Wednesday, November 25, 2020

One last look at the Church Year past . . .


Not safe. . .

Catching up on my reading (I am always behind), I encountered the interesting article from the FIRST THINGS blog called, Morbid Safetyism

You can read the whole thing but I must admit that I was captivated by the title and loved the final two paragraphs:

. . .how much “life” we are willing to give up for the sake of secondary goods. These secondary goods, like health and safety, undoubtedly make life better, but certainly don’t define it, not even in the abstract. A good life isn’t just an additive bundle of all the secondary goods. It isn’t worth more if we are healthy, or able-bodied. And anything truly great requires real risks.

A morbid obsession with safety jettisons life in order to preserve life. (As I have six sons, this is a lesson I have to learn over and over again!) I hope that the political realignments of our time will include serious pushback against the notion that policy and class preferences for eliminating risk have moved us closer to the good life, or even to the good society. A sanitized life is no way to live.
Interesting questions.  When did the safety of life begin to be at odds with such things as having a child or going to work or, shall I say it, going to church?  Health and safety make our lives better -- who can argue with that -- but they are not ends in and of themselves.  At least they were not until COVID 19 came along and people began to look at anyone and everything as a threat.

I do recall Dr. Fauci, ever present voice of the corona virus pandemic, who said that he did not expect to see or hold a new grandchild or shake hands or spend holidays with the larger family.  In other words, he was willing to change his life and give up some of the things that were once prime indicators of what a good life well lived was about (children, meeting people, making friends, and celebrating occasions) in order to prevent getting that dreaded virus.  But what kind of life is a sanitized life in which we peer into the nursing home through an exterior window to see loved ones isolated there or content ourselves with Facetime with the grandkids or keep our distance from those who might prove to be our best friends or to give up church (and its foretaste of eternal life) for a safer life now (not better though it might be safer)?

A bubble wrapped existence is not life -- real life has hardship, risk, threat, and blessing that must be held in tension.  No one is suggesting that we flaunt every safeguard but to give up what were once the very marks of a rich life for a sanitized one leaves us poor and alone.  Maybe you are willing to live such a life.  I am not.  And I do not believe a Christian can live such a life either.  The sanitized life would have left Jesus distant from the lepers, the needs of people, and the sinner's shame.  There can be no Good Samaritan in a sanitized life (or one who merely thinks good thoughts as he passes by on the other side).  St. Paul's analogy of the Church as the Body of Christs implies that we are connected in more than a mental or spiritual way.  The bread broken and cup shared exemplify this unity in time that we confess exists also beyond the reach of clock or calendar.  

This sanitized life is the same sort of screwed up stuff that comes from those who insist you must love yourself first or you cannot love your neighbor.  This sanitized life sees faith as a solitary endeavor, a life lived outside the pale of human connection, and without incurring any cost or risk.  That life may be what folks want but it is not the life that Jesus lived or the life that He calls us to -- take up the cross and follow Me (especially when that cross may be the morbid concern for safety that threatens our community in Christ and our own faith.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Architecture that shows where we are headed and not where we are. . .

The problem with newer church buildings generally is that they focus on where we are and not where we are headed.  Even the ubiquitous A-frame of the 1950s and 1960s had a definite peak pointed beyond those gathered in its aisles.  It may not have been all that pretty and it was certainly cheap to build but its intention was still to point us to that which was to come.  The buildings formed from industrial materials with warehouse or retail style focus fail miserably in this regard.  Some of them have black painted ceilings to hide the exposed mechanicals and to keep the eye focused on the stage.  Some buildings have such low roofs as to make the room seem like folks are squeezed into a shoe box -- no matter how large the physical size -- and the end result is an uncomfortable closeness with those around you without the intentional discomfort of your smallness before the Mighty God.

I suppose the architecture only follows the focus of what happens inside and when the focus from the stage or lectern is on improving the present moment, that is what the room will echo.  That is, of course, the modern foible.  Too many churches seem intent upon helping people find happiness or success in the present moment but seem unprepared or unwilling to be ready for what is to come -- much less anticipate that awesome fulfillment.  We were well on our way toward this goal of focusing almost exclusively on the present before COVID came along and helped to steal our attention on the preservation of this life rather than the preparation for the life to come.  But modern Christianity has gone even further in this direction and is now even more distant from the themes of Jesus' preaching.

Architecture of old was an aid to keeping the attention of God's people and those who serve them where that attention belongs.  Repentance, readiness, and rejoicing in the promise being fulfilled as we speak.  There is less talk of repentance today perhaps because of less talk of sin.  There is less talk of readiness for the kingdom of God perhaps because we either no longer care about it or are so sure of it (cheap grace) that it does not matter to us all that much.  And there is less rejoicing in the promise because we have so much to rejoice in now -- our vast technology, our entertainment culture, our preoccupation with feelings, and our abundance of free time.

The architecture of old intended to make us seem small.  Because we are.  We are not demigods nor are we gods.  We are sinful people, marked for death, and without hope in ourselves.  That message is not popular but it is the only way that the cross makes sense.  Without an acknowledgement of our sinful smallness, the cross ends up being some ill-conceived attempt to inspire selflessness.  All well and good if Jesus dies but not so good if we are the ones dying!  As St. Paul reminds us, it is hard enough to find folks to die for a good cause much less for an uncertain or less than noble one.  Sitting in church is meant to remind us that God is great, mighty, and a force to be reckoned with.  It is meant to confront us with the unpleasant prospect of meeting this God alone.  It is also to point us to where this God has met us -- in the promise laid down from the beginning of the ages, fulfilled in Christ's flesh and blood, revealed in His suffering and death, and triumphant in the resurrection from the dead.  The building was both the place where we met the stark reminded of what sin did and our helplessness to repair it and what God has done and the hope of a future far beyond this present reality.

What happens in worship is the same.  We begin with the general confession which is sort of a hit in the gut before we ever approach God.  But God's response is to absolve the penitent and give us a place in His presence.  The liturgy rehearses the works of God in saving us and delivers to us the fruits of that redeeming work in the Word that gives life and the Body and Blood of Christ that feeds us this life as the foretaste of the eternal which is to come.  We leave having had our focus turned from the present and all of its evil and disappointment to the future and all of its promise.  Hope restored, we walk forth into the world as agents of this future destiny, doing the good works that display in a moment in time the eternal love that has redeemed us and paid for the sin of the whole world.  Architecture can either aid in this task or fight against it.  It is never neutral.  Just like the music in the Divine Service, it either complements the Gospel or contradicts or conflicts with it.

So I would gladly prefer an old A-frame to the metal skinned warehouses or low roof living rooms that too often are what passes as space for worship.  It is not preference but it is about that which echoes the Gospel in turning us from ourselves to Him in whom we have forgiveness, life, salvation, and an eternal future.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Sheep and goats

Sermon for Pentecost Last, the reign of Christ the King, preached on Sunday, November 22, 2020.

     Reading through this parable of judgment, it occurred to me that the Lord has it all backwards.  He should have begun not with the sheep but with the goats.  Apparently our Lord did not attend a sermon class at a Lutheran seminary or He would have known the Law comes before the Gospel, not after it.  But alas, He is the Lord and so He violates all the good little rules we have established to box God in and to define who God is and what He says.  That said, this is only a hint of the surprise we find in this story of judgment.  Part of it rests with who are the sheep and who are the goats.

    Although Jesus does not follow the Lutheran rules, we do so let us begin with the goats, with the Law.  It is our common presumption that these are terrible people.  They do not put cans of corn in bags for the food pantry or take care of their yards.  They are not good parents and their children end up good for nothing kids without education or employment.  Of course, the big sinners are numbered here – everyone from Hitler to terrorists to mass shooters.  But with them we tend to lump all the people we do not like.  From neighbor to co-worker to stranger across the globe, the goats are bad people and the sheep are good people.  But that is not what Jesus said.

    The goats probably were good people in the eyes of the world.  They were not druggies or irresponsible or poor parents or on the welfare rolls.  I suspect that they were Christians who went to Church and gave money to the poor and dropped off clothes to Good Will and took care of neighbors in distress and made sure their kids when to the good colleges and got good jobs.  For what is contrasted here are not works but faith.  That is why Jesus puts the sheep first.  He is commending faith.  From Hebrews we know that without faith it is impossible to please God.  Jesus is not in conflict with the author of Hebrews.  It is the same message.  The central point in it all is faith.  What marks the difference between sheep and goats is faith, faith, and only faith.

    When the sheep are confronted with the works of faith, they do not see them.  When did we do these, Lord?  They do not see because faith focuses not on our works but on the saving work of God in Christ.  Faith is fixed upon the death and resurrection of Jesus.  That is all faith sees and it is the only thing that matters.  Their surprise to the notice of the Lord is because they cannot count their good works.  They can only count the great good work of God who sent His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  They are not surprised that they are sheep.  They know they are and believe they are.  That is because they see the cross and believe in His saving death and cleansing blood.  They believe in their baptism.  They believe in the Word preached and the creed confessed.  They believe in Communion.

    The goats have all the outward marks to show the world they are good people but the one thing that they lack is faith.  “When did we see you, Jesus?”  They did not see Jesus but they did see what they did or did not do that they thought was worthy of notice.  They saw how hard they tried to be good people but they did not see their great need to be saved.  They saw every opportunity to do the right thing but they did not see what Jesus did to be the only thing by which they were saved.  They did everything right but they did not have faith.  They did not see Jesus.  Not in baptismal water giving them a life they did not deserve, not in the voice of absolution forgiving them of sins worthy of death, not in the Word of God speaking eternal truth, and not in the bread and wine that is His flesh and blood.  The sheep see only Jesus but the goats do not see Him at all.

    This is not a parable about works at all.  This is a parable about faith.  The sheep ask when DID we do these works of faith, Lord.  They do not count their works to earn them anything nor do they expect their works to be noticed or rewarded.  But the goats see only their works.  When did we NOT see you or NOT do these things?  You may have read this parable for years and presumed that Jesus was telling you the bottom line of judgment is works but what Jesus is pointing to is the bottom line of faith.  The great difference between the sheep and the goats is not what they did or did not do but faith.  How they saw themselves and how they saw Jesus was the mark of distinction that Jesus is pointing us to see.

    By the way, this is not a parable of judgment but rather a sentencing hearing.  The judgment has already been rendered.  This judgment does not take place at the last day but on the day when our Lord mounted the altar of the cross, when He paid the price for your sin and mine, when He died to deliver us from Satan and from the destiny of Satan and his ilk, and when the Father accepted this sacrifice and counted it on behalf of you and me and all the elect.  That was judgment day – Good Friday.  What Jesus is talking about is sentencing day.  When Good Friday is applied.

    At sentencing day, the verdict of the judgment already rendered is put into force, for all eternity.  The sheep hear the sentence they will suffer for all eternity.  “Come, ye blessed of My Father,” says Jesus.  “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you.”  Nobody earns a kingdom or an inheritance.  It is yours only by gift.  That is the judgment we shall suffer.  “Come, and get all that I have prepared for YOU.”  Who would live in fear of such a sentence?  The sentence is not a surprise to us for this is the very promise of Jesus.  This is why He was incarnate into the womb of Blessed Mary, why He was born in flesh, why He lived a holy and righteous life of perfect obedience, why He manifested the Kingdom in words and works, why He willingly offered Himself to the cross, why He suffered and died there, and why He rose on the third day never to die again.

    But the goats will be surprised.  They were watching themselves and looking for God to watch them as well.  They thought they were doing okay.  They loved Jesus not as Savior or Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world but as Rabbi and teacher and example to follow.  They saw love not as a gift in the cross but as a command to be fulfilled.  They will be shocked when the sentence comes down.  Enter straight away to eternal punishment.  Do not pass go.  Do not collect $200.  Only punishment!

    The goats thought works were essential and sincerity mattered but faith was flexible.  The sheep knew that faith was essential and works and sincerity mattered only because of faith.  Without faith it is impossible to please God.  That is what they knew so they did not bother to keep track on a spreadsheet all their tiny good works but kept their focus on the great work of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.  They rejoiced to be relieved of the burden of works to live in joy of grace, gift, and mercy.  They willing surrendered their good works to be forgotten so that they might remember only Jesus and what He did to deliver them from sin, death, and everlasting condemnation.

    Friends, we keep trying to make religion about works.  This is not a small problem but the greatest problem of all.  The works we take seriously only belong to Christ.  Our works may help our neighbor but they cannot advance our cause with God.  God has already rendered the judgment that counts.  He counted Jesus guilty so that we might be counted just.  He put all of our sins on Jesus so that we might be forgiven.  He gave to us the reward that Jesus earned for His holy living and life-giving death and now we look forward not to limbo or uncertainty but eternal life in the presence of God, with all the saints, and the fullness of joy that knows no end.

    You are the sheep.  Don’t act like goats.  This is even more important in times like these when you are tested by uncertainty and tried by fear.  Faith first.  That is your highest priority.  Faith first in your time and talent and treasure – being in God’s House, receiving His gifts, and responding with voices in praise and prayer, and lives of sacrifice and service to His glory.  That is all that matters.  Not the troubles you endure or the works of your hands but only Christ and only what He has done to save and only faith to trust in Him.  Everything else will pass away and only what is in Christ will endure.  You are in Christ.  Live in this faith.  Amen.

Some clarity and hope for a Lutheran university. . .

As we all know, the Lutheran university is facing a host of challenges -- indeed the very idea of a Christian university is under assault.  We are facing the demise of such schools due to their indistinguishable identity from secular institutions, the press of culture to define what is taught, learned, tolerated, and approved on our campuses, and the financial cost of such schools.  I have written often about this challenge.  I point you to one refreshing bit of candor from the new President of Concordia University Chicago and some hope for the goal of recapturing the whole idea of a Lutheran university.



Sunday, November 22, 2020

Where are we getting it?

According to the Wall Street Journal, German authorities say they don’t know where 75% of people who currently test positive for the coronavirus got it. In Austria, the figure stands at 77%. In Spain, the health ministry said that it was able to identify the origin of only 7% of infections registered in the last week of October. In France and Italy, only some 20% of new cases have been linked to people who previously tested positive.  Lest we presume this is due to European ineptness,  “The vast majority of the remainder [of the new cases in NYC] —somewhere probably around 50% or more—we don’t have a way to directly attribute their source of infection,” Mr. Varma [Senior Advisor for Public Health for the Mayor's Office]  said. “And that’s a concern.”

Because we do not know where the infections are coming from, the blame game is up again.  In Europe it is pointed toward restaurants.  Researchers from Stanford University and Northwestern University have used the mobile-phone data of 98 million Americans to model how the virus spread during the first wave of Covid-19 in the spring.  The study, published in journal Nature this past week, showed that restaurants, gyms, hotels, cafes and religious organizations carried the biggest risk of spreading infections.  This is because the virus tends to spread fastest in closed, poorly ventilated and crowded spaces.  Apparently these researches have not been in any churches over the past six to eight months!

Churches are a convenient scapegoat for the increasing uncertainty about where people are getting this pernicious virus.  They are convenient because churches tend to be independent and to lack the financial resources and media access to combat the charges laid against them.  They are a scapegoat because religion is no longer the paragon of virtue and the necessity to life it once was.  In fact, most Americans tend to believe that the best adherents are those who are skeptical about the religious claims of their faith and who pick and choose from doctrine the way people once made their way through a buffet line (before they became passe).  The reality is this.  Churches, at least most of them, have neither been full or poorly ventilated for a very long time.  About the last thing people will economize on is their comfort that this applies to churches (most generally very well cooled and heated and cleaned).  They are closed in one sense -- they have doors -- but they are not closed in.  Most churches have high ceilings and a great volume and quantity of space per worshiper present -- more so than just about anywhere!  You are more likely to be distant from folks in a church building than you are at Wal-Mart and yet people have not stopped shopping!

My complaint here is that this is shoddy reporting and shallow research.  Instead of relying upon anecdotal evidence, they need to show up on a Sunday morning and see.  Our building has every other pew roped off, individual seats spread out, and people are in close proximity to each other for barely a few moments during the worship time.  We have four HVAC units going constantly in a building with a 37 foot high ceiling, wider than it is deep, and with 40% or more of our people wearing masks.  If everyplace Americans went was as socially distant, clean, and well-ventilated as our church building, perhaps we would not be seeing such spikes.  Outside of a few crackpot pastors and odd congregations here and there, everyone I know is doing everything possible to keep their members safe while they are in church on Sunday morning.  Given the shrinking size of most congregations, I don't know of one pastor who is willing to write off any regular worshiper for the sake of making some kind of political statement.  Not to mention the shortage of good givers!

Plus, how many people have been in church lately?  A quick survey of the blogosphere shows that most Protestant congregations have a significant number of their people worshiping online.  Those who have primarily inperson worship have had reduced numbers in the building.  Lets be honest here.  Churches are easy targets for explaining the unknown of COVID infections.  But easy and convenient may not be accurate. 

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Have we become wimps?

A few weeks ago I looked across the church, spread out because of every other pew roped off, and was even more conscious of the people who were not there than those who were.  I suppose it is a shepherd's habit to notice more the ones missing than the ones present.  But in this case it was not a simple matter of counting noses.  It was a growing sense that perhaps those absent now will remain absent in the days to come -- that there might be nothing I can do or anyone can to get them back (except the Lord, of course).  It made me think.

I thought of the old advice -- a home going pastor makes for a church going people.  I wish that were true.  Well, no, I don't.  Of all the things I dislike about being a pastor, one of them I detest most is the idea that my job is to be the conscience of God's people and that I am responsible for their failure to hear and heed the call of God.  I do go after folks and remind them of their place around the Word and Table of the Lord -- with the rest of God's people in this place.  When people see me and they have not been in church for a while, I hear excuse after excuse as it I were the one they needed to mollify with their good and legitimate reasons for missing.  But it is not me to whom they must answer.  I will preach pointedly and bluntly the Word of the Lord and will admonish the erring from their ways but it is the Lord's Church and the people of God are accountable to HIM.  Pastors sometimes forget this.  People, too.

It occurs to me that we have it so much easier than those who went before us.  Too easy?  We have too many distractions, too many things competing for our time and interest, and too many choices.  I grew up in one of those homes where I knew that unless my parents encountered a cold dead body in the bed on Sunday morning, I knew where I would be.  My brother knew it as well.  It was in the DNA.  We went when the pavement was icy, when snow blew across the gravel road, when it seemed like the rain would wash us away, and when we were holding back the sniffles of a coming cold.  But we had it easier than those who went before us.  They encountered a cold church and waiting for heat in the winter and put up with noisy fans circulating the heat in the summer.  All while wearing suits and ties and dresses considered worthy of God's House!  

The pandemic has given us an excuse to give into our fears, to be sure, but it has also allowed us to surrender to a whole lot of other things.  If we can watch church on TV in our pjs and sip coffee along with listening to the hymns and sermons of online services, we have the ultimate choice.  The appeal of the virtual church will not soon go away because we are ever more susceptible to our weaknesses.  We have become wimps.  We will not put up with much to go to church on Sunday morning.  We won't tolerate inconvenience, we will not turn down a more interesting or pleasurable alternative, and we won't allow ourselves to be bored.  If the pastor is not on his game, we will find something else to do.  If the facilities are not up to snuff, we will find some place better.  If the coffee does not suit us, we will hold it against God.  Our expectations are greater than ever and our patience has worn ever so thin.  We are not simply picky.  We are wimps.

Prosperity is a tool of the devil because it makes us soft.  We live in a world of choice and preference and high definition life.  We will not long tolerate a church that does not live up to expectations.  It is not because we are erudite and educated.  We are soft.  We have become accustomed to people, business, and religion than panders to us.  The devil must be laughing at how easy it is to use our abundance against us.  And it must grieve the Lord that He has given us so much and we are not willing to give up anything or risk anything or put ourselves out for anything in return.

Suffering is not in our vocabulary anymore.  Your body hurts, take a pill.  Your life is not what you want it to be, make it over.  Your marriage is not giving you what you think you deserve, end it and find somebody better.  We unfriend, block, and report everyone and everything that does not live up to our picky expectations and God gets treated like everything and everyone else.  What do we have in common with Christians who lived under constant threat and uncertainty?  What do we have in common with churches suffering persecution simply for believing and worshiping according to Scripture?  We are wimps.

We would rather pray for God to deliver us from unpleasantness than to endure troubles, trials, or temptations.  We would rather find a way around the mountains in our path than climb over them.  But Scripture reminds us that those who endure to the end will be saved.  God is our hiding place and He is our refuge but in His wisdom He will not deliver us from every little thing and even some very big ones we are sure we would be better off without.  We all have thorns in the flesh that are meant to drive us into the arms of Christ, to stand in the strength of Christ, and to depend less upon our own strength, wisdom, or cleverness and more upon the steadfast love of the Lord.  We are wimps.  

Pray that God will make us more than weak and cowardly people.  Pray that He will enable us to endure to the day of His coming and find in Him grace sufficient for each day's trouble and mercy new every morning.  Pray that the cross will shine forth to us as well as through us so that we know the cost of our salvation and can bear our daily crosses without complaint.  The world is not improving.  Things are not getting better and better.  With every technological advance comes untold consequences not so delightful.  And we find it harder to trust in the Lord.  But as dark as it can get, as prone as we might be to despair, as short as our tempers may grow, God will grant us all we need to endure.  And he who endures to the end will be saved.  God will make something of us yet.  If we only let Him.