Monday, July 30, 2007
I'd like to flesh out this idea more when (and if) I get time to ponder and research a little more, but I do think this is a crucial piece to the puzzle of what is happening to the American scene of Christianity - including our little microcosm known as The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod.
Commercialism is at the center of our culture, but isn't often addressed by the Church as something that is hostile to the Gospel.
In his novel Hammer of God, Swedish Lutheran Bishop Bo Giertz tells the story of a small rural parish in Sweden from the early 19th century to the mid 20th century. Breaking the story into three novellas, Giertz captures three "snapshots" of the major cultural movements that challenged the church's proclamation and confession: modernism, liberalism, and pietism.
I believe that our own era is in many ways similar - and yet, these specific -isms have evolved into our own culturally unique landscape within which the church does battle. I believe modernism (the rejection of the supernatural) has developed into postmodernism (the rejection of the objective truth). I believe liberalism (a philosophy of change for change's sake) has refined and focused itself into feminism (a rejection of the traditional roles of gender and sex - which includes not only a challenge to tradition regarding women, but, I would argue, includes the homosexual/trans-gender movement as well). As far as pietism goes, it too has transformed. Today's religious emotionalism is in some ways similar to the heart-tugging of Spener and Wesley - and yet it is also different. Today's pietism is driven by a certain faddishness - a desire to be "cool" and accepted by one's peers. Hence the highly emotional and subjective nature of "contemporary worship" that seeks to co-opt a hip rock and roll ethos, of tattoos and body piercings, a youth culture of t-shirts and bumper stickers, of bobble-heads and trinkets that seek to rebel against tradition by an appeal to American sales jingles and slogans, the culture of the mall - in short: commercialism.
Salvation Army bands have been replaced by praise or rock bands. The mourner's bench has been replaced by the theater seat with cupholder. The 19th century Methodist minister's rejection of the cassock and surplice in favor of a coat and tie has moved on to either the American business uniform of Dockers and a golf shirt, or to a more niche market of t-shirts, jeans, leather jackets, and biker or cowboy attire for the "worship leader" of the 21st century non-denominational megachurch.
I think Mr. Abbott is spot on. Consumerism is a huge force in modern Western culture - and it has largely taken over conservative Christianity - even confessional Lutheranism which has its own form of t-shirt culture.
The only way to reject commercialism is a concerted movement toward traditionalism. Unless cassocks start having designer labels or rock bands on them, the best way for clergy to fight back against commercialism is to revert back to traditional attire, rubrics of worship, and churchmanship. His vocabulary and point of reference should be the church, not the mall. He should seek guidance from the Scriptures and confessions, not from the latest books about colored parachutes and moved cheese. He should be shaped by bishops, not CEOs. The Gospel of the Word of God as confessed through the ages ought to shape his mind and theology - as opposed to the science of marketing: how to get people to buy laundry soap and hamburgers. Using marketing to "sell" the faith inevitably leads back to the days and methods of Tetzel - which is not a very satisfying model of ministry to Lutherans (at least those Lutherans who actually have a clue who Tetzel was).
When asked if his church is Ablaze!(tm), the traditionalist LCMS pastor probably ought to be completely puzzled, scratch his head and say, "Well I hope not. We do try to keep the hot coals in the thurible."
Sunday, July 29, 2007
Text: Matt 7:15-23 (Jer 23:16-29, Acts 20:27-38)
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
Our blessed Lord is warning us today about false prophets. He says we can tell them by the fruits of their teaching. Rosebushes don’t yield grapes, thistles don’t produce figs, and those who teach an alien gospel do not bring forth repentant sinners living in the grace of God through Jesus Christ.
How often today we hear people pompously decry so-called “organized religion” while claiming to be “spiritual” as opposed to “religious.” Oh how convenient! One can declare himself aloof and above those who cling to Christ in His church – the same church that was given the Holy Scriptures, the Holy Spirit, the Holy Sacraments, the Office of the Keys to forgive sins, which is the Office of preaching to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth. “No thanks, I’m ‘spiritual.’” “Spiritual” people are free to sleep in on Sunday, to ignore Scripture, to gainsay the forgiveness of sin, and are above the need to hear a sermon.
Such people deserve our pity and our prayers. For they are captivated by the very false prophets our Lord warns us about.
In Jeremiah’s day, the false prophets kept preaching that “The Lord has said, ‘You shall have peace’, and to everyone who walks according to the dictates of his own heart, they say, ‘No evil shall come upon you.’” And who would not like to receive this kind of preaching: fluffy, upbeat, so-called “relevant”, no mention of sin and repentance, all glory and all happy. Who wouldn’t want his pastor to say: “No evil shall come upon you”? Or “in this life, you will never have to contend with sickness, disease, death, doubt, fear, loneliness, depression, hurricanes, floods, accidents, birth defects, temptation, hurt, anxiety, or anything unpleasant. Name it and claim it. If you have enough faith, you will be rich and happy, healthy and wealthy. Follow these seven steps (and buy my book) and you will always prosper.” Who doesn’t want to hear that?
Of course, the only downside to this upbeat message is that it isn’t true. It is an evasion of the reality of the fallen world. It is a repudiation of God’s Word of judgment that began in Genesis 3, and also of God’s final Word of victory over death and the devil when our Lord breathed out His triumphant cry from the cross: “It is finished!”
Just as in Jeremiah’s day, just as
But those who speak falsehoods instead of the reality that God has given us in His holy Word are setting themselves up for failure. “Behold, a whirlwind of the Lord has gone forth in fury – a violent whirlwind! It will fall violently on the head of the wicked. The anger of the Lord will not turn back until He has executed and performed the thoughts of His heart. In the latter days you will understand it perfectly.”
These are the “ravenous wolves” spoken of by our Lord in the gospel reading, the “savage wolves” according to
By their fruits you will know them.
What makes a prophet false is not necessarily the piety of his life, the size of his congregation, or even his wealth. Rather what makes a prophet false is what he is teaching. A false prophet has exchanged the truth for a lie. And the father of lies is Satan. But a true prophet preaches the truth. His Word is God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures, the norm of our faith and life. False prophets may strut around with a well-worn Bible in their hands – and they may even be able to impressively quote large passages. But in the end, they distort God’s Word, they turn the grace of God into a human work, they debase the promises of God’s eternal reward of everlasting life into mere trinkets of jewelry and gaudy material possessions – things which our Lord warns us are only destined to be destroyed by rust and moth. A glittering Rolex watch may look beautiful and cause envious heads to turn, but once the whirlwind of the Lord falls violently, it is only so much twisted metal fit for the junk-heap.
The Lord says: “I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran. I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied.” They are liars and frauds. They are the devil’s puppets. The Lord warns: “But if they had stood in My counsel, and had caused My people to hear My words, then they would have turned them from their evil way and from the evil of their doings.”
This, dear friends, is the difference between a false prophet and a faithful preacher: the proclamation of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
The false prophet may have a TV network and a
The true prophet addresses sin and proclaims its cure – repeating the holy words of Scripture. But instead, the false prophet says: “I have dreamed, I have dreamed.” And the Lord says of such as these: “Indeed, they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart.” For the true prophet will tell you things you don’t want to hear. A faithful preacher speaks God’s Word, which is “like a fire,” like a “hammer that breaks the rock in pieces.” For this hammer of God is what brings about repentance, what induces the sinner to confess – so that he can be brought to eternal glory through the forgiveness of sins. He declares the “whole counsel of God” – the things we like and the things we don’t like.
The true preacher has the Holy Spirit, given to him at ordination as a bishop and pastor of the church “which He purchased with His own blood.” Like
Sunday, July 22, 2007
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
Satan has been in a declared war on women since the days of Adam and Eve. Womanhood is especially despised of the devil, for it is through a woman that God became flesh. There is nothing more hateful, abominable, and ugly to the devil than motherhood.
The other side of the coin is that the greatest defenders of womanhood are Jesus, the apostles, and the Christian Church. In the name of Jesus, the Church has been upholding the honor of women and championing the mystery of the vocation of motherhood from the start.
But notice how the vile devil, the father of lies, and his allies in the secular world, have twisted everything around. They claim that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator and Designer of all things – hates women.
To hear the world spin the tale, the Church has been run by a bunch of old men who build themselves up by tearing women down. Self-proclaimed champions of womanhood believe that it is their job to liberate women from the Church – liberate them by promoting the womb as a place of destruction instead of nurture, by depicting motherhood as an embarrassment, by holding the vocation of wife and helpmeet as something evil, by pushing women into the notion that without a career outside the home, without being a “cash cow” to the family, without “having it all,” the life of women is of no value.
In the name of this liberation of women, the notion of the family has been steadily in decline, if not outright devastated. Divorces are so common as to be considered normal, women are routinely and publicly treated as objects of lust, day-care centers proliferate like mushrooms, and the notion of sexuality has been distorted to the point where the Church is expected to bless anything and everything that anyone wants to do – with the Word of God being treated as of no consequence.
These social changes have Satan stamped all over them. For look at the consequences: children who lack not only fathers, but who don’t even know their mothers. Poverty and illegitimacy, parents with no influence over their children, people growing up with a sense of indifference to the family – that institution where the body is not only nurtured and fed, but where spiritual life is cultivated. In the “modern” family, there isn’t the time or the inclination to teach children the catechism or pray with them.
Meanwhile, women repeatedly report that they would rather be at home creating a nurturing environment for husband and children than swimming with the sharks every day. They are so unhappy with this unnatural situation that they pop antidepressant pills in record numbers.
But somehow we, the Church, guided by the Word of God – including our Old Testament reading in Proverbs 31 – are the ones who hate women.
What woman wouldn’t want to have her children “rise up and call her blessed”? What woman wouldn’t want a husband who praises her, boasts to his friends about her “when he sits among the elders of the land,” and loves his home so much that he actually wants to be there? And just how does God hate women when He sings the praises of her who “girds herself with strength and strengthens her arms”? The vocation of woman is to be a helpmeet to her husband, manager of the household and its finances, one who gives charity and nurture to those in need, a dispenser and fount of wisdom, one clothed with “strength and honor” – all virtuous attributes hated by Satan and the world.
Instead, the world upholds air-headed starlets, lying politicians, and grunting athletes as the ideals of womanhood. The world wants women who are “equal” to men – which is to drag them down from the vaunted position God and Christianity have assigned them. Television promotes a wise-cracking, vulgar form of womanhood that is indifferent (at best) toward children, hateful to husband (if they even have one), and stuck in the rat-race of careerism and materialism.
It is fitting that in the midst of this fierce warfare of the secular world against womanhood that this year, the Festival of St. Mary Magdalene falls on a Sunday. Christians around the world honor this truly great women – a woman whose reputation has been soiled by the slanders of those who hate all that is good and true.
Even before Mary became a disciple of Jesus, the devil waged war against her. When Jesus met Mary Magdalene, she was possessed by demons. The legions of evil targeted Mary in anticipation of her role as witness of the resurrection of Jesus and messenger to the holy apostles.
When the Lord Jesus cast out her demons, she became a disciple. She did what the devil and the world hate more than anything – she submitted to the authority of her God and Lord. She lived out the vocation of womanhood, supporting the work and ministry of Jesus with her money and her prayers. When the Lord hung on the cross, Mary was there. Her maternal and womanly compassion enabled her to serve the Lord and the Church not as a preacher, not as a minister, but as one offering kindness and mercy to the suffering – divine and holy works that are dismissed by this world as weak, despised, and of no consequence.
And when our Lord was put into the grave, Mary was among the volunteers to clean His spilled blood and reverently oversee the care of His sacrificed body, of applying spices, of making sure the linens and grave-clothes were in order. Mary did not despise her work on the altar guild, deem it of no value, and demand instead to be ordained as an apostle. Rather Mary served within her holy vocation motivated by love and a desire to advance God’s kingdom where the Lord had placed her.
But see how this holy woman’s reputation has been attacked yet again by the devil! Various people throughout history have slandered Mary – right up until the present time by the diabolical author of The Da Vinci Code. In this fantasy, Mary, like her ancestor Eve before her, sought something that was off limits. In this lie, Mary sought Jesus to be the father of her children, to be the ancestor of a powerful line of kings, part of a great conspiracy to seize power from others. In this literary hack job that even atheistic historians consider to be the equivalent of Jack and the Beanstalk, Jesus is not God, did not die for your sins, did not rise from the dead, did not crush the head of Satan with His heel, and will not redeem you from hell on the last day. And this, dear friends, is the ultimate strategic end of the devil’s lies: to wrench you from the grace of God by replacing your faith with doubt, exchanging the truth for a lie, and unseating the Lord Jesus from the throne in favor of himself. But it is not to be: you are sealed by baptism, the truth of God’s Word cannot be replaced by falsehood, and Jesus has already given Satan his mortal blow.
And we partake in that death blow to the head of the evil one as we commune with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through the elements made into the body and blood of Christ by the Word of God. Satan and the world will do anything to separate you from this holy meal, from communion with the resurrected Christ attested to by Mary.
Through it all, Mary stands as not only an example of holy womanhood, but as a saint for all people, a disciple who did not abandon Jesus when the devil and the world attacked Him, a humble servant who sought God’s will, not her will, who cared for others instead of seeking a manly vocation for herself and her own glory.
For what the feminist theologians do not want to discuss as they make their claims that the Church revised the record out of hatred for women, is that Mary Magdalene was the very first witness of the resurrection. She, and she alone, has that honor. This is also repugnant to the devil – for her testimony that Jesus has risen from the dead is the ultimate verdict that Jesus has triumphed over the serpent – the same one that attacked the ancestral mother of Jesus and of all of us so many thousands of years ago.
In a courtroom, a shrewd lawyer will attack the reputation of a hostile witness. And that, my brothers and sisters, is really the source of this entire war against Mary and all women. The devil attacks her testimony by slandering her.
If you confess the resurrection of Jesus, expect your reputation to be attacked. Expect your vocation to be under assault. And if you are a woman, be leery of the many voices of those who claim to be interested in your liberation (for they and their father only seek to enslave you). Remember who it is who has truly liberated you: Jesus of Nazareth, friend of Mary Magdalene, and Son of Mary. For this is St. Mary’s message to the apostles, and it is our message to the devil and confession before the world: “God raised Him from the dead. He was seen for many days by those… who are witnesses to the people.” May we emulate our dear sister Mary Magdalene and uphold her reputation until we join her and our risen Lord in eternity. Amen.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Sunday, July 15, 2007
15 July 2007 at
Text: Matt 5:17-26 (Ex 20:1-17, Rom 6:1-11)
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
The Lord has given us very hard words today, my dear brothers and sisters. The fathers of the church in their wisdom have made sure we hear these hard words every 6th Sunday after Trinity – which are so full of the law that it’s almost enough to make us think we’re in Lent.
I should have known the holy ministry was not going to be an easy task when these were the readings at my ordination.
But thanks be to God they were. For we Lutherans – preachers and hearers alike – don’t like the law. That’s because we are sinners in need of daily repentance. Our Old Adam much prefers flattery and praise, we would rather hear God’s Word fawn all over us than tell us what God demands of us. If it were up to us, there would be a hymn in our hymnal called “How Great We Art.” But we all know better, don’t we?
As Lutherans, as a tradition within the one holy catholic and apostolic church that grew out of a dispute over the nature of grace and the Gospel, we want to rush through the Ten Commandments and get right to the forgiveness. We want to shorten our confession to the point that we don’t even confess our sins individually any more – so we can bolt right to the absolution. As pastors, we want to soft-pedal the law so we can tell our hearers only what they want to hear.
But thanks be to God once again that our Lord Jesus sets us straight: “Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”
This is why the venerable leader of the Reformation, Blessed Martin Luther – a man who truly understood the good news of the forgiveness of sin – instructed us to repeat the Ten Commandments every day. He himself, though a prominent Doctor of Theology, lecturer, preacher, parish priest, and professor specializing in the Old Testament – daily recited the Ten Commandments like a little child being taught for the first time - and humbly admitted that he needed to do so.
As Lutheran Christians, we must be aware of a particular angle the devil will use on us. We are not tempted so much into seeing ourselves earning our salvation though saying a regimen of certain prayers or by doing a certain quota of good works – especially in churches where the Gospel is preached and taught aggressively and the people listen and take that preaching to heart. No, for us, the danger is the opposite one. Since we know we are saved by grace apart from works, and since we are baptized, Satan and our sinful flesh lead us to taking the Gospel for granted, to despising the law and seeing it as of no use to us.
A Lutheran may be tempted to say: “I don’t need to repent, I’m baptized.” He may be tempted to withhold almsgiving, to avoid prayer, and to not partake in fasting – and then convince himself that this is acceptable, because, after all, we aren’t saved by our works. Of course, our Lord Jesus Himself says: “When you give alms… when you pray… when you fast…” Lutherans feel the call of the devil to stay home from church and not receive the Body and Blood of Jesus because, after all, we’re free in the Gospel, right? Lutherans are especially tempted to avoid their responsibilities to bring their families to church, to teach them the catechism, to lead them in prayers at the dinner table and before bed – since we’re saved by grace and not by works.
But what does our Lord say? “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The law is nothing to sneeze at. The Ten Commandments are not just a bunch of words we babble before Bible class. Our sins are grievous and serious, and should keep us awake at night. There should be times when we literally hunt the pastor down because we need to unburden ourselves of our sins. There should be times in which all of us will actually grab the pastor by his shirt and demand that he hear our confession right that minute.
But we don’t. And we don’t because we don’t think the law is serious. But what good is the gospel if the law is no big deal? Why should anyone ever make a private confession if God really doesn’t care about sin?
We must repent of our smugness, our abuse of the Gospel. We are the very Christians Paul preaches to in our epistle lesson: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?”
Rather than thinking: “I don’t need to repent, I’m baptized,” we should confess: “I need to repent, I’m baptized!” As Paul concludes: “Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
For we can “reckon” ourselves dead to sin, for God Himself “reckons” us to be forgiven. For in our baptism, we are “no longer slaves to sin.” So why should we as freedmen, having been released from our chains to the bondage of sin, then turn around and submit anew to slavery? The purpose of Holy Baptism is not to give us license to sin, but rather to give us release from it.
This is the reason, my fellow sinner-saints, why we must recite the Ten Commandments daily. This is why we must read and pray the Small Catechism – for this meditation upon the law isn’t an academic exercise or just a hoop to jump through for confirmation (then to be forgotten) – it is a window through which we can examine ourselves so that we might indeed pray: “I said I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.”
If we have prepared properly for the Divine Service, for confession and absolution, the words of forgiveness spoken by the pastor should be like a pitcher of ice water in the middle of a parched and dying desert. They should be the sweetest words ever heard by anyone – like being on trial for capital murder and hearing the verdict “not guilty.” If we have meditated on the Ten Commandments – and upon the many and various ways we break them every hour of every day – then missing church would be the most unthinkable thing in our lives. We should rather miss a week of work than to miss out on the sweetness of the mystery of the Lord in His body and Blood giving us pardon, peace, life, and salvation. If we daily pray the Ten Commandments and take them to heart, we should become almost physically ill when we are tempted into any kind of sin, great or small.
It should horrify us that we are so unlike the Good Samaritan who helped his neighbor in his need, but are rather like the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees who didn’t want to get involved. It should cause us grief that we gossip and participate in rumor mongering, that we are greedy and lazy, that we routinely fail in our vocations as parents, as spouses, as children, as citizens, and in our various kinds of work.
But even more than simply making us feel guilty, the Ten Commandments should serve as a signpost. The confession of our unworthiness, our inability to keep this law that Jesus says is inviolate until the end of time must not just leave us in despair. For the righteousness that surpasses the Pharisees that our Lord speaks of is indeed yours, dear friends. We can confess our sins. We can (and must) receive forgiveness. The Lord will give us His Spirit unto our repentance. The Lord will send his holy angels to protect us as we make war on the old evil foe that seeks to devour us. The Law points us to the cross where our sins are paid for. And the cross brings us here – to the communion rail – where the forgiveness is ours, body and soul. And that communion rail is the gate of heaven, where time and eternity meet in the presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
For even as we read the Ten Commandments as orders: “You must” and “You must not” – let’s not lose sight of the fact that they are not only commands, but promises: “You shall have no other gods.” “You shall…” our Lord promises. It will not be completely fulfilled on this side of the grave, but you are being recreated. It started at baptism, and will be completed at your resurrection. The Ten Commandments grieve us by showing us what we are not, but they should also bring us joy by showing us what we baptized children of God are promised to become:
You shall have no other gods.
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
Honor your father and mother.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Thursday, July 12, 2007
But best of all, the movie brings to life the beloved African folktales immortalized by Atlanta Journal newspaperman Joel Chandler Harris (who had a photographic memory, and who in 1881 had published dozens of these tales told to him as a child by former Georgia slaves under the title The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus).
These fables, some of which have been traced to antiquity, involve "critters" like the resourceful Brer Rabbit, the cunning Brer Fox, and the not so bright Brer Bear. The morals of the fables typically involve how a weaker person can overcome adversity through cleverness and "using his head instead of his foots."
These stories were so widespread - especially in the South - that they became fodder for the blockbuster Disney movie in 1946. I ran across an interesting article about the film written by a Canadian animator.
Sadly, political correctness has all but rendered the movie dead in North America. Disney, sensitive to the charge of racism (due to the period of the movie and the racial sensibilities and dialect of the time in which the story is set) will not release the movie in the United States. However, to the delight of many, Disney has released it in other markets around the globe - and thanks to the internet - it is now available on DVD to American audiences.
