Sunday, January 28, 2007

Sermon: Transfiguration of Our Lord

28 January 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 17:1-9 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

There is a particular human trait we all share: we need to be reminded of things we already know. Advertisers know this, which is why might we see the same commercial five times in the same program. Teachers know it, which is why they tell their students to make flashcards. Healthy families know it, which is why they are affectionate with one another over and over again.

It’s not enough to be told something one time. We human beings want reassurance. Our memories need re-enforcement. If someone wants us to truly know and understand something, he must repeat it and give us reminders. That’s just how we are.

Our blessed Lord, in His mercy, knows this. The Transfiguration is a reminder – to His closest apostles and to us – of what we already know. Jesus the man is also Jesus the God. The Jesus, in the words of the hymn, who is “meek and mild” is also the Jesus, in the words of the ancient hymn: who will come “to be our judge.” The same Jesus who gently teaches the children is the same Jesus who casts mighty Lucifer and his legion of demons into hell.

St. Peter certainly knew that Jesus has, as we say today “two natures.” Peter knew Jesus as a man, and yet Peter witnessed our Lord’s greatest miracles. Peter confessed as much when he answered our Lord’s question: “Who do people say I am?” when he replied: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And yet, Jesus knows that as his crucifixion draws near, Peter will need a reminder. Peter and the apostles will soon witness things with their eyes that will challenge their faith. Their reason will tell them Jesus is not God, but rather a criminal shackled in chains, strapped to a bloody whipping post, nailed to a shameful cross, and lying dead in a stone-cold grave.

And so, Jesus takes his closest disciples with Him up a mountain. God the Father issues a reminder of Jesus’ standing as the Son of God, as the Father’s voice repeats the words of Jesus’ baptism: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” God the Father adds the following merciful advice to this reminder: “Hear Him!” Peter, James, and John are reminded of Jesus’ divine nature as the figurative veil is lifted and the Lord’s face shines with uncreated light, His clothes unable to contain the glory. “God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” As the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, Jesus is speaking with Moses and Elijah in plain view.

In a forceful and unmistakable way, the three were reminded of Jesus’ divinity. And they became terrified, being three sinful, mortal men in the presence of God: “They fell on their faces and were greatly afraid.” At this point, they needed another reminder, of the mercy of God, of the God who takes on flesh, who becomes man, and who becomes our Redeemer. Jesus touches them, bids them not to fear, and they open their eyes to see “no one but Jesus only.”

The reason they (and we) need reminding is a matter of focus. We are assaulted by evil, we are challenged by the world, we are tempted by our flesh, we are downtrodden by our disappointments, we are inflicted with disease, and we are left mourning by death. Our faith wavers by what our senses and logic tell us. We are distracted by glitter and baubles. We are drawn away from the Word of God by sloth and complacency. We are bullied into silence by those who persecute us. We live in a busy world that is hostile to Jesus, and at every turn we are pressed to take our eyes off of our Savior.

We, like Peter, James, and John, must be reminded to fix our eyes on Jesus, and Jesus only.

In his novel called Hammer of God, author Bo Giertz, a faithful bishop, theologian, and preacher in the Lutheran Church of Sweden, includes a chapter called “Jesus only” that features a Transfiguration Day sermon. In this chapter, a well-meaning young pastor exhorts his congregation to holiness by telling the women to give up jewelry and braided hair, telling the men to give up all alcoholic beverages, preaching that the Christian life is all about wearing plain clothing and conquering our sins (real or imagined) by our own efforts.

However, on Transfiguration Day, he finds himself with no sermon prepared – having just spent a long time at the deathbed of a parishioner. Instead of his usual preaching method of just winging it and depending on the Holy Spirit to guide him, the tired preacher reads a published sermon from the eighteenth century Swedish pastor Henric Schartau. This proclamation of the Word of God convicts not only the congregation, but also the pastor, of the sin of taking our eyes off Jesus and putting them on ourselves.

Let us listen anew to Pastor Schartau preaching to us 200 years into the future and reminding us:

“It is a blessed thing when the believing soul in prayer fixes his uplifted eyes of faith upon Jesus only, not looking about for his dispersed thoughts, nor backward upon Satan, who threatens with the assertion that the prayers are to no avail, nor inwardly upon his own slothfulness and slight devotion, but above himself to Jesus, ‘who is at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.’”

