Friday, September 26, 2008

I Knew That OSU Would Beat USC

I just didn't now which OSU. SC's Trojans seem to have trouble with at least one Pac 10 rival every year and in fact, Oregon State beat Southern Cal two years ago, as I recall. All of this is apt to mess up the national rankings, which previously had the University of Southern California Trojans at number one.

In the meantime, that other OSU, my alma mater, The Ohio State University, begins its Big Ten season when it welcomes Minnesota to venerable Ohio Stadium on Saturday. Beanie Wells will be back in the game and Terrelle Pryor will be taking the snaps. Hopefully, the offensive line will be ready to play. The Buckeyes can still have a great year in what is clearly a rebuilding period.

Go, Buckeyes!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

'An Evangelical Voter's Guide Six Weeks Out'

That's the title of a useful post written by Asbury Seminary professor, Ben Witherington, on his blog. His main pieces of advice to evangelical Christians contemplating the upcoming election:
  • Do your homework
  • Plan on voting even if you are frustrated
  • Do not be a one-issue voter
  • Think about how much character should weigh in who you vote for
  • Prioritize what you, in good conscience, think are the most crucial issues--and evaluate the candidates on the bases of those priorities
  • Be smart enough to see when a candidate is not being honest or forthright about his or her views
  • Don't just vote on gut instinct. Think, evaluate, discuss, pray before pulling the lever.
I think that this is a good list not just for evangelical Christians, but all Christians, and really, for anyone who takes their citizenship seriously. Read the whole thing.

In 2007, I wrote a series of posts on How Christians Might Think About the 2008 Presidential Election. Some of the points I made there dovetail with Witherington's, although my goal was to present a series of lenses or prisms through which Christians might consider the election process, including how they themselves participated not only as voters, but as folks standing around the water cooler reacting to the latest negative ad or the most recent news from Wall Street. The links to that series are:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

I particularly like two pieces of advice given by Witherington. The first is to avoid being one-issue voters. The second is to be smart enough to discern dishonesty in candidates. The latter reminds me of something Jesus told his followers: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16).

Would that we all were as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Look at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (September 28, 2008)

[Most weeks, I try to publish at least one post dealing with the appointed Bible lessons for the upcoming Sunday. My hope is that I can at least help the people of the parish I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to prepare for worship. Others may find these explorations helpful because we use the same Bible lessons used by most other North American Christians each Sunday. For information on the Church Year and the plan of lessons called the lectionary, see here.]

The Bible Lessons:
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

The Prayer of the Day:
God of love, giver of life, you know our frailties and failings. Give us your grace to overcome them, keep us from those things that harm us, and guide us in the way of salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen

Comments: Ezekiel
1. A little background on Ezekiel:
The Book of Ezekiel has the most logical arrangement of any of the prophetic books. It contains three sections, each of which addresses a different subject matter. Chapters 1–24 concern the fall of Jerusalem. Chapters 25–39 contain a series of oracles addressed to foreign nations, concluding with a section in which the future of Israel is contrasted with that of the foreign nations. The third section, Chapters 40–48, presents a plan for rebuilding the Temple and reorganizing the restored state of Israel.

Ezekiel was one of the younger men taken to Babylon in the first captivity, which occurred in 597 B.C. He served as a kind of religious counselor to the Hebrew exiles who were allowed to live in a colony by themselves near the banks of the Kebar River. Scholars generally assume that most of what is contained in Ezekiel was written by the prophet himself. For some time, they believed that he wrote practically the entire book while living in the colony of exiles. However, more recent scholarship has pointed out several reasons for thinking that at least a portion of the chapters included in the first section contains speeches personally delivered by the prophet to the people who remained in Jerusalem until the city fell in 586 B.C.
2. There are two ways in which this passage may cause us some confusion. First, is the assertion, repeated in several different ways, found in the first four verses:
The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.
But how do we square that with words that appear in the Ten Commandments?:
I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:5-6)
And while we're at it, how can it be squared with the doctrine of original sin, the notion that we are all born into the common human condition of sin, alienation from God and a predisposition to be turned inward and away from God and others?

And, does Ezekiel uphold a highly individualistic view that reverses the communal orientation of much of the rest of Scripture?

These are big questions, not easily answered in so short a space. But a few thoughts...

(a) Ezekiel is in no way saying that the sins of parents and grandparents are unfelt by subsequent generations. Peer into the history of any dysfunctional family (that, in some ways, is all families, by the way) and you see threads running from one generation to the next.

(b) Ezekiel is saying that each of us is able to turn to God (repent) and live new lives. Our inborn predisposition to committing acts of sin--lovelessness toward God and toward others and ingratitude for the life that God has given to us--can only be overcome, as our Philippians text puts it, when "God is at work" in us. God does this when we turn from sin and trust in the Good News of new life Christ brings to the world (Mark 1:15).

(c) Because sin is an inherently communal thing, in that it always involves either sin against God or others or both, repentance is also a communal thing. This is why we offer both public and private confession in the Church. It's why our private relationship with God and our individual confession of sin is to result in restored and renewed relationships with others. Sometimes, we will need to overtly reconcile with those we have harmed (Matthew 18:15-20).

3. A second issue: What about Ezekiel's insistence that God is fair in the face of the exiled people's assertions that God isn't fair? I mean, just last Sunday, I preached a sermon titled, God Isn't Fair. Ezekiel seems to say that God is fair. Who's right, Ezekiel or me?

First of all, my sermon of last week wasn't based on my say-so. If it were, it wouldn't have been worth a thing and I wouldn't have dared stand in the pulpit! The theme of "God isn't fair" was the thrust of both the Old Testament and Gospel lessons of last Sunday.

But the assertion that "God isn't fair" in those two texts came in response to a different question than the one Ezekiel was addressing during the Babylonian exile. Whether it was Jonah's anger over the hated Ninevites being allowed by God to live in light of their repentance or the johnny-come-lately laborers in Jesus' parable receiving the same pay as those who had worked all day long, the answer was that God isn't fair. God affords grace to all who are repentant. In the eyes of the world, that isn't fair.

But Ezekiel is answering a different question. Or, more accurately, if you read the entire eighteenth chapter, a different set of questions. His people feel that they have been devoted to God, for one thing. And they wonder if it does any good to repent, to turn back to God.

In this sense, God is fair. God will not hold our parents' sins against us or even our own sins, if we will genuinely turn back to God. "For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live," Ezekiel reports God saying. Through Jesus Christ, that is a call that God continues to issue today!

Comments: Philippians
1. Philippians is one of the most extraordiary books of the New Testament. It's a letter written by the apostle Paul to the church in the Greek city of Philippi. Paul founded the church, with the help of his traveling companions, during his second missionary journey, recorded in Acts 16:11-40. The letter was written in about 61AD in Rome, where Paul was a prisoner for his faith in Jesus Christ.

In spite of Paul's grim circumstances, the letter is filled with joy. That joy is rooted in Jesus Christ, Paul says.

2. In our lesson, Paul urged the Philippians to interact with one another with humility. Humility is a repudiation of selfishness and conceit, an embrace of mutual encouragement and servanthood. "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit," Paul writes in the verses just before those of our lesson appear, "but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others."

This is subversive stuff. We all recoil at the selfishness we see in others. Yet we tend to rationalize that our selfishness is okay. But if everybody always looks out for number 1, chaos ensues, as we see in an American society that puts a high premium on indivdualism.

The call to follow Jesus is a call to think less of me, to think of God and others.

3. And as our lesson demonstrates, in calling us to love God supremely and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, God isn't calling us to do any more than He Himself has done in Jesus Christ.

4. But, here's what is most important to see about this passage. Most religions of the world and most ethical people would agree that selflessness is a good thing, even that Jesus' example is a good thing.

Jesus, though, didn't come to be our example. Jesus came to be our Lord and Savior. What that means is that He doesn't just come up to us like a motivational speaker, urging us to learn from His example. As Paul says, through Christ, "it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure." In other words, our "job" as Christians is to get out of God's way and let God work and do God's will in our lives. If we want to believe and we want to be more like Christ, the answer is found in our jumping through some proscribed hoops. "Sanctification," the process of becoming more godly, is a matter of daily repentance--there that word is again, which allows God to renew us. This renewal is what Paul talks in Romans 12, where he urges believers in Christ "to be transformed by the renewing" of their minds. Here, he asks people to have the same mind that was "in Christ Jesus." Through daily repentance and renewal, we undergo what I call a holy lobotomy.

5. The words of our lesson probably were the lyrics of a song the early Church sang when it worshiped together.

Comments: Matthew
1. As always, it helps in understanding a specific passage of Scripture to look at its context. Chapter 21 is a pivotal chapter in Matthew's Gospel. It begins with Matthew's account of Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered the holy city of Jerusalem, welcomed by the crowds as a conquering king.

Later, Jesus, the Messiah with heavenly authority over the temple, drives the money changers out of God's house. For the chief priests, this action on Jesus' part brought the question of His authority (as opposed to their own) to the fore. This is why they confront Jesus with the question, "By what authority...?"

2. For "the chief priests and scribes," authority is something acquired from other people or by human tradition. Jesus' authority is constantly authenticated by actions that demonstrate His submission to the Father, the sort of submission about which Paul writes in the second lesson. No matter how many miracles Jesus performed or how often He displayed compassion, they wouldn't be convinced--or allow themselves to be convinced--that Jesus was the Messiah.

3. The parable can be read in several ways. First and most immediately, it's a parable about people who seem to say Yes to God versus people who seem to say No to God. The chief priests and elders publicly confessed faith in God all the time. Yet when confronted with evidence that Jesus was God-enfleshed and called on to repent and believe, they asked what hoops Jesus had jumped through to rid the temple of extortionists and religious profiteers. What authority, they wondered, did Jesus have to issue such a call? The tax collectors and prostitutes had made no pretense of living for God. Yet, when confronted with Jesus, many turned from their sin and believed in Jesus.

Another way in which this parable can be read is in the context in which Matthew presented it. He wrote to a church dealing with tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers, a tension addressed in last week's Gospel lesson as well. The parable, I believe, really comes from Jesus. But Matthew included it and presented it in the way in which He did, because it addressed a circumstance with which the church of his day was dealing.

In today's church, we can see similar tensions between longtime and new members, or long-confessing Christians and people newborn in the faith on fire for Christ.

As Brian Stoffregen says, in His parable, Jesus does more than extol the virtues of those who may initially say, "No" to God and then do His will. He commands both public profession and personal surrender.

To Whom Are You Building Your Monuments?

See here.

A Simple, Powerful Truth

From my colleague and friend, Pastor Glen VanderKloot...

WELCOME to the daily issue of ONLINE WITH FAITH.
ONLINE WITH FAITH is a ministry of Faith Lutheran Church,
2313 Whittier Avenue, Springfield, IL, 62704, Glen VanderKloot,
Pastor.

We encourage you to worship and be involved in a local congregation.

If you have any questions, comments, or prayer
requests please be in touch with us at
pastor@faithlutheran.com
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

A Thought for the Day


The daily discipline of reading, studying, and prayfully
reflecting on God's Word will change your life. It will
transform your heart and will lead to attitudes and
actions that reflect the kind of Christlike behavior
that God deems important for every healthy disciple.

+++++++++
Scripture
Acts 17:11 TNIV

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those
in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great
eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see
if what Paul said was true.


Prayer: Father, help me to make your written Word a
piroity in my life each day. In the Name of Jesus
Amen!

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

To subscribe to Glen's daily inspirations, send an email to olwf1@gliq.net and put SUBSCRIBE on the subject line.

Barack Obama and the 'Ghost of Charisma Past'

[I posted this twenty-four hours ago over at The Moderate Voice, where I'm a contributor.]

The death of a young person is a tragedy that freezes their image in time and subjects it to romantic embellishments. The deceased becomes a template.

On the morning of November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy had served as President of the United States for two years and ten months. He was poised to be renominated by his party in 1964 and would have likely defeated the presumptive Republican nominee, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, though not by the massive proportions that Kennedy's successor Lyndon Johnson, skillfully employing grief over Kennedy's violent passing and his own extraordinary legislative and political skills, enjoyed. In 1964, Goldwater, his generation's Mr. Conservative, was, in that era, considered too "out there."

Yet, Kennedy had his troubles. He had gone from a position of ambivalence about civil rights to favoring a new Civil Rights Act by the time his plane touched down in Texas for a journey of political fence-mending, but a combination of Southern Democrats and some Northern Republicans had checked his tepid efforts at getting a bill passed. In fact, he had been fairly thwarted in getting much of anything accomplished. In short, Kennedy's legacy reflected a lifelong penchant for dissipation coupled with a fierce commitment to personal victory at any cost.

And then he was murdered. Through a haze of national grief, the nation early on embraced the Camelot image of Kennedy's brief White House tenure suggested by his widow, Jacqueline, to writer and Kennedy friend, Theodore White.

For years afterward, Democratic activists and political pundits alike, were looking for the next Kennedy. A 1972 Esquire cover article gave voice to this widespread yearning. A short feature included in the piece briefly portrayed several potential wearers of the Kennedy crown. Entitled, 'The Ghost of Charisma Past,' a young John Kerry was among the pretenders.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

God Isn't Fair!

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

Matthew 20:1-16
This morning, I’d like to invite you to hear a summary of Professor Daniels’ class, Life 101. Here it is: Life is unfair. You don’t need to enroll in the course, do you? You already know that life is unfair. You know often people whose only qualification is the ability to butter up their superiors become successful. You know that kids who toil away at getting good grades and being good citizens get far less recognition than the ones who can shoot a basketball or hit home runs. You know that bad things happen to good people.

Life is unfair, meaning that when we come to a passage of Scripture like our Gospel lesson for this morning, we get upset. In this parable from Jesus, the landowner stands in for God. Jesus says that this parable tells us what the Kingdom of God is like and it dawns on us that God is unfair too. It isn't fair that people who work for one hour get the same wage as those who baked and sweated while working in the hot sun all day long.

So, here’s the summation of my Life 102 course: God isn’t fair; God is gracious!

Grace is a word we throw around a lot in church. But what is it? Well, an old acrostic takes the letters of the word—G-R-A-C-E—and says that grace is God’s redemption at Christ’s expense.

In other words, because of His charitable love for us, God buys us out of our slavery to sin, death, and pointless living through Christ’s death on the cross.

We don’t deserve the grace of God—it isn’t fair for Him to give us blessings we haven’t earned and can’t earn, but God gives grace to all who turn from sin and entrust their lives to Jesus Christ.

So, in addition to revealing that God isn’t fair, the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson also shows us that God’s grace is an absolute gift. He does this by showing us several truths I want to talk about right now.

First: God seeks us out and extends grace to us. God reaches out to us with grace.

I meet people all the time who say that they’re looking for God or looking for the answers to life’s questions.

Now, God and life will always be shrouded in some mystery for us. After all, we’re all only human. There are limits to our wisdom, our strength, our brainpower.

But we don’t have to look for God or for the meaning of life. In Jesus Christ, God has reached out to us. God can be known by anyone who is willing to be found.

Jesus says: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one can come to the Father but through Me.” No mystery there!

And this Savior Who has died and risen for us comes to us to extend His grace, a freely-given passport to a daily relationship with God in this world and in eternity beyond.

Many of you know Fred Meuser, the former president of Trinity Lutheran Seminary. One day, Fred took several seminary students, including me, out for lunch. He told us, “I was raised in a Christian home and I don’t remember a single moment in my life when I didn’t believe in Jesus.” I read a few years ago that nearly twenty years into retirement, he’s a volunteer tutor in an elementary school in Florida, teaching kids how to read. Fred heard the call of God to His vineyard as a baby in his parents’ arms and he’s spent his life serving in Christ’s Name.

Someone you wouldn’t know is a man I'll call Roy. Roy lived in Clermont County, where we lived for seventeen years. Roy spent most of his life running away from God. And he made a mess of most of his relationships along the way. Then in his seventies, Roy was dying of cancer. He’d read about a new Lutheran church in the area and about the crazy pastor who was going door-to-door to invite people to worship. Roy called me up. “I haven’t been in church for forty years or more,” he said. “I was never baptized. I want to be right with God.” He invited me to his home and we talked about God’s gracious offer of new life to all who believe and are baptized. A few days later, with several family members and friends on hand, Roy was baptized in his living room. Roy opened his ears to God’s call to His vineyard on the brink of death.

It isn’t fair, but it is gracious that the same promise of life with God belongs to both Fred and Roy...and to you and me. In Christ, God is in the business of reaching out, extending grace to all. No matter when we receive it, it’s ours!

So, truth #1, God extends grace to us. Truth #2: God doesn’t give grace based on what we do. The early hires in Jesus’ parable didn’t like the fact that the last hired were given the same pay they received.

Often, we in the Church act as though membership should have special privileges. And of course, there are privileges associated with being part of the Church: We have an extended Christian family with whom we share worship and service in Jesus’ Name, with whom we receive Baptism and Communion, and with whom we can laugh and cry and grow strong in faith. Those are huge privileges.

But these are gifts God grants to us not because we have seniority or because we’ve served long terms on Church Council or because we’ve worn holes in the same pews for fifty years. And they don’t come to us because of all the work we’ve done at church. They are free gifts that God is also willing to give to all who turn to Jesus Christ. Paul writes in the New Testament book of Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” God doesn’t give grace based on what we do. God gives grace based on the fact that He is unfair: He loves everyone and wants all to turn to Him and live.

Here’s Truth #3: In God’s grace, all who believe in Him are given useful work as a way of honoring God. In Jesus’ parable, the landowner calls otherwise idle people to work in his vineyard. You know, God never meant for work to be seen as punishment. From the beginning, before the fall into sin, God gave Adam, the first man, work to do. It’s partly because of this that my heart aches for the people here in Hocking County and the people across our state and nation who are unemployed right now. We human beings were made to work, each of us using our talents not just to provide for our families, but to glorify the God Who gave us those talents.

For the Christian, whether in our daily work or in the mission of the Church, work is a calling from God, a way of expressing thanks to God for all His blessings. And, folks, within the Church, there is a lot of work to do, many ways for you and me to thank God for those blessings.

I learned this lesson well from a member of my former parish. Steve is the last guy in the world you’d expect to teach a children’s Sunday School class. His own kids are mostly raised and he spends his days doing highly technical work, developing new products for a company that produces thermostatic instruments. (I have no idea what that means.) For kicks, he coaches high school kids in rec league basketball and restores cars that have been totaled. He chaired our congregation’s building program a few years ago. He led the men’s Bible study. In other words, Steve lives with a full plate. But when we were having a hard time recruiting anyone to teach the third, fourth, and fifth graders on Sunday mornings, Steve stepped up. There’s no razzle-dazzle in Steve’s lesson plans. But he’s been at it for several years now and the kids love being in his class. God has given him useful work in the kingdom.

Just this past week, Ann and I met a man who is eighty. It somehow came out in our conversation that last Sunday, he worked in the church nursery. I learned that he has a three-announcement rule. If announcements asking for volunteers have been made three times at church and nobody else comes forward, he volunteers. “I like to read Bible stories to the kids,” he told us.

The examples of Steve and that man and so many other faithful workers in God’s vineyard confront me with a daily question, “What might I do today to tell God, ‘Thank You’ for Jesus Christ and His cross and the new life that’s mine as a gift of grace?”

I hope that whenever there’s an opportunity to serve or be part of a ministry, whether here at Saint Matthew or in your daily life, you’re asking yourself what you might do to honor and glorify God.

Don’t say...
I’m too old,
I’m too young,
I’m too inexperienced,
I’m lacking in talent,
I don’t have the time,
I don’t know enough about the Bible,
I haven’t been trained.
Just heed God’s call and God will give you not only useful work, but a way to do it.

One thing I tell myself is that if Jesus can make a meal for thousands from a few fish and scraps of bread, He’s surely able to make something good of my measly efforts. God can do things through you—can give you useful work—when you heed His call.

God isn’t fair. Thank God for that! Instead God is gracious.
  • God extends grace to us, reaching out to us, happy whether we come to follow Him as children or as senior citizens.
  • God doesn’t give grace based on what we do, instead loving us just as we are.
  • And by God’s grace, all who follow Him are given work to do that uses our gifts, honors God, and extends Christ’s love to others.
This week and every week, hear God’s call to work in His vineyard and, working side by side with Christ and the Church, experience all that it means to be fully alive!

[A portion of the outline for this sermon was inspired by one from Michael Duduit, which appeared here.]