Category Archives: Word

Pastoral Letter on Virus

Grace and peace to you.  It has been a week for the history books and something that looks far from over.  As the preschool kids come in this morning I’m wondering both how long RH schools will be open, when they might open again assuming they close, and honestly just as much the immediate long reaching effects that would have on many.  So, we as both a church and a school have a role in the virus.  I intend to do three things with this note.  First, simply state what I think is the truth about the virus.  Second, reflect for a minute on the spiritual nature of plague, maybe recalling a bit the sermon of from Feb 10 (http://www.saintmarkslutheran.org/2020/02/10/a-city-on-a-hill/) on Wuhan which I hoped prepared us a bit as we learned from the saints.  And finally, list a few alterations to our normal Sunday activity by means of a response.

What I Know

  1. We are almost all going to get COVID-19 at some point.  (This is the root of the spiritual problem, more below).
  2. 80% of those who get it have zero to minor symptoms, 15% have a very bad flu, but 5% get sick unto death without modern medical treatments the primary one being intubation.
  3. We don’t exactly know before hand which of those buckets we fall in.  Most of that 5% bucket is those who are over 75 years old and those whose immune systems have been weakened in other ways.  But, if reports from Italy are factual, there are those outside of those groups.
  4. The suggested responses that are going by the term “social distancing” which range from shutting down mass gatherings like sporting events to “work from home” arrangements are not about not getting it (point 1) but about managing the time-scale of when we all get it.
  5. This chart is the best explanation I have seen of this.  If we all get it fast, there is not enough medical capacity to handle that 5% bucket.  A large amount of the 5% will experience the disease as if there were not modern medicine.  If we can get it slowly, stay below the medical system capacity, the death toll is much less.
  6. The absolute best defenses against this are: a) wash your hands aggressively, b) don’t touch your eyes/face, and c) avoid contact with others.  While the virus can spread through the air, most spread comes from close contact.

A Spiritual Meditation

I said that it was that point 1 – we are almost all going to get this – that was the heart of the spiritual problem.  It is what causes the panic.  In one sense everyone, Christian or not, understands that they are going to die.  It is a universal truth.  Even Jesus died.  In times past, mostly due to childhood diseases, this reality was learned early.  Walk through any cemetery more than 80 years old and you will see that reality.  We have lived in a time of medical wonders where most of those childhood diseases have been eradicated.  And abortions are a human willed statistic, not a grave marker.  The result is a society that can largely sidestep any pondering of our universal fate until you start to feel it in your late middle age bones.  This virus, something that we don’t control, brings that reality into the immediate time frame and out of the fuzzy “someday” distance.  And if one has spent one’s life with this reality in the fuzzy distance, staring death in the eye is unnerving.

As a Christian you have two advantages.  The first is the Truth of Psalm 90.  By having a God who is not yourself our creaturely dependence is a daily reality.  We ask for our daily bread in the prayer Jesus gave us.  Our entire existence from the moment of our conception until our death is contingent upon the providence of God and its entire span known and set by Him.

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.  (Psalm 90:2-6)

Now that truth of our contingency, like the truth of death, can make us feel real real small – like that blade of grass.  But the promise of God is that not even a sparrow falls to the ground outside the Father’s care (Matthew 10:29).  You are worth much more than these.  And what God has promised to us he has shown forth in Jesus Christ.  Christ is risen.  You also will rise. 

The Psalmist concludes his meditation.

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. Return, O LORD! How long? Have pity on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands! (Psalm 90:12-17)

As long as we are in this body, we have the work of our hands which the Lord establishes.  When this body wears out, we are with the Lord and his steadfast love.  Today the “Return, O Children of man” is to that intermediate state of which we don’t know much other than it is with God.  But tomorrow, “Return, O Children of man” shall be to the resurrection body and the new heavens and the new earth.  Either way, we truly have nothing to fear.  The Lord will establish us. 

Today we serve the Lord by serving our neighbor.  Tomorrow, the love of God will still empower our steps.

