Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Living a Godly Life by the Examples of History

HAGIOGRAPHY


And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has regarded the humble estate of his maidservant: for behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me and holy is His name!  And His mercy extends from generation to generation of those who fear Him!  Luke 1:46-50

HAGIOGRAPHY is the body of Christian literature that tells the stories of the martyrs and saints of the ages.  It was written to instruct and edify us, and to teach us what true faith and a godly life are all about.  Many of the church's saints are biblical ones that all Christians recognize:  Noah, David, Esther, Ruth, the Evangelists & Apostles, St. Stephen the first Christian martyr, and St. James the second Christian martyr.

There are many others that followed in their sacred train:  Clement, Ignatius, Justin, Polycarp, Perpetua, Felicitas, Sebastian, Agnes, Alban, Basil, Gregory and the Venerable Bede, who is the author of our beautiful Ascension hymn #212 "A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing."  These are just a few, but the most blessed of all is the one whose feast the church celebrates today, St. Mary the Mother of our Lord, even as we hear in today's text:  "From now on all generations will call me blessed for He who is mighty has done great things for me."

Yet for a thousand years, from the 6th to the 16th century, hagiography turned sour.  The worship, prayers and praises due to God alone were redirected to the Blessed Virgin, and to a host of other saints so that people prayed to them, loved and trusted and put their hope in them instead of the Heavenly Father who alone supplies our every need, now and in eternity.  It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the biggest grievances the Lutheran Reformers had against Rome is this very practice.

In Article XXI of the Augsburg Confession, which is our chief Lutheran confession of faith, the Reformers repudiate the false teachings and practices that had become so deeply entrenched in the medieval church (and still continues today), but they didn't only reject what was wrong, they also taught what was right, because they were reformers, not revolutionaries!  For at the end of the day hagiography is a good and blessed thing; one the church disregards at her own peril.

So, how do we rightly remember the martyrs and saints today?  It is the Lutheran Faith for which Christians should first thank God for converting sinners into saints by holy baptism, for you see, none of the saints started out as saints, but as died-in-the-wool sinners, just like us, just like all people.  Yet if they can be made new creations in Christ, reasoned the reformers, then we can too, and this is reason to rejoice!

Secondly, our Lutheran confessions teach that we should praise God for giving the world such heroes of faith to be our examples of holiness, perseverance, patience in suffering, and of ultimate trust in God above for every need and every blessing; for giving us flesh and blood human beings, who by faith in Jesus, resisted the siren song of the culture; rejected the world's shallow wisdom and irrational ways of life; and who devoted themselves to the  -teachings of Holy Scriptures as the only viable path for life.

Thirdly, our Lutheran Confessions teach that all people should imitate their faith, and the holy works their faith inspired.  In this respect the church has many great saints, but none more honored throughout the ages than St. Mary the Mother of our Lord, whom the church remembers today.

Now it goes without saying that we do not pray to her or ask her to pray for us, or to intercede for us with her Blessed Son because that very Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, is the one and only High Priest, Intercessor and Mediator there is between God and man.  No other can help, no other can save, no other can intercede.

Therefore in accord with our Lutheran faith let us this day join the Blessed Virgin Mary in magnifying God Most High for the holy Child she bore who is the world's Savior, and for her example of humility, faith, and holy devotion to God.

When the angel Gabriel first appeared to make the happy announcement (Annunciation / March 25th), the young Virgin was greatly troubled and deeply distressed, but Gabriel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall all his name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  And the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end..."

Hearing this she was not only troubled, but now confused and perplexed beyond telling.  She said to the Angel, "how can these things be since I am a Virgin?"  To which Gabriel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy - the Son of God."  To which the Blessed Virgin answered with these immortal words, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word."

Here is an example to follow; a most blessed model of humility, faith, and devotion to our God, but humility is a virtue that has gone missing in our day!  We must find it again because no man can be saved without it, and because Mary's Son says many times in the holy Gospel:  "whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted."  There's nothing better than that.

Where can we find this godly virtue?  How can we learn it along with pure faith and unwavering devotion to our God and to His perfect will for our lives?  In a word hagiography; by studying the example of the Blessed Virgin and the saints of the ages, not only the ones written in Holy Scripture, but all those who followed in their train.

May we learn their stories, imitate their virtue, and rejoice with all the company of heaven, in never-ending gladness at the throne of the Lamb.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, August 6, 2017

In this world that is changing, turning upside down so quickly...

LOOK TO THE WORD FOR CERTAINTY

public domain
Consider the room underneath our sanctuary, where the various cabinets and closets are.  If the power ever goes off down there, you are really in the dark.  In the days when I used to watch recess at LMS, I would sometimes take a grade down there on a rainy day and turn off all the lights.  They loved it!  You could hold your hand this far from your nose and not see it.  What an accurate metaphor for the world we live in!  The Gospel is the sunshine, the energy that enlightens a world that has no energy of its own.  It has gloom, and despair, and a sense of the tragic.  Human reason is not a light.  It is a mirror that reflects and focuses light as long as one is shining, but reason is fallen, compromised by sin, so the only thing it is able to reflect is more darkness.  Like a flashlight downstairs, the Word of God, the completely reliable Word of God, penetrates the darkness.  When Peter refers to "the prophetic Word," he means the Old Testament, which in his day was the Bible.  The apostles added more details, but the message is always the same.  The Biblical message enlightens those who pay attention to it. No one else has anything but darkness.

Now let's go a few verses up from our sermon text, up to verse 4 in fact.  There Peter referred to something unparalleled in human experience.  He said that Christ shared His divine nature with us.  Think about that!  It isn't enough that He took away our sins!  It isn't enough that we have peace in our hearts!  It isn't enough that we have comfort in the day of trouble, or the hope of heaven.  We have all those, to be sure, but now He gives us a share in His divinity.  Wasn't this the very thing that the snake offered the universal mother?  His way to get that was by disobeying.  Jesus gives us the opposite.  His perfect obedience is credited to us.  He gives a spiritual life that begins when we are born again of water and the Spirit.  Even as heaven and earth were born when the Spirit moved on the primeval water, so we are born again when we are washed and sanctified by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, applied through Holy Baptism.  Our Catechism calls this life "the new man."

We think our technology enlightens us.  It might give us capabilities, for good or evil, but it cannot make us divine.  It raises the stakes, but does not give us a better hand.  It took a generation to learn the secrets of the atom.  Within a decade mankind made it into the most destructive bomb imaginable.  The church has also been seduced by technology, such as management techniques, marketing, and entertainment.  The results have been dreadful.  Instead of the shepherd, the model for clergy has become the CEO.  Instead of ministry, the church pursues people management.  Instead of worship, insert entertainment.  The church has come to dislike doctrine, but if you don't have doctrine, you don't have a church.  Without the divine light, the church is just another part of the darkness.

Peter contrasts the certainty of the Word with the myths devised by men.  Some scholars have called the Gospel a myth.  That had better not be the case.  If the Gospel is a myth, if Jesus didn't really die and rise again, then there is no point in having a church.  No one can build faith on a myth.  The ethical teachings of Jesus are meaningless unless He had authority to say them.  The Christian Gospel is the one certain, true word that we have in our society today.  It isn't "my truth" or "the church's truth."  It is the truth.  I cannot impose it on you, but I can be the messenger who says that when Jesus returns, He will impose it on the world.  That is how it is going to be.

Our world does have myths.  Secular humanism has its mythical narrative which it calls the story of Progress.   It teaches that mankind heroically overcomes all obstacles by applying technology over nature, including finally his own nature.  There are also spiritual myths, that talk about the higher self, or the masters, or reincarnation.  All such things are devised by men.  No matter how sincere those who hold them might be, they are wrong.  Nothing against sincerity, but it does not make up for being wrong.  Stalin was a sincere Communist, which made him a lackey of hell.  You can say the same thing of Mohammed, or the New Age people.

Christians are not against spirituality so long as you keep it connected to holiness.  Christian spirituality seeks the cross.  New Age spirituality is self-indulgent, disobedient, striving for the very things the snake offered in Genesis 3.  There have always been some in the church that have tried to combine Christianity with the occult.  Unfortunately, that turns lights off, not on.

But the apostles did not make up stories.  They wrote about what they saw and heard.  On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John heard the Voice.  They knew God was speaking to them.  They saw Jesus glorified in their presence, for as Peter tells us in verse 18, we were with Him on the holy mountain.  Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus, representing the Law and the Prophets, but the core of the Gospel took place on another hill. Jesus did not bask in the glory of the Transfiguration.  He was headed for Calvary.  Immediately He warned the apostles not to talk about what they had seen until after He died and rose again.  The good news is that He did both of those things.

Is there any compelling reason why we should believe the apostles?  Why not?  They were practical men, not visionaries.  They were experienced men of the world, not very gullible.  They had no conflict of interest, since the government threatened them with death for telling what they had seen.  They were men of good repute, honest and industrious.  In the story they wrote, they did not make their own roles very heroic, but they did keep their eyes on the Scriptures, showing us how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies.  Why should we not believe them?  This is not a myth.  This is the one genuine light in the dark world.  We witness to this whenever we light the altar candles, beginning at the top to show that all light must come from God.  The Word is our witness from the Holy Spirit, to make us certain that Jesus has saved us, that forgiveness and life are ours by His cross.  We can find certainty nowhere else.  We can look to the Word.  Soon the dawn of eternity will swallow up the darkness of time.  Until then, pay attention to the Light that we do have.  AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Monday, July 31, 2017

In Light of Certain Human Manipulations of the Word to Justify Church Growth Programs

ONLY GOD CAN MAKE A CHURCH


Visitors who attend worship services often complain about feeling left out.  Everybody seems to have a common agenda, but there is something esoteric about it.  They wonder why the others who have come don't extend to them a formal greeting.  Don't they know we're visitors?  The answer is probably not.  You are the victim of the illusion that everybody else "belongs" here.  The person sitting next to you is most likely to have been a member here for less than ten years, and a good chance for less than five.  They don't know who is new because they don't know who is old.  Of course that's no reason not to greet them.  Everyone has an interesting story, one you will never learn unless you introduce yourself.  There's nothing to be afraid of. It might even prod that person into welcoming somebody else next time.

However, the church is not a social club.  We are interested in our fellow members, but not for social reasons.  We are all part of a body.  The worship service is not about the body, it is about the Head. That is why we focus our attention on the chancel area.  Here the Head of the Church meets us through the means of grace.  Is that a new term to you?  Well, the means of grace are the ductwork of the Holy Spirit to bring new life to us; they consist of God's Word and the Sacraments He instituted.  As we look forward we can see three chief stations: the altar, the font, and the pulpit.  Those are the instruments we use to access the Word and Sacraments. We are the members, so we look forward to the Head, Jesus Christ.  Especially, we are here to remember His Incarnation, and the great salvation He brought to us by becoming man.  We face the east because the rising sun is a symbol of the Second Coming of Jesus.  He promised to return, so we look for Him as the watchers look for the dawn.  He will end the night of sin and evil, and begin the morning of eternal life.  Our particular church building is fortunate so that it points to the physical east.  If we were across the street we would call the west end the east end because that's the way we would face.  We don't sit around at tables looking at one another because we aren't here to see one another.  We are here to see the Lord.   Here we receive what we can find nowhere else.  Men can no more make the church than they can make the world.  Only God can make a Church.

Nor do we come to look at the pastor.  It is true that the pastor has a very visible role in this process of spiritual feeding, but we no more come here to see the pastor than we go to a restaurant to see the waiter.  We might stay away because of an obnoxious pastor, or we may be very comfortable with a pastor we're used to, but this is not the pastor's church, this is Christ's Church.  We come before the altar because we need Jesus.  Remember, we come here to get what we can get nowhere else.  We do not get it from the other members. Although the pastor might place it in front of us, it isn't his to give.  Jesus is meeting us through the means of grace.  We come here for the Word and Sacraments that are gifts of our Savior.  We expect to receive forgiveness, life, and salvation.  The pastor cannot make the church.  Only God can make a Church.

Never say that you do not have time for worship!  Some people decide whether or not to attend divine service the same way they decide whether to go to a seminar or a lecture.  They are treating divine things as if they were merely human.  A seminar or a lecture are merely one person's notes.  What we have here is holy.  The Supper of Christ is a divine drama upon which the angels gaze in reverent awe.  Is that what we cannot find time for?  Whatever light, whatever love may reach people through this society, or any other society, is borrowed from Holy Mother Church.  The Golden Rule is the doctrine of Jesus.  Protection of life, liberty and property are simply ways of implementing the Ten Commandments.  Secular attempts at institutionalizing good - such as the famous "human rights" we hear so much about today - are like the moon reflecting the light of the sun, which is a pale imitation, in fact, a very flawed imitation.  When secular humanists try to establish human rights without God, that is like trying to get the moon to shine without the sun.  It will come to naught because it will not be blessed.  Society cannot make a church.  Only God can make a Church, and He has.  His truth, His compassion, and the victory of His death and resurrection are all in our midst as we gather here.  It is true that the actual sacrifice of Jesus took place many years ago, but the atonement He made is for keeps.  As we look at the altar we can practically hear St. John the Baptist saying, Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  We can also reason, then, that the Lamb has redeemed us as individuals, and cleansed us in the Fountain of Life.  He might not make us nice, but He does make us holy.

Now while we might not come here to look at one another, still we're glad that everybody came.  We are also like the moon, only we know it.  That bright love beams down on us.  We cannot help but reflect it.  We come to worship the Head, but we do it together as a group, rejoicing in the members as well.  We reflect His joy by rejoicing in one another, especially in sharing the gifts we have been given for the common good.  We publish a church directory to help members recognize one another.  We publicize birthdays and anniversaries, announce when members or relatives are in the hospital, so that as St. Paul encourages us we rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.  Yes, I know social clubs have something like that, but we go a step further.  We urge our members to admonish one another, to privately warn whoever is straying from the path of godliness, moving away from the light into the darkness.  The pastor is called to do it in public, but everyone does this in private.  We are not to gossip about it, nor to become cold and distant, nor to give anyone the silent treatment, nor worst of all, to send anonymous messages.   Nothing is so cowardly and repulsive as anonymous criticism.  Rather, we must reclaim all the erring in the Savior's name.

In the past few decades a movement has emerged claiming that the point of worship is to make people feel good.  No.  We are here to remember the incarnation of the Son of God, to receive forgiveness of sins, to be warned out of impenitence by the preaching of God's Law, to thirst for the Fountain of Life and then, by the Gospel, to drink from it.  We baptize the convert and his offspring, we give the Body and Blood of Christ to the faithful that they may be satisfied with His grace.  That is why we are here.  We also praise His name, offer our petitions, and are encouraged to live according to the doctrine we believe, but primarily we are to be forgiven and restored.  Feelings can come into it, but we cannot start with them.  We must begin with the human will.  Now interacting with the Law and the Gospel is often very moving.  I would hope that everyone would be moved by the depth of God's love, and cheered by the height of his victory.  Start, however, with the will and the intellect and holiness can grow into the feelings as well.  Do these things in the right order, and we can accomplish them all.  And the right order is first we receive what is good from God, then we reflect His goodness.  AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Monday, July 24, 2017

On Baptism and Confirmation

THE LIVING END


Now these things happened to them as an example,but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages is come. 1 Corinthians 10:11

WE have an expression in English, "the living end," that we use to describe the outermost limits of any situation; of reaching the point beyond which there is no where left to go, no  where left to proceed.

The NBA championship in late June (2016), and the victory party in downtown Cleveland attended by a million and half people, was "the living end" for diehard Cleveland sports fans.  People whether they were sports fans or  not, came to celebrate.  They braved the crowds, bought the T-shirts and danced in the streets for this great mark of distinction for our beleaguered city.

This past week (2016)  political junkies who attended the RNC here in Cleveland experienced "the living end" of republican politics.  People came from all over the nation, and all over the world to attend, promote their cause, or just to be part of the experience.  Area residents poured into downtown in record number to feel the glory and behold the spectacle  so that one day they'd be able to tell their grandkids, "I was there."

It's not hard to understand these things, but because we are spiritually dull it is very hard to understand this little phrase that St. Paul writes in his sermon to the Corinthians, "upon whom the end of the ages is come."

When St. Paul wrote these words he was talking about the very things that are occurring   here today.   The Eucharistic Feast that either a person recognizes and loves with his whole  heart and soul and mind and strength; or that he is too dull to understand, so he despises it with equal fervor; and to be neutral to it, is to despise it.

To miss this event is to miss life, salvation, peace, joy, comfort, strength, consolation, courage in the face of death, and the way of escape God provides for every test and every   temptation.  To despise it is to worship yourself, and to befriend the world about you, which means to be at enmity with God.

This Great Feast we celebrate today has many parts to it but they are all ingredients of the one cake, the one prize, the one hope.  Here is the place where we pray, praise and give thanks; the place we confess our sins and receive divine pardon for them, the venue where our cup overflows with God's Word, where we confess our faith with "one voice" and make our gifts and offerings to our God.  Nothing bad ever happens here, but only good!  No one who comes here ever leaves the poorer for it, but always richer than when he came.

This is "the living end;" the place where all the future promises of heaven, the things we firmly believe, and ardent hope are set before us now.  We see them with our eyes, hear them with our ears, feel them in our emotions and taste them with our lips.  Here the "end of the ages, " the future promises of God are brought into the present.  Here the "sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest."  You are those sparrows and swallows.

But there are prerequisites for entering this holy house, and for receiving these staggering gifts; the very things we witnessed a few moments ago.

The first prerequisite is the sacrament of holy baptism.  By it those who are born of the flesh are born anew and begotten from above by the power of the Spirit.  In baptism sinners doomed to wrath and punishment for the "sins of their fathers, " and for their own sins, obtain the full redeeming benefits of the Lord's cross and resurrection.  Their wrongs are remitted.  They are delivered from death and the devil, gain a good conscience before God,   and receive every good and perfect gift from the Father of Lights.  In baptism children of men become children of God.  The old way of life dies and a new and better life commences.  Today Jason commences this new life.

The second prerequisite to partaking in the Eucharistic Feast is the rite of confirmation by which those who believe with their hearts confess the true faith with their lips before the believing assembly.   St. Paul writes, "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved."  Our Lord Jesus Christ also says, "Whoever confesses me before men, I will confess before my Father in heaven.  But whoever denies me before men, I will deny before my Father in heaven."

Today, following a period of dedicated study, four beloved children of God are making that  very confession, even as all of you have, and they will now join the Eucharistic Feast, the Mysteries of god, the Living End.

For this we rejoice with the angels of heaven and give eternal praise and glory to our gracious God and Father.  Let the feast begin.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, July 17, 2017

Put the flesh away while there is still time

THE STORM OF THE LORD


Behold, the storm of the LORD!  Wrath is gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked.  The anger of the LORD will not turn back until He has executed and accomplished the intents o f His heart.  In the latter days you will understand it perfectly.  Jeremiah 23:19-20

THESE are the latter days and we do understand what Jeremiah was telling the church in his day, or at least we should.  He was preaching Christ and Him crucified.  He was speaking of the Lord's death, burial and resurrection on the third day by which our sins are covered if we hold fast to the Gospel, unless we have believed in vain; but in Jeremiah's day, some 600 years before the Lord's birth, the people did not believe or understand what was coming upon them.  Neither were they of a mind to know.

A spirit of deep deception settled over them and they believed a lie, just like people do today.  They believed that they could follow the happy message of the false prophets rather than the true and holy Word of God.  As a result they turned away from the Lord.  They banished religion from their minds.  They despised the ten commandments.  They found plausible ways to dismiss God's claim on their lives, just like we do today.  Rather than devote their lives to His service which is the true vocation of man, they dedicated themselves to sin; to every fleshly pleasure, even as they rejected every duty to live as the redeemed people of God.  If you look at America today you will have a good understanding of Judean life in the 6th century B.C.

Because of their complete disregard of all things true and eternal, they were about to experience "the storm of the Lord."  They were about to lose everything they held dear:  their nation, their temple, their families, their liberty, their hopes and their future; and no one was able to save them.

Their kings fainted with fear at the "whirling tempest' that was about to make landfall.  Their priests and prophets went into hiding; and the people became like sheep without a shepherd as a pack of ravenous Babylonian wolves pounced down upon them with teeth of iron and   claws of brass.

Jeremiah, the only true prophet of the day, tried to warn the church against playing fast and loose with God.  He preached his message to anyone who would listen:  to the king, the priests, the false prophets and to the people directly, but no one would listen.  Their sin had lulled them into a deep cultural coma, even as ours does right now and they stood helpless,   even as we do today.

If we give any credence at all to God in 21st century America it is a god of our own choosing: a god who loves puppy dogs, but condones abortion; a god made in our own image and likeness who justifies our twisted values, our frantic pursuit of luxury, ease, self-gratification and of getting something for nothing.  What should be sanctified is now sexualized, monetized, politicized and distorted beyond recognition; marriage, family, church, duty, honor, good order and the like.

Because of this "the storm of the Lord" is come upon both church and state today in the form of poverty, disease, terrorism, discontent, hopelessness, lawlessness, addiction, restless minds and itching flesh that can never be satisfied however many perversions it invents.  We suffer for our sins because we are irreverent, faithless, careless and thoughtless about what is most important, and the anger of the LORD will not turn back until he has executed and   accomplished the intents of His heart.

Yet in this jeremiad, not one, but two great truths are to be found:  First the Law! That   mighty Word from God that crushes our stubborn spirits and fills us with dread so that we   finally fall down in humility and repentance before Him.  Then the Gospel, the mightiest of all doctrines and the only source of comfort, peace, calm and joy to be had.

The Gospel is this:  that the "storm" Jeremiah predicted does not fall upon us but upon the Sacred Head of our Lord Jesus Christ; "who was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities."  He is our Refuge, our Fortress, our Shield, and our Buckler.  He is the One who"became sin for us, " that we might become "the righteousness of God in Him!"  And so we are!

While God exacted the price from Israel for her sins and while He still disciplines us for ours even now; the true intent of His heart is not the death of the sinner, but the death of His Son on the cross "for us men and for our salvation."  This is life.  This is peace.  This is joy in the face of all sorrow, and courage in the face of all danger.

Our Lord's death on the cross was not a political accident but the supreme expression of God's love for the world.  If you want to know who the true God is and what He is like, then look at Jesus on the cross.  "Mark that miracle of time, God's own sacrifice complete!  It is finished hear Him cry, learn of Jesus Christ to die."  (TLH #159)

These are not mere words for us, Dear Christians, because in baptism we do in fact die with Christ; not only die, but are also raised again.  St. Paul says it like this:  "If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things below.  For you have died (baptism), and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.  Put to death, therefore, what is earthly in you:  sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.  On account of these the wrath of God is coming;"  but not to you O Baptized Believer;  not to sinners whose wrongs are expunged by Him who endured the Storm of the Lord on the cross for us.  "Thy sins be forgiven thee, go in peace."  Amen

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Dead or alive?

OUR DWELLING PLACE


Now if we died along with Christ we believe that we shall live with Him also, knowing that Christ being raised from death will never die again, death no longer having dominion over him.  For in that He died, He died to sin once for all; but in that He lives, He lives to God.  Likewise you also must   consider yourselves to be dead as far as sin in concerned; but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Romans 6:8-11

AS Christians we live with great contradiction.  Our sins are forgiven but we still suffer from them.  The punishment we merit is rescinded but the Lord still disciplines those whom He loves.  We have life in Christ now and forever, but like St. Paul we die daily, and are killed all the day long.  We profess the holy Christian faith.  We speak the language of men and of angels in holy worship; and eat the bread of angels from the Table of Life, but when we leave this sanctuary, this place of safety where true joys are found, sin is crouching at the door, and the Roaring Lion is seeking to devour us.

What are we to think?  Are we God's children or are we not?  Are we new creations in Christ  or are we not?  Will we persevere in faith and make it to heaven when we die, or will we be condemned to outer darkness where there is no forgiveness of sins, but only weeping and gnashing of teeth?

St. Paul answers the question for us in today's Epistle.  He dispels the confusion and the contradiction when he says, "you also must consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord."  That, dear Christians, is how we are to think of ourselves:  dead as far as sin is concerned, but alive to God, to all His glories, blessings and promises, all of which are found in and reside in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What does it mean to be dead to sin?  We take Jesus as our example.  He did not only die FOR sin on the cross; for our sins that is, in order to delete them and set us free, but He also died TO sin.  When our Lord bowed His head and died sin lost all power over Him.  He was now beyond its ambit; beyond its influence; deaf to its siren song.  He could no longer be tempted and will never die again, for the death He died on Calvary's Cross He died once; for all sin, and for all sinners; and is become the source of eternal salvation or us.

Yet the redemption we possess in Christ is not a sham or charade, so St. Paul says, "...let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us conduct ourselves properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh."  This very thing we do when we enter the Pool of Siloam, and the Spirit stirs the waters to dissolve and wash away our every sin.  However, the new life we have in Christ is not only a matter of what we are dead to, but also what we are alive to.  We emerge from the holy waters dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ.

What does it mean to be alive to God?  By definition, a son is one who is inclined   towards his father, who comes close to his breast so that he might hear every word his father has to say.  As Jesus was inclined towards the Father from eternity; as St. John reclined on the breast of Jesus at the first holy communion, even so as sons of God who cry out to Him, "Abba Father who art in heaven," let our ears, our wills, our intellects and all our powers be attuned, not to the voice of the culture about us, but to the word and will of our Father in heaven. 

How is this done?  Not on our own to be sure, but as St. Paul says "in Christ Jesus our Lord."  Always pay attention to the prepositions when hearing Holy Scripture!

When St. Paul uses the term "in Christ" nearly 100 times in his epistles, he is not speaking in metaphors but about our baptism "into Christ" by water and the word.  Then and there we    are clothed "in Him."  We "put on Christ" as St. Paul says.  We are arrayed in Him and His righteousness like a beautiful garment, even as we sang in the sermon hymn a few moments ago, the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as St. Thomas' doubting hands were plunged into the Lord's open side, even so we are now located safely and soundly from all death and all sin in Christ Jesus our Lord, and nothing is better than that!

Baptism in turn gives us entrance into this holy house which is His house, His temple, the very Kingdom of Heaven. To be in this house, communing with Jesus who is factually present is to be literally, "in Christ" and "in the kingdom of heaven and of God."

"In Him," says St.Paul, "we have obtained an eternal inheritance..."  Ephesians 1:11; "In Him we are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit."  Ephesians 2:22; "In Him we gain the righteousness from God that comes by faith."  Philippians 3:12

"In Christ" we are made one with the immortal, invisible and only wise God who lives in unapproachable light.  "In Christ" we who are by nature sinful and unclean are made spotless and are brought into communion with the mutual love that exists between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."  All this happens at the font and at the high and holy altar of God where we are not only "in Christ" but find that He, too is "in us" by the host (victim) we eat, and the cup we drink.

Jesus says in John 14:23, "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him."  These words should not be heard as metaphor, O saints of God, but be taken in their truest sense.  You are now "in" Christ.  He is your dwelling place for all generations.  Amen

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, July 10, 2017

The circuit of a Christian

THE CIRCLE OF LIFE


And they that had eaten were about four thousand in number; and He sent them away.  Mark 8:9

OUR life as Christians is a continuous circuit to and from this holy altar.  We come to eat Living Bread, offer our sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, and then we go home.  Both parts of this journey are important.  (Ps. 121:8)

If you want to eat the Bread of Life, if you want to live forever, then you must come to the altar; not to an imaginary altar that exists in words only, but to the one before your eyes today because it is the mercy seat of God.

In Christian piety the altar represents several different things:

First it represents the manger in which He who "became man" to save His people from their sins, was laid.  A manger was not the cute little cradle that people imagine, but it was a feeding trough for cattle even as the altar is for us.  In this case the various clothes that adorn this Table of Life serve to remind us of the human flesh our Lord assumed and of the swaddling clothes in which the babe of Bethlehem was dressed for our cause.

The altar also points to the empty tomb because the flesh and blood of Jesus that we receive from this heavenly board is not the Lord's dead corpse, but His resurrected, glorified spiritual body.  That is why, just like the bread and fish in today's gospel lesson, it can feed   countless people but never be exhausted.  Now the linens and paraments remind us of the   grave clothes in which the Lord of life was wrapped; but also which He neatly shed by the Spirit who raised Him from the dead.

Yet if there is one reality above all others that the altar symbolizes, it is the blessed cross because the altar is first of all a place of sacrifice.  This is why, though altars can be constructed of various materials, one made of wood preaches the clearest message.  Though it has no tongue, and knows no language, it bespeaks and truly gives us Christ crucified who was sacrificed on the altar of the cross for us in order to delete the sins of the world; your sins, whose wages is nothing but unrest, uncertainty, discontent, endless complications, troubles, sorrow, misery and death now and forever.  "The day you eat of it," the Lord says to adam, "you will surely die," and die he did, as do we because of our relation to him.

However the day you eat this Living Bread, this very glorified flesh and blood of Jesus given to you from this altar, you will live.  The cancer of your sin is put into remission, and health and salvation are yours now and forever.  It is to this very altar that Jesus invites us when he says:  "Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with Me."

For too long Lutherans, influenced by pietism and sloppy sentiment, have spiritualized this altar away.  Religion then became a matter of the heart that could be practiced anywhere and in any fashion some chose, but you can't receive the Bread of Life at Panera Bread   Company on a Sunday morning; only here.

Notice that in today's Gospel lesson the people went where Jesus was, even if that meant   following Him into the Palestinian desert which was a dangerous place, unfit for human   habitation, and that could not support human life.  There they sat in rapt attention forgetting where they were, and forgetting even to eat, as Jesus fed them with the Bread of Heaven.

In the same way if we want Jesus; if we want to have our sins washed away; if we want to gain heavenly knowledge, wisdom, patience and consolation in the face of our sins, and in the face of intrepid evil then we must meet Jesus here where He wants to be met, at the high and holy altar of God.

Yet this miraculous feeding of the 4,000 doesn't only teach us about the Lord's Feast, but also about holy baptism by which we gain admittance to the altar.

St. Mark notes that the people "dwelled" with Him for three days.  "Dwelled" is the language of God's House, the place where holy God and sinful man meet in peace.  The Lord's audience perceived that when they were in Jesus' presence they were in God's  very   house;   communing with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; even as we are this day, in this place, where our Lord is located by His own Word of Promise:  this is my Body, this is my Blood.

Further, whenever we encounter "three days" in Scripture we should automatically think: the Lord's burial and resurrection; not only the glorious even itself, but also of our own baptism because  St. Paul teaches us that we are entombed with Christ, and raised to new and eternal life with him.

"Great is the baptism you received.  It is a ransom to captives; a remission of offenses; a death of sin; a new-birth of the soul; a garment of light; a holy indissoluble seal; a chariot of heaven; the delight of Paradise; a welcome into the kingdom and gift of adoption!"  (St. Cyril of Jerusalem 354 A.D.)

Also, when Jesus notes that they might faint on the "way" He isn't only talking about their return journey, but the daily walk of Christian faith.

It's easy to faint, and the longer we go without this food the weaker we become.  The more prone to all the temptations of the flesh, The more weary, tired, anxious and hopeless, so Jesus says; come unto me all of you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  That is your invitation to the altar.

Finally St. Mark does not neglect this little fact, that when all was said and done, Jesus sent them home.  We, too, for all the unspeakable blessings we receive here must finally return to our homes, to the vocation God has given each of us, because that is where we live out our Christian identity.  The place where we shed impurity and lawlessness which leads only to more lawlessness, but where we yield our reason, our senses and all our members to   righteousness leading to sanctification.

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God, your baptism, is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

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