Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sermon - Revelation 3:1-6 - Midweek Lent 5

Revelation 3:1-6
“Jesus' Letter to Sardis”

The Church in Sardis was not what it seemed to be. Everyone thought they were alive and vibrant and active and living – but they were sick, about to die, and slipping into a slumber. Perhaps it was apathy. Or maybe you could call it forgetfulness. Or spiritual frailness. Or all of the above.

No there is no perfect Christian, and there is no perfect congregation of Christians. Remember the church in Ephesus, and her lack of love. The church in Smyrna, and her fear of persecution. The church in Pergamum, and her struggles with false doctrine. And the church in Thyatira, which tolerated open sin and heresy. Jesus calls them all to repent, so does he also call to the church in Sardis.

Sardis, the sleepy church, is called to “wake up”. Just what was going on here? He says, “I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God”. And we recall the relationship between faith and works. Faith drives good works. Good works are an expression of faith. So something is wrong with their faith, too, it seems. The lacking works are a symptom of the real problem.

Perhaps Sardis was one of those churches that just went “through the motions”. Every Sunday gathering, saying the same old things, singing the same old songs (though probably with little gusto). Mouthing the words with no meaning or thought. One commentator put it this way, the “rituals of godly pretense”. Oh sure, their pomp and ritual made them look alive and well, but inside there was a sickness – a critical illness – of which Jesus was fully aware.

And while Jesus speaks to Sardis, he is really speaking to all of the churches, and to all Christians. Just as we too are called to repent of lovelessness, fear, toleration of false teaching and sin... so are we called to true faith which expresses itself in good works. A living faith which is not mere show. A rich and true trust in Jesus Christ – which naturally brings about the evidence in our lives.

So how are we doing? How are we doing as a congregation, and as individuals?
If Jesus looked at us as a congregation, would he see an active and living faith expressed in good works of love? Would he see us helping the blind, the hungry, the poor – the widow and orphan? Well some people volunteer with Braille. Some donate to our little food pantry or work at the soup kitchen. And as a congregation, we send money to support mission and mercy work in our district and abroad. Some might look at us and say, “my how alive! How vibrant and active Grace Lutheran Church is! What wonderful works they are doing for the Lord!”

But is that just an appearance of life, where death is always close at hand? In our congregational life, do our works really measure up? Could more people be involved? Could we do more to serve more people? Are there works that go undone because we have better things to do? Is there a sense that “someone else will do that”? Do we think that we give “enough”, serve “enough” and volunteer “enough” of our time?
Or in our own personal lives – how would the one who has the seven spirits and the seven stars grade us? Would we get a gold star? Or would we get a mark of, “needs imrpovement”?

No, Jesus doesn't grade on a curve, nor does he judge us in comparison to others. His standard is the perfect law. And we must admit, this is a test we would all fail, if left to ourselves.

But rather than fail us for our failings, he calls instead for repentance. “Wake up!” he says - “Remember!” he reminds. Turn away from your sin and come again in faith to the cross. He calls, because he wants you to believe and live. He calls, because he wants to grant faith in abundance. He calls because he wants that faith to be expressed in good works.

And when we repent, he forgives. He grants gifts we don't deserve, he forgives our sin, enlivens faith, and by his Spirit he brings about those good works in us.
In these letters, he couches his grace in the promises of gifts – and to Sardis he promises 2 – a white robe, and a name written in the book of life. Both of these images appear later in the vision of Revelation, and both remind us of God's grace in Christ.

The white robe is a symbol of his own righteousness – evoking our baptism. There in the waters of grace he washed our robes soiled with sin, washed them in his own blood – taking away each spot and stain. And as we return to our baptism in daily repentance, so does he wash our robes again and again. The Old Adam is drowned, and the New Adam arises to live in faith.

And that book – a book of life – in whose names God has carefully recorded all those who belong to him. It reminds us that God knows us, that he has claimed us, and that he has an intention for us. His plan is in writing – it's just waiting to be fulfilled. The blueprint for our salvation is sure, it's all there in black and white.

