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Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2018

Merry Christmas to you and your families, from all of us at Redeemer, and may God bless you in the New Year!

I have a question for you this evening. Do you have a big heart? Can it get bigger? Can we expand our hearts, make them bigger, as big as God’s heart? The answer is “yes”—in faith.

 

Now, before you go reaching for your pulse, I’m not talking about your physical heart. No, I’m talking about your heart of hearts, the spiritual center of your being. It that mysterious place, unique to you, somewhere between your mind, your conscience, and your desire, where all three intermingle. 

 

Mary is our role model here.

 

In tonight’s Gospel reading from Luke, we are told how she responded when the shepherds came and found her, with Joseph and the baby, in the animal shed behind the inn.  With irrepressible excitement, they told her, and all who would listen, about the angel’s words: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Mary’s response was muted: she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

 

In other words, her heart is getting bigger. This process began 9 months before. Then, the Angel Gabriel had appeared to her and said that her baby would “be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

 

Later during her pregnancy, she visited her cousin, Elizabeth, who was also pregnant with John the Baptist. When Mary arrived, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaimed blessings upon pregnant Mary, and called her the “Mother of my Lord”. In response to Elizabeth’s exclamation, Mary sang a song that came straight out of her heart, a song that has been called the “Magnificat”, after the Latin word used in the song’s first phrase, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

 

Then, on the night of Jesus’ birth, she receives the shepherds’ testimony and she is more subdued. 

Exhausted, but at peace. Others are excited, for they have just been let in on God’s action in the world, and they are excited to speak about it. But mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

 

Here we see a pattern that comes into play because of the incarnation, a pattern in the story that we are to begin to try and live out in our own lives. The pattern exists to get us to step back from our mundane routine, to relinquish the rat race, and instead contemplate the promises of God.  Everyday, then, we are called as Christians to Treasure God’s words, and ponder them in our hearts.”

 

But this involves our hearts in the most serious spiritual work. For in coming to us, to be, to live among us, Christ calls to each of us to stretch our hearts with God’s promises. Don’t let your heart shrink or dry up, but let it grow, let it blossom in love and grace for other people. If the heart can be said to be God’s home, then we are called to add onto it, expand it, let it grow, so that God can fill it.

 

There is a quote from Dorothy Day, who was told by someone that it was too late for them, that they couldn’t make room for Christ in their hearts. She responded: “It is no use saying that we are born two thousand yearstoo late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born to late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts.”

 

This is what we are called to as Christians, that like Mary, Elizabeth, and the Shepherds, we might welcome and even abet the widening of our hearts that God wants for us.

 

Indeed, in the incarnation, Jesus comes as a human like us, a baby, and slips quietly into the openings and fissures of our hearts, and then grow on us, like children do, and not only that, but grow in us, and grows in the world through us.

 

This growth does not come easy.

1. First of all, once we have made room in our hearts for others, when we lose someone dear to us, especially family or close friends, we now have an empty space which they once occupied. This space now aches for filling and healing by God. And wasn’t this the plight of both mothers, Elizabeth and Mary? Elizabeth’s child would someday be executed by King Herod, and Mary’s child would be executed by Pontius Pilate.

2. Second, Christ doesn’t come once to our hearts, but he comes again and again, and with him always he brings the down trodden, the sick, the oppressed, the unfortunate, the destitute, the unjustly imprisoned, the cranky, the needy and the hard to deal with. He stands with them at the door of our hearts, and invites us to make room.

 

In the end, we know that we are not that good or consistent at opening our hearts, and we continually open up only to those with whom we are most comfortable and familiar. But thanks be to God, that ultimately it is God who has be born for us, and comes to be a part of our world, and who has opened his heart to us, and who welcomes us in to hisworld, just exactly as we are—scared, untrusting, feeble-minded, heart-hampered people that we are. God comes to us, is born for us, and welcomes us in to his everlasting kingdom. 

