Saturday, May 24, 2008

Jesus Lays Waste to "the Law of Attraction"

The so-called "prosperity preachers" should consider these words from Jesus, recorded in Luke 12:15, 22-34:
15And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

22He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 26If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. 32“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
These verses are the focus of a great devotion in today's Our Daily Bread. Go here.

Okay, you may say, if God provides our daily needs, why are there so many starving people? Good question!

In looking at the current disturbing inflation of food prices, some conclude that there is a worldwide food shortage. Not so, says Ian Sheldon, Andersons Professor of International Trade
Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics at The Ohio State University
. Says Sheldon:
"Food price inflation is due to a combination of factors: We are producing more food than ever, so there is no shortage of supply. There is more demand due to: a move to generate more biofuels, increasing demand for food in China and S.E. Asia, where people want more meat, and a drought in Australia affecting grain prices.

“The answer may lie in technology – foods that are drought resistant or can grow in salt water.”
Sheldon's prescription is no doubt part of the solution. Another part is in the haves, of which I am one as a middle income American, resolving to share with the have-nots. That should be part of our lifestyle.

The reason we don't readily do that is, as Jesus intimates v. 32 above, fear. We're afraid that if we give away anything, there will be less for us.

At one level, of course, that's true. There will be less for us.

But we'll be giving away from our excess. For example, I'm a 54 year old man who's 5', 9" tall, weighing 178-pounds. According to this handy online calorie calculator, my daily intake should be 2487 calories. But the daily intake in the US is 3330 calories. Both in terms of our current crop yields and our needs, we've got plenty to give!

Now, back to that so-called "law of attraction." The idea behind it is that if you think about the things you want, they'll come your way. Want a new hot tub? A million bucks? Think about it, this "law" claims, and you'll get it.

Now, it's true that if you obsess on something sufficiently, you'll tend to make it a priority and tend also to mow your grandma down to get it. The headlines and gossip rags are filled with tales of wealthy businesspeople and oft-photographed celebs who have laid waste every important relationship in their lives--most tragically, their relationship with God--to get the baubles of the world. They've attracted more stuff to themselves than they will ever need...and some they'd just as soon flush.

But the fact is, Jesus doesn't promise His followers a life of ease. He promises a life of significance, purpose, and fulfillment to all who dare to follow Him. He also promises us our daily bread, enough to live each day, and He promises to be with us always. He's never welched on a promise!

[UPDATE: Among the many things I appreciate about Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, the congregation I serve as pastor, is the way in which the people respond to the needs of others. A few months ago, we began receiving food offerings for a local emergency food bank on the last Sunday of every month. The collection bins are always running over with food! What an awesome way to thank God for the gift of new life in Christ and the gift of each day.]

Historical Inquiry: What About Senator Clinton's Apparent Point?

Something of a media firestorm has greeted Senator Hillary Clinton mentioning the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy following his June, 1968 victory in the California primary.

I, for one, don't believe that Clinton meant to draw an analogy between Senator Barrack Obama and Bobby Kennedy, insinuating that because the Illinois senator evokes the same sort of passion as Kennedy, he may be an assassin's target, thereby presumably giving the New York senator reason for staying in the race for this year's Democratic nomination. There was nothing to be gained by Clinton in making such a connection, especially among Democratic superdelegates, many of whom venerate Kennedy and his older brother, President John F. Kennedy, and, like most Americans, have just been saddened by the news that Senator Edward Kennedy is suffering from cancer. Clinton, in spite of what her many opponents may say, is not evil incarnate. She's not stupid either.

Clinton's apparent point was that suggestions that she depart early from the race were, as she put it, "unprecedented." To buttress her case, she mentioned that her husband didn't clinch the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination until mid-June.

She then noted that at the time of his death in early June, 1968, Robert Kennedy was still contesting--probably futilely, it should be added--for the Democratic nomination in the California primary. I believe Clinton meant to say that it isn't outrageous for her to still be in the race in June, 2008.

That may be. But comparing, June, 1968 to June, 2008, is not so much comparing apples to oranges as it is apples to King Kong.

One big difference is that the entire primary season in '68 began with New Hampshire's primary, not on January 3, the date for the campaign-opening Iowa caucuses this year, but on March 12. That's fully two months and nine days deeper into the calendar than this year.

The California primary, the last of a grand total of thirteen primaries held in 1968, was held on June 5.

