Thursday, July 24, 2014

I wish the liturgy were more accessible. . .

"Wow!  That is a lot to take for someone who has had only a passing association with church before!"  So said one visitor to a Sunday morning Divine Service at my parish.  She did not say it but clearly her comment meant "I wish the liturgy were more accessible" to a stranger to the church like me...

It would not be the first time someone has uttered those sentiments.  It IS a great deal to take in for those who have not had much association with the church before.  I will not deny it one bit.  Neither will I suggest that it is a fruitful pursuit to try and find a way to dumb down the liturgy just in case there may be (and there always are) people who are strangers to the church and to the mass).  I am sure it is overwhelming and even shocking.  I would be disappointed if it were not -- for what would it say of us if the Divine Mystery of Christ (both efficacious Word and Sacrament) were easy enough to get and dismiss out of hand!

I tell such folks not to make a judgment quickly but to return to the liturgy over and over again.  Only then, with familiarity, can come the deep appreciation for the mystery and its grace bestowed upon us by Christ through His Word and Spirit.  The liturgy is one of those things learned by doing as much as by studying.

If you are an avid reader of this blog, you know that I do not quote Aristotle -- not ever -- but one of his tidbits of wisdom certainly applies to the Divine Service: 
              “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
                                              -- Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics 

Though some find it offensive that any person off the street, a stranger to God and His worship, cannot enter the church and feel perfectly at home, I find just the opposite offensive.  If a stranger to God and His worship feels at home in the liturgy, there must be something wrong with the liturgy.  The liturgy or mass is off putting -- not because it is designed to offend but because it goes against all that the sinful heart values most -- easy, comfortable, feeling oriented, self-centered pleasure.  What is most disarming about the liturgy or the Divine Service is that it compels us to shed ourselves and to become focused upon and open to the work of the Lord through His means of grace.  Such is the domain of the Spirit and not simply the training of the human heart but, that said, it is discipline whose value is learned by experience.

We tell parents all the time that the repetition of the liturgy is helpful to the child learning by the experience of it who God is, what He has done, and how He communicates to us the fullness of His grace and gifts.  Would not the same be also true of adults who come as infants into the presence of God in the holy ground of the liturgy?

Hardly any sport is transparent or obvious upon first view.  Watching the game being played is one of the most important ways we learn its rules and an appreciation for the sport.  In the hospital we have interns and residents who continue their education by watching and doing -- believing that this is the most effective way to train our doctors.  Why do some insist that we must make worship cogent for and accessible to the unchurched who know little of God or His ways?  Why do some visit once and presume that they have seen and learned enough to make a reasonable judgment against the church?

To the stranger come upon us, I say stay here long enough to get to know the liturgy.  Study it and learn the faith from it, to be sure, but resist the great temptation to judge what you see or experience until you learn its words, its rhythm, and its tempo.  To the parent worrying about a child growing distracted from or bored with the liturgy, I say hang in there.  Children learn by doing and they are absorbing from the liturgy more than is obvious to you.  Reinforce what happens in the Divine Service, to be sure, but do not reject what happens as they experience the church's liturgy and song over many years of growing up.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

They all look alike. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 6, Proper 11A, preached on Sunday, July 20, 2014.

    A harried parent in the summer doldrums sent the demanding child to the garden to weed it.  Forty-five minutes later the shocked parent looked as all the carefully tended plants of her garden were pulled up and the weeds left in place.  The response of the child was simple – "But they all look alike..."  And the child is correct.  The most successful weeds look like the plants we want.
    There has always been a great temptation to weed the church like you would weed a garden – to get rid of all but the true blue believers.  Maybe the church would be better off without those Christmas and Easter folks or those with such obvious problems in their lives. There have ben chose who tried to turn the church into a purity cult of holy people whose perfect lives attested to their genuineness.  The Puritans were such a group.
    We may also be tempted to do just that.  And we would be in good company.  The  disciples wondered if Jesus did not want them to pull up the weeds and get rid of the them; like the elders of Israel, they were concerned about those who were not one of them.  But Jesus says "No."  In fact, Jesus insists that judgment does not belong to the church or to individual Christians but to the Lord.  God has determined that His church will remain among unbelievers until the day of judgment.  Only then will the weeds be exposed and will God separate the wheat from the chaff, and not before.
    Weeds?  In the church?  You betcha.  Where did they come from?  The devil, of course.  He sows the weeds and steals the seed of God's Word (as we heard last week).  Who are they?  Not the obvious characters but sometimes the people whose outward life looks pretty good.  But we cannot see into the heart.  We cannot tell the actors from those who are genuine.
    Why not get rid of them?  The risk is that they look like believers.  We cannot see the heart – only God can – and so we cannot risk harming the good in order to get rid of the bad.  In addition, we are not given the right of judgment.  God has reserved that for Himself.  He who has saved us will sit as judge and this He earned by being faithful to death on the cross.  If the Church were given this duty, we would surely forget the call to be witnesses and speak the Word of Christ to the world.  Judgment is a consuming power in our hearts.
    What will happen to the weeds in the church?  God will judge them – perhaps the better word here is expose them.  Once exposed, He will condemn them to the eternal fire.  But we dare not rush this or presume that we can do this judgment.
    What about the wheat?  The wheat in Jesus' story are those who hear the Word of God and keep it by faith.  They are those whom the Lord has sowed through the seed of His Word and in whom the Spirit has worked saving faith.  God insists they belong to Him.  He knows them.  He protects them.  He sustains them through the Word and the Sacraments.  We are secure.  We will endure by His grace to the harvest day.
    Why not deliver the wheat – the faithful – from the weeds – the unfaithful?  God says the time is not yet.  Just as the world waited for thousands of years before the promise was kept and Christ took flesh and blood to enter our world, bear our weight of sin, and die to deliver us from our bondage to death, so the great and awesome day of the Lord will come in His time.
    Instead of worrying about who or when, Jesus directs us to the what.  What will happen to the faithful?  God will harvest them – He will harvest US – to eternal life.  Those whom He has called by His Word, washed in baptism, and set apart by faith He will keep to the day of judgment and He will deliver from this world of death to His kingdom of life – forevermore!
    Here is the good news of the Kingdom.  God has it in hand!  He does not need us to clean house.  He does not need us to decide who is a true believer and who is not.  He does not ask our advice nor does He give us to know what is only His to know.  In other words, we live not by sight but by faith, not by judgment but by trust.  Our call is to live by faith in the holy Word of the holy Lord and that is enough.
    Our focus is not the harvest (which God says the angels will handle and not us) but with the sowing of the seed.  If we speak and live His Good News before the world, He has promised that His Word will not return to Him empty but will accomplish His purpose in sending it.  And that starts with you and me.  Convinced of this promise for ourselves, we speak it to the world.
    Now let us be clear.  We cannot judge the heart but we are called to judge doctrine or teaching.  You are called by God to know His Word well enough that you can discern truth from falsehood – whether from this pulpit or a classroom or what you hear on TV or read on the internet.  The Word is our guide to sift through the whispered and even shouted voices speaking lies, half-truths, and deception.  We do not judge the heart but we had better judge what we hear by the standard of God’s Word and what has been believed and confessed since the cross – the creed does just that.
    This is not simply a parable to explain why unbelievers and believers coexist until God determines the day but a call to trust the Lord and His Word to do what He has promised to do.  We wrestle with this call to patience and trust but such is life in the kingdom of God.  We have not everything but we have enough.  We are not given the authority to judge but we are given the authority to baptize, to forgive sins, to proclaim the Gospel, and witness what God has done.
    The problem is that we are not content to wait upon God but always tempted to act first and trust Him later.  We are not content to wait upon the Lord but always tempted to judge because either God is not judging fast enough for us or we fear He does not know really know the playing field of this earth.  We are not content to wait upon the Lord because ultimately, just like in the Garden of Eden, we want to be in charge.  But we are not.
    Ours is to sow the seed of God's promise and then to trust in that promise that it will not return to Him empty.  We are so darn full of ourselves that we fear God cannot handle things without our assistance.  But we are the ones in need.  In need of patience... in need of trust... and in need of focusing less upon the authenticity of the saints below and more upon the genuineness of the grace that is from above.  This is what we pray.  Give us faith, trust, and patience.  NOW!

A clear pastoral dilemma. . .

Children irregularly conceived present a dilemma to the church which will be ultimately answered not so much by decree or theological opinion but pastoral discretion.  I am referring to the explosion of children conceived in vitro (Latin literally within the glass) versus in vivo (within the living), children conceived with donor eggs and sperm, children born of surrogates (whether or not contributing their eggs), children born to lesbian and gay, and so on. . .  This is not just the stuff of the big city or the far coastal urban areas.  This is increasingly common throughout the heartland as well.

On top of this is the more ordinary conundrum of how to deal with children of cohabiting parents or children born to a woman without a father named (or, perhaps, known).  We have had this phenomenon presented to pastors for many, many years.  Although the issue is not new, its regularity is more recent -- the increasing normalcy of such births and the acceptance of such circumstances as ordinary within society is newer.

This is not a question of how to deal with the adults in such circumstances but the children.  Bluntly, do we baptize these children or not?

Whereas the pastor was able to deal with such things more discreetly in the past, the very public nature of the lifestyles and the tolerance and acceptance of such lifestyles make it increasingly impossible for the pastor to deal with these requests discreetly.  While no one in the church suggests that by baptizing the children irregularly conceived constitutes approving of the circumstances of their conception or the status of the parents, it is difficult to separate the practice toward the child from the situation of those presenting the child for baptism.

Yet discretion is exactly the urgent need when situations such as these present themselves to the pastor.  The child is not to be punished for the intentional or unintentional sins of the parent.  Where the parents present the child and make promise to raise the child in the faith (for Lutherans this means promising to raise the child to know and confess the Apostles Creed, to know and confess the Small Catechism, and to be prepared to receive the Sacrament of Christ's body and blood), the church must be careful about refusing baptism to the child.

Unlike some who would insist that baptism is the capstone of a progressive piety of faith, witness, decision, and promise, we acknowledge that God is the only actor in baptism and that it is purely grace at work in the water.  Baptism is not an accomplishment or personal achievement.  We come naked with nothing to commend us but our sin and living in the shadow of death.  We are met by the gracious Lord who bore our sin, entered our death, bestowed upon us forgiveness, life, and salvation -- all apart from our worth or merit.

Nevertheless, the church and the pastor must take care not to celebrate the event in such way that it confuses our witness to the world or causes scandal and offense to the faithful.  Discretion and discreet practice will be the rule of the day when such children (for lack of a better way to put it, irregularly conceived) are presented for baptism.  It will also mean that each case must be treated individually.  It will be impossible to establish a rule to cover every eventuality.

This will mean that pastors will not practice this discretion uniformly and we will find ourselves tempted to second guess one another and to subject the judgments of others to our own scrutiny.  This will certainly test the boundaries of the faith as much as the pastoral discretion of close(d) communion does.  The rampant pace of legalization of gay marriage and the prevailing approval of much of our society mean that these issues are on the fast track even for a rather stodgy, rural, and Midwestern denomination like the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  I would only suggest that while pastors in previous eras may have had difficult circumstances presented to us the challenges before us today represent an even greater burden upon those entrusted with the stewardship of the mysteries.   Pray for the church, for pastors who must make such decisions, and for our faithful witness to the families involved and to the world watching what we do.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Do you hear the people singing?

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of the people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes.

In the wonderful movie adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables these lines are sung just before the battle begins.  Do you hear the people singing?  Well, I am sure there cannot be more than a few folks in the entire world who do not know its melody.  Powerful stuff...

In Acts 16:16-40 we read about singing.  About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.  

Singing was once the hallmark of Christians both in worship and in witness.  Music, if it has any purpose whatsoever beyond personal pleasure, is given us to raise songs to the Lord in praise and thanksgiving for His grace and favor.  But not so much anymore. . .

Christians today more often hear others sing than sing themselves.  Liturgies that were once mostly sung are now mostly spoken.  Hymns have given way to praise songs.  Choirs to worship divas.  The world does not hear us singing like it once did.  There is something wrong here.

Why do so many Lutherans stand with mouths shut as some around them sing but they do not?  Why do so many of us struggle with words and notes to the great hymns that were once sung without heads in a book?  Why is hymn singing limited to the first, third, and fifth stanzas of hymns that once sang out all 15-20 stanzas?  Why do we follow the bouncing ball on the screen for a repeated refrain instead of raising full voice to the hymns and spiritual songs that once caused a world to stop and listen?

I have little patience for those who do not open a book or their lips on Sunday morning.  Sometimes I have to look away from the people to keep my composure.  And our congregation sings better than most!  I have been in churches where I was sure I was the only one singing.  Yes, acoustics are often targeted for control of sound (meaning amplified sound) and so the rooms in which we sing do not echo the sound of our singing like they once did.  But that does not explain why we are content not even to try to sing.

Don't tell me you cannot sing!  You sing the complicated lyrics and melodies of pop music or Christian contemporary artists.  You can sing the jingles of a thousand products advertized on TV and radio.  The melodies of the vast majority of hymns are easier than these and the multiple stanzas give you the chance to learn what you might not have known in the first stanza.  Sing people.  Try it -- not with the timid voices of the uncertain but with the confident voices of those who know the grace and mercy of God.  Sing the story of His love.  Sing the Gospel to a world still captive to sin and its death.  Sing the hope that is in you.  Sing to your children, with your children, and they will sing in your place when you are gone.

I could throw a hundred Bible passages at you to compel you to see how the Lord expects, anticipates, and is glorified by the songs of His people (singing back to Him what He has said to them -- the surest word of all!).  But I truly think the most powerful is from Acts 16.  Do you hear the people singing?  That is what the jailer and his family work up to ask.  They heard.  And before the night was through, the song of Paul and Silas became their own.

Monday, July 21, 2014

I believe in the resurrection of the dead. . .

[Moreover], funerals l[in the Church] concentrate on the deceased’s eternal future because participants have faith that he still lives! (O’ Death, where is your victory? Where is your sting?) In contrast, by focusing primarily on the deceased’s now-past life by posing the body as if still so engaged or by making a political statement in how the body is handled, more contemporary dispositions attempt to deflect the ultimate reality of human mortality. The dead are gone forever, such approaches imply, but at least we can act as if they are still alive.

Well put!  Read more here. . .

It is absolutely amazing to me how many funerals of Christians include perhaps a line or two from Scripture (never about the resurrection of the flesh or eternal life), some of the desceased's favorite music, and testimonials about what a good person the dead was by family and friends.  I blame the funeral industry in part but most of all I blame Christians who have either forgotten about or given up on the promise of the resurrection of the dead and the gift of eternal life.  It is as if we have drunk the koolaid of modernity and believe that not only is your best life now but the only real life of consequence is now.  So in death we are left only to comfort ourselves with the remembrance of that life and some vague pious platitudes about living on in memory or reunited in the somewhere out there.  Worse, we draw upon the theology of The Lion King to talk about the circle of life.  I actually was at a funeral where a granddaughter who had given birth about the time of her father's death spoke about the comfort the "circle of life" gave her -- a daughter born as her father dies.

How goofy we have become in our practical theology!  Comfort is distance and life is now so we prop up the dead as if they had not died and proclaim how we will always remember them.  Well, cemeteries are filled with people who are gone AND forgotten.  This is not our comfort.  Christ is risen!  That is our comfort.  Every funeral includes those words so associated with Easter Sunday.  Christ is risen!  Because He lives, we live also.  That is our consolation.  Thank God we have memories but praise the Lord even more that we are not left to memories as our comfort in death.  The dead in Christ live.  They wait with us for the great and awesome day of the Lord when we shall wear the new and glorious bodies Christ already wears, when we shall enter into the joy of our Master, and when He shall open to us the rooms in our Father's house which He has prepared for us.

Not every appeal to the heart is sentiment!  Jesus comforts the heart but not with sentiment.  Do you believe this?  He asked of Martha.  At the funeral we raise our voices in response to the voice of the Lord.  Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the resurrection and the life.  That he who dies shall live and death cannot take from Him what You have won and graciously bestowed.  Come on, Christians, make sure that the Christian funerals of your loved ones speak this hope we confess in the Creed every Sunday:

I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins,
and I look for the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen


I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Christian Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

And a good time was had by all. . .

In ancient times every social engagement was fodder for a brief but predictable newspaper story.  After the details of who was there, what they ate, why they gathered, and what they did, the little stories all ended the same:  a good time was had by all.  Well, of course.  How could it be otherwise in the Lake Woebegon's of the Lutheran homelands?

Nobody reports on this stuff anymore.  In my daily newspaper there is less news than there was in my weekly newspaper growing up.  Mostly ads dominate the sections (often no more than one page folded into the four sides).  Even if they did we would not read such banal stuff.  We are above that -- except when it comes to church.

It seems hard for me -- even after 34 years as a Pastor -- not to work so that a good time WILL be had by all who attend.  It seems hard for those in the pew -- for the parents with children and the other folks without -- not to expect and hope for the same thing  -- a good time.  It seems the prevailing preoccupation of Christian worship today is our desire for all to have a good time.  We pick hymns to appeal to various folks, we preach uplifting, humorous, and lighthearted sermons that are at least good for a smile, and we strive to get them in and out before boredom sets in.  That is the perfect picture of a successful parish pastor and parish!

I will admit it.  I don't have a good time at church.  Some Sundays I can barely find the strength to get up and drive home after two services and a full Bible class in between.  I am exhausted.  I have trouble remembering all the information passed to my ear as I was shaking hands or walking down a hall.  I don't even know what to say to the sad stories I hear or the disheartening updates on who is about to leave the church, move for a better job, get a divorce, start cancer treatment, etc...  I walk out with the lingering feeling that I have not been as faithful as I should (usually spot on).  I drive home with the haunting disappointment that I might have, could have, should have preached a better sermon.

But I do not count it as failure or loss.  I was not supposed to feel hunky dory after working at worship, leading folks through the Scriptures, and shepherding my people all morning long.  I have looked in vain for the promise of God that if I work as hard as I am able to preach the Word in season and out, instruct the young and the erring, apply the counsel of Law and Gospel to the situations people place before me, hear the confessions of those weighed down by sin and its guilt, and preside as faithfully as the Holy Eucharist deserves I will feel better at the end.

It is the worst lie you can tell a reluctant kid -- church will be fun!  You will have a good time!  Yeah, how gullible do you think I am????  It is the most foolish expectation to have -- we will feel the hammer of the Law beat us right dead center in the forehead and still have a good time... we will be cut by the two edged sword of the Word of the Lord and be patched up to feel downright grand afterwards... we will surrender our wills and desires to Him whose will and desire was our salvation but it won't hurt, it won't cost us anything, and in the end we will be happy we did.  What are you smoking?

Worship is NOT a feel good activity.  We should feel manhandled by the Word from time to time.  We should feel convicted because of sin and convinced of our unrighteousness as well as forgiven and in awe of such a gift of holiness we cannot afford.  We ought to feel exhausted -- if we don't it means were were not paying much attention to the Word of the Lord (always a mighty effort to stop thinking of ourselves even for an hour or two) nor were we singing very much or praying very seriously.  The response to God and His Word empty us before they fill us and they do not fill us with cotton candy and marshmallows -- the food of the Lord is solid, chewy, and something to gnaw on for a while.

That is not bad.  That is good.  It is good to be exhausted after worship.  It is good to have worked hard to give up your preoccupation with self long enough to actually hear the voice of God and respond.  It is good tired -- like when you have worked to accomplish something and are happily tired to view your accomplishment.  We are the happy tired who have emptied ourselves in response to the bidding of the Lord, the gifts of the Lord, and the grace of our Lord.  Going home tired does not mean the pastor or the liturgy failed us -- just the opposite.  It is success!

Sadly we have bought into the old lie that if worship is good,  a good time will be had by all....  Even in His comfort, God is not easy.  Even in His mercy, God is not casual.  Nope, no good times here.  It is work just to keep the mind on the voice of God.  It is work to sing, to pray, to speak, to meditate, and to sit down, stand up, kneel -- over and over.  But it is the good work that bears rich fruit in the life of the baptized.  Try it once.  Work so hard at listening, praying, singing, speaking, and meditating that you are actually weary after the encounter with the Lord in His House on His day.  You will not settle for a feel good moment ever again!

Peppy little ditties instead of the sturdy hymns of old, joke telling preachers who leave you laughing, music that keeps you clapping or crying it is so tender, creative little rituals to replace the old stale broken bread of Christ's body and the cup of His blood shed... this is not Church.  This is not faithful.  This is not fruitful.  It is a sugar high that must be regularly pumped up or it will leave you empty.  Do not settle for this pale imitation of the real means of grace which strike us down in awe of mercy beyond imagination freely given for the sake of Christ.  Nope, a feel good moment will not suffice once you have had it real and true with the Word that slices and dices even as it trims and prunes or the worship that drains your energy because you cannot do enough in response to the pure grace freely given!