Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Mark's thoughts: Why are people hesitant to use private confession?

I have just finished writing the portion of the forthcoming Lutheran Service Book Handbook that will deal with all forms of Confession and Absolution in Lutheran Service Book.  The following is the last in a series of four church newsletter articles about private confession that I have written for my congregation:
Private confession is a Means of Grace that few use in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. There are historical factors that have contributed to this, and we surveyed those in the first newsletter article in this series.  At the same time, I think there are four factors that regularly dissuade people from making use of private confession.

First, congregation members are often concerned about how their pastor will view them if they confess to him the sins present in their life. Will he be shocked? Will he think less of them because they have committed these sins? 

The answer to the first question is: No.  There are those who have been serving in the Office of the Ministry for far longer than I, but after fourteen years as a pastor I can say that apart from murder, I don’t think there is a sin that I have not heard confessed.  Speaking in general terms, it doesn’t take long before pastors hear the confession of sins like adultery, fornication, homosexual acts, use of pornography (including child pornography), drug use, and alcohol abuse.  Most likely there is no sin you are going to confess that a pastor has not already heard.  Certainly he has heard serious offenses confessed, and the experience quickly prepares a pastor not to be surprised by anything. If we really believe our theology, then we know that the devil, the world and our own sinful nature are powerful forces that tempt us and lead us into sin.  The fact that sin occurs is not surprising.  We wish it were not so, but we are not shocked to hear that sin – even very serious sin - has occurred.

The answer to the second question is also, No.  The thing that congregation members often fail to realize is that there is probably no one who is more aware of his own sin than the pastor.  The pastor spends his life studying God’s Word, which is always revealing his own sin.  He reflects on how to preach the law to his congregation, and often judges the effectiveness of it by how it reveals the sin in his own life.  You will not find a person who understands more than your pastor about how sin can entangle us, because he is painfully aware of how this is true for him.

Second, congregation members are often concerned about whether sins confessed to the pastor will becomes known to others. At his ordination, and at every subsequent installation at a new congregation, the pastor is asked, “will you forgive the sins of those who repent, and will you promise never to divulge the sins confessed to you?”   This is one of the most serious commitments made by a pastor.  It is something that even our legal system acknowledges.  I experienced this first hand in a federal court room in Chicago when I was asked about a matter revealed to me in private confession. When I refused to answer, the judge acknowledged that this was proper and ordered that the questioning move on to something else.

Third, congregation members can find it uncomfortable to put their sin into words and say it out loud to another person.  But this discomfort is in fact one of the blessings of private confession as it aids us in our struggle against sin.  Confessing our sins out loud forces us to face our sin for what it is – sin against God.  In the absolution we receive the Gospel through which the Holy Spirit strengthens us to resist sin and temptation.  And during our daily life as we face temptation, the knowledge that an action is a sin – something to be confessed – helps us to resist and avoid it.

Finally, congregation members often see no real need for private confession because they already confess their sins and receive absolution in the general confession and absolution that occurs at the beginning of the Divine Service.  We never want to play off these two forms of confession and absolution against each other.  Both are true confession of sin and both are true absolutions that deliver forgiveness.  Yet the same thing can be said about the forgiveness received in all of the Means of Grace.  Just because we receive forgiveness in the proclamation of the Word does not mean that therefore we don’t use Holy Baptism or the Sacrament of the Altar.  Instead we recognize that each of these gives us forgiveness in a unique way.

The same is true of private confession.  It is unique in that it provides the opportunity to confess particular sins that we know have been present in our life. And then the Christian gets to hear Jesus Christ speak forgiveness directly to that person as an individual. Christ speaks that forgiveness “to me” and only to me.  That is a gift you receive nowhere else.  As Martin Luther wrote: “No one needs to drive you to confession by commanding it. Rather we say this: Whoever is a Christian or would like to be one, has here the reliable advice to go and obtain this precious treasure” (“A Brief Exhortation to Confession,” 20).   



Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Feast of the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist

Today is the Feast of the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.  In contrast to the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (observed on June 24), this feast commemorates his beheading by the tetrarch Herod Antipas.  From the perspective of the world, this was a pathetic end to John the Baptist’s life.  Yet it was in fact a noble participation in the cross of Christ.  Our Lord Himself said that none had arisen greater than John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11).  He was the last of the prophets in the tradition of the Old Testament, and was the “prophesied prophet” – the Elijah of whom Malachi spoke who would come to prepare the way for the Lord (Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6; Matthew 17;10-13) and the voice crying in the wilderness foretold by Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3; Matthew 3:3) . John prepared the way for Christ by proclaiming “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has arrived” (Matthew3:2) and administering a baptism of repentance.  John’s death anticipated that of the Christ for whom he prepared the way.  By his own martyrdom he bore witness to the fact that God works through the cross in the lives of His people, and that they bear witness to Jesus Christ as they suffer, and even die in His name.  

Scripture reading:
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.

But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias's daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6:14-29)

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, You gave Your servant John the Baptist to be the forerunner of Your Son, Jesus Christ, in both his preaching of repentance and his innocent death.  Grant that we, who have died and risen with Christ in Holy Baptism, may daily repent of our sins, patiently suffer for the sake of the truth, and fearlessly bear witness to His victory over death; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one  God, now and forever.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity - Lk 18:9-14

                                                                                                Trinity 11
                                                                                                Lk 18:9-14

            So how is life in the fly over states?  The term “fly over states,” of course, describes everything between the east and west coasts of the United States.  It emphasizes the difference between the coasts and the center of the country.
            Apparently the term first appeared around 1980, and there is some debate about whether it should be regarded as a put down used by people on the coasts, or a defensive phrase placed in their mouth by those who don’t live there. Either way, it does capture a real difference that exists between the culture of the coasts and that of where we live.
            Generally speaking, the coasts are more liberal than the center.  They are more urban.  Many of the universities considered to be elite are on the coasts.  The coasts are more wealthy.  In what you listen to and read, it’s not hard to find a condescending elitism directed from the coasts towards the center.  You even run into it in the Lutheran church. On more than a few occasions I have heard the opinion that: “You Midwestern Lutherans just really can understand the complexity of the issue.”
            Elitist condescension is on full display in our Gospel lesson this morning.  Jesus tells a parable and we learn that he “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”  Now you don’t need a degree in biblical interpretation to figure out that Luke is talking about the Pharisees. And sure enough we immediately hear: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”  In the Pharisees we meet the self-proclaimed paragons of Jewish piety.  They were, for the most part a lay group, though there were also trained scribes. 
            The Pharisees had developed an elaborate system of oral law that directed how one was to keep the Torah – the law that God had given to Israel through Moses.  The Torah provided direction for many areas of life.  But even so, there were far more situations that required an interpretation about how to apply the Torah to everyday life.  The Pharisees’ oral law was there to tell you how this was done.
            And then, the Pharisees had also added their own rules and laws on top of the Torah.  For example, they took the requirements that the Torah only applied to priests who served in the temple and instead said that they were something all pious Jews must do.  We usually think about the Pharisees as being very strict about keeping the law. And this is true, but not quite in the way you may think.  The Pharisees were very strict in keeping their interpretation of the Torah. But in many cases these were rather liberal interpretations that actually made it easier to “keep” the law.
            On the other hand, we have a tax collector.  Now tax collectors have never been popular. The letters “IRS” probably don’t bring a smile to your face.  The Romans had a comprehensive tax system. When they took a census, it was for the purpose of updating taxation requirements, not in order to find out how many people there were. Taxation was the most direct way that people experienced Roman rule.  It was a reminder that they were a subject people.  Even in a land like Galilee where King Herod Antipas was the petty king, taxes still flowed up to the Romans.
            Tax collectors were despised because they were agents of these pagan occupiers.  And then tax collectors were also thought of as being crooks – because many of them were. The tax collector assessed the value, which determined how much tax was collected and how big their percentage was. Bump up the value, and you bump up your profit.
            We learn that the Pharisee entered the temple and in a prayer that was most likely spoken out loud so that others could hear it he said: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”  The Pharisee thanked God for how great the Pharisee was!  In particular he referenced his superiority to the tax collector who was also present for prayer.
            The tax collector was the complete opposite.  He stood off at a distance.  He didn’t even look up.  He was beating his breast as a sign of repentance and sorrow.  And his prayer was one brief sentence: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  Then Jesus said,   I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
            In the verse just before our text, Jesus had said: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  In this parable, he is describing for us what faith looks like. And to be honest, it’s not very impressive.  It’s not about boldly declaring what you have done.  It’s not about holding yourself up as an example. It’s not about having confidence in what you have done.
            Instead, it looks rather weak.  It looks rather helpless. After all, it says that it has nothing – nothing that is, except failures. That’s not really where we want to be.  It seems better to forget about the way I was short tempered with my spouse or children.  It seems better to ignore the way I failed to trust God when things in my life didn’t go the way I had planned.  It seems better to forget about the way I enjoyed hearing and sharing that gossip at the expense of someone else’s reputation.
            But Jesus tells us this morning that it’s not better to do this.  The tax collector comes before God as a repentant sinner.  He comes with nothing but his sins that he confesses as he says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  And speaking those words in faith he leaves completely changed.  He leaves justified.  He leaves righteous in God’s eyes – and things are the way God says they are.
            By bringing nothing before God except the sins we confess, we leave justified and righteous in his sight. We do so because of God’s grace.  It is God’s unmerited love and favor that prompted him to send his Son into the world as he was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.  It was God’s grace that sent Jesus Christ to the cross as the sacrifice for our sin.  It was God’s grace that defeated death as he raised Jesus up on the third day.
            When we bring nothing before God except the sin we confess, he sends us away forgiven.  He sends us away as a saint – someone who is holy in his eyes because of Christ.  He sends us away as someone who has already heard the verdict of the Last Day.
            In the parable, the tax collector went up to the temple to pray and confess his sin.  Yet Jesus, the one telling the parable is the fulfillment of what the temple meant for God’s people.  And now we don’t go to a building in Jerusalem.  Instead we go to the Means of Grace that the risen Lord has instituted.  We return in faith to the promise God has attached to our baptism. We return to confession and absolution. We return to the Sacrament of the Altar.  We return to the preached word.  Like the tax collector, we come with nothing except the sin we confess.  And Christ sends us home justified – righteous and forgiven in God’s eyes.
            We come to God and confess our sin.  We say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And he sends us home justified – forgiven.  We praise and thank God for this.  But that’s also not the end of the story. St. Paul told the Ephesians, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you.” God’s forgiveness of us is the forgiveness that we now pass on to others.  When they approach and ask us to forgive them this is something that we now do because of what God had done for us in Jesus Christ.
            This is not something that is optional.  It is our Lord Jesus who taught us to pray in the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Forgiveness means that we don’t continue to hold it against them. Forgiveness means that we don’t continue to bring it up.  Instead we send them away, the same way that God sent us away – forgiven.
            If you say that this is not humanly possible, I can only say that I absolutely agree.  It’s not.  It is only the Spirit of Jesus who can enable us to forgive a wrong that has hurt us deeply.  It is only the Holy Spirit who can strengthen the new man in us to speak Christ’s word of forgiveness to them that he has spoken to us.
            You can receive this strength in only one way.  And the good news is that it is a “two for one” deal.  The Means of Grace to which you come to receive forgiveness is also the way by which the Spirit strengthens and builds up the new man – the Christian living in Christ – who is able to speak three of the most powerful words the world has ever heard: “I forgive you.”
            Because we are sinners we come before God in humility with nothing except the sins we confess.  There is nothing we can say except, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  Because of God’s gracious saving action in Jesus Christ he raises us up and sends us home justified; forgiven; a saint in his eyes.  As Jesus says in our text today: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” 


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity - Rom 9:30-10:4

                                                                                                Trinity 10
                                                                                                Rom 9:30-10:4

            I respect the zeal with which many Muslims practice their religion.  In fact, it can be said that Islam is more about practice than doctrine.  The first of the Five Pillars of Islam is this simply confession that is to be repeated by Muslims: “There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.”  The first statement declares a monotheistic and transcendent god.  The second statement asserts that Muhammad is the unique and final prophet sent by god for all of humanity.
            The other four pillars are then about things that a Muslim does.  They are to pray five times a day at set times. They are to give alms as an outward sign of piety. They are to fast during daylight hours during the month of Ramadan. And they are to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.
            In particular the practice of prayer should catch our attention.  Muslims practice the discipline of stopping five times a day in order to pray.  They have a set schedule that orders their day and while Muslims prefer to say the prayers in a mosque, they will stop their day wherever they are in order to pray. The prayers themselves follow a set pattern of words and gestures.
            There is no doubt about the zeal.  But as St. Paul says in the epistle lesson today about the Jews in the first century, it is not according to knowledge.  Because they have relegated Jesus Christ to the role of merely being a prophet who came before Muhammad, Muslims do not know the true God.  They do not know the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Holy Trinity.
            And in another aspect that relates directly to our text, their zeal is not according to knowledge.  Muslims practice with zeal because Islam is a religion of the law.  While Islam does say that God is “the Compassionate One the Merciful,” this has nothing to do with how one is saved at the judgment of the Last Day.  Instead, the picture given is that a person’s deeds will be weighed in a balance. The good deeds must outweigh the bad. Only martyrs have the certainty of paradise.  For everyone else the only promise of paradise is made to “those who repent and believe and are righteous in act.”
            In a number of important ways first century Judaism was similar to Islam today.  Judaism did not completely forget about God’s grace.  They knew that Israel and her descendants had been brought into the covenant with Yahweh only as a result of his grace.  They knew that he had put them in this position. 
            But when it came to the question of how one achieved a righteous standing on the Last Day the answer focused on what a person did – on the works of the law.  Judaism had a very positive view of the individual’s spiritual abilities.  The grace of God’s covenant put you in the game. But after that, it was up to you.  And the way you did it was very similar to modern Islam – key features were prayer, alms and fasting.
            In this section of Romans, Paul is dealing with a difficult issue for him.  While Gentiles were believing in Jesus Christ, most Jews did not.  Certainly there were some – the very first Christians were all Jews.  But by the time Romans was written the matter was clear – Gentiles were becoming Christians and Jews were rejecting Jesus.
            Now this was rather challenging, because Paul proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ.  For example he began this letter by writing, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God - the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures
regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.”
            Paul’s Gospel declared that Jesus was the Christ – that he was the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures and the descendant of King David. Israel’s Messiah had come bringing end time salvation.  The problem was that it only seemed to be the Gentiles who were believing in him.  If Paul was right about Jesus and God’s promises to Israel, how could that be?!?
            We hear part of Paul’s response in the epistle lesson.  He writes, “What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal.”
            Paul tells us that the Gentiles who were outside of the covenant – who had not received the Torah and were not pursuing a right standing with God – had received it.  They had received it through faith in Jesus Christ. But most of the Jews had not.  Paul says the reason is: “Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone.”
            The apostle describes Christ as something that trips people up, and he quotes the prophet Isaiah in order to do so.  Isaiah wrote: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.”
            Jesus Christ was the reason the Jews had stumbled.  The basic problem was that one can only deal with God by faith in Christ and not by works – not by doing. The anguish this caused Paul is apparent as he says, “Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.”
            The Jews had zeal. But it wasn’t a zeal shaped and guided by knowledge.  Paul says, “Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”  The Jews were trying to establish their own righteousness by works, instead of submitting to the righteousness that God provides through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The Jews were focusing on their works – the works of the law – as the means by which they showed themselves to be righteous and ready for salvation.
            Since the Fall and the entrance of sin into our world, this has been the orientation of all people.  Because after all, the world works in the way of the law. There is no such thing as a free lunch.  If you want to get something, you have to do something. And beyond this, we want to believe that we can do something.  We want to believe in ourselves, because then we are not dependent on anyone else. Then we are strong, independent and self-sufficient individuals.
            But earlier in this letter, Paul had already pulled out the rug from underneath any such delusions.  There he wrote: “For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin.”  Paul tells us that we are not free.  Our powers and abilities are not going to do us any good in dealing with God because we are under sin. This sin causes us to do one thing – sin more. Pauls says, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
            The way of the law – the way of doing looks appealing.  It does because as those created in the image of God we still have the law of creation – the natural law – written on our heart. It does because the old man does not want to rely on anyone but himself.  He wants to be his own god, instead of fearing, loving and trusting in God above all things.
            Yet this thinking is disordered by sin.  It is zeal that is not according to knowledge.  It is zeal that seeks to establish its own righteousness, rather than submitting to God’s righteousness.  It’s a lie from the father of lies, the devil.
            In the first chapter of the letter, Paul announced the theme that runs all the way through it.  There he stated: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”
            God’s righteousness is his saving action that now declares you righteous – that declares you justified.  It was God’s doing in sending his Son to die on the cross and rise from the dead on the third day.  Now, through faith in him, you have received redemption.  You have been freed from your sin.  As Paul said in the previous chapter, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Already now, because of Jesus, you know the verdict of the Last Day. It is “innocent, not guilty.”
            This righteousness is received by faith. It is received by faith because Christ is the end of the law for righteousness.  The way of law – the way of doing – has been eliminated for the sons and daughters of God. We know that it’s a game we can’t play; it’s a game we shouldn’t play.  Instead we look in faith to Jesus Christ. We believe in him.  And Paul assures us in our text that, “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”  We know that we will not be put to shame, because Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.