Reflections on Faith

Create in Me

The Lenten liturgical season is quickly upon us. Ash Wednesday takes place on 22 February. Lent is considered a penitential part of the church calendar year and is thus signified with purple paraments (which are not to be confused with a pair of mints).

Psalm 51 is one of the seven penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143). Penitential psalms, or portions thereof, express and confess our sinful condition and ask God for saving grace. Lutherans regularly use a portion of Psalm 51 in their liturgy, namely

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Ps. 51:10-12).

Little known is that those failing to recite these psalms on a regular basis run the risk of ending up in a penitentiary. So, start reciting. Most people do not want to be behind bars, except, of course, bartenders.

Whereas that might be a bit of an exaggeration, in the history of the Roman Church if one committed a sin, one faced two problems. First, one has sinned and now requires forgiveness which is obtained through the Sacrament of Confession and Absolution. Second, one needs to compensate for the damage caused by such sin, which takes place through penance. For example, if you steal Billy’s football, in addition to confession and absolution, you would need to make up for the misdeed, either by returning Billy’s football or buying him a new football or, instead of those, perhaps saying ten “Hail Marys.” The last penalty does little to help Billy, but it is particularly fitting in football.

In the Roman Church, if one should die after confession/absolution but before having fulfilled one’s penitential obligations, one gets a free trip to purgatory. The word “purgatory” comes from “purge.” So, in purgatory one is purged through torment, usually by fire of some sort, and when one if purified, one finally pops into heaven. This process is, unfortunately, painfully slow because those in purgatory cannot quicken the process. Fortunately, the pope, being the gracious chap that he is, can grant indulgences to shorten or remove time in purgatory, particularly when the living do something to benefit the powerless dead populating purgatory.

These indulgences are issued by the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary. The pope’s second most recent indulgence, “Decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary on Plenary Indulgences for the Deceased Faithful,” was promulgated on 27 October 2021. That decree renewed the indulgence issued on 22 October 2020 which was issued in light of COVID 19. Here are the opening paragraphs of 2020 indulgence:

“This Apostolic Penitentiary has received many petitions from holy Pastors who have asked that this year, due to the “Covid-19” epidemic, pious works to obtain the Plenary Indulgences applicable to souls in Purgatory, be commuted in accordance with the Manual of Indulgences (conc. 29, § 1). For this reason, the Apostolic Penitentiary, on special mandate of His Holiness Pope Francis, willingly establishes and decides that this year, in order to avoid gatherings where they may be forbidden:

a. — the Plenary [full] Indulgence for those who visit a cemetery and pray for the deceased, even if only mentally, normally established only for the individual days from 1 to 8 November, may be transferred to other days of the same month, until its end. These days, freely chosen by the individual faithful, may also be separate from each other; …” *

Isn’t that good news! Have you ever lain in bed on Sunday morning thinking that you should go to church but might skip it anyway? Well, in the Roman Church you can lie in bed and pray for the dead in a virtual cemetery, and presto, you have sprung someone from purgatory! What could be better, sleep in on Sunday and save a soul? If, however, you are not one of the faithful, i.e. not a Roman Catholic, or if do not believe in purgatory or both, you are condemned and do not have a prayer.

Lutherans did not originally include a portion of Psalm 51 in the liturgy merely for penitential purposes. Rather, the Reformers believed that the Roman doctrines of penance, purgatory, and indulgences negated the work and person of Jesus Christ. If one can lie in bed and pray for the dead to help them pop out of purgatory, then Christ and his cross were null and void. In the Reformers’ eyes, the Roman Church could conjure up this and other false doctrines because God had withdrawn his Holy Spirit from the papcy. For the Reformers, the verse, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me,” was an earnest plea from the whole church to God to protect the truly faithful from the fate of becoming faithless.

Sadly, if one views the Lutheran world today, it would appear that whole swaths of Lutherans have succumbed to the same fate as the papcy. Some so-called Lutherans are even willing to overlook things like purgatory and indulgences to find ecumenical favor with the pope. Such thinking is equally a denial of the person and work of Jesus Christ in whom the church already has its true unity. When one adds thereto countless “Lutherans” placing trendy, political ideologies over and above the principles of scripture, it would appear that what was once a reformation of the church has become yet another deformation of it.

We at St. Luke’s are not immune from the society in which we live. Instead of giving up something this Lenten season, perhaps we might like to add something by daily praying Psalm 51:10-12 as our earnest plea to God to protect us from being imprisoned by false gospels and their resultant faithlessness to which even we penitential sinners so easily succumb.


I Had an Epiphany!

It was on the Sixth of January. If it was not apparent, you had one too, which is not to be confused with one two, but who’s counting?!

The term “epiphany” comes from the Greek word epiphaino, which is not to be confused with “heck if I know,” although they sound similar. Epiphaino means “to show” or “to appear” or “to make an appearance.” For western Christians, Epiphany is the festival day observing the arrival of the three Magi (wisemen or kings) to see the child Jesus after they had followed the star in the night sky. In this tradition, Epiphany means that Jesus is revealed to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi.

In the liturgical year, Epiphany also marks the end of the Christmas season, i.e. Epiphany comes on the 13th day after Christmas, after your true love has showered you with numerous gifts for the preceding twelve days. If your true love did not shower you with gifts on the twelve days of Christmas, that is a topic for another newsletter.

In German tradition, it was and is common to put one’s Christmas tree up only for the twelve days of Christmas. So, the tree went or goes up on Christmas Eve. Singing Christmas carols around the tree or playing instruments might also be done. Germans did and some still do use real candles instead of electric lights to illuminate the tree. So, when the candles were lit, it was common for a bucket of water to be close at hand. Things could get very precarious if the tree not only went up but went up in flames on Christmas Eve, and someone simultaneously kicked the bucket. To avoid such mishaps, in our house we use electric candles on the tree, which is erected on Christmas Eve and taken down on Epiphany.

From Scripture, we do not know why the Magi believed that the star which they were following would lead them to the one “born king of the Jews” (Mt. 2:2). As Matthew states in that chapter, the Jews already had a king, namely Herod. Maybe like Joseph, the Magi were informed about the star’s significance by an angel in a dream. Apart from the star, however, Scripture leaves us in the dark on this matter.

Nonetheless, the Magi arrive. They know whom they are seeking. They ask directions to find him. They have their baby gifts in hand, and off they go to Bethlehem. “And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Mt. 2:11). Scripture does tell us that the Magi were indeed warned in a dream to depart without making Herod any the wiser. So, some of their journey was a dream vacation.

Matthew’s gospel begins with this story, Gentiles coming to worship the newly born king of the Jews. Matthew’s gospel closes with Jesus, the newly resurrected king, sending his disciples to teach all Gentiles and to baptize all those who come to faith in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19). In the intervening chapters, Matthew gradually moves his audience into a position to leave their Jewish-centric world view behind in order to reveal the gospel of Jesus Christ to the predominately Gentile world filled with pagan gods and beliefs.

It seems a daunting task for the early church to receive, and it was. It took centuries for Christianity to become a world phenomenon. From our perspective as western Christians, it seems as if we are again immersed in a world full of pagan gods and beliefs, even if those who hold to such do not consider themselves to be “religious.” Today, western society finds itself in this position, sadly, because it has foregone its teaching responsibility both in the home and in church.

For a generation or two or three, the church has failed to catechize its future generations with a goal to teach and preach the word of God as a matter of life and death, a reality reflected in Jesus’ own crucifixion and resurrection. It its humble way, St. Luke’s seeks to address this problem. This winter St. Luke’s Theological Academy (SLTA) is offering three courses, ten weeks each. The modules are: 1) Worship: What, How, and Why (17 January 7:00-8:30 pm), 2) Introduction to the New Testament (19 January 7:00-8:30 pm), and 3) Foundations of the Christian Faith (22 January 4:00-5:30 pm). The course fee for the first two modules is $25.00, and the third is free. You can register online on St. Luke’s website or with the church office.

It’s Christmas!

The Advent season is upon us. The tree is up in the church. The lights will shine in the darkness, reminding us that,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).

Throughout history, God has acted through his word. God’s word is by nature act and action. The First Book of Moses recounts, “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:3-4).

The darkness of the void before creation was a darkness which none of us can imagine because the darkness was not just a matter of lack of light. It was a matter of no matter at all, nothing, i.e. no-thing yet existed, not even the “matterlessness” of light itself. God, however, was there, and God made “there” come into being and did so through his word.

For many in our day and age, the material world is all that there is, all that exists. Some very intelligent people spend a lot of time and effort seeking to debunk the notion of God and of creation as his action. They invent numerous theories about how the “big bang” could have happened without a god or the God. It is a lofty task to deny the existence of God, one to which seemingly more and more people are called. We see it everywhere in the world around us, and we also see it in ourselves.

In the midst of God’s pristine creation, he created Adam and Eve, and although there is no biblical evidence that God created Eve towards the end of the day, together our first parents brought the darkness of sin into God’s glorious creation. Consequently, despite the earth basking in the light of the sun, each one of us is born into a darkness which prevents us from truly seeing God in all that there is. Whereas Adam and Eve were created in the image of God, the rest of us have been born in sin. So, we seek to fill that darkness with the so-called light of human reason. When one considers the multitude of highly advanced, technical, and intricate ways in which we can kill other human beings, reason’s bright ideas paradoxically and tragically contribute to the darkness of our fallen world.