Some Sunday Considerations

  1. If we were 2000 people we might have a different decision, but we are typically 60, so Sunday services will continue until such time as I am told directly by authorities I must shut it down.
  2. The sacrament will also continue.  There have been multiple studies over the years about disease transmission and the sacrament.  All of them have concluded that it is no different than standing in a line.
  3. That said, if you are in an at risk category or are yourself sick, please be sure to tell me as I am not psychic, and do not fret about missing Sunday service.  I have a calling to be a little risky, but that is not yours.  The lessons, sermon and typically at least one hymn or the choir are posted to the church website by Sunday afternoon.  If you wish to keep up with service, that is not the same as gathering together but it is available for your private meditation.
  4. Also, for the sacrament, I will be encouraging the individual cup.  I will not withhold the common as that is not mine to do, but individual cups seem to be an appropriate precaution.
  5. Likewise, if one wishes to refrain from the sacrament, that is OK for a time.
  6. I normally shake hands with everyone after service.  I’m going to suspend that practice for a bit.  This also seems like an appropriate precaution.
  7. We do share space with the preschool.  The biggest area of overlap is the room we use for coffee hour.  The Preschool does a great job of wiping things down, but it seems an appropriate caution to try and eliminate that overlap.  The virus seems to have no effect on kids, but they can be great carriers.  I’m going to ask the coffee hour crew to set up in the narthex proper for a time.  There are also chairs and a table in the bible study room.   We may cancel the coffee for a time in the future, but for now just move it a space over.

Thank you for taking the time to read, and if you have any thoughts or concerns don’t be afraid to contact me.  I found last week’s collective prayer from Sunday amazingly appropriate.

O God, you see that of ourselves we have no strength.  By your mighty power defend us from all adversities that may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Blessings,

Mark

Loving the Idea?

If you haven’t watched The Magicians, you should. It is one of of the best shows on TV. It works on a very simplistic level (I mean c’mon, just look at that cast), but while having the facade of every really bad show kept alive by tweens and their mothers, it has an almost fathomless depth. This article gets as some of that. But one part of this past season was very likely the theological problem of our age.

The character who was probably the main character (which is actually a question in the series), has a monologue that stands at the climax of the season in which he asks, “Shouldn’t loving the idea of Fillory be enough?”

The simple answer is no. But I think that article, and most of the comments I’ve seen, get it slightly wrong. They want to talk about love. But that is not the searing heat of that question. For all of our faults, we know love when it is given. We may hate it, but we know it. The cross of that question is “the idea”.

We all carry around with us the idea of perfection, or the idea of escape (Fillory in that series), or simply “THE IDEA”. That idea could even be our idea of the church or our idea of God or Jesus. And we want credit for loving our idea. Shouldn’t that be enough?


And the answer is no. Because that idea is just ourselves, and not even ourselves, but some picture perfect presentation of ourselves.

Jesus loved sinners.

If you are loving the idea, kill the idea. The only thing that is enough is loving the reality.

Notes on a Saturday (Re-upped)

HarrowingofHell1The scriptures are rather silent about today. The Nicene creed goes from “he suffered and was buried” to “and on the third day he rose”. Notice how the Nicene creed even skips the flat declaration of Good Friday, he died. The apostles creed though states he “was crucified, died and was buried”. The east, the seat of the Nicene Creed, dealt with what we would call Nestorian sensitivities. The west, the seat of the Apostles Creed, was clearer. That apostles creed continues with the line “he descended into hell”. It is a line that has baffled moderns for a long time. A bafflement that I think stems from an obscuring to the scriptural teaching. Not a loss, but a shift of emphasis. The creedal hope is resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. The obscuring is something like: my eternal soul goes to be with Jesus. Going to be with Jesus is true, and it is comforting, but it obscures the real hope. Our hope is that in Christ we will attain the resurrection of the dead and life in the age to come. The descent into hell, only really attested to scripturally in 1 Peter 3:18-20, is for a single purpose.

Like I often say about Pentecost, Easter did something. It actually did many things, but I’m focusing on one thing here. What Peter writes as Christ “proclaiming to the spirits in prison”, the artists have a very clear image of. My favorite hymn capturing is the verse from Hark the Glad Sound. He comes the prisoners to release/In Satan’s bondage held/The gates of brass before him burst/the iron fetters yield. (Hark the Glad Sound LSB349). But visually the iconographers have it.Harrowhell2 I’ve placed a few around this post. This is the harrowing of hell. The psalmist would talk of “going down to the pit”. The word that usually stands behind that is sheol. And it is one of those difficult to translate words because our conceptual framework has shifted. The KJV often just translated it as hell. Except for the pagan undertones you might say underworld or abode of shades. Before Good Friday and Easter that flaming sword keeping us out of Paradise was there. We were in bondage to the spirits of this dark realm. What the descent into hell means is that victory parade of the faithful souls out of sheol to be with Christ has started. Adam and Noah and Abraham and Jacob and David and Sarah and Ruth and Leah and Rahab and you get the picture. In fact look at this picture and you see the crown on the one soul. That is not the “crown of life” which would simply be the nimbus or the halo, but the representation of David, freed by his Royal Son.
Harrowhell4

