The Hardest Words that No Pastor Ever Wants to Have to Say

The preaching of the Law is God’s alien work. It is necessary to terrify consciences and to lead people to repent of their sins and to look to God for mercy. His proper work is to absolve and to show mercy. He is a God whose chief desire is to pardon iniquity and to cleanse us from our sins. What is true of God is also true of the Office of the Holy Ministry. Every pastor worth his salt understands this. He understands that his primary work as a servant of the living God is to proclaim the peace and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ to repentant sinners. And Christ has given us the authority to do just that. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” He also understands that the preaching of the Law is preparatory for this Gospel preaching. It is meant to stir up repentance in the hearts of men and to prepare them to receive the good news of God’s mercy in Christ with faith.

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Making Genuflecting Great Again, or, Ways to Enrich our Services of 10 People or Less

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I serve a relatively small (average attendance of about 100) Midwestern parish. We make full use of our liturgical rites from Lutheran Service Book. Services are conducted reverently, though not with all the ceremonial trappings of some churches in our Synod. For the most part, folks here have gotten used to my chanting and the formal rather than folksy way of doing things in the Service.

We abide by the Confessional principle that “It is not necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies instituted by men, should be the same everywhere” (Augsburg Confession VII: The Church).  In light of this principle, there are certain ceremonies that I have deliberately chosen not to introduce (yet) for reasons that mainly have to do with the local circumstances of this parish. One of these is genuflecting (bowing the knee) during the Nicene Creed and after the consecration. Up until now, I have simply bowed at the waist at these points in the Service.

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The Multiplication of Online Services and Devotions

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The covid-19 restrictions are turning us preachers into televangelists! (I’ve become one myself). This is a fine, temporary solution to a problem that will hopefully be resolved soon. But I have gone through a thought progression about this during the last week that I wonder if others are also experiencing. I thought I would share a few observations on how my own thinking has evolved in a very short time.

When we were told that we would have to limit our gatherings to 10 people or less, we immediately set a plan in motion to offer multiple services throughout the week. Others did the same. Still, others cancelled everything. And some states have issued shelter-in-place orders, so no hope of holding any services. The next best thing? Live-streaming or pre-recorded videos of services and devotions made available online.

Initially, I was thinking of ways to get the Word out to people in their homes. I started making daily devotion videos like many of my colleagues. And then, I found myself thinking more about how do my video in just the right way than actually praying and I was spending a lot of time starting and stopping (I don’t do “Live”), and getting frustrated with upload speeds. Something was being missed.

I began to wonder over the past couple of days if maybe, instead of trying to get devotions and services recorded and posted online, maybe I should just pray…on my own…without anyone seeing me but the Lord. Like, actually use the time to get onto my kneeler in my study, which has gathered way too much dust anyway, and get myself into a better routine. So I have been trying to do this, without worrying about getting it onto some online format for my people to watch. (I’ve also managed to talk to a few folks on the phone, which has been nice. Pastors feel awfully helpless when they can’t visit hospitals, nursing homes, or many of their members, can’t see all their members at the church, and want desperately to feed the sheep with Christ’s Word.)

I have so far enjoyed the fruits of this. I’m singing a lot more hymns and praying more frequently than I have for a while. I really like the rythym of the short orders of prayer in LSB. Morning, Noon, Evening, and Close of the Day. What a wonderful resource. Don’t get me wrong–I get the pastoral need to get the Word to our members and to use this opportunity teach and instruct them how to do this themselves in their homes. And I am still going to be recording weekly services for the time being for people to watch in their homes. But I don’t want people to get too comfortable doing this. We need the closeness of one another. And we need the voice of our shepherd, preferably not coming through a video screen.

I was thinking the other day, if I had been doing a better job instructing them in this fatherly duty all along, then I could just say to everyone, “Do what I have taught you.” Christians need their pastors, as sheep need shepherds, but they also need to learn how to care for themselves spiritually when they are not able to come to church.

So, my closing observation is this: fellow brothers and pastors in Christ, don’t feel like you have to record everything you do devotionally online for your members to view. Some is good. And they will appreciate anything that you do to serve them with the Word. Maybe I am the only one who has felt this compulsion to get as much as I can devotionally online for my folks. I tend to perseverate on things like this too much anyway. But now I think that my members will benefit more from simply knowing that I am praying daily for them, whether they are joining me online or not, and by taking time to pray on their own at home, which I know many of them do.

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Newspaper Column

the-magiSomething I wrote for our local paper this week:

As I was reading the Epiphany Gospel (Matt. 2:1-12) the other day, I couldn’t help but notice that the Magi from the East went to a specific place to worship God. They did not say, “You know, God is everywhere. So we’ll just sit out here in the desert and worship Him in our own way.” Nor did they say, “To heck with organized religion. I want a religion that is purely spiritual!” No, they went to the house where Jesus was bodily present. And they were overjoyed when they found Him. As the Scripture says: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him” (Matt. 2:10-11). They knew by faith that God had come to dwell on earth in the Person of His incarnate Son. And they confessed this faith by their actions and by the gifts that they brought to Him.

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Reformation Day

This is part of my sermon for Reformation Day. The theme was inspired by a recent Facebook post from Dr. Peter Scaer about the danger in losing our memory. 

After 500 or so years, though, it may be tempting for Lutherans today to ask, “Why celebrate the Reformation?” “Why have a festival dedicated to the nailing of Martin Luther’s 95 theses to the Church doors at Wittenberg? Why does it matter?” Would it be so bad if we removed this from our collective memory? Suppose we decided as a Church that we would no longer observe Reformation Day or teach about it to our children. We would have no commemoration of it in worship.

And while we’re at it, why not just erase from the Church’s memory the lives of those saints who have gone before us? Let’s forget that there was a James or a Paul or a Timothy or a John. And let’s forget that there was ever a Church before us. What would be the harm in that? Then we could just focus on the now. We could only talk about what is relevant to us today, at this very moment.

And let’s be honest—this is a malady that is becoming all too common in the Church today. There is a real desire in our day to pretend that what came before us is less important than what is happening now. There is an increasing loss of memory when it comes to the things of the Faith, a spiritual dementia setting in, especially in the American context.

And woe to those who would try to keep the memory alive. Woe to those who would say that our spiritual forebears actually knew something, and maybe they knew it better than us and treasured it more than us. That maybe we would do well to look backwards before looking forwards and learn at the feet of a Luther or an Augustine or a Cyprian or any of the saints who have gone before us, despite their flaws and warts.

But that would require a bit of humility, wouldn’t it? That would require us to admit that we are the children, and they are the fathers. It would require us to dust off our Bibles and Catechisms and Books of Concord and start reading and learning about what others have taught and done; to admit that the story of Christianity did not begin with us or even with Luther. Are we willing to do that?

No doubt most of you have known someone who has lost his memory. He can’t remember where he came from or who he is. Those who know they are losing their memories have it worse, in a way, because they can see the dementia setting in. They know what is coming. And they mourn that loss of memory; memories of childhood, of times past. They feel lost. Indeed, they are lost. They have “no anchor, no tethering, no compass or bearings,” as one Lutheran professor recently observed.

And without a knowledge of the past, without a memory of what has been, there is no way of knowing what will be. There is no way to know where we are going. So birthdays and anniversaries, while they are often taken for granted, are important events. They are historical markers. They tell us who we are, and where we come from. They give us the “why” of our existence.

It is no different with the Church. When the church loses her memory, she too becomes lost. She forgets who she is and where she came from. As a Church, to lose our memory is to lose our identity. Which is one of the reasons we continue to celebrate festivals like the Reformation. It is one of the reasons that we remember what happened 500 years ago, how God used a lowly German monk and priest to bring to light once again what had been forgotten and hidden in darkness for so long.

We celebrate it so that we can give an answer to the question: Who are we? Who are we as baptized Christians and members of the Church universal? More specifically, who are we as Lutherans and members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church?

First and foremost, we are precious sheep who hear with faith the voice of our Good Shepherd. Sheep for whom Christ, the Lamb of God, shed His blood and died so that we might live. We are beggars and sinners who have been declared righteous before God, who live only by the gracious food of God’s holy Word. And yet we live on more than just crumbs. “My cup runneth over,” we say in Psalms.

God is superabundantly rich in his grace. He gives us more than one way to receive the Gospel gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. As Lutherans we rejoice that God delivers the Gospel to us through the spoken Word, through baptism, through the Sacrament of the Altar, through the Power of the keys, and through the “mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren.”

We rejoice that the Law and the Gospel are properly distinguished among us, so that hardened sinners may hear that they are under God’s wrath and should repent; and those who are penitent and desire God’s grace may hear that their sins are taken away. As we celebrate Reformation Day, we also rejoice that we are part of a story that did not begin with our generation or the previous generation.

It is a story that goes back hundreds of years, to a little town called Bethlehem, where a holy child was born to a virgin named Mary. He is really the main character in this story; the hero who saved the human race by his own suffering and death. It all centers in Him. If we want to know the end of this story, the end of our story, we need only look at Him, how He was raised in glory and seated at the right hand of God. Our identity is wrapped up in His.

The Reformation helped the Church regain her memory, and with that, her identity. It helped her focus once again on the main character in the story and His saving work for us sinners. And we are the heirs of that Reformation if we continue to believe with our hearts and confess with our mouths that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” God grant it, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

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Sermon for Trinity 16 – Luke 7:11-17

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Beloved saints in the Lord:

As much as we would like to avoid thinking or talking about death, it stares us in the face almost every day. We can’t escape it. If it isn’t a mass shooting at a school or theatre somewhere, it’s a beloved pastor giving his life trying to protect his church from a burglar. Because we’re surrounded by death, we are almost numb to it. Even when we shouldn’t be numb, like when we hear of some abortion doctor medically preserving over 2,000 aborted babies in his home.

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Sermon for St. Michael and all Angels

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Beloved saints in the Lord:

Suppose you had a brother who was a star detective. And suppose this star detective had managed to get a notorious criminal put behind bars. But now a judge has let this criminal out on bond until the time of his sentencing. For the time being, he has limited freedom. But he is full of anger and wrath over what was done to him. His time is short, and he has threatened to use that time to harass and harm not only your brother, but every single member of his family. What would you do?

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Joyfully Reverent Before God

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Despite our culture’s growing proclivity towards irreverence and disrespect, there are still some areas of life where reverence is modeled and even expected. For example, when a judge enters a courtroom, all stand out of respect. There is a certain decorum that is expected in such places. Military rites and ceremonies also retain their reverent and solemn character. When the flag is raised and the national anthem sung, people still remove their hats and place their right hand on their heart. Reverent silence is expected at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Solemn occasions call for appropriate actions and attitudes. Though there is certainly nothing wrong with laughter or talking, most people know instinctively that such things would be out of place when soldiers fold a flag at the burial of military personnel.

Reverence also becomes those who come before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in the Church. The writer to the Hebrews acknowledges this when he says,

“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28).

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By reverence, we mean first and foremost a humble and respectful attitude in the heart. But reverence is also expressed outwardly in concrete ways. We show that the Church is a sacred space, set apart for holy works and actions, by conducting ourselves differently than we would at a ball game or a concert or in our living rooms. Our demeanor, the way we dress, even the way we speak and sing all communicates that worship is a solemn occasion, unlike anything else we do the rest of the week.

At the same time, we are also joyful. Solemn does not mean somber. Somber means gloomy, dark, and dull. There is nothing gloomy or dull about the Church’s worship! Solemn means serious, dignified, and formal. Worship is a joyful occasion, but it is also a serious matter. God approves of formality. In the Bible, we find that worship was both formal and serious. It is solemn because of Who is present and what is taking place. It is also joyful because it is the time when the Bridegroom comes to meet with His Bride and to shower her with His love and mercy. It is often the case, however, that Christian joy and reverence are pitted against each other, as if it were an “either/or.” You can either be joyful or reverent, but not both.

There may be several reasons for this. It could simply be a misunderstanding—reverence and solemnity are mistaken for somberness. It might also have something to do with one’s view of God. When Moses encountered the Lord at the burning bush, he was told to remove his sandals, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exod 3:5). It was also understood by both Old Testament and New Testament believers that this holy God was present among them when they gathered to worship. Jesus says: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt 18:20). Where God’s Name is, there He is to bless us. Where this confession of God’s presence and holiness is weak or lacking, where Christ is portrayed merely as a friend or pal or our equal, then reverence may be seen as being antithetical to joy.

