Sunday, January 31, 2010

No Glory Here...

The news has been filled with coverage over the trial of the man who murdered the notorious late-term abortion doctor George Tiller. Scott Roeder was found guilty yesterday of first-degree murder for shooting Tiller. Tiller was an usher at the Reformation Lutheran Church in Kansas where he was handing out bulletins to people before he was shot on May 31, 2009.

The man convicted in the murder of the so-called abortion doctor was filled with reasons why he did what he did. You can read that in other places. His religious history is to say the least -- convoluted and just plain weird. There have been those who have ventured that this was in some ways, at least, a righteous killing of a man who killed unrighteously. Though few would venture such an opinion in print, conversations often included things we would not sign our name to in public.

But it must be said up front that this man did no favor for God or for those who stand against the heinous immorality of abortion. He proved only that those who are pro-life are also willing to make exceptions and that the years of good work done to witness against this cult of death can be undone very quickly when one person acts with violence that is supposed to do good.

There is no glory here... not for a doctor who stood by his flawed principles to carry out even late term abortions because it was a legal right... not for a Lutheran congregation who welcomed him after another Lutheran congregation could not allow him to remain when his business and his practice so conflicted with their pro-life stance... not for the pro-life cause which is precisely against the choosing of one or some lives over others... not for the pro-choice cause whose nice sounding words about choice were scattered with blood when the details of this doctor's practice were revealed... not for the courts where this man willingly and happily accepted responsibility for this crime... not for anyone...

But for those who cause is life, the fight will continue... It will take some time before the pro-life people and our perspective are no longer painted with the broad brush of this murderer. It will take some time before the people of Reformation Lutheran Church get back to normal -- though a normal in which a doctor such as he was had been accepted without much more than a superficial reflection of what his presence meant is not a good normal to return to. It will take some time before the focus can be lifted from these two men and back where it needs to be -- on the million plus infants whose lives are taken before their first breath of this world's air. For, in spite of all the things that have and have not been said, it is this group of innocents who remain the true and lasting victims of the moral stain that has diminished the high stature of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness enshrined upon our American life and identity...

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Scooping Out the White Stuff

We got 6-8 inches of snow last night. While for some of you that is nothing, for a city in the South it is like a major heart blockage. Everything has shut down. Where I should have been with a new member class this morning, I am at home. Where I could have been relaxing, I have been shoveling. It should be about 32 degrees today and warmer tomorrow.... this too shall pass...

When I went out this morning, there were no tracks but for the birds at the feeder and squirrels trying to open the seed feeders. It was pristine. The roof was covered. The sidewalks had disappeared into the snow. The driveway was not even visible. It was a perfect blanket of snow. This does not happen often down here in Tennessee. So before I started to spoil it all, I stopped to survey the picture.

“Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool." How true these words are as you look upon the scene this morning. The grass lay hidden. The bare spots on the lawn had disappeared. The ivy by the tree was disguised by the snow. It was all there but hidden under the covering of snow -- so that they eye could no longer see what had been or what was. Only what is...

In Christ God hides our sin from His eyes. Like this perfect blanket of white snow, the righteousness of Christ covers us over. Oh that we could see ourselves as God does see us in Christ. But we can't and we won't. Because we are still mortals, because we still live within this veil of sin, because our old Adam continues to pull us away from God's truth and reality... we do to ourselves what I did to that beautiful morning snow scene -- we dig up the hidden and suddenly it is all dirty again.

Each scoop of the snow off the sidewalk and driveway exposed something dark and dirty. Each shovel of snow hurled on to the grass, littered the whiteness of that snowy blanket with the dirt from underneath -- bits of sunflower seeds and hulls, dirt and leaves, they all had been hidden until I scooped them up and turned over the white to expose the darkness underneath. I thought I was doing something good and necessary but after I was finished I wondered... what had been pristine and white in its purity was now stained and dirty.

Is this not what we do every day? God has us perfectly covered but we dig and dig until all we see is dark, dirty, and ugly. Though He has planted us in Christ our natures still fight and rebel -- we arrogantly through on top of the white blanket all the dirt that was underneath. Our pride refuses to let it lie. Our sinful natures will not be content until they are obvious again. Our dirt will not be silent under the cover of Christ's righteousness.

Is this not why daily contrition and sorrow over sin must continue to reclaim what was and was tossed away? Is this not why we must daily repent of our sin and reclaim the righteousness of Christ -- that which we cast off as casually as the blanket whose warmth we reject even on a cold night?

I did what I thought I must in spoiling that perfect white snow covered morning... but in the end I knew what I must still spoiled what had been... Sin whispers into our eyes every justification for casting off the white blanket of Christ's righteousness but in the end our guilt reminds what we always knew... we did what we should not have done... Oh, that we might live contended within that white garment... Lord, give me a heart content to be covered by and to live under the covering of the righteousness of Christ...

Friday, January 29, 2010

Choice Is Its Own Bondage

I opened a journal with an article by the respected church consultant, Lyle Schaller, talking about the culture of choice that surrounds us and how that culture of choice impacts upon the Church. He is a good writer who articulates clearly his points. He is one of the gods of church growth and has been a fixture among those who tell us what is happening in culture and how it affects us within the Church. I do not read him often but every now and then. But he is so often wrong on his basic premise -- that in order for the Church to succeed, the Church must follow and even reflect the movements of culture and society.

I am sure that most Pastors get the magazines that promote these view points -- some of them are free and you get them because your name and address is on some mailing list somewhere. Even when I have failed to send in the "renewal" forms, I still get them. I browse through them when I am bored or curious. They tend to promote technology in worship, changing trends in church architecture, changing seating, changing chancel furniture, changing ways to raise funds, changing approaches to youth or singles or children's ministries, etc. You get the point.

What they are not is doctrinal. They do not hold to any ideology at all -- other than the basic premise that you must be willing to do whatever is required in order for the church to grow (I use the small "c" here because they are talking less about real growth and more here about nickels and noses). Since there is no (honest) Pastor who is not also faced with these pressures to produce growth that can be charted on a graph, all of us look at these from time to time... just to see what they say...

It seems that the panic among churchly leaders is the fear of being irrelevant and to prevent that we must do whatever it takes to keep up with the trends and the changing face of culture and society. I would maintain that the Church is, was designed to be, and has always been irrelevant. The Church of Jesus Christ was not established to be a mirror of current culture but to be the place where the Kingdom of God is manifest in the Word of the Gospel and the Sacraments (the means of grace). Far from keeping up, the Church is heading a radically different direction from the path of the world. The mark of the Church's success is not her ability to keep up with the path the world is on but to maintain the narrow way of life, truth, hope, and salvation.

Of course we need, we must know what is happening in culture and society. The changing face of the American family, the changing face of relationships, the changing patterns among industry and entertainment are important to us -- not as the markers which guide us to follow them but because in witness we must speak the Gospel in the language of everyman and in service we must know where the hurts are to apply the healing balm of Christ's love. Yet we must do this in such a way that we retain the culture, values, and identity of Jesus Christ. Note that by culture here I am not speaking of any ethnic culture but that ethos and life that flows from the Word of the cross and the means of grace where that Gospel is made visible and sensory.

People will flock to what is new and different if they are curious or because of sin's distortion of our nature with an attention deficit disorder of the worst kind. But will they stay? Will they be transformed? Will they be rescued from death? Will they be convicted by the Law? Will they be set free by the Gospel? Will they meet the crucified and risen Lord who comes in Word and Sacrament? What ought to concern the Church most of all is making sure that we plant outposts of hope and life amid the ever changing landscape of our culture and society, outposts that are secure in the Word of the Lord and securely identified by this Word and Truth... Outposts where Christ comes to His people and to those who will receive Him (by the Spirit's power) in the means of grace... Outposts where God's people are well equipped for their baptismal vocation of carrying this Good News to the people whose lives cross their own in the neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, and shopping areas where Christians continually meet those who do not yet know Jesus Christ...

As I read Schaller's words I was struck by the energy and effort (not to mention cost) of trying to keep up with all the changes he had noted. If we continually pour our time, energy, and funds into these areas, what will be left to sustain the Church so that she may be the beacon of Light that shines in the darkness with hope, forgiveness, life, and truth because He who is that Light stands within her for the sake of the world?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Wise Words...

More than 36 years ago I was privileged to gain the acquaintance of Pastor Charles Evanson. He had just come to Redeemer, Ft. Wayne, IN. I still recall his installation and standing by the Rev. Adalbert Raphael Alexander Kretzmann as he read the Gospel -- light glittering off a very large gold pectoral cross with a huge ruby at its center. But for me, the real gem was the man who was installed there and who became my mentor, my friend, the Pastor who presided at my wedding, and for whom my affection and respect continue to grow as "in retirement" he serves the Lutheran cause in Lithuania.

I remember coming to him upon my placement and first call. The parish was divided. There was a long history of not using the liturgy. The Sacrament of the Altar was clearly not at the heart of the congregation's life and ministry. The chalice had never been used and I had never communed under individual cups. Just to name a few of the issues that pressed upon me. With so much to consider and so much to do, I was uncertain where to begin or how to recover a Lutheran identity, make that an evangelical catholic identity rooted in the Lutheran Confessions.

Among all the bits of wisdom he gave me, his advice on liturgical change is one I remember and still use to this day. He told me that it is easier to change what the Pastor does than what the congregation does -- but that over time what the Pastor does will become, with teaching and faithful pastoral care, what the people will do...

An example of his wisdom in practice.... When I arrived I asked to use a glass chalice since I was accustomed to the common cup. I did not challenge their practice directly nor did I ask anyone to change. I merely offered to those who likewise might desire the use of the chalice that both would be offered at the same time at the rail. I thought it would take a million years for such subtlety to make a difference I was wrong. Within the month, a woman of the parish came into my office after the service. She seemed upset. She opened her purse and placed upon my desk a check for $1,000 and told me please to purchase vessels befitting the Body and Blood of Christ. With this gift, a proper chalice, ciborium, paten, and cruet were purchased. Both chalice and individual cups are still offered together at the rail even to this day (though I have been gone for 17 years). But the practice of the Pastor did change the congregation and by the time I left (after just under 13 years in that parish), two thirds of the congregation had switched and most of those I had catechized and taught as youth or adults used the chalice exclusively. There was no conflict over this even though some families were divided with some choosing individual cups and some the chalice but both communing at the same time...

Another example of his wisdom... When I arrived and the Eucharist was offered twice monthly, we were able to move it immediately to every other week and on feast days. More than this I began a mid-week celebration that was also the Divine Service so that this was an addition to the regular schedule and not strictly a change in that schedule. During the summer, when we actually had an influx of summer residents, we added a spoken early Divine Service. For years this regular Eucharist stood in addition to the regular schedule and after a time it was incorporated into that schedule, an organist found, and it became a sung liturgy as well. An addition became the means to bring change. There was no conflict since most of the work was mine.

Another example of his wisdom... As we addressed the nature of the Sacrament of the Altar, it became clear that for some time a "receptionism" had been taught which said that the bread and wine were not the Body and Blood of Christ until touching the tongue. In effect, the teaching was not merely a receptionism but a spiritual presence which never was connected with or located in the bread or cup. Naturally this was an area of teaching that I addressed immediately. But before the congregation as a whole became the focus of this teaching, I began with the Altar Guild and how we treated what remains of the sacrament (the reliquae). Again, the change began with me. What remained of the individual cups was poured into the chalice and I consumed the remains at the rail during the post-communion canticle. At times the assisting minister assisted me. The congregation learned from this practice that the reliquae were not things indifferent and that our practice toward them is not a thing indifferent. Perhaps the most profound teaching moments came when a portion of the individual cups were spilled on the floor by the rail. Immediately I took one of the extra purificators and knelt down in full vestments right there during the distribution to cleanse the spill respectfully. The couple of times in my ministry when this has happened, I have had people speak to me about how this simple action taught them that the Sacrament was what Christ's Word said and that when this Word was attached to the bread, the result was what the Word said -- the Body of Christ was present in and with that bread. The old heresy had been addressed without argument and the people taught without words. Now, to be sure, we cannot in every case teach or reform without direct confrontation, but we can in other ways demonstrate what we believe, teach, and confess by the practice of what we believe...

So, to those of you who might find yourselves in the position I was, I would recommend Pastor's Evanson's sage advice and counsel. Confront directly what you must but remember how you can teach by your own practice and piety... Sometimes these address in profound ways the teaching without words (or, more correctly, in addition to words) that prevents unnecessary conflict due simply to the inertia of those for whom any change is suspect...

Something to think about. . .

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Normative Theologians for the Church Are the NT Writers...

Another gem from Scott Hahn, former Presbyterian and now Roman Catholic, who presented at the Ft. Wayne Symposia on the Scriptures in the Life of the Church according to Benedict XVI.

The normative theologians for the Church are the New Testament writers... it sounds like a Scaerism but it came from the mouth of this very gifted and knowledgeable teacher. Wow. I almost do not know where to start my reflection upon this gem of wisdom.

A little background... Since the middle and late 19th century, Biblical criticism (the discipline of dealing with the Biblical text itself and its message) have taught us according to the creed of modernity -- that the simple precedes the complex. What this means in practical reality, is that the simplest, least complex message is ancient and anything more complex is later and added on to the Scriptures. By this perspective, Scriptures must be deconstructed from the additions, accretions, and complex theological statements added to it by later authors and eras. What you are left with tends to be simple all right -- simple, moralistic, and behavioral oriented. Instead of doctrine, you get talk about how to live. In the end, this distances the Biblical writers from the life and teaching of the Church, since we cannot know much about what they actually knew or saw or believed and because they had only a rudimentary theology at that. Such a "scientific methodology" has great a huge gap between the book and the people of the book.

Now, Dr. Hahn's precious gem of a quote suggests that this is completely backwards. The normative theologians for the Church -- even today 2,000 years later -- are these very New Testament writers and their writings. In other words, it is not speculative theology which is normative for the Church but Biblical theology. We begin not with what we think the text might have been originally but with the text that is there. It is this text and these writers who deliver to us what is to be normative for the Church -- that is, Scriptures set the boundaries for what the Church believes, teaches, and confesses. Scripture informs and defines these boundaries. On the one hand, Tradition is not above Scripture nor is reason. For certain, it is not the naked Scriptures -- ripped out of the living context of the faithful who first heard and read what it said and have, in every generation, been called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified by its Truth, and faithfully passed on this kerygma to those who would follow them. No, not some naked Scripture but Scripture surrounded by and speaking from within the assembly of those who hear it and believe it.

Well, so much for today...

A little bit more...

According to Dr. Hahn, the modern historical critical movement has distanced the book from the events of the book and this has had a crippling effect upon the the Christian faith and the Church. What Dr. Hahn has seen in Benedict XVI is a willingness to confront this destructive bent and present a thoroughly Biblical theology and a Biblical theology that has as its primary subject the God who has disclosed Himself in Jesus Christ. If the subject of theology is God's self-disclosure in Christ, then the Scriptures that tell of Christ and the Biblical authors are of primary importance in knowing Him who has revealed Himself in events.

What is so interesting in this is that Dr. Hahn sounds so very Lutheran in this approach. Of course, we would certainly have some disagreements about the extent to which reason and Tradition stand with Scripture (not as equals with the Word as sometimes it seems Dr. Hahn places them). But this is perhaps the most significant theological language to come out of the Bishop of Rome and one of his keenest theological minds in some time. He engages us on what we as Lutherans have claimed as our own soil.

On this soil, we have fought against the higher critics who would steal from Scripture its reality and replace it with conjecture, sentiment, and reason. For much of Protestantism, Scripture is no longer a book of historical events but of myth, story, and conflicting theologies. Faith has become little more than principles of behavior or pious feeling or uncertain hope. Now we find ourselves with another voice insisting that theology cannot be separated from historical event and that Scripture is not a book of competing and unconnected voices but one theology.

Those who would be theologians must be in constant dialog with the text of Scripture and conversant with its authors who serve as the primary normative theologians of the Church. You hear Dr. Hahn speak as a Lutheran (okay, my description and not his) saying "Scripture is its own interpreter" or another way "Scripture interprets Scripture."

In addition this is significant because it is ultimately an incarnational approach to theology -- we begin with what God has done in Christ and not with our definition of God, who Christ is or is not... but on the historical ground of Christ's own word and works as recorded and interpreted by those closest to Him. Further this ultimately deposits Christ (and His disciples) as the primary interpreters of the Old Testament. And this means that we read Scripture through New Testament eyes -- something the higher critics have refused and ridiculed for many years...

So much for now...

Pastors Are Gifts from God...

Sermon preached for St. Timothy, Pastor and Confessor, 24 January 2010.

Pastors are gifts from God. You might think me arrogant for saying that since I am a Pastor. It is sort of like a nurse saying nurses are gifts from God or a teacher saying the same thing – but wait, haven’t we all received nursing care to bind up and heal our wounds or found the wonder of learning through the guidance of a good teacher? They are gifts of God for what they do for us. Well so are Pastors. I say this not of me but of the work that God works through me and all those set apart by the laying on of hands, prayer, and the Word of God. God gave gifts to His Church, says St. Paul in Ephesians, and among them is the gift of Pastors. Pastors are gifts from God because of what God does through them.

I do not say this to honor me or elevate me. In fact, it is humbling to say this. The Office of Pastor is a gift of God to His Church. Humble and unworthy men are set apart by God through the Church for this great office. The honor flows not from the man to the office but from the office to the man. Sometimes Pastors forget that but we dare not.

Today we think of a Pastor named Timothy of whom St. Paul reminds of the good confession of faith he made within the assembly. But we could just as easily point to Ezra who brought the Torah, or the chief Pastor of the Church, Jesus, who stood in the synagogue and proclaimed the Word of the Lord. Pastors are gifts of God to His Church who serve Him by the proclamation the Word of God and by the service of His Sacraments to His people.

The Pastoral Office was not invented by the Church but is Christ’s institution and His gift to the Church. No Pastor acts on His own but in the person of Christ through the means of grace. No congregation is free to reject the office. Pastors and congregations work do not compete but work together – in different fields and venues, with different calls and services, but in partnership, heeding and fulfilling Christ’s mission. The Pastor brings Christ to the congregation and they bring Christ to the world.

Although we talk a lot about congregations calling Pastors, God calls Pastors. It is a divine call which the Church confirms. The Church discerns God’s calling and prayerfully confirms or denies this divine call. This is not some fine distinction but essential to the office. Pastors serve congregations but they are ultimately accountable to God. That is a statement which ought to stir up some fear in the hearts of those who would be Pastors – I know it does me. The ancient custom of bringing the casket into the church feet first so that the Christian may rise up to meet Christ is reversed for Pastors. They are brought in head first for they must first account for their stewardship of the ministry of Word and Sacrament to God’s people.

We often talk of ministry in muddy ways as if it were merely something we want to do for God or something we like doing for God. Ministry with a capital “M” is the Ministry – the ministry of the means of grace. Our Lutheran Confessions define the Ministry as God working His work of grace and mercy, Law and Gospel, through the means of grace – the Word and the Sacraments. These are not the Pastor’s tools like a carpenters. These are the means through which God is present among us to call, gather, enlighten and sanctify His Church. The Gospel is not what you build with the Word and Sacraments, they are the Gospel.

The authority of this office, indeed its power, is the Word of God. It is not constitution or by-law that give the Pastoral Office its authority but the Word preached and taught. In Ephesians 4, Paul says “Pastors and teachers” but this is not the “and” that connects to different things; it is the “and” that connects two facets of the very same Office. Preaching and teaching are not essentially different things but the same. Preaching and teaching are the arenas in which the authority of the Word is brought to God’s people so that it may accomplish God’s purpose and not return empty to Him.

The domain of the Office is the Word of God. Pastors do a ton of things that have little to do with God’s Word and I suppose that is not so bad unless it gives the Pastor and his people the idea that the Word is not the central arena in which He works. The place or arena for the Pastor’s service is Word.
But not only the Word in the sense of the written Word. It is equally the visible Word of the water of baptism, the oral Word in the voice of absolution, and the visible Word of bread and wine that is Christ’s Body and Blood. The sacraments are not like add ons to the Office of the Ministry or to the Church but part and parcel of the Office and of the life of the Church. Fingers and lungs are both members of the body but you can get along without fingers. You cannot get along without a heart and lungs. The Word proclaimed and visible in the Sacraments are the heart and lungs of the Church. These are the essential focus and purpose of the Pastor’s Ministry.

The mark of a Pastor’s success is usually seen in nickels and noses – how much money comes in the plate and how many people sit in the pews. Sadly, too many Pastors have been driven by this gauge of success to the point that they will do just about anything to improve the numbers. But the mark of a Pastor’s success is ultimately His faithfulness to God’s Word. Earthly esteem and respect are nice but some of the greatest Pastors of the Church were persecuted for the sake of the Gospel and lived a life filled with trouble because they were faithful to God’s calling. They were great because they were faithful to God’s Word. The earthly success may or may not tally up numbers of nickels and noses but God’s barometer of success is faithfulness.

I stand before you today because of the faithful Pastors who washed me in the water of my baptism, who absolved and still absolve me of my sin, who catechized me in the Word and in the faith and still teach me, who fed me the Body and Blood of Christ so that I might feed others the heavenly food of His Holy Supper. But more than this, they raised up the Pastoral Ministry as a noble office and they honored Christian service as the highest of callings. So in humility and weakness I stand before you today to do for you, what these Pastors did for me... preach, teach, and administer the Sacraments...

But I must beg of you to do a couple of things. First, pray for me and for my faithfulness to God’s Word and in this Office committed to my in my ordination. Second, hear me with the informed and discerning ear of those who know God’s Word and can recognize when the Gospel is spoken truly and faithfully... and when it is not. Third, heed the voice of Christ that speaks through the Word and Sacraments – not as obedience rendered to me but as the response of faith to the voice of God and His sacraments.

And one more thing. I must beg of you to honor the Office of Pastor among you – not for my benefit but for those young boys and men who sit among us, whom God may and will call to serve in this Office. Honor the Office of Pastor and encourage these boys and men to aspire to this Office, to listen for the voice of God calling and to submit to the wisdom of the Church in confirming that call. Honor the Office of Pastor not for me but for those whom God raise up and work through when this generation is gone and still there are people who need to hear the Gospel proclaimed, who need to be taught the faith, who need the cleansing touch of baptismal water, who need to hear the consoling voice of absolution, and who need to receive the Body and Blood of Christ to nourish them in grace in both body and soul... Honor the Office and encourage those who aspire to it and there will always be faithful Pastors through whom God works in His Church.

Pastors are gifts of God to His Church... not because they are special or wonderful but because the Lord works through them to bring to You the Jesus who is present with His grace and mercy in His Word and Sacraments and thus equip you to fulfill your baptismal vocation to bring this Christ to the world. Amen.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Another Precious Gem about THE Precious Gem

From the Ft. Wayne Symposia... from Paul Raabe... Scripture is not quarry to be mined for precious gems and ore... it IS the precious gem of God's living voice and Word...

Scripture is treated academically even by those who are not academics. We have the tendency to read Scripture as if it was a book in which there were truths instead of the book of truth. This is true not only of Pastors and church leaders but the average person in the pew. It is this way because this is the perspective of generic Protestantism. It is the culture of modern Christianity to see Scripture in this way.

The academics -- especially the higher critics -- see it as a manufactured work which first must be deconstructed to its sources before you can determine which of those source materials are worthy and genuine and which are not. Thus the method of Biblical criticism (itself a legitimate and long standing discipline) becomes the end result -- having reduced the Book of God into a book about God in which few grains of truth may be resident among the accretions of time and ideology.

Pastors often try to mine the Scriptures for sermons and Bible studies as if it were just that -- the soil in which truths may be found instead of the truthful soil itself. I can honestly admit that it is sometimes hard to restrain myself from this familiar if flawed approach to God's Word. But even though I might not be a higher critic imposing reason about His Word, by this approach to Scripture I make myself the miner, with the light of my mind and the experience and wisdom of my eye the tools by which I sift through the raw material in search of the valuable and precious gems God has hidden there.

But Scripture is not where God has hidden His Word, His Truth or Himself. Scripture is where God has disclosed Himself, revealed Himself, and made Himself known to us. It is not a book of words but the living voice of God speaking within the limited parameters of human language and culture to disclose to us Him who is the Lord of heaven and the God of the cross.

Dr. Raabe has hit upon a serious flaw in the way that most of us have learned to relate to Scripture and why it is that we listen not to Scripture but for the gems in Scripture. Until we re-learn the immediacy of the medium and the vitality of its expression, we will be like those who go down into the earth in search of the elusive treasures hidden there... and less the like the farmer who plows to turn over the rich soil that it may bring forth its fruit...

Just one more thing to think about...

Monday, January 25, 2010

How Shall It Be?

Irenaeus, one of my favorite of the early church fathers, wrote in Against Heresies, IV 33:4 "How shall man pass into God unless God pass into man..."

Wow! With these few words Irenaeus moves the heart of the Incarnation and its place within God's great plan of salvation. To those who play with the Virgin Birth as if it were somehow a trivial matter, to those who wince at the careful distinctions of words within the creed, to those who treat the flesh of Jesus Christ as somehow unrelated to His mission and purpose, these words cut to the heart of it all. We have no hope of passing into God (of being reconciled to our Creator and to our place within His creation) unless God pass into our flesh and blood (the incomprehensible but essential Christian truth of God incarnate).

It is weeks after Christmass but we cannot venture far from Bethlehem. The Incarnation of our Lord is the fulcrum that holds our hope of salvation in balance. I find that Lutherans tend to be more "incarnational" in our thinking than some other Christians. This is a good thing. We see the Eucharist in incarnational terms (Jesus being fully human and divine yet one person... bread and Body, wine and Blood each fully authentic yet one sacramental element and gift).

If we are to long for the redemption of our lost lives and if we are to hope for the restoration of our place as sons within the family of our Father, it rests upon the fact and truth of Jesus Christ incarnate (en-fleshed). It is this incarnational reality that bridges the gap between God and creation, God and humanity. It is this incarnational miracle that holds forth the hope and promise of the miracle of our own redemption and life with God.

And it is connected to baptism. The Baptism of our Lord is where we see visually what it means for our Lord to pass into man, our place as men under the Law, in this world of sin, and living under the shadow of death. Our own baptism into Christ is where we see visually what it means for us to be born anew, for the old to pass away and the new come forth from the water, man passing into God -- sacramentally in baptism, living out this life in faith, until the completion of what Christ began is consummated by His return in glory.

Irenaeus is one of the great pillars of the Church and book 4 of His treatise Against Heresies is probably his premier writing. Would that we all could write and speak with such economic yet language about what happened when the Angel spoke to Mary and Mary and Joseph made their way to Bethlehem!!

We have got to get away from the idea that the Incarnation was God's plan B when the plan A of the commandments failed to accomplish their purpose. This simplistic and distorted sense of things has crippled the Church and individual Christians along the way. Clearly and without doubt, Christ and His incarnation is the one and only plan of God, the one and only means to bringing man back into communion with the Father and into His destined place as a sharer in the Divine life.

Wow, indeed!!

Watch It...

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Scripture Does Not Speak of Christ

Scott Hahn, former Presbyterian now Roman Catholic, made the relevant point that Scripture does not speak of Christ but speaks Christ. Now this is not argument over terminology or semantics. This is the essential catholic confession -- the Word of God does not speak of something the way, for example, I may speak of something I know or have an opinion about. Scripture is God speaking. When Scripture speaks, we hear the voice of God.

For most of Protestantism Scripture has become a book of rules to be followed, a set of principles to inform how we reshape the world, a set of practical tools to better your life, or a road map to lead you from here to eternity. But that is just plain wrong. Scripture is the voice of God. Scripture is the discourse of God in human words. This Word is powerful and can do what it claims and keep all its promises. This Word has the power to call and gather the Church.

On Sunday morning we often treat the Word of God as if it were nothing more than a book of wise sayings, some of which may be practical enough and pointed enough to make a small difference in the ordinary and mundane of our world. We treat so casually what is essentially the Voice of God who speaks to us and is speaking to us in Scripture.

We act as if the gems of Bible study were the hints or conclusions reached from that study -- like a school child reads the encyclopedia for things he or she can use in a paper that is due tomorrow. Bible study is important because it is time with God, it is the conversation in which God is the speaker to us and we who have ears tuned in faith can hear Him speaking. It is not what we learn from Bible study but what we learn in Bible study as a people gather to hear every word and as a people who know that this every word is important.

Nowhere is that more true than in worship -- the Word of God predominates not because we have found it useful but because it is Christ speaking to us. In this respect liturgy is the first real context for us to hear Scripture -- everything else flows from this assembly and is not in competition with it or can substitute for it -- as it was for those who heard Scripture first from the voice of the apostles.

This is what we need to rediscover - the urgency, the immediacy of God's voice in our midst. In response to that voice, we come, we listen, we hear, and we grow. The distasteful practice of cell phones and watch alarms going off in worship is a sign that we have not understood that Scripture is God's voice speaking to us -- or surely we would shut those things off. The strange practice of people moving in and out of the Sanctuary as the Scriptures are read and preached is a sign that we do not understand that Scripture is God's living voice speaking to us or we would find a way to fit our bathroom needs around this holy and momentous conversation in which God is the speaker and initiates the dialog that brings forth faith in us and bestows upon us all the gifts of the cross and empty tomb.

Instead of burying our faces in bulletins to read, we would raise our heads to listen. I am convinced that the reading of Scripture is heard differently than the reading of Scripture from a service folder page. We don't listen to each other with our heads buried in a booklet. We listen to each other by looking at the point where the voice is coming from and by learning to tune out the distractions so that we might hear what is said. This is the discipline that is so missing on Sunday morning.

All because we think of Scripture as a vehicle that delivers something to us instead of the thing that is delivered -- the voice of God speaking grace and mercy, conviction and condemnation, redemption and restoration, death and life... Wisdom!! Attend!!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Wax On, Wax Off

After spending several days with a crowd of clergy, probably more of one mind than the average crowd, it occurs to me that one should not be allowed to tinker with the Divine Service or the daily offices until one has mastered them so that they have become instinctive.

For most of us, the daily offices of this conference were instinctive. We did not need to find a page in the hymnal or have liturgical directions given to us. What we needed we had gained by many uses of these daily offices. They had ingrained themselves into our minds and hearts so that each turn was instinctive and each subtle change as natural as a driver of a car moves the wheel to match the curve of the road.

The problems I have with those who mess much with the given service forms is that they do so not from the vantage point of a people who know them, who have used them until they have become natural or instinctive. They change them from the vantage point of a people who feel oppressed by them because they are not understood, they have not been allowed to flow naturally from the worshiper. In part this may be because of an almost instinctive resistance to the liturgy but more often, I would suggest, they are because of unfamiliarity with the form. It is a stranger to them, its direction is strange, and its road map is strange. Like following someone in traffic who is not really sure where he is going, they follow the liturgy without confidence in its direction and wishing that they were driving and not the Divine Service.

When we are so thoroughly familiar with the Divine Service and with the daily offices that we do not need the service folder or directions from the presider, then, and maybe only then, can we begin to think how we might change what is there. Unless and until we become so functionally familiar with these orders, I think we would be better off not tinkering with them at all.

The Deutsche Messe does not replace the sung ordinary with just any hymns. Why are some hymns appropriate and some not? If you do not know the answer (and it is not that Luther said these hymns and not others), then wait until you know the answer before you substitute. This is but one example whereby a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. It would not be so bad if it were you alone who suffered, but when you drive willy nilly through the liturgy without knowing the path or where it leads or why it leads this way or that, you subject your people to your ignorance and your hubris. They become like the people following a car in traffic -- the car is driven by someone who is not so sure where he is going or how to get there and seems to forget that people are following him... The people in that car trying to follow are hanging on for dear life.

Well, there is a reason I say this... I am convinced that those who know where and why the Divine Service and the daily offices lead us in this way, will soon learn the wisdom of it all and will cease the attempt to control it and learn the art of making it authentic to the place and the people (through its own options and choices -- they are called rubrics)...

Remember the Karate Kid and how he follows the directions of the indomitable Mr. Miyagi... Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through nose, out the mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don't forget to breathe, very important. When we know what we are doing and why we are doing it, we don't have to fight it anymore...

Now that I have let off a little steam, I feel better. I hope you do as well...

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Strange Remembrance

On this day in 1973 the Supreme Court ruled that laws restricting abortion were unconstitutional. While we recall this 37 year anniversary, we find ourselves also tuned in to the trial of the man indicted for the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller (a member of an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation). This man has confessed to the killing and justified it by saying that he was preventing lives from being taken by the doctor. On this very day an elderly woman and a young man were pulled from the rubble alive following the devastating earthquake in Haiti over a week ago.

What a convergence! Legalized means of death, justified murder by the murderer, and miraculous rescue of two unexpectedly alive. All three in the news. But think of how they relate...

On the one hand, right to privacy and the autonomy of a person over his or her body trump the rights of the not yet born. On the other is a shameful crime which is justified as righteous (with the immoral argument of the end justifying the means). And in the midst of all of this, the world watches as rescue crews do whatever it takes to steal death away from an earthquake and find two victims alive.

First a couple of observations... abortion will not be ended by making the practice illegal but neither will it be reduced as long as it is considered a morally acceptable choice... Just because it is against the law does not mean that the practice will disappear when and if the law is changed. Those who are pro-life do not campaign for the illegality of abortion because we believe this will end the practice. We do so because there is no morality of a society and a culture when the weakest and most vulnerable are left unprotected and their lives without sanction. We must make abortion illegal not in order to make it go away but in order to secure and protect our culture and our nation from the empty morality that protects the life of but a few. Reducing the instance of abortion will not come through legislation or a judicial ruling, it will come when we teach from an early age the necessity of protecting those most at risk of being oppressed. You win this battle one person at a time. Hopefully the first casualty of this war will be the notion that sex is either safe or without consequence.

...those churches and Christians who believe abortion to be murder must stand against the murder even of one of its purveyors... Our cause is weak and our position untenable unless we condemn the murder of one as much as we condemn the legalized murder of the many. Every church that would presume to be pro-life must condemn violence against the purveyors of its death every bit as much as they condemn the violence it does against those not yet born. No life is unworthy of the respect for life due it and to the one who creates and preserves life. We cannot be selective in the lives we protect and those we feel justified in taking. No. Every life must receive our prayerful and vigilant protection or none will be secure -- not even our own!

...we cannot be allowed to glory in what we do to prevent the death of victims of an earthquake unless and until we learn to apply the same energy and passion to the life of those not yet born... I believe that the people of Haiti deserve our prayerful, financial, and active support in their hour of need. I urge you to contribute to Lutheran World Relief or to LCMS World Relief and to designate your gift to Haiti. But... do you not admit that such concern for those in Haiti requires that we be consistent in our concern for and protection of the not yet born -- or as close as our neighborhoods and communities? Is there not a problem with a morality that works so hard for a country and a people suffering and then stands unmoved and unchanged before the murder of millions at the whim of a medical system and mothers who chose convenience or pleasure without responsibility over truth, life, and mercy?

John Paul II once said that the culture of death went all the way back to Cain and Abel, to one brother who asked "Am I my brother's keeper?" I am not sure about keeper, but I know that at the least I am my brother's brother... the brother to all in need... the brother to the weakest and most vulnerable... the brother to those who have no one else to claim them... the brother of those whose voices cannot yet speak the cry for mercy and justice.

So will you join me in prayer... will you become a member of Lutherans for Life or another organization equally dedicated to opposing choice over responsibility, me over the rights of my weakest brother or sister... will you work for the triumph of mercy -- whether in a Middle East military action against oppression and injustice or a moral stand against the legalized death of abortion... or a compassionate call to look beyond yourself and see into the face of those in need of physical or spiritual care and redemption...

A strange day... a poignant remembrance... a powerful call to be steadfast and immovable in the cause of life, truth, and mercy...

How We Know God

Once again the Ft. Wayne Symposia have given me bits to chew on. Ever prickly David Scaer challenged the notion that theology begins with God (prolegomena) and proceeds to Christ and insists that we cannot begin with who Christ is but rather what He has done. There is much there to gnaw on and I guess I will be doing some gnawing....

I will admit that outside of an academic atmosphere some of these questions seem a bit, well, ethereal, but the truth is that these are very practical matters when it comes to adult catechesis and our outreach to an age in love with propositions that are not necessarily truthful but touch the realm of feelings and desire.

If we are to speak the Gospel to a world in need of its truth, we must begin with that which is concrete. We know Christ through what He has done -- our Lord is not a philosophy to be pondered but the Lord of events to be told -- it is through these events that we know Him, that He leads us to the Father, and through whom the Spirit breaks through the crust of our sinful hearts to teach us faith.

Christology from above or from below may not seem to be the practical domain of the parish pastor but it is the underpinning of our proclamation and teaching. In a week or so I will have my first class with people new to Lutheranism and Lutherans old to the faith but in need of refreshing. We begin with the God question -- who is God and how do we know Him? The only way we know God is through Jesus who discloses God to us. The only way we know Christ is through the facts of His incarnation, righteousness life, life-giving death, and mighty resurrection.

Without beginning with what Christ has done, we risk turning the faith into truth propositions that are the domain of the philosopher. We begin from the vantage point of the historian. What has God done through His Son to make Himself known to us and accomplish for us the wonderful gift of salvation.

Just pondering the practical dimensions of an academic paper that speaks not only to the academy...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Too Many Words...

One of the complaints I have about churches I visit (both traditional and contemporary) is that the presiders use too many words. I did not always notice this. A friend who had been away from the States for a long time stopped by to visit. He was there over a Sunday and after worship his critique was "too many words, not enough silence." I have tried a million times to make for silence and it is as hard as pulling teeth. Our people are so fearful of silence that they generally spend the silent moments looking around to see who screwed up and did not come in on time (presider, organist, choir, etc...). Though I try, this use of silence is a constant battle. But the critique of "too many words" I have taken to heart and it has shaped my thinking greatly.

One of the things you notice about the creed and about liturgical language is its succinct nature. It is an economy of words that the framers of the creed showed to us and the liturgy has preserved to us. These are compact -- carefully chosen words, filled with meaning, and pregnant with expression of the evangelical and catholic faith. Jesus is likewise compact in His discourses. We would presume more but He gives us more without giving us more words.

Contemporary worship services (the homemade versions) tend to be wordy -- very wordy. Like Taylor's Living Bible, they say in ten words what Jesus, the creeds, and the liturgical texts say in two or three. It is not that they say more, they say it with more words. They provide wordy bridges between different elements of their "liturgy" and they introduce everything with anecdotes and explanations that grow tiresome to ears already too filled with words. In the end the Words of Christ become just additional words in the great soup of words that is the contemporary Christian service.

"Traditional" liturgy can also be infected by this bug. I have heard Pastors add words to the most compact and elegant of liturgical prose -- and their words do not help it all. For example, I have been told repeatedly we make our beginning In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Such additions do not add to the classic invocation but turn it into the language of a rubric or explanatory text for the footnotes. They introduce hymns even though numbers are posted and directions printed out in the service folder. They try to bridge the elements of the Divine Service much the way presiders in contemporary worship do -- even up to the end when they solemnly tell us: Receive the benediction of the Lord and then benedict us. Such words are not only NOT necessary, they clutter up the service and the ears of the people gathered there.

Sermons also are areas where an accumulation of words is confused with clarity of words. Again, those who tend to preach "how to" sermons (about happier marriages, better kids, more successful work, etc) and those who preach Bible studies (not really text expositions but actual Bible studies) are also too wordy.

There are nations who revise and amend their constitutions ad nauseum while the US constitution is compact in language and, for the most part, has been resistant to this incessant need to add words. There is everywhere elegant and eloquent language that is compact and succinct. It is, however, the hallmark of liturgical language and creedal language that it takes this call to compactness most seriously.

Take a cue from the hymnwriters of the Church. They have left us with a marvelous poetic gift in which the few words of a stanza can say what paragraphs must say in prose. Learn from the hymnwriter by reading and memorizing hymn stanzas to see how it is that they craft these phrases so pregnant with meaning, so filled with rich imagery, and so elegant in sound. Sure, we have some 15 or 20 stanza hymns and some of you might think these mitigate against my point but they say so much in those stanzas it is impossible to replicate their message in prose without adding page upon page of words. Let the hymnwriters teach us how to use language well. And, if you will grant me this, read good secular poetry and good secular prose and it too will teach you the craft of language that speaks much without saying too many words.

If we paid attention to the rubrics, if we taught the liturgy as we teach so many other things, and if we allowed a little silence for people to think for a moment and soak it all up, we could get by with fewer words and not need to constantly add to what is there. So I urge the Pastors of our church body to think clearly, to let the liturgical language speak without commentary or explanations or introductions or bridges between the various elements. People will soon learn to appreciate this. Everywhere in this life we are bombarded by words and more words and even more words. What we need are not more words but words filled with meaning, elegant prose and poetry, eloquence of vocabulary, all that speak clearly without speaking just more words.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Lutheran Angst

Garrison Keillor loves to talk about Lutheran humility and our fear of being in the spot light. Part of our Lutheran angst is doing anything different from what everyone else is doing. If we are around other Lutherans it is okay but as soon as a non-Lutheran asks us about it, we get all flustered and bothered that somehow we might be "different." I was reminded by a person from Minnesota (near Mankato - a city of what, 40,000 in which there are Lutheran congregations belonging to seven or more jurisdictions) that when a person there does not like something they say "That's different." Well, we must take that to heart and figure if it's different, it must be bad and we should change it.

I guess packing up and moving across and ocean (for religious or economic reasons) means we are a little self-conscious. Maybe it is more than that. I do not know. But if something is Lutheran, it is not necessarily bad. We do not have to look or act or sound like every generic Protestant in order to feel good about who we are. (You noticed I wrote "Protestant" -- we never want to be confused with the Roman Catholics -- that is a "different" we definitely have an aversion to...)

We have so many things to be proud of -- we should not be self-conscious or ashamed. We have a great Confessional Identity, we have a great book of confessions, we have a history of great preaching, schools, education, music, and hymnody... We have a big Lutheran social service organization that does many, many good things with very little fanfare. We have a huge Lutheran world relief organization that spends precious little on fund-raising and nearly every dime goes to providing help to people all over the world -- and in Haiti right now...

If there is one thing I love about Lutherans, it is this institutional humility but if there is one thing I would like to change it is this aversion to being different from everyone else. We should give up just a bit of that humility to talk about who we are, what we believe, why we believe it, how we worship, what contributions we have made to music, what we do for the poor and those in need... not as a boast to make us feel better but because these are good things, inspirational works that remind us of the difference made every day because of Lutheran people, living out their baptismal identity, within the framework of Lutheran congregations and ministries, here, there and everywhere.

I am amazed by the long train of Lutherans and those who went before me continue to inspire and move me... Muhlenberg to Loehe among others. I am proud of the fine music that serves the Word and speaks the Gospel in so many ways. I am here because of those people -- famous and anonymous -- and I bet you are too. So I sing a Te Deum for Lutherans!

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Different Issue...

I mentioned on another forum that there was a difference between those who add to the Divine Service ceremonies and liturgical elements not spoken of in the rubrics or in ordinary use in the Church and those who take away the minimal ceremonies and liturgical elements specified in the rubrics or in ordinary usage in the Church...

What I mean is this, while incense in the Divine Service is not specified nor even mentioned in the rubrics as an option, there are those parishes and those Pastors in the LCMS who include incensing the altar as part of the Divine Service. This is an addition to the rubrics and an exception to the ordinary usage of our church body today (though certainly historic and ordinary in the church at large). To add this to the Divine Service represents a change but a change distinctly different from those who routinely omit major portions of the Divine Service or substitute non-liturgical elements or hymns that do not actually replace those elements (though as with the Divine Service, Setting 5, there are hymns appointed for this purpose).

I am less concerned about these additions than I am the omissions. These additions would certainly be noticed by those who do not routinely see them but, within the fabric of the ordinary, would recognize and feel at home with the Divine Service. In contrast, those who omit whole portions of the ordinary and therefore cause a substantial tear in the fabric of the Divine Service, present the worshiper with something unrecognizable and strange.

Friend Will Weedon put it this way. You can watch a service in Latvian and because it follows the form and pattern (indeed the very words) of the Divine Service, you feel at home within this liturgy. From personal experience, I mention a time when I visited a Swedish parish celebrating their 150th anniversary. They invited the choir of the Uppsala Cathedral to be the choir for the Divine Service (LBW form) and later for a concert. Because they followed the form of the LBW Divine Service, it was familiar to me, though I do not speak much Swedish.

So you may add incense or a different form of the Eucharistic Prayer or different musical settings or additional ceremonies (deacon, sub-deacon, etc), and it is familiar even with the addition of these elements. You may change the musical forms but keep the ordo and it is familiar and recognizable. But mess with the ordinary, change the form of the ordo, substitute different elements of your own composition for the parts of the Divine Service, and the service is no longer recognizable. It has become alien and foreign -- it may be Biblical, it may be orthodox, it may be welcomed by the congregation but it is a rift within the communion and a tear of the fabric of the Lutheran Church.

Therefore, I may not like musical changes but if the Divine Service is there, if the liturgical form and its words recognizable, I find it hard to complain (well, I will, but you get what I mean). Rather, the problem we have is when the fabric of the Divine Service has been tampered with in such way that it is no longer recognizable, then, Houston, we have a problem...

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Best Saved for Last

Sermon Preached for Epiphany 2, January 17, 2010.

I recall a champagne that advertised, for all the best of times, showing a cork popping for a birth, for a graduation, for a marriage, and then another birth. They were trying to get you to think of them when you had something to celebrate. Wine in Scripture is nearly always tied to joy and blessing – a celebration. Unlike the wine use to forget trouble or drown sorrows, Jesus uses wine as a sign of the Kingdom of God. He frames His ministry with wine – first with the water He turns into the best wine of all and then the wine in the cup of His blood in the Upper Room, which He drinks no more until He drinks it anew in the kingdom. He drinks no more wine after that cup – at least not until He comes again in His glory. Wine has become the sign of His kingdom.

The best is saved for last. No reasonable person ends the celebration with the good wine. Everyone knows that when the mouth has drunk freely the cheap stuff can be slipped in unnoticed. But not God. The God who spoke through many prophets has now spoken through His Son – the best has been saved for last. All the Old Testament people and prophets point to Jesus. When every one had almost given up hope on God, He offers the surprise of grace.

The old covenant has been fulfilled. Its covenant blessings and curses have all been fulfilled so that it no longer stands front and center. A new covenant is born which offers forgiveness and life. This new covenant even brings the surprise of a new people for God to call His own. But in order to see this, you need the gift of the Spirit to bring forth faith in our weak and fearful hearts. Hidden in weakness, apprehended by faith and not by sight, this cup of new wine from old water signals the beginning of God's reign and of the reign of forgiveness, life and salvation.

Jesus is God’s best to us. Like the wine that Jesus made from water, the best that was saved for the end, for the right moment, to usher in the salvation's promise. We may stand waiting for another prophet, but none will come. It is either Jesus or no one. Jesus is God's final Word -- either God will reign from His Kingdom in Christ or there will be no kingdom.

The fullness of heaven’s glory is hidden in this surprise of Jesus. You might think that with all the possible places Jesus could have chosen, this was oddest; of all the possible miracles to do, this was the oddest. But Jesus did not waste His first miracle on some embarrassed couple. Jesus claimed the moment as His, the moment in which He revealed His glory hidden where we least expected it. In this cup of wine is the signal of His reign -- not obvious but hidden. Hidden in the ordinary Jesus displays His glory. No where is that more displayed than in the final cup that boxes Jesus' ministry. When Jesus sets apart bread and wine to celebrate the fulfillment of the old covenant and the start of one brand new one, He shows His grace to us that we might trust it and feast upon it.

He does not expect us to grasp the fullness of its wisdom. He simply bids us come, come and see, come and receive, come and proclaim the surprise of grace hidden where we least expect it. This was a private occasion and a private miracle in that it was hidden and not obvious to most who were there. The Lord of heaven and earth comes to a wedding that unites two families and within this hidden moment is the promise of a wedding between Christ, the Bridegroom, and His people the bride – uniting God with the sinner.

We come to this moment bidden by the Lord who makes this day His own. We come bearing the invitation of grace to witness its surprise of grace hidden where we least expect it. Faith both receives and answers this invitation – just as the disciples of old saw this hidden miracle, rejoiced in its grace, and believed in Jesus Christ and in His reign begun with this miracle.

To the world this is still a hidden moment but the grace of God is never obvious, never where you think, but always where He has hidden it, the surprise of water that cleanses, of words that do what they promise, and of bread and wine that deliver the best at the last, hidden in the taste of bread and in the sip of wine. Wine becomes the sign of the Kingdom and more – the means by which this Kingdom is revealed to the world. And it started with a wedding at Cana in Galilee and Jesus was there.

To a world unprepared for to meet Him, it seems sudden, even abrupt, but His coming is pointed unfolded like a complex game of chess. Though the world is told to get ready for His light, they were lost in the wonder of the moment. They must be jarred into realityto by the words of the prophets.” It is the miracle of grace... water become wine, God become man, suffering become healing, death become life... hidden in these mortal moments is heavenly glory to seek, to save, to redeem, and to restore.

In Cana it was not the wine that was the miracle here but the kingdom which God revealed in the One who changed water into wine. In the cup of Christ we shall all receive, there is the grace of the priest. last of Jesus’ cups, the cup we will receive from in just a few moments, the wine is the miracle, the blood of Christ as our covenant food of forgiveness, life and salvation. In Cana the wine was the sign; in the cup of Jesus’ Supper, it is the Sacrament that delivers the promise to God’s waiting people. In Cana the surprise of grace was hidden but in this cup it is for the life of the world; this cup has become the boast of the Church proclaimed til He returns.
Taylor Vineyards wanted you to think of them when you had something to celebrate – for the best of times. Jesus used the cup of Cana as the first of many miracles that it might be a sign and a symbol of a people too content to live in darkness. Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We realize that this is the good stuff, the surprise of God that shatters our mundane and mortal world. God does not withhold anythin from us but In the wine of extraordinary character Jesus is revealed to us... first at a wedding in Cana... here at His Table... the Shepherd has come to be a sheep with His people... the God of heaven who puts on human flesh and blood... the Lord of glory who makes His home among His sinful and death marked people... the grave which becomes the portal of life abundantly lived today and eternally lived tomorrow. But nothing is clear until faith sees it and nothing is revealed until God chooses... the surprise of grace and glory hidden in the ordinary.

Jesus went to this wedding at Cana in Galilee not simply to do a miracle but to begin the reign of His Kingdom... in many and various ways God spoke to His people of old but now He has spoken to us through His Son... the surprise of grace hidden in a cup of wine... that sacramental image of this meal should not escape your eyes... For there God begins what is fulfilled here and what heralds that which is to come... So come... come for the best God has to offer... Jesus is here in this place... revealing His grace... reclaiming what was lost to Him... keeping the covenant promise of old... establishing the new covenant of His blood outpoured and poured out for us into a cup, where hidden in the taste of wine we taste eternity. Amen

Less Is Not More

Watch those Iron Chef competitions and you see minuscule portions on big plates but decorated well. For the ordinary person, two bites is not enough. Less is not more when it comes to food. More is more.

Go to any gallery of modern art and some (not all, mind you) is simply an odd splash of color on a canvas. What is being celebrated is the artist's expression but compare it to a Renaissance fresco and it seems childish. Less is not more when it comes to forms and color. More is more.

Go to any modern church building (especially from the 1960s on) and you find a building almost devoid of art -- the stained, make that colored, glass shows itself in simple squares of color. Compare that to Tiffany and well... you know... Less is not more. More is more.

Go to the home channel and watch them strip out every semblance of the family occupying the space and then come back 6 months later to see them all put back. Less is not more. More is more.

When it comes to the liturgy, we as modern people tend to apply modern concepts to the gathering of God's people around the Word and Table of our Lord. Less is more. Both from those who insist upon no more than 59 1/2 minutes and those who insist that everything from vestments to music to gestures are "not necessary," we get the message. Less is more. But they are wrong. Scaling the liturgy down to the skeleton does not give us more. It gives us less.

Have you seen yourself in an x-ray? Do you think you look good as a mass of bone structures? What about those images from the new scanners at airports? Do they make us look good? We all know that answer to that. None of us would carry around a picture of a spouse or a child that was taken at the doctor's office or in the airport security line. Less is not more. More is more.

Instead of striving for 3 minute sermons in which everyone listens to each word, we must be prepared to preach the full counsel of God, faithful to the text, and this takes some time. No, we don't need to hog the time by spending 40 minutes in the pulpit, but 18-20 minutes are not too bad. I think the push for short sermons has more to do with a desire to avoid the faith than confront it.

Instead of trying to boil down the liturgy to its most basic essentials, we need to make every celebration a full celebration. This has less to do with time than with time in planning and preparing for it. We have a 35 minute Thursday morning Eucharist and I think I spend as much time on it as I do the 70 minute service on Sunday morning. To make the liturgy authentic to this THIS place takes some time. It deserves some attention to the details. We do not cut things off of the liturgy as willy nilly as an airline drops passengers when the plane is over weight.

Instead of making it contemporary by stripping things out, we make it contemporary to the day and the place by adding things in, by fully exploring the options within the liturgy, and by using the form to the fullest. This has less to do with whether or not you use incense than it does knowing the form, knowing the options, knowing the hymnody, etc...

Less is not more... more is more... More in the sense of quality as well as quantity... More in the sense of expectation as well as what is offered... More in the sense of the mystery made present as well as our response to that mystery...

Saturday, January 16, 2010

What I Can Say and What I Cannot

A gazillion people have noted the trend in culture and religion that avoids the clear yes or no for the uncertain realm of feelings or wants. It is nothing new. But it is funny when you think about it (funny as in weird) how uncomfortable we are speaking in direct terms what Jesus has called us to speak directly. We betray either a lack of understanding or confidence in Jesus' words when we feel more comfortable in declaring rather than doing.

Example. Some baptismal formulas have changed from I baptize you... to You are baptized... or, the most common area in which this shows up, in the absolution. We find it uncomfortable to say I forgive you and instead You are forgiven or I declare God's forgiveness to you.

Some insist there isn't a dime's worth of difference between them but if not, why are we so uncomfortable speaking clearly as Christ has bidden us? When in the Gospels Jesus speaks of whatsoever sins you forgive He is speaking not of simply declaring grace but speaking the words that deliver that grace of forgiveness to those weighed down by sin and its guilt.

The words that Christ has given us to speak to His Church and to the world are not passive but powerful. The witness of the Church is not to what we think or feel or even know -- it is to what Christ has done... Christ has promised.

Check out the ways in which we talk about sin without addressing the sinner with the Law. We have turned confession into a lack of something instead of the corruption of our nature, the offense against God that has made us His enemies, and the barriers that wall us off from Him who created us and from the rest of creation. Scripture addresses sin directly -- but not to make sin the subject, rather to make forgiveness the subject. We cannot focus on forgiveness without a clear focus on sin.

Check out the ways in which we forgive without forgiving. When people hurt us and apologize, we say "That's okay." Well it is not okay. If it were okay then there would not be sin. God does not shrug His shoulders to our confession and tell us that "it is okay." God confronts us with the terrible that sin is and then speaks the word of mercy and love that trumps sin's terror -- the cross. You are guilty as hell (literally) but I forgive you because of my Son in whom I am well pleased.

Check out the ways in which we dance around Christ's presence without admitting that it is a presence to be dealt with -- to be reckoned with. Christ is present with or in but not to be adored and not so that the bread or cup is something in and of itself to be treated differently. Either it is the Body and Blood of Christ, by the power of that Word, from the time that Word is spoken, until the use of the Sacrament is complete (in reception) or else Christ's words are merely symbolic of the sign that is pointed to but not present.

The worship wars have told us many things, but one of them is that we have an inward struggle to speak as Jesus spoke or bids His people to speak -- directly, clearly, dynamically... Most of the confessions that are written treat sin as if it were a slight defect of intention or follow through that we should improve upon -- not the damming and life taking sin of Scripture. Most of the absolutions do not not absolve but simply declare God's grace to the sinner as if that is all we can do -- and wait for the sinner to find peace in these words. Most of the practices around the Lord's Table act as if the bread were to Christ no more than the plate is to the bread, the wine to His blood no more than the cup is to the wine. So what we do with it before or after the distribution is of nothing but symbolic consequence.

Do we take His Word at face value? Does the Church simply declare to us what we already know or do for us what Christ does? Is the power to declare or to do Christ's work among His people?

Just a few thoughts on a Saturday morning. . .

Friday, January 15, 2010

Bringing Christ to the Nations... Bringing the Nations to the Church

Lutheran Hour Ministries has for many years had the slogan "Bringing Christ to the Nations." Some years ago they added "Bringing the Nations to the Church." It is cliche and all that but it is also true -- two different themes within the same call to witness.

The question before us is where do these things take place? Some maintain that the worship service should be structured to bring Christ to the nations, or at least the masses who do not know Him. They would insist that everything in the worship service be slanted toward the stranger in their midst who does not know Christ and who has not yet heard the Gospel. They would make the worship service user friendly in the sense that anyone off the street could understand and be comfortable with what went on there -- from the words spoken to the music and the music forms used to the kind of sermon and even the style of preaching.

I would maintain that bringing Christ to the nations is not the function of the worship service (I am not saying it could never happen or that it does not happen there but that the purpose or function of the worship service is not evangelism or outreach). First of all, only those who know God in Christ can worship. Those who do not know Christ, who do not believe in Him, cannot worship the Triune God. This is not me speaking but Scripture. That is not to say that the unchurched cannot hear the Gospel's voice speaking through Scripture. receive the Holy Spirit to make that voice intelligible, come to faith, and become a Christian within the context of the worship service -- it can and does happen. The question is whether or not this is why we gather for worship.

Bringing Christ to the nations, I maintain, is what happens when we send the people out the door after the liturgy of God's House is over and the people continue the worship of the Lord by their witness and service at home, at work, at school, in the neighborhood, in the shopping venues, and where they enjoy their leisure. This is not primarily the calling of the Pastor but of the baptized. Where God's people go as they leave the House of the Lord becomes the mission field where they show forth their hope, live out their faith, and act in love and mercy in Christ's name to those around them.

Once Christ has been proclaimed, what do we do with those who have heard the Gospel in word and action? The faithful response to this question is that we bring them to the Church. We do not leave them alone to unpack and deal with the witness once shared. We bring them to the Church where this witness is unfolded, where Scripture is taught, where the baptismal font is located, and where the baptized gather in the Name of the Lord and in His House to eat and drink at His table.

This means first catechesis. Catechesis is both the formal classroom and the informal teaching that flows from the relationships established in the Church. Catechesis is instruction in the formal sense as we teach what it is that we believe and confess. Catechesis also happens within the liturgy for those who have been brought to the faith. This does not mean full participation in all that takes place within God's House but growth in knowledge, understanding and faith by observation and by the formal preaching of the Church. This preaching proceeds out of the liturgy and flows back into the liturgy. When God has awakened faith within the heart of these hearers and the Spirit has enabled them to believe with the heart and confess with the mouth, we invite them to participate in the fullness of the great mystery of the Word made flesh in the Sacrament through which we eat His body and drink His blood.

From catechesis then to participation in the Supper -- this is the direction and the path. At this point, they move from those who are spectators of the divine drama of Word and Supper to participants in that drama, taking on the full measure of their role and place within the assembly we call the Church.

Bringing Christ to the nations happens largely outside of the worship service. Bringing the nations to the Church culiminates in their place within the assembly, within the worship service, as full members of the family of God -- consumating in their place within those who commune at the Lord's Table. When we try to compact these into one action, or when we try to put the second first, we run into danger -- distorting and distracting from what it is that God does among us through the means of grace, within the context of the liturgical assembly.

Willow Creek found that the confusion of these two did NOT result in actual growth of Christians or of the Church/ At least they were honest. They admitted that by structuring the worship service toward those outside the Church and making the worship of the Church outreach oriented, mirroring in a religious context the wants, needs, and desires of the people outside, they ended up with Christians who did not grow, did not seek the deeper, solid food of God's Word, and were content to live their lives as Christians on the fringe of it all.

By all means equip the people to be effective witnesses, telling Christ's story and not their own, well describing to the world Him who is the way, the truth and the life. Let them learn the Word of Christ to speak that Word in the language of everyman, the language of the marketplace, and the contemporary language of the culture. But don't leave them there. Bring these Christians to the Church where they learn the pattern (ordo) of Word and Sacrament, where they learn the vocabularly of Christian worship, faith, and life, and where they continue their instruction by the words that flow from the lectern, pulpit and hymnal. And this will result in people catechized not only to a faith but to a church, not only to a personal relationship with Christ but to a community of faith within the church, not simply to restore their vertical relationship with God in Christ but also their horizontal relationship to those who bear the same name of Christ by baptism and faith and who share the same calling to enter the world with the Word of Christ lived out and spoken forth.

Perhaps this also is an area of tension between those who contend for evangelical catholic faith and practice and those who seem more comfortable in the Evangelical camp of witness, faith, and practice... It is something to think about...

Beloved, see how they love one another...

Love is often portrayed with smiles and laughter, happy times and getting along. I suppose that is one form of love but I am not so sure that smiles were the great power that caused a world to notice Christians so long ago. The love that Scripture speaks of is love that reveals itself in mercy. It is our willingness to identify with the poor and needy, to carry their burden as our own, that is powerful and effective in a world so filled with self-centeredness and insulation from the troubles of another. This is, after all, the mark of God's love for us -- mercy upon the sinner, mercy upon the rebel who runs away, mercy upon the dying, mercy upon the children to be seen but not heard, mercy upon the adulterer caught in the act, mercy upon leper who expected distance...

Our nation is a generous one to those who suffer disaster throughout the world. Christians should be leading this effort. Lutherans should be witnessing the Gospel through the mercy shown to those in suffering. Haiti presents us with an opportunity to be merciful. This is a poor country, not so far from our borders, and there are Lutheran Pastors and teachers, Lutheran parishes and schools, Lutheran men, women, and children who suffer with all the rest. Mercy knows no distiction -- it applies to all... but let this become for us an opportunity to demonstrate to the Haitians the mercy we have received from God...

Give to one of the recognized agencies -- I recommend LCMS World Relief! To find out materials that describe the need and our response, you can go to the Haiti web page of LCMS World Relief and Human Care. For a list of specific donations and where to send them, go to my friend Will Weedon's blog.

It is time to let mercy speak the Gospel, to claim the need of the these brothers and sisters as our own, and to show them the love that will not let us go...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Who are you and why are you here?

Sermon for the Baptism of our Lord, the First Sunday after the Epiphany, preached 10 January 2010.

A man was walking around the Church with a confused look. The Pastor went after him asking, “Who are you?” The man mumbled something. “Why are you here?” the Pastor asked. Again the answer was not very illuminating. How would you answer those questions? You might say you were here because you were a member of this church, or because you were Lutheran, or because your spouse or parents made you come... You might define yourself by your relationships... I am a husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, etc. You might define yourself by what you do – a carpenter, nurse, engineer, retired, etc. You might define yourself by your ideology – Democrat, Republican... or your perspective – liberal, moderate, conservative. But for Christians, none of those is a satisfactory answer to who you are or why you are here. Who are you and why are you here ought to be answered with: “I am a child of God by baptism, here to claim the heavenly food Jesus has promised to those whom He has called by name and who believe in Him...”

Think about it. Who ARE you? Why are you HERE? None of us would have a satisfactory answer to those questions except that one day Jesus Christ stepped forward into the waters of the Jordan to be baptized by John so that you and I might know who we are and what we are here for. Rooted in baptism is the key to knowing who we are, what our purpose is on earth, and what our purpose is as a people gathered together in worship.

The Son of God entered that baptismal water so that each of us might know: I am a child of God... Though once created by God and given birth into this mortal life, this identity as a child of God was lost to us by sin. Death, which came through sin, deprived me of my destiny. But... through baptism each of us were re-created anew, reborn from death, to the new life that only Christ can give. The old person each of us was, is dead – having been crucified with Christ. The new person each of us is, has risen up with Christ in baptism where we became brand new. Our sins are forgiven and death no longer claims us. Once we were nobodies but now God has called, claimed, washed, and adopted us as His own, and we were made somebodies.

Once each of us was formed for God’s pleasure; but this was a vocation that our first parents rejected for us and their way ended up being the dead end of death. Instead of purpose and meaning in life, what we ended up with was the path of death. But by baptism God has restored our lose vocation. Now we belong to Him who made us because He purchased and won us for Himself. With that comes purpose and direction for our lives. We live for His glory. This is our identity; this is our baptismal vocation.

None of us were redeemed from our lost condition by our own desire or might. We were not purchased from death with silver or gold. We did not exert the effort that resulted in our salvation. It is wholly God’s own action and it is His declaration in Christ: I am His own child. Once each of us wore the name of guilt and death but now we wear the new name of forgiveness and life in Christ. God has called us each by name to belong to Him and in our baptism into Christ, we gained a new name, a new identity, as His own children.

We have been marked for Christ. We wear His name – not as a tattoo as an adornment on the outside but with the name of Christ written into our hearts by the Holy Spirit to bring us to faith. In baptism we wear Christ as the new clothing of holiness and righteousness. We wear His name, we receive His gifts, and we are heirs of all that is His to give. This is now our identity. It is not who we think we are, who we want to be or who we have made ourselves to be – this identity is who God has declared us to be by baptism.

So why are we here today? We are here to receive what God has prepared for us, the gift of His presence. Lo, I am with you always – a promised kept in His Word and Sacrament. It is because of baptism we claim His promise that nothing can separate us from Him. What death once called his own, now life claims in Jesus Christ. We come here today to receive what our Lord has promised to those whom He has called His own.
We are here for the mercy that has already rendered its verdict upon our lives. God cannot say “Not guilty” but He has chosen to declare us “Forgiven and justified in Christ.” Judgment will not harm us and we do not live in fear of Christ’s return as Lord and Judge of all. The cross is where and how our sins have been judged. Therefore we live in His mercy and by His mercy as His own children in Christ Jesus.

You and I are here to receive God’s care – not simply the healing balm that comforts us in all our wounds but the discipline of the Father who loves His children enough to say “no” to them. He loves us enough to refine us and purify us. Though we shrink from His refining and cleansing fire, we know that its wounds are not like the wounds of sin which are meant to harm us. These are the cleansing wounds of Him who loves us enough to cut off and cut out of us all that hinders His reign in us and through us.

You are I are here to live out His glory – not our own glory but His, not for us to live in the spotlight but to be lights that shine with the glory of Jesus Christ. In all we are and do, we are to shine with the brightness of His light, for His glory, and for witness to the world. What elevates our lives from the realm of the mundane and ordinary are not our accomplishments, but the works of Him who works in us, for us, and through us. This is what makes our lives noble – we do His bidding in our homes, on our jobs, in our relationships, in our life together as a congregation, and in our love and service to the world.

Who I am and why I am here – this what we learn at the font. Once Jesus came to the waters as the innocent to take on our guilt... as the righteous to take on our sin... as the Living One to take on our death... Once He exchanged His heavenly glory to wear my flesh and blood... He left the hallowed halls of heaven to enter the darkened shadows of my world of sin. He was baptized not for His need but for ours. In His baptism He reveals His servant heart and love for us. In His baptism He begins the song of glory, hope and redemption to a people whose sin, guilt, and death kept us bound and captive.

Each of us learns who we are, why we are here, and how we are to live from the waters of our rescue, waters that took on cleansing power when He came to baptism to soak up all our dirt. It is no accident that the font stands right there at the door to God’s House. There is where we learned of Him who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. There is where we heard the voice of God calling us to Him. There is where He embraced us as His own, clothed us in His own righteousness, and bestowed upon us the gifts and grace He earned in suffering and death. There is where we encounter the life that death has no power over and there is where we are set free to live His noble life in our daily lives of faith and service.

Once the Father declared Jesus to be not only His beloved Son but the one in whom is His great delight. When the Father smiled upon Jesus in the waters of the Jordan, He made possible to us the smile of His grace that declares us His own, pleasing in His sight because of Jesus Christ. Ponder this baptismal miracle; let it shape your identity and let it determine your destiny. Perhaps if we spend our lives waking up each morning to this new identity, we will find it easier to remember who we are, why we are here, and what we receive from the Lord in His house. When your behavior fails to offer you hope or a sign that you belong to the Lord... when life has ripped the smile out of you with troubles and trials... when this moral life has left you confused and hurting... when all the structures and supports of this moral life are gone... the we still have something to hold on to... I am a child of God by baptism, here to receive the heavenly food of His promise, given to those who He has called by name and who believe in Him... today, tomorrow, and forevermore. Amen