Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The gates of hell shall not prevail against it. . .

Here is the sad story of a Roman Catholic church building (St. John's in the Minneapolis St. Paul diocese) which was closed, sat empty for a year, and then sold to an Islamic group to become a mosque and Islamic center.  Our Lord said the gates of hell shall not prevail against His church but apparently He did not say anything about the church selling off its property to those who deny Him.

I understand that church buildings become superfluous and that this must be dealt with.  What I do not understand is how the $900,000 debt to the diocese could be so important that a building in which Christ was once preached, His baptismal water showered upon the sinner, His voice of absolution offered to the penitent, and His body and blood given to the communicant could now be desecrated by another god, another gospel, and another faith.  Would it have not been better to demolish the structure and sell the land than to leave the building in place for a non-Christian group to promote a faith that contradicts the cross and empty tomb?

Roman Catholics are not alone.  I watched as a child when a Lutheran church building was sold, moved to a farm, and became a hog house that we were forced to look at every Sunday as we made our way to church.  I know of Episcopal buildings being sold to Islamic groups among other things.  One church became a notorious gay night club.  How embarrassing, shameful, and scandalous! Is our servitude to the almighty dollar so great that we will sell our treasured buildings to the highest bidder without regret over the witness that we give to the world when a known Christian building becomes home to those opposed to the faith?

It may be one thing for such a building to become a community center, art museum, etc...  At least it is not likely a religious purpose opposed to the faith would be the normal activity of such a use of the facility.  But when we willing surrender buildings that once stood for the faith to those opposed to the faith, we not only scandalize the faithful but we give a false witness to the world (such as Christianity and Islam are either equal or complimentary).

Tear it down and return the rubble to the earth but do not surrender historic church buildings to those who would mock Christ by what they do with that structure and confound the world as to the true treasure of grace that we value most of all!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The importance of baptism. . .

From Roger E.  Olson, Water Works: Why Baptism Is Essential | Christianity Today:
The Evangelical Free Church of America provides latitude on whether baptism should be required for church membership. Based on the denomination’s autonomy, it’s a local church matter.And some congregations believe the only requirement for church membership is simply being a born-again Christian. . . .

Some Christians, such as Quakers and members of the Salvation Army, reject baptism entirely. And recently, one Texas megachurch pastor reported that nearly a third of the people who receive Christ in his church are never baptized. One response to the multiple views of baptism is to reject or neglect it entirely. Especially in large independent churches, baptism is often relegated to relative unimportance.

 If something is not essential, it is optional.  If, in the estimation of nearly all Protestant churches, baptism does not impart, do, or change anything, then why do it?  Apparently that is the conclusion of many who "receive Christ" but never follow through with baptism.  Frankly, I would probably be one of them if I were one of those Protestants.  Symbols are significant and meaningful only to those who like them, desire them, and use them.  If baptism is not your "thing" then its symbolism is optional.  Never mind the Scriptures or tradition -- since everything is oriented toward "me", if I judge baptism insignificant, I see no compelling reason to be baptized (that is the decision of many who live within the confines of evangelical and fundamentalist churches in America.  Rules do not have the bite they once did.

In some respects, we Lutherans find ourselves in a similar predicament.  Baptism has become like the wedding -- put off until all the family can attend and the celebration goes on.  I do not expect that my circumstance is all that different from the average Lutheran Pastor who can no longer count on Lutheran children moving into the parish to have been baptized.  I have to ask.  Often the sheepish reply is that the family was waiting for a great moment that never came and suddenly finds themselves with a pre-teen or teenaged child, about ready for catechism class, who hides the deep dark secret of never having been baptized.  And I am not merely speaking of families whose association with the church is tenuous. I begin my youth catechism class by asking the child to find the baptismal certificate and come back with the date, place, and sponsor information.  More than I care to admit the child has come back and admitted (often to his or her horror) "I was never baptized!" Looking back on my ancestry records I find that most of my Lutheran relatives were baptized within a week or two of birth -- many as the first real trip outside the house after birth.

Like the couple who lives together as the norm until they save up enough money and can get all the family together for a perfect wedding, families are tempted to wait for the right time but that day seems never to come.  Distance and schedules combine to make it hard to find a perfect Sunday when everyone can be there.  So the family gradually forgets about trying for the right time and the whole thing gets pushed aside in the busyness of life.  We Lutherans confess the miracle of baptism -- the water with the Word, the Spirit working through this sacrament, the old life drowned, the new life born, forgiveness given, faith imparted, the clothing of righteousness covering sin, the entrance into the community of faith (the Church)...  We have the theology right but we are slipping in our practice.  Baptism is not made effective by who is there from family or friends but the Word in and with the water.  If family cannot make it, they will have to do with pictures.  If sponsors are unable to attend, then a witness or two will have to stand in for them.  But baptism is too good to postpone for less than urgent and essential reasons.  Or... we run the risk of becoming just like the Protestants -- a church in which baptism is optional and not the highest priority.  For the record, the Scriptures and tradition cannot conceive of a church in which baptism is optional!

For those who think about postponing, read the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8:26-40. After his encounter with the Word of the Lord, the first thing was baptism.  "What is there to prevent me from being baptized?"  When the Word of the Lord addresses the heart of the sinner and the Spirit opens that heart to faith, the first steps will be to the baptismal font to receive what God promises there.  If this does not happen, something is wrong.  The progression for those old enough to hear the Word is to hear it and proceed directly to baptism.  For the children born to the baptized, as soon as possible those children should be brought to the family of faith (the church) to be received into God's Kingdom through baptism.  Sure, there are some reasons why one might wait but are those reasons compelling enough to keep from the child what God has promised in baptism?  Good food for thought!

Monday, July 28, 2014

The true treasure. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 7, Proper 12A, preached on Sunday, July 27, 2014.

   Everyone knows the best place to hide things – the most obvious places, wide open, where it is seen but easily overlooked.  We search our homes for lost keys, cell phone, and notes and they are nearly always right where we laid them.  So it is for the Kingdom of Heaven and the treasure of God’s grace.  These are obvious but so easily overlooked.  The riches of God are obvious to the eyes of faith but hidden before the world. 
    Jesus began His parable talking about those who long to see but do not.  They do not see because they have no faith.  They long to hear but without the ears of faith they are deaf to grace, to the working of God, and to the miracle treasure of the cross.
    What faith bestows most of all are the eyes and ears to see and here the treasure.  The pearl of great price is grace – a treasure too costly and valuable for anyone to afford and yet freely given by our loving and merciful Father.  This pearl of great price called grace is hidden in plain sight – hidden in the sufferings of Christ for you and in His death for you.  Without faith it is only the pain of a man.  Without faith it is only a brutal instrument of death.  Faith sees what God has hidden there – the sufferings that pay the terrible price of sin and the death that sanctifies our graves and bestows upon us the life death cannot overcome.
    Where are these hidden treasures today?  They are right here in your midst.  They are hidden in the ordinary of water with the Word of God that becomes a grave to kill our sinful selves and a womb to give us new birth to eternal life.  They are hidden in the voice of absolution that speaks to us sinners week after week: I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  And in that speaking the chains of sin and its shame of guilt fall away.
    Where are these hidden treasures today?  They are hidden in bread that is Christ’s body and in the cup that is His blood.  We feast upon these hidden treasures and they become heaven’s food, the foretaste of the feast to come, as well as that which nourishes and strengthens us to everlasting life.  They are hidden in the Word of God which is far more than a book of truth.  This Word delivers what it says, does what it promises, and bestows the gift of which it speaks.  This efficacious Word is not mere facts from history but the living voice of God addressing the world with His Son and the Gospel that gives life to dead sinners.
    Faith sells everything else.  Faith gives up every other possible treasure to have Christ and Him only.  Faith sees that every other joy in life is fleeting but the joy of the Lord.  Faith sees that every other treasure moth destroys, rust consumes, and inflation devalues EXCEPT this treasure of the cross and the Christ who died there for you.  Faith sees that your salvation is far too important to be left to feelings or sentiment.  We need more than memories to console our grief, more than earthly ease to make us happy, and more than earthly triumph to win the day.  We need Christ and Him only.  We need baptismal water that does not fail, the Word that does not lie, and the food that satisfies hunger and quenches thirst.
    Unless you are prepared to sell everything else to hold onto this treasure of grace, you are unworthy of the Kingdom of God.  It cannot be both/and.  It is always either/or.  Either this is our one and only or we are like the one who plows looking backward.  You cannot live your life with regret over what you could have, might have, should have done.  You need a treasure that releases you from this sorrow and anxiety.  You need Christ alone.
    Do you get it? Asks Jesus.  I am not so sure we do.  We have heard the words from His mouth but I am not at all sure we get it.  We straddle the fence with one foot in the kingdom of God and one foot squarely planted in this mortal life.  If we get what Jesus is saying, we can’t go home from Church on Sunday morning empty and lament we got nothing.  Where His Word and Sacraments are there are the pearls of great price, the grace of life and the mercy of forgiveness.  If we get it then we cannot value property, land, and money so highly that it is a struggle to give tithes and offerings and to help the neighbor in need.  If we get it, then we cannot let it fall to somebody else to witness the cross to the stranger or to another to teach our children of Jesus.  If we get it, then we have to give up being so full of ourselves that we have no room left for Jesus, priceless treasure.
    If Jesus is our treasure and this treasure is our joy, then we cannot go through life in search of another happiness or pleasure.  Christ is our treasure.  If Jesus is our treasure and this treasure is our joy, then we cannot go through life complaining about everything that is wrong.  Christ is our treasure.  If Christ is our treasure and this treasure is our joy, then we cannot go through life bedazzled by the world and treat the things of God as if they were ordinary and common.
    You are here in God’s House.  Christ has spoken to you through His Word.  Christ has addressed you with forgiveness in the absolution spoken by the Pastor.  Christ has laid upon you His clothing of righteousness because you are baptized. These are the pearls of great price in the grace of God too pricey for us to afford and yet lovingly given to us without cost, paid for by Christ’s holy and precious body and blood.  Are you willing to let go of everything else in order to possess this treasure of Grace?  Christ refuses to be one of your many treasures.  He is jealous for you and for your salvation.  He has earned this right to be jealous because He died that you might life.  He insists that He reign alone in your heart.  Today we simply pray... “Make it so, Lord Jesus.... make it so.”  Amen

A work in progress. . .

There is great temptation to take a snapshot in time and make rash judgments about what we see.  But the truth is that all a snapshot can be is but one glimpse of something constantly moving.  Youth tends to bring with it such impatience but even old men are not immune from the lament that things are moving too slowly.

Liturgical Change

Both on the parish level and nationally there are many in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod who lament the slowness of liturgical change.  While some of them are those who want to rid the church of the excess baggage of the liturgy, most of the frustration is from those who are weary of the worship wars and wish that we could declare victory by divine fiat and return to the more uniform practices of a bygone era.  Now in my 34th year since ordination and my sixth decade of life, I have deliberately tried to quiet my heart against such frustration.  Liturgical change has borne many fruits.  We have more parishes with more frequent Eucharists than ever before in our Synod.  We have more pastors in Eucharistic vestments than ever before.  We have a piety more deliberately oriented to the means of grace than in my memory.  There are more great books available in this area than ever before (both reprints and new works).

Doctrinal Unity

Having grown up in the rather insular 1950s only to see the bloody battles of our church body in the 1970s, I know we are not exactly on the same page throughout our church body BUT we are on track to restore our unity in a more positive sense than at any other time in recent memory.  I credit many things.  On the one hand I credit the profound influence of Concordia Theological Seminary and its graduates along with some great and blessed teachers from Concordia Seminary (thinking here alone the lines of Hummel, Feuerhahn, Nagel, etc...).  I also give credit to the congregations and pastors who elected the Rev. Matthew Harrison and with it ushered in a renewal of our unity of doctrine, practice, mission, and service in our church body.  None of these is the result of one person or even a few but a combined effort to speak the unchanging truth anew in our own time.  I believe that we have made great strides forward (not far enough for some and perhaps too far for others).

Mission Outreach

Remembering when missionaries were considered the highest of church callings and when we sent forth full-time missionaries all over the world, I can also recall how this all changed as money and men moved our focus away from full-time service on the mission field.  The number of full-time missionaries had dwindled sadly and our mission enterprise seemed to have lost its steam.  Perhaps the worst moment being when the name of a personalized mission program became the ungainly acronym PMS.  All of that seems to fading into the past as we are sending forth some of our brightest and best to renew the work of the kingdom in places near and far.  It is a good thing.  We should rightfully rejoice and, it would not hurt, renew our funding of missions and missionaries higher than it is today so that this renewed effort will not also lose its steam. 


Our church body as well as our parishes and pastors are works in progress.  We must be careful not to let a particular snapshot steal our hope or lead us to unrestrained exuberance.  God works incrementally, looking toward the far view more than the glimpse of the moment.  Yes, we should rightfully point out those things that must and need be dealt with, improved, and resolved.  But we should also rightfully rejoice at the work the Lord is doing right now.  It may not seem like much in the moment but it will be enough to accomplish His purpose if we are faithful.  God grant us that and He will take care of the rest.  So let us encourage one another to faithfulness, stir up one another to stand firm upon the good Word of the Lord and to the good works that glorify Him, and that will be enough.  The Church is not ours but is and will always remain His,  If He allows, we may glimpse giant strides forward but most of the time our pace will seem painfully slow and it will be hard to see much progress.  That is the time most of all to encourage faithfulness and trust the Lord for the rest.

Just a few thoughts from a man on his way to becoming old, DV!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Modest Success. . .

Some years ago when this began, it seemed an uphill battle.  How could the behemoth combination of Obamacare the law and the seemingly unstoppable move to limit religious freedom to only the right to worship finally be slowed or even halted.  It has been three weeks or so and the ruling by the Supreme Court went in favor of closely held corporations and represented a modest success in re-establishing a beachhead for religious rights.

On the day it was announced, President Harrison wrote

Thankfully, the wait is over. The Supreme Court has ruled, and the verdict is in: In a landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of religious liberty, specifically in regard to closely held corporations (those with a small number of shareholders and offering no public stock, such as corporations that are family-owned, not operated by boards).

While we rejoice in this strong upholding of religious freedom, this decision does not signal an end to this discussion. It simply emboldens us carry on, doing what we do best as Christians: praying, confessing the faith and living it out in our daily callings.

He is absolutely correct.  This is not an end to anything.  At worst it represents only one victory but at best it signals that the cause we have been fighting for is not lost.  We live in a culture awash with contraception and abortion.  We may never fully prevail in the public square but we cannot and we must not allow this challenge to the faith to remain unchecked.  We truly ought to be emboldened by what has happened at the Supreme Court but we dare never to become complacent by such victories.  The cause of life and the rule of morality will remain in the cross hairs of those who speak a different language and who worship a different god.  This is what we should never forget.  So we can celebrate a modest victory even while acknowledging that the road is long and there is much to travel before the cause of life will be secure for all people, especially the unborn.

A word of warning. . . it was by the slimmest possible majority this decision was rendered.  It can just as easily be undone.  What should have been 9-0 was merely 5-4....  Be encouraged but do not give up the fight!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Can't, Have Trouble With, or Won't. . .

The same gesture (or lack of it) can say different things.  In the same way, the intention behind the gesture can say many things.  I recently read some liturgical instructions issued by a Roman Catholic bishop to his flock.  In it, among other things, he addressed the change from a genuflection before the tabernacle to a profound bow.  It was a perfect example of how something exceptional became normative (exceptional here meaning against the rule).

...a profound bow — made purposefully and reverently from the waist — can be a fitting way to reverence the Divine Majesty, but only if one cannot genuflect, which is not always the same as having some difficulty genuflecting...

We have come to equate the inability to do something with the dislike or distaste for doing it with a difficulty doing it.  They are not the same, as the good bishop noted.  Incapacity does not relieve the individual from the duty but merely prescribes a different form to fulfill the duty.  The person who cannot walk, for example, is not exempted from genuflecting but satisfies the duty with what he can do -- a profound bow.  Truth be told, anyone who has trouble walking would gladly genuflect over and over again if with it came the restoration of his ability to walk unimpeded.

Difficulty doing something means that it is not impossible to do but requires much effort and perhaps the endurance of some pain to do it.  It is my experience that those with difficulty doing something tend to try to do it no matter what.  I have written before of an elderly woman who labored to kneel in worship and, when offered the chance to bypass the liturgical posture, refused to give up trying.  Some might say pride was the reason but I tend to believe it was genuine piety.   The Lord who endured such pain for us deserves more than a perfunctory effort on our part.

Dislike or distaste for something is very different.  The person here does not seek to fulfill the duty at all.  It is, in many respects, an act of defiance against the duty.  I refuse to genuflect (or bow or whatever).  The problem here is not the failure to genuflect but the attitude that refuses the reason to genuflect. 

Lutherans love to insist that we are not bound by such rules as the bishop wrote about.  We don't hafta do nuthin!  On one level, it is true.  But underneath our insistence upon liberty in all things is often hidden a refusal of the duty.  How often I have heard people say "God would not want you to be uncomfortable..."  Baloney.  Our defiance of God can take many forms.  We may refuse the outward actions of piety that honor Him and His presence (no bowing, kneeling, or genuflecting for me!).  Or, we may refuse to believe that God is worth our discomfort in any way, shape, or form.

I do not worry about people's inability to do something or even their difficulty.  I trust them in both cases.  But what does worry me is our refusal to believe that God would want us to be uncomfortable.  That is a defiant act in which we have placed self-interest and personal preference above all things. And it is all too common today for us to equate personal comfort or preference with that which glorifies God.  Ultimately this is not about standing, sitting, kneeling, or genuflecting but the insistence upon something being found meaningful for us before we will accede to doing it.  It certainly has had profound implications for worship but it is not limited to worship alone.

It is good to be reminded that inability, difficulty, and the refusal to do something are not at all the same things.  It would also be good for us to examine our hearts and come before the Lord with repentance for the pride that insists we don't find something meaningful or the arrogant belief that we don't believe God would want us to be uncomfortable in our Christian faith, piety, worship, and life.  For us as Lutherans, this hits pretty close to home.