Sunday, March 27, 2016

An Easter Sermon

Sermon for Easter Morning Sunrise A.D. 2016

John 20:1-18 and Psalm 118:15-29

Gaven M. Mize

A reading from St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal Homily, “O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.  

The Psalm writer records for us this day, “This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.” What then is the gate? Where is this gate from which the righteous shall enter and do we have the hope? We certainly can say that we have been righteous and that by no means do we have the right to enter through the gate of the Lord. Why then have we gathered today? What did we come to hear and to see? If every footstep we take sinks us deeper into the grave, how can we ever walk through the gate of our Lord. The wages of sin is death and we admire our own ability to dig our own graves through that sin. What then shall we say for ourselves? What words can leave our lips that would be a the confession of a righteous man? St. John answers this for us as he echoes St. Paul, “O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns.” And so we join our voices to this same confession, “Christ is Risen, He is risen indeed.”

When Advent comes around we enjoy putting up our nativity images.  We place outside the church here the scene where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph confess to the community that we have reason to celebrate here at Augustana. And we make sure that the shepherds are just in the right place and the angels are flying overhead to proclaim that God has done the most marvelous thing; He has become man. And we love those angels. Because those angels are a symbol of hope and a promise not yet fulfilled, from God. And today we see those angels once more. This time they are not bringing the good news of great joy that Christ has been born into the flesh, but rather that He is the first born from the grave. There the angels sit, two of them, where Jesus is supposed to be.  The angels sit where Christ’s body once laid; where we should be laying.  But, there is no body here. There is no cute baby in a manger. There also, is no destroyed body that we cleaved by the cross.  There is simply no one there. Then those same Angels, sitting at what men thought would be the final resting place of Jesus, ask, “Why are you crying?” But, the one who would answer her next hangs our entire salvation, Christ, alive; death, crippled; Hell, overthrown.  “Who is it that you are looking for?” Christ asks.  Who, indeed?

What Mary heard next was the confirmation of all of it. The law and the prophets. The tree of death in the Garden of Eden has been replaced with the tree of life. Mary hears her name. And we, who fight so hard by our own sin against God, what do we hear? What can we expect for all of our hurting and begrudging against God and one another? We are not righteous to step foot toward the gate of the Lord. And we certainly should not be standing here looking at the Angels in the tomb that holds no blessed body. For this tomb is holy ground sanctified by the body of our Lord and our feet are filthy. But our Psalmist also reminds us that God has become our salvation. There we stand with nothing to offer God except for an empty tomb.  And that is the point. We have nothing to offer; but Christ has offered it all. The cross was filled with the body of our Lord, so that the tomb would be left clean. And the death that the tomb was mean to hold now holds nothing but the proclamation that the Lord has risen for you. Your feet are dirty and your hearts are full of sin, also the price has been paid. The righteousness of God has been placed upon you passively and the body that meant to hold nothing but death, now proclaims the same Easter proclamation as the angels. “He is not here; but He is in the font.”

Too often here in this area of the country we are asked, “If you died today where would you go and what would you say?” It is rather simple for us to answer. As washed and renewed Christians we simply point to the tomb and answer, “He is not here. He is risen. But through my baptism, I have been forever connected to the merits of my Lord Jesus Christ. I have died the death of Jesus, but I have also been united in His resurrection. So, for me, as I go to the Altar of the Lord and I call upon the name of the Lord, I will claim nothing except what has been given to me, the righteousness of God Himself. And the righteous shall enter through the gate of the Lord.”

St, John Chrysostom has perfectly pointed out to us all through the Lenten season that Christ is our advocate and our champion over the grave.  Even as we have been contemplative and repentant during our forty day journey our contemplation and repentance has held fast the promise kept by Christ that we have been forgiven. Dear Christians, know that you have been redeemed. You have been washed in the waters of Holy Baptism and have been given over to the grace of our Lord. May the words of St. John become our words on this Easter morning, “Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being raised from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages.” Amen.

In that name of + Jesus. Amen.

Father Mize serves Augustana Lutheran Church in Hickory, North Carolina.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Big Easy Passion

By Larry Beane

On March 20, a major TV network aired a live two-hour musical special from the City of New Orleans, a sort-of pop-opera. The topic of this program was neither football, nor zombies, nor the Kardashians, nor homosexuality, nor the evils of Christianity, nor an advocacy of left-wing politics.  It was rather The Passion of Jesus - presented on Palm Sunday, the Sunday of the Passion.

