Homily for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Our sermon text this morning is the lectionary reading from St. Paul’s epistle to the
church in Rome.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Dear brothers
and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, we have an extraordinarily rich tradition of
hymnody in the history of our Evangelical Lutheran church. The best, in fact. And I think
that bold claim can be easily, skillfully borne out. One need only peruse our present hymnal
for proof of its veracity. I mean, the Lutheran chorales, right – c’mon. It doesn’t get any
better than that. They are without equal. But I tell you what, my favorite hymn of all, my
most beloved hymn, it wasn’t even written by a Lutheran, I have to confess. Not even. And
actually, for whatever reason, it did not make the cut for the Lutheran Service Book
currently in our pews. You won’t find it in there. Which is a pity. But it was in the old
Lutheran hymnal some of you may have grown up with, the affectionately so-called TLH,
that glorious hymn book – and we actually sang it together just now. Hymn 533 – Nearer
My God to Thee. Now this isn’t a theologically dense hymn, to say the least. No, it doesn’t
share the same conceptual depth as the unparalleled hymnody of Martin Luther, Phillip
Nicolai, Paul Gerhardt, and so many others. And to tell you the truth, it wasn’t even written
by an orthodox Christian either, but by, of all people, a nineteenth century Unitarian by the
name of Sarah Fuller Flower Adams.
Yet none of that really matters, if you ask me. It is nevertheless a Christian hymn that
truly moves those who really hear it. Particularly when set to that of old tune Bethany we
know so well. It is so simple. It is so unambiguous. It is almost childlike. It is childlike, in
fact. It expresses in very plain terms that blessed hope that only a child could ever rightly
articulate without all the pretensions of the supposed maturity of adulthood. There is a
reason, dear friends, why the string ensemble on the Titanic reportedly played this very
hymn as that poor vessel sank along with over fifteen hundred souls in the North Atlantic in
the spring of 1912.
At first the ship’s ensemble played lighter, less serious melodies, so the story goes, that they
wouldn’t cause any more of panic than the iceberg itself already had. But when reality
finally sat in, when their collective fate became clear to most, this unadorned little hymn on
violin and cello is what they turned to for comfort – right before the end, as they met their
Our faith, friends, as mysterious as it may be, and as profound as its theology no
doubt is, our faith is not really all that complicated though. Brothers and sisters, unless our
dear Lord returns first, every one of us is going to die someday. I know we don’t really like
to think about that overly often or bring it up in polite conversation. Not in the twenty-first
century, anyhow – not in America. Even us Christians, we don’t wish to dwell on it too
much – because that would just be morbid and morose. I get it. But that doesn’t change
anything though. Denial doesn’t do away with the consequences of the fall. That’s not how
it works. Until the arrival of the Last Day and the resurrection of the body promised us, we
come from dust and earth and to dust and earth we’re gonna return. We will all keep
growing older and frailer. And one of these days, hopefully far off when we are all of a ripe
old age, a day will come though when we will each close our eyes and go to sleep, in the
eyes of this world, forever, yet in reality but for a little while. We will pass from this vale of
tears for good. That is our fate. That is our future. Six of our closest friends and family will
lower us into a bed below six feet of God’s green earth, our bodies will be buried beneath
common dirt, and we will be, for a time, elsewhere. That is where our lives are headed.
That’s the reality. It is. And we have to be honest about it.
You know, I used to sing this hymn to my eldest daughter, Freyja Lynn, every night
when she was in the womb. And then after that too, for quite a long time. I don’t know that
she really recognizes the words even now, but she certainly knows the tune. She clings to it
in some sense. And the other day, as I was gathering hymns for this Sunday, I sang this one
to her on the couch for a moment. And lured by its familiarity, she hopped up on my lap and
she listened closely, and began to sing along in her understanding of how it’s supposed to
And as we sat there together, tears started welling up in my tired-for-a-thirty-three-year-old
eyes. You know, I don’t cry very often, unfortunately. I bemoan that fact. I do. I don’t weep
as much as I wish I could – or as much as a good Christian man really should. But that
genuinely brought tears to my eyes. Because as we sang together, I was reminded that no
matter what I do, I cannot protect my daughter nor save her from the same fate we all face.
It is the same heart-wrenching realization I had the very moment she was born and opened
her big blue eyes – a realization about the finale of her worldly destiny. Unless Jesus comes
back first—and I pray, come soon, Lord—unless He comes back first, my daughters, too,
will someday fall asleep, they will die to this world. That is the hardest thing for a father to
ever have to come to terms with. But that’s life – that is a part of our story, as sinners, as
much as hurts to admit.
But for those of us who have faith, there is more to the story, thank heavens. This life
is not all there is and this death is not the end, as we know. Our hope lies beyond, in what
we do not yet see, as St. Paul poetically puts it in our reading this morning. “For I consider,”
he says, “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that
is to be revealed to us… for now, though, we do groan inwardly as we await the redemption
of our bodies.” And as the apostle goes on to declare, it is in that very hope and waiting and
anticipation and expectation that we were once saved and are saved still. In that
otherworldly hope. “E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me; still all my song shall be:
nearer, my God, to Thee.”
Our hope, the answer to our inward groaning, is in the shape of an instrument of
Roman execution. Our hope was birthed from the womb of a man’s painful and bloody
death, the death of a man who more so than any other man ought never to have tasted death
at all. But by His cross, by His unjust yet wholly sacrificial death for us, He overcame the
world, and the devil, and all sin everywhere and for all time – and death itself, He conquered
it just the same. His death put the very power of death to death. So that now we may boast
with the apostle and even mock death’s defeat: “O piteous death where is thy sting? O sad
grave, where is thy victory?” And creation itself groans, too, Paul tells us.
Everything groans to escape its suffering and decay, its shame, misery, and anguish. But by
the death of God on the indignity of a cross, the world also was redeemed. The world is
being redeemed. Now this creation will pass away, that’s true, a burning conflagration will
occur – but a new a creation will arrive in its place. A new world. “Behold, I make all
things new,” so announces the enthroned King in the revelation to St. John. “Wherever there
is death, wherever there is loss, wherever there is pain and heartbreak, wheresoever there is
a carcass or a corpse of what once woefully groaned a sincere groan for relief and hope,
there am I, making all things new.” This our Lord promises.
What is more, this same Lord and King by Whose death we are liberated from death
shared with us a glimpse of the glory to come during His earthly ministry. Didn’t He? He
did so with His best friend, Lazarus. He dried pitiful Martha’s tears and raised His own
confidant from a death-ridden sepulcher. And He did so as well with a little girl once, the
daughter of Jairus, who was probably not too much older than my own little Freyja.
Remember the story, friends? It made it into all three synoptic gospels, after all – you
should. Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, he rushed to our Lord, the evangelists write, and
he begged Him for help, as his daughter was near dying. But Jesus, calm and collected,
consoled him immediately and enjoined him: “Be not afraid, Jairus. But only believe. Take
courage and believe,” Our Lord said. And in the narrative, Jesus followed them back to the
synagogue leader’s home where they were met with great weeping and wailing – for the girl
was already gone, you see, she’d passed away while they were on their way, or so it seemed.
And yet our Lord comforted the crowd upon entrance: “Why do you weep? This child is not
dead, but merely asleep.” He then went over to the bed where the dead girl’s body was at
rest and spoke to her confident words: “Talitha koum! Little girl, I say to you, get up!” And
He took her by the hand, roused her from the casket of her childhood bed, and she was
awakened to life again. She was asleep, sleeping the sleep of death, and our God beckoned
her awake and alive. And that is precisely how it will be on the Last Day for us all, friends.
My God will take my daughters by the hand and will say to them with a love only He could
love: “Little girls, arise – get up.”
A kindly, kingly voice will lift them from their deepest slumber. And I’ll get to see them
once again, after what will only seem like a short while. That is our hope. That’s my hope.
And thank You for it, Lord Jesus.
Whatever suffering we now face, whatever opposition and oppression, whatever
heartache, hunger, and haunt burdens our souls, none of it compares to the uplifting glory
which awaits us. At present, Paul writes, our bodies groan for redemption. Our hearts, our
minds, our members, we groan and sigh for that coming day when, as our Lord proclaims in
the Parable of the Tares this morning, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom
of their Father.” Some of us here are younger, some of us older. Some of us have more
physical pains and ailments than others, some more emotional, mental, and spiritual trauma.
We’ve all lost loved ones. We’ve all been forced to speak bittersweet goodbyes. We know
what joy is reserved for the saints when they pass from this life. We recognize and even
confess that indeed precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints. But it still
hurts us so much in this valley below, to have to say goodbye, to have to be apart, even for a
short while, to have to let go. It is the same sadness and aching I feel in my inner being as a
father when I cherish my daughters with hugs and kisses, knowing full well their earthly fate
as sinners. It does grieve us terribly to have to lose those nearest to us someday. Yet we
mustn’t ever forget what all those murmurs, groans, wails, and sighs of sorrow point toward
– they point toward heaven, and ultimately, they point further forward to the resurrection of
the dead, that most anticipated hope. Your loved ones in the faith are now merely sleeping,
dear faithful. Be not afraid, but only believe. Take courage and believe.
And beloved, our God is so gracious, He gives us a taste of the glory to come even
right here, right now. In this meal soon to be prepared just for you, for your forgiveness,
your bodies and souls are not solely strengthened by it, but they are slowly being readied for
eternity through it. This food, this bread and wine, body and blood of a Savior, makes ready
your flesh for life incorruptible, a never-ending communion. It is, as St. Ignatius of Antioch
used to say, the very medicine of immortality, what protects our souls from death, what
prepares our bodies for the physical resurrection.
This is only a foretaste of the feast to come, but even here we savor life without end for a
brief period of time, however much a mystery that is. And all those loved ones who’ve gone
before us in the faith, your parents and partners, your friends and family and fellow
Christians, they, too, commune with you in this place. What happens in this sanctuary may
not look like much to the eyes of the world. But when you kneel here, you commune with
the whole Body of Christ, the church on earth and in heaven, the Church Militant and the
Church Triumphant. We are not alone. Here you are at one with them all – with all the saints
from time immemorial. This side of heaven and the resurrection, nothing at all brings you
closer to God and the faithful departed than this blessed supper. No nearer my God could I
possibly be than in this foretaste of eternity.
So whatever stony grief we now meet, just know that it only lasts for a little bit of
time. That’s the message this morning. It is here now but soon gone. As that chief psalmist,
king David, once sang: “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”
The glory to come, which we catch a fleeting glimpse of within the walls of the holy
Christian church, it surpasses all trial and tribulation here below. Our hardship, however
hard it may be, is nothing in comparison to the jubilation at dawn, to that exultation on the
horizon. All the little Freyja’s of the world, baptized into the name of the only God, one and
yet three persons, will be raised at the end of the age. And mine with them. And all the little
ones of the faithful who fell asleep still in the womb, they’ll be wakened, too. All your tears
will be wiped away, all things made new. Each day we inch nearer to God. And one of these
days, there will be no more distance at all, no separation, no more pain – only rejoicing and
intimacy. In the late nineteenth century, the good bishop of Exeter, Church of England,
Edward Henry Bickersteth, dared to add a sixth and final stanza to Sarah Adam’s famous
hymn. And honestly, I think she would have approved. It reads: “There in my Father's
home, safe and at rest, There in my Saviour’s love, perfectly blest; Age after age to be,
nearer my God to Thee, Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!” All thanks and praise for
our simple faith, our childlike hope, and our truest consolation as pilgrims here in a land of
bitter disappointment, all thanks and praise be unto God forever and always. In the Name of
Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23
Homily for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Dear
brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. “He who has ears let him hear.”
That’s a good a place as any to begin our sermon. Our Lord speaks this imperative in our
Gospel lesson this morning. He says it frequently throughout the Gospels, in fact. You
hear it a lot. It is almost a catchphrase of sorts. I believe it is the most common of all the
phrases He uses. But do not think for a moment that this saying is supposed to be some
figurative language or rhetorical device on our Lord’s part. It is not figurative or
rhetorical in the least but is meant to be taken as quite literal. Remember, St. Paul writes
in his letter to the Romans that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of
Christ.” This is vital for us Lutherans. Faith is worked through the five senses. It is an
empirical phenomenon. It is not just a feeling, an inner spirituality, a therapeutic
religiosity, or whatever other new age regurgitation of what is essentially no more than an
ancient and serpentine enthusiasm, as Martin Luther himself puts it. Rather, faith comes
to us from without, from outside of us, and it comes particularly through hearing, through
the ears, foremost. The content of the faith must be heard or at least perceived in some
way. That is why it is so crucial, dear friends, that you are here this morning. Now I’m
sure you know people who outwardly profess the Christian faith but who moreover argue
that they have no need to come to church. Their faith, so they say, is between them and
God. They don’t need organized, institutional religion and the weekly gathering of the
faithful. Their spirituality is presumably above all that. Well, I’m sorry to have to be so
blunt and the bearer of bad news, but: no, that isn’t even remotely right. Actually, it is
The faith only happens here, within the walls or the very bosom of the holy
Christian church, and in the midst of those listening with their ears elsewhere to what is
being taught, preached, and delivered in this place.
The faith is birthed here in Holy Baptism, it is reared and reinforced here through the
proclamation from the pulpit and by our Lord’s own body and blood – all of which are
based around the words of Christ being spoken, audibly conveyed, articulated in common
language. God’s command spoken along with the waters of Holy Baptism. The Words of
Institution spoken over the elements of bread and wine. Faith comes by hearing what is
spoken, full stop. And you have to be here to hear, be it either physically or at least
electronically. And thanks be to God that y’all are here today. That is significant and a
significant place to start.
Now, in our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus relays a familiar parable – that of
the sower. Christ was resting at the shore of a lake, we are told, when a crowd gathered
round Him on all sides. So He instead took to a boat, rowed it out onto the lake, and then
began to preach to the multitudes on the shore from the vessel. And He shared with them
this parable: “A sower went out to sow,” Jesus says. “And as he sowed, some seeds fell
along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground,
where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no
depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they
withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.
But still other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some
sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.” Our lectionary section today does not
pick this part up, but after the telling of this parable, according to St. Matthew, the
disciples, somewhat confused by what they’d just heard, they ask the Lord for clarity.
“Why, Master, do you choose to speak in parables and seeming riddles? they inquire.
“What’s the point.” And Jesus answers them: “This is why I speak to [the crowds] in
parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they
understand.” This much was prophesied centuries ago, as our Lord notes.
Still perplexed though, the disciples wonder: “Well, Teacher, what does that even
mean and what exactly are you trying to say with this strange agrarian parable you just
relayed?” And our Lord, ever patient and obliging, goes on to explain.
He more or less says this: “That seed which falls along the path is what is heard but never
quite understood. It is that faith the devil destroys before it ever even gets the chance to
find any soil to begin to grow. As for what is sown on rocky ground, this refers to that
seed which does find some soil yet never manages to take firm root. This is when the
faith is received but quickly relinquished, out of fear of persecution or punishment,
discomfort or discomposure, and the way of suffering the faith naturally entails. What is
sown among the thorns, however, is the faith received and rooted, but soon choked out by
the love of mammon and the other luxuries of this fallen world. But then there is the seed
sown on good, hospitable soil which yields much fruit, grain even a hundredfold. This is
the faith nourished and propagated among the elect.”
Brothers and sisters, here is the sad reality though. Most folks fall into those first
three categories in our Lord’s parable. The fruit-yielding seed, the fourth and final
category, it represents but a remnant. To be clear, the seed in this parable is the Word of
God, both Christ incarnate as the Word as well as the written Word, inspired and
preserved by the Holy Spirit, which is steadfastly delivered from the pulpit. But the
predominance of people today, they prefer a different word, don’t they? The world which
sleeps in on Sunday morning prefers a more relaxed, less demanding word. A word that
sounds nicer to the ears and more convenient at the end of the day, but one which on the
Last Day will ultimately be emptied of all meaning, all comfort and consolation. And
some, most unfortunately, they even prefer an outright ugly word, they favor a word
composed of filth and admitted meaninglessness, a black pill, as the kids these days say;
they privilege the offense of nihilism, sheer hopelessness, over against the beauty of truth
and tradition. They would sooner have hedonism than heaven. Whatever it is though, the
world removed from the faith, removed from the church and her walls, is indisputably
ruled by the god of this world, the evil one, who snatches away souls before the good
Word is ever really heard and truly understood.
So that is the seed cast along the path. But what about the seed cast on rocky
ground. Well, how many people do you know personally who were once baptized into the
name of the Triune God, dutifully reared in the faith, but who have not darkened the door
of a church in years? They perhaps were confirmed, had made a public confession of
their belief, and yet currently live as if none of that ever mattered. Their faith, having
taken little root, has been since scorched by the sun, by the heat of the tension between
the Word of God and the false philosophies of this crooked age. “The faith is bigoted,”
they might argue – which you all’ve perhaps been unlucky enough to have heard. Or “all
you backwards, unthinking Christians are nothing but hypocrites,” a recognizable refrain.
Or whatever politically correct mantra they likely learned at university. All these are
merely the sounds of the sun beating down countless degrees of heat on the faith of a
wandering spirit until it withers. And it is entirely heartbreaking. It breaks my heart. It
really does. I speak from experience with some nearest to me. But their faith now, I’m
afraid to say, it is in name only. Considering all that, dear faithful, I must urge you: take
catechesis seriously. Take catechizing your children in a deathly serious way. I, their
pastor, will see them once or twice a week, I hope. But you are with them every day. It is
your responsibility to prevent them from falling away.
Fathers especially, read the Bible with your children. Bring them to church often.
Teach them why it matters to be here and why they ought to be wary of the world. You
want to be a good provider, right? Then provide for their eternal wellbeing. Do your best
whenever you can. It is in God’s hands, of course. And if your best happens to fail, then
don’t you ever beat yourself up over it either. The Holy Spirit works faith, not you. So
don’t you dare dwell or brood on it, that’s only hubris and pride speaking. Having said
that, I do beg you: don’t take this undertaking lightly. Save your children. As St. Paul
tells St. Timothy, by keeping a close watch on the teaching, the doctrine, by standing firm
in the faith and in the Word of God, you will save both yourself and those who hear you.
This applies to pastors, to be sure. But above all, I believe it applies to fathers with their
sons and daughters.
St. Paul furthermore says in our lesson from Romans today that by the Spirit of God we
receive adoption as sons and are thereby able to call our God “Abba, Father, Daddy.” A
name connoting a profound and then countercultural intimacy with the divine. You each
have a loving Father in heaven. You need Him unfailingly. Do you not? And so your
children, they likewise need you, dear fathers. They need you to point them to their
Heavenly Father. That said, tend to them. Be their shepherds, as I know you will.
And then, friends, there is the seed sown on good soil but nonetheless among the
thorns and the thistles. And here is the most unsettling part of the message this morning.
This part of the parable, it may even apply to some within the holy Christian church in
our midst. I pray that’s not so. And perhaps it isn’t. But listen well, little flock: where
exactly are you in this parable. Who are you? Make no mistake, this parable is about you.
It is about me. We are within its narrative. But where do we fall in it? Is there something
in your life that chokes out your faith? Is it mammon, as Jesus suggests? Is it love of the
holy dollar and avarice? Is it the delights of the flesh and self-indulgence? Is it the
coveted attention of others? Is it work or sports, excuses or entertainment? Is it fear?
Laziness? Indifference or callous unconcern? Do you put anything before the faith in
your life? Do you privilege the Word or do you privilege the world? Be honest with
yourself. For the end of the age is approaching, but it is not here just yet. We pray daily
for our Lord’s return, but He is not here just yet. You are still living and breathing. It is
not too late to turn from evil. The seed of your faith has been sown in good soil. In the
Word and the Sacraments. And the truth is, every patch of green earth is going to have
some thorn and thistle. Even the good soil in our parable has a choking weed here and
there. But the question is, will those little weeds, those tiny thorns and thistles, suffocate
your faith? Or will your faith persevere and persist?
All that to say, do not continue in sin, beloved. But repent and believe. Confess
and be forgiven. The Lord of the Harvest will eventually return. And He will judge us
according to the fruit, the grain, we yield. Do you still wrestle with this or that sin? I
wouldn’t be surprised. So do I – constantly. This or that sin. All the time.
But that is precisely why your faith needs regular nourishing, here in this place, that it
may therethrough carry you unto the end, that you may fight the good fight, keep the
faith, and finish the race. That’s why you must keep coming back here. Keep coming to
hear the Word of Christ, by which faith is created and then sustained. If the Word
convicts you of your sin, if you hear yourself in the parable in an unexpected and
unhappy way or if you feel yourself accused by the words of the law preached, then
repent, turn from your sin and be reconciled to your God. I exhort you in this, as your
shepherd, that you would do so. Yet I also know that, like me, you will continue to
struggle even after repentance. You will persist in hurting your neighbor, yourself, and
your God. That will not cease this side of the grave. Not entirely. But your Lord, trust
that He has already paid the price for every last failure, former and future. He has already
covered every single sin with His suffering and death. It’s all been done and atoned for.
As He Himself said from atop an instrument of torture and execution: “It is finished.”
Believe Him. All you must do is confess and receive the gracious forgiveness He
purchased long ago on a cross.
He will heal you. It may be a long recovery. It probably will be. But He will heal
you. In fact, He is presently healing you. He’s already hard at work. He is nourishing
your faith. Friends, He quite literally waters your faith weekly with His very own blood,
in the meal of this most blessed Sacrament. He once shed His blood for you and for your
forgiveness, and now He rains it generously upon you here. The Seed of the woman
foretold in Genesis chapter three found His foreordained soil in a borrowed tomb. He was
buried deep below. Yet on the third day, new life nevertheless sprang forth. Everlasting
life. And He gives that life to you freely. So repent and believe. It is that effortless and
uncomplicated. He who has ears, let him hear, and he who has a tongue and eyes, let him
taste and see. Your God waits for you here at this altar. Your faith needs His body and
blood. The mystery of this meal will make you strong in time. So don’t neglect it or
belittle its meaning.
To be quite honest, brothers and sisters, this is, in many ways, a rather sorrowful
Gospel reading. It is sad that so much seed is seemingly wasted, that so few yield fruit.
But again, faith comes by hearing. Maybe for many, the faith they once heard was seed
cast on infertile or inhospitable soil. This stands to reason, however much a shame it is.
But here’s the thing, there is nothing stopping us from casting more and more seed. And
that, I think, is part of the point of our Lord’s parable this morning. Keep on casting. The
more seed scattered and strewn, the more likely it is faith will eventually sprout forth
somewhere. No one outside these walls is a lost cause. As far as we are concerned, not a
single soul. Not one. Christ bled out for them all. Therefore, keep sharing the Gospel with
them. Keep speaking it to them. Whenever you have the opportunity. They need to hear it
to be brought or ushered home to the saving faith. And if you don’t have the opportunity,
then make it.
I personally have been called to preach, teach, and administer the Sacraments to
you in this place. And in that calling there is the obvious expectation of hopefully
growing the church. We desperately require it. But that is not solely my responsibility.
That is something we each bear. Does it wound and main your heart that someone you
love immensely has cast aside the Christian faith? If so, then use that pain and heartbreak.
Let it give you power and purpose. Sublimate that suffering, dear saints. Do not give up
on those loved ones. The Holy Spirt works faith, this is most certainly true. But God
works through means, too – and you are each one of His means. Keep casting seed. Who
knows what tomorrow will bring. The ravenous birds may well fly elsewhere, the thorns,
thistles, and weeds may happen to dwindle, and the sun may ease off its blistering heat.
Who knows. But there is still time. That we do know. So let us never take for granted
what little time there is. Keep sowing the seed, dear faithful. And the Lord of the Harvest
will reward you and reward you greatly when He does return. In the Name of Jesus.
Homily for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Dear brothers
and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. For nearly a decade now, opiate overdose
has been the leading cause of death for adults under the age of 45, and the leading cause of
preventable death for all American adults. That is a startling statistic. Painkillers are now the
primary killers. Citizens of this nation, especially so many young people, are rushing toward
the doors of death for the sake of some semblance of relief. This, friends, is a pandemic. And
one we aren’t even remotely addressing properly. But it isn’t just the opiates, of course. Now
is it? It’s the overconsumption of alcohol, of overprocessed foods. It’s the 24-hour news
cycle. It’s TikTok and Instagram and Facebook and the other high-tech dopamine dealers.
It’s pornography and a vulgar culture. We crave distraction, diversion, chemical consolation,
and respite of all sorts – but respite from what exactly? I don’t know that most of us actually
have any idea. What are we running away from? What are we trying so desperately to numb?
And what, deep down, what are we really attempting to solve with all this?
You know, there is this cliché. I’m confident you’ve heard of it. Where any younger
person speaking to an elder is inevitably told about how much more difficult it was back in
the day. An ornery grandfather, for instance, says: “Well, son, you see, in my day we had to
walk fifteen miles one way barefoot in the snow evading bears and bobcats and heaven
knows what else just to get to school.” Or something of that nature. And obviously, there is
some truth in the sentiment, the hyperbole notwithstanding. Things have certainly gotten
easier for us Westerners lately, haven’t they? Arguably, a bit too easy. There is the stereotype
about us millennials being so coddled and comforted to the point of being downright
incompetent, after all. The helicopter parenting, the participation trophies – you’ve heard it
all before. But I remember a conversation I once had with my now-sainted Big Momma, my
grandmother, many years ago. We were out on the front porch, just passing the time in
conversation, about this or that, I do not remember. But seemingly out of nowhere—and this
is seared in my memory—she looked at me with an uncharacteristic severity.
And she said straightforwardly and sincerely: “Vincent, I am so grateful to God that I grew
up when I did, way back when, years ago. Life may have been harder back then, but really it
was a whole lot easier.” I think I now know what she meant by those profound words. We’ve
got all the creature comforts of the world at our disposal in 2023. But we aren’t any happier,
are we? We aren’t any more fulfilled or relieved than back then. And we aren’t really any
less burdened. And maybe that is where the obsession with excess, with drugs and alcohol
comes into play, and the other numbing agents and the addiction to insatiable lust and the
biased news that only serves to rile us up and the hours of useless video reels and the
algorithms manufactured to keep us clicking and whatever other mindless distractions. None
of these things actually solve the problem that lies at the heart of a man. And none of these
really ease a woman’s burden. The painkillers do not kill the pain for long, friends. After the
comedown, the painful burden only intensifies. Dear faithful, we have been looking in all the
wrong places. And we continue to do so, particularly as a nation. But as always, the answer
is right in front of us, too plain and too simple and too lowly to even recognize. And yet,
doesn’t our God always hide the very best of things in the lowliest of places? I mean, our
church is literally called Bethlehem. We ought to know better than any.
In our Gospel lesson today, we hear perhaps the most comforting words our dear Lord
ever uttered during His time on this earth. “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden,
and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and
lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is
light.” After the heavy law of last week’s text, this here is a genuine respite – it is pure
Gospel. God created the world in six days and on the seventh day He rested. But in a span of
time we can only imagine was relatively short, Eve was deceived by the serpent, by Satan in
the trees, and Adam tasted of the forbidden fruit along with her. Mankind fell into sin. And
every man and woman born after our primordial parents bore the weight of their fall from
grace. However, God had a plan. He never fails to have a plan. God is indeed gracious and
merciful. He set aside a people. He directed a lineage. He sent a Son. A child born in a
nowhere town, the epitome of lowliness, called Bethlehem.
The God Who created and sustains all things, out of a deep and wide love for man and a
desire to be with him and a desire to save him from himself, God condescended to be birthed
by a virgin peasant and made His home in swaddling clothes in a manger. He grew up, like
other men. He entered His divine ministry. He taught, healed, forgave, and led. And He was
betrayed, was arrested, interrogated, beaten and mocked, nailed to a tortuous tree and then
left to die.
The burden for God was heavier than anything, weightier than the universe itself.
God’s burden, His yoke was the totality of our sin, every evil thought, intention, and action
from the dawn of time until the consummation of the age, it rested on His divine shoulders.
Christ’s burden was the death of God at Golgotha, the place of the skull. Then a burdensome
rock was rolled against His tomb, and it was thought for good. But on the third day, that
pitiful stone was rolled away. Our God, having died, rose again. And what He purchased on
Good Friday and secured for all on Easter morning was rest. A new and everlasting Sabbath
rest. An easy yoke, a light burden, a gentle and lowly path for all who have grown tired and
weary of the weight of sin and death, for all heavy laden with the consequences of suffering
and loss and the heartbreaking brevity of this passing life. That rest, that redemption, that
respite, it is bound up with a forgiveness won on a cross. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus
beckons us to Himself, that we would be rescued from the oppressive heaviness of this life
and the cruel denseness of our own darkened hearts. The rest He offers is eternal rest from
what we no doubt selfishly wrought and justly deserved – final and unending punishment.
But He took all that away – He takes all that away. Washes it away with His blood. It is that
simple. In Christ there is peace and relief from the momentary pains of this existence and the
promise of never-ending blissful communion with Him and with all the saints who’ve gone
before us – and a resurrection in glorified bodies, a new heaven and a new earth, both
without end. What Good News to hear this day and every day. How on earth could anything
at all ever bother or burden us again in light of this surpassing hope and irresistible promise?
But brothers and sisters, you and I have both heard this text before. We know this
reading all too well. And yet, we forget it or we neglect it or we lose faith in it. How do I
know that, you may wonder?
Well, because of our many idols, on account of all our vices, our sins and distractions, they
tell it all, the whole story. Maybe we aren’t personally victims of fentanyl addiction, but
every one of us has his or her own unhealthy distractions and diversions, spiritually fatal
methods of desensitizing our sadness and shame. Do we spend even half of the time in the
Bible that we do on our smart phones, for example? Do we? I know how often I don’t, and
I’m in the business of God. Or maybe for you personally it is petty beauty parlor gossip,
what’s socially acceptable but is nevertheless calumny and the demolition of a neighbor’s
dignity and reputation, nothing but tearing down rather than building up; or maybe it’s a
workaholic mentality that, let’s face it, has more to do with unbridled pride than a
wholesome passion; or perhaps it is the wandering eye of a husband or a wife’s compulsion
to incessantly criticize; it may be gluttony, vainglory, greed, wrath, the bottle, apathy, or the
internet. How much of your day is spent with Christ and how much is wasted with the
intrusion of wicked habits and creature comforts that do nothing at all but discomfort your
soul? But you’ve read these verses before, haven’t you? Christ’s yoke is easy, is it not? Then
why do you run from it? Why do I seek rest and solace elsewhere? What is wrong with us?
Well, dear faithful. St. Paul tells it like it is, as usual. He explains it so well to us this
morning. “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…
[because] in my flesh I serve the law of sin.” Now I have the desire to do good – I imagine
you do too, beloved. But so often, that isn’t what we do. We fall back into our bondage to
sin. The old Adam in us gets the better of us. The devil and the world keep us mesmerized
with what stokes our pride and feels pleasurable in the present. And so, we give in. We fail
our God and scamper elsewhere, even aimlessly, looking for love and peace and hope and
rest in all the wrong places. Because again, friends, we are still amid that baptismal life this
side of glory – we are yet soldiers in the Church Militant on earth, currently at war against
our lower selves. But you know what, Jesus, He knew all this as He hung in agony at
Calvary. He knew we would keep on sinning. He knew we would reject Him by our actions
and ugly deeds and that we would constantly turn to worldly things for relief. And despite all
that, He remained on the cross unto death. He imbibed and swallowed whole that cup of
bitterness and sorrow. He knew He would have to keep on calling us prodigal saints home
again and again, beckoning us to return to the safety of His bosom.
And still, He went through with it all for the sake of a deep and wide love – for our sake.
And so, our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Mother Hen, continues to gather Her wayward chicks
under Her protective wings. We stray and He nonetheless finds us, turns us round, directs us
back to His easy yoke, His light burden, the way of forgiveness and salvation and
You heard that right, friends: sanctification. What St. Paul conveys this morning is the
earthly fate of all sinner-saints. We will keep messing up, we will continue doing what we
hate and failing to do for what we love. As I said last week and will say again and will
without doubt say many times more, this baptismal life, it is ongoing and continual,
repetitive even. It may seem Sisyphean, as it were, and even pointless at times, like nothing
ever changes, as if our pet sins always remain our pet sins, the demons and devils on our
backs. However, dearest friends, our sanctification, our being made holy, it is not a flat
circle. It is not a flat circle but a heavenward spiral. Now maybe that spiral is inching
heavenward a bit too slowly for your liking. Maybe you’re even nauseated by the spin of it
all and the recurrent returning to the same sins again and again. But the Holy Spirit has got
you. He has you. You are being conformed to the image of Christ, whether you see it or not.
Trust this. When you bear His easy yoke, you become like Him, however incrementally. It is
happening, I promise you. Do not lose heart.
So brothers and sisters: let’s say you’ve messed up once again. Perhaps you’ve
forgotten again how easy the yoke of forgiveness is. You’ve very likely sinned many more
times than you could count since last we gathered here. But that’s okay. Confess it. Let go of
it. Be unburdened of it. Be forgiven. And then come right up here, with me and all these
other sinner-saints. Come be strengthened, be sanctified in this here meal. Do you want
genuine relief from your pain? Do you want rest from your labors? Do you want freedom
from your shame and medicine for your broken heart? Then join me up here at this altar rail.
The comforts of this life are so fleeting. And too much of them can end in death, both
physical and spiritual. But our Lord’s rest is everlasting. His comfort never ends. And if you
don’t believe me now, just on come on up here and taste and see for yourself.
“Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke
upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for
your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.” What a joy it is to be a Christian.
