Sunday, September 16, 2018

Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (September 16, 2018)

Pentecost 17 – Series B – Proper 19 (September 16, 2018)
“With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” (James 3:1-12)

“With great power comes great responsibility.”  So says Uncle Ben.  No, not the Uncle Ben of rice product fame.  I’m talking about Peter Parker’s uncle.  Peter Parker, also known as Spiderman.  Ben told Peter that now famous axiom after Peter began to discover his “Spidey-powers.”
            “With great power comes great responsibility.”  That goes for pastor and teachers in God’s Church, too, because, as James tells us, they “will be judged with greater strictness.”  They have no power of their own ... only the authority of God's Word.  It’s important to get things right when it comes to teaching God’s Word.  We need to know the truth well, teach it correctly, and measure our words carefully so we don’t steer anyone off the right path.
But this is not just for pastors and teachers.  We all need to measure our words carefully.  We have the power of God’s Word on our lips, too … the power of the Gospel to forgive and to convert dead hearts.  And yet we stumble in our words.  From the same mouth that carries the blessings of the Gospel comes cursing.  We all stumble in many ways, James says.  There are no perfect people.  No one is able to bridle their whole body, much less that tiny little organ called the tongue.
James makes the point that there are many small things that control big things.  A tiny bit can control a horse.  A small rudder controls a huge ship.  What other examples would James use today if he had lived in the 21st century?  Perhaps James might write about computer programs and how one bad line of code can cause a serious error or failure in an otherwise large program.
James was also well aware of what a tiny spark can do in a forest, just like we experienced here earlier this summer.  One little spark started the fires to the north and east of us.  Soon, thousands of acres were engulfed in hellish flames, causing destruction and death.  The effects spread well beyond the burn zone, with ash and smoke for thousands of miles.  And James says, “the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.  The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.”
The words that come from our tongue have lingering effects.  Gossip and slander.  Bullying.  Insults.  Condescension.  Hurtful, angry words.  They can be like a knife that stabs.  They can feel like a hand that reaches in and rips your soul out and throws it on the ground to be stomped on and ground it into the dust.  The tongue is a restless evil … it doesn’t stop until it gets what it wants.  It is a deadly poison … it is a soul destroying evil, both for the one who misuses their tongue, and for the one who is on the receiving end.  This is deadly in families and in congregations as the effects spread like smoke from a wildfire; even after the fire has been put out, the effects linger for days.  And it is set on fire by hell … the source of this evil really is the devil himself.  He loves to cause mayhem, distress, despair, and division.  Where we see this, we know Satan is at work.
The Israelites had been given great power: the very presence of God in their midst and his wonder working to rescue them from Egypt, bring them through the Red Sea, through the wilderness, and settle them in the Promised Land.  And with great power came great responsibility: to be a light to the Nations, to witness to the mercy and compassion of Yahweh. But they were rebellious.  They turned away from the Lord.  They used their tongues to complain and gripe against the Lord’s gifts to them.  They used their tongues to worship and praise other gods rather than the one true God.  They used their tongues to curse the prophets whom God had sent to call them to repentance.  And so, God scattered them and sent them off into exile in Babylon.  The prophet Isaiah foretold this and spoke of the abandonment and loneliness they would face when God would send them off into a foreign land, away from the land of promise, away from the temple where God promised that his very real presence would dwell.
But here in our text, Isaiah says “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may sustain with a word him who is weary.”  Is Isaiah talking about himself?  No, he seems to be talking about someone else who is to come.  Someone unique.  Someone very different from the prophets.  Bible scholars over the years have called this section in Isaiah 50 one of Isaiah’s Servant Songs.  Several times, Isaiah speaks of this great Servant of the Lord who is to come, who would rescue Israel from their sins.  Isaiah gives us another clue about who this Servant is: “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.”  Sounds like Jesus.  Because it is Jesus.
            Jesus had the tongue of those who are taught … one who had been instructed in the Word of God.  Yes, even Jesus – although he was God in the flesh – still had to grow up and learn the Scriptures.  It was clear that he had a keen insight into those Scriptures as a child.  Remember the account of his experience as a 12 year old in the temple and how the teachers were amazed at his wisdom.
Isaiah goes on and has the Servant say, “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious.”  Jesus also listened carefully to his Father’s instruction.  He was never rebellious, never stumbled, but he was in word and deed perfect in every way.  With great power came great responsibility … and Jesus used both his power and responsibility to serve you with his very own life.
Jesus faced both the lash of the whip and the lash of the tongues of his opponents.  Yet he set his face like flint, even well before the cross.  Luke 9:51 says, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  A face like flint.  Rock-steady.  Determined to fulfill his destiny in Jerusalem to die for you and me, to pay the price for all our sins, including the sins of our tongues.
With his tongue, he sustains with a word those who are weary …
… Weary from guilt over the way we have misused our tongues, and he says, “I forgive you.”
… Weary from the way we have been beaten down by the tongue lashing of others, when you have felt disgraced and spit upon, and he says, “I love you, no matter what anyone else says to you.  You are baptized.  You are mine.  You are precious to me.  You are the apple of my eye.”
            The Lord helps you … therefore you have not been disgraced.  Therefore, you can set your face like flint against the devil as he uses the words of others to tear you down and tear you apart. You are vindicated by the Servant Jesus who suffered for you.
With great power comes great responsibility.  Not to respond with more hurtful words, but to respond with the power of a renewed heart and the power of a forgiven, cleansed tongue.  A new heart that God has made into a fresh spring from which comes words that seek not to harm, but to help … not to hurt, but to heal … words that seek to encourage, to edify, and to bless.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (September 9, 2018)

