Sermon All Saints Sunday Yr B

All Saints Sunday Yr B, 1/11/2009

Isa 25:6-9

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“God’s saving acts”

 

The story is told of two evil brothers. They were rich and used their money to keep their ways from the public eye. They even attended the same church, and looked to be perfect Christians.

Then their pastor retired, and a new one was hired. Not only could he see right through the brothers’ deception, but he also spoke well and true, and the church started to build a new assembly. All of a sudden, one of the brothers died. The remaining brother sought out the new pastor the day before the funeral and handed him a check for the amount needed to finish paying for the new building.

“I have only one condition,” he said. “At his funeral, you must say my brother was a saint.” The pastor gave his word, and deposited the check.

The next day, at the funeral, the pastor did not hold back. “He was an evil man,” he said. “He cheated on his wife and abused his family.” After going on in this vein for a small time, he concluded with, “But compared to his brother, he was a saint.”1

The story, although humorous, raises the following question on this All Saints Sunday: Who is a saint? Is a saint one who does not sin? Are saints reserved for such elitist people who think they are perfect? Do you have to undergo some “burning bush” or “Damascus road” encounter with God before you qualify as a saint? Or perhaps you have to work miracles like making the blind see and the lame walk to be a saint? Maybe you have to be a prophet and predict the future to be a saint? Or do you have to be a televangelist and accumulate over one million dollars a year income to qualify as a saint?

Who is a saint anyways? Well, it seems Christians have trouble agreeing on who qualifies as a saint. A number of years ago, a bishop of Sweden said, “Saints are those who make it easier to believe in God.” Not a bad definition, yet I’m not completely convinced, since that seems to suggest there is an elitist group of folks who tower above the rest of us. On the other hand, the truth of the matter is that even those who make it easier to believe in God have their imperfections and shortcomings. You, me, all of us have feet of clay. So I’ll go for another definition of a saint. Who is a saint? The right answer for me is: A forgiven sinner. We Lutherans historically have preferred this answer, as we believe that we are simul justus et peccator—translated into English that means we are simultaneously justified and sinful. At one and the same time we are sinners and saints.

You don’t need to do anything; you cannot do a thing to save yourself—only God can do that. Yet, paradoxically, we are commanded to do good works. However, not because they can make one iota of a difference in God’s eyes to get on the good side of God and he’ll reward us eternally for them. NO WAY! Rather, we do good works because they are the result of—and our response to— what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. You see, we take very seriously the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel: “apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5) We also take very seriously the words in 1 John 4:19: “We love, because he (God) first loved us.” So, every good work we are able to do is possible because God first acted to take the initiative, to love and save us first.

Speaking of God’s saving love and action; we have a beautiful picture of this in today’s passage from Isaiah. The metaphors grab our attention. Isaiah gives us a picture here of the LORD playing host on Mount Zion at a future banquet feast. He is host “for all peoples” whom he loves. God’s menu shall not consist of ordinary fare either. Rather, on the menu shall be quite exquisite food and drink: “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” Notice too that the Central Actor is the LORD; he’s the one who shall prepare and serve this banquet feast.

The next verse continues with God as the Central Actor. Now the metaphors change though. In verse seven we have the Warrior God who “will destroy…the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.” The shroud and sheet that the prophet is referring to here is death, which is the consequence of sin in the world. In the last segment of this verse, Isaiah gives us yet another picture that parallels the previous verse. However this time, it’s God who is doing the eating. Did you notice the strange fare? Isaiah tells us that the LORD “will swallow up death forever.” Now that doesn’t sound very appetizing to me—however, who am I to tell God what to eat?! Why would Isaiah describe God’s destruction of death by making a banquet feast for God out of it? Well, maybe it’s not so strange—at least to a Jewish audience.

The rabbis in their general and humorous playfulness pictured “the coming age” under many images, and one of them was the delightful image of the huge banquet in which Messiah would gather together with his people. As a matter of fact in some of these playful rabbinic exercises one had even settled the menu for the messianic banquet. One was going to feed on Leviathan, thereby signifying the destruction of evil at the same time as there would be the great and glorious banquet.2 So it is here with Isaiah the prophet who sees a future bursting with hope and joy at God the Warrior’s victory over and destruction of death. Notice that Isaiah tells us death will not come back to haunt us at a later date. NO! The LORD “will swallow up death FOREVER! What a victory that shall be—one in which all of our longings of hope and joy shall be fulfilled.

God doesn’t stop there though. Listen, there’s more here of God the Central Actor. In verse eight, Isaiah changes the metaphor on us again. Now the LORD is like a gentle Father. The prophet tells us there will be no more sadness, since God “will wipe away the tears from all faces.” Usually tears are also connected with sadness and death as well as suffering. In this future reign of God, all of that shall be wiped away by our LORD. Now that’s something to look forward to with hope and joy. Isaiah goes on to say in verse nine that God will continue to act, how? He says, “the disgrace of his people God will take away from all the earth.” Why disgrace? Well disgrace comes from our sinful state, we do things that we regret later when we look back on those foolish, sinful acts. However, what’s done is done, and can disgrace us; we can’t undo what we did, even though we desperately wish that we could. We cannot always reverse the disgrace we bring upon ourselves. We need the LORD’s help. Isaiah promises that God will help us by taking away our disgrace from all the earth. After it has been taken away, then we can come closer to our LORD and live more in peace and harmony with him as well as with each other.

The closing verse nine of our passage then focuses on the response of God’s people, the saints who shall be the recipients of all of these acts of God. Here Isaiah records the saints giving God the glory and worship and honour for what he has done: “It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” So the response of God’s saints to the saving acts of God is twofold here: waiting for the LORD and worshipping him in gladness by rejoicing in his salvation.

On this All Saints Sunday, we continue to wait for the LORD as we long for that time when we shall share more completely in the communion of saints in heaven. Yet, we also worship God in gladness by rejoicing in his salvation thanks to what Jesus Christ has accomplished for us by giving us a Holy Meal to bask in his Presence among us and receive “a foretaste of the feast to come,” the heavenly banquet which has no end. Amen.

 1 Cited from: David E. Leininger, Lectionary Tales For The Pulpit: Series VI Cycle B (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 2008), pp. 265-266.

2 Cited from: Krister Stendahl, Meanings: The Bible as Document and as Guide (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 185.

 

 

 

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A prayer concerning the H1N1 influenza

A prayer concerning the H1N1 influenza outbreak

Jesus our Great Physician—you know the exacerbating fears and anxieties, stresses and strains of patients, families, and frontline healthcare workers in our nation and every other nation afflicted with the H1N1 outbreak. We remember those who have already perished from H1N1 and pray for the families who mourn them. Surround us all with your protecting, healing presence. Grace all governments and healthcare workers with strength and wisdom as well as discipline tempered with compassion to know and do what is right to minimize the destructive power of H1N1. Grant us the courage and hope to trust that you are present even through our smallest of thoughts, words and actions done in the unselfish service of others. In your name. Amen.

A preacher to preachers

A preacher to preachers

Those of us who preach, more or less weekly, are also in need of inspiration from, if you will, a preacher to preachers. One such mentor whom I appreciate is Frederick Buechner. Here are a few words of wisdom from Buechner on the power and inspiration of words, sermons and preaching.

“Sermons are love letters.”

A sobering question for me as a preacher is: How much love do I put into sermons as I prepare and deliver them? I’m sure there’s always room from improvement, speaking for myself. And do parishioners hear and receive sermons as love letters? If they do, then there shall be a whole lot of understanding and harmony in the parish, and they will be inspired and encouraged.

“Language itself is revelatory and gives life.”

If that’s true, then we preachers shall always be searching, with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, to find the right words and transform them into God’s Word for his people via the sermon.

Buechner’s sermons contain what’s been referred to as an angular vision—i.e. seeing something just above or below, not directly, to describe the everyday and apprehend the holiness.

It has been said that Buechner’s book, Telling Secrets, is a life transforming one for preachers.

“Secrets can do damage, they undermine facing the present head on. Doubts, failures, mysteries, imperfections, warts and all—tell all the secrets, the truth will set you free.”

Buechner says that we preachers need to be whistling in the dark.

“Without darkness, people cannot appreciate the light. Writing and preaching are like whistling in the dark. It is trying to convince ourselves as preachers that there is something, someone more than the darkness.”

I like this image of “whistling in the dark,” for me it is an image of hope, courage and joy—that even in the face of sufferings and an uncertain future, we can dare to live with hope, take courage, and be joyful. Why? Because God—Immanuel—is with us.

According to Buechner:

“There is nothing more powerful than a preacher speaking with love to a congregation.”

This reminds me of the captive audience of the disciples on the Emmaus road with the risen Christ, when Jesus opened up the meanings of God’s Word.

“Silence is the first language of God. We need to listen to God in silence. Preaching is born out of silence.”

The times my sermons fall on deaf ears are likely due in part at least to the reality that I did not spend enough time in silence to germinate the Word or hear what the Holy Spirit was speaking to me.

Buechner’s writing is often darkness before the light, the muck before the cleanliness.

“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found.”

Amen to that, for that’s the Good News of the parable of the prodigal son in a nutshell!

Sermon Thanksgiving Sunday Yr B

Thanksgiving Sunday Yr B, 11/10/2009

Matt 6:25-33

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Thanks for God’s kingdom and righteousness”

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while locked inside a Nazi prison, wrote the following words: “By good powers wonderfully hidden, we await cheerfully, come what may.” In today’s gospel, which is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we too are exhorted to await cheerfully, come what may—living with a sense of awe and thanksgiving at our heavenly Father’s good powers wonderfully hidden. Instead of worrying about what to eat, drink, and wear; Jesus encourages us to look around at God’s creation. Look at the birds of the air, the lilies and grass of the field. See how our heavenly Father provides for them, and creates them with such beauty. We are of much more value and God provides much more for our needs, both spiritually and physically. Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness; live in a relationship of trust and obedience to your heavenly Father; open your heart and life to him; see his work all around you in creation; such seeing opens us up to live life giving God our thanks. When we spend our life whining and complaining, finding fault and criticising—then we become blind to how generously our heavenly Father provides for all of our needs. Our energy then is focussed on what’s wrong in life and prevents us from living a life of thanksgiving. The following story illustrates this quite well.

A poor devout woman lived with her husband, their five children, and her mother in a one-room hut. The children were noisy, and the crowded conditions often produced loud arguments. In summer, when the family spent many hours outdoors, life was bearable, but when winter arrived the family felt trapped because the small house was filled with crying and quarrelling. One day when the woman couldn’t stand it anymore, she ran to the Teacher for advice.

“Teacher,” she cried, “life is miserable. My husband, our five children, my mother, and I are so crowded in our little hut that we argue and quarrel every day. I can’t stand the noise anymore. Please help me. I’ll do whatever you say.”

The Teacher pondered her request for several minutes. Then he asked, “Do you have any chickens?”

“Certainly,” the woman replied. “We have six chickens, a rooster, and a goose.”

“Excellent,” said the Teacher. “Go home and bring the chickens, the rooster, and the goose into your hut to live with you.”

The woman was surprised, but she immediately left for home, promising to move the poultry into the house.

After a week passed, the woman returned to the Teacher. “Life is worse than before,” she told the teacher. “In addition to crying and quarrelling, we now have honking, crowing, and clucking. Yesterday we all had feathers in our soup. The hut seems smaller and the children seem larger. Please help me!”

The Teacher considered the woman’s words before he spoke. “Do you have a goat?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said slowly. “We have an old goat, tied to a pole behind our house.”

“Excellent,” said the Teacher. “Untie the goat and let it live in your hut with you.”

“Teacher, we are already crowded,” the woman cried.

“You did ask for my help, didn’t you?” the Teacher responded.

The poor woman walked home, untied the goat, and brought it in the hut. Five days later she returned. “Teacher,” she said desperately, “everything is worse. Now, in addition to the crying, quarrelling, honking, crowing, and clucking, we have a goat pushing and butting everyone with his horns. The hut seems even smaller.”

The Teacher asked, “Do you have a cow?”

“Yes,” the woman said fearfully, “we have a cow.”

“Go home and take the cow into your hut.”

“Oh, no, Teacher,” the woman cried. “My family will be angry.”

“Tell them the Teacher has ordered it.”

The poor woman went home and told her husband to move the cow into the hut.

“Is the Teacher crazy?” he shouted.

Still, they moved the cow into the hut.

Three days later the woman returned. “Life is a nightmare,” the woman cried. “Now, in addition to the crying, quarrelling, honking, crowing, clucking, and butting, the cow tramples everything. We all argue and shout at one another. Help me, please!”

The Teacher smiled. “Go home and let the animals out of your hut.”

The woman turned and went home as fast as she could run. As she ran she yelled, “Thank you, Teacher, thank you.”

As soon as she reached home the woman, and her husband let the cow, the goat, the chickens, the goose, and the rooster out of their hut.

That night the poor man and all his family slept peacefully. There was no honking, crowing, clucking, butting, or trampling. There was also no arguing or fighting.

The very next morning the woman and her husband came to the Teacher. “We wish to thank you for your help,” the man said.

“Life is sweet and peaceful,” the woman responded. “We love our home. It is quiet, peaceful, and so roomy.”1

 

On this Thanksgiving Sunday, we have much to be thankful for. Do we have the eyes to see and the heart to appreciate all the blessings our LORD has given us? The following story is a beautiful example of having the eyes to see and the heart to appreciate God’s blessings around us in God’s creation—even when life is difficult and trying:

The story comes from Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Do you remember Frankl? He was the psychotherapist who was imprisoned by the Nazis and survived to write a book about his experience. He told about the afternoon in one of the camps when the men had tramped back several miles from their work site and were lying exhausted and sick and hungry in their barracks. It was in the winter, and they had marched through a cold, dispiriting rain. Suddenly one of the men burst into the barracks and shouted for the others to come outside. Reluctantly, but sensing the urgency in the man’s voice, they stirred themselves and staggered into the courtyard. The rain had stopped, and a bit of sunlight was breaking through under the lumpy, leaden clouds. And it was reflecting on the little pools of water standing about on the concrete floor of the courtyard. “We stood there,” said Frankl, “marvelling at the goodness of the creation. We were tired and cold and sick, we were starving to death, we had lost our loved ones and never expected to see them again, yet there we stood, feeling a sense of reverence as old and formidable as the world itself!”

Was that romantic and unrealistic? Surely it was, in a way. Yet it was an experience of incredibly deep significance to those men. It reminded them, for all their woes, of the invincibility of the things they really believed, of the values of love and friendship in a world gone awry. It put them in touch again with faith and hope and courage. It gave them what they needed to go on living in a crucible of cruelty and humiliation.2

So, on this Thanksgiving Sunday even if you are experiencing troubles, worries, anxieties, illness, pains, hurts, grief, suffering—remember that there are many things and people, many blessings you can thank God for. If God provides food and shelter for the birds of the air; how much more will our heavenly Father provide us with food and shelter? And consider the lilies of the field; our heavenly Father provides clothing for them more beautiful than all the wardrobe of King Solomon—how much more will he provide clothing for you? Let us pray: Thank you God of heaven and earth for the beauty and richness of your creation. Grant us ever thankful hearts and lives; help us to count our blessings today and every day, and share them with everyone, especially those in greatest need. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

1 Cited from: Wm. R. White, Stories for the Gathering: A Treasury for Christian Storytellers (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), pp. 126-128.

2 Cited from: John Killinger, “Of Rainbows, Geese and Wildflowers,” January 22, 1995, at: <http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/killinger_3816.htm&gt;.

Sermon 18 Pentecost Yr B

18 Pentecost Yr B, 4/10/2009

Job 1:1; 2:1-10

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Job’s suffering”

 

Have you ever felt that God was punishing you? Do you think that God tests our love for him? Is faith worth anything if it is not put on trial? What kind of a God do you believe in, worship, and serve? Questions of this nature crop up when we face suffering or when we read the Book of Job.

Many people, even today, look at faith and ask: “What’s in it for me?” Such folks can often reduce God to a cosmic bell hop, and demand that God give them everything they ask for. Do you need a parking spot close to the bank? No problem, ask God in prayer for one, and viola, an empty space is waiting for you when you arrive. Do you need an A+ on your final exam? No matter that you didn’t study the material, just pray the night before and magically God will give you that A+. Do you have cancer? Pray for healing and God will heal you. Such a view of God and prayer operates with the ages-old belief that: If you are a righteous person, God will protect and reward you throughout your lifetime. If you are a sinner and a wicked person, then God will punish you and afflict you with all kinds of sufferings. Is such a belief-system true though? Does it stand up to real life situations?

Listen to what one pastor had to say about such beliefs: I remember reading an article by Chaplain Stephen Webster, who was in Europe with the American Forces during the Second World War. It was an angry article called “Who Gets the Breaks in Prayer?” He told his readers that he was fed up with all the stories of miraculous rescues at sea and deliverances from rafts adrift in the North Atlantic; deliverances attributed by people to God in response to their great faith. Such incidents foster the idea that if only we are good and say our prayers, God will never let us down. He will look after us and do precisely what we ask Him to do. Chaplain Webster wanted to tell of the good men and women he knew who were not rescued. They prayed and they had faith, but they were not miraculously plucked from danger, but died, undelivered, yet still full of faith and trust.1

Contrary to “the health and wealth gospel” of our day and of every age, God is not our cosmic bell hop. A religion, a faith that is rooted in selfishness cannot stand the tests of time. Oh yes, it keeps cropping up all right, but that’s because of who we are as human beings—we are sinners. Sinners shall always want to be God in God’s place. Sinners shall always be turned in upon themselves. In our old sinful nature, we shall always ask: “What’s in this for me?” We shall always be tempted to oversimplify God and our faith into the formula that: “The good and righteous people shall prosper, be blessed and protected by God; while the wicked and sinful people shall be punished by God and suffer.”

