Wednesday, July 29, 2020

How much love. . .

Sermon for the Installation of the Rev. Paul A. Leigeber to Faith Lutheran Church, Union City, TN, and Trinity Lutheran Church, Dyersburg, TN.  Based on John 21:15-17.

Seven chapters before the portion of St. John’s Gospel read today, Jesus says, If you love me, keep my commandments.  None of us wants to hear those words because none of us wants to keep His commandments.  We would rather go our own way and do our own thing.  We don’t like being told what to do.  Lutherans in particular are adverse to rules and have found any number of creative ways to justify doing that which breaks the rules.  In fact, it has gotten to the point where often it is difficult to know if you are in a Lutheran congregation or not.  We will do anything for love, sang Meat Loaf, but we won’t do that.  But that is exactly what the Holy Spirit will do – he teaches us to obey.

To Timothy St. Paul promises the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge will give on the last day – and not to Paul only but to all who love His appearing.  This love is a little better.  It sounds like the promise of a reward and we love rewards.  We participate in all those rewards programs at the stores and have all the apps on our phones because we love free stuff.  While you cannot exactly take the crown of righteousness to the bank and deposit it, it is still something good.  What sinner does not want to be declared righteous and have somebody else pay the debt of your sins?  With St. Paul, we think this reward is well and good in the springtime of our lives but when you approach winter, when you realize that most of this mortal life is now in the rear view mirror, the idea of a reward at the end of your days is rather appealing.  And all you have to do to get it is to love Jesus!  Which ought to be easy because Jesus has loved you enough to suffer for your sins, to die in your place on the cross, and to rise to bestow upon you all the fruits of His obedient life and life-giving death.

But the Gospel for today is not directed at you – the folks in the pews.  It is directed at the successors of St. Peter and the apostles whom we would call pastor.  These are the men who serve us in the pulpit and at the altar.  Do you love me? Jesus asks.  So most of us can sigh with relief because Jesus is not talking to most of us but He is talking to Pastor Leigeber and to those other pastors gathered here today for his installation as pastor of Faith and Trinity congregations. Now we all want our pastor to love Jesus.  Who wouldn’t?  But we also want him to be friendly and agreeable, a good guy who does a good job, and somebody who will be able to repair our congregation and help us grow and be successful.  It would not hurt if were good at fund raising and was good in the community.  And we would not object if he were humble and a workaholic.  In fact, we would forgive him if he loved those in the pews even more than Jesus!

This love is first of all about faith.  For a pastor’s love for Jesus is not about how he feels about Him but whether this Lord and His goodness lives in him by faith. 
It is the work of the Spirit and not the work of man’s will to fill the heart with the desire for God and His Word.  To love the Lord is to rejoice in the incarnation of God’s Son in human flesh and blood.  To love the Lord is to believe in the words and deeds of the Savior who revealed the Father to us by His word and works.  To love the Lord is to trust in the promise of salvation sealed in His blood and not in our own good works or good intentions.  To love the Lord is to heed the promise of baptismal water that kills what is dead and raises new life from that death.  To love the Lord is to confess your sins and wait for the voice that absolves you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  To love the Lord is to hunger and thirst for the bread that is His flesh and the wine that is His blood. 

While it is Jesus’ question, we want to know the answers.  Does your pastor rejoice at the coming of Christ, confess rightly the Trinity and Jesus’ incarnation and birth, and preach faithfully Christ’s death upon the cross and His triumphant resurrection?  And in just a few moments, Pastor Leigeber will answer questions about just that – what he believes, teaches, and confesses.

This love is not theoretical.  The love that Jesus asks from St. Peter is not some curious question.  After all, this is the same Peter who had been called Satan and rebuked by Jesus to get behind Him.  This is the same Peter who walked a few faltering steps upon the water before sinking into his doubts and fears.  This is the same Peter who denied Christ over and over again as the rooster crowed.  This is the same Peter who was locked in the upper room with the rest of the disciples, fearful of anyone and everything after Jesus is buried and His tomb found empty.  No, Jesus was not asking because of intellectual curiosity.  This was personal.  Jesus was not only restoring Peter from his failings but was placing him into a position of great trust.  Jesus was entrusting into St. Peter’s care the health and life of His sheep – Jesus most precious possession.

This is what we are doing today.  Paul Leigeber is not a perfect man; he is a sinner – just like every pastor who ever was and who ever will be.  This is not about a man’s character as if any man was worthy of this calling.  Jesus is asking the pastor to look beyond himself and learn from Jesus to hold as most precious the sheep of God’s flock.  Jesus is not asking Pastor Leigeber to be a skilled entrepreneur and run the church like a business but to be a shepherd who loves and cares for the sheep.  This is not a puzzle for Pastor Leigeber to figure out.  How this love looks and how to care for the sheep – Jesus answers and supplies the resources of His Word and Sacraments.  Jesus is not asking if Pastor Leigeber will lay down his life for the Lord but whether he will lay down his life for the Lord’s sheep.  You should be pretty interested in the answer to that question.  I know I am and I expect that President Paavola is as well.

If you love Me, feed My lambs, tend and feed My sheep.  Did you notice how irritated St. Peter was by the question?  Maybe because of his past his loyalty is a sensitive issue.  This is not about making Peter feel bad.  Jesus is preparing His apostles to be pastors as well as apostles.  They are not simply being sent as messengers of the kingdom who preach and disappear only to show up somewhere else.  St. Peter and those with him are not vagabond preachers but shepherds and pastors.  Their concern is not to preach and go but to tend, feed, and care for the sheep of God.

It was easy enough to get ministers to show up here and preach on Sunday morning.  To find a pastor to live among you and serve you beyond Sunday morning was different.  Pastor Leigeber is here to tend to you as the sheep and lambs of God’s flock and to feed you with the Word and Sacraments of the Lord.  Jesus loves you enough to provide someone to live among you and Jesus will love and care for you through this man.  It is not enough that this pastor loves Jesus.  He is asked to love YOU in Jesus’ name.  That is a unique and special vocation and one that is given to few rather than to many.  If you love Jesus and love the care that Jesus is providing you through this man, show him.  Pray for him.  Follow him as he follows Jesus.  Listen to him when he must correct you.  Rejoice when through His voice Jesus absolves you.  Delight in the Word of God he preaches to you.  Come prepared by repentance to kneel and receive the Lord’s body and blood.  This will make it easier for him to love Jesus and to love the flock of God Jesus over which Jesus has made him bishop. 

And whatever the future brings, even through pandemic and pandemonium,  you will enjoy the faithful service of a shepherd who comes to you in Jesus’ name and with the means of grace Jesus has given His Church.  And when he looks into the mirror of his soul and sees all the reasons why he is unworthy of such a sacred trust, he will find the trust, prayers, and forgiveness of God’s flock as encouragement to carry on when the road is hard and the cost of this ministry is great.  And in the end, he will deliver Jesus to you and you to Jesus for everlasting life, when you will share with him and all the faithful, the reward of your faithfulness, the crown of righteousness and the gift of everlasting life.  Amen.

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