Tuesday, September 30, 2014

When is a snack more than a snack?

"Worshippers at the St Michael and All Angels Church in Uffington, Lincolnshire, wanted their oak altar to double up as
a place to 'serve refreshments' ".  Photo: Alamy
Truth IS stranger than fiction. . .
Friendly service with Coffee (see 'Services and Events' here).

Worshippers at St Michael and All Angels Church in Uffington, Lincolnshire, wanted their oak altar to double up as a place to “serve refreshments” but Mark Bishop, chancellor for Lincoln, and a judge of the Church of England's Consistory Court, decided the altar could only be used for worship, not to serve snacks. Read the report here. Putting the request for a faculty in a slightly different but no better light, another account here reveals that the application was part of the church’s refurbishment project "which has included a revamp of the Casrewick (sic) Chapel and a new roof".

Read it all here. . .

But is it all that strange. . .  When the ritual exists alone, apart from the Sacramental reality that delivers what the Word proclaims, what really is the difference between the fellowship rituals of coffee and donuts (or, in this case, tea and biscuits) and bread and wine?  Yes, it is the Lord's Word, to be sure, but if we empty that Word of its power to deliver what it promises, why can't we substitute the relevant rituals of the moment for the Biblical imagery of the past?  If the Word is not telling us the truth straight up, if we are not receiving Christ's flesh (the same flesh of His incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection) and His blood (the same blood shed upon that cross), then the ritual has only the meaning we attach to it and nothing more.

These are the same issues with those confessions that fail to attach Christ presence to bread and wine and to define that presence as corporeal, the same reality that was incarnate in Mary's womb, suffered and died on the cross, and rose again.  Christ cannot be really present unless that presence is accessible and unless that presence has a promise attached to it -- the forgiveness of sins.

LCMS worries about a diversity of views communing together is not simply a "purity" issue as some complain but about the essence of the very Sacrament itself.  We do not read into the words of Christ what we want to here and we do not receive what we think those words mean.  The Word delivers what it promises or not.  The issues here go to the depths of what it means to believe, to have confidence in the Word of the Lord, and to know where and how to meet the Lord and receive the gifts of His promise.

Apart from the confession of what His Word says and the faith that trusts and receives what He has promised, the Sacrament of the Altar is just a snack with more (with a memory).  But that is precisely NOT what it is according to the Scriptures (especially Paul in First Corinthians).  It IS the memorial, the participation in His body and blood through our faithful eating and drinking at His bidding.  We are not left with a memory but are given the memorial in which we enter the mystery whereby the passover fulfilled is made present in the Holy Supper and the future anticipated and glimpsed -- all by eating and drinking!

Monday, September 29, 2014

The devil's lies. . .

A great quote from Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen:

Before the sin, Satan assure us that it is of no consequence; after the sin, he persuades us that it is unforgivable.

The devil can only lie and God can only tell the truth.  Even when the devil speaks the truth, he speaks the truth in such a way that it acts as a  lie.

Such is the power of the devil to undo God's work in conscience before the sin and to magnify its guilt afterward so that we are left alone, helpless, and in despair.  Yet this apparent lock that the devil has over us is undone by Christ.  His is the truth to shatter all the devil's lies.  He does not lie to us and tell us that the devil was correct -- the sin is no big deal.  No, our Lord addresses the sin for what it is, in all its sordid ugliness and shame; He calls it out of us and calls us out for the sin. But He does do in order to address us with the power stronger than sin -- the blood of Jesus Christ that cleanses us from all sin.

The Church is not being cruel when it insists that sins count, that evil matters, and that our guiltiness is nothing to be trifled with.  No, it is the truest form of love to admit what sin is and to hold us accountable for that sin. But the Lord does not leave us with despair nor does He gloat over our shame.  He is wounded for us, bearing the weight of our sin upon His shoulders upon the cross.  He addresses us with forgiveness and restores us fallen sinners by grace.  Faith clings to the merciful hand of God who reaches down into our shame and rescues us from our lost condition.  This is the greatest joy of all. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Can it get any crazier?

