Monday, October 25, 2010

A Tale of Two Men

22nd Sunday after Pentecost – October 24th, 2010
Redeemer Lutheran, HB

In the Name of Jesus + Amen.
2 men go up to the temple. But only one goes home justified. One has all the religion; he's the spiritual super hero. The one everyone wants to be - helping old Galilean women with their groceries, the picture of perfect piety.
And then there's the tax collector; less like the IRS and more like a creeper drug dealer preying on the innocent; a traitor to everyone he knows; a man who sold his soul, pride and wallet to Caesar just to make a buck at the expense of fellow Jews.
As Jesus everyone expects The Pharisee to be the one Jesus praises, but the shocking part is, the tax collector, the scum of the earth…the sinner – he goes home justified, saved, rescued by God.
The key to understanding Jesus' teaching is to understand why he tells this parable, to understand that Jesus is teaching and preaching against all who would try to justify themselves before God, but cannot because of their sin…as Luke 18 says, "to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteousness and treated others with contempt."
With one little word, Jesus teaches cuts to the heart of Christianity: How are we justified? Justified, this - declared righteous, saved, rescued, forgiven by God - word. So much depends on that little word, justified; it really is the difference between heaven and hell. Justified is how we, who were enemies of God, unholy and unrighteous sinners by nature, can stand before a holy, righteous God without our smithereens being blown to smithereens.
Who goes home justified, the Pharisee basking in the glory of do-it-your-self-religion?
Or, the tax collector who despairs of himself and believes in Him who justified the ungodly (Romans 4:5)? 2 men. 2 prayers. 1 answer: Jesus is on the death road to Jerusalem where everything foretold of Him in the prophets will be accomplished; He will be betrayed, mocked, shamed, spat upon, flogged and killed and on the third day He will rise from the dead – this is how you are justified.
The way you pray says volumes about what you believe. Listen to the two prayers. Count the pronouns.
How do I love me? Let me count the ways. God, I thank you that I am not like these other men: money-grubbing extortioners, unrighteous, sexual immoral or even like this tax collector. I praise you that I am good and holy. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all I possess. I lift up my eyes to the heavens and I thank you… for me.
This Pharisee appears very righteous. Don't try to be more righteous than Jesus. You simply can't get any more righteous than you are when you are clothed with Christ's righteousness, declared forgiven by His cross, justified by His sacrifice for you.
Aren't you glad you don't have theology like that? Thank God, we're not like those Pharisees.
Lord, be merciful to me a preacher…..a hearer. It's far too easy to hate the Pharisee – a man for whom Christ also died. What really angers us about the Pharisee isn't that he is so different from us – but that we're more like him than we care to admit. That's the painful irony in accusing someone of being, "Holier than thou." You can't make that accusation without being guilty of it, but then of course, we would never say anything like that. In condemning him, we become the Pharisees' Pharisee. It takes one to know one.

Jesus' parable reveals our hypocrisy. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the greatest sinner of all? Me. Apart from Christ we're Blind. Paralyzed. Dead. Sin isn't just something you possess, but rather, something that possesses you – like a man who falls off a ladder, breaks his neck and says, "I feel fine" – we don't really know how bad the injury is. We need a proper diagnosis of our condition. For a person's greatest need is one he does not by nature feel, namely the need for the righteousness that comes from God through faith in Jesus Christ. God's Law gives the diagnosis. Jesus humbles those who exalt themselves.

And yet he exalts those we who are humbled. He bears the punishment we - Blind. Paralyzed. Dead. – deserved. Lord, be merciful to me, the sinner. This is the tax-collector's prayer. It also our prayer. I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength - or prayers, or wrestlings, or tithes or righteousness - believe in Jesus Christ my Lord…
Can a blind man restore his own sight? Can a paralytic make himself walk? Can a dead man raise himself out of his grave? No, but Christ can. Christ has. Christ does, for you. To heal the blind the Father closed His eyes while His Son suffered. For paralyzed sinners, Christ walked the bloody road to Jerusalem where his weary legs were nailed to a tree for you to walk in newness of life. To raise the dead in sin Jesus died our death and was laid to rest in our tomb. Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner, the Pharisee, the Tax collector. And he does. His Gospel is the medicine of life. Christ humbles Himself to death so that you might be exalted in His life. He kills and makes alive. In His death you die and dying, you live.

It all seems rather absurd, but infinitely glorious and joyous. This is the blessed irony of Christianity. Those who are free from sin, those who are Baptized and are children of the Heavenly Father – such as you and the believing tax collector – feel your sin. We are free from sin in Christ and yet sin hurts. It causes great shame and vice. We struggle; we do not do the good we want to do.

But those who are in sin – who embrace it and seek to justify themselves – they are satisfied and comfortable. That is how God's Kingdom works; it is full of irony and reversal: God becomes man to save man from the rejection of God. Life became death and Jesus' death gives life. He who knew no sin became sin for us. An execution tool made of dead wood becomes the Tree of Life. The Good Shepherd dies for His sheep. Blood atonement is made for people who can't repay Him. Jesus dies for the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, even for you.
He loves. He gives. Christ goes to the cross to shed His atoning, justifying, innocent declaring, righteous covering, raising from the dead, blood – to sacrifice Himself in mercy for you. In Christ the guilty are set free. Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad sinners are let off the hook.
Christianity is all about receiving. Worship is what you receive. Jesus is what you receive. Baptism – you receive Jesus. His Word – you receive Jesus. The Lord's Supper – you receive Jesus.
Just like those little children in Luke 18; just like these little children here. They are the children you must become. Even here there is irony…for we have as much to say about being a child of God as we did a child of our parents. The disciples rebuke Jesus. We're always trying to justify ourselves. But our good works will not help us stand in righteousness before God – that's about as effective as a baby before its mother, working its own righteousness into a diaper.

It's not about you; it's about Jesus for you. "Let the children come to me and do not hinder them for to such belongs the kingdom of God." Receive the kingdom of heaven like a child. Receive…Receive…Receive God's great reversal: the blind see, the paralyzed walk, the dead rise. The sinner becomes a saint and you are His children of the Heavenly Father – by grace, through faith in Christ. That's Christianity wrapped up into two simple words: FOR YOU. Christ lives perfectly, for you. Christ prays, for you. Christ teaches, for you. Christ goes to Jerusalem, for you. Christ dies, for you. Christ rises, for you. God's Kingdom for you. God's Mercy for you. Jesus, for you. And you go home justified.
In the Name of Jesus + Amen.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Buried Life

WARNING!!!  This post contains extremely violent language that your old sinful nature will find offensive - even down right homicidal - and one quotation that employs a slang term for a female dog (sorry kids).

And now for something completely different.  The Buried Life.  Maybe you've seen it on we-don't-really-play-music, Music Television (MTV).  Now in its second season, the boys of the Buried Life travel around the country in Penelope (their big purple bus) with the slogan: 1 Question. 4 Boys. 100 Things to do before you die.  They've done everything from #18 - telling a joke on late night television to #59 asking out the girl of your dream (part 1 and 2), living up to those famous words from Dead Poet's Society, Carpe Diem; you know, live like you were dying (and no, I am not a country fan).  So, if they show up in your town you know what they'll ask you: "What do you want to do before you die."  This is what the boys have come to call the buried life.

Sure, it's a quasi-profound question dealing with priorities, interests and existential needs.  But that's not really the question that comes to mind when I watch the show.  No, I'm not thinking of the infamous Evangelism Explosion question: "What would happen to you if you died tonight; where would you go?"

The more I thought about the title of the show the more I couldn't help but think about Baptism: The real Buried Life.  So, perhaps a better question to ask is: "Until you are buried, what can you do before you die?"

We all know water gives life.  Over 75% of the earth's surface is covered in water.  The human body requires vast amounts of water to survive and function properly.  In many ways water gives life.  So, got water?  But water also causes death and destruction - Indonesia, Mississippi River, Katrina.  Water is death.  Just ask Pharaoh and Noah's neighbors.  Water destroys and yet water saves - just ask Jonah.  It's true in daily life just as it's true in Scripture.  Check out Luther's Flood Prayer if you still aren't convinced.  Baptism is a burial.  It is the watery grave of your old sinful nature.  For we pray, that through this saving flood all sin in him, which has been inherited from Adam and which he himself has committed since, would be drowned and die.  This is life by drowning.  This is the buried life.  Dying and rising.  And dying, we live.  For it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

"Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?  For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection" (Romans 6).

Baptism takes our old sinful nature (the Old Adam, the sinful flesh) which, according to Scripture is fallen (Romans 3:23), unrighteous and unholy before God (Romans 3:11ff) dead (Ephesians 2) and constantly seeking to justify ourselves before God (Luke 18:9-14) and drowns it.  Glub. Glub. Glub. Our old nature must die.  And even though your old Adam tries to be a regular old Michael Phelps, Baptism is always present tense - I am Baptized.  And the gold-medal winning sinner in each of us is drown through daily divine water-boarding: preaching of the Law, working contrition and repentance.  Yes, Baptism is instantaneous and daily death and it is instantaneous and eternal victory for us in Christ.  And every good battle deserves a victory song, for I will sing unto the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously, the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea (Exodus 15).

Sin, disturb my soul no longer:
I am baptized into Christ!
I have comfort even stronger:
Jesus' cleansing sacrifice.
Should a guilty conscience seize me
Since my Baptism did release me
In a dear forgiving flood,
Sprinkling me with Jesus' blood?

Satan, hear this proclamation:
I am baptized into Christ!
Drop your ugly accusation,
I am not so soon enticed.
Now that to the font I've traveled,
All your might has come unraveled,
And, against your tyranny,
God, my Lord, unites with me!  (LSB 594)

Baptism also gives life.  The early church catechumens descended into the font, into death, but walked out of the font in newness of life, the new creation of Eden, covered in the righteous robe of Christ and anointed, holy.  Out of the waters of Baptism a new man daily comes forth and arises, who lives before God in righteousness and purity forever.  Baptism is your, "Today you will be with Me in paradise."  "For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory" (Colossians 3:3-4).  This is life as we know it, in Christ.

There is nothing worth comparing
To this lifelong comfort sure!
Open-eyed my grave is staring:
Even there I'll sleep secure.
Though my flesh awaits its raising,
Still my soul continues praising:
I am baptized into Christ;
I'm a child of paradise!  (LSB 594)

What else is there to say but Amen, drown me, Lord Jesus!?  That's something even the misfits of the folksy, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, can understand as Delmar rejoices in the gifts of Baptism:

(Here it comes, kids cover your ears!)

Pete: Well I'll be a sonofabitch. Delmar's been saved.
Delmar O'Donnell: Well that's it, boys. I've been redeemed. The preacher's done warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It's the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting's my reward.
Ulysses Everett McGill: Delmar, what are you talking about? We've got bigger fish to fry.
Delmar O'Donnell: The preacher says all my sins is warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.
Ulysses Everett McGill: I thought you said you was innocent of those charges?
Delmar O'Donnell: Well I was lyin'. And the preacher says that that sin's been warshed away too. Neither God nor man's got nothin' on me now. C'mon in boys, the water is fine.

Indeed, the water is fine.  Welcome to Paradise where all is well in the Buried Life.  What else could you possibly need before you die?  You are free to live and splash in the waters of the Buried Life.  So, what do you want to do, now that you have died?

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Longer the String...The Lower the Pitch

Seriously, there are 2-5 year old children at Redeemer Lutheran Preschool who say this kind of thing on a regular basis - driving their teachers crazy, mystifying their parents , and teaching their friends on the playground, not to mention putting most adults to shame for saying absurd things such as,  "kids are too young to learn music and old hymns from your grandpa's church."  Redeemer Preschoolers also happen to say things like: "No daddy, this is my number 5 finger;" they  know I am Jesus' Little Lamb by heart and their older siblings, ages 5-8, are learning Built on the Rock for hand-bells (who said we can't teach hymns to children?).  Why?  Well, I'll get back to that in a minute.  It's cliche but true, kids say the darnedest things.  They also say the things we teach them.  We are always teaching our children something; the question is what are we teaching them?  This is just as true at church as it is at home.  For now, let's stick with the former.  For at church, we are always confessing something; the question is, what does our doctrine and practice confess?  Consider the following ways we teach our children:

Example #1:The hymn of the day ends and a saccharine sounding announcement, somewhere along these lines, springs forth, "Hello children; come follow Ms. Had-Too-Much-Coffee-This-Morning to kids' church while your parents listen to the sermon."  This way the parents are fed with the sermon while their children are fed with veggie-tales, Davey and Goliath or some other modern equivalent.  But just for the sake of argument, let's assume that this children's church actually does teach something other than moralism clothed in animation and a few words of Scripture taken entirely out of context.  We have still taught our children - and in this case I would argue - poorly.  And maybe poorly isn't a strong enough word.  Jesus said it would be better to use a millstone if anyone leads His little ones astray.  You see, kids are smarter than we give them credit.  They see right through this charade.  That's why children's church is rarely structured (in style and substance) and almost always a 15-20 minute zoo; to say it's like herding cats is offensive to cats, in particular and herding in general.  But I digress; we have taught them first of all, that the sermon (and by extension the entire Divine Service) really isn't for them at all.  We've taught them nothing about the place of God's Word in the Divine Service - even if they can't understand every word of the sermon - they are still learning.  Instead, we've taught them that the sermon isn't for them; it's for the adults.  We've taught taken them out of the Divine Service instead of drawing them into it.  We've given them a confession to grow out of instead of into as they mature in the faith.  We've trained them up in the way they should go.  Why not leave them in the pews.  If they need to eat some cheerios and color on the children's bulletin (kudos to CPH's recent efforts at this btw) that's fine.  Children learn by doing and being and seeing the activities in their environment, not by being taken out the very Divine Service we want them to remain in their entire life.  We do this in every other aspect of life (crossing the street, riding a bike, walking, talking, the way husband and wife relate, etc. etc. etc.), so why should it be any different at church?  Parents, raise your children up in the way they should go.  When you fold your hands, show them how to fold their hands.  When you make the sign of the cross, show them how and tell them why Christians make the sign of the cross.  When you sing, show them where you are singing in the hymnal.  When you kneel at confession and the Lord's Supper, show them kneel how to with you and so on throughout the service.  But if we take our children out of the service how will they learn and hear?  There's a lot to be said for routine; through the liturgy, the minds and faith of children are being shaped as they are prepared for the future.  This is all part of the parent's vocation in the pew.

Example #2: The so-called, "Youth Service."  I'll try to keep this brief.  The same points made above are applicable here as well.  Part of the logic behind the "youth service" comes from statements like these: "we have to make the liturgy more relevant to attract our youth; we need to involve our youth more in the service so that they'll stick around after they graduate high school; pastor, you just don't understand, when I was in youth we had these great services where the youth did everything and they were just so meaningful, etc."  All of these statements fail the logical smell test.  Not to mention, whenever we exchange the Historic Liturgy (form and content) for relevance, we lose both, not to mention the youth.  Because we've taught them once again that there's something about the regular Sunday Service that isn't for them and somehow doesn't cater to their "needs."  We've also set them apart as a congregation within a congregation, setting them up for future disappointment when the church doesn't catch up with the latest trend.  Rather than diluting the liturgy to a childlike level that renders it obsolete (or involving youth where they have not been given the vocation to serve) the church ought to support efforts that incorporate youth into the life of the church, drawing them into the Divine Service rather than shaping it around them and the culture.  A particular shining light in the Lutheran Church is the Higher Things youth organization, that aims to do the very thing our youth desperately need with their emphasis on the three W's: Worship - Liturgical and faithful, Word -studied an applied to their life with the Scriptures and the Catechism and of course real Fun.  Here's the link  You won't be disappointed.

Example #3: And now for something completely different: a positive example.  Another shining beacon in the church, the soon to be Redeemer Lutheran Music Academy.  Currently it is a private business by one of our members, who we'll call Ms. Dingaling (trust me, that's not a pejorative; it's quite appropriate since she teaches music to our little ones here at RLC).  Ms. Dingaling teaches hand-bells, music theory, rhythm, piano, flute-o-phone, recorder, violin - and any other instrument she can get her hands on - to children ages 2 and up.  Yes, you read that right; 2 year olds are learning music theory, sight reading, counting, finger position and notation.  And she's doing it all using the Lutheran Service Book (and some theory books of course too).  Any given given day, the sounds of children singing, Children of the Heavenly Father and I am Jesus' Little Lamb, fill the make-shift classroom in the fellowship hall.  These children don't know that adults think the hymns they are learning are "too hard" for them.  And frankly, they don't care.  One parent recently complained (jokingly of course) that their little girl would not stop singing these hymns over and over and over.  I simply smiled.  They sing because they are taught.  They sing because they know that Jesus died on the cross for them.  They sing because they have faith.  That's what faith does; it sings...out of the mouth of babes!  Faith cannot help but sing God's praises.  The joy of the Music Academy is the joy of the Gospel and the joy of the Gospel, Christ Crucified for you, is the very heart of the Liturgy, where this Crucified and Risen Christ is present for us and comes to us, not just in His body and blood, but in hymn and chant and high thanksgiving, in water and Word and absolution, from invocation to benediction.  It's remarkable, our hymnal stock is sold out.  They're being sent home preschool families (most of whom are not members and many of whom are not Christian).  Luther was right.  Music really is the handmaiden of the Gospel.  Let's teach our children accordingly.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Great Pumpkin & Other Silly Arguments against Christianity

Every year when All Hallows Eve comes around I look forward to It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown. Clever wit. Humor and fun-loving characters. Nostalgia. Charlie Brown has it all. But it's not all tricks and treats when it comes to this cartoon classic.
The Great Pumpkin also happens to be a great illustration for evaluating and making truth claims, something all world religions, and even atheists, make on a regular basis. The Great Pumpkin has been used by some as an argument against Christianity. This is what I call a "charact-ature" of Christianity, where a character is used or contrived in order to paint a caricature of Christianity. Here are just a few of these "charact-atures": Antony Flew's parable of the "Gardener," the various manifestations of Grilled Cheesus and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Poor Linus; he anxiously waits, hoping to finally see the Great Pumpkin rising out of the pumpkin patch, bearing gifts of candy and toys for all the children. How does Linus approach the truthfulness of the Great Pumpkin? How does he know the Great Pumpkin actually exists? On what basis does Linus determine the truthfulness of his claim that the Great Pumpkin will come to the pumpkin patch he sits in? Listen to his explanation:

"Each year, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere. He's gotta pick this one. He's got to. I don't see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there's not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see."

Unfortunately for Linus, sincerity of faith does not determine truth, religious or otherwise. One can be very sincere about many things but that does not in and of itself mean that it is true. What is of the utmost importance is the object of one's faith. I may zealously believe that one of the Redeemer's Preschoolers could drive me safely from Huntington Beach to the Grand Canyon. But, my faith would be terribly misplaced. Or, on the other hand, I may have serious doubts that Martin Luther really did write the Ninety-Five Theses and start the Lutheran Reformation. In either case, however, neither my faith nor my doubts change the underlying facts.

Religious truth claims are a dime a dozen. And you can find as many methods for determining the answer to "what is true?" as you can find people making truth claims. Here are a few popular ways of arguing for the truthfulness of a statement:
  • Common sense and intuition. Common sense isn't really that common. Not to mention people who believe incompatible things all claim to have common sense on their side. And if intuition were a suitable source of truth, then this article wouldn't need to be written because we would all have the same religious convictions.
  • Authority. Be careful. Just because you make a claim to an authoritative source doesn't mean it's true. Many people use this argument to their detriment: "fill-in-the-blank holy book is the Word of God because it says it's the Word of God;" that's circular reasoning. Another example: try citing Wikipedia in your scholarly journal paper. The trustworthiness of the source of authority needs must be evaluated.
  • Religious experience. This usually involves some kind of subjective experiential or testimony-drive claim to truth. Experience and sincerity are kissing cousins; they both require no objective means of investigation or evaluation. There's no way to tell if you had a vision of the Holy Spirit or just bad sushi at lunch. Another example: "Go ahead. Try the kool-aid; you'll have a religious experience."
So, how does one evaluate truth? How do you know what you know? The highfalutin word for this is epistemology; and now you can impress all your friends. When it comes down to it, there are three main categories of truth claims: analytic, synthetics and nonsensical/meaningless.
  1. Analytic truth claims. These truth claims are true by definition, like a math equation, 2+2=4. Or, "all unmarried men are bachelors." There really isn't any need to test the truth claim. Why? They are by definition true, 100% certainty. Religious claims do not fall into this category of truth claims.
  2. Synthetic truth claims. Here, claims are considered to be true of false after the facts have been examined, the evidence weighed and the case deemed probable or improbable. This is how you do simple things like, cross the street and more complex things such in the fields of science, history and law. For example: Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7th, 1941; The tallest man in the world is 9 foot 11 inches. There is one religious truth claim in this category. Care to guess?
  3. Nonsensical/meaningless truth claims. This does not mean, "It has no meaning to me." Rather, it lacks content or substance. These claims to truth are neither true nor false. There is no way of proving or disproving them. For example: all evil and illness are an illusion; Santa Claus (sorry, kids); the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Great Pumpkin (sorry, Linus), and phrases like: "it's Tuesday so it must be Belgium." This is where atheists want to place all religious truth claims. Are they right? Well, yes and no. Every religion, save one, falls into this category.
And yet there are many Christians who fall prey to this same type of logic. Christians need answer one basic question: what would make you stop believing in your religion? And then, ask people of other religions the same question. How would you answer? "Nothing. I'll have faith no matter what they say." Really? Even if you are well intended, you've just placed Christianity in the one category it doesn't belong, the meaningless, nonsensical category of truth claims. This is where atheists bring up the worn out parable of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. "There's an invisible flying spaghetti monster on the other side of this wall and he really wants you to believe in him or else he's going to throw beef meatballs at you. You see, it's nonsense. Therefore, you shouldn't believe in a god much less be a Christian."

The basic problem with this parable is that it fails to take the Christian truth claim seriously. Christianity is unique. It is a synthetic truth claim (point #2 above) because it hinges on one event that occurred in history, in reality, approximately 2000 years ago. And that means it can be investigated. This is what St. Paul is does in 1 Corinthians 15; the Christian faith stands or falls on the Jesus' death and resurrection from the grave. This is what separates Christianity from the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Grilled Cheesus or the Great Pumpkin, or Islam or Mormon Jesus or Brahman. Christianity centers around the fact that God entered time and space; He became tangible. God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus (John 1). "That which was from the beginning, which we have HEARD, which we have SEEN with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have TOUCHED—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life" – 1 John 1:1. This is the Christian truth claim. Your Christian faith does not rest on meaningless claims, silly cartoons, or even emotional feelings, as good as they can be; it's founded on the fact of Jesus' substitutionary death for you on the cross and His glorious resurrection from the dead. So, have a blessed All Hallows Eve and Reformation Sunday. No tricks or treats here, just the facts, ma'am or sir.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Bilbo's Nunc Dimittis

"Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him" (Luke 2:25).

Consolation.  Tolkien writes of consolation in his epic work, On Fairy Stories.  "But the “consolation” of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy story.  Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function." (Tolkien, On Fairy Stories).

Failure to understand this work of Tolkien results in failure to understand the majority, if not the corpus, of his life's work.  Recovery, Escape and Consolation.  It is consolation that unites the Song of Simeon - the Nunc Dimittis for all you Latin and/or liturgical experts out there - and Bilbo's Last SongBilbo's Last Song has been called the epilogue to the great Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Perhaps that is a fitting description.  However, Bilbo's song is much more than an epilogue haphazardly tacked on in a posthumously published book.  It summarizes the sum and substance of the hope of middle-earth, namely, the Undying Lands and the journey that leads one there.  Therein lies the correlation between the Song of Simeon and Bilbo's song: hope, consolation.  In this harmony of song, however, one must distinguish tale from history, story from reality, fantasy from non-fiction.  To accomplish such is to read Tolkien's work as he intended.  That is to say, to read the fairy story knowing that it is based in the world of "primary art" (the real world) as he says in Fairy Stories.  And yet, there are not only literary, but theological crossroads between these two songs.  Perhaps Tolkien had the Nunc Dimittis in mind when he wrote this, perhaps not.  Either way, the former helps you understand the latter.  

It had been revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Lord's Christ, the Messiah, the Promised One.  And when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple on the 8th day (no coincidence by the way), Simeon took the Christ child in his arms and sang a song of faith.  A song that we too sing as we hold Christ in our own hands, as He comes to us in His own flesh and blood of the supper.  For Simeon, it is safe to die.  Here is consolation incarnate.  Here is Jesus in the flesh and blood of His own humanity. for you.  Now, we - like Simeon of old - may depart in peace according to His Word as we await the consolation of the Last Day and the hope of the new creation, God's truly Undying Lands.  Which is why we join Simeon in this song of faith.

"Lord now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my own eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of Your people Israel" (Luke 2:29-32).

In Bilbo's song, he sings a sorrowful farewell to middle-earth and yet a joyful anticipation of reaching the shores of the West.  This is where the elves are headed in LOTR and in the Return of the King this is where the book draws to an end, as Bilbo boards the ship.  Bilbo is departing in peace; his eyes will soon see the salvation of the Undying Lands.  There is nothing left for him but to die in peace and yet he dies to live for the road goes ever on.  Here is Bilbo's Last Song:

Day is ended,
dim my eyes,
but journey long
before me lies.
Farewell, friends!
I hear the call.
The ship beside
the stony wall.
Foam is white
and waves are grey;
beyond the sunset
leads my way.
Foam is salt,
the wind is free;
I hear the rising of the sea.
Farewell, friends!
The sails are set,
the wind is east,
the moorings fret.
Shadows long
before me lie
beneath the
ever-bending sky.
But islands lie
behind the Sun
that I shall raise
ere all is done;
Lands there are to west of West,
where night is quiet and sleep is rest.
Guided by the Lonely Star,
beyond the utmost harbour-bar.
I'll find the havens fare and free,
and beaches of
the Starlit Sea.
Ship, my ship!
I seek the West
and fields
and mountains
ever blest.
Farewell to Middle-earth at last,
I see the Star
above your mast!

(J.R.R. Tolkien, Bilbo's Last Song, London: Hutchison Book, 1990)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Cheesus Freak

Got religion?  Glee does.  Fox's tweeny-bop, High School Musical wannabe, pop-sensation churned out tonight's greatly hyped, "Grilled Cheesus," episode.  But maybe just for tonight we should we call it Glee-sus.  Cheesy?  Definitely, but not as Gouda (pun intended) as tonight's episode. 

Hold on, wait a minute.  You watch Glee?  Yea, I know.  It doesn't look good; a hockey-loving, sports enthusiast, dude who watches Glee?  At the risk of losing serious street cred, I must admit...I watched Glee.  Call it a guilty pleasure; call it mindless entertainment.  I call it writing inspiration for a blog post.  And if that makes me a gleek, then I can take the Limburger.  But seriously, I watch this kind of stuff because my youth group is watching it.  And if they are watching, it's good to be informed and well-versed in order to communicate the Gospel to young these young Christians who dare to be Lutheran in a rather bazaar culture, that frankly, needs to be addressed with the baptized, catechized, confessional Lutheran mind.  So, be in the cheese, but not of the cheese.

With that little disclaimer out of the way, we now return to our regular scheduled blog post.  There it was prime time: "Spirituality" - whatever that means - was spread (ok, that's the last one...maybe) all over the episode.  Strange religious figures lying in a pond of a Velveeta covered, slightly burned sour dough Grilled cheese sandwich (or Grilled Toasties for all you Hoosiers!) is no basis for a system of religious belief.  Thankfully the veracity of the Christian faith rests on more than the existential culinary experiences of a hormonally, scatterbrained teenager.  But that's exactly where the episode begins.  Finn (yea, I'm that nerdy that I know the names) discovers "Jesus" in his grilled cheese sandwich.  It's "Grilled Cheesus;" it's a Genie in a bottle; it's a super-divine means of granting my every wish from second base to instant popularity - no, sorry, Finn, it's just a grilled cheese sandwich and a gross one at that by the time you ate it at the end of the show (ew, seriously, who eats food after it's been in the boys locker room?).  Finn's religious experience opens of the fondue pot on all sorts of religious opinions, most of which are problematic:

Finn is enamored with his new found spirituality and  thinks that by praying to his provolone God that he can receive all kinds of favors.  Quinn relied on generic God to get through her really tough year, you know, what with being pregnant and all the boyfriend drama.  Puck is a rather apathetic, into religion because it's my heritage kind of Jewish connoisseur of all things Billy Joel (or any other artist who claims Jewish heritage).  Mercedes actually goes to some kind of Baptist, Gospel church.  To which he even invites Kurt - the one who hates religion because they are nothing bigoted homophobes and fairy-tale dreamers who worship a flying spaghetti monster.  Even the New Atheists have made their mark on pop-culture (more on the flying spaghetti monster another post).  Mercedes actually invites Kurt to church which is good, since his father just had a heart attack and all.  But she brings him to the one church where no one mentions the Name or sings anything about Jesus, the one guy who could actually bring some hope and comfort to a tragic situation.  Instead they sing that old Lutheran hymn, "Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water."  Thank you St. Simon and St. Garfunkel.  I'll leave all comments about trendy, pop-culture, wannabe-hip praise services aside.  Consider this a relevant fail.  Everyone seems to be getting their religion on in this episode, that is until Sue Sylvester comes in to play the separation of church and state card.  Which usually means: "don't force your religion on me but please step aside as I force my atheism on you."

The episode had all the usual arguments against Christianity - it's fantasy, it's just a coping mechanism; it's just your opinion - and so on.  Every caricature of Christianity was represented except the real thing.  They wheeled out all the usual arguments for being "spiritual," but the missing ingredient still comes down to the basic question: is it true?  Is Christianity true?  No wonder so many people in Christian churches really are losing their religion (also played during this episode).  When Christianity loses its factual, historical, verifiable footing you might as well worship Grilled Cheesus.  Ask the question this way - the way St. Paul does in 1 Corinthians 15...If Jesus did not rise from the dead what does that mean?  But you have to turn it around: if Jesus did rise from the dead, what would that mean?  It would mean it's true and that all experiences, no matter how spiritual, must be measured by the historical facts of the resurrection.  And that means that even when something tragic happens, like family members who have a heart attack, or a sister who suffers with down syndrome or you wind up pregnant at 16 or when life just plain sucks, you don't go running for the door and leave your Christian faith in the garbage can with yesterday's lunch.  No. Contrary to Sue's diatribe on her failed prayers.  Papa can hear you (yes, I had to quote Babs since that awful song made it into the show).  But He prefers to be petitioned like this: "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name..."  He's the One we really look to.  Thanks, Mercedes, but Whitney Houston's "I Look to You" just wasn't very comforting.  I don't blame Kurt for walking out on that number.  Who is "You?"  What if God was one of us?  That's right!  You all knew it was coming.  They even saved it for the last song of the show. 

So, I saved it for the closing lines of this post.  It was just too cliche not to sing it; too trite and oh so...wait for it...that's right, cheesy.  Thankfully we don't have to wonder, or depend on really, really, really bad songs from the 90's to know that God is with us.  Immanuel.  Jesus Christ the Word made tabernacles among us, flesh - for you, "who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men.  And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.  Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2).  And that, my friends (and fellow gleeks) makes all the difference.  God born in our human flesh.  God lived our life - perfectly for perfectly rotten sinners.  God breathed our poisoned sinful air.  God suffered for us.  God walked to Jerusalem carrying our iniquities, our burdens, our griefs and our sorrows - all our diseases.  God died on the cross so that He might call you His own.  God rose from the dead.  God baptizes you with water.  God feeds you the flesh and blood of Jesus in simple bread and wine.  God is present in Word and Sacrament for you.  For you.  That's the Gospel in a nut shell - Jesus for you.  Heaven on earth for you.  Life and salvation for you.  Death and resurrection for you.  “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends (John 15)."  Now there's a real reason for glee.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Doctrine is Life

19th Sunday after Pentecost – October 3rd, 2010
Text: Luke 17: 1-11; 2 Timothy 1:1-14

Grace Mercy and Peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ + Amen.

 You are what you eat. Our parents were right all along. Doritos cheeseburger chips and a cold crisp Coke may taste great, but it's no steady diet; just ask the guy who lived on McDonald's for a month. What goes into the mouth may not corrupt the heart, but it certainly may affect your health. What we eat matters. But I'm not here representing the Food Network to give you 10 tips for a better Christian diet. For man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Even at Church, you are what you eat.
    And if what goes into the mouth matters, what goes into our ears matters even more. For that which goes into the ears can corrupt our sinful heart. What you eat matters. Words matter. Teaching and preaching matters. The liturgy, words and music, all of it matters.

What kind of meal are you receiving when you attend this church – or any other church? If the sermon and the Divine service are meal – and they are; God is feeding you with His very own Son in flesh and blood, Jesus-for-you-presence in His Word and in His Sacrament – if this is the meal, what is your church serving up? Spiritual junk-food? Or a solid meal, heaping with generous portions of God's Word and the abundance of Christ Crucified for you from Invocation to Benediction? And if it's not a solid meal – what are you doing eating at that table?

    "Follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus," that's how St. Paul instructs young pastor Timothy. That's how he instructs us. So, you should expect nothing less from your pastors – or any other Christian who speaks the Word of God. Jesus takes His Word very seriously:
    "Temptations to sin are sure to come but woe to the one through whom they come!"
And now I must subject you to a brief Greek-geek moment. When you hear "temptations to sin" think of the word–scandal, offensive, stumbling block. Scandals of faith will surely come. They are as sure as the devil, the world and our old sinful flesh. Where there is faith, a scandal will seek to lead you astray. Where there's sheep there's a wolf trying to devour you. And that wolf loves to disguise himself as an angel of light – false teaching, false preaching, false faith, false hearing, false thinking, false religion. Scandals and offenses not only make sensational news stories they also fill the pews and pages and coffers of many a church.

"Woe through whom these scandals come…It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin." Woe to those who would mislead the little ones in faith. Woe to those purveyors of purpose-driven pragmatism; they exchange the good deposit of the Gospel with all its treasures for the fool's gold of self-help and pop-psychology. Woe to all goat-herders – they are not shepherds – who preach anything but Christ and Him Crucified for your sins. It would be better for them if a millstone were hung around their neck and thrown into the sea.
At ordination, pastors vow to conduct all their preaching and teaching in conformity with the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. At your confirmation, you confessed that you would suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from the confession of faith in the Lutheran Church. That's how serious Jesus is about doctrine – teaching, His Word, His gifts. That's how serious Jesus is about those of childlike faith who trust in Him.

"Watch yourselves"– Jesus says to the disciples. "Follow the pattern of sound words."

It's easy to preach the Gospel of prosperity. But not so attractive to preach about sin and death and a Crucified Jesus; why else do you think Paul was in prison? It's easy to lighten up the liturgy with feel-good music and language our culture finds palatable. But not so popular to attend Divine Service where we are not the center of everything we sing, confess and hear. It's easy to preach the Gospel – "Jesus died for your sins" – and then steal it away in the very next breath:"if you would just give him your heart and trust in him completely, he will forgive you."
This so-called Gospel is easy to preach, like sweet music to Old Adam's ears. But there's just one problem. It's not the Gospel. The Gospel is not pop-psychology Jesus, not Jesus your financial planner; not Jesus and Jiminy Cricket moralism; not Jesus and His list of rules for a better you. For whether its spiritual guide-Jesus, practical Jesus, or prosperity Jesus, you're really getting the same thing - the Jesus known by another name – Satan. False teaching is demonic.
It is a common saying in our time that urging doctrine only hinders and destroys the kingdom of God…people say things like: "instead of arguing about teaching you should be taking care of people's faith and leading them to Christ; we need a reformation of deeds, not creeds."
"As it would be folly to chide the farmer of the ground for his diligence in obtaining good seed, and to demand that he should be eager only to obtain good fruit, so it would be folly to chide those who take heed unto the doctrine above all things, and to demand of them that they should rather endeavor only to save souls. For as the farmer of the ground must be eager to obtain good seed if he wishes to reap good fruit, so must the Church care for sound doctrine above all things, if she wishes to save souls." (Walther, On Pure Doctrine for the Salvation of Souls).

And that's just the point. His Words matter. Not for the sake of our pride, but for the sake of the Gospel, for the salvation of many. His Doctrine is life. It is a heavenly seed of regeneration for everlasting life. True doctrine is the Word of God. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh; and by His Word He gives life. God's mission for the Church – to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all nations – depends on Jesus' doctrine. Mission without doctrine is blind and doctrine without mission is gibberish.
Shall we take away from the man who is dead in sin even a single means that God has given to resuscitate him from death? Shall we take away from the man who grieves at his sins even a single consolation that God has granted him for comfort? Shall we take away from the man who is ill the only medicine which will truly cure him?

"Lord to whom shall we go? You have the pattern of sound Words for eternal life." Lord, increase our faith. The righteous live by faith. Trust. Not perception, not feeling. Faith is as great as the Jesus it clings to.  And even faith the size of a mustard seed clings to Jesus, with all His devil crushing, Death destroying, graven opening, life-restoring crucified and risen power.
The very faith you need, Jesus gives. All rebuke, He bore in crimson stripes so that you would receive forgiveness, not once or twice, but 7 x 70. He must forgive you. Jesus can't help Himself. He who knew no offense of sin became the most despicable sinner. He redeems us from the curse by becoming the curse for us. For unworthy servants He took a servant's form and still bears it. Your humanity is exalted in His. Your life is exalted in His death. Your glory is found in His Crucifixion. Your life is buried and risen in Him: heaven, life and salvation, carved out for you in the flesh and blood of Jesus, your Savior. He wore the millstone so you don't have to.
But He doesn't stop there; He casts Himself into the depth of the sea to pull you out. He drowns Himself in your death so that He can drown you into His life by Water and Word. His Word keeps you; guards you, treasures you. His Word absolves you. His Word declares you righteous by faith in Christ. His Word fills your hungry sin-ridden bodies with good things. His Word puts the devil to flight and quenches your sin-parched lips with the cup of brimming, salvation dripping, life-restoring body-and-blood-given-and-shed-for-you, forgiveness. In Christ, you really are what you eat.

In the Name of Jesus + Amen.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Pearls of Wisdom

A few stanzas from an unknown poet of the middle ages, entitled Pearl, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien.  It's from a collection of lesser known works also translated by Tolkien(perhaps more known to those who ready Tolkien and English literature, than those who don't).  Pearl is a poem, in some stanzas a hymn really, of doctrinal theme on salvation by which the father is finally convinced that baptized infant, although dead, is very much alive in the Lamb's book of life.  As far as commentary, that will suffice.  Hereafter are a few select stanzas that capture the sublime consolation of the Gospel.  May those who have faced similar loss of infant young, from conception forward, be comforted by these words and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in our affliction (2 Corinthians 1:4-7).

Enow 'tis known that Man's high kind
At first for perfect bliss was bred.
Our eldest father that grace resigned
Through an apple upon which he fed.
We were all damned, for that food assigned
To die in grief, all joy to shed,
And after in flames of hell confined
To dwell for ever unrespited.
But soon a healing hither sped:
Rich blood ran on rough rood-bough,
And water fair.  In that hour of dread
The grace of God grew great enow.

Enow there went forth from that well
Water and blood from wounds so wide:
The blood redeemed us from pains of hell,
Of the second death the bond untied;
The water is baptism, truth to tell,
That spear so grimly ground let glide.
It washes away the trespass fell
By which Adam drowned us from Bliss divide
In blessed hour restored, I trow,
Save those that He hath drawn aside;
And the grace of God is great enow.
To righteous men - have you seen it there? -
In the Psalter David a verse applied:
"Do not, Lord, Thy servant to judgment bear;
For to Thee none living is justified."
So when to that Court you must repair
Where all our cases shall be tried,
If on right you stand, lest you trip beware,
Warned by these words that I espied.
But He on rood that bleeding died,
Whose hands the nails did harshly smite,
Grant you may pass, when you are tried,
By innocence and not by right.
The Pearl immaculate purchased dear
The jeweller gave all his goods to gain
Is like the realm of heaven's sphere:
So said the Lord of land and main;
For it is flawless, clean and clear,
Endlessly round, doth joy contain,
And is shared by all the righteous here.
Lo! amid my breast it doth remain;
There my Lord, the Lamb that was bleeding slain,
In token of peace it placed in state.
I bid you the wayward world disdain
And procure your pearl immaculate!
'My immaculate Lamb, my final end
Beloved, Who all can heal,' said she,
'Chose me as a spouse, did to bridal bend
That once would have seemed unmeet to be.
From your weeping world when I did wend
He called me to His felicity:
"Come hither to me, sweetest friend,
For no blot nor spot is found in thee!"
Power and beauty he gave to me;
In his blood he washed my weeds in state,
Crowned me clean in virginity,
And arrayed me in pearls immaculate.'
Of Jerusalem my tale doth tell,
If you will know what His nature be,
My Lamb, my Lord, my dear Jewel,
My Joy, my Bliss, my Truelove free.
Isaiah the prophet once said well
In pity for His humility:
"That glorious Guiltless they did fell
Without cause or charge of felony,
As sheep to the slaughter led was He,
And as lamb the shearer in hand doth hem
His mouth he closed without plaint or plea,
When the Jews Him judged in Jerusalem."

In Jerusalem was my Truelove slain,
On the rood by ruffians fierce was rent;
Willing to suffer all our pain
To Himself our sorrows sad He lent.
With cruel blows His face was flain
That was to behold so excellent:
He for sin to be set at naught did deign,
Who of sin Himself was innocent.
Beneath the scourge and thorns He bent,
And stretched on a cross's brutal stem
As meek as lamb made no lament,
And died for us in Jerusalem.

+ Amen +

Pearl, stanzas 54-55, 59, 62, 64, 67-68Translated by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Ballantine Books, 1975.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A Synod Named Sue

God bless Johnny Cash.  There's a lot to learn from the man in black.

And he said: "Son, this world is rough
And if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough
And I knew I wouldn't be there to help ya along.
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you'd have to get tough or die
And it's the name that helped to make you strong."

That's right.  We (the Church, especially the LC-MS) need to learn how to fight and not in a Stewie vs. Brian kind of way but in a Nicholas slapping the Arian teachers (the heretics not the Hitler...ics) manner.  Time to talk a little inside baseball.  Like it or not, there are real, substantive, doctrinal divisions in the MO Synod.  Covering them up and ignoring them has done no good.  We can no longer be fooled by silly diabolic, Jedi mind tricks: "There are no doctrinal divisions; we don't need to see any Biblical or Confessional identification; these aren't the errors you're looking for; go about your business."  We need to wake up and smell the incense (or mocha-java-cafe-latte-with-soy, if you're one of those coffee shop churches).

Sure there are, women and song; isn't that right?  Oh, and don't forget article XIV either.  Inability to deal with diversity in such issues as admission to Holy Communion, worship substance and style, the Office of the Public Ministry and the role of laity, and the service of women in the church is not the real problem.  The problems have been cloaked and shielded (maybe even transported) with the language of "a lack of civil behavior towards each other, politicized culture in the church,  lack of communication and spotty accountability (although there is something to be said for lack of church discipline in the old school way of things).  These - and the red herring that the real doctrinal issues are primarily a clergy problem - are not the problem.

We do have divisions on such issues as admission to Holy Communion, worship substance and style, the Office of the Public Ministry and the role of laity, and the service of women in the church, just to name a few.  However the problem isn't difficulty handling diversity with these issues.  Think about that for a minute.  What does that even mean?  "I'm tolerant of everything, except your intolerance." Should the church tolerate diversity in doctrine and practice at the expense of true, Scriptural, Confessional doctrine?  In our post-modern age, diversity has really come to mean, "you can do whatever you want as long as you agree with me and please don't say anything negative or insensitive."  It's time to learn how to fight again.  We, especially the pastors of the church, have become so effeminate in the way we argue.  "You don't agree with me?  Fine, you've hurt my feelings, or the ultimate trump card: you've broken the 8th commandment."  But the 8th commandment cannot be kept at the expense of the 1st or the 2nd for that matter.  Where false doctrine and practice persist, the church must address it.  Must call it like it is.  We need an immune system again in the church.  Too long have we sat in the shadows (or is it gray, I dunno, what does it look like to you?) of post-modernism. 

This is what happened in Acts 15.  Real men.  Real doctrinal problems.  Real fight.  Real Biblical solution.  We would do well to follow suit.  And it appears from Rev. Harrison's "prelude" to the Convention ( that he seeks to go about addressing these very real doctrinal issues in a similar manner.  But before we can discuss the issues, we need to reclaim the categories of "True" and "False," of "This we believe, teach and confess" and "This we condemn."  We need the damnamus.  It's important.  A wise man once said, "The church that cannot curse cannot bless."  And the church that cannot fight can never find unity.  So, let's drop the gloves; learn to fight and argue like men and contend for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3) for good of the Church and the salvation of many.

"Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you." - 1 Timothy 4:16

That's all I've got to say about that...for now.

Overtime...Thanks to Pastor Jeremy Rhode of Faith Lutheran, Capistrano Beach for wisdom to teach our circuit winkel about these things.