Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sermon - Ash Wednesday - Revelation 2:1-7

Revelation 2:1-7
“Jesus' Letter to Ephesus”

1"To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: 'The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.
2 "'I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.'

We begin another Lenten season in the church, as we always do, with Ash Wednesday. A day of repentance and sorrow over sin, which sets the tone for this penitential time in our church calendar. Ashes are a sign of repentance going back to ancient times, and even today many Christians wear ashes on their foreheads to signify this repentance.

We're also starting a series of mid-week sermons which focus on an important section in the book of Revelation. Each week in Lent we will focus on one of the letters to these 7 churches, in order to hear God's word to us, and prepare us for the observance of Good Friday and Easter.

But first some background. St. John, as an old man, was imprisoned for his faith on the island of Patmos. One Sunday John had a marvelous vision, a “revelation”, which was given to him by Jesus Christ himself. In fact, the real name of this book of the bible is, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ to St. John”.

And in that vision, Jesus appeared to John surrounded by many symbolic images. These things John really saw – but many of them stood for other things, for concepts and ideas. When Jesus appeared, he held in his hand 7 stars and walked among 7 lamp-stands. Jesus himself said these 7 lamp-stands were the 7 churches he would address, and the 7 stars were the “angels” of those 7 churches.

And while some believe those 7 angels to be guardian angels watching the churches, a much older interpretation makes more sense. The Church Father known as “The Venerable Bede” makes the case that these “angels” are really the pastors of those churches. After all, the word “angel” means “messenger”. And God blesses us with supernatural, spiritual as well as everyday human messengers. Also, it makes more sense for them to be pastors since he both commends and criticizes not only the churches but the messengers. And we pastors are certainly in the same boat as the people of the church. We are sinners and saints just the same.

So Jesus has a message for each of these pastors and the churches under their care. They were certainly not the only 7 churches of their day, and so these letters have wider application. They even apply, we will see, to us. We heed the warnings to the churches, even as we take comfort in the promises at the end of each section. So too, as the criticisms and compliments of Christ for these churches are universal to Christians of all times and places.

Take this first letter, to the church at Ephesus. They get a mixed review from our Lord. He commends them for their vigilance against false doctrine. Heretics known as the Nicolatians were active in the area, and the Ephesian church was right to “hate” their works. Jesus, too, says he hates their works. We don't know exactly what the false teachers taught, but it's been suggested they practiced promisquity and ignored the law of God. So far the Ephesian Christians get good marks from our Lord for avoiding this heresy and enduring in the true faith.

But then Jesus takes them to task. He holds something against them. They have “abandoned the love” they first had. Their first love. What was it? Apparently a love for one another, rooted in their love for God, who had first loved them in Christ. He calls them to repentance and even threatens that if they don't repent, the lamp-stand will be removed from its place. In other words, they will lose their place as one of his churches. In yet other words, they will no longer be his people.

As I said, these words of Jesus have a wider application. For many pastors, and many churches, and many church members do much the same as the Ephesians. We may say the right things, we may even remain outwardly faithful. But inside of us is a rot of lovelessness that threatens our very faith.

Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourself. Paul tells the Corinthian church, that even if he speaks in the language of the angels, but has no love, he's a noisy gong or clanging symbol. Love is one of the most important words in all of scripture, one of the highest values.

For Jesus' own summary of the law is to love – to love God, and to love our neighbor. And which of us couldn't stand to show more love, be more loving, put others before ourself more, and basically be better Christian neighbors? We have all failed. We all need to be more loving. We are all like the Ephesians.

What does it mean when there is no love, or very little? It means that we have sinned, and must repent. What does it mean when faith does not express itself in the works and deeds of love? It means we are sinners whose faith is flagging and failing, and we need to turn again to Christ and the cross for forgiveness, strength and renewal.

