Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Where You Finish

 Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 28, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. John Lutheran Church, Laurel, Montana
Where You Finish – Matthew 21:23-32, Philippians 2:4-11

   It’s not where you begin that matters, but where you finish.  The sinners and prostitutes obviously started badly, but hearing the message of John the Baptist, they repent of their sinfulness and trust in the coming promise of God that John announced.  The chief priests and elders of the

people, on the other hand, seem to have made a good beginning.  After all, religion was the center of their lives.  They even serve as authorities, publicly demonstrating their Godliness.  But, they reject the repentance, and the promise, that John the Baptist preached.  They refuse to believe his message, even though an examination of the Scriptures would teach them John’s message was true.  They reject John and his message, and so were, according to Jesus, setting themselves outside God’s favor.  The chief priests and the elders are the second son, who said he would go and work in his father’s vineyard, but in the end refused, finishing badly, outside the favor of the father.     
    Where you finish is an appropriate question as I come to you today speaking of our Lutheran mission in Spain, a country with a long Christian history, a land with many visible signs of the Church, but a place where the true center of Christian life, repentance for sin and faith in the promise of Jesus Christ, is rare.  The same problem plagued the Church in Luther’s day.  Indeed in every day and age our natural human tendency is to make Christianity about human authority, or outward appearance, or popular approval.  We want to make Christianity about anything, anything but repentance for sin and faith in Christ.  We resist simply receiving the true faith from God’s Word, as God presents it, because God’s truth makes the sinner in each of us very uncomfortable. 

     Martin Luther was God’s unlikely instrument to bring repentance and faith back to the center in 16th century Europe, and the world.  But sadly, the power of the Roman Church, and especially of the Spanish Inquisition, meant that the Good News rediscovered by Luther did not receive much of a hearing in Spain.  The Reformation had a tiny beginning in Spain, but was crushed and driven out by the Grand Inquisitor.  Many evangelical reform minded Christians were burned at the stake in Spain during the 1500s. 
     But the story in Spain is not finished.  That is to say, God is not finished with Spain.  Today we, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Lutheran Church of Argentina, are working together to try again, returning to Spain with the message of repentance for sin, and faith in Christ alone, who is our righteousness before God the Father.  I have accepted a call to join this work, to be a Church Planter in Seville, Spain. 

     Of course, going to Spain as Christian missionaries is a bit tricky, because most people would say that Spain has historically been a “Christian” nation.  Spaniards might well take offense at Lutherans suggesting there is something deficient in their faith, much like the Chief Priests and Elders took offense at Jesus.  The setting of our Gospel this morning is Holy Week, the days between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and His arrest and crucifixion on Good Friday.  The day before our reading for this morning, Jesus had ridden the donkey into Jerusalem to cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David.”  Then He drove out the money changers from the Temple, and proceeded to heal the lame and the blind. 

     Feeling threatened by Jesus, the priests and elders, the religious authorities, confront Jesus, demanding to know by what authority He acted.  As a condition of revealing His own authority, Jesus very cagily asks them to say what they think of John the Baptist’s authority, where did it come from?  Jesus’ condition shuts down their questioning.  On the one hand the chief priests and elders do not want to acknowledge that John the Baptist had any real authority from God.  But on the other they are afraid to disparage John before the crowds, who loved John the Baptist and held that he was a prophet sent by God. 

     Upon their refusal to answer, Jesus presses the point, telling the story of the two sons, in order to point out the sinful hypocrisy of the chief priests and elders.  The first son is initially rebellious, but later turns to the way of the father.  The second son is outwardly compliant, but in the end refuses the father’s will.  Jesus then praises the repentance and faith of prostitutes and other obvious sinners, who like the first son, started badly, but finished believing in John the Baptist’s message.  Then Jesus rejects the pride and self-righteousness of the religious elite, who pretended to care about God’s Word, but finished by rejecting His messenger.  It’s not where you begin that matters, but where you finish.  

     Jesus’ verbal assault enrages the priests and elders.  If you read on in Matthew 21, you will discover Jesus continues piling on, very pointedly revealing their sins, and promising that God would reject the scribes and priests and elders, because of their refusal to believe in Him.  They don’t like this very much.  Indeed, it drives them to seek Jesus’ death. 

     Do you ever find yourself behaving like the chief priests and elders?  Are you attracted by feel good preachers who never really point out your sins, but instead spend all their time encouraging you to believe in yourself?  Do you get tired of having your sins pointed out?  Of confessing “I, a poor miserable sinner?”  I know I get tired of being reminded that I am holding out on God, again, guilty of being selfish and unloving to my family, again, caught up in the idols of money and ease and self-satisfaction, again.  It is a painful thing, to face this most difficult truth.   

     But, when I’m forced by God, working through His Word and His preachers, forced to confess my sins and my sinfulness, it is a good thing.  Because it’s true.  True for me, and true for you.  It’s true, and necessary.  Knowing and confessing my sinful inability to meet God’s standard is not yet salvation, but it is a necessary precursor, an irreplaceable preparation.  The sinners and prostitutes confessed and repented of their sins, for the joy of the promise.  But the pride of the priests and elders caused them to reject John and his message.  Humility is right and necessary for us sinners.     

      Christians do well then to proclaim the truth of human sinfulness with great personal humility.  After all, Jesus does it with great humility.  Now, you could argue He is kind of hard on the priests and elders, but consider for a minute who He is.  Jesus is Almighty God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things.  Every breath his enemies ever took was a gift from Jesus, and yet they attack and despise Him.  Jesus could have rightly responded to the priests and elders by utterly destroying them.  But He doesn’t.  Instead, Jesus loves the Chief Priests and Elders, just like He loves the tax collectors and prostitutes.  Jesus loves them all, even though they are all sinners.  Yes, loving them means He must speak some painful truths to them.  But He speaks this on His way to the Cross, where He will make their pain His own, where He will love them, and the whole world, unto death. 

