Friday, September 30, 2011

Mr. Spock and World Religions

The following article is from the October church newsletter at Redeemer, HB. As I mention at the end, this will be followed up by another article in next month's newsletter picking up where this one leaves off, continuing an apologetics series for the newsletter. While there are many places to begin defending the faith, it seemed good to take up the myth of religious harmony once again. As always, thanks for reading.
It’s time to talk about something inappropriate. No, not politics. Only one forbidden topic at a time please. Let’s get to the real, nitty-gritty taboo of all polite conversations: religion. If you think about it, why don’t we talk this way more often? Maybe it’s not your lead off question on a first date.  But if it’s important as people claim it is, then it’s really a matter of life and death. Not to mention, mankind has a “hardwired” curiosity, a constant quest for truth.
Since we’re talking about uncivilized things, out with the truth: everyone is religious. That’s right; everyone is religious because religions are worldviews. They make certain claims about who we are, where we came from, what happens when we die and so on down the list. A worldview is how we explain and look at reality around us. Everyone who has walked the face of the earth makes religious assertions, or claims, no matter what their worldview is.
Everyone from the First Lady to Lady Gaga has an opinion when it comes to religion (however that may be defined). Religious claims are  a dime a dozen. Here are just a few examples:
·         I believe in God the Father Almighty make of heaven and earth.
·         There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.
·         There is no god; we are just pieces of insignificant matter in a giant cosmic game of chance.
·         God is an unknowable, unnameable he/she/it.
·         I am not sure if there is a god.
·         Life is meaningless: we came from nothing and when we die we return to nothing.
·         It’s all relative, you have your truth and I have mine.
·         All that exists is what I see and touch, the material and natural world.
·         My faith is true because it makes me feel good and works for me.
Where do you start? How do you spoon through the religious alphabet soup? That’s the problem. It’s overwhelming. Conduct a simple man-on-the-street interview and you’ll find as many religious views as you do people. Again, religions are worldviews. Everyone has a worldview. Everyone is religious.
When it comes to religion there are three basic perceptions:
1.       All Religion is evil and is the source of problems the world over (proponents often cite the events of September 11, 2001 as a clear example).
2.      Religion is a private matter, a preference or taste of each person like your favorite flavor of ice cream: “You can have faith in God but I’ll put my trust in science.”
3.      And lastly, all religions are essentially the same thing; there’s no real, ultimate consequence or significant difference as to which spiritual road you follow.
For now, let’s look at the third point a bit closer. Today’s religious trend resembles a cafeteria style religion: a small order of Muslim discipline, a side of Mormon family values and a heaping portion of purpose driven living from Jesus. There you have it, your fast-food deity: have it your way! Even if one were to work through the religious buffet line in alphabetical order, there would be hundreds of choices before they arrived at Christianity: The Association for Research and Enlightenment, Bahai, Branch Davidians (now there’s a winner), Buddhism, Christadelphianism, Christian Science (which is neither Christian nor scientific) just to name a few.
Huntington Beach alone has at least 65 religious groups or “faith traditions” as they are called these days. You can participate in everything from the blessing of the waves (no, I’m not making that up) to the parade of light under the veneer of religious unity, faith, fellowship and harmony. More importantly, can you imagine the emotional, physical and spiritual toll such an exploration would take on a person making their way through such a list before they made their way to Christianity?

How do we sort out which religion, if any, is true amidst the cacophony of voices clamoring to be heard? First, we must dispel the myth that all religions are essentially the same.
At first glance, the appearance of similar ceremonies, rules, etc. among the world religions has led many to conclude that they essentially teach the same thing. However, this is often the result of people cutting certain phrases or teachings out of context in order to fit their particular worldview. One reason the myth that “all roads lead to the same mountain” is perpetuated is because people want them all to agree. In other words, people want all religions to be the same because they desire religious diversity to give way to a more tolerant, open-minded unity between the world religions. Perhaps you’ve seen the “coexist” bumper stickers. “The desire for religious unity, though not logically justifiable, is eminently understandable” (Tractatus Logico Theologicus). Of course, respect and tolerance are good, but tolerance does not mean acceptance or a denial of true and false.  Moreover, simply wanting all world religions to say the same thing does not in fact mean that they do say the same thing.
In the words of Mr. Spock, “Captain, that is most illogical.” While it is entirely possible that all world religions are false, it is impossible for all world religions to be true. This is basic critical thinking. Though we cannot use our reason to leap through the gates of heaven, Jesus never called us to check our brains at the door. The Bible clearly teaches that the natural mind cannot understand the things of God; God never said we cannot understand simple facts.
Merely focusing on outward similarities only glosses over the underlying differences between each world religion, revealing a fundamental misunderstanding of what each world religion teaches in the first place. Simply put, the world religions are fundamentally incompatible when it comes to their views about who God is, humanity, evil, the history of the world, the source of authority, even ethics and morality, and above all, salvation.
Notice we haven’t said anything specific about Christianity yet. These are simple tools to use in your discussions with friends, neighbors and co-workers. Logic - whether we follow Spock’s advice or not – is common to all people.
Facts are stubborn things. And so are claims to truth. Every world religion (and person) makes them. Therefore, we must ask two basic questions about every claim to truth (religious or otherwise): Is it true and what evidence do you have to support your claim? In other words, how can we know which of the world religions, if any, is true?
Stay tuned for next month’s newsletter when we’ll address several simple ways of answering that question.
For now, at least, we are prepared to hear what Jesus has to say about the current religious chaos. Christianity, following Jesus’ own teaching, makes some radical claims that rule out all other claims to religious truth:
·         Concerning Jesus: “There is salvation in no one else, there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” – Acts 4:12.
·         Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life: no one comes to the Father except through me” – John 14:6.
Christianity rests on these kinds of exclusive claims to truth. Once we have addressed the myth that all religions are the same, we are able to more clearly proclaim the exclusive message of Christianity, the Gospel: Jesus Christ crucified for the sins of the world. His cross is the way, His Word is truth and His death is our life.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

C.S. Lewis on Angels

In honor of St. Michael and All Angel's day, Michaelmas for all you church year enthusiasts, I thought I'd post a little something from Miracles. In an appendix, Lewis extends his discussion on nature, super-natural and their overlap. Both, he says are "natural" when understood as being created. Therefore on the one hand, while angels appear to be supernatural - and in some ways they are, as they are given different powers, etc. - they are entirely natural from God's perspective.

All angels, both the 'good' ones and the bad or 'fallen' ones which we call devils, are equally 'Supernatural' in relation to this spatio-temporal Nature: i.e. they are outside it and have powers and a mode of existence which is Supernatural in another sense as well. That is to say, they have, of their own free will offered back to God in love the natures he gave them at their creation. All creatures of course live from God in the sense that he mad them and at every moment maintains their existence. But there is a further and higher kind of 'life from God' which can be only given to a creature who voluntarily surrenders himself to it. This life the good angels have and the bad angels have not: and it is absolutely Supernatural because no creature in any world can have it by the mere fact of being the sort of creature it is.

In other words, it must be given. I do wonder what Lewis means by free-will here. He does not elaborate here. But this is not the only place he writes of angels. In a similar way he approaches angels from Screwtape's twisted perspective. the devil is not God's opposite, but St. Michael is. Both are created beings. The difference is the former has disobeyed, rejected and rebelled against God's love, the latter has remained in God's love and according to Revelation continues to live up to his name. Michael is both messenger and defender of Christ, but this is an honor bestowed upon Michael by Christ, for he conquers - as do all faithful men and angels - not by his own reason or strength, but by the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 12). This, then, is what it means to "surrender" biblically speaking. To let Christ be Christ. To be begotten in Christ, or born again, sharing in the life of Christ. Baptized. Fed in the Supper. Killed and made alive by the Word. To conquer by the blood of the Lamb even as he has conquered for you by water, blood and Spirit. A blessed Michaelmas to you all.

Everlasting God,
you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order
the ministries of angels and mortals:
Mercifully grant that,
as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven,
so by your appointment
they may help and defend us here on earth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Christological Person of Interest

Perhaps the remainder of the season for CBS's new show Person of Interest will prove my theory wrong. But for now, at least having watched the pilot episode, I think this show has a peculiar Christological bent - or as I theorized yesterday on facebook - a "twist" to it. All joking aside, it really was Jim Caviezel's character (fyi: Caveziel played Jesus in Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ) who started me wondering if there would be any Christ figure in this story as there almost always are in action/suspense/drama flicks. It's part of the thing that makes them tick: the Christological subplot, "greater love has no man than this, that one lay down his life for his friends." That's one of the reasons we gentlemen love our action movies. We like to see the good guy win, kick some ass and then send the bad guys right back where they belong.

Initially when watching it I thought - well no, just because Caveziel played Jesus doesn't mean there's going to be anything remotely Christian here. Jesus isn't under every rock and tree or behind every film strip and wide-screen TV. Perhaps it was just the Widmer Oktoberfest talking. But then I kept watching - a show I turned to simply because "Ben" from Lost was in it - I watched and beheld a man, a bum quite literally, show us there's more to man than his clothes and outward appearance, no matter how sorrowful, outcast or downtrodden he looks. I saw a man who looked like nothing - he had no form or appearance that we should look at him, except in derision and mockery (as some thugs did on the subway), a guy who's family had left him or died, without friends -  thwart the attempts of evil.

But as the Finch character (Ben from Lost) became part of the story, the christological waters deepened. There's definitely a father/son relationship forming here all for the sake of rescue and saving.  Perhaps this is a bit of a stretch to make the next claim, but there's might even be a trinity of sorts: Finch (father) sends the Son (Caveziel) by means of the machine (Spirit) or the other cop who is yet to be involved. Anyhow, like I said, perhaps that's a stretch. Not to mention, analogies always break down somewhere, somehow. If they didn't they would be the real thing.

So, look past the Big Brother part of it all - the cameras, the Internet, the vast array and quick spread of information, the remarkable ways that are possible for people to intrude in our lives and vice versa (all of which are legitimately frightening in their own right). I think part of that is the foil, the rhetorical device or the visual image used by the writers (such as wizards and wands in Harry Potter) in order to carry the story along. That's what makes comic books work so well too, btw.

There's something to be said for a man who watches our every move in order to rescue/save someone from something an evil/wicked situation. Even the people they are trying to help are called irrelevant. Sounds very similar to something else the real Jesus Christ said:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
   to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
   and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." (Luke 4)

And for all this, the main character(s) will be hated - in fact will be hunted by the authorities, no doubt  Eventually, in their own words, these men will even die for what they are doing.This is why the Batman Dark Knight was a great christological movie. The one man that was the protector of all was hated by all. Thankfully, Jesus didn't dress up in funny costumes or follow us on Twitter. He took on human flesh. Hated by all, including his own people. Came to die for all people, irrelevants, losers, outcasts and sinners. Or in the words of tomorrow's Gospel reading: hookers and crookers get into the Kingdom of God. And thank God for that. For all this - for all that he was and is, said and did - he is hunted and gives his life, lays it down willingly, like a sheep to the slaughter. He only opens his mouth in blessing for us and in agony to the Father. And he does it all for you.

 But what about the vigilante mentality, you say? Isn't that bad for civil society? Perhaps in its proper kingdom (the civil realm) it is, but I'm not so sure Spiderman and Batman would be the same if they weren't hated by the ones they were sworn to protect. Because even as they are hated they point us to him who was hated by all for our sakes, a true man of sorrows. Not a dark knight or a masked man. A true suffering servant. He is the one in whom all the shadows are fulfilled (even the ones who hide in the shadows for the good of others, for their rescue, salvation and protection). But the vigilantes, "They take the law into their own hands, that's not justice" we cry foul. Yes, but did not Christ do the same thing? Did he not take the Law into his own hands, quite literally, all the way through flesh and bone into death. Who is this Jesus who takes the Law into his own hands fulfilling every last jot and tittle with every last drop of tentatio. He gives his life for you, you who are in need of protection, rescue and saving. He even kicks the devil's ass on a Friday afternoon and sends him back to where he belongs. And in Jesus' death you are no longer irrelevant. You who were outcast are no brought back. You who were captive have been released. You who were dead are now alive. That's how Jesus defines justice: a bloody crucifixion as he lays down his life - so that his enemies can become not just friends, but sons, heirs and more. In Christ you are forever a person of interest. Even when it appears that no one is watching.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Keep Calm and Carry On

By order of the Royal Crown: Keep Calm and Carry On. Though we may forget, or rediscover their historical context, not all wartime slogans lose their weight of truthfulness even after blackout curtains are raised and air-raid sirens wind down. After all, loose lips still sink ships. And the Queen's message remains good advice for citizens, soldiers and, as it was in my case on Sunday, pastors.

As the prayers of the church were about to begin, I noticed some movement in the middle of the nave. Now, this is not entirely uncommon. We have the ushers bringing the offerings up and the elder assisting with communion behind them and frequent pit-stop parishioners off to the restroom and so forth. However, this was different. There was a man with a phone on his ear, a woman slumped over and several concerned brothers and sisters in Christ attending to a moment of need. It was exactly that. One of our dear members had passed out. Medically speaking, I will not get into much more detail than that. And before I knew it, 911 had been called, the ushers and I had discussed what to do with the congregation and the whole thing happened rather rapidly whilst many thoughts poured through my head: what if she needs a defibrillator? do we have one? are the paramedics here yet? what about all these people? should they stay or should they go? Lord, have mercy. Keep calm and carry on. Lord have mercy. Anyhow, you get the point.

There are some things seminary never prepares you for. On the other hand, if men were supposed to stay at seminary until they learned everything there was to know and learn about being a pastor - doctrinally and practically speaking - well then, no one would ever leave the seminary and actually become a pastor. There is still something to be said for Walther's famous remark: "it is the highest art and must be learned by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience. While he said this about properly handling the Word of Truth (i.e. Law and Gospel) it could also, indeed I am saying that it does, apply to the unique vocation of the Office of the Ministry as an entire, organic whole (let the reader understand: not to be confused with hipsters, free-range chickens, agricultural obsessions and the like).

And so while the Lord of the Church was working in, with and under a rather nervous pastor He was also working in, with and under the firemen and paramedics who are trained to keep calm and carry on so that when they enter into burning buildings or horrific car wrecks or churches in the middle of Divine Services, they can perform their duty. I know they were just doing their job. And for that we thank them. These noble masks of God. For God does not work in mysterious ways, but hidden ones. Hidden beneath navy blue uniforms and work-worn, grungy-yellow fireman's jackets in order to bring care and mercy to those in need. Thank God for His faithful masks, wherever they appear: in pulpits or in pews, in pastors or in paramedics, in people everywhere, called by God to keep calm and carry on. Be who you are. Be who God has called you to be. Live in your vocations. This is how our Lord works miracles today, by his own chosen instruments .

So, pastors or parishioners, when and if you're ever faced with a similar situation, remember the Queen's words: Keep Calm and Carry On. But more importantly, remember the words of the King, our suffering, saving, serving King: Given and Shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.

Our Lord was busy this Sunday morning, as He is every Sunday and every day of the week. In fact, He's busy serving His church always; He lives to serve her with his life-blood. In, with and under the work of God's faithful masks our dear sister in Christ was taken to the hospital, tested and sent home, safe and sound all while under the care of our Great Physician. Meanwhile, the congregation was able to keep calm and carry on in the Divine Service where our Lord comes to calm our fear and trepidation - yes even to forgive and save - with His own body and blood. Yes, Lord have mercy. And how he does!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Not A Fair God

 + 14th Sunday after Pentecost – September 18th, 2011 +
Redeemer Lutheran, HB
Series A, Proper 20
Matthew 20:1-16

In the Name of Jesus + Amen.

            Wait a minute. They all got the same? You’re telling me that what I do doesn’t matter? Scandal!  You’re telling me all my hard earned religious cash isn’t worth anything? Preposterous!  You’re telling me all those efforts, all those meetings, all those hours serving, working, planning – all that suffering and bearing the heat of the day – all that adds up to nothing?  Appalling. Disgusting. Absurd! Where’s the fairness in that? You really mean it?
            And the answer comes back: Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. You’ve finally got the message.
            How do I make sense of that? What relevance does any of that have in my daily life?

            That’s what’s troubling about this parable; it doesn’t fit into our way of thinking. And all the while Isaiah echoes in the background: my thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord. Yea, yea. Get real, Isaiah. We all know you get what you put into it. You reap what you sow. A day’s work for a day’s pay. We expect God to follow the same rules. To be fair.
            Then comes along the parable of the workers in the vineyard and Jesus drops a big fat bolt into the machinery of our fairness. He upends everything the disciples – and we - think is right. The first will be last, the last will be first. Winners are losers and losers are winners. Is it fair? No. God is not fair. He’s just. Gracious. Good. But he’s not a fair God.

            The parable starts with the familiar refrain…the kingdom of heaven is like. And then the suspense starts building. There’s work to be done. People to hire. Wages to be given – a denarius a day. Then more workers hired at the 3rd hour. “You go into the vineyard and whatever is just (Greek word for righteous) I will give to you.” So they go. But the Master isn’t done; he goes out again at the 6th and the 9th hour. The suspense is building. Workers are working. The sun is scorching. Brows are sweating. Finally, the day is almost over, it’s the 11th hour. Everyone’s thinking the same thing: when’s quitting time and where’s my denarius?

            They’re so busy working they don’t even notice the workers called into the vineyard at the 11th hour. Before you know it, closing time. As the grapes are gathered and on their way to the wine press, the workers are on their way to collect their wages. But wait, that’s odd. The foreman calls the workers in backwards: last in first out. What a strange Master.
            Ooh, Did you see that? The last ones in receive their denarius. A denarius for a hour’s wage?! Wait ‘til we get ours, we’ve been here all day! If they got a denarius for an hour, we’re going to be rich. Look at all the work we’ve done.

            And with great astonishment…They all receive the same denarius. Grumbling ensues –like the Israelites in the wilderness and the Pharisees – always grumbling against Jesus’ goodness. Outrage! Scandal. Not fair! This upside-down, unconditional, undeserved goodness. That’s what really offends our religious sensibilities.

            Trouble is, Jesus isn’t interested in our religious sensibilities. Blessing and grace are never logical. If the world could be saved by hourly wages and bookkeeping all we’d need is Moses and the 10 commandments, not Jesus and his bloody cross. And grace would cease to be grace.
            However, the kingdom of heaven follows Jesus’ standard of righteousness, not our sense of fairness. It’s not about your work, but his goodness. And the minute we take our eyes of that, we are on the wrong side of this parable. It’s not who’s the greatest, who’s the winner, or who’s the hardest, longest working, sweatiest Christian around. Rather, the last shall be first. We all get the same. By grace you are saved – hired and put to work, no matter what your vocation is, no matter how long you labor in the vineyard.
            That’s what this parable is all about: Grace and judgment. Grace for those who least deserve it.  Judgment for those who resent it, who turn the evil eye to God because He isn’t fair and dispenses salvation freely. 

            To our sinful flesh, Jesus’ statement is terrifying. “I have chosen to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you cast an evil eye on my generosity? My goodness, My unconditional, unmerited, unqualified, outrageously absurd grace?” That is truly terrifying. How do you get along with such a Master? What can you do about this God who pays no attention to your standards and smashes your sense of fairness to kingdom come? (Yes, pun intended).

            You’ve come at last to the turning point of the whole parable. The first shall be last, the last first. Jesus’ words of terror turn into words of comfort. That’s Jesus’ audacious claim: our only hope lies in the fact that he does do just what he wants with what is his own. And look what he does with what belongs to him.

            See how the Master goes into the vineyard by himself: By the 3rd hour his work was well under way. Betrayed. Mocked. Beaten and Bloody. And again at the 6th hour the worker labors under the cover of darkness. In excruciating humility He bears the scorching heat of death for us in bloody sweat on his thorn-pierced brow. And again at the 9th hour – the worker cries out: My God, My God why have you forsaken me? The greatest burden of the day is born: silence. The first has become last. And the last ones – chief of sinners, self-justifiers, 11th hour losers – we are made first by the blood of Jesus. For the wages of his death are life for you. I choose to give to this last worker as I gave to you…as I gave to all. Today you will be with me in Paradise. Wrath gives way to righteousness. I bear your burden and I give you blessing upon blessing. No, it’s not fair. But it is gracious and good, eternally good for you who have been eternally bad.

            The kingdom of heaven is…Where the last are made first. Where utter failures make it into the kingdom as easily as the ones who worked all day. Where 11th hour losers, rascals, scoundrels, villains and knaves – murderers, hookers, tax collectors – sinners and failures – every last one of us...
            Whether you’re a lifelong Lutheran or today’s your first time in a church – we all receive the same from Jesus’ hand and it is good. We enter the kingdom the same way: as helpless little children, as 11th hour laborers whose only real work is found in seeing the pure and utter marvelous scandal of God’s grace. Here it is, it’s yours. I choose to give to the last workers as I give to you. Not fairly. But graciously. Freely. Justly.  God is not too proud… to spend his time with sinners, eating, drinking, forgiving, saving – He will have us even when we’ve shown that we prefer everything else to him (Lewis, Problem of Pain). 
And if you don’t find any of this “relevant” to your daily life, you’d better stop and take a look in the proverbial mirror. Maybe you have things backwards. It might just be that your daily life is irrelevant to what the Master of the vineyard has in mind.

            Rather, thank God he’s unfair. Thank God we don’t get what we deserve. Because if there’s room in the kingdom of heaven for hookers and murderers, tax collectors and Jesus-deniers like Peter, thief on a cross and 11th hour workers – then there’s room in the kingdom of heaven for me and you. We all get the same.
            Same Jesus crucified for us. Same Jesus in the forgiving Word from our pastor’s mouth to our ears. Same Jesus washing us daily in a bloody, saving bath flowing from his pierced side to our font. Same Jesus poured out on the cross to be poured out on our tongues for the forgiveness of all your sins. The Master loves to share the bounty of his vineyard with you.

            This is the marvelous joy of Christianity that causes sinners to leap into heaven like a calf leaping from its stall, further up and further in. Joy in the Crucified Christ. Joy that the One who is first became last so that we who are last might become first. Joy that Jesus reaps what we have sown. That you get out what Jesus put into it. Joy that here in his Church he is doing exactly what he wants with what belongs to him. For this God has decided to do something utterly and absolutely wild! He gives you his own, here, now…he dwells with you in words and water in bread and wine not only for a few hours – but to the end of the age.

            And so it is that in the 11th hour of this old creation, as the fields are ripe and the harvest is near, the Masters sends his laborers out into the vineyard once again. What a privilege!  We are called to work in the vineyard – no matter the hour or length of day - knowing that we’ve already been given the same denarius, the same salvation won for us by Christ Crucified.
            That may not fair, But then again, Jesus is not fair. He’s good and He’s gracious.

In the Name of Jesus + Amen.

Friday, September 16, 2011