Wednesday, January 17, 2018

American Holidays. . .

In the wake of Christmas over and the dull of winter now fully upon us, I have been reflecting a bit.  Some more meandering thoughts, you know. So, for what it is worth, here are my observations. . .

Of course, we all know the three great holidays:  Thanksgiving, Halloween, and Christmas.  It is hardly news that these top the American list of most observed days in the year.  But it just might surprise you to find out that Thanksgiving is actually second to Halloween.  I am not sure anyone is surprised by the fact that Christmas, at least a version of it that may or may not resemble what is observed in Christian churches, tops the list.  Sure, some may be calling it the Winter holiday but the happy holiday under it all bears some sort of connection to Jesus, even if distant.

I was struck by the idea that Thanksgiving has given way to Halloween.  This was the first that I knew that ghouls and goblins and pumpkins carved out had replaced turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie.  But then again I am often slow to jump on trends.  It does seem that Halloween is the perfect holiday for Americans.  It bears hardly any connection or resemblance to religion of any kind.  It is the day when you can dress up to scare and offend.  It is the day whose sacrament is candy and whose penance is playing tricks -- what is not to love???

We have family and a few friends (some of them church folk with no place to go) on Thanksgiving and at Christmas it is barely family (what with all the worship services).  But on Halloween we welcome 50 to 100 to our door to pick out a small trick and enjoy a chocolatey treat.  I can see how Thanksgiving might be the very day to overcome our fears of our neighbors and push us to press the bell and get to know the strangers who live in our neighborhoods.  We say we are doing it for the kids but some of those kids were so small they had little appreciation for it all and did not get to enjoy much of the treats that got placed in the bags.  Once again, a holiday is often an excuse for us to exploit our kids for our own purposes -- though a costume and some candy hardly constitutes any real threat to them.

It all strikes me as a sign of the times to come.  The religious holy days that once marked our calendars have been replaced with holidays whose appeal transcends religion and faith.  Why we cannot even celebrate Columbus Day anymore without offending someone!  In the end, we strive to offend the least number of people or at least the people whose feelings no longer count for much.  So Christian holy days are fair game for exploitation and transformation into days that have little or no connection to their sources.  It was the Christ Mass but it is hardly Christ's or a Mass anymore that defines that day.  Thanksgiving is all about a bird and sports and prep for shopping in preparation for Christmas.  Halloween is the one day that is just about Halloween.  Try to connect it to All Saints' Day and people will squint at you in disbelief of its origins and nobody even thinks about Reformation Day on October 31 (not even many Lutherans -- except perhaps during a 500th year when you cannot forget it).  So, I guess Halloween is a perfectly American holiday, almost as American as apple pie, baseball, and the Fourth of July.

If somebody could only increase the economic impact of Halloween, who knows, it just might overtake Christmas!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The ladder. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 2B preached on Sunday, January 14, 2018.

     Ahhh, how the wonderful stories of Scripture come alive in our memories.  But I must confess I did not recall the part about Eli being nearly blind and the lamb almost going out in him.  Perhaps at my age it becomes a little personal.  Yet those are not just stories or details.  These all intersect in Christ and they exist to point to Him.

    Think of the story of Jacob.  So many years ago Jacob left Beersheba, headed toward Haran, and set up camp along the way.  And he dreamed.  Not a nightmare of spiders or snakes or of a beautiful woman or even of the future.  He dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven, of angels ascending and descending, and the promise of the Lord.  When he woke up he kicked himself because the Lord was in this place and in this dream and he did not know it.  The whole thing unsettled him as it would anyone who might have missed something amazing.  In the end, he set up an altar and made a vow and sealed that vow with a promise to give back to the Lord a tithe of all that the Lord gave to him.

    Fast forward by centuries and what Jacob could only dream, Nathanael saw with his own eyes.  It started off as innocently as did Jacob who tired and needed to stop along the way of his journey.  Philip was called by Jesus and he just had to tell Nathaniel what happened. The man to whom Moses looked in the Law and the prophet to gave voice to Israel’s hope was now among them.  Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Joseph.

    Nathanael is skeptical.  Nazareth?  What good comes from Nazareth?  It was a Gentile stronghold and notable for nothing.  Perhaps Nathanael was guided by a lifetime of hopes broken and dreams unfulfilled.  We are.  We find it hard to hope for anything and our dreams are held captive by our fears.  But Philip was not to be put off.  “Come and see.”

    And then there is Jesus, the ladder upon which God has descended to man and the only means by which man will ever hope to ascend to God.  Jacob’s dream is now flesh and blood. “Behold an Israelite in whom is no guile.”  It is less a description of the character of Nathanael than it is an absolution from on high.  The God who alone can forgive sins is now standing in front of him.  And this God in flesh absolves Nathanael and declares him righteous.

    Nathanael is taken aback.  How can Jesus know him?  How can Jesus absolve him?  But this is the God who sees what is in secret, who reads our hearts and minds like an open book, and who exposes what we bury to the light of His countenance.  It is shocking to Nathanael and it is to us.  We keep secrets for a reason.  We don’t want anyone to know our secrets and we presume we can even hide things from God.

    Nathanael is stripped bare and he understands who it is who is before him.  “You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!”  At one and the same time Nathanael wants to run away and hide and yet he wants to be near the Savior who bridges the great divide between heaven and earth, the One whose mercy is not put off by his secret sins.  It is no different for us.  We want forgiveness and we are in awe of Him who forgives us so graciously but at the same time we are put off by the God who knows everything about us and all our secrets.

    Jesus insists that this is not all Nathanael will see.  Heaven will hope.  The angels of God will ascend and descend upon the Son of Man.  There is much more before him.  It is at one and the same time a reminder to us that we come to God for small things while God is determined to do great things.  We pray for better health and God is ready to give us life without death.  We pray for a little extra money and God has given us the eternal treasure of His grace.  We ask for God to help when we cannot go it alone and God is ready to carry us the whole distance to heaven.  We want a good life now and God gives us eternal life.

    It is also a reminder that angels are not toys or playthings.  We put up our nice little images of angels but these messengers of God are largely invisible, doing God’s bidding without drawing any attention to themselves.  We think of them as kindly creatures who are over us but they can by terrorizing forces who kill at God’s command.  They serve God by serving us and they serve us best when all their work is credited to the Lord.

    Jesus is no angel.  He is the fulfillment of Jacob’s dream and the mighty Lord who sees into the hearts of men and exposes their secrets.  But He does so to forgive us.  The ladder of Jacob is not where we make our way to heaven on the steps of good works.  No, it is God who descends into the pit of our despair, into the domain of death, and into the darkness of sin and who comes to save us.  He opens heaven by His obedience in life and by the sacrifice of that life in death upon the cross.  He brings to us the mercy of God and we are reborn in its grace and favor.  Only in Christ is heaven opened to sinners like you and me.  Only in Christ are our sins forgiven and our lives reborn.  Only in Christ are we clothed in righteousness.  Only in Christ can we learn again the holy vocation of loving God and loving our neighbor.  Only in Christ can we be declared holy and do the bidding of the holy in worship and praise to God.
    Nathanael was skeptical.  What good comes from Nazareth?  We are skeptical.  We have been disappointed too many times before and our sins wreck our lives and steal our joy over and over again.  What good comes from Nazareth?  Jesus.  The Son of God who makes us sons of God by baptism and faith.  The Son of Man who wears our flesh to save us.  In Him mankind finds again the purpose and glory lost to us in one simple action of betrayal in Eden.  In Him the angels serve the Lord and rejoice over every sinner who repents.  In Him we see the ladder come down from above and as the angels go forth and return to the Father, Jesus is here in our midst, serving us still with the Word that forgives sins and the Supper that feeds us eternity.

    You are Nathanael.  The Lord has met you under the fig tree of His cross.  He has brought out into the light of day your sins.  But not to condemn you.  To save you.  He who knows your soul, grants you His Holy Spirit so that you may know the soul and will and purpose of God.  And in this wondrous moment, your sins are forgiven, you are declared righteous and holy, and you are given the new vocation of worship, witness, prayer and service which Adam once lost for you and all of us.  Here is heaven’s ladder.  Here is Christ come down.  Come and see.  Go and follow.  There is nothing greater in life than this.  Amen

Downward trend. . . Church is never trendy but not immune to trends, especially those that affect the bottom line of attendance and giving patterns.  A blog post a while ago addressed the idea that the new normal of active attendance is once monthly (down from three times monthly or more).  This highlights the overall trend down in terms of the percentage of income given by church members.  This has never been a great statistic and is downright embarrassing.  For all the talk of tithing and ten percent, the reality is that the average church member does not come even close to the minimum under the Law.

The percentage of a church member’s income given to the church dropped to 2.3 percent in 2011, down from 2.4 percent in 2010, and continues its slide slowly but surely.  Compare this to 1968 when church members gave an average of 3.1 percent of their income. Giving has declined in consecutive years since rebounding slightly after a drop during the economic decline in 2008 and thereafter. The only other period of prolonged decline in giving per member was from 1928 through 1934, corresponding almost entirely to the time of the Great Depression.

For what its worth, this does not mean that the total income is down.  In fact, for the LCMS statistics, overall congregational income continues to increase, although slightly, even though the giving per member shows some of the same inclinations common to other church bodies.

The end result is we must do more with less.  On a national level this means that only the core mission gets funded.  Essential services only the denomination can do are those which get the bulk of the funds.  While some of these are less than exciting and involve basic church structures, other parts of this are mission work that, although largely funded with individual support to the missionaries, still includes a great deal of synodical funds.  But the days of hefty payrolls and fully staffed national offices are long gone.  Those in the Missouri Synod love too impugn our Purple Palace but if you stop by you see office furniture that is 30-40 years old and worn, empty cubicles, and a much smaller crowd than in the past.  The glitter has worn off and the purple palace is in need of a flipper to come and spruce up the place and take care of major maintenance woes.

On a congregational level, the same thing happens.  Dollars to benevolence or missions beyond the local congregation are often used to fund essential needs just to keep the doors open.  With all of this comes the question of how congregations can afford a full-time pastor.  We see parochial schools closing and congregations looking at how to reduce budgets more than increase them.  It is a squeeze that finds the core mission of the congregation as much at risk as the fringe things that were once fully funded by member giving.  The challenge before us is clear and we either have to decide to make do with less or to find a way to encourage giving and reverse the national trend.

The surest way to hinder the work of the congregation and the church at large is to kill it by the slow death of withholding funds.  The surest way to make sure the congregation and the church at large does what it is supposed to do is to provide the funds so that it may do that work unhindered by a lack of resources, dollars, or people.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Ugliness be gone!

The 1968 version of the Catholic Student Center at the Univ. of Madison, Wisconsin:

One wag suggested this looked like the top of a hair clipper (at least from the outside) although the interior is both ugly and brutal.  It was reduced to landfill and has been replaced with something very different.

An improvement, don't you think. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Shortened Readings. . .

A thankful note to the Lutheran Service Book lectionary is the fact that shortened readings are done somewhat judiciously.  By a cursory examination, it appears that Series B has the fewest (12), then Series A (14), and Series C the most (24) with most in the Gospel or Epistle for the day.  I must admit that I am always hesitant to choose a shortened reading although I know that some routinely choose the shortened reading.

Across the three-year cycle of the Roman lectionary, there are a total of 49 occasions where at least one short form of a reading is optional. One blogger has suggested that this translates into between 20-28% of Masses on Sundays and Solemnities in any given liturgical year having shorter forms offered.

Most of these shortened readings, both for the Lutheran form of the 3 year lectionary and for Rome's, involve simply removing a few verses from before or after the main section of the reading.  In the Roman lectionary, however, there appear to be some edits in which internal verses are, in effect, edited out.

I fear that the sole reason for using the shortened version of the readings is to shorten the length of the service.  In even the most extreme cases, this is done for the sake of a couple of minutes.  But at what cost?  I understand the constraints of time.  We have two Divine Services every Sunday with a Sunday school and Bible study hour in between.  I well appreciate the need to keep to a schedule.  At the same time, I fear that choice of the readings is based solely on the desire to shorten the service and this option is chosen simply because the option is provided.  This is, in my view, the worst place to edit the liturgy.

If time is really a constraint, then there are a number of choices to shorten the Divine Service and to do it with sensitivity to the liturgical integrity of the rite.  Sing fewer hymns or choose hymns with fewer stanzas (I abhor shortening hymns as much as shortening the readings).  Preach a few minutes less.  Look at the possibilities for a more efficient (pardon the term) method of distribution.  If a choir sings, have them sing an integral part of the liturgy and not an added anthem.  Oh, and radical thought -- start on time.  In any of these choices, the liturgical integrity of the rite as well as the readings from the lectionary are treated with the respect they are due and not as things to be omitted for the cause of time.

I think this should not be a radical thought, although I fear it is.  We look at the Divine Service as if it were somewhat a burden or chore that we ought to dispense with as quickly as possible.  Truth be told, I seldom have a Divine Service on Sundays that is shorter than 70-80 minutes.  In part this is to remind those assembled that God's time is not ours, that we do not clock watch before the Lord nor do we judge God on the basis of brevity.  What is happening is too great a mystery and miracle to be counted with a stopwatch.  At the same time, there is no need to prolong the liturgy without purpose.  We have had services of several hours (an ordination and installation within the Divine Service) and we have weekday spoken liturgy that routinely lasts 45 minutes.  Time is a consideration but not a primary one.