Friday, February 22, 2019

Something to look forward to. . .

In the technology support department at the Vatican Museums, Villanova University student Justin Myers is spending a semester creating virtual tours of galleries, part of a larger project to make the museums accessible to everyone.

While the Vatican Museums website has some tours already available for individual parts of the museum, such as the Sistine Chapel, a seamless virtual walk-through tour is in the works, according to Myers, who has been developing and editing tours for nearly four months.

The idea is to create something that joins all the separate rooms together “so you can virtually walk through the entire museum,” said the 20-year-old computer science student from St. Peter Parish in Olney, Maryland.

“Almost all the rooms are done now that I’m finishing up my projects for the semester. Now we just have to link it all together, but that’s a huge project,” he told Catholic News Service Dec. 13.

The Vatican houses all sorts of treasures that too many of us never see.  Now perhaps we have a chance to visit without actually going there. . .

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Things are not always as they seem. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 6C, preached on Sunday, February 17, 2019, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    We trust our eyes the most; that’s just who we are.  We want visual proof.  We want to see the truth.  But our eyes can’t see everything.  Our eyes can be fooled; after all, that’s how magicians make their living.  We can see one thing, but reality can be something completely different.  Things aren’t always as they seem, especially when it comes to our lives of faith. 
     Today we heard Jesus speak His Beatitudes, and every time we hear these “blesseds” they sound like complete nonsense.  Jesus’ words don’t fit with how the world works.  They don’t line up with what we see.  “Blessed are you who are poor….Blessed are you who are hungry now….Blessed are you who weep now….Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil,” (Lk 6:20-22).  This makes no.  Looking at our world, we’d never say these people are blessed.  Driving by those who stand on the corner with signs saying “Will work for food,” we don’t say to ourselves, “Hey look, that’s one blessed guy.”  No, we think of them as unlucky at best and swindlers at worst.  Hearing about people who are bullied and persecuted, those who are being sued because they’ve try to live and work by their faith, we don’t think they’re blessed.  No, we view them as victims.  Nothing we see about these people and their circumstances ever suggest they’re blessed. 
After this Jesus continued to speak more nonsensical words.  “Woe to you who are rich….Woe to you who are full now….Woe to you who laugh now….Woe to you, when all people speak well of you,” (Lk 6:24-26).  Again, this is backwards.  This isn’t what we see.  Those who have money, those who have all their needs met, those who appear to have a happy life, those who have a good reputation, we don’t consider them cursed or woeful individuals.  No, we say they're blessed, that they’ve been given all the good stuff.  We envy them.  We want to be blessed like them. 
Christ’s words are completely counter-cultural and counter-experience.  We just don’t see it.  We don’t understand what He’s saying.  How can those who have nothing be blessed and those with everything be cursed? 
The truth of Christ’s words here aren’t based on what we see though; it’s not grounded in the world around us.  Instead, Jesus is speaking about faith, about the life of faith, about what and who we trust in. 
Jeremiah spoke similar words in the OT reading.  “Cursed is the man who trust in man and makes flesh his strength….Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD” (Jer 17:5, 7).  Jeremiah calls those who trust in man cursed because man will fail.  And this is why Jesus speaks His woes as well. 
Christ doesn’t speak His woes simply to those who have, but those who trust in the earthly things they have.  Man, others, ourselves, our strength, the things of this world like money, power, and reputation, all of these will fail.  People betray us.  Our health and strength gives way to disease and weakness.  We never have enough money and it only takes one slip up to ruin our reputation.  These things don’t last, and they can’t give us what we truly need.  These things can’t give us life.  Even though we look at them and see what they can give us in the here and now, they can’t provide us with the everlasting life we need.  By trusting in these things, we’re like a shrub in the desert with no water to survive.  We have no hope at all.  But trusting in the Lord, we’re like a tree planted by the water, remaining green forever.  We have what we need, and in that, we’re blessed. 
    Jesus spoke His Beatitudes after people came to see Him, the very type of people He called blessed: those with diseases, those troubled with unclean spirits, and those who were in need.  These were the outcasts of the society; men and women and children that no one wanted around.  And yet, that’s not how Jesus saw them.  They were blessed in their need because in Christ their need was met.  He healed them, He cleansed them of their unclean spirits, and He proclaimed the everlasting life of God’s kingdom. 
    When you hear Jesus speak His Beatitudes, He explains why the blessed are blessed.  It’s not because of the condition that they’re in, but in what will be.  They’re blessed because their need is fulfilled in Christ!  “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.  Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!  Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven” (Lk 6:20-23).  The people who came to see Jesus were blessed because they trusted in Him and He gave them what they needed.  He healed them and He brought them into His kingdom.  And this is exactly how we are blessed too.
    When we come before our Lord, trusting in His grace and mercy, recognizing our woeful and shameful condition; confessing our sin, knowing that He alone can meet our need with His forgiveness and His life, we are blessed; you are blessed. 
    Our Lord never fails, and He’ll keep His promises.  That’s what the Beatitudes are, promises.  Yours is the kingdom of God.  By His grace and mercy, because of what Christ has done for you with His death on the cross, atoning for your sin, and with His resurrection from the dead, overcoming death, you receive everlasting life.  This is a certainty, even when what you see with your eyes looks completely different.
    You and me, we’re the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and those who are reviled.  We go through life and have to endure all sorts of struggles, pain, and strife.  We appear to be pitiful and woeful individuals, but with faith in Christ, we’re not.  Trusting in the Lord, Your Savior, you are blessed because He gives you all that you need: forgiveness, life, and everlasting salvation.  In Jesus’ name…Amen.

