Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sermon July 22, 2018 - St Mary Magdalene

July 22, 2018: St Mary Magdalene                                                                                            
St Stephen Lutheran Church
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz

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

I wasn’t quite sure at first why the story of Ruth and Naomi
was assigned as the Old Testament reading for today,
the feast day of Mary Magdalene,
other than they are all three women in the Bible,
when so many of the characters of the Bible are men.
The stories of Ruth and Mary Magdalene are completely unrelated on the face of it.
Ruth is a Gentile who marries a Jewish husband,
and, when he dies, she adopts her mother-in-law’s land and religion.
Mary Magdalene is not a Gentile, and she is unmarried –
Two different women, two different stories,
but one common trait unites them both –
death cannot part them from the ones they love.

Ruth’s call to marriage
had brought her into new covenant relation;
and covenant relationships cannot end with death,
or they lose all meaning.
Economic necessity and ancestral ties
are no longer binding –
what is binding for Ruth is Naomi, Naomi’s people, and Naomi’s God.
We know that Ruth had a choice,
because her sister went back.
But Ruth’s choice had been made
before her husband died,
and we cannot know whether it was her love for her mother-in-law,
or her loyalty to her departed husband,
or the joy she had found in the worship of the God of the Jews,
all of these, or none of these,
which inspired her to remain.
All we have are her words to Naomi:
‘Where you go, I will go,
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die –
there will I be buried.
May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’

a cave hewn into rock,
for he who had freed her from evil was dead
and she may as well have been.
Where you die, I will die; there will I be buried  

Even as she had been with him
from the day he had called her and freed her from demons,
she had been with him until his death.
She saw where the tomb was,
and when the Sabbath was over she went to anoint his body.

But the body was gone,
and it seemed as if someone had cheated her out of keeping her solemn vow,
to refuse to be parted from Jesus.
May the LORD do thus and so to me and more as well if even death parts me from you.
We do not forget our loved ones when they die,    
we do not turn our backs on them and go back into the life we had before we met them.
We tend their graves,
we dust off their pictures,
we tell their stories to each other
and honor their families as our own
and say their prayers now that they can no longer say them.
May the LORD do thus and so to me and more as well if even death parts me from you.

That even Jesus’ corpse had been taken away now was unbearable.
And so she stood weeping outside the tomb,
and we are not to imagine a biting of the lip, a few silent drops running down the face,
but a full-on cry of bereavement, an anguish of despair, an endless overflowing flood of tears.

before Mary Magdalene could become the apostle to the apostles,
bringing the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the world,
they each had to come to the moment of truth –
is love strong as and stronger than death?
Ruth says, ‘Do not send me away from my family or my God or I will die;’
Mary Magdalene wails, ‘I will not leave my Lord, though he is dead.’

In a few minutes,
we will pray that we, like Mary Magdalene, may be messengers of the resurrection.
I think that we should pray that prayer.
If I didn’t, it wouldn’t be in the bulletin.
And yet, I think sometimes we say the prayer
and assume that it is that easy,
to be a witness to the resurrection of Jesus,
and that if we’re not,
it’s because we need a better technique,
maybe a six-week course in evangelism,
or because it’s not our particular calling or ‘gift of the Holy Spirit.’
There was no technique to Mary’s witness,
and she was not particularly gifted.
Mary Magdalene became a witness to the resurrection
because death could not separate her from Jesus.
Jesus has died,
but there are those who take their stand with Mary Magdalene
in the garden at the empty tomb,
saying, May the LORD do thus and so to me and more as well if even death parts me from you.
These are the ones who hear Christ’s voice calling their name;
they find that though he has died, he is risen.
Perhaps it is that the Church needs no evangelism techniques,
but simply to stand at the tomb of Christ and refuse to leave until he calls us.

‘Do not hold on to me,’
Jesus says to Mary Magdalene,
and perhaps we find ourselves wondering at this seemingly harsh word.
Theologically, we can think about the nature of the resurrection in the Gospel of John;
but there are other ways we can think about this saying as well.
Ruth would rather have died than be separated from God,
and thus she was drawn into Israel’s mission,
Mary Magdalene would rather have died than be separated from her Lord,
and thus she was drawn into Christ’s mission,
to be something she never could have dreamed of being –
the apostle to the Apostles,
the first to carry the news that changes the world.
The demands of Ruth and Mary Magdalene are not so they can have a better more comforting life,
but because they have been called to a living relationship.
And so Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus
draws her not into a stagnant holding onto something,
but into a rapturous giving away of herself.
Your people shall be my people;
and your God my God.

And this is the life of the Church,
should the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit
be given faith enough to take her stand at the tomb.
Where you die, I shall die;
there shall I be buried…
but there shall I be raised.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Sermon June 3, 2018

2 Pentecost/Pr. 4B/ June 3, 2018                                Pastor Maurice Frontz
‘The news of the Emancipation Proclamation
did not reach Texas until June 19, 1865,
after the Civil War had ended
and two-and-a-half years after the proclamation was issued.

From that moment, African Americans in Texas
regarded June 19 as a holiday,
and many would travel to Galveston,
where the news was first given
by Union Major General Gordon Granger.

Whites were resistant to this practice,
but African Americans simply refused
to show up for work on that day.
Whites continued to work if they could,
but they often were not able to work
because they were dependent on African American labor.

Juneteenth, as it was called by African Americans and whites alike,
became a day in which both remembered freedom from slavery.
In 1980, June 19 was finally given legal recognition as a Texas state holiday.’[1]

For ancient Israel, the Sabbath, observed each week,
was a reminder of the freedom from slavery God had won for them in Egypt.

The experience of freedom was to be so defining for them
that they were commanded to free their own slaves at least once per week,
so that these too might enjoy the freedom that God had granted.

The practice of Sabbath-keeping continued in exile and under foreign occupation.
Those who remembered that God had liberated them from Egypt
and had promised to always free them from oppression
kept one day a week for freedom;
they were more than captives.

Nowadays, of course, slavery is illegal.

We have supposedly come quite far in our understanding.

Perhaps it was the Sabbath, that great day of liberation,
which started the ball rolling in this direction.

And yet, we are not so enlightened as we might think;
for our great game of buying and selling continues apace
seven days a week.

The day of rest,
whether it be Saturday or Sunday,
is a day of rest for some and not others.

Actually, it is often not a day of rest for anyone,
for those who have money are expected to buy;
and people who need money are expected to sell or serve.

Sunday is the great day of expected self-improvement,
of expected home improvement,
of expected sleep improvement,
of expected economic improvement,
of expected watching grown men bang into each other.

Those who do not participate in such activities
are viewed as just as legalistic as the Pharisees.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish theologian
who taught Christians and Jews alike,
“Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things
as well as from domination of people.
There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty,
but only very few are not enslaved to things.
This is our constant problem—how to live with people and remain free,
how to live with things and remain independent.”[2] 

Is this a feel-guilty sermon?
Are those of you who have plans for after church upset with me?
Or do you view it as hypocrisy?

My kids have asked me about this.
After all, when my parents are up to visit,
we generally go to the HofbrÀuhaus after church.
Now I’m hungry. And thirsty.

Other days I take my kids to the library or Phipps.
What about those who work there?
They don’t even get tips.

I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty.
One of my favorite moments of ministry
was when a youth group member in my previous church
said to me,
‘Pastor Frontz, I hate it when you make me think!’
I am trying to think.

Could it be that this freedom we enjoy
to buy and sell and self-improve on ‘the day of rest’
is only freedom to do that –
to buy and sell and self-improve on ‘the day of rest?’
Could it be that we fail to understand
that much of what we do with our ‘free time’
is fulfill other’s expectations of us,
those expectations which will benefit them economically?

Just this past week,
the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew,
spoke at the Vatican,
addressing gathered cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church
on A Common Christian Agenda for the Common Good.

If you don’t think the Holy Spirit is active,
or that nothing ever changes,
consider that the Orthodox and Catholics didn’t really talk for about 900 years,
and last week the head of the Orthodox Church spoke in Rome.

He said:
‘The dominating words of today
are ‘me,’ ‘myself,’ ‘mine,’
‘autonomy,’ ‘self-realization,’ and ‘self-admiration.’
Individualism is accompanied by eudemonism,
whose aim in life is the satisfaction of as many needs as possible,
as well as the creation and securing of new needs.’

As has been clearly stated,
the ‘speaking human’ has become the ‘having human,’
who is fed by the possession of material goods,
as well as by the possession of his own individuality…

It is only natural, then,
that this possessive relationship with all people and all things,
as well as with our own self,
does not leave any space for love and solidarity,
for sharing and communion.’[3]
So says Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
I like the words he has chosen:
Love and solidarity; sharing and communion.

As should be obvious from our Gospel lesson,
we cannot return to the legalism which drove the ‘blue laws’
requiring some businesses to be closed Sundays.

Neither the legalism of the Pharisees
nor the liberty to buy and sell all the time
will bring the freedom that Jesus came to give:
the freedom of the children of God.
to live with people and remain free;
to live with things and remain independent.

Jesus says:
‘The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath,’
by which he means not only that he is the authoritative interpreter of the Sabbath,
but that he himself is Sabbath,
he himself is the one who is re-creating God’s world
so that it is a world of love and solidarity,
sharing and communion.

When we gather in his presence,
when we come to the Eucharist,
we experience his solidarity with us,
just as he provided for the disciples on the Lord’s Day,
just as he healed the man with the withered hand on the Lord’s Day,
he provides his own self for us.

If we were to celebrate the day of which he is Lord
in a manner that glorifies him and reveals him to us,
we would be creative and not legalistic.

Several weeks ago, we gathered for Holy Eucharist
and then we ate together
and then we walked from here to St. Simon and Jude
in solidarity with those who walk miles each day
not for clean water but for dirty water,
with which they must wash and cook and clean and drink,
for there is no alternative.

We did our part, by God’s grace,
to provide them with an alternative,
one that leads to health and strength and freedom to live and glorify God.
Truly a day of love and solidarity, sharing and communion.
We return to the beginning:
the Sabbath is a day of freedom.
Just as the ancient Israelites celebrated God’s mighty acts of liberation,
just as the African American community celebrates the end of the yoke of slavery,
so we all may celebrate on this day and each day
the Lord of the Sabbath’s gift of freedom:
to live with people and be free,
to live with things and be independent.

[1] Hauerwas, Stanley, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 119-20.
[2] Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath.
[3] A Common Christian Agenda for the Common Good, May 26, 2018:

Worship begins at 9:30 today!

This post is a little late, but Sunday worship begins at 9:30 today and will continue at 9:30 from now until the end of August.

See you in church!

Monday, April 30, 2018

Walk for Water 2018

St. Stephen is hosting the Walk for Water Pittsburgh on Sunday, May 6, 2018. Walk for Water Pittsburgh benefits Water Mission, a Christian relief agency which provides sustainable water solutions in many countries and disaster areas around the world. You can read about Water Mission here.

Please feel free to join us the day of the walk. Registration is $20 and supports the ministry of Water Mission. Alternately, or additionally, please help sponsor the walk by donating through GoFundMe. 

I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink... (Matthew 25:35)

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Sermon Easter 2 - Apr 8, 2018

The Rev. Maurice Frontz
St Stephen Lutheran Church
Easter 2 Year B
Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1 – 2:2, John 20:19-31

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Jesus says to the apostles,
‘If you forgive the sins of any,
they are forgiven them.
If you retain the sins of any,
they are retained.’
This seems to give a lot of power to the apostles.
If this power were used capriciously,
at the whim of the apostles,
if they could simply use this word at their own will
or for their own personal gain,
then it is a terrible thing that Jesus is doing.

But what is Jesus really doing?
Remember the man who was paralyzed,
whose friends couldn’t bring him to Jesus
because there was a big crowd around Jesus’ house,
and so they lowered him through the roof of the house
to where Jesus was?
When Jesus saw their faith (and those words their faith themselves are very interesting)
he said to  the man, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’
‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’
asked the scribes and Pharisees,
and to show that he had authority to do the greater thing, forgive sins in God’s name,
he healed the paralyzed man so that he walks away,
From years of hearing that God forgives sins,
we think the physical healing is more impressive,
but actually it is the lesser act of power.
The lesser thing, healing a body,
testifies to the greater thing,
which is that Jesus heals the relationship between God and a human being,
by speaking God’s word of acceptance.

But now Christ has died, and Christ is risen.
He will no longer walk amongst us in body,
but his living presence must be discerned by faith,
must be clung to in faith.
How then will he forgive sins, as he did for the paralyzed man and so many others?
By putting his Word of forgiveness in the mouth of the apostles,
he ensures that his work of forgiveness and acceptance
will continue on earth.
So the apostles do not forgive sins on their own.
It is not their word that they speak,
but Jesus’ word.
They forgive sins by the command of Jesus
and the authority of Jesus.  

Why is it important that the apostles themselves are to forgive sins?
Shouldn’t we be able to confess our sins before God alone,
and believe in our forgiveness without another person?
This is indeed true, that we are able to do this.
Each time we pray, ‘Forgive us our trespasses’
we both confess that we have trespasses to be forgiven,
and can be certain that God forgives them,
for Jesus would not teach us to pray for something
that his Father does not delight to give.

But remember,
when Jesus spoke these words to the apostles,
no written Lord’s Prayer for us to memorize,
no New Testament to tell us of Christ’s forgiveness of sins,
no liturgy where we could make a corporate confession
and receive a corporate word of forgiveness.
It was all up to the apostles to spread the word.
And the word was spread,
so that people were forgiven and believed in Christ
and the good news was proclaimed
and eventually written down.

But I can think of a few reasons
that it remains important that we hear another person
proclaim the forgiveness of sins in Christ’s name to us.
Firstly, in the book of James it says this:
‘Confess your sins to one another,
and pray for one another,
so that you may be healed.’
The written Word itself testifies that the spoken Word
both of confession to another person
and absolution from that other person
is still salutary.

It can be much more a sign of humility
to confess out loud that we are sinners,
and to confess out loud before another human being that we have sinned,
rather than just to keep it quiet.
And it can be much more liberating to hear another human being
say that God forgives our sins
than if we simply say it to ourselves.

There is another reason.
Some people are so afflicted by the knowledge of their sin
that on their own they cannot believe in their forgiveness.
Even those who know their Bible well
sometimes cannot make that leap.
Maybe none of us are in that situation.
But for those that are,
it is important for us to hear and trust the Word
that God indeed does forgive not only sin in general,
but our sin as well.
When the pastor or any Christian forgives us,
we are called to put our trust not that we have been good,
but that God has been good.
And that word that is spoken aloud
may have the power to break down barriers
that in themselves good thoughts alone cannot break down.

Why is it important that the pastor does it?
Luther said that any Christian can speak the forgiveness to another Christian,
but that so everything was done in order,
the pastor of the church was ordinarily the one who spoke the words.
The pastor speaks for the Church,
and the Church speaks for Christ.
But it’s never a matter of a special power of the pastor,
but simply the word of Christ given to the Church that does it.

On our own we all too easily forget
that God is not only a friendly God,
but a just God.
This is why God gives the apostles authority not simply to forgive,
but to retain sins.
We see this in the apostle John’s letter,
words that we say often
‘If we say that we have no sin,
we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
But if we confess our sins,
God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins
and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’
To those who say they have no sin,
or perhaps even no sin to speak of,
the word must be that we are in debt to a just God.
But to those who confess their sin,
that same just God justifies,
accepts, is friendly towards them,
welcoming them back into fellowship,
always calling them back to God’s justice.

Remember the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
The Pharisee who fasted twice a week and tithed believed that he was just,
the tax collector acknowledged that he was not just, but that God was just.
To one was shown God’s friendliness,
to the other it was not.
We must hear that we are the ones in need of the just God’s mercy,
and often simply our own thoughts deceive us,
that we are righteous.

Sometimes we even believe that because we are not like that condemned Pharisee,
that we don’t fast and we don’t give,
that this makes us worthy in God’s sight!
There is a story of a dying Lutheran pastor
who as point of pride said that he lived so much by faith
that he had never done a good work in his life.

Perhaps this was a long sermon, a boring sermon,
a didactic sermon,
a lecture full of declarative sentences.
So I’ll end with a word directly to you.
Because Jesus is living,
he can still forgive sins.
He reaches out in friendliness to you,
to accept you, warts and all.
to lead you into the path of justice.
He has given the Word of forgiveness to his Church,
to the people he has sent to be his hands and feet,
and yes, his ears and mouth in the world.
You can trust this word,
that the just God justifies unjust people,
that the just God justifies unjust you.
And if that’s boring,
then I don’t know what to do for you,
for it’s exciting news,
good news,
the kingdom’s ours forever.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Sermon Easter Sunday 2018

April 1, 2018 - Pr. Maurice Frontz

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

And Happy April Fool’s Day, too.

We are used to thinking of the Bible as a very serious book.
But among the stories of terrible rebellion against God
and the proverbs to make you wise and the songs of endless praise
are some quite funny stories.
The Bible has a sense of humor.

