A city of idols

Easter 6  Acts 17:16-31

Paul, standing in the middle of Athens, notices that the city is full of idols; which is about as profound an observation as saying that you went into a bar and noticed a lot of people were drinking.

Of course Paul is going to see a lot of idols in Athens; there is a temple to Athena right in the middle of the city.  Not to mention temples and statues and other worship venues for who knows how many other idols that there may be in the city.

The city of Athens was named, designed and constructed in such a way, that anyone could have made the observation that the city was full of idols.

But could the same be said of other cities?  Could the same be said of this city?

If St. Paul were with us this morning, what would he observe?  Would the Holy Spirit move him to speak about the idols that populate your lives?

Now to be fair, this is not Athens.  There are not temples built on every street corner to one false god or another; nor do we find ourselves surrounded by statues and altars to which we may sacrifice and pray for whatever particular need we may have at the moment.

And that is a good thing.  This city, this country is found on Judeo-Christian values, and for the most part has not been decimated by the idol worship that so dominated ancient Greece.

But that is not to say that St. Paul would commend you for your good works and your vibrant faith and be on his way.  For this indeed is a city, a nation, of idols.

For while there may not be idols built to Athena and the multitude of other Greek and Roman gods, there are most certainly other idols that surround us.

For an idol is merely anything that distracts you from the one true God of heaven and earth.  An idol is whatever consumes your time, talent and treasure.  An idol could literally be anything, or anyone.

Some idols are easy to spot; and are thereby easy to avoid.  But other idols are just a bit more complicated.

Not everything that surrounds you is an idol; but that does not mean that everything around you is not an idol.  In fact, what is an idol for someone else, may not actually be an idol for you; but at the same time, your idol may not be the idol of another.

What are these idols?  Money can be an idol; after all, if that is what you want, and that is what you think will solve all problems and bring about peace and harmony in your life, it is probably an idol.

And the only way to get money is to work; and so that to becomes an idol.  If all you do is work, and there is no time set aside for anything else, work is probably an idol.

On the flip side of that coin though, family, particularly your spouse or your children can be an idol.  If their activities, if their wants and desires, if their happiness is all that concerns you, and it consumes all of your time and all of your dollars, it is likely that you have created for yourself an idol in the form of spouse and children.

Community can also be an idol.  In many cases, that is the new church for some.  Those who never attend church services and take part of the Lord’s Supper, but who never miss a community event, and feast on whatever the menu may be offering that day, have likely casted their idol out of the schedule of the town.

And there are the other idols that dominate your lives; government, sports, sex, alcohol, drugs, television, one collection or another, gossip, and even the ultimate idol, yourself.

As Paul examines your life, as he searches your home, which idol is he going to find?  Where does the majority of your energy, of your time, of your talent, of your treasure go?  Does it feed one of the many idols that you have constructed?  Or is it directed to the Lord of heaven and earth?

For notice that in the midst of Athens, Paul finds an altar to an unknown God.  As if the Athenians did not have enough gods, they had one more altar as a catchall for anything they may have missed.

Well, in the midst of your life is also an altar to a God, but this God you have an altar to is not an unknown God, but rather is very much known and familiar to you, or at least He should be.

For in the midst of your life that is so consumed with the altars you have built to various idols, you also have this altar.  The altar to the one true God, the altar from which the absolution is proclaimed and the altar at which the body and blood of Jesus are offered.  This altar has also found a place in your life, but where?

Is it visible from where you are?  Or is it blocked by the altars to idols you have set in front on it?  Can you hear the words of our Lord proclaimed from it?  Or are those words drowned out by the noise coming from the other idols in your life?  When you come to this altar, is it to get away from the other altars you have built to idols?  Or is this just the next altar on the list that you have come to bow down to?

Remember the Ten Commandments, and that the one true God of heaven and earth is a jealous God, who wants you only for Himself.  The true God of heaven and earth does not want to share you with any of the other idols you have found yourself bowing down to.

And so the words of St. Paul to the Athenians are now spoken to you: Repent of your idol worship, and seek out the one, true, living God.  You know who He is, otherwise why else would you be here?  But examine your lives, your homes, and the altars that you have constructed.  Where are your idols?  Cast them down, and seek out the true God of heaven and earth.

Your idols may not be your neighbor’s idols; and theirs may not be yours.  But you are both called to repent of the idols you have set up in your midst.  Tear down the altars to false gods, and return to the altar of the one true God.

For at the Lord’s altar, you will hear what no other god can tell you: for the Lord of heaven and earth, will call you by name and announce to you that your sins are forgiven, not because of your own works or merits, but because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And at the Lord’s altar, you will receive what no other altar can offer: the true body and blood of Jesus Christ, which is delivered to you, the forgiven and redeemed as an assurance of those words that have been spoken to you.

 

What happened after Paul spoke?  Some believed, and repented of their idol worship; while others were angry and wanted to cast him out.

That is how it goes; to hear that the thing you hold dearest to you has become an idol will either cause you to recoil and repent, or to hunker down and cling to your idol no matter what.  It happened in Athens, and it happens here today.  We love our idols, and it is difficult to separate ourselves from them.

But God loves you more than you love that idol.  And God desires you for Himself and for Himself alone; that is why He sent His one and only Son into the world to suffer and die for you.  How many idols are willing to do that for you?

That is the love that only the one true God has, and can shower upon His people.  That He sent His Son, so that you might live.  And unlike those other idols, that come and go based on the day or the season, the love of God lasts forever.

Look around at what surrounds you: does it confess Christ, or does it confess yourself?

This morning you have gathered at the altar of the one true God, who calls you by name and comes to you with His Word and Sacrament, where you will receive forgiveness, life and salvation.  May that be your confession, this day and always.

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Who do you want for a pastor?

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Recently, my wife and I have been hooked on a BBC drama called Father Brown which ran for several years, and is now on Netflix.  The series is based off of short stories of the same name by GK Chesterton.  Father Brown is a Roman Catholic priest, who is adept at solving mysteries.  In each episode, there is a crime, often murder, and while the police conduct their investigation and interrogate suspects, Father Brown runs his own investigation on the side, and finds the real guilty person.

To be honest, part of me sides with Inspector Valentine, who wishes Father Brown would stop meddling in the investigation.  After all, Father Brown is a priest, not a detective, and while the actual trials are never shown, one cannot help but think the typical defense attorney on Law & Order would accuse Father Brown of tampering with evidence, and manipulating things to his own advantage.  It should be noted that while Inspector Valentine is bound by the law, and presumably search warrants; Father Brown has no such hindrances.

But that line of thinking exposes my own mindset, as well as the mindset of most people today: the priest should tend to his church duties, and let the police handle investigating the crimes.  In fact, while it would indeed take him longer, there is no evidence that Inspector Valentine would not eventually find the true guilty party of each crime.

But therein lies the faulty thinking that we are so accustomed too.  Father Brown does not go down to the police station and pick up the latest unsolved mystery off the Inspector’s desk.  The people who are murdered, and the accused, and even those eventually found guilty are all members of his parish.

A congregation cursed by God to have some many victims and people capable of murder sitting side by side?  Well, it should be noted that this is fictitious writing.

But what is not pretend, is that Father Brown is involved in the lives of his parishioners, as any good pastor or priest should be.  He is frequently seen attending local events, walking through the town markets and visiting with the locals.  He is not, as many are prone to do today, confined to the Sunday morning activities of his people; rather he is there in the midst of their daily lives, engaging them on all levels, even if that means showing up and discovering dead bodies and then searching for the murderers.  Father Brown knows his people need him in their lives, and he is more than willing to oblige, not for the sake of the story, but for the sake of the Gospel.

That’s the kind of pastor I want; not because I might find myself falsely accused of some crime one day and I will need him to prove my innocence, but because I want a pastor who is not just there on Sunday morning, but a pastor who is there every day of the week, involved in the lives of his people.

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A word to the Shepherds

Circuit 13 & 15 Joint Winkel – St. John 10:1-10

In my fourth year of seminary, Dr. Warneck, gave us his infamous handout the first day of his Pastoral Theology class, which probably totaled half a ream of paper; nearly 250 pages for each student.  The packet was generally a random collection of articles and handouts that he had collected over the years and deemed appropriate to pass out to us for our own use.

One such insert was a proposed outline for the pastor’s work schedule; an average day which ran about 12 hours, included time for personal study and prayer, as well as office work, home visits, sermon and Bible study prep, and just about everything else you can imagine.  The schedule also included among other things an annual retreat to work on hymns and sermon outlines for the coming year, and the reading of at least two books a month.

One can only imagine what a first year seminarian would have thought at receiving such a schedule.

Perhaps they would have decided that being the sheep was better than striving to be the noble task of being a shepherd.

After all, sheep have all the fun; sheep run and play and do what they pleases.  Sheep come to church, sit in the pews, sing the hymns they like and fidget during the ones they don’t like.  Sheep may or may not listen with full attention to the sermon, and yet will still come through the door at the end and compliment the message.  If sheep stay home, no one much fusses; if sheep wander away, everyone rolls their eyes and moves on.  And if the sheep should so desire to come back, they are welcomed with open arms.

But the shepherd is quite the different story.  Not everyone wants to be the shepherd.

Shepherds have to work; not just one hour one day a week, but shepherds have to work every day, because missing a day only means working twice as hard the next three days.  While I can’t think of anyone who keeps up with that 4th year Pastoral Theology schedule, it would indeed be fair to say that it is not for lack of things to do.  Shepherds work most days, and think about work all the other days.

Oh to be sheep once more.

And that is exactly what we try to do, is it not?  Do we not look at the life of the sheep and try to mingle it with the life of a shepherd?

Sheep take the summer off; so why can’t I?  We’ll still have church each week, but don’t expect much more than the bare minimum the rest of the week.  Sheep get to run and play on Saturday, so who is to say I am to be bound to a laptop?  Sheep roll around and get dirty and no one says a word, so why can’t I do the same?

And indeed, who is to say you cannot?  Wellness demands time for rest and play; studies have even determined that those who rest and play regularly, actually work harder in the end.

All the perfect means to justify the sheep-like tendencies of the shepherds.

But that is the pitfall is it not?  Shepherds who look like sheep are soon indistinguishable from the sheep.  Shepherds who slack in their studies will soon have nothing to offer to their sheep when the wolves come prowling around, seeking someone to devour.  Shepherds who look like sheep, soon are no more useful on Sunday morning in deciphering Law and Gospel than sheep.

But shepherds are like sheep in this respect; in that both sheep and shepherds need to hear the words of the Good Shepherd, who comes to atone not just for the sins of the sheep, but also the sins of the shepherd.  The Good Shepherd comes and lays down His life for shepherds who falter, for shepherds who fall, for shepherds who in the end look an awful lot like sheep, because they are still sheep in need of a shepherd.

The Good Shepherd comes to you this day and every day and delivers the same words and promises to you that you deliver to His sheep.  There are soft pastures for you to rest in; there is still water for you to drink from; when you walk through your valley of the shadow of death, you do not walk alone, for the Good Shepherd walks with you.  There is forgiveness, life and salvation for you, just as there is for those you shepherd.

Shepherds are not sheep, but shepherds get the same body and blood, the same certainty of forgiveness, the same Savior that sheep get.

As we head into the summer months, take this time to refresh yourself in the cool waters that the Savior provides; bask in the glow of the sunshine as opposed to the glow of the laptop; feast on the goodness that summer provides to one and to all.

But do not forget that you are shepherds, and that there is still work to be done in the harvest field.  Remember Paul’s words to Timothy: Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.  Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.  And again; Preach the word, be ready in season and out of season.  And again: Continue in the things you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.

Remain sharp shepherds of the flocks; for sheep still need a shepherd to protect them; sheep still need a shepherd to point them to the same Jesus that the shepherds look to.

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Just do it

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First Lutheran Church  Plainville, Kansas

Peace Lutheran Church   Natoma, Kansas

May, 2017

At any given time, I have a variety of writing projects that I am working on.  Some of these have deadlines that have to be met; others have no such deadline and will get done when they get done.  Most are related to ministry here in Kansas, one or two go beyond that.

Every now and then, a project moves off the ‘to do’ pile and goes into the ‘done’ pile.  Occasionally however, some projects go from the ‘to do’ pile to the ‘trash’ pile, as there just seems to be no good way to bring it together in the way I envision.

One project in particular has been sitting on the ‘to do’ pile far longer than all the others; if ever written, the goal is to send it in for publication, as it would benefit those far and wide, but alas, the words for this article still escape me.  I have tried numerous times to craft it, but it just will not fit together.

The goal is to write a ‘how to’ article for daily devotions.  The premise would be to walk one through the process of devotions, what to do and when and why; with the ultimate goal being to establish a routine that one could do on a daily basis.

Sounds simple, right?  So what’s the problem?  Too many variables.  Just open up LSB to pages 295-298, and you will see 4 options for devotions, each with a different twist.  Or go to Luther’s Small Catechism, and you will see the description for Morning and Evening Prayer with their own patterns.  Or go to Portals of Prayer, or any other devotional book, and find still another order laid out.

It is borderline insanity.  How do you write a ‘how to’ article on daily devotions when everyone does something completely different, and you can add or subtract about a dozen different things?

So I was discussing this issue with a friend who is also a pastor.  I told him the vision and what I wanted to write, and yet there being too many variables to account for.

His response was profound: Just do it.

Not just go ahead and write the article on how to do daily devotions, but just do daily devotions.

Just tell people to do devotions.  It doesn’t matter what pattern you use, or what devotional you use, or if you sing a hymn or not, or read the Catechism or not, or have a reading from one of the historic Church fathers or not; just do devotions.  Just read God’s Word, just pray, just do something.

Something after all is better than nothing.  Just reading a few verses at a time is better than no verses read ever.  Just praying the Lord’s Prayer is better than praying nothing at all.  Just doing devotions, no matter how brief, is better than not doing devotions.

There are so many resources for devotions that we have complicated the matter beyond all human reasoning; we have taken what should be simple and turned it into deciphering nuclear codes.

The simplest advice that can be given to someone who is not doing devotions, is not to point them to the CPH catalog, but to tell them: just do it.  Just pick something up and start using it daily.  If you miss a day, don’t worry, just go on to the next one.

Whether you are young or old, just do it.  Whether you have done devotions everyday your whole life, or if you have never looked past the cover of Portals of Prayer: just do it.  The benefits of doing devotions is immense, but the only way you get the benefit, is to just do it.

God Bless!   Pastor Schmidt

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Strangers in the night

Easter 3 – St. Luke 24:13-35

Who are the two Emmaus disciples?

Our text sort of identifies them as Cleopas and Simon; but that only begs the next question as to who are they?

And why are they leaving Jerusalem?  Have they given up hope?  Or are they showing their own level of obscurity in that it was safe for them to walk about, as opposed to the inner-circle of disciples who feared the Jews, and would have been more recognizable, and thus subject to arrest?

And why does Jesus appear to them?

After all, every other appearance thus far has made sense.  He appears first to the women at the tomb; they will be the first witnesses of the resurrection, and in fact, they are the ones most in need of seeing the resurrected Jesus, for they are confused by the earthquake, the stone and the words of the angel.  In fact, Mary’s own words to Jesus reflect her need to see Jesus, for she begs the man whom she assumes to be the gardener to show her where they have taken the body.

The next appearance is the one we heard just last Sunday, where Jesus appears to the disciples first without Thomas present, and then again with Thomas present.  Again this appearance is necessary for the benefit of Thomas and his demand to touch the physical resurrected Jesus with his own hands; thus confirming for himself and for all people of all times and places that Jesus had indeed physically risen from the dead.

But then there is today’s Gospel text, which recounts the Emmaus disciples; what are we to make of it?  What benefit does the Church receive by Jesus appearing to two disciples of which we know nothing about?

That is not to say this text does not have potential.  In fact, this text would be a lot more interesting, albeit a lot longer in terms of word count, if we actually had recorded for us what Jesus said when He opens up the books of Moses and the Prophets and the Writings to these two disciples.  We have our own studies showing the many and various Old Testament prophecies concerning Christ, but why not have it straight from our Lord’s own mouth?

This text would be even more intriguing if we swapped out the two disciples, and instead had Jesus appear to new best friends forever Herod and Pilate.  What an amazing text that would be if the two men who refused to intervene in the kangaroo court trial that led Jesus to the cross could now see and hear the words of the man who was so oddly silent when He last stood before them.

But if Pilate and Herod hearing and seeing Jesus is too much of a stretch for you, how about Jesus appearing to the Pharisees and chief priests who demanded that Jesus be crucified so vehemently.  They are the ones who misinterpreted the entire Old Testament, they are the ones who refused to believe, they are the ones who could do the most in terms of bringing people to faith; why not have Jesus open their eyes to the words of the Old Testament?

But alas, what we see is what we have.  Two nameless disciples, walking along the road, listening to Jesus, only to have Him vanish the instant they realize who He is.

And so we shrug this text off as the Church scraping the bottom of the barrel in search of one more Easter text; and in fact this is it: next Sunday, we go on to Christ as the Good Shepherd, and then on to some other readings dealing with Christ as Lord of all.

So we hear this last text, and then go looking for things that are more interesting and more intriguing to our ears.

But before you wander off, ask yourself one more time, who are these two disciples?  And what happens before their very eyes on that road to Emmaus?

First they are wandering, lost in their thoughts and emotions about what has happened the previous week.  A roller coaster of a week to be sure, with excitement and discouragement and tragedy and now mystery and confusion and joy all mixed into one bag.

They are then approached by Jesus, and they listen to Him as He opens the words of the Scriptures to them; no doubt pointing to Himself, but pointing to them as well and saying, this is what has happened for your sake and for your benefit.

And then they sit down and watch Jesus as He breaks bread.

What does that sound like?

It sounds like worship.  It sounds like Sunday morning.  It sounds like the Word being read and proclaimed into our ears; and it sounds like the Lord’s Supper being celebrated.

Who are the two disciples?  In our text, they are Cleopas and Simon, but you can put your own names in there now.  The two disciples are you.

You sit in a world dazed and confused by the actions swirling around you; you sit in a world where each week you experience your own roller coaster of emotions from one end to the other; and then you come here; and you hear of Jesus.  You hear of how Jesus has come to bring order and peace to this world, and to your own life.  You hear how Jesus redeems you from the chaos and commotion that surrounds you, and offers to you forgiveness and life.

And then you receive from Jesus the gift of His body and His blood; confidence of what He has won for you; and the strength to carry on as His own child each and every day.

This text is all about Jesus for you.

For you are most certainly correct; Jesus did not have to appear on this road to these two nobody disciples; He could have gone to Herod and Pilate; or He could have gone to some Pharisees and chief priests; or He could have just gone to some of the bigger name disciples, ones we would recognize more readily.

But He does not.

Instead He appears on the Emmaus road to these two disciples, to you, to me.  He appears and declares that Easter, that the resurrection, is for you too.  This is not just for those who we will celebrate on Church Feast Days; nor is this just for those who we read about in history books; nor is it just for those whose names we recognize.  Easter is for you too.

This text is for you.  For Jesus comes and makes Himself known to two disciples whose names are only known by our Father in heaven; and if He will do that for them, then why won’t He do the same thing for you too?  Jesus comes and shows Himself to you today, here in the Word and in the bread and wine; He shows that He is risen for you, and that He has come to take away your sins and grant you everlasting life.

And, this text has one more note for you.

After Jesus disappears from before them, the two disciples look at each other, and then run back to Jerusalem to tell the others what had just happened.

Just as Jesus did not just come for those who are known and for those who are recognized, but that He also came for those who are known only by their Father in heaven, so too does the work of sharing that news extend to not just the well-known and those in Church positions, but it also extends to you.  Take the good news of Christ risen for all people, and share it with others; tell those around you in your home and in your lives, that Christ is indeed risen, not just for a select few, but that He is risen for you as well.

For the risen Lord appears to you on this day in the same way He appeared on that Emmaus road: in the Word and in the Sacrament.

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Why we hate Call Day sermons

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This week is the annual high feast day in the LCMS; it is the day the St. Louis and the Fort Wayne seminaries get lots of attention and lots of praise for presenting to the Church at large students that they have spent the past few years training to be first Vicars and then Pastors.

For the past 10 years or so, both services at both seminaries have been streamed online for everyone to watch; and with the advent of social media, those of us unable to attend, have been able to comment and critique the services in particular and the event in general in real time.

Perhaps the most popular critique of the services is the sermon.  To listen to some, the person preaching should be sent back to Seminary and forced to take Homiletics all over again.

Now to be fair, some sermons preached are better than others.  But to say that they are all bad, or to say that there is nothing to be gained from listening to them, is unfair.  But the critiques continue, why?

Our own most grievous fault – complaining about another’s preaching, is often a way to compensate for one’s own poor preaching.  President Harrison has called for all pastors to evaluate their own preaching and to refresh themselves on the basics, particularly Law and Gospel.  He didn’t do this as a backhanded way to improve the preaching of a few District Presidents, he did this because Synod wide, preaching is subpar, and Synod wide, we need to improve.

Third Commandment Issues – Just as the laity can sit in the pews and disregard the pastor’s sermon as an obstacle to what they really want (to go home), so to do pastor’s.  The common Call Day mantra is that the candidates (and everyone else) just want to find out where everyone is going, and so we pick apart the sermon simply because it is the thing in the way of what we really want.

We wish we were preaching – If you ever see a pastor sitting in the pew on Sunday morning, don’t be fooled; he really wishes he were preaching.  Call Day is the biggest stage in Synod, and who would not want to preach and tell young men preparing to enter the ministry their own words of wisdom?  And yet, the guy in the pulpit is not doing it the way you want, so break out the criticisms.

We hate the Law and Gospel – one of the readings for this Sunday is from Acts 2, and it says that the people were cut to the heart (convicted) after hearing Peter’s words.  Don’t be fooled, no one wants to be convicted; and certainly no one wants to admit openly that they need to hear the Gospel for the forgiveness of their sins.  Call Day sermons are to those in the pews and for those watching at home; and the Law and Gospel can pass through the internet.  Do we hate the sermon because the preacher is talking about us?

Call Day Traumatic Stress – A diagnosis that is not in the latest DSM, but perhaps should be.  Call Day brings forth a whole host of emotions for many of us; most particularly our own.  Sometimes the first call is not as rosy as one would hope, so regardless of how life is now, to hear the words of loving people and serving the Church brings forth memories of how hard it was to love and serve that church, or one’s current church; and so we bash the whole thing, with the biggest target being the sermon.

Its tradition – The seminaries break out the fancy paraments and decorations; the Council of Presidents are all there; everyone is happy; and bashing the sermon is just another part of the day that has been etched into our minds.  If we are bashing the sermon, then it surely must be Call Day.

To listen to the Call Day sermons is just like listening to any other sermon; we listen for the Law and Gospel; we listen for Jesus; we listen for how it applies to our lives.  And surprisingly, we will find that the sermon applies to far more people, then just those sitting in Kramer Chapel and the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus, dressed in black, praying for an Amen, so they can find out where they are going.

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Worthy to suffer

Easter 2 – Acts 5:29-42

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