Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Day Sermon -- Luke 17:11-19

November 26, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

Then Jesus answered: “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And He said to him: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

There are times when the astonishment of Jesus is a good thing. This is evident when He commended the faith of the Roman centurion who wanted his servant healed (“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”) and the Canaanite woman who persisted in asking for her daughter’s healing (“O woman, great is your faith! Be it done as you desire.”). Jesus has the same reaction to this Samaritan whom He heals. But when Jesus is astonished at the lack of faith and belief, it is a terrible thing. Such astonishment of Jesus is what you also heard read from St. Luke’s Gospel.

Jesus meets ten lepers, all of whom had cried out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Jesus heals all ten lepers: “When He saw them He said to them: ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went they were cleansed.” Jesus has no care for their class or ethnicity. He has pity on them and grants them the healing that only He can provide. His compassion was not limited. He left no need unmet.

That is why the one man returned to Jesus. He recognized what had been given to him, what he had received from the mouth of the Lord God. And so this healed leper reacts: “Then on of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks.” This is the reaction of gratitude, the giving of thanks that this day is designated for on the national calendar. It is also the reaction of faith: the man believes that Jesus has truly healed him.

But note the identity of this man who returns: “Now he was a Samaritan.” You heard that this event took place as “Jesus was passing along between Samaria and Galilee.” As the Savior was traveling in the border region, He heals the ten lepers, again not caring about their ethnicity. But only a Samaritan returns. And so Jesus asks: “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus is from Galilee and that would have been known, as the High Priest’s servant girl would tell Peter: “Your accent gives you away.” Couldn’t at least one Galilean have come back and thanked his countryman for what He did? Why does Jesus get no reaction of gratitude from His own people?

All ten that Jesus healed were leprous. All ten received from the Lord God what they needed. But only the foreigner returns, only the one who understood what it meant to be an outcast even before his illness. Recall whom Jesus commends for their faith: the Roman centurion, the Canaanite woman, the Samaritan leper. They realize their helplessness. They realize they are not deserving of Christ’s aid. They realize they do not belong to the Chosen People. Yet, in faith, they turn to Jesus for His aid and He delivers. And these are the type of people who show gratitude, who give thanks.

It is with good reason that your Lutheran forefathers selected this portion of St. Luke’s Gospel to be read on a Day of Thanksgiving. The event demonstrates well what a proper reaction to receiving benefit from the Lord God looks like. You see it in the Samaritan leper who returns. But the event also shows what an improper reaction—or truly, a lack of reaction—looks like. You see it from the other nine, those who are assumed to be Galileans.

The other nine were part of the Chosen People. They were descendants of those whom the Lord God had delivered from Egyptian slavery and made a great nation. They were taught what Moses had said to their forefathers, as you heard from Deuteronomy: “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that He might humble you, testing you to know what is in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.” Then Moses listed the providential work of the Lord God that the Israelites had received. But when the descendants of these people actually had the Lord God Incarnate dwelling among them, the lack of gratitude was seen everywhere.

So it may be for you who are descendants—either by blood or by citizenship—of those who received great providential benefits from above. In this nation, do you see the reaction of the one Samaritan or of the nine Galileans? Even more importantly: in your own lives, do you see the reaction of the one Samaritan to what you have received or the reaction of the Galilean? What you receive might seem like a birthright, either as an American or as a Lutheran. But your catechism study taught you that what you received was not based upon a quality in you, but on the fatherly, divine goodness and mercy of the Lord God. And for what you have received out of His graciousness, it is your duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.

You do not want to be the people about whom Jesus says: “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?” Or to put it in numbers that reflect our parish membership: “Were not 250 cleansed by Holy Baptism and made My people and given My salvation? Where are the other 200?” This is not the type of astonished statement that you want from Jesus. The questions may be rhetorical, but the rhetorical question does make a point, it does reflect the thought of the speaker. And when Jesus asks about His absent disciples or His ungrateful people, His displeasure is clearly evident.

But displeasure is not the only reaction that Jesus has, as you well heard. The feeling that Christ has for the nine Galileans is evident and it is negative. So it is for all who do not respond to His graciousness. But Jesus makes abundantly clear His positive reaction to the one Samaritan who returns to give thanks: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well!” In the Greek text, it is even more evident: “‘η πίστις σου σέσωκέν σε = your faith has saved you.”

