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Lazarus in the Valley of Dry Bones

John 11:1-45

(Read the whole lesson here)…Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go… (Read the whole lessons here)

Sermon

ValleyofDryBones-620x3101The prophet Ezekiel said: The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 

We have have made our way through the season of Lent. 5 weeks, 5 encounters between Jesus and another aspect of the human condition. Temptation in the desert, Doubt with Nicodemus, Shame with the woman at the well, Refusal to see with the Blindman. We have journeyed through the Lenten wilderness, one where our flaws and sufferings have been put on display, where Jesus has met us with mercy.

But today, we take a turn towards Holy Week. Jesus still meets us in an aspect of the human condition, in grief. But the story foreshadows what is to come.

The prophet Ezekiel said: The Lord led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

We begin with Jesus staying somewhere other than where he needs to be. His friends are in trouble, Lazarus is dying. They are hoping that he can come to help. But instead, he stays. And then after a few days of waiting, Jesus announces that Lazarus is dead and then decides to go to his friends in Judea. His disciples are puzzled, but his answer to them tells us that something is about to happen. “Let us go, that we may also die with him”.

As Jesus finally makes his way to Bethany, the real drama begins to unfold. News of Lazarus death is spreading, Jesus has arrived in time to grieve and mourn, but too late help. On is way to town, Martha, Lazarus’s sister comes out and meets Jesus on the road. Martha, the busybody, the one who needs to work goes to Jesus let her grief, her frustration out. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. But now I know that God will give you whatever you ask him.” Martha’s word are accusatory. They are desperate. She is filled with grief. She utters words that could very well be our words.

“Lord, if you… than this…” We have all been where Martha is. We have all suffered loss, felt grief, felt abandoned or ignored. We have all suffered and wished for God’s intervention. We know what it is like to be Martha. To want the past to be different, to even be desperate enough to hope that it can still be changed.

drybonesThe prophet Ezekiel said: The Lord said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”

Jesus is gentle enough with Martha to let her make her accusations, to let her share her desperation. Jesus could have done something, maybe he still can.

And then Jesus answers Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”

Can we imagine hearing those words? Can we imagine the God of the universe, come in flesh, speaking to us, “Your loved one will rise again.” Can we imagine standing in front of God almighty as God declares that death is no barrier, that the powers of this world that we think are unassailable are a mere trifle to God.

Martha is too lost in her grief to really take in the moment, she doesn’t really get who is speaking to her and what Jesus is saying. She responds almost automatically,

“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Martha gives a formulaic response, but one also resigned to death. Martha is clinging to the promise as best she can, but she does not see the immediacy of Jesus’ statement. And still Jesus stays with her, “I am the resurrection and the life”

And the Prophet Ezekiel said: Then the Lord said to me, “Prophesy toUnknown-1 these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

The God of the universe has just declared that Lazarus will live… But we don’t get the impression that Martha has really absorbed what Jesus is saying to her.

And so Jesus continues down the road, and this time Mary, Martha’s sister comes to meet him. She accosts Jesus with the same statement that her sister gave, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

And maybe this time it is Jesus who now understands something. These two women cannot see past their grief. They can only experience the rawness of their brother’s death. They can only painfully long for their brother to be alive, they can only see the empty hole their dead brother has left in their world.

This time, Jesus simply stays with these grieving women. He doesn’t try to remind them of who he is, he doesn’t try to buoy their spirits with what he is about to do. He simply shares in their grief. He weeps with Mary. He is moved by their fragility and their weakness. Jesus knows that is about to call Lazarus out of his grave, but still the deep grief that Mary and Martha carry moves him in spirit.

We have all been here. This is the essence of what it means to be human. To know that everything around us is limited. That we only have so many days on earth, we only have so much we get to do and be and experience. And so we grieve the rest, all the things, all the people that we didn’t get enough of.

Maybe this grief is a lesson. Maybe it isn’t the disciples, or Mary or Martha who need to see God’s glory. Just maybe Lazarus hasn’t died so that we can see, but so that Jesus, so that God, can live grief in person. So God can truly understand what it means to grieve.

And when Jesus finally knows incarnate grief, knows what it is mourn like we do, Jesus makes his way to the tomb. Jesus has learned grief, but Mary, Martha, the disciples, the crowds, us, we are about to see what it is like to be God, what death really means when it stands before the creator of life itself.

Ezekiel said: So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

As Jesus, Mary and Martha, the disciples and the crowds stand before Lazarus’ tomb, he declares,

“Take away the stone”

And Martha protests. Martha the one who has just confessed that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, says “There will be a stench for he has been dead four days”.

Martha, stuck in her grief, is telling Jesus there will be a stench. She is speaking to God, to the One who uttered the word “Let there be…” in creation. The one whom is the Word of God made flesh.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus rarely looses his cool, but at this moment, full of grief too, Jesus snaps are Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed…” Jesus has declared that he is the Resurrection and the Life, and we are about to see what that really means.

The prophet Ezekiel said: Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

468304834_640And the stone is rolled away. And that very first promise that Jesus makes to Martha,

“Your brother with rise again”

That promise comes to fruition. Lazarus walks out of the tomb.

And we too are about to enter into Holy Week. Into a period of remembered and renewed grief. We know what is going to happen, we know that Good Friday is coming. We know that humanity is about nail Jesus, that we are about to nail God to the cross.

But we go with these words ringing in our ears,

“On the third day, he will rise again”.

And the promise rings true for also for us ,

“You will rise again”

Amen.

 

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World Vision is sending us all to Hell!

World Vision is trying to send us all to hell.

If you don’t know what I am talking about, you haven’t been on the internet in the last 24 hours.

World Vision announced that they are going to start forcing African kids to marry into same-sex relationships, if not they will take away all their food. Seriously! Well… that is what these guys at the Gospel Coalition seemed to be saying…

Anyways, we all know that this is a huge problem. World Vision plans to employ only gay people so that they can transmit ‘gayness’ to as many Third World children as possible.

173720_20110408_174319_OCPNow, I have long been suspicious of World Vision. All their commercials and print ads have pictures of kids on them that I can only assume are not ‘Christian’. Most of those kids come from the Kenyan bush right? Isn’t that where Obama came from? We all know what that means! It only makes sense that he is pushing this same-sex marriage agenda to make us all gay. I didn’t vote for a gay Kenyan to be my president, and that’s not only because I am Canadian. But with World Vision now burning bibles (according to Franklin Graham) and feeding non-Christian children, they are bringing together two threats to the United States of Evangelicalism to make a mega threat -

Gay Terrorists!!!

But seriously, has anyone been checking to see what the faith statements of these sponsor kids are? I want to see signed statements on websites so I can know if we really should be “sponsoring” their eternal salvation for only $1 a day. Do they believe in Predestination or Free Will? What if they are Roman Catholic marxists like the Pope? Has anyone actually checked to see if the schools they are attending aren’t Madrassas? What if those doctors that these “sponsor kids” see practice Sharia medicine? (The NSA has probably just put me on a watch list for all the flagable words I have in this post).

Now, you might be saying, “But Erik, you live in a country that allows same-sex marriage!” To which I respond, this is okay because we had a white christian Prime Minister who introduced that law. But more importantly, do we want less gay premarital sex? Because letting gay people get married is the best way to keep them from having lots of sex!

Still, you might be saying, “But Erik, you serve in a denomination that blesses same-sex marriages!” To which I respond,  I am not turning any African kids into gay terrorists!

imagesWorld Vision just might be the last organization that ever believed in the bible, besides the Gospel Coalition. And now, because of their gay employees, they are threatening us all with the eternal fires of hell. What if the hard-earned money that I am sending to evangelize African kids is used instead to feed them, give them medical care, and clean water? They could very well grow up to marry someone of the same gender, and that is against God’s word! What if some of the money I give to World Vision goes to pay some of the salary of a World Vision employee? A Gay Employee!?!?! Will that make ME gay?!?!

So, I say stop supporting World Vision and their Gay Terrorism agenda! Because we all know what Jesus said about that:
“Feed My Sheep” John 21:17
“Let the little children come to me” Matthew 19:14
“For I was hungry and you gave me food” Matthew 25:35
“I am the bread of life” John 6:35
“Give them something to eat” Matthew 14:16

Er, um… We all know what Paul said about that:
“If your enemies are hungry, feed them” Romans 12:20
“Bear one another’s burdens” Galatians 6:2
“When you come together to eat, wait for one another” 1 Corinthians 11:33

I mean… We all know what Leviticus said about that:
“Their flesh [Pigs] you shall not eat, and of their flesh you shall not touch.” Leviticus 11:8
“nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials” Leviticus 19:19
“But anything in the seas or the streams that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and among all the other living creatures that are in the waters—they are detestable to you” Leviticus 11:10

Oh right, this is one!
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” Leviticus 18:22

So… We need to stop supporting World Vision because of this obscure verse of Leviticus, even though we don’t follow most of the other rules in that book!

And because… Gay Terrorists!

____________________________________________

Disclaimer: If it wasn’t clear already, the above post is satire and sarcasm. I fully support World Vision’s choice to hire employees in same-sex marriages. To read more about LGBT rights in the Church check this out: Why I should have spoken up for LGBT rights in the Church

So what do you think about the World Vision News? What do you think of the reaction? Share in the comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

 

 

 

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The Christian Horror Movie that will Win People to Jesus

So I have been listening to the Moonshine Jesus Podcast, with Mark Sandlin and David Henson. It is a basically half an hour of two ministers and bloggers talking pop-culture and theology over drinks. As many pastors know, this is what some of the best moments of seminary, and later on, what clergy conferences are all about. The podcast is great fun and worth a listen, you can find it on iTunes and here. In a recent episode Mark and David shared that there is a Christian Horror movie coming out called Final: The Rapture.

Now, I am not a big fan of Christian movies or Christian radio. I was subjected to far too much Touched by an Angel growing up, but I have to admit that the production quality of Christian music, TV and film has gone up dramatically since then. Recent movies like the Son of God or the Passion of the Christ, or even like Noah, show that the entertainment industry is investing in Christainment.

teaser-poster-final-the-raptureHowever, Christians themselves are also invested appealing to broader secular culture, and so we end up with movies, like Final: The Rapture, being made with the aim of appealing to a broader audience. The movie is being billed as a frightening story of what the end of the world will look like, full of violence, blood, death (no sex or swearing, of course). The producers themselves compare the movie to a Trojan Horse. They are hoping to bring people in with horror and send them out with the fear of Hell the love of Christ in the hearts.

If you watch the trailer, it is clear that this film is not top quality acting, writing, directing or production. But lots of horror movies aren’t these days and they do just fine at the box office.

The quality of the filmmaking isn’t really the issue.

Of course, it is absurd to try and trick people into “coming to Jesus” with a horror movie. Even with the poor filmmaking in mind, don’t spend too long thinking about how many times along the way there must have been opportunities for someone to point out to the producers that spending the money, time and effort on making such a film is ludicrous. It will hurt your brain to imagine that some poor schmuck in an editing room had to finally say, “Yes! This is it! The Christian horror movie that will bring people to Christ!” Don’t even start on all the actors, film crews, on-location personnel and more, who had to agree that this film was worth making.

The thing that really turns my brain inside-out is the motive to make this movie in the first place. It is a logical and theological fallacy that underpins this whole venture.

This movie might be billed by the producers as a bait and switch to bring people in with the horror and send them out with Jesus, but it isn’t. In fact, Jesus has little to do with it at all. The real aim is to bring people in with horror and send them out with Hell.

This is laughable at first thought, but there is something deeply troubling about this line of thinking. The bait and switch tactic is dishonest, but the real bait and switch tactic is terrifying and I can’t believe that Christians are still using this strategy. It appears that the producers of this movie are using Hell as a first ‘in’ to get people to believe in God. 

I don’t know if this is a conscious effort or some response to the New Atheism that fundamentalists seem to be fond of sparring with. However, trying to terrify people with Hell so much so that they open themselves to eternal damnation is cruel. But thinking that a fear of hell means an unconscious belief in eternal salvation? This is absurd!

Yet, as far as I can tell, this line of thinking exists. Fundamentalists seem to be saying that if we can get people to be afraid of Hell, then they will, by default, also believe in Jesus – maybe without even really knowing it. You can’t believe in Hell without then believing in God right?

This is the horrific part.

I don’t recall Jesus saying, faith the size of a mustard seed in Hell, will bring you into the Kingdom of God. I don’t recall Jesus telling us to go out and spread the Bad News of God’s wrath and damnation. I don’t recall Jesus giving Christians the ‘judgement and condemnation of God’ as an evangelism tool.

Most Christian music, TV and film verges on the hokey, even if the production value is getting better (especially in terms of music). And fine, if Christians need faith based pop culture – whatever. But if we think that we can trick people into heaven with an illogical, unscriptural fallacy?

Then we really have created a horror show. 

What do you think? Do Christians need their own pop culture? Does believing in Hell make people also Christians? Share in the comments, on Facebook: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

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Asking Questions with Nicodemus

Preached at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd on the 2nd Sunday of Lent. 

John 3:1-17

 …(Jesus said)The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”… (Read the whole lesson here).

Sermon

Each year in Lent, St. David’s would have soup and the word before their regular Thursday Evening Prayer service. People would gather for soup and they would talk over the readings for the coming Sunday together with Father Angelo. After an hour or so, the group would gather in the sanctuary for Evening Prayer.

Heather had been an Evening prayer regular for several months. She wasn’t a member of the congregation, and she didn’t attend Sunday mornings, but she had been faithfully attending Thursday Night Evening Prayer week after week for a while. Father Angelo hoped she would come to soup and the word.

(Pause)

Last week, we began Lent like we do each year. On the first Sunday of the season we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

St-Nicodemus-of-the-Holy-Mountain-frescoToday, we move from Matthew’s Gospel to John’s. We step into the story with Nicodemus. He is a Pharisee who has come to see Jesus at night. Nicodemus has come to Jesus with questions. Nicodemus comes asking questions that eventually lead Jesus to utter what is perhaps the most famous verse in the whole Bible: John 3:16 is memorized and recited by Christians all over world. John 3:16 can cause us to miss the story around it because of the way it dominates our memory. Instead of this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, we hear that verse and imagine a shirtless, beer-gutted man holding up a sign at a football game.

Once we get past John 3:16 and when we can bring our thoughts back to Nicodemus and Jesus, we can discover a powerful encounter between two unlikely men. The conversation that Nicodemus and Jesus share contains some of the richest images of the bible. Being born again or from above by the spirit, the spirit blowing where it will like the wind, Moses lifting up the snake in the desert, for God so loved the world. These images can be so rich, that we can forget this is a conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee.

So lets step back from the conversation for a moment, and imagine the scene. It is night, Jesus is waiting in a convenient spot, maybe beside a fire. Nicodemus comes in secret to speak with Jesus. Nicodemus is on the other team from Jesus. Nicodemus is Pharisee, a member of the group trying to trap Jesus, the ones who will eventually accuse Jesus before the temple authorities chanting “Crucify him.” Nicodemus is risking a lot by bringing his questions to Jesus.  Nicodemus risks being discovered, losing his place in his community, losing all respect from his peers. And Nicodemus isn’t even sure about this Jesus guy.

(Pause)

On the second week of soup and the word at St. David’s, the group talked about the story of Nicodemus meeting Jesus at night. As people asked questions about being born again, or who will be saved and who is condemned, Heather sat in silence. Finally just before the hour was up, Heather chimed in.

“I understand Nicodemus” she started. “I mean, he has questions. He has seen things and heard stories about Jesus, but how is he supposed to know that Jesus is the real deal. How can Nicodemus be sure that Jesus really is the one? I have read the stories, I have heard the testimonies. How can I be sure Jesus really is the son of God? I think Nicodemus gets it. He wants to know his part in this, just like I do. What is my part with God. What am I supposed to do to be born again? To be saved by the Son of God?”

Father Angelo was about to answer, when the worship assistant came ringing the bell for worship. The group got up and headed up to evening prayer. Heather’s question was left hanging.

(Pause)

We can be a lot like Nicodemus when it comes to God and to faith. We want to know how things work before dive in. We are not sure we want to show our hand before we have to. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, in secret. And he leaves without being convinced. Sometimes it might be the same with us. We come to Jesus expecting answers, and instead we leave unconvinced.

Faith and church and God can leave us feeling like Nicodemus. As we go about our day, the world keeps us busy and preoccupied. But when the darkness settles in, the questions come. At night, we have the time to sit and wonder. Question rung through out minds lying in bed, or late at night when the television can’t hold our attention. We begin to wonder. Is God for real? Does faith make any sense? We start out unsure, but we can become uncertain. Uncertainty leads to doubt, and we become shaken, afraid, alone. What if God isn’t all that we say God is?

Nicodemus leaves the conversation unconvinced today, but farther along in John’s gospel, Nicodemus shows up again. This time he half heartedly defends Jesus to his Pharisees buddies. As the story of Jesus unfolds, Nicodemus is hanging in there, even if only at the fringe or on the margin.

And maybe, of all the things, all the familiar rich images that Jesus uses today, it is what Jesus doesn’t say that might be significant. Jesus does not condemn Nicodemus. He doesn’t expect Nicodemus to demonstrate his faith. There is no expectation that Nicodemus sign up and become an open disciple. Jesus doesn’t treat this man like the fisherman calling them from their boats. He doesn’t heal Nicodemus with an exhortation to faith. Jesus simply gives Nicodemus time and space. Jesus welcomes Nicodemus, allows him the room to ask questions, and gives him the chance to think. Jesus let’s Nicodemus watch the story unfold.

(Pause)

Throughout the rest of Lent, Heather kept coming to soup and the word. She had more questions, but none as direct as her questions about Nicodemus.

It was the Good Friday custom at St. David’s to have a prayer vigil. Members would sign up to pray at the church for an hour at a time all through the day and through the night. Father Angelo noticed that Heather had signed up for the 8PM shift.

At 8PM Good Friday, he joined her in the candle lit sanctuary, and the two sat in silence for a while. Eventually Heather looked over to him and said,

“Father Angelo, did you know that Nicodemus is the one who comes to bury Jesus after he is crucified? All the other disciples, the ones who boldly followed Jesus for years, they all hid away, afraid. But when Jesus is crucified, it is Nicodemus who comes and asks for the body. When he sees the whole story, he is finally ready to be an out in the open disciple.

“I know” said Father Angelo. “Interesting isn’t it”.

“So why couldn’t Jesus tell him to wait for the rest of the story when Nicodemus first came with his questions?”

“Jesus isn’t about giving answers, Jesus is about showing us God. Nicodemus needed to see that. Maybe you needed to that.”

“I did see it” Heather said. “I finally saw it this week, I saw Jesus today, on the cross. I finally saw the rest of the story.”

“Good” said Father Angelo. “But story isn’t over yet… everything is going to change on Sunday morning.”

(Pause)

Like Nicodemus, we can hesitate, we can be unsure about Jesus. We can wonder about God. We might prefer to keep our faith in the dark, in secret, we might leave feeling unconvinced many days. Like Nicodemus we have our questions, and we wish Jesus would just answer them, because we want to know. If we could just know if Jesus, if God is real… than the uncertainty, the fear, the loneliness might leave us.

But that is not how Jesus is with us. Jesus doesn’t come to give us answers. Jesus comes to meet us in our doubts, in our questions. Jesus meets us in the darkness, in our fears and isolation. Jesus meets us and give us space. The space to ask our questions, and the space to watch the story unfold. And Jesus tells us the good news again and again. That God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son to die on a cross for us. God gave his son so that whoever questions, whoever wonders, whoever hears the story from beginning to end, from manger to cross to empty tomb might be transformed for eternal life.

That is how Jesus is, saying what we need to hear, not saying what we don’t need to hear, and giving us the space to discover that we have been caught up by and changed by God’s great love.

Amen. 

 

Image Source - intotheharvestministries.wordpress.com

Why Calvinism asks the wrong question

So Calvinism, of all things, is becoming popular among Evangelicals. I remember a few years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer was all the rage, and Evangelical studies of The Cost of Discipleship were spreading like the plague. Of course, it was hardly mentioned that Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran and so was his theology, but his writings were finding a new popularity.

These days, John Calvin is finding some new popularity among North American Evangelicals. According to this New York Time Op Ed, it is actually among many pastors that Calvinism seems to be creeping back into Evangelical churches and pulpits. The apparent reason for this renewal is that Calvinism provides an alternative to the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen and the like. Calvinism does offer a good critique of the prosperity gospel, with its more realistic and honest stance on human beings and sin. Calvinism also invites a deeper understanding of scripture and deeper theology than “God will make you rich if you are good Christian”. I can understand why many are turning to something meatier in the face of Joel Osteen and others.

As Lutheran, this is kind of like watching your family, friends and neighbours become fans of your favourite sport which is great, but then realizing they are all cheering for a rival team. Finally, people are watching the right sport, but cheering for the wrong team is almost worse than not playing.

Now, some are reacting to Calvinism’s strict view on salvation and predestination. Benjamin Corey over at Patheos has written a couple of great posts about this. 5 Reasons Why Calvinism Makes Me Want To Gouge My Eyes Out and Love Doesn’t Kidnap: Why I Believe In Free Will Over Predestination. He rightly points to some of the deeply problematic consequences of the strict view of Double Predestination held by Calvinists.

However, as Calvinism (and its issues) comes up over and over again, I am surprised that Martin Luther is hardly mentioned. There would be no Calvin without Luther, so it is odd to debate the finer points of Calvin’s theology, without looking to Luther’s.

Now, I know should probably stop trying to say how great Lutheranism is, however, this justification stuff is exactly where I think Lutherans have the strongest theology there is.

Image Source - http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nakedpastor/2010/09/cartoon-t-shirt-idea-for-the-elect-only/
Image Source – http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nakedpastor/2010/09/cartoon-t-shirt-idea-for-the-elect-only/

The problem of the reformation was that most reformers wanted to express justification in terms that didn’t involve good works that earned merit for salvation. This lead to theologians like Calvin having to come up with new criteria to determine what saves us. Calvinists say that God chooses ahead of time who is saved and who is damned. In response to this view, Arminians (another reformation movement) say that God decides not to choose, but to let us choose. So those who choose Jesus are saved, those who reject Jesus are damned. The issue for these views on predestination is that they paint a false dichotomy. There is either Double Election (Calvinism) or completely Free Will (Arminianism). These two options are opposites, but they are not the only two out there. Yet, Calvinism and Arminianism, for some inexplicable reason, are the two competing theologies out there for a lot of Evangelicals.

But each position has fundamental flaws:

  • Double Predestination, choosing who is saved and who is damned puts a loving and creating God in the silly position of having damn most people that God created…
  • Free Will puts a flawed and limited humanity in the position of having to choose God, despite our difficulties and imperfect ability to make good choices in all other matters – from choosing dinner off a restaurant menu, to choosing all manner of sin in regard to how we treat our neighbour.

Martin Luther saw a middle ground, which he called The Bondage of the Will: 

  • We are free in all areas in respect to our actions towards our neighbour.
  • We are free to reject God.
  • We are NOT free to choose God.
Image source - mmcelhaney.blogspot.com
Image source – mmcelhaney.blogspot.com

The good works/indulgence mess required that the reformers describe salvation as entirely the work of God:  We do not participate in our justification or salvation – God extends that grace completely on God’s own. We do not choose it, we do not earn it, we do not facilitate God’s grace giving action. And because God is the source of all grace and mercy, God does choose those who are saved. Calvinists would agree on this point.

However, Luther also saw that Christ’s death was not limited, but for all people, all creation even. God’s desire is to save all of creation. Arminians would agree on this point. So does that mean that all creation will desire to be saved? No. Will God force salvation on us? No. We are free in will to reject God. In fact, as human beings we are good at this. We often choose to be God in God’s place, as is the condition of Original Sin. We may choose God today, but will we choose God tomorrow? We are fickle creatures. In Luther’s view, he saw that because God had given us grace freely, without condition, the only choice that we really had to make is to reject God. (Luther did not see “not choosing” as an action of human agency). So our ‘Bound Will’ will chose to reject God.

The difference between Luther and Calvin is that Calvin started his theology with the issue of God’s sovereignty, Arminians started from the same point as well. When you start from God’s  sovereignty  you are bound to end up at Double Election or Free Will. God chooses for us, or God offers a choice.

Luther saw God’s chief characteristic as ‘Mercy’. Luther wasn’t really concerned with whether God’s sovereignty is strictly maintained, because the incarnation shows that God isn’t really concerned with that either.

Image Source - psalmslife.com
Image Source – psalmslife.com

Rather, Luther saw a God that was consistently offering mercy to a flawed, limited, sinful, suffering, imperfect humanity over and over again. Forgiveness was a daily exercise for Luther. He would remind himself daily of the Baptismal promises made by God – of Forgiveness, Life and Salvation (he was no anabaptist, baptism is all God’s action).

As much as Free Will seems like the answer to Predestination, it is isn’t. In fact, it is just as unloving a choice for God to make, as damning most people is. As imperfect and flawed creatures we simply cannot be relied on to choose God, we would all be damned if it were up to us. God’s real recourse is constant and abundant mercy.  God’s alternative to saving some and damning others, or letting us choose, is to be constantly forgiving. Salvation is not about God’s sovereignty, salvation is about God’s mercy.

Calvinism and Arminianism ask the wrong question – “How are we saved?” – there is no good answer to this question.

Luther was concerned only with this question – “Who is it that saves us?” – the only answer is God.

So what do you think? Does Calvinism or Arminianism appeal to you? Or does Lutheranism have the goods? Share in the comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

*** Image Credit: The Predestination – T is a cartoon by David Hayward also know as the Naked Pastor. Check him out at www.nakedpastor.com ***

mumford-sons03

I wish Mumford & Sons Would Play at My Church

So last week I wrote a post about how Praise Bands are the New Medieval Priests. Over the past few days, that particular post has been generating discussion in the comments section, on my Facebook page and on Twitter. Worship is such an emotionally loaded topic, especially when it comes to music. Music is a powerful art form and so important in Christian worship. I think somewhere along the way, readers got the sense that I was advocating one style over another – that I was saying ‘Contemporary’ worship is not as good as, or as holy as, or as faithful as ‘Traditional’ worship.

Let me be clear, I was not advocating one style over another.

Image source - blog.ncbaptist.org
Image source – blog.ncbaptist.org

This is not about Contemporary vs. Traditional.

In fact, I didn’t use the word ‘contemporary’ or the word ‘traditional’ in that post. I am no classical music / organ snob, or someone who listens only to music newer than 5 years old. If you look at my iTunes library or the presets on my satellite radio in the car, you will see that my preference is eclectic. There is bluegrass, rock, folk, pop, classical, jazz, organ, soundtrack etc… But my heart music is some kind of bluegrass, folk, pop, rock mix or in other words Mumford & Sons. If Mumford & Sons decided to become a Praise Band, I would have resumes delivered daily to the church they play at. If Mumford & Sons decided to write a liturgy… I would be running down the streets looking for Jesus, because I would be convinced of the end of the world.

So let me say it again, this is not about Contemporary vs. Traditional.

I think I failed to connect the dots in my Praise Band Medieval Priests post. I think I failed to make clear I was talking about the medium of worship. I was talking about the ‘how’ of worship, not the ‘what’.

Yes, I have a strong bias to liturgy, but not because I am a traditionalist. I am biased towards liturgy because it is the agreed-to practice of the community of the Church. It is the vehicle that, for hundreds of years, Christians have agreed says what we believe about God, and liturgy allows us to worship God in an agreed-upon way. Liturgy is strongly rooted in the bible, in the early church, and in good theology.

Now I admit, I do think lots of contemporary music has bad theology in it, and I have done my fair share of ranting about Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs. But I am also the first to admit that a lot of traditional hymns have equally bad theology. There are Jesus-is-my-boyfriend hymns out there too, they just escape our notice because they sound a little more Pride and Prejudice than Sixteen Candles. Contemporary music doesn’t have inherently bad theology, but like hymns, the theology covers a wide spectrum.

That being said, for my evangelical readers, I think I need to explain liturgy as medium.

Liturgy is not synonymous with organ music. The word Liturgy means “work of the people.” ‘The Liturgy’ is the order of worship, the texts that are used for the songs,  the assigned bible readings for each Sunday, the prayers and responses said by the pastor and congregation, the sacraments of baptism and holy communion. Liturgy is the skeleton of worship that Christians have agreed upon for hundreds of years.

But Liturgy can be done with organs, or guitars, or string instruments, or brass instruments, or piano, or drums or a cappella. In fact, I have done liturgy with all those kinds of instruments and their styles.

The style of music in liturgy can be any style, played by all manner of instruments and ensembles. There is some great liturgical music written and played in the contemporary style out there (eg. Steve Bell’s Holy Lord).

So, when I say Praise Bands are the New Medieval Priests, I am talking about Praise Bands. And no, of course not all Praise Bands. But the medium of ‘Praise Band’.

It is not way they play, but how they play it.

221313230_640Like with Medieval Priests , the Praise Band medium has become the message.

When Medieval Priests led worship, the language, the secret prayers, the division between the laity and priesthood, the transformation of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood became the message. Those things were supposed to be the medium, the means of sharing God’s grace with the people. Instead, the Priests became the message, that only special people were required for worship, that only holy people had access to God. The liturgy of the medieval church had strayed far from the worship habits of the early church. The early church which gathered for prayer and song, to hear the Word of God, to share in the holy meal, to be sent into mission (that’s liturgy by the way).

Now this is completely anecdotal and very well my opinion, but for me the medium of the Praise Band can make the worshipper unnecessary. Just like the medieval priest who said mass by himself, often a Praise Band playing a song would sound just the same whether the congregation was present or not.

I think my objection comes from my experience over the past few years with Praise Bands. It seems like if I stopped singing, if the whole congregation stopped singing, almost nothing would change in the experience of music in worship. Praise Bands are a medium that has everything going against them when it comes to worship. They exist in an entertainment, consumer culture. They are a born of a genre of music that is performative. They even sound the best when played in concert style rather than worship style. They sound really good when the band interprets a song using the band’s own particular style, gifts and blend.

Here is where the rubber hits the road for me; despite all my best efforts to sing along, to songs that I know and that I played when I was in a Praise Band, I feel I like the music is more conducive to me listening than singing along. I am starting to enjoy listening over singing along, and I think I am not alone. I think this has become ‘worship’ for a good many people. Listening to the Praise Band, just like watching the Medieval Priest.

Does this mean I think we should give up on contemporary music in worship? Not at all. But I think, that like the liturgy of the Medieval Priests, Praise Bands will need a Reformation of sorts. I don’t know what that looks like, but some of the comments on my last post are the beginning of the discussion. Read them, see what people who have devoted their lives to music and worship are thinking. It is good stuff, it is smart, intentional and thoughtful.

Meanwhile, I am still thinking about how (maybe even if) Praise Bands are the New Medieval Priests. And wondering if Mumford & Sons will come play at my church.

So are Praise Bands a doomed medium? What needs to be done to reform them? Share in the comments, on The Millennial Pastor Facebook Page or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

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PS. Just in case I wasn’t clear that I am aware of my own hypocrisy about this stuff, here is a video of a Praise Band playing a song that I co-wrote for the National Youth Gathering of my denomination…

emr

Ash Wednesday – The Bell Tolls for You

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

The flashing red lights of firetrucks and ambulances at an accident scene.

A “Code Blue” announced over the intercom at a Hospital, followed by doctors and nurses rushing down hallways.

A doorbell rung late at night and a door opened to a police officer or pastor bringing bad news of a loved one.

Intrusions all of them. Harsh images that force us to see how fleeting and impermanent we are. They take away the cares and concerns of real life. The price of gas, keeping coffee appointments and promotions at work hardly seem to matter in face of these images.

And it is not out of morbid curiosity that we all slow down to drive by and gawk at that road accident. Or that all conversation stops in a hospital waiting room when all the staff rush away for a Code Blue. Or that we peer out our windows to see why there are those late night and officious looking visitors at the neighbour’s house. We don’t stare because it is fascinating. We stare because it could have been us. Deep within us, we all have the sense that if the wind blew hard enough, we might just drift away like dust in the wind.

ash-wednesdayTonight, on this night of Ashes, we are practicing. We are practicing for the moment when it will be us. “Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust” and sand in the shape of a cross will be laid on our caskets as we wait to be lowered into the grave.

This is a harsh reality that we rehearse tonight. Sin and Death are real. The palms that we waved last year on Palm Sunday have been burned to remind us of this. No matter how much attention we give to all the other goings on in life, no matter how much we care about work, family, sports, entertainment, politics, fashion, money or whatever, we are all subject to the effects of Sin and Death.

And not just sins like lying, stealing, or cheating. We are subject to Sin. To the reality that we are born into brokenness. That we are always on our way to death, from the moment we are born. We are the walking dead.

This is what the Ashes say to us. Just as ancient peoples covered their heads in sack cloths and ashes, as the ashes are placed on our foreheads, they speak of the shame of mortality that we all bear. The shame of being alienated and estranged from each other, and alienated and estranged from God. The shame of having tried to be like God in garden of Eden, and the shame of failing to be like God ever since.

But the shame that the Ashes speak to us is not only our shame. The ashes speak also of God’s shame. The shame that God willingly took on when Christ was born into our dusty flesh. The shame that God willingly endured by living with those who could not understand, those who pridefully mocked, those who maliciously persecuted and those willingly deceived. The shame that God then took to the cross, in humiliation. The shame that God took to the grave in powerlessness.

But out of the shame of the grave, God began the undoing of our own shame. God began the reversing of our mortality. God began the birthing of Life in the face of death. And while the Ashes remind us of sin and death, the cross shape in which they are placed reminds us that Sin and Death have been conquered.

The Ashes will be washed away, but the cross on each of our foreheads remains. Because that cross was placed there in Baptism. It was sealed to our dusty bodies as a permanent sign that out of death comes new life.

The Ashes mark the beginning of our journey into Lent. The beginning of God’s journey down with us into the water’s of baptism. The place where the power of death is washed away. And under the waters, we too die. We die to our shame and to our sin.

And over the next 40 days of Lent, we will be continually washed in baptismal waters, we will be made ready to dine with Jesus at the Last Supper, we will be made ready to lay at the foot cross, we will be made ready to preach the good news of an empty tomb.

But tonight, on day one, as the red lights flash for us. As the Code Blue is announced for us. As the door bell is tolled for us. As the sand is tossed on our caskets, We will confess that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Amen. 

Share your Ash Wednesday thoughts, or Lenten Disciplines in the comments or on Facebook: The Millennial Pastor Page or on Twitter: @Parker Erik

 

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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