Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sermon: the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist

29 Aug 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Mark 6:14-29 (Rev. 6:9-11, Rom 6:1-5)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

The world looks up to men and women who defy the authorities, who stand up courageously against the power structure. History books lionize Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and the founding fathers of America. Lutherans venerate the memory of Martin Luther who refused to yield to the pope. Around the world, monuments honor heroes who died fighting for political independence, such as King Leonidas, William Wallace, and Stonewall Jackson.

Perhaps the greatest such hero apart from our Lord Jesus Christ goes largely unnoticed by the world. On this date, the Christian Church honors the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.

We Lutherans perhaps don’t honor John as much as we should. For didn’t our Lord Himself say that there is no greater man born of women? Every Eastern Orthodox church in the world has an icon of John near the altar. On that count, we can certainly learn from our Eastern brothers and sisters.

For John is a pivotal figure in the history of God’s people. John stands between the Old and New Testament, ushers in Christ, and serves as an end-time figure all at once.

John is the last of the Old Testament prophets, the son of a priest, the product of a miraculous birth announced by the angel Gabriel. Like Israel’s ancient prophets, John speaks boldly of the Messiah. And yet John doesn’t have to die before seeing the Promised One like his fellow prophets. For John is the forerunner. Our Lord links him to the mighty prophet Elijah. But John isn’t only a prophetic messenger, he is flesh and blood of our Lord, being the cousin of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of our Lord Himself. And not only is John the last Old Testament prophet, he is the first New Testament preacher. He is not only a proclaimer of the Word, but he is the first minister of the sacraments! John is the Baptist, the one who connects water with God’s grace and salvation, the one and only one who will baptize our blessed Lord Himself.

As Paul tells us in our epistle, we are united to Christ through baptism, to Him whose baptism was administered by John. In a very real way, we are all linked to John through our own baptisms into Christ.

John’s faithful preaching of the Kingdom of God, of repentance, of baptismal grace didn’t make everyone happy. John the Baptist is certainly the patron saint of every pastor whose preaching of the law made someone mad at him. For John was to become a martyr for the sake of his preaching of the Kingdom and of the need to repent.

The red to see on our altar is symbolic of the very real red blood that flowed from John’s Body, which to this day awaits the resurrection to be reunited with his sprit that cries out for vengeance under the heavenly altar, according to our reading from Revelation.

In a very real way, John represents the entire history of God’s people. He straddles BC and AD, he binds the prophets and priests of the Old Testament to the bishops and pastors of the New. He connects us in the temporal world to the angelic hosts of eternity. He is a continuation of the preaching of the Gospel from before the coming of our Lord to the time after Jesus’ incarnation. He shares family ties of flesh and blood to the Virgin Mary and our Lord. He is the symbol of Holy Baptism, and his martyrdom is a symbol of the Christian life.

For didn’t our Lord say “take up your cross and follow me?” Didn’t he tell us that what is done to the master will be done to the disciple? Doesn’t he warn all of us that we will be dragged before the enemies of God’s Kingdom, interrogated, harassed, tortured, and put to death?

John was decapitated for the sake of the Lord, who is his true head. The Lord Jesus Christ is also our head, the Church’s head. We, the body of Christ, submit to Him – even if it means it will cost us our lives. Hearers of the Word are to take John’s sermon of repentance to heart, and preachers of the Word are to expect martyrdom for the sake of Him to whom they are yoked. Submission and suffering are the common experience of lay people and clergy alike.

Though St. John was never a hymn-writer as far as we know, we sing His hymn, his confession, his words which are the Holy Spirit’s words every time we gather for the Lord’s Supper, the Agnus Dei: “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world….” Even the liturgy of the Christian Church is dripping with John’s blood and sings out John’s preaching of our Lord Jesus Christ!

And yet, in John’s lifetime, no-one could have appeared to be more of a failure. John was seized by the authorities, silenced, put into a dark dungeon, where he would be beheaded alone, apart from friends and family. On this side of the grave he did not see the fruits of his preaching or witness the miraculous works of his Cousin who is God.

At the end of our Gospel text, John’s disciples laid his body in a tomb. They would later become our Lord’s disciples who would live to see John’s divine Cousin similarly laid in a tomb – only Jesus would burst the bonds of the grave and would sanctify the graves of all Christians – including the grave of faithful John the Baptist.

What appears to be John’s abysmal failure in this life is his ultimate glorious triumph in eternity. What seems to be the hopeless end is really only the hopeful beginning. John’s purpose in life, his reason for being born, was fulfilled. John carried out his mission faithfully and courageously – pointing the world to the One who would crush the serpent’s head once and for all.

On the last day, John’s body will be pulled from the grave, his flesh and bones reconstituted gloriously by grace of the One he proclaimed in his short life in the fallen world. And we will join him, our faithful brother, joyfully celebrating our baptismal victory in the water of life in the new creation, not only singing the Agnus Dei, but truly beholding the Lamb of God for all eternity. Amen.

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

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Marketing and the Christian Church

"A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing, always be closing...'Cause only one thing counts in this world: get them to sign on the line which is dotted."
- Blake (Glengarry Glen Ross)

There is a close relationship between "sales" and "marketing." Buying and selling are necessary in this life, and it didn't take long for the occupation of "salesman" to emerge. There are honest salesmen, of course, but the temptation to rack up sales figures at all costs is great - as brilliantly portrayed in the modern-day Greek tragedy Glengarry Glen Ross. In the movie adaptation of the David Mamet play, Alec Baldwin plays Blake, a hard-nosed "motivational speaker" who abuses the real estate salesmen in the office with profanity and threats - interspersed with quotes from Jesus and the Bible. He tells them that the most important thing in life is selling, closing the deal. Being a "closer" trumps all other things, such as being a nice guy or a good father.

When someone - be it an individual or company - wants to sell you something, packaging is important. We are more likely to buy something if the presentation is attractive, if the product's benefits can be explained to us. There is a whole science of deal-closing, of convincing someone to purchase something. It's called "marketing."

By way of example, a few weeks ago, I went shopping for a TV antenna - just a simple set of rabbit ears. So I go to Best Buy and pick one up off the shelf. There are lots of TV antennas on the market. So, RCA wants me to buy their rabbit ears instead of Toshiba's. RCA could make a better product for a lower price, tapping in to the economic law of supply and demand. Of course, they need to make sure their product is in a decent price range for its quality. But they can do something else. They can use packaging to "sell" me on the item. Maybe I need a little nudge to get off the fence, to make the conversion from browser to buyer. Maybe I need some convincing that RCA's version is better than the rest on the market.

I did become a buyer of an RCA TV antenna. Not because of the packaging (which I read later after getting it home), but because I don't have cable and I needed rabbit ears to replace the ones that didn't fit into the hole on the top of my TV and didn't work so well. I have a demand, the seller has a supply. So far, so good. The RCA antenna was reasonably-priced, and was just what I was looking for. Nevertheless, the marketing on the package was a hoot:

"For a high-quality indoor antenna, the choice is clear. The ANT103 was designed and manufactured to provide sharp reception, with silver dipoles and a UHF loop that tilts and rotates to receive TV and FM stereo signals. The ANT103 ensures high-quality video and audio reception, with outstanding features such as a 12-position fine tuning switch. The sleek, new contemporary design of the ANT103 complements any decor with its two-tone silver finish. For beauty, form and function, RCA brand indoor antennas can't be beat. Get the picture?" [Emphasis original]

Again, keep in mind, we're not talking about cutting edge technology here. These are rabbit ears - one step removed from a coat-hanger-and-duct-tape aerial. These are two metal poles that slide up out of a plastic base. It is no more high-tech and cutting edge than a number two pencil - and about the same when it comes to "beauty, form, and function." But consumers expect things that go with their TVs to be laden with gadgetry and electronic wizardry. They expect mysterious acronyms, technocratic jargon, emotive words, and glittering excitement. Even when it comes to something as low-tech and uninspiring as rabbit ears. "Get the picture?"

