Monday, January 26, 2015

Mark's thoughts: John the Baptist discriminates? - Thoughts about catechesis and culture

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:7-10 ESV)

Recently in catechesis the youth (seventh and eighth graders) and I were looking at Matthew chapter 3 as we considered the ministry of John the Baptist.  I had asked them to describe John the Baptist’s preaching and message. The response from several catechumens was not exactly what I expected.  As they considered the words of John above, they didn’t like them because to several of the youth it seemed like John the Baptist “was discriminating against the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

I was struck by this response and have pondered it since then.  The students who shared the response were bright individuals. They also came from diverse experiences of life in the Church.  There was both the situation in which catechesis during seventh and eighth grade was the first real interaction with life in the Church, and also a life that had included fairly regular attendance at the Divine Service and Sunday school.

There are two observations about this experience that have implications for catechesis in the current setting of the Church.  First, it underscored the need for biblical content to be included in catechesis.  The youth did not realize that the Pharisees and Sadducees were “the bad guys” in the account and therefore they could not understand John the Baptist’s words.  In the case of individuals whose parents had not involved them in the Church (and so had also not emphasized the faith at home), this was not surprising.  But the fact that bright youth who had attended Sunday school and the Divine Service on a fairly regularly basis could miss this basic point did surprise me.

We in the Church recognize that we are living in a time of declining biblical literacy.  However, there are probably occasions when we don’t realize how dramatic the decline is and how broad reaching are its implications.  Fewer and fewer children learn basic biblical accounts at home.  The sole exposure that many will receive is in the readings and preaching of the Divine Service and in Sunday school.  Spotty attendance at both of these means that many will attain only a weak knowledge base, and many will have virtually none. 

The youth in catechesis that day left knowing about the Pharisees and Sadducees and why John was speaking to them the way he did.  It was the first time we had bumped into these two groups.  It will not be the last, as during the rest of this school year we will be working through the ministry of Jesus (after completing the central narratives and institutions of the Old Testament during the first half of the year).

Eight years ago I arrived at my current parish and learned that I had inherited a great opportunity.  My predecessor had set in place the expectation that on Wednesday night the seventh and eighth grade youth met for an hour in a classroom setting. Then they met for a half hour with their parents for “Learn by Heart” – catechesis focused on the Catechism that took place in the setting of worship.

 I realized that I was guaranteed to be able to cover the basic content of the Small Catechism twice with the catechumens and their parents during the two years of catechesis.  Building on this solid foundation, I decided to have two alternating years of catechesis in the classroom setting.  The first would cover the content of the Small Catechism more deeply and in a way that we want mature  congregation members to understand and confess the faith. The second year would focus on biblical readings. . It would survey the primary biblical narratives of the Old and New Testament. This would bring the individual accounts learned in Sunday School into a unified picture of how God worked out His plan of salvation. Discussion of these narratives would provide the opportunity to teach different doctrinal topics as they appeared in individual texts.  It would seek to teach them to read Scripture in an incarnational and sacramental manner.  Most importantly, it would mean that no one would finish catechesis and be confirmed without obtaining this basic biblical knowledge.

Every setting is different and so the goals of catechesis will be addressed in different ways.  Nevertheless I believe we have arrived at time when catechesis will have to include the foundational biblical narratives.  There was a time when “Confirmation class” typically focused only on the doctrinal content of the Small Catechism as it explained in various texts like the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod’s Small Catechism with explanation.  It dealt with the kinds of doctrinal topics that would be addressed in the public examination.  However, such an approach is no longer satisfactory. Naturally this content still needs to be taught. But in addition, it is now necessary to teach the foundational biblical accounts as well.  It appears that other pastors have arrived at similar conclusions, because I hear about more and more pastors who include the biblical narrative in their catechesis.

The second observation deals with something that is far more difficult to address. It was disconcerting to hear these youth evaluate the account of John the Baptist using the category of “discrimination.”  Clearly their schooling and culture was teaching them to think in terms of “rights.”  Such an approach reflects the manner in which the homosexual movement has framed questions about sexuality and marriage in terms of “civil rights.”  The one who defines the terms usually wins, and it is frightening to see how our youth are being taught to think.

It is frightening because as the Church, we have so few opportunities to influence the way youth think. When compared with the all encompassing interaction that our culture has with them through school, the media and the entertainment industry, the limited opportunities of the Church can’t begin to compare.  What can we do?

On that day, I taught the youth that John the Baptist’s words had nothing to do with “rights” and discrimination. Instead it was about right and wrong, and so was a matter of Law and Gospel as John proclaimed law in order to bring about repentance so that forgiveness could be received through the Gospel.  As we seek to teach the faith and defend our youth against the culture’s insidious influence on their thought we need to be explicit in diagnosing these contradictory ways of thinking about life.  We need to use opportunities that present themselves to bring into sharp perspective the presuppositions of the world, and then set them in contrast to those of the biblical worldview.  Such an approach does not guarantee success in every case.  But it does seek to be faithful in addressing the realities we face today.     

Feast of St. Titus, Pastor and Confessor

Today is the Feast of  St. Titus, Pastor and Confessor.  Titus was a Gentile who was a trusted co-worker of St. Paul in Greece, Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and on the island of Crete.  He assisted Paul in the collections for the Church in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 8:3-6) and was instructed by Paul to organize the church on Crete (Titus 1:4-5).  According to tradition, Titus returned to Crete where he served as bishop until he died at the end of the first century A.D.

Scripture reading:
Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God's elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior;

To Titus, my true child in a common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:1-9)

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, you called Titus to the work of pastor and teacher.  Make all shepherds of Your flock diligent in preaching Your holy Word so that the whole world may know the immeasurable riches of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord

                                                                        Mt 17:1-9

            Most likely, you think that I am a good listener.  At least I hope so.  I can say that I have had a number of you say that to me during my time here at Good Shepherd.  I should be a good listener.  After all, listening to you is an important part of my calling as the pastor in this congregation. 
            As your pastor I need to listen carefully so that I know what is going on in your life – especially so that I am aware of struggles and challenges you are facing.  I need to listen carefully so that I can hear what is not being said – the real issues that sometime lurk in the background.  And of course there are times of very intense and focused listening, such as when I meet with members for pastoral care.  It is crucial in those situations to listen carefully as congregation members share profound and important situations and problems in their life, while seeking comfort, counsel and guidance.
            Now Amy knows that all of this is true, and she wouldn’t deny it.  However, if you ask her if I am good listener at home you will probably get a slightly different reply.  Don’t get me wrong - there are certainly many times when I give the same attention and care to listening to Amy that I exhibit here at church.  But she will tell you that there are occasions when that is not exactly true.
            It will probably not surprise you to hear that my mind does not stop thinking about things when I go home from work. That’s just who I am. I may be at home, but frequently I am still thinking about a theological question or some particular situation of pastoral care at church.  And if I am relaxing it often means I am thinking about the model railroad and how I am going to build something for it.
            It has been known to happen that Amy is telling me something and I am verbally acknowledging it, but really my mind is occupied in the background with something else.  I try to be careful not to do this because I soon learned in our marriage that there are few ways to irk my wife more than by saying something or asking a question that clearly demonstrates I have not been paying sufficient attention to what she has been saying.  Getting caught red handed not really listening is a very bad idea.
            In the Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, Peter says something that clearly demonstrates he has not really been listening. His statement on the mount of transfiguration shows that he was not listening to the things Jesus had just said.  And so God the Father calls him on it as he says about Jesus, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” This text calls us to consider whether we have been listening. And it also provides assurance to trust and believe what we have heard.
            Our text this morning begins with the words, “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.”  The phrase “after six days” is significant.  Matthew does not usually make a big deal out of the temporal relation of events. The fact that he does so here, means that we need to understand our text in relation to what has just happened.
            This particular year, we are blessed that the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter fell on a Sunday, because the events we heard about least week are what has just happened before the transfiguration.  Between illness and the holiday weekend many of you were not able to be here last Sunday. So see, there was a reason I sent out the sermon to everyone this past week.
            At Caesarea Philippi Jesus had asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples named the wrong answers. Then Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Then Matthew tells us, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  Jesus then went on to say, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
            Now Jesus takes along Peter, James and John up onto a high mountain.  While there, Jesus is transfigured.  His appearance changes as his face shines like the sun and his clothes are as white as light. The divine glory of the One who is true God and creator of the cosmos is revealed for a few moments.
            Matthew uses his favorite literary device – “behold!” – to announce that as if this was not dramatic enough, something else then happened. He writes, “And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.”  Suddenly, there were two giants of the Old Testament – Moses and Elijah – talking with Jesus.  These two men had spoken with God during their lifetime on earth. And now guess what? They were seen talking with God again – the Son of God.
            Now what human being would choose to interject himself into the middle of this scene?  That is, of course, exactly what Peter does.  He said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 
            Peter’s statement contained in it two assumptions.  The first was that this moment was awesome and wonderful, and so he wanted to remain in it.  He offered to make shelters for Jesus and Moses and Elijah. And second, in his offer he was treating Jesus as if he was on the same level as the two Old Testament saints.
            Then, at that very moment, Matthew gives us another “behold!” The evangelist writes, “He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”’”
            A bright cloud announced God’s presence, and God the Father declared that Jesus was his Son with whom he was well pleased. And then he commanded, “Listen to him!”  In his statement to Jesus, Peter had shown that he wasn’t listening to Jesus.  Six days earlier Peter had confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus had replied to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Jesus told Peter that he was exactly right, and that the Father had revealed this to him.  Yet now, Peter acts as if Jesus is on the same level with Moses and Elijah – mere human beings!
            After Peter’s confession of Christ, Matthew tells us, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  Jesus had spoken of his mission to suffer, die and rise from the dead.  And now on the mount of transfiguration Peter talks about just hanging out there.
            Of course, Peter is not the only one who needs to hear the Father’s command, “Listen to him!”  You do too.  In your actions you put Jesus on the same level with other interests.  In fact, you often put him lower.  Did you spend more time this week in watching and reading about sports, or in reading God’s word and prayer?  If you broke down your budget, which receives more money – vacations and entertainment for yourself or your offering to God at church?  These kinds of questions reveal that so often, Jesus takes second place – he’s an also ran in your life … except of course when you have troubles and feel you need help.
            Just before our text, Jesus has not only predicted his own passion.  He also said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  Here too, you need the Father’s command: “Listen to him!”  The cross is about suffering and hardship.  But deep down, you are inclined to buy into what American Christianity is selling.  It says that Christianity is supposed to make you feel good – to feel good about life and good about yourself. That’s the message you really want – not cross and sacrifice.
            Now these challenges are not unique to you.  They have been part of sinful human life ever since the fall.  They have always been present.  But where in the past the culture supported the true spiritual outlook in many ways – or at least didn’t work against it – now that has all changed.  It works to place Jesus as just one among many options.  It wants to help you to entertain yourself to death.
            For people like you, the Father’s command is, “Listen to him!”  When you listen, you will again find that Jesus is the Son of God who came to suffer, die and rise again … for you.  You will again find that the crucified and risen Lord has called you to follow him in a life of service and sacrifice.
            But where we might doubt this and avoid it, in the transfiguration of our Lord we receive strength and encouragement to believe and trust in him.  In our text God the Father says, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”  We heard these same words at the beginning of the Epiphany season when Jesus was baptized. There we saw how Jesus stepped into our shoes.  He identified himself with sinners and took on the role of the suffering Servant in order to win us forgiveness.
            Jesus’ baptism was about service and suffering.  Yet in our text we also see Jesus’ face shine like the sun. We see that his clothes are as white as light.  We see the divine glory of the Lord. We see that he is God and so we can trust his work.  And in that glory we catch a glimpse of what awaits Jesus on the other side of the cross.  Yes he will suffer and die.  But on the third day he will rise in glory – indeed we know that he has risen in glory.  Because this is true, we know that we are forgiven.  We know that we will share in Jesus’ resurrection on the Last Day.  And because this is true, we are able to take up our cross and follow Jesus.  We are able to sacrifice and suffer for Christ as we live the faith because we know where this way leads.  It leads to resurrection and eternal life with the risen Lord.
            So pay attention this morning. See the transfigured Christ – his face shining like the sun and his clothes as white as light.  See Moses and Elijah present and talking with him. See the bright cloud overshadow it all. And then hear God the Father say, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.  Listen to him!”


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Interview on Issues, Etc. about the History of Confirmation - Part 2

A second interview with Todd Wilken about the history of Confirmation aired on Issues, Etc.  The history of Confirmation has been plagued by false understandings about Holy Baptism. The first was generated by an interpretation of the events in Acts 8:14-17. What are we to make of this and the other times in Acts (chapters 10 and 19) when the Holy Spirit is given apart from the water of baptism? We address this question.  The interview is available as a podcast on the Issues, Etc. website through this link.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Interview on Issues, Etc about the History of Confirmation - Part 1

I had the opportunity to do an interview with Todd Wilken on Issues, Etc. in the first of a series about the History of Confirmation. Lutherans consider the Rite of Confirmation to be an important feature of life in the Lutheran church. The history of Confirmation demonstrates that this belief is misguided.  The interview is available as a podcast on the Issues, Etc. website through this link.