Interestingly, Disney has some of the characters from the film displayed at their theme parks - while most of the younger children who see them have no clue who they are. The irony is that these folktales are an integral part of the literary heritage of American blacks - having been brought from their ancestral home and employed to cope with the difficulties of slavery and exile.
There are black and white voices alike clamoring for Disney to free Uncle Remus from the bondage of the film vault and the shackles of leftist racial politics.
I'm happy to report that I purchased my own copy here. I put in on for my two-and-a-half year old son who sat spellbound through the whole movie, and asked to watch it again. He shrieked with joy at Johnny's and Toby's leaping frogs, giggled riotously at the antics of Brer Rabbit, and laughed himself silly as Brer Bear struggled with a beehive on his head. Leo seemed to relate to the children in the movie who brought the folktales to life by tenderly applying Uncle Remus' stories to their own situations and struggles.
I'm gratified that my son, like countless other Southern children, will grow up singing "Bawn and bred in a briar patch," learning the very important lesson not to get stuck to the Tar Baby, and spending time in his Laughin' Place.
For the wisdom of these tales is summed up at the very beginning by the hero of the movie, the wise old storyteller Uncle Remus:
"There's other ways of learnin' 'bout the behind feet of a mule than gettin' kicked by him, sure as I'm named Remus. And just because these here tales is about critters like Br'er Rabbit an' Br'er Fox, that don't mean it can't happen to folks! So 'scuse me for sayin' so, but them who can't learn from a tale about critters, just ain't got the ears tuned for listenin'."
Sunday, July 08, 2007
Text: Luke 5:1-11 (1 Kings 19:11-21, 1 Cor 1:18-25)
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
Our epistle reading speaks of power. Everyone understands power. It’s what makes electrical things go when you plug them into the wall. Power can also be understood as ability – a paralyzed person doesn’t have the power to move his legs. But most often we understand power as being in the position to lord over another person.
Wealthy people have power by being able to dangle money under the noses of politicians. Celebrities have power by having access to the news media and by wielding influence over their admirers. A criminal with a gun has power over his victims by having the control of life and death over them.
Most people seek power. Nobody likes to be powerless. We all know the corrupting influence of power, as Lord Acton said: “Absolute power corrupts, absolutely.” Julius Caesar was assassinated by men fearful that he was taking all power unto himself. The founders of the
Obviously, God has all the power in the universe. As Jesus told Pontius Pilate at His trial, even mighty worldly government officials have no power unless it is delegated to them by God.
As sinners, there are times when we need to see God flex His muscles. Pharaoh, who thought he was god, was made powerless in the face of the ten plagues. The only power Pharaoh had in that position was the power to repent. And even then, we are told the Lord hardened his heart, and his power to repent was taken away from him.
Jesus chastised his listeners more than once for demanding signs. They wanted to see Jesus’ credentials by a show of power.
But they didn’t realize what they were asking for.
God’s power is different than any other power on earth. Government power is compulsion. If you don’t obey, you will be forced to – even if you have to be shackled and put into a cage. The power of celebrity is an appeal to our own hollow vanity. The only power LeBron James or Paris Hilton have in making us buy certain products or influencing the way we speak is our own desire to be fawned over the way they are.
God’s power is different.
God wants us to be as He designed us and intended us to be: perfect, without sin, loving, willing to lay down our lives for others, content with a godly vocation, virtuous, set apart from the world, and in perfect communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While He could simply get us from point A to point B by sheer force, compulsion, a raw display of shock and awe – He instead gives us freedom – freedom we abuse. In our freedom, we worship other gods. In our freedom, we serve ourselves instead of our neighbors. In our freedom we hoard what he has given us to share. In our freedom we misuse his gifts and twist them into that which they were never intended to be.
Those who mock the Christian faith look at us pathetic Christians, so full of shortcomings, unable to carry out the most basic tasks given us by God, and they jeer: “Where is your God now?”
What these mockers don’t realize is that when they say this, they are quoting God. For the Lord Himself told us they would say these very words three thousand years ago through King David in Psalm 42.
The power of God is in the Word of God. God doesn’t operate by compulsion or by appeals to our vanity. God simply speaks, and reality happens. “Let there be Light,” He says, “and there was light.” The Word of God doesn’t appear powerful because it doesn’t huff and puff and pose and threaten. The world mocks because the Word of God appears weak. Paul, in our epistle, tells us the “Word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”
God operates by declaring things to be so. He declares you to be saints. He declares me to be His messenger. He declares our sins forgiven. He declares the Church to be holy. He declares Satan to be defeated. He declares that He will come back at the end of time to recreate the universe anew. The world looks at us and laughs. Instead of seeing mighty deeds, they see words in a book that they are free to ignore. Instead of armies of men with guns forcing them to comply with God’s law, they see preachers that appear to be unarmed and lacking any authority over them at all. They see evil seemingly running unchecked. They see the Church weak and full of flaws. And yet, the Word of God does what it says. It does so quite often without fanfare. Some people get it, while most do not.
In our Gospel reading, Peter got it. He saw Jesus, by uttering a few simple words, create a miracle of a great catch of fish. Jesus didn’t make the earth stop, or turn the fish into giant squids, or unleash the power of the atom – rather He told Peter where to cast His net, and provided for the daily needs of these men. But the Word of Jesus did something else – it drove Peter to repentance: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” While others witnessed Jesus’ great miracles – such as the feeding of the 5,000 – and responded by saying: “Let’s harness this power” and “what’s in it for me,” Peter responded by acknowledging his sin in the presence of the powerful God.
