Wednesday, June 19, 2019

God is doing a new thing. . .

Strangely enough, what does evangelicalism, mainline Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism have in common?  Apparently it is the idea that God is constantly reinventing Himself and His Church, generation after generation, issue after issue, trend after trend.  It is as if Scripture did not warn against departing from the sacred deposit or forgetting the tradition or abandoning what had been taught.  For the weakness of our modern age is our ignorance of history and, even worse, our lack of interest or curiosity about the past.  Instead we are future focused -- and not on the future God has prepared and that we anticipate in the Eucharist but the future we imagine and we desire, asking God to come along instead of lead.  Nowhere is this more true than discussions about sexuality, gender, the truth of Scripture, the factual basis for our creedal confession, and worship (including hymnody).

Lest you think that it is only Protestantism in its various forms that is so enamored, read what Pope Francis has reportedly asserted:
Jesus does not want the church to be a perfect model, satisfied with its own organization and able to defend its good name… Jesus did not live like this, but on a journey, without fearing the upheavals of life.’
Living like Jesus demands the ‘courage of renunciation’ …a willingness to abandon traditions that are dear to us.
Changing and adapting is not about imposing something new, ‘but leaving aside something old.’
‘God often purifies, simplifies, and makes us grow by taking away, not by adding, as we might do.’
‘True faith cleanses from attachments. As a church, we are not called to corporate compromises, but to evangelical enterprise.’
In other words, what God has done is not as interesting or as important as what God is doing or might do.  From Rome to Wittenberg to Geneva to your city, Christianity is in danger not of holding onto the past and becoming irrelevant but embracing the future and becoming impotent.  Our only power and our only purpose is the Word of God that endures forever.  Faith comes by hearing the Word and this Word is itself the power to accomplish what it says and the Holy Spirit works through this Word.  (Not to diminish the Sacraments, but to highlight the sacred deposit of doctrine.)

The mantra of Pope Francis, church growth gurus, the sexual liberation movement, the feminist movement, contemporary Christian music and worship, and preaching and teaching today is that the new thing God is doing and the future we are visioning is not only more important than God's saving acts in the past but the sacrificial offering we must make if the Church is to survive and thrive.  Except for one thing, those jurisdictions that have forgotten their past and embraced the future of their own imagining have declined at rates faster than those who live by the faith of their fathers and guard the sacred deposit of God's Word and Sacraments.  Strangely enough, there are those who view the means of grace as precisely the attachments that Pope Francis believes are an impediments to evangelical enterprise (whatever that means).

Our congregation has an Instagram account and recently it was mentioned how many churches on Instagram have more to say about people coming out as gay, lesbian, transgender, or queer than about Jesus' death and resurrection.  In other words, the rainbow flag has replaced the cross.  This has always been the temptation -- to make the Gospel more about me than about Jesus -- but it is even more pernicious today because it is the prevailing trend all across culture and religion.  The individual me has become the center of everyone's universe and with it we run the risk of completely forgetting the Gospel itself and returning to the prison of self that once made the free captive to sin and its death.  The quotes from Francis are deliberately vague.  That is how he communicates.  But they are specific enough to give support for the whole idea that faith is one person wide and one person deep, just like the truth that under girds that faith, the faith that is confessed, and the life lived out from this faith identity.

To Francis and all those who think that the Church must be rescued from this sacred deposit and set free from her tradition, I plead with you to exercise care and caution in your quest to find vitality and life.  Once Christ crucified and risen becomes only part of our message or is displaced from our preaching and teaching, we have nothing left to offer the world, nothing to say to the culture of death, nothing to offer to the despairing, and no hope to offer anyone.  We have become the worst of the choices available, worse than a sect, we have become merely a lame echo of the sinful heart whose desires are both its truth and its purpose.  We all have much to answer for before God but it is of this that Jesus says to those who cry "Lord, Lord," "I know you not."

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Happy, Hopeful, Filled with Joy -- Confessing the Trinity

Sermon for the Festival of the Holy Trinity preached on Sunday, June 16, 2019.

    When were the moments in your life when you were the happiest?  When you married?  When you first held your children in your arms?  Or maybe your grandchildren?  Or perhaps it was the dream job.  Whatever it was, that fullest moment of joy is often the thing we long to remember and attempt to recreate the whole of our lives.  Husbands and wives dream of looking at each other with the same joy of that first moment of love pledged before family and friends.  Parents think they will always recall those blessed moments of a child’s first cry, first laugh, first steps and then the memories fade.  Personal accomplishments and the honors that come from others fill us but only too briefly before the glory is gone and the moment lost.  Happiness is a hard thing to hold onto.

    Jesus said “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”  Immediately the enemies of Jesus jumped on this.  Abraham is dead and you are not yet 50 (actually he was barely 30).  What are you talking about?  And we might wonder what Jesus was talking about as well.  What could it mean that Abraham rejoiced that he would see Jesus’ day and how he did see it with gladness and joy is beyond belief. 

    When Adam and Eve stood before the Lord condemned and ready to be banished from Eden, our Lord gave a promise of a son of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head and restore all that was lost in one brief moment of rebellion.  If you follow Genesis a little further you find a curious statement when Eve gives birth to her first born.  She said, “I have gotten a man from the Lord” (Genesis 4:1).  She was wrong in that her son was not THE man whom the Lord has promised, the fruit of the woman’s womb to kill the devil, atone for sin, and create a heavenly future.  But in that moment, she looked into the face of Cain and she did not see simply a baby.  She saw the promise of the Lord which would be fulfilled through her.  Her joy was not simply a mother’s joy over the birth of a child but the hope and promise of God one generation closer to be fulfilled than it was before.

    Abraham’s most joyful moment came when Sarah delivered the son no one could have predicted.  Filled with the life and promise of God, their old bodies had delivered up a surprise by God’s grace, long after child conceiving and child bearing years had passed.  You could think that Abraham’s best moment of joy was when he looked into the face of the son he never thought he would have and rejoiced.  But Abraham had more than flesh and blood in Isaac.  He had the future God had promised.  This was not a single boy but the first of offspring more than the sands upon the shore or the stars in the sky. 

    Hidden in those generations was the promise so long ago whispered to Adam and Eve, kept alive through the ages, soon to unfold in twelve sons become twelve tribes, through the Law and the covenant relationship through Moses, in the land of promise that was the down payment upon the eternal home, in the prophets who called a wandering people to repentance, and John the Forerunner who would prepare the way of Him who would fulfill all things for Abraham and all His children – even to you and me.

    Abraham saw this by faith.  He could not have seen what Mary, the Virgin Mother, would look like or what features would adorn the face of Jesus but He saw the promise of God in the face of Isaac, a promise one generation closer to fulfillment than it was before.  This is what Jesus refers to.  By faith Abraham, credited as righteous, saw the promise of God in his own day.  On that day, his joy was fullest and his heart happiest.  God was keeping His promise. 

    How can we find such joy?  It will not come in trying to recreate a time or a place or a setting from our past.  It will not even come by trying to keep alive the memory of that moment in time.  But the eternal joy our hearts and minds so desperately seek is not beyond us.  It is ours by faith.  We do not wait for the full revelation of God’s grace and favor, of His mercy and kindness, of His saving promise.  All this is done.  The one all sufficient sacrifice has been made and the payment for our sin rendered in full.  The death that waited for all men has been transformed by God into the gateway to life which death cannot touch, where tears no longer flow and hearts no longer grieve and pain or want no longer torment.  And this we see in Christ, our joy.  He has revealed to us the Father so that we may learn to pray with joy, Our Father, who art in heaven.  He has given us the promise of the Spirit whom the Father has sent in His name to break through the walls of unbelief, fear, pride, and arrogance and bring us to the humility of repentance.  He has saved us in the waters of our baptism, spoken to us in the voice of His Word, and fed and nourished us upon the very Body and Blood of Christ our Savior.
    We are already His children but not yet what we shall be.  When we look into our children and grandchildren, we see like Abraham.  These are not only our sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters.  They are a generation closer to the finish of His new creation, one generation closer to the breaking upon of the heavens, the sound of the trumpet, and the ground coughing up the dead to everlasting life.  They are a reminder to us of the promise that is not only our hope but also our joy, a promise one generation closer to its finish and completion when the saints on earth shall be one with the saints above and sing as one choir the “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Sabaoth” that we now sing from different places.

    To confess the Holy Trinity is not to check off a doctrinal box as if somehow we were explaining the grandest mystery of God’s identity in terms a child could get.  No, we confess Him as He has revealed Himself and not as some stuffy dogma that seems so impractical and too theoretical to do us any real good.  No, we confess the Holy Trinity as a people who know the promise of God’s Triune name, who remember what God has said and what God has done, and who see time unfolding toward His appointed end.  Each and every generation of voices raised up to confess “We believe” bring us a step closer to the finish of all that Christ began and the completion of all that God has promised to do through His Son.

    We confess this Holy Trinity not to safeguard God – who does not need our help – but to safeguard the promise, so faithfully and carefully delivered to us down through the ages and generations and now given to us that we might faithfully place in the hands of the children the promise given to the fathers.  We confess this Holy Trinity not as some philosophical or linguistic exercise in trying to imagine the unimaginable in human words.  No, we confess this Holy Trinity the way Eve looked into the eyes of Cain her son and saw God’s promise, the way Abraham looked into the eyes of Isaac his son and saw God’s promise, the way blessed Mary looked into the eyes of Jesus her son and saw God’s promise.  The past is fulfilled but the future is still unfolding.  We confess what God has done and said because it is our hope and joy of all that is yet to come.

    Abraham and Sarah desired not just the promised land, or a son, but a better country, that is, a heavenly one – where sin did not convict, where death did not reign, and where tears did not flow. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God. He prepared for them a city by grace and they received it by faith. They rejoiced in what God gave. 

Now it has come to you.  Will you join their faith?  Will you join in their joy?  Will you see with eyes of faith the unfolding future that God has prepared for you and me and for all who love Him?  Will you speak this hope before the world by confessing what God has said of Himself and done for His people, to redeem them from their sins, die to kill the reign of death, and rise to bestow life without end?  Will you teach these words to your children and grandchildren so that their joy may be so full?  Will you confess the creeds as a people of hope who know the promise and who believe it?  Will you speak of the Holy Trinity not as some dusty doctrinal confusion but as the most relevant and profound cause for joy?  For this is what we say when we confess the Creed and why we confess it here within  the household of God’s people and before the world.  And this is our cause for joy – today, for our lifetimes, and forever.  Amen.

HT With ideas from several sources used in this sermon.

News to me. . .

On a pan-Lutheran online forum, one of the actual Lutherans said Baptism saves only to have another so-called Lutheran respond says who?  Now you might be thinking this is a joke or at least hyperbole -- and I wish it were -- but it is not.  One respondent quoted the Catechism:  "It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare."  Hmmmm.  That could have sealed the deal but apparently even the Catechism does trump private opinion.  Well, St. Peter wrote "Baptism now saves you" but I am not sure even the Word of God would make all that much difference to many.  But that is the sad state of Lutheranism today.  We have forgotten our Catechism and we do not trust the Word of the Lord.  So we are left with opinions, some pious and some not so pious.  And that is the state of it. 

Lutheranism is dying, as many have noted, but its death is hardly due to Lutheranism being Lutheran.  In fact, it is dying precisely because Lutheranism has forgotten what it means to be Lutheran.  It has so little to offer anyone anymore.  Some Lutherans have decided that they are Baptists with a little chancel flourish, willingly surrendering the Sacraments in pursuit of a Word that is inerrant but not efficacious.  It is true enough but not a dynamic force that is actually able to do what its words declare.  Others have spent too much time looking at the grass next door and have decided that the pace setters for modern Christianity are the purveyors of an entertainment style Christianity with plenty of relevance but not all that much transcendence.  Still others have watched the growing gulf between Scripture and culture and have let their angst at being left behind push them to try and harness the horse of change and ride ahead into the no man's land of doctrineless orthodoxy.  Then there are some Lutherans left who fight over vestments and liturgy and whether things good are essential or things essential are good -- an impossible debate to win when the winning card is adiaphora.

That is why I am so passionate about trying to simply be Lutheran.  We can do no worse by taking our Confessions seriously than we have by ignoring them, by taking the Word of God at face value rather than reasoning it away, by expecting God to be where He has promised to be and to do what He has promised to do.  Lutherans have worked so very hard not to be Lutheran, why not trying working at least as hard trying to BE the Lutherans we say we are. 

If you are with me, then we need to stop trying to save institutions and act like Lutherans.  We need to be the Lutheran Church and not a community service organization or a group of self-help entrepreneurs or a witty troop of entertainers.  If we plan on taking God seriously and His Word seriously, then we must also take worship seriously and the means of grace seriously.  They go together.  Worship is not about the preference of pastor or people but about the Most High God who has deigned to dwell among us, rich with grace to forgive, save, and enliven a sinful, lost, and dead people.  Mystery is not a cultural force or the byword of the moment but the aura of God's presence, glory hidden where He has placed it, that beckons and woos us into knowing Him as He has known us -- a Shepherd and His sheep.

When we do this and fail, we will have no shame and no regrets.  But until we do this we will have only shame and regret.  We will continue to mask our identity and sell our souls to the people who make the best promises we can afford.  I don't want to do that.  I don't think most of our church body wants to do that.  I live in hope and pray that our seminaries are turning out pastors who won't want to do this either.  This is our future -- our only future.  Anything else will hold no future for us at all, except the prospect of being mightily successful in growing a church either nobody on earth wants or God cannot recognize as His own.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Beautiful churches. . .

An interesting view of some of the most beautiful churches in the world. . .  Take a gander. . .

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Catechesis is not rocket science. . .

Many times we find ourselves hard pressed to define what it is we are to do.  We know we ought to do something.  But we are not sure what it is that we are to do.  So we end up either doing nothing or waiting to do something until it is too late.  Such is surely the case with catechesis.  As a pastor I have encountered parent after parent who waited to baptize a child, pick a church, pray with a child, or teach the faith.  They were waiting until they saw interest in their children or until the child could choose what the child wanted.  They were waiting until things all fell into place (especially with respect to baptism) and family and everyone could be together or on board.  They waited too long.  The child grew up outside the faith, without an identity as a child of God or an example of what it means to believe and live out the Christian faith.

Catechesis is not rocket science.  I know.  It is an old expression.  But it is still true.  It means that it is not so difficult that only a few know what it is or how to do it.  It means that we can know what it means to raise our children in the faith, a series of several basic things all within the grasp of every family.  So, if you are one of those who is waiting, stop waiting and start catechizing.

Take your children to church.  This is the most basic step.  Show your children that worship is part of your life as a Christian and model this example to them.  Let them come to know the house of God as a familiar place, the rhythm of the Divine Service as a familiar pattern, the language of the liturgy as their own vocabulary, and the people of God as their own brothers and sisters in Christ.  Let them come to know their pastor as their pastor and shepherd.  Let them come to know the voice of God read and preached from the Scriptures as the voice of the Shepherd who knows them and whom they know by His Word.  Show them how to participate.  Read the words, sing the hymns, bow, pray, kneel, sit, stand, with your attention on the Lord whose house you are dwelling.  Hold their hands together when we pray and point to the words on the page of hymnal and service folder so they may learn to read, hear, follow, and internalize the Word of God.

Pray with your children and pray for them.  At home, begin the day with prayer, a ritual prayer that they can identify and learn as morning prayer.  Pray before meals, giving thanks to God for what He has provided.  Pray in times of stress, fear, doubt, worry, joy, happiness, and thanksgiving.  Pray at evening and bedtime, again in ritual form so that they identity these prayers with these times and learn the words so that they can pray them.  Children learn by repetition.  You do not need to be creative.  You can always begin with the Our Father as your prayer.  Teach them to say "Amen" at least in the beginning, until they can learn the rest of the words.

Read to your children the great stories of God's mighty deliverance.  Read them the Bible.  Yes, it is a good thing to have picture Bibles and children's Bibles but some of them abridge and alter the stories from God's Word almost to the point of them being unrecognizable.  Read them the Bible.  Read them the lessons that will be read when they worship on Sunday morning.  Read them key passages that they can learn to memorize.  Use the Psalms in your devotions.  Use the Scriptures to answer their questions about things spiritual and things physical, things that have to do with daily life and the big things which challenge us.  This is not simply instruction for head knowledge but so that your children come to know the voice of God's Word as the most reliable source of what is true now and will always be true, the Word of the Lord that endures forever.

Sing hymns at home.  Teach your children those hymns.  Yes, Jesus Loves Me is fine but a child's mind is like a sponge.  Teach them the parts of the liturgy.  Teach them the great and sturdy hymns of old that were there before they were born and will be there after they die.  Teach them what they will sing on Sunday morning.  Show them the book.  Use your computer or CDs to help introduce them to the songs of the faithful that have proven their value by their endurance.  You can do this.

Read to them the Catechism of Luther.  No, you don't need to start with the more elaborate and extended treatments the flow from Luther's words but Luther's simple words by which they will come to know prayer as dear children speak to their dear Father or to fear, love, and trust in God, etc...  It will also help you address your children on the touchy subjects that will surely come up -- from the dreaded conversations about sex to the sad ones about death to tricky ones about commandments and moral truth.  Because you know the Catechism and they know it, these conversations will be facilitated.

Don't wait.  Do it now.  Start while they are very young.  Raise them up in this pattern of faith.  They will bless you for it.  This is what it means to train up a child in the way he should go.  Give them a foundation in the faith on which to grow.  And if they depart from it, they will have something to return to. . .   You can do this.  It is not rocket science.  But it may be far more urgent and important than even rocket science!  By the way.  Happy Father's Day!

Saturday, June 15, 2019

What seems logical to us. . .

I have often listened as those who treat liturgy theoretically as well as those who are practically involved with the leadership of the chief service of the Church talk about what they think might be improvements on the received order.  I have heard a variety of thoughtful suggestions.  Many of them are entirely logical.  One suggested moving the sermon to the end, right before the benediction, so that the last thing on the minds of the people when they left was the sermon.  Sounds like a preacher, doesn't it?  Another suggested moving the confession until after the reading of the lessons and sermon since then the people would have been convicted by the Word of God and set in a frame of mind to make their confession.  I could literally fill the page with those suggestions for improvements to the ordo.

That said, the liturgy grew into its form slowly, over much time, and it developed pastorally more than logically or theoretically.  And I think that everyone has ideas of how to, well, improve it.  BUT the improvements are not necessarily improvements and, in fact, may have the opposite effect.  Liturgical change should be incremental and deliberate and neither radical nor quick.  People worship best when the liturgy is a familiar friend than when it is a stranger to whom they must be introduced week after week.  Creativity within the liturgical form, using the options inherent within the church year and liturgy are fine.  But too much creativity destroys the continuity which is the among the best fruits of a solid and consistent liturgical order.

I wonder if we don't think too much about this.  It is possible to overthink something to the point where the thing itself is lost.  The structure, form, and words of the Divine Service are not good suggestions.  They are the order that has spanned time and place and become that into which new people are introduced to Christian faith and life and by which they are catechized into the faith.  They are the means by which the generations before us are connect to us and to the generations to come.  We have so many things to divide us but the liturgy is one solid and profound means by which the past, present, and even the anticipated future come together into one.

It is always a good thing when the liturgical changes are so slow that people come to learn the existing rites and the actually words so well that they can carry them with them wherever they go.  It is never a good thing when the changes are so fast paced and dramatic that one must be bound to the sheet of paper in the hand to know where we have been, where we are, and where we are going on Sunday morning.

So if you are one who thinks you have improvements, sit and think of them a very long time before rushing to put them in place.  Yes, even when the liturgy must be restored to a community of faith  that has lost their life together amid the pulsing rhythm of the Divine Service, a slower pace of re-introduction is better than a fast pace.  And if you have good ideas, put them out to those who are responsible for such changes.  Don't undertake to make up your own rites as if everything must be local or creative.  Your people will thank you and those who come after you will also be most appreciative.  We have all looked a house that has been added upon and transformed until it is a confusing mess that looks ugly and functions poorly.  That is more likely to happen when people see the whole as a suggestion and understand their role as improvers of the past than it is by those who see the past as guide and see their role as conservators of a great and profound treasure.  So whether you are reading Scripture or the liturgy, don't presume that it is merely a suggestion for which you are given the ultimate responsibility of what to do and what not to do.  There, rant over.  Do you feel better?  I do. . .