Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sermon - Reformation Day (Observed) - John 8:31-36

John 8:31-36
“Free at Last”

“Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last” So ends the famous “I Have a Dream” speech of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the well-known civil rights activist. I don't know if you have ever listened to that speech, but it was part of my studies in a public speaking class long ago, and to this day, when I hear it, it gives me chills. What a powerful case King made for the freedom – the true freedom – of African Americans from discrimination and institutional racism.

Today, we celebrate Reformation Day. And we have on our minds another Martin Luther – the original one. He too was concerned with freedom, but of a different kind. He too had some powerful words to share. His famous speech, the “Here I Stand” speech, was uttered before the Roman Emperor who told him to recant or face the consequences. For Luther, a different kind of freedom was at stake.

And then there is Jesus Christ himself, whose words in John 8 tell us what true freedom is really about. Freedom from sin, which comes by knowing the truth. Freedom from slavery. Freedom as sons. This freedom in Christ, the freedom of the Gospel, is what the Reformation of the Church was all about, and what it's still all about today.

Someone recently pointed out to me that when we Americans think of freedom, we usually think of the freedom to work where we want, to practice what religion we want, to choose what to eat and how to dress. But liberty, freedom, is much more than just this kind of thing.

Throughout the ages, people have often been enslaved – or at least had their freedoms limited. The ugly history of African slavery in America is just one chapter in the long story of humans being cruel to one another. Despots and tyrants of all fashions have enslaved and taken captive various peoples for various reasons. I just heard this week on the radio, that some 25-40 million people around the world today are still effectively living in slavery.

Slaves are treated poorly, usually. They are considered to be worth less than the free man. Perhaps not even thought of as persons, but as property to be used and abused at the master's will. None of us would like to be a slave of any kind in any place or time of history.
But we're not here today for a history lesson or a lecture on contemporary social justice. We have bigger fish to fry.

Jesus gets to the heart of it. Slavery to sin is the real problem. Since everyone who sins is a slave to sin, then that must include all of us. This slavery cuts across ethnic and national lines. It is a slavery of the rich and poor alike. It affects all who have Adam's blood running through us. All who have inherited his nature and likeness. We are slaves from birth. Slaves to sin and under the shadow of the death sin brings.

But this slavery goes deeper. Every time we do wrong, every time we break the law, sin becomes our master all the more. Though we are born into the slavery of original sin, we have no hope of working or earning our way free. Sin rules our lives, our speech, even our thoughts. Everything we do is touched and tainted by sin. We are captives. We wouldn't even now how to get out of our predicament, much less where to run if we could.

And what a cruel master sin is. It causes us heartaches and pain while promising pleasures untold. How many times have you been tempted to sin, to do something you full well know is wrong, and you also know exactly what the consequences will be, and you go ahead and do it anyway. Sin becomes the master. We are enslaved.

Sin brings discord and dissension, war, suffering and death. Sin is worse, because it separates us from our true master and Lord, the one who created us in his own image – an image now smeared and unholy. We are slaves to the cruel master sin which would bring us to the worst of places – an eternity separated from our God, an everlasting punishment we so thoroughly deserve.

As slaves to sin, we are also prisoners. There is no escaping to an underground railroad of good works. There is no sneaking away from sin, or fighting it. We are not strong enough. We are helpless, and we are hopeless. Until Jesus comes.

Jesus tells us the truth that sets us free. What is this truth? We call it the Gospel. The Good News. The Good News that he, Jesus Christ, died on the cross to earn forgiveness for your sins. The Good News is not that you have the opportunity to pay for your own sins. The Good News is not that if you try hard enough, God will do the rest. The Good News is that Jesus has done it all – as a pure gift, free, without cost – by grace.

He is the truth that sets us free, he is the way to the Father, he is the life that never dies. The way, the truth, the life, Jesus Christ. His Gospel sets us free from sin, death and the devil, and even from hell and its fiery threats.

In our nation's history, one man in particular is credited with freeing the slaves. Abraham Lincoln, who delivered the Emancipation Proclamation and thus declared all slaves in the southern states to be free. For this, and for winning America's bloodiest war that finally did bring the institution of slavery to an end, Lincoln is known as “the Great Emancipator”.

We Christians have an even greater Emancipator, who frees us from an even worse slavery. Jesus Christ declares, proclaims, decrees: “The Truth will set you free”. Jesus Christ wins the freedom for you, for me, for all the world. He paid a bloody price, gave his own body into death, so that we are freed for eternal life. And he still gives his own body and blood to us, in his Supper, for the forgiveness of our sins, for our life and salvation.
Martin Luther was merely a man whom God used to bring the truth to light again. It was never fully lost, only obscured. The church was never really enslaved, but she was beset by false teaching. So in his great mercy, God brought reform and renewal. That's what the Reformation was about, and what we remember on this day. Many of those who taught and preached falsely repented, and learned about freedom anew. Today we too step back and appreciate the freedom of the Gospel – freedom from sin, freedom from death, and freedom to live as Christ's people, walking in his light. Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last! Amen.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

My Trip to Israel... Upcoming

On November 4th I leave for a tour of Israel with a small group from our congregation. We will be sharing a bus and tour guide with a group of Roman Catholics from Hawaii and some Presbyterians from Pittsburgh. Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, right?

"So a bunch of Catholics, Presbyterians and Lutherans get on a bus..."

Anyway, as I make preparations for the tour, I was wondering if any of my kind blog readers had ever been to the Holy Land and could offer some advice, like....

Any "must see" attractions? Anything to avoid?

Anything I should take that might not be obvious?

A food or beverage I should try while there? (I am looking forward to some good falafel and Israeli beer)

Or other advice for my trip?


Monday, October 22, 2007

Sermon - Pentecost 21 - Genesis 32:22-30

“Struggling With God”

Life is tough. Everybody's got their story. Some are better, or worse than others. But even people way better off than you have their problems, their struggles.

Jacob was just trying to do his thing, make a good life for himself. Maybe he thought it was easy street once he tricked his brother out of the blessing. But then he had to flee for fear of Esau's vengeance.

Maybe he thought he had it made when he met that beautiful woman at the well, but then he learned he would have to work 7 years for her hand in marriage. Of course, then he was the one that was tricked when he had to marry her sister Leah first, and then work another 7 years. More struggle.

Maybe he thought he had it made when his flocks and herds were so successful, but his Father-in-law couldn't take it anymore, and so Jacob had to pick up his life, his stuff, and his family, and flee again.

But as he came to the Jabbock River, Jacob would have the struggle of his life. He met a man, and there they wrestled. All night long, a stalemate, neither prevailing. Finally Jacob realized this was no mere man, but a manifestation of God himself, and Jacob asked for his blessing.

A cycle of struggle and success, such was Jacob's life. And such was the life of the children of Israel. Struggling to make ends meet in Canaan. Struggling under the rod of the Egyptian oppressor. Struggling against the Philistines and Canaanites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. Wrestling with God and faith in the midst of a pagan world, with temptations to be like the other nations, worship their idols, practice their immorality. It was a struggle in which they often failed. Yet it was also a struggle in which God blessed them.

He blessed them in so many ways. By rescuing them from slavery. By feeding them in the desert. By telling them his personal name, and by showing his identity through his actions. By bringing them to the promised land, and conquering it for them. He blessed them with his presence in Tabernacle and later Temple. He gave an entire system of sacrifice, by which their sins could be dealt with. And he would bless them powerfully in a little town called Bethlehem, and at a place called Golgotha.

In all their struggles with enemies and hardships, their greatest struggle was to remain faithful. Of all the blessings given, the one that meant the most was the coming Savior in whom that faith rested.

Then there are the modern day children of Israel, who follow in their father Jacob's footsteps. I'm not speaking of the Jewish people, but the children of Israel by faith. The church of Jesus Christ. We too struggle, wrestle, and contend with God.

We, like all people, have struggles in life. I don't have to tell you what your problems are – you know them. Whether it is people problems, family issues, conflicts at work, failing health, or some other heartache. These all spring from sin in its various forms.

Then there is the spiritual struggle. We strive to live as Christians, to do God's will, but we fail so easily. Sometimes it seems the more you try not to sin, the more you end up sinning. If we could just go one day, one hour, one minute without sin! But, no. Sin's gotten into our nature.

We mean to do well, but we end up doing wrong. Like St. Paul who struggled with the Old Adam, “the good that I want I do not do, but the evil that I do not want to do, this I do. Wretched man that I am!”

Maybe there's a particular sin on your mind, with which you are struggling. Maybe you've been hounded by it for years, and you cannot overcome it. Only Christ can.

Struggling with sin is also a struggle with God. Will we rely on ourselves and our own devices, or will we acknowledge God as the giver of gifts? Jacob came to the realization, after his long struggle, that he needed God's blessing. And so must we.

We cannot win the struggle against God. But he continues to engage us. Sometimes he shows us who's really in control, as he did by touching Jacob's hip and throwing it out of joint. A reminder of his helplessness before God that would be with him the rest of his life. But in helplessness there is blessing. The passive reception of God's gifts is way better than the false dream of earning it on our own.

For God ended the struggle at the cross, through his Son, Jesus. There the night of our rebellion becomes the dawn of a new life with God. There he gives us his blessing, and changes our name – giving us the name of Christ to bear. More than that, the Triune name of God which is placed on us at baptism.

As Christians, we carry the cross with us every day to remind us how the struggle ended there. His cross makes our little crosses bearable, and we struggle and suffer with his strength and by his power.

And just as God blessed his people Israel in ways too countless to mention, so does he bless us, the New Israel.

Like the wicked, he gives us the blessings of physical life. Home and family, food and shelter, land, animals and all we have.

But unlike the wicked, we who are in Christ receive every spiritual blessing through him. So now, forgiveness, life, salvation. A promised future of eternal joy in his presence. A resurrection and restoration of this failing flesh, and a joyful reunion with God and all the saints who have gone before us.

As Jacob, now Israel, crossed the river into the promised land, his struggles would continue. Famine would bring him at his life's sunset to a foreign land, where God would continue to provide for him and his family. But in spite of and in the midst of such struggles, God's plan of salvation moved forward. A mighty nation was born, forged in oppression, purified in desert wandering, and brought by God's mighty hand back to their homeland.

So does God's plan for the struggles of our life conclude with a happy ending, when we reach the shores of the promised land.

So wrestle. Struggle. But as you hang on to God, look also for his blessing, freely given in Christ. And you will find the struggle is worth it. Great things are in store for you, his people Israel.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Join the Movement

The movement has begun. No, not Ablaze! The Anti-Mauve Movement.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Shopping for Clergy Shirts

oh man.. this is wrong on so many levels.

Monday, October 08, 2007

New Resources on Church Site

I just finished posting some resources to our church website, including "Faith Facts" blurbs and a collection of FAQs. The Faith Facts are short blurbs, a sentence or two, with a "did you know?" flavor. The FAQs are longer, sized for bulletin inserts, and mostly adapted from the LCMS FAQ collection. Check it out, use it as you wish, and let us know what you think!

Sermon - Pentecost 19 - Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
“How Long, O Lord?”

Every parent who's ever taken a car trip with a child has heard that infamous and nagging question, “Are we there yet?” Only slightly less annoying to the parent is the persistent question, “How much longer?”

Just as children have asked these questions of their parents since the dawn of time, so too have God's children asked their Heavenly Father the same. Go back to Habakkuk, and we hear the question. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?”

In fact these two passages from Habakkuk chapters 1 and 2, are called “Habakkuk's first complaint” and “Habakkuk's second complaint” They represent the cry of a faithful man of God who is frustrated that God hasn't answered, hasn't answered him quickly enough, and hasn't answered the way he wanted him to answer.

Habakkuk lived in a time of increasing danger in the world. About 600 years before Christ, he and the Israelites watched the fall of the Assyrian empire, and the rise of the Babylonians. The Egyptians were on the march to help the Assyrians, and the Israelites tried to stop this powerful army at the battle of Meggido – which is where we get the term, “Armageddon”.

With all of this war and violence surrounding him, Habakkuk had plenty to complain about. Especially to a God who promises peace and an end to warfare. Who says that swords will be beaten into plowshares, and lions will lay down with lambs. Where is this promised peace? How much longer, oh Lord? Are we there yet? And why not?

Some Jehovah's Witnesses came to my door a while back, and showed me one of those passages, where God promises a future in which peace reigns on earth. They asked me if that sounded good. I said, “sure, if it were possible”. We then proceeded to have a small battle of our own for the next hour on my front porch.

But we do live in a world of war. Whether it is Taliban or Al-Qaeda or Iran or Iraq or the Nazis or the Communists, or the Babylonians or Assyrians. Violence surrounds us. Even in our own backyard. There was a shooting down on Byrd Avenue last week, and the Latin Kings gang was somehow involved. Milwaukee has become a war-zone in its own right with shootings almost daily. How long, O Lord, until you bring such violence to an end?

Our culture glorifies violence – from movies with unspeakable acts for which the commercials are even disturbing, to nightly news stories which sensationalize the latest shocking case. There is a part of us that is disgusted and repelled by the violence we see, but a part of us that doesn't mind so much.

What about the violence in my own life. Some of you suffer from physical abuse, even at the hands of a loved one. But even for the rest of us -What about when barbed tongues lash out from wife to husband and child to parent? What about when we use guilt as a club to get what we want, or when we employ the passive aggressive weapons at our disposal? For just as the Fifth Commandment prohibits murder, so too does it forbid us to hurt or harm our neighbor in any way. And Jesus even applies this to our sinful thoughts. How long, oh Lord, must I see such violence against me? And how long must I be captive to my own sinful, violent, deeds, words, and thoughts?

For when it comes down to it, I am violent. I do violence to my neighbor and even to myself. I hurt and harm, and my sinful nature gets a sick thrill from the violence.

Well God knows violence. And his Justice will prevail. From the flaming sword of the angel that barred the gate to paradise, to the sword of the evil empire that God uses for his own purposes. God's justice will be done.

Which should scare us. Since we deserve his wrath. That sword of judgment should be pointed at us! While we might wait impatiently for God's wrath to come on those who hurt us – we don't mind if God takes his sweet time in giving us what we deserve. In fact, the question, “how much longer?” takes on a new meaning when I am on the receiving end of such judgment.

But as Christians, we know we need not fear. We know that God's sword of judgment is not pointed at us, nor will it ever be. We know that all our violence has been forgiven. Christ has made that peace.

In fact God's wrath was poured, instead, on him. When Jesus went to the cross and his hands and feet and side were pierced for our transgressions. When violence was done to him who had no sin of his own. When the lamb of God was slain for the sins of the world. The cross is the ultimate violence of God's own wrath, and punishment, and judgment poured out on God's own Son. And not that the physical suffering and violence were anything to sneeze at, but I like how the hymn says it, “...but the deepest stroke that pierced him was the stroke that justice gave.”

That is to say, that if the nail wounds and crown of thorns seem painful to you, think of the agony of enduring God's wrath for sin – and not just one sin, but all the sins of all the sinners that had ever sinned and ever would.
Just as we cry out to God in our distress, “How long, oh Lord?” Jesus called, “My God, why have your forsaken me” at the moment of his ultimate sorrow.

God heard Habakkuk's prayer. And God hears our prayers. When his people cry out, “how long, oh Lord?” We have only to look to the cross for our answer. For there in the blood and sweat and darkness and agony and hopelessness of the cross – do we find our peace. The cross is God's answer to all human violence and warring madness.

Habakkuk would see violence his whole life. And eventually the Babylonians would even destroy Jerusalem, and decimate the very Temple of God.

You will see violence your whole life, and one day the violence of death will take down the temple of your body into the grave.

But Jesus. Jesus gives us a hope beyond the violence. In him, the temple is rebuilt. For in him, there is life after death. In him, there is calm after storm, and peace after the battle. In his resurrection from the dead we find the guarantee of our own resurrection. We receive the peace with God that passes all understanding. We find a clear conscience, and strength for the ongoing battle against sin.

“How long, oh Lord?” is not a bad prayer. It is the prayer of God's people who wait patiently for his deliverance. But it is a prayer that has been answered in Jesus, at the cross. And yet there is another answer to come. When Jesus Christ returns in glory, and we see him face to face. Then the battle and the war are finally over. Satan will be cast away forever, and we will enter into eternal rest with all the saints and angels. What a day of victory that will be. Are we there yet? No. But that day is coming, for so he has promised.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Cool Website - New Cliche's

Check out this website recommended by Yahoo! Daily Picks:

Defective Yeti - The Cliche Rotation Project

They list new and improved versions of tired old cliche's. Lots of fun here, and you can also submit your own!