Sunday, June 25, 2017

Celebrating Correction

THE EVERLASTING ARMS

Micah 7:18-20
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.  For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.  And they began to celebrate.  Luke 15:23-24

IS there any lesson for us in the stories of Superman, or of the Lone Ranger, or Captain Gallant?  All those were television shows from long ago, with live actors.  When people my age were young, we were very engaged in their fight against crime.  They always caught the criminals.  Only Superman had special powers; the others were terrestrials like us who were very well-trained and dedicated.  When they caught the criminals we would talk about the long arm of the Law.  The heroes extended the reach of the Law.  In spiritual terms, that is what caught the young man in Jesus' parable.  He found out that God's Law has a long reach.  Neither does God need any deputies to extend His reach further.  His "left hand" sends adversity, in contrast to His "right hand" that blesses.

Who was this young man?  We call him "The Prodigal Son," that is, the son who wasted his goods.  He was looking for happiness in all the wrong places.  He thought if he could live in the fast lane, life would be wonderful, and it was as long as his cash lasted.  When it was gone, so were his friends.  Then the left hand of God went into action big time!  Crops failed, the market crashed, employment was way down, times were harder than ever.  There was no wheat to be harvested, no vineyards to be pruned, no bread to be baked, or oil to be pressed, or wine to be made; and if labor isn't needed, neither is management.  Bailiffs, supervisors, and stewards were being laid off everywhere.  With no crops, there was no need for tax collectors.  It really got rough for the youth who had neither savings nor credit.  God's left hand had this youth by the neck.  He got a job feeding pigs.  That was very humiliating.  For a Jew to be feeding pigs is something like a teetotaler tending bar to make ends meet, but things got worse yet.  Jesus tells us that he envied the pigs.  He started eating the fodder.  That was where he knew he had hit bottom.

From God's point of view, He was taking a chance.  In this case it worked.  Adversity is a tool that God uses to bring people to their senses.  They hit bottom and know they hit bottom.  It is a risk, but at least there is some chance.  The self-centered heart always hopes the hard times will go away, that the problems will solve themselves.  When that doesn't happen the heart has a crisis.  One possibility is to turn and repent, but there is another option, namely hostility.  The hostile heart confirms itself in rebellion, blames God for all its troubles, and eventually comes to hate Him.  The devil encourages this second option.  That's why he puts into our minds all sorts of excuses for our sins.  He tries to convince us that we are really the victims of an unfair divine order.  He urges us to run a little further the wong way, in order to escape from the everlasting arms, but God is more powerful than Superman.  His long arm always finds you.

We would do well to forget that option and concentrate on the first one, that we repent.  Be done with running away.  Rather, go back and face the offended Father.  That wins the current round, but the devil has not been knocked out.  He resorts to fear.  Look at your record!  Do you really think you can go back after this?  Don't just look at your public record, for that may  not be so bad, but look at what God sees.  Look at the sinful designs of your heart which will be Exhibit A on Judgment Day.  Consider how inconsistent this devil is.  A few minutes before he was making excuses for you, telling you that you were the victim.  Now, he drags all your sins out in full view.  He wants to drive you to despair, to believe that since you're a child of hell you might as well enjoy your sins.  That is a dreadful counsel of despair.  There is nothing God's left hand can do in reply, but He opens the right hand.  He shows you your Savior and His grace.  He forgives your sins and assures you that Jesus has made you a child of heaven.  What could Satan say to that?  Ah, he does have one more weapon.  He says:  OK, go back if you have to, but don't think you'll be an important person in heaven.  God might let you in, but not as the heir.

This is all based on the false assumption that we can please God by our efforts.  That is not the way of Christ.  It is true that we are not loveable, and that we can do nothing to change that, but the right hand of God opens up, showing us the sacrifice of the Righteous One to atone for the sins of the world.  Do you want to turn to God?  Do not turn to a set of rules, turn to the cross.  Believe it or not, the cross makes you an important person.  Jesus tells us there is joy among the angels whenever anyone repents.  The father in the parable shows us what to expect:  we have a party, kill the fatted calf, invite the neighbors, serve the best wine.  Then, don't forget this little detail - he gives his son the family ring.  That tells all the world whose credit backs up this youth.  In Holy Baptism we received God's family ring.  Christ's death and resurrection became our death and resurrection.  We were joined into them, born of water and the Spirit, assured of our portion in the Father's house that has no end.  God may so order the world that such a symbolic cross is the only one we ever experience.  Or He might choose to give us the entire course, as He did with the martyrs.  Either way, God wants us "in."

The parable doesn't end there.  It seems there are two ways of being "in."  The other brother was never out.  He put up with the father's eccentricities, and in general spent his life as a company man.  He didn't cause his father the kind of anguish the younger son did.  He had a different anguish to cause him.  He rejected his returning brother.  The same arm of the Law that reached into the pigsty for the Prodigal, reached into the father's house bringing a crisis to the older son.  Would he also turn from his evil ways?  Are we more like him, being tempted not so much to indulge ourselves as to put up with those who do?  Do we begrudge anyone God's mercy?  Again, the right response is to repent.  We want the everlasting arms to embrace us and our penitent brethren.  We should be glad that God includes these people.

So where does Jesus come into the parable?  Jesus is the righteous Older Brother, but unlike the one in the story, He is a company man for us, earning the credit so He can give it away to those who have none, preserving the inheritance of the Father in order to share it with us.  He is the righteous Older Brother who touches us with God's right hand, accepting the    troubled sinners who are looking for help, standing before us with open everlasting arms.  These are the arms of God by which He clutches us to His heart.  The left arm is for discipline, the right arm for comfort, but by both of them He holds us tightly.  In the arms of God we can be bold and merciful, and we can turn outward, and take a few steps toward our fellow sinners to embrace them as we have been embraced.  the more returning sinners, the greater will be the celebration.  AMEN.

 ~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Don't neglect Lazarus

THE OFFERING FROM BLESSINGS RECEIVED


There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.  And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table.  Luke 16:19-21

WE should be careful how we interpret the parable we have before us today.  It is not a morality tale.  It does not exalt poverty or condemn wealth, but it does have a great deal to teach us none the less.

The first thing to know is that you are the rich man in the parable!  Like him, you too are opulently arrayed in glorious dress by virtue of your baptism.  At the font you are draped with the fine linen of Christ's righteousness and there is none more splendid than that; none that affords you greater defense against God's wrath and judgment than that.

Though you are stained with sin and merit nothing but punishment, your guilt is removed by Jesus' blood offered on the altar of the cross, and now you, like Jesus, are crowned with glory and honor.  Now you are redeemed.  Now you are rescued.  Now you can live with calm and die in peace because the millstone of sin has been removed from around your neck.  Your star is rising and your future is bright because, like poor Lazarus, you are bound for Abraham's bosom:  the place where true joys are found.  Like the rich man you too feast sumptuously.  You eat the Bread of Angels from the Lord's table, the flesh and blood of Christ which purifies human flesh and blood so terribly compromised and corrupted by sin.

Today eating healthy is all the rage.  People spend large sums of money to purchase whole foods, grass fed beef, and edibles that are gluten-free and non-GMO, but at the same time they pollute their souls and insure their own place in torment by feasting on the irrational opinions and unbridled behavior of the culture whose jurisdiction begins immediately outside these walls.

The rich man's sin was not that he was rich, but rather that he gladly received but was unwilling to give so much as a crumb to one in need.  Plenteous gifts of mercy were poured into his lap, but he would not give up so much as a crumb that might fall from his table.

How about you?

In the holy Christian religion mercy is not a choice but an obligation.  Neither is it left to chance, but is built into our worship in the offertory.  The Offertory is an essential element of the church's praise that has been with us since the beginning.  Every Sunday when God's people gathered for Holy Communion they brought gifts and offerings with them.   They brought bread and wine to be used for the Lord's supper along with many others which were used for the support of the clergy, the church, and to distribute to the Lazarus' in the parish.  This last part, the distribution to the poor, was as essential to Christian worship as every other part, and it is still today.  It's what the rich man did not do and what landed him in the Lake of Fire.

The Offertory has two parts:  First the gathering of the people's offerings.  Because we no longer live close to the land we bring our gifts in the form of currency which is used to secure bread and wine for the sumptuous feast, to support the clergy, maintain the church and to distribute to the poor of the parish.

As the offerings are being gathered the celebrant moves the bread and wine which represent our offerings, from  he credence table to the altar.  This is the second part of the Offertory and is no haphazard move but a deliberate liturgical action by which the church symbolizes the movement of our Lord from Bethlehem to Calvary, to the place where He became the sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world.  Here is perfect worship.  Here is divine service.  Here is the great oblation that sets us free from death and the devil, and that promises us life beyond this present sorrow.  Here, the church offers God the gifts she received from Him in the first place.

Just as Jesus received the five loaves and two fish and returned them infinitely multiplied, even so God receives the earthly gifts of bread and wine here offered and gives them back to us as heavenly ones; as the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, given for us Christians to eat and to drink for the remission of sins, life and salvation.  This is the Eucharistic    Sacrifice wherein the church continually offers the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God, but please be very clear that whoever receives these good and perfect gifts from the      altar must "go and do likewise!"

The church does this formally by using a portion of the offerings to conduct her charitable work, but that's not the end of the story.  Each Christian is bound to share the gifts he receives from God with those who are in greater need, but please remember and keep in mind that as often as we perform such charitable works that they are not simple virtuous deeds.  Anyone can do those, but these are acts of holy worship instead, no different and no less sacred than the praise we offer our God in this holy house.  Know too, that whatever we do for Lazarus is directly connected to and flows through this sacred altar where we praise God, "from whom all blessings flow."

Now there's no questions that a Christian must proceed thoughtfully, not only because  resources are limited, but also because there is no more dangerous, addictive or debilitating drug than charity.  By its careless administration well-meaning people have done great harm to those whom they proposed to help.  Don't do that, but don't neglect Lazarus, either!  Instead think carefully, use your mind, then give with a grateful heart as you are able, large or small, "whate'er the gift may be."  This is what our Lord calls us to do on the first Sunday after Trinity.  Amen.

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, June 11, 2017

True worship is not what we give, but what we receive

THE ATHANASIAN CREED
TRUE ORTHODOXY - RIGHT WORSHIP


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Dear Beloved of the LORD:

TODAY'S divine service includes the confession of the Athanasian Creed which is liturgically connected with the feast of the Holy Trinity being celebrated this Sunday.  From the opening of this creed we confess the following:
Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith.  Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally.  And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the Persons nor dividing the substance.
That's what this day (commemorating the Holy Trinity) and this creed (celebrating the Holy Trinity) are all about:  worship.  How appropriate that Isaiah 6 sets today's scene as the prophet is drawn by God to feel the majesty, smell the incense, hear the antiphonal "Holy, Holy Holy" of the seraphim, see the Lord lifted up high in the temple and receive the coal from the sacrifice that touched his lips so that his guilt be taken away and his sin atoned for.  It is God's given pattern for worship. 

That is what the church catholic -- meaning hte church of all times and all places -- has always been about:  worship.

Christianity is not first and foremost about morality:  following rules and living properly.  It is not first and foremost about outreach: doing missions and evangelism.  It is not first and foremost about having the right head knowledge about God, although from speaking this creed it may seem so.  All those things are important, but they are not of first importance, for none of those things can come first.  They must all follow and flow from something else.  That something else is worship, and not just any worship, but as the creed said, that we worship the Holy Trinity.  That is worship that is not about what we do, but about what God has done and continues to do to reveal Himself to us and about what God does for us.  What God does for us, in a word, is life as He created it from the beginning in all its God-given fullness and abundance.  Apart from Him we have no fullness and abundance of life, either physically or spiritually.

Therefore, whoever desires to be saved and not perish, must receive life; life from god, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As the Holy Scriptures clearly teach, all three Persons of the Divine Godhead are continually present and active from the very beginning.  In Genesis we begin at the beginning, and hear how wonderfully and carefully and exactly God made all things:  nothing by chance or   evolution, nothing left out, everything perfect and perfectly good; and why is that important?  Because God did not just create everything -- He created you.  As wonderfully and carefully and exactly as God made all things in the beginning, so He has made you and   enlivened you.  There may be things about you that you don't like, that you wish you could change, but in God's eyes you are who you are for a reason and a purpose.  God made no mistake with you, but gave you life and rejoices in that life.  He sustains your life.  You are not your own, or on your own.  If you were you would have perished long ago, but your Father is caring for you, providing for you and giving you all that you need for this body and life.  Why?  Because He loves you and will not stop loving you.

Today's Epistle reading suggests just how deep His will to love is.  33.  Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable His ways!  34.  For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor?  35.  Or who has given a gift to Him that He might be repaid?

36.  For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.  To Him be glory forever.  Amen (Romans 11:33-36)

His is a love that could not stop, even when it was not returned.  When Adam and Eve decided to love not God, but themselves; when they decided not to receive from God, but grab what they could; when they decided God was not good and followed instead the word of Satan, God did not reject them. He did not kill them and start over.  He did not withdraw and say "Fine!  Do it yourself!"  In His love He promised a Savior; a Savior to defeat the death they had now ushered into the world, and give them life again; life in a physical resurrection on the last day, and life in a spiritual resurrection now by faith.  Peter on that Day of Pentecost, stood up and in short, told the people:  What God had promised, God has done. (Acts 2)  He sent His only begotten Son, His Son to be the death of death, and give us life again, the physical life we threw away, the spiritual life we threw away.  All is restored in Him.

Why is that important?  Because God did not just save the world - He saved you.  Your    death He defeated; your sin He paid for, each and every one; every sin of your thoughts, words, deeds, and desires.  He knows them all -- which we think is not such a good thing! -- but if He knows them all, then you can be sure He died for them all, and so now gives you life from the dead in the forgiveness of all your sins.  That is not just a better life, but the life that your Father always intended for you to have; eternal life with Him in joy and perfection, for the forgiveness of God is not a partial thing or an overlooking of sin, but a full remission of sin, thus a full restoration of your life with God, done completely, done in love; a love that gives and will not stop giving.

Following the detailed descriptions of the Persons:  The Father, The Son and the Holy spirit and the unity and intercommunion in the Divine Godhead, The Athanasian Creed adds:  
Therefore, whoever desires to be saved must think thus about the Trinity.  But it is also necessary for everlasting salvation that one faithfully believe the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Which brings us to the Holy Gospel of St. John wherein we hear:  in this way, God loved the world.  And so God gave the Son -- the only one -- so that whoever believes in Him might not perish but rather have eternal life.  for God did not send the Son into the world in order to condemn the world.  Rather, (he sent the Son) so that the world might be saved through Him."  (John 3:16-17)

How does God continue to give His life today?  He sends His apostles out to give that life through teaching and baptizing:  teaching and baptizing into His Name, the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Where His name is, there He is.  Where He is, there is life; life through the Spirit of God, for the Father sent the Son, and the Son sends the Spirit, that the Spirit might lead us to the Son and the Son take us to the Father, so that the relationship we had with God in the beginning be restored through the love and forgiveness of God; and that receiving that love and forgiveness by grace through faith, we then confess the same, which is worship, which means to receive from God, and to confess Him as the Lord and Giver of life.

Part of that confession we spoke today -- all those things we read in the creed -- that God is triune, that He is infinite, incomprehensible, eternal, uncreated, almighty, give shape and substance to the church's worship, but not just those things, for then we could not know Him because those things are beyond our understanding.  Yet God wants us to know Him and to return His love, so He has revealed Himself to us in His Son, Jesus of Nazareth, through whom:

the invisible one was made visible;

the incomprehensible one made Himself comprehensible;

the infinite one enters our finite universe;

the eternal one comes to die;

the almighty becomes a man.

In Jesus, God joins Himself to us, that we might know Him.

In Jesus, God joins Himself to us that all that is ours become His, and all that is His become ours.

In Jesus, God joins Himself to us that His life be our life.

The life we receive again today, as His forgiveness and life are proclaimed, and as His very life-giving body and blood are placed into our mouths to eat and to drink, that we live in Him and He in us -- which is worship -- the place where heaven and earth come together in Jesus Christ.

Then from this worship and life, yes, flow all other things -- the good works we will do, the outreach, the care and love for others, the increasing knowledge of His Word.  From   this worship and life flow the strength to resist the wiles and temptations of the devil,   the world, and our own sinful flesh.  From this worship and life flow the faith to face the trials and tribulations of this life with confidence and hope.  From this worship and life   flow our life.

The life that God gives is true life, which not even death can end, so let us receive that life, live that life, and confess that life, which is worship.  It begins here with God and from here flows into all the world.
For this is the catholic faith - the faith that the church of all times and all places has believed:

that God gives and we receive;

that God speaks and we confess what He has told us;

that God gives life and we live His life.

That is true ortho-doxy -- right worship -- in, with, and under the name that is above all names:  the name of the Father and of the (+) Son and of the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

~ Rev. George F. Fyler III, Em.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The New Testament fulfills the Old

THE MEANING OF PENTECOST


And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on Me, on Him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over Him, as one weeps over a firstborn.  Zechariah 12:10

WELCOME to an important feast day.  In the Church Year, today ranks with Christmas and Easter.  It is one of the few days when we use red paraments, symbolic of the Holy Spirit.  In the Hymnal it is called "Whitsunday," a name remaining from early modern English.  The word "Pentecost" is really a number, Greek for "fiftieth."  It is the fiftieth day after Easter.  There is an Old Testament Pentecost as well, called shevuoth in Hebrew, which means "weeks."  Moses commanded that seven Sabbaths after Passover such a festival should be celebrated.  Since Easter was the Sunday after Passover, Pentecost would become the Christian Feast of Weeks.  In Jewish tradition this feast is connected with the Ten   Commandments.  We celebrate the writing of the Law on our hearts by the Holy Spirit.  The best thing about this feast is that it has never been commercialized.  There are no greeting cards that say "Happy Pentecost."  May this festival be preserved from such decadence for many years to come.

Our text is from the prophet Zechariah, after the return from the Exile.  It is an extremely   important passage because it points out how the New Testament fulfills the Old.  I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication ... they will look on Him whom they have pierced ... they shall mourn for Him.  Consider "I will pour out."  God was, is, and always will be the supply base for all human operations.  We consume; He produces.  He wants it that way.  His gifts keep coming while we sinners spoil, wreck, ravage them, and eventually turn them into garbage.  God answers this by pouring out more.  For sin God poured out the blood of His Son. By that blood He purchased us so that we no longer belong to the devil, but to Him. As if that weren't enough, God continued to pour out the Holy Spirit to repair us on the inside.  The Holy Comforter is the Spirit of Compassion.  As Jesus' blood took away the guilt of sin, so the Holy Spirit takes away the power of sin, making us over from consumers of mercy into producers.  Remember, however, that the mercy and kindness we produce is not from us, but directly from Him.

The text continues ... I will pour out on the house of David.  This isn't about a building.  Neither is it really about David's biological descendants, although they are the shadow of the Apostles to come who would proclaim David's One Great Descendant, the One who fulfilled all the prophecies. Today the Holy Spirit creates a new house of David beginning with the Apostles, then including all who have believed through their testimony.  So we come to you and me.  God pours out the Holy Spirit on us, making us compassionate and leading us to pray.  He shows us Him whom we have pierced.  Yes, I do mean "we."  Our sins nailed Him to the cross just as surely as anyone's.  The Holy Spirit softens our hearts by showing us the dying Savior and leads us to repentance.  Talk about miracles!  By giving us a good look at Him whom we have pierced, the Spirit performs this miracle even in hardened criminals.  History records thousands who have repented on contemplating the cross.  The word "pierced" reminds us at once of the centurion on Good Friday.  He was a veteran sergeant, not the sort of person anyone would consider delicate, but as he watched his spear go into Jesus' side, he was crushed with repentance and prophesied that Jesus was the Son of God.  Similar things could be said of Paul on the road to Damascus, Augustine listening to the preaching of Ambrose, or Luther trembling as he raised the Communion Chalice.  All these men were filled with awe on contemplating the sacrifice of Christ!  So were the people of Jerusalem on that first Pentecost Day!

It was about nine in the morning when the Apostles went outside to preach to the crowds, noticing that everyone was hearing the message in his own language.  Most of their words are not recorded, but Peter's are.  He talked about Jesus.  He preached forgiveness to the very people who had demanded, "Let Him be crucified." Some people did not hear clearly, and thought the apostles were drunk.  So there will always be those who cannot hear any good news, who know nothing but evil and will hear nothing of good, but for those who heard, Peter fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah.  He showed them Him whom they had pierced, they wept, tore their clothes, and asked, "What shall we do?"  Peter answered:
Repent and be baptized, every one of you, into the name of Jesus the Messiah for the   forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The weeping was coming true, so was the repentance.  Jesus was indeed an Only Child, the only Son of the    Father, the true Son of Abraham, the ideal Son of David, the Righteous Remnant of Israel.  He was the One who could and did keep God's Commandments.  Notice Peter says nothing  about inviting Jesus, or making a decision.  Such talk is not found in the New Testament.  Those are doctrines of men.  Peter directed his hearers to the God-given way of regeneration, by Holy Baptism in which we are joined to the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  That is what Jesus meant by being "born of water and the Spirit."  That is the way of   salvation for us, Gentiles, everyone.

Zechariah also calls the Holy Spirit a "Spirit of supplication."  That means a Spirit of devotion and prayer.  How does He fulfill this?  He does it by making you the temple of God.  You are the house of David today.  You are a member of the Body of Christ, the Church, the Bethel where heaven touches earth.  That is a big responsibility.  When you belong to Jesus you become like Him.  He said that the Spirit anointed Him to preach good news to the poor.  You can say the same about yourself.  You are anointed, a peculiar people, the Spirit is in you to stay.  You can drive Him out by persistence in hard-heartedness.  You can break the relationship by insisting on your one natural right, the right to God's wrath rather than His grace.  Now as we say that it might sound stupid, but remember the flesh doesn't like to look at Him whom we have pierced.  We have received a Spirit who makes good use of our knees, getting us down in the dust of contrition, then picking us up by the Gospel of forgiveness.  In Him we have freedom not only from the penalty for sin, but from sin itself.  He changes you from a consumer of love to a producer.  You drink from the Fountain of Life, you become a fountain of life.

Today is the great festival of this Third Person, this Divine Spirit and His gracious work of sanctification.  We keep it best by imitating Christ.  AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Holy Spirit, the martyrs, the living sacrifices...

JESUS' WITNESSES


But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me.  And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me   from   the   beginning.  I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away.  They will put you out of the synagogues.  Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.  And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.  John 15:26ff

THE church is not the dainty affair that many like to portray today.  It is not about designer   coffee, climate-controlled convention centers, or teaching scatty people how to live happy lives.  To the contrary, Jesus warns His disciples that to be His follower is a perilous business, and that the hour was coming, He told them, that anyone who would kill them would be convinced he was offering worship to God.

We don't face such extreme prejudice today, but anyone who studies history knows that many of the Lord's disciples did; and anyone who follows the news knows it is happening today, albeit in far-away places, but the storm clouds are gathering, and the culture that once welcomed what the church had to offer has turned sharply against her; and should the persecution continue on its present trajectory, the day may come when we will face violence as well, so let's take a closer look today at the Lord's prediction, "whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God."  That's how it's translated into English, but in the original Greek it says something a bit different.  That whoever kills you will think that he is offering a sacrifice of worship to God.  In the same way people brought animals to sacrifice before the Lord in the Old Testament to atone for their sins and to offer their worship, now   anyone who killed a disciple of Jesus would think he was doing the same, and what the Lord predicted came true.

All who were present with Him that night, with the exception of St. John according to church tradition, were put to death on account of their witness, and for nearly three centuries thereafter it was a criminal offense to practice the Christian religion anywhere in the vast Roman empire.  During that time many who would not recant their witness courageously accepted grisly death in imitation of the Lord who suffered for them -- and to His magnificent praise and glory -- but they did not consider their sufferings to be political accidents or senseless acts of violence, but rather sacrificial offerings of worship to the Father who loved them and to the Son who suffered and died for them.  These are the men and women we call martyrs, a word which mans "witness," who by their patient suffering and death gave the strongest possible testimony to the Gospel of their Lord.

Today we are the Lord's witnesses, not by spilling our blood, knocking on doors, or adorning our social media with religious symbols, but rather our witness is given here, in God's house, as we gladly hear and learn His Word; as we pray, praise, and celebrate the holy Sacrament which is the pinnacle of Christian witness and Christian worship.  This is what St. Paul is getting at when he writes, "Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship."  He is talking about the very thing we are doing now, for it is here, in God's house, that we present our bodies as living sacrifices, because worship, you see, is not simply a matter of the mind, but it includes our bodies as well.  It includes sitting, standing, bowing, crossing ourselves, folding of hands, modulating of voices,   approaching the altar, closing our eyes and opening our lips to eat the sacrifice of God!  The true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which remits our sins, and gives us joy and gladness instead.

The power source of our witness is the One whom Jesus names the Helper and the Spirit of Truth in today's gospel lesson, only don't think of this Helper as your subordinate, for that would be blasphemy, but as the Lord and Giver of life, and as the church's Counselor, Leader and Director.  As the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, even so Sacred Scripture proceeds from Him.  He chose and inspired its writers to record the Perfect Witness to the salvation that is found in the cross of Jesus alone.

By this same Scripture, He who is the Keeper and Expositor of all truth leads us into all truth.  In the Bible He unveils the mysteries of God to us.  By it He teaches us how to repent, how to believe, how to worship, how to love one another, and how to live sober-minded and self-controlled lives in this present evil age.

Although it is a sticky point with Lutherans, let us recognize today that the Spirit doesn't only use sacred Scripture for His work, but sacred tradition as well.  What is sacred tradition?  First is this divine liturgy we now pray, which is nothing else than the Word of God in use by the people of God for His glory and our salvation!  Traditional also includes the church's creeds and confessions by which we witness to all men, not only what the Bible says, but also what it means.

There is sacred Practice as well which includes matters of liturgical actions, art, architecture, decor and much more; things that while not explicitly commanded by Scripture, are taught    to us by the Spirit of Truth, given to us by Him for the church's edification and for the praise and glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.

By our intelligent and steady use of such things:  sacred Scripture, tradition, and practice, we too prove martyrs; witnesses of Jesus who sprinkled us with baptismal water, cleansed us of our sins, gives us His Spirit, and makes us the people of God.  To Him belong glory and dominion forever and ever.  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, May 21, 2017

It's true, my prayers are not all that fervent.

IN JESUS' NAME


THE church is like a bucket with a hole in it.  She is always losing her faith, her religion, her practice, reverence, holiness, vocabulary, self-understanding and her reason for being.

The Spirit, who is the church's power source, is not to blame.  Rather, the unstable element in the mixture is the human one, yet God loves to work this way; to use the weak things of the world, to confound the strong, to use the things that are nothing and to bring to nothing the things that are, but our work today is not to fix the hole for that is impossible as long as God is pleased to allow us a share in His glorious work.  Our job instead is to fill the bucket up again with the sound doctrine and practice of the church of the ages.

Case in point, the 6th Sunday of Easter is known as Rogate Sunday and is dedicated to the theme of prayer.  Surprisingly, Christians today know very little about the subject, but unlike prayer sermons you may have heard, today you will not hear a catechetical review of the subject.  Neither will the pastor urge you to pray more fervently or faithfully.  Nor will you learn any recently discovered technique to make your prayers more effective.  All such   notions ring hollow because they all share the same fatal flaw:  they understand prayer in the abstract terms; as an isolated reality, having a life of its own apart from the church and her worship of the Triune God.

Therefore the first thing we should learn today is that prayer proceeds from this Divine Service; that Christian prayer, which is Christian worship, is something the Spirit accomplishes among us in and through our Lord Jesus Christ who is the church's True Liturgist and the Righteous Man whose prayer availeth much.  Thus when we consider Christian prayer it is corporate, not personal prayer that should be first to come to our minds.  That statement will no doubt shock many people, so let us say it again.  The liturgical prayers of the church, those prayers written down for us in our Service Book and offered before this holy altar come first, and all other prayers Christians offer proceed from here; from this place where Christ our dear Lord is pleased to be with us in gladness and peace.   Now this is not the case for the Protestants by whom we are so strongly influenced; not the case for those "sects and denominations that deny the Gospel by way of the sacraments; and for whom the foundation of prayer is the shrine of their own heart instead of the flesh of Christ that graciously resides on the Christian altar."  The prayer of the Body has primacy.  This is the prayer we offer "with one voice" here in the church's Eucharistic worship which is the church's principle time and place of prayer.

Yes, corporate prayer comes first, but even more specifically the prayers the Bride prays in closest proximity with the Holy Communion she is about to enter with her Holy Groom.  Here perfect glory, laud and honor are rendered to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Here all "sorts and conditions of men" are prayed for well.  This is what Jesus means when He says, "Truly, truly I say to you that whatever you ask the Father in my name, the Father will give to you," but to pray "in Jesus' name" is not accomplished by adding that formula to the end of our petition (though we will never stop doing it.)  Instead, to pray in Jesus' name is a reference to the prayers the church offers in their Divine Service and most   especially those prayed in close proximity with the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Think about it.  When did Jesus give this promise, "whatever you ask the Father in my name, the Father will give to you?"  He gave it on Maundy Thursday as He was instituting the Blessed Sacrament of His body and blood.  That is where He said, "Truly, truly I say to you that whatever you ask the Father in my name, the Father will give to you."  The church has always recognized this fact by consciously embedding the Great Intercessions within the Liturgy of the Sacrament, and more specifically after the Preface on page 24 (The Lutheran Hymnal), and as close to the consecration as possible.

Now the church raises good and true prayers throughout her worship because her worship is prayer and her prayer is worship, but we should learn to think of the Eucharist as the fountainhead of all prayer, even as it is of all mercy!

Once we clearly understand these things and are fully convinced that the Christian altar, not the Christian heart is the wellspring of all prayer, then we can safely speak of all the other petitions a Christian prays which too are worship and which are an extension of the prayer that occurs at this altar, so let us pray; first before the altar, but "at all times and in all places" as well:  in the home, in the world and wherever the Golden Sun of Christ's Love is needed to dispel the devil's wicked works and wicked ways.  Only let us be careful not to think of prayer as something having a life of its own apart from the church's prayer offered here before your very eyes, for the prayers we pray "out there" and "in here" (i.e. the heart) are nothing other than continuations of the prayers offered at this altar; that is prayer offered in Jesus' name.  Neither let us ever think of prayer as an individual enterprise, for no Christian ever prays alone, but always in concert with his Lord and in chorus with the whole church of heaven and hearth.  This is the meaning of the communion of saints we confess in the creed.

Let us especially caution on this Rogate Sunday against understanding prayer as an   adversarial relationship, one in which we must enlist "prayer warriors" and "prayer chains" or hold "national days of prayer" to over-power our gracious God till He raise the white flag   and surrender to us.  These are unnecessary, "for," as Jesus says, "the Father Himself loves you."

Above all let us learn today that to pray in the  name of Jesus is to pray before this holy altar, where Jesus is factually present and where He graciously assents to pardon our sins, hear our prayers, and fill us with every comfort, every consolation, and all joy and peace until we, too, return to the Father from whom we came.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras




Sunday, May 14, 2017

What does it mean that Jesus "gave up the Ghost?"

DIVINE CONVERSATION

Isaiah 12:1-6
James 1:16-21
John 16:5-15

For He will not speak on His own behalf, but will speak whatever He hears, and will announce the things to come.  John 16:14

IT is not without cause that St. John the Evangelist, the author of our Gospel, is also known at St. John the Divine.  Neither is it a random accident that the three statues that adorned our altar on West 43rd Street, and will again beautify it here, are of the Lord with St. Matthew to His left, and St. John to His right.  The reason being that St. Matthew best discloses the Lord's humanity, while St. John unveils His divinity for us.  We perceive it throughout this fourth gospel, but especially in these latter Eucharistic chapters; ones that seem more mysterious than the rest, and that give the impression of shedding space and time, connecting earth to heaven and man to God, but to comprehend them is slow going.  You cannot surf St. John like you do the internet, or give it scant attention like skimming a string of tweets at a red light.  We must be patient.

What does the Lord mean when He says that the Spirit, "will not speak on His own behalf, but will speak whatever he hears," or for that fact, when the Lord says of Himself, "I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me?"

Here we learn the existence of a Divine Conversation.  Here we discern the mutual love and blessed interactions of the person of the Holy Trinity.  Here we get a passing glance of what goes on inside of God, and it is a thrilling thought, but also like trying to stare at the sun!  It's not something a person can do for very long, so for now we must be content simply to know that the sun shines, to soak up its benefits, and to bask in the light of its glory.

Yet that doesn't mean we are clueless either, because Jesus is not just the Son of God, but also the Word of God, and that is not a figure of speech!

As your own words reside within you, even so Jesus is the eternal word that resides within the Father from eternity.  This is what He means when He says, "I am in the Father,"  and St. John is quick to inform us that while no one has ever seen God, the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known to us, not just as intellectual knowledge.  Yes, that is part of it, but the Christian religion is more than notions, doctrines and ideas.  It is the factual forgiveness of sins.  It is life and salvation, calm and consolation, peace and joy, gained for us by our Lord's sacrificial death on the cross, yet it is more besides, because Jesus didn't only win victory over our sins for us, and over the dead works we are so  terribly  addicted to, but He also imparts and distributes the blessings of salvation to us.  He does it here and He is doing it now.  Those are the Good and Perfect gifts that St. James references in his Epistle, that come down from the Father of Lights, who of His own will gave us new birth by Jesus, Word of Truth.

You see, the Divine Service is the place where we are made privy to the Divine Conversation.  Here the Word of God spoken in eternity, and from all eternity is heard by man, seen by man, believed by man, followed by man, experienced by man.  We are those men.  For what else is Christian worship than a divine Conversation between God and humanity using the  language of God.  Here God speaks, and we like little children learning how to talk, take in His words until we can repeat them for ourselves and learn what they mean, so that God's Word becomes our word, our language, the very breath that we breathe.

When the Lord gave His Word to Ezekiel, He commanded the prophet:  "Eat this scroll, and go speak to the house of Israel."  "So I opened my mouth,"  says Ezekiel, "and He gave me this scroll to eat.  And He said to me, "Son of man feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it."  Then I ate it and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth.  And He said to me, "Son of man, go to the House of Israel and speak with my words to them.""

What the church did in #zekiel's day 2,600 years ago, it still does today.  It gives voice to God's words and invites all who long for divine consolation in the face of insurmountable evil to join this Divine Conversation.

Yet we don't only hear God's word in this house, but like Ezekiel we can eat it too; not in the form of a scroll, but under the forms of bread and wine; not the corpse of Jesus dead on the cross, but His resurrected glorified and all-powerful body; which in turn gives power, glory and indestructible life to us and there is nothing better than that!

As part of His last will and testament made on the night in which He was handed over for our transgressions, the Lord wants us to know that it is the Helper, God's own Spirit, who informs, leads and guides the church into all truth.  That night the disciples were convinced that there was nothing better than having Jesus with them, but the Lord tells them differently.  "It is to your advantage that I go away,"  He says, "for if I do not go the Helper will not come to you," so Jesus went away.  He went where no man could to do what no man can.  He went to the cross where the Word Made Flesh suffered the full force of our sins and our judgment in order to render sinners righteous by faith.  We are those sinners so   rendered.  He went away beyond death, beyond the grave and returned to the Father from which He came, but He did not leave us orphans.  On the contrary, as He bowed His head in death, St. John reports that He "handed over the Spirit," and He is the one who, by holy baptism, makes us participants in this Divine Conversation;  one that will continues into the ages of ages.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras







Sunday, May 7, 2017

Who are "those in error?"

PRAY FOR THE LIGHT


Almighty God, you show those in error the light of Your truth so that they may return to the way of righteousness.  Grant faithfulness to all who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ's church that they may avoid whatever is contrary to their confession and follow all such things as are pleasing to you.

THIS morning let us delve more deeply into today's collect because it has so much to say to us.  In it we ask our God to "show those in error the light of His truth," but who exactly are we talking about?

The obvious answer is the entire unbelieving world, because contrary to human dogma, people are not "basically good."  The verdict of Scripture is quite the opposite; that like so many crack-babies, people are born into the addiction of their parents, born addicted to sin, to devotion to rebellion, and enmity with their Creator, and though we may come into this world in perfect bodily health, spiritually speaking we entire it blind, deaf, mute and lame.  Every inclination of the heart of man is only evil all the time.  (Gen. 6:5)  We have no natural or inborn love or trust for the Almighty, but on the contrary are born rebels and the only god we truly serve is our own bellies.  That is the spiritual condition of every person born into the world.

Yet it is for this very reason that God gave His one and only Son to be our Savior.  Jesus did not come to "fix" us, but to save us.  He who is Perfect God, became Perfect Man; who by His life, death and death-defying resurrection saved and redeemed humanity from its fatal flaw.  He is the True Light that enlightens every man that comes into the world.  

It is also for this very reason that God also provided holy baptism, so that by means of it we might gain access into this grace in which we now stand, so that we might be born a second time, born from above with God as our Father and Jesus as our Brother.

For this reason, because of the ongoing sins of the flesh, He also gives holy absolution, so that those who confess their sins will learn that God is faithful and just, forgives our sins, and continually cleanses us from all unrighteousness.

For this reason He also provides holy worship, holy communion and holy prayer so that even men who are made of dust and will return to dust can share now the immortal life God grants us in Christ.

Who else do we mean when we pray for those "in error?"  We also here pray for those who have given up their first love and have returned to the broad and easy road.  It happens, but we also know that Jesus relentlessly searches for his lost sheep.  He often recovers them by allowing all manner of trouble to plague their lives until they exhaust every earthly prop and can find not peace or rest, and there is only one way left to look:  UP, so we should never grieve as those who have no hope when we think of our fallen angels, for He who began a good work in all He has called will bring it to completion on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He is faithful.  He will do it.

Who else do we pray for when we speak of those "in error?"  We also mean those who are weak in their faith, tempted and torn each hour, assaulted by the devil and filled with anxiety, conflict, and doubt.  That is to say, we pray for ourselves, that we might gain strength, remain faithful, love the beauty of holiness, and overcome all temptation to believe or act contrary to our confession of faith.

We pray that God would grant faithfulness to  all of the above:  to the blind world, that it might come to faith by the light of the glorious gospel; for those who have fallen by the way that they might be restored; and for ourselves that we should not engage in self-righteousness, because remember, it is the sinful tax collector who went down to his house justified in the parable, and not the self-righteous Pharisee.  You are not better than the person you disparage:  the blind heathen, the fallen angel or any other person.  Indeed to think any other way is to elevate oneself over Christ who alone makes men righteous by His blood.,  There is nothing worse than that, but when we pray such prayers we should understand that we are not praying alone.  No Christian ever prays alone.  First and foremost the Holy Spirit carries the church's prayer to the Father and translates our very awkward and stumbling hopes into ones that are perfect in every way.  As if this were not enough, we know that Jesus is seated in glory at the right hand of the Father and is always interceding for His church.  You are that church.  Neither is that all, because the whole church of heaven and earth joins the chorus as well.  This is what we mean by "the communion of saints."

How does this prayer get answered?  How do people "return to the way of righteousness," remain faithful to the church's confession, and act in accordance with it?   This is the "business" the church conducts every Sunday as she prays for God to deliver her from evil, give her His Holy Spirit and every good and perfect gift from above.

Now we all know that what happens in Mexico may stay in Mexico, but what happens here does not.  Instead the grace here received goes into the world as this "noble army of men and boys, matron and maid." (TLH #452)  Take to heart what St. Peter says in today's epistle lesson, "Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul; and to keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation."

This is who we pray for then:  the blind world, the fallen that they might be restored to the joy of salvation, and for ourselves lest we too should fall; and this glorious prayer is answered in this holy house.  God be praised.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras


Sunday, April 30, 2017

I don't deserve this treatment!

PATIENT SUFFERING


For it is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 1 Peter 2:19


THERE is a saying in theology, "lex orandi lex credendi."  It means that people worship as they believe, and believe as they worship.  It works both ways, but today's epistle puts that theory to the test.

Do we believe what St. Peter writes in the epistle we read for your worship today?  That to suffer unjustly is a gracious thing in the sight of God?  An act of worship as surely as the Divine Liturgy we pray this day?

You can be certain that you won't learn any such lessons in school, neither does the world's catechism have that as one of its "Chief Parts." but this is our faith:  For it is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly."

To say that this word of God challenges us is an understatement.  No one wants to suffer, justly or otherwise.  We all love our skin too much.  We all love our creature comforts too much.  St. Paul affirms the same in Ephesians chapter five when he writes, "...for no man ever hated his own body, but nourishes it and cherishes it..."  We are those "men."  It is who we are, what we do, and we need not apologize for it because self-preservation is as natural as breathing.  We cannot do otherwise.  Yet the Word of God we hear today asks us to do just that; to act contrary to our nature, and to imitate our Lord Jesus Christ, "who when He was insulted did not insult in return.  Who when He suffered did not threaten His tormentors in return, but prayed for them, and entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly."

May we all learn to do that today; to entrust ourselves to Him who judges justly, because as you know people do not.  Human reason, infected by sin, is like a computer teeming with virus, so that it can no longer do what it's supposed to do, so we should not be surprised when people act irrationally, unjustly, or ignorantly; not only not surprised, but we should expect this to be the case, expect public sentiment to lead to illogical behavior, to lead to irrational laws, and finally to persecution of those who won't go along with the program.

The believers to whom St. Peter writes were such people as all Christians should be; that is to say, people who don't go along with the program.  Make no mistake about it.  The hearers of Peter's sermon were good citizens, good neighbors and contributing members of society, so should we all be, but they would not worship Caesar.  They would not burn a pinch of incense at the local Caesar shrine when asked, and it did not take long before a full blown persecution began that lasted for some 260 years.

Christians became persona non grata against whom all manner of assault was permitted.  They suffered the whole range of persecution:  verbal assaults, exclusion, fines, confiscation of property, imprisonment and often enough torture and cruel death because they would not worship Caesar, but worshiped Jesus instead.  We should do the same, however much the world objects, and it does!

Our hymn, #430, "What is the World to Me," teaches us this in memorable words.  In verse 5 we sing, "The world is sorely grieved, Whenever it is slighted.  Or when its hollow fame, And honor have been blighted.  Christ, Thy reproach I bear, Long as it pleaseth Thee; I'm honored by my Lord, "What is the world to me!"

At this time we still have religious freedom, but it daily becomes more acceptable to bash what Christians hold dear.  What God calls good is now called evil by the culture; and what God calls evil is now praised in glowing terms.  This is persecution.

One might posit that sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me, but it does hurt.  To the person who has "the mind of Christ," who has captured glimpses of glory in holy worship, and who feasts on the Truth of God as given in Holy Scripture, it is excruciating to observe; to watch as America eats her young, as she praises and glorifies sins that run counter to nature, reason and anatomy, but we must be silent about it because our beliefs are no longer welcome in polite company or tolerated in the public square.  Yet in the church we will not be silent, whatever the consequences might be.

Now it's true that, "we have not yet resisted to the point of shedding our blood," as the preacher to the Hebrews says, but many Christians have the world over, especially at the hands of Muslims, and the storm clouds are gathering.  We may or may not be living in the "end times" as Christians use that term, but we are living in the end times of a brief day when the Christian religion was the light of the world and the salt of the earth.

We might well ask the question posed in Psalm 11:3, "if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?"  St. Peter answers this way, "...what glory is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure?  But if in doing good you patiently endure suffering, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.  For to this you were called."  Why?  "Because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps.  He committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth.  When He was insulted He did not insult in return; when He suffered He did not threaten, but entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly."

"He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree; so that we might die to sin, and live to righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed.  For you were like sheep being led astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls."

We are those people so restored!  As such let us follow the example of our Lord, and suffer patiently, but not as those who have no hope, yet rather as people who are conscious of God, and who entrust themselves to the One who judges justly.  For He is our true Father and we are His true children in Christ.  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras