Saturday, April 30, 2011

Low Sunday Thoughts...

The first Sunday after Easter. The origin of the name is uncertain, but it is apparently intended to indicate the contrast between it and the great feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord, immediately preceding, and also, perhaps, to signify that, being the Octave Day of Easter, it was considered part of that feast, though in a lower degree.

The name "Low Sunday" is sometimes said to derive from its relative unimportance compared to the solemnities of Easter Day, but it is possible that "low" is a corruption of the Latin word Laudes, the first word of the Sequence of the day: "Laudes Salvatori voce modulemur supplici" (Let us sing praises to the Savior with humble voice).


Low Sunday refers to the let down relative to the special festivities of Easter and the return to the more ordinary ritual of Sundays in general.  This is, of course, highlighted by the fact that attendance is also much lower.  Easter having been one of the traditional obligatory times for confession and communion, the crowd that once packed the churches for the holy day are now absent and attendance generally returns to its ordinary and routine level of participation of the faithful.

Some would suggest it is low because of the persistent doubting of Thomas who refused the testimony of the rest of the apostles, who was absent when they were present for Jesus' appearance, and who insisted that he must have proof if Jesus.  Surely old doubting Thomas, the regular Gospel lesson for the day, has rightly earned his nickname and his refusal to believe marks a low point among the normally high points in the Gospels for the rest of the season.

In any case, we are almost there! Perhaps all of them contribute to the sense of "low" Sunday.  I have come to see Thomas less in terms of his doubting and more in terms of the problem with his doubts -- he ran from them instead letting them push him into the presence of our Lord (and of His Word and Sacraments and the company of the faithful) where doubts may be answered.  It seems that the same uniformly happens today.  People with doubts and fears about their faith run away from -- rather than to -- Jesus and His Church.  Maybe we could restore the luster and bump up the attendance if we made this the day for all people with doubts and fears to come -- perhaps it might even surpass the Holy Day itself in sheer numbers?!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Dying for a Metaphor...

For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: for peradventure for the good man some one would even dare to die.... so says Romans 5:7.  It might be sarcasm on St. Paul's part -- I am not sure how you take it seriously.  Few people are willing to die for good causes, that is to be sure, but who dies for a metaphor?  There are those who stumble before the great festivals of the Christian faith by distancing the event from its historicity or by turning even the historical event into a metaphor for something else.  Who is willing to die for a metaphor or for an idea that does not intersect with reality or touch reality?

Jesus is not a metaphor for anything.  He is real God in real human flesh and blood.  He is real righteousness who chooses the sacrificial path for the sake of the unrighteous.  He suffers not as an example but in the place of the suffering -- bearing in His body all the pain and guilt of their sin.  He dies not a symbolic death but a real death -- where the breath passed from his body and his lifeless body was placed in the grave where the rest of the dead are also placed.  He rises not in symbolic way or as a metaphor for anything -- He rises to live the life that death can no longer touch and to bestow upon us this life.

As preachers our task is not to deal in metaphors that might apply to our reality but to confront the reality of sin and its death with the reality of Christ and His suffering, death, and resurrection.  No where is this more confused than when the pulpit is used to speak of symbols instead what is real and true.  We do not need a symbolic Savior whose life and death are metaphors for all that is wrong and how to make it right.  We need a Savior who is real -- one whose shoulders are capable of bearing the burden of our sin, whose body will bear the burden of our weakness and death, and whose life steals the thunder from the grave so that we too might live in Him and rise to live with Him for all eternity.

Jesus does not die for an idea but for people with a face, a personality, an identity... for YOU and for me.  Jesus death is not a symbol of love but love at work for us and our salvation.  Our lives in Christ are rooted in His death and resurrection, we share in His suffering as the privilege of belonging to Him, and we rise in Him not for some vague idea of life but for glorious life, wearing glorious flesh and blood....

Well.... rant over... it is just that sometimes you read a bulletin that somebody drops off and what you see about makes you crazy... Not to mention those "scholarly" Bible teachers who attempt to sort out for us fact from fiction in the Scriptures -- and then act as if it does not matter to the message that we know little of Jesus or that the Scriptures have either distorted or obliterated the truth to present us a Gospel foreign to Jesus and alien to Jesus' self-understanding.  If I hear Bart Ehrman's name one more time or read a quote from him (in a bulletin of a so-called Christian congregation), I think I just might explode -- oops, oh, sorry, that was merely a metaphor to speak to the strong distaste I have for him.... Sadly, the ordinary Sunday School child has a more informed understanding of Scripture and Jesus Christ than this fellow...

Thursday, April 28, 2011

His Last Lecture but He Will Always Be a Teacher

The Rev. Dr. Paul Maier, son of the iconic Lutheran radio preacher and Seminary professor, Walter A. Maier, has, in many ways, eclipsed his own father's success.  Not that it was his intention!  His tenure at Western Michigan University will probably never be matched.  His esteem in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod extends to nearly all quarters of the Pastors and people of this church body that has elected him to the presidium for many years.  His skill as a teacher is legendary and has been known well here at Grace where has has taught and preached 5 times over the last ten years.  Most of all, he is such an engaging and warm personality whose genuine love for the Church, whose vast knowledge of history and archeology, and whose skill at communicating what he knows have and continue to be one of our church's crown jewels.  He has retired from WMU where he has taught since the 1960-1961 school year.

To read more, click the Detroit Free Press.  Blessings to you Paul, our friend and teacher always!!

I am a monarchist....

While it is hard to label my politics, the truth is I find democracy extremely messy and inefficient.  In my heart of hearts, I am a monarchist.  I long for the wise and faithful rule of a benevolent king or queen (but I would settle for another Duke like Frederick the Wise).  There are so many deep and pressing problems that face us -- as they have for many, many years -- and I often find myself perplexed at what is the best course.  Quite frequently, the course which I believe to be best is one voiced by none of the political parties or popular movements in our land.  I also begin to glaze over at the prospect of another Presidential race already begun and the hint of a billion dollar campaign.  I am not sure I can stomach it all -- two years of non-stop electioneering.  Ugh.  It seems to me that the Presidents we have loved most hardly campaigned and were more or less crowned at their inaugurations (for more liberal folks, FDR, and for conservatives, Ronald Reagan).  It seems also that the ones who fought the hardest and closest battles for the White House have the most tumultuous tenure there.  But what do I know.

I think that most Christians are at heart monarchists.  We live under the reign of an amazingly beneficent and gracious God whom we call both King and Lord.  What a comfort to know that our wise and loving God has a good and gracious will that is eternally disposed to us in Christ.  What a blessing to know that in the midst of things we cannot understand and through which we cannot find our way, our Lord sees, knows, leads, and guides us.  In this respect, it would be wonderful to have such a monarch on a throne who emulates even some of the Creator and Redeemer's most blessed characteristics and traits.  We could turn our attention to the things directly within our purview and leave the governing to the wise and benevolent divinely appointed ruler.  Ahhhh, I like the sound of that.

Alas, the problem is that monarchs are a mixed bag and many of them, perhaps even most of them, are not the shining stars that hide in my imagination.  Even in the history of Israel we remember only a handful of the better kings, even with their faults, failings, and foibles, and have largely forgotten the rest of them (for good reason).  So, maybe we would not be better off in practical terms.  But theoretically it would be good (complete with an established church... well, there are pitfalls to that, too, but that just slipped out).

So I guess you know what I will be watching on Friday when the heir we all hope to succeed Her Highness Elizabeth II marries (prayerfully for love and with deep commitment), Miss Middleton.  If nothing else, you simply must watch with me the pageantry of the marriage service and its attendant pomp and circumstance.  For no one does it better than the Brits!  And it has been years since the world gathered with them in one of Britain's largest cathedrals to celebrate the future of a monarchy now more tourist show than real ruling power.  Ahhh, another problem with monarchs today -- few of them do much but show off for the benefit of their people.  Then again, how is that different from many of our politicians?????

What is left to pass on?

In First Corinthians we hear a solemn and serious St. Paul describe the chain of custody with respect to the Lord's Supper.  "That which I received from the Lord, I passed on to you..."  This is legal language which brings with it the idea that what St. Paul received was not his to own or change but only His to use and bequeath to those who are planted in faith by the Spirit.  Now St. Paul also speaks somberly about departing from the sacred deposit.  2 Thes. 3:6 (ESV)  Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.  Twice he charges the young Pastor Timothy about guarding and protecting this sacred tradition. 1 Tim. 6:20 (ESV)  O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called "knowledge,"  . . . 2 Tim. 1:14 (ESV)  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

It is clear from both of these that this tradition or sacred deposit is both doctrinal and liturgical.  On on hand it refers to the teaching of Jesus, contained within the Scriptures and including the Scriptures that point to Christ (Old Testament).  This is the "apostles teaching" of Acts 2 and yet, like Acts 2, it is not propositional truth but efficacious Word that calls into being the fellowship, empowers the prayerful assembly, and provides the context for the liturgical expression of this doctrinal content in the Eucharist (the Breaking of the Bread).  We have spent a good deal of time in modern Christianity, and among many in Lutheranism, trying to separate the doctrinal truth from its liturgical expression (the so-called style vs substance debate).  You find no hint of this in St. Paul or in the practice of the Church (both in Scripture and in the evidence of early church history).

So, fast forward to 2011, and let us survey the situation among us.  What is it that St. Paul would have us pass on?  What is the sacred deposit or tradition that we must guard from the irreverent babble of modern spirituality?  If we separate style from substance, we pass only part of what St. Paul speaks of.  If we would divorce doctrinal truth from its liturgical expression, when we pass on intellectual content that has no recognizable practice (speaking one thing and doing another).

I have become more and more concerned that the way we treat the outward expression of the doctrinal truth is handicapping the future generations of Lutheran Christians.  They end up not really knowing who they are, or, knowing in theory what they believe but without a clear and consistent idea of how that truth calls into being or is expression by the assembly that is the Church.  It seems to me that when we divorce the two from their divinely intended marriage, we end up with much less than half the equation that St. Paul seems to think is the God intended fullness -- both mandated and essential to the faith and life of the Church and those within her gates.

What do we have to pass on if the creeds cease to be part of the vocabulary, memory, and liturgical language of the Church?  This is the crisis of catechesis in which personal authority determines truth vs the Spirit who teaches us to believe, teach, and confess that teaching of Jesus and Scripture.  What do we have to pass on if the Confessions are merely truth statements and not the language which both defines and guides us as a Church both in witness and in worship?  I am more and more of the opinion that the Reformation was both a liturgical movement as well as a reform movement seeking to restore the Gospel to its primacy within the Church.  I am amazed that the more I read the Lutheran Confessions, the more I see in them liturgical identity, liturgical formulation, and concern for how the practice of the Church is defined by her doctrine and faith.

What do we have to pass on if the liturgy has become a free for all of change, contradiction, and personal whim or taste?  When we fail to teach the church's song to those who come after us, we give them a present without a past and we distort what they have to pass on to those who come after them.  When their faith lacks a common liturgical expression, they are left victims or orphans amid the pendulum swings of piety and the sweep of liturgical and non-liturgical worship settings and forms.  It would be like leaving our children with an idea of Christmas but without the familiar rituals and practices that shape the celebration of this holy day and holiday.  It would be like passing down grandma's jewelry boxes but without the actual pearls and precious gems to wear.  It would be like talking about fireworks but never looking up into the night sky and seeing them explode on the Fourth of July.  The Christian faith is not an idea or even an ideology.  It is doctrine and its liturgical expression in which and through which Christ is present to bestow the gifts of His promise and the graces won by His suffering and death and rising again.

It seems to me that St. Paul's words about the tradition and sacred deposit received and passed on require us to connect both doctrine and its liturgical expression (style and substance) or else we have failed to pass on anything remotely resembling what the Lord gave to His Church.  It is our responsibility to both guard against losing the truth and the means of grace AND to be faithful in our witness to Christ and it is no less than St. Paul who connects the two:  As often as we eat of this bread and drink of this cup, we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Doctrine of Vocation

The doctrine of vocation puts these things in their proper order. Our efforts are always in view of who we are in Christ, forgiven and saved ones, who share their God-given gifts with their neighbor....

That one sentence pulled from a very good Lutheran Witness article (check the widgit) is as powerful a sentence as I have read on the baptismal vocation that belongs to us as Christians.  The article was written about so called "Tiger Moms" and the great issues facing parents today (as always).  In the end the author challenges moms to teach as highest priority this sense of vocation and calling in which order shapes us and directs us -- an order not born of legalistic demand but of the new birth of baptism and our identity in Christ.  Who we are in Christ as the forgiven and redeemed, sinners and saints, is where our self-esteem is born, where our lives get their direction, and where discover our purpose and place in this great big world.

Sadly, we frame too much in legalistic terms -- forbidden and commanded -- when we should be seeing our lives in very different terms -- vocation and calling.  We do not "choose" this vocation but it is gifted to us before we even understand or appreciate its grace and blessing.  The vocation chooses us and our whole lives are lived in response to this chosen-ness.  Piety is not the exchange of one set of rules for another but the freedom for that which was impossible to us before Christ set us free.  As part of the fruit of our redemption, we find our place then within God's creation, we learn to be reconciled to our place as creators whose gift and calling it is to serve the God who served us in Christ.  Sin is not merely the breaking of a rule or law God set down but the idolatry which claims God's place for ourselves and therefore casts aside what is good and right and true to pursue what is right in our own eyes.  Redemption then is being restored to our place before God and within His created order AND the gift of place and standing in that new creation borne of Jesus' death and resurrection.  For now and for all eternity we learn contentment and peace in the place that God has prepared for us.

When parents impart this to their children, they give them a rich and blessed gift, indeed.  If we give them all the right things, care for their mortal bodies, see them achieve success on the athletic field or in the academic arena, and bestow upon them every techno toy that can be hand, we will still fail them as parents.  For the most important calling of parents is to impart to their children a sense of who they are and what they are to be and do -- a baptismal identity and vocation that serves them not merely for a moment but for all eternity.  This is the greatest measure of parental success and achievement.  True enough that no one can guarantee that the child will remain on this path but at least if they depart from it, they will know what they have and be able to return to it.  Ultimately, this is the place of life long repentance and faith -- the daily restoration to us of our identity and vocation as the children of God by baptism and faith.  What sin takes from us, what we surrender to our whims of desire and will, and all that temptation does to cause us to fall, these are restored to us when confession and absolution reclaims us by grace.

In the end it is not simply the vocation of father and mother which imparts this sense of identity and vocation to our children.  It is the very purpose and reason for the church's educational and catechetical ministry.  Unlike those who would see these as directed to individual confession (are you saved?), it is our goal to help the baptized seen themselves in the context of the Church.  It for this identity that we are placed within the family of God, that we share the common calling of the baptized to worship, prayer, witness, mercy and service, and that we participate in the liturgical life which is both source and summit of our individual lives and piety.  Ours is not some solitary "me and Jesus" role in the world but a sense of our place within the order of God's creation and within the community of the redeemed.  Who we are and what we do is not simply personal or individual but in common with the rest of the saints on earth and the vocation that is shared by all those who are baptized into Christ's death and resurrection.

In the end this both moves us to the font, pulpit, and table and moves us from the font, pulpit, and table and into the world as the servants of Christ whose witness is not simply words but the actions of love, mercy, and compassion that extend to our neighbors what God has given to us in Christ.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

New Look... Added Content Worth a Look

I am not the first to note but as much as I criticize I thought it would be good to give kudos where deserved.  Clearly the liturgy section of the new LCMS website is a powerful signal for our Church.  To see the web site itself, go to but I would rather you start with this page.  Improvements are not limited to style but also to substance -- is it perfect?  No, of course not.  There are still things there I am not fond of but this is a beginning. 

Take a gander...

Until its gone...

You have greater appreciation for what you have lost, even if it wasn’t perfect, after you don’t have it anymore. (Like Joni Mitchell said:  Now don't it always seem to go That you don't know what you got till it's gone...)  More and more I have come to appreciate this wisdom and to see its pastoral application.

Its truth has been applied to an adult woman burying her elderly mother and father and still feeling the pain... or a single person still reeling from a separation and divorce that was forced upon them by an unrelenting and dissatisfied spouse... or a man wrestling with self-esteem and purpose after being let go from his job and finding another is easier to say than to do... or a child leaving home and then wondering if they might come back home "for a while..."   Or, a thousand other applications...

It is also true of institutions and communities -- like the Church. We spent years thinking the Common Service (1888) was in dire need of an update but little did we know that a little more than 100 years later there would be no common service even for congregations in the same Synod, using the same hymnal.  We decided to go for a common Lutheran hymnal in 1965 and 13 years later LBW was published and it was no common hymnal.  In fact, the divergent courses of the Lutheran bodies that once seemed generally headed the same direction  have resulted in very different paths and books.

We spent a good deal of time arguing with folks in the General Council and the various individual Synods only now to lament that the groups which were so close did not explore more seriously this unity.  Now we find ourselves with a hemoraging ELCA, a stagnant LCMS, an isolated WELS, and a host of new acronymns waiting in the wings.  What might have happened if the Krauths and Walthers had sat down over a beer and worked out their differences?  Alas, we will never know and the distance between us as Lutherans continues to grow.

Lutherans were once THE musical church with the likes of Buxtehude, Bach, Walther, Brahms, Schuetz, and a host of other equally distinguished cantors, composers, organists, etc.  Then we began building churches with no room or no budget for decent pipe organs and now a good many Lutheran congregations cannot even play the music of Bach and the Lutheran parish musicians.  Worse than this, we are closing down church music programs at our Concordias and we cannot even find an organist when we look for one.  We did not realize that we were sowing the seeds of our own musical demise; perhaps now it is too late to reclaim the title the "Church of Bach."

Our history gave birth to the consumate hymn -- the Lutheran chorale -- and a long list of fine hymn writers and composers of hymn tunes was our heritage.  Now it seems that the only new hymns we introduce are the ones we learn from the contemporary worship venues of other denominations or no denominations.  The sung liturgy was once a given among Lutherans and now it seems that some Lutherans are saying our future lies with spectator music led by praise bands and soloists.  What we lost was more than a hymn here and there but a whole theology of hymnody and church music.

We were once THE confessional church with more than the historical documents of confession.  We not only continued to believe what we confessed, but we taught it with enthusiasm and we normed our practice and shaped our identity from those confessions.  We are still confessional in terms of our history, we still claim to believe, teach, and practice the faith in a manner consistent with those historical documents, but in actuality we don't.  We either expand the definition of confessional or else we reduce confessionalism to a gospel principle that pretty much allows us to do what we want and to justify doing what we want.  Confessional doctrine and practice were once rather narrowly defined and clear and now they are rather broadly outlined and somewhat muddy in the specifics.

We are close enough to what we lost that we might reclaim it still.  The question is not "can we" but "do we want to..."  We are able -- it is within the realm of possibility -- but there seems to be a significant number of us Lutherans not so sure it is worth the time and effort.  In fact we have borrowed so much from so many that our whole idea of Lutheranism is a rather mixed bag (in congregation, circuit, district and synod).  The Lutheran way has become a by-law and constitutional discussion instead of what we believe, teach, and confess.  But... you don't realize what you have lost, until it is gone... 

I was always told that it is easy to criticize, tear down, and destroy but it is a difficult thing to act, build, and expand.  Nowhere is this more evident that the increasing number of Lutheran parishes that are shadows of their former selves.  Some years of inattention, some years of bitter conflict, some years of pastoral indifference, and what you are left with?  More of a past than a future.

I believe that we have the time and even some of the momentum to reclaim our heritage and honor its witness.  It is not too late.  I do not want simply to criticize and yet the first step in reclaiming our heritage  is to acknowledge what we have lost if we hope to gain any of it back (or even build upon it).  Speaking personally, I admit that I have learned by experience that it is ever so easy to stop things and ever so difficult to begin them again.  So, before it is too late, I hope and pray we will acknowledge what we have lost.  I think we need to make sure that we lose no more.  And, I hope and pray that we will stick it out and give our utmost for His highest... starting now.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Listen to the Angels at the Tomb

One of the Easter Sermons, Preached on the Resurrection of our Lord, Sunday, April 24, 2011.

Christ is Risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  Alleluia!

    Four months ago we gathered here for the feast of the Nativity, commonly called Christmas.  We came to set aside all the competing voices that fight for our attention in order to hear again the voice of the angels: "Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth."  Amid the hustle and bustle of our busy lives and with all the competing visions of Christmas, it was hard to single out the angels' voices.  One Christmas carol pointedly asks, “Do you hear what I hear?”  Four months to the day we are back here again for one of the biggest of the Church festivals, only to have me ask you again, “Have you heard the voice of the angels?”
    As we come here for the great feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, we admit our lives have not gotten any easier nor have the voices competing for our attention diminished in any way.  If anything, the clamor for our attention has only gotten worse.   We are torn by the various voices – whom do we hear?  It could be the call of the moment which invites us to forget eternity or the call to self which tells us to judge all things by our own reason and senses or it could be the call of the spiritual mediums of our age who fascinate us with spirit messages and beings.
    Today I call upon you to listen to the angels we heard speak in the Gospel lesson.  The voice of the angels points us beyond our fears, past our doubts, past the sins that condemn us, through the dark shadow of death, and directly to Jesus' resurrection – the key to our own resurrection and the freedom live this life without fear.  The resurrection is not merely an historical even but the pledge and promise of our own resurrection, of the end of sin's dominion over us, of our victory over death and the grave, and of a new way of living that is not dominated by fears, anxieties, upsets, and empty promises.  There are many voices competing for our attention but Christ’s is the only Word of truth that offers real hope.
    It is all in who you listen to...  Your mind and your reason will tell you today is about dreams -- not about something factual or real.  Reason tells that the dead do not come back to life, that the grave IS the end, that there is anything sure or real beyond what you can hold in your hand right now.
    Who among  us has ever seen somebody die, be laid in the tomb three days, and then rise again?  Reason tells you, okay, if it makes you feel better, well go ahead and dream – but dreams are not true.  It makes me feel better to think I am tall and thin but it doesn't make it so.  Reason says, it is a relatively harmless lie and if it helps you in some way, go ahead, believe it... just don't take it too seriously... don't forget it is just a dream... you can dream the dream --just don’t forget to live all you can live today and fill your earthly lives with as much living as you can.
    Your senses tell you they know what is real and what is not.  Your senses cry out for proof – like the folks from Missouri “Show me!"  Like Mary Magdalene at the tomb, we search for evidence, for secret wisdom, for real proof to answer the nagging doubts and fears that plague our lives.  At the very same time, we are fearful of believing in something we cannot see, recognize, and prove.  We have been disappointed too many times.  So some of us ask for proof that Easter’s promises are real.  I am convinced this is why we are so enamored of the accounts of people's near death experiences – the white light or shimmering images at the end of the darkness.  We want something there to hold on to, some proof that takes the risk out of believing.  Don't believe what you cannot prove – that is what our senses tell us.
    The spiritual gurus of our modern age tell you "it doesn't matter if it is true or not."  Faith is not about fact but about symbols or spirit worlds and spirit beings.  It does not matter if Jesus’ body were still there in the tomb – His spirit lives and that is what we hope for.  Death is a spiritual liberation from the burden of the material.  But we know death is real and what we want and need is not some spiritualized life but real life.  Too many have spiritualized Easter into a day long on words and short on facts – as if the idea of Jesus were better than the reality of Jesus.
    The angels at the tomb speak directly to our fears and address all the competing voices.  "Do not be afraid," they say.  They know how much of our lives are shaped by our fears – fears of living and fears of dying.  The angels speak to us the word that ends those fears. The angels tell us not to let your fears define you but to let the cross and empty tomb define You, to let the Lord of life and death shape who you are and how you see your life.
    The angels at the tomb spoke the Gospel:  "Jesus who was crucified is not here but he has risen just as he said."  The voice that we need to hear the one who speaks forgiveness to our guilty consciences and life to lives lived in death’s shadow.  Only Jesus is that voice.  Only Jesus has borne in His flesh all that debt our sins accrued.  Only Jesus has laid in the coldness of death and the grave and now lives – the Lord of life and of death. This is the Gospel – that Jesus suffered for our sins, died our death on the cross and rose from the dead and death has no more power over him.  If you want this life, the only word that speaks it is the word of Christ.
    The angels did not hide anything.  They did not push people from the grave but invited them to come and see.  Facts are not the enemies of our faith but our friends.  "Come and see...where he lay..."  Ours is not a fairy tale faith of "what if" or "what might be" but the "because faith" of witnesses who saw Him risen and the Christ who proved Himself truthful.  If Jesus did not rise, then we will not rise.  If we will not rise then reason, senses, and the spirituality guru's have it right – this life is all you have and then the grave will claim you.  If this is what you believe, then why are you here.  You better not waste any moment trying to cram all the living you can into these days.  But Christ offers you much, much more.  His is no spiritualized resurrection for a spiritualized Gospel but a real death and a real grave and a real life stronger than death and triumphant over the grave.  Only this Word offers hope to those still living in the shadow of death.
    Jesus death was real – as real as death can be – and worse than any death we might experience.  His death was real with sin and suffering, blood and agony, and brutal pain.  As real as was His death, so real is His resurrection and life.  Easter is not the fairy tale happily ever after ending to a tragic story but the God who tastes the bitter reality of our death so that we know the sweet gift of His life.  This is the Gospel.  This is what claimed us in our baptism.  This is what we confess.  Today we shut our ears to the competing voices, distractions, and doubts.
    Today we stand before our Lord, listen to the angels, to the living voice of His Word, to the testimony of those who saw Jesus risen... Listen to Mary Magdalene who melted when the Risen Jesus called her name.  Listen to Peter whose guilty heart was set free when he heard that Christ was no longer dead.  Listen to the voices of those who saw Him and touched Him – not a ghost or spirit but a glorious body that holds in it the hope of our own life over death, our own joyful resurrection, our own new bodies.   Listen and believe....   Believe and live...  Live and proclaim...  Your sins died with Him on the cross and Your hope is born by His resurrection from the dead – He is who He claims to be and had done what He promised.  The voice of this Gospel is the most sure and certain voice of all.  Amen.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!  Alleluia!  Amen!

Great Frustrations... and some very little ones

It decided to rain like it was time to float the ark and Sunday morning was awash with wind driven and pouring storms -- so much so that gutters and catch basins were completely overwhelmed. On one wall of the Nave the wind had driven the water between the gutter and the roof and we had an unplanned water feature on the wall that holds the Stations of the Cross.  Some quick thinking folks took down the stations... Now, one more building issue to deal with...

Coordinating with the acolytes all the special items for the Easter services (Gospel procession, continuous distribution, Paschal Candle placement, etc.) was and always is a chore.  But, given all the limitations of their experience, they did very well and in nearly every case served with pious humility.  Perhaps we need to have more Gospel processions and the like just to make sure everyone gets what is going on...

I could say the same for the ushers who are not always sure what is going on but, generally speaking, have moved with the flow and caught on in time.  Every year I think we need more rehearsal and every year the time of Holy Week becomes too short to fit one more thing in... Oh, well, something for NEXT YEAR...

Our Cantor worked himself into a zombie between all the services, choir (singing Widor and Handel), rehearsing the brass, working with soloists, and still managing to shape each Easter hymn with diverse accompaniments that encouraged our voices to sing even more the praise of Him who died and now is alive.  I always regret that he has to work this hard (but, like me, it goes with the job/vocation).  I am so privileged to have him as a partner in this endeavor.

Now for the big frustrations...

I had several calls from Lutherans not from our immediate community.  They asked about service times and then, nervously, asked if we did anything unusual or, well, different on Easter.  Now here is the frustration.  On the one hand some said that they have been to Lutheran services on Easter and if you had not looked at your calendar, you would never know it was Easter by what took place in the Divine Service.  This is a problem.  The whole nature of the Church Year and the liturgical options is to provide a platform where the Divine Service and the Services of Holy Week are both peculiar to their day while at the same time sharing in common the structure of every Sunday liturgy.  Often it is just plain laziness on the part of the Pastor that he fails to note these options and these changes in rubric and form.  That is inexcusable.

The others were wondering something very different.  They wanted a liturgical service that was consistent with our Lutheran confession and identity and what they often got was pure strangeness and novelty for the sake of novelty.  Examples.  One family asked if I used visual aids?  What?  Well, it turns out that their Pastor had used a cooler full of fruit and a smoothie machine/blender in his Easter sermon a few years ago and ever since they had abandoned their own parish to visit a more, well, traditional one on Easter.  Another mentioned that they had come into the Nave on Easter only to find helium balloons tied to every pew end, to the chancel furniture, and streamers such as you might find at a Junior High dance.  Another mentioned how they had a "warm up" band that led "songs" for about 30 minutes, then a drama, another 15 minutes of music for the spectators, a Bible study (their term for what was the sermon), and a role play of how you might speak of the resurrection to someone who did not believe, and then they went home.  Now these happened in LCMS congregations.

Okay, so if you must do something weird, just don't do it on Easter or Christmas.  I know that there are the crowds you don't have at other Sundays but give some respect to the day and the message and think about those whom God has entrusted to your care.  They deserve more than cute or novelty -- they deserve the best liturgical practice and homiletical prowess a Pastor and the parish can muster.  It does not have to mimic a cathedral but it does need to be real and authentic to who we are as Lutheran Christians.  I just don't get the fascination with the cutsie stuff that some seem to love.  The more I listen, the more I hear people in the pew say they don't get it either.  We have a family moving to Wisconsin (job transfer) and one of the things they said they will look for is a home congregation in which the liturgy is honored, the Sacrament is weekly, and the sermon is passionately preached and faithful in its content.  As hard as it is for me to say this, that should be the minimum of all Lutheran Pastors and every Lutheran parish... but it is more the rarity than the norm.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Χριστός ἀνέστη!

Christ Is Risen!  He Is Risen Indeed!  Alleluia!  Alleluia!

For two thousand years we have shouted these words, sung them loud, and cherished their gift and blessing.  As we gather one more year to hear the ancient story which is always new, let us not waver in voice nor grow weary in singing.  Let us carry forth in our bodies the resurrection of Christ just as we carry forth His death.  Let us show forth His life to a world still clinging to the shadows of darkness and death.  Let us find comfort and consolation in the promise of the empty tomb.  Let us find courage and boldness in the witnesses who saw Him and the disciples who ate with Him after His resurrection.  Let us rejoice in the hope that is ours as gift full and free, but the most costly treasure ever known.  For we are an Easter people, a people marked by the life of Christ in us, so that we shall not die, but live, now and forevermore.  The ancient song for a time laid aside is ours now again.  Alleluia!  Alleluia!  Alleluia!

Christ Is Risen!  He Is Risen Indeed!  Alleluia!  Alleluia!

A blessed and wonderful celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord to you and to all your family!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Biggest Laugh of Holy Week

As I was preparing for our Easter Vigil, a representative of the Orthodox Mission borrowing our Chapel for their Vespers of Lent and the Great Pascha liturgy, came up to speak to me.  He asked if anyone from our Church would be here and would be interrupted at midnight when their service would hit high gear.  I stared at him.  I almost broke out in laughter.  Lutherans in Church from 11 pm to 1-2 am?????   But I bit my lip and laughed only on the inside.  "No, our vigil will, sad to say, be over long before then..."

Hmmmmm.  He left me with much to think about and not a little to snicker at.... Imagine if we had the Vigil at 11 pm and went into the early morning hours.... Ahhhh... but it would never happen...  Even a zealot Lutheran like me likes his sleep.  Plus we do not have the luxury of having only one mass on one altar (as the Orthodox do).  Instead I will begin again with the first of three Easter masses at 7 am, the next at 9 am, and the final at 10:45 am.... and if I can, I might squeeze some egg casserole and a muffin or bagel and some fruit in after the 7 am mass...  But, truth to the be told, even I am kinda relieved that Lutherans are long in bed by the time the Orthodox just get going... Perhaps in another time I might harken back to the Orthodox celebration, the three times around the Church at midnight shouting "Χριστός ἀνέστη!" (as I did a couple of years in college), the blessing of Easter food, and other delights from the East... but not this year.

One simple word Isaiah speak.... Surely!

Sermon Preached Good Friday Evening, on Friday, April 22, 2011.

      Surely... we say... when we think it cannot cost that much?  Or surely they were not offended by what I said?  Or, surely they don’t expect me to do that alone?  For us that word has come to mean something unbelievable or something beyond the ordinary.  But that is not how Isaiah used that word.  For Isaiah “surely” does not stretch the imagination but confirms what is truest of all.
    Surely He has borne our griefs....   The grief that kills us with guilt... the grief of death that steals away our lives... Surely, truly, verily, He has borne these griefs for us...  These and every grief that afflicts our souls, He has borne for us on the cross.   Surely He has carried our sorrows... The sorrows that come from regrets over things we cannot redo, or words that cannot be recalled, or loss that cannot be restored.... Surely, truly, verily, He has carried these and every sorrow that afflicts us... Every tear that flows from our eyes and every broken heart we have known He has carried to the cross.
    Surely He was stricken, smitten, and afflicted...  His was a real death – from the pounding of the nails to the shedding of blood to the suffering beyond all knowing.... Surely, truly, verily... But Jesus is no martyr.  He is not some true believer who valiantly dies for a noble cause.  Jesus knew full well what awaiting Him on the cross.  He walked the walk to Calvary not compelled by anything or out of any other duty except love for YOU and me.  Yet He was stricken, smitten, and afflicted – not by God – but by you and by me.  It was our sins, our transgressions, our iniquities, our flaws, our failings...  These were what caused His suffering.  And He went there full knowing the burden He must bear and the cost He must pay in order to love us.
    Surely He has won for us peace.  The end of all sighing.  The end of all fears.  The end of all doubts.  The end of all uncertainties.  Every disappointment and trouble that stirs our souls to despair and upset.  All these He has borne for us and in exchange He gives us peace.  He gives us the end of our lives to see through His obedient suffering and life giving death.  Our future was written in His blood and that future is peace... and hope...
    Surely, truly, verily.... our sins are forgiven.  Not shrugged off, not minimized, not excused, but forgiven and buried with Jesus in that grave.  The terrible, hidden, and destructive sins that we fear most of all, these He bore for us on the cross and now we are forgiven.  Surely, truly, verily... the death that cast its shadow over us since Eden has been overcome. We will NOT die the death He died.  It does not matter how awful or terrible the death is that claims us on earth – it is not the fearful death of the Father who turned away, of the sins of a world nailed to a cross, or of hell answered with the healing balm of saving blood shed.  What we call death is but a gateway, a door, a portal to the life that Jesus prepared for us.  Jesus died the real death that none of us could face... So that we can say it is not death to die...
    Surely He has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; He was stricken smitten and afflicted and He has won for us peace....  That is why we are here.  We are not here for some dramatic account or some interesting tale or  some inspirational story... we are here because here is where the end met its end and our lives found their new beginning.  Here griefs found comfort, here sorrows found holy joy, here a Savior sacrificed all out of love for you and me... to give meaning and value to our own lives...  Here is peace... peace that passes understanding... peace not as the world gives... peace beyond a pause in hostilities... but perfect peace.
    Surely, truly, verily... without doubt... that is the message of the cross.  Blood was shed, obedience was offered, life was exchanged in death.... it is finished... that we might begin...  It is finished that we might begin...  To live surely, truly, and verily... in honesty and truth, with love and compassion, with confidence and a future, with rest for our weary hearts, and with the promise of God to hold on to.... It is finished.... that our future might begin.  Amen

The Real Comfort Food

Sermon for Holy Thursday A, preaching on Thursday, April 21, 2011.

     There are those who suggest that the surest way to get people to come to Church is to feed them.  Judging from how long food lasts on the pot luck table, it just may be true.  But this association of food and faith is not the invention of Lutherans or any other kind of Christians.  Food and fellowship are all over the Bible.  God is no spiritualize being who inhabits dreams and feelings but the concrete God of the meal – who sets the table in the presence of our enemies, who invites the guests –and when they do not come He comes up with a new guest list, who dresses the bidden in their wedding garments, and who feeds them the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.
    Our God is the God of bread and wine, of grace that has the power to deliver that which it promises, of food that satisfies us, of drink that quenches our thirst, and of real flesh and real blood that is food of eternal life.
    In Exodus we heard how Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of the elders went up the mountain of the Lord – they beheld God, they ate, and they drank.  They should have died immediately upon seeing God.  In the past the most people saw of God was His shadow or His backside.  It was too scary to behold God's presence.  But they did not die.  Not only did they not die, they feasted upon the good God gave to them.  In His presence was food to nourish and strengthen them for their service and vocation to Him.
    In Hebrews we heard of the blood of the covenant and how this blood was both the seal of the covenant God made with His people and the passover gift that sheltered them from the angel of death and the visitation of God's wrath.  The children of God who walked at God's bidding through the Red Sea were called by God to remember His deliverance by eating and drinking.      By this annual ritual of food blessed and broken and eaten together, the generations to follow them were made part of this exodus and stood under the banner of the blood that saved them from death.  They met to remember and to recall what God had done for them.  By this eating and drinking their past was incorporated into their future.
    And then Jesus gathered His disciples in an upper room to eat again.  And while they were eating took bread, gave thanks, and broke it, giving it to them saying, "This is My body given for you."  And then the cup, His cup, giving thanks and giving it to them to drink, "This is My blood shed for you. Do this in remembrance of Me..."  A mountain meal revisited, a passover meal fulfilled, and the down payment or foretaste of that which is to come.
    We are a eucharistic people – people of God's meal.  We come not because we like it or think it neat or find meaning here.  We come because Jesus bids us come.  We come because this is where Christ is, where He shows Himself and gives Himself.  The Sacrament is no add on to supplement the sermon but the high point of or mountain top of our worship.  It is here where we as the Church, the body of Christ, receive the body of Christ, the bread, blessed and broken.
    We come here because it is the fulfillment of every meal of the past, of every time God fed His people.  We come here because it is the agent and means through which Calvary's gift and the blessing of the empty tomb are given to us.  We come here because here is the down payment of heaven, the taste of the future that God has prepared for us.
    We teach our children wrong when we tell them God is up there or in here.  That is not to say God is not in those places but we need more than a hint of God in nature or feeling of God in our hearts. We need a concrete God.  We need a God who can be tasted and eaten and drunk.  We need a God who is as real as this food is real and this drink is real.  We do not need a God to imagine but a God who gives us grace hidden in bread and wine, who connects us to a past, who is present in our todays, and who prepares a future that is glimpsed right in this meal.
    Every now and then you need some comfort food.  Growing up that was pork cutlets in rich gravy and mashed potatoes, meat loaf and baked potatoes, fried chicken... The foods change from region to region.  Some of you might think lutefisk is comfort food.  The rest of you might think more toward Paula Deen.  Well, friends, this is our comfort food of faith – the comfort of sins forgiven, of lives restored, of heaven bestowed, of body hidden in bread and blood hidden in wine, so that we receive Christ, we dwell in Him and He in us...  Real food for real people with real hunger and thirst that can only be satisfied by Christ.  Amen.

Why is this night different from all other nights?

So the question goes from the youngest of those gathered to begin the Passover.  It might well be the question that begins the Easter Vigil.  On the night before Easter, the Church gathers for worship in anticipation of the dawn of Easter Day, the chief festival of the Church. God’s mighty deliverance of His people in the Old Testament is recalled as we look forward to God’s deliverance of His people through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Though the re-introduction of the celebration of the Easter Vigil in American Lutheranism is rather recent, the Easter Vigil is an ancient service of the Church and adds great depth to the central themes and celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Selected portions of the Easter Vigil go back to the very first centuries of the Church. The current order for the Easter Vigil combines various traditions from various portions of the Church’s history.  In some times in the history of the Church, the Easter Vigil was an all-night event, anticipating the dawn of Easter morning. It was the time when new converts completed their period of catechesis and were baptized into the Church.

The vigil consists of prayer, psalms and hymns, and readings, especially from the Old Testament, culminating
in the celebration of the resurrection at dawn with the Lord’s Supper. As the Church gathers in vigil, she waits in hopeful expectation for the appearance of the resurrected Christ in those most recently born in Him, the newly baptized. During the vigil, those who had prepared throughout Lent to be joined to Christ are baptized. At the dawn of the new day of Easter, the newly baptized take their place with the entire Church in the chorus of alleluias at Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

This year our Vigil will see an infant, a toddler, and a teenager baptized into Christ, making their journey on the ark, passing through the Red Sea, and being born again of water and the Word.  Of all the services of Easter that are loved, this is the service I love the most.  It is the great Vigil that ushers in the first alleluia, the first light, and the first holy joy of Easter morning... 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Thy Savior yields His breath...

"Upon the Cross Extended"    by Paul Gerhardt, 1607-1676

1. Upon the cross extended,
See, world, thy Lord suspended,
Thy Savior yields His breath.
The Prince of Life from heaven
Himself hath freely given
To shame and blows and bitter death.

2. Come hither now and ponder,
'Twill fill thy soul with wonder,
Blood streams from every pore.
Through grief whose depth none knoweth,
From His great heart there floweth
Sigh after sigh of anguish o'er.

3. Who is it that hath bruised Thee?
Who hath so sore abused Thee
And caused Thee all Thy woe?
While we must make confession
Of sin and dire transgression,
Thou deeds of evil dost not know.

4. I caused Thy grief and sighing
By evils multiplying
As countless as the sands.
I caused the woes unnumbered
With which Thy soul is cumbered,
Thy sorrows raised by wicked hands.

5. 'Tis I who should be smitten
My doom should here be written:
Bound hand and foot in hell.
The fetters and the scourging,
The floods around Thee surging,
'Tis I who have deserved them well.

6. The load Thou takest on Thee,
That pressed so sorely on me,
t crushed me to the ground.
The cross for me enduring,
The crown for me securing,
My healing in Thy wounds is found.

7. A crown of thorns Thou wearest,
My shame and scorn Thou bearest,
That I might ransomed be.
My Bondsman, ever willing,
My place with patience filling,
From sin and guilt hast made me free.

8. Thy cords of love, my Savior,
Bind me to Thee forever,
I am no longer mine.
To Thee I gladly tender
All that my life can render
And all I have to Thee resign.

9. Thy cross I'll place before me,
Its saving power be o'er me,
Wherever I may be;
Thine innocence revealing,
Thy love and mercy sealing,
The pledge of truth and constancy.

10. How God at our transgression
To anger gives expression,
How loud His thunder rolls,
How fearfully He smiteth,
How sorely He requiteth,-
All this Thy sufferings teach my soul.

11. When evil men revile me,
With wicked tongues defile me,
I'll curb my vengeful heart.
The unjust wrong I'll suffer,
Unto my neighbor offer
Forgiveness for each bitter smart.

12. Thy groaning and thy sighing,
Thy bitter tears and dying,
With which Thou wast opprest,-
They shall, when life is ending,
Be guiding and attending
My way to Thine eternal rest.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Wondrous and Wonderful Sacrament

O Lord, in this wondrous Sacrament You have left us a remembrance of Your passion.  Grant that we may so receive the sacred mystery of Your body and blood that the fruits of Your redemption may continually be manifest in us; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

The collect is a revision of the one attributed to Thomas Aquinas for the feast of Corpus Christi.  The original wrote:  Deus, qui nobis sub Sacraménto mirábili passiónis tuae memóriam reliquísti: tríbue, quaésumus, ita nos Córporis et Sánguinis tui sacra mystéria venerári, ut redémptionis tuae fructum in nobis iúgiter sentiámus.  Qui vivis et regnas cum Deo Patre, in unitáte Spíritus Sancti, Deus per ómnia saécula saeculórum. Amen. 

This translates as: God, Who hast left to us under a wonderful Sacrament a memorial of Thy Passion, grant, we beseech [Thee], that we may in such manner venerate the holy mysteries of thy Body and Blood, that we may constantly feel the fruit of Thy redemption within us;  Who livest and reignest with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God through all the ages of ages. Amen.

The Lutheran revision is actually the work of the Anglicans who are rather genius at the language of the collects both eloquent and compact.  Whatever the source, it is a powerful statement.  First of all it reminds us that this a a wonderful and wondrous Sacrament.  There are those, even within Lutheranism, who are not so sure on this point.  Their piety is only slightly affected by the sacramental presence of Christ and, I must admit, I feel some sorry for them.  The Lutheran piety is eucharistic, just as the catholic piety through the ages is eucharistic.  While there may have been abuses among those whose zeal emphasized sacrifice over sacrament, to which the Reformation of Luther acted to correct or re-balance those excesses, it is a mark of our confusion over who we are that the Sacrament is not the source and summit of our parish liturgical life and our individual devotional lives as Lutheran Christians.

The next phrase reminds us of the words spoken each week in the LSB Divine Service (at least II & III):  As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes...  The cross is the center of this sacramental eating and drinking and it is the center of the witness of those who commune.  And then we are pointed to the fact that what we receive is not rational or even explainable (no matter whether you resort to the philosophical grandness of transubstantiation or smugly think that Luther's "in, with, and under" is another version of the same reasoned explanation).  It is a mystery -- bread and wine that become by His Word the body and blood of our Lord.  Now I know some receptionists will write in about this and others will say that it is not Lutheran to say "becomes" -- well, I say read your Confessions and read the orthodox Lutheran fathers (Chemnitz, Gerhard, etc.).  We proclaim a mystery, we receive a mystery -- that is what the Word of Christ proclaims it -- His flesh hidden in bread and His blood hidden in wine.  Real food and real drink for real people and yet more than is tasted by the tongue -- only faith can receive its greatness and blessing and respond alone:  Amen.

Finally that goal -- that the fruits of His blessed gift of redemption (communicated here in this wonderful and wondrous Sacrament) might be manifest in us, His unworthy and humble children.  This Sacrament is not some solemn refuge in which we hide with God.  This Sacrament works to equip us for our baptismal vocation of worship, witness, prayer, mercy, and service.  The fruits of our sacramental eating and drinking are not some deep, personal feeling but a cross shaped life of passionate proclamation and compassionate caring.  For surely we take this grace in vain if it remains as hidden in us as it is in the bread and the cup -- we are not called by Christ to remain hidden in the world but obvious.  We do not distinguish ourselves by personal righteousness but by Christ's own righteousness placed over us by baptism.  It is not our behavior that we display to the world but the Gospel, not our accomplishment but Christ's work in us and through us.  The fruits of His redeeming work are not our claim or glory but the glory of Christ who works in us and the claim of God whose Spirit is the worker of holiness (sanctification) and the equipper for service (both witness and mercy).

The angels can only adore Christ as He comes to His people in bread and wine.  Truly we also adore Him; in the Agnus Dei we sing our adoration to the Christ come to us in bread which is His body and in the cup of His blood.  But we are not left only to adore, and in this way are made higher than the angels, for we are given this flesh as food and this blood as our drink.  I can only think that they are envious of us and of the wonderful and wondrous gift of communion (at least if they are allowed this desire). 

I love this collect and how it brings so many things together on a day often skipped over on our way to the cross.... for truly in this Sacrament He has left us not only memorial but means, not only grace but gift... Our hearts and lives as Christian people find this eucharistic feast both the source of our lives and health in faith and the summit to which we look forward each week -- at least until it is replaced with the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in His Kingdom which has no end...

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Internet Down

No post today since the internet and phone at Church have been down since 3 am Wednesday due to storm damage.  We had to dimiss the preschool as well.  Hopefully, we will be in better shape tomorrow...

In the meantime, I can only recommend the words of the sainted O. P. Kretzmann... with a HT to Pr. Will Weedon for bringing this to remembrance...

Silent Wednesday - an OP Gem and Blog Tradition

Holy week... The most important seven days in the history of man... Although the exact sequence of events is not always clear to us, we can discern, even now, the straight lines of divine order... Sunday: The garments in the dust - the Hosannahs as the prelude to the "Crucify."... Monday: Sermons with the urgent note of finality - the withered fig tree - Caesar's coin... Tuesday: The terrifying wrath of the Lamb over institutionalized and personal sin among the Scribes and Pharisees - the fire and color of His last sermon to the city and the world - the sureness of justice and the coming of judgment... Night and prayer in the light of the Easter moon on the Mount of Olives...

Wednesday is silent... If anything happened, the holy writers have drawn the veil... Everything that God could say before the Upper Room had been said... It was man's turn now... Perhaps there were quiet words in a corner of the Garden, both to His children who would flee and to His Father who would stay... Wednesday was His... The heart of that mad, crowded Holy Week was quiet... Tomorrow the soliders would come, and Friday there would be God's great signature in the sky... Thursday and Friday would belong to time and eternity, but Wednesday was of heaven alone...

Silent Wednesday... If our Lord needed it, how much more we whose life is the story of the Hosannah and the Crucify... Time for prayer, for adoration... Time to call the soul into the inner court and the Garden... In our crowded world we are lonely because we are never alone... No time to go where prayer is the only sound and God is the only light... We need more silent Wednesdays... In the glory of the Cross above our dust our silence can become purging and peace... God speaks most clearly to the heart that is silent before Him... [The Pilgrim, pp. 27, 28]

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Shape and Color of Love

Sermon for Lent 6A, the Sunday of the Passion, preached on Sunday, April 17, 2011.

    So Jesus makes His way to the cross.  This is the end that cannot be rushed even though there were those who were pushing for this all the way along.  But neither could it be prevented.  It was the cross for which Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb and born in our flesh and blood.  It was the cross that shaped His ministry and the destination to which He was headed from that moment of revelation in the Jordan River: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
    It is on the cross that we see what love looks like.  There Jesus shows to us the shape of love, its form and image.  The cross is not some passing blip on the radar of Scripture but the shadow that lies over all of Scripture, the heart and core of its message.
    Love takes a servant form.  “Greater love has no one than He lay down His life for His friends... He who would be great must become servant of all.”  When Jesus put on flesh and blood it was to face this moment.  His obedient and holy life was lived not as model for us to follow but for us that we might receive a righteousness we do not deserve.  He denied Himself not for some future glory but for you and for me.  This self-denial was taken to the ultimate extreme of suffering and death upon the cross.
    Love is lifted up on the cross for all the world.  “When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself...”  Jesus did not die for the good, for the holy, for the righteous, for the noble, for the honored, or even for the faithful.  Jesus died for sinners, for the unholy and dirty, for the anonymous and lowly, for those who will never even come to faith and be able to grasp hold of what love purchased and won for them.  He shed His blood over the world to cover and cleanse and today we come to stand under that saving blood.
    Jesus was given a name not by searching his for bearers or whim of His parents but the name the Father gave Him, the name He would fulfill by the love expressed in life but magnified in death.  He shall save His people – that is what the name Jesus means.  In response to His obedient will and His consent to this saving work, the Father has now raised up the name of Jesus to receive the worship of heave and earth.  It is the name to which earthly knees still bow and heavenly glory bends.  Not to us be glory.  Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus.
    And so we come today to speak that name, no, to shout it loud.  His name is our creed and His cross the symbol of our hope.  It is here that we see what love looks like, its shape and color, its texture and form.  We come with our broken and grieving hearts, with our wounded and sorrowing spirits, with our fears and failures, unsure of our worth or value, alone in all our pain.  We come to seek out this wondrous love that forgives, heals, restores, and saves.
    Jesus set His face like flint for the welcome of palms and the wounds of the cross and He refused to be distracted or deterred from showing to us the face of love – the face we still see upon the cross.  As we stand before this cross, we are confronted with the great surprise of grace.  Jesus does not ask anything of us -- nothing at all.  He does not ask anything of us except that receive what love has given, that we receive with holy joy what love has purchased and won in suffering and death, that we grasp with faith the more precious gift and treasure this earth has ever seen.  He does not ask us to earn it nor does He make His gift conditional.  It is full and free.  But such a gift and such a love will not leave us as we were.  What love does not demand, its gift compels by freedom, forgiveness, and life. 
   Such love compels change and transformation not by demand but by service.  So, if we would come today to receive its blessing... then let the cross shaped form of love that we have seen in Christ become the power that shapes the pattern of our lives. Let us receive with faith what love offers and learn by the Spirit to respond with love toward others, as He has loved us.  In the end, what more can we say to what love has done than “Amen.”

A Walk Through John 11 and the Raising of Lazarus

Sermon for Lent 5A, preached on Sunday, April 10, 2011   (note this is an atypical sermon in which we follow the text verse by verse to comment on the abundant details offered here in John 11:1-45)

Today we recall the long account of Jesus raising Lazarus.  Instead of focusing on a couple of verse, I want to walk through the whole account with you so keep the reading handy as see what all is there in this powerful text that prepares us for and prefigures Jesus own resurrection from the dead.
•    vs 1 - a certain man – the closest of friends to Jesus, almost family – name Lazarus means God has helped
•    vs 2 - Mary of the ointment – to identity Mary as believer and follower, one of the intimate circle of Jesus’ friends
•    vs 3-4 - whom you love – emphasizing the closeness - this is no stranger       “this illness will not lead to death” – but it did  – yet he did not stay dead “so that the Son of God may be glorified” - glory hidden in suffering/death or where we least expect to find God’s glory... why it is called “hidden”
•     vs 6 - Jesus stayed where He was - not for lack of love for Lazarus but that His power might be manifest in him; delay doesn’t mean he doesn’t care; think of that next time you pray and cannot see God’s answer
•    vs 7 - “Lets go...” – but surely it is too late now.... or is it?  Why go now when Lazarus is dead or is there something more to this all?
•    vs 8 - If you could not spare him death, do not endanger yourself Jesus; it is not worth it... except love makes it worth it
•    vs 9-10 - night and day – euphemisms of faith and unbelief
•    vs 11-14 - sleep or death – no real death – if he has died, why bother?
•    We are told that when Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, he remained where he was for two days. With friends like Jesus, who needs enemies, we think.  But consider how one early church father preached on this:
•    You see how he gives full scope to death. He grants free reign to the grave; he allows corruption to set in. He prohibits neither putrefaction nor stench from taking their normal course; he allows the realm of darkness to seize his friend, drag him down to the underworld, and take possession of him. He acts like this so that human hope may perish entirely and human despair reach its lowest depths...
•    vs 15-16 - Thomas - we just as well go because we are all gonna die anyway
•    vs 17 - four days - Jewish rabbis taught the soul remained for 3 days
•    vs 19-21 - burial within 24 hours – no delay even for the Son of God;             The “Jews” shows that this was a well placed, highly respected family   “If you were here, he would not have died” - God’s job to prevent tragedy – it is still how we see things today, isn’t it....
•    vs 23 - Jesus did not deny He could have prevented it – He could have – but holds out the promise of the resurrection – consolation prize or more?
•    vs 24 - Martha thinks like we do: “I know, I know, the last day – but what about NOW?”  Yet that is exactly what Jesus is talking about is NOW – I AM the resurrection - I make the dead rise and I keep the living alive – not a little hope at the end but hope for NOW
•    vs 27 - I believe – note the creedal form – but it is future; Jesus is not to come but present with them in their sorrow
•    vs 28 - not for Martha only – she speaks the Gospel to her grieving sister but in private - not to cause a ruckus in front of the rest of the people
•    vs 29 - Mary got right up and left – so in need of consolation and comfort
•    vs 31 - but everyone followed anyhow, thinking time for more wailing – grief is no private sorrow; death affects all and weeping & wailing shows it
•    vs 32 - Mary offers the very same complaint as Martha– Lord, you could have prevented this...
•    vs 33 - Jesus is moved, is deeply troubled - joins in the weeping & wailing but why? For the death of His friend Lazarus? For their unbelief?  For the glory to be revealed when He raised him?  For the death that awaited Him? – all of these.  He cries for our death as our death cries for Him...
•    vs 34 - where is Lazarus?  Didn’t Jesus know or was this for effect?   And the onlookers are confused: see His tears but He is a miracle worker, could Jesus not have kept this man from dying – or you or me?  Is this not our expectation still – if you loved me, Lord, you would keep bad things from happening to me...  Do we cry because He does not answer or because we do not like the answer He gives... glory comes in suffering?
•    vs 38 - A cave – where will Jesus be buried? And a stone He will roll away
•    vs 39 - he stinks.  Death stinks.  We all wear the stink of death and no amount of deodorant or cologne can mask its stench.  Only God can wash us of death’s smell.  How can the glory of God be found in the stink of death?  Look at Good Friday... and then look at your own death...
•    vs 40 - “Did I not tell you you’d see the glory of God?”  But who expected it would be seen in death, amid tears, facing loss?  Still our problem... we look in all the wrong places for the glory of God...
•    vs 42 - “on account of...” – everything Jesus does is for you and for me
•    vs 44 - the dead man comes out wearing death... He will die again... His is not Jesus’ resurrection but a sign of that more powerful resurrection to come.  We do not hope to get our life back.  We cannot settle for the old life given back to us. We hope for a resurrection in which death cannot touch us and life is our eternal possession.  We hope for radical new life.
•    vs 44 - unbind him – only Jesus unbinds us from the chains of sin & death
•    vs 45-46 - some believed because of this sign; others were hardened in their unbelief – signs do not bring people to Jesus but they point us to Jesus; miracles don’t help you believe but show you in whom you believe
•    vs 46-53 - the act of raising death seals the fate for Jesus’ death  – the plans were laid... it is only a matter of time now... the march toward the cross has already begun... and where is the first stop along the way, you guessed it, a visit to Mary, Martha, and the newly resurrected Lazarus...

Of all the accounts recorded in Scripture, this one has the most details.  It is as if God is saying to us... there is important stuff here.  Pay attention.  Still we stand wondering with Martha and Mary why God doesn’t make all the bad things go away... still we miss that Jesus is here with us in our sorrows and struggles... still we are surprised that life is hidden in death, grace in suffering, and hope at the brink of despair...  But now you know... now we know... so that when Good Friday comes... we will remember.... this death will reveal the glory of God to us and for us.... if we look with eyes of faith!

A Powerful Video about Baptism and Confession

The Default Position

I was having some printer problems on my office computer and just about went nuts trying to figure out what was wrong.  I deleted and reinstalled until I was blue in the face.  I tinkered with settings until I was sure that I had screwed up everything.  The printer would not recognize the paper inside it.  When I was finally ready to take the printer and give it a good toss on the church lawn, I found two small little software switches -- one that was on the printer and one on the printer que on the computer.  When I reset them to the default position, alas, my problems went away and my printer and my printer que were on speaking terms again.  More than merely communicating, they positively meshed together as if they were meant for it.  They continue to speak fluently and they listen to each other well, also.  I am reborn at my desk!

I have no idea why the things got changed.  I do not recall doing anything specific.  But everything that goes wrong on a computer is usually user error so I will take credit for the problems (even as I now trumpet my ability to "fix" what I "broke").  One day I went to hit [PRINT] and nothing happened.  Something was running.  The icon showed me something was happening.  The status indicator said it was printing.  But nothing was happening.  No paper with toner on it was coming through the fuser.  Nada.  Nothing.  I acted as if everything was happening but after a while I could no longer fool myself.  Despite the indicators that said something was happening, I had to admit that something was wrong.  In the end, the "default" position is not only a good place to start but often the place to return to when you have problems.

So it occurs to me that perhaps we in Lutheranism, or at least Missouri, might learn something from my computer experience.  The problems we have been having (and we have been having them despite what some want to admit) might benefit from resetting the position to the Lutheran default.  Now I will admit that there are those who disagree with me -- some who wish to move to a completely different platform and operating system (mainline Protestantism, evangelicalism, etc.) and others who think we need to reboot the whole system (sounds good for a computer but how do you restart a church body?).  I offer another suggestion -- we return to our default positions and start again from there.

I suggest that we in Missouri and those in the ELCA simply start back at the Lutheran default -- the Confessions.  This might mean that we must, for a time anyway, ignore some of the things we have said and done (usually in the name of progress but often to respond to crisis) and simply begin with the Lutheran theological default position.  Instead of arguing constitutions and by-laws or statements or theological opinions or even the writings of our sacred but more recent founders, I think we need to go back to the Concordia and read what we claim to believe, teach, and confess.  We do not need to read them through the eyes of Walther or Loehe or Reu or Schmid or Krauth or Schmucker or any other name you choose -- we could but lets not.  Lets begin with the words themselves -- the primary sources.  I do not mean to suggest that we should ignore the context -- we must consider the church into which these words were penned and presented.  But lets also agree not the historical criticism in which the method becomes more significant than what the documents themselves say.

I suggest that we in Missouri and those in the ELCA start back at our liturgical defaults -- you could put in nearly everything from the Formula Missae to the Deutsche Messe to one of the 16th century church orders.  You could but it would be an argument that would never end -- where do we begin.  Here I would suggest that Lutheran bodies have published "official" hymnals and that these should represent our liturgical defaults.  Though some get all rabid about TLH and many in Missouri love to hate LW, I really do not care if it is TLH or LW or LSB that is used but the liturgy should be from one of these "official" books which the Church has claimed as her own, determined to be "pure," and commended for use by her congregations.  As far as that goes, I would also suggest that we do the same with hymns -- lets go back to the Lutheran default of the hymnals that we have published and marked with our names as representing officially and liturgically what we believe, teach, and confess.

I suggest that we do this for 10 years -- aaaaahhh, some of you are saying that is too long.  Ten years in the span of history is but a blink of an eye.  Let us take a decade at the default position and see where that leaves us.  It is my firm conviction that it could not do us much harm -- and it would be far better than where we find ourselves today:  theologically and liturgically divided, almost unable to speak together because we speak different vocabularies, and sufficiently vague or convoluted about what is Lutheran that just about anything goes (literally).  Lets try the default position for a decade and see where that might lead us -- unless we were wrong about the Confessions and our liturgical books and hymnals, this is a faithful place to start and represents a careful and consistent evangelical and catholic position.  So, even though we stray from the hymnal here and there and I have my own particular heresies I am fond of, I am willing to fore go my own independence and my "right" to be peculiar in favor of the Lutheran default position.  Now if I could just convince the other 20,000 congregations or so and 25,000 Pastors.... hmmmmm, I guess that means Holy Week is going to be busier than I first imagined!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Called into the fellowship of His sufferings...

In the keeping of the various services and days of this Holy Week, we will be faced with the unmistakable face of suffering. There is no denial.  The brutality of what Jesus endured is not masked or hidden in nice words.  We can feel the snap of the whip as it scourges and tears at the flesh.  We can hear the dripping sarcasm of the mockery.  We can see the trail of blood from a crown of thorns pressed into His head.  We cannot escape the horrid sound of the hammer pounding the nails.  We want to turn away at the labored breathing that summons up strength for seven words from the cross before it is all over in a whisper.  We both are repelled and drawn to the spear that pierces the side and blood and water flow.  No, there is no way to escape the agony and pain of His sufferings.  But we do not want to...

It is not that we enjoy gore or cruelty for pleasure.  We do not.  But the realty of His suffering is a constant reminder that our redemption would not be won by being nice.  There is a part of us that wants terribly to believe that all we needed was a role model or a guide to the right path and we can fix what is wrong with us.  It is the last terrible lie of Satan and his seemingly endless litany of lies.  But the brutality of the cross and the real pain and torture of Jesus' death shatter Satan's lies and are like a cold shower of reality to knock down such fanciful illusions.  We are drawn to the cross (as one hymn puts it) because there we see the face of love, the shape of love, and the color of love -- and it all looks like Jesus nailed to the cross, bearing the full weight of its pain for us, and dying the hard death that was ours to die.

We are called into the fellowship of His sufferings...  I do not recall where I read that line but I jotted it down on a post it and now I can hardly turn away from its words.  We are called into the fellowship of His sufferings.  Who we were, who we are, and who we shall be all flow from His suffering.  Our very identity as the children of God and the Church of Jesus Christ are rooted in His suffering.  The blest tie that binds is no inward feeling or warmth but this fellowship of His sufferings.

It was our suffering that drew us to God.  The Lord said of His captive and enslaved people, "I know their sufferings..."  Suffering is the language of love we learn from God.  Jesus walked among the suffering and not only heard their pain but made it His own.  In compassion He responded -- comforting, healing, and even raising the dead.  It is suffering that binds us to Him.  What is it that St. Paul says:  "For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.  If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.  Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort." 2 Cor. 1:5-7  We are called into the fellowship of His sufferings and such is the condition of knowing the power of His resurrection.  "...that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death..." Philip. 3:10  No less than St. Peter concurs and raises the stakes by making our sharing in Christ's sufferings the privilege of the faithful:  "But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed." 1 Peter 4:13

No, we are intimately tied to the suffering of the cross for in them we were redeemed and by them we reborn and through them we endure to the glory that is unimaginable but yet hidden for us for a little while, while sufferings must be endured.  Nevertheless, we wear these sufferings not as some mark of shame but as the means through which we are ever being remade into the people God has declared us to be in grace, as St. Paul says: "More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us." Romans 5:3-5  We are called into the fellowship of His sufferings.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Your King Is Coming

Advent tells us Christ is near;
Christmas tells us Christ is here!
In Epiphany we trace
all the glory of his grace.

Those three Sundays before Lent
will prepare us to repent;
that in Lent we may begin
earnestly to mourn for sin.

Holy Week and Easter, then,
tell who died and rose agin;
O that happy Easter Day!
"Christ is risen indeed," we say.

Yes, and Christ ascended, too,
to prepare a place for you;
so, we give him special praise,
after those great Forty Days.

Then, he sent the Holy Ghost,
on the Day of Pentecost,
with us ever to abide;
well may we keep Whitsuntide!

Last of all, we humbly sing
glory to our God and King,
glory to the One in Three,
on the Feast of Trinity. 

Written in 1888 by Kath­er­ine Hank­ey (1834-1911) for the Sun­day School of St. Pe­ter’s, Ea­ton Square, Lon­don, these words have probably been sung by countless children and adults.  I am struck by the connection between Advent and Palm Sunday.  We heard the Palm Sunday processional Gospel on the First Sunday in Advent.  It probably seemed terribly out of place to us in Advent but now we see how the two readings tie together.  Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and Lent all point us in the same direction.  Unlike a child's understanding of bits and pieces, the Church Year points us through and not simply to each section.  We are heading toward the cross and that is unmistakable on Palm Sunday.  Palms and Hosannas are not some joyous welcome home to a favorite son but the welcome of the Savior to His appointed destiny -- the one He willingly takes upon Himself for us and our salvation.

As we wave the palms and shout our hosannas today, my mind will still be back on the First Sunday in Advent when the lessons reminded us what was awaiting us today.  I truly love that tie between the most unlikely of Sundays and seemingly disparate seasons.  The cross lay hidden along the way from announcement to birth, from epiphanied glory to Transfiguration light, from ashes and repentance to palms a waving...  Yes, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!