Monday, March 26, 2012

I adapted this sermon and preached it at St Paul Chuckery this past Sunday.  It is from the book  Selected Sermons from Norman Nagel.  Follow the link to buy the book.  It will be well worth what you spend to have in your library.

Here is audio if you want to listen.

In our reading we have the third and last prediction of the passion, the fifth Sunday in Lent, Judica, which comes from the Introit, "Vindicate (or Judge) me O God."  Who dares to pray such a prayer?  Jesus does.  Through Lent we have been following Jesus toward Calvary.  Our Judica Gospel tells of the last stretch of that journey.  "They were on the road going up to Jerusalem"  Who dares to take such a journey?  Jesus does.

The Disciples hung back in foreboding and fear.  They were amazed and afraid.  Twelve disciples.  Twelve tribes of Israel.  He who leads the disciples is the Lord of Israel, just as the statement of His presence, the bright cloud, led Israel on her journey to the Promised Land, which was entered by way of Jericho.  That is where Bartimaeus is given his sight.  He sees as the twelve failed to see.

Jesus told the twelve, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles."  (Mark 10:33)  The twelve did not get it.  They did not see.  What blinded them was their lust for power and the fear that they might lose out or lose their lives.  First James and John, then the others, were indignant that they might only get third or fourth place or even - perish the thought - twelfth place, the bottom spot.  They were looking to get the top spots.  "One on your right hand, and the other on your left hand in your glory."  (Mark 10:37)  The two brothers just wanted to keep in in the family.  The fight about who gets the right hand spot can wait until later, so long as its one of them.  When we see that sort of thing going on today - nepotism, influence peddling, heads rolling, you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours, jostling for the power spots, simony, who gets to call the shots in the church and who has the greatest influence and clout in the voters meeting - when we see that sort of thing going on it just makes us want to puke in disgust.

Jesus does not puke.  He continues on his way to Jerusalem.  And he draws us along with Him, which means leaving all that putrid and enslaving stuff behind.  How gently Jesus draws the disciples on. "You do not know what your are asking," He tells the brothers.  The place is at his right hand and at his left.  We know who gets those places when Jesus is crowned, proclaimed king, and enthroned, as John says.  Those at his right hand and at his left are those who are crucified with him.  All three of them are numbered with the transgressors.

One of the criminals who hung next to Jesus on the cross mocked Him, "If you are the Christ save yourself and us." (Luke 23:39)  The other rebuked the thief saying, "And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." (Luke 23:41)  The just for the unjust, Jesus is judged as the one who bears the iniquity of us all.  He drinks the cup of God's wrath on sin, before which he shuddered at Gethsemane, "Abba, Father, all things are possible for you; take away this cup from me.  Never the less not what I will, but what you will." (Mark 14:36)  Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him.  He put him to grief when him made himself an offering to for sin.

"For Christ also has once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God." (1 Peter 3:18) Those words are  Peter's words, preaching in his first Epistle.  Yet In Gethsemane Peter also slept, "For their eyes were heavy," (Mark 14:40).  Then he  thought power, (swinging a sword), would help Jesus.  At Caesarea Philippi, Peter spoke for Satan.  Peter wanted no crucified Christ.  In today's Gospel he is indignant with James and John for trying to get the top spots.  Jesus had a long way to pull them when he, walking ahead, went up to Jerusalem.  There is death for them in that Lenten journey.

Jesus speaks of the cup that is His to drink at his baptism, his death that is His to do.  Are you able?  We are able.  "Yes" says Jesus, "they will be yours, and that will put an end to your worrying about who sits at the right hand and who sits at the left.  When yours are the cup and the baptism, you will no longer carry on as those who are not Mine.  Those who are not Mine think of themselves great by how many people they can push around, get on top of, lording it over them, laying it on them from above, great by how many you can make serve you.  That is not where Jesus does His thing.  Jesus is at the bottom of the pile.  The whole weight of it comes down on him.  He is one lump with all sinners.  All sins' enslavement He is slave to - judged, damned.

Jesus spoke of it as giving his life as a ransom for many. Ransomer is Redeemer, go'el and the price is his life.  For many, as in Isaiah 53, Jesus speaks His disciples into that many, as He does also when He gives His body to eat and his blood to drink into our mouths this morning. His blood is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.

