Monday, February 25, 2008

Just in case...

anyone still believes the president of the United States is actually an elected office...

In related news, this just in:

Tooth Fairy contacts ACLU to support his constitutional right to marry anyone of his choice, Easter Bunny and Social Security Trust Fund unavailable for comment.

Is it a sin...

... for Lent to be so glorious?

It's sunny. The temperature is in the mid-seventies. The lemon and orange trees are laden with glowing ripe fruits. The bells of stately St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church are pealing out O Sacred Head Now Wounded. The purple-red magnolia in the front yard is exploding with blossoms, perfuming the air with the natural incense of creation's glory, a fragrant offering unto the Lord which we are invited (and enticed) to share.

I just had lunch with my dear wife in our cozy kitchen, taking lessons in relaxation from our four expert feline instructors who were taking turns basking in the sunshine beaming through the open window. While our son played, we sipped sweet pungent espresso from simple white demi-tasses with saucers. We read aloud passages from a beloved book. When lunch was concluded, I ambled back to Salem in the sunshine, inhaling the intoxicating aromas, beholding the vernal imagery, and indulging in the euphony of church bells which chanted the ancient hymn with haunting melancholy and perfect pitch. I am now preparing for Latin class with my eighth graders - who continue to astound me with their abilities.

Even in the penitential seasons, our merciful Lord gives us imperfect and brief glimpses into the Paradise that is promised to be restored among us again.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sermon: Oculi (Lent 3)

24 February 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 11:14-28 (Jer 26:1-15, Eph 5:1-9)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

There is a big difference between license and forgiveness. “License” means permission. It means that something is lawful. It means you can do it with no fear of punishment or negative consequence.

Forgiveness is something else entirely. To be forgiven means one doesn’t have permission. In this sense, it is the opposite of license. For if you need forgiveness, it means you acted without license. You did something unlawful, something that breaks the law.

And yet, to be forgiven means to be released from the punishment. It doesn’t mean you have permission to sin, in fact it’s the opposite. To admit the need for forgiveness is to admit wrongdoing, to admit guilt, to admit being deserving of punishment.

The Gospel is the good news that because of the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, forgiveness is offered to every person. The sins we have accumulated, the laws we have shattered, the messes we have made, the hurts that we have inflicted, the selfishness we have displayed, and the evil we have entertained have all been atoned for by the very blood of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross.

The Gospel is forgiveness, not license.

But dear friends, be on guard. For your sinful flesh will tempt you to see the Gospel as license. Your Old Man will try to convince you that since Jesus died on the cross, since you have been baptized, since you are a church member, since you can accurately repeat the doctrine of the church –you therefore have license to sin in thought, word, and deed. Your fallen human nature will try to convince you that a little dalliance with sin here, a little overindulgence there, just a peccadillo that everyone else is doing – is no problem. It’s all good.

Thanks be to God that our Lord is merciful enough to send us prophets, to give us Holy Scripture, and to take on flesh as the Son of Man to cast out this demon of defiance we trifle with.

For our Lord Himself says: “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” And while it is true that our Lord Himself keeps the law for us, it is equally true that treating that reality as license to sin is nothing less than the repudiation of the faith and a forfeiture of salvation.

Sin is never a trifle. It is always a big deal.

This is why our Lord warns us that a demon, once expelled, will return, and if given the opportunity, will bring seven of his friends, and will do so with a vengeance. Don’t ever forget this, dear brothers and sisters.

The first president of the Missouri Synod, the Reverend C.F.W. Walther, made the following statements that some Lutherans today might even consider false doctrine:

He wrote: “While it is impossible to obtain salvation by holiness, it is entirely possible for a person to lose his salvation again by the neglect of his holiness,” and furthermore: “A Christian who will not continually fight against sin, earnestly strive after the virtues that please God, faithfully watch over his heart and life, and always pray for new power and grace soon ceases to be a Christian.”

You cannot save yourself by your good works, as Walther writes us, as Luther reminds us, as St. Paul preaches to us, and as the Holy Spirit reveals to us, but don’t let your sinful flesh take that ball and run with it by drawing the conclusion that you are free to neglect prayer, treat the divine service as a low priority, spurn confession and absolution, gossip, not practice godly stewardship, be unforgiving of others, be a glutton, commit sexual sins, be uncompassionate, display greed, turn away from self-discipline, and make all sorts of excuses for your sins – and that your baptism gives you license to do these things. That may be a popular religion, but it is not the Christian faith.

St. Paul, the apostle whose letters articulate the Gospel with such clarity and grace, has this to say to the saints at Ephesus, the baptized children of God in the Church: “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.”

This isn’t just a suggestion or a helpful hint, dear brothers and sisters. For St. Paul continues (and please listen very carefully to this): “For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”

We Lutherans are very quick to weasel out of this by saying something along the lines that since we’re baptized, we don’t have to worry. Is that what St. Paul is saying? Is Paul giving us license to do whatever we want? Is repentance simply being able to quote the Book of Concord and remember your baptism with the sign of the cross?

Listen to the rest of the holy apostle’s warning: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth),”

St. Paul is not telling you to give in to temptation and just play the baptism card. He’s telling you to fight back! This is your eternal salvation we’re talking about. This is no time to be flippant. The enemy is inside your house, and he wants to destroy you and your children. Your options are simple: fight or give up. The Christian life is nothing other than warfare. We are to punch, kick, scrap, spit, pull hair, gouge eyes, and grab any weapon at hand. And look at the weaponry the Lord has provided us with! Look at the opportunities you have week in and week out to arm yourselves and your children for battle.

Now, you will lose battles. You will sin. You will allow the Old Man his way. That’s precisely when you need the power of the Holy Spirit to gird your loins for battle, to get back up, and fight again.

Listen to the prophet Jeremiah (whose message was so unpopular that everybody wanted to kill him): “Amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the Lord your God, then the Lord will relent concerning the doom that He has pronounced against you.”

A warning is an act of mercy. A tornado warning may not be good news in and of itself, but the opportunity to seek shelter is. God’s wrath is not to be trifled with. Our sins are serious. Every sin, great and small. Every sin, those committed years ago, and those committed right now. Listen to the prophet! Listen to the apostle! Most of all, listen to our Lord!

God is pleading with us to repudiate the darkness and walk in the light. He is demanding that we give no quarter to evil, show no hospitality to the devil, and certainly don’t take the Gospel for granted.

The warnings of Isaiah, Paul, and Jesus are as real today as they were when the Holy Spirit inspired them. Those warnings are for us, right here and right now. God is pleading with us to repent, to have a change of heart. To come to grips with just how serious our sins are.

It is only in this context that the Gospel is the Gospel. A life jacket is only an unnoticed prop on a boat until the boat is sinking. When that happens, that dirty orange vest is more beautiful than the fanciest gown worn by an Oscar winner, and worth more than the swankiest tailored suit sported by a king.

The Gospel, the real Gospel – not empty words and slogans – but the real flesh and blood atonement won for you by God in the flesh dying on the cross and offering forgiveness to you, is your only hope. The Lord grants you complete and total forgiveness, not license, but rather grace. He gives you the weapons you need to hurl at the devil. And they are the Word of God and the Sacraments that bear His promises. Use those weapons, dear friends, wield them! Brandish them!

Bible class is not about learning trivia – but rather arming yourself for battle. The Divine Service isn’t a time-filler between breakfast and lunch, or a chance to chit chat with friends – but rather preparation and fortification for war. Confession and absolution isn’t just for mass murderers and rapists – it’s for every person who has ever sinned – and it is also a weapon for you to take aim at the one who wants to drag you into hell.

For the Lord Jesus is here to cast out the demons. Demons are not our playmates, but our mortal enemies. And these enemies are to be defeated and given no terms.

For even in our imperfect flesh, dear brethren, we have been given the power to “walk as children of light” and “walk in love” for “Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us.” These are the words of Scripture. This is the Word of the Lord.

Let us turn from our sins and flee from cheapening the Gospel into mere license. Rather let us embrace the forgiveness of sins that our Lord has won for us, proclaims into our ears, places on our tongues, and instills in our hearts. For only in Him can we be, as St. Paul implores us, “imitators of God as dear children.” Amen.

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

Thursday, February 21, 2008

E.R., the Glory, the Cross, and the Hammer

Thanks to my friend, colleague, and former classmate, the Rev. David Juhl for posting this.

The Theology of Glory is a term coined by Martin Luther nearly 500 years ago for what is today sometimes called "name it and claim it" theology or the "health and wealth gospel." You'll find this approach to the Christian faith by all the usual suspects - the megarich TV preachers and "miracle-working" hucksters telling you that God wants you to be healthy and wealthy (not to mention God wants you to buy their book telling you how God wants you to be healthy and wealthy in seven easy steps, as well as how God wants them to have a private jet and several mansions - not to mention a Mercedes or eight). One of the sixteenth century's famous "televangelists" was the indulgence-hawker John Tetzel, the Dominican preacher who used the Theology of Glory to raise lots of money to build St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and pay off the Vatican's extensive loans. Even without a satellite network, Fr. Tetzel was quite the showman.

But the reality of this life is quite different. We live in a fallen world. We live under the cross. We have problems. We struggle with finances. We get things like cancer. We die. Life in this world is not all peaches and cream - not for our Lord Jesus Christ, not for the original apostles, not for saints like Job and Paul, and not for the myriads of faithful martyrs who suffered persecution for the holy faith, taking up their crosses to follow our Blessed Lord. Dr. Luther called this reality the Theology of the Cross. You'll find this approach to the Christian faith in the Bible.

We pastors (I don't mean the phony ones on TV or with the big book deals) serve people under the cross day by day. People are abandoned by their spouses, their children rebel, they struggle with drugs, they wrestle with serious illnesses and chronic pain. In this life (as opposed to the fantasy life of private jets, mansions, and celebrity), bad things happen. There are hurricanes, fires, floods, and epidemics. There is bitterness, fear, hurt, and grief. Violence and strife are staples in this life. In fact, all of us are on a crash course with death itself.

It is on the deathbed that all the nonsense stops. There, The Seven Steps to a Richer You With Whiter Teeth and Fatter Wallets doesn't get a lot of traction. Pastors (the real ones) are with people as they struggle with their own crosses. And it is only the Theology of the Cross, the presence of our Lord even in (and especially in) suffering that brings comfort even in the face of our own mortality.

New Age platitudes and other wishy-washy psychobabble (beautifully demonstrated by the actress in the clip) don't cut it. The patient's reaction is as real as it gets. Only the cross of Jesus can bring comfort when we face our own crosses - especially death itself. The patient sought atonement for sins, not therapy for bad feelings.

If you want to see a similar contrast between the Theology of Glory (which fails miserably at the hands of a clueless young pastor armed with nothing but Glory) and the Theology of the Cross (which succeeds by way of an wise elderly woman layman who truly understands the implications of the Cross), you can read it in the opening chapter of the Hammer of God, a somewhat autobiographical novel of spiritual care written by a now-sainted Lutheran bishop from Sweden named Go Giertz.

There is also a movie version of Hammer, though there are no excepts on YouTube. It is available for purchase from Lutheran Visuals. It magnificently captures the historical feel and the Cross Theology of the book.

As Bishop Giertz's tombstone reads: "Verbum crucis Dei virtus" (which, in his native language is: "Talet om korset Guds kraft," or as we would say: "The word of the cross is the power of God," from 1 Cor 1:18).

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sermon: Wednesday of Reminiscere (Lent 2)

20 February 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 3:1-17

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

“And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.” We confess this in the Nicene Creed every Sunday and Wednesday. In this evening’s Gospel, we hear anew of the regenerative, life-giving, death-defying work of the Holy Spirit.

It’s no accident that baptismal certificates often the symbolism of the dove on them, for in our Blessed Lord’s own baptism, the Lord and Giver of Life Himself descended upon our Lord and Redeemer of Life.

Nicodemus came to Jesus looking for answers. Interestingly, St. John doesn’t report any questions from the mouth of Nicodemus until our Lord Himself begins to answer questions that may well have not been asked aloud. For there are questions, and there are Questions. There are queries about square roots and logarithms, subjects and verbs, dates and places and even questions about what is going to happen in the future. But Nicodemus seems to have sought out Jesus with bigger questions. The Questions. He skulks about like the stereotypical seeker looking for the meaning of life. And our Lord answers those questions seemingly without even being asked.

Holy Scripture is like that. It provides answers even we are so feeble that we can’t formulate the questions. The Bible provides us much more than information, historical data, secret knowledge, or even things to satisfy our curiosity. For the Scriptures testify of Him who has come to ransom us from death.

It is the Question of Life and Death that Nicodemus really wants answers for. Our Lord knows it, and begins to explain the secret of life in terms of “the kingdom of God.”

We begin to interact with the world apart from our mothers at our birth. On this day so momentous that we will celebrate its anniversary our whole lives long, we draw our own breath, look fellow human beings in the eye, and begin receiving the gifts of God through something other than an umbilical cord for the first time.

So, it seems reasonable that there should be a similar experience in our spiritual life, our life in the kingdom of God. If we are born once into the world, it stands to reason that we must be born a second time, born anew, born again, regenerated to start a New and Greater Life, a life that will have no end.

And the Holy Spirit is indeed the Lord and giver of life.

This regeneration, this renaissance, this rebirth is a mystery to us – just as is the mystery of life itself. Why are all of us here? Why were we permitted to become individual human beings? Why were we allowed to survive as conceived children in the womb, be born, and then go on to enjoy this second birth? Why are we here when so many are not? Maybe Nicodemus had these kinds of questions too, but these weren’t answered. But what was answered was the unstated question: “How do we receive eternal life.”

Listen to our Lord’s simple answer. We are born to it, dear brothers and sisters. This is the Good News. We don’t aspire to eternal life by our good works, our piety, or our lack of sins. For who of us would be anything other than a stillborn Christian? We can’t buy God’s kingdom – though Nicodemus the Pharisee had been taught that the kingdom of God was within his grasp by following lots of silly rules and making a show of throwing money in the temple treasury. God’s kingdom is a gift – as free and unmerited as the birth of a baby.

Just as you had to be born once to be alive here today, you certainly had to be born again in order to claim the life that has no end. You are a child of the flesh, but you have also been “born of the Spirit.”

But how can you be sure that you have been “born again.” We sometimes hear someone being described in the news media as a “born again Christian” as if there were any other kind! Just as you can’t be a ‘non-born human” you can’t be a “non-born-again Christian.” Did you ask to be born the first time? When you came from your mother naked and with nothing of your own other than a piece of now-useless umbilical cord, did you say, do, or will anything to achieve life? Life was given to you as a gift. You did nothing to get it. You didn’t ask for it, live a certain way for it, or even say a certain prayer to make it happen.

“And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.”

Just as life is a gift, the gift has a Giver. The Holy Spirit gave birth to you, in the words of our Lord, “of water and the Spirit.” Just as the Holy Spirit descended on our Lord in the Jordan, so too he descended upon you – perhaps in a river, maybe with an eye-dropper in a hospital, but most likely in a baptismal font in a church building.

You were baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” You didn’t baptize yourself. You didn’t give birth to yourself. In fact: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Just as you were born once, amid a mixture of blood and water, so too did the Lord and giver of life vivify you in the quickening blood and water from the side of Christ. For it is through our Lord’s death that the Holy Spirit gives you life. It is in the shame of the cross that you have the exaltation of eternity.

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, ever so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

It is through the Lord’s death that we have life, by His shed blood, in the waters over which the life-giving Spirit hovers, given to us as a gift without end, free and boundless.

And so, through the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit, we have two birthdays. Our second birthday is one that marks the beginning of a life that will never end, a life that is both spiritual and physical, a life that is all that life was meant to be as designed and intended by the Lord and giver of life Himself.

Even as we struggle in this body – with sin, with disease, and with death itself – we look forward to the Great rebirth of all creation, celebrating our birthday of water and Spirit not only for a lifetime, but throughout eternity.

Thanks be to the Lord and giver of life, now and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

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

In the beginning was the...

Language has become a hot topic in the letters to the editor of the latest (February 2008) Lutheran Witness. A lot of people didn't like Uwe Siemon-Netto's previous article bemoaning the changes political correctness has wrought on the English language.

Some people are simply griping about the "curmudgeonly" style of Siemon-Netto's prose. Personally, I appreciate someone who writes in a direct and unique manner instead of the cookie-cutter limp-wristed touchy-feely style that has become the norm in Christian publications. I do disagree with Mr. Siemon-Netto about certain things - and quite forcefully on some, in fact. But I don't think his style of writing should be a problem to anyone. Frankly, I find his "curmudgeonly" tone refreshing. I think we could use a little more G.K. Chesterton and a lot less Joel Osteen in our Christian discourse.

One response in the Letters to the Editor section was troubling to me.

It was written by a "Mission and Ministry Facilitator" (Bruce Wurdeman) from Texas. I wonder how St. Paul and Pope St. Gregory the Great ever managed without such bureaucratic offices as they evangelized Europe. I also don't know if Mr. Wurdeman is an ordained pastor or not, since Lutheran Witness didn't use a titular form a address on his name. Some of these offices are held by the laity, others by clergy.

Wurdeman critiques Siemon-Netto's style as "the unfortunate stereotypical characterization of Lutherans as a bunch of stodgy old curmudgeons desperately trying to turn back the clock and falling ever more out of touch with the culture in which they find themselves."

Oh my! There is a certain "neocurmudgeonly peevishness" at work here - a kind of Michael Moore-snarkiness-trying-to-be-hip that strikes me as more annoying than Andy Rooney. But that's just my opinion.

In his litany of negative adjectives, one finds "old." I do think this reveals an unspoken truth in the LCMS - especially among "missional" folks - we really hate old people. I don't say it lightly. We put up with them, but we really hate them. They are "speed bumps." They resist "change." They cling to old hymns and old hymnals. Being "missional" means embracing the youth culture, using rock and hip-hop music, making use of technology and lingo that are the hallmark of young people. I find this especially true about the "emerging church." It's all about young people, the youth, the emergent generation, whatever you want to call them. It's all about rock and roll, ipods, coffee shops, and funky facial hair. It is as though in their world, people simply fall off the planet when they turn 28.

We have taken sides in an ungodly division and segregation of God's people. Instead of seeing our elders as fonts of wisdom and vessels of respect, our official position is that they are a stereotype to be avoided, best shoved off into a nursing home until they kick off so we can collect their money. It is because of them that we have to have any traditional services at all - but we can plunk them into the earliest time slot available to make church more convenient for the demographic more likely to be hung over.

I'm disturbed that this "professional church worker" would use the word "old" as an insult. This speaks volumes.

Furthermore, we Christians are indeed called upon to be counter-cultural, instead of always looking to change the Church to make it more appealing to her enemies, persecutors, and slanderers. Not long ago, it was considered offensive to use "damn" and "hell" on broadcast TV. We have now (in spite of those "stodgy old curmudgeons desperately trying to turn back the clock") gotten to the point where the following words are acceptable on network TV: sucks, ass, sh*t, a**hole, God-d*mn, and even in some cases, f*ck. Words that would have been considered in poor taste, like douchbag and fart, find their way into cartoons and on magazine covers these days. Not all linguistic change is salutary change.

Culturally, it has now become acceptable, even laudable, to promote abortion, false religion, homosexuality, and other deviances from God's created order (notwithstanding the opposition of those bad old coots who are "ever more out of touch with the culture in which they find themselves").

Like it or not, the culture at large hates us. Why? Because we believe in absolute truth. We believe in right and wrong. We believe in an exclusivity of Jesus Christ and the Christian faith. We believe words have meanings. We believe in a standard of behavior and language that is deemed antiquated by today's cultural elite. For those who have a chameleon approach to the faith ("let's just sneak into the antichristian culture by aping it, and then trying to execute a bait and switch"), conservatism and traditionalism are to be marked and avoided - if not mocked.

Mr. Wurdeman states correctly that "language is a fluid thing - it changes with the times and adapts to the circumstances." Yet, not all change is good and orderly. We Christians ought not automatically embrace every linguistic change. When being against abortion is no longer considered "pro-life" by the general culture, should we start calling ourselves "anti-choice"? When the "sexes" (biology) have been renamed "genders" (grammar), should we accept this? Especially considering the fact that "gender" is a matter of "choice" whereas "sex" is an ontological reality based on God's created order.

Language indeed changes - but not always for the better.

Furthermore, there is a difference between gradual evolution and a deliberate attempt to manipulate words to control thoughts. The former is a natural part of the human existence, e.g. Latin evolving into French over centuries, or the antiquated English pronouns of the 16th century falling into disuse today. What Siemon-Netto is criticizing is not a natural evolution, but a deliberate thought-control attempt by a specific political agenda (one at odds with the holy catholic and apostolic church). His example of "flight attendant" being pushed on people instead of "stewardess" is a clear example. This was a deliberate attempt to gender-neutralize - which in modern parlance is more accurately described as sex-neutralization. How can Wurdeman be so naive as to think this was simply a "natural" linguistic change, like the gradual evolution of "thou" to "you"? There is a clear-cut "gender" agenda at work. The LCMS is not immune to participation in this ungodly attempt to control thought by controlling language. Note how often you will see the word "chairperson" in official publications, or how often women are called "Ms." in surrender to feminists who refuse to submit to God's created order.

I think little lingusitic acts of rebellion are called for - even if it makes us "less popular" - apparently a terrible thing according to Wurdeman. Our ancestors who refused to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar were doing the same thing. I suppose they weren't acting within the conventional wisdom of the "missional" types, but against all odds, their defiance actually coincided with the church's most explosive growth in history. To be truly "missional" (not in the trendy but shallow "guy-man-dude" sort of way) is to be "martyral." For in being counter-cultural unto death, these non-compromising witnesses bore witness to Jesus Christ and her Bride.

I believe Mr. Wurdeman should read (hopefully reread) George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four. Back in 1948, only three years after the end of the second world war, the prescient Orwell saw our era's "political correctness" coming. Of course, such control over words as a means to control thoughts had already been at work among the Communists in Eastern Europe as well as their Socialist counterparts in England for decades - which is something I would assume hardly needs saying to someone of Siemon-Netto's background as a European living in the troubled cold war times.

The English language is under a terrible attack of debasement right now: writing skills being compromised by e-mail and text messaging, being manipulated by the left-wing academy and political hacks, being assaulted by ever-decreasing standards of education, and losing integrity (and clarity) through the acceptance of non-standard and even vulgar grammar. I think Christians do well to uphold the integrity of language, and to avoid aping the world's constant drive to attack beauty and order - even if "everyone else is doing it."

Language can almost be considered sacramental, for it was through the Word that the Lord created all things, just as it was the Word made flesh that has redeemed us. It is also through his enscripturated Word that we have the Gospel. As a means to attacking the Word, Satan can, and does, attack words.

At the risk of being dismissed as a "curmudgeon" and a "stodgy old Lutheran" (guilty on all counts), I will remind Mr. Wurdeman in good crusty old traditionalist Latin: "Verbum Domini manet in aeternum!" And if he thinks that "the youth" can't understand such "passing old words," I have three grades of young Latin students who beg to differ.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Sex and the City of God

As the Church Growth industry has become more aggressive, as secular marketing models have become more and more embraced by mainstream Christianity, we should have seen this coming.

We have moved away from the Gospel being communion - physical and spiritual - with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through the incarnation of Jesus Christ via his Word and Sacraments to something else. That something else is the Gospel as merely a "message."

Messages are forced to compete with a lot of other messages - which is why companies are willing to spend millions of dollars to create commercials, why corporations agonize over seemingly minor details of colors and designs of logos, why entire careers are dedicated to marketing. If you want your message to stand out over and against the other messages, you need psychology, gimmickry, and/or a consumer-driven methodology.

The Gospel-as-message has reduced the Christian faith to a jingle, a bumper sticker, or a tee shirt. The demotion of the Gospel as a commodity to be marketed and "sold" has turned Christianity into a crass commercial endeavor.

I once heard a retired pastor earnestly explain that seminarians should be required to sell Fuller Brushes door-to-door for a year - since we pastors are "salesmen for Jesus."

Of course, as our culture has degenerated, so have our marketing methodologies. If you want to sell something these days, it must be entertainment driven (especially when it comes to the ever-changing entertainment world of the "youth culture"), and sexual (we all know "sex sells").

Sex sells everything: beer, cars, music, clothing, TV shows, movies, hamburgers... so how long before Christians start using sex to sell Jesus?

It's already happening.

It's bad enough that Christian parents allow their young daughters to wear skimpy clothing with suggestive words written on their buttocks and hand out condoms to their young sons with a wink and a nod. But now the marketing power of sexuality is being unleashed as an "evangelism tool."

Here are a couple of blogsites that have linked to a couple of the latest trends: one from a Lutheran perspective, another from a Reformed point of view.

The idea seems to be that we need to bait "consumers" into listening to our pitch, and then swap the "commodity" from something sexual to something spiritual. In other words, hook them with something lurid, and then somehow trick them into chastity.

This is kind of like a book Mrs. Hollywood recently ran across by Jessica Seinfeld, the wife of the comedian. It is a very clever way for mothers to get their kids to eat their vegetables. Basically, it is a recipe book of tasty foods children love, but made with added vegetable juice that has been extracted by a food processor that doesn't change the flavor of the food. Thus kids can eat stuff they like, and yet get all the vitamins and minerals they need without having to taste flavors they don't like.

I personally think this is a great idea. It would be better for young children to develop a taste for broccoli and spinach, but isn't it better that they get the vitamins of these foods even before they develop a taste for such foods?

I do think some people honestly believe this can be done with Christianity. If you accept the premise that the Gospel is merely information, and if you believe that style does not effect substance, it follows that the Gospel can be "packaged" and "marketed" in a way that people will eat it up lustily, while inadvertently consuming the "nutrition."

Dan Kimball, an "emerging church" pastor and leader (who was recently invited as the keynote speaker to a Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod youth ministry conference) is one example. I believe that he is a genuinely devout believer. I don't think he is a huckster or a flimflam man by any means (we have commented on one another's blogs, and though we disagree, I found him to be a gentleman). His book on the "emerging generation" makes the point that young people are culturally very different than their ancestors. They are open to, and accepting of, things which the Church (and Scripture) condemn - especially sexual matters like: homosexuality, cohabitation, female ordination, as well as displaying an ambivalence to claims of absolute truth. Young people are also so wedded to their entertainment media that many of them can only relate to church music that is the same style they listen to in their secular lives.

Kimball argues (along with many others) that the Church needs to repackage the Gospel to appeal to the younger generation. This means a more democratic model of polity that blurs the line between the clergy and the laity. This means a shift away from traditional hymnody to more pop music in worship. This means far less liturgical rigidity. This means somehow proclaiming the Gospel in a way that will not come across as judgmental or "fundamentalist" (though Kimball has explained his own faith as being very conservative and even "fundamentalist" at times). This means not offending gay and cohabitating couples, but rather finding a way to make them feel welcome in our churches.

So, we need conservative doctrine marketed in a non-traditional way.

This is a major source of conflict in my own church body - the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. Mirroring what is going on elsewhere in the American Church, there seem to be two streams of thought.

First, there is a resurging traditionalism: seminarians and pastors wearing cassocks and traditional vestments, praying the ancient liturgy of the hours, singing Gregorian chant, making use of traditional Latin texts, studying the church fathers and the confessional writings of the Reformation, using things like bells, icons, statues, and incense in worship, etc. This movement is also found among Traditionalist Roman Catholics (bolstered by Pope Benedict and the return of the Tridentine Mass), as well as among liturgically-minded Reformed and Evangelical Christians who have rediscovered the church year and the creeds, the liturgy and chanting. Even some of the "emerging churches" have stumbled upon the spiritual richness of these ancient traditions. This Traditionalism is undergirded by a belief that the Gospel is incarnational, rooted in a deeper communion than simply having information. This kind of Christianity cannot be mass marketed with gaudy gimmicks or sold with shallow slogans.

Second, there is a concurrent wave of anti-traditionalism. There is a fear that young people will abandon the Church unless the Church changes. In the 1960s, traditional texts were set to folksy tunes. God's might was de-emphasized while His accessibility was stressed. Thus Churches began to look less like churches, and more like friendly secular spaces for the exchange of information.

As time went by, the music changed with the pop trends. The production of church services became more sophisticated. Technology was incorporated. Attention spans became shorter and shorter. Sermons became "messages" and teaching became coaching. Doctrine and sacraments became less important, while feelings became paramount. The churches became community centers, and then, almost shopping malls. These "mega-churches" then had to compete with one another, offering bigger and greater perks for members. The "emerging churches" began to chafe against the phoniness of the mega-church, groping for something different, while still clinging to the need to "market" the Gospel in "new" ways.

It has gotten to the point now where Bibles are sold as fashion magazines filled with sexuality, and church services are little more than celebrations of various lifestyles and showcases of every kind of pop music and performance. In many of these churches (which are often held up as the "models of success" due to their wealth and numbers), it's all about the "sizzle" (the noise) and not about the "meat" (which, in Latin, is "caro" - from where we get the word "incarnation").

In many church bodies, the Traditionalists are either condescendingly tolerated with a pat on the head, or they are denounced as "speed bumps" and impediments to the "progress" of the "Gospel message."

I'm concerned that the people who are brought into the Church with the sizzle of sex never get to the meat of the incarnation. Furthermore, the embrace of the kingdom of this world changes the proclamation of the Kingdom of God (the howls of protest of the anti-traditionalists notwithstanding). Style does change substance.

This is because the way we do things in our churches speaks as loudly as what we say. There simply is a different doctrine of the Lord's Supper being taught and confessed if we bow reverently as the pastor is consecrating the bread and wine on the altar vs. if we're cutting up and swilling a cappuccino. There is a different doctrine of the sixth commandment being articulated if the pastor is vested in traditional garb and preaching from a pulpit with profound reverence for the Word of God vs. dressed casually and showing suggestive pictures on the video screen while cracking people up with innuendos and double entendres.

To put the best construction on it, the teen-girl Bible and these various emphases on sexuality by churches are an attempt to seek "relevance" and trying to successfully communicate the Gospel (which, again, they see as information). However, there are two major problems: first of all, they are sending a mixed message that muddies the waters of their own intended message. Second of all, the Gospel isn't just a message. I believe that for these two reasons, I believe "bait and switch" is doomed to fail as an "evangelism model" (and certainly our Blessed Lord's Parable of the Sower stands in stark contrast to such gimmickry).

I believe Satan is wily and audacious, and seeks to strike at the very heart of the very tools given to the Church to carry out her mission: Word and Sacrament. The devil distorts the proclaimed Word by reducing the Gospel to a message, a mere data stream, and then twisting it into a marketing model focused on fickle secular "relevance" instead of the constant, eternal, and unchanging Truth. The devil distorts the sacraments (the incarnational Presence of Christ under physical elements sanctified by His Word) by mocking our Lord's bodily and fleshly incarnation by denigrating the carnal body into something to be lusted after in the sinful flesh, an object to be used for selfish physical gratification. Sadly, many in the Church - even those in positions of power and authority - see no danger in toying with both diabolical distortions of our Lord's mandates of preaching and presiding.

However, I honestly believe that when it comes to the proclamation of the Gospel and living a life of holy communion with the Holy Trinity, reverence trumps relevance.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Voting and Freedom

This is the time of year when we get unsolicited e-mails and phone calls urging us to vote for this person or that. I got an e-mail from a poly-sci grad student from George Mason University urging me to vote for a particular candidate because I'm an ordained minister. To his credit, he did write back when I replied to his spam. Usually, you just get annoying recorded phone messages - being on the "do not call" list notwithstanding.

I did vote in the primary this year. I may vote in the general election, but I'm not sure that I will. I could exercise the write-in vote if the partisan picks are unacceptable - but then again, if I have something more important to do than cast a protest vote, I'll do that instead. I'm pretty busy these days serving a kingdom that is not of this world.

To read on, click here.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Yeah, that'll fly...

... in Alabama. Abortion and gay marriage. Alabama. "Conservatives are fake Christians." Alabama. Yes, this is a really smart guy.

He can play basketball, so that qualifies him to run the executive branch of one of the 50 states. Yeah, it's about the same thing. Anyway, that should be a heckuva campaign. Bring popcorn.

Sermon: Reminiscere (Lent 2)

17 February 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 15:21-28

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Every story has a hero. The hero of our Gospel reading is actually a heroine: the Canaanite woman.

But notice what is heroic about her. She isn’t the stereotypical hero. She doesn’t take the bull by the horns and achieve success – rather she begs. She doesn’t grab a weapon and force Jesus to bend to her will – instead she pleads. She doesn’t swagger and strut, she doesn’t put her hands on her hips and roll her eyes, she doesn’t curse and talk trash – rather she cries out, she makes a fool of herself by her pleading and begging, she becomes an embarrassing pest to all around her, all for the sake of her beloved child who is in need.

What makes the Canaanite woman a hero is her selflessness, her love that impels her to accept humiliation, her knowing where to get help, and her complete and total emptying of herself for the sake of her beloved.

In her humility, she ultimately gains victory over the devil. In her persistent prayers, God Himself inclines His ear to her suffering. Even when her faith is tested, and tested in a way that sounds shockingly rude, the Canaanite woman refuses to allow her ego to displace her love for her daughter.

She could have recovered her self-respect at any time. She could have maintained her dignity and walked away. She could have cursed Jesus and denounced Him, making a name for herself as one who just doesn’t put up with disrespect from anyone. But she heroically allows the humiliation, the disapproval, and even our Lord’s testing of her to roll off her back while she unswervingly continues to pray.

She prays, pleads, cries out, and refuses to be embarrassed into silence. She joins with us today even as we too humble ourselves before our Lord and cry out: “Lord, have mercy!” We not only say it, but sing it. We sing it together. And we sing it three times. “Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy!” We have come this far, and we will not take “no” for an answer. We imitate the heroic deeds of this humble sainted Gentile woman.

And look at the result!

Her persistence, her love, her faithfulness in prayer is rewarded. Not of her own power, but by the grace of the One to whom she prays, the devil’s torment of the Canaanite woman’s daughter is at an end. Listen to our Lord’s blessing: “Great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” The Lord miraculously cures the sin-sick body and soul of the woman’s daughter. She, who was trapped by the devil, is released – and our Lord Himself credits the faith of the mother who prayed.

More than three centuries after this incident recorded by St. Matthew, another heroic woman named Monica displayed the same steadfastness in prayer for her family. After many years of praying “Lord, have mercy” to our Lord Jesus Christ, Monica’s Pagan husband embraced the faith, as did her rebellious and fiercely anti-Christian son named Augustine. Monica’s son went on to become a bishop, and one of the greatest minds in the history of the Church. The real heroic person in the story of St. Augustine is his faithful mother, a woman who refused to give up, to cease praying, to accept what seemed to be a “no” from the Lord. For Monica’s prayers were heard, just as were those piteous cries of “Lord, have mercy” of the Canaanite woman were heard. Monica is today known as St. Monica because of her heroic deeds – make heroic because of the grace shown to her by the One who hears our pleas for mercy.

In our fallen world, rare indeed is the family without problems, without family members who are under the influence of the devil to some degree or other. Often, parents feel helpless as their children spurn the Church, struggle with sins, and create havoc in the lives of their families.

A mother or father who doesn’t know what to do can take great comfort in this Gospel. For just as St. Monica would three hundred years later, the sainted Canaanite woman has it right. She was the hero in her daughter’s life because of her faith. Her faith enabled her to humble herself before Jesus, to plead in prayer, to cry out “Lord, have mercy!” again and again to the point of becoming annoying. This mother went to where she could find help. She sought out Jesus, and having gotten His ear, continued to fall down upon her knees and plead for mercy.

Her daughter was held captive to Satan. No amount of force, reason, tough-love, bribery, screaming, grounding, or threatening could fix the problem. The problem was too big for her to fix. But she knew Someone who could address the problem. She knew the One more powerful than Satan – and she sought Him out.

She was determined that she would plead for mercy until she got it.

This is not to say that the Lord will answer every prayer we offer up to Him in the way we want as long as we are stubborn. God’s will is a mystery to us. But we do have His promise that He will hear us. We are His dear children. And just as this mother was willing to humiliate herself, and just as no amount of sacrifice was too much for her to offer on behalf of her daughter, so too does our heavenly Father withhold nothing from us.

For the sake of redeeming His creation, in the interest of expelling Satan from His Kingdom, our Lord took human flesh, humiliated Himself, reducing Himself to pleading with His Father that this cup may pass from Him, and yet, in perfect obedience and in total disregard for His own comfort and self-esteem – empties Himself and gives all on the cross. No amount of sacrifice is too great for the sake of the Lord’s beloved. “All this He does,” says Blessed Martin Luther in the Small Catechism, “out of fatherly divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.”

We Christians are at our most heroic when we are our most submissive. We Christians are most powerful when we are pleading “Lord, have mercy.” We Christians display great faith when we put no faith in our abilities, our merit, our power, or anything in ourselves – but rather placing our faith in Christ alone.

The Canaanite woman holds the Lord to His promise. She displays a persistence born of love and a stubbornness born of faith in the power and mercy of God. Her heroism lies in her lack of ego and pride.

And in the end, she doesn’t only receive the miraculous healing that she sought, she also receives praise from the Lord God Himself. In her emptiness, she is filled. In her humiliation, she is exalted. In her weakness, she is strong. In her powerlessness, she brings to bear the might of Christ Himself against the devil.

“O woman, great is your faith. Let it be to you as you desire.” May the Lord grant us such faith. May He show such mercy to us, and may He bring us and those we love to everlasting life. Amen.

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

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sermon: Wednesday of Invocabit (Lent 1)

13 February 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA Text: Rom 5:12-19 (Gen 3:1-21, Matt 4:1-11)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

When children play games with each other, they will sometimes resort to a “do-over.” This means that due to some controversy about whether or not the rules were followed, all sides agree to not count the last play, and to simply do it over.

Of course, if the kids had referees and officials in the video booth, there would be no do-over, but rather enforced penalties and the option to “challenge the ruling on the field.”

In their simplicity, children simply reach a consensus to have a “do-over.”

In the adult world, we usually don’t get “do-overs.” If you mess up on your job, there will be consequences. If you say something hurtful, it is very difficult to recall your words. In the Garden of Eden, God enforced the ultimate penalty for our transgressions – separation from Him, death, and the punishment of eternal damnation.

However, Satan, the tempter who started this sad chain of events, doesn’t get the last laugh. For God has given us a “do-over.” Our Lord Jesus is tempted – just as Adam was. Satan teased and cajoled Jesus to attempt to make Him use His divine office for selfish gain, to in turn tempt God, and to choose Mammon over the eternal treasures of God. This time, Satan’s ploy failed. Jesus, the New and Greater Adam, won where Adam, the first Adam, our ancestor Adam, the Adam whose name means “dust” – failed.

St. Paul recaps this whole cosmic replay of man’s failure at Eden – though this time with Man’s victory – in our epistle. Paul proclaims: “Through one man, sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.”

As a result, he says: “death reigned” – even in the days before God gave the law to Moses. For we all knew right from wrong, chose wrong, and all men carried the curse of Adam. St. Paul also tells us that Adam is a “type” of “Him who was to come.” In other words, Adam is a preview of our Lord Jesus Christ – inasmuch as Adam was formed without a human father, and came into the flesh without sin.

Our Lord Jesus, God in the flesh, is the great “do-over” – through whom mankind would be redeemed by a Man, death was to be defeated by death, and sin was to be atoned for by Him who knew no sin. This New and Greater Adam was to seize the cosmic “do-over” and this time, be victorious.

“For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”

The “do-over” has been done over for us, by the fulfillment of Adam, by God Himself who has come into the flesh to rescue us!

Even as we are beaten down by our sins, even as we struggle with temptation and doubt, even as we are harassed by the devil and downcast by death, listen to this glorious and comforting Word of God:

“ But the free gift is not like the offense, for if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many.”

In other words, as terrible and wretched as we are in our sins, our Lord Jesus Christ is an even greater Savior. Yes, indeed, our sins are serious things. As one liturgy confesses – even the memory of our sins should be grievous to us. Our sins, and not only the sins of our ancestors, have alienated God. Our sins have brought death upon us. We truly deserve nothing but wrath and hellfire.

But thanks be to God that this very deserved fate does not stand. It is by command of our Lord Himself, by the act of our Lord Himself, by the sacrifice of our Lord Himself that we have been given a second chance. He beat back Satan with the sacred words: “It is written…” He has given us Scripture to hurl at the devil, and preachers for you to listen to, to equip you for battle. He has given you baptism to make you a New Adam, and gives you of His very own flesh and blood, so that you can partake in the divine nature.

All this He gives you as a free gift. None of us deserves this grace, and that’s exactly why it is grace – and it truly abounds upon us.

Dear friends, let this grace pour over you, shower over you, flood over you – as the lavish baptismal waters poured over you at the font, washing away thoughts, words, and deeds of the past, granting us a divine “do-over” that joins us to our Lord’s victory over the devil.

Seize the opportunity of that “do-over.” Having been made over, we have been freed to lead lives of victory, to do good works for the sake of love (and not out of fear). We have been liberated from the devil so that we might help our neighbor simply because it is the right thing to do, without a thought of divine payback. For we have already been given the fullness of heaven in spite of our sinfulness.

Even in the midst of Lent, as we ponder our sins, as we meditate on our faults, as we are filled with grief and regret over our failings – remember, O man, not only that you are dust and to dust you shall return, but remember, O man, that you are a Christian, and your ashy faces have been washed clean by the waters of baptism, that our Lord Jesus has defeated the devil, and that you have been created and made able to do good works to be a blessing in God’s good earth.

This “do-over” is a gift. It is for us. It is a gift that has no end. “Let us give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good. And His mercy endureth forever.” Amen.

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

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Signa temporum...

Just a few "signs of the times" as a snapshot of where we are today in our ongoing Decline and Fall.

1) Euros Accepted signs pop up in New York City [as a bonus, check out Brace Yourselves by Jacob Hornberger].

2) Boy wants to return to school as a girl [optional extra credit: Sex Workers at William & Mary].

3) Ritual of Dealing With Demons Undergoes a Revival.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sermon: Invocabit (Lent 1)

10 February 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 4:1-11 (1 Samuel 17:40-51, 2 Cor 6:1-10)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s readings are exceedingly violent.

Samuel tells the story of the bloodthirsty Philistines and their bully-in-chief Goliath – as well as how he was felled by a shepherd boy with a slingshot. The text gives us details that may seem overly graphic and simply gratuitous – such as the stone sinking into the giant’s forehead and David beheading him with a sword.

St. Paul starts off with a sermon about salvation and repentance, and then abruptly speaks about being persecuted, whipped, and incarcerated. He recalls riots and sleepless nights, hunger and patient suffering. He talks about dying, being chastened, sorrow, and poverty. He tells of the treacherous deceivers who attack his reputation.

Finally, St. Matthew gives us an account of our Lord’s temptation, His battle against the devil. Satan tries to use the Lord’s hunger against Him, attempts to get our Lord to jump off the high point of the Temple, and then brings Him to a mountain to try to drive a wedge between Him and His Father in a vain attempt to create a civil war between the persons of the Trinity. The Lord defeats the devil in this skirmish, commanding him to depart. Angels came to minister to our Lord in the aftermath of this titanic clash with the general of the forces of evil.

It is fitting on this first Sunday of Lent that we be reminded of the violence of the Christian life. We are at war. Too often we forget. For our eyes usually don’t see the carnage. In fact, things are pretty good for us overall. Even the poorest among us lead pretty good lives. Nearly every person in our country enjoys running water, plumbing, refrigerators and freezers, television, telephones, air conditioning, and heating. Most have cars, cell phones, computer access, and ways of playing music and movies. We take luxuries for granted that would have been the envy of royalty only a century ago.

And although we are suffering a terrible upswing in violent crime, most of us simply barricade ourselves in the house and never really confront it. We have not had foreign troops on our soil in nearly a century and a half. We enjoy our sports, our shows, our vacations, and our time of recreation. It’s easy to forget that we are in a war of the most violent and vicious type.

