Sunday, June 25, 2006

Sermon: Presentation of the Augsburg Confession

25 June 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 10:26-33 (Neh 8:1-2, 5-6, 9-12; 1 Tim 6:11-16) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today marks the 476th anniversary of an event so important in the history of the Church that we celebrate it today as a feast day. On this date in 1530 in Augsburg, Germany, a document was read. But this was no mere document – it was a confession, a solemn public declaration of faith. This confession was made in a great time of danger and hostility against the Gospel, during a period of political turmoil, in days in which not even princes could count on having the right to free expression.

Indeed, most confessions are made in times of great upheaval and peril.

In our Gospel text, Jesus shows us just how urgent the notion of confession is: “Whoever confesses me before men, him will I also confess before my Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies me before men, him I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven.”

In other words, confession reflects salvation, and a failure to confess can land a person into eternal damnation. Jesus drives home the point of the importance of confession by pointing out that God himself is always in control – even when it seems to our feeble eyes that evil is winning. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground apart from God’s will, and so when persecution comes, we must still confess the truth and not fear what the evil one can do to us.

The word “confession” simply means to say the same thing, to repeat, to echo. This is why our blessed Lord instructs us to repeat his words – and to do even more: “Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on housetops.” The words of Jesus are nothing other than the very Word of life, the same creative Word that stirred the void at creation and brought the universe into being out of nothingness. This creative Word fashioned mankind and breathed the Spirit of God into him. And Jesus entrusts his Church with that same powerful, mighty Word.

And even when ruthless kings, princes, dictators, or even wicked bishops, popes, district officials or synodical leaders threaten us – we are to continue to say the same thing, repeat, and echo our Lord. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” We are to confess, and do so articulately, forcefully, and yet in love – knowing that these are not our words, and this is not our own personal courage that girds us for this battle between good and evil, but rather the Holy Spirit himself.

We see Ezra confessing in our Old Testament reading. After the children of Israel suffered decades of exile, they have miraculously and mercifully been permitted to go back home. Ezra the priest confesses by reading the Book of the Law of Moses to the people. He doesn’t rely on his own clever words, nor does he offer up a rambling prayer telling God that “we just wanna thank ya, Lord, for all the good weather.” No, he says the same thing that God said when he delivered his Holy Word to Moses. And Ezra makes this confession public. And Ezra drew conclusions from that Law, and confessed it to the people: “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn nor weep…. Do not sorrow, for the day of the Lord is your strength.”

St. Paul points out to his son in the faith, St. Timothy, that our Lord Jesus Christ himself made the good confession before Pilate. In the Book of Acts, we find Sts. Peter and John on trial for preaching the Gospel. They were arrested and beaten and ordered to cease their public confession of Jesus – and Peter replies: “We must obey God rather than men.” And the Gospel continued to be preached – even as Satan slaughtered these confessional Christians by the thousands.

It is part of the Christian’s cross to confess the true faith – in season and out of season, popular or unpopular, politically correct or incorrect, come what may. And often, what comes is death, imprisonment, or the threat of some bodily harm.

In 1530, a group of faithful Roman Catholics were seeking reform in a Church that had become a filthy sewer of corruption. The Papacy of that day was a superpower, and dissent was handled at the stake and at the rack. All efforts of reform either fell on deaf ears or resulted in death. But by the grace of God, this Lutheran reformation was turning out differently. With the Turk threatening the peace of the Empire, the Emperor called for a meeting between the Pope’s theologians, and these reformers who were called the insulting term: “Lutherans.”

This meeting in Augsburg was no laughing matter. The emperor and pope had the power to arrest and kill anyone who disagreed with them. The so-called Lutherans decided there was only one thing to do: confess. And that they did. On this date, they presented their confession. It is not large, in fact, CPH sells it in booklet form for less than a dollar.

This confession caused a stir as soon as it was read. The Bishop of Augsburg, who was faithful to the pope and in whose palace it was read, said that it was all true and could not be denied. One of the princes who was loyal to the pope asked the pope’s head theologian if it could be refuted. Dr. Eck replied: “I can’t refute it using only Scripture.” The prince was stunned, and asked: “Do you mean to say that these Lutherans sit inside Scripture, and we outside?”

Dear Christian brothers and sisters, our congregation confesses this Augsburg confession. Every rostered teacher at our school and every pastor this congregation has had since 1870 has explicitly sworn before the holy altar that they would norm all of their teaching by the Lutheran confessions, of which the Augsburg Confession is chief.

All around the world for nearly five centuries, churches that clearly proclaim the Gospel and rightly administer the sacraments have clung to this confession. In fact, some churches that we today call “Lutheran” don’t even have “Lutheran” in their title – but rather “Churches of the Augsburg Confession.” For our identity is not that we believe every word written by Martin Luther. Our identity is actually that we Catholic Christians who have come to be known as Lutheran confess this beautiful and true little document known as the Augsburg Confession.

You may also find it amazing that the current pope, Benedict, in his previous work at the Vatican as Cardinal Ratzinger, embraced the Augsburg Confession and called for its recognition by the Roman Catholic Church.

This is an astounding confession because it is nothing more than the confession of the ancient Catholic faith in its purity. As we confess in this confession:

“In doctrine and ceremonies we have received nothing contrary to Scripture or the Church universal.”

“Our churches do not dissent from any article of the faith held by the Church Catholic.”

“As can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church universal, or from the Church of Rome, as known from its writers.”

This confession is a creedal statement for all Lutherans around the world – with which we once had harmony and concord with one another. Of course, this is hardly the case today.

Even in our own synod, we have wandered from this confession. We have teachers and pastors whose oaths to this confession are only lip service. There are sophists who play word games with this confession so as to weasel around its very clear confession of the Catholic faith.

Should we be surprised? We saw the ancient Israelites fall away time and again, only to be rescued by God through prophets armed with his Word. We saw heresies and schisms threaten the early Church – with the right confession of the faith against all odds coming out on top. We saw unspeakable corruption in the middle ages, where salvation was bought and sold like butter and gunpowder, and where popes openly sired illegitimate children and bishops bought and sold powerful government posts while the common Christian was kept in the dark. It was out of this terrible state of affairs that this Augsburg Confession was drafted and presented, and became the backbone of what is today known as Lutheran Christianity.

So should it be any surprise that such reformation should be needed again? We poor miserable sinners are forgetful – which is why we drill the catechism into our young people, why we repeat so much of God’s Word in the liturgy and in hymns, and why we feel obliged to read, re-read, and study our confessions. We have the obligation to hold our leaders’ feet to the confessional fire. We have the obligation to take this Augsburg Confession as our own – not simply leaving it to pastors, professors, and synodical bureaucrats to argue about it. For this confession is your confession. It was presented by courageous laymen who knelt before the emperor and invited him to chop off their heads before they would abandon it.

For this is the nature of the Christian faith. It isn’t a “message.” It isn’t just a bunch of “data” or “facts” and “conclusions.” Satan knows the facts, and the demons know the “message.” Our confession is the very Word of God himself, the repetition of the Good News that our blessed Lord charges us to preach from the rooftop. Confession is repetition of the truth, the unpopular truth, the truth that will land you in jail or at the stake. It is the truth that may make others make fun of you, a truth that becomes the very center of your life.

For we don’t really confess a thing, but rather, we confess a person: Jesus Christ. Our Augsburg Confession is nothing other than the confession of Jesus and the Catholic faith, a confession that has changed the universe.

Let us embrace our confession, not in a spirit of arrogance, but rather in a spirit of humility and gratitude. For we stand in the long train of saints, martyrs, and heroes who all confessed our Lord. And at the very head of the line of this confessional train is our crucified Lord himself.

It is his blood that saves us, and his Word that delivers that salvation to us. May we remain faithful to this confession unto death, and may we transmit this confession faithfully to those who come after us until our Lord returns and we will have the opportunity to joyously and eternally confess him “the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom be honor and everlasting power. Amen.”

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, June 16, 2006

First Abuse of the Law

Mrs. Hollywood, Lionboy Hollywood and myself were coming home from the bookstore last night, crusing in the "Space Shuttle" (a euphemism for "mini van" that helps to attenuate the stigma of the symbol of middle age bourgoisie Americain) down West Esplanade Avenue through the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. We saw several blocks of police cars preventing traffic turning north.

This morning's newspaper reveals why.

There is much here about which to be disturbed. I believe it reflects a dark underbelly of 21st century American culture, one that is rooted in a misuse of the law.

Classical Lutheran theology recognizes three uses of the law: Curb, Mirror, and Guide.

The first use ("Curb") is the civil use: police, courts, jails, the hangman, writs of habeas corpus, appeals, citations, etc. This use of law is to curb criminal conduct. While this use of the law is a state matter (not a church matter), it is still ultimately God who administers this law. Such properly used secular law is God-pleasing, as it secures a civilized and peaceful society in which people can go about their lives and the Gospel can be proclaimed by the church.

The second use ("Mirror") is the condemnation of sin for the purpose of repentence. It is embodied in the Ten Commandments - which, as Jesus interprets them in the Sermon on the Mount, are unattainable for us sinful men - and thus we are driven to the cross and to the Gospel - the good news of Jesus' sacrificial death for us that atones for our sins. This use reflects our sins, like a mirror, so that we can see the ugly truth about ourselves and repent. Are you still with me? Okay, the third use ("Guide") of the law involves the Christian seeing God's law, especially the Ten Commandments, as a guide for the sanctified Christian life.

This article concerns the first use, the civil use ("Curb"), of the law. And I think our culture is misusing the first use.

The first use of the law is primarily to protect us by curbing violence and other crimes. We Americans value (at least traditionally and according to our founding documents) individual liberties and small government. But Americans have not traditionally looked to government to protect us from every imaginable evil. There is a trade-off. Allowing Americans to freely stroll up and down the aisles of WalMart buying cheese puffs, candy bars, ice cream, and lard with no restriction means some people are going to harm themselves by getting fat. Some will even die. But (at least for the time being), we Americans would rather be subjected to this danger than the threat of a government bureaucracy and policing agency to protect us from our own grocerial bad choices. The restriction on freedom, the taxation, the red tape, and the inconvenience would be too great a price to pay for enforced physical fitness by fiat.

Similarly, and more controversially, many states now allow motorcyclists to decide for themselves whether or not to wear a helmet - even Super Bowl champion quarterbacks. Of course, right now, I would not want to speculate as to how many football fans in Pittsburgh would be willing to revoke the helmet law in Pennsylvania, if not criminalize motorcycling all together in service of the great god football.

But let's think about this poor dead guy in Metairie. He was obviously mentally ill. He was eccentric. He had political stuff on his door. But he kept to himself. He never bothered or threatened anyone. He has no criminal record whatsoever. Somehow (and we are not told), someone got an order to incarcerate him in a mental hospital. Of course, this is similar as to how rapacious, buzzardlike children and grandchildren routinely get their uncaring, money-grubbing talons into grandpa's old house or mom's back forty. We are not told who or how this order was secured.

But we do know this - this eccentric man, a Vietnam veteran, who is paranoid that the government was coming to take him by force - all of the sudden finds the government coming to his house ordering him to be arrested and taken away by force. Should we be shocked at his response? How would you react if cops came to your door with an order to remove you from your home and lock you up in an institution against your will? Let's put it a different way: when Jews were being put into camps in Nazi Germany, would anyone have faulted them for resisting - even violently? Or is the proper response to simply board the boxcars and comply without so much as a whimper?