Jesus recognizes the Samaritan’s faith by his reaction to the healing. The Samaritan’s thanksgiving is evidence of his belief in Christ, a faith that brings everlasting life. And so it is for all who receive Christ’s healing and cleansing, those who are redeemed by His precious blood. Such reaction of thanksgiving is commended by the Apostle Paul, as you heard: “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Jesus wants to see people believing in Him. He wants to provide the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation that He has earned and to see people reaction to their reception of it.

This is not simply a demand. But it is the natural result that receiving an undeserved benefit, especially an eternal one, should bring about in people who receive it. Thanksgiving is a natural result, but your reaction can easily slip into the error of the Galileans. There is the ever-present hazard of becoming so absorbed in what you have received that you forget who it is that provided it. An even more common hazard is the feeling that you deserved to receive it as an entitlement and so you are not duty-bound to give thanks. Both are problematic. Both are inconsistent with what should flow from the hearts of Christ’s people.

But those hazards can be avoided. They will be avoided as long as you truly recognize what you are by nature and what you have received and who has given it to you. This is what the Church’s worship and the life of discipleship laid out in the Gospels bring to mind. These incidents with Jesus are a constant reminder of the undeserving nature of humanity and the graciousness of Christ. As you hear them, you learn about yourselves and your Savior. The order of Divine Service also teaches about the same undeserving nature of humanity and the graciousness of Christ. As you gather together for worship, the very texts tell you that you give thanks to God and that there really is nothing that you can render to Him for all His benefits. And in the old Common Service, there was the thanksgiving that came directly after the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament that teaches you about your sin and Christ’s continual compassion for you.

The recognition of your helplessness and your undeservedness—the very things that the Samaritan recognized in himself—will lead to thanksgiving. It is the response that Christ’s people give to Him, the piety of faith that our Lutheran forefathers described: “Piety focuses on what has been given and what has been forgiven; it compares the greatness of God’s blessings with the greatness of our ills, our sin and our death, and it gives thanks.” So it was for the Samaritan who returned and so it is for you who have returned this day in thanksgiving.

Know yourself well, then you will know just how gracious the Lord God is to you and how deserving He is of your thanksgiving. Know yourself well, then you will understand and appreciate the mercy that Christ has shown to you. For the Lord God did not simply say a word to heal you; rather, He first made His Word become flesh and dwell among you and die for you and rise again for you. All this was done for the forgiveness of your sins and all out of His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in you.

For all this it is your duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him, just as the healed Samaritan leper did. You will do so as you offer your worship to the Lord God in this place. But even more so, you thank and praise, serve and obey Him, when you show the same compassion, pity, and mercy to one another that Christ has shown to you. What Jesus says to the Samaritan should be the same reaction He has to you. And it will be so, as you are led by faith—“the faith that saves you”—to do works of service and compassion as you “rise and go your way” from this place, living another year as Christ’s disciples.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Last Sunday of Church Year Sermon -- Matthew 25:31-46 (LSB Proper 29A)

November 23, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

You don’t want to be on the left-hand of Jesus, for that is the sinister side. That is what the Latin translation of His statement recorded by St. Matthew says: “Statuet oves quidem a dextris suis hedos autem a sinistris . . . . And He will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.” Being on the left-hand side of Jesus means to suffer eternal punishment, a fate reserved for sinister people. It is clear from what Jesus says to those on His left: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

But such a fate is not without warrant. There are multiple reasons for why those on Christ’s left enter into “the eternal fire.” Jesus is very specific about the actions of those on His left that bring them their fate: “For I was hungry and you gave Me no food, I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome Me, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.” Treating Jesus like this is no way to enter into eternal life. To treat Jesus like this is to do the exact opposite of what He has done for you.

And yet, you heard that what those on Christ’s left did was not done to Jesus directly. It wasn’t that they passed by Jesus when they saw Him. Listen to what they said: “Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?” They would not have ignored Jesus. Instead, they would have come to His aid. But the problem with those on Jesus’ left is that they did not understand the fullness of His teaching. They did not realize what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus. For being one of Christ’s disciples brings a special status: it makes one a sibling of Jesus.

It is this lack of understanding, this lack of belief in Christ’s teaching, that condemns those sinister people. The Lord Jesus answers the question of those who said they did not feed, supply drink, clothe, or visit Him because they didn’t see Him: “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” Those on Jesus’ left did not recognize the identity of even the least of His disciples, but Jesus did. He knows His own. He knows whom He has called. He knows every single one of His disciples. He knows who has been made co-heirs of everlasting life, and even the least of His disciples has that status.

But what is interesting is that even those on Jesus’ right didn’t seem to realize that, either. Listen again to what He says to them: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me.” Jesus lays out a long record of good works that these people did to Him.