As surprising as this was, like many people, I was not optimistic that the program would be faithful to the biblical narrative.  I fully expected a deliberately black, gay, or female Jesus – in line with the tenets of political correctness.  At very least, I expected Political Jesus, a Che Guevara figure – but only without the cigar.

Smoking cigars breaks the rules of network decency.

Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a faithful artistic representation of the narrative of Jesus from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday.  This Jesus was not politically correct (he was even white, as was His mother), nor was He politically incorrect (there were no “Make America Great” hats or NRA t-shirts).

Some critics made fun of Jesus’s “look” – being portrayed as a thirtysomething man of today wearing youthful clothes and sporting the haircut of a young guy.  We fiftysomethings would indeed look ridiculous wearing the fashions of a man in his thirties.  But after all, Jesus was not a baby-boomer or Gen-Xer.  His passion, death, and resurrection – the scope of the narrative – took place when He was in His thirties.

Some seemed shocked at the anachronistic nature of the portrayal of Jesus in “skinny jeans” and singing pop songs from the 21st century.  I do find this reaction odd, given that passion plays have taken place for centuries, and Bibles from the days of the Reformation often included woodcuts depicting biblical scenes populated by German peasants in medieval castles wearing 16th century attire.  Moreover, art often engages in license for the sake of communicating the truths of Christianity, such as the intentional unrealism of icons and the use of halos in Christian painting and sculpture.

Still others seemed amused at the lackluster ratings of the program.  Fair enough.  But 25,000 New Orleanians gathered at Woldenberg Park, and thousands of people around the country watched live on TV – again, not a basketball game or a Dr. Seuss musical, not a show of explicit sexuality, nor a celebration of the ugly – but rather a depiction of the passion narrative of Jesus.  To focus on the ratings calls to mind the technique of a prominent Lutheran with whom I was debating a point of theology.  He replied by pulling the statistics on my congregation and using the decline in our numbers to somehow bolster his argument.  It is a manifestation of the Theology of Glory, an implication that bigger is better, and that flagging numbers equates with something being wrong.  Whether one liked the program or not, one would think that Christians living in these dark times would be pulling for the program to be watched by many, rather than smugly applauding that its ratings were not all that great.

One critic complained of Hollywood’s “cynicism machine,” while we confessional Christians – (especially confessional Lutherans) are not without cynicism.  In fact, we confessional Lutherans have three main liturgical gestures: the sign of the cross (done at the mention of the Trinity and as a remembrance of baptism), genuflection (done when receiving Holy Communion and in confessing the incarnation in the Creed), and eye-rolling (done when we encounter non-Lutheran Christians and their piety).  The overall reaction of my confessional Lutheran brethren was a case in point.  Many boasted that they watched only a few minutes and then got on with the more important work of mind-numbing mainstream TV shows and ultimately meaningless basketball games.  Some of the commentary was oh-so-smug-and-superior – nearly calling to mind the reaction of Caiaphas in Jesus Christ Superstar as the disciples of Jesus were singing “Hosanna!”  Yes, indeed, “Thank you, Lord, for not making me like that Roman Catholic or that Protestant!” could well find its way into our prayer books along with the rubric: Here all may roll the eyes. Lutheranal correctness is our very own provincial form of PC.

And while I’m out of the loop on pop music (I did not know most of the songs), I think the musical selections were outstanding.  The frequent pans to the audience – which was diverse in age and ethnicity – revealed that overall they knew the words.  This was not a heavy-metal or country or rap production. Rather the songs – characterized as “elevator music” by one critic – were recent standards of pop culture and transcended the typical demographic boundaries.  Moreover, in using secular music, the often-sappy and shallow contemporary Christian music genre – with its embedded Pietism and bad theology – was avoided.  Secular music contains elements of the human fallen condition: pain, angst, loneliness, betrayal, grief, and death. It also contains themes that, while not explicitly Christian, reflect the Gospel: themes such as forgiveness, redemption, sacrifice, and unconditional love.

