St. John Lutheran Church, North Tonawanda, New York
IN NOMINE JESU
A most interesting event occurred two years ago this month. The International Astronomical Union, a world-wide gathering of astronomers meeting in the Czech capital of Prague, voted to declassify the planet Pluto, demoting it to "dwarf planet" status. Pluto, reportedly, had no comment. I'm sure that most of us not trained in astronomy would think of the declassification of Pluto as something goofy. I had a similar reaction in one of the developments of our new hymnal. The observation of the Feast of St. Laurence has been demoted from a minor festival to a commemoration. The hymnal that had previously served this parish, The Lutheran Hymnal, never included this feast, but TLH's successor, Lutheran Worship, published in 1982, had indeed included the celebration of this festival, as the early Church had done. When the early Church decided to declare a feast day in memory of this third-century deacon and martyr, she had declared that Laurence was as important a martyr to the church at Rome as Stephen had been to the Jerusalem church, as their duties in the Church had been similar. I had wanted to say that St. Laurence had been "Pluto-ed," but, given that our Synod's Commission on Worship's Lutheran Hymnal Project, already in 2002, decided to downgrade the remembrance of Laurence, some four years before the astronomers met to diminish Pluto's standing, it may be more accurate to say that Pluto was "Laurenced." You may be asking why I am making such a big deal about someone who died for the faith 1,750 years ago today.
Today we remember a man named Laurence, a third century deacon who was martyred for his faith. He was put to death on account of his faith in Jesus Christ. Laurence was likely born in Spain. He traveled to Rome and was appointed chief of the seven deacons and was responsible for church property—what was used for worship—and finances. The Roman emperor wanted the treasures of the church for himself, and he ordered Laurence to produce the "treasures of the church." What the deacon presented was no gold or silver. Laurence presented human treasures of the church, poor people whose lives were touched by Christian charity. The emperor was outraged and threw Laurence in prison, where it is reported that Laurence's behavior, his example, led to the conversion of the jailer and his family. The emperor arrested, tortured, and killed Sixtus II, the Bishop of Rome, and Laurence. On this date in the year 258, 1,750 years ago today, Laurence was martyred by being roasted on a gridiron. A Roman citizen, Laurence, was put to death by Roman authorities on account of his faith, for Christianity would not be legalized in the Roman Empire for another 55 years, not until the year 313, under the newly-converted emperor Constantine. Laurence's martyrdom left a deep impression upon the early Church, for the date of his death, August 10, almost immediately became a permanent fixture on the commemorative calendar of the Church. The Feast of St. Laurence was one of the first minor festivals observed by the Church, in addition to the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul and the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, three of the feast days that divide the Pentecost season, which we are in right now.
The brief biography you just heard is one reason why I am making a big deal about celebrating the Feast of St. Laurence today. The other reason is that today marks the beginning of the third tide of the post-Pentecost season, known as St. Laurence' Tide (or Martyrs' Tide). These five tides serve as mini-seasons within the Time of the Church, the Sundays after Pentecost. During this tide of the "green" season, there is a slight shift in the emphases that are to be drawn from the Propers. From now through most of September, pay close attention during the Readings, as you will hear of characteristics of many who died for Christ and for the Gospel, and of the saints still here on earth. The Gradual, the short psalm verses between the first two Readings, for this particular tide is from Psalm 34: "Oh, fear the LORD, you His saints, for those who fear Him have no lack! Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all" (Ps. 34:9, 19). This the Lord did for all who lost their lives for Him and His Gospel, including St. Laurence, and does for us His saints today. And since this feast day and this tide are named after Laurence, it is my pastoral belief that we have been done a great disservice by demoting his remembrance to a commemoration. To briefly summarize what the Commission on Worship has said regarding these celebrations, minor festivals are reserved for events in the earthly life and ministry of our Lord and for those people most closely associated with Him at that time, especially the Apostles and Evangelists, as well as Mary mother of our Lord, Mary the Magdalene, and John the Baptizer. Commemorations, then, according to the commission, are saints from the Old Testament and throughout the history of the Church and do not have, as of now, assigned readings. It is my pastoral belief, then, that to relegate this minor festival to minimal commemoration status, in the light of early Church practice, is poor pastoral and thus poor liturgical practice and is not truly meet, right, and salutary. But I digress.
Laurence heard the words of our Lord in our text, took up his cross, and followed the Lord. On one of the bulletin inserts there is an icon of St. Laurence. Icons are pictures that teach a story from the Bible or one of the saints. In this icon Laurence is shown holding a processional cross. This picture symbolizes what he did with his life, taking up his cross and following Jesus, even unto death. Rather than turning over to the Roman emperor the monetary treasures of the church, he presented what he called the true treasures, the people whom the church helped under his watch, taking the Gospel that was read, proclaimed, and administered in the Divine Service each Lord's Day and giving it to those in the city of Rome who were in need: the poor, those who hungered and thirsted, both for food and drink and for righteousness. He was persecuted for the sake of Jesus Christ and for the sake of the Gospel. Rather than hand the treasures of the Church over to a pagan, an evil, emperor, Laurence found the poorest of his neighbors and emptied the Church's treasury to aid them. Laurence was about the Church's business; he was not a lapdog for the emperor. His calling as deacon was of greater importance to him than to submit to an evil ruler. Laurence died for his faith. He paid the ultimate price and is now seated at the Lord's heavenly banquet table, dining at the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which has no end.
What does the Feast of St. Laurence, Deacon and Martyr, have to do with us? The words the Lord spoke in our text are words that Laurence took to heart and to his death; we are to be willing to do likewise. While it is unlikely that we too will be roasted on a gridiron as Laurence was, we would do well to have the attitude that Laurence and the other martyrs had, to be ready and willing to lay down our lives for the sake of Christ and of His Gospel. In the Proper Preface for martyrs' feast days we pray, "It is truly meet, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God; for You choose the weak and make them strong in bearing witness to You. Your martyrs followed the example of Christ, and gave their lives for the glory of Your Name. Their deaths reveal Your power shining through our human weakness." It is God's power that shines through our human weakness. You see, our lives are not about us; our lives are about Christ. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he says to us:
You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.
And we have such trust through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. [2 Cor. 3:2-6]
We are each an epistle of Christ, with His Word written on our hearts, engraved there through the reading and preaching of His Word and the administration of His Sacraments, performed by His called and ordained servants, His pastors. St. Paul also writes, this time in the Epistle for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, "How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!' But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, 'LORD, who has believed our report?' So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:14-17). Laurence heard the Word of the Lord as his bishop, Sixtus, preached it in the Divine Service. Laurence took this life-giving, life-changing, and life-saving Word to the human treasures of the Church, incorporating the Liturgy into his vocation as deacon, carrying out the social ministry of the Church among the poor, giving them food for their bodies and the Gospel for their souls. He stood up to the emperor in the face of persecution. Through his vocation he testified of the hope that was in him, the peace which the world cannot give, the light of Christ.
Just as Laurence took up his cross and followed Christ, serving as His epistle, we have the joy, privilege, and duty to do likewise. At issue is whether we in fact have served Christ in our daily lives, whether we have obeyed the Gospel. Quite simply put, we have not. We have sinned in thought, word, and deed by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have had many opportunities to take what we have been given here in the Lord's house and give it to those who are in need, those who are in despair, and those who do not yet know Christ. We have squandered many, if not most, of our opportunities to speak of our Lord's goodness. We talk about many other things, but we become self-conscious when it comes to talking about our faith. We don't want to come across as "Jesus freaks." We don't make anyone uncomfortable, especially ourselves. Besides, we have come to think of the faith as being something private, a "me and Jesus" thing, which runs totally contrary to the history of the people of God. They came to the temples, tabernacles, and synagogues to be strengthened in their faith through the public reading and teaching of the Torah, done by the priest. They then went back to their everyday lives, living the faith and living in the faith. Laurence served in the local house church as a deacon under Bishop Sixtus, hearing the bishop read and preach the Word and received the Lord's Supper that he assisted in distributing, as Sixtus distributed the Lord's body and Laurence, the blood. Nourished and strengthened by the Means of God's Grace, Laurence lived out his calling and aided the poor, comforting them with the Good News of Christ crucified and risen. Today we are gathered here, having already been forgiven, to hear the Word of God as it is read and preached, and what do we do with it once we leave here today? [pause]
It has been increasingly more difficult to be comfortable or even bold in confessing Christ in the public square in what has been described as a "post-Christian" age and before that the era of "political correctness." We live in a world that is becoming more and more hostile to the one true faith, bristling at the truth that there is only one way into heaven: through Jesus Christ, bristling at any truth…period. Not much has changed over the centuries. In the Roman Empire Christianity was illegal, and anyone caught practicing "the Way," as the earliest Christians called the faith, would be put to death. A culture cannot be much more hostile toward the faith than that. It mattered little to Sixtus and to Laurence, as they were put to death for being faithful to the Gospel. That is not to say that there was no fear. Laurence feared being left behind to contend for the faith after his bishop, his father in the faith, was martyred. Three days later Laurence would join him at the eternal Feast. We are afraid of hurting someone's feelings; we are afraid of offending someone with the Gospel, which is the nature of the Gospel: it offends those who have no desire to be saved. Christ came and offended the Pharisees. Laurence offended the Roman emperor. We offend the Lord.
We also let the troubles of this world overtake us. We let matters of health, finances, and family keep us from focusing on the one thing needful: the Gospel. We are beset by the raging tempests brought on by the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. The disciples lost their focus in the storm while at sea. Peter saw the water and sank rather than focusing on Jesus. Today you heard in the Holy Gospel appointed for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Mt. 14:22-33) that our Lord, who walked on the water toward His disciples, said to them, "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid." We can almost picture our Lord whispering these words to Laurence as he was being led to the gridiron. We get to hear our Lord speaking these words into our ears this very moment: "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid."
Do not be afraid; the Lord is with you. The Blessed Virgin Mary was comforted by these words, words which offer us comfort and joy today. The Lord is with you wherever you go. He has sent His Holy Spirit to give you the words to speak when called upon to give an account of the hope that is in you. The Lord is with you so that you would take up your cross and follow Him. He makes you able to take up your cross because He has taken up His cross for you and died upon it for you. He was crucified upon the cross for Laurence and for you. He died upon the cross to take away your sins, including the reluctance to tell the Good News of Christ to our neighbors and all who need to hear it. Do not be afraid; the Lord is with you, for He has gone the way of the cross for you. He makes your cross lighter, for He has borne the weight of the sin of the world upon Himself. He has bled and died to take away your sins and mine. More than that, He has risen to prepare our way of the cross, the way that leads to heaven, where He has ascended and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Do not be afraid; the Lord is with you, for He has descended and come to you in His Word. He has come to forgive you and strengthen you to take up the cross, to take His yoke upon yourself, and learn from Him, that you would obey His Gospel and believe in Him.
He gives us the strength to take up our crosses by feeding us, giving nourishment and strength to our souls. He has fed us on the Holy Scriptures, that we would read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them that, by patience and comfort of His holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, that His Word may not be bound but have free course and be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ's holy people, that in steadfast faith we may serve Him and, in the confession of His Name, abide unto the end. Our crucified, risen, and ascended Lord also feeds you in His Holy Supper. He bids you to eat of His body, given for you for the forgiveness of sins, the very body that the bishop Sixtus administered. He invites you to drink of His blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, the very blood that the deacon Laurence assisted in distributing. Through these Means of Grace, your Lord feeds you, His human treasures, and makes you, who were poor, rich in His grace and mercy, for He has purchased you with His body and blood. The early Church father St. Ambrose said,
The glory of the Sacraments is the redemption of the captives. Truly they are precious vessels, for they redeem men from death. That, indeed is the true treasure of the Lord which effects what His blood effected. Then, indeed, is the vessel of the Lord's blood recognized, when one sees…redemption, so that the chalice redeems from the enemy those whom His blood redeemed from sin. How beautifully it is said, when long lines of captives are redeemed by the Church: These Christ has redeemed.
Take heart, O precious human treasures, for your Lord has redeemed you, giving you His precious treasure of the Gospel in your ears and on your lips. Take heart, take up your cross, and follow Him. Take heart, it is the Lord; do not be afraid. Laurence received his eternal reward 1,750 years ago today, the same reward we will one day be given, either through death or the Lord's return on the Last Day: eternal life in heaven with the Lord.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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