Friday, February 28, 2014

Unremarkable Matthias. . .

Sermon preached for St. Matthias Day, transferred.

Matthias is the most unremarkable of the Apostles. We remember him only because of Acts 1 and we take Scripture seriously.  We know next to nothing about him, where he served, or what he did from that moment in time forward. His symbol is an axe because we believe he was beheaded – the presumption is for his faithful proclamation of Jesus Christ.  But even in death he is an enigma to us.

Funny thing is that we know more about the other name the apostles put forward than we know of Matthias.  Joseph called Barsabbas, also called Justus.  Both of these were followers of Jesus, witnesses of the resurrected Jesus.  Matthias is but a footnote in God’s history, chosen by lot to fill the open spot of Judas among the Twelve and to preach the Word and administer the Sacraments of Christ.

Not all of those whom God chooses to preach, administer sacraments, and shepherd the church are remarkable. Well, let me say it differently.  Hardly any of those whom God chooses to preach, administer the sacraments, and shepherd His church are remarkable.  Most are eminently forgettable, thoroughly ordinary, and entirely common men.    Like me.

We all want exceptional pastors, dynamic preachers, charismatic leaders, and giants among men.  What we get are ordinary men whom God calls to do the work of ministry.  We all want special people to serve us but God largely uses ordinary people to do His extraordinary work of Word and Sacrament.

Matthias was a follower of Jesus and a witness to the risen Lord and that is all we know of him.  He would hardly make the final cut on any call list today.  We look for more than a name.  But the Lord has given not spectacular pastors and leaders to His Church but a spectacular Word that delivers what it says and spectacular Sacraments that bestow what they sign.  That is enough.

If those given responsibility for the flock of God will preach the Word of God faithfully and administer the Sacraments of God faithfully, God will do the rest.  He will call people to faith, nurture the faith of the new believer, strengthen the weak, sustain those under trial, equip the faithful for good works, multiply the Gospel through their many voices, and finish His new creation.

No doubt the early Church was shocked and dismayed at Judas’ treachery, deceit, and self-inflicted death.  They were surely looking for someone who would turn out better than Judas.  Did they get him?  We do not know.  What we do know is that Matthias was chosen by God’s lot.  We know that God knew and understood the right person for this time.  We know that even Judas did not prevent God’s noble purpose but in his wickedness his terrible work of betrayal was used in the plan of God hatched from before the foundation of the world, to save the heirs of Adam and Eve from sin and its death.

I find the story of Matthias a strange story.  Perhaps the Lord will explain Himself at the resurrection but I doubt it.  It is enough for us to know that God is at work in His Church.  Not just in the successes but also in the screw ups.  It is enough to know that the Word of the Lord will not fail us even through people do.  It is enough to know that the grace of God does not depend upon godly pastors or perfect pastors or exceptional pastors.  They can scoundrels or saints, the Word of the Lord endures forever, delivering the good news of salvation to those captive to sin and its death. 

We find this little episode strange.  Why would God call Matthias if He had planned to call Paul as an apostle?  Why would we be told of this only to have the name and the person disappear into history?  God does not explain Himself to us.  But surely if this whole story seems strange to us, how do you suppose Matthias would see a congregation, church council meeting, call committee, seminary, admissions committee, etc...  Would these not seem even more strange to the early church than this little story is to us?  What might Matthias think of the way that I was called to Grace Lutheran Church? 

But the point is this.  The Lord works through His Word, the Lord works through His Sacraments, and the Lord works through His Church, His wonders, the mystery of His grace, the work of His kingdom...  It is enough to know this.  The men who bear the office do not own it. It is theirs to exercise but not to possess.  The congregation does not own the office either.  It is theirs to fill but not to possess.  The office remains Christ’s and the tools His and the work His and the outcome His.

Matthias is not a prototype of how the Church is to select pastors.  His election is the only time in the whole of the New Testament where lots are cast to select an apostle or a pastor.  After the coming of the Holy Spirit this method disappears.  The apostles raised up pastors, training them in the Word and setting them apart by the laying on of their hands (ordination).

If there is anything we get from the election of the unknown Matthias it is this.  God will work to build His Church.  The means are the means of grace.  The men are tools through the means of grace are manifest to the people.  We have confidence in the office, in the means of grace, and not in the man.  And that is enough to know...  Matthias did what the Lord called him to do.  We have no clue to what it was except the common call to proclaim the kingdom of God.  But no matter where or through whom that call comes, people hear and repent of their sins and believe in the Lord Jesus and have life and forgiveness in His name... for now and for all eternity.  To this all we can say is Thanks be to God!

Not Afraid. . . The Power of Trust

Have you ever watched a mom or dad swing a baby in the air?  Inevitably the infant reacts to the momentary weightlessness with giddiness and glee.  On the other hand, someone doing that to an adult probably meets with fear and terror.  What is the difference?

The child laughs because it never enters his mind that this is dangerous or that something bad might happen to him.  This is no blissful ignorance. The prospect of being tossed up in the air only to fall freely to certain harm does not occur to him because his focus is on the face of his father or mother (the one who playfully tosses him into the air).  The child instinctively trusts the arms that hold him, the ones that gently toss him into the air, and the arms that safely enfold him as he falls back.

When Jesus says Unless you become like a little child (Greek infant or toddler), you cannot enter the kingdom of God, our Lord is speaking of this wonderful trust that a child has.  On the other hand, we as adults know too much to be so trusting.  We have become captive to the power of fear and we find it nearly impossible to trust anyone -- even the Lord.

The truth is that from an earthly perspective, life is a free fall.  We are quite literally being tossed into the air by all sorts of things we cannot control.  Job, family, health, safety -- they are all a crap shoot (at least from an earthly perspective).  We walk in danger all the way (as the hymnwriter put it).  Without the Lord as the focus of our eyes, hearts, and minds, we would be left to the terror of this free fall called life after the fall (literally).  Without the safe and secure arms of our Heavenly Father acting in Christ Jesus His Son, we would quite literally be captive to everything that can go wrong -- even and especially death.

The challenge of the faith is not to teach it to the small children but to learn from them how to trust without fear.  The child tossed into the air by mom or dad is the perfect example of the power of faith to calm our fears.  Children have not learned as well as we have the power of such fear and the manifold "what ifs" that seem so effective in making us prisoners to our fears.  But their time will come.  We will teach our children well -- so well, indeed, that by the time they are teenagers they will trust no one -- not us and not even God -- without a second thought.  We have become very adept at instilling our own fears into our children but we struggle to learn from them the power of faith and trust.

Those who refuse infant baptism generally do so in large measure because they find it impossible to accept that a child can believe (the small children of infancy and toddlerhood).  On the other hand, I find it hard to accept that any adult believes!  It is an impossible work to transcend the power of our fears and believe in the Lord Jesus (Luther's explanation to the Third Article of the Creed).  It is only the confounding and mystifying work of the Spirit who teaches faith to those who have long ago refused to trust anyone.  I sometimes think that it is adults who should not be baptized and children who should be baptized without hesitation!  Such is the power of fear.

The infant does not fear because he trusts, because his focus is on the one who holds him, and because he believes that the grace that holds him is greater than the dangers that surround him.  Sure, this faith is not formed into words to be confessed or truth to be witnessed but it is there.  Our Lord says whoever causes one of these little ones (infants and toddlers) who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him to tie a millstone about his neck and be drowned in the depth of the sea.  If for no other reason than Jesus tells us, we believe that these infants do believe in Him -- the faith of Scripture which is trust if not the faith we define wrongly as knowledge, understanding, and consent.

I fear because I struggle to believe that God's will is good and gracious and has nothing for me to fear.  I fear because my focus is less on the Lord and more on the dangers and threats all around me all the time.  I fear because I have lingering and nagging doubts that the Lord's power is great than the power of my enemy and enemies.  I am afraid because the trust that was God's gift to me has been whittled away by the very people whom the Lord set around me to protect me.  Sure, they did it because we live in a dangerous world where trust is easily exploited to our harm but, that said, it is still a crying shame.  I wrestle every day with what it means to believe in Jesus Christ, to trust in His good and gracious will, and to know that His power is greater than all my enemies.  Sometimes I wish I was that toddler tossed into the air by my dad.  Those were the days when fear was minimal and trust was strong and I had confidence in the arms that held me.

To overcome my fears I spend a great deal of time in the Word of the Lord, singing the faithful hymns of old, praying with the faithful, and gathered around the Table of the Lord.  Were it not for the means of grace and the Church's life of worship, I might have long ago given into doubt and fear forever.  But in this grace in which I stand the Lord is at work bringing forth the new man created in Christ Jesus in the waters of baptism, undoing the power of fear, the reign of its terror, and its suspicion so that I might become again like a little child.  In this respect, I pray never to grow up. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

We used to think like this. . .

From the last of John Paul II's encyclicals (Ecclesia de Eucharistia):

Like the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany, the Church has feared no “extravagance,” devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist. No less than the first disciples charged with preparing the “large upper room,” she has felt the need, down the centuries and in her encounters with different cultures, to celebrate the Eucharist in a setting worthy of so great a mystery. . .

Lutherans and Lutheran Churches were once friends of art, of beauty, and of craftsmanship.  I fear we have surrendered these causes on the altar of expediency.  It is not in the budget.  It could better be used for more worthy causes.  It is not conscionable in a world of poverty and need.  It is too lavish or extravagant.  It is better to be simple, plain.  You name it.  I have heard it all.  Often from the same people who live in very nice homes and who enjoy traveling to the places where good art, architecture, and beauty can be found.

I just came upon a wonderful 1 million pixel version of the Ghent altarpiece.  Click here and you can see it in remarkable clarity -- compliments of the Getty Foundation. The Ghent Altarpiece (also called the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb or The Lamb of God is a very large and complex early 15th century Early Flemish polyptych panel painting. It comprises an altarpiece of 12 panels, eight of which are hinged shutters.

Lutherans also adorned altars with great altar pieces.   The use of images was one of the issues where Luther strongly opposed the more radical Andreas Karlstadt. For a few years Lutheran altarpieces like the Last Supper by the younger Cranach were produced in Germany, especially by Luther's friend Lucas Cranach, some to replace Roman Catholic ones and others for new construction.  These often contained portraits of leading reformers with the apostles, prophets, and saints of old while retaining the traditional depictions of Jesus upon the cross.  These were followed by the creations of Durer and Grunewald.  Often the Lord's Supper was the focus of these works with the crucifixion.

It is not surprising that the great affection for art began to decline when liturgical practice declined, when the piety of Lutherans began to be expressed in a more individualistic way, and when the high view of the Sacrament of the Altar that had characterized Lutheranism before was forced to compete with an inwardly focused spirituality (especially from the later Pietistic movement).

Fairly elaborate natural and painted wooden high altars remained the one area of extravagance long after the walls of Lutheran churches were plain and bare.  Where I grew up one of those oak altars with its elaborate carving of the Last Supper and the Lamb of God as well as the Thorvaldsen Risen Christ and a crucifix remain the one area of artistic indulgence in an otherwise very plain building.  The old Estey pipe organ is perhaps the other area in which the congregation bowed to tradition and to quality, even though the cost is great.

My point is this.  We were not iconoclasts but we have become so with our aversion to art, our refusal to expend the effort and funds for that which befits the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ, and our contentment with bland, dull, and inexpensive buildings. 

We have come to fear extravagance as much as we fear the zealous who shake up our complacency by taking seriously the things that we have merely confessed as words.  It is time to recover our Lutheran liturgical identity and the Lutheran connection to art and beauty in service to the Gospel.  It is even more important today.  We are are closing and abandoning some of the great structures of old.  Some because the folks in the pews have long since moved away and we have not raised up communities of faith to utilize the grand structures erected by their ancestors in the faith.  In others we have convinced ourselves we have outgrown the space or outgrown the style and need a warehouse atmosphere in order to compete with the evangelicals down the road.  Mission and liturgy are not enemies and neither is good art and enemy of outreach and witness.  Art, beauty, craftsmanship, and excellence are the support for liturgical excellence and assist in the inspiration to take the Gospel to those still living in darkness and the shadow of death.

Let us not give up on the value of good art and beauty in service to the Gospel both as teacher to those there and as witness to those not yet of the household of God. What John Paul II once expressed was also true of Lutherans.... and it should be still...

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

More from Down Under. . .

Called to be the new Principal of the Australian Lutheran College is the Rev. James Winderlich, a strong proponent of the ordination of women.

If you will recall I expressed concern when the Australians elected Rev. John Henderson as Bishop of the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA) not quite one year ago.  Bishop Henderson took issue with his influence in this area and suggested that the course the LCA will follow will not be determined by his own opinions.  It seems that he has not been without influence here in making sure that there are friendly voices to the ordination of women in key places of the LCA leadership.  Should the Rev. James Winderlich accept, it would definitely point to the growing capitulation of the LCA to the feminist pressure.

Pray for the Lutheran brothers and sisters down under... Pray,


It now appears that indeed the Rev. Winderlich HAS accepted this call. . . pray for our brothers and sisters in the LCA...

Rev. John Henderson was elected Bishop of the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA) - See more at:
Rev. John Henderson was elected Bishop of the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA) - See more at:
Rev. John Henderson was elected Bishop of the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA) - See more at:

Not really athiests or agnostics. . .

I have meet a number of folks who insist that they are not religious, not believers in God or in any substitute deity.  They would classify themselves as atheists or, perhaps, agnostics.  The dictionary definitions do not matter here so much but the way people see themselves.  Strangely enough, most of these folks are interested in things religious, many rather moral and decent folks, and some ask a whole lot of questions when they find out I am a Pastor.

Though they call themselves atheists or agnostics, I call them simply folks who are angry at God.  It may have been a childhood trouble or tragedy or a family issue or a personal crisis.  Whatever the source of the anger, they are not unbelievers but are angry with God, angry with the Church, and angry at the Pastors and people of the Church.  In their anger, they say they have surrendered their belief but the truth is their faith is often very intense -- as intense as their anger and resentment against God or one of His agents.

One of the lessons of Clint Eastwood's movie Gran Torino is that people cannot be written off as unbelievers simply because they are rude, crude, or angry.  There are many folks like this.  Some of them are still on the membership rolls of the parish I serve.  Their distance from the Church is one of the ways they manifest their anger to God and punish Him for the sins they believe He has committed against them (or the sins others have committed in His name).

Somebody said once that it takes an hour to bring into the life of the Church a new person and forty hours to reclaim someone who has gotten angry and dropped out.  A fair enough proportion, in my estimation.  It IS easier to gather new into the flock than to reclaim the wanderer who wants both to be away from the flock and noticed at the same time.  I will admit that I have few ideas on how to reclaim the angry.  A few have returned over the years but the vast majority die angry.  Some will find another church home but many of those tend to take their anger with them and they do not make for easy or good members.  In the end the question remains what to do with them.

I have learned simply to let them be angry.  Sometimes they want to be heard (more often when their anger is directed to the Pastor or people of the Church) but many of them don't want to tell their story.  They have learned to live with the discontent of their anger and some of them don't know how to live without their grudge against God and His Church.

Often I tell people that better folks than them have been angry with God (Moses might be an example) and God survived.  So don't worry about God making it -- He will -- but will you.  It does not have a great track record of working but I refuse to be God's apologist or to gaze into the crystal ball of their past and decide what God was doing when He let their sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, moms, and dads die, get sick, lose their jobs, divorce, become addicts, or whatever.  In the end, even nice and tidy little explanations do not bring comfort to the old wounds of our bitter discontent.  But I do like calling them out from their hiding place of atheism or agnosticism.  They do believe and that is why they are so miserable.  They cannot reconcile faith with suffering.  In this way Job's question and circumstance remain one of the most important issues for the Church and Christians today (even those who insist they no longer believe).