 

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your expanding hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Sermon for Paul Miller's Installation

(Delivered on Nov. 11, 2018, at Church of the Savior, Paramus, New Jersey)

Grace mercy and peace from God and from our lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

First of all, a word of congratulations to Pastor Paul Miller, my past advisee, and friend, and now a respected colleague in the ministry of word and sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Paul, we are so fortunate as a group of clergy and a people of God, to have had you around both through your internship these past two years, adding to our wisdom and work, and now as one among our cluster of pastors in this area of Bergen County. We your colleagues congratulate you, and ask that the Lord Jesus may richly bless your ministry among the people of the Church of the Savior, and among us, your friends in this Gospel work.

 

I also congratulate you, the congregation of Church of the Savior Lutheran in Paramus. You have waited patiently for your new pastor, and have persevered, and now rejoice in the fruition of all your prayers and hard work. Paul’s ordination was indeed a joyous occasion, and I met some of you that day and your joy was evident. Now that we are at the Installation, some of you may be asking, why do we have to do another special service? Wasn’t one enough? You can think of it this way: Paul’s ordination was like the NFL Draft. Paul was picked in the first round, and that was a great thing. Now the installation is like the party at the team club house, or maybe the locker room. It’s’ his official welcome to the team here at Church of the Savior. This celebration is a bit more intimate, and makes it official—this newly ordained pastor has been called HERE, in this community, among these people! The ordination established the Holy Spirit’s call and gave Paul the chance to publicly accept this calling. It articulated the expectations for his service to the church. Today, we get to celebrate Paul’s unique relationship with this assembly of God’s people, the particular group of people called the congregation of the Church of the Savior-Lutheran.

 

We focus on what Paul is called to do here as your pastor, but we also must focus on what you the people of God are to do as well. To help explain the office of pastor, Professor Gordon Lathrop, one of my teachers in seminary, pointed to the writing of Justin Martyr, an early father of the church who died in 165 AD. Justin wrote to the Roman emperor who was persecuting the church, that the pastor’s role entailed 3 main functions: to concern themselves with the book, with the table, and with the collection. 

 

1. the book refers to Biblical preaching and teaching of the Gospel. 

2. the table refers to the proper administration of the sacraments.

3 the collection refers to the extension of the assembly’s ministry to those outside the church, from the nearest neighbor to those half a world away.

 

Christian worship from an early date, is centered on these things, and the pastor’s job is to help the congregation focus on them from week to week.

 

However, this is not the only work that goes on in this relationship between the Pastor and the congregation. For the congregation has its own role to play in every step of this process.  You, the good people of the Church of the Savior, are called to respond to Paul’s ministry. You are called to be a willing flock. And how are you to manifest this willingness in the Gospel?

 

A good example can be found in our second lesson this afternoon from the apostle Paul. He breaks down of the process through which the Gospel is proclaimed in the church. He writes in the letter to the Romans, that the proclamation of the Gospel follows a step-by-step process that starts with proclamation, and then moves to hearing, and then believing, so that finally, we may call on God and be saved.  

 

St. Paul writes, “how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And 

how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15And

how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”

 

It seems straightforward enough, especially since it depends on the individual who is sent. But the real subject of this process is the people, God’s people. 

 

Now, to better understand your role in this process, let us undertake some “mindful reading” of scripture.

 

I take our cue for this mindful reading from Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism. Luther enumerated the Ten Commandments in the Small Catechism, not by simply retelling what the words say. Crucially, Luther imagined the implications of each commandment as he read. Through this mindful reading, and listening, he could take to heart the full implications of the text. So for example, it’s not simply that you are to avoid taking God’s name in vain, or use it to swear, practice magic, lie or deceive, but Luther says, you are to use that name in every time of need. You are to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks to God, using God’s name. And in this way, we see that the commandments are not simply a list of don’ts, but are alive with a list of dos. And the dos are as important as the don’ts. 

 

Likewise, in our mindful reading of St. Paul’s description of the process of proclamation, you should read what he says, and mindfully, prayerfully, understand even more what is implied. You, the people of the Church of the Savior, are not simply to employ this pastor to proclaim the Gospel for you, or at you, or even despite you, but you are to actively engage in this procedure, this process of hearing, listening, and believing, so that you may start calling on the Lord’s name anew every day.

 

Be like Cornelius the Roman Centurion in the 10thchapter of the book of Acts. Even though he was not a Jew, his faith was recognized by God, and he was instructed to send for Peter, bring him to his house, and have his family and household gather around this word that was the Gospel.  They then listened to this word, and heard it, and received it, and then believed the Gospel, and then called on God with words not made of their own will or mind, but with words of praise given to them by the Holy Spirit. 

 

The task set before you, and all children of the Gospel, is that of opening your hearts again and again to the reception of the proclaimed word. Seek out the proclamation of the Gospel with joyful expectation. As you prepare for worship, for Bible Study, for fellowship activities, and service in your congregation and community, invite the proclamation with glad and eager hearts.  Don’t just say, you’re going to church. Say to your family and friends, let’s go to hear the Gospel! Let us go to be fed by the hand of the good Shepherd.

 

And then the next Sunday, like your clothes, rinse and repeat. You are to rise from bed in the morning, and move to the church and say to your pastor, Pastor, preach to us yet again this Holy Gospel from the Lord, so that we might hear the promise of God’s grace and love, that has been given to us freely as a gift, and believe in God and open our mouths in holy spirit praise and supplication!  The preaching and the hearing and the believing and calling out are all the work of the Holy Spirit, singing to itself, in the power of the risen Christ, the song of the praises of the triune God.

 

How are you, Church of the Savior, to call on one in whom you have not believed? And how are you to believe in one of whom you have never heard? 

And how are you to hear without someone to proclaim him? 

And how is someone to proclaim him unless they are sent?  

And, Church of the Savior, today we are all here to affirm together that this humble servant, Paul Miller has been sent TO YOU!

 

And blessed are the feet by whom the Gospel is preached, and also, we might remember the words of Jesus, blessed are they who have ears to hear, and listen! 

 

Finally, we would be remiss to think that this is the extent of our roles in this business of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and responding to it as a congregation.  For, once again, our Lutheran theology reminds us that we are ALL priests of that royal priesthood, which calls on God’s mercy on behalf of our sinful world, and that not only our pastors, but we ourselves, his flock, are called and therefore sent to proclaim in word and deed, the faithfulness of our Lord. 

 

And when we falter, when we tire and lose heart, when we become discouraged--and you will Paul, and you will, people of God--remember that God does not abandon you to your own devices. God will not abandon you to your own unconvincing words and faithless deeds. No, but just when you need it most, the God who raised from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep, will inspire faith in your hearts, just as he inspired in the earliest church the proclamation of the Gospel from which we ourselves have been born. As assuredly as God did it for Aaron and Moses, for Mary and for Peter, and Cornelius, and Justin Martyr, and Luther, and Paul Miller, just as assuredly, God will do it for you and me!

 

To you, the people of the Church of the Savior in Paramus NJ, and to you, colleagues and friends in the ministry of the Gospel, may you be blessed with Spirit-filled excitement to proclaim and receive, receive and proclaim, the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our time, in our communities, in our lives. And may the grace of God which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Sermon, Feb 25, 2017

(This is a shorter version of a longer extemporaneous sermon, given on Sunday, Feb 25, 2017.)


The last Sunday in the season of Epiphany (which lasts from end of Christmas to Lent) always recounts the “Transfiguration of the Lord”.  This event is when Jesus takes three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, up on a mountain, and he is transformed in front of them.  His clothes turn dazzling white, his face shines like the sun, and God’s voice from the clouds declares, “This is my Son, in whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him.”  It’s a picture of the Glory of Christ, but before the end of time.  Another way of saying it is, Jesus as he is in the permanent glory of heaven.  It’s a text picture of who Jesus really is, and a premonition of what we all become in Him (glorified).

 

As a picture of God’s glory, we must ask how this confronts human ideas of glory.  Human glory always involves a vanquished foe.  It usually entails a lifting up, a release of some liquid, and a parade (not necessarily in that order).  Think of the victorious race car driver who jumps up on the roof of his car, pumps his fist in the air, shakes a big bottle of champaign all over everyone, and then drives a victory lap with the checkered flag in hand.  Or the victorious coach or star player, who is lifted up on the shoulders of his team, dowsed with Gatorade, and given a ticker-tape parade in the home city.  All at the cost of some vanquished foe.  Someone’s got to lose, to be sacrificed.  Human glory is what we seek, but God is not to be found in it, but under the form of its opposite.