One critic lamented that the production could have used Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  Confessional Lutherans would have preferred Bach chorales, Gerhardt hymns, ancient Gregorian chant, and organ fugues.  One critic actually suggested O Sacred Head Now Wounded.  I would have loved it, but again, how would those suggestions have been received by thousands of non-Lutheran people in 21st century New Orleans?  In matters of pop music, many of my colleagues (mostly middle-aged white guys from the Midwest) lamented that “our” music wasn’t used.  Again, as much as I might have enjoyed Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden singing a Bach chorale in the original German with a guitar solo for good measure – that might not have drawn 25,000 people and a nationwide TV audience (tepid as the response was).  And how is our beloved Missouri Synod doing when it comes to putting Christ in the public square?  How are the ratings for the equivalent LCMS efforts in this arena?

Other criticism was aimed at the emotional response of the people in the crowd.  Yes, hands raised in the air is not part of our piety.  I would not have behaved that way if I were present. But in this day and age, maybe a little tolerance wouldn’t be such a bad idea.  Our grandchildren may be surrounded not by Christians raising their hands in praise of Jesus, but rather by Muslims kneeling on a rug in preparation to behead Christians of all denominations.  Moreover, this was not a divine service, but rather street theater.  It was not a prayer office; it was a passion play. It seems bizarre to expect non-Lutherans attending an open-air concert to behave like Lutherans in the sanctuary.  As shocking as it may be to my colleagues, I don’t make it a habit to walk the French Quarter in a chasuble.  There is a separation between the holy sanctuary and a public park.

One thing that I thought worked well was Tyler Perry’s use of narration for the crucifixion and the resurrection. One critic complained that there was “no crucifixion.”  Well, it wasn’t depicted visually.  In this day and age of extreme movie violence and explicit zombie attacks, a Mel Gibsonish depiction of the crucifixion would not have worked as well in this context.  Instead, the narrator explained bluntly what happens in a crucifixion.  It was neither sugarcoated nor gratuitous.  One could see that most of the audience was genuinely and raptly listening and intensely reflecting on the words, not unlike the way that we clergy read long accounts of the passion narrative as the Gospel texts on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.  We are not used to listening to a narrative, and it is rather stunning to the modern ears to hear it without a visual prompt of some sort.  That contrast was palpable in the production.

Likewise for the resurrection.  There was no acting out of the resurrection, but rather it was described and explained within the context of its historicity and of the Lord’s victory over death that translates to our own resurrection through the forgiveness of sins won at the cross.

This was unexpectedly good stuff.

Moreover, Tyler Perry clearly referred to Christians as “millions of us” (thus personally confessing the faith) and also to “our personal salvation.”  In a nod to universal objective justification, he said that the “sacrifice is not for Himself but for the salvation of all mankind.”

Another point that was not raised by any eye-rolling critics, Lutheran or otherwise, was the eschatological vision of the cross as summed up by Tyler Perry: “A world without suffering, without death, without end.”

Who could have foreseen such a clear articulation of the Gospel?  Maybe the rubrics don’t call for the eye-roll, but rather the sign of the cross from grateful Lutherans.

There was also a remarkable procession in which a 20-foot illuminated cross was carried through the streets of the city – including through the sleaziest part of Bourbon Street.  Of course, one of the ironies of Bourbon Street is that it is almost entirely populated by tourists.  In other words, it’s not guys from Louisiana enticing girls from Louisiana with beads to try to get them to take off their tops.  Rather, these are typically college kids or conventioneers from Minnesota and Illinois and New York standing on balconies trying to get girls from Indiana and Iowa and South Dakota to disrobe.  Most of us locals avoid Bourbon Street – even as we do love strolling in “The Quarter.”

The program concluded with the resurrected Jesus singing to the crowds from atop the Westin Hotel on Iberville Street.  This is a storied avenue in the history of New Orleans – literally.  Iberville extends from the modern-day Westin at the Mississippi River, pressing north through the French Quarter, intersecting Bourbon Street at its seediest, the remnant and heir of Storyville.  Storyville was the red light district of New Orleans a century ago, where gambling and prostitution were permitted.  Iberville makes its way north of the French Quarter, traversing Basin Street (of the Basin Street Blues fame) and into the Storyville of old. There, Iberville Street boasted of brothels, with names and addresses published in a “Blue Book” – a guide that did not list the prices of cars, but rather the descriptions of the prostitutes.

