Thursday, April 17, 2014

The stuff of legend or the ordinary cup of the Church. . .

Read it here: Spanish historians claim to have found Holy Grail – European News | Latest News from Across Europe | The Irish Times – Fri, Mar 28, 2014:
It has been the subject of theological and historical argument for centuries, but Spanish historians now claim to have tracked down the Holy Chalice, the cup from which Christ was supposed to have drunk during his last supper. They believe the 2,000-year-old vessel is in a church in León, in northern Spain.
Margarita Torres and José Ortega del Río have spent three years researching the history of the chalice and, on Wednesday, presented in León a co-written book, Los Reyes del Grial (The Kings of the Grail), containing their findings.
The onyx chalice itself, they explain, is contained within another, antique cup known as the Chalice of Doña Urruca, which sits in León’s basilica of Saint Isidore. The historians say it has been there since the 11th century.
“This is a very important discovery because it helps solve a big puzzle,” Ms Torres told The Irish Times . “We believe this could be start of a wonderful stage of research.”
She said the duo had initially been researching the history of some Islamic remains in the Saint Isidore basilica. However, their discovery of two medieval Egyptian documents which mentioned the chalice of Christ caused them to change course.
Those parchments told of how Muslims took the sacred cup from the Christian community in Jerusalem to Cairo. It was then given to an emir in Denia, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, in return for help he gave to Egyptians who were suffering a famine.  During medieval times, much of Spain was under Muslim rule, but the cup subsequently came into the possession of Christian King Ferdinand I of Castile.
The historians’ research has been backed up by a scientific dating process which estimates that the cup in question was made between 200 BC and 100 AD.  Mr Torres and Mr del Río admit that the first 400 years of the chalice’s history remain something of a mystery and they cannot say for sure whether this chalice ever actually touched Christ’s lips.  However, they insist there is no doubt that this is the cup that the early Christians revered as the chalice used at the last supper.
“The only chalice that could be considered the chalice of Christ is that which made the journey to Cairo and then from Cairo to León – and that is this chalice,” said Ms Torres, who teaches medieval history at the University of León.
You can also read about it in this story:
Made of agate, gold and onyx and encrusted with precious stones, the object in León is formed by two goblets joined together, with one turned up, the other down.  It has been known until now as the goblet of the Infanta Doña Urraca, daughter of Fernando I, King of León from 1037 to 1065.
The two historians — León University medieval history lecturer Margarita Torres and art historian José Manuel Ortega del Rio — identified it as the grail in their book, “Kings of the Grail,” published last week.  They said two Egyptian parchments they found in 2011 at Cairo’s University of al-Azhar set them on a three-year investigation. Their studies led them to identify the upper part of the princess’s goblet, made of agate and missing a fragment as described in the parchments, as the grail — one of the most prized relics in Christianity.

My Comments:

THE cup Christ used is not nearly as significant as the cup He uses NOW -- where He still speaks His Word and bread and wine become His body and blood in the greatest mystery since the incarnation.  He does this weekdays and Sundays, wherever God's baptized people gather around His Word and Table.  The object of our pursuit is not some historical artifact with a good or questionable provenance.  The object of our pursuit is the cup where still we drink His blood shed for us and for many for the forgiveness of our sins.  Interest does not displace faith.  The greater cup is not the one Christ used but the one He uses still. . . here, and wherever He feeds His people His flesh and gives them to drink of His blood.

Good Theater is not Good Liturgy. . .

There is perhaps no time of year more prone to the substitution of theater for liturgy than during Holy Week.  Holy Week is filled with drama but it is not the kind you need to manufacture.  It is already there in the text.  The richness of the story is drama and theater enough.  We do not need creative clergy to add to it (what ends up being a distraction).

The liturgy of Holy Thursday already has its own theater.  From the individual absolution to the stripping of the altar while Psalm 22 is read, the drama of this day lies in the Word itself.  What we do is attendant to that Word and not in place of it.

Good Friday is not celebrated best by the re-creation of the first flogging, crucifixion, suffering, death, and burial but by the telling of the whole story faithfully, taking care not to dramatize the text and therefore draw more attention to the reader than the reading.  The starkness of a chancel emptied of its appointments and a simple cross as the backdrop to the story is its own theater and does not require us to add to it.  If you want to use the strepitus (loud noise) fine but don't overdo it.  Let the Word be the loudest noise.  The story of God's redemption finding its climax in the suffering and death of His incarnate Son for the sake of the whole world is the real drama.  If we need to add to it to keep the people's attention, something is terribly wrong.

Holy Saturday is likewise a liturgy filled with plenty of ceremony and symbolism.  The great temptation is to over dramatize it for effect but the effect of our el dramatico style is to detract from and diminish the story of God's redemptive actions that frame the might act of deliverance He accomplished through His Son.

Everyone knows Shakespeare’s famous “All The World’s a Stage” line from As You Like It. There the great Bard reminds us that life seems but a large play in which we are players who trade roles depending on the circumstances of our lives.  That is an apt description of life after the fall in which the truth is something we fear to address.  But not in the events of Holy Week.  The chancel is not a stage and we are not the actors.  The Word of the Lord is the story and Christ its center.  Let the cross be the focus.  Take care, dear friends, for our drama has no place in the unfolding story of our salvation.  Let it be Christ's story and His stage.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Fish Out of Water. . .

In a letter to his youngest son, Christopher, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, "I imagine the fish out of water is the only fish to have an inkling of water.”  It is one of the small but profound gems of wisdom from the likes of Tolkien (and, of course, his friend C. S. Lewis).  Tolkien found himself a man born out of time -- out of step with the world around him.  He was a romantic in an age of war and brutality the likes the world had never seen before.  He was chivalrous in an age with the beginnings of feminism and the decline of propriety.  He was modest in an age of immodesty.  I have often expressed the same thought.

There is a part of me that truly does believe that not much good music has come after the nineteenth century (at least not in comparison to that which came before, especially in an era of Pachelbel, Bach, Schuetz, etc...).  There is a part of me that truly does wish I live in the era of Lutheranism that Bach knew in Leipzig or sometime prior to Lutheranism's discomfort with its own Confessions and confessional practice.  I am uncomfortable not by the myriad of choices available on cable TV but that we have used them so poorly that I settle for watching Gold Rush or Love It or List It when I am too tired to read.  I despair of the wonderful potential of the internet but we find ourselves on Facebook telling everyone we got gas after eating out or on YouTube watching someone make a fool of themselves -- again.

Christians must feel very much like a fish out of water in an age of gay marriage, cohabitation, the disdain of children, and the promotion of self-indulgence on nearly every level.  Christians must feel like a fish out of water when the media delights in playing upon every foible and failing of religious, political, and cultural leaders and they seem so apt to fall.  Christian must feel like a fish out of water when they find empty pews on Sunday morning and empty Sunday school classrooms, too.  We want progress -- make that success!  We want to become the religious Wal-Marts of the world and so many churches seem willing to sell their souls to anyone who will purchase them as they pursue their dream of popularity.

But Tolkien reminds us that only a fish out of water knows what he is missing.  It is a helpful thought.  We may feel out of place in our world but we Christians are not out of place.  God has placed us right where we are because we know what the world is missing in the hope that became flesh and the love incarnate in Jesus Christ.  God has put us in this time and in this place for the specific cause of His kingdom.  We do not need to see the outcome to know what it is -- Christ's victory is already a done deal from the cross and empty tomb and we are who live in Him share in His eternal victory by God's very promise and design.  The Church is not simply to be a refuge where we go to get away from the world running out of control away from God.  It is the place where we are strengthened for service and renewed for the work of the Kingdom that endures forever and will not go unnoticed by the eyes of God on the day when all are called to account.

We feel out of place only because we know more than what we see or experience around us.  We know God in Christ by the power of the Spirit.  We know that heaven and earth may pass away but the Word of the Lord endures forever.  We know that man does not live by bread alone but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.  We know that the fear of the Lord (read that faith and trust) is the beginning of wisdom.  We know these things by grace through faith and this wondrous week recalling the Palm Sunday welcome, the Holy Thursday meal, the Good Friday suffering and death, and the Easter resurrection only reminds us that what we see is not all that is.  Faith sees with different eyes a reality even more real than what our physical eyes behold.  Do not lose heart.  Not for you.  Not for your family.  Not for your congregation and church.  If God is for us, who can be against us?  Surely not Christ who died for us and was raised for our justification.  He has all things and if we have Him (as He has promised), do we not have all things in Him?  No, we may feel like fish out of water but that is only because we know the living water that  bestows everlasting life.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The hour has come. . .

Sermon preached on Passion Sunday, Lent 6A, on Sunday, April 13, 2014.

     Time after time Jesus has said "not yet... My hour has not yet come..."  How many times they sought to arrest Him but Jesus slipped away...  But not today.  Now the day is here, the hour is at hand.  Now is the time for the Son of Man to be glorified. . . but what kind of glory?
    Does Jesus come as earthly kings in regal splendor?  Does He come in royal attire with royal entourage?  Does He come to impress us with His greatness?   Does He come to rule over the world and make for a great nation and kingdom to be feared?  Does He come to claim Caesar's place or kingly throne?
    Does Jesus come as rebel to organize a rebellion against the earthly authorities?  Does He come to establish a new and ideal world for us?  Does He come to overturn the injustices and unfairness of our world and give us what we deserve?  Is He part super hero and part freedom fighter?
    Or does He come as Savior and Redeemer, as the One who is born for the glory of suffering and to die for sinners like you and I?  Does He come to disown us or to claim for Himself the wretched ruins of our lost lives?  Does He come as the holy man too good for the rest of us or as the sin bearer to claim our sins as His own and then to cover us with His own righteousness?
    How best does He show His glory?  It is hidden in the King of Mercy who rides a donkey to a cross?   Is it hidden in the anguish of our pain and the agony of our suffering?  Is it hidden in the seeming defeat of death and the cold emptiness of the grave?
    What kind of glory does He reveal to us in this hour?  Does Jesus come to claim our death so that we might receive His life – a gift we do not deserve and dare not claim?  Does Jesus come to point at us the unbending finger of the Law or to keep the Law for us?  Does Jesus come to wield Scripture as a weapon or to fulfill the prophet's word and the ancient promise of the Father in Eden?  Does He come to demand restitution from us or to meet us in repentance, to take what is ours and to give us what is His?  Does He come for respect or looking for our trust?
    Does He come to wash us in water that cleanses us from sin?  Does He come to feed us bread that makes us live without hunger and the cup that quenches all our thirst?  Does He come to speak the absolving word that clears our conscience and consoles our pain?
    Jesus said this moment was coming.  Some of the disciples refused to hear.  Peter rejected the future Jesus said was coming.  But when it came, they all ran.  None of them were ready for it.  Are you?
    They were not ready.  Not the crowds waving palms and shouting hosannas...  Not the disciples whose hearts were broken thinking it was all over... Not the judges who condemned Him in their kangaroo courts as if He was but a mess to be cleaned up... Not Pilate whose word finally sent Him to death...  Not the soldiers who carried out the order...  Not the crowds who called for His crucifixion and then stood in pale shock at the brutal death...
    What about you?  Are you ready for His coming?  Do you see Him as He is or as you fear Him or want Him to be?  Do you love the glory He revealed in the cross or do you wish for some thing more or something different from Him.  We have watched His march to the cross, witnessed His embrace of our sin and lost condition, and heard how He met all our enemies and even  death for us? 
    Look and see but not with a mind seeking reason or a self-righteous heart seeking justice.  No, look and see with faith that the day has come and it is mercy's day for you and me.  It is the glory of the cross that compels us and the glory of the cross that saves us.  This glory and none other.   This is the glory of the Father that He sent His one and only Son to suffer and die that we might live through Him.  Lord, keep us in this faith always.

The Performative Word

We have come to think of God's Word as something which requires something from us for it to effect anything.  So we presume that the Word requires hearing in order for it to be effective, a response from us which is the evidence of the Word's power.  So, we must appreciate it and apply it, or, perhaps, enjoy it is a more modern way of putting things.  The success of the Word depends upon us -- how we receive it and what we do in response to it.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

God's Word does not hover in the air awaiting something from us.  His Word is performative.  We see that especially in the Sacraments.  His Word is performative -- with water it is baptism, the means through which we are united with Christ into His death and resurrection or with bread and wine and the body and blood are present in and with the bread and wine so that we might receive Christ and His gifts.

It would seem that much of the to do about worship proceeds from the idea that we must complete that Word with some sort of reaction or response on our part.  So the design of what happens on Sunday morning becomes a tool to ensure just that reaction or response.  In other words, we no longer believe that God's Word bestows what it promises and sends forth the Spirit to so that the hearer may receive for his or her benefit the grace bespoken.  God's Word is not the living voice but just words whose effect and value depends upon the hearer's response, application, and use of that Word.

If this is the way we think, then the preacher is at least as important as the Word preached.  So, the preacher's task is to make the Word work, to enable that Word to transform the hearer and make a difference in his or her live.  The preacher is the key here since how he says it is at least as important as what he says.  Such a denial of the efficacy of the Word is often what is behind the kind of personalized and dramatic preaching that is so lauded among many.  Without confidence in the performative character of that Word, the preacher is the key link to an effective reception. 

When it comes to the worship, the same thing is true.  Without faith in the Word to do what says, to bestow that of which it speaks, and to enable the faithful reception of the hearer by the power of the Spirit, what you do on Sunday morning is the key to the effectiveness of worship.  Music, drama, etc... all become tools in the toolbelt of the worship planner to design the worship service toward a specific end.  Its success is measurable in the reception of those who participate.  If they clap at the songs the worship divas sing, it is a sure sign that they have been moved by them.  If there is little or no response, it is a sure sign something went wrong.

One of the hardest things for Lutherans to get a handle on is that preaching and liturgy begin from the premise that God's Word is performative -- it acts and something happens whether or not we see it, measure it, or appreciate it.  His Word does not depend upon us to be effective.  It is the viva vox Jesu through which God does His bidding, to which His Spirit is tied, by which His gifts and grace are bestowed, and because of which we are enabled to respond.  The goal of the preacher is not to compete with this Word but for the Word to use the full resources of the preacher in its divinely assigned goal and purpose.  The goal of the liturgy is to serve this Word so that the focus remains upon Jesus (which the liturgy does by literally praying this Word of the Lord -- of which the liturgy is mostly sung and spoken Scripture).

The anecdote of Abraham Heschel is appropriate here.  When a man complained about the liturgy not praying for what he wanted, Heschel responds that liturgy teaches us what to pray for.  In other words, we do not direct the liturgy anymore than we direct God.  The liturgy directs us because of the performative Word.  We do not know what to pray for. It is the liturgy that teaches us what to pray for.  The liturgy not only embodies our prayers but it teaches us what to pray for.

In the same way the preacher does not approach the sermon with the question "what shall I preach today?"  No, there is not a question here to be answer.  Rather, the preacher approaches the Word of the Lord with the confidence that it is performative, efficacious, and effective.  The issue is not what to preach but what does the Word of the Lord say and to speak that Word faithfully from the pulpit to the lives of the hearers in such way that the Word remains the center of it all.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Your Taste In Art Says More Than You Imagine. . .

Press Secretary Jay Carney had a puff piece in the Washingtonian magazine, complete with pictures. Pictures, it seems that may have revealed more than the words of the article itself.  You judge.

Read the article here.  It is indeed a balancing act to claim the name American, to wear the badge of the Democratic Party, to work for President Obama, and have a deep affection for old Soviet era posters lauding communism.  So here are Carney's family and the artwork appreciated by the family.

Now you know why art and architecture are so important -- they reflect our values as well as direct them.  In the Church art and architecture are not neutral but either for or against the faith.

Reprint from Mark Tooley and First Things

Reprinted from First Things online... 


How to Reach the Hip, Urban, and Socially Liberal

Outreach in the City by Mark Tooley

Bishop Rimbo is getting creative. Leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s New York diocese since 2008, Robert Alan Rimbo has seen 20 percent of his flock depart over the last decade. Now, as the Wall Street Journal reports, his churches are advertising with giant crossword puzzles in the subway and touting “interactive art projects involving dye-filled soap bubbles.” One congregation “encourages churchgoers to use paint and clay to tell personal stories and ‘unleash your theological imagination’ as part of a twice-monthly art service.”

And, yes, Bishop Rimbo will conduct his first same-sex union in June, although his “conversion” on the issue occurred long ago in the 1980s. The ELCA voted in 2009 to permit same-sex rites, and although the article doesn’t mention it, ELCA membership losses thereafter accelerated. “The younger demographic wants a religion that won’t divide,” he explains, apparently believing that same-sex unions have been broadly unifying.
Over half of New Yorkers are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and the city hosts many thriving immigrant churches, Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic, but Bishop Rimbo’s focus—at least in this profile—is on the white middle class, the traditional constituency for mainline churches. (The bishop mentions the 2009 vote on same-sex unions that persuaded several conservative Asian congregations to quit the ELCA in New York.)
There are many urban churches in New York and elsewhere successful with that group, especially the young professionals Rimbo thinks will approve of his impending same-sex union. Tim Keller of the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is famous for his Redeemer Church in Manhattan, which with its various church plants has attracted thousands of members. He remains conservative on theology and sex while admitting that many of his urban church attenders are socially liberal.

I have noticed this phenomenon in the vibrant churches of Washington, DC that attract young people. The churches, most of them founded over the last decade or so, are conservative, typically Anglican, PCA, Assemblies of God, or Reformed. Many of their young congregants, mostly new to the city and living in hip, newly gentrified neighborhoods, are socially liberal. Yet these young social liberals are not attending the dozens of theologically liberal old line Protestant churches in DC whose beautiful sanctuaries are typically half or more empty with disproportionately old congregants on Sunday morning. These churches tout their openness to same-sex marriage as the supposed siren call for youngsters, largely without effect.

Why? I conjecture that even young social liberals desiring to worship prefer churches with spiritual vitality that profess a transcendent message challenging their own worldly preferences. In other words, these young people aren’t that much different from other spiritual seekers almost everywhere who, consciously or not, cleave to a faith that demands rather than accommodates.

Reaching New Yorkers is far from impossible. In 2010 the Barna Group polling firm found that 46 percent of New York area residents reported attending worship services, up from 31 percent in 2000. Yet differences between churches, in New York and nationally, matter. The Wall Street Journal glosses over this, saying “most Protestant religions” are declining, citing “Anglicans, Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostals and Presbyterians,” which have dropped “drastically since the 1980s.”

The statement is a muddle. Old line Protestants, like Presbyterians, Methodists, [ELCA] Lutherans, and Episcopalians, have suffered steep decline since the 1960s. Pentecostals, like the Assemblies of God, continue to grow. “Anglicans,” having only emerged as a separate entity over the last decade by quitting the Episcopal Church, are growing. Southern Baptists were growing until the last decade.

So Bishop Rimbo’s crossword puzzles, dye-filled soap bubbles, and paint and clay expressionism are unlikely to revive New York Lutheranism. Ironically, there are some signs here and there that the sort of traditional Protestant liturgicalism that Lutherans once exemplified is increasingly attractive—especially to urban Evangelicals searching for theological roots deeper than those often found in generic Evangelicalism.
If Bishop Rimbo were willing to postpone his same-sex rite and experiment instead with theological orthodoxy, he might be surprised by the result. He might even preside over a Lutheran revival in New York.

Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.  Read it all here. . .

My only comment:  What he said.  Theological orthodoxy was, is, and shall be the problem for Lutheran Christianity.  The world around us is not interested in people who look nice but stand for nothing nor will folks be swayed by the same pious but empty words of tolerance we borrow from our own past and neither will they be impressed by evangelical wannabe's.  Lutherans confident of their Confessions and who practice consistent with these beliefs just may stop bleeding members and losing credibility. . . We have not tried Lutheranism in a while, before we try being Anglican look alike's or Evangelical wannabe's we might try being Lutherans again. . .

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Encouragement for Preachers

I want the palms and hosannas without the cross. . .

When I grew up and where I grew up Palm Sunday was Confirmation Day -- strategically placed so that the confirmand might actually have a shot at first communion within the reasonable wait of four or five days (we had Holy Communion on Good Friday then, an old and, from my perspective, unsalutary practice).  On Palm Sunday the church was packed with my relatives (half of them, at least, since my first cousin was also being confirmed on that day in another LCMS church in another town at the very same time). 

Some folks miss that.  I don't.  I think it a very unhealthy thing to displace our Lord's entrance into Jerusalem to make His way to the cross with the entrance of well scrubbed pubescent youth into communicant and confirmed membership of the parish.  Who rode in on Palm Sunday (now 47 years ago)?  Why little Larry in his first big boy suit ready to spit out the answers to the Catechism's questions and the Bible passages that proved him worthy of his family and his place within the family the church.  You can argue the point.  Many do argue with me.  But that is how I feel about it.

I am thinking of starting a campaign to bring back Palm Sunday, without the additional observance of Passion Sunday. Palm Sunday was always one of my favorites growing up as a preacher's kid, and it was all about the palms--and a lot of them. It was celebratory, festive, when as child I got a chance for a hands-on worship experience and a glimpse of what royalty could look like.  So begins an article in the Christian Century (now no longer publishing).  This woman is tired of the emphasis moving from the happy welcome of Jesus to the reason for that entrance (suffering and death).  Not a few Lutherans lament the Palm to Passion Sunday evolution.

But of course.  Who would not want to have a happy day of festive palms and hosannas without remembering or drawing attention to the reason for His coming?!  We all want Palm Sunday without the Passion, Holy Thursday without the betrayal, Good Friday without the suffering and death, and Holy Saturday without the grave and the waiting.  We want to hop, skip, and jump right into Easter.  Thank God the Church is there to say "wait a minute."

Wait a minute, indeed!  This was not some happy carefree day of happy palms, joyful shouts, welcome hugs, and festive dress.  Your king comes to you humble, mounted on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.  Let's be real here!  Jesus does not enter as the man of triumph but the man of humility, of sorrows, and of suffering.  He is come not for the crowd but to for the cross.  The crowd (even Peter and the disciples) wanted a happy festive day without talk of the nasty business to come.  We all do.  But Jesus will have none of it.  He is come not to receive our adulation and praise but to mount the altar of the cross and offer Himself, priest and victim, for the sins of the whole world.

Little Larry did not get it that Palm Sunday when he was confirmed.  He was hoping simply to honor his family and not screw up in front of them.  He was praying not in thanksgiving for the cross but for an easy question whose answer he had already memorized.  Maybe you do not get it either.  We cannot have Palm Sunday without the Passion.  Palm Sunday does not end with a good time being had by all.  It ends in betrayal, in suffering, and in death.  The cross is not antithetical to the story but its center and purpose.

This is why we come.  Parties happen everywhere.  The death that gives us life happened only once, in Jerusalem so long ago, amid schizophrenic crowds who shouted "Blessed is He" and "Crucified Him" all at the same time.  Parties are made up events.  The cross was planned.  Jesus ducked from death many times until He rode into Jerusalem to meet it as the One who would conquer it by dying there and so win salvation for us.  I am ever so thankful that the Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday marriage leads us to the whole picture.  It took a long time before I realized that the party was not the focus but the cross.  Once I got that about the Sunday before Easter, I began to learn the same lesson about the nature of Christian faith and life.