Wednesday, July 21, 2021

What Happened to "The Call"?

 At a recent council meeting, we discussed several trends affecting the church in 2021.  We discussed how many churches are now hybrid congregations: having both an online and in-person presence.  We breeched the subject of how we might conduct Holy Communion with people in their homes and in small groups.

At this point, I raised a concern regarding such things.  "Whatever we do, I just want to make sure the meaning and understanding of the sacrament is not diminished."

Not that the sacrament can be diminished.  It's the real presence of Jesus.  You can't diminish that in and of itself.  But it can be diminished in peoples' hearts and minds.  This is why Martin Luther wrote certain explanations in regards to petitions of the Lord's Prayer in the following manner: the will of God; the kingdom of God; certainly comes without our prayer, but in this prayer we pray that it may come to us... The kingdom of God; the will of God are certainly undeterred by us, but we don't want such things diminished by our failure to see them or bow before them or even work against them.  

My colleague offered some insight into this as he shared that in a very real way, administering the sacrament of Holy Communion is the only thing that really sets clergy apart from everyone else in the church.  For those who do not know the terminology, the church is broken down into clergy (pastors, priests, etc.) and lay folks (congregation members, teachers, elders, etc.).  Lay folks certainly preach and teach.  Lay folks can administer the sacrament of Baptism in special circumstances. Lay folks forgive sins; lead worship; read Scripture; and so on and so forth.  In all of these things, there is not much distinction between clergy and lay!!  And the line has become even more diminished.

There are some internet sites which offer people "ordination" so they may preside at weddings of family members and others.  Therefore, with no training; no formal education; no discernment, a person can become an ordained minister.

Now, I am no fool.  I know there are plenty of pastors and ministers who have gone though the ordination process who probably should not have made it.  The numbers of clergy who have committed heinous sins of sexuality attest to that.  The numbers of clergy fired from their churches for financial mismanagement attest to that too.  Pastors who have bullied their congregations or people in their congregations add to the numbers. A theological education is no guarantee that an ordained minister is going to perform the duties of the office well.

But there is something that will: a calling.  Perhaps I am just too isolated in the setting I serve, but I remember a time when we talked deeply about a sense of calling in the church.  We talked about sensing a call to the ordained ministry.  This was a deep feeling/sense/intuition that God had set you apart to proclaim His Word and lead His people.  This call could have come dramatically (as did mine), or it could have risen in bits and pieces over a long period of time until you knew this was what God had given you as a vocation in life.  

But simply sensing this call was not enough.  The larger church took it upon itself to examine whether or not it believed the call you sensed was genuine.  Along with seminary training, we had to go through a candidacy process.  There was psychological evaluation.  There was evaluation of your prayer and spiritual life.  Was there evidence of the Spirit working in your life?  Was there evidence of the Spirit working in your preaching and teaching?  Did you exhibit compassion?  Were you able to comprehend theological concepts?  Did you adhere to the doctrine of the Lutheran Church?  All of these things were evaluated to see if indeed God had called you and set you apart for ordained ministry.

I get the sense that this understanding of calling is greatly diminished. For certain in our society.  For suspicion in our churches.  One of the last recruitment videos I watched put out by my own denomination never asked the question, "Are you called?"  Yes, there was language about God calling a person, but the main, driving question was, "Do you want to change the world?"  Note to ELCA seminaries: The hard truth is that no one really changes the world; they can hardly change a congregation; and you will be lucky if you can even change yourself.  The calling to serve as an ordained pastor isn't about changing the world.  It's about proclaiming Christ and Him crucified.  

The calling to become an ordained pastor isn't about wanting to officiate at a loved one's wedding.  It's about proclaiming Christ and Him crucified.

The calling to become an ordained pastor is about serving the church, but it is in the capacity of proclaiming Christ and Him crucified.

"Are you called?"  That's the question.  It is a wonderful, terrible question to wrestle with.  And I wonder how often it is being asked.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Cancel Culture must be Cancelled

 Even I recognize the irony and hypocrisy in the title of this post because I am a strong proponent, ardent defender, and principled believer in the concept of freedom of speech.  You would come to the logical conclusion that I would want no one cancelled; that I would embrace allowing folks' to articulate their positions without fear of negative consequence.

And I would, and I do.

And it would seem that such a position would be incompatible with calling for the cancellation of a train of thought or "culture" as it seems.

But one must dig deeper into this virus that has infected our society and realize just what we are dealing with.  For we are dealing with two very incompatible ideals.

One ideal seeks a society of the open interchange of ideas.  It seeks robust debate and argumentation.  It gives people ample opportunity to speak their minds and then change them if convinced otherwise.  Therefore, it allows mistakes, stupid comments, ignorant comments, and even repulsive comments with the thought, hope, and knowledge that a person's position can (and often is) swayed by argument, logic, reason, and understanding.

The other ideal seeks a society where only certain ideas are accepted and allowed to be spoken.  It is punitive and does not allow mistakes, ignorance, stupidity, or repulsiveness.  And such mistakes, ignorance, stupidity, or repulsiveness is defined only by the powers that be--not by any particular, objective standard.  Make one misstep, and you can lose your job, status, and well being.  There is no free interchange of ideas.  There is imposition of the correct ideas.

