Monday, August 11, 2014

Sermon - The Feast of St. Lawrence

At that time, Jesus spoke unto His disciples
saying: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain
of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains
alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever
loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life
in this world will keep it for eternal life. If
anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and
where I am, there will My servant be also. If
anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.”
John 12:24-26

The Feast of St. Lawrence
A river, a gulf, and a seaway are named in his honor. A number of Christian congregations and almost anyone known as "Larry" likewise owe their names to this martyr of the ancient Christian Church.

Early in the third century A.D., Lawrence (also often known as "Lorenz," "Laurence," or "Lorenzo"), who was most likely born in Spain, made his way to Rome. There he was appointed chief of the seven deacons and was given the responsibility to manage church property and finances.

The emperor at the time, thinking that the church had valuable things worth confiscating, ordered Lorenz to produce the "treasures of the church." Saint Lorenz brought before the emperor the poor whose lives had been touched by Christian charity. He was then jailed and eventually executed in the year 258. Most accounts tell of his being roasted on a gridiron until dead.

His martyrdom left a deep impression on the young church. Almost immediately, the date of His death, 10 August, became a permanent fixture on the early commemorative calendar of the Church.
(Thanks to Aardvark Alley for the background info)

So the story goes, after being roasted for a while he said, “I'm well done now. Turn me over!”

“Where I am, there will my servant be also.”

Hard words from Jesus, today, and a challenging example as we commemorate the saint and martyr, Lawrence.

Like Jesus, the martyrs died – and their lives and deaths would bear great fruit. One ancient church father, Tertullian, famously said, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”. In other words, when nonbelievers would see Christians dying for their faith, this powerful witness was used by the Holy Spirit to open ears and soften hearts to the word of the Gospel. And rather than stamping out the Christian faith, those who persecute Christians only make the church stronger.

If you follow the news, you know that Christians are persecuted today perhaps even more so than they were in the fourth century. We see news reports (though sadly, too few) of the recent purging of Christians in areas of the middle east. Homes are marked with the arabic letter which stands for “Christian”. Some are beheaded, others are crucified. Some are unfairly taxed, much as they were in St. Lawrence's day.

We may have several reactions when confronted with the example of the martyrs, either from antiquity or the modern day. For starters, their faithfulness calls us to account. What a terrible Christian I am, when I am embarrassed to admit that I think homosexuality is a sin. What a weak witness I give when I can't confess to my politically correct friend that Jesus is the only way to heaven. The martyrs shame us by their bold witness when we are so easily intimidated and cowed by the world we live in – a world which doesn't even threaten us with the sword – at least not yet. It's one thing for us to fail when compared to Christ's example of faith. We can easily let ourselves off the hook by saying, “oh, well, he was perfect – he was God, after all”. But when mere humans can confess Christ even in the face of death, we are left without excuse for our failures under far less threatening circumstances.

On the other hand, the witness of the martyrs can embolden us. We can look to their strong faith as examples to follow. So the government wants to shut down your churches and make your life difficult? Look to St. Lawrence, who stood firm against the heavy Roman hand and would not sacrifice the poor for the sake of peace with the pagan. He loved God and his neighbor more than even his own life, and remained steadfast even in a torturous death. So too, Christian, stand up for your Lord and your neighbor in the face of the enemy. Fight the good fight of faith!

And on yet another hand, we must acknowledge that whatever heroics of faith the martyrs exhibited, whatever bold and brave testimony they gave, whatever courage of conviction they showed even unto death – it is not to their own credit, but to Christ's. Faith itself is a gift. And the one who gives us faith also sustains it, sends his Spirit to strengthen us especially in times of trial. That the martyrs like Lawrence could stand up to violent persecution is a credit to the Lord, not the martyrs themselves. Thanks be to God for their faithful witness. Thanks be to him for all good things.

And finally, we can pray that God strengthen them and grant us this same faith – in the face of death, persecution, trouble, nakedness, danger, or sword. Whatever challenges to our faith may come, from the devil, the sinful world, or our own sinful selves, we pray for the strength to bear up and remain faithful, as were the martyrs, as was Jesus Christ.

When we fail, and we will fail, we rely on the blood of Christ to cover our guilt and shame. When we do stand – we give all honor and glory to Christ for giving us the strength of faith to do so. For without him we are nothing. But with him, we are promised all good things. So that even out of death, comes life, for those who are in Christ.

For Christ's own part, some would say he was the greatest of the martyrs. But I would argue with that. His death was not simply a “witness”, but a once-and-for-all sacrifice for sin It was the basis for all the martyrs who would come. Their death hearkens back to his saving, atoning, world-saving sacrifice. Their blood is precious to him, who shed his precious blood for all. Their deaths are precious to him, who died that they would live eternally.

“Where I am, there will my servant be also” These words go not only for persecution and suffering and death. They go also for what lies beyond. For where Jesus went – to resurrection, we too will go. Where Jesus went – to heaven and glory, we will also go. And where Jesus is, even today, present in his word and in his body and blood at this altar – here we come also, in faith and in witness. To proclaim his death until he comes, and to receive the fruits of his cross, which guarantee us eternal life.

Thanks be to God for St. Lawrence, and all the Christian martyrs. Thanks be to God that each hated his own life, but keeps it for eternal life. And thanks be to God for Christ our grain of wheat, who died and was buried, but who rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven, and who will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end. May the fruits of his work be multiplied here, in your lives, in your church, and in his holy church throughout the world.

In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Sermon - Pentecost 8 - Matthew 14:13-21

We, in modern America, if anything have too much food. You learn this in a new way when you go to places like Singapore where the portions are smaller – you know, normal sized. But in super-sized America it is hard for us to relate to people who truly live in hunger. We might be tempted to immediately jump to a spiritual application of this miracle – but let's not be so hasty.

The catechism teaches us in the First Article of the Creed, and in the Lord's Prayer petition, “give us this day our daily bread”: we acknowledge that each day, our food comes not from the fridge or the grocery store, but from the giver of all good things. This is one reason we pray before and even after meals – to acknowledge and give thanks for such blessings.

And sin is always there – crouching at our door – tempting us to make the lesser gifts into the greater gifts. To turn wants into needs. To prioritize poorly. To love the treasures of this world over the treasures of the world to come. To love ourselves and despise our neighbor. To make the created, the phyiscal things into gods, and fail to fear, love and trust the Creator.

The people who ate the miraculous fish and loaves that day were no different. If we were to read the parallel account of John 6, we'd see the people chasing Jesus around, trying to make him king by force – a “bread-king” who kept their bellies always filled. But they miss the point. Do we?

Jesus Christ himself is the bread of life. He himself is the only true sustenance for the soul. His bodily death on the cross, his shedding of blood, his atonement for our sins – this alone satisfies the deepest hunger of the human soul. Without such food, there is no life in us anyway. Without the cross you have, ultimately, no need of bread.

But just as there were more leftovers in the baskets than the food they started with, his provision is over-abundant. He gives all that we need and more. He provides for the salvation of our souls, as well as the resurrection of our bodies. And he sustains us with blessings too many for us to gather up in baskets. Blessings physical and spiritual, temporal and eternal. All from Christ, crucified for sinners.

And yet there are still more lessons to draw from this miraculous feeding long ago... Let's consider four:

We are dependent upon him.
Without Christ, we have nothing; we are nothing. We must look to him for all good things. This goes for the mundane food and clothing as well as the salvation itself. It's not as if Jesus gets us started and then it's up to us. We are and we ought to depend on him for daily bread, the air we breathe and the lungs to breathe it in. We have no more reason to expect any of this than the people he fed would expect a full and free meal – except that we know the giver gives abundantly, and loves to provide for our needs.

And it goes for the spiritual, as well. We cannot come to faith without His Spirit who calls us. We cannot make a decision to follow Christ that is of any value, but instead he chooses us. We cannot bring any good works that will wipe out our bad works and tip the balance in our favor – but only Christ's righteousness can suffice. And we cannot pay enough to cover our debt – only the blood of Christ has such value. We depend on him entirely.

And here we have even more reason to depend on him – for we have strong promises of forgiveness, salvation and eternal life with our God. Life in this world may bring trouble and hardship and nakedness and danger or sword, but no one can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ!

He has compassion.
Christ always has compassion on those in need. He never turns a cold shoulder to one who has faith and seeks his aid. This doesn't mean you will always have plenty and will never be in want of bread, or health, or that no sorrow will ever come your way. It doesn't mean the Christians will never suffer. But it does tell us where to go with our suffering, and who has the only and final answer to it, and the inclination to do us good. He knows our suffering, for he suffered it himself – he took it all to the cross . And so he sympathizes with us in our weakness, in all things.

Working through means.
Jesus very well could have hand-fed each of those 5000 plus all on his own, but he appointed the disciples to do it. He made them the go-betweens to distribute, to minister if you will, to the people. So today does he charge pastors, “you give them something to eat”. So do we often feel ill-equipped to do it, but so must we rely on the word and promise of Christ that in him there will always be plenty. As we distribute to you the blessings of salvation in word and sacrament, even greater miracles ensue – Christ's abundance is given freely, sinners are forgiven, and faith is strengthened. We can give only what we receive from Christ.

He taught them first, then fed. Today he teaches, then feeds.
First Jesus preached, taught – proclaimed the kingdom to these thousands. It must have been quite a day, as he had much to say and they stuck around to hear it all. Then he fed them as only he could. And we follow the same pattern today – we gather to Christ – around his word, to hear it, receive it. The word is read and proclaimed, sung and prayed. And then he feeds. We come to the table to feast on the word made flesh – and his body and blood are multiplied to far more than 5000, and stomachs and souls are sustained.

Whatever pangs of suffering you feel in your stomach or pangs of sin in your soul, turn again to the one who provides bread – daily bread for our bodies, and the bread of life for our bodies and souls. He himself is that bread – and he gives himself freely, on the cross, in the word, the water, and the meal of his altar. Come, eat and drink and live. In Jesus Christ, Amen.