Monday, September 28, 2015

Movie Review - "Pawn Sacrifice"

Pawn Sacrifice is a new biographical film about U.S. Chess Grandmaster and World Champion Bobby Fischer.  He rose to fame in the late 1960s and dramatically won the World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1973, defeating Russian World Champion Boris Spassky.

Tobey Maguire plays Fischer, the troubled genius whose mental illness vexed and complicated his exceptional chess career.  Much of the dramatic force of the movie explores (even without words) the struggles of his paranoid and delusional mind, and the obstacles his illness presented both to his own goals, but also to those around him.

His lawyer/agent, Paul Marshall, serves as the main spokesman in the film for one of the underlying plot conflicts - that of the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and Soviet Union - which lent far more interest and symbolic value to the event in the eyes of the world.  This aspect of the match should draw the attention of of movie viewers with an interest in history.

As a clergy-type, myself, I particularly appreciated the portrayal of GM Bill Lombardy, a Roman Catholic priest who served as Fischer's "Second" (his chess-training partner).  This character serves well to "interpret" much of the chess "stuff" for the non-chess characters (and the audience).  But I also appreciated the portrayal of a clergyman as a "regular guy", and yet also a man of wisdom.  So often Hollywood portrayals of clergy make us villains or fools.  I appreciated this approach.

Overall I'd recommend "Pawn Sacrifice".  I enjoyed it very much.

Sermon - Mark 9:38-50 - Pentecost 18

Mark 9:38-50
Pentecost 18
“Divine Amputation”

Did you ever use that little phrase, “I'd give an arm and a leg” for something? It means you really, really want something. So bad that you'd even sacrifice an irreplaceable part of the body for it. At least, figuratively. Yogi Berra, who dies this past week, once quipped, “I'd give my right arm to be ambidextrous”.

Now, obviously, Jesus doesn't want us to go around cutting of various parts of our body. But his strong words here are meant to jolt us out of a complacency toward sin. He is showing us in strong and certain terms that sin is a deadly serious problem. One that we far too often take far too lightly.

“It's no big deal” we rationalize. “It doesn't hurt anyone else.” “Just this once.” “No one will know.”

Think of the things we say to minimize and justify our sin. Or we try to change the subject or shift the blame. “Who are you to tell me what to do?” “Doesn't the Bible say not to judge?” “Hey, it's not my fault... it's that woman you gave to me.” or “The temptation was too strong. The Devil made me do it.” Maybe your favorite is, “I'm only human” or “Nobody's perfect”. Or if someone harms you, you think you can harm them back – tit for tat – take the law into your own hands.

Jesus would have none of this. For him, sin is a big deal. For the Father, sin is a big deal. He doesn't wink at it or ignore it. He doesn't excuse it or accept your lame excuses. He is a just and fair judge who does what he says, and punishes the guilty. Yes, but that's not the whole story...

Jesus would have us take our sin seriously. Serious as a heart attack. Serious as life and death. For that's what sin always leads to, death, that is its wages. And not just earthly death, but eternal death. Yes, hell is real. Most of what we know about it comes from the lips our Jesus himself. A place of unquenchable fire and everlasting anguish. One way of looking of it is to be “cut off” from God for eternity. And isn't it better to have a hand or foot cut off, than to be cut off from God?
Yes, according to Jesus.

But it doesn't seem like such a good idea to take the advice Jesus gives in our Gospel lesson today, does it? If you hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. And if we did take this word literally we might see a lot of blind and handless and footless people hobbling around. But to extend the principle further, if any part of our body involved in sin is to be destroyed, then there wouldn't be anything left of us. For we are corrupted, thoroughly, through and through.

And sin cuts us off. It cuts us off from God, and it cuts us off from each other. Think about how it is when there's a sin hanging out there between you and a fellow Christian. Instead of peace there's this gulf, a separation, a distance that seems like it cannot be bridged. Sin is what breaks relationships and puts people at enmity with each other. Sin is what creates “us” and “them”. And as Christians, we want no part of that. When your brother sins against you, Jesus says, go show him his fault - with the hopes he will listen and you will be reconciled. When you sin against your brother, confess it, ask for forgiveness, and be reconciled to one another in Christ.

But our real problem, our first problem, is that our sin cuts us off from our God. A holy God is by nature set apart from sin, sinfulness and sinners. We deserve to be cast out from his presence. We deserve to be exiled from paradise like our first parents were from the Garden. Our sinful nature and our own sins cut us off from God.

Our eyes lust and covet. Our hands steal and strike. Our mind is full of twisted thoughts and ideas. Our mouth, as James says, is a wild beast and a raging fire. And even the human heart, which so many hold in such esteem.... follow your heart, do it with all your heart.... Jesus says it is out of the heart that come all sorts of evil desires and thoughts. But who can live without his heart? So are we to die?

Yes. Die with Christ, only to rise with him. Only Christ can save our eyes and hands and feet and hearts. Only Christ can make every unclean, unrighteous member of this fallen human nature clean and holy and righteous.

For his eyes were closed into a death for us. His hands and feet were pierced and pinned to a cross for us. His heart and lips cried out, “Father forgive them”, even as his very life was fleeting. He was cut off by his disciples who ran and scattered like roaches in his hour of darkness. And he himself was cut off entirely – cut off and forsaken by the Father, “O God, why have you forsaken me?” And it was here, in Jesus' moment of deepest suffering that he himself experienced the worm that would not die and the fire that is never quenched. In a mind-bending eternal mystery he suffered hell's torments for all sinners of every place and time. And most importantly, for you.

So by being cut off, he saves us from being cut off. But God would still have the now-forgiven Christian flee from sin. He would still have us take sin seriously, and avoid in all its forms. And when we fail, when we ought to be cut off, to rather bring those sins in confession to the one who cuts them off from us, separates them from us – as far as the east is from the west. A continual cycle of contrition and faith, death and rebirth, repentance and renewal, so that we enter into our eternal rest with him whole and undefiled.

And this happens with salt and fire. Both preserving and purifying agents. Salt and fire here refer to that which God uses, those practical things, to preserve and purify us. It is by his the salt and fire of his Word and Spirit that he does these things. That he calls us and keeps us, that he forgives us and fortifies us.

Paul paints a picture, a grand metaphor of the church – as the body of Christ. Each member has its role to play. Each member needs the other. The eye can't say to the hand, “I don't need you”. The mouth can't do it all by itself. But Christ is the head this body. And by our baptism we are connected to him. If we were cut off from him there would be no life in us. But connected to him we have all the good things we need.

Sin is deathly serious. Its consequences are eternal. But thanks and praise to him who was cut off, so that we are not. For he makes us clean and whole, and connects us to himself and sets us at peace with one another. In Jesus Christ, Amen.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Sermon - Mark 9:14-23 - Pentecost 16

Mark 9:14-23
“Help my unbelief”
September 13th, 2015

“You know what your problem is?” Don't you just love it when a conversation starts that way?

It's like, "put up your mental dukes" and get ready for a fight. You're about to be on the receiving end of some criticism, and when it starts that way, it's usually pretty ham-handed and indelicate. You're about to get it from both barrels, guns blazing, no holds barred.

Our Lord Jesus Christ sometimes lets it loose this way, too. When he encountered the boy with the evil spirit, in the midst of an argument between his befuddled disciples, the Jewish scribes and a father at his wit's end. He minces no words.

O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” In other words, “You know what your problem is? You have no faith!”

Today people, even sometimes Christians, speak of faith as if it's a thing in itself. A sort of spiritual quality of people who can remain optimistic under difficult circumstances. When something bad happens to you, we are told, “just have faith”! As if putting on a happy face and thinking it will all be all right means that it will. Faith in nothing is really worth just that... nothing.

If the culture wants us to have faith in anything at all, it's usually in yourself. Believe in yourself. You can do it (whatever it is). How many Barbie movies and Sports motivational posters preach this same idea. But you and I know that we are not worthy of such faith and trust. Maybe when it comes to getting a degree or making the basket you can trust your abilities. But when it comes to spiritual things, it's a different story. If you believe only in yourself, you will soon end up disappointing yourself. For you are not reliable, trustworthy and you can't save yourself from yourself.

But for the Christian, faith has an object, and that object is Jesus Christ. It is the words and promises he speaks to us. It is that to which he directs us, in which he tells us to believe. He is the only one worth trusting because he is the only one with any power at all to help us, forgive us, save us. But his power to do so is not just barely enough, it is far more than all we need.

The Father in this story was exasperated. His poor son was afflicted by the evil spirit since childhood. The problem had gone on for some time. And like many others who came to Jesus for help, he must have tried just about everything else. But even Jesus' disciples, who had been given authority and had even had unclean spirits obey them in Jesus' name – even they hit a brick wall with this evil spirit.

But not Jesus. The father approaches our Lord with his request directly, “if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

“If you can!” Jesus marvels. “All things are possible for him who believes” And Jesus is back to the faith thing again. Faith is the real issue. Do you believe, or do you not?

And a beautiful prayer follows, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” The prayer of every Christian. The prayer of every imperfect believer who believes in Christ but imperfectly. We do believe, but only by his grace. We do have faith, but only by the working of His Spirit. To the extent that we doubt and struggle, we must repent. To the extent that we fail to trust in Christ for all good things, we are the problem! But the solution isn't just to try harder to believe. The answer isn't the just keep on keepin' on with our doubts and inner turmoil. The prayer of the father shows us well. “I believe, help my unbelief” The solution to unbelief isn't more effort or will on our part. The solution is always Jesus himself. Only he can help.

The evil spirit would throw the boy into water and fire to destroy him. But now he meets the One who baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

The evil spirit who stopped up the ears and paralyzed the tongue would now hear the word spoken by the Son of God, and ears and tongue and sins would be loosed.

The boy's tormentor had left and he fell to the ground as if dead, only to be gently raised up by the One who was tormented to death on a cross and rose from the dead to clear the way to life for us all.

This is not to say that Jesus will personally appear to handle every problem you have in your day-to-day life. This is not to say that he will heal your cancer, make your husband come back, get you a job, or help you find a girlfriend. He doesn't promise to take away your stress or turn enemies into friends or make your children behave, or even your mother-in-law.

But he does better than all of that. He dies for your sins. He rises for your life. He makes you his own, makes you holy and righteous. He goes to prepare a place for you, and someday he'll come back to take you with him. Then he will wipe every tear from your eye. Then you will live free of sin forever.

All this he promises in his word. And all this he sends his Spirit to give you the faith to believe it.

And yet, still we struggle. Still we doubt. Still we find that Christianity isn't easy-peezy lemon-squeezy. And if your Christianity is that way, my friend, you're doing it wrong.

How often does Paul attest to the struggles within himself – and he an apostle with visions and direct revelations from Christ! Yet he couldn't do the good he wanted, and he did the evil he despised. You and I modern Christians are no different. Sin comes so easy, but faithfulness is hard.

This is another aspect of being both sinner and saint simultaneously. We want to do good but don't. We want to stop sinning but we don't. We want to believe, but we still have unbelief. We are both new creation and fallen sinner, New Adam and Old Adam at odds in one person.

Lord I believe, help my unbelief! It acknowledges both the faith that has been given, and the continuing need for the Savior. This truly is the prayer of every Christian.

Yes, we are baptized, and in baptism our old nature was drowned. But as one theologian has quipped, the Old Adam has proven to be a good swimmer. And so Luther would teach that in baptism the Old Adam is daily... daily drowned and dies with all sinful desires. And the new man arises from the waters to live in faith. This is the way it goes for us – repentance and renewal – our very way of life.

Likewise we come in faith to the altar, to receive him who can help us, him for whom all things are possible. We are not worthy in ourselves to receive him, but by faith in these words, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins”. We believe it is even possible for Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to be present with us under these humble forms of bread and wine. We believe that he comes to us today with salvation. We believe, Lord, but help our unbelief. And this sacrament is given to strengthen and preserve you, and your faith, to life everlasting.

And then think of another way he helps our unbelief – through the hearing of the Word. Faith comes by hearing. But that doesn't mean faith comes only once. When we hear the word of God – proclaimed, taught, even in our private family devotions – the Spirit is active and faith is strengthened.

The Law cuts us down, and the Gospel raises us up – like the Savior took the hand of the boy freed from the demon – they thought he was dead. Jesus restores sinners, blind, deaf, mute, even dead. And he can certainly restore you. He will certainly help you. All things are possible for those that believe – in him. And he who his faithful will do it.

Hebrews tells us Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith. Not only does he establish it, but he also strengthens it, and he brings it to completion. What better reason do we need to fix our eyes upon him and pray, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief”.