Friday, July 29, 2011

A Child Changes Everything

Your schedule is forever dependent on their timeline, mood, sleep and eating patterns. Your time, nay, entire being revolves around this child. Your every move, act and thought focused - not on your wants and needs - but theirs. Even your senses are attuned and accentuated to their every move: hearing becomes heightened and acute for any cry, coo or change in breathing pattern; eyes become keenly aware to any immediate danger or surrounding signal, any joy or distress - time almost seems to slow down for the importance of the moment; and don't forget smell. You see, a child changes everything.

But this is far from a complaint, quite the opposite actually. It is good - even holy and priestly - that every meal, sleepless night and afternoon nap, every diaper, day and desire wholly revolves around the life of a child. Yes, a child changes everything. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

This must have been, at least in some small, modest way - what Eve thought at the birth of her first born son, Cain. (Admittedly this comes from the perspective of an Adam.) "I have begotten a man, the Lord!" Like Lamech after her, she thought her son was the Promised One. The child born of woman who would change everything after our first parents had fouled everything up into one cosmic SNAFU. But Cain - as his ancestor, Noah - was not the boy who would change everything, at least not in the way Eve had hoped. That - like the mess in the Garden - he left for another to pick up after him.

For Eve's joy - though short lived - was eventually met in the fullness of time, when everything seemed to slow down for the importance of the moment. Angels sang and proclaimed. Joseph saw dreams. And a young virgin believed the Word of the Lord delivered to her by Gabriel.

26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”[c] 29 But when she saw him,[d] she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. 30 Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. 33 And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”
34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”
35 And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing will be impossible.”
38 Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

The Blessed Virgin knows of what I speak. She too knows that a child changes everything. The one by whom all things were created took on human flesh. The Creator assumed creation. God and Man; God, of the Essence of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Essence of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting...One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood into God. He truly is his brother's keeper. And in him we are redeemed, saved and exalted. Like Mary before us, our schedule and eating habits are forever dependent on this child, right down to the food he gives us to eat: simple bread and wine, forgiving body and blood. Our time, nay, our entire being revolves around this child because his every move, act and thought were focused not on his wants or needs - but ours. Mary understood this even as the Lord of all who feeds the ravens when they call was nestled in her bosom. Her senses were attuned to his, even that sword which would pierce her soul as her firstborn Son was pierced for us. His every cry was heard as she watched the boy who changed everything: "Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit." She listened to the change in sound, from pain and agony to the silence of death. Distress leads to joy.  Suffering gives way to celebration. Death is swallowed up in victory. Good Friday death is followed by Resurrection life, for Jesus, for Mary and for you his firstborn. This Promised One gives his promise to you, making you his sons and daughters. In him is your rest, your forgiveness, your life is found in his.

Of course this is all from the perspective of a Joseph. And yet it was to Joseph that the angel said, "You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." Indeed, a child changes everything. This is good - even holy and priestly. His holiness defines all things holy and his priestly work defines the very lives of his priests, holy-ed in his life, death and resurrection. This child is a cause for joy wherein our lives wholly revolve around this boy who changed everything, the Christ in whom we live and move and have our being. And he wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Forgive Us Our Debts

If you tuned in to this little blog post for commentary on the great debt debacle in Washington, I'm sorry to disappoint you. This is not a political blog. Never has been. Never will be. God's rule in  left-handed kingdom matters is important (something that people of any vocation and on any side of the aisle can agree upon). However, the Gospel is not served by my political rants on a blog devoted to the declaration of the Great Eucatasrophe. If you want to know my political thoughts, let's go out for a beer and discuss it as the pleasing aroma of hops fills our nostrils and quenches our thirst. It's true; today's political milieu is a great canvas for discussing the two-kingdoms. But for this evening, I will abide by common etiquette and only discuss one impolite subject at a time.

Watching the news and reading the paper (yes, I still read the paper; I simply prefer the printed page which is ironic for a blogger), I couldn't help but notice the language surrounding all the hullabaloo in the Capital. Debt ceiling. Compromise. Deal. Default. Trust. Pledge. Again, not to dismiss the importance of these issues in the civil realm, but these are words that are bigger than Washington and our national debt.

These words have a redeeming quality about them when it comes to the Scriptures. Thank God He does not operate the Church or salvation (the kingdom of the right) the way we have to do gritty, messy business in the kingdom of the left. What if the Father imposed a debt ceiling on us? I wouldn't last a day, let alone a life time or an eternity. Compromise? What's there to compromise about with sin, death and the devil? Can you really make a deal with the devil? All country songs and movies aside, that didn't go so well for our first parents. If our heavenly Father dealt with us according to our sins we're not just talking default, broken trust and failed pledges; we're talking temporal and eternal death, damnation, condemnation. And it just gets darker from there. Just ask the unrighteous servant in Luke 7:

41"A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?"43Simon answered, "The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt." And he said to him, "You have judged rightly." 44Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little." 48And he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." 49Then those who were at table with him began to say among[h] themselves, "Who is this, who even forgives sins?" 50And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."

Good question. Who is this who forgives sins? It's not the U.S. government - or any government for that matter. And thank God for that. Thank God Christ's salvation won for us on the cross is not like anything else in the left-hand kingdom; He is a kingdom all unto Himself: the kingdom of God in human flesh. He comes to save. He comes with more forgiveness than we have sin. He does not impose a debt ceiling on us. Rather he takes our debts upon Himself, suffers all and dies for you. Instead of compromising with the devil he defeats him, first in the wilderness and then on the cross, parading His Crucified and victorious flesh in hell just to prove the point: "I win; you are dead; my sheep know me and they hear my voice. I am rose from the dead and so will they. Their debt is paid in my blood and you no longer hold a lien on them; they are mine, more precious than silver." 

There's no deal to be made; Christ has already made the exchange on our behalf: a sacred swap, a blessed exchange. He dies your death and you live in His life. He takes your sin and He gives you His righteousness. Where your trust in Him failed; He trusted in the Father for you. Where our pledge of faithfulness waned; He was faithful in life and death for you.  Where Adam and Eve made a deal with the devil and lost; in Christ you dance in victory on the devil's grave. No compromise, just plain old victory - now and forever. It is finished. In Christ - in Baptism, in the Supper, in the Absolution - Sin and death's power over you have been cut and capped and compromised forever. Debt paid. Ransom secure. Redemption won. Promise fulfilled. Life eternal has been won for you and for the world. And it only gets better and better from there.

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15[b] and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him He disarmed the rulers and authorities... - Colossians 2.

So, whether there's a deal tonight or at the 11th hour on August 2nd, whether our politicians betray our trust or serve the people, God is working through them as his mask, as ugly as it seems. And more importantly - even more certain than death and taxes - His steadfast love never ceases. Christ's promises never fail or default. All our debt, Thou hast paid. Peace with God once more is made. O Lord, have mercy.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Jesus Spares No Expense

+ 6th Sunday after Pentecost +
In the Name of Jesus + Amen.

            When you think about it, parables are a lot like dreams. After reading them you frequently ask yourself: now, what just happened? I remember something about treasure, pearls and fish, wheat and weeds, sowers and seeds. But what it’s all about?
            Jesus’ parables seem just familiar enough to give us Biblical a sense of déjà vu throughout the day and bizarre enough to keep us searching for meaning. We’re frustrated at their hiddenness and overjoyed when Jesus’ point comes crashing in upon us. That’s the trick: either we don’t take Jesus’ parables seriously enough or we read too much into them.

            And when it comes to dreams, there are two basic dreams we have in life. The first is quite common. This is the dream of “making it”, working hard, earning that degree, or even becoming well known, respected and successful. Dreams like these drive us, drum up our ambitions and stir our creativity. Everything becomes ordered, scheduled, expected – or at least we try to make it so. And that’s not altogether bad, it’s often very good.
            But dreams like this have a wild tendency about them. We begin to think it leads to God – that we can “make it” with Him; that we can work enough, believe enough, give our lives and hearts to Him. This turns out to be nothing more than the nightmare that was whispered to our first parents: “You shall not die, you shall be as gods. You can make it.” And then we are had. All is lost and dead. The kingdom of heaven is not like that kind of dream.
But there is a second kind of dream. A peculiar one and if we’re honest, a little embarrassing. You know the kind of dream that seem too good to be true. “Nevermind that I don’t play the lottery but maybe I’ll wake up in the morning to a bazillion dollars. Or maybe there’s a rich uncle who’ll die and leave me all he owns or maybe I’ll stumble upon hidden treasure buried in my backyard or in my attic.” It’s similar to the dream at the ending of all good fairy tales: the happily ever after, the ending of the story that is only the beginning of a better one. Something that you just stumbled upon…or better yet that finds you even though you weren’t looking.

            Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like these, silly, rather embarrassing little dreams of ours, only better. For kingdom of heaven is not a dream world or a fantasy.  The Kingdom of heaven is not an it, but a who. That that merchant, that sower, that fisherman is none other than Christ, the Kingdom of heaven in human flesh. You don’t have to wish upon a star, hoping to stumble upon the Kingdom of heaven; Jesus comes to you.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden the wilderness. That’s where Yahweh found his people of treasured possession – lost, puny, wandering, like sheep without a shepherd. Yahweh declared Israel to be a holy people – not because they were great in number or status – but because he was great in holiness and love; faithful in his oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He loved Israel when they loved him not; He sought Israel when they sought him not. Holy people through whom Yahweh would make an oath to all people equally as puny, lost, wandering and in need of rescue as Israel.  We’re no different. Our appraisal is dreadful: Treasure? Hardly. Pearls? Not even close to fake. Good fish? More like dead and rotten.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.  Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
“The man sold all he had.” It’s so important, Jesus repeats it: the man sold all that had and bought it. Selling, buying, purchasing. That’s marketplace language; redemption language.
            And there’s the key to the parables: The kingdom of heaven is all about Jesus, the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28).
            Sure, these parables could be all about you earning, searching and purchasing the kingdom of heaven like a pearl - many have read them that way. But that is fool’s gold and rotten fish. Try as we might to set up some kind of plan for the kingdom of heaven; it cannot be domesticated. You can’t do business with the Kingdom of heaven that way. It is sheer unexpected, undeserved, free gift.
            Jesus comes for you as a sower with seed, as a man who buys the field, as a merchant who purchases a pearl of great price with an even greater price: purchased and won not with gold or silver but with his innocent suffering and death. And the blood that pours from His head, side, hands, and feet – creates, enlivens & speaks - a better word than the blood of Able, a living Word into our rotten sinful lives. Fool’s gold becomes precious treasure, fake pearls become rare and precious; bad fish become good fish.
            That’s who you are in Christ: a treasured people of his own possession, a pearl of great price, a good fish. For His treasure, for His pearl, for His fish, Jesus endures all – beating, bruising, mocking, stripped naked, rejection, abandonment by God Himself, even death itself.
            And if God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who is to condemn? No one. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Christ was condemned in your place. He exchanges, sells, sacrifices all he has to purchase, buy back, redeem you.
            That is love: death defying; hell destroying, Satan crushing, sin forgiving, new creation making, conquering in the blood of the Lamb, love. You didn’t earn it, expect it or plan it, but there it is: the kingdom of heaven is yours; He has found you; you are Christ’s. Wondrous love, oh wondrous thought; sought me when I sought Him not.

            Jesus finds you when you least expect Him, when you are lost in all your sins and clammed up by distractions. “What a pearl! I want this all for Myself!” He says. And He goes and gives up His whole life for you. Jesus treasures you above all else – even when life around us appears to be anything but riches and splendor – family difficulties, overwhelmed with life and work, health problems, sick loved ones, bad economy, hopeless need – Christ’s love finds you no matter what kind of field you are buried in. Christ takes everything He has – his very own life – and he gives it up so that you may have his.
            That’s how the kingdom of heaven continues to find people; how Jesus continues to send his church as merchants in search of pearls hidden and buried in the fields around Redeemer. Christ finds his pearls and treasure and fish in the most unlikely, unexpected places: college campuses and conversations with our co-workers, friends or neighbors; preschoolers or musicians young and old, our neighbors in need of mercy.
            I can’t give you a plan, set you up with a schedule or send you on a treasure hunt for the kingdom of heaven. That’s not how it works. The treasure, finally, can only be given. Here it is! Today. Now. Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. Your sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. Isn’t that a story worth repeating?
            The Kingdom of heaven is found in Jesus, who for the joy set before Him sold all he had, humbled Himself in obedient death for you. His tribulation, distress and persecution to secure your freedom, peace and eternal mercy. His famine for your daily bread; His nakedness to cover your shame; His wounds for your sin; His death for your death; His life for your life.

            It’s like a dream, seemingly too good to be true; a happily ever after ending that we think only happens in stories; but this is the turn of real events – Jesus spares no expense for your ransom: your ship has come in, it’s a truly endless summer, the joyous catastrophe that you, are his treasure, his pearl, his good fish. Holy people of Christ’s own possession. Holy in Christ’s holiness. You didn’t plan it, expect it, earn it or search for it. But here Jesus comes to you all the same.

            His kingdom comes to holy you in Baptism, feed you in His body and blood, to shout into your ears time and time again His promise: “You are My treasure. My pearl. My good fish; how I love this little fish; I’ll never throw you back. I’m not interested in catch and release; I fish for keeps and you will never be snatched out of my nets.”             

In the Name of Jesus + Amen.

Friday, July 22, 2011

On Three Ways of Hymn-Writing for Children

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it - Proverbs 22:6

This works both ways. When our children pray and are taught the catechism over the dinner table it becomes a part of their every day life (and the family's in the process). When a child drops an f-bomb at VBS or camp (I've seen it happen) they probably learned it from their parents the day before as they were experiencing some good old Southern California traffic. When children sit with their parents in the Divine Service and grow up surrounded by the historic church year, the liturgy, the hymns, these, in turn, grow up within the heart, mind and faith of the child. Everything we say and do (or don't say and don't do) confesses something; it's simply a matter of what (or rather who) we are confessing and pointing to when we teach our children, in and out of the Divine Service, at church or at home. This is the unique vocation of parents. "As the head of the household is to teach his family."

As a prolific writer, C.S. Lewis understood this quite well. He didn't make the same kind of age-restrictive sub-categories we civilized Christians do. You know, children's "church" where the kids leave the Divine Service for something "more their style" or children's songs seemingly more age appropriate in musical setting. While intending to ween them off of pure spiritual milk they are often being fed nothing more than spiritual junk food (better left for Sesame Street than in the pew). While infants may not be ready for the solid steak and potatoes of hymnody, feeding them spiritual milk does not mean watering it down; babies know the difference between the real stuff and the store-brand knock-off.

In his brief (yet insightful) essay On Three Ways of Writing for Children, Lewis has a great deal to say about literature and how we should approach writing for children, not to mention awakening their imagination to a life of creativity through books (especially good fairy stories). While Lewis is busy defending the fairy tale he inadvertently teaches us something rather remarkable about our entire philosophy of training up our children, especially when it comes to hymns. I am not sure whether Lewis had ever connected his writing for children with the music of the church but there is a very deep connection between the written page and the written note. As I read this little essay from Lewis I was amazed not only by his grasp of literature and the child's mind, but this nagging thought kept bubbling up in my mind: many of the things Lewis is saying about writing for children can also be applied to singing the liturgy and writing hymns for children in the church, of which I am sure there are more than three ways.

"I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can only like when you are waltzing is a bad waltz" (Lewis).

So it goes with hymns: the good ones last, growing our children in the faith, proclaiming Christ. I've seen this in our preschoolers at Redeemer. A while back they sang: Consider How the Birds Above - not the easiest hymn to sing. And it includes a rather complex word (at least for preschoolers): fragility. While talking about a cross necklace she was wearing, one of these little preschool girls, when asked to describe it, said it's fragile. She clearly knew what the word meant. And more specifically, she learned it from that particular hymn. Why? She was taught.

When children are taught and trained up in the life of the church (not some artificial sub-culture), children sing and love the liturgy in all its height and depth and richness; when they are given solid milk (and later meat) of hymns and the liturgy they enjoy them at a young and old age, they mature into a rich life and faith in Christ. We should never teach our children Christian songs from which they will mature out of later in life.

This is, I think at least in part, why Lewis wrote the way he did. There was no gimmick, or bait and switch for any of his readers. He did not underestimate children's capacity for learning and being challenged to grow. Nor did he write as Tolkien did (in many cases), beginning with ex tempore stories for friend and family which later grew into beautiful tales of recovery, escape and consolation (i.e. Roverandum). In his own words, Lewis wrote, "The children's story is the best art-form for something you have to say: just as a composer might write a Dead March not because there was a public funeral in view but because certain musical [and I think we could add textual/confessional] ideas that had occurred to him went best into that form." The text drives the tune and the tune supports the text. It works the same in good fairy tales and good hymns, liturgy, etc.

VBS, etc.) in the same way. For out of the mouth of babes flows the praise of Christ and children inherit the kingdom of God. John the Baptizer kicked in praise of Christ our Lord. And Jesus, undoubtedly learned the Psalms - the hymnal of the Scriptures - as he grew in wisdom and knowledge before God and man.

There are plenty of children (and adults) who haven't read the right books. And too often we act like Eustace when it comes to liturgy and hymns in the church: children haven't sung the right songs. In part this is born of an innocent (although at times irrational) fear that the stuff of Sunday morning (or the weekly offices) is too hard for children to learn and grow into. Have you ever tried telling a child they can't do something? They can. And it's usually adults holding them back far more often than their own limitations. The irrational part of this fear is, in part, a reflection of our own adult presuppositions. When adults say, "that hymn is too hard for children" or "they can't sing Matins, we need something more age-appropriate," many times we are merely projecting our own fears or feelings about the music. Children don't have the fear of, "I can't do this." Yes, they can get frustrated in learning a difficult song just as much as an adult can. The problem often rests in the teacher not the student. Children are far more capable of learning hymns (both simple and difficult) than we give them credit. We should treat them with respect, both in their present abilities and their future growth. The rich heritage of Lutheran hymnody and the church's liturgy does just that: it gives us and our children a faith to grow into, not a faith to grow out of. Quite simply, it gives us Jesus, making his death and resurrection for us the habitual furniture of our minds, lives and learning. Catechesis, after all, is a life-long "training up."

Lewis understood this too. What he says about writing for children is equally applicable to children reading and singing in the pew or at home.

We must meet children as our equals in that area of our nature where we are their equals...The child as reader is neither to be patronized or idolized: we talk to him as man to man...We must of course do them no harm; we may, under the Omnipotence, sometimes dare to hope that we may do them good. But only such good as involves treating them with respect (Lewis).

