Midweek devotion 6/3

I am better versed in Bible passages than in political slogans, but for many years I have been fascinated and in agreement with a comment by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (1918 – 2008) was a Russian novelist, philosopher, historian, short story writer and political prisoner. Solzhenitsyn was an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union and Communism and helped to raise global awareness of its Gulag labor camp system.

Here is the phrase I am referring to: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.”  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

These words came to my mind as I sat up late on Sunday evening, watching the reports of demonstrations, looting, arson, and various other sincere and/or criminal activities throughout our nation. While we might have hoped against hope, I am afraid the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis was so horrendous that we had to anticipate some sort of response. Most unfortunately, this response has become a significant problem in and of itself and has endangered countless people, caused the deaths of too many and the destruction of the livelihood of more men and women than we can even imagine or fathom. In anticipated fashion, everyone is pretty busy finding the ‘real culprits’ right now. And, of course, every ‘side’ insists that ‘we are better than that’ and that ‘this is not who we are’. These riots, on top of a pandemic and an economic slow-down with massive unemployment, have created a perfect storm in our nation.  We can only weep for all who are treated with contempt, all who think violence is their only recourse, all who stand by helplessly and watch their livelihood go up in flames, all who endanger their own safety to protect others. We weep!

I invite you to think with me about all this at our “faith level”. For you see: this disconcerting life as we are living it right now is not outside of our relationship with God! Who we are as people of faith at 9:30 am on Sunday morning must have a relationship to the people we are on Thursday at 11:15 pm. It is a misunderstanding of both, the separation of Church and State and our Lutheran theology, to insist otherwise. This is about faith in the world, not politics in the pulpit.

The church is to have a prophetic voice! People like me are called to issue prophetic words – in season and out of season – and speak, if needed, truth to power. That has always been an important task of the Body of Christ.

We just celebrated Pentecost. We know that via the power of the Holy Spirit God promises to make all things new through individual believers as well as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church from where God’s love, righteousness and justice will permeate all of life, all nations on earth. Through his death and Resurrection, Jesus has made us righteous with God, our relationship is restored, our sins are no longer the endless, deep chasm between us and our creator they once were even as we continue to struggle with ‘missing the mark’ (see my devotion from last week).

In Scripture the word for ‘righteousness’ also has the meaning of ‘justice’. Of course, we all want justice, especially when we know that we have been wronged. We also have a communal sense of justice – which is exactly what we are experiencing right now as a country.

Lutherans have a so-called “Two Kingdom Doctrine”. Without turning this into a lecture, this is what Luther meant and what we still teach: Luther states that the children of Adam fall into two groups, those who belong to the kingdom of God and those who belong to the kingdom of the world. To the kingdom of God belong all who believe in Christ and live under Him, for Christ is King and Lord.

But beside this spiritual kingdom God has established another, the kingdom of temporal authority. This exists because evil exists. God instituted authorities to check violence and injustice, and to maintain peace and order. Rulers, parents and teachers are all set up as walls against evil. Yet, it should be noted that it is God Himself who rules in both these realms. God never drops the reins. To speak of either is thus to speak of a kingdom which is God's, and it is with Him that we deal in matters spiritual and temporal.  We are sometimes in danger of looking on the temporal as something profane, as if God were active only in the spiritual. The temporal is not foreign to God, and Luther does not regard it as such. To him there is nothing which is profane, and no sphere in which God is not at work.

Translated this means what? The authorities God has put in place right now are in charge of establishing justice and peace for the George Floyd’s of this world and for all those who are harmed in any way by the riots we have seen. All wrong-doers need to be held to account. As well we need to hold to account those who are entrusted with the responsibility to establish justice. They too answer to God! They too are always in danger of solving injustice with greater injustice yet. While we honor and respect men and women for the sake of their office and pray for them (excellent Lutheran imperative!) we do not follow them without question in blind obedience. Together we answer to the author and giver of life.

And, as children of God, living in the spiritual realm of God’s amazing Grace, we know that true justice does not come by electing the ‘right’ leader or by reading certain newspapers or by appointing judges of a particular ‘bend’. True justice comes only when we, by the power of the Holy Spirit, realize that this Spirit is “convicting the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement” (John 17:8).

I have always loved to preach on the Book of Amos, one of the ‘minor prophets’. There is nothing ‘minor’ about Amos, in my mind. I often wish that God would endow me with the spirit of truth and conviction as it was given to Amos.

You too know some of his most famous words: Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Now, Amos spoke a long, long time ago but looking around, not too much seems to have changed in the hearts of people. The insistence that we ‘are better than that’ (often heard from pulpits as well) is answered by me with: No, we are not! I am not! You are not! Just check in with Jesus on that one! We are still sinners and we still look out for ourselves. We still do not love God and our neighbor as ourselves. I don’t! We still take what is not ours. We continue to treasure our own life more than that of the next person.

Now, before you throw your first ripe tomatoes at the parsonage: of course, not all of us do all of that all the time!!! But, all of us do some of that often enough that it has an impact on what we pray: Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. We always are in this struggle to get on the side of the angels, for that is where we wish to be.

The words of Amos are not only reminding us to do works of justice and righteousness. This is a roar of outrage from a God of justice who looks around and sees injustice everywhere, injustice committed by even God’s own people. It is also a cry of sadness from a God of grace who grieves over what humanity has done. In so many places, that stream of justice and righteousness has slowed to but a trickle. That is why God came into this world, taking on flesh and living among us. Jesus was a prophet, yes, like Amos, calling God’s people to lives of justice and righteousness; but he is also so much more than that, he is our Savior, Emmanuel, God with us.

This is a God who realized that if it was left up to us alone, we would never find our way out of the mess that we have created. Even our best efforts are not enough. We humans need a different way. We need a God who first sets us free from the old ways of life, and then walks alongside us as we live into the reign of God. That God is precisely what we are given in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we are given a glimpse of the promised future, when the fullness of God’s justice and righteousness will be upon all people and all lands. It is Jesus who makes justice roll down. Jesus, who brings justice to us and through us out into the world. And thanks be to God for that. By the power of God’s Holy Spirit: may that realization be given into our hearts and minds. Amen.

Monday Message 4/6/20

Here is a devotion from the pen of Henry Nowen; Roman Catholic priest, theologian, writer, lover and servant of those who are treated most harshly in life, and who yet throughout his own life struggled with who he was. “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.” Isaiah 42:6

When all is said and done, what we must learn above all is to offer ourselves – imperfections and all – to God. If we keep waiting until we are ‘worthy’ of God, we will move farther rather than closer to him. It is through our broken, vulnerable, mortal ways of being that the healing power of the eternal God becomes visible to us. We are called each day to present to the Lord the whole of our lives – our joys as well as our sorrows, our successes as well as failures, our hopes as well as our fears. We are called to do so with limited means, our stuttering words and halting expressions. In this way we will come to know in mind and heart the unceasing prayer of God’s Spirit in us. Our many prayers are in fact confessions of our inability to pray. But they are confessions that enable us to perceive the merciful presence of God.

I pray that today will be a day on which you are ready and able to present yourself to the Lord in all that you are. Bring your fears, your hopes together with your thanks and praise and step into the presence of God who promises to make this day a day of His blessing.

Wednesday Message 4/1/20

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ

One of the things that bother me during this time of physical distancing is the fact that I cannot hold Bible studies and teach Confirmation classes. Especially, giving up the time with our Confirmands makes me sad. First off, I really like the kids and enjoy being in their presence. They help me understand some of the ‘woke’ words I otherwise would not know how to spell and they keep me on my toes in many other regards.

I also dislike the fact that we cannot sit down together and plow our way through all sorts of more or less difficult to understand subjects. But, what I don’t miss is the occasional frustration when it appears that my style of teaching or the students’ attention get in the way of learning. Why is it that teenagers can remember four long verses of the latest hit song but not two short lines from the Catechism? I only pray that they somehow ‘get it in their hearts’.

By the way, I never assumed now or ever that confirmands deliberately do not want to retain knowledge! When my granddaughter was rather young, she had a very difficult time distinguishing the numbers 6, 8 and 9.  A great lover of the card game “Go Fish” she and I went around and around. I used all of my pedagogical acumen as well as every trick in my grandmotherly handbook, to get her to recognize the individual numbers – to no avail. We would stop just before tears would well up in her eyes. Victoria wanted to learn and know these numbers! She told me that kids in her preschool class were proficient at recognizing them – and she wanted to beat me at the card game.

Finally, one day, probably just to say something, I said: “Victoria, whenever you get these numbers right, Oma will give you a hug and a kiss, okay?” Sure, Victoria was all in. But, before she picked up the next card she looked at me with her beautiful blue eyes and said: “Oma, if I get it wrong, do I still get a hug and a kiss?” Choking back my own tears, I gave her a hug and a kiss and assured her that she always would get hugs and kisses even if she never learned those numbers (she did learn them J).

There are countless things I do not know, don’t remember, never understood or deemed too unimportant to commit to my feeble brain. Sometimes my brain feels so overloaded that I can’t distinguish one thing from the other. More often than not I get terribly upset with myself for drawing a blank and having to go back to a book or the internet to refresh my mind. And, just like Victoria, I do care and want to know what is in front of me. Yet, sometimes I simply fail no matter how hard I try.

As we are closing in on the holiest of weeks in the life of the Christian church, we often ‘don’t get it’. We have 2000 years of teaching, preaching, witnessing and living under our collective belt and we still stand there and are saying: “What was that? How did we get from Palm Sunday to Easter morning?” And even if we ‘get’ the events per say, sometimes we don’t grasp what God is doing for us with the death and Resurrection of Jesus. Doubts and confusion easily reign. We look at the faith taught and lived and we look at the science taught and explained and we wonder how God can still be the God who holds all things in His hands, guiding and protecting, loving and forgiving without us being involved and at the table of decision making. Is it true? What if it is not? What if our minds are as confused as little Victoria was with the numbers 6, 8 and 9? My guess is this: God still gives us hugs and kisses. From the cross and from the empty tomb even if we still get it wrong. God is just that kind of a God. Amen

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.  Romans 5:6-7


Wednesday Message 3/25/20

When my grandson, William, was a Kindergartener, he proudly proclaimed that he knew everything about Groundhog Day…and then he proceeded to show off his new-found knowledge. Every Groundhog Day since then I can’t help but think of William – and of the movie by the same name.  In the movie Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an egocentric, annoying weatherman who gets stranded by a blizzard after doing a live-broadcast on Groundhog Day. If you know the movie you also know that good old Phil ends up re-living the same day, February 2nd, over and over again. Only Phil is aware of the time loop. First he uses the distressing and bizarre scenario as an opportunity to manipulate people. However, his shameless self-indulgence eventually gets superseded by some serious examination of his life and priorities.

What would you do if you would wake up each morning only to discover that you had to live thru yesterday again – and again – and again – that the progress and the effort from yesterday would be wiped out ---- as well as all the hurtful things you said and did yesterday!? You see, the repeat of the same day over and over again would allow for changed actions, better choices…right? How would you respond if you could do all things over again - if the words that broke a relationship could be newly minced; if the thoughts you contemplated could be amended; if the careless action you took could be replaced by a responsible one? How great would that be?

Guess what? The idea is not as crazy as it sounds. The Gospel of Jesus Christ promises us nothing less than a new beginning each day as we live dripping-wet from the waters of our Baptism. As Christ died and rose, he grants us the unique gift of having our sins in the past and awake each morning to a day filled with unimaginable possibilities and limitless opportunities. Each day is a new beginning. Of course, we cannot wipe out yesterday simply by going to sleep and waking up. This is real life and there are consequences to our actions. The harsh word, the slap, the broken promise, the neglect from yesterday has a consequence today. Amends are needed, change in behavior is crucial.

To be sure: forgiveness does not mean that God does not remember our failures. Newness of life in Christ does not mean we can hope for forgiveness without repentance, live without discipline and dismiss the cross of Christ --- we call that cheap grace. No, we can have a new beginning each and every day only because Christ gave his very life and sets us right with God again and calls us to became followers. This is God’s doing, God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s plan, God’s work thru the beloved Son, Jesus. In the third chapter of Titus we hear that God saved us…in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.

I know that these last two weeks have been a bit of a Groundhog Day experience. We wake up and it seems like the world is going nowhere fast. We thought that pandemics are events we read about in history books. The stock market is back to its 2016 numbers. Fear strikes: will we make the same mistakes again, have the same hurts to live through again, repeat the hard work from days gone by in hopes that we somehow will end up where we were a month ago?

Remember that you are baptized and that we are a holy people set apart to do holy things in the name of our holy God. Perhaps this horrible world-wide crisis helps us to turn to God in complete trust and confidence for God is our true safety and security. It seems we need reminders just like the people in biblical times. Each day a new beginning! May yours be richly blessed.

Updates and prayers

We extend our condolences to Calvin Thompson and his family as they mourn the sudden and unexpected death of his sister. May God comfort them in their sorrow with confidence in the Resurrection promise.

Our dear brother in Christ, Lowell Walk, was called to his eternal rest early this morning, March 18. His Memorial Service will be delayed until the restrictions of the State of Iowa are lifted. Please keep Nancy and the rest of the Walk family in your prayers.

Continue as well to pray for the family of Rufus Glassel. Emmanuel lost two of our stellar supporters and friends in the Lord. We give thanks to God for their lives and our journey with them.

Services cancelled at this time

The short version is that Emmanuel Lutheran Church will not hold any church services, or events from now until March 31. After that date is still to be determined. Small council meetings of less than 10 people are still able to meet if they so decide.

The following is the official statement from the governor's office.

“Pursuant to Iowa Code § 135.144 (3), and in conjunction with the Iowa Department of Public Health, unless otherwise modified by subsequent proclamation or order of the Iowa Department of Public Health, I hereby order that effective Noon today, March 17, 2020, and continuing until 11:59 p.m. on March 31, 2020: 

.... E. Mass Gathering: Social, community, spiritual, religious, recreational, leisure, and sporting gatherings and events of more than 10 people are hereby prohibited at all locations and venues, including but not limited to parades, festivals, conventions, and fundraisers."

So we will follow the law, and keep you informed of any updates as this is a constantly changing situation.