Saturday, July 30, 2016

A plea. . . the Word of God in season and out. . .

As I write this I just finished preparing for the adult Bible study I lead on Sunday mornings -- yes, we continue all summer long without break!  More than this, we do not break for the children's Sunday school either.  The full educational ministry of Sunday mornings is year round at Grace Lutheran Church.  This is not a minor thing.  First of all it is more difficult to obtain regular teachers through the summer than it is the fall, winter, and spring.  Second, the attendance varies and on certain holiday weekends it can be downright embarrassing.  Finally, there are those who complain that it is too much to expect people to be in church and Sunday school during the vacation period of June through August and so we face an attitudinal hurdle as well.  But we trudge on.  The cause is too great to flag in the face of challenge and the call of the Word rises above the sound of complaint and the naysayers.

I write this as a plea to those who do take a hiatus from the Word of God by ending Sunday school sometime around Memorial Day and beginning it again sometime around Labor Day.  It is a thoroughly reasonable and understandable thing to do but we ought to do better.  We ought to do more than cover the school year.  We ought to make sure that the full measure of opportunity to study the Word is provided for our people all year long.  This is not only good for those who attend but a reminder to those who do not and a witness to those who are not yet Christian.  Being together in the Word counts as an important priority - one that goes hand in hand with weekly worship.

When I first came to this parish and faced the problems of finding teachers and maintaining the full complement of adult studies year round, I was tempted to throw in the towel and do what the public schools do and take a break.  A few faithful folks talked me back into putting the energy of staff and parish into maintaining this schedule and calling God's people of all ages to be together in the Word.  I am glad they held me steadfast and glad I listened.

It is now the end of July, our own public schools begin the term anew in a few weeks.  Things are gearing up all around us.  Stores have school supply sales, the state is offering a sales tax free weekend on everything from clothing to computers to school supplies (tied to the beginning of the school term), and parents are beginning to delight in that most wonderful time of the year (remember that Staples commercial?).  As we gear up again, let us as Lutherans begin to plan not to wind down but to continue the educational endeavor all through next summer.  Now is the warning shot and now is the time to plan, promote, and pursue the Word of God all year round.  If you are among those in the pew, agitate for this with your pastor and parish leaders.  If you are clergy, then rally your people to the cause.  The study of the Word of God is far too important to be absent for a season from the daily life of God's people.

Plan today for adult Bible study and Sunday school all year long, without summer break, to fortify the Word in people and people in the Word and in witness to those around us.  The Divine Service every Sunday and adult Bible study and Sunday school every Sunday go hand in hand.  Oh, and one more thing, among the various topics for Bible study, take at least a portion of every year to cover a catechetical topic -- one of the six chief parts.  Bring catechism and Scripture and the hymnal (with the actual rite) together for one of the Bible study topics.  In fact, why not start the summer of 2017 with this!

Friday, July 29, 2016

Some more off the cuff Pope Francis. . .

Question to the Pope:  Seeing that you will go in I believe four months to Lund for the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the reformation, I think perhaps this is also the right moment for us not only to remember the wounds on both sides but also to recognize the gifts of the reformation. Perhaps also – this is a heretical question – perhaps to annul or withdraw the excommunication of Martin Luther or of some sort of rehabilitation. Thank you. Francis: I think that the intentions of Martin Luther were not mistaken. He was a reformer. Perhaps some methods were not correct. But in that time, if we read the story of the Pastor, a German Lutheran who then converted when he saw reality – he became Catholic – in that time, the Church was not exactly a model to imitate. There was corruption in the Church, there was worldliness, attachment to money, to power...and this he protested. Then he was intelligent and took some steps forward justifying, and because he did this. And today Lutherans and Catholics, Protestants, all of us agree on the doctrine of justification. On this point, which is very important, he did not err. He made a medicine for the Church, but then this medicine consolidated into a state of things, into a state of a discipline, into a way of believing, into a way of doing, into a liturgical way and he wasn’t alone; there was Zwingli, there was Calvin, each one of them different, and behind them were who? Principals! We must put ourselves in the story of that time. It’s a story that’s not easy to understand, not easy. Then things went forward, and today the dialogue is very good. That document of justification I think is one of the richest ecumenical documents in the world, one in most agreement. But there are divisions, and these also depend on the Churches. In Buenos Aires there were two Lutheran churches, and one thought in one way and the other...even in the same Lutheran church there was no unity; but they respected each other, they loved each other, and the difference is perhaps what hurt all of us so badly and today we seek to take up the path of encountering each other after 500 years. I think that we have to pray together, pray. Prayer is important for this. Second, to work together for the poor, for the persecuted, for many people, for refugees, for the many who suffer; to work together and pray together and the theologians who study together try...but this is a long path, very long. One time jokingly I said: I know when full unity will happen. - “when?” - “the day after the Son of Man comes,” because we don’t know...the Holy Spirit will give the grace, but in the meantime, praying, loving each other and working together. Above all for the poor, for the people who suffer and for peace and many things...against the exploitation of people and many things in which they are jointly working together.


My Comments:

As with any off the cuff remarks from Pope Francis, there is some good, some bad, some confusion, and some outright mistakes.  I have read some blogs from conservative Roman Catholics who took the remarks as an affront against what they consider to be the open and unacceptable errors of Lutheranism.  I have also read comments from Lutherans who stuck out their chests and insisted they did not need the Pope to tell them about justification or to get their Lutheran house united and in order.

That said, I think there are some hopeful words in the Pope's pastoral meanderings (?!).  On the one hand it is clear from Luther himself and from the Lutheran Confessions that the Reformation was begun with precisely the goal of reforming the Church, recalling the Church from error to the truth of Scripture and the consistent catholic doctrine of the fathers.  No matter that this was the intention, the events did not pan out this way.  Luther's theological heirs only reluctantly set up parallel church structures for the sake of the people who were not being served and a communion that resisted even the discussion of reformation.  It is also clear that the many who claimed kinship with Luther and the Sixteenth Century Reformation in Germany were not kissing cousins but opponents and opposites -- rejecting the liturgy, the sacraments, and all the church usages and ceremonies the Lutheran's affirmed.  That they went where Lutherans refused to go and ended up chastising Luther and his cohorts for failing to go far enough, only underscores the distinction between the Conservative Reformation and the Radical Reformation.

But to blame Luther for those who rejected catholic doctrine and practice is to miss the reason for the Reformation in the first place.  To quote Pope Francis:  There was corruption in the Church, there was worldliness, attachment to money, to power...  This is the reason why schism took place and this is the only lens by which the Reformation may be legitimately understood.  The backdrop of it all was not Luther's rebellious attitude or willful rejection of truth but the errors, worldliness, greed, and jealous concern for temporal power that provided the catalyst for the foment that gave birth to the Reformation.  Here Francis is spot on.

Now with respect to the grand ecumenical consensus on justification between Rome, Wittenberg, Geneva, and all points in between, I only wish it were so.  The JDDJ document does allow a great amount of wiggle room (as do most ecumenical declarations) and does not do justice to the nuance and difference that can shade the meaning of it all to a great degree.  I am happy for the conversation but it is clear the talking has a long way to go before Francis' declaration of unanimity is true.

No, we do not need the Pope to tell us Lutherans we are a mess, but it is kind of him to be concerned for us.  We should not take any comfort from the fact that most theological houses are a mess (even and especially Rome's) but neither should we let this mess prevent us from dialoging for the truth of the Gospel, for the primacy of the Word, and for the cause of genuine and authentic unity.

Catholicity and Biblical faithfulness are not some mountains to be climbed but fights that must be fought with vigilance and diligence to turn away heresy, clarify confusion, witness to the world, and catechize the faithful.  We are always but a generation away from losing the faith either to error or to indifference.  Only by remembering, reaffirming, and reforming the Church through the means of grace (Word and Sacrament) can we be sure that gates of hell will not prevail.  Until the day when Jesus does come again in His glory, the gates of hell will come very close to us and must be fought off without fail or Jesus will not find faith on earth.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

An almost forgotten giant. . .

We often forget that gift and skill do not always result in fame, fortune, or a memory.  Some of our most gifted composers were largely forgotten after their deaths.  I think first of Bach in this regard but not only Bach, also a composer to greatly influenced Bach -- Antonio Lucio Vivaldi.

Born into a musical family on March 4, 1678, in Venice, Italy, Antonio Vivaldi was to end up as a priest whose musical genius was the fruit of a life spent mostly in an orphanage.  He composed hundreds of works and is well known today though it was not always so.  On July 28, 1741, he died in poverty and was buried, oddly enough, in a funeral service devoid of music.

His father, Giovanni Battista Vivaldi, was a professional violinist who taught his young son to play as well. Through his father, Vivaldi met and learned from some of the finest musicians and composers in Venice at the time. While his violin practice flourished, a chronic case of asthma shadowed his every accomplishment.
It was not unusual to marry music and religion since the priesthood gave the student access to an education that might otherwise have escaped him.  Vivaldi was ordained a priest in 1703, known as  "il Prete Rosso," or "the Red Priest" for his red hair.  At the age of 25, Antonio Vivaldi was named master of violin at the Ospedale della Pietà (Devout Hospital of Mercy) in Venice, where he fulfilled both priestly responsibility and composed most of his major works in this position over three decades. The Ospedale was an orphan school -- the boys in trades and the girls in music. The most talented musicians joined an orchestra that played Vivaldi's compositions, including religious choral music. 
In addition to his choral music and concerti, Vivaldi wrote opera scores (about 50 remain) with his two most successful being La constanza trionfante and Farnace.  In addition to the orphan school work, Vivaldi accepted commissions from patrons in Mantua and Rome. In Mantua, from around 1717 to 1721, he wrote his secular masterpiece, The Four Seasons.  His cantata, Gloria e Imeneo, was written for the wedding of King Louis XV.

That said, Vivaldi's success as composer and musician did not translate into great financial success or long memory. When he left Venice for Vienna, other composers and musicians had already caught the public eye.  Without a patron after the death of Charles VI, Vivaldi died in poverty in Vienna on July 28, 1741, and was buried in a simple grave after a funeral service without music.

It was not until the early 20th century that interest in Vivaldi's music was rekindled and his scores rescued from obscurity.  Alfredo Casella organized a Vivaldi Week in 1939 and following WWII the world rediscovered this musical genius. His Gloria remains a staple of Christmas celebrations -- just a few of his nearly hundreds of compositions that attest to his skill and gift.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The development of doctrine. . .

Fr. Hunwicke, always a good read, describes the take off from the opening speech of Pope John XXIII at Vatican II.  It seems that some try to invent in his words the idea that doctrine changes while Hunwicke reminds us of a quote which says that doctrine, while it does develop and become clarified over time, does not change or even evolve but eodem sensu eademque sententia -- keeps the same meaning and the same judgment or sense.  Goodness knows that Rome has had its problems with those who believe in the macro evolution of the church's teaching and practice and this has resulted in the rather remarkable disconnect between life and worship prior to Vatican II and thereafter.  But Lutherans also fall victim to the same notion.

St. Vincent of Lerins: 'Development' in the Christian Church and in her Doctrine: Development must take place eodem sensu eademque sententia [keeping the same meaning and the same judgment/sense].  Of course doctrine develops in the sense that the Church clarifies and sharpens its teaching -- especially in response to challenge or heresy.  Think here how the Nicene Creed further elucidates the two natures of Christ in response to the challenge and heresy of Arianism.  What is at stake here is not how the doctrine unfolds in response to need or challenge but rather if that doctrine itself changes -- moves from one thing to another.  Does God change His mind?  Do the Scriptures speak differently to different times and to different circumstances?  Does the Spirit move the Church beyond the past into a future which represents at least an evolution if not revolutionary disconnect from what has gone before?  These are the questions at work within the world today.

Of course churches that have adopted the GLBT agenda on everything from marriage to holy orders have admitted as much.  They acknowledge that the churches had in the past forbidden marriage to GLBT or restricted ordination to men only but they believe the Spirit is blowing a new wind and God is adapting to the changes of the world around us -- that the former constraints were rooted in culture and in the moment and are not the stuff of yesterday, today, and forever.  Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum not.  The Word of God evolves like the world around it and change is inevitable even for the truths of God revealed.

We find ourselves as Lutherans surrounded by those who would joyfully affirm that doctrine does develop -- not the elucidation or the clarification (iron sharpens iron) of it but the essence of it so that it is possible for God to say one thing at one time and another contradictory thing at another.  But of course that is the problem.  How do you know what is eternal and what is momentary, what you can count on forever and what may not be trusted so resolutely, and what to hang your faith upon and what to be open to change or adapt?  That is why the catholic principle is so very important and why the Lutheran reformers wrote in the Augustana that they were not promoting novelty but claiming that which had always been confessed and taught -- catholic doctrine and practice.  Anything less is to be subject to the tyrrany not of the certain but of the uncertain, of opinion that trumps the Verbum Dei and the Word incarnate.

Rome has its own challenges but we Lutherans are not so different.  We are not so much divided by different opinions as different understandings of the lifespan of doctrine and truth.  Some are holding on to the sacred deposit as the only thing which endures and others are holding to an idea of the sacred that takes many forms and shapes as the world evolves.  So for the first eighteen centuries creation meant Adam and Eve were real people and that God unfolded the world according to His Word in the mystery of power and grace but now that means God began the spark that evolution took over and ran with until it got us where we are today.  So for the first nineteen and a half centuries, no women were ordained but now God has opened a new door.  So for the first twenty centuries marriage was a lifelong union between a man and a woman with children being an essential component to their love and fidelity but now it is a temporary friendship with benefits between consenting people.  We argue the issues but under the issue remains this question -- does God and His Word and His truth change (one sense of develop) or is this development merely the elucidation or understanding of an eternal truth and Word that does not change?  Deal with this first and you will see how many other issues fall into place.  Fail to deal with this question and the arguments continue without progress on either side.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

It's my fault. . .

An honest Roman Catholic priest by the name of Richard Heilman wrote humbly and profoundly about the urgency of catechesis and the consequence of remaining silent or aloof from the changes of this culture and our society.  His words ought to compel every orthodox Christian pastor who is tempted not to speak or to speak in an oblique way the challenges we face and the pressing priority of knowing who we are, what we are here to do, and how we must accomplish it for the cause of Christ and His kingdom.  I urge you to read his words and consider what he has said.

After that, it is incumbent upon us to make sure that it does not continue to be our fault.  In other words, if we will acknowledge what it is that is our failure, let us make sure that we are doing everything we can to prevent this from being the continuing error of Christians unable to know the difference between the ways of the world around them and their own faith rooted and planted in Christ and ill-equipped to respond to the ways of the world except to conform.  The real issue for us is not simply pointing out the problem, but marshaling every resource to prevent this problem from being the constant crutch of a crippled Church, unwilling or unable to prepare our people to see through the fog to know who they are in Christ and what Gospel they are here to confess and live.

I am a Roman Catholic priest. I believe the Catholic Church was instituted by the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity. If our Church’s claim is true (and it is), then this Catholic Church was given to us as the very “hope for humanity” … as a way to lift civilization out of self-centered barbarism to a civilization of altruistic love. That’s no small thing. It is everything! This choice to establish this Church was “God’s Way” of redeeming His children.

As we look at this horrible, horrible 2016 Presidential election, I believe the problem is not the Party. The problem is us. Better yet, the problem is me. I am not going to get into what I believe all of us priests and bishops have done or have not done … I leave that up to their own personal discernment. I can only speak for myself.

I am a weak spiritual leader who has led us to a place where “conservatives” cannot get elected or stay in office without making horrible compromises. I take the blame on this one.

I sat by and allowed sappy, effeminate, profane liturgies demoralize and deaden the hearts of our Catholic men (and many Catholic women). I remained mostly silent as feminists stripped our men of their dignity as husbands and fathers and spiritual heads of their households. I remained mostly silent as men slipped into the soul-deadening addiction of internet pornography. I remained mostly silent as liberal ideologues captured the attention of our youth. I remained mostly silent when our own Catholic leadership watered down and compromised the values and principles and morals of a once solid bedrock of faith in a tempted world. I remained mostly silent as our beloved Catholic Church was turned from a powerhouse of prayer and supernatural grace into one among many secular non-government organizations.

As I stated, the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity established this Catholic Church as the hope for humanity, but I have allowed it to become something of little relevance in most people’s lives. Now, less then 25% bother coming to worship God on a regular basis (closer to only 5% in Europe). Now, it seems, even a vast majority of those who attend no longer even believe the Eucharist is God.

As a result of all of this, our world is unmoored from the Presence and Power of God, and so we have quickly reverted to the barbarism of those who once never knew God at all. Evil has accelerated on all sides, and we have no defense against its expansion.

Lord, teach us to pray. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 10, Proper 12C, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich, on Sunday, July 24, 2016.

          We all know prayer is important.  It’s necessary for our Christian lives.  God has commanded us to pray and we want to obey this command.  All of us want a rich prayer life, to always come before God with our petitions and supplications.  But we don’t always do this, because prayer is difficult for us.  It’s not natural, it’s not something we automatically do.  Prayer is something we must learn, something that our Lord must teach us. 
          The disciples knew this.  They came to Jesus and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Lk 11:1).  The Twelve saw John the Baptist teach his followers to pray, and they saw Jesus praying all the time.  Obviously, prayer was a good thing, and they wanted to do it, but they didn’t know how.  They needed Jesus to teach them, and so do we.  We need to be taught, we need to be taught what to say, what to pray for. 
It’s a familiar scene.  We’re in a group of people and someone asks for a volunteer to pray.  What usually follows is a brief period of awkward silence that seems to last an eternity.  Everyone looks at each other wondering who’s going to speak up first.  No one wants to volunteer because they're afraid they don’t know how to pray.  They’re at a loss for words, worried about what to say.  We become speechless.  This sudden muteness is understandable though.  Prayer is a big thing.  In prayer we come before and petition the Almighty God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth.  What can we say before Him? 
We say the words that He gives us.  Just as Jesus opened the closed mouth of a demon possessed man in the next few verses of Luke 11, Jesus opens your mouth, and what comes out is His prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer specifically given to His disciples, given to you. 
When you pray you say, “Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.  And lead us not into temptation” (Lk 11:2-4). 
This prayer encompasses everything we could possibly pray for.  In just these few petitions, we ask for all we need, both for this life and the life to come.  When we pray “hallowed be Your name,” we ask God to preserve His Word among us.  We ask Him to protect us from false teaching.  When we petition for the coming of His kingdom, we pray that He would rule our lives, that He would send His Holy Spirit to lead us into lives of godliness.  We pray for daily bread, for sustenance, the things needed for life.  We ask Him to provide us with food to nourish our bodies and food to nourish our souls.  When we say, “forgive us our sins,” we confess our sinfulness to Him and we beg Him to remove it, to not look at our transgressions for Christ’s sake.  And we ask Him to lead us away from all sorts of temptations, to protect us from the traps of Satan, the world, and our sinful nature.  All of this is needful for life; all of this is according to God’s will.  These are good things and God wants to give us these good things.  This is why Jesus tells us to pray for them, and we do.  When we don’t know what to pray for, we pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and as we pray these words, the Holy Spirit will lead us to continue in prayer with words of our own. 
          But the words we pray are only one part of prayer.  The other part is how we pray, the attitude with which we pray.  Praying isn’t unique to Christianity.  People from all religions and faith traditions pray.  However, the attitude with which we pray is different.  When non-Christians pray, they pray with uncertainty and wishes.  They don’t know if their prayers will be answered.  They don’t even know if their prayers will be heard.  This isn’t the case for you.  When you pray, you pray with certainty and confidence, knowing that your prayers are heard and answered because you pray to the one true God, and He promises to hear and answer you. 
          Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you” (Lk 11:9).  In these words is the promise that God hears us when we pray and that when we pray according to His will, He will give us our prayer. 
          To illustrate this Jesus tells two stories.  First, He tells the story of a man who knocks on his neighbor’s door late at night requesting bread to feed a friend who’s came to visit.  If this happened to us, how many of us would get up out of bed, go to the kitchen, and then give our neighbor the bread?  Probably none of us, and neither would this man, even though they were friends.  But because of the persistent asking and the expectation to help show hospitality to travelers, the neighbor will get up and give the bread, albeit, probably begrudgingly. 
          The second story is that of a father and son.  Jesus rhetorically asks the question “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?”  (Lk 11:11-12).  Obviously no father would do this.  As parents, we only want to give good things to our children.  We’d never purposefully give them bad and harmful things. 
          These two examples are illustrations from least to greatest.  If we who are evil, that is, if we who are sinners know how to give good things to our neighbors and to our children, “how much more will our heavenly Father give us the good thing of the Holy Spirit?” (Lk 11:13)  God will most certainly give us the good things, He’ll give us the Holy Spirit because He is our gracious Father. 
We’re God’s children.  That’s our identity in Christ alone, given to us in our baptism.  In those waters, you’re connected to Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Your sin was crucified with Him on the cross and you’re made a new creation, adopted by God and brought into His eternal family.  That’s what happened to Hannah just moments ago.  She began the day as a sinner to her core.  That’s who she was.  But God has claimed her as His very own and made her His forgiven child, just as He has claimed each and every one of us, making us His forgiven children.
And because of this, He answers our petitions.  He has hallowed His name by preserving His Word and keeping His Church so that we might know Him and our Savior, Christ Jesus.  His kingdom has come and He has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit who creates faith within us, leading us to live out our identity in Christ as God’s children.  Our Father answers our prayers for daily bread.  He gives us food on our tables and the food of Jesus’ body and blood on the table of His altar.  And He most certainly has forgiven us our sins.  With the blood of Christ’s cross our heavenly Father wipes away our sin.  He cancels our debt. 
You’re children of God, and as such, your Father has given you the privilege to come to Him in prayer, asking of Him just as a child asks of their father.  He commands you to pray because He promises to hear you, to answer your prayers.  So you pray to your heavenly Father in faith, with all confidence and certainty, knowing that He hears you and answers you.  You’re assured that He’ll always give you the good things, because He already has.  He’s given you forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ.  He’s adopted you in your baptism and made you His child through His Son Jesus.  In His name...Amen.