The function of the catechism. . .

Some have suggested that there comes a time for a new catechism or at least a revision.  It is at one and the same time a curious statement.  I wonder if it just might forget the real purpose and value of a catechism.  The catechism is not a tool to be used to reflect change but rather one that promotes consistency and continuity, thus preserving the faith by passing on the sacred deposit faithfully.

A catechism is not, and has never been in history, seen as, an instrument for introducing new doctrine.  In Roman terms this would mean that a catechism is not a tool for the “development of doctrine” but is, in effect, just the opposite.  When a catechism is used to advance change, even rather deliberate change, the catechism betrays its purpose and history.  Although some would describe the catechism’s function as humble, that is, to pass on, simply and accurately, the pre-existing teaching of the Church, this is in reality not a humble task at all. To pass on the faith is the most basic and essential function of the faithful and the catechism is a tool of this noble purpose.

For Lutherans, the Small Catechism of Martin Luther has been the glue that binds the generations together and the common identity that spans geography as well.  Given that we live at a time when confirmation instruction is more varied and diverse than ever before and the very purpose and goal of this instruction is often up for debate, the Small Catechism has been a very effective agent in slowing the progress of change and transcending the diversity of method and content of confirmation instruction.  That is why the role of the Small Catechism at the center of the curriculum is so important and the abandonment of the Small Catechism in favor of other curricular material is so profound.

In the same way, periods of confessional and liturgical renewal have always come as the fruit of a time of catechetical renewal.  The catechism actually does function just as it is intended.  It preserves the faith and in this work of preservation sparks a renewal of that faith as the people of God are confronted with what was believed, confessed, and taught as a living voice and even a corrective one.  But increasingly the Church has grown restless with the past and impatient with the work of God and has determined to use the catechism for an alien work of introducing change and a disconnect with the past.

While this is certainly obviously truth with Rome as it struggles with the CCC and what to do with its words on homosexuality and the death penalty at a time when the public mood has moved away from the old positions (born of Scripture and tradition).  Not incidental is the role of Pope Francis to bring question if not disdain for those positions.  At the very least, this has introduced confusion -- something the catechism was designed to confront and resolve.  In this Lutherans should be paying attention.  Changing the catechism IS changing the faith.  It is one thing to make linguistic changes that reflect the change in vocabulary but it is quite another to change words because the intent is to change the meaning.

Some words to consider as we survey the chaos that appears to be the catechetical tradition of a church once united as much by that catechism as by the Lutheran symbols.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Sobering Statistics. . .

I have no more reliable statistics to point out the decline in American Christianity than the numbers of Roman Catholic churches that have closed.  According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the number of parishes in the United States fell sharply from 2000 to 2017, from 19,236 to 17,156, a drop of 2,080, compared to a decline of just eight parishes from 1985 to 2000.  This is such a big issue that a while back Rome actually had a conference on what to do with buildings once sacred but now unused or deconsecrated.  Beyond Rome the stats are sketchy. 

Some have claimed that between 6,000 and 10,000 churches in the U.S. are dying each year. That means around 100-200 churches will close this week (including all denominations and non-denominational as well).  n estimated 30,000 congregations shut their doors in the United States from 2006 to 2012. Yet a recent study finds good news for churches overall—including the lowest closure rate of any American institution.

