Below you will find my remarks that I made to parishioners at St. Therese de Lisieux in Wellington, Florida, Sunday, December 9. While I do discuss the book, a large portion of my talk was about what I call “secular extremism.” I hope you enjoy it!
Good evening! Before I begin, I would like to thank Father Lehnert for his invitation to speak to you. As he noted, I am a pastor in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, an editor at Concordia Publishing House, and the author of a new children’s book, “What Happened to Merry Christmas?” I also serve a small, inner-city mission in St. Louis, Missouri.
I’ve known Father Lehnert for about nine years. We met in kind of an odd way; I saw him on a local television channel presiding over mass at St. Helen’s in Vero Beach, Florida, the town where we both served. After watching the mass, I decided to send him a book on homiletics. Truth be told, I was impressed by his speaking ability and thought that he would enjoy the book. Fr. Lehnert tells me that when he received the book he didn’t know how to take it; what’s this Lutheran pastor sending me a book on how to preach? Father Edwards, the parish pastor at St. Helen’s at the time, suggested that I sent it in good will—and I did. I consider Father Lehnert one of my closest friends and I count his friendship among one of God’s many blessings to me.
Of course, part of the reason I’m speaking to you this evening is to talk a little about my book. However, I would like to take some time to discuss a few other things. First, I would like to speak to you about the season of Advent. Second, I have a few remarks about the book. Third, I would like to discuss what I call “secular extremism.” Fourth, I will suggest a response to secular extremism. And finally, I would like to tie things all together by returning to our discussion of Advent.
Advent, of course, comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming.” I especially appreciate the reflections of Dr. Jacobs (deacon candidate at St. Therese) in this morning’s mass. He focused on the Greek word metanoia, meaning “repentance.” Although a few weeks shorter than Lent, like Lent the season of Advent is a season of repentance. But it is also a season of hope and joy. Advent anticipates the celebration of Christ’s first coming to the little town of Bethlehem. Yet Advent also celebrates His present coming among us in Word and Sacrament. And Advent anticipates Jesus’ final coming again on the Last Day. So in view of these “comings,” in anticipation of Christ being among us, our attitude is both one of joy and one of repentance.
Why do repent? So that we can feel bad about ourselves? Some accuse Christians of having a morose worldview. But nothing could be further from the truth! Christians repent, or make a 180 degree turn as Dr. Jacobs defined repentance, because God, for the sake of Jesus Christ, is merciful. Merciful! We who are poor in our sins find God’s rich mercy in Jesus Christ. Did you know that only those who believe, that is, have God-given faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior, can repent? Unbelievers can mend their ways and make mere outward improvement of their behavior or lifestyle, but only believers can truly repent.
When God gives us faith in our Savior, He also gives us the ability, even the desire, to repent. To say, “Forgive me for my sins.” To seek the forgiveness of sins in the Word of the Gospel, in Confession and Absolution, and in the Sacrament of Christ’s true body and true blood in the Holy Eucharist. In the means of grace, Word and Sacrament, we find God’s rich forgiveness of our sins for the sake of Christ. And as believers, as the baptized, we delight in hearing or reading the Gospel, we rejoice in hearing our pastor’s Absolution, and we celebrate with joy the Holy Mass. We turn from our impoverished sinful lives and find our gracious God pouring out for Christ’s sake His rich forgiveness and His love.
In our Gospel this morning, we heard St. John the Baptist cry, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (KJV). What is that kingdom? That kingdom is the kingdom of God’s gracious presence made present in the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. So before Christmas, before Mass, and now in these last days before the visible return of our Savior on the Last Day, we repent. We live our lives in hope-filled and joyful repentance. Why? Because of God’s rich mercy in Jesus Christ.
The repentant, hope-filled season of Advent flows into the celebration of Christ’s nativity and birth at Christmas. And that is the holy day I address in my book, “What Happened to Merry Christmas?” As I mentioned after each of this morning’s masses, the book has been endorsed by His Eminence Sean Cardinal O’Malley, the Archbishop of Boston, and Bishop Tom Doran of the Rockford, Illinois Diocese. The book has also received a kind review from Jeff Jacoby, an op-ed writer for the Boston Globe. As Mr. Jacoby happens to be Jewish, his support also means a lot.
“What Happened to Merry Christmas?” is based on a true story about my nephew, who lives in Virginia. About two years ago, my nephew, Shaw, came home from kindergarten one day and was visibly upset. He had been studying the Hanukkah holiday and had even brought home a piece of paper. He had colored a menorah that was on the paper. But the menorah didn’t cause him to be upset. What did cause him to be unhappy was that he had been told by his kindergarten teacher that, even though their class had studied Hanukkah, they would not be allowed to say, “Merry Christmas.” And no Christmas party either!
Now, I don’t know about you, but I think that that is wrong. I believe that in public schools children should be exposed to religious holidays like Hanukkah and Christmas, and now the Muslim Eid holidays, and ethnic holidays such as Kwanzaa. But to discriminate against me and my Christian faith, well, I take that personally. I’m sure that many of you do, too. While I don’t believe in discrimination, I also don’t believe in outright banning of any religious sentiment either. That’s the topic that I’ll address when I speak about secular extremism in a few moments.
Even though I’ve read “What Happened to Merry Christmas?” to Catholic parochial school children at Visitation Academy in St. Louis and Sacred Heart School in Lynn, Massachusetts, I don’t want to spoil the story for you by reading it here. Let’s just say that a little boy named Sam (“S” in Sam’s name is for my nephew, Shaw) comes home and is very upset because Christmas at his public school has been lost. He’s been invited to a holiday party, but there’s no Christmas. Sam’s patient mother takes him through their home, showing him various things like a snowflake and an Advent wreath. Soon Sam learns that Christmas isn’t lost, but that sometimes it’s hidden a little. So buy the book!
Sam’s experience in the book brings me to the third point I would like to speak to you about this evening. You may have asked yourself, “Why does it seem that for several years now people seem to be against something as harmless as Christmas?” You may have also said to yourself, “I don’t understand this—I’m not offended by Hanukkah commercials or Hanukkah cards; it doesn’t offend me that the Muslim community is erecting a new mosque down the street”; or, even, “My best friend is an atheist; we don’t talk about religion, but at least we’re civil to each other.” If you have said or have thought those things, then you and I have a lot in common.
What I would like to suggest to you this evening is that there is such a thing as “secular extremism.” Jeff Jacoby, the Jewish op-ed writer at the Boston Globe, has quoted a rabbi, who called the same thing “secular fundamentalism.” I actually used that term in a radio interview for a conservative Protestant radio station, and I’m afraid they were not too happy with me! “Secular fascism” sounds too rough, so let’s stick with secular extremism.
What is secular extremism? Secular extremism is humanism on steroids. Godless humanism that seeks to worship the creature rather than the Creator, that does not recognize God and His laws, that is hell-bent on destroying human uniqueness and human life, and who’s very source is the devil.
Now those are strong words, I admit, and I’m not a fundamentalist! But those words are true. Secular extremism, practiced by a verysmall but a very vocal minority, is trying to root out Christmas. And here’s the catch. Secular extremists won’t be satisfied by booting Christmas out of the public square, they want to boot ALL religion out of the public square. Sure, you can practice your faith at home but not at the workplace, not in the courtroom, not in the place of business, certainly not in the public school, and on, and on, and on. The last time I checked, secular extremism was also part of a party’s platform. Here I don’t mean the party of John McCain or Barack Obama. I mean the communist party. Anybody here remember that?
Secular extremism preaches tolerance except when it comes to worldviews, like Christianity, that claim to preach the truth. Secular extremism lauds acceptance, and indeed it accepts all manner of vile, anti-human, anti-child, deviant, and destructive behaviors, but not your nice Christian behavior. Secular extremism turns man into God and God into myth. It treats children like dogs and dogs like children. It says that truth is relative, which makes truth mere opinion or preference. Secular extremism makes laws into mere social constructs that can be changed to cater to the newest perversity. Secular extremism is in the public square, in the college classroom, in the supermarket, and sadly even in the Church.
But, dear friends, all is not lost! Jesus promised His bride, the holy Church, that the gates of hell would not prevail against her. You are part of that holy Church, and so the gates of hell will not prevail against you. The Church has faced heresies before, and she has survived, yes, even flourished amidst them. When early Christians in Rome were rounded up and thrown to the lions in the coliseum, the emperors lamented and the Christians rejoiced that the blood of Christian martyrs was like seed; wherever it is spilled new Christians spring forth.
I believe what we as Christ’s Church are facing today is a revival of the ancient heresies of Gnosticism and Manichaesm. Both of these false theologies emphasize the spirit over the flesh, and death over life. I think that we’re seeing that in public holidays in America. Christmas, after all, is the celebration of the Son of God being born in human flesh. It’s a celebration of new birth, of life. Halloween, at least its contemporary manifestation, is a celebration of goulish spirits and decaying flesh; it is a celebration of death. But we Christians, as Pope John Paul II noted, hold to a culture of life.
Man is a spiritual being and has a spirituality. But if man does not seek spiritual life from God—the true, indivisible, life-creating and life-sustaining Spirit—then man will seek both spirituality and salvation from himself. That is what we have in secular extremism.
Again, dear Christians, do not be alarmed. Didn’t our Lord say that in this life we must bear our cross? Didn’t He also bless us with these words, “Blessed are you when men shall revile and persecute you for My name’s sake”(KJV)?
Secular extremism, like Islamic extremism or as is sometimes called “Islamofascism,” seeks not to tolerate but to destroy. That’s why it is incumbent upon everyone, but especially those of the majority faith in the United States, to oppose it. If we Christians, who represent the majority faith in our country, do not stand up for our rights as free citizens in a free country, who will stand up for the rights of religious minorities? This brings me to my fourth point: How do we respond to secular extremism?
In dealing with secular extremism I think that we Christians must review how we present ourselves in our culture. Here, I believe, we have four alternatives but only one, good choice. The first alternative would be isolationism. That is, we do not react with the world, but in reaction against it we hide ourselves from the world. But that is not what our Lord would have us to do. We are to be the “salt” and “light” of the world. The second alternative would be confrontationalism. An open, public fight. You see some strange, fundamentalist groups do this. Yes, we protest in front of abortion clinics and publicly denounce the murder of unborn children. But we ourselves should not commit murder, that is, murder abortionists. The third alternative is relativism. Here we would water down our faith so much that we would become indistinguishable from the culture we live in. Some call this “Rodney King theology,” or “What can’t we just all get along?” But we can’t effectively engage our culture with the witness of Christ if we walk and talk like unbelievers.
I believe that the one choice you and I have as believers in dealing with our culture and with secular extremism is not isolationism, confrontationalism, or relativism. I believe that our true and best choice is evangelism. At times we may need to retreat like isolationists, to engage in prayer and hard thinking. At other times we may need to confront, as when our rights as citizens are being violated. And at other times we need to compromise on non-essentials, that is, those areas where our faith is not violated.
Brothers and sisters, we can always be about the ministry of evangelism. Of tolerating that which does not violate God’s Word or the teachings of the Church, but not tolerating everything. Of accepting all people because Christ died for every human person, but not accepting all actions and behaviors. And, when need be, standing up for our rights. But always we should be about the business, St. John the Baptist’s business, the Church’s business of saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. He has paid sin’s debt for you on His holy Cross, and by His rising to life again you are now justified in God’s sight. Repent and believe the Good News!
Back to Advent
And that brings us back to Advent, doesn’t it? Advent is the season of faith-enabled repentance that looks forward in joyful hope to Christ’s return on the Last Day. We celebrate Christ’s coming in the manger, we celebrate Christ’s coming on the altar, we celebrate Christ’s coming again. As His body, we have Good News to share; rather God has Good News to share with others through us. God’s gracious kingdom comes to us, Christ is present among us in His Word and Sacraments.
May God bless your Advent preparations and your Christmas celebrations!