Now if this man's relatives really wanted to help him, perhaps other methods could have been tried. He may have been able to be coaxed out of his home by some other means than the very thing he feared: heavily armed uniformed agents of the government. If they knew the man was paranoid, hated the government, and was heavily armed, how did people expect this story to end? The stupidity of this approach ("victory is our exit strategy"?) that doesn't weigh other alternatives besides busting down the doors in a sweaty testosterone- and adrenaline-laced raid in this specific case is indicative of a larger cultural problem. And if arrest was really and truly the only way to protect him and get him some help, how about nabbing him at the grocery store or post office? I mean, having the heavily armed government swarm the home of a heavily armed paranoiac who fears the government doesn't seem like the really smart strategy, now does it?

Our society has become so infatuated and enthralled with violence and force as the "final solution" for everything, absolutely everything - that it is often the first resort, not the last. Be honest. How many of you have been stopped for a minor traffic infraction, like speeding, to have been treated to a Dirty Harry impression by a chunky cop with mirrored sunglasses with delusions of Clint Eastwood?

My dad had a run-in with a young cop not too long ago that left him baffled and outraged. My father is a soft-spoken 60-something guy who has never been in any trouble with the law. He pays his taxes, keeps his yard manicured, votes in every election, and always taught his sons to respect the police and other authorities. He is also a Marine Corps veteran. One afternoon, he rode his mo-ped to the city building to pay a bill. He parked his bike and ran inside, to be told by a militant police officer that he would have to move the bike or else it would be confiscated. The cop was the stereotype macho man in dark menacing glasses, boots, and a "high-and-tight" buzzcut. He was much younger than my dad, but was extremely hostile and rude, showing no respect for an elder, let alone for an honest citizen on a little motorized bicycle who was not engaged in any criminal activity whatsoever. I mean, what is more unthreatening than a senior citizen on a mo-ped? Give me a break! Was there a danger that he was a terrorist?

My dad was pretty appalled to be treated like a juvenile delinquent by a condescending goon half his age who was dressed like a stormtrooper in this sleepy little low-crime suburb. I know that my father would have liked to have demonstrated some basic Parris Island Marine Corps hand-to-hand combat techniques (and is more than capable) on this puffed-up, snot-nosed punk, but perhaps Marines were taught self-restraint in those days. He simply moved his bike. But the police sure didn't win any goodwill points that day. Hopefully, the folks who trained him think it's worth losing respect from nice taxpaying folks like my father. I'm just not sure what the upside is.

My 70-something father-in-law in Ottawa, Canada - as mild-mannered and non-violent as any Dutch-Canadian you can imagine - was likewise recently hassled (and threatened with arrest) by menacing-looking police officers just for asking a question. Even the typically polite and less gung-ho Canadian police have gotten in on the Bruce Willis act. Modern North American police uniforms seem designed to invoke a SWAT team, hoo-rah, let's-go-blow-something-up attitude. The days of Andy Griffith de-escalating a situation with winsome gentleness and politeness are long over.

I'm sure many of you have run into similar situations.

Is this hostility and lack of respect really called for? Is civility and politeness considered weakness in the culture of law enforcement?

In my own experience as a corrections officer in the 1980s, I say "yes!" I was so appalled by many (of course, not all) of my co-workers that I sometimes preferred the company of the inmates. Some officers deliberately harassed the inmates, depriving them of sleep, and intentionally treating them as sub-human. The same officers wondered why the inmates would never listen to them and did not respect them. I had a personal policy of professionalism and simple courtesy - and it served me well. I'm not talking about coddling - this was a jail, and it was most unpleasant. But I did not treat the inmates like animals or taunt them. Subsequently, I never had the difficulties of some of the other officers. As I said, not all of the officers were cut of this cloth, but there was definitely a "macho" subculture that did not discourage excessive force. In fact, to be a bully was seen as being masculine. And I believe this attitude has only intensified since my days of being in law enforcement.

Which brings me back to yesterday's incident and my complaint overall.

While police are under a lot of pressure, and while many of them truly need bullet-proof vests and firepower - it's overdone. These days, police uniforms look downright menacing. There is a desire to be seen as an overwhelming "shock and awe" force of intimidation instead of as heroes and helpers of society. Too often, the police adopt a posture of seeing the public as enemy instead of the people they are to protect, the very reason they serve.

As a matter of routine I see police cars weaving unsafely through traffic, speeding, tailgating, and with no use of turn signals. Many police officers hold the public (and the law) in contempt, and feel themselves to be above the law. It is a very real human temptation to abuse power. Original sin is itself a desire to exercise authority one doesn't have. Time and again, especially here in New Orleans, police officers are caught on videotape abusing, bullying, looting, and even commiting armed robbery! Of course, those who commit such heinous crimes are a small minority. But I contend that there is an institutionalized authoritarian culture in our America that makes such things far too common. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have recently been caught brazenly practicing bribery and other high crimes - and these are just the ones who got caught. There is a culture of privilege instead of a culture of service among those who administer and enforce our laws.

Many New Orleans area cops, especially post-Katrina, have demonstrated an unbelievable lack of judgment. Cops in my hometown, Kenner, not long ago arrested a dark-skinned woman and roughed her up while cuffing her and stuffing her into the cop car. Somehow, she died. We're not talking about a bruise - we're talking about death. Nobody seems to know how. Eyewitness accounts of being thrown to the ground are denied by the police. But somehow, this woman died while in their custody. Of course, the police denied all wrongdoing, and internal investigations cleared them (isn't that a shocker?). By the way, the woman was a prominant heart surgeon - not a terrorist or thief. Was this situation handled correctly? Do you think the "macho" culture of the police and the larger culture of violence in our society served this situation well?

A few months ago, America was treated to a video of New Orleans police shooting a black man who had a pocket knife. Dozens (no exaggeration) of police officers in riot gear surrounded this solitary mentally-disturbed older man who walked around slowly. They yelled at him, backing away from him as if he were armed with an uzzi. They eventually opened fire and plugged him with seven or eight bullets - killing him. Well, thank God! Someone could have gotten hurt!

In yesterday's incident, three police agencies surrounded the house and tried to get the homeowner out. They used tear gas. They sent in a robot (who knew suburban cops had robots?). They even blew up part of a wall with explosives - and still couldn't get him. All of these police, all of this technology. This became a one-man quagmire that was escalated to the point where people in the neighborhood were now in danger that they never were before with this man living in this house for many years. Nobody was in danger until the police arrived. Nobody was in danger of getting shot until the police determined to use force. My goodness! They were using explosives in a suburb!

Did this man really need to be arrested and removed from his home? If so, why? Because he could have hurt himself? Well, we sure fixed that, didn't we? "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." I guess they (presumably) killed this man so he wouldn't hurt himself - and in so doing, subjected the neighborhood to lots of bullets, tear gas, and an explosion. "Do ya feel lucky, punk?" But of course, deputies got shot. One cop is dead. The homeowner is dead. This isn't a Dirty Harry movie where stuntmen do tricks and Clint Eastwood grits his teeth and fires blanks on a Hollywood set until the director yells "cut!" - and then goes out for a fancy meal and signs autographs. No, this is real life. There is a price to pay for all this swaggering, shoot-em-up culture.

And this brings me to the abuse of the first use of the law. The police are there to protect us from criminals and thugs - not to endanger us by being criminals and thugs. They are there to keep others from hurting us, not to hurt us under the pretense of making sure we don't hurt ourselves. The courts and police are there to protect private property and the constitutional right to liberty - not to deprive innocent people of liberty and to do the bidding of greedy relatives to deny us our property. They are there to serve us, not to intimidate us. They are there to protect us, not to demonstrate contempt for us.

These days, our culture doesn't see enforcement of the first use of the law as a godly vocation that is limited to keeping order. Rather, force has become our de facto religion. There is the notion - by "conservatives" and "liberals" alike - that we can create a Utopia by force. If we only have enough rules, regulations, bureacrats, government, penalties, and forms filled out in triplicate, we can force people to love one another, respect the environment, love animals, and think only approved thoughts in matters of race and gender. Likewise, if we only have enough guns, helicopters, heat-seeking missiles, bullet-proof vests, drug-sniffing dogs, and hostile cops, trash-talking security guards, and hanging judges, we can make people quit taking drugs, go to church, act and think within the mainstream, and (above all) love, trust, and obey the government.

Other countries see this thuggish police-state culture in America and are incredulous. Mike Rogers, a half-American, half-Japanese columnist who grew up in the U.S. but now lives in Tokyo, reports that the Japanese love the show "Cops." However, he has to explain to his friends that what they are seeing is real! They are amazed that police officers would actually behave the way they do in the real world.

Once again, I want to be clear. I support the police. I was a corrections officer myself. I've seen the pressure and unspeakable things police officers have to deal with on a daily basis. I believe the first use of the law is the work of God. My beef is not with individual police officers who work hard, are paid too little, and pay with their blood, sweat, and tears. My beef is with our cultural embrace of force as a means of bringing about some kind of heaven on earth. My beef is with the notion that the first use of the law can bring about repentence. My beef is with cops, judges, congressmen, soldiers, presidents, etc. that are entrusted with force, but who misuse that which God and society have entrusted them with. There is an ethos in this country that takes sadistic pleasure in jack-booted thuggery - and wraps it all up in the flag and plants a cross on it and discourages (or even disallows) any honest discussion or constructive criticism from the citizenry.

This is the first abuse of the law.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Pastoral Letters have Changed!

Since the days of the apostles, the hierarchs of the Church have written and circulated pastoral letters, both for the benefit of the clergy and the laity. They continue to this day, even within the LCMS. I can't help but be struck by how different they have become from the days of the apostles and the apostolic fathers versus today.

Here is a first century letter that one most Christians are familiar with. And here is a pastoral letter from the second century that most Christians are probably not familiar with. These two have great similarities, and have a sense of timelessness about them. They were also written during a time of persecution of the Church.

Now let's fast forward...

Here is a letter to pastors from the LCMS of today, and here is another intended to be read by LCMS Christians. How different pastoral letters have become in the 21st century. Is it likely that Christians centuries from now will read these latter two and derive inspiration, exhotation, and comfort? Which set of letters strikes you as "churchly" as opposed to "worldly"?

This may not be our grandfather's church anymore, but I'm not so sure this is a good thing. Maybe the apostles and the apostolic fathers - even without appealing to bylaws, without cracking jokes, without graphs, power point, and polling data - had a better approach to the timeless Christian life and Church than we do today. Maybe we're guilty of what C.S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery."

Sometimes the new way isn't an improvement.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Sermon: Holy Trinity

11 June 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: John 3:1-17 (Isa 6:1-7; Rom 11:33-36) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today is the most politically incorrect day of the church year. On this day, Christians around the world commit what our culture considers to be the unforgivable sin: we confess in the Athanasian Creed that we have the truth, and anyone who does not believe as we do is going to hell. To say such a thing is considered “hate speech” in 21st century America, and will even get you jailed in some places around the world.

We said it only a few moments ago: “Whoever will be saved shall, above all else, hold the catholic faith. Which faith, except everyone keeps whole and undefiled, without doubt he will perish eternally.”

This is highly offensive to people who claim that one’s beliefs don’t matter, one’s conception of God doesn’t matter, that one’s doctrine doesn’t matter. What do such people claim matters? Some claim that being sincere is what counts. Being a good person is all that matters. Loving God, loving Jesus, trying one’s best, believing in something, anything, as long as one believes it with one’s heart – is what guarantees the love of God and life after death.