In the dark of night shepherds were watching their flocks. Then, an angel appeared, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. “And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’”

Wrapped in swaddling cloths, concealing his glory, the shepherds found the Christ child, the word of God made flesh, the light of the world in the shadows of a cow shed. For the next three decades, Christ’s glory would continue to be concealed. He would join his father in the family trade until the day when he would trade his carpentry skills for a path which would lead to his cross. There, he would give himself for you and for me.

The Advent season is upon us. The tree is up in the church. The lights will shine in the darkness for you and for me. Let us proclaim “the good news of great joy for all the people” and let them know, “It’s Christmas!”

Reformation Celebration 2022

Five years have elapsed since the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. Five years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend the 13th International Luther (Research) Congress which was held that year in Wittenberg, Germany to mark the anniversary year. Luther scholars from around the world were in attendance. The last time that I had been in Wittenberg before that was in the summer of 1987 with Janet prior to marriage and prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. By 2017, Wittenberg had been considerably renovated since its days in communist East Germany. Time changes much, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

This year I was able to attend the 14th International Luther Congress, and I did so because it was in Thousand Oaks, CA, which is not quite as historic as Wittenberg. I harbored reservations about attending as most of the speakers were unknown to me, and of those who were, I held doubts about their scholarly intentions. In other words, like in the rest of the world, secularized ideologies with roots in Marxist/communist thought are on the march in new guises. As Wittenberg was once held in a quasi state of neglect in communist East Germany, Luther scholarship is being drawn into a quasi intentional state of communist ideologies in pseudo-theological garb. Whereas many good scholars were in attendance, a shift away from good scholarship was evident. Times change, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

Five years ago, St. Luke’s and other area Lutheran churches joined forces to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with serious scholarship, sacred song, and festive food. Pastors teaching at St. Luke’s Theological Academy offered short, theological presentations, each of which was followed by a hymn. Then, the pastor panel took questions from the audience in “stump the chump” fashion which was edifying and entertaining for all. Finally, the eating festivities began. Since that time, some of our teaching pastors have taken other calls or retired. Some of our congregations’ members are also no longer with us for various reasons. Combined with the attrition caused by COVID and its various restrictions and lock downs, would it be a good idea in these changed times to gather churches together to celebrate the Reformation? Yes, of course it would!

Every Reformation Sunday is a good time to celebrate the Reformation, but despite the changed circumstances, it is particularly important for us to celebrate the Reformation this year to give thanks to God for all the blessing which we have received from all of those who helped us to become Lutheran, to be Lutheran, and to remain Lutheran. As II Timothy 4:3-4 states, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” If that was the concern in the earliest days of the church, how much more so is that temptation alive and well today.

Because attention to faithful teaching seems to be so tenuous, faithful Lutherans can begin to feel a bit isolated and alone. So, the opportunity to gather with fellow Lutherans and to be edified by faithful Lutheran pastors is a cause for celebration, not just to remember the Reformation but to continue to be equipped to serve the truth of the gospel and gospel-congruent truths in our own day and age.

So, on Sunday, 30 October, St. Luke’s is planning to hold its first post-COVID Reformation celebration. The format for the festivities will be similar to that outlined above. We will start with short presentations by the pastors, have a Q&A time with the pastors, sign a some hymns and then close with Oktoberfest fare. So, please mark your calendars, plan to attend, and invite some friends.

The Gift of Faith

Lutherans assert that the chief doctrine of the church is justification by faith alone, the doctrine by which the church stands for falls. That is a very bold statement. Not only does that make this doctrine the determinative factor in theology, but it also defines the understanding of the church. This may seem a logical conclusion, but viewed from a different perspective, it also raises the question whether those churches, which do not hold this position, are truly churches. That is both an intriguing and unsettling thought.

Complicating this matter is the fact that the notion of “justification by faith alone” does not have a great deal of warmth or human touch or “warm fuzzies” or the like. If one says, “God loves you,” that seems much warmer, much more interpersonal. Importantly, however, these two expressions point to one and the same dynamic.

The doctrine of “justification by faith alone” is driven by “grace alone.” If one reads the Bible even in only a cursory fashion, one sees lots of law and legal arrangements. This commandment and that commandment or this rule and that rule pervade the Bible, especially the Old Testament. According to the Old Testament, those who follow God’s laws are blessed for many generations, and those who do not suffer the consequences usually only for “three or four” generations. This limited detriment is itself a form of grace in that God does not drive sinners into the ground for all time.

Within the legal framework of the Bible, the notions of being righteous, of righteousness, of justice and of justification are at home. Those who follow God’s laws are righteous, and those who do not ere not. Biblically, God is a righteous God, even if sinful human beings do not always perceive God as such, as if sinners could truly understand God’s true nature. So, when the righteous God judges, he can declare those judged to be innocent or guilty and thus righteous or unrighteous. When God forgives, that does not diminish the guilt. Instead, it means that despite being guilty, the sinner is forgiven because of God’s favor or grace.

Viewed this way, both God’s love and God’s grace are one and the same. Interpersonally, the relationship between God and human beings results from God’s love. Biblically-legally, the relationship between God and human beings is based on God’s grace. To clarify this, if one appears in a secular court for a parking ticket, the judge would not forgive the ticket out of love, but may do so out of grace or favor. The language that we use is contextual, even if is describes a similar or the same dynamic.

On the face of it, like other denominations, we Lutheran’s are tempted to think that stressing God’s love is more attractive than talking about justification by grace alone through faith alone, and it some ways it is. So, why do Lutherans stress the latter? Whether we do so in relation to God’s laws, society’s laws, or our own personal standards, we human beings tend to judge our lives and the lives of others by the deeds done, by the words said, and by the thoughts thought. Where those are “good,” one is often rewarded, and when they are “bad,” one is often punished, whatever that may mean in any given circumstance.

In relation to God, however, the situation is more complicated. Even though God does love us, God also expects us to be not simply sinless (as a negative) but righteous (as a positive) in all aspects of our lives all of the time. For us to be in relationship with the one, true, righteous God, we too need to be true and righteous. As we all know, this is an impossible order for fallen human beings. This impossibility is reflected in the idea that if we love God, we will obey his commandments. Sadly, we do not keep his commandments, and when we do, we think that we have gained, or worse, have accumulated some sort of righteousness. Such “righteousness” is in reality mere self-righteousness, which is just another expression of our sin. So, our doing “good” in our own eyes is all too often also our undoing.

The doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone, however, is rooted in the communication of the good news from and about the crucified and risen Christ who in God’s love died for our sins on the cross and was raised for our righteousness (see Romans 4:25). As a negative, God in Christ takes our sin from us onto himself, and as a positive, he gives us in exchange his own righteousness so that we can be in relationship with the one, true, righteous God. This all happens when Christ’s word and Christ’s sacraments create the gift of faith in us alone by which we receive his righteousness or just judgement.

The doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is both a description and a doctrine of the reality of God’s love for us in the legal framework of the Bible. Where this doctrine is not preached and taught, neither is this Christ preached and taught. Where this Christ is not preached and taught, there cannot be a Christian church because this Christ is for all intents and purposes absent! Pray continually that this Christ will be preached and taught at St. Luke’s. If he is not, then as a church you should neither stand for it nor fall for something else.

Monkey Business

Alternatively, we might spell that “monkie business” or perhaps “monkee business.” As many know, monkeys are a member of the primate family, and bishops are often called “primates,” which begs the question whether bishops specialize in “monkey business.” Perhaps similarly, the erstwhile rock band called “The Monkees” had a major hit (actually written by Neil Diamond) called “I’m A Believer,” which has been altered into a Christian pop song, “And then I saw His face, now I’m a believer …” Can Christians monkey with songs like that, and if they do, will they have to face the music? Worse yet, if they get up to “Monkie Business,” someone might throw the book at them! (Monkey Business is a children’s book, one of whose character is the “eefil’ Dr Hubris Wildebeest Klench.”)

In his commentary on the 45th Psalm, Luther warns that Protestants run the risk of adopting new ways of “works righteousness” which rival those undertaken by monks in monasteries. Luther writes,

“In rejecting the works of the old monks, they bring forth new monks. Let us not be too secure against this pestilence, either. Each one of us bears in his breast a great monk. That is, each would like to have such a work in which he could glory: ‘Behold, I have done this. Today I have satisfied God by my prayers, by my good works, so I can enjoy greater peace of mind.’ It has happened to me, too, that when I have carried out a work of my calling I am much happier than if I had not done it. In itself, to be sure, it is not wrong to be happy, but this happiness is without faith and impure and is of the sort that would take the conscience captive and disturb a person. Because the conscience is a most delicate thing, it cannot be guarded sufficiently against this vice of presumption. For that reason let no one be secure. We who confess Christ should walk in fear and grow in faith, and acknowledge that we each bear in our breast a monstrous and disgusting monk, that is, a foolish and carnal delusion of works, the ruin of faith.”

