Archive for October, 2016

Reading Ramblings – November 6, 2016

October 30, 2016

Reading Ramblings

Date: All Saints Day, November 6, 2016

Texts: Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 149; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

Context: The early Church commonly commemorated a martyr’s death on the date of their death. However over time, the number of martyrs made this untenable, and the Church moved to single days of observances for those who died for the faith. In the late 4th century this was observed in some places directly after Pentecost Sunday. Pope Gregory IV in the 9th century established November 1 as a date for the entire Church. This observance also gradually extended to encompass all those who died in the faith, rather than just those who died specifically because of their faith. In our congregation, we name specifically those who have died in the past year, ringing a bell after each name is read. Then we invite the congregation to say aloud the names of friends and loved ones who have passed, regardless of when or whether they were associated specifically with our congregation or not. As with Christian memorial services, while this is a somber moment, it should also be a moment of joy. We miss those who have passed before us into glory, but we know that they are at peace, and that we will be joined together again in Christ on the Last Day if not sooner.

Revelation 7:9-17 – I like to refer to this as the family reunion photo. Everyone is here. Nobody is forgotten, everyone is included, nobody is blinking or sneezing or looking away. It is complete and perfect – the only complete and perfect family reunion photo in all of creation history. Note that the emphasis is not on one another, but rather on God and the Lamb. We tend to think of heaven in terms of being with our loved ones again. While I won’t argue that this is true and wonderful, it will pale in comparison with being in the presence of God. At least initially! The perfection of unity in our relationship with him will permeate every other aspect of ourselves and our relationships. Paradise is restored as God’s family is finally and completely perfectly at rest and joy together in one time and place.

Psalm 149 – The next to last of the psalms is one of both praise for God, and preparation to be utilized by God in carrying out his vengeance against the nations and peoples, shorthand for those opposed to God and his rule. We might look at this psalm as a counterpart to Psalm 2, which proclaims the folly of those who set themselves against God and his Anointed. His Anointed will dash the opposition in Psalm 2, and here in Psalm 149, God’s people have a role to play in this as well. Note that praises to God and wielding the sword go together. It is not possible to wield the sword properly if praise for God is not corresponding. In taking up the sword God’s people are only carrying out the judgment that is already written, rather than determining how and where and when the sword is to be used. These verses have been variously used to stir up support for holy war throughout history, and never to good end. Yet despite our sinfulness, it must be remembered that those who will not receive God’s mercy will receive their desire to be apart from him. They will be banished, receiving the judgment they have requested and the chains they ultimately have forged for themselves. Evil will be defeated and finally cast out, and this is the hope of God’s people in all times and places. We look forward to the day when our faith is vindicated by the return of the Anointed, by the culmination of all things into a new heaven and a new earth and a future that will have no suffering and no end.

1 John 3:1-3 – God gives us his love, makes us his children, and so we are. Period. God receives the glory because it is He alone who accomplishes this miracle, that rebels and sinners should be made obedient and holy children. This reality should be something the world looks forward to, but it does not, lost as it is, separated from God by willful ignoring of his reality (Romans 1 stuff!). We ourselves are prone to doubt this amazing reality, but it is real all the same, independent of our recognition. But one day our natures in Christ will be revealed. Satan will have no further means of making us doubt and wonder about ourselves, and it will be obvious to all the world as well. It is to this hope that we cling, towards this end that we struggle each day against sin and temptation, that we might better resemble the people we truly are, children of God.

Matthew 5:1-12 – None of the categories in these beatitudes are ones that the world values. Poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who seek after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, the persecuted – all in one way or the other are rejected by the world as, at best, impractical and naive, and at worst as targets for exploitation. The world may claim to like mercy but only when it suits personal ends, only from a position of strength. The world may idolize the pure in heart but it insists on defining what such purity consists of. Peacemakers are sought but most people would prefer the shorter road of achieving peace through strength. Jesus focuses on the least desirable, least comfortable categories of people in this sermon, assuring them that while they may suffer by the world because of their condition, their suffering is not without hope. Now is not all there is, and the future is already decided. Jesus does not offer merely the idea of a better tomorrow. He does not exhort these people to work harder to change their fortunes and circumstances. He declares what is already real and true for each of these categories. There is no doubt or uncertainty, as He sees with eyes that perceive far more of the future than we are capable of.

On All Saints Day we celebrate this vision. Those who precede us in death already know the truth of what Jesus says. They have heaven, comfort, satisfaction and mercy. And they – along with us – will indeed receive the kingdom of heaven as well as the earth. It is we who are to be mourned, rather than them! We must continue to suffer, to hunger, to mourn, to hunger. But God’s promises are sure, and we do these things in the light and peace and joy of these promises. What we endure is nothing new – it is what God’s people have endured for hundreds and thousands of years. So celebrate today as we remember those whose fight is over, who have rest at last, and who we will one day join together once again in praise of our God with!

Reading Ramblings – October 30, 2016

October 23, 2016

Reading Ramblings

Date: Reformation Day (Observed) – October 30, 2016

Texts: Revelation 14:6-7; Psalm 119:89-96; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

Context: For the first time in almost six months we revert back to the assigned lectionary readings for Cycle C, the only difference being I substituted Psalm 119:89-96 for the assigned Psalm 46, because I used Psalm 46 last week. It is said that Luther wrote Psalm 119:92 in his Bible, so it apparently held great meaning for him, and seems very appropriate on this observance of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. As I say just about every year, I celebrate this day not for the joy of division in the Church, but in gratitude that the Gospel has been freed from the bonds of tradition and misinterpretation. As such, the Church must ever be ready for a new reformation, as we sinful human beings are always at risk of forging new chains to imprison the Gospel and thus ourselves.

Revelation 14:6-7 – This reading is traditional because of the emphasis on the eternal nature of the Gospel. The Gospel is for all people, all places, all times. The Gospel calls all who hear it into a posture of worship to God the Father for his gift in God the Son. This is the natural response to the good news that our sins are forgiven and we do indeed have meaning, hope, and life. St. John has seen quite a bit by this point in the revelation – trumpets and seals, monsters of various shapes and sizes, as well as the entire family of God gathered around the throne. Yet the Gospel remains over all, paramount in importance even here, in the Kingdom of God. The Gospel never becomes irrelevant or unnecessary, even in eternity. It remains the centerpiece of God’s graciousness and mercy, an eternal thing to be amazed at and to glorify God through and for.

Psalm 119:89-96 – This is the longest of the psalms, an acrostic matching each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Lamedh corresponds roughly to our letter L. I think this section of the psalm pairs very well with the reading from Revelation, emphasizing again the eternal, unchanging nature of the Gospel. It is this unchanging aspect of God’s Word which can repel some people and grant such peace to others. God has spoken. It is not subject to change or revision to suit our preferences or perceived needs. Depending on our posture, this will either infuriate someone or grant profound relief. In a world of shifting technology, shifting morality, shifting opinions on everything from sex to drugs to genders and marriage, God’s Word stands firm. We can trust it. And therefore we can proclaim it boldly and with great joy. We are not offering people good news that will crumble to dust under their feet in a matter of years or in seasons of life. The enduring nature of the Gospel lasts throughout all ages of an individual’s life, every possible situation, providing hope and a future where the world may offer neither. They are sturdy enough to build our lives upon, and to last us to eternity.

Romans 3:19-28 – Thus far in Romans, Paul has driven his hearers into a corner, disarming their every attempt to justify themselves before God. Gentiles can’t justify themselves based on their ignorance. God’s chosen people can’t justify themselves based on their knowledge of God’s law. Nobody has any excuse for failing to live as God demands them to, and there is no one who can perfectly fulfill the demands of the law. At the moment of despair, Paul reveals the Gospel. Hope! A future! All of this is possible not because of our fulfilling the Law, but rather only through the graciousness of God in Jesus Christ. That righteousness is not situated in us, but in Christ. We have nothing to offer, but if we will receive the gift of God’s Son crucified and resurrected on our behalf, we receive everything.

