Ash Wednesday

Fasting and bodily preparation are fine outward training. Of course, it isn’t commanded, but it trains us and points us to the giver of all good things. It is a personal thing for you and for God. It isn’t for the world to know about, for our friends to commiserate or rejoice over for brownie points or status or popularity. It isn’t something to boast over. Just do it for training, do it in secret, and you will be rewarded by the God who dwells in secret things. We can’t boast in things, in our works, in our world. Moths and rust will destroy these things. Boasting in our popularity or our ability to give up chocolate or soda or anything else will only separate us from the God who redeemed us from death and the devil.


What you did today is not fasting. You marked your heads with ashes because you are the people that will die. There are those who would ridicule you for marking your foreheads with ash while reading Jesus’ words: Do not disfigure your face… But Jesus is talking about fasting, and fasting for the sake of popularity, fasting in public. The imposition of Ashes is not fasting. It isn’t concerned with popularity, but with reminding you and me that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We are the people of Adam’s curse. For by one man, sin entered into the world and that sin was given you in your conception. It is the same reminder that God gave to Adam in the garden and the same reminder that Saint Paul gives us when he says, “all have sinned and have fallen short of the kingdom of God.” Ashes are not the medium of fasting, but the sign of mourning and sadness. They are the mark of the mortal.

Don’t be fooled by a world that would convince you there is no need to mourn. The world is not interested in weeping. We are not of this world. We are the people of the Crucified one. And that means that we acknowledge that death is not how it was meant to be. It is not an escape, it is a punishment. Our sin has done this. Man has perverted what was God’s perfect gift of life and now we suffer and we die. We weep and we mourn. We grieve and know that this isn’t right. And to grieve is okay. Death isn’t the way it was meant to be. To suffer isn’t how we were created. We grieve and will continue to grieve because we acknowledge that we are sinners in need of a savior. We are sinners that can’t save ourselves. We grieve because our loved ones aren’t supposed to be separated from us. But we grieve and we endure suffering because we have hope. Hope in the Christ who has conquered death and has suffered on our behalf.

You mourn with ash upon your forehead, but not just a dot or a swipe. We mourn with a cross on our forehead. Usually you don’t see it, but it’s there everyday. Usually it is forgotten and looked over. But today, we see it. We see what God has place upon your head. We see what infuriates the devil. Today, the Lord makes known again, what he showed the world at your baptism: you are a child of God. For in your baptism, Christ has clothed you in his righteousness. The death he died on the cross is your death and the life he lives is your life. So it is today that we remember our baptism. Today we remember and we see the cross of Christ. Jesus has died and rose again. He did it so that you would not be separated from him, but that you would have all things, even the treasures of heaven.

So a cross, to mark us as the mortals that have been wrapped in immortality: The immortal mortals. A cross on your forehead… put there when you were baptized, seen again today, declaring you the people of the cross… the ones that suffer with Jesus, for the ones that suffer with Jesus are the ones that live with him forever. Thus our lenten fast begins… in penitence and preparation, we set our eyes on Jesus and his cross. He sets his death before us again today and our eyes and our ears and our mouths behold his glory, the salvation of God has been given to us.


The Son of God Breaks In

So as the season of Epiphany comes to a close, we return to the recurring truth that is the Son of God: He walks through locked doors. We would have all sorts of walls to keep him out, but instead, he walks right through them and settles in on our sin. What does he do that for?? He comes for one reason: to take it from you. In its place he puts his righteousness and salvation. As you celebrate Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras or Carnival… remember that we celebrate because our God has become a Man and he walks through the mess that is your sin and forgives it all. He comes for you and clothes you in his righteousness. You don’t have to go find him, he has sought you and found you.

Veiling during Passiontide

We veiled the crosses at Our Redeemer yesterday for the start of Passiontide.  Below is the little blurb I put in the bulletin.  I constructed it from a few different places.  Thank you to Pastor Petersen and Deacon Gaba.  Did your parish veil its crosses?  Do you have photos?  I’d love to see them.