Our liturgy follows Luke at this point and says, "For you".  The phrase "for you" evokes faith.  Yes, for me too.  We say, "Amen" as Jesus gives into us His body and blood.  Those to whom our Lord gives His body and blood can pray, "Judge me O God"  If he tosses you out, he is tossing out the body and blood of his son - and He cannot do that.

God did the judgment on you when He did the judgment on your sins on Jesus.  That death for your sin was given you.  It is yours at Baptism.  His cup, His baptism - yours.  There was a putting of you to death in your baptism by words and water and a new "you" was born, a you no longer enslaved to sin.  "I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me." (Galatians 2:20).  It is no dead inert stuff that the Lord gives into your mouth this morning.  As he forgives and enlivens you with his body and his blood, his body and blood are alive  in you in the same way when he spoke of them as a ransom for many, for you, not to be served but to serve.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Vocation and Sport

It's March, the time of year that Michigan State Basketball fans start to salivate and this year more than ever.  After all, Michigan State is coming off a great season as Big Ten co-champions and conference tournament champions.  They are headed to the NCAA tournament as a number one seed with expectations high for a return trip to the Final Four.

What a difference a year makes.  Last season the Spartans were loaded with talent.  Last season they were preseason favorites to return to the Final Four and maybe even win a national championship.  But it didn't happen, far from it.  Instead it was a season marred with disappointments.  They barely made the tournament and bowed out with a first round loss.  

Compare that to this season.  The Spartans started the year un-ranked, were picked to finish somewhere in the middle of the conference. They didn’t appear on anybody’s radar even as a dark horse. But then the season began; two losses to North Carolina and Duke, and then 15 straight wins, a conference championship, and hope for a national championship.  What an amazing turn around!

But that's college basketball. 

Then again, that's human nature.  

In comparing the two seasons, the biggest problem with last year’s team had nothing to do with their talent pool. It had everything to do with performance. The team was virtually intact from a 2010 team that went to the final four.  They should have been awesome. But they were not.  They were a huge disappointment; and the biggest problem was sin.

Now you don't typically hear sports analysts discuss sin as a factor in the outcome of a basketball game. But it’s there. And just like it affects everything else, it also affects basketball. It affects baseball, football, tennis, track & field, downhill skiing, and the luge.  Why?  Because sin affects sinners and the people who play sports are sinners.

So what does that have to do with the Spartans?  They had a roster full of sinners. And that sin got in the way. It’s well documented.  Players were dismissed mid-season for "being a bad teammate".  Locker room squabbles led to on court performance issues.  Star players disappeared at crucial points in the game. And sin was at the heart of all of it.

Sin messes with your head. It hurts your confidence. It creates poor team chemistry.  It makes it difficult to come back from “adversity”.  It does all of these things because it insinuates selfishness pride, greed, shame, lust, anger, all into the minds and hearts and psyche of each individual athlete.

Here's how it works.  Let’s say a point guard steps up to the free throw line after a foul for a one & one.  There can be any number of things that go through his mind.  Much of it is psychological, but it is also spiritual.  He steps up to that line not just as an athlete, his Old Adam steps up to the line with him.  The devil is not far behind.  He experiences pride and lust for glory, anger, covetousness, jealousy, greed, all pulling at him to succeed so he earns glory and fame and power.  It feeds his ego and motivates him so that nothing and no one stand in his way.  It also shakes his confidence.  It hovers around with fear and anxiety.  It diminishes his worth and value apart from his success and threatens him with failure.  He is eager for success and opportunity and at the same time he fights with fear.  Athletic competition is a prime outlet for the Old Adam. It pushes him out from hiding and can encourage bad behavior, just think Shaq & Kobe, Ndamukong Suh, or Cincinnati-Xavier.  Each athlete (or team of athletes) is a sinner and this sin has an impact on his or her athletic performance.

So back to the Spartans.  Does this mean that they had a bad season because they were sinners?  In part.  Are they winning this season because they are no longer sinners?  Of course not.  The Spartans are winning because they are playing together as a team.  Sometimes the law can have that affect.  The law motivates sometimes by threats (a hard week of practice, getting kicked off the team) sometimes by reason (hard work's cause to success's affect is solid logic) sometimes by emotion.  The Spartans are hard, going all out and focused on their goal.  They are playing with emotion, with love for the game, and with each person understanding and accepting his role.  With each person looking out for his teammate.  This is good when it works.  It is much easier to do and to sustain when you are winning.  Losing a few times can really make the wheels a fall off that good behavior. 

There is another way.  For the Christian there is hope for addressing this temptation and sin.  For good or bad I am or have been an athlete. I have competed at the high school level and at the college level and more recently at the recreational level. That is never to say that I was very good. But I played. I participated. And I have experienced these things first hand. I will personally say that an understanding of life under the cross and Christian vocation made me a better teammate, a more consistent performer, and less prone to the attacks of Satan. It all has to do with Christian freedom

I am a sinner. I experienced in game temptations to covet, glory, lust, greed, conceit, selfishness and pride. I experienced the fear of failure that can cause an athlete to disappear in a game. I have had competitors try to get in my head. Understanding myself to be a redeemed child of God enabled me to call those sins what they are, they are sins.  Sure basketball is just a game  but it is also an opportunity for sin and temptation. Confessing those sin gives the right diagnosis so that you can apply the right cure. 

The right cure is the gospel. Christ on the cross forgives those sins. Yes I am tempted with them and yes I commit them. But yes Jesus forgives them. He washes me clean from them so they are gone. What's even better is that as a baptized child of God my sinner is matched to a saint. My God given saint is free from sin and no longer mastered by temptation. That saint is free from fear and free from the devil and is not enslaved by sin and temptation. 

I have played against dirty opponents. Their anger and hotheadedness tends to rub off on other players. But as a Christian I know that Jesus died for my desire to make the game about him and me. I also know that Jesus loves him and died for him and so I can love him too.  I can play the game without losing my composure.

My understanding of Christian Vocation is also a great boon that pays off in athletic competition.  It makes me a better teammate.  On every team, every player has their role.  These roles are defined by their ability and by the game plan set by the coach.  I have been the go-to guy who needs to take the shot.  I have also been the support player who needs to play defense and rebound.  I have been the bench warmer who needs to cheer the team on and provide a moment's rest for the guys on the floor.  Each is important.  Forcing a shot because I want points on my stat sheet is selfish.  It doesn't help the team (my neighbor) so I shouldn't do it.  Hogging the ball or showboating doesn't help the team so I shouldn't do it.  Playing half hearted defense doesn't help the team so I should step up and make the plays that need to be made; hustle, move my feet, take a charge all for the good of the team.  Whatever my role on the team I should play it as a servant to the other members of the team.  My Old Adam says no.  The Gospel sets me free to say yes, to fill my role on the team.

I love college basketball.  As a college basketball fan, I love Coach Izzo.  I think he's a great coach.  I love the way he coaches and the teams he puts together. I love the way his teams thrive on hard work and 110% effort.  But that's not vocation.  It's a system built by reason and logic and hard work.  It's a system that works and produces success.  

The doctrine of vocation is not a system.  It's not built for NCAA tournament success.  It's God's gift to sinners.  God calls them out of slavery to their Old Adam and calls them to freedom and to service.  Vocation doesn't give skills where there aren't any (I can personally attest to that).  But it does call sinners to serve their neighbors (and teammates and opponents) as forgiven saints of God.  It gives the Christian athlete freedom and brings back the joy of God's good gift of sport.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Gospel or Relationship: You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin'

Lutherans are about as warm and fuzzy as Statler and Waldorf. In case these names are not familiar, they are the theater critics/hecklers from the Muppet Show who like nothing and criticize everything.  While light hearted comedy would take place on the Muppet stage these two stiffs sat in the balcony pointing and laughing at the ridiculous frivolity.

Sound Lutheran?   Maybe clich├ęd Lutheran.  But perhaps there is a kinder, gentler Lutheran that doesn’t get the same recognition that your stereotypical Statler & Waldorfian Lutherans receive.

Perhaps the caricature is rooted in the contrast.  After all, Lutheran Christians are not usually thought of as “touchy-feely”.  They are thought to be cold and aloof, especially when compared to what you might find in your average American Evangelical worship center.  What you might find there is most likely to be categorized as what I like to call a Gospel of Relationship.

So what is the Gospel of Relationship? 

It is not the Gospel – or at least not the Biblical or Christ-centered, cross-focused Gospel.  That Gospel is all about Jesus.  It is about what Jesus has done to save sinners from sin, death, and Satan.  The Biblical Gospel is about God’s gift of His Son to die for us on the cross so that we might receive God’s gift of eternal salvation and avoid our much deserved punishment in hell.  The Biblical Gospel is about that gift delivered to you through God’s Word and His Sacraments.

The Gospel of Relationship is about your relationship with God.  Now this is tricky, because the Christian does have a relationship with God.  That relationship involves emotions such as love, joy, excitement, and even elation.  These emotions are good and they are a natural response to God’s love for us.   But that is what they are, a response.  The emotions are not the sum and substance of the relationship; likewise the relationship is not the sum and substance of the Gospel.  In the Gospel of Relationship, instead of proclaiming the Christ centered, cross focused Gospel of Scripture the proclamation is all about relationships. 

There is a view of relationships popular in the secular world today that teaches us that relationships are all about feelings.  Making a marriage work is all about romance.  Romance is all about an emotional experience. The emotional experience is all about intimacy and openness and vulnerability and chemistry.  If you have those things with another person, then you have romance, then you have a relationship that will supposedly last and stand the test of time. 

As one who has been married for 15 years, romance and chemistry and intimacy and openness are great.  They are an exciting aspect to a relationship with another person.  But as great as those things are, you can’t build a lasting relationship on them.  After 15 years most of my mojo has worn off and my wife has heard all of my best jokes.  While I might think my jokes are still funny, they are hardly enough to keep our marriage intact; especially when it comes time to get up in the middle of the night because the 3 year old has nightmares or the 8 year old has a tummy ache.   Likewise, my mojo won’t cut it when it comes time to pay medical bills or taxes.  There has to be something more, a stronger glue that holds us together than just simply an emotional spark.  If human relationships based on feelings are shaky, how much more so will be that relationship with God?

Relational Worship
If you want to see this gospel of relationship in action, the best place to find it is in the worship service.  After all faith is as worship does (lex orandi lex credendi).   The Gospel of Relationship is on full display in the worship service of those evangelical churches.  If relationships are all about intimacy and feelings, then the relationship with God must also be about intimacy and feelings.

Consider the music.  Much of today’s Contemporary Christian Music can be categorized as love ballads to Jesus.  Cartman from South Park has observed that you can take a love ballad, remove the name of your girlfriend, swap in the name Jesus and it would work as a contemporary worship song. The formula works in reverse as well.  Take Jesus out of your favorite contemporary worship song and insert the name of your girlfriend and the song probably works just as well.   Consider the lyrics to this song by Casting Crowns:

Your love is extravagant
Your friendship, it is intimate
I feel like moving to the rhythm of Your grace
Your fragrance is intoxicating in our secret place
Your love is extravagant

Spread wide in the arms of Christ is the love that covers sin
No greater love have I ever known You considered me a friend
Capture my heart again

Spread wide in the arms of Christ is the love that covers sin
No greater love have I ever known; You considered me a friend

Capture my heart again
Your love is extravagant
Your friendship, it is intimate

The song contains a weak allusion to the cross with the mention of sin.  But even if I left that in all I would have to do is replace Christ with the name of my wife and the rest could stay the same.

The Gospel of Relationship is also apparent in the person who is leading the worship service, that is to say the pastor or worship leader.  Having the right guy is absolutely important.  He has to have the right personality, the right wit and humor, the ability to work the crowd and make them feel at ease and welcome.  He has to be the poster boy family man (or woman) who has his (or her) family life all together.  The family has to look picture perfect, like a JC Penny catalog.  If this seems too cynical, picture an frumpy, overweight, middle aged balding guy with a dull personality and jokes that fall flat filling the role of pastor or worship leader in a mega church.  It wouldn’t ever work.  The pastor has  to be the model for the relationship.  He has to look and act and be the part.

Sometimes the Gospel of Relationship also gets shoehorned into the liturgy, and with disastrous results.  The liturgy is adapted to fit this new theology.  Custom creeds and confessions of sin are home baked to reflect this relational gospel. 

Take the creeds.  The ecumenical creeds don't quite fit so new ones are written.  They reflect a new gospel.  In this new gospel it is less important what God does and more important how we relate to what god does or how we relate to each other.    

We believe in God, Creator of the world; and in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of creation. We believe in the Holy Spirit, through whom we acknowledge God’s gifts, and we repent of our sin in misusing these gifts to idolatrous ends.

We affirm the natural world as God’s handiwork and dedicate ourselves to its preservation, enhancement, and faithful use by humankind.

We joyfully receive for ourselves and others the blessings of community, sexuality, marriage, and the family.

