Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Sunday After Ascension "Your Mother, The Church"

Exaudi John 15:26-16:4 May 23 – 24, 2009 "Your Mother, The Church!"

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Here, in part, is what St. Peter heard in the upper room: “The hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father, nor Me.” Here, in part, is what St. Peter passed on to his children: “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you.” Legend holds that the fiery trial, the not-so-strange thing, that killed Peter was that he was offered in service to pagan gods, to whom he would not bow down and pray. Little did those murderers know, since they did not know Jesus and thereby the Father, that their god was, in fact, the devil. But such brutality, such scathing hatred and ignorance, serves the backward-seeming Kingdom of God, where the poor, the mourning, the meek, and the hungry are blessed, where suffering exhibits acceptance, where fiery trials of persecution and being killed for the Truth is not strange, where the Victor wins by defeat and Life overcomes by death.

Can you imagine some backstabbing betrayer, some milk toast bureaucrat, sitting in the crowds watching Peter’s martyrdom saying, “Well, it really is a shame, but he brought it on himself. He should have been more winsome, more tolerant, nicer, gentler, kinder. He should have been more like me: confessional and successful.” Well, He probably did some dumb things. After all, he was a man like us. He was not perfect. But He had before denied our Lord at the home of the high priest. He had felt the burden of the Law. He could not again deny the One who died for him, by tolerating prayers to Caesar! By the grace of God in Christ he would not compromise the truth. His death was not a disgrace, shameful, or a failure. The Spirit of Truth was upon him, guiding him into the way of the cross, purifying his faith in the glorious, tortuous flames of martyrdom. What they meant for evil, God used for good, for Peter’s good, and for the Church’s good. His Holy Mother, the Church, was pleased and thankful for her son.

What would your mother think?” is a pretty good litmus test for ethics and morality. When you teach 7th and 8th graders the 6th commandment, that is the one about marriage, adultery, fornication, God-given sexual identity, living together, and the like, they always want to know how far they can go, how much kissing, touching, and hugging is appropriate. I tell them that they should not do anything that they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, do in their mother’s presence. They know that means a pretty chaste, clean, quick kiss. And if there is a way to make adolescents squirm in their chairs, that’s it. It conflicts their desire to please the flesh with their desire to please their mothers. Mothers are law-givers, guilt-producers, rule-makers. But they are also providers, protectors, nourishers, and lovers.

In reading about slavery in the American South, no abuse makes me so sad as the accounts of selling children away from their mothers. Christian men justified those acts by misreading the Bible, by Theologizing. It was convenient, expedient, seemingly necessary for the economy, for prosperity. It was the modern rage, the latest scholarship, the foundation upon which America was built. It was the American way. For their own gain men turned their backs on the obvious moral truth. Their churches made bland, neutral statements to condone it. And as sad as the forced separation of mother and child is, nothing is so sad as a mother gone bad, as a mother who fears her children or promotes herself by lying to and using them. Mothers who abuse their children and attempt to buy them back between fits of rage with gifts, candy, and lies are the most heartbreaking cases. Adult children learn to distance themselves, but not youth. They do not have the emotional equipment. Like flies to the flame, they return again and again. They want nothing so bad in this life as their mothers to love them, as their mothers should.

Even as adults, our desires for this life are pretty simple, though we often can’t see them for the clutter of our entertainment pursuits, our endless quest to banish boredom. All we want is: our beloved to love us; our children to outlive us; men to respect us. That really is it. And in that order. When those things are stripped away, by tragedy, malice, or guilt, then we see what matters in life. When your wife walks out on you, all of the sudden it is abundantly clear that motorcycles, sky diving, and bar hopping with your buddies are not nearly so much fun as drying the dishes with your beloved at your side. A good mother disciplines her children. She strives to teach them to appreciate and treasure the things that matter in this live, so that they won’t lose them by their own foolish misdeeds.

In these last weeks of Easter, the Church, our Holy Mother, would have us know the Theology of the Cross. She strives to teach us so that we not be scandalized by the hardships of true pilgrims traveling in this foreign land. She doesn’t want us to loose the only thing that really matters by our own foolish misdeeds. So following our remembrance of the Ascension, where the Second Person of the Holy Trinity returned to His Father as a Man, as one of us, exalting our nature, opening up heaven for us, She draws our attention to the fact that always before glory comes the cross. “Don’t think it strange,” she says, “that you must suffer fiery trials and the world’s scorn. Don’t think it strange that you fail to draw the crowds of a Taylor Swift concert or have the following of mildly pornographic television drama or sitcom. Don’t think it strange that you are brutalized by false priests and mocked and ridiculed for desiring and even insisting upon pure doctrine and practice. Don’t think your Mother, for all Her discipline, does not love you. She knows when you need the piercing Law instead of sweet Gospel. Though it pains Her, She gives you, She teaches, what is best, what you need. That you would be prepared for what must come. And your failure to please the world is no shame or embarrassment to Her, but the mark of Her true children.” And so it is that still today God allows the violence of the world to overcome His children. They are persecuted for not joining in with the world’s mad lust and games. They are tortured and ridiculed, threatened and cajoled for teaching the Truth. And some martyrs bleed on the inside. At times God allows this cruel world to even strip away our greatest desires - our spouses, our children, our friends. He drives us ever closer to Himself. And in the end, we will see that He never took anything from us. He only removed it for a time that we would not be distracted from the one thing needful, from His perfect, sacrificial love that has saved us. His discipline is harsh, but necessary. He prepares us through suffering, through fiery trials, so that we will not fail the final test.

Thank God for mothers who pray for their children, who bring them early to the life giving waters of Holy Baptism for birth from above, who read to them from the Holy Scriptures. Thank God for the love that caused His Incarnation, His martyrdom at Pilate’s hands on a cross of shame, His glorious resurrection out of death, and His ascension to the Father for us. Thank God for the free grace that has washed away all our sins, our shame and regrets, for the constant, steadfast care of God that keeps us in this faith. Thank God for providing for us the Church as Mother, where He provides for us, feeds us, speaks to us with words that death cannot remove. May She ever be praised.

In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ascension Sermon

Ascension Thursday, May 21, 2009 Mark 16:14-20

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our Lord charged the apostles: “Preach the Gospel to every creature.” Then He added a promise about Baptism. It is not a charge to visit, to clothe, to house, or to fix marriages. It is not even a charge to lead. It is certainly not to grow like a business as though Our Lord instituted capitalism! It is to baptize, to preach, to feed, to forgive. That is the charter and purpose of the Church. She has nothing else. Just this: the Gospel. And that, to be preached.

For in the days of Pontius Pilate the dust outside of Jerusalem was made thick with tears and with sweat. Selfish men gathered there to erect a cruel tree: beams of wood crossed in hate. They lifted up from the earth the Stone they had rejected but God had anointed. The mud grew slick with His blood. They tore down the Temple not built with hands as He tore the Temple veil in two and exposed His mercy for all to see. They raised up the Stone upon a deranged device designed for painful death. And there God built a Church!

Even so, the disciples wept. The wind and the sky covered their ears with darkness for the shame. They sought to shut out the blasphemy of men drunk on violence and the will to power. The hills shook with rage and frustration. They let go of the dead in protest of the priesthood’s perversion and false sacrifice. That holy day, creation mourned for the price God paid.

But what men meant for evil, God meant for good. It was not the death of life, but of death. When that Good Shepherd laid down His life, when He breathed His last and died, suffering His soul to be separated for a time from His body, it was the end of death. It was the beginning of life, the laying of the cornerstone. Death was finished. Hell was finished. The Law was finished. Creation’s subjection to the grave’s sting and haunting dominion was ended. The future could begin for God’s will was and is now done. That cruel scaffold, those beams crossed with hate, is the emblem of perfect love, of enduring grace, of God’s true glory. The tears they inspire in us are not of sadness but of joy and gratitude. For in the water and the blood that slipped down the cross forgiveness and mercy were born. The place of the skull is the burial ground of death and Hell’s certain defeat.

The long-expected Christ rested in the tomb. It was not punishment or payment. It was the reward for His faithfulness. According to the pattern of the first creation also the second. The Creator finished the recreation on the 6th day. It was good. On the 7th day, the Creator rested. Then the Creator rose. For forty days, He was present amongst His people, Creator and creatures, Redeemer and redeemed, Giver, Sustainer, Lover, Counselor, and believers. He opened the Scriptures to them. He set their hearts afire with His love. He comforted them in His scars. He spoke peace to them and delivered the keys to heaven.

Then He ascended. He rose up from the earth again. He went bodily into heaven. He had come to earth Thirty-odd years before as God to become Man. He left earth as Man become God. His Holy Spirit had overshadowed the Virgin. He had joined His Godhead to humanity. He has forever elevated the sons and daughters of Adam. He who was Priest and Sacrifice, Law-Giver and Law-fulfiller, is forever God and Man. He took up your frail flesh, O sinner! With it He made a sacrifice worthy of all that Justice could demand of you and of all mankind. He ascended as that Divine Man and has caused the angel of death to pass over you and all those marked with the bloody waters of Holy Baptism. He is the Enfleshment of Abraham’s God, the Lord without beginning who was issued forth in time from Mary’ s womb.

So He has rescued you from Satan’s grasp and is your true Brother. He has redeemed you from death. He goes to the right hand of the Father for you, as one of us, to be your Advocate. He paves the way into paradise for you. For you are His brother and His friend. You are worthy of His love by the power of invitation; by the declaration and delivery of His Name. He has made you His and member of the royal family by Grace.

Of course, it is utter foolishness. The Gospel always is. And the worst thing, the most difficult part, is that it is all for free. That is the way of the Gospel. And it is ever a stumbling block to fallen flesh. It is overly simple: Preach the Gospel to every creature. Never hold a man’s sins against him. Let everyone off the hook for free, for My sake, in My Name. Don’t make it work. Just preach. Live by faith. Never charge a cent. Never persuade through fancy words. Never appeal to felt needs. Never compete in the marketplace. Never measure your success. Never force yourself on anyone. And - and - let your enemies kill you. Turn the other cheek. Take up your cross and follow Me.

Preach the Gospel to every creature. Proclaim the death Christ died and the life He lives for you and for them. He ascended, but He is not gone. He lives. And He still gives His life to and for you, not in a bloodless sacrifice, but in purest gift. He gives not mere bread and wine, but His very self, His Body and His Blood. It is the fruit of the Cross. He joins Himself, the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord, the Victor over death and Promise fulfilled, to you. He joins Himself to you in a perfect communion, a foretaste of the feast to come, a sampling of grace too sublime for the thoughts and words and songs of men. It is a miracle of the altar of the cross turned into a table. It burns the lips of men and purifies them. It cleanses them from the inside out. It is Jesus. It is the Gospel. And it will do more than spare you from poison and serpents. It will bring you to Him in heaven.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.