According to a recent paper published by sociologist Simon Brauer in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the number of religious congregations in the United States has increased by almost 50,000 since 1998. A key reason: growth in nondenominational churches.  Using the National Congregations Study (NCS) conducted in 2006 and 2012, he estimates the number of congregations in the US increased from 336,000 in 1998 to a peak of 414,000 in 2006, but then leveled off at 384,000 in 2012.  In other words, Protestant congregations appear to die at the same time new open -- a far different scenario than Rome.  However, it is worth noting that denominational churches are the ones closing at a faster rate than non-denominational churches and more of the new ones opening are non-denominational.

The point is this -- there is a lot of real estate out there that was once considered sacred but now sits largely unused, empty, or has been repurposed for another but secular use.  Now if that building is a warehouse style structure like many newer non-denominational buildings and even denominational ones, who cares?  But what do you do with sacred art that cannot be taken down or all that stained glass or chancel appointments not likely to be reused?  Look on eBay.  They are for sale there -- at least a few of them.  It creates a confusion and certainly a disappointment for the faithful when they see a church building decaying and empty or what was clearly a church used for secular, even profane, purpose.  My sense of things is that this is but the tip of the iceberg.  There is more to come.  

While many of the buildings are in urban settings, many are also in rural settings.  As a child my family and I drove past a sister church building, an old wooden structure with a steeple, that had been sold at auction and was used as a hog house on a farm.  The steeple had been cut off but the line of the windows and the structure under what had been the steeple made it clear what it was before it was used for such an ignoble purpose.

But it does not have to be.  While Rome has priestly scandals and a shortage of priests that drive some of their numbers, many of the other situations happen in neighborhoods and settings where the majority of the population does NOT affiliate with any church at all.  I believe Jesus said something about the harvest being ripe.  Think about it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Being blessed. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 6C, preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Hopkinsville, KY, on Sunday, February 17, 2019

In the Gospel for today we encounter part of the Sermon on the Mount, specifically the Beatitudes – though something we normally hear from St. Matthew.  They are lovely words and we all love to hear them but they are hard words to keep.  The poor who see beyond their poverty to rejoice in the Kingdom, the hungry who are satisfied not by this food but the food of eternal life, the weeping who will laugh someday, the hated, reviled, and persecuted whose reward is not here but in heaven.  I mean really – who wants to settle for delayed rewards when you suffer present day hurt?

It does not get better.  Woe to the rich for this is as good as it gets, woe to the full who will learn hunger, woe to those who laugh because tears are coming, and woe to those of good reputation because the voices will turn on you – wait and see!  Who is comforted by such words?

When we die we will give up the pods the pigs eat for the Lamb in the Marriage Feast appointed on high.  When we die we will no longer have to war against desire and instinct in order to be holy.  When we die, the enemies so fierce in this mortal life will fade from sight and memory.  But what about now?  How do we escape the trials and troubles, sorrows and sighs, disappointments and death of this mortal life?  Where is our hope now?  Where is our joy today?  Is our only future a stiff upper lip in the face of a world falling apart in the hope of something better to come?

It may seem like Jesus is telling us to keep control of our feelings, not to give up, not to grow weary, and not to lose sight of the goal but that is not His message.  Jesus is contrasting the passions of the moment that will consume us for the passion that saves us – HIS passion.  Jesus has passion but it is not like ours.  He does not yearn for food for the body but the Bread of every Word from God’s mouth.  He does not seek riches that moth and rust destroy but the eternal treasure of love that does not fade away.  He does not give into His tears – which He does have – but for the joy set before Him endures the cross and scorns its shame.  He does not pander to people in order for people to like Him but endures the slings and arrows confident of the Father’s great love for Him.  Jesus is not filled with passion for Himself for His passion is for YOU and me.

Jesus will suffer and He will die and He will be laid in the grave – all the while enduring not only the rejection of those He came to save but the abandonment of the Father when on the cross He cries out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  Jesus is not without passion but His passion is for you and for me.  He will eat with sinners and die for them and cleanse them with His blood.

We are here today not because we hope God loves us but because we have seen that love in Christ.  The Savior who was baptized into our sin so we might be baptized into His righteousness.  The Lord who heals the sick to show He will heal the world by His death and resurrection.  The God who comes not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.  The Christ who stretches out His arms on the cross to set you free – the sinner who should suffer and die.  We do not live in doubt or fear of what God thinks of us.  We know.  We know His love in Christ.  And we know we don’t deserve it.  And this love has given us new life.