The is the harrowing of hell, a term I think that needs to come back into everyday usage. If we talk of a harrowing, it is an escape, a jailbreak by divine means, from situations that we get ourselves into and can’t get out of. When we confess that he descended into hell, we confess that Christ has come to our lowest point and brought us out. That lowest point is death to sin. Appropriately Peter continues in that next verse (1 Peter 3:21-22) to talk about baptism. Baptism is our harrowing. Every remembrance of our baptism (confession & absolution, confirmation, awakenings through life) are a harrowing. We have been harrowed out of the chains we often put ourselves in. This last painting I think gets at the core of this victory parade. That carved out tomb was deeper than we can imagine. But Christ has knocked in the doors. Satan is beaten to the side, and the saints marched out from the tomb with Christ. We too will rest in that tomb. But unlike those in former days, we rest with Christ. And we rest in the certain hope of a resurrection like his. A Harrowing is a victory parade. It goes past Calvary and the grave, but like going to Jerusalem it is uphill all the way singing the Halleluiahs.

Harrowhell3

Thy Strong Word

Had an hour on Thy Strong Word with Will Weedon on Job 6. Tough stuff, but good, responses to suffering and taking it to God.

https://www.kfuo.org/2018/09/26/tsw-092618-job6/

I was on the Radio

Hey, I was on the radio. KFUO, the St. Louis based station of the LCMS which also broadcasts over the internet. The particular program was Thy Strong Word with its host Pr. William Weedon who is the LCMS director of worship. We talked Romans 11, one of the best chapters in the bible.

Here is the link

10 Theses on Prayer


10 Theses on Prayer after Teaching 1 Kings 8 and The Catechism on the Lord’s Prayer

1. All true prayer is placing before God his own words and promises
2. This is even more the case when our words are inappropriate
3. We pray that what is certainly true with God would also be true with us, now
4. Thanksgiving is appropriate for when we are given eyes to see what God has done
5. Sometimes the answer is no
6. Maybe worse are when the answer is yes, but we didn’t mean that petition, not really
7. Prayer is the language of the exile who was given a promise
8. Not all exiles have promise, learn to discern holy exile from discontent
9. The prayer of the exile is two-fold. First, sustain a remnant for your name
10. Second, be present with me, here in exile, such that you might bring me home.

The Love You Had at First

The Apostle Paul acknowledges something of a split personality. He was weighty and strong in his letters, but his bodily presence weak and his speech of no account (2 Cor 10:10). I understand this tendency. Our modes of communication, such as texting, can blur the boundary, but in person one is often not willing to be quite as strong as with a pen. The reality of a physical person stirs empathy and fellow feeling where writing quickens the blood toward polemic and argument. That is definitely one of the reasons I write my sermons prior. If I didn’t have the text, I might not have the nerve to say some things that are necessary.

I haven’t written much recently not for lack of topics or subjects, but more because of that distinction. So much of what I want to write ends up falling into the “why” bucket. Nobody has ears to hear. It will just cause divisions. Those who show up on Sunday morning are different in that I am the called Pastor here at St. Mark’s. Newsletters have the same functions. Musings and speculations I’m not as sure they have any real worth other than as grist for what eventually is preached. This one I think does.

Rob Foote, the Pastor over in Ithaca, is a great preacher. It comforts me that a preacher as good as he is feels the same struggles over numbers that I do. That is no excuse and might be a sin in itself, but if the man with five talents is breaking even, the man with three talents has some space. Pastor Foote in what was essentially a homiletical footnote (it was that good a sermon that I could ponder of footnote for a week) made a comment about the Letter to the Church at Ephesus. If you don’t know it, it is the first of the seven letters of Jesus in the book of Revelation, specifically Revelation 2:1-7. The seven letters depict seven churches is various states of health. There are different schemas, but most people recognize a decline. Ephesus being the most healthy to Laodicea barely being a church. All the letters have roughly the same outline. Jesus praises them for something, but then he rebukes them for something, finally he leaves them with a promise. Ephesus is praised for: its works, its toil, its endurance, its testing and wisdom in doctrine, its bearing of the name. If you were trying to put metrics on discipleship, Ephesus is taking it to 11. But then Jesus notes “I have this against you, you have abandoned the love you had at first.” Being about love it is obviously very important to the God who defines Himself as love. But what does that mean, especially in the context of endurance they are praised for?