Truly, Christ is a friend to sinners! This is the Church’s joyful confession. Because of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross, we who are baptized and believe in Him can approach the Father’s throne in faith. And we can do so without fear of condemnation. We are covered by His mercy. Thanks be to God! However, this is not the only thing that we confess about God from the Holy Scriptures. Scripture also teaches that God is holy and majestic. When we are assembled in His holy Name, we believe that we should come before Him as before a King. For this reason, it is still fitting that we conduct ourselves reverently and respectfully when we come together for worship. We strive to maintain an atmosphere that is befitting the King of Kings, not because we are afraid of his anger and wrath, but out of godly faith and fear.

It has sometimes been argued that reverence is subjective rather than objective. In other words, what I think is reverent may be different than what someone else thinks is reverent. To a certain degree, reverence is subjective. In the Scriptures reverence is not always expressed in the same way. Some people showed reverence by bowing to the ground (e.g., the Magi – Matt. 2:1-12) while others fell down at Jesus’ feet (e.g., Peter – Luke 5:1-11 and the one leper who returned – Luke 17:11-19). The sinful woman anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7:36-50). The apostle Paul speaks of bowing the knees before the Father (Eph 3:14-21) and wrote that at the name of Jesus “every knee should bow” (Phil 2:5-11).

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While each of these displays of reverence looks a little bit different on the surface, they all share one thing in common: they reveal a heart that is filled with humility, faith, and gratitude toward our God and King, Jesus Christ. There is a lowering of the self before God, much like we lower ourselves in humble faith when we kneel to receive the most holy Body and Blood of the Lord. The lowering of the eyes, the bowing of the head, indeed, the entire posture of our bodies communicates something about our attitude toward God.

I would also submit, however, that there is an objective character to reverence, that there are certain ways of speaking and acting that are more fitting than others when the Church comes together for worship. Would we consider it reverent if someone dressed in a clown suit and ran up and down the aisle during the Divine Service giving “high-fives”? Would that fit the solemn character of the worship assembly? It might be funny and get everybody relaxed and laughing, but would it really be proper? Can you imagine someone doing that at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier? If not there, then why at church?

As the Body of Christ, it is our joyful privilege to receive from our divine King the most blessed treasures on earth in the Church: the forgiveness of sins, life, and eternal salvation. This Christian joy is reflected all through the Service in the singing of psalms, hymns, and liturgical responses of praise and thanksgiving. We come in humble and reverent adoration of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who assumed our human nature and offered Himself as an atoning sacrifice on the cross and who is present with us in His Word and Sacrament. Whatever we do, say, or sing in the context of worship, may it always be done with “joyful reverence” before God.

“God Himself is present: Let us now adore Him
And with awe appear before Him.
God is in His temple; All within keep silence;
Humbly kneel in deepest rev’rence.
He alone On His throne
Is our God and Savior; Praise His name forever!”
(LSB 907:1)

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Sermon for Trinity 14 – Luke 17:11-19

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Beloved saints in the Lord Jesus Christ:

The holy Gospel today paints a vivid picture of our dreadful condition on account of sin and the help and healing that we have received from Jesus. In many ways, sin is like a spiritual leprosy. It cuts us off from God. It affects not only our attitudes and our desires, but even our minds. It is the root cause of all those things mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Galatians today: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, and so on.

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Trinity 13 Sermon – Luke 10:23-37

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Dearly beloved in Christ:

It is written in the Law of the Lord that we must love God above all things and love our neighbor as ourselves. This is the summary of the entire Law. And God gives us some very concrete and specific ways in His holy Word that this love is to be carried out. He has not left it up to us to figure out what love of God and love of neighbor looks like.

To love God is to fear God and to trust in him with all our heart. It is to pray and call upon his holy Name in trouble and to praise and thank Him for his gifts. And it is to hear and learn his Word with gladness. Love of the neighbor begins with the command to honor those who stand in for God in the home, the church, and the state since they are God’s representatives.

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