And Christ loves us. Greater love has no one than that he gives up his life for his friends. Jesus of course, gave up his life for us, even when we were enemies of God. He did it out of love. God sent him out of love for the world. A love which is patient and kind, which keeps no record of wrongs. A love which always endures and never fails. A love so great that not even death could overcome it. God is love, and Jesus is the embodiment of God's love for us.

It's that love that empowers us to love. It's the Gospel that gives us the strength and the will to love God and love one another. Nothing of our own, nothing within us can do it. Only the love from without can inspire the love within. And by his Word and Spirit, he shows that love and speaks that love and sparks that love in us.

You know, the Nicolations, the false teachers in Ephesus, their very name meant “the conquerors”. Again, we don't know much about them or why they would call themselves that. But we do know this, from Romans 8, that “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us”. Yes, Jesus makes us more than conquerors!

In Jesus, not only do we defeat sin, death and the Devil – enemies we could never face on our own but who don't stand a chance against him. But also in Jesus we are more than conquerors. We not only defeat our enemies but we live victoriously. “To him who conquers, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God”. Yes that life which God originally intended for Adam and Eve – that life which is restored only by the love of a savior who died.

Each week, as we read the letters to the churches, we will discover spiritual insights and applications to our modern churches, and even to us as individual Christians. We will be called again and again to repentance and faith, as our Lenten journey continues.

Today, we see ourselves in the Ephesians – commended for watching our doctrine. Praised for the endurance of faith we have. But warned not to let our love grow cold. And reminded, that in the love of Christ, we are more than conquerors, who will eat from the tree of life.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Dolan to NY - A Lutheran Reaction

Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan has been appointed Archbishop of the New York Archdiocese. It's a primo-promotion for a rising star in the RC church.

He's served here for about 6 years in the Milwaukee area, following after an Archbishop involved in the spate of sex scandals. So he's had a bit of a mess to clean up, and he's done a good job with that.

He's also universally respected as a decent and personable man, who is approachable and friendly, media-savvy, quick-witted and light-hearted.

But I've often commented on just how Lutheran he sounds. Of course, he's a Roman Catholic. I'm sure we'd have some serious disagreements. But I must say that in the short quips and commercials I've heard him speak, he delivers a message that centers on faith not works, on God's love not our good deeds, and he is not afraid to talk about Jesus Christ.

So Benedict, who's been called the "First Lutheran Pope", has appointed to the top spot in American Catholicism someone who sounds pretty Lutheran for a Roman Catholic. And to me, that's a good thing for New York, and for the RCs in the USA.

"It's Time" Website

Here's a new link for your blogs:

A collection of resources regarding Rev. Matt Harrison's paper, "It's Time". An alternative to the restructuring proposals of the LCMS Blue Ribbon Task Force. An optimistic vision of how to work on the disunity in our synod. A faithful, Lutheran approach put forward by a theologian with a heart for Mercy. And quite possibly the next president of the LCMS.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sermon - Transifguration - Mark 9:2-9

Mark 9:2-9
“Jesus Only”

We've heard a lot about “change” this year. And whether you agree with the changes being made or not, they will be hard to ignore. Change is sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes hard to know without the perspective of history. We might not know what all this change means until we are much farther down the road, and take some time to look back.

Today, we read about Jesus trans-figuring, or “changing”, at least in appearance, before his disciples. It was a change which was full of meaning. And as the 3 disciples saw it, they didn't comprehend it until much later on, looking back.

I think this Sunday is hard to understand for many people. We understand Jesus doing things like being born, and preaching and dying. Even miraculous things like healing people, doing miracles, and rising from the dead – while requiring our faith are still easier to understand. What is the significance of this mountain-top experience with Jesus? And then, what does it mean for me, and my faith?

The Transfiguration takes place 6 days after Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. It signals the end of Jesus' smooth sailing, and the beginning of his time of opposition which would climax at the cross.

