Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Healing Our True Infirmities. . .

Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, preached on Sunday, January 26, 2020, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). 
We’re obsessed with our bodies, especially how they feel.  We focus on our infirmities.  We think about our aches and pains when we get out of bed.  We think about the chronic conditions that plague us.  We’re concerned with our diseases and illnesses.  But are we concerned with our true infirmity?  Do we think about the infirmity that causes all other infirmities?  Do we think about our sin?  If we’re being honest, more often than not, the answer is no.  Our aches and pains are on our mind, but not our sin. 
In our Gospel reading, we hear about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  After John had been arrested, because he spoke out against King Herod’s sin, Jesus appeared on the scene and continued to preach the message that John preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17).  Jesus called His first disciples: Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  These fishermen dropped their nets and followed Christ to become “fishers of men.”  And then Jesus went throughout the region teaching and proclaiming the gospel.  He healed all sorts of diseases and afflictions.  It was this healing ministry that made Him famous.
News quickly spread about a miracle healer in Galilee and people from all over brought the sick, those afflicted with disease and chronic pain, those oppressed by demons.  Epileptics and paralytics were carried before Him.  These people had no hope before.  The ailments of their bodies were a fact of life that could never be changed.  But now, now there was hope.  Now, someone was there who could alleviate their suffering, and they went to great lengths to come to Him.  People from all over followed Jesus because they wanted to be healed and they wanted to see healings…and so do we.  We want Jesus to heal us.
We want Christ to alleviate all our physical sufferings.  We want Him to heal all our diseases, our sniffles, our everyday aches and pains, our chronic pain, our cancers and heart disease, our terminal illnesses; whatever it is, we want Jesus to cure it, to make it all go away.  We want Him to be that miracle healer for us.  That’s what we pray for. 
Think about your personal prayers.  When do you pray to God the most?  What do you ask God for the most?  We come to Him when we’re physically suffering, and we want Him to take that suffering away.  We come to Him at the doctor’s office and in the hospital room.  We pray for negative test results and miraculous recoveries.  Look at our church’s prayer list.  Who do we pray for and why?  We pray for the sick, for those who’ve just received a serious diagnosis, for those who are suffering physical ailments.  We pray for recovery, for healing.
Now, before you begin to think that I’m suggesting we shouldn’t do this, I’m not.  It’s good and right for us to come before God with cares and concerns.  It’s good and right to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are ill.  It’s good and right to call upon God for help in our time of sickness and need.  This is a sign of faith, and God wants us to do this.  But too often we do this without recognizing what our true need is.  Yes, we’re need physically healing, but more than that, we need the healing of our sin.
The physical infirmities we have, our chronic sickness, our life threatening diseases, they’re only a symptom of our true problem.  The true problem is our sin.  Our sin is the cause of all of this.  I’m not saying that you get sick and have aches and pains because God is punishing you for a specific sin that you’ve committed.  No, that’s not what God does.  But our sin, your sin, my sin, it’s the cause of sickness because sin destroys God’s creation.  Sin ruins the life God made for us.  This happened all the way back in the Garden when Adam and Eve chose to reject God and instead did what they wanted to do.  That’s what sin is.  Sin is a rejection of God.  Your sin is a rejection of God.  It’s a turning inward on yourself, and the result of this rejection is brokenness.  The result of this rejection is separation from God and His life.  The result of this rejection is death, and so that’s what you suffer.  Your ailments and illness, it’s the sign of your death.  You need to realize this and repent of your sin.
Remember the message that Jesus proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  When you suffer sickness and disease, you need to repent, because it’s a sign of your sin.  When you endure the everyday aches of life, you need to repent, because it’s a sign of your sin.  When you mourn the death of a loved one, you need to repent, because it’s a sign of your sin.  When you see death in your life, you need to repent, because youre a sinner, and you need the true healing that only Christ can give.  This is why Jesus came.
Jesus is the Great Physician that heals that which truly afflicts you.  Jesus didn’t come to be a miracle healer that’s only concerned with your physical problems.  Jesus is the miracle healer that cures you of your sin and death, and He does it with the medicine of His Body and Blood. 
Christ heals your sin, He cures your death with His death.  The forgiveness of Jesus’ cross removes the quilt of your sin, it washes it away.  And this forgiveness is given to you in the miracle Lord’s Supper.  That bread which is His Body and that wine which His is Blood, its the medicine of immortality.  It takes your sin and death away and it gives you everlasting life.  It takes care of your true infirmity so that everything else you suffer can’t harm you.  Does this mean you’ll never get sick again?  Does this mean you’ll be healed of all diseases?  No.  But it does mean you can endure your physical infirmities by the strength of Christ who died for you.  It means that you have everlasting life, and no sickness or disease, no death can take that way. 
Like the people who came to Jesus in the Gospel, we seek Him wanting Him to do away with all that plague us.  We come to Him in prayer, pleading for relief.  And this is good, for He is the Great Physician.  But He’s the Great Physician not because He only heals our bodies.  He’s the Great Physician because He cures us of our sin.  His message is “Repent,” and when we come to Him in repentance we receive the forgiveness that cures, the forgiveness that gives you everlasting life.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.

Holiness and saints. . .

In Letters to Malcom, C. S. Lewis observed that the churches of his childhood “did tend to be too cosily at ease in Sion.”  That is the inherent danger of Protestantism without God's presence tied to time and space (at least since Jesus' ascension).  Without the Sacraments which locate Christ in baptismal water and in eucharistic bread and wine, Jesus inhabits more virtual space than real.  Without the primary sense of God's Word being a living voice through which He works and in which the Spirit is present, the Scriptures take on more of an encyclopedic or moralistic role.  Hence the What Would Jesus Do. 

I am not sure that we are ever to be casual about God's House and our place therein.  We are not there by our own merits, to be sure.  We are there only at the Father's invitation.  Even then, it is Jesus who walks us through the door.  Only because we are in Christ can we ever be worthy of a place in the presence of God -- much less open our hands and mouths to receive His gifts.  While some worry about reverence being off putting, I worry about the opposite.  When the things of God and our presence before the Lord becomes a casual thing, danger is most certainly ahead for the person and for the Church.  In this day and age we are in little danger of being too solemn in worship but we are in great danger of treating worship and the God whom we worship frivolously.  Sort of like the humorous stories that too often pass as sermons and the music which is designed to touch the soul with its beat yet fights against that purpose with trivial text.

Therein lies one of the dilemmas faced by our lack of knowledge of the saints and their stories.  Even Biblical figures are treated like we would treat God -- a besty instead those who have gone through the great tribulation.  The necessity of saints is, of course, the necessity of heroes and heroic figures through whom we glimpse God's mighty power -- even if that power is exercised only to save the unworthy and undeserving.  Saints may teach us but they are not quite teachers.  Saints model the faith but they are not simply role models.  Saints are windows into the sufficient grace of God and into the mercy of God without end.  They are great and mighty not because of personal achievement but because they have known the Lord, wrestled with Him in life, and rested in Him in death.  They spur us on not like the coach who says you can do this but as those whose lives are mirrors of God's goodness, grace, and glory.  The are icons.  Through them we glimpse something greater.  God who is rich in mercy and whose steadfast love endures forever.

They show us what God has paid for our redemption when we know their sins and flaws.  They show us what we are to pay in taking up our crosses and following Jesus by faith.  They show us that there is a goal to this seemingly aimless life and it is not simply to live until we die but to died in Christ so that we might live forever.  Our children will choose heroes to emulate and follow and inspire.  Sadly, they are flawed people who glory in their flaws and in whom is no lament or contrition or repentance.  From rock stars to media sensations to sports figures to the faces on the silver screen, they will find heroes -- unless we offer them real heroes in the saints through whom we glimpse the face of God.  We live today not with an abundance of heroic figures but in a poverty of heroes worthy of our attention.  But the lives of the saints could remedy this lack.  It would help even if we only learned the stories of the great figures of the Bible.  But we need not stop there.

Do yourself and your kids a favor.  Teach them the stories of the saints.

Monday, January 27, 2020

It is just a door. . . or is it?

I often wondered about the number of doors through which one must pass to enter the average nave.  In my own parish, three sets of doors must be opened before one finally enters the aisle on his or her way to the pew.  Sometimes I think there should be more -- when loud conversations from outside the nave filter in and disrupt the silence or the words or the music of the liturgy.  Some of our people who have trouble walking think there should be a short cut.  I admit that I have only thought of doors in a utilitarian way.  Perhaps I am missing something?

David Mills in his column in the New Oxford Review recalls some words from Romano Guardini.  They are good words to remember.   Don’t run through the church doors but think about what they mean, writes Romano Guardini in his small book Sacred Signs. Pause a moment beforehand so as to make your entering-in a fully intended and recollected act.  Nobody pauses before a door unless they are uncertain about where that door leads.  But should we?  Should we pause before entering the door to the Church?  Or should we bust right through on our way into the presence of God?

I doubt whether most folks think much of doors.  They are like intersections on the road or turn lanes on the highway.  They are simply there to guide and guard as people get from one place to another.  When I watch on Sunday morning, I see people rushing for the door and then slowing down.  For some that reduction in speed is to greet old friends and acquaintances.  For others it is because they are still a bit unfamiliar with things and they need to take stock of where things are and where they are going.  Still others survey what is between them and the nave as a gauntlet and stop for a moment to figure out how to make it through the sea of faces and hands to the relative safety and comfort of the pew. 

It is in the pew, after all, that most of us believe things begin in earnest.  Whether kneeling or sitting, head bowed or  hands folded, in prayer or meditation, the people of God settle themselves for what is to come.  Entering the House of God is not considered part of this preparation by most of us.  But should it be?  Guardini suggests that it should.  Guardini explains:
“Between the outer and the inner world are the doors. They are the barriers between the market place and the sanctuary, between what belongs to the world at large and what has become consecrated to God. And the door warns the man who opens it to go inside that he must now leave behind the thoughts, wishes and cares which here are out of place, his curiosity, his vanity, his worldly interests, his secular self. Make yourself clean. The ground you tread is holy ground.”
I wish I would have read this a long time ago.  I wish my people would read this regularly.  There is much wisdom here.  Doors are barriers and lines of demarcation that define spaces.  Between the world and the nave, we pass through doors to help us transition into the holy space that belongs to the Lord.  The doors do not do it all and certainly not without our recognition that they exist and mark the dividing lines of the world and God's holy presence but it is helpful to us to see doors in this way.

After the announcements, I usually say to the congregation something like this:  During the prelude let us turn the thoughts of our minds and the direction of our hearts to the Lord so that we might be receptive to His Word and worthy of His table.  It is a door.  The time for casual gabbing has ended and we turn toward the presence of God -- literally!  It is not long, perhaps 4-5 minutes, but this prelude time is my attempt to draw attention to the space, to the domain of the world that must now give way to the domain of God.  In head and heart we surrender to the Lord.  We are His people, washed in baptismal water and marked with the Holy Cross.  We are here at His beckoning and by His invitation we will hear the sound of His voice and feast upon the very flesh and blood of Christ.  It is impossible to make the shift from parking lot and lives defined by the world's pressures, stresses, and demands to the Lord's grace, mercy, and gift without at least this pause.

I will quibble a bit with Guardini.  We do not make ourselves clean.  Even that preparation is done by the Lord through the confiteor and the ego te absolvo.  He rescues us from our sin that stains our lives and He renders us worthy in His sight.  Even more reason for the pause between one world and His holy ground.  Oh, well, you know how what I read can get me thinking. . . 

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Am I relevant?

Over and over again today Christianity is confronted with the fear of being irrelevant and pursues relevance in any way that will prevent the Church from being tossed aside like yesterday's leftovers.  This quest for relevance has led churches to adopt culturally friendly views of the earth, sexuality, worship, and truth.  But the result of our preoccupation with what the world thinks of us is that the Church is weaker and more fragile than in her infancy when she was being killed in arenas.  Yet the relentless pursuit for relevance goes on.

What the world means by relevance, however, is not exactly what the word meant originally. Relevance is defined today as being in step with the times or sympathetic to the prevailing winds of thought and belief.  Relevance means constantly changing or adjusting to where people are or what direction people are headed.  The sacred text of such relevance is written by poll and survey and in pursuit of such relevance the Church must constantly take the temperature of the world around her.

Though we are bombarded by the demand for a relevant Church, what this really means is that Church must abdicate to the whim of the moment and to random thoughts unsecured and unrestrained by concepts of eternal truth. To be sure, we must be cognizant of the world around us and of the particular opportunities afforded us by the times as well as an awareness of doors that have been closed by those same times.  Who in Scripture could have foreseen such things as gender confusion or in vitro fertilization or machines that prolong the life of the body.  Relevance requires us to be able to address what was never even on the radar of the faithful of old.  But how?

That said, it might well help inform us as to the task before us if we spent a moment refreshing our understanding of what the word means and from where it has come to us. Like so many other words, relevance is a term which has moved on and no longer resembles its origins.  It might not be an exaggeration to suggest that relevance has come to mean exactly the opposite of its original meaning

From the Latin, relevance is re (again) + levare (to lift).  In other words, it means to pick up or lift up something again.  And again.  And again if necessary.  What this means is that something has been lost or dropped along the way and it must be picked up again.  Whether it was let go out of indifference or formal rejection is not specified but relevance means to rescue what was lost and restore it to use again.  So the Latin root of relevance literally means the direct opposite of how the word is used today.  Today relevance means something new, novel, creative, and spontaneous but in the past it meant to restore the old, familiar, ordinary, and regular.  It is like using the familiar old spoon your grandmother used to stir up her famous dish instead of throwing the ingredients into a food processor and pressing pulse a few times.  Tradition is the focus of relevance -- the gift of the past to the present and the future.  Traditional is relevant.

Again and again the Church refuses to abdicate to the moment and holds forth with the voices of the past and the eternal Word of the Lord in a world impatient with what is and in love with what might be.  So the Church again and again reminds us of and lifts up for another generation the unchanging truth of God's Word and the holy deposit of the faith once delivered to the saints.  The path to relevance is not to live in the past or in the present and certainly not in the future but rather to make sure that the present and future have an anchor in and are securely moored in that which does not change.  The Church does not simply repeat the past or its formulations but fashions them freshly for the changing circumstances of the present and gives to the future the wisdom of those who went before.  We do not simply rehash or repeat the same weary and tired phrases of old but preach anew and teach with new vigor the once forever faith.  When translations are required, it is the Church's duty to render them accurately and faithfully.  When new challenges arise, it is the Church's job to respond with the eternal principles of the catholic faith pointedly directed to the moment.  When the world is heading one direction, it is the obligation of the Church to restore the true North of the compass of God's Word to a people who will be lost without its clear direction.

Who among us has not dropped our keys or some cash or groceries or important papers.  But we do not abandon them.  No, if something important has been dropped, we stop to pick it up again.  Such things are too valuable to abandon and must be restored over and over and over again, if necessary, to prevent the tyranny of the moment from making the Church lose her way.

Relevance cannot demand that the Church omit or reject or skip over the doctrine once delivered to the saints or the preaching of the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen.  Just the opposite, the Church, if she is to be relevant, must pick up what has been lost and find the courage to speak what has been lost to silence.  And if folks around us or the world and its values are offended by this, relevance requires us to do nothing less.  Freshness comes not from the constant replacement of what is with what might be or could be.  Rather, it comes from clinging to the vision and identity rooted in time but timeless in shape and blessing.  When the culture is hostile to his or threatens the Church's existence because she was faithful, we cannot afford to abandon such relevance in favor of the more modern ideal.  We must endure through the Word that endures forever or we will not endure at all.

If the world rejects such relevance and insists upon new and different, then the Church must be willing to become the martyr for the sake of the changeless Gospel. What good would it do anyone to be relevant to the moment but lost to eternity?  What gift can the Church offer the world if she no longer holds to what has always been believed, taught, and confessed?  What cost is there too us to be judged irrelevant by those who have no anchor beyond the moment?  What cost will we bear for abandoning the world without end truth for a truth that consoles us with lies and comforts us with what is new at the cost of the truth of God which endures forever?

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Phases of life. . .

A man who is not a liberal at sixteen has no heart; a man who is not a conservative at sixty has no head.   Or, so said Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) or before him George Bernard Shaw or before Him King Oscar II of Sweden and a host of others back probably to Edmund Burke or Anselme Polycarpe Batbie.  The origin of the quote is not important but the fact that such a quote has so many authors indicates its undisputed truth is so profound that everyone has claimed to be its source.  It is a truth that is original of few but reflective of many.  It is certainly true of me.

I began with a rebellious attitude toward everything from liturgy to church music to politics to morality.  In this, I expect I am not alone.  And yet the journey of this mortal life is not without its twists and turns or without its growth and maturity.  Yet it seems that much of what continues to cause us problems within Christianity represents people toward an opposite end -- moving from relative conservatism to radical liberalism in which there is ultimately not much truth at all and little of that truth that is universal.  It is not simply a rebellion against truth or order as much as it is an immaturity that parades as wisdom.  It is not growth at all as much as it is a refusal to grow and an abdication to self against anything and everything that would restrain or govern desire, whim, thought, and inclination.

I recall once telling the joke that I knew the Lutherans would be the first to rise on Judgment Day because the Bible says that the dead in Christ shall be the first to rise and I could think of none more dead in Christ than Lutherans.  What I discovered is that the joke was on me.  The Church lives not by spontaneity or novelty or creativity or progress but by faithfulness.  The very things that once I ridiculed have become the pillars of the faith, the sources of both my strength and my comfort, and the means to the true freedom Jesus has promised (freedom not from authority but from sin and its death and the freedom to live out the noble life of good works and worship pleasing to God that sin had prevented).

The gift of God is that He does not leave us where He found us.  While this is most certainly true of the old man rooted in sin and decaying toward the inevitable death that is sin's gift to us, it is also true of how we see the things of God -- from Scripture itself to the Divine Service to the sacramental life of God's people to the nature of this baptismal vocation which we live out.  This is true of youth so filled with fervor and enthusiasm and of old age so filled with cynicism and weariness.  Ours is a journey toward an end and this end is not self-directed but under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  It is, even before we discover it or begin to behold it, a sanctification that through daily repentance and faith leads us ever closer to God's will and purpose (even though we may not see it at all).

Some presume that this journey will finally end up on earth at Rome (or Constantinople).  So many have come to that conclusion (even Lutherans).  This is certainly not something to which I would agree.  Rome is not only a place of tradition but is also a place where much novelty over the years has become essential truth and practice.  Certainly this is true in the obvious things to which the Reformers objected (from purgatory to the treasury of merits to the claims of papal infallibility to the replacement of the sacramental with the sacrificial in the Mass).  But it is also true in another sense.  Without the unchanging Word of God to place boundaries and fences around man's penchant for novelty, even Rome is subject so invention.  That is why the papacy is both so important to Rome and why that communion is so vulnerable.  We see this in the vast distance between a Benedict XVI and Francis.  But that is a subject for another blog post so let me continue with what I began.

The pursuit of the liberal or progressive end is first begun by and fueled by a rejection of the truth and infallibility of Scripture.  That is the downfall of Protestantism in its many and various forms.  From truth to sin to death to morality in general, the deterioration of the faith among Protestants is made possible by the rejection that Scripture is true, that it is factual, and that it's truth is eternal.  It is not that Protestantism suffers from no pope but that it has too many.  The individual is made pope or ruler over truth and life with reason, preference, taste, etc., over the Scriptures, creed, and confession.

Lutheranism is rescued from this individualistic view of truth and faith and worship only by her Confessions.  So when we marginalize or ignore or reject our Confessions, we Lutherans end up right where Protestantism is.  It is only when we study and sustain these Confessions that we have half a chance of avoiding the emptiness that is modern Christianity.  And if you look at those Confessions, one of the first things you discover is that Lutherans are not the nominally liturgical Protestants so many once thought or now think but the evangelical catholics they insist.  These Confessions insist upon a Sola Scriptura which is neither naked or alone but surrounded by a community of faith born of this life-giving Word and sustained by the Spirit who comes to us in this Word.  While some commenters fear giving too much weight to tradition, I fear just the opposite.  When we strip away from Scripture the community that has been called into existence by its Word and sustained by that Word (and Sacraments), we leave ourselves so very vulnerable to the Protestant end of a truth adrift from anything except magisterial reason or sentiment.

So if you are trying to figure me out, don't try to frame me against Rome or Geneva or Constantinople but place me squarely among those who live by the power of the Word clearly confessed and taught by our Confessions and lived out within the careful liturgical life of Sunday morning.  I did not begin here but my whole life has moved me here and I rejoice it in.  It is my hope and expectation that the Spirit will work the same growth and maturity in youth and bring us to the blessed joy of a church both evangelical and catholic in doctrine and piety.  My greatest fear in all of this is not a church too confessional but one not confessional at all.  For such a church will preserve Scripture only briefly before God's truth is exchanged for the changing truths of preference, sentiment, and desire.  My friends, few churches have made the trip back to orthodoxy but plenty of them have left and never looked back at all.

Friday, January 24, 2020

A contrarian. . .

Some have publicly and privately accused me of being rather negative and disparaging toward Lutheranism and Lutherans in particular.  I am wounded by that comment.  To be sure, I have my moods but generally I am a relatively calm and hopeful contrarian.  But if it does appear that I am angry or short-tempered or moody, it is because I care deeply about my parish and about Lutheranism as a whole.  It is not because I think Lutherans have run out of gas that I complain but that people are putting sugar into the gas tank when only high test will do.

The liturgical movement of which I have been a very, very, very small part, is not essentially about smells and bells or about high culture or low culture or about ambiance.  It is a pastoral movement.  Indeed, the evangelical catholic movement of reform that is known as Lutheranism is not primarily a theological movement but a pastoral one.  And the connection between what we confess and how we worship is not an aesthetic one but a pastoral one.  Whatever Lutheranism is, it is essentially defined not by Luther or any individual Lutherans but by her confession and her liturgy.  In this respect, it is a pastoral identity and not a theoretical one.  Lutheranism, and in particular evangelical catholicism, is not a cerebral identity but a piety both of witness and of worship born of and living within the framework of what the Church has always believed and taught.  So Lutheranism, or as our confessions put it, evangelical catholicism, is a liturgical movement whose primary theological emphasis is pastoral.  Unlike other aspects of the liturgical movement, its origins in Lutheranism were among parish pastors who had the daily and weekly task of speaking God's Word to God's people, catechizing young or new to the faith, visiting the sick, burying the dead, absolving the penitent, teaching the Scriptures, praying, leading the Divine Service, and nourishing God's people in the rich sacramental green pastures He has provided.  So, in this respect, most Lutherans involved in the movement are just that, parish pastors who are not only concerned about but actively involved in such things as good biblical preaching, the weekly Eucharist, vital catechesis, and the richest sacramental, liturgical life possible within the framework of what is good, right, beautiful and possible.

If it appears that I am often angry or impatient or dour, it is because I find myself constantly having to defend this proposition against those who see Lutheranism as a reflection of the individualistic character of society, largely cerebral, and without much need to assemble together around the Word and Table of the Lord.  I grow weary of those who think constantly in minimums or who would downsize both ceremony and theology in pursuit of the simple faith of Jesus without the messiness of creed, confession, and liturgy.  I am tired of those who think that the best Lutheran pastors are those who do what the people want on Sunday morning while maintaining in theory the substance of the faith.  I am cranky mostly because there are those who presume that Lutherans are an evolution toward a purer form and away from their earlier years of richer liturgical life.  I am frustrated when Lutherans who have no seminary training recall how it was when they grew up and then hold that yardstick up as that which should judge and define who we are for all time.  I am soured more by the squandered opportunity of the evangelical catholic identity than by those who fail Lutheranism in other ways.  I cannot for the life of me figure out how Lutheranism became a democracy in which we vote on how often Christ will come to us in His Holy Sacrament or whether we will conveniently ignore who we are as the evangelical catholics of our confession in favor of a more comfortable Protestant set of clothing.  Other than this, I am a pretty happy go lucky fellow.  I love being a pastor and work hard on behalf of the people in my care and the pursuit of an authentic evangelical community of faith whose creed and confession is in sync with our liturgy.  I do not want less from Lutheranism but always more -- sometimes much more than we are content to give and be.  That is what is behind me, my ministry, and my meager offerings on this blog.