Friday, March 24, 2017
The wrapper DOES count. When I want a Snickers, I want the content -- nougat topped with caramel and peanuts, covered in milk chocolate. But the only way I am going to find that delicious nougat topped with caramel and peanuts all covered in milk chocolate is by looking for the Snickers wrapper. The wrapper tells us what is inside. The wrapper is the guarantor of consistency. I have never opened a Hershey bar only to find a Mr. Goodbar or a Mounds or a Salted Nut Roll. Nope, it has never happened. When I feel like toffee covered in milk chocolate, I go for a Heath Bar -- I do not open wrapper after wrapper in search of my craving. The wrapper tells me where I will find it.
The truth is the wrapper counts. It counts more than we admit. With candy bars and with denominations. The Lutheran wrapper tells you what you should be able to find inside -- a Lutheran faith sourced from Scripture, consistent with the catholic tradition, bound by the Confessions, framed by the Law and Gospel distinction, creedal, liturgical, sacramental, etc... Just like if you open up a Baptist wrapper you can bet the doctrine will be fundamentalist, oriented toward decision theology, and non-sacramental, non-liturgical, and non-creedal. In the Roman Catholic wrapper you will find a pope, a cardinal or two, a bishop or many, priests, and deacons. I am not trying to be definitive but to suggest that we count on wrappers to tell us what is inside. We do not open wrapper after wrapper in search of something -- the wrapper guides us and tells us what we can expect to find therein. It is a good thing for candy but even better for churches. Nothing is more problematic that the kind of diversity which makes the wrapper a lie or deception.
So no, it is not more about the content than the wrapper. They are both important and should not compete. They ought to reflect a consistency that informs us and comforts us when it delivers what it promises. I do not like Mounds and I do not like Almond Joy. I really don't want to open a Babe Ruth and find coconut. I really don't want to open the doors to a Lutheran Church and find something different inside. Neither do you.
BTW that is why even Whitman's Sampler and other boxes of chocolates have a diagram to tell you where to find what you want. Is there any one of us who has not selected a chocolate from one of those mixed boxes, thought and hoped we were getting one thing, and then bit down only to be disappointed? Some of us like to play the game of hide and seek. Some of us don't. But you should not have to be surprised when you bite down on a church. The wrapper has a purpose -- and a good and salutary one. The wrapper tells you what is on the inside.
Now. . . if only that were uniformly true people would not enter a Lutheran congregation only to leave disappointed because they did not find one there! The best ecumenism is to be who you are and then to let who you are be shaped by Scripture and tradition (best sense of that word). If every church strives for this, we would not have so many different wrappers and churches would not be sold for taste but for truth! Oh, well, that is a topic for another post.
Thursday, March 23, 2017
The once familiar TV shows of Andy Griffith, Mayberry RFD, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, and the like both focused on the difference between the village and the city and celebrated the triumph of rural common sense, friendship, values over the urban counterpart. The Westerns also dominated the TV screens (The Big Valley, Virginian, Bonanza, and Gunsmoke). At some point things changed. The humor and story of the urban and rural conflict gave way to disdain. In 1970 CBS ditched its whole lineup of country based shows in favor of an edgier and more biting social commentary (think All in the Family). As far off as those days were, many of us long for the days when it was a friendly rivalry and when the values and perspectives were more similar than dissimilar.
Whether the media orchestrated this shift or merely followed the lead of opinion is less significant than how it has all played out. If you look at maps of the 2016 election results, the great divide between rural and urban has turned into voting blocks as one group has the countryside locked up and another a hold on urban areas. Working class people and working class values are pitted against the educated and cultural elite -- in evidence so profoundly in the Golden Globe speech of Meryl Streep.
This great gulf between rural and urban America has taken on deep religious significance. Christians and their values are very deeply aligned with the rural and small towns of America and the secular and skeptical urban America is not only opposed to this but finds it harder and harder to understand this part of America. The end result is that we have more than a war of words but real battle for supremacy and even survival.
Let me speak personally. When I grew up in small town, rural Nebraska, my parents paid attention to the weather in New York City and watched the news from the saltwater coasts as intently as they news from the town next door. They knew the geography and something of the culture of areas far removed from the local towns and farmlands. When I moved to Long Island, most folks had no clue where Nebraska even was and some asked me about the Native Americans as if the frontier battles of old were still be played out in the West. But they did not necessarily disdain what they did not know. Now I am not so sure. There are embittered folks in the heartlands as well as the coast lands but there is more than bitterness in the coasts -- even downright fear and disdain of country ideas, ideals, values, and faith.
My own denomination moved from a largely rural church body prior to World War II to a more suburban and urban church from the 1950s on. That transformation has also left us with somewhat the same kind of urban and rural divide -- parishes from the saltwater coasts seem distinctly different from the parishes in the Midwest. This has created some issues for us as a church and we still deal with the differences and the distinctions. I wonder what the future will hold -- both for the national divide and its effect on our church body. I fear that this will not only not be reconciled but that the gulf is being encouraged by an activitist media and the educated and cultural elites. And for their part, the country folks seem more than happy to see the salt water cities wash away into the sea. In any case, it is not good.
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
On the one hand there are those who minimize the so-called Third Use of the Law (look up the Formula of Concord Article VI here for those who wonder what this means). It is all grace and all good. And then there are those who speak for the Third Use and insist that the good works we do are guided by the Law (which, as some say, always accuses -- but does not only accuse). It is a good discussion because on the one hand nobody wants anybody to think that works count toward salvation. Only Christ and His merits are responsible. But on the other hand we come face to face with the teaching of St. Paul who repeatedly exhorts God's people to good works and the preaching of Luther which mirrors St. Paul. On the other hand, Lutheran preachers today are generally not so keen on such a bold call to good works and exhorts the people to godly living (walking worthy of their calling).
I will not attempt to rehash or even summarize the whole debate here but I will say that it is a good debate to have. Iron sharpens iron (at least so the Scriptures say). If we are to be discussing things, this is a profound and serious issue to talk about and one that should not be ignored. It cannot be a choice between the preaching of justification by grace through faith and good works. It must be both. As Luther put it in his 1535 Galatians commentary, “Therefore it is as necessary that faithful preachers urge good works as that they urge the doctrine of faith.” Again he wrote “This is why faithful preachers must exert themselves as much in urging a love that is unfeigned or in urging truly good works as in teaching true faith.”
My point is this. Preaching the Third Use of the Law does require care but it is not so difficult as to give the preacher the option of ignoring it. In fact, failing to preach the Third Use is itself failing to preach the whole counsel of God. Yet who wants to do this? Nobody that I know. We would all rather end every sermon at the restatement of what Christ has done for you and presume that the Spirit will fill in the gaps and move the Christian to fight the flesh and to desire what is good, right, true, and virtuous. Yet, therein lies the problem. It seems, at least superficially, to take away from the Gospel to urge God's people to good works. Perhaps more importantly, it steps on toes.
The Formula of Concord says:
Therefore, in this life, because of the desires of the flesh, the faithful, elect, reborn children of God need not only the law’s daily instruction and admonition, its warning and threatening. Often they also need its punishments, so that they may be incited by them and follow God’s Spirit, as it is written, ‘It is good for me that I was humbled, so that I might learn your statutes’ [Ps. 119:71]. And again, ‘I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified’ [1 Cor. 9:17]. And again, ‘If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, you are illegitimate and not his children’ [Heb. 12:8].How then shall we live? It is a joyful affirmation that God has in Christ accomplished all things for us and our salvation and yet the question lingers -- so, how then does the Christian live in response to God's grace and baptismal gift? That is what this debate is all about. How then shall we live out the baptismal grace and gift we have been given in Christ Jesus? And that is every bit as much of the preacher's task as proclaiming that the wages of sin is death and the free gift of God in Christ is everlasting life.
I must admit that the beginning of my preaching career I found it easier to skirt the issue than face it. Yet, I found, as probably most of my hearers did, that the proclamation of this Gospel alone was not urging me toward or defining for me the shape of the Christian life that follows from God's saving gift. I confess that I need to hear the urging of the Law and need to be encouraged to good works. I need to be encouraged to struggle against sin and fight against the dominion of the devil, the world, and my own sinful self. I am not who I was but neither am I yet who I shall be. And right now there is a battle going on within me -- not the easy battle between me and the world but the more personal and difficult battle within me, between the dying old man who refuses to leave without a fight and the new person created in Christ Jesus for good works. I am certainly no better at this than St. Paul: So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Romans 7:21-23 ESV)
This is NOT a question of the Gospel being inadequate but rather how God works to accomplish His will and purpose. It is rather about using the full language of Scripture to confront our sins and call us to repentance. It is about using the full language of Scripture to exhort, encourage, and instruct the forgiven sinner to live the new life given him in his baptism, reflected in new obedience and good works. For the Lutheran preacher, we use both ways of addressing the Christian because both ways are addressed by the Holy Spirit in God's Word.
This topic is not theoretical in the least but profoundly practical and urgent. Brothers, if we cannot discuss this, we cannot discuss anything. So I suggest we discuss this. At our winkels, at district pastoral conferences, and informally. The more the better. Searching the Scriptures and reading again our own Confessions. And I am confident we will be better off for it.
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
What do you need to survive? Luther says we need: “food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, and the like.” If you’d ask a teenager, they may add a cell phone to this list. We need many things to survive; we need food, clothing, shelter, and relationships, but there’s one thing that’s foundational to life. It’s so basic that if we don’t have it we’d quickly die...and that’s water.
We need water to survive. If we don’t get it, if we don’t drink enough of it, we become dehydrated and die. This great need for water is seen in our readings today.
The Israelites needed water. They were in the desert, walking in the heat of the sun, on their way to the Promised Land, and they made camp at Rephidim. Most of the time you camp where there’s water that you can drink, but there wasn’t any water there. God had led His people to a place that had no drinking water.
Quickly the people grew thirsty and agitated. They complained and quarreled against Moses and God. They came to Moses demanding him to give them water, but what was he supposed to do, there wasn’t any water to give. The people grumbled saying, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Ex 17:3). The people complained and wished they were back in Egypt. They would’ve rather been slaves in Egypt than thirsty in the desert. They were so upset with Moses that they were even ready to stone him, to kill him.
So Moses cried out to the LORD, asking what he should do; and the Lord told him. Moses was to take his staff, go before the elders of the people of Israel and strike the rock at Horeb. God told Moses to go and hit a rock with stick, and when he did, water flowed from that rock. God provided the thing that His people needed, just as He said He would.
The people of Israel were upset, they accused God of abandoning them in the desert, even though all of God’s actions showed otherwise. God mightily freed them from slavery in Egypt, leading them to safety across the Red Sea on dry ground, and He promised to take care of them on their journey to the Promised Land, and He kept that promise. Just two chapters before this, He made bitter water sweet so the people could drink it. And then in the next chapter, God gave the people bread from heaven, manna to eat when they had no food. Did the Israelites forget these might acts? Probably not. Even though they saw God’s miraculous care for them, they still grumbled against Him when they were thirsty because that’s what we do.
We grumble against God when we don’t get what we need, or when we don’t get what we think we need. “It’s not fair that I have to battle cancer. God should give me a miraculous healing because I’ve lived a life full of good works.” “I’m a faithful Christian who goes to church every Sunday, I shouldn’t have to deal with marital problems.” “I shouldn’t have to struggle with finances, to pay the bills and keep a full pantry because I believe in Christ for salvation.”
We think we deserve a care free, struggle free life. We want an easy life, a prosperous one. We want God to give us the things we want, the things that we think will give us an easy, struggle free, enjoyable life. Our desire is for God to give us the immediate things of this earthly life rather than the eternal things of everlasting life. Our minds are focused on this life. This is what we think about the most. This is what the woman at the well was concerned with.
Jesus was in a town of Samaria, and tired from His travels, He sat down near a well about the sixth hour, noon by our clocks. There He met a woman who came to the well to draw water, because she needed water. Jesus spoke to her, asking for a drink. The woman was surprised because Jews didn’t interact with Samaritans. She asked Jesus why He spoke to her. Jesus’ response was somewhat strange. He said, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink;’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (Jn 4:10). Hearing this, the woman was confused. How was Jesus going to give her water when He had no way to get water from the well, and what was this living water any ways? Jesus continued, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:13-14).
Hearing this the woman wanted the water that Jesus spoke of because she was thinking about the water she needed for her earthly life. How great would it be to never be thirsty again, to never need water again? But this isn’t the water Christ was speaking of.
The water we need for this earthly life, the H2O required to keep our bodies going doesn’t give us everlasting life. Even if we drank 8 glasses of it a day, at some point we’ll still die because of our sin. What we need is a water that washes away our sin. We need water from a well of salvation that’s deeper than our sin. We need the water that always flows from the rock of salvation. We need the living water of Christ and faith in Him.
You’ve heard me say before that all of the Bible is about Jesus. It’s all about Him, it all points to His saving sacrifice on the cross, and today’s readings are no different.
Jesus is the well of salvation, He’s the rock that was struck. He was struck on the cross at the sixth hour, at the very same time He told the Samaritan woman about the living water that He gives. At noon, our Lord was led away to Golgotha, and on that hill He was crucified, He died for the ungodly, for us, while we were still sinners, while we still complain and grumble against God, just as the Israelites did. Christ Jesus died for you so that you might be forgiven, cleansed with the blood and the water that flowed from His body.
When the Roman soldier pierced Christ’s side with a spear, blood and water flowed. The water flows into the font where you’re baptized into the Triune name, where your sins are washed away, where you are connected to Christ in His death and resurrection, where the Holy Spirit gives you faith, faith that trusts and holds on to Jesus for salvation. Christ’s blood flows into the cup of His Holy Supper, where you eat and drink your Savior’s body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins, where you received that forgiveness, and where God strengthens and nourishes the gift of faith He’s given you.
In these Sacraments, and in the Word of God read and preached, you receive the Holy Spirit and the faith He creates. You receive the spring of living water that gathers and pools and wells up inside of you, and you receive everlasting life, a life that will continue even though you die.
You’re justified by faith and you’ve been given peace in Christ Jesus. Through Him you’ve been granted God’s grace and in faith you live in that grace, rejoicing in the hope of God’s glory, in the glory of His mercy and everlasting life. Because of this confident hope in that everlasting life you also can rejoice in your sufferings, in the struggles of this life. When you’re battling cancer, when there’s strife in your relationships, when the bills are greater than your bank balance, in faith, you can still rejoice because your Savior has given you what you need: the living water of everlasting life. And absolutely nothing can take that gift away from you.
We need water to live. Without it, we’d die. But the water of this earth can’t give us everlasting life, because it isn’t living water. Only Christ gives this water. This is the water that flowed from His side, this is the water of Baptism. With this water you won’t die. With this living water you have everlasting life. In Jesus name...Amen.
Note -- I am NOT indicting any one Lutheran university or suggesting that we simply fold our hand and get out of the college business. I am NOT blaming any one person or suggesting that this is a lost cause. I am raising honest questions.
Let us just say that for the sake of the church and the world, a Lutheran university should be obviously Lutheran, that a Christian university should be obviously Christian. Let us just say that this is NOT primarily represented by the complexion of the students but of the faculty and of the manner in which that university offers its various programs of study. Let us just say for the sake of the church and the world, this Lutheran university should be different from other universities and not a wannabe or follower of the lead of "successful" state and private schools without a Lutheran identity. Let us just say for the sake of the church and the world that a Lutheran university ought to offer a real diversity to the student -- one reflected not simply or even primarily in the flavors found in the faculty or students or how current its degree and study programs are but one that offers a distinctly Christian and Lutheran perspective against the world, the move of culture, and the trend of academia. Let us just say that for the sake of the church and the world, such a Lutheran university might not offer the breadth of other schools or even desire to offer such but rather be more narrow in perspective and more nuanced in their catalog of degrees and programs. Let us just say that for the sake of the church and the world, such a Lutheran university ought to be more backward thinking in terms of the weight given to truth and value and value far less novelty, newness, and trend in education (thinking here of the classics and objective truth over the foment of change that makes one wonder if there is truth anymore). Let us just say that for the sake of the church and the world, such a Lutheran university (if one might survive in the landscape of what passes for university education today -- and I think it would) ought to present a witness that is unequivocal and unchanging in the midst of an increasingly skeptical academic world. Let us just say that for the sake of the church and the world, such a Lutheran university would insist that the school lead and not the loudest students on campus, valuing order highly and promoting respect for the institutions, thinkers, teachers, and wisdom of the past that has stood the test of time. Let us just say that for the sake of the church and the world, Scripture will not simply be consigned to mottoes or legacy statements of a school's heritage or chapel times, but integrated into the curriculum so that the students grows in awe and wonder of God's great creation as well as appreciation for His saving acts in Christ.
Okay. . . shoot me down.
Monday, March 20, 2017
In the midst of all of this, I read an article by Anthony Esolen (always a good read) -- something similar he had written on before in Out of the Ashes. It was a profound indictment of the exchange of art and beauty for functionality (when did that become a word, anyway). If you have a WSJ subscription, you can read it here. If not, you may have to be content with a few quotes below.
On the choices made by churches in the 1960s with regard to liturgy, hymnody, art, music, and architecture:
The great iconoclasm of the 1960s buried much of Christianity’s best art and music.
I have seen, in Catholic churches, minimalist Stations of the Cross that hardly can be recognized as depictions of the Passion. I have seen crosses that look as if a modernist Jesus were flying with wings outspread, like a theological pterodactyl. I have seen the Eucharist relegated to what looks like a broom closet. I have seen a baptismal font that bubbles. I have seen beautifully tiled floors, with intricate cruciform patterns, covered over with plush red carpet.
I have heard for decades effeminate “hymns” with the structure and melody of off-Broadway show tunes. I have read hymn texts altered so as to obliterate references to God with the personal pronoun “He.” This music would not be acceptable for a jingle to sell jelly doughnuts on television.
I have seen and heard enough. We must get rid of everything ugly and stupid from our churches, most of it visited upon them since the great iconoclasm of the 1960s. What’s needed is genuine art that stirs the imagination and pleases the eye, that entices the soul with beauty before a single word of a sermon is uttered.
Let me use an analogy. I am involved in the restoration of an old home that for more than 100 years served as the rectory of a Catholic parish in Nova Scotia. One of the first things we did was to tear out carpeting that had gotten dingy and moldy. Beneath lay plywood and linoleum. And underneath that?
We found in most of the rooms oak and maple floors, with three-inch-wide strips laid in handsome patterns, squares enclosing diagonals, and a large diamond set in the center of the original parlor. The craftsmanship was impressive, the execution precise. Other floors had large planks of seasoned hemlock, which absorbs moisture from the air and grows tougher from it. The hemlock is as old as the home’s foundation.
This kind of plywood covers beauty everywhere in today’s churches. You are not only walking on it. You are looking at plywood on the walls, hearing plywood from the pulpit, and singing plywood instead of hymns.
The first thing we can do to return beauty to our churches is to swallow chronological snobbery and find out what our ancestors, even those who could not read or write, achieved. I am speaking about more than the fine craftsmanship of well-turned balusters and newels, though we should desire that too. […]
Today, the word of God is proclaimed in translations that have all the charm and wonder of a corporate memorandum. Must ordinary people be fed the drab and insipid? The politically correct—another thing thrust upon people by their ecclesiastical betters—is always ugly. Get rid of it, period, no excuses, no exceptions. What Christ hath spoken well, let man not paraphrase. Let grace in the word be one humble way in which we show our desire and our gratitude for the grace of God.Esolen is spot on. Some churches have become glorified TV studios to promote the promoter whose empire of print and influence uses worship as a director might use a sound stage. Other churches have sacrificed beauty on the altar of cheap -- solidly echoing their vote for Judas when Jesus was anointed with expensive oil and the apostle lamented that it was wasted on Jesus and could have been used for something useful. Other churches have chosen creature comforts over every aesthetic goal and created large living rooms with comfortable seating, drink holders, and lines of sight to make sure nobody misses anything of the show. Other churches have turned worship itself into an entertainment mecca in which every activity can be found to scratch the itch of people and the building showcases the best talent to fit everyone's taste. I could go on. You know it. I wish I didn't.
The end result has been a lost of the sacred, a God who is buddy more than Majesty, a church which appeals to the fragility of feelings, whims, and desires, a Biblical illiteracy which virtually insures there is no heresy anymore, and a people who have been dumbed down by the dumb stuff that passes for the things of God. We have become a stupid and ugly and vapid Christianity presuming to know better than God what is worship, better than God what is true, and better than God what is the church's mission. The devil has had his way with us simply by allowing us to pursue unabated the deity of our feelings and the god of our desires. He did not need to do much more. In the end it is Christianity which must wear the stain of our ugly, stupid, and vapid ideas and ideals. God does not need to rescue us from the Tempter but from ourselves.