Psalm 61:3

Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; for You have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Church Is Awesome

As a community we have seen some awesome things lately.  I am using that word loosely.  A tornado is awesome, not because it is good or desired, but because when you see it and the damage that it leaves in its wake, it makes your jaw hit the floor.  Perhaps the better word is “fearsome”.

                Besides the destruction and devastation, however, there have been many awesome things.  There was the quick response of individuals to help their neighbors.  Many of you drove to New Minden to help pull people out of the rubble and to pick up the pieces of their lives.  You went to the various farms and outlying homes that had been hit and worked into the dark helping to make the clean-up that much more doable.

                And then you stayed.  You did not come for just one day, but many came back the next day, and the next, sometimes finding new people to help, new ways to lend a hand.  Some donated food and water.  Some donated money.  Some prayed.

                And then there was the worship service on Wednesday evening.  Pastors Tim and Jacob Mueller organized an awesome service of Word and Prayer.  And together we raised our voices, both in prayer and praise, in thanksgiving and supplication.  

                As a pastor, I cannot be everywhere at once.  I cannot literally be all things to all people, at least not all at the same time.  So on behalf of the families who received help, on behalf of those who simply don’t have the platform or opportunity to say this, and as the pastor of several who suffered much through Sunday’s storms: Thank You.

                Thank you for being what you were called to be in your baptism.  Thank you for being the people of God, the body of Christ.  As the body of Christ, when one member suffers all suffer with it, and you have certainly done that.  You have suffered together, and it is my hope and prayer that you will continue to do so.
               Disaster, it seems, brings out the best in people.  And the church is no exception.  For a time we are not Republicans of Democrats, Hoyletonians or New Mindenites.  We are one in Christ, one in suffering, and hopefully one in thanksgiving.

                It is a shame, however, that this is what it takes for us to lay aside our differences, to treat one another as fellow children of God, rather than rivals or enemies.  And it should not be that way.

                Too often we are rather slow to forgive.  We are even slower to forget.  We perceive that someone has slighted us, they have insulted us, or committed a sin against us.  And we hold on to that.

                Sometimes even after the person has apologized, even after we have given forgiveness, we eye them with suspicion.  We forgive, but we refuse to forget.  We allow differences, some of them rather petty, and some of them not, to drive us apart.

                When we do this we are dealing with one another in a rather unchristian way.  You see, we only have two hands.  And in those hands we can only hold one thing at a time.  We can hold on to our grudge.  Or we can hold on to Jesus, but never both.

                You can hold fast to your anger, resentment, jealousy, rage, or apathy.  Or you can hold fast to the Gospel of Christ.  But one of them is going to have to go.  There is no way to hold on to anything in addition to Jesus.  Our hands are not strong enough.

                That is what happens.  This is why there are divisions in the Church.  This is why there is anger and resentment: because we take our eyes off Jesus.  We let go of Him so that we may hold on to our own ideas, our own rights, our own responsibilities, our own judgments.  Rather than listening to the Word of God we listen to the voice of our heart, our heart filled with sin, with jealousy, with rage and resentment.

                You are the people of God by baptism into Christ Jesus.  And that has never been more obvious that it was in this past week.  And the vision was beautiful.  It was awe-inspiring.  It was a condemnation of the way the rest of the world does business and a beacon of hope to those living in despair.  And that is what the Church is meant to be every single day.

                I want to read for you the end of our Epistle lesson from this morning.  Saint Paul begins his letter to the Colossians by praising, in great detail, Jesus Christ our Lord: 

“And he is before all things, and in (Christ Jesus) all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church, He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth of in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross.” 

                Our hands are not powerful enough to hold on to anything.  But the hands of Jesus hold all things together.  That is what Jesus was doing on the cross.  He was stretching out His hands between heaven and earth and making peace between God and man.  He makes peace with His blood.

                On the cross Jesus reconciles all things to Himself.  He is the center of the Church.  He is the head of the body.  And without Him everything falls to pieces.  And He does not wait for us to make Him the center of our lives.  He does not await our coming around to realize just how pivotal He is.

                Jesus inserts Himself where He belongs.  This is why Jesus has called pastors into His churches, to keep interjecting Him back into every discussion.  I am here to remind you that Jesus is the head.  Jesus brings reconciliation between warring parties.  Jesus is preeminent in everything.  And hopefully you are here to remind me as well.

                When we let go of Jesus it is impossible to be the body of Christ.  His blood is the glue that holds us together.  His hands are the ones making forgiveness a reality both between God and man, and between man and man.

                And so Jesus keeps sticking His nose in where we may not want Him.  Like a bad penny, He keeps turning up.  He has shed His blood to bring us to God and to bring us together.  And He will not let us forget.

                Perhaps the reason this becomes easier in a tragedy is because when everything else blows away, you only have Jesus to hold on to.  All other options are gone.  But that need not be the only time.

                You are the body of Jesus Christ.  He is your head.  In His life and death He reveals to you His Father.  And in His hands He holds all things together.  He forgives your sins and enables you to forgive the sins of your brothers and sisters.

                Let us not allow tragedy to be the only time we act together as brothers and sisters, as members of one body under the headship of Jesus Christ.  May the events of this past week be one shining example of who we are in Christ every single day.  Amen.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Gone Through Hell

(To the members of St John’s and Trinity, the citizens of New Minden and Hoyleton, to all those affected by the storms of life and seek from the Lord great and abundant mercy; grace, mercy, and peace be with you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.)

                How do you comfort someone who is almost literally going through hell?  That is the pastoral task that was before Jesus Himself as He hung on the cross between two thieves.  “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” begs the one.  

            What do you say to someone like that?  How do you offer them comfort, hope, assurance that everything is going to be ok?  What could even Jesus possibly have to offer this man now?
Tornado debris in New Minden, Ill., Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. Photo: LCMS Communications
            What could I possibly say to comfort you?  You who have lost friends and neighbors?  You who have lost homes, buildings, pets, a livelihood?  You who are at times so overwhelmed by the size and the scope of what needs to be done to move forward that you don’t know whether to get started or to run and hide?  You who are begging to be remembered?

            What can one pastor say to another, or one congregation to another, who has lost their sanctuary?  What words are there?  

            The thief, of course, suffers justly.  He even admits as much to Jesus face.  He is a scoundrel, who deserves the punishment he receives, harsh though it may be.

            For you, however, there is no direct cause and effect.  The tornado did not come because you missed church on Sunday, or because you fought with your spouse, or even, as one news channel reported, because “Father” Mueller celebrated “Mass” at the Lutheran church Sunday morning.  

            No.  Rather, God sees the sin of the whole world.  He sees us all, sinners through and through, and He wants to warn us.  God sends disaster so that we may know what the world looks like without Him in it.  This storm ripped through our region to give us a glimpse, just a short vision, of hell.  He shows us this so that we may repent of sin, large and small, and turn to Him.

            The thief on the cross sees this first hand.  He sees what it is like to go through hell, although he does not experience it.  He sees it, not in his own life, but in the fading life of the man next to him, the Son of God crucified for all men.

            Jesus Christ suffers through a death completely devoid of God’s goodness.  He is forsaken, abandoned upon the cross, to atone for all the sin, all the evil, all awful things that the thief has ever done, that you and I have ever done.

            Because the Son of God suffered hell, the thief does not.  That very day he was in paradise.

            I cannot promise you that today you will be in paradise, at least not in the same way that the thief was.  But I do promise this: because Jesus Christ has suffered hell, you will not.  You are remembered in His kingdom.

            Jesus remembered you at the cross as He prayed, “Father, forgive them…”.  There He wiped away the stain of sin from your conscience.  He remembered you at your baptism.  There He put His name on you.  Jesus claimed you as His own, as a citizen of His kingdom.  He will not forget who belongs to Him.   

He remembers you today, gathering you here to be consoled by His word.  Today He wants you to hear Him: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.  I am with you always.”  This disaster cannot make Him forget you.

            Jesus will remember you on the last day, when He calls you by name from the grave.  “Where O death is thy victory?  Thanks be to God who gives us the victory over death through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  You will rise again, immortal, to live in His kingdom forever.

            He remembers you by sending His army to your aid.  Normally we think of the angels as “the army of God”.  And certainly they are a great and powerful heavenly host, but that is not who I am talking about tonight.  Those who belong to the kingdom of Jesus are His hands and His feet in this world.  We are the body of Christ.

            The neighbors who called to see if you were ok, they are the body of Christ.  The woman who put her arms around you and prayed; she is the body of Christ.  The strangers who stopped by and picked up scrap metal for hours on end; they are the body of Christ.  Those who cooked meals, offered shelter, gave hugs, prayed without ceasing; they are the love and compassion of Jesus Christ in action.
November 17 Tornado
            Jesus remembered you in His kingdom.  He remembered that He cleansed you at the cross, that He claimed you in baptism, that He will call you by name on the last day.  And He sent His kingdom, His body, to your aid.  And He will continue to do so.

            Jesus Christ never forgets His people.  He came into this world to make for Himself a holy people.  He will always remember them.  He will always remember you.

            Like the thief on the cross, you have come as close to hell as you ever hope to get.  And tonight you also have a glimpse of paradise.  You have seen the kingdom of God gathered to help and serve.  Now you see them gathered to receive His Word, and to await from His great and abundant mercy.

            Keep praying, “Lord, remember me in Your kingdom.”  And have confidence, because He will never forget.  Amen.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Child-like or Childish--What's wrong with Rick Riordan?

          I'll come out and admit it.  I have been reading Rick Riordan's books.  So far I have read all 5 of his Percy Jackson and the Olympians  and this first 4 books of the Heroes of Olympus.

          I would love to have a good excuse for this, like I get paid to write reviews of kids books, but I do not.  The only real excuse I have is that I teach in a school where students read things like this and so I want to know what they are reading.  (That is the reason I read the first Twilight book, but I only read one of those.)
          The real reason I have read his books, at least this particular series, is that I enjoy mythology.  Greek, Roman, and Norse myths in particular have always held a fascination for me, and I enjoy stories, movies, and books, that indulge in these myths.

          But something about Riordan's books has always made me a bit uneasy.  And it took me 9 books and several conversations with my wife (who goes so far as to pretend to be interested even when she is not) to figure out what it was.

          I think it is this: Rick Riordan has a childish view of mythology, whereas those who came before him had a child-like view.

          C.S. Lewis, for example, also wrote books for children that delved into mythology (The Chronicles of Narnia).  But Lewis engages the mythological world from a childlike sense of wonder and awe.
          The mythological characters of Narnia, whether good or evil, are never silly or trite.  They are powerful, hideous, beautiful, humble, noble, frightful, and more.

          Lewis engages his mythological world from a point of view of child-like wonder and faith.  Riordan, on the other hand, engages his world from a childish point of view.

          The gods of Olympus are not only petty and imperfect, as they were in the original Greek myths, they are childish, dumb, and goofy.  When Percy Jackson encounters a Titan, or a giant, of a primordial god he has no sense of fear or awe.  These creatures are described in plainly modern terms, wearing modern clothes, speaking in modern English, and reflecting modern attitudes.

          And it makes me sick.  Really, I can compare reading Riordan with reading Dostoevsky in this way only: his descriptions of the world in which we live churn my stomach.  The story is engaging, but the world is gross. 

          Lewis took an ordinary person and placed them in an extraordinary place.  Riordan took extraordinary myths and dressed them up in everything that is silly, ridiculous, and wrong with the modern world.  There is nothing for our children to be in awe of.

          In the end it comes off as very childish.  And what I was looking for was something to inspire within me something child-like.