The answer to their suffering is that God has suffered for, with, on behalf of us sinners.  The answer to their suffering is that God is at work even through our own suffering.  But it is not a neat and tidy little answer that distances us from hurt or pain.  In fact, we are told to expect suffering (the way the world treated Christ is not going to change for those who are Christ's).  More than that, we are told that this suffering has a purpose and a plan in the life of those who take up their cross and follow Him.

In the end, some of those hiding behind a seeming lack of care or concern for God and the things of God already know this.  And that is the further source of their dilemma.  The response of the Christian is simply faith.  Faith in the midst of suffering, sorrow, and struggle.  Faith that may never see an explanation or relief for the pains we endure.  Faith that clings to the suffering that redeems from their suffering all who believe in Him.

Maybe you know some folks like this... and are as frustrated as I have been in trying to reclaim them to the flock...  If it is any comfort to you, I do not believe that God is finished with them nor do I believe that they are finished with God.  My greatest prayer is that they will come to a moment when they can trust again and that this will be enough to restore them to the assembly of those who gather around the Word and Table of the Lord... whether I live to see it or not...

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Loving the unlovable. . .

Sermon preached for Epiphany 7A on Sunday, February 23, 2014.

    A few months ago a doting grandmother described her grandson to me as one who is just as nice on the inside as on the outside.  Ahhh, you have got to love grandparents, don't you. That said, we all understand what this proud grandmother was saying.  She loved her grandson.  She was proud of him.  She enjoyed him.  The gracious distance of grandparenting allows you to love your grandchildren without knowing all their sins.
    But it is easy to love the lovable.  It is easy to love those who love you back, who try hard to win your love, and who do things you like.  But what do you do about the unlovable?  How do you love those who do not love you back, who cannot love you back, who refuse to love you back?  How do you love those who can do nothing for you, who refuse to return the love you extend to them, and who are just plain hard to love?
    That is the point, says Jesus in today’s Gospel.  If you love only those who love you back, what kind of love is that?  It is wholly reasonable, it is understandable, and it is logical but it is the love of the world and not the love of God.  It is for this reason that God's love remains so strange to us.  The reverse of an eye for an eye says you love those who love you, you are kind to those who are kind to you, you forgive those who forgive you, and so on...
    We tend to define God’s love in our terms – love with strings attached.  This love is broken by unfaithfulness, by infidelity, and by the failure to return it.  This kind of love feels good.  It feels good to love and to get love back.  But this love is thoroughly ordinary.  It is the love of a sinful heart and not the love of God.  It is normal, usual, reasonable, logical, and understandable but not exceptional.  There is no credit in this love.  God’s love is not some super version of our own love.  His love is foreign and strange to us that must be revealed to us.
    When Scripture says be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect, we immediately rush to behavior.  We need to do good, to be good.  But I wonder if the perfection of the Father is manifest less in behavior than in the nature of love.  Love is perfect... perfect is also love.  The call to be perfect is therefore a call to love as God loves you.  The sinful heart does not stumble upon this on its own but this love is born by God's grace and the power of the Spirit into our hearts.
    The Lord's love is perfect.  What does that mean?  It means He loves the unlovable.  I am not speaking theoretically.  This Gospel is not some pep talk to love better.  It is the description of the radical nature of God’s love for us.  He loves you and He loves me but we are not easy to love.  We are hard to love – sinners and enemies of God, until God took the initiative to rescue us ultimately from ourselves.
    The Lord's love is perfect.  He loves the hard to love, the unlovable.  This love is not conditional.  It does not depend upon love returned.  God loves graciously, lavishly, impossibly generous – generous to a fault!  His love is a scandal to those who come to Him seeking justice for what they think they have earned or merited. 
    God's love is sent even when He knows it will never come back to Him.  We would describe this love as foolish, naive, and wasteful.  But that is the love we see fleshed out in Jesus Christ.  He came for us, the unlovable, and loved us even when we put Him on the cross.  "Father forgive them for they know not what they do..."  God loves not just neighbors but enemies.  This is the love planted in us by baptism and faith and the love we are set apart as the children of God to show to one another and to all.
    This love is perfect.  It must come to us from outside ourselves.  We did not invent it.  We cannot learn it.  We cannot duplicate it.  This love works in us because Christ lives in us by baptism.  This love shines through us because Christ lives in us. This love is no achievement.  It comes not from the law or from demand.  It is given as gift; the Spirit is the power of this love.
    We are here today not because we are the lovable but because God loves even the sinner.  We are here today not because we love God but because He first loved us and He gave Himself for us into our death.  We are here today because He has made the dead alive, forgiven the sinner, and given hope to the despair of hearts too filled with sin and its death to love anyone.  This love is unnatural to sinners who live their lives out as heirs of the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden.  It requires a new nature to be planted with us in order for us to love like this.
    How easy it is for us to look around on a Sunday morning and see our friends, people we know and like, and people we have worked with and with whom we have played.  But that is not who we are.  We are hard to love, strong and willful, demanding and unbending, proud and arrogant.  We are people well acquainted with evil and none of us want to shamed by the secret sins of our hearts and the secret thoughts of our minds.  We are not here to be patted on the back and told how good we are.  We are here to cling to the wounds of Christ where sin is washed clean.  We are here to receive the grace none of us deserve.  We are here to discover the joy of love that is given to those who do not deserve it, who cannot repay it, and who cannot offer nothing in response to it.  
    This love cannot be demanded.  This love cannot be commanded.  It woos and wins over the heart of the sinner in the shadow of death.  It is this love that we have been given to speak to the world.  This is the miraculous love that comes down from above, that is manifest upon the cross, and that we have met in baptismal water, heard in the life-giving Word, and tasted in this Holy Supper.  We love the loved and think it is great.  But God loves us, the unlovable.  Now to us has come the privilege of love.  Neighbors, strangers, and those who step on our last nerves – they are also the ones for whom Christ has died and they are the objects of this love just as sure as you and I are.  Therefore, the Lord asks us to do nothing but let the love He has given to us shine through to friend and enemy, to the lovable and those whom only God can love. There is no credit in any other kind of love.   What wondrous love is this, O my soul.  Amen.

What do you see?

Moreover, no noticeable changes have been made in the public celebration of the Mass, except that in certain places German hymns are sung alongside the Latin responses for the instruction and exercise of the people. (AC XXIV.3)

The Reformers did not wreck havoc upon the lives of the people by recklessly changing the primary face of the faith in the Divine Service.  They did not reform with abandon but pastorally, conservatively, evangelically (for the sake of the Gospel), and with a catholic deference to tradition received.  In the end the folks saw that the Mass was the Mass still and yet with the renewed intention of sacramental eating and drinking and with the more vigorous proclamation of the Word in the sermon. 

I wonder if we Lutherans have forgotten this.  We seem intent upon making sure that as little looks like the Mass on Sunday morning as is absolutely necessary.  In the end, some of us look more like our non-denominational cousins than Lutherans, some look more like Methodists than Lutherans, and some look more like evangelicals than Lutherans.  There is certainly less chance today that anyone wandering into an average Lutheran parish will confuse it with a Roman Catholic parish and this is especially true of larger Lutheran congregations.  The question is:  Is this a good thing?

Most Lutherans sigh with relief when people do not confused them with Roman Catholics.  There is enough angst in us about our spiritual and liturgical ancestry that we are happy when a stranger in our midst knows that we are not Catholic.  Strangely enough, we are not so bothered if they confuse us with Methodists or Presbyterians or Baptists or some form of evangelical or non-denominational congregation.  Some might even be thankful that folks who walk into an average Lutheran congregation think it looks and acts and smells more like a mainline or evangelical congregation than a Roman Catholic one.  The question is:  Is this a good thing?

Sociologists of religion tend to classify the ELCA Lutherans as a mainline group and LCMS Lutherans as an evangelical group.  I don't know how the ELCA feels about this but if Missouri knows anything of its history we should be uncomfortable with the association.  When the Saxons came to America they were by and large shocked by the state of Lutheranism they found.  They determined not to compromise their Lutheran confession and its faithful practice even when they knew it would be misunderstood by the folks around them.  Today we are more likely than ever to be driven by the fear of being misunderstood than by the desire to maintain the distinctive liturgical practice of our confession.   The question is:  Is this a good thing?

