Thursday, November 28, 2013

Sermon for Thanksgiving Day: "The Bread of Life"

+ Day of Thanksgiving, November 28th, 2013 +
St. Michael’s Lutheran - Portland, OR
Psalm 100; Deut. 26:1-11; Philippians 4:4-9; John 6:25-35

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 “Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray. And of course daily bread is more than that baked lump of dough loafing around on your table. Daily Bread includes all that is needed for this body and life. Bread is sustenance and life.
But there’s a bit of irony in Jesus’ words “I AM the Bread of Life.”
Because whether or not you top it with melted butter or home-made raspberry jam; whether you call it artisan, organic, or fresh-baked; as good as it tastes, bread is the food of the fall:
"...cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”

As Grandpa Schuldheisz used to say: “The whiter the bread the quicker you’re dead.” Bread is the food of death.  East of Eden, bread equals labor. When you plop that dinner roll on the heap of your thanksgiving plate today think about how much work it took to get there.

Seeds are sown. The farmer harvests. The miller grinds. The baker bakes. The truck delivers. The shelves are stocked. The grocer sells. Then you buy, with money earned from your labor, unless it’s homemade. Either way, God uses the fruit of his creation to feed, sustain, and bless our bodies.
It was true in the Old Testament: manna in the wilderness; bread in the sacrifices of the tabernacle and temple; bread in the Passover. It’s true in the New Testament: Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the “House of Bread.” Jesus fed thousands. Jesus ate and drank with sinners. Jesus is the Bread of Life. God gives through means.
For God’s people thanksgiving is remembering. Remembering what Christ gives us and how he gives it to us. Remembering the Giver and the gift.
So it’s good to thank farmers, butchers, and bakers – all those people doing dirty jobs serving others. We give thanks knowing that God works through others to provide and protect His creation. God is hidden behind these extraordinarily ordinary “masks.” Certainly God could zap food on our table like a wizard, but He gives through means.
Thanksgiving is remembering. O bless the Lord, my soul and forget not all his benefits (Psalm 103).
But we do. We forget. We overlook God’s hidden work through earthly means. We idolize the gift and ignore the Giver. We treat Jesus like a divine bread machine. We’re no different than the crowds following Jesus, so anxious, worried, and grumbling about what we don’t have, that we forget what we do have. “Do not labor for food that perishes, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.”
Thanksgiving is remembering. But remembering works two ways. Thanksgiving begins, not in the poverty of our heart, but in the richness of a Giving God. Before God we’re all beggars. Thanksgiving isn’t about what you do for God, but about what God does for you. Jesus doesn’t benefit from our thanking Him. It’s the other way around. Christ gives into empty hands. The more we thank God the Father through Jesus Christ His dear Son, the more we recognize how generously and bountifully He deals with us.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Eucharist. That’s Greek for “thanksgiving.” It’s another name for the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist. And true Thanksgiving is to receive the Lord’s Supper. All other thanksgiving feasts are but a shadow. There is no higher worship of Christ than to receive his gifts. We Christians are a Eucharistic people.
For man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. “I AM the Bread of Life...Eat of this bread, and you will live forever.”  Ordinary bread we eat to our death. Even the manna in the wilderness didn’t save Israel. But the Bread of Life is different.
In the Eucharist, Jesus takes ordinary, earthly bread and turns it into an extraordinary, heavenly meal. Jesus takes the bread of the fall and redeems it in his death. The food of the curse is now the food of blessing. It’s not metaphorical, symbolic, or figurative language. Jesus means what he says. Jesus’ is your Bread of Life. The Eucharist is your Bread of Life.
Here’s the one feast that won't run out, or leave you full and feeling sick afterwards. This meal endures - unlike the mashed potatoes, gravy, drumsticks, and the Lions winning record.
I AM the Bread of Life. And how is bread made? Seeds of grain are cast into the earth, harvested, ground into flour, mixed with yeast and other ingredients, kneaded, baked, and finally consumed. So it is with Jesus, the Bread of Life. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains alone; but if it dies it bears much fruit.” Jesus’ body and blood, given and shed for you, true living fruit from the cross. Give us this day our daily Bread of Life.
Now there’s a reason for thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is remembering. Remembering that Jesus’ death is your life. And Jesus remembering your sins no more – all our grumbling, doubt, worry, and ungrateful sinfulness - forgiven.
“I AM the Living Bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this Bread he will live forever. And the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Come to the Altar, eat, drink, and live. Jesus, the Bread of Life, is your host, waiter, and food.
A blessed Eucharist to you all.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Diary of an Advent Father

