By Paul Koch –
Sometimes in life we find ourselves looking around at the world in which we live, and we honestly wonder what has happened. It is difficult to recognize the world that we knew through younger eyes. Not that we’re overly innocent or blind to the slow creep of cultural changes but occasionally we find ourselves longing for a world, a country, and even a church that we no longer find around us. Recently we’ve watched the protests and marches on Washington as people fear for what might be happening to this country. We hear the slow roar of divisive rhetoric that deepens an ideological divide among the people. There are those who argue that walls and travel bans are un-American and will not be tolerated. Then there are those who are glad that our President doesn’t fit the usual political mold and will do the unpopular thing to protect the people. So, we watch the news and listen to talk radio and wonder what in the world is happening to our country.
I would consider myself a patriot. I love this country. When we lived in Georgia we had a nice prominent flag pole in front of our home. Every day we would put up the American flag, and every night we would take it down. I would talk to my kids about how and why we honor and respect the flag. That patriotism was impressed upon me at a young age. I grew up in scouting. In fact, I learned skills in the Boy scouts that I still regularly use to this day: from knot tying, to building a fire, to sharpening a knife. We were boys learning to be men, out away from mom and her protective instincts. But recently I read the press release about how girls who identify as boys will now be permitted to join the Boy Scouts. Again, we may rightly wonder what is happening to our country.
We may think it is odd that there are cultural discussions going on about who can use what gender-specific bathroom. We most likely wonder what it all means and where this will ultimately lead us as a nation and a church. At its core, perhaps this reveals something important about us all. Perhaps in an absurd way these discussions expose the question of just who we are. The question of a person’s identity should never be taken lightly. I guarantee you that the people you know who seems to have it together, the ones that you look up to and view as a mentor in your life, these are the people who have a good sense of who they are and what their place is in this world. So when your sense of identity is shaken, when it has the proverbial rug pulled out from under it, everything can go sideways.
We may wonder what is going on in this country, in this world where we live, but at least we have the church, right? The church is that last great sanctuary, the place to retreat to when this world is no longer recognizable. I loved the fact that as a child I grew up in a church that was simple and predictable. We had a definite pattern and rhythm of our life together. The same liturgy, the usual cycle of hymns, the common confession of faith, and regular reception of the gifts of God through Word and Sacraments. As a young man, my life was turbulent. My identity, in many ways, was in crisis. I was in trouble all the time at school and questioned my faith. But church was a constant, predictable reminder of something sure and solid. Today we can often look at the churches and wonder what is happening. For some, the faith they confessed as children is barely visible in the current confession of their given church. Accommodation and creative intentions have re-shaped the identity of many churches causing us to pine for days long gone.
Yet this turbulence, this unpredictability, this questioning of who and what we are is not new to our current age. It isn’t new to today’s church. It is an ancient problem that has plagued God’s creatures since the day the forbidden fruit was first tasted. From that moment on everything has changed. What we long for, then, those times when it seemed to be clear and true: when the understanding of what America stands for was shared by everyone, when the confession and practice of the church was predictable and faithful to the Word of God, was without a doubt a time full of just as muck flux as these days.
Listen to what St. Paul says to the church in Corinth almost 2000 years ago, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it.” (1 Cor. 3:10) So, the foundation is the sure thing. The foundation, as he goes on to say, is Jesus Christ. But what is built upon that foundation is not so sure, or predictable, or confident. In fact, Paul goes on to say that each one’s work, that is each person who has built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, the quality of their workmanship will be revealed on the day of judgment. Paul here is helping us to understand just what in the world is going on all around us. Why do things looks so strange? Why does it look different? Why is it changing? Well quite simply, different people are trying their hand at building upon the foundation.
Now some of these structures will be beautiful, and some will be nothing much to look at. Some will inspire others, and some will leave us flat. But the important thing is that some of them will not last past the day of judgment. They will be burned up and discarded. But some will actually endure, and that is the place we want to be. If you think you are the wise one who will always be able to predict what will endure and what will fail, Paul says, “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God.” (1 Cor 3:18-19) So everything is thrown back to the wisdom of God: back to the one who sends His only begotten Son to bear your sins and die in your place, to rise from the grave and pronounce victory for you. That is what is sure. That alone is what will, without question, endure. For that is the foundation of it all, and it has always been so.
You see, you get so caught up in the structures built upon Christ that when they crumble and burn you have a crisis of identity. For you have forgotten the foundation upon which it was all built. In fact, a building that is faithful to that foundation will continue to stand, but it is not the building in which we place our trust. The church is not yours. You belong to the church. You are part of the church, but the church is not your possession. And the church is not America’s, and it is not Luther’s and it is not even St. Paul’s. For the church is our Lord’s church. Our Lord Jesus Christ possesses the church. It is his property bought with his blood, and so are you.
Today at Grace Lutheran Church we witnessed again the miracle of Holy Baptism. We watched as little Otto was brought to the waters of new birth, as he was washed in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. There in that simple act we witnessed God taking ahold of yet another child and declaring that this one belongs to Him. The cross of Christ now marks his head, the clothes of His righteousness now drape over him as he is called a son and an heir of life eternal. And so, it is with you. In the waters of your Baptism you were embraced by your Lord. You were grafted into the one holy Christian and Apostolic Church. You, then, are Christ’s own possession and He will not let you go. Through it all He will hold tight to His promises. Through your confusion and fear He will not abandon you. Through your deepest despair or greatest victory, He will still call you His brothers and sisters.
And so, you look out at this world, you look at the debates in our country, and you may worry about what it will mean for the future. You fear for the future of the Boy Scouts, or for that matter the future of our children in a world desperately seeking their identity. But you can walk with your head a little higher, for you can bring a Word of true hope and promise. For through the crumbling buildings you stand on a firm foundation. You know to whom you belong; you belong to the Lord. He is a possessive Lord. He has died for you, He has forgiven you, and He will never forsake you.