Friday, January 20, 2017

As a new President is sworn in. . .

The day so many dreaded has come and a new President will be sworn in.  Since November 8, we have been daily reminded that this was not the choice of the media or the pundits and the Democrats are still trying to figure out with the media elite what caused Trump to be elected.  Could the fear of religious liberty being restricted have been the issue that stunned the insiders and brought victory to Donald Trump?

The exit polls tell a surprising story.  Trump received 81 percent of the white evangelical Christian vote and Hillary Clinton took but 16 percent. What is surprising is that Trump did far better than the squeakly clean and religious Mitt Romney or the "I am one of you" evangelical George W. Bush.  This fellow not known for his morality also over-performed among other theologically conservative voters, everyone from traditionalist Catholics to Pentecostals!. This is no small achievement for a fellow married three times, an admitted adulterer, who said he was not sure he had ever asked God to forgive him of anything!  So why would these support a candidate so different from them and their values?

Some are suggesting that the most logical answer is that they felt that their religious liberty was under assault from the liberal establishment.  They had to vote for the only candidate who appeared willing both to respect and support religious freedom. According to Sean Trende of RealClear Politics noted, since 2012:
Democrats and liberals have: booed the inclusion of God in their platform at the 2012 convention (this is disputed, but it is the perception); endorsed a regulation that would allow transgendered students to use the bathroom and locker room corresponding to their identity; attempted to force small businesses to cover drugs they believe induce abortions; attempted to force nuns to provide contraceptive coverage; forced Brendan Eich to step down as chief executive officer of Mozilla due to his opposition to marriage equality; fined a small Christian bakery over $140,000 for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding; vigorously opposed a law in Indiana that would provide protections against similar regulations – despite having overwhelmingly supported similar laws when they protected Native American religious rights – and then scoured the Indiana countryside trying to find a business that would be affected by the law before settling upon a small pizza place in the middle of nowhere and harassing the owners. In 2015, the United States solicitor general suggested that churches might lose their tax exempt status if they refused to perform same-sex marriages. In 2016, the Democratic nominee endorsed repealing the Hyde Amendment, thereby endorsing federal funding for elective abortions.
Perhaps the chickens have come home to roost.  Obama was quick to castigate those who clung their guns and religion when cultural change threatened and Clinton was quick to condemn Trump's supports as "deplorables" who should neither be tolerated or supported.  What both did not realize is that they that they were by policy as well as words marginalizing both Evangelicals and traditional  Christian groups against the impingement of religious freedom in the name of cultural progress and trendy social advocacy.  Over and over again it appeared the Democrats felt the biggest threat to America was bathroom restrictions while Americans felt more and more threats to their faith and to their ability to express that faith within the public square without intimidation or consequence.  It is certainly all the more surprising since both Obama and Clinton claim more than Christian roots, they claim to be active professing Christians (perhaps even more than could generously be assigned to Trump).

Democrats went from being the party of the working class to the party of the cultural elites whose positions threatened this very working class and their most sacred values of faith and morality.  If these were not to be tolerated, they had little choice but to vote for someone who promised not to tread upon this religious liberty.

Sounds good.  It is the real reason for the election of Trump?  I could not say.  It is certainly one of many.  Whether the cultural and political elites in America have awoken to the reality of the fears of ordinary Americans is an unfolding story.  We will see.  The more marginalized these ordinary Americans feel, the more shots across the bow they are likely to lob in an effort to allow their point of view to be heard.  This, after all, is the very purpose of democracy.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Just plain goofy. . .