So, maybe you don't start off teaching your children the hardest hymns out there. But on the other hand, don't start off by saying things like, "This is too difficult for my child" or "They'll never learn this hymn." If that's the case, you've lost before you've even begun the battle. And let's face it, this is one battle in the current pop, consumer driven culture that has utterly infected the church. But it's a battle worth fighting. Thank God for this Fortress: the Scriptures, the liturgy, the hymns, and the historic church year in all its boldness and richness. Here Christ is raising up his powerful, living two-edged sword, training all of his baptized children up in the way of the Lord so that we might not depart from him.

To that end, here are a few excellent arrows for your quiver that I've found. Let me know if you come across any others that hit the mark.

The Children's Choir of St. Paul's Lutheran, Fort Wayne, IN - CDs.
The Music Academy - click here for the website.
Kelly Klages - website - Hosanna, Loud Hosanna (an illustrated children's hymnal) and her excellent interview on Issues Etc.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Of Specks and Logs and a Bloody, Wooden Cross

T Trinity 4 – July 17th, 2011 T
Guest Preaching – St. Paul’s, LBC
Text: Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 12:14-21; Luke 6:36-42

In the Name of the Father and of the T Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

            Everyone loves when Jesus plays nice and says things like: “let the children come to me” or “in my Father’s house are many rooms.” But what happens when he drops the gloves and gets a little too personal: judge not, lest you be judged; condemn not lest you be condemned? No one likes talking about their own blindness and sin as much as we like talking about other’s. And what about when Jesus says: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Or is to become merciful as your Father is merciful? Which is it - threat or promise? What you must do or who you are in Christ? Infinite bar of perfection or infinitely perfect mercy in Jesus?

            What does it mean to be merciful? To be merciful is to be like Joseph, hated by his brothers, stripped of his robe, cast into a pit, sold into slavery – and because he wouldn’t sleep with another man’s wife – locked in an Egyptian dungeon. Mercy is, finally, after all those years, to have these same brothers standing before you, the most powerful man in Egypt, able to do anything you want to them, to exact any kind of revenge your heart desires, yet to pardon them, shed tears of joy and embrace them in love. That is mercy. Well, it’s a kind of mercy, but it is not perfect mercy. There is still more.

            What does it mean to be merciful?  To be merciful is to be like David, hated and hunted by, King Saul, through every field and cave of Israel; to play the harp to soothe his anger only to be repaid by a spear being hurled at you; to have served king and country only to have both betray you.  Mercy is to be so close to Saul to be able to cut off a corner of his tunic with your own knife, but instead to stay the blade from your enemy’s flesh.  Mercy is to stand over him while he sleeps in his camp, able to pin him to the earth with one stroke of your spear and yet instead to pardon him, spare him, and even rebuke those who tried to convince you otherwise. That is mercy.  Well, at least a kind of mercy, but it’s not perfect mercy.  There’s still more.

            Be merciful.  Jesus says.  Be merciful – not as Joseph or David but as your Father in heaven.  To be truly merciful is to be like God; to seek to embrace your fallen children only to have them shove you away and spit in your face; to heal the sick, only to have them reject the Great Physician; to feed the hungry only to have them grumble about the taste; to clothe the naked only to have them protest that you haven’t clothed them in name-brands; to open your hands and offer them everything the Father has to give, only to have them pierce those hands with nails, raise you in the air and watch, mock and chuckle as you slowly bleed to death.  That is perfect mercy. There is no greater mercy.
            For greater mercy has no man than this, that one lay down his life - not for his friends - but for his enemies. This is exactly what Christ has done for you.
            And yet, that is not how we treat our neighbor, is it?  We don’t hold ourselves to the same standard. It all sounds a bit absurd: what do you mean, Jesus? Specks and splinters are indescribably small – how can you miss a log in your eye? You don’t, unless of course, you are blind. Completely oblivious.
            That’s why Jesus uses this ridiculous example: uncover our blindness; to show us how absurd it is for us to point out the sawdust in our brother’s eye while we have an old-growth forest growing in our own. The teeth of the judgment saw blade cuts both ways: "For with the same measure that you use will be measured back to you.” .
            And just so we’re clear, Jesus isn’t talking about judging false doctrine or public sin in the Church – He covers that elsewhere. Don’t pit the commandments against each other.
            No, Jesus is calling for self-examination; He echoes John's sermon of repentance. Jesus’ words cut us to the heart. Jesus wants nothing short of complete and utter deforestation of our Old sinful flesh. Lay the axe to the root. Strip the logs. Ignore the slivers. Look in the mirror. Repent. For our old sinful flesh is a forest of hypocrisy. We are far better at confessing our brother’s sins than our own. Repent, for there is no sin greater than our own.
            But that old sinful flesh of yours has been drowned. The logs and splinters have been washed down the stream of the font, out of your eyes and into Christ’s death forever. And that speck in your neighbor’s eye that you were so worried about – well that’s paid for too. All evil, all debt, all logs and specks, all sin is paid for, cleansed, washed and forgiven by the shed blood of Jesus. Jesus takes all of your specks and splinters, logs and planks out of your eyes and He drags them on His back to the cross. There on the timber that binds and kills, He is killed for us. Jesus died for you – the hypocrite, the slanderer, the chief of sinners. The wood we have supplied becomes, by His death, a declaration of sin’s forgiven.
            This too is shocking, but in a marvelous, joyous way. This is what changes our hearts, minds, our whole lives. Our heavenly Father removes the logs despite us. Your Father is merciful. He sends Jesus to do what we have never done. He loves us more than Himself; He does unto us what He would have done unto Himself. He loves us perfectly, without fail, without holding anything back. He keeps the Law for us and then He allows the Law to do to Him all it should have done to us, and it counts for us. His good works, His mercy, His love is counted as ours and our sins are counted as His.
            That is mercy. While we were yet sinners – enemies of God - Christ died for us.
            He was slapped and offered his other cheek. He was forced to go one mile and went the whole way to the cross. They stripped him of his cloak and his seamless robe. He gave to all who asked of Him. He prayed for His persecutors - “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” The only-begotten Son of the Father does all this so that you might become sons of your Father in heaven.             And when Jesus does something He does it all the way. He gets the job done. When it was completed He said so. It is finished. Tetelesthai. It is complete. That’s the word Matthew uses in his parallel for today’s reading. “You will be complete, whole. Teleios. as your Father in heaven is teleios, complete, whole, perfect in Christ.” Hearing Luke and Matthew together, Jesus reveals to us: God’s perfection is found in His mercy. Now, when the Father looks at us, He no longer sees any sin: splinters or logs. He only sees the wood of the cross covered in His Son’s flesh and blood.
            This is what it means to be merciful. Jesus is your mercy. Merciful as your Father in heaven – for you. Unchanging love. Ceaseless, inexhaustible mercy. His compassion knows no bounds. Christ’s love seeks no reward or selfish gain. He loves all. He sees no log or speck in your eye, only perfection, as a bride adorned for her husband. That is perfect mercy, poured out in good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over into the chalice, into your mouth, into your life for pardon, peace and forgiveness of your sins. Freely you receive; freely you give.

In the Name of the Father and of the T Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Higher Things Coram Deo Debrief: A Few Thoughts Post Vegas

“Pardon me, Coram, what?! What is Coram Deo?” Well, it’s much more than fancy-pants Latin boys use to impress friends at school and girls at parties. Coram Deo is Latin for, “before God,” as in before his face, in his presence, under his reign, and so forth. Remember your catechism: “that I may be his own and live under him in his kingdom. That’s what Coram Deo means, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves yet.

Now that we have the Latin down, Coram Deo was also the title and theme of this summer’s Higher Things youth conference hosted on the campus of University Nevada Las Vegas (and two other sites nation-wide). For those of you who haven’t heard much about Higher Things, this is the best thing to happen to and for Lutheran youth since the Walther League (before it got weird). Check out Higher Things youth organization here. Quite simply, Higher Things gives our youth a faith to grow into not a faith to grow out of. And in an age that is teaching our youth to be anything but Christian, Higher Things' motto is a bold confession of fresh air: Dare to be Lutheran.

So, Coram Deo is Latin, it’s a youth conference, but it’s also our status, our standing, our station before God. That’s what the conference – during worship and breakout/plenary sessions - was all about.
What does our life look like Coram Deo, before God? Under the Law, our life before God is full of terror, sin, death and condemnation, uglier than the pestilence of cockroaches running around UNLV at night. Apart from Christ our life before God is more like a living in a wack-a-mole, we deserve nothing but punishment and wrath. Sin changed everything. Just read Genesis 3 again: sin, shame, guilt, pride, disobedience, curse, thorns, outcast, death. The tree given for knowledge of good and evil became a tree of death for Adam, Eve and all humanity. In Adam, life before God is no life at all, quite the opposite in fact. Capital “S” Sin is the problem, not simply sins we commit. The disease leads to the symptoms not the other way around.

As St. Paul writes in Romans: “the wages of Sin is death” (Romans 6:23) therefore, “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because  all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:12-14).

But don’t stop at Genesis 3. Because, that’s only half the story. More importantly, we live before God (Coram Deo) under the Gospel, where life is a gracious rescue and a glorious restoration of what God had intended before the fall into sin. Or, in the words of St. Paul, “As one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:18-19).  In Christ, Coram Deo you are no longer a son of Adam but a son of God through Baptism, his own dear child, crying out Abba! Father!  In Christ, Coram Deo, you are no longer dead but alive, no longer condemned but justified freely by Christ who was crucified for you. In Christ, Coram Deo, you are no longer eat in disobedience and wrath but in righteousness and innocence as God himself comes to before you with his own body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. You stand, kneel, and worship in joy and peace, Coram Deo, because of the gifts Christ has given and continues to give in his church for the life of the world. Now in Christ we are at peace Coram Deo, freed to stand before (coram hominibus) our neighbor in need with love and mercy.

What is Coram Deo? It is to confess that we are poor miserable sinners but more importantly, to confess that we, poor miserable sinners, are justified freely by Christ through his death and resurrection that come to us in Word, water, absolution, bread and wine. And that means that we can live coram hominibus – before man – in joy and service.

What does Coram Deo look like?  In Baptism, Coram Deo looks like the new creation proclaimed in Revelation, especially chapter 7: white robes drenched in the saving blood of the Lamb, tears wiped from our eyes, death gone forever and life in eternal wedding feast – all of that is yours in Christ.  In the Church, Coram Deo looks like God’s people coming week in and week out to inwardly digest the Word, to drown the old Adam through daily repentance, to receive the absolution, to give thanks and praise, to kneel at the Lord’s Table and depart in peace and joy.

What is Coram Deo? In Las Vegas, Coram Deo was over 500 youth attending Divine Service twice in a week to receive Christ’s body and blood for their forgiveness. Coram Deo is praying Matins, Vespers and Evening Prayer as Christ is proclaimed in hymn, liturgy and sermons. Coram Deo is the joy that our youth are receiving the same teaching and message at this conference that they receive week in and week out at Redeemer. Coram Deo – thanks to Higher Things - is challenging our youth to continue in growth and knowledge as they learn the pure doctrine of the Christian faith. Coram Deo is breakaway sessions on a wide variety of topics ranging from Islam & Christianity to How to Plan a Lutheran Wedding, and How to Talk With Non-Lutheran Friends to dealing with tough issues in our day, like Pornography and Dating, Relationships and THAT (i.e. sex).  Coram Deo is outstanding and engaging plenary (full group) sessions on the book of Romans and Reformation history. Coram Deo is hearing things like: “Pastor, I want a Lutheran wedding when I grow up or pastor, when can we use incense and have Vespers at our church?;” teenage youth humming the Magificat as they walk; or even a simple thank you to any one of the many presenters and youth leaders.

Coram Deo is enjoying the air conditioned student union after a long, sandal-melting walk across campus, eating hot dogs and pizza every lunch and dinner for nine meals (just kidding), making a non-criminal visit to the security office (sorry, inside joke), listening to our youth discuss the day’s classes and adventures over a refreshing In N Out milkshake, spending joyous hours and sleepless nights playing, learning, singing and joking with our youth as they show us how to dare to be Lutheran. Seriously, we adults have so much to learn from these dedicated youth. We underestimate them far too often. They love the liturgy; they love our hymnody; they love the catechism - because they love Jesus and all that he has given, and continues to give, them. And for all of this - their participation, humor, joy and fidelity at the conference this year - the youth have my endless admiration.

Higher Things Coram Deo is best summarized by the three “W’s”: Worship, Word and Fun – that’s the serious business of our youth group (and our Christian life) as we believe, teach and confess Christ and Him Crucified. He is our life Coram Deo. In this way, Christ makes us ready for life coram hominibus, so that what happened in Vegas, won’t stay in Vegas.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Jesus Is Our Sabbath

3rd Sunday after Pentecost – July 3rd, 2011
Text: Matthew 11:25-30; Zechariah 9:9-12; Romans 7:14-25

In the Name of Jesus + Amen.

    In a country that prides itself on rugged individualism, independence, self-sufficiency, and autonomy, infants appear to be lazy. All they do is eat, sleep, poop and repeat. Infants are utterly and completely dependent upon their parents. When was the last time you saw an infant change their own diaper? Dress? Bathe? Feed? Rock themselves to sleep?

    Christianity is full of similar paradoxes: sinner and saint. Church militant and triumphant. God is three and yet one. Jesus reveals his teaching to infants; it's little children who inherit the kingdom of heaven – even when they sleep through their Baptism.
    “I praise you heavenly Father, Lord of heaven and earth that you have kept these things from the wise and understanding and given them to infants.”
    According to Jesus, infants are the wise ones. “But they don’t do anything,” you say. Exactly. That’s His point. Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. For unless you become like little children – like infants - you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. But in Christ that’s who you are – born again by water and the Spirit: Jesus takes your sinful, excrement filled garments and washes, cleanses and restores you. In Baptism you are bathed in forgiveness. Clothed in Christ.  Once you are bathed and clothed, you are fed in His Supper. Blessed are you, saints of God, His infants, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.
    Individual liberty, hard work and autonomy may work well to govern and order sinners in secular society, but these are lousy words for describing the Christian faith. Not just lousy – false. You simply cannot find the words individualism and self sufficiency, do-it-yourself or autonomy in the Scriptures. The Bible is not a choose-your-own adventure book.  The Christian faith – and our Triune God – is opposed to this kind of self-centered vocabulary. Where secular society cries out: “I am my own person; it’s all about me.” The Scriptures and our Christian faith cry out: “you are not your own you are bought with a price.”
    The fact that you have a belly button proves that you are not self-sufficient (and don’t bother asking me about whether or not Adam and Eve had them). And as children we often say, “We know better. No! I can do it myself.”
    Really? How’s that 10 commandment to-do list going? Doesn’t the cost of discipleship ever weigh on you? Have you kept the Sabbath by listening and hearing the Word daily? What about showing mercy and care the neighbors you don’t love? Care to post your daily life on a live video feed in Time’s Square? I sure wouldn’t. 
    We think we are so wise and understanding, don’t we? And yet we are fools. The yoke of Moses is far too heavy. The burden of Sinai is oppressive and overwhelming. We’re worse than misbehaving children in need of a timeout or a naughty chair; we deserve everlasting punishment. We are guilty.
    What’s wrong with the world these days? Me. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want – that is what I keep doing. For I delight in the law, the teaching of God, but I see in my members another law waging war against my mind making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in me. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

    Lo and behold an infant comes to your rescue. Jesus: your deliverer in diapers; your swaddling Savior in a shepherd’s stall. Jesus knows this dependent life – your life. He lived it, suffered it, was crucified and buried because of it, all for you. He who is eternally begotten of the Father before all worlds, was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate.
    It is He who declares to you this day: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, Jesus says. “For you are not learning from me how to refashion the fabric of the world, nor to create all things visible and invisible, nor to work miracles and raise the dead. Rather, you are simply learning of me: “That I am meek and lowly in heart.” If you wish to reach high, then begin at the lowest level. [Begin at the manger and go to the cross]. If you are trying to construct some mighty edifice in height, you will begin at the lowest foundation. This is humility.” (Augustine)
    Christ humbled Himself by being made man – that’s why your pastors bow at that part of the Creed - he was made man. For it is through our humanity that Christ redeems all humanity from sin, death and hell. By flesh and blood He comes with life for your flesh and blood.
    It is for you who are you heavy laden with sin, guilt and shame. You who struggle daily – or fear that you’ve given up the struggle - with that Old Adam clinging tightly around your neck. For you, the sinner, the outcast, the doubter, the fearful, the burdened - Christ comes for you.
    Jesus pulls a reverse Tom Sawyer: you stand and watch while He does all the work for you. Christ labors under your burden and He gives you His easy yoke of salvation.  Jesus straps our yoke of sin and death around His neck, His arms, His feet and you receive all His benefits.

    Christ shows us pity where we deserved punishment. Victory to the defeated. Life for utterly dependent children. Christ releases us from bondage to sin, death and the devil with words of consolation: Come to Me all you who are laboring and heavy laden, for my yoke is good for you and my burden is light, free. Free life. Free forgiveness.
    “Oh, what a very pleasing weight that strengthens even more those who carry it. For the weight of earthly masters gradually destroys the strength of their servants, but the weight of Christ rather helps the one who bears it; because we do not bear grace; grace bears us. It is not for us to help grace, but rather grace is given for our desperate aid” (anonymous church father: homily on Matthew).
    Our infant song of praise echoes Zechariah. Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. Rejoice, O sons and daughters of Redeemer. Behold your King has come, righteous and having salvation is He. In humility He rode into Jerusalem for you. Humbled and mounted on the cross; He died for you and now He lives for you. His saving work complete. Accomplished. Fulfilled.
    After Jesus had finished his work, He rested from His labors on the Sabbath day, only to rise again on the first day of the week. The 8th day. The new day. And this will be for you a holy day for all generations: an eternal Sabbath day of rest in Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus is Lord, even of the Sabbath. And He has made this Sabbath day – a proclamation of His sacrifice and forgiveness – His mercy and love – for you.
    Sabbath was made for man. Which is why Jesus’ eternal Sabbath rest comes to you whenever you inwardly digest His Word, whenever you come to His table to eat and drink, as you live daily in your Baptism. You are changed. Bathed and clothed. Fed and folded into Christ’s pierced arms forever.
    Sabbath is just another way of saying Jesus leads you to Himself. Jesus is your Sabbath, your rest. Come to me all who are laboring and heavy laden for I give you myself.

In the Name of Jesus + Amen.