Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Commemoration of Joseph of Arimathea

Today is the Commemoration of Joseph of Arimathea,

This Joseph, mentioned in all four Gospels, came from a small village called Arimathea in the hill country of Judea. He was a respected member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious council in Jerusalem. He was presumably wealthy, since he owned his own unused tomb in a garden not far from the site of Jesus’ crucifixion (Mt 27:60). Joseph, a man waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went to Pontius Pilate after the death of Jesus and asked for Jesus’ body (Mk 15:43). Along with Nicodemus, Joseph removed the body and placed it in the tomb (John 19:39). Their public devotion contrasted greatly to the fearfulness of the disciples who had abandoned Jesus.

Collect of the Day:
Merciful God, your servant Joseph of Arimathea prepared the body of our Lord and Savior for burial with reverence and godly fear and laid him in his own tomb.  As we follow the example of Joseph, grant to us, your faithful people, that same grace and courage to love and serve Jesus with sincere devotion all the days of our lives.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Commemoration of Robert Barnes, Confessor and Martyr

Today we remember and give thanks for Robert Barnes, Confessor and Martyr.  Remembered as a devoted disciple of Martin Luther, Robert Barnes is considered to be among the first Lutheran martyrs.  Born in 1495, Barnes became the prior of the Augustinian monastery at Cambridge, England.  Converted to Lutheran teaching, he shared his insights with many English scholars through writings and personal contacts.  During a time of exile to Germany, he became friends with Luther and later wrote a Latin summary of the main doctrines of the Augsburg Confession titled Sententiae.  Upon his return to England, Barnes shared his Lutheran doctrines and views in person with King Henry VIII.  The changing political and ecclesiastical climate in his native country, however, claimed him as a victim; he was burned at the stake in Smithfield in 1540.  His final confession of faith was published by Luther, who called his friend Barnes, “our good, pious dinner guest and houseguest … this holy martyr, St. Robert Barnes.”

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, heavenly Father, You gave courage to Your servant Robert Barnes to give up his life for confessing the true faith during the Reformation.  May we continue steadfast in our confession of the apostolic faith and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from I; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity - 2 Sam 22:26-34

                                                                                                Trinity 9
                                                                                                2 Sam 22:26-34

            “And David spoke to the LORD the words of this song on the day when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.”  That’s how Second Samuel introduces the chapter in which our text is found.  David is giving thanks to Yahweh and praising him because he has rescued David from all those who had sought to overcome him.
            There had been a long list of people whom you would include in that category.  Some were people you would expect – like the Philistines.  Others were people you would not necessarily expect – people who unjustly tried to kill or harm David.
            First on that list is the name mentioned last – Saul.  Saul was the first king of Israel.  However he proved to be unfaithful to Yahweh and so God told the prophet Samuel that he had rejected Saul as king.  He had Samuel anoint David as the future king.  Yet Saul continued to reign as king, and in fact David was taken into Saul’s service.  We are told that Saul loved David greatly. In fact, Saul told David’s father Jesse, “Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight.”  David was Saul’s armor bearer, and also played the lyre for Saul to calm him when he was agitated.  David and Saul’s son Jonathan became best friends.
            David was a faithful servant of King Saul.  He killed the Philistine warrior Goliath in single combat. After this we are told, “And David went out and was successful wherever Saul sent him, so that Saul set him over the men of war. And this was good in the sight of all the people and also in the sight of Saul's servants.”  David was successful because God was with him and blessed him.  He was successful in serving Saul, until finally Saul thought that he was too successful.  Jealous of David and threatened by his success, Saul finally tried to kill David.
            David had to flee for his life and live on the run. Driven by jealousy and paranoia, Saul pursued David.  On two different occasions, David had the opportunity to kill Saul. And yet he refused to do so, in spite of the encouragement from the men who now followed him.  He told them, “Yahweh forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, Yahweh's anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is Yahweh's anointed.” 
            When Saul realized that David had spared him he said, “You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. And you have declared this day how you have dealt well with me, in that you did not kill me when the LORD put me into your hands. For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safe? So may the LORD reward you with good for what you have done to me this day. And now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand.”
            Saul and his sons were killed by the Philistines in battle, and so David became king.  He fought many battles in subduing Israel’s enemies. But his greatest challenge did not come from foreigners.  Instead it came from his own house – his own son.  Absalom agitated and conspired against his father.  Finally he set in motion a coup. David had to flee from Jerusalem, and Absalom set himself up as king.  Only by God’s intervention as Absalom rejected good tactical advice and acted instead on a bad plan was David rescued.
            David had ample reason to praise God.  He begins this song by saying, “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior; you save me from violence. I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies.”
            David the goes on to talk about his own behavior.  Just before our text David declares, “The LORD dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the LORD and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his rules were before me, and from his statutes I did not turn aside. I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from guilt.  And the LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to my cleanness in his sight.”
            David says that he has walked righteously in God’s ways, and so in our text he praises God by saying, “With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; with the purified you deal purely, and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous.”
            Now as we consider David’s words, it should raise a few questions for us.  I only need to say two names and you will probably understand what I mean: Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite.  David saw Bathsheba bathing.  She was hot and he wanted her.  He was the king so he made it happen.  He had sex with another man’s wife, and Bathsheba became pregnant.  When David’s attempts to cover up his action failed, he had Uriah killed and took Bathsheba as his own wife.
            David was certainly not blameless all the time!  He did depart wickedly from God’s ways. So how can he speak this way in the song?  For starters we need to listen again to how the song is introduced: “And David spoke to the LORD the words of this song on the day when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.”  David has in view his behavior in relation Saul and his enemies.  He had been blameless and done what was right in relation to Saul and Absalom.  The same could be said about the Philistines and all the enemies of God’s people.
            The Scriptures, especially the Old Testament, are entirely comfortable speaking about how a person has been righteous in relation to others. It shows us that there is a time to speak in general terms about our behavior as being God pleasing. We know what is right and wrong, and there are indeed many times we do what is right.  For this we thank God, because he leads us by his Spirit. We don’t need to paralyze ourselves by navel gazing; by always trying to find some remnant of sin that affects our every action.  As a baptized Christian – as someone who is in Christ – God doesn’t see you that way.  Instead he sees the good things you do as being good – as being pleasing to him.
            That is not to say that David always spoke in this general way.  David is the one who wrote Psalm 51 in response to his sin involving Bathsheba.  There he said, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.”
            There are definitely times when God’s law confronts the sin we have done.  It shows us our sin.  It shows that we are sinners.  David says in our text, “You save a humble people, but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them down.”  We come before God in the humility of repentance, because his law brings us down when we are haughty.  It shows us what we really are apart from Jesus Christ.  It leads us to take refuge in God’s forgiveness.
            David knew this.  He wrote in Psalm 32, “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, I will confess my transgressions to the LORD," and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.’”
            We are able to say the same thing. The reason we can is indicated by the last verse of David’s song.  There David says, “Great salvation he brings to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his offspring forever.”  David’s offspring was Jesus the Christ – Jesus the Anointed One.  He was anointed, not with olive oil, but with the Spirit of God at his baptism.  Because of God’s steadfast love for you, God treated Jesus as if he was crooked and haughty.  Jesus died on the cross for your sin, so that God can now in Christ view you as blameless and pure.
            God the Father gave this role to Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son.  But as David said, he showed steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his offspring forever. David wrote in Pslam 16, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.”  On the day of Pentecost Peter declared, “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.”
            In Jesus Christ, God has forgiven your sins and defeated death.  He has given you the living hope of the risen Lord.  It is because of Jesus that we can say with David in our text, “For you are my lamp, O LORD, and my God lightens my darkness.”  Jesus has overcome the darkness of sin and death. We always have hope because we know that our life leads toward the light of resurrection on the Last Day.
            It is because of Jesus that we can say with David in our text, “This God--his way is perfect; the word of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.”  We know that God’s Word proves true because he has already spoken the great “Yes!” to all of his promises in Jesus Christ.  He is a shield for all those who take refuge in him, because in Christ we have the certainty of God’s continuing love and care.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Mark's thoughts: Lessons from Monica about family members who are not Christians

Monica was the mother of St. Augustine.  No theologian has had more influence on the Church than Augustine.  The fascinating thing about Augustine is that he was not always a Christian, even though he had been raised by a Christian mother.  He wandered in a life of lust, and then also in a false religion, before he returned fully to the Christian faith.  In his book Confessions Augustine writes about this journey, and in particular focuses on the role that his mother Monica had in bringing him to Christ.

Monica was born in Thagaste, North Africa in 331 A.D.  She was raised in a Christian family, but it was an elderly servant who fostered a profound faith in Jesus Christ as she cared for Monica.  Her family arranged for a marriage to man name Patricius who was not a Christian.  Augustine describes him as a kind individual, but also says that he had a bad temper that could erupt in anger.  As a pagan who followed what the culture considered acceptable for a husband, he was unfaithful to Monica.

Augustine was born in 354 A.D.  Christianity had only become legal in 313 A.D. and the Church was in the process of bringing large numbers of converts into the faith.  A belief had arisen that baptism only forgave sins committed prior to receiving the sacrament.  Forgiveness for sins committed after baptism required a very difficult public process of penance.  It became a common practice for people to enter the catechuemnate, but then not to receive baptism for years and even decades.  They did this because a catechumen was considered part of the Church, but because he or she was not baptized, the individual was not expected to undertake all of the demands of living as a Christian.  Many people wanted to put off baptism as long as they could, so that it would forgive as many sins as possible.

Augustine became a catechumen in his early teens.  He said of Monica, “My earthly mother was deeply anxious, because in the pure faith of her heart, she was in greater labor to ensure my eternal salvation than she had been at my birth” (Confessions 1.11).  Augustine describes those early years as a contest in which Monica worked against Patricius in order to keep Augustine in the Christian faith:

Even at that age I already believed in you, and so did my mother and the whole household except for my father.  But, in my heart, he did not gain the better of my mother’s piety and prevent me from believing in Christ just because he still disbelieved himself.  For she did all she could to see that you, my God, should be a Father to me rather than he” (Confessions 1.11).

However as Augustine became a young man he became ensnared in a lustful life.  Eventually he even took a concubine and had a child with her named Adeodatus.  Augustine had a brilliant mind and he excelled in rhetoric, which was the most important subject in the late antique world.  He also found himself seeking answers in the religion Manichaeism which had come from Persia. This dualistic religion taught that the world had been created by an evil god and offered salvation in an escape from this world and a return to the light.

Monica was distraught to see her son leave the Christian faith.  Augustine tells us that his mother prayed earnestly for him:

But you sent down your help from above and rescued my soul from the depths of this darkness because my mother, your faithful servant, wept to you for me, shedding more tears for my spiritual death than other mothers shed for the bodily death of a son.  For in her faith and in the spirit which she had from you she looked on me as dead. You heard her and did not despise the tears which streamed down and watered the earth in every place where she bowed her head in prayer. (Confessions 3.11)

Monica sought to help her son, such as when she asked a priest to speak with Augustine and show him the errors of Manichaeism as he had with other young men.  The priest had himself been caught up in the false religion when he was younger, and so was well equipped to help others.  However Augustine reports:

He often did this when he found suitable pupils, but he refused to do it for me – a wise decision, as I afterwards realized.  He told her I was unripe for instruction because, as she had told him, I as brimming over with the novelty of the heresy and had already upset a great many people with my casuistry. ‘Leave him alone,’ he said. ‘Just pray to God for him. From his own reading he will discover his mistakes and the depth of his profanity’ (Confessions 3.12).

Unwilling to accept this, she persisted all the more in asking the priest to speak to Augustine.  Augustine tells us, “At last he grew impatient and said, ‘Leave me and go in peace.  It cannot be that the son of these tears should be lost’” (Confessions 3.12).

Augustine went to Rome and then to Milan in order to teach rhetoric.  Out of concern for her son’s spiritual well being, Monica followed him.  It was in Milan that God used the timing and circumstances of Augustine’s life to bring him back to Christ.  As the priest had predicted, Augustine had finally seen through the lies of Manichaeism.  He was still searching for answers.  Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, was an intellectual, an excellent speaker and an impressive personality.  Augustine went to hear him preach, at first, just because he appreciated Ambrose’s rhetorical skill. But as he listened the content began to impact him.  In July 386 Augustine heard Romans 13:13-14, Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” This text at that moment in his life led Augustine to commit fully to the life of faith.  He was baptized at the Vigil of Easter in 387 A.D.  Monica was overjoyed and Augustine writes, “she was jubilant with triumph and glorified you, who are powerful enough, and more than power enough, to carry out  your purpose beyond all our hopes and dreams [Ephesians 3:20]” (Confessions 8.12).

Monica also lived to see her husband, Patricius, become a Christian.  Augustine writes: “In the end she won her husband for you in the very last days on earth.  After his conversion she no longer had to grieve over those faults which he tried her patience before he was a Christian" (Confessions 9.9).  Indeed, Augustine says that Monica’s goal was always to bring him to Christ: “She never ceased to try to gain him for you as a convert, for the virtues with which you had adorned her, and for which he respected, loved, and admired her, were like so many voices constantly speaking to him of you” (Confessions 9.9).

Many people have family members who have drifted away from Jesus Christ and his Church.  There are a number of things we can take away from Monica’s life and example.  First, Monica put faith in Jesus Christ and the salvation he provides first.  This was the lens through which she viewed her family and it guided her actions.  Once could view Monica as an overbearing mother who followed Augustine to Rom and Milan.  Yet Augustine himself understood her concern about him was spiritual. She wanted her son to be saved in Jesus Christ, and this guided her decisions.  The same can be said in regard to her husband Patricius.

Second, Monica was devoted to prayer about the salvation of Augustine.  She repeatedly and constantly turned to God in prayer as she asked for her son to be brought back to Christ. Prayer puts the First Commandment into action as we fear, love and trust in God above all things and implore him to save those we love.

Third, Monica attempted to make use of resources.  She knew that the priest had a background in Manichaeism and had helped others escape that false religion.  She contacted him and sought his help.  Monica prayed constantly.  She also looked for opportunities and resources that could help bring Augustine back to the faith. 

Fourth, Monica was patient. She did not give up and kept looking for God to act.  During those years Augustine travelled a path through lustfulness and Manichaeism.  He arrived at Milan in 384 and this coincided with a renewed interest in philosophy.  For him, reading Neoplatonism was a preparation for commitment to the Gospel.  He went to hear Ambrose preach because of his rhetorical skill, and eventually came away with far more than that.  All of these factors coalesced in 386 when his conversion occurred that led to baptism. We never know how God may be weaving together the different factors and influences in the life of a loved one.  We never know how long it may take.  We too must be patient.

Finally, as Paul told the Galatians, “faith is active in love.”  Monica’s life with Patricius was one of a lifelong witness to Jesus Christ by what she did.  To be sure, the objective content of the Christian faith had to be received and believed by Patricius for him to become a Christian. But Augustine saw how the quiet witness of Monica’s life had help to win his father for Christ.