Saturday, July 17, 2021

 The Shepherd of the Sheep

 


 

When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.  Mark 6

 

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Jeremiah 23

 

Dear Friends in Christ,

 

A young pastor wrote to a group of fellow pastors, many of us with some years of experience, and asked for our advice.  You see he had unilaterally decided the remove the US flag from the sanctuary and put it away into a closet but it was noticed on July 4th and now the elders want to talk to him about it and he was looking for assistance in crafting an argument to support his action.  A fellow pastor mentioned that likely no argument would suffice for those who make an idol of nationalism.  And I must confess this troubled me but I am biased as a veteran who has served under that flag and passed that flag folded into the hands of loved ones whose family member have given their lives in defense of their nation.  It troubled me that a fellow pastor could look at our flag and see an idol to nationalism.  When I look at the flag I see service, a nation that put forth an idea of a people united in justice and freedom, a nation that stands for the freedom of religion that is worth defending for the sake of the Gospel. 

 But putting that aside for the moment let us shift our attention to a lakeside many years ago.  Jesus is drawing near having heard the dreadful news of John’s death, having received the disciples back from their first mission trip, all needing rest.  But a huge crowd has gathered.  Five thousand men with women and children await.  And Jesus looks upon them and we are told He had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.  How strange?

 These are people who live in a culture deeply steeped in religion and spirituality.  The Law of Moses is an integral part of their lives.  Now of course some give it lip service, but the truth is their culture was far more traditionally religious than is ours in the 21st century.  Their Synagogue was the heart of their community.  In many ways their week rotated around the Sabbath and their calendar around the marked out religious festivals.  And there were plenty of available and visible religious leaders. Rabbis in the synagogues, Pharisees publicly teaching on the fine points of the law, Saducees, priests,  and scribes overseeing the religious rites of the temple of Jerusalem.  It was a culture and a lifestyle steeped in religion.

 

How could they be sheep without a shepherd?

 

It is not long into the ministry of Jesus when we see the highly trained and very confident Pharisees start to show up.  They know the law.  They know the fine points of the law.  They are great theologians.  They can instruct people on the finest practice of Sabbot and how not to violate it.  But in the strict and specific expectations honed over years of study and mutual conversation they can’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah when He stands in front of them.

This approach to religion confront Jesus, would help lead to His crucifixion, and would haunt the early church with division in the party called the Judaizers – those wo demanded adherence to their expectations for all Christians.  Paul would call them what they were, legalistic zealots getting in the way of the Gospel.

Like minded men wear the collar of pastoral service even today, even inside the LCMS.  I’ve struggled to come up with a term for them.  They often call themselves confessionals, but for us old timers who were confessionals before they were even in seminary we see something new.   Some of us have been using the term “strictitarians” to sum up what we are seeing.  Something perhaps best illustrated by a couple of stories.

In his first week, the new associate pastor, approached His Senior Pastor with a demand.  The Children’s message that would occur on non-communion Sundays needed to be removed from the service because it was not a liturgical element.  It wasn’t in the hymnal and  had not been part of the practice of the medieval church when the liturgy assumed its forms.  He was concerned that his fellow conservative and strictly confessional pastors would look upon him critically if he was part of a church with a children’s message.  The Senior Pastor was surprised and at first uncertain how to respond, but did not want to develop an adversarial relationship with his new associate so he came up with a compromise to move the children’s message to the beginning of the service before the first hymn which the associate accepted as not being part of the service since the service had technically yet to begin.

A new associate pastor approached the altar guild instructing them to make changes in communion set up to reflect a more purified practice of Holy Communion.   Water would be provided to pour into the wine as in the middle ages representing the water that flowed from the side of Christ.  A large host must be provided so that it could be elevated during the service. And more.  When the altar guild asked the Senior Pastor why did their practice of decades need to be changed he was caught unawares.  But when he talked to the associate, the associate explained that the communion setup was deficient, and did not properly honor the sacrament according to the best of liturgical tradition.  Soon thereafter the associate would inform the Senior Pastor that he believe himself to be a better theologian than the  Senior who had more education and experience.   It would come to a head soon thereafter when the Associate would demand to move the processional cross to a particular place on the altar because there was a guideline in the hymnal saying so.  It didn’t matter that the cross would be in the way of the camera used to live steam the service.

So what is up with this?  We are not talking about positions and arguments about something clearly commanded or forbidden by Holy Scripture. We are talking about division, conflict, power moves and so forth about human created traditions and personal preferences. 

The same as the Pharisees.  The same as the Judaizers of Paul’s time.  We can understand how Jesus could look upon a deeply religious people steeped in a religious culture and proclaim He had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

Now the Pharisees were responding to a time when the people of God ignored God’s law, sinned outright and publicly, and were punished with exile. They taught strict obedience to avoid a repeat of this.  Most likely today’s strictitarians are responding to an increasing license in our culture for sin and ungodliness. I know they are suspicious of fellow pastors who in some cases are rightly observed as being too liberal.    In previous decades the LCMS flirted with dismissing Scripture in regards to many things.  An entire group of professors was pushed out of a seminary for teaching Scripture was not without its mistakes and errors.  I myself have heard from a retired Pastor’s lips that the LCMS is wrong in its stance on homosexuality and should change, a position likely his position informed by the fact his own daughter identifies as a homosexual. 

But the willingness of some to take away from Scripture is not a defense for adding requirements and burdens to God’s people that are not found in Scripture.  Christ does not care if we have a children’s message in the service and He doesn’t care where the processional cross is located.  But I think He does care when the leaders of the church make issues where Christ has no issue.

 

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. (Jer 23)

We are not just talking about pastors here, but church leaders, indeed even all members of a church.  For the Christian church is a priesthood of believers.  Its not just about the pastor, its not even about the elders and senior leaders, but it is about all of us.  In some way we all influence one another.  In some way we all lead one another.  We all have a voice.   We vote in our voters’ assemblies.  We express our opinions and expectations to our leaders, our pastors, to one another.  One thing I’ve learned in my years as a pastor is most of the time church members don’t appreciate someone making big decisions and big changes for them and forcing them down their throats.  We are in this together.

 

Remember what Paul wrote in the Epistle for this day: 

 but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.  (Eph 2)

 But we can forget sometimes, pastors, leaders, any of us.    We can forget when we get caught up about flags, and crosses, and whatever else that we are called to be a dwelling place for god, a Holy Temple, not strangers or adversaries but fellow saints, members of one household, a family of God.

 And God is the Father.  And Jesus is the Shepherd, for there can be only one.

 Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.  And this Christ did for us.  He is the only one who could.   The Divine Son of God bestows His righteousness upon us as a gift having sacrificed Himself upon a cross for our sin.  

 It isn’t so much about us as it is about Him.  It isn’t so much about our preferences, opinions, values or desires but His.   It isn’t so much about what we want for ourselves but what He wants for us.  And what is that?

 There was a time we were without God.  But now we are with God.

We were strangers to Christ but now we are in Christ.  He calls us His friends.

We were hostile to God and one another but now we have peace in Christ.

We were condemned sinners but now we are redeemed.

We were strangers and aliens but now we are fellow citizens with one another in the household of God.

 We are no longer like sheep without a shepherd because Christ has had compassion on us.  He is our Shepherd.   He is the only one who can be for He is the Messiah, our Lord, the Divine Son of God, the crucified and risen Savior of the world.

 

in Christ’s name.

 

Now may the peace of God which transcends

all human understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Return from False Witness

My brother pastor and I are taking turns preaching for our Lenten midweek services in our respective congregations using the them "Return to Jesus" put out by our denomination's publishing house.  This week he preached on the theme "Return from False Witness" and used as one of his illustrations the story of Richard Jewell.  The timing was rather ironic because I had just began watching the Netflix serious on the Centennial Olympic Park bombing.   I followed the story as it unfolded as the authorities tried to capture Eric Rudolph in the Nantahala National Forest.  This area of the country was just a few hours from where I grew up and I had hiked the Appalachian trail through the northern portion of that forest a few years before.  But as much as this story is about Eric Rudolph, this story is also about a man named Richard Jewell.   

Richard was working as a part-time security guard during the US Olympics and in the course of his rounds spotted a suspicious back-pack and alerted authorities who upon discovering it was indeed a bomb were able to partially evacuate the crowd certainly saving many lives.

But the pressure was on.   The FBI was on the case and the agents investigating were feeling the heat from upper leadership who needed a "win".  This was on the international stage and the FBI at the time was still reeling from a number of very public enforcement events that didn't go well (Ruby Ridge, Waco...).   The mayor of Atlanta was pushing for a suspect to be named quickly to minimize the economic impact of the bombing.  In just a few days Richard Jewell who before had been labeled "a hero" would be labeled "a hero bomber", a particular time of bomber who plants the bombs so he can discover them and be a hero. The only problem -- it wasn't true.  

The FBI would leak it to the press and the press would run with it.  Jewell lost his job, his reputation, the ability to leave his house safely, his privacy.  He had to get rid of his phone.   Later when the truth came out big networks settled, but the local paper fought and fought defending that while it wasn't true that Jewell was the bomber, based on the information at hand it was fair and respectable journalism to report what they reported.  That a man's life was destroyed for some time didn't matter.  

The most potent part of the Netflix series for me was the scene where Jewell is speaking and saying (paraphrased here) "I can understand why people would think someone like me would be a suspect, someone fat, slow, who has made mistakes in his past, who doesn't have girlfriend, who isn't successful at life..."  

Character assassination.   

Martin Luther wrote in his Large Catechism regarding the eight commandment -- you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Here belongs particularly the detestable, shameful vice of speaking behind a person’s back and slandering, to which the devil spurs us on, and of which there would be much to be said. For it is a common evil plague that every one prefers hearing evil to hearing good of his neighbor; and although we ourselves are so bad that we cannot suffer that any one should say anything bad about us, but every one would much rather that all the world should speak of him in terms of gold, yet we cannot bear that the best is spoken about others.

Take the following story for example.

 Mat 26:57-68  Then those who had seized Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had gathered.  (58)  And Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and going inside he sat with the guards to see the end.  (59)  Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death,  (60)  but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward  (61)  and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.’”  (62)  And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?”  (63)  But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”  (64)  Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”  (65)  Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy.  (66)  What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.”  (67)  Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him,  (68)  saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?”

People don't lie about others, don't work to destroy the reputation of others without reason, but the reason is usually not an honorable one.  The Sanhedrin wanted Jesus gone.  He had challenged their exercise of their authority calling them hypocrits.  He disobeyed rules to not associate with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes.   He had ignored their rules for religious observance including healing on the Sabbath which they defined as "work".  But the big one was Jesus claimed to be divine, to be God's Son and the promised Savior.  How big a deal was this for them?   I really began to understand just how much their blindness lead them to ignore all the true facts about Jesus (His compassion, His love, His miracles, His divine power) when a chaplain rabbi I served with commented that for him the Pharisees, Saducees, and the Sanhedrin were the heroes in the story because Jesus has to be a false Messiah.  Why?  Because if Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior, their theology so carefully crafted by experts would have to be at least in this case, wrong.   The FBI needed a win.   The media had money to make selling newspapers and advertising. 

The experts say.   People in positions of authority carry a lot of weight.  There is a scene in the Netflix series where the FBI is searching Jewell's house and his mother keeps asking him "what did you do"?  Whether Netflix is taking artistic license here that his own mother suspected him, the story as portrayed is true to life.  She says, "The FBI doesn't just do this for no reason."   The FBI, the Press, not the gossip rags but the big names -- CNN, NBC, the New York Post.  People in positions of authority carry great weight when they make a proclamation.  

The truth came out.  The FBI folks that made mistakes didn't really pay any price.   Most of the media groups settled their libel suits but it is just money for them. CNN survives.  NBC survives.  The local paper survived.    Jewell died young at the age of 44 from chronic health conditions not likely helped by this episode, though the police chief of Luthersville gave Jewell his second chance and he was hired as deputy.

Character assassination:  at the heart of the crucifixion of Jesus, in the public eye with the story of Richard Jewell.  But how many stories are out there that don't see the light of day, perhaps your own story.    I know brother pastors who have had their ministries and in some cases their careers destroyed by this kind of behavior.  

The lay deacon, one of the founders of the church, and treasurer who begins tearing down the pastor because he won't practice open communion. (See for more information).  The deacon finds an ally in the Congregation's president, another founder.  Surely these leaders can't be wrong about the pastor.  Ironically six months after the pastor leaves it is discovered that these same men had been putting a portion of the congregational offering into a separate bank account to pay the previous pastor under the table so he wouldn't lose his social security.   The attacks on the pastor had began during the church's leadership board five year planning process, when he encouraged them to do an audit and take a detailed look into the history of the congregation's finances.

The narcissist associate pastor who awes the selection committee and the church's staff on first impressions but soon after arriving goes to war with the senior pastor because he isn't conservative enough.   There are things in worship like children's messages that don't belong.  And the processional cross is in the wrong place.  And you have to do this different and you are doing that wrong.   Finding allies among some of the most conservative elders, a fishing expedition is started against the senior pastor who is trying to draw boundaries and put the breaks onto destructive change.  He is labeled a bully and divisive and encouraged to move along.

The economy is tanking and the church's attendance and offerings are going down.  Stress is up among the leadership and the pastoral staff.  There are concerns about layoffs.  Then the older pastor gets sick and has to take some time off.  His assistant takes the opportunity to start feeding misinformation to the older pastor about the staff and lay leadership who acts on it from a distance thinking he is offering guidance for the good of the church. But the assistant is able then to twist the older pastor's words and actions in such a way that the leaders begin to believe he is not longer fit to serve and the assistant is able to move into the position with a corresponding increase in salary.

The young pastor in a small town who tries to council a young woman (daughter of a prominent church family) regarding the pitfalls of living together outside of marriage who finds his character and performance suddenly under attack by an elder, president, and trustee (all who happen to be in the same family).   Rapidly losing the trust of the members he moves on to another congregation.

If it can happen to Jesus, the Son of God, if it can happen to pastors, if it can happen to an ordinary man doing his job and saving lives like Richard Jewell, it can happen to anyone.  

If people who spend their lives trying to do what is right and stand for what is right -- the Sanhedrin, rabbis and Pharisees and Sadducees, FBI agents and reputable journalists, church leaders and even pastors can fall into the trap of thinking that the attacking of another person's character is justified, anyone can fall into the trap and become the harm that befalls our neighbor.  

If the public can be swayed by the erroneous testimony of experts (Sanhedrin, FBI, the media, pastors, church leaders, _______ fill in the blank), so can we be sucked into the feeding frenzy.

The world, our communities, our churches, our families, or workplaces would all be better if we actually paid attention to the 8th commandment.  People's lives would be better, maybe our own.

Luther's Small Catechism:  (8th Commandment)

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. What does this mean? — Answer.

We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, think and speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

So how do we return from this?   When we are the victim we seek solace in the truth, in the light of day, in the loving presence of God.  When we are the perpetrators it is the same.  We face the truth (about ourselves) and acknowledge our sin, own up to it, even apologize, and find forgiveness for harming our neighbor from the love of Christ who died for our sins.





The Big Ten


W
hat does it say that if you say "The Big Ten" the first thing that will come to many people's minds is college football?  Today we are going to look at the original big ten, the ten commandments.  

The Israelite slaves have successfully fled their Egyptian slave masters with the intervention of God Himself and are now camped at the base of Mount Sinai.   And from the mountain comes Moses with the commandments of God inscribed into stone by God Himself.  This is serious business.  

There will be other commandments, ones like do not mix meat and dairy, don't wear garments of two different fabrics and so forth, commandments just for the Israelites so they stand out distinct among the people of the world.  But these ten are different.  They are universal.  And they are non-negotiable.

These are not the ten suggestions, though we tend to treat them as such.  We come up with all sorts of creative reasons to get around them sometimes while claiming to be following the spirit of them.  I can take these things from my employer because they don't pay me enough.  I can move in with my boyfriend or girlfriend because we want to make sure of things before we get married.     We negotiate with them in our minds all the time as if our response to them is some form of compromise, but the truth is it is a one sided dialogue because we just aren't listening.  

We ask ourselves what is the minimal thing we have to do to be in compliance.  We tell ourselves, I have never killed anyone, but Jesus tells us if we have every hated anyone we are just as guilty.  Luther in his small catechism helps us see that the big ten isn't just about the least we should do, but about cultivating a way of thinking that asks what is the excellent kind of life, how can we do the best we can do?

Take his explanation of the fifth commandment,  "Thou shalt not kill. What does this mean? — Answer. We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need in every need and danger of life and body." (Small Catechism)

It sounds great if we really think about it.  Imagine a world where everyone looked out for... well everyone. But the more common message you will hear in our world today is about the oppressiveness of religion and commandments in general.  That commandments don't really originate with God nor reflect any given foundation to our lives but were created by men in power to keep people under their power.  The critical progressive movement sees these as the Israelites fleeing one form of slavery to only fall into a moral slavery.  If that were so, one would think that a commandment against murder would be somewhat counterproductive.  Unjust use of force and threat to livelihood and life has always been a favored tool of the tyrant.

Yes the world would be a much better place if we didn't kill one another, if we didn't lie about one another, if no one stole from each other but actually helped one another have what we need to live, if marriage was honored and families were stable... if people recognized the love of God and relished in it.

For the first thing God said when given the commandments,  "I am your God."

God didn't give these commandments as a burden or a test.  These are family rules.  God sees each human person as His child.  We were created to be in relationship with Him and we were created to be in relationship with one another.  Jesus summed the big ten up with the words Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength and love your neighbor as ourselves.  There is no escaping that human life is corporate life.  Imagine a world where these were actually followed.  How much better would your life be if your neighbor loved you so much he followed them?  But why should he when we ourselves don't?  And we know as a corporate humanity we don't follow them so we need laws to protect us from each other.

So yes, the big ten, the Law as we call it, was given as a guard.   We use the word "guard" to refer to its role in corporate civic society, that these are to inspire our legal frameworks.  Used to our nation acknowledged the importance of the big ten in the foundation of western legal and ethical systems.  But for some time we have stopped pretending to be inspired by them in our culture.  We can now work seven days a week.  We can terminate the life of human beings without blame if they are unborn.  Marriage is redefined and unnecessary, you can just live together and few think anything about it.  And who really expects the public, the media, the politician to honor the eighth commandment and speak only truth about each other.   We live in a society consumed by greed and coveting.

So we say at least Christians should follow them, and yes these are a guide, a word we use for their role for the Christian.  But we follow so poorly.  And so they also stand before us like a mirror.  When we don't look away, don't shade our eyes with self-justifications for behavior, our heart and spirit stand stark naked in front of the mirror and it isn't always pretty.  We haven't loved our neighbors as ourselves.  We've hedged with God's Law.  We've bent it, tried to negotiate with it, justified our twisting of it, even ignoring of it.  

So what can be done?   St. Paul I think explains it the best for us in Romans chapter three.

19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus...

Truth be told we are unable to keep the law well enough to be justified in God's sight.  But God is about family.   God is about love.  And so He sent His own Son to rescue us from ourselves.  He is the only person since Adam and Eve who fulfilled the law perfectly, and so He stood in for us, He took our place.  He gave His life to pay for our disobedience that we may be forgiven, restored, and renewed.  We'll never keep the law perfectly, but now with the help of the Holy Spirit we may do better than ever.  We go to heaven because of one reason only -- the grace of God.  He forgives us.  But while we live, He also helps us to be ... well neighborly, to be a bit more like a loving family.  How can we best say thank you to God for saving us for all eternity, by loving those He loves -- our fellow human beings. It can never earn us heaven, but it can make this place a little bit better until He returns.