Note: The piece below was written for Redeemer's annual Advent by Candlelight. It's always a joy to be a part of this wonderful Advent tradition. Enjoy. And a blessed Advent to you all.

Advent is a season of waiting. The world says: “Hurry up! Buy more. Buy now. Why wait? Only 33 days until Christmas.” Humbug to all of that, I say. There’s a better way to spend your Advent and Christmas seasons.

Advent is so much more than pre-Christmas. Advent is a season of waiting, an oasis of patience in a dessert of consumption. Advent is a season of hope and expectation in a world of instant gratification. Advent is a season that calls us to focus on Christ who came, who is yet to come, and still comes among us now. In Advent we join the prophets of the OT in waiting. And we join Mary in her waiting too.

But what about Joseph? How did he spend his time during that first advent? We’re not told a whole lot about Joseph in the Gospels. At first this might cause us to wonder off into theological day dreams, or ask mysterious questions we’ll never get answers to, or write amusing stories for Advent celebrations. But as it turns out, this is as it should be.

For one thing, and let’s be honest here, the father isn’t the first person visitors come to see when a new baby is born. People are concerned about how the mother is doing, and rightly so. But most of all, the child is the center of attention. It’s no different for Joseph and Mary. The Gospel writers focus on neither of them very long and when they do it’s always in relation to Jesus. For the joy of the Christmas story is found in another Son of David, the Son born of the Virgin Mary.

But we do know a few things about Joseph. He was a carpenter as his father was before him; and it’s reasonable to conclude that Jesus learned the art of wood-working as well. He lived in Nazareth of Galilee which means he wasn’t exactly clothed like Solomon and he certainly didn’t live in a palace like his ancestor, King David. His name “Joseph” means “God will add”.  And this brings us to one final point.  For as it turns out, there was a lot God would add to Jesus’ life through Joseph even if he hadn’t given him life.

When he wanted to divorce Mary quietly, he was motivated to do so in order that Mary and Jesus-still-in-the-womb would not die by stoning, which was the legal consequence of adultery when betrothed. When they married early, it was to protect Mary and Jesus’ reputation in their hometown . When they left to go to Bethlehem it was to fulfill his duty as citizen, but also to provide a place for Jesus to be born, thus fulfilling the words of the OT prophets. Joseph’s ancestral name gave Jesus the legal status as an heir of the house of David. And later he even protected Jesus as an infant when they fled to Egypt and came home by another route, thus avoiding Herod’s malice and attempted infanticide. Indeed, Joseph was a true guardian, like his OT namesake.

And while we don’t know a whole lot about Joseph, the important details we do know point us right back to Jesus. For everything Joseph did was for Jesus: the giving of His name. His legal status. Joseph’s guardianship and merciful care. No doubt Joseph waited for many things in his life too. And like all fathers, those long months were some of the most thought-provoking days and weeks, filled with anticipation of Jesus’ advent.

So tonight we take a brief look at a diary of an advent father. An earthly father chosen by His heavenly Father to tend, guard, and raise up the very Son of God in human flesh – and dad’s thought they have it hard now! Talk about pressure.

But first, a disclaimer. Almost all of this is sanctified speculation. Granted, many of the historical details are drawn from reputable historians, including the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. This is purely a literary device. And, Lord willing, this little piece will do the same thing for you that Joseph does for all of us, namely, point you to Jesus during this Advent season.