So the words here direct us first to Jesus whose passion fulfills these words for you and for me.  But they are also directed at us.  Where is the focus of our passion?  Where is the desire of our hearts?  Because we are not who we were but by baptism have been born again, our passion is directed not on the things of this moment or even on ourselves but upon Jesus.  Because we know the power of God’s love, the desire of our hearts is not on the passing treasures of this moment but upon the eternal treasure of God’s love.

And what does it look like?  It looks like this.  We are not defeated and even in our weakest moments we are conquerors in Christ.  We are not the tired and weary who give up the fight, but we shall fight the good fight with all our might to belong to Christ and live in Him by His Word and Sacraments.  We are not the people whose passions rule our minds but the people whose minds are transformed by the Spirit to rule our hearts with self-control.  We are not the people who see with our eyes but who see by faith what our eyes cannot yet see.  God is with us, God has saved us, and God will deliver us to everlasting life.

What does it look like to belong to Christ?  We delight in His commandments and desire to be holy as Christ is holy and to be righteous as He is righteous.  We will live this out in our homes as husbands love and care for their wives and as wives love and care for their husbands.  We will live this out by loving our children and caring for them, not only in the needs of this life but by bringing them to Jesus in baptism and teaching them the faith at home.  We will live out this faith by hearing the call of God to come together in the Lord’s House, on the Lord’s Day, around the Lord’s Word and Table – not as a people who must convince ourselves we have to but because this is who we are.  We are the Lord’s and this is where God calls us to be.  We will give as generously as the Lord has given us to make sure this church endures, a pastor will be called, and a place will survive us – to care for our children, our grandchildren, and for the strangers we have not yet met who will come to Christ and meet here in this house of the Lord for prayer and praise.  We will serve our neighbors not because we like them or they are nice but because this is who we are and this is what Christ has done for us.

Dear friends, now is not the time to live in doubt or fear.  Now is the time to fear and love God, to learn passion for the things of God and His House.  For God has revealed to you the depths of His heart through His Son, Jesus Christ.  He has loved you with the everlasting love strong enough to endure the cross and grave and to rise again so that you might be His own and live under Him in His eternal kingdom.  Be of good cheer.  Rejoice and leap for joy, for your reward is great in heaven.  You are not the first to whom this call to faith and life in Christ is given and you will not be the last.

You may not be great or famous or live a fairy tale life but the Lord calls you blessed.  You are blessed not because you are poor but because Christ was made poor for you.  You are not blessed because you are hungry but because your hunger is satisfied by the Word of God.  You are not blessed because you weep but because His joy will erase all tears and sorrows.  You are not blessed because the world hates you but because God loves you.  So do not lose heart and do not be afraid.  You belong to the Lord by baptism and you live in Him by faith.  He will not allow your enemies to triumph over you but will deliver you from all your enemies and bring you into His everlasting presence in Christ.  And until that day, this is our consolation, this is our hope, this is our joy, and this is our peace that passes understanding.  Amen.

Whose failure?

The USA Today story on the parent's reaction to the priest's homily at the funeral of their teenage son who took his own life has gotten a life of its own.  You can read the actual homily here.  You can read their comments, well, just about anywhere.  Their complaint is that the priest did not use the homily to celebrate the life of their son, tow their son lived and not how he died, and certainly no calling their son a sinner or mentioning suicide (6 times).

The question in my mind has less to do with the priest than it does with the family and the church and preaching as a whole.  If this family was active in their church and did not just seek out a church for the sake of the funeral, and I am not saying that they did, either this family had not been listening to Scripture or preaching OR the priests had not been faithful to the Scriptures and preaching faithfully the whole counsel of God's Word.  For the issue is not whether the words of the priest were hurtful or not (when your teenage son takes his own life, just about any words you hear are hurtful in some way) but whether or not the people had failed to listen or the church had failed to preach.  Perhaps both.

The celebration of life mentality has no room for such things as sin and death.  It consoles with the hollow hope of a happy story, a rich memory, and a funny joke.  The fact that we as people have allowed things to get to this point, is testament to our own failure to know the Word of God and heed its truth and wisdom.  Redemption does not celebrate or complete the past and the funeral certainly does not canonize the dead.  Redemption answers sin with the blood of Christ that cleanses us from sin, rescues us from God's punishment for sin by bearing its full weight upon the shoulders of our Savior, and answers death's reign with the triumph of the resurrection.  At the time of death our hope lies not in what we remember about the dead but the promises made in baptism, affirmed in faith, lived out at the altar rail, and sealed in the death that is not death anymore.  The funeral, like the Mass or Divine Service, nurtures us in this faith by recalling our baptismal gift, rehearsing the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, feeding us upon the body and blood of our Lord, and teaching us how to live out this new identity as the people of God now, in preparation for everlasting life.

Who failed this family?  If their church was not preaching and teaching this Gospel, the church failed them long before the funeral.  If this was the preaching and teaching of the church but they refused to hear or failed to listen or chose the empty comfort of a life celebrated rather than the resurrection of the dead, then the family bears the responsibility.  This is exactly why preaching matters, why teaching is so important, why knowing the Word of God is key, and why we grieve not as the ignorant who have no hope, only a memory.

Could the priest have done better?  Of course.  But what he said was not the biggest problem.  When the churches fail to preach this Word of God or the people whose to listen to other voices, there is nothing to console our grief, heal our woulds, instill hope in our despair.  We are all sinners.  Nothing new here.  Our hope rests not in a memory but in the fact of Christ crucified and risen.  Our life is hidden with Christ, first through baptism and finally in death.  It is Christ who is at the core and center and it is Christ who gives us a future.  Any words you say other than this are just words but this Word (Christ) has the power to rescue us from the worst moments this life can offer.  I am sad for the family who did not hear this and even sadder for churches where this is not preaching and taught.  God will have something to say to those who refuse to hear but He will also have something to say to unfaithful shepherds who preach no Word or any words in place of the Word made flesh, suffered, died, and rose again.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The New Puritans. . .

Conservatives are usually the ones accused of being control freaks.  They are the big bad oppressive collective conscience sneaking into the bedrooms of America.  In reality, it is just the opposite. Oh, it is true that conservatives do not to promote the collective morality of right and wrong but they have little interest in being thought police or monitoring the bedrooms of the world.  They do believe that what is promoted in the media should not be the base and vulgar character of who we are but our better face, our nobler identity, and the virtuous over either the mundane or the evil.

No, the conservatives are not the new Puritans.  It is another movement for which the desire is to control not only what is said in public but what is thought.  No one must be allowed to say or even to think (if that thinking might influence action) anything contrary to what political correct thinking has determined is good, right, and true.  Take the whole idea of transgender and the great debate of which bathroom should be used.  Take the whole idea of the #metoo movement for which guilt need not be judged by any court for the individual to be condemned.  Take the "Baby, Its Cold Outside" Christmas song objections that cause some radio stations to pull a staple from their playlist.  The list keeps getting longer.  In fact, this group had to invent a new term (intersectionality) to figure out the ranking when the same individual has conflicting identities (a white gay male who is two strikes the oppressor for being white and male but gets one strike subtracted for being an oppressed identity as a gay white male).  Wow.  The lengths some will go to tell you how to map out the world according to the new standards -- not of right or wrong but of what is tolerated and what is not.

These postmodern Puritans not only want to control what appears in social media, what can be said on air, what music can be played, and what cannot be tolerated.  No, indeed, these Grinches get to decide what the standards are and change them at will.  So, returning to the Christmas playlist scandal, White Christmas is inherently racist -- even though it is about snow!  So the morality of  1940s America and Baby, Its Cold Outside does not matter but in a rape culture of the 21st century the police can change the laws to decide what is allowed and what is too abhorrent to be tolerated.  The creche is out, the burka is in.  Go figure.  The Christians are the oppressors and those without any real convictions are the victims.  Truth is determined by the feeling or the moment or the subjective judgment of the individual.  In the end, it is about control.  Conservatives want to conserve values that have stood the test of time and believe in what Benedict XVI defined as a hermeneutic of continuity.  Not so the post-modern purveyors of truth in a can, drink it up, pee it out and toss away the can (oops, recycle -- make the truth into something more usable!).

The Church must do more than simply survive, she must unmask these lies as often and as much as she is able.  This starts less with the public war of words than it does faithful teaching in the home.  This is what I get from the Benedict Option.  Not so much a disengagement as much as a doubling down to make sure that Christianity is believed and lived where it is supposed to be -- first in the home, then in the relationship to neighbor, and finally in the good citizenship that honors the rule of law as long as God's Law will allow.  It is not a fight for control but for the freedom to be who we are -- something the Bill of Rights was thought to have guaranteed but maybe not so much now.  It is not simply a freedom to believe as you choose or to worship whom you choose but to live out this faith.  If it is guaranteed for the Nones but forbidden for those who confess the Nicene Creed, then we have a constitutional problem.  Again, the Church is not the oppressor, the new force of Puritanism.  That role has already been claimed by those who drew a line in the sand and then keep on drawing the line wherever they choose.