Sunday, March 1, 2015

Mark's thoughts: The Sacrament in the sermon?

In a few moments, we are invited to approach the Lord’s altar with the same faith.  We go to receive a sip of wine and a crumb – a bite of dry bread.  Yet we go because of who Jesus is and what he has promised about it.  We go in faith because we know that there we receive the true body and blood of the risen Lord.  And through this body and blood given and shed for you, Jesus Christ gives you forgiveness and strength to continue in faith. Through this divine food the Holy Spirit feeds and nourishes the new man within you so that you can walk in faith. Crumbs from the table? It may not look like all that much.  But the Canaanite woman in our text is right.  Because they are crumbs from this Lord they provide everything that we need.    

This is the last paragraph of the sermon that I preached on Matthew 15:21-28, the Gospel lesson for the Second Sunday in Lent – Reminiscere, which deals with Jesus and the Canaanite woman.  It is rather typical of the kind of homiletical move that occurs in my sermons on a regular basis when the text includes elements such as bread, food, eating, Christ’s touch in healing, and God’s presence with his people.  I find that such elements naturally invite references to the Sacrament of the Altar and the manner in which Christ is present in his true body and blood, giving forgiveness and sustaining us in the faith. These homiletical techniques find their place alongside more direct references to the Sacrament in sermons which point to this gift as a central and key means by which we receive forgiveness and live our life as Christians.

What is striking to me is how very different this is from the preaching that I heard when growing up in the Lutheran Church.  During those years I heard what I would consider to be very solid, typical Lutheran preaching.  Yet I do not remember in this preaching any kind of consistent reference to the Sacrament of the Altar.  The Sixth Part of the Small Catechism was taught in Confirmation class.   A staunch defense of “the real presence” would always be offered.  This was certainly held up as an essential part of being “Lutheran.”  Yet there was very rarely any connection between the Sacrament and preaching.  We learned the “right” things about the Sacrament.  We celebrated the Sacrament every other Sunday using the liturgy of The Lutheran Hymnal and then Lutheran Worship.  Yet beyond these basic factors, the Sacrament of the Altar was largely absent from the piety formed in the congregation.  My impression is that what I experienced was rather typical.  It was of a piece with “non-communion Sundays,” a liturgy that was done but never explained, and a liturgy done in a very minimalist and perfunctory manner.

Where the Sacrament of the Altar has ceased to hold a central position in the piety of a congregation, the step that abandons the liturgy is a very small one, even though it is giant in its implications.  Certainly, the liturgy is made up of verses and phrases taken from Holy Scripture.  Yet just as important is the fact that the liturgy has been built around the reading and proclamation of God’s Word and the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar.  It highlights and emphasizes the sacramental ways in which God comes to us and is therefore the best and most natural setting for these gifts.  Remove the Sacrament of the Altar from the Divine Service and all that has been built around it in order to extol the gift such as the Preface, Proper Preface, Sanctus and Agnus Dei collapses.

Where the Sacrament is not celebrated every other Sunday, people are being taught that the worship life of the Church does not need it.  It is non-essential – it can appear and disappear.  In such a setting, it is only natural that preaching does not emphasize the Sacrament of the Altar.  After all when the Sacrament is absent half of the time, a reference to the Sacrament on a Sunday when the Sacrament is not being celebrated is jarring. In many settings (such as the one in which I grew up) this is every Sunday for the pastor whose congregation alternates celebration of the Sacrament between early and late services.

 It was at the seminary that I discovered that there is another way of doing things.   I learned that purely from a matter of practice, it had not been this way in the history of the catholic Church as a whole, and Lutheran Church in particular.  Instead, a Sunday Divine Service without the Sacrament of the Altar was unheard of until the influence of rationalism impacted the Lutheran Church during the eighteenth century. I learned that the Lutheran Confessions talk about the Sacrament of the Altar and what it means for the Church, even when the topic is not the Sacrament of the Altar.  I learned that Luther wrote about the Sacrament of the Altar in deeply meaningful terms, even when the topic was not the Sacrament of the Altar. 

This is a piety that not only confesses the truth about the gift, but also places it in a central position in life of the Church.  Because this is so, and in making it so, the Sacrament of the Altar is celebrated every Sunday.  The Sacrament is the jewel in the setting of the liturgy – a setting that focuses attention on the gift and extols it at every turn.  The liturgy is celebrated in a rich and full way, because to do so is to enable the liturgy to do this in the greatest way possible.  And preaching cannot help but mention the Sacrament of the Altar because to speak about the Sacrament is to speak about Jesus Christ present every week with his Church, giving forgiveness and strength for life in the faith.

Sermon for Second Sunday in Lent - Reminiscere

                                                                                                Lent 2
                                                                                                Mt 15:21-28

            Clearly, I did not know what I was getting myself into.  When I received the call to Good Shepherd more than eight and a half years ago, I didn’t know anything about Marion.  I knew there was a federal supermax prison there.  In fact that was a comment that was made on multiple occasions by members at Zion, Lyons: “You know there is a prison there, right?” – as if the prison sat right in the middle of the town.  As it turns out, it took me seven years before I ever saw the thing.
            I also didn’t know anything about southern Illinois.  I knew that Southern Illinois University was in Carbondale; that they were named after some weird Egyptian dog; and that their basketball team was good and played tough defense – well they used to be.
            What I didn’t know was that this is rabid St. Louis Cardinals country.  And even if I had of realized it, I still would not have known what that really meant.  Growing up as a Cubs fan I certainly didn’t like the Cardinals.  I knew they were the Cubs’ rivals.  I was happy to see them lose – I certainly had a case of schadenfreude when a blown call helped the Kansas City Royals beat them in the World Series.  But beyond that I didn’t really give them another thought.  I certainly didn’t think much of it when I learned that someone was a Cardinals fan. It was just no big deal.
            The very puzzling thing I have discovered during my time in southern Illinois is that this is clearly not the way it is for Cardinals fans.  Rather they seem to be fixated on the Cubs.  Let someone know that you root for the Cubs, and you’ll never hear the end of it as people say things like, “Oh, he’s a Cubs fan.”  The very word “Cubs” comes off the lips with disdain.  Given the disparity between the success of the two teams, I have never understood this.  I can only explain it as a case of Wrigley Field envy.
            In our Gospel lesson today Matthew tells us, “And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out.”  To give you a sense of how those words would have struck a Jew, try out this substitute: “And behold, a Cubs fan from the region came out.” It will give you a sense of the disdain a Jew would have felt for someone described as a Canaanite, and also for the surprise experienced due to Jesus’ praise of her at the end of our text.
            Our text this morning begins by saying, “And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.”
Our Lord had just had a confrontation with the Pharisees and scribes about what was religiously unclean and defiled a person.  Several times in Matthew’s Gospel, after this kind of confrontation, Jesus withdraws.  Our Lord has a timetable and a location for his passion and will not let anyone disrupt this.
            Jesus withdraws north of Israel into the area of Tyre and Sidon.  This was pagan territory – Tyre had been the home of that Baal promoter Jezebel during the days of the prophet Elijah.  It is unexpected to find someone seeking out Jesus here. Matthew notes this by saying “behold!” and then heightens the surprise by using an “old school” for the woman as he calls her a “Canaanite.”
            The woman was crying out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.”  “Have mercy on me!” was a call for help – just as it is in the liturgy. But soon there are two surprises. First the woman calls Jesus “Lord,” and in Matthew’s Gospel only those who approach Jesus in faith call him this.  And then the woman addresses Jesus as “son of David.”  This phrase identifies Jesus as Israel’s Messiah.  It is an insightful and profound statement on the lips … of a Canaanite woman.
            In Matthew’s Gospel you could hardly ask for a more perfect form of address directed toward Jesus: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.”  But Jesus didn’t even respond to her.  He didn’t say one word.  The woman kept crying out to Jesus and the disciples became annoyed.  They said, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.”  Apparently they wanted Jesus to heal the girl so that the woman would be quiet and just go away.  However, Jesus didn’t do this.  Instead, he answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  He said the Canaanite woman wasn’t his problem.
            However the Canaanite woman wasn’t done. Instead, she intensified her request.  She came and kneeled, or even prostrated herself, before Jesus.  She again called him “Lord” as she begged, “Lord, help me.”   And in response Jesus said, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.”  He said it wouldn’t be right to bother with her.  He called her a dog.
            You will be hard pressed to find someone in the Bible who is more brusquely dismissed and rejected by God, than the Canaanite woman in this text.  She approaches Jesus with words that say all of the right things … and she gets nothing.  In fact she gets less than nothing because he calls her a dog.
            At this point, it’s helpful to stop and take stock of the Canaanite woman’s options.  She certainly could have become discouraged and given up. After all, two entreaties had gotten her nowhere and Jesus’ response to her was going from bad to worse.  She also could have become angry at Jesus and left.  After all, not only was Jesus ignoring her request but his responses were getting more and more offensive.  First he completely ignored her. Then he insulted her by calling her a dog.
            This experience is not unique to the Canaanite woman.  You know it too.  It happens when there is a diagnosis of cancer or depression or diabetes.  It happens when you get demoted, or lose a job, or decide that you can’t stay there anymore and need to find a new job.  It happens when there are strife and problems in your family.
            Our first reaction is that God is being silent – that God is ignoring us. After all, why would he allow this to happen?  And then if things don’t get better soon – or if they even get worse – we feel like God is just piling on.  We feel like he is calling us a dog.  This breeds anger and resentment at God.  Perhaps it even makes us doubt why we bother with God at all.
            The Canaanite woman did not react in any of these ways.  We hear in our text that she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.”  The Canaanite woman did not try to make assertions about “her rights.”  She didn’t get angry and offended with Jesus.  She didn’t get upset and walk away.
            Instead in faith she clung to the fact that the gracious abundance of Jesus was more than sufficient to meet her needs.  In faith she believed and trusted in Jesus Christ.  In faith she trusted that through his power the crumbs would provide all that she needed.
            We learn in our text that Jesus then answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was then healed instantly.  In an emphatic way Jesus praised the great faith of the woman.  He praised her for clinging to him in the midst of silence and apparent rejection.
            The mystery of our text is how a woman living in the pagan territory of Tyre and Sidon had heard about Jesus in a way that led her to approach him with the words, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.”  The text doesn’t say, and so we will never know.  But we do know that you have all the more reason to approach Jesus in faith than she did. 
            You know the whole story – the story that we are following during this portion of the church year.  You know the whole story about the incarnation – that Jesus Christ is true God and true man.  You know about his death on the cross that we are preparing during Lent to remember.  And then you also know about his resurrection from the dead.  You know that Christ died on the cross to redeem you from sin, and then on the third day he defeated death as he rose from the dead. Christ has died, and Christ has risen from the dead!  You know that in faith you approach the Lord, crucified and risen for you.
            The example of the Canaanite woman has been included in Scripture by the Spirit in order to provide a model and encouragement to us.  It calls us to a firm faith that trusts Jesus and keeps coming back to him.  We may have specific concerns we want him to address.  We may have our own ideas about how we think things should work out.  It may in fact be that the Lord answers in this way.  But more than this we approach Jesus in faith knowing that because of his death and resurrection for he will not fail to provide us with forgiveness and life.  He will not fail to keep us as a child of God. He will not fail to support us in that faith through his Spirit as he brings us through the challenges that we face.
            In our text the Canaanite women makes a bold statement when she responds to Jesus: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.”  She is so confident in Jesus’ grace and power that she believes even that which seems to be nothing will meet her needs. 
            In a few moments, we are invited to approach the Lord’s altar with the same faith.  We go to receive a sip of wine and a crumb – a bite of dry bread.  Yet we go because of who Jesus is and what he has promised about it.  We go in faith because we know that there we receive the true body and blood of the risen Lord.  And through this body and blood given and shed for you, Jesus Christ gives you forgiveness and strength to continue in faith. Through this divine food the Holy Spirit feeds and nourishes the new man within you so that you can walk in faith. Crumbs from the table? It may not look like all that much.  But the Canaanite woman in our text is right.  Because they are crumbs from this Lord they provide everything that we need.   




Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Mark's thoughts: What do you think provides the pattern for preaching?

During the past two years I have taken part in an ongoing discussion about new obedience, “sanctification,” the third use of the law, and biblical exhortation.  I have learned much in this discussion by returning to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. 

It is easy in this discussion to get lost in arguments that go into great detail about Law and Gospel, new man vs. old man, “the Simul,” second use of the law and third use of the law.  But in the midst of extended and detailed discussions it is easy to lose sight of the real issues and what is at stake.

Jordan Cooper has helpfully identified the basic problem as one of Law-Gospel Reductionism.  I think he is correct.

The same issue can be identified in another and related way that may be even more direct.  Many who deny a robust presence of exhortation in preaching operate on the basis of this fundamental presupposition:

The Scriptures are the content of preaching not the pattern.

That is to say, the Lord Jesus and the apostolic writers such as Paul, John and Peter give us the theological content that is to be preached – a message of Law and Gospel – but in the way they actually speak they do not provide a model or pattern that we can or should follow.  One regularly hears that Paul’s letters are “not sermons” and therefore cannot be used as a model of exhortation that is grounded in Gospel (see my discussion of Titus chapters 2 and 3 in Would Paul want pastors to preach and teach about good works?).

I believe that for those who are observing this discussion, the clear presentation of this presupposition is very helpful.  It raises important questions that we need to ask ourselves: 

1. Do we really believe that the inspired revelation – the only word that God has given to us – does not provide the pattern we are to follow in preaching to Christians?

2. If they don’t provide the pattern, then what serves as the source for the pattern we are to use? 

3. Why are these other sources superior to the Lord Jesus and his inspired apostles?

When stripped away of its theological window dressing and boiled down to this basic and fundamental point that guides preaching, it becomes clear that the position simply is untenable and must be rejected.  

It also soon becomes clear that historically this has not been true of Lutheran preaching since the days of Luther.  Lutheran preaching has followed the dominical and apostolic pattern of exhortation grounded in the Gospel as the source of our life in Christ.  Instead this new approach is a creation of mid-twentieth Lutheran theologians (a point very helpfully set forth in Scott Murray’s book Law, Life and the Living God: The Third Use of the Law in Modern American Lutheranism).  It does not follow Christ and the apostles, and so it should not guide us.


Sermon for First Mid-week Lent service - Mt 21:12-22

                                                                                                Mid-Lent 1
                                                                                                Mt 21:12-22

            “A green thumb.”  All of us know what the expression means.  It describes someone who is very good at raising plants – someone who is able to make them thrive and produce great flowers and fruit.  In England they use a similar expression – “green fingers.”
            We all know what it means.  What is interesting is that there is disagreement about the source of this expression.  Some say that it originated in England during the reign of Henry I who is reported to have loved fresh peas and kept a group of servants removing peas from the pods.  In doing so their fingers were stained greened.  A more likely explanation is that it originated in the fact that the clay pots used by gardeners became encrusted with algae and this stained fingers green.  And it may be that while “green thumb” describes the same thing as “green fingers,” it has a completely separate derivation.  Those who raised tobacco would remove the flowers from the plants so that the leaves would grow in size and weight.  Colonial era farmers often did so using their thumb which became green in the process.
            We may not be sure how the expression “green thumb” came to be, but we do know for sure what it means.  And we can say for sure that in our text tonight, our Lord Jesus does not have one.  Jesus encounters a fig tree that has no fruit.  In reaction to this, he causes the fig tree immediately to wither and die.  At first glance, it’s a really odd event. But when we see its connection with what Jesus has just done and said in the temple its meaning becomes clear.  And it is a word that we need to hear during Lent.
            The events of our text take place on the day that Jesus entered into Jerusalem.  After riding into Jerusalem to the cheers of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!,” we learn that Jesus makes his way to the temple.  There he drives out all of those who are involved in buying and selling – the money changers who exchanged money into the form used in the temple, as well as those selling animals to be sacrificed.  As he did so, he said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
            Now it’s not the buying and selling of animals that is the problem. After all, the sacrifices had been commanded by God as part of the Torah he gave to Israel.  If you are going to have animal sacrifices, you need animals that are suitable for sacrificing. And if you are going to have people come from all over Israel to sacrifice, they will need to be able to buy animals.
            Instead, when Jesus uses the phrase “den of robbers” he provides the clue we need to understand what is happening.  In the sixth century B.C. the prophet Jeremiah had announced that the temple was going to be destroyed because of Judah’s unfaithfulness.  In doing so, he described the temple as a “den of robbers.” 
            In both cases, people were going through all of the motions of what they were “supposed to do.”  But spiritually, their attitude was all wrong – especially that of the religious leaders.  In Jesus’ day they were focused on what they did and their expectations of how God should work, rather than looking in faith to the reign of God that was present in Christ.
            Those who had no illusions about their own need were drawn to Jesus all during his ministry.  And it was no different here in the precincts of the temple itself.  We learn in our text that the blind and lame came to Jesus and he healed them.    These wondrous deeds were accompanied by the cry of children who said, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” as they echoed Jesus’ entry into the city. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that Jesus did, and heard the children crying out in the temple they were indignant.  Their reaction demonstrates what was wrong at the temple.
            Jesus withdrew outside the city to Bethany for the night. We learn that the next morning as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. He saw a fig tree there along the road. He went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves, at a time when it should have had fruit. So he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
            It seems like a strange action.  Yet the background for understanding it is provided by the Old Testament and the events in the temple of the previous day.  The prophet Hosea described Israel as fruit on a fig tree, and Jeremiah and Micah both compared Israel to a barren fig tree.  When Jesus causes the barren fig tree to whither, it is an action prophecy of judgment against Israel that has rejected its true king and proven to be unfruitful. They are going through the motions and doing what they are “supposed to do.”  But they are not looking in humble faith for what God is doing in Jesus Christ.
            Our text tonight is a warning to us. It is easy for us just to go through the motions of being Christians.  It is possible to be doing what we are “supposed to do” – to go to church – and yet have this be disconnected from what happens in our life the rest of the week.  It is possible to fence God off in that hour or two on Sunday morning while we claim the rest of the time in the week for ourselves.
            The need for self-examination and repentance in our life never ceases.  In reality we are probably not capable of doing it at the same intensity all of the time.  And that is why the season of Lent is a blessing in our lives and the life of the Church.  For a period of time, we are called to focus upon our lives and God’s Word.  We are called to examine ourselves and confess the sin that is present.  We are called to repent and turn in faith to Christ who provides forgiveness and strength to turn away from sin.
            In our text tonight we see Jesus in the temple during Holy Week.  This combination of place and time provides the assurance that in repentance and faith we find the forgiveness of our Lord.  The temple was of course the place where the sacrifices commanded by God took place – sacrifices that would find their fulfillment in the death of Jesus Christ that was about to take place on Friday of that very week.
            The sacrifices were about God’s forgiveness.  And in particular, the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement removed the sin that stood as a barrier between God and his people.  It removed the sin that cut them off from fellowship with him.  Jesus Christ offered himself as the sacrifice for all – the sacrifice for you.  He provided himself as the ransom in your place by which you have received forgiveness and eternal life. And in his resurrection from the dead he has begun the life that will be yours on the Last Day.
            During Lent we have the opportunity to examine our lives and recognize those ways in which we are just going through the motions.  And at the same time, the season of Lent leads us back to the source that enables us to live as what Christ has made us to be. 
            Lent leads us back to our baptism, for it leads us to the first service of the resurrection - the Vigil of Easter.  It leads us back to a faith filled remembrance of what God has done for us through water and the word.  It leads us to the source of our Christian life, for through baptism the Spirit has joined you to the saving death of Jesus.  And through baptism the Spirit has begun the work of Christ within you.  It is the risen Lord through his Spirit who provides strength to live in faith – to live out the faith in the world instead of just going through the motions.