Can it get any crazier?  Wait, don't answer that.  At least not until you have read this:

A new Danish law may force pastors in the nominally Lutheran state church (Folkekirken) to perform same-sex weddings in some instances. Folkekirken is ruled directly by the Danish parliament. By law, Folkekirken members have a legal right to have their pastor conduct their wedding. Folkekirken pastors may not refuse, but the 2012 law authorizing same-sex marriage contains a ‘conscience clause’ allowing pastors who consider same-sex marriage unbiblical to decline. A newly enacted Danish law apparently creates an exception to this exception.

The new law permits any person to change his legal gender by simply filing a form stating that he now considers himself of the opposite sex. This person is thereafter considered by the government to have changed gender. No surgical alterations or hormone treatments are required, only the filing of the form. The Danish newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad reports that in the first five days the law was in effect 123 persons filed for a change of legal gender identity.

The government’s Minister for Church Affairs, Marianne Jelved, has stated that if a person in a homosexual partnership files as being of the opposite gender and then wishes to marry the partner, this is now legally a heterosexual wedding. “The right to decline to perform homosexual weddings does not apply,” she stated. “Pastors must respect the civil authority’s determination.” Thus, in the opinion of the Minister, a Folkekirken pastor must perform the wedding in this situation.

“If [following the new law] goes against their consciences,” Jelved told Kristeligt Dagblad, her view is “they can resign.”

My Comments

Read it and weep Weep not only for the immorality and scandal of it all but for the sheer foolishness and stupidity that parades as social justice and enlightenment.  Weep not only for those in the churches who are caught between God and conscience on one hand and law and society on the other but also for the naive and willing who accept without thinking through this strangeness.  Weep not only for the offense to Christian morality and to Scripture itself but also for the way that such radicals have hijacked the agenda, the initiative, and the official channels of religion in pursuit of that which will undo church and state.  For surely God is weeping at what sinful rebellion has done to His greatest work of creation on which alone He placed His image and likeness.  Soiled, cracked, and distorted by sin, the image of God is surrendered even more to the whims of feeling, preference, and desire.  It is not only that we are no closer to God for all this tomfoolery but that we are further from being the people God created us to be -- a spiral of decay that leads us further and further from our divinely appointed place in creation and ever more in need of Him who alone can save us from ourselves.

The land that produced Nicholas Grundtvig has trashed his memory and made the singing of his mighty hymn even more urgent in his own country.  "Built on the Rock the Church Doth Stand"

Too Much Preaching. . .

I heard one more rant by someone from the pew (not in my own parish, mind you) complaining about too much preaching.  In this case the preacher had the audacity to preach nearly 20 minutes.  The rebuke he received was quick and hard.  Get into the pulpit and get it done and get out.  That was the advice to the naysayer who found the preacher taking too long.

As I thought about it, I wondered first of all who might be saying this of me.  Once I got over that, I thought of the times I might have thought this while sitting on the receiving end of the sermon.  But that soon gave way and I began to think instead of just how little preaching the average Christian (you may insert Lutheran) actually receives.

In effect the Devil is preaching to us all the time.  He preaches through media in which our values our trashed, faith is ridiculed, and sin is justified.  He preaches through the culture in which God's place is diminished and our own places enhanced so that everything is judged by our desires, delights, and disappointments.  The Devil preaches to us through temptation, secret and hidden, and through public pressure, open and obvious.  He preaches to us all the time and our own sinful self is happy to hear and to listen to everything the Devil preaches.

One lousy sermon a week, perhaps 15-17 minutes at that, is hardly enough to counter the Devil's preaching which we hear day in and day out, in the darkness of our dreams, and in the witness of the world around us.  We complain about too much preaching, about sermons too long, but we hear hardly enough to make any real difference!  We need to hear more preaching!

As I have written before, the participation in the Daily Offices has subsided and our people hear sermons basically one day a week.  It is a far cry from other eras in which people heard a handful or more sermons a week and yet we live in an age in which the assaults of the evil one are more seductive, the influence more pervasive, and the presence more subtle.