And if the Epiphany season is about revealing who Jesus is – then the Transfiguration demonstrates in a powerful way that this is God's Son, and that we are to listen to him. It's Jesus giving those disciples, and us, a glimpse behind the veil into the glory that is his by rights. Peter said he was the Christ, now Jesus let him have a peek.

Furthermore, you have Moses and Elijah there. These two great men of the Old Testament – and now it's like Mount Rushmore – famous, important men together on a mountain. Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets – the entire Old Testament. And their presence speaks volumes.

Imagine if after church today, you saw the president of the United States going into Pastor Poppe's office. Then the Pope appeared and went into the office too. You might conclude that Pastor Poppe was someone very important, right? When Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, their very presence testifies to his importance. But more than that, they are there to say, “This Jesus, He is the one we've been waiting for. He is the one we've been pointing too. The whole Old Testament scriptures testify that He is the one sent to save us”.

All this must have been overwhelming for those three disciples. Stunned with awe, James and John silently take it all in. But Peter has to talk. He didn't know what to say, but that didn't stop him from saying something. He blubbers on about building tents and figures we'll make this happy event last as long as possible, because after all, how often is it really that you....

And in great contrast, the voice from the cloud speaks. A voice of authority that knows what to say. A word of instruction that is clear and true. God the Father, unmistakable, gets straight to the point. “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him”.

Peter stop your blabbering. You need to listen. Stop your planning and your own ideas and pay attention. This is not just some prophet. This is not even a really great and important man. This is my Son. MY SON. Listen to him.

And just as suddenly, the cloud was gone, the voice was silent, and Moses and Elijah disappeared. The disciples were left, looking around. Where'd everyone go? What just happened here? And they saw only Jesus.
Jesus only. That's a phrase we can sink our teeth into. Jesus only.

Not anyone else. God didn't say, “Listen to Jesus, and also be sure to pay attention to what Mohammed says, and that Buddha, or the Dalai Lama. Make sure you balance your spirituality with opinions from different sources and perspectives, you know, because everyone has something useful to bring to the table.” No. He said listen to Jesus. Jesus only. When it comes to salvation, there is only Jesus.

Even St. Paul echoes this in Galatians. If anyone preaches to you a different Gospel (that is – anything other than salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone).... and I don't care whether it's another preacher, an apostle, or even angel from heaven – if anyone tries to lead you astray with such lies – let them be condemned. Strong words from St. Paul. We should think the same. When it comes to salvation, there is only one saving Gospel. And that Gospel is about Jesus, and Jesus only.

Only Jesus lived a perfect life, fulfilling every law. Only Jesus can give you the credit for that earned righteousness. Only Jesus died for the sins of the world, and offers his forgiveness to you and me. Only Jesus rose from the dead and predicted it beforehand and promises we too will rise. Only Jesus can get us to the Father. Only Jesus can grant us God's grace. Only in Jesus' name are our prayers acceptable to God. Only Jesus feeds us with his body and blood. Only Jesus washes away our sins at the font. Only Jesus is the living word who continues to work by His Spirit in the written, read, and spoken word. Only Jesus. Jesus, Only.

Hebrews 12 tells us to “Fix our eyes on Jesus”, and for the sinner in need of salvation, there really is nowhere else to look. But looking to him, we can be sure that he is who he says he is, that he did what he said he would, and he will do what he promises – for each of us who trust in him. If we trust in ourselves and our works, if we look within, we will not have this assurance. But in Jesus only do we rest secure, and know the peace that only Jesus can bring.

Today we come to the mountaintop with the disciples, and with our Lord. And we bring with us many things – sins, guilt, shame, flaws, failings, struggles, and hurts. They weigh us down not only on the mountaintop but in the valleys and on the plains. But here, in God's presence, something is different. We see the prophets of old, we smell the smoke, we hear the voice. We are awe-struck by the bright shining glory of Christ.

And here something happens. Here, with Jesus, we too are transfigured. In Jesus we are changed – forgiven, renewed, changed. In Jesus we hear the voice of God, know the Word of God, and see the love of God for us. In Jesus' body and blood he is present with mercy and grace. In Jesus, we leave with the assurance that our sins are gone, gone, and our life is secure in him. In Jesus, and only in Jesus.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Faithful?" Journey Nears End

The ELCA task force (farce) on sexuality (read: "homosexuality") has at long last and with no great surprise issued its final recommendations to, basically, accept actively homosexual clergy.

How about "Unfaithful Journey" or "Misdirected Journey"?

Pray for the ELCA and those in it, that they would oppose such measures and remain true to the Word of God.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sermon - Epiphany 6 - Mark 1:40-45

Mark 1:40-45
“Be Clean”

Today when we think about the categories of “clean” and “unclean” it has more to do with whether someone has taken a shower, or whether the laundry has been through the wash. But for the Old Testament people, and even in Jesus' day, “clean” and “unclean” were important ceremonial categories. Things were either “clean” or “unclean”. And even people were either “clean” or “unclean”. Usually, if you were unclean it was a temporary situation. And there were rituals of cleansing prescribed to deal with it all. But why did God institute this cumbersome system of categorization for his people? Why all the fuss?

Some suggest the things God designated as “unclean” were those things especially unhealthy in the ancient world – eating certain foods that were more prone to make you sick, or associating with diseased people would expose you to contagion. And while there is probably something to that, the real reason is much deeper.

I'm convinced that God wanted his people to think in the categories of “clean” and “unclean”, so as to remind them of deeper spiritual realities. While not exactly congruent, the categories of “clean” and “unclean” point to the truth that we are all “unclean” in sin, and all need to be washed, purified, cleansed.... by the grace of God.

So today we encounter the lepers. In the Old Testament, Namaan. In the Gospel reading, the nameless leper healed by Jesus. Both men, in their disease, were unclean. And though we are not lepers, we can relate. For we are unclean, before God, in our sin. And we too are made clean by Jesus, who always wills to forgive and restore his people.

Leprosy was, in those days, much more than a disease. Actually in those days it was a whole complex of skin diseases, all of which were lumped together. Some were temporary and perhaps curable. But some were the particularly chronic kind. In every case, though, the disease made the victim more than just sick.

Maybe the worst part of coming down with leprosy was that you became a social outcast, stigmatized and excluded from the community. The law was quite clear – lepers weren't even supposed to come close to healthy people, much less touch them. They could make you sick. They could make you unclean.

So here comes a leper, who falls on his knees before Jesus. Too close for comfort? No. Jesus doesn't run away or turn him away. But he recognizes the need. In pity he responds. He reaches out and touches the man. Touches him! This would make any normal person unclean too! But with Jesus, it's the other way around. He has come to make the unclean clean.

I suppose you could say that Jesus did become unclean. He did it most fully at the cross. He who was without sin, we are told, was made to be sin for us. He who was not subject to death, humbled himself even unto death on a cross. And if touching a dead person made you unclean, what does it mean to be a dead person? But all this Jesus did to cleanse us, restore us, forgive us.

When Jesus touches the leper and makes him clean, it's on the basis of the cross. When Jesus comes to you, and cleanses you from sin, it's always on the basis of the cross. Each act, each declaration of forgiveness is meaningless without the death and resurrection of Jesus. But each absolution has behind it the full weight and force of a dying savior who pleads, “Father forgive them” and assures us, “It is finished”.

But is it enough for you? Try this on for size. Today in the age of modern medicine, we usually don't ostracize the sick like they used to. But we do have our modern lepers. Those whose sins make them so unclean we shun them. Ask yourself. Could Jesus cleanse... a murderer? Could Jesus forgive.... a child abuser? Does Jesus offer forgiveness, even to the most “untouchable” sinners of our day? It's hard to imagine, but we must say, “yes”.

