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Archives - September 2020

How to Ruin a Funeral

September 27, 2020
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our mediation on this 16th Sunday after Trinity comes from our gospel text, especially where Luke records, “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

Regardless of the culture, there are unspoken rules of etiquette regarding funerals. Typically, here in the U.S., you’ll see people wear nicer clothing – often darker in color to symbolize bereavement and mourning. They are often – rightly – armed with Kleenex in order to dab moistened eyes and the sniffley noses. You’ll see sincere though sorrowing smiles, sometimes accompanied by phrases like, “I’m sorry for your loss,” “He was a good man,” or “She was a faithful woman.” There are tight embraces, softly spoken conversations, and fond remembrances in picture boards, scrapbooks, and slideshows.

There are also things that you’re not supposed to do or see at a funeral. In situations where there may be some tension or bitterness among the survivors, you still expect people to control themselves, to refrain from bickering and fighting. You expect people to show respect for the deceased, not tell off-color jokes at their expense or show up intoxicated and unruly. We know what to expect. So how would you react … if someone came up to the surviving spouse, or parent, or sibling, or child, and declared openly, loudly, “He isn’t dead.” “Oh, you mean he lives on in our hearts and memories? Oh, he’s with Jesus?” “Nope. He’s just not dead. He’s alive! Get him out of the casket! He’s about to start dancing a jig!”

It would be laughable, were such a hypothetical situation not so awkward, absurd, and cringe-worthy. It’s hard to imagine this taking place because, aside from breaking decorum, it’s wholly inappropriate. You don’t proclaim, loudly or otherwise, that the person mourners are grieving over is alive when he’s clearly not. The heart hasn’t beaten for days, nor have the lungs expanded and contracted, and his body has been prepared for burial, not a return home to his house. You don’t give false hope to someone who is grieving, telling them their loved one isn’t actually dead when they actually are. It’s rude, inappropriate, and cruel … unless it’s a claim you can back up.

While it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison to our cringe-worthy hypothetical, there are some similarities between that situation and our gospel reading. Jesus, the disciples, and a large crowd have entered a town called Nain, and they are met by a funeral procession. We don’t know anything about the circumstances of how death occurred nor much about the deceased. What we do know is that we’ve got a widow … who has now also lost her only son and with him, the only security she had in life. She was utterly alone, grieving to see the end of her family line, and the town grieved with her.

Luke tells us, “when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” To us who know the story, we know what’s about to happen, but put yourself in the shoes of one of those mourners. Does it not seem rude for this outsider coming into town with a large crowd to confront this now-childless widow and command her not to cry? She had only her sorrow and, most likely, imminent death for company and comfort. “Do not weep” sounds like a cruel and failed attempt to bring comfort and hope to someone who was, for all intents and purposes, hopeless. It broke funeral convention, ruining the atmosphere of sorrow and the intention of the mourners to mourn.

But then Jesus goes beyond the pale. After speaking to the mourning, childless widow, Luke tells us, “Then [Jesus] came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And He said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’” Again, this undoubtedly sounds like cruel impertinence and outrageous disrespect. The days of Elijah and Elisha, who both raised the children of poor widows from the dead, were long gone. Sure, they’d heard of the miracle-man walking around Judea, and how He’d cleansed lepers, healed paralytics, restored withered hands, but this was death. Assuming they knew this Man standing before them was the one-and-the-same Jesus, what could He possibly do for this poor widow now? People don’t just rise from the dead anymore! So why on earth would He show up, just to ruin this perfectly good funeral?

Fair enough; whether it was His initial purpose in coming to Nain or not, confronted by this group of mourners, Jesus was now intent on ruing this funeral. He does not command the widow to not weep for no reason. He doesn’t fill her ears with hollow sentimentality and leave her in her despair. He doesn’t speak these words over this lifeless body on a bier out of disrespect or mental instability or drunkenness. He speaks this Word with the same authority and power used when He spoke the words “Let there be light” over the empty, formless void. It is a performative Word that Jesus speaks, a Word that accomplishes the task for which it was sent, and the proof is in the pudding, as the formerly-deceased boy sits up and begins to speak. Jesus ruined the funeral, but He gave the widow back her son, and Luke tells us that “Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited his people!’”