This sin of taking one’s eyes off Jesus and putting them on the self is older than man himself. This was Lucifer’s sin. It was Adam and Eve’s sin. It was Moses’ sin that kept him from the Promised Land. It was the sin of the Pharisees who blew the trumpet to call attention to their donations to the Temple. It was Peter’s sin as he coveted to walk on water, and taking his eyes off Jesus, sank. It was the sin of the disciples who looked to their own safety instead of staying with our Lord during his trial.

In the days of St. Augustine, it was called “Pelagianism” – looking to the deeds of the self instead of to God’s unmerited mercy and grace. In the days of Luther it was called “works righteousness” – and it was Pelagianism come back like a bad penny. A century and a half after Luther, it was called “Pietism” – and the people who should have known better, the Lutherans, led the charge to take our eyes off Jesus and place them on ourselves, our works, our ability to follow rules and regulations, and to boast of our own moral righteousness. Pastor Schartau reminds us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus – as did the very first leaders of the Missouri Synod. As did Bishop Giertz in his writing and his preaching.

Whenever we take our eyes off Jesus, we fall into sin. We put faith in ourselves and our good works. And if not our good works, than we put faith in our faith, or faith in our doctrine, or faith in our Lutheranism, or faith in our synodical affiliation, or faith in the fact that we are conservative, confessional Lutherans who worship using the liturgy. When we place our faith in any of these things, we take our eyes off Jesus.

But thanks be to God that our Lord knows our weaknesses. He knows of our short memory. He calls to mind our short attention span, and mercifully yanks our attention back to Jesus only! He gives us His Holy Word, through the prophets, through Holy Scripture, and through the preaching of the Word by pastors. Again and again, week after week, we are reminded of the Holy Gospel. Over and over we are forgiven of our sins by Holy Absolution. Luther implores us to make the sign of the holy cross, again and again, every day, morning and evening, when we pray, when we are frightened, when we praise God, when we worship, and any time we need a reminder of our Holy Baptism – which reminds us once again, which draws our attention anew to “Jesus only.”

Dear beloved of our Lord, whenever you are tempted to take your eyes off of Jesus to place them on yourself, your works, your faith, your doctrine, your church membership, your church attendance, or any other false security, our Lord Himself bids you to fix your eyes on Jesus, to focus on Jesus only. He does this in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. For Jesus Himself tells us in the Words of Institution: “This do in memory of me.” We are being reminded to see “Jesus only.” We are told again and again that this sacrament is His body “given for you” and His blood is “shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus reminds us every time, saying that as “often as you drink it” you do so “in remembrance of me.”

Let us hear Pastor Schartau’s conclusion, in which he reminds us:

“Do you, O confident sinner, know whom you are warring against, whom you are scoffing at? It is not the servant who proclaims the message which you contradict, not human beings whom you mock for their spiritual interests, but Jesus only.... Rest assured that Jesus alone is able to overrule your wickedness and to judge and punish you….

“Take heed to what you have heard, O mournful souls, remember that Jesus only is the object of your awakening…. Where, indeed, can you look for salvation except to your Saviour?.... [D]o not look for Moses or Elijah, but be content with the grace granted to those early disciples of whom we read, ‘When they lifted their eyes, they saw no one, save Jesus only.’

“When the peace of Christ has brought you reinvigoration and His promises have given you assurance of grace, then it shall also be your lot, at the approach of death, when your eyes can no longer see the things of this world, then the vision of your soul shall be opened and endowed with heavenly light to see the great glory, world without end, face to face, - Jesus only. Amen.”

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

Friday, January 19, 2007

Robert E. Lee's 200th Birthday

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of America's greatest heroes, Robert Edward Lee of Virginia. Gail Jarvis has written a a most informative article about why Lee is still remembered. Lee's Birthday remains a state holiday to this day in many Southern states, and General Lee will be memorialized this weekend (as well as throughout the course of the year) around the country.

Unfortunately, most Americans are woefully ignorant of their own history - much of which has been politicized by leftist academics and intimidation-based advocacy groups. General Lee's command in the Confederate States Army, combined with misguided notions concerning the causes and aims of the War for Southern Independence, has put many state legislatures in the hot seat, subjecting them to bullying to downplay, if not outright repeal the Lee holiday (or Lee-Jackson Day as it is known in some areas due to the proximity of Stonewall Jackson's birthday, January 21) in lieu of a Martin Luther King holiday.

This skirmish symbolizes much of our cultural malaise in America, as the difference between these two men could not be more stark.

Robert E. Lee, who never sought accolades and fame, put his nose to the grindstone at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating second in his class without a single demerit (a feat apparently unequaled to this day). He proved himself a gifted engineer and a courageous combat officer, serving the U.S. Army in the Mexican War.

During the secession crisis of 1860-61, Lee was a unionist. But when the people of his own state of Virginia elected to leave the Union, Lee loyally followed his state - even turning down the ultimate promotion - command of all U.S. military forces. Instead, he cast his lot with his countrymen and kinsmen in his home state. He accepted Confederate command of the Army of Northern Virginia, and quickly turned that outfit into a fearsome instrument of war. Lee was a brilliant and aggressive warrior whose strategies are still studied by officers and cadets of our military academies to this day.

Even in the heat of battle, Lee remained the Christian gentleman. In his army's invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee would not tolerate looting, burning, and pillaging that would come to typify the tactics of his opponents. Lee's standing orders were that soldiers who molested civilians or their property would be summarily executed. Lee never lost his humanity amid the insanities of war, and was as much known as a soft-spoken Christian of great compassion as he was for his military brilliance. His men loved him, and his enemies respected him.

He was an opponent of slavery and a member of an antislavery society before the war. He was in the process of manumitting his wife's inherited slaves upon the death of his father in law at the time of the John Brown raid (it was under Lee's command of a detachment of U.S. Marines that the terrorist Brown was captured). Before, during, and after the War for Southern Independence, Lee defended the rights of blacks (as did his greatest lieutenant, Gen. Stonewall Jackson).

However, it was in defeat that the greatness of Lee shone brightest - even in his most painful hour of surrendering his beloved army. Lee urged Southerners not to join guerilla bands, but rather to once again be good citizens of the re-United States - even in the midst of the brutal repressions of Reconstruction. Lee urged Southerners to bear this cross patiently.

Although rendered penniless by the war, Lee declined a lucrative contract to be a board member of a corporation (and thus do little more than allow his highly-respected name to be used). He opted instead eschew fame and fortune, accepting an academic post as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia). Lee felt education and the training of the future leaders of the South to be Christian gentleman of utmost importance to Virginia, to the South, and to the United States. Even Lee's enemies admired him and considered him a great American and example of manhood for American youth.

Robert E. Lee's life of service, greatness, humility, and devotion to God and country is quite a contrast over and against the life of Martin Luther King, whose birthday has eclipssed, if not erased, the Lee Holiday in many Southern states.

By contrast, the King myth is just that - a myth. Martin Luther King was not even his real name (which was Michael). He cheated and plagiarized his way through college and graduate school (which makes the fact that nearly every American school honors his birthday especially vulgar). Even his famous "I Have a Dream" speech was plagiarized. His own friends and associates have pointed out his moral turpitude.

And yet, all of this is swept under the rug, and King is held up as a hero to young people. Ironically, while Lee did not make flashy speeches, his advocacy for the rights of blacks, as well as the example he set in his own deeds regarding race relations, should qualify him to be remembered as a civil rights icon. Instead, he has become a target, his holiday under attack, his monuments vandalized, and his good name slandered.

In today's culture, young people are supplied with various "role models" - mostly from the entertainment and/or sports world. What qualifies people for such an elevation is not the "content of their character" nor their courage, virtue, sacrifice, integrity, or service, but is typically measured in gold jewelry, arrogance, or the amount of skin they show in public. Immorality and plagiarism are certainly no impediments to canonization - and in the case of musicians, they are deemed virtues. The choice of King over Lee is a given among today's mainstream society - liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat.

However frustrating this situation may be, we must keep in mind that history can only be manipulated and "cleansed" for so long. And although it may be increasingly necessary from time to time in public life to restrain the impulse to roll our eyes as men of lesser integrity and questionable morality are trotted out as heroes, rewarded with holidays, and given monuments in Washington, we can continue to teach the truth, uphold honor and integrity, and bear the cross of "cultural reconstruction" being placed on us today. We can teach our children that in their hearts, they are under no obligation to accept the lie of the cultural elites.

We can continue to honor men of virtue, courage, integrity, and moral conviction even if, for the safety of our families (given the current climate of intolerance and violence), it must be in the privacy of our own homes. We can continue to teach our children the true history of their country, even as men of the caliber of Robert E. Lee are publicly ignored, marginalized, or even slandered.

Truth is truth, and it cannot remain in captivity forever. Perhaps the tricentennial of Lee's Birthday will see Americans of every race and creed honor men and women who are truly great, while understanding 20th century memorials to Martin Luther King for what they really are: monuments to political correctness and concessions to coercion and threats.

Meanwhile, until that time, let those who know their history, who value virtue, and who respect greatness take a moment to honor Robert Edward Lee.

Monday, January 15, 2007

More evidence of the truth of Christianity

The irrational and nonsensical attacks against Christianity are getting more and more ridiculous.

In England, a 13-year old Catholic public school student's quarter-inch crucifix is considered a "health and safety" risk that violates the dress code - while Muslims are permitted religious dispensations to violate the dress code with turbans, and Sikhs with turbans and jewelry - all the while none of these are deemed "health and safety" risks. Here is the link.

Of course, public school administrators in the U.S. or Britain are not known for being the brightest bulbs on the "winter solstice tree," but even they must have enough residual brain cells to know that billions of people around the world wear chains and quarter-inch pendants and are not dropping dead or developing tumors. So far, there are no warning labels on crucifixes warning of the health risks. There have been no widespread reports of people suddenly getting body parts caught in the chain and needing amputations. Where the stupidity of these bureaucrats is truly manifested is in their belief that people around the world are going to believe this nonsense.

This is only three months after a very similar situation in which British Airways, who make dress code allowances for non-Christians, fired a Coptic Christian over her refusal to hide her tiny cross pendant.

The last few years have brought similar battles here in the States regarding the public display of Christmas symbols. A year ago, New York City banned Christmas symbols, while allowing displays for Eid (a Muslim holiday), Hannukah, and even Kwanzaa!

The United States government is even playing King Herod doing its part in trying to stamp out Jesus with this story. I'm sure the Commander-in-Chief has a very good reason not to step in and defend this loyal sailor and fellow Christian who has done absolutely nothing wrong.

Increasingly, every religion other than Christianity is tolerated, while Christianity is stifled.

What conclusion can one come to other than this: Christianity is not only true, it is exclusively true. Christianity teaches that there is an absolute good and an absolute evil. There is a Satan who seeks to destroy Christ and his metaphorical body: the Christian Church. Satan has no problem with any other religion. It is only Christianity that is under attack - because it is only Christianity that is true. The diabolocal game-plan could have come right out of the Screwtape Letters.

So deluded are the attackers of Christianity that they can actually argue with a straight face that a little girl's quarter-inch crucifix is dangerous.

Well, just maybe it is. The question is: "to whom?"

Think about it.

Should I stay, or should I go?

A question for the blogigentsia:

"Should I make the switch to the new Blogger version, or should I stay put?"

I've heard a lot of complaints about the new version when it was in Beta, but working out all the bugs is the whole point of Beta (either that, or it's one of those fish that you have to keep in a little cup lest it become a fighting monster). And it seems that once you upgrade, you can't go back. Is the new version stable enough to jump?

Anyway, help me out here, folks? What IS the answer to the immortal Clash question?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Sermon: 2nd Sunday after Epiphany

14 January 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 2:1-11 (Amos 9:11-15, Rom 12:6-16) (One Year Series)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

It is telling that “the beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee” was at a wedding between a man and a woman “and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him.”

Weddings have always been a big deal. We think nothing of spending thousands of dollars and traveling hundreds of miles to attend them. They are one of the few things where tradition and ceremony are kept, for the most part, even by people who detest formality and despise doing things by the book.

Our Lutheran confessions (not to mention centuries of Christian tradition) even permit marriage to be called a “sacrament” – for something miraculous and mystical happens. Two separate and distinct individuals of opposite sexes and different psychologies are welded together into one flesh – thus making a new being, and yet a new being that fulfills, rather than destroys, the old separate beings.

It is at such an event that Jesus manifests His glory and demonstrates that he is the New Being that is both God and man, that even though He is one Jesus, He is a Being of Two Natures. Marriage itself is a sign of God, of Christ, and of His Kingdom.

For in spite of what pop musicians, politicians, pundits, and even preachers say, men and women are fundamentally different. They have different places in the kingdom. They are not simply interchangeable human-units with different plumbing. And yet, these two distinct forms of humanity become united at marriage – the union of which becomes a means through which God creates new men and women. It is a miracle!

And notice how Satan tries to undo the miracle and disrupt God’s creative plan: he uses divorce to rend asunder what God has joined together; he uses abortion to take the life that God has given; he uses greed as a means to delay or stop reproduction; and he uses our modern notion of equality to disrupt the ordered family life that God has designed for the good of all people and of society.

Satan also teaches us to accept the parts of the Christian faith that are in accord with our political or personal agendas, while rejecting those parts of the faith we don’t like. This is sometimes called “cafeteria Christianity” – where you might put the doctrine of the Trinity on your plate while leaving the sacraments safely behind the sneeze guard. Or you’ll heap a high helping of justification on your second trip to the buffet, while opting not to indulge in any sanctification.

This “buffet approach” is how most Americans of our day and age deal with the Christian faith. This is why the Athanasian Creed says: “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.” The word “catholic” means the faith in its holistic entirety. The faith is “catholic” and must be kept “whole and undefiled” – which means the Christian faith is not served “a la carte,” but rather we obediently eat everything the Lord places before us. That little word “catholic” in describing the faith is the very essence of submission. So when it comes to Christianity, we don’t have the choice to refuse to eat our broccoli. This is a very difficult concept for us to accept, we the people who gave the world Burger King and told them: “have it your way” and also turned the word “choice” into a political sacrament.

Nineteen centuries before the social revolution of the 1960s, St. Paul, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was forced to remind men and women of their divinely-ordered roles in creation, their vocation in married and family life. For even without our modern notions of equality and democracy, even apart from our American aversion to hierarchy and authority, even before TV sitcoms hypnotically pushed a topsy-turvy, anything-goes structure to the family, men and women were rebelling.

Paul reminds women, then and now, to submit to their husbands – as if your husband was the Lord Himself. Jesus, speaking through Paul, is telling us today that the husband is the divinely-ordered head of the household – a notion much mocked by our culture today.

Marriage is not a democracy. The husband is in charge of the family – or else God is a liar and the Christian faith is a fraud.

If the wife “wears the pants in the family” – she is as much guilty of sin as if she were having an affair with her husband’s best friend. And if a husband allows his wife to run the family, he is abdicating his God-given responsibility just as surely as Lucifer did when he refused the role God assigned to him.

Wives, you don’t run the home in a Christian household. You are to obey your husband. You are not to speak ill of him to your girlfriends. You must not show disrespect to your husband, especially in front of your children. When you do any of these things, you are showing contempt for the Lord Jesus Himself, and are personally driving the nails into His very hands at the cross. What our culture encourages, or at least finds amusing, is a very serious sin that threatens God’s orderly creation. And, you are also teaching your children to rebel against all authority.

Husbands, you run the home in a Christian household. You are to love your wives, as Christ loves the Church. You are never to lay a hand on her except to show affection and profound respect. You must never to utter a negative word about her to your friends. In front of your children, you must treat your wife with the respect due a queen, unless you want your children to rebel against her authority and yours – not to mention all divinely-ordered authority. You, men, are the ones charged with teaching the children to pray, taking them to church, setting the example for them as citizens of the Kingdom. Don’t force your wives to do what you need to be doing. If you won’t lead the family in prayer and bring the family to church, your wives are to be praised for honorably doing what needs to be done. But husbands, you are the family priest. When you fail to lead your family spiritually, you are sinning against God, and you are now the ones driving the nails in our Lord’s hands.

Being in charge doesn’t mean being a bully. In fact, it is the very opposite. It means sacrificing your wants and desires for the sake of the family. Being the head of the family has nothing to do with being macho, but rather has everything to do with fulfilling your calling as the household priest and protector. “With great power comes great responsibility” – a rare gem of wisdom from our pop culture, a true commentary on Christian vocation from an unlikely source: Spider Man. Being the head of the house is a burden, and a cross, but gentlemen, it is the cross our Lord has given to us, not to our wives, and not to our children.

The roles of men and women in family life are hard things for us to hear today, just as they were when Paul wrote the Church at Ephesis. We are not free to do what some have done and simply cut the divine order of creation out of the Christian faith. In mainstream Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, you will never hear a sermon on Ephesians 5 – since it has been chopped out of the modern lectionary. In many churches, the wedding vows themselves, which come from Ephesians 5, have been altered to make them more acceptable to modern man.

We, as the Church, are the bride of Christ. That means we must submit to him as our husband and obey His Word. Christianity is not a partnership between us and God. The Christian faith is not a power-sharing arrangement or a democracy. Jesus is our Lord and our King. We are His subjects. We are His bride. And just as He is the perfect husband who loves us, never abandons us, even dies for us – we owe it to Him to be a faithful bride.

Of course, we are not a perfect bride. As individuals and as a Church, we fail mightily. And yet, the good Husband does not abandon His bride in her wretchedness. He stands by us, forgives us, and lifts us up.

He has taken water from the thirty-gallon stone jars of the law and fulfilled the destiny of that water of purification, sweetening it into wine that the prophet Amos testifies is a sign of the Kingdom of God. The wine that Jesus gives is sweet, because it is the wine of His blood, of forgiveness, of life, and of salvation – of the Gospel. It is the wine of God’s divine order, where one man and one woman are bonded together to become one flesh, to unite into a family over which God rules through the leadership of the husband, where children submit to parents, where wife submits to husband, and where husband submits to God.

And when we sin by bucking this order, by asserting our own desires to either lead when we are called to follow, or to follow when we are called to lead, we need to repent. We need to confess, and we need to pray for the grace to do better. When our spouses are not doing what they need to be doing, we need to pray for them and respectfully implore them to do their duty. We need to be patient and forgiving, but we must understand what is at stake. For Satan understands that God’s order of creation allows the Kingdom to grow and thrive. He understands that his greatest weapons against the Kingdom are not only our flesh, our greed, our sloth, our envy, etc. but also the tools of feminism, of hatred of authority, of cafeteria-style religion, of personal choice over divine submission, and of various institutional attacks against the divinely-ordered sacrament of one man and one woman being united for the propagation of the world and of God’s Kingdom.

And even though it seems we have messed things up beyond repair, let us not forget that our Lord changes water into wine, miraculously bonds men and women together, and brings harmony out of disorder - just as he promises through the prophet Amos: “‘I will raise up the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down, and repair its damages; I will raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the Gentiles who are called by My name,’ says the Lord who does this thing.” Amen.

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

Friday, January 12, 2007

Who said this?

"Many are the mistakes at present about religious matters; but none are more destructive than those, which concern the law and the gospel. The generality of our people confound them, and put one in the place of the other. Some suppose they are to be accepted of God for their works, and that they can be justified by the law in the sight of God. Others make their keeping of the law the condition of their receiving the blessings of the gospel, as if these were to be the purchase and reward of their partial obedience. Some are pursuaded that they must do all they can, and keep the law with all their might, and wherein they come short of the perfect demands of the law, Christ will out of his merits atone for their failings. And others again think that Christ has abated the rigour of the law, and that the gospel is nothing more than a new law-dispensation, in which the Lord has been pleased to declare that he will accept of sincere obedience instead of perfect. These and many more such like mistakes prevail in our times, and they are exceedingly dangerous, tending to the utter ruin both of body and soul. In the following discourses, I have endeavoured to distinguish, and precisely to settle the difference between the law and the gospel."

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Brave New Travel (or A Tale of Two Airports)

The Hollywood family was able to visit family in Ottawa (the capital of Canada) during the Christmas break from school.

Back in my pre-seminary days, I did a lot of flying. Boy, air travel sure isn't what it used to be! All of the new security measures - some of which surely are necessary and others of which are simply silly - add to the stress and strain of getting from point A to point B.

Anyway, what follows is an anecdotal account of my experiences in two airports. This is hardly a scientific survey, and it is completely subjective - but I know what I saw and what I felt. It's presented here for what it's worth (and it is indeed worth every penny you'll pay for it!).

We had a fairly long layover at Chicago's O'Hare airport. This enabled some time for observation. It dawned on me just how out of date everything about O'Hare is. The airport looks like an old rundown shopping mall from the 1970s. It appears bland, and almost Soviet-drab. Many of the seats at the gates were in need of repair. The stores are terribly understocked and utterly uninspiring. Signage is confusing, and communication is wanting. Our gate changed twice with no notification from the staff. It was hard to find airline personnel to answer questions. I found almost every staff person in the airport to be cold and/or ambivalent.

Worst of all, was the Orwellian Drone that repeated over and over in an almost sci-fi monotone informing us that the security level was orange (whatever the heck that means), and that we were to report any suspicious behavoior to the Chicago Police or the Transportation Safety Administration. Of course, cops and TSA officials were nowhere to be found, and the Orwellian Drone didn't mention any special phones or kiosks where said reports could be given. Maybe there were telepathic sensors imbedded in the walls...

And yes, I've been in the tunnel many times that flashes the bright colors and plays a strange cacophanous rendition of Rhapsody in Blue - but not this time. While I always enjoyed the novelty of that tableau, which could have come out of Blade Runner, there is still something rather soulless about it - the antiseptic white walls imbedded with pastel lighted cubes and the Lifeless Robotic Voice (perhaps the grandfather of the Orwellian Drone) reminding us perhaps ten times a minute that the "moving walkway is coming to an end, please look down." The travelers might get the impression that they're being herded into a giant grinder at the end and being made into food. I don't know if that "musical" tunnel between the terminals is still there or not, but it is about the only thing memorable about O'Hare to me.

The thing that I noticed most in the current layover was the look of the travelers. They were far from joyful. They were stressed out, sad, angry, on edge, tired, bewildered, and just plain worn out. Many of these people were on vacation, but were anything other than rested and looking forward to their destination.

There is nothing in the Airport promoting Chicago, nothing that would even give you a clue where you are. Nothing but confusing signs, unhappy people, and the ubiquitous Drone.

If the O'Hare Airport were a character from Saturday Night Live, it would be Debbie Downer.

Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans (to be precise, the City of Kenner) looks and feels different. There are bright colors all over the place - often selected from the gaudy Mardi Gras palette of purple, green, and gold. Happy and upbeat jazz music fills the air, letting the traveler know this is the Big Easy, and travel should be pleasant, if not outright fun. Signs and smells announce that gumbo and jambalaya are readily available, not to mention coffee! Palm trees and historic pictures of New Orleans musicians greet the traveler who strolls from gate to gate or to baggage claim. Yes, there are announcements about security, but not every five seconds, not in the Orwellian Drone, and they tell the traveler specifically how to make a report!

The shops are bright, inviting, and proclaim the glories of New Orleans. Local civic pride swells from the ever-present fleur-de-lys, the Saints gear, and the LSU tiger merchandise, to the souvenirs depicting Bourbon Street, the French Quarter, and Mardi Gras. Signage in the airport is clear, and may even have things like alligators and crawfish on them. There are colorful posters showing our local zoo and various activities and festivals in the New Orleans area. The workers at the airport were overall very friendly and helpful.

You can see it in the faces of the travelers. They smile. They have a spring in their step as they make their way through the airport.

What a difference from the dour and cold O'Hare. Was I in Chicago or East Berlin? The billboard outside Armstrong Airport advertising the Sugar Bowl said it best: "It's good to be back home."

Monday, January 01, 2007

Sermon: Sunday After Christmas

31 December 2006 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 2:22-40 (Isa 11:1-5, Gal 4:1-7) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

On the heels of his beautiful account of Christmas, St. Luke paints a glorious picture of the old meeting the young, of the wise meeting Wisdom face to face, of the Old Testament yielding joyously to the New. We also see the obedience of the law giving way to the One who fulfills the law.

Just before our reading, we see Mary obediently circumcising Jesus on the eighth day. She patiently waits until 40 days to return to the Temple in accordance with the law that she be purified by a sacrifice. The law called for a lamb and a pigeon. She was too poor to afford this sacrifice, so she was permitted to offer two pigeons (but, of course, the Lamb was truly offered, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world).

In the course of keeping the law, Mary and Joseph meet an old man. By today’s standards, he would probably be considered eccentric. The Lord has spoken to him, promising that he would not die until he would see the Christ, the Messiah. And the Lord does even better than his promise, for old St. Simeon not only sees the Christ, he cradles him in his arms!

What faith Simeon has – for instead of viewing this encounter with the Christ child as an evil omen of his impending death, he sings for joy! Simeon does not fear death, for he knows the Christ child he now holds will destroy death. “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word.” This passage can be understood that the Lord is releasing Simeon from his slavery. And far from giving him a sense of dread about death, he is emboldened to recall the Lord’s promises.