1.       Nazareth - 6 B.C.: Went to the well today. Water running low. Too much sawdust in the workshop. Met another member of the tribe of Judah there, a young lady, no doubt a distant relative. But there was something about her. What was her name again? Ah, yes, Mary (Miriam in the Greek). Well, Nazareth is a small town. We’re bound to meet again. That reminds me… Jacob met his wife Rachel at a well.

2.      Nazareth - 6 B.C.: Talked to father and mother today. They were happy to talk with Mary’s parents about betrothal and marriage. She’s from a humble yet good family. Though she is poor – but really, who isn’t in Nazareth – we have common ancestry, the family tree goes all the way back to the royal line of David. Father says he’ll talk to her parents tomorrow and discuss the details. Can’t forget to have mother set aside some of the finer wine for the cup we share at the betrothal ceremony. 

3.      Nazareth – 6 B.C.: Can’t write. Dazed. Confused. Furious. What am I going to do now? Must. Chop. Wood.

…Needed that. Cathartic. Calmed down a bit, at least for now. So, Mary’s pregnant. Didn’t see that coming. Obviously the child’s not mine. She said something about an angelic announcement, the Son of the Most High, and the child being born by the Holy Spirit. I don’t know. It all sounds a little too convenient. I just don’t know what to think. I don’t know what to do. I could marry her quickly and hope none of the chirping birds in Nazareth notice – oh, who am I kidding? Can’t hide anything in a small town. There’s always public divorce. But the Torah states that a betrothed woman is to be stoned if found guilty of adultery. I can’t do that. That may be what’s fair under the Law, but that’s not the just or righteous thing to do at least not according to the Psalms: the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. I  guess all that’s left is to set aside the marriage contract quietly. Send Mary off somewhere safe to have the baby. Whatever happens, she can’t get hurt. Must protect mother and the child.

4.      Nazareth – 6 B.C.: Couldn’t sleep last night. I feel like I’m living in a story right out of Genesis. Strange dreams. Angelic appearances. What’s next? A burning bush? Manna from heaven?  Don’t be afraid,” the angel said. “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”  Hmm, Mary was right all along. What a fool I was, a real Balaam’s ass. Divorce? Send her packing? What was I thinking?

I know what people will think; but it wasn’t anything I ate. It was real. What that angel told me last night - confirms everything Mary said. “She will bear a son and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” It all makes sense now. Gotta run. Have to tell Mary. Don’t care what our family says…or the people of Nazareth. Time to move up that wedding.

5.       Nazareth – 5 B.C.: Roman messenger came to town today. Posted an Imperial edict and left rather quickly. Huh, no wonder. Caesar wants a census. A registration of all citizens. I know what that means: more taxes. And more travel. Subjects are ordered to enroll themselves at ancestral home, says the edict. So, it’s off to Bethlehem. Better tell Mary. She’s not going to be happy about a 5-day journey on a donkey.

(Later that evening) Saddlebags are packed. Route mapped out. 80-90 miles by my calculations. Best if we take the southeastern route. Going through Samaria would be quicker…but risky. Father says the Plains of Esdraelon are warmer this time of year. Mary will appreciate that. Then we’ll head south along the Jordan River as far as Jericho and up to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Now to get that stubborn mule ready.

Judean Countryside – 5 B.C.: Last night on the road. Thank the Lord. This ground feels about as good on the back as it does on the feet after 4 days. And that donkey is really getting on my nerves. Tomorrow we’ll reach Bethlehem by nightfall. Hope to find accommodations. Mary is great with child. He’s coming soon. All the signs are here. And just this morning, Mary recited the Scriptures she had heard in Synagogue.

 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.

6.      Bethlehem – 5 B.C.: Made it to Bethlehem. Finally. The inn was full. But thankfully a kind innkeeper pointed us to a grotto out behind the inn. It’s no palace. Rather cave-like. But it’s shelter. And plenty of feed for that donkey – ah, the sounds of silence…

...Wait, what was that noise? That was no donkey…

What a joyous night. Joy beyond all telling! So much to say. So little time. Must write quickly. Visitors coming down the road. Mary gave birth. It’s a boy! She wrapped him in cloths and laid him in the feeding trough. But this is no ordinary Son – that much I know for sure. Too many coincidences. Mary’s account. The Dream. The Angel. The prophets. Could it be that here, in Bethlehem, in the House of Bread – the birthplace of David, the place where Samuel anointed King David – that the Word of the Lord is coming to pass? It all sounds too good to be true…

…Talk about strange visitors. Shepherds. Odd folk, but good and honest. Don’t have their tunics in a bunch like those city folk. They were out tending the sheep for the sacrifices in Jerusalem. And then there was a great commotion. An awful lot of exuberant chatter. More angels – a host of them. They heard singing and praising God. Signs and mangers. Messiah. Savior. Peace on earth and Glory to God. And then they hurried here. Had to tell us all about it. Had to see the Child. They left glorifying and praising God. Mary is holding the child, pondering and treasuring these things in her heart. And I can’t help but feeling a bit like a shepherd now too.

7.      Jerusalem – 5 B.C.: It’s been 8 days since that sublime night.  Went to Jerusalem today. Up to the temple. He was circumcised. The sign of the covenant, the Lord’s promise. Today the Law is fulfilled. And today…he was given the name Jesus, just as the angel had instructed. Jesus, the Lord (Yahweh) saves. Just like Joshua. That’s what the angel said, “Name him Jesus; for he will save his people from their sins.”

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Sermon for The Last Sunday of the Church Year: "Thy Kingdom Come"

+ Last Sunday of the Church Year – November 24th, 2013 +
Redeemer Lutheran, HB
Proper 29, Series C: Malachi 3:13-18; Colossians 1:13-20; Luke 23:27-43
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today feels a bit like church year déjà vu, doesn’t it? We’re celebrating the end of the Church Year and yet the Gospel reading is from Holy Week. We’re anticipating Christ’s second coming and yet we’re hearing about his crucifixion. Isn’t this all a bit backwards?

Actually, this is how you live your lives as Christian pilgrims. We look forward to the future while holding on to the past. We preach Christ Crucified and proclaim His promised return. You can trust his promises about his return because of his saving work in the past. The Lord is faithful. So, think of the Last Sunday of the Church Year as the Church’s Nunc Dimittis. We sing with Simeon and the criminal: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace. Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Or as we pray in the Lord’s prayer: “Thy Kingdom Come.” There it is; in three little words – Jesus’ crucifixion and His return. Good Friday and the Last Day.

Thy Kingdom Come.

Good Friday and Jesus’ second coming have a lot more in common than you think. Good Friday is a snap-shot of the Last Day. After all, Good Friday is the beginning of the end times.

Thy Kingdom Come.

Still, we want to know when. When is Jesus going to come in glory? When will he finally put an end to my sin and suffering? When will he put an end to cancer wards and graveyards? When will he wipe away all tears from our eyes? Thy Kingdom come…what does this mean? The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray that it may come to us also.

So, when is Jesus’ kingdom going to come?

According to Luke’s Gospel it’s already here. Every sign that Jesus gives warning about the End Times happened at his crucifixion: darkness, earthquakes, rumors of war, persecution, suffering, and judgment. Jesus’ crucifixion is the beginning of the end. Even the events of the crucifixion sound like the end of the world:

The women weep and wail for Jesus. But Jesus replies, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” Jesus’ words are a two-fold warning. Warning about the Romans, the temple destruction, and how much worse it will be for women and children. But he’s also warning all of us about the Last Day. “If they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry.” That’s how the end times work. Things go from bad to worse and worse to worst before they get better.