What reassurance and consolation and solace are found in forgiveness. Therefore, I implore
you, dear little flock: Go and tell that to the world out there. This is such good news, far too
good to keep it to ourselves. All thanks and praise for this good news, our sole salvation, be
unto God, forever and always. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Homily for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “Do not think
that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For
I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a
daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own
household. Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and whoever
loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And whoever does not take his
cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever
loses his life for My sake will find it.” Dear brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus
Christ: what a Gospel text for the first sermon from a new pastor. New to you and new to the
ministry. I reckon the phrase “trial by fire” might apply here. Now I’ve had a few weeks to
look over the reading, thankfully. But I have to admit, at first I was kinda petrified. This here
is one of those “hard sayings” of our Lord people always fret about. One of the hardest in the
New Testament. A difficult teaching. It’s not really one you’d eagerly volunteer to begin a
ministry with. But alas, this is what the lectionary has given us. And you know, the more I
thought about, the more I realized that this is in fact the perfect reading for this Sunday, for
my first Sunday in this pulpit, for our first Sunday together as congregation and pastor. It is
altogether fitting, and I pray you’ll soon see why.
Now the reading continues, of course. Verse forty: “Whoever receives you receives
Me, and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me.” These words were spoken by our
Lord to the twelve disciples as He sent them out to the lost sheep of Israel, giving them the
authority to drive out unclean spirits and to heal the sick. He sent them out with an authority
divinely instituted – and with a purpose bound to the will of the One Who sent Him, the will
of the Father. And as you’ll recall though, further along in our narrative a bit, following
Christ’s death and resurrection, our Lord visited His disciples once again when they were
locked behind those closed doors for fear of the Jews. Remember? In that locked room when
our Lord miraculously appeared to them after His resurrection, He breathed upon His
disciples, as St. John tells us, and said “Peace be with you.” It’s how He greeted them.
Our Lord did in fact come to bring peace – He did bring peace – He does bring peace to the
earth. Then and there in that room with His disciples our Lord instituted the office of the
Holy Ministry, handing over the keys, as it were, giving His disciples the authority now to
forgive sins. He brought them literal peace and then sent them out with that very peace, with
the Holy Spirit breathed upon them, to all nations, to forgive sins. You see, that peace which
surpasses all understanding we so often hear about, that peace is inseparably linked to the
forgiveness of sins, that forgiveness which was won at Calvary by our Lord’s painful passion
and death for the sake of an undeserving world. But in that locked room, when our Lord gave
His disciples the authority to proclaim His peace by forgiving sin, the wages of which is
death, Paul says, for which all sinners are fated, He also gave them the authority to retain it –
to withhold forgiveness from all who refuse to repent, who decline to believe. It is the same
office of forgiveness though. It is the same Gospel of redemption and reconciliation in both
cases. It is the same message and greeting of peace. But to the fallen world, to a world
steeped in idolatry, to those ruled by the unholy trinity of the devil, the world, and the sinful
flesh, to any and all who cling to what separates them from God, this peace does not seem
like peace at all, but rather a terrible sword.
Dear friends, when we hear this hard saying of our Lord, we must not forget its
context though. Our Lord was sending His disciples out into a world set deliberately against
them. He was warning them that the world would reject their message just as the world
would reject Him – as the world did reject Him. To the world, Christ’s message is a sword,
an instrument of undermining, upending, and destruction. It is the law which convicts and
accuses, which puts to death, as St. Paul tells us in our lesson from Romans. It is that which
divides people, even families. And brothers and sisters, things haven’t changed much in the
intervening few millennia. This message still divides today, centuries later. It is radical,
counter-cultural, always has been, it is the kind of thing that sooner or later will get you into
trouble with the world. And most unfortunately, chances are it is the kind of message that has
already caused division in your own families. What is a present peace to the faithful is a
severing sword to the unfaithful. The Word of God is absolute truth, it is enduring, it is
But as St. Paul also tells us in the Epistle to the Hebrews, this Word of God is moreover a
double-edged sword, which cuts deep like a surgeon, down to the joints and marrow, he says,
opening us up, exposing our sin, our iniquity, our worthlessness. It discerns the very thoughts
and intentions of the heart, Paul explains. The Word does this. And for a sinner, like me and
you, those thoughts and intentions are more often petty and pitiable and impious than good.
So for a world which is fond of the petty and the impious, for a world that loves the self
above all else, which worships money, fame, perversion, and power, for such a world this
Word is an enemy, a threat, a double-edged sword and no peace at all.
And remember as well, to the Corinthian church, St. Paul further declared that “the
preaching of the cross is foolishness to those who perish.” But friends, for those who are
saved, he maintains that it is “the power of God.” It is foolishness and yet the very strength
of the God Who created and sustains all things. It is folly to the world and yet wisdom to the
church. It is a violent double-edged sword and yet a peace which surpasses all understanding.
It is both law and Gospel. Now this is a paradox, to be sure – a true mystery. But in such
things the faith consists. Our faith is based in mystery, in apparent contradiction – in what
surpasses understanding. In what appears ludicrous and even threatening to the world. Our
faith itself intimidates the world out there. As it should. And when threatened and
intimidated, the world, of course, pushes back. We know this all too well. The world
persecutes those who share the Gospel. The world seeks to silence those who preach the
cross. It is guaranteed, more so even than death and taxes: that the world pushes back against
the charisma of the church. But as the sainted author Flannery O’Conner once advised so
well: “you must push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you.” And that’s really
the message of our Gospel today in a nutshell. Our Lord brings a sword only insofar as the
world refuses His peace. When His peace divides families, it is only because loyalties are
already divided. The first commandment is the greatest, beloved. You are to fear, love, and
trust in God above all things, even yourself, even your loved ones, and most certainly this
fallen world. Our fidelity is to the faith, which must always come first. If anything else in
your life should precede it, should come first for you, that thing is, according to Dr. Luther,
no more than idolatry.
Idolatry today may take the explicit form of pride parades, drag shows, and abortion clinics –
and true enough, these are without question cavalcades and temples of idol-worship and
narcissistic decadence. But there’s idolatry in our own lives as well. In our own hearts.
Idolatry is whatever we place before God in our daily lives. And our Lord’s message this
morning is straightforward: “When these things come before Me, you are not worthy of Me.”
Considering that, I urge you—I have to!: push back against the world, friends. Push back
against what gets between you and God, against whatever makes you unworthy. Push back
against whatever is of sin and contrary to the Word of God. Push back.
But know this, too. Know that you will ultimately fail in this. That doesn’t mean you
shouldn’t keep pushing against the age and the world as hard as it pushes against you. But
just know, you will fail. You will stumble. You will give in on occasion and act contrary to
God’s Word. You will unjustly anger your loved ones. You will resent your co-workers. You
will envy your friends. You will lose your temper. You will be greedy with your time. You
will miss an opportunity to stand up for your faith. You will likely skip a Sunday service.
You will be embittered behind the wheel. You will lust after a woman. You will take your
husband for granted. You will neglect your parents. You will let your children down. You
will hurt others. And worst of all, you will put yourself and your many concerns before your
God. In time, these things will happen. Because you are still a sinner. You are both sinner
and saint – redeemed and yet amid a battle under way against your corrupted nature. That is
the baptismal life this side of heaven. And you see, that right there is the other side of the
message this morning. This text is a text about persecution and priorities, about faith
confronting a broken world, it is about sad realities and carrying crosses. But it is just as
much about the office. The office of the ministry, of those sent by the Lord for the sake of
reconciliation. Jesus sent out His disciples and He still does so, He instituted this office for
good, He placed me in it three weeks ago, so that when you fail and fall, when you stumble
and sin, that you might nevertheless be forgiven – because He still loves you dearly, as much
as ever. It’s so that His grace might be delivered to you when you need it the most. When we
put anything else before God it makes us unworthy of Christ. But dear faithful, we were born
unworthy of Him, conceived in original sin. We have never been worthy by ourselves. Not a
day of our lives.
It is only on account of His bitter sufferings and sacrificial death that we are made worthy,
that we are washed clean by His blood. We are only worthy because He makes us worthy.
And that’s an ongoing reality, friends. It is continual. You were made worthy in your Holy
Baptism, when you died to sin and were raised to life in Christ. You are made worthy every
single time you confess your sins and receive absolution, spoken from the lips of a minister
of the Lord and as confident as from the Lord Himself, as Luther says. And most wondrous
of all perhaps, you will be made worthy when you feast on your Lord’s very Body and Blood
in the most blessed Sacrament of this Altar.
Jesus reminds us in our text that we are called to take up our crosses and follow Him
– that we are to be willing even to die for Him, to lose our lives for His sake. This altar rail
here. Do you see it? Brothers and sisters, never forget: in this communion, together, we are
family. To gather around this altar together is to be a family. That is what it means. It means
to love one another. Gathering here is not a mere routine, a nice symbol and gesture. No, to
commune from this altar rail is no different at all than professing to the world proudly that
we here are willing to die for one another. That we are willing to die for our Lord. That we
are willing to take whatever abuse and oppression the world throws at us for our Lord’s sake,
and for the sake of one another. That’s precisely how the early church interpreted Holy
Communion – how those understood it who were faced with the very real threat of pain and
death at every turn. At this rail, we are united with Christ and one another. We are His body.
The world rejected Him and it will most assuredly reject us too. But that is no cause for
concern, because we have our Lord’s Body and Blood for our strength. And we have one
another, for encouragement, for building up, for brotherhood, for sisterhood, for fellowship.
Our Lord makes us worthy at this altar. He does so individually and He does so communally.
He binds us together. We are forgiven together, we’re strengthened together, we are called to
carry our crosses together. And friends, we are called to push back against the world
together. It’s the only way we can.
Jesus Christ, through the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, has placed me in this
office. To be with you, at your side, as one body, the church, together.
I beg you not to think of our relationship so much as pastor and congregation, because there
is only one undivided church, and we are equally a part of it. You and I are the church,
together. It’s that simple. Having said that, our Lord has so chosen to place me in this office
to hand over His grace, to preach His Word and administer His sacraments to you. And that’s
what I plan to do, in season and out of season. When it is welcome and when it is
unwelcome. I will preach the Word, the message of the cross, what is foolishness to that
world which is perishing. And sometimes you may not like what you hear. Frankly,
sometimes I don’t. But dear faithful, that’s that double-edged sword, that’s the law, still
laying bare sin and the death it alone can promise. But I will be right here. With you and for
you. I will baptize children, I will marry friends, I will bury loved ones. That’s what I’ve
been called to do. To walk alongside you in this Christian life, to equip you to be a faithful
witness to the world, and to prepare you each for a blessed Christian death. And I aim to do
just that, the Lord helping me every minute of every day. But know this, too. I will fail at
times. I will undoubtedly make mistakes. I may even sin against you. Because I’m no less a
sinner, and I’m perhaps even the chief of sinners, as St. Paul, too, once confessed. But if and
when I do, I’ll ask for your forgiveness and pray that you will offer it. And God helping me
always, I will be here day in and day out, sharing His forgiveness with you. Because we are a
family beyond division. We are a family brought together by the Holy Spirit and bound
together by the love of Christ and the peace He alone brings, that peace which surpasses all
understanding. Our Lord indeed brings peace to the earth, dear faithful. He is, after, all, the
Prince of Peace. And this is most certainly true. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and
of the Holy Spirit. Amen.