     Indeed, Jesus speaks in this way to the Chief Priests and elders in order to bring on His Cross.  And there, on a pile of stones called Golgotha, bleeding on a Roman Cross, Jesus finished His work by profoundly humbling Himself.  More than He did when He became a human being, even more than He did when He lived a simple life of poverty, Jesus humbled Himself, by dying for sinners, for prostitutes, for chief priests and elders, and for you and me.   

     Humility is key to Jesus’ great work of salvation, and so it is also key for us, who trust in His salvation.  Whether one is serving as a missionary in Spain, or seeking to witness to your neighbors in Laurel, humility is indispensable.  Humility is important on a human level, to prevent people from thinking you are self-righteous, “Holier than Thou.”   Even more, humility is important because humility is so central to the story of Christ. 

     The mission of God requires humility in God’s people, and, it also, requires knowing how to finish.  We should be humble, but we need also to finish well, to be bold to speak the truth at the right time, to dare even to speak of the Cross.  Because there, on the Cross, we discover the finish.  The sin of both sons is damnable, the first son who refused and the second son who lied, promising but then refusing.  The sin of both is damnable, because sin is rebellion against God.  The sin of both sons is damnable.  But the sin of both sons is covered, washed away, atoned for, by Jesus, on His Cross.  There on the Cross, you have already finished well, for there, Jesus declared, “It is finished,” for you.   

     My wife Shelee and I are here today to tell you about God’s exciting work in Spain, to encourage you with this Good News.  And we are also here to ask you to do more in your Father’s vineyard, specifically to consider partnering with the people of Spain by financially supporting us.  But before you decide, before you even consider partnering with the Lutherans in Spain, we need to be clear.  Working in the vineyard is important, each of us playing our part in God’s mission is vital.  God desires and commands it of His sons and daughters.  But your place in the family vineyard does not depend on your work in the family vineyard.  Rather, your ability to work depends on you first being brought into the family.  And this work is the Work that Jesus has finished, for you.  In Christ, the Father favors you, forever and ever.  This Gospel, this good news, that “it is finished,” is what the Mission of God is all about proclaiming.  And so first and foremost, hear God’s Good News for you.  The “it” of your salvation is finished. 

     This “It is finished” Good News is what pastors and congregations together tend in the vineyard of God.  The stewardship that God has given to His Church is not about money.   Let me repeat, stewardship is not about money;  rather stewardship is about the Gospel.  Our treasure to invest in the world is not gold or silver, but rather the precious blood of Jesus which covers all sin, your sin, my sin, the sin of prostitutes, chief priests, and elders.  So, to be a good steward, first, be filled with the Gospel, as you are doing today.  Hear, say, sing, pray and eat the Good News that Christ has finished the work of salvation for you.  This is how God prepares you to be useful in His Mission, by filling you up with His Gospel. 

     Then, as you are filled to overflowing with the joy of God’s love, remember that this congregation is your first mission concern.  As you rejoice in your salvation and all the blessings God has showered on you, support the work of St. John.  Then, go beyond, remembering that God’s Church is universal.  As God gives you ability, support His mission with your prayers and talents and gifts for work beyond St. John.    Like the work in Spain.  Or Papua New Guinea.  Or Sri Lanka.  As you are connected and support the Mission of God with your prayers and your money, you will receive joy, the joy of knowing and participating in God’s ongoing work around the world.   

     As we are gathered together today to receive God’s Gospel gifts and also consider the work that grows and continues around the world, I can think of no better way to ‘finish’ than to hear again from St. Paul:  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, and did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, nevertheless made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on 
earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ 
is Lord, to the glory of God the Father, Amen.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, September 21st, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. Peter and St. Paul Lutheran Churches, Belfield and Beach, Montana
Mercy, Not Sacrifice, Matthew 9:9-13

     Jesus said, "But go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,' for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners."   Jesus confronts the self-righteous prejudice of the Pharisees, who are offended when our Lord eats with tax collectors and other sinners.  In this confrontation, our Lord  quotes from the Prophet Hosea, where the Lord teaches that He desires mercy, not sacrifice, from His people.  Given that the sacrificial worship life of Israel, the Temple and all the appointed animal and grain sacrifices, were instituted by God, this passage from Hosea has always confused.  God orders us to make sacrifices, and yet says He doesn’t want our sacrifices?  God commands sacrifice, but He really just wants us to be merciful?  Well, which is it?  Is the life of the child of God to be filled with making sacrifices to please God, or not?  If we just need to be merciful people, why did the Lord appoint so many sacrifices, of bulls and goats and lambs and birds and grain?  They are a lot of work. 

     It might not even dawn on us that while simply being merciful sounds easier than making sacrifices, the reality is we don’t do mercy very well, either.  Regardless, through the ages, people have wondered about sacrifices, wondering what role exactly they play in God’s plan. 

     This question persists still today.  It is an honor and a pleasure to serve you this morning with God’s Word, and tell you a little about God’s reign in Spain, about my call to be a missionary to Spain, to go and join the work already started there, the work of telling the people of Spain about God’s mercy in Christ Jesus.  My prayer is that you will be moved by God to partner with the work in Spain, to be connected, to pray for the Lutheran mission in Spain, and to support it financially.  But first, we have this text, which we will do well to understand rightly, lest all our efforts, here or across the sea, be in vain. 

     Understanding this text rightly is very important in Spain, where Christ is named, but the Good News of His gift of free salvation is understood and trusted by few.  It is important in Spain, and in North Dakota too, since every one of us is driven by our own sinful nature to think that we can, and must earn God’s favor. 

     Happily for me in my efforts to find partners for my missionary call to Spain, there is a great movie that shows very well the dominant understanding of Christianity in Spain, and why the Lutheran mission there is so needed.  The movie is from 2010, and it is called “The Way.”  The setting is northern Spain, and it focuses on four travelers, who join the thousands each year who walk from the border with France, 500 miles across Spain, to Santiago de Compostela, following the ancient pilgrimage route that  has been walked by millions of Christians over the centuries, El Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James.  This is a sacrificial journey to the church in Compostela, where it is claimed, the bones of St. James the Apostle are kept.  How the bones supposedly got there is a whopper of a story, too long to go into here.  But the central point is that people have been told over the centuries, by the Church, that if they make the arduous pilgrimage to Compostela and then worship before the supposed bones of St. James, they will receive mercy from God.  It is as if a translator got today’s text totally wrong, totally backwards.  Jesus said: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.  But it’s like someone instead taught God’s people that Jesus said, I desire sacrifice, and if you make enough sacrifices, I will have mercy and compassion on you. 

     The main character in the movie is an American named Tom, a lapsed Roman Catholic, who is walking the Camino carrying the ashes of his son.  Tom’s son had come to Spain to walk the Camino, but had died in an accident in the mountains his first day out.  Angry with God, and feeling guilty because of his bad relationship with his only son, Tom embarks on the journey, torn spiritually and emotionally, seeking escape on the Camino.  At the climactic moment, Tom approaches a cross that stands next to the Camino, near to the end of the pilgrimage.  This particular Cross, La Cruz de Ferro, is surrounded by a mountain of stones, placed there by travelers who have carried them from France.  Tom too, has a stone, given to him at the start of his journey, for what reason he didn’t really know.  Now, at La Cruz de Ferro, Tom suddenly desires to practice his religion again.  So, standing at the foot of the Cross, Tom tosses his stone on the pile, and recites the following prayer:  “Dear Lord, may this stone, a symbol of my efforts on the pilgrimage, that I lay at the feet of the Cross of the Savior, weigh the balance in favor of my good deeds that day, when the deeds of all my life are judged.  Let it be so, Amen.” 

     Could the irony be any thicker?  It would be laughable, if it weren’t so eternally tragic.  The Cross of Jesus is right there.  Tom even refers to our Lord as the Savior.  But in Tom’s mind Jesus is not a Savior who really saves, apparently.  Standing at the foot of this Cross, a symbol remembering the Roman Cross where the once for all sacrifice was made, Tom reveals His understanding of Christianity.  Christianity for Tom, and for many people in Spain, and all around the world, is all about doing what it takes to make amends with God for our sins.  The whole journey has been, Tom hopes, a sacrifice to atone for his sins, in order that at Judgment Day, the Lord might have compassion, mercy, on him.    

     But Jesus said, "go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,' for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners."  Tom, like the Pharisees before him, hopes to make himself righteous by doing sacrificial acts.  But Jesus calls Matthew the tax collector, a Jew who worked for the hated Romans, a traitor despised by all.  Jesus calls unrighteous Matthew not merely to be a follower, but to be one of the Twelve, one of the Apostles upon whom Jesus would build His Church.  All of this is part of Christ’s effort to help people understand that God does not desire our sacrifices, but rather the Lord delights in mercy, in compassion.  And, (spoiler alert), God does both, sacrifice and mercy, on His Cross, for us.   

     Now, I need to be clear.  God does not desire our sacrifices, but He did demand them.  The command to make sacrifices for sin in the Temple was not a cruel joke, not a mistake by God, who changes His mind in the New Testament.  The Temple sacrifices are very much part of God’s plan of salvation.  But the sacrifices God commanded His people to make, indeed, the sacrifices God continues to demand His people make, are not the main thing.   Our sacrifices have never saved anyone.  Rather, our sacrifices, from those of the Temple in Jerusalem three thousand years ago, to our sacrifices of praise today, are all intended to point us and others to the Main Thing, which is the once for all Sacrifice that Jesus made, of Himself, on His Cross, in order to have mercy on sinners. 

     The Old Testament sacrifices were commanded by God, as the heart of the worship life of His people Israel, to teach them that blood must be shed to atone for sin, because the wages of sin is death.  But these commands to sacrifice sheep and oxen and goats were given to a people God had already made His own.  First God made promises, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Moses and all the children of Israel.  Only after He had rescued them out of slavery in Egypt, only after they were His people, only then the Lord gave them the sacrificial system, to point them to the coming Sacrifice of Jesus.  The Old Testament sacrifices were only good and right when they were made by people who believed God’s promises, people who trusted not in themselves and their works and sacrifices, but rather who trusted in the mercy of God.  The imperfect sacrifices of the Israelites served true faith, by pointing to the coming perfect sacrifice. 

     All of the Temple sacrifices God once commanded were fulfilled, swallowed up, superseded, and set aside forever, in the once for all sacrifice of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.  The Cross ended the Temple sacrifices, and also fully revealed their purpose.  For the blood of bulls and goats could never atone for the sins of the world, but the blood of God’s Son could, and has.  The promise that the Lord would save us Himself served to cover the sins of the people of Israel, until that perfect day when Jesus washed them away, forever, with His blood.    

     Always remember, the name ‘Jesus’ means ‘the Lord saves.’  The Lord promised to save, and in the Cross of Jesus, the Lord has saved.  This is the proper meaning of the Cross, the meaning that Tom the pilgrim on the Way to Santiago completely missed.  This true meaning of the Cross, that there Jesus has saved us sinners, completely, this the message that the people of Spain so badly need to hear, the message that every sinner needs to hear. 

     But what about life now?  Do believers in Christ make sacrifices?  Absolutely, but never for sin, for faith knows that all our sins are taken away, by Jesus.  The  sacrifices Christians have to make are never for sin, but rather are sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, and also sacrifices of love. Christians are called to give of themselves, to sacrifice time and effort and resources in service to the neighbor, and especially to give time and talent and treasure to support the proclamation of the Gospel.  But all of these sacrifices are pleasing to God only when they flow from, and are founded in, the mercy of God for sinners.  We can only make worthy sacrifices when we are trusting in the mercy poured out in the once for all sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, mercy poured out for you, and me, and for the people of Spain, mercy for all people, all sinners, everywhere.  Mission starts, and lives from, the Cross of Jesus. 

    It is hard for us to keep this straight.  It’s easy to pick on Roman Catholics and their error in teaching that Christians must make ongoing sacrifices for sin.  This is especially easy in Spain, where a purely works righteous understanding of Christianity is very prevalent.  It’s easy to pick on Roman Catholics, but we must watch ourselves, lest when we think we stand, we fall.  Because we all do it.  We all think that when we sin, we better fix it, or God’s going to get us.  Sadly, it is part of our sinful nature to believe we must, and we can, do what it takes to atone for our sins.  But we can’t.  Our sinfulness trips us up before we even begin.  Our daily imperfections mean our sacrifices are not perfect, and so are not an acceptable atonement for sin.  We can’t make an acceptable sacrifice for sin.  So God in Christ has done it all, for us, so that we can be His own. 

     We struggle to keep this teaching straight, and God knew this would be a problem for us.  So He has never left us.  Where two or three gather in Jesus’ Name, wherever the teaching of the Apostles is proclaimed, there is Jesus Christ Himself, giving His Spirit, and delivering us to His Father.  And along with the Apostles, the Lord has given His Church gifts, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints, for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.  By His Preached Word, and in Holy Baptism, and in the Supper, Jesus comes seeking not the righteous, but sinners, like you and me.  Jesus comes correcting our Pharisee ideas, reminding us that only one Sacrifice is good enough.  Jesus comes forgiving our sins, even again today, here, forgiving, and restoring, freely.  Because the Sacrifice that was needed because of our sin is complete, finished.  Jesus by His death and resurrection has made peace between God and sinners, and so God comes  to us in mercy, compassion, and love, again and again. 

     This is the Good News that I was called to preach in Sidney and Fairview for 10 years, the Good News that Pastor Hojnacki is called to preach to you here.  Now I have been called to preach in Spain, to preach to a people who have for centuries heard that Christianity is all about you making yourself righteous, a people who most definitely need to hear the clear, pure, life-giving Gospel. 

     Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.  Now I ask you, “Will you partner with the Lutherans in Spain?  Will you serve your neighbors in Spain, Lutheran Spaniards who have taken a great leap to leave Roman Catholicism, and the other Spaniards God has in mind for this mission?  The Good News of forgiveness in Christ has brought you here today.  Will you partner in the work of getting the Good News to Spain, by financially supporting me, so that I can go and preach Good News to them?  Will you partner in prayer?  Will you partner in telling others about God’s new work in Spain?  Maybe you know someone with a connection or interest in Spain.  Can you tell two others about the work in Spain?  By praying, telling, and through financial support, you will be supporting the work already begun in Spain by our Argentine partners.  Most of all, you will be supporting the Spanish people.   

     I pray that you will be moved to partner with the Spanish people.  And I know that God will raise up the partners He has in mind.  For ultimately it is always God who raises the support needed for the spread of His Gospel.  It is in His hands.  Good thing, too.  All things are in His hands, and so, rest in God’s peace, the peace of knowing that the sacrifice for your sin is complete, the righteousness of Christ covers you, and Jesus rejoices to dine with you, today through Word and Sacrament, and one day face to face, with the Father and Holy Spirit, at the very throne of God in heaven, forever and ever, Amen. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Jesus Does It All

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity, September 7th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
Grace and Holy Trinity Lutheran Churches, Three Forks and Belgrade, Montana
Jesus Does It All  – Mark 7:31 – 37

     When the Lord called this sinner to be a pastor, He knew what He was dealing with.  So God didn’t stretch me too far, because He knew I couldn’t handle very much.  He didn’t send me to some strange place, like Maryland, or Texas.  He more or less sent me home.  I was born in Roundup, and grew up in Forsyth.  So when I served my vicarage in Billings, at Mt Olive, and then was called and ordained in Sidney, it was almost like serving in my home town, without all the difficulties of actually serving in my home town.  I didn’t have a bunch of members who remembered my childhood.  But, as we drove around Sidney and Fairview upon our arrival, I was amazed to see many houses that were identical to houses in Forsyth, even down to the same paint scheme.  Apparently, back in the day, builders must have moved up and down the Yellowstone River, building the same houses over and over again.  Even more, Sidney, Fairview and Forsyth share much the same economy, culture, and way of speaking.  Ranchers, beet farmers, railroaders, oil workers instead of coal miners, but still, very much the same.  The quirks and values and ways of life in Sidney and Fairview were all recognizable.  Beginning my ministry in Richland County was an easy fit, meaning there were less challenges for our Lord to have to overcome as He sought to serve His people there. 

     When the Lord issued His second call to this sinner, this time to be an overseas missionary, once again, He didn’t stretch me too far.  A bit farther, perhaps, but not too far.  Some of my fellow missionaries in the orientation at St Louis are going to strange and difficult places, like Indonesia, and Hong Kong, Kenya, and Papua New Guinea.  Not me.  When the Lord decided He wanted to use me in overseas missions, He chose Spain.  Where Shelee and I have lived before.  In fact Sevilla, the city where we are to locate, is only about 80 miles from the town we lived in the 1990s.  On top of that, Sevilla is a beautiful city, a place we know and love.  Do I have to learn a new language?  Well, no, I just have to get better at a language I have spoken off and on for 30 years.  Not a huge stretch, which is good, because I need all the help I can get. 

     Kind of like the deaf and mute man that Jesus healed in our Gospel today.  Jesus had to do everything, even to the point of getting involved in ways you might find, well, gross.  I always hated it when my mother would spit on a tissue and spin around in the station wagon to clean my face right before we arrived to visit someone in their home.  But Jesus has no qualms about putting His fingers in this deaf man’s ears, spitting and touching His mute tongue.  The text doesn’t exactly say, but it sounds like Jesus spit on His fingers, then touched the man’s tongue.  Ephphatha, be opened, Jesus sighs, calling to heaven.  The Word and the actions together make the miracle.  Our Lord does it all, whatever it takes, to unstop this man’s ears and give him a tongue capable of speaking properly.  Which is the point.  You and I can do nothing on our own.  We are weak.  Our ears are stopped up with the lies of the satan and the world, as well as with the self-aggrandizing thoughts we love to proclaim about ourselves.  Self-esteem is the byword of pop psychology, but wholly unfitting to followers of Jesus who know that no one is good, but God alone. 

     We are not good; we do not do things well.  Now, we may be good earthly neighbors, and we may even be able to do a few things of earthly value, like cooking a meal or doing a job or changing a tire.  But we cannot do anything of heavenly value, not by our own powers.  We couldn’t save ourselves if all it took was one pure thought, for we are sinners, through and through. 

     That’s why the crowds were so amazed at the Ephphatha miracle, of the opened ears and the loosed tongue.  Jesus did something uniquely good.  In fact, as bad as the English would be, I would prefer if we translated the crowds exclamation this way:  He has done all things good.  The Greek word for “well” is kalon, the adverbial form of the adjective kalos, which means good.  “Well” is the proper English translation, but I prefer good, because it reminds me of what Jesus, along with His Father and the Spirit, saw in the first light, and in the first separated land and seas, and in the plants and the birds and sea creatures and the animals.  God created these things, and saw that they were good.  Tov in the Hebrew.  Kalos in Greek.  God did good, and then smiled to see His good creation, very good, even, when the man and the woman were added. 

     Jesus, in restoring the broken bit of creation in this man’s ears and tongue, also did good.  Something new was breaking into this fallen world, so the crowds were amazed, because they knew no mere man could do all things well.   

     But Jesus could.  Jesus can.  Jesus has and He still does.  Jesus does it all.  This is the importance of the Incarnation, of the Son of God becoming a human being, becoming the one good man, come to live the full life of good deeds that God demands.  That work is, in Jesus, done.  Finished.  Good.  Jesus is the one sinless man come to make payment for sin, come to face the full wrath of God against all human sin, dying the eternal death we deserve, all packed into a few horrific hours on a Cross.  That work is done.  Finished.  Good. 

     And Jesus didn’t stop working at the Resurrection, nor even after His Ascension, when He sat down at God’s right hand.  Jesus is still doing it all, through the power of His Word. 

     The intimacy, the uncomfortable earthiness of this miracle is no doubt part of why the Church has always associated it with Baptism, where Christ joined you to His Cross, His death, and His New Resurrected Life.  Drowning is even more uncomfortable to consider than having somebody touch your tongue, but that is exactly what God has done to you in the waters of Holy Baptism, drowning your sinful nature, your Old Adam, in order that a New Man, a new creature, a redeemed child of God, might rise to live in righteousness before God, forever.  Baptism, like this deaf-mute’s healing, is a personal, uncomfortable miracle. 

     Of course, another connection between Baptism and the Ephphatha miracle is the unplugging of ears and the loosing of tongues.  God does this work in Baptism as well, by using His Word of Promise to create faith, faith which makes alive because it trusts and receives the Living One, Jesus Christ, faith which naturally speaks the praises of our Savior. 

     Usually people don’t stand around astonished at a Baptism, but we should.  I argue that the miracles of Jesus today are even more awesome than those of Biblical times.  Today, in His Church, Jesus rolls a mystery and an awesome privilege all into one.  Because, although our Lord doesn’t appear visibly at Baptisms anymore, nor at Lord’s Suppers, He is truly present.  And mystery of mysteries, He chooses to work His good through the words and actions of sinners.  Like me.  Like Pastor Lehmann.  And, as God moves you to speak His Name and do His Mercy in your daily life, Jesus also speaks and does good through you.  Today, even though on our own, we are incapable of doing any truly good thing, God chooses to work His greatest good, re-creating the fallen world, through our words.  Well, actually through His words, which He puts in our mouths.  Jesus does it all.    

     And so I stand before you today to speak to you about supporting me as I go off to Spain.  Our Lutheran Mission in Spain needs more preachers.  I have been called to go and preach there, and I am very eager to go.  To make that possible, God is sending me around to find the partners who will support this work, partners who will love the Lutherans in Spain, and all the people in Spain who so desperately need to hear the pure Lutheran Gospel.  So, for Spain, you could say this sermon is kind of important. 

     And so, since this is kind of important, I could get all bound up, and nervous, because I need to do it right.  I could stand here and think about how I need to be persuasive and winsome and convince you that this cause is worth supporting, with your prayers, and with your dollars.  I could get all bound up… except that it isn’t true.  If the work that needs to be done is truly good and important, I don’t need to do it.  Jesus will do what needs to be done. 

     It’s kind of like our singing in Church.  We try to sing well.  Because of the who and what we are singing about, because of the words we are given to sing, because of the message, we try to sing well.  Because the people of God are gathered here in His Name, that means Jesus is here too.  For this reason also, we try to sing well.  It’s important.  To fail to try to sing well would be wrong.  We truly want to sing well.  But the value of our singing to teach and uplift and console does not depend on our musical quality, but rather on the Spirit of Christ, who works through the words we sing, whether we sound like a meadowlark, or more like an old crow. 

     In a similar way, I, like every pastor, have a call to preach well, truly, faithfully, in a way you can hear.  And I want to do this.  But the creating of cheerful hearts is up to God.  That you should desire to not only support the ministry of Holy Trinity/Grace and Pastor Lehman, and the mercy work needed here, and also to cheerfully become a part of the effort to send me to Spain, that’s only gonna happen if Jesus does it.  I pray that it does.  I would be honored to go to Spain as your missionary.  But I know that Jesus will do the good thing that needs to be done.  He is the one that overcomes the frailties and weaknesses of every man called to preach.  He is the Preacher we hear, the Preacher faith hears, the Preacher who will deliver His gifts to His people, whatever it takes, just like He did in the Ephphatha Miracle.  Of this, you can be certain. 

     God will do all things well, in regards to my new call in Spain, as well as in regards to the ministry of your congregation here in Belgrade/Three Forks.  Maybe you can only pray, or give just a little.  Or maybe you can contribute a significant amount of time and labor, and a larger amount of money.  Maybe you can support your church every week, and my work in Spain every month.  Whatever God enables you to do, a little or a lot, when you focus on Christ and what He has done for you, when you are filled with His gift of forgiveness and new life, then whatever you do will be perfect, for Jesus will be working through you. 

     Your works will not yet be perfect in the sense that you won’t sin.  Jesus will have to come to us again, and again, to unstop our ears and open up our hearts with His Word of Law and Gospel.  That happy state of affairs when we won’t need to be corrected by the Law, the Day when we will need no more forgiveness, that Day will not come until the New Creation.  We will need to daily confess our sins and hear the word of forgiveness, until we die, or until we see Jesus riding the clouds, flanked by the heavenly host, ushering in the New Heavens and the New Earth. 

     Nevertheless, right now, today, by faith in Jesus, your works are perfect, because you are caught up in Jesus’ Mission, and He does all things well.  He has, is and will do everything well, everything needed, to deliver you into His Good Kingdom, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

To See Clearly

To See Clearly
     I found a single track mountain bike trail along the Yellowstone River Rimrocks, not far from our apartment in Billings, MT, so I snuck away this afternoon for a ride.  Great fun, pretty easy, all good, until the mist started.  As I headed back under the rims, the wind and rain in my face picked up.  By the time I reached the streets, my sunglasses were more like windshields, but which lacked wipers.  I could see, sort of.  It occurred to me that I should really get that accident insurance form into Susan Collins at the Office of International Mission.  A few seconds later, I was almost proved right, as the nicely sloped ADA compliant corner curbs along the bike path abruptly ended in a good old fashioned right angle curb that I just barely saw in time.  My swerve into the road went unpunished, and I made it back home in one piece.  Being able to see clearly is kind of important. 

     As Shelee and I continue preparing and support raising in order to head to Spain, where I have accepted a call to serve as a Church Planter in Sevilla, the ability to see clearly is central.  It is central for us to see clearly the tasks before us, and to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of Faith.  If we lose sight of Him, we will soon be overwhelmed by the task.  And that task, ultimately, will be very much trying to help people to see Jesus clearly.  Going to a land first evangelized in the first century will, I think, very much be about helping people to see clearly, whether avowed atheists who have rejected Christianity, or church members whose faith is clouded with the errors of the centuries.  In every place, but especially in Spain, the goal of Mission is for people to have their eyes opened to the Truth of our sin and God’s grace, by way of putting the pure Gospel in their ears.  For it is the Word of Forgiveness given in Christ that allows us to see the Cross as the greatest act of love, and to see the present and the future to be full of peace and joy.  God grant us all to see Him clearly. 

     If you’d like to learn more about the Lutheran Mission in Spain, you can go to www.lcms.org/warner, www.godsreigninspain.org, or, (and there is an English section) www.luteranos.net.  Thank you for your prayers, and for those able, for your financial support.  If you have a question, shoot me a message at pastorwarner@outlook.com.  Hasta Luego, pw

Monday, September 8, 2014

Sermon for the Installation of Reverend Jason Toombs at First Lutheran, Helena, MT

Installation of Jason Toombs as Associate Pastor of First Lutheran Church, Helena, Montana
12th Sunday after Trinity, September 7th, Year of Our + Lord 2014

Hear the Word of the Lord to His Pastors, and to His Church, from Matthew, the 28th chapter.    
     But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  And when they saw him they worshiped him, but they also doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me.  Therefore, as you proceed, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

     Jesus, the great I AM come into human flesh, is speaking to you, Reverend Toombs.  As you proceed, Jason, as you serve in the office of the Holy Ministry, you are to teach my people to observe all that I have commanded you. 

     What Jesus did on that mountain in Galilee 2000 years ago, He does again today; He puts a man into an office, His office, the Apostolic office, the office of pastor, through which Jesus will build His Church.  There are distinctions to be made of course, important ones, between the Apostles and the pastors of today, including that the Apostles are the eyewitnesses upon whom the Church is built, while pastors of today are here to repeat their teaching, not come up with new teachings.  And yet the Apostles, and pastors of every time and place, are called to deliver the same gift, the gift of Christ for you, the gift of forgiveness, won by Jesus, delivered to the blessed who, even though they never have seen the Savior, still believe, still have eternal life, through the Word.  

     It is an exceptionally great honor and pleasure for me to say a few words at the installation of the Reverend Jason Toombs as the Associate Pastor of First Lutheran Church of Helena, Montana.  The few words I will focus on for pastor and people this evening are  “Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  For Pastor Toombs, along with Pastor Miller, are called to be making disciples of Jesus, baptizing and teaching them to observe all that Jesus has commanded. 

     I don’t know anything in particular about being an associate pastor.  Having spent a year working with Rev. Toombs during his vicarage, I know a bit about him, and I have some appreciation for team ministry.  It was, by and large great fun.  At least for me.   I’ll let your new pastor tell you if it was fun for him.  But being a vicarage supervisor is not like being a senior pastor, even less like being an associate pastor.  I don’t really know any more about being an associate pastor than I do about being a missionary to Spain.  But that doesn’t matter.  God works through His Church to call men to serve where He sees fit, regardless of whether they think they are prepared, or well-suited.  The office of the public ministry has many shapes and locations, many rooms with different views and different wallpaper.  But at the core, the office of the Holy Ministry doesn’t change, because Christ doesn’t change. 

     The first thing I’d like to point out about the office is its Law character.  Jesus gives a command to the Eleven, and by extension to all men in the pastoral office:  Make disciples.  Baptize.  Teach.  Jesus at the end of Matthew puts a burden on the Eleven, and on all the men who follow them into this office.  It’s a burden for the benefit of Gods’ people.  It is beautiful, and joyful, but certainly not an easy thing. 

     We live in a world where the value of Baptism is doubted by many, including many of the baptized.  “How can water do such great things?”  We live in a world where the phenomenal blessing of the real presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins, is denied, or downplayed, by most.  “Surely Jesus didn’t really mean what He said?”  We live in a world where the very existence of truth is under attack, and so the truth of the pastor’s word of absolution is highly suspect.  In the Gospel reading we heard Jesus tell the Eleven, whoever’s sins you forgive, they are forgiven.  And yet people still protest, “Who is that guy to stand up there and forgive me?” 

     So much doubt and denial, and yet these are precisely the tools Christ has given His pastors for delivering His salvation to His people.  You do these things, says Jesus, you depend on my Word alone, and I will build my Church through those Words, even through your inelegant speaking of the good confession.  I will build my Church with my Word, says Jesus, the Church against which the gates of Hades will not stand. 

     So rejoice Reverend Toombs.  Rejoice when the world reviles and scorns you, even when they persecute you, rejoice, if that persecution is for Jesus’ sake, and for the sake of the Gospel.  For so also they treated the prophets who came before you.  Rejoice to suffer for the Word, for in that Word is your reward, and your reward, (which you totally don’t deserve), is very great. 

     Jesus’ call of a man into His office is a burden.  But even more, it is a joy.  Because Baptism is for you.  Baptism is for “all y’all,” as I’ve heard they say in Texas, for pastor and people together.  Jesus calls a man from among the Baptized to be set aside to serve the congregation in His stead, one of the Baptized serving all the Baptized, in the Name of the One into whom we have been Baptized.  The burden of Jesus’ commission pales in comparison to the blessing, and the privilege, of being caught up in His work of building and sustaining His Church.  And what is true of Baptism is also true of all the tasks of the pastoral office, that list of “all things” that Jesus commanded the Eleven to teach the disciples to observe. 

     But tell me Jason, what are the “all things” that Jesus has commanded you to teach the people of First Lutheran to observe?   Well? ...

     A couple of weeks into his vicarage, I made Rev. Toombs stand up and preach before a bunch of great preachers, very experienced and well educated Lutheran pastors, at a little event we call the Lutheran Preaching Practicum.  For some reason, this made him just a slight bit nervous.  He survived.  Did fine, actually.  Which he’ll do again now, as I put him on the spot, and ask him, what are the “all things” that Jesus has commanded His ministers to teach His people?  Jason will survive, because I’m not really going to ask him to answer. 

     Still, it might be good to know that list of things Jesus wants His pastors to teach His people, good for pastors to know, and good for congregations to know, so that you don’t ask your pastors to do a bunch of things that aren’t part of their core responsibilities, and so you can help them by holding them accountable to spend their time with the things Jesus has commanded.  So, let’s consider what things are on that list.  Baptism and teaching are obvious.  They’re right there, in the text.  So, pastors are to baptize, and to teach.  Check.  What else? 

     Well, just sticking to Matthew’s Gospel, we can definitely say that Jesus has sent His pastors to preach.  I won’t get into whether teaching and preaching are essentially different.  They are different words, in English and in Greek, and Jesus uses both, telling His apostles to teach and preach.  Indeed, Jesus suggests they should preach more openly and freely than He Himself did, as in chapter 10, when Jesus says, “What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops.  Now, in case you didn’t know, to teach and preach requires studying God’s Word.  Matthew’s Gospel is full of Jesus explaining the Scriptures to the disciples and to the Pharisees and the crowds.  Pastors are to study God’s Word, so that they have something useful to say to God’s people.  And Lutheran pastors have these great resources, tested resources which are great because they are drawn from and are faithful to Holy Scripture.  I’m speaking of the Catechisms, and the whole Book of Concord, the Lutheran Confessions.  Dare to be Lutheran and use these books.  Study them and teach them, and God’s Word will be opened to you, and to your people.    

     Jesus commands His ministers to seek the lost, to reach out to the multitudes who are like sheep without a shepherd, (pastor means shepherd).  When needed, Jesus says you are to drop everything and go after the one lost sheep, even though that lost sheep’s predicament is probably self-chosen and self-inflicted.  Pastors, shepherds of God’s people, seek the lost.  They also teach the people to be involved in this same work.  After this evening, First Lutheran in Helena has two pastors.  God be praised.  This blessing does not change the fact that you, the members of First in Helena, have far more interactions and opportunities to reach out to the lost than your pastors do.  Though you cannot preach like Paul, or Pastor Miller or Pastor Toombs, you can speak.  You can give the reason for the hope that you have, you can invite.  You can suggest your neighbor bring their hard questions to your pastor.  And you can care for them and pray for them.  Outreach, seeking the lost, is an activity of pastors and people together, each doing their part, according to their various vocations in life, each supporting the other as we live in God’s Mission.    

     Care for the hurting, even for the hurting who hate you.  What good is it if you love and serve only your friends?  Even the Gentiles, even the pagans, do that.  But love those who hate you, serve those who persecute you.  In these days of NDOs and hate speech laws, pastors will have more and more opportunities to love the enemies that persecute the Church.  Now that is tricky, for pastors must at the same time defend the truth and their people, while still loving the enemies who attack. 

     Oh, and while you’re at it, correct false doctrine, or as Jesus puts it, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.  That is, the devil and our own sinful nature are always looking to introduce some form of works righteousness into the Church, to lessen the severity of God’s Law, and replace it with a man-made law we think we can keep.  Pastors are always to be listening for false teaching, and must also teach their people to beware of false teaching.  Among the many reasons that faithful Lutheran pastors and congregations do the unpleasant and difficult work of properly administering the Lord’s Supper is for the sake of preserving the true teaching of Jesus.  Pastors especially are charged to do this, for the sake of their people, and for the sake of the world.  For no one is saved by a watered down Law and Gospel. 

     Peter tried to water down God’s Word, daring to even rebuke his Master and deny that Jesus would ever go to the Cross.  Peter cried out, very piously: “No, never, not you Lord, you will never be crucified.”  Jesus’ reply to Peter?  “Get behind me satan.”  Denying the Cross is satan’s aim in every attempt to pervert doctrine.  In the end, every attempt to water down God’s Word is a satanic attempt to empty the Gospel of saving power by removing the Cross from the center of all we do. 

     The list is getting kind of long.  And I haven’t even gotten to one of the most obvious:  Keep the Law, for not one jot or tittle of the Law will pass away until all is fulfilled.  Thankfully, Jesus has fulfilled the Law for us, but He has not discarded it.  The Old Testament ceremonial law no longer applies to the New Testament Church.  But the Ten Commandments do.   Pastors are to keep, and teach their people to keep, the Ten Commandments.  In regard to the commandments, we properly live uncomfortably, on a knife’s edge, on the one hand taking them absolutely seriously, for they are God’s Word to us, but on the other, never thinking we are saving ourselves by keeping them.  Because we do not keep them.  But teaching the Ten Commandments, teaching and actually trying to love God first and our neighbors as ourselves, is central to being a Christian pastor and to being a Christian.  We are to never stop trying.  For the Law of God is good and right.  And it drives us to our Savior. 

     And that is Jesus’ plan in all of this, to drive you to Him.  Repentance is high on the list of things that Jesus commands.  Because, Rev. Toombs, as much as you are expected and will promise and will try to do all these things, you will fail.  You haven’t been observing all these things so far.  Neither have I.  Neither has your new congregation, or Pastor Miller.  We should.  We have a calling to get up each morning and seek to live as God commands.  But we haven’t, and we don’t. 

     All of us in this room are failures in regard to God’s Law, deserving of His rejection.  But do not despair.  Do not despair, but repent.  Confess your sins, and look up.  For Jesus isn’t done speaking to you yet.  For behold, He says, I am with you always, even to the end of  the age.  The One who wears the scars of His suffering as trophies of mercy in His glorified body, that One, is with you, forever. 

     Wherever the Apostolic office is filled, there is Jesus.  That is, wherever God has gathered a congregation of sinners who believe in Jesus, and moved them to call one or more men to serve in His office of pastor, to speak the Word to God’s people, there in the midst of pastor and people is Jesus.  Always.  And where Jesus is, there is also forgiveness, mercy, grace, peace, and joy, for you, and for all who trust not in themselves and their efforts, but rather who trust in the One who fulfilled all things, in heaven and on earth, by dying on a Roman Cross.  Indeed, Pastor Toombs, as you pursue the “all things” Jesus commands, and as you teach the people of First to observe all things, this is your strength and hope, the promise that the Resurrected Christ is and will always be with you, in your very midst, forgiving your sins, overcoming your weaknesses, welcoming you into His Kingdom.  This is His promise, to pastors and people together, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.  

Friday, September 5, 2014

Heart Language, and Heart Re-Creating Language

     I saw Antonio sitting in the back pew, as I made my way back from putting my sermon in the pulpit at Trinity, Sidney, my second to last Sunday there.  I stopped to welcome him as a visitor to our congregation, and realized that English was not his favorite language.  I switched to Spanish, which is still a dangerous thing for me to do.  You see, if my first sentence is too smooth, then it may seem I’m more fluent than I am right now, especially in my hearing.  Antonio brightened considerably, and assumed I was completely fluent.  Off to the races in his first language, the language of his heart, me barely keeping up, trying to make mental notes, as Antonio had prayer concerns that had led him to our church that day.  Then, somewhere I missed a turn, and suddenly we were talking about la Copa Mundial, the World Cup tournament that had just recently ended.  Service time was creeping up, and I couldn’t seem to break away.  Politely ending a conversation is hard in a second language! 

     After service, we talked for another 15 minutes, about his prayer concerns, and again about fútbol, (soccer). My prayer was and is that Antonio still benefited from the English language proclamation he heard that Sunday.  It was great fun meeting him, and a reminder that I have plenty of work to do on my Spanish, before I can be an effective Missionary Church Planter in Spain.    

    I was also reminded how important for each one of us it is to hear God’s Law and Gospel in a language we understand well.  We all prefer our first language, our heart language, but whether in our first, second or third language, there is something more important than perfectly understanding the human language, and that is hearing the language of Law and Gospel.  At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit overcame language barriers miraculously.  Today He usually does it through normal means, the means of people, especially missionaries, learning in the old fashioned way whatever new language is needed for them to speak Law and Gospel.  Then the missionary, at home or abroad, can clearly present the truth of our sinfulness, which would condemn us all except for the extraordinary good news of God’s self-sacrificing love, poured out in Christ to take away the sins of the whole world.  Law and Gospel is the language that re-creates the hearts of sinners, the language that takes away sin and guilt, and delivers righteousness and peace and joy, by the power of Christ’s forgiving love. 

     For Antonio in NE Montana, and for the people of Spain, and for all people everywhere, our prayer is that someone speak God’s Word to them in a language they understand well, so that the Holy Spirit can use that Word to give eternal salvation through the gift of faith in Jesus. 

     Follow my wife Shelee and me on our adventure to be missionaries to Sevilla, Spain, by going to www.godsreigninspain.org, or to www.lcms.org/warner.  Paz en Cristo a todos.