Friday, August 29, 2014

Can anyone be all things to all men?


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To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, the servant of the Lord, who addressed the words of this song to the Lord on the day when the Lord rescued him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul. He said: I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. Psalm 18:1-2

There is more to Christian worship than just words. Like Jesus who is the Word made flesh, His worship also has its fleshly aspect. Most of these things we take for granted, but it’s good that we point them out from time to time. During the service we sit, stand, bow and kneel. We always enter God’s house with reverence which necessarily includes slow, quiet and thoughtful movements; and necessarily excludes the wild gyrations which pass for church among many today. There is the sign of the cross, ecclesiastical art such as we see in our stained glass windows; there are also candles, paraments and vestments that the pastor wears, but there are other earthy elements of our worship that are less obvious and should be made explicit so that every part of the mass works together to make us better understand, and better thank God for our Lord Jesus Christ who delivers us from all of our enemies.

One of those components is called the Gradual. It is the time in the mass when the priest traditionally moves from the epistle side of the altar to the gospel side. In a former day churches had no lecterns and the scriptures were read from the altar which always faced the east in anticipation of the returning Christ who, like the rising of the sun, will return to rescue His beleaguered church. The epistle side was to the south, that is to the right of the on-looking congregation, and the gospel side to the north. The reason is that Israel’s enemies, Assyria and Babylon, entered from the north to kill and destroy God’s people, so the north is equated with evil. Now when the New Israel reads the mighty gospel of her Lord it is from the north, in order to remind her that Jesus is her Strength and Tower, the One who delivers her from all her enemies, and from the hand of all who hate her. As the priest crossed over, graduated as it were, from the epistle to the gospel side of the altar the choir would sing verses of Scripture in keeping with the theme for the Day. Today’s Gradual is the text we read earlier from Psalm eighteen in which David sings praise to God for delivering him from the grasp of King Saul and from the hand of all of his enemies.

It is a fact of life, dear Christians, that we have many enemies. Don’t be shocked. Don’t be surprised. Don’t be dismayed. Above all, don’t believe the Father of Lies who wants us to think that life is meant to be a picnic and that if it isn’t then something is wrong. There is definitely something wrong: the fact that we live in a world full of sin and sinners. As such living in the world is more like residing in an aquarium of piranha than in a bowl of goldfish.

When David wrote this hymn it was because God had given him victory over all his adversaries. Like all men, he was in many ways his own worst enemy. He fell prey to the sins common to us all: pride, lust, envy and greed; but he also had external enemies, the worst of which was King Saul who was his commander in chief. Like all kings, Saul had a pathological need to attract all money, power and glory to himself. The money and power parts were going well, but after David killed Goliath and won victory over the Philistines, the women of the land sang this song: Saul has slain his thousands, but David his ten-thousands. When word got to Saul, he went stark-raving mad, and from that day on he dedicated all his resources to one end: to terminate David with extreme prejudice.

The son of David faced similar threats, but ones more powerful than any earthly king could muster. He appeared in the flesh to do battle against the Roaring Lion of whom St. Peter warns in today’s epistle lesson. Sometimes he faced the devil directly, like in the wilderness. Other times through his human cohorts, namely the civil and religious power brokers of the day. They all wanted Jesus to die and would do whatever it took, so they crucified the Lord of Glory. However as God delivered David from all his enemies, He saved the son of David from death’s strong bands by raising Him from the dead and by placing all authority in heaven and on earth into His hands which He now exercises for the good of His church, into which we are blessedly baptized.

We too have enemies both internal and external. Like David, we, too, spend our days gratifying the desires of the flesh, we too stand ready to devour anyone in order to keep our Pride in tact. We, too, are murderers just as David was when he killed Uriah, if not in fact then certainly in our hearts whenever we hate our brother. As in David’s case there are people who wish us harm and who dedicate their lives to making ours unbearable, but they never are because Jesus is our Strength and our Tower our Hope and our Joy. (

But whatever the foe, God delivers us from them all in Christ. By His suffering and death Jesus has become for us all the things that David attributes to the Lord in today’s Gradual. He is the solid Rock on which we stand. He is the deliverer who saved us from sin, death and judgment by delivering Himself into the hands of those who would crucify Him, but little did they know that this death had been pre-ordained by God to be the sacrifice for the sins of the world and to set all men free from the jaws of the Roaring Lion. Jesus is all these things for us so we don’t ever need to be afraid. He surrounds us with His love, infuses us with His peace and stills us with tender words of love, even as the storms of life rage all around us. Therefore let us join David in singing songs of love and adoration to the son of David, who is our Rock and Fortress, our Shield and Salvation. Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Keeping faith through the trials, suffering, and persecution


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The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness.  Lamentations 3:22

At the church in Spreewald, Germany there is a life size painting of Paul Gerhardt, the great 17th century hymn-writer. The inscription beneath it says: "A theologian tested in Satan's sieve.” The work was commissioned because in his lifetime Gerhardt was a shining example of how God sees His people through intense suffering. He was a child when the Thirty Years War broke out and he endured the severe deprivations that war always brings. But things did not improve once the hostilities were over because Gerhardt was a faithful Lutheran pastor at a time when the Reformation Faith was no longer wanted, even as it is little desired in the world today. He endured persecution from congregations, fellow pastors and from civil and religious authorities alike. Besides this he was plagued with personal illness, the death of four of his children, and then of his wife. He was, as the inscription says, “A theologian sifted in Satan’s sieve,” but Paul Gerhardt was not the first Christian to suffer.

We all know about Job. The record of his travails are so important to Christian faith that the Holy Spirit had them written down, and placed in the canon of Holy Scripture, where they have resided for centuries, immediately preceding the Book of Psalms. Job too suffered “the loss of all things,” and in so doing became a prophecy of the promised Christ who “became poor that we might become rich.” Like our Lord, Job was on top of the world. As far as heaven can be experienced on earth, Job experienced it. He was blessed beyond all measure with every good gift, with peace of mind, and with great faith as well. He was a good, just and faithful man who was un-affected by his wealth, but Scripture informs us that God allowed Satan to test him; to remove all his blessings and to subject him to every loss a man can experience. Over night his property, servants and flocks were gone. Next were his seven sons and three daughters. They all died together when a tornado hit the house they were in, and it collapsed on their heads. Then came the loss of his health. The Bible tells us the devil afflicted him with painful sores over his entire body and that the dogs would come and lick his wounds. Then came the worst thing of all: the inner wrestling, the crisis of faith, and the long, long wait for God to deliver him; but Job was not the only believer to suffer.

In today’s Old Testament lesson we heard a portion of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. If you haven’t read Lamentations in a while, please do. It puts a lot of things in perspective. It teaches us in throbbing detail the misery that sin brings, and if it stopped there it would be too much to bear, but it does not. Instead it goes on in chapter three to show us that no matter how buried under we may feel by our
 sins, God is Faithful, His compassion boundless, and each morning His mercies are more than adequate to meet the challenges of the evil day.

Jeremiah was not the only person to suffer, nor was His agony redemptive in nature as people often think. Instead his travails were prophetic. Predictive of the far greater sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ whose agony and death, and whose momentary rejection by the Father on the cross, answer for our sins and resolve our wildest grief.

If Jesus suffered for us, why then do God’s children still suffer? Because the justice of God is seamless and relentless and condemns all that is not holy; but the mercies of God, which Jeremiah praises so highly, do something much different and far greater! They redeem us from sin and turn even our many troubles into blessings because of our connection with Christ. The term mercies that Jeremiah uses is one of the most wonderful words of Scripture. The Hebrew term derives from the word for “womb” and the verb bespeaks the tender mercies that a mother has for the child she carries within. There is no more helpless object on earth, none that calls forth greater love, tenderness and allegiance than new life in the womb; and this is the kind of mercy that God has for us in Christ.

What of suffering? We can never escape it as long as we live in this world. If you have suffered the loss of innocence, or of love, or of health, or of future prospects on account of your sins and your folly, then you can well lament with Jeremiah. If you have not, or if you think that life must be beautiful without end, one day you will learn differently, and then the book of Lamentations will become your closest ally, but as our Lord’s sufferings had a blessed end for Him and for us, ours will too. The most blessed is the day we die. No, we don’t know when. Yes, it frightens us and we will not do anything to hurry it along, but one day, in spite of the best medical efforts, or maybe because of them, we will cease to breathe. Others will take charge of us and carry us where we fear to go, they will lay our bodies in the grave, and in two or three generations no one will remember that we ever lived. No one, that is, except Christ whose tender mercies are new every morning, and who in the sacrament of holy baptism has written our names in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Like Christ Himself we too will rise again, and ascend into heaven, but until that time, by the Lord’s steadfast love, our sufferings will impart many good things to us: greater faith, greater love for the unseen promises of God, greater desire for the comfort of His Word, patience in tribulation, constancy in prayer, greater compassion for the suffering of others, and in being the hand of God to them we will find the greatest possible fulfillment for ourselves. May God give us all these things by the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus our Lord, Amen.

~Rev. Dean Kavouras

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The only reason that ANY of us can live and move is because of God's mercy; without it EVERY ONE of us is condemned


Be merciful, therefore, even as your Father is merciful. Luke 6:36

THE most important prayer we can pray is the one we learn from today’s gospel lesson. The one which the church has wisely embedded into her liturgy lest we ever forget it, but also the one which every self-published liturgy fails to include, the prayer we call The Kyrie:   Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.  There are many things we need to receive from God for both body and soul, for ourselves and for one another, and this prayer covers them all for we exist only by His mercy.

Are you critical of those on welfare?   Or are you unhappy that, because of the high cost of living, you must suffer the indignities of government “compassion” in order to live?  In either case remember that we are all on welfare, God’s welfare; and that we live and move and have our being only because He is merciful, because He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil, because He justifies the ungodly, and because while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.

Because our Father is merciful we can patiently endure our present sufferings, and even “rejoice” in them according to St. Paul, because however distressing they might be, God guides us through them all, and He assures us that: they are not worthy to be compared to the glory that will be revealed in us.

Consider all the things we must suffer in this world. First there is the fear of death and judgment. Even though we are cleansed from every wrong by the blood of Jesus our sinful nature still fears, and this contaminates the calm we have in Christ.   That is why we cannot last very long without the spiritual dialysis we obtain in the Holy Clinic of the church every Lord’s Day.

Secondly, we must remember that the creation, which fell with Adam, is hostile to man. There are many voices today tempting us to worship the earth and to consider her our mother, but she is not our mother, the church is! And it’s a good thing because in her fallen condition this supposed mother delights in hurting her children.   She cannot help but to quake and convulse, to flood us out, to blow us away, cover us with her mud, and starve us to death with her droughts.  This is why the Spirit inspired St. Paul to write that the glory to be revealed will also include a renewed creation, one that no longer produces thorns or demands the sweat of our brow, and unending frustration, merely to survive; one where our glorified bodies will dwell in an environment fit for them, and they for it.

Not being the end of our troubles, there are our own personal sins as well which draw the displeasure of God and ignite the wrath of man.  Chief among them are the sins of the tongue, which we recklessly use to criticize and condemn anyone who fails to live up to the standards which we in our vanity construct for them, but it always backfires, because in so doing Jesus tells us that we end up condemning ourselves, and thus we become the victim of our own sins.

If only our troubles ended there all might be well, but they don’t.   There is also our Arch Enemy to contend with, the old evil Foe who prowls about like a roaring lion inspiring evil; starting wars both large and small; tempting us to do the irrational; to believe the illogical; and arousing us to enjoy the pleasures of sin without regard to the consequences.

What is the solution to this troubled existence?  Only the mercy of God who is kind to all, to the evil and the ungrateful alike, but this is not the groundless compassion which Muslims ascribe to Allah, or that sectarians attribute to a hazy “father god,” but rather the very explicit mercy God demonstrated when He sent His Son, in the fullness of time, to redeem us and adopt us as His sons. Yes, it was our Lord’s great mercy that saved us as Jesus lived our life, died our death and by His resurrection assures our own. He did not exempt Himself from the present sufferings of this world but instead felt them in full, and by His loving sacrifice obtained mercy for us all; a mercy which He generously distributes to us in the gospel as it is preached, and the sacraments as they are administered to us.

Because we are the recipients of such loving-kindness our Lord rightly instructs us to extend the same to others.  He doesn’t say these things to the world which neither knows nor cares about them, but to us who are children of the heavenly Father by faith in Jesus Christ, and praise God that He does because this Word both instructs us and transforms us.  Absent the Lord’s command we hear in today’s gospel lesson we would be perpetually ignorant of His will for us; and would remain forever unmerciful, condemning ourselves in the process, but with it the Lord both instructs and empowers us to become what it says, merciful.

We know as Christians that this lesson does not make our salvation conditional because as stated above it is spoken to the baptized, but neither is it optiona, and we must not overlook it.   As surely as a blind man cannot lead another blind man; as certainly as a student cannot know more than his teacher; as positively as a man who has a beam lodged in his eye is in no position to clear the speck from his brother’s…even so unquestionably those who have received mercy must express the same to others. It isn’t easy, we know that, so we pray today and everyday:  Lord have mercy, Christ Have mercy, Lord have mercy, and God answers our prayer every time by forgiving our failures, by strengthening our resolve and by enabling us to be merciful to one another.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

When God needed it done, He did it Himself


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 because its copyright has expired.
For thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” Ezekiel 34:11-12

THE old adage says that if you want the job done right, do it yourself.  If it’s true in the realm of human endeavor, how much more so in the sphere of the divine?  With something as crucial as turning abject sinners into saints, as cleansing the fallen souls of men from self-loathing, pride, and the fear of judgment nothing less than perfect will do.  Nothing less than the incarnate Son of God who was crucified and raised from the dead in order to become the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls.

During this church year our preaching is based on the Old Testament, and from that Magnum Opus we once again become familiar with the many woes of God’s ancient church.  We learn anew how He rescued “the apple of His eye” from slavery, baptized them into Moses, fed them with supernatural bread and how He made them a holy nation by faith in the coming Christ.  But alas how in spite of the immense love He poured out upon them they returned to their sin like a dog to its vomit, and there were four precipitating factors in their fall from grace.  The first three we know well, the devil, the world and the sinful nature.  We know them for the powerful enemies that they are, the fierce opponents of all that is good, true and beautiful.

The devil, as we learn in Scripture, is a murderer from the beginning, the father of lies and the “accuser of the brethren,” whose singular pursuit is to destroy God’s people; to drag them down to hell so that they might share his bottomless misery.  He is the one who incited Israel to imitate the surrounding culture and to join in its egregious sins, its false worship, intoxication, sins of the flesh, theft, greed, tyranny and the shedding of innocent blood.  He does the same in our day but has raised his assaults to a feverish pitch as the end of the age draws near.

As if the devil were not contender enough there is also the unbelieving world exerting its malicious animal magnetism on us at all times and in all places.  The devil is invisible but the world is in our face 24/7.  Then, as now, it beckons us with its siren song, so no matter how many times we confess our sins, receive the absolution, commune with our Lord’s body and blood, and obtain new resolve we must continue to do so over and over again.  We must never say, “I don’t need this right now,” because until we leave the evil world six feet above us, it will never leave us.

Neither the devil nor the corrupt world would have power over us were it not for the sinful nature we inherit from Adam.  It is a full-fledged coward when it comes to spiritual warfare, a draft dodger in the extreme.  It is a pleasure seeking animal that wants nothing to do with the cross or shepherds; a wild child whose theme could best be captured by the country song:  I know what I was feelin’, but what was I thinkin’?

If this unholy trinity isn’t more than any man can resist, Ezekiel’s people had a fourth enemy, a fourth estate of trouble, if you like; a surprising and deceptive one that conspired to bring them down: the prophets themselves!  Not all of them of course; not Ezekiel, who like Christ Himself came to Babylon to live with his captive people, to dwell among them and to make their misery his own.  Unfortunately, however, for every true prophet there were many false ones.  We don’t know the numbers or the percentages but we do know that their message is the one that prevailed, the one that intoxicated God’s people and held their allegiance.

Ezekiel expends a good deal of energy raking them over the coals, and so does our Lord.  In today’s Gospel lesson He calls them hirelings; mercenaries who care nothing for the sheep, and who run for the hills when they see the wolf coming, but He also draws a sharp contrast between them and Himself by assuring us that He is the Good Shepherd, the One who lays down His life for the sheep, the One who loved us enough to come in the flesh, and who never runs even when it means sacrifice, suffering, shame and death; and no ordinary death, but a Holy One, the sacrifice of God’s own Lamb which purges the world of its sin and restores straying sheep to the Shepherd and Bishop of their souls.

How do we know the true from the false?  Jesus says by their works you will know them.  They are the ones who tolerate, excuse and explain away the sins to which we are addicted.  They tell us not to worry because God understands.  God allows.  God wants you to be happy.  They assure us that there are many ways of salvation, but at the end of the day if you are sincere, if you recycle, if you respect the planet and confess the world’s latest creed all will be well.  How surprised we will be on judgment day if we believe that!  The Roman poet Juvenal asked in his Satire:  who watches the watchers?  Answer:  God does.  And who reverses the damage they do?  The One who St. Peter calls the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls.

No doubt, the most striking aspect of this prophecy is the pronoun “I” which is used more than eighteen times, each time by the Lord Himself.  This is good, because when the incarnate, crucified and risen Christ is the subject of every sentence; the divine doer of every verb -- I will gather, I will feed, I will heal, I will bind up, I will rescue, I will make them lie down in green pastures -- when He is the doer and we the blessed objects, the grateful receivers then we can confess with all boldness and confidence:  the Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want.  If you want the job done right, do it yourself!  Christ entered our mangled world, not to fix it, change it, improve it or leave it a better place, but to do all the things that Ezekiel predicts in his prophecy.  By His life, death and resurrection He obtained full and free salvation for us.  However saving His work did not stop there.  He also ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the position of ultimate power and authority!  From there He presides over His Holy church, with her faithful Ezekiels, to gather sinners by Holy Baptism, to bind up their wounds with Holy Absolution and feed them with life-giving Body and Blood.  Therefore don’t be afraid, dear Christians, whatever it is that vexes you today be it sin, death, illness, poverty, pain, rejection, depression, fear of the future or the ghosts of the past; whatever it is don’t be afraid because the Good Shepherd is with us, truly present, never will He leave us, never will He forsake us. Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras