Saturday, December 01, 2012

Is It Mission Critical?

Discussing Article VIII (What is the Church?) of The Augsburg Confession, a basic statement of the Lutheran understanding of Christian faith, D.J. Lura writes:
"In both the hearing of the Word and the receiving of the Sacraments, the Church experiences Christ as he has commanded.  Everything else that happens at church is [in] Luther’s Latin phrase ‘adiaphora,’ which means ‘it isn’t necessary.’"*
How much of what is done by, with, and in churches is critical to the mission Jesus has given to us to make disciples by sharing the Gospel in its purity and the Sacraments as Christ intended?

And how much of what churches do could be tossed out as unnecessary and, sometimes, even hurtful to the mission Christ has given to us?

Churches often spend so much time either maintaining traditions or carving out "seeker-sensitive" empires that they forget why Christ established His Church in the first place.

Reading the Bible and the confessions of my own tradition remind me of this and incite me to pray and to work toward doing only that which is "mission critical." But we all have so many habits associated with "being Church" that excising the unnecessary and focusing on the essential can be difficult.

Every congregation and every pastor should periodically ask themselves, "Is what I'm doing central to the mission Christ has given to us? Or should we bag it in favor of doing what is central to that mission?"

*Lura, DJ (2011-09-05). 'So What's a Lutheran, Don'tcha Know?' (Kindle Locations 652-654).  . Kindle Edition.

Do We Matter to God?

Christmas answers that question!

Friday, November 30, 2012

On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death: George Harrison Posts

Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the death of George Harrison. Below are links to some past posts on this blog in which Harrison was mentioned or played an important part:

Why Are We So Litigious?
Anniversary of John Lennon's Death: The Dream is Over
How to Keep Our Mouths Under Control (or, Getting Free of Being a Gossip)
He Wanted to Be Successful without Being Famous
Isn't It a Pity?

Isn't It a Pity?

My wife and I watched the second part of Martin Scorcese's documentary about George Harrison, Living in the Material World, last night. It left me feeling sad and empty.

Not just because of the tragic last years of Harrison's life, which included cancer, remission, an attack by a would-be murderer that nearly killed him, and the re-appearance of the cancer that did kill him.

And not just because of the loss of a talented musician, still in his 50s, whose music helped comprise, as some have said, "the soundtrack of my life."

What saddened me was the source of Harrison's well-known spiritual quest. Harrison was more aware than most of us are of the basic human need to know God. But in the church of his upbringing (in this case, a Roman Catholic church), he didn't get to know God.

As a Christian, that saddens, chastens, and angers me. To know that there are people who, usually without being aware of it, come to our churches hungry for God, but never get fed is, to me unspeakably sad.

And tragic!

The great thing about the Church is that it's composed of human beings. Imperfect though each Christian is, she or he is empowered by God to let others know, see, and experience God.

Faith isn't something we attain through recited prayers and creeds, mantras, or beads, though any number of human practices can support us in our faith journeys.

But faith, actual knowledge of, friendship with, and trust in, God is a gift ordinary Christians can give when, by word and deed, they tell others about God-enfleshed, Jesus Christ. God's Holy Spirit works faith in the person who hears the Gospel, the good news about the new life that comes to all who trust what Christ has done for us through His death and resurrection.

Philipp Melancthon writes in Article V of The Augsburg Confession, a basic statement of faith for we Lutheran Christians:
...through the Word [about Christ] and administering the sacraments [Holy Baptism and Holy Communion], as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given and the Holy Spirit produces faith, where and when it pleases God, in those who hear the Gospel. That is to say, it is not on account of our own merits but on account of Christ that justifies [makes right with Himself] those who believe that they are received into favor for Christ's sake... [italics added for emphasis]
In other words, there's nothing we can do to find God. And we don't have to perform any task to know God. We don't even have to do any work--like chanting a mantra--to know God. God makes Himself known in Jesus Christ.

Christ commissions the Church to let others know God through Himself.

The Holy Spirit takes the witness of ordinary Christians--dishwashers, plumbers, teachers, hairdressers, computer programmers, even preachers--and creates faith in those who hear the good news about Jesus. 

Earlier I said, "The great thing about the Church is that it's composed of human beings."

Do you know what the horrible thing about the Church?

It's composed of human beings.

Knowledge of God, relationship with God, and trust in God are all free gifts God grants through Christ and spreads around through Christians operating in the power of His Holy Spirit.

But because sin still lives in Christians and will until the day we die, we Christians sometimes hide God's free gifts beneath the veils and thick brick walls of religiosity, pomposity, and authoritarianism.

That, I think, is what victimized George Harrison. It's why he never got to know Jesus Christ, the One Who makes God known. (One passage in Scripture, the witness of one who had known Jesus before His crucifixion and resurrection, says: "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son [Jesus Christ], Who is close to the Father's heart, Who has made Him known" [John 1:18].)

George Harrison grew up in a church that appeared to him so bent on maintaining its rites and its status that he couldn't see God.

The irony is that in his quest for God through Indian spirituality, he took up rites of religiosity to go looking for God.

Jesus is the One Whose coming into the world we celebrate during Advent and Christmas and Whose return one day to bring His eternal kingdom in its final form that we excitedly anticipate. Jesus is God revealed to all the world. "The Father and I are one," Jesus once said (John 10:30).

It saddens me to realize that churches around the world obscure the views others need to have of God. They bury Christ beneath the rubble of religion and in some cases, legalism ("You've got to do this or that to know God.") and in others, spiritual libertarianism ("Do whatever you want; God just wants you to be happy, no matter how monstrous you may act.").

But when Christians and churches allow themselves to simply and humbly tell others about Christ, serve in His Name, and share the Sacraments Christ instituted, one vulnerable human being in need of God to another, that's when people can see God, know God, and believe in God.

I'm sorry that, for whatever reason, whether because the church of his youth obscured the Gospel about Jesus from his view or because his ears, mind, heart, and will were closed, George Harrison never got to know Jesus.

Not some Life of Brian straw man version of Jesus, easy to dismiss or tear down.

Not the means for clergy or churches to exercise power over fearful or disbelieving people.

But the real Jesus, full of grace and truth. The One Who bore the burden of our sin, death, and futility on the cross. The One Who, by His resurrection, opened the gates of eternity for all who believe in Him.

George Harrison wanted to know God so much. I wish someone had shown him the God revealed definitively to the whole human race in Jesus Christ.

Isn't it a pity that someone didn't do that?

UPDATE, evening, 11/30/12: We didn't know last evening when we watched Scorcese's documentary about Harrison that it was the tenth anniversary of George Harrison's death.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Christmas is for Children...Like Me

One of the things I hear people say at this time of year is, "Christmas is for children."

If by "children," these folks mean "chronologically younger human beings," which is what they usually do mean, I couldn't agree less.

I have happy memories of childhood Christmases.

But none of what I experienced around Christmas in those days can compare with the thoughts and feelings I have as I approach my sixtieth Christmas!

Whenever I think about God taking on human flesh in order to die and rise for a sinner like me, I'm overwhelmed with thankfulness and wonder.

All who receive Jesus as God, King, and Savior by faith are made children of God. So, in one sense, Christmas really is for children. As John puts it in the prologue to his gospel, " all who received [Christ], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God..." (John 1:12).

By faith in Christ, I'm one of those children. And that's why, as my wife sang along with O, Holy Night in our car a few days ago, I found my eyes misting and my voice choking in thankfulness for all that God has done for an unworthy sinner like me.

I love Christmas because it reminds me that Christ loves even me!

Advent starts this coming Sunday, December 2. Advent is the season of anticipation of Christmas and anticipation of His return to the earth one day, when He will finally and fully establish His eternal kingdom. It will be a kingdom in which all who have received Christ by faith will reign with God forever.

Why not let down your guard? Make it a point to worship with the imperfect, forgiven fellowship you can find at a church somewhere close to you.

Lay aside your cynicism and defensiveness.

Lay down the sins you've allowed to define you for way too long.

Take hold of the outstretched hand of forgiveness and charity God gives to you in Jesus Christ.

You don't have to fully understand it or be able to explain it.

Just fall into the arms of the God Who loves you and let Him love you.

Let yourself be God's child.

Let Him set you free to be the joyful, grateful child He made you to be.

Let it happen this Christmas!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Christie Out of Favor with Right of Center Political Junkies

Political journalists, consultants, officeholders, and candidates are, let's be honest, junkies. They're addicted. They can never get enough of politics, political speculation, or campaigning. The object of life for many of them isn't to govern, but to win. For them, the four years between presidential elections isn't when government policies are debated and enacted, it's just part of the election cycle, akin to a major league baseball or NFL football season.

So, it was no surprise on election night to see the pundits speculating on who the Democratic and Republican Party candidates in 2016 would be. (That's when I turned off the TV and pulled out a book.)

Nor was it surprising to learn that within days of the election, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) was off to Iowa to lend his help to the state GOP with a fundraiser.