If our people are supplementing the preaching with books like 40 Days of Purpose or Your Best Life Now, little will help them endure the onslaught of a world and a mindset so acutely focused upon the moment and upon feelings as the present day.  No, we need meat.  We need something to be chewed over and wrestled with -- not a nice word or sentiment.  We need preaching.  For this reason the task of the preacher remains even more urgent, the press upon the preacher more powerful, and the faithfulness of the preacher more essential than ever before.  The preacher dare not waste his time in the pulpit with anything less than the full counsel of God's Word faithfully applied and the people who hear him must not begrudge him the time to preach the Word in and out of season, faithfully, and forcefully.  Our lives are literally hanging in the balance.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Cross Pollination

A while ago, folks in the ELCA sent around an invitation to do some thinking about who is welcome at the Lord's Table.  While it could have been directed to infant communion, an up and coming movement in the ELCA, this invitation rather asks questions about the necessity or wisdom of requiring baptism of those who commune at the Lord's Table (in the ELCA at least).

For most Lutherans this would be a confusing issue.  While certainly there have been and remain broad differences between Lutherans of various stripes about who is welcome to commune, it was generally assumed that baptism was the minimal requirement of entrance to the Lord's Table.  Now it appears that the communion statements of many ELCA congregations have omitted the requirement of baptism and either in print or verbally welcomed any and all present to receive the Sacrament at their altar.

Why would this become an issue now?  Is it an issue of radical hospitality and fear of offending anyone, especially the unbaptized?  Apparently not.  The issue has arisen because of the consequences of the Eucharistic fellowship agreements the ELCA has had with other Christian bodies, especially those who have not confessed clearly or at all the Real Presence of Christ in any way familiar to or reflective of the Lutheran and catholic expression of this essential teaching and doctrine of Scripture.  In particular, it has a source in the relationship between the ELCA and the United Methodist Church.

The author of the original request for such study has outlined his intention in detail here.  It is summarized below in a portion of his own explanation:

"The guiding documents of the ELCA stipulate that Baptism precedes Communion. Those documents were written for a different time in the life of the ELCA. We have since entered into a full communion agreement with the United Methodist Church, a body that has no requirements for admission to Communion and welcomes anyone who presents themselves to receive the Sacrament."
The point is that we are told over and over again a Lutheran can be in fellowship with people who do not believe exactly as we do, a Lutheran can use worship formats that have no basis in our Confessions, a Lutheran can sing hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs written from vantage points vastly different than our Confessions (including here the Creeds) and it does not dilute or diminish the Lutheran distinctives at all.  But how can this be?  How can it be that we practice a communion discipline at odds with our own Confessions, we worship like people of other confessions, and we sing hymns and songs that do not adhere to the Lutheran practice of singing the Gospel and the faith, and NOT be affected by it all??? 

Cross pollination is not always a good thing.  In this case, the Lutheran angst about requiring baptism (at least) of those who commune is occasioned not by a dispute with Lutheran doctrine and practice but a queasiness over how it goes down with ecumenical partners who do not have such a requirement.  In other words, our acceptance of a diversity of confessions that do not parallel or agree with our own is okay but not practicing a different requirement for admission to the Lord's Table.  The inevitable conclusion is that what is always on the table for discussion and review is NOT the stance of others but our own historic and confessional identity -- one that seems ever ready for surrender by those who care more about a supposed conflict with the Methodists rather than conflict and disconnect with our own theological tradition and historic practice (and that of the church catholic we claim to preserve in our Confessions).

Friday, September 26, 2014

Whither the Old Testament lesson. . .

When I grew up, the Old Testament lesson was absent from the Sunday readings.  Though there were lessons from the Old Testament appointed and listed in The Lutheran Hymnal calendar, they were not used.  According to Lutheran sources on the liturgy (like Reed) they had been absent for a very long time.  There were some liturgical scholars who believed that they were present in the beginning and lost.  Others were not so sure.

According to a Dr. William Mahrt:

HERE IS NO CONCRETE HISTORICAL EVIDENCE for a third lesson in the Roman Rite. There is, apparently, in the Milanese Rite. Perhaps the evidence that has been relied upon was the very disjunction between gradual and alleluia. Evidence against the proposed historical order (and thus the present usage of the ordinary form) is that the assignment of alleluias to the Sundays after Pentecost varies from place to place, while the other propers are quite consistent from place to place; the alleluias were unquestionably assigned after the time when a hypothetical third (unproven) reading was the case. But for the Latin Rite, there is evidence that in Augustine’s practice, there was only one lesson before the Gospel, because he preaches on the lesson, the psalm (responsorial psalm), and Gospel. 

He goes on to state further:

S REGARDS THE OLD TESTAMENT, we are repeatedly assured that there was an Old Testament reading each Sunday morning at Mass, but that quite mysteriously these all vanished by the seventh century, and vanished leaving no memory that they had ever existed: no homilies on them by Leo or Gregory, no inadvertent cross references to them in any surviving source, not one palimpsest listing one pericope and the Sunday to which it was assigned, no tradition as to what Pope suppressed them or why; just an a priori assertion that there is a reading missing between the Gradual and the Alleluia, which would, incidentally, place the Old Testament reading after the New, contrary to practice elsewhere in the traditional Missal. This argument from silence is wildly improbable.
There are indeed Old Testament lessons on penitential days in the traditional Roman lectionary, but these are quite a different matter. The alleged set of vanished Old Testament readings are, I fear, a romantic fantasy like the vanished people’s offertory procession. They are only a theory on the lips of a liturgist, like the smile on the face of the Cheshire cat that isn’t really there. If it is now thought desirable to introduce Old Testament readings, let a new three year cycle of them be drawn up and introduced, but on an optional basis, and not on the specious ground that some element due in the liturgy had disappeared.   (source)

I remain somewhat convoluted in my thinking here.  I was always taught that they were there, disappeared, and were restored with the great reform of the lectionary following Vatican II.  Whether this is mythology or not, it is impossible to believe that they were not present in the earliest church.  Indeed, there were Christians before there was a New Testament.  The whole nature of the Christian faith from the Gospels to Acts is that the writings of Moses and the prophets all testified of Jesus.  This is Jesus' own insistence to His disciples.  It is incredible to believe then that the early Christians did not read the Law and the Prophets (as well as the poetic and wisdom writings) and not read Jesus Christ from them.  That said, when the Roman lectionary was formed, it is entirely possible that the Old Testament readings were not including for the Mass propers but were relegated to the Daily Offices.  Whatever the history, and it is far from settled at this point, the Christians today have benefited from a full restoration of the Old Testament readings into both the three year lectionary and the one year lectionary and for this we should all be glad.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

What does this mean?

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

I have spent many months in discernment about how I am being called to serve God’s people and God’s creation in this season.  I have resisted the assumption by some that presiding bishops can only be elected to serve one term, knowing the depth of relational work and learning that is involved in this ministry.  There is a tradeoff between the learning curve and the ability to lead more effectively as a result of developed relationships both within and beyond this Church.  At the same time, I recognize that standing for election as Presiding Bishop carries the implicit expectation that one is ready to serve a full term.  I do not at present believe I should serve and lead in this ministry for another nine years.

My Words:

What this means, I do not know.  But I would expect that there are folks on all sides of the issues facing the Episcopal Church who are relieved that Schori will not be a candidate to lead this denomination for another nine years.  Her nine years have been a lifetime of dispute, conflict, membership loss, financial loss, and unpleasant publicity.  While there is no expectation that the next PB will be orthodox, the successor to Schori could not possibly be more of a lightening rod of contention than she has been.  I probably should not have said that because there are even worse folks to lead this once noble communion than her -- I just cannot imagine who that might be?!

The Two Minute Warning. . .

Typical in the justification for omitting portions of the liturgy is the desire for brevity.  Usually the brevity desired is not simply to shorten the service but to provide more time for the pastor to preach (and, often, for commentary throughout the service and too many announcements). 

Recently Pope Francis cautioned against sermons (homilies) that are too long.  Perhaps you are shocked by the prospect of a homily or sