Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter - Misericordias Domini - Jn 10:11-16

                                                                                                Easter 3
                                                                                                Jn 10:11-16

            “I don’t know man, I just work here.”  These words are a nightmare for any manager, supervisor or business owner.  As soon as a business owner needs to hire other people to help do the work of the business, a risk arises.  The business owner is committed to making his business successful. The owner knows that the customer’s experience in dealing with the business is a key factor in determining whether they will use the business again.  And so, the owner does everything possible to treat customers well and keep them happy.
            Yet when you hire people to do the work, it’s not their business.  They don’t have their hopes and dreams tied up in it.  For them, it may be just a job.  If they feel that it is “just a job,” it’s quite likely that this will show through in the way they do their job and treat customers.  We’ve all dealt with employees who clearly did not want to be there and obviously had no real interest in being helpful.  It does not make you want to come back again. 
            The problem of having workers who are there only to punch the time clock is nothing new.  Jesus talks about this in our Gospel lesson for today.  He describes himself as the Good Shepherd and contrasts his behavior with that of the hired hand. The hired hand is only there to work and make money.  The sheep aren’t his.  He has no investment in them. And so if a dangerous animal like a wolf shows up, the hired hand has no interest in taking any kind of risk to protect them.  Instead, he takes off and flees, leaving the helpless sheep to be devoured and scattered by the wolf.
            Today, Jesus Christ tells us that this is not how he does things.  The hired hand doesn’t care about the sheep.  They mean nothing to him.  By contrast, Jesus says in our text, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
            Our Lord says that he knows his sheep and that his sheep know him.  Jesus began this discussion by saying about a shepherd: “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers."
            Our Lord is the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and calls them by name.  That’s what he did in Holy Baptism.  He called you by name as through the pastor in his Office of the Holy Ministry he spoke your name and baptized you in the name of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Spirit.
            You continue to hear his voice through God’s Word.  In the inspired Scriptures Jesus the Good Shepherd speaks to us.  He speaks so that we may hear his voice and follow him.  Jesus says that the sheep don’t listen to the voice of a stranger. Instead when they hear a stranger, they flee.
            So how is it with you?  Whose voice are you listening to day in and day out?  Is today the only day you listen to Jesus’ voice?  I hope not.  Because the stranger is speaking to you every single day. Every day you are immersed by his voice.  The shows you watch, the music you listen to, the internet content you look at – he is speaking through it every day.  His voice says that there is no truth; there is no error.  His voice says that your decisions need to be determined by what makes you happy.  Choose the way that is best for you.    Don’t be bound by the so called “will of God” preserved in some ancient book or by promises and commitments you have made to others … say, at a wedding.  You need to look out for you.  It’s a persuasive pitch, because it directs me toward the person I am most into – me.
            However, Jesus’ voice is different.  Jesus directs you to himself because he has put you first.  Our Lord says in the Gospel lesson, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  Now Jesus is different than the stranger. The stranger is going to tell you what you want to hear.  He is going to tell you that you come first because everything is great.  Jesus says that he is the shepherd and you are the sheep.  It’s not a flattering metaphor. Sheep are dumb.  Sheep are stupid. Sheep are helpless. That’s you when it comes to living in ways that are true to the Creator and his ordering of the world. You are spiritually too dumb; too stupid; too helpless.
            And that’s why it is astounding that Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  The hired hand would say you are not worth it.  And he’s right.  But Jesus’ love for you defies all logic.  He loves the unlovable.  And his love makes you into something that you are not.
            His love is one of sacrifice for you.  He laid down his life on the cross.  He offered himself in your place.  It was what Martin Luther called the “great exchange.”  He received your sin, guilt and judgment.  You receive his innocence, righteousness, and justification. 
            And then beyond that, because of him you receive life. Immediately after our text Jesus goes on to say, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” 
            During this season of Easter we rejoice that Jesus has risen from the dead!  He has defeated death. And we will share in this victory. As Jesus said, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
            Jesus the Good Shepherd has laid down his life for you the sheep, and then taken it up again.  He has given you forgiveness and life.  Already now you have eternal life. And you will share in the resurrection life of your Lord on the Last Day.
            The Good Shepherd has done this for you.  But because he has, it can no longer be only about you.  During Holy Week we heard about how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet during the Last Supper.  When he had finished he said, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”
            Jesus has sacrificed himself; he has served you, so that now you can serve others. This is what his Spirit leads you to do. It is the Spirit who caused you to be born again when Jesus called you by name in Holy Baptism. The Spirit has given you new life and leads to live this life. Christ’s Spirit leads, but you must also follow the Spirit’s leading. That’s why Jesus said: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” 
            Loving service for one another is now to define our lives.  Jesus’ great act of loving service – the astounding willingness of the Good Shepherd to give his life on behalf of the sheep – is the ongoing source for this.  That is why we need to continue to listen to Jesus’ voice.  This is why we need to listen to Jesus loving voice in his Means of Grace.  In Holy Absolution Jesus speaks forgiveness to us, so that we then can speak forgiveness to one another.  In his Sacrament Jesus gives us his true body and blood given and shed for us to strengthen us in faith.
            When we are receiving these gifts, we are receiving Jesus’ forgiveness and love.  And it is this that makes it possible for us to forgive and love others. This is what makes it possible to forgive our husband or wife, or brother or sister when they have said or done something hurtful. It is this that makes it possible to forgive and stop sin in its tracks, instead of angrily responding in ways that cause sin to reverberate back and forth between us in with ever greater intensity – with ever greater damage.
            To respond in kind; to seek payback is not the way of those for whom Jesus Christ has died and risen from the dead.  It is not the way of those who know the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep.  And so led by the Spirit we now seek to serve; we now seek to forgive.  When we fail, we return to the Means of Grace.  When we succeed, we return to the Means of Grace.  Our whole life is one of listening to the Good Shepherd’s voice – of receiving his gifts by which he forgives sins and strengthens faith.
            Jesus says in our text today, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  Our Lord laid down his life on the cross for us. But he then also took it up again on the third day.  Because of this we have forgiveness and peace. Because of this we forgive and serve others.



Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mark's thoughts: "Children's sermons" and Children's catechesis

A pastor I know recently shared in a Lutheran discussion group that he was being pressured to introduce a “Children’s sermon” into the Sunday Divine Service.  He asked about how other pastors had handled this.  The overall response to children’s sermons in the discussion was very negative, and if one believes what the Book of Concord has to say about worship and the forms used for it, this is really not hard to understand.

As Lutherans, we recognize that in the Divine Service, God serves us with His gifts of the Means of Grace by which He forgives sins and strengthens faith.  The liturgy of the Divine Service is all taken from God’s Word and it has been built around the Means of Grace.  It has been constructed in a way that highlights Baptism, Holy Absolution, the reading and preaching of the Gods Word and the Sacrament of the Altar (consider how the Word of Institution are framed by the Preface, Proper Preface, Sanctus, Pax Domini and Agnus Dei).

Not only is the liturgy made from Scripture and put together in ways that emphasize the Means of Grace, but it also teaches the correct faith.  This is important because the way we worship shapes and forms what we believe.  The things we do, say and hear every Sunday determine what we believe.  What a church really believes can be learned from how they worship on Sunday morning.  The weekly use of the liturgy as found in the settings of our hymnal helps to form and shape us in the one true catholic and apostolic faith.

In this process the repetition of the liturgy in the Divine Service is a powerful tool for learning. The repetition of hearing and singing the words of the liturgy each week teaches us the catholic and apostolic faith, and shapes and forms the way we think about the faith.  This is a process that begins with the smallest child and continues all throughout our life.  It is not a process that ever ends or is finished because the words and phrases, movements and actions invite ever deeper understanding as we grow and mature as Christians. In this way, the liturgy also helps to preserve the faith as it keeps us believing the catholic and apostolic faith in the midst of a world that seeks to draw us away from Christ.

During the second half of the twentieth century an idea developed in American Christianity that has also implanted itself in the Lutheran church.  This is the assumption that there really isn’t anything in the service for children.  They can’t get anything out of it because it goes “over their head.”  What was needed then, was something that was aimed specifically at children.  And so "children’s sermons" were born as they were inserted into the service for the purpose of meeting this need and providing “something for the children.” 

During the last twenty years or so this belief has been pursued to its logical conclusion as churches have removed children from the service altogether and instead have them present at a separate “children’s church.”  If there isn’t anything in the service for children, why leave them in that setting?  Rather than the half-measure of a children’s sermon, it is better to remove them from the Sunday service and instead provide a “service” that is tailored for them.

This way of thinking of about children and worship errs completely in its understanding of what the Means of Grace and the liturgy do for children, and so with good cause many Lutheran pastors view children’s sermons negatively.  There are additional reasons as well.  In principle it is always better to use the settings of the hymnal as they stand (“do the red, speak the black”) instead of adding and changing.  Such activity arises from the pastor’s ego (“I know better”) and places the congregation at the mercy of the liturgical whims of the pastor. Many pastors also object to the way that children’s sermons make the children the object of attention (“They’re so cute!) in church.

I would agree with all of the objections that have been listed thus far.  However, pastoral ministry does not occur in a vacuum.  Instead it occurs in the setting of a congregation where prior practice and teaching have often shaped expectations.  Very soon the candidates who received calls this week at the seminaries will find themselves having to negotiate the interaction between their training about how things are to be done based on what we believe and the reality of how things have been done in their parish.

This was the situation I found myself in ten years ago when I accepted the call to my current parish. The congregation had a long standing tradition of children’s sermons. As I understood it, in some cases they had been done by lay people.  During the vacancy they even had puppet shows at this time in the service.  While I didn’t like them, I also didn’t believe that I could come in and eliminate the children’s sermon.  After all, they are children’s sermon and congregation members' emotions do funny things when children are involved (this also part of the reason why the request for children’s sermons is difficult for a pastor to deny).

I decided to keep this element in the service prior the Hymn of the Day and the sermon.  However, there were going to be changes.  In the first place, only the pastor would be doing them.  God had given the Office of the Holy Ministry to administer the Means of Grace, and so the one placed by God (Acts 20:28) to serve in the Office in that place would teach about God’s Word in the setting of the Divine Service. 

The second change dealt with the content and approach because I believed that it was possible to make this into a time of teaching that shared in the content in the Divine Service – something that was organically and naturally related and not a alien element injected by foreign presuppositions.  It should go without saying that “object lessons” were out. Even a basic understanding of child development made clear that small children could not learn from this.  In addition, anything that did not come directly from the Scripture lessons for the day, the day or season of the church year, or the liturgical setting of the Divine Service was out. And yes ... puppet shows were out.

I began doing this for a year or two before I changed the name, but the name captures the shift in focus: Children’s catechesis.  Catechesis shapes and forms people in the Christian faith.  Of course it involves new knowledge and information.  However, of equal importance is the fact that this involves new habits and practices as life is shaped and formed by God’s Word and the catholic practices that confess and teach the faith drawn from God’s Word.

Children’s catechesis at my parish always makes use of one of these three things: 1) Scripture reading for the day (usually the Gospel) 2) Church day or season 3) Liturgical setting (ceremonial, ornamentation of the church building, etc).  There is almost always some visual item used. Frequently appearing are:

1. The Gospel reading is repeated in summary form using a picture from The Story Bible or an item in the story like bread.
2. A special day or new season of the Church is taught and explained using the color of vestments and paraments that is now different on Sunday.
3. The furnishings (altar, font, pulpit, lectern) and ornamentation of the church (banners, windows, pictures, etc) are explained or used to teach when they are related to the Gospel reading for the day.

Key words and terms are emphasized by asking the children to repeat them at the beginning and again at the end (e.g., “Today we are beginning the season of Advent. Can you say Advent?”).

After ten years I can report that this has worked remarkably well in teaching children.  It does not appear as an element foreign to the Divine Service because it is always about the Divine Service.  It is the very thing the children are hearing, saying, singing and seeing.  And of course, it is not just the children who learn.  The opportunity to catechize adult members on a host a topics has been a great benefit.

One can still object that it is not something that is part of the rite as found in the settings of the hymnal.  This is true, but new elements have arisen and disappeared during the history of Lutheran worship.  One searches in vain for the cantata of Bach’s 18th century Leipzig in the first 16th century Church Orders, and we no longer have it today.  The reading of the Small Catechism in the Divine Service was a common practice among 16th century Lutheranism, but it certainly is not present in our hymnals today.  However, these were all things that were consistent with what Lutherans confess about worship.  I suggest that Children’s catechesis can be understood in a similar way.

It is true that people enjoy seeing the children and there is attention on them. But over time I have learned that at Good Shepherd this is not so much about the “cuteness” factor, but rather that the congregation loves her children and enjoys seeing them learn about the Christian faith as it is experienced on Sunday in church.

The opportunity to interact with the youngest children in the congregation has also been a great blessing.  I am able to begin to develop a relationship with them as their pastor who teaches them the faith at a very early age.  The time when kids decide they are "too big" to come up for Children's catechesis usually occurs at about third grade.  Yet this is the very time when children in our congregation can begin catechesis in Learn by Heart in preparation for receiving the Sacrament of the Altar prior to confirmation.  Opportunities for catechesis flow from one liturgical setting of the Divine Service into another in the Service of Prayer and Preaching (Lutheran Service Book, pg.. 260). 

It was not originally my wish to begin Children’s catechesis.  But a decade later I am thankful that the circumstances of pastoral practice prompted something that has been very beneficial for our congregation. 

To pastors who have grudgingly inherited Children's sermons or are being pressured to introduce them, I suggest that there is a way things can be done which fits with the Divine Service and provides a wonderful opportunity for catechesis of the children and congregation.  To pastors who reject Children's sermons as a matter of course, I express that I understand the reasons.  But I also suggest that perhaps there is another way to do it that is worth thinking about. To pastors who have the classic Children's sermon, I suggest that there are reasons to ponder the message that is being sent to members when this is done. "Children's church" (something that is beginning to appear in LCMS parishes) is the logical conclusion of Children's sermons.  There is a way to do it that better integrates with what we claim to believe. 



Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Feast of St. Mark, Evangelist

Today is the Feast of St. Mark, Evangelist.  St. Mark was the author of the second Gospel.  Also known as John Mark, he was originally from Jerusalem where the house of his mother was a center of the early church (Acts 12:12).  Paul and Barnabas brought Mark to Antioch (Acts 12:25) and he accompanied them on the first missionary journey.  Mark left them during the journey (Acts 13:13) and later Mark was the cause of the parting that occurred between Paul and Barnabas when Paul wanted to take Mark along on the second missionary journey (Acts 15:37-40).  Later, Paul and Mark were reconciled and Mark assisted Paul (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24; 2 Timothy 4:11).  Mark also later worked with Peter (1 Peter 5:13).  Tradition indicates that Mark helped to found the church in Egypt (Alexandria) and that he was martyred there.

Scripture reading:
As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.  For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (2 Timothy 4:5-18)

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, You have enriched Your Church with the proclamation of the Gospel through the evangelist Mark.  Grant that we may firmly believe these glad tidings and daily walk according to Your Word; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God,  now and forever.