Thy Kingdom Come.

As the kingdom comes on the cross, so does the mockery. The religious types cry out: “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!”  The soldiers also mocked him with their cheep wine and sour sarcasm: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” And then one final insult, an inscription over his head, “This is the King of the Jews.”
Of course none of them believe what they’re saying – that’s the mockery. But here’s the irony. They’re right. Jesus is the Christ, the Chosen One. Jesus is the King…of the Jews and the Gentiles, you and me. King Jesus, enthroned on the cross. Robed in our sin. Crowned with our suffering. Reigning over death while dying.

Thy Kingdom Come.

For even here on the cross, especially here on the cross, Jesus is King of kings, Lord of lords. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, Son of God, Savior of the nations… This is the King in His kingdom as it appears in this world. On our hearts imprint this image: Jesus crucified for me, for you.

There’s comfort for us in Jesus being mocked. The Church is mocked. You’ll be mocked for believing Christian doctrine too: That the Bible is God’s Word; that it’s historically reliable; that God gives life includes unborn children. God’s gift of sexuality, marriage, and family just to name a few in the headlines these days. Why? The world mocks the Gospel. The world hates free grace, unconditional pardon of sin, and forgiven sinners. “You’re letting guilty people off the hook” they say. And they’re right. That’s the Gospel: Outrageous forgiveness for undeserving sinners. So don’t be surprised when you are mocked for believing and proclaiming this Gospel too. For the disciple is not greater than his master. So when the world hates you know that it hated Jesus first. But fear not, Christ has overcome the world too.

Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Thy Kingdom Come.

Jesus’ cross is also a picture of judgment day. For in Jesus, the world is already judged. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17) Jesus is all of humanity in one Man, the second Adam. His death is humanity’s death; His death is the death of the world. His death is the world’s Last Day in type. The innocent for the guilty. That’s the pattern Jesus lays down for us when he lays down his own life.

That other criminal got it. “…we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” He confesses Christ. Jesus is innocent. More than that; he is sinless. And yet for our sakes God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us. On the cross Jesus is the criminal, the blasphemer, the rebel, the murderer, the adulterer, the thief, the liar, the gossiper, the coveter. On the cross Jesus became your sin.

The judgment you had coming on the Last Day, Jesus takes for you. He takes your record of sins and drenches it in his blood, rips up your laundry list of sin and throws it into the grave. In the salvation of this criminal next to Jesus we see our own. We - the guilty ones – are pardoned. And Christ suffers innocent for us. We – sinners all – are declared righteous. And Jesus is declared cursed on the tree.

“This man has done nothing wrong,” and yet this Man dies as one who has done everything wrong, forsaken by God, condemned, persecuted, mocked, ridiculed, damned. He gets what we deserve so that, in the end, we get what He deserves. It is finished.

Thy Kingdom Come.

We need to hear those words over and over again. For everything in this life cries out, “No it isn’t. Just look around you. It’s a mess. Life is one bitter tragedy after the next.” Against all that the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh hurl at us Jesus’ words stand true: “It is finished.”

In Christ’s judgment on the cross we see a marvelous picture of Christ’s return. You hear the final verdict of the Last Day ahead of time: Come you who are blessed by my father…inherit the kingdom prepare for you before the foundations of the world. Jesus’ kingdom comes among us without our prayer, or our efforts. It comes by promise: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Jesus’ words are pure gift. Words that are as true today as the day Jesus spoke them. “You will be with me in Paradise.” “When?” “Today.” “How? I don’t see it. This looks like Paradise lost.” “Don’t fear. Today you’ll be with me in paradise.”

Jesus’ two most important words in that sentence are: “With me.” Paradise is wherever Jesus is. Jesus brings you Paradise in the waters of Holy Baptism. Jesus brings you paradise in the absolution. Jesus brings paradise to earth at the holy altar.

It’s the same as praying, “Thy Kingdom Come.” And how does Jesus’ kingdom come? “God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.”

