Saturday, October 19, 2013

Excuses, Excuses!

My last post "What's Your Excuse?" generated some comments that I have chosen not to publish.  Not because they express disagreement with me, but rather because they mischaracterize the argument and are attacking a straw man.  I'm also going to protect the identities of several people because it is the right thing to do.

Let me clarify a few things:

1) I am not equating eternal salvation with being physically fit.  In eternity, we will be bodily resurrected and our physical beings will be perfect.  Life in this fallen world is different.  We struggle with many things beyond our control - especially in matter of physical health.  Having said that, we also abuse our bodies by making poor choices.  Sins are indeed committed in our bodies.  All ten commandments are broken in "thought, word, and deed" - in our thoughts as well as in actions in our sinful flesh.  We do not own our own bodies; we are stewards of God's creation.  Some of those commenting seem to be under the impression that anything and everything we do with our bodies is okay.  I do not believe Scripture teaches this at all. Baptism forgives sin; it does not turn sin into a virtue, nor does it absolve us from the need to resist temptation.  Being baptized is not license for vice.  Being baptized calls us to take up our cross and to confess when we stumble into sin, as we all do.  The catholic faith is not "do what you want on Saturday night because you'll go to confession anyway on Sunday morning."

That being said, good health is not an indicator of salvation; bad health is not an indicator of damnation.  No-one should infer such a conclusion from what I have written.

In fact, some of the attitudes of the responses make the very point I was making about our oversensitive culture that lashes out at the messenger instead of taking a look in the mirror.

2) I am equating the reaction to Mrs. Kang to how preaching is often received in the current culture.  Mrs. Kang is not preaching.  She is not addressing the Gospel at all.  She is not broaching the topic of the Christian faith.  But she exists in the same culture that we 21st century American preachers live and work in.  There is a cultural parallel.  She wrote "A," but in their sensitivity and narcissism, her readers understood "B" and then attacked her for things she did not say.  What pastor hasn't had this happen to him?  Political correctness and emotional sensitivity have clouded the view of reality in our culture.

Mrs. Kang's clear message is "Look, I accomplished my goal; you can too."  But many readers misheard heard her say: "I'm better than you" - which is the unforgivable sin in our postmodern and egalitarian culture.  In the persona of the demon Screwtape, C.S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, argues that this is one of Satan's chief weapons: to draw people into that kind of defensive and reactionary "I'm as good as you" thinking.
The feeling I mean is of course that which prompts a man to say I’m as good as you. 
The first and most obvious advantage is that you thus induce him to enthrone at the centre of his life a good, solid, resounding lie. I don’t mean merely that his statement is false in fact, that he is no more equal to everyone he meets in kindness, honesty, and good sense than in height or waist measurement. I mean that he does not believe it himself. No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain. The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept. 
And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation. Presently he suspects every mere difference of being a claim to superiority. No one must be different from himself in voice, clothes, manners, recreations, choice of food: “Here is someone who speaks English rather more clearly and euphoniously than I — it must be a vile, upstage, la-di-da affectation. Here’s a fellow who says he doesn’t like hot dogs — thinks himself too good for them, no doubt. Here’s a man who hasn’t turned on the jukebox — he’s one of those goddamn highbrows and is doing it to show off. If they were honest-to-God all-right Joes they’d be like me. They’ve no business to be different. It’s undemocratic.”
One can only imagine how St. Paul was received when he wrote and preached, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Cor 11:1).  We have become such a sensitive culture that preachers are sometimes castigated - even to the point of removal - for "you" preaching instead of "we" preaching (meaning: "You need to repent" instead of "we need to repent").

It has always been hard for people to hear unpleasant truths.  Both Old and New Testaments testify to this ad nauseum.  But the people living in biblical times did not have social media and television to spur them on in their attitudes.  People did not have 'Christian' pastors and churches rewriting the Ten Commandments and promoting a "Gospel" of antinomianism.  They did not have bishops denying the resurrection and the virgin birth.  They did not have mainstreamed popular preachers - in some cases with a cultlike following or audiences in the millions - endorsing homosexuality as compatible with Scripture.

Our particular American culture is typified by Oprah Winfrey - emotional and postmodern.  This is why people look upon Maria Kang's challenge as the worst of all "sins" - insensitivity - instead of a call and invitation to do better.

I find calling people to repentance to be the most difficult pastoral obligation in our current culture.  Perhaps it has always been that way.  But it is hard to deny the emotional oversensitivity that typifies our culture, thus making it especially resistant to the Christian faith.

3) This is a blog post, not a sermon.  Again, it is an observation on the whiny culture we live in, and it is the culture into which we pastors are called to proclaim both Law and Gospel, while shortchanging neither - which is a challenge in a culture in which everybody gets a trophy, nobody loses, everybody goes to heaven, nobody is sinning, our job is to make people feel Easter Sunday good without introducing all that Good Friday talk of sin.

I am in no way telling people how to eat.  You are free to do as you wish.  If Mrs. Kang's reflections and story prompt you to reconsider your eating habits (as my trip to Russia did in 2011, when I was the "fat American" surrounded by fit Russians), then that should be a good thing.  And if you think she is wrong, well, maybe she is.  My point, once again, is not so much Maria Kang, but rather the fascinating way in which people responded to her - which I believe were so out of proportion and emotional and even manipulative as to indicate that we have become a thin-skinned culture of self-pity and bullying by playing the victim card.  This has implications to our preaching of both Law and Gospel.  It may tempt us to gut the former and preach only the latter.  But that is not what we are called to do.

One respondent to me took issue with this paragraph of mine:
"But the good news is this: God continues to call us to confess and repent, to be forgiven and live in the mercy He has given us by the work of His Son on the cross.  And we have the power to resolve to eat and live our lives more responsibly in accordance with the bodies we have been given by our Maker - which is a blessing not only to us in the form of better health, but also a temporal benefit to our families, congregations, and nation."
This person wrote in response:
There is no Good News in that paragraph. It is telling me that I am fat (which I am) and to get busy not being fat (which I do in fits and spurts).As for me, I eat or don't eat like I am baptized. Let's all be careful (yes, even me) that we don't preach virtue gospel or, far worse, despair gospel. Your paragraph is despair gospel. Christ died for my sin of eating and drinking too much. I struggle daily with it. Christ has overcome it. For the sake of my neighbor, I do try to do something about it, but have failed. Nevertheless, I am baptized. Amen.
However, the paragraph this person cited includes both the call to repent and being "forgiven," as well as the gift of the Lord's "mercy," the atoning work of the "Son," and the sacrificial "cross." That is the very beating heart of the Gospel! This blind-spot reveals the very issue I am raising, the issue that stunned Maria Kang.  To those whose hearts are hardened to any correction, they cannot even see the good news.  Sometimes people react so emotionally to the Law that they shut down, effectively blinding themselves to the Gospel.

Moreover, Holy Baptism is not a substitute for repentance; it is not an either/or proposition.

Baptism and repentance go hand in hand; they are both/and.  If eating and drinking too much is a sin (and in some cases it can be), Jesus died for that sin.  But he did not die so that you can willfully and defiantly continue in that (or any other sin).  We have been baptized to be forgiven - not as a free pass to act like swine - figuratively or literally.

Dr. Luther teaches us in our Small Catechism that baptism and good works are interconnected, that sanctification flows from justification:
[Baptism] indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.... St. Paul writes in Romans, chapter six: 'We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life' (Romans 6:4).
I recall an incident many years ago in which I saw a group of pastors (I will not say what church body or where this occurred) in a bar.  Being in a bar is not sinful.  They were drinking alcohol.  That is not sinful either.  One of the pastors (who had his clerical tab in his pocket) openly and publicly gave another pastor "the finger" and dropped an f-bomb.  Some would say this is not sinful.  For the sake of argument, let's assume that it is not sinful to behave this way in a crowded barroom.  Is this why we have been baptized?  Is this a good witness and confession of the faith?  Shortly thereafter, another pastor (a colleague of the bird-flipping cleric) was on hands and knees at the doorway of the bar puking his guts up.  "Praise God from whom all blessings flow!"  In later discussions about the incident, I was informed that any critique of this behavior was (of course...) a manifestation of "Pietism."  I was assured that this was all okay because of baptism.  In fact, I was the one who was sinning by being disturbed by the behavior.  I needed to repent because I wasn't "gospelly" enough or some such.  I may have even been accused of "worshiping a different Christ" at that time, though it might have been a later incident when that card was trotted out.

Interestingly, Dr. Luther makes a "different Christ" reference in his repudiation of the antinomianism he struggled with as a pastor and preacher in the post-Reformation 16th century, a perversion of the Gospel ideally positioned for a postmodern 21st century revival:
That is what my Antinomians, too, are doing today, who are preaching beautifully and (as I cannot but think) with real sincerity about Christ’s grace, about the forgiveness of sin and whatever else can be said about the doctrine of redemption. But they flee as if it were the very devil the consequence that they should tell the people about the third article, of sanctification, that is, of new life in Christ. They think one should not frighten or trouble the people, but rather always preach comfortingly about grace and the forgiveness of sins in Christ, and under no circumstance use these or similar words, “Listen! You want to be a Christian and at the same time remain an adulterer, a whoremonger, a drunken swine, arrogant, covetous, a usurer, envious, vindictive, malicious, etc.!” Instead they say, “Listen! Though you are an adulterer, a whoremonger, a miser, or other kind of sinner, if you but believe, you are saved, and you need not fear the law. Christ has fulfilled it all! . . . They may be fine Easter preachers, but they are very poor Pentecost preachers, for they do not preach… “about the sanctification by the Holy Spirit,” but solely about the redemption of Jesus Christ, although Christ (whom they extol so highly, and rightly so) is Christ, that is, He has purchased redemption from sin and death so that the Holy Spirit might transform us out of the old Adam into new men . . . Christ did not earn only gratia, grace, for us, but also donum, “the gift of the Holy Spirit,” so that we might have not only forgiveness of, but also cessation of, sin. Now he who does not abstain from sin, but persists in his evil life, must have a different Christ, that of the Antinomians; the real Christ is not there, even if all the angels would cry, “Christ! Christ!” He must be damned with this, his new Christ (On the Council and the Church, AE 41:113-114).
Is this how our catechism characterizes Holy Baptism?  As license to raise the middle finger in public and vomit in a drunken stupor while wearing clerical garb?  Is this really what Luther and St. Paul are talking about?

Do we really need to argue about the propriety of such things?  Isn't it possible to agree that this is behavior that is indeed forgiven by our Lord's blood and by baptismal water, but at the same time, we are called to repent of our sins and to "walk in newness of life"?  Are pastors not held to a higher standard of conduct as well?

Whether we are preachers or hearers, we are Evangelicals, people of the Gospel, of Ephesians 2:8-9:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
That is the Good News.  But lest we stop there, fellow Lutherans, let's not forget that St. Paul immediately follows with verse 10:
"For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."
Indeed, all throughout his epistles, the blessed apostle engages in "exhortation" - which is the pastoral equivalent to Maria Kang putting you in front of a mirror (the Ten Commandments) and challenging you to live out this baptismal "newness of life."

So, whether the messenger is Maria Kang challenging us to do better physically and to quit making excuses, or it is your pastor exhorting you (now that you have been forgiven as a baptized and justified child of God) to live a life of repentance, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, don't shoot the messenger.

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