept, Jesus goes on to provide one of those “catalogues” of such sins: “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man “unclean”.”
If you’re honest, you have to confess that you’re guilty of every single one of these sins. At some time or another you’ve harbored them, thought them, played with them, or acted upon them. So, that makes all of us unclean before God, doesn’t it? Unclean and deserving of God’s wrath and retribution. On our own we stand before our Maker totally corrupted and downright ugly.
Of course, this is where Jesus comes in. He came to make us clean again, as clean as Adam and Eve before the fall into sin. He came to give us His perfectly clean life of never succumbing to such evil—to exchange that life for ours. He came to suffer and die to pay for our unclean lives by dying for our sins on the cross. He came to rise to a new life, a perfect, holy, and shiny life emanating goodness and love eternally towards us. He came to send us the Holy Spirit, the 3rd Person of the Trinity Whose work it is to apply and give us personally all Christ’s gifts of grace—the Spirit Who does just this through working faith in our hearts. God the Father ordained this holy cleansing. God the Son worked it all out. And God the Holy Spirit showers it upon us. Hence, as Dr. Luther says: “Baptism is a washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
Let’s go back to that diner. Like most people you pick the “suit” to sit next to. Bad choice. He looks wonderful and stylish, but in conversation you soon discover that he totally amoral. So, half-way through your meal you excuse yourself and plop down next to the truck driver who is helpful, happy, well-adjusted, and even pays your bill when you’re done! Moral to the story: External appearances don’t always reveal the heart of evil or the heart of gold which lie within. Good thing God looks past your externals! And as a Christian what does He see in you right now? He sees Christ’s holy heart which has been given to you via faith. Amen