Consider in the very first chapter of the Gospel of John –
Andrew tells his friend Nathaniel that he has found the Messiah,
and his name is Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.
Nathaniel can’t help himself.
‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ he chortles,
and from the distance of two thousand years
we hear the derisive laughter of a slick urbanite
making a wisecrack at the expense of a hick town,
much as we might if a friend told us that the next President
was going to be Hank from deepest darkest West by-God Virginia.
It was too funny for even a serious guy like John the Evangelist to leave out of his Gospel.

But it’s not just regional jokes which are part of the Bible’s act.
Some of the parables of Jesus are great stuff.
I absolutely love Luke 16 and the story of the dishonest manager,
who knew he was going to get fired and got his revenge
(and also made some much-needed friends)
by telling all his boss’s debtors that the boss was feeling generous
and there was suddenly a discount.
In the end even the boss had to admit he’d been had.
Jesus gets you with the sense of humor, see.
The kicker is then he tells you
to use your money where it really matters,
to make friends with the poor people,
the people whose prayers God listens to,
so when you don’t have any money anymore,
(and you know when that is)
you’ve got a place to live – in heaven with them.
Sometimes, you know, comics have got a point.

If you were not at the Easter Vigil last night,
you missed some great funny stories.
You missed the great story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego,
which I love every year.
The self-importance of Nebuchadnezzar,
the ridiculousness of his officials and courtiers,
all those satraps, prefects and governors,
and all the officials of the provinces,
bowing down to a golden statue
at the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble.
And then the great reversal,
where the three men who refuse to worship the idols
are joined in the furnace of blazing fire by a fourth who has the appearance of the god,
and they come forth, unharmed.
The great reversal when Nebuchadnezzar, the idolater, becomes a god-fearer.

There is one story which I think is hilarious
which isn’t in the Easter Vigil,
but should be.
That is the story of Queen Esther,
the Jewish wife of the King of Persia
who saves her people.
The grand Vizier Haman hates the Jews,
and conspires to have them killed
and Esther’s cousin Mordecai,
who has Haman’s number and whom Haman hates,
hanged on a gallows on Haman’s property.

But Haman gets what’s coming to him.
The king is told by others of a time that Mordecai the Jew
saved him from traitors in his midst.
The king asks ‘What has been done to honor him?’
Nothing, comes the reply.
And so he calls his counsellor Haman,
and asks, ‘What should be done to the man whom the king delights to honor?’
Haman, self-important blowhard that he is, thinks it’s all about him.
‘Whom would the king delight to honor other than me?’
And he suggests that the king’s robes and the king’s horse and the king’s crown be brought,
and the honored one to be paraded around the city,
as he is acclaimed with the proclamation:
‘Thus shall it ever be done to the man whom the king delights to honor!’
Of course, what happens next?
The king tells the flabbergasted grand Vizier to bestow this honor upon Mordecai,
and to lead him around the city, acclaiming him as he goes.
April Fool!

And Haman gets worse, too;
he is hanged on the gallows he has set up for Mordecai.
Mordecai is honored, Esther is honored,
the Jews win, and everyone lives happily ever after.
A charming comedy indeed.

Isn’t this supposed to be an Easter sermon?
Why all the jokes?
Certainly Easter is serious!
But it is God’s greatest joke of all.

In all of the stories of God’s deliverance,
there is always a bit of humor in there.
And theologically at least, God saves his greatest gotcha for the third day,
the day after the Sabbath was over,
when the evil one, who thought he had gotten rid of Jesus once at for all,
is hoisted on his own petard.
His greatest weapon, death itself,
is used against him,
and it is the death of him.
Just like that grand Vizier Haman,
who thought he had the perfect plot
to wreak vengeance on Mordecai and destroy the Jews,
and who is double-crossed and forced to honor his enemy
and is hung on the gallows he had intended for him,
so is the evil one finished on that same cross
which he has intended to destroy God and humanity.
and death has become not his greatest weapon,
but the salvation of God.

The devil is pictured all too often as a powerful force,
but to our eyes, he should be a ridiculous figure,
a dupe, an ape, a punchline,
truly a fool.
For Jesus is the one whom the king delights to honor,
and through him, God has acted to save  us.
And so sin is forgiven, hope is restored, death is destroyed,
and it’s time for a feast.
The feast of victory for our God!
‘When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
then were we like those who dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
and our tongues with shouts of joy’

The worship that the devil thought was owed to him,
is given to Jesus.
‘Thus shall it ever be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.’

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!