According to Vatican Radio, Pope Francis said:
“About rigidity and worldliness, it was some time ago that an elderly monsignor of the curia came to me, who works, a normal man, a good man, in love with Jesus – and he told me that he had gone to buy a couple of shirts at Euroclero [the clerical clothing store] and saw a young fellow – he thinks he had not more than 25 years, or a young priest or about to become a priest – before the mirror, with a cape, large, wide, velvet, with a silver chain. He then took the Saturno [wide-brimmed clerical headgear], he put it on and looked himself over. A rigid and worldly one. And that priest – he is wise, that monsignor, very wise – was able to overcome the pain, with a line of healthy humor and added: ‘And it is said that the Church does not allow women priests!’. Thus, does the work that the priest does when he becomes a functionary ends in the ridiculous, always.”
Remember my post about little boys who grew up dressing like dad?  Remember the affection and desire of a son who wants nothing more than to grow up and be just like dad?  Now the pope switches it up a notch and suggests that there is something effeminate about a seminarian or young priest trying on vestments at a clergy store.  I can imagine well enough that Lutherans are smiling now and thinking the same thing as the pope.  Pastors who like vestments are not real men.  There is something less than manly about those who try on vestments on the way to becoming pastors.  Cause we all know that the ministry is more than vestments.

Well of course the ministry is more than vestments.  And chanting.  And ceremonies.  And a host of other things.  But it is not less than the outward vesture that says the man is a pastor (priest).  It is not less any of than these things. It is more than them all but it is not less than them.  What would we have a seminarian or pastor aspire too?  Khakis, a polo, skinny jeans, a tee shirt, a plexiglass podium, a flashy Power Point presentation, a scruffy 5 o'clock shadow or man beard, a stocking cap to cover the man bun even when it is 90 degrees outside, a warehouse with a stage, a worship band complete with drop dead gorgeous worship diva, mega screens, Starbucks in the narthex (lobby), a parking lot crew with an extended length golf cart to chauffeur them to the door. . .  You tell me what things say "the office of pastor" or "the pastoral office is the chief means through which God delivers His means of grace to His people" or "this church stuff is serious business????"

It is an easy target to suggest that a seminarian trying on vestments is full of himself, arrogant, vain, or whatever.  What does it say about the one who tells this publican/Pharisee style story?  Is the pope saying "God, I thank you that I am not like him..."  I think it says something.  It says something when a pope who believes his office as the vicar of Christ is the work of the Spirit then intervenes to say "I don't want to wear the traditional vestments; it is not my style."  Or, "I am not going to live in the papal apartment where popes have lived for hundreds of years cause that is not my style."  Or, "I love to schmooze with Lutherans and tell them doctrine is less important than good works."  I will tell you what it says, it says this pope thinks it is his office to question everyone but nobody can question him.

This Lutheran really does not care much for this current pope.  It is because he loves the photo op more than serious theology, appearance more than substance, and pleasing the world more than being faithful in doctrine and there are plenty of Lutherans just like him.  We think it is manly to say "you will never catch me in a clerical collar or wearing fancy vestments or bowing or kneeling or whatever..."  Could it just be that this is not humility at all but the greatest of arrogance and pride?  I am not going to label anyone but I offer this sobering thought.  The ministry needs more men who put themselves under the yoke and less of those who think they can define the yoke to fit what they want, think, feel, or prefer.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Makes you melancholy for old style liberalism. . .

Yes, I know it is an old joke.  But it is still funny.  The sign on the marquee of an Episcopal Church:

We welcome everyone willing to welcome anyone.*

(*The rest of you are welcome
to become Baptists or Missouri Synod Lutherans!
Okay, so you won't find this part on any marquee.  I just thought it was funny and most liberals were already thinking this way anyway...)

The rest are not welcome.  Period.  Don't bother.  Unless you have open borders, the borders are closed to you.  Unless you withhold judgment from everyone, anyone here is free to judge you.  So, unless you are agreeable to dropping all objective truth, our subjective truth is that you don't belong.

There was a day when old style liberals believed in the strength of their ideas.  They were willing to argue with those with whom they disagreed.  They sought engagement with those who held to other truths.  They were confident enough in their reasoning to believe that no reasonable person would not agree with them, if only they had a chance to talk with them.  No more, apparently. Liberalism has grown so weak it must be protected, so fragile that it cannot stand engagement with those who disagree, and so shallow that it has no arguments strong enough to withstand the public debate.  And to think, they say conservatives are narrow minded, weak, and fearful!  In my mind the surest sign of a weak position is the fear to debate with someone who disagrees and the desire to prevent those who disagree from having a chance at the microphone.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Reading through the stack. . .

Christmas, well, actually, post Christmas, has provided a chance to read down the stack of things set aside for, well, post Christmas reading pleasure.  I am not sure how much pleasure there is in what I am reading.  Some of it is rather, uh, disheartening.

In the Forum Letter for December, Editor Richard Johnson reports that way back in October the President of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, Robin Steinke, announced that the seminary was making some changes.  These are not just changes.  According to Pres. Steinke, in order to better accomodate the needs of our community they are no longer holding chapel five days a week.  She has all the right reasons for justifying this change -- students living and working off campus, the distance learning programs of the school whose students are not even close to campus, and, perhaps one unspoken but still true reason, attendance is down.  She wrote that it did not make sense to hold chapel five days a week."

Editor Johnson rightly called attention to the things in that announcement that just don't seem right -- like the fact that chapel makes sense or is supposed to make sense.  I concur.  I am pretty sure that nearly everyone in my parish would agree that church does not make sense (me, too!) but that making sense is not even on the radar of reasons why we have it.  The compelling reason for worship is not the need or the reasonableness of it or even if people want or like it.  No, the compelling reason is the will and command of God to gather His people (even if only 2-3) and to bestow upon them the riches of His grace in the Word read and preached and the Sacraments administered according to His own design.  This is what compels us to worship.  God is there.  The Lord is bestowing His gifts.  In the means of grace, we meet the incarnate Savior who saves us.  That ought to be enough.

To be fair, worship is an incredible bother on our schedules.  Perhaps that is why a typical Lutheran only sees 1 of 5 to 4 of 10 who are "members" there on a given Sunday morning.  Why, really, Sunday morning is the only time for soccer, grocery shopping, catching up on TV, sleeping in, being on Facebook, etc...   Why interrupt your busy schedule of work, leisure, and play for something as boring, useless, senseless, and worthless as worship?  Right?!?

Lest we Missourians sit smugly and snicker, I think the Seminary in St. Louis set up a chapel without chapel a few years ago -- a scheduled day for spiritual contemplation without leaving bedroom, workroom, kitchen, or dining hall.  I know they caught some flack for that.  I am pretty sure that in response to the same idea, Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, did the "sensible" thing of setting up another worship opportunity, or, ah, chapel.  A reasonable response to declining attendance or interest, right?  Goes to show you.  CTS is way out there.

Finally, Luther Seminary reported that since chapel is no longer scheduled for 5 times a week (how often exactly IS it scheduled?), they surely would not need an administrative assistant in the seminary pastor's office.  Which come about the same time the seminary pastor left because her call and the evolving position don't align well.  Which really makes it easier not to have chapel.  Ah, the Lord works in mysterious ways!  What else will the 590 students do with that 30 minutes a day!

PS. . . Maybe they will soon be selling off the organ and chapel appointments at Luther Sem. . . meditation rooms don't need all that clutter.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Lamb of God. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 2A preached on Sunday, January 15, 2017.

Growing up we watched Lambchops the puppet and thought of lambs as pets or cartoon characters. Lambs were sweet and cuddly.  But that is not how Jews thought of lambs.  For the faithful Jew, the lamb was no pet but the animal of sacrifice whose blood was shed in the Temple for the forgiveness of sins and whose flesh was the food of the Passover.  This was no sweet and cuddly pet but a lamb made ugly with the sins of the people, bled so that this blood might cleanse the worst sinner.  Lambs were born to die.

Jesus came not as a pet to be cuddled and adored but as the perfectly white Lamb of God on whom the sins of the world would hang.  He was absolutely holy, pure, righteous, without spot or blemish but He was not born to stay that way.  He was born to bleed, to suffer, and to die.  When John named Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world nobody listening mistook Jesus for a pet. Like the mom who dresses up the toddler in white, it was not to last.  This was no accident but the very reason for His coming, the purpose for His incarnation, and the destiny that awaited Him in the waters of His baptism and in the suffering of the cross.

Behold the Lamb of God, John cried out for all who would hear.  Jesus is the Lamb of God like no other lambs before Him.  He was holy, righteous, and pure as no son of man had ever been since the fall in the Garden of Eden.  He was born without sin to confess, without disobedience to cause Him guilt, and without the shame of unrighteousness.  No flesh and blood had ever been born like Jesus and none would ever be born like Him again.

He was the Lamb of God but not for the admiration of the adoring or as an example for the guilty to follow or as a coach to encourage the sinners to try harder in their battle against sin.  No, He was the Lamb of God to take upon His own shoulders the burden none of us could carry and to wear that weight all the way to the cross.  He was the Lamb of God not for a world who wanted Him but for a world so corrupted by sin they did not recognize Him and refused to believe they needed His help.
Jesus was not born for us to love but because He loved us when we did not know enough to love Him.  He came not to be the toy of our emotions or the example of what we could do if we tried harder.  He was incarnate not to rescue our hopes and dreams but to save us from the sin that stained every aspect of our lives and the death that waited for every one, sooner or later.  The Gospel is not about a people who need a little help or inspiration to find a happy life.  No, the Gospel is about sin and death and a people so captive to sin's darkness that they don't even get it – much less Him.

It was in the first blood of circumcision that Jesus gave the hint of what awaited Him on Calvary.  It was in the rage of Herod and the death of the Holy Innocents that the stakes of everything were revealed.  It was in the Temple where the 12 year old Jesus waited with the scribes, teachers, and elders while His family headed home that He revealed whose business He was here to do.  It was in the dirty water of the Jordan River that His holiness began to be stained by the sin and dirt of every sinner in all the world.  It was in the words of John that the identity of Jesus was clear – all the lambs whose blood had been shed looked forward to Him whose blood had the power to cleanse the world from sin.

Jesus is the prophet who spoke through the mouths of men so long ago and in the Word made flesh fulfilled their words.  Jesus is the priest who sacrifices and who is Himself the sacrificial Lamb to be offered not for the good but for the bad, not for the noble but for the shameful, not for the righteous but for the sinner.  And Jesus is King of a Kingdom the likes of which this world has never seen.  He is the King who serves His people with His own suffering and death and makes them into a royal priesthood and a kingly people in which He will display His glory.

You know what the problem is?  We treat Jesus like He is a cuddly pet, someone for us to love and play with.  We treat Jesus like He is a lifecoach to help us achieve our own hopes and dreams.  We treat Jesus like He is a teacher to show us how to do for ourselves and reach our goals.  We treat Jesus like He is an idea to be debated or a feeling to be felt or a fact to be believed. 
But Jesus is no symbol, no figment of our imagination, no pet, and no mere idea.  Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

We treat Jesus as if He were not real but the truth is that none of the lambs who went before Him were real.  Despite all the bleating voices and bleeding bodies, they were not real.  They were mere symbols awaiting the blood that can afford to pay for sin, the blood strong enough to cleanse sinners, and the life holy enough to satisfy the gaze of God.  The dreams of a generation of generations has now been made flesh for us and the whole world.

We come to Church and we treat it all as if it were merely an act – pastors who sing what they could say, who wear costumes nobody else wears, who bow and genuflect and kneel as if it really meant something, who preach about irrelevant things, and who feed you bread you can hardly believe is real bread much less the body of Christ.  It all seems like this is an act and we are all merely playing a part.

How real is all of this against the big realities of our daily lives?  What does all of this have to do with the big realities and great problems of bills that must be paid, marriages that do not live up to our dreams, jobs that do not pay us what we are worth, children who do not do what we tell them, of bodies that wear out until just waking up is filled with aches and pains, or dreams we postpone because we cannot afford them?  We think that these are the real problems we face and these are the troubles of this mortal life we need to be fixed.  What does the Lamb of God offer us for these?

I am here to tell you that the biggest problem in your life is sin and the destiny that awaits you is an eternity of death and that this is why Christ came, why He was born in our flesh and blood, why He was baptized into our sin, why He suffered in our place, why He died our death, and why He rose to give us undeserving sinners the new and everlasting lives none of us deserve.

Church is the most real thing of all in life because it is here that you receive Christ, the real Lamb of God for the forgiveness of real sins hidden here in bread with His promise and wine with His name.  All the rest of life is play acting without the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and the only way our lives are real is because we know the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world by baptism and faith.

This Lamb is the most serious and real of thing in life and what happens in Church is the most serious and real of all things - more than anything else in life! Here is sin answered, death killed, past fulfilled, and the new future written.  Jesus did not give you a lamb to comfort you but a Lamb to die for you and save you.  This Lamb is no symbol but real food for you to eat and drink so that you may live in Him forever. There is nothing more real that this Gospel, nothing you do more real than what happens in this place, and no life more real than the one Christ gave you in your baptism and in which you live through death to eternal life!  When we get it, it all changes – today, tomorrow, and forever.  Amen.

Taking Scripture at its Word does reflect in higher church attendance. . .

* Clergy in growing churches affirmed, by an overwhelming 93 percent, that Jesus rose from the dead, leaving an empty tomb, while 56 percent of clergy in declining churches agreed. Among laypeople, this divide was 83 percent vs. 67 percent.
* In growing churches, 46 percent of clergy strongly affirmed, and nearly 31 percent moderately affirmed, this statement: "Only those who believe in and follow Jesus Christ will receive eternal life." Zero pastors in declining churches affirmed that statement and 6 percent moderately agreed.
* In growing congregations, 100 percent of the clergy said it's crucial to "encourage non-Christians to become Christians," while only 50 percent of pastors in declining churches agreed.
* In declining churches, 44 percent of pastors agreed that "God performs miracles in answer to prayers," compared with 100 percent of clergy in growing congregations.
When some have tried to explain the decline in church attendance among some and the increase or stability in others using theology, the results generally find a skeptical audience (except in conservative churches).  Studies have tended to focus on factors in the larger culture are just as, if not more significant.  However, now a study has found conservative theology does have an impact upon the growth or vitality of Protestant churches and helps grow congregations.  Read Terry Mattingly here. If you have the coin, you can read the study here.

Religion that has no doctrine or doctrine that is unfounded on fact is basically a religious morality.  It works well if the desire is to improve self but it has no power to rescue the broken or give hope to the despairing or anchor those adrift.  Even less does religious moralism have power to address death and the meaning of life.  Liberal churches have become social advocacy groups.  They believe in a spiritual character to life but do not invest their faith in doctrine that does not change.  They believe generally in tolerance and trying to be a good person but these definitions change as new ideas and new agendas trend in and out.  But to a people captive to guilt or shame, there is little hope offered accept acceptance of that which causes the guilt and shame.  And to a people in the shadow of death, there is only the brief light of life to give comfort or consolation.

There are those (often Boomers) who insist that faith cannot contradict the sacred tenets of science, that reason must define what can or should be believed, and that truth is sufficiently vague or dispersed so that no truth is objective or eternal.  But this generation has given birth to a generation caught in the drift of a world going seemingly nowhere and has found the limitations of pleasure and technology (as good as they are).  This generation longs for something more.  Interestingly, they have absorbed enough of their Boomer parents' morality so that they find it hard to condemn anyone and yet they have resisted on issues where choice violates the sacred place of life.  A church which appeals to Boomers in search of affirmation for their diverse and varied choices will not appeal to their children in search of the yesterday, today, and forever the same truth. 

In the end, what good is a god who is impotent, whose stories are not real, and whose hope is a good feeling.  I have a good feeling every time I approach a bar with a buffet but later that night the good feeling is displaced by the realities of life -- a gut ache, a head ache, and a hangover.  One day, perhaps, the Boomers will find that their churches that believe all things a little and nothing too ardently will find a gut ache, head ache, and hangover that cries out for the truth that saves and for the Savior who is truth embodied.