Simeon’s eyes do not merely see Jesus, the Son of God and of Mary, the stepson of Joseph, the tiny baby in the Temple – he also sees “salvation.” To Simeon, salvation is not an abstract concept, but lives and breathes in his very arms. He also says something about the baby Jesus that we also say in the creed: Jesus is light. The purpose of this light is to bring revelation to the Gentiles, that is to say, to all the nations. And this revelation is the glory, the pinnacle, the very fulfillment of the Old Testament people of Israel.

Simeon is not afraid of death, for as the Psalmist asks: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”

All of this is bound up in the wriggling baby held in Simeon’s wrinkled arms.

Joseph and Mary marvel. For their eyes tell them this is an ordinary child. But what Simeon describes, what the “angels from the realms of glory” revealed, what the “shepherds in the fields abiding” proclaimed, was that this completely human child is also God.

Blended with Simeon’s joy and praise is a prophecy of bitterness. The Christ will divide Israel, and will be spoken against. A sword would pierce the heart of the Blessed Virgin as she would watch her beloved Son, flesh from her flesh, die ignominiously on the cross. Certainly, the many prophecies, like this one, that Mary treasured in her heart, that is to say, the Word of God, sustained her in her pain and grief, preserving her from doubt and despair, even as she awaited the resurrection of her Son and Lord.

St. Luke also introduces us to another beloved aged saint who seems to be holding onto life until she too sees and adores the Christ Child. St. Anna, the faithful widow who serves the Lord around the clock. She is now in her eighties, and the Lord also reveals to her that this “Infant lowly” is also the “Infant holy.”

Both Simeon and Anna suffered the inevitable results of the fall in Eden. They had aged. They were awaiting death. Their time was coming to an end. But instead of falling into depression and despair, instead of looking for a fountain of youth in a powder or pill – they immersed themselves in the Word and service of God. Both lived to see the coming of the triumphant Christ. Though they would not live to see his ministry, his death, nor his resurrection, they knew that this was the “fullness of time” spoken of by Paul in our epistle.

Simeon had it right when he speaks of his status as an emancipated slave. “Even so we, when we were children,” says St. Paul, “were in bondage under the elements of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” And being born under the Law, Jesus was given over to circumcision, to sacrifices and feasts, and to the burdens of the Law that he was destined to fulfill. Why? Simeon understood why many years before St. Paul was inspired to explain it to us: “to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive adoption as sons.” St. Simeon was no longer a slave, but a son. He has been “released,” as the Lord was now letting him “depart in peace.” Simeon was now free to die – not as a slave, but as a son. Not as a subject of the law, but now as one who has overcome the condemnation of the law.

And similarly, from the moment of her contact with the Christ child, Anna gives thanks to God and “spoke of him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem.” She understands that Jesus is her “kinsman-Redeemer,” the One who is the “Rod from the stem of Jesse,” the “Branch” that “shall grow out of his roots.”

It’s no wonder that Joseph and Mary were amazed. All of this fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets bundled into a swaddled baby. That, dear friends, is the wonder and the miracle of Christmas. That the Almighty God, the conqueror prophesied by Isaiah, the salvation of the world, the light of revelation, the glory of Israel, the Redeemer – should come into the world born of a poor woman, subjected to the minutia of the law, and whisked away to Nazareth to grow up.

Our world looks at devout elderly people with contempt and scorn, people to be ignored and put out of sight. Our self-centered culture views children as of low priority and equally to be put away for reasons of convenience or choice. Our society looks down upon people of humble means like Joseph and Mary. And yet, these are the very vehicles of the grace of God. Underneath the “meek and mild” appearance is the very might of the living God, who has come to destroy death and crush the skull of the devil, to deliver us from the effects of sin, to give us victory and eternal life.

And so we join St. Simeon in song this day, as we too touch the very body of the Christ child. He comes to us in space and time, under humble means, to unite himself to us in a mystic communion that draws us into heaven and into eternity. Of course, the world is filled with scorn, and the defeated devil is filled with rage, but our faces beam like Simeon in the physical presence of our Lord, who has redeemed us, is our Light and our Salvation, and allows us to depart in peace whenever our Lord calls us from this life to be with him in eternity. “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”

“Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people. A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.” Amen.

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