Friday, April 06, 2018

Let me lead others where You lead, Lord

This morning, for my quiet time with God, I read Joshua 1-3. There, God calls Joshua to lead the people in the way God leads him. It incited me to this prayer:
God, help me to always lead those you've called me to lead where You direct. In Jesus' name I pray. Amen
As a called servant-leader in Christ's Church, called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, this is my highest aspiration and most frequent prayer.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I vividly remember the night of April 4, 1968.

I was fourteen and watching TV when a special bulletin interrupted the programming to say that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis.

1968 was a year haunted by violence that started in January with the bloody Tet offensive in Vietnam, resulting in the deaths of thousands, including Americans engaged in a war that not even its chief prosecutor, President Johnson, thought could be won.

Two months after King's death, Senator Robert Kennedy, an opponent of the war trying to regain political ascendancy after Senator Eugene McCarthy's performance against the incumbent president in the New Hampshire primary hinted that the Democratic nomination could be wrested from the Johnson, would be gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel.

Throughout the year, tensions over civil rights and the war led to sometimes violent confrontations between demonstrators and the police on American streets. The Kerner Commission, appointed by Johnson to look into what led to the bloodshed in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, concluded it was the result of "a police riot," the first time I remember ever hearing that term.

It seemed to me sometimes in 1968, that America was losing its mind.

But towering above that bloody year, despite the imperfections he shared with the rest of the human race and that had cut him down in the spring, stood Martin Luther King, Jr.

Historically, King was the descendant of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and the Union Armies of the Civil War. Like them, he insisted that the American compact, embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, distantly descended from the truths of the Bible, was built on a simple principle. That principle King summarized in a single sentence: "No man is free until all men are free."

True freedom is built on reciprocity with and mutual accountability to my neighbor. When I enslave others--physically, spiritually, economically, or in any other way, I also enslave myself. When I set others free, I am free myself. When I voluntarily cede my "right" to hold others down, I lift them and myself up.

If I insist on enslaving my neighbor, treating him as my inferior, or being indifferent to his yearning for freedom from fear, discrimination, or violence, I am enslaving ways of life that retain my status at the expense of others, to moral putrefaction, to constant fear that my sins will catch up with me, knowing, deep in my soul, that there must be a reckoning, to the disintegration of the lives of each and every one of us.

King called whites and blacks and all Americans away from the selfishness that would enslave all so long as they failed to recognize and pursue this foundational tenet of the American creed that King had crystallized:

No man is free until all men are free.

No citizen is free until all citizens are free.

No human being is free until all human beings are free.

Over the past several weeks, my wife and I have re-watched Ken Burns' beautiful documentary on the Civil War and, last night, Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln. It struck me as I watched these two works that America's Civil War has never ended. 

After Appomattox, the war has taken its casualties and deaths: Lincoln, King, the thousands lynched in the South while the North turned the other way, and countless others. 

The war is no longer regional and not just racial. You will find whites and blacks and others in all regions of the country anxious to keep faith with America's freedom creed. You will find others in all regions of the country rebelling against that creed.

There still are the haves and the have-nots, the marginalized and the beautiful people, the accepted and the disdained. We are still, in this great American experiment, finding out whether any nation "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" "can long endure." 

Much of what is happening in America today--the fissures, the overt hatred, the refusal to be confused by facts--is an extension of the Civil War, battles to be added to the bloody list of Antietam, Gettysburg, Ford's Theatre, and the streets of Charlottesville in 2017. Each stand as witness to the very treason against the American compact exhibited when the first Rebel cannonball was shot at Fort Sumter. And it was this same treason, embedded deeply in the American soul, that caused James Earl Ray to murder Martin Luther King, Jr.

As a Christian, I have no illusions that the Kingdom of God in which there is perfect harmony between God, the human race made in His image, and God's creation, can be ushered in through political activism, laws, or wars. 

The Kingdom of God is only experienced when sinners (like me), daily turn from sin and daily entrust their lives to Jesus Christ. As the man for whom King was named, Martin Luther writes in The Small Catechism of the petition of the Lord's Prayer taught by Jesus--"Thy kingdom come":
The kingdom of God comes indeed by itself, without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may also come to us.
God's kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace we believe his holy Word and live a godly life now and in eternity.
It's Jesus and only Jesus Who can bring the Kingdom of God into this world, in the hearts and lives of His disciples, even as the world swirls madly in violence and hatred around us. We know this from Jesus Himself: "No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Even if we don't accept Jesus' Word for it, history and human experience make clear that all human attempts to establish a kingdom of harmony between God, humanity, and the Creation fail. Only God can bring His kingdom to us.

But God doesn't leave us stranded in complete chaos. God's Word is clear that God establishes governments in this fallen world awaiting the final consummation of God's Kingdom given through Christ. God does this because it's inborn to we human beings to only refrain from self-worshiping violence when there is a coercive force to rein in human thuggery. 

Governments are meant to ensure simple justice. This is what King called the government and the society of his day to do. That call cost him his life. It's a call that still needs to be heard and heeded. 