Pentecost 16 – Series B – Proper 18
“Be Opened” (Mark 7:31-37)

Not everyone is a great orator, a great preacher, a great public speaker.  And maybe not everyone wants to be.  Some of us are introverts.  But even the introverts among us want to be heard, want to be listened to.
In order to improve their public speaking skills, some folks join The Toastmasters.  Many CEO’s or managers of companies join this to work on their presentation skills.  It might remind you of speech class back in high school or college.  Do you remember that?  Did any of you have to take speech class?  Are any of you taking speech right now in school?  I remember it quite well.  I don’t think I had a classic case of what they call “stage fright.”  But I was petrified.  I hemmed and hawed and stammered my way through many speeches.  And yet here I am.  Even Moses was afraid of his public speaking skills, and yet God even used him … although don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to compare myself to the prophet.
Even if we are introverts who don’t like public speaking, most of us know how to get our point across when we talk to people one on one.  But think how frustrating it is for someone who is deaf, like the man in today’s Gospel reading.  You can’t understand others unless you are really good at reading lips.  You are understood only by those who know sign language because those who are deaf often have difficulty forming their words with their lips, having never actually heard those words.  Moreover, deaf people are often isolated from the rest of the “hearing world,” and they form their own subculture, only hanging out with those who are deaf like them.  That’s made outreach to the deaf especially challenging for the Church, too.  It’s like trying to reach another ethnic group with their own language and culture.
Spiritually speaking, we’re just like that deaf man with the speech impediment who was brought to Jesus.  We are all deaf and mute.  We close our ears to God’s clear Word.  Even worse, we have selective hearing.  We’re like children who sit in rapt attention to their favorite TV show, yet when mom or dad call them to come do their chores, they are suddenly as deaf as a board.  We only hear the things we want to hear in God’s Word, but the things we disagree with, we conveniently ignore.  We act as if we never heard them.
And we have a speech impediment, too.  We hem and haw and stammer when it comes to clearly confessing Christ.  We often miss opportunities to witness to what Jesus has done for us.
Mack Stiles is an American pastor serving a congregation in the Kurdish region of Iraq.  He tells about a time when he missed one of those opportunities.
The Citadel of Erbil in Northern Iraq sits high in the center of town. It’s an UNESCO site filled with ancient history. “The oldest continuous living community on the planet,” reads the marker on the gate.
One day friends came to Iraq to visit us, and we took them to the citadel. We wandered into the Gemstone Museum and then to the museum shop. The proprietor approached me with some crystals in hand. After some polite exchanges, he said to me, “Many Europeans think that if you hold these crystals to your chest you can achieve inner peace.” He held out the crystals expectantly.
He seemed to think I might be one of those odd Europeans who might actually believe such nonsense. I knew he was trying to make a sale, so I examined them and said they were pretty. Then I rolled my eyes and said, “I don’t think you get inner peace from a rock.” He rolled his eyes, too, and we both smiled. It was clear that we were in agreement about rocks and inner peace.
And that was it.  It didn’t strike me until later how much I had blown it! As you read this, you’re way ahead of me. You’ve already thought of the things I could have said — should have said. “May I tell you where I find peace?” Or, “Hey, I know a rock that brings peace. Do you know what the Bible calls Jesus?” Or, “I remember when I didn’t have peace, but I do now.” You can think of other things I might have said.
But I said nothing. I settled for a smile, a quip, and a departure.[1]

Stiles goes on to talk about the reasons why we are so slow to speak when such a clear opportunity comes our way.  We fear rejection.  We fear looking stupid because we don’t know what to say.  We fear making people uncomfortable.  In some places, such as in the Middle East where Stiles serves, Christians fear going to jail … or worse.
But Stiles also makes a great point: “Awkward is better than silent.”
And above all else, we have a Savior who puts his fingers into our ears … the Gospel proclaimed to us, the message that Jesus also was crucified for our deafness to his Word and our silence when we should speak.  Jesus became deaf for us when he refused to listen to Satan’s temptations to choose the path of glory and refuse the path of the cross.  Jesus was deaf to the words of his opponents who said, “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mark 15:22).  Jesus was deaf to them and silent before them because he only heard the voice of his Father who said, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11), therefore he knew that, as the Faithful Son of God, he had to finish his work of shedding his blood for the sins of the world.
Your Savior has touched your ears with his Word.  He now comes to you and touches your tongue with his body and blood.  Through his Word and through his Supper, your Lord says to you “Ephphatha” … “Be opened.”  He forgives you, frees you, releases you from the bondage of your sinful nature that makes you deaf and that ties your tongue in knots.
  Now you can listen with your ears, hearing clearly, carefully contemplating the Word of Jesus.  His Word continues to dig out the worldly wax that accumulates and clogs up our ears.  In confession and absolution, we get a spiritual Roto-Rooter job for both our ears and our hearts.  His Word today cuts through the noise that would drown out the forgiving voice of our Lord Jesus and cause us to doubt his love and compassion toward us.
His “Ephphatha” … his “Be opened” … also gives you a voice.  You may not be the world’s most eloquent speaker, captivating audiences with your wisdom and charm.  Remember, as Pastor Stiles said, “Awkward is better than silent.”  The honest, stammering voice that delivers the simple Gospel message is just a powerful as any Lutheran Hour radio speaker or superstar megachurch pastor.
Besides, it’s really not your voice that is doing the work.  No, I’m not saying you are “channeling Jesus” like some bizarre New Age cult leader.  What I mean is, when you speak the Word of Jesus, when you witness to others what Jesus has done for you, you are serving as his ambassador, and the Holy Spirit goes to work and will convert other deaf and dead hearts when and where he will.
Oh, that I had a thousand voices
To praise my God with thousand tongues!
My heart, which in the Lord rejoices,
Would then proclaim in grateful songs
To all, wherever I may be,
What great things God has done for me. (LSB 811)

Well, the fact is, we each have only one voice.  But with the message of the cross in our ears and on our lips, it is a powerful voice.  As St. Paul wrote in Romans 1, “It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:17).