They had no idea how right they were. This Jesus – also known as Immanuel, “God with us,” – had come to visit His people. He had come to ruin funerals, as He did later with the daughter of Jairus, and later still, with His good friend Lazarus. More than this, however, YHWH Incarnate visited His people to save them – not just from death, but from sin, from the just condemnation for sin, and from the insidious power of the enemy. He only accomplished this by humbling Himself, allowing His own mother – also a widow, by that time – to mourn the loss of her Son in death. Like the widow of Nain, Mary also cradled the lifeless body of her Son, after He was crucified and died on behalf of a creation that didn’t – and still does not – deserve His self-sacrifice. She, too, mourned and lamented as His body was wrapped hastily and borne quickly to the grave before the sun set on that dark Friday. Like the widow of Nain, and no doubt like her Son’s disciples, a pall of hopelessness hung heavy over her. However, also like the widow of Nain, her Son’s funeral was ruined, as the stone covering His tomb was rolled away and He stepped out, shaking off the dust of death ... triumphant, resurrected, and alive! All glory to God, the widow Mary received back her Son, raised from the dead, and the unworthy creation received back its Creator and Master!

This is not an exhortation for y’all to go to as many funerals as you can and ruin them. Funeral decorum exists for a reason – primarily, you are not Jesus, and the power to raise the dead does not lie in you. What you are called to do is come alongside those who are mourning and mourn with them, and moreover, to remind them that we do “not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Today, our Lord still ruins funerals with His promise that the grave is merely a portal to the rest that awaits all who trust in Him. He disrupts our mourning with the sure and certain hope that a resurrection like His awaits those who hold fast to His Word of promise. He disorders our sorrow with His promise that “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” That Day, when death is overthrown, is when He will disrupt all funerals and disturb all graves as He calls out with a cry of command, “Men and women, I say to you, arise.”

+ In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

Tags: Luke 7:11-17

You Matter!

September 20, 2020
By Rev. David French

The theory of faith is pretty easy to understand. In fact, there’s really nothing difficult about it at all. The simplicity of faith is summed up in Luther’s small catechism’s explanation of the First Commandment this way: “You should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” That’s it. Faith is trust in God above all things. But, you and I both know that living our faith or trusting God above all things is much easier said than done.

“Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness ….” Did you hear it? The “divine wisdom” offered with these words, I mean. There’s no profound mystery to be solved you simply put the first things first. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” Again, as we all know from experience, the words are easier to learn than to put into practice. But the truth is, it doesn’t have to be. This is one of those things that’s so easy that not only can a child understand it, but a child of God naturally puts into practice. It’s those of us who want to please God who daily struggle against sin, who hear these words of Jesus and think, “I wish, but that’s just not how the real-world works.”

At times, you find yourself thinking, “I do seek the kingdom of God. I look forward to that heavenly kingdom; but for now, I’m living in this world of sin. Right now, I have bills to pay, mouths to feed, and repairs that need to be done. The kingdom of God will come and I look forward to that day; but right now, I have other things to worry about.” And that makes us … human.

But, remember that seeking the kingdom of God is not like getting on some theological yellow brick road and stumbling along the way until we reach the magical land of Oz that we call heaven! That’s not what it means to seek the kingdom of God at all. You see, the word that Jesus uses here for “kingdom” does not refer to a fixed location somewhere up there; that is, it’s not used as a noun. The word for kingdom is best understood here as a verb; that is, an action instead of a place.

What Jesus is saying is to seek first the reign and rule of God. So ask yourself, “Does the reign and rule of God take place in my daily life right here and now?” And, this may surprise you, but yes, it absolutely does! In fact, as Paul writes in the first chapter of Romans (1:19-20), “God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature,” (the reign and rule of God) “have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made ….” That is, God’s reign and rule are everywhere and in everything, plain for all to see. Through the eyes and ears of faith, we see God’s love for us in the simplest of things: a beautiful flower, a chirping bird, a gentle breeze, but most clearly in His Word and sacraments given that we might live forgiven in His kingdom of grace.

The same thing is true of the word translated as “righteousness.” Remember, we’re not only to seek first God’s kingdom, but also His righteousness, a word in the Greek that is also translated many times in the Scriptures as “justification.” So, we are also to seek first to be justified, or declared holy and pure, innocent in God’s sight, that is, forgiven. And, by the grace of God through faith in the all-redeeming life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ alone, that is what you are.

Just think about what Jesus is saying. Remember the context of this conversation. This is part of the Sermon on the Mount. This is Jesus talking to faithful disciples like you and me, who, at that time, were truly struggling for their daily existence.

My friends, this fallen world can be a very scary place, and we know there can be some very hard days, especially for those who walk by faith. We have learned that it is true that “each day has … trouble of its own,” and whether we add to it with bad choices or it just finds us, we are often left feeling stressed, if you will, because we don’t know how to fix it. Jesus responds to us this way, “O you of little faith,” that is, where’s your fear, love, and trust in God above all things? If God takes care of the birds and plants so wondrously, why don’t you believe He’ll provide you, the only work of His creation that He personally breathed His spirit of life into, with everything you need? This is kind of like the “Who is my neighbor?” question. It’s a question we should constantly be asking ourselves, that is, “What do I really need?”

Well, if we believe the most important thing is eternal life with our Creator, then we don’t need any worldly thing at all. From a healthy 401k to being “Facebook famous,” no earthly thing can, by itself, bring you eternal life. That’s not to say that those things are bad, only recognize the truth that no “thing” can pay for your sin. Mercifully, the one thing needful to pass through the pearly gates, which is faith in Christ, is God’s gift to you because of His grace alone.

So, I’m not going to tell you to stop worrying, to just drop the reins and let God rule in your life because that’s not what Jesus is teaching. What He is teaching us is that the things that matter most which need to come first in our daily lives are the almighty reign and gracious rule of God, for He brings the gift of our salvation. Sports, hunting, leisure time, work … these are all nothing when compared to our salvation. Is it concerning when a ball game, sleepover, housework, vacations, pandemic, or any other thing in life unintentionally or otherwise take precedence over our meeting with Christ in His house, be that online or in person? Of course, and so today we’re again reminded and encouraged to keep all things in their proper order of importance. Keep your eyes and ears of faith firmly fixed on Christ and His life-giving Word and sacraments.

Never forget - you matter! You are the focus of God’s love. Everything He does, He does for you. It was for you that God the Father sent His Son into the world. It was for you that God the Son offered His life on the cross of Calvary as the payment for sin. It is to open your eyes and heart that God the Holy Spirit comes to you to remind you of what Christ has done for and said to you.

To this very moment, our Triune God still puts you first. You, take and eat. You, take and drink. This is my body and my blood, given and shed for you; upon this your confession, all of your sins are forgiven. I give you my peace.

You see, faith is not a work of man; it’s a gift from God. And what that gift does is receive all the blessings that Christ lived and died in your place and mine to earn, so that He might freely offer them to all. And so, God delivers the gifts of faith, life, and salvation through the same words that create the faith that holds to, trusts, and believes in the first thing, that is, our sin has been paid for. You and I and all who believe have been forgiven, and even now are living, if only in part, the blessed promise of eternal life.

In His name, Amen.

Show Yourself to the Priest

September 13, 2020
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our mediation on this 14th Sunday after Trinity comes from our gospel text, especially where Luke records, “When [Jesus] saw [the lepers] he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’s feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan.” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

We hear this pericope every Thanksgiving, regardless of which lectionary series we’re using. It’s also the reading every once in a while at other times during the Church year – like today – so we know it rather well. We are introduced to this small group of men plagued with leprosy, standing at a distance away from Jesus. Like others who had contracted this horrific dermatological disease, these ten men were forced to live amongst other lepers in colonies. They were barred from visiting non-infected family, from offering sacrifices at the temple, and from partaking in everyday life until they were cured of the disease and performed the proper rites and sacrifices and observances.

This is not a disease where one simply takes two pills and calls the doctor in the morning. Howsoever this disease would be known by modern medical standards, it was truly debilitating, affecting every aspect of one’s life, altering the body in a way that could not have been pleasant and was likely exceedingly painful. These men had lived this life for who-knows-how-long. They were literal outcasts, shunned by all who saw them. They were avoided at all costs by society at large, lest the healthy get too close and catch the dreaded disease. Lepers were alone. Surely, they’d have leapt at any chance to be rid of their ailment, so when they heard that Jesus the renowned miracle-worker was approaching, they figured they had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” they cry from a distance. No doubt, they’d heard the reports about another man, “full of leprosy, who fell on his face and begged [Jesus], ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean,’” and Jesus reaching out His hand to touch the man, saying, “I will; be clean.” These ten lepers clearly desire the same outcome. But this time … Jesus doesn’t reach out His hand. He doesn’t touch them and heal them instantaneously. Instead, He commands them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Unusual … unexpected … jarring, but nevertheless the ten lepers attempt to obey what Jesus commanded, and they begin journeying toward the temple and the priests that await them and their leprous flesh.

But we’re told that “… as they went … they were cleansed.” No details are given about the exact moment when one of them noticed that his leprosy was gone, but soon all beheld their new unblemished, disease-free skin, and this was undoubtedly the cause of jubilation that few people have experienced. They had their lives back! They could see their families once more! They could worship and offer sacrifices again! They could enter civil life once again! And one of their number “… when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’s feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan.”

It’s about gratitude, right? Thankfulness for what God had done for him, yes? Well, that is part of what we’re supposed to take away from this passage – it’s not the gospel reading for Thanksgiving every year for nothing. And by no means is it a bad lesson to pull from our text, but there’s more here. Take another look at how Jesus responds to this foreigner returning to – rightly – worship Him and render his thanks and praise: “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner? … Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

At some point as he was going along, this Samaritan realized something that the other former-lepers did not. He had heard the same command from Jesus to show themselves to the priest. He knew the rituals that the Levitical code required and how daunting they were. Most of all, however, he knew that he had been healed … and he simply chose the best priest of all to present himself before.

Jesus’s words to this double-outcast (being both a leper and a Samaritan) tell us that this man, whether he fully understood what was going on or not, recognized Jesus for who He is. He didn’t ignore Jesus’s command to present himself to the priest; indeed, he believed that Jesus was and is the great High Priest … who was, incidentally, on His way to Jerusalem to make atonement for the sins of the whole world. He did not say, “Your thankfulness has made you well;” instead, Jesus told the Samaritan, “your faith has made you well.” By trusting Jesus as this great High Priest, believing His word to make him clean, Jesus declares that the Samaritan is exactly that: clean. Clean from his disease of leprosy and from his mortal sinful condition.

The beautiful thing is that we share much in common with this Samaritan former-leper. No, not in terms of any dermatological diseases we may have. Not even in terms of the present pandemic that has caused us all to assume a rather leper-oriented mindset. No, the great High Priest that we come before week in and week out has seen your affliction as well. He knows your sin. He sees your harmful actions and hears your unkind words. He sees the brokenness in your bodies and your minds and your spirits.

Here, we come before Him – not at a distance, but drawing very near – and we raise to Him our own cry, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us! Forgive us our sins, and lead us to everlasting life!” Here, He speaks His life-giving absolution to you, saying, “I will; be clean and forgiven!” Here, you taste His forgiveness as you eat and drink His very body and blood given and shed for you. Here, we see that the Lord is, indeed, good, and we render to Him our thanks and praise for His great and precious gifts! Here, His benediction sends you on your way out to wherever you’re going, for your faith in His word of forgiveness “has made you well.” Thanks be to God that we don’t have leprosy, and thanks be to God that He does have control over all creation, including diseases. But more than all this, thanks be to God that He has sent His Son, that same great High Priest, to sacrifice Himself on our behalf and rise again! Thanks be to God that He has bestowed upon us the faith which trusts His word when He says, “In the waters of baptism, you are washed clean, your sins are forgiven, and I am with you always.” Render to Him your thanks! He is, after all, our great atoning High Priest.

+ In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

Just Ask Yourself

September 06, 2020
By Rev. David French

Today’s reading contains a parable that most people, whether they know where it comes from or not, recognize, that is the “Good Samaritan.” Our culture has reinforced the idea of this parable by naming a wide variety of charitable organizations after it, from hospitals to thrift stores and everything in between. Good Samaritan charitable organizations can be found across the country. For the most part, they all share acts of mercy that provide valuable services to their communities. And that means we have a little problem. The idea of the Samaritan is so overwhelmingly understood as good, it’s difficult for us to see the shock value that Jesus intended to, I’ll say, open our eyes. 

When King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, he took the elite of the population into captivity. He then forced people from other conquered lands into Jerusalem who were before long combining their religious practices with the religious practices of the Jews who had remained. When the Persians defeated the Babylonians some 50 years later, they allowed the exiled Jews to return. The returning Jews condemned the modified practices of these half-breed Samaritans, for lack of a better term, and considered them traitors for corrupting the true faith. 

So, to better understand the impact this parable first had, let’s make a simple substitution. Every time you hear the word Samaritan, think radical Islamic terrorist.  The parable of the Good Samaritan becomes the parable of the Good Radical Islamic Terrorist. Now, if that just seems wrong to you, then you have the right idea, if not the intensity, for the starting point for this parable.

Also, keep in mind the question that led Jesus to tell this parable in the first place: “A lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’” Now, if he doesn’t know the answer to that question, he’s not a very good lawyer, but his words do reveal to us the problem with religious thinking at the time. I’m guessing just about everyone knows there’s nothing you can do to inherit anything. You receive an inheritance when someone else writes you into their will and then dies.

Now, this lawyer is right in saying that eternal life is inherited. At the same time, however, he holds to the lie that is found in every false religion both then and now. That is, sinful humanity truly believes we can earn, if even only a small part, eternal life.

Jesus turns to the lawyer and asks, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”  The lawyer gives the answer that every Jewish boy learned in Jewish confirmation class, if you will. He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” My friends, that comes straight from of the pen of Moses from both the book of Deuteronomy and today’s reading from Leviticus. Jesus says to him … “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” So, you can earn eternal life - if - you love God and your neighbor perfectly; you know, the way Jesus did. Our problem is you have to be perfect to do something perfectly, and we are sinners from conception to death which implies that there is no way for us to earn eternal life.

Our lawyer, however, doesn’t see it that way. He still believes he’s got this, and so, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” No doubt the lawyer was thinking about the people in his own neighborhood when Jesus tells the parable of the Good Radical Islamic Terrorist in order to broaden the lawyer’s and our understanding of what it means to be a neighbor. 

That’s why Jesus takes a hated polluter of the blood line and betrayer of the faith and makes him the hero of the story; this man who we so admire today. With this parable, Jesus makes the point that anyone can be your neighbor, and whoever needs help is your neighbor. You see, the parable is not about what we should do, it’s about what we continue to harbor and hide in our hearts.

The only proper response to this parable is repentance. And, I get that many of us would stop to help a stranger in obvious need of help, probably even one of “those people,” the ones we hate. And don’t deceive yourself. Hate comes from sin, and sin is in all of us and comes out from all of us in many and various ways. But, even on a good day, we do still all have our limits. I mean, I would give someone a ride, but I won’t give him my car. I know there are things I won’t do, but that’s not really a problem because I can justify myself in regard to all of them. I mean, I need my car. Well, not really, but you get my point. I need my car so I can come to church and share Jesus with all of you. Yup, it’s easy to self-justify; just ask yourself.  

Of course, there is One who is perfect and did live up to God’s standard of perfection: Jesus, the One who told this story. But, He’s more than just a story teller, He is the Christ, the One who is both true God and true man. I mean, if you think about it, Jesus is the Good Samaritan. He actually lived what the parable teaches. 

Jesus, who to this day is still hated by many, comes to us as we lie broken along the road of life, lost in the darkness, slaves to our corrupt nature, dead in our sin and condemned to the eternal fires of hell. He comes to us who, by nature, still hate Him and shows mercy as He binds our wounds and anoints us with the oil of joy.

The Samaritan in the parable brings the poor victim to an inn where he could receive care while he healed. Christ Jesus the Lord brings people to His church where we also receive care as we are healed through the forgiveness paid for by Christ in advance and freely offered by His innkeepers or pastors to all. His church is the very place where we receive all that we need for this life and the next.

Through His Word and sacraments, the forgiveness of sins is offered to each of us individually, be it one head or one mouth at a time, as His pastors both proclaim God’s Word and administer His sacraments for the forgiveness He freely offers to all who will listen. These are the medicines that bring eternal life, the medicines left by the great physician for His church to provide care for His saints. All paid for in advance with His blood.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus teaches that there is nothing we can do to inherit eternal life. Instead, He shows an impossible standard of love that none of us can even understand, let alone achieve. It’s the kind of love the Father showed to us by sending His Son to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Jesus kept this law of love perfectly and shows this love to us even when we, in our hearts, hated Him. Make no mistake, we are blessed and will inherit eternal life. Not because we’re such good Christians, but because Jesus offered His blood as payment for our sin. You see, before the creation of the world, God in His wisdom and mercy wrote your name in His will. The same name given to you on the day you were baptized into Christ, who is and will always be your Lord and your only Savior.

In His name, Amen.

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