Passiontide and the Veiling of the crosses  The Church prepares for Easter in four distinct phases: Pre-Lent (Quinquagesima, Septuagesima, and Sexagesima), Lent (Invocabit through Laetare), Passiontide (Judica and Palmarum), and Holy Week. The 3rd phase begins today, March 21. We will drop the Gloria Patris from all services and veil all the crucifixes and crosses in the Church.

The veiling of the crucifixes is a symbol of mourning. It is not meant to spare us from looking at the cross so much as it is to draw our attention to the cross and also to remind us of what happened on the cross: Jesus died.  The Church mourns this death even as she knows it is the source of her life. The Church would not have the crucifix become an invisible part of the architecture. Significantly the Gospel on Judica Sunday, which begins the Passion season, tells us that Christ seeks not His own glory. He walks to the cross knowing that in honoring His Father, He is glorified, and thereby gives eternal life to all who are faithful to His Word, the Word of the Cross. And after He speaks His Word to those who cannot see Him for what and who He is, we are told that He hid Himself, and went out of the temple. So the veiling, which begins on this day, fits most significantly with this Gospel, for the image of Christ is hid from our outward view, and He is seemingly taken out of His temple, as it were.

The removal of the Gloria Patri is similar. The idea is to remove for a short time to draw attention to it and keep it from becoming commonplace and unnoticed.

A Sermon for Reminiscere – Matthew 15

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  It looks pretty grim.  They tell me this is a dying place.  The sun and its rays are hidden and the fierce darkness of Satan’s clouds are rolling in.   The rain is sure to fall upon our heads… The day is past, your prime is over, the excitement blown out when the clouds blew in.  Some say its the neighborhood or the gangs.  Some say its just because everyone has moved on in their lives.  Our Redeemer Lutheran Church waiting for its end… no youth, no excitement, no money.  What else is there to do?

Satan’s been lying in wait.  He’s been counting the days, to stir up within us terrible thoughts, as if God our Lord had rejected and forsake us.  His sly and cunning tongue whispering the nothings of destruction in the ears of God’s elect.  By a word he cast doubt in Eve’s ear and by misusing the Word of God he wills to convince you that trouble will reign in your hearts, in this place, among those gathered here… that you aren’t worthy of the things God has in store for you, that you don’t even belong to him.  “Heathen, Jesus came for the lost sheep of the house of Israel – you are nothing, dogs at best, mangy mutts to be kicked under the table.”

Yes, even the Lord Jesus would agree.  He gave the Canaanite woman the silent treatment.   He reminded her that he came only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  He called her a dog.

The disciples were bothered by her continued pestering.  Send her away, Jesus, for she cries out after us.  Wailing and yelling she longed for the King of kings to cast out her daughter’s demon.  She wanted her daughter back.  She came to the creator of all things and called out again and again.  But he ignored her.  She was a Gentile.  He was a Jew.  He the King of the Jews.

You and I might have quit there.  He won’t answer.  His people are staring at me.  I’m uncomfortable and I’m not getting anywhere.  It isn’t going to happen anyway.  She’s been tormented for years… I’ve been looking for a job for weeks… The congregation is getting smaller and smaller… We’ve been hoping the cancer would go into remission…

We’re not getting anywhere.  We ask and ask and ask.  He doesn’t answer.  He says ask for anything and the Father will give it… but there is no answer.  We might as well just pack it up and go back home and quit there.

But, the difficulties in the way do not appall the Canaanite woman; she keeps only in view the object of her coming, and forgets that she is a heathen and he a Jew.  Her confidence and hope in Christ are so great that she never doubts his condescension.  Her faith cancels the fact that she is a heathen.  One without faith would never have acted this way, but would have concluded: It is of no use to present my request before him; I am in the clutches of the devil beyond all hope; let his own people come to him; them he will hear, but not me.

It is surely a severe and dangerous affliction when Satan comes and prompts the heart to despair of the mercy of God.  Rest assure the devil is at work to speak his lies to your hearts in this place.  You and I are his target.  He labors to convince us to refuse to pray to Christ, and rather to be ready to curse him… to think that all is lost and damnation sure… to think we are the heathen kicked under the table to be ignored by God and his Christ.

But she cried out all the more, “O Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Full of earnestness and faith she confesses with these words her faith in Christ as the Savior of the world.  And yet he says, “I came only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  And here her faith moved her like your faith has moved you today.  She worshipped him.  Casting herself to the ground she would not let him go.  “It is not good to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs.”  It was as if he said to her, “You are a child of the devil in every respect; begone, I will have nothing to do with you!”  It matters not what your problem, woman, be gone.  Stop pestering and leave me.

You and I cower and relent.  We retreat and stop asking… we decide he must have better prayers to answer, more important people to care for… and we go home.  And yet we learn a most startling thing; faith will not retreat.  It will not cower in even the most harsh of rebukes by the King of kings.  Faith takes hold of Christ’s words, even when they sound harshly, and changes them into soothing expressions of consolation.  She replies, Yes Lord – I am a dog.  Treat me like one if you like.  Give the bread to the children, and seat them at your table… only allow me to sit under the table and pick up the crumbs those children drop.  With those scraps I will be happy.  Taking the place of a dog she receives the privileges of a child.  And here, forced by his own words, Jesus gives in.

Satan would have us believe it is a dark and gloomy day.  But really it is the light of Christ that dawns.  The rays of God’s pure light make manifest what really is happening here in this place.  The Holy Spirit is creating faith in your hearts.  He is using the very Word of God come from heaven to create and sustain this faith – deep within the soil of your heart.  And this makes the devil frustrated because this faith reaches forth and grasps ahold of Jesus… just like this Canaanite woman’s faith.  It draws you to Jesus in your need.

Christ’s repulsive treatment of the Canaanite woman did not proceed from an unfriendly disposition towards the Gentiles, but it was his purpose to test and make manifest the faith of this woman, so that we might learn from her.  Jesus is so well pleased with this woman that he can no longer withhold his mercy and kindness, but tells her: “O woman, great is your faith.  Be it done to you as you desire.”

And so likewise he is please with your faith.  No longer stuck under the table eating the scraps that fall to the floor, Jesus commands that you come up higher and sit with him as he restores you in the forgiveness of your sins and gives you life and salvation.  He does this by his body and blood shed upon the cross.  This the Holy Spirit testifies to you and this your faith reaches out and grabs ahold of.  Jesus died upon the cross and now the devil’s trickery and lies have no depth.  The grave can’t hurt you and death has no sting.  For in the renewal of life, the Lord of life showered you with his blood, drowning the dog that was your old Adam and instead brought forth a new man – righteous before the Father and holy in his sight.  You are made new in the death of Jesus.  You are given new life in the resurrection of the flesh of Jesus.

Satan would have you believe this is a dark and gloomy place.  He wants you to stop praying for this congregation and to ignore its people.  The devil works overtime to make sure that there is division and strife among you.  But I tell you today – in your hearing – that Jesus, the Son of David, the Lord of life is here in this place.  Satan has no hold.  He is a liar.  But Jesus speaks the truth.  He is here and he has called this place holy and vibrant.  He looks out and sees brothers and sisters – not dogs – Children of God.  Angels are singing because of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church.  All the vault of heaven resounds because of this family.  Jesus is building you up.  He has made you alive.  Today he sets a table in the presence of your enemy the devil.  He sets it here for everyone to see.  Your faith is great – your sins are forgiven – come dear brothers and sisters and feast with Jesus and celebrate with God.

The day is now.  This is the day of salvation.  This is Our Redeemer’s prime.  Celebrate with Jesus.  The Father is celebrating because of you and because his Son has picked this people.  In the name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Our Redeemer Lutheran Church Houston

The Reverend Steven Thomas Cholak

Ash Wednesday Sermon

A cross on each forehead to remind us of what Christ has done.  Reaching out his holy arm, he has claimed you as his own.  This is in stark contrast to what we do.  Take for example the Tower of Babel:  The people wanted to make a name for themselves.  They wanted to reach to the heavens and without God’s help, or rather, apart from God’s help, be forged into a single lasting memory.

Adam wanted to be like God.  Not understanding that the devil had duped him – because God had already made Adam and Eve in his own image.  And so to make a name for himself, he took the fruit Eve, his wife, gave him and he ate.  We too want to have our name in lights, our memory enduring, our legacy in the history books.

Apart from God, on our own road, we want to forge a legacy.  We love to create a name for ourselves.  But creating this name comes at a cost.  It means that someone else’s name can’t be in your way to the top.  It means that you forget God.  You start to expect all good in other things – in your own life, in your job, in your money, in your possessions… In your own name.  Where do you find your refuge?  With your whole heart – who or what do you trust?

And what of our wicked tongues?  We slander our friends, we betray them, and tell all sorts of lies about them.  We drag their names in the dirt under our feet.  We hold on to their wicked actions and give lip service to forgiveness… because we know better than God.  We know what’s best for our rise to the top and these sinners may get in our way.

Repent.  The kingdom of heaven has come very near.  The Lord Jesus has seen you in the depths of your sin and he comes to you.  Before the foundation of the world he wanted you to have a name that is above every name – so he predestined you to adoption – AS SONS – before the foundation of the world.  He wanted you to have his image, he wanted you to trust in him alone, to love and fear him above all things – this world, the devil, and even your own selves.  And at last to stand as one holy people.  His holy people.

So today a cross is traced upon your forehead, with the very dirt from under your feet, to show you what Jesus has done.  It isn’t the first time a cross was drawn there, no this one is placed where one already is.  For when you were baptized, the Lord Jesus put a cross there and also one upon your heart.  He put them there to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.  He wanted a mark placed upon you for the devil to see and even your own sinful nature.  It is this cross that shows who he is and what he has done.  It is with this cross that he is faithful to his promise.

Though great our sins and sore our woes, his grace much more aboundeth.  For when we were making a name for ourselves and traveling our own path, the Lord Jesus came and planted his Word deep within our hearts.  He called you and placed his holy name upon you.  The cross upon your forehead marks you as one washed by Christ’s blood.  For high upon the mountain of Calvary, Jesus was crucified and died – that his death would mean new life for you.

And so in the crucifixion of this Jesus we are gathered together.  We are made new and given forgiveness and life.  Today is the day of salvation – today is the day you have been made great.  Today you eat and drink with the King of kings and the Prince of life.

The cross upon your forehead has marked you for death.  The ash and dust remind us of the decay of death.  Each cross is made slightly different and none of them perfect.  That is how our sin is – individual, yet the same.  However – one cross, one Christ, one God has redeemed you.  That Jesus calls you by the name that is above every name.  Our Shepherd is good and true.  His helping love – no limit knows.  Today the Lord has done great things.  He calls you by name, his Father calls you his sons, he loves you – and the angels in heaven rejoice, for you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb and you are called Children of God.

In + Jesus’ Name.  Amen.

Reverend Steven Thomas Cholak

Lent Starts This Week

This Wednesday we begin our journey to the Cross of Good Friday.  Our celebration at Our Redeemer will be marked with the imposition of ashes and holy communion.  (There will be two services – one at 10:00 a.m. and another at 6:30 p.m.)

It is interesting to me that the same cross that was placed upon the forehead of the baptized is retraced this Wednesday in dust and ash.  What is not seen on a normal basis becomes something seen on Ash Wednesday.  Marked by the dust of the earth, the very work and merit of Christ is made known for us – personally for each of us.  We feel the grit and the dust.  We see the cross in the mirror and its presence is felt vaguely all day.  Luther wrote in his small catechism that we should start and end our day by tracing the holy cross upon ourselves.  So also we start the season of Lent with the sign of the cross made upon our heads.

This is why I love the liturgical year – the ebb and flow of the year uses our senses to remind us of the promises and work of Jesus.   God engages our bodies in the feeding and nourishing of Word and Sacrament.  Good Friday is seen for us, albeit dimly, upon our foreheads this Wednesday.  We are reminded that it is death that has now become a gate to life.  No longer does it have a sting.  No longer can it trap us and hunt us.  Now death is a slave of Christ and our death is undone.

Reminded of Christ’s work on the cross, we will then proclaim that death again in the celebration of the Supper.  There, at the communion rail, the Our Redeemer family will join your family in the participation of the body of Christ and the blood of Christ.  We’ll see you Wednesday.