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

God, help me limp toward You always

These are reflections from my quiet time today. I spent time with God in His Word at Deuteronomy 3-5. (To see how I approach my quiet time with God, see here.)

Look: “...the Lord was angry with me and would not listen to me. ‘That is enough,’ the Lord said. ‘Do not speak to me anymore about this matter.’” (Deuteronomy 3:26)

In his final message to the people of Israel, now on the brink of entering the promised land, Moses remembers how he pleaded with God (Deuteronomy 3:23) to be allowed to enter the promised land. But God is firm about His earlier decision: Because Moses had rebelled against God, questioning and expressing resentment over God’s decision to make him the earthly leader of the Israelites as that people whined in the wilderness, he would not enter the promised land. Like the rest of the generation that God delivered from slavery in Egypt (except for Joshua and Caleb, who had remained faithful to God), Moses would not set foot in the promised land.

There are consequences to our sins, even when God has forgiven us and our relationship with Him has been restored. Moses’ relationship with God was restored.

We know that from what follows in Deuteronomy 3:27. God told Moses: “Go up to the top of Pisgah and look west and north and south and east. Look at the land with your own eyes, since you are not going to cross this Jordan.”

God allowed Moses to see that his forty years in the wilderness and his leadership of the people of Israel were not in vain. He saw the promised land. God demonstrated his forgiveness for Moses in this act.

Listen: I mustn’t fall prey to the facile and self-serving notion that if I sin, repent, and am forgiven by God, I will face no consequences. I WILL reach the promised land of a resurrected life with God if I entrust my sins, past, present, and future to Christ. God is good for His promises! But my sins can unleash consequences I can’t imagine.

Grace that insulates us from all possible consequences for sin in this world isn’t grace. It’s license. It’s what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.”

In my own life, many of the things for which I’ve repented and from which I’ve had to separate myself, have left holes in my life, chasms of grief, enduring ruptures in relationships, and sadness that abide and haunt me even in the midst of the joy for forgiven sin.

Anyone who has ever repented and turned to the God known in Jesus has experienced this. What Bonhoeffer calls “costly grace,” true grace, will cause us to give up something of what we once indulged, coveted, or saw as our right or our due. There’s no way around that if we’re serious about following Jesus. If we are to grasp hold of Jesus as our only God and need, it will entail letting go of things the jettisoning of which will leave a scar. As Bonhoeffer writes, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” Every time we repent for a sin, there’s a crucifixion of the old self that loved that sin. And crucifixion is never painless.

Moses’ rebellion in the wilderness had its consequences, even in his life, the prevailing pattern of which was to, however reluctantly, to obey and to follow God. If that was Moses’ experience, I can expect no less.

Respond: Lord Jesus, I surrender all to You, including my supposed “right” to be resentful when I face the consequences of my sin. I know that in the crucified and risen Christ, in Whom I trust, my sins are forgiven and I have new life that can never be taken from me. I will live with You forever. But when I sin, set me free from any notion that I’m privileged character. I’m not. If Moses had to face the consequences of his sin, it should never be a surprise if You exact the same price from me. In Genesis, we’re told that Jacob fought against you. Though You blessed him, he walked for the rest of his days with a limp, a consequence of so often wrestling with You and relying on his own ingenuity and lies rather than on you. If I must walk through life with a limp of any kind--physical, emotional, spiritual, consequences of my self-seeking ands sinfulness, help me to gladly accept it and limp with faith toward You. To You I give all honor, glory, and praise. In Jesus’ name. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

[These chapters of Deuternomy appear as today's reading in the Discipleship Journal's Book at a Time Reading Plan. I'm sure that this is true without reference that in the last speech before his death in April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. references this passage, telling a Memphis audience as he envisioned the promised land of justice:
...I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
What King may or may not have foreseen as he spoke those words is anybody's guess. But like Moses, he professed to be at peace with God as he faced the consequence of sin over every human life, even over the lives of those who repent and believe in the God we meet Christ, death.]

Sunday, April 01, 2018


[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today.]

Mark 16:1-8
When my wife Ann turned forty, I threw a surprise birthday party for her. Friends from Columbus, our first parish in northwest Ohio, and our then-current parish in Cincinnati packed the place. When Ann and I walked in and people shouted, “Surprise!” she was truly shocked! Our friends, our kids, and I had done such a good job of keeping the thing secret that Ann turned to me and asked, “Did you know about this?”

I love surprises! The first Easter came as a complete surprise to Jesus’ first disciples, although it shouldn’t have. Jesus had “let the cat out of the bag,” so to speak, many times.

For example, in Mark 8:31, we’re told: “[Jesus] then began to teach [the disciples] that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.

In Mark 9:31, we read: “He said to them, ‘The Son of Man [Jesus’ characteristic way of referring to Himself, based on passages from the Old Testament book of Daniel. The Son of Man] is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.”

In Mark 10:33-34, we see: “[Jesus] said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.’”

And if all that wasn’t clear enough, in Mark 14:28, Jesus even had told them where He was going to meet them after He had risen. Back home in Galilee. “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

Jesus’ first followers had no trouble imagining that Jesus could be killed. Like most of us, they had experienced death. 

They had also seen the savage ways in which others were treated by the puppet king Herod, his overlords, the Romans, and even the Jewish religious authorities. The entire Roman Empire, including their conquered homeland, was riddled with the crosses on which all manner of people, innocent and guilty, had been executed. 

But it seems that every time Jesus mentioned that He would rise again, it didn’t register with the disciples. They couldn’t get past death.

People still have the same incapacitated imaginations, unable to conceive that the God Who made this amazing if fallen universe, could start life all over again in the Person of the sinless God and man, Jesus. 

Truth be told, we who confess Christ sometimes doubt. It seems impossible that a cross, or an electric chair, a lethal injection, a fatal heart attack, a terminal disease, can lead anywhere but to a grave. That’s why Easter is always a surprise!

Let’s look at at the gospel writer Mark’s account of that first Easter Sunday, beginning at Mark 16:1: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.”

Jewish days started and ended at sundown. After Jesus drew His last breath on the cross, it was nearly sundown, almost the start of a new day, in this case the start of the Sabbath, a Saturday. To have handled Jesus’ body on the Sabbath would have made the pious Jews who made up the original band of Christian disciples unclean, and so unable to participate in the Passover. So, Jesus had been put into a burial tomb before sunset.

The usual practice was for the bodies of the dead to be anointed with spices, then washed, before being wrapped in burial cloths and placed in a tomb. Anointing was an important precaution. In the heat of the Middle East, bodies decomposed and stank quickly. And since the tombs were reopened frequently for the entombing of others, the spices lessened the odor as the bodies decomposed. (By the way, in these tombs, bodies would be allowed to decompose and, after a year, the bones placed in small boxes called ossuaries.) So, the women who went to the tomb shortly after sunrise did so not just to honor Jesus, but also to perform a practical task.

Verses 2 and 3: “Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’” 

The stones that covered the entrances to tombs were large disks that rolled through channels. To roll them away would usually have required the efforts of more than a few strong men. 

The women probably hoped that the Roman soldiers who had been placed at the tomb to prevent Jesus’ body from being robbed would move the stone for them. After all, they might have reasoned, how threatening could a dead Jewish Messiah be to them, or to anyone? 

It’s always been interesting to me that, despite the impediment of the stone, the women went to the tomb anyway, a lesson in faith we all need to learn: Because the God we know in Jesus is always dependable, we can trust that He will always make a way for us to do what He calls us to do, even when it seems impossible.

Verses 4 and 5: “But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.”

Angels, God’s messengers, almost always appear to human beings as young men dressed in white. 

In the original Greek, Mark doesn’t say that the women were “alarmed”; the Greek word is exethambÄ“thÄ“san, meaning that they were amazed, astonished, awestruck, terrified. This was no ordinary man in white and the women seemed to know it immediately.

Verses 6 and 7: “‘Don’t be alarmed [Don’t be amazed],’ [the angel] said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’’”

The angel’s message to the women? “Surprise!” The risen Jesus was going to meet His disciples in Galilee just as He had promised. 

Death was not the end of God the Son

Death could not contain a sinless Savior Who died on behalf of sinners like you and me

And death cannot--and will not-- contain any who, at the prompting of God’s Holy Spirit, in response to the witness of God’s Word, dare to turn from their sin and to entrust their whole lives to Jesus, to believe in Him

As Jesus told the sister of a friend He would raise from the dead: “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.” And then He asks her the same question this Easter Sunday morning calls you and me to answer today and each day of our lives on earth, “Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26) 

Do you believe that no matter what your sins, no matter what your inadequacies, no matter what your flaws. no matter what your doubts, you can believe that Jesus is capable of surprising you daily with new power for living, new integrity, new hope, new peace? 

Do you believe that even after the last clump of dirt has been thrown on top of your casket because you believe in Jesus, you will live again with God eternally?

Verse 8: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” 

There is debate among New Testament scholars, liberal, conservative, and otherwise, as to whether verse 8 is how Mark originally ended his gospel.

If it is, it would indicate that Mark wanted his readers, including you and me, to experience the same awe, astonishment, and fear that enveloped the women as they fled the tomb. And to help us confront the same decision the women had to deal with as they fled the tomb: Is it true? Is Jesus risen from the dead?

Soon, like the women as they left the tomb, you and I will leave here. Some will collect Easter flowers and head home. Some will go out for Easter dinner with family or friends. 

But will we trust the Easter message or trust in the Savior the Easter message is about? 

And, like the women after meeting the angel, will we weigh whether we should do what the angel told them to do, what Jesus Himself would later tell all who know about Easter’s greatest surprise are to do?

Later in Mark’s gospel, we learn that Jesus told the disciples: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16) 

Easter is a surprise that our Lord wants us to share

And, as the women on that first Easter were to learn, the blessings of Jesus’ resurrection surprise are only fully ours when we dare to tell others about it and how the risen Jesus is changing our lives. The Gospel is the only thing in the world that, the more we give it away, the more we have of it. Easter proves that you can never reach the end of God's grace given through Christ! 

Jesus is risen! And it's a great surprise to share!

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]