Fruit of the Spirit: a sermon (used by permission)

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no Law.” (Galatians 5:16-23)

              When I was a young adult, the Christian Church in the United States seemed to have a fascination with the topic of spiritual gifts. Maybe this was a fad that has run its course; maybe I was more aware of the discussion at the time because of my youth. But it seemed that Christians everywhere, from groups on campus to Lutheran congregations, were asked and invited to fill out inventories in which they assessed their spiritual gifts. Often they would be invited to join certain boards and committees or to engage in certain tasks based on their self-assessments of their spiritual gifts. This process was a handy way of recruiting Sunday School teachers and choir members, but it also had a higher significance. It required Christians and Christian groups to define spiritual gifts and to explain how they are different from other talents and abilities.

              To some people there was no difference. Anything a person could do well was considered a spiritual gift. To other people, the difference was important. God the Father, who created us and gave us our bodies, our minds, and all our abilities, had made each of us unique and special. But the Holy Spirit, who entered our lives, gave us faith in Jesus, and taught us to imitate Jesus, also bestowed us with abilities that went beyond what we received in creation. We were given spiritual ways to serve the Church, to be of use to our fellow Christians, and to honor God with our lives. Knowing our spiritual gifts mattered precisely because those gifts were intended to serve the people of God and were not to be wasted on the world, on those outside the Church.

              The second group of Christians was wrong. Dividing the creating work of God the Father and the sanctifying work of God the Holy Spirit implies a false distinction within the Holy Trinity. The Father and the Son and the Spirit are one God. They worked together in creation, and they work together in sanctification. Likewise, God does not distinguish between our service to neighbors in the world and our service to neighbors in the Church. We all have vocations, callings, opportunities to love our neighbors and help them. These callings are exercised in the home with our families. They are exercised in the community with our neighbors. They are exercised in our careers. They are exercised in volunteer opportunities. They also are exercised in the congregation. Sometimes we do things for one another in church that we do not get to do anywhere else. More often, we do things for one another in the church that we also do for our families and for other gatherings. Doing them at church does not make them more spiritual; doing them other places does not make them less spiritual. We are Christians every hour of the day, not just when we are at church. We love God and love our neighbors every hour of the day, not just when we are at church.

              We serve one another at church. Because I am called to be pastor, I preach the sermon and lead the service. In a large congregation, we might have a preacher, a liturgist, a lector to read the lessons from the Bible, and an acolyte to light the candles and put them out. Other members of the congregation lead the music, ring the bell, keep the building clean, and prepare snacks for us to enjoy after the service. We all put money in the offering plate. We all pray for the congregation and for one another during the week. We support one another, and together we do the work of the Church. We use our God-given abilities, our resources, and our opportunities, to enrich the lives of one another. But all of us also do things for our families, our communities, our country, and the world in general—even if those things are nothing more than to pray. That work also is loving service to our neighbors for the glory of God. That loving service also involves spiritual gifts.

              In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote about the fruit of the Spirit. He contrasts the fruit of the Spirit to the works of the flesh. It might seem unfair that the works of the flesh add up to fifteen activities while Paul lists only nine fruits of the Spirit. No wonder the devil tempts us to think that sinners have more fun than saints. But both lists are open-ended. Both are summaries of works and fruits, summaries of lists that could be much longer. Both lists describe ways of life, one which fits into the sinful world and one that belongs to the eternal kingdom of God. Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit comes out nicely in our English translation. We have three fruits of one syllable, three fruits of two syllables, and three fruits of three syllables. The verse is easy to remember, easy even to set to music. And this list of nine fruits of the Spirit might seem like a convenient sermon outline, a way for preachers to describe Christian living with a paragraph on love, a paragraph on joy, a paragraph on peace, and on through the entire list.

              But that outline would also be a mistake. Talking about love and joy and peace and the rest in that fashion would sound too much like Law, telling us how Christians should live, how we should be different from the sinful world. If a preacher took this verse and said, “Thou shalt love; thou shalt rejoice; thou shalt have peace,” that preacher would be missing the point. Paul did not intend to describe how Christians must live. He was telling us the consequences of being a Christian, the results of being forgiven by God and claimed for his kingdom. Paul was not writing about commandments; he was describing fruit, the natural result of being alive in the kingdom of God.

              The fifteen works of the flesh listed by Paul are all against God’s Law. They describe how a sinner lives, a person who has chosen to rebel against God’s Law. We compare that list to our lives, and we might be tempted to focus on the things we have never done, or perhaps the things we used to do when we were younger but have stopped doing. We like the Law when it tells us we are right. But Paul’s list also identifies weak points for each of us. If we are able to avoid sorcery and orgies, that does not mean that we are also free from jealousy, envy, rivalry, and divisions. All these works of the flesh are wrong. They all reflect a life that is self-centered, a life that is lacking love for God and love for our neighbors. They all show us why we need a Savior, why are lives are not good enough for God without the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.

              Christ has set us free. He set us free from our sins. He set us free from sins committed against us. He set us free from the burden of the Law. He set us free to be children of God, to live the lives God had in mind when he created us and the world around us. Jesus lived a pure, sinless, God-pleasing life in this sinful world. He showed us how perfect love looks in this world. Jesus also took our sins and our guilt and paid for them on the cross. He ransomed us, paying to reclaim us for the kingdom of God and to reconcile us to his Father. Jesus defeated all our enemies, rising to life to prove his victory and to promise each of us a share in his victory.

              We are free because of what Jesus did for us. We are not free to return to our sins, to the works of the flesh. We are free to be children of God. We are free to do those things that God had in mind when he created us. We are free to live with love, with joy, with peace, and with all the fruits of the Spirit. These qualities have nothing to do with God’s Law. They are not against the Law, but they also are not governed and regulated by the Law. They belong to us as free children of God, not as rewards for obeying the Law. They do not describe what we must do because of God’s Law; they describe what we have because of God’s Gospel, because of the work Jesus has done to rescue us from sin and to reconcile us to his Father.

              When God created us, he wanted us to bear that fruit. He wants the same for all people. Jesus wanted even Judas Iscariot and the high priest Caiaphas and the governor Pontius Pilate to have lives filled with love and joy and peace. If they rejected those lives and those blessings, that was not Christ’s fault. He paid on the cross to redeem them. He prayed that their sins would be forgiven. He wished to welcome them into Paradise as surely as he wished to welcome the repentant thief, the apostles Peter and John, the women from Galilee, and all people into his Father’s kingdom.

              We were created for lives marked with love, joy, peace, and all the rest of the fruits of the Spirit. We lost those fruits because of sin. We turned away from God, doing things our way instead of his way. We fell short of the glory of God, and we were no longer capable of bearing those fruits. In God’s orchard, we were empty trees, taking up space without bearing fruit. We were destined to become nothing more than firewood.

              But the work of Jesus changed us. He went to the dead wood of the cross to make us living trees in God’s orchard. He suffered and died for us so we can live forever. He poured out his Holy Spirit on the Church so we can believe his promises and be saved by his work. He set us free so we can bear fruit for God, so we can enjoy love and joy and peace and all of God’s blessings in our lives today and in our eternal lives in the kingdom of God.

              The Holy Spirit continues to work in our lives, keeping us alive so we can bear fruit. He gives us faith in Jesus, and he sustains that faith in our hearts. The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God to bring us faith in Jesus. He uses the Law of God to diagnose our need for a Savior, but in the Gospel promises he tells us about our Savior, Jesus Christ. He gathers us around those Gospel promises in the Church. When we confess our sins, he assures us that we are forgiven through Jesus. The Holy Spirit washes us clean in the water of Holy Baptism. He brings us to the Table of the Lord, where we receive the body and blood of our Savior, making us confident of forgiveness, of eternal life in God’s kingdom, and of our share in Christ’s victory over all our enemies.

              While we live in this sinful world, we remain sinners who need a Savior. At the very same time, we are also saints who know our Savior. We are confident of his victory and of his blessings for our lives. We live, not under the burden of the Law, but under the freedom of the Gospel. Knowing we are forgiven, we are able to forgive those who sin against us. Knowing that we will live forever in God’s kingdom, we are able to live today as citizens of that eternal kingdom.

              Today we practice for heaven. We live with love, with joy, and with peace. We built our qualities of patience and kindness and goodness. We exercise faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We do these things, not to earn a place in heaven, but because we know that we have a place in heaven. Being citizens of heaven, we bring a taste of heaven into the lives we live today. To God the Father, who created us to have these blessings; to Jesus Christ, who gave himself to give us these blessings; to the Holy Spirit, who pours these blessings into our lives every day, be thanks and praise and glory, now and forever.                         Amen.

Beyond reason in creation and in redemption

I am thankful for fellow blogger Clyde Herrin for two reasons. First, he has been kind enough to repost several of my recent posts on his blog, thus expanding my potential audience. Second, he has given me food for thought in his comment on my recent “Summer Solstice” post. You may recall that I suggested that an Obsessive-Compulsive Creator would have given us thirty-day months and a 360-day year, allowing day and month and year to match mathematically. Clyde suggested that, in the beginning, the solar system operated in sync according to simple math, but that sin and the consequences of sin threw the system into a more chaotic set of relationships. He pointed me to a post of his ten years ago (which I had already read and liked some time in the past) in which he suggests that the turmoil of the Flood threw the earth’s day off from its previous length by about twenty-one minutes, resulting in the mismatch of days to years that complicates our calendars today.

I replied to Clyde that, in my opinion, God delights in complexity within creation and does not limit himself to simple relations. I mentioned complexity in biology and in subatomic physics, and I then offered the thought that God purposely put the sun, moon, and planets (including our earth) into a complex dance that does not simplify to easy mathematics. Continuing to ponder the possibilities after posting that comment, I have arrived at even more evidence that the patterns in our solar system are intended to be complex.

The evidence has been known for a very long time. Two thousand years ago, Greek mathematicians used geometry to study the world and even to comprehend complex ideas in number theory. Reality frustrated these mathematical geniuses. They wanted every number in the universe to be a fraction, a ratio, a balance of two other numbers. But these students of nature discovered that the relationship of the diameter of a circle to its circumference is not a rational number. It cannot be expressed as a fraction of two other numbers. That relationship of the trip around a circle to a trip across a circle is called “pi,” a number about (but not exactly) one-seventh more than three. Likewise, the relationship of the diagonal of a square to the side of a square is another irrational number, which happens to be the square root of two. Every square in the world, no matter how big or how small, has the same relationship of diagonal to side, and the number that describes that relationship is never a fraction or ratio of two other numbers.

It is no coincidence that we call those numbers irrational. Not only are “pi” and “the square root of two” not expressed by fractions, or ratios of two numbers; they also do not make sense to people who want mathematical simplicity in their world. It seems that God delights in complexity and does not settle for simple relationships in his creation. For people like Clyde and me, who believe in an Almighty God who created heaven and earth and all that exists, that raises interesting questions. Is the Almighty God limited by rules of geometry, so that circles and squares could not exist apart from the irrational numbers that describe them? Or could God have created a world with different mathematical rules and different geometric proportions, a world that was fully rational even to ancient Greeks who studied the world and the things it contains?

Such questions go beyond science and mathematics and geometry. Identical questions can be raised about ethics. Is the Almighty God answerable to rules about good and evil, or does he get to write all the rules? Those who call Him Almighty define “good” as “whatever God likes” and “evil” as “whatever God does not like.” Our debates about good and evil, then, come down to God’s statements to us about what he likes and what he hates, the behavior of which he approves and the behavior of which he disapproves. Yet some people feel qualified to judge God, to apply their own rules to the Creator and decide whether he meets with their approval. To such people, God speaks as he spoke to Job: “Where were you when I created the world?”

Imagining a world with different rules for mathematics and geometry goes beyond our comprehension. Imagining a world with different rules for right and wrong goes beyond our imagination. God, at his essence, is love; for love flows among the Persons of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. We are created in God’s image. The most important commandments God gave us are that we love him and that we love one another. God’s other commandments teach us how to love. Sometimes, what seems loving to us attacks others and harms others rather than truly loving them. God’s love sometimes is “tough love,” discouraging us from harmful behavior we might characterize as love and guiding us into true love for God and for one another.

But, because God is love, he also rescues us from the consequences of disobeying his rules. We cannot disobey some rules: we cannot defy gravity, and we cannot cause the relationship of the diagonal of a square to its side to become a rational number. In cases where we have broken God’s commandments telling us how to love, God rescues us from the consequences of our failure. Jesus, on the cross, bore the burden for our sins to reconcile us to God. Jesus defeated our enemies—even our own sins—and shares his victory with us. In a sense, God breaks the rules of justice, of power and authority, to establish grace and mercy and peace in our lives.

And he supports that message about his love and his grace by leaving in his creation other mysteries that defy reason and logic and the way we would do things—including quantum mechanics, including irrational numbers, and including the complex dance of the sun, the moon, and the planets. J.

Summer solstice

Many calendars and almanacs label today, the day of the summer solstice as the “first day of summer.” In the United States, the beginning of summer is observed Memorial Day weekend and the end of summer comes on Labor Day weekend. Even weather forecasters now assign the term “summer” to the dates June 1—August 31, making the seasons match the months on the calendar. Few of us really treat the solstice as summer’s beginning. For William Shakespeare, the solstice marked Midsummer-Night. But the summer solstice has never inspired the celebration and festivity given to the winter solstice at the end of December.

I recently wrote a chapter for an upcoming book to be called “Murphy’s Gremlins.” In this chapter, which talks about time and seasons, I remark that our Creator is not obsessive or compulsive about time. The book of Genesis says that God created the sun and the moon to mark days and years and seasons. After the flood, God also promised a continuing cycle of planting and harvest, day and night, summer and winter. But an OCD Creator would have timed the earth’s journey around the sun for an exact number of days—probably 360 days. Such a Creator would have timed the moon’s journey around the earth and the completion of its cycle of phases for an exact number of days—probably thirty days. We would live with twelve months of thirty days in a year of 360 days and never have days left over. But God did not create that way.

Instead, the earth’s journey around the sun is roughly—not exactly, mind you, but only roughly—365 ¼ days. The moon’s journey around the earth takes between 28 and 29 days, and its passage through its phases requires a day or two more. Many cultures, including the Hebrew, the Chinese, the Arabic, and the Roman (during the Republic) began a new month with each new moon—as soon as the crescent of the moon can be seen in the sky, it is the first day of the month. At the end of the Republic, though, Julius Caesar mandated a calendar that contained twelve months but ignored the moon. Caesar also added a day to the calendar every fourth year to keep seasons from slipping away from solstices and equinoxes. It took centuries for the Julian calendar to slip; Julius Caesar may not have expected his calendar to be used for such a long time. Pope Gregory revised the Julian calendar to accommodate the reality that the earth’s journey around the sun is only roughly 365 ¼ days. It took a long time for other parts of the world to adjust to the new Gregorian calendar.

Some annual observances rely on a lunar calendar that predates the Julian Calendar. Passover, Israel’s memory of its escape from Egypt, is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the first month of spring—the fourteenth day being the night of the full moon. Christian observances of Easter and related holidays also are set according to the first full moon after the spring equinox. Muslim holidays and Chinese holidays are likewise set by the lunar calendar

But other observances follow the Julian-Gregorian calendar. Christians observe Christmas, the birthday of Jesus, on December 25, no matter what the moon is doing. Some people claim that Christians chose that date because of non-Christian celebrations of the winter solstice. They wanted faithful Christians to have a reason to celebrate at the same time. The date may also have been chosen through a faulty reading of Luke’s Gospel. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was burning incense in the Temple in Jerusalem when the angel Gabriel told Zechariah that Zechariah and his wife would have a son. Thinking that Zechariah was high priest and that his burning of incense was part of the Day of Atonement (which happens around the autumn equinox), they calculated that Zechariah’s son (John the Baptist) was born nine months later. Since the announcement of Christ’s coming birth came when Elizabeth (Zechariah’s wife) was in her sixth month of pregnancy, the same scholars marked the announcement by Gabriel to Mary around the spring equinox and the birth nine months later, just after the winter solstice.

On Christian calendars, the birthday of John the Baptist is observed on June 24, just after the summer solstice. But, unlike Christ’s birthday, John’s birthday is not such a big deal. Summer solstice observances have always paled in comparison to winter solstice festivities. Especially in the United States, the summer solstice has disappeared as a holiday. We begin summer at the end of May and conclude it at the start of September. In between, our biggest celebration is Independence Day, the Fourth of July, a mere two weeks after the solstice. Our enthusiasm and energy is saved for that occasion.

Seasons change. Days and months and years run their course. Solstices and equinoxes take place on schedule, as do all our man-made holidays and observances. But for those who care (if there be any out there), a joyous summer solstice to you all. J.

Fathers’ Day sermon (shared by permission)

“Now before faith came, we were help captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Ephesians 3:23-4:7)

              On this Fathers’ Day, it is fitting for Christians to consider God the Father. We pray to him often, addressing him as, “Our Father, Who art in heaven.” We declare our faith in him, confessing, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” We mention him at the beginning of every service, with the Invocation, “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We were baptized into that Name, and so we remember his Name at the start of the service and also in the Benediction at the close of every service.

              We don’t often consider, though, the difference between naming him “God the Father” and calling him “Our Father.” Because we associate the Father with creation, we tend to think of God as Father to all he created. But God’s Fatherhood is not linked to his creation. God’s Fatherhood is eternal, as the relationship of God the Father and God the Son exists outside of creation—outside of space and outside of time. Family relationships in creation are pictures of the divine relationship of Father and Son. We might think that families in creation are the reality and that the labels are attached to God as a metaphor. But God came first. God is eternal. Families in creation are the metaphor. They teach us how to think about God. They show us an important truth about the God we worship.

              An essential difference, though, is that family relationships are governed by time, but God is outside of time. Sons are born after their fathers and develop and grow in their families. God the Father and God the Son are both eternal, equally powerful, equally glorious. God the Son has never been less than God the Father. He is eternally begotten by his Father; he does not enter reality after his Father, as is necessary in the families in creation, families that move through time.

              The eternal Son of God did something that the Father never did. He entered creation, becoming part of the world God made. Taking on our human form, he became one of us. As a man, Jesus is less than his Father, owing his Father obedience and honor and praise. Jesus became one of us to rescue us from sin and evil. As God’s creation, we were made in the image of God, intended to be pictures of God’s love. Because we rebelled against God, sinning when we broke his commandments, we were cut off from God. Jesus restores that relationship with God, bringing us into the holy family by his obedience to the will of his Father. God is now our Father, not through creation, but through adoption. Jesus paid to make us children of God. God sees us through the obedience of his Son and calls us his children. We have the privilege of praying to our Father in heaven, not because he created us, but because his Son redeemed us.

              For this reason, no one who denies Jesus as the Son of God has the right to call God a Father. Some people insist that God is Father to us all. They say that Jews and Muslims are our brothers and our sisters because they pray to the same God and call him Father. But no one knows the Father who does not know the Son. No one enters the family of God except through the work of God the Son. People might say the word “father” when they think of the God they are worshiping; but, if they are not coming to the Father through Jesus, the God they are worshiping is not the true God.

              We become children of God the Father through faith in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not always act like children of God. The Father gave us a guardian for our lives in this world: he gave us the Law, which tells us how God intends us to live. Since we are meant to be images of God, pictures of love, the Law tells us how to love. It teaches us how to love God, and it also teaches us how to love the people around us.

              The famous summary of God’s Law, given to Moses and the Israelites as the Ten Commandments, stresses the definition of that love. Two of the Ten Commandments focus on our families. Families are important to God. We learn how to love in our families. We learn about God’s love in our families. For that reason, God commands us not to commit adultery. The love of husband and wife is to remain faithful, in spite of all the temptations to sin that exist in the world. Marriage is a picture of God’s love for his people. Marriage is also the foundation of a healthy beginning for children who are born into the world.

              Likewise, children are commanded to honor father and mother. They are to serve and obey their parents. The authority of father and mother are pictures of God’s authority in our lives. As children grow, they learn to respect authority in other places. They honor teachers in the classroom. They honor bosses and managers at work. They honor and respect human government, obeying the worldly authorities to show their respect for God, the ultimate authority. Human authorities sometimes make mistakes. They sometimes sin. When given a choice, we must obey God rather than human authority. But most of the time, we are not forced to choose. Our respect for human authority shows our honor for God. Our rebellion against human authority shows our rebellion against God.

              Over the last seventy years, honor and respect for authority has been treated as old-fashioned and unnecessary. Entertainment celebrates rebellion against authority and rebellion against those in charge. Stories set in the family and at school and in the workplace typically depict those in charge as feeble or corrupt. These stories make disobedience and rebellion seem good instead of evil. Likewise, entertainers teach us to mock our government officials. They become the subject of jokes and of belittlement. Instead of honoring and respecting our leaders, we are taught to think poorly of them and to resist their leadership. The sinful world around us encourages us to rebel, to refuse to honor people with authority over us. It teaches us to rebel against human authority so we also will join the sinful world in rebelling against God’s authority.

              All around us, we see the consequences of that rebellion. Families have fallen apart. Schools no longer produce model citizens. Workers no longer care about doing a good job. Acts of rebellion against the government are increasingly common. Society is in chaos, because honor and respect for authority has disappeared. Along with that evil, we see a second evil. People with authority no longer use their authority as pictures of God. Fathers abuse their own children. People with power try to crush others instead of sustaining them and supporting their growth. Because government is treated as an enemy to the people, government often responds by acting as an enemy to the people. When things go wrong, people blame those in charge. At the very same time, they demand that those in charge fix the problem so things will not continue going wrong.

              God’s Law limits the power of sin to corrupt our lives. The Law of God curbs our evil nature. It teaches us not to kill, not to commit adultery, not to steal, and not to tell lies. As our guardian, it restrains us from evil. But the Law treats us, not as children of God, but as criminals who must be limited and restrained. At best, the Law treats us as runaway children, defiant to the authority of our Father, and needing the control of rules and regulations to keep us from destroying ourselves and the world around us.

              The Law cannot bring us into God’s family. The Law cannot make God our Father. The Law shows us our sins and our need for a Savior, but the Law can never be the Savior we need. Our efforts to obey the Law fall short of its demands. We cannot work our way into God’s family. We cannot purchase his love. We cannot deserve forgiveness for our sins. We are prisoners, held captive by the Law, set aside for eternal punishment according to the just and fair terms of the Law.

              What the Law cannot accomplish, God provides with grace and mercy. God’s Gospel, his good news of forgiveness and rescue, comes through the work of his Son. Jesus entered this world to rescue us. He placed himself under the Law, obeying all its rules and regulations. Jesus fulfilled the terms of the Law. He was not captured and imprisoned by the Law; he gained freedom from the Law by loving his Father perfectly and by loving the people around him perfectly.

              Yet Jesus allowed himself to be captured and imprisoned by corrupt human authority in this sinful world. Having obeyed the Law perfectly, Jesus took on himself the burden of our sins and our rebellion. He never sinned, but he was treated as sin for us. Suffering the penalty of sin, Jesus purchased us from the power of evil and made us the property of God. He paid a ransom for us, giving his life in exchange for our lives. That redemption, that ransom, set us free not only from our sins, but also from the burden of the Law. We are no longer captives, imprisoned by the Law. We have been adopted into God’s family. Through the price Jesus paid on the cross, we have become children of God. We pray to God, calling him Our Father, because the only Son of God has claimed us for his family. We are children of God, calling God our Father, because when Jesus took our place on the cross he invited us to take his place in the family of God.

              The price for our adoption was paid on the cross. The formal ceremony of our adoption took place in our Baptism. Jesus was baptized at the beginning of his ministry to give meaning to our baptisms. When Jesus was baptized, God the Father spoke to him. He said, “You are my Son. You are the one I love. With you I am well pleased.” Now, through Baptism, God the Father looks at us and sees Jesus. He says to each of us, “You are my Son. You are the one I love. With you I am well pleased.”

              Through Holy Baptism, we have gained a family. We have a Father in heaven to whom we pray. We also have brothers and sisters here on earth. All those who believe in Jesus—all those who know God as Father through the saving work of Jesus Christ—are our brothers and our sisters. We belong to this family through Holy Baptism. The power of Baptism is the cross of Jesus Christ. Adopted by him through the price he paid on the cross, we are now children of God and brother or sister to every other Christian on earth and with all the Christians in Paradise waiting for the resurrection and the new world Christ has promised.

              Jesus died to claim us for his family. Now we have an inheritance through the death of Jesus. He had no earthly property to leave for us to inherit. Even the clothes he was wearing were claimed by the soldiers who crucified him. But Jesus clothes us in righteousness. He gives us his sinless life to wear. Not only today, but on Judgment Day, God the Father sees us clothed in his Son’s righteousness. On that Day also he will say to each of us, “You are my Son. You are the one I love. In you I am well pleased.”

              On this Fathers’ Day, I have spoken about God the Father and about God the Son. But we should not neglect the third Person of the Holy Trinity. We also remember the work of God the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works through the Word of God and through the power of Holy Baptism. The Spirit gives us faith in Jesus our Savior and keeps us strong in that faith. The Spirit reminds us of our adoption and teaches us to pray, “Abba” (that is, Daddy). We are not slaves to the Law. We are not even slaves of God. We are sons of God, heirs to the kingdom of God, through the cross of Jesus Christ and through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.

              When the time was right, Jesus came into this world to rescue us. When the time is right, Jesus will appear in glory and make everything new. We belong to him today. We belong to him forever. He has made us family, and that family will last forever, even as God is eternal and unchanging. To our Holy God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—be thanks and praise and glory and honor, now and forever.     

              Amen.

Beatles and their mothers

One odd fact about the Beatles and their life stories is that both Paul McCartney and John Lennon lost their mothers during their teen years. Paul’s mother Mary died of an embolism as a complication from surgery for breast cancer. She died in 1956, when Paul was fourteen. John’s mother Julia was struck by a car and killed in 1958, when John was seventeen. Neither George Harrison nor Ringo Starr lost their mothers in their early years. Still, there would have been no Beatles for George and Ringo to join if not for John and Paul.

Julia Lennon was a free-spirited young woman and was not John’s primary caretaker. John was raised by his Aunt Mimi, Julia’s sister. Still, Julia and John were close, spending time together almost more as friends than as mother and son. John was, of course, crushed by his mother’s death. Among his solo recordings in the 1970s is a song called “Mother,” in which John sings, “Mother, you had me, but I never had you.” Before that, John wrote and performed the dreamy ballad “Julia,” which is included on the Beatles’ White Album of 1968.

Mary McCartney, a midwife, was the primary wage-earner of the family when Paul was young. Paul’s father Jim held several different jobs during his adult life (in part, due to economic dislocation during the War). He was an accomplished musician, playing both piano and trumpet. He gave Paul a trumpet for Paul’s fourteenth birthday. Paul traded the trumpet for a guitar because he could not sing and play trumpet at the same time. Paul’s famous tribute to his mother is heard in the song, “Let It Be,” in which Paul says that in times of trouble his mother, Mary, comes to him. Over the years, many listeners have assumed that the reference is to Mary the mother of Jesus, but Paul most definitely was singing about his own mother in that song, not about the mother of our Lord.

Biographers and music historians try to assess the importance of the deaths of their mothers to the careers of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Did they dedicate themselves to their musical craft to compensate for their losses and to handle their grief? Would either or both of them have given up on music and entered other careers with the encouragement of their mothers? It is hard to imagine the world without the musical contributions of the Beatles, as well as the other cultural contributions their group made to the 1960s. History is a fragile thing, and many of the bits we treasure could easily have failed to exist for us to enjoy. J.

Festival of the Holy Trinity

Traditional Christian congregations divide the year into two halves. The first half follows the mission of Jesus. Four Sundays of Advent prepare the way for the Lord. The twelve days of Christmas celebrate His birth. During the Epiphany season, Christians remember the works and deeds of Jesus that reveal Him as Lord and Savior. During Lent, Christians consider the reason we need a Savior. Lent concludes with Holy Week, following Jesus to the cross. Holy Week concludes with Easter Sunday, beginning seven weeks that rejoice in the resurrection of the Lord. On Pentecost Christians remember the work of the Holy Spirit. With this, the festival half of the Church Year comes to an end, and Christians begin numbering the Sundays after Pentecost, sometimes referring to this half of the Church Year as Ordinary Time.

But the First Sunday after Pentecost is not ordinary. On this Sunday, traditional Christians remember the Holy Trinity. We recall that the one God is three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each of the three is a distinct Person. They love each other. They talk to each other. They do things for each other. But they are not three gods: they are one God. One God created the world. One God tells the people he made why we are created, what we are intended to do. One God will judge us for our failure to fulfill his purpose. And one God planned our rescue, a Ransom that would pay the price for our sins, cleanse us of our failures, and reconcile us to God, making us His people forever.

The Triune nature of God was communicated in ancient times. The very word for God, “Elohim,” used many times in the Hebrew Bible, is a plural noun. From creation, God speaks of Himself in the plural, saying, “Let us make man in our image.” The Triune nature of God is found in key Bible verses, including Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God the Lord—is One!” and Numbers 6:24-26: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” Likewise, with words that Christians enjoy singing in a variety of different tunes, the angels around the throne of God praise him with the words, “Holy, holy, holy.”

God is not like us. If God were like us, he would not be worthy of our worship and praise. If God were like us, he could not rescue us from sin and evil and death. If God were like us, our lives would have no meaning and no purpose. But God is far beyond our understanding. The mystery of the Holy Trinity gives us reason to rejoice in God, reason to trust his promises of salvation, and reason to find meaning in his reality for the lives we are living today.

God is Almighty. He can do anything. People who play with words like to ask questions such as, “If God can do anything, can he create a rock to heavy even for him to lift?” Even the Bible concedes that, being Almighty, God cannot do some things. God cannot lie. Not only is God too good to lie; God is too powerful to lie. Whatever he says happens. He says, “Let there be light,” and there is light. He says, “Your sins are forgiven,” and our sins are forgiven. He says, “You belong to me forever,” and we belong to him forever.

God is eternal and unchanging. He created time and space; he is not limited by time and space. His presence fills the universe and exists in even the tiniest of spaces. His presence also fills time. God chose a name for himself, a name pronounced “Yahweh,” a name which means, “I am.” God has no past and no future; everything in the universe is in the present tense for God. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. His love, his mercy, and his grace never change.

Yet one of the three Persons, the Son of God, entered creation and made himself like us. He was conceived and born into the world. He experienced time and change, growing from a baby to a boy and then a man. He is like us in every way, except that he never sinned. He obeyed all his own commands, fulfilling the Law on our behalf. He also paid the price for all our sins, becoming a ransom to rescue us from death and to grant us eternal life. He established a Church based upon the words of his prophets and apostles. He gathers His people into that Church, granting faith in his promises and promising rescue and eternal life to all who believe those promises.

God the Father sent His Son, and the Father accepts as His children all those redeemed by His Son. God the Son, as Jesus as Nazareth, is a Ransom to pay for our sins and to reconcile us to His Father. God the Holy Spirit works in the Church to share the message of Jesus, granting faith to God’s people and keeping them in that faith unto everlasting life.

The Holy Trinity is a mystery beyond our understanding. On this Sunday we rejoice in a God we do not understand, confident in his unchanging love and mercy and grace. We praise him by singing, with angels and with all the saints in heaven, “Holy, holy, holy!” J.

One hour at the bank

A few days ago I visited the bank. You were probably there as well. In fact, it seemed as though half the world was at the bank at the same time, although it couldn’t have been half the world. To be bluntly literal about the visit, a dozen people were standing in line when I arrived, and a dozen people were in line waiting when I left. So I only saw two dozen customers standing in line at the bank. When, when you are waiting to be served, a dozen people seems like a lot of people.

These customers were a diverse group of people. Some were male and others were female; beyond that, I did not inquire about gender identities. I figured it was none of my business. One boy was seven years old; I know this because another man asked him his age, and I heard his answer. The man in front of me was probably around eighty years old. He was tall, slender, white haired, with good posture, and he wore a cap that said “Disfunctional Veteran,” which I thought was cute. One man in line resembled
Willie Nelson. He had the long hair worn in a pony tail, the beard, the casual clothing, and even the raspy voice which probably came from years of tobacco and bourbon. Some of us were white, others were black, and others were Hispanic. I don’t remember now if anyone in line was of east Asian heritage, but I know that I have seen such people at the bank on other occasions.

Banks increasingly want people to use their online services. These services were advertised prominently in the bank lobby. Probably for this reason, the bank had only two tellers serving customers, although other bank employees were also in the building. I do most of my banking online. My employers deposit my pay directly into my checking account, and using my computer I send money automatically to pay most of my bills. I have become accustomed to using a credit card instead of cash for groceries, gasoline, restaurant meals, and other purchases. But one of my employers writes me a check every week, and I like to have some cash in my wallet for certain purchases. I visit the bank once most weeks, although occasionally I will skip a week and bring two checks to the bank the following week.

Sometimes a banker will speak with people standing in line to ask what they want to do. If they are depositing a check and do not want money back, he can deal with them electronically. It takes him longer to do this with his little machine than it takes the tellers, but if several people are in line, using his services still saves time. While I was there, he was able to help one customer in this way. He then found another woman who only wanted to deposit a check, and began helping her. I figured he would get to me next. I could use his services to deposit my check and then be on my way. Things did not turn out that way.

Often people who visit the bank in person have complicated financial matters to resolve. They may have lost their credit or debit card, or they might have a check to cash but they are not customers of the bank. They might want to challenge a charge that has appeared on their account. Some have money to deposit from a business, and others have money to disperse through a business. Some customers are merely befuddled by the banking business. They may be elderly, or they may be native to a different culture. We all stood in line, waiting our turn. Many stood quietly, saying nothing. Others tried to engage in conversation with those standing near them. Some complained about the length of their wait. Willie Nelson in particular complained about the time he was standing in line, repeatedly assuring us that he was going to change banks in the very near future.

Another man who had been complaining about how long he was waiting reached the front of the line and began speaking with the teller. He soon realized that he had left some needed papers in his car. He first sent his seven-year-old son out to the car to find the missing papers. When the son returned without those papers, another customer jumped out of line to help. He was able to retrieve the missing papers. Willie Nelson got to the front of the line, and it turned out that his check could not be cashed because it was dated for the following day. After several complaints (including the fact that he was going to change banks), he left. The man who jumped out of line to help another customer reached the front of the line and complained to the teller that this was taking so long. His transaction also entailed complications, which ended up requiring the help of another banker. He told her also that he had been in line for an hour. “We appreciate you spending your time with us,” she replied with a smile. Several of us behind him in line exchanged grins at her retort.

Willie Nelson returned after making a telephone call from outside the bank. Somehow, he had gotten approval for his transaction over the phone. He went straight to the teller—interrupting the helpful customer who had been waiting for an hour—and was quickly given the help he had requested. Meanwhile, the woman who had only wanted to deposit a check was returned to the front of the line. The banker with the little machine had been unable to process her transaction. When she was put in front of us (right after Willie Nelson had returned and gotten immediate help), the disfunctional veteran standing in front of me gave up and left the bank.

All this happened on the Thursday after Memorial Day. I never go to the bank on Mondays; Mondays are their busiest day. When they are closed on Monday (as they were for Memorial Day), I do not visit on Tuesday. Wednesday I had planned to stop at the bank, but a traffic tie-up in front of the bank, complete with a police car with flashing lights, had kept me from entering. So I was there on a Thursday, with half the rest of the world also standing in line with me.

Like many of the other customers—including Willie Nelson—I asked myself why I was there. Why couldn’t the deposit of that check have waited until the next week? My answer to myself was that I was there to observe people. I was watching them, listening to them, learning about people from them. I knew that I would write about this visit to the bank. I might not earn twenty dollars for writing a thousand word essay about my visit to the bank, but my practice in observing and remembering and writing remains part of my identity as a writer. Other people lost their temper. I remained calm, assuring myself that the hour was well-spent, confident that these sixty minutes would somehow contribute to my full and complete and meaningful life.

And now you have benefited from my hour at the bank. J.

A little story from the past

Sometimes at work I help people learn more about their families. Many of the people who come into our part of the library are interested in genealogy. Some are getting started on the hobby; others are experienced researchers hoping to find some new information in our collections.

Sometimes I work with donated papers that give the history of various families. Someone did a lot of genealogy in the past. Now that they are gone, their children are not sure what to do with all their papers and photographs, and they offer them to the library. We accept these donations. They may be useful to people in the future who are doing genealogy—perhaps even the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of those who did all the work in the first place. They may also offer information to historians looking for details about the lives of people from the past, the kind of details that aren’t generally included in standard histories of those times.

Working with papers donated by one family, I came across the kind of minor story that depicts life from an earlier time. A certain woman was born in Ohio in 1821. When she was sixteen, she got married. Her husband died a few months later. Before he died, he promised his only suit of clothes to his best friend, provided that the friend would take care of this woman and of the child she was carrying. The child, a son, was born in March 1838. The next year, this woman married the friend who had promised to take care of her and her son. Her family biographer concludes, “She always felt sorry that she had to bury” her first husband “in his work clothes.”

When I talk about wealth, I mention having enough food to eat two or more meals a day. I talk about climate-controlled houses with hot and cold running water and indoor flush toilets. I talk about owning more clothes than you can wear at one time. This man had wealth—he had a suit to wear on special occasions, as well as his work clothes. He promised away that wealth for the good of his wife and his unborn child. His widow was embarrassed that he had to be buried in his work clothes.

Have you any complaints about your wardrobe today? J.

Prince Louis at the Platinum Jubilee

While I have not had time to sit and watch the coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee, I have seen a few highlights. (Such an event is not merely a once-in-a-lifetime celebration; it may very well be a once-in-history event. Can anyone else name a king or queen who ruled for seventy years?) The picture that remains in my memory is that of Prince Louis, the four-year-old great-grandson of the Queen, covering his ears and screaming during the royal fly-over at the beginning of the ceremonies.

That picture sticks in my head because I was once that child. I could not bear loud noises. Much as I enjoyed the Fourth of July parades every year, I hated those moments when the fire engines came down the street, blowing their sirens and honking their horns. I also was not fond of fireworks, and as an adult I have stayed away from firework shows. When the electric company sent out their trucks to trim branches from the trees and grind them into mulch, I was in agony. I remember running through the house, hands over my ears, screaming, just as the young prince was doing in London last week.

Other people—even close family—do not understand the pain that loud noises cause in some people’s lives. The prince’s mother, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, appears to be laughing. I hope she is not laughing at her son, but at something else happening the same moment. My family sometimes laughed at my reaction to loud noises. They apparently did not realize that I was genuinely suffering, that my reaction to the noises were not an exaggeration but were a sincere response to the pain I felt from those sounds.

Like anyone, I am startled by a sudden, unexpected, loud noise. When something shorted out at the power pole last evening while we were at the dinner table, there was a bright flash of light and a loud report, and we all jumped. But I got over the surprise as quickly as everyone else. Ongoing noises, even when they are not as loud, bother me more. Lawn trimmers and leaf blowers create a sound that resonates in my head, making me unable to read or do other work while they run. Music and conversations often break my concentration. For me, there is no such thing as background noise. I play music when I want to hear the music. I turn on the television when I want to watch something. When I want to work, to read, to concentrate on something important, I prefer a quiet house or office. Not everyone is like me. Not everyone understands the condition.

I hope that, as he grows, Prince Louis will find family members and other people who respect his reaction to noise. I hope that people will not speak of him as “spoilt” merely because loud sounds upset him. In general, as society becomes increasingly accommodating for people with “special needs,” increasingly aware of the diversity that goes far beyond appearance and language and culture, that there will be room for those of us who are sensitive, who cannot handle noise, who sometimes need some peace and quiet. The prince may offer an opportunity to promote that awareness. J.

A six-point plan to end the Russia-Ukraine war

An impasse continues to develop in the war between Russia and Ukraine.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, they hoped for a quick victory. Their best-case scenario had Russian troops occupying the entire country, arresting Volodymyr Zelensky and the rest of the Ukrainian government, and asserting their ability to dictate policy to their neighbors, especially those neighbors that once were part of the Soviet Union. An acceptable scenario featured destruction of the Ukrainian military and the national infrastructure, firm control of the eastern provinces, and a negotiated settlement that would again have asserted control in the internal affairs of their neighbors. Putin’s Russia did not expect the vigorous resistance of Ukraine, its ability to withstand the Russian offensive, its support from many other nations in Europe as well as from the United States, and the surprising failure of the Russian army to achieve its objectives.

Meanwhile, a best-case scenario for Ukraine would be removal of the Russian military presence from all of Ukraine, including the Crimean peninsula, unanimous condemnation of Russia’s invasion around the world, and international assistance to rebuild the war-damaged structure of Ukraine. Zelensky could perhaps accept Russian withdrawal to the borders that were recognized as of January 1 of this year and some assistance in rebuilding his country.

The Russian government and military have been embarrassed in Ukraine, and as a consequence, they will not accept total defeat. They want something to show for the lives, the equipment, the money, and the time they have spent on this war. Ukrainian resistance has been remarkable, noble, and inspiring to date, but they cannot hope to continue to defeat the Russians week after week and month after month. Even as they are reequipped by NATO governments, they are not receiving additional soldiers to replace those who have been killed, injured, or captured in the conflict. Unless a Russian miscalculation expands the fighting into Poland or some other neighboring country, the Ukrainian army will not be able to maintain its resistance to the Russian invasion. Russia can continue sending additional soldiers into the fight; Ukraine cannot match Russia in that regard.

Ending a conflict like this war requires compromise on both sides. As much as people want to criticize Russia’s invasion and condemn its actions, the fight will not end well for Ukraine without some sort of concession to Russian power. I suggest a resolution to the war, one that may satisfy both sides in the conflict and also be acceptable to the rest of the world.

First, both sides agree to an immediate cease-fire.

Second, effective July 1, 2022, the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, and the Crimea are each declared to be semi-autonomous states, given five years to exist apart from direct control of Russia or of Ukraine. The borders of these regions are defined by the boundaries between Russian troops and Ukrainian troops as of the cease fire. Russia withdraws its military personnel and equipment from those areas, and Ukraine agrees not to enter those areas militarily.

Third, during the next five years, the government of Russia (and any other government that so wishes) helps to rebuild the war-ravaged territory within those three regions. The government of Ukraine (and any other government that so wishes) does the same rebuilding in Ukraine. Economic agreements are negotiated and followed according to the desires of the world’s nations. Members of NATO and other supporters of Ukraine are free to continue economic punishment of Russia for the invasion. They also are free, if they wish, to release Russian property seized during the conflict to the Ukrainian government to help rebuild Ukraine.

Fourth, refugees from Ukraine, including those from the three contested (and, for five years, semiautonomous) regions, are allowed to return to their home cities and villages. Russia is help accountable for the Ukrainian citizens that were displaced into Russia during the conflict. Following their return, citizens of Ukraine and of the three semiautonomous regions have freedom to relocate, to cross borders, and to make their homes wherever they choose to live, provided they are accepted by the populations among whom they choose to live.

Fifth, in June 2027 (five years from now), an election is held in each of the semiautonomous regions. The voters in each region are asked whether they want their homeland to be part of Ukraine or to be under Russian protection and control. Voting privileges are restricted to voters who lived in the three contested regions as of January 1, 2022; neither Russia nor any other government will be allowed to sway the elections of 2027 by relocating new families into those regions.

Sixth, during the five-year period of semiautonomous status, peace-keeping forces from the United Nations will patrol the three contested regions, preventing fights among the diverse populations within each region and discouraging invasion of the regions from outside forces (including, but not limited to, Russia and Ukraine). The United Nations will also oversee the elections of June 2027 to ensure that no outside government (including, but not limited to, Russia and Ukraine) interferes with those elections.

This six-part proposal allows Russia to save face over its failed invasion, but it also provides justice in the long term for Ukraine. An immediate vote in those regions would be neither practical nor reliable; given five years to recover and rebuild, the people living in those regions will be able to weigh the benefits and costs of both options—of returning to full membership in Ukraine or of existing under Russian control. Meanwhile, the killing stops, the destruction of property stops, the disruption of farming and manufacture and exportation of goods stops, and the international economy is somewhat stabilized for the time being.

The other benefit of this five-year waiting period is hope that Russia’s government and its perspective on its place in the world change for the better, beginning at the top of Russia’s political pyramid. One hopes that, having learned his lesson, Putin will not consider invading any other neighbor. Given his age and rumors of his ill health, Putin might not even be around five years from now to cause problems when the elections are held in June 2027. For that, we will have to wait and see. J.