These two positions are totally and completely incompatible.  And one of these positions will consume the other if it is not checked.  Totalitarians don't stop unless they are overthrown.

Oh, and I have heard the arguments regarding the limits of free speech.  "You cannot cry fire in a crowded theater if there is no fire."  Indeed.  That is lying.  One can easily prove such speech false, and one can be punished for the consequences of lying.

Yet, such a comparison is not the same as stating one's position on gay marriage, for instance.  It is not the same as pointing out the statistics of police officer shootings of unarmed black men.  It is not the same as support of a particular political candidate.  In all of these things, well articulated arguments backed up by statistics and facts or reasonable opinions have led to cancellation of individuals.  And they are not the same as yelling fire in a crowded theater.  

Unfortunately, in this particular situation, we are at a point where we can liken it to bullying or even warfare.  One side wants peace and freedom.  The other side wants imposition and to control.  One side deeply values peace and freedom and wants to uphold it, but in order to prevent the other side from taking over, it must stand firm and even fight.  (No, masters of technology.  I am not arguing for guns and fists and knives and the like.  If you try to cancel this blog because of your reading into the text something that is not there, you will face a lawsuit.)  We must be willing to cancel the cancel culture.  We must be willing to undermine it. We must be willing to argue vehemently against it.  We must be willing to use the tactics of seizing power to ensure the free exchange of ideas.  If the two "sides" were compatible in some measure, we would not have to do this.  We could peacefully coexist.  But because they are logically incompatible and contradictory, one must emerge victorious.  

One of these positions has been shown throughout history to provide human flourishing.

The other has been shown to lead to human misery and suffering.

If you have studied history, you know which, but for the ignorant, I will be blunt.  It's not cancel culture.  It's the free interchange of ideas.

Stand and fight for it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Loving Jesus but Hating the Church

 For some reason, the title of this blog has stuck with me for a few days.  I've heard sentiments like it phrased in several different ways.  And, of course, there are rebuttals.

But I began to question if such a thing is possible.

And I know that oftentimes our rebuttals to such things tend to be quite soft; intended to change minds and "win" someone over.

But I wonder if the reality is a bit harsher.

I wonder if the response to this isn't more a matter of laying down the law.

Because I think the reality is this: if you don't love the church, you don't love Jesus.

Because when you love Jesus, you love the church.

The church has been and will continue to be the "bride of Christ."

And ugly bride though she may be, for the criticisms of the church are often dead accurate, she is still the bride of Christ.

And Christ loves her.  Warts and all.

Just like Christ loves us, warts and all.

And that is, I think, central to the matter.  For oftentimes, a distaste of the church is rooted in a sense of moral superiority.  It's rooted in a sense of finger pointing.  It's rooted in a sense of self-righteousness.  It's rooted in a lack of forgiveness.

And I know that people have been hurt by the church.  I know that people have been hurt by people in the church.  I know that people have been hurt by leaders in the church.

So have I.  

So.  Have.  I.

I still bear a few wounds that are not completely healed as well as some major scars.  I have been falsely accused of things.  I have had my reputation drug through the mud.  I have had my family attacked.  Rumors spread about my supposed infidelity.  Children called unspeakable names.  All by "upstanding church members."  And I have had church leaders shrug their shoulders, offer little to no support and be all too happy when I pulled my stakes and headed to a different venue.  I have every reason to dislike the church and some of the people in it.

But I can't love Jesus and not love the church.

Because all of those things that were done to me, at some point in my life, I am sure that I have done to others; and not only done to others but done to Christ Himself.  

And despite my callousness towards Christ, He has never stopped loving me.

He has never turned His back on me

He has never rejected me.

He has only and ever reached out his arms and died for me.

He has only and ever forgiven  me

He has only and ever extended grace to me and a love that is completely and totally undeserved.

Can I do anything less for His bride?

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Bible is Inspired, but Your Interpretation Isn't

 Apparently the title of this blog is an argument being used against folks who share certain thoughts about what the Bible says.

I am curious as to which interpretations are being called into question?  The linked article referenced human sexuality.  But I wonder if any others.  I ask because I have actually never heard anyone say this.

However, even though I have not heard it said, I think it worth responding to--even if it might be to simply get ahead of the curve.

There are several things that come to mind:

First, the idea that our interpretations are not inspired by God is a bit of a fallacious argument.  A Christian who has been born from above (John 3) has the very Spirit of God dwelling within: calling, enlightening, sanctifying, and preserving that person.  When guided by this Spirit, the interpretations are indeed inspired.

Second, we must always temper this with the knowledge that we are sinful, imperfect beings.  Therefore, we must always measure our interpretations against and with others whom history has shown to be faithful.  Our interpretations are bound to the intent of the authors of the Scriptures, and, thankfully, we have Greek and Hebrew studies as well as historical/cultural studies to guide us.  When in constant dialogue with those who have been found to be faithful as well as the scholarship of ancient languages and cultures, we can be relatively sure our interpretations are correct.

Third, making the blanket statement, "your interpretations are not (inspired)," is actually a self-defeating statement.  It applies to any person's interpretation.  Any.  Person's.  Let that sink in.  If you want to tell someone, "Your interpretation's wrong," on what basis do you do so?  That's your interpretation, and it's not inspired.  If you want to agree with another person's interpretation, it is simply a matter of your opinion.  It's not because that interpretation is right or true.  It's just that it fits your taste.  There is no need to actually do any hard work in trying to figure out what the biblical writers tried to convey to their audience.  None of that matters because none of it is inspired.  It's all relative.

Finally, is it really that hard to interpret certain portions of Scripture?  I mean, really.  Certainly there are places in the Bible that are metaphor.  They are not to be taken literally, and interpretation is warranted.  There are also stories and parables that require interpretation to make application.  However, there are also some very straight forward sayings that do not require a high degree of interpretation.  "You shall have no other gods before me."  What's difficult to interpret about that?  "Love your enemies and bless those who persecute you."  Trouble understanding that?  Applying it might be a bit difficult, but the interpretation is pretty clear.  "You shall not murder."  Again, how hard is that to interpret?  It's not.  And in my estimation, if you are making it difficult, you are simply trying to justify a behavior that the Scriptures forbids.

Monday, April 19, 2021

The Proper Use of Doubt

 Luke 24:36-49

36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.' 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.' 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?' 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence.

44 Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.' 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.'

The week after Easter, as I was browsing through my Facebook feed, I saw that someone had posted an article in one of the groups I belong to.  The name of the group should tell you everything you need to know. The name of the group is: The Lutheran Nerd Clan.  Yes, it is everything both Lutheran and nerdy, and I am a proud member.  But that is beside the point.  The point is the article that was posted, and it’s title immediately intrigued me: “A Tiny Particle’s Wobble Could Upend the Known Laws of Physics.”  It was a science article in the New York Times.  I love science, and I know that oftentimes, science points us towards the majesty, wonder, and beauty of God.  Really.  If someone ever told you there was a conflict between science and faith, they are misguided.  Not just misguided.  They are wrong.  There is no conflict in the least, but that’s not the topic of this sermon.  The topic of this sermon has to do with what this article in the New York Times was all about.

Let me quote the article here, “Evidence is mounting that a tiny subatomic particle seems to be disobeying the known laws of physics, scientists announced on Wednesday, a finding that would open a vast and tantalizing hole in our understanding of the universe.”

Again, quoting the article, “The particle célèbre is the muon, which is akin to an electron but far heavier, and is an integral element of the cosmos. Dr. Polly and his colleagues — an international team of 200 physicists from seven countries — found that muons did not behave as predicted when shot through an intense magnetic field at Fermilab.

The aberrant behavior poses a firm challenge to the Standard Model, the suite of equations that enumerates the fundamental particles in the universe (17, at last count) and how they interact.”

Now, that’s all of the article I am going to read.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to push the science any further.  Some of you may be going, “Wow! This is cool,” but I know there are others out there who are thinking, “Man, I hated science.  Why in the world am I hearing about science at church?  I thought I was done with this stuff.  What in the world does this have to do with my life and my relationship with God?”  Patience.  I am getting there.  Really.  I am getting there because this experiment along with another one which had similar results back in 2001 has shaken the scientific community.  It has caused a lot of doubt.  Whereas they once thought they had most of physics figured out, it might turn out that they have to completely and totally rethink how they believed the atomic world operated.  There is still much data to be waded through, but if this experiment is confirmed, it will turn everything topsy turvy.  And now, there is much debate within the community about this matter.

The results of this experiment are very much like the results of Jesus coming and sitting in the room with the disciples on that first Easter evening.  Our Gospel lesson this morning is Luke’s account of Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples after the resurrection.  You may recall that last week, we heard the Gospel of John’s account of this appearance, and there are many, many points of connection between the two accounts.  The major difference between those two accounts is that John emphasizes the reaction of Thomas, one of the disciples.  That account is often referred to as the doubting Thomas account.  But as Pastor Casey said last week, we would do better to call it the disbelieving Thomas account.  The Greek is pretty clear there.  Thomas didn’t doubt, he was disbelieving.  In today’s account, there is a much better example of doubt.  We actually have the doubting disciples, and this time, the Greek wording matches up.

Let’s set the scene.  Again, like in John’s account, the disciples are huddled behind closed doors. The disciples who Jesus met on the road to Emmaus have just arrived and have shared their account.  Everyone is talking about this, and suddenly, Jesus appears.  Like in John, Jesus’ first words are words of peace, “Peace be with you.”  A bit of chaos ensues.  The disciples are startled and terrified.  That’s the wording that is used.  They think they have seen a ghost.  

Jesus then works to convince them that they aren’t seeing things.  He is real, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”  Let’s stop there because here is where the word doubts actually comes into play.  The Greek word here is dialogismoi, which has the definition of discussion, consideration, or debate.  Perhaps a literal translation would be, “Why are you frightened and why do you debate with yourselves in your hearts?”  This is true doubt.  This isn’t a “I believe!”  And this isn’t a “I don’t believe.”  This is a “I really am not sure what to do with this information.  If this is real, then everything that I have once thought I knew is now topsy turvy!”  I told you, this biblical passage is very much like what happened with the results of those scientific experiments.

But the disciples were having quite the difficulty coming to grips with Jesus being there.  They weren’t sure about what was happening.  So, Jesus keeps pushing. He keeps giving them evidence.  Look at my hands and my feet.  Touch me.  See, I am real.  