Our beloved City of New Orleans has survived changes in government, riots, revolutions, military occupations, booms and busts, and hurricanes.  Through it all, we have risen from the ashes to new life.  We are a place of bordellos and churches, of nightclubs and convents. We know the meaning of simul iustus et peccator.  And while it is easy for most of the country to roll the eyes when Hurricane Katrina is mentioned, we still make the sign of the cross here.  We are a people of many cultures and languages, and we are a people with a heritage of traditional Christianity with a common history of bearing the cross. To have the risen Jesus portrayed as singing from the terminus of Iberville Street reflects a remarkable theme of final redemption and renewal and resurrection from sin and death.

The critics seemed to have missed that point.

As a sort-of epilogue to the resurrection, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band played When the Saints Go Marching In.  And rather than being a paean to pampered gazillionaire football players, this song was sung on this Palm Sunday night for its ecclesiastical eschatology.  The genre of jazz originated in New Orleans, as euphemistically-named “professors” played the piano and sang with abandon at the Storyville brothels.  Jazz melded with other musical forms to become rock, R&B, rap, country, and modern pop. There is something fitting in the music of brothels being transformed and renewed to be a vehicle for the narrative of the cross and the resurrection.

Thank you to all of the musicians, actors, and production team for achieving something incredible and remarkable.  And thank you to Tyler Perry for his stunning public confession of Christ, a bold and risky thing to do for someone in the modern entertainment industry.

But I do look forward to that forthcoming production from my eye-rolling brethren that will correct the deficiencies of The Passion and achieve better ratings.  Really, I do.

Here all may roll the eyes.

Friday, March 25, 2016

A Good Friday Sermon

Sermon for Good Friday – 2016

John 18:1 – 19:42, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, 2 Corinthians 5:14-21

Larry L. Beane II

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen. 

When God created all living things, and everything was good, when there was no death, no pain, and no suffering, there was something miraculous hidden inside every breathing animal and both human beings who then lived.  Nobody ever saw it, and yet all had it.  It delivered life to every cell in the body and converted the oxygen in the air into the very things needed by the living creatures for metabolism.  It ran like a flawlessly flowing river throughout the intricate canals in the body.  To this day, each person has tens of thousands of miles of navigation within the body, and somehow, this life-bearing substance, called blood, is channeled in the exact right amounts to the exact right places.

Nobody ever saw blood until the fall.  Not animal blood.  Not human blood.  The first blood to be seen was sacrificial blood, when God Himself shed the blood of animals to make garments to clothe the shame of Adam and Eve.

The harmony of the world was ruined.  Man feared God.  Animals feared man.  Man feared animals.  And all living creatures feared death.  The sight of blood outpoured was an appalling sign of mortality and impending death.

And when the world only had four people on it, one brother shed the blood of the other brother.  And when this bloodshed happened, God said, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.”

The result, the wages of all of this sin, is death itself. Bloodshed begets bloodshed.  And that which was once hidden and beautiful in its godly form and perfect function became open and exposed and horrific to see.

The history of man, and even the history of nature apart from man, is a blood-soaked narrative of violence and death.  And even when someone dies more or less peacefully, the blood stops flowing, the cells wither away, and the spirit flees from the body.  The blood clots and rots and eventually returns to dust: “Remember, O man.”

And since the wages of sin is death, God in His mercy, provides for us.  He established a system by which the blood of innocent animals could be offered as a payment for the sins of man.  And while more bloodshed doesn’t really improve the situation, it pointed forward to a day – a Friday, to be more precise – when a blood would be shed that would cancel the debt and settle the blood-score forever.

For under the old covenant of animal sacrifices, the world continued its spiral into increasing debt of sin and death.  The deficit became greater with each passing generation.  What was, from the start, a debt that man could never pay was to become so astronomical that a kind of bankruptcy was called for.  There needed to be a settlement between creditor and debtor.  There needed to be forgiveness.  But the bill still had to be paid by someone else.  The blood of bulls and goats could not do it.  The blood of sinful humans could not do it.  The staggering cost could only be paid by the blood of God.  But how to shed the blood of God?  How to sacrifice God?  How can God die for His creatures whom He loves?

