Tuesday, January 24, 2017

True Light

Sermon for Epiphany 3A preached on Sunday, January 22, 2017, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich

“The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned” (Mt 4:16).

When I was a student at IU, I went on a cave tour with a group from church.  There’s many memories I have of that trip, like crawling through mud on our bellies and coming face to face with a bat hanging inches from my head.  This experience with the bat was unforgettable, but there’s something else that was even more unforgettable, how dark caves actually are. 

Our tour guide led us deep underground into a large cavern.  We were so far down there was no way any sunlight could reach us.  The only light we had was the artificial light from the small lights that lined our path.  With a quick warning, the guide turned off the lights, leaving us in a paralyzing and overwhelming darkness.  No one moved or made a sound.  We were in shock of the complete darkness.  After a few seconds that seemed like an eternity, the guide flipped the lights back on, filling the cavern again with artificial light. 

That artificial man-made light provided us comfort in that dark cave, but it can’t comfort us in the darkness of our lives.  We live with a lot of darkness, both in the day and the night.  This darkness comes despite the sun’s rising.  We can’t escape it and no artificial light, no man-made solution, can overcome it, because this darkness is the result of our sin.  Our sin covers the world in spiritual darkness and death; but the light of Christ saves us from this darkness.  The light of Christ comforts us and brings us into everlasting life. 

The light of Jesus was long foretold of by God’s prophets.  Quoting Isaiah, Matthew shows that Jesus fulfills all these prophecies.  Isaiah said, “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles--the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death on them a light has dawned” (Mt 4:15-16).  In order to see how Jesus fulfilled this prophecy, we first need to know the history of Zebulun and Naphtali.

These two tribes of Israel lived in the northern part of the country.  When the Assyrians conquered them, they deported many Israelites and pagans from other lands moved in.  This deportation brought oppression and spiritual darkness into the land.  With the pagans came their false religion and false gods.  It was because of this influx of non-Jewish people and false worship that this region became known as the “Galilee of Gentiles.”  This wasn’t a good name. 

When Jesus heard of John the Baptist’s arrest He went north, to the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, to the Galilee of the Gentiles.  And in this movement, the prophecy of Isaiah 9 was fulfilled.  Jesus, the Son of God, the Light of the World went into the darkness of Galilee and His light was seen by those who were dwelling in darkness, in the shadow of death (Mt 4:16).

But Jesus isn’t just the Light for those in Galilee, those in 1st century Israel.  He’s the Light of the world: past, present, and future.   

In our society, today, we try to overcome all sorts of darkness with false hopes, with man-made artificial light.  Feeling emotional and physical pain, we turn to anything and everything that might offer us even a small bit of release from suffering.  Many elderly and terminally ill, people who endure the darkness of depression, people who daily suffer physical discomfort contemplate suicide, thinking their lives aren’t worth living anymore, thinking death is better than a painful life.  People unhappy with their lives seek happiness wherever they can find it, whether it be in sex outside of marriage, drugs and alcohol, retail therapy at the mall, or in all sorts of false religions that promise a happy and pain free life. 

All this darkness, all the pain and suffering we endure, all the death in our lives is a consequence of our sin.  We cause it, and yet, we’re unable to overcome it.  We fumble around for a light, only to fall deeper and deeper into more darkness.  We can’t make an artificial light bright enough to overcome our sin and death.  But Jesus has come and He’s the true light that overcomes all darkness. 

Christ calls us to live without the fear of the darkness because He’s the light that overcomes it; He’s the true light that overcomes it for you. 

Jesus began His public ministry preaching the same thing that John the Baptist did, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17).  When John proclaimed this, he was announcing that the kingdom of heaven would soon be here.  When Jesus proclaimed this, He was announcing that the kingdom of heaven was here in Him.  The kingdom of heaven isn’t a worldly kingdom with earthly power and false solutions to the darkness of sin.  The kingdom of heaven is from God; it’s God’s work of salvation where He gives you the true solution to sin: forgiveness!

The only way the darkness of sin and death can be overcome is for sin to be taken away, and Christ Jesus has done this.  He came into our dark world and saved you by being your substitute on the cross.  He shed His holy precious blood and sacrificed His innocent life to pay the penalty of sin.  He defeated death by rising from the grave.  His death, resurrection, and forgiveness are true light.  Unlike artificial light and man-made solutions, Christ’s light and forgiveness never fail or go out. 

And Jesus invites you to live in this light.  Jesus called to Peter, Andrew, James, and John saying “Follow me” (Mt 4:19).  He called them to live in His light.  Likewise, He’s called you to follow Him and live in His light.  He did this in your Baptism where the Spirit gave you the faith to trust in Him, to believe in His death and resurrection for your salvation.  As you continue to live in this dark world, He strengthens your faith as He feeds you His life giving Body and Blood, and as you hear His forgiving Words of Absolution. 

Unlike our daily lives here on earth that are filled with the darkness of sin and death, the everlasting life that we’ve been given is only light.  In the book of Revelation, God promises that He’ll wipe away all our tears, that death will be no more, and that there’ll never be mourning, crying, or any pain (Rev 21:4).  In Galilee, Jesus healed all kinds of disease and sickness.  Those oppressed by demons, those who suffered epilepsy, and those who were paralyzed were all healed.  These miraculous healings pointed to the everlasting life we’ll have in heaven. 

Through these miracles, Jesus foreshadowed the work of His cross.  On the cross, He penetrated the darkness, shining forth His light, overcoming sin.  We still suffer disease, illness, pain, sorrow, and even death here on earth, but in heaven, we’ll no longer live in this darkness.  Then we’ll be living in Jesus’ glorious light forever, and in faith, we confidently wait and endure the darkness of our day, knowing that our Savior has already overcome it. 

Darkness no longer has the upper hand.  We have no need for artificial light that only offers temporary comfort, for the true Light has overcome the overwhelming darkness, shining forth forgiveness and everlasting life.  The light of Christ can’t be turned off.  Like Him, it’s always present in His gifts--in the waters of Baptism, in the healing words of Absolution, and in the Bread and Wine that is His Body and Blood.  Through these means, He sustains you as you endure the darkness of our world and live in His light.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

I found Jesus. . .

On another forum a Lutheran Pastor said that he found the presence of Christ and the Body of Christ at a Maundy Thursday communion service at First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, a citadel of the Southern Baptist fundamentalist crowd. Grape juice, cubes of white bread, consumed in the pews amidst friendly people who welcomed me there. He went on to throw down a challenge:  So tell me that this was not the sacrament.

I will admit that I have had parishioners who made the same affirmation.  I feel Jesus more there (whatever generic Protestant or evangelical church they were at) than I feel when I am in a Lutheran Church.  Those are the times when you treat the comment with compassion and catechize the person.  Feelings do not validate truth.  Feelings do not trump doctrine.  Feelings do not confirm what is real or false.  Feelings are not an adequate or faithful barometer for what is good, right, salutary, and of the faith.

We use feelings in all the wrong ways and they lead us to all the wrong destinations and then we wonder how we got there!  Feelings are not bad.  I am not saying that.  No one is saying that.  But feelings used to discern the body of Christ (think First Corinthians) are placing feelings over the Word of God.  Feelings that are used to validate our experience of Christ (did you feel any different after church or receiving Holy Communion or after having been baptized) displace our faith and confidence in what does not change and what is not subject to the whims and changing fancy of what we feel.

A number of years ago a commercial on TV sang "I feel like chicken tonight."  It was a play on the whims of taste and desire.  What do YOU feel like eating today?  They change.  Just like when we order one thing that seems to perfectly fulfill our fancy until we see what somebody at the next table got out of the same restaurant kitchen.  Feelings are not bad but they were never meant to be the lens through which we discern God's presence or approach His truth.  The mystery of Christ's presence is apprehended not on the level of feelings but on the level of faith.  Baptismal water feels like every other kind of water and the bread and wine of the Holy Communion taste like any other bread (minus yeast, seasoning, and everything else that "tastes") and wine (and I have had people ask me what kind of wine we use in the Sacrament because they like its taste).  We apprehend Christ not on the plane of feelings but in faith in the objective voice of His Word preached and taught, the spoken absolution, the Triune Name in water, and the Words of Christ's Institution that set apart this bread to be His body and this cup to be His blood.  Feelings, by the power of the Spirit, flow from the objective Word and we learn to love as encounter the love we did not know, request, or deserve but is ours nonetheless.

The same poster to the forum said:  I was reared under the Galesburg Rule and amidst Lutheran "superiority" and triumphalism. Had I stayed under those strictures, I would have missed much grace, inspiration, and opportunities to experience the Body of Christ.  Again, something is very wrong here.  The Galesburg Rule (Lutheran altars for Lutheran communicants and Lutheran pulpits for Lutheran preachers) was not born of superiority nor was it a sign of triumphalism.  It was born of the desire to protect those who come to the altar and those unable (to discern the Body of Christ) from harm to their faith (unless we no longer take St. Paul at his word).  It was not a wall built to protect the better from the worse but to guard the sacred deposit of truth and make sure that at the rail and from the pulpit doctrinal integrity and authentic unity was preserved and even fostered.

Finally something must be said about the missed "experience of the Body of Christ."  Again, experience is not bad but experience is no more apt or able to discern the presence of God or define the unity of the faith than feelings.  It is the Word of God by which doctrine and practice is formed and accomplished.  God is not where I feel Him to be or where I have experienced Him but where He has promised to be -- in His Word and Sacraments.  To be faithful to the means of grace is not to build a fence around us but to meet God at the bridge through which He has made Himself accessible and wherein He delivers to us His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Feelings and experiences are grand and wonderful -- gifts of God.  But they are the curse and doom of those who attempt to make them the judges of what God has said, what God has promised to do, and where God has promised to be.  What is a moment of catechesis from a parishioner who struggles rightly with Lutherans who have forgotten how to host God's house and to extend God's welcome to those who come is a great scandal and offense from one who is charged in ordination to preach and teach God's Word faithfully, according to the Lutheran Confessions.  What might be an opportunity to teach the faith to someone who has latched onto the disheartening fact that our experiences are not reliable guides to where God is and what God does, is a grave error from one charged with the teaching of those people truth from error and falsehood, by the Word of God alone.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The vanishing Word. . . .


Let me begin by saying that I laud the work of Gideons, even if the Gideons themselves make me a little nervous.  The Gideons tend to be drawn from those Christian groups that believe in decision theology, that faith begins with the Sinners Prayer, and the primary quality of Scripture is its inerrancy (but not its efficacy).  So I am not one to beat a drum for the Gideons even though I believe that their goal of distribution of Scripture is a good one.

For as long as I can remember I have opened the drawer (usually to the night stand by the bed) in a hotel or motel room to see if a Gideon Bible is there.  In the past I seldom found the Bible missing.  Now, it seems, I should be ready to expect no Gideon Bible.  A story in the Washington Post has supported the vanishing Gideon Bible.

A survey conducted by the American Hotel and Lodging Association and hotel research firm STR found that 79% of American hotel rooms included religious material in rooms, compared with almost all of them—95%—a decade ago.  For many travelers these days, rooms with no Wi-Fi access would be unthinkable. Nearly all—98%–of the 8,000 respondents in the survey said their properties had in-room wireless internet, up from 82% a decade ago.

Read back to a previous post on how the internet has replaced God in our lives.  According to the trend reported by the AHLA, we are more upset by a lack of WiFi than we are a missing Bible.  That is not merely a fact, it is a sign of the problems we face and the investment we have made in truths over Truth.  Sadly, even if a Gideon Bible were placed again in every hotel or motel room, it would not reverse the trend of trusting the world wide web over the Word of the Lord that endures forever.

My friends remind me that their Bible is on their phones and even Concordia Publishing House has Kindle and other app forms of the very good Lutheran Study Bible.  That said, I think there is still something significant about the missing book.  I rather doubt that the absent Scripture is replaced by those who turn to their WiFi in room in order to search the internet for a Bible passage.  But, go ahead, prove me wrong.  I would love it!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The rest of a warrior but no pause for the cause...

Giants sometimes come in small packages.  Jean Garton was a small woman of great stature.  She was for a long time one of the lone voices calling attention to the horror of abortion and she did so in the most compelling and yet winsome manner.  She staked out her position through stories. She placed the larger issue of life and its sacred character within narratives that begged the hearers to believe that they were better than abortion.

Her stories were always in furtherance of community—the community in which the powerful take care of and protect the marginal and the powerless. She would use illustrations from everyday life and incidents that were not so common to make this fundamental point.  For instance, she would often link graciousness and kindness under pressure when a baby was ‘wanted’ to what pro-lifers do for women in crisis pregnancies when the woman is, at best, ambivalent around the fate of the child she is carrying.

I heard Jean speak on many occasions -- some formal opportunities to restate the position pro-life and others in casual conversation.  Her classic white hair and special voice gave the demeanor of a grandmother (which she was) but this was a grandma with a dynamic personality for a special cause.
Jean did not come to the cause of life quickly.  She was not hesitate to speak of the evolution of her position.
My involvement in the abortion battle began on the “choice” side back in 1968 when I found myself pregnant at 40. We already had three children and number four was definitely not on my agenda. “Every child a wanted child” claims the pro-choice slogan, and this child wasn’t.
The “practical solution” was an abortion. However, where I lived the state law prohibited abortion so I joined an abortion-rights group to help change the law.
What changed, however, was me. That “unwanted pregnancy” became a very wanted child.

I eventually became a convert to the pro-life position and, in 1973, found myself speaking at a U.S. Senate hearing because, as the old line says, “Once you see, you can’t unsee.”
Jean was one of the most profound voices within the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod on behalf of life, the unborn, and the child and she was one of those who transformed our church body into the most pro-life church body in America.  She would never admit that she was a force to be reckoned with but everyone who knew her, knew not to discount the little white haired lady with the lilting voice.

Lutherans For Life exists in part because of Dr. Jean Garton and she served instrumentally in its formation in 1978 and was its first president.  She served on many boards within the LCMS -- not in the least the Board of Directors of our Synod.  Only recently led an energetic presentation at our Lutherans For Life National Conference in October -- on the theme “Here We Stand.”   There she received the Dominus Vitae award in honor of her lifelong, Gospel-motivated labors to affirm God’s gift of life. Her acclaimed and influential book Who Broke the Baby? is entering its third edition of publication. This past summer Jean spoke at the NRLC Convention’s Prayer Breakfast and you can read her address here—“Where there is Life, There is Hope.”  Read her own words in First Things.

Jean is an example of what we can do if we wish to do it -- it is due to people like Jean that abortion is a national issue, that the pro-life cause continues to increase, and the cause of death was transformed into a force for life.   God bless you, Jean.  May you rest in peace.  Now joined with the saints, with your beloved husband Chic, and with the thanks of those whose lives you have touched and enriched beyond measure.

Not just about abortion. . .

Though the impetus for the grass roots movement for the cause of life was formed in response to the legalization of abortion in 1973, the cause is not just about abortion.  It is about the sacred character of life and the many threats against life.  These come not only from predictable enemies of the cause such as Planned Parenthood, but also from a whole variety of sources that claim to promoting the cause of justice or advocating for those whose lives may not be "worth living."

The good news about abortion is that for the first time in years the number of abortions performed seems to be dropping.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control released abortion figures (from 47 states but not including Maryland, New Hampshire, or California) and that number has declined -- continuing a trend. The numbers an estimatee of the rate of abortions at 12.5 per woman of child-bearing age (15-44), and the ratio of abortions at 200 per 1,000 live births.  The bad news is that this seems to mirror an overall decline in the birth rate.

There is worse news.  There has been an increase in the number of countries allowing a person to decide for physician assisted suicide when they decide the living is too painful.  In a few, this judgment is allowed to be made by children.  In very few does it require a medical prognosis that the affliction will be fatal.  Chronic conditions may be used to justify a choice to end a life.

The birth rate is declining because access to contraception, including the morning after pill, is increasing.  Fewer children are being conceived and so there are fewer abortions as a result -- at least in developing countries -- but the numbers of children aborted continues to increase world-wide -- reaching toward 58 Million annually!

Life is the issue -- life from its conception to natural death.  Life is under assault -- at all stages along the line.  The cause continues not only anti-abortion but pro-life at every stage.  It is not about a choice but about a value assigned to life that prevents us from treating any lives as superfluous or expendable before the so-called higher values of pleasure or convenience.

Although the numbers are hard to determine, it does seem that more and more businesses are desiring to exit the debate entirely and are ending corporate sponsorship of abortion providers (think Planned Parenthood) in order to prevent unwanted publicity.

Ohio is on the vanguard of legislative attempts to restrict access to abortion once the beating heart is detected or viability determined (about 20 weeks) yet every effort to provide legal protection to the child in the womb is met with legal challenge and threat.

Clearly it is not just laws that must change but minds.  While our pro-life position is informed by our religious beliefs, it is not simply a religious cause.  The sacred character of life has remained on the most profound causes for just societies -- at least until the issue of abortion became framed as a woman's right to choose for her own body.  Neither can we sigh with relief that abortions are declining since that decline means that the use and effectiveness of contraception has increased and some of the means to prevent pregnancy actually are merely means to prevent an embryo from attaching to the womb (provoking a spontaneous abortion).

So pray this day that the trend of lower abortions continues even as you rally for the cause of protecting all life at all stages. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

A little sociological memory. . .

Back at the old Concordia Senior College in the classroom with Prof. Ted Westermann, I first encountered the name and the sociology of Emile Durkheim, a man some refer to as the father of French sociology.  Just in case anybody is listing, I still have a couple of those Durkheim books on the lesser used section of my library.  I cannot toss out a book, even one I have not referred to for 40 years.

Durkheim taught, among many other things, that no society can survive without a common "collective conscience."  Either it will self-destruct from within or it will succumb to the forces outside without the majority of its members holding to and supporting this “collective conscience” and its implicit common morality. As societies become more diverse, this diversity tests the limits of this unity and, as the "common collective conscience" grows continually weaker, the society itself becomes ever more vulnerable to the tears to its fabric from within and the threats outside. 

This diversity is not merely the fruit of different religions but also different cultures and their inherently different worldviews.  When those different religions can find a common ground to support a "common collective conscience" those differences offer no threat to the core of unity but when when those different religions contradict each other over what is true, what is right, and what is good, they erode the ability of that society to function as once both to achieve common goals and to address common enemies.

Every society requires a certain commonality in order to function as one nation and people, a set of shared beliefs, ideas and moral attitudes which operate as one of the primary unifying force within that society.  Judaeo Christian communities have long shared a common morality and ideal which made it possible for societies including both groups to function as one.  Of course, national identities and ethnic prejudice can work against this but they pull against the natural common values that both inherently share.  Muslim Christian communities do not share this common morality, values, and sentiments.  In fact, the ordinary ethnic and nationalistic tensions are exacerbated by the tensions created by this lack of a "common collective conscience."  Where religious groups have worked to fully assimilate into their communities, such tensions may be minimized.  Europe is but one example of these tensions made worse by a lack of assimilation and "common collective conscience."

Durkheim was concerned before his time about how societies could maintain their integrity and coherence precisely when things such as shared religious and ethnic background could no longer be assumed.  It was to this end that Durkheim wrote much about the effect of laws, religion, education and similar forces on society and social integration to replace this "common collective conscience."  I do not recall everything from the sociology classes back at CSC, but I do recall how prescient Durkheim was in looking at what were already under stress in his lifetime and have come to full fruit in the diversity and pluralism of a modern world in love with the very things that mitigate against the "common collective conscience" he found essential if a society is to survive and flourish.

Friday, January 20, 2017

As a new President is sworn in. . .

The day so many dreaded has come and a new President will be sworn in.  Since November 8, we have been daily reminded that this was not the choice of the media or the pundits and the Democrats are still trying to figure out with the media elite what caused Trump to be elected.  Could the fear of religious liberty being restricted have been the issue that stunned the insiders and brought victory to Donald Trump?

The exit polls tell a surprising story.  Trump received 81 percent of the white evangelical Christian vote and Hillary Clinton took but 16 percent. What is surprising is that Trump did far better than the squeakly clean and religious Mitt Romney or the "I am one of you" evangelical George W. Bush.  This fellow not known for his morality also over-performed among other theologically conservative voters, everyone from traditionalist Catholics to Pentecostals!. This is no small achievement for a fellow married three times, an admitted adulterer, who said he was not sure he had ever asked God to forgive him of anything!  So why would these support a candidate so different from them and their values?

Some are suggesting that the most logical answer is that they felt that their religious liberty was under assault from the liberal establishment.  They had to vote for the only candidate who appeared willing both to respect and support religious freedom. According to Sean Trende of RealClear Politics noted, since 2012:
Democrats and liberals have: booed the inclusion of God in their platform at the 2012 convention (this is disputed, but it is the perception); endorsed a regulation that would allow transgendered students to use the bathroom and locker room corresponding to their identity; attempted to force small businesses to cover drugs they believe induce abortions; attempted to force nuns to provide contraceptive coverage; forced Brendan Eich to step down as chief executive officer of Mozilla due to his opposition to marriage equality; fined a small Christian bakery over $140,000 for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding; vigorously opposed a law in Indiana that would provide protections against similar regulations – despite having overwhelmingly supported similar laws when they protected Native American religious rights – and then scoured the Indiana countryside trying to find a business that would be affected by the law before settling upon a small pizza place in the middle of nowhere and harassing the owners. In 2015, the United States solicitor general suggested that churches might lose their tax exempt status if they refused to perform same-sex marriages. In 2016, the Democratic nominee endorsed repealing the Hyde Amendment, thereby endorsing federal funding for elective abortions.
Perhaps the chickens have come home to roost.  Obama was quick to castigate those who clung their guns and religion when cultural change threatened and Clinton was quick to condemn Trump's supports as "deplorables" who should neither be tolerated or supported.  What both did not realize is that they that they were by policy as well as words marginalizing both Evangelicals and traditional  Christian groups against the impingement of religious freedom in the name of cultural progress and trendy social advocacy.  Over and over again it appeared the Democrats felt the biggest threat to America was bathroom restrictions while Americans felt more and more threats to their faith and to their ability to express that faith within the public square without intimidation or consequence.  It is certainly all the more surprising since both Obama and Clinton claim more than Christian roots, they claim to be active professing Christians (perhaps even more than could generously be assigned to Trump).

Democrats went from being the party of the working class to the party of the cultural elites whose positions threatened this very working class and their most sacred values of faith and morality.  If these were not to be tolerated, they had little choice but to vote for someone who promised not to tread upon this religious liberty.

Sounds good.  It is the real reason for the election of Trump?  I could not say.  It is certainly one of many.  Whether the cultural and political elites in America have awoken to the reality of the fears of ordinary Americans is an unfolding story.  We will see.  The more marginalized these ordinary Americans feel, the more shots across the bow they are likely to lob in an effort to allow their point of view to be heard.  This, after all, is the very purpose of democracy.