And again, we are told that the disciples were “in their joy disbelieving.”  Probably a better translation for us would be, “They thought this was too good to be true.”  So, once again, Jesus takes another step to show that he is real; that he is not a ghost.  He asks for something to eat and eats it right in front of them.

Now, I want to take just a moment before continuing to point out something that the Bible is showing us.  Sometimes, there are folks today who dismiss ancient people.  They will say things like: ancient people weren’t as advanced as we are today; ancient people were not as skeptical as we are today; ancient people were not as scientifically minded and so they would accept things back then that we would never accept today.  They just didn’t know any better.  And while that is true about some things, that is not true about every thing.  Just because ancient people didn’t know about atoms and protons and electrons, they knew that people didn’t just rise from the dead and appear.  They knew that once someone had been crucified and was buried, they stayed dead and buried.  The Bible here does not show the disciples just accepting the resurrection of Jesus without any thought or skepticism or doubt.  I mean, for heaven’s sake, Jesus appeared to them.  Jesus was in the room with them, and they didn’t just automatically believe it.  They didn’t just automatically accept it.  They doubted.  They wrestled.  They tried to figure all of this out.  They didn’t turn their brains off.  Instead, when confronted with this new reality; when confronted with this new information; when confronted with the risen Jesus; they turned their brains on and tried to figure it out.  They questioned.  They debated.  They wondered.  Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that we are more advanced than they were.  They were just as skeptical as we are.

But they had one advantage over us.  They had Jesus with them there in that room.  And Jesus took the time to convince them.  Jesus took the time to get them through their doubts.  Of course, we already heard that Jesus showed his hands and feed.  We heard that Jesus had them touch him.  We heard that Jesus ate food in front of them.  But that wasn’t quite enough.  There was more that was needed, and Jesus gave that to them too.  He opened the Scriptures up to them.  He explained the Scriptures to them.  He showed them how the entire Old Testament pointed to him and was fulfilled by him.  As Jesus taught these things, the disciples were convicted.  

Step by step, Jesus showed them that the Messiah was destined to come into this world and live the life that they were supposed to live.  Jesus showed them how he alone fulfilled the commands of God.  Jesus showed them how he loved the Father with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Jesus showed them how he loved his neighbor as himself.  Jesus showed them how he was the spotless lamb of God who had come to take away the sin of the world.  He was the sacrifice of atonement to end all sacrifices.  He was the one who had come to give his life as a ransom for many.  Step by step, he showed them that it was necessary for him to die for them; to take their sins upon himself and then give to them his righteousness.  He then showed them how his resurrection has defeated sin, death and the devil.  The gap that once existed between humanity and God is no more.  All of this Jesus showed them as he opened God’s Word to them.

As he spoke, I am certain the disciples’ hearts began to burn within them. Their eyes were opened.  Their doubts turned to belief.  And here is the crucial thing about doubts.  Doubts are healthy–they poke at us and make us think deeply.  They make us consider things we may not have considered before.  They make us ask questions that we may have been afraid to ask.  But, doubts are meant to lead us to answers.  Doubts are meant to lead us to find truth.  You don’t just say, “Oh, I doubt that.” and then stay in your doubts.  That’s pure laziness.  The disciples didn’t stay in their doubts. When Jesus offered them evidence; when Jesus opened their minds to the scriptures; they believed.  Their hearts became convinced.

And now, let’s bring this home.  Let’s talk about the Christian faith in the midst of life in the 21st Century.  Let’s talk about faith in a culture full of skepticism and unbelief and competing truths.  Let’s acknowledge that it is okay for us to have doubts.  Let’s acknowledge that it’s okay to wrestle with things deeply.  Even scientists who once thought they had things figured out have to do that in the light of new evidence.  But let’s not use that as an excuse to reject the tenets of Christianity.  Let’s not use doubt as an excuse to turn to internet atheists and others who claim to be more enlightened.  For you see, doubt is nothing new.  The disciples faced them, and Jesus answered them.  And throughout history, the church has faced doubters, and very smart people have been led by the Spirit of God to have answers to those questions as well.  How do I know?  Well, I have doubted.  I have sought.  I have found answers.  And I have been asked questions.  Sometimes I didn’t know the answers, so I had to learn.  And the more I have learned, the more I have studied the scriptures, the more I am convinced of the truth of Christianity.  The more I long for a chance to be a witness to the Gospel-just like he called the disciples to be in that room long ago.

I remember shortly after I started going to college and had started taking theology classes, I went home to visit my folks.  I remember going to church on Sunday and sitting in on the confirmation class.  One of the young men there asked me a terribly difficult question, “Why did God pick such a lame way to save the world?”  What I wouldn’t give to be able to respond to him now.  I had never wrestled with that question until he asked it.  I didn’t have a good answer.  I had nothing.  He wasn’t satisfied with my pastor’s answer, and I knew he wasn’t satisfied with mine–and I wish I could remember exactly how I answered it then.  I don’t.  I just remember it wasn’t good.