So again, like Sardis, we have some repenting to do. We repent of our lack of good works, which comes from our lack of faith. Though we may look alive and well, we are sick and dying – apart from Christ. But let us never be apart from Christ! For in the one who died and lives, we die to sin and live for eternity. He calls us to keep his words, remember them, and wake up. Repent and believe – and conquer – by his grace. In his name, Amen.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Annunciation Day

I like Pastor Roemke's thoughts on this Annunciation day:

A Blessed Feast of the Holy Fetus

Isn't this what we should start calling Annunciation? Those who are pro-death use words like "fetus," and "embryo" to dehumanize the babies they say it is ok to kill. But Christ makes no distinction. He came to save those whom He lived for. He lived as a fetus and and embryo in the blessed womb of the Virgin Mother. Christ died for those He lived for, and today the Church celebrates His life as a fetus and gives thanks that those whose lives are so tragically and brutally taken have a Redeemer who lives for them.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Sermon - Midweek Lent 4 - Revelation 2:18-29

Revelation 2:18-29
“Jesus' Letter to Thyatira”

Someone asked me this week what our sermon series on the letters to the 7 churches had to do with Lent. I think they meant, how was it connected to the Passion – the arrest and trial, the suffering and death of Christ. In truth, it's not directly connected to all that.

But it is a very timely series for the season of Lent. Throughout these letters, Jesus calls the churches to repent. Repentance is a major theme of this season. Lent is the most penitential time of the church year. It is a time for all of us to reflect on our own sins, and listen to God's word which calls us to turn away from sin, and turn to him in faith.

When God calls, and when Jesus calls sinners to repent, he is very serious. And you'd certainly know that if you lived in Thyatira. There, they had a false prophetess among them who was sinning gravely, and also leading others into sin.

Jesus words are harsh here, jarring, even. He calls her “Jezebel”, which even today is a name synonymous with wickedness. Jezebel was the enemy of God's people in the Old Testament, an evil queen who promoted pagan worship. She sought to have Elijah killed after he defeated the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.

Here in his letter, Jesus compares the false prophetess with that Old Testament icon of evil. And his words get even more harsh. He has given her time to repent, but she refuses, and so he will punish her with suffering, and those who follow her as well. He even threatens her children.

So often we think of sin as no big deal. Little white lies. Peccadillos. Foibles. Almost lovable, laughable character flaws. But Jesus does not. He takes sin very seriously and wants us to as well. He does not turn a blind eye to sin, and to unrepentance. Some of the harshest words of fire and brimstone in Scripture, and most of what we know of Hell, comes from the lips of Jesus Christ himself. He is very serious about sin.

And it's not just our own sins, but the sins of others he wants us to be concerned with. He accuses the Christians at Thyatira of tolerating this great sinner. Tolerance! A watchword of our age. Tolerance has become a sort of god itself, an ultimate value. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said, “I tolerate everything, except certainty”. Tolerance for sin is not Christian or Christ-like. He takes sin seriously, and so should we. Ours, and our neighbor's.

Then what of Jesus' teachings like, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone?” or, “take the log out of your own eye before you bother with the speck in your brother's”. Doesn't Jesus want us to leave other people alone, and let God be the judge? Yes, and no.

Jesus said to his disciples in John 20, “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” What? There are times when we are to forgive, and times when we are to NOT forgive?

Ultimately, God is the judge of all. No one can see the faith of the heart. But God does call his church and her pastors to deal with sin and sinners. Not in haste or without care. Not with the goal of bringing down God's wrath, but instead with the goal of repentance.... and forgiveness. Just as God wants all to be saved, so do we. Just as God wants all to be forgiven, so do we. Just as Jesus died for the sins of the world, so do we want the world to believe and live.

If we are quick to pick up stones and pick out specks, we are not giving the time to repent that God would give. If we judge according to man-made standards, we fall under judgment ourselves. But if we carefully apply the word of God to sinners, and to ourselves, we will see the need for repentance. And we will see that all sin is not the same. Some is repentant. Some is not.

Some sins are those we lay at the foot of the cross, and beating our chests, beg for God to forgive us. And he does! This is the very point of our faith. That Jesus takes our sins away – and gives us his own righteousness. So seriously does he take sin, that he dies for us, to take it away. Sin is a big deal. But Jesus dying for our sins is a bigger deal.

But not all will receive it. Not all will repent. Like the prophetess of Thyatira, some sinners harden their hearts, dig in their heels, and hold on to their sins. Jesus doesn't tolerate this, nor does his faithful church. To the extent that we tolerate such sin, we too must repent, turn around, and ask his forgiveness.

The beauty and the blessing of our faith, is that God is slow to anger, but quick to forgive. And so should we be. Jesus truly wants to forgive us, and truly wants to forgive even the most wicked and unrepentant sinner. He is patient with sin, but not forever. He gives time to repent, but not without limit. He calls us to turn away from sin and turn to him and believe and live. And we do, by his grace, and in the power of His Spirit. Thanks be to God for such a gift.

