A Sermon for the Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost

“The Seventh Petition,” preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Advance, NC, November 19, 2017

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

The seventh petition of The Lord’s Prayer asks God, “But deliver us from evil.”

The Small Catechism asks, “What does this mean?” Here is Luther’s answer:

“We pray in this petition, as in a summary, that our heavenly Father would deliver us from every type of evil — whether it affects our bodies or souls, property or reputation — and at last, when our hour of death comes, would grant us a blessed end to our earthly lives, and graciously take us from this world of sorrow to himself in heaven.”

Let us pray… God of light and life, illuminate our lives with your Word and Spirit so that we may always be prepared for the coming of your Son. Grant that we may bear the light of your love to a world in need, that others may know of your justice and mercy, and themselves be ready for your breaking into the world anew; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I was a police chaplain, it usually wasn’t much fun riding along with officers and detectives during the daytime. But doing ride-alongs at night? That’s a different story. People lose their inhibitions after the sun goes down. That’s usually because nighttime is when they start drinking. Once some people start drinking, it isn’t long before they’re drunk and doing stupid things that they wouldn’t do during the day time.

In fact, Thursday will be a particularly busy time for police departments. On Thanksgiving Day, families will get together, and some of them, not wanting to be with their families, and will drink more than usual, which always ends up in a brawl with a family member, and a call to the police to come break it up. This evil is basic to societies all over the world.

Paul uses this image in our Second Reading today. He does so as a way to remind us how we ought to live the Christian life. The apostle tells us that we should be prepared folks, like five out of the ten virgins in our Gospel Reading from last Sunday—the five who had sufficient oil in their lamps as they waited for the bridegroom’s return. Those who have the oil of faith, as Jennifer explained it to us, will always live the prepared life. They are being delivered from evil every day—and will be delivered from the ultimate evils of death and the devil on that great and glorious day of the Lord.

But those who will not live lives of faith, who will not walk soberly in the light, preferring the darkness and its evils, cannot and will not be ready when the Lord, our Bridegroom, returns like a thief in their darkness. They are secure in their spiritual stupor; they are content in their ignorance. They imagine that all is well, that everything is as it ever has been; nothing ever changes and all is right enough with the world.

This is the same person who hides his talent in a dark hole in the ground. The Church is full of such souls. Instead of putting God’s gifts to work in his service, their lives are wasted, spent only in pursuing what they imagine profits themselves. But our Lord requires more of his servants. And as each and every believer is his servant, God gives us each talents, according to our abilities, expecting us to use them for a profit—for his profit, the profit of his kingdom.

These ancient talents were measures of silver or gold, and were no small sum to invest. A single talent of silver was equivalent to 15 to 20 years wages. Imagine spending 15 or 20 years of your life with nothing more to show for it than what was initially given to you. But that is precisely what so many—too many—do with the gifts God has given. That is a serious evil run amok in the Church.

Statistics show that 20% of folks do 80% of the work in just about any institution. The Church is not exempt from this 20/80 statistic. You don’t have to be told the common reply when a church member is asked to serve on a committee—let alone on Council. Now imagine that God calls to the mission field. How many go? Maybe 20%?

But it isn’t just serving on committees or answering a call to ministry. It used to be that 40% of a congregation’s membership could be expected to be regular in worship. It’s less than that now. Indeed, in my experience, many who serve on Church Councils only worship once a month or less. Yet they contend that they know how God would have them lead his Church.

Deliver us, O Lord, from this evil. Is this living the prepared life? Aren’t we concerned that these folks may be caught off-guard on that Day? We would be wise to expect more of folks before making them our leaders.

Indeed, Lord, deliver us from ourselves.

Christians are expected to be delivered from evil, as God has promised to “strengthen, increase, and support to the end the good work that He has begun in them (Phil 1:6), if they cling to God’s Word, pray diligently, abide in God’s goodness, and faithfully use the gifts they received” (Formula of Concord).

But here is that same evil problem in the Church. How will God deliver us from evil, if we do not cling to his Word? If we hardly know it, how would we be much comforted? This is tantamount to crying, quoting Paul, “There is peace and security!” Those who have no need of a steady diet of God’s Word must be similar to those whom Jeremiah said insisted, “Peace, peace when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14). If one does not need the constant reminder of God’s promises, he must be living in a dark land filled with this false peace. If one does not require the gracious uplift of the Sacrament of Holy Communion, she must be drunk on some other fare. If one does not believe in the fellowship of believers, the communion of saints, he must be carousing with some other sort of souls.