The entire Bible is an account of a war between good and evil, between God and Satan, between angels and demons, between the holy and the unholy, between order and chaos, between the New Man and the Old Adam, between life and death. This is not merely a skirmish or even a world war. This war is cosmic in nature, and the ramifications are eternal.

The weapons in this war are not rifles, grenades, and bombs. Rather the ammunition is spiritual. Evil’s weapons are temptation and deceit, while Good’s power lies in Truth and the Word of God.

Look at our Lord’s battle with Satan. The devil uses the Lord’s hunger-weakened flesh as the battleground upon which to hurl deception. The father of lies tries to get our Lord to depend on His own power to turn stones into bread – rather than to depend on His Father’s mercy to sustain Him. Satan’s second weapon is a temptation to make Jesus test His Father’s love and reliability by issuing God a challenge. And finally, Satan appeals to the last weapon in his arsenal – a naked attempt to bribe our Lord with money and power.

And notice how our Lord repels each Satanic attack – by the Word of God. Jesus, who is the Word of God, cites the enscripturated Word of God like a shield to repel the devil’s darts. When the devil has run out of weapons, our Lord dispatches him not with an arrow or a sword, but rather with a Word: “Away with you!”

One little word can fell him.

Mere words against the author of all evil, a powerful monster armed with deception and hatred? Not mere words, but rather the Word of God – more powerful than any two-edged sword. Satan never had a chance.

For in the Kingdom of God, the victor isn’t necessarily the bigger, the stronger, or even the most clever. The victor is the one armed with truth and God’s promises.

Most people know and love the story of David slaying the giant. Everyone loves an underdog. We look up to people who exhibit bravery in the face of danger and poise in the midst of battle. David certainly had a steady hand, as well as five missiles to hurl at Goliath. But what made the shot connect was the will of God. David had faith in the God of his fathers. He did not allow the appearance of the situation to define the situation. For he knew and understood that God would not allow his people to be destroyed. David held God to His promises, and put himself on the line as collateral. “You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin,” David shouts to the Philistine, “but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts.”

Mere words against a giant of a man armed with weapons? Not mere words, but rather the Word of God – more powerful than any two-edged sword. Goliath never had a chance.

When evil comes upon us, breaking in on our fantasy that we are not involved in the cosmic battle between good and evil, we often don’t know what to do. We fret and lose sleep. We blaze in anger, and we sulk in depression. We fight with words that seem clever and with weapons of this world that are useless in the spiritual war we find ourselves in.

St. Paul’s account of his many sufferings for the sake of the Gospel, his many attacks of the devil, physical and spiritual, concludes curiously: “by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness.” Paul finds life in the midst of death, rather than complaining about his chastisement, he glories in not yet being killed. He speaks of rejoicing even in sorrow, and in seeing himself as rich even in the face of physical want.

This is because Paul understands the ramifications of this war. We Christians are not on the sidelines while others fight – we baptized children of God are the very ground zero of the cosmic strife between God and Satan. No matter how terrible things get, we have already won. No matter what temptations Satan may cast at you, these are all repelled by the Word of God.

Mere words against our sinful flesh, against the world, against the devil himself – all armed with power beyond what we can even imagine? Not mere words, but rather the Word of God – more powerful than any two-edged sword. Satan never had a chance.

Dear friends, St. Paul is pleading with us anew. Don’t give up. Don’t despair. Don’t let the evil one think he can defeat you. For you are baptized. You have the Gospel. You are equipped for warfare. You will struggle, you will doubt, and you will fall in this battle or that battle. But by God’s grace, you can confess, you can draw strength anew from the Holy Scriptures, from Lord’s Supper, by confession and absolution, by the hearing of the Word of God proclaimed, by living in the repentance of your baptismal grace. These five weapons of words seem weak in the face of the giant of the temptations and Goliaths we face, but like David’s five small stones, they are backed by the promise and the power of God.

St. Paul begs you “not to receive the grace of God in vain.” We may be tempted to either underestimate the power of God’s Word, or we may be deceived into taking the Gospel for granted. Avail yourself of the weapons the Lord has given you. Fight! Struggle! Beat back the foe! Rage against him, against the flesh, against hell itself with the fury of a soldier with his back against the wall, fighting for his very life with nothing more than a bayonet in desperate hand-to-hand warfare.

The Christian life is bloody and gory. The Christian life is violent. The Christian life is an epic struggle between cosmic forces far more powerful than we have of our own power. But thanks be to God that the blood and gore are not ours, but of our Champion, the Son of David, who instead of five smooth stones, hurls his five holy wounds at the ancient evil foe. Thanks be to God that the violence of the Christian life was poured out upon the holy Victim on the cross – by whose stripes we are healed. Thanks be to God that the outcome of the epic struggle was sealed long ago when the Son of David, the Son of God breathed out His victory cry: “It is finished,” crushed the serpent’s head, and then rose from the dead in cosmic triumph.

Dear brothers and sisters, to your battle stations – stations of the cross. To your posts – in battle formation on your knees. Prepare to present arms – the Word of God. The day is already yours, for you are the Lord’s. He has done it. We are called to remain steadfast in His service – even as He is steadfastly serving us – unto eternal victory over Satan, sin, the flesh, death, and hell itself.

“Away with you, Satan. For it is written…” Amen.

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

Thursday, February 07, 2008

As Seen On TV (Not)

(Children on ladders: a typical shocking Mardi Gras parade sight)

Everything on TV is not real.

I think most people know this, but some people apparently do not.

Now, there is the unreality of animation vs. live actors, the unreality of fiction vs. documentary, and then there's the unreality of the way the media distorts and presents its own version of reality either for the purposes of some agenda, or (more often) in order to sell tennis shoes and soft drinks.

It is the latter part that I want to focus on.

On Ash Wednesday, one of my parishioners came to me irate. He showed me a devotion that someone (a pastor) had written for February 5. This year, February 5 was the day before Ash Wednesday. In many parts of the country, it's called Shrove Tuesday, and there is often the custom of eating pancakes as a last indulgence in a feast before the fasting of Lent. Owing to the French heritage of people in South Louisiana, in my community, Shrove Tuesday is called Mardi Gras - which is French for Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras is the pinnacle of a mini-season called Carnival (from the Latin: carni vale, or "farewell of meat"). We don't have pancake breakfasts, but rather have parades. In fact, in New Orleans, the parades run throughout the Carnival season - which begins on Epiphany (January 6) and runs until Mardi Gras.

Parades in New Orleans are in some ways similar to other parades - like the Parade of Roses in Pasadena, or the Macy's Parade in New York. However, they are different in a few ways too. For one thing, the float riders often wear masks and throw things to the crowds - candy, stuffed animals, plastic cups, toys of various kinds, and strings of beads. On St. Patrick's Day, the riders toss out cabbages, potatoes, onions, and carrots. On the Feast of St. Patrick, you can actually make soup from parade "throws".

New Orleans Carnival parades are entirely run and funded by private clubs - called "krewes." Many of them have tongue-in-cheek names that sound like secret societies. Families have been involved in the krewes for generations. The last two weeks of Carnival feature parades and balls all over New Orleans and the surrounding communities (there were 59 parades this year!). Typically, schools shut down the entire week of Mardi Gras (though Salem Lutheran School only had Monday through Wednesday off this year). This is a huge time of tourism and goodwill for our community. Hundreds of thousands of guests from all over the world stream into New Orleans and vicinity for the Carnival events.

Mardi Gras is fun, and overwhelmingly family-oriented. It is a Christian festival, as it is tied to the Church calendar, and is a part of the cycle of feast and fast (even the colors of Mardi Gras are the liturgical colors of Epiphany, Lent, and Easter). Families and friends gather to watch the parades, to talk, to sing, to dance, to eat scrumptious foods, to enjoy one another's company, and to just plain have a good time. This seems foreign to a lot of people who live "up north" (of course, to us, "up north" can mean Southern Mississippi...).

Of course, much of the country hears "Mardi Gras" and they think of something entirely different. In the French Quarter, and more specifically on Bourbon Street (where, incidentally, there are no parades), you will indeed find activities that are not "family friendly" - just as you will find pretty much anywhere in the country. And that's the specific place you have to go in order to find the off-color stuff. However, the Mardi Gras parades (only two of which even go through the Quarter at all, and one of them is a parade for dogs), have nothing to do with indecency.

In fact, children are everywhere lining the parade routes - many in homemade boxes mounted to ladders so they can be seen high above the crowds to catch toys, candies, and beads (instructions here). Thousands of children and their families look forward to Carnival every year. Some families even camp out on the "neutral ground" (the median to the rest of the county) overnight in order to get a good spot. Very few children (and very few adults, for that matter) in New Orleans don't participate in the parades - at least to some degree. They are good clean fun, and are part of our unique culture.

However, the pastor who authored the devotion, who obviously has never actually seen a Mardi Gras parade in his life, who has likely never set foot in New Orleans, probably has never eaten crawfish, boudin, or alligator, may think a "po boy" is a young man who lacks money, and who admits that his only understanding of Mardi Gras comes from TV and the Internet - decided to use us as an object lesson about sin. He writes: "Now it's time to get serious about sin. As if."

Thanks a lot, guy.

He writes: "Today is Fat Tuesday. Maybe I'm just a young curmudgeon, but the celebration leaves me cold. Every year, news broadcasts show the Mardi Gras parties and carnival parades, but they're hardly family fare."

At this point, some of my parishioners are reading this, rolling on the floor and laughing at the silly stereotypical Yankee know-it-all who believes everything he sees on TV. Others are really insulted, not exactly thrilled to be denounced by a bloviating outsider whose ignorance is fueled by the idiot box, yet who has been published in a popular devotional booklet.

I would love this pastor to tell me exactly which parade is "hardly family fare." Which one? Can he even name one of the parades? What qualifies this pastor to make this pronouncement?

I wrote to my brother pastor. I sent him a good natured note, explained to him where he was wrong, and even invited him and his family to come to New Orleans for Mardi Gras in the future so he could experience it for himself.

His response was a big disappointment. It was snotty. He addressed me stiffly as "Pastor Beane" (there's an unwritten rule that the clergy are on a first name basis with each other). He stands by his "research."

Research. Goodness! We actually live here! But he has been doing "research" from two thousand miles away. Right. And what is this research? He cites "news broadcasts" and "various media." Uh-huh. He explains, "research indicates that Mardi Gras/Carnival are 'popular as a way to feast and act wild before the somber days of Lent,' in the words of one website." Yes. "In the words of one website." One website. He really said this! O Lord, have mercy! A website. Various media. Research. Enough expertly-mined data to condemn everyone in my congregation - not to mention in our community. I guess he knows what he's talking about. And thanks to his published writing, a lot of other "experts" on Mardi Gras are sure to crop up like termites on a shotgun (which in this context is a house, not a weapon).

He opines: "The 'farewell to the flesh' is not penitence, but is usually portrayed to the world as an indulgence in lust, drunkenness, and revelry. Personally, I cannot reconcile that to Romans 13:13-14; and perhaps it is only my concience [sic], but I cannot reconcile Carnival's 'farewell to the flesh' with the Lord's means of grace, where the Old Adam is bade farewell and the new creation raised up." Uh, Padre, "farewell to the flesh" ("das Fleisch" auf Deutsch) means we're preparing to say goodbye to eating meat. It's called "fasting."

This from a guy that's been in New Orleans as much as I have been in Indonesia. But he did see it on TV - the same venue where one can learn about Ron Popeel's Pocket Fisherman and catch a special about UFOs. Amazing.

What I'm having a problem reconciling is this pastor's misinformed opinion and devotional pontification that is at odds with the eighth commandment. He owes us an apology for hurting our reputation. I asked for one, but was rebuffed. I'm sorry, but the vast majority who catch beads at parades are simply not involved in: "indulgence in lust, drunkenness, and revelry" (his words) - even if a website and a TV reporter told him so. Huge numbers are children. Most are there with their families. That's just reality.

He then masked his insulting e-mail by peppering it with the usual blah-blah-blah of Lutheran jargon: "weaker brother... Christian freedom... bind their consciences..." This all sounds very pious and Sufficiently Lutheran, but it is a damnable lie just the same. We are not a bunch of drunks and whores. We enjoy food, drink, dancing, friends, family, pageantry, beautiful weather, fellowship with others, and the joyful expression of the Christian concept of feasting and celebrating God's good creation. That is not sinful.

But all of these things are repugnant to a particular strain of Christianity known as Pietism, which equates the Christian faith with a dour and joyless view of the Christian life. Pietism condemns drinking, dancing, card playing, and anything that tastes good as somehow sinful. Pietism was a movement that originated within Lutheranism in the 17th century which (on the good side) sought to repudiate lawlessness and taking the Gospel for granted, but (on the bad side) became Pharisaical, self-righteous, joyless, oppressive, and drab. It downplayed the sacraments by spiritualizing the faith - which leads to a dualistic (and Gnostic) condemnation of the physical world. Pietism brought the world the plain cross and prohibition. Pietists do not approve of Mardi Gras.

However, there is nothing wrong with taking pleasure in God's physical creation. The Christian life is meant to be joyful and celebratory - especially in the times of year that are festival in nature.

Of course, we alternate between festival and penitential seasons. And in the French Quarter at midnight on Mardi Gras, sirens blow, the police clear the streets, and the festival comes to an abrupt end out of respect for the Christian tradition of Ash Wednesday. The next morning, you'll see New Orleanians far and wide covered with the ashen crosses on their foreheads - something you probably won't see on Entertainment Tonight.

The fasting of Lent stands in abject contrast to the feasting of Carnival. The somber gray of Ash Wednesday is the other side of the coin to the garish colors of Fat Tuesday. Feast and Fast. Celebration and sackcloth. To everything there is a season...

The world doesn't get it. Apparently some Christians (and even pastors) don't get it either. Apparently some folks can't discern that reality is a whole lot bigger than what's on TV.

If you want to learn about the Christian faith, TBN is not representative - even though it speaks with the authority of "as seen on TV." Benny Hinn does not epitomize Christian preachers. And a few coeds and tourists pulling up their shirts don't define the Christian time of year known as Carnival. If someone wants to learn about New Orleans and our customs, there are plenty of us you can ask. Those Girls Gone Wild videos were never intended to be an objective and all-inclusive look at one of the greatest cities in North America any more than the Sopranos is a genuine snapshot into what being an Italian-American is. Just because something is on TV...

Hopefully, this pastor will repent of his prejudice, bias, and trashing of our reputation as a form of "devotion." Lent is a good time for repentance. And so is any time. But then when Easter comes, we will once more feast and celebrate, and will not be ashamed for doing so.

In honor of our Blessed Lord's resurrection, we will recite the ancient liturgical verse anew: "Laissez les bons temps rouler!" even as we look forward to bons temps without end.

Typical Mardi Gras paraders, obviously an "indulgence in lust, drunkenness, and revelry"