Thursday, August 28, 2008

Not Wicked, Just Misunderstood

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to see the musical Wicked on Broadway. I must confess that I’ve always viewed Broadway with a certain degree of suspicion, viewing its productions as dolled-up vehicles for liberal propaganda. I’m sorry to report that my suspicions were, in some ways, confirmed. However, it would be incorrect to label Wicked a mere vehicle, though the play is most definitely the product of post-modern liberal thinking. It blurs the distinction between good and evil (wickedness) and questions (denies) the possibility of truth.

Wicked is the back-story, if you will, to The Wizard of Oz, told from the perspective of the two witches, G(a)linda the Good Witch of the North and Elfaba the Wicked Witch of the West. Anyone who has seen Wizard assumes that the Wicked Witch is wicked, but Wicked begins with the question asked of Glinda “Why does wickedness happen?” to which she replies “That’s a good question; one that many people find confusifying. Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?” This is probably the most post-modern question possible because either answer releases the subject from moral accountability. If someone is “born” that way, then how can they be held accountable for that, they had no choice. If “it” was thrust upon them, then they had no choice in that either. So the post-modern experiment goes. Post-modernism assumes that there is no objective, absolute truth, so all we are left with is truth(s) as we perceive it (them) – pure, unabashed relativism.

Wicked is really the story of how Elfaba became known as the Wicked Witch. From the very beginning the opening question is answered – she was born in a certain way, she had no choice. But even with that, there was nothing particularly wicked about Elfaba, she was simply different – she was green. So the other possible answer to the question is given as well, Elfaba had the perception of wickedness thrust upon her by extenuating circumstances. The audience had to conclude that it wasn’t Elfaba’s fault, that she was not morally accountable – she wasn’t wicked, she was just misunderstood.

This is not a new idea in theater or literature. Mary Shelley explored this theme in Frankenstein; Nietzsche exhorted us to move Beyond Good and Evil. What does it mean to be good or evil (wicked)? Who has the objectivity to make that judgment? These are post-modern questions born of the fundamental assumption that there is no objective truth. Now this may be the source of an enjoyable philosophical exchange, but it is also the source of much mischievous chicanery. What is at stake is moral accountability, for according to this worldview there is no standard or rule, and no God, by which actions can be objectively judged. Is homosexuality a sin? How can it be, he was born that way? Is abortion a sin? How can it be, the circumstances were thrust upon her?

Of course, it is a lie, and there is Truth, and His Name is Jesus the Christ – I am the Way and the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). God has spoken in regard to homosexuality, abortion, and all sin. God has clearly delineated between good and evil. He, and His Word is the measure by which all things are judged – He alone is good. The perfect Law of God condemns all so that the perfect grace of God may forgive all in Jesus Christ. We are all wicked and fall short of glory of God, but in Christ Jesus we are all forgiven, restored.

All in all, Wicked was a delightful production – well acted, great set, wonderful music, and an enjoyable and thought-provoking story. But it denies the existence of Truth, so it has embraced the possibility of two lies, therefore existing in the post-modern plain of uncertainty. Perhaps it was born that way? Or was this philosophy thrust upon it? I do not mourn for Wicked, but I will pray for those deceived by its lies.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

(Mark 7:31-37; Romans 10:9-16; Isaiah 29:17-24)

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

If you listened closely to the Lessons today, if you truly prayed with me the Collect, if you chanted with me the words of the Introit, then you have heard with your ears and you have confessed with your own lips the fundamental ailment of our human race: We are not open to the Word of the Lord to hear it or to speak it, unless the Lord Jesus uses His finger the Holy Spirit to blast away our deafness and to open our mouths to speak His praise.

It is no coincidence then that the opening words of the liturgy for Matins, the traditional morning prayer of the day, come from Psalm 51, the confessional Psalm of King David: O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise. These are indeed appropriate words to begin the day for if we are to praise the Lord this day, or any day, if we are to glorify Him in word and deed by selflessness, service, and sacrifice, then He is going to have to open our closed lips. Apart from His gracious activity by the Holy Spirit we are like the man in St. Mark’s Gospel, deaf and tongue-tied, unable to hear or to speak.

The lesson the Lord offers us today is perhaps the most difficult for us to hear and to believe, for it says to us that we cannot hear or know the Lord, that we cannot praise His Name unless He opens our ears and looses our tongues. We cannot hear the Lord, we cannot praise the Lord, we cannot know the Lord, let alone choose Him, on our own. To be sure, this is not a new lesson. You have all confessed in the words of the Catechism: I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. It is the work of the Holy Spirit that calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies, that opens ears and loosens tongues, that creates faith in Jesus our Lord. Not you, not me, not by anyone’s own will and volition.

And that’s what makes this lesson so hard. And that’s what makes this lesson, once learned, so liberating. Honestly, this lesson is what makes one a Lutheran. Faith in Christ Jesus is not a work that you do or a decision that you make. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, the finger of the Lord, given to you as a free and perfect gift. Your ears were closed, He has opened them. Your tongue was tied, He has loosed it. You were unbelieving, He has called you and given you faith. You were spiritually dead, He has raised to you to new life. You could not, would not choose Him, so He chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit.

Why is this lesson so hard for us? Well, as enlightened Americans of the 21st century, we consider ourselves independent. We don’t want to have to depend on anyone for anything. We like to believe that if we study hard and work hard that we’ll be able to get good jobs and earn an honest living, purchase our own home, purchase our own car, put our own food on our own table, etc. That’s essentially the American Dream, right? And, in itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, as self-centered, self-serving sinners, what we really want is to be our own god. At the very least, we’d like to think that our faith is the result of our own decision and choice.

How then can learning this lesson, that only by the Holy Spirit can we truly hear the Word of the Lord and speak His praise, indeed, even believe in Him, how can learning this lesson be liberating, even make us Lutheran? Because it restores the proper relationship between Creator and creature, between your Lord and your self. You see it’s nothing less than a First Commandment issue: When God is truly your God, then you can realize and receive what it truly means to be His beloved. And that, my friends, is liberating, for it releases you from the bondage of the Law. Now you can serve the Lord and your neighbor, not in fear and guilt or under compulsion, but in response to His love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Now you can truly love God and truly love your neighbor, because your Lord loves you, and it is with His perfect love that you love.

Christian faith begins in passivity – it is the Lord who creates, opens, resurrects by the Holy Spirit. We are as fruitless as soil until the Sower sows His Seed. We are as lifeless as Lazarus until the Lord calls to us with His life-giving Word. But we do not remain lifeless, fruitless, or passive, for He who has chosen us has also appointed us to bear fruit. More often than not, the fruit of the Spirit is not quantifiable or countable, but it is a way of being, a way of life – for it is nothing less than, nothing other than, the life of Christ lived in and through us.

What does this Christian life look like? Well, what does the life of Christ look like? What are the qualities that mark the life of Christ? Are they not mercy, love, compassion, forgiveness, grace, charity, peace, humility, selflessness, sacrifice, and the like? These you have received from the Lord in abundance; these He gives to you even now. Your ears have been opened to hear His Word. Your tongues have been loosed to speak His praise. By His finger the Holy Spirit, through the Word of the Gospel, the Lord calls, enlightens, sanctifies, and keeps you. And He who is the True Vine has appointed you His branches to be fruitful. There is nothing for you to do, but there is something glorious for you to be – for you are a member of the very Body of Christ, His Church, His beloved and you have been called to share His life, His love.

Almighty and merciful God, by Your gift alone Your faithful people render true and laudable service. Help us steadfastly to live in this life according to Your promises and finally attain Your heavenly glory.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.