Kennedy didn't even declare his candidacy for President until March 16, 1968, four days after President Lyndon Johnson narrowly defeated anti-Vietnam War senator, Eugene McCarthy, in New Hampshire.

Kennedy therefore, on the night of the California primary, was still a candidate for president little more than three months into his campaign and just three months after the first contest. By contrast, Senator Clinton announced her candidacy on January 22. 2007!

The date of the California primary in 1968 would, if put in an analogous position on ths year's election calendar, fall on April 3, a date that's already two-and-a-half months past.

By June 3, 2008, when the Montana and South Dakota primaries end the long round of primaries for this presidential election season, a full six months will have passed since the beginning of the process.

Six months after Robert Kennedy declared for the presidency was September 16, two weeks beyond the traditional Labor Day start of presidential general election campaigns.

Senator Clinton has every right to stay in the race, of course. But her continuing to contest for the nomination in June, 2008 is clearly not the same as Bobby Kennedy remaining in his race in June, 1968.

An interesting, if unanswerable question, is what Robert Kennedy would do if he were in Hillary Clinton's position? No one can know. But, as he was fond of telling his presidential campaign handlers when they put too optimistic a spin on his delegate counts and nomination prospects, he had done their job once, back when he'd managed his brother's 1960 campaign. He knew, he reminded them, how to count.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Who Do You Trust?: A Look at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (May 25, 2008)

This Sunday's Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 49:8-16a
Psalm 131
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 6:24-34

The Prayer of the Day:
God of tender care, like a mother, like a father, you never forget your children, and you know already what we need. In all our anxiety give us trusting and faithful hearts, that in confidence we may embody the peace and justice of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Some Comments:
1. This is the Second Sunday after Pentecost, effectively beginning the longest season of the Church Year. The Pentecost season runs until we begin a new Church Year with the Advent Season which, this year, will fall on November 30.

2. Falling after the three great festivals of the Church--Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost--have been celebrated, the themes of Bible lessons appointed for the Pentecost season, are basically, living each day with Christ and growing in our faith in Christ. The latter theme is why the color of the season is green. Like plants that grow green and strong the more they depend on the water, soil, sun, and nutrients, we grow in our faith the more we depend on the God we know in Jesus Christ. Those who grow green in their faith grow in all of the eternal blessings of God, blessings like hope, joy, peace, and assurance of God's grace. Those who grow green in their faith also more readily and, with less self-concern and self-absorption, pass on God's blessings to others, blessings like forgiveness, compassion, and loving counsel.

3. Last Sunday, Holy Trinity Sunday, is always celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost. It still has the hint of a festival about it. But this Sunday, we get down to the business of living faith in the "in between times" in which we live, the times between the ascension of the risen Jesus and His return one day, when He will fully establish His Kingdom.

4. We certainly get down to brass tacks in the lessons for this Sunday. They address, first of all, what have been for centuries and remain for today, the primary impediments to faith taking root in us and growing: (1) The difficulty we have with trusting the God, a difficulty reflected in our penchant for worrying. (2) The difficulty we have with trusting that God will provide for our material needs, a difficulty reflected in our penchant for worrying about whether we will have "enough" of food, clothing, shelter, and the like. These issues inhere in all of the lessons, though they are most overtly addressed in Jesus' words in the Gospel lesson from Matthew.

5. Another theme, of course, is trust in God. Trust in God is the opposite of worry. When we allow the Holy Spirit to build our trust (faith) in God, we are freed from worry. We know that God is our God for all eternity. We know that God, in the three Persons of the Trinity, is intimately aware of our daily needs: The Father knows from having designed us. The Son knows from having been one of us. The Spirit knows from living with us day-in and day-out.

A bit about each of the lessons...
6. Isaiah 49:8-16a was originally addressed to the Judeans who, following the conquest of their country, had been exiled to Babylon. Many others had fled the country and were living in other places, members of what we still call the Jewish diaspora (dispersion). Through Isaiah, the prophet, God is promising that He will gather His people together again. God can be trusted.

The imagery of v. 15 is interesting. God is compared to a mother who never forgets the children once issued from her womb or nursed at her breast. This certainly conveys both the tenderness and the resilience of God's love for us.

Syene was a region of southern Egypt.

7. Psalm 131 is, as the superscription at the beginning indicates, a "psalm of ascent." It was sung by religious pilgrims come to Jerusalem for one of the great Jewish festivals as they ascended Mount Zion, the site of the temple.

Verse 1 says that the worshiper understands that God is higher than they. Here, we see genuine humility exhibited. Humility isn't having a low opinion of one's self, but a right opinion. A humble person understands that they have eternal value, value conferred upon them by the God Who made them, redeemed them, and lives with them.

Verse 2 has something of the same imagery as the Isaiah passage. The worshiper sees himself or herself as "a weaned child," able to make decisions and function, yet still dependent on God.

The bottom line: Hope (trust, have faith) in the Lord!

8. 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 may, at first, not seem to fit in with the other lessons. The apostle Paul is addressing the dysfunctional church in the Greek city of Corinth. Among the many issues in this congregation was the penchant of its members to identify themselves as followers either of Apollos, a Christian preacher; Paul; or Jesus. Paul points out that neither he nor Apollos are worthy of "following," only Jesus, God-in-the-flesh. He says that he and Apollos are only "servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries." Trust in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, nothing else.

9. Matthew 6:24-34 contain words of Jesus from His Sermon on the Mount. It would be wrong to conclude that Jesus is condemning money or work. The birds, in His illustration, work to gather in their food. But they're not paralyzed with worry over whether there will be food. If God cares about inferior creatures like birds, think how much more God can be trusted to provide for your real needs. (More on this in my sermon on Sunday, I'm sure.)

Instead, we should make seeking or striving for God's Kingdom the focal point of our daily living. God can be relied upon. God can be trusted.

Jesus says we must choose who our master will be. Will it be money and possessions? Will it be God? Whatever has our highest allegiance is our master and our God. Money and possessions can get us through this life and a certain amount of it constitutes "our daily bread," which God wills for each of us to have. But only God can give life, today and in eternity.

[Each week, I present some thoughts on the Bible lessons for the succeeding Sunday. In doing so, I hope to help the people of the congregation I serve, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, to prepare for worship. And because, we will almost always use the appointed lessons for the Church Year, I also hope that these thoughts can help others prepare for worship too.]

Please Join Us in Thanking God!

The congregation I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, is deeply thankful to God for the progress made by one of our members, seventeen year old Sarah, in her fight with leukemia. On Wednesday, it was learned that a biopsy conducted while a Broviac catheter was removed, showed no traces of leukemia.

I'd appreciate it if you'd join us in thanking God for this.

Please also pray for Sarah's continued healing and thank you very much!

Please Pray...

for Steven Curtis and Mary Beth Chapman and family. Steven Curtis Chapman is a Christian contemporary musician with a long list of hits to his credit. Yesterday, in a terrible tragedy, the couple lost their five year old daughter when an SUV driven by a son accidentally hit the child. Their multiple agonies in this one event are almost incomprehensible.

Please ask God to give comfort and assurance to this family, along with the hope that comes to all with faith in the resurrected Jesus.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

What a Trip with Peabody and Sherman Might Say About the Dem Fight Over Michigan and Florida

Senator Hillary Clinton has a point as it relates to the Michigan and Florida delegate-seating controversy. In fact, she probably has several points. Among them...
  • Every vote should count.
  • Michigan and Florida should be represented at the Democratic National Convention.
  • Delegates ought to be seated by a formula reflective of the results in their states.
These points reflect principles of the "Mom and applie pie" variety, ones to which most Americans would readily assent. If the senator were pushing them in May, 2007, rather than in May, 2008, she would clearly hold the moral high ground and the political advantage.

But that may not be the case today.

To know why I say that, you'll need to play Sherman to my Peabody for another trip in the Wayback Machine with me. Our destination is 1972. (A presidential election of year of which this one sometimes reminds me, by the way. But that's another story best left to another post.)

In June of that year, South Dakota Senator George McGovern apparently clinched the Democratic presidential nomination by winning the California primary. The new delegate-selection process, established by a party commission headed by McGovern himself, stipulated that delegates should be parceled out proportionally no matter what process was employed in their selection, whether primaries, caucuses, state conventions, or some other way.

In spite of this, going into the nominating process, the national party had accepted the winner-take-all rules of California's primary. The winner of the state's primary, however thin the margin of victory, would receive all 273 of California's delegates to the national convention, a bountiful prize, amounting to 18% of the 1509 delegates needed to take the nomination.

