17 December 2011

You never know what you'll find...

...when you look through computer files. In a search for something else, I came across a letter I penned to the Lutheran Witness in 2001, after an article there claimed that the harrowing of hell was a "false doctrine."

Here's the letter:

Thank you for the recent article and Bible study on Christ’s descent into hell. It’s a topic full of comfort and worth considering. In two places, however, the doctrine that Christ’s descent into hell was also for the purpose of freeing Old Testament believers was labeled as a “false teaching.” We wish to dispute that claim.
First, neither Scripture nor our Confessions nor Dr. Luther explicitly or implictly reject this historic Christian teaching. The passages cited in the Bible study do not show its falsity either. Acts 2:21 says that those who call on the Lord’s name will be saved; no one is disputing that fact. Hebrews 11:13-16 speaks of the Old Testament saints having died in faith—without receiving the promises! Indeed, Hebrews 11:39-40 says that they, “having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Furthermore, in his Two Natures in Christ, the great Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz refers twice to this teaching without condemning it.
Second, there are several passages of Scripture which suggest that such a freeing was a part of Jesus’ descent into hell. For example, Matthew mentions that at Jesus’ death, many bodies of the saints were raised, and that after His resurrection they entered the holy city. And what of Paul’s saying that in Jesus’ ascension, “he led captive a host of captives”—in the same context that he speaks of Jesus’ having “descended into the lower parts of the earth”? Christ’s descent into hell is reason for all believers to rejoice. The strong man has been bound, his power broken, and his possessions plundered.
As heirs of those who took pains to say that “among us nothing in doctrine or ceremonies has been accepted that would contradict either Holy Scripture or the universal Christian church” (Augsburg Confession, conclusion), we must reject any attempt to label this historic Christian doctrine as “false teaching.”

What's interesting about the letter is something I won't post--the names of the other ten LC-MS clergy at the time who co-signed it with me. The then-editor of the Witness, David Mahsman, took the unusual step of having a letter to the editor sent to doctrinal review. The letter failed. Naturally.

I'm posting it now because it marks a stage in my journey to the Church.

29 November 2011

The problem...

...with Protestantism is not so much in the predicates--its words or works--as it is in the subject doing the predicates. To use an analogy: speaking the words or doing the works of a husband does not make one a husband. One must be husband first, truly to say husbandly words or do husbandly things.

If a Protestant were able to offer quotations from hundreds of their writers on every conceivable topic, and if (impossible as it is) all of them were found to be completely Orthodox...if Protestants were able even to demonstrate Orthodox worship (whether of the Western or Eastern rite, it matters not)...none of those things would fix the root problem.

What's lacking is ecclesiality.

Whatever it is--a school of thought, a religious assembly of like-minded people--it isn't Church.

That is the tragedy of Protestantism.

20 November 2011

Homily on the Entrance of the Theotokos

Today we mark the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, to the Holy of Holies. There are some who would say that the Scriptures are silent about this Feast; but that is because they read the Scriptures in the way of the Sadducees, who read the book of Exodus again and again and never saw, in the story of the burning bush, a proof of the resurrection.
The Theotokos is the ark of God, foreshadowed by the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant. Just as the Ark contained the tables of the Law of God, so she held within her womb the God who gave the Law. Just as the Ark was most holy, so also she is most holy.
In last evening’s Vespers service we heard three Old Testament readings. The first marked the setting up of the tabernacle, the tent of meeting. When Moses put the ark of the covenant into the tabernacle, the Lord’s glory filled the place and Moses himself could not enter. The second reading marked the completion of Solomon’s temple. We read, “And the priests brought in the ark of the covenant of the Lord unto his place…and when the priests had come out of the holy place, the cloud filled the house, and the priests were not able to minister.” The final reading is Ezekiel’s prophecy of the Theotokos as the new and final Temple. But in Ezekiel, no ark is mentioned! Why? Because in the New Covenant, the Theotokos is both the Temple and the ark of God. She contains God within her womb.
What more natural place for the Ark of the New Covenant, then, but the Holy of Holies of the Old Covenant’s Temple? There, we are taught, the Mother of Light was led by the lights of the temple virgins up the steps of the Temple. She entered the Most Holy Place, as was fitting; and there she lived until the time she was given to Joseph.
And so in this feast, we mark the beginning of the end of the Old Covenant, and the beginning of the beginning of the New Covenant. The Old Testament types find their fulfillment in her: The Tabernacle of the Word enters the tabernacle; the Ark of the Word enters the most holy place. The Book of Life, who would receive the imprint of the living Word, comes to the place where the tables of the Law had been kept. And so we sing:
Today the Virgin is the foreshadowing of the pleasure of God,
and the beginning of the preaching of the salvation of mankind.
Thou hast appeared in the Temple of God openly and hast gone before,
preaching Christ to all.
Let us shout with one thrilling voice, saying:
Rejoice, O thou who art the fulfillment of the Creator’s dispensation.
What does this mean for us, then, beloved? For you young people, who ask yourselves, “Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life?”—follow the Theotokos and learn to seek your fulfillment, not in the distractions and deceitfulness of the world, but in the holy place of God. You will not find God’s will for you in amusement and distraction, but by sitting quietly in his holy place. “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it,” just as did Mary.
And for us who are older, let us beware of wandering too far from the Temple. Let us occupy our minds and hearts with the Word of God and with prayer. Let us prepare a place within ourselves, that He whose first coming we remember in this season may find a fitting home when he returns in the glory of his Father with all the holy angels. Amen.

14 November 2011

Sermon on the Good Samaritan 2011

“Desiring to justify himself, the lawyer asked, ‘But who is my neighbor’?” We can understand that question. It’s one we ask each and every day. If that person is my neighbor, I have a responsibility for him. God tells me to love him as I love myself…and that means to care for him in practical ways, to remain open to him, to forgive him.
But if I can truly say he’s not my neighbor, then I’m off the hook. When God asked Cain, “Where is your brother?” and Cain answered, “Am I my brother’s keeper?,” Cain was really saying, “He’s not my neighbor.” Cain was trying to justify himself.
The problem the lawyer in today’s text had, was that he thought of the word “neighbor” as a noun. A neighbor is someone I have. When the priest and then the Levite pass by the half-dead man on the road, it’s because they had learned not to see him as neighbor. It’s a survival strategy. When I see someone as neighbor, I see his plight as mine. I enter his experience. I run the risk of harming myself to help him. “How can I stop to help that guy?” the priest and Levite must have thought. “For all I know, the robbers are waiting for me.”
Who is my neighbor? Is it the man on the road? Is it the revolutionaries in Libya? Is it Quadaffi? Is it the Occupy Wall Street protesters? The Tea Party? The victims of child abuse? The abuser? The ones who covered it up? The Israelies, or the Iranians? Who’s wrong, and who’s right? Who is my neighbor? I suppose if you were to sum up the whole course of human history, from Cain and Abel to this morning’s headlines, it’s nothing but a constant posing and answering of that question. How’s that workin’ for us?

There is another way…a way Christ gives us in our Gospel. That’s to see the word “neighbor” not as a noun, but as a verb. Neighbor isn’t something I have; neighbor is something I do. See how Christ concludes our text: “Which of these showed himself to be neighbor?” When the lawyer answered, “The one who showed mercy,” Christ responded, “Go and do the same.”
This view, that neighbor is a verb, is stressed in The Brothers Karamazov. Listen to just one excerpt:
Do not say, "Sin is mighty, wickedness is mighty, evil environment is mighty, and we are lonely and helpless, and evil environment is wearing us away and hindering our good work from being done." Fly from that dejection, children! There is only one means of salvation, then take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men's sins, that is the truth, you know, friends, for as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that it is really so, and that you are to blame for everyone and for all things. But throwing your own indolence and impotence on others you will end by sharing the pride of Satan and murmuring against God.
Everyone we see, everyone we hear, everyone we hear about—each of them is my neighbor. Love makes no distinction of persons. And I am responsible for them, to do whatever I can to serve—not their passions, but them.
Only when I see my responsibility, can I learn my inability, my unworthiness. I can see myself as broken and battered, lying by the side of the road, wounded not so much by others as by my own self-centeredness.

But then it is that I see the Samaritan who came for me…who entered my reality and life and joined it with his own. Only then can I see how great a gift he gives me in this inn, this church, this hospital for sinners. He is my neighbor, who showed himself my neighbor by bearing all my sin and by dying my death. He is my neighbor, who washed me clean in Baptism, anointed me with his Holy Spirit, feeds me with his life-giving body and blood.

I am responsible for all; I am guilty before all of you; and therefore I am justified—not by anything I have done, but by him who justifies the ungodly and shows mercy to sinners.

19 September 2011

A poem from Alexei Khomiakov

A mes enfants

Souvent, à l'heure de la profonde nuit,
Chers petits, j'allais vous contempler avec amour;
Souvent, j'aimais vous marquer du Signe de la Croix,
Prier pour que sur vous demeurât la Grâce
Et l'amour du Dieu tout-puissant.

Veiller avec attendrissement sur votre repos enfantin,
penser combien vos âmes étaient pures,
Espérer de longs et heureux jours,
Pour vous, charmants enfants sans souci,
Quelle douceur et quelle joie c'était!

Quand j'entre maintenant, partout l'obscurité :
Plus de vie dans la chambre : le petit lit est vide;
Dans la lampe, devant l'Icône, la lumière est éteinte :
Je suis triste : mes enfants ne sont plus,
Et le coeur se serre si douloureusement!

Enfants, à l'heure de la profonde nuit,
Priez pour celui qui priait pour vous,
Pour celui qui aimait vous marquer du Signe de la Croix;
Priez pour qu'avec lui demeure aussi la Grâce
Et l'amour du Dieu tout-puissant.

