Monday, August 31, 2009

When the Mind Is Tired and the Body Not

I recall a conversation with an Amish fellow about the nature of this set apart religion. I remember him saying that one of the problems with our modern culture, its conveniences, and its mental labors is that our minds are tired but our bodies are not... so we don't rest well.

Having spent 5-6 hours in a car, I heard my wife say how tired she was for just sitting in the car. Her point is well taken. Most of us live rather sedentary lives in comparison to our ancestors. Our labors are mental more than physical. And what is the chronic complaint of people today? We can't get to sleep or we can't stay asleep or we can't go back to sleep... So we have prescription medicines and all sorts of non-prescription sleep aids designed to assist us in our quest for rest.

Now don't get me wrong -- I grew up in the labor intensive years of agriculture, transportation, and industry. I have walked fields cutting cockle burs, I rode my bike or walked where I needed to go as a youth, and I worked with my Dad enough to know I did not want to be a plumber, electrician, HVAC, and water well man -- the work was too hard. I am a child of the modern era -- I have a riding lawn mower, laptop, cell phone, Popiel Showtime rotisserie grill, etc.


I know what that Amish guy means. It is hard to rest when your mind is tired but your body isn't. For some reason, when our bodies are tired, our minds follow... but when our minds are tired, our bodies often resist the rest we need so badly. Could this be part of the curse of Eden? I wonder...

When Jesus comes offering us rest, He is not talking about a good night's sleep. He is not even offering a great little power nap in the middle of the afternoon. No, He is offering that which quiets the mind and heart so that the body may follow. He is offering us peace. Peace that calms the fears... peace that quiets the restlessness... peace that comforts the uncertainty... peace that forgives the sin so that regret leaves us... peace that answers death's long, dark shadow with the light of everlasting life...

Peace I leave with you... says Jesus. My peace I give to you... not as the world gives... The world gives many joys but more headaches... much happiness but many more disappointments... many accomplishments but more work left to do... It is a great place -- the world -- but not so great we want today to live forever. We are given peace that the world cannot give -- the glimpse of a peace that is known fully only when we fully know heaven.

A little peace... peace to quiet the mind so that the body may follow... That is His gift to us. Read again the marvelous little prayer Luther taught...

I thank you, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have graciously kept me this day; and I pray that You would forgive me all my sins where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night. For into Your hands, I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen.

Clock Watching

Every now and then I see folks take a subtle look at their watches. Some times it is a not so subtle look -- could there be a message there? And there are times I do a fair amount of clock watching, too. There are more than a few meetings in which I snuck a glance at the watch to see how much time had passed. School children watch the clock, so do their parents at work, and in the waiting rooms of America the time passes ever so slowly that we watch the clock seem to do nothing at all.

Our lives can often be spent in clock watching. We have a time table for things to happen and we watch the clock waiting for school to give way to what we think of as real life. We watch the clock waiting for that certain someone to touch our lives. We watch the clock waiting for a child to turn two into a whole new family. We watch the clock as our children grow up. We watch the clock in hospital rooms waiting for new we hope is good. We watch the clock until finally we no longer want the time to pass quickly -- we want it to slow down. Then we watch the clock in a vain attempt at keeping the sand in the hourglass... until the clock stops.

In contrast to this chronological view of time, God looks at the right moment, the foulness of time. It is not a matter of the clock but of all things being in order for His purpose. In this world we are caught between the clocks we watch and the faith that waits upon the Lord. It can be a difficult tension and sometimes it is a terrible chasm.

But faith waits... waits upon God, not as a parent waits for a child that is taking too long but as one who trusts that the Lord of time knows when the time is full, when the moment is ripe, and when to act or not to act. Faith waits upon the Lord even while a part of us stares at the slowly moving second hand of our lives. Faith waits upon the Lord even when the hour is late and there is little sign of God's activity. Faith waits upon the Lord even when the day is done and everyone else has given up and gone home.

Faith waits... upon the timing of God... the right and full time when grace redeems the moment... bringing hope out of despair... bringing joy out of sorrow... bringing comfort out of turmoil... bringing peace out of trouble... the all sufficient grace that persuades us... trust me and be at peace.

Faith waits... but we don't always like to wait -- not even on God. Yet the goal and purpose of faith is to learn to wait... to be at peace waiting... on the God whose Word does not disappoint but accomplishes its purpose always...

My soul waits on the Lord...

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Put on the Whole Armor of God

Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, preached on Sunday, August 30, 2009.

It might seem that we have a contradiction between the words of Paul in the Epistle lesson and the words of Jesus in the Gospel lesson. Paul writes to the Ephesians about putting on the full armor of God to stand against the rules, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil that wage war against us as God’s people. It would seem then that the enemies we need to worry about are out there. But in Mark’s Gospel Jesus speaks of sin and evil proceeding from the heart and not coming from outside of us. He specifically warms us about the evil that defiles us – the evil that has its source within our own hearts – such as evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. These come from within to defile us, says Jesus.

No, there is no conflict here. I wish it were so. St. Paul and Jesus are giving us both sides of the struggle and marking the weakness that leaves us vulnerable to the desires of our hearts that defile us and the great temptations to evil that lure us from the devil, the world, and the flesh. It is not a matter of either/or but of both/and. For this reason St. Paul counsels us to put on the full armor of God – both as a shield against the evils outside of us and as the means to reign in the sinful desires of the heart that flow from within us.

Against both the enemies out there and the sinful desires in here, the answer is the same. If we are to stand firm, we must stand in the Lord. Apart from Him, we are weak and vulnerable to the pressures of out there to draw us away from the God and the sinful desires in here that would defile us and draw us away from God. We have strong and cunning enemies out there and inside our hearts are like a well of sinful and evil desire. Against both, the Lord has given us the full armor of His Word and Spirit so that we may not be victims but remain steadfast and immovable, with forgiveness to restore us when we do fall.

Put on, he says, the Belt of Truth. The Roman soldier wore a tunic, covered with a breastplate, secured by a heavy belt to which his knife and sword were carried. The belt of truth holds our weapons. If your belt is lies, your weapons have nothing to hold on to. Only truth can hold us up and carry the weight of our weapons. Put on the breastplate of righteousness, he says. The Roman soldier had armor plate over his heart, made of leather and bronze or solid metal. Christ’s righteousness protects the vital organs of our faith, in other words, justification. If we substitute our good works for what Christ has done on the cross, our armor is weak and our very spiritual lives are vulnerable.

Put on, he says, the shoes of the Gospel. Only the Gospel can give us traction in the fight or we will fall backwards. Put on, he says, the shield of faith. For the Roman soldier this was a laminated shield of linen and wood covered with leather or metal. It was an individual shield or when used together formed a single band of protection around a group. Jesus is our shield against the flaming arrows of the enemy; without the shield of faith we cannot deflect sorrow and struggle, tears and trials, despair and destruction.

Put on then, he says, the helmet of salvation. For the Roman soldier this was both dress uniform and battle armor. These identified the soldier as belonging to his unit as well as provided head and neck protection. Our identity as a Christ is our helmet. We wear the good news of Jesus as a proud adornment and it has the practical function of keeping our heads on straight. This is both a dress uniform and the practical protection we need for the battle.

Put on, he says, the Sword of the Spirit. This is not the large, heavy slashing sword but a lighter, pointed sword useful in close range fighting as well as on the battlefield. For us this sword is the Word of God – a two edged sword of Law and Gospel, that cuts both ways. It cuts off pride and raises us up humble and it pokes through the false truths of our enemies.

With all of this armor, comes the attitude of prayer and a heart that yearns to be the Lord’s as well as a persevering spirit that teaches the heart patience and endurance, and finally, is the cleansing of Christ who heals our battle wounds and washes off the carnage of the war so that we may always be clean and whole in Jesus Christ our Savior. This armor not only protects us on the outside, but it also directs us on the inside so that we do not fall victim to the lies and sinful desires of our fleshly hearts.

This battle armor of St. Paul confronts not only our outside enemies but confronts the desire within us to get what we want instead of what we need, what we desire instead of what is good and right and true. This armor curbs the influence of others over our hearts so that we do not follow the self-serving path that feels good for the moment but is empty inside of the power of salvation. This armor constantly reminds us that we are not of the world but in it, that our citizenship is not here but in the heavenly city, that we belong not to ourselves or to the world but to the Lord who first made us and then bought us back again.

Every now and then my computer needs to reboot to empty out the memory and re-register its files. You and I as Christians need to reboot up in the armor that God provides. Sometimes we go far astray of the Lord and His kingdom and we assume that it does not cost us anything... but it does. He constantly calls us back to Him... for He is the power to confront and overcome the enemies outside and the evil that flows up from within us. If we are to stand firm in this world of change and decay, if we are to stand up against temptation and desires, if we are to stand up righteous and cleansed, it is because we stand in the Lord, in the strength of His Word, in the weapons of the Spirit, and in the armor He provides us.

We have itching hearts that find the armor too heavy, that are tempted to believe we can stand on our own, that assume the big problems are out there and everything in here is okay. To these itching hearts, God calls us to suit up in the armor of His Word and His Spirit, that we may endure to the end and receive the salvation of our souls and crown of everlasting life. Amen.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

From the Other Side of the Pews

I wish that everyone could have my vantage point on Sunday morning. Instead most of us look at the sides or backs of people's heads on Sunday morning. We don't always see the faces. But Pastors do...

On Sunday mornings I see some things I wish I didn't... the teenager texting a friend during worship or the people completely distracted whose spouses prod and poke them back to reality or the tension from an early morning argument that spills over into God's House...

On the whole, however, what I see is very encouraging. I see children whose eyes are glued to what takes place at the altar. They may grow tired of the sermon but as soon as actions begin they are attentive again. At the altar rail their eyes follow my every move and their ears listen for words of giving and blessing. Often they extend their own hands folded one on top of the other because they know grace is coming. They would like to taste and see the goodness of the Lord... often I feel bad at passing them by with but a blessing and a touch of the hand. They too are hungry... but soon they will be fed...

I see people who comes with wounds that still hurt and still bleed but they come. Men with canes who once walked without help and now need something to lean upon... Women who were once together with their family but now walk in alone and somewhat lonely... Older folks who walked many times from their car into God's House and now are thankful for one more journey, uncertain of how many more there are to come... Kids who come because Mom and Dad said so but who know also this is where they belong... Voices once strong and sturdy now not so strong and not so sturdy... Hopes once vibrant now tinged by the weariness of chronic pain or too many sorrows...

I see people who come despite many reasons to stay at home and yet come they must to the place where the burden of sin is made light by forgiveness, where the joy of salvation is once again restored, where the alone-ness of the disjointed world meets the family of God, where the mind is fed again on the Word that bestows what it says, where the hungry find food that finally satisfies and the cup that quenches such a thirst...

I love looking into these faces... some so well known to me and some so new... they are my family and I, as St. Paul puts it, am their father in the faith... calling them home again from all their distant lives and distant journeys to walk together on the same path... they are the Church, individually members of it and together the Bride for whom the Bridegroom willingly suffered and died... They are mine not as a possession but as a gift that comes with a responsibility...

It is like a grand family reunion on Sunday morning... not the fake family where all is happy and good but the real family where we come with our wounds and our sins, with our strengths and our weaknesses, with our pains and our tears, with our worries and our fears... and Jesus is there... the Good Shepherd who knows us by name, who calls us with His familiar voice, who feeds us on the green pastures and gives us drink of the still quiet waters... who stands between us and our enemies -- if we but let Him... who works through me with my own personal weaknesses and failings and who works through them... to accomplish His purpose and share the good news...

On Sundays, as I look out at those who are there, I know that I have the best job in the world. They deserve more than me, but it is me they have... and I will do my best to feed them upon God's Word and at His Table... to wash them clean in the water of Life... to call them back when they stray... and to lead them through this day, by God's grace, to the next...

It is just that sometimes I wish everyone could see what I see on Sunday morning... I know it would go along way to making sure that nothing interrupts our time together in God's House and nothing keeps us from being there... if not for ourselves... for those around us.


Why can't you get pizza at McDonalds? If it were on the menu, don't you think they would sell some? Why can't you get sushi at McDonalds? Surely somebody would order it if it were on the menu, right? Isn't the goal of McDonalds to sell the most whatever they can?

A decade or more ago, McDonalds was floundering. The fries were cold, the burgers steamed and left in a warmer too long, the place was not appealing, too many McRibs and all had muddied the identity of this once iconic giant in the fast food field. Then they remembered who they were. They returned to their values. They put time limits on how long the food can sit unsold before it is discarded. They concentrated on good burgers, good fries, and good service. They listened and put in what I consider some of the best coffee around (and I am pretty serious about my coffee). And McDonalds is back on top.

Christians could learn something here. The Church has forgotten who we were and so we have become something foreign to our past and uncertain to our future. We have become followers of the culture around us and we have shaped our message more to what we think people want than who we are. We have tried to become all things to all people but in such a way that we have ended up being nothing in particular.

We have misplaced our values -- the Word and Sacraments have been replaced by good entertainment and "how to" sermons. The educational settings that once taught Jesus Christ and Scripture now act as "self help" forums where the immediate goals of happiness and pleasure have replaced the eternal goals of forgiveness, life and salvation.

I am speaking here of the Church in general -- every denomination has been bit by this bug and is to one degree or another suffering the disease of relativism. Out of fear of standing for something for something unpopular, we stand for something we think everyone can agree with -- something like finding happiness, getting ahead, feeling good, having a great marriage, good sex, and successful children... We have left the poor to advocate for them, we have abandoned the needy to petition government to do something for them, and we have redefined our responsibility to get others to take responsibility for making this world a greener, more egalitarian, place.

Is that who we are supposed to be? Is this the Church that Jesus established by His blood, the bride whom He cleansed from sin to be His own, the beloved for whom He died, and the mortal for whom He rose to give immorality?

I respect McDonalds for the way they remembered who they were. I don't eat there much but I stop for the coffee -- especially when I travel. I wish that the Christian Church would remember who we were, whom we were created to be. I wish that we were willing to risk it all in order to be faithful to the values of the Gospel, to the means of grace we call the Word and Sacraments, to the mission of knowing Jesus Christ and making Him known, to the service that takes responsibility for the unborn, the children, the poor, the needy, the elderly and so many others. I wish that we at least made the eternal as important a priority as the present, that we listened to Scripture just as much as we listen to people, that we lead instead of followed behind (a day late and a dollar short of everyone else).

It is my wish for the day... the goal and purpose of my ministry as a Pastor... the vision that guides and shapes where I lead this congregation... It is not particularly Lutheran... but then Lutherans have insisted that we were not the ones who innovated or brought in novelty... So then all the churches might find some common ground here... what do you think?

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Substitute Sacrament for those who have None

First of all a disclaimer. I believe in prayer. I believe I pray too little. I believe we spend too little time in prayer on Sunday morning. Prayer is a very important part of the Christian's life and piety. That said, prayer has become a substitute sacrament for those who have no sacraments and that is a distortion of prayer that destroys its purpose and deprives it of its blessing.

Living in a part of the country where the predominant churches do not have sacraments but ordinances and where there are no concrete places where people access the grace in which we stand, I have noticed that prayer is generally treated sacramentally. That is, prayer has become the substitute sacrament for those who do not understand baptism, the Lord's Supper, or the Word to be the means of grace.

Prayer has become for them the chief medium through which they experience God. It has become a conversation more of equals than the humble prayer directed to the Most High. It has become the arena where you argue your case, attempt to change the mind of God, obtain access to the things you want, and feel the presence of God. In this respect, prayer has become something it was never intended to be.

Several conversations of late have shown me what happens without sacraments -- without places to go where God has always promised to be available and where His grace is always accessible to us. I am greatly concerned that Christians in sacramental churches are reading books about prayer published by those who do not have sacraments and our whole understanding of prayer is being distorted in this way.

Let me say it bluntly. Prayer is great but the places where God has made Himself accessible and where He has attached His grace are the Word and the Sacraments. Prayer is not a sacrament. Prayer is the fruit of a rich sacramental life and a faith rooted and grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The purpose of prayer is not to access the grace of God. God invites us to pray so that we may address Him with all the concerns of our heart -- not to change things or to change us, necessarily, but to the intimate conversation of those whose trust the Lord with all that is within -- the good and the bad.

The part of prayer that is its power is the end -- the AMEN that is, for us Christians, the same as Jesus' words, "not My will but Thy will be done." This is prayer's power -- we come with all the burdens of our hearts, we open our hearts to the Lord and address Him with all that is within us, and then we end with confidence in His good and gracious will -- Thy will be done.

Only the Spirit can teach us these words. Only frequent prayer can help us to pray these words with boldness and confidence. Thy will be done. This is not some resignation to the things we fear or abhor but must endure. This is the joyful heart so convinced of God's grace in Christ that we gladly trust ourselves, our needs, our fears, our burdens, our past, our present, and our future to this all sufficient grace. We do not pray to argue for our point of view or to convince God that what we want is really what He wants too. We pray through all our feelings, all our fears, all our burdens, and all our tears so that we can come to the point of saying "Thy will be done."

If you look at the great Psalms of David as prayers, have you noticed how he pours out his soul to the Lord in graphic and blunt terms. He has done down to the pit. He is alone. You know that feeling. I know that feeling, too. He is honest about his attempts to woo the Lord to his point of view and he lays out his cause. But the Psalm does not end there. By the end of the Psalm, his words have turned to praise and thanksgiving for the answer of the Lord. Either this is because he has stopped writing this Psalm and waited to see what God would do and then, when he got what he wanted, he ended his words.... OR it is because he got to that point where he was left with one thing and one thing only -- G0d's all sufficient grace. His final words are a form of what we learned from Jesus to pray -- Thy will be done. Not in resignation but in confidence. God's will is good and gracious. This is our confidence.

The power of prayer is not to change God's mind but to pour out our hearts to Him so that we can leave these burdens and fears at the foot of the cross and leave with a lighter burden... We know that His Word does not return to Him empty handed but accomplishes His purpose... We know that His grace is sufficient... We know that if His kingdom is first in our hearts and minds, everything else will fall into place... We know that God will make all things work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose... in other words, Thy Will Be Done.

When I pray this is my goal... whatever I bring to the Lord, I want to bring with the confidence that whatever His answer, it will be the right answer... whatever will come my way, He will enable me to endure and stand... and, dare I say it, grow from it and through it... all I need to learn in this prayerful conversation with the Father is to say what Jesus has taught me.... Thy Will Be Done!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

God Is NOT Tolerant... Grace is NOT Tolerance

Americans are, at heart, a fairly tolerant people. Sure we have a few folks whose raised voices clamor for the spotlight, whose rants and raves make it sound like we all belong to the lunatic fringe. Perhaps Nixon had it right, about the silent majority. American just want us all to get along. Not such an outlandish request, is it?

I think that when it comes to religion in America, we tolerate differences as long as they are quiet and do not challenge the thin veneer of unity that, for appearance's sake, merges all the huddled masses into one huddled mass. We have a private idea of truth when it comes to religious truth. In public we like a somewhat bland religion, heavy on virtues and morality but not specific and not dogmatic.

So that is what many churches have become. They have been Americanized and have ended up pretty vague on the specifics and pretty broad on religious truth (s). They have become like your favorite beagle, warm and cuddly and, if you do not move too fast, they will keep up and follow you where ever you go. And these American churches have been following, a little behind the times but on the same path, to all the cultural changes that have marked our societal transition over the past one hundred years or so.

For a long time, immigrant churches were somewhat immune from all of this. They lived on the fringes of American society and so they were "off the radar," so to speak. The Roman Catholics did not hit main street until well after World War II but neither did the Lutherans. It took a few decades later and the Pentecostals also began their walk down the boulevard of American religion.

It would be a lie if we did not admit that it has changed us. We are tempted to become that bland "Wonder" bread religion that looks so good but is almost empty of vitamins, fiber, and nutrition. We want to fit it and be loved. But if you belong to Jesus Christ, you must prepare to be hated and vilified and persecuted.

God is NOT tolerant. He does not tolerate sin. We must not mistake His willingness to become our Savior as His tolerance of sin. He was so intolerant of sin that He bore all of its weight and took its stain in our place. He made Himself to be like us in every way but sin in order to bear the burden of our sin -- death.

The Gospel is NOT tolerant. Read the passage about what happens to those who reject His gift of a wedding garment. No, God is neither casual or tolerant. If we make Him out to be, we render Him weak, impotent, and, ultimately, completely irrelevant to life.

Grace is NOT tolerance. Jesus did not condemn the woman caught in adultery but He did not shrug His shoulders at her sin. "Go and sin no more." Grace is not tolerance. Grace confronts sin and error and falsehood and lies but it confronts it not simply with condemnation. Grace confronts sin and error and falsehood and lies with the only power stronger than these evils -- the power of God's redemptive love at work for us and for our salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ.

A wise man once said "Clarity and charity..." Clarity about what the Gospel is, about how God deals with sin, and about the only Name under heaven and on earth by which anyone can be saved... but charity, too. Truth spoken in love -- not to condemn but to redeem, not to excuse but to save, not to exclude but as the one power that is truly inclusive.

Christians are under great pressure today to tolerate what was once labeled sin... to accept what was once condemned... to be content with the way things are instead of striving for the way things should be. But let us not abuse the Gospel by giving in to tolerance and stripping the cross from the Gospel so that God's answer is the shrug of His shoulder instead of the spilling of His blood... yet at the same time let us not be judgmental or delight in the failures of others or we will prove that the Pharisees have not gone away but are merely called by a different name today...

Clarity and charity... It is God's way... it ought to be ours.

Outreach vs Maintenance... or... Evangelism vs Liturgy

It is often posited that outreach beyond the parish and a focus on members are at odds with each other. In fact, it has become common to identify congregations that have an outreach focus and to distinguish them from those merely concerned with members (maintenance mode).

I have been at church meetings in which the maintenance mode congregations have been derided and their Pastors described more as family chaplains... with the ultimate cut being that these dying congregations need to remind the last member to turn off the lights and lock the door when the rest of them are all dead and gone.

At those same meetings I have been told that the only reason the Church exists is to make Christians out of unchristians and those that consider everything negotiable in order to win converts are the congregations we need to emulate "if we are to grow."

Fifty years ago a Swedish Bishop wrote and longer pamphlet on the tension between Liturgy and Spiritual Awakening (Outreach). It would be worth your reading. Without repeating this document here, suffice it to say that real liturgy always begets outreach and faithfully serving those in the pews will always encourage them to reach out beyond the pews. This is because the nature of the liturgy is to bid us come. Wherever the Word and Sacrament are the center and focus of our common life, the assembly will have the character of a magnet beckoning the world to see, hear, and become part of the gathered people of God. This is what it means when we say every week, "as often as you eat of this bread and drink of this cup you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes..."

In addition, if Pastors are maintaining congregations by insulating the people in their pews from the baptismal vocation to live out and proclaim the Gospel as lights to the world, then they are not being faithful Pastors at all. You are not a faithful parent if you pander to your children so that they never grow up. You are not a faithful Pastor if you serve the people but allow them to be spiritual babies. Indeed, our calling in baptism is to be the people of God -- together as a congregation and individually as members of the Body of Christ. We extend Sunday morning into the homes, workplaces, shopping areas, neighborhoods, and recreation centers that we frequent because we are in those places the very same people we are in the Church building on Sunday morning -- we are the people of God, cleansed in baptism, clothed in Christ's righteousness, forgiven of our sins, restored before God to His family, and busy about the family business (the Kingdom of God).

It is my great fear that those congregations that are so focused on outreach may be leaving the people they evangelize crippled because they have no liturgy, no gathering around the Word and Table of the Lord, to support their newly minted faith and direct them to maturity of faith and life in Christ.

It is also my great fear that Pastors and congregations who are only aware of the flock are secure in their pure doctrine and pure worship but falsely so... and that they have hidden their light in a bucket so that only the lights are enlightened and the world still sits in darkness.

It is not a matter of either/or but both/and... real liturgy leads to spiritual awakening... and spiritual awakening draws its life from real liturgy... outreach is the fruit of faithfully caring for God's people and faithfully caring for God's people leads to outreach.

Now it is true that sometimes we carry our selfish natures into the Church so that the only ones we care about are ourselves... We want to be welcomed but do not welcome... we want to be fed but do not feed... we want to be taught, but do not teach... we want to be cared for but do not care for others... This is not liturgy's fault but our own. In the end our hearts are not warmed by the Spirit but still fairly cold and we have transferred the selfish, sinful nature from the domain of the world into the domain of the Church... And that is another problem entirely...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Talking About Jesus Is Not the Same As Speaking Jesus

You are probably thinking this is an odd title. Some of you may be thinking like Donald Trump -- there is no such thing as bad publicity! As long as they mention the name, they have come half way or more, right? Wrong.

Sermons spend far too much time talking about Jesus instead of speaking Jesus. Or, to put it another way, talking about the Gospel instead of speaking the Gospel. What is the difference? A big one! Many Pastors talk about Jesus on Sunday morning but fail to speak clearly the Word of Christ that forgives our sins, lifts the burden of our guilt, clothes us with His own righteousness, cleanses us and give us new birth in baptism, imparts to us the new life of Easter that is stronger than death, and uses us here on earth to proclaim this good news to the very end of the earth.

I heard a sermon like this the other day. Jesus was all throughout that sermon but not as the Word that was being preached -- no, Jesus was the outside authority whose name was invoked to justify and bolster the opinions of the preacher. It was about what Jesus would do (sound familiar) but what Jesus would do was more an informed opinion than clear Word of Truth. Jesus was all throughout the sermon but it was not about Jesus -- it was about the opinion of the preacher and Jesus was used to proof text and foot note this preacher's opinion.

The preacher was not preaching heresy or false doctrine. It was moralistic and pious. But it was not the Gospel. I remember once at a district pastoral conference the devotion leader gave one of these kind of devotions and a VIP was up to speak after the devotion. Before he spoke, the VIP pointed out that we can talk about the Gospel without speaking the Gospel and then in two sentences illustrated the difference, chiding the devotion leader and making all of us take note that our calling as preachers is to speak Jesus Christ and Him crucified. And that Gospel only.

So I ask you, indeed I challenge you, to hold me to this standard. It is not enough to speak about Jesus Christ or about the Gospel. We must proclaim Jesus Christ and Him crucified (I think St. Paul said that) and we must proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ who was betrayed into the hands of sinners, suffered and died in our place on the cross, was buried and on the third day rose again.

This is the Word of life that none other has... the only Word that offers forgiveness, life, and salvation to any and all who will hear it and believe it...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Denominational Quiz

I guess it has me pegged -- I am a Lutheran... One of those denominational quizzes that tells you what denomination it thinks you belong to -- on the basis of your convictions. Check HERE for your own results.

Here is how the results turned out for me.

(100%) 1: Lutheran
(80%) 2: Eastern Orthodox
(76%) 3: Roman Catholic
(70%) 4: Anglican/Episcopal/Church of England
(60%) 5: Presbyterian/Reformed
(52%) 6: Congregational/United Church of Christ
(46%) 7: Church of Christ/Campbellite
(43%) 8: Baptist (Reformed/Particular/Calvinistic)
(25%) 9: Baptist (non-Calvinistic)/Plymouth Brethren/Fundamentalist
(22%) 10: Pentecostal/Charismatic/Assemblies of God
(21%) 11: Seventh-Day Adventist
(20%) 12: Methodist/Wesleyan/Nazarene
(17%) 13: Anabaptist (Mennonite/Quaker etc.)

Hymns Are One Reason I Am A Christian

Some will think me strange, but I listen to hymns all day long (at least as much as I can all day long). The staff who work with me in the office are not always so supportive of my hymn habit. Often they close the door to my office, if it is left open. But it has not deterred me. I have a 31 year old Pioneer amp, a 6 cd player (that is wearing out), four large old speakers, and hundreds of cds of church music -- mostly choral anthems and hymns.  And I love it.

These hymns are one reason I am a Christian.  They keep me tuned into the faith even when I am distracted, they build in my memory a library of Christian classics, and they invite my soul to sing and praise (even when I am not in the mood).  I listen to the hymns of Luther in a very fine collection from CPH and to a multi-cd collection of English hymns.  I listen to choirs of Valpo, the National Lutheran Choir, the choirs of Gustavus, the choirs of Lutheran Summer Music... and their songs shape my faith and hope and ground my piety within the astonishingly rich tradition passed down to us along with the best of contemporary composers and hymn writers.

I wish that more folks in the pew listened to hymns and choral music of the Church.  I am not against the pop-gospel music that is featured on most Christian radio stations but I do not find it has the depth of the great hymns of old and new.  Nor is this music singable the way the hymns are.  I find myself breaking out into the words... in my office, in my car, and while distributing the Sacrament at the Altar... even without a hymnal in my hands, the words and music have formed a deposit of the faith that links my mind, heart, lips, and soul.

It is not for beauty that I listen -- though they are beautiful.  It is not for music appreciation that I listen -- though there is much to appreciate.  I listen because hymns give voice to the faith in a deeply and profoundly moving way.  If I had the money, I would buy some of these collections and require everyone in the parish to listen regularly.  Like the ancient past when families gathered around a piano to sing the hymns of the hymnal, this is a discipline of the heart that strengthens and supports our faith through the dark and difficult struggles of life.  It fosters community and builds Christian identity as well.

So listen.... listen to the great musical voice of the Church... listen and sing... in the shower, in the car driving down the road... listen and sing and see if your faith is not encouraged and strengthened by this most salutary gift of music in service to the Lord and His Word...

Monday, August 24, 2009

Sermon for Pentecost 12, Proper 16, preached Sunday, August 23, 2009

Often in Bible study people will tell me that they wish they could read the Scriptures the way I read them – the way they think Pastors read them. Usually they are talking about competence in the Biblical languages. Some rather arrogant Pastors have told their people that without knowing Greek and Hebrew nobody can truly read the Scriptures. But these are false barriers. If Scripture is a closed book, it is not because we lack Greek or Hebrew. Scripture is a closed book only because its truth and message have not been unlocked to us. That key is not the knowledge of Greek and Hebrew but the knowledge of Jesus Christ. He is the key to under standing the Bible and He has sent the Holy Spirit so that we can unlock the Word of God and knows its truth and message by reading through the lens which is Jesus Christ.

Today we heard Isaiah record two reasons why a man could not read God’s Word – one man lacked the tools and the other could not unseal the book. In both cases the answer lies with Jesus Christ. He is THE tool that enables us to know what God’s Word says and means. The Spirit whom He has sent is the power that unseals the Word of God so that we read it through the lens of Jesus Christ. As Luther said, Scripture cradles Jesus like the manger did. In order for us to know God’s Word, the Spirit must help us to see it through the lens which is Jesus Christ. Without Jesus Christ, God’s Word is a confusing book – telling us what we do not want to know and silent about the things we are curious about.

No one says that Scripture is not an easy book. If Scripture is closed or sealed, it is not because it was written thousands of years ago, or because it was written in different languages than we speak today, or because its culture is far removed from our modern day world. Scripture is locked because our minds have been closed by sin and fear. It is open to us only when the Spirit unlocks it and allows us to see it through the lens of Jesus Christ. Scripture will conflicts with our reason and experience until we see Jesus Christ as its truth, its message, and its power. This requires the aid of the Holy Spirit.

God is as far from us as the east is from the west, His ways far above our understanding and our intellect, and He is accessible only where He chooses to reveal Himself. Jesus says that no one can come to Him unless the Father draw Him. In other words, faith is beyond our reach and Scripture beyond our grasp unless God reveals Himself to us and grants us His Holy Spirit to guide us to faith. Seminary educations, knowledge of the Biblical languages, the use of study Bibles, commentaries, Bible dictionaries and the like – they help but only after the key has been put in the lock and the mystery of the Scriptures made clear in Jesus Christ our Lord.

You can read and know God’s Word. With the Spirit as our guide and looking through the lens of Jesus Christ, Scripture is open to us. It speaks to us clearly the glorious message of salvation, and even children can understand its truth: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” In the Gospel lesson for day we hear Jesus attack the religious leaders of the day. He does so because of their unfaithfulness as stewards of His Word. They placed their words above His and turned His Word into a deep, dark book that did not point to Jesus as the Messiah and left the people unprepared for His coming.

Even a child can discern the Gospel, reading God’s Word through the lens of Jesus Christ and with the aid of the Spirit prompting them to faith. If this were not true, we would not have Sunday school or catechism classes for children and youth. You don’t have to be a Pastor or a Seminary professor or proficient in Greek and Hebrew or even an adult to read God’s Word. The seal has been broken by the Spirit and its Word made clear because read it all through Jesus Christ. He is the lens that makes its words clear to us.

Scripture is not some book of hidden knowledge, a book of secrets to be deciphered. Scripture is undecipherable to us and its wisdom hidden from us only because we do not see Jesus in its every word and on every page. When we treat the Bible as a code book, we do just what the religious leaders of Jesus’ day did. It is the same when we try to turn the Bible into an encyclopedia of divine knowledge or a textbook of psychology or marriage or child rearing handbook. Of course the Bible speaks to these things but Scripture was written by God through men into whom He breathed His Spirit to make Jesus Christ to us. This book is an explanation for where we came from, why the world is the way it is, and what God has done about it. It is about the salvation long promised and finally fulfilled through His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus is the message of the Bible and the key to unlocking its wisdom, truth, and doctrine.

If this is true, why are we so casual about Sunday school and Bible study? Why is it okay that there are children in our parish who are not in Sunday school and adults who are not in Bible study? The Word of God is the source and foundation of our spiritual lives yet we starve those spiritual lives by being so distant from God’s Word. Spiritual lives are not made of prayer but of a rich and regular diet of God’s Word. Prayer is the fruit of this life rooted and founded upon the knowledge of God’s Word. What is wrong with us when we care for every other aspect of our lives and the lives of our children and yet do not build up our knowledge of His Word and Truth?

It is time for us as God’s people to live up to what we say and spend time in His Word. It is time for us to make the education of our children in Sunday school and catechism as high a priority as getting them an education in school. It is time for us as adults to model for our children our interest in, our familiarity with, and our learning from God’s Word. We have been given this Word of God, we have been given the tools to read it, and the key to unlock its wisdom, truth and power.

How is it that we are content to hand back the Word of God or place other words above His own? This Word, written in Scripture and visible in the Sacraments, is the means of grace that conveys to us all the trophies Jesus won by His suffering, death, and resurrection. How can we be content to let the Sunday school and Bible study classrooms be empty? How can allow other priorities to come before our time together in God’s Word, from children in Sunday to adults in Bible study?

Sure, we have all complained that some passages are hard. And it does not matter how much Seminary, Greek or Hebrew I have had, I don’t have a clue what some of those passages mean. But the message of Scripture is clear in Jesus Christ even though a few of its passages may not be. This message is not some deep dark secret locked in a foreign language or culture but the story of the cross and empty tomb, where forgiveness, life and salvation were accomplished and though which these gifts are still imparted to us. We have the resources and the key in Jesus Christ. We have the power – the Holy Spirit. All that is left to us is to open up the book of God and read and grow in this faith and in this life, today and to everlasting life. Amen

The Timeliness of the Lectionary

I am often reminded of the timeliness of the Lectionary and of the wisdom of the Lectionary. Some view the appointed readings for each Sunday, feast day, and festival of the Church Year as a straight jacket. They like the freedom to pick and choose and be relevant to what is happening. I find that the Lectionary is extremely relevant -- not by my choosing but by God's purpose.
For example, in the past week the ELCA Church Wide Assembly has made dramatic choices to ignore the witness of Scripture and 2000 years of Christian understanding of marriage, family, and ordination. This radical disconnect with the past was done to embrace a new thing which they believed God was doing -- a new thing which required them to stop listening to Scripture and to place a principle of freedom, license, and liberation to stand above what Scripture says -- a gospel unrelated to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins and the redemption of our lost lives.
Guess what lessons were read in Lutheran congregations (ELCA and LCMS) yesterday, immediately following these actions:

Isaiah 29:11-19.

11And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” 12And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.” 13And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,14therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.” 15Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” 16You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”? 17Is it not yet a very little while until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest? 18In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. 19The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.

And Mark 7:1-13

1When the Pharisees gathered to [Jesus], with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ 8You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” 9And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

In both lessons God's people are chastised for not reading His Word, for not understanding that Word through the lens of Jesus Christ, and for substituting the the wisdom of men for the Word of God. Now if that is not timeliness I don't know what it...

Over the many years of my ministry, using the Lectionary, I can recount time after time when the lessons of the day, appointed by a calendar seemingly unrelated to the events of the moment, spoke with great eloquence upon the very situations of the moment that might leave us scrambling to find the right words from the Lord. God, in His wisdom, is greater than mine...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Every Day I Wake Up And It Is Sunday Morning

Pastors often have different nightmares than those on the other side of the pulpit. Common dreams causing night sweats include standing in front of the congregation and forgetting to put on your pants or being at a new congregation for the first Sunday and having no vestments and no sermon... well, you get the idea...

Often it seems to me that every day I wake up and it is Sunday morning -- I wake up wondering is it really Sunday? Where did the week go? Do I have a sermon ready? Did I forget something? This is really not a nightmare but the usual checklist as I think for a moment about what the day is and what lies before me.

Our Lord intended for our weeks and, indeed, our lives, to revolve around Sundays. It is the day of our Lord and of His resurrection. It is the first day of the week. It is the eighth day -- the dawn of the new creation made possible by His dying and rising again. It is the beginning of the beginnings only forgiveness can made possible. It is one day in time closer to the day no longer in time when we are all called before the Lord and those clothed in His righteousness to eternal life in the heavenly places prepared for us.

More than just Sunday to Sunday, our lives revolve around meals. I am not speaking here about the "what do you want to eat" meals of mortal lives but the feast prepared for us by our Lord Jesus Christ, where He gives us His body as food and His blood as drink to everlasting life. It is from one meal in His House to the next that we gauge our lives. It is from one Sacramental encounter with our Lord and His rich grace to the next that we measure the passage of time.

This weekly rhythm was the drum beat of the early Church -- not yet the fully formed dimensions of the Church Year with its cycle from Advent through Pentecost and then ordinary time but the weekly rhythm of a people gathered and dispersed only to be gathered again around the Word and Table of the Lord.

We work very hard to order our lives around different poles but still the Lord calls us to this weekly cycle of grace, to this weekly rhythmic dance to, from, and back to His House, and to this drumbeat of time measured not by birthdays or anniversaries but by where we have been and where we are going.

The Sunday morning gathering of God's people in the Name of the Lord, on the Day of the Lord, around the Table of the Lord... it is both source of our spiritual lives and the ground of our piety as well as the summit to which we are headed... And we are here again... to kneel in confession, to rise forgiven, to sing triumphantly of His story, to pray confidently in His name, to listen carefully to His Word, to confess boldly what He has done, to eat in humility at the Table where He bids us come of the heavenly food of His body and blood, to return expectantly of His coming again, and to work faithfully His works within the places where He bids us go.... only to start it again...

Soli Deo Gloria

Words from the LCMS President to the ELCA Convention

This was the video response of the LCMS President to the ELCA Convention...

Here is the interview with Rev. Matt Harrison on Issues, Etc ...

Here is a video response from Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Different Fights

Having read through news accounts and the blogosphere of reactions to the actions of the ELCA it occurs to me that it might be helpful to consider the different fights within different church bodies.

In the ELCA the fight was and is about the replacement of one confession for another. Clearly the ELCA knows this because even in the words of the very social statement itself was the acknowledgement that this was a departure from what the Church has understood from Scripture and taught as truth for 2000 years. That is the danger in all of this -- it is the replacement of one confession (the one listed in the constitution's standard of faith article) with another confession that allows diversity of opinion about what Scripture teaches and the use of gospel as a principle to undo those clear words of Scripture.

In the LCMS the fight was and is about living up to what is a faithful confession. Everyone in the LCMS acknowledges our confessional standard and there is more unanimity about what is believed, taught and confessed than is generally the case in other church bodies. However, where we fail most of all is in allowing that confession to inform and shape our practice (about such things as worship, the frequency of the Lord's Supper, the center of our piety, the methods used to build and grow the Church, etc.).

They are different fights and, I regret to say, that harder one is in the ELCA. Though I wish those who will stay all the strength and might of the Lord to fight to replace the errant confession now reigning in that body, I know it is a nearly impossible battle. The easier one, though not easy by any stretch, is in Missouri where we fight so that how we live out our confession is as faithfulness as is our commitment to that confession.

Something to think about...

Friday, August 21, 2009

Rest in Peace Cecilia Marie Browder

Today a member of our parish, one of those first founding members, fell asleep in the arms of her Savior. Cecilia Browder lived just blocks away from the Church. I had been to her home many times. The first such occasion shortly after I became Pastor at Grace Lutheran Church. I had come because she was caring for her husband, John, who was bed ridden due to advanced Alzheimer's. Cecilia was a quiet but strong woman, a woman of deep and abiding faith. She cared for her husband at home until his death -- faithfully fulfilling a promise she had made to him when he was still able to recognize her. Her life was filled with grief. The loss of a son long before had left its scar upon her. Only a short time ago, her daughter, Sharon, died very suddenly after bring Celia to the hospital and making sure she was comfortable. In the midst of so many wounds and sorrows, I ask you to pray with me that her grandchildren be kept safe and secure within the comfort and peace of the Christian faith and hope -- that we shall not die but live forevermore in Christ our Savior. I ask you to pray in thanksgiving for the peaceful release our Lord has granted to Celia after a life with so much sorrow and pain.

Visitation will be at Neal Tarpley from Noon to 2 pm on Sunday, Aug. 23, and the funeral will take place also at Neal Tarpley at 2 pm on Sunday.

May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace according to the mercies of God.

Grieving the Loss of a Family Member

Today in Minneapolis, the Church Wide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted on the third of three major issues. First was a vote to adopt a social statement which gave approval to committed same sex relationships, in effect giving same sex relationships the same status as marriage between members of the opposite sex. Second was a vote to enter into full communion with the United Methodist Church. Third was a vote to change rules regarding ordination and clergy -- in effect applying the rules of the social statement to candidates seeking ordination and clergy already ordained. This means that the ELCA now allows their pastors to enter into committed same sex relationships (previously, pastors who identified as homosexual in orientation were required to live celibate lives in order to remain on the clergy roster of the ELCA).

First my reaction is one of grief and sadness. It is as if we have lost a family member. These actions have created an impossible distance between Lutheran cousins like the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS, to which I belong as does my parish) and the ELCA. I am deeply saddened by this deepened rift and for the hundreds of faithful pastors and congregations I know whose place within that church body has been made so very difficult. There is no room to gloat or pride when other members of the Lutheran family have acted so out of keeping with historic Lutheran identity, confession and practice.

Second, this is not about sexuality or homosexuality. Some will try to make it about this but that is not the cause of such great sadness and distance. No, what is the greater issue here is the way in which a church body has disconnected its current life and confession from Scripture and its Confessions. This is the real issue. It is not about gays or lesbians but about the choice to make the gospel (small g in this case) a principle instead of a message and to set this principle of tolerance, acceptance, liberation, and freedom against the clear passages of Scripture which clearly define sexuality within the context of male and female, marriage and family. For in setting up the rationale for this departure from what Christianity has always understood, the ELCA has put into place the very mechanism to depart from the very Gospel (big G - meaning the cross and empty tomb) itself. This is the inevitable outcome when gospel becomes the legitimacy for any new understanding or new idea that once was clearly prohibited in Scripture and tradition. Indeed the real issue is what do we have left when gospel stands in opposition to the clear words of Scripture? Surely it is the Gospel -- the message of Jesus Christ and the salvation He won for us by His death and resurrection -- that is lost when the church has the freedom to oppose Scripture or to disregard what Scripture has clearly said and the Church believed for two millenia (and longer in the OT).

Third is the foundation that was used to support and justify the full communion relationship with the United Methodist Church. Again this is not about Methodists but about the way the ELCA has embrace a reconciled diversity to allow communion, clergy sharing, and cooperation when agreement has not been reached. In other words, the two church bodies have very different understanding on the Sacraments, specifically on such core issues as whether Christ is present in the bread and wine of His Holy Supper or whether He is merely present in a spiritual way to the community gathered together and the individual remembering the Savior. Again, the issue is how these decisions were made, the theological principles underlying the vote to full communion with a church body not in full confessional agreement, and the weak unity such unreconciled diversity fosters.

As a member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, I grieve with my brothers and sisters in the ELCA, for the decisions made, for the faulty theology underlying those decisions, and for the resulting consequences for this church's future. I do not in any way imply that my church body, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, is without fault or problems for such is not the case. But the errors prevalent in Missouri are not a theological confession which is compromised but practices which conflict with a faithful confession.

So where do we go from here. On one hand we have some very fine documents in the LCMS that we can offer to state positively what we believe, teach, and confess (in accord with Scripture). I offer you links to several of those below:

1. Marriage and Human Sexuality
2. Legislation Regarding Same Sex Unions
3. What About Homosexuality
4. Ministry Plan to Homosexuals
5. Initial Response to the ELCA Proposal
6. The Contemporary Debate on Homosexual Clergy

To those interested in a fuller review of the issues I have touched upon, please check out the links above. To those who have deeper questions, I would offer you to check out the web site of Robert Gagnon whose publications have proven to be faithful to Scripture and yet sensitive to the parameters of this very public debate.

In terms of the general public, it is important that we affirm that we of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod have faced the same issues as the ELCA but come to very different conclusions and we can reference some of the links above as evidence of that stance which is both Scriptural and consonant with our Confessions. However, we gain nothing by tearing down others. It is sufficient that we make distinction between their position and our own.

In terms of family members of friends in the ELCA, I would encourage patience and compassion. I do not expect a mass exodus away from the ELCA. First, there are many who would believe that as long as it does not directly affect me or my congregation, I can live with this. Sort of a NIMBY (not in my back yard) mentality. Second it will take time for people to come to grips with what has taken place and how they will respond to it. Third, there are already groups in the ELCA that have prepared options (Word Alone is one group, Lutheran CORE is another).

As far as those who find that they no longer wish to remain, I would welcome a conversation and offer them faithful pastoral care until they decide what path to follow... and if any seek out a new church home, we can cross that bridge if and when it comes.

On Sunday, August 23, we will pray for the ELCA. I hope in your personal prayers you will pray for our Lutheran kin there as well.

Now Do It Again...

Fridays are my day off... the time when I try to think of something else besides the Church -- something that is not always very successful. Sometimes I wish to be at the Church instead of... high on a ladder painting the eves of my house... or bent over an appliance that refuses to do what it was created to do... or on my back staring up at a drain that will not let the water flow freely... or a thousand other things that have to do with home ownership and making things there work.

It occurs to me that most of my life consists of doing the same things over and over again. At work I prepare and preach sermons over and over again (perhaps too much for those who sit through them). I write newsletter articles and review bulletin notes again and again. I teach the same things in different classes to different people and as soon as I finish I begin again. I call folks on the phone and set up appointments and keep them, recruit people for various jobs, listen to their wounds, and encourage them in their sorrows... and then I do it some more. I read and respond to emails. I read books and articles in theological journals. I read Scripture (trying to read it devotionally but often have a sermon, class, or article in the back of my mind as I read)...

At home fixing things seems to be a magnet for more things that need fixing. From lawn mowing to painting to cleaning up the garage (oooh, now that is my favorite thing to do over and and over again)... It gets to the point where some fever sets in to do something different -- to go some place new, to do something out of the ordinary...

But it is the same for the rest of the members of my family. My wife the nurse does the same things over and over again to different patients... My kids in college go to class after class, do paper after paper, and read book after book -- the routine of college. My son in Nebraska works every day and then goes back to work, cleans his apartment and cleans it again, and fishes and fishes again...

It occurs to me that we are somehow conditioned to think of God being in the special things and yet God is fully determined to by-pass that expectation and show Himself in the ordinary and routine. He comes to us in the Word even though our world it filled with words... He comes to us in water though water accompanies the daily routine of our lives so much so that we hardly notice it anymore... He comes to us in bread that is ordinary bread and wine that is nothing special... It is the nature of His grace and His good will toward us that He reveals Himself in these ordinary things, the Means of Grace.

I keep looking for special things in my life to interrupt the ordinary routine of days at home and days at work... but God is there in the ordinary routine... perhaps I have been too focused on the unusual to see the face of God there in the regular things of my daily life. Perhaps my task and calling as a Pastor is to get folks to open their eyes to see Jesus there in their midst, where two or three are gathered around His Word, His Water, His Voice of Absolution, and His Meal... To get their eyes open enough to see that the places where God has called them to serve are the ordinary places of life... we serve the Lord in what we do at work, at home, among the family, with friends, to the stranger on the corner, and in the neighborhoods where we live.

We disdain the routines of our ordinary lives... God does not. These are the opportune moments in which to delight in the sufficient grace that supports us in every need. These are the divinely provided places where we serve the Lord and do His bidding. These are the mystery moments in which heaven and earth touch. These are the surprises of grace that the Spirit teaches us to see... Simple water with His Word is the miracle washing of new life! Simple bread and wine with His Word are the heavenly food and drink of His Body and Blood. Simple words with the Holy Spirit are the living voice of the Most High speaking into my earthly ears and heart.

Lord, keep me from gazing at the mountain with longing and show me Your face in the valley where I live, where I work, and where I serve...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Up Side of Sin and the Fall

I was reminded today that until the Fall of Adam, we were all vegetarians... so as I hoisted the big piece of USDA prime beef onto the grill, I caught myself pondering the fact that were it not for sin I would be grilling only vegetables... darn... could it be that there was an up side to the terrible deed in Eden? Yes it brought sin and death, but it also led to a rare rib eye, grilled to perfection... sure, I know, we gave up more than we got... but... well, it just tastes so gooooood...

Taste or Sense

I love art but confess much of what goes under the name modern art -- well, I don't get much of it. But that is the thing about art, right? It is a matter of taste -- you like regular fries, somebody else likes curly fries, somebody else likes seasoned fries, and I like waffle fries. It is a matter of taste -- what you like, what appeals to you...

Or is there more to it all...

Not everything is equal. I like to visit a site dedicated to bad vestments worn by clergy all over the world. I catch myself wondering, "What was he thinking when he put that on?" It not just a matter of taste -- what I like or don't like -- it is a matter of sense. Somethings are just plain wrong. Somebody should have said something to that Pastor before he walked out in public wearing that, uh, that uh, I don't know what you would call it... "It looked like a rainbow threw up on it..." is the best I can say in public...

Sense. Sensibility. Common or uncommon. That is what we need. St. Paul put it this way, "Not everything possible is beneficial." We should not have to make rules about things. It ought to be understood. Some things are just not right. Period. Everyone needs to take a moment, take a deep breath, and think...

That rap version of the Sanctus... using a lime green FiestaWare cup as a chalice and pitcher as a flagon... trying a modern psychedelic version Joseph's coat of many colors as a vestment... wedding vows that pledge love, happiness, nuclear disarmament, and ecofriendly lifestyles... prayers that pray for justice and then plead mercy... creeds that were written for a brief moment in time (and should be banished there permanently... gimmicks like a blow up gadget man to get kids to VBS...

I am not pleading tastefulness here... I am not arguing for high culture... It is a matter of sense... If only common sense were not so uncommon, maybe some of their weird and foolish things done in the name of the moment or in the name of religion or in the name of Jesus, would not become the embarrassments that we wish would go away. Not everything possible is wise... or good... or beneficial... or worth while... Many times the better part of valour is discretion that says... I don't think so.

If all in the name of relevance, then be prepared to endure the mundane, the strange, the embarrassing, the odd, and the unforgettable that should be forgotten... or the Church will become America's Funniest Home Videos -- the place where we chronicle our stupidity, our foolishness, our embarrassments, and our chronic need to be center stage no matter how bad we look...

Forever 18... or Stuck at Senior Prom

There are a couple of great posts on the adolescent culture in which we live... I think they are worth sharing... here on the day before there were teenagers (and everyone wanted to be one)... here on a Pastor's blog on the adolescent subculture... but I just gotta share the six characteristics of adolescents and our adolescent subculture gone wild... Read the list and think about the modern day world in which we live...

1. Demand of instant gratification leading to lack of commitment (marriage, church, whatever)
2. Absence of long-term thinking (What do you want to do when you grow up, if ever?)
3. Motivated by feeling rather than truth. (It feels right to me.)
4. Wanting grown up things without being grown up. (Sex, shacking up, BMWs)

5. Expecting bailouts rather than accepting consequences. (Hmmm. Sound familiar?)
6. Focusing on appearance rather than depth. (Can you say plastic surgery?)

Ouch... it hurts when the critique is spot on...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Rig Veda, the most ancient Hindu scripture, says this: “Truth is One, but the sages speak of it by many names.” A Hindu believes there are many paths to God. Jesus is one way, the Qur’an is another, yoga practice is a third. None is better than any other; all are equal. The most traditional, conservative Christians have not been taught to think like this. They learn in Sunday school that their religion is true, and others are false... But they are no longer buying it. According to a 2008 Pew Forum survey, 65 percent of us believe that “many religions can lead to eternal life” — including 37 percent of white evangelicals, the group most likely to believe that salvation is theirs alone.

This is from Newsweek magazine but sadly it is more and more true. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” That is one of the most basic statements of the Christian faith -- there is one exclusive path to God and that leads through Jesus Christ but that path is inclusive to all because He died for all. In an age of tolerance, diversity, and subjective truth, this most basic assertion of Christian faith has become a pariah and excess baggage that many so-called Christians are ready to jettison.

If we lose the centrality of Christ, if we give up Christ as the exclusive path to God, to forgiveness, to life, and to salvation, what are we left with? It all depends...

For some, we are left with a morality religion which holds up higher virtues such as selfless service, situation ethics, and noble life by example. In other words, a religion of my own personal goodness or at least my striving to be a better person.

For others we are left with a do-good religion which advocates for the poor and needy and embraces social justice in all its forms as the replacement for evangelism.

For still others we are left with a feel-good religion that justifies, excuses, and places in an understandable context all our foibles (can't call them sins anymore). In this realm the Christian faith becomes pop psychology, self-help group, and inspirational motivator all rolled into one.

For the rest Christianity becomes a diversion from real problems and worship the entertainment that puts pleasure ahead of all other religious principles. If a good time was had by all then it cannot be all bad.

The problem is that we need forgiveness big enough to cover our big sins. The problem is that we need someone strong enough to strong arm our load of guilt off our shoulders and release us from its chains. The problem is that we need a hope which does more than inspire but refocuses our vision to the redemption that One has accomplished for all. The problem is that we need a Word which is anchored in eternity and does not move around on a sea of change. The problem is that at the end of it all we still die; we can call it a natural part of life but we know better and we need the One who is stronger than death, whose life is eternal. The problem is that we need more than a band-aid, more that a distraction, more than entertainment. We need redemption. We need salvation. We need a Savior who has power over our enemies and power to grant us life without limits.

Lord, where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life. Either He is the only Way, the Truth, and the Life... or there is no way, no truth, and no life for any. See my sermon below...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Unchurched Like Church Buildings that Look Like Church

According to one study, unchurched adults prefer Gothic church buildings to utilitarian ones, challenging the conventional wisdom that medieval-looking churches feel out-of-touch and stuffy to seekers. LifeWay showed over 1,600 unchurched adults four pictures of church buildings, ranging from mall-like to Gothic. The majority preferred the most ornate church. The results of the study were reported in Christianity Today in its May 2009 issue.

First of all, let me deny the myth of Field of Dreams -- if you build it they will come. Buildings alone do not reach people. There are many congregations with absolutely gorgeous buildings but they are struggling and even failing.

No, the point in this is that people outside the Church like the Church to look like the Church, to act like the Church, to sound like the Church, and to BE the Church. Whether in architecture or message, the unchurched are not necessarily attracted to churches that neither look nor sound like the Church.

For all those who said that making church buildings look like shopping malls and toning down the message of the church to sound more like pop psychology or happy talk would bring in the unchurched, well, we are still waiting for the solid evidence. In fact there is evidence that these techno temples of entertainment bring in proportionately the same number of new faces as do congregations with traditional church buildings and the authentic Christian Gospel.

Then who likes these variety show styles of worship in buildings whose chief adornment is a trap set (in plexiglass surround) and huge video screens? I need only to look in the mirror -- the folks who like it best are the baby boomers who already consider themselves Christian. These are the folks who insist that the music in worship sound like what they listen to on radio and I-pods (which, by the way, is no more contemporary than rock and roll oldies or folk music styles). These are the folks who complain that church is boring and needs to get with the times. These are the folks who place a higher priority on their views and thinking than faithfulness to the Christ of Scripture.

In fact, the boomers who insist upon their style of music and worship may be turning off those younger. Consider the Lutheran group "Lost and Found" and their song Opener:

I’m looking for something stronger—Than my own life these days,
Yet the church of my childhood—Seems like the YMCA.
Well, every Sunday—Is just like the last,
As if the church has no history—And the people have no past.
We just sing what we like to sing—And we preach about the news,
And think of some new thing—Just to fill up the pews.
I want palms on Palm Sunday—And Pentecost still to be red.
I want to drink of the Wine—And eat of the Bread.
And they search for attendance—While I starve for transcendence --
But I count among this Body—Of both the living and the dead.....

Gene Edward Vieth has written well about this and what he says about worship, music, and message correlates well with this study of how churches look and how that relates to the unchurched.

In other words, the future lies not with a church attempting to look like a snapshot of the culture of the moment... no, the future lies with the Church faithful to Scripture, to tradition, to worship that embodies this confession, to a faith which passes on this Truth, and to a willingness to welcome those outside to come in and to bring what is heard inside out to those not yet there.

What will it be? That will be determined by YOU, God's people, and by your insistence that the Church be nothing less than what she was and more faithful than she has been (to the Truth and to the Mission)...

The Bread that Divides

The sermon for Pentecost 11, Proper 15, preached on Sunday, August 16, 2009.

Every three years we spend three weeks in John chapter 6. What began for us with a question “What must I do to do the works of God,” and then led to the distinction between food that cannot stave off death and the food that has the power to impart life, now has led to opposition and rejection. Today Jesus confronts those who would reject His words. Like the child who is given good food and says, “I don’t want it,” so there are those who refuse the food of Jesus’ body and blood. Every parent and every child has had some confrontation over food – the food that the kids want and the good food the parents are offering. It is as familiar as life to us. Today Jesus speaks of the division caused by His words and His gift of His body and blood. Jesus offers us the one gift that can feed us forgiveness and life and we reject it. It is not what we wanted or expected. It is not only His gift we reject but Himself, the Giver.

These are hard words. No one, not even Jesus, says His words are easy on our ears or hearts. In the Gospel lesson Jesus does not back down when the Jews take issue with His words. He is even more blunt in response: “My flesh is real food and my blood real drink.” Even the disciples feel the tension. Those closest to Jesus admit that what He is saying is hard to swallow – literally. Our Lord does not ease the burden of His words but pointedly asks them – Are you offended by what I said? And some of them dropped out at that point; they turned away from Jesus. It was too much. The bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world became the bread that divides.

That is exactly the situation in the Church today. Today as then, there are many who are offended by Jesus’s words. They have rejected His Words as too hard to believe, too harsh and unbending, or too distasteful in our modern, sophisticated world. Now as then, they turn away from Jesus. You are not what we want, they say. You are not who we thought You were. Your Gospel is not what we thought it was. In essence, they have chosen the food of their own reason, desire, or will over His flesh for the life of the world.

Give us something easier to believe, they cry. Your Words are too hard. Give us some thing reasonable – something easier to understand, easier to reconcile with the modern mind, with the theories of science and the way people think today. Give us something that fits us better – the people we are today. There are many who wish to have no part of a Gospel with a cross, who refuse to admit sin is so powerful it requires suffering, and who fail to see a death so real it requires a resurrection. They have turned away and are looking for and finding a faith that better fits what they want. The hard truth is not only accepting what Jesus offers. The hard truth is that if we refuse to feast upon Him spiritually by faith and sacramentally in His Holy Supper, then we reject His Word, reject His promise, reject His grace, and ultimately reject Him.

What about you? That is what Jesus said to the twelve. What about YOU? Will you also turn away became of Me? asks Jesus. Jesus’ words so long ago cry out to us today who are tempted to find a church where the message changes, where the deity fits the modern mind, where religion is easier on the schedule, easier on the mind, easier on the heart, and easier on the checkbook. What about YOU? Will you also fall away because of Me, asks Jesus to us.

The disciples had thought this through a bit. This was not the first time they had found it hard to believe in Jesus and follow Him. So Peter speaks up for the whole group. “Lord, it is not like we have looked for a better faith but where? Where else can we go?” Jesus does not ask us to surrender our minds at the door when we come to Him. But Jesus does ask us to trust in Him, to place His Word and promise above our reason, understanding, and desire. We come to Him not with the blind trust of those who have not tested the alternatives but the honest trust of those who have looked around and realized – there is no where else to go. Like the disciples of old we stand before Jesus today and admit we have looked for an easier faith, a more reasonable Scripture, a more believable Gospel... But there is no other. Jesus alone has the word of eternal life. We can find all kinds of religions that offer the chance to feel good today but they cannot deliver eternal life, they cannot ease the terrible burden of our guilt, they cannot wash away the dirt of sin that stains our souls. Only Jesus. Lord, if we had any other place to go, we might. But we don’t. You alone have the words of eternal life.

So what is left is for us to confess Jesus only. To confess His flesh broken for the life of the world. His flesh come to us in this Sacrament to feed us life and forgiveness. In just a few moments we will confess our faith. Like Peter of old we come with all our doubts, all our fears, all our wisdom and we lay them down before Jesus. We have no where else to go. You are the one and only Savior whom the Father has sent, the bread comes down from heaven, to give life to the world. You alone are the Savior who gives to us His very flesh as our food and His very blood as our drink. You alone give us the life that sustains us now in the valley of the shadow and that gives us the life that is stronger than death and the grave.

Choosing a church is not picking out a good fit for you or your family. Picking out a church is not picking food off a menu or clothing that feels good on us or a chair that fits us like a glove. Choosing a church is looking at the choices, evaluating all the words, and finding the church that preaches that one Word that does not lie, that one Word that has the power to deliver upon its promises, that one Word that feeds your hunger and thirst in the Holy Sacrament, that one Word that fully and finally satisfies our great need born of sin and its death. Only Jesus is that Word. That is why we’re here. Like the hymnwriter says, “Here, O Lord, we see Thee face to face...” Here we hear the Word that is a living voice, keeping its promises. Here are heaven’s gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation won by His earthly suffering and death. Here is the water of life that washes us clean and the bread of heaven that feeds us life.

Lord, we don’t have anywhere else to go... Here and no where else is the Word of life. Jesus, give us this bread, give us Yourself always. Amen.