Saturday, January 21, 2017

"Nothing New Under the Sun"

Our 45th President was sworn into office yesterday.  Many cheered and rejoiced.  Many were not so joyous.  Some protested, which is their Constitutional right to do so.  Some caused violence, which is never righteous, nor a right of citizenship.  Violence and mayhem do not help anything, save to prove the cowardice of the perpetrator.

I have heard and seen through media channels how difficult a time some people are having with the reality of a new administration.  But a change of power is nothing new.  Perhaps it's because the change was so dramatic and gap so large between the Obama Administration and the new Trump Administration.  But something to remember: when you swing a pendulum so far to the left, you can count on that pendulum swinging just as far to the right.

King Solomon, the wisest man ever, wrote: "There is nothing new under the sun. " (Ecclesiastes 1:9)  Presidents will come and go.  Presidents are not God, nor do they have divine powers.  So where will you put your trust?  In the Obama?  In the Trump?  To do so is foolish and striving after wind.

Some wise words were posted yesterday by a professor at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs.  They are a helpful reminder to all of us:

"Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush1, Clinton, Bush2, Obama, Trump. All smart and gifted. All deeply, deeply flawed. None able to do as much damage as their enemies feared, nor as much good as their allies hoped. May God protect innocent lives, and bring humility to all. Thank you, and now go find a way to love your neighbor."

Let's keep our eye on the ball - on what's really important.  God is still in His heaven and loves us more than we can imagine.  He's got this.  So you, go love you neighbor.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Music in the Air

Every early Sunday morning, during the short drive from home to parish, I listen to the same radio program: "On Being" with Krista Tippett.  She brings on various guest to talk about and contemplate religion and spirituality.  Rarely, she may have a Christian guest.  Most are from all the other world religions, religions of their own creation, or people from the realm of science (which can itself be worshiped as a god.
This past Sunday, I listened to a fascinating discussion she was having with a acoustic ecologist - one who listens to, records, and studies the sounds of nature.  He stated a fascinating fact: one would think that our human hearing was most sensitive to the frequency range of human speech.

It isn't.

Our hearing is most sensitive to the frequency range of 4-5 kilohertz.  And what sounds happen to be in that range: bird song.

His hypothesis: human hearing has "evolved" to be most sensitive to the frequency of birdsong because where the birds are, resources for life may be found: food, shelter, etc.

My hypothesis: I would add to the good ecologist's hypothesis this: God created our hearing to be most sensitive in that range so that we might hear the beauty of their song.  Purely for our enjoyment. Purely to hear the goodness of our Creator.

You can hear the interview for yourself here.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

History Repeats Itself

First, a blessed Christmas to each of you.

I want to share something that I experienced Christmas Eve.  While just a simple flashback, it became a profound moment for me of history repeating itself.


That was the word that started it all.


I struggled to pronounce that name, almost 40 years ago.  That Christmas Eve, my family and two other families at my home congregation, St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Des Peres, MO, were tasked with leading the family service.  My job, and I remember it clearly, was to read the Gospel Lesson: Luke 2.  My parents had given me a copy of the Bible - "The Children's Bible" - as a gift and I was to read the account of the birth of Jesus from it.  I practiced and practiced in preparation for the big day.  But Quirinius - the governor of Syria - his name was a tough one.  I kept stumbling over it.  I don't remember if I was successful reading that name on Christmas Eve, but I remember the struggle.

But that was 40 years ago.  And now, on this Christmas Eve in the Year of our Lord 2016, I was in front of another congregation, Hope Lutheran Church in Friendswood, TX - the congregation for which I serve as pastor.  I was reading the account of the birth of Jesus once more - at a Christmas Eve family service.  As I read the word "Quirinius" in verse 2, I suddenly remembered, and I was that little boy all over again, trying to read the sacred words of Luke 2 among the gathered people of God.

History repeated itself.

And history does repeat itself, every time the words of the story of Christ are read, that history comes to life once again within the hearts and minds of those who struggle to follow in the path of their Lord.  That's what happens when His Word is read and proclaimed, Christ happens again and again - history repeats itself.

I pray that history continues to repeat itself - Christ coming to you again and again as you hear His Word, participate in His Sacraments, experience His love and mercy through the love and mercy of fellow believers.

Have a blessed Christmas and happy New Year.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving Foretaste

First, happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.  May you find time to recall how your Lord has blessed you this past year.

Second, something to think about:

We often hear of the Lord's Supper as a "foretaste of the feast to come."  Which it is; it is a foretaste of the feast we will enjoy with our Lord in the new heavens and new earth He has promised.

