Saturday, February 28, 2009

Gretna's "most famous son"

The City of Gretna, Louisiana will be dedicating a life-sized bronze statue to her "most famous son," major league baseball legend Mel Ott (1909-1958), a few days after what would have been his 100th birthday. I will be giving the invocation at the ceremony this Saturday (March 7) at 10:00 a.m. at 4th Street and Huey P. Long Avenue (just over a block from my front door). This central location in the heart of Gretna's historical district is very close to where Ott was born on March 2, 1909.

Mel Ott was a member at Salem Lutheran Church, and still has relatives who are current members. I found his baptismal record when I was first approached about giving the invocation.

Several of my parishioners remember him warmly, and in spite of his remarkable achievements as a pro athlete (entering the major leagues at the age of 16!), he remained humble and good-natured. He died tragically in a car accident in New Orleans at the age of 49.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Thomas Edison State College

The above video is actually done by UPS and highlights their partnership with Thomas Edison State College to help their employees get college degrees. Here is Wikipedia's article about TESC, and here is TESC's website itself.

TESC pioneered distance education in 1972. It is a State College of New Jersey (located in Trenton), and is fully accredited. They currently offer 6 associate, 6 bachelor, and 4 master degrees. It is possible to earn a degree from TESC without setting foot in a classroom - though most people take classes in a combination of ways - from traditional university classroom instruction (and transferring the credits to TESC), to testing out of college level courses, to studying by correspondance or by internet.

TESC is especially helpful for adults who want to return to college to earn a degree - as it affords maximum flexibility and minimum expense. You can earn a degree at your own pace - whether for professional advancement, or to get into a graduate program, or just to get a college degree for the personal satisfaction of doing so. A former co-worker of mine used to take a class every few months, knowing full well that earning her bachelor's degree would take more than a decade. Like the proverbial tortoise, she just kep plugging away.

In my own case, I attended the University of Akron in the 1980s, but left the university to attend a technical school (the Cleveland Institute of Technology), where I earned the equivalent of an associate degree in computer programming. In 1999, I applied to go to seminary. I needed a bachelor's to be admitted, and was about a year's worth of credits short.

TESC crafted a degree program that applied earlier college credits and some credits for continuing education classes that I took as a technology professional (which I didn't realize were accredited college classes). I was able to earn a BA in History by taking a series of CLEP tests (which transfer to TESC for full credit) as well as a couple correspondence classes from Brigham Young University (BYU).

I was able to work at my own pace, and I actually enjoyed the challenge of study as an adult. The CLEP program allows you to do as much or as little self-study as you want on a topic - and then take the pass/fail final exam. I took CLEP tests for U.S. History, Soviet History, the History of the Vietnam War, and the History of Modern Europe. These exams can be taken at any local university or community college (they are proctored by professors). I also took two genealogical research courses from BYU - Latin for Genealogists and Genealogical Writing - in which I worked at my own pace and mailed classwork to the professor in Utah.

Within a year's time (2000), I graduated with my BA, which was accepted for admission to Concordia Theological Seminary.

TESC does have a campus and has professors and onsite classrooms, but its real strength is its flexibility in recognizing offsite coursework for credit. There is no football team, no fraternities, no dorms, and no marching band - but TESC is about earning your degree without such distractions. I think it would also be an ideal solution for homeschoolers - as people who tend to be autodidactic will do well under the discipline of working at one's own pace and learning through non-traditional methods.

In my own case, I received a thorough education - because I took my studies seriously and worked hard. I actually received college credit for doing the kind of reading in History and watching video documentaries that I had formerly done just because I was interested in it.

If you want to earn an accredited degree, and especially if you've dropped out of college and want to finish what you started a long time ago, contact TESC. They can take your transcript(s) and put together a curriculum so that you can achieve your goal on your own timetable. It really is affordable, and there are a lot of technological advantages (such as online classes) that really weren't an option for me when I was a student ten years ago.

I'm grateful for the opportunity that TESC gave me, and as money gets tighter and education costs continue to spiral - TESC may give a lot of people opportunities that they wouldn't have otherwise.

The Times They Are a Changin'

Here is past Wednesday's "Freedom Watch" with Judge Napolitano on FOX-News. It is mesmerizing. Who would have ever imagined a FOX-News show not only criticizing President Bush, but calling him a Socialist and a disaster for conservatism? Who could have imagined FOX-News calling the Iraq War a mistake?

Once again, we learn that Congress is clueless, the two major parties are two sides of the same coin, and in the end, we're likely headed toward nationalization and hyperinflation.

I believe that either we will see a brain- and capital-drain away from the United States (assuming that some country somewhere in the world becomes what the United States used to be: a beacon of freedom), or there will be a revolution of sorts as the younger generation (the ones who are being currently saddled with all of this debt) rise up against Keynsian economics and rediscover the blessings of liberty and the driving power of free markets, savings, and investment.

And with some 25 states mulling over reassertions of sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment, one has also to wonder if we will see a repeat of the principles of nullification, if not outright secession. The Federal government has become the very Big Government the founders and our ancestors fought a revolution against, and I believe it is imperative that we dust-off the long-forgotten Constitutional checks and balances against Leviathan unless we want to eventually see violence in the streets.

One thing is sure: the house of cards is teetering, and something is going to have to give. And let's pray that freedom wins and not fascism.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sermon: Ash Wednesday

25 February 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 6:1-6, 16-21 (Joel 2:12-19, 2 Peter 1:2-11)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

“Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

These are painful words, just as harsh today for us as they were when God first pronounced them over a terrified Adam in Genesis chapter three.

For these words are harbingers of death, reminders of our own mortality. The ashen cross marks us as condemned prisoners waiting for our appointment with the hangman. For the wages of sin is death. Death came into the world through one man. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

The condemnation of Adam applies to all of us children of Adam. The things we treasure are in reality only so much dust and debris, and the one thing we treasure above all, our very lives, are passing away with each day.

This is why one of the Sons of Adam, the One who is also the Son of God, tells us: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” – for these things are all temporary. Rather we are to “lay up” for ourselves “treasures in heaven.”

This is exactly what the prophet Joel means when he speaks God’s Word: “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning… return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

Rather than wallow in the passing things of this fallen world, we are to fix our eyes above, to those things which are not passing away, to our Lord Jesus Christ, whose death defeated death, whose perfect life is given to us as a free and sacrificial gift. We are being rescued, dear friends! Though we are now in a pit, our impending help is from above. Hold your heads high, looking toward heaven. Hold your heads up as conquerors, not down as the defeated and the downtrodden.

We can indeed repent. We can indeed hear the holy words of the Ten Commandments, the Law of the Lord, calling us back to Himself like a Father bidding His children into His strong and loving arms.

Today, in the words of the prophet Joel, we “consecrate a fast.” Let every man, woman, and child look to his true treasure, that is, to become, in the words of St. Peter, “partakers of the divine nature.” For consider our blessed Lord’s divine nature – though He died in His flesh, He rose again in that same divine nature, defeating the devil, destroying death, conquering sin. We are partakers, dear brothers and sisters, with that same victorious divine nature. For He is not only our Lord, but also our Savior: the king who comes to save us. He came not only to crush the serpent’s head, but also to rescue those condemned to the dust, so that we might escape “from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”

For that is the cause of it all, of our destiny to return to dust, of the Lord’s dusty walk to the cross, and of the dusty cross traced upon our foreheads along with the reminder of what we are. The cause of it all is sin. Sin leads to death. Sin wrought the cross. Sin stands in the way of our treasures in heaven.

But thanks be to God that His death on the cross as our Savior pardons us from this death sentence. For the Lamb of God, pure and holy, has mercy on us. In conquering sin, our Lord conquered death. And in conquering sin and death, our Lord crushed the devil’s head and rendered him powerless – even in the face of death.

For the great paradox is this: though we are dust, and though we shall return to dust (as is the just penalty for our sins and the sins of all mankind), we will not remain dust. And what’s more, this is not merely a paradox, but is good news, dear friends: we will rise from the dust. Not like a Phoenix, but as ourselves, as the men and women the Lord created us to be. This is the greatest news of all: that our sins are atoned for, our death rendered only temporary, and our redemption as certain and sure as the black mark on your forehead.

For just as the dust will wash off by water, your sins have been washed away permanently by water and the Word, not merely by a symbolic cross traced in dust, but by a real cross soaked in blood.

Never forget that after Ash Wednesday comes Easter. And yet, for the time being, it is a helpful discipline to ponder your sins, meditate on your mortality, and allow the Law of God to crush your pride and self-reliance into dust. And as our Lord says: “When you give to the needy… When you pray… and when you fast…” do not seek the praise of other men who are likewise dust, but seek the reward from your Father who is in heaven, the Father who loves you, who sent His Son to redeem you, who faithfully calls you to repentance, and who promises through the tears of our dusty faces: “there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Amen.

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

Monday, February 23, 2009

Feast of St. Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr

Today is the modern Western Church's date of the Feast of St. Polycarp of Smyrna, Bishop and Martyr - which includes commemoration by the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod in the sanctorial calendar of its latest hymnal, Lutheran Service Book (LSB).

St. Polycarp (c 69 - c 155 AD) was a pivotal figure in the early church, and is considered an apostolic father, a link to the original apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ.

St. Polycarp was himself a disciple of St. John the Evangelist, the one entrusted to take care of the mother of God and the author of the fourth Gospel (as well as the three Epistles of John, and the Revelation) - the last living apostle. St. Polycarp was also the spiritual father of the great theologian and defender of the faith, St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (died c 202 AD), and is St. Irenaeus's link to the apostles.

St. Polycarp's faithfulness unto death has inspired persecuted Christians since the second century. You can read the ancient account of St. Polycarp's martyrdom at the age of 86 for steadfastly refusing to worship Caesar here.

You can also read the holy bishop's early second century Epistle to the Philippians here. It is his only known extant work.

Sanctus Polycarpus orat pro nobis.

Happy Lundi Gras

Today is Lundi Gras (Fat Monday) - the day before Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), and two days before Ash Wednesday, the somber beginning of the penitential season of Lent.

Before the days of refrigeration, people had to use up all their fatty foods, like cream and meat, before Ash Wednesday - or else it would go bad and go to waste. So, Carnival (Latin: Carni vale, "farewell to meat") began as a pre-Lent last gasp of feast before the fast.

I think we in Louisiana have it just right.

Carnival, for us, involves family celebrations of parades, food, music, and fun. Salem Lutheran Church is having a Mardi Gras party tomorrow, as two krewes (private parade organizations) will parade right past our church. There will be marching bands, high steppers, jazz music, colorful floats with costumed and masked riders tossing out beads, stuffed animals, toys, candy, doubloons (colorful "coins"), plastic cups, and other "treasures." There will be families out and about with children running to and fro, laden with toys and beads.

To many outsiders, the image of New Orleans Carnival is not this local family celebration, but rather a more trashy display of reveling tourists on Bourbon Street. As one of my parishioners put it, some (certainly not all) tourists come from somewhere else, behave shamefully, and then go back home - leaving their reputation behind. But the reality is this: the tableau of drunken people exposing themselves can indeed be found, but it is confined to Bourbon Street, and once again, is really a tourist phenomenon. My aforementioned parishioner grew up in the French Quarter, and until recent years, even the Quarter's version of Carnival was squeaky clean family fun - as it still is in most of New Orleans and its environs.

But there does seem to be an "attitude of latitude" involved in Carnival. There is indeed a relativity to the intensity of the revelry in proportion to one's distance from the tropics.

While New Orleans Carnival seems exotic, if not downright decadent and weird, to our neighbors in the North, we're really pretty tame compared to Carnival near the equator, as in, say, Brazil - where samba teams compete with one another riding gargantuan floats, with riders decked out in a combination of elaborate feather costumes and full nudity. Actually, that's an exaggeration (let's be fair here). Carnival rules ban nudity, so the samba girls must at least wear a piece of tape. Last year, one of the contestants drew a penalty for losing her four-inch long, inch-and-a-half wide piece of tape. Oops! Not that the tape, or lack thereof, can really be seen from a distance anyway. This year, she apparently added body paintings of the President of the United States and of the President of Brazil in addition to her piece of tape - perhaps reflecting a more conservative trend in Sao Paulo's Carnival.

So you see, we're not really that crazy after all. Brazil's Carnival is way more wild than New Orleans's.

But by contrast, many churches in the Northern U.S. do mark the Mardi Gras with a Carnival of their own: a pancake breakfast on "Shrove Tuesday." That's it. A pancake breakfast (which would be what we in New Orleans would consider a Lenten meal - just kidding, but barely). Pancakes. Now, that's living on the edge. And I'm sure the really "wild and crazy" revelers liberally douse their flapjacks with a scandalous helping of maple syrup. Can you just stand the excitement?

I guess it's not a stretch to surmise that if four inches of skin is covered in Brazil, then it is likely that four inches of skin is actually exposed in the land of the midnight sun (or in the winter, the land where the sun doesn't shine, pun intended). I guess there is some method to the madness.

We New Orleanians really do cut a Goldilocks and the Three Bears kind of via media between the extremes of naked girls and pancakes. Surely, there must be a happy medium! I think we do a good job of finding it here.

So, you Yankees, why not turn off that YouTube of the (almost) naked Brazilian girls while you eat your pancakes, and instead, why not come on down to da Big Easy next year for a real Mardi Gras, Dawlin? Forget the pancakes, have a po-boy, gumbo, jambalaya, oysters, crabs, crawfish, or maybe even some alligator or raccoon. Join us for parades, music, and lots of good clean fun.

And leave that parka behind.

But if you really must go to Bourbon Street, make sure you wear a Michigan or Ohio State shirt while you're doing things you just wouldn't do in Lansing or Youngstown. Don't make us look bad, y'all. Either way, just make sure you spend lots of money. Hurricane Season is only four months away, and we got levees to build.

Meanwhile, Happy Carnival, and laissez les bons temps rouler!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sermon: Quinquagesima and Baptism of Megan Elizabeth Smith

22 February 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 18:31-43 (Isa 35:3-7, 1 Cor 13:1-13)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

St. Luke gives us not just one, but two accounts of blindness. The most obvious is the blind man on the road. He is a beggar. He hears the commotion, and upon learning that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by, the blind man cries out with a prayer that we repeat nearly every time we gather for divine service: “Have mercy on me!” He addresses Jesus as “Son of David,” thus appealing to Jesus as no mere commoner, but as a Lord, a man of royal blood.

We repeat this prayer when we sing: “Lord, have mercy upon us” in our liturgy.

To the dismay of many, the blind beggar refuses to be silent. He continues to pray for mercy. He continues to confess Jesus as “Son of David.” He continues to forcefully ask for the attention of the Lord.

And he gets it!

“What do you want me to do for you?” asks the merciful Son of David. “Lord,” he replies, “let me recover my sight.” The Lord commands it to be done, saying: “your faith has made you well.”

Thus sight replaces blindness, wholeness replaces brokenness, health replaces infirmity – all given by the Word and physical presence of Jesus, all received by the man’s faith.

But this isn’t the only example of blindness.

Just before, the Lord Jesus takes the twelve aside and speaks His Word to them, plainly without parables, straight talk without symbolism, speaking of Himself, He says: “For he will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” But the disciples cannot understand what He is saying. The simple meaning of His blunt words were “hidden from them.” They were themselves blinded to what He was telling them.

Just as the faith of the beggar made him well and gave him sight, the lack of faith of the disciples left them in the dark, blinding them to the prophetic utterance of our Blessed Lord.

Often, the Lord rebukes the disciples as “you of little faith.” He is often frustrated, if not outright flabbergasted at their spiritual blindness. And yet, He continues to love them.

He patiently and kindly continues to preach to them in spite of their weak faith. He does not boast or lord over them, nor arrogantly or rudely hold His divine nature over their heads. Though He is “the Way,” He does not force the disciples or compel them – in fact, one of them would leave the Way by his own fallen free will. Jesus is not irritable or resentful, nor does He rejoice when His disciples behave foolishly and childishly. Rather, our Lord Jesus always rejoices with the truth. He bears all things, even being delivered to His enemies to be mocked, spat upon, flogged, and killed. He believes all things, never abandoning His Father’s will though His body and soul are utterly agonized by the cup He must drink. Our Lord Jesus Christ endures to the end, and even then beyond, to the blessed hope of the resurrection.

His love never ends.

For He promises to hold even those of weak faith in the palms of His battered and bloodied hands, imprinted with nails, and yet raised in blessing over those of little faith. He promises that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.”

And what a great joy and blessing this is to us today, dear brothers and sisters. For we are not only like the blind beggar crying out: “Son of David, have mercy on me,” as we cry out in our private prayers and public liturgy to our Lord who draws near to hear us. Even as He proclaims: “your faith has made you well,” we are also like the disciples, weak of faith, and at times perplexed by the simple and direct Word of God.

How little faith we display! How often are we shocked when the Lord answers our prayers? How often are we amazed at the report of a miracle? How often do we pray thinking that the Lord will never grant what we ask? When we behave in this way, we are more like the disciples who are weak in faith than we resemble the blind beggar whose faith made him well.

For faith is belief. If we truly believe, we should never marvel at miracles. We should never pray out of despair, but always out of hope. We should never take God’s grace for granted, or ever see anything as more important than being in the miraculous presence of God in the divine service.

But we are blinded by our weak faith. We who don’t flinch at spending hours in front of a TV or at a movie or at a sporting event will fidget and fuss if the service “takes too long.” We have plenty of faith in pledging to pay a mortgage and a car note, but balk at committing even a small amount to support the work of our congregation. We who would never miss a day of work are quick not to pray. We who wouldn’t think of missing a meal at a nice restaurant think nothing about missing the Lord’s Supper if church attendance becomes inconvenient.

But there is hope for all of us of little faith, just as there was indeed hope for the disciples. Hear the prophet again, who was told to “strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.” He tells us as the Lord commanded him: “Be strong; fear not! Behold your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”

He has indeed come to save us: from sin, death, and hell, from the grave, from mourning and frustration, from the devil, from our sinful flesh, and from our weak faith.

Hear the prophet Isaiah yet again: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”

The Lord accomplishes this through His Word and by His Sacraments. He draws us into His own faith by His own command and through His own death and resurrection. Just as little Megan was born again today by water and the Word, every Christian can and must cling to the promise our Lord made as he washed us in the waters of regeneration: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.”

This, dear friends, is why we, the baptized (and unworthy) children of God, come back week after week to this place, to where baptismal water flows, where forgiving words resonate, where the miraculous presence of the Lord Jesus Himself in His Holy Supper strengthen our faith and deliver the promise of sins forgiven. We Christians gather here not because we are strong in faith, but because we are weak. The well need no physician. The perfect need no Savior. Those with impeccable faith do not need the Holy Word and the Holy Sacraments.

And that is exactly why He gives us eyes to see and faith to believe. He makes us well by the very faith He imparts to us. And we beggars can plead and cry out in faith – even faith that is at times like a dimly burning wick. We are indeed weak and blind. We certainly need a Savior.

And though we are like the disciples of little faith, we are also like the blind beggar crying out to the Lord Jesus Christ for help, again and again, week after week, year after year: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And again and again, week after week, year after year, we hear our Lord answer this prayer: “Recover your sight. Your faith has made you well.” Amen.

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

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Let it Be!

Great title. "Let it be" also means "Amen." If you would like, click on the widget to the top right (above my profile) and sign the petition to President Kieschnick and the Board of Directors to end this litigious arm-twisting and just "let it be."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

TV worth watching

This is an hour-long program called Freedom Watch that seems to fly by in a couple minutes (it is posted on YouTube in six segments). It is hosted every Wednesday on FOX-News by Judge Andrew Napolitano, and yesterday's (Feb 18) program took up the federal government's so-called stimulus package.

I had just about given up being able to find a defense of the free market and real conservative values in the mainstream media - and I have never been so delighted to be wrong!

Back in the USSA

More evidence of our descent into a fascist police state.  

This is the kind of bullying that inevitably accompanies the centralization of power into a single party, single branch of government, and/or single person - whether he is lauded and exalted as: Our Commander in Chief, the Caesar, the Dictator, or the Obama.

This is why the founders of the United States created a republican form of government with checks and balances, in which the president "presides," he does not rule or reign.  The president oversees only one branch of only the federal level of government.  He is one cog in a complex wheel of the republic.  He is not our president; he does not preside over us - but rather is the chief executive of the executive branch - which is supposed to be checked by the courts and by the legislature.  He is also the commander in chief of the military - not of the civilians - and, if we were true to our founders and to the Constitution, we would have no standing armies (Jefferson considered standing armies and paper money to be the most dangerous threats to liberty - and history bears him out).

Over time, the American Presidency has become a Caesarship waiting to blossom.  And we have seen past presidents acting with Caesarian pretensions, as in the overtly-fascist Lincoln and FDR administrations.  And, of course, most of us have been "educated" not to point out the emperor's nakedness, even though we can read the Constitution with our own eyes.  To the contrary, we're taught that the Constitution must be read and interpreted by judges and lawyers, the secular priests who assure us we can't read the "sacred" text of the "living" Constitution ourselves.  We're also brainwashed from an early age to accept any and all claims of government power as that which makes us "safe."

And instead of resisting this ominous trend toward hypercentralization and concentration of power - the citizenry just goes along like sheep.  

Even the prayers from the LCMS Commission on Worship use almost worshipful terms of the president of the United States, speaking of him (and other government officials) as "our rulers" and our "leaders" (which takes on a different tone if translated literally into the German of our forefathers).  I remember the negative reaction of a few conservatives when one of Obama's spokesmen said he was ready to "rule" from day one - and yet, our own synodical prayers use this kind of language without flinching, as though we, like the early church, lived in an imperial military dictatorship, or like the church of the reformation era, live under a system of potentates and princes.  

When Washington refused to be crowned, some Americans adopted "No king but Jesus" as their motto.  The people of Israel themselves refused God's advice that they have no monarchical system of secular government - but they wanted to be like other nations, with disastrous results.

But now that Washington has become synonimous with the city that serves as the seat of Big Government, and now that his image is on a fiat note of debt and spent entirely on credit - Americans now shrug and presume that stopping, harassing, and performing searches and seizures on citizens for having anti-abortion literature is normal in a republic that guarantees individual liberty.  We collectively either condone or excuse, or simply surrender to the ridiculous notion that these words were a threat to Mr. Obama - who is ensconced hundreds of miles away surrounded by heavily armed military personnel and an army of secret service agents.  We consider it completely reasonable that agents of the government entered this man's home and snooped around to make sure he wasn't part of a "hate group."  Our ancestors at the time of the American Revolution certainly had other ideas about such "proactive" government.  Our kith and kin in Europe and Africa in the twentieth century also knew a thing or two about it.

We are also all-too-quick to accept government explanations for banning shampoo bottles and nail files from airplanes, not to mention allowing government bureaucrats at the airport to either fondle or look at nude images of our wives and children - all in the name of "safety."   And a police officer in Oklahoma City can't seem to figure out that Barack Obama's life was not in danger because of a sign on a car.  Even he could not resist the urge to harass and bully a citizen going about his business.  What was really happening was that Barack Obama was in danger of being criticized.  And that is something a Caesar cannot endure.  That is the real issue here.  We're even seeing this same tableau in the LCMS - which incidentally also has a "president" who is also seeking a centralization of power, as well as a bureaucratic board that is using threatening legal letters to strong-arm a "no criticism" agreement from the men who run the radio program Issues, Etc. outside of synodical control.

And the last word is the key to understanding this failure of common sense.

It's always about "control."  That's why Lincoln shut down critical newspapers and FDR seized private gold, whose investors were critical and dubious of his redistributive "stimulus" plan.  That's why Julius Caesar was declared dictator for life, why Stalin murdered his critics by the thousands, why the Chinese government is always seeking to censor the internet.  It's about control.  It's also why the founders of our republic did everything they could to decentralize and dilute power with healthy checks and balances and a dose of humility to elected officials - to avoid the kinds of things we see every day and accept as normal and healthy: the desire for government to control everything in our lives.

But that's how the police state works.  It depends on all of us to shut up and allow it to happen.  Police states (and churches) depend on duping the many (by propaganda) into believing these things are all for our good, as well as bullying the few (by threats and force) who know better.

Dr. Veith has a great blog entry quoting Alexis de Tocqueville on how these things generally weasel their way into democratic societies.

The police state's worst enemy is the little boy who points out the emperor's nakedness, the one not buying the propaganda and not intimidated into silence.  That's why the police state doesn't want those "little boys" of every age and sex to have signs, blogs, or radio programs.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Enjoy Every Sandwich

My colleague in the ministry, Rev. Mason Beecroft, has a post about the latest dust-up in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod - this time, yet another scandalous use of lawyers and their threatening letters directed at men who are doing nothing wrong, but simply using the gifts God gave them to further the Gospel - which the synod said could not be done under the synod's banner in a financially responsible way. The fact that they are doing it and succeeding independent of the synod seems to irk some of the suits at the Purple Palace.

In his analysis, Pr. Beecroft made a fleeting reference to Warren Zevon and his iconic pop song "Lawyers, Guns, and Money." Indeed, this ditty often comes into my head when I ponder the sorry state of the Missouri Synod these days. While guns aren't being used, there sure are a lot of lawyers sucking the life out of our fellowship, like parasitical vampires draining the very blood of Christ from the Church itself. And just about every communication from synod and its districts involves its not-so-subtle fundraising program couched under the biblical imagery of ordination: Fan Into Flame (I guess my idea "When the Coin in the Coffer Rings..." didn't catch on with the marketing wonks in St. Louis).

So, "Lawyers, Guns, and Money" may not be the perfect anthem to describe our synod, but as Meat Loaf would say, "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad."

I do believe that if our synodical hierarchy enjoyed the kind of power that church bureaucrats had at the time of the Reformation, we would see the duo of lawyers and money rounded out by guns as well. Thanks be to God that the Missouri Synod cannot threaten people with the stake or the inqusition - but can only resort to the more "civilized" intimidation and bullying from hired "guns" in the form of corporate lawyers.

Or, as I believe Scripture generally calls them: "teachers of the law."

But anyway, for a few weeks now, I have been re-discovering the late Warren Zevon's music. As an artist, he was creative. As a rock-singer, he was unique. He wrote not only catchy tunes, but clever lyrics with tongue-in-cheek plays of words and a dark graveyard humor showing the gritty underbelly of original sin at work. He also demonstrated an epic James Bond sort of imagination combined with vivid (and at times even lurid) storytelling. And, unlike a lot of singers of his genre, he actually had a melliflous and melancholic voice that hints of real musical training and polished showmanship. Over the years, Warren Zevon struck up a friendship with Late Show host David Letterman, and was a frequent guest on the program.

After he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2002, Zevon made his final appearance on Letterman, and the entire program became a tribute, almost a premortum obituary, a touching, and yet irreverent and bittersweet celebration of the art and work of a cheeky pop singer who always seemed to have the Grim Reaper looking over his shoulder. When Zevon was introduced, the Late Show band played his song "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead."

The video above is taken from that performance, and is one of my favorite Warren Zevon tunes (which was David Letterman's favorite as well): "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." This was to be his last public performance, and is a rollicking modern folk tale about a European mercenary who fought in Africa, was killed by a traitor in cahoots with the CIA, but who takes his revenge in the afterlife as a headless ghost.

When asked if his diagnosis taught him anything, Zevon quipped: "Enjoy every sandwich." This off the cuff remark became a posthumous motto, and was repeated back to Zevon by Letterman at the end of the program. After the show, Zevon presented his guitar to David Letterman, and asked him to take care of it.

Warren Zevon died at the age of 56 on September 7, 2003 surrounded by family. His last album, a sort-of last will and testament, The Wind, was made when he knew he was dying, and includes a cover of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."

In 2004, a group of musicians released a tribute album featuring Zevon's music, calling it Enjoy Every Sandwich. And since it is now noon, that's just what I am going to do with my wife and son!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sermon: Sexagesima

15 February 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 8:4-15 (Isa 55:10-13, Heb 4:9-13)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

“To you,” dear brothers and sisters in Christ, “it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God.”

For on this day, we have not only heard a parable of our Lord, we have heard the Lord Himself explain its meaning. And what a treasure this parable is, dear friends, for in it, the secret of the kingdom is revealed. How very sad that so many of our brethren are not here, refusing to hear the good news as well as the warning of our Lord.

The secret of God’s kingdom is in its propagation. Every time you eat an apple or orange, every time you spit out a cherry pit or a watermelon seed, you are being reminded of our Lord’s parable about the kingdom of God and how it grows. For sadly, not every seed of every fruit you eat is destined to become a tree or vine. In fact, the vast majority fail to germinate. Every seed bears the potential of not only life, but a fruitful life – and yet, most seeds never make it to the soil. Even those that do are often eaten by animals. Even those that sprout often die off very soon thanks to adverse conditions.

So very few grow to maturity, to bear fruit, to provide seeds themselves as a continuation of the chain of life that spans from the present, generation by generation, back to the original six days of creation.

The seed is a metaphor for God’s kingdom, which propagates from a minority of fruitful seeds planted into good soil. And in spite of this minority status, the miracle happens, life struggles against the forces that would snuff it out, and we do indeed see glorious trees bearing luscious fruits that not only feed us with the nectar of life, but themselves provide hundreds or even thousands of new seeds spreading the Lord’s creation thousands of years after the Word of God first said: “Let there be….”

And that is another revelation in this remarkable parable: the Word. For “in the beginning was the Word” and the “Word was with God” and the “Word was God.” And “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Through Him all things were made. This Word through whom God creates is also the promised Seed of the woman, who crushed the head of the devil, who ransoms sinners, and who destroys death. Truly, truly, He has said to us, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” He is that Seed that died, was buried, and yet rose to bear much fruit.

The Seed Himself told us in His own Words: “The seed is the Word of God.”

The Word of God is the Bible, to be sure. The Word of God is preaching, to be sure. The Word of God is Holy Absolution, to be sure. But the Word is ultimately not a “what,” but a “Who.” The Word is not merely scribbles on a page or vibrations hitting our eardrums. The Word is Christ, and Christ is the Seed. And the Seed is life.

In this Word, we find the words of eternal life. In this Seed we find life in the most unlikely of places.

For to the naked eye, words are powerless, and seeds are of little consequence. But when the Word is Christ, that Word is omnipotent, all-knowing, and true. That Word creates, redeems, and hallows. That Word gives life and gives it abundantly. And the living, incarnate Word Himself taught us not to judge by what the naked eye sees – for if we have faith as small as the mustard seed, which looks insignificant to the eye, we can move mountains. For the little seed grows to be a tree, capable of providing a place for birds to nest, to lay eggs, and to raise their own young, a place of nurture and of life, of the miracle of procreation, and of propagation.

The kingdom of God is spread by tossing about the Seed, that is, by casting Christ in every which way: on paths, on rocks, among thorns, and on every kind of soil. For the sower has no way of knowing where the Seed will end up, which ground will be receptive, or which individual seeds will survive. But the sower has a promise: “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty.” Whether a particular seed sown at a particular time upon particular soil produces or does not is not his concern. When it comes to the Word of God, there is no science, no husbandry methodologies, no techniques to increase yield. There is just a man tossing seeds in what seems to be a terribly inefficient way.

As the hymnist puts it, the sower plants it home “to men who like or like it not.” For the “sower sows; his reckless love, scatters abroad the goodly seed.”

For the power is in the tiny seed itself, not in the muscles of the arms of the farmer. The power of the Word is in the Word, not in the preacher of the Word. For it is the Word of God, the Seed of the woman, “that bears a harvest hundredfold.” For “the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit.” The power of the seed lies within the Lord’s Seed itself – our task is merely to cast it around.

Obviously, the preacher has the task of casting the Seed of God’s Word from the pulpit, in the classroom, and even to those on the highways and byways of the world. But all Christians likewise cast the Seed of God’s Word in their own way as well – in teaching your children the catechism, in praying before meals, in bringing your family to where the Word is proclaimed and the Seed is implanted into their hearts. All Christians are themselves offshoots of the Holy Vine that is Christ, commanded to bear fruit themselves – for such fruit also bears seeds.

To us “it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God.” In whatever way we are called to do so, we are to sow the Seed of Christ, we are to speak the Word of God, we are to scatter the Lord’s reckless love, “intent alone that all may have the wholesome loaves that all men need.”

For seeds not only sprout in the ground, they are also ground into flour that becomes the bread that sustains us: “giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater.” But we do not live by bread alone in this kingdom, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

Let us sow in whatever way the Lord calls us to sow. Let us do so in love, knowing that the seeds we scatter are givers of life. Let us do so in humility, knowing that the power is not in our eloquence or piety, but only in the Word’s itself. And let us do so without growing discouraged, for the Lord Himself has given us His Word that: “It shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

Preach you the Word and plant it home
And never faint; the Harvest Lord

Who gave the sower seed to sow

Will watch and tend His planted Word.


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

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Socialism: A Long-Term Bipartisan Project

A tip of the hat to my friend Greg, a missionary in Africa with roots in the Crescent City, also a fellow advocate of constitutional, limited republican government and individual liberty - for this. He is indeed right about the picture to words value ratio - the above picture says it all, and leaves one speechless.

Obviously, the nationalization of banks and the federal grab of entire industries and the specter of the President of the United States setting corporate salaries in a hasty trillion dollar federal spending spree supported by only one party is an obvious paradigm shift into Marxism - we need to guard against seeing this as a sudden act of the Democrat Party.

Our slide into Socialism has been gradual, and a result of Republican and Democratic cooperation - as can be seen by the graph above. And the old paradigm that Republicans advocate the warfare state while Democrats push the welfare state has shifted as well, as those partisan lines are being thoroughly blurred.

President Bush and the GOP ballooned the size of the national debt while pushing increased domestic pork projects, such as federal healthcare funding and unconstitutional involvement in "education." For their part, the Democrats have recently engaged in aggressive nation-building and unconstitutional military endeavors as much as the Republicans. How quickly we forget that Truman (D) dropped the atomic bombs, and Kennedy (D) and Johnson (D) radically escalated the Vietnam "war" - while it was Nixon (R) that ended it.

It was also President Nixon who closed the gold window and imposed fascist and unconstitutional domestic "wage and price controls," and it was President Clinton (D), whose aggressive, imperialist foreign policy was roundly criticized by Republicans, chiefly by presidential candidate George W. Bush, who advocated a "humble foreign policy" and "no nation building" - in the GOP's broken promise to restore constitutional balance. It was President Eisenhower (R) who warned America about the looming "military industrial complex" and it was President Clinton who was far more fiscally conservative and who did a much better job of balancing the federal budget than any Republican in recent memory.

President Obama is intent on increasing both the welfare and warfare state at any cost - be it blood or money, be it at the cost of the destruction of the Constitution or the dollar. He toyed with the anti-war element of his own party by promising withdrawal from Iraq, while keeping the economics of arms production and international intervention moving forward with pledges to escalate American involvement in Afghanistan (aka the Graveyard of Empires, the same country that cost the Soviets their empire, where U.S.-trained Osama bin Laden led militias to defeat the mighty invaders from the USSR). Obama is taking the next logical step of escalated socialist fascism at home and imperialism and aggression abroad. He also has a Congress of rubber-stamp Democrats who will not check his power - but then again, nor would a Republican majority do anything to rein in the Chief Executive, as we saw during the Clinton years.

Bipartisanship has become a unified commitment to fascism, socialism, despotism, and imperialism - with two rotating teams taking turns sitting in the big chair. I'm afraid that only a catastrophic failure of our economy, and perhaps even a decisive military defeat, will cause the American people to wake up, learn the dangers of Big Government and imperial blowback, and rise up against the Democrat and Republican two-headed monster and re-chain it with the Constitution. The question is, will the awakening come too late?

Expect the above graph to not only continue, but to increase, as the government becomes ever-increasingly central to the American economy, at home and abroad, even as domestic manufacturing becomes nearly a thing of the past.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Modern-day Roman Catholic Simony

Noted blogger Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) conducting an interview with Pope Nicholas III (ca 1220-1280) from the latter's Eighth Circle of Hell office while doing some research about simony

There is nothing that unites Lutherans more than attacking the Roman Catholic Church. So, in the interest of Lutheran unity, here is a piece by Roman Catholic columnist Jeffrey Tucker that is critical of the Roman Catholic Church's use of copyright to limit access to liturgical texts.

Can you imagine that? Putting the ancient texts of the Church under copyright and limiting access to those texts to "paying customers"? "When the coin in the coffer rings..."

Goodness! Why, that would be like not letting parents write out the text of Luther's Small Catechism or make verbal recordings of it to teach their children the faith. That would be like making congregations buy licenses to reprint the ancient words of the Church's common liturgical treasure in their bulletins. In some cases, church bureaucrats could even use copyright laws to limit the access of congregations to materials they no longer publish, but refuse to release to the public domain in order to bully them into buying the new materials. Perhaps even bloggers who simply want to put the church's collects on their blogs will be contacted by papal henchmen with cease and orders from the Purple Pal..., er, I mean, the Vatican, and forced instead to use versions of other church bodies who have placed their translations into public domain.

Can you just imagine how vile that would be?

Why, next thing you know, someone will suggest that videotaping a church service is a copyright violation. Can you just imagine the ultimate act of Antichrist, say, the pope actually threatening legal action against a priest and a layman for, say, trademark infringement? So, all the good Lutherans out there who know being the first to throw stones at the pope is as Lutheran as lutefisk on Friday, well, here is your chance to take a few "pope-shots" at the modern practice of simony.

And if we get 95 comments, we can call them "Theses" and nail them to the church door (er, the Theses that is, not the bureaucrats).

[Note: I also published this at Gottesdienst Online, click here to join the discussion in that forum. +HW]

What if...?

Did you ever thing you'd see the day...

When the Prime Minister of Russia would be warning the U.S. not to be seduced by Socialism?

How long before we're saying: "Mister Obama, tear down this wall!"?

What's Happened to Olive Garden?

The Hollywoods made a trip across the Mississippi River today, venturing into the wilds of the East Bank to attend to a few errands. While there, we decided to eat lunch while there - having a couple gift cards that we've been hanging onto for a long time. One of them was for Olive Garden - which was nearby.

I know it's a chain, but I've always really liked Olive Garden. My friends even threw a bash for me after my Holy Ordination at the Fort Wayne, Indiana's OG. I've always found the food to be tasty, interesting, served in good portions, and fresh. And in my experience, the service has typically been very good.

But admittedly, we haven't been there in quite some time.

Oh boy.

The menu has shrunk considerably. My seat in the booth was broken. Mrs. H.'s cream for her coffee was curdled. My pizza was very small, bland, and absolutely miserly with regard to the ingredients, and bordered on being undercooked. Some of the pieces literally did not even have a single whole slice of pepperoni on them. The green pepper on each slice amounted to maybe four pieces each of about a quarter inch in length. The side of sauce tasted like the tomato sauce that used to come with the Easy Bake oven. The chicken and dumpling soup was okay - especially the second bowl that actually had dumplings in it (which I suppose nullified the chicken bone I got in the first one). Mrs. H.'s minestrone was also different than the soup of the good old days, being heavy on pasta, and light on veggies. Even the bread sticks, which we both remember as being fresh and golden brown, were only worthy of a "meh" and were served in plastic imitation baskets that still had water from the dishwasher in them.

Our waiter was lackadaisical. He never offered us wine nor dessert. He mumbled his way through all the motions. He really didn't seem happy - and neither did any of the staff. But I suppose it may have been related to the meeting of the sober-looking suits that was going on in the back room.

Now, I know you can't judge a whole chain by one experience. But one thing is for sure - the quality of the ingredients has diminished. The Italian sausage was not nearly as good as I remember it to be - not even close. Overall, the food was bland and boring. It tasted like Olive Garden has opted to cut corners by buying cheaper ingredients. I think that is a risky strategy in depressed economic times. Restaurants need to compete as patrons eat at home more often. If going out to eat is going to be increasingly rare, we won't squander it on boring, bland, corner-cutting food and mediocre service.

But then again, maybe that explains the sober-looking suits and worried looks on the faces of the staff.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Little Glimpse into the Once and Future Paradise

Thanks to Beth and Sidney Lanier for passing this along.

Monday, February 09, 2009

History repeats itself... get ready.

Pronunciation Questions

1) When did Pakistan change from (PACK-i-stan) to (PAHK-ee-stahn)?

2) Why is Afghanistan still (Af-GAN-i-stan) and not (Ahf-GAHN-ee-stahn)?

3) Didn't I get the memo that all the members of the press corps and the chief executive officer of the executive branch of the federal bureaucracy all seem to have gotten concerning numbers one and two?

4) Is it still OK to say "NOOK-ya-ler"?

5) Does Timothy Geithner (GITE-ner), who pronounces his name according to the German also know how to pronounce "Weimar" (VIE-mar)?

6) And a bonus question not related to pronunciation: Does the Federal government understand that the word "billion" means something different to Americans ($1,000,000,000) as it does those who use British English ($1,000,000,000,000)? We will need to make sure our new billion dollar bills are clearly labeled for when the kiddies go off to the store to buy a candy bar.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Mrs. Hollywood and I celebrated our fifteenth anniversary last Thursday. Or, more accurately, we celebrated the next day, last Friday, which also doubled as my forty-fifth birthday.

A family from our parish volunteered to entertain Lion Boy while we made merry - a rare event indeed.

We dropped Leo off with our friends at about 4 pm, and headed to the French Quarter. Our destination was Pravda, a bar located at 1113 Decatur Street. We have read some great reviews about Pravda, which praised its Cold War Kitsch decor, very hip clientele, outstanding service, and the fact that they serve absinthe. For some reason, we thought they served food as well, but they don't.

So, we walked around the neighborhood a bit (the weather was a wee bit chilly, but a light jacket was enough to keep things comfy). Decatur Street is where the French Market is located, a really cool little subset of the Vieux Carre that includes several restaurants and bars.

Not knowing where to eat, and getting hungrier by the minute, we settled on Margaritaville - which could be interpreted as heresy, as this is a "chain" restaurant, and not something unique to the Quarter or even to New Orleans. But that's what we decided on based on the posted menu and rumbling tummies.

We loved it!

The menu did have a distinctly New Orleans flavor, from the alligator bites to the file gumbo. The decor is a lot of fun, and people were definitely there to have a good time. It is also a family-friendly location, and as parents are wont to do, we kept saying how much Leo would like this, how we are going to come back with Leo, and how we can't wait to see Leo's face when he sees the boat and airplane in the restaurant. Yeah, I know, I know.

Anyway, the gumbo was really quite good, the steak (a house sirloin) was also very tasty. Mrs. H. had jerk chicken and a crab chowder. And the drinks were really (really!) good. Mrs. H. (who seldom imbibes) enjoyed her frozen blue "license to chill" margarita. Fr. H. (likewise not a heavy drinker) had a classic mojito - which was obviously made with all fresh ingredients. Service was outstanding, and the atmosphere of the restaurant is a perpetual party.

Another benefit for locals is that they are trying to bring us into the restaurant. If you are a local, you can get a card that entitles you to a 20% discount, plus a free drink and dessert on your birthday (which I was able to use right away).

We closed out dinner with key lime pie, and passed the time in a leisurely way.

After settling the check, we strolled over to Pravda.

Though it was getting dark, it was still early for the Quarter. The place was virtually empty. It is a very relaxed atmosphere, and there is a beautiful (and I mean beautiful) courtyard out back that butts up against the high wall of the neighboring Italian restaurant. There is a delightful and (though it was not in use) a firepit. Music is piped in, which on this day was of a classic rock bent (some old 70s and 80s alternative/punk).

Inside is just as the reviews described - Russian words painted on the wall, old Soviet posters, a large Communist Star behind the bar (with a faberge egg hanging in front), and even a ghastly painting of Rasputin.

The bar itself is decked out in absinthe paraphernalia.

Absinthe had a huge following in New Orleans during the "belle epoque" of the turn of the twentieth century. Absinthe is an alcoholic beverage that also has wormwood - which in high dosages can be poisonous. It is actually a kind of narcotic, though the dose in absinthe is actually small.

There is a mystique associated with absinthe, and it was enjoyed by the "bohemian" and literary set in New Orleans and in various places in Europe. There is a ritual of preparation involving an ice-water fountain, a sugar cube, and a strange-looking spoon upon which the cube is dissolved.

Absinthe was vilified amid the hysteria of the temperance movement, and was described in such laughable terms as this quote:
"Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country."
That's funny. That's how I describe the Federal Reserve.

Somehow, hype of this nature was not dismissed as ridiculous, and absinthe was outlawed in the US. in 1912. It was also being banned around the world at this time, though a few countries never outlawed it. By 2007, cooler (and saner heads) prevailed, and absinthe was again legal in the U.S. and in many other countries that had once made it contraband.

We wanted to try absinthe, and our bartender, Bird, was very helpful. She recommended the Kübler brand from Switzerland, which actually began making absinthe in 1863. It had only been revived in 2005, and the company's efforts allowed re-legalization to happen in Switzerland (whose constitution actually banned absinthe!) and subsequently, the United States - which supposedly includes New Orleans.

Mrs. H. and I decided to share a drink (it is not cheap at $15 a glass). Bird cheerfully set up the exotic looking apparatus. Before we knew it, the little fountain was pouring a tiny stream of icewater over a sugarcube into our glass, creating both a beautiful cloudy "louche" in the glass and a licorice-laced aroma in the air that was just unbelievable.

By this time, we were the only ones in the bar, and Bird patiently answered our questions about absinthe and about Pravda. She knew what she was doing, and was both professional, and friendly. We discussed absinthe's reputation, its various types, its chemical properties, and she described it quite accurately as "a lovely drink."

Kübler is on the mild side of absinthe at only 106 proof. Before it is mixed with the sugary icewater, it is clear in color - not the stereotypical bright green like some of the brands. Mrs. H. and I both enjoyed it - though I really like the licorice taste a lot more than she. The effect is very nice and relaxing, different than the usual "alcohol buzz." Of course, we were splitting one drink between the two of us, and also had full bellies. But still, it had a nice feeling to it. It is indeed "a lovely drink," and though neither one of us is really into the bar scene, Pravda is unique and cool. It is definitely a great place to go on a special occasion to relax and just hang out.

We leisurly sipped and chatted as the early evening wore on. Eventually, business in the bar picked up, and singles and couples both came in at a good clip.

When we picked up Lion Boy, he had been away from us for a whopping five hours, and was asleep. We are really grateful to our parishioners who took Leo out to eat, played with him, and came away with the usual collection of hilarious stories about the crazy things our son says and does. Where does he learn this stuff?

And though we won't be taking him to Pravda (at least not for another 17 years or so), we do look forward to bringing the little guy to eat with us next time at Margaritaville.

Sermon: Septuagesima

8 February 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 20:1-16

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

If our Lord’s labor practices are anything like the home-owner in His parable, our Lord Jesus would likely get a scolding from the President of the United States.

For we grumble about CEO’s making lots of money – especially when they’re being subsidized by tax dollars. Our sense of fairness is violated by people who make a lot of money for very little (or shoddy) work, while others, who bear the “burden of the day and the scorching heat” don’t get the wages we believe are coming to them.

Our Lord uses this sense of fairness that seems to be universal to mankind as a way to make a profound point about the kingdom of God. For according to our own sense of fairness, we don’t get what we deserve. We always think we’re entitled to more. We always think we’re being short-changed. We’re always looking at what others have, what others make, what others enjoy – and we think we’re getting the short end of the stick.

Listen to the grumbling of the workers at the end of the story, when they find out that the workers who worked a single hour are making the same wages as they who worked all day: “You have made them equal to us.”

And so here you have it. For all of our talk about equality, it’s actually equality that we complain of. We want more than equality. We want to be treated not fairly, but unfairly. We couch our covetousness in the talk of fairness, but in reality, we walk the walk of unfairness.

We want what we don’t deserve, and expect others to get less than we get.

And we do indeed get what we don’t deserve, but so do others. In God’s kingdom, we’re not paid according to our abilities, we’re not on a salary based on our skill or industry – rather we are paid, in the Lord’s words in His parable – “whatever is right.” Perhaps a more accurate translation would be: “Whatever is righteous.”

If we are to be paid fairly for what we deserve, the Word of God as revealed to St. Paul is clear: “The wages of sin is death.” But we are not paid according to what we have earned, but rather according to “righteousness” – not ours, but rather the righteousness we have received as a gift – that is, “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We do indeed get a higher wage than we have deserved. We deserve death, but we get life. We deserve hell, but we get paradise. We deserve separation from God, but we get communion with Him instead.

We are way overpaid, and if the kingdom of God were getting a bailout from the government, God would not be permitted to give us such an “unfair” bonus.

But our Old Adam is not content to be paid like a king – we want others to be paid less. Our warped sense of fairness dictates that we, who think we deserve more than others, should get more than others. And we, in our sinful flesh, don’t want others to receive the same inflated wages, the same grace, the same gift of a benevolent God – as we have received.

Our Lord willingly “took the form of a servant,” and yet “did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped.” Nevertheless, He dies for us, accepts the wages of sin that we deserve, only to pay us according to His own worth. But this is still not good enough for our sinful nature. For rather than even grasp at equality with God, we complain when we are made equal with those who have done less. Like the villain in the Lord’s parable, we “begrudge” the Lord’s “generosity.”

For what business is it of ours if the Lord shows mercy and kindness to someone else in an even greater measure than He has shown us? What kind of hateful people must we be to mutter against God’s kindness in keeping people out of hell? Where is our sense of love not to rejoice with all of our fellow sinners who have been redeemed although we have all deserved death and hell?

Dear brothers and sisters, this is good news! This is the Gospel! This “inequality” and this “unfairness” are causes for rejoicing. As the Psalmist asks: “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?”

Rather than begrudge those who have perhaps been forgiven even more than we have, rather than seek praise for our deeds by expecting a reward for what we have done – we should be rejoicing that we have not been treated fairly, that we have not been truly rewarded according to our deeds, that we have not been given the really fair and just wage for our sinful nature – but rather, we are given a free gift, a “righteous” wage, a compensation based on mercy and charity rather than what we deserve.

For we all know what we deserve. And we all know what we have been given.

The Lord’s story is only a story. Instead of a denarius, a day’s wage, we have been given the gift of redemption, of forgiveness, of salvation, of eternal life. We have been paid handsomely with the promise of life in paradise, with a recreated universe, with never being separated from the love of God for eternity. And this wage has indeed been earned, not by us, but by our Savior Jesus Christ, “not with gold or silver,” as we learn from the Catechism, “but with His holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.” For the wages of sin is death, but the wages have already been paid out to the One and only One who did not earn it.

Thanks be to God that we are paid according to righteousness, the Lord’s righteousness, and not what we have deserved by our unrighteousness. Thanks be to God that in His kingdom, what is fair in the eyes of the world is not enforced against us, not even when we, in our sinful flesh, grumble and demand that God act in a way that seems fair to us.

For if we’re truly honest with ourselves, we are that last worker, who has idled all day long, who has squandered opportunities to work for the kingdom, who lounged around while others did the work, who is lazy and undeserving, who shirked while others slaved away – and yet, who is given the free gift of eternal life anyway.

That, dear friends, is what grace is all about. That is what we call the Gospel. That is the Christian life in a nutshell – the death we deserve was given to Jesus, and the life He has earned has been given to us.

This is what the Lord means when He says that in His kingdom, “the last will be first and the first last.” Thanks be to God.

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

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Story of a Statue

Our local free paper, Gambit Weekly, which surprisingly has some items of interest from time to time has one such article in the current issue.

It is a history of the statue of one of Louisiana's favorite sons, General P.G.T. Beauregard (1818-1893), who was for a time, the general of all the armed forces of the Confederate States of America. On the same day as the General's death on February 20, 1893, a group of 19 Confederate veterans raised $157.50 and started a memorial organization that would eventually result in the placement of a magnificent equestrian statue that would be placed at the Esplanade Avenue gate of City Park in New Orleans.

After many years of patient and determined fundraising, the statue was dedicated with great pomp and ceremony on November 12, 1915 in tandem with the annual convention of the Louisiana Division of the United Confederate Veterans (UCV). In addition to the UCV, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) were actively involved in the fundraising and in the ceremony itself.

Once again, you can read the article here.

It is a fascinating look into life a century ago, when the aging veterans of a war fought sixty years before were still honored, treated with dignity and respect, and people by the thousands donated money in order to place a monument in a public place without waiting for the government to do it.

The monument is still there, and is still magnificent. It memorializes not only a great man, but also the thousands of brave American soldiers who fought under his command, engaged in a truly defensive war - men who, long after their rifles were silenced, continued to honor their fallen comrades and storied commanders. But the memorial also honors the devoted men and women who would not let the sacrifices of their fathers and grandfathers be forgotten.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Old Friends, Circuit Court, and a Trash Triumph in the Quarter

I'm in the middle of a "work-cation" - having my classes covered while I use the time to work on a book that is overdue (sorry, Bror, it is not a translation from Swedish). But I did actually take part of the day off (for real) to spend some time with friends visiting New Orleans.

They are actually here on business.

My buddy Kirk is a civil rights attorney from North Carolina. His Texas client's case in on appeal, and the district court had ruled against him on a summary judgment. So, they appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court Federal Court of Appeals which sits in New Orleans, and Kirk had a few minutes to make arguments before a three judge panel. Another old friend of mine, Fred from Virginia (who was accompanied by his wife Adrienne), who just finished law school and is working on the Virginia Bar, was on hand to assist with the case, as was a new friend, Jeff, from Texas - a concert violist turned lawyer who is licensed to practice in both the U.S. and Scotland.

All interesting folks!

Anyway, I arrived this morning at the Federal Courthouse on Camp Street (having shrewdly left my Swiss Army knife at home, taking the risk that I would need a toothpick or corkscrew and be forced to do without). I met up with my attorney friends in a tiny little lobby adjacent to the courtroom.

On a desk was a computer. And the only thing on the computer's monitor was a huge number 1. Kirk's case was number 3. So, we waited. There is just something humorous about having a Dell computer with way more computing power than NASA had for the Apollo missions - sitting on the desk with the only job of flashing a single-digit number on the screen. Government at work.

At the appointed time, when the number three appeared, we headed across the hall to the courtroom itself. My friends took their place inside the "chancel" while I sat in one of the "pews" outside the gate (a strange role reversal indeed).

The arguments were interesting. One of the judges was an absolute riot. In fact, he said something so politically incorrect that I was actually shocked. And aside from the jolts of static electricity I always have when I open my car door, I don't get shocked. But I was this morning.

The hearing was over in about 40 minutes. Now they will deliberate for a few weeks before rendering a decision.

We met back at my friends' hotel - the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon Street (very nice!), we decided to hit the restaurant on the corner (which is actually part of the hotel itself), Desire, a beautiful old fashioned pub with the typical New Orleans fare - po boys, turtle soup, shrimp, crawfish etouffee, etc.

We headed back to the hotel for my friends to check out. All of a sudden, we heard brass music. This is hardly unusual in New Orleans - but the hotel lobby cleared out.

This was no ordinary parade! It was led by Sidney Torres (the owner of the local trash pickup company), along with the Rebirth Brass Band, and a small army of people with brooms and heavy street cleaning equipment. They were cheered like a conquering army. Mr. Torres was grinning ear to ear, and strutting along Bourbon Street.

For the past few days, the French Quarter had become a battleground between the lunatic mayor of New Orleans, C. Ray Nagin, and the exasperated and yet quixotic City Council - with the weapon of choice being garbage. With the threat of a return to the bad old days of a putrid French Quarter - just in time for Mardi Gras - Ray Nagin decided to play games with the city's budget in petty retaliation over one of his lackeys (who oversees waste collection) being raked over the coals by a reform-minded Council.

Needless to say, Quarter residents and businesses were furious. This stinky dust-up has been at the heart of all the trash-talk in the town for the past several days.

SDT Waste and Debris owner Sidney Torres (who enjoys true rock star status in New Orleans), stepped up to the plate, and offered to buy the quarter more time while the two sides sought compromise. Eventually, time ran out, and garbage began to pile up in the Quarter again like old times. The outcry was huge, and a settlement was reached - after a dramatic showdown at City Council.

And Torres wasted no time when the compromise was announced. Hence the parade.

I waved at Sidney across the street. He beamed. We traded thumbs-up gestures. The spontaneous crowds on the sidewalk were cheering the band, the street sweepers, and the heavy equipment. People were actually patting the people with the brooms on the back and thanking them while they swept debris as the brass band strutted alongside down Bourbon Street.

"Only in New Orleans," said the smiling doorman, nodding approval in his cape and 19th century hat.

The street spraying machines blasted the road with high-pressure suds and lemon-scented detergent. Torres was directing the machinery personally, pointing and gesturing as he continued greeting people and strutting to the music. The street was immaculate. After the sprayer went by, it literally smelled like lemons.

If you've been to Bourbon Street in years past (and were sober enough to remember), your head has just exploded. I said, "It smelled like lemons." Yes. That's what I said.

Sidney Torres crossed over to our side of the street. I shook his hand and said: "Thank you!" He smiled, and said, "Hey, thanks for noticing." I asked: "Could you run for mayor?" He laughed and nodded good naturedly - but he didn't say "no."

There is hope for New Orleans.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Sermon: Transfiguration

1 February 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 17:1-9 (Ex 34:29-35, 2 Pet 1:16-21)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Jesus is full of surprises.

As the time draws near for our Lord to go to the cross, He shares a secret with three of His apostles: Peter, James, and John. He takes them up on a “high mountain” and is “transfigured” – which means literally, a “metamorphosis”, a change in form.

For three years, everyone has seen Jesus in his human nature. Of course, they have witnessed miracles and seen Him using His divine nature – but on this day, the day the Christian Church commemorates as Transfiguration Sunday, Sts. Peter, James, and John actually see our Blessed Lord shining in the unhidden glory of His divine nature, which He typically veils from sight.

Jesus shares this little secret about Himself, not by telling them, but by showing them.

And if this weren’t enough of a surprise, Peter, James, and John get to see our Lord speaking with Moses and Elijah. The Law and the Prophets themselves testify to the divine nature of our Lord as “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.”

Peter is so shocked by the sight, he starts muttering something about building tents for everybody.

But the surprises don’t end here. For the final scene of this remarkable day, the thing that floored Peter, James, and John, knocking them to their faces in terror, wasn’t something they saw, but something they heard: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him.” They actually heard the voice of the Father, the Word of God. And what they heard was a reminder of our Lord’s baptism, in which the Father made the same pronouncement about the Son. And this time, the Father had something else to say, some advice. He told the apostles to “listen to” Jesus.

And as quickly as this horrific scene came upon them, it was over. “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’ And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no-one but Jesus only.”

No more would they hear the Father’s voice, for the Father told them to listen to Jesus. No more do they see the Law and the Prophets, for now they see “Jesus only.”

Moses, who appeared to the three apostles in this miracle, had previously had a kind of “transfiguration” himself. After speaking face to face with God, Moses’s face beamed with light, and the people “were afraid to come near him.” They begged him to cover his face with a veil. Eventually, Moses’s face stopped glowing, for the light from his face was only reflected light. It is as though Moses went forward into time and spoke face to face with God on the mountain of transfiguration, and then went back to his own time, with his face glowing from this remarkable conversation with God the Son, and it took time for his face to stop beaming with the light of Christ. For indeed, it was the Word of God that said: “Let there be light.” It was by the “Word made flesh” that “all things were made.”

And though the light that shone from the face of our Lord was not a mere reflection, but rather a manifestation of His divine glory, the Lord Jesus typically veils His glory, hiding under forms that our feeble brains can process, such as His form of a baby in a manger, or the form of a rabbi, the form of the Word of God proclaimed among the people of God, the form of words of forgiveness, of the Gospel preached, of simple bread and wine. And yet, beneath the veiled forms are the very power and radiant might of God Himself, whose words create, whose words forgive, whose words make new.

For listen again to what St. Peter, who was there, has to say about this transfiguration:

“We were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure,”

Listen to what St. Peter says next. He says that even more than the voice of God, even more than the witness of Moses and Elijah, even more than seeing the veil come off of Jesus’s divine nature, there is “something more sure”, that is, Holy Scripture. For the apostle continues: “the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.”

Remember the Word of the Father spoken to Sts. Peter, James, and John – all of whom would write books of Scripture? The Father told them to “listen” to the Word of the Son. There would be no more booming voices from heaven – but rather the Word Himself, the Word made flesh, the Son, whom in these last days, the Lord has spoken. And St. Peter tells us to “listen” to Scripture.

And notice where we are to look. No more should be be distracted by the Law and the Prophets apart from the One who fulfills the Law and the Prophets. For just as the Father bids the apostles to “listen” to the Son, the Lord Jesus lifts them off of their faces, tells them not to fear, and they see “Jesus only.”

Dear friends, St. Peter has given us a surprise as well. For he says that the Word of Scripture, given to us by “men [who] spoke from God” and were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” is “more sure” than even the extraordinary events he witnessed with James and John on the mountain of Transfiguration with his own eyes! He says we “will do well to pay attention” – for this Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is like a “lamp shining in a dark place,” and is capable of leading us from the darkness of sin and death to the light to forgiveness and life. For these Scriptures are not our personal interpretations, but rather prophetic words that speak of the Word made flesh, the One in whom the Lord is pleased.

When we hear the Scriptures, we hear the Son – just as the Father commands. And though we are unable to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, and though because of our sins we have every reason to fear and fall on our faces before God, our Lord Jesus Himself fulfills the Law and the Prophets on our behalf, touches us, absolves us of our sins, offers us Himself in the veiled forms of bread and wine as we kneel before Him, and when we have eaten His body and have drunk His blood, He bids us to “rise and have no fear.”

And like the apostles, dear friends, we need to be reminded of where we are to focus our eyes. Even as this world has many competing lights and all sorts of enticements and allurements, bidding us to “look here!” and “look there!”, let us follow the example of Sts. Peter, James, and John, and when it comes to our salvation, when it comes to hearing the Word of God, when it comes to the revelation of God Himself, let us look to no-one but “Jesus only.” Amen.

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