The musings of the Pastor from Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Regina SK

Welcome. If you're a member at Good Shepherd, welcome to more thoughts and discussion of the week that was, and some bonus thoughts throughout the week. If you're not a member, welcome, and enjoy your stay. We are happy that you're here.

If you like what you see here, consider joining us for worship at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. Sunday mornings, at 8:30 and 11:00. You can also follow us on Facebook.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Happy Mother's day

Happy Mother’s day

As a pastor, a relatively minor irritant with the continued secularization of the world is the way in which the majority of people, including the majority of Christians, continue to mark the passage of time with secular dates and occasions.  Now, this wouldn’t be a problem normally – heck, go ahead and celebrate arbor day as much as you’d like.  It’s very difficult to argue with the simple sentiment of ‘go plant a tree.’  But something that is a minor irritant is the presence of a secular celebration along the lines of mother’s day, even though the readings in our lectionary don’t have much to do with mother’s day.

Now, as I say, the average person expects some mention of Mother’s day on Sunday, as well they might.  This is how we mark time now, these are the seasons, but unfortunately, as with all secular celebrations, mother’s day comes with some baggage attached to it.  And these days, mother’s day has more baggage than it ever has.  Consider this image, if you will.

This image is something that I have seen circulated an awful lot, or images like it.  Images that speak to the difficulties in mother’s day, because, like it or not, mother’s day isn’t easy for an awful lot of people.  It’s not easy because of the immense pressure that exists within the framework of mothers’ day.  For Mother’s day has risen to a fever pitch, as all celebrations do which revolve around the perfection of any human class of people.  When mother’s day hits, I’m sure it’s nice and easy for all those people who have perfect mothers, and who have perfect relationships with those mothers, but for those who do not, things are significantly more complicated.  The commentary that I hear are from people who don’t have a perfect life with their mothers or with their children; they may not have access to them, they may have died, they may not get along, they may not be able to have children, any of these can and have come up, and normally, these things are perfectly easy to deal with from a Christian perspective – we live in a fallen world in which thing frequently don’t work out. But the trouble is, when you are running the secular next to the sacred, and the secular takes over, all of a sudden, the fallen world conversation fades into the background behind the immense pressure of the perfection of mother’s day.  And on mother’s day, you are impelled by and immense cultural narrative to say that you have a perfect relationship with your mother, or with your children, and that your mother is the best ever.
Well, I’m here to take the pressure off of you, to let you know that you don’t have to pretend.  And by me, I mean St. Paul.

I am so glad that we had the reading that we did from Acts on Sunday, where Paul talks about the fullness of the Gospel, and the issue of the fullness of the Gospel is that it deals with what humanity actually is.  And what that means is that we, as humans, are sinners.  We had a baptism on Sunday, which allowed me to remind everyone who was at church that they had all agreed with the reality of the statement that we are all conceived and born sinful.  It’s easy to say that about the people you work with, it’s easy to say that about fellow parishoners, it’s easy to say that about your boss or the people in traffic, but the fullness of the Gospel means that it applies to your mother as well.  Your mother certainly agreed with that sentiment when she brought you to be baptized, because she knew that you were conceived sinful.  She knew that you were going to be born with the propensity for deception, the desire to steal, the ability to lie as soon as you were able to do so.  Your mother understood that about you, which is why she brought you to be baptized.  And in that same sense, you understand that about your co-workers, the people who make your sandwiches, the people who fix your cars, whatever.  The people who seem to let you down an awful lot.  The people who can’t be trusted with an unlocked door or an unsecured bike. The people who must be watched lest they thieve and steal.  This illustration is getting a bit long in the tooth now, but do you remember the Vancouver riots, where the Canucks lost the Stanley cup?  There was mass rioting and looting, and regular people, once it became clear that nobody was going to stop them or arrest them, smashed everything they could.  The most alarming thing about it was not that there were a bunch of people smashing the place up, but rather that these people were smashing their own city. These weren’t rioters trucked in to destroy, these were just regular people, once restraints were removed. Okay, so if your mother understood your sinfulness, and you understand the sinfulness of other people, then you should really be able to understand that your mother is sinful as well.  She was conceived and born sinful just like the rest of us. 

Does that bother you?  It might, especially on mother’s day, but I would ask you an important question, which is that what is the alternative?  Is the alternative to pretend that you have a perfect relationship with your families?  Is it to pretend that everything went well the whole time?  Go ahead and try that out, but right now, we as a society are bringing that harvest home.  Even after this selection of flowers above, there were still people who said that these categories didn’t go far enough.  There should be acknowledgement of those who had abusive mothers, those whose children were taken from the by the courts, those who have been disowned, birth mothers and surrogate parents, and on and on and on.  And it’s true, that image above doesn’t include all of those, but you can’t possibly come up with a graphic big enough to include all the ways in which things are not ideal in your own particular circumstances.
For everyone is broken in their own way.  And if all that mother’s day does is to hold up an ideal to be celebrated, then all we will be able to do in response is to look at the ways in which we are not meeting up with that perfection. It will only hurt if you are looking for perfection where it is not.  And all the cultural weight of mother’s day is built up around celebrating mothers and how great they are.  This will automatically make you feel worse.

Paul understood something, a lesson from his whole life. Think about his life before his conversion.  He had been a Pharisee of Pharisee, a Hebrew of Hebrews, circumcised on the eighth day, as to the law, blameless, but he took all that and counted it as rubbish for the sake ofgaining Christ as his Lord. And this is why he is so keen to bring up the fullness of the Gospel, because the fullness of the Gospel is the one thing that lets you celebrate mothers, or indeed anyone, with anything even vaguely resembling realism. If you don’t have the fullness of the Gospel, then you have to do one of three things: check out of mother’s day altogether, pretend that your mother is perfect which isn’t true because none of them are, or become tortured with the reality of your experience next to the required perfection.