Pastor’s Foote’s speculation hinges on what comes next. Ephesus is correctly called out for “hating the works of the Nicolaitans, which Jesus hates.” The juxtaposition of love and hate is enticing. Who were the Nicolaitans? Clement (1st Century) is quoted by Eusebius (4th century) in his work Church History as saying that the Nicolaitans were: a) a heretical group led by Nicolaus, one of the first seven deacons chosen (Acts 6:4) and b) a heretical group given to “unrestrained promiscuity among the members”. A story is related that Nicolaus, “had a beautiful young wife, after being commanded to ‘treat the flesh with contempt’, he brought her forward and said that anyone who wished could have her.” The result of originally perusing such asceticism was eventually a rejection of the law. The works of the Nicolaitans were gross immorality and rejection of the law. These Jesus rightly hates. But Pastor’s Foote’s speculation was the falling from their first love was a giving into hate of the people. Instead of sincerely desiring and working for their repentance, which is the act of love, the Ephesians cast them out without a moments regard.

The first love of Christ was for sinners. “Forgive them, they know not what they do.” “While we were still sinful, Christ died for us.” We are not far removed from the passion story. What those disciples wanted, what we often want, is exactly what the Chief Priests were hurling at Jesus. “If you are the Christ, come down from that cross.” The implied action is to come down and kick some butt. Kill those who nailed you to the tree. Deliver your people, Israel. Restore the Kingdom. Man up. In a time where the church is the butt of many jokes, is pushed the edge of respectable society and feeling the pressure within to capitulate to gross immorality by changing the law, that feeling is recognizable.

Let me share a more personal example. Recently there have been rumors of a second Supreme Court Justice retiring. As someone who thinks the Roe vs. Wade stands as the most inhumane and evil rulings in Unites States history (and yes that includes slavery, how can you compare the death of 1 million babies a year and turning mothers against children to anything else), that is welcome news. But my thoughts quickly went past simply replacing say Justice Kennedy. They flew to the thought, wouldn’t it be great if Ginsburg were to die tomorrow. My hate of her works is justified. My hate of her is a sin. The proper thought is a prayer. “Lord, forgive her, she does not know what she does. Convert her to the truth.”

The first love of Christ was willing to endure humiliation and death to save sinners. We have fallen from our first love when we can no longer witness to the truth even if it is tough. We have fallen from our first love when we give in to hatred not of the works, but of the person. In reality, that is a fine line. It calls for being as strong in person as in letter. Something that even Paul struggled with. Christ ends the letter of the Ephesians with this promise, “to the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life.” In Christ we are right now more than conquerors. He has already given us the victory. Our life is hidden with Him. We should live like it. Not being given to hate, but to love. Not to love in a weak way as in “I love you man”, but love in a strong way, a way that endures the cross.

On the Radio (KFUO)

In case anybody would like to hear a bible study. I was on KFUO-AM this past Tuesday with the morning homily and bible study. We looked at Matt 14:1-21. Here is the link http://www.kfuoam.org/2016/10/18/ht-2016-10-18/

Remembrance (October Newsletter)

Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you; you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me. – Isaiah. 44:21

I’ve never been a specific date person. If you asked me how old I am, I’d have to calculate it. Probably after looking at my driver’s license to check the date. And I recognize that there are people who get offended when you forget specific dates, but such things to me have usually been abstractions. It is real hard for me to fix emotion to an abstract calendar. There are concrete things that make me recall past events. For example walking around Darien Lake this summer one of the things that is unmissable is the strollers and little kids being carried on shoulders. Ethan is now past riding on shoulders. But that concrete experience brought to mind the three-year-old we might have been carrying around. Another one would be an upcoming happy event. By the end of the year we will have the car paid off and be back to no car payments. Seeing as the car I drive is almost 14 years old and well over 100,000 miles that might mean it’s my turn. I haven’t driven a new-ish car since the one I leased in 1998 when I got my job at IBM and kids were still just a thought. But I’m in no hurry to lose the Santa Fe. A practical reason is I’m cheap, let’s say frugal to be nice. But that car was my brother’s. He had just finished paying it off when he passed away seven years ago already. Time like an ever rolling stream, soon bears us all away.

Remembrance is a tricky thing. The young are unburdened by it. The old can wallow in nostalgia over things that never actually were. The constant drumbeat of crack church consultants is relevance. Stay in the now looking to the near future. But that has never been the way the people of God have operated. The proclamation of the Kingdom – OT and NT – has always started with the call repent, and repentance is an act of remembrance. It is a remembrance of whose we are – “remember these things, O Jacob…I formed you.” It is a remembrance of His words and His ways – “you are my servant”. Repentance is always an act of memory.

But if that was all it was about, to hell with it. My remembering ends the day I do, maybe earlier. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may as the poet says. But when the bible talks remembrance it may start with repentance, but it always points to something bigger. “Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD (Psalm. 25:7)!” “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom (Luke. 23:42).” Our remembrance ultimately fails. As much as I might be willing to fix the Santa Fe, eventually I won’t be able to, as Jerry’s experience with a model year newer recently reminded me. What the Psalmist begs for is not his ability to remember, but that God would remember him according to his steadfast love. Like the thief on the cross asking the innocent lamb, “remember me”. That is the promise. “Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.”

The church’s remembrance is not a false nostalgia, neither is it focused on a myopic short term relevance. It is sustained in the now, by looking far. By looking to the fulfillment of that promise that all Israel shall be remembered. By looking for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Rally Day

decalogue-windowThe second use of the law is as the mirror. It shows us our sins. One of the old Rabbi’s ways of using the Decalogue was to line up one through five on the first side and six through ten on the other and use it as a diagnostic. (Sorry any reformed/evangelical readers, Calvin and Zwingli messed up your order because two commandments on coveting offended their reason and they needed to bolster their iconoclasm. The numbering used is the Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran.) If your community or society was engaged in rampant adultery (sixth commandment), the deep problem was idolatry (1st Commandment). That particular insight is often found in the prophets where Israel is compared to the harlot. Likewise if your culture is driven by coveting stuff (“ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor”, 10 Commandment), the deeper problem is with the 5th (don’t murder). The presenting problem may be late stage capitalism, but we are willing to make commodities of everything because we have already made commodities of each other. We can see this in cases big and small, the over 1 million aborted a year to the Chicago murder rate. And if you take Jesus in the Sermon in the mount at his word that hating your neighbor is murder, well our every 4 year festival of hatred where the people wearing the other color are compared to Hitler and real friends are sacrificed should be troubling.

A particular outgrowth of that media cycle that I find almost like cat-nip is the attributing of the worst possible meaning to whatever the red/blue flag bearer said yesterday. Charity assumes that what was said has some reason behind it, that there is some way in which it captures truth, until the pure malevolence of the speaker is proven. I may not understand it, but it is my moral obligation to attempt to or at the least assume there is one. This is the 8th commandment’s territory. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor which Luther glossed with a positive force of “defend him, speak well of him and put the best construction on everything.” Not being a Pollyanna type, more specifically being a hyper-analytical person who likes winning, I have too often put those traits not in the service of charity but destruction, of figuring out the worst possible meaning and imputing that to the speaker. It has been a conscious effort and struggle of mine to control that impulse. It is depressing how often I fail.

That might be the sin that lives in my members, the battle against the flesh, but if I look at the parallel commandment, the 3rd (Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy), I think I am staring at what the world is attacking. When asking what does this mean Luther wrote that “we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” That Sabbath commandment to Luther is about our handling of the Word of God. As Jesus would say “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The Word of God is given to us for our good. If I am willing to intentionally distort my neighbor’s words, that stems first from my willingness to impugn God’s word. When God’s Word is not taken as sacred, it is real easy to treat my neighbor’s word as trash.
We can lament that the world does not take the Word seriously as Alan Jacob’s article in Harper’s a few weeks ago did, but we really should have no expectation of the world doing so. That was part of my response a couple of weeks ago which I posted here. It is another thing when the church neglects the Word. This interview with Kenneth Briggs, the “godbeat” editor for many years at places like the New York Times, talks about what he has seen. His pungent phrase is that the Bible has “become a museum exhibit, hallowed as a treasure but enigmatic and untouched.” Until the church is willing to reform its house back into what Luther called “God’s mouth-house”, the place where the Word forms us deeply, we will find it tough living with our neighbors. The church is the salt of the earth. If we can’t treat each other with charity, how will the world know?

I occasionally get asked why I insist on or put so much effort behind things like VBS, Sunday School, Bible Class and confirmation when the numbers are few. My response is usually something like “that is the call”. If the Pastor doesn’t put the Word first, then who will. Do I worry, especially around budget season, that someday that focus will leave me without a paycheck? I’d be lying if I said no. Another thing to repent from – “each day has enough trouble of its own, don’t fret”. So I turn back to the call, to call out all to repentance for the Kingdom of God is near, and to proclaim that now, in your hearing, is the year of the Lord’s mercy. Or taking that out of the high Biblical register, it’s Rally Day. Sunday School and Bible classes are starting again. I’d invite you to set aside a Sabbath to hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn that Word.