Saturday, June 17, 2017

Thoughts on the Philando Castile Verdict

The Philando Castile verdict is the latest chapter in a horrible ongoing feature of our national life in America. Millions of Americans are daily aggrieved because they feel they are denied justice owing to the color of their skin. It's hard to argue otherwise.

I pray that God will prompt us all to remember the words God spoke to all the world through the prophet Micah: "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

If this were our way of life, Philando Castile might still be living today.

Earlier this week, we were awed by and thankful for the actions of the US Capitol Police and others in law enforcement in saving lives threatened by a gunman assaulting members and staffers of Congress. Their heroism was inspiring. They represented the thousands of women and men in blue who keep their communities safe each day.

But we are also aware of the issue of recurring police violence visited, with inordinate frequency, on people in the African-American community.

Irrespective of the specific merits of the Castile case, it is clear that all Americans--white, black, brown, red, yellow--need to find ways to live with the justice, mercy, and humility that God commands.

We can't possibly live with these attributes as our hallmarks on our own, apart from the help and empowerment of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. That's because, as Jesus tells us, "Apart from me, you can do nothing" (John 15:5). Left to our own devices, we cannot rise above our own sins: sins like racism, fear of those who are different from ourselves, the notion that the powerless are always threats to the powerful, and so on.

No matter how often we resolve to end injustice or treat others with love, we will fail in that resolve absent a humble repentance for our past sins and a humble surrender to the God Who came into our world in Jesus, then submitted to unjust execution for our sins and rose to give new, everlasting life to all who believe in Him.

If things like violence and bigotry are to be defeated in this country, it will not be because we've all decided to be nice.

Nor will it come because of sterner laws or sensitivity training, important as such things might be.

It will only come when we turn to Christ.

It will only come when we, seeking to follow Jesus, begin, by His grace and power to reflect His presence in us.

That's what happens: You walk with Jesus daily and He will begin to change you from the inside out.

To those who keep trusting in Jesus, turning daily away from their sins, and daily following where Jesus leads, our thoughts, actions, and motivations start to change, "for it is God at work in you, enabling you both to will and work for [God's] good pleasure" (Colossians 1:13).

In Phlippians 2, the first century apostle Paul, issues this command: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus..."

We can only have the mindset of Jesus when we believe in Him, when, through Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, and God's powerful Word, the Holy Spirit is unleashed in us to help us live out the life of love, justice, and mercy God has always meant for us to live.

I, a white man, am the servant of my neighbors who are black. And Christian honesty compels me to say that their families too often suffer the summary justice of officers who may be afraid, may be untried, may be racist. I pray in the name of Christ, that things can change.

And I always pray for those who do the difficult task of law enforcement, that God would keep them safe also. And I pray that God will give us all wisdom.

And I pray that the scourge of racism will finally be exorcised from our souls as we follow Jesus Christ, the Savior and God Who alone can transform us from God's enemies to God's friends.

None of this is a political statement. 

It's a plea for all of us to turn from sin and the myth of human self-sufficiency and, instead, to invite Jesus into the center of our lives, as individuals and as Americans.

When we do that daily, Jesus takes up residence in repentant and believers; they, in turn, begin to think differently, live differently, engage with society differently.

Believers in Jesus realize that they cannot (I cannot) be Christians on the strength of our own will power. Like millions of others Christians, I confess each week that, "...we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors ourselves." This what we say when we ask God to forgive us and help us to live as God calls human beings to live, in Micah and others places in the Bible, and to provide us the help of God's Holy Spirit in doing so.

The Christian knows with the apostle Paul that: " is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Ephesians 2:8-10)

It's difficult to imagine a better work we could do as Americans than to follow Christ and invoke His power in living with the kind of humility, love, and mercy that could bring racial justice fully into being and consistent respect for all people, including police officers, into being. But we must begin with Christ! (There is no other way, John 14:6).

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Did Dylan Swipe from SparkNotes for His Nobel Lecture?

That's the question recently raised by Vox.

It's not implausible.

I love Dylan. But it must be conceded that he has always been a heavy borrower, sometimes it's said, plagiarist.

There are the whole-cloth thefts of a southern poet on an LP some years ago, then his "original" paintings which turned out to be Dylan's renderings of post cards. Those are just a few examples his alleged artistic thievery.

