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Proper 29 (34) Christ the King/Last Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
November 24, 2013
St Stephen Lutheran Church/Pastor Maurice Frontz

Over the last few weeks we have been considering 
the uniqueness of Christ.
On Reformation Day we heard of the ‘new Reformation’
promulgated by those in our time
who propose a god and a spirituality
foreign to that of the Bible.
On All Saints’ Day,
we spoke about the understanding of the Lutheran confessions
that the saints are not to be prayed to or invoked for intercession or mediation
because this would take away from the honor of Christ as intercessor and mediator.
Instead, the Lutheran tradition has looked to the saints
as examples of faith active in love, as patterns to be imitated.
This is why we have our St Stephen icon in the front of our church.

Last week, we heard Jesus’ words of warning
that in times of chaos and turbulence,
people of his time and all times
set themselves up as saviors,
and some of them might actually believe it themselves.

This week is Christ the King Sunday,
the traditional end of the Church year
From its beginning last Advent,
with the prophecies of the coming of God’s kingdom,
through Christmas and Easter, the high point of the year,
from the Spirit’s teaching of the Gospel through the summer and fall,
we arrive at this feast of hope and joy,
celebrating our faith that at the last Christ will be revealed
as ruler of all things and bringer of universal peace.

This day also speaks to us about the uniqueness of Christ.
It is not enough for Christians especially to say ‘God’
without talking in the same breath about Christ.
For simply to say ‘God’ is to ask the question about ‘which God?’
How does this God act? What does this God stand for?

I’ve been reading more about the First World War lately.
Next year will mark the one hundredth anniversary of its beginning.
I am greatly looking forward to a book that will be published next year,
a book on the religious dimensions of the war
by the renowned historian Philip Jenkins.

His preliminary argument is that the participants saw the war as a holy war,
and now that it is said it may well become obvious.
Some students of history may recall
the legend imprinted on the belt buckles of the German soldiers of that war:
Gott mit uns – God with us.
But French and British soldiers also believed
that they were fighting for God’s cause.
The Europe of World War I was a Christian Europe,
and the soldiers prayed to the Christian God for national victory.
Priests, pastors, and bishops blessed
the armies of every nation.
Christian took up arms against Christian
and ravaged each other in savage and unforgiving fashion.

Even if we allow that it is sometimes necessary
that soldiers and police officers
take up arms in the defense of the innocent,
most of us today have a hard time seeing the wholesale slaughter of World War I
as anything resembling ‘holy.’
But more to the point,
can we imagine Christ in the factory, producing poison gas,
in the field, loading and firing the artillery piece,
in the trench, raking the advancing enemy with the machine gun,
thirsting for the blood and guts of his enemies?
Is the God of Gott mit uns the same God as the God of Jesus Christ?

In the first year of the war,
there was one night that was different.
The shells stopped bursting, the machine-guns stopped firing,
and over the trench lines of the front
echoed the strains of Christmas carols:
Germans sang Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,
and the British responded with God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,
The front-line soldiers of both armies, who had not asked for the war,
came into no man’s land and exchanged food and presents.

The very next day the shooting began again.
In later years, the officer corps of both armies
discouraged these Christmas truces,
knowing that the men needed to hate in order to kill.
But one wonders if in some hearts that night
the understanding was born or revived
that while the soldiers fought for King and Kaiser,
there was a King over all of them,
a King to whom both judgment and forgiveness belonged,
a King who came to bring ‘peace on earth, good will toward men?’
We wail and bemoan some of the changes brought over the past years,
as our nation and our world seems to abandon faith.
But perhaps the fault lies not in that the world has abandoned the true faith,
but instead the false faith that promulgated such ideas as ‘holy war.’
Perhaps the issue is as G.K. Chesterton said,
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting;
it has been found difficult and left untried.”

The Christian ideal is based upon Christ,
who when he was being crucified said, ‘Father, forgive them,
for they know not what they do.’
He prayed not only for those gathered around the cross,
but for all humanity,
all who have in their blindness and fear
turned to whatever god was on hand
who promised deliverance from suffering and death.

Perhaps he prayed for the soldiers of the First World War
or the communists of Ethiopia
or those who in our own time
advance the faiths of atheism and secularism
with a warrior-like zeal.
Perhaps he prayed even for us,
who confess the creeds of the Church
even while beset by weakness, sin and flickering faith.

With the so-called ‘good thief’
we may pray the prayer he prayed;
‘Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
That kingdom does not need us to fight for it,
for it is present already in embryo
in the Church’s celebration of the feast of Christ’s victory.
We announce the God who rules the world
is the one who in his Son died as a common criminal,
who died for the innocent and the guilty alike,
who took the sins of all humanity on himself,
and who calls all people of every race, clan, and nation
to live by the Spirit he shares with his Father.

The God of the world is not Mars the bringer of War,
or Venus, goddess of beauty and desire,
or Jupiter, the thunder god.
or Saturn, the god of time,
or Pluto, god of death.
Caesar is not God, nor is the market, nor is the state.
None of us is God.
Christ is God,
Christ reveals his Father,
Christ gives his Spirit,
and Christ will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead,
to rule over all things as King.

Proper 28(33); 26th Sunday after Pentecost, November 17, 2013
St Stephen Lutheran Church
Pastor Maurice Frontz

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

There are some of you who have gone through chemotherapy
or rehab after surgery
and you will know what I am talking about:
there must be destruction in order for there to be new creation.
There must be pain for there to be healing.
The rogue cells must be killed
with the attendant fatigue and nausea;
the trick knee or hip must be removed and replaced,
but that is the easy part:
the hard part is the halting and sometimes agonizing process
of learning how to walk again.
The body must be purged of its infection,
must be ripped apart and sewn back together,
for there to be recovery and restoration.

Likewise, the Scriptures today speak of a purging,
a destruction, a cleansing that must take place
before the final healing can come;
the cleansing of the world from all evil
and the restoration of all things.
The signs of which Jesus speaks
have been present for many centuries over.
If we ask why the cleansing has not taken place yet,
our answer must be that God is patient,
not wishing or willing anyone to be lost,
and no one should dare make any prediction
about how long he might or might not wait.

Yet the Church confesses that Christ shall come
‘to judge the living and the dead,’
and this judgment, although future, is also present.
It is present in the Word when it preached.
We hear Malachi promise judgment
against the arrogant and all evildoers.
Psalm 98 promises
that the LORD will judge the world with righteousness
and the peoples with equity.
Just as the Ghost of Christmas Future
brought Ebenezer Scrooge face-to-face with his own mortality,
the Word of God brings the future judgment into our own time,
indeed performing the judgment of God upon us,
bringing us face-to-face with its reality.

The judgment is also present
when we witness the destruction of all that we thought was so permanent.
For when evil comes into the light,
it brings upon itself swift retribution,
and even that evil which seems to flourish unchecked
is brought up short by death.

In this way death can be a judgment upon sin,
insofar as death prevents people from doing all the evil they would do.
The Soviet premier Josef Stalin, murderer of millions,
inspired terror throughout his land.
When he died in 1952,
Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Festive Overture.
One only need listen to its jubilant strains
to hear how the judgment of death
can release others from their literal or metaphorical prisons.

But the judgment is especially pronounced when it is leveled
against religious institutions,
especially those which seem so great and impressive.
One might think of the grand European cathedrals,
now nearly deserted except for tourists from America and Asia;
or of the many empty Protestant and Catholic houses of worship
that we pass every day,
turned into brew pubs, upscale restaurants,
luxury apartments or the like,
serving the consumer needs of a ravenous people.
Although there are many explanations,
demographics, the rise of the automobile, and the like,
still it must be said that that which fails to bear fruit will wither and die.
The Church which does not preach the Gospel
is under judgment;
the Church that exists for itself will soon cease to exist;
the congregation which worries only about keeping its doors open
will find itself shutting its doors.