Of course, RCA is a big company. They didn't have one of the guys in the mail-room write the verbiage and slap it into a Word document in three or four minutes. No, this is pure marketing. Every word, every punctuation mark, every use of bold was carefully weighed, and probably tested in focus groups, for effectiveness. It probably went through several iterations and versions, was approved by a host of titled executives, and trotted out to volunteers who were then interviewed and quizzed and analyzed about how the pitch made them feel toward the product. Data was crunched, standard deviations were calculated. Conclusions were drawn.

Marketing is clever, corporate, and manipulative - although it is done under the radar - lest the unknowing consumer begin to realize he is being "played" - especially the consumer that prides himself on his independence, his desire for "authenticity" and his disdain for corporate manipulation. Like chameleons, the marketers promote their products as if no marketing were involved at all.

For more about how marketing works, check out this exposé.

Part of the goal of marketing is to make the whole process look spontaneous and "real" - when nothing could be further from the truth.

But "truth" is not the goal - "sales" are. Ultimately, marketing is dishonesty. For truth is embellished (at very least) in order to "get them to sign on the line which is dotted." Closing the deal is the goal, not a truthful exchange of information so the consumer can make an informed choice. Marketing is a science. Lurking behind the image of "cool" is actually a bevy of executives, psychologists, and statisticians with a methodology designed to create an artificial image and to drum up artificial demand. The average consumer just thinks he's buying something "cool." He has no idea he's been manipulated by a long and arduous process designed to work in the background.

I've been told of a book called All Marketers Are Liars: The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-Trust World - and it has been highly recommended to me. The premise is that marketing is lying - but the good marketer must know just what he can get away with. There must be enough truth not to betray his lies, and the lies - in order to be ethical lies - must not cause anyone physical harm.

Of course, harm can be spiritual as well as physical.

In a day and age of many competing religious confessions, church leaders began to see the potential of marketing to draw people in to houses of worship. Certainly, bringing people to church to hear the Word of God is a laudable goal. Jesus commissioned the apostles to "make disciples of all nations" and proclaim the good news of salvation to every creature - which sounds to our fallen reason to be a classic case of sales and marketing. We have a commodity to "sell" (Jesus), we have potential consumers to "buy" (the world), and we have "competition" to undercut (marketing). Somehow, as the logic goes, we need to use marketing techniques to define ourselves, to increase market share and revenue, and to "sell" people on Jesus and our particular confession or denomination.

Hence we see churches engaging in all the typical sales and marketing gimmickry of the world: slogans, programs, brand identity and logos, talking points, balloons, large inflatable gorillas, slick ads, focus groups, promotions, and attractive packaging. There are mail-outs, launches, attempts to come across as spontaneously "cool," a drumbeat of peer pressure, attempts to "tap into the culture" and an appeal to numbers as evidence of "what works."

Of course, Jesus never speaks of marketing. In fact, Jesus is the market executive's worst nightmare. He tells us to take up our cross. He tells us to die to self. He tells us the Christian life is a life of self-denial, not consumption. He tells us we are helpless and must come before God as beggars (rather than consumers armed with MasterCard and a thousand choices). In Holy Scripture, preachers are not compared to Fuller Brush Salesmen, and the Gospel is not described as a multi-level Amway product. Rather the preacher is compared to a sower, and the Word of God to a humble seed. We're not talking about agri-business either. The preacher is a pretty bad farmer in terms of resource allocation and marketing strategy. The preacher (that is, the sower of the seeds) has no marketing strategy whatsoever. He tosses seeds everywhere: the street, the sidewalk, the thorny ground, the sunny ground, the soil that looks promising, and the soil that looks hopeless. He is not to rely on focus groups and statistical studies, but rather on the Holy Spirit.

There is no more anti-corporate model than that of our Lord's vision of church growth.

And yet, hapless church officials continue to recommend that pastors read all sorts of business best-sellers and the latest offerings by the sales and marketing gurus to shape their ministries and approach to Christian outreach. They seem to put more faith in Peter Drucker than in the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.

In the 1980s, we were swamped with a slew of books under the loose heading of the "Church Growth Movement" (CGM). Everyone, it seemed, was jumping on the bandwagon. After a lot of marketing research, the "gurus" told us that young people didn't want liturgy, so we began experimenting with more free forms. The "experts" told us traditional hymnody was a turn-off, so we filled our sanctuaries with drums and guitars. The Masters of the CGM told us that sermons about sin and redemption, law and gospel, justification and sanctification were no longer "relevant" - so our preachers began entertaining us with folksy stories and edgy humor. The consultants also told us that we needed to embrace technology - so we spent thousands of dollars on sound systems, big screens, software, more consultants, and redecorating of our sanctuaries.

The result was the megachurch. A "success" in the eyes of the marketers and CGM experts, but a failure when looked at according to Scripture. For in seeking the false god of Prosperity, the doctrine was watered down as to be indistinguishable from anyone else's. In order to keep the customer coming back, we need to give him what he wants - and that means no talk of sin, the cross, the total reliance of the Christian on the charity and grace of God. It means telling folks what they want to hear. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of "name it and claim it" hucksters and "prosperity gospel" false prophets come straight out of the megachurch. Our churches came to resemble mini Disney Worlds - complete with shows, concerts, drama, comedy, emotive music, and canned presentations.

Of course, the appeal of this paradigm has worn thin. Younger people see the phoniness of this big, plastic church. They seek something more "authentic."

But the marketers were already on their trail, sniffing around to figure out what the next fad should be. They know that the paradigm is shifting, that to capture the valuable youth demographic, the product must be marketed to appeal to Gen-X, Gen-Y, and beyond, and away from the model that worked for Baby Boomers. The surveys and research point to the fact that the younger crowd is somewhat in rebellion against the phony megachurch model, the preacher in khakis and golf shirts, the elegantly-designed sets and stages, and the ubiquitous cheesy adult-contemporary crooning. The younger demographic is looking for something grittier, less "yuppie" and suburban-looking - perhaps a pastor with a soup-catcher beard and a few piercings, a "worship space" that looks less corporate, less Starbuck's and a more "Indie" and dark. The music needs to be less "happy-clappy" and more "edgy." Anything to avoid the "corporate" look. And so, corporations are brought in to foster this anti-corporate look and environment.

This is what is known as the Emerging Church movement. Instead of looking like a shopping mall, the emerging church more closely resembles (and may actually be) a coffee shop. Instead of slickly-produced music, it may be less polished and more "raw." Instead of going for the cutesy sermon, the preacher may opt for more "street." The idea is to jettison the plasticity of the modern "worship center" and replace it with a more postmodern "worship experience" that seeks to blend traditional forms without being bound to tradition. Hence, the "emerging" worship style might use ancient icons transmitted on a plasma TV screen and employ Gregorian chant combined with grunge rock. It defies dogmatic theology in exchange for a subjective spirituality.

The emerging church seeks communion with the traditional church, while at the same time avoiding the responsibilities and obligations of traditional Christianity. It seeks an orthodoxy that is flexible. Of course, this is at odds with historic communions such as dogmatic Roman Catholicism, change-resistant Eastern Orthodoxy, tradition-bound continuing Anglicanism, and traditionalist confessional Lutheranism. The doctrine and practice of historic Christianity is rooted in the confession of absolute truth. The emerging church wants the stability and "authenticity" of a traditional church, but without imposing the strictures of truth on its members.