But if what perfection worked for you instead of against you? What if you actually believed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  What if you believed in the power of forgiveness of sins in the real world? What if the Gospel of Jesus Christ wasn’t just vague idealism, but was instead the only thing that lets us love one another.  We love, after all, because he first loved us.  And once you have realized how much you need to be forgiven, how much you have done, and your propensity for evil that you have, then it becomes much easier to smooth over relationships with your mother because the pressure for her perfection is not there. You can’t blame her for not being perfect any more than she can blame you for not being perfect, because you are both sinful, both broken people.  And you’re both forgiven people, too.

Christ’s words aren’t just there to take up space, they are the power of God in the world, and the more we ignore them, the worse we end up, because we expect perfection to exist where it does not.  It’s not found in our homes or families, it’s not found in our desire for everything to be just so, and it’s not found in the flowery pages of the Hallmarks and Carltons.  The perfection that we are looking for exists outside us, which means that we can’t blame anyone for not meeting up with it.  We aren’t perfect, we are forgiven. And that means that we can look at each other, mothers included, in the same way as God looks at us: Rejoicing where we do what is right, and forgiving where we have done wrong.  And whichever of these issues that you may be having, whether they be strained relationships with your mothers,  problematic home life, distant people, or even a death in the family, these are all things that the Gospel of Jesus Christ are there to overcome. 

And the best thing about the Gospel is that it doesn’t matter if it’s mother’s day, or any other day, the Gospel is there to address these real world issues that plague and bother us.  It’s not theory, it’s absolutely practical.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

From a certain point of view

Statistically speaking, you've probably seen star wars.  If you haven't, I'm about to spoil it for you right now.  So buckle up.

Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father.  There, now you're all caught up.  But there is more than that, of course.  Many of us came late to the story, we came already know that fact, and so the big reveal wasn't much of a surprise.  In fact, it wasn't a surprise at all.  But it's still fun to think about the way the story gets there, and although you know how it turns out, our friend Luke doesn't.  As I say, it's fun to join him on the journey, isn't it?

Darth Vader himself reveals the fact to Luke during their duel at Bespin.  He asks Luke what Obi-Wan told him about his father.  Luke reveals that Obi-Wan told him that Vader killed his father. That's when Vader says 'I am your Father.'  The big reveal, the big moment.  Due to movie magic, Luke did get the chance to follow up with the now-deceased Obi-Wan later, and Obi-Wan gives the cop-out answer that the dark side of the force betrayed and murdered the person of Anakin Skywalker, and that after his conversion to the dark side of the force, Anakin ceased to exist.  This culminates with the line from Obi-Wan 'what I told you was true....from a certain point of view.'

In other words, you would have to have Obi-Wan's unique perspective to understand the position that he takes. Fair enough.  But perspective counts for an awful lot.  Any and all Police officers that I have spoken to have recounted similar tales, stories of pulling people over, and having them immediately ask for a break, talk about how they're not the real criminals, that sort of thing.  And they'll do so without fail, essentially believing that from the perspective of the speeder, they deserve a break.  But if you have children playing, if you have other motorists around whose lives may be put in danger from racecar Johnny, then you're going to be happy that Mr. Leadfoot was pulled over.  It's all about perspective.

Now the notion of things being 'from a certain point of view' becomes extremely important when you consider the reality of what the scriptures say, and how they speak to people.  I want you to think very carefully about St. Paul, who was, at the time that I'm referring to, Saul of Tarsus. And Saul of Tarsus was, as the reading from Sunday tells us, breathing out murderous threats against the followers of the way.  Why was he doing that? Well, we have to work backwards a little bit.  We know that Saul approved of the murder of Stephen, and he would have done so because of what Stephen was preaching.  What was it that Stephen was preaching?  Stephen's testimony bothered the Jews who were there to the point of wanting him dead, precisely because Stephen brought forward a Christological reading of the Old Testament. Stephen recounts all the things that the Hebrews of the time would have thought were extremely important, the stories that informed their culture, and largely determined their place in the world, and Stephen tells them in no uncertain terms what all those stories are all about.  All those stories are not about us, they are about Christ.  The promise that Stephen keeps on talking about, that promise is the promise that is realized in the death and resurrection of Christ.  And what the people didn't want to hear was that they were in no small part responsible for that death.  They killed all sorts of prophets before, and now they had killed the Lord of life, with seemingly no remorse whatsoever.  Stephen culminates by saying that he can see Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and at that, the crowd stones him to death.  Why is Saul of Tarsus happy about that?  Because he is comfortable with and in himself.

The testimony that Stephen gives is that of righteousness perpetually existing outside the human race, and working on it.  Over and over again in his speech, Stephen tells the people that God acts, and people respond.  He tells them that God decides, and his people react, whether for good or for ill.  God speaks to Abraham, Abraham follows his lead to the promised land. God speaks through the prophets, the people of Israel kill the prophets who announce the coming of the righteous one.  This happens because of the heavy implication from these passages, and from the entire scriptures that there is, in fact, a righteous one - and it isn't you.

Paul tells you why it bothered him, and why it bothered him enough to kill.  He tells you this in the book of Philippians, where he talks about those who have confidence in the flesh, which he had in spades.  "Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church.  As to righteousness under the law, blameless...For [Christ's] sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ.'  In order to be blessed by faith in Christ Jesus, Saul had to leave his entire life behind because it was based on his own righteousness as concerns the law.  But the law condemns, it doesn't save.

What the law does, and does very well, though, is to convince you that it saves.  That is, the law will deceive you into believing that you are keeping it, and that you are able to keep it fully.  And this is where things get dicey.  Most people then, as well as most people now, believe that they are keeping the law, which is why the words of the scriptures, the words of Christ, are so offensive to them.  That is, they want to continue to believe that they are good.  And what Christ does, what Stephen was trying to get people to see, was that they weren't anywhere near as good as they had led themselves to believe that they were. This is relatively uncomfortable to hear, it's unpleasant, but it has the unfortunate side effect of being true.  And that's the real trouble with it.  The belief that Saul had, that he was righteous and blameless under the law, it was comforting, it lets you believe that you're a good person, but unfortunately, it is full of holes, and that's what Saul discovered on the road to Damascus.

Now here's where things get truly and genuinely fascinating.  Think of this, if you will - Saul, knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus, hearing a voice telling Saul that Jesus of Nazareth, the one whom Saul has been persecuting, is intimately interested in him.  And when Paul gets up, and gets to town, scales fall from his eyes.  This is great stuff, because we're not talking only about physical blindness, you know.  We're talking about spiritual blindness too.  Perhaps even more so.  The scales that fall from Paul's eyes are spiritual scales, where he all of a sudden understands, he realizes why Christ lived and died in the first place, and why he shed his blood.  Paul understood that, as Stephen had told him, that Jesus came to redeem sinners, and the scales that fell from Paul's eyes were those that obstructed him from seeing that he was one of those sinners.  Once you understand that you are a sinner, then you will understand why Christ's message is so important.  The law doesn't offer you salvation, it only offers condemnation.  Paul understood at that moment that the words he had resisted when Stephen had spoken them, were the only words that could offer salvation.

But the words themselves hadn't changed.  Only Paul's perspective had.  When Stephen spoke, those words were harsh on Paul's ears, telling him that Paul's people had spurned and killed the prophets.  But when the scales fell from Paul's eyes, he understood the forgiveness that Christ offered was through his blood.  Identical words, different reaction, perspective changed.  And this is what leads to the curious conundrum of our reading that we had from Revelation from Sunday.  This reading talks about the one who is worthy to open the scroll and break the seals, and this one, the righteous one, is either the Lion of Judah, or the Lamb of God.  Which is it?  Well, it's both.  It's both because they are the same person, truly and genuinely.  For Jesus is both the Lion and the Lamb, it just depends on your position next to him. He doesn't change, but we perceive him differently based on where we are in comparison to where he wants us to be.  He can bring Peter to tears when Peter is denying him, but will also embrace Peter and bring him back to the fellowship of the Apostles when Peter repents.  He can demolish the evil, and restore the repentant.  This is what the work of Christ is all about, and our reaction to him tells us a lot more about us than it does about him.  His words don't change, so when people hate him, as Saul did, it is because they fell as though they have to believe that they themselves, through their effort, are righteous.  But when people love him, preach about him and declare him, as Paul did, it is because they know that their sins are covered.

It truly depends on the point of view, because the words themselves don't change.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

When sons come back

The prodigal son is one of the best known stories in all scripture.  It's a well known story for a good reason, and it's got all the Hollywood weight that we would expect from one of the best stories in all of creation.  It is the story of the departure of a son who takes without earning, who burns through all of his inheritance without much of a thought for how it was earned by someone else, and what it was ultimately worth.  As usual, easy come and easy go, and the cash was burned up, leaving the son with nothing.  And the moment in which he 'fain would have fed himself on the pods the pigs were eating' is the all is lost moment.  And in keeping with the traditional story structure, the young man heads home, to throw himself on the mercy of his father.  And wouldn't you know it, his father has been fretting that he has been killed, or otherwise compromised, and when he sees his son coming from a long way off, he rejoices, and runs out to meet his son.  He threw his arms around the neck of his son and hugged him, bringing him back to the fold.  There was a party, and much rejoicing, for the return of the wandering one.

Well, that would be a great story if it ended there.  But it doesn't.  As a fan of horror movies myself, an ending that this reminds me of is of Pet Sematery.  It's a movie that also features a son that comes back.  That movie ends about 15 seconds after it should.  The image of Louis carrying Rachel down towards the Sematary, stumbling down the hill, talking himself into burying her in the burial ground, saying that it'll work this time.  It's a heck of a moment, and it sort of gets ruined when Rachel actually comes back, mainly because the re-appearance of Denise Crosby isn't as scary as the idea that she might come back.  You know.  There's a right time and a wrong time to end something.  And sometimes, things go too long.

The story of the Prodigal Son goes too long.  It goes too long for our Hollywood desires.  For in the midst of the story of feasting and celebration, of a joyous homecoming, is the elder son.  He's where all the problems in the story lie.  The elder son doesn't join in with the celebration, at least not right away, mainly because he's out working in what is left of the fields.  He's been shouldering more and more of the load ever since the younger son absconded with all the loot, and now that the younger son has come home, he's angry.  He's angry that everyone is making much of the reprobate, of the rogue, of the rascal who left and then returned.  The older son is furious, and what makes this part of the story so hard to bear is that the older son has every right to be angry.  Why is everyone making much of the rogue when they should absolutely be making much of the one who stayed behind and did all the work.  Why is everyone being so jubilant at the return of the one who devoured the property with prostitutes when the one who never disobeyed has been there forever?  Why indeed?

Well, it's high time we understood that, and getting to the bottom of it is always easier if you take the time to ask yourself who you are in this story.  And most of us who are solid Lutherans, good solid church-going people, we see ourselves as the older son; and why not?  Surely, we have been about our father's work, we have been working faithfully in his kingdom, and assisting in his requirements.  We have been good servants, working diligently in the fields, scattering the seed, and never disobeying the commands and edicts of our father.  And are we recognized, lauded and applauded when we come to church? We are not.  We tend to be asked to take on more and more responsibility, and tend to be overlooked when it comes to hand shaking and adulation.  It seems, more often than not, that those who devour their father's property with prostitutes are lauded and applauded, and when we return, we get largely ignored.  And this doesn't seem fair.  And it's not.

But every time the holy scriptures seem unfair (which they are, on numerous occasions), you have to ask yourself who they are unfair in favor of.  I know I talk about this comic strip all the time, but it's important, what with being out of the mouths of babes and all that.

Ayeah, we best part of this comic strip is the complete ignorance that Calvin has that as a young child, growing up in the 1980s in America, the entire world is unfair in his favor.  It's all unfair in his favor, but Calvin can't see it because he's living in it.  In the same way, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, we think it's horribly unfair precisely because we think of ourselves as the wrong son.  We think of ourselves as the elder son, and we've been working hard all this time, and it all seems horribly unfair.  But Jesus shows the secret when the elder son is talking to his father.  Look closely at verse 29.  The elder son says of himself that he never disobeyed his father's command.  If you are looking for yourself in this story, do you really think that you can say the same? Can you say that you never disobeyed Christ on his throne? Can you really say that you have been diligent in everything that has been placed before you, haven't ever disobeyed the word of God? Can you say that you've never wandered, never strayed? I know you're good Lutherans, so you have to know that every service begins with a confession of sins, in which you confess that you have sinned in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.  You know that we are sinners through and through, and that the return that we have back to the church on Sunday is a return of a reprobate son.  this is the return of a son who has sinned ,who has gone against the father's will.  The walk back to church is the walk back of a child who has used up the inheritance that he was promised, and has nothing to show for it.  And the return to church by the parishioner from every congregation is someone returning to where the elder son has been all along.  And this is absolutely key.  

This story is unfair.  It is completely unfair, truly it is, but as Calvin shows us, frequently we complain when things aren't unfair in our favor, even when they are.  And in this case, they are.  I want you to look closely at this parable, and to think about the righteous anger that you felt when you thought of yourself as the elder son.  Think about how much it bothered you when you had to volunteer for funerals, for the board of trustees, for the parish fellowship committee, and nobody gave you any attention while constantly lavishing attention on newbies, well, think about how Christ feels when we waltz into the church as people who have sinned openly and vigorously against the Lord your God.  If we get to thinking about this story as being unfair when it applies to us, then it is important for us to realize that it is unfair in our favor.  Christ's work, his obedience, his sincerity, his commitment is what he does because we don't.  We take the inheritance and squander it, we take what is given to us and waste it.  The Christian life is one of the younger son, wandering away, and then wandering home.

The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that the sinners can always come back.  We are celebrated, we are loved ,and we are embraced.  The hard working son, the one who never leaves and never disobeys, is always there, and always present, and we are equally thankful not just that we can return, but that someone is still doing the work.  We continue to reap the rewards.

Monday, March 25, 2019


I asked this question on Sunday morning, and everyone, by and large, said the same thing.  I asked those who were present on Sunday morning that, as Christians, what is the most well known, often quoted passage in the scriptures? What is it that people keep on talking about, and would consider to be the most important, relevant verse in the Bible.

Pretty much everyone said 'John 3:16.'  Good point . That's the one, right?  The one that we all know, take to heart, and have internalized.  As a Christian, even if you've memorized nothing else, you've memorized that one.  You've figured it out, you've internalized it, and you can repeat it, chapter and verse.  But that's for all the Christians in the house.  If you're a non-Christian, what is the most important verse in the Bible, perhaps the only one you've committed to memory?  Matthew 7:1.  For those who are churchy, you might not be able to pluck Matthew 7:1 out of the air, so I'm going to assist you, albeit briefly.  "Judge not, lest ye be judged."

I would say that more non-Christians, atheists, people like that, would know this verse, and would be able to pull it out of a holster fairly rapidly.  And this verse is used to hamstring any condemnation, heck, any mentioning of sin whatsoever.  If you point out sinfulness in someone else, if you point out sinfulness in the world, if you assess things and come to the conclusions that things shouldn't be going they way they are, whether in a big or small way, you will be hit with Matthew 7:1.  Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Now, that verse is used to basically silence any or all criticisms of anything ever.  If you pipe up with something, people will respond by saying 'doesn't your book say something about not judging?' And they'll treat it as though you, as a Christian, would be sinning gravely by bringing anything up.  The image presented of the perfect Christian, then, is one who would gaze upon the sins of the world with a placid, calm, and philosophical face, never seeking to curb any type of behavior, no matter how corrupt.  That sounds nice to the modern world, but unfortunately, it stumbles right away when you consider the reality of the Old Testament reading that we had on Sunday.  The Old Testament reading that we had on Sunday gives you the complete opposite conclusion.  Instead of the classic agnostic position that says that Jesus wants you to say nothing whatsoever in the face of sin, deception, destruction and desolation, we instead hear all about how you are required to speak up when you see deceit, when you see destruction, when you see sinfulness that leads to death, you are required to speak up in order that you might save the souls of your listener.  God has placed us in a position that we don't really want to be in - as watchmen on Israel's wall.  We are there to call out problems, issues, difficulties and sins as they arise.  Not only does that passage tell us that we can, it tells us that we ought to do so.  To refuse to deal with sinfulness is to shirk our duty, and to consign people to everlasting condemnation - and their blood is on our hands.  That's heavy, you know.  It's heavier than we want it to be, especially since most of us bought into the concept delivered to us that the best Christian is a mute one.

So what's a Christian to do?  Well, if you believe in what you say you believe in, then you have some circles to square.  You have some dogs to catScripture interprets scripture, in case you didn't know, and with scripture interpreting scripture, you have to believe that you are a watchman on Israel's wall, but also that Christ told you to judge not lest ye be judged.  How can both those things exist simultaneously?  Quite easily actually.

If you want to know your sinfulness, if you want to know your need for a savior and what it is that Jesus died for specifically, then I invite you to take one simple step to tell you exactly what that is.   Go thou to your brother, sister, husband, wife parent, child, whatever, and point out their sinfulness.  If you do that, I can absolutely guarantee with 100% certainty what will happen next.  They will immediately fire back at you with a sin of your own.  If you tell someone that they chew too loudly, they'll tell you that you're a cheap date.  If you tell someone that they need to load the dishwasher better, they'll tell you that you're shiftless and lazy.  There is no faster way to have your own sin pointed out to you than to point out someone else's.

It's almost as though Jesus knew what he was talking about.

Let me put it to you this way.  The Gospel reading that we had for this morning was all about repentance, repent or perish being the heading for the chapter.  And we all essentially took that, glossed it over, and moved on, precisely because we genuinely can't see our own sins.  We take it for granted that we ought to examine ourselves before holy communion, we ensure that we confess our sins at the appropriate time in the service, but honestly, we don't use the ten commandments of God and the words of Christ to evaluate our thoughts, words and deeds as we ought. And so when it comes to confess our sins, we can't think of any to confess.  But when Jesus speaks, he tells us to be careful when we judge because when we do, that same measure will be applied to us.  If you point out someone else's sins, they will point yours out in no time at all.  And you're going to have the same temptation that the rest of us will, right? To explain your sins away, to pretend they're not a problem, to try to make the case that you don't really have a problem, it's not a sin when you do it, or to then snap back at the person again by pointing out their sins again.  It's your temptation the same way it is mine, of course.  But here's the deal.  Your job is to stop running, and to embrace the issue all over again.

You're a watchman on Israel's wall, but so are other people as well.  And if you've got the job of pointing out their sins, of indicating and isolating those sins, then you're going to for sure have people point out your sins as well.  And that means that you, as a Christian, have the opportunity and the duty, of living out your faith.  When someone presents your sins before you, in an attempt to get you to see that beam in your eye, your job is not to run from that, but to embrace it.  Your job is to be thankful and grateful that now you know what you have to be forgiven.  If someone, another watchman on the wall of Israel, dares to bring up your sins, to mention them, all you need to do is to quit running, and quit hiding.  You need to stand firm in what you believe, and when someone says to you 'oh yeah, well you're lazy and a drunk,' that's when you need to come clean, to cop to the charges, and to say 'yes.  And I shouldn't be.  And that is what I need to confess, for that is my sinfulness that I have to deal with, work through, and have Christ take it to the cross.'

If you can't do that, then what is Lent for? What is the purpose of the Lenten season if all it is is a vague, perfunctory statement that you're a damnable sinner who can't think of a single damned sin?  And if all you do is to make excuses, obfuscations and deflections when your sins are brought up, then congratulations, you're essentially a Pharisee.  But if, for example, you're able to look your sin straight in the eye, to embrace the call of the watchman, to understand that it is there for your benefit, then all of a sudden, the faith that you take so lightly begins to coalesce into a reality in your life.  That pain that you feel when someone points out to you even the slightest thing you do wrong, that raw scrape you feel when a nerve has been hit, that's what Christ comes to take away.  He come to forgive, to spare you from the weight of your deeds and misdeeds.

So, in summation, judge not lest ye be judged, for with the measure you use, that same measure will be applied to you.  That doesn't mean that you can't talk about sinfulness, according to the scriptures you have to.  What it does mean, though, is that you are going to open yourself up to a careful, thoughtful analysis of your own sins.  And your job is to embrace it.  Your job is to say to the world that you are not perfect, and that you have a lot to be forgiven.  So bring it on, and your sins will be revealed to you; then you can take them to Christ, and have him take them away.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Precious snowflakes

Have you ever noticed that all snowflakes are different?

This fact is often used as a short form for a number of other things, but more often than not, to discuss the uniqueness of the human person.  That is, just like no snowflake is exactly like another, so too are we all different, and individual.  This goes significantly deeper than you think it is, you know.  It goes deeper because, on a cosmic level, you have to understand that the extreme unlikeliness of you being conceived, you being born, and all of a sudden, you figure out that you are actually much more different from every other human being than snowflakes are from one another.  There are really only 35 different forms of snowflakes, they differ much more on a molecular level. So too, there's really only one way that human beings are put together (two legs, two arms, a head, etc).  Sure, there are minor differences, but you get my point.  Just like snowflakes are unique on a molecular level, though, we are all unique on a spiritual level.

So when it comes to the cost of a soul, they should fetch a pretty fine price. They should fetch a high price because each of them is a one-off.  There is only one of each, and that's all.  All economics is based on scarcity, you know.  Absolutely all of it.  Things are only expensive because they are rare.  Anything that is hyper-common has no value whatsoever, precisely because it is common.  That's why nobody can ever charge for air, for example, because it is everywhere, unless you're in a situation where it isn't.  Then it is worth a lot.

Think of it this way - There is only one of you, your soul is completely different from anyone else's, and even if you were to be cloned, as identical twins are essentially clones of one another, you would be different on a spiritual level.  You can see this with identical twins.  Although they are identical physically, they are operating on a different level emotionally, spiritually, what have you.  So given that your soul has uniqueness that even snowflakes do not, it stands to reason, from an economic sense, that it should be worth a lot.  An awful lot.

The legend of Faustus, being the prototype for a lot of other soul-selling narratives, has the brilliant doctor selling his soul to the devil, with Mephistopheles doing his bidding for seven years.  He wagered that in those seven years, he would be able to wring all the enjoyment out of life that he could, so that eternity in hell with Satan and all his little wizards would be tolerable.  Well, Mephistopheles had to grant him an awful lot, because Faustus, being a man of his time, understood what a human soul, his soul, was worth, and he wasn't willing to part with it easily.  It commanded a hell of a price for the devil to get, because people really weren't willing to part with immortality and paradise unless it was for a very very high price.  Now, contrast that with the going price for souls these days, and I would hope you'd agree that the bottom has fallen out of the soul market. These days, you have to wonder what it is that people are willing to essentially sell their souls for.  What price is the right price for them to lose their eternal salvation.  Is it seven years of amazing love, power and cash? Or is it upvotes?

For you see, these days, the average person doesn't want to rock the boat at all.  The average person is in no mood to stand out spiritually.  The average person doesn't want to make ripples in the water in the slightest.  And so the average person who fears the disapproval of man more than the wrath of God, will sell their souls out completely just to avoid any momentary discomfort here on earth at all.  No social anxiety, no even mild tsk-tsking, no semblance of any kind of disapproval from the masses in the slightest.  We want to go along to get along, you know, and so when push comes to shove, and the prospect of people thinking that we are operating outside the norm shows up, we pull back almost immediately.  Forget the seven years of power and prestige, all the devil needs to do now is to say 'forsake your faith, or I won't like you anymore.'  And like suckers, we go for it.

Essentially, if we had any concept of how valuable our souls were worth, how they aren't just a thing we have, they're a thing that we are, then there's no way we would sell them as cheaply as we do.  But we have either forgotten, or we never really knew, and so we are willing to give them away for nothing.  We will sell them for a mess of pottage, if you will, simply to avoid even the possibility of momentary discomfort, exactly as Esau did.  And if we're willing to sell for nothing, the devil is quite happy to pay that much.

And that brings us to the season of Lent, and to the wandering of Jesus in the wilderness.  For 40 days he fasted and prayed, for 40 days he was alone.  At the end of the 40 days, the devil arrived in the wilderness and made him some promises, by way of some temptations.  The devil showed up and said to him that he would supply all of Jesus' needs of body, safety, and prestige.  He would give to Jesus all the attention that the world would not supply, he would give to Jesus all the power that the world would deny him.  All this would be given to Jesus by the prince of this world, if Jesus would just turn aside from his quest, and follow him.  But Jesus resisted him.

Jesus was willing to pay the price.  Not just the price of being dismissed by his followers and deserted by his friends.  Jesus was willing to go further than you or I would, by giving up his clothes, his freedom, his safety and his life.  He was willing to pay the ultimate price, pay it in blood, because he knew how much this was all worth.  He knew how much your soul was worth.  And he was willing to do whatever he had to do to save it.  In many ways, the story of lent is not so much the question of whether or not we sell Jesus short, but whether we sell ourselves short.  What is your immortal soul worth? If the devil were to show up and ask you to haggle, would you demand top dollar, or would you sell it for lentils?  What is eternal salvation worth?  Would you suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it, or would you shrink away to avoid any cost at all?  Well, Jesus is well aware of how frail we are when it comes to this.  He is aware that the spirit may be willing, but the flesh is most certainly weak.  And he knows that when it comes to value, we are always tempted to ask too little for what we have.

But he is willing to outbid the devil, you know.  He is perfectly willing to pay more than the devil does.  Again, we're going to look at this in economic terms for a moment.  Think of it this way, in a capitalist way.  Your soul is on offer, but now it's not a transaction, it's an auction.  And you know how an auction works, right? In an auction, you get to figure out not how much something is worth according to its sticker price, you get to figure out how much something is truly worth.  Everything that exists is only worth what someone will pay for it.  If nobody will pay for it, then the item in question has no value whatsoever.

Now, here we get into what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about.  It's about the value of your soul.  That soul that you take very lightly, the soul that is undervalued by us.  God bless us ,we take this very lightly indeed, only truly understanding the value of a thing after it is gone and wasted.

This is the almost was situation of the prodigal son, the one who wasted his precious inheritance on wine, women and song.  The horrifying idea that you have undervalued that inheritance so powerfully, and would only want it back when it is long long gone.  

You would give that soul away, blow through that inheritance on essentially nothing.  And the devil, because he doesn't have to, will only give you what he has to.  He will take your soul for whatever bargain basement that you will offer it up for.  He'll take whatever he can, and will give you only what he has to.  And in this auction, the highest bidder will take the prize.  But the devil will only offer what he has to, in order to secure the deal.  But Christ offers the highest price, a price higher than the devil can.  The devil, even if he is trying to outbid Jesus can't do it, because Jesus offers up the highest price in creation.  There is no price higher.  If the devil was only offering you what he thought you would sell for , then you'd sell for rock bottom; likes and upvotes.  But he's not offering you a price, he's in an auction against the blood of Jesus Christ, the source of forgiveness and grace, the thing that pays the cost for the sins of the whole world.

And really, this is what lent and Easter are all about.  They're about the reality of the offer of Jesus Christ to pay for the sins of the whole world with something that cannot be outbid.  The one perfect sacrifice from the one perfect penitent.  The offering up of the blood of the Lord, the God of creation to redeem creation.  And no matter how much the devil offers, he literally can't offer up more than that.  It's always good to remember that your salvation rests not in your hands and how highly you value your soul, but in the hands of Jesus, who can pay infinitely more than any of us can.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Sticks and stones

Moses didn't get to enter the promised land, you know.  After leading the stiff-necked people of Israel through the wilderness for 40 years, Moses climbed a mountain overlooking the promised land, where he was able to drink it all in with his eyes, and it was there that he died, and was buried in an unmarked grave.  The great prophet of Israel, dead and buried.  God had made Moses a promise while he was in the wilderness, which was that because of his sin, Moses would not enter the promised land, and would die before he could enter it.  Such is the price of sin, you know.

Now, even though you may know that, part of what I wanted to impress on all of you is how small the offense was that got Moses banned forever from the promised land.  What was it that was so severe that Moses did to get him barred, and barred justly from the land that God had promised to his people?

He struck the rock with a stick.  No really, that's what he did.  Numbers 20 tells us exactly how that proceeded, where Moses is commanded by God to speak over the rock, but instead, Moses chooses to strike the rock with his staff, and water gushes forth from it, and all the people drink.  God told Moses to do something very specific, and Moses chose to do something else.  Almost as though Moses believed that he knew better than God the whole time.

For those of you paying attention, this is an absolutely common theme throughout the scriptures.  It begins with our first parents, Adam and Eve, who are absolutely real people, and who were given real instructions by the Lord their God to avoid eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  True to form as a human being, Eve, upon being tempted by the serpent, said to him, "God said we aren't even allowed to touch it," which absolutely wasn't true.  But she added more steps, as we as humans are wont to do.

We do this because we want to rationalize our decisions, and we are the only creatures that can do this.  We can rationalize our behavior by adding more steps, and dropping out earlier ones.  We can make new agreements that supersede old covenants.  We can fool ourselves into thinking that what God really wants is for us to do what we want to do, for God is a dottering old man who only wants you to be happy. He doesn't care about good or evil, right or wrong, all he wants is for you, yes you, to be happy.

But that's not true.  None of it is true.  That's not how any of this works.  When God commanded to Moses to speak over the rock but not to strike it, he was going out of his way to show his power and dominion to the Israelites, who, as discussed above, are a stiff-necked people, and who rebelled against Moses constantly.  God wanted Moses to show and demonstrate that it was God himself who was in charge of all of this, not Moses and his magical trickery.  But Moses assumed that he knew better that God himself, and decided to rap the rock twice instead of just speaking over it.  And he was barred from the promised land for it.  Moses, the great prophet, whom nobody had seen anyone like before or since in Israel, was barred from the promised land for striking a rock.

Does it seem harsh? Maybe, I suppose.  But here's the thing - disobedience to God is enough to get you barred from the promised land, barred from paradise, barred from the whole Scheer.  We constantly think about how good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell, right? We keep thinking about how Hitler is in hell forever, and that the rest of us are basically okay, without realizing that disobedience to God's word is sufficient, it is enough, it is plenty to cast Adam and Eve out of paradise, Moses out of the promised land, and you out of heaven.  And if God's command to speak over a rock is disobeyed by Moses striking it, what on earth do you expect God is going to do with a people who change his laws and commands far far more than that.

The modern church, as you know, is as corrupt as you please.  I'm sure this isn't news to you, but think about it for a second.  God's word is clear, it is not hard to figure out or to work through.  It's not as though God's laws are needlessly complex, but we do like to rationalize them away.  We do like to look at God's laws as though they were complex, and needed our big brains to sort them out.  We like to look at God's laws about human sexuality, life and death, theft, robbery, obedience, and to say that these things are holdovers from a time in which people weren't so smart, and needed to be protected from themselves.  Now that we're here, and we're so smart, and we don't need God to tell us what to do anymore.  And I ask you, with God as your witness, who is more likely to be giving you that advice? God, who said his word wouldn't change, and who said he would be the same yesterday, today and forever, or someone else?

Moses changed God's rules in a very tiny way, and that was enough to keep him from the promised land.  What do you think there is waiting for us when we change God's laws in a big way? What is waiting for us when we take God's very clear words, and change them in a quite monstrous way? What is waiting for us when we disregard, dismiss, or otherwise discard the clear commandments of God in favor of what we feel like doing, and assume that God will back those decisions up?  Could God justly bar us from paradise?  Absolutely.

But this last Sunday was the Sunday of the transfiguration. And with it being the Sunday of the transfiguration, it's easy to miss a lot of details when you see Christ transfigured to be bright like the sun, dazzling white like lightning.  It's easy to miss all the other details when your savior is revealed in his glory. But a detail that I don't want you to miss is that in that moment, Moses is standing there, with Jesus and Elijah, in the promised land.  He finally made it.  After being justly barred from the promised land, he is finally there.  His story didn't end with his death, after his skin had been destroyed, yet with his eyes, he beheld Christ, and stood in the promised land.  What a redemption story!  Justly barred from the promised land, after having led Israel through the wilderness for 40 years, Moses finally stands in the promised land, and stands there with Christ. The law bringing stands in that space with the law keeper.  I want you to think about the people from the scriptures who want to find their way back to paradise, to regain it, if you will.  People whose sin and disobedience has kept them away, far away, from paradise. Think about why they are kept from paradise, and how much effort they expend into trying to make their decisions good and God pleasing, when in reality they are neither.  And think about how we behave, you and I.  Think about what we do, how we conduct ourselves, and how desperate we are to convince ourselves that we are doing the right thing, and that our actions in the real world are just a slight, minor deviation from what God has commanded.  And then think about Moses, who stood on the mount of transfiguration alongside Jesus.  

Standing there alongside Jesus is the most important part.  What was it that Jesus said to the oft-misunderstood thief on the cross?  'I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise.'  Emphasis mine, but hopefully you'll get the picture here, that you will be with Christ.  Where he is.  For only Christ is able to break death, only Christ is able to ascend into heaven, only Christ is able to be an heir of the permanent promised land, and Moses's presence with him at the mount of transfiguration is a wonderful testimony to the forgiveness of sins and righteousness that Christ provides.  This isn't a theoretical or an abstract for you to muse over, rather it is a practical moment.  Practical feet on the practical ground.  A few sets of them, too.  Elijah, who was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, Jesus who is the son of God, and Moses, barred from the promised land now standing in it. Because of Jesus.  That's what forgiveness and justification look like, you know.  It looks like people who had sinned, who had added to or subtracted from God's command, people who are justly barred from the promised land standing in it.  

And that's one of the best things to be revealed at the mount of Transfiguration.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

What did he mean by that?

Okay, folks, I'm about to drop something heavy on you, which for you Lutherans, should be pretty straightforward.  After all, we believe that 'Is means is' in regards to the Lord's supper, that the body and blood of Jesus Christ are truly present in with and under the bread and wine.  And if you can grasp that, that the body and blood of Jesus are truly present at the altar because he said they would be then the next step should make sense as well.  Ready?

Turn the other cheek means turn the other cheek.

Is means is, turn the other cheek means turn the other cheek, etc.  The thing about Jesus and his words is that we all grasp them until we get too smart.  Then we get to thinking that the words of Jesus Christ can't possibly be understood, they are too multi-leveled, after all.  There are tons of ancient near eastern customs, practices, and so on that help to illustrate exactly why when someone strikes you, you should hit them back.  And we tend to fall into the same patterns that our first mother did when confronted with the Devil, that monstrous demon from the dim mists of time. For when the Devil spoke to Eve about the forbidden fruit that she craved, he began by saying

"Hath God really said....?"

The deception began there, by attempting to get Eve to question what God had said. God had told our first parents not to consume the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but Eve's deception began by asking what did God mean by that.  Now note that the command of God in the garden wasn't hard to understand.  "Don't eat that, it's bad for you" is a command so simple that we could give to children, and in fact, frequently do.  Don't eat that, don't touch that, don't do that, simple things that we tell children, and we expect them to listen to and to understand.  And they by and large do, until they become reasoned enough to begin to question your commands, and to ask what it is that you really meant by what you said.  And it is far easier for us to say that if we mean what we tell our children, then perhaps God means what he says when he says it to us.

The best person to listen to in relation to this issue is, of course, Dietrich Bonhoeffer himself, that most wonderful of pastors who put himself in harm's way, who stood up to Hitler, who sacrificed himself and all that he had for the benefit of those around him.  And when he talks about cheap grace, we should really take him seriously, given that he is definitely prepared to put his money where his mouth is.  Which he absolutely did.  At any rate, when he discusses these words from Christ, and our modern understanding of them, he says this much.

"We in our sophistry differ altogether from the hearers of Jesus' word of whom the Bible speaks.  If Jesus said to someone 'leave all else behind and follow me; resign your profession, quit your family, your people, and the home of your fathers.' then he knew that to this call there was only one answer - the answer of single-minded obedience, and that it is only to this obedience that the promise of fellowship with Jesus is given.  But we should probably argue thus: 'Of course we are meant to take the call of Jesus with absolute seriousness, but after all the true way of obedience would be to continue all the more in our present occupations, to say with our families and to serve him there in a spirit of true inward detachment.' If Jesus challenged us with the command 'Get out of it,' we should take him to mean 'stay where you are but cultivate that inward detachment.' Again, if he were to say to us 'be not anxious,' we should take him to mean 'Of course it is not wrong for us to be anxious, we must work and provide for ourselves and our dependents. If we did not we should be shirking our responsibilities.  But all the time we ought to be inwardly free from anxiety.'  Perhaps Jesus would say to us 'Whosoever smiteth thee on the right cheek, turn to him to other also,' We should then suppose him to mean 'The way to really love your enemy is to fight him hard and hit him back.' Jesus might say 'Seek ye first the kingdom of God,' and we should interpret it thus, 'Of course we should have to seek all sorts of other things first; how could we otherwise exist? What he really means is the final preparedness to stake all on the kingdom of God.' All along the line, we are trying to evade the obligation of single-minded, literal obedience."
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 'the cost of discipleship,' Grace and obedience.

These words of Bonhoeffer are humbling, but only because they point back to the words of Christ.  And the funny part of it all is that we like to pretend that there must be another interpretation to these words from Christ, he must have meant subverting power structures, or being metaphysically nonviolent, or Christian anarchism, or blahbitty blah, and bloobitty blooh.  In other words, Jesus of Nazareth meant anything except what he said.

But if we believe that, that's not Christianity anymore, folks.  That's another kind of religion in which you are trying to justify yourself. And if you know your scriptures, you will know that every time someone tries to justify themselves, Jesus shuts them down too.  As Christians, we have to understand that the Devil hasn't changed how he operates, you know.  He continues to operate the same way he always has, by whispering to you and I 'Hath God really said?' designed to have us change the word of God to fit what we are already doing.  And look, I know why the temptation for the sophistry is there, I really do.  I know why it's there because when I look at the word of God from this Gospel passage, I don't want it to apply to me either.  I don't want to lend to anyone who asks, I don't want to turn the other cheek, I want Jesus to tell me to look out for number one.  But when I consider the Gospel of Christ, I come face to face with a realization, which is that I find in these words commands that I don't want to adhere to in relation to other people, but commands I want people to adhere to in relation to me.  It's not as though I would look at these words and say that they are bad for humans to follow, in fact quite the opposite.  I want everyone else to do them all the time!  What a great world that would be!  But I don't want to follow them myself.  And nor does anyone else.  And there's the rub.

We can all look at this passage and agree that these things should be done, no problem.  But the difficulty comes in understanding that these aren't just rules for other people, they're rules for us too. That's the issue more than anything else you know.  And the trouble overall is the fact that these things are good and right and should be obeyed by everyone, yet we all tend to believe that they should only apply to other people, instead of us.  That's how slavery works, you know, because we can believe that us owning other people is okay, but other people owning us would be a great moral ill.  That's how theft works, that if you steal from Metallica, that's fine, but someone stealing your Metallica albums from you would be a crime.  You have to understand that these things aren't different.  They only seem to be different because they're happening to you.

Hopefully now we can get to some kind of clarity here, which is not that the law of God is bad for people, but only that it's hard for us.  It's not that we think that it is unreasonable, on the contrary we expect the people that we see around us to follow it, and we act as though they will. We expect people to forgive us, to respect our property, to give without asking for anything in return, that kind of thing, but we remain perpetually surprised when almost everyone seems to act as though they are the exception to the rule.  But none of us are.  This is why the scriptures tell us that all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God: because none of us are actually all that good at keeping up with these commands.  And this is precisely why the perfection of Jesus Christ takes centre stage, you know.  It does so because of what Jesus does.  He doesn't come to abolish the law, nor to make it easier.  He comes to fulfill it, and that's different.  So far, we've been talking about how we can tell that the law is good for other people to follow, and Jesus just goes one step further - he knows that the law is good for everyone to follow.  But unlike the rest of us, he doesn't stop there; he actually fulfills the law, lives it out perfectly.  He does what should be done, and we can see him living it out in the pages of the scriptures, Jesus prepared to live out what he advises us to do himself.

This passage from the Gospels, where Jesus reminds you of what is expected by us from other people, he is also giving us an idea of the lengths to which he will go to fulfill that law for us.  Do these things sound difficult to the point of impossibility for us? Sure they do!  Are they the right thing to do? They sure are!  And that's why they exist within the wheelhouse of the one and only perfect human being to have ever lived, who will take on these things, and accomplish them fully.  With examples.

For instance, when Jesus says to love your enemies and do good to those who hate you, he lives it out in this moment:

When Jesus says to turn the other cheek when someone strikes you, he lives it out here:

  When Jesus says that if someone takes your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either, he puts that into practice in his own life:

All I want you to understand is that when Jesus speaks about what good and evil are, he's not purposefully exaggerating, nor is he talking about some strange middle eastern custom that secretly means to do whatever you want to do in the first place.  He is telling you in language so plain and straightforward that children can understand it.  Don't want to do it? I understand that, because nor do I . But Jesus did not come to abolish the standard, but to fulfill it.  That's his role, and it's extremely serious.  He doesn't come to make a hard rule easier to follow, he comes to keep the rule, and to offer up his obedience to us.  We are people who live in the shadow of the cross, where the perfect penitent made the perfect sacrifice.  The rules that we think are important for others to follow are still there and still remain.  We now get to live in a world where the perfect life was lived on our behalf.  We acknowledge that there is a good standard, we repent that we do not live up to it, and we give thanks that the perfect life was lived for us, so that when God looks upon us, he sees only Christ's righteousness.