Sunday, June 25, 2017

Celebrating Correction


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

How about you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, June 11, 2017

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


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

Dear Beloved of the LORD:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the invisible one was made visible;

the incomprehensible one made Himself comprehensible;

the infinite one enters our finite universe;

the eternal one comes to die;

the almighty becomes a man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

that God gives and we receive;

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

that God gives life and we live His life.

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

~ Rev. George F. Fyler III, Em.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The New Testament fulfills the Old


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross