Sunday, August 28, 2016

A loss of shame. . .

Perhaps one of the most significant developments of the modern age is our utter lack of shame (except, of course, the enforced shame of political correctness which acts as the voice of conscience that appears to be mute in us as individuals).  Shame once defined us as much as virtue.  We could put it into religious language and call shame sin and virtue righteousness but it was not merely religion.  The common understanding of what shamed us as well as what honored us was key to the assimilation of folks from other cultures and religions.  We were able to mesh together because the common values of right and wrong, virtue and shame, righteousness and sin transcended our differences.

We may not have all practiced it, but we understood fidelity to spouse and infidelity shamed us.  It was not spoken of out loud or in mixed company but in whispers and with care to see who was listening.  Marriage between husband and wife was epitomized by the self-denial of sexual urge apart from this relationship.  Religion encouraged this but so did the state which had a vested interest in shame and virtue as well as faith.  Stable homes, good families, and moral, productive children were the ingredients to the American dream every bit as much as the pursuit of happiness.  Freedom was not license but the encouragement toward good unconstrained by fear.

One of the casualties of our modern era in addition to the common virtue of fidelity in marriage or even marriage itself is the whole idea that certain things can and should and do shame us.  Our conversation has become ever so tolerant of vulgarity.  We are content with a coarseness of language that would not have been tolerated by politeness long ago.  Some call it prudish but it was not naivete -- no, it was not that they did not know the words but the knew enough not to speak them in certain contexts.

In addition to the salty conversations that now delight in saying out loud what was once only whispered is our penchant for leaving nothing to the imagination.  I am not only speaking here of sexual images but the graphic images of violence and horror that were once suggested but left to the imagination and not to the eye.  Now we are accustomed to seeing nudity and graphic violence on TV and in the movie theater and video games thrive on these images once thought too much to be shown openly or without constraint.

Many were once prodded to become productive citizens by less than virtuous motive.  Boys became men because of their desire for love and sex.  Girls became women for some of the same reasons.  Now it seems that more and more boys are choosing a prolonged adolescence with the virtual reality of the video game and pornography over work, wife, children, family, and community.  Almost as many 18-30 year old boys who have not completed college live at home as they do with spouse or significant other.  That is a statistic few of us saw coming.  There seems to be little shame in failing to board the engine of work and responsibility and find it no big deal to be taken care of (when a generation or so ago independence and self-sufficiency were driving forces to move out).

My point in saying this is not to condemn everyone who is not old.  I will have plenty of time to do that in a few years when I retire.  It is great sport.  At this point my concern is more about the Gospel and how to speak to a people who seem to have no shame -- about anything!  The Gospel of Christ crucified presumes shame -- the shame of sin and the awareness of its death that chains down hope of the future to its terrible anchor of death.  The Gospel speaks to people who know shame, who lament their sin, and who seek not only forgiveness but new life.  What does it have to say to people who have no shame?

Sure, someone will say that this is why we preach the Law but preaching the Law to a people who have no shame sounds simply like prudes complaining that they are not free enough to indulge themselves like the people they condemn.  It only feeds the notion that the church is basically a bunch of naysayers who do not want people to be happy, to have fun, to fulfill their wants and desires, and to enjoy themselves doing so.

My point is this.  How do we speak the Gospel outside the framework of sin and shame?  I wish I had the answer.  My fear is that we in the Church are proceeding like people in the dark trying to find their way by feeling along the wall.  I am not at all suggesting that we need a strategy or program but how do we preach to people who have learned not to feel shame?  How do we speak the faith to folks who use their feelings to define everything from gender to happiness, right and wrong?  I know that the Spirit will work through the Word even when we speak awkwardly or hesitantly but I also know that we can learn to speak it better so that our speaking itself is not an impediment.

These are the kinds of things I ruminate on day and restless night.  Perhaps I need to trust God more.  I am sure I do.  But as someone who regularly preaches to the products of our modern world and who weekly teaches them, I want to be a more effective spokesman of the Gospel to those who hear it -- all ages for sure but especially to those who will replace me and my generation as we age.

I am not at all convinced that mirroring the culture or trying to duplicate the ambiance of their technological and entertainment oriented lives will do anything but render the church an orphan in the next generation.  Such is the future for those who marry the spirit of the age.  So I am not talking about redefining the church or re-imagining what it means to worship.  I want to be a more faithful and effective preacher and teacher for the sake of Christ and His cross.  In this, I expect many are in the same place I am.  So, you tell me what you think?

Friday, August 26, 2016

A House of Cards. . .

Liberalism tends to regard anything else as a weak and fragile construction of faith and piety in conflict with reason and common sense.  So the conservative is seen as someone who requires something extra to justify and bolster a faith that cannot stand on its own merits of reason and fact and science.  Think especially of those who ridicule the whole idea that God could or would create all things ex nihilo in six days or that Mary was truly Virgin Mother in fact as well as spirit or that the miracles of Jesus displaced the rules and laws of science.  How can it be?

How interesting then when one of those liberals with all the requisite credentials of academia and scholarship awakens to the fact that it is liberalism that is a house of cards, disconnected from the catholic history of Christendom, and wavering precariously on every whim of science and bowing before the altar of reason (and the idea of human progressive understanding)!

Thomas C. Oden is a is an American United Methodist theologian and religious author who was Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University from 1980 - 2004.  He is a prolific author who was once a prominent practitioner of the kind of liberal, modernist theology modern Methodism is known for.  Then something happened.  He began an exhaustive reading of the  Church Fathers and realized that his faith represented a clear disconnect with the faith they confessed.  Far from following the path of a typical liberal in discounting what he read, Oden did an about face.  He began to embrace orthodox, historical Christianity.  His story is told in A Change of Heart:  A Personal and Theological Memoir.

Oden's journey is remarkable since he began as an enthusiast of Bultmann and his demythologizing -- even writing a volume on Bultmann's ethics!  Though Oden hung out with Bultmann, Hans Gadamer, and Wolfhart Pannenberg, he was conversant with and an early proponent of a Christianizing of psychoanalysis and of group therapy within pastoral care.  Oden's popularity and influence was to suffer a severe blow when a challenge by Jewish historian Wil Herberg forced him to find out what Christianity was and is from its historical practice in early Christendom.  This became his own personal reformation and with it came a new path of life and a new career -- even a new set of friends!  He wrote of this in part in a book called After Modernity... What?  

This journey reminds us that one cannot be Christian with any authenticity and believe and live in conflict with doctrine and practice of historic and orthodox Christianity.  While I would not yet call Oden a Lutheran, it is an illustrative look at the fragile construction of modern liberal theology, how this has captured the identity of most mainline denominations, and how it is possible to rediscover the faith from the writings of the Church Fathers.  Remember what Hermann Sasse said: 
"It is always a sign of deep spiritual sickness when a church forgets its fathers."  (From Fathers of the Church, German original in Lutherische Blaetter 6:36 (May 10, 1954) pp58-69.)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The narrow door. . .

Sermon preached for Pentecost 14, Proper 16C, on August 21, 2016.

    We want to know what we want to know.  How many will be saved?  The disciples then looked around and saw what we see. They lamented empty pews and hard hearts, people caught up in the moment who rejected the call to faith and disciples who had lost their way.  Will those who are saved be few?  Is it not our curiosity as well?  Even Jesus had His critics.  Those who are saved are the Lord’s business – not ours.  Though we want to know how and why, we are not given this to know.
    What is our business?  Our business is the strive to eneter by the narrow door.  In other words, our business is faith.  Our business is to live this faith our daily before the Lord and before the world, living in hope and as witnesses of this hope, rejoicing in the comfort of the cross and telling its story to all around us.
    That is probably not what we want to hear but it is the truth. Strive to enter by the narrow door.  Those are hard words for a people seeking easy street.  To strive means that faith does not come naturally to our hearts sinful by nature.  Faith cannot be taken for granted but must be constantly nurtured by the means of grace.  Faith comes not by hearing once but by living where the Word of God is spoken.  Faith lives by daily repentance that is the fruit of our baptismal new life.

    Strive means that life in the Kingdom is not easy but hard. We have heard it – persecution by a world that hated Jesus and hates those who belong to Jesus.  Tribulation in a world where the easy way is nearly always the wrong way and to stand up for Jesus is to stand out from the crowd.
    Life in the Kingdom is not a path of moral perfection but of daily repentance.  We live in this daily repentance by the power of forgiveness as the Spirit works to dailiy reclaim us from our pride and from our weakness both at the same time.  Strive means that we work at this, working out our salvation by the power of the Holy Spirit.
    Strive to enter by the NARROW DOOR.  That again is not what we want to hear.  We want to believe that the way of salvation is a broad boulevard but it is a narrow path.  We want to think of it as a grand entrance but it is a narrow door.  Christ is the way the truth and the life and no man comes to the Father but by Him.  Sincerity does not save but faith in Christ does.
    The narrow way is truth – not good feelings or noble intentions but solid doctrine formed from Scripture and normed by that Word.  The narrow way is creed that confesses with specificity who Jesus is, from whence He has come, and what He has come to do.  The narrow way is confession of this faith boldly before a world that may or may not hear.
    The narrow way is the life of faith – life in the Spirit, life lived by faith and not by sight.  The Christian life is our concern – not who will be saved but the Christian life born of baptismal rebirth, nourished by the Word and Supper of the Lord, lived in tension with the world, confessed without fear by those who would persecute us, and lived confidently even in the faith of death. 
    Have you read how many hymns in our hymnal sing of the glory of a faithful death or pray for the same?  These words have nothing to do with whether or not that death is painful or it comes at the end of a long life.  No the faithful death is the Christian who dies in faith no matter the circumstance, confident that they will rise with Christ to everlasting life.
    You have probably noticed this is no pep talk to try harder for Jesus.  No, this is the unpleasant truth of false prophets, of hypocrites, of lies that damn, of true alone that saves, and of the vanity of sincerity without the narrow faith in the one and only Christ.  We may be curious about what belongs to God but it is God's to decide and ours to believe.  Instead of trying to know what is not ours to know, He has called us to do what does belong to us.  Strive to live by faith, to walk the narrow path of salvation by grace alone for the sake of Christ alone, and our own entrance into eternal life through Him who is the way, the truth, and the life.  So strive for this.  Work for it.  Live for it.  Die in it.
    The narrow way is Christ alone – exclusive for there is salvation in no other but inclusive because everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.  The hypocrisy of good works and dead hearts is exposed.  The arrogance of sincerity which believes everything in general but not in specifically in Christ is laid bare. Repent. Believe. Strive to live in Christ alone.  This is our only peace and comfort.  Amen.

Living together without benefit of marriage. . .

Though you might think I am referencing the rampant cohabitation of those not married, my concern here is not with people but with Church and the churches that share the same name but not the same faith.  It is not merely true of Protestants whose liberal and conservative factions have their own leaders, their own publishers, their own colleges and universities, and even, perhaps, their own seminaries.  No, it is also true of Lutherans and of Roman Catholics.  We have cohabited as liberals and conservatives (for lack of a more precise definition) for some time but the days of this shacking up are numbered and it is not because of someone in power trying to force folks out.  It is because the inherent weaknesses of our cohabitation are becoming unbearable by both sides.

For Protestants this has resulted in, as one example, a Good News movement within Methodism.  Though the control of the national church structure is clearly in other hands, the more conservative forces have for some time organized for theology and mission.  It has happened in other churches as well but the Methodists provide a prime example.  The differences are not nuance but deep and profound in who Jesus was and is, what the Scriptures teach and confess, and what the Church is called to be.  The time is coming when Methodism will no longer be able to bridge the great divide of the conservative, more orthodox side (including those outside the US) and those intent upon transforming their church body into a mirror of the culture and values around it.

For Roman Catholics it has been somewhat hidden by the tribalism of Rome's ethnic construction.  The Irish are Roman Catholic.  Period.  And because they are Irish, the divide between the shapes of Irish Roman Catholicism is masked.  Though not for long.  Catholic tribalism has worked to preserve Rome as a unit in the last fifty years since the close of the second Vatican Council.  But while it has continued on paper as one church, the great divide between “Liberal” and “Conservative,” ad orientem and versus populum, Francis and Benedict, etc... has widened in North America and Europe.  Yes, the liberal Roman Catholics have their own publishing houses, colleges, religious orders and members of the hierarchy; the same for the  conservative Roman Catholics.

Under the appearance of unity, the reality of two churches under the same roof has become ever mor obvious. It is not merely cultural but theological and ontological.  On one side are those who believe the Church must adapt, inculturate, and change to survive and on the other are those who believe that such will be the death of the faith itself.  Now it appears to be less tenable to maintain this separate existence and perhaps we can credit Francis for bring this to the forefront.

Among Lutherans the same divide is becoming ever more untenable.  For us it has shown itself in the form of worship wars and mission differences.  Some among us believe that worship must adapt to technology, culture, and personal preference to provide an atmosphere amenable to those not yet of the Kingdom.  Others believe that the liturgy is its own culture and that the abandonment of our liturgical tradition and identity is a surrender of the faith itself.  In mission there are those who believe that the most important thing is to share Jesus and others who insist that in addition to speaking the Gospel we must actually plant congregations where the means of grace can feed and nourish those who believe.  In crass form, the argument has been framed between missional and maintenance.  But under the worship wars and the mission distinctions lie other more significant differences.  The public wars are really about the great divide between those who see the Church in militant posture against an ever more antagonistic world and those who believe the Church must be more friendly toward the world and make accommodation with the changes in culture and society.

Perhaps we Lutherans (here speaking of the LCMS) have been less successful in giving the overall appearance of unity since we do not have a papacy to provide symbolic unity but I think many who are on both sides of this debate are finding the twin poles increasingly difficult to manage under one  structure.  What we face may well be a different kind of realignment -- between those who wish to see our Synod as a confederation of semi-autonomous districts and those who do not believe the Church is a representative democracy.  Where this will pan out is hard to say.

In all of the examples, one key ingredient has been what happens in Seminary and the kind of clergy being provided for the churches.  Where the seminaries have come down on one side and provide candidates for ordination who stand solidly with their perspective, the church body has tilted to that side.  In the end, this is a battle of seminaries and a war waged one candidate and one ordination at a time.  Whether accurate or not, this is how the two seminaries of the LCMS have been painted.  It is the great divide between diocesan seminaries of Rome.  And it has surely been fostered in other churches by the direction taken by their own seminaries.

It is true that it is ever more difficult for the sides to be comfortable with each other, the jockeying for place and prominence does not serve the mission well, and the unifying factors are becoming weaker than the divisions.  We will see how Missouri, Rome, and the rest of the churches fare in maintaining their unity and sustaining the tense appearance of unanimity.  Some believe this is a boomer issue and the retirement of a generation of leaders and pastors will also shape the face of the churches.  I am not so inclined to believe it will all go away once this large contingent of leaders and pastors fades away.


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Where is Charles Martel when you need him?

The Battle of Tours (10 October 732) took place between the cities of Poitiers and Tours, in north-central France, close to the border between the Frankish kingdom and then-independent Aquitaine. It pitted Frankish and Burgundian forces under Charles Martel against a much larger army of the Umayyad Caliphate led by 'Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi.

Surprisingly, the Franks were victorious. 'Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi was killed, and Charles began to extend his authority and begin uniting a European kingdom that would withstand the challenge of Islamic military forces to the present day.

Some saw this as divine judgment in favor of Charles, nicknamed Martellus ("The Hammer"). Later , Charles Martel would be praised as the champion of Christianity, seeing the battle as the decisive turning point against the powerful Islamic empire.

The Battle of Tours came after two decades of Umayyad conquests in Europe beginning with the invasion of the Christian Kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula in 711 and seemingly unstoppable military expeditions into Gaul (the former province of the Roman Empire).  The Islamic army had reached as far northward as Aquitaine, Burgundy, and Bordeaux. Charles's victory came when Muslim rule was overrunning the old Roman and Persian Empires.

Charles surprised the Islamic forces who did not expect to find a large and well organized enemy.  For a full week they skirmished awaiting the arrival of the full Umayyad forces.  It gave Charles Martel time to organize and concentrate his forces for the battle plan.  Perhaps the most decisive maneuver was Charles raid on the Umayyad base camp threatening the bounty the army had accumulated in previous battles.  Charles so rattled the Umayyad forces that they left their tents standing and ran with whatever loot they could carry.

The army retreated over the Pyrenees.  In 735 another forey by the Islamic forces was repelled by Charles, putting an end to any of the Muslim hopes beyond the Iberian peninsula.  Charles’ grandson, Charlemagne, became the first Christian ruler of a mostly united Christian Europe.

Now here we are some thirteen centuries later, after Luther himself had wrote against the invading Muslim armies of the Turkish advance, and after terrorism has spilled over into the cities of Europe and the United States.  Here we are after a priest was murdered in his own parish church by an enemy more devious than the multinational, multilingual Ottoman empire and even more brutal.  Where are the voices of Luther in our day to rally us to organize together against our common enemy?  Where is the next Charles Martel who will face down the armies seeking to build a new caliphate more by terrorism than open conquest?  Where are those who both recognize and acknowledge that this is no mere threat to religion, though it is certainly that, but also a threat to the West as a whole and to freedom itself?

Luther initially feared that the Turkish invasion was a scourge from God against the sins of the Christians.  In 1528 Luther changes his mind and encouraged Charles V and all the German people to resist the invasion.  I am not prepared to say that the success so far of the jihadists is not in part due to the way we in the West have abused our freedom as license to cover our decadence, immorality, and licentiousness but we must battle on both fronts – fighting the common enemy and fighting for virtue, goodness, and truth in our exercise of the gift of freedom.  Where is the leader who can rally us to both?