But here we are in 21st century America reciting a creed written in Latin in the fifth century that reflects a worldview that denies salvation to Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Sikhs, and those who don’t believe in any one God. How is it that we Christians can continue to confess this same creed, without change, for 1500 years? It is as though we believe truth doesn’t change.

Yes, that’s exactly right. We Christians believe truth is absolute, that it is what it is, whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not. And truth, being what it is, we can’t change it. We can’t wish it away. All we can do is submit to it, and confess it.

Notice what we say right up front the catholic faith is: “that we worship one God in three persons…” We don’t simply intellectually acknowledge the abstract reality of a Triune God – we worship him. That is to say, we submit to him, we acknowledge that we are not God, we are beneath God in dignity and honor, we are slaves, property of God. And this, dear friends, is why people reject the catholic faith. The original sin of Adam and Eve was disobedience to God driven by a desire to overturn the order of creation, our desire to place ourselves on the throne and to place God under us, or at very least in a position of equality. This was Satan’s original sin as well. This desire to exalt ourselves over and above the Holy Triune God is the curse we bear, the curse that condemns us to death, that would condemn us to Hell were it not for the second person of the Trinity who died to pay for our rebellion in order to conquer death and recreate the original order of the universe.

For there are many trinities that we worship: Fame fortune, and honor. Me, myself, and I. And the most ancient of all unholy trinities: sin, death, and the devil.

But the catholic faith is that we worship the one true God, the one saving God, the God who created us (not the other way around): the God into whose name we are baptized: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Jesus, the Son, confessed this truth to Nicodemus when he told the incredulous secret disciple: “You must be born again” by water and the spirit. For even as the Trinity was at work in the beginning, with God the Father creating through the Word, with the Spirit hovering over the waters, we see this same Trinity at work in a new creation as Jesus is baptized: the Son submitting to water baptism, the Holy Spirit descending upon him, and the accepting voice of the Father proclaiming him as Son. And this very same Trinitarian action is at work in our baptisms. It is no coincidence that Jesus himself commands the apostles to baptize with water: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

For these are not mere words – this is a confession of who God is, of how we are saved, of our worship of, and submission to him, in his three persons. To see a baptism is to see the catholic faith in action, to see the Father recreating a soul in a mystical rebirth, the Son applying his death as an atonement, and the Holy Spirit descending upon the new Christian as a Helper, a Comforter, a Guide.

For we can never separate the Trinity, the cross, baptism, and salvation. We baptize in the name of the Trinity, we give the sign of the cross at baptism, and the person is saved by baptism. And when we recall our baptism, what do we do? We make the sign of the cross, we say “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and we are assured of our salvation. Trinity, cross, baptism, salvation: whole and undefiled, the catholic faith.

We are like the Israelites to which our blessed Lord refers in our Gospel text. They were being punished for their sins (actually, for taking their salvation for granted and grumbling against their pastor), and the Lord sent an affliction of deadly snakes that bit them. Realizing their sin, they repented, and the Lord himself gave them the antidote: a bronze serpent on a pole to gaze upon, a symbolic representation of Jesus on the cross. Moses held up the world’s first crucifix for the children of Israel to look to as a reminder of where their salvation comes from.

We too are laden with sins, our bodies full of the venom of the serpent that poisoned creation from the Garden of Eden onward. We too are dying, and without a miraculous act of God’s mercy, would find ourselves condemned to eternal death. But our Lord himself, the second person of the Trinity, was lifted up on the cross, and all those who look to him are saved. Jesus himself is the divine antidote to the snake venom – and this medicine is distributed right here in this hospital of souls.

And so it is with repentant and grateful hearts that we remember our baptism intertwined with our Lord on the cross – and so we “worship one God in three persons” every time we gather for worship with the sign of the cross and the invocation of the name into which we are baptized.

And notice that the Creed does not say “the catholic faith is this, that I worship,” but rather “we worship.” The Church is a communion of saints. We are not alone. It is not about your personal relationship with Jesus, for there is no such thing! Our Lord tells us he is the vine and we are the branches. Paul tells us we are one body, Christ is the head, and we are all parts of that body. A person can no more pursue the Christian life alone - even with a Bible - any more than a hand or foot can survive on its own without the rest of the body.

For look at Isaiah’s view of the throne room of God. Even God himself is not alone (of course, he is Triune, comprised of three persons and yet one God). The Triune God is himself surrounded by angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. And this assembly sings with us: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Sabaoth, of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory!” We don’t sing this alone. We are not merely a collection of individuals at Salem singing this. Nor are we just a group of people in American churches singing this on a Sunday morning in the year 2006. No indeed! For our Triune God transcends all space and time, and so we sing this great hymn of praise and majesty with all the saints and angels from every time and place.

And we are like Isaiah, whose closeness to the Lord’s presence filled him with a sense of his own uncleanliness and unworthiness. Being in the presence of God was not something routine. He was not looking at his watch wondering how long the ritual would take because he has grass to cut, basketball to play, and TV to watch. Instead, he was overwhelmed by his own sinfulness at taking God for granted, at his desire to be in the place of God, at his lack of submission to God, at his lack of repentance and his many sins of omission as well as commission. He hangs his poor miserable head in shame: “Woe is me, for I am undone.” He doesn’t stroll into God’s presence in casual attire, he doesn’t walk up to God’s throne, slap him a high five and say “What’s up, big guy?” He doesn’t look around to see what everyone else is wearing, or make judgments about the other people in God’s presence.

Instead, he confesses not only his unworthiness, but also the catholic faith in falling down in worship of the Triune God – even as the praise “Holy” is repeated three times by the multitudes. He sees God, knowing that he is unworthy of the honor. But does the Triune God consume Isaiah? He does not. Rather he mercifully provides a way for Isaiah to be cleansed from sin’s snake-venom. An angel is dispatched with a hot coal that purges his sinful mouth and tongue of their uncleanness. The angel absolves him: “Your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is purged.”

This is how it is for us, dear brothers and sisters. In this flesh, God’s glory is veiled. Instead of searing hot coals, we see plain bread and wine. Instead of a glorious angel, we see an unimpressive pastor. Instead of a heavenly throne room filled with great saints and angels ringing out with glorious earth-shattering song, we see the Salem sanctuary filled with imperfect sinner-saints. We don’t see the hidden reality of the very present angels, and we only hear our imperfect voices doing the best we can to praise our Triune God whose glory is veiled beneath bread and wine. And yet, dear friends, it is all here. With the eyes of faith, we see what Isaiah saw, we sing the hymn he sang, we worship the same God he worships, and we receive the same burning coal on our lips as our sins are purged away.

And like the children of Israel, we look upon the crucifix, we remember our baptism, we call to mind the Lord’s death on the cross, and we are led to him who cures us and makes us whole.

And though the Trinity is truly a mystery that our small minds can’t fathom, we confess it as the very truth, the only truth, the truth that can’t be changed even by a well-intentioned desire to be inclusive and make people feel good. As St. Paul asks: “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become his counselor?” We are not God, but creatures, sinful creatures. We know we must submit to him who has saved us in spite of our unworthiness. And “this is the catholic faith which, except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.” Thanks be to God that we do believe, in spite of ourselves! Thanks be to God that we have been given this faith as a gift, that we have been born again by water and the Word!

Praise be to the Holy Triune God, now and unto eternity. “For of him and through him and to him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.”

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Say, what?

Not a bumper sticker, but close. The other day, I saw a car with a handmade sign in the back window that said:

"God keeps on blessing me. Now go run and tell that."

Say, what? Does anyone know where this comes from? Maybe it's just a New Orleans thing - like the Audubon Zoo's aquatic life exhibit that includes recipes next to each tank...