Thursday, December 8, 2016

Installation of Rev. Aaron Kangas at Trinity Lutheran Church, Iuka, Illinois December 4, 2016

            The winding road that God brings us along can be strange and unexpected.  Last week I found the Christmas card that Aaron and Heidi sent to us last year.  “It was so great to see all of you this summer!  God’s richest blessings to you all in this coming year!”  Little did any of us know that we would see each other again down at their place in Tennessee last June, and now again, here, on this day of great joy for him, and for you – the dear saints of Trinity.
            I do not remember when I met Aaron, maybe he does.  But I know we became friends very quickly as we started at seminary together 19 years ago, with just a few stairs between our rooms.  Great enough friends that within four months, I was getting up early to travel from Ft. Wayne to Wisconsin for his wedding to Heidi.  I vividly remember Josiah’s baptism at the seminary’s chapel during our second year.  And the night in our fourth year when Aaron and Heidi showed great hospitality to my wife and me, inviting us over to their place for supper.  So it was quite an honor when your new pastor asked me to preach this afternoon.
            But then after I got off the phone, reality hit me like a ton of bricks as I realized that writing
this sermon would be hard work!  So many things I could say – too many even!  (And neither you nor I want to be here for a sermon THAT long!)  Recently one of my confirmation kids told that her problem with church is that she has to sit and be so quiet.  She loves to talk, and figured that I loved church services because I get to talk all the time!  Little did she know that when my pastor first asked me to consider being a pastor, I wanted to say, “ARE YOU NUTS?” – except that you don’t ask your pastor if he is nuts!  The idea of it scared me silly since I was terrified of having to say things in front of a crowd of people.
 If it were as simple as just saying whatever I want to say off the top of my head, I would feel a lot less pressure.  However, God did not make me to be a pastor so I could do that.  He gave me the task of just saying whatever He wants, of teaching His ways, of rebuking sin and forgiving it in the name of Jesus Christ.  That same Lord of the Church has created faith in the hearts of people at St. Peter’s and St. John’s in Evansville and Ruma (ironically, the congregation where Pastor Schrader comes from.)  In their faith, these people called me out of the seminary because they want to be taught God’s Word – even as you, dear brothers and sisters, by this church service vow to God that you want my friend to teach the same Word to you and for you.
            I feel the pressure of preaching to you today, preparing you as congregation and pastor to walk together in this new relationship with Christ.  Yet I recognize that just like we had no idea the blessings that God had in store for us behind last year’s Christmas card, likewise we have no ideas the blessings and crosses the Lord has in store for the future of your congregation.
            I was ordained in June of 2001 and within a few months our nation suffered the unimaginable
horror of September 11th.  Among other thoughts that went through my head that morning was that the seminary never prepared me for a day like that.  Except that they did!  Our professors taught us to preach Christ and Him crucified, in good times and bad - even in the dark valleys of the shadow of death.     
            Did the Disciples feel like Jesus never prepared them for a day like the weekend of Good Friday?  Except that Christ did prepare them, telling them multiple times that He would lay down His life as He was lifted up on the Cross for our salvation, and then rise again on the third day.  As we heard in this afternoon’s Gospel text, He changed their hearts and their futures in an instant by declaring “Peace to you.”  Even though they were still sinners, still weak and afraid, still would make mistakes in the future, God loved them.  Their fears and doubts were not so great as God’s grace, their sin not so deep as His love.  There was no condemnation left against them in Christ Jesus who stood before them alive after death.  Could anything have prepared them for that moment?
            As I finally sat down to write this sermon, I realized that it was not all that different from what we pastors do when we perform weddings, where the Lord joins husband and wife together.  We do our best to prepare the man and the woman for the unknown and unexpected blessings and crosses the Lord will give to the new family, even as I am trying to do this afternoon.
When I meet with a couple where the man or woman has been married previously, I tell them that this new marriage will be different from the previous one.  It seems obvious, but it is important to intentionally keep in mind that the new spouse is not the same person as the former spouse.  They speak differently, think differently, act differently – even if there are some things in common.  Aaron, when you have those conversations you have had 100s of times with members of previous churches, remember that the person you are talking with has not had that conversation yet, and be patient with them.  Members of Trinity likewise, when you discuss things with Pastor Kangas, you may have had those chats with previous pastors, but not with him. 
            I also go over some difficult questions with the pre-marital couple about their prior relationships.  As they look back on their previous marriage, I ask them about the good stuff and the bad stuff, where things went right and wrong.  Specifically I ask where they recognize they were not the husband or wife that God intended them to be – where they were to be a blessing, but behaved with a selfish love for themselves.  Rev. Kangas and members of Trinity, you both have years of experience to look back upon, to see where that relationship between Pastor and Congregation was great, where it went wrong, and where you want to do better.  Be open and honest with one another about this.  Ask one another to pray to God to strengthen the weaknesses so that your relationship will bring Him glory.
            Christ will be the center of your relationship.  I intentionally am avoiding telling you to put
Christ in the center – because you do not put Christ anywhere.  He puts Himself where He belongs.  As we are approaching Christmas, remember what happened when Christ was put inside of Mary – it nearly broke up her relationship to Joseph!  Joseph was no dummy.  He knew the birds and the bees.  So he assumed Mary had not been faithful and decided to divorce her quietly.  Praise God that He sent an angel to tell Joseph that Mary had in fact been most faithful; and it was better than that, for the Holy Spirit had conceived inside of her Joseph’s Savior and our own.
            Like Joseph, my dear friend Aaron, you may jump to some conclusions that are wrong; and dear members of Trinity, you might make bad assumptions too, whether about your pastor, or about each other.  What are you going to do then?  Well, if you want to be Christian about it, then I can tell you what you are going to do – you will ask for forgiveness and you will give forgiveness, just as God in Christ forgives you.    
            Rev. Kangas told me that it will take some getting used to your altar being against the wall because at his previous congregation it was away from the wall, so during the prayers and during the Lord’s Supper liturgy he stood behind the altar, facing the congregation.  My dear friend Aaron, it took me some years to get used to looking away from the congregation also since I serve at an altar against the wall.  However, on Sundays, when you pray and celebrate the Supper, do not think of it as turning your back on the people.  Instead, recognize that you are facing the same direction as your people are facing, turned toward the same Savior Jesus as they are turned toward.  As pastor and people stand together and join in prayer, Jesus is with you; Jesus is hearing you, Jesus is forgiving you – congregation and pastor both. 
            Here at this altar, as you regularly receive forgiveness and peace from Jesus, especially in His Body and Blood – here is where you will find healing and reconciliation.  Rev. Kangas, when you are tired and impatient and frustrated, when you feel the weight of the world on you, or when you are proud and think you have accomplished something, come to this altar and be humbled and comforted as the Lord provides what you need.
            People of Trinity, when you are tired and impatient and frustrated, when you feel the weight of the world on you, or when you are proud and think you have accomplished something, come to this altar and be humbled and comforted as the Lord provides what you need.
            Here at this altar, during the Communion liturgy, your pastor will face you and speak the words which Jesus first spoke to His disciples that Easter evening which has made Christians glad for nearly 2000 years now – “Peace to you.”  Jesus is still speaking those words to you through your Pastor’s voice.  In those words are your forgiveness, your life, and your salvation.  In those words are how you live together as pastor and people.  “Peace to you.”  And did you notice that Jesus says “Peace to you” to the Disciples in the upper room twice?  He gives peace to spare so that you have peace to share!
            As Pastor and people, listen to His Word speak to you together.  Pray to Him at His table here and pray at your table in your homes.  Worship Christ in good times and bad, during church meals and at the hospital bed and at gravesides.  And whatever you are doing, let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts and minds. 
            People of Trinity and Pastor Kangas, I speak for my brother pastors here this afternoon saying that we are thrilled to celebrate with you this wonderful day of a new relationship.  We pray for you and bless you.  God grant that your life together be a preview of the relationship of peace that all God’s children will have in His Kingdom which has no end.  Amen.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

September 7 - Old Testament 2 King 5

Naaman, the commander of Syria's army, 
grudgingly stripped himself of his uniform, the symbol of his greater glory than everyone else, 
and washed like all the common people 
in a river that was not even close to as nice as the rivers back home 
so that he could be saved from death.

The Son of God, the Lord of Heaven's army, 
freely and willingly stripped Himself of His divine glory, 
and washed with all the common people 
in that same river that was not even close to as nice as the rivers of Heaven 
so that we could be saved from death.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

August 18 - OT

O Lord God, who am I that you have brought me thus far?  For I have been unfaithful and lazy.  What more can I say to You, for You know your servant, O Lord God.  Yet because of Your promise to David, and according to Your own heart, You have brought about our salvation by the forgiveness of sin that comes to us by the Son of David, Jesus Christ, and You have made Your servant to know this.  Therefore You are great, O Lord God, for there is none like You, and there is no God besides You, according to all that we have heard with our ears.


Grant that we might follow in the footsteps of grateful David and bless Your Holy Name.  Give to us courage to pray with confidence, asking for what You have promised to give and trusting You will grant us daily bread, pour out upon us Your Holy Spirit, and at the last deliver us from all evil.


Now, O Lord God, confirm forever the word that You have spoken concerning Your servant, and do as You have spoken.  And with Your blessing of the Son of David, your servant shall be blessed forever.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday 2016 and the Annunciation

How do you consider this day? How do you find the words to describe today? It is March 25. In nine months it will be Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Nine months. The amount of time God ordinarily takes to form a child in the womb.
How many parents were uncertain about their child’s future and questioned, “Do I really want to bring a child into this cruel world, filled with such heartache and suffering?” How many husbands and wives see a world on the brink of collapse and decide not to have kids? Whatever anxiety, uncertainty, and doubt that your parents had before your birth, God overcame them.
It is March 25. Nine months before Christmas. And it is Good Friday. God was not uncertain about what would happen to His Son. The Lord knew exactly the torment His beloved Child would face when He came into the world. He knew the mockery and the rejection. Yet He still sent the Angel Gabriel to announce to the Virgin Mary that the Holy Spirit would conceive in her the child who “will be called holy – the Son of God.”
We do not think much of talking about the nine months before the birth of Jesus in the same breath as we talk about His death. Not often, but it does happen when the Church confesses the Apostles' Creed, which moves us straight from the Lord’s conception, to His birth and then to His suffering and death. He “was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.”
Some people wish the Creed would talk a little about Christ’s life of merciful works and His word of truth. Yet in moving directly from Jesus’ birth to His Crucifixion, the Creed makes an important point – The Son of God became man to die for us.
The eyes of the man without faith see a tragic ending. They see a man born to a poor mother and father hung on a tree of death for no good reason. They see a sorrow-filled conclusion to an otherwise well-lived life. The Suffering Servant Jesus Christ makes no sense for those who think that the goal of life is to pursue happiness and avoid pain.
O believer, that is not the way it is with you. For you know this is at the very heart of how Jesus reconciles the world to God. He comes to save us from our sins – our actual sins of thought, word, and deed that reject God and mock His Holiness; and also our original sin that we inherited from Adam through our parents, for we were all sinful at birth, sinful from the time our mother’s conceived. We are natural born sinners, with hearts that are naturally inclined to doubt God. Yet here is the good news that makes this Friday Good – Jesus Christ saves us from our uncertainty, our doubts, and anxieties that imagine God has forsaken us and removed His protection from us.
The Son of God pays for your life with a pain that is real and raw, a death that is dark and cold. Yes, His soul is troubled, but He refuses to ask His Father to save Him from this hour. It is for this purpose that He has come to this dark hour – so that the Father would save you from eternal darkness. Jesus endures it all for your sake.
His sacrificial death melts our cold hearts as we see that it was no small matter for God in the flesh to come into our world, knowing what agony His suffering and death held for Him. And it is no small matter that that same God in the flesh who went the way of the Cross still comes to you today.
However, saying “Christ died for you” does not magically make all your problems disappear in a puff of smoke. This is not Hocus Pocus – but rather this is the body of Christ given into death for you.  There will be tears of pain for you to shed as you take up your cross and follow Jesus – because we are not yet at the Resurrection. Jesus does not show us how get around suffering in this life or how to avoid it. Rather, He leads us through suffering, cross and death to Resurrection. Jesus says to His followers, “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16). Soon every tear from faithful eyes will be dried. Soon you will behold that He who died on Good Friday is now alive forevermore.
But until then, as you see a world torn up by war, our country torn by politics and immorality, and even your own body and the health of loved ones being torn up by sickness and death – nonetheless hold fast to your confession of faith in Christ. With confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that you may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4). Walk by faith, not by sight. When unbelievers and your old sinful nature tell you to cry out, “Where in the world is God?”, you can honestly reply that God is hidden. Yes, darkness does veil His lovely face. But even though God is hidden in lowly flesh, His Word lights the way for you to find Him. The Lord is in the womb of the Virgin Mary for nine months, in the manger at Bethlehem, in the darkness of the Cross of Calvary on Good Friday, in the water and the blood that streamed from His pierced side. God in Christ was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting our trespasses against us (2 Corinthians 5).

Today “your life is hidden with Christ in God. But when Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” He will overcome all your worries and uncertainties. For Almighty God, our heavenly Father, has had mercy upon us and has given His only Son to die for us and for His sake, forgives us all our sins. Amen.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Keeping and Treasuring The Word: St. Joseph

I'm busy getting ready for Palm Sunday and Holy Week, plus attending a wedding today, so here are some things you can read in the meantime if you aren't quite as busy:

Keeping and Treasuring The Word: St. Joseph
Rev. Stuckwisch on Joseph - the strong, silent type

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Wednesday in Lent 2 OT - What others said

My dear friend, Reverend Steve Schave, posted this on Facebook on Wednesday about the Genesis reading:

Knowing what it is to suffer the death of a son... Then to be blessed for the next several years with the births of my three beautiful daughters... Then at the end of childbearing to have our only son, who now lives and is a young man. I know of no more powerful Gospel than that of the Old Testament reading from today's Treasury of Daily Prayer:
Genesis 22:7-8  And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”  Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
 Mt Calvary, is the fulfillment of this place where "the Lord provides," because it is here that the Father did not withhold His son, His only son, from me... to save me. I cannot even begin to comprehend this sacrifice of the perfect Lamb, that was made for me, a sinner.

Thursday in Lent 2 - OT and Gospel

Sometimes it feels like God is giving us the silent treatment.  Other times He practically interrupts us in the middle of our prayers by answering them.  "Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear" (Isaiah 65:24).  These are the experiences of Abraham's servant and of the Canaanite women.  And they are our experiences as well.  But no matter how long He takes, we have this promise - "the LORD hears when I call to Him" (Psalm 4:3, which happened to be brought into my day by the 5th and 6th Grade class' religion workbook.)

For more on today's readings, here is what I wrote about it back on 2010:


In his podcast on depression, Rev. Todd Pepperkorn has an excellent devotion on Mark 7:24-30 (actually Matthew 15's parallel passage) titled, "When God doesn't seem to care"

I'd like to connect this same text to what he posted today ("Abandonment and the Pastor"). Our church's 3 year lectionary last Sunday (Luke 13:34) brought us Jesus weeping over Jerusalem's unbelief. Like the woman in Mark 7:24f, the church weeps as she sees the devil have his way with her children. We pray and pray, and it can feel like we are getting the silent treatment from the Lord. Yet Mark 7:24-30 assures us that the Lord does hear. And so we confidently pray such words as the Prayer on Thursday in theTreasury of Daily Prayer (p. 1308), knowing that the gates of Hell will not overcome the Lord's Church, for the same God who answered Abraham's servant (Genesis 24:12-14) will answer our prayer as well.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Homily - Lent 2c, Luke 13:31-35

            The Pharisees make it sound like they want to help Jesus out.  “Get away from here while you still can.  Herod wants to kill you.”  Of course, the Pharisees had been scheming for a year to do the same thing to Jesus.  They just could not agree on when and how to get it done. 
            Did Herod Antipas really want to kill Jesus?  We do not know for sure, but it would be consistent with the usual ways that family handled things - from his dad who slaughtered the baby boys of Bethlehem when Jesus was born, to Herod Antipas and his adulterous wife Herodias and that nasty beheading of John the Baptist, to his nephew Herod Agrippa who had the Apostle James executed and Peter imprisoned about a decade after Jesus ascended.  But the Pharisees could have just been lying to scare Jesus into leaving town and getting out of their hair.
            However, Jesus did not come to save His own skin.  He came to save yours – and He is determined to do it.  He will not be scared away.  He says, “Go and tell that old fox that I still have work to do… and on the third day I will finish My course.”  On the third day – so much important stuff in the Bible happens on the third day.  Jesus knew what was in store for Him at Jerusalem the next time Passover comes up.  He had already predicted it, that He would suffer, die, and on the third day rise to life again.  Death threats from two-bit kings did not worry Jesus.
            He is the Lord, so He lays down His life on His own terms.  When the crowd in Nazareth wanted to throw Him off the cliff, Jesus slipped through their hands without a scratch.  He goes to Jerusalem, the Lord’s holy city, and He knows His own people will put Him to death there.  They would not have any power over Him if it had not been given to them.  And you know that is the whole reason the Son of God was born to us on earth – so that He could die on earth for us to defeat our death.  He will be slain at the hands of sinners for the forgiveness of sin.  He will be laid in the grave to burst its stone cold grip.  When the going gets tough, or when we know that people will be ungrateful for our help we give to them, we often times have wanted to give up, pack up and go home.  But Jesus is determined to finish what He came to do.  No matter how dangerous it will get.
            Jesus explains that He is our refuge, our protective hiding place.  And not only the Protector for some good people – He is here to be the Protector for all people, even Herod, the Pharisees, Pontius Pilate, and all who had a hand in putting Jesus to death.  You can hear the sorrow and grief in God’s voice as He cries, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
            The picture of Christ as the Good Shepherd is better known, but God’s love is every bit as tender in this picture of a mother hen with her helpless and vulnerable chicks under her wings – while birds of prey soar overhead, hungry beasts prowl around in search of an easy meal, and all sorts of other dangers lurk around every corner.  The only line of defense between the threats and the chicks is mother hen’s wings.  She is willing to give herself for the life of her chicks. 
            Likewise Jesus covers you to protect you from Satan.  In Psalms 17, 36, and 57, the Holy Spirit gives us these words to pray – “Hide me in the shadow of Your wings, O Lord.”  And just like the hen shields her offspring by offering her own back as a target for the predator, so also Jesus “gave His back to those who strike” (Isaiah 50:6) so that you and I would be protected from Death and the Devil devouring our faith.  That is why the prophets like Jeremiah warned the people.  That is why the Apostles took this message of Jesus far and wide – even under death threats from their enemies.  And it is why Jesus Himself spreads His arms wide on the Cross – so that we find refuge and protection under His wings. 
            But then we hear Christ’s heartbreaking words – “And you were not willing.”  And you have that heartbreak too as you think about the people you love who want absolutely nothing to do with Christ and walk away from Him or speak angrily against Him.  Jesus wants only to shelter and love us, to forgive and save us from Hell.  But many want nothing to do with that.  They leave the protection of Christ to indulge in the pleasures of sin without regard to the dangers to themselves, or consequences for those around them.  They expose themselves to the ravenous appetite of Satan and face death all on their own. 
            You can also see this play out in the history of Jerusalem.  The city that rejected Jesus will watch helplessly years later as their city was forsaken.  In 70 AD, the Romans tear Jerusalem’s Temple down.  The mound where that Temple sat is now the location of a mosque.  The land around the city is used for deadly target practice by the enemies of the Jewish people.  And again we hear the sorrow of Jesus, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” 
            That sorrow for those who reject Him in a major way is also warning for us.  Do not presume on the mercies of God.  Do not sin on purpose today and then say to yourself that you will just repent next Sunday.  You do not even have a hold on tomorrow.  Now is all you have.  Now is the time.  Now is the day of your salvation.  Now is the moment of repentance.  Those tears that Jesus shed over Jerusalem He also sheds over the people of His church too, whenever you or I neglect His preaching, whenever we reject God’s eternal Word in favor of our own temporary opinions. 
            The Spirit of Christ seeks to call, gather, enlighten, sanctify, and keep us in true faith.  If you or I are left out of the party, we have no one to blame except ourselves.  Do not blame God.  “And you were not willing.” 
            Left on our own, we are not willing.  Our wills must be broken or we will never want to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus on the way of death to Resurrection.  Lent calls us to return to the Lord our God so that we can discover again that He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger against our sin and abounding in forgiveness and love.  Return to the Lord and see the Son of God rise upon you with healing in His wings and salvation from your sin.  Return to the Lord so that God’s will may be done in our lives as we believe His Word by His grace, and live godly lives according to it. 
            God wills to gather you into safety.  God wills to deliver and protect you from all evil.  God wills to keep us firm in this true faith until we die.  God wills to keep your end from being destruction, and so He warns you against finding glory in shameful sin.  And God wills for you and me to wait for the second coming of our “Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself” (Philippians 3:21) – even to subject to Himself His own rejection and death at the hands of men, which the Lord has turned into the power of your Resurrection.  Amen.