The Book of Job was, I think, written to debunk such an oversimplified view of God and faith. God is far more complicated than that, and so is faith. God, in addition to being closer to us than we ourselves is also the Wholly Other God, the Transcendent One who is shrouded in mystery and far beyond human comprehension. Our faith is very complex too. Faithful folks like you and I know that life is full of vicissitudes—we have ups and we have downs. Yes, there are mountaintop experiences that fill us with joy and hope. However, there are also journeys into dark valleys of despair, doubt and suffering. Life is full of paradoxes—when we go through sufferings and illnesses we are not necessarily being punished for them. Rather, the sufferings and illnesses strengthen our faith and trust in the LORD; draw us closer to Christ and his sufferings; and give us compassion towards others who face sufferings and illnesses.

In today’s first lesson from the Book of Job, we are given a helpful example of how to handle the sufferings of life. The story starts off with the narrator telling us that Job was: “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” The Good News Bible puts it like this, Job: “worshipped God and was faithful to him.” In other words, Job was a man of integrity and honesty, and highly ethical, practicing mercy and justice in his relations with others.

For several years, God blessed Job with happiness, health and wealth. He and his wife gave birth to 7 sons and 3 daughters. He possessed 500 oxen and 500 donkeys; 7,000 sheep and 3,000 camels. Job also employed many workers. So, for several years, life was good for Job, his wife and their family.

However, that situation changes with the blink of an eye! Satan, here a member of God’s heavenly court, before he was cast down from heaven; is sceptical about Job and his motives of faithfulness. Satan says to God that it’s easy for a person to be faithful to God if he or she is doing well in life. What would happen though if all of their possessions and wealth were taken away? Satan, whose name means “the accuser,” challenges God and says that Job will curse God to his face if Job’s possessions and wealth were taken away. God accepts the challenge and allows Satan to wreak havoc with Job’s possessions and wealth, with the condition that he does not kill Job. So, in the blink of an eye, everything is taken away from Job. Job’s oxen and donkeys; sheep and camels; his many servants; even his sons and daughters perished, not one of them survived—all in one day! What tragedy! How could Job not reach his breaking point in the face of such tragedy? Yet, he does not reach breaking point. God obviously created him and graced him with the capacity to endure all of these sufferings.

However, Satan, not happy with Job’s integrity and uprightness, pushes the envelope further. Now he challenges God to let him afflict Job’s person. According to Satan, if Job’s own bone and flesh were struck, he would curse God to God’s face. God, again obviously trusting that Job could endure such a test, gives Satan the go-ahead, with the limitation that he must spare Job’s life. Job is then attacked with “loathsome sores…from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.” For relief from these irritable sores, Job picks up a piece of pottery and scratches himself, sitting among the ashes, which may be the town’s garbage dump. The ashes may be a sign of Job’s humility before God in the face of his suffering.

Watching all of this suffering is too much for Job’s wife, she finally cries out: “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” Actually the Hebrew word for curse is ambiguous here, it can also mean bless. Job’s wife, perhaps out of love for her husband, feels helpless in the face of Job’s suffering. Perhaps she can see no alternative than for Job to die—whether this is a death wish on her part as a consequence to Job’s illness or whether she is counselling Job to commit suicide as a way out of his suffering, is not clear from the text. At any rate, we should not likely be too judgemental of Job’s wife—rather, her words may well be motivated by her love and care for her husband.

Job, however seems to rebuke her, saying she speaks like “any foolish woman would speak.” He then concludes by understanding his suffering with the following answer in the form of a question: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” The narrator of the story then concludes by praising Job’s faithfulness: “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.”

In other words, Job was tested to see if he could love God for nothing. Would he remain faithful to God in the face of suffering? Was he able to love God without a cause; without payment or reward; without a reason? True love of God is not conditional—we cannot truly love God because of this or because of that. The minute we do so, we’re putting conditions on God. True love of God, is like Job’s love for God. We love God because we love God, for no other reason.

C.S. Lewis was once asked, “Why do the righteous suffer?” “Why not?” he replied. “They’re the only ones who can take it.” Today’s story of Job’s suffering bears faithful witness to C.S. Lewis’ answer. May we, like Job, be able to love God because we love God, for no other reason. Amen.

1 Cited from: R. Maurice Boyd, A Lover’s Quarrel With The World: Sermons by R. Maurice Boyd (Burlington, ON: Welch Publishing Co. Inc., 1985), pp. 119-120.