Thursday, September 29, 2016

How politically incorrect. . .

Comedians Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan announced on Monday they are ending The Jim Gaffigan Show after two seasons. On his Facebook page, Jim Gaffigan explained that he and his wife felt the show took too much time away from their “most important project” — their five children. . . .
The couple has expressed their faith publicly numerous times, most recently at The Catholic University of America’s 2016 Commencement. During their commencement speech, Jeannie and Jim discussed what it was that made them successful.
“Neither of us could’ve had these accomplishments by ourselves,” said Jim. Jeannie added, “We needed each other, we needed our family, we needed our friends and we needed God.”
We live in an age in which children are like distractions from our higher pursuits.  We have children and then assign day care or extended family to "raise" them.  We have children because we want them like toys or trophies and turn to reproductive technology to deliver them to us when we find it convenient to have them.  We have children as the just fruits of the equality of every gender identity and life choice and not as the fruit of a long, enduring, and faithful marriage between a man and a woman.  We have children as private decisions and choices and not because they are intrinsic to marriage itself or the society to which we belong.

Jim Gaffigan has violated the cardinal rule of modernity.  He has elevated children higher than career or compensation and had the nerve to describe them as the most important project of he and his wife, Jeannie.  More than this, he cloaked it all in the fabric of faith and of the God whom they needed and before whom they and their children live.  The world around us can stomach the idea of vocation in terms of career but it bristles at the idea of marriage between a man and woman being the most central vocation of the husband and wife and their vocation together as parents to their children.  Worse than making children and marriage an equivalent to career, the Gaffigans have raised their home and family above the sacred markers of success and meaning with which we value our lives as modern people.

On another forum, the idea that marriage and singleness (as a choice and not as charism) were not equivalents and equals both in status and morality was attacked as the rudest and most primitive of attacks on the freedom of choice.  What a world we have come to in which we must defend marriage and then defend the priority of marriage over singleness.  Is it permissible not to marry?  According to Luther, it is not a matter of what is permissible but what is good and what is better.  If you have the supernatural gift and grace not just to be celibate but to be chaste in thought, word and deed then singleness is good. It is not good to choose singleness as a means of avoiding marriage (but not avoiding sex) in order to free up your time and resources for your self.  The gift of celibacy is to enable you better to serve the world and the Lord unencumbered by familial duties that can and should come first. This is not a legitimate choice for the Christian to free you up for a life of career, travel, pleasure, things, and self-fulfillment.  Marriage is always better than singleness (apart from the gift of singleness and its accompaniment of chastity and purity without burning with desire).  Read Luther on the 4th Commandment writing in the Large Catechism.  Read St. Paul.

We push college on our children as a better choice.  In fact, most Americans today view higher education as a sacred value.  Luther said marriage and children should be this sacred value. We value higher education because we are sure it is a means to self-improvement, to higher earnings, to better jobs (meaning those without menial labor), and because we think it will make us more productive and help us achieve more success.  We drill this into our children even at a young age.  We understand when marriage is deferred for the sake of education and we even understand when personal goals of earthly success, accomplishment, and education substitute for marriage and family.  Luther certainly valued education but he constantly pushed us to a higher value and would insist that replacing marriage with singleness and family with education or career success and self-interest indicates our priorities are way out of whack.   Dare we say it -- sinful???

Clearly this is a subject for some considered debate and discussion.  What happened to make marriage merely one of many lifestyle choices and family a decision second or third in priority to pursuit of those other things one wants or desires?  How did it end up that this became the normal in our thinking and marriage the exception?  What happened to remove this whole issue from the realm of what is good and what is better, what is faithful and what is true for the Christian captive to God's Word?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

On the way. . .

Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist , is a declaration of the consensus achieved by Lutherans and Catholics on the topics of church, ministry and Eucharist as the result of ecumenical dialogue between the two communions since 1965. It is a consensus “on the way” (in via), because dialogue has not yet resolved all the church-dividing differences on these topics. Nevertheless, at this time of important benchmarks in the relationship between Lutherans and Catholics, including both the anniversary of 50 years of dialogue in 2015 and also the 500th commemoration of the Reformation in 2017, it is good to review the path traveled together and to enumerate the many points of agreement between Lutherans and Catholics on these subjects. This review can help both communities to affirm the agreements they have reached together. More importantly, it can encourage them to look for the next steps toward Christian unity.

Lutherans and Roman Catholics in the USA have been in conversation for more than 50 years.  It has been a fruitful conversation.  Lutherans have learned something of themselves and perhaps the same could be said of Roman Catholics.  Certainly we have learned things of each other that are part of the fruitful conversation we have had for these many years.  That conversation has been interrupted by and shaped by Lutheran divisions (from its sanction in LCUSA to its de-evolution to a two sided conversation with one side of Lutheranism).  Actions by some Lutherans have further complicated this conversation (particularly the decisions to ordain women and to adopt the GLBTQ agenda with respect to marriage and qualifications for ordination).  Just as these have reshaped the relationships between Lutherans and distanced those churches from each other, so have these had an impact upon the conversation with Rome.

That there is value in these conversations is without dispute.  That these conversations will result in some form of official fellowship or even unity is a hope among some but hardly a reality.  We are as nice as we can be when we sit down and talk but the conversations have suffered from language that was not as precise as it could be and with agreement in peripheral areas while the substantive issues that separate us remain the elephants in the room.  We have not made as much progress there as we might and it does not appear that we will soon resolve the mountain of divisions that keep us distant from the hope and dream of one ministry and one communion.

By demonstrating how far Lutherans and Catholics have come together on three crucial topics, the Declaration indicates much ground that need not be retraced again, and it offers these Agreements to the churches to be received into their common life.  In this way it helps inspire continuing work toward the visible Christian unity, which is Christ’s prayer.
Unofficially, there is ground that will of necessity need to be retraced.  The church bodies are not the same as the ones who initially agreed to these dialogs.  They have taken positions at odds with what they said they believed when those dialogs were first published.  The world has changed.  We can build on the conversations but some of those conversations will need to be had again and again, if we take seriously a positive unity of full doctrinal agreement and common confession.

But therein lies the rub.  In viewing the picture of the presiding bishop of the ELCA, a woman, and the Roman Catholic bishop, a man, you get the visual image of the great disconnect between the forgers of this declaration.  When conversations began this picture would not have been possible.  Rome is nowhere close to affirming a female diaconate much less priesthood and episcopacy.  The ELCA has long since settled this in its own mind and moved on to the full legitimization of all gender identities within the clergy family of that body.  And this is the tip of the iceberg.

It is a good thing to talk but a better thing to talk substantively and to hold yourselves accountable to what you say.  When that happens, these may move from being conversations into real steps on the way to something more.  For now, I am afraid, it is more photo op for a big anniversary with each party going back to do business as usual.  That will not lead us very far on the way to anything.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Who will beg?

Sermon for Pentecost 19, Proper 21C, preached on Sunday, September 25, 2016.

Dontcha just love it when the rich get it in the end?!  What a royal pleasure it is when their money cannot buy their way out of trouble, their powerful friends cannot rescue them, and they fall from their high place to a dull thud on the ground!  Do I hear an “Amen!”  Of course you love it.  We all do.  How many movies have used this as their premise in addition to the stories of real life?  We all love this kind of retribution and justice to right a wrong but that is not what this parable is about.  The difference between Lazarus and the rich man without a name is not the amount of riches but the riches they trusted.  It is not the promise of justice that Jesus teaches here but of mercy.

The difference between Lazarus and the unnamed rich man appears to be their treasure.  Sure, one has a fat wallet.  But the other one has a greater treasure.  Moses and the prophets have provided a hope for Lazarus and his victory in death.  They both had eyes but those eyes saw things very differently.  One saw what he wanted to see – a life of ease, of pleasure, of satisfaction, and of happiness.  The other saw through poverty and scabs and the companionship of dogs to a hope beyond his vision.  They both had hearts but the heart of one longed only for today and was satisfied with the joys of the day.  Lazarus longed for a tomorrow beyond the present day’s sorrows, pains, and disappointments.  In his heart, he longed for what this world could not provide – perfect peace, contentment, and rest.

We look at these characters too shallowly – seeing only what is externally different between them when they were very different but in ways you have to look deeply at in order to appreciate.  There are poor who are as lost as the rich man without a name and there are rich who know the limits of their earthly treasures and who hear the voice of Moses and prophets.  It is not simply the riches that distinguish them but their faith or their lack of faith in wealth and in poverty.  Though we might want this to be a simple story about a rich man who got his downfall and the underdog poor man who won, it is about the triumph of faith and the trust in God’s mercy.  That is where it hits you and me – not the divide of riches but of faith, not for the cause of justice but of mercy.

We don't like to think of ourselves as beggars even before God and yet this is exactly what Lazarus teaches us.  High or low, rich or poor, great or anonymous, we are beggars before the mercy of God and if we refuse to be beggars and claim some privilege or merit in ourselves, we receive nothing from God but the justice we think we want.

Luther’s death showed the character of this faith.  He was ailing and had probably suffered a heart attack or two prior to this.  Yet he had been asked to come and settle a dispute tween the Mansfield counts.  So he set off on his last trip, heading to Eisleben on January 17, 1546.  He worked to resolve the dispute and he extracted from the royals a promise to support a school for boys and girls.  He ended his time with them by preaching on Matthew 11:25-30 - “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

In the middle of the sermon, he overcome with weakness, apologized, quickly ended it.  He went to bed.  He was watched by friends but his condition did not seem to worsen.    The papers were signed and again Luther took to the bed.  Count Albrecht brought in his personal physician and Luther felt better.  At 1 am he awoke and called out: “Oh, hear Lord God!  My pain is so great.  I am certain I will remain here in Eisleben where I was born and baptized.”  Friends and co-workers tried to console him and Luther kept repeated John 3:16.  Dr. Jonas asked Luther if he was ready to die in the doctrine he taught.  “Ja.” was the simple reply and he died of a massive heart attack.  In cleaning his room and going through his pockets, they found the last words Luther had written: “We are beggars.  This is true.”  

Luther the great heroic figure of the Reformation dies as a beggar before the mercy of God.  Like Lazarus, he was content to beg God's mercy rather than claim privilege or merit.  

Here was have no abiding city.  Whether are rich and your life easy or in wretched poverty of spirit or life, it does not matter.  Here is not our eternity.  Neither for good or for ill.  Heaven is our home.  There is only one treasure and one riches that can buy the kingdom and it does not come from your pocket.  These are the riches of another who pays for your salvation in full with His suffering, blood, and death.  Christ must purchase the kingdom or rich and poor will be forever on the outside.  Only Christ and Christ for all, for those the world calls good or bad, rich or poor, once He paid for all.

Your abiding treasure is not in the now but in this eternity Christ has won for you.  Your hope lies not in a better or easier or fairer today but in the paradise prepared for you by Him who went before to prepare your way.  Salvation is by grace through faith and not of works or wealth or accomplishment or achievement or piety or moral perfection.  Before the Lord we are not rich or poor.  As Luther wrote before he died, we are all beggars.  This is true.

Lazarus was not too proud to beg.  Are you?  This is the perspective of faith.  Faith never forgets that we are not the entitled but the beggars who have no right to the mercy of the Lord but who beg for God to give us what He has promised and provided.  Faith begs the Lord to do for us what He has promised  – to deliver us both from the joys of this world that do not last and the trials of this world that seem never to end.  What distinguished Lazarus from the rich man not named was not the earthly treasures but the heavenly one.

This is what Mary sang of in the Magnificat.  You have sung those words, too.  Of Him who has scattered the proud in the imagination of their minds and put down the mighty from their thrones and sent the rich empty away only to exalt the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, remember the low estate of His servants with eternal mercy. The riches that leave us empty are those which distract us from Christ’s treasure, teach us to trust in ourselves, and tempt us to believe that we can have our best life now and get all that we desire.  In contrast to this is the beggar who comes in faith with nothing to offer God at all and whose only hope is Christ alone. 

The truth is we want this story to be about the justice of God in cutting down the rich and haughty and giving the poor a break.  But this story is not about that at all.  It is not about justice but about mercy, not about the rich but God’s riches that save the lost and forgive the sinner and raise up the dead.  We are the beggars whom come pleading the mercy of God alone.  We are those whose only promise is the compassion of a God who does not deal with us justly but in mercy.  We are those who come not for a happy life but an eternal home in which both life’s joys and its sorrows fade from our memory in the face of unimaginable joy.

The rich man has no name but the beggar God cannot forget.  He calls him by name. That is the message of mercy, the story of hope for the hopeless.  The living turn out to be forever dead and the dead who live forever.  Because of this, St. Peter can say once you were nobody but now you belong to Christs.  Mary rejoices in being a beggar who claims God’s mercy alone.  Luther died in this blessed hope.  Today we pray that we may all beggars who have been made eternally rich by the mercy of God, forgiving our sins and bestowing upon us the life which shall not disappoint us.  Amen.

Teaching the faith. . . on Sunday morning. . .

The soft underbelly of modern Christianity and current Lutheranism is the lack of teaching.  You can call it catechesis or Bible study or whatever you want, but the reality is that our people recognize less and less the allusions and references to the great people of faith in Scripture and the mighty stories of God's redemptive work.  While this is true for Scripture, it is also true for the liturgy.  Absent such teaching about the liturgy to understand, recognize, and reference the events and Scriptures alluded to in the grammar and vocabulary of the Divine Service words and the prayers, the people are either left to their own explanations or miss out on the references entirely.  Where the guided “spiritual” interpretations of the liturgy are missing, the faithful in the pews will develop their own, subjective, interpretation of the liturgy, infusing their own spiritual needs with what may (or may not) be conveyed in the texts themselves and/or placing it all in the context of what seems reasonable or logical.

Having spent a month discussing in the Sunday Bible class the vestments, vessels, ceremonies, and celebrations of the liturgy, feast, festival, and season, I know how many struggle to find meaning to what they see routinely on Sunday morning and what they read and pray and sing in the liturgy.  And this is in a place where we have multiple opportunities to deliberately explain and place into context what happens in the Divine Service!  What happens in those places where worship is barely touched upon in youth catechesis, adult information classes, or thereafter?  It is no wonder that our people do not get why we Lutherans have some strange attachment to the hymnal or why that hymnal can be ditched when it does not seem to be relevant or effective for the folks on Sunday morning.  We have developed a Lutheranism in theory which has no particular face on Sundays and therefore inadvertently told our people that Lutheranism is about what you believe and not how you worship.

The people are generally hungry, full of questions, and desire to know the "why" of what we do as Lutheran people in the Lutheran service of Word and Sacrament.  By failing to deliver to them the background to the Sunday morning story, they are left to develop on their own explanation, understanding, context, and meaning.  This too often relegates the Divine Service to the very realm of feeling, felt needs, and spiritual relevance that the concrete symbols and sacramental means of Word and Table are there to combat.

Some years ago, a generation after the introduction of LBW and LW, a Lutheran pastor whom I had grown to know and respect said that he understood the hymn of praise to vary depending upon whether or not the service included Holy Communion or was the old dry mass.  In other words, sing This Is the Feast if there is a feast and Glory to God in the Highest if there isn't.  While this is certainly a small thing it is but the tip of the iceberg in mistaken understandings of what the liturgy is and what it means.  If this happens among the clergy, how much more does it happen among lay folks who have been failed by the pastors and have not been catechized into the liturgy, the liturgical year, and sacramental piety of Lutheran Christians?

Teaching the liturgy is eminently practical -- teaching people what they will use every Sunday morning and equipping them to teach their children and the stranger who shows up with them in the pew.  I am not at all suggesting that we fail to teach the Catechism or minimize Bible study but that in addition to these we add an annual review of some basic liturgical theology, a run through the Divine Service, a review of why vestments and rituals, and the Church Year.  We know what has happened by our failure to catechize folks into the liturgy.  We may be pleasantly surprised by what happens when we begin to do just that!

Monday, September 26, 2016

SCOTUS to decide Trinity vs Pauley (Missouri). . .

The issue is whether the exclusion of churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses when the state has no valid Establishment Clause concern.  Read the SCOTUS Blog here.

Trinity Lutheran Church applied for Missouri's Scrap Tire Grant Program so that it could provide a safer playground for children who attend its daycare and for neighborhood children who use the playground after hours--a purely secular matter. But the state denied Trinity's application solely because it is a church. The Eighth Circuit affirmed that denial by equating a grant to resurface Trinity's playground using scrap tire material with funding the devotional training of clergy. The Eighth Circuit's decision was not faithful to this Court's ruling in Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004), and deepened an existing circuit conflict. Three lower courts--two courts of appeals and one state supreme court--interpret Locke as justifying the exclusion of religion from a neutral aid program where no valid Establishment Clause concern exists. In contrast, two courts of appeals remain faithful to Locke and the unique historical concerns on which it relied.

According to the court filings, the Missouri DNR had ranked the Trinity proposal as fifth best out of 44 applications. The state rejected the application solely because the applicant is a church. That creates the kind of clean factual record that the Supreme Court likes.

This is from Missouri's brief opposing Supreme Court review:  "Although on other criteria Trinity Lutheran ranked high among the 44 applicants, the Department declined to award a grant to Trinity Lutheran because the grant would have been 'money ... taken from the public treasury ... in aid of [a] church.'"   In other words, the application was denied solely because the applicant was a church.

The Court took this case in part because there was a split in the circuit court rulings -- different appellate courts ruled differently to apply the standard. It could just be that the Court took this case to overturn the ruling below.

One more thing is worth noting.  Although Missouri is defending its law, the state may not be adverse to losing this case. The state will receive needed clarity regarding the law in either case. Further, the fact that the state told the congregation that it was being excluded for no reason other than its being a church is significant and made it easy for the church to bring a clean constitutional challenge. The state could have clouded its decision and refrained from admitting that the denial was due to the fact that the applicant was a church and that the state was so frank in its admission indicates perhaps the state is open to an interpretation of the law more friendly to churches.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Collecting books is not hoarding. . .

"Let books be your dining table, 
And you shall be full of delights. 
Let them be your mattress,
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

There was a time when books were a treasure, something almost sacred and too valuable to be treated casually.  They were hand tooled in calligraphy and art, hand stitched, and elaborately bound with covers of finest leather. Today books are cheap and easy -- Wal-Mart sells and Amazon and you can easily find old and out of print books for next to nothing on the Internet.  Every year hundreds of books are published devoted to all topics and interests.  This is also true of the Church.  We have print on demand technology to aid the publishing house in keeping old titles still in print.  We have publishing houses (I think here of Concordia Publishing House) who do a bang up job of providing the good, the old, and the new to the Church.  You can find all things Christian between the covers of paper or book board --  theology, exegesis, liturgy, history, iconography, art, architecture, music, hymnals, catechisms, etc...  Additionally, hundreds of books are published each year simply because we can translate what was never before available in English.

Some of these are published by scholarly presses in conjunction with dissertations submitted and approved.  Others are published by popular book publishers.  Still others provided by those publishers who serve the discretion and pleasure of a particular denomination.  Some are the products of the so-called vanity presses who do not really promote the vain but more often what is not necessarily commercially viable for other concerns.

If I have a little extra money, I eat.  Otherwise I buy books.  Many books do not a hoarder make; instead a collector of words and pages preserves the past while investigation the future on behalf of those who have little time or inclination to do either.  So do not condemn me for my books.  Neither ask me to give up any of them.  I have retrieved them from yard sales, garbage cans, broken shelves, businesses going out of business, book sellers and internet sources of new and old.  If I read it in a book, I can probably find it again without too much trouble.  If I read it on a screen, good luck in me finding it again.  No, there is just something about holding a book in your hand, turning the page, smelling the pages, and putting it back on the shelf when you are finished.

Yes... I fancy books and fountain pens and lots of stuff on my walls.  But I am not a hoarder.