But through my doubts, I have had a chance to study.  I have had a chance to learn.  And if I had the chance to talk to that young man again, this is what I would say, “I don’t believe it was a lame way to save the world at all.  In fact, I think it was beautiful.  God cannot let sin go unpunished.  When you do something wrong, you deserve to face the consequences of your actions–that’s justice.  And you and I both know that we have sinned.  You and I both know that we haven’t done the things we should do and been the people we should be.  Deep down, we know that we are not right and have not done right.  We know that we deserve punishment–we deserve justice, and God should probably toast us.  But God also loves us.  God doesn’t want to have us be punished because that would mean complete separation from Him.  And so he somehow has to find a way to bring both love and justice together.  And here is how he does it. Instead of punishing us; he takes the punishment for us.  That’s what Jesus does on the cross.  Jesus is God taking the punishment that we deserve.  It’s like a parent paying to replace a broken lamp that their kid has destroyed.  The kid can’t pay the price and replace it, but the parent can.  Our heavenly parent pays for our sin by dying in our place.  And when you understand that. When you understand what God has done for you, and for the world, you will see that as a thing of beauty.  If you doubt this; if you are debating in your heart; seek the answers.  When you do, I know that you too will be convinced.  That Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  And Christ will come again.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The Story Continues: Dealing with The Gospel of Mark's Abrupt Ending

  Well.  What a horrid way to end a Gospel.  Really.  I mean, picture this: Jerusalem 33 A.D.  Jesus has been crucified, died, buried.  This Jesus on whom so many had pinned their hopes and dreams.  They had either seen or heard the stories of his miraculous abilities. The ability to calm storms.  The ability to produce food out of thin air.  The ability to heal the sick.  The ability to cast our demons.  The ability to make the lame to walk, the deaf to hear, and the blind to see. The ability to raise the dead.  That was power.  That was authority.  Surely he was the promised Messiah–the promised one that was to bring about wholeness and peace and God’s kingdom on earth.  Ah, but all of that had been discarded; cast away; trashed.  This Jesus had been betrayed, arrested, condemned.  Hung on a cross to die on that hill called Calvary.  Wrapped in burial cloths.  Laid in a tomb.  Dead.  The movement he had started was all but finished.  Cut the head off a snake, and the rest of the body dies.  It had happened before.  It would happen this time.

But some women went to the tomb.  They didn’t have time to prepare Jesus’ body for burial after he had been taken down from the cross.  It was a rush to get even the body buried before the Sabbath’s restrictions on work kicked in.  So, now, they would come and do the job they would have done had it not been for those restrictions.  They would anoint his body.  They would place spices on it.  They would grieve appropriately.  And they found something they did not expect.  The stone that had sealed the tomb–an object of concern because of its size and weight; an object that stood in the way of these women’s mission was now rolled away. The tomb was not sealed.  It was open.  And walking into the tomb, they did not see the body of Jesus.  They did not see the body of the one who walked on water. They did not see the body of the one who rode into Jerusalem on the donkey.  They did not see the bloody, torn flesh; the thorn pierced forehead, the nail pierced feet and hands.  No.  There was no body.  There was only a young man; a young man dressed in white and sitting on the right hand side.   Who was he?  Was he an agent of Pontius Pilate there to catch any of Jesus’ followers and have them prosecuted?  Was he an agent of the Jewish Religious Leaders–there to spy out those who might be unfaithful; who they could charge with blasphemy and cast them out of the Jewish faith?  Were they in danger?

No. Not by a long shot.  The young man looked at them with a look of peace; with a look of confidence; with a look of unfettered excitement.  “Don’t be afraid.  You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified.  He has been raised.”  Let that sink in for a minute, y’all.  It’s the reason we are here this morning.  It’s the news that changed the world.  It’s the most shocking thing that has happened in all of history.  “He has been raised; he is not here.  Look, there is the place that they laid him.”  Oh my; oh my.  Oh my, oh my.  If this is true; if this is real; then oh my, the implications are astounding.  Reality is changed.  If he is raised, then everything he said was true; every teaching he pronounced was trustworthy; he was and is the Messiah; he was and is the redeemer of the world; that teaching about giving his life as a ransom for many; well, that’s true too.  Oh my, oh my.  This, this is too good to be true.  This is an amazing occurrence.  He is not here, he is risen.  Death could not hold him down.  God has righted the injustice that was committed against Him, and wait...if God righted the injustice against him and death could not hold him down, does that now mean that the same thing will happen to all of his followers?  Does that mean that we too will be raised from the dead?  Does that mean that we too will have our injustices reversed?  Surely it does!!  Surely this is good news!  Surely this good news demands that we tell it.

Well, that’s exactly what that young man says. That’s exactly what that young man calls upon those women to do.  “Go.  For God’s sake.  Go!  Go and tell his followers and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.  Go!  There you will see him, just as he told you!!  Go!  Go and tell!  Let them all know!!  Stop waiting around here!! Go!”

And they went. Yes, they went.  They hurried away from the tomb for terror and amazement had seized them.  They were overwhelmed.  And they went and told...they went and one.  Wait.  What?  This can’t be right.  That can’t be the ending.  They went and told no one?  Possibly the most earth shattering news they had ever come across; quite possibly the most hopeful thing that they would ever encounter, and they told no one?  Are you kidding me?  By God, they must have been Lutheran!  Okay, that’s a joke.  Please don’t take it personally.  But you gotta admit, it’s kind of funny.  I mean, we do have a reputation out there.  They make jokes about us.  What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s witness and a Lutheran?  Someone who goes around knocking on everyone’s door but doesn’t know what to say.  

Okay, enough poking fun.  Gonna stop that.  It’s Easter.  We are not here to be made to feel guilty.  We are not here to be made fun of.  We are here to hear the proclamation of the Good News that Christ is risen!  And we hear it.  Loudly and clearly, we hear it. We hear it in the spoken word.  We hear it in our hymns.  We hear it in our lessons.  We hear it.  Yes, we hear it just like those women heard it, but I have a nagging question.  I have a question that bothers me some.  Why didn’t those women go tell the disciples?  Why didn’t they burst forth with excitement?  With this earth shattering news, why did they tremble in fear?  Why do we?

I mean, maybe they thought everyone would think they were crazy.  Maybe they thought that everyone would look down on them.  Maybe they thought no one would believe them.  It’s all a possibility.  But maybe, just maybe it was something else.  Maybe just maybe it wasn’t a matter of fear of how others would react.  Maybe it was because things hadn’t sunk in yet.  I mean, despite the evidence they saw with their own eyes and heard with their own ears, it wasn’t enough to convince their hearts.  Despite seeing the evidence of the stone rolled away; the absence of the body; the words of the young man; the teachings that Jesus himself had told them; despite all this evidence, it didn’t sink in.  It didn’t hit them deep down within their soul.  I mean, I am sure they wanted to believe it.  They wanted to believe that their Lord had conquered the grave.  They wanted to believe that he was risen, but they just couldn’t get there.  They just couldn’t bring themselves to that point.  Their fear was too great.

And I think many of us can resonate with those women.  Many of us struggle too. I mean, let’s be honest.  Let’s be truthful.  Let’s be real.  Some of us have heard this news for years–since we have been small.  And we know we should be telling the story; we know we should be engaging others with the Gospel, but when we think about even starting that conversation our insides turn to absolute mush.  We are sore afraid.  And for others, I mean, some of you out there might not be so sure about this whole Christianity thing. You might think that this resurrection business is simply something we believe without evidence.  And that’s not true.  In fact, there is some pretty good, reasonable evidence to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.  But event that won’t necessarily bring anyone around.  Even that won’t necessarily convince anyone to walk out of here with bravery and bravado to engage those who are not worshiping this morning.  I mean, I can stand up here and share with you those very good reasons why the resurrection is an actual historical event.  I can lay out the evidence: first, there was an empty tomb–all the authorities would have had to do is produce the body, and the movement would have ended.  Second, the authors of the Gospels said that women were the first witnesses–if you were writing fiction back in that day, you would have never used women.  Their testimony wasn’t even allowed in court.  You would have used men if you were writing fiction.  Third, the disciples believed they saw Jesus raised from the dead.  You could excuse one or two of them, but hundreds, as Paul tells us about in Corinthians?  No.  Mass hallucinations like that just don’t happen.  Fourth, those same disciples died without recanting.  Have you ever, ever heard of a lie being kept so well.  Yeah, me neither.  Criminal justice folks will tell you someone always cracks.  And finally, every single other Messianic movement died out; went away; disappeared after the Messiah figure was arrested or killed.  Every.  Single.  One.   There is only one that didn’t.  The Jesus movement.  All of these things are historical fact.  All of them.  And the question is: What overarching story puts all of these facts together?  What does all of this evidence point to?  The simplest and best possible explanation is that Jesus really did rise from the dead.  Jesus was resurrected by God the Father.  That’s the best possible explanation by far.  It’s the explanation that fits the evidence.  You would be hard pressed to come up with better.

But, like I said, even this evidence; even all of this put together cannot make you or me go out into the world and tell all.  Even though our heads right now might be thinking, “Oh, yes.  I can see this. Jesus really did rise from the dead.  He is alive.  The things he said must be true...”  Even though our heads might be thinking this, when we head out into the world and confront the world, knowing we might face hostility; knowing we might be laughed at; knowing we might face rejection; we clam up.  We stay silent.  We tell no one because we are afraid.  Oh, my, we are just like those women.

And that’s just great.  I’ve just come to the same place as the ending of the Gospel of Mark.  And this would be a horrible way to end the sermon.  Ah, but wait.  Just wait.  There is more.  Sorry if you are disappointed.  The ending is not quite here.  It will be here shortly, but there is just a little bit more that we have to put forth.

You see, even though the women sitting in fear and telling no one was the ending of the Gospel of Mark, it was not the end of the story. For you see, those women didn’t stay huddled in fear.  Eventually, their hearts were convicted.  Eventually, their fear disappeared, and they went to Galilee.  They and the disciples saw the risen Christ.  Their hearts became convinced that Jesus was raised from the dead.  But they were still afraid.  They still did not move out into the world.  Their fear was still too great.  Because even though they had seen the evidence; even though they had seen Jesus; something still had to give them the conviction and the fortitude to move out into the world.  Something more had to happen, and eventually, that something did.

It was the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost that transformed their fear into boldness.  The Spirit moved among them and in them, and they unlocked their doors; they stopped trembling; the knowledge of Christ’s death and resurrection and his redemption of the world by grace moved from their heads into their hearts and they fearlessly proclaimed it to the world.  

They were persecuted.  They were killed.  They were hunted.  And yet, they kept proclaiming.  They faced rejection.  They faced skepticism.  They faced scorn, but they kept proclaiming.  Why?  Despite all the resistence, why did they persist?  Because of what St. Paul says in the book of Romans: faith comes through hearing.  Faith comes by hearing the good news.  Yes, we point to the evidence, as I did earlier, but for the Gospel to move from your head to your heart, you must hear it over and over and over again.  And that is why countless people have passed this good news down throughout history.  Beginning with those women, and then the disciples, and then the evangelists; and then the Church Mothers and Fathers; and then countless pastors and preachers, teachers and mothers and fathers, and grandparents and aunts and uncles–all of them kept telling the story.  They kept passing down the good news.  And even though it took time for people to believe; even though it sometimes took months or years or decades, they kept preaching and teaching.  Their conviction led them into the streets; they went into the synagogues; they climbed into pulpits over and over and over again.  They read and prayed to their children and grandchildren.  They taught children and adults who seemed to be preoccupied with other things.  And slowly, but surely, they watched hearts change; and they saw courage build.  New generations became convinced that this news was true, and then they stepped forward to  tell the news.  And so the story continued, and it continues.  The good news continues to be announced by those who are convinced that through His life, death and resurrection, Jesus has changed the world and that He is the only hope of the world.  And that is why I stand before you today.  And that is why you are here this morning: to hear the proclamation and have ours heart convicted as we become the next generation to continue the story; to continue the announcement of the good news: Christ is Risen!!  Christ is Risen indeed!! Amen.  Alleluia!!

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

An Alternative to Cancel Culture

  In 2018, scholars Stephen Hawkins, Daniel Yudkin, Miriam Juan-Torres, and Tim Dixon published a report titled, “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape.”  In that report, they shared the data collected from a nationally representative poll with 8,000 respondents, 30 one-hour interviews, and six focus groups. And what did they find?  They found this: 80 percent of those in that representative group believe that political correctness is a problem.  Let that sink in for a minute.  If this study is truly representative, 80 percent of the U.S. believes that political correctness is a problem.

Now, I know that we pastors are supposed to keep politics from the pulpit.  I know that we are not supposed to tell folks who to vote for or which political party to support.  I know that we are supposed to essentially stay neutral on such matters, but it has come to a point where such matters must be addressed.  And not only because six Dr. Seuss books, including one of my childhood favorites “To Think that I Saw it on Mulberry St.” were taken out of publication; Pepe Le Pew will no longer be seen; and they are trying to remove Speedy Gonzales.  My entire childhood is in danger of vanishing!!  No.  It’s not just because of that.  There is more.  Just this past week, I posted the Lord’s Prayer to my Facebook feed, and it was fact checked.  I didn’t include anything about Facebook trying to censor the Lord’s Prayer.  I made no commentary what-so-ever.  It was just the Lord’s Prayer.  And it was fact checked.  Whether we believe it or not, this stuff is having and will have a direct effect on our ability to be the church in society these days. 

And there is some bad news that goes along with this.  And the bad news is this: we are not going to convince that 20% to change.  I hate to say that, but we won’t.  And the other piece of bad news is that there is always a chance that we could become the next target of those who are subscribing to this train of thought.  You never know what is going to catch their eye and draw their ire.

So, what do we as the church do?  How do we deal with this movement within our culture and society?  At this point, I am tempted to be like Lucy in the Charlie Brown comic strip who went up to Charlie Brown one day and said, “Discouraged again, eh, Charlie Brown?" "You know what your whole trouble is? The whole trouble with you is that you're you!"

Charlie asks, "Well, what in the world can I do about that?"

Lucy answers, "I don't pretend to be able to give advice...I merely point out the trouble!"

Yeah.  I don’t pretend to be able to give advice...I merely point out the trouble.

But that is also a cop out, I think.  It’s a cop out to simply point to a problem and then tell everyone, “Well, you need to do some thing about this,” without a willingness to engage in the process of problem solving.  And so, what I would like to entertain this morning is how we might bring our faith to bear against this cultural movement, and instead of directly combating the movement; we offer an alternative.  Instead of going to war against cancel culture, we offer a different vision; a different mood of living; a different set of values that will actually lead to a more just and whole society.  

And I think that this is important to say.  Because when it comes down to it, cancel culture wants a just society. They want justice.  They want folks to feel included; that everyone has value.  But here is the question: how do they bring such a thing about?  How do they try to bring about this type of society?  By punishing and banning anything that is perceived to perpetuate injustice.  If a cartoon character represents oppression, it must be banned.  If a person makes a certain hand symbol that is deemed inappropriate, they should be forced to resign their job or the company should be made to fire them.  If a song is thought to have racist roots, it must be banned completely (U.T. fans know that one.).  So, to be inclusive and bring in the Aggies, if a college president was a member of the confederate army, their statue should be removed.  If a comment is perceived to be a threat or is perceived to be racist, one is removed from a social media platform or is shadow banned for presenting such thoughts.  The idea is: if we continually point out the injustice; if we continually shame someone; if we continually ban offensive content; then, at some point people will change, systems will change, and we will have a just society.  Now, I am trying to be very careful in my analysis here because it is very easy to caricature this movement, and indeed, I may have oversimplified.  But I don’t think by much.  These are the things that we have seen happening around us, and they seem to have intensified.

So, what is the alternative?  What is the response to this?  Well, let’s first acknowledge that Christianity also seeks a just society.  We also want folks to feel included, and we want everyone to know that they have value.  In this we are not different from cancel culture.  And sadly, in our history, the Church has also practiced a cancel culture of its own.  We have also participated in book burning and censorship.  The namesake of our own denomination: Martin Luther was threatened if he did not recant his writings; and the Spanish Inquisition was notorious for persecuting those who did not toe the line.  This is much to our shame as an institution because we did not practice the heart of our faith in these things.  We did not practice those things which Scripture brings about a change of heart and a just society.  And what are those things?

They are at the heart of the Gospel: forgiveness and redemption.

Let me paint the picture for you using our Bible texts this morning from the book of John and from the book of Ephesians.  You see, Christianity starts with the premise that all human beings are flawed.  It starts with the premise that the world is flawed.  And not just flawed.  No, humankind and the world are in open rebellion against God.  Paul writes in Ephesians, “You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.”  And when you read the Gospel of John, you will notice that the world is never looked upon with favor.  The world is always referenced as evil; preferring to live in the darkness of ignorance and selfishness instead of entering into the light of God.  The world hates God because it wants to do its own thing; go its own way; and it finds God to be placing boundaries which prevent it from being its own boss.  

Cancel culture, if it held to this train of thought would see every person and every entity in the world worthy of cancellation; worthy of condemnation.  According to the tenets of cancel culture, the world and the people in it should be destroyed!  Canceled!  

But here is the difference.  Here is the major difference.  For you see, even though God could have destroyed the world.  Even though God could have canceled the world.  God loved the world.  God loved the people in the world.  God loved you.  And God loved me.  He knew that we deserved cancellation.  He knew that we deserved punishment.  But instead, He offered something quite different.  He offered forgiveness and redemption.

“For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.”  That’s the Gospel in a nutshell.  And Ephesians fleshes this out even more, “4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Let me break this down for you and show you what Christianity says.  Christianity says that we are sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God. We owe God a debt due to our sin, and it is a debt that we can never pay.  We are too caught up on ourselves. We are too willing to fall into temptation.  We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  We cannot live the perfect life.  We cannot overcome racism. We cannot love our neighbor as ourselves.  We deserve punishment.  We deserve cancellation, but Jesus steps in.  Jesus says, “You can’t live the life you are supposed to live.  But I can.  You can’t love your neighbor like you should.  But I can.  You can’t follow the commands of God, but I can.” And he does.  He lives the life that we should have lived, and then he pays the debt that we owe.  He gives himself in exchange for us and dies for us on the cross to cancel not us, but to cancel our debt!  Instead of giving us deserved punishment, we receive grace.  We don’t lose our job.  We don’t get deplatformed.  We aren’t shamed into submission.  We are given a love that is unimaginable!  

And that is all well and good, but the critics of cancel culture will say, “But where is the justice?  Where is the change in society and the change in people?  You talk of this grace and forgiveness, but it is just a way for you to justify your injustice!”

No.  Not in the least.  This is a horrendous misunderstanding of grace, because this is what happens.  When you understand grace; when you stop trusting in yourself for your righteousness.  When you stop trying to justify yourself and trust in Jesus justification; to the extent you trust in Jesus’ work and not your own, your life will be totally and completely transformed.  You will sin less.  You will work for justice more.  You will extend compassion and forgiveness and redemption.

Which means, you will know that no person or institution or book or anything for that matter in the course of history is perfect.  A song can have racist origins but be changed into a song that unites an institution.  A confederate general can institute reforms as a governor including the beginning of a home for blind, deaf African-American children and as a university president including working for the inclusion of women at said university.  A cartoon character can be used to teach important lessons.  The list is endless.  Redemption is endless. Transformation is endless.

And that means, the way to salvation is open to everyone.  The way of transformation is open to everyone.  Yes, Christianity has certain boundaries.  Christianity has certain expectations of behavior, but when someone crosses those boundaries; when someone fails to live up to those expectations, we now respond with the same grace that we have been given.  We respond without condemning the person.  We respond knowing that God wants this person included in the Kingdom, and the best possible way to bring them into the Kingdom is not through punishment, but by grace.  And therefore, we treat others with respect, kindness, compassion and integrity.  We invite.  We do not impose.  In short, forgiveness and redemption accomplishes exactly what cancel culture seeks to accomplish–justice, acceptance and value for all, but Christianity does it with love, grace, and compassion instead of punishment and shame.

The contrast is stark.  And it is a contrast that I think we must be willing to promote as strongly as possible.  But there is a great risk.  A great risk indeed.  For cancel culture could come for us.  It could try to silence our message of grace and forgiveness and redemption.  It could try and deplatform us.  But, again, that’s nothing new to Christianity.  They tried to do the same thing to Jesus.  They tried to shut him up. They tried to cancel him by putting him on a cross and then in a tomb.  And we all know how that turned out.  Not so well for cancel culture.  Because our God is mighty to save and as author of salvation, He has conquered the grave.  And let us now shine the light.  A light that shines on a different path.  A path of forgiveness.  A path of redemption.  A path of transformation.  Let us shine the light of Amazing Grace.  Amen.