But something can also be said for your Thanksgiving dinner this evening.  It is also a foretaste of the feast to come.  Not in the same manner as the Lord's Supper.  No forgiveness or eternal life or strengthening of faith is offered through turkey and dressing and such.  But you can think of it as a foretaste.

From Isaiah 25:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
    of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
    the covering that is cast over all peoples,
    the veil that is spread over all nations.
    He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
    and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
    “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
    This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

Isaiah was seeing into that day when our Lord returns - when He will swallow up death forever on the Day of Resurrection.  He was seeing God's people gathered together for an amazing feast of thanksgiving for what their God has done for them.

Hopefully, you will be gathered together with those you love - a gathering of God's people.
Hopefully, you will be feasting on rich food and drinking well-aged wine (I recommend it 😁)
Hopefully, you will remember that your God has saved you through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Hopefully, you will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.

Make this meal today a foretaste - just a taste, just a glimpse - of the one that will come.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Citizens of the Kingdom

I preached this sermon a couple of years ago.  I thought it appropriate on this election day.  The text is Romans 13:1-10.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

It was difficult to watch the warzone now known to the world as Ferguson, MO.  It was difficult for me because Ferguson is a community of the greater St. Louis area – the place I consider home.  Businesses looted at will, fires, general mayhem – throw military vehicles into it, and it just doesn’t look or feel right at all.  It’s all wrong.  This isn’t the way daily life in America is supposed to be.  That’s probably why every form of mass media invaded Ferguson – which, in reality, only made it worse and fueled the fire even more.  A police officer who happened to be white shot, and killed a young man who happened to be black.  And tensions and issues about government, race, and justice exploded.  Everything was exploited.  Everything was a mess.  “No justice, no peace!”  “Hands up, don’t shoot!”  The privilege to peaceably assemble and the right of government to keep order and peace all collided, and we’re still trying to sort it out.  But graciously, the media has moved on.  The media is no place for a trial.  The media doesn’t bring peace and order.  So now - if everything works the way it’s supposed to - the governing authorities and the citizens of Ferguson will do the hard work of putting the pieces back together, make sure justice is served righteous manner, and find a way to live in peace.
Government.  That’s almost become a dirty word in America today.  How big should government be?  How small should it be?  What programs should government run or not run?  How do we deal with corruption?  How much function, or dis-function is right?  Taxes – how much and for what?  I wouldn’t call this a national “conversation” right now – more like an argument.  Why is Pastor Jon talking about this from the pulpit?  Because Paul is saying something about government in our text for today.  But he doesn’t answer any of those questions.  Paul doesn’t talk about the structure and machinations of government.  But he does talk about the authority and purpose of government – and our responsibility to the government.  All authority is God’s.  No matter what we think – which being the sinners we are, we think we have all authority – all authority over creation is God’s.  In fact, Jesus is the one who has that authority.  End of the Gospel according to Matthew: “All authority under heaven and earth has been given to me.”  So Paul writes:
“For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”        

Do you get what Paul is saying here?  Government has been instituted by God.  Not just one, or a few, special nations – ALL governing authorities around the globe have been instituted by God.  And remember when Paul is writing this – during the rule of the Roman Empire.  Nero was probably the emperor at the time – hardly an example of righteous, benevolent governance!  What about tyrannical governments today around the world?  Are they instituted by God?  Yes.  But those given the authority of government are not exercising their office in a just, lawful manner.  Despite all this Paul says, “Be subject to the governing authorities.  They are instituted by God for your good.  Whoever resists them, resists God himself – and if you do resist, expect judgment.  So you don’t want to live in fear?  Do what is lawful and good, and the government will leave you alone.  Are you doing something against the law?  Be afraid, for he doesn’t bear the sword in vain.  Government carries out the wrath and vengeance of God.” 
Let’s apply all of that to the real world in Ferguson.  Our constitution gives its citizens the privilege to peaceably assemble.  Peaceful demonstrations against our own government are permitted.  This is a good thing!  But what if they aren’t done in a peaceful way?  Paul says, government has the right to maintain peace and order.  It is their God-given right, in fact duty, to maintain peace and order, and those that do wrong – arson, looting, etc., should expect to be punished.  I talked to my parents, who live in the St. Louis area – much closer than we are.  The vast majority of the looting and general mayhem and chaos was committed by thugs and gang members from outside of Ferguson.  They were just taking advantage of a bad situation and making it much worse.  In fact, some citizens were standing in front of businesses ready to defend them!  Now we can question the tactics used by Ferguson police.  But however poorly, and despite appearances, government was trying to work in its God-ordained way.  And if it does work properly, then investigations will continue, and hopefully, there will be a conclusion – with justice properly executed for everyone.
What do we do?  What’s the Christian response?  Our response is one of thanks, love, and service.  Christ is risen from the dead.  He has died and has risen for the sins of the whole world including you.  In baptism and by faith, you have been connected to the death and resurrection of Jesus – dying to sin and rising to new life.  By the authority of Christ, you are declared a new creation – something you cannot do by your own choice or will.  You are now a citizen of his kingdom – his rule and reign – which is a kingdom of grace and love.  And at the same time, you also live as a citizen in another kingdom – the kingdom of this world – you have been placed by God to live in this time and this place.  And in appreciation and in response to what God has done for you, the believer in Jesus strives to conform to the will of God – love for God and love for neighbor.  God has graciously given us government so that we might live in peace and civil order.  So what are we to do with government?  Paul just told us.  Live peacefully, orderly, doing good, pay taxes that are due, pay honor where it is due, and government will approve and leave you alone..  
In other words, be a good citizen!  Live a life of love for your neighbor.  Love – that’s a challenging word for us.  It’s not always easy to love.  Look at Ferguson!  But we are bound by the debt of love even in cases where the government does things that we do not agree with.  That’s not easy to do.  But exercise your vocation of citizen.  Vote!  Participate!  And as a Christian, we have an additional duty – to be a prophetic voice – a correcting voice – where the actions of government don’t conform to the order God has given us in his creation.  Where government does wrong – truly against the Word of God, we are to speak up.  And many before us have been martyred for being such a witness – for example: dying rather than worship the Roman emperor as God.

Is all of this easy?  Absolutely not.  We live tension – the tension of being a responsible citizen in TWO kingdoms – by grace, a citizen of the kingdom God in Christ; and at the same time, a citizen of the society in which we have been placed by God.  But despite the good or the not so good that happens, we live this life in hope – hope for the final and total manifestation of the kingdom of God that will be revealed when our Lord comes to make all things right and just and new.

Until that day, be good citizens – work, serve, and love where you have been placed – as a living witness of the one who has all authority under heaven and earth – Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.      

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Demon Possession and Spiritual Warfare

When most people think of demon possession, their thoughts immediately go to images from the movie, "The Exorcist."  Hollywood has a way of making lives and events and history more fantastic and extraordinary than they really are.  But that's Hollywood.  What about reality?  Is demon possession real?  What does it look like?  Or can it be explained through our knowledge of science and medicine and psychology?

There really hasn't been much written on the subject, particularly in Lutheran circles, until recently.
Robert H. Bennett has done some work on the subject.  He is the Executive Director of Luther Academy, and Adjunct Professor of Missiology and International Missions Specialist at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, Indiana.  Bennett has written two books exploring this topic.  The first is I Am Not Afraid - Demon Possession and Spiritual Warfare, True Accounts from the Lutheran Church of Madagascar.  Published in 2013, the book is an account of his time spent among the Malagasy Lutheran Church - where demon possession and spiritual warfare are a nearly everyday reality for the Church. He also included helps for recognizing the work of demonic forces in our world and aids for the conduct of our own warfare against the demonic - the focus of which is upon Christ - His power, not ours.

Bennett also wrote a follow-up work: Afraid - Demon Possession and Spiritual Warfare in America.  Using real-life stories and examples, Bennett shares demonic encounters happening here in these United States today.  Most important, he provides the remedy: God's grace in the Word of God and the power of Jesus Christ over the forces of the devil.  Satan is our old evil foe.  But the Father of Lies has been defeated through Christ's death and resurrection.  He is a fallen foe.  And Christ's victory is ours.

I found both works very enlightening, and very helpful - both for myself and for my ministry among God's people.  I have already encountered a case of what was likely "demon oppression" (I stop short of calling it demon "possession.)  And Bennett's guidance with respect to what exorcism really is and how it works (Biblical and entirely unlike the Roman Catholic Rite) was pivotal in the care of that individual.  Bennett pointed me towards hymns of an exorcistic nature within our own hymnal (ever heard of "A Mighty Fortress is our God"?), the liturgy as exorcism, Scripture readings that are exorcistic, and prayers as well.  Between both books, we Lutherans have the beginning of a "manual" for exorcism.  I highly recommend both books for both pastors and laypersons.