However, the powerful Word of Jesus did not leave Peter in a state of despair over his sins. For notice how our Lord again uses His Word to create reality: “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” He removed the source of Peter’s fear by absolving Peter of His sins, and additionally told Peter that he would preach the Gospel as a called and ordained servant of the Word.
That, my dear brothers and sisters, is the power of the Word of God.
Some who witnessed this exchange may have mocked Peter. They may have boisterously shouted out for Jesus to do more tricks. But what was really happening was the softly-spoken Word of God working powerfully upon one who was being saved. As Jesus is offering this gift, where are the smart-alecs? Where are the know-it-alls? Where are the clever debaters and mockers? They want displays of power as the world knows it. They seek special wisdom. But Jesus doesn’t give them these things. Rather he gives the world the Gospel, the “word of the cross” that the world considers foolishness. And “we preach Christ crucified” which most people in the world do not get. But once again, to those being saved, those about whom Jesus speaks of being caught in St. Peter’s net – the power of God to save, to forgive, to create anew, is at work. And it is mighty and powerful.
In our Old Testament lesson, the prophet Elijah was shown the true power of the Word of God. But first, he is shown the mighty rushing wind that is so fierce – and has the power to rip up houses and blow down levees and to destroy lives. But it is not the Word of God. In fact, it is nothing compared to the Word of God. Next he is shown earthquakes and fires. And though terrible in the force they exert over man and beast, are again of no consequence next to God’s Word. Finally, Elijah heard the Word of God in a “still, small voice.” For while these other loud noises and boisterous displays can tear down and destroy, only the “still, small voice” of the almighty Creator can convict the sinner of sin, bring the erring to repentance, save the lost, forgive us our trespasses, empower us to forgive others of their trespasses, provide fish to the fisherman, give us our daily bread, and make preachers able to catch men in the net of the Gospel.
In the Kingdom of God, power lies not in armies, wealth, or the ability to control others. Rather the boundless power of God is found in the Word of the cross and of the preaching of Christ crucified unto everlasting life, even as the “still small voice” proclaims, “I forgive you all your sins:
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.
Wednesday, July 04, 2007
Today we commemorate the unilateral American secession from the British Empire. However, we're celebrating the wrong day. Independence was actually declared on July 2, 1776. In a letter written to his wife the following day, John Adams predicted:
The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not. (The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784, Harvard University Press, 1975, 142).
The Fourth of July is actually the date that the wording of the document we today call the Declaration of Independence (written mainly by Thomas Jefferson, with emendations made by the Congress as a whole) was adopted by Congress. Somehow, the independence holiday came to be celebrated on the 4th. Anyway, it is a good and fitting thing to review the Declaration from time to time. One of the reasons our wealthy white male slave-holding founders led a secession from the union with the British Empire (while vehemently denying that they were rebels or traitors) was the following from the Declaration's list of grievances:
"He [the King] has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance."
He is speaking of bureaucrats (which are enabled by one of the other major gripes of the Americans: taxes). That's the cause of the American War of Independence in a nutshell: overbearing government made possible by excessive taxation. The general government had become too big, and the colonies were in favor of a small federation of independent states. They had had enough of Big Government, Big Taxes, and Big Control from Washington, DC, er... I mean, London.
As the French (who made our independence possible) say: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
Anyway, I just ran across a great little story that captures Thomas Jefferson's complaint about parasitic "swarms of Officers" sent by the government to sap the economic strength and productivity of our people. This is from the July-August 2007 issue (Vol. XVIII No. 4) of The Parapet, the newsletter of the Point Lookout POW organization (PLPOW), page 6:
A cocky Department of Agriculture representative stopped at a farm and talked with an old farmer, "I need to inspect your farm."
The old farmer said, "OK, but don't go in that field right over yonder."
The Agriculture representative said, "Mister, I have the authority of the U.S. Government with me. See this card? This card means I am allowed to go WHEREVER I wish on any agricultural land... no questions asked or answered. Do you understand?"
The farmer nodded politely and went about his farm chores. Later, he heard loud screams and saw the department of agriculture rep running for the fence and close behind was the farmer's huge-horned prize bull. The bull was madder than a nest of hornets. The bull was gaining on the rep at every step.
The old farmer called out, "Show him your card! Show him your card!"
Happy Fourth of July, everyone.
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
Anyone who ever utters: "Don't you know who I am?" is under the severe delusion that he is something other than what he truly is.
Take poor Elton John. Excuse me, Sir Elton John, Knight Commander of the British Empire. You know, a knight, a Christian warrior/gentleman who rides a white horse and bears his sword to defend the crown, the Church, and damsels in distress everywhere.
Isn't this the picture of a knight - with his lily motif on the sleeve, purple shades, and earring? Can't you just picture him slaying a dragon? Sitting at the Round Table with King Arthur and Sir Lancelot? Protecting Christian pilgrims while singing Crocodile Rock?
Indeed, think of the long, illustrious history of the British Empire from the days of King Egbert and the Saxons, The Venerable Bede, Edward the Confessor, William the Conqueror, St. Thomas Becket, King John and the nobles who confronted him with Magna Carta, Henry VIII, St. Thomas More, James VI, Elizabeth I, Victoria, Sir Winston Churchill, and...
the guy who sings Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting.
Well, he does bear a title of nobility, after all. He is a legend, a maker of history, a truly great man of all ages, a British hero, a role model to the youth, a, well, a court jester. A very sad and pathetic court jester. Like they say, there's no queen like an old queen. Just ask George Michael.
But think about the delusion that this sad entertainer is under. He is fawned over. His every whim is met by groveling lackeys. He is knighted by the queen. He is treated like royalty by royalty. But in the end, he isn't royalty. For William and Harry, for all of their faults, are royalty. They are princes. And like it or not, they are targets of violence. With car bombs blasting away in London, the princes need extraordinary protection. For that reason, automobiles were simply not permitted to drive right up and drop people off at the door - not even puffed-up old gals who go by the fake name Elton John (whose real name is, in fact, Reginald Dwight).
Convinced of his own royalty, his gravitas and importance to England, his own status as a Knight Commander of the British Empire, Mr. Dwight huffs and puffs, whines and whimpers, protests and pouts - all the while other celebrities comply with the security measures with dignity. Three cheers for the cop who doesn't cave to celebrity snobbishness.
"Don't you know who I am?"
Yes indeed. You're a self-important court jester who performs like a clown for people of the class to which you aspire, but will never occupy. You had the opportunity to display class and dignity at a public function to honor the royal family and your country's heritage - but instead chose to make a spectacle of yourself, acting like a foot-stamping toddler or a petulant teenager going to her prom in a tube-top.
Well, they say you can take the white out of the trash, but you can't take the trash out of the white. Or should we say "Dwight."
Monday, July 02, 2007
Don't tell anyone, but I think I have stumbled onto something here.
It seems that a demon named Screwtape - whose letters to his nephew Wormwood were exposed and published by C.S. Lewis - has taken up blogging as a way to send his letters. He has "cleverly" disguised his name as "Tapescrew" and calls his nephew "Woodworm" - and he seems to think either 1) obody else can read his blog, or 2) figure out who he is. I'm not sure which is the case.
Please keep in mind the disclaimers published by C.S.Lewis in The Screwtape Letters back in 1942, as I believe they are equally valid today in the Internet age: "Readers are advised to remember that the devil is a liar. Not everything Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle." Dr. Lewis also wisely points out that "There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight."
Finally, I do think Lewis's two quotes before the preface of his book are worth keeping in mind:
"The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn."
- Martin Luther
"The devil... the prowde spirite... cannot endure to be mocked."
- Thomas More
In the current age, the Approved Religion is Secular Statism. Do as your masters in Almighty Government say, and no-one will get hurt. It's a very German way to go about it (sorry, fellow Lutherans, but I'm of Celtic stock, and while German beer and music are wonderful, the German cultural mindset about unconditional obedience to authority and the desire to brutally silence any and all opposition is, to me, a very strange trait. I'm sorry, but putting a guy in jail for a year because of an expressed political belief is Hitlerism at its finest.)
But we should hardly be surprised. Our Lord Himself warned us that we too would be persecuted. The fact that we've had a few hundred years without anyone burning us at the stake, racking us up, or feeding us to lions is becoming increasingly irrelevant as secular governments become less and less tolerant of religious (especially orthodox Christian) belief. In his 2001 work The Spiritual Society: What Lurks Beyond Postmodernism? LCMS pastor Dr. Fred Baue argues that trends in contemporary art and poetry indicate that we're in for a cateclysmic cultural shift that includes an increasing hostility to Christianity, one that will become violent - a fact being borne out in the past six years since the publication of his book. (Note: Dr. Baue was not only my parish pastor when I lived in Philadelphia, he laid hands on me at my ordination, and is himself being bullied by certain people in power in our own church body who seek to silence him for telling the truth. Please keep Dr. Baue in your prayers. He is a faithful pastor and a gentleman of integrity).
The tenor of the debate in the Council of Europe is irrational to the point of hysteria. The way they argue, you would think that there are armies of Christians waiting to seize power and reinstitute the Inquisition. Please. How many of those magnificent European cathedrals have more than a few dozen faithful in them on any given Sunday? How many Europeans are active Christians anyway?
Meanwhile, blinded by their diabolical rage against the Church, they are straining the gnat and swallowing the camel. For radical Islam is crouching at the door - thanks to the secular ideology of "tolerance" that flung open Europe's borders and cultural institutions to Muslims. If these folks think the Christians pose an ideological threat to their cherished institutions of abortion, infanticide, homosexuality, and Darwinism - wait until a critical mass of Muslims are in political control of Europe (especially given the Western tendency to shoot themselves in the foot by extremely low birth rates). According to a study published June 6, 2007 by the London Times, "Muhammad is now second only to Jack as the most popular name for baby boys in Britain and is likely to rise to No 1 by next year."
Islam is the elephant in the European parlor that no-one wants to notice while they're hysterically trolling behind the curtains and under the chairs with magnifying glasses looking for Christians to step on.
Meanwhile, these "useful idiots" of Satan think a handful of Baptists pose a clear and present danger to the state. Equally stupid is to persecute the few remaining Lutherans in Germany - for the Lutherans routinely speak of separating the "two kingdoms" (church and state) and have no desire to create a theocracy - even if Christians were anything more than a tiny minority in Europe.
Europe's arrogance is like that of Israel and Judah in the Old Testament. They will be severely judged. Perhaps the secularists will be in the same prison camps with the Christians one day.
Until then, maybe everyone should ponder the words of another German Lutheran pastor who was jailed by the German state for holding an unapproved political viewpoint, the Rev. Martin Niemöller (1892–1984):
"In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up."
Sunday, July 01, 2007
It is a horrible thing to be called a hypocrite. To be accused of hypocrisy is to be called a filthy liar, a cheater, a person who wears one face in front of certain people to benefit himself, while acting in a completely different way around others. To be called a hypocrite is to be called evil.
Calling people hypocrites makes them mad. It makes them defensive. It’s the kind of thing that can get you crucified.
Jesus often laid bare the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He humiliated them in public. He told them they were worse than thieves and prostitutes. He told them Satan was their father.
But today, dear children of the heavenly Father, our blessed Lord uses the h-word on us. He is not speaking to the Pharisees today. He isn’t addressing those outside of the church. For
We are a church full of hypocrites.
We’re very good at acting pious within these walls. It certainly doesn’t hurt our self-image to be seen here, to serve on boards and committees, to stand in front of the church in priestly vestments. But what kind of people are we when we leave this sanctuary? Our Lord has it just right: “Hypocrites!” We say one thing, and do another. We behave one way in front of one person, and in another way in the presence of another. We are good at putting on the show and playing the role – but the problem, brothers and sisters, is that Almighty God is always in the audience. He knows that behind the actor’s masks, under the make-up, away from the stage on which we recite our lines is something entirely different.
For underneath the titles we carry, chairman of this board, member of that committee, the Reverend so-and-so is just what we confessed at the beginning of this service: a “poor miserable sinner.” One who commits “sins and iniquities.” We who offend God, who deserve temporal and eternal punishment. We are like Joseph’s brothers who deserve to be repaid with the same evil we have done to God and to our neighbors. And let’s not quibble – we don’t only commit a few indiscretions out of ignorance, no way, my dear friends in Christ, we are like Joseph’s brothers who willfully and repeatedly commit evil – and we mean it.
And God is not the only one who sees it. When we as Christians behave as heathen, we hurt the cause of the Gospel. Non-Christians who refuse to come to church because “the church is filled with hypocrites” are right – at least about that part. They are only saying the same thing as Jesus is in our Gospel reading.
But they’re also wrong.
The fact that there are hypocrites in church is no reason to stay away. For they too are hypocrites. For them to absent themselves from the House of God because of the hypocrites is like an alcoholic indignantly refusing to attend AA meetings “because of all the drunks that go there.” Yes indeed, we are hypocrites. Every last one of us. In the words of the children’s song: “The Bible tells me so.” Indeed. The Word of God tells me so. The Ten Commandments tell me so. The incarnate Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, tells me so in this Gospel reading today.
And that is exactly why it is a Gospel reading.
For our Lord is warning us. He is giving us loving correction. He isn’t treating us as expendable employees, but rather treats us all as His dear children. For as Luke reminds us, our Lord’s words are being addressed “toward His disciples.” You cannot be a “disciple” without being “disciplined.”
The Lord admonishes us to treat others with mercy – even as we pray: “Lord have mercy upon us. Christ have mercy upon us. Lord have mercy upon us.” We are not to be judgmental, holier-than-thou scolds with our noses in the air. This doesn’t mean we are not to condemn evil nor to uphold what is right. But we certainly should never take pleasure when others stumble, nor should we see ourselves as any more righteous than anyone else. For the measure we mete out to others will be applied right back to us. “Forgive us our trespasses,” we say just before receiving the Lord’s forgiving Supper, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
When we see others’ faults, our Lord commands us (he doesn’t merely suggest, ask, or offer a helpful hint), he orders us, to treat those faults as specks in the eye, while seeing our own as planks. Of course, you can’t see very well what kind of sawdust others have when our own vision is impaired by eye-logs. We are to focus on ourselves, our own faults, our own sins, our own flaws and imperfections. We have more than enough there to occupy us for a whole lifetime in this vale of tears.
For once our own sins are removed, we can then truly help our neighbor with his. We can then lovingly assist in spreading the grace of God rather than simply use our neighbor’s sins and errors, something to gossip about, something to take pleasure in because we perceive our sins as somehow more minor or acceptable.
But once more, dear friends, what does Jesus say? He is telling us point blank that our sins are not less than our neighbors. He is telling us they are planks compared with specks.
So what to do? Well, our blessed Lord doesn’t simply call us hypocrites and tell us we are condemned. That’s why our Lord’s harsh words for us today are merciful. They are indeed Gospel. For he tells us to “remove the plank.” Using a carpentry metaphor, he tells us our sins are removable. Just as a plank of wood can be taken away, so can our sins – even the great sin of hypocrisy that stains all of us.
That is why we are here. All of God’s hypocrites assemble together in weekly commemoration of His resurrection. We pray, sing, read the Scriptures, and break bread. For we are indeed recovering hypocrites. We struggle against temptation moment by moment, day by day, year by year. We fall off the wagon again and again. We come back here to receive mercy, grace, forgiveness, and healing. For just as our Lord has destroyed death by death, he uses hypocrites to cure hypocrites. He provides for his hypocritical people by giving them hypocritical pastors with the authority to remove their planks, specks, and every sin in between. For remember the promise spoken by our Lord in our Old Testament reading, spoken to a group of men who kidnapped their brother, threw him in a well, told their father he was dead, and sold him into slavery. Speaking through the brother who was wronged, God says: “‘Do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.”
For the Lord even takes our intended evils and turns them to good, for the salvation of all people.
So when those outside the church – people for whom the Lord suffered and died, people whom the Lord earnestly seeks to save – complain that “the church is full of hypocrites,” we can certainly smile, admit that Jesus Himself says as much, and add: “There’s always room for one more.”
We who suffer the brokenness of creation can take comfort in our baptism, in the forgiveness of sins, and in the promise that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” For our decaying, hypocritical, sinful “creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” Amen.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.