This, dear friends, is the mystery of the Trinity.  Jesus is God’s Son, and yet He is God.  Jesus is eternal as God, but is temporal as man.  And in His divine human body He sheds His divine human blood.  He pays the cost – from the sins of Adam and Eve, from the injustice of those first animal sacrifices, from the first murder of Abel by Cain, from the injustice of all the wars and all the crimes and all the martyrdoms of the innocent and the retributions of all the guilty in the history of the world – past, present, and future – combined.

Jesus came into our world to be the Lamb that is not merely a Lamb but is a Man; a Man who is not merely a Man, but is God; a God who is not merely a God in Spirit, but a God with a beating heart and with arteries and veins and a body pulsing with blood – pure, innocent blood such as the world has not seen since the creation itself. “Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth.”  But He opened His veins to shed His blood.

And this blood, His blood, the blood of God in the flesh, was offered at the cross, shed, spilled, and poured out upon the earth.  His blood covers all men and their children, like the blood of the Passover Lamb painted like a cross above the abodes where the faithful dwelled to protect them from the angel of death.

The Lord’s passion is a gruesome and bloody account.  The miraculous blood that was to remain hidden inside of all people was shamelessly exposed in order to offer redemption to all people. The blood designed to travel within the body as a life-force now travels through space and time, delivered by faith, to people around the world, through tens of thousands of miles of navigation traveled by preachers of the Good News that because of the blood of Christ, your sins are forgiven and your death is but a temporary annoyance.  For because of the payment of the debt, we have seen a “ministry of reconciliation” between God and man.  The debt is paid in full.  We will live forever, and this new life of the new creation is restored by the very blood of God.

And what’s more, dear friends, this blood is hand-delivered to you by God Himself through messengers all over the world.  This blood is not gory and appalling, but is sweet and given to you to drink as the fruit of the vine, served with miraculous bread that is the very body of Christ, a restorative of life and a cleanser of our polluted and death-laden blood.

This is how it is that a day of blood is called “Good Friday” by Christians around the world.  On this day, the lost goodness of creation was restored.  The goodness of pure blood, something unknown to the world since the fall in Eden – emerged anew as a payment for the sin of the world, and that same blood was made available to you in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

And though we still sin, we have sorrow and repentance and forgiveness – the “ministry of reconciliation” – delivered in the blood of Christ.  And though we still die in this flesh, we have the promise of the “resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” by means of the blood of Christ.  And though we continue to live in a world of bloodshed and disharmony, we have the blood of Christ and the command to share that blood with our fellow sinners and mortals, so that they too may join us, with cleansed hearts and with divine blood coursing through our veins, on that day in which we rise from our graves, even as we look forward to the remembrance of the Lord’s resurrection that followed on the Good Sunday after the Good Friday.

Let us receive this miraculous blood and this life-giving body of Christ in wonder, awe, and joy.  Let His blood be in us, on us, and pleading for us with every beat of our hearts as we are cleansed by the very good blood of God unto eternal life.  Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Father Beane serves Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, Louisiana.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Out of the Barn!

The Easter issue of Gottesdienst is out of the barn, and running as fast as it can. No guarantees that it will arrive by Easter, since Easter is so early this year, but it is trying its best. If it doesn't reach your door by Easter, at least it should during Eastertide. That is, assuming you are a subscriber. Here are the highlights:

Gottesdienst Vol. 24, Number 1 (2016:1). 
Our 93rd issue.
Ash Wednesday                 Raymond D. Parent II
Funeral Sermon                 Jeffrey B. Hemmer
Good Friday                        Jay W. Watson
Good Friday                        Chad D. Kendall
Easter Vigil                         Ronald A. Stephens

Liturgical Observer - Burnell F. Eckardt Jr.
Easter Sunday and Eastertide
TLH at Seventy-Five: A Response
On Unworthiness 

Commentary on the War - David H. Petersen
What Is Reverence?
Gracious Presiding, Part 2 

Taking Pains - Mark P. Braden
The Chancel Lamp 

Sabre Goes to Rev. Charles Wildner

   See Jesus
The Blessed Widowed Mother
For Jesus’ Sake
The Sign of Jonah
On the Seventh Day - Kathryn Ann Hill

Musing on the Mysteries - Karl F. Fabrizius
Sign of Death, Sign of Life
Genesis 9:8-17 

Insert: Gottesdienst St. Louis Coming Up May 17th. At press time we did not have confirmation that Synodical President Rev. Matthew Harrison would be attending, but now we do. Details here.