Saturday, October 06, 2007

Congratulations, Rachael and Nate

Andy Jackson presides at his daughter's wedding today. Congratulations to bride and groom...and to both of their families.

I was able to preside at my daughter's wedding on June 18, 2005. I was able to do it without blubbering like a baby, a clear answer to prayer. (I'm not kidding.)

By the way, I've always loved the 1989-90 concert tour arrangement of Paul McCartney's We Got Married. No, I'm not advocating the premarital sex to which he briefly alludes in its lyrics. And I think that the implication left by the song that our marriages will work if we only work at them is only half of the truth. From my experience, no matter how much we love one another, we must work at our marriages. But we need something else. See the link, to see what else my experience has shown me that we need to make marriages work.

If the Religious Right Supports an Independent in 2008

Earlier this week, radio personality and psychologist James Dobson described a meeting of leaders of the Religious Right in which he participated. According to Dobson, the Salt Lake City gathering passed a resolution, the gist of which was:
If neither of the two major political parties nominates an individual [for President] who pledges himself or herself to the sanctity of human life, we will join others in voting for a minor-party candidate.
According to Dobson, "Those agreeing with the proposition were invited to stand. The result was almost unanimous."

Frankly, I hope that the members of this group follow through on their threat. Not necessarily because it would result in the election of a Democrat, which it incidentally might.

No, my interest in seeing the Religious Right shorn of its influence and power is entirely spiritual, not political.

For nearly three decades now, beginning with the formation of the Moral Majority by Jerry Fallwell in 1979, Religious Right politicos have presumed to speak, if not for all Christians, then for all who label themselves evangelicals. (Although a Lutheran, I classify myself as an evangelical because as the root word, evangel, implies, I believe in the Good News that all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ will live with God forever.)

One result of the political presumptuousness of Fallwell, Dobson, Pat Robertson, and others has been to make atheism fashionable in the United States. Their un-Christian legalism has made it easy for shallow religious provocateurs to fashion a false "straw man" Christianity which, with no intellectual effort and scant evidence, they can knock down to "prove" that God doesn't exist and that the claims of Christ are wrong. An uninquisitive media haplessly abets the misimpressions of Christian faith created by Dobson et al by treating their presumptions as true.

But the fact is that the forty to fifty people who tentatively voted for a third party presidential candidacy in Salt Lake City don't represent most Christians.

Most Christians, for example, are broadly speaking, pro-life. But they're not prepared to criminalize abortion or deny that there may be circumstances under which abortion may be a tragic option. Those circumstances include rape, incest, or when the mother's life is endangered.

Most Christians believe that the practice of homosexuality is a sin. But they abhor stripping homosexuals of their political rights. In my own case, I would never be part of a Christian rite legitimizing a homosexual relationship, although I feel that neither my faith or my marriage would be threatened should states legalize some sort of legal covenant relationship between consenting adults. (By the way, I believe that the Bible condemns nobody who is oriented to homosexuality. To be oriented to what the Bible calls sins is nothing other than to be tempted. It's also nothing other than being human. I'm often tempted by gluttony. That doesn't disqualify me from the Kingdom of God, thankfully!)

There is varied opinion among Christians about capital punishment, with many questioning if one can really be classified as pro-life while simultaneously favoring execution of crimimals. Most Christians I know seem to regard capital punishment as a necessary sanction of last resort, something to be used sparingly for only the most heinous crimes.

Many Christians feel it's hypocritical for us to lobby our government to save the lives of the unborn and then, pull what Ronald Reagan called "the safety net" out from under them once they are born. (See some of the articles linked here.)

Christians, well-meaning and committed to the sanctity of life, are divided on stem cell research, something about which I admittedly know little.

The bottom line is, as I've said many times before, there is no set of Christian principles for politics other than Jesus' command that we love God and we love our neighbor.

No Christian with whom I'm in daily personal contact has anything to do with the Religious Right and will vote as guided by their consciences, not by people like James Dobson. Most Christians believe that it's the function of the Church, of Christian leaders, and of individual Christians not to force their political ideas on others and label them as Christian. Our task and Jesus' command of Christians is that we obey the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.

This isn't to say that the Religious Right is devoid of influence. Dobson and crew may be able to convince a fraction of the electorate to vote for a third-party candidate in 2008. It would be a quixotic effort which, I hope, would demonstrate to the mainstream media and American mass culture that the Religious Right isn't synonomous with Christianity.

A drubbing might be a wake-up call to those involved in the Religious Right not to give up on politics as an individual pursuit, but to renounce the hubris of believing that they and God see eye-to-eye on political issues, to adopt more humility about their politics.

More importantly, it might convince some Christian leaders to focus not on securing votes, but on fulfilling Christ's command that we "make disciples." In the end, committed disciples, people who follow Christ, will live their lives differently, creating cultural differences that will render legal mandates unnecessary.

Such an approach requires more faith and more patience than that favored by the Religious Right. But I believe that it is the way to which we're called as Christians.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Purdue Will Be Buckeyes' Biggest Test of 2007

My Ohio State Buckeyes have played extremely well in this rebuilding season. They may be too highly ranked at the fourth in the country right now. But they'll hold that spot if they pass what promises to be their biggest test so far this season as they travel to Purdue. The Boilermakers are ranked twenty-third in the country and feature an extremely effective spread offense.

The Buckeyes will be using the nickel defense, about which a Columbus Dispatch article has this to say:
The Boilermakers brought the "basketball on grass" spread offense to the Big Ten in the late 1990s under coach Joe Tiller. It was a pass-first approach that dizzied conventional defenses and gave rise to the nickel.

This year, though, like many spread teams, Purdue has added a power running game with back Kory Sheets. It makes defenders think twice about putting pressure on quarterback Curtis Painter, and it puts pressure on a nickel defense to provide run support as well as pass coverage. The Boilermakers usually have at least three receivers on the field, including one of the nation's best in Dorian Bryant.

Ohio State's nickel, smelted by Florida's spread Jan. 8 in the national championship game, "has been pretty solid" this season, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "But it's going to have its most difficult challenge."
Bottom line: This game will say a lot about both the Buckeyes. If Ohio State wins, it will signal to me that they are for real. From that point forward, should any of the top three nationally-ranked teams falter as the season progresses as Ohio State progresses, the Buckeyes, will have a shot at a national championship.

That prospect would have been unimaginable to me as the footbal year began!

But Purdue will be tough to beat.

Go, Buckeyes!

[Picture of Ohio State-Northwestern game from Yahoo.com.]

Go, Tribe!

Not easy for a Reds fan to say. But, absent pitching--as always--Cincinnati is unlikely to sniff a playoff berth for the forseeable future and so, it's only legit for an Ohioan to root for Cleveland this October.

In the first two games of their divisional playoff series with the Yankees, the Indians have found two different ways to win. Last night, they pummeled the Yanks, 12-3. Tonight, they won an exciting pitchers' duel with a 2-1 victory clinched in the bottom of the eleventh inning.

Since the league divisional series are best-of-five, the Tribe needs to take just one in the Bronx, not a small task. But after these two wins, I'm becoming a believer in the Indians.

Monday, October 01, 2007

What Are You Afraid Of?

We're all afraid of something. But Charlie Lehardy writes:
...there are two types of faith.

There is a faith lived out on the margins of God's story, a docile faith of Sunday church services and sweet, familiar hymns, of comfortable ritual, friendly smiles and kind words. It is a faith whose story ends in the sadness of a cold, damp tomb.

Then there is a faith lived out in the middle of the unfolding narrative of God's story, a faith that breathes deep from the transforming pneuma of the Spirit, a faith that walks in the footsteps of the Son of God, a faith that has been humbled by the power of the resurrection.

And here is the interesting part. If we live in the shadow of the resurrection and in the presence of the living Christ, he takes away our fears.

Read the whole thing.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Call to Neighborliness

[Today, I gave this message (and led worship) at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. After the service, the congregation met and voted to call me to become their next pastor. So, after seventeen years as pastor of Friendship Lutheran Church in Amelia, Ohio, I'll become Saint Matthew's pastor on November 1. It will be hard to say goodbye to all the wonderful people of Friendship. But both my wife and I feel certain that God is calling us to Saint Matthew and we're looking forward to this new adventure!]

Luke 16:19-31
In the story Jesus tells in today's Gospel lesson, we see a wealthy man who willfully separated himself from the poor, diseased man at his gates. Jesus says that by walling himself off from Lazarus, the wealthy man also walled himself off from God. And from God’s grace. That's because God’s forgiveness and new life cannot penetrate hearts hardened to the needs of neighbors.

The story ends with both Lazarus, who is the poor man, and the rich man, whose name is never given, dead, but experiencing different fates. The wealthy man is in torment in Hades. Meanwhile Lazarus, the one who in this life had craved crumbs from the rich man’s table, who was so helpless that he couldn’t fend off the wild dogs that licked his sores, and whose name means ironically, God helps, enjoys a feast in heaven reclining next to Abraham, the father of Biblical faith.

Anybody who studies Luke, the New Testament book from which Jesus’ parable is taken today, can tell you that Luke loves to underscore Jesus’ teaching that God commands the haves to share with the have-nots. Caring for the poor and the hungry is part of what it means to fulfill God’s command to love our neighbor.

But there are, I think, two big mistakes that people make when interpreting this parable. The first big mistake is to think that Jesus is only talking about caring for the poor here. It’s about much more than that!

At the end of the tour of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., which presents a history of Adolf Hitler’s campaign to exterminate the Jews of Europe, there’s an amphitheater. There, on a large screen, you can see Holocaust survivors talk about what happened at the ends of their internments in the Nazi camps. One woman featured in the amphitheater video tells of receiving word that the Americans were nearing their camp. She and the other internees had no idea what to expect of these new conquerors. But they were terrified. After all, to their Nazi guards, they had, for years, been nothing but cattle. They were throwaway people. They suspected that they always would be. Fearful, she and the other prisoners huddled in their barracks. Soon, an American captain walked into her barrack. She and the other women there stepped back from him, like animals who expected abuse. “It’s alright,” he explained in their language. “We’ve come to set you free.” They were skeptical. But the captain was insistent. Finally, this young woman, emaciated and filthy from her years of deprivation, decided to trust the captain’s words. She stepped forward. And then he did something unexpected: He opened the door for her. “Nobody had opened a door for me in years,” she remembers. She began to weep.

In Jesus’ parable, He says, literally, that Lazarus had been thrown onto the doorstep of the rich man. We don’t know who threw Lazarus there. But we can guess it wasn’t anyone who wanted to help him. Likely it was somebody tired of seeing him cluttering their streets and their lives. They probably thought that they could not and certainly would not help this nobody. So, like the Jews thrown into Hitler’s death camps, Lazarus became a throwaway person. He was someone no one else wanted.

There are lots of throwaway people, people no one else wants. And not all of them are in death camps. Not all live in places like Darfur or Burma. Some of them are people we live with, work with, go to school with. They may be people we try to avoid every day.

Father Andrew Greeley presents the story of a new girl who came to the seventh grade at a school far from her hometown. Blair had come to live with her aunt and uncle after her parents, brother, and sister were killed in a car accident. Blair had managed to roll out from under the car and was not physically damaged. But the trauma of the event caused her to withdraw into a protective shell when dealing with others. Most of the seventh grade girls thought she was weird. Some of them laughed when she misspelled a word or left her book at home or did anything that they considered “uncool.” They, of course, considered themselves to be really cool. But, Katie, one of the “cool” girls felt sorry for Blair and befriended her. She told her friends that they should be ashamed of themselves for the way they were treating Blair. “After all,” she said, “how would you feel if your family all died in an accident?"

At its deepest level, Jesus’ parable calls you and me to treat others with simple neighborliness. This is what Katie did for Blair. This is what the American captain did when he opened the barracks door for the Holocaust internee. It’s what the rich man in Jesus’ parable could have done for Lazarus.

Simple neighborliness is what Jesus calls all of us who are blessed to be God’s children to give to life’s throwaway people. We must avoid the mistake of thinking that Jesus is only talking about giving money to the poor here. He’s talking, in part, about being neighborly to all who have needs, including the poor.

I love what Pastor Brian Stoffregen says about this parable. Everybody expresses concern about the poor and needy and we should. But shouldn't we also talk about helping those who are "rich and needy"? And, how about those who are middle class and needy? The fact is that everybody in this sanctuary this morning and everybody we know has needs which God may be calling us to fill. Neighborliness does that!

But there's a second big mistake people make in translating Jesus’ parable to their everyday lives. This one does involve money and the poor. The second big mistake is for us to think that Jesus is only telling wealthy people to share their money or possessions with others. We can say to ourselves, “This parable doesn’t apply to me. I'm not Bill Gates!”

But the fact is that Christian neighborliness does call all of us to share what we have with the poor. Often, we’ll be able to do this through our offerings to the hunger relief efforts of the Lutheran Church. Or through contributions of food to local food banks. But sometimes, we’ll be confronted with needy people who, like Lazarus in Jesus’ parable, are right in front of us.

Last year, my wife, my mother-in-law, our son, and I visited Cleveland to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was a beautiful Labor Day morning as we walked to the Hall from our hotel. The streets were fairly deserted. On the way, we encountered a woman. “Do you have change for a ten?” I thought I heard her ask. It wasn’t Christian of me, but I was relieved. I never carry more than a few bucks and I knew that all I had was a five. I wouldn’t have to stop and fork over any cash. "Sorry," I said, "I can't help you."

"Wait a minute," the woman told us, "I'm no bum, I'm a nurse." The phrase was repeated three times as though part of a well-rehearsed routine. "My car broke down and I need to get to work. Buses don't run as often today and I need to get a taxi." I was ready to move on. But my wife asked the woman how much she needed. "Ten dollars." My wife opened her purse and handed the woman the money. As we walked on, my wife explained, "She may well have taken me. But if so, she'll have to answer for it. I don't want to have to answer for not giving to somebody who might really have a need." (She's the real theologian in the family.)

The needs of Lazarus would have been obvious to the rich man in Jesus’ parable had he looked up from his sumptuous dinner and beyond his gates long enough.

If we take the time, we too can see needs right here in Logan and in Hocking County, needs that God might want to use us to fill.

The New Testament tells us that “every good and perfect gift” comes from God. When we give to those in need, we tell God thanks for all His gifts. Most especially, we express thanks for the gift of Jesus Christ, God-in-the-flesh, Whose death and resurrection give all with faith in Him life forever with God. That's a lot for which to be thankful!

Jesus’ call to simple neighborliness does call us to care for the needy.

Sometimes their neediness is financial.

Sometimes it’s spiritual.

Sometimes it’s nothing more than the need we all have of listening ears, compassionate hearts, or strong shoulders.

From what I’ve learned about Saint Matthew Lutheran Church over the past few months, I know that this sermon, in some ways, falls into the category of “preaching to the choir.” This already is a neighborly church. You care about each other. I was moved to hear about your prayers for young Sarah, facing leukemia, as well as for her family last Sunday. And I know that you care about the community. I was interested, for example, to see in the online version of The Logan Daily News the other day that you hosted a flower show here. I see that you care enough about your neighbors to broadcast the worship service each week. Caring Christians show that kind of hospitality and neighborliness!

In the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

If you call me to be your pastor, I want to work with you to build on Saint Matthew’s past in order to grow, spiritually and numerically, in the future. That growth won’t happen overnight. But I believe that if we take the lesson of Jesus’ parable to heart and ask God to show us how, in new times with new challenges, we can let Christ’s light shine in us, good things will happen.

We can build on Saint Matthew’s tradition of simple, Christian neighborliness and see not only more people in this sanctuary for worship, but also more people who can affirm that, as Lazarus’ very name testifies, God helps!

One day, when you and I sit at the great heavenly banquet that all of God’s people will enjoy with Abraham and all who have trusted God, I want to be able look back in gratitude on our time together here at Saint Matthew, thankful that we took God’s blessings and shared them with our neighbors and let our lives show others how wonderful the God we know through Jesus Christ truly is!

I want to work with you, worship with you, witness with you, learn with you, teach with you, laugh with you, cry with you, and serve with you so that this community will see and experience the light of Christ blazing in our souls and have their lives changed forever. Amen!

"And Who is My Neighbor?"

From Luke 10:25-37:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
From Dietrich Bonheffer, martyred by the Nazi regime for his Christian opposition to Hitler, writing in The Cost of Discipleship:
“Every moment and every situation challenges us to action and to obedience. We have literally no time to sit down and ask ourselves whether so-and-so is our neighbor or not. We must get into action and obey — we must behave like a neighbor to him. But perhaps this shocks you. Perhaps you still think you ought to think out beforehand and know what you ought to do. To that, there is only one answer. You can only know and think about it by actually doing it. It is no use asking questions; for it is only through obedience that you come to learn the truth.”