Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Can a Christian Watch or Read Hunger Games?

I read the Hunger Games trilogy before its first book became a smashing box office success. This past weekend's opening grossed $155 million. That could buy you a lot of food in Katniss's home of the Seam in District 12. It also has a lot of people wondering what this movie and the books are all about. Hunger Games has led both the Christian and non-Christian alike to ask profound existential and intellectual questions about the contents of the trilogy (topics like the effects of war, poverty, government, oppression, ethics), especially given its popularity among younger teenage audiences who often may not be as mature as the subject matter they are reading.

Now, to Collin's credit, the books were written to a more young adult level. And the fact that the junior high and high school aged group has picked them up, I think is testimony to her superb writing, entrapping story telling and engaging subject matter. The books suck you in. She doesn't always answer all the questions and tie things up with a pretty bow. But that's where the reader comes in.

So, what's a Christian to do? Can a Christian watch or read The Hunger Games?

That's a question I've been pondering since I finished the first book and blazed through the second and third books as well. Much could be said about the contents, themes and imagery in the book.

The setting of the book is a dystopian future set in what once was North America; think of it as the Roman coliseum gladiators meeting up with Big Brother in a post-apocalyptic alley. The atmosphere is godless (and perhaps that's the point) although I haven't read too much about the author or her world view; she's a great writer though and tells a great story.
No doubt Collins has many points to make along the way, namely, what is the line between reality and entertainment? What happens in a society when people will endure anything so long as they are fed and entertained and if you control that you control the society? This is much like the way that the Romans used the coliseum: panem et circenses they called it. In fact, the mythological tales of Theseus destroying the Minotaur (after being throw into the Labyrinth by Minos) is one of the foundational pieces for the first book. The second is even better: Spartacus breaking free from the gladiator ring to lead a rebellion against the oppressive government. Katniss has her own Third Servile War to participate in. Both stories form the entire arc of the Hunger Games.
Rather than promoting book bans and burnings, I would encourage Christians to approach reading the books and watching the movies in this way: as mature, well catechized youth and adults. Parents and children could watch / read together, giving families the opportunity to discuss what is right and what is wrong and what if any Christian themes are present.

Furthermore, I know many of our youth today are reading these books. It behooves us to know what they are filling their heads with so we can respond clearly and thoughtfully. They speak the language of these popular books and movies and it helps us bridge the gap when we can converse clearly and intelligently with them on the issues of their day and culture. Ultimately this allows us to declare the Gospel in their particular and unique context, much like St. Paul did before the Greeks in Acts 17, quoting Stoic philosophers like junior highers quote Harry Potter spells. Patronus!!!

And lastly, I actually happen think there are Christian themes in the Hunger Games (the books at least) - I have yet to see the movie - and those should be discussed and enjoyed even when they are found in the most unlikely places. Whether these are intentional or unintentional (ala Francis Rossow's Gospel Patterns book) is another question entirely.

As many have noticed, some of the more apparent themes are rather nihilistic: hopelessness, suffering, death. But underneath it all there is this: take away the political, the the bleak world where men use men for their own gains and power struggles and there is one story plot that stood out in the Hunger Games - love gives way to sacrifice and sacrifice gives way to love. Sacrifice and Love.  If you've read the books, it's all too apparent.
By her own admission, Collins was heavily influenced by themes of war and how people live during wartime. And it shows in her writing. These themes of love, sacrifice, an unlikely hero (and heroine in this story), epic struggles against good and evil. This is not just the stuff of the movies and books. It's the stuff of reality. That's the story of the New Testament...the only myth which is also made fact, as Lewis once commented.

Now, if a Christian does not want to read them or watch the movies. Fine. No one is forcing or coercing anyone to see the film or read the books. You are free to read or not to read; just as the Corinthians were free to eat or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols. However, in Christian freedom, we must also not make a law that says "thou shalt not read" where God has not commanded such. If that were the case, we wouldn't be watching or reading a lot of things or talking with a lot of people for that matter, ultimately including ourselves; for if we take our sin seriously we shouldn't listen to the things that come out of our wicked, old-sinful heart according to Jesus. And, by the way, have you read some of those stories in the Old Testament?

Thanks be to God we are free in Christ from sin and death. We have been freed from ourselves by his death for us. Christ is greater than Theseus (who could only mythologically rescue from death) for he defeats sin, death and the devil by entering the Labyrinth of his own creation in time, in human flesh. He does this not in fictional fairy land or in a dystopian sci-fi story, but in human history. In the days when Quirinius was governor of Syria. He was Crucified under Pontius Pilate. And he rose from the grave. He is not here; He is risen! And over five hundred witnesses saw him alive (1 Corinthians 15). Christianity is a faith founded on fact. And the facts are built around sacrifice and love.

True Sacrifice and Love. Greater love has no man than this, that one lay down his life, not only for his friends, but for his enemies. Jesus, the One greater than Spartacus who leads an all out rebellion against the powers of hell and the prince of this world. He has set you free. And if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Narnia Book Covers, Part 1

A book without a cover is naked. And in most states, illegal too.

If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as "unsold and destroyed" to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this "stripped book."

Nobody likes a stripped book. You see; its more than proper dressing, copyright laws and aesthetics. After all, a book cover is a window into the book itself, like a story within a story. It's the first impression. And first impressions matter, whether it's an academic book with stylized lettering and clean lines or a children's book robed in chromatic beauty. In fact, some of the books I find myself reading again and again also contain some of my favorite artwork: Alan Lee, Ted Nasmith of Tolkien fame. And of course my favorite illustrator, Pauline Baynes. She illustrated for both Lewis and Tolkien with sublime elegance and timeless character. Both men praised and adulated her work (a topic for another day and another post). And while it may not tell you the whole story, a well illustrated book cover just might highlight some of the book's major themes, characters or events. The Chronicles of Narnia is no exception, revealing the fact that sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.

