February 26, 2016

we've moved

LutheranPastorSays has moved. Find me here, at http://www.lutheranpastorsays.com/.

February 24, 2016

organized religion isn't all we make it out to be

If there's a term that's never used in a positive way, it's 'organized religion'. Religion is fine, as long as you're willing to treat it like your underwear and not talk about it in polite company or show it to anyone on the bus.  Organized religion, though...That's bad. Corrupt. At least, that's what I'm told.

I hear the refrain over and over.  Organized religion is just bad people trying to hold power over a group by invoking the name of the divine.  Just look at all the examples.  The mega-church pastors with their own private jets. The 'reverends' that use that title to launch their political careers and talk shows on cable news. The hate groups. The crusades.  Show me an organized religion, and I'll show you someone who used and abused it for power.

This is where Christians think we're supposed to say, "No! That's not true! Our religion is pure. Maybe it's been abused, but that's the rare exception."  Except, our history is just this: sinners inside the church all scrambling for power.  As our gospel story reaches a climax, that's all we see.  The Pharisees, religious men, seeking to control Jesus. Judas working a back alley deal to betray his Lord for cash.  The disciples arguing over who the greatest is like a running joke gone on way past being funny anymore.  The crowds following Jesus looking for an earthly king. Christians have been after power all along.

It's spilled forward through time, and not just to a select group of other, different people who are clearly wrong and not Christian at all because of it. It's us too.  We have the same quest for power, the same argument that we're the greatest, the same way of selectively quoting scripture until we have someone else to look down on.  We find the same satisfaction in betraying our neighbor's reputation. We confess their sins for them seeking a dark, twisted absolution in the idea that them looking worse makes us look a little better. We spend our days imagining what we'd do if we could punish everyone we know deserves it.  Sit through an ugly voters meeting. Stand at the edge of the crowd gathered for the after-meeting in the parking lot afterward. Tell me organized religion isn't always used for power all you want, but the truth is that sinners like power. The church is full of sinners. Sinners abusing religion for power isn't the fringe, it's sadly been the mainstream as long as more than one person has believed the same thing.

Do you really think God didn't know this? Do you think Jesus didn't hear the disciples arguing about power every single day?  Do you think He didn't know about Judas' betrayal to the Pharisees who wanted them dead? Do you think any bit of it was a curve ball to Him who watched Adam and Eve try to make themselves gods through a piece of fruit, their children murder each other over a church rite, and every other power struggle in our bloody history? He saw it all.

This same Jesus would stand before Peter and say, "I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Jesus started this organized religion. Even knowing what He did, He wanted it that way. He wasn't gathering an activist group, starting a pyramid scheme, or an earthly kingdom. He was gathering His beloved to deliver to them the greatest gifts He had to offer. His forgiveness, His life, His salvation. He was saving them from hell.  It wasn't because they deserved it. It was because they needed it.

In doing so, He shows us what real power looks like. This is a power made perfect in weakness. It's a God who dies for us sinners upon a cross, then gathers us together to pour out that forgiveness upon us.  Christianity isn't about us being pure enough to deserve to be called a religion. It's about Christ being pure for us. For Judas, for the Pharisees, for Peter and John and the rest of the disciples, and for you.

True religion is power, but power used in service. It's what makes it so wretched and painful. It starts as a Christ who had power and used to to bear a cross for sinners who only use it for themselves.  It wasn't just to give us the example of how we ought to love one another.  He died to name us forgiven and loved by God. He died to overwhelm our quest for power, drive that sin into the ground at the foot of the cross, and then rise again from the dead.  That's love. That's a love that goes beyond just thinking nice thoughts in your own head and calling it religion. That's a love that reaches down from heaven and gathers a sinful people in need, and then even works good among them.

I will never call the abuses of power in church good, or even OK. They're sinful. They're also forgiven.  That forgiveness isn't just a nice thought in our heads. It's a real power. Despite countless sins of Christians, the church has always been an outpost for mercy. It has always been organized around that love that cannot be broken.

Organized religion isn't all we make it out to be. It isn't a group of holy people doing good in the world. It's a broken people God gathers and makes holy.  It won't always be pretty. That won't stop God though. He loves you too much to do anything but call, gather, enlighten, sanctify, and keep you.  He will daily and richly forgive all your sins, and on the last day raise you up to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever.

February 18, 2016

we rejoice in our sufferings

There's a dangerous line of reason that thinks good and evil are determined on the basis of how much I like something.  If I like it, it must be good.  If I don't like something, it must be evil.  

So ask a drug addict how good heroin is. Ask me how evil pain is. Start small. Exercise and vegetables are bad. Then get bigger. Ask about real pain. Sickness. Disaster. Those must be really evil. That line of reasoning is going to have trouble with a God who hurled a mighty tempest against a sleeping Jonah. That kind of thought wonders who sinned that a man would be born blind.  It's going to hate a God who lets us hurt. 

God is supposed to be good. So why is He doing all this stuff I don't like? Don't tell me"He's not causing it, He's just allowing it". That's a cop out. An all powerful God who could stop it and chooses not to is culpable.  

I can work with the small stuff. I can say peas are good for me even though I don't like them.  I guess I can see how running is healthy, even though it hurts.  The bigger stuff though...that's what breaks people.  

But what if God thought modest prosperity and temporary happiness weren't enough for you?  What if He wanted to give you bigger blessings than you could imagine for yourself?  What if pain was the only thing to make us look up from our navel gazing and draw us towards the greater gift?

Consider pain God's megaphone to a deaf world. 
It's the Law from on High given natural shape. This Law already has 10 commandments worth of substance. Pain is that substance made concrete.  I can think about the 6th commandment, but I can really feel heartbreak.  A broken marriage hurts because of sin. Pain preaches a law that says sin really does break stuff.  If touching the stove hurts, don't touch the stove. If sinning hurts, don't. 

Honestly, though, if pain has shown me anything, it's that I need help. In the midst of pain, priorities are set straight real fast. Top of the list is "stop hurting".  If we could just stop hurting, we would. Pain is an explicit dance with the Law that shows us our complete inability to save ourselves.  The Law says I can't be good enough to save myself. It breaks my ego and drowns my old adam. Pain is the law part of the sermon you can't tune out or rewrite to be about someone else.  

So what do we say to pain that preaches law to a broken people? There's only one answer.  Law without gospel leads to despair or Phariseeism.  Hurt without hope pushes us farther away
from God and leaves us broken, bitter, and angry.  Ya'll need Jesus. 

To be more specific, not a Jesus who gives you moral examples.  Not a Jesus who doesn't stand for anything but nice feelings and lets you define good and evil as that which you like and hate. Ya'll need a Jesus who is honest about pain, and then loves you enough to not stand back from it.  Ya'll need a Jesus who follows you down into the depths of your pain and bears it for you, then gathers you in to grant peace, hope, and healing to a hurting people.  Ya'll need the crucified Jesus.

The only Jesus worth having in the midst of pain is one who helps with it.  This is the kind of Jesus that doesn't turn to mist when you grab at Him in need.  This is the kind of Jesus who sets up a hospital for the sick and dying to give life to sinners and names it His church, promising that hell itself will not prevail against it. This kind of hospital can withstand my pain.  This church doesn't just peddle nice feelings that I can't sustain when I really hurt.  It gives solid things to grab onto.  Here is where Jesus works.  To baptize. To commune. To absolve. To give hope and healing to a hurting people.  Here He gives the medicine of immortality. The Word and Sacrament. The gospel.

The gospel lets us see pain in a new light.  The gospel trumps our pain.  The gospel is a Jesus who loves, who cares for, and who even saves us.  The gospel means pain is not measured in terms of good and evil.  Pain is that which points me towards a God desperate to give me gifts better than I could ever imagine, let alone deserve.  That let's us see pain in a new light.  We might even say with Paul.... 

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person- though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die- but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.  Romans 5:3-9

God isn't punishing us by hurting. Christ bore that punishment on the cross.  He's pointing towards hope. Hope does not put us to shame, because we hope in something bigger than not hurting. We hope in a Jesus who suffered and died for us.

Our hope is to be close to that cross where Jesus died, even tied to it in baptism, that we would be united with Him in a death like His.  Crosses hurt. Sorry.  Being close to the cross hurts.  Yet, from Christ's pain, good is worked for you. You who are united with Him in a death like His will certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.  You are united in the good that comes from the cross. 

So, even from our pain, God can work good. He can bring beauty from the tortured artist.  He can bring forth new life from the pains of childbirth.  He can display the truest witness of Christianity there is in the invalid suffering in a hospital bed and being utterly dependent, showing the world that Christianity is to receive everything while contributing nothing.  Christ helps the helpless. Christ helps the suffering.

If that's true, then we can even come to call suffering a blessing, like Jesus does. Our suffering doesn't save us, but it points us towards His suffering, which does. 

February 10, 2016

Lent doesn’t force us to be sad, just honest.

I’ve never had anyone pull me aside privately and vent their frustrations about Easter. Nobody’s ever said, “Pastor, it’s just the resurrection. Why do you have to talk about hope and life so much? And why do the hymns have to be so uplifting and joyful?” Lent, on the other hand…

It’s cold. It’s dark. It’s sad. Weeknight services in the middle of February only get so cheerful.

So a year hasn’t gone by where at least one person has asked me privately, “Pastor, why do we have to be so depressing during lent? The hymns are so sad.” If we’re going to be honest, even strictly liturgically minded pastors seem to lean on the emotional side during lent. We dim the lights. We make sure we’re extra descriptive about the blood and the suffering of the passion. We even start out the season by putting ashes on your forehead and telling you you’re going to die. And yes, all the hymns are gloomy. It’s even worse when we’re all giving up things that we love and depriving ourselves of caffeine, chocolate, and beer.

I understand the accusation. Lent is a somber season. But here’s the thing, nobody has ever been saved by being depressed. Nobody’s ever cried their way to heaven, and giving up coffee for 40 days won’t carry you to the resurrection. Lent isn’t about being sad, just honest.

Lent is a call to be honest about what we try to ignore, or what we’ve just adjusted to and call normal. Lent is a confrontation with everything we’d rather avoid. Lent dares to wrestle with a God who would allow us to live in such a dark, broken world. Lent makes us look at that last great enemy we’d rather not make eye contact with. Death. Lent speaks bluntly about everything we try to excuse, and everything we’ve grown numb to. Sin. This season makes the church more than just a chance to escape for an hour a week. It drags in everything you’re running from and talks about it.

All of the piety of the season, the music, the liturgy, the fasting, they acknowledge the reality of the collapse of hope in this world, the destruction hiding in all of our secrets we’re so rightly ashamed of, and the brokenness of humanity that just seems to be spiraling downward.

All that stuff sounds depressing, but Lent isn’t about you. Lent is about Jesus, for you. The season isn’t a chance to wallow in self-pity. It’s about a God whose love for you is so overpowering and reckless that He would follow you down into the pit. He would take human flesh for you on Christmas to stand between you and everything you’re afraid to acknowledge. This Jesus collects every single hurt and every last sin, every sleepless night and every reason things are broken. He carries them for us. Until He is completely swallowed up by them, and our last great enemy death would level Him. Lent is about a God who would dare to die for sinners. Lent is about the cross.

Something happened on that cross. All of those sins that we’re so ashamed of were hung on Jesus. All of the pains that leave us laying in the fetal position were born by Him. All of the wrath of a God who hates seeing what we’ve done to this place is directed against Jesus. And death levels Him, so that this war that has surrounded us since we were brought into this mess of a world could finally be called finished. Your sins are forgiven. Your pains are not your own. Your death is defeated. Your Jesus died for you upon a cross.

The truth is, if all we’ve done in lent is make you sad, we’ve failed. Lent is about the cross. It’s a horrible, beautiful sight. It looks like hope. It looks like salvation. It looks live love. Lent is about pointing a broken people toward the truth of the cross. Not just a cross waved in front of your face until you feel empathy towards a guy up there, but the cross held before our eyes that points us to something stronger than every enemy we face. This cross is love that takes action and shape. This cross actually saves us.

November 16, 2015

this truth is not just fact, it’s beauty.

One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple (Psalm 27:4).

Our churches, even in the Old Testament, have never been bare. It’s because God is beautiful, and He’s really present in His temple. That beauty has and will always give shape to the churches that believe God is actually present in a meaningful way.  Our churches have always been covered with art.

Our church is beautiful.  We hang stained glass windows, banners, crucifixes, candles, chimes, and paraments, all expressing a living faith.  It is a confession of what we believe that shouts at anyone who walks in the door. The art in our church speaks to the ineffable beauty that takes shape where doctrine becomes hope, given by God and embraced by those who seek the Lord where He has promised to be found. The church is a lighthouse, shedding light upon a dark world, chasing away despair and death.  There’s beauty where the faithful, desperate for grace, grasp something real.  When we believe in the promises delivered here, finding art in a church becomes like finding out water is wet.

This beauty speaks to what God does here.  It’s what David expects when He seeks after the beauty of the Lord in His temple.  He will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock (Psalm 27.5).  There is help here. It is for us sinners.  Art speaks to that truth in a way so powerful it can even cover the ugly man called to deliver those gifts. Pastors wear art too. We wear vestments.  It’s not because we want to dress like royalty, elevate ourselves above everyone else, and demand they worship us.  It’s because we know what we look like.  We’re hideous.  We’re sinners.  We’re so unfit to handle these magnificent gifts that we would run screaming from the room unless we were sent by God with a promise that He would work through our sinful hands.  So we hide behind our vestments.  We wear white albs and surplices to show the power given in God’s word to cleanse.  We wear stoles to show we’re yoked into service of this church. 

From the time of Moses, we wore chasubles too.  The ephod, the colored outer garment the high priest wore showed exactly who was at work in the Lord’s temple.  It wasn’t ugly man, it was beautiful God.  This tradition carried on through the Roman Empire Jesus was crucified under, through the Reformation, worn by Luther, and even today.  Our church has been gifted a set of chasubles that speak to a powerful truth.  Something quite literally divine is happening during the Divine Service.  These chasubles, art worn during communion services, express the beauty of the Lord’s promise to work, even by overpowering ugly and sinful men and distributing grace in the Body and Blood of Jesus.  We haven’t had a set in this congregation before.  We welcome them though, not just for the sake of tradition of the church as a whole, but for the sake of the truth our tradition has held on to for thousands of years, and for the sake of the reality that our religion is not just a set of facts, but a beautiful truth that brings light to darkness and saves sinners. Thanks be to God.

November 11, 2015

love is a messy house

My kids are 3 and 1. There's a fireman hat in my bathroom sink. I don't know why. There's dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. That one's my fault. There's toys....everywhere. I trip on them at night. I can never find the one that will stop the crying. It's somewhere. I just don't know where. I don't know where the remote is either. On the other hand, I do know that when crayons find their way into the dryer, they melt into my clothes. I don't care about dust. Dust isn't on my radar. I don't even break stride for anything less than bodily fluids on the "You should probably clean that" scale. No pictures. Just trust me. I've seen some stuff. My house is a mess most days.

I remember when I used to have a clean house. That was before kids. Now, there is only the mess. For all Good Housekeeping tips, there's really only one thing that would keep my house clean all the time. I'd have to get rid of the little people who make the mess. I can't do that. I love them. So I'll play trains while laying on a floor that should have been vacuumed last week and get up to turn on the TV if that means I get to be with my children.

It sounds campy, like an overreaction against old tv sitcoms where living rooms weren't obstacle courses, but this is my life right now. I realize that it pales in comparison to school shootings, child abuse, rape, war, abortion, terrorism, and a hundred other things. I'm pretty sure there aren't Pinterest boards dedicated to glorifying the chaos of our society, just our living rooms. Nobody says "aww shucks, we've all been there" to victims, just parents of toddlers.

When it comes to all the serious stuff, we're a lot less willing to be cutesy about it. The same question always gets lobbed, both by frustrated Christians and smug agnotstics. If there is a God, why does the world look like this? Why not just call down fire upon every murderer and rapist and addict? Why not smite everyone who makes this world worse? Then we could finally have a clean house again.

As quick as we are to separate ourselves from everyone we'd rather see struck by lighting, there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:22-26).

That means we're all sinners. If God got rid of everyone who made the world a worse place, everyone who ever hurt someone He loves, there wouldn't be anyone left. It's really no different than my house. If I just got rid of my kids when they made a mess, things would be neat and ordered again. I'd just be an awful dad.

What if there was a God who actually loved us? What if He even loved sinners who make the world a mess?  What if He even loved us enough to call us sinners His children, washed clean in baptism? Even me, and even you.  What if that God would rather comfort us, even in suffering, than condemn us for hurting others?

That would mean that when God saw that the world was a mess, full of evil people, He would take on the same human flesh and the same weakness. He would not stand idly in the heavens, but would enter into this mess to save us. He would have to be named Immanuel, God with us, and Jesus, who would save His people from their sins.

That is the kind of God who would even be willing to pass over our sins with forbearance, putting them on Himself instead, smiting Himself instead of us. That's the kind of Heavenly Father who sent His only-begotten Son into the world, not to condemn the world for making a mess, but to save the world by dying upon a messy cross and rising from the dead with holes still in His hands.

It would be easy to have a clean and ordered world if there were no sinners here. It would be easy to have a clean and ordered house if there were no kids in it. The thing is, a loving Father can't do that. He can't get rid of you. He loves you too much. He would rather make His home in the middle of a mess than destroy His beloved. It's messy. It hurts. Sometimes I hate it. But God loves us enough to make His home here with us sinners, to die for us sinners, and to save us.

That means He won't abandon us to this mess. He won't condemn us for adding to it. He works in the middle of it to help, to serve, and to save. He kneels in the rubble of it all to hold you close, His dear child who's hurting under the weight of it.

I know this is a scary place. When you look around, you can call a mess what it is. It's evil. It's sinful. It's wrong. But please know that won't keep God away. He still makes Himself present for sinners. He is here in His Body and Blood, given for us sinners to forgive our sins, to cleanse us from every evil, and to sustain us in this world, and even to tie us to the world to come. That means we don't have to wait for heaven for Him to wipe every tear from our eye. That means that when you take communion, God helps you here.

Love is a messy house. Love is a messy world. Love is a God who would rather suffer the mess Himself if it meant being close to you. He will help you and save you and bear you through, even unto life everlasting. Even when everything's a mess, be at peace.

September 11, 2015

don't treat "I'm sorry" like currency.

"I'm only sorry if they are."  No.
"I'll just say 'I'm sorry' and then she'll have to let me..."  Stop.
"When he's really sorry, then he will..." Don't.

On some level, we know how much goes into those two little words.  "I'm sorry."  There's a real cost in those two little words.  Just saying them costs me my pride.  They cost me the argument.  They cost so much that we'd rather not throw them around.  Those two little words are precious. We better not waste them. We better make sure we can get something out of them when we have to use them.
I'm only going to put something in if you match it. I don't want you to have the upper hand here.  It's about leverage.  I'm only sorry if you are.

If I'm going to use such costly words, I better make sure I can get something out of it.  I'll just say "I'm sorry" and then she'll have to let me...

When you're going to give me an "I'm sorry", I'm going to buy something with it. If he's really sorry, then he will...

We treat "I'm sorry" like it's currency.  We buy and sell with these words, and when we do, we ignore the fact that we were already bought with a price.  Christ has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.

“I’m sorry” only comes up when someone sins.  That’s why it costs so much.  When we say I’m sorry, we own up to whatever damage we did. We take on whatever debt is owed.  That’s why it’s so hard to say.  That’s why it’s so magnificent to hear your enemy say it.

The problem is, When we treat "I'm sorry" like currency, we sidestep Christ and His cross. We forget that while we owe a great debt because of our sins, Christ has already paid it.  He suffered and bled for every “I’m sorry”.  He died for you and for all the world.

“I’m sorry” isn’t currency because there’s nothing left to pay with those words.  It is finished. You’ve already been bought.  I'm sorry costs me nothing because it already cost Christ everything. I don't need to trade on apologies.  I already have their worth.

That changes everything.  “I’m sorry” ceases to be about what I owe and becomes a participation in Christ’s gift.  Apologies stop being about debt and start looking like freedom.  Confession becomes about Absolution, the forgiveness of sins.

Christ didn’t wait for you to say I’m sorry before He died on the cross. He knew the guilt and shame that would lock your jaw to those words, and so He paid the price for your sins long before you could ever even murmur those two little words.  Before you ever could say “I’m sorry”, Christ loved you.  Christ died for you.  It is finished.

“I'm sorry” is not rooted in wha
t I can earn from it, but in the cross.  It is nothing less than a participation in Christ’s blood bought gift of redemption, and so it is not a chore but a gift. We can stand as equals, forgiven and holy, washed clean in the blood of the Lamb.  We can see our greatest enemy as someone Jesus died for.

It’s not  "I'm only sorry if they are."  I don’t need to make myself equal to you. Christ has made us each forgiven sinners, perfected in His cross. That’s equality.  I’m sorry because I sinned, but that has already been paid for.

 “I’m sorry" isn’t about how we can cash in.  It’s not currency.  It’s Identity.  I’m a baptized child of God. I’m repentant.  I rejoice in the forgiveness of Christ.