 

God’s glory, even though it is previewed here in Jesus’ transfiguration, is the undermining of human glory.  Jesus, who is glorious in his essence, puts aside the “glorious” kind of glory—the light, the sun, the majestic voice— in order to go back into the human world, and then is lifted up in shame on an instrument of imperial execution.  Jesus, who is worthy of permanent viewing in heaven, is paraded around Jerusalem carrying his own cross, with a crown of thorns on his head.  He who is the source of life is mocked, derided, spit upon, and as he hangs on that cross, he is stabbed, and his body emits blood and water, a liquid ablution of ironic victory.  And the foe who has been vanquished is—surprise!—not the devil, but Jesus himself.  God becomes the victim, who submits himself to our human derision and rejection.  In Jesus’ crucifixion, God takes human glory and flips it on its head, "working under the form of the opposite", as Luther would say.  

 

Here’s the Gospel message in this puzzling switch.  God takes our desire for glory, our fascination with glory, our attachment to glory, and dismantles it on the cross.  God becomes our victim in order to save us from ourselves.  You and I want glory for ourselves, or to participate in glorious endeavors, or to see human glory embodied in other people or events.  We want glory in our institutions, our nation, our politics (and I mean that in a truly bi-partisan way).  Short of that, we’ll settle for it in our hometown sports team, and our kid’s little league team.  But to win us over, to convert us from our thirst for glory, we must be overcome by God. This cannot be done by God’s glory (which would overwhelm us as we are), but we must be humbled to accept the love of God revealed in Jesus’ shame.  Our hearts must break upon the rock of Jesus’ shame.  Jesus’ presence then becomes visible to us in the humbled and the shame-filled. In that experience, God is truly present.  Then, and only after this, and in the fullness of time, will all who have ever lived be in a position to embrace, let alone endure, the full, eternal, glory of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever.  Amen.

Sermon, Nov 13, 2016

The following is an extended version of a sermon given on Sunday, Nov 13, 2016.  The original sermon was given extemporaneously, and was therefore a bit shorter and less formal, although the basic outline and message remains the same.  –Pastor M. Linderman

 

This is the first Sunday post-election.  We find ourselves in different places.  Some are pleased, or relieved, some are disappointed, angry, even scared.  And after such a contentious campaign, the contentiousness is not over.  There are post-election protests, and post-election acts of hate speech, vandalism, and verbal abuse.

 

Today’s lessons from scripture don’t seem to help the situation.  The first lesson from Malachi refers to the end-times.  Malachi declares that God’s judgment is coming.  Is that what’s happening?!  The Psalm for the day refers to the “victory of the Lord.”  Exactly which victory is that?  And in the Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus warns his disciples about the calamities that accompany the end times. Jesus speaks of wars and insurrections; “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, there will be great earthquakes and in various places famines and plagues.”  Jesus warns of upheaval for the world, and persecution for believers.  In a time of upheaval and uncertainty, these texts do not immediately make us feel hopeful.  More to the point, these texts could easily be misconstrued, or used to support whatever view one has--whatever perspective one wants to preserve.

 

To help these particular texts speak as clearly as possible to us this morning, we have to remember that their tone, style and imagery come from apocalyptic literature.  This is a unique kind of literature in the Bible, exemplified by the books of Daniel and Ezra in the Old Testament, and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament.   This kind of literature is written by and for faithful, religious people who find themselves in dangerous, even perilous positions in relation to the social and political world around them.  Here is a definition of apocalyptic literature:   “Apocalyptic literature uses unsettling language and imagery to assure the faithful that they should keep their trust in God even when facing the most challenging circumstances.”  (from https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3059, accessed 11/10/16)

 

Apocalyptic literature is meant to push us to trust God for all things.   In the Gospel reading this morning, Jesus reminds them what’s at stake, and then goes on to push the disciples to trust in God’s presence:  “Before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify.  So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (Luke 21:12-14) 

 

What an amazing command: do not prepare your defense in advance!  I don’t know about you, but I’ve been defending myself—my vote, my political opinion, my perspective—all week.  I’ve been defending myself to the mirror, to my family and friends, to the people on the television, everyday!  I haven’t been doing much trusting.  What am I to do when my own anxiety, my own views, my own frustration with other people, outcomes, and circumstances, get the best of me?  Where is my trust in God? 