But in reaction to what Jesus says about them, even those on His right say: “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger and welcome You, or naked and clothe You? And when did we see You sick or in prison and visit You?” Even the righteous people did not fully understand what took place. They did not grasp the full impact of what they did in their earthly lives. And yet, they did believe Christ’s teachings; they took His words to heart about how they were to treat others, especially those who were members of their assembly of disciples: “This is My commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.”

It is this belief that leads to everlasting life for the blessed and righteous ones, the right-hand men and women of Jesus. Their actions are commended for their full impact, even if they did not truly understand what they had done: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.” Their righteousness is dependent upon belief in Christ’s teachings and the actions of faith, not their intellectual understanding. Their faith led them to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned. They did not know that they were doing these things to Jesus, but they did know that Jesus wanted to do these things. And for that, they are rewarded.

You are to learn from this, for this is how the judgment at the Last Day will take place. How you treat your fellow disciples here on earth will affect the verdict. Jesus’ words are an exhortation to His Church about what the behavior He expects among His disciples. And it has been a consistent teaching from the Lord God throughout time, as He spoke through the prophet Ezekiel: “Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I Myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will rescue My flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep.”

There is no room for “sheep-on-sheep crime” in Christ’s Church, because such sinister actions deny and disregard what Jesus has made His disciples. All of His people have been made co-heirs of everlasting life. All of His disciples are His siblings, even the least of them. This is the great and gracious reality that Jesus has bestowed upon you. This is what He has accomplished in fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy: “As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out My sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. . . . I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy.”

Jesus has brought you back. He has redeemed you from sin and from death and from the power of the devil. This is what He accomplished by laying down His life for the sheep. Through His actions, you have been connected to this and have been given a new identity, a new life. You have been made His brothers. And because of this, you should be the people on Jesus’ right at the Last Day. You should be the ones to whom He says: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

But you must remember the words that come directly after that statement: For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me.” And you must remember how Jesus says this takes place: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.” For this is what Jesus says is part of your identity, what is done by those who are “blessed by [His] Father.”

Perhaps it isn’t coincidence that you hear these words of Jesus at this time of year, when there are ample opportunities to feed, clothe, and visit those who need it, just as Jesus says His disciples do. Perhaps it isn’t coincidence that as the nation is uneasy and the economic worries and hurt is being seen, that you are again called to action to aid “the least of [Jesus’] brothers.” You have the chances to do things that are simple, ordinary, even mundane and unmemorable, but which provide what your co-heirs of everlasting life need. You may never even consider what you did to be anything special, but as it is done in faith and Christ’s disciples are recipients of your actions, then Jesus Himself will consider that you did it to Him.

Even though you heard these words of Jesus at the time when the focus is judgment, they are empowering words. He has enabled you to do good actions, though once you were totally depraved. Christ has placed you in relationship with other of His disciples, so that your common, everyday works can be done for Him. Your Lord gives you a life that is designed to serve Him and others. He has not set you up to fail, but so you may be commended by Him. This is what the King of Kings desires for you. Jesus wants to say to you, as you heard last week: “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Master.” And it will please Him greatly to say: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

So it will be for you, as you hear Christ’s teaching and believe it. For such a living faith will lead to works. Taking Jesus’ words to heart and acting upon them will lead to a blessed end, not a sinister one. “He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,” but the sorting has already begun for you. As you have been made part of His Church, Jesus has placed you on His right side.

Continue to hear His teaching and to lead the lives that He has laid out for you, so that you remain His right-hand men and women. That is where you want to be, where He wants you to be. Your Lord has given you His Spirit to abide with you, to sanctify you, and to guide you in your actions. So feed, give to drink, welcome, clothe, and care for your fellow disciples, the siblings of Jesus and co-heirs of everlasting life, as Christ desires you to do. Then “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” will be yours to keep. For such actions stem from belief in what Jesus says and does, and they will be remembered by the King in His glory.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pentecost 27 Sermon -- Matthew 25:14-30 (LSB Proper 28A)

November 16, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

Jesus said: “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

The master in Jesus’ parable thinks very highly of his servants. Though he goes away, he does not put others that he does not know in charge of his possessions. He relies on his servants to maintain his belongings, to put them to use. And the master knows that his servants will be productive with his money.

This is how Jesus depicts the kingdom of heaven: “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his abilities. Then he went away.” It is serious matter to be entrusted with something. It brings a number of requirements, a responsibility to have these things accomplish their purpose. But the master in the parable believes that his servants will meet these expectations, for he entrusts his possessions to them as they are able to meet these responsibilities.

In the same way, Jesus entrusts His Church with His possessions. The Twelve who heard this parable would be exactly like those servants. Their Master would hand over to them His authority, His teachings, His ability to forgive sins, His power. And as the Twelve received these things, they were to put them to use, to ensure that their Master’s belongings would achieve their purpose. That is the basic message of Christ’s story.

But as you hear the parable, you must also see the positive and negative results of what the servants do. It is clear that the first and second servants understand their charge: “He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more.” These two servants fulfill their duties; they meet the responsibilities that their master had given them. You know that because you heard what their master said to them: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”

The servants who fulfill their duties are commended and praised by their master. His possessions were not entrusted to them in vain, but achieved their end. His judgment about their abilities was correct; he knew what they could accomplish and it was so. But this was not the only reaction that the master would have about his servants, for there was one who did not meet his commands.

You heard about the third servant: “He who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.” This servant shirked his responsibilities. Rather than putting his master’s possessions to work, he kept it unused. His master’s money was given to him in vain. No benefit was gained from his master’s trust in him. And though he had the ability to trade with the silver, for his master knew him well, the servant did nothing.

For the third servant, the master’s response is much different. Though he makes excuse for what he did—“I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground”—the servant is condemned. The servant returns his master’s money—“Here you have what is yours”—but that was not the intended result, not what his master wanted to happen: he didn’t want just his coin returned, but profit with it. And his master’s anger rages against him: “You wicked and slothful servant! Did you know that I reap where I have not sowed and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my arrival I should have received what was my own with interest.”

The master’s judgment is final for this servant, a point you should note well. It is a lesson that the Twelve would learn and see take place as one from their own midst would be condemned. Even Judas suffered the fate of the third servant: “From the one who has not, even what he has will be taken from him.” Though he was numbered among the Twelve and went out with them earlier in Christ’s ministry and did great things, he lost that place and title. But the warning is not only for Judas, it is for all who are abandoning or shirking the responsibilities that the Master gives.

That is the message of the parable. For Jesus’ disciples, His servants, there is no place for apathy or complacency. In the story, each servant received the charge according to their ability. And so it is for you. You have been entrusted with the Holy Spirit and what He brings—Christ’s teaching, Christ’s forgiveness, Christ’s sacraments, Christ’s way of life—and you are expected to work with them, to make use of them. They are given for your benefit, so that you may know Jesus and receive salvation in His name. But they are also given, so that others may benefit from your working with these divine possessions.

Because of Christ’s work—His perfect obedience, His innocent suffering and death, His glorious resurrection, His ascension—you have been given the place of His servant. As you have been brought into the Church through Holy Baptism and being taught the words of Christ, you have been made His disciple: He is your Master and you are His servant. In fact, you can know that it was through the use of what Christ entrusted to other servants of His that you have been made His servant. You have benefited from the work of Jesus’ “good and faithful servants.”

But the question remains whether you will be like the first and second servants or the third servant. All three of them had the same status. All three of them were entrusted with their master’s belongings. So also you have been entrusted with some of Christ’s possessions, each according to his or her abilities. Jesus has handed over things to you for you to put to use. As you do so, they accomplish their purpose. This is your identity, what you are. And as such, apathy and complacency have no place in your life of discipleship.

That is what this story of Jesus tells. And it is the same warning that the words of Zephaniah gave: “At the same time, I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will He do ill.’ Their goods will be plundered, and their houses laid waste.” Like the third servant and Judas, these people of Jerusalem were also given the place of a servant. They were the Lord God’s people, entrusted with His covenant, recipients of His teachings, eligible to participate in the sacrifices. But they shirked all of this; they abandoned these things and rejected them and their use.

The complacent, apathetic people of Jerusalem, Judas, and the “wicked and slothful servant” of the parable are all warnings for you. They are examples to avoid. What they had was taken from them in judgment. Their Master’s possessions benefited neither them nor others because of their inaction. And their fate was disastrous: “Cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness! In that place, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Those are words of your Master Jesus that you should hear now, so that you need not hear them later. They describe a fate that He does not want for you, but that does come to the complacent and apathetic.

Your Lord wants you to be commended like the first two servants. And the way to that is by using what He has entrusted to you to accomplish a great end: your salvation and others’. This is what you heard from St. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians: “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Putting on armor is not done in vain, but to prepare for action. And that is your Master’s desire for you, what He equips you for, and what He entrusts to you.

Everything that Christ has handed over to you has a purpose. At the very least, it is meant for your salvation and your growth in faith and works—like money gaining interest. Perhaps if you have been given the ability, it is meant to bring others into salvation or to acquire other gifts of the Spirit for the good of the Church. But either way, according to your abilities that Jesus knows, you have been entrusted with the Holy Spirit and what He brings. And as you use them, as you participate in the Spirit and His gifts, what Christ desires for you will be accomplished. But complacency and apathy will prevent you from fulfilling your purpose, for then the Holy Spirit and His gifts will not be at work in you.

That is what this parable of Christ teaches. You have been given a special status as His servant. And with that status, you have been entrusted with His possessions. And you have been given the good and proper desire to hear these words: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”

It is no mystery who will hear these words and why they will hear them. As the Spirit handed over to you has made it known again on this day, so let it be for you. Be faithful to the One who has faith in you, His servants, while He is away. For He has entrusted you with His possessions, the very things which bring eternal deliverance to those who use them. And as you do, then His words will be true for you: “To everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance.”—even the forgiveness of sins, everlasting life, and salvation.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Pentecost 26 Sermon -- Matthew 25:1-13 (LSB Proper 27A)

November 9, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

Jesus said: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Jesus’ words give you the theme for these next three Sundays in November, the Sundays which close the Church Year. He wants His people to be prepared, to be ready for His return. That’s the message of His parable, the point of His story about the Wise and Foolish Virgins. The parable depicts how Christ’s disciples should be anticipating His arrival. But it also shows how unexpected His arrival can be, even though Jesus tells His people that it will take place.

Already you have sung two hymns based on this parable and the message it brings. What do they have in common? They tell you to be active: “The Bridegroom is arising / and soon is drawing nigh. / Up, pray and watch and wrestle; / at midnight comes the cry.” They tell you to be prepared: “The Bridegroom comes, awake! / Your lamps with gladness take! / Alleluia! / With bridal care / yourselves prepare / to meet the Bridegroom, who is near.”

Alertness, preparedness, activity: these are the watchwords for this day and time. They are your orders. For lack of them will bring nothing good for you. That’s the message of the parable. Note where everything goes wrong in the story Jesus tells: “When the foolish virgins took their lamps, they took no oil with them.” It is in the early stages that things begin to go awry: the unpreparedness begins then. And the early error is compounded, for when the foolish ones begin to make belated remedy of their situation, time runs out: “While they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with Him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.”

The lesson for Christ’s disciples, for you, is clear: Be watchful, be ready. “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” In the imagery of the parable, you are to ensure that you have enough supply of oil for your lamps to continually burn. Your role is to welcome the Bridegroom, who is yet to arrive. And in order to do so, you must have a lamp that burns, a lamp that can be lit at midnight for Christ’s return.

So what are these lamps and what is this needed oil? The lamps are your faith and life of faith, what Christ has given you in your role as His disciples. And the oil is what fuels that faith: Christ’s teaching, His words of forgiveness, His sacramental presence, His Spirit who is constantly with His Church on earth and sanctifies it. The story Jesus tells you is a reminder of who you are and what is necessary to fulfill that role to the very end. He has made a promise to you that He shall return—a promise greater than Douglas MacArthur’s. Christ has also assured His disciples that His return is for their benefit. But they must remain His disciples for that to be so. And so must you.

That is why Jesus tells His hearers, even you: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” This preparedness, this watching is not an order to scan the skies periodically to see whether Jesus is coming with His angels. It is most definitely not instruction to go and hang out on some mountainside or in the wilderness and become hermits until the Lord’s arrival. And Christ doesn’t want you to go walking down Front Street or around City Island carrying a sign that says: “The End Is Coming Soon.” None of that is true preparedness or watching. It is a false alertness, an empty and vain activity.

The Lord God’s people have been warned against such false action. That’s what the Lord God told the Israelites in Amos’ prophecy: “I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. . . . The peace offerings of your fattened animals I will not look upon. . . . To the melody of your harps I will not listen.” In Israel, there were all sorts of activities, even religious rituals taking place. Yet, the activities were false and vain, lacking the people’s faith. Though the Israelites may have seemed alert and prepared, they were not. The prophet tells them: “Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? . . . Is it not darkness and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?”

For those who are not prepared, even those who are busy with the wrong activities, the Return of Christ is terrible, of no benefit. It is a gloomy, dark, horrible day of judgment. Christ’s instructions to His people are given for good reason, so that they can hold onto salvation. Their preparedness is found in participation in things that give birth and life to discipleship. And that is not found in self-devised ways of making yourself busy or appearing to be pious. No, there is one thing that makes you prepared: participation in the very things that keep the fires of faith burning in Christ’s disciples.

It is interesting that Jesus uses the lamp and oil motif in His parable. His audience could understand it well; they had often lit lamps in their own homes and seen bridal processions in their towns. But they also knew of the anointing purpose of oil, how it signified divine sanction and approval of priests and kings. That was not lost on Christ’s followers who used oil in ceremonies connected to the work of the Holy Spirit and spoke of the Spirit’s receipt as an anointing. They referred to themselves as royal priests, a group of people who had received the Spirit with His testimony about Christ’s redemptive work for them and a new way of life.

So it should be with you. The parable tells you to be watchful and prepared, to ensure that you have an ample oil supply to fuel your lamps. It even tells you that there are dealers who do provide it. This preparedness expected of Christ’s disciples is dependent upon the receipt of the Holy Spirit’s work. The oil for your lamps of faith is found only where the Spirit is working—in the Church—and in what means the Spirit works—the aural and visible Word of God. What gives life to your role as Christ’s disciple is participation in the things that Christ has entrusted to the Church which create and sustain faith in you. For it is only by faith that the Day of the Lord becomes a glorious and wonderful day for you and not a time of dread and gloom.

The beneficial nature of the Day of the Lord was seen in the apostolic letter to the Thessalonians: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” What the apostle describes is the watchman’s voice alerting all of the Bridegroom’s arrival and the prepared attendants’ ushering Him into the banquet hall. It is not darkness and gloom, but light and joy instead.

Such is the fate for you, as you are prepared and ready for the Lord’s return. But how easily it can become the opposite! How many times have you been occupied with events or life struggles or thought that kept you from receiving the Spirit’s work in the Church? How often have you been the one that distracted yourself or others, keeping you from the oil supply your lamps need? These are questions to ask, as they go to the heart of your preparedness.

Note what Jesus says in the parable: “As the Bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.” All of them—both the foolish and wise—became disillusioned by waiting. All of them—both the foolish and wise—were burdened and exhausted that way. All of them—both foolish and wise—could have suffered the same dreadful fate. No one is immune from this. It plagued Israel. It plagued the Thessalonians. It plagues the Church now.

Drowsiness, negligence, unalertness: these are what you are called to overcome. What the wise had with them—the oil in flasks—allowed them to become ready for the Bridegroom’s arrival. “They became drowsy and slept,” but they also were able to light their lamps and feed them with the oil they had. And so it is for you. You will become drowsy and sleep. You will be distracted. You will be tempted to be led away from what your faith needs, even tempted to abandon the wait as the months, years, and decades pass without Christ’s return. But as long as you have a continued participation in what fuels your life of discipleship and what rouses you from drowsiness and sleep, you will be ready for Christ’s arrival.

That message Jesus wants you to hear and act on. It is meant for your benefit, for Christ wants you to receive the fullness of what He earned for you: the righteousness that brings you out of condemnation to everlasting life. These next several weeks, you will hear Jesus’ words about His return in judgment: Hear them and take them to heart, for they are how the Spirit is coming to you to sustain your faith. Our parish will have extra times in Advent to continue preparations for Christ’s arrival: Participate in them and be watchful. “You know neither the day nor the hour.” But you most certainly know what makes you ready for the Bridegroom’s entrance, for they are nothing other than what delivers Christ’s righteousness to you right now and sets you in a new way of life.

Listen to the teachings of Christ, the way that He instructs you and makes you wise for salvation. Receive the forgiveness that Christ provides you in Holy Baptism, Absolution, and Supper, the ways He makes you an heir of everlasting life. Participate in the corporate life of Christ’s Church, so that all of you together may keep watch and ready. For this is how the Spirit sanctifies and prepares you for Christ’s return. This is where you find oil for your lamps. And this is how you will be vigilant and ready to meet your Bridegroom, the Christ who has redeemed you and made you His own.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sunday of All Saints Sermon -- Matthew 5:1-12

November 2, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when He sat down, His disciples came to Him. And He opened His mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are . . . .”

Blessedness is not a human trait despite how much you might want it to be. None are born with it, though it would be good if it were so. Much grief would be avoided. But blessedness is not a human trait. Rather, people are properly described as vengeful, angry, depraved, and unholy.

So you hear Jesus say: “Blessed are . . . .” And what must you think? Those statements don’t apply to me. They don’t describe me. Jesus lists a number of different attributes of blessed people, but they are not what you experience or what you witness about yourself. He lists all sorts of rewards and resultant actions that stem from blessedness, but they are not to be received by those who are unholy or unblessed.

Recall what Jesus says: “Blessed are . . . the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” All sorts of blessed attributes Jesus gives, but just how opposite they are of your behavior and character.

You who exalt yourselves are not “poor in spirit.” You who take joy in other’s misery, who experience schadenfreude, are not “those who mourn.” You who seek retribution against those who cross you are not “the meek.” You who delight in pleasing your own desires, even the most wanton ones, do not “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” You who withhold your gifts and ignore those in need are far from “merciful.” You who harbor anger and ill will for others are not “pure in heart.” You who encourage and inspire unrest at home or in the workplace or between friends and neighbors do not “make peace.” And every time that you have not spoken up for what is good, right, and salutary, you are not “persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” but are the persecutors, whether active or passive.

Jesus “opens His mouth and teaches,” but His words seem to miss the mark about you. His teaching is all wrong. Or more properly, you miss the mark that His words of blessing set. Speaking to you and the crowds, Jesus should give a list of woes, not a list of beatitudes. He should say: “Woe to the prideful, the revelers, the bullies, those who hunger and thirst for sinfulness, the miserly and vengeful, the depraved in heart, the warmongers, and the persecutors of the sons of righteousness.” And indeed, He does say such things. Read through the gospel accounts, and you will find such statements from the open mouth of Jesus. For Christ neither minces words nor speaks in vain.

But in that last statement there lies something great, something that needs to be noted and heard. Jesus does not speak in vain. And if that is true, then what should you make of the Beatitudes? If they neither describe your attributes or character nor the attributes and character of the crowds Jesus preached to, then why did He speak them? Why would He “open His mouth and teach His disciples, saying: ‘Blessed are . . . .’”?

Jesus does not speak in vain. His words may not describe you or the crowds, but they do testify about Him. The Beatitudes are all about Him. They tell about His attributes and His character. They tell what He will do and experience. They detail what is truly His because He does so. These words of Jesus point out that He is “the Blessed One,” as you yourself will testify in minutes during the Sanctus, echoing the words of the company of heaven that you heard from Revelation this day. “The Blessed One”: that is the identity of Jesus which must be known by those who would have Him as their Redeemer.

Your Lord speaks the Beatitudes and says: “I am poor in spirit. I mourn. I am meek. I hunger and thirst for righteousness. I am merciful. I am pure in heart. I am the peacemaker. I am persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Yet, the Beatitudes are not simply a description of Jesus. Rather, they speak about why this is so: Jesus is all of this for your benefit. Jesus is this way, so that the rewards and resultant actions of His blessedness may be your own.

This is alluded to in the other Scriptures that were read this day. The Apostle John writes: “We know that when [God] appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.” This is so as you have received the character, attributes, and actions of Christ as your own, as you have been called “the children of God,” as the apostle reminds you. It is the result of “wash[ing your] robes and mak[ing] them white in the blood of the Lamb.” As the Lamb of God, the Blessed One Jesus Christ has given Himself in sacrifice for you and you have been incorporated into Him through Holy Baptism, what is His is now yours. His character, His attributes, His actions: they are all reckoned by God the Father as your own, as if you had always been like that.

Christ’s blessedness is imputed to you. That connection to the Blessed One is what makes you blessed. It delivers to you everything that Jesus said. He does not speak in vain. There is a reason why the Beatitudes are in the plural form, why Jesus says: “Blessed are . . .,” not “Blessed is . . . .” As you have been given the blessedness of Christ, what He Himself has and what He shares, each of these statements that He makes becomes a statement of about you.

So you can hear the Beatitudes again and you can say: “Because of Christ’s sacrificial death; because I have been made part of His Body, the Church, through Holy Baptism; because I share in His blessedness, having been washed in His blood: I am poor in spirit. I mourn. I am meek. I hunger and thirst for righteousness. I am merciful. I am pure in heart. I am the peacemaker. I am persecuted for righteousness’ sake. What is true of Christ is now true of me in this new reality, in this new life that I have been given.”

This is what all the saints of Christ, all “the children of God,” can say as they have been received the “salvation [that] belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” His blessedness is now yours and your unholiness is no longer counted against you. Even though the Beatitudes do not always describe the present, earthly, visible reality of your lives, they do truly describe what you have been made and continue to be made into. Remember what the apostle John said: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, but what we will be has not yet been revealed; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies Himself as He is pure.”

