Sermon 1 Lent Yr B

1 Lent Yr B, 1/03/2009

I Pet 3:18

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Confessing our faith”

 

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the words of today’s second lesson, I think that this is an early creed. The words remind me a lot of our Apostles’ Creed. Originally, these words, confessing the faith of the early Church, may have been used in public worship; and, in particular, at baptisms. As we consider today’s second lesson, we may find helpful the following question: What is the purpose of a creed?

Well, I think in part, that a creed is born out of the context of the need to clarify our Christian faith. A creed is necessary to confess our Christian faith over against misconceptions and false teachings. In every age, including our own, there have been no shortages of false and even harmful teachings, beliefs and practices—so our creeds address such concerns by communicating clear statements of faith. Our creeds also serve as a unifying force and witness when facing persecution. Many a faithful Christian and Jew has died a martyr’s death with the creedal-confessional words of faith on their lips. People witnessing such deaths have been deeply touched and they have turned to God.

If this is true, then what is it about such confessions of faith that turn people to God? Well, I believe that it is the work of the Holy Spirit, combined with the content, the message of these creedal-confessional words, along with those willing to die for such beliefs that draw people to God.

So, if that is the case, then let’s unpack the words of verse 18 in particular of this second lesson a little now, because they affirm our present season of Lent, when we focus on the meaning of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. In verse 18, we read: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”

The words, “For Christ also suffered for sins,” highlight the truth that Jesus was a human being and so he suffered like every other human being. However, the words “for sins” indicate that his suffering on the cross was not due to him being a sinner or sinning. Rather, it is a reference to Jesus’ willingness to suffer on the cross for the sins of humankind.

The next three words, “once for all,” lift up the point that Jesus made the perfect sacrifice of atonement for our sins. He did not have to repeat it over and over again, since he was perfect, without sin, and satisfied God’s requirements for the atonement of humankind’s sins. Other sacrifices atoning for sins were imperfect because they were offered by imperfect, sinful humans and only lasted for a certain time, and applied to a very limited group of people, usually for only specific sins—unlike Jesus’ sacrifice of atonement. Jesus’ “once for all” sacrifice of atonement was perfect, covered all times and places, and applies to all people for all sins. In other words, we’re completely covered, thanks to Jesus!

The words, “for all,” indicate that Jesus’ sacrifice is intended for all people, everyone, at all times and places, including us—you and me here today. The words, “the righteous for the unrighteous,” have often been interpreted by biblical scholars and theologians to refer to what is called the “substitutionary” theory or doctrine of atonement. We, being guilty before God for our sins, deserve to be punished for them. However, God in his love and mercy sent Jesus, his own Son, to be our substitute, to take the punishment that we deserve for our sins.

The apostle Paul made this point most clear more than any other New Testament author, when he wrote in Romans 5:8: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Martin Luther, picking up on this biblical truth, also provided a corrective in his day, by emphasising that it is precisely when we are farthest away from Christ that he comes close to us and claims us as his own—over against the medieval theology of good works that falsely taught only when you reached your highest good deed would Christ reward you with his grace. Luther rightly said that we can never know for sure when we’ve reached our highest good deed, since we are always at one and the same time saints and sinners. Our motives shall always be tainted and mixed, never without sin—hence we need to stand under the cross of Christ and trust in his saving grace through his sacrifice of atonement and be forgiven.

Mary Ann Bird is a short story writer. She wrote a short story about her own life titled “The Whispering Test.” She said she grew up knowing that she was different and she hated it. She told how she was born with a cleft palate, and when she started school her classmates made it clear to her how she looked to others. She was a little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth, and garbled speech. When schoolmates would ask, “What happened to your lip?” she would tell them that she had fallen and cut it on a piece of glass. She said, “Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born different. I was convinced that no one outside of my family could love me.” There was a teacher in the second grade whom she adored. Mrs. Leonard was a short, round, happy, and sparkling lady. Annually in her class she would conduct a hearing test which she gave to every student. Students would go to the wall and cover one ear and listen for her to whisper a sentence, and the student would have to repeat it back to her. The teacher would say such sentences as, “The sky is blue,” or “Do you have new shoes?” Mary Ann said she went to the far wall and waited for those words that God must have put in her teacher’s mouth. Mrs. Leonard whispered to her, “I wish you were my little girl.” She said that those seven words changed her life.

You do not need to worry whether you are acceptable to God or not. Regardless of what, who, where you are — God has already made that choice.1 In response, we are called to share the message of Christ’s saving power.

So, with Peter and Paul; with all the company of sinner-saints down through the ages and even today; let us stand firm in our confession of faith; bearing witness to the world and all of its peoples who need a Saviour as much today as ever. In the following creedal-confessional words, let us reassure every troubled soul: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” Amen.

 

1 Cited from: <sermonsuite.com>.

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Header for Lent

Header for Lent

The present header depicts five symbols of the Lenten season, during which Christendom focuses on Jesus’ journey to the cross and the implications of his suffering and death for humankind and all of creation. The symbols are from right to left:

  • A black cross, reminding us of the cross made of ashes from previous year’s Palm Sunday palms and placed on the forehead during the Ash Wednesday worship service. It is a symbol of repentance and mortality.
  • A purple crown of thorns, reminding us of what Jesus wore during his Passion, as the political and military authorities mocked, whipped and crucified him. It is purple in colour, the Lenten season’s traditional colour, representing royalty, reminding us that Jesus is a different kind of King than all other kings, and his realm is far more all-encompassing than any earthly realm.
  • Nails, again in purple and reminding us that during this season we focus on the sufferings of the crucified Jesus, which he took on voluntarily, out of love for the world.
  • A sword, which reminds us of the sword Peter drew according to the Fourth Gospel account of Jesus’ arrest, and in Matthew’s account Jesus warns that those who take up the sword will die by the sword. Ultimately, Jesus’ way of peace-shalom shall eventually, once and for all, put an end to war, violence and the instruments of death.
  • A whip, which reminds us of the cruelty of the Roman empire and Christ’s solidarity with all people who suffered the most cruel of tortures throughout history and even to this day.

May you, gentle readers, be moved to take up some worthy discipline or cause during Lent in gratitude for what Christ has done and continues to do for you. One example is prayer and letter-writing advocacy work for brothers and sisters in Christ who are unjustly imprisoned, persecuted, tortured, raped, and killed in corrupt regimes around the globe. Your prayers and advocacy work can make a tremendous difference and save lives—just as the prayers and advocacy work of Christians did in the ancient Church.

lent092

 

Transfiguration Sunday Yr B

Transfiguration Yr B, 22/02/2009

II Cor 4:3-6

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“For we do not proclaim ourselves”

 

Preachers and preaching. In today’s second lesson, the apostle Paul is speaking of himself and his co-workers. He says: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” Paul and his co-workers are facing charges from some in the Corinthian congregation. The charges seem to be that Paul and his co-workers are not genuine preachers and their preaching is not authentic. In response to the charges Paul insists that he and his co-workers are genuine and their preaching is authentic.

From the beginning of the Christian Church, right up to the present day there have been charlatan preachers preaching deceitfully. I don’t know if you’re like me, but on occasion, I have heard a few preachers so egotistic that their sermon was all about themselves. Every story in the sermon was from their life or a member of their family. If I were the preacher’s spouse or family member I’d have felt rather embarrassed and perhaps even resentful about such stories. A preacher needs to practice discernment and ask permission from family members before he or she tells family stories from the pulpit.

Some preachers are tempted by fame and status. They covet being the most popular preacher in the world. Or they become obsessed with climbing the social ladder; desiring to hobnob with the rich and famous. Worldly gain is their game; some making millions of dollars a year by distorting Jesus and the gospel into an entrepreneurial empire. Their affluent lifestyle is on public display for us to see as if they were saying: “Look how rich and successful I am!” Their theme song is “How great I art.” I wonder what Jesus thinks of such preachers?

Other preachers are hooked on Hollywood. They strive to be the Rev. Entertainer; the single, most important criteria for their preaching is the question: “Are my sermons entertaining?” For them, wowing us with dramatics is cool. They may compromise their moral-ethical integrity to preach manipulative, emotionally stirring sermons to get what they want for their own selfish ends. Preachers who tip the scales too far this way may be tempted to develop a cultic or sectarian following like some of the Televangelists. Cultic and sectarian followers are brainwashed, programmed to do almost anything for their leader who has absolute authority and control over them. In recent times, we’ve witnessed how such cultic and sectarian followers have killed and committed suicide in God’s name because they’ve been brainwashed by their leaders.

How radically different are genuine preachers! Paul says you can tell a genuine preacher from a charlatan. He says a genuine preacher does not preach herself or himself. No. Rather, he or she preaches Jesus Christ as Lord and himself or herself as slaves for Jesus’ sake. Or in the words of The Message: “Remember, our Message is not about ourselves; we’re proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master. All we are is messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you.” I like that—we’re messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you. If I am going to be a reliable messenger I need to listen very closely to the message I’ve been given to share it with you accurately. I need to learn the message and communicate it well for you. I also need to take orders willingly from Jesus so that I can run the errands he gives me. I need to be in shape spiritually to run his errands. So an authentic preacher feeds daily and deeply on God’s Word. Unless I feed daily and deeply on the Bible, how can I feed you spiritually? An authentic preacher also listens to Christ speaking through prayer. Without listening to Christ in prayer, I cannot feed you.

When I read and study the Bible and feed deeply on it; when I listen to Christ in prayer I, like Paul will strive to preach the message that Jesus is Lord. At the heart and core of all Christian sermons is the earliest confession and creed: “Jesus is Lord.” What does it mean to preach and confess Jesus as Lord?

Well, it means several things. Jesus as Lord means that his power and authority is the highest power and authority of all. No human being, no human institution has a higher claim on our loyalty if Jesus is Lord. Our loyalty to Jesus as Lord is greater than our loyalty to family. Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords has a claim on our loyalty that is higher than our loyalty to any political party, government, or nation. Preaching and confessing Jesus is Lord means that his claims on us to be loyal to him are higher than the claims of race, class, or gender. The confidence of Christian preachers in preaching Jesus is Lord gives them courage and their people courage to confess Jesus as their Lord even in the face of the most powerful forces and authorities on earth.

On the scaffold in a Nazi prison, within months of the end of the Second World War, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was superior to the might of Adolf Hitler because he knew that Jesus is Lord. This is the testimony of countless witnesses and martyrs throughout the ages, some known to us and many unknown to us. This is the witness when, on our deathbeds, in our dying moments, the faithful in Christ triumph over the failures of medicine and of the body, because we say and we know that Jesus is Lord. Who is Jesus? Jesus is Lord; and as long as there are people in the world who, in the worst of times under the most dangerous of circumstances, yet declare that Jesus is Lord, this world and all of its powers will never ever have the last word.1

We preachers and you listeners who follow Jesus continue to place all of our hopes and fears, sufferings and triumphs in the One whom we confess to be: Jesus is Lord. We believe with our whole being that if Jesus is Lord then, come what may, we shall endure it for he is always with us right up to the end of this life and into the open door of eternity. Fear not brothers and sisters in Christ, for Jesus is Lord!

Coming back to what Paul is saying to the Corinthians and us today, because genuine preachers preach Jesus is Lord, they are “your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” In the New Testament Greek, the word doulos can be translated both as slave or servant. The word slave today may have negative connotations—since we in the Western world worked hard and even fought to end slavery. I think what Paul is driving at here is not the negative realities of slavery. Rather, I think what he means here is something like this: because Jesus has a claim on us preachers as Lord, we are compelled to give of ourselves in love as he did for the people we serve. The self-giving love of Jesus will pour into us if we are called to be preachers so that we can give this same self-giving love to those we serve.

In making personal sacrifices as preachers, we discover, more often than not, the truth of Jesus’ words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” For Paul, it means putting the needs of others first by serving them. A colleague and friend of mine of blessed memory, the Rev. Dr. K-Henry Reitze, inspired me with putting others first by serving them. Whenever we gathered together for a meal at church, he would go to the end of the line and insist on being last. We are your slaves for Jesus’ sake. We are here to serve you. I don’t think Paul meant that as slaves we serve out of fear. Nor do I think he meant we serve as hirelings. Moreover, I don’t think that Paul equates slave here with abuse or misuse. Rather, I believe Paul meant that as slaves for Jesus’ sake we serve out of his love. The love we receive from Christ is not horded and kept to ourselves; it is shared with you whom we serve. In serving you, we serve Christ himself, which is the highest privilege that I can think of in this life.

So, thank you for granting me the privilege of serving you. Most of all, thank God through our Lord Jesus Christ for the privilege of serving him and for giving us the Gospel, the Good News, which is meant to be shared with you and all people. Whether we are ordained or laity, we are all called to spread the Good News in word and deed. May the Holy Spirit give us grace to make us willing to share this Good News. Amen.

 

1 Peter J. Gomes, Strength for the Journey (New York: HarperCollins & HarperSanFrancisco Publishers, Inc., 2003), pp. 213-214.

 

 

Parable of wine and wineskins

MATTHEW

9:17

Neither is new
wine put into old wineskins;
otherwise
the skins burst,
and the wine is spilled,
and the skins are destroyed;
but new wine is put
into fresh wineskins,
and so both are preserved.

MARK

2:22

And no one puts new
wine into old wineskins;
otherwise the wine
will burst the skins,
and the wine is lost,
and so are the skins;
but one puts new wine
into fresh wineskins.

LUKE

5:37

 And no one puts new
wine into old wineskins;
otherwise the new wine
will burst the skins
and will be spilled,
and the skins will be destroyed.
38 But new wine must be put into new wineskins.
39 And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’

 

In my morning devotions, I was reading the parable of the wine and the wineskins. I had been reading Mark’s version, when I became curious about the other two synoptic gospels, so I checked them out. As you can see, there are some variations. What struck me though is that in all three versions of the parable, the point is nuanced differently. In Mark, the point comes across as an instruction of how to store new wine properly and the consequence if one fails to do so. In Matthew, the additional words “and so both are preserved” provides a purpose for storing the new wine. The implication being that preservation is necessary for the drinking of a high quality wine. In Luke, verse thirty-nine communicates more explicitly, what Matthew communicates implicitly—namely that everyone who drinks old wine prefers it to new wine.

 

Now historically, this parable has been interpreted allegorically, something along these lines: The old wine and wineskins symbolize the Jewish people and God’s covenant with them or the Torah and Judaism. The new wine and wineskins symbolize the Church and the new covenant or Christ and Christianity. The exhortation not to mix old with new is practical—the fermentation process of new wine expands the wineskins and old skins that have been stretched to their limits can only expand so far, then they will explode. However, is there also a theological point here? Is this exhortation not to mix the old with the new a hardening of positions between church and synagogue? Or is it a reflection of the Torah teaching forbidding certain mixtures?

 

It is interesting—and I believe instructive for both Jews and Christians—to note that in the parable, in all three versions, both the wine and the skins seem to be valuable. If one interprets that nuance allegorically, one may make the case for valuing both the Torah and Judaism the Jewish people and their covenant—and the Church and the new covenant, Christ and Christianity. Indeed, thanks to Judaism the Torah has been preserved and remains a God’s Living Word. The same is true of the Church concerning the new covenant and the Gospel.

 

Finally, Luke’s additional conclusion to the parable in verse thirty-nine is, if again interpreted allegorically, a remarkable compliment to Judaism and the Torah.

Sermon 6 Epiphany Yr B

6 Epiphany Yr B, 15/02/2009

I Cor 9:24-27

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Running the race to win”

 

A head coach and assistant coach are in conversation. The head coach says: “Frank over there is a slacker. He’s so slow my grandmother could run him down.”

   The assistant coach comes to Frank’s defence and asks: “Well coach, you know one thing Frank does fast, real fast, faster’n anybody else on the team?

   The head coach replies: “No, what’s that?”

   And the assistant coach answers: “He gets tired.”

   Sports and athletics. Training for marathon races. Running races to win. Life at times seems like a sports game. We are athletes. We train for the marathon race of life. We step onto the field and run the race to win. Problem is, like Frank in the joke we get tired too fast.

   I don’t know if you’re like me, but a favourite all-time movie of mine is Chariots of Fire. “Failure,” they say, “is the path of least persistence.” In the movie, runner Harold Abrahams is devastated by losing a race—the first one he ever lost.

   He tells his girlfriend, Sybil, “If I can’t win, I won’t run.”

   Sybil shoots back, “If you don’t run, you can’t win.”1

   “If you don’t run, you can’t win.” Runners like Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddle look so graceful. Eric and Harold run with such ease—or so it seems. Yet, when we go with them beyond the winner’s circle; behind the scenes; what do we discover?

   Harold and Eric and folks like them win races because their training is rigorous. An Olympic gold medalist trains for years. Every single day folks like Harold and Eric run, work out, push themselves to their limits. Harold, Eric, and we as fans may bask in the moment of glory when the gold medal is hanging around their neck, and the media broadcasts the win around the world—savoring each second of victory. However, we forget that without the years of tough training such moments of triumph are impossible.

   Whether we’re talking to the world’s best athlete, musician or even preacher—they’ll tell you that to be the best you need to practice, practice and practice. We know that’s true in our lives too. We can cook world class lefse by making it over and over again. We can ride a horse well by training often. We can learn how to speak a new language by repetition—how boring it is to go over those flashcards and drill ourselves every day. Yet, after weeks, months and years of practice, voila! the day comes when our vocabulary is good enough and we can actually engage in a meaningful conversation.