Wherever you have Jesus, there’s His kingdom. Jesus’ kingdom comes in water and Word. Jesus’ kingdom comes in the forgiveness of sins. Jesus’ kingdom comes in bread and wine to feed and forgive you.

That’s how we live in these latter days. The same way that second thief on the cross lived and died confessing: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”  This is how faith prays. He asks for nothing but to be remembered by Jesus. He doesn’t ask to be saved from the cross, to be spared his suffering, to be granted a last minute pardon, as the other one did. When death is unavoidable, faith embraces death and prays, “Jesus, remember me.” So it is for us. Jesus, remember us in our grief and sorrow. Remember us in the hour of temptation. Remember us in illness and in death. Stay with us, Lord, for it is evening, and the day is almost over.

And Jesus is with you. That’s why he didn’t leave the cross. He stayed there for you. Pierced for you. Bled for you. Breathed his last for you. Died for you. Buried for you. Rose for you. And he will come again for you.

Thy Kingdom Come!

He has…and He will…and He does. The One who comes on the Last Day to judge is the same One who was judged for you on the cross. The One who comes on the Last Day is the One who comes to you today with the gifts of His sacrifice. Today we pray the prayer of faith: “Jesus, remember me.” Knowing that Jesus’ response is always the same: “Amen, I say to you, today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

Thy Kingdom Come. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Other Jack

A tale of two Jacks. One man's initials led his close friends to call him Jack. The other man decided from an early age that he would be known as Jack, and so his close friends called him thus. One man was statesman. The other was a student and a scholar. No matter how different their lives may have been, and no matter how different their legacies are viewed, one thing is true: both men died on November 22, 1963. Of course, what grabbed the headlines and media attention that fateful day was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Meanwhile across the pond, the other Jack died as well. But C.S. Lewis's death was largely overshadowed by the grave news from Dallas.

As I scrolled through the various news feeds on social media at lunch today, I was pleased to see that there was an equal, if not greater amount of posts concerning the other Jack. Today Lewis was honored with a place in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. The memorial, which was unveiled today, includes one of my favorite Lewis quotes. And Lewis's recognition as an author, thinker, and scholar now rests among the cloud of literary witnesses along with Shakespeare, Chaucer, and many others. There's a bit of irony here, which, perhaps Lewis would find humorous. He began his academic career with ambitions of being a poet but soon found his skill and wit useful and publishable elsewhere. And yet now he is memorialized among many of the great poets of the ages.

Much more still could be said about the legacy of Lewis, which, from my perspective, is greater and far more extensive. There is no doubt that President Kennedy did many great things and his legacy deserves an important place in the annals of history. However, the genius of Lewis's work and legacy was, and continues to be, found in his proclamation and defense of Christ. This is of paramount importance. I would rather be a Narnian any day than sit at the round table of Camelot. As it turns out, Lewis's mythical world is full of the richness of reality while Kennedy's Camelot is the true fantasy. There is a world (even worlds) of difference between the two. I would rather be a door keeper at Aslan's wardrobe than dine at the tables of a state dinner.

Perhaps, to paraphrase a letter of Lewis's friend J.R.R. Tolkien, it is better to let the man's writing speak for itself rather than listen to all the commentary (although there is a good deal of noteworthy substance out there today on that front - and thank God for it!). I look forward to the day when the leaves no longer fall from trees and the dead poets' society will carry on with a resounding Alleluia before the Lamb's throne.

Tolkien's words, I think, capture my thoughts about Lewis's death far better than I could eulogize. Here are a couple selections from his letters on the death of his good friend.

(To his daughter Priscilla on November 26, 1963)

Thank you so much for your letter...So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man my age - like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this one feels like an axe-blow near the roots.

(To his son Michael in November 1963)

We were separated first by the sudden apparition of Charles Williams, and then by his marriage. Of which he never even told me: I learned of it long after the event. But we owed each a great debt to the other, and that tie with the deep affection that it begot, remains. He was a great man of whom the cold-blooded official obituaries only scraped the surface, in places with injustice.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. p. 341.

Monday, November 4, 2013

All Saints' Day Sermon: "The Grateful Dead"

+ Festival of All Saints’ - November 3, 2013 +
Redeemer Lutheran, HB
Revelation 7:12-19; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

“The Grateful Dead”

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

“Blessed.” That’s the word of the day. Nine times Jesus uses this word, “blessed” in the beatitudes.
And St. John’s Revelation adds a 10th.  And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Rev 14:13)

Blessed. A fitting word of the day for this All Saints’ Day, a day when we remember the martyrs of the faith together with our own blessed dead who have gone through the great tribulation of this life and death and have joined ranks of that great multitude no one can number from every nation, tribe, people, and language.

But what does that word “blessed” even mean? It’s not Jesus’ version of Hakuna Matata. And it’s not like our definition of happiness: a word that’s so fleeting and shallow, like that 90’s Furby fad, here today, in the dumpster tomorrow. 

No. when Jesus speaks the word “blessed,” he has better things in mind for you. Makarios is the Greek word for “Blessed”. And every time Matthew uses that word it deals with salvation – present and eternal. So, blessed is saved. Blessed is receiving all that Jesus has to give you. His obedience. His death. His resurrection. His life. His gifts. Blessed.

Jesus opened his mouth and spoke words of blessing. We call them the beatitudes. But hey’re not virtues or moral demands. And they’re not the 9 spiritual rules to make you a better saint. Grammatically speaking the beatitudes are descriptive. Jesus is telling you who you really are in him. Blessed – now and forever.
And what is truly shocking is who Jesus says are the blessed ones. 

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Yea, you heard that right. It’s not the spiritual heroes or the super Christians that are saved, blessed. It’s the spiritually poor. Those who make no claim upon God’s blessings by merit. Those who have nothing to offer God and know it; those who are completely dependent upon him for every blessing of body and soul.
Sound familiar? It should. Jesus is describing you and me and all believers.  Before the Lord we’re beggars. Spiritually bankrupt. Destitute. Dead in trespasses and sin. Our hands and hearts and works are filthy with sin.

But don’t you see…that’s the point. That’s why Jesus says you are blessed. For you are utterly, completely, entirely dependent upon him, his mercy and grace, his blood shed on the cross, his resurrection for you. Christ gives into empty hands. Jesus came not for the righteous but for the sinners, for the spiritually poor, for you. 

This first beatitude from Jesus’ mouth is pure promise and grace. The reign of heaven belongs to the losers, the sinners, the spiritually poor, to you. 

Jesus gives everything to us who have nothing. Jesus gives us what we don’t deserve – the kingdom of heaven - by taking on to himself what he didn’t deserve – our sin and death. Like the paralytic man, we’re lowered into the healing waters of Baptism. And like Lazarus, Jesus speaks a word: “Arise.” He raises you from the dead. Get up and walk. Go your way, your sins are forgiven. Jesus speaks the fullness of His life into your emptiness and poverty. That is what it means to be blessed by Jesus.

Poor, mourning, meek and lowly, hungry, thirsty, merciful, pure hearted, peacemaking, persecuted. Hardly sounds like the world’s definition of blessed, does it? The world takes one look at Jesus’ words and laughs. “That’s all you’ve got? ! You’ve gotta be kidding me. Where’s the Bentley, the beach house, the 100 foot yacht, the party life, the glamour, the celebrity? Now there’s a blessed life.”

But God’s ways of blessing are upside down, inside out, opposite, hidden. God blesses us in Christ Crucified.

So, get this first beatitude right and the other eight make sense. In fact, get this one right and you’ll get the whole Sermon on the Mount, and all of Matthew’s Gospel right. 