But this seems to take things to a higher order of magnitude. It's one thing to mimic the musical styles of Woody Guthrie and Chuck Berry, or to take the words of Rimbaud or Ginsberg as models for lyrics. It's another to swipe from an online equivalent of Cliffs Notes for a Nobel lecture.

Some will, I suppose, write this off as another example of Dylan's impish disregard for social norms and other people's opinions. But, this is actually serious business. Plagiarism is serious business, especially when it involves the most recent Nobel laureate for literature.

The irony here is that no artist I know of more jealously guards his copyrights. You can find some Dylan performances on youtube, but he routinely quashes a lot of videos of his performances from appearing there. And on Apple Play, Dylan's lyrics don't appear with his songs.

I still think that Dylan deserves his Nobel Prize for Literature. His body of work is filled with originality and daring re-imagining of old ways of writing and speaking.

Nonetheless, if this is all true, Bob, what were you thinking, resorting to thievery from an online source like some disinterested high school kid trying to make the deadline for a term paper?

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

With My Own Eyes, I Shall See God

Job 19:23-27
[This was shared during a memorial service earlier today.]

It’s no secret to say that the last sixteen years of A’s life have been marked by more than a fair share of chaos and uncertainty. But today, we trust that, A is at peace.

The peace to which the believer in Jesus aspires isn’t just escape from this world. To be eternally dead or eternally condemned for our sin will not bring human beings peace at the ends of their earthly lives.

For believers in Jesus, God grants a different, a better peace.

Christians believe that because they have trusted in Christ, their peace isn’t just rest from this world, but life with God, life as it is meant to be.

Christians believe that the God Who promises never to leave us nor forsake us has something even greater in store for those who trust in Him when we pass from this life.

Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord, promises those who believe in Him: “I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:3).

And then Jesus says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

The rest from the chaos and uncertainty that the God we know in Jesus gives us then, isn’t simply a body decaying in a graveyard, removed from the turmoils of this world, but a new, revitalized life with God: A rest from worry, pain, disease, and conflicts. A life filled with joy and adventure lived out in direct intimacy with the God Who made us, Who brings forgiveness to the repentant and life everlasting to those with faith in Christ.

This has always been the hope of those wrestling with the sin and darkness of this world. In the Old Testament, we read the history of a man named Job. Everyone knew that Job was faithful. Even God bragged about Job’s faithfulness.

But then one day, the chaos, uncertainty, death, and grief of this fallen world were unleashed by Satan on Job in one grievous swoop.

All of his property and holdings were destroyed, his estate trashed.

All of Job’s children were killed.

Then, Job was afflicted with disease, his body covered in open sores.

Job wrestled to trust God in the midst of these experiences. So-called friends came to tell Job that God was punishing Job.

But Job knew better.

He knew that he trusted in the God of all creation and that the bad things that happen to us in this world don’t come to us from God; they come from the evil that’s been in this world since Adam and Eve bit into the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3).

He knew that when the world’s chaos and uncertainty engulf us in this world, the pain of that hasn’t come from God, but that it is only God Who can help us, that we need Him even more and we need to trust Him even more.

You need to know that too.

To all who wrestle with the evil of this world, Jesus says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

In whatever faces you in the days and years ahead, you can depend on God to be your strength, if you will dare to trust this God revealed to us all in Jesus Christ. When we, like Job, turn to God revealed in Jesus as we face life’s challenges, we can say: “The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me.” (Psalm 28:7)

But we can say much more than that. With Job we can say: “I know that my redeemer lives and that in the end he will stand on the earth.”

Jesus, God in the flesh, once crucified, bearing the condemnation you and I deserve for our sin, has bought us out of our slavery to sin, death, and chaos, by dying in our places. And, just as Job had foreseen centuries before Jesus’ birth, Jesus has stood on this earth, alive, after He had died, Jesus rose again!

And, Job knew, Jesus would stand on this earth once again, to bring this fallen universe to an end, to raise the dead and to give eternal life with God to those who have trusted in Him and to grant sin, darkness, and death to those who, by their rejection of Christ, have sought those things.

Job could say, as all believers in Jesus can say: “...after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another.”

This is the rest that God has in mind for us.

Beyond the gates of death in this world, He promises the joy of being totally and perfectly restored in the presence of the God Who loves us to all who believe in Jesus.

With our own eyes, we will see God.

I pray that today, by faith in Jesus, you will be comforted, that you will allow God’s healing to touch you and fill you.