   In today’s lesson from I Corinthians, the apostle Paul speaks in athletic language. He tells us the life of faith is like running a marathon race. In an Olympic marathon, many runners compete, but there’s only one winner who gets the gold medal. Here in a way Paul’s metaphor breaks down. Why? Because as Christians we’re not really competing with each other—at least I hope we’re not. In Jesus’ eyes, we’re all equals through our baptism. You and me, every Christian is on Christ’s winning team—we’re all winners.

   Once upon a time, in the old days, life was pretty clear-cut, divided up into winners and losers. Some would win every time, while others would lose every time. Today there is a lot of emphasis away from competition; even games are created to cooperate and work together rather than compete. Now, for the most part, this emphasis can be healthy, and boost our self-esteem. Nevertheless, in every life, including yours and mine, we face failure. Failure all the time is not good or healthy—we all know that. Yet, on occasion, failure is good and even healthy. Why? Because it humbles us, keeps us human, and more compassionate towards others who fail. Sometimes failure is also our best teacher. Our mistakes hopefully teach us what we need to do to be successful in the future. On the other hand, winning all the time is not healthy or good either—we all know that too. Winning all the time can make us prime donnas. We can live life as if we must be on centre stage in the limelight every day. Moreover, our pride in winning can become our downfall by making us erroneously believe that “we did it all, we are gods and goddesses, indispensable, immortal. We earn our salvation.” 

   Paul is correct our life can be like a marathon race. In order to stay in the race, we train. The training is constant. We practice, practice and practice some more. The endurance test some days is hard. Other days we find it boring. Yet other days working out hurts like Hades. Do we feel like practicing every day? Not likely! Is the endless repetition ever fun? Well, yes, maybe on the odd day. Until a day comes when the practicing does become easier, we’re finally “in shape.” We discover then that it’s true, total health involves our body, mind, soul and spirit.

Jesus speaks of his followers as disciples. You remember that in English disciple and discipline are closely related words. As Jesus’ disciples, our calling is to be disciplined. A few weeks ago, our city was saddened by the death by exposure of Mark Fillip, a homeless Hatter. We learned from our newspaper that his life had become wasted on addiction to drugs—even though, in his younger days, he skipped two grades in school and was offered scholarships to Yale and Princeton universities. How tragic that his life was wasted in part because of a lack of discipline. No matter how gifted and intelligent we are—without a focused life we are in danger of wasting what the LORD has given us.

We are disciplined not only if we practice. We need the right kind of training, and for that, we need a plan. Planning our training takes as much discipline as the rigors of practice. The old adage is true: “God is in the details.” A step by step plan helps us to get “in shape.”

So, keep the faith. Stay in the marathon race. You do that by reading and probing the Bible in depth. We connect with our LORD by daily conversations with him. We build community by showing up every week for worship. Your faith blossoms as you feed and drink on God’s word and sacraments. We reach out in mission to others by volunteering. You support the larger church with generous giving to organizations like Canadian Lutheran World Relief and On Eagles Wings, and several more. Don’t give up; don’t become complacent or lose your enthusiasm. Christ our Saviour loves us all. Do your family members, friends and neighbours know he loves them? Have you told them? Keep telling them. Jesus wants you to share his Good News. Like the apostle Paul, give it all you’ve got! Keep your faith in shape to win the marathon race. Rely on Christ for strength every step of the way. You, I, all of us will cross the finish line—each of us are winners in Christ’s presence forever. Amen.    

 1 Emphasis online at <sermonsuite.com>.

 

Holocaust denial and antisemitism

 

Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic act of hatred very troublesome 

Recently, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre carried out an e-mail petition campaign against Roman Catholic bishop, Richard Williamson, who denies that any Jews perished in gas chambers during the Holocaust. Most troublesome is Pope Benedict XVI’s reinstating of Williamson and the Vatican’s act of blocking the e-mail petition. After Vatican II’s outstanding work of reconciliation between the Jewish people and the RC Church, this is certainly a huge step backwards. The pope needs to take immediate action to reverse his decision, discipline Williamson, and issue an official apology to the Jewish people. Anything less would be a contradiction to the Second Vatican Council.

 In another act of anti-Semitic hatred, fuelled by the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez; last Friday at about 10:00 P.M. until 3:00 A.M. Saturday morning, the Caracas Jewish synagogue was vandalized by hoodlums who desecrated it with anti-Semitic slogans. The Jewish community was so fearful that they did not even attend synagogue last Sabbath.

For more information visit the following websites: Simon Wiesenthal Center USA and Wiesenthal Centre Canada.