But once McGovern had secured what appeared to be a majority of the elected delegates (superdelegates didn't come along until later in Democratic Party history), the anti-McGovern forces, certain that the South Dakotan wasn't supported by most Democrats and would lose the fall's general election, decided to mount a credentials fight against seating the entire California delegation for McGovern. Since the senator's ultimate delegate total was 1729 and he won California by a mere 5% plurality, his first-ballot nomination--and his ultimate selection by the convention--would have been jeopardized had the proposed rules change been approved. McGovern's opponents argued that the delegates should be seated proportionately, as in most of the other states' delegations.

The McGovernites argued that while their adversaries might be right on the principle of proportional representation, they were wrong on a larger one. That larger principle was that, simply put, it isn't fair to change the rules at the end of the game.

Every candidate had known well before June, 1972 that California was a "winner take all" primary, which is one reason McGovern's remaining opposition fought so hard to win there. It was under the rules prevailing when the campaign began that McGovern won the California primary and it was under those rules that he was entitled to all 273 delegates.

I well remember that my Dad, never intensely interested in politics, found the McGovern campaign's argument persuasive. He stayed up into the late hours of the night to watch the Democratic convention wrangle over the issue. (I would have stayed up with him, but I was working a ten-hour a day first shift job in a factory at the time and had to be up too early to spend the night watching the bickering Dems, some of whom were friends from college.) When the convention decided not to change the rules at the end of the game, Dad felt that right had been vindicated.

Fast forward to 2008. The year before, the Democratic National Committee stripped both Florida and Michigan of their right to send delegates to the national convention because they had the temerity to schedule their primaries on dates the DNC didn't like. It may, rightly, I think, strike one as odd that a national political party can presume to tell the elected officials of state governments when their states' elections will be held.

But when the DNC issued its edict regarding the primaries in Florida and Michigan, all of the candidates for the Democratic nomination issued not a sigh of protest. All the campaigns, including that of Senator Clinton, in fact, supported the DNC position. None of the candidates campaigned in the states, effectively nullifying the primaries per the intent of the national committee. The rules of the game were set and all were in accord with them.

In a few days, the DNC will reconvene, their main piece of business to decide what to do regarding Michigan and Florida. Should they seat delegates from the two states? If so, by what formula? Should they accept Senator Clinton's position that delegates should be seated in accord with the results of the two states' primary elections, even though no candidates campaigned in Florida or Michigan?

Ordinarily, maybe, the principles on which Clinton is basing her current arguments would be persuasive. But the simple fact is that everybody, including Senator Clinton, agreed to the rules of this game before it began. Is it fair then, for her to insist that the established rules, however ill-advised, be changed just before the final buzzer?

As those celebrated time travelers, Peabody and Sherman can tell you, timing is everything. Although Senator Clinton has many commendable points in her argument regarding Michigan and Florida, the time to protest the DNC's position on Michigan and Florida probably passed a long time ago, meaning that right about now, the New York senator may be wishing she had that Wayback Machine.

[UPDATE: Here's the NY Times article from last September, in which the Clinton campaign pledged its support of the DNC desicion about Michigan and Florida and any other states contemplating moving their primaries or caucuses close enough to steal Iowa's and New Hampshire's thunder. Thanks to Simply Skimming for pointing to this article.]

[While I enjoy analyzing current political situations through the prism of a life-long interest in history and politics, I refuse to endorse or deprecate any political candidates. As a pastor, I would deem it wrong to do so, except when Biblical imperatives are plain. Those who claim they can perceive my political sentiments from my "political" posts are almost always wrong.]

Monday, May 19, 2008

Luther and the Reformation

[This presentation about Martin Luther and the Reformation is something which I've written and taken through multiple rewrites and updates since I became a pastor in 1984. I shared it with a class at Saint Matthew Lutheran in Logan, Ohio, where I serve as pastor, that began meeting tonight. The class is using James Nestingen's wonderful study, Roots of Our Faith, as its basis.]

He was born in November, 1483, in the German principality of Saxony. His father was a one-time coal miner who, through hard work, had risen to middle class status, the owner of several mines. His mother, who would exert so much influence over the boy was, in the custom of those times, a full-time housewife and mother.

His name was Martin Luther. From an early age, he exhibited great intelligence and many talents. As time passed, he would become an extraordiary preacher, theologian, and musician. These pursuits were far from his father’s intentions for young Martin. Hans Luther wanted Martin to become a lawyer in order to care for him and his wife in their old age.

That, in fact, was the trajectory on which Martin’s life was moving when a shattering experience intervened.

He was heading back to the university he attended, when a ferocious thunderstorm arose. A lightning bolt knocked Luther to the ground. Understandably terrified, Martin cried out to the patron saint of miners. “Saint Ann,” he said, “save me; I will become a monk.”

I once told this story to Father Seavey Joyce, who served Saint Ann's parish in the same small town (Frankfort, Michigan) where I did my seminary internship. Seavey listened and wearing an impish smile, said, "I guess that goes to prove that even saints make mistakes." (He was kidding because Seavy told me once, he was sure that one day the Roman Catholic Church would name Luther one of its saints.)

But of course, it wasn't Saint Ann who’d made a mistake. It was Martin Luther. In fact, in his moment of terror in the thunderstorm, he made several mistakes. Mistake one: Calling for supernatural help from anyone other than the God we know in Jesus Christ. Mistake two: Making a deal in the hopes of placating what Luther thought was an angry God. God doesn’t make deals.

But Luther became part of a long tradition of people who have done the right things for the wrong reasons.

In the Old Testament book of Genesis, for example, we find the true story of a young dreamer named Joseph. His father, Jacob, doted on the boy while virtually ignoring his ten other sons. Resentful, Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery and then took the coat their father had given to him and spattered it with blood. They showed it to Jacob. He concluded that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

The brothers had done the wrong thing. But it turned out that, unbeknownst to them, they played into God's plans for Joseph. Joseph was set down a difficult road that ultimately led him to become, in effect, the prime minister of Egypt, second in command after the Pharaoh. In that position, Joseph oversaw the storing of crops during seven bumper years in anticipation of seven years of famine, a famine that affected the entire Middle East.

Ultimately, Joseph was able to use the stored crops to save the lives of his very own family members and many others. Later, he was able to tell his brothers that when they sold him into slavery, "You meant it for evil. But God meant it for good so that many might be saved." Joseph's brothers had somehow done the right thing for the wrong reasons.

In the New Testament book of Matthew, we find the story of people who came to see the Christ Child. We call them "wise men." But they were really little more than astologers, people who made horoscopes and superstitiously believed that stars foretold occurrences on this planet. It's the sort of the practice that the Bible condemns completely. We're to depend on God and on nothing and nobody else. Yet, these wise men who followed the stars for the wrong reasons, at the end of their journey, came to the right conclusion: This baby was the Savior of the world.

Martin Luther’s entry into the monastery for the wrong reason turned out to be very right, indeed! I don’t think that his father ever forgave the young Luther for taking the vows of a monk and "abandoning" his family. When, several years later, Luther also was ordained a priest, his father, Hans, expressed the belief that Martin’s call might not have come from God, but from the devil.

Martin Luther, it turns out, was a deeply disturbed young man, probably neurotic. He felt himself utterly and completely guilty of sin. He couldn’t imagine that a morally perfect God could or would forgive him. At times, Luther hated God. He believed that God was playing a vicious game with the human race: Demanding moral perfection and when we were unable to attain it, gleefully sending us to hell.

Noting how disturbed Luther was, believing that a fully occupied life would crowd out his worries and fears, and recognizing how intelligent Luther was, his superiors decided that he would study to become a doctor of theology. He would teach at a new university scheduled to be started in the Saxon town of Wittenberg.

At first, a new regimen of work, which included administering fourteen monasteries, pastoring a local church, and teaching at the new university, did nothing to assuage Luther’s loathing of God and of himself.

But then, something happened to change Luther’s life and world history. (And, over time, through the Reformation Luther began, my history.) Like most seminarians and priests of his day, Luther had never studied Scripture. He did so now, as he prepared for the classes he was teaching.

In the Bible, Luther found a different God than the one often preached in the Church of his day. He saw a God of grace and love Who reaches out to His children, Who charitably understands their fallen humanity, Who forgives and empowers right living, and promises eternity to all with faith in Him. He saw a God Who hates sin while loving sinners, Who calls all to repent for their sin and believe in His Son, Jesus.

He began to see this picture of God as he studied the book of Genesis in preparation for lectures to his students at Wittenberg. He met this God again in the Psalms. And, perhaps most clearly of all, Luther saw this God in the majestic New Testament book of Romans.

A key passage for him was Romans 1:16-17:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
With his deepening knowledge of the Scriptures and the original Hebrew and Greek in which the Old and New Testaments, respectively, had been written, Luther’s understanding of God blossomed.

Up until this point in his life, Luther, like most of the people of his time, labored under the mistaken notion that righteousness was a state of moral perfection, a status God commanded of us, although none of us could ever attain it. Such a view made God a kind of contemptuous cat toying with human mice until they died.

Now, Luther saw that righteousness is having a right relationship with God and that it can’t be secured by anything we do. He saw that while God does demand moral purity from us and that our sin earns us everlasting condemnation, God Himself took on flesh in the Person of Jesus Christ so that He could die in our place on the cross and all with faith in Jesus won't be condemned. Instead, God gives all with faith in Jesus forgiveness and everlasting life. That's what Romans means when it talks about salvation and salvation as God's gift to believers in Christ. Period.

Realizing all of this now, Luther, who studied in the tower of the monastery at Wittenberg had what was later called his “tower experience.” While studying God’s Word, Luther had an overpowering sense of the depths of God’s love for all of us--including himself. Coming to know that rigteousness is God’s gift which we can access when we turn from sin and entrust our lives to Christ, Luther said, was like having the gates of heaven thrown open to him! The faithful person would try to respond to the love of God given through Jesus Christ, of course. But, Luther knew, we can’t earn God’s love. It’s a gift called grace.

The once-neurotically ashamed Martin Luther now became a joyful champion of the new life that God gives to all with faith in Christ. As he grew in the confidence he had in Christ and in God’s love for him, Luther grew bolder in sharing what he had learned about God from the Bible.

On October 31, 1517, he posted 95 theses--or propositions--for debate on the church door in Wittenberg. In those days, a scholar who wished to engage in discussion about important issues posted points on the doors of churches. Church doors were the Power Points, bulletin boards, or blogs of that time.

Luther’s theses were prompted by a common practice in the Roman Catholic Church of his day. The Church then taught that there was a place called “purgatory,” a sort of holding room that the dead supposedly went to between death and eternity. Purgatory was supposed to be a place where people were purified for entry into heaven. To raise money, the Church often authorized the mass sale of pieces of paper known as indulgences. These indulgences allowed people to buy hundreds or thousands of years out of purgatory for loved ones or even themselves.

Luther, now certain that eternity was a free gift, was deeply offended by this practice. He would later say that if there were such a place as purgatory and the Pope, as head of the Church, had the capacity to free people from the place, he should do so out of simple Christian compassion and not accept a penny for doing so.

When Luther’s preaching against indulgences began to impact the bottom line on their sale, the Church went after him. At a gathering in the German city of Wurms, before the emperor, Luther was ordered to recant, or repudiate, all of his writings. He refused.

Ultimately, he came under what was known as an “imperial ban.” That meant that both the Church and the powerful Holy Roman Empire, a confederation of principalities and nations, agreed that if any one saw Martin Luther, he was to be killed on sight. Luther was labeled a heretic, a perverter of the Christian faith.

For the balance of his life, Martin Luther remained steadfast in proclaiming the God we see in Jesus Christ, the God of grace and God of glory. Among Luther’s last words were, “We are all beggars,” an acknowledgement that none of us is better or more important than others in God's eyes and that all with faith in Christ are the recipients of God’s charitable gifts: forgiveness and new life. We cannot earn them, but thank God, He loves to give them to those humble enough to surrender to Christ! Luther died in 1546.

We celebrate October 31 each year as Reformation Day because on All Saints Eve, Hallowed Evening or, as we call it, Halloween, in 1517, Luther’s 95 Theses began a major reformation of the Church. That reform movement goes on to this day.

Martin Luther had learned from God’s Word that our relationship with God and our freedom from sin and death don’t come from our works or from doing proscribed acts of ritual, religious or otherwise. These things come to us freely from a God Who, in Christ, shows us that He isn’t our enemy, but our very best friend.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

So, There's a Holy Trinity...What's That Got to Do with My Life? (Holy Trinity Sunday)

[This sermon was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20
I was about eight years old and I had a question. The first person to whom I posed it was my Mom. When I asked, she stammered. She probably hadn’t expected me to ask the question I asked at such a young age. And so, she told me that I should take my question elsewhere, not to my Dad, but to our pastor at the time, Reverend Blackburn.

I did. I walked up to him the next Sunday after worship and asked: “Reverend Blackburn, can you explain the Trinity to me?”

“Mark,” he told, “I think of the Trinity in this way. Water comes in three different forms: liquid; ice, a solid; and steam, a gas. But though it shows itself in different ways, it’s always water. In the same way, God shows Himself as three different personalities—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But God is always one God.”

That’s a pretty good explanation and it’s one I’ve used myself when inquisitive children ask me about the Trinity. But on this Holy Trinity Sunday, we may have other questions. First among them may be, “I lead a busy, often demanding, life. What does the Trinity have to do with the life I live? What’s the Trinity got to do with me?”

I hope to answer that question. But before I do, I should explain a little about the Trinity. The word “Trinity” is never used in the Bible. But repeatedly, by inference in the Old Testament and in plain words in the New Testament, the Bible affirms that three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are co-equal, co-eternal personalities of the one and only God the universe.

We see the footprints of what the theologians call God’s “triune nature" in three of our Bible lessons for today.

Our first lesson, which is the first of two creation accounts from the book of Genesis, we’re told that a “wind” moved over chaos when God created. The passage might as readily have been translated to tell us that the “spirit” moved over the waters because, as I mentioned last Sunday, the Old Testament Hebrew word ruach can be translated as wind, breath, or spirit. So, at the very beginning, we see God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. And when I read Genesis 1:26, I picture God talking to Himself—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—when God says, “Let us make…”

In our second lesson, which is from 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul tells the squabbling Christians in the Greek city of Corinth to live out a commitment to what’s best for one another. Live in peace, he tells them, and then he invokes the three Persons of the one God when He says, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” In this phrase, Paul puts the three persons of the Trinity on a par with one another, all one God, three persons.

Then, there’s our Gospel lesson, from Matthew. It recounts how Jesus gave the eleven apostles what we call “the Great Commission." Jesus told them and us to teach the whole world about Him and the new life He brings to repentant sinners who believe in Him. Then, Jesus says, we are to baptize, “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” putting both Himself and the Holy Spirit Who on an equal footing with the Father.

“Fine, Pastor,” you might be saying, “I accept the Trinity, although I don’t quite understand it. But what difference does God being one God in three Persons make in my life?”

Let me suggest, coincidentally, three ways it may make a difference to you and me as we go through our daily lives.

Ann and I had been married about five-and-a-half years when my father offered the only piece of advice I remember him ever giving to me. Dad and I were alone when he asked me, "Are you and Ann ever going to have children?" I gave an intelligent reply: "I uh...We uh..." Dad said, "If you're waiting for the perfect time to have kids, the time will never come. You'll never be able to afford them." Then, this man who's the father of five gave his closing argument by saying, "Mark, there are no good reasons for having kids."

Now, Dad was right, of course. When they're babies, your kids burp on you and keep you awake when they soil themselves or get hungry. When they get older, they create other problems for you. Even when they're grown up, you stew about them. But, Dad told me, "Have kids anyway."

There are lots of things we do that aren't really necessary. Having children is among them. So are creating art or music. So are starting a business or building a better mousetrap. There are so many things we do that we don't have to do. But the desire to express ourselves or to give our love away is so powerful that we feel compelled to do the most extravagantly unnecessary things. This fact about we human beings, I think, is one way in which we reflect the presence of the image of God in us.

The Trinity makes a difference in our daily lives, first of all, because in the Three-in-One-God, we see overflowing extravagance of God's love! God gives us His love at least three times over!

God didn't have to create the universe or give us life.

God didn’t have to take on human flesh to die and rise for us.

God doesn’t have to reach out to us as He does today through His Holy Spirit, Who creates and nurtures the Church, inspired the Scriptures, and is still inspiring believers today.

God enjoyed completeness without us. But the Three-in-One-God, Who surely inspired that phrase “the fullness of God,” wants us, wants us today, wants us for all eternity!

The Holy Trinity, this big, full God, cares about you. He’s invested Himself in all His fullness, in you and in your future. God does that over and over again. In the Trinity, God demonstrates, underscores, and underlines that you, your every moment, your every decision matters to God! He looks at you and He says to Himself, as He did when He looked at His creation on the seventh day and says, “Very good!” That’s the first way in which knowing the Three-in-One-God makes a difference in our lives.

Here’s another way. Since the Middle Ages, artists have crafted paintings and sculptures for churches called Gnadenstuhl. In these works of art, Jesus is on the cross, lifeless following His execution. His arms or the crossbeam of the cross are held aloft by the Father, Who is behind Jesus. And from the two of them, a dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, descends.*

We often think of the agony Jesus experienced on the cross, especially as He cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” But we don't often consider the agonies of the Father and the Spirit as they watched the Son bear the sins of the world.

If you’ve ever been a parent who listened to a child cry over homework that seemed too hard, homework it would be easier for you to do for them, but which you know they must do themselves, you know the Father felt agony as Jesus completed His earthly mission on the cross.

If you’ve ever been a parent or a sibling or a relative of someone addicted to drugs and alcohol, knowing that their agony would go away for a moment if you slipped them the money they needed to buy the dope or if you gave them a drink, but for their good, you refused, then you know how the Spirit felt as He groaned in sighs too deep for words at the sight of Jesus in His death throes on the cross.

If you've ever spent days or weeks with loved ones as they lay suspended between life and death, you know what both the Father and the Spirit went through as Jesus hung on the cross.

These agonies the Trinity endured for you and me. And when the Spirit comes to us in Baptism, He brings God's compassion for us in all that comes to us in life. The Spirit comes to fiercely protect us from a life alone, compassionately placing us in the community of the Church, a spiritual family that allows us to experience something like the connectedness enjoyed by the Father, Son, and Spirit.

In the Trinity, God stands with us in our joys and in our sorrows, in everything that we go through. We know this because the Trinity was there together on the cross, sharing our life so that we can share life with God forever.

So the Trinity makes a difference by assuring us that we matter to God and that God stands by us always: Jesus says this is so to the close of the age. Now, here’s a third way the Trinity makes a difference in our everyday lives: He draws us into community with Him.

C.S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, describes how the Three-in-One-God does this when, for example, we pray. “What I mean is this” he writes. “An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God [God the Father]. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God so to speak, inside him [God the Spirit]. But he also knows that all real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God — that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying — the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on — the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. The whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary act of prayer.”

God in His fullness, Who cares about us even though He doesn’t have to, Who is able to stand with us in every experience, also makes it possible for us to experience fellowship, community, with Him and with His family, the Church.

Pastor Mary Anderson says that at the age of three, she had her first experience of how something could be three and one at the same time. “I was watching my grandmother sleep during her afternoon nap,” she writes. “As I contemplated her existence, I thought wisely, ‘That's Grandmamma, Mamma, and Odelle.’ She smiled…as I called her by the names used for her by her grandchildren, her daughter and her husband. Three names, three relationships -- and yet the same person.”

The Holy Trinity—God in three Persons—is a mystery and that’s as it should be. As I often tell my Catechism students, if you could explain everything about God, then you would be God and you're not. But when we think about all the different ways in which people see us from day to day—friend, employee, boss, parent, child--then the Trinity isn’t so farfetched. And it matters to our daily lives that God is Three-in-One. In the fullness of the Trinity...
  • God assures us that our every moment matters,
  • that He stands with us always, and
  • that He wants us to live in constant relationship with Him.
In the face of such mysteries, I can say only one thing: God be praised!

*The great German theologian of hope, J├╝rgen Moltmann, discusses these tradtional images, in a wonderful essay here.

Here are some examples of Gnadenstuhl, mostly taken from German churches:









In his essay, Moltmann also mentions a Russian icon into which I've been bumping a lot lately. Icons, a word from the Greek for image, are works of religious art designed to inspire or strengthen faith. The greatest Russian iconographer was Andrei Rublev, who lived from in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.

Perhaps Rublev's most famous icon shows the three persons of the Trinity, each nearly identical in appearance, except for their clothing, at table together. They share a single cup.

What's so intriguing about this piece is that it was inspired by an incident not in the New Testament, but the Old Testament. Like the ancient church father, Augustine, Rublev believed that the three men who visited Abraham and Sarah under the oaks of Mamre in Genesis 18, weren't God the Father and two angels, but Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So important are these three persons to Rublev that Abraham and Sarah don't even appear in the painting.

Personally, I can't help feeling that the cup they share is symbolic of the cup Jesus asked might pass from His lips when He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. This was the "cup" of His suffering and sacrificial death for us all. As the Gnadenstuhl artwork attempts to show us, this cup of agony didn't belong to Jesus alone, but to the Father and the Holy Spirit as well.

It's easy to understand how both Augustine and Rublev might have drawn this conclusion about the three men who visit Abraham and Sarah. Often, when the Old Testament speaks of an "angel of the Lord," it references God. This may reflect traditional Jewish reticence about giving too direct expression of the presence or the Name of God. My Jewish friends will often, for example, respond to my benedictions by responding, "G_d bless you, too." (To see examples of references to God Himself as "angel of the Lord," see Genesis 22:11 and Exodus 3:2