Thursday, December 19, 2019

Outgoing Kentucky Governor's Pardons Were Un-Christian

Republicans, Democrats, and Independents probably all agree—in some cases, for different reasons—that the outgoing Kentucky governor’s last-minute pardons for murderers and rapists were horrifically wrong.

His argument about redemption is also, from a Christian perspective, completely wrong. As a Christian, I believe in God’s redemption for all sinners (including me and the rest of the human race) through Jesus Christ, even those guilty of heinous crimes.

But not even the forgiveness and redemption of God means that those convicted of murder, rape, or other crimes should be exempted from punishment.

Pope John Paul II famously visited the prison where the man who nearly killed him in Vatican Square. There, he forgave his assailant. But he still left the man in prison to pay his debt to the nation whose law he violated.

Scripture teaches that God rules in two ways.

God governs first in the kingdom of grace in which those who repent and believe in Christ voluntarily accede to His authority.

In the kingdom of the Law, God governs by coercion through governments. Governments are charged with keeping peace so that people can live securely.

The former Kentucky governor, with his spate of last-minute pardons, violated the will of God and made people less secure and safe. The pardons are indefensible as the Christian acts he claims them to be.

They were, quite clearly, un-Christian.

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Call: Listen to the Word, Speak the Word

[This message was shared yesterday afternoon during the Service of Installation of Brian McGee as associate pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Springfield, Ohio.]

1 Samuel 3:1-11
Ephesians 4:1-16
A colleague of mine sat down on the steps of the chancel at the church he served to do the children’s sermon. The gospel lesson appointed for that Sunday was Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. My friend had planned his message and began by asking the children if they had ever heard about the prodigal son. 

One boy raised his hand and proceeded, in his own words, not only to tell the parable but to unpack its meaning. 

He said that God the Father never gives up on finding us no matter how lost we may become. And that was why the Father sent His Son Jesus: so that everyone who turns away from their sin and follows Jesus will have life with God forever. I heard a recording and can vouch for both what the boy said and for what happened next. The pastor and congregation had listened with rapt attention. There was silence for a few moments.

Then the congregation burst into applause not, I suspect, only for the boy who told the gospel story, but also and more importantly, for the gospel itself: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) That is always good news! 

It’s the hearing of this Word--read, sung, proclaimed, embodied in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion--that is, as Saint Paul reminds us in Romans, “the power of God,” the gospel that, when believed, transforms our lives now and forever. The good news about Jesus, this Word of God, brings forgiveness, reconciliation with God, the ability to live each day with hope, and everlasting life with God!

I recently gave a ride to a woman from our church. Macular degeneration has significantly robbed her of her sight, so she relies on rides from friends or Uber or Lyft to get to and from events at our building. She was talking about the people of the congregation. I said, “Yes, it’s a wonderful church.” 

“No, Pastor,” she said, “it’s not just that. We have the gospel. I had been a Christian for seventy years. But I finally heard the gospel among the people of this congregation. I finally realized that as I turn to Jesus and spend time with Him in His Word, He gives me life!” “And,” she went on to tell me, “by getting close to Jesus through the Word each day, God has helped me share Him with others and I’ve learned something: People are starving to hear God’s Word!”

I’m convinced that she’s right. People are starving for the Word about, the Word of Jesus: the Way, the Truth, and the Life. When they hear it, they respond like my colleague’s congregation did when a five-year-old boy hijacked the children’s sermon

Even when people don’t consciously know it, they are hungry for God’s Word, hungry for the God we know in Jesus

When God and His Word are absent from our lives, we may not notice. But when God and His Word invade our ears, our minds, our hearts, our wills, we know that God is at work in our lives...and we rejoice. We know what we have been missing and are overjoyed when God finds us!

In the first Bible lesson that Pastor Brian has chosen for this afternoon, we meet another boy, Samuel. Samuel’s mother had prayed fervently for a son. God heard Hannah’s prayers and, being so blessed, she decided her son was to be in service to God at the temple under the supervision of Eli the priest. 

That’s where young Samuel was, trying to fall asleep one night when God and His Word came to him. 

Samuel didn’t know what to make of it because, as one of the saddest passages in all of Scripture tells us, “In those days the word of the LORD was rare…” Days when the Word of the Lord is rare should be non-existent for those who know the God first revealed to Israel and then revealed to us all in Jesus Christ! If you and I aren’t hearing the Word of God every single day--in quiet time, in study with other believers, in regular worship, it doesn’t mean that God has stopped talking with us; it means that we have stopped listening. If we refuse to hear God, we won’t hear God.

When Samuel heard the Lord calling him, he thought that it was Eli. He ran to Eli several times to see what the old priest wanted. Finally, Eli  told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’” When God called Samuel again, Samuel responded, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” In verse 11 of our lesson, we’re told, “And the LORD said to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle.”

Pastor Brian, your call here at Grace Lutheran Church in Springfield, no less than that of Pastor Tom, with whom and under whom you serve, is to listen to God’s Word, then to share it so that “the ears of everyone who hears about it [will] tingle.”

This doesn’t mean that your preaching, teaching, praying, visiting, serving, or leading need to be dramatic or memorable or eloquent or, God help us, cute. 

In fact, the word in the Hebrew in which 1 Samuel was written connotes something more mundane than we might mean when we use the English word tingle. It refers to the simple vibration that words or sounds we hear make on our eardrums. In a world like the one in which Samuel lived, where the Word of God was seldom heard, simply hearing it would bring about a reaction. 

That is no less true in 2019: If we will speak the Word of God, if we will share Jesus, that message will reach its target and God will go to work to create the faith to listen to it and the boldness to speak it in those who listen.

I concluded after the events of 2009 when many of us who were part of a church body saw that body’s witness for the Word and for Christ being hijacked and syncretized with false teachings by those who seemed to specialize in drama and cuteness and relevance, that what the Church needs and what the world needs is not preachers who are clever or brilliant or dazzling. The Church and the world need pastors who listen to the Word of God and speak the Word of God

It is precisely such faithful pastors who fulfill the pastoral calling as described in our second lesson this afternoon. They “...equip [God’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” 

That’s because it’s this Word of God, heard, spoken, enacted, that creates faith: “ comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” (Romans 10:17)

Pastor McGee, my friend, listen to the Word of God, speak the Word of God. If you do these two things, you will be equipped to fulfill the call to which you, with the help of God, commit yourself today.

Dear friends of Grace Lutheran Church, your charge is similar, to listen to the Word of God here proclaimed and shared in the water, bread, and wine, considered in your quiet time with God, discussed in your small groups, and prayed over and then to speak that Word to others.

As you join together today as pastors, people, and staff, may you be seen by a world hungry for the God we are privileged to know in Jesus Christ as a congregation in which all of you listen to God’s Word and speak God’s Word. Amen

[Pictured above: Artist Marc Chagall's etching of God's call to the boy Samuel.]

[This picture was taken after Pastor McGee's installation. He's shown here in the center. The other colleagues, from left to right, are: Pastors Bruce Kramer, Tom Brodbeck, Patti Morlock, and me.]

Seeing Beyond 'Dissonance and Doubt'

[This message was shared yesterday morning during worship with the members and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Matthew 11:2-15

One of the stories my brothers-in-law like to tell is of the holiday years ago for which Ann decided to bake something special. 

She asked me to pick up the ingredients while I was at the grocery store for other items. I picked up everything that Ann needed, arrived home, and, as Ann did things in the kitchen, pulled them out. 

Imagine my surprise when Ann gasped as she pointed to the coconut I’d just bought. “You got a coconut?” “Yeah,” I told her, “It was on the list.” “No,” she said, “I’m baking. I needed coconut flakes. Not a whole coconut!” I’m sure that Ann had said “coconut flakes” when I jotted down “coconut.” But all I could see was the main staple of the diets of the castaways on Gilligan’s Island.

That little embarrassing incident illustrates dissonance, which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as the difference “between the truth and what people want to believe.” When I saw coconut flakes on my list, despite what Ann had told me I was looking for, I started looking for the fruit. I was in the dark, living in dissonance from the truth.

Our gospel lesson for this morning, Matthew 11:2-15, finds John the Baptizer living in dissonance from the truth. 
The man who had faithfully prepared the way for the Messiah to be revealed was now in prison. 

When John pictured the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed King, in his mind, he saw a king who would take an ax to the tree, that is the person, not bearing the fruits of repentance. He saw a king who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire and pull out his winnowing fork to separate the wheat and the weeds. He saw the Messiah taking control of God’s fallen creation, bringing judgment to those who walked away from God and new life who turned God the Father and to the Messiah. John was fed up with the sin of the human race and longed for the Messiah to make things right.

The picture in his mind that John saw of what the Messiah would bring about wasn’t wrong, any more than my picture of what a coconut looks like was wrong. 

The problem was that John wasn’t seeing the whole picture. What he saw was incomplete. He was forgetting what else the Old Testament prophets meant when, under the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit, they spoke of the coming of the Messiah. 

For example, in our first lesson for today, the prophet Isaiah says of Messiah: “...the eyes of the blind [will] be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.” (Isaiah 35:5-6) The King of kings would also, Isaiah and the other prophets tell us elsewhere, suffer, die, and rise before bringing judgment and before God’s new, eternal kingdom would fully come into being.

From his place of dissonance and uncertainty, John the Baptizer sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3) 

Jesus tells John’s disciples to be witnesses of all that they hear and see for John: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Matthew 11:5). These are the things that the prophets said the Messiah would do. 

And then Jesus says, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matthew 11:6) John, Jesus is saying, don’t stumble in your faith. Don’t get tripped up by the incomplete picture you have of God in your mind when the whole picture is there to be seen, there to be believed for everlasting life. Don’t wallow in darkness when the Light of the world has come to be the Way, the truth, and the life.

What pictures of God do we keep tucked in our minds that keep us from fully living in the light of Who God really is?

Do we see God as an angry Judge, just waiting for us to stumble so that He can pounce on us and dispatch us to hell? 

God’s Word tells us that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” who trust their sins and themselves to Jesus. (Romans 8:1)

Do we see God as removed from our struggles and griefs? 

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

Do we see God as being tardy in bringing His kingdom fully into being with Jesus’ return? 

God’s Word says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Jesus hasn’t yet returned to the earth do that all will have the time to turn to Him and to invite others to do the same.

Do we see the God we know in Jesus as belonging especially to our race, our country, our denomination, our family? 

Jesus says that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him--whoever turns from sin and trusts in Him as God and Messiah--will have everlasting life with God. (John 3:16)

Do we see the mess our world is in and wonder when and if Jesus is going to act? 

Jesus tells us in one place not to worry about the times or seasons and then says to we Christian disciples, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Of John, Jesus says in our gospel lesson, “among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.” 

But then he says, “...yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11) 

That’s you Jesus is talking about. 

You: the baptized believer in Jesus Christ. 

You: the One Who is being saved and daily transformed by the living Word, Jesus Himself. 

Unlike John when he sat in prison, you know that Jesus died on a cross for your sins. 

Unlike John, you know that Jesus rose to tear open eternity and a personal, eternal relationship with God for you and the whole Church. 

Unlike John, you received the Holy Spirit when you were baptized. 

Unlike John, as a believer, Jesus has taken up residence in your life to protect you from temptation and sin and to empower you to live in the peace of God that passes all human understanding. John could only look ahead in anticipation of what the Messiah would do. 

You and I live in the certainty of what He has already done and know that our lives, our futures, our eternity can rest in a no more certain place of love, life, and forgiveness than the hands of Jesus

You are greater than John because, as you receive God’s Word and the sacraments, God is tearing down what the poet and Anglican priest Malcolm Guite calls our “dissonance and doubt.” Jesus has already made you part of His kingdom! (The Six Days World Transposing in an Hour)

This Advent season, as we prepare for Christmas and for the day when Jesus will return to this world, once more listen closely to His Gospel Word, humbly receiving it each day and as we worship together where we hear, taste, and see it. Dissonance, darkness, and doubt will flee when you allow yourself to hear and see what Jesus has done at manger, cross, and tomb. You will see Him again for Who He is: the Messiah, our Savior, our King, our Lord, our God. 

And in the seeing, you will know to Whom you belong no matter what. Amen

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