And so does he charge his church, and her pastors, to deal with sinners. Patiently calling to repentance, applying law and Gospel faithfully. Always with the goal of forgiveness. Could Jesus, would Jesus have even forgiven that wicked Jezebel? Yes. Of course. After all, he forgives us.

So once again, repent. Turn in faith to Christ, and be forgiven, and live. And pray that all would do the same, and share in the victory that is ours in Christ. Amen.

Monday, March 09, 2009

"CAnniversary" of Issues Etc.

Funny. If you don't read "Stand Firm", you probably should. Scott Diekmann is a long time friend-of-this-blog who finally started his own blog, which really is very good.

Anywho, he's announced a week of special guest-blogs and other goodies to commemorate the one year anniversary of "Issues Etc" being canceled by LCMS, Inc. Be sure you check it out:

Friday, March 06, 2009

Sermon - Midweek Lent 2 - Revelation 2:8-11

Revelation 2:8-11
“Jesus' Letter to Smyrna”

The second letter that Jesus wrote to the churches of Revelation goes to the church in Smyrna. And I have to tell you that this letter holds some personal importance for me. This past summer, I sat down with my grandparents and learned some family history. They told me that my great-great grandparents, whose last name was “Chrystodoulos”, were Greeks living on the coast of Turkey in a town called Smyrna. This is the same town mentioned in our reading.

We're not sure exactly why or when, but sometime in the late 1800s, the Greeks there, including my great-great-grandparents, were massacred there by the Turkish army, and my great-grandfather Sammy was orphaned. Later, he made it to America, where his last name was shortened to “Chryst”.

So, you can see why my plans for a trip to Greece and Turkey in a year or two have some special meaning. Not only will we follow the footsteps of St. Paul, and visit the towns mentioned in Revelation, but we'll hopefully visit that town – Smyrna, which is today a city called “Izmir” and about the size of Milwaukee.

It's interesting, too, that throughout its history, Smyrna has been a place of conflict. I don't know if my great-great-grandparents were Christians or not, but most Greeks were. And the Turks, being Muslim... well I'm sure that the religious differences had something to do with that conflict.

But in the first century, it was Roman emperor worship and traditional Judaism that competed with early Christianity. And when Jesus writes his letter to the church in Smyrna, they were suffering persecution, and were about to suffer more.

He commends them for being rich, even though they are poor. Certainly he means that their spiritual riches far surpass the earthly wealth they lack. This is the same Jesus who warned about gaining the whole world but losing one's soul. The same Jesus who contrasted the Rich man and Lazarus – one wealthy on earth, but spiritually bankrupt. The other a poor beggar, but who inherits life eternal. So often in Scripture it is the poor who are truly rich in spiritual blessings.

And this should make us reflect. While there is much talk of a poor economy, and tough times with many people losing jobs and losing money in the markets, and we may feel we've all gotten a little poorer lately. Still, most of us are blessed with more than what we need to get by. We could be much worse off. But no matter what the economy does, and whether we struggle to pay our bills or not – we can truly say we are rich. We can rejoice, like the Christians of Smyrna, in the riches of God's grace shown to us in Christ. We have the blessings that money could never buy, and that we could never earn – all the benefits won for us by the perfect life and sacrificial death of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are rich. Our treasures on earth pale compared to our treasures in heaven.

Jesus also comforts the church of Smyrna, as they face trial and tribulation. Perhaps their poverty was partly because of persecution. Certainly the Jews were speaking falsely about them. And wow – Jesus calls those Jews the “synagogue of Satan”. In other words, they think they are the true believers, the true inheritors of Abraham – but they are caught up in Satan's lies. And the devil, perhaps through these blasphemers, will soon persecute and imprison some of the Christians.

Such trials and tribulations are really tests of faith. Like Abraham from last Sunday's Old Testament reading – whose faith was tested mightily. Like Job, whose faith was tested in great suffering. Like the Apostles and St. John himself who saw this vision while he was imprisoned. God's people are often put to the test of faith. And it is God who gives us the strength, and gives us the faith to face and pass those tests.

For those in Smyrna, it would be a short and finite test. Ten days – likely a symbolic number for a short but complete time set by God. And for us, while some suffering seems shorter and some seems longer, there is always an end. Even if the persecution ends in death itself, there is a promise beyond the grave.

A beautiful one here - “be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life”. Only he can give it, because he has won it for us. He who wore the crown of thorns and shed his holy precious blood give also rose victorious over death to give us a share in that victory.