My point is not that we ought to wear it as a badge of pride that people think us Roman but it is important that people identify our doctrine and practice as being catholic.  Let me put this another way.  The Lutheran distinctive on Sunday morning is not that we have a Lutheran form or way of doing things as much as who we are and what we do bears clear and unmistakable resemblance to the catholic tradition from which we were born and which our Confessions claim to preserve.  When this resemblance is lost, it means we have also lost our continuity with our own past and with the Christian past which we claim.

The critics of the liturgical movement have often claimed it is all about smells and bells.  They are wrong.  The recovery of our catholic identity on Sunday morning is not about aesthetics or preference but about continuity and faithfulness.  It is not about the restoration of practices unless those practices evidence the full restoration of faith (doctrine) and piety (practice).  The genius of orthodoxy is not only in right belief but right glory.  Lutherans have long insisted that they have the right belief but Sunday mornings often made folks wonder how the doctrine held could make so little difference in the liturgy practiced.  The liturgical movement was never about the recovery of right praise (doxa) in isolation from doctrine (right belief) but an insistence that if our right belief means anything at all, it will manifest itself in what we do on Sunday morning.

Sadly there are Lutherans who do the liturgy well but who do not believe its words.  There are those who genuflect at the incarnation but refuse to believe that Jesus was born of the Virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit.  There are those who ring bells at the consecration but refuse to believe in the reality of Scripture's story and who isolate the real presence to the imagination.  There is surely no glory in going through the motions without believing what the ceremonies signify just as there is not glory in believing rightly and then worshiping absent the ritual that gives form to the confession.  Which is worse?  Those who keep the form but without the content or those who keep the content but are uncomfortable with the form?  But it does not have to be this way. 

We keep the Mass not because the Mass is a nice thing to be kept but because the Mass is the means of grace (Word and Table).  We keep the ceremonies and church usages of the Mass not because they are nice things but because they are postures and actions that flow from the dogmatic content of that Mass.  Lutherans began life by presuming this intrinsic connection and only as the Reformation grows distant in time have we find Lutherans uncomfortable with the content and uncomfortable with its liturgical expression.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Lutherans are boring. . . not romantic or passionate but downright dull. . .

Ouch.  You can read from Anthony Sacramone's blog on the white bread nature of Lutheranism.  I am not sure I dispute much of what he says about how Lutherans appear to those outside (though I wish inside we did not find ourselves so dull).

His conclusion, however, is that dull does not mean without something to offer.  His insistence is that inside that boring exterior is the Gospel heart, beating strong and bestowing the riches of God's grace in Christ undiluted and uncontaminated.  Sacramone's writing is compelling and his passion is hard to miss.

So there you have it. What does Lutheranism have to offer that Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism doesn’t? Luther. A pre-medieval worship that has exorcised the penitential out of repentance, all the obfuscating cults of the saints that made grace something one had to connive out of God as if he were a Renaissance prince whose attention could be gotten only by court insiders. Justification by faith alone. The gift of vocation that put a blacksmith on spiritual par with a bishop. The great freedom in knowing that God doesn’t need your good works — but your neighbor does, who is therefore not a means to a ladder-climbing end.

And the theology of the cross, which does more to eviscerate the unconsciously karmic idea of life’s causes and effects than anything else. Ever pray fervently for some good thing and received the exact opposite of what you prayed for? Yet instead of rebelling, you came to understand what it was to wait with Christ one hour in Gethsemane? You are a theologian of the cross.
In other words Christ at the beginning, Christ at the center, Christ at the end. And for you.

Much like the piece on a husband who was not romantic that went viral some months ago, I hope that this piece goes forth like Lutheran bread upon the waters.  Sacramone's vision of Lutheran is anything but compelling and, sadly, we Lutherans need to be re-awoken to the hidden treasures of grace that are regularly given to us weekly in the means of grace.  Honestly, we could do far worse than Sacramone's piece as the PR for a church body and confession that remains far too hidden in our world and our modern culture today.

We have succumbed to the idea that excitement is a worthy substitute for truth, for reality, for love, and for church.  It is the lie that keeps on finding itching ears.  Husbands and wives give up on their spouse and marriage because the romance seems to have gone out of their life together.  People have become adrenalin addicts who think that happiness comes from a pulse pounding high.  Our culture has rejected truth which is not passion or which does not result in an ego or emotional boost.  The Church has become merely one more place where our perceived needs are fed -- especially our need to be entertained and kept happy.

Sacramone has it right.  Lutherans are boring.  Life is boring.  God is boring.  All this talk of sin and redemption, of confession and absolution, of repentance and renewal, of Word and Sacrament is hardly the stuff that sets our hearts afire or causes us to feel weak at the prospect of Sunday morning.  But the problem lies not with Lutheranism, it lies with the false ideas of religion and faith that won't give Lutherans a second look.  The problem lies with Lutherans who have sit oblivious to the transcendent revelation of God's presence, the radical resource of grace, and the amazing wonder of Him who comes to us as He has promised to deliver the promised gifts of Christ's redemption.

I am probably one of the dullest people I know.  My parents were and still are pretty boring people.  My life is hardly once of breathtaking excitement.  But the miracle of grace is that God is there where He has promised and this merciful Lord delivers what He has pledged in the humble elements He transforms into the spectacular means of grace.  If we miss it, it is because we have chosen not to see what the Spirit reveals.  If we fail to talk about it, it is because we are too full of ourselves to speak of that which He has done.  If others do not see it, it is because we have not told them where to look.  My Word will not return to Me empty handed, says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah, but will accomplish the purpose for which I send it...

If you want to know where Lutherans live, it is at the junction of dull and boring.  But knock on the door and listen to what is inside... dunk deep into the waters of death and life... come to the taste of bread Christ's body and wine His blood... Wow.... Christ is all in all.  To live in the routine of this efficacious and life-giving means of grace is boring only if you have not listened or heard or watched or eaten or drunk what God has place among us with the power of the Spirit...

Sunday, February 23, 2014

What to make of this. . .

I live in the darkness of my own little world, it seems, since I was totally unaware of this video greeting from Pope Francis to the charismatic Word of Faith community (read that Kenneth Copeland).  I have long been aware of the ecumenical nature of the charismatic movement, often creating affinities between denominations stronger than those within a denomination.  But I had no idea that such was on the radar of the papacy.

Anyway, for those who are interested, Kenneth Copeland and his group were meeting and the Pope extended to them a very heartfelt and encouraging greeting.  What is surprising is that such a greeting would have been extended to a group only on the fringe of Christianity when there are others with whom Rome has much more in common who might have been better candidates for the papal salutation.  But you are free to disagree with me and to watch (it comes a little more than 30 minutes into the video).  It is, well, interesting, to say the least!  As Copeland put it, "if you are not on fire after all that has happened, your wood is wet..."

Visitation. . .

The LCMS seems to be abuzz with talk about the idea of visitation.  Some folks are positively scared to death by it and others resent it.  Some folks insist that it is high time and still others think it is too late.  And I guess there are folks like me somewhere in the middle of all of this.

Visitation comes to Lutherans from Luther's own advocacy of a program of visitation.  In 1526 or so Martin Luther besought the Elector to appoint episcopal visitors to survey the conditions within the congregations of the realm.  It took a few years before the request grew legs but in the end Luther himself ended up doing some of the legwork.

In the end Luther was tortured by what he found.  Ignorance among the laity and the clergy shocked Luther into action and his sermonic series and other writings ended up in a form of a catechism or enchiridion (aka handbook) of doctrine and faith.  The Large and Small Catechisms were in part a response to the deplorable conditions that were found.  There was no shortage of catechisms (some say 30 or more were published in the 6-8 years prior to Luther's two gems so the problem was felt universally.  Though not originally polemical, these catechisms became a bit confrontational when the radical reformers began publishing their own catechetical tools.  The story was even a Roman Catholic Bishop in Denmark reprinted Luther's Small Catechism for his faithful -- albeit without Luther's name attached.

