Thursday, January 28, 2010

Letting Down the Nets

And Simon answered, "Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets" (Luke 5:5).

Now, Simon and the other disciples probably had the best fishing equipment available in all of Galilee.  Simon probably had the best and shiniest hooks available.  He had the best quality fishing line and the finest wooden rods.  His fishing nets were no doubt, top of the line.  His rope was strong and tight, capable of holding the greatest of catches.  Besides having the proper equipment, Simon was ambitious and motivated.  He had the true fisherman smarts – he had credibility.  He had been working away all through the night hovering over the waters – like a skilled hunter – testing those waters – planning for the big catch.  He was casting his nets into the deeps from his sturdy wooden boat – dimly lit by the Galilean moon. 

In the light of the morning sun, Jesus preaches to the crowds along the shores, and asks that professional fisher to start fishing, “Simon…Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”  Simon of course knew better, “But Master, we toiled all night and took nothing…no fish at all.”  Simon knew his chances.  He had already did what he knew how to do.  His own nets had come up short. 

Yet, Simon in the second part of his response to Jesus says something incredibly profound, “But at your word Jesus I will let down the nets.”  When those nets are lowered – when they are knitted and knotted by the Word of Jesus, and cast into the deeps that is what changes everything.  The nets become filled with fish to their breaking point and fill the boats until they are on the verge of sinking.         

Here, Jesus is teaching his future disciples a thing or two about being fishers of men.  And it doesn’t have anything to do with a technique or a technology.  It is not a special tactic.  It has nothing to do with skill, experience, or knowledge.  Our Lord does not provide a fresh and alluring program.  Nor does he provide a progressive church growth model. 

Jesus simply gives Simon His Word to lower the net.  Just throw it out there!  And Simon – later to be Peter the rock – and future denier of Christ – steps into that preaching office and hurls that Word of promise into the deeps.

This is how God builds His church, by becoming flesh and casting himself upon us – and bringing us to that cross.  He makes us Christians.  A net does not search and find.  It does not calculate but simply gathers – and gathers indiscriminately.  When our Lord gathers His church he does not go from person to person asking whether they have made him ‘the center of their lives.’  He doesn’t give us the choice!  He just takes us and lowers down his Word upon us.  He just gives that Word to us to boldly speak.  And this is a Word that capture and creates.  God does not deal with us outside of the lowering of His Divine Word to his people.  He just lets it fly, He throws it out there.  Our Lord does not search and find who is pleasing to him but rather creates what is pleasing to him.

And nothing pleases God more than netting and trapping sinners.  That is why he came.  And poor Simon-Peter is trapped in the net.  At that miracle of the catch he realizes that he is standing before the Holy One of Israel – the Lord of all creation.  He gets down on his knees in desperation for he knows no one can stand before God and live.  "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord."  As every Jew knew, anyone who stands before the Lord dies.  He is trapped in the net and afraid.  He is exposed as a sinner.  He cannot run or hide.  And no sin can live in the light of God.

But our Lord throws his net around us and pulls us into his boat – that is into his precious church.  He descends into the depths – descends into hell itself - not to condemn us, but to catch us.  To catch us and release us into that freedom that He brings.  He descends to forgive us.  He becomes that sin bearer, diving into the deeps of our sin, into those mucky deeps – those secret things and those secret places that we try to hide from the world.  He knows Simon Peter’s secret sins.  He knows his lack of trust in the heavenly Father.  He knows Simon Peter’s shady business dealings at the fish market.  He knows his pride and vanity.  He sees Simon Peter’s sinister denial of him in the court yard of the high priest. 

And he knows our pride and mistrust too.  He knows our shady dealings.  He knows our gossiping lips.  He sees our nervousness and our obsessive worrying.  He sees us not trusting in our heavenly father.      

Simon cries out “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  But Jesus does not depart.  He refuses.  He takes on Peter’s sins head on.  He dives into those dark murky deeps and makes those sins his very own.  He dives into our murky places, our dark secret sins, claiming them as his own. 

He takes those sins of ours and casts them upon himself.  Those dark murky sins are put on the cross and nailed to death.  Those sins are no longer yours.  But another, God himself, has claimed them as His.  And in His bitter suffering and death those sins are buried in the deepest depths.  And they will never rise again.    

When Jesus, that fisher of men, lowers his net He takes all.  He takes everything for himself.  He does not ask you if you’ve made a decision for Jesus.  He does not give you an argument about why believing in him will give you a better, happier life.  He just grabs you and does not leave you to fend for yourself.  He throws you in holy baptism and holy living, and keeps you by his side.

We stand before him as sinners, but he has dressed us up in a white robe or righteousness.  He sees us as those whom he has gathered with his own hands and renewed in His waters of life and in His Word.  Those dark murky waters that had once surrounded us have been washed away by his blood.  How beautiful and lovely is His church. 

Those of us, once lost and floundering in the deeps, have been raised up to live before God in innocence and blessedness – in the freedom and light of the gospel.  We breathe in that pure air in which we have the breath of life.  We have been captured by God’s love and brought ashore.  There is nothing to be afraid of.  When we hear and see the Holy one of God and stand before Him, there is nothing about us that he does not love.  He delights in us whom he has caught by lowering His Word of promise.  Do not be afraid.  He loves you without measure.  And He has traveled to the lowest depths to claim you as his own.  In the name of Jesus. Amen.      

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Instant Black Bean Soup

By Michael Larson  

Prep time: 5 minutes  
Cooking time: 17 minutes
Serves: 4 - 5
Easy to make in a larger quantity 

2  (15 ounce) cans black beans, undrained 
1/2 cup salsa - mild 
1 Tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon black pepper (optional)
1 16 ounce can chicken broth  

(use the following to add garnish after served in bowls)
1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
5 tablespoons sour cream, optional
5 tablespoons minced green onions, optional, but adds a lot  
1 lime sliced

1.  Place beans (do not drain liquid) in a medium saucepan.  Partially mash beans with a potato masher.  Place over high heat; stir in salsa, chili powder, and broth.  Bring to a low boil.  Then reduce heat.  
2.  Ladle soup into bowls.  Top with cheese, sour cream, green onions, and slice of lime.  

This soup is excellent!  The cheese and sour cream are fine if you just use a teaspoon or so.  Diced cilantro is  also great as a garnish.  Enjoy!   Serve with tortilla chips if you would like!    

Monday, January 25, 2010

Pastor Senkbeil and myself at the Omaha airport returning from a great DOXOLOGY retreat

"But at your word I will lower the nets"

And when he had stopped speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep and lower your nets for a catch.’  And answering, Simon said, ‘Master, working hard through the whole night, we took nothing; but at your word I will lower the nets.’  And having done this, they enclosed a great number of fish, and their nets were at breaking point” (Luke 5:1-11).

The great catch of fish pericope flows from this first action: “the crowd was crowding upon him and hearing the Word of God” (v. 1).  The crowd was hearing that preached Word of God (logov tou Theo) proceeding from the mouth of Jesus, whom was and is God.  He is the maker and preserver of life, the creator of all created things, whom governs the winds, seas, and stars.  The following pericope, and all of Holy Scripture consistently reveals the speaking God and the church whom hears and is acted upon.  Luke does not leave an ambiguity about Jesus’ preaching here.  He does not suggest Jesus is merely providing a message or lesson, but rather that the crowd is ‘crowding’ in and around that logos - in that act of hearing and receiving that very Word of God spoken from that speaking God whom comes to earth in flesh.  Here God the creator speaks as creature in creation to the creature.  That faithful reception – that heard and appropriated Word of God is what catches, hooks, and raises that which is reeling and lost in the dark deep.

He said to Simon “put out into the deep and lower your nets for a catch.”  Simon of course responds “Master, working hard through the whole night, we took nothing: but at YOUR WORD I will lower the nets” to which fish filled the nets to their breaking points – such an abundance that their boats are near sinking.  It is that Word – that logos – that catches fish in abundance.  The nets must be lowered, and preaching must proceed and be let loose only from His Word.  Preaching that is lowered into the deeps by one’s own work catches nothing and returns empty.  That pure and eternal Word let loose into the deeps, catches and retrieves all that for which it sets out to do, “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Is. 55:11).

Simon’s response may serve as the voice of all failed and void evangelistic ideologies, “We have been working but not catching fish!”  That tireless working – those programmatic preparations all come to naught.  Church programs, ‘social ministries,’ and methodistic tendencies may create a real ruckus but that ship is hardly steady, and filled with leaks and holes, without a chance at docking at dry land.  Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it; Unless the Lord guards the city, The watchman stays awake in vain” (Ps. 127:1).  That fish or “catching men alive” (v. 10) – that building up, is accomplished by letting down the nets at the Word of God means something quite different.  That our Lord likens his creative work to catching with nets, means something completely contradictory to the godless ideological evangelistic cults that boil down God’s church to either a “making a decision for Jesus” or something to which is must subscribe or buy, based upon the appeal of the sell. 

The nature of God’s Word as a net does not provide fish with a ‘decision’ to be caught or not.  A net grabs and takes unconditionally.  There is no waiver for those fish, with a legal document, asking their permission.  They are simply taken against their will.  Likewise in that act of preaching and in Christian baptism God grabs his people by way of His spirit guiding, pushing, blowing, and carrying his flock toward him to be received.  Our Lord does not dangle sweet smelling bait before our nose hoping that we might bite.  He force feeds his blessed church with food that truly nourishes, strengthens and builds it and drink that is in fact a river of life.    

By God’s great mercy and love He is not seated at the far end of heaven waiting for his church to make a decision.  In the words of Dr. Nestingen, “God knows his chances!”  They are not good.  The church is made and created by God’s Word, not sold, bartered, and baited.  She is caught, captivated, and jealously retrieved from the deeps.  She is married and wedded to her groom.  The church’s existence and life is not a choice, though we are culturally and philosophically marred by a pro-choice fantasy.  To limit and make God’s work and wisdom dependent upon the inner subjective consciousness of the individual believer is the greatest blasphemy against God’s honor in the history of Christian thought.  It is absolutely impossible to transgress the first commandment in a more forceful way, reducing salvation, the Gospel, and heaven itself to a matter of the individual believer’s programmatic and ego-craving human will.  It is the mark of the enthusiast who thinks that God deals with him apart from his instruments – resurrection preaching and heavenly feeding.

“Enthusiasm cling to Adam and his children from the beginning to the end of the world – fed and spread among them as poison by the old dragon.  It is the source, power, and might of all the heresies, even that of the papacy and Mohammed.  Therefore we should and must insist that God does not want to deal with us human beings, except by means of his external Word and sacrament.  Everything that boasts of being from the Spirit apart from such a Word and sacrament is of the devil.”[1]

His understanding of God may as a result become either a mere noetic internalized reference point, ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so,’ or the aloof existentialism of Tillich ‘I’ve made God the center of my life” or “ultimate concern.”  The speaking God is demoted and the thinking man is promoted.  Christianity in the process becomes an idea and an impersonal monistic force, probably having its roots in Kant’s ravaging of traditional metaphysics driving a wedge between that which is seen and heard and the mind’s personal and privatized mental construction of that idea.  Where is the church?  In the midst of epiphany the world quakes in its uncertainty about its location, for the hearing and confessing church may or may not be – “to be or not to be” - for its basis is relegated to the individualized reference point of that anxious and uncertain individual. 

What is the church?  Thanks be to the blessed Dr. Luther and the wisdom of the Smalcald articles, “God be praised, a seven year old child knows what the church is: holy believers and ‘the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd”[2]  Only here we understand the meaning of “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:3).  That is, the philosopher, or man as doer, thinker, justifier, and maker must be reduced to a child.  He must be stripped of his doctor’s robe that his speech may be stopped.  He must be made hearer and child, and descend into holy baptism and be made wise in that foolishness of God.

That our Lord sets his Word and net into water is not accidental or happenstance.  Jesus locates the birth and life of his church in the watery womb of baptism.  It is neither an ‘image’ or ‘metaphor’ for his work, but it is his work.  That his Word is joined and mediated in water is the meaning of the word sacrament (from gk. mysterion).  Our Lord joyfully operates in creation, in visible, heard, and experienced encounters, carrying out His work.  He is not embarrassed to use simple water to forgive sin, birthing and washing us into heaven.  Therefore we ought not be embarrassed about those simple means, as if He were still withholding himself for something we deem “more spiritual,” maybe a dream, psychic experience, vision etc.      

Concerning preaching, this little pericope holds maybe the most poetic and succinct expression on the meaning and nature of the preaching office, which comes from the mouth of Simon-Peter, ““Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.”  That is to say, ‘not I but you Lord, I will just let down the net at your Word…I will just let it loose.’           

[1] SA III 9
[2] SA III 12

Friday, January 22, 2010

“We are not saved by our ethics”: Sermon by Prof. Pless before the March for Life

The following is a sermon preached by John T. Pless for the Lutherans for Life Service 22 January 2010 at Immanuel Lutheran Church Arlington, VA.  He has given me permission to post his sermon.  Thank you Professor Pless!

"This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.  If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.  But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.  If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us" (1 John 1:5-10).

The Psalmist prayed “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” We are living in a world where the shadow of death seems to ever lengthen, casting its cruel shade over public and private existence. Last week in Haiti an earthquake shattered the land causing buildings to crumble down delivering death to thousands or even hundreds of thousands; a grime reminder that nature itself groans in travail under the burden of our sin. Even as we are here this morning the suffering that continues there is immeasurable, beyond calculation. We recoil in horror over the immensity of the casualties in Haiti but we cannot forget that whatever the body count from that devastating earthquake finally totals, it will still not come near the tally of the unborn whose lives ended not in collapsing building but in a clinic in the nearly four decades since the passing of Roe v. Wade.
Add to that the way human bodies are treated as playthings to be quietly and efficiently disposed of once they are broken or have outlived their usefulness and we perceive that that a deep darkness indeed has descended on our land. Marriage as a life-long, one flesh union between man and woman is seen as antiquated as homosexuality once barely mentionable is now openly extolled and celebrated. Luther said that a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is, yet our culture’s theologians of glory call good evil and evil good. We call darkness light and light darkness.
In such an environment it easier than we recognize to simply accommodate ourselves to the darkness. I’m told that trout swimming in deep caverns never venturing in streams above ground finally become blind, their vision adjusted to their lightless waters. So too perhaps our spiritual sight becomes dim as the eyes of the soul can no longer distinguish between light and darkness. Like the sub-terrainian trout we become at home in the pitch black of our cultural darkness so everything becomes a drab and dull shade of gray. Like the Pharisees, shocked and offended by our Lord’s healing of the man born blind in John 9, we claim to have perfect vision and yet we become blind; insensitive to the light of God which exposes the darkness of sin.
The darkness of which the Apostle John writes is more than the sum total of your misdeeds. It is more than the sins of abortion and euthanasia. It more than the lusts of eyes and heart. It is more than our weak resignation to the evils we deplore. It is the inborn darkness of the human heart. It what Luther identified as the primal sin from which every other sin is given birth and vitality. It is the sin against the First Commandment; the failure to fear, love and trust in God above all things. It is the unwillingness to let God be God. Like our first parents we retreat into the shadows. We foolishly try to hide from the One who is Light Eternal. We fantasize that there is safety and security in to the darkness for there, we reason, we can take cover and live as though God did not matter and I mattered most to paraphrase one of our confessional prayers.
Root of the problem is that we think we are more reliable, more trustworthy than God Himself. I don’t know if God can be trusted but I can trust myself. Pro-choice is not just a political slogan; it describes the old Adam. We are all pro-choice! We insist on having our say, making our choice, and exercising our free will. We might be persuaded to deliver our lives into God’s hands, but God’s absolute insistence that He is God in all that He does robs us of the freedom to do things our way. Instead we are bound and determined make a god that we can live with, a tamed deity who knows his place and will not interfere with our precious freedom. That is darkness.
No wonder that the atheistic philosopher Jean Paul Satre once said that even if we knew the biblical God to exist, we would have to pretend He did not exist in order to be free in the way we think we want to be free! Despising the One who spoke calling light out of darkness, we want to be free to create our own light. Yet the more enlightened we become with self-knowledge the more dreary and dark human life becomes. To paraphrase an earlier philosopher, if we are own creator there is nothing to stop us from becoming our own angel of death.
There is a temptation for us here today. We might quickly conclude that the darkness is only out there in this culture of death, only out there in this God-forsaking world. We may comfort ourselves that the darkness is out there in abortion clinics or court chambers where human laws seemingly displace divine commandments. The darkness is with those benighted physicians who use the gifts of medicine to destroy life rather than to provide care and healing.
Certainly, the Word of God calls for repentance from all who practice these deeds of darkness. But there is more. You are called to repent. We are called to repent. Listen again to the Apostle: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” God calls us to repent of our failure to speak and to act on behalf of the weak and helpless who cannot speak or defend themselves. He calls us to repent of our readiness to attempt a truce with the darkness; an easy accommodation to that which God abhors. But there is yet more. God also calls us to repent of our self-righteousness – a zeal in the rightness of our cause-that too easily turns into a form of self-justification. “We are not like left-wing politicians and abortionists! Therefore God must be favorably impressed with me.”
We are not saved by our ethics. Our morality does not bring us bask in the radiance of holy light. There is no salvation in virtue no matter how upright or enlightened it may be. There is only One whose blood cleanses us from all sin. His name is Jesus. He is the Light of the world, the light that has come into the world-the light that shines in the darkness of the world and yet is not overcome or extinguished by it.
Today is for us a day of humiliation and supplication but it is not a day of gloomy darkness for our Lord’s Epiphany beams on us. The heavenly star has guided us to the manger so that the words of the Prophet Isaiah are true of us: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land f deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Is. 9:2). I am here today and authorized to announce to you that this Jesus is the propitiation for your sin by His death on Calvary and He forgives you all your sins by His blood, blood that He gives you to drink in the cup of His New Testament.
So walk in the light of His Word. Walk in the confidence that the Sun of Righteousness has dawned on us: This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. Amen.
Prof. John T. Pless

Enjoying the company of Dr. Nestingen and Dr. Feuerhahn 
at a DOXOLOGY retreat in Nebraska

Thursday, January 21, 2010

My Experience with Prayer

If a student or friend asked me how to pray I would point them to the Lord’s Prayer, the fountain and source of all prayer, as well as the entire Psalter.  A couple years ago I was introduced to the short little book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer titled “Prayer book of the Bible.”  This short writing introduced me to a more ordered life of prayer led by the Psalter, the prayer book of the Bible – the prayer book of Christ himself.  In the psalms we pray with Christ and through him, as he is our brother and friend.  The Psalter expresses and encapsulates the whole Christian experience, from the depths of Sheol to the heights of heaven.  It holds the deepest mysteries of the faith from God’s speaking in creation to the sending of His Son and to the crucifixion of Christ - his suffering, death, and resurrection.
I learned here that God does not just set us loose to figure out prayer for ourselves.  When the disciples approach Jesus, begging, “Lord, teach us to pray,” He does not cast them off and say “pray for whatever you like” or “just search your heart.”  He has mercy on us saying, when you pray, say this!  He gives an imperative – a command of invitation and promise, “Our Father who art in heaven…”  

Bonhoeffer in his little book has given me this little bit of advice that I always return to, “We ought to pray from the richness of God’s Word rather than the poverty of our own hearts.”  With those precious psalms we speak back to God what he speaks to us, being joined together in the drama of salvation and the totality of the whole Christian church’s experience in all times and in all places.  We also know from scripture that Jesus and the disciples prayed periodically during the day would have times set aside to pray the Psalter, likely singing/chanting in the familiar way from synagogue worship. 

With prayer there must be times set aside specifically for prayer, hopefully down to the minute.  From my experience, I am too lazy to pray if it is left up to me to decide when it is convenient to pray (hint: it is never convenient to pray!).  It often seems like a waste of time, and if it were up to me to pray only spontaneously or extemporaneously, I would rarely or never pray at all.  Therefore prayer is first and foremost a discipline, a time set aside specifically for meditation.  It is habitual and orderly.  In the Lutheran tradition, we have a real treasure with the prayer offices of Matins and Vespers (I have written more about the Daily Office of Prayer HERE). 

Prayer is not easy.  My first year of seminary I began an orderly schedule of praying the Psalter everyday with a few dear friends.  I would of course miss many of the prayer offices (6am, 11:30am, 4:40pm, and 10:00pm).  I would often be interrupted from my studies or rest from one of the brothers rousting me to join him in praying the psalms, suffrages, canticles and so forth.  The prayer office usually took around 30 minutes, sometimes less, sometimes longer.  When my friend would show up to my door, more often than not I would have a little shoot of rage pierce my heart against him and his interruption.  How dare this pious jerk interrupt me to pray!  I would rather be doing this or that, and what is the use!  Why does he have to bother me?  Of course, I would usually join and 10 or 15 minutes into the singing and chanting of psalms and hymns my heart would be at rest and I would hope to be nowhere else than right there.  There was peace in the midst of those psalms and praying them in the close company of the brothers. 

The old Adamic man hates prayer.  He will do anything to avoid it, and will go to great extremes to find reasons why prayer is fruitless and in vain.  He would rather run from God and have nothing to do with him.  Loneliness and solitude can be great enemies of prayer.  When man was formed God saw that “it is not good that man should be alone” (Gen 2:18).  Man needed a helper not only to tend to his work but the work of prayer and devotion.  Community was given and formed for that need.  The Lord anticipated Adams need and gave him community for work and worship, which in many ways are one in the same.  Man’s work was a worshiping activity in which God spoke and Adam listened and spoke back.                      

Although prayer is difficult and at times awkward, when we hear preaching (viva vox evangelii), pray the Psalter or the orthodox and historic hymns of the church we are in our most ‘natural state,’ not in the sense of Rousseau’s “noble savage” but as man in the image of God, ‘male and female’ He made them, ‘blessed,’ ‘fruitful’ with the ‘breath of life.’  In that cultic activity, man lives by that invitation, “You may eat!”  This is how we can truly be ‘ourselves’ in the highest sense.  That true and natural man lives by the invitation to feast on that Word and promise of God, now given in His person Jesus Christ.  If we look for ‘self-discovery’ in the Socratic tradition, ‘know thyself,’ we ought to look to the Psalter above all else, “For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother's womb,” (Ps. 139:12).  In the Psalms we know and claim the thoughts of God toward us revealed through David’s seed, our Jesus

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Rising from Haiti

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1st Corinthians 12:12).
(Listen to audio sermon HERE)

Over the last week and a half we have watched graphic news reports of the death toll rising in Haiti.  When the earthquake struck, houses, hospitals, and city buildings were razed to the ground.  Many of those inside were pinned down in the rubble, with violent injuries – left crying for help.  Many Haitians did not escape.  The first reports suggested 10,000 dead, then 20,000, then 50,000, followed by reports of well over 100,000 Haitians feared dead in the aftermath of the quake.

Over the last week thousands of the people of Haiti are sleeping outside of their shattered homes for fear of the aftershocks of the quake.  They sleep next to the thousands of dead bodies that line the streets, covered with white sheets.  There are shortages of water and food.  There is crying during the day and wailing in the night.  Bones have been broken, skin has been pierced, and bodies are being buried.  It is a time of immense suffering, where the age old question has surfaced again from the religious and unreligious – “why…why did this have to happen.”  What happened to Haiti, you cannot put into words.      

Saying such things as, “it will all be ok,” or “don’t worry God is in control,” or “everything works out for the best,” are phrases that sound awfully hollow during this time.  They simply fall short.  For those suffering and for us watching, grieving and praying these words seem to collapse, offering no true comfort.  Meanwhile, we see the pictures of the maimed and those lifeless bodies lined on the streets.  There are simply not enough tears for the sorrow. 

God does not provide his creation with answers that are always satisfying to our understanding.  That is, in this dying world, there are many trying times when we cannot directly see God’s mercy.  In the human experience it often appears that God is hiding or not present at all – maybe even angry.  Luther once wrote in the midst of violence during his own time that God often “looks as an axe wielding murderer.”           
Yet, in the midst of that terrible suffering and crying in the night, there are voices which have already shone forth – piercing the darkness.  Once such voice is recorded from 11 year old Anika.  Anika was pulled out from under the rubble two days after the earthquake leveled her home.  The girls legs had been crushed, and we can only imagine the sense of pain and fear that she had to go through.  Doctors reported to a CNN news correspondent that they had told little Anika that they would have to amputate her feet.  Anika responded that she was not afraid and did not care.  She prayed right before the doctors saying, “Thank you God, because he saved my life…If I lose my feet, I always have my life."[1]  It is as if she spoke the Word of God herself, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Gal. 2:20).  Anika later that day died from her injuries.      

It is only the work of the Holy Spirit that a child can confess life in the midst of death all around – and in the face of her own death.  Little Aniaka, an 11 year old girl from Haiti, confesses the same faith as Saint Paul the apostle and all Christians.  She confesses that the earthquake is not her end, just as we confess that the tribulations we face, small in comparison to hers, are not our end.  Our troubles, our shame, our hardships are not our end.  Our sin, our painful bodies, cancer in the family is not our end.  With Anika we say, no matter what happens, no matter was terror comes my way, ‘Thank God because I always have my life.’ 

God has the final say - the last testament, “I am the vine you are the branches, take eat this is my body…arise and live!”  The apostle Paul preaches that we are all one body in Christ.  That is – we suffer together and die together in Holy Baptism and in the gospel.  Right now, Haiti is that suffering body of Jesus Christ.  Being in the one body of Christ is not metaphorical of an idea.  Being united with suffering Haitians in the body of Christ is a historical event.  It is a present, daily reality that we are all a part of.  And just as we are united with Christ in his suffering death so we are joined in His body in the resurrection. 

When we confess the Creed, we confess that we believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come.  This is our final confession to those questions that we cannot fully answer.  This was Anika’s confession, for she knew that her own life and her own body was bound up in the life and body of the living God, whose life and righteousness He freely gives us.  To a world that is at times a screaming nightmare, here we find our Sabbath rest – our Sabbath answer to things we cannot understand. 

To be united with Aniaka and the Haitian people in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is 1000 times surer of an event than that earthquake.  At His appointed time our Lord will wake his whole Christian church on earth from its slumber and pull them from their graves.  Those broken bones will be healed. Anika’s legs will be restored to her, pierced skin and every wound will be healed.  Every afflicted body will be restored and given a heavenly body, free from all pain and all suffering.  The thousands of bodies that line the streets in Haiti will be raised and glorified.  All that which has been lost will given back one hundred-fold.  Though weeping may tarry for a night, joy will come with the morning.  Every tear will be blotted and dried by our gentle Lord and Good Shepherd Jesus.    

There will be no shortage of food or water.  But food and heavenly drink in abundance.  Though there are many more tears to be cried, singing now dominates the sounds of the Haitian streets.  And giving thanks, praising and singing, are the bodily activities of the people of Haiti.  There are reports that the two favorite hymns are "O Lord, keep me close to you" and "Forgive me, Jesus,” which are prayed and sung around the whole city.  Those faithful know that our gracious heavenly Father will have the final say.  Arise and live. 

We are all one body in Christ Jesus.  We look for the resurrection of the dead and to be raised to the right hand of our Father.  This is why the body of Christ sings for joy.  This is why Haitians are praying and singing in the midst of death.  We are bound for glory.  Bound in and for the body of Christ.  We know that where Christ is, there we shall be also.  Though the earth may quake and tremble we cannot be moved.  And though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea we have our strong refuge.  God is with us.  He has heard and answered every plea of those in Haiti, just as he has answered our prayer. 

The city of heaven has been made ready for all by Jesus.  This morning we sang of that last and final Word of God – that true and final comfort.  Here the body rests. 

“Ills that still grieve me
Soon are to leave me;
Though billows tower,
And winds gain power,
After the storm the fair sun shows its face.

Joy e’er increasing
And peace never ceasing:
These shall I treasure
And share in full measure
When in His mansions
God grants me a place (LSB 726 stanza 3). 

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Lord, Have Mercy - Prayers for Haiti

In all time of our tribulation;
In all time of our prosperity;
In the hour of death;
And in the day of Judgment: Help us, Good Lord.

To give to all nations peace and concord;
To preserve our country from discord and contention;
To give our nation perpetual victory over all enemies;
To direct and defend our President and all in authority;
And to bless and keep our magistrates and all our people;
We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord

To behold and help all who are in danger, necessity, and tribulation;
To protect all who travel;
To preserve all women in the perils of child-birth;
To strengthen and keep all sick persons and young children;
To set free all who are innocently imprisoned;
To defend and provide for all fatherless children and widows;
And to have mercy upon all men;
We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord.

To forgive our enemies, persecutors, 
and slanderers, and to turn their hearts;
To give and preserve to our us the fruits of the earth; 
And graciously to hear our prayers:
We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord.

O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, We beseech Thee to hear us.

Gerhard O. Forde (1927-2005) on Preaching...

‘And so there was only one course of action left: I could only give them the treasure!  Do it to them!  I could only surprise them absolutely by daring to say to the hearers, “You lucky stiffs, you have stumbled onto it here and now because I am here to say that Jesus died and went into the blackness of death and still overcame for you.  I am here to say your sins are forgiven!  There it is!  The hidden treasure!  The kingdom of heaven.  The preacher has to have the audacity to exercise the office of ministry, the audacity to believe that the very moment of the preaching is itself the sacrament, the audacity to claim that from all eternity God has been preparing for just this very moment and thus to say, “Here it is, it for you!’[1]

[1] Forde, Gerhard, and Steven Paulson. The preached God. Eerdmans Pub Co, 2007. 97. Print.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Modern Myth of Autonomy

For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” 

It may be that the greatest myth of our times is the idea of autonomy.  Autonomy comes from two Greek words, meaning ‘self’ and ‘law.’  And more precisely “that I am a law unto myself.”  The person who believes in his own autonomy owes no allegiance to anyone.  He belongs to no one and asserts his own self-determination.        

We self-determined Americans often take this to an extreme.  And we are very good at it.  We hold a near religious devotion to what we call “independence.”  Indeed, our country is based upon a ‘Declaration of Independence,’ where we declared ourselves free from the British empire in 1776.  The high praise and devotion we have for the virtues of ‘independence’ and ‘autonomy’ are deeply ingrained into the American psyche that we can only begin to understand.  It is a part of our philosophical DNA that we can barely part ourselves from.    

At the turn of the Millennium, the longest running number one hit on the billboard 100 was the song “Independent Woman” by Destiny’s Child, or now by the more well known Beyonce.  It is now common for young girls to be told to be fully independent and self-supported before they even consider the prospect of marriage and family.  If one truly wants to avoid any shame in the family, they are to be independent, with their own apartment or house, their own car, and their own things. 
In old age we hold a special affinity for ‘independent living.’  In our intense creed for autonomy, independence and privacy, we have maybe by mistake become more isolated and lonely than we ever intended.  In a recent book by Robert Putnam, titled ‘Bowling Alone’ the author surveys the massive social disengagement over the last 50 years from virtually all civic organizations.  Using bowling as an example, he chronicles the retreat from community and league bowling to private entertainment of tv and video games in the privacy of one’s own home.   

The great poet T.S. Eliot rather prophetically predicted the consequences of technological recreation with the following remark, saying, “The remarkable thing about television is that it permits several million people to laugh at the same joke and still feel lonely.”

While the idea of privacy, independence, and autonomy may be characteristically and emphatically celebrated American virtues, we can hardly say they have anything to do with Christian virtues.  The gospel of independence and autonomy is hardly a gospel at all.  It is not good news to be radically independent.  The idea of autonomy, owing nothing to anybody, is itself a great delusion. 

All we need to do to prove this is to look down at our belly buttons.  We did not create ourselves but are created beings coming from the womb of our mothers, fed and nourished through the body of another.  From our conception to our death, there is nothing independent about us.  We are wholly dependent upon others for everything – from the food we eat, to the shoes we buy. 

“Dependence” is good.  “Dependence” is a virtue of the Gospel.  Shameless and helpless dependence is a gift.  For no independent woman or independent man, however determined, can navigate the deep ocean of human suffering on their own..  We depend on the love of our parents and our friends.  We depend on them for support and compassion.  We depend upon the whole Christian church. 

Every Christian, as if an infant child, is completely and utterly dependent on the prayers prayed by the church.  And more than anything Christians depend on their Lord Christ who answers every prayer.             

St. Paul destroys the myth of autonomy – that we are independent and a law unto ourselves – when he writes to the Corinthians, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” 

There is no room for independence at the church pew and altar rail.  And though we have the ultimate safety here, it is hardly a private affair.  Here we gather with all the saints that have gone before us.  Here we have holy communion, - blessed community - with one confession - as one people – united in one heavenly body.  At this place the Lord Christ marries His bride the church and begets children. 

Our God, with all his glory and splendor has never desired to be independent and alone from His creation.  He cannot bear the thought of that.  And he cannot bear the thought of our own independence.  When we sought our independence by hiding from God in paradise He lovingly called out to us, “where are you Adam?”  When He saw that we had joined ourselves to that false lover Satan he was grieved in His heart. 

He raced to earth to chase us down and win our love.  He sought us by being born into a body of flesh like ours.  He dipped himself into a baptism like ours, not to be cleansed from sin, but rather to be bathed in ours.  The sinless Son was baptized into sin – to free the prisoner by becoming the prisoner – and save the oppressed by being pressed to the cross.

As he marched to calvary’s bloody hill, he sought not his independence but to be joined bodily to his creation.  His creation that he formed by the tender love of his hands and the breath of his mouth.  Presiding in His sanctuary He speaks as if celebrating at a great wedding – “I am the Lord your God.” 

I am your love and you are my beloved.  My love is your love.  My body is your body.  My future is your future.  My resurrection is your resurrection.  My baptism is your baptism.  My blood is for you.  My righteousness I give to you.  He has called you by your name and elected you to be His own in time and for eternity.  To which we respond with our own vow, saying ‘amen,’ that is ‘I do’ – ‘I believe’ – ‘let it be to me according to your Word.’           
As one family, we are members of one body.  No independent woman and men here.  Just folks who can hardly do it alone, and are dependent on the righteousness of the righteous one.  We are caught up in God’s love in such as way that we can no longer be isolated and alone.  We have been joined to the living God and joined to our neighbor.  We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  As redeemed saints we are not independent soloists but bright stars of a great and heavenly choir, whose praises never end.