So, have you ever felt good about doing a good deed? Of course! We all know that there is something nice about doing good deeds, when we get around to doing them. Furthermore, good deeds often come with rewards. Sometimes the rewards are built into the deeds, like earning a merit badge in scouting or receiving a certificate for community service which we can then hang on our bedroom walls. To double the benefit, if we do enough community service, we can also save a lot of money on wallpaper! Think how environmentally friendly that would be. Perhaps that is actually a third benefit, but can we monkey with the environment?

The notion of “good works” has bedeviled humanity since its plucking of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. That fruit would supposedly give human beings the knowledge of good and evil, or is that “eefil”? The irony of Adam and Eve’s deed is their thinking that one could know good from evil if one disregards God will and does evil. Viewed differently, would Adam and Eve have done evil if they had known the difference between good and evil? If so, then one could then argue that if God had instructed Adam and Eve about the difference between good and evil, then perhaps they might not have done evil. In short, it is all God’s fault that humanity is the mess which it is, right? Such thinking by sinful, human reason is truly the monkey business.

According to Luther, the “monk” in each of us is the flesh of each of us. That flesh lives contrary to the spirit of God which through the gospel created faith in our carnal human lives. In other words, in our fleshly selves “we are by nature sinful and unclean,” but when the Holy Spirit calls us through the Gospel, enlightens us with his gifts, and sanctifies and preserves us in true faith, then having become thereby “good trees,” we bear good fruit, i.e. we do good works.

In God’s eyes, that which is “good” is done out of faith in his son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. That which is bad is not done out of faith but instead for any other reasons. So, of all the “good deeds” which you do, by that criterion, how many “good works” do we actually do? Like other Protestants, Lutherans have devised all manner of schemes to try to answer such questions, and all those schemes seem based on following some law or rule or the like.

Fortunately, there is another approach, a gospel (good news) approach, which is much simpler and better. I call this “proclamatory ethics.” This means that our “good works” are based neither upon their own apparent qualities nor upon our real or feigned motives. Instead, a gospel-guided “proclamatory ethic” seeks in its deeds to proclaim the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to others, i.e. deeds done in faith for faith. In so doing, “our” good deeds are not ours. Instead, they are merely an extension of the gift which God has given to humanity in Jesus Christ. In that sense, it truly does feel good to do such “good works” because they were first done in Jesus Christ for us sinners to do, in turn, for others remarkably as “little Christs,” as Luther would say. Such deeds done as good news to others are, indeed, truly good.

Jesus, the Vine, the Branches, and the Fruits

St. John writes, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear (carry) fruit he prunes, that it may bear (carry) more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear (carry) fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1-5).

As with many other passages in John’s gospel, Jesus uses “I am” followed by an image. For example, “I am the bread of life” (John 6). “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10). “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14). Here Jesus is the vine. In the Old Testament (Exodus 3) God reveals himself to Moses as I AM YHWH (Yahweh) which means ““I am who I am.” In other words, it is God who determines who God is, not we with our sinful hopes, dreams, and demands.

In John’s imagery in Chapter 15, Jesus is the vine. His Father is the vinedresser, and those who believe are the branches. If one is connected to Jesus, one has life and bears fruit. In fact, apart from Jesus as the vine, we are lost and fruitless in so many different ways.

The world, however, thinks differently. The world views being connected to Jesus or his Father as meaning that one has really gone out on a limb, so to speak. In fact, one is not really a branch but instead is just a fruit, or a nut, or a flake, or a whole bowl full of Muesli (granola). In fact, the world would like to spare Christians the proposed to pruning in this passage by cutting down the whole vine altogether. The world tried that once, roughly 2,000 years ago. They cut down the vine, hung him out on a trellis to dry, and then buried him in the ground. The vinedresser, however, raised the vine again, who says, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11).

In the self-centeredness of our sin, we unfortunately view this imagery not with ourselves as branches of Jesus but instead with ourselves in the middle. God and Jesus are behind us providing us with the sustenance which we as branches need to exercise our mighty powers to bear fruit. Viewed with another image, we unfortunately become thereby little religious Jack Horners, putting in our thumb, pulling out a plumb, and thinking, “What a good girl/boy am I.”

So it is, and most of us are pretty quick to consider our “good” deeds as signs that we are actually good. Throughout Christian history, Christians have used “good works” to decide who is and who is not a proper Christian. Are “they” bearing the fruit which we expect, then “they” must be true Christians. Are “their” words and actions suspect, then suspect is “their” place in the kingdom of God. In this grand scheme of things, we get tangled up in all manner of categories of right and wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, right?

How right are we? On one hand, we say with St. Paul, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, …” (Romans 3:22b-23). On the other hand, we would also agree with St. Paul who seems confident that our sinfulness has distinct categories and offenses, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Romans 1:28-32). How many of us gossipers would put ourselves in the same category as murders or haters of God? Like it or not, we are in the same sinking boat.

So, why do we devise categorizations for our sins? Although all sin is deadly from a theological perspective, not all sins are immediately deadly from an experiential perspective. “I was the only one who got an ‘A’ on the test,” is certainly boastful, and most of would think, “Rightly so!” In our everyday lives, we tend to categorize our sins by the damage which they do either to us or to our communities or to both. “Our family does it this way,” one often learns very early on. That which damages the community of family is “bad.” How does that play out when a really dysfunctional family things something generally considered “good” is instead “bad”? As “branches” we spend a lot of our time deciding who is bearing good fruit and who is not, and the latter gives us plenty of opportunity to be gossips, and rightly so, or again, perhaps not.

If we reconsider the imagery in John Chapter 15 with our sin slightly removed from our eyes, we see things a little differently. We as branches are connected to the vine who is dressed by the vinedresser, his Father, but what does the vine as a whole actually bear or carry? We are quick to reply, “Fruit, which we bear!”

That, however, is not quite correct. The vine whom the world tried to kill and hang on a trellis died and was raised to bear or carry the sin of the whole world, for each and every one of us sinful human beings, both individually and collectively. Thus, when we as branches bear or carry fruit, that fruit is not our self-selected “good deeds.” Instead, through Christ and on behalf of Christ as extensions of Christ, the fruit which we bear or carry is the brokenness of the sinners within and around us.

Correspondingly, the more damage which that sin has caused, the heavier is the load of the fruit to be borne. Paradoxically, sometimes those who seem to have been “pruned” the most in life are exceptionally gifted at bearing the damaged fruit. This is so because the whole weight of human brokenness is borne and carried by the resurrected Christ who bears us sinners healed and forgiven to live forever in his Father’s vineyard.

Fight the Good Fight?

Churches are great places to fight! Think about all the discord and conflict that has occurred in the church from the time Jesus started to gather disciples. Who would be the greatest? Who would sit at Jesus’ right hand? Who would best betray and deny him? Then, after Jesus’ resurrection, the church continued to fight for its life, so to speak, both within and without. When we fight in the church, and sometimes we must, what criteria do we use to do so? St. Paul in First and Second Timothy gives some guidance:

“Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (I Timothy 6:12),

and then when all is said and done, so to speak, St. Paul bows out of ministry by saying,

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

Both of these examples give the impression that we are able to “fight the good fight,” but are we? Do we know what the “good fight” is? If we might know, would we be able to fight it and win, or would we just make a good show if it, going down swinging? If we were to go down swinging, what night we swing, fists, a bat, playground equipment, or perhaps some type of big band music?

Our society is full if fighting talk. We may think that we “fight the good fight” when we often disease, crime, injustice, pollution, and so forth. Sometimes we even give ourselves the impression that we might win some of these battles, but do we ever win the battles or not to mention the war? What has been the outcome of the “war on poverty” or the “cold war” or the “war on drugs”? According to the news, the rich have got richer, and the poor have got poorer. The once dangerous, atheistic socialist-communist threat has faded in some countries only to arrive in another guise in US politics. As to the war on drugs, how many US states have “legalized” marijuana, even though it is still a federal crime? Maybe we win the wars when we give up the fight and capitulate to human sin. So, what is the good fight, and what is right?

From the time of our birth, we are born into a fight for our lives. For some, the fight is relatively benign, like fighting with siblings about who inherits the family fortune. For others, from birth onwards, the fight is daily, grueling, fraught with despair, desperation, and devastation. Most of us experience life in-between. For all of us, the daily fight of life ends in death. When that moment comes, will we be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”? Think about your daily routine. How many of us can hand on heart say, “I have kept the faith” every day in every way, come hell or high water or indifference or disregard? Think of something really mundane. If most of us cannot stick to a simple healthy diet as if our lives depended on it, and sometimes they do, what chance do we have of fighting a truly good fight? So, to distract ourselves, we fight the mean, petty fight of exerting our self-righteousness over against all and sundry, claiming ourselves the victors and “them” to be the losers.

We Lutherans have a fight song, one near and dear to our hearts. It goes like this:

A mighty fortress is our God,
A sword and shield victorious;
He breaks the cruel oppressor’s rod,
And wins salvation glorious.
The old satanic foe,
Has sworn to work us woe.
With craft and dreadful might
He arms himself to fight.
On earth he has no equal!

No strength of ours can match his might.
We would be lost, defeated.
But now a champion comes to fight,
Whom God himself elected.
You ask who this may be?
The Lord of hosts is he,
Christ Jesus mighty Lord,
God’s only son adored.
He holds the field victorious.

Though hordes of devils fill the land,
All threatening to devour us.
We tremble not, unmoved we stand,
They cannot overpow’r us.
Let this world’s tyrant rage,
In battle we’ll engage.
His might is doomed to fail,
God’s judgement must prevail!
One little word subdues him.

God’s Word forever shall abide,
No thanks to foes, who fear it.
For God himself fights by our side,
With weapons of the Spirit.
Were they to take our house,
Goods, honour, child or spouse,
Though life be wrenched away,
They cannot win the day.
The Kingdom’s ours forever.
(Lutheran Service Book, Hymn 657)

That translation of Martin Luther’s hymn “Ein’ feste Burg” describes the war and also each and every battle therein. It is a fight which Adam and Eve so easily and willingly lost in the Garden of Eden. Thereafter, each laborious birth bring forth a child to be another casualty of inherited sin and death. No human effort, strength, talent, wealth, intellect, and so on can put an end to human sin and death. We fight and fight and fight, but in the end we too often become too tired or ill to swing any more.

When they were swinging their hammers onto the nails in Jesus’ hands and feet, the forces of sin and death believed that in crucifying Christ they were fighting the good fight, that they would win the race, that they were keeping the faith. When God the Father raised God the Son from the dead and then sent his word into the world by the power of God the Holy Spirit, God declared the forces of sin and death to be vanquished.

When you are next feeling weary of the war of our sinful world or fatigued by the battles of mundane daily life, when disease, despair, and death are knocking at your door or beating on your heart, remember the words of “A Mighty Fortress,” remember, “Now a champion comes to fight, whom God himself elected. You ask who this may be? The Lord of hosts is he. Christ Jesus mighty Lord, God’s only son adored. He holds the field victorious.” and thereby be reminded, “ The Kingdom’s ours forever.” Amen.

New Years

In Luther’s day, the new year began with Christmas Day. In a way, that is very fitting since the incarnation of Christ means the beginning of the new creation which is granted to all who believe in Jesus as the Christ.

As many are aware, Luther wrote hymns, not only because he was musically adept but chiefly because he wanted people to learn and live the faith, and song is a good medium so to do. From ancient times, meter and rhyme have provided a cadence for remembrance. In a day and an age when many could not read or write, learning through verse was effective, and still is today. Think of how easily an advertising jingle or the refrain of a pop song takes residence in our memories.

Through the advent of the printing press and with the widespread ease and abundance of reference materials, multiplied exponentially today with the internet, modern people seem to have been significantly relieved of having to learn through memory. Some would question whether people today really learn much at all but rather parrot what they see on their smart phones. (Do smart phones make dumb people?)

One of Luther’s great Christmas songs is entitled Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her, which I would translate as From Heaven above I Come Here. Other translations of the same include From Heaven Above to Earth I Come (Lutheran Service Book, 358) and From Heaven on High I Come to You as translated and printed in Luther’s Works. The full translation of the latter is below.

From Heaven on High I Come to You

1 From Heaven on high I come to you.
I bring a story good and new;
Of goodly news so much I bring,
Of it I must both speak and sing.

2 To you a child is come this morn,
A child of holy maiden born,
A little babe so sweet and mild—
Your joy and bliss shall be that child.

3 It is the Lord Christ, our own God.
He will ease you of all your load;
He will himself your Savior be,
And from all sinning set you free.

4 He brings you all the news so glad
Which God the Father ready had—
That you shall in his heavenly house
Live now and evermore with us.

5 Take heed then to the token sure,
The crib, the swaddling clothes so poor;
The infant you shall find laid there,
Who all the world doth hold and bear.

6 Hence let us all be gladsome then,
And with the shepherd folk go in
To see what God to us hath given,
With his dear honored Son from heaven.

7 Take note, my heart; see there! look low:
What lies then in the manger so?
Whose is the lovely little child?
It is the darling Jesus-child.

8 Welcome thou art, thou noble guest,
With sinners who dost lie and rest,
And com’st into my misery!
How thankful I must ever be!

9 Ah Lord! the maker of us all!
How hast thou grown so poor and small,
That there thou liest on withered grass,
The supper of the ox and ass?

10 Were the world wider many fold,
And decked with gems and cloth of gold,
’Twere far too mean and narrow all,
To make for thee a cradle small.

11 The silk and velvet that are thine,
Are rough hay, linen not too fine,
Yet, as they were thy kingdom great,
Thou liest in them in royal state.

12 And this hath therefore pleased thee
That thou this truth mightst make me see—
How all earth’s power, show, good, combined,
Helps none, nor comforts thy meek mind.

13 Dear little Jesus! in my shed,
Make thee a soft, white little bed,
And rest thee in my heart’s low shrine,
That so my heart be always thine.

14 And so I ever gladsome be,
Ready to dance and sing to thee
The lullaby thou lovest best,
With heart exulting in its guest.

15 Glory to God in highest heaven,
Who his own Son to us hath given!
For this the angel troop sings in
Such a new year with gladsome din.
(Luther’s Works, 53:290-291)

So, if you were to write a song to tell others about Jesus’ birth, life, death, or resurrection, how might it go? The Parish Rebuilder will publish in forthcoming editions song submissions of 5-15 verses edifying others about Jesus. So, open your Bibles, put on your thinking caps, find your creative crayons or keyboard, and send submit a song or two. Perhaps we could put some of them to music and sing them in church!

Christmas and Coronavirus Spacing and Stress

Well, the Advent and Christmas seasons have arrived, and this year promises to be a little different from previous years. The whole world seems to be caught between Christmas and the Coronavirus. Will the governmental grinches allow Christmas? Who in the Whoville knows? If Christmas is allowed, will the Whos in Whoville be allowed to be loud and to gather or to feast or to sing? What about the Whos who will not be allowed to travel to Whoville? Will those Whos at least get to be on First, or is such a hope simply off-base? How would the good Dr. Seuss diagnose the situation, a situation characterized by confusing, constantly changing rules, regulations, recommendations, political recriminations, and cannabis recreations? Speaking of which, why is the media abuzz about the high time which the Governor of California had at dinner in a French Laundromat with indoor-outdoor carpeting?

In times like these, people need to turn to their Bibles. The Bible tells the story of Joseph, not that Joseph but the other one. Joseph was a nice Jewish boy who was engaged to a young Jewish girl who claimed to have seen angels and got herself mysteriously pregnant by the “Holy Spirit.” Quite understandably, Joseph thought it best to get out of that relationship before things got really cuckoo. Sadly, poor Joseph himself started hearing voices and seeing angels. Then, on what seemed like a bad trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, in the St. Nick of time Joseph came to his census, and that is what really counts. Suffering from hallucinations meant that both Joseph and his princess bride would not be accepted by the inn crowd. So, they were forcibly “social distanced” in an animal shelter where the baby Jesus was born into stable family environment.

In “normal” times, Christmas is stressful enough. One needs to write Santa, buy and wrap presents, procure and prepare the food; all done in the pursuit of gathering with loved ones whom we often do not like. Somewhere along the line we might go to church, if we have time and if we have not had too much to drink.

This year, however, things will be different, but no one really knows how different. Will “social distancing” prevent Santa from delivering his wares? Will the reindeer herd be culled if they become infected? If so, will Amazon jump in the breach and wrap and deliver the presents for Santa? Following the hoarded paper products out the door, will the shops be pilfered of poultry, potatoes, and pumpkin pie? If so, will we at least be spared having to mingle with our less than liked loved ones? Thank God that the liquor stores and “dispensaries” will be open (and that most churches will be closed). It gets so annoying when the Spirit of the latter interrupts the spirits of the former.

Nothing, however, seems to interrupt the omnipresence of coronavirus, nor its deleterious effects on our lives. When we are not being divided and conquered, we are being watched, counted, regulated, and controlled. For the well-being of all, we are told not to gather with subversive groups, like friends and family, whom we cannot not trust and thus must fear. If we do not comply, then we just might die. So, shamed or bullied we comply.

Social distancing is now our Saviour, and the ubiquitous, controversial face mask has become the hallmark of loyalty and compliance to the Saviour’s science. Once innocuous, face masks have now become ominously omnipresent, something akin to the “mark of the beast” in the Book of Revelation. This beast “forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, …” (Rev. 13:16-17). Who can buy or sell without a mask? Who can do just about anything anywhere without a mask? Such enforced facelessness is not social distancing but socially dehumanizing. It isolates, alienates, ostracizes, and abandons, not just physically but also psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. As a result, some of our most vulnerable members of society have been left to wither and die at our new Saviour’s behest.

The above is the narrative dictated by those who live their lives in service to the fear of disease, doom, and death. The following is the narrative of the God who gave his son’s life in service to those who live in fear of disease, doom, and death.

1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” 15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them (Luke 2:1-20).

Those are two diametrically opposed services. On Thursday, 24 December, St. Luke’s has scheduled two very similar services, one at 6:00 pm and the other at 8:00 pm. Hopefully there, the people will also hear God’s angel again say, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”

Mark Menacher PhD. Pastor

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