charlottesville

As part of one network's news analysis of the protests in Charlottesville, someone quoted Nelson Mandela, "People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite." Sounds nice, but is it true that love comes more naturally to the human heart?

Not according to the Bible. True, we humans were created in the image of God. It would stand to reason therefore, that since God is love, we would share that same attribute. But already in Genesis 6:5, "The Lord saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time." Something happened between the time when God pronounced his creation "good," and God's later severe evaluation of mankind. Christians recognize that "something" as the Fall. The condition we find ourselves in has been laid at the foot of "original sin." That is defined as the innate inability to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Were this pristine condition still in place, there would be no Charlottesvilles.

But of course, we are not born fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things. So fear and hatred develop quickly when we encounter those who would prevent us from having all things go our way. There are only two ways out of this situation, and neither is foolproof. First, the government can compel the behavior it desires for the good of the community. Brandishing financial penalties, physical punishments, and rewards, the government seeks to encourage or coerce outward behavior that it believes is best for the common good and for the protection of all its citizens. Success depends upon the government's willingness to make and enforce laws that will achieve such ends. Still, it cannot change hearts that are bent on hating others. It can only force outward compliance with its laws, and with such compliance often comes resentment. When resentment builds to a certain level, outbreaks of resistance and revolt are not far off.

The second way out of the situation addresses the problem of the heart, from which this hatred springs. Here the solution is conversion which the Holy Spirit works through the Gospel's preaching and teaching. If you remember, I said that neither approach is foolproof. The problem with the Gospel solution is that Christians remain sinners even as they are saints. We still can be driven by our own insecurities and resentments that lead us to look at others with prejudice. Every time those inclinations break out, however, God calls us to repentance and a return to Christ for forgiveness for this sin. Our common sinful humanity put us all under God's judgment; our common sinful humanity is what Christ came to redeem. As Paul says, God condemns us all so that He might have mercy on us all.

Christians who understand our common plight and our common Savior need to deal with the sins of racism and prejudice on both fronts. As citizens, we can promote and support laws that address prejudice and hatred. We can admonish racism and the like wherever we find them (and that sometimes includes one's own family members). As Christians, we are called upon to address sinful behavior with Law and Gospel in hopes that the Spirit will bring about repentance and faith. Over time, the Spirit produces the fruit of such faith and behaviors and attitudes that are changed from within. In addition, Christians will take every opportunity to denounce any philosophy that hijacks the name "Christian" in service to twisted and decidedly unChristian causes.

sermonseries

Sermon series – there hasn't been a time when pastors haven't used them. They usually appear during Advent, Lent, and summer. They provide a nice "break" from time to time. But there are preachers who move from one sermon series to another the entire year. They often attempt to answer relevant questions: How can I have a stronger faith? How can I be a more patient person? What can I do when I feel adrift? Perhaps this format springs from a desire to create a "hook" that brings people back each week, much like movie theaters ran weekly serials along with the regularly scheduled movie in the '40s and '50s. the goal was to bring the customer back each week. Sermon series may also reflect the style of writing in some current TV shows, whose weekly episodes build on those of the previous weeks. Still, the question comes, "What if I'm not interested in the subject matter of this series?"

Perhaps the most universally interesting "series" is the four Gospels narratives. Each week the hearer experiences an episode from Jesus' life and ministry from beginning to end. The genius of this series is that Christ is always front and center and not tacked on at the end of the sermon as the quick fix to solve the particular problem which the series raises that week. On a small piece of paper taped behind more than one pulpit, I've seen the words, "Sir, we would see Jesus." That is a powerful tap on the shoulder to every preacher. Your hearers have come to meet Jesus. They have come to hear Jesus. They have come to receive Jesus in word and Sacrament and to express their thanks and commitment to Him with praise and thanksgiving. I could read a dozen books that tell me how to be a better parent, how to cope with loneliness, how to secure for myself financial peace of mind. Our preachers did not go to seminary to learn answers for those problems. The Bible was not written to provide those kinds of answers. But what we did go to school for was to learn how to diagnose all of those worries and anxieties as forms of idolatry and call the hearer to repentance. We went to seminary to learn how Jesus forgives and heals from such idolatries. When the man shouted to Jesus, "Make my brother divide the inheritance with me," I wonder how many of today's preachers would reply, "Next week I'm beginning a new series on how you can find financial peace of mind. Come and listen to it."

Jesus offers better, and so should our preachers. The preacher's challenge is to address concerns in such a way that Jesus' words are fulfilled: "He that hears you hears me."

johnsonamendment-3

Earlier this year the President vowed a relaxation of the Johnson Amendment. What is that? The 1954 Johnson Amendment passed by Congress states that non-profits cannot speak in favor of or against any political candidate. The Johnson Amendment was passed by Congress as an amendment to section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code. It states that entities which are exempt from federal income tax cannot "participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of – or in opposition to – any candidate for public office." Enforcement of this amendment has been practically non-existent, to say the least. For example, when he was a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton appeared in many African-American congregations and received endorsements from their clergy without so much as a yawn from the IRS. (And since there are more than religious groups who have 501(c)(3) standing, this ruling should have applied to labor leader endorsements and others as well.) But sometimes the government unwittingly gets it right, even if for the wrong motives.

Lutherans and other Christians have understood that the Amendment threatens no penalty for speaking either for or against moral issues of the day from the pulpit, only for endorsing or condemning candidates by name who may espouse or condemn those issues. Speaking only to the issues certainly helps pastors avoid ad hominem attacks and breaking the eighth commandment. By focusing on the merits or flaws of any issue from a Biblical perspective, the pastor can more successfully keep the church free from the appearance of identifying with a particular party or candidate, although admittedly, this has become more difficult over the years as political parties have become less tolerant of those who don't support their party's platform on various moral issues. (Yes, one can be a Democrat and oppose abortion, just as one can be a Republican and support LGBTQ issues).

In 2015, a Christian polling firm found that 79 percent of Americans thought clergy should not endorse candidates during worship services. Evangelicals were more likely to say pastors should be able to do so — 25 percent compared to 16 percent — but support for clergy endorsements was low across the board. According to a 2016 Pew report, only 10 per cent of parishioners have heard pulpit endorsement or condemnation of specific candidates, so relaxing the Johnson Amendment doesn't seem to be such a big deal after all. Of course, outside of the worship service, pastors are just as free to endorse or oppose a candidate as any other citizen, and they are just as free to sin as any other citizen who rips a candidate on Facebook or on any other social media. Sin has always been an equal opportunity destroyer.