 

This is why we need to take a step back, and focus on God’s presence.  We must strain our eyes and discipline our vision to see what God sees.  We need to look at the way Jesus sees through the grand ideas, projects, and monuments of human beings, and notice how Jesus looks for faith.  Jesus seeks out faith.  God’s harvest in the world is the harvest of faith.  All else that is accomplished in the world, for justice, for peace, for reconciliation, is accomplished by faith.

 

This is why we began our scripture reading this morning with the first 4 verses of chapter 21.  The appointed Gospel lesson today begins with verse 5, with Jesus’s disciples standing in the temple precincts and marveling at the grand architecture, the massive hewn stones, and the adorned porticoes and balustrades.  But Jesus and his disciples have been in the temple for a while, and in the first 4 verses of the chapter, Jesus is already teaching and redirecting our vision away from the building and directing it to the example of faith.  In that scene, Jesus has been watching wealthy people put money in the temple’s collection, and he sees a widow put in two copper coins.  It is, he says, all she had to live on.  Right after this, the disciples start talking about the stones and architecture.  While they see the grandeur of human projects, Jesus is looking in a different direction and sees faith.

 

Thus, not only are our ruminations, thoughts, and vision judged by Jesus’ view of the scene, but we are to see the widow’s act as our opportunity.  She has put in all she had—she is acting in faith!

 

Now we see what God is focused on, and this helps us in the midst of confounding situations and tumultuous times.  What Jesus seeks out is faith, and specifically, faith in the God of Israel.  This is the faith that God has planted in Abraham, that has led the covenant community through the ages, that has inspired the prophets, that has animated Jesus’ ministry, and that we have been asked to affirm in our Baptism.

 

It is faith in the God of Israel that Jesus comes looking for, and which he can see in the places we dismiss or overlook.  We are fooled, especially in times like these, by the seeming grandeur, the hyper-immediacy of our human projects, our national aspirations, our political processes, or our ideological positions.  I do not demean the American project, or the national experiment we call democracy when I point out that it is all relative to God’s in-breaking kingdom.  Indeed, we betray a lack of faith when we act only to preserve our monuments, and forget about the children of God at the heart of God’s righteous kingdom. 

 

We should not be surprised by this.  The vision of the Kingdom of God that Jesus evokes throughout his ministry is announced at the very beginning of the story.  This is in Luke 4: 18-19.  Jesus walked into a synagogue and was invited to give his first public sermon after his Baptism, and he opened the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon, me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

 

This is what faith in the God of Israel envisions: the Spirit inspires our preaching of good news to the poor.  The Spirit proclaims release to the captive, vision to the blind, freedom for those living under oppression.  The church can debate who or which party in our context may be the best example or spokesperson for these positions, but faith in the God of Israel is the critical factor.  This is the measure by which our words and deeds are judged.  Do our words and deeds reflect faith, however imperfect, in the redeeming grace of the God of Israel?  Are we advocating, supporting or doing something that Jesus would see, and say, “There is faith!”?  Or are we doing something that betrays our faith in something else?  That would be idolatry.

 

Can this faith be seen in what we do?  Can this faith be heard in what we say?  Can this faith be reflected in our advocacy for the rights and wellbeing of others?  Can this faith be expressed through our political perspectives?  This is the measure the church holds up for itself and for the world.  If we are not living by faith, but choosing and acting according to other motivations, such as fear or selfishness, we stand judged.  When we act according to faith in the God of Israel, who protects the widow and orphan, who welcomes the stranger and looks out for the oppressed, indeed, who gives faith to fickle and unreliable people as a free gift, we are not being sanctimonious, but are affirming the grace of God that has set us free from our own flawed conceptions and prideful visions.  We are then in the presence of the living God.  And we can trust that presence, come what may.  Amen.

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