Monday, October 23, 2017

How do I come before God?

THE BODY OF CHRIST GIVEN FOR YOU


With what shall I come into the LORD's presence; and bow myself down before God Most HIgh?  Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?  He has shown you O Man what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?  Micah 6:6-8

TODAY Micah asks the question people don't ask much anymore.  We live in an evil day; a time when few people want to know God, or even think about Him.  To be sure many admit to a higher power or call themselves spiritual, but no one asks Micah's question anymore, not even the tiny remnant that still comes to His house each week.  Even we take it for granted and think we are entitled to enter this sacred space, to partake in holy communion with the living God, and we're not wrong, except that it's not an entitlement, but a gift of God's grace given in baptism and received by faith alone.  For it is there in the cleansing flood, that we obtain all of the benefits of our Lord's "holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death."  There we are "delivered from death and the devil."  There we are given the gift of eternal life; the very life that God Himself lives, a thing we hardly know how to talk about because words fail us, or we can hardly think about for long because it's like trying to look at the sun.  We are always aware of its presence, we bask in its glow, and soak up its life-giving rays, but we can't stare at it for long or it will blind us.  Neither can we stand in its presence without protection, lest it burn us to a crisp.

So how do we safely come into the presence of the One to whom the church and all the company of heaven sing Holy, Holy, Holy?  There's only one way, dear Christians:  with an offering!

But what kind of offering will do???

What can we bring to gain admittance to such a God as this???

In the Old Testament he commanded the blood of animals and other gifts, but here, with a few inspired words, Micah sweeps away the entire Old Testament sacrificial system, not because he was a rebel, but because he was a prophet, a visionary who was given the eyes of faith to see 750 years into the future, to see the reality that every Old Testament sacrifice symbolized, to see Jesus on the cross lifting away and removing the burden of sin from the world, giving relief to the oppressed and life to the dead!

The Old Testament sacrificial system, as such, could not forgive a single transgression, but still the rituals were indispensable because every sacrifice ever made pointed to the crucified and risen Lord we worship.  For every Old Testament sacrifice, ten thousand though they may be, the voice of faith proclaimed aloud:  the body of Christ, the body of Christ, the body of Christ, just like we do at the altar today! 

With what shall we come before the Lord our God?  With Christ as our Savior, and Christ as our Shield, but there is a process and we are engaged in it now.

We come with humility, confessing our sins and gaining remission for them, the very thing every cancer patient hopes for, prays for, pays for, and suffers for, we get instantly, painlessly and without money or cost; remission of our sin which is cancer of the soul -- self inflicted, not by smoking or by eating red meat, but by our idolatry, anger, greed, lust, self-worship and the refusal to forgive our brother from the heart.  These are tumors that consume our soul with sickness and grow larger and larger until finally there is nothing left, till finally they bring us to the pit!

We come, too, with our gifts of bread and wine which God graciously receives and returns to us infinitely multiplied; not in quantity, but in quality!  For the bread and cup are no longer mere bread and wine, but now they are "the body and blood of Christ given for us Christians to eat and to drink for the remission of sins, life and salvation."

This is why the church elevates the elements, to do the very thing we sing in the hymn:  to Lift High the Cross, and proclaim the love of Christ for all.  Here in the happiest procession ever to set boots on the ground we come into the presence of our God.  With "Christ the Royal master" in the bread and the cup leading the way against the foe of death and sin, and straight to the presence of God most High!

Look carefully then and look well, dear Christians!  Burn this picture into your minds because what you see here -- God's redeemed processing towards the alter -- that is the very thing you will see on the Last Day, the Festal Procession into the Festal Gathering with the cross of Jesus going on before!  For all the world, don't miss it now, and don't miss it then.

Yes, Jesus in the Holy Eucharist is the divine gift and the divine offering by which we happily come into the gracious presence of our God and share holy communion with the all-glorious Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but there's more because in holy communion not only are our sins remitted, but our minds are transformed, our bodies made into living sacrifices, and we become "imitators of God."

As God is just, even so we live just lives.  That is to say lives that are in line with, and in keeping with God. (1)  As He is graciously disposed to all people and all creation, so are we.  As He loves to shower the world with senseless acts of mercy, even so do Christians.  As Christ "humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross," so we, too, walk humbly with our God, taking up our cross each day, forgiving those who trespass against us; and ascribing to our God all glory, laud, honor, praise and thanksgiving, now and unto the ages of ages!  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

1. For that (and much more) is what "justice" means in Scripture

Monday, October 16, 2017

Fighting Satan with the right tools

BE STRONG IN THE LORD


Finally, my Brothers be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.  Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the Evil One.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  Ephesians 6:10-13

TO be born into this world is to be born into spiritual warfare, but the struggle we are engaged in is not what you think.  It can not be perceived by the eye, neither is the enemy made of flesh and blood so that you could fight him with conventional weapons of war.

The common enemy of all men is the one St.Paul identifies for us in today's epistle lesson.  He is the Devil, which is a contraction for "the Evil One."  He who is malevolence incarnate, though he has no flesh, but he can appear at will:  here as a serpent, there as a glorious "angel of light," and he can pass himself off as anything he needs to, in order to accomplish his sadistic ends; to deceive humanity so that we should turn against our God and against one another perpetrating unspeakable crimes against our fellow man rather than join forces against him with the Cross of Jesus as our Standard.

His greatest joy, if the Evil One can be said to experience joy, is to steal, kill and destroy, to steal our baptismal life from us - that life we live in Holy Communion with God now in the church and later in "the life of the world to come."  He's happy to kill our souls so that we should become vacant brutes devoid of conscience or reason.  He seeks us out one by one in order to do us violence and destroy us so that we, who are fashioned by the Divine Word, into the Divine image, should sell our birthright for a few cheap thrills, and enter un-holy communion with the one who is "a murderer from the beginning."

Does all this sound extraordinary?  If so it's because you can only learn about it from Holy Scripture in the true church of our Lord Jesus Christ where the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity; where it is held up before our eyes and placed onto lips (to which we humbly answer:  Amen), to that end that we might "confess with our mouth that Jesus here-given is Lord and believe with our hearts that God raised Him From the dead and so be saved from the schemes of the devil who works for our downfall day and night.

If we can say one thing about the devil, he is single-minded.  He's like a spring which only has one vocation in life, one purpose for its existence:  to push!  You can compress a spring in a ballpoint pen, or in the magazine of a pistol for 50 years, but it never sleeps, never relents, and never forgets its job.  It just keeps pushing and pushing, and the minute you release it, it succeeds at doing the only thing it ever knew.  That is what the devil does.  He never stops pushing.

If he can conquer you in a moment of greed or passion, he will do it.  If he can bring you to ruin in a few years with bad influence, he's content.  If it takes him your entire long life, if you have resisted him for 80 or 90 or 100 years, you can still never let down your guard because he's still crouching at your door, waiting to shoot you full of fiery arrows of despair or hopelessness or loneliness, but even worse of pride, self-righteousness or self-satisfaction rather than repentance, faith and prayer; to make you renounce your baptism and the crucified and risen Savior who there became your Lord in early youth so that you should not be saved, not spend eternity with your true Father, but rather to be forever in misery with him.

To fight a war you need the right weapons.  They say never to bring a knife to a gun fight; and that if you ever find yourself in a fair fight you had better check your tactics.

In the same way, don't try to conquer the powerful temptations that come your way, or try to understand or endure life's hardships without the right weapons, without "the Right Man" on your side.  The "Man Christ Jesus" our dear Lord and God, who by His death trampled death and brought life and immortality to light; who conquered Satan in the wilderness in His earthly ministry and who definitively crushed the serpent's defiant head with His feet nailed to the cross!  That is the image we want to hold in our minds and display in our sanctuary.

No, you cannot conquer the Evil One or fend off the host of his fiery darts with conventional weapons of war.  Neither an you avoid "false belief, despair and other great shame and vice" if you rely on human wisdom, internet religion or FB medicine.

Instead, in a great irony, the enemy who is not flesh and blood is conquered exactly by flesh and blood: the flesh of Jesus on the cross which He gave for the life of the world and the blood that purifies us from every sin; the very same flesh and blood we eat and drink here to be our shield against the rulers authorities, the cosmic powers over this present darkness, and the spiritual forces of wickedness in high places.

He Himself is our armor, our faith, our righteousness and salvation.  He is the truth we wrap about our waist as a belt.  He is the "one little Word" that fells the devil and makes us able to stand even in this present darkness, so stand!  Stand firm, stand strong now and always with Jesus.  Amen.

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, October 9, 2017

Want to party?

DON'T SPURN THE KING'S GENEROSITY!


For many are called, but few are chosen.  Matthew 22:14

MANY are invited to the party; few bother to show up.  Many are died for; few actually trust that fact.  Many have a place at the heavenly banquet; few take their seat at the table.  We already have a sense of that:  many are on the church's roles; few bother to show up on any given Sunday.   It's the mystery of faith and unbelief, inclusion and exclusion.  Welcome to the parable of the generous King's wedding feast.

"Jesus spoke to them again in parables."  "Them" are the religious leaders, who were plotting to have Him arrested and killed.  Jesus is  on His way to Calvary to die, and He delivers a party parable.  It's a great image of heaven, lifted right out of Isaiah's messianic mountain where the Lord is the chef and sommelier; a feast of marbled meats and vintage wines with all the trappings.  It doesn't get better than that.  Banish the calorie counters and the teetotallers and all the religions of dieting.  The death shroud is lifted -- swallowed up in life and resurrection joy.  Who cares about cholesterol when your bodies are raised to eternal life?  And who can help but raise a toast of vintage wine that gladdens the hearts of men when death is swallowed up in life?

"The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son."  This is back before the time when brides and their mothers hired a wedding planner and took over the wedding business.  Weddings were man's work back then.  You'll notice that the BBQ was the main event.  Oxen and fattened cattle and plenty of wine.  They've got their priorities straight.  The servants go out into the city with the word to the invited:  "The feast is ready.  Come to my son's wedding feast."

But, strangely, mysteriously, the invited refuse a free meal at the king's table!  A wedding party, and you don't even have to bring a present, just be present!  Amazingly foolish!

Again, the King sends out more of his servants, preaching the menu.  Maybe they'll come when they hear about the food and drink.  It'll make them hungry.  It's all here waiting for you. But again, the invitation is ignored.  They go on with their lives as though there was no wedding ... no feast ... no son ... no king.  We know all the excuses.  We hear them all the time.  We even use them ourselves, when the king's feast doesn't quite fit our schedules.

Then things get ugly.  The invited guests seize the king's servants and beat them up; some are killed.  You can't be neutral when it comes to the king's feast.  Neither dare you spurn the King's generosity.  His hand is open and yours is closed.  Sooner or later you will turn against the king and His servants.  There is no polite and neutral "no" to Jesus' salvation.  Refuse Him and you must silence Him and His servants.  A wedding turns into war.  Grace becomes wrath.  The king who started out in a party mood turns in anger against the  murderers and their city.  There's hell to pay.  But don't blame the king; He just wanted a party.

Listen!  The only way to get on God's bad side is to refuse His goodness.  These were invited folks, the A-list.  They had a place at the wedding feast, but they said a foolish, unbelieving, hard-hearted "no" to the king's goodness.  More than that, they beat and killed His servants.  Big mistake.  Refuse the king's mercy, mistreat His servants, reject His gifts, and you risk His wrath.  You wouldn't want to do that, would you?   Faith never refuses the gifts.

The A-list has proven itself unworthy by its refusal.  Jesus would soon lament over religious Jerusalem, "How I longed to gather you under my wing, O Jerusalem, as a mother hen gathers her chicks, but you would not."  If we're left outside in outer darkness, we have only ourselves to blame.  Refusal of our acceptance is what excludes.  the only sin that isn't forgiven is the refusal to be forgiven.

Out into the streets and alleyways the servants go again, this time inviting anyone and everyone they could find.  Tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners of every stripe.  The least ... the lost ... the losers ... the dead of this world -- those who had never been invited to anything in their lives.  Those who would never consider themselves worthy to sit at the king's table.  Isn't that remarkable?  the good and the bad -- both are welcome.  there's hope for all of us!  And please notice:  The goodness of the good doesn't get them included, any more than the badness of the bad get them excluded.  it's all a gift, by grace, for the Son's sake.

Why don't we get that?  Why doesn't the church seem to understand that all the King wants is for His hall to be filled with hungry and thirsty guests?  Why are we so preoccupied with making the bad good and keeping the good from going bad?   It's because we can't resist biting the apple and swallowing Satan's notion that good and evil is the only way to handle things.  It's our legacy from Adam.  We're false religion junkies.  We'd rather snack on spiritual junk food than dine in the king's banquet hall.  We'd rather belly up to the bar of bogus spirituality than be fed the rich food and strong drink of salvation in Jesus.   Be good and you're in; be bad and you're out.  That's our moral calculus, and we think God is the same sort of bookkeeper.

Not so with the king of the party parable.  He welcomes the good and the bad.  Don't have a ride?  He'll send a limo to pick you up.  Don't have the right clothes to wear?  He's handing out Armani suits and Dior evening gowns.  He wants a well-dressed crowd on His dance floor.  It's all His grace, His gift, underserved ... enearned ... unmerited.

The king looks out over His banquet hall and smiles.   The banquet hall is full.  The party is on.  The people are eating nd drinking and dancing.  But of fin the corner there's a "party wall flower."  A man sipping iced tea, wearing a t-shirt and shorts and a scowl on his face.  He goes over to the man.  "Hey buddy, how'd you get in here without a wedding suit?"  But the man had nothing to say.  He's speechless.  the king's good mood turns foul, and he orders the royal bouncers to bind him up and toss him outside into the darkness.  The man was in before he was thrown out.  And he was out for his refusal to be in on the king's terms.  It's the king's party, not ours.

What should the man have done?  What would you have done?  What would you have said if you were caught looking like a wedding crasher?  What would you have said to the king?  How about, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner."  That always works with this king.  He's the king who clothes you.  "Those of you who were baptized into Christ, have been clothed with Christ."  You are covered with His righteousness, His holiness, His perfection.  Baptism is your wedding suit, your tuxedo or gown, formal wear fit for eternal life and a wedding feast that never ends.  But refuse the suit, and you will find yourself grinding your molars and weeping in the darkness.  Such a pity.  Such a waste.  refusing a gift from God is utter foolishness.  Unbelief is your fault, not God's.

"God would have all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth."  "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself; not counting men's sins against them."  "God has consigned all to disobedience, in order that He might have mercy upon all."

Notice at the end of this parable, there is no one who didn't have a place at the wedding party -- not the first invited A-list, nor the loser B-list, not even the man without the wedding suit.  ALL were called to the feast.  ALL had a place.  Jesus died for ALL.  He embraced ALL in His death.  He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  His blood was shed to save the inclusive many -- the good, the bad, the ugly, the religious and the unreligious, every child of Adam.  Those who are in, are in by grace, undeserved  kindness.  those who are out, are out by their own refusal to be in.

You have been called -- invited to feast on God's mountain.  Your baptism is a personal invitation signed by the Father, written in the blood of His Son, sealed by the Holy Spirit, addressed to you by name.  You have a place at the King's table. The Body of the Lamb has been broken in death to save you.  His blood has been poured out to save you, His life for your life.  Your life is atoned for; your sins are washed away.  This divine service is a preview of the Supper of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end.  "Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb."

You are worthy to be at His table, to receive all that Jesus died to win for you, not because of what you have done for Him, but because of what He has done for you.  He has gone the way of weeping and gnashing of teeth, the way of death and God-forsaken darkness and hell, the way of the cross.  He has taken your sin into Himself, He has borne your shame in His nakedness on the cross in order to clothe you with His wedding suit.  "Behold, a host arrayed in white," with you among them, wearing white baptismal robes of righteousness.

You may not realize it, but you are already at the party, now in Christ.  He has incorporated you into His death, embraced you with the Word of forgiveness, fed you with bodied bread and bloodied wine, hidden yet here for you.  Soon enough you will see and feel and know fully well what now you must trust and believe.  Coming is that Day when Jesus raises you up from the depths of your grave to the heights of His mountain, and set you at His banquet table, and you raise the cup of salvation to toast His goodness.  It will be said on that day, "Behold, this is our God we have waited for Him, that He might save us.  This is the LORD; we have waited for Him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation." Isaiah 25:9.

~  Rev. George Fyler

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Lord receives the needs of your body in His

COME QUICKLY, LORD JESUS


O LORD, I call upon you; hasten to me!  Give ear to my voice when I call to you!  Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.  (Gradual for the 19th Sunday after Trinity.  Psalm 141:1-2)

THE Gradual is an ancient element of the church's liturgy.  Gradual means "step" and is so named because it was chanted from the step below the lectern (ambo), the place from which the Holy Scriptures were read.

Originally the Gradual was comprised of a whole Psalm, but over time was reduced to only a verse, like the one we have today which is a portion of the 141st Psalm.  It used to be chanted between the Epistle and the Gospel but liturgy evolves over time, so in our day it is chanted between the Old Testament and Epistle.  That, too, is a lesson we need to learn, that liturgy evolves; not radically as many have urged, but slowly, thoughtfully and with the agreement of all her parishes.  Neither is it a Christian virtue to be frozen in time.

Why the Gradual?  We learn its rationale from the words of St. Paul, who teaches us that God's people should, "speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with the heart ..." so the church employs all the beauty and truth available to her, and there is nothing more sapid than the honeyed voice of our God.

While this has always been true of God's people in liturgy, we live in a time when minimalism (1) is the order of the day which is all the more reason to "worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness."  How could we do anything less when we gather in the presence of our God?  The prophet Malachi writes, "for from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering.  For my name will be great among the nations ... for I am a great King, says the LORD of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations."  (Mal.1:11-&14)

Therefore in this 19th Sunday after Trinity God's people pray, "O LORD< I call upon you; hasten to me!  Give ear to my voice when I call to you!  Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice."

This Gradual is both a prayer and a prophecy of Christ.  In it King David, whose life was marked by setback after setback, sin upon sin, and one trouble after another, turns to his God in liturgy!  He asks that the LORD would hasten to come to him, that God would open His ears to hear David's prayers, that He would consider David's cries for mercy as sweet incense rising before Him and accept them as sacrificial offerings and send blessed relief.

Today, David's prayer is our prayer  Today God sends relief to us, but let us learn this, too:  that if we wish to speak properly about our prayers we should not think so much of "saying" prayers, as "offering" our prayers to God ... for they are most assuredly sacrifices that God loves to hear and loves to answer.

He says to Moses, "I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters.  I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the head of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey."  (Ex 3:7-8)

This same Lord sees your affliction, too, and as He came down to deliver His people then, He came finally in the person of His Son, who by the lifting up of His hands on the cross late in the day (9th hour), and "late in time," (2) became the Evening Sacrifice for us, and who delivers us from our sins.

By the flesh of Jesus on the cross, the ordinances that condemn us are erased.  We are set free.  Our fears are calmed.  Our needs are met.  Our life is preserved, and our prayers arise as fragrant incense to our God, so "let us pray!" for to pray is to praise and to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving to our God who, "... will supply all your needs according to the riches of His grace in Christ Jesus." (Phil 4:19)

Yet God's coming down to save us is not only a past event, but a present one as well, as He comes to His people in divine service each Sunday.  This is the place where He gathers us under His wings as a hen gathers her chicks; where He feeds us His flesh and gives us His blood to drink, where He shelters us and tends to our every need.  This is the office of the Great Physician and no one ever leaves here without health and salvation.

Here Jesus is present in the word He speaks and in the bread and wine which are His body and blood.  The baptismally-cleansed Bride can have no more intimate communion with her Groom than this Holy Communion.  Here we are with Jesus, in Jesus , and He in us.  We can rest from our labors and set aside our fears for all is well.  Jesus is here!

But even this is not hte last word because Jesus will come again, not in a manger or under the forms of bread and wine, but in His full majesty.  that will be history's final and finest moment.  Then we will understand all things.  then we will see face to face.  Then we will know, even as we are known by god.  Then the dwelling of God will be with man in a world without end, so we pray today, "hasten to me," "Come quickly Lord Jesus!" Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

(1) and iconoclasm
(2) Christ, by highest heaven adored; Christ, the everlasting Lord!  Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of the Virgin's womb:  Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity, Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

For a lifetime of temptations and faith to the end...

GRANT YOUR PEOPLE GRACE


Lord, we implore you, grant your people grace to withstand the temptations of the devil, and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God.  (Collect for the 17th Sunday after Trinity)

WE can do no better than to pray today's Collect.

We have many needs in this world, but if we aren't careful they will consume us.  They will take up our full time and attention, and crowd out the "one thing needful."  Then, like the 5 foolish virgins in the parable we will miss what is best; miss the grace of God by which we stand  confident come what may, and victorious in the life of the world to come.  Our Lord says to us:  be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life!  For that we need nothing less than the grace of God, which is obtained in the church as she engages in holy communion with her Lord.

If we don't already know it we should learn today that "God is love"; that it is His nature to be gracious, that it is essential to who He is and what He does to take pity on us and be merciful to us; but when we speak this way of the Holy One we are not merely ticking off a list of attributes, or asserting hopeful theories like Muslims do when they say that their deity is merciful.  "But God demonstrates His love towards us in this; that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."  (Rom. 5:8)

Neither was the Lord's incarnation, suffering and death a quickly cooked-up scheme to help us out of sudden troubles, but from eternity, Jesus the eternal Son and Word of God consented to become flesh in order to release us from Satan's tyranny and to make us sons of God.  Yet the grace of God we pray for today cannot be found on the internet, or obtained from the world's economic, political or social institutions, but only from God Himself when He meets with us here, in this holy house, brimming over with grace, mercy and peace.

Today's Collect also points out that we are not addressing any old god, or calling upon the hazy, nameless deities of which people sometimes speak these days when they assert I believe in God, though they have no idea what they are talking about; but in the church we address God as He is revealed in Holy Scripture:  the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in whose name, and into whose name we are baptized.  All others, imposters!

Today, when it is fashionable to hold the Christian religion in contempt, Christians are discouraged from making such exclusive claims, but false humility doesn't help.  Many horses run in a race.  They all stand tall, proud, strong, shining and full of promise at the starting gate, but only one comes through, one wins the race, one gets the prize and you have been called to unspeakable glory in Him!  By faith in Jesus, on the cross bearing our sins, you obtain a share in the Divine Nature.

Please, however, take careful note of that clear and indispensable fact, dear Christians:  Jesus on the cross.  Jesus bleeding, suffering and dying.  Jesus pleading for us from the cross, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do," and declaring, "this day you will be with me in paradise."  Take note for the cross without Jesus means nothing.  And Jesus without the cross, likewise, means exactly nothing at all!

This is why an empty cross, as the focal point of a Christian house of worship, will never do, and must soon be remedied.

All these blessings proceed from the grace the church prays for in today's Collect, and there is nothing more powerful, precious or needful for sinners than this.  All else pales in comparison.  For absent the grace of God we fall prey to every temptation of the devil, but we needn't speak of sin in general today because our Scripture lessons get very specific.  They name the chief of all sins, which is self-exaltation:  pride by any other name.  We learn this from the lips of our Lord in today's gospel that, "whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted."  (Luke 14:11)

On this count we all stand guilty!  On this charge we all stand accused!  For we all have carefully crafted self-images that we put on for the world:  some firm, some fragile, and some desperate; and we stand at the ready day and night to defend them by whatever means necessary, and to take retaliatory measures against anyone who dares to invade them.  This is nothing other than sinful pride, dear Christians, and is responsible for the hatred, anger, jealousy, discord and contention that tears down every good work that God's Spirit builds up.

Therefore it is the duty of Christians today to repent!  To cease their sinful pride; to renounce sin and Satan, and to pray to God for the grace to withstand the temptations of the Evil One, and with pure hearts and minds to follow God.

Please don't say this is impossible.  Though the devil never rests, the culture never stops inciting us, and Old Adam is always looking for love in all the wrong places, we are baptized!  "We are washed, we are sanctified, we are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."  (1 Cor. 6:11)

What we pray for today, "pure hearts and minds to follow the only true God," our Lord can, does and will continue to grant us, so that humility, gentleness, patience, the composure to bear with one another in love, and to maintain the unity of the Spirit, will prevail among us, not only in the church, but also in the world as the church teaches more and more people to humble themselves beneath the mighty hand of God, and to exalt Jesus as Lord.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras


Monday, September 25, 2017

The heart changes people, not behaviors

WORTHY OF LOVE


NOBODY wants to be a hypocrite, yet everyone lives life on different levels, as many levels as an onion has skins.  In Jesus' day there were names for all these levels, but after the onion was peeled away, what was left was the center, the real stuff of the person which they called the heart.  Today we think of hearts as organs which can be transplanted without changing the person.  In the first century, no one thought that way.  To the lawyer in today's Gospel, the heart was the innermost layer.  When Jesus said to love the Lord with all his heart, he knew that Jesus was penetrating to the very center of life.

Hard as that may be, Jesus did not let it go at that.  He added the second Great Commandment:  love your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus impressed this on the Twelve.  Years later John, in his first letter, writes that no one can love God whom he has not seen, unless he loves his brother whom he sees every day.  Should a conflict ever arise between God's interests and our neighbor's, then God should have priority. Most of hte time the choice is between choosing my neighbor's good and choosing my own.

Jesus does not set us up to judge whether or not our neighbor is worthy of love.  If you have to ask, "Why should I love my neighbor," Jesus does not give any of the stock answers we have come to expect.  Most of us don't even ask why we should love God, the answer is so obvious, but why my neighbor?  Some philosophers say when you love your neighbor you are really loving yourself, trading your good attitude and good deeds for his.  Other philosophers say that people are intrinsically good.   Jesus says nothing of the sort.  He is not talking about appreciating some value in your fellow men.  He is talking about His kind of love, divine love that stoops to the unworthy, that loves the unlovable, that lays down its life for its enemies.  Jesus is talking about 1 Corinthians 13 kind of love.  It never thinks about itself, but only seeks to help.  One thing the Bible is very certain about, we do not love our neighbor because of what he is.  We love him because of what we are.

Jesus is saying these things to a lawyer.  He wanted to know the sort of thing lawyers always want to know -- which commandment takes precedence?  He was examining behavior.  Jesus was looking deeper.  He did not command us to behave as if we loved the Lord.  Neither did He say, "Agree that loving the Lord and your neighbor is a good thing."  He makes a far more absolute demand, "Love the Lord ... and your neighbor."  Feelings, knowledge, and will are all outer layers.  Love puts you on the spot.  It might be easy to talk about , but it is so hard to give!  Some have said we need to try harder, but Jesus does not command us to try harder.  He commands us to succeed.  If the story ended here we would have little hope.  The Great Commandment has become the great accusation.  In place of commandments, we can only hear the accusing voice calling, "Adam, where are you?"

Yet Jesus did not just demand love, He gave it.  Therefore, His question is more important than the lawyer's.  He asks, "What do you think of the Christ?"  The lawyer gave the wrong answer.  Jesus was looking for the answer of faith, the one Simon Peter gave Him when He said, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God."  All the questions about love are dangerous quicksand for the conscience, but the faith of the Fisherman is a Rock.  Jesus' demand for love stabs through all the onion skins, revealing the hypocrisy of our hearts, but Christian faith is able to say, "My heart belongs to the One who bought it with His blood."

God loved us with His whole heart.  He did not ask whether or not we were worthy of love.  He gave us Jesus, who was worthy beyond any doubt.  He took for Himself the hatred of the world and the devil, remaining righteous through and through.  Upon Him was laid all the retribution demanded by the Law for sins which others committed.  Although He always resisted the temptations of Satan, He fell under all  of the accusations.  Jesus did not demand love; He gave it.  At great cost to Himself, He gave it to us to buy us back to God.  He has done all that is necessary to claim our hearts for Himself.  We do not give Him our hearts.  He buys them and owns them.  He gives us faith through the Gospel which we preach so that we believe He is our Savior.

This good news, so complete, so firm, so certain, is the power of God for salvation to all who believe, and with this faith comes the Holy Spirit who sets about redeeming the outer layers of the onion as well.  By His power we love our neighbors, not because we see anything in them, but because we belong to Jesus.  We become like the Savior who owns us.  He does not ask whether or not we are worthy of love, so we don't ask it either.  We are washed in God's laundry, and therefore are a royal priesthood, a peculiar people, ready to offer ourselves as living sacrifices.

And yet, we remain flesh and blood.  We are free from the Law, but flesh and blood continue to sin.  On the level on which we can examine ourselves, we will always find mixed motives, dubious behavior, and unloving language.  Confess whatever is wrong, because Jesus waits to forgive it.  His victory over sin and death is a fact of history.  Your behavior does not take it away.  The One who is worthy of love has loved us into being His own.  AMEN

~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Monday, September 11, 2017

How can we see the Power of God?

MORE THAN YOU THOUGHT POSSIBLE



Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we can ask, or imagine, according to the power at work within us, to Him be glory in the church, in Christ Jesus throughout all generations and unto the ages of ages.  Eph. 3:20-21

TODAY St. Paul makes us think about things that we don't ponder very often.  By this little phrase, "to Him be glory in the church..." he wants us to understand what the church really is and really does, and it is more than we would ever imagine.  People talk about "going to church on Sunday," but that does not begin to cover it.

Our present state of understanding might be compared to a baby in the womb.  Shortly after conception this newly minted life is aware of voices and sounds coming from the outside, but the little treasure has no comprehension of the world which she is about to be born into.  She knows something is out there, but what remains a mystery!

We are like that when it comes to the power of God which "is able to do far more abundantly than all that we can ask or even imagine," but must we remain forever myopic?  Or is there some way that we can glimpse the glory of God today?

Many hucksters would answer in the affirmative, but their message is always the same.  It begins with the word, "if."  If you will subscribe to my teaching, if you will buy my book and send a "gift" to my ministry, then you will see the power of God, but notice Jesus in today's gospel lesson.  That he, who really did demonstrate the glory of God on earth, never said any such thing to the grieving mother.  He did not ask her to jump through any hoops or to do anything at all!  He simply said to her, "Don't cry."  Unlike people who toss those words around because they have nothing better to offer, Jesus did.  Without a word He touched the bier and the pall bearers stopped dead in their tracks.  Somehow they knew.  Then the Lord of Glory said to the dead man, Young man, I say to you arise!"  And Luke, the faithful evangelist, reports that the dead man did exactly that!  He sat up and began to speak and Jesus gave him back to his mother!  She saw the glory of God in Christ that day.

We hear of a similar case in today's Old Testament lesson.  Elijah was a mighty man of God, a type of the coming Christ, so that when he likewise prayed that a dead son should be restored to his widowed mother, scripture records these inspiring words, "And the Lord listened to the words of Elijah."  She, too, saw the glory of God in Christ that day, but that is not the end of the story because St. Paul's words are still true for us today, particularly his little phrase, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus....  We witness the glory of God in the church every Sunday, but do we recognize it for what it is?   By these words St. Paul teaches us that the church is God's exclusive agent to proclaim the mystery of Christ to all creation; not only to men, but to angels, to demons and to the whole of the creation as well!  To all things visible and invisible so that at the name of Jesus, spoken in the church's holy convocation, "every knee should bow in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father."  (Phil. 2:10)   To the heavenly angels the church announces that the incarnate Christ, who lived, died and rose again is the source of their spiritual food; that he is, in the words of Psalm 78:25, "the Bread of angels."  These are the things that angels long to look into (1 Peter 1:12)  And that same bread, by our Lord's word and institution, is not eaten by angels only, but is also placed on the church's altar and given for us Christians to eat and to drink, so that we might obtain the same indestructible Life enjoyed by the elect angels themselves.

To the principalities and powers, and to the forces of spiritual wickedness in high places the church proclaims Christ crucified as God's judgment against them, and His victory over death, Satan and every evil whatever its form or manifestation, for as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup we check and vanquish the power of the devil by the benefits that the Sacrament provides.  We remind him that his time is short.  Indeed, the case is just as Luther writes in the hymn:  one little word can fell him.  That word is the Gospel.  That name is Jesus.  To the whole of creation we proclaim that because of the Lord's death and resurrection, its bondage to decay will also come to an end, and that the good creation of God will also enjoy the glorious liberty of the children of God.  (Romans 8)

Therefore it must be with deep humility and holy fear that the Lord's people gather on the Lord's Day to pray the liturgy of God, to offer sacrifices of praise, and to give thanks to our God; not the ordinary thanks that good breeding teaches, but the unique thanks called "eucharistia" in the Greek; the same thanks that our Lord Jesus Christ gave on the night in which He was handed over for our sins; the night when He took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and GAVE it to the disciples and said: take, eat; this is my body which is given for you, for the remission of sins!  You are those disciples who eat the sacrifice of God, whose sins are thus purged and whose glorious liberty is now made sure. Thus we, too, see the glory of God in Christ in the church, for as often as the church prays the divine liturgy which is the Word of God, and partakes of the precious mysteries, she obtains abundantly more than she could ever hope for, pray for, or imagine.  She enters into glory with Christ unto the ages of ages.  You are the church.  Christ is your glory.  Amen.

 - Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, September 4, 2017

Are you fencing in what needs to be turned loose?

TRUST HIM TO TAKE CARE OF IT


 ...casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7

WE are territorial creatures.  We have a certain territory over which we exercise control.  Some of it is chronological -- time we claim for ourselves. Some of it is physical -- our private space.  Some of it is economic -- resources we believe are at our disposal.  And some of it is psychological -- advantages we believe we have to help us cope.  We are very jealous concerning that territory, so we build fences around it.  Now these fences are vulnerable to a number of assaults that never stop, so we find ourselves constantly repairing them.  For example, you have four hours next weekend marked for playing golf.  Your spouse has those same four hours marked for cleaning the garage.  Right away there's a fence to mend.  You have several hundred dollars marked for a weekend at the spa.  Then you learn that your husband used half of it for an equity investment that can't miss.  There's' another fence to mend.  If the assaults come slowly, you can put your strengths to work repairing them.  But they come more quickly.   Now you have to prioritize which fences to mend.  As soon as you do that, you have to prioritize among the priority fences.  From this you fall into anxiety.

In today's Gospel, Jesus calls anxiety a sin.  How is that?  The assaults kept coming, and soon anxiety was the only response left.  So how is that a sin?  You were trying to do it yourself.  It's an impossible job for you to do yourself.  Still, that is the problem.  If you want to know which commandment it is breaking, go to the top of the list.  Thou shalt fear, love, and trust in God above all things.  Jesus says if you worry about your territory, you have "little faith."  Running around trying to mend the fences yourself is distrust of God.  It isn't only the extreme examples, such as the possibility of starving.  God not only feeds the birds, He sets them in families, establishes their migratory patterns, and makes them aware of immediate peril.  Birds don't need fences around their territory, because they have no reason to have to control it.  Who does control it?  Their heavenly Father, and yours.  That's why they never have anxiety, but we do.

Those fences are pretty weak and flimsy.  Think of how delicate this life is.  Consider the subtle balance that produces our ability to enjoy life in this society.  We need help to control the territory where we dominate.  Indeed, we have to depend on God, but somehow we wish it were not so.  We would prefer to depend on ourselves.  We want to increase our responsibility, broaden our own role, even broaden our territory.  The little motor that drives us to do that is anxiety.  Jesus calls it by a less appealing name -- little faith.  We might try to run away from the problems, but sooner or later we find that we're on a dead end street.  But back to the other end of the street we find the cross and the empty tomb.  Standing before these we can find relief.

We're a bit reluctant to go there.  The cross is where Jesus died.  The tomb is where He was buried.  It's empty because it could not hold Jesus.  He was made a curse to take that dreadful burden away from us onto Himself, but that curse was not the last word.  His great victory was the last word.  Whatever else this proves, it certainly proves that He can take care of our problems.  He helps us understand that our anxiety is truly sin.  If the Master we love is our ability to control things, then the Master we hate is God.  Is it really that black and white?  I''m afraid so.  If you love the bad Master, then you hate the good one.  It is that very seriousness that makes the cross so powerful.  Jesus took that anxiety upon Himself.  God loves you.  He has redeemed you by the blood of His Son.  He has washed you from the dirt and stench of it, and buried it in His tomb.

So we come to these golden words of St. Peter:  Cast your anxiety upon Him because He cares for you.  This means, in the first place, that Divine Providence is working for you.  Yes, it is there for the just and the unjust alike, but it is certainly there for you.  It brought you into the world, watched over your journey thus far, poured out abundant treasures for you to enjoy, but because you are a child of God, it did something far greater for you.  It directed you to the sacred mysteries of the Gospel, to that special promise that your sins are forgiven.  That doesn't mean that Jesus will mend all the fences. He has a better plan.  Living in your own territory is death.  He has divine life to give, but He will assure you that He is your Friend, that you are part of His retinue.  When the whole thing gets you down, He will give you comfort.  He clears your conscience so it can no loner accuse you.  He pulls out that supreme treasure, the hope of heaven, to keep you from the fear of death.  Yes, that fear is real.  Jesus Himself asked God if there were any other way, but since He accepted it, so can you.  He was vindicated.  You will also be vindicated.

Besides that, He had this gift:  He will hear you when you pray.  We can talk to God and be heard.  We can let Him know what the cares are, what the anxiety is, and He accepts it all from you.  Ask for the Holy Spirit.  He will show you that your anxiety is sin, but He will assure you that Jesus takes it away.  His providence might not mend your fences, but it will come through them with all the necessities of life.  In fact, the Spirit will help you knock the fences down.  He will deliver you from your territory so you can live in God's.  Once that dreadful burden is gone, He still cares for you.  It will try to come back, but you have help.  God is your Father, Jesus is your Savior.  The Spirit is our Counselor.  Trust Him.  His territory is holy ground, and He wants you there.   AMEN

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Monday, August 28, 2017

How do we get the strength to resist the desires of the flesh?

LIVING SACRIFICES


But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.  Because the things flesh craves are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; these things are contrary to one another, so that you cannot do the things you would. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.  Galatians 5:16-18

Heeding these words of St. Paul is a vital part of our worship, dear Christians.  When we come to this holy house we bring God our offering and gifts.  We bring the fruits of our labor, along with our prayers, prises and endless thanks, like the cleansed and grateful Samaritan lepers we are.

Yet there is still another element to our worship, the very thing St. Paul supplies for us in today's epistle, that we should "walk by the Spirit," and refuse to gratify those things that our flesh craves more sorely than an addict his heroin.  Therefore in addition to these other gifts, we also give our very bodies into His service as "living sacrifices," not dead ones as was the case under Jewish law.  This is genuine worship.

The desires of the flesh are well known by every Christian, but St. Paul takes the time to list the most common.  Yet we should also be clear that he doesn't equate sin with flesh, as if flesh were evil, for it is not.  We know this because God who created it also assumed it in the Person of His Son who was truly "made man," so that He might suffer under Pontius Pilate for our salvation.  No, flesh is not evil, but the devil, in concert with the culture and our own fallen intellects, conscripts our members into carrying out the deadly desires we heard a few minutes ago.

In order to strengthen us against such mighty foes, St. Paul fortifies us with this divine word, "...walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh."  This is no mere pep talk, or self-help suggestion St. Paul gives us here, but rather a Word from God's own mouth, and as such, capable of accomplishing that which it says.

What does Paul mean when he says, "walk by the Spirit?"  He means that Christians should live in the power of their baptism, but to do that we must understand the gifts that were so richly bestowed upon us there.  In baptism we are delivered from death, that is to say we are no longer subject to the curse our sins bring; and though our bodies will die the first death, we are exempt from  the second death.  People like to chatter on these days about justice, but it's not justice you want from God, O Man, but rather mercy, and that is what we get by faith in Jesus Christ.

In baptism we are rescued from the Roaring Lion who wants nothing more than to devour us, to ruin us, and to have us share in his misery  now and forever; and too often, because he presents himself as a reasonable and rational "angel of light," we haplessly play along, but there is a remedy!

First that we should confess our sins, as often as we fall; and again when we pray the general confession in church each Sunday.  Yet confession is not enough.  We must also hear the absolution and believe it!  Believe that, though the words come from the mouth of a man, this is God's forgiveness, and by it you are cleansed from the leprosy of your sins.

In baptism we are made a new creation in Christ.  We receive a new nature; one that detests the works of the flesh and expends its every energy in pursuing the fruits of the Spirit that St. Paul outlines for us today.  "For if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law."

What does that mean?

It means that you no longer need to seek heavenly peace by the Law, which is to say, the Jewish sacrificial system, but neither should we seek salvation by the sacrificial system of current culture.  Attempting to escape the guilt of its sins, culture has banned the Bible from the public square, but it has not helped because in the process they have also banned the peace of the Cross, so guilt is felt today as a general disquiet and dissatisfaction, as a melancholy that people can neither explain or shake off, that follows them like their shadow wherever they go.

The latest cultural gospel tells us that to get rid of it we must simplify, and get back to nature.  Heeding the call, many people are leaving the rat race of the city and becoming farmers.  They are trading in their Toyotas for tractors in the hopes that this will soothe their psyches and dispel their disquiet, but it does not help.

Adam and Eve tried that, too.  They covered their guilt with fig leaves.  They thought that going green would save them, but it did not.  Instead God found them and prosecuted them for their mutiny, but He who condemned them also saved them and made them alive again by killing two animals; by shedding their blood and cutting the skin right off their backs.  With it He made garments for our first parents, ones that truly covered their shame, but that also looked forward to a Greater Slaughter yet to come: to God's Lamb, the One of Whom, and to Whom we sing, "O Christ Thou Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us."

Pray this prayer often, dear Christians, not just on Sunday, because it is one that  our Great High Priest will always answer in the affirmative, because you are no longer under the Law but under the Cross by your baptism.  Therefore rely on Him to strengthen you against the sins of the flesh and to make the fruit of the Spirit grow in your life.  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras