Thursday, June 24, 2010

Just read in the car...

Paula Urburu's fascinating account of turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th, by the way) New York. Evelyn Nesbit, underage beauty, was arguably America's first supermodel, her image appearing on everything from serious art prints to bars of soap. This is a story of parental negligence, financial desperation, celebrity, and scandal in a city then emerging as more than a center of commerce, but also as a media dream machine.

[Below, Evelyn Nesbit]

Reading in the car...

...(not while driving, but to my wife, while she drives), T.J. Stiles' biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt, raised to be a thoroughly economic being--his mother once foreclosed on the mortgage of a widow, who happened to be her daughter--was, as Stiles shows, the first tycoon. This is a well-researched and beautifully written book that will keep you riveted!


Frank Freidel's biography of Franklin Roosevelt. It's a good one-volume, no frills approach. I've been reading FDR bios lately to get differing perspectives on him, exploring analogies between the Great Depression and Roosevelt's response on the one hand and the recent recession/financial crisis and Obama's response on the other.

Our Generosity Honors Christ

See here.

It also frees us from the curses of selfishness and self-absorption.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Church and Politics?

From Article XXVIII of The Augsburg Confession, one of the basic confessional documents of Lutheranism:
...ecclesiastical and civil power are not to be confused. The power of the church has its own commission to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments. Let it not invade the other's function, nor transfer the kingdoms of the world, nor abrogate the laws of civil rulers, nor abolish lawful obedience, nor interfere with judgments concerning any civil ordinances or contracts, nor prescribe to civil rulers laws about the forms of government that should be established. Christ says, "My kingdom is not of this world," and again, "Who made me judge or divider over you?" Paul also wrote...,"Our commonwealth is in heaven," and..."The weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy arguments,"...
At the very least, this article suggests that Lutheran Christians ought to be extremely circumspect about the Church, bishops, or pastors issuing political judgments in their capacity as spokespeople for the Gospel. There are no doubt times when the Church, bishops, and pastors may feel compelled to speak prophetically on social and political issues. But they should do so only when the ministry of Word and Sacrament, the true power of the Church as given by God, commands it. Absent that clarity, we depart from the will of God and diminish the authority of our proclamation of the Gospel when we present our own political views, however well founded we may deem them to be, as though commended by God.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Way of Life

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

Galatians 3:23-29
Occasionally, when our two kids were small, Ann and I would go out for an evening with friends, usually something glamorous like bowling and dinner. Most of the babysitters we used in those years were very good. While none of them loved our children like Ann and I did, of course, they were responsible and Philip and Sarah both knew that we had delegated our authority to the sitters to ensure that, at the least, the house didn’t burn down while we were away. No matter how good a job our babysitters did though, if our kids were still awake when we got home, they would always run to us and give us big hugs the moments we walked through the door; they were happy to once more be in the embraces of the parents they trusted.

I bring this up not to engage in Father’s Day sentimentality, but for another reason.

Two weeks ago, we began to look at the New Testament book of Galatians. You may remember that this "book" is really a letter written by the apostle Paul in about 53/54 AD to Christian churches in Galatia. That was a region whose population was made up of Gentiles, non-Jews, and it was located in what is today central Turkey.

Paul had planted congregations there, bringing the good news that God’s plan for setting sinful humanity right with God and for destroying the power of death over us had come to full fruition in the Messiah—the Christ—Jesus of Nazareth. Through faith in what Jesus had done for all in His death and resurrection, Paul taught these Galatian converts, they could have their sins forgiven, the promise of everlasting life, and become new people empowered by the Holy Spirit to live in the dignity and freedom that go with being children of God.

The Galatian converts turned from sin (that is, repented), came to believe in Jesus, and were baptized. On this sound basis, the church in Galatia flourished and grew.

Later though, with Paul gone to other regions to spread the gospel and to start new congregations, a group known as Judaizers began to infiltrate the church in Galatia. They taught the Gentile Christians that being baptized and having faith in Jesus wasn’t enough to ensure their salvation. They convinced many of the Galatian Christians that to be certain of their relationship with God, the men must be circumcised and that all of them must submit to the ritual laws of the Jewish faith from which the Messiah had come.

Paul was, as we saw two weeks ago, incensed with the Judaizers. But he was also upset with the Christians who made up the Galatian churches. They had been living in the new freedom Christ gives to forgiven sinners who trust in Him and then submitted themselves to laws that, at most, could only demonstrate their distance from the holiness and purity of God. They had been living as true children of God, growing up under the grace of God, but now were enslaving themselves to laws designed merely to convict them for their human imperfections.

In the opening two lines of our lesson from Galatians for today, Paul says this:
Now before faith came—that is, before the way to new life for all who entrust themselves to Jesus Christ appeared—we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified—that is be made right with God—through faith.
Here, Paul is describing two different ways of life: the way of the law and the way of faith in Christ. He had taught the Galatians the way of faith, but many of them were falling away from Christ and losing their grip on grace by pursuing the way of the law.

Now, let's be clear: The law we’re talking about is God’s law. God’s laws aren’t bad things. The laws that command us to love God and to love neighbor, the laws embodied in the Ten Commandments, even many of the ancient Levitical laws governing the behaviors of believers toward each other and toward the strangers in their midst, aren’t bad things. We teach our kids the Commandments in Catechism class, for example, because they reflect God’s will for how human beings should live, they identify the parameters within which life is good.

And, at some basic level, history and experience demonstrate that every human being knows something of God’s law even if they don’t know God or even show any interest in God. Several years ago, in an interrogation room here at the Hocking County jail, a young man broke down to confess to thievery, fearful, he said, that because he had stolen from a church he would go to hell.

We all know God’s law. And it’s good insofar as it goes. But God’s law can’t give us life. It can only show us how far we are from God, how desperately we need God. Paul himself writes about this in the New Testament book of Romans. “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self,” he says, and then confesses himself incapable of keeping the law. Whether in his heart, his mind, or in his actions, Paul says, he falls short of keeping God’s law. So do you and I.

So, it's fair to ask, what good is God’s law? Well, it turns out that mostly, it’s a very good babysitter.*

That’s essentially what Paul is saying in those words I read to you from Galatians a moment ago. The word translated as disciplinarian in verse 24 and later in verse 26, is, in the original Greek, paidagogon or as it’s been transliterated into English, pedagogue. Literally, in the original Greek of the New Testament, it means one who leads a child. Martin Luther, in his translation, rendered the word as schoolmaster. The term, pedagogue, was widely used in the first century Greco-Roman world of specific slaves in wealthy households who were in charge of ensuring that the sons of wealthy fathers did their schoolwork. Their job was to nag their young charges to do the right thing.

Until Jesus showed up, Paul is saying, God’s law acted as a pedagogue—a babysitter, reminding us of right and wrong, prodding and pushing us to do God’s will. But now, we don’t have to depend on the babysitter. Instead, through Jesus we have direct access to our Father God. We can trust that, despite our sins, through what Jesus has done for us and through our faith in Jesus, we are acceptable to God, set free to live not as the students of some slave tutor, however well-intentioned or correct, but as children of God saved by grace.

Paul hoped that his words to the Galatians would come as good news. Jesus was all they needed to be right with God. As he puts it in our lesson, “Now that faith—that is, the life of trust in Jesus Christ--has come, we are no longer subject to a paidagogon—a babysitter, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”  

In Christ Jesus, we live in a freedom and a life of open-ended possibility that scrupulous attention to religious lists of dos and don’ts could never bring!

That freedom that God gives us to discover our own niches in His kingdom, to live out our love of God and neighbor in our own unique ways, can be disturbing to us. A part of us doesn’t like the open-ended freedom that Christ gives; we would rather have dos and don’ts than live in the mystery of relationship with an infinitely loving God Who allows us to try and sometimes fail. We're like two of the characters in The Shawshank Redemption who were so accustomed to being imprisoned, that they found it hard to handle being set free.

More than one frustrated Christian these past two-thousand years has prayed, “Lord, just tell me what to do” and felt themselves engulfed by silence. But, silence is sometimes what Christian freedom sounds like.

We see this even in our human relationships. A young man, in love, considers whether to ask his sweetheart to marry. He asks his father and mother what he should do. The law might mete out advice; but love will keep silent. A young woman of great talent has the opportunity to take a year away from school and study under one of the great masters of her art. She asks a friend what she should do. The law might proscribe a particular route; but love will just listen.

This is a lesson that the prophet Elijah learned hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. He sought God’s voice in a great wind, in an earthquake, and in fire, in urgent, commanding realities. But 1 Kings says that the Lord wasn’t found by Elijah in anything but sheer silence, in a place beyond commands, in the grace of God where he experienced the intimate presence of the God Who wants to be our Father, Who silenced Elijah’s feverish seeking and anxious fears by assuring Elijah that He was with Him and always would be.

Five hundred years ago, Luther was inspired by words from Psalm 46 in the composition of his hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. It contains these words: "Be still, and know that I am God!" 

And it was from the silence of a cross on which the Author of all life gave His life for us that God's love gave its ultimate expression.
When you’re living the life of faith rather than the life of the law, it will change every decision you make in life, not because the outcomes will necessarily be different, but because one path will bring decisions you feel you have to make and the other path will render decisions that God lets you make. God doesn't force you to make righteous decisions, he sets you free from slavery to sin so that you can make righteous decisions.

Luther was once asked about how to know the decisions we make are the right ones. He replied that we should consult the Bible, pray, and speak with trusted Christian counselors. Then, if the answer still isn’t clear, we should “sin boldly.”

What he meant was that if our intent as children of God is to do the will of God, if we have prayed about it and sought God’s will, we will make a decision pleasing to God.

The law constantly points out our deficiencies, what we need to do, who we need to be. And I need the law because, if I will let go of my resistance, the law will always point me to my need of the Savior Who gives forgiveness and the power to live. Jesus said that He didn’t come to do away with God’s law, but to fulfill it. And every time you and I violate God’s law, it indicates some lack of trust in the God we know in Christ. That’s why we have an ongoing need to measure ourselves against the law and to live in daily repentance and renewal.

But, unlike the law, God’s love, given in Jesus Christ, assures us that we are loved and gives us the freedom to be all that we were made for. Only the life of faith in Christ can do this.

Small wonder though, that some of the Galatian Christians and some people even today would rather live in the easy certainties of legalistic religion (or the laws of the marketplace, or the shifting conventions of society), rather than to trust in the love of God shining through the fog of uncertainty in this dying world.

Faith is trust. When you hitch your wagon to Jesus’ star, you know how the story will end, you know you will one day be in eternity with God, but you have no idea what the ride between here and there will be like. You have to be willing to live with that mystery and to learn to pray, “Thy will, O Lord, be done.”

The way of faith isn’t easy; but it is the way of life.

Trust in Christ and live!

*The babysitter image is suggested by N.T. Wright here