When Jesus’ disciples ooh and ah at Herod’s temple in Jerusalem,
at its size and its splendor,
Jesus himself is unimpressed.
Perhaps he remembers the words of Jeremiah,
who stood near the gate of Solomon’s Temple,
saying to the crowd gathered there,
‘Amend your ways and your doings…
do not trust in these deceptive words:
This is the temple of the LORD,
the temple of the LORD,
the temple of the LORD!’                                                                                Jeremiah 7:3-4
And like Jeremiah, Jesus announces
that this version of the temple will be destroyed as was the first;
and this prophecy came to pass just over thirty years
after he was crucified outside the walls of the holy city.
The world is under God’s judgment;
We ourselves are under God’s judgment,
insofar as we are still sinners,
and we must constantly turn to God,
putting our hope not in what we do or can do,
but in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
Because of what he has done,
the judgment is not a terror for us,
but instead becomes the purging and cleansing
which may seem painful at the time
but yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.                                                (see Hebrews 12:11)

In the meantime, God in Scripture gives us our tasks
while we are waiting patiently for him to cleanse us and the world.
We should be active and helpful, working for ourselves and for our neighbor.
One wonders what those religious hucksters who fleece the sheep of God’s pasture
with books and websites which raise unfounded expectations of the end times
will do in the actual day of judgment.
One prays that they might be forgiven, as we trust that we are forgiven.
And yet Second Thessalonians is written to discourage such living off of others,
even to the point that Paul and his companions worked full-time jobs
while they were in Thessalonica
rather than live off the contributions of the Thessalonians.
Now my ministry here is of a different model,
which Paul lifts up as a legitimate option.
Yet some pastors, especially those in poor areas or with poor congregations,
feel that this is the best way to go about things,
and these pastors are called ‘tentmakers,’
for Paul had a full-time job as a maker of tents.
So we are to be busy,
providing for ourselves,
but also providing for others,
not becoming weary of doing what is right.

We are also to be discerning,
not being easily swayed in the chaos of the times,
but holding on to what we have heard of Jesus in the Word.
Jesus’ words that ‘many will be led astray’
have been borne out by those of every nation and generation
who have run after self-proclaimed political and religious messiahs
promising a way out of the ruin of the world.
Instead we are to bear with patience even persecution for being Christians.
We in the United States have not needed to endure such persecution,
or perhaps it is simply not people like us who have endured it,
but only Christians who spoke out against sins
such as anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, segregation, abortion
and other such wrongs against the human family and the body of Christ.
But the time is coming and perhaps is indeed now here
when Christians will be counted
as those who infringe upon others right of self-determination,
and who must be opposed for the good of the nation.
Some of us will be called upon to speak boldly by the Holy Spirit,
trusting not in our own words but in the Word of him who calls us.

We are called to be helpful, discerning, full of patience;
finally we are called to be hopeful.
Christians must not be hopeless people.
We must not wring our hands
by what we see on the news
or when we experience negative events in our lives,
neither are we to gnash our teeth at our neighbors
with dire threats of destruction
but instead we pray for all who do evil, that they might turn to God,
we pray for all who suffer
and we entrust our sufferings to God
who has the power to cleanse us and create us anew.
For we believe with the prophet Malachi
that ‘the day is coming…
when all the arrogant and all evildoers
shall…(be left) with neither root nor branch.
But for those who revere God’s name
the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.’
We give thanks for him who is our sun of righteousness,
Jesus Christ our Lord.

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

25th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27C)
November 10, 2013
St Stephen Lutheran Church
Pastor Maurice Frontz

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

While we Lutherans were taking a break from our normal Gospel lessons
to observe Reformation Sunday and All Saints’ Sunday,
the standard lectionary was following Jesus on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, we missed those great stories of the Pharisee and the tax collector
and the story of Zacchaeus - Jesus’ welcome of a sinner who was yet a son of Abraham.
I could have written a passable sermon on either of those two stories.
Now we are back on track;
but instead of a beautiful story of redemption,
we have instead a story of a theological debate
between Jesus and a strange group of people called ‘Sadducees.’
I guess it’s my job to make this interesting, so here goes.

In the Gospel of Luke, chapters 9-19 are taken up
with a long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.
This is a gripping sermon so far.
In the late part of chapter 19,
the events of Palm Sunday are related:
he enters the city to the acclamation of the people,
weeps over Jerusalem,
and drives out those who were selling things in the temple.
Over the subsequent days he teaches the people in the temple – chapters 20 and 21.
You with me?

Well, the religious leaders in Jerusalem aren’t going to take this lying down
from this so-called rabbi from the backwater of Galilee
who the people believe may be God’s promised Messiah.
They have too much at stake to let him go unchallenged.

Now, who were the Sadducees?
Maybe you don’t much care.
They were a group within the Judaism of the time
that only accepted the first five books of the Old Testament,
the books of Moses, the Torah, as authoritative.

Why is this important?
Because the idea of resurrection from the dead only comes
from prophets who wrote later than the books of Moses.
There is no mention of resurrection in the first five books of the Bible.
So resurrection is not in the Sadducees’ religious vocabulary.
When you died, you died.
That was it. And that was okay.
We probably can’t understand that at all,
or why a person who didn’t believe in a life after death
could believe in God or would even want to.
But for the Sadducees, it made sense. Don’t ask me how.

Well, they come to Jesus, this rabbi from Nowheresville,
and they ask him their favorite riddle.
Yep, it’s a stumper.
Gets ‘em every time.

Some of you remember that movie ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.’
Well, this is ‘One Bride for Seven Brothers.’
The eldest brother of seven marries a woman,
and when he dies, the second brother marries her,
until she has buried all seven brothers.
The question is, ‘In the resurrection, whose wife is she?’

Now if you’re me, you’re thinking, there’s something fishy going on here.
One dead husband is sad, two is a tragic coincidence, three is very very suspicious.
You’d think the fourth one might have said,
‘I don’t care what the Law of Moses says, I’m not marrying this girl.’

But remember, this story is not meant to be realistic,
but to pose an insoluble problem to the hearer.
In the biblical world, a man could perhaps have had seven wives at once.
but a woman could not have had seven husbands at once.
An argument can be made for any solution to the riddle,
especially for the first guy or the last guy,
but ultimately every answer to this riddle is wrong.
And so the idea of resurrection promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

But, says Jesus, the Sadducees have missed the point.
Their riddle is based on a faulty assumption,
which is that the life to come has a one-to-one correspondence with this life.
Our human arrangements such as marriage, property ownership, and the like
do not apply.
Moreover, the Sadducees have misread the books of Moses.
When God speaks to Moses from the burning bush,
God does not say, I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;
but instead, ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’
If he is still the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
then these people still must be in some way alive, for him to be their God.
The Sadducees are silenced. No one dares to ask Jesus any more questions.

Now, you may be wondering:
What does this have to do with us?
Firstly, I don’t think we need to worry about not seeing our spouses in heaven.
Certainly God knows that in this life we have loved and been loved by certain people.

But as has been said already, the life to come is indeed the life to come.
It is not this life repeated,
with all its legal arrangements and jealousy,
with our pastimes and diversions.
Our imagination about the life-to-come tends to be limited by our own experience.
We should think of heaven not as some permanent vacation spot,
a place kind of like Hilton Head or Disney World,
but where all the drinks are free.
But when God brings us into his kingdom,
he unites us with himself and with all who have been redeemed by him.

Really, heaven may look a lot more like the communion table.
We will adore him in worship.
We will rejoice together as God provides for us.
We will take joy in his presence and the presence of his people.
In that way we  will not be angels, but will be made like the angels,
in that our adoration and praise will be made perfect.

But it is not an endless church service.
Indeed the book of Revelation says that there is no temple in the new Jerusalem,
for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb.
This is St John the Divine’s way of saying that what we believe by faith here,
we will have by sight in the life-to-come.
What we have the briefest glimpses of here in the church-community,
we will be given in full measure, the glory of God.

In that time sin will not need to be forgiven, for it will be abolished,
and evil will have no place.
And that is why the resurrection of the dead is so comforting.
A forever life in this world as it is would not be comforting.
A forever life in this world with me as I am now would not be comforting.
But God’s promise is not just that we will live forever,  
but that life will made new.
The life is eternal life, not in the sense simply that it lasts forever,
but in the sense that the life that is there is the life as it was intended to be,
the life which is worthy of being called ‘eternal.’

Believing this, we may be have eternal comfort and good hope,
and be strengthened in every good work and word.
We have faith that our future is in God’s hands,
and that we may trust in him to provide for us
both in this life and in the life to come.

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

Reformation Sunday October 27, 2013
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
St Stephen Lutheran Church, Pastor Maurice Frontz

On Reformation Day 2005,
Matthew Fox, a defrocked Catholic priest turned Episcopal priest,
nailed 95 theses for a New Reformation to a door in Wittenberg, Germany,
the university town where Martin Luther posted the original 95 theses..
Since the church in Wittenberg now has huge bronzed doors,
Fr. Fox didn’t actually nail them there.
But he nailed them to a door outside the church
that he had specifically set up for the occasion.
It made a great photo opportunity
for the media he had invited to record the historic event.

Now this would seem to be right up our alley, right?
A Catholic priest in trouble with the Pope, calling for a ‘New Reformation,
posting 95 theses on a church door?
Let’s hear some of these new 95 theses:

1.      God is both Mother and Father.

While God is neither male nor female, Jesus prayed to the ‘Father.’ I suppose Fr. Fox is much more enlightened than Jesus was.

38.  A diversity of interpretation of the Jesus event and the Christ experience
is altogether expected and welcomed as it was in the earliest days of the church.

Probably all of the interpretations of the Jesus event are welcome,
except the orthodox one.

42.  Our connection with the earth (first chakra) is holy;
and our sexuality (second chakra) is holy;
and our moral outrage (third chakra) is holy;
and our love that stands up to fear (fourth chakra) is holy;
and our prophetic voice that speaks out is holy (fifth chakra);
and our intuition and intelligence (sixth chakra) are holy;
and our gifts we extend to the community of light beings
and ancestors (seventh chakra) are holy.

I don’t even know what that means.

52.        If you can talk you can sing;
if you can walk you can dance; if you can talk you are an artist.

While this is a nice Native American saying and African proverb,
I don’t really see the relevance, except maybe to get to the number ninety-five.

55. God speaks today as in the past through all religions and all cultures and all faith traditions none of which is perfect and an exclusive avenue to truth but all of which can learn from each other.

So much for ‘I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.’ While God may well work in a mysterious way, Christians have universally believed that the full revelation of God is in Jesus Christ and him alone.

90. “God” is only one name for the Divine One
and there are an infinite number of names for God and Godhead
and still God “has no name and will never be given a name.”

‘An infinite number of names?’
I wonder if there are any names which might be excluded.

You might have guessed by now that I disagree with Fr. Fox on a variety of issues.
But something really set me off eight years ago,
when I was still an pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
You see, only a month before Father Fox posted his theses,
he was invited by the Northern Illinois Synod of the ELCA
to be the teaching theologian at their annual ‘Professional Leaders Conference.’
And before you claim that they couldn’t have known what he was going to write,
he had already written twenty-six books before they asked him to teach their pastors.

I simply could not understand and still cannot understand
what Lutheran pastors were supposed to learn from Fr. Fox.
He teaches that sex is not simply God’s good creation,
but is seemingly equivalent to a sacrament:
‘Sexuality is a sacred act and spiritual experience, a....revelation of the divine.’
He states: flesh does not sin; it is our choices that are sometimes off center.
He says: Christians must distinguish between Jesus (an historical figure)
and Christ (the experience of God-in-all-things).

Earlier this year, a bishop of an ELCA synod posted a sermon on his weblog
in which he compared Father Fox’s resistance to the Roman Catholic Church
to the apostle Peter’s defiance of the high priests in Acts 5,
when Peter said, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’
Incidentally, before I came to St Stephen and I was still looking for an ELCA call.
I was contacted by an assistant to this bishop,
asking if I was interested in coming to that synod.
Included in the e-mail was the following warning, which, as I remember it, said:
‘If you have any Lutheran CORE or NALC leanings, don’t bother.’

In their studies, our confirmation students struggled with the concept of ‘gnosticism,’
Gnosticism is an ancient Christian heresy whose adherents believed
that Jesus did not come to forgive sin and save from death those who believe
by his gracious act of giving himself on the cross,
but instead to came to lead a chosen few to a higher and superior consciousness
and union with the divine.
Gnosticism is alive and well today.
It is alive and well in pseudo-theologies like Matthew Fox’s;
It is alive and well in cults like Scientology.

But lousy theology is also alive and well in some so-called Bible-believing churches
which give lip-service to grace but really are more legalistic than not,
keeping tabs on people’s works to see whether they ‘really’ believe in God.
We must be careful of churches that demand abstinence from so called ‘worldly’ things
or demand that we bring a certain number of people to Christ
or imply  that we have to achieve a certain degree of holiness to truly receive Christ’s love.

And I remember driving past a self-proclaimed ‘Protestant’ church
with the following message on its ‘wayside pulpit:’
‘Do your best, and God will do the rest.’
I don’t think that Luther would have thought too much of that statement.
You see, Luther would say that God does it all.

Most people still believe that the reason this congregation and others left the ELCA
and the reason that many ELCA members and congregation live in tension with the ELCA
was simply about the blessing of same-sex couples
and the ordination of those who were active same-sex relationships.
Many people see people like me simply as latent or an active homophobes.

It should be made clear, however,
that the central issues go to the heart of the Christian faith,
the faith for which the Reformers of the sixteenth century contended,
together with all orthodox believers of our time and every time.
Was the man Jesus God? Did he die for the forgiveness of our sins?
Was he raised on the third day for our justification?
Did the Father and the Son send the Spirit,
and is that Spirit encountered in the Word, Baptism, and Communion?
Are the words recorded in John reliable:
‘If the Son has set you free, you will be free indeed?’
Do we believe the gospel that set the apostle Paul free from the law
to live in the grace and mercy of Jesus?
Do we believe, with Jeremiah, that the new covenant is made with us by God,
when he forgives our iniquity, and remembers our sin no more?

Or do we believe another gospel,
whether a gospel of materialism and consumerism, a gospel of me-ism,
a gospel of all paths lead to God,
a gospel that denies that we are sinners in need of God’s salvation,
a gospel that demands the correct political and social opinions,
a gospel that insists we must cleanse ourself from all our ‘wrong choices’
before we can truly encounter the divine?

This might seem like a pretty harsh sermon for a confirmation day.
One might have preferred me to say nice things about the confirmands and let it go at that.
But Martin Luther has been seen as combative,
and the reason he was combative was the concern he had
for the sweetness and the comfort of the Gospel;
the Gospel that God has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ.
Take away this Gospel, and replace it with one
in which we must exercise ourselves in an amorphous spiritualism,
or a system of legalism,
and we are deprived of the peace of God
and set loose in a spiritual world
in which God must be sought be never found,
in which the only God is the God we choose
and not the one who chooses us.

Three young men confess the faith today with us.
It is the historic Christian faith,
which proclaims that God the Father created us out of love;
that God the Son saved us from sin, death, and evil
in his life, death, and resurrection,
that in the holy Church, imperfect though it is,
the Holy Spirit is continually forgiving our sins,
keeping us in the true faith
and bringing us to everlasting life.
They, and we, may put our faith and trust in this God,
that this God claimed us and will lead us our whole life through, come what may.

For them, and for us, we make our prayer:

Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word;
Curb those who by deceit or sword
Would wrest the kingdom from your Son
And bring to naught all he has done.                    (LBW 230)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and in no other name. Amen

The 95 Theses of Matthew Fox

The 95 Theses of Martin Luther

ELCA Northern Illinois Synod ‘Professional Leaders Conference’ with Matthew Fox

A somewhat complex but informative comparison of Gnosticism and Scientology