And if we get His beatitudes right we’ll also understand and celebrate All Saints’ Day rightly.
For the name “saint” is a lot like Christ’s promise of “blessed” – it’s received, not achieved. Blessed are those who are given to. 

Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.

Why are the dead blessed? What makes them so special? Well, nothing in and of themselves. Death is anything but blessed. Remember it was our prideful, cursing, false-worshiping, dishonoring, murdering, lying, lusting, stealing, greedy, gossiping, coveting sin that brought death in the first place. The wages of sin is death.
But Jesus has done something truly astounding with Death. Jesus died the death we deserved in order to give us life and blessing we didn’t deserve. Christ’s death conquers death. Christ’s death was death’s undoing. Like Aslan dying for Edmund on the Stone Table and rising again – in Christ, death works backwards; it’s unraveled. Like a fish swallowing a baited hook, Death swallowed up Jesus on the cross, but Jesus swallowed up Death in victory. Like the great fish that swallowed up Jonah and held him for three days, the Death could not hold Jesus but had to spit Him out alive. 

The dead are blessed because Jesus took our greatest enemy, the thing we fear the most, and turned it into a blessing. Christ leads the charge through death into life for his saints, for you. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.

Apart from Christ we are spiritually poor and empty. In Christ we are blessed and full of his life and salvation. Blessed in life. Blessed in death. So, the faithful departed are blessed because they have nothing to give; and everything to receive from God. 

The grateful dead in Christ. Every Church is a mega church! An innumerable host from every tribe, language, people, and nation standing before the throne clothed in white by the blood of the Lamb, palm branches waving in hand, crying out, “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb who sits on the throne.”

Still, on a day like All Saints’ Day, we find ourselves asking the same question John did: who are these clothed in white robes, and from where have they come? You know the names of some of them – they are your aunts and uncles, your sons and daughters, your grandmas, grandpas, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, best friends; some of them you know by name: Bob Foutz, Pauline Kalthoff, Marion Byers, Eleanor Meurer, Bob Yohr, Art Silcox, Ruth Hoff, Ida Perea, Beverly Krueger, Robert Sepke…but there are many more you don’t know by name, at least not yet – these are the faithful departed. And though you may only know a few, Christ knows each one of them by name, just as he knows each one of you by name and has inscribed your names with blood in his book of life. 

Where are the saints on All Saints’ Day? 

Hidden from our eyes, but not gone forever – hidden and asleep in Christ. And together we wait the resurrection of the dead. 

The saints are hidden in that little word, “blessed.” And so are you. One faith. One Lord. One Baptism. One Church in heaven and on earth. All of us blessed in Christ. Remember that when we sing the liturgy, we sing with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. Remember that when you come to the Lord’s Supper today. The whole church – in heaven and on earth – is gathered together today around the Lamb and the marriage supper of his body and blood. So, whenever the Lord's Supper is celebrated, it's All Saints' Day.

Listen to how the angel answers ours and John’s question: 

These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
“Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

That’s what All Saints’ Day is about. Remembering Christ’s work on behalf of his saints, his holy ones in heaven and on earth.

And so there may be a tinge of sadness in your remembering, especially if the ones you remember have died recently. And even if it has been a long time, you never really “get over” grief. (And don’t let anyone tell you that you do.) You get on, you get by, you adapt to the loss of their presence. But you never quite get over their death, nor should you. They are precious to you; and they are precious to the Lord. You can only do as He does: Embrace them in their death knowing they are safe in His hands.

But let not your hearts be troubled. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. In your mourning, Jesus blesses you, comforts you. Those who mourn join those who are poor in spirit, the meek, the spiritually hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the pure hearted, the peacemakers, the persecuted. They are blessed because they have nothing to give; and everything to receive from God.

That’s the way it is for you and all saints in Christ. Your holiness, your life, your death, and your resurrection are in Jesus. 

For today and all days you are blessed in Jesus. And that makes you a saint too.
A blessed All Saints’ Day to you…

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.