Let us hear with ringing—or if need be, jarring—clarity what Paul has admonished. “Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” We are children of the light, expected to live lives filled with God’s grace, so that on that Day, we will not only not be caught unawares but, be glad for that day. For Christians are not to be slumbering dolts but wide awake, dressed in faith and love, and capped off with the confident hope of salvation.

So, I pray that your Thanksgiving this week will be full of fine times with family and feasting. Even more, I pray that all your days may be filled with faith, love, and the hope of salvation so that whenever the Day of the Lord might come, that you are prepared.

The Lord may return tomorrow or even before this service of worship concludes. Then again, the Day of the Lord could be in another 2,000 years. Like the Thessalonians, you don’t need to know when the Lord is returning. You’re ready when he does return. Your lamps are full. So, we can say with St. John the Revelator: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20).

“The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen” (Rev 22:21).

A Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

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Genesis 3:1-21; Psalm 32:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

“Grace Abounding,” sermon audio for the First Sunday of Lent, preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Advance, NC, March 5, 2017:

Watch the sermon video:

Watch the children’s message:

A Sermon for the Second Sunday After Epiphany

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Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

“Holding Fast,” a sermon for the Second Sunday After Epiphany, preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Advance, NC, January 15, 2017:

A Sermon for All Saints Sunday

revelation7-4

Original image  

Revelation 7:2–8, 9–17; Psalm 149:1–9; 1 John 3:1–3; Matthew 5:1–12

“The Mark of the Lamb,” a sermon for All Saints Sunday, preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Advance, NC, November 6, 2016:

The Storms of Faith

Daily Reform, Day 224

Galatians 3:2 and Matthew 8:23-27

From the Reformer

Our opponents regard faith as an easy thing, but I know from personal experience how hard it is to believe. That the Holy Ghost is received by faith, is quickly said, but not so quickly done.

All believers experience this difficulty. They would gladly embrace the Word with a full faith, but the flesh deters them. You see, our reason always thinks it is too easy and cheap to have righteousness, the Holy Spirit, and life everlasting by the mere hearing of the Gospel.

—Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians

Pulling It Together

If faith were an easy thing, so many people would not fall from grace. (Gal 5:4) They struggle, as all do, with temptation and sin, and they fail. But they have not yet fallen from grace. This does not happen, as many suppose, when one does not withstand temptation, when one commits a sin. Heavens no. More faith is required after one commits a sin than when trying not to sin. It requires no faith at all to keep from sinning. Instead, this requires discipline (and that too requires God’s grace). But once one sins, the real storms begin, especially once one sins repeatedly. Then faith is very necessary but often hard to come by. It is made especially harder because keeping the faith requires nothing but faith. We imagine our lack of improvement is because we have not worked hard enough, so we increase the requirement of God’s grace. We reason, “If God is going to continue loving me, I had better work harder at being better. I had better row this boat harder!” But instead, as we try harder, we fail more, the result being that many give up and quit faith altogether.

Before you go that far, before you fall from grace, remember this simple solution provided by God. Live by the Spirit, not by the flesh. In simpler language, believe. When you fail in the temptation department, listen to Jesus again. When you sin, hear the Word of Christ once more. When you sin again, keep the faith; keep believing. But believe in the grace of God instead of in your ability to be religious. Do not row harder for the shore. Instead, stop rowing and cast anchor. Cast your anchor in Christ and you will weather the storms of faith.

© Mark E. Ryman, Daily Reform: Devotions with Luther in Galatians

We’ve Got to Do Something About This

“We’ve Got to Do Something About This”
Philippians 3:4b-14
a sermon preached March 21, 2010, at Graham Friends

Last Sunday the worship team was practicing before Sunday School when Christian Corbett came into the sanctuary. The expression on his face was serious, even concerned. He had been upstairs with his sister and she had evidently done something that did not sit right with him. I couldn’t understand what he was saying about his sister’s actions because of the music being played. But it was clear that he was aggravated. At that point we finished playing the song and I could hear him say, while he put his hands on his hips, “We’ve got to do something about this!”

After I stopped laughing, I turned to Angela and said, “That’s next week’s sermon title. I don’t care what the text is.” The next day I began studying for the following Sunday and found that the text is one of my favorites, containing Philippians 3:9-10, “…and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith — that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”

Have you ever read a scripture and know there was something of a vastness and depth that you would spend your whole life exploring and trying to understand. That is where I have stood with those few verses of Paul to the Philippians for 35 years. The rest of the verse has plenty for me to learn yet but I know that there is something profound in sharing Christ’s sufferings that has perhaps eluded me all these years. And if I really, really wanted to know it and share in it with my Lord, I might put my hands on my hips and say, “We’ve got to do something about this!” But sometimes we are content (or at last I am) to remain mystified by how sacred and inexplicable scripture sounds.

But before we move into that one phrase that has for so long evaded me, let’s look at the rest of these verses. The Apostle Paul bragged about his pedigree to make an important point. I will now do the same. I was born into a Christian family. My father was an educator and my mother an avid reader and they made sure I was given a good education and lots of books to read. I was baptized in the Lutheran Church and worshiped there in a full church with my family after attending Sunday School each week. I made use of the literature table, becoming acquainted with Daily Bread and The Upper Room at a very young age. I remember buying for a dime my very first devotional when I was perhaps seven or eight years old. I hungered after the mysteries of God even then. A few years later I was taught how to pull the rope in the bell tower and move with it’s recoil so that even peals of the bell would sound between Sunday School and worship. Later, I was taught Luther’s catechism. By the way, this was the long catechism, not the brief one. I learned about and memorized the Ten Commandments, The Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. I learned how to take communion without the wafer sticking to the roof of my mouth. I also learned how to eat at what you call carry-ins but we accurately called potlucks. How blessed I have been as a Christian to eat often and much from the tables of the homes of so many. My mom was a great cook but I got to eat the offerings of hundreds of good cooks and bakers. God richly blessed me as a boy with a fine education, a good home, a variety and plenty to eat and so much more.

But somewhere along the line, something must have happened at St Luke Lutheran Church because my parents and sisters stopped going. Was it because they got a new pastor? Was some need not met by the folks, the pastor, or God? Did someone say something that seemed uncharitable to one of my mom? They never said but I know something happened.

This I do know: I didn’t want whatever it was that happened to them to happen to me. I wanted to keep going to St Luke. I do not know what the mystery there was for me; but it was there and I did not want to lose touch with it. Was it the potlucks I kept attending in the church basement by myself, now a 12-year-old? Carry-ins still appeal to me today. Was it the literature table in the narthex? It certainly held an appeal to me. Was it my Sunday School class, now a group of Junior High School students. I have to admit that Kristie Grote held a certain appeal but then I found out we were related. Probably it was for the best. I did not ring the bell anymore. Catechism classes were long over but I do remember the lessons to this day. Was it the Supper of a waxy wafer and grape juice that was the mystery? Perhaps more than I realize.

Today that building is empty. It was abandoned perhaps 20-years ago and the windows boarded up. It now sits at the edge of a crawling landscape of construction where a new city hospital and accompanying doctors’ offices and parking lots are being built where many square miles of houses, restaurants, and other businesses have been torn down. But St. Luke remains; and I am glad, sad as it is to see that building boarded up and empty.

For an empty building it sure gave me a lot. However, whatever I gained with my family, my education, and even my church, I consider all of those fond memories lost. In fact, they could even be considered a disadvantage. The Greek word Paul uses here in verse seven is zemian, and means just that, “to be put at a disadvantage.” Kansas would have done well last night to consider their whole season a loss, a disadvantage if they depended on it as if to receive some coronation in Indianapolis. Upon what do we depend to receive our crowns? Mommy and daddy took me to church? I was raised in the right denomination? A great education? If you believe these things reason for confidence, then I have more confidence than all of you! I have never left the church. In fact, I’ve been a member of so many churches I have lost count. I have taught so many Sunday School classes and youth groups, even when I was not a pastor, that I can’t keep their faces straight in my memories anymore. I have pastored four churches. I am finishing a second Masters degree for a church that does not even require an education. I am, as my father-in-law used to love to say (and I used to love to hear, if he wasn’t saying it about me), “educated beyond my intelligence.”

Are these things reason for confidence before the judgment seat of God? May I go before God and say that I have degrees and pastored churches and tithed and stayed faithful to one wife and weathered insult for the Name and was zealous for his word and that on the basis of these things he should throw open the doors and set out a feast for someone as wonderful as I?

Rubbish! These things are actually a disadvantage to many simply because they do put so much stock in them. But what must one do to be saved? I mean, if I have done so much and so many have done even more than I and it’s all simply a disadvantage, then we find that we cannot “do something about this.”

God has done something about this. He has called us his Friends. He has invited us into a relationship with him whereby we can enjoy him through a knowledge of his Son (verse 8). You may take away my memories, and my family, and my education, and pastorate and chaplaincy. But leave me one thing: Jesus. I count everything as loss, disadvantage, rubbish, dung (as the King Jimmy puts it) for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. If I may gain Christ, all else is loss. And if I count on those other things, I am placed at a disadvantage that makes me a friend of me, not Christ. It is his righteousness that I depend upon — not my own moral or religious righteousness. My righteousness does not come from keeping the Law, from denominational headquarters, from educational institutions, from overworking, being a good husband, or a good person. My righteousness before God is a gift that comes through faith; it depends on God by faith alone — not education, position in life, or the approval of men. Faith. That’s all. Faith in what Jesus Christ did for me that I could never do for myself.

Now I know you know all of this but you must be reminded often. We forget the things we know and begin to depend on things that hold no promise. We must hold to what we have been given so that we may gain Christ and his resurrection. We must hold to Christ and be clothed with his righteousness and not the rags that are our successes or failures. This means that the moral realities that are your own life will not be the basis of some heavenly fashion show. If you show up dressed in your own righteousness then you will indeed have some fine clothes on but they will also be stained by your lies and hypocrisy and other sins. You will be wearing the latest designer fashions of the Church but they will be ripped, stained, frayed, and soiled. But if you are clothed with Christ, if you depend on his righteousness, you will be resplendent before God’s throne because you will look like the Son and not the sorry son you know you really are.

In fact, it is in the admission of this dismal condition that one may finally come to a knowledge of the resurrection. It is in a continuing dependence upon his suffering for you instead of your own religious suffering that attains the resurrection from the dead. And so, this favorite mystical sounding verse of mine simply and profoundly means a disregard for my imperfect piety and an abiding in the sufferings of Christ for me. The only sure method for pressing on (Php 3:14) is to try to do as well as one can but not lose composure in failure — because fail you will. When you focus upon yourself, whether on your successes or your failures, your life gets out of focus. If you are looking at yourself, you are going to end up walking into trouble. Refocus on the one who suffered and died for your inadequacies and rose from the dead so that you could be raised with him in glory. That is the only way I know of whereby you may press on to the goal. Forget what lies behind — what you have or have not done — and look to what he has done. Share in those sufferings of his for you instead of manufacturing your own and you will discover that he has already done something about which you could never do.

A Grudging Craft

break-bread
A hymn I lettered way back in 1984 – 25 years ago – that still hangs in our dining room

Some days I just don’t feel like showing up for this job. I want to; I just don’t feel like it. Satisfying moments are few and far between and so briefly enjoyed. When I was a printer, though there were those grudging days when nothing seemed to get accomplished, I got to see the results of my work—stacks of paper and ink…and satisfied customers.

When I was a calligrapher, though the inked paper didn’t exactly pile up, the craft itself—not unlike printing—was satisfying. I saw the results of my work. There was a tactile nature to lettering and a delight in seeing a well-crafted serif or flourish appear. Then there was the privilege of hanging it on the wall (my own or another) and just having it there to appreciate over the years.

As a pastor, most days begrudge me of satisfaction. Where is the accomplishment? Where even the gauge of movement? Where is the stack of paper?

I desire do two things this morning. One is get my fingers in ink again. The other is find a way to make pastoring a craft that is tangible and satisfying. The first I may rediscover insofar as lettering and painting but probably not printing. Still, I keep having printing dreams; the last two nights especially. But it’s hard to imagine where I’d find the time and money to print again.

The second, discovering a pastoral craft, seems theologically implausible. This vocation is based on faith. The tangibles are distantly spaced over one’s life and so fleeting that the rewards of a pastorate are left to believing or hoping you’ve made an impression.

I can study and write and preach and teach and marry and bury and visit and counsel…and call it a craft or even approach it as a craft. (There is an idea worth exploring.) But where are the results? Where are the stacks of imprinted lives? I suspect I will never see the results in any lastingly gratifying way until my days are no more.

Until then, this grudging craft must be done in faith, days stacking up as leaves, no page quite the same as the previous, letting the Holy Spirit be the printer and I more the press.

(Perhaps there is yet a way I can find the time and space to bring these crafts together in my calling.)

Nice Atheist, Katharine Hepburn

hep

I just stumbled across a quotation by Katharine Hepburn: “I’m an atheist, and that’s it. I believe there’s nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for people.” —Katharine Hepburn, Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1991

How did she “know” that she could “believe” that principle was true? Who said so? It sounds nice but how is it that her “truth” is any more true than another person’s “truth”? Perhaps punching someone in the face is what one is really supposed to do in life. Doesn’t seem as nice, I suppose. But isn’t life rather sad if all it is about is being nice to folks?

Perhaps she simply had a great deal of faith in herself and came up with one commandment. Then again, maybe these subjective stabs at what is true are just justifications for doing whatever one wants to do with her life. Or attempts to not wrestle with God. No thanks. I’d rather not know the truth so I’ll make believe you don’t exist.

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” —John 8:31-32