Tuesday, July 26, 2016

It's my fault. . .

An honest Roman Catholic priest by the name of Richard Heilman wrote humbly and profoundly about the urgency of catechesis and the consequence of remaining silent or aloof from the changes of this culture and our society.  His words ought to compel every orthodox Christian pastor who is tempted not to speak or to speak in an oblique way the challenges we face and the pressing priority of knowing who we are, what we are here to do, and how we must accomplish it for the cause of Christ and His kingdom.  I urge you to read his words and consider what he has said.

After that, it is incumbent upon us to make sure that it does not continue to be our fault.  In other words, if we will acknowledge what it is that is our failure, let us make sure that we are doing everything we can to prevent this from being the continuing error of Christians unable to know the difference between the ways of the world around them and their own faith rooted and planted in Christ and ill-equipped to respond to the ways of the world except to conform.  The real issue for us is not simply pointing out the problem, but marshaling every resource to prevent this problem from being the constant crutch of a crippled Church, unwilling or unable to prepare our people to see through the fog to know who they are in Christ and what Gospel they are here to confess and live.

I am a Roman Catholic priest. I believe the Catholic Church was instituted by the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity. If our Church’s claim is true (and it is), then this Catholic Church was given to us as the very “hope for humanity” … as a way to lift civilization out of self-centered barbarism to a civilization of altruistic love. That’s no small thing. It is everything! This choice to establish this Church was “God’s Way” of redeeming His children.

As we look at this horrible, horrible 2016 Presidential election, I believe the problem is not the Party. The problem is us. Better yet, the problem is me. I am not going to get into what I believe all of us priests and bishops have done or have not done … I leave that up to their own personal discernment. I can only speak for myself.

I am a weak spiritual leader who has led us to a place where “conservatives” cannot get elected or stay in office without making horrible compromises. I take the blame on this one.

I sat by and allowed sappy, effeminate, profane liturgies demoralize and deaden the hearts of our Catholic men (and many Catholic women). I remained mostly silent as feminists stripped our men of their dignity as husbands and fathers and spiritual heads of their households. I remained mostly silent as men slipped into the soul-deadening addiction of internet pornography. I remained mostly silent as liberal ideologues captured the attention of our youth. I remained mostly silent when our own Catholic leadership watered down and compromised the values and principles and morals of a once solid bedrock of faith in a tempted world. I remained mostly silent as our beloved Catholic Church was turned from a powerhouse of prayer and supernatural grace into one among many secular non-government organizations.

As I stated, the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity established this Catholic Church as the hope for humanity, but I have allowed it to become something of little relevance in most people’s lives. Now, less then 25% bother coming to worship God on a regular basis (closer to only 5% in Europe). Now, it seems, even a vast majority of those who attend no longer even believe the Eucharist is God.

As a result of all of this, our world is unmoored from the Presence and Power of God, and so we have quickly reverted to the barbarism of those who once never knew God at all. Evil has accelerated on all sides, and we have no defense against its expansion.

Lord, teach us to pray. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 10, Proper 12C, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich, on Sunday, July 24, 2016.

          We all know prayer is important.  It’s necessary for our Christian lives.  God has commanded us to pray and we want to obey this command.  All of us want a rich prayer life, to always come before God with our petitions and supplications.  But we don’t always do this, because prayer is difficult for us.  It’s not natural, it’s not something we automatically do.  Prayer is something we must learn, something that our Lord must teach us. 
          The disciples knew this.  They came to Jesus and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Lk 11:1).  The Twelve saw John the Baptist teach his followers to pray, and they saw Jesus praying all the time.  Obviously, prayer was a good thing, and they wanted to do it, but they didn’t know how.  They needed Jesus to teach them, and so do we.  We need to be taught, we need to be taught what to say, what to pray for. 
It’s a familiar scene.  We’re in a group of people and someone asks for a volunteer to pray.  What usually follows is a brief period of awkward silence that seems to last an eternity.  Everyone looks at each other wondering who’s going to speak up first.  No one wants to volunteer because they're afraid they don’t know how to pray.  They’re at a loss for words, worried about what to say.  We become speechless.  This sudden muteness is understandable though.  Prayer is a big thing.  In prayer we come before and petition the Almighty God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth.  What can we say before Him? 
We say the words that He gives us.  Just as Jesus opened the closed mouth of a demon possessed man in the next few verses of Luke 11, Jesus opens your mouth, and what comes out is His prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer specifically given to His disciples, given to you. 
When you pray you say, “Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.  And lead us not into temptation” (Lk 11:2-4). 
This prayer encompasses everything we could possibly pray for.  In just these few petitions, we ask for all we need, both for this life and the life to come.  When we pray “hallowed be Your name,” we ask God to preserve His Word among us.  We ask Him to protect us from false teaching.  When we petition for the coming of His kingdom, we pray that He would rule our lives, that He would send His Holy Spirit to lead us into lives of godliness.  We pray for daily bread, for sustenance, the things needed for life.  We ask Him to provide us with food to nourish our bodies and food to nourish our souls.  When we say, “forgive us our sins,” we confess our sinfulness to Him and we beg Him to remove it, to not look at our transgressions for Christ’s sake.  And we ask Him to lead us away from all sorts of temptations, to protect us from the traps of Satan, the world, and our sinful nature.  All of this is needful for life; all of this is according to God’s will.  These are good things and God wants to give us these good things.  This is why Jesus tells us to pray for them, and we do.  When we don’t know what to pray for, we pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and as we pray these words, the Holy Spirit will lead us to continue in prayer with words of our own. 
          But the words we pray are only one part of prayer.  The other part is how we pray, the attitude with which we pray.  Praying isn’t unique to Christianity.  People from all religions and faith traditions pray.  However, the attitude with which we pray is different.  When non-Christians pray, they pray with uncertainty and wishes.  They don’t know if their prayers will be answered.  They don’t even know if their prayers will be heard.  This isn’t the case for you.  When you pray, you pray with certainty and confidence, knowing that your prayers are heard and answered because you pray to the one true God, and He promises to hear and answer you. 
          Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you” (Lk 11:9).  In these words is the promise that God hears us when we pray and that when we pray according to His will, He will give us our prayer. 
          To illustrate this Jesus tells two stories.  First, He tells the story of a man who knocks on his neighbor’s door late at night requesting bread to feed a friend who’s came to visit.  If this happened to us, how many of us would get up out of bed, go to the kitchen, and then give our neighbor the bread?  Probably none of us, and neither would this man, even though they were friends.  But because of the persistent asking and the expectation to help show hospitality to travelers, the neighbor will get up and give the bread, albeit, probably begrudgingly. 
          The second story is that of a father and son.  Jesus rhetorically asks the question “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?”  (Lk 11:11-12).  Obviously no father would do this.  As parents, we only want to give good things to our children.  We’d never purposefully give them bad and harmful things. 
          These two examples are illustrations from least to greatest.  If we who are evil, that is, if we who are sinners know how to give good things to our neighbors and to our children, “how much more will our heavenly Father give us the good thing of the Holy Spirit?” (Lk 11:13)  God will most certainly give us the good things, He’ll give us the Holy Spirit because He is our gracious Father. 
We’re God’s children.  That’s our identity in Christ alone, given to us in our baptism.  In those waters, you’re connected to Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Your sin was crucified with Him on the cross and you’re made a new creation, adopted by God and brought into His eternal family.  That’s what happened to Hannah just moments ago.  She began the day as a sinner to her core.  That’s who she was.  But God has claimed her as His very own and made her His forgiven child, just as He has claimed each and every one of us, making us His forgiven children.
And because of this, He answers our petitions.  He has hallowed His name by preserving His Word and keeping His Church so that we might know Him and our Savior, Christ Jesus.  His kingdom has come and He has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit who creates faith within us, leading us to live out our identity in Christ as God’s children.  Our Father answers our prayers for daily bread.  He gives us food on our tables and the food of Jesus’ body and blood on the table of His altar.  And He most certainly has forgiven us our sins.  With the blood of Christ’s cross our heavenly Father wipes away our sin.  He cancels our debt. 
You’re children of God, and as such, your Father has given you the privilege to come to Him in prayer, asking of Him just as a child asks of their father.  He commands you to pray because He promises to hear you, to answer your prayers.  So you pray to your heavenly Father in faith, with all confidence and certainty, knowing that He hears you and answers you.  You’re assured that He’ll always give you the good things, because He already has.  He’s given you forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ.  He’s adopted you in your baptism and made you His child through His Son Jesus.  In His name...Amen.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Another Encylical. . . notably less provacative. . .

Read the Encyclical of the Holy and Great Orthodox Council here. . .

There is much to laud and affirm, much to consider and contemplate, and much that challenges.  The fathers of this great document have succeeded in writing an eloquent document filled with the kind of rich words and elegant constructions that I envy (example:  The Orthodox Church sets against the “man-god’ of the contemporary world the ‘God-man’ as the ultimate measure of all things.)  Yes, it is a committee style document that does not address certain things as clearly as one might desire and there is enough wiggle room in some of the phraseology to allow many to confess it comfortably, but the Orthodox have presented us with a very insightful and thoughtful confession.

Addressing everything from marriage and family to science and technology, the document presents us with a challenge to the modern penchant for equating capability with virtue or moral imperative.  That is a good thing.  Perhaps the best achievement was simply holding the Council, writing an encyclical, and speaking together as an Orthodox voice (though not the full voice).  There were many who did not think it would come off and perhaps some who had bet on it.  In the end the bishops met and they conversed and came to an accord, of sorts, that represents the first such endeavor in my lifetime.  Whether or how what was said will affect the life of the Orthodox mission and identity is something that no one can answer at this time.  There is surely enough in this statement worthy of Orthodoxy and yet enough to challenge Orthodoxy as well.

One of the statements that I truly appreciated was this article on dialogs and ecumnism:

It also knows that the Orthodox Church has never accepted theological minimalism or permitted its dogmatic tradition and evangelical ethos to be called into question. Inter-Christian dialogues have provided Orthodoxy with the opportunity to display her respect for the teaching of the Fathers and to bear a trustworthy witness to the genuine tradition of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. 

To quote a final paragraph. . .

Proclaiming the Gospel to all the world in accord with the Lord’s command and “preaching in His name repentance and remission of sins to all the nations” (Luke 22.47), we have the obligation to commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God and to love one another, confessing with one mind: “Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity consubstantial and undivided.” Addressing these things in Council to the children throughout the world of our most holy Orthodox Church, as well as to the entire world, following the holy Fathers and the Conciliar decrees so as to preserve the faith received from our fathers and to “uphold good ways” in our daily life in the hope of the common resurrection, we glorify God in three hypostases with divine songs:

O Father almighty, and Word and Spirit, one nature united in three persons, God beyond being and beyond divinity, in You we have been baptized, and You we bless to the ages of ages. (Paschal Canon, Ode 8.)

By ending with the call to proclaim the Gospel to all the world in accord,  “preaching in His name repentance and remission of sins to all the nations” (Luke 22.47), the Orthodox have concluded where the life of the Church begins.  We do not exist for ourselves but for Him and He for the sake of the world.  Until and unless Orthodoxy takes this as seriously as their ethnic and cultural backgrounds, the world will see in Orthodoxy a quaint church and not one as seriously intent upon addressing the world with the mystery of salvation as it is preserving and maintaining an ancient tradition.  Clearly this is not unlike the challenge facing Lutherans who continue to pit mission against maintenance as if either were secondary to who we are and what we are about as the people of God, confessing with one mind: “Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity consubstantial and undivided.”

Sunday, July 24, 2016

What's in a name?

Now that the Pope has brought up the idea of studying the idea of female deacons (deaconesses), the internet is abuzz with voices about what this means. Some of the same tired old ideas of the past have been trotted out to suggest that female deacons were the "norm" in the early church and that they had a status the same or similar to male deacons. The problem for those both for and against deaconesses is that the early history is somewhat vague and confusing. That said, the reality is that no form of deaconesses had "holy orders" as such nor were they the functional equivalent of the male deacons -- something more clearly true as the diaconate evolved into a step on the ladder to priestly ordination but no less true in the earlier days as well. Furthermore, an official ecclesiastical function is a modern day term and not one ordinarily used by the early church where such practices originated.

There seems to be little question that some women deacons, even so-called "ordained" women deacons, performed what might be described as an official ecclesiastical function for many centuries in the early Church. The problem lies in figuring out what that function was. Neither the terminology nor the descriptions of these women and what they did were uniform or explicit. Nor was the practice ever normative or ordinary -- it appears to have been localized and limited if at all.

The Phoebe, “deacon of the church,” whom Paul mentions in his letter to the Romans, may or may not represent a female deacon since the Greek “diakonos” that Paul uses more typically meant “servant” at the time Paul wrote. For example, John used the same noun in reference to the servants who filled the stone jars of water at the wedding feast at Cana. Though the Acts of the Apostles references the seven men chosen to feed to the poor (tend the tables) so that the apostles would be free to focus on prayer and preaching, it does appear that Stephen did preach -- was it in a liturgical context or was it in public witness only?

Early Christian literature provides a little more detail. Women began to assume more formal roles (from widows to the female deacons). Some of these documents use the term deaconesses (“diakonissai”), and it is possible to find a rare reference to the bishop’s ordination ("laying his hands") on these women. That said, there is nothing to suggest that this was normative and could have been an aberration. From the East there are some women named as “deaconesses” but those so named were nearly always widows (referencing St. Paul's mention of this class or order) or some form of early nun or women who chose the celibate life. We do know that their primary duties and role consisted mostly of charitable works (similar to the male deacons but directly toward women) and work both assisting in the catechization and baptism of adult women. This is certainly understandable when baptism was by immersion and cultural prohibitions and a sense of modesty would have made it hard for males to act alone with respect to the instruction and baptism of women. Whether these deaconesses assisted priests in the liturgy is a different matter. While it was certainly conceivable within monastic communities of nuns who had contact with males only through their priest (similar to cloistered orders still to this day), this did not appear to have taken place within the ordinary parish exercise of the liturgy. Furthermore, the women who did assist were most likely the leaders of their communities (abbesses).

In other words, how many and what these deaconesses did does not automatically translate into the debate for the ordination of women or even the wider role of women within the church. In fact, it contributes little since the issue before us is not whether or not to have women serving officially in caring roles in the work of the church but directly the question of whether or not women may be ordained to the diaconate with equal status to either permanent deacons or the transitional deacons heading toward priestly ordination.

In fact, much to the chagrin of those who champion the priestly ordination of women and who therefore are encouraged by the discussion of deaconesses, the very nunnishness of these early Christian women who were called deaconesses is often considered both demeaning and a hindrance to the cause of women's ordination.

The argument for the ordination of deaconesses to an office the exact counterpart to the male diactonate and as a first step toward priestly ordination is still without clear precedent and an invention of a modernity sifting through history for anything and everything that might justify this departure from clear apostolic and consistent catholic practice.

I say this not to disparage what we in the LCMS call deaconesses -- not at all -- but to distinguish this godly service with the same name from what those pursuing the ordination of women are looking for from any evidence for or prospect of an ordained female diaconate. Indeed, the Lutheran history of deaconesses is a heroic legacy of women who served in places where others refused to serve, in conditions that tried and tested their lives and faith, without recognition or material reward. But this is a different story than those who are using Francis' words to make a big jump between the mercy work of the Gospel and the ordination to the pastoral office.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Lutherans and the ACNA. . .

On June 23, 2016 the College of Bishops of the Anglican Church in North America gave their consent to the election of the Reverend Jim Hobby as the next bishop of the ACNA Diocese of Pittsburgh. Fr. Hobby will become yet another bishop of the ACNA married to a woman priest.  The truth is that this reflects the unsettled nature of the question of the ordination of women within the ACNA.  It left the question to the individual dioceses primarily because there was not a churchly consensus upon this within the ACNA. 
Such bishops are not only compromised on the question of women's ordination but seem intent upon continuing the tenuous relationship of dioceses which do and those which do not ordain women.. I suspect that the hope of many Anglicans for a catholic resolution of this issue within the ACNA will be further dashed by this election and consent. Perhaps those Anglicans who hold to catholicity on this issue will be disappointed but it may well be that they have hoped for the impossible.

The experience we have had with the Latvian Lutherans shows that progress is slow and that it takes close to a generation to turn back the tide and stand with the unbroken practice of the Church prior to modern times.  Still, though some may say it is time for Missouri to distance itself from the ACNA, if there is to be a change the ACNA needs the voice of Missouri now more than ever.  Since we are not yet in fellowship, we have nothing to lose by continuing the conversation and everything to gain.  Yet we can make a difference and help those within the ACNA to gain the courage and the wisdom to turn back the progress of modernity.  Let us not be too quick to discharge this ecumenical conversation because not enough progress has been made.  We talked with Lutherans who ordained women for years and years before finally slowing the dialogue due to lack of progress.  Yes, it is a disappointment but if we are serious about the mission and the faith, we will continue to stand for the truth while speaking it in love to all who will listen.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Those darn Lutherans are the source of Vatican II errors. . .

Cardinal Gerhard L. Müller wrote on the occasion of the 65th ordination of Pope Emeritas Benedict XVI:
Vatican Council II sought to reopen a new path to the authentic understanding of the identity of the priesthood. So why in the world did there come, just after the Council, a crisis in its identity comparable historically only to the consequences of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century?

I am thinking of the crisis in the teaching of the priesthood that took place during the Protestant Reformation, a crisis on the dogmatic level, by which the priest was reduced to a mere representative of the community, through an elimination of the essential difference between the ordained priesthood and the common one of all the faithful. And then of the existential and spiritual crisis that took place in the second half of the 20th century, which in chronological terms exploded after Vatican Council II - but certainly not because of the Council - the consequences of which we are still suffering from today.
As I have often observed, it is typical of all parties to stereotype the positions of their theological opponents and although the guilt can be equally shared this does not justify the practice.  For Lutherans the priest is NOT a representative of the community nor is the office of the minister derived from the spiritual priesthood of all the baptized.  The priest (pastor) represents Christ to the community, not on the basis of an ontological difference between the priest and those to whom his priestly ministry is addressed but as the one on whom the Church confers by examination, call, and ordination the office which belongs to the whole church.  The real problem with so many is that individual and often isolated statements of Martin Luther are used to define what Lutherans believe, confess, and teach.  In reality, the Lutheran position is born not of Luther's many words but the specific words of the Lutheran Confessions (of which Luther's words form a part of these Confessions).

The truth is that Rome had not much to say about Augustana XIV except to note that it presumed that rite vocatus referred to the ordinary understanding (examination, call, and ordination).  While Rome may complain about the lack of episcopal ordination, this was an emergency required when there were not evangelical bishops to ordain (at least not in Germany since there were in Sweden, for example).  Rome should not complain that for Lutherans the priest or pastor is a glorified layman who represents the congregation.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  If anything, Lutherans were tarred and feathered by the radical reformers for not being reformed enough in this regard and for retaining far too much of a sacramental priesthood to make Zwingli and others comfortable. 

I know it is fashionable to blame Vatican II and the aftermath upon the Reformation and Luther, but this argument is a good example of the straw man fallacy.  I would have expected Müller to be more careful since he, like BXVI, is German and should have had more than a passing familiarity with Lutherans.  We have many problems to be sure and there are some Lutherans who would sell their soul to the Reformed for a song but Lutherans in their confessional documents do NOT define the ministry as a functional office nor do they derive the office from the common priesthood of all the baptized and they most certainly do not describe the pastor as merely a glorified layman, a representative layman, or a functionary who exists only for the sake of good order.  Yet, I find it hard to fault Müller since it is sadly true that Lutherans themselves talk out of both sides of their mouths on this and often feel more comfortable with an evangelical preacher than a catholic and evangelical pastor.