Lutheran Christianity is a historic expression of Western Catholicism. Traditional Lutheran doctrine and practice is a reversion to ancient Roman Catholicism. Lutheranism is, according to its normative documents in the 1580 Book of Concord, dogmatic and scriptural in its theology and liturgical and scriptural in its worship practice. The Lutheran tradition is antithetical with wishy-washy doctrines and new age worship styles.

Lutheranism is rooted in Christ through the Word of God and the sacraments. According to Lutheranism, one becomes a Christian apart from one's will (hence we don't make a "decision for Christ"), through the sacrament of Holy Baptism (which is not a mere symbol in our theology), and is carried out in fellowship within the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church through the ministrations of the pastoral office, the bishop/priest of traditional western theology as articulated in the Bible. It is through the pastor that the Lord works forgiveness and gives His gifts. This is an alien, even repugnant, theology to virtually all of Protestantism.

This explains the great incongruity between Protestant fads - such as the Church Growth Movement, Megachurches, and now the Emerging Church - and the theology confessed by Lutherans. Unlike a non-denominational church, a Lutheran pastor can't simply purchase a one-size-fits-all kit, show a few boilerplate videos, play a few generic Protestant praise songs, and wait for the market forces to do their work. For Lutherans (and other traditions within the historic Church), living out the Christian faith and life simply can't be done apart from the sacraments, from preaching, and from traditional worship forms. Attempts to do so always result in a doctrine and practice that are at odds with the Book of Concord - to which all Lutheran pastors and congregations are bound.

Here is an example (Sanctuary1010) of one such attempt to combine the Emerging Church fad with the venerable evangelical catholic (Lutheran) tradition. On Sanctuary1010's website you see all the cookie-cutter elements of other "emerging" examples. It has all the key nomenclature as identified by the professional religion industry's corporate strategists and gurus. A cursory look around the internet, and you'll see the same thing - only with different names. Without knowing that this is a creation of corporate America, you might begin to believe that this is something unique and "edgy" instead of being simply an ecclesiastical version of McDonald's.

Aside from the canned marketing element of "sanctuary1010" - that meets in a theater and tries hard to look "hip," take a look at the theology. You'll find a lot of God-talk, vague gibberish about "spirituality," and some Orpah-esque talk about community. Under "looking for answers" you will get an unintended, and yet somehow fitting "coming soon." Under "what do we believe?" you will find precious little. A couple verses from Scripture are cited and paraphrased in a very Protestant, perhaps even Gnostic, manner. Jesus goes unmentioned until you drill down into "the solution." Here it is..

God saw the problem we were in and loved us so much He did something about it: He sent His only Son, Jesus, to earth for us.
- (John 3:16)

Jesus is the only one who could make things right between us and God because He is the only one who is both God and man.
- (1 Timothy 2:5-6; Colossians 2:8-9)

Jesus gave His life as the perfect sacrifice for our sins and restores our relationship with God.
- (Isaiah 53:5; 2 Corinthians 5:21)

All of this is true, of course, but terribly incomplete. This is not "the solution" one would find in a Lutheran church - a vague, almost ethereal reference to Jesus being a sacrifice. Lutheran theology is rooted in baptism. We Lutherans cannot talk about salvation without speaking of Holy Baptism - and yet the word baptism is not even uttered on this site! Nor is Holy Absolution. Nor is Holy Communion. These very things are "the solution" - and yet they go unmentioned! That's because this supposedly "edgy" way of "doing church" is a corporate clone with non-denominational roots, a McChurch designed around a series of focus group studies, a turn-key business model aped from a theology that is not within our Lutheran tradition. They all look and sound the same regardless of denomination or confession - because they are market-driven, not truth-driven.

Marketing is institutionalized dishonesty designed to sell everything from cars to laundry soap, from pocket fishermen to light beer. Church Marketing is even worse. It's a fraud that custom-makes a pop-religion around the consumer, that denies the power of the Holy Spirit, that flies in the face of ancient confessed truths that point to the One Absolute Truth in the flesh, who comes to us in His chosen means - whether the world has been trained like Pavlov's dogs to find such truth hip or not.

The Christian Church must avoid the "Always Be Closing" mentality. Church executives should not be like Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross, whipping the pastors up into an emotional frenzy to go out there and make sales. Faithfulness to the family of God's people and to the doctrine and practice of the Holy Church must never play second fiddle to "closing" and racking up a tote- board of "critical events" rooted in sales seminars and pitches. What works for fast food restaurants and telemarketing firms will not work for the Church Catholic - with or without numbers that can be used to declare "success."

St. Paul, not Blake, speaks for the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church: "For we are not, like so many, peddlers (kapeleuontes) of God's Word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God in the sight of God we speak in Christ." 2 Cor 2:17 ESV

Good intentions, bad law

Several municipalities in my state, Louisiana, have made "sagging" (the wearing of baggy pants so low that one's underwear is exposed) illegal - as well as the roughly equivalent female practice of pants being cut so low as to similarly reveal their undergarments (as well as a lot of abdominal skin). Atlanta is now trying to legislate trouser placement.

This is a classic example of good intentions gone awry.

As Lutherans ought to know very well, the law can't fix every problem. While this isn't a theological issue, it is an example of the impotence (that's impotence, not importance) of the law when it comes to fixing sinful behavior.

At best, decency laws keep order. Public nudity is illegal, if for no other reason that it would create chaos. Can you imagine the number of car accidents? Cell phones are bad enough on our insurance rates, but naked people walking around on the sidewalk? Some people would wreck their cars craning their necks for a better view, while others would drive into a ditch trying not to look, averting their eyes, and reaching for the "eye bleach." There is a reason why some things are simply best kept hidden.

However, the problem with laws against droopy pants is that we're not talking about nudity, something that is easily definable. Most "saggers" wear boxers under their comical pantaloons. These are no more risqué than gym shorts that we all had to wear in grade school PE class. They're shorts, not a whole lot different than what has become acceptable attire for men and women nearly year-round in the South. In fact, boxers reveal far less skin than typical swim attire. How do you enforce a law against droopy pants when it would be perfectly legal to shed the pants entirely? What is actually illegal - the sagging pants or the exposure of boxers?

Similarly, current women's fashion may be skanky, suggestive, or just plain trashy - but unless nudity is involved, such things are impossible to regulate. What if a girl wore a pair of Victorian bloomers under her get-up, covered with a thong and low-rise jeans - could she be arrested? Can sports bras be outlawed when women routinely walk around the beach in bikinis?

Once again, the trashy fashions are symptomatic of a lack of self-respect, a desire to project oneself as a hunk of meat, a juvenile desire to debase oneself for the sake of peer-acceptance, a childish crying out for attention. The "fashion" is indicative of a repugnant attitude - toward oneself and toward one's peers.

The problem is that attitudes can't be legislated and good fashion taste cannot be achieved with threats of jail time.

Enforceable laws must be clear, and they must address behavior. If I wear a pair of basketball shorts and go out in public, this would not be illegal. But if I wear the same shorts, covered up with goofy-looking pants that are way too big so you can see my basketball shorts underneath, now this would be illegal? Police officers would be put into an impossible enforcement situation, and it will also detract them from enforcing other laws. Besides, what to do with repeat offenders? Do we really want people in our already overcrowded jails and prisons for fashion faux-pas?

Ditto for the women who show as much skin as a streetwalker. Unless she is really engaging in the behavior that she seems to want us to think she does, she's doing nothing illegal - even if she is setting a poor example for young girls and expressing a terrible image of herself. The truly sad part is that a lot of young women seem to think showing me their "drawers" makes me think they're attractive. I just feel sorry for them. How starved for attention must one be to walk around a bookstore or school campus practically naked? How sad when one's personality, intellect, charm, virtues, talents, self-confidence, grace, and refinement are so utterly lacking and non-existent that a girl feels the need to practically expose her buttocks to get someone somewhere, anyone anywhere, to cast even a glance in her direction? It must be a desperate and lonely life. The word "pathetic" comes to mind.

The bottom line is this: people will do all sorts of things to denigrate themselves, to be laughed at behind their backs in a desperate bid to fit in with somebody, to seek out even bad attention rather than to be just a number among six billion other ignored and lonely people. This kind of wretched self-image can't be fixed with legislation, cops on patrol, fines, jail time, billboards, and a campaign of public service announcements.

If the law could fix everything, we could simply outlaw modern art, hand-dryers in public restrooms, and hurricanes!

Monday, August 27, 2007

This just seems wrong...

...but I can't help but laugh.

Someone posted this mock-up of King Leonidas as portrayed in the new film "300" and embellishing his famous quote with a spoof of the Arby's commercial. Spartan valor combined with American marketing is just too incongruous not to be funny. How can you simply not chortle at this? I've been looking at it for two days and I'm still giggling.

King Leonidas was a truly great man, a hero to warriors around the globe for 2,500 years. He and his heroic 300 Spartans who fought to the death repelling a monstrous Persian army at the "hot gates" of the Pass of Thermopylae in 480 BC have been revered in history and in literature since the days of Herodotus, and on film since at least the late 1950s in the Hollywood epic "300 Spartans." Most recently, of course, their legendary exploits have been told in the form of a Frank Miller comic book come to celluloid (or should we say digital?) life in the movie "300."

"300" has been roundly criticized for taking liberties not only with the story, but with the costumes, the dialog, and other historical and military details. Historians have generally hated the film. But I liked it.

First of all, it is not a documentary nor a reenactment. It is a compelling story told in the style of a comic book. It reminds the viewer of the surreal storytelling in the Spider-man or Batman movies. It also calls to mind the other-worldliness of The Matrix films. It is an iconic work of art based loosely on a historical event. In some ways, it is similar to the relationship of the musical "1776" to the actual events in Philadelphia surrounding the real birth of American independence.

Second, it is a mythical re-tell of a story that has become larger than life. It is a tribute, not only to specific men (Leonidas and his troops), to a people (Spartans, and by extension, all Greeks), but to an ideal: freedom from tyranny; defense against invasion; courage to fight against hopeless odds; defense of home, hearth, women, and children; and the refusal to back down from what is right - even in the face of certain death and annihilation. It is an anthem of devotion to tribe, to homeland, to patriotism, to responsible government. The heroes of "300" are not invading other countries to expand an empire, but are rather defending themselves against an empire.

Third, it is a parallel story of our Lord Jesus. Obviously, Leonidas was not a worshiper of the one true God. However, there is an anachronistic christology reflected in the film. Leonidas is a mighty king, but not one who lords over his people. He is rather a servant-king, one who is willing to shed his own blood and sacrifice his own life for his people.

Fourth, "300" is not ambiguous about good and evil, right and wrong. In our current postmodern era, it has become fashionable to tell stories without clear heroes and villains, or in some cases, to recast and "re-vision" or "reinterpret" the evil characters as good, and the good as evil. In "300," the evil characters are grotesque and ugly. The heroes are manly and well-formed. The violence in the film is not gratuitous, but reflects a purpose of good standing up to evil, of the hero being willing to fight to the death for his ideals. Evil seeks to devour and destroy. Being a hero is not for the weak of knees or stomach.

Fifth, in this age of historical illiteracy, there is a real chance that young people who would never pick up a Loeb's classical book by Herodotus, consider learning to read ancient Greek, or even dreaming of studying Classics in college will be inspired to learn more about Leonidas and the 300, about Sparta, classical Greece, and the Persian Empire. Of course, such an inquirer will discover many details "300" either got wrong or embellished intentionally, but one thing that he will not find is that "300" lied about the courage and legacy of these brave men. History is interesting. "300" is anything but dry, boring, and pedantic. It is the kind of film that can inspire and cultivate curiosity about peoples and cultures of the past.

Which brings me around to the photoShopped picture. Once again, with all due respect to Leonidas, one can't help but think a part of him would approve. The Spartans showed their indifference to death by calmly combing and treating their hair and doing exercises in plain view of the enemy on the eve of battle. The remark "Eat a hearty breakfast, for tonight we dine in hell" attributed to Leonidas reflects a certain tongue-in-cheek bravado that demonstrates the importance of a sense of humor in the face of trials and tribulations. One of Leonidas's men was told that the Persians have so many archers that the arrows would blot out the sun. The nonplussed soldier replied: "Good. Then we'll fight in the shade" - probably in between bites of food. And of course, the most famous one-liner in all of history - one that must turn even Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis green with envy - was when Leonidas was asked by the Persians to lay down his arms. In keeping with the laconic Spartan tradition he replied with only two words: "Molon labe!" ("Come and get them!").

So it is in that spirit that I reproduce someone's clever PhotoShop work above. And in case anyone thinks I don't respect King Leonidas as a real historical person of greatness, you can ask my son about it. We call him "Leo" for short. ;-)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

You've got to bee kidding!

In Maine, there is a debate about whether or not a man's bee hives constitute "illegal farming."

That's right. Farming. I'm surprised they haven't tried to nail him under "interstate commerce" since bees routinely cross state lines.

The man isn't raising chickens (which, it seems, the town may allow, due to a 10-year old child's complaints), hogs, cattle, or any other "aromatic" livestock. He has honeybee hives.

Here's the story. I think this excerpt sums up the conflict:

"Patricia Doucette, the city’s longtime code enforcement officer, hopes to sit down one-on-one with beekeeper Omid Ghayebi to discuss the situation. But she said the bees violate rules limiting farming in residential zones. 'We have determined that this type of activity is offensive and detrimental to the neighborhood...'"

Note the use of the "Royal We" by the "code enforcement officer" (which seems to be a rather long euphemism for I don't know what). Note the use of the words "offensive" and "detrimental." My goodness! We're talking about honeybees, not rabid pit bulls. There is a sudden and unexplained shortage of honeybees around the world, which has caused a crisis in many areas. Why? Because honeybees pollinate flowers, pollinated flowers produce fruit, and fruit feeds people. Entire hives are dying off all over the world as the bees' immunity systems are failing, and no-one knows exactly why. The folks in this community should be happy that one of their neighbors has hives that are prospering.

Bees are indigenous creatures that occur in nature. Local governments can no more regulate (or ban) their existence than they can control the routes that birds fly or mandate how many seeds can sprout in the ground. Of course, in our modern American suburban way of life, we think we can control the progress of every microbe and grub that wanders across our property line and subject every blade of grass to stringent rules and regulations - especially if we can get the property owners' association or city council involved.

Part of the problem is ignorance. A lot of people in the 'burbs have simply lost touch with nature. There is a valuable function that honeybees perform, and there are consequences if we create a sterile world without them. Secondly, honeybees are not wasps or yellow-jackets. They are gentle creatures. I'm always amazed when someone sees a bee and starts wildly swatting in the air as if he were defending himself against an attack by monsters. When you ask why he is swatting the air like a madman, he'll tell you that he doesn't want to get stung. Really? That's the one way you can guarantee getting stung!

If you leave them alone, they won't sting you. This is generally true even for aggressive stinging creatures. Honeybees (and bumblebees) are laid-back, almost tame creatures that only sting as a last resort. You can actually pet a big fuzzy bumblebee on its back as it buzzes around flowers. Try it! They're really quite friendly.

We have prolific orange and lemon trees at our place. The yield was phenomenal last year, and it looks like it will be again this year. We also have lots of carpenter bees that have created (with no prompting from us) nests in our shed out back, and even some on the underside of our porch swing - all unauthorized by local, parish, state, and federal officials! The females drill small holes in exposed wood and lay eggs. The males (who are huge) hover around looking for mates. They're very curious bees, and will buzz around and look you in the eye as though they're studying you. They are the most un-aggressive creatures around - and they are also God's gift to citrus trees.

People really need to get a grip and learn to coexist with God's creatures. They exist in the grand scheme of things for something other than petty bureaucrats to feel powerful by passing laws against them, and for neighbors to bicker over. If you like flowers and fruit, then you ought to like bees, and you should do everything in your power to encourage their prosperity.

I honestly believe a lot of folks think fruit just magically appears in the produce section of Wally World and that flowers come up because the civic association has passed a resolution ordering them to.

I hope Mr. Ghayebi tells the hysterical harassment officer to "buzz off," and that somebody in the South Portland local government has as many brain cells as your average drone.

Sermon: Trinity 12

26 Aug 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Mark 7:31-37 (Isa 29:18-24, Rom 10:9-17)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus is on a journey. He is in the land of the Gentiles, the people who have not been given the Word of God, people whose ears have not been opened to the promises of God.

In this land of the spiritually deaf, Jesus encounters a man who is literally hard of hearing and unable to speak. This man is not only a Gentile, he is physically unable to hear the Word of God. And since he can’t hear, he is bodily unable to confess the Word of God. This man is hopelessly lost in a world of silence, a world bereft not only of music and the voices of loved ones, but devoid of all hope.

As St. Paul asks rhetorically in our epistle: “How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?” Paul also proclaims: “Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” This deaf-mute Gentile can’t hear, he can’t invoke the Lord with his lips, and he certainly can’t hear without a preacher.

There is no-one who could have less hope in salvation than this man.

But notice that our Lord doesn’t leave him in his silence and despair. He is the Preacher who has been sent in order that “the deaf shall hear the words of the book.” The “words of the book” are “glad tidings of good things,” good news, the “Gospel of peace,” the very Word of God the hearing of which is the source of faith.

The preaching of Jesus is effective once the deaf-mute’s ears have been unstopped. For Satan is the cause of all infirmity, all illness, all things that lead to decay and death, all things that impede the free reign of God’s Word. The devil hurts the body, for through the body, the Word of God is heard. Through the body, the sacraments are received. Through the body, “confession is made unto salvation.”

The Lord Jesus takes the suffering body of the deaf-mute and retools him so he can hear the Word of God, “believe our report,” obtain faith, confess the good news, and have salvation. Salvation is not some spiritual pie in the sky, but bodily reparation, a restoration of the perfection in which we were created in the first place.

So our Lord, prompted by compassion for the lost, the suffering, the imperfect, does one thing before anything else: “He took him aside from the multitude.” Jesus removes this man from the crowd, sets him apart, which is to say, makes him holy. He doesn’t do this in some kind of new-age spiritual way with astral projection and positive thinking. Rather the Lord’s re-creation and healing of the deaf-mute is gritty and earthy, fleshly and visible. Jesus touches the man and moistens him with his own spit. Jesus commands with His word: “Ephphatha. Let his ears be opened.” And they were opened.

Not only was his deafness removed, but also his inability to speak. For hearing goes hand in hand with speaking. Hearing the Word of God is what connects faith with confessing. For as Paul tells us, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” Having heard this Word, we can repeat the same words: “homologeo” in the Greek, “confessio” in the Latin. We speak, we confess, we repeat the very same Word of God that the Preacher brought to us, because our ears have been unstopped, our tongues have been loosed, and we have indeed believed His report.

The Lord Himself has taken us Gentiles, people outside of the promise, people who once lived in darkness and silence, people who never heard the “glad tidings of good things,” and he came to us in the form of a preacher, opening our ears and mouths through his touch and water. Our baptisms are our own “ephphatha” – which is why the confession of the Apostles Creed accompanies the application of water and the word.

Thus we see in Word and in deed the power of the Word of God. It heals, makes whole, removes impediments to the working of the Holy Spirit to create faith. It brings hope to the hopeless. It opens the ears of those unable to hear, and liberates the tongues of those unable to speak. The Word of God empowers confession and grants everlasting life.

This, dear brothers and sisters, is why Satan seeks to deafen us. For deafness takes many forms. For most of us, deafness isn’t dead silence, but just the opposite. Satan deafens us to the Word of God by bombarding us with noise. We are constantly thrust in the middle of a cacophony of voices and racket that is either contrary to God’s Word, or simply drowns it out. Like the thorn-bushes that choke out the seed in our Lord’s Parable of the Sower, the Word of God implanted in us is constantly under assault by weeds and thistles of the evil one.

Satan seeks to plug up that which has been miraculously opened. Our attention is constantly pulled this way and that by all sorts of sounds that demand our attention – some of which sound sweet and pious (but only serve to lead us astray), while other noise is obviously racket – and yet we enjoy it just the same.

The noise pollution that competes with God’s Word is not necessarily high voltage rock and roll or the pulsating din of “second hand rap” blasting from the speakers of a driver who is so courteous that he wants to share his tunes with anyone within half a mile. Noise pollution can take the form of addictive TV shows (even the History Channel or educational programming). The racket that competes with the Word of God may also manifest itself as too many hours spent on the ever-present Internet, on hypnotic video games, or even in the form of loud snoring from sleeping in on Sunday.

Deafness to the Word of God takes many forms: laziness, misplaced priorities, being deceived by the seductive song of the world and our sinful flesh, being fooled into thinking all words are God’s words, or even by buying into the opposite error that no words are God’s words.

All of these things serve to stop up our ears and block out the very Word that brings saving faith. In his explanation to the Third Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy,” Luther gives us Christians the explanation that “we should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word.”

For how deluded must we be to despise the Word of Him who healed us? How sad is it to take for granted the Word of God that imparts faith in us? How evil is it to seek to absent oneself from preaching? For what does our Lord’s Word say: “How shall they hear without a preacher?”

In our do-it-yourself age of cafeteria Christianity, as self-sufficient rugged individualist Americans, as people who like to take the bull by the horns – we miss out on the very thing that succeeds where our efforts inevitably fail.

Dear former deaf-mute Gentiles, those who once sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, tune your ears to the Word of God. Tune out the noise pollution that threatens to drown it out. With “one little word,” Jesus has felled the old evil foe and has given you eternal life. Let that “one little word” always remind you of your baptism, where your ears were unstopped to hear and your tongues loosened to confess. Let the Lord’s “one little word” ring in your ears daily and drown out all other racket with the mighty rush of baptismal grace. Ephphatha. Be opened.” Amen.

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

Thursday, August 23, 2007


I have never heard of this "glamping" (glamorous camping) before. I had to check two or three times to make sure this article wasn't a hoax. No, it's really the LA Times Online. And "LA" in this case is Los Angeles, not Louisiana. On the bayou, camping means just that - no maid, no butler, no mint on the pillow. In fact, we eat things that most people try to repel with aerosol spray cans.

I have to admit, this "glamping" thing just plain gives me the creeps. I find it disturbing on a number of levels.

I feel very sorry for the family in this article - especially for the little boy. My goodness! According to his mother, he has never flown coach or stayed in a hotel other than the Four Seasons. The lad wants to go camping and fishing. This is normal, natural, boy behavior. Maybe for once in his life he'd like to experience something other than an artificial hermetically sealed spectator life. Maybe just once he'd like to get his hands all greasy from a bike chain, or get covered in sweat after hiking up the side of a mountain to see a real waterfall (rather than a Disney mock up). But notice his mother in the video clip - she was simply not going to do it. It's all about her, of course. I think she's more spoiled than twenty pounds of shrimp in a Katrina refrigerator. And I wonder how junior will turn out?

Some of the greatest times I ever had in my childhood were camping with my family. And it isn't always 72 degrees and sunny, either. We slept in tents, campers, and our trusty old converted van. My dad and I used to ride motorcycles in all sorts of weather: scorching heat, pouring rain, while camping in a tent in the mountains of West Virginia and Arkansas. We've seen bear cubs up close (don't try this at home), we've seen strange-looking pine trees that only grow on one side due to prevailing winds. Once we were caught in pouring rain for hours on end (while on the cycles) to the point where we were both so stiff in our joints that we felt like the tin man in the Wizard of Oz. On one occasion when I was really little, my mom and dad watched a skunk wander into our tent. I wouldn't trade those experiences for the world!

I just can't imagine what kind of memories I would have had were I pampered and spoiled. I mean, dealing with the discomforts, being flexible and spontaneous enough to change plans on the fly, learning to improvise with materials you have, developing a sense of humor as well as an understanding that we don't control everything around us, not to mention the wonderful family memories are all things people miss while trying to find the "perfect" vacation or striving to keep their children in a "plastic bubble" with a maid and a butler. Lord have mercy! Camping with a maid and butler!

And yes, using an outhouse is important (though it isn't something we did often, but there were times when that's all that was available). It makes you appreciate what you have when you get back home. Besides, the world can be a hostile place. There are hurricanes, terrorist attacks, wars, and all sorts of calamities. The time may come when we may have to dig a latrine, sleep under a lean-to, and figure out what plants to eat in order to survive. When times like those come around (as they inevitably do), the folks who did some real camping will have a better shot than those who had hired hands doing everything for them.

These folks are not doing their son any favors. Why don't they have him join the Boy Scouts? Would that be too much contact with the hoi-polloi?

But isn't that typical of our culture? Why should we expect anything else from parents these days? Selfish, wasteful, lazy, and self-indulgent. People actually think spoiling their children and robbing them of real-world experiences is good parenting. How sad!

I wouldn't trade my memories of camping with my family in a chilly tent with a sleeping bag for all of the plastic and artificial experiences that are for sale to the highest bidder. I can sure appreciate staying at a luxury hotel and enjoying a fine meal, fine drink, and a fine cigar (I once went on a (very cold!) dog-sledding and camping trip in Quebec followed by a one-night stay at the exquisite and civilized Chateau Laurier in Ottawa right next to the Canadian Parliament. It is possible to enjoy both sides of the coin). But if that's all you ever know and do, look at how much you will never see and experience. This is especially sad for kids - most especially boys. They need to get dirt under their nails.

Of course, these days, the greatest luxury of all isn't staying at a Four Seasons or flying first class, it's actually having parents who care about their children and are willing to make sacrifices for the sake of preparing them for life as a well-rounded person. Now that's a luxury that you just can't buy!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Louisiana + Politics + Religion...

Some things just shouldn't be mixed. In the trio: Louisiana, Religion, and Politics, mixing two is dicey, mixing all three is explosive.

The following article deals with all three.

The situation in a nutshell is this: the Republican candidate for Louisiana's governor, Bobby Jindal, is a Roman Catholic. In 1996, Jindal wrote an article in the New Oxford Review (which is an unabashedly Roman Catholic publication) in which he laments that the Protestant Reformation led to a "scandalous series of divisions and new denominations." That is historically true - the Reformation gave rise to thousands of denominations, sects, and divisions in the Church, as well as outright heresies that have crossed the boundaries into the world outside of the Church. The only "value judgment" word in the sentence is "scandalous." But the multiplicity of denominations within Christianity is scandalous - especially given our blessed Lord's prayer "that they may be one" (John 17:22). The divisions that plague the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (and have since 1054) are indeed a scandal. They certainly cause Christians no joy - just as they cause Christ no joy.

I do believe the Reformation was necessary - but I do lament that there were very bad side effects. Had the Roman hierarchy been more pastoral, willing to sit down together and dialogue honestly, and been even a little open to make make reforms of some openly scandalous abuses and practices (instead of merely circling the wagons, aggressively digging in their heels, and simply executing anyone who raised questions), the "scandalous divisions" might not have happened at all. Jindal and I would place the blame in different places, no doubt. But I certainly agree with him that there were unintended bad consequences of the Reformation.

Bobby Jindal - like every good Roman Catholic - believes that the Roman communion headed by the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) is the earthly manifestation of the one true church, and that all other Christians are in a sort-of "impaired communion" with the Catholic Church. You cannot be a Roman Catholic and not believe this. This is Catholic dogma. Should being a Roman Catholic disqualify a man for political office? The Democrats of 1960 sure didn't think so.

But to hear the Democrats in 2007, Jindal is insulting individuals instead of simply confessing his faith. To hear them tell the story, Jindal is insulting "Protestants" calling them "scandalous, depraved, selfish, and heretical."

Do you see the difference?

This is a blatant appeal to poison the conservative Christian waters in the non-Catholic areas of Louisiana against Jindal. The Democratic strategists are hoping to weaken the coalition of conservatives of different Christian traditions by attempting to start a fight between Catholics and Protestants - hoping, of course, to capitalize on the chaos.

But if Jindal's opponents are correct, then no Catholic may ever run for office. Indeed, it also means that nobody who holds to any religion ought to run for office. For by believing in (actually believing in) any religion, that means you believe other religions are wrong. Similarly, if you are a Democrat, you believe Republicans are wrong. If you are a Republican, you believe Democrats are wrong. If you like Coke, the Pepsi folks may be "offended," and if you like Pepsi, the Coke folks may want to protest your home for your "hate." This is a classic "divide and conquer" approach, and it is distasteful. But, of course, it works. So shiftless and unscrupulous politicians will do such things until our Lord comes again to reign as King without politics.

Frankly, people ought to respect a man for honoring his religious faith - even if they don't agree. Protestant Christians who are interested in pro-life issues, for example, may well want to vote for Roman Catholic, Mormon, or even Muslim politicians - as they are going to be more sympathetic to defending life than a non-religious person will be. I'm not telling anyone how to vote (far from it - I'm not registered with any party), but I hope that voters are savvy enough not to be bamboozled by political opportunists of any stripe. Regardless of how you feel about the Republicans or Jindal, he is getting a raw deal in this attack on his Catholicism. And so are we as Lutherans, as Christians who cling to a specific confession and hold it to be doctrinally correct.

Consider this attack against Jindal's faith as an attack not only against Christianity, against religion, but also as an attack against anyone being willing to take a stand on anything. This is indeed an attack against objective truth and the assertion of objective truth. Therefore, it is an attack against our Lord Himself (John 14:6).

Politicians typically speak out of both sides of their mouths. As a friend of mine once put it: "You can't beat the truth out of 'em, 'cause the truth ain't in 'em." I remember a few years ago one of the presidents (I don't even remember who) made an appearance at a Monday Night Football game wearing a jersey made up of jerseys of both teams. How often we hear politicians being asked direct questions, but they answer obliquely and with such carefully weighed words you have to wonder what the heck they REALLY believe beneath the weaseling and waffling.

And shame on the Democratic candidates for staying mum in the midst of this mudslinging. They are allowing other members of their party to "do their dirty work" while they "keep their hands clean." If these were honorable men, they would blow the whistle and call a "foul" for what is being done to their fellow politician for doing nothing more than actually believing his own religion.