The believer in Jesus knows the God Who stands with them, carries them, and empowers them through the dark passages of this life and the God Who will one day, welcome every believer in Jesus into His kingdom of peace, life, and forgiveness in eternity.

Jesus once said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”

Believe in Jesus today.

Trust that He can forgive your sins and make you new.

May Jesus and His promise to you of an everlasting place with Him be your strength and comfort today and all through your lives. Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

The Trinity: Knowing God

Matthew 28:16-20
This morning, a re-run. I hope you don’t mind.

Today is an often-overlooked day on the Church calendar: Holy Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost.

[This is example of a genre of Christian imagery known as gnadenstuhl. It portrays the Trinity at the moment of Jesus' crucifixion. I thank my son, Pastor Philip Daniels, for sharing this particular image on his Facebook account this past week.]

When I was about eight, I asked my mom for an explanation of the Trinity. How could God be one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Mom told me to ask our pastor, which I did.

“Mark,” he said, “think of water. It can come in the form of a liquid, a solid (in water’s case, ice), or gas (in this case, steam). But whatever form it takes, it’s always water. Three in one.”

That helped somewhat, though it tilts toward a heresy called modalism long ago rejected by the Church.

The problem with the analogy is that as Christians, we don’t believe that God takes on different forms as though God were engaged in some eternal Halloween party, changing His costume from time to time. We confess that God is always one being and that God is always three persons. No analogy is going to exactly explain something as mysterious as the Trinity.

Some people think that the Trinity is an arcane idea best left undiscussed. 

Yet as I’ve gotten to know God better through the pages of Scripture, the fellowship of believers, and the Lord’s Supper, I’ve come to agree with an acquaintance of mine who wrote a few years ago, that there may be nothing more important for us to try to “get” as Christians than the Trinity.

The word “Trinity” is never used in the Bible. But repeatedly, by inference in the Old Testament and in plain words in the New Testament, the Bible affirms that three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are co-equal, co-eternal personalities of the one and only God the universe.

For example, in our first lesson, from Genesis, God the Spirit brings the life of the universe into being (Genesis 1:2).

When God decides to create human beings, He says, "Let us make..." Who's He talking to? I think that pretty clearly, God is talking to Himself (Genesis 1:26).

And, look, please at today’s Gospel lesson. It contains the Great Commission. In verse 19, Jesus says: “...go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...” Jesus is putting Himself and the Holy Spirit on the same level as God the Father.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus makes a point of placing Himself on an equal footing with God the Father many times.
  • “Before Abraham was, I am [Yahweh],” He says in John 8:58. 
  • “I and the Father are one,” He says in John 10:30. 
  • “Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father,” He claims in John 14:9. 
Yet, Jesus isn’t saying that there are two or three Gods over the universe. Like His fellow Jews, Jesus affirmed the truth of Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”

So, without ever using the word trinity, the Bible affirms that God is one God in three persons.

But what has the Trinity God to do with you and me in 2017?

You’ve heard the phrase: “I love humanity. It’s the people I can’t stand.” We find that funny because we know that there is no validity to our claims of being loving people in general if we are unwilling to love particular people.

Love at its most basic level is not about affectionate feelings. Love is a commitment to willing and doing what is best for those we love, even when we disagree, drive each other crazy.

Love that isn’t lived out practically isn’t love. You can’t be loving if there is no object of your love.

Now, one of the most famous passages of the New Testament is 1 John 4:8, which says, in part, “God is love.”

It's important to note that John didn't write, "Love is God." That would make God just an idea.

Nor does God’s loving character make Him tolerant of all our behaviors. Much of what we human beings do is sinful and of sin, God is absolutely intolerant, even though He never stops loving us.

In these three words, “God is love,” we aren’t given a license to do whatever we want, irrespective of the will of God.

No, in saying that, "God is love," John is making an eternal statement about an eternal God. Before God created the heavens and the earth, before Jesus died and rose so that all who believe in Him may be freed of their sins, before the Holy Spirit formed the Church, God is, God was, and God will be eternally loving.

"God is love" means that love is at the core of God’s character and being. Love is why and how He acts.

But, that raises a question: Who did God love before the beginning?

The answer, I think, is that in eternity, before there was time, before there was a creation, God was already loving others. God the Father loved God the Son and God the Spirit and God the Son and God the Spirit each loved the other two members of the Trinity, have done so and will do so for all eternity.

Even the existence of this universe in which we live at least suggests that God is one, but is more than one person. Only One Who loves and has always known how to love would have thought of giving such a great gift as this thing called life.

When I was twenty-five, I’d been married for five years and my parents were growing impatient. Where, they wondered, were the grandchildren we were supposed to be coming up with? Then, my dad, father of five kids, decided to have a talk with me, giving me advice for the first and only time that I can remember.

Dad told me that if we were looking for the right time or the right reason for having children, to forget it. There’s never a right time. There’s never a good reason.

And that’s the point. It’s in the very nature of love to forgo convenience to self and to give, to serve, to stand by, to live for, even, if necessary, to die for.

God has always known how to love. He exists in what the theologians call a "triune" relationship of perfect love and doesn’t need more love. He’s always loved perfectly. He's always been loved perfectly. God doesn't need more love. Honestly, He doesn't really need us.

But, because God is infinite and eternal in His love, God loved the universe into being. God the Word, Christ, spoke into the darkness and chaos and God the Spirit wended His Word and life sprang up.

We--every one of us--are the products of God’s love: unnecessary but loved nonetheless, superfluous but cherished.

Today, the Holy Trinity calls us to follow Christ right into the center of His loving fellowship.

He claims us as His own in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at our Baptism, and then calls us into an ever-renewing relationship of love with Him and all that He has made.

Sin and death and isolation from God and from others will be the last word over every human life unless people are washed clean of sin and made new through repentance and faith in Christ. Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “...if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

Christ calls us into life abundant and eternal. But there is no life without love. This is no biological observation: the unloved child, abused by her or his parents, isn’t experiencing life; the couple in a loveless marriage aren’t living; the teen subjected to bullying and putdowns is experiencing a love deficit that is, inherently, a life deficit; the visitors ignored when they worship at a church they’ve never been to before are being treated both lovelessly and as though they weren’t even alive.

And this is why the Trinity is such an important reality for us to experience. We live in a fractured, fractious world. People are divided and often hateful. Love of neighbors, including love of our enemies, is a rare thing. It’s so rare that only Jesus and the people who, by faith, draw life from Jesus really live it.

God has created the Church, the fellowship of believers in Christ, to make disciples and to usher believers into a community of love that fills us with the power of God to move toward being the loving people we were made to be and promises us eternal fellowship with God and others.

In the Garden of Gethsemane before His arrest, Jesus prayed to God the Father that all who followed Him, “may be one...just as you are in me and I am in you...” (John 17:21). God wants us to live in the same selfless fellowship with others He has always known. That’s what Jesus died and rose to give to those who dare to believe in Him.

If all of this sounds airy and theoretical, removed from the hard realities of your life, consider this: Every time we pray to our Father in heaven in Jesus’ name, we do so at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, Who through God’s Word and the witness of other Christian disciples, helps us to trust that when we come to the Father on the bases of Jesus’ perfect righteousness, our prayers are heard.

More than that, we believe that when we’re confused, afraid, worn out, incapable of putting a coherent thought into words and simply call out to the God we know in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit forms our groans into prayers that, through Jesus, reach the Father. (Romans 8:26-27)

I have never prayed so completely as I have when, wrung out by life, I have asked heaven, “What? What?”

If it weren’t for the Holy Spirit and the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus to open our access to God the Father, prayers like that would only bounce off the ceiling.

The Holy Trinity can make a difference in our everyday lives if we will be open to His threefold ministry to us. God in His fullness, Who cares about us even though He doesn’t have to, Who is able to stand with us in every experience, also makes it possible for us to experience fellowship, community, with Him and with His family, the Church.

This is why the Church is so important. Only the Church has been designated to connect people with the Trinity. And in a world filled with the idea of mashing others into oblivion and lifting ourselves to the top, of crushing and being crushed by selfishness and self-will, we need the liberation from self and the connection to God and to others that only the God Who is the Holy Trinity can give us.

We need, truly, more than anything else, love that changes our hearts, our minds, and our eternities. And only the God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can give it. Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Note to Self

Note to self: For the glory of God and the love of neighbor, pray more, opine less; share Christ, not my puny thoughts; strive to show God's love, not my alleged smarts.

That's because "...the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight," (1 Corinthians 3:19) including my own supposed wisdom.

The world doesn't need another fool's version of wisdom. It needs Jesus Christ. He is where life and wisdom are found. With the apostle Paul, I've resolved " know nothing...except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2).

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]