We commit ourselves to the rights of men, women, children, youth, young adults, the aging, and people with disabilities; to improvement of the quality of life; and to the rights and dignity of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.

We commit ourselves to the rights of men, women, children, youth, young adults, the aging, and people with disabilities; to improvement of the quality of life; and to the rights and dignity of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.

We believe in the right and duty of persons to work for the glory of God and the good of themselves and others and in the protection of their welfare in so doing; in the rights to property as a trust from God, collective bargaining, and responsible consumption; and in the elimination of economic and social distress.

We dedicate ourselves to peace throughout the world, to the rule of justice and law among nations, and to individual freedom for all people of the world.

We believe in the present and final triumph of God’s Word in human affairs and gladly accept our commission to manifest the life of the gospel in the world. Amen.

There are definitely a number of different theological dynamics in that creed.  But you can't help but notice that much of its underpinnings have to do with the relationships of men, women, children, youth... community, sexuality, and so on and so forth.

If relationship is found in the way we define the faith, then it certainly has an impact on those thing we do that interfere with that faith.  It has an impact on the way we understand sin.  When there is a confession of sins, those confessions are less about Biblical themes of  iniquity contrasted with God's sacrifice and propitiation.  They more about hurts we have caused, journey’s we have taken, things we feel in our hearts.  While it is true that sin interrupts relationships and takes away closeness in those relationships, that is hardly the most necessary thing to confess when we are face to face with God.  Our biggest problem is not that someone has been hurt or disrespected or treated poorly.  Our biggest problem is that we have disobeyed the commands of the Almighty God.

An important thing to take notice of is that the solution for human hurts to human relationships is always a man made restoration.  If my biggest sin is that I was selfish with my wife, then I can restore that relationship by buying her flowers or writing her a card or saying "I'm sorry."  The false assumption is that we have the power to create Christian Fellowship through our love and our forgiveness.  That's not how the Bible says it works.  The parable of the Unforgiving Servant from Matthew 18 demonstrates that our forgiveness is always and only fueled by the forgiveness we have received.  Our restoration with each other only truly happens when we have been restored to Christ.  It is as we keep our focus on what Christ has done and the debt that he has cancelled that we are able to be restored to each other.  This relationship Gospel makes it all about you and me (and Jesus might get an Oscar for a supporting role).

The historic, Christ-centered, Cross-focused Gospel is a different gospel.  It is a better gospel.  It's better because it is all about what God has done and does for you in Christ. God himself in all his power and majesty and holiness and faithfulness shows up every Lord’s Day to care for, protect, serve, and love his very own people.  This Gospel is sacramental  and therefore it is sure and objective.  Christians have a rock solid sign and guarantee of God's love every Sunday regardless of the feelings.  It is Christ centered worship.  It may or may not be “intimate” or relational. 

This is why Historic Christ centered Cross focused Lutheranism is truly the Gospel of Relationship.  The Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners is the only way to a truly restored relationship first with God and then with one another.  It is in the gospel that we have community and fellowship (koinonia)  and love (agape).  Jesus fixes our relationship with him by way of the cross and then by the outward signs of the Gospel found in the means of grace.  With the Jesus Gospel there is no doubting fellowship with God.  It is there in the supper.  There is no doubting God's forgiveness it is there in Baptism.  There is no fear that perhaps some of our sins have not been forgiven because when you privately confess them to your pastor he has attached Christ's forgiveness directly to them in the absolution.  The forgiveness that Christ gives for sure undoes the lies of the Devil and then drives away your bad conscience that used to have you living in fear of your guilt and sin.  You can approach God's throne of Grace in confidence and then you can approach your neighbor in love.  When your neighbor sins against you, you can truly forgive him because as much as it hurts you can look to the cross and see your own forgiveness and then pass that on to your neighbor.  Without this, the relationships we might build are just a dim or hollow or a complete sham.  Without this gospel we are left scrambling to find other ways to make them work with things like Love Dares or Sexperiments.  

The true Gospel doesn't need these any gimics.  It doesn't rely on personal enchantment or chemistry or wit or fresh thinking.  It doesn't need a 40 day long program to make it work.  The Gospel does what it does because God says it does it.  It makes us alive.  It refreshes us with God's love and then it creates in us love for our neighbor.  The true Gospel is a gospel of relationship but it is God's work and God's effort and God guarantee.