And don't get me wrong - the door of hypocrisy swings both ways. In this case, it just happens to be Democrats engaging in dirty tricks. The Republicans do the same thing. A certain part of me really doesn't care if the politicians eat each other. Let them fling mud at each other all day long - as long as they leave us alone. But the Christian faith, and thus Christ Himself, are being sullied by the politicians who are flinging the mud, as well as by the politicians who are standing "piously" on the sidelines not offering Jesus a towel with which to wipe his muddied face. The Democratic candidates for Louisiana governor have become the priest and the Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

Politicians only care about winning. I'm convinced that many of them would defile the graves of their own mothers in order to "win." There are exceptions, of course. But that's why they are exceptions. The exceptions prove the rule.

The bottom line is this: your governor is not your pastor. Who cares what religion he is? Who cares what his religion thinks of your religion? As Martin Luther once said, better to have a Muslim emperor who is competent than a Christian who is not. Politicians need to leave the theology to the theologians and stick with what they do best (and being a pastor, I won't get any more specific than that).

Shame on any politician, Democrat, Republican, or anything else, who exploits Jesus in the name of winning an election.

[Contest: Can anyone identify the Christian element in the Louisiana state flag (above) that has been challenged by the ACLU?]

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Right-Thinking Articulate Young Woman

Most blogs really aren't worth reading (for most people, this would include mine!). But every now and then, you find a gem along the way, something that edifies mind and spirit, something that not only encourages thought and provokes discussion, but something anchored by the divine order of creation and rooted in Christianity.

It's always a shot in the arm to run across a right-thinking and articulate person's blog. It is especially hopeful when the blogger is a young person - since the generic "youth culture" is so antithetical to the traditionalist Christian culture, hostile to family, bereft of beauty, and indifferent to the intellect. You've got to respect the courage and integrity of young people who are willing to swim upstream, defend the Christian faith and life, protect the weak, support the family, and uphold that which is honorable and true.

It is especially poignant when the young right-thinking young Christian blogger is a woman. For she not only has to contend with the "youth culture" but also the assaults and crafts of feminism to boot.

I recommend Anna's Musings About Home, Family Life and Womanhood for your edification.

Who wouldn't want a daughter like Anna?

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Few, the Proud, the Lutherans...

Oh, the junk mail that comes into the church office!

Usually, it's not of a Lutheran origin - like the "Christian cruise" invitations with dazed-looking suburbanites with hands raised in the air with the "rock" (give me a break!) band up front. Or the invitations to "prayer breakfasts" with "community leaders" and famous TV preachers. Or the catalogs with pictures of big screens and sound systems for our church. Or the ads for sermons for sale that can be purchased with a credit card...

Then there's the Lutheran junk mail.

Today, I got a "fund-raiser" offer to sell T-shirts that say: "The Few, the Proud, the Lutherans" with a plain cross logo.

Of course, no indication if the United States Marines have consented or not...

These t-shirts are touted to have been worn by the youth group of this particular congregation at the Higher Things Youth Conference in North Carolina.

Just last Sunday in the one-year series we heard our Lord preaching about religious pride. This is inevitably what happens when evangelism meets marketing and fund-raising. Creeds are reduced to slogans. The Gospel is reduced to a prideful celebration of our "brand".

The Word of God has much to say about pride - especially in being prideful of one's spiritual state. Pride goes before the fall. Pride was Satan's original sin. Pride stands between the Pharisees and repentance. Pride is the impediment that keeps many away from the Christian faith.

The empty, Christless cross is the perfect symbol to go with this shallow rendition of what the Augsburg Confession is all about. For in celebrating our "Lutheran-ness" with a boastful T-shirt - especially in a way that actually boasts of our pride itself - is the very opposite of the proclamation and confession of the Crucified One.

To be an Augsburg Christian, an Evangelical Catholic, a Lutheran in the richest sense of the word is to be a humble forgiven sinner, knowing that his salvation is by grace alone, and that he has no reason whatsoever to boast.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Anointing with oil

Another helpful feature of the new LSB Pastoral Care Companion (PCC) is the inclusion of a rite for anointing the sick with oil within the context of a pastoral visit. Under the heading "Visiting the Sick and Distressed" on page 34, the pastor will find a simple rite of unction that includes a reading from James 5:14-16, an address to the sick person, and a blessing that includes the anointing. There is even a helpful rubric telling how to do it - since many Lutheran pastors (at least in the LCMS) have never been trained in the nuts and bolts of unction.

By way of example, I visited a parishioner in ICU today. I brought along my communion kit, hoping that he would be able to receive the most holy body and blood of our dear Lord. However, he was asleep upon my visit. I prayed for him, read Scripture, and followed the little rite of visiting the sick and distressed.

Since I wasn't able to give him communion, it was a blessing to be able to give him something physical as a visible sign of the spiritual. I traced the sign of the holy cross on his forehead with my thumb, tracing a cross of olive oil upon his head in remembrance of his Holy Baptism.

While we don't dogmatically call unction a sacrament, it is not a useless ritual. It does involve an element administered by a called and ordained servant of the Word and it does include a promise attached to the prayer that accompanies the administration of oil. This is a rite that is specifically mentioned in Scripture (James 5:14-16) and it does fall within the duties of the ordained pastor (presbyter) per the Word of God. Sadly, it has largely fallen into disuse in our circles.

The connection to baptism is even more obvious when we make use of another rubric in the Pastoral Care Companion - the anointing that may accompany Holy Baptism. In the LSB baptismal rite as reproduced in the Pastoral Care Companion (PCC), pp. 3-13, we find the following rubric listed under "The Rite in Detail" (Number 9): "While making the sign of the cross during the blessing after the Baptism, olive oil may be used to symbolize the sealing with the Holy Spirit for salvation (Eph. 1:13-14). This oil is applied with the thumb."

I urge all my colleagues in the Holy Ministry serving in Missouri Synod congregations to embrace this beautiful and evangelical practice. When you baptize an infant (or anyone, for that matter), cross his forehead with olive oil. When he is sick, cross his forehead with olive oil. On Ash Wednesday, cross his forehead with ashes mixed with olive oil. And as he approaches death, cross his forehead with olive oil. The more our parishioners see the oil being used in conjunction with Holy Baptism, the more they will see the connection to Holy Baptism in times of illness, or even as death looms. The more times the pastor crosses his parishioners with his thumb on their foreheads (even without oil) - at baptism, during the benediction at sick calls, when he forgives their sins in private confession, any time a blessing is given to an individual, and even in the casket - the more people will see the staying power of baptism - that Holy Baptism is an eternal sacrament - not merely a ritual that is over and done with once the water is wiped off the brow, the pictures taken, and the candle extinguished.

When oil is used as a symbol of the "seal" - it confesses that something extraordinary and permanent has happened, that the baptized person has been "signed, sealed, and delivered." There is also a strong christology confessed as well, for the very word "Christ" means "anointed one." Anointing is symbolic of Christ being put on us at Holy Baptism. It is a reminder of the presence of the Anointed One in our times of need.

Of course, Luther's Small Catechism urges us to sign ourselves morning and evening in our routine prayers, and in times of great distress or fright in extraordinary prayers. We begin and end the Divine Service with the sign of the cross, as well as at several points within the Mass itself. The sign of the cross is a treasured gesture and confession, one that points not only to the cross, but also to the font and the powerful name of the Triune God - which has been put upon us as a "seal" as well.

The use of oil in our baptismal ritual as well as in our pastoral care to the sick is a good habit to get into, one that coming generations of American Lutherans will be able to relate to as a proclamation of Him into whose name we are baptized.