As disgusted as we are, and rightly so, by the most grievous sinners among us, God must be even more disgusted with our sins. For the unclean thoughts, words, and deeds, for our very corrupted nature... his ultimate holiness cannot stand sins such as ours. Scripture says God hates sin. There are no soft edges to it. Even the sins that we think, in our rationalizations, are no big deal, the ones we tell ourselves don't really hurt anyone, are no one's business, or really have a plus side to them... NO. God hates sin. He is disgusted by it. And he prescribes for sinners the ultimate ostracism of eternal separation – we call it Hell. Some of the scariest words in scripture are when Jesus says he will tell some people on the last day, “depart from me. I never knew you”. Can you imagine that ringing in your ears for all eternity as you trudge off to your endless suffering. God wants nothing to do with you.

But. But, we Christians, though sinners, are like that leper. We come before Jesus and beg pity. We come on our knees, in humility. We come confessing sin, admitting our need, not hiding our disease. And he takes pity on us too. He is willing to make us clean. By all rights he could and should turn us away, keeping his distance. But he has mercy. He comes close, and touches us. He is present with us. And his cure is immediate, and permanent.

One beautiful picture of the Lord's Supper is that it is the “medicine of immortality”. How true it is. That Jesus' own body and blood not only feed us, but cure us, and strengthen us in our faith. And it's that faith that carries us through – even through death – to eternal life. To that day when these bodies diseased by sin are raised incorruptible, and body and soul live in perfection with him forever. Then we will be clean not only by faith, but in full. There will be no more sin, or death, or suffering or pain. Then and there he will wipe every tear from our eyes.

So come this day and receive the medicine prescribed for you, the person infected by sin, the one who would be cast out from God. Come, in humility, confessing that sin. Come, expecting his mercy, receiving his cure, know his forgiveness. For he is willing to make you clean.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

SWD Circuit Counselors Meeting - Restructuring Discussion

I spent most of the day, yesterday, at the South Wisconsin district office at our bi-annual Circuit Counselors meeting. We heard from the LCMS Stewardship guru and got updates on the business of the district. But an important segment of our time together was spent discussing the proposed restructuring of the LCMS.

One of the fellow circuit counselors was Rev. Torkelson, whose letter regarding the restructuring is found here:

Since we last met, many more details are out of the bag (mainly from the North Dakota District reports). These include:

- Elimination of program boards in favor of 2 "committees"
- Elimination of ALL term limits
- Adding a layer of bureaucracy - regional VPs
- Changing the name to the LC-USA
- Giving more votes at district conventions to larger congregations
- Selecting national delegates through the distrcit conventions, not the circuits
- Making it harder to get overtures through to the national convention
- Changing the cycle of conventions (every 3 to every 4 years)

But what I wanted to report is this. Without dissent, the reaction to these proposals in yesterday's meeting was thoroughly negative. Numerous comments were made about how this appears as a "power grab". When I mentioned the elimination of all term limits provision, I actually heard gasps in the room!

Rev. Torkelson has been traveling the district to report on the convocation he attended, and estimates that 70% or so of the reaction he has heard has been negative - far more negative than even his own.

Our DP, for his part, was careful in what he said, but his reservations about the proposals were clear. His concerns seemed most directed at how his own job could be done, stretched thin as he is, if the district was somehow made larger. Also, he mentioned, and this was very telling, that the Council of Presidents has not been "in the loop" for most of this process, and that many of the suggestions made in North Dakota where the first time anyone, including the COP, had heard them!

I can only think that the reaction of other districts, and district presidents, must be similarly negative. It makes me wonder where the whole process is headed. One good question raised yesterday was this. Is there any hope the whole thing could be scrapped? It seems that the proposals are very fluid, and are being changed in response to feedback. But is the Task Force, and are the Synod powers-that-be willing to consider jettisoning the whole restructuring idea? It seems unlikely to me, with 2 extra days already planned for restructuring at the front-end of the 2010 convention...