Sunday, February 26, 2017

Burying the Alleluias. . .

It may seem odd to take down a perfecting good Alleluia [banner or the like] and lay it into a box and bury it in to the ground.  But some do.  Literally.  And if we do not do it literally, we do it figuratively.  The Alleluias of the Divine Service will be gone, out of sight, though not out of mind, for the next 6 weeks of Lent.

We bury the Alleluias during Lent to remind us that this is a time not of parties and celebration but of repentance and meditation upon the cross.  This is shocking to us because we have come to believe that life is supposed to be happy -- one lifelong celebration of good times. Today we bury that thought and on Ash Wednesday, one of the most solemn days in the Church Year, we come wearing the external ashes of our inward repentance.  Here we acknowledge that we are sinners, sinful both by nature because of the Fall and by thought, word, and deed -- both in the evil done and the good left undone.

Historically Christians have buried their alleluias today and been marked with ashes on Ash Wednesday as external signs of the call to inner restraint, self-control, and struggle against sin -- the fruit of the Spirit and of repentance.

Scripture is replete for seasons or times of repentance.  The Old Testament calendar included them and so does our Church Year today.  There is a time to put distance between us and this world, to mourn the sin the world denies, to put on ashes even though the world tries to wish away its disappointment or trouble.  What does St. John tells us, 'Do not love the world, nor the things of the world. Whoever is a friend of the world is an enemy of God. Friendship with the world is death.' This fallen world is a world filled with temptations for a fallen people. What does St. Paul do? St. Paul tells us he restrained his body as if it were a boxing opponent that could only be subdued by blows. St. Paul knew that although all things may be lawful, not all things are beneficial.  He refused to allow himself to be governed by raw desire. He beat down desire to be governed by the Spirit and the Word. We put aside or bury our Alleluias for the same reason.  As the collect we have prayed so often puts it, it is our daily prayer  'to so pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal.'

Saturday, February 25, 2017

In My Name. . .

“Where two or three are gathered together in my name,” said our Lord Jesus, “there am I among them.”

The words of Matthew 18 are simple and plain but their meaning is not.  Over the course of time these words have come to mean that we who invoke the name of Jesus invite and even compel His presence.  In this respect, the name of Jesus has become almost magical, as if it were a spell or incantation recited to draw a reluctant spirit into the material world.  The truth is so far from this impression as to make our mistake laughable.

Where two or three are gathered in My Name has little to do with the intention or will of the people and everything to do with where Christ has placed His name -- the Word and the Sacraments.  The promise of our Lord is not that if bidden He will come but that He will always be present in the means of grace.  He cannot but keep His pledge and promise of His Word and He wills to do nothing but fulfill that pledge and promise for our forgiveness, life, and salvation.  It is not the Lord who comes to us when we ask Him but we who gather where the Lord always is. 

The invocation is not even a sentence.  In the Name of. . .   It is an implicit acknowledgement that we are gathered because He has promised and where He has promised and not to make Him present.  This is one of the underlying keys to the liturgy and to the sacramental life of worship that our Lord has given as gift to His Church.  How sad it is, then, that we who use the liturgy every Sunday and whose confessional identity is thoroughly sacramental fall into the trap of turning our Lord's words into a formula or recipe instead the promise of the Word, of water and the Word, and of bread and wine and the Word.

We do not ascend into the heavenly heights but God has brought low the heavenly glory and hidden it in the ordinary of material things where He makes known to us and bestows upon us the riches of His gifts and grace.  Sacramental theology is incarnational.  God comes to us.  God does not compel us to come to Him but comes to us in the flesh of the Word Incarnate, in the voice of the Word proclaimed, in the words of the Word written, in the address of the Word absolving, in the Word in and with the water, and in the Word in and with the bread and wine. 

The name of Christ is not some ritual formula to be said to make the Lord do what we want but the name that delivers to us His mercy and accomplishes His purpose in the places where He has promised.  The name of Christ is shorthand for the Word and Sacraments.  It is this aspect of Lutheran piety which the liturgical movement has sought to recover, to distinguish us from those for whom the Lord is an idea to be thought, a rule to be obeyed, or a truth to be believed.  Christ is present among us not because we want Him to be or because we have acted piously or because we the truth is accepted as fact.  Christ is present because He has willed to be present, attached Himself to His Word and Sacraments, and works through these means to accomplish His saving purpose.

As Luther said in the Smalcald Articles, everything else is just enthusiasm and everyone merely Schwamerei.  When we detach Christ from the means of grace and we make Him and His presence subject to our ministrations or dependent upon our feelings, we are left with nothing certain at all.  Our worship life is then the shifting sand of hopes, dreams, wishes, and feelings absent any real promise at all.  Feelings do not legitimize Christ's presence nor do they give authority and weight to our faith.  That is not to say they are bad but simply that feelings do not establish Christ or His presence among us.  They flow from the means of grace and are transformed (as our the minds of God's people) as the fruit of Christ's presence and the consequence of His grace among us and for us. 

The name of Christ is not like a wizard's words that suddenly shake the wand and zap us with magic.  The name of Christ is the Word of Christ, His water, His bread and wine and His voice to absolve.  When we begin to get this, we also find the joy and freedom that is the true and living fruit of the Gospel.  We do not begin with the invocation because God is hidden and must be summoned but because, bidden or not, God is present.  We have come to the very means of grace wherein He has attached Himself so that by the power of the Spirit we may receive what He has promised to give for the joy and edification of His people and for the equipment of His people for their vocation both toward God and neighbor.

Friday, February 24, 2017

A changing definition of "elite". . .

I had prepared something to post sooner but then decided to wait.  Sure enough Millie Hemingway did a better job than I could have in responding to the diatribe of Meryl Streep who won a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes.  You can read her words here. . .

Let me instead focus upon one line.  Streep said, “Just to pick up on what Hugh Laurie said. You and all of us in this room, really, belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it. Hollywood, foreigners, and the press.” 

Hmmm.  Streep would have us believe that she and her Hollywood cohorts are an oppressed group.  Think about this.  The average person in that room wore clothing that cost more than most families spend on clothing for an entire year.  The venue and its production cost more than most school budgets for a year.  The media provided not only prime time access to the goings on but made sure that it all made the news in a variety of ways following the event itself.  The combined income of the folks in that room was greater than the entire economy of most countries in the world.  The work of an actor may be difficult but it is not back breaking (Anthony Hopkins said this) and most of the people of the world work harder than Hollywood to find basics like clean water, secure shelter, food, and medical care.  At the end of this event, they all went home to houses that hardly anyone in the TV audience could afford to visit -- much less live in.  Most of the folks in that room could pick up the phone and be plugged directly into the power brokers not only of Hollywood but the world (witness the access they had with President Obama and candidate Hillary Clinton).  I could go on.  I think you get the picture.  These are the elite of the elite and Streep was preaching to the choir.

I must admit that my view of Streep has been indelibly etched by her portrayal of a self-absorbed woman who abandoned not only her marriage but her son and then tried to come back and steal him from his dad (Kramer vs Kramer).  While I appreciated her role in The Devil Wears Prada, that part could hardly have been much of a stretch for a woman accustomed to power, glamor, and being a member of the elites in America.  For what it is worth, I was greatly disappointed in her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, an iconic figure who ended up looking demented in the biopic starring Streep.  So, I am not really a fan even though the verdict has been rendered and she has been deemed the best of the best.  But whether I like her as an actress or not, she is neither oppressed nor threatened by me or Trump or anyone else.  Folks like us will continue to go to the movies and watch them on DVD and wait for them to run in edited versions on TV and all the while she will collect a grand salary for her work and people will presume that with her notoriety there is wisdom that makes her smarter than the rest of us.  But it is a sham.

The real oppressed today are those who refuse to bow before the Baal of progressivism, who stand against the prevailing mood and opinion of culture (in everything from gender identity to sexual politics to ecology to anti-religious sentiment).  The real oppressed today are bakers who lose everything because they won't bake a cake for someone who could have gotten a cake from anywhere or the child in the womb treated like it is somebody's possession to be discarded with the garbage on a whim or those threatened with banishment from the public square because they believe a truth no longer tolerated.  I am not oppressed and have never claimed to be.  But I know who is.

Meryl Streep and her friends in Hollywood want to run the White House as if The West Wing was still in production.  They are not shy about telling us all what we ought to think, how we ought to vote, how we ought to act, what we ought to say, and when we ought to shut up.  They can have their opinions.  This is America, after all.  But their opinions count no more than mine nor the opinions of anyone else.  They have access to media and they exploit it well but they remain elite in every way that term is defined.  Vilified by a few -- maybe.  Unpopular with the new occupant of the White House -- maybe.  Oppressed?  Not at all.  Wake up and smell the roses.  The smug put downs that are not radical or edgy at all betray the intolerance of those who claim to be tolerant and the arrogance of those who have the most access to media and power in America.  I do not believe Trump is a hero or a savior but neither is he a villain.  In the great debate, ideas and arguments count -- not innuendo.  Maybe we will all be better off when Trump and Streep both realize this.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The reading for Epiphany is from the. . . uh. . . Quran.

Christians are often completely unfamiliar with the Quran and are often surprised to find out what is really in the Book of Mohammed.  They would probably be most surprised to find out that there is a version of the Christmas story in the Quran.  This is hardly a parallel to the familiar Bible texts that detail the conception and birth of Jesus to His mother, the Virgin Mary.  In fact, this story is a denial of the basic truth of Scripture -- that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God and Messiah long promised.  While there are words about the birth of Jesus, the account describes Mary as "ashamed" and tells how Jesus miraculously comforted Mary in her doubts by insisting, in His infant voice, that he was truly a "servant of God."  It must be noted that Muslims do not acknowledge the Scriptural claims of Jesus as the one and only Son of God in flesh or the atonement for the sins of the world the incarnate Son of God accomplished by His saving death and life giving resurrection.

All of that, however, was left unclear when worshippers on Epiphany hear a the Quran chanted at an official service at the Scottish Episcopal Church's Glasgow Cathedral.  There the people were treated to the Muslim version of the Virgin Mary's conception of Jesus, chanted Madinah Javed from Sura 19 of the Quran.  You can see it here on their Facebook page.   There the cathedral's Facebook page describes the service as a "wonderful event," reminding them "that it is not only Christians who give honour to Jesus."

The fact that this happened only betrays the vacuous character of liberal Christianity, not only in England but throughout the world.  All those COEXIST bumper stickers would strip away the unique truth of the Scriptures and empty the Christian kerygma leaving only a thin moral veneer to a faith divorced from truth and deposited in bits and pieces in all the religions of the world.  That this took place in an Anglican Church is not surprising and that some laud this is also not shocking but what is most troubling is that many folks wonder what is the harm?  The harm is that a modern text like the Quran is given equal status with the Scriptures, the word of Mohammed the same weight as the Word of the Lord that endures forever, and the classic creedal identity of Christianity reduced to one of many ideas about God.  The harm is that the Word that saves has been reduced to words that merely describe and something lacking real truth or power to do anything but elicit feelings and encourage generic goodness and brotherly affection.

I can imagine that some would hail this as a big step forward.  In reality it is one more sign that orthodox Christianity is more and more becoming a stranger to Anglicanism and to continental churches.  Sadly, I can well imagine that something similar might take place in liberal Sweden among those who claim to be Lutheran.  Surely this is not all that much different from Native American prayers and "readings" from a variety of sources that have graced all kinds of official and semi-official church gatherings in America -- from an ELCA women's convention to the installation of the most recent Episcopal Presiding Bishop.  The mainline in America have squandered their heritage of faith and step by step make their way to apostasy.  It is not only issues of sexuality that betray a guiding truth foreign to the Scriptures but the abandonment of any real truth that Christians may know and confess and any claim of the Bible to be the source and norm of that truth.  I wish I could say it was all just goofiness but what happened in Scotland is not benign.  It is a cancer spreading through Christianity and Christians and it threatens our very identity and existence.

Sorry folks, for whatever reason this did not post when it was scheduled.  So it came after Remember him? on Feb 18, when it was supposed to be the other way around.  If you wondered about Feb. 18's post, read this one.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Justice or Vengeance. . . Love or Hate

Sermon for Epiphany 7A, preached on Sunday, February 19, 2017, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

[Jesus said] You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.  But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Mt 5:38-39).

We all love it when the bad guy gets it in the end; when the school yard bully gets knocked down.  All the best movies have heroes and villains with the heroes delivering justice.  However, what we often consider to be justice is actually vengeance, driven by hate, driven by a desire to get even, to punish those who’ve done us harm.  But these things are contrary to Christ; they’re contrary to our lives as Christians, people redeemed from sin and death.  Our Lord and Savior calls us not to get even, but to repay evil and hate with love. 

But you say, “Wait a minute.  What about ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?’  Didn’t God say that?”  Yes He did, but this isn’t what you think.  This law of retribution isn’t about revenge or getting even.  It’s about justice that seeks out equivalence. 

“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” wasn’t a legal prescription applied literally and indiscriminately.  If a man’s eye was accidently poked out by a friend, the friend’s eye wasn’t gouged out to make all things even and fair.  If there was an accident and someone’s front two teeth were knocked out, the one who caused the accident wasn’t held down while others pulled out his two front teeth.  The law of retribution was about justice.  It treated the life and body of everyone as equal in value, regardless of their status or place in society.  And it protected the offender from excessive punishment, something we’re quite good at doling out. 

In seeking revenge (our so called justice), we go over board.  Not only do we want to make people pay for what they’ve done, we want them to suffer more than we did.  We get even and then some.  Someone who embarisses us we seek to humilate and ruin their reputation.  Our brother takes a toy away from us and we inflict physical harm.  The person who cuts us in line we curse and swear, calling down God’s wrath and damnation upon them.  The person who accidentally rear ends us at the stop light we sue for all they’re worth, even if no damage was done. 

All of this we do quoting “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”  Our sinful nature has turned this into a self-justifying phrase, allowing us to do anything and everything in the game of payback.  We usurp the law of retribution, making ourselves judge, jury, and executioner, fulfilling our lust for blood and vengeance.  This of course isn’t what God intended. 

Like last week’s Gospel, we hear Jesus rightly teach His disciples the full meaning and truth of God’s commands.  He explains to them that they’re not to seek vengeance.  Christ isn’t teaching pacifism here though.  Rather, He’s calling His disciples, all followers, you and me to lives filled with generosity and love, instead of lives filled with grudges and revenge.  “If anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to the one who begs of you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Mt 5:40-42).

As followers of Christ, we are to live peaceful lives with others, generous lives going above and beyond for others.  We’re not to repay evil with more evil, but overcome it with good, with love (Rm 12:18-21).  And this extends even beyond our actions.  It also includes what’s in our hearts. 
Jesus continues “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:43-44).  Unlike “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” this isn’t from God.  No where did God ever say to hate your enemies.  This teaching is completely from us sinners.  It comes from our sinful desire for vengeance.

It’s easy to hate those who’ve wronged us; it comes naturally.  We don’t have to practice this.  The problem is hate isn’t just a disliking of someone.  Hate is a desire for bad things to happen to them, either by our hands or someone else’s.  Hate is what causes us to smile when bad things happen to them and say, “Good, they got what they deserved.”  But there’s no room for hate in the hearts of Christ’s redeemed.  We’ve been given new and clean hearts, hearts that are filled with love for neighbors and for our enemies. 

And again, this love isn’t just a warm fuzzy feeling.  It’s an attitude of good intention that’s fulfilled in action.  This love is seen in acts of service.  We love our enemies not just in feelings, but in words and actions, doing good for them, helping them, praying for them. 
But why?  Why should we love those who hate us?  This isn’t fair and it’s not logical.  It’s not easy to repay hate with love.  That’s right, it’s not easy to love our enemies, but that’s what we’re called to do, because that’s what God does. 

God loves our enemies unconditionally, just as He loves you unconditionally.  Just as He gave you life and cares for you, so too has He given them life and cares for them.  “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Mt 5:45b).  God cares and loves everyone equally, whether they’re Christian or not; that’s why He gave the law of retribution, to show that all human life is equal in value….And it’s because of this same unconditional, indiscriminate love that God ultimately fulfilled the law of retribution Himself when He punished His only begotten Son in our place. 

We’re God’s enemies.  We’re sinners, separated from God, standing in direct opposition to Him.  Even though He’s given us life, we act as our own gods.  We steal justice away from Him.  We blaspheme Him with our words and actions, and because of this, we rightly deserve death at His hand.  This isn’t vengeance, but true justice.  The wages of sin is death, therefore we must die.  That’s fair, that fulfills the law of retribution...but that’s not what you receive. 

Even though you’re enemies of God, He is gracious and merciful to you, redeeming you from your sin (Rm 5:10).  In unconditional love, He punished His perfect Son in your place.  Jesus suffered the ultimate form of capital punishment on the cross.  Unfairly, He died for your sins and God gives you His righteousness.  You’re declared innocent, no longer an enemy.  You’re covered in Christ’s righteousness and you’re perfect in God’s sight, being perfect, just as your Father is perfect (Mt 5:48).

God sent His Son to die for you, for all people, including your enemies, those who hate and harm you.  Christ’s death paid for your sins, and theirs.  God’s love in Christ forgives you your sins, and enables you to forgive those who sin against you.  It’s not easy to love our enemies, to repay hate with love, to turn the other cheek.  In fact, this may be the most difficult thing to do at times, and yet as forgiven children of God, that’s what we’re to do, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, that’s what we do.  With hearts that have been created new and made holy, with faith that knows how much we’ve been forgiven, we forgive others.  We repay hate with love, with God’s love shown forth in Christ Jesus.  In His name...Amen.

On the development of doctrine. . .

St Vincent of Lérins firmly rejected the possibility of new revelation.  “What is the deposit?” he replies: “It is that which you believed, not that which you invented.”  Yet at the same time, St. Vincent not only admits but is positive about the theological growth that confesses that revelation.  The author of the famous dictim that defines catholicity, Vincent understands proper theological development as the move to confess ever more clearly what is believed and confessed always and everywhere.  So doctrine moves from the implicit to the explicit, much the way that the Trinity, which is not new, unfolds and becomes ever clearer both in confession before the world and when challenged by heresy.  Again, St. Vincent: “By your explanations, let that which was believed obscurely now be understood clearly. What antiquity venerated without comprehension, let posterity now understand.”

John Henry Newman wrestled with St. Vincent's words and with the question of doctrinal development.  He found too narrow the scholastic idea that doctrinal development consisted of the Church logically deducing new truths from accepted premises.  Newman was much more friendly to the idea of doctrinal development that St. Vincent and yet even Newman left boundaries, insisting that legitimate doctrinal development maintains its essential continuity with the original revelation and does not exceed it.  Yet even Newman seemed intent upon reconciling doctrinal invention of the Popes, treating the Immaculate Conception of Mary (objected to by Protestants and Orthodox alike) by suggesting  that if the Apostle Paul had been asked “whether or not our Lady had the grace of the Spirit anticipating all sin whatever, including Adam’s imputed sin, I think he would have answered in the affirmative. If he never was asked the question, I should say he had in his mind the decision in 1854 in confusio or implicité” (“Letter to Flanagan,” p. 159).

St. Vincent of Lérins distinguishes in his Commonitorium between profectus (advance, progress) and permutatio (change, alteration). Orthodox theologian Augustine Casiday explains this important distinction:
An advance, then, as opposed to a change, works out an implicit but inchoate teaching, without compromising what is already “plain and clear” and all the while retaining whatever has already been established. By implication, a change violates this norm—either by introducing something entirely new, or else by contradicting what is already manifest, or even by abandoning an established definition. According to Vincent not all variations that occur throughout time are changes (which are by definition illegitimate): some of them are advances (which are by definition legitimate). The examples that Vincent gives to illustrate an advance come from the councils of the church, when occasionally it was necessary to introduce a new word “for the better understanding, never for a new interpretation of the Faith.” On the basis of this distinction, Vincent was prepared to denounce heresy. (Remember the Days of Old, p. 66)
In the end Newman, who first rejects the Vincentian canon of catholicity, ends up reinterpreting it to make room for legitimate development which, it can only be said, is left to papal wisdom to recognize and define -- something Lutherans, Protestants, and the Orthodox will dispute.  How can it be said that the claims of papal supremacy, for example, reflect the harmonious development from the early Christian position?  And the list of questions goes on -- for if there is legitimate doctrinal development that can allow for such "invention" (too strong a word?) then who gets to determine what is legitimate and what is not?  That is the big question and the hole Newman leaves.

Blessed St. Vincent of Lérins: 'Development' in the Christian Church and in her Doctrine: Development must take place eodem sensu eademque sententia [keeping the same meaning and the same judgment/opinion].  Lutherans can live with that.  Rome cannot.  Elucidation but not invention, iron sharpening iron to clarify and confess in response to question or challenge, but not novelty.  This is the opposite of the Vincentian dictim and the Lutheran claims in the Augustana!