Sermon: Trinity 11 and Installation of Rehema Kavugha

19 Aug 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 18:9-14 (Gen 4:1-15, 1 Cor 15:1-10)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

When reality isn’t what we would like, our sinful flesh does what it does best – it lies. Instead of coming to grips with reality – we evade, we deny, and we try to wiggle out from under the reality we refuse to confront.

Some resort to drugs, alcohol, gambling, promiscuity, or even pathological behavior in order to escape the truth. Others turn to criminal behavior to try to steal the reality that they covet. However, the most common response is to simply lie to oneself about the mess that we are all in. When it comes to self-examination, the devil is the greatest optimist in the world. He tells us we’re doing fine. We’re really pretty darn good people. In fact, when we compare ourselves to the druggies, drunks, and people with various addictions and morally reprehensible behaviors – we come out looking pretty solid.

Of course, it’s all a lie. It’s a front our flesh puts up to avoid the unpleasant truth that we are “poor miserable sinners” whose sin-corrupted flesh is on a crash course with the grave. We don’t want to consider that God is almighty and perfect, that He demands our perfection as well – so we create a happy-go-lucky god in our own image, a kind of George Burns or Morgan Freeman who doesn’t ask a whole lot from us. Of course, a George Burns or a Morgan Freeman never sent his son to die on the cross as payment for sin.

The kind of God in our Genesis reading that rejects the offering of Cain, who doles out a punishment more than Cain can bear, is not the sort of Old King Cole type god with dimples and laugh lines.

And yet, we do worship a God of grace. For as St. Paul points out in his epistle, Paul was a murderer like Cain. Paul was the enemy of God’s people on earth – and yet God showed him unmerited mercy – even making him an apostle.

The unbeliever will seize on these two extremes and claim that this is a contradiction in the Bible. Similarly, some within the Church create a dichotomy, a division, between the cranky, mean old God of the Old Testament and the happy, joyful, easygoing God of the New Testament. Or as some Lutherans like to put it: the Old Testament God is Law, the New Testament God is Gospel.

But such delusions are more diabolical tricks to separate us from the faith.

Our blessed Lord’s parable gives us the missing piece of the puzzle. For Jesus is the “Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world” – the whole world – not merely Abel, not merely Paul, not merely the tax collector in the parable. Jesus also died for Cain, for those who persecuted Paul, and for the Pharisee in the story. And yet, not all of them receive the grace of God that Jesus freely gives. For not all are repentant, not all acknowledge their own sin.

Cain’s offering was not accepted. Abel’s was. Both were sinners – and yet, only Abel offered a sacrifice of blood: an atonement for sin. Cain offered what he thought God would want. And yet God had made it clear that a blood sacrifice was the covering for sin. The Lord Himself made that first sacrifice when he killed animals in order to make garments of skin to cover the nakedness of Cain’s parents. In offering a sacrifice of his own desire instead of what God required, Cain was demonstrating his lack of repentance, his delusional flippancy regarding his own mortal sinfulness. And his offering was rejected. His unrepentant flirtation with the diabolical led him to murder his own brother as a result.

In our Lord’s parable, a Pharisee is eager to point to himself as an example of righteousness. He puts all of the eggs of his eternal welfare in the basket of his own perceived goodness and uprightness. He has deluded himself into believing his own flesh’s propaganda that he has achieved righteousness through good works. He puts before God the grain offering of self-satisfaction instead of the true satisfaction of the Lamb’s blood offered in repentance. He is so crassly demented that he actually looks down his nose at a truly repentant sinner – a man who sees reality for what it is, and confronts it in truth and honesty – even though the truth hurts.

The tax collector has no illusions of his own righteousness. He pleads for mercy, he beats his breast, his eyes are downcast. He knows from whence his help cometh. And our Lord makes no bones about the ending, the moral of the story: “I tell you, this man” – that is, the tax collector –

“went down to his house justified rather than the other;” says our Lord, “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Now, this is indeed good news for those who look at reality the way it is, those who join the tax collector in beating their breasts and begging for mercy, those who do not try to hide, evade, or wiggle out of the fact that we are sinful to the bone, in fact, right down to the depraved depths of our souls. This is good news, because it means that our offering is acceptable to the Lord – for it isn’t a grain offering of our good deeds, evidence that we are skillful at some occupation or another.

We who beat our breasts and confess our sins facing this altar will also kneel at this same altar and partake in the sacrifice that takes away our sins – the flesh and blood of the Lamb who died so that we might live, as Paul says: “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” Those who believe in their own righteousness feel no need to ask for mercy or plead the blood of the Lamb as a sacrifice to cover their shame. Those who are thus deluded actually see the shame of others while refusing to confront the reality of their own shame. This is to take the side of Cain and not Abel, to join forces with the proponents of the Law instead of with Paul’s proclamation of grace, and is to cast oneself in the mold of the proud Pharisee instead of the humble tax collector.

This, dear brothers and sisters, is exactly what Paul means when he says: “I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you -- unless you believed in vain.”

That Gospel, that good news that like the tax collector, we know our guilt, (but we also know we have been redeemed in spite of our unworthiness), that Gospel is why our church runs a school. We believe that even the finest education is incomplete without the Gospel being first and foremost, being taught in word and deed by faithful teachers.

That Gospel is why all of our teachers are here today. That Gospel is why Rehema Kavugha is joining our faculty. Music is a great and noble art – but apart from the Gospel, it’s only entertainment. When placed in the service of the Gospel, however, music is a tool of almighty God to save the world.

Our church and school stand united under the Gospel, facing the reality that we are “poor, miserable sinners,” that we, like St. Paul, are unworthy of the grace the Lord has shown to us. Like the tax collector, we face this altar with downcast eyes and plead for forgiveness. Like Abel, we know that only the blood of an Innocent restores us to communion with God.

And again, like St. Paul, we confess and proclaim with one voice: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” What a magnificent insight from Holy Scripture on this day when Rehema officially becomes part of our faculty, publicly confessing that all of her labors as a teacher and choir director are to be guided by Holy Scripture and normed by the evangelical confessions of the holy Church? For she is what she is, as we all are, by the grace of God. His grace toward us is not in vain, for our labors are not our own, but rather the grace of God working within us.

And while we can never boast that the godly work we do in His Kingdom is the result of our own righteousness, we do have the profound joy of knowing that in spite of our unworthiness, the glorious grace of God goes out to others through our labors, through the Lord working mightily through our humble vocations.

Each one of us can pray every day with St. Paul: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” Amen.

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

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Let us pray for the people of the Caribbean - especially the three million people of Jamaica - as Hurricane Dean bears down on them. This storm is currently a Category 4 hurricane, and it is poised to become a Category 5 - which is as high as the scale goes. It looks like Jamaica will take a direct hit, probably about 2 pm EST - only a few hours after many of us in America will be in church for Sunday services.

Within a couple days from now, there may well be thousands of people, perhaps even tens or hundreds of thousands, left homeless and destitute, exposed to the elements, and fighting for their very lives. Many will die. The magnitude of this storm is hard to fathom.

Let us pray for the Lord's mercy toward the weak and helpless, for the safety and well-being of those in harm's way, and for the workers and volunteers who will be risking their own lives in rescue and recovery efforts.

Let us also keep the people of Mexico and Texas in our prayers, as they will likely also take a direct hit from this storm. We in New Orleans cannot be certain that Hurricane Dean will not swing northward and hit our still-vulnerable city and region, but as of now, the computer models and forecasters seem to have a fairly solid consensus that we will not be in the cross-hairs this time.

There will be years of opportunity for Christians to show mercy to their neighbors in need as a result of this storm and others like it that will no doubt plague the Caribbean and the Gulf Coast during this active phase for cyclones.

But for now, prayers are in order.