The apostle mentions the “not yet” aspect of your new life and new reality. He did so also in Christ’s revelation to him, in the depiction of the heavenly worship taking place in front of the Lord God’s eternal throne. That is what this All Saints’ Day commemoration reminds you. It tells you of your identity, a shared identity with all of Christendom: past, present, and future. Yet, it also shows you what some have already received—as Geraldine Gibb, Harriet Kruger, and Nora Kauffman did since last All Saints’ Day—but what you still await.

So it is with Christ’s Beatitudes. First they teach you who and what He is, and then they tell you who and what you are. But they also teach you what you have yet to receive, what still awaits: “the kingdom of heaven, comfort for your mourning, inheriting the earth, satisfaction of your new hunger and thirst for righteousness, receiving mercy, seeing God, being called sons of God.” This has been given in part, but it will be fulfilled. It shall be as the Apostle Paul told the Philippians: “I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

You have been given a glimpse of this in the readings for today. As you have heard and believed, the Holy Spirit continues to do His purifying work in you. He has already delivered Christ’s blessedness to you. He has renewed it again as you were forgiven of all your sins. You will receive the Blessed One’s pledge, seal, and token of your inheritance of everlasting life in the Lord’s Supper, the foretaste of the eternal feast to come. You have His blessedness which is yours through Holy Baptism and the renewal of it.

On this Sunday of All Saints, your true identity is again confirmed. Blessedness is not a human trait, despite how much you might want it to be. But blessedness is the character of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God. It is the character and attribute is imputed and given to you to be your own. So you may hear His words: “Blessed are . . . the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” And you can know that those words describe you and the promises are meant for you.

That is what the Blessed One Jesus Christ has made so. It is what He has achieved for you and for all His saints who have been washed clean by Him. Lay claim to that identity and to those promises. For Jesus does not speak in vain, but He says: “Blessed are the children of God.”

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Observing All Saints' Day

November 1 is set aside on the Western Catholic Calendar to commemorate All Saints. As that day has come this year, we should be reminded of what our Lutheran Confessions say about those who have died in the Christian faith before us and the honor due them:

"Our Confession approves giving honor to the saints. This honor is threefold. The first is thanksgiving: we ought to give thanks to God because He has given examples of His mercy, because He has shown that He wants to save humankind, and because He has given teachers and other gifts to the church. Since these are the greatest gifts, they ought to be extolled very highly, and we ought to praise the saints themselves for faithfully using these gifts just as Christ praises faithful managers [Matt. 25:21, 23]. The second kind of veneration is the strengthening of our faith. When we see Peter forgiven after his denial, we, too, are encouraged to believe that grace truly superabounds much more over sin [Rom 5:20]. The third honor is imitation: first of their faith, then of their other virtues, which people should imitate according to their callings." (Apology to the Augusburg Confession XXI:4-6)

All of us know Christians who have preceded us into life beyond this earthly one. They are worthy of our imitation, as they have traveled the path of discipleship before us, experiencing things that we also will. From their lives, we are given patterns to shape our lives. They are also worthy of our commemoration, for by it we worship the Lord Jesus Christ. As we remember those who have died in the faith, we also remember what Christ has done for them. They are recipients of His graciousness, the very reason why they are saints. By speaking about them as such, we speak about people whom Christ has forgiven, showing us what it means to be made part of the "communion of saints."

The honoring of the blessed dead does not detract from the worship of Christ our Lord, but augments it. So it is a worthy custom that our parish does not pass by the first days of November without commemorating All Saints' Day. Once again the Beatitudes will be read in the Divine Service, and we will hear of the blessedness that Christ possesses and which is imputed to us through our baptisms. We will also have a glimpse into heaven from the Revelation to St. John, by which we will join in the company of heaven's worship of Christ, the Lamb of God. And we will be told that what Christ is like, we will be made into, as St. John testifies in his first epistle. Though all of this teaches about the saints, it is ultimately a confession about Christ and His work.

So we Lutherans observe All Saints’ Day by remembering and thanking God for all His saints, both dead and living. It is a day to glorify Jesus Christ, who had made the saints holy through Baptism and faith. There is vibrant rejoicing that the Christians who have entered life eternal before us are in heaven. We look forward to joining them with Christ for eternity. And we receive a reminder of our own identity: we are Christ's saints, as we have been rightly taught the Gospel of Christ and received His rightly-administered Sacraments.

As we commemorate those who have died before us in the faith, let us take to heart the words of the Collect for All Saints' Day and make them our own prayer: "O Almighty God, by whom we are graciously knit together as one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Jesus Christ our Lord, grant us so to follow Your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living that we may come to the unspeakable joys which You have prepared for those who unfeignedly love You; though our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever."