Sunday, February 28, 2010

Where do we begin...

There are countless companies offering solutions to how to fill the pews on Sunday morning.  Usually what they offer is incompatible with our Lutheran identity.  Sadly, we often listen to their offers anyway because we look on on Sunday mornings and see so many empty seats.  If you have been in one place a long time, like I have been here, these are not just empty seats but the faces of people who have come and gone, whose faith and life together with us has waxed and waned.  When it becomes personal like this, the need to find an answer becomes similarly personal.

Looking back upon the Missouri statistic of some 3/4 of a million folks (out of 2.3 million) in church on Sunday morning, I am reminded that if we had nearly everyone who claimed to be part of us together with us in the Lord's house, on the Lord's day, we would multiply by three or more the numbers of folk to marshal for the work of God's kingdom and for the welcoming and bringing of others to church each week.

It occurs to me that so often people fall away or their attendance wanes because we fall victim to the secular way of thinking of Sunday morning.  How many times haven't people missed Church only to ask someone who was there "What did I miss" only to have them reply "Nothing - just the usual."  Now that is a scary thought and perhaps one of the most telling ways we see what happens on Sunday morning -- and perhaps one of the prime reasons why people are not so regular in their attendance.

What did I miss?  You miss heaven opening and the voice of the Lord speaking to us "This is My beloved Son; listen to Him..."  You miss the cleansing of heart and soul through the voice of the absolution that declares in heaven and on earth "I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit..."  You miss God setting His table in the midst of our enemies and then feeding us on nothing less than His body as our bread and His blood as our cup "for the forgiveness of your sins..."  You miss the fellowship of believers (not with coffee cup but with the cup of the Lord) that tells us "and each of us are members of His body the Church..."  You miss the celebration of God's wondrous deeds -- not only in olden times but among us still with every power of His grace and urgency of His purpose...  You miss the offering of our selves as living sacrifices and God's acceptance of what we bring -- including the tithes and offerings that also glorify Him and do His bidding...  You miss the music that gives the Word a melody to plant in our hearts and in our minds the message of the cross and empty tomb... You miss the wonder of sitting at the feet of Jesus with all God's children in this place and being told the stories that tell THE story of His redeeming love... You miss the blest reunion with the saints of old whose voices blend with ours, with the angels, and with the archangels singing "Holy, holy, holy Lord Sabaoth!"  You miss the presence of God among us as a mothering hen calling, gathering, enlightening and sanctifying us that we might be His flock...  You miss the company of those who with us were elected unto salvation in the waters of our baptism so that we might become one family, the Church, with Christ our Brother... 

As long as the answer is "nothing -- just the usual" there is no compelling reason to be there.  Unless and until we raise the expectation away from sentiment or humor, entertainment or pleasure, we will give those who stay away no compelling reason to be there and those who are new will learn from us the dullness of heart that misses everything that happens in the Divine Service... and they too will become names on a page without bodies in the pew... raise the bar... preacher in the pulpit... raise the bar... presider at the altar... raise the bar... musician at the console... raise the bar... choir member in the loft... raise the bar... acolyte in the chancel...raise the bar... usher at the door... raise the bar... greeter in the narthex... raise the bar... child of God in the pew...

Saturday, February 27, 2010

When Mercy Speaks

Sadly when we look upon the poor and those in need, we see intruders, foreigners, strangers, and worse.  We have become accustomed to the idea that the poor and those in need are the domain of the government and not our own personal concerns or our church concerns.  The fact is that the situation today is vastly different than one hundred years ago and even more different than several hundred years ago.  The change in the landscape of those who provide compassionate service to those in need has moved more and more to the government and farther and farther away from the domain of Christian service and the work of the Church.

Evidence the near absence of any church owned and operated hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, clinics, etc. in the US.  The goal of providing medical care to the people of our nation has become a corporate goal and a governmental goal (whether to provide the right to this access to all despite ability to pay or to provide a nationalized plan and providers for such medical care).  Even thirty years ago when I was a young Pastor there were numerous Lutheran hospitals and medical centers across the nation.  I think of Lutheran Hospital in Ft. Wayne where I first learned the pastoral care of the sick or the mighty Lutheran Hospital in St. Louis or the Lutheran Medical Center of Brooklyn (NY).  But these are no more.  They may retain the name but they are no longer agencies or institutions of the Church.  Maybe this is due to the tremendous cost of operating and the insurance mess, I do not know.  But I do lament the way the demise of these noble institutions of care and compassion have helped us shift the burden for those in need to others instead of ourselves.

I remain very impressed by the work done in LCMS World Relief and Human Care, by the Rev. Matt Harrison and his wonderful staff.  They have expanded the good work of this department at a time when it has been easy to make others responsible for the poor, the sick, the victims of disaster, and the needy.  I am also impressed with the good work of Lutheran World Relief and its global reach into places where disaster and death have come -- and they have remained at work here long after the headlines have shifted to other disasters and other news items.

Our own congregation operates an emergency food pantry that sees upwards of a dozen families a week.  This is operated as a place of last resort when people in need have no where else to go.  We sponsor twelve step and grief programs for the community (programs which operate within the distinct domain of Christian faith and hope and unashamedly so).  We support the local cash assistance agency which provides money for bills (after ascertaining the legitimacy of the need).  We support the local Pastoral Counseling Center so that people with family and individual problems might find Christian counseling from certified and licensed counselors who view faith as a help and not a hindrance to the emotional and family problems they face.  And I could go on...  but it is not enough.

The face of Christ to the community is largely the face of the Church and Christians.  If we want the face of Christ to bear upon the needs of the poor and those with troubles of every kind, we must carry the face of Christ to them through the ministries of care and compassion, mercy and hope, that address both the physical and spiritual needs of these people.  It does work to bid people the peace of the Lord and leave them hungry or hurting - if there is something we can do for them.  And there usually is.  Speaking the Gospel is the domain of both words of witness and actions of compassion both of which speak the same message of the cross.

The Church is both the caring community of Christ among His people and the caring community of Christ to the world through His people.  Until we learn this and reclaim this area of our witness and outreach, it will be easier and easier for the Church to live for her own sake and for her people to define the faith with only themselves in mind.  When we learn to expand our hearts to unfold others as Christ has done for us we lose nothing and gain by great measure the realization and blessing of the Love that bears all things and endures all things for us and our salvation...

Friday, February 26, 2010

Blest be the TIE that binds...

There has been much debate over the course of the history of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod over the relationship between members to Synod (both member congregations and clergy).  Some believe that the Synod is not advisory at all but above its congregations and that all doctrinal resolutions and statements are binding and enforcable upon all member congregations. Others claim that our congregations are autonomous (like those of the Southern Baptists) and all congregations are therefore free to disregard or reject the actions of the Synod, including those that deal with doctrine and practice. 

We like to talk about the advisory nature of the Synod to its member congregations but the romance of this independence is not the reality of the relationship between Synod and its member entities.  The truth is that members willingly forego their ability to act independently with respect to doctrine and practice and take upon themselves a binding relationship in which they accept the oversight of Synod and its duly elected officials and submit to its constitution, by-laws and convention resolutions.

I do not say that as one advocating but because this is the reality of the relationship and not the romance of independence (which is also part of the American persona that is a component in all of this).

The constitution that every member congregation signs on to and that every clergy member signs on to says:

1. In its relationship to its members the Synod is not an ecclesiastical government exercising legislative or coercive powers, and with respect to the individual congregation’s right of self-government it is but an advisory body. Accordingly, no resolution of the Synod imposing anything upon the individual congregation is of binding force if it is not in accordance with the Word of God or if it appears to be inexpedient as far as the condition of a congregation is concerned.
2. Membership of a congregation in the Synod gives the Synod no equity in the property of the congregation

In the 1920 Constitution, the “advisory body” paragraph appears as a separate Article VII for the first time, and its language is noticeably different from the 1854 text.8 Three significant changes should be noted:
    1.  The first sentence of the 1920 text, denying legislative and coercive powers

         to the Synod, is new, and it is addressed to all members, not just congregations.
    2. The sentence requiring congregational adoption to make a synodical resolution

         binding on the congregation, in force for more than 65 years, is gone.
    3. The last sentence is different, but still provides that it is the congregation, not

         the Synod, who may determine that a synodical resolution is unsuited to the
         condition of the congregation.

Editorial changes made in Article VII in 1923 resulted in our present wording.  Most of those changes were stylistic, but two were more substantive. In one, the word “inexpedient” replaced the word “unsuited” to translate the word “ungeeignet” in the official German text of 1920 and its 1847-1854 predecessors.  (When a congregation asks about the application of a synodical resolution to its condition, under Article VII, inexpedient may mean something quite different from unsuited.)  The other 1923 change is that the text no longer explicitly states that it is the right of the individual congregation, not the Synod, to determine whether or not a synodical resolution is suited to the conditions of the congregation, a right that has been a part of the Synod’s self-understanding since its 1847 beginning.

In other words, the congregation (or clergy) do not have the freedom to reject or revoke resolutions and statements of Synod -- the only allowable "advisory" situation is if and when the resolution is not applicable or expedient (unsuited) to the condition of the congregation.  As an example, if the resolution regards a parochial school and the congregation does not have one, the resolution is not applicable to the condition of Synod.  If the resolution regards a DCE, for example, and the member is a Pastor, then the resolution does not apply to the Pastor because of the condition of his membership.  Noteworthy here is the distinction also between matters internal to the congregation (property and self-government, for example) and external matters (doctrine and practice).  Internal matters are not the domain of Synod resolution but external matters are retained as part of the scope of our free association.

This is a far cry from the advisory understanding that some herald as the freedom to do whatever you please.  This is also a far cry from the essentials of agreement that some use to distinguish certain kinds of resolutions from others.

The point of this is not to suggest that we need someone to inform against the congregation or clergy.  The point of this is to suggest that if the Synod as a whole (and we have countless Synodical resolutions which speak of weekly Eucharist, acceptance and use of the Hymnal, encouragement and use of private confession, etc.), Synod would be within its powers to advise congregations to work toward the implementation of these salutary resolutions.

We had a circumstance where the Synod used its lawful power to remove offending District Presidents (the issue was illegal ordination of those uncertified by Synod).  Nobody liked it because we lived in the romance of a strictly advisory Synod in which each congregation had the right to determine which resolutions to accept and which to reject.  In reality this was within the power and perogative of the office of Synod President.  So if the Synod President wanted to challenge some of the more substantial and eggregious violations of worship and practice in Synod, he could.  Whether he should or would, that is another matter entirely.

Let me be perfectly clear -- though I lived through this era I am not in any way advocating whether the actions taken then were right or wrong.  I am simply pointing out that the Synod is not nearly as advisory and distant as some choose to think or champion.  I am also not advocating that what we have enshrined upon the constitution all members (both congregation and clergy) signed, is what should be the language or relationship between Synod and its member entities.  I am merely pointing to our self understanding of what advisory means (check out the Synod website for more pages on this).

John Fritz noted, “Correctly understood, it must stand and is beneficial in its effects; if wrongly understood and wrongly applied, it nullifies the very purpose of a synodical organization.” When a congregation joins the Synod, wrote Fritz after part of Walther’s 1848 presidential address, “it declares that it agrees to join its sister congregations affiliated with the same Synod in carrying out the very purposes for which the synodical organization exists. It must mean this if it means anything at all."  Surely the very purpose of Synod's creation and existence is related to what happens on Sunday morning in the parishes that identity with the Synod.  It must mean this if it means anything at all.

Funeral for Paul Edward Gebhardt

The Funeral for Paul Edward Gebhardt will be at the graveside in Resthaven Cemetery, 41A, Clarksville, at 11 am with the family gathering with friends at the Church Fellowship Hall on Madison Street following the service.

Paul Edward Gebhart was born in Clarksville on Sunday, February 21, to Aaran and Laura Gebhardt, and died in Nashville on Monday, February 22. He was the fourth child of Aaron and Laura, brother to Austin, Amber and Sarah. He was received into God's kingdom through the waters of baptism on Sunday, February 21, in the NICU at Vanderbilt University Children's Hospital in Nashville. May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace according to the mercies of God.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

St. Matthias, Apostle

Sermon Preached for St. Matthias Day 2010.

First there were 12, then there were 11, and the Church was faced with a problem. The perfect number 12 (the number of the tribes of Israel, for example) was lost by the son of perdition who refused to stand in the mercy of Christ. Was the Church to enter Pentecost and the great mission of proclaiming Jesus and His resurrection now one man short? Something must be done.

They come together and, as usual, for good or for ill, Peter is in charge. He stands up among the company of the 120 brothers and explains the problem (without sparing any of the gory details). Then he reaches back to the Psalms to justify forgetting Judas and leaving behind the memory of his unfaithfulness so that another might take his office.

Now comes the problem. Who wants to be the successor to Judas? No one would ever live down the memory of such a predecessor. It would be like following Bernie Madoff as president of the company that stole billions from trusting investors. I cannot imagine that they had many volunteers and those who would volunteer I would have thrown their resumes away. What about you.

Peter outlines the qualifications: a man who has been with us, from the beginning, through it all, from the baptism of John until the day of Jesus’ ascension and someone who saw the risen Jesus (that drops the number of candidates). It seems that from the short list, they came down to a shorter list. Two, to be exact. Neither of whom we know anything about except that we know three times as much about the one who was not chosen as the one who was.
He had three names and the one who was chosen had one.

And then they prayed. Joseph, called Barsabbas or Justus, and Matthias were praying that they would choose the other one... at least if they were smart.

Then comes the election. “You Lord know the hearts of all – you show us which one YOU have chosen to fill the open spot of minister and apostle from Judas who went his own way...”

And nothing happened.

So they cast lots – give God some raw material to work with, I guess. It is the only time a successor is chosen and the only time he is chosen with lots. Short straw wins, I guess. And Matthias won, well that is not exactly what Scripture says: the lot fell on Matthias. Call that winning or losing? I do not know which.

And that is the last thing we ever hear about Matthias. Period.

Now it might seem that the disciples made a mistake. God appointed another apostle and it was not Matthias but Saul become Paul. The early church did not number Matthias among the list of apostles until much, much later. He was simply called a witness. But eventually the Church accepted both the man the apostles chose and the one God chose and left the odd number of 13 for someone else to decipher.

All we have is a name-Matthias how do we remember him?
The unremarkable Matthias is remarkable only to God... In history a footnote... in the memory of the Church a mystery ... in the mission of the kingdom anonymous... in the list of the saints, a name... only to God remarkable at all.

I dare say I am the same. Sure there are people who know my name while I am alive... and someday my kids will remember me... and maybe a grandchild or two... but then I will be done... the unremarkable Larry is remarkable only to God...

And you are the same. We are all these names with stories largely anonymous, known well to the Lord and known hardly at all in history or the martyrology of the saints... we are the ordinary who are extraordinary only because of the riches of God’s grace in Christ, the mercy of His love to forgive us, the desire of His heart to redeem us, the wisdom of His Spirit to call us, the miracle of His work to teach us faith, and the mission that is ours for one brief shining moment while we live and then it passes to others... as it did to Matthias...

Is it enough for you? It appears it was enough for Matthias. I am learning to appreciate that it is enough for me, but I am not there yet... each day I struggle to come to terms with my anonymity... and whether being known to God is enough... in my youth it was not... as I age and mature a bit in the faith, I am coming closer and closer to saying that it is enough... I need to be remembered only by the Lord to be a success... And by the grace of God that is what He has made me... with Matthias... and with you. Amen

The Unfolding of the Church's Year of Grace...

I just finished outlining sermons through the end of July 2010. It is my strange and unusual discipline to outline my sermons about six months in advance (I still have August to go) and to plan the services, choose the hymns so that this schedule is available to all of those who join me in planning the service (Cantor especially).

One of the good things about working like this is that I read the lessons and psalms for the coming Sundays and get a chance to see how they connect, how they unfold, how they complement, and how they distinguish themselves -- one Sunday's pericopes from another's. I am constantly amazed at how richly we are fed upon the diet of Scripture in the lectionary (in this case the three year lectionary ala' Missouri Synod based upon the RCL). Truly the preacher is offered a multitude of choices. My planning work is done to prevent this preacher from constantly preaching the same sermon upon the same themes. When I work in the lectionary over a period of months and across seasons of the Church Year, I am forced to make sure that last week's sermon and this week's sermon may be connected but not repeated.

It is a sad thought that so few Pastors and hardly any lay folks look at the lectionary with this broad view of its unfolding lessons and themes over the course of an entire season or longer series of Sundays. It is no wonder, then, that what happens on Sunday morning is often an isolated experience -- disconnected from the Sundays preceding and following. It is no wonder that those planning the service think of the Sunday in isolation or separation from the past and future weeks of grace within the Church Year. Certainly there is a desire to connect them or else we would not be set upon by so many marketed and home grown sermon series (few of which have any connection to the lectionary).

I know there are those (some friends and acquaintances included) who prefer the one year lectionary (so called historic one). I have used it in the past but have kept to the three year lectionary pretty much since Lutheran Worship came on the scene in 1982. There are arguments on both sides that are salutary and no one (except a few of my friends on the lunatic fringe) who would say either is perfect. But there is great wisdom to the use of a lectionary and as they go the three year lectionaray in LSB is quite good.

With Lutheran Service Builder I can print out a lectionary sheet which includes all the pericopes (and alternates) for each Sunday I am working upon and read them through making notes upon the sheets as I go -- commentary glosses, notes from the great sermons of the Fathers (including Luther), and personal notes that relate to illustrations and connections that help unfold how this text applies to me and to the people within my parish... It is a great boon -- this computer software that came out with the hymnal.

We have on our web site a chart so that our folks can look up and read the lessons ahead of time but I do not know how many do this. If you do not, I would suggest that you make it a discipline to work ahead and not backwards -- to focus on the lessons to come and not on the lessons read on Sunday morning -- at least for part of the week. And if you are a Pastor preparing your sermons, take a little word of advice from someone at it for more than 30 years -- even if you write your sermons one week at a time, read through a number of weeks of the lessons to see where things are going as well as where they have been. This is especially true for those who blow their whole load on John 6, for example, and fail to realize that the same chapter is played out for several weeks, not just one...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Membership Has Its Privileges...

We just had our report from the Circuit Delegate to the regional BRFFGGHHIIJJ (whatever the restructuring task force is) and I could spend a few hours talking about the stuff in it and the stuff not in it...

Listed in the document is this statistic... While we claim 2,337,349 "members," we have only 724,873 in worship on a given Sunday morning... or 31%. Actually the percentage may be lower because we do not know how many of those counted in attendance are actually visitors or new people not yet members. Let me state that this statistic is slightly lower but similar to my own parish, though our proximity to Fort Campbell, KY, and the number of activity duty military here mean that we have a higher percentage of "members" living out of state than is the case for the average parish. I am not excusing or justifying but setting a little context.

In my parish, about 60% of the people on Sunday morning are those here every week. About half of the remainder or about 15% are the people who are here most Sundays (at least half of the time), and the remaining 15% are the surprises who show up once in blue moon. I do not know if this is typical or not.

My point, though long in coming, is this. Those irregular attending (or, regularly absent) members are welcomed to the Lord's Table without question -- mostly with relief and thanksgiving when they do show up. We do not especially scrutinize them even though they have been missing in action and we do not know what has been going on with them or their faith. Communion is the "privilege of membership."

When a non-Missourian comes, we scrutinize them (at least those who practice close(d) communion). We inquire about their faith, about their confession, about their baptism, about their repentance, and about their intention. We may make a pastoral decision to commune or we may not. Others may make a decision immediately -- simply on the basis of them not being LCMS. If they come from a sister parish in the LCMS, perhaps the only inquiry might be which parish, who is the Pastor, and are you a member in good standing there.

While I keep membership records, the working membership of my parish are those who are regularly there. Yet, because of membership records, we offer the privilege of membership, communion, to those regularly absent but who happen to show up (say at Christmas and Easter, especially). Why do we treat those who are members -- but regularly not present -- differently than we treat those who are not members but there? What should we do differently, if we should do something differently?

A conversation with a new family indicated a history of problems with family members in two different Lutheran denominations. When the non-Missourians came to an LCMS parish, they were refused communion "because they are ELCA." When the Missourians come to the ELCA parish, they are invited to commune "because they are LCMS." This family is caught in between. "How do you explain it?" she said to me.

My response was that I do not believe it is simply a matter of a piece of paper that says "member." Membership has its privileges but membership is about confession. What do you believe? That is what membership is about. Whether ELCA or Missouri or whatever, your own confession should be the same confession as the church body. If there is a conflict, there is a problem.

I do not police the altar. I do not believe that stewarding the mysteries of God is a police action. It is my task as Pastor to make sure, to the best of my ability, that all who commune are able to receive the full benefit and blessing of that communion and this involves ascertaining their confession (their faith) and the attitude of the heart (their repentance). I do this in several ways. I do this in part through the agency of membership and its incumbent instruction (which should not be once in a lifetime but a lifetime of learning/catechesis). I do this in part through the agency of the creed (and if we confess with the mouth the orthodox faith, I, who cannot discern belief in the heart by any other way than this verbal confession must accept this). I do this in part through the agency of the confession and absolution which prepares us for this communion (again, it is my assumption, and I have no other means to go on, that participating in this general confession and hearing the absolution effects the repentance and restoration which the Word speaks).

So, I find myself in a quandary... do I subject every communicant (especially those regularly absent but "members") to the rigorous examination that would be given to a person from outside our "fellowship" who desired to commune... or do I accept that "membership has its privileges" (even though "membership" here refers more to a name on a piece of paper than confession and faith)... In this respect only , I do understand those who find close(d) communion an irrational practice.

As a kid headed to college, my Pastor came up to me and handed me the gold card -- a paper card with my name typed on it and his signature indicating that I was a member in good standing of a parish of the LCMS. I used it to commune but felt awkward flashing my membership card as if this paper were what made me a worthy communicant instead of my confession and repentance. And since I was in college, how would anyone in that parish (or in my own parish) have known what sort of debauchery I had engaged in without repentance -- as long as I flashed my card at the rail to say "membership has its privileges." I cannot find those cards in the CPH catalog. I guess we don't do that anymore. It was a good intentioned bad idea. Just one more example of the strangeness of some of our practices...

Of course, nearly all of this would be more of a mute point if the vast majority of our "members" were also regular in their worship attendance... but that might be expecting too much... or not...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

And then He was gone...

A wonderful and supportive nursing staff and physician made it possible for a family to gather around the newest son and a new brother. The technology and machines were pulled away so that this hospital room could be a family room. Each held this child so very small and fragile. Each had a moment to remember the miracle of life, though brief, and to mirror to this child the love we have from God... the love that binds us as one, even while wounded and hurting. Scripture was said and prayers were prayed. And then he was gone...

Gone from the wounds that would not heal... gone from the life that was tethered to machine... gone from the tubes that fed and lines that monitored him... gone from the life that was all too briefly his... but not gone from the heart of the mother who gave him birth or the father who held him in his arms... not gone from the brother and sister who will remember him and the sister who whose memory will be strengthened by the repetition of this birth, this child, and this fleeting moment...

Not gone from the God who knew him by name... Paul Edward... who marked him with the cross of Christ as a child of the heavenly Father... who washed him clean in the waters of baptism... who clothed him with the perfect, white robes of Christ's righteousness... who wrote his name in the ink of Christ's blood in the Lamb's book of life... No, not gone from the God who sent His angels to carry home to eternity a lamb of His own flock. Not gone from the God whose resurrection gave to him the life that his mortal flesh could impart... a perfect life of blessedness, wholeness, fullness, and peace.

If we live, we belong to the Lord. If we die, we belong to the Lord. So that whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. We want it all but when we cannot get all we want, God gives us exactly what we need. Jesus promises that we will be where He is... and a few hours ago last night we saw heaven open, angels descend, and the Father, true to His promise... and the Son true to His grace... and the Holy Spirit true to His work... extended through time and eternity the bridge in the shape of a cross so that this little might pass with Christ to His own joyful resurrection...

May God grant healing to mom and dad, brother and sisters, extended family and friends... that in the days to come they may be consoled by His love, sustained by His grace, and united in His hope, until sorrow of this little baby's leaving becomes the joy of where he has gone.... Amen

Monday, February 22, 2010

Temptation Alley

Sermon for Lent 1C, preached at Grace Lutheran Church on Sunday, February 21, 2010.

Often our stereotypes become our reality – at least in our perception. We think we are pure and innocent who run from evil – the way a child begs “Please don’t make me go there” when they have to go to the doctor and get a short. We may have accepted our stereotype as reality but it is a lie. Temptation alley is not some dark, dank, foreboding street that no one wants to go down. Temptation alley is Main Street. It is filled with neon lights and all that glitters. It is not some foreign place that makes us feel uncomfortable and unwelcome – it is the familiar place we call home.

We act as if God were pushing us onto the street of our desires to be tempted – as if He were testing us to see how we might do or actually seeking our failure. But as Luther reminds us, “God indeed tempts no one...” God is not the tempter who makes us go where we do not want. No, we are the ones who live on the street named desire where temptation is part of our constant reality. We cannot avoid it. The world, our own sinful flesh, and the devil have put us on this street that glitters on the outside but is underneath a boulevard of broken dreams, empty hope, and failed promises.

Today, as we do every first Sunday in Lent, we consider temptation, both the temptation Jesus endured without succumbing and the temptation we face every day without the same success. And we pray God to be there with us, for on our own we are surely weak. If God is there with us, He will help us resist; when we do fail, He will lift us up with forgiveness and restore us. Imagine – praying that Jesus will go with you on the way of temptation. It may seem a strange idea but Jesus came so that He might stand with us when we are tempted, to make us strong to resist, and to pick up the pieces through forgiveness when we fail.

In His Word, God gives us the resources to resist temptation. Jesus was not strong because He is the Son of God. Jesus was strong because the weakness of flesh was countered with the Word of God that was His strength and power. If we as God’s people are to recognize and resist temptation, we need to be in the Word. There Scripture imparts the clear vision that unmasks temptation and empowers us to say “no.”

In His Word God gives us the strength of Jesus. None of us stands alone before temptation. Though we might think we are weakest when we are alone, as Christians God is ever with us. Temptation may mirror back to us all our desires and the devil may whisper into our ears the prospect of getting away with it all, but we are not alone or apart from Christ unless we choose to stand apart from Christ and His strength. If we are in Christ, if we call upon the resources our Lord imparts to us, we are not the weak and wavering but the steadfast and immovable – as Christ is steadfast and immovable.

In His Word God shines the light that exposes the sin hidden in the shadow of our desire. Our biggest problems are not the temptations out there, but the things hidden inside of us. Our desires that lay hidden within, our wants that consume us, and our feelings that drive us – these are what God must expose so that we are not captive to what is hidden in us. In the light of His Word, these things can be seen for what they are... and for what they are not.

God unmasks our sinful nature to show us desire is not the pathway to pleasure or peace. No, they have chained us in the worst captivity and they are our cruelest task masters of all. They keep us chained to the darkness lest we be exposed and they will not relent until we are finally undone – broken, despairing, and destroyed. But the Light of Christ shows us what lies within for the sinful nature it is and what our the consequences of it.

God is not some distant deity who tells us about things He does not know about. Our Lord Jesus Christ was physically weak, mentally and emotionally weary, when the devil came to Him. When flesh should have made Him a victim, our Lord became the victor – resisting the wiles and ways of the devil and the weakness of His mortal flesh. He battled the tempter as the first representative of the new humanity of those born again in the waters of baptism; he battled the tempter so that temptation’s icy grip might be broken. Jesus Christ won the battle and the right to wear His righteousness. This test was the price of obedience and He paid it willingly and well. But this righteousness is not some victory trophy for Himself. No, it is for us. The righteousness of His holy will resisting the desire and darkness of the tempter’s power is what we wear in baptism so that we never stand alone. We are not naked before temptation’s power; when but we stand in Christ, His righteousness our clothing, His victory our shield.

When we fall, the devil has not won nor has temptation sealed our doom. This righteousness is a saving and redeeming power that forgives the fallen who cry to Him and restores those tarnished by temptation’s power. In Christ we stand against the assaults of our enemy; in Christ we stand when we have become another victim of our fallen desires and temptation’s wiles.

Temptation alley is like the midway of a carnival or fair. It is lined with all the things we know we should not say or think or do but all these glittering temptations are only the mirror of what we want and feel and desires within. We worry about the tests God might send our way but His tests are designed to strengthen us. We shrug off the power of temptation but his deceits are designed to destroy us. It is not God who tempts us but our own flesh, the world around us with its skewed values and corrupt choices, and the devil who cheers us on to defeat like the midway voice who hawks his wares.

We worry about God’s tests but we need to be warned about the temptation that lives on both sides of the streets where we live... not the strange and unusual but the familiar and the ordinary. Yet those who stand in the Word of God are not without the power to resist. Those who stand in Christ are not lost when we lose this battle with desire and give in. Those who stand in Christ are rehabilitated by grace acting in forgiveness and restored by the God who seeks not our downfall but our eternal life. This God is with us, with the truth that leads us through the ins and outs of temptation’s dangerous path, with the righteousness of the Savior who was the one and only to deny desire, resist the devil, walk against the world and with the Father, and with the forgiveness that restores us when we fall...

Temptation alley is not some dark foreboding place that we fear going... Temptation alley is a bright and welcome street where we are bidden by our enemy to let our feelings rule us, to satisfy our every desire, and to discount the consequences. Jesus saw it first hand but answered every bidding of the enemy with the Word of God that endures forever. And the righteousness He won is the righteousness we wear from our baptism.

So let us embrace the Word of God that gives us power... let us stand in the righteousness of Christ that will not disappoint us... let the voice of Christ speak through us to renounce the devil and all his works and ways... and leet the forgiveness of Christ restore us when we cannot say no to the tempter’s evil voice. But let us not be ignorant. God is not our enemy; He is our Savior and Redeemer. He does not tempt us but in temptation, He is our only hope.

The Doorway to Lent

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, preached on Wednesday, February 17, 2010.

Ash Wednesday is the liturgical doorway to the season of Lent. During this season called Lent, we set out on a journey of discovery but not everything we discover is welcome information. We began with an extended confession, the journey of discovery that starts with an honest look at ourselves through the mirror of the commandments. Then this journey of discovery leads us through the weeks and Sundays in Lent to the place where this sin is answered, paid for, and forgiven – to Calvary. Finally this journey will lead us to the empty tomb where in place of death we find life, the Lord of Life who has the power to lead us from death to life and resurrection. Ash Wednesday is the doorway that begins Lent with honest confession of our sin, with the surprise of grace that forgives us, and with our confidence in the power and sufficiency of the cross.

It begins with a little introspection. But we do not look within to find God or to find things noble and good. No, we look inside to see the sin that keeps God distant from us. These are the things that we have hidden, that we have run away from, that we have excused and justified, and that we can no longer avoid. It is the unpleasant first step on this larger journey of revelation.

We may think we see ourselves objectively but in the brutal and unyielding light of the Law of God, we see the unvarnished truth of who we are. Yet by the work of the Spirit this terrible truth drives into the arms of Christ and all He has done for us. From disappointment with ourselves we come to stand in awe of Christ and the love that moved Him to act when we could not act to save ourselves.

Our past is a tearful trail of sin. In our present, we look around us only to see the failed fruits of this sin. When we gaze into the future, we see our hopeless end... unless we look through the lens which is Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Through Christ we see a future that was not there apart from Him.

From introspection and its awareness of sin move to reflection. What has sin done to us that we cannot set ourselves free from its grasp? What is the power of sin that drags us unwilling victims to its death? And who is this God who loves us so that He gave His only begotten Son? Who is this God who refused to let sin have its last word over our lives?

The reflection we look for is the mirror of Christ and His redeeming love, the righteousness that is both alien to us because it comes from Him alone and yet home to us because it offers us the security and peace nothing else can offer. Our Lord is not only our mighty warrior who faced down sin and its death. He is also the loving God who clothes us in His holiness, who makes for us a new set of clothes from His own righteousness, that all our sin may be covered forever. By baptism we have a new identity as God’s children so that when the Father looks upon us, He sees us wearing the clothing that is the familiar and holy garments of Christ’s holiness.

We looked inside to find there the sin we do not want to admit. We look through the lens of the cross to behold the salvation we do not deserve. And then what? The Spirit calls us and equips us to respond. This response is not the majestic and triumphant response of the hero, but the humble and contrite response of the repentant. We return to the Lord with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. We return to the Lord not as if nothing has happened but because everything has happened to save us.

We rejoice not in ourselves but in Him whose slowness to anger is not indifference but mercy... whose steadfast love is not displayed in words but in the work of suffering and the pain of death... whose grace and mercy are not theoretical construct but the practical pillars of the new life, new hope, and new peace God has constructed for us. His mercy is not some admirable trait but the powerful forgiveness which overcomes sin’s grip on us as well as releasing us from all of yesterday’s guilt.

We come to the cross not as a people who gaze upon it as art work or stand in awe of it like nature’s beauty. No, we come to this cross to get what it offers, to receive the grace dispensed only there, to rejoice in the mercy that is available at the exclusive locations of the Word and Sacraments. We see in the cross not merely an answer to the longing within but the path forward to our new lives. As Christians, we live out the cross shaped lives of the redeemed, putting this cross to work in who we are and how we live.

Lent is no trip to the movies to see and old story once again. It is the story that reaches out to include us, that claims us as participants and not merely spectators. For what Christ has done is to set us free by His grace, so that sin is no longer our master and death no longer our destiny. We serve a crucified and risen Savior, we follow in our own daily lives, the cross shaped pattern of existence... loving as He has loved us... forgiving as He has forgiven us... showing mercy as He has been merciful to us...

Ash Wednesday is the liturgical door through which we begin our Lenten journey... a journey of discovery... a journey of redemption... a journey of new life... it all begins with ashes in the shape of a cross, with an honest look at our sin, the surprise of God’s mercy, and the work of the Spirit to make possible a response of faith and repentance. Good journey, people of God... Godspeed... Amen

Water to Wash Away Our Tears

Some hours ago I stood in the neonatal intensive care unit of a hospital with a father standing vigil near the bed of his son -- the lonely vigil that is every parent's worst fear. A baby comes early, too early, and life is so very fragile within his little frame of flesh and blood. As the mother is being cared for according to her own needs, we wait in prayerful companionship in the bonds of God's abiding love, hidden somewhere in this very painful moment.

What can you say to a parent facing what no parent ever wants to face? What hope can you bring to this little room and this very tiny baby? God gives us no words of explanation. He answers our longing hearts with no quick path to erasing the fears and pain of this experience. What does God give to us?

I brought with me a fresh, white, linen napkin on which is embroidered a cross and a shell. The nurse brought me some sterile water. I dipped my finger into the water and three times dropped its life-giving and healing gift upon the small forehead of this child. I baptize you into the Name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. These are the words that bring hope to a place where a mother and father hope against hope in their tears. Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given you the new birth of water and the Spirit and forgiven you all your sins, strengthen you with His grace to life everlasting. And then an oil stock and the touch of oil to the forehead of this child now born to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ. I anoint you with the salutary oil of eternal life in our Lord Jesus Christ. Oil is the rich Biblical symbol of healing and sign of trust that God knows our needs and will supply us the grace sufficient for them all. And then it is done. His name so newly given is now written for all eternity in the Lamb's Book of Life.

To the hurt and pain of this terrible moment, to the broken dreams and dashed hopes of parents for their child, for his future, for what he could, might, may become... the answer lies in water that does what it promises... in a new birth that takes away the imperfections of the first birth and heals this little child with the heavenly grace of eternal life... Mom and Dad are kind, loving, and gracious parents and would have brought this son into the welcome of Holy Baptism within the House of God (as they did for their other three children). Now the welcome of His grace has turned this NICU into God's House as He enfolded this child in His arms amid a chorus of mechanical sounds and beeps that in one, brief moment become the heavenly chorus of angels rejoicing over one more lamb of our Savior's redeeming. And for how ever long he has this life today, he has the life which is eternal and no one, not even death, can steal it away from him.

Baptism now saves us... in the early hours of this day, before the dawn, we gathered in this room to bring to God our broken hearts and wounds for a child so small and fragile... and God responds with unrelenting grace.

But now thus says the Lord,he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
"Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. Isaiah 43:1-3 (ESV)

This is one Pastor who rejoices that when I have little to give consolation or hope to a room full of tears, God has the consolation and hope to redeem this moment and bestow upon our fragile moments of time the grace of eternity through our Lord Jesus Christ...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Triumphalism and the Missouri Synod

A million years ago, before the Lutheran landscape was narrowed to two and one half church bodies, before CCW (contemporary Christian worship), before the CGM (church growth movement), before the Internet and cell phones, and while our numbers as the LCMS were still growing, I was introduced to the triumphalism of the Missouri Synod. Coming from a parish which did not join Synod until just before the unpleasantness of the 1970s, I was outside this part of the culture of the Synod but it did not take long to observe the phenomenon.

Those in the ALC or LCA would complain about a certain smugness in Missouri, a clubbiness (is that a word) that did not need to say a word to say that Missouri was a notch above others in just about every way. For a long time I thought it simple envy. At the time we had the best if not the largest Lutheran seminary in the world (801 was its short hand name in the old days)... we had a rigorous gymnasium (not the sports building) system of colleges and a curriculum rich in language and the classic liberal arts mold... we had heavy hitters in many disciplines -- known the world over like Martin Marty, Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich, Pelikan, Hoelty-Nickel, Bunjes, Piepkorn, just to name a very few... we were growing (the boats from Germany had only recently stopped coming and our moms were popping out kids like crazy... Yes, we may be smug but we have some things to be smug about... I thought...

Then I began to realize that we were clubby sort of like the old school money that used to hang around in dark paneled, smoke filled rooms. Yes, we had some things to be smug about but we had long ago adopted a certain attitude of superiority that was detached from this reality and more about image and self-esteem than about theology, character, and real identity.

There are some who continue this certain smugness and some have identified the myth of Missouri's exceptionalism. But in the parish this has seemed to disappear more quickly than in the national headquarters and certain political leaders. When a book is published that describes us as a "sleeping giant" with strategies to awaken this giant... well, you can see that the arrogance is not gone. While this is the attitude of some at the top of the flow chart, the opposite is true at the other end -- where the congregation lives.

I see and hear of many who are defeated and broken. These are the Pastors who are under the gun to produce and tempted by every non-Lutheran means to make the numbers look better. These are the parishes who a few years ago or more could afford a full-time Pastor but now must go for long periods to "save up" for a local Pastor or forgo this dream altogether (in part because the benefits package now costs, well, for me 2 1/2 times what my first salary was). These are the colleges where few bucks come from Synod coffers anymore and so the administration's main job is find a cheap way out and then raising enough funds to stay in the black. These are the Sunday mornings where the organ is silent not out of choice but out of a lack of organists and a bigger lack of funds to splurge on this luxury (so cd music is used, piano, or other instruments accompany the liturgy and hymns).

Sure there are those entertainment oriented congregations who have become mega churches by selling out their Lutheran souls for whatever is new and works... There are those who delight in fencing in the altar with close(d) communion, but who sadly feel no regret at the lack of doctrinal unity within the Synod or among all those who wear the name Lutheran... There are those who repristinate their theology and their golden years of glory back into Missouri's past instead of the present or future... but this is not our glory or our particularity or our redemption...

Missouri's future, if she has one, lies not in a purity cult where everyone's orthodoxy is constantly under scrutiny. We need no Gestapo policing the dogma. Missouri's future, if she has one, lies not in recapturing a snapshot of our past. We cannot afford to live in or act like yesterday is still today. Missouri's future, if she has one, will not be born of rewriting the constitution and by-laws of Synod (though clearly they need repairing). Missouri's future is not waiting for us in some non-denominational how-to journal. We have tasted enough of the forbidden fruit of those beliefs and practices incompatible with our Confessions.

Missouri's future, and I believe she has one, lies in Pastors and parishes who want to be Lutheran, who are not ashamed of this identity, who are convinced that our Lutheran answers are relevant and speak in a timely way to the questions laid before us by our times and our culture, and who speak apologetically (in the sense of defending the faith) in a winsome way to those not yet with us, who do not attempt to be all things to all people but simply Lutheran people amid all things, and who are the same people when they are gathered on Sunday morning that they are throughout the week.

Yes there is a great deal of triumphalism in our past... some in our present... but what I worry about even more are those who have stopped seeing Lutheran as a positive and vibrant identity... who no longer identify with our Confessions... who do not see Scripture as a living voice and the faith of the Scriptures that form our Confessions as a living identity... The broken, the wounded, the disheartened... these are the ones I worry about most... who go to Church on Sunday morning because they are Lutheran but who are surprised when others shown an interest in this faith and church... For unless we address these folks, our future will continue to be played out in the great battle between those who are not only at home in the house of our fathers but wish they were alive 100 years ago... and those who do not like their grandfather's church and a working with every ounce of their being to remodel it to look and act more like the no-name variety down the block... and this will kill us... for sure...

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Where is your wilderness?

John the Baptist came as the voice of one crying in the wilderness... After His baptism, Jesus enters the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for forty days (Luke 4:1)... Why the wilderness?

The wilderness represented several things. First it represented a place of danger. Away from the safety of the city and its walls, apart from being with people who represent security and familiarity, the wilderness is meant to represent a place of vulnerability. Second, in the wilderness represented a place outside the refuge of the Church (or in this case the Temple and synagogue). In the wilderness may not mean the same for us.

For us the wilderness may have little to do with the desert or uninhabited regions. For us the city is the wilderness, the city brings with it its own desert of parched desire and relentless pleasure seeking. You and I do not need to be removed from our homes and the places where we live and work in order to find the wilderness. Indeed, it is in these places where our greatest temptations come.

Our great temptation today is to call the wilderness home, to be more comfortable in the domain of our feelings and desires than in the House of God where His Word speaks and His Sacraments impart their riches of grace to us. Our great struggle is that we no longer feel at home in the house of our fathers and want to remake the church into a place where the lines between city and church are blurred. We do this not only by bringing the music of the world into the church, we also do this by re framing the message of the Word so that it speaks what we want to hear.

Jesus was taken out of those things that represented faith and community to be alone with His tempter and the tempter's wiles. Our world has been turned upside down so that the very faith we confess and the community we seek have become a scandal to the Lord and the wilderness that cries out for Him.

No, the devil does not have to move me far to put me in the shadow of things tempting, the things that deceive me and do not bestow what they promise, the darkness that presumes to be Light... no, in many ways we have turned the church upside down so that the desires of my heart are the object of worship and the sacraments of life and worship and those things that can get me what we want.

Where is wilderness? I do not have to look far... I live in its neighborhood and I am at home on its block. Here in front of me is the very temptation that I need to learn to recognize and resist, with the guidance of the Spirit and the strength of Christ...

Just a few Lenten thoughts...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Requiscant in Pace

Once again I am sad to report the death of two very prominent and prolific composers of church music... Richard Hillert (1923-2010) is the composer of one of the settings of the Divine Service (LSB, LW, LBW), a composer of organ and choral music, a composer of hymn tunes, and an arranger of many of the hymn tunes in the Lutheran hymnals in use today.

The longtime professor at Concordia, River Forest, was music editor of the Worship Supplement (1969), Inter-Lutheran Committee on Worship (1966-1978), and Lutheran Book of Worship (1978). His gifts to the Church are sung in countless settings and by many different denominations. His Worthy is Christ for ILCW has found acceptance in more than 30 hymnals. A sample of his choral work is here.

He will be sorely missed as a composer, musician, scholar, and churchman -- for us most every Sunday when we sing the music of the Divine Service which he composed.

Richard Proulx (1937-2010) is one of the most widely published contemporary composers in Christendom. He has given to the Church mass settings, canticles, hymn tunes, choral anthems, Psalm tones and refrains, organ works and a host of other musical publications. Proulx was also a conductor of the widely acclaimed The Cathedral Singers, which he founded.

Though perhaps more widely known among Roman Catholics, Proulx long ago transcended denominational circles to produce a great deal of music for the church at large. It is hard to know where to begin to list and chronicle the works of this widely published composer and musician. Hymnals across the ages and a across the denominations bear his musical gift of composition and arrangement and they will stand as his legacy to the Christian world. A tribute to Richard Proulx is on YouTube here

Both of these composers called the greater Chicago area their home. May the souls of these faithful departed rest in peace, according to the mercies of God.

Wisdom and Patience

The advent of social networking, on the heels of the Internet, has created a situation in which comment and reaction come almost immediately. Events and statements and actions are the fodder for an immediate response by those involved and the spectators as well. This is not always a good thing...

As a parent, you learn you cannot fight every battle with your children. You must choose which to fight and which to ignore, which comments to react to and which to ignore. It is part of the learning curve of parenthood to figure these out. And if you have more than one child, you have more than one learning curve -- since our children are often very different.

In the age of email, twitter, Facebook, etc. we make instant comment on he words and actions of others. A quick press of the reply button and we can generate scorn, disdain, bitterness, anger, and even hate. All on cue -- and too often sent without a thoughtful review of what was said, how this will impact things, and some time to cool down. Who among us has not sent a reply to an email and in our haste to reply churned things up to the point where we wished we could take it all back.

There is another dimension in all of this. Our words are diluted by the frequency we use them. I have long subscribed to the email news list of the LCMS and the ELCA. A comparison of the two services is easy to make. The LCMS is long on pr and short on real news. When news does come through the email news list, it is old news. The ELCA is long on news or what I would call created news -- what others might also call pr. I hear from them all the comments made by the Presiding Bishop on world events, political moves in Washington, social change, and the travels and visits of delegations. This last category is so abundant that I almost never read it. Must a church body have an opinion on everything?

The church leaders we need are those who possess both wisdom and patience. They need to know like a parent when to draw the line and when to ignore, when to fight and when to walk away, when to speak as well as what to say, and the patience to resist the temptation for an immediate and equal reaction -- unless wisdom requires it.

Sin is impulsive and faith teaches self-control. We show forth our mortal natures worst in our impulsive behavior and words and we show forth our faith in our control of tongue and heart and mind. The world often mistakes impulsiveness for decisiveness and self-control for weakness -- just the opposite of how faith sees these.

This is one area in which I find myself wanting. I wish I had the wisdom and patience to act more carefully and to know with confidence whether to react or not, reply or not, speak or not. I learned this from my children more late than early and still I speak like a predictable parent when I should listen. But I am amazed when you encounter those individuals who possess this wisdom and have learned this patience. In the church, we need this wisdom and patience even more.

The wisdom of Kenny Rogers is not just a song... You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em...Know when to walk away and know when to run... that the secret to survive is
Knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Efficient or Effective

There is much ado about the BRTFFGHIJKLMOP (ah, whatever, the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Restructuring...) and plans to restructure our Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Given the fact that we have passed resolutions on structure that later proved unconstitutional or unworkable, we have proposed restructuring which later the denomination rejected in Convention, leaving us with a hodgepodge of articles and by-laws that probably need a lot of work. There is no denying this.

But this is not the only reason for the brouhaha. In fact, much is made over the fact that our structure is actually inhibiting our growth, restricting the mission, and getting in the way of a more efficient church. There is a mouthful -- a more efficient church. Now if God had wanted the work of the Kingdom to be efficient, He would have figured out a better way than to work through ordinary flesh and blood people like you and me. But God has less concern than with efficiency than we do. God's concern is more about faithfulness than efficiency -- or He would have created a more efficient structure than the Church and a more efficient means than people sharing the Gospel in word and action.

I have to admit efficiency is not one of the things I look for in a church body. An efficient church body would jump on every wind of change to ride the wave of trend and fad, hoping to be one step ahead of the people. An efficient church body would do without the messiness of people and boards and commissions and run it with the top down hierarchical structure of a business. An efficient church body would hold executives accountable with growth targets that must be met or the consequence is termination. An efficient church body would sacrifice all for the all important goal of growth -- even an willingness to change the products and change the very identity of the organization, if necessary. An efficient church body would ditch theory (make that theology) in favor of practical, technological, and functional expertise.

God has purposefully chosen not efficiency but faithfulness as the standard for the work of His kingdom and faithfulness is less than efficient but not ineffective. God has given to His church the means of grace through which He does His bidding and accomplishes His purpose. The Word and Sacraments do what they claim, deliver what they promise, are what they say. They do not return to Him empty handed but good measure and pressed down and shaken together and running over. If His Church will faithfully speak this Word and administer these Sacraments, God will grow His Church and build His kingdom. It may not be efficient but it is effective -- effective because God is the One who makes it work.

As a church body we tend to be focused on the short term -- what works and what works fast! We think that God wants us to be results oriented. The truth is that God is not results oriented -- at least in the way we are. God has always looked at His kingdom through the lens of the long haul. He laid out a plan of salvation before the foundation of the world and then did not rush to complete it. In the kairos of the vision only God can have, He unfolded His plan slowly, deliberately, passionately, effectively -- over generation and generation until at the right moment Christ was born.

What works and what works fast should be less our concern than what is faithful to the Gospel, faithful to Jesus Christ. All the restructuring in the world will not replace the faithfulness that God calls us to and that God expects from us. We may be able to fill the pews by trending ahead of the trend and capturing the curiosity and desire for entertainment in people... but we will not please the Lord. Now don't get me wrong -- I think we need some restructuring so that our structure and our polity reflect theology and not the latest ideas from the social scientists and business gurus. I just think that we are going at this for the wrong reasons and will judge its success by the wrong criteria...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Bit About Ash Wednesday

The Eastern Orthodox Church does not in general observe Ash Wednesday; instead, Orthodox Great Lent begins on Clean Monday. The first clearly datable liturgy for Ash Wednesday that provides for sprinkling ashes is in the Romano-Germanic pontifical of 960. Before that time, ashes had been used as a sign of admission to the Order of Penitents. As early as the sixth century, the Spanish Mozarabic rite calls for signing the forehead with ashes when admitting a gravely ill person to the Order of Penitents. At the beginning of the 11th century, Abbot Aelfric notes that it was customary for all the faithful to take part in a ceremony on the Wednesday before Lent that included the imposition of ashes. Near the end of that century, Pope Urban II called for the general use of ashes on that day. Only later did this day come to be called Ash Wednesday.

At first, clerics and men had ashes sprinkled on their heads, while women had the sign of the cross made with ashes on their foreheads. Eventually, of course, the ritual used with women came to be used for men as well. In the 12th century the rule developed that the ashes were to be created by burning palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday.

Our use of ashes at the beginning of Lent is an extension of the use of ashes with those entering the Order of Penitents. This discipline was the way the Sacrament of Penance was celebrated through most of the first millennium of Church history. Those who had committed serious sins confessed their sins to the bishop or his representative and were assigned a penance that was to be carried out over a period of time. After completing their penance, they were reconciled by the bishop with a prayer of absolution offered in the midst of the community.

With the gradual disappearance of the Order of Penitents, the use of ashes became detached from its original context. The focus on personal penance and the Sacrament of Penance continued in Lent, but the connection to Baptism was no longer obvious to most people. This is reflected in the formula that came to be associated with the distribution of ashes: "Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return." This text focuses on our mortality, a mortality which was answered by the baptismal bestowal of the life which death cannot overcome. Part of the work of the Church over the past 30-40 years has been to re-establish the link between ashes and baptism and the Lenten time of baptismal renewal as well as formation.

Fellow Blogger has this wonderful post about ashes...
Apparently the ashes on the forehead custom was in use by the 10th century. The custom is a token of mourning and repentance. Memento homo quia pulvis es, et in pulverem revertis ('Remember man, for dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return'. Gen.3:19).

A letter in 1654 describes how strange Christians looked when they walked around with smudged faces. "The Christian Church hath a longer and more solemn Way of fasting than any other Religion, take Lent and Ember-weeks together. In some Church the Christian useth the old Way of Mortification, by Sackcloth and Ashes, to this Day; which makes me think of a facetious tale of a Turkish ambassador in Venice, who being returned to Constantinople, and asked what he had observed most remarkable in that so rare a City? He answered, that among other Things, the Christian hat a Kind of Ashes, which thrown upon the Head doth presently cure Madness; for in Venice I saw the People go up and down the Streets (said he) in ugly antic strange Disguises, as being in the Eye of human Reason stark mad; but the next Day (meaning Ash-Wednesday) they are suddenly cured of that Madness by a Sort of Ashes which they cast upon their Heads." [sources: The Oxford Companion to the Year; The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church]

I love the image above... It has sparked so many thoughts.. and since that is what Pastoral Meanderings is about... here are some of them...

Truly sin is our madness. In comparison to the noble place and purpose we occupied in creation, we have indeed gone mad -- both the madness of sin and what it has done and the madness of our inability to fix what sin has done. It is for this reason we are those miserable sinners of our confession (not because we do so poorly at sinning but because we cannot stop ourselves nor can repair the damage that sin has done to us and through us).

If sin is our madness, it is cured only by the Spirit who brings forth in our hearts the genuine repentance that only God can accomplish, the genuine faith that clings not to works or piety or self but to Christ alone, and the genuine redemption which is born not of our sacrifice but only to the blood that has the power to atone for the sins of the whole world.

This morning we had some who came early for their cure. Later we will have many more (Lutherans are still a bit uncomfortable about wearing this outward sign where just anyone might see and for a whole day, at that). The ashes are not the madness, they are the cure (here seeing the ashes are outward sign of inward contrition and repentance).

Personally I find the most poignant moments when parents bring their infants and toddlers to receive ashes. We do not like the image of our mortality placed upon our children. But they bring them because they know that these too are marked with death and captive to sin, unable to free themselves, unless Jesus frees them. They bring them to baptism, they bring them to the worship services of God's House, and they bring them to the ashes -- all because they know that it is Christ alone who can cure the madness, adopt the orphan, forgive the sin, redeem the lost, enliven the dead, and give the eternal to those only temporal.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Where is God? Where is His glory?

Sermon for the Transfiguration of our Lord, preached Sunday, February 14, 2010.

The truth we hate to admit is that God is hidden. The theologian calls this Deus absconditus – the God who is not where we expect Him to be, who must make Himself known to us before we know Him. Today is the Sunday we call Transfiguration – the Sunday when Jesus displayed His glory to His disciples when Moses and Elijah pointed to Him as the One who fulfills the promise of the prophets and demands of the Law. The disciples who were with Jesus saw this as the moment of ultimate revelation of God and did not want to leave. But Jesus insists that they cannot stay, He must go down the mountain and make His way to the cross. Of all the places where we might look to find the hidden glory of God, Luther says the last place we would think to find it is the gallows, where death cast its shadow in the shape of a cross. But there He is.

St. Paul tells us that Christ is the image of the invisible God. In other words, the only God that we can ever know, is the God who chooses to make Himself known to us. This God is pleased to dwell in His Son, Jesus Christ, who shows to us the face of the Father and in whom the fullness of God’s glory dwells. Until Jesus, the glory of God was a reflective glory. Moses reflected God’s glory on his way down Sinai with the tablets of stone in his hands. Elijah reflected the glory of God that was hidden not in a storm, an earthquake, and fire but the still small voice. Jesus is no mere reflector of God’s glory: He is its source. In Him, hidden in human flesh and blood, we see the very face of God and all the fullness of His glory.

Christ is the image of the invisible. Where is God? Show Him to us! Asks Philip of Jesus. If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father. Responds Jesus. It was not the answer Philip expected. He thought Jesus would point him somewhere, not to Himself. We come with the same question. Where is God? In our moments of pain and sorrow, struggle and suffering, doubt and fear, sin and guilt, despair and death. Where is He? Where is His glory?

The answer is the same. God is in His Son. All paths to God lead to and through His Son. No one can see God apart from Him and there is no God except the God who is Jesus Christ. To all those in search of spirituality or religion, we have only one direction. Your journey will be endless until it ends in Christ.

God is in Christ, but where is His glory. Is it the shining of a face long hidden and suddenly glowing? Is it the mountain top experience of a mountain peak? No, Christ points us to another dlogy. The glory of God is Christ and Christ's glory is the cross. There is no glory of God apart from Jesus and the glory that belongs to Jesus is revealed in the cross and its suffering and death. The last place you would ever think to look for the glory of God is the place of suffering and death... but there it is.

Moses and Elijah met Jesus on that mountain not to point to His glory but to make sure that the disciples understood Jesus was the One. There was no God except the One who is Jesus and no glory except the glory Jesus reveals. It is not a shining face that they were there to see but the prophet of prophets who points to Jesus to say “He is the One of whom we spoke” and the patriarch of Israel who holds up the commandments which Jesus alone has kept. The glory for a whole world to see was not there on the mountain top but in the valley below.

Moses and Elijah point to Jesus and what do they talk about? Heaven? The weather? The wife and kids? No. They talk about Jesus departure, His death, the death waiting for Him on a cross in Jerusalem. This is the glory the world was waiting to see, the glory they foretold. They point to Jesus as Him who shows forth the hidden God and Christ points us to the glory of the cross revealed for the sake of the world.

God is hidden. You cannot find Him. Only He can reveal Himself to you. He is not where you think Him to be. He is hidden in the last possible place you would search for Him. God’s glory is His Son and His glory where His Son meets humanity in the long, dark shadows of death. There God reveals who He is and there He reveals who we are. Not in a flight beyond the clouds but in the blood of a cross and the dust of a grave, God shows Himself to us.

The glory of God which Peter, James, and John glimpsed was not a higher glory than they would see in the cross, it was the confirmation of the glory that was to come, they would behold there on Calvary. Jesus was confirmed by the Law and the Prophets and His mission confirmed as the central message of Scripture. They could not stay on the mountain top because their limited vision of glory revealed them would be replaced by the full vision of the glory of the cross.

The glory of God is in Him who comes to suffer for our sin and die our death – the innocent for the guilty, the Lord of life for the creatures marked for death. The power of God is not in some dreamy vision but in the God who so loved the world that He sacrifices Himself to redeem us lost and condemned creatures. His glory is not something other worldly but there in the brutal suffering and painful death of this life and this world. His glory is shown not by avoiding the suffering this plan of salvation requires but in enduring it. His glory shines in us and through us when by faith we look at the cross and say by the Spirit: “He died for me.”

So it stands to reason then that as God’s glory shines in us not on the mountain top but in the suffering of the cross, so His glory shines in us not when everything is going well for us but in the valleys of our lives when test, trouble, trial, and temptation surround us. God’s glory shines upon us not to escape suffering and pain but as we endure this suffering and pain, standing firm in Christ, holding on to the cross and confessing it boldly. This is the glory of God.

You have come to me many times wondering where is God, where is His glory... When troubles surrounded you, when your heart was broken, when doubt and fear were your unwelcome companions, when you stood in the cemetery to bury those you love, when you sat in the office with tears at all that has gone wrong... You came to me wondering where is God, where is His glory. Well, it is not in heaven but in Christ who brings His glory to our world of sin and death. Elijah and Moses point to Jesus; Jesus points to the cross. This is where I point you on this day when we sing our last Alleluia before Ash Wednesday and Lent begins. This is where I point you when all the props of life fall away and you are left exposed and vulnerable.

Only at the foot of the cross can true human identity be discovered. Because only at the foot of the cross do we meet God in His power and glory. The God who is forever hidden until He reveals Himself has revealed Himself in His Son and His Son, who displays that glory supremely on the cross. That is why Jesus calls us to take up His cross and follow Him. That is where the glory is, where salvation is to be found, where hope is manifest, and life redeemed, restored, and reborn... in the cross.

The disciples did not understand this. They wanted to set up camp on the mountain top, forgetting the folks who were not there, the family members left beyond, and the responsibilities they had in the valley. They wanted to stay but Jesus could not. Jesus sent them back down the mountain and led them to the cross. We are like the disciples of old. We want to find God in the wow of other worldly experience. We want to stay on the mountaintops. We easily forget those not with us and the responsibilities we have in life only to stay in our little moment of glory. But we must go down the mountain as well. We must make our way down to where we live our lives in the valley of the shadow of death, living in but not of the world. The great temptation is to believe that we left Christ up there. The great truth of the Gospel is that He has come down with us.

He lives among us, revealing grace in the midst of our sin, life in the midst of our death, light in the midst of our darkness, and love in the midst of our loss. Where is God? He is in His Son. Where is His glory? Where His Son reveals it to us and to a whole world – in arms outstretched in suffering to embrace us and every sin and hurt and pain and death we wear. Faith clings to the crucified Christ. Where is God? You might expect the right answer to point to heaven, to the place of glory... but God is not hidden there... no, He is hidden in the last place we would expect to find Him... in the wood of a cross, the pain of suffering, and the cold darkness of death. Where Jesus is, there is God and there is the glory of the cross to redeem us. Amen

The ME That Gets in the Way of Thee

Over at First Things I read a wonderful essay on the Era of the Narcissist. Head over there and read it for yourself. It is a good read that challenges us with what we have chosen to become as a society and as individuals.

Aaron Kheriaty begins his piece with the marvelous paradox of all the astonishing features of the medieval cathedrals, one feature must stand out as particularly surprising to the modern mind: We have no idea who designed and built them. How out of keeping for the culture of ME! He continues Why build the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres if you can’t take credit for it? No lasting fame? No immortalized human glory? We are, if not scandalized, at the very least perplexed by the humility of these forgotten artists who labored in obscurity. Do and disappear?

I read these words on Shrove Tuesday, the day when Christians let it all hang out in a vast celebration of ME before Lent begins and we try, at least, to focus on Christ and the path of suffering that leads us to forgiveness, life, and salvation. In New Orleans the Mardi Gras has been in full swing since an early party start with the victory of the Saints in the SuperBowl. Lord knows that New Orleans hardly needs an excuse to start the party early but this is a more understandable one for the down but not out city. Now it is not fair to single out this celebration since it is mirrored in small measures all across the world.

It seems, however, that the problem we have is not celebrating me, but finding a reason to stop the celebration of self that characterizes our modern day culture. We have so many things to say that we cannot be without cell phone to speak or text what we are doing, how we are feeling, and any other suitable trivia that needs telling. We have a whole pattern of social networking from Facebook and MySpace to twitter in which to post our happenings, our comments, our pictures, our music favs, and every other banal detail of our otherwise ordinary lives. We value privacy yet we seem intent upon exposing ourselves to the scrutiny of the world for every private detail of our lives (from sex to scandal to surgery to the scintillating details of our bowels).

Oh, how out of place Lent is. Think of the architectural perspective of those medieval superstructures created to house the family of God. They were among the largest of buildings ever constructed in their day and still they stand while our modern day steel and glass structures are torn down and rebuilt to new architectural fancy. In Pontiac, Michigan, they sold the Silverdome for $583,000 because nobody wanted this huge icon of another era but when in Paris, who will not make the obligatory trip to Notre Dame to marvel at this icon of another era. These cathedral structures that were designed by anonymous visionaries and built by anonymous artisans were created to make you feel small. The soaring heights and tall steeples, the vast expanse of glass and high arches, the long aisles from entry to altar... all of them to make you feel small.

But we do not want to feel small. We want to be big -- the center of attention. In this respect, Lent is the hardest season of all for us. It is hard to focus our attention off ourselves and on to someone else -- even Jesus. It may seem like a help to get it all out of our system in one big party but binges seldom satisfy our wants and longings enough to prevent further binges. So what then is Shrove Tuesday (or if another ethnic background, Fat Tuesday or Fastnacht).

The word shrove is the past tense of the English verb shrive, which means to obtain absolution for one's sins by way of confession and doing penance. During the week before Lent, sometimes called Shrovetide in English, Christians were expected to go to confession in preparation for the penitential season of turning to God -- hardly the same idea as Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras.

But shrive is exactly what we need to do -- not out of some sense of duty or obligation but out of the sheer delight of a mercy great enough to encompass our sin and a grace strong enough to enter the messy fray of our sinful world, suffer the burden of our fallen estate, and die the death that was ours to die. On Shrove Tuesday, before we enter into the holy season of contemplation of our Savior's Passion, we move aside the ME that gets in the way of THEE -- we do this not by rearranging the furniture but by the thorough cleansing of confession and absolution. Lest we forget to do this on the day before, the Ash Wednesday liturgy begins with this solemn act of penance just before the ashes are marked into our foreheads (but in the sign of a cross).

Reflective of the Enlightenment's love of self no longer consigned to the shadows, stands Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, a book he dedicated “to me, with the admiration I owe myself.” The book opens with these lines: “I have entered upon a performance which is without example, whose accomplishment will have no imitator. I mean to present my fellow-mortals with a man in all the integrity of nature; and this man shall be myself.”

Instead we need to learn from the Psalmist, Not unto us, o Lord, not unto us, but to Your name give glory... or better yet Non nobis domine, domine, non nobis domine, sed nomine, sed nomine tuo da gloriam... Psalm 115:1.