The truth is that no church body knows what is going on in their congregations without some sort of visitation.  This is for Lutherans the primary episcopal responsibility of those leaders of the larger church.  We live in an age of abundant communication and yet it is accompanied by increasing isolation among the clergy and parishes of our Synod.  Divided and anonymous, the congregations of our church body are known only superficially to those assigned with the responsibility of supervising doctrine and practice.

Without assigning blame, the call of the Harrison stewardship of the Synodical Presidency has been the renewal of the call for energetic and effective visitation.  Our pastors and parishes are often amazingly anonymous and isolated in our world of constant communication.  This is not a witch hunt but the wise and faithful stewards making sure that blessings and resources of the Lord are known.

I encourage such visitation.  None of us can afford to remain isolated and aloof from one another.  It is not merely a threat to the Synod, it is threatening to each of us and to the parishes under our care when we as clergy are isolated and disconnected from our brother pastors and our sister congregations.  On the one hand, there are those who fear indoctrination and manipulation to enforce a radical orthodoxy that butts heads with the Gospel.  On the other hand, there are those who lament at the wrongs that are and who have no idea the rights that have been missed among all the calls to faithfulness and orthodoxy of faith and practice.

Sadly, I will admit to being unsure where I fall.  Am I fearful of those who would second guess me in my own parish?  Sure.  My ego is just as vulnerable as the rest of you.  But I am even more fearful that we have lost too much of the distinctive Lutheran confession and piety that binds us better than glue to one another.  I hope I am proven wrong in this visitation process, but if I am not, I think that there is no time better than the present to discern the state of the church and begin strategies of renewal that are consistent with our confessional and liturgical identity as Lutheran Christians.

None of us is aimed toward the past.  We are not attempting to restore some bygone but esteemed era of Missouri Synod  history.  What we are hope for is that we will find something to celebrate in terms of our unity and something to work on in terms of our weakness in doctrine and practice.  The point is that we will never know if things are pretty good (despite the statisticians and their doomsday scenarios) or if things are as bad as some say.  I am not an optimist; my hope is in the Lord.  A little personal interaction and visitation is good for us.  As long as this visitation remains from from someone's self-appointed policing agenda, I think it will do us good -- it may even hasten the real renewal of confidence in the means of grace and courage to hold up in practice as well the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith of our confession.

Call me up, Bishop.  I am ready to be queried and I might have a few questions for you, too!  We are accountable to one another as well as to the Lord.  There is no fear in this.  But there is great potential for renewal, strengthened unity, and clearer thinking on our purpose and goals as the Church of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Create in me a clean heart. . .

Sermon preached for the Circuit Pastors and others gathered here on Thursday, February 20, 2014.

I had to read again last Sunday's Gospel with its wounding word of Law from the mouth of Jesus only to end the reading with THIS is the Gospel of the Lord?  It does not seem to hold much good news for anyone.  But as I read this the backdrop in my mind were the words of the second story of the Swedish Lutheran Bishop's wonderful book The Hammer of God.  This it the kind of book you need to reed regularly and not just once.

I love the second story when the young curate named Fridfeldt who, after being converted by a pietistic revival, is sent to a small country church to serve under a very old, very Lutheran rector. From the beginning of the story, we learn that Fridfeldt is a “holy living” sort of guy.  He likes justice and he feels he has something to commend to the Lord by his outward life and inward committment.

On his first evening at the new parish, after dinner, Fridfeldt and the rector retire to the rector’s study where the rector enjoys a nightcap and a smoke. This is shocking to Fridfeldt and begins a serious conversation about what it means to be Christian, one in which the two different faiths both called Christian are laid out --  One rooted in the law; the other rooted in grace. The quotation begins after Fridfeldt has just finished sternly telling the rector that he is a believer, and that he has given his heart to Jesus:

The older man’s face became suddenly as solemn as the grave.  “Do you consider that something to give Him?”  By this time, Fridfeldt was almost in tears.   “But sir, if you do not give your heart to Jesus, you cannot be saved.”

Ah... That is exactly where we find ourselves today.  Moses confronts us with the commands of the Lord and asks if these we have done.  And Jesus extends the domain of the Law from the exterior of a person’s life to the interior of the heart and mind, to the secret places not spoken out loud or admitted in public.  Who then can be saved?

But if you do not give your heart to Jesus, you cannot be saved!  We always think that we have something God wants, something valuable that He needs us to give to Him, something worthy of Him that only we can give.  We have talents and abilities.  We have wealth and power.  We have affection and desire.  We have love and kindness.  Or, at least we think we do. . .

Jesus tears down every presumption on our part.  “You have heard it said.... but I say to you...”  There is no wiggle room there.  If the hearers of Jesus from last week’s Gospel had thought it must be hard to be saved if your righteousness had to best the righteousness of the scribe and pharisee, what did they think after Jesus continued down the Sermon on the Mount.  There is only one conclusion.  No one can be saved.  Not one.

Our hearts hold nothing but our sinful desires that end up being spoken as words that shame us or that end up being acted out in deeds the dare not see the light of day.  Jesus spoils the day and confronts us with the blackness of our hearts so that all the Law leaves us is the darkness of true and utter despair.

And then the old Rector answers the curate:  “You are right, my boy. And it is just as true that, if you think you are saved because you give Jesus your heart, you will not be saved. You see, my boy,” he continued reassuringly, as he continued to look at the young Pastor’s face, in which uncertainty and resentment were shown in a struggle for the upper hand, “it is one thing to choose Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior, to give Him one’s heart and commit oneself to Him, and that he now accepts one into His little flock; it is a very different thing to believe on Him as a Redeemer of sinners, of whom one is chief. One does not choose a Redeemer for oneself, you understand, nor gives one’s heart to Him. The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap. A fine birthday gift, indeed! But a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks his walking cane through it and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with Him. That is how it is.”

The two ways of thinking are two completely different religions.  You and I wonder why our churches are not growing.  We are filled with the anxiety that maybe there is something we could or should be doing differently.  We are exposed to the angst of a marketplace mentality that sells Jesus like a good pair of socks. We want to give Jesus something good both from our lives and our ministries.

We are tempted to borrow what works thinking that Jesus is impressed with a full house and a smart Pastor who knows how to bring em in.  In contrast to this stands the cross, the religion of pure and unadulterated grace.  In contrast to this is the terrible realization that we have nothing to offer Jesus but the rags of soiled righteousness and hearts filled with decay and death.  But that is the miracle of the cross.  Jesus want’s those hearts.  Jesus wants those hearts not because they are filled with good but because He alone has the power to make them new.

So we come with heads hanging down, with egos deflated, and with more shame that we want to admit.  And we give Jesus our hearts... and with them the Holy Spirit teaches us to sing, “Create in me a clean heart, O God...”  O Lord, make them new because we cannot stand them as they are.  Jesus lays bear every presumption so that grace alone is left before.  Gift of mercy and work of grace alone.

The truth is I do not come here because I want to.  I am here because I have to be here.  I have nowhere else to go.  I do not give my heart to Jesus because it is worth something.  I give it to Him because it is a worthless, stinking, den of decay and death.  I give it to Him because I cannot stand it anymore.  It is filled with the regret and disappointment over my constant failure to be good and my complete inability to reign in for a moment the evil and sin hidden within it.  I give it to Him because only He can make it new.  The pews may not be full but God has never promised they would be.  But where there are people like me who have had so much of themselves they cannot stand it anymore, there is Jesus.  Taking our old hearts and making them new.  You do not give your hearts to Jesus to be saved... You give your hearts to Jesus because you are saved... by grace... through faith...  Amen.

Promote tranquility?!?

We gladly keep the old traditions set up in the church because they are useful and promote tranquility, and we interpret them in an evangelical way, excluding the opinion which holds that they justify.  Our enemies falsely accuse us of abolishing good ordinances and church discipline.  We can truthfully claim that in our churches the public liturgy is more decent than theirs, and if you look at it correctly we are more faithful to the canons than our opponents are (Apology XV.38).

Now there is a novel thought -- traditions (here meaning ceremonies and liturgical traditions) promote tranquility.  What does it say, then, that these traditions have been the fodder of worship wars of our recent past and the cause of some turmoil when we reintroduce of what has been lost?  It could mean that we have drifted further and further from our Lutheran moorings of doctrine, faith, and practice.

For now I will skip such things as chanting and incense and go to more basic traditions.  I have personally participated in the reintroduction of the chalice into two parishes where the use of the chalice was either never the practice or where it had been omitted some time before I arrived.  In both cases there was an initial dust up over those who insisted that the chalice caused illness, passed disease, and was generally unhealthy.  

Or another example.  I have personally reintroduced to two Lutheran congregations the historic and confessional practice of the weekly Eucharist.  In both cases I took the long approach of preaching and teaching the people into what should have been their practice.  In both cases I endured the criticism of those who complained that this was not the way it was when they grew up, it unnecessarily lengthened the worship service, and it rendered common things that God meant to be special (read that exceptional and not normal).  

Or a final example.  I have personally reintroduced the practice of individual (private) confession and absolution only to find folks complaining that I was a closet Roman Catholic or that I was restoring things that were discontinued for good reason, etc...  No matter that this was the norm of parish life as expected in our Confessions and that the practice of a general confession before the Divine Service was a later introduction.

All I am saying is that the Confessions insisted that keeping the traditions received from those who went before (except where they expressly conflicted with the Gospel) was to promote tranquility.  The fact that these are the source of some angst and upset among Lutherans today can only mean one thing -- we are in a far different place than we were.  Now some will surely sigh with relief that we have finally abandoned our catholic identity on Sunday morning and look more like Methodists.  But the sacrifice of liturgical identity is not without doctrinal consequences.  The fact that the things the Confessions describe as normal for us Lutherans have become exceptional is not a good thing.  This is what underlies the worship wars more than whether or not we like it when the Pastor sings or the thurible swings.  It is not the practices alone that have become uncomfortable to us but the teachings that these practices reflect.  

It is certainly true that we have more Lutheran congregations practicing weekly Eucharist but does this mean that we have recovered the Eucharistic piety which is expressed in the Confessions?  We also have fewer using the chalice exclusively or as the primary means of the distribution.  What does this say about the fears of the common cup and our belief both in the real presence and our confidence that God would not ordain something that would cause us harm?  We hear more talk about private confession and all our hymnals have included rites for individual confession and absolution without making much of a dent in its practice.  What does it say that some are offended when the general confession is omitted but scandalized by the prospect of private confession?  The liturgical movement within Lutheranism was never meant to be the recovery of a practice without also recovering the theology that goes with it.  I am not sure that we have gained as much as we think.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Church of the Holy Preferences

....we confess and believe in the “one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Believing in the Church (as the Creed states) means that we are not looking for a Church that fits our own preferences, but rather a Church that teaches us what our preferences should be...

I read this somewhere and wrote it down in my thought book.  Apologies to the author since I failed to jot down the source.  But I love this expression.

When there is nothing to watch on TV, I often find myself watching those house hunters in search of a home to purchase.  What I find so fascinating is how their preferences match up with what is available on the market.  They come with an image of perfection in mind and their frustration is that the dream house is never for sale in the price range, location, or at the time they seek it.  So they trade off some things from their list of wants and must haves.

I fear that we shop for a church in the same way folks typically shop for a house.  We are driven by our preferences.  We have in mind the perfect image of a church and then drive around until we find it.  Of course, we do not it and we end up trading off some of our wants and must haves for what we can find and we settle for something less than our dream.  In the end the nagging doubts about the things we did not get often undermine our happiness with what we have.

Another one of those TV shows asks people to love their home or list it for sale.  A realtor and designer try to refit or sell what was the home of their dreams that it might become again the house they hoped for or they move on to something new.  It is the story of a people who bought that house thinking it was almost perfect but who lived in it long enough to outgrow their love and begin to resent what they did not get in that house.

I wonder if many church folks end up like the folks on this home show.  Something happened and the church they once loved has become the church they have outgrown, one that no longer fits them or where they are at.  So they begin to shop for a church home with a dream in mind only to find few incarnations of their ideal.  Maybe they find one that fits enough of the categories for them to be happy for a while but statistics tell us that too many folks are perennial church shoppers, going from one congregation to another without finding the one that fits just right.

I have not watched that many episodes but it seems the majority of people end up falling in love with their old home again once some things are fixed (strangely, the things the designer fixes are often not the things the folks complained about most of all).  I have actually had some folks come back over the years because they found that the things that caused them to leave were minor in comparison to the things that called them to stay.  It is always happy when this takes place but even when it does I wonder if we are not looking at things backwards.

The Church is both an article of faith (I believe in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church) and a visible reality (the baptized gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord where the Gospel is preached purely and the sacraments administered according to Christ's institution).  Unfortunately we shop for a dream instead of believing the promise.  If the Church is where the baptized people of God are called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified by God working through the means of grace, then we need to allow those means of grace (Christ at work by the Spirit) to shape us and our preferences.  The Church does not reflect our preferences but teaches us what to know, believe, desire, and seek.  Where we allow the Church to do just this we will find our life within it much more rewarding and satisfying. 

Those who seek in the Church looking a logically consistent faith, a philosophically sound confession, a sociologically satisfying community, and an ideal assembly of people will end up sorely disappointed and leave rejecting not only the church but the faith.  Those who come to meet Christ where He has promised to  be, in the sacramental mystery of the viva vox Jesu and the visible Word of baptism and the Eucharist will find it hard to be distracted by disappointments either of the leaders or the members. 

"It is not what I was looking for..." said someone who had attended my parish for a while and then left...  No, I suppose it is not...  but then who said what you were looking for was what God created, endowed, and attached His promise to...   Just sayin. . .

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Commandment thoughts. . .

Whether you translate it Thou Shalt Sanctify the Holy Day or Remember the Sabbath Day to Keep It Holy, the common word here is DAY.  I am certainly no advocate of blue laws or Sabbath laws to apply to Sunday (the day of the Lord's resurrection) all the rigid requirements of the Sabbath under the Covenant of Moses.  Lets not go there...  But... let us consider for a moment how the freedom in Christ has reduced the holy DAY to a holy HOUR or two and ask ourselves some honest questions about this redefinition of the word "day".

Speaking as a Lutheran, our own early Lutheran history (extending well beyond the time of J. S. Bach) shows that worship was not an hour long proposition but a day given mostly to the liturgy of the hours, the Divine Service, and catechetical instruction.  From early Sunday morning until late in the day, the schedule of services beckoned to the Lutherans of that day.  Consider the ordinary schedule of services from Bach's day, for example:

5 am - Matins bell and Service
6 am - First "regular" service
7 am - Early Divine Service (lasting often until 11 am
           if a festival day and large number of communicants)
11:30 am - Noonday Service bell (actually began at 11:45
           but lasted 1 1/2 hours)
1:15 pm - Vespers & Sermon (often with verse by verse
           exposition of the text in the sermon)
2 pm - Catechism Service & Preaching
3-4 pm - Final Vespers

In addition to this schedule of Sunday morning, festivals added additional services.  Weekly the schedule was equally filled with worship services (3 on Mondays, 6 on Tuesdays, 4 on Wednesdays, 4 on Thursdays, 5 on Fridays, and 2 on Saturdays).  These services were not brief but often lasted up to 2 hours each.

Sadly, the usual Lutheran schedule today lists one service (whether at one hour or duplicated again at a later hour) and an educational activity (Sunday school and/or Bible study).  Whereas many of the people were both expected and did attend many of these services in Bach's day, the folks today consider one service a week sufficient and then complain when that service breaks through the magic barrier or 59 1/2 minutes. 

The commandment spoke of a day and the Pharisees made sure that rules prevented much of anything else being done on that Sabbath day.  Today worship is not a day or even half a day (except, perhaps, for those who actually must lead worship).  In fact I hear complaints all the time when choir or bell schedules keep a person here for first service and second service (and presumably Sunday school although some have been know to use that time to head out for a bite of breakfast).  "But Pastor, I had to be here most of the morning!"  Awww, that is too bad but I am sure the Lord is glorified by your willing and cheerful spirit about all of this.  Seriously, however, our minimalism has left us with the wrong idea about worship and starved of the Word in its fullness.  We have a fast food mentality for a rich banquet of God's gifts and we are the poorer for it.

I do not see the mindset changing soon but I am doing all I can to remove the clock from what happens on Sunday morning (as much as can be done, anyway).  We seldom have a Sunday service that ends before 70 minutes, with 70 minutes between the services for Sunday school and Bible study.  So at least the folks who come for both are going to spend nearly 2 1/2 hours around the Word and Table of the Lord.  But I would hardly suggest that this is enough or sufficient.

Strangely the entertainment oriented churches seem less bound by the hourly definition of what constitutes good and pleasing worship than the liturgical ones.  Go figure.  I guess it just shows that our appetite for entertainment is different than our appetite for the Divine Service in which God gives us His gifts in the Word and Sacrament and we respond with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.

We have taken Sunday as our own day and, absent the Sabbath Saturday of old, we have reduced the Lord to a few token minutes here and there.  He will not suffer but we will for our stinginess of time for the things of God and His house.  It was once said that a home going Pastor makes for a church going people.  I was recently reminded that the purpose of the home going Pastor was to check out the folks and see if their behavior was up to snuff.  It was not pastoral care but policing the sheep (did they have a beer can in the trash, was the ash tray full, was HBO on the TV, was their giving commensurate with their lifestyle for themselves, etc...).  Lutherans never really bought into this idea of pastoral care and for good reason.  A faithful home begins with faithful people in the Lord's House.  That is the order of procession. 

We live in an era in which hardly anyone but those over 70 want the Pastor to come and sit and talk for a while.  We do not bring people to our homes but meet them out in restaurants and coffee houses and taverns.  It is even more important that we do not shortchange ourselves by limiting the time we spend together with the Lord in His House, around His Word and Table.  Real pastoral care begins with the Divine Service and flows from there into the rest of our lives.  Don't be cheap about your time and starve your souls and faith.  Be as generous with the Lord as He is with you and the state of your soul and the strength of your faith will show the fruits of this faithfulness.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Alone but not alone. . .

If you are like me, living in an area of the world in which Lutherans are small quantities, it often seems like you are alone.  If you are like me, struggling to restore a catholic vision to a Lutheranism that has come to see itself on one side or the other of the mainline/evangelical divide, it can often seem pretty lonely.  If you are like me, a reader of news, blogs, journals, etc..., it can often seem like you are completely out of step with the majority of folks around you.

We are alone, there is no question about that, but we are also not alone.  In a practical sense, there are many of us hidden in plain sight.  Lutherans struggling to be Lutheran in a world where the currency of faith is not anything like Lutheran are really pretty common.  Part of it is due to the fact that Lutherans long ago jettisoned the ethnic, cultural, and religious ghettos of the past and live all over the world.  Part of the reason you are more common than you think is that Lutherans have used the technology of social media and electronic communication to connect beyond the miles and have discovered kinfolk where they least expected to find them.  Part of the reason why Lutherans trying to be Lutheran are more common than one might think is that we have more and more young and younger Pastors who are challenging the lukewarm old ideas of church, worship, and confession.

We are alone in the sense that it is not always possible for us to meet for lunch and encourage one another or sit with each other in the same pews on Sunday morning, but we are not alone.  There are more and more of us every day.  We are not carbon copies nor are we artificial or virtual realities, no Stepford Lutherans here.  We are diverse and different but united in the common conviction that the Lutheran faith confessed in the Concordia is faithful and true to Scripture and represents the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith once handed down from the saints through every generation.  We know that the Lutheranism of our Confessions is true and vibrant even if the Lutheranism of congregations and synods struggle to live out this faith in practice.  Ours is not a struggle to redefine the faith but to restore the faithful practice of the true and enduring faith of our Confessions.  We often feel alone and struggle with the lonely task of living out this struggle (from both sides of the altar rail) but we are not alone.

One of the reasons I enjoy going to the Symposia at Concordia Theological Seminary is the fellowship of those who wear different Lutheran acronyms but share this common perspective.  I was not disappointed this year.  From a Bishop and Seminary Rektor out of Siberia to an ELCA Pastor from Wisconsin to and ELS Pastor from Minnesota to seminary students from all corners of Africa as well as all regions of America, I am rejuvenated by the realization I am not alone.  Many of them could be my sons in age but they have raised up the banner of the Confessions and been enlisted in the cause of restoring parishes and circuits and districts that mirror this catholic identity in form and practice.  Some of them could be my daughters in age but they are deaconesses and seminarian wives who are no less convinced and committed to the cause than the men around them.

Lets face it.  Lutheranism is a mess -- the practice of it but not the Confession.  If you look around you, it is apparent that all forms of Christianity are a mess.  Does anyone see any hope in the mainline hemorrhaging people and congregations daily?  Does anyone see an idyllic answer in Rome with its tension between Vatican II and all that went before (between B16 and F1)?  Does anyone think that Orthodoxy is the end to loneliness, culturally bound Christianity, and consistency of faith and practice?  Does anyone think that Canterbury offers any promise of hope to those convinced their own house is a wreck?  In many of those places there is no Confession, no Creed, and no real mechanism to raise up the faith or recall the wandering to orthodox and catholic Christian faith and life but Lutheranism has the edge with the Confessions.  I do feel alone but I am not ready to exchange one set of problems for another.  Are you?

My friend Pastor William Weedon had it right.  A few generations ago Lutherans looked at our mess and dreamed the Anglican dream.  No more.  A generation ago, following JPII and in B16's time, some Lutherans looked at our mess and dreamed the Roman dream.  Not now.  And in our own generation there are Lutherans who look at our mess and dream the Orthodox dream -- still tempting to many -- but no panacea or easy transition for folks whose whole life and mindset is Western.  Having offered our chapel to an OCA mission congregation that lost its place on Ft. Campbell a few years ago, I quickly saw that the struggles we Lutherans face are no different than the struggles of Orthodox in a world intent upon Christianity lite.  Besides, when Orthodoxy had a cardiac arrest at the vigorous episcopacy of convert and Metropolitan Jonah, it raised and raises honest questions about the cultural and ethnic chains over Orthodoxy in America that cannot be ignored.  Nope, we have looked around us and seen the options.  Though Lutheranism is a mess and has been for some time, we are the best situated to recover the local face of our theological conviction and confession. 

We feel lonely and often are geographically isolated from one another but in this struggle we are definitely not alone.  Now is the time for patience and not exasperation.  Now is the time for courage and not despair.  Now is the time for the work of recovery and renewal to be done in earnest.  No district or synod is any stronger than its individual congregations.  The place to begin is where we are.  The ripples of this local renewal will recapture the offices and structures of the larger church eventually.  Do not lose heart.  You are alone but you are not alone.  Layman, catechumen, seminarist, Pastor... have hope!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Jesus adds insult to injury to righteousness from the law. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 6A, preached on Sunday, February 16, 2014.

    We have been making our way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel.  Last week we ended with Jesus insisting that unless our righteousness exceeded the scribes and the Pharisees (professional do-gooders) we cannot enter the Kingdom.  Judging from the outside of their lives, these were the best of the best and Jesus insists that this is the bare minimum righteousness necessary to earn God’s approval.  Now Jesus goes one step further and insists that not only external righteousness but the purity of heart and thought is required.  Jesus adds insult to injury to a people who found external righteousness hard enough.
    Phaedress, a first century author, came up with the expression “insult to injury” in a fable about a man who swatted a fly only to hit himself in the head.  Insult to injury is exactly what Jesus does.  Though we make mountains out of molehills and cause ourselves big problems for no reason, Jesus cuts to the core of it all.  Though we dismiss real mountains, fail to act, and then cry out when we must suffer the consequences, Jesus warns us with blunt words. 
    The truth is we are always making big things little and little things big.  But Jesus refuses to let repentance be about behavior and insists a new heart is required.  The Law is not satisfied by trying a little harder to be holy and neither is the Law simply about external behavior.  Today, before the backdrop of this unchanging standard of the Law, Jesus frames His whole redemptive work.
    We waste our time being more concerned about hurt feelings or bruised egos instead of the sin which kills.  Offense has come to mean hurt feelings instead of the stumbling that causes death.  It is too easy to be concerned about our comfort level more than our salvation.  But not Jesus.  Our Lord loves us enough to speak to us words we would rather not hear and to address us with a call to repentance that means total rebirth.
    We are subject to judgment.  Not only our deeds but also the hidden thoughts of the mind and desires of the heart are under our Lord's scrutiny.  God is not content to survey the external of our lives; even our motives and hearts are searched.  How easy it is to make faith about surface issues instead of what is underneath it all.  Here Jesus contrasts the distorted righteousness of behavior alone with the internal righteousness God requires of the heart and mind.
    You say this... says the Lord.  But I say...  With these words Jesus refuses to let us hide behind out patent excuses, our hurt feelings, and our bruised egos.  The stakes are too high.  It is about life and death.  Sin is the issue.  Not whether you are happy or comfortable or fulfilled or have all you desire.  Repentance is not about trying harder but the acknowledgment of sin that has you dead in your trespasses and no amount of redecorating can fix what this sin has done.
    Death is the consequence of sin.  Not an unhappy or an unfulfilled life.  Not whether or not life is easy or fair.  Our lives are hollow and empty not because we are not happy but because death waits for us and we cannot do anything about it.  Jesus is blunt.  There is no refuge in your external works or in the intention of your heart.  You have no righteousness to wear in the closet of your thoughts, words, and deeds.  That is the insult to injury in Jesus’ words. 
    But Jesus is not here to threaten.  He frames His whole purpose against the dead end path of the Law and its inability to produce righteousness in us.  We need something more.  We need what only Christ can give.  We need to the blood that cleanses us from sin, the death that gives life, and the life that death cannot overcome.  We need the new clothing of Christ’s righteousness and the promise of grace on which to hang our hopes of redemption.
    If you were dying, would you want to know it?  There may be some of us who prefer not to know, living the lie that everything will be okay.  Most of us would want to know, would want the chance to live a different life.  Jesus confronts us with the dead end of the Law in order to point us to the way of life that He has come to bestow.  Choose life, says the Old Testament lesson.  The Spirit opens our eyes to the dead end of works so that He might awaken in us the faith to trust and see in Christ the one and only path of life.
    Jesus tells us the straight up truth.  You cannot go on living as if nothing was wrong and everything was okay.  This is the full force of the Law with all its bite.  But unless you hear this, the Gospel means nothing.  Only the dying seek life, only the sick need healing, and only the lost pray for redemption.  That is what frames our Lord's call to repent – His love for us.  This is why He refuses to let us live the comfortable lie that everything will be okay.
    Appearances do not count.  Sin counts.  Death counts.  Yet these are not the only things that count.  Jesus counts.  His life given in death for us is stronger than sin and its claim of death.  Jesus has healing for those cut to the quick before the Lord.  Jesus has forgiveness for the guilty.  Jesus has life for those caught in sin's death.  The only way we can take seriously what Christ has done, is to take seriously where we stand before the Law.  If repentance is born of fear alone, it is a dead end.  But if repentance is born of faith in Christ, confidence in the mercy of God, by the death that gives us life and the life that gives us heaven, then Spirit will bring forth the fruit of  repentance in our lives.
    Brothers and sisters, the sad truth is that too much of what passes for Christian preaching and teaching merely redecorates the outside of a person’s life.  We do not need empty words and pious platitudes about trying harder.  We need radical grace.  We need redemption for us lost and dying sinners.  We need a righteousness worth wearing from Christ.  We need the work of the Spirit to amend our sinful lives and keep us steadfast in this hope.
    Every time you look into the mirror of the commandments, you see staring back at you the dead end of works and earned salvation.  But that very same mirror points you to the wounds of Christ wherein we see healing, forgiveness, and life.  This is what we see in baptism, what feeds and nourishes us at the Holy Communion, and what forgives and restores us sinners from our sins.
    Some see repentance as that once in a lifetime transformation of conversion.  Our Lord refuses to let us forget what we see in the mirror of the Law and so shapes our lives by a daily confession and repentance in which we kept from the empty promise of our works and sustained in the grace of Christ where redemption alone is found.   Without the Lord we are the walking dead.  But it does not end there.  In Christ we have been forgiven, we have been made alive, and we have been set apart as the people of His promise to show forth the glory of His mercy in the world.
    Hurt feelings and bruised egos must be cast aside because the stakes of it all are far too high.  Thanks be to God that Jesus confronts us with the emptiness of a hope built upon works.  Let us with the same love speak truthfully to those still in the shadows of sin and in the darkness of death.  The real insult to injury would be to know the truth and refuse to speak it, to know what is life in Christ, and not proclaim it.  Sure, some words are hard to hear.  But unless we hear the hard truth about the failure of an external righteousness to save, we cannot appreciate the full measure of the gift that Christ gives us in His own righteousness, clothed in us by baptism and lived by faith.
    May God give us ears to hear!  Amen.

Why ceremonies, rituals, and tradition are important. . .

I just had to reprint the succinct listing of confessional reasons why ceremonies, rituals, and tradition are so important even while we acknowledge that these cannot be made into rules imposed upon the faithful as requirements for salvation...  You can read it all here, compliments of Pastor Mark Surburg.

1) Good order, harmony and avoiding offense

Concerning church regulations made by human beings, it is taught to keep those that may be kept without sin and that serve to maintain peace and good order in the church, such as specific celebrations, festivals, etc.  However, people are also instructed not to burden consciences with them as if such things were necessary for salvation. Moreover, it is taught that all rules and traditions made by human beings for the purpose of appeasing God and of earning grace are contrary to the gospel and the teaching concerning faith in Christ (AC XV.1-2).
We gladly keep the old traditions set up in the church because they are useful and promote tranquility, and we interpret them in an evangelical way, excluding the opinion which holds that they justify.  Our enemies falsely accuse us of abolishing good ordinances and church discipline.  We can truthfully claim that in our churches the public liturgy is more decent than theirs, and if you look at it correctly we are more faithful to the canons than our opponents are (Apology XV.38).
Nevertheless, we teach that liberty in these matters should be exercised moderately, so that the inexperienced may not take offense and, on account of an abuse of liberty, become more hostile to the true teaching of the gospel. Nothing in the customary rites may be changed without good reason.  Instead, in order to foster harmony, those ancient customs should be observed that can be observed without sin or without proving to be a great burden. (Apology XV.51).
This is a simple rule for interpreting traditions. We should know that they are not required acts of worship, and yet we should observe them in their place and without superstition in order to avoid offense.  This is the way many great and learned men in the church have felt about it (Apology XXVIII. 17-18).

2) Teaching the faith
But as the different length of day and night doe s not harm the unity of the church, so we believe that the true unity of the church is not harmed by differences in rites instituted by men, although we like it when universal rites are observed for the sake of tranquility.  So in our churches we willingly observe the order of the Mass, the Lord’s day, and the other more important feast days.  With a very thankful spirit we cherish the useful and ancient ordinances, especially when they contain a discipline that serves to educate and instruct the people and the inexperienced (Apology VII/VIII.33-34).
For after all, all ceremonies should serve the purpose of teaching the people what they need to know about Christ. (AC XXIV.3).
Ceremonies should be observed both so that people may learn the Scriptures and so that, admonished by the Word, they might experience faith and fear and finally even pray. For these are the purposes of the ceremonies. (Apology XXIV.3).
And so when the confessors describe their own practice they say:
Among us the Mass is celebrated every Lord’s day and on other festivals, when the sacrament is made available to those who wish to partake of it, after they have been examined and absolved. We also keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of readings, prayers, vestments, and other similar things. (Apology XXIV.1)
Moreover, no noticeable changes have been made in the public celebration of the Mass, except that in certain places German hymns are sung alongside the Latin responses for the instruction and exercise of the people. (AC XXIV.3)