Saturday, June 24, 2017

Considering Christ and Mohammed. . .

Those who would equate the sins of Christianity with the sins of Islam might think better. . .
‘Mohammed and his immediate successors were warlords who, when chance offered, massacred their non-conforming prisoners; Jesus was not, and did not. Mohammed specifically wanted to assimilate the state to the kingdom of God; Jesus says his kingdom is not of this world. Although a number of Muslims argue that Islam respects the value of all human beings, religious history shows that Islam neither did so nor has learned to do so; some would argue that Islam would cease to be Islam if it was prepared to accept pluralist liberal democracy. And the word “pluralist” matters: many Muslims (as in Egypt) may accept a “democracy” amounting to dictatorship of the majority, but not that pluralist democracy whereby other religions are even tolerated where there are Muslim majorities. It seems thus far apparent that in the real world the larger the number of Muslims in the population, the more killings for blasphemy, apostasy, proselytizing by non-Muslims, there will regularly be. Which is not to suggest that the number of the violent is necessarily large: rather that the number of condoners, whether or not intimidated, is very substantial.

from a recent review of Miroslav Volf, FlourishingWhy we need Religion in a Globalized World (Yale U.P. 2015)  by Professor John Rist
There are those who insist that a moral equivalence exists between Jesus and Mohammed, though all might agree that the followers of both are perhaps worse than either.  Such a conclusion rests upon a fallacy.  Jesus never calls on His followers to act as judge and jury and sentence those who will not believe to death on earth before they meet their heavenly Judge.  No, indeed.  Yet this is exactly what the Quran requires of those who would faithfully follow Mohammed. 

While there are those (including former Pres. George Bush) who would insist that Islam has been hijacked by those who turned it into a religion of violence, the deafening sound of silence from the so-called "moderate" Muslims in the face of atrocity after atrocity cannot be ignored.  While we in the West might live in fear, the truth is that the worst of the violence Islam has perpetrated has been against Christians living in the Middle East and against those who wear the name of Mohammed but belong to the wrong "denomination."  One might expect some difficulty in moderate Muslims when it comes to condemning violence against the West but surely it would expected that those who live under the umbrella of Islam would find it in their hearts to condemn the violence against their own brothers and sisters in the faith?

Christianity is a missionary religion and those who embrace Christianity do so not under the veil of fear and threat but from the love that reaches out through the cross to all people.  Islam is also a missionary religion but it pursues the unbeliever with threat and fear.  The two are not equivalent in any way, shape, or form.

Friday, June 23, 2017

They just do not get it. . .

From a National Catholic Reporter critique of Cardinal Sarah (and, by extension, Benedict XVI):
My problem with those who favor the traditional worship of the church is not their taste, it is that they twist that taste into an ideological framework.
That is, in a nutshell, the point.  It is NOT about taste, has never been about taste, and will not be about taste in the future.  The cause of worship and liturgy has nothing to do with high brow or low brow, high culture or low culture, traditional or contemporary.  It has everything to do with worship that is consistent what we believe, confess, and teach.  What is sad is that Rome does not get it and so in Rome there still those trying to frame their worship wars into culture wars.  What is even sadder is that Lutherans are mired in the same darn rut -- as if we are also fighting a battle of taste or preference instead of fighting for the heart and soul of the faith and our confessional identity.

Traditionalists (not my term but the one everyone seems to be using) are not trying to wrap their taste into an ideological framework, it is already about ideology, identity, theology, and confession.  What the trads are trying to do is UNWRAP the whole war from the false framework of personal preference and taste.  It never was about guitars or pipe organs, chanting or speaking, vestments or suits, casual or formal, or anything else.  It was and always has been about WHO WE ARE and what we confess.

Our Lutheran Confessions were not merely describing who we were, they were addressing who we were, are, and, in their minds, should always be.  We have not abolished the mass, we have not abandoned ceremony, we have not departed from catholic doctrine and practice, and we have not introduced novelty or been creative with the tradition handed down to us.  We confess that we have been faithful, that this faithfulness required us to agitate for reform in the face of accretions that had obscured the Gospel and turned the hearts of the faithful from God's sufficient grace in Christ to the fragile hope of works that might be good enough.  We confess that this faith, the one we confess, is and will always be (not that a Lutheran Church is, was, and ever shall be).  We confess that to depart from this faith and practice is to surrender Christ and His atoning work AND that to make this practice into a work required for salvation is also a surrender of Christ's atoning work.  Freedom is not freedom without boundary but freedom FOR that which is faithful, authentic, and consistent with what we believe, confess, and teach.

Ooooooh does this get my goat!  Lutherans were slow to change the liturgy because they knew it had confessional implications and the changes they made were hardly noticeable to those in the pews (except for the sermon, of course, and hymnody).  But modern day Lutherans have forgotten it all and passed our confessional identity off as merely a statement for that moment in time with no lasting consequences or implications for us today.  It is the tyranny of the spiritual but not religious but it is framed as freedom (spirit) from the letter (law).  Furthermore, it is the false understanding of what we inherited (usually called "German" and not catholic) and a false understanding of faithfulness (we are good to go as long we keep the doctrine in theory but practice what we want or think works).

Worship wars are not fought over guitar strings or praise bands.  They are fought over doctrine, confession, and identity.  What is a Lutheran and how does a Lutheran worship?  (BTW that is not a question you or I get to answer but one our Confessions answer for us.)  This whole thing is not about who we want to be or how we can pack them in but about who we are.  This identity is framed not simply in theory (doctrine) but also in practice that flows from and is consistent with what we believe.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Australian Update. . .

I have been told that there are currently about 320 'active' pastors and about 210 emeriti in the Lutheran Church in Australia. The good news is that those who are leading the charge against the ordination of women tend to be younger pastors. Indeed, they represent some of the strongest voices against the top down (LCA Bishop) orchestrated campaign to approve the ordination of women. It is certainly a possibility that of the pastors who attend the General Pastors' Conference a majority would hold to the Scriptures and tradition in affirming a male only pastorate.  It is certainly true that most of the bishops think otherwise and they are doing everything in their power to make the ordination of women seem reasonable, logical, and unstoppable.  Yet there are those who are risking all to expose the weakness of the arguments in favor of the change and who are holding the church accountable to the Word of God.

Consultations have been held throughout the LCA to discuss the Draft Doctrinal Statement (DDS) in favor of the ordination of women. The consultations were to that end. The document was read, small groups formed, and, among the six questions asked of the participants:

1) Are there parts of DDS that you do not understand?
4) The fact that the 12 apostles were male is descriptive of the preaching office at the time of Jesus, but is not prescriptive of the office for all time. Discuss.
5) Paul's unchanging goal was that the church be built up in love. This requires different regulations at different times and in different places. Discuss.
6) How does the DDS interpret the prohibitions of 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2 in terms of their implications for the office of the public ministry?
The national journal has put a temporary stop to all letters to the editor. 'The purpose of this decision is to allow LCA members who wish to be part of the consultation process to have ‘clear air’ in which to listen to each other in a respectful manner, as they prayerfully consider and discuss the implications of all of the resources available to them on this subject.' The discussion was led in the usual points: women are competent to assume the role of pastor; Phoebe was akin to a pastor; Gal 3 is the great charter of liberation for women in the church; men and women are equal therefore their roles can be the same in the church; the church has not got it wrong through the centuries because it was in the interests of mission that they did not previously ordain women, but now that our culture has changed it is incumbent on the church to go with the flow in the interests of mission. The problem is that Scripture over all is missing from this discussion, history is descriptive only, and mission and love are pitted against doctrine and unchanging truth.

If you want to read a good, solid, Lutheran approach to the question of the ordination of women, you might want to click here and read a document from one of the younger pastors in the LCA. Clearly, if the debate is to be framed on the basis of what Scripture teaches and Lutherans have affirmed in confession and practice, there is nothing to fear from the topic of women's ordination. However, if Scripture is not allowed to speak, the LCA has a problem.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Playing the blame game. . .

It is fashionable to self-identify as victims and to lay the responsibility for all that is wrong at the feet of others.  Sometimes it even works.  But the sad truth is that playing the blame game generally does little to solve the problem.  I have heard it said over and over again that fewer than 5% of those surveyed give credit to the pastor as the reason for joining a church but 35% blame pastors as the reason for heading for the exit.  So we give little credit to the pastor for church growth but whenever folks fall away it is usually safe to blame the pastor for the loss.  I have heard it said over and over again that if the Church would only get on the bandwagon and get with the times, the Church would not see so many head for the door.  It is a good idea but not true.  The churches that have gotten with the times are in worse shape than those the world loves to hate for being judgmental or hateful.

In the Archdiocese of Hartford (CT) the report is that 127 newly formed parishes will replace the 212 current parishes.  Undoubtedly there will be complaints about evil bishops and a priest shortage that deprive people of their home church.  I have no stake in this so it is easy for me to talk about it.  Guess what, the reason churches are closing or being consolidated in Connecticut has little to do with bad bishops or few priests and it has everything to do with fewer people in Mass on Sunday morning.  I am told that attendance is down to 15% or less of those who identify as Roman Catholic in that diocese.  I am pretty certain that if attendance were up in those parishes, none would close or merged.  The problem lies less with the administrator than it does with the catechetical failure of priests and teachers of the faith and the failure of those catechized to take it to heart.

Before we Lutherans smugly nod our heads, the same problem lies on our own doorstep.  We have congregations where attendance is dropping, where they are unable to afford a full-time pastor, and where they are in danger of closing.  The mythology can lay blame at bad leadership at the national or district level or bad pastors.  But the real problem is that the majority of Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod people are not in their pews on Sunday morning.  It is not a new problem but the poisoned fruits of such a decline of catechesis and a lack of attendance ARE a major problem even for us.  I am pretty certain that if we had double the attendance we have now (still far less than the number of members on paper) we would NOT be seeing congregations closing or finding it impossible to afford a full-time pastor.  We need to be honest.  There are many problems that we face but one of the biggest is the small percentage of our people who are in worship on Sunday morning (and Sunday school and Bible study).

All I am saying is this.  We can all look in the mirror and see part of the problem.  Pastors have not done the kind of catechesis that both informs and shapes people into Lutheranism.  We are not aware of the Confessions of our Church as we should and we are not confident of our doctrine.  This is a real problem.  But we do not need to waste our time wringing our hands over this.  Confess our failure to our people and do better.  The people in the pew have allowed anything and everything to distract them from worship -- including blaming the pastors for being dull or stupid or uncaring.  But let me say that if your pastor is preaching the Law and Gospel and administering the Sacraments faithfully, you have no complaint.  He may be a dullard or slow or disheveled or lack excitement or a polished style or personality but, last time I looked, the Lord did not list these as justification for your absence on Sunday morning.  We all share the blame for the statistics heading in the wrong direction.  We do not need a revolution nor do we need to reinvent the Church or her liturgy.  What we do need is to teach and preach without apology the full counsel of God's Word and the Catechism.  We we do need are people who will put the Lord and His Word and Table as their first priority on Sunday morning.

How many of our current problems could be solved simply by the people of God doubling the average church attendance from 25-30% to 50-60%?  More than you could imagine.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A mission, a plan, a warning and a promise. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 2A preached on Sunday, June 18, 2017

    In the Gospel today we heard Jesus give a mission, a plan, a warning, and a promise.  The mission:  Go to the lost sheep and proclaim to them the Kingdom of God.  The plan:  Travel light and trust the generosity of God’s people.  Heal the sick.  Raise the dead.  Cleanse the leper.  Cast out the demon with the name of His name.  The warning:  You are sheep among wolves – the government and society is against you.  But the promise is clear: Do not be anxious for the Spirit is with you and will give you the words to say.  None of this is time limited; it remains for us.
    This mission, plan, warning and promise are given to every pastor.  37 years ago when they called out my name with the place Cairo, NY this became my calling.  2 years ago when they called out Pastor Ulrich’s name, this became his calling as well.  Every pastor has this calling.  We don’t get to define our mission or make our own plan.  We don’t get to lay out the battle or pick who is our enemy or who are our allies.  And we dare not.  For the Lord has not put us in charge.  It is His mission and plan. He but He has equipped us with a promise that will not fail us.
    Go to the lost sheep of God and proclaim the Kingdom to them.  God’s Word and Sacraments are the means by which God manifests His Kingdom.  These are the means of grace.
The kingdom comes not by the will and desire of anyone but by the will of God and the means of grace.  No pastor is on his own. We serve the Lord and do only the Lord’s bidding.
    With that comes the plan.  Travel light.  In other words, do not get caught up in the world and its things, in the pursuit of an earthly kingdom.  Do not judge by earthly indicators of success but be faithful and God will do what He has pledged and promised.  Trust in the people’s generosity.  You don’t know how hard it is for a pastor to depend upon the Lord and the people of God.  But every pastor has only the Lord and the generosity of God’s people.  Jesus says that is enough.  Every day every pastor struggles to believe that.
    Instead of worrying about these other things, the Lord has sent the pastor forth to heal those sick with sin through the absolution, to raise those dead in trespasses and sin through forgiveness, to cleanse the unclean in the waters of baptism, to cast out evil with the Word of the Lord, and to feed the people of God upon the flesh and blood of Jesus in the Holy Communion.
    Every pastor has also a warning.  You are sheep among wolves, be wise as serpents but innocent as doves.  Don’t depend upon a friendly culture or benign government to be your friend or ally.  You cannot delegate the work of the Kingdom to others to whom it has not been given.  Yet with this warning comes a promise.  Lo, I am with you always.  I will not leave you orphans or comfortless. 
    Every pastor is weak and vulnerable.  Only Christ is his strength and power.  The ministry is not about success but about faithfulness.  Every pastor knows this and struggles with this every day.  In His strength, we are strong and in Him we are made perfect.  Everything depends upon Christ.
    But is it not also true for you as God's people?  Has Jesus not given you a mission and vocation?  Is not your home your Israel and the domain what you serve the Lord?  Do you not also live by faith alone despite what your eyes see around you?  Are you not called to speak and live out this faith within your home, neighborhood, and workplace?  His Word is not only in your heart but on your lips.
    And on this day when we honor those who have shown us a Father’s love, it would be easy for us to list all the things our dads have not done for us.  Hidden underneath all of this and too often missed, are the unglamourous and ordinary things that dads do and we don’t even notice.  Dads are best judged not by the exceptional things they might do but by their faithfulness in the simple things of their calling – providing for their families, protecting their household, teaching the faith in the home, taking them to church, and by being willing to sacrifice his dreams for the dreams of his family.  And if a dad will do that, he will have fulfilled his mission as a father.  All a dad has to do is be faithful and it will be enough.

    Yet the world is filled with wolves.  We wrestle daily with our fears, don’t we?  Yet we are not alone.  Christ is with you.  His Spirit is upon you.  His Word lives in your ears.  His flesh and blood are on your lips.  His Spirit is upon you.  His name has become your name.  His grace is sufficient for you as it is for me.  It is enough for His mission, to fulfill His plan, to keep you in the face of your enemies, and to deliver you to your eternal home.  And everyday you fight to believe this is enough.
    Every pastor needs to hear this.  Everyone of you needs to hear this.  This is why we come here week after week.  It may seem crazy to us, even chaotic, but the Lord owns the mission we are part of; it is His kingdom.  He will deliver us to the future He has prepared for us.  All we have to do is be faithful.  Amen

The difference between tidying up and being made new. . .

I don't know how you are but when we have people coming over, it is a mad rush to tidy up and put things in their places to put on the best face.  We are not unclean people but we live in our house and sometimes you just need to tidy up for company.

Now is also the time of year when we go through our stuff and decide what stuff stays and what stuff goes.  Maybe you do that as well.  They say if you have not worn it in a year or used it in that same time, you might think about letting it go.  I am not sure about that one.  Yes, I know I have a lot of stuff that I have not worn in a while or used in a long time but, well, I am not ready to set it out with the garbage or give it to the church yard sale. . . at least not yet.

There are some who think of repentance in the same way we think of folks dropping in or doing a little spring cleaning.  But it is not a fair analogy.  Repentance is not a clean up exercise nor is it a matter of getting rid of the things you no longer need, want, or use.  Repentance is not house cleaning. . .in fact, it is just the opposite.

Repentance involves getting rid of the very things you love most, the things that form the daily routines of your ordinary life, and the things that go to the heart and core of who you are.  If repentance were any less, we could do it on our own and salvation would be merely a matter of our own willpower.  But it is not.  Repentance means a change of heart that only the Spirit can accomplish.  This is not a decision or a choice but the Spirit working in us daily to reinforce the new identity and the new desires of the heart implanted in us in our baptism.

The problem with sin is not that I am weak and give into something I really do not desire.  No, indeed.  The problem with sin is that this is exactly where my heart is.  Repentance does not mean letting go of things I am not really attached to but giving up the very things I have learned to love and life for.  I cannot tidy up my life.  My life needs to die so that Christ can raise it up brand new.

As Christians we are always up for a little house cleaning or tidying up.  We are always ready to sort through our stuff and let go of the things we no longer want and need.  But this is not what repentance is.  Repentance is not a make over or a flip but a tear down and rebuild.  This is why only the Spirit can accomplish this in our lives, why repentance is not something that can be tied down to a day and a date but is ongoing throughout the earthly life of the baptized, and why each day Christ must increase and I must decrease.  Living out this baptismal reality means not simply an external face lift but an internal rebirth, learning to love the things of God above all things and learning to follow where Christ has led the way.  This is the Spirit at work in our lives.  It is God's power and God's work but sanctification surely involves us and the cooperation of our wills with His will.  While this does nothing to earn or supplement the salvation won for us already in Christ, it does reflect the salvation ours in Christ which we grasp by baptism and faith.

Sadly, too many churches trivialize repentance and treat it like a TV makeover of our wardrobe or homes.  We do not need help tidying up nor do we need help cleaning out.  But we surely need the grace, power, and presence of God to inaugurate repentance in our lives and to keep that repentance going.