Friday, June 06, 2008

A Look at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (June 8, 2008)

This week's look at the Bible lessons for Sunday will be brief.

The Bible Lessons:
Genesis 12:1-9
Psalm 33:1-12
Romans 4:13-25
Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

The Prayer of the Day:
O God, you are the source of life and the ground of our being. By the power of your Spirit bring healing to this wounded world, and raise us to the new life of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

A Few Comments:
1. As I've mentioned in previous posts, the Bible lessons appointed for the Sundays after Pentecost attempt to answer the question, "Now what?" They direct us to how we live our lives in light of our faith in the God born, died, and risen in Jesus Christ and come to us in the Holy Spirit.

Each Sunday during this season then, we confront one or two important elements involved in following Jesus through our daily lives.

2. This Sunday, maybe the largest theme is the centrality of heeding God's improbable call. People of faith are called to follow where and when God calls. This is underscored in the lessons from Genesis and in Romans, both of which discuss God's improbable call of Abram and Sarai (later Abraham and Sarah) from their native Ur (in what is modern-day Iraq) to become, despite their advanced years, the ancestors of Israel. It's also seen in Jesus' call of the tax collector, Matthew, in our Gospel lesson; tax collectors were lowly regarded by Jesus' fellow Judeans, seen as notorious sinners.

3. A curiosity regarding our Gospel lesson is that Jesus' call of Matthew and Jesus' confrontation of the Pharisees horrfied by Jesus dining with tax collectors and other sinners is set amid a long string of healings and miracles recounted in chapters 8 and 9 of Matthew's Gospel.

But maybe this shouldn't surprise us, especially in light of Jesus' response to the Pharisees criticism of Him. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick," Jesus tells the Pharisees. In other words, the condition of sin, separation from God, is more fatal than any physical ailment. Jesus, the great physician, was willing to make housecalls, in order to do battle with the condition that, untreated by His grace, is eternally fatal. He still makes such calls through the Word, the Sacraments, prayer, and the fellowship of believers.

We saw Jesus implicitly connecting the forgiveness of sins to healing earlier in this chapter, Matthew 9:2. There, He forgave a paralytic of His sins. Sin is a bigger problem than disease. Notice too that there, as well as in this Sunday's Gospel lesson, Jesus forgives without any indication of repentance on the part of those to who He brings forgiveness/healing. This isn't to disdain repentance. But those who trust in Jesus, believe in Him, trust Him also to take dominion over their sins, even when they're not fully aware of them. You see, all sin is rooted in our failure to allow God first place in our lives. When we trust (have faith in) the God we see in Jesus, our sin is supplanted by God's authority. Repentance inheres in authentic trust in God. Repentance, turning to Christ, is a daily and ongoing part of the lives of Christians, who nothing but recovering sinners who trust God.

4. In our lesson from Romans, Paul discusses the nature of faith, our relationship with God. God blesses us with new life and His constant presence not because we are good people. Abraham's blessings came to him not because he was a good man, Paul says, but because he believed in God. (I laugh a little at Paul's portrait of Abraham. While what he writes of the ancient patriarch of faith is true, it overlooks those moments when Abraham's faith wavered. Twice, you'll remember, unsure that God could be counted on to protect him, Abraham told foreign kings that Sarai/Sarah wasn't his wife, but his sister. The kings briefly prepared to take her as their wives, each avoiding consummation and offense to God simply because God warned them not to go forward with their plans.) The blessings of new life in Jesus Christ belong to all with faith in Him.

5. A major point of interest to me in this Sunday's lesson from Matthew is that Jesus responds to the Pharisees' criticism, although they don't express it directly to Him. It required no supernatural abilities for Jesus to be aware of their criticisms.

Gossip always gets back to the person being gossiped about. Always. And it never contributes to the resolution of conflicts.

Jesus nipped gossip in the bud by confronting the gossips, as we see in our Gospel lesson.

This is an enormous problem in congregations, fostering feelings of distrust and enmity. This is why Jesus commands us in Matthew 18:15-20 on how to deal with situations in which we feel fellow church members have wronged us. We're not to bellyache to others. We're to go directly to the person we feel has wronged us...and we're to do so with the idea that we could be wrong and they could be right.

If their offenses against us don't rise to such a level that we feel it appropriate to confront, then we shouldn't say anything at all to anyone but God.

This has been a hard lesson for me to learn. I'm still learning it.

During this coming Sunday's Small Catechism moment, we'll be considering Luther's explanation of the Eighth Commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." As always, Luther sees the manner in which God seeks to protect us in this commantment. What does the commandment mean? Luther says:
We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way.
Notice that the commandment calls us to be co-conspirators with God in protecting, enhancing, and shoring up the reputations of others. That means not just refraining from telling lies about them, it also means speaking well of them when others are talking them down.

[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.]

Keep Praying for Zimbabwe

My interest in Zimbabwe goes back nearly a decade, when the people of my former parish became World Vision sponsors for a child in that country. I've watched with rising horror as the government of dictator Robert Mugabe has maintained power through repression, violence, and neglect. Meanwhile, inflation is out of control and unemployment presently stands at 80% of the work force.

Now, Mugabe, owing to his paranoia, is throwing out nearly all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that provide relief to people on the ground and is intimidating diplomats seeking to document Mugabe's savage regime. See here.

Please pray for the people of Zimbabwe. Please ask that God will facilitate efforts, internal and external to that country, at bringing about the end of repression and neglect there. Please pray for a peaceful end to Mugabe's reign. Please pray that NGOs with their relief and development professionals, will be allowed back into Zimbabwe. Thanks!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Why Did Barack Obama Win?

In the summer of 1968, at the Republican National Convention in Miami, having been governor of California, the only elected office he'd ever held, since January, 1967, Ronald Reagan announced that he was a candidate for his party's presidential nomination. Although Richard Nixon won the nomination and the election, Reagan, who hadn't entered a single one of the year's thirteen primaries, performed respectably.

What amazed me then and amazes me now is that Reagan, in spite the thinnest of resumes, engendered so much support. How, first of all, had a B-list Hollywood actor get elected governor of California? And how did he get support in his last-minute run for the GOP nomination for president?

The answer is simple: The Speech.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater was the Republican standard bearer. The father of modern conservatism, the Arizona senator, was about to meet defeat in November, when, opposing President Lyndon Johnson, he won only six states.

The only bright spot in Goldwater's ill-fated run for the White House was a fund-raising speech by Reagan, then a mostly has-been actor and then host of the syndicated 40-Mule-Team Borax's Death Valley Days. The response, both in terms of viewing audiences' approval and fundraising, was so stunning, that the Goldwater camp ran the speech over and over again.

With that one speech, Reagan became a darling of the incipient Republican conservative cause. In 1966, backed by a few millionaire friends, he defeated a Democratic incumbent governor. Reagan rode The Speech to Sacramento and on that foundation, in 1980, he eventually won the presidency.

On October 17, 2006, I wrote a piece in which I asked, "Are Barack Obama's Oratorical Skills Sufficient to Commend Him for the Presidency?"

His 2008 candidacy, let's be frank, was propelled by a single speech. Like Reagan's 1964 speech, Barack Obama's Keynote Address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was given in service to a losing campaign, that of John Kerry for president. But it made Obama a darling of many not only within the Democratic Party, but also of independents and many who are normally politically disaffected.

Of course, as Reagan learned in 1968, it takes more than oratorical skills, which he undeniably possessed, to become president. It was only after Reagan had spent some time in office and developed an outstanding political team that, twelve years later, he was able to claim the Oval Office.

But it was his ability as a speaker and that electrifying speech that served as the foundation for all his subsequent successes.

I was skeptical about Obama's presidential prospects in 2006, in part because I underestimated the depth of his experiences as a politician, garnered both as a community organizer and a state legislator before being elected to the US Senate.

But I also underestimated his capacity to turn his oratorical skills into a first-class political organization.

Obama won the Democratic presidential nomination because he did more quickly what Ronald Reagan, the preeminent political operator of the past three decades, was able to do: Convert his capacity to eloquently express the hopes, the angers, and the beliefs of a good chunk of the American people into a presidential nomination just four years after he became a national political voice.

Can Obama win in November? The odds are in his favor. But that's five months away.

Why Did Hillary Clinton Lose?

First, there was the mountain.

Hillary Clinton entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination sixteen months ago with higher negative ratings and lower approval ratings than any major candidate in history. While hardcore Democrats liked the former First Lady, other Americans were more wary.

Or even hostile. They were represented to me by the legion of progressive women anxious to vote for a Democratic nominee this year, who have told me, "I will never vote for Hillary Clinton. She can't be trusted."

Fair or not, these women and other voters, were part of the mountain Clinton tried to scale, hoping to win over just a few of these Hillaryskeptics, adding them to her core constituency to form a winning coalition for the Democratic nomination.

But that optimistic strategy ran into a second snag: the wall.

In 1968, Earl Mazo and Stephen Hess released their biography of Richard Nixon. No campaign puff job, it sought to comprehend and convey the real Nixon. It's been forty years since I read the book and I no longer own it, but I recall that it began with a brief vignette from the years between Nixon's disastrous run for California governor in 1962 and his bid for the presidency in 1968. A fire hit Nixon's home and some enterprising news photographer arrived on the scene. He snapped a candid picture of the former Vice President. But, uncertain whether the photograph he'd captured in that pre-digital era was a good one, he asked Nixon to pose. Back in the dark room, the photographer was surprised to make a discovery. The candid shot looked posed, the posed shot looked spontaneous. Although Nixon's true character would eventually catch up to him and bring him down ignominiously in 1974, he apparently had mastered the art of faux self-disclosure.

Clinton, to her credit, has never achieved such mastery. But neither has she learned how to disclose something of herself, or at least a plausible version of herself, an indispensable talent for presidential candidates in this hypermediated age.

For reasons both well-known and unknown, Clinton has, in spite of all her tireless campaigning--and she has been the most tireless of presidential campaigners in 2008--remained ensconced behind a wall, wary of self-disclosure.

Perhaps if I had been hurt as many times as Clinton was in the years leading up to her presidential campaign, I too would have erected a wall, preventing people from getting a glimpse of my real self. Maybe I too would have, similar to Al Gore and Bill Richardson before her, invented stories about myself, even stories of harrowing adventures or world-changing achievements that Clinton wove this campaign season. But whatever its many sources, Clinton almost never lowered the wall.

It did happen once. On the eve of the New Hampshire, Clinton responded to a maelstrom of emotions and choked up while replying to a question from a woman, herself an Obama supporter, who sympathetically wanted to see and understand the human Clinton.

The New York senator was subjected to a hail of unfair criticisms from conservative talkers and from opponent John Edwards, claiming that her emotion proved that she lacked the toughness for the job of president. I personally suspected that commentator Camille Paglia came closer to the truth when she suggested that Clinton's emotions had more to do with the shattering of her presidential ambitions than frustration with any abuse she may have endured or suspected, although the language of victimization has always figured largely in both her rhetoric and that of her husband.

But these are only surmisals. And, in any case, it's dangerous to put too much stock in public displays of emotion, in spite of the fact that in the post-modern West, we have become addicted to displays of emotion. Nonetheless, Clinton is a cipher. The wall makes it difficult to know her.

And what of misogyny? How large a role has it played in Clinton's loss of the nomination. Undoubtedly, in recent primaries, some unreconstructed sexists voted for Obama because Clinton is a woman, just as some whites voted for Clinton because Obama is black. That clash of bigotries is, probably, a sad wash that hurt Clinton no more than it did Obama, likely less.

It's a tribute to Hillary Clinton's tenacity and the millions of chits she and her husband had to collect that, in spite of the mountain and the wall, she came within a hair's breadth of winning the Democratic presidential nomination.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Actions Do Speak Louder Than Words

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

Matthew 7:21-29
Under different circumstances, it might have been cruel. But not in this circumstance.

The woman in one of my former parishes had made the lives of her husband and children impossible. She was an alcoholic, totally addicted.

"Get help or I'm taking the kids and leaving," her husband said. "Don't leave," she pleaded. "Stay and I will get help. I promise."

The husband had heard it before. The wife had made all sorts of promises. On three previous occasions, in fact, the husband threatened to leave. Each time he had stayed before the wife took steps to put her promises into action. Each time she broke her promises and the disease raged on. This time, he followed through. He left.

"How could he do this to me?" the wife asked me. Now it was my turn to be tough. "You need help," I told her.

Thankfully, she checked into a hospital and began the life-long journey of daily recovery. Today, she and her husband and family are together.*

One point in their story is this: Promises are only words unless you fulfill them. Actions really do speak louder than words,

The words of Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson conclude His Sermon on the Mount. He begins by speaking to people like you and me, people who week after week, during worship, whether in the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed, publicly confess our faith the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus says:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”
Jesus is saying that our actions speak louder than our words. We may have Scripture memorized. We may be able to explain John 3:16. We may have served on Church Council. But is Jesus our Lord in the everyday places you and I live? Is Jesus the Lord of my checkbook, the Lord of my family life, the Lord of my workday, the Lord of my leisure time?

As good Lutherans, we all know that we are saved by grace, God's charity. Our works will not free us from sin and death, only the grace of God and our faith in what Jesus has done for us on a cross and from an empty tomb.

But there are many people who make promises to God, many who verbally confess Jesus on Sundays who leave Him in the dust on Monday through Saturday.

Jesus’ call and Jesus’ command to those who call Him their Lord is, as the New Testament book of James puts it, “…be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

To drive this point home, Jesus next tells a mini-parable, one familiar to all of you. It’s about two homebuilders, one wise and one foolish. The wise one builds his house on rock. The other builds on sand. Storms and winds blow against both houses. The one built on rock remains. The one built on sand falls flat.

If you build on My Word and on Me, Jesus is saying, your house you will stand. You will stand, through the troubles of this life and into eternity. Actions do speak louder than words. Who and what we truly build our lives on will, in the long run, predict how we weather life’s storms.

Pastor Benjamin Reaves, in a sermon based on Jesus’ parable, identifies—rightly, I think—four major lessons for you and me. First, he says, all of us are builders. Each and every day, we’re building the “houses”—that is, the habits, the practices, the lifestyles—in which we live. The woman I talked about earlier, in spite all of her good intentions, although she knew that life is best when God is at the center of our lives, allowed God to be displaced by alcohol. She was building on the wrong foundation. It caused a series of storms that harmed her children, threatened her marriage, and was destroying her health.

By contrast, another person of my acquaintance, David, decided he needed to build a different house. He had been a successful businessperson, his life made easier by a six-figure income. But he felt empty, his life defined by the next big commission. He took a different job, one that let him volunteer at church and with Habitat for Humanity. “I even pray regularly now, Mark,” he told me one day. David was building on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ and Christ’s will that we love God, love neighbor, and help others know Christ.

We’re all builders. Also, all of us must live in the houses we build. The story’s told of a wealthy business owner who told his assistant one day, “I’ve decided to take nine-month trip. While I’m away, you make all the decisions. Also, I want you to take charge of building my new house on that spot above the lake I’ve always talked about. I’m leaving the plans and the funds to build it with you.” The assistant decided that if he cut a few corners, he could score several hundred thousand bucks and the boss would be none the wiser. He hired a crooked contractor, used inferior materials, and hired sloppy workers. Still, when the house was finished, it looked pretty good.

The boss returned and went with the assistant to look over the new place. “How do you like it?” the boss asked the assistant. “I think it turned out well,” the assistant said. “I’m glad you like it,” the boss replied. “You see, I’m retiring soon and won’t need your services. I wanted you to have a nice place for your retirement. The house is yours.”**

We can cut corners in our faith. We can settle for a faith that looks good to the world. (Jesus once excoriated the Pharisees, very religious people, for being "whitewashed tombs," seemingly alive with God's love and power on the outside, but actually dead and removed from God on the inside.) But when you and I have retired from this life, we want to be living in a house founded on Jesus Christ alone.

We’re all builders and we must live in the houses we build. We must also know that every house will be tested by storms. One thing I’ve noticed in twenty-four years as a pastor and fifty-four-plus years as a member of the human race: No one is exempt from the possibility of troubles. And each of us is subject to one storm, death. Without Jesus Christ, that is one storm we cannot survive.

All of us are builders. All must live in the houses they build. All houses are tested by storms. Finally, the difference between the houses that stand and the houses that fall is their foundations. A woman I knew used to tell me about when her house and barn were wiped out by a literal storm, a tornado. Later, her son died from a horrible disease at the age of ten. How did this woman and her husband weather these storms? They built their lives on Christ. They trusted Christ completely. This is the same woman who many of you have heard me quote. When she would consider tragedies, she would ask, “How on earth do people without Christ cope, pastor? Where do they look for strength or hope?”

Storms happen to all of us. Some collapse before they. Others stand. The ones who stand are those who have built on the strong rock of Jesus Christ, who seek to live life God’s way each day.

Jesus’ words to us today are a call and a command to never settle for playing at being Christians. “Walk the talk,” He’s telling us. “Make it your aim to not just call me ‘Lord,’” Jesus is saying, “but to actually build your every moment on Me. Make it your goal to love God, to love neighbor, to forgive as you've been forgiven, and to make disciples. Then, no matter what happens, your life will have been well spent.”

Actions do speak louder than words. May our actions reflect complete reliance on the One we confess as Lord.

*Specifics have been omitted or changed in order to conceal the identities of the people in this story. But it's a true one from my twenty-four years of pastoral ministry.

**Reaves tells this little parable here.