Below I've begun to make a gallery of sorts, a collection and  sampling of some of the popular Narnian book covers over the years. No doubt there are others and will be more in the future. That's part of the joy of artwork; creativity and imagination endure along with the readers of these great works of literature. Should you find any that I've missed, by all means, send them my way!

This first edition features the work of Pauline Bayne, from the first edition and the collector's color edition. I highly recommend buying the books themselves in order to get delve into the richness of the artwork in person. The internet doesn't do them justice.

Thank You, Pastor

There were many words I heard yesterday. And outside of the divine words of the Divine Service and of the Sacrament, they were undoubtedly three of the best words I could have possibly heard. "Thank you, Pastor," said the man after receiving the chalice. And really, what else can you say at that point kneeling down before the Table of the Lord? Amen. Thank you.

Lord, may thy body and thy blood, be for my soul the highest good. It is. He is your highest good. His body broken into death for you; His blood shed for the remission of all your sins.  There are many things you could do for your pastor. And trust me, we appreciate the prayers - they're needed; we appreciate the gifts and the cards - although they are unecessary but still graciously received. But the best thing you can do for your pastor is to say..."Thank you, pastor."

Friday, March 23, 2012

Dare to be a Lutheran Apologist


Here are the necessary (and yes, I looked it up; I'm that nerdy) dictionary facts:
[ok-si-mawr-on, -mohr-] Show IPA
noun, plural ox·y·mo·ra [ok-si-mawr-uh, -mohr-uh] Show IPA, ox·y·mor·ons. Rhetoric .
a figure of speech by which a locution produces an incongruous, seemingly self-contradictory effect, as in “cruel kindness” or “to make haste slowly.”

Origin: 1650–60; < Late Latin oxymorum < presumed Greek *oxýmōron, neuter of *oxýmōros sharp-dull, equivalent to oxý ( s ) sharp ( see oxy-1 ) + mōrós dull ( see moron)

Here are even a few examples:

Microsoft Works
Post Modern
Atheist Evangelism
Kosher Ham
Nerd Chic
Regional Pantheists
Anarchists Unite!
Religious Tolerance

By the way, feel free and add to the list if you've got any good ones, especially an oxymorons of the nerdy variety!

Tragically, here's one that often gets thrown into the list of the popular sub-genre, Lutheran oxymorons: Lutheran Apologetics. But it's really not a real oxymoron at all. Lutheran. Lutheran and apologetics - that is the defense of the Christian faith - are not self-contradictory, incongruous or merely a clever rhetorical locution.

In fact Lutherans have been apologizing since the beginning. And by apology I mean defense, not, "I'm really sorry that you don't like the biblical doctrine of Justification by faith, Emperor Charles." No. Here we stand: Lutheran apologists. We have a long history of this vital task in theology. Luther and the other reformers did it in the 16th century in many different contexts than we do in the 21st century. But the content and even the methodology (to a variety of degrees) has stayed the same. Declare the Good News: Christ Crucified for you. And when necessary, defend the truth with every tool at your disposal: evidence, history, textual arguments, logic, reason and a host of other first article gifts.

In fact, many of the world's leading apologists are Lutheran - John Warwick Montgomery, Rod Rosenbladt, Craig Parton - or have been influenced greatly by Lutheranism - Alistair McGrath, R.C. Sproul, Craig Evans.

There are many Lutherans who would say that apologetics is nothing more than an oxymoron at best, perhaps unnecessary and even heretical at worst. I would contend that most of these folks neither understand apologetics nor Lutheran doctrine - you really can't have one without the other. They're not mutually exclusive; nor are they incompatible. Lutheran apologetics is thoroughly Scriptural: see 1 Peter 3:15 and Paul at Mars Hill in Acts 17. And it is needed now more than ever. It's not just the college students who are bombarded with secularism and a myriad of attacks on the Christian faith. Each day the age of atheist accountability is getting lower and lower. My youth group kids have friends who are Muslim, Mormon, Atheist, Jewish, Jehovah's Witness and Buddhist (just to name a few). On any given day both our high school students and the average person in the pew probably hear more attacks on the Christian faith than they do reasonable and well articulated arguments in favor of the truth of Christianity and its central claim: Christ is risen. 1 Corinthians 15 is essential reading here.

Now, all of this is a rather lengthy introduction to a fantastic new resource on Christian apologetics, not to mention Lutheran apologetics. Higher Things recently published the spring issue of their magazine entirely on apologetics. I am extremely proud of our Lutheran contribution to this field of theology, and in particular proud to support the work of Higher Things as they continue to dare to be Lutheran apologists. The caliber of writing in this magazine is phenomenal. These articles are a fantastic resource. This is how we should be training up our children in the ways of the Lord. So, click the link below and download this special issue for free. That's right, just like the Gospel. Free.

Special Apologetics Issue of Higher Things Magazine

Lutheranism has much to offer the Christian Church when it comes to apologetics: the best of both worlds really, clear witness and caring service, coupled with the veracity of the historic Christian faith in all its richness and verifiability. And at the end of the day...it's simply one more means by which we are given opportunity to speak the Word that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself not counting our trespasses against us. And what a blessed oxymoron that Blessed Death and Loving Sacrifice is, a Good Friday indeed.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

E-nklings Cloud of Witnesses: Pastoral Meanderings and C.S. Lewis on Law and Gospel

I highly doubt Lewis ever read C.F.W. Walther's The Proper Distinction Between the Law and the Gospel. But that really is neither here nor there. There undoubtedly is a wealth of study and writing to be done on the topic: C.S. Lewis on Law and Gospel. Thanks to Rev. Peters at his blog Pastoral Meanderings, there is another great article on the salient teaching of Law and Gospel as well as the insightful thoughts of Lewis on the same. Someday I hope to add to the wealth of information. But for this evening, enjoy the following link

C.S. Lewis on Law and Gospel.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Theology Goes to the Movies: Hugo

"Once upon a time I met a boy named Hugo Cabret. He searched to find a secret message and that message lit his way all the way home."

That message also lit a floodlight of thoughts as I watched the brilliance of Hugo unfold before my eyes on Friday night. If the movie was this endearing and the characters this lovable, the book must be simply spectacular. It's already on my Amazon wishlist! Rarely do I follow all the Oscar hype; but Hugo far surpassed even the flash of those lights.

Although this film took place in Paris, France I couldn't help but think of one particular German word that captured the life of Hugo Cabret: beruf. Some translate it as "occupation," but in classic Lutheran theology it is also translated as vocation, from the Latin, vocatio. Calling.

As the movie progressed, the plot did so much more than carry you along; it tinkered on you, like a skilled watchmaker gracefully creating a masterpiece from a chaotic mess of springs, gears and sprockets, all with the utmost care and craftsmanship. There were problems that needed fixing. The orphan boy and the memories of his father. The uncle's mysterious disappearance. The orphan girl and her Papa and Mama. The automaton and its own mysterious message. And of course, the amusing antagonist Inspector. By the end of the movie, which I hope not to give away entirely (but you've been forewarned!), this massive pile of moving parts came together awakening the imagination. No extra parts, everything was there in the film for a reason. Everything and everyone had a place, a part to play. Indeed, Scorcese built a fine watch.

But of course, he didn't build it alone. He had help. Superb acting, especially the boy who played Hugo, Asa Butterfield. Sir Ben Kingsley performed superbly as well. And you can't forget all the work of editing and writing and cinematography and on down the list. All of that too is the doctrine of vocation. Vocation was all over this movie, right down to every last cog and wheel of the great clock itself. There is such a thing as the vocation of film-making. It is a delight to see it in action. Film, entertainment, the arts, music, literature - all these can be God-pleasing masks through which he works, serving his creation. Call it the vocation of the imagination. In other places I've called this kind of thing the right-brained apologetics.

J.R.R. Tolkien called it the work of sub-creation: "We make still by the law in which we are made" (Mythopoeia). This is part of the reason why people love reading classic books, watching timeless movies, listening to music that stirs the soul or gazing at art in its many forms. It not only awakens our imagination, these creative arts give us a glimpse of reality bigger and beyond ourselves. They do the same thing for us that watchmaking and fixing did for Hugo, remind us that there's purpose and meaning in life. And more importantly, the good movies, books, art and music point us (intentionally and often times unintentionally) beyond sub-creation, beyond the creature to the Creator. Lewis talked about this in Surprised by Joy as he recounted reading George MacDonald's Phantastes, as his imagination was "baptized."

Now, when it comes to Hugo, I don't think I'm making this up. Of course, I'll probably never be find out how Martin Scorcese or the writers of the film would articulate it (of even if they could at all). But if you could get them to read the chapter on vocation from Gene E. Veith's Spirituality of the Cross, I would like to think they might say, "Why yes, that sounds a lot like this boy, Hugo and his adventure. I see what you're getting at."

For despite the fact that there was not a lot going for this orphaned boy - who lived in the train station clock tower, foraged for bread, dodged the inspector and stole parts from the toy shop - he had a knack for tinkering. But it was more than a knack. Hugo was good at fixing things. His father, a watchmaker, had taught him well. And his uncle, bacchanalian though he was, still managed to show him the ropes, er gears and winding levers, of the station's myriad clocks. Hugo discovered this himself at a young age, probably far younger and with more wisdom than we "educated adults" would give credence to these days. Nonetheless, out of the mouth of babes:

Right after my father died, I would come up here a lot [main clock tower]. I'd imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn't be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason too.

Hugo is right. Everyone has a purpose, a part to play. There are no "extra parts" in this world. Calling. Vocation. Beruf. This is where our Lord goes to work everyday, in the stations in life where he has called us: family, church and government (broadly speaking). The ordinary, the mundane, the everyday tasks. This is how God brings daily bread to our tables, health and healing to our bodies, a roof over our head, and yes, even a watch to keep time with (despite the fact that it's probably digital and far less elegant than in yesteryears).

Consider the words of St.. Paul: "For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. 14 For in fact the body is not one member but many....there are many members, yet one body"  21  (1 Corinthians 12).

Even creation itself is wound up like a great grandfather clock - hours move, the weather and seasons do too. The trees and rivers clap their hands (Psalm 98, Isaiah 55). The morning fauna sound the cuckoo clock letting you know the time is near. We even learn from the fig tree its lesson. It's all there, the intricacy, care and brillliance of a watchmaker.

And yet, we notice - as Hugo did - that there's something broken in this world. Everything needs fixing. Scientists call it entropy. Scripture calls it sin, death and decay. Hugo observed this firsthand. The death of his parents. His uncle's abandonment. The weary, retired film maker, Georges Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley). He and Hugo were not all that different from each other. Both needed fixing.

Hugo needed parts for his father's last project, the enigmatic automaton. But more than that, he needed answers: what is my purpose, beruf, vocation? Where do I find my place in a world that has come unwound, out of gear and in disarray? And Georges needed purpose too; he needed beruf, vocation. His former days of film making magic had waned, and he thought, passed with time.

"Maybe that's why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn't able to do what it was meant to do... Maybe it's the same with people. If you lose your purpose... it's like you're broken."

What each man needed was fixing. And it was through each man's vocation that they found what they were looking for all along. It was the movies - not coincidentally the very movies that Georges made - that had bonded Hugo and his father together. And it was this son who brought a broken man of the movies back to his vocation. He fixed Georges.

"Happy endings only happen in the movies," said Georges. But that's not entirely true. In fact all happy endings - whether they are found in epic movies or fantastic books - are all glimpses and windows into (and perhaps even gears and sprockets of) the one truly happy ending: the Great Eucatastrophe.

Hugo, you see, isn't the only one who likes to fix things. Nor is he the best at it. That was his vocation, true enough. But it also happens to be Jesus' vocation. Christ is no blind watchmaker. Jesus comes to fix creation, broken by sin, death and the devil. The watchmaker becomes part of his own design. The director becomes the lead actor. The Creator becomes a creature. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And in this case, the movies (and art) imitate reality. For it was not a heart shaped key that solved the world's greatest mystery or fixed our deadliest problem, but a cross shaped one. Christ Crucified for you and for all of us, a world full of Hugos and Georges who need fixing. For years Jesus labored in his creation, proclaiming good news to the poor, setting the captives free, restoring sight to the blind, and finally, raising the dead. For hour he labored in agony on the cross. For three days he rested in the earth. And finally he rose. Life restored. Creation and creatures fixed. Behold, I make all things new. And you receive it all in Baptism, in Absolution, in the Eucharist. You are orphaned and broken no more.

"You don't need family," the Inspector crassly snapped. He's wrong, however. For you can't fend for yourself, go it alone or make it on your own - not in this life or the next. But God will not leave you as orphans. You have been adopted into a family. You are a member (and a valuable instrument) in his workshop, the Church. You are no longer a son of Adam or daughter of Eve, but a child of God. You had as little choice about it as the day you were born. Your belly button is constant reminder that you are dependent on someone else for your life. That life is a gift. For as many vocations as you have in this life, that is your most important one of all. For that is Christ's vocation for you, to call, gather, enlighten and sanctify you by his Holy Spirit. And the Father, echoing the words of Georges to the Inspector says, "Monsieur,  this creation, these children belong to me."

This is one adventure you won't want to miss.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Lent 4 Sermon: "The Antidote"

+ Lent 4 – March 18th, 2012 +

Number 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

            The children of Israel had a problem. Snakes. Snakes here. Snakes there. Snakes everywhere! Under the rocks. In their tents. Creeping. Crawling. Biting. Dying.

            After all the Lord had done - the release from bondage to death and slavery in Egypt; the exodus; the Lord’s promise to be with them in the wilderness. Still they grumbled against God and against His servant Moses. Ungrateful for the manna from heaven; thankless for the water that came from the rock.

            Snakes were the consequence of Israel’s rebellion. Impatience led to grumbling. Grumbling led to sin. Sin led to death.

            The people confessed. Moses interceded. And God provided a sacrament - a bronze serpent on a wooden pole. A visible sign with a promise: “Anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” A rather strange sign, don’t you think? Most of us have some level of ophidiophobia. Usually serpents are gross and slippery and slimy; bad news, like Slytherin in Harry Potter or Smaug the Dragon in The Hobbit. Snakes are no good.

            Strangely enough, this cure looks like the disease itself. A serpent of all things, an image of that sly, subtle creature who tempted Eve in the Garden. A bronze snake hoisted in the air on a stake for all to see. In Leviticus God said don’t make images; then He has them make an image.

            With the Word, the sign is a “sacrament,” a tangible gift from God. Look on the bronze serpent and be healed of your snakebite. The promise was located there. When the Israelites were burning up with fever and delirious with poison, they didn’t say, “What do I need such a silly snake on a stake for? I can just pray to God directly.” They didn’t say, “I don’t like snakes; they give me the creeps. Look at the snake? Are you crazy?” No, they did what the Lord said to do. The image wasn’t the problem it was the true or false worship associated with it.
            That’s what makes an idol; an image without the command and promise of God. The golden calf. Even the bronze serpent eventually became an idol for the Israelites. “Nahushtan” they called it; they even offered incense to it. It was destroyed along with Aaron’s staff that miraculously budded. That’s what happens when a sign comes unbuckled from God’s Word: idolatry always follows closely behind.

            That was Israel’s most deadly problem. Not the snakes. Idolatry. In the desert they tried to repeat the serpent’s slippery performance in the Garden: forget God. Forget His promises. Take matters into your own hands. Be your own god: fear love and trust in yourself.  It’s always the first commandment, isn’t it?

            We’re no different. You've been “snake-bitten” along with all humanity. It happened in the Garden with another kind of serpent: shrewd and subtle. Eve was tempted and the poison of his lie was injected. The lie that God is not true to His Word. The lie that God doesn’t mean what He says. The lie that we can be gods instead. The lie that we can disobey God and we won’t die as a result. Eve bit. Adam bit. The serpent bit and his deadly poison invaded our humanity leaving no part undamaged. Humanity died that day. They were dead to God and to each other - hiding, ashamed, blaming, self-justifying, guilty as the poison was deadly.

            And the poison is passed on to their children too. Every son of Adam and daughter of Eve is infected. No generation skipped. Not you. Not me. We’re all born with the poison coursing through our humanity. Saint Paul says, “You were dead in trespasses and sin.” Not merely a flesh wound. Not sick, not weak, not troubled, not struggling or even hanging on for dear life. Snake-bitten dead.

            What’s the cure for a deadly snake bite? You can’t put a band aid on it: “Just think positive thoughts; try hard to get better.” No, you need someone to draw the poison out of you and give you an antidote. Something you can only get from someone who has taken the venomous bite and lived to tell about it.  For “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.

            God made Jesus, the sinless Son, to be sin for you. He became your sin and in Him you receive the righteousness of God. He was cursed with your curse; He was damned for you. He went head, hands and heals first into your sin and death. Jesus took the hit for us: God’s, the devil’s temptations, the Law’s judgment. He went down to our grave, and He rose from the dead. He conquered our death in His Death. He is the antidote of Death. Like the bronze serpent on the pole, all who believe in Him are healed of death and have eternal life.

            “Outrageous,” you say. Yes it is, but this isn’t your court. And you’re not the judge. If God’s judgment of “innocent in Jesus” doesn’t suit you; if you’d rather argue your own case and justify yourself, if you’d rather refuse the bronze snake on a stick and work out your own antidote…Jesus speaks a warning: “Whoever does not believe, whoever does not trust the crucified and risen Jesus, stands judged already because he refuses to trust in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”        

            Where then do you look for the antidote? No coincidence, the early the church fathers called the Sacrament “the medicine of immortality.” The cure for death and the curse of sin. Jesus’ body given into death; Jesus’ blood given for your life. The world looks on the Sacrament as though you have just raised a bronze boa, “You’ve got to be joking! This is how you live forever? Trust Jesus? Eat His Body as bread? Drink His blood as wine?”

            But what other cure is there? Who else promises rescue from death? Who else in the world died and rose from the dead? Who else says, “Trust me, eating my flesh, drinking my blood, and I will raise you up on the Last Day and give you eternal life”? Who else but Jesus?
It's like little children - you ask them how much you love them and they spread out their arms...this much. How much does God love the world?  This much...arms spread out wide on the cross. God loved the cosmos in this way: He gave His only-begotten Son to die for you. What God tested Abraham to do - offer up his only son Isaac - God the Father actually did. He raised His Son up on a cross one dark day we call Good Friday. In love, Jesus dies for an unloving, unlovable world. No bronze serpent, just a bloody, crucified Savior.

            And the world says, “Eew. How disgusting. How grotesque. That’s nuts. How can I believe in a God would do such a thing? What a weak and foolish way to die” There’s no alternative. You can try looking, but there’s no other antidote for your disease. This is the God who is love for the loveless, who forgives your sin, who justifies the sinner in Christ. The God who is willing to be bruised by the serpent in order to crush his head. The God who offers his heal – his hands, his side, his whole life - to save you from being poisoned to death forever. The God who is willing to become the curse, the disease to give you the cure.

            So, imagine for a moment that you were an Israelite in the wilderness. Your best friend, relative, or neighbor is lying on the ground, bitten by the snakes. What do you do? Wish him good luck and hope for the best? Tell him to accept YHWH into his heart? You’re a survivor, alive by the grace of God. Wouldn’t you point your friend to the bronze serpent? Maybe even carry him so he could see it clearly? You wouldn’t take no for answer. You’d be urgent and forceful. You wouldn’t worry about hurting his feelings or “not respecting his beliefs” or all some other excuse. “Look here and live.” 
            You need look no further for this medicine of immortality than in Christ’s church. Here the Great Physician gives you the medicine you need: the Word of forgiveness; the Sacrament of Jesus’ death and life. Here is your antidote. Eat and drink and live.

             “For God so loved the cosmos in this way: that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It’s more than a sign for the end-zone at a football game. It’s the Gospel in a nutshell. But you should really learn verse 17 as well: “For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but to save the world through Him.”           

            Judgment comes later. But even then, it will be a judgment in view of what Christ has already been done for you on the cross: “It is finished.” Look on Him and live. Behold the Lamb of God bearing your sin. That’s your life hanging on the cross. He’s not on the cross or in the Sacrament to judge you. He was judged for you. The verdict is rendered. Jesus is guilty, and in Jesus you are innocent. Acquitted. Justified. Righteous. Alive.   

 In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Heart Shaped Whip

Have you ever stared at something for years, only have your eye catch something new, something you never noticed before? Like that arrow in the negative space between the "E" and the "X" on FEDEX trucks...or that tiny mermaid on those little plastic stir sticks at St. Arbucks. I had one of those "oh-you-idiot-how-did-never-see-that-before" moments this morning at church. The choir was singing a piece entitled, "How Deep the Father's Love for Us. There I was pondering the words of John's gospel, which would be read shortly. Today's reading for all you three-year lectionary folks, was from John 3:14-21. The famous snakes in the wilderness now hoisted and fulfilled in Jesus reading. The ever-popular football end zone trend, bumper sticker theology post-it sign: John 3:16. And then I looked down at my stole. I've stared at this purple, Lenten stole for 4 years now at Redeemer and not once did I notice this until this morning's confluence of events during the Divine Service.

Looking at the stole from the front this is what you see.

But take a closer look. Do you see it yet?

Try looking at it from the angle (more or less) that I saw it.

There it is, the heart-shaped whip cord. It is said that although the Babylonians invented crucifixion, the Romans perfected it. And you can see why, given the panoply of implements they had at their disposal to inflict as much pain possible while still leaving the subject alive enough to suffer agonizing hours (and frequently days) on the cross. Of course, this is a far more stylized version than the Romans actually used back in the first century, but the point remains the same. If you want a to see a historically accurate replica, watch Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. They get it right, even down to the very stroke.

Now, a heart-shaped whip might seem strange at first. That's what initially caught my attention. I even began to wonder this morning whether or not the dear Altar Guild ladies at Redeemer planned that when they made these stoles. You never know, those church ladies are quite clever and profoundly thoughtful.

The adjectives "brutal" and "horrific" don't seem adequate to describe the scourging of Jesus. And you could pile them all up and still not encompass the cosmic reality of such suffering. But perhaps there is one word that envelopes all the mockery, the hurled spit, the slander and betrayal, the scourge and the spear, the nail and the thorns. Love. For Jesus this is not only adjective, but it's a noun, a verb and his own personal name. God is Love.

For God loved the cosmos in this manner: that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life. Or consider the words of Isaiah.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

Lent is, above all, about this kind of self-giving love. For greater love has no man than this that one lay down his life for his friends. But Jesus goes one step further; he lays down his life in love for the unlovable. He loves his enemies as his himself. He gives them his cheek, his head, his hands and all. And he does it for you. Oh love, oh scars, oh heart-shaped whip - how deep the wounds of love for you and me and the life of the world.

Oh, love, how deep, how broad, how high,
Beyond all thought and fantasy,
That God, the son of God, should take
Our mortal form for mortal’s sake!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sermon: In Memoriam - Audrey Westlie

+ In Memoriam – Audrey Westlie +

March 17th, 2012

Philippians 4:4-9; John 11:17-26

 In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.
            When people die we often say things like: “They lived a good life; look at all the great things they accomplished; what a great person.”  And all of that was certainly true for Audrey. We probably hope for the same. But Audrey’s house was built on a solid rock.

            For the best and quickest way to tell how someone lives their life – isn’t to look at all at the things they have done – but rather, to look at the way they approach death.
            Take Martha, for example. Her brother Lazarus was dead. And what did she confess? “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Martha’s hope is Audrey’s hope. The hope of all who trust in Christ. Our dead, disease-ridden body will one day be raised in glory. Good as new. Christ died. Christ rose. Christ will come again. So, He declares as a certainty: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”  That’s Good news for Martha and Lazarus.

            “I am your resurrection and your life,” Jesus says to Audrey. Our bodies are built for life. That’s why death is such a struggle. Death is not the end. And that’s good news for you too. “I am your resurrection and your life too.”

             That’s why Audrey spent her last days, weeks and hours confessing and hearing the words of the Scriptures, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed. Not her accomplishments. Not what a great person she was; not a word about herself at all. None of that mattered as much as hearing Jesus’ words for her. Hearing how Jesus died for her. Hearing what a perfect life he lived for her. Hearing all His accomplishments for her. Baptism. Being fed the Lord’s Supper. Being forgiven her sin day after day, year after year.

            No wonder Audrey’s favorite Bible passages from Philippians sounds like this: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

            That’s exactly what Audrey did. The lovely, honorable, just, praiseworthy and excellent things she thought about were these. That she was declared just – righteous – by Jesus’ death for her. Her sin was taken way by his death and she was now pure and lovely in God’s sight. For the most excellent and praiseworthy thing about Audrey is not that she knew herself to be great, but that she had a greater Savior. Not that there was anything excellent or praiseworthy about her at all, but that she was loved. Forgiven.

            Audrey knew that everything good in life was a gift. She knew she was a sinner. But more importantly, she knew that Jesus death on the cross was greater than her sin. For Audrey, it wasn’t so much about what she accomplished but what Jesus her Savior accomplished for her on the cross. And that is the best life of all. Living as one forgiven by Jesus. Living as one who deserves nothing from God and yet receives everything out of fatherly divine goodness and mercy. Living life as a redeemed child of God.

            She knew her Savior. She was baptized. There was nothing to fear. Jesus’ death on the cross had paid for all her sin. And she was free.  That’s how she lived her life. In love and service and God-given humility towards others.
            Whether she was making lists for Christmas, groceries or her beloved candies there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for her family. A good mother – you see – will go to the ends of the earth for you. That’s who Audrey was – a loving mother and grandmother, a caring friend. She loved because Christ had first loved her. That is where Audrey learned unconditional love from. She was a bright mirror, reflecting the love of Christ for her and for the world and for you. Because Audrey’s hope was not Audrey, it was Jesus.
            So, consider for a moment the life Jesus lived. Not just a good life. A perfect life. The only perfect life ever lived. And Jesus lived it, not for his own sake, but for you. He lived the perfect life you never could. He lived it because you can’t. He did it all for you. All his accomplishments: miracles, healing, teaching – he did it all for you.

            And most important of all, look at the way Jesus approaches death. Even in death he lives for you. He has the scars to prove how much he loves you. He was wounded for you. He suffered for you. He bore your sin nailed on his cross for you. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do to save you. No mockery too shameful, no nail too piercing, no pain too agonizing.  He goes to the end of the earth, even into the very heart of the tomb, for you. Love divine all loves excelling. The cross is his greatest accomplishment and he does it all for you.

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

GCB: Good Christian What?

Pop-culture commentary often takes you to places you'd rather not go, or in this case, watch. Case in point, ABC's latest adventure into the crossover between religion and drama; it's like Desparate Housewives meets The Purpose Driven Life. And yes, I'll admit I watched GCB. Add it to the growing list of today's alphabet soup. Now you can watch GCB after you GTL while listening to LMFAO. This happens to be the sanitized title ABC came up with to appease their Bible Belt viewership: Good Christian Belles. The original title is - and pardon the PG-13 reference here (earmuffs!) - Good Christian Bitches. Before it was a not-so-hit TV show on Sunday nights (naturally), it was a not-so-best-selling book by Kim Gatlin. Believe me, there are plenty of used copies on Amazon. I looked.

At first you might find the name offensive. After all, the "B-word" is not a very nice thing to call a lady, (unless your name is Bill Maher, then you can pass it off as "comedy" and call someone whatever you like...but I digress). You may even have tuned in just to see what the hype was all about and found their horrific use of Scripture rather ludicrous - verse after verse pulled farther out of context than a bad set of blond extensions. No doubt, using the Scripture in such a manner is wholly offensive. Poor Biblical interpretation doesn't sound any less heretical coming out of a pretty mouth.

No, my main contention with the program is not what was said or done during the show, but what was missing. While GCB has a real flair for revealing hypocrisy (not to mention the stereotypical cat-fights and petty cheap shots that ensue), not to mention all the gossip in the pew and the ritzy neighborhood, the 8th commandment wasn't the chief commandment  breaking I noticed. GCB was rich in pharisees, but poor in tax collectors. A wealth of pointing the finger, but a poverty of forgiveness. A whole bigger-than-Texas helping of, "Thank God, I'm not like that woman across the street." And not enough of, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner."

The two main scenes between the main protagonist, Amanda Vaughn (played by Leslie Bibb), and the primary antagonist, Carlene Cockburn (played by Kristin Chenoweth), both take place in their local church. During the prayers of the church no less, they vale their not-so-subtle attacks at one another in the form of a public prayer. The church is the one place where hypocrites are welcomed, in fact highly encouraged to come. We can always use one more (Chief of sinners though I be...there' always someone worse than me!). But church is also the one place on earth where all of us hypocrites, sinners and GCB's should be guaranteed to hear the one thing that really matters any given day we come through those doors: forgiveness. That's what we need. To hear the words: "In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." Again. And again. And again.

This is what Jesus told his disciples the church's main (and only) task is: to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to the end of the world, to every corner of the sinful world. You are forgiven for Christ's sake. By his cross. By his death. By Jesus becoming the hypocrite and the pharisee and the sinner for you. He loved his neighbor as himself, actually better than himself. He loved his neighbor to death. Your sin - no matter how salacious or dramatic or downright ugly - is paid for. Redeemed. Gone. Buried in the tomb of Christ. And your pastor is there to deliver this Good News to you with water and Word, Jesus' body and blood and the proclamation of Christ himself: You are forgiven all your sins.

What else is the church all about if it is not the forgiveness of sins? If this is lost, so is the church. And that's why, believe it or not, I am going to keep watching GCB just to see if forgiveness does come into the show at some point. I pray that it does; it would be refreshing. After all, that's what it means to be Christian - to be a forgiven child of God, as we pray in the Lord's Prayer, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, not matter how pretty or ugly the sin is.
Y'all come back now ya hear!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Vocation in the Media: Southland Edition

God's Work. That was the title of last Thursday's episode of Southland, a fast-paced police drama on TNT. You may object to the language. You may not like the cinematography (it's a bit shaky; a realism style of film). You may not even like the show at all. And that's fine. Personally, I love it. It's gritty. It's not contrived. The character are well-casted and well-played. I've been hooked since the pilot episode on NBC.

At any rate, I would venture an educated Christian guess that you (as every Christian should) probably don't object to the work these brave - yes, brave - men and women do on a daily, nightly, round the clock, sleepless night and in-harm's-way basis. Just what are they doing that is so worthy of bravery? No doubt to them, it all seems rather ordinary. Ask any cop and they'll tell you they've seen it all - and the ones I know are thankful just to come home at night (or the morning), hug their wife and kids, rest and go back to work again the next shift. Repeat. Just another day at the office, behind the badge, tucked in the four walls of their Crown Vic cubicle. They strap on their bullet proof vest, load their side-arm, pack their shotgun and hit the beat - because good and evil are all to real, despite what we may have been taught by our philosophy professors may hat that fancy pants secular schools. Police officers stare the reality (and consequences) of evil, sin and death in the face every day.

Sure, that's their daily routine. Routine is part of life, no matter what your vocation. And that's the whole point. The ordinary. The everyday. The so-called "mundane". Honestly, I don't think I would want the vocation of a police officer, let alone in Los Angeles. I couldn't hack it.  But I am sure glad there are those who do and can and will. Thank God for the cops. For they have a sacred vocation that has been instituted by God. They are part of the "governing authorities" of Romans 13. (And in my book you can't pay teachers, law enforcement or our armed service members enough for the work they do). For cops are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad - to the perp and the would-be-law-breaker. That's their God-given, left-hand realm work, the long arm of the law. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword (or in this case, the Smith and Wesson) in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Thank God for these divine curbs. Serve and Protect. That's what the side of the LAPD cop cars read. And that is why they are truly doing God's Work. And for that, I thank you.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Lenten Midweek Sermon: "Scandalous Forgiveness"

+ Lenten Midweek, 2012 – Servants of the Word Pulpit Exchange +
Theme: Confession and Absolution
Title: “Our Need: Living as Saint and Sinner” (the 1st of 5 parts)
Text: 2 Samuel 12
NOTE: As the notes above suggest, this the first in a five-part sermon series based on the 5th chief part of Luther's Small Catechism, Confession and Absolution. This Lenten sermon series is also part of a pulpit exchange with local Lutheran pastors in our area, leading up to a Catechism Convocation on April 21, 2012 on the same topic - go to www.smallcatechism.com for more information. The upside is I only have to write one sermon for the midweek services. The downside is I don't get to preach the other 4 topics. Call it a homiletical catch 22. Nevertheless, it has been a joy to participate with the brethren in this effort and we look forward to the culminating event on the 21st of April.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
            Scandal. Coveting. Lust. Sex. Adultery. Oh, and don’t forget the cover-up. Murder, an illegitimate child and a wedding. You watch with white knuckled anticipation. What happens next? What juicy drama – don’t touch that remote!
            But this isn’t the latest episode the Real Housewives of fill in the blank city. You’re reading the Old Testament. Who needs Desperate Housewives drama when there’s plenty of it in the Bible? An adulterous tryst with Uriah’s wife – notice her name isn’t even mentioned - turns into an unplanned pregnancy. Wisteria Lane has nothing on King David. He’s got it all planned out though, doesn’t he?
            Give Uriah the soldier a weekend pass. Some free time with his wife. And the rest, as they say, the birds and the bees. Uriah goes back to war. Bathsheba is pregnant. And everyone can connect the dots.
            One problem though! Uriah won’t go home and sleep with his wife. He refuses. He sleeps on the porch. You could cut the irony with an Ammonite sword. There’s only one thing left for David to do. Order Uriah to the front line. Then pull back. Leave him high and dry. King David pulls a Tony Soprano. Offs Uriah through one of his generals.
            Then after the funeral’s over and everyone has mourned the fallen soldier, King David turns on the charm. Offers to help the poor widowed Bathsheba. Takes her into his home and makes her his wife.
            “What a magnificent king! Look at how he provides for our war widows!” Can you imagine the paparazzi snapping the couple’s first kiss and the cake cutting ceremony of Israel’s most benevolent king? What a great story. Everyone loves a royal wedding.
            The only thing better is a celebrity baby. Everyone will think that baby bump under Bathsheba’s dress is King David’s legitimate child. He wants everyone to know he’s the father…just not the real story. Ah, I love it when a plan comes together. Sounds great, huh?  No one will ever know.
            Too bad it’s a fraud. A big fat lie. Glamorous and glitzy on the outside. But full downright filthy on the inside. 2 Samuel gives us the real story: coveting, adultery, theft, murder, and idolatry. Scandal upon scandal upon scandal.
            David needed forgiveness. He made his bed, but didn’t want to lie in it. But before he could receive forgiveness he needed to know that he needed to have a need for forgiveness.
            So God sent Nathan the prophet. Nathan means gift – a rather fitting name, don’t you think? After all, David needed pastor Nathan – like a sick man needs a doctor. Like a man about to get hit by a bus needs to be shoved out of the way. David needed what we need – the gift of Confession and Absolution. This is what the Lord does. He’s in the business of working repentance and forgiving sins. That’s why he sends you pastors to confront your sin and speak God’s Word of Absolution.

            That’s the part of Confession we hear about tonight. Our need. Forgive the silly comparison, but it’s kind of like men and shopping malls – if there’s something we need; we run to it; get in and get out get on with life. Otherwise, why bother.
            So too with confession. If we knew the dire need we’d beat down our pastor’s door to absolve us. We’d high-tail it to Confession and Absolution faster than someone looking for shelter in one of those zombie apocalypse movies: “Let us in; save us for Christ’s sake.”
            That’s what Absolution is all about: salvation for Christ’s sake. A word of rescue. Absolution through from God himself, through your pastor’s mouth to your ears. That zombie business – thrilling science fiction no doubt – but it’s not all that far off from the truth. That’s more or less what David was before Nathan came to him: a living dead-man, a sinner in need of repentance, the walking dead. Lent reminds us that we were that way too. Enemies of God. Rebels. Sons of Adam. Dead men walking.
            So Nathan comes to David with a story. It’s worth repeating:
“There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds, 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. 4
            Very clever that Nathan. He does what practical jokers have known for centuries; the best way to make the guy look like a complete fool is to have him play the joke on himself.
            A well-crafted parable. Who better to tell this story about sheep-stealing to than a former shepherd? No coincidence her. Nathan, the shepherd of souls comes to David, the shepherd of Israel in order to rescue this little lamb from death.
            David went to great lengths cover his guilt with fig leaves but God saw through it. And all David’s careful planning came unraveled with Nathan’s word: “You are the man.” David was angry – who wouldn’t be? The irony is that David’s righteous indignation was kindled against no one but himself. As David passed judgment on the hypothetical sheep-stealer, he uttered his own death sentence. He slammed the gavel on his own head.

            He broke the 5th, 6th, 7th and 10th commandments but his chief violation was the 1st: “Why have you despised the Word of the Lord and done what is evil in his sight.” David needed to hear. You need to hear Nathan’s words: “You are the man.” We can’t point the finger of judgment at David without heaping coals on our own head. “I have sinned against the Lord.” Like David, our need for confession is great…but the cross, the blood, the absolution of Jesus is greater than your sin.

            And now we’ve finally found the most scandalous part of this story. “David receives reconciliation from the Lord Himself through the spoken Word of forgiveness: “The Lord has put away your sin,” Nathan declares!  David was right. He deserved to die. And so did we But that’s not what we get.
             Are you kidding me? The Lord just up and forgives David? Forgives us too? All our wickedness? No promises to do better? No conditions? No strings attached? No turning our lives around?

            Yes, that’s right. The Lord has put away your sin. It’s gone. Paid for. Covered in Jesus’ death for you. Pastor Nathan just up and absolves poor miserable sinners. The law-breaker goes free. The wicked are let off the hook. The innocent pays for the guilty. The free man dons the shackles of your slavery.  He who knew no sin becomes sin for us. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the scarlet sins of David and you and makes them white as snow in his blood.
            The Lord has also put away your sin and buried it in his tomb. And there’s only one thing coming out of that tomb: the resurrected Lord…and your eternal life with him. Every lust, murder, gossip, theft and wickedness your of your heart; Every rejection of God’s Word – Christ has taken and put away. You are hidden from death in the flesh of Christ as Moses was tucked in the cleft of the rock.
            David’s sin is put away by David’s greater Son, Jesus. And so is yours.  David doesn’t get what he deserves. Neither do you. Neither do I. That’s what Lent; That’s what Good Friday; That‘s what Confession and Absolution is all about. Outrageous forgiveness for undeserving sinners. Even sinners as scandalous as King David.
            What a gift this sacrament is. As Luther says, we ought to be happy to run more than 100 miles to confession without coercion. Just to hear that word again: “The Lord has also put away your sin.”
            Washed away in Baptism. Drown and flooding over in the cup of Christ’s saving blood. Fed and nourished with his body. Confess your sins. Receive Absolution. Get in. Get out and Get on with life. Your sin is put away in Christ. Your pastor’s ear is the tomb where Christ buries your sin. The Word he declares in your ear drums is God’s own voice. From the mouth of the Lord, through his servant, to your ears: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ…The Lord has also put away your sin; you shall not die.”
 In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.