24 August 2011

Aksana Belle Sterk

I am now the grandfather of three wonderful kids. Our daughter Marina gave birth to her firstborn, Aksana Belle Sterk, yesterday morning at 10:12 am. Proud father is her husband Nathan. Aksana was 7 lb 8 oz and 21" long.

In other news, our other two grandkids are coming for a brief visit starting tomorrow. Hooray!

Each time...

...I come to campus for the first time in the Fall, I find a new lilt in my step and a song in my heart. To work at what one loves is one of the chiefest delights given us while we are able to see the sun.

07 August 2011

Sermon on the feeding of the 5,000

Put yourself in the disciples’ place. They had followed the Lord to a desert place for renewal. But then the crowds came, and Christ in his compassion healed them. Now it was getting late.
The disciples took note of the time, and place. They saw the peoples’ need, and were concerned. “We need to let them go,” they thought. “They’ll need time to find food.” So they came to Christ, and asked him to release the crowd.
Now come those shocking words. The Lord responded, “They don’t have to go away. You give them something to eat.” Catch the weight of those words. “YOU give them something to eat!” Here they were, twelve men more or less—poor men, with little or nothing to their name. There was the crowd, thousands and thousands of them. And now, their Lord says to them, in essence, “Feeding that crowd is your responsibility.”
I wonder, sometimes, if we ever see the needs around us as our responsibility. Most of us have learned the survival skill of looking the other way, of not paying attention to the needs around us. The homeless guy at the entrance ramp, the lonely people in the nursing home, the single mother who’s trying to figure out how to feed her kids: there’s just so much need that if we thought about it, we’d be overwhelmed. And so we ask ourselves, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and move on, never thinking that it was Cain, the first murderer, who first posed that question.
Politically, both the left and the right have ways of avoiding these needs. The man on the right, the conservative, may say “Those folks have needs because of bad choices they made. Let them figure it out for themselves.” The people in our text, for example, should have thought about how they’d provide for themselves in a desert area.
And those on the left, the liberals, likewise avoid the needs. “We should tax the wealthy, so that society can take care of these needs.” In other words, there is a problem. But it’s not my problem. It’s the other guy’s problem.
But Christ calls us to see the problems around us, as our problem. Maybe some folks made bad decisions to get them where they are. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore them. And if we wait for the government to fix the problem, we’ll be waiting a long time. The needs around us are here and now, and they’re our responsibility.
Only when we see the greatness of our responsibility, will we learn the greatness of our Lord. The disciples answer Christ, “We have only five loaves and two small fish.” That was barely a snack for a couple of people, let alone thousands. But Christ says, “Bring them to me.”
“Bring them to me.” Here’s stewardship in a nutshell: that we take whatever little we have, and bring it to Christ. You know, for every age there’s always an excuse for not giving. The young person says, “I don’t make enough, and I have lots to buy.” Then when college is done, it’s “I have to pay off my loans.” Then comes a family—“I have to buy a house…I have to take care of my kids.” And then comes retirement—“But I don’t have enough saved, and what will come of me?”
Bring your resources to Christ. When we give that tithe, that 10% of our income, it represents giving all that we have. Indeed, the most important thing we give is our very bodies. St. Paul says, “I beseech you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies as living sacrifices, wholly acceptable to God.”
The needs before our parish are daunting indeed. We have been given this little building, on this little piece of land. We’d like to do so much more: to build a permanent temple, with a cemetery, a school or old folks’ home. We’d like to help our neighbors in practical, useful ways. How can we do it? Well, we can’t, in our own strength.
We must learn, rather, to bring what we have, to Christ. Let it be our business to be faithful in giving, faithful in serving our neighbors. And let it be his business to give us what we need to serve those in need: whether it be a permanent temple and a school to teach his word, or food pantry to feed the hungry—or whatever else he has in mind.
You know the rest of the story—how that the disciples brought their food to Christ, and he blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to them to give to the crowd…how everyone ate his fill and still there were twelve baskets left behind.
Still today the Lord multiplies the loaves. We offer him bread and wine, his gifts mingled with our labor. And he gives it back to us as his own life-giving body and precious blood. He feeds our bodies, he forgives our sins, he fills us with his own indestructible life. Give as much as we can, we can never outgive our merciful and man-befriending God.
So let us rise from this place, filled with his gifts, ready to embrace the needs we see around us—to make them our responsibility. Let us bring to him the little we have, with grateful hearts, and learn in our own lives how good the Lord is. Let us be faithful with the things of this passing life, so that we may receive a rich reward in his kingdom, which has no end. Amen.

06 August 2011

Sermon on the dumb demoniac, the crowd and the Pharisees

Hall-of-famer Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” That saying makes us smile because, while it seems to make sense, it really doesn’t. A fork in the road is an either/or, not a both/and. You go one way, or the other. You can’t go both ways.
Today’s gospel shows us that the same is true in our encounter with Christ. The Lord heals a dumb man, casting out a demon. The crowd responds with praise, saying “This has never been done in Israel.” And that was true! Every kind of miracle the Lord did in his earthly ministry had been done already in the Old Testament: lepers cleansed, sick people healed, dead people raised—even feeding many with a little food. Only one kind of miracle was new. And that was the casting out of demons.
Why does the Lord repeat the same kind of miracles that happen in the Old Testament? It was to show that he was the fulfillment of the Old Testament, the one who, in himself, brought together all those things that had been done piecemeal before him. But why, then, does he cast out demons? In this way he shows his greatness, and the purpose of his coming. As St. John writes, “The Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil.”
The crowd praises Christ. But the Pharisees harden their hearts and say, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.” They could not deny what he had done, and so they serve as unwilling witnesses of Christ’s power. Admitting the work, they still reject Christ—in the only way left to them. They attribute his power itself to the devil. But that’s irrational…it’s madness. Why would Satan fight against himself? They showed that same irrationality later, when the Lord rose from the dead and they told the guards to say that while the guards slept, the disciples stole the body. But such is the fate of all those who reject the love of God in Christ. Such “wisdom” becomes folly.
The crowd praises Christ; the Pharisees reject him. But nobody stays the way they were before. That’s because every time we encounter Christ, it is a fork in the road, a moment of crisis, a time of decision.
Where do we encounter him? We encounter him here in this time, when his word is proclaimed, his promise given, his body and blood offered to the faithful. Our hearts are changed, for good or for ill: for good, when we embrace him in repentance and draw near in love; for ill, when we put off repentance or draw near outwardly while hardening our hearts inwardly.
We encounter him, too, in dealing with others and especially the least of his brothers and sisters, day after day. When we see someone in need and turn away, it hardens us ever so slightly. When we open ourselves to serve them, and to receive them, we open ourselves to him.
Let us learn to see our lives for what they are. Our life doesn’t consist in the “stuff” we accumulate, in the things we have; for in the end, all that will be given to someone else. All those things are but the wax in the candle. But the candle’s life consists in its burning; and our life consists in the decisions we make, moment by moment—to receive the forgiveness and life Christ extends to us, or to turn from him to our own way, seeking pleasure and power.
Let us then beware, lest we think “Tomorrow I will repent, tomorrow I will believe, tomorrow I will follow Christ.” For that “tomorrow” doesn’t exist, and we may wake up to find ourselves far from him. This is the time of crisis, the fulcrum of our life, the fork in our road. So let us say “This is the day that the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it. We will seek him, we will serve him, we will praise him right now, in the only time and place and people he gives us.”

03 August 2011

Raskolnikov's dream

I've been listening to Dostoyevsky's novels on my mp3 player. I want to post a few excerpts that have struck me as interesting. Here's one: Raskolnikov's dream from near the end of Crime and Punishment. It strikes me as prescient:

He was in the hospital from the middle of Lent till after Easter.
When he was better, he remembered the dreams he had had while he was
feverish and delirious. He dreamt that the whole world was condemned
to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the
depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen.
Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these
microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them
became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered
themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the
truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions,
their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible.
Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection.
All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that
he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat
himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know
how to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what
good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify. Men killed
each other in a sort of senseless spite. They gathered together in
armies against one another, but even on the march the armies would
begin attacking each other, the ranks would be broken and the soldiers
would fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring
each other. The alarm bell was ringing all day long in the towns;
men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was
summoning them no one knew. The most ordinary trades were abandoned,
because every one proposed his own ideas, his own improvements, and
they could not agree. The land too was abandoned. Men met in groups,
agreed on something, swore to keep together, but at once began on
something quite different from what they had proposed. They accused
one another, fought and killed each other. There were conflagrations
and famine. All men and all things were involved in destruction. The
plague spread and moved further and further. Only a few men could be
saved in the whole world. They were a pure chosen people, destined
to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth, but
no one had seen these men, no one had heard their words and their

24 July 2011

Sermon on the paralytic, 2011

Today’s text presents a challenge to the preacher. It’s the account of the paralyzed man whose friends bring him to Christ. What makes it a challenge is that we read about this same event more than once a year. The gospels record lots of events from the Lord’s life; why would the church choose to repeat this same one, but from different evangelists?
I can think of two reasons. In the first place, the events that get repeated speak to deep needs of our human condition. We need to hear some things again and again. That’s why couples who’ve been married fifty years still say “I love you” to each other. As St. Paul told the Philippians, “To say the same thing again is not burdensome for me, and it is necessary for you.”
In the second place, each evangelist looks at the same event through a slightly different lens. If you read the parallel accounts closely, you find that different evangelists mention different things. Sometimes the differences can be slight. But the life of our Lord Jesus is a jewel, and turning it ever so slightly brings new light to us.
That’s the case with today’s text. Matthew’s version is very similar to the other evangelists in many respects. Other people bring the paralytic to Christ. Seeing their faith, he speaks pardon to the man. The scribes murmur, and the Lord silences their grumbling by healing the man.
All these things we need to hear again and again: that sometimes we are sick because of sin; that we need each other (Christianity is a team sport); that Christ’s word really brings about changes in our life.
But today I want to focus on something unique to St. Matthew’s account. Look how the text ends. “When the crowds saw this, they were amazed and glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” Did you catch that? “To men.”
It’s not at all what we would expect. Jesus is the one who heals—not the enemies, not the crowd, not the apostles. So why would St. Matthew say that God gave such authority to men? What can this mean?
Recall, first, the words of the Lord. Before he healed the man, he told the scribes, “So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” Here he calls himself the Son of Man. And that in itself would fry our circuits. For it’s an expression that harkens back to Prophet Daniel. In a night vision, Daniel saw one like a Son of Man, being presented to the Ancient of Days. This Son of Man receives an everlasting dominion, an indestructible kingdom. When Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man,” he’s claiming precisely that for himself—a divine title.
But here’s what fries our circuits. That title is Son of Man—a word that speaks clearly to the Lord’s humanity. And to drive the point home even more, he says, “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” In other words, this isn’t just for night visions of far-distant spiritual events. This authority is for here and now—for life as we live it, with all its warts.
When God the Son took on our flesh, and became incarnate of the Virgin, all the fullness of his divinity was poured out on his humanity. So now, both according to his divinity and his humanity he knows all things, he has all authority, he is everywhere present. His deity does not destroy his humanity, but fills it. All this is his by virtue of the Incarnation. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory.”
When Matthew says the crowd glorified God who had given such authority to men, it means first and foremost that God gave such authority to this Man, his Son made flesh for us. The divine essence cannot be communicated to his humanity, for that would destroy it. But the divine energies, in all their fullness, are given to his humanity so that, by the nature of the Incarnation, they belong to Christ’s humanity.
That still doesn’t explain the words “to men,” however. And here’s where it gets really marvelous. The crowd understood that in principle, if such authority was given to this man, then God meant it to be shared among humanity in all its persons. In other words, what belonged to Christ’s humanity by virtue of the Incarnation, is given through that humanity to others who share his humanity. What is his by nature, becomes our by grace.
We see that played out in the rest of Matthew’s gospel. To cite but two examples: When our Lord comes to the apostles, walking on the water, Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command that I come out on the water too.” The Lord gives the word, and Peter walks on the water. Now Christ walks on the water because in the union of his Person, the divine energies are poured out on his humanity, in all their fullness. But why does Peter walk on the water? Because what is Christ’s by nature, becomes others' by grace.
Again, the Lord tells his apostles, “Whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven.” The divine authority to forgive sins is communicated through Christ’s humanity, to his apostles.
We mustn’t misunderstand. This doesn’t mean that any Christian can do everything Christ did, at any time of our choosing. The divine energies are divided in the Church. The Panagia receives their fullness by grace--"Rejoice, full of grace!" Gabriel told her-- but as St. Paul says, the Spirit divides the gifts among the people of God. We need each other, and the divine energy of God’s love binds us all in one body.
Further, the divine energies benefit us only when we receive them in humble, repentant faith. When Edison was developing the light bulb, he had a problem. As soon as the electricity passed through the filament, it would glow, briefly, then burn up. Only when he removed all the air, and put the filament inside a vaccuum bulb, would it continue to glow. So too the energies of the Spirit only work savingly in those emptied of themselves in the fear of God, in repentance and faith.
In the Eucharist, for example, Christ himself shares his true, life-giving body and blood with us, and thereby shares his life with us. But if we receive him without faith, without repentance, we receive them to our judgment. That’s why we call out “With the fear of God, in faith and love draw near!”
This gift of the divine energies is not just a theory. It’s a practical, daily reality, as we see in the lives of the saints. What enabled Christina, a teenaged girl, to endure unspeakable tortures? What gave strength to Boris and Gleb to give up their royal thrones and even their lives, rather than raise a hand against their unjust brother? It was this divine energy, working in them.
Beloved, God has great things in mind for us. We cannot accomplish them with our wealth, wisdom or power. He doesn’t need those things. He needs humble, open hearts. Let us receive him as he comes to us in faith and fear, loving him who so loved us that he gave himself into death for us. Then we will be able to say with Paul, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Then, too, like that crowd so long ago, we will give glory to God, who has given such authority to men.

27 June 2011


Our country now subjects 95 year old women, and young children--American citizens-- to invasive searches.

At the same time, it wanted to try terrorists in civilian courts.

Why do we treat citizens like terrorists, and terrorists like citizens?

Sermon on Matthew 4:18f--second Sunday after Pentecost 2011

When we first hear today’s gospel, we’re struck by how abrupt the call of Christ seems to be. He walks by the side of the sea and calls 4 fishermen: Peter and Andrew, James and John. Without question, without hesitation, they leave their nets and follow him.

But St. Matthew gives us, in fact, the second call of the apostles. Already they knew of Christ, already they followed him, as we learn in St. John. They followed him, but remained at their work. Now Christ meets them where they work, and calls them once more: this time, to be “fishers of men.”

See how Christ has dealt with them. When he had first called them and they went back to fishing, he didn’t forbid them. But neither did he let them go altogether. He gave them slack, but drew them back—the very point of fishing itself! In other words, first he fishes for them, then he calls them to fish for others.

Christ caught them, by his words; so they followed, convinced that those words would catch others too. We must be careful, beloved. We call others to believe: do we believe? We urge them to pray; do we call on God? The stakes are high. What will it profit someone to gain the whole world-even for Christ-and lose his own soul?

To be a leader, we must first follow. To be a teacher, we must first be a student. And to be a “fisher of men,” to do evangelism rightly, we must first be evangelized ourselves.

Let us take care to hear the good news for ourselves! This one who calls Peter and Andrew, James and John is the one who first called them—and you—from nothingness into being. He who invites them to be fishers of men is he who made fish, and water, and men in the beginning. God became man to seek and to save us in all the places we have hidden ourselves. He did not cease being what he was—God—in order to become what he was not—man. He took on himself all that we are, apart from sin, then bore our sin, in order to make us partakers of all that he is.

No wonder their response is radical. For though they were in the midst of their work (and fishing demands a lot of time and energy) when they heard His command, they didn’t delay, they didn’t procrastinate, they didn’t say, “let’s go home and talk with our families first,” but “they forsook all and followed,” even as Elisha did to Elijah.

They forsook all—they left everything. That doesn’t mean they never fished again. Even after Christ rose, Peter and the others went fishing. But they no longer viewed their time and possessions as their own. Now all that belonged to Christ, the Lord, and they were his slaves and stewards.

I’ve often wondered at the words in Hebrews, where St. Paul reminds them, “You gladly suffered the loss of your possessions.” How could that be—unless they had already decided they owned nothing, that all belonged to Christ. Like the song says, “When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose!”

Only after he catches the disciples does the Lord Jesus begin his public ministry in earnest. Then it was he went about all Galilee teaching, preaching, and healing all disease and infirmity. Why so many miracles then? Because each time the Lord introduces a new covenant, he accomplishes miracles to give credibility to what he says. In the time of Abraham He gave many signs; as his victory in the war, the plague upon Pharaoh, his deliverance from dangers. And when about to legislate for the Jews, He showed forth those marvelous and great prodigies, and then gave the law. So also here, at the beginning of the new covenant, he works wonders.

But why so few miracles now? In the first place, because the new covenant has been firmly established. It’s two thousand years since Christ’s death and rising, since the first preaching of the apostles.

In the second place, because unless and until we are fully and completely “caught,” such signs would actually be harmful. We are ever prone to change Christ from our Lord to our “buddy,” to serve our own drive for power and pleasure. “A faithless and perverse generation seeks signs,” he told the Jews, “but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Well does Chrysostom say, “If you change from inhumanity to almsgiving, you have stretched forth the hand that was withered. If you withdraw from theaters and go to church, you have cured the lame foot. If you draw back your eyes from a harlot, you have opened them when they were blind. These are the greatest miracles.”

Let us take care then, beloved, that we be caught ourselves by Christ. Let us not be content to have him as an element in our life, a piece of the puzzle, but the heart and core and center of everything we think, do and say. Let us receive him as he comes to us. In short, let us get out of the water and into his net. It will mean death for our life in this passing world; but it will mean resurrection and life for the world that never ends—the life in his Kingdom, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

(Note: Many of the underlying thoughts derive from Chrysostom's homily ad loc)

21 April 2011

Seeds of God

A woman once had a dream in which she went into a shop and saw the Lord God standing behind the counter.

“Lord, it’s you!” she exclaimed with joy

“Yes, it’s Me”, answered God.

“But what can I buy from you?” asked the woman.

“You can buy everything from me”, came the answer.

“Then please give me health, happiness, love, success, and lots of money”.

God smiled kindly and went into the back room for the goods she had ordered. After a while He returned with a small paper box.

“Is that it?” exclaimed the disappointed woman in amazement.

“Yes, that’s it”, answered God, adding: “Surely you knew that I only sell seeds in my shop?”

From Pramvir.com

05 April 2011

Sermon on the demon-possessed boy

Throughout the Gospels there are many accounts of people bringing someone else to Jesus, for him to heal.
➢ A few Sundays ago, we heard of the paralytic being let down through the roof
➢ Yesterday’s Gospel told of them bringing a deaf and dumb man to Jesus

Today we hear of a man bringing his demon-possessed son to the Lord’s disciples. “I brought him to you,” the man says to Jesus, “and your disciples could not heal him.”

Note, beloved—in this the man spoke truly. To bring someone to the disciples, is to bring someone to Christ. It’s no small matter for our day. A seeker asks the right question when he says, “Where is the Church?” And we are here today because we asked that question.

But why couldn’t the disciples heal the boy? And why do our prayers sometimes seem to go unanswered? We learn the answer in the man’s dialogue with the Lord. “If you can do anything,” the man says, “take pity and help us.” Christ responds, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who has faith.”

It all gets down to faith.

The father in our Gospel had a very weak faith. The text is plain; Christ said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I put up with you?” And the man himself said, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

Rarely does Christ work in the Gospel without faith. When he went to his hometown, we are told, “And he did few miracles there, because they did not believe.” Note: he did few. He works sometimes without faith, to teach us that his power does not depend on us; he works rarely without faith, to teach us that faith is the way we connect with him.

But what does Christ mean by saying “All things are possible for him who has faith”? Some TV preachers would have you believe this is a “name it and claim it” game. If you want a new car, believe that it will happen and it will. If you don’t get what you named, it’s because you don’t believe enough.

That’s a perversion of what Christ says here.

Faith isn’t a coin, and God isn’t a cosmic vending machine. If someone prays to be healed from cancer, and it doesn’t happen, that doesn’t mean they didn’t believe enough. For sometimes God says “no,” even to his beloved children.
Once when I was little, one of my uncles wanted to give me a handgun. (He was a few cards short of a full deck, as they say.) I thought it would be neat—when we played army, or cowboys and Indians, I could have a real gun. But my parents said, “No.” At the time it seemed strange. Now I understand.

What, then, does Christ mean when he says, “All things are possible for him who has faith”?

Faith, beloved, puts us in contact with the Pantocrator, the maker and ruler of all things, by whose will the universe exists. What we call “the laws of nature” are, as C.S. Lewis noted, but a shorthand expression for God’s ongoing will.

When we pray in faith, we seek God’s will for what we ask. And he invites us, as beloved children, to ask whatever we want—recognizing that he, our Father, might say “no” if he knows what we ask would harm us.

At our best, we cry out with the father, “I believe—help my unbelief.” And how does he help?

➢ By our reading the Scriptures. It was Christ’s promise “All things are possible to him who believes,” that led the man to say, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
➢ By our prayer and fasting. When the disciples ask the Lord, “Why couldn’t we cast this demon out?” the Lord told them, “This one only comes out by prayer and fasting.” All our Lenten discipline exists for one purpose only—to strengthen our faith in Christ.

Let us, then, renew our efforts in prayer. Does something worry or discourage you? Bring it to the Lord in prayer. Lay it before him. Cling to his promises.

Don’t give up, if it seems long; he is exercising your faith, he is drawing you nearer.

Don’t ask for little things; he able to do far above all we could ever ask or think.

And don’t be upset if you don’t get what you want. Learn, through prayer and fasting and reading the Scriptures, what he wants.

For in the end, the point of prayer is not that we get this-or-that. The point of prayer is that we commune with him who, for love of us, came to share our life…that by his death, we might share his life.

30 January 2011

Sermon on Zacchaeus

“Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” Do you realize what those words mean? Zacchaeus was giving up practically all that he owned…he was moving from the top to the bottom of the income-tax brackets in one fell swoop.
This was a big move! Most of us work as hard as we can to earn as much as we’re able. We measure success by the “bottom line.”
Why is this? In itself, money is nothing—just pretty paper with pictures on it. But money represents power and freedom: the ability to do what I want. When I have it, I can take care of the necessities like food and shelter. When I have enough of it, I can get some ‘toys’ and maybe even be generous to others.
Money also represents life, and labor. We earn our living by the sweat of our brow. St. Paul said that those who do not work, should not eat. Money is not the root of all evil; the love of money is the root of all evil. Wealth is no vice, and poverty no virtue. What matters is not money, but how we relate to it.
Zacchaeus had measured his life by money. He was a little man, but he had big ambitions. So he worked the system, and he worked it hard. He became a chief tax collector. Nobody liked him, but he didn’t care. Why should he? He was rich.
And yet, with all his money, he wasn’t happy. He was restless…he was lost. He knew there was something missing. That something was a someone.
So when he heard that Jesus was coming to town, Zacchaeus made a plan. He wanted to see the Lord. But he was too short. So he abandoned all his pride, and acted like a little boy. He climbed a tree, and perched up there as the Lord walked by.
All at once, the parade stopped. Jesus looked up in the tree. “Come down, Zacchaeus,” he said; “I must eat at your house today!” These words are shocking on three levels. First, the Lord called Zacchaeus by name. For us, names are no big deal. But back then, to know a name was to know the person whose name it was. How did Jesus know Zacchaeus by name? How indeed…unless he were enfleshed God!
Second, the Lord invites himself to dinner. Can you imagine someone saying to you, “I’m coming to your house today for lunch.” At the very least, it would be a breach of etiquette. Normally the host invites the guest, but here the guest invites himself.
And third, of all the houses in Jericho, of all the places Jesus could stop for lunch, he chose the most notorious resident of the city. Zacchaeus’ house was the last place you’d expect him to go.
Ever since our first parents fell, we’ve been covering ourselves with foliage. Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves. We hide our bodies with clothes, and our souls with words and works. The unhappy person paints a smile…the weak person bellows and blusters. We cover our fear of death with money. And what is make-up, but an effort to change and cover what’s there?
That day in Jericho, the God who called “Adam, where are you?” called out to this son of Adam, “Zacchaeus! Come down!” And he calls to you and me this morning. Where are you? How are you covering yourself? You can hide from others…you can even hide from yourself…but you can’t hide from Christ. He is here, now.
He invites himself to your home and your life. He doesn’t want to be on the fringes. He doesn’t want you to simply watch him pass by. He wants to come in…to all those places that most folks don’t go. It doesn’t matter what others think of you. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. He is calling.
To have him in our hearts and homes, is to have all that we need. He forgives our sins, he heals our diseases, he redeems our life from the pit. He perfects his power in our weakness. He came from heaven and shared our life in every way but sin, all the way to death; and even our death and sin he took on himself, to give us his own indestructible life and light. As St. Athanasius said, “He became man, that we might become God.” No wonder Zacchaeus could give up all that he had, to welcome Christ and follow him.
I love this Sunday’s gospel lesson, because with today the Church year takes a turn. We are leaving behind the splendor of Christmas and Theophany. Now, in the middle of winter, we hear the first stirrings of the Lenten spring. Once again we prepare ourselves for the season of repentance, and making ready for Christ’s holy resurrection.
But each day can be a little Lent, every moment a time of Paschal joy. When for the love of Christ we give us the pleasures and passions and power of the world, then we are in Lent. When we receive the Lord who calls us by name, who died and rose for us, into our homes and hearts—then, beloved, it is Pascha for us. So let us loose our grip on the things that hold so tightly: our money, our time, and our talents; yes, and even our sins. Let us be generous with ourselves in the little time we have left, that having received Christ here and now, he may welcome us into his heavenly Kingdom: to which may we all attain, through his grace and love for mankind, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

08 January 2011

Subterranean scribbling: this needs unpacking

In a recent post on Weedon's blog, Pr. Weedon said:

Third, that Moses is instructed to put the ten words into the ark (Deut. 10), suggests that the fulfillment of the ten words, how they will come to realization, will only be through His work in the incarnate Lord, who is like unto the ark of the living God, tabernacling among us (John 1:14). It is only through union with Christ that the "ten words," which are God's plan and purpose for our lives, come to their true fulfillment. The words are hidden within the Ark - the will of God for our lives to be wholly love is similarly hidden within His Son, who is the perfect embodiment of the will of God for the race of men and to whom the commandments are never condemnatory for His heart and His life are wholly congruent with them - love enfleshed - to love His Father with His all, to love His neighbor as Himself - you and me - that is the very ache, joy, and content of His being. He perfectly lives them and so He is our perfect righteousness given to us; and He will bring about the perfect fulfillment of them which He begins to work within us in this life and brings to consummation at the Day of His appearing (accomplishing what Jeremiah foretold in his 31st chapter - that the Torah would be written on our hearts - that is, that it would be our DESIRE to fulfill it).

I quote the entire passage so as to be fair. What's intriguing here, for an Orthodox Christian, is that Pr. Weedon equates the ark of the covenant to Christ. For the Orthodox, Mary--not Christ--is the ark.

Still, it is difficult to articulate the comparison Pr. Weedon is making here. First, he refers to "the incarnate Lord, who is like unto the ark of the living God, tabernacling among us (John 1:14)." Then later he says "The words are hidden within the Ark - the will of God for our lives to be wholly love is similarly hidden within His Son, who is the perfect embodiment of the will of God for the race of men and to whom the commandments are never condemnatory..."

Something funny is going on here, and someone with more ability than I have (are you reading this, Perry Robinson?) might have fun contrasting the Orthodox Mary-as-ark with the Weedonian Christ-as-ark positions. I have a hunch that somewhere in the Christ-as-ark view will be a Nestorianizing Christology. But the semester has begun once again, alas!


06 January 2011

Subterranean scribbling: What does this mean?

"In order to have canon law, you have to have a church. The LCMS is congregational in structure and congregationalist in practice. Since congregation is the only church there is, there can be no canon law.

When the Confessions say "We do... keep... observe..." they are not merely descriptive. They had no conception of something other than this. It was not even possible much less permissible. Our current circumstances in Missouri and wider Lutheranism present perspectives which were foreign and alien to the framers of the Confessions."

--Pr. Larry Peters, in a combox on Weedon's blog