Saturday, May 02, 2009

Marvin Berry's Band Isn't Scheduled to Play Tonight

So we won't be hearing Marty McFly's guitar solo on Johnny B. Goode. But it would be great if we did!

Tonight, in our church fellowship hall, we'll be offering a Middle-of-the-Night Breakfast to the kids who attend the evening's Logan High School Prom.

It'll be fun. But if Biff shows up, I may need some help.

Novelist and Short Story Writer Richard L. Cohen...

not to be confused with the WaPo columnist, is blogging again. Read his wonderful post on ubiquity and openness to the promise of each new day. I'm so glad to be reading Richard's honest, insightful prose again.

Now, I'm off to see some shut-ins.

Friday, May 01, 2009

One Reason So Many Churchgoers May Accept Torture

I'm a Christian and I'm an American.

Therefore, I oppose the use of torture. Ever. No exceptions.

Because ours is an imperfect world, I accept the fact that nations must sometimes go to war, just as I accept that when lives are threatened--be it one's own life or the lives of others--defensive action that may result in an attacker's death is justified.

As a Christian, I accept the notion of just war.

But torture is never just.

I also reject torture as an American. As I've pointed out here many times, the United States was the first country to decide itself into being around certain core principles. Among them was an unwillingness to engage in the kinds of depraved behaviors evidenced in tyrants, be they kings, emperors, Nazis, Soviet Communists, or radical Islamic fundamentalist terrorists.

During World War 2, when German soldiers had the opportunity to choose between being taken prisoner either by US or Soviet forces, they always chose the Yanks. They knew the chance of being treated humanely was exponentially higher if they were in the custody of the United States than of the Soviet Union.*

Besides being profoundly un-Christian and un-American, torture, as any solid military person will tell you, doesn't yield good intelligence. People who are tortured will tell you what you want to hear, factual or not, just to get you to stop.

All of this is why I am appalled by Pew Forum research showing that regular churchgoers are more likely to support the use of torture than the rest of the US population.

Appalled, but not very surprised.

And my lack of surprise has little to do with suspicions about the content of what's being preached and taught in our nation's pulpits, Catechism classes, or Sunday Schools.

While there are more than a few preachers whose "theology" contains jingoistic nationalism and spiritual arrogance, many churchgoers, I'll bet, adopt such ideas, including the acceptance of torture, in spite of what they're being told at their local church.

Several years ago, I ran across an article about Lutheran Christians' understanding of "justification by grace through faith." This is the fundamental doctrine of Biblical Christianity, traceable to the Old Testament story of Abraham, who was acceptable to God not because of any achievements, but solely because God wanted to make him the father of nations and Abraham believed God's promises. The justification doctrine is well-summarized in the most famous passage of the New Testament, John 3:16. They're words of Jesus, spoken to a prominent Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. "
What this verse tells us is that there is nothing that human beings can do to make themselves good enough--no moral ladder they can climb--to make themselves acceptable to God or to earn eternity. Instead, acceptance by God, together with forgiveness and eternal life, are gifts to those who believe (or trust) in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. (Christians believe that Jesus is God in the flesh.)

The grace--literally charity, charitas, in the original New Testament Greek--of God that accepts sinners, faults and all, should make Christians personally humble as well as loving toward their neighbors. As the New Testament writer Paul puts it:
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. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
People in my own tradition--Lutheran Christianity--hear about the doctrine of justification by grace through faith all the time. It was to defend this doctrine that the Lutheran movement began. And yet the article I mentioned earlier revealed that, year after year, survey showed that majorities of Lutheran Christians still persist in believing that people enter eternity if they're good enough, completely and totally contrary to what the Scriptures teach and what they've been taught.

The inescapable conclusion is that many churchgoers aren't especially engaged in their faith. They're like the Pharisees of Jesus' day, people with whom Jesus often tangled. The Pharisees were, in many ways, laudable people. They were regular in worship, scrupulous about keeping religious law.

But Jesus called them whitewashed tombs. In spite of the insistence of the Old Testament that God loved his people as a matter of divine choice (grace) that should evoke faith, they turned faith into a legal transaction. God was whittled down to the size of the local peddler. "If I perform these religious duties, God must accept me," was the implicit notion of the Pharisees. When a person starts to think that they can deal on an equal footing with God, humility goes. So does a sense of humanity.

We have modern day Pharisees in our churches. They sing, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me/I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see." But for too many, those have become mere words and what they really believe is, "How good I am and how clever of me to be moral, upstanding churchperson and how right I am to condemn others and make them tow the line." The actual teaching and preaching they hear is just background noise.

The existence of boastful Phaisaism in the modern US church must be one of the poisonous springs from which "Christian" acceptance of torture emanates.

It's not the only source, I know. There are committed Christians who love others and sincerely believe that torture is OK, I'm sure. But I am equally sure that they are mistaken.

I'm also sure that Pharisaism is hurting the Church and its witness in the world. I'm sure that it's one very bad reason that so many churchgoers excuse a barbarism that my Lord abhors.

It is deeply disturbing.

*Americans haven't always lived up to those high ideals. But the wonder of the United States is how often those who have so failed have been called to account for their wrongs.

A Look at the Bible Lessons for This Coming Sunday (May 3, 2009)

[These "looks" are something I write every week, mainly with the idea of helping members of the congregation I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to get ready for worship. But since our congregation uses a lectionary (a plan of Bible lessons) rooted on the Church Year shared by most Christians throughout the world, I hope that others find these pieces helpful, too.]

Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 4, 2009

The Bible Lessons:
Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

The Prayer of the Day:
O Lord Christ, good shepherd of the sheep, you seek the lost and guide us into your fold. Feed us, and we shall be satisfied; heal us, and we shall be whole. Make us one with you, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

General Themes:
1. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus identifies Himself with the Lord (Yahweh) Who is Shepherd from the Old Testament. In Near-East culture, shepherd imagery was often associated both with protectors and royalty.

2. The God of Israel, ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ, is the Lord of all creation. Through Christ, God wants to save all people, which means coming to faith in Christ, because, as Peter puts it, "There is salvation in no one else; for there is not other name given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

Acts 4:5-12
(I'm probably going to preach on this text. So, a few thoughts.)

A coalition of unlikely allies, including the religious elites which rejects the whole idea of resurrection and the religious mass movement (Pharisees) who believe in resurrection, are amassed against the early Christians, represented by Peter and John. They're introduced in Acts 4:1-4, and include Annas and Caiaphas, who are mentioned in John 18:13-14, as among those who stood in judgment over Jesus. To stand with Jesus is to incur the same rejection He endured.

This "coalition" is alarmed by a healing performed by Peter and John in Jesus' Name. In Jesus' Name, a crippled beggar now walks. The coalition has the two disciples arrested.

The question posed by the officials in v. 7 gets at the nub of what they don't want to hear. They thought that they had successfully wiped out the Jesus' movement by crucifying Jesus. It should be pointed out that there had been and would be others who claimed the mantle of messiahship, some gaining large followings. But their movements were successfully snuffed out when the would-be messiahs were executed. The Jesus movement endures.

In v. 8, Peter doesn't answer the question in his own power, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus told His followers (Luke 12:11-12) not to be concerned about what to say when powerful people challenged them to explain their faith. The Holy Spirit, Jesus said, would give them the words they needed at the moments they needed them.

I love the way Peter characterizes the action for which he and John were arrested, "a good deed." And it's true, they've been arrested because they healed a crippled beggar.

Peter makes no bones about confessing Jesus. Nor does he spare his accusers of blame for rejecting Jesus, in spite of Jesus being the Foundation of the creation.

Peter ends with a ringing affirmation of Jesus' teaching that it is only through Him that humanity is saved from sin and death.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Good Advice

• Always pray before planning.
• Always love people more than things.
• Do all things to please God.

See here.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Too Good To Be True?

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

Luke 24:36b-48
Many of you have no doubt seen the video of Susan Boyle from her audition on the English version of American Idol, a show on which Simon Cowell also appears called Britain’s Got Talent. Boyle is an unemployed forty-seven year old woman from Scotland whose only previous gigs were singing solos at her local church. When she came onstage, audience members rolled their eyes in disbelief at her presumption. “If she was good enough to sing on national television,” they seemed to be saying, “why did it take her forty-seven years to get here?” And when Boyle told Cowell that she wanted to be as big as Elaine Paige, the reigning queen of British musical theater, some in the audience laughed derisively.

Then, Boyle opened her mouth to sing. Out came a voice suited for musicals. As cameras panned audience and judges, there were dropped jaws and wide eyes, some of the eyes even tearing up. It all seemed too good to be true.

I thought of that video of Susan Boyle as I read this week’s Gospel account of Jesus’ encounter with some of His disciples on the first Easter. Why is it that the disciples found it so hard to accept that Jesus had risen from the dead when He was standing right in front of them? It seemed too good to be true!

But even after Jesus had proven that He was Who He seemed to be by showing them His hands and feet and eating broiled fish, the disciples still had a tough challenge before them. It’s one thing to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Even the devil believes that, probably with greater firmness and certainty than you or I do. But it is quite another thing to entrust your life—your past sins, your present life, and your future—into Jesus’ hands.

“OK,” you can imagine the disciples saying to themselves after Jesus had proven that He was no ghost, His once-dead and wounded body come back to life, “that’s all very well for You, Jesus. But I still have to deal with the Romans. I still have to pay my bills, take care of my kids, look after my aging parents, watch my kids grow up, leave home, and struggle to establish their own lives while I grieve the loss of their childhood. What does your resurrection have to do with any of that?”

There’s really no difference between those first century disciples who saw the risen Jesus and those of us who have never seen the Lord. We’re still called to do something impossible if we try to do it on our own: To not only believe the facts about Jesus, but also to trust Jesus Himself, to believe that even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, that Christ is with us and holds eternity up His sleeve for us. Like them, we’re called to bet everything on Christ.

That’s why what Jesus says beginning at verse 44 in our Gospel lesson is important. I can picture Him wiping the broiled fish residue from His mouth and settling in for a talk. I’m indebted to Pastor John Jewell for his helpful summary of the last five verses of today’s lesson.

First, Jesus gave them the meaning of His resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection is more than an impressive trick or a personal triumph. Our lesson says, “…He opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” He goes through all of Old Testament history from the laws of Moses, to the writings of the prophets, and then to the psalms to show them that His death and resurrection had been part of God’s plan to save humanity from sin and death since Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden. Jesus’ death and resurrection were for us.

When you trust that God has given you eternity, it changes your present. The other day, I read about a guy who’s a big sports nut, but because most of the games he likes to watch happen at times when he has to be out of town, he can’t watch them live. So, he records the games. Then, when he has a little time, he checks the ends of the recordings to see how the games have turned out. If he sees that his favorite teams have won, he pulls out some snacks and watches the recordings from their beginnings. If they lose, he dumps the recordings. Some people tell him, “That must be awful!” But he says, “No, it’s great. When I know how the game is going to turn out, no matter how bad things look, I still know we’re going to win.”

That’s the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection for those who trust in Him. No matter how bad things get, irrespective of the triumphs and tragedies that come our way, we know how things will end. Jesus wins and with Him, all of us who trust in Him win life with God for all eternity.

But Jesus understands that trust like that doesn’t come easily to us. That’s why the way Luke talks about this in our Gospel lesson is so important. Luke says that Jesus “opened [the disciples’] minds.” Some days, the best you and I can do is to want to believe in Jesus’ Word of promise. If we’re open to that Word—open to the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit, God will help us remember His faithfulness and renew our strength in faith. So, to build our faith, Jesus in our Gospel lesson, gives the meaning of the resurrection.

Next, to build our faith, Jesus gives us the message. He says, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead…and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in His Name to all nations…”

The message is that Jesus’ death wasn’t a tragedy. The tragedy happened long before when humanity fell into sin and plunged the universe into chaos by turning from God. The cross was part of the plan of God that God Himself would restore and renew us and His creation by bearing humanity’s sins on a cross. On the cross, Jesus fought for your eternal destiny, just as God intended.

The message also is that Jesus’ resurrection opens up the same destiny for us. All who belong to Christ will be raised again, our once decayed bodies brought to life again, visible and identifiable to God and to others. (I have to say that this bothers me a little. It means that I’m going to be stuck with this mug for all eternity. But not looking like Brad Pitt is a small price to pay for having eternity with God!)

So, to build up our faith, Jesus gives us the meaning of His resurrection and the message of His resurrection. He also gives us the mission of His resurrection. At the very end of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “You are witnesses to these things.”

Those words apply to us no less than they did to the first disciples to whom Jesus spoke these words. You are witnesses. You have seen meaning and the message of Jesus’ resurrection up close and personal in the life of this church. You’ve seen how people who had no hope or whose zest for life was waning, have been uplifted by the Good News of our resurrected Jesus shared here at Saint Matthew, by the prayers of His people, and by the ministries of this Church.

Just this past week, two different people who we’ve been long praying for approached me to say, “Thanks for your prayers. Life is going better now.” Another person recently told me, “I was feeling really down. But I know that God is helping me.” And just the other day, Ann was talking with a person from our community who learned that her husband was pastor of Saint Matthew. She mentioned a person she knew from our congregation and commented what a person of integrity and kindness he is.

You are witnesses for Christ. By trustingly depending on the risen Jesus each day, you fulfill Christ’s mission for us. You convey the meaning of His resurrection for everyday life. You help people see the message about a Savior Who stands by us in all circumstances.

To a brutal, competitive world where selfishness, greed, violence, and hopelessness seem so often to prevail, the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and its significance for our lives seem too good to be true. But to those who dare to open their minds to God’s Word and the Spirit’s guidance, Jesus’ resurrection changes everything. Whenever your faith wanes, as it can be in the face of life’s daily demands and challenges, remember Christ’s resurrection. Remember its meaning, message, and mission and God will give you faith, strength, and hope that never gives out. Amen