Thursday, December 12, 2019

The burden of comfort. . .

More than most things, the affliction the Church in the West has been forced to bear is prosperity.  We have, in the words of one seminary president, plenty of money but not many seminarians.  He is not speaking only of the seminary.  It is the affliction of much of Christianity in the West.  From parishes large to small, we find ourselves in much the same boat.  We are being killed by it.  Sure, we use some of it to salve our consciences by supporting those missions where the work is outpacing funds, where seminarians are too many for the teachers, and where Christians are growing faster than the parishes to support their lives of faith.  But much of it is spent on us.

Comfort is killing the Church.  We have great properties and fine buildings.  We heat them until they are comfy in winter and we cool them until we are refreshed in summer.  We have well appointed restrooms.  We have welcoming entryways.  We have abundant parking.  We light up our properties at night.  We have great and free wifi to fuel their smartphones and not use up their data plans.  We have free coffee as much as anyone can drink.  We equip our parish kitchens and fellowship halls to serve a hundred times more meals than we ever cook in them or serve in them.  We pad our pews and have easy chairs in the Narthex.  We play the music people want to hear, preach about topics they are interested in, and schedule the services (and meetings) for when it is convenient for them.  We teach people how to be comfortable with their sins instead of confessing them.  We are, if anything, very comfortable.  Though we say it is because we do not believe that people accustomed to these creature comforts would consider attending or joining a church without them, the real reason is that they make us feel better.  Why the last thing any Christian ought to be asked to do is to sacrifice something!  No sir.  Not in our church.

We are obsessed with our stuff.  People are always saying what we need.  It is usually not a matter of need but of want and much of the want is not to get what we do not have but to upgrade what we think is out of date.  My dad once said that hardly anyone replaces carpet because it has worn out.  They have simply grown tired of the color or the style.  He was right and not simply about carpet.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I am not suggesting that if we rid ourselves of all of this good stuff the problems of the Church would go away.  What I am saying, however, is that we have taught ourselves that just as the Church is comfortable, so is faith.  And that is a dangerous idea.  This in the face of a Savior who insist that foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has none of these.  This in the face of marching orders which prohibit extra cash, coats, shoes, and the like.  This is the face of the promise that Christians will suffer as He has suffered from a world at odds not only with their Creator but with their Redeemer.  We have subtly taught our people that just as Church asks nothing of them but a few bucks in the plate, so faith is easy and rewards you with great things that make you happier, more at peace, richer, and healthier than you would have been if you did not believe.

We in the Church have become the helicopter parents to the children of God and instead of preparing our people to weather life's storms we have left them an impossible dream that can be realized only by being patently unfaithful to Jesus Christ and to the authentic Gospel.  Now I am sure that some folks will be offended by what I wrote.  I am.  But it is the hard truth.  Where are those who once proclaimed in no uncertain terms:
Gird yourselves and weep O priests! Wail O ministers of the altar. Come, spend the night in sackcloth… proclaim a fast. Blow the trumpet in Zion, sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all who dwell in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. Yes, it is near, a day of darkness and of gloom.
 All of this written in the shadow of Christmas. . . boy am I a party pooper. . .

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Curious religion. . .

Over at Religion Unplugged you find a story about the Democratic Candidates and their religions.  It is a curious story about curious religion.  I am not singling out these candidates and fear that many (most?) religious people would characterize their religion in similar words.  But I do raise the issue of whether this is really all or even mainly what these faiths are about.

You can go there and click on the photo of your favorite candidate or least favorite, for that matter, and find out what religion that candidate is and how they characterize their faith.  Remarkably, you find in nearly all of them a common identity that expresses itself not in terms of doctrine or belief but in practice and, in particular, social policy.  Behavior is the focus of most of these candidates and what their church actually teaches is conspicuously absent.

Again, I am not picking on them.  They probably reflect a goodly number of folks from these religions.  Polls tell us that our people tend to hear things framed in terms of behavior more than in terms of theology.  Just a few months ago Rome was unsettled by the statistic that most of their congregants do not believe in the Real Presence -- hardly a fringe idea to Roman Catholic worship and doctrine!  Yet that is where it is.  We live in a time when our people are more and more ignorant of what their church teaches because they hear less and less doctrinal teaching and preaching.  The two are connected.

Catechesis is not the same as the Divine Service but the two are not separated by some high wall.  Catechesis begins in the Divine Service and the Divine Service unpacked is the starting point of catechesis.  We used to know this.  The problem is that preaching so often has so little to do with the Divine Service or even the lectionary or even doctrine.  Across Christianity preaching has focused more and more on people, on their goals and dreams, hurts and pain, wants and needs.  Yet this preaching is missing something essential if it fails to preach who Jesus is, what He has done, why we needed it, and what the fruits of His life in us look like.  That is doctrinal preaching practically applied to the person in the pew (and not in the least to the preacher himself).

Lutherans have a fall back sermon of "you were bad, God was good to save you, and isn't that wonderful."  I am not sure that even approaches faithful preaching of justification but it could be worse.  Sin could be omitted and Christ's sacrificial death could be skipped over.  Yet the sermon should not simply repeat justification over and over again without ALSO preaching the doctrine of what we believe, confess, and teach AND how then we should live as God's holy and redeemed people.  Lent is not the only time of the year to preach sermons on the catechism, for example.  St. Paul spends at least as much time encouraging people to walk worthy of their calling as Christian people as he does justification by grace and he spends a good deal of his time talking about what we believe (like 1 Corinthians 15, for example).

The challenge here is not to paint the candidates or our people as shallow or deaf but to example how it is that we proclaim the faith to them and for the preacher to ask himself if he has done a faithful job of preaching the text if he does not also preach the faith.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Pesky emails. . .

Okay.  I am addicted.  I cannot but open those emails that I probably should delete without reading.  It is in some ways the same fascination we have with things that we find distasteful but cannot stop ourselves from looking.  Sort of like when somebody hands you something and says, "smell that" and we know it is going to be bad but we do.  We smell it. 

Now before some think I am just being hypercritical, let me say that I am sure that the writers of such things are sincere and earnest.  I just think they are wrongheaded.  They are separating things which belong together and focusing on one thing without focusing on the other.  The complaint in the email was on pastors and parishes intent upon making attenders but not disciples, pastors who had been taught to preach, teach, administer sacraments, conduct meetings, administer programs, visit the sick…but had no modeled how to disciple people, statistics that focused on attendance instead of disciples...  You get the picture.

What is so strange is that attendance is contrasted with discipleship.  Does that mean that disciples do not attend?  Are disciples somehow less in need of or constrained by the need to gather weekly around the Lord's Word and Table?  I do not know how to take a statement like that.  Disciples are those who attend, who attend regularly, who attend faithfully, even weekly, at least in my book.  Disciples understand that there is no higher priority to their time than the weekly gathering of the baptized to hear the voice of their Good Shepherd and to be fed by Him upon His own flesh and blood.  Or do disciples have something more important to do that this?  Is not this Divine Service the fount and source of our baptismal life and vocation and that to which we return?

Second is the idea that disciples are made with means other than the means of grace the Lord has provided.  Can we accept such a premise?  Does the Lord work either primarily or secondarily through means other than His Word in aural or visible form?  What is discipleship if it does not lead people to that place where the Word is preached and the Sacraments administered?  Can you lead a person to Christ and leave that person without a church to hear the Word, to be taught the faith, to be called to repentance, to be absolved of his sins, to be baptized into Christ, and to live by the food of His Table?  Again, I don't know how to take such talk. 

To be sure, it sounds good.  The organized church is a pain and a mess at that.  Wouldn't it be better and easier if we could be Christians without the Church or lead people to Christ without having the mess that is the Church get in the way?  Everyone feels that way at one point or another.  But the Church is not optional.  The invisible nature of that communion does not trump or replace the need to see the Church where the marks are and to be joined into that visible gathering of the people of God around the means of grace.  Christ nowhere suggests to us that the Church is in our imagination or His but always speaks of it in concrete terms.  St. Paul can exhort the Church in error and commend the Church in faithfulness but nowhere does he suggest that the Church is optional or does not matter.  Hebrews insists that we are not to neglect the gathering of the people of God in the assembly that is the Church around the Lord's Word and Sacraments.  So when those in the pews on Sunday morning are characterized as pew potatoes contrasted with daring disciples, we have a problem.

We may not like the Church, we may be frustrated by the fact that her people and leaders are sinners, and we may find it too often preoccupied with institutional goals rather than the Lord's calling, but we do not have a choice.  To be Christian, to be a disciple, is to belong to a community of believers with faithful confession, true Gospel, the Word in all its fullness, the ministry, and the Sacraments according to Christ's institution.  So I find it unhelpful to the end goal to denigrate attenders as if they are less than members of the Church, Christ's body, and entirely distracting to suggest that making disciples is not connected to bringing people into the Church.

Monday, December 9, 2019

John is the fire. . .

Sermon for Advent 2A, preached on Sunday, December 8, 2019.

    Living in the South we sometimes joke about fire and brimstone preaching.  The idea here is that the job of the preacher is first to preach the sinner so close to hell that he feels the heat and the pain before answering that with the balm of the Gospel.  You don’t hear much about fire and brimstone preaching anymore.  Even old time fundamentalist churches have adopted big screens, cup holders, and praise bands and a more winsome perspective on God.  But not John the Baptist.

    John the Forerunner of Christ, came wearing the odd clothing of camel hair and eating the odd food of locusts and wild honey.  He was not some winsome or welcoming.  He did not worry about being liked.  He confronted the weak and the powerful with the same blunt call to repentance.  He cut away all the traditional props that people had used to comfort themselves with the idea that God liked them.  He warned them that the hour was coming and the axe was laid to the root of the tree, a tree already rotting from within.  John does not preach fire and brimstone, he IS fire and brimstone.

    St. John does not appease the powerful or conform his message to the feelings of the weak or scratch the itchy ears of those seeking to hear what they want or water down the Word of the Lord.  John does none of those things.  Instead he calls the religious authorities snakes in the grass.  Without repentance and faith, there is only hell and fire, death and more death, according to St. John.  But in the midst of all of this fire and brimstone, St. John points them to Jesus, to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  But John does not let himself off the hook.  John is not the mighty one, Jesus is.  John is unworthy of Jesus along with every sinner shaking in his boots with John.  The fire is already lit and the chaff is being readied to feed this eternal fire.

    So, Merry Christmas, right?  This is probably not what you came to church today to hear.  This will not put you in a holiday mood.  But it will prepare you for the Lord and His coming in power and glory as Lord and Judge of all.  And this is the Christmas we ought to be concerned about.  Not simply gifts and greetings, cookies and cakes, but holiness and righteousness.  For all the energy and effort put into trying to make a picture perfect Christmas for our families, how much do we put into repairing our lives to be ready for Christ when He comes as judge and King of all?

    John does not merely preach this kingdom but offers those shamed by their sins and broken by the weight of their guilt a way to a clear conscience and freedom. Though it is not quite the baptism that Jesus will command, John’s baptism is not without hope.
I baptize you with water for repentance but the One who is coming, the One greater than I, will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  John’s baptism may not be the baptism Jesus commanded but it was not without hope because it pointed to Jesus.  It did not offer what Christ’s baptism offered but it pointed them to Christ and directed their hearts to repentance and faith.

    Jesus is coming.  That was the message.  Prepare His way and make straight His path.  He is coming to offer Himself as the once for all sacrifice for sin.  He is coming to die the death that was not His so that those marked with this death might have life in His name.  He is coming to offer the baptism that is not a symbol but a means of grace, the water that kills those who are marked with sin and its death and raise them up to life that death cannot touch.  He is coming to give new hearts to those whose sin stained hearts can do nothing but sin.  Jesus is coming to put on His bride the Church a perfect, spotless wedding dress that will cover all her sin and make her holy and worthy of the very Son of God.  You know that.

    Christmas is not coming.  It is past.  Oh sure, we still have the annual remembrance of that miracle in the manger but the saving deed is done.  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  And Christ will come again.  The fire is here by the power of the Spirit.  It has burned up all our sins and cast its light upon us so that we might burn with the first of His love.  We have been circumcised not of the flesh but of the Spirit.  All our earthly divisions have been healed.  We wear now the one name that counts, the name of Jesus placed upon us in our baptism.

    We are in less danger of forgetting this Gospel than we are taking it for granted.  We are in less danger of failing to forget the Christ in the manger than we are forgetting that this is not the whole story.  Christ died in our place upon the cross, rose on the third day and is coming again.  Could we be the Pharisees and Sadducees of our day, going through the motions without feeling the heat of the fire?  Could we be those whose lives show no fruit of repentance and have become complacent in our faith?  Do we need people like John to be the sparks to light a fire within us?  Do we need prophets who will speak God’s Word so that we do not fear the axe but also welcome judgement day?

    The sad reality is that preaching has become the mere suggestion of hope rather than real preaching.  Too many of our sermons dance around the truth rather than speaking it bluntly.  Too many preachers are worried more about offending people than offending God by failing to preach the whole counsel of His Word.  Too many sermons are like lukewarm coals whose heat and light has all but gone out.  Too many preachers preach to us a better today but leave us unprepared for eternity.

    Today we are warned.  This is not about decorations but death.  This is not about likes but about life.  Not about keeping warm but being burned up.  God is in Christ making nobodies into His holy people.  God is in Christ killing what is left that sin has not already killed so that we may be raised up to the life death cannot overcome.  God is in Christ creating a people who will love righteousness and hate evil.  God is in Christ cutting through all the peripheral stuff to expose the core, the beating heart of Christ and the beating hearts of a people born again in Christ to be His own.

    So John warns the axe is laid to the root of the tree.  Because we have heard the Word of God, we are ready.  Because we have been washed clean in baptism, we are ready.  Because we have been fed and nourished upon the Body and Blood of Christ, we are ready.  Because we abide in Christ and Christ in us through these means of grace and we bear the good fruit of the Kingdom in our lives, we are ready.  Ready not simply for Christmas but for Christ.

    So John, let the axe fly.  Let it cut to the quick.  We are ready.  We are Christ’s and Christ is ours.  We are here not simply for a manger but for but a new heavens and a new earth.  It is not a baby we seek but the Son of God in all His glorious splendor.  It is not a comfortable Word we want to hear but the fire that consumes what will not endure so that what we are in Christ    may remain.  God grant it for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

The chicken or the egg. . .

It has oft been the case that we begin with the Bible says about something.  So, for example, the question of what the Bible says about preaching or baptism or the Eucharist might establish for us what we think about it.  The Scriptures define what it is and and that is that.  Or is it?

The reality is that preaching precedes the New Testament, for sure, and exists alongside the Old Testament.  The New Testament did not establish preaching but preaching was happening before the New Testament was put to page by pen.  St. John the Forerunner came as preacher to call the world to the fact that the Kingdom of God was near.  The Lord preached the Kingdom in word and in deed as He manifested Himself to be the Son of God in flesh.  The Apostles preached at the Lord's command and at His bidding even before Pentecost.  It is impossible to say that the Scriptures establish preaching when preaching clearly is happening before the New Testament is written.

The same is true of baptism and the Eucharist.  People were being baptized into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit before, during, and after the time when the New Testament is written.  Indeed, preaching and baptism are the hallmarks of the Church before a New Testament Scripture is even conceived of (at least from below).  You cannot suggest that the New Testament established baptism when our Lord gave the command the His disciples heeded that Word before the writing of the New Testament.  The same could be said of the Eucharist.  While we try to figure out what Scripture says about the Eucharist, the reality is that the Lord's Supper was being celebrated before the New Testament was written.  We had doctrine and piety, preaching and sacraments at the earliest stage of Christianity.  At least that is what the New Testament itself says (Acts 2:42-46). 

Could we also say then that the New Testament presumes that preaching is happening within the life of the Church, that people are being baptized into Christ in the Name of the Triune God, and that people were eating and drinking the Lord's body and blood?  We should.  Now none of this undermines or pushes Scripture to the sideline but admits and even celebrates that the Church was not in limbo unto the New Testament was written but Christians were preaching and hearing the Word of the Lord, baptizing and being baptized into Christ's death and resurrection, and eating and drinking the flesh and blood of Christ AS this New Testament text was being put to page by pen under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

Just something to think about after listening to the Gottesdiest paper presented by Dr. James Busher.  Which, by the way, is accessible here through the good services of Gene Wilken and the Flaneur Record.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

"Fresh" thinking. . .

Rome has been preoccupied with the so-called Amazonia Synod to address problems common to the area but not only there.  So far we have heard of the need for Amazon culture to inform the culture of the Roman Church and to open the ministry to women (albeit so far only the diaconate).  What intrigues me, however, is that these things are called fresh ideas.  There is nothing fresh about the stale thinking that the faith must be subject to the culture both in content and in form.  That is the oldest thinking in the world and one with which every age of Christianity has had to wrestle.  It is surely no different in our own age.  Fresh ideas and fresh thinking continues to attack the faith with old ideas and stale thinking that has contributed more to the decline of the faith than its vibrancy.

Some of you may be wondering why we Lutherans should pay any attention to what is happening in Rome or in the Amazon, for that matter.  But that is the issue.  We are facing exactly the same challenges.  We are being told all the time that the liturgy is the impediment to a vibrant faith and congregation, the hymns are driving people away and different music will bring them back, that the Church's doctrine must develop and change to keep up with what is going on in the culture around us or we will be judged irrelevant. 

Rome is not the only church body threatened with and by these old passe ideas.  We have had our own voices insistent that because of the times, things must change.  And to be fair, that is true to a point.  The way people communicate has changed.  The family is under constant threat.  The social media have led to individual isolation.  The idea that there can be truth or that you can know it or that it matters is no longer a given.  It is not your grandfather's church, to be sure, but the faith is the one thing that dare not change and the liturgy is the faith prayed on Sunday morning so when it changes, the faith changes.  Until we learn this, Rome and Lutheranism will continue to be victims of our own desperation.

But the solution to our problems cannot be gleaned by setting up listening posts among the people who do not know Christ and who are not asking us any questions about Christ.  We must learn to hear what they are saying but the Church will survive, grow, or die because we have confidence in and preach and teach faithfully the Word of God.  In every case when we have second guessed God and tried to fix the problem on our own, the result has not been success but disaster.  From Abraham and Sarah's fix to the problem of no heir to the Golden Calf that kept the Israelites busy while Moses was with God on the mountain, we have a history of disasters that came from fresh ideas that were stale rehashes of yesterday's failings.  Now is no different.  I am not saying that we must keep on doing what we have always done -- some things must and will change -- but we need to take care that we are not changing the one thing needful, the Word of the Lord, the creedal confession of fidelity before the world, the liturgical life that meets the Lord where He has pledged to be, and the Office of the Ministry which is itself a means of the means of grace (at least!).