Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sermon 28 August 2016 (Proper 17C; Pentecost 15)

Pentecost 15/Proper 17C              28 August 2016
The Rev. Maurice C Frontz STS     St Stephen Lutheran Church

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Back in the days of the Cold War, American intelligence agents would always pay close attention to the photographs taken of the Soviet leaders in the grandstand at the parades commemorating the October revolution.

Image result for soviet leaders parade

The General Secretary of the Communist Party was always in the center, of course, but he was not the interesting person. Everyone knew that he was going to be in the first place.

The more interesting people were the ones who surrounded him, the ones to his right and to his left, the ones closer to him and the ones farther away. From the position of the people in the photographs, our intelligence services could tell which apparatchiks were most in favor in the Communist party, and who was falling out of favor. They could tell who was on his way up and who was on his way down; who was influential and who was not.

Of course, the ultimate sign that a Party man had fallen out of favor was when the photo in which they appeared was re-touched so that they no longer appeared in the official photograph. Not only had they been jailed, or even murdered, but they had literally been erased from the historical record.

If only the Soviets had known about Photoshop.

In government, at school, at work, there are always people jockeying for position; they are trying to get a higher place and avoid being put down to the lowest place. Often they tear people down in order to build themselves up.  Some of them are ruthless.

But there is a more subtle sort of seeking after position, because if you’re too obvious, you can be called out on it. So there is something these days called the ‘humblebrag.’ It is a way of modestly calling attention to one’s accomplishments or one’s attributes without seeming to. Something like, ‘I really didn’t deserve that award.’

Well, people can see through that, too.

But the point is that we all do this; we all want to put ourselves up, and to do this, it seems often we have to put people down. We do this because we want to be secure, we want to have influence.

Jesus puts the lie to our pretensions. He sees the religious leaders maneuvering for position, trying to take the seats closest, perhaps to the one who is throwing the dinner for Jesus; perhaps closest to Jesus himself.

And so he tells a parable which brings this behavior to light. It is not likely that he ever said anything negative about the people themselves, but the point he makes is clear.

As far as the first parable goes, it is much the same as the reading we heard from the book of Proverbs. We want to avoid being shamed and we want to be honored. To put oneself forward as someone important is dangerous and can lead to being put to shame. As far as the first parable goes, it might be interpreted as simply a more subtle way of seeking honor from other people. Perhaps it is a ‘humblebrag’ for someone to just hang around the circle, to seek a low place, hoping that someone will notice.

Image result for luke 14:1-7


But then Jesus tells another parable, one that cannot be mistaken for a way to get recognition by human standards. By this parable, we recognize that we are not in the realm of human wisdom at all, but God’s wisdom, which turns all human wisdom on its head. Jesus talks about throwing a party not for the important people, as the Pharisee is throwing a party for Jesus (perhaps hoping for a commendation or an endorsement!) but for the forgotten, the handicapped, and the poor. One will gain nothing by doing this. The forgotten cannot improve your position in society. They cannot repay with favors later on. They cannot give you a recommendation for a job or float a loan.

But in doing things this way, one is not looking for human approval, but God’s approval. Maybe a better way to say this is that in doing such things, one is not seeking self, but seeking God.

Perhaps we think that the more religious one is, the less likely one is to do this sort of thing. Perhaps this story ought to make us think again. Jesus told these parables to religious people. The truly faithful among them recognize themselves in the mirror Jesus is holding up to them, and respond not with anger, but with repentance.

This parable isn’t necessarily about parties, either. We will still invite our families and our friends to birthday parties for our children and grandchildren. It is, however, about how we act at work, who we invite to church, who comes to the backyard barbecue, and where a lot of our money goes; whether all of it goes to extravagances for ourselves and those we deem worthy, or whether much is given for the work of God to spread the Word and to come to the aid of those who are in need.

But most of all, in this parable we are led to the heart of God. For we are not only the ones who throw the parties. In fact, perhaps we aren’t the ones who throw the parties at all. Perhaps we are the poor, the blind, the lame, and of course in some ways we are so literally as well as figuratively. We have nothing to commend ourselves, no right to put ourselves forward in the presence of God, to receive honor from him as from a fellow human being. To be in the presence of God is to know our own humanity and to know that humanity as a truly humble thing. No ‘humblebragging’ here, no seeking of self, because when one knows oneself to be in the presence of God, selfhood shrinks to insignificance.

Instead, God comes to us and celebrates his love with us, pouring out his own self in Jesus Christ, saying to us, ‘Friend, come up higher.’ To know this is to know that the honor given us is simply to be clothed with God’s honor, it is to have the selfhood granted back to oneself, not for self alone, but for God.

Here at this celebration, we kneel side by side, not one of us in a higher position than the other. Even those in the center, the pastor and the assistants, are not clothed with self, but clothed with the garments of baptism, and stand in the place of servanthood. At this table, God himself in Christ is the host and the meal. We cannot repay him in any way; we are sent forth to imitate his serving love among all people, empowered by the Holy Spirit. What we experience at this table is the vision for our lives and for all lives.

May God by his grace capture us by this vision and call us to cast away self-seeking behaviors, and instead to seek him in all people. We can do this because we know that Christ did this for us, embracing the cross for our sake, humbling himself so that he, and we with him, would be exalted. Amen

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sermon August 7, 2016 (Proper 14C)

Pentecost 12/Proper 14          7 August 2016
St Stephen Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh PA
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III, STS

I was in the local Wal-Mart a few months ago,
for some reason passing the jewelry desk.
I saw the collection of cross pendants there and stopped to look at it.
I’m not really interested in jewelry, but I am interested in crosses.
In some of the little boxes the crosses came in were short verses.
I leaned down to read one of the prayers, which said,
‘God grant me the courage to believe in my dreams.’

Oh, no.
I wanted to die.
Or, more accurately,
I wanted the person who wrote that to die.
Well, not really die.
Not die as such.
Die to sin,
die to unbelief,
die to creating vapid, atrocious, blasphemous prayers.
Not die, die.

But seriously, how awful is that?
To make the God who created the universe,
the God of Israel,
the God of Abraham and Jesus,
to be a fairy godmother,
a wish-fulfiller,
an enabler of my dreams!
What dreadful ignorance!

So what is faith,
if it is not the courage to believe in my dreams?
Is it the intellectual assent to certain propositions about God,
God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Jesus Christ as true God and true man?
Well, certainly it is that.
But that is not all there is to it.
It is to believe that God is who he is and has done what he has done
in order to bring us into communal and personal relationship with him.
This is why Luther’s catechism does not simply say,
‘God created all that exists,’ but ‘God created me and all that exists.’
‘Jesus Christ…is my Lord.’
The Holy Spirit…has called me.
We are called not to have faith in our dreams, but in God himself,
for the sake of God himself.

The letter to the Hebrews says,
‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’
How is this different from that prayer which comes with the Wal-mart cross,
the prayer that God will help me believe that my dreams will come true?
What are we to hope for?

The hearers of the letter to the Hebrews would have known
exactly what the writer was talking about.
Every faithful Jew would have understood the hope of Israel,
that God’s vision for his people would be accomplished,
that all his promises would be fulfilled:
the day of redemption for all his people,
when they would live secure from all their enemies,
when justice would live among them,
and peace would be accomplished.
Those who received this letter
were faithful Jews who believed
that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ
God had made the promise absolutely sure.
But until the day when God’s kingdom was seen by all,
they were to live by faith in the unseen kingdom.

Abraham was their model and their inspiration.
He was the one that heard God’s promises,
and acted on them,
even though he couldn’t see 
how or when they were going to come true.
Sarah knew the faith Abraham had i
n God’s promises.
She knew that Abraham 
had been listening to God
when he started packing the family goods 
on the donkeys,
and whatever couldn’t be moved was left behind.
She knew that Abraham 
had been listening to God,
when he started coming to bed again every night.
Here was Abraham, believing in the word of his God.
So the Hebrews were to act,
so is every Christian to act,
as if all the promises of God are already fulfilled,
even if the how or when is unclear.

This is why Jesus tells his disciples to get rid of their possessions,
not simply because they will not need them in the age to come,
for if that were all that were true,
we might keep them all
and devote our lives to collecting and improving them until the day we die.
But we are called to reject trust in posessions
because the faith we have in them now
is opposed to the faith in the world to come.
Because too many possessions makes us unable
to hear God’s promise and act accordingly.
Because where we put our treasure in this world
dictates how we live in the world,
trusting in God, or in other things.

It is quite doubtful that many people
dream of giving up self, time, and possessions
in order to hear and obey the command and promise of God!
But this is what Jesus called his disciples to do,
what he calls his faithful people to do.

We are people who are on the way somewhere;
like Abraham, on his way to inherit a land,
like the Hebrews, on the way to an eternal city;
like the disciples, on their way following Jesus.
If we are to get up and move,
in order to be on our way,
we may just need to leave some things behind.

Not exactly the stuff of
‘God grant me the courage to believe in my dreams!’
But maybe, just maybe,
if we change just one word,
we could have a good prayer;
a God-fearing prayer, a God-pleasing prayer.
What if we prayed,
‘God grant me the courage to believe in your dreams!’
This is a prayer of a person, of people, on the way,
a prayer Abraham might have prayed,
a prayer of faith,
looking forward to what God promises,
and living as if it were already reality:
for what God promises, he surely will fulfill.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Sermon Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016
St Stephen Lutheran Church
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III, STS

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The women go to the tomb
to remember and bury the past
and mourn the present,
but when they get there,
they are told that there is a future.

Easter is a day about the future.
We get here and make a big hub-bub
and see our old friends
and revel in the beauty of nature
and then we go back to our lives
full of whatever joys and sorrows,
trials and struggles,
that were there before.
But hopefully, our perspective will have changed on them,
or our attitudes toward them will be re-adjusted,
perhaps gently, perhaps violently.

Coming to Easter worship
doesn’t change the past or the present,
but it fundamentally changes our perspective on them.
We may expect to come to learn a history lesson,
even a good one about faith,
or to get something that we can use for our present,
some sort of advice for the good spiritual or moral life

Instead, we hear a fanfare:
‘Alleluia! Christ is risen!’
Alleluia – Despite all that has happened,
despite all that is happening,
despite all that may happen,
praise God – with a cry,
with a shout of joy!
Christ – Jesus of Nazareth,
who proclaimed to us good news
of God’s faithfulness to his people,
God’s forgiveness of our sins,
God’s victory over all our spiritual enemies.
Is risen – He has gone beyond death,
beyond all that can hurt him,
and now death itself is in the past tense for him;
he is no longer subject to its power.

He now lives in God’s eternal future
in order to make that future sure for us:
a future in which we are with God;
when all sin is forgiven and there will be no more to forgive,
when there will be no more evil to resist,
no more death to die.

The women go to the tomb
to bury and remember the past
and to mourn their present
but when they get there,
they are told that there is a future,
and not just any future,
but God’s future:
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting,
the life of the Spirit which is made possible
by Christ’s resurrection.

So does anything change Easter Sunday?
From one perspective, no:
our life starts again
once we go out that door
and get on with whatever plans we have made for our day.
The same life we left behind when we came through the doors
is there waiting for us:
but perhaps by God’s grace we will have been changed,
our eyes have been opened, our heart stirred,
our lips opened and our ears ringing with
Alleuia! Christ is risen!
Easter is the day when the future which God has prepared
touches the now of our lives
and sets it trembling, vibrating,
ringing with the joyful mirth of God.

Christians go forth from Easter worship rejoicing
that God has assured the future in Jesus Christ.
This is why Christians can be people of joy
who live in confident hope.
We all think that the present is certain
and the future is uncertain,
when in actual fact it is the other way around.
That’s what the women found out at the tomb,
what we find out again and again when we hear the Gospel.
The future is Christ’s resurrection,
life with our Lord.
And so we can live as people of joy in the present,
without anxiety and fear.

Does anything change on Easter Sunday?
Of course not, and absolutely.
For you have come,
and because you have come,
you have heard something that you never expected;
the news of a future that can change the present.
When you go out that door,
you go back to the life that is yours,
but you go back with a hope that cannot be destroyed,
you go back with a joy that shapes your understanding,
you go back with Jesus.
And when sin, death and evil try to steal that joy (and they will)
remember what you heard
and make the cry your own:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Walk for Water

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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday services

The Ash Wednesday services are today, February 10, at 12:30 pm and 7:30 pm. Please join us!