Yesterday, Ann Althouse reported on an informal poll conducted among "right of center bloggers" as to their preferred GOP presidential candidates for 2016. 

The bad news is that 74 responded.

The good news is that 240 were asked.

Might it be too much to hope that the majority of this sampling of politically-engaged folks would rather be focused on the governance part of government for awhile, you know, sort of let the Electoral College actually cast their votes in December before beginning the presidential campaign full force?

A person can hope, can't he?

So, what did the bloggers say? You can read a full report here

What stands out is how far New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has fallen in the eyes of this sampling of conservative bloggers. Based on what I see on Twitter posted by conservative folks, it would seem the right of center bloggers' disdain of Christie is fairly widespread among some Republicans. Christie is no longer the their darling.

They appear to believe that by expressing appreciation for the help that President Obama and his appointees with FEMA gave to New Jersey in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, Governor Christie effectively handed the election to the President. This is viewed as a betrayal by some folks, as though Christie's highest call of duty is to the electoral chances of his party and not to the state or the nation.

Whether Chris Christie is qualified to be president or if his overall record is sufficient to pass muster with Republican Party conservatism are the sorts of questions I don't deal with. I've come to believe that pastors shouldn't do politics.

But Christie's apparent fall from grace among some Republicans is stunning: At the beginning of this presidential cycle, conservatives were urging him to run for president despite his short time as governor. And these same folks lapped up his forceful keynote address at the Republican National Convention this year.

Note: It wasn't a scandal that did Christie in. He hasn't defiled the flag or enagaged in espionage. He hasn't even been done in by a flip-flop.

What has done Christie in among some of his fellow Republicans, at least for the moment, is an expression of appreciation to the President of the United States for helping his state.

Of course, there are folks in every ideological camp who prefer ideological purity (according to the definition du jour of their ideology, of course) to getting things done.

But voters like pragmatism and magnanimity, which is why my guess is that when the voters of New Jersey go to the polls this coming November, even some of those who are very blue Democrats with misgivings about some of the cuts the governor has effected in their state, many will mark their ballots for Chris Christie.

By the way, how predictive is this poll of "right of center bloggers," who have been polled at similar times four years before the next presidential elections regarding their choices for president?

Negatively predictive. In other words, the folks they least preferred have ended up becoming their party's nominee...then losing the elections. John Hawkins explains:
In 2008, the least wanted candidates for bloggers were...John McCain and Ron Paul.

In 2012, the least wanted candidates for bloggers were...Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.

So, going by those results, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush would have to be considered the early favorites for 2016 based on the fact that conservative bloggers don’t want either of them as a nominee.
Personally, I'd prefer the candidate, from whatever party, who had to be persuaded at the last minute to run for president. I know, it's not gonna happen. Marco Rubio will soon be joined by an army of Red and Blue would-be presidents tromping around Iowa and New Hampshire. After all, the addicts must get their fixes.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Who's Your King?

John 18:33-37
Sam Rutigliano, one-time head coach of the Cleveland Browns and a Lutheran Christian, was scheduled to be the main speaker for a Lutheran banquet. Ed Markquart, then the senior pastor of a Lutheran congregation near Seattle, was going to the gathering, but didn’t want to go. Rutigliano would, Markquart was sure, give one of those “jock for Jesus” talks, the ones where athletes or coaches talk about all the victories Jesus has given them.

He was shocked then at the banquet, when Rutigliano spoke about his faith in Christ. As Rutigliano told it, “He and his wife were driving one evening with their two year old daughter in the back seat. Suddenly a car was upon them; there was an accident; their car rolled over; the child was thrown out; and when everything had stopped moving, their little girl was pinned underneath the car.”

Markquart waited for the standard “jock for Jesus” finish. But all Rutigliano said of his daughter was, “She was dead.”

His wife and he grieved, nothing seeming to bring comfort.

Time passed and they became pregnant again, an answer to prayer, it seemed.

The pregnancy was normal and the baby was delivered, stillborn. It was more than Sam Rutigliano and his wife could bear. Sam found himself trying to negotiate with God. “If You will do this, Lord, then I will do that.” Markquart writes that as Rutigliano prayed, “...a quiet voice spoke back to Sam’s inner spirit: ‘No deals, Sam. No deals. No manipulations. I rule over you in all times of your life.'” Even the bad ones.

Rutigliano concluded his speech: “God has called me to be his servant in my turf, the National Football League. He rules over all aspects of my life, when winning or losing, in triumphs and tragedies. How about you? Where is your turf? Does God rule you there in your turf, in your situation? Not just when you’re winning, but when you are losing. Not just during the triumphs but during the tragedies of your life? Does God rule you then?”

With those words, Sam Rutigliano sat down.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. And the question before us is this: Is Jesus Christ our king? Or do we serve other kings, like desire, success, security, popular acceptance, or, one of today’s favorites, tolerance, whose subjects believe in tolerating anyone except those who disagree with them.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the kings people choose to serve other than Jesus Christ: They’re not much good when you face adversities or griefs like the ones Sam Rutigliano experienced.

The king of desire, for example, will leave you to die when you’ve overdosed and let you fend for yourself when you learn that you have a sexually transmitted disease, or are pregnant.

The king of popularity or acceptance by others will give you a happy life so long as you live like a chameleon and go along to get along with the crowd. (Some of you young people know what I’m talking about!)

That king of popular acceptance, in fact, appears to be the king of choice even in our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America these days.

Our leaders and members put up with and even encourage pastors, bishops, and congregations who question or deny the virgin birth of Jesus, that Jesus physically rose from the dead [1], that Jesus is the only way to life with God, and the existence of hell.

To be acceptable to one Christian denomination, our ELCA has also effectively, given up on a central teaching of the Lutheran confessions that the written word of God in the Bible is the final authority over our life, faith, and practice and accepts instead that that other denomination’s bishops and human traditions have an authority equal to that of the Bible.

In obvious deference to being accepted by others, our ELCA has also said in its public documents that authority over Christian proclamation and practice stems not just from Scripture, but also our personal experiences. That contradicts what both the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions teach.

Denominational and synodical officials, say nothing while one of our ELCA congregations plays to the prevailing opinions of Americans people that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe it sincerely. At Ebenezer Church, an ELCA congregation in good standing, the Lord's Prayer or their version of it isn't offered to the God Who “is in heaven.” Instead, they pray to the deity “who is within us” and displace any mention of forgiving our trespasses as we forgive the trespasses of others. The so-called prayer is ended with: “You support us in our power and we act with courage. For you are the dwelling place within us, the empowerment around us and the celebration among us, now and forever. Amen.” The problem, of course, isn't that the words are wrong, but that the theology is more American and more Asian than it is Biblical. ELCA officials not only refuse undertake disciplinary action against this congregation, a high official of the ELCA, an aide to our presiding bishop, recently spoke and worshiped at a conference there, alongside a so-called “high priestess of the goddess Isis.”

In obvious deference to being accepted by others, our ELCA has also said in public documents that sources of authority over Christian sexual morality include not just Scripture, but also our personal experiences. That contradicts what both the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions teach.

The irony is that while our denomination sounds more and more like the rest of the world, the king of popularity has abandoned us. When the going gets tough, the kings of this world always abandon their subjects. But, like Sam Rutigliano, we know a King who “will never leave [us] nor forsake [us],” from whom not even death can separate us.

This morning we gather to worship and celebrate the only King worthy of our allegiance. We worship King Jesus Christ, the Lord of everything! Jesus is different from the other kings people serve.

We see how different in our gospel lesson, John 8:33-37.  It’s part of John’s narrative about the trial of Jesus that will culminate in His death on a cross.

Verse 33: “Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called [other translations say, “summoned”] Jesus, and said to Him, ‘Are You the King of the Jews?’” Pilate has just come from a consultation with the leaders of the Jewish religion, whose country, Judea, was under the rule of the Roman Empire and of Pilate, the Roman governor. The leaders’ beef with Jesus is that He claimed to be God. They saw this as sacrilegious. But Romans called all sorts of people gods. So, in order to persuade Pilate that Jesus needed to be executed and gotten out of the way, they told Pilate that Jesus claimed to be King of the Jews. That got Pilate’s attention. He didn’t want any trouble from would-be kings. So, he asks Jesus, “Are You the King of the Jews?”

Jesus, this poor carpenter, already bruised and battered from the mistreatment He’s received since His arrest, shows Pilate Who’s really in charge of this interview by asking Pilate a question: “Are you speaking for yourself about this, or did others tell you this concerning Me?”

In essence, Jesus is asking Pilate the same question He asked His own disciples in Matthew 16:15: “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus Himself is unambiguous in identifying Who He is.

Go to John 14:9. Jesus tells Philip: “...He who has seen Me has seen the Father...”

Look at John 10:30 Jesus says, “I and My Father are one.”

Or look at John 8:58. Jesus tells His fellow Jews who want to make Him a king on their own terms: “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” (I AM--Yahweh--in the Old Testament was the Name by which God identified Himself to Moses at a burning bush some 1500 years earlier.)

Jesus isn’t one of the bitty kings people follow in this world, not the little gods of various worldly religious systems. He is the King of all creation, the One with power over life and death.

As Jesus puts it in John 11:25: “I am the resurrection and the life. [All who believe] in Me, though [they] die...shall live.”

Back in our lesson, Pilate sees himself as too important to deal with the squabbles of a conquered people. He asks Jesus in John 18:35: “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you to me. What have you done?”

But Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” We must be careful here. In saying that His kingdom is not of this world, Jesus isn’t saying that His kingdom is not for this world.

If His kingdom weren’t for this world, Jesus wouldn’t have taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

When Jesus says that His kingdom is not of this world, He’s saying that it’s not from this world. He is, after all, God the Word made flesh.

Jesus is not from the world, but through His death and resurrection He conquers this world and when He returns one day to bring this world to an end, He will bring the new heavens and the new earth for all who believe in Him to reign over with Him.

Jesus goes on to tell Pilate in our Gospel lesson: “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight...”

Jesus is saying, “If I were an ordinary king, I’d have my own army that would fight for Me. I’d have my own political platform that My followers would fight for in the counsels of government. But My kingdom is bigger than all that. “My kingdom,” Jesus says at the end of verse 36, “is not from here.”

Pilate has seen bands of rebels undertake their little wars on Rome before. He looks at the carpenter standing before him and, probably with sarcasm, asks in verse 37, “Are You a king then?” “You say rightly that I am a king,” Jesus tells Pilate in verse 37. “For this cause [the cause of bringing God’s kingdom into this sinful, dying world] I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth [everyone, in other words, who hasn’t given their allegiance to one of the puny, dying kings of this world] hears My voice.”

This echoes what Jesus says elsewhere: His sheep know His voice and will respond to no other.

Is Jesus the only voice to which you’re listening today? Is Jesus your only King?

If you can answer yes to those questions this morning, you have reason to be grateful and glad!

But let’s be clear: It’s not an easy time to be a follower of Jesus. It’s not politically correct to proclaim, as Jesus has told us, that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” that Jesus is the only King of the universe, the only way to life with God.

Popular culture is aligned against the followers of Jesus Christ. But this is no time to change kings. This is no time to cave into the culture of the world, of our country, or even of our denomination.

Dietrich Offeldt lived in post-World War II eastern Germany. It was clear that the people were going to trade the terrors of living under Hitler for the terrors of life under Soviet Communism, in which official atheism told the people to have no king but the state. Dietrich Offeldt was a Christian. “Leave East Germany,” his friends told him.

But he refused, explaining later: “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior. He is the ruler of my life, and he can dispose of my life in any way he chooses. I have found that every Christian finds himself or herself in a particular circumstance, a particular time, a particular place in which they live out their discipleship. My circumstance is communism;  my time is the Cold War; and my place is East Berlin. I chose to be a disciple here.”

God has given you the task of being a subject of King Jesus in this town, in this time, in this place, and, as a member of a Lutheran congregation, a member of a denomination that grows bolder each day in repudiating the teachings of the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions we say are the bedrock of our faith, that subtly denies the kingship of Jesus in favor of getting along with a pluralistic world.

You and I could choose to avoid trouble with neighbors and friends by keeping our traps shut about Jesus, our king.

If we do that long enough, Jesus will no longer be our king. We’ll be subjects of the dying world’s two favorite kings, Safety and Security, which are only aliases of Satan, ticketed for death along with every other king but the risen Jesus.

Better to take the choice made by Dietrich Offeldt. He chose, he said, “to raise my flag and show my colors, to let those around me know for sure that I am a Christian, that Christ rules my life.”

On this Christ the King Sunday, I ask you (I ask myself): “Whose colors will you fly, those of the kings of the world? Or will you fly those of the King of all kings, the Lord of all lords, the conqueror of sin and death, the One Who is with us always, even to the close of the age, and the One Who promises to one day embrace us with those nail-scarred arms as He welcomes us, scarred ourselves by all we have faithfully endured in this world as we’ve followed Him, into eternity?”

Never be ashamed of Christ the King!

Never be ashamed of the king's book, the Bible!

Let Jesus be your King now and always. Amen

[This was prepared to be shared with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, during worship at both 8:30 and 10:15 this morning.]


[1] The PDF document cited here, by Pastor Mark Chavez, a former ELCA pastor, now general secretary of the North American Lutheran Church, addresses all of the problem areas mentioned above. It's well worth taking the time to read it.