Thank God for the riches – physical and spiritual that we do enjoy, especially those blessings that come to us in Christ. Thank God that we are free from persecution and trials, and pray that he sustains us if they ever do come. And Thank God for the promised crown of life waiting for all of us who trust in Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Where the LCMS President is Really Elected - The Circuit Forum

Where the LCMS President is Really Elected - The Circuit Forum

“I thought the President was elected at the national convention by the delegates?” Yes, technically, that's true. But in many ways the election is already decided when delegates are chosen at the Circuit Forums leading up to the convention.

This part of the LCMS governance process is not as well known as the national convention, but just as important! These delegates will go to the national convention in July 2010 and vote in all of the elections and on all other matters (including the restructuring proposals). They are also, technically, delegates for three years until the NEXT convention – should there be a need for a special convention to be called in between. And many of these delegates already have strong opinions and positions on the issues and candidates that will come before the convention.

Who chooses the delegates? Who can be a delegate? Might I be able to serve?
Here's how it works. Sometime in the summer/fall of 2009, Circuit Counselors will be directed to convene the triennial circuit forum. It's at this meeting that one pastor and one layperson from each congregation in the circuit are permitted to vote for that circuit's delegates. Also, an alternate pastoral delegate and an alternate lay delegate are chosen. Under the current bylaws, teachers (“commissioned ministers”) aren't eligible to serve as pastoral OR lay delegates. The deadline for election of delegates is in October of 2009!

Once the date of the circuit forum is set, and notice is given to the congregations, there is a process of nomination FOR THE LAY DELEGATES ONLY! All pastors serving those congregations are automatically considered nominees (except “Assistant Pastors” but including “Associate Pastors”). A layperson who wishes to serve must be nominated IN WRITING to the Circuit Counselor before the Circuit Forum is held. This is very important! If only one Lay Delegate nominee has been nominated in writing – then the election is basically moot. (This is how it is done in our District, though I am not 100% certain all Districts do the same).

At the Circuit Forum, the pastoral delegate is chosen first. Then the Lay delegate. Then the Alternate Pastoral delegate, then the Alternate Lay. This is important to note because NO TWO of these four individuals may be members of the same congregation. Often, when only one lay delegate is nominated, this influence's the Forum's decision on a pastoral delegate, even though the pastoral delegate election happens first (.i.e. “We can't elect Pastor Smith because then Mr. Schulz, our only Lay nominee, will be unable to serve”)

In the event that the Circuit Forum is unable to elect individuals for all four of these roles, the District President may appoint people to those vacancies. This is often done with the advice of the Circuit Counselor.

Many times, Circuits have established customs or habits regarding selection of delegates, and you may or may not agree with these. Some “take turns” among the pastors. Some have an unwritten rule that no one can go twice in a row. Others have the same qualified and interested people going every convention. Whatever the case, it's important to know what the rules are and to make sure everyone is “playing fair”.

Sometimes there are even informal conversations prior to the election of delegates which may or may not be helpful. “Pastor Krueger isn't able to go, due to a previous commitment” might be an appropriate tidbit. But as with all synodical elections at any level, crass electioneering is usually frowned upon.

If you desire to serve as a delegate, consider the following:
1.Am I available to travel to Houston for the 2010 convention? This is mostly an issue of time since the District pays for your travel and lodging, and gives a stipend for meals.
2.Does my congregation know I am willing to serve?
3.Does my congregation need to be educated about the process? Let's face it, LCMS policy and governance is a mystery even to many long-serving pastors, let alone laity. You could help to inform them.
4.Can I at least serve as my congregation's representative to the Circuit Forum?

Things to find out:

1.Which congregations constitute my circuit?
2.Who is our Circuit Counselor?
3.When will our Circuit Forum be held?
4.When/how does my congregation choose its representative to the Circuit Forum?

If you are elected as a delegate, you can expect lots of information will be mailed to you from “both sides”. Some of that will be more helpful and some less. But you will have a responsibility to be as informed as possible concerning the issues and candidates. Make use of the people resources at your disposal, both to learn about the process and about the issues. Read the official synodical handbook and other pertinent documents. And don't avoid the internet, but use it discerningly.

This is my best understanding of the process, as a Circuit Counselor and delegate to 2 national conventions. I hope it helps!

Monday, March 02, 2009

A Mime Passion?

A local ELCA church here in Racine hosted a traveling troupe of youth group performers, who re-enact the passion of Christ through mime.

Is there something about this that takes away from the word? Especially when this is done in place of the sermon?

I'm not against passion plays and such, and I suppose you could even do it respectfully and artistically without dialogue. But in church on the First Sunday in Lent?