All of this is in God’s perfect timing, for God’s glory. We have lots of questions about how God will handle those who died before Jesus, who never had a chance to hear the Gospel. But what we are told here is that God’s timing is perfect. We don’t need to worry about those things. God’s timing will declare him perfectly righteous – there will be no charges or scandals to bring before him. There is no room for us to point to ourselves, as though we have some part in this. There is no bit of boasting, no basis for feeling proud on our part. We are thoroughly condemned by the Law. It is only and purely the graciousness and righteousness of God that deserves all the credit and glory, while we are the only ones to benefit from these things. God doesn’t simply create a new law, or make the old law easier so that we can fulfill it. He removes the power of the Law to condemn us through his Son suffering the penalty we deserve to suffer under the Law. Jesus becomes the final, greatest sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

John 8:31-36 – Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths. He has gathered a crowd around him through his teaching in the Temple courtyards. Some of those in the crowd have come to faith in him, and Jesus senses this and speaks to them. Their faith will be secure so long as they abide in his words, a theme He will echo privately with his disciples at the Last Supper (chapter 15). It is his antagonists that respond, however, questioning how Jesus can offer freedom to God’s chosen people who have never been slaves.

Of course, politically, the Jews had been slaves to plenty of people, from the Egyptians to the Assyrians and Babylonians, the Persians and the Medes, the Greeks and finally now, at that very moment, the Romans. Most likely his antagonists are speaking spiritually – regardless of their political fortunes, their identity as God’s chosen people has always meant spiritual freedom. Jesus disagrees. Their sinfulness enslaves them, drives them over and over again to the sacrificial altar to offer their animals and seek atonement. Their slavery is more pervasive and destructive than any political overlords they have ever served.

Jesus promises them freedom as only the Son of the Father can. They would understand that in a Roman household, the father was in charge, but eventually the son would reach the age of maturity where his word could also set a slave free. Jesus offers them this possibility. True freedom. An eternal place in the family as family, not just as slaves. Jesus is the truth that He encourages his listeners to find in his words as they abide in them. They will discover that Jesus is the Son who sets them free not because of who they are but because of who He is.

The Gospel is always and only Jesus. We must look there to him. We must receive what He offers us and leave behind any pretense that He offers us anything because of some merit in ourselves. We like to think of ourselves as better than others, but this is true only in a very limited, relative sense. Before God, any and all sin is equal, and our gossiping or lack of compassion for others is no different than mass murder. It is only in Jesus that we find the source of our hope, the Good News that our sins are forgiven, that we are new creations, and that death no longer has any hold over us.

Reading Ramblings – October 23, 2016

October 16, 2016

Reading Ramblings

Date: 23rd Sunday after Pentecost – October 23, 2016 – Luther’s Table of Duties

Texts: Ruth 1:6-15; Psalm 46; Philemon; Luke 3:1-22

Context: ** We continue our alternate text selections for the remainder of the liturgical year in order to preach through Luther’s Small Catechism ** Luther closes his Small Catechism to a close with a list of duties for various vocations (we’ll cover his section on prayer a few weeks from now, due to Reformation Sunday and All Saints Day observances). In case the Christian is inclined to see her Christian life as something detached from the rest of her existence, something belonging to the realm of Sunday morning only, Luther provides Scriptural admonitions about how Christian faith looks when working or raising a family. Those who abide in Christ can’t help but bear good fruit (John 15), and Luther selects verses that help paint a picture of what that fruit might look like. Scripture provides plenty of examples of Godly responses to various situations and relationships for us to learn from.

Ruth 1:6-15 – Naomi demonstrates love for her daughters-in-law by sending them off. Her husband is dead, as are her sons – their husbands. The familial bond has been shattered, and rather than have them spend their lives as widows on the margins of society, Naomi tells them to go and seek husbands elsewhere and leave her to her own suffering. In response, these Moabite women – not followers of God – demonstrate love for Naomi in rejecting her initial overtures. The relationship between them is curious to begin with, since the Moabites are enemies of the Israelites, tracing back to their ancestry in the incestuous offspring of Lot’s daughters. Eventually one of the women sees the wisdom – and love – in Naomi’s plan and leaves. But Ruth remains. She will not go. She even goes so far as to convert from her native religion to the worship of Naomi’s God. She certainly seeks to honor Naomi, even as Naomi seeks to protect her. We might say that the Holy Spirit prompts Ruth’s response, though of course the text doesn’t explicitly indicate this. Certainly given Ruth’s role as an ancestor of King David, and therefore Jesus, this is not an unreasonable inference, though. Simple care and kindness is not Christian per se. But in Christ we are motivated to love and care for others, sacrificially if necessary.

Psalm 46 – This is the first of the psalms of Zion, psalms that emphasize the relationship of Jerusalem to God and visa versa. It begins with an affirmation of trust and faith in God. This trust and faith is in spite of terrible circumstances, not simply because God preserves the congregation from terrible circumstances. Though the psalm invites contemplation on God’s chosen city, Jerusalem, the ultimate source of hope and confidence is not in the city itself, but in God and his presence. It is his presence that makes her secure, and there is no power or force on earth that can displace him. The final verses of the psalm interpret the calamity of war as part of God’s power and plan. But just as He uses human conflicts for his own ends, He will just as surely bring those conflicts to a close. In his presence there is no need or point for war. There is nothing but stillness in his presence, acknowledgment of his divine majesty and power. God will be exalted, no matter how hard the nations may strive against this. As such, it is his people’s duty to at all times trust in him. No matter how bad things seem or are, God is with us and for us. He has given us his Son, and we can trust that He will bring us through even the Valley of the Shadow of Death to life beyond.

Philemon – What are the duties that a slave owes his master, and visa versa? We might be tempted to say that the Christian answer is for the owner to free the slave, that slavery is incompatible with the Christian faith. But this is not true, strictly speaking. Christianity is far more concerned with how we treat one another in our various economic relationships, than in defining what economic relationships are or are not appropriate in the first place. Philemon is difficult for some Christians, because Paul does not simply tell Philemon to free Onesimus. He does not lecture him on the evils of slavery. What he asks is that Philemon forgive Onesimus and that right relationship between the two would be restored. If the economic relationship is that of master and slave, each should fulfill their duties to the other knowing that they are brothers in Christ. Economic relationships come and go, change and shift over time, but our identities in Christ do not change, and are therefore to be the overarching realities that drive how we treat one another. Perhaps Onesimus was not a very good or reliable slave before (v.11). But now Onesimus returns as a Christian, so that his service should be as though to Christ.

Regardless of the nature of our relationships with others, we are to treat them as a creation of God the Father, for whom God the Son suffered and died.

Luke 3:1-22 – Luke provides a plethora of details to help place the time frame and location for the events that will unfold in this chapter. This is a list of vocations in itself, roles of various political leaders in the region, but also a description of John the Baptist’s role, calling the people to forgiveness in preparation for the ministry of Jesus. Luke quotes Isaiah to further clarify John’s role. John has harsh words for the growing crowds. Don’t just come to gawk. Don’t just come to point and giggle, to sight-see. Come in repentance, because their identity as children of Abraham is not going to save them.

Naturally the crowds want practical advice about what repentance looks like. Repentance is a turning away, changing direction completely. So for those who are comfortable with their belongings, they are to see them not as something to hoard but something to share. The dishonest are to quit being dishonest. The violent are to quit abusing others. Not everyone listens. Herod fails in his vocation of ruler in that he locks up John, who is an innocent man. This is contrasted with Jesus, who is faithful in his vocation of obedient Son to God the Father, so that the Father is able to audibly voice his approval of Jesus.

Repentance is lived out. It is evidenced in what we say and do and what we don’t say and do. It is imperfect, to be certain, and there is forgiveness for our failures. But our lives will reflect that grace and forgiveness almost automatically. As we are aware of all that Jesus has done in saving us from ourselves, our lives will reflect our new identities more and more, particularly as we live out our relationships with others.

Strategic Elections

October 11, 2016

It is interesting to see the various articles now popping up rather frequently, outlining ways in which we can avoid having either of the dismal front-runner options as our next President.  Or at least hold some very specific people, very responsible if those folks are elected.  While both parties would like the general population to believe that there really are only two options, and that voting third-party is equivalent to throwing away your vote, this is not necessarily true, depending on where you live.  It pays to remember that both the Democratic and Republican parties, while they might desperately not want the other party to win, are united in not wanting more viable parties competing for real votes in the future.  Ultimately, they would rather deal with the system staying the same even if the other party wins this election, than risking the whole system getting shaken up by additional parties becoming part of the mix.

Remember that both John Adams and George Washington warned against the dominance of a two-party system.  Tragically, their warnings weren’t enough to prevent such a system from evolving.

As such, as this article points out, third party candidates can be a valuable means of preventing either Billary or The Donald from winning on election day.  They might still win, of course, but if they do so, we will have a clear idea of who made that possible and can hold those individuals responsible when it comes time to re-elect them.  I have to think that the most terrified people in the country might be our own elected legislators in the US House of Representatives and US Senate, because if neither side gets the required 270 electoral votes, *they* have to elect the President and Vice President!

If this were not to work for some reason, there is another solution that guarantees a minimal amount of damage for the next four years, as I see it.

Elect Trump.

Now, as stated earlier, this is not because I like or agree with Trump or think that he’s in any way suited for this office.  He is not.  But neither is Hillary.  The difference is that Hillary is part of the system, and therefore the system will work with and for her.  Trump is not part of the system.  As such, the system will be united against him.  Do you think Trump will be able to get away with *any* shenanigans while in office?  Do you think he’ll be able to force through any unpleasant, disagreeable legislation?  No, because the Democrats and Republicans will work together to easily veto any questionable actions.  Trump will essentially be a one-term, four-year lame duck, and damage should be minimal.

Oh, he might do embarrassing things or say stupid things.  But he wouldn’t be the first president to do that, and he certainly is not likely to be the most embarrassing world leader (Italy has probably had that honor the longest).

Hillary, because she is part of the system and because people in the system (the Democratic party) will benefit from her patronage in various ways, will be able to count on a certain level of support from her party.  Perhaps complete support.

So if worst comes to worst, elect Trump to basically put things on pause for four years.  Hillary probably won’t be in shape to run again, and the Republican party won’t likely support Trump for a re-election bid.  We get two new candidates (which is pretty much an oxymoron, but we’ll go with it for now), and suffer minimal damage in the process.

It’s kinda sad to think that such a solution might be enviable compared to electing one of the two candidates the two parties have provided us.  Maybe in four years there will be other parties better able to mount a serious challenge to the existing two-party system and give us better options going forward.

When Life Is Too Good

October 10, 2016

Thanks to Ken for sending me this article from the Wall Street Journal, which discusses the skyrocketing numbers of students seeking mental-health services from colleges across the US.  On the surface, it seems as though more and more college students have difficulty coping with life or college or a combination of the two.

But the article doesn’t clarify adequately what the numbers mean.  If mental-health staff are actively promoting their services and luring students to come by to pet service dogs, and if students are attracted by the “warmth and accessibility”, and if these centers are reaching students that would not otherwise have sought them out, does this accurately portray a greater need among students for mental health services?   If a student misses their dog at home and comes to the mental-health center to pet a therapy dog, does that mean the student needs therapy?  Why not just allow dogs in dorm rooms?

The article also doesn’t make any attempt to ask why students are increasingly feeling alone and inadequate to the tasks that face them in life.  I can’t help but wonder whether the rising levels of young people with little or no religious/church experience – the nones – are correspondent to a rise in levels of people looking for things that used to be gained through religious practice.  In other words, does religious belief (and in America, that overwhelmingly has meant Christianity) provide benefits which, when absent, leave people vulnerable, anxious, worried?  If students are looking for warmth and accessibility, it seems that congregations near campuses could be reaching out to these students through activities that are not – initially – specifically religious.  If members show up every evening with their pets for a play-time, does that qualify the pets as therapy pets?  Mid-week, home-cooked meals and times where students could sit in a home with a family and eat them have always been a great blessing to many college students.  Must love and care and compassion be reduced to a clinical diagnosis?

College is a stressful time for many students.  The drive to do well, the awareness of the huge costs they personally or their families are undertaking to make college possible, the growing list of things that are necessary to do in order to leave not with just a degree but a robust resume, all of these things are stressful.  But they seem to be distinctly first-world, self-created and self-perpetuated issues as well.  Not that they aren’t real, but they are real because of a very small bubble of possibility and prosperity.  Outside that bubble, stress and the problems of life quickly take on much more dramatic and lethal dimensions, as this article about the torture and execution of Christians by ISIS illustrates.

Stress is stress, and the causes and reactions to it are likely defined primarily by our culture and society – what is considered normal and reasonable.  But it’s bitterly ironic that people are willing to suffer horrendous things and die in humiliation for their belief in Jesus as the Son of God, while here such beliefs are seen as irrelevant despite the many warning signs in our culture to the contrary.


Reading Ramblings – October 16, 2016

October 9, 2016

Reading Ramblings

Date: Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, October 16, 2016 ~ Confession ~

Texts: 2 Samuel 12:1-23; Psalm 6; 1 John 1:5-10; Mark 9:14-27

Context: ** We continue our alternate text selections for the remainder of the liturgical year in order to preach through Luther’s Small Catechism ** The role of confession as a sacrament in Lutheran circles is a complex one. Luther includes it in his Small Catechism, but does not address it in the Large Catechism as a separate subject, though an exhortation to confession from Luther is included in some editions of the Large Catechism. There he asserts that confession is free and voluntary, but speaks in harsh terms about any Christian who might imagine that they could therefore avoid it. Clearly Luther sees it as imminently beneficial – less so for our confession which is always sin-filled and incomplete, but more so for the pronouncement of absolution, which is the sure and certain Word of God. He acknowledges both corporate (public), generic confession as well as individual (private), specific confession. He wants us to recognize it as a beautiful gift rather than an obligatory action, the emphasis being on the work and Word of God just as it is in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.

2 Samuel 12:1-23David’s adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband, Uriah, are exposed by the prophet Nathan. Rather than lie or seek to avoid his guilt, David admits his guilt freely. Nathan then assures him of the Lord’s forgiveness. While there will be ramifications for his actions, David does not need to fear the Lord’s unwavering anger. So it is with our confession. As we admit our sin to God, we recognize that there are oftentimes temporal ramifications, despite our firm confidence that, through faith in the atoning death and resurrection of the Son of God, our sins are wiped away in the eyes of God. In this case the repercussions are clearly linked as a punishment from God for his sin. In our lives, the lines may be blurrier, and we should not unnecessarily wonder about cause and effect. We are blessed that God the Father does not respond to each and every one of our sins with divine judgment, and should instead take comfort in all situations with his assurances of forgiveness through his Son.

Psalm 6 – We can well imagine David composing this psalm, perhaps as his son lingers between life and death (although the concluding verses lend themselves to a different situation). The agony of guilt, of recognizing the rightness of God’s divine wrath against our sin is overwhelming and crushing. The speaker seems to worry that perhaps his guilt will lead to his death (vs.4-5), and the majority of the psalm focuses on the depth of the speaker’s guilt and suffering. Yes the psalmists concludes in confidence. Those who might cause him to question the Lord’s forgiveness and goodness are to depart – the Lord has heard his cries for mercy. As such it is his enemies or adversaries that will have cause to lament and be troubled, not the speaker. So with us, it may seem as though the world will get the better of us, and we may begin to doubt the Lord’s love and care for us when we consider the depths of our sinfulness. But we, like the psalmist, should be confident that when the word of forgiveness is spoken to us by a friend or pastor/priest, it is the promise of God that we truly are forgiven!

1 John 1:5-10 – John exhorts us to walk in the light of God, never making the mistake that our sins are no big deal to God, or that God understands and accepts certain levels and types of sins. God is perfect holiness and righteousness and light, and there is no blemish, no stain of darkness in him, therefore no sin can be seen as anything less than wholly foreign to God. Walking in the light does not mean that we are without sin, since we are assured in v.7 that we are washed from our sin by the blood of Jesus. Rather, walking in the light is the humble willingness to allow the Word of God to shine on and through us, illuminating our sins so that we might admit them and repent of them. It is the honesty of confession that is not just ritual repetition but an honest self-examination that allows the Holy Spirit to show us our sin and guide us in repentance away from it in the future. Refusing or neglecting such confession is dangerous, as we grow callous or ignorant of our sin, and then eventually even indulgent of it, angered that God would have an issue with it. The light is blinding, but we must allow it to shine on us fully.

Mark 9:14-27 – The man’s confession here is beautiful, though perhaps not the kind of confession we typically think of. Yet it remains appropriate for us today. While we may enumerate our sins in confession, the sin of doubting the power and will of God for our lives may escape our attention. Our inclination to trust other sources of power and authority other than the revealed and Incarnate Word of God certainly is something that we should constantly be aware of in confession.

Jesus’ reaction to the man’s confession is beautiful. He understands that we are helplessly wound about in our belief and unbelief, tangled and unable to free ourselves perfectly and completely. We struggle with doubt and worry that our doubt will somehow cause God the Holy Spirit to distance himself from us. Yet He does just the opposite. He draws near to us in every situation and circumstance, abides within us and intercedes on our behalf through. It is the will of God that we should be freed from the debilitating power and mastery of Satan. He breaks that mastery in baptism, reinforces and strengthens us in our faith through Holy Communion, and draws us to him in confession so that we might face our sinfulness and seek not just his forgiveness but his strength and power to fight against that sin in our lives.

Real History

October 8, 2016

People are always reinventing and re-envisioning history.  Sometimes they do so in ways that are challenging and stimulating, not attempts to deny actual history but to get us to think beyond the neat categories and definitions of history.  Other times, they seek to undermine what we believe to be true about history.  Artists participate in these processes as well, and when you throw religion into the mix, things get very heated and complicated very quickly.

So it was that in 1984 there was a great deal of controversy around a female crucifix.  Not Christ on the cross, but rather Christa, as the piece was named.  This was not one of many feminine Christs that were still definitively male, but a definitively female figure hanging on the cross.  The Episcopal bishop at the time ordered the crucifix removed from an Episcopal cathedral in New York City.  Now the figure is being re-displayed, with the defense that times have changed, and the assertion that “Surely we can have a woman on the cross.”

I wonder about it from the artistic standpoint.  I object to it from the religious standpoint.  In an era where the fundamentals of the Christian faith are being eroded or discarded, this seems like another attempt to reduce the death of Jesus of Nazareth to the equivalent of a Greek myth.  Why should it matter who is depicted on the cross if we don’t really believe there was a Jesus on the cross in the first place?  I don’t know if this is the artist’s intent or belief or not, but she should know that, like preaching, artists don’t get to control how their work impacts their audience.

As a historian, I don’t know what the value is of arbitrarily changing the gender of historical figures for artistic purposes.  And I think I would have far less problem with it if the work was being displayed in an art house rather than in a cathedral.  But to place it in a Christian worship environment, that seems deeply problematic, similar to a textbook replacing Hitler with a female rather than male identity.  The artistic impact can muddle the reality of what is supposed to be happening.  When we study history, we want to study facts.  When we worship, we want to worship the reality of the Son of God Incarnate as the man Jesus of Nazareth.

If American Christians were completely clear on the historicity of their faith, this might not be a big deal, although I would still think it inappropriate to be displayed in a church.  But given the great deal of misinformation and ignorance among American Christians, it would be nice to focus on reality and the fundamentals and save the artistic re-interpretations for another venue.


Contradictions – Jesus’Verdict

October 7, 2016

The next contradiction raised is that the four Gospels each record slightly different wording for the inscription which was carried by Jesus and/or affixed over his head on his cross.  This inscription was a common Roman practice and indicated the offense for which the person was being executed.  The Romans used crucifixion to make an example of people so that others would think twice before committing similar offenses.

The Gospel writers record the following:

  • Matthew 27:37 – “This Is Jesus the King of the Jews”
  • Mark 15:26 – “The King of the Jews”
  • Luke 23:38 – “This Is the King of the Jews”
  • John 19:19 – “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews”

It may not seem like a massive difference – and it isn’t.  But the implication behind the accusation of contradiction is that if the Gospel writers can’t even agree on something so basic, how can we trust their other details?

First of all, John tells us (19:20) that the inscription was written in three languages – Latin (the official language of the Roman Empire), Greek (the language of trade and the arts), and the language of the Jewish people.  Some translations render this as Hebrew in John 19:20, while others interpret this to mean the common language of the area, which was Aramaic.  Most translations interpret it to mean Hebrew, but the English Standard Version interprets it to mean Aramaic.  In any event, there were three inscriptions, not just one. One interpretation for why the accounts differ might be that each author referred to one of the inscriptions – Matthew to the Hebrew/Aramaic one (since he is writing for a Jewish audience), Luke the Greek one (as an educated man writing presumably to a Greek reader), and John the Latin (because John refers to the placard as the title over Jesus’ head, or titulus in Latin, and because the early church depicted the charge abbreviated in the Latin INRI.

We can also see that the differences are not in what is said, but how much is said:


This is Jesus The king of the Jews


The king of the Jews


This is The king of the Jews


Jesus of Nazareth The king of the Jews

So is this a contradiction?  Once again, there is no contradictory statement between the four accounts – there is only a difference in how much of the statement is referenced.  And even this may be due to each author referring to a different language inscription.

Immersive at a Distance

October 6, 2016

Thanks to Becky for a recent LA Times article covering a play set in a Lutheran congregation and actually playing in Lutheran churches.  I found another generally positive review in the LA Weekly as well.  At first blush it sounds a bit like a Garrison Keillor redux, but in reality it is apparently far more intimate.  The audience isn’t listening to a third-person narrative about what is happening, they become part of what is happening in a theatrical representation of  Lutheran worship services.  The play is being staged in Lutheran congregations around Los Angeles and Hollywood, further blurring the lines between reality and theater.

The premise is a young man who is filling in for his father as his father deals with a health crisis that extends.  It is a series of seven sermons addressing various issues particular to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) including economic hardships as well as the divisive debate about homosexuality in the church.  The play is produced by a Los Angeles-based theater group dedicated to providing exposure for local and emerging playwrights.  It doesn’t appear to be a specifically religious group, but a group committed to a diversity in their productions.

The theater-goers become the congregation, and actually begin with singing a hymn before the first sermon begins.  I think this is a fascinating concept, at least I think I do.  I suppose it depends a great deal on who the audience is.  If the audience is primarily members of these Lutheran congregations, this might be a very interesting form of therapy, a means of addressing and opening up conversations on topics quite relevant and important in the lives of those individuals and congregations.  If the audience is primarily non-church-going folks, then it is more of a curiosity to me.  They come to be immersed in an environment that is not their own, seeking a form of catharsis unrelated to their actual lives.  Intriguing.

Of course, another alternative would be to actually go to church, to actually be engaged and active in a congregation.  The issues addressed might be different depending on the denomination, but the sense of belonging and struggle and the reality of blessing and reconciliation in the midst of sinfulness and brokenness is far realer, far more concrete and immersive than any two-hour play.

I’m no artist by any stretch of the imagination, but it seems to me as if theater can provide the function of giving viewers/participants the illusion of experience.  We become part of another era or another situation for a period of time, experiencing in a condensed fashion what others have or must experience moment by moment.  Resolutions are reached quicker.  Emotional arcs are traversed more economically and without the messiness of time and the frustration of waiting.  We can feast on highlights and epiphanies rather than slog through valleys of irritation and sloughs of self-righteousness.

If you want to know what it’s like to be a Christian struggling to reconcile faith with current issues, go to Church.  Be a part of that community.  Learn it firsthand.  There is no need to settle for a substitute – no matter how sensitively crafted or executed.  Here’s one situation where you don’t have to remain an observer, but can truly be a real participant!

Contradictions – The Beatitudes

October 5, 2016

Another alleged contradiction in the Bible is that Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) has eight of them while Luke’s account (Luke 6) only has four.  Isn’t this a contradiction?

Only if you assume that Matthew and Luke are describing the same teaching event.  Many people instinctively want to do this with the Gospels (because it is a long-standing tendency among Christians).  If two Gospels relate a similar thing, it must be the same thing, and therefore any discrepancies in the two recordings becomes problematic.  I think this attempt to overlap the Gospels has grown more fervent because of a popular (though not necessarily correct!) academic assertion that Mark wrote his Gospel first (since it’s shortest), and then Luke and Matthew expanded on his.  Thus similar events actually are the same event.

But look at some of the details provided in the Gospels themselves.  We’ll start with Matthew.  Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching occurs on a hilltop – the Sermon on the Mount.  It happens (if we expect Matthew to be recording things chronologically) before Jesus has called all of his disciples.  It is early in Jesus’ ministry.  In Luke’s account, Jesus is teaching in a low, level place – a valley perhaps.  The twelve disciples have already been called and are present.  And Jesus’ fame is such that it has spread beyond Galilee and even Judea to the areas of Tyre and Sidon – non-Jewish settlements, and some of those people have actually come to see and hear Jesus!

It sounds to me like two separate events.  Did Jesus never repeat himself?  Did He never expand on a teaching He gave previously?  Those are big assumptions, assumptions the texts don’t require or even suggest.  I think Jesus taught similar themes on two occasions in two different locations to two different groups of people (which would make more sense than teaching the same lesson twice to the same people!).