Friday, June 27, 2008

Small Catechism Memorization

Hey - I am looking for resources to re-emphasize memorization of the Small Catechism next year in my 7th and 8th grade Confirmation Class. Anyone have anything simple and free?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Steadfast Lutherans

Take a look at this new Lutheran organization:

So far, I like what I see!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sermon - Pentecost 4 - Matthew 9:9-13

"The Difference Between Sinners"
4th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 9:9-13
What if you could write your own obituary? What would you say about yourself? Would you want it to be flattering, yet understated? Would it list all your accomplishments in life, where you've worked, lived, and how you were regarded in the community? Or would you rather have someone else write it, so they could say all those nice things about you that you know you deserve, but it would just look bad if I said them myself?
Here we read about the calling of Matthew, the tax collector. And guess which Gospel we read it from? Matthew's Gospel. Here the apostle writes about his own encounter with Jesus, in which the Lord called him to follow. Probably the most pivotal even in his life. How notable that he gets to include his own story in the Gospel account. This Gospel would be read by billions of Christians, around the world, for thousands of years. So how would Matthew portray himself? What would we remember about him?

That he was a sinner.

Yes, St. Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist, St. Matthew, the writer of the very first New Testament book – when you read his story you find out he was clearly a sinner.
Yes, a tax collector.

Now, even today, no one likes the tax collector. Three of the scariest letters together in our language are I-R-S. But in ancient Israel it was even worse. Because the taxes went to Rome, those hated pagan occupiers. And the Jews who collected those taxes were seen as turncoats and traitors. Working for the dogs. Preying on their own people. And worse. Most tax collectors were assumed to be skimming off the top, taking more than their fair share, and grew quite wealthy at the expense of the people. You could even say that “tax collector” and “sinner” were basically synonymous in that day.

So here was Matthew, sitting there doing what tax-collectors do, at his tax-collecting booth. And Jesus comes right up and calls him to follow. It's more stunning than you might think.
For Jesus doesn't wait for him to quit. He doesn't say, “well, Matthew, this life of greed and corruption is bad news for you, and you can only be my follower once you've proven yourself. So clean up your act, then come talk to me later.” He says, simply, “Follow me”. And in this short sentences calls Matthew to repentance AND faith. Matthew's trust in the Lord leads him to respond just as immediately, as he left behind his tax-collecting booth and followed the Savior.
And Matthew wasn't the only sinner or tax collector to find forgiveness with Christ. Jesus found many of them, and even ate with them, to the great disturbance of the Pharisees. If Jesus is really a moral teacher, a man of God, someone with a message worth hearing – then why would he even associate with sinners like these?

The Pharisees, no doubt, thought Jesus should be eating with and socializing with and chumming around with people of good moral character and standing. Pillars of the community, who had the respect of good, observant Jews. People who deserved his company. People, well, like them. It's as if Jesus was saying these sinners and tax collectors were more worthy of his time, more deserving of his attention than they, the self-important Pharisees were.
But that wasn't it either. After all, we know the Pharisees were sinners just like the sinners and tax collectors. So why then would Jesus eat with these and not those? Why would he spend his time among the riff-raff and not in the courts of power and prestige? He gives the answer.
He is the doctor. He's here for the sick.
Those who know and feel their illness, will see need for the doctor. Those who think they're healthy, even on death's doorstep, will have no need of healing. Obviously the Pharisees thought they were just fine and dandy with God. They had defined holy living in such a way that it made it possible for them to attain, but they were ignorant of their true disease and need for healing. The sinners and tax collectors, on the other hand, knew their sin, and welcomed the healer.
Jesus saw this as a teaching moment, and told the Pharisees to go learn a lesson. What does Hosea mean when he says God desires, “mercy not sacrifice”? And what can we learn from all this?
Well for one, we can see that there are different kinds of sinners. The real distinction that matters is not how big the sin, or how scandalous, how embarrassing or who gets hurt. No, the distinction Jesus cares about is, “Does the sinner know his sins” or, “does the man who is sick see his need for the physician?” This is what separated the tax collectors from the Pharisees.
When Jesus reminds them, and us, that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice”, he's saying quite a bit. He's not saying that God desires good works for us to meet the conditions so that he can save us – for certainly, neither the tax collector or the pharisee had enough good works... nor do you or I. None of us could be seen as merciful enough, loving enough, to our fellow man to make up for all the debt of sin we owe to God. So Jesus isn't looking for works of mercy from us to earn us credit with him.
Then what about sacrifice? The Pharisees doubtless trusted in the sacrifices – but as outward acts of religious duty. And this was not God's intention. Oh the sacrifices had their place, but these too were turned into works of man, rather than blessed avenues to receive God's grace. After all, these sacrifices all pointed to Christ, the ultimate sacrifice. Christ, in whom true mercy is found.
And here it is. The mercy that truly counts is the mercy God shows us. It is that mercy that changes us, not only in God's mind, but in reality. It is his mercy that instills acts of mercy in his people. We love because he loved us. We are merciful to others because he is merciful to us.
Jesus is not against the sacrifices, either. These were prescribed by God for the Old Testament people, and they were good. But they were not meant to become outward works – so that merely going through the motions gave one a sense of self-righteousness. This is a twisting of trust sacrifice.
Still, the sacrifice that truly counts is the one that he, Christ, makes for us. His own body and blood given and shed at the cross, and given to us now to eat and drink at his altar. Perhaps some, too, make this gift into an empty ceremony. What a shame that would be. Instead, may we all see God's mercy in it, as he offers us forgiveness, life and salvation in the body and blood of Christ? See this gift for what it is – the medicine of immortality from the Great Physician himself.
Sinners and Pharisees, tax collectors and prostitutes, pastors and laypeople, young and old – all kinds of sinners are called by the Great Physician. All are in need of a doctor, but not all can see it. Jesus reminds us today that we do, in fact, need him. And he has, in fact, come for us all. To offer the sacrifice of himself – the sacrifice that brings mercy – the mercy that makes us merciful.
Matthew wrote about himself – as a sinner. But as a sinner who knew it, and responded in faith to the one who makes house calls. Our Great Healer and Doctor of Souls, Jesus Christ. May we all see our disease, and find our healing in him, as he comes in blessing and promise to this house, today. Amen.

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Cluttered Thoughts of a Pastoral Mind

Vacation is coming soon, and I am looking forward to it. I've had a lot on my mind lately... here's a little of it:

"Doctrinally pure tracts, hymnbooks and..." Vacation Bible School materials? Yes, I am a CPH snob when it comes to VBS programs. I used to be of the mind that we could judiciously use non-denominational VBS stuff from Group Publishing. But we found out the hard way that even when the simple daily themes were innocuous and biblical, there was always a way to sneak in decision-theology. I recall watching a promo video (after we were well into our Group VBS) in which they touted how many children "asked Jesus into their hearts" after this spectacular week of VBS.

Why don't people participate at funerals? I think there are lots of answers for this - but it still frustrates me and disappoints me greatly. What a dishonor to the Lord and to the deceased loved one.

I had a great Facebook chat with a friend the other day - in which I was able to do what a pastor does - counsel, exhort, and maybe not formally absolve but at least remind my friend of the forgiveness of sins in Christ. I continue to pray for this person as they work through it all.

A fellow pastor told me at the spring conference, that one of his parishioners said something like this: "Pastor, with this new thing called a chasuble... you know, I don't know if I like it. It makes it seem like something really important is going on up there!" Uh... ya think?

I will be going to Baltimore, MD (where I was born and raised) for a couple of weeks vacation. We will also jog up to the Greenwich, CT are (wife's home town) for a bit. Looking forward to seeing family and friends, eating good seafood, and observing the inevitable changes in my old stomping grounds. Also we will spend a couple days at the beach - Ocean City, MD.

I'll still be around the net for sure. Never too far from cyberspace.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Sermon - Pentecost 3 - Deuteronomy 11:18-21; 26-28

Third Sunday after Pentecost
“These Words...”
Deuteronomy 11:18-21; 26-28

You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 19You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 20 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21 that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.

Words. Did you ever consider words? These little collections of letters that stand for other things – put them together into sentences and paragraphs and pages – and voila! You have communication! Words can describe things, ask questions, express emotions, and words can even DO things - “I now pronounce you man and wife!” or “We find the defendant guilty!”.

Of course some words are more important than others. Often it depends on where and when they are spoken – your wedding day, your deathbed, etc.. But even more important then when and where is who speaks the words? And no words are more important than God's words.

Moses, in a farewell address to the Israelites, encourages them to keep God's words always on their mind – even literally. Or as we might say, live, breathe, eat and sleep God's word.

This would be especially important as they were about to sojourn in the wilderness for forty years, and then enter the land of Canaan. In both places, the going would be tough. In the wilderness, they would have to rely on God daily to provide them with even the bare essentials of life. And in Canaan, they would have to rely on God and remain true to him under the pressures and temptations of wicked pagan religions – all too enticing and attractive.

But really, when is it not important to cling to God's word? For us, who sojourn here, it is the same. We too rely on him for every good thing. We too face temptations and trials, and live in a culture which is not always friendly to faith. We Christians, too, should live, breathe, eat and sleep God's word.

We need his word. We need his word of law – to constantly check our old Adam who would wallow in the mud of sin. Those words of God which show us how to live and those words which show us how we've failed to meet God's standards. We ought to teach our children right and wrong – not according to how they feel or what we think, but according to what God says. We should know the Ten Commandments. We should be able to recite them front and back. But moreso, we should be able to apply them to our lives and see the gross disconnect between God's perfect will for us and our faltering attempts to meet it.

Always, always, the law-word of God points out our shortcomings. And maybe that's partly the reason we don't keep it in mind like we should. Who likes to hear they are wrong? Who wants to be shown his fault? Who wants to face the fact that he is a poor, miserable sinner, guilty of this, that, and the other thing?

As unpleasant as this word of law is, it is something we sorely need. Like a doctor poking and prodding so the diagnosis can be made, the law assesses our sin, and shows the need for saving. And though no one likes to hear he is sick – isn't that the first step toward healing? Your main artery is 99% blocked. You are a ticking time bomb. Don't you think it's time for surgery?

And when we live, breathe, eat, and sleep God's word, we will see that apart from the law, there is another word. It is the Gospel. If the law diagnoses, the Gospel heals. If the law points out sin, the Gospel forgives it. Where the law kills, the Gospel brings life. It is the word of God that is truly good news for us – the word of God that is a pleasure to keep in mind, and on our lips, and in our hearts.

The Gospel, properly, is this: That while we were yet sinners, God the Father, in his great love, sent Jesus Christ, his Son, for us. And by Christ's perfect life, and by his death on the cross and by his resurrection from the dead, we are granted all the blessings of God – forgiveness, life, and salvation.

The Gospel comes to us in words – little combinations of letters and sounds that God uses to bring us eternal blessings! What a thought! Just as he uses simple bread and wine to feed us with Christ's body and blood, and just as he uses plain old water to wash away our sins – so too does God use these mundane, everyday things – words – to deliver salvation to the world.

Perhaps a practical word here. Certainly an important way we hear the Gospel is as it is proclaimed here in church. God's word is read – three lessons, usually. As we speak and sing the liturgy, we are using God's word. The sermon proclaims the law and gospel as well. So the word is at the heart of our weekly gatherings, and here God blesses us through it.

But there is more! Christians have the opportunity, yes, the privilege, especially in these modern times, to make the word even more a part of our lives. Rather than compartmentalize this word to an hour on Sunday, why not expand its reach into our lives? Why not read our bibles daily? Why not study the word with other Christians? Why not pray and meditate on the word in regular, daily devotional habits? Why not talk about it with your children, your spouse, and anyone who you can?

This, to me, seems what Jesus means in today's Gospel reading when he says the wise man builds his house on the rock. When life's foundation is on and in the word – when the word of God is not simply curtains on the window of the house – but when our very existence rests on that foundation, we are surely better able to withstand the storms and floods that may come.

And so the Holy Spirit uses the word, to work faith in our hearts, and applies to us the blessings won at the cross. He uses the word to strengthen that faith, and to inspire us to holy living. He even uses the word through us to bring others these same blessings.

And if that weren't enough, God's word takes on a whole new level of meaning when we read the Gospel of John. John starts out by showing us the true meaning of “the Word”:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.....And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory

Jesus Christ is the Living Word of God. He is the eternal Word who became flesh for us. Moses and the Israelites had the precious written and spoken word to fix upon their doorposts, to tie on their wrists, and to wear on their foreheads. We have Jesus Christ, the Living Word to keep always before us. The Christian should live, eat, breath and sleep Jesus Christ, our Savior.

We live Jesus – because we only live in Jesus, and only in Jesus do we have life. His words are life and they are life-giving. And in him we have eternal life.

We breathe Jesus – as we draw in the breath that keeps us alive, so too is Christ with us every moment, sustaining us with his words of promise. And just as we don't usually pay attention to our breathing but if we ever stopped breathing we would die – so too Christ is with us always, even when we aren't thinking of him, he is thinking of us and sustaining us. Who can speak a word without breathing? And how can we receive God's word without the Spirit – yes, even the word “spirit” means wind or breath – and so the very breath of God comes to us in his word.

We eat Jesus – that is, receive him in the blessed meal he offers. Bread and wine that mysteriously deliver his own body and blood for the forgiveness of sinners like us. We know it to be true, because of the power of his own words - “This is my body. This is my blood. Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins”

And we sleep Jesus, that is, when we leave this earthly life we fall asleep in him. The words of Scripture speak that way of death – that for the Christian, it is a sleep. Because the dawn of our rising to eternal life is just around the corner. Our rest in the grave is a rest in peace, because death is not the end of us. We who die in Christ will rise on the last day, as if from a slumber, never to die again.

So lay up these words in your heart and soul. Live, breathe, eat, and sleep God's word. That word of law and gospel. That Living Word, which is Jesus Christ. Hear the word. Study and Learn it. Pray it. Confess it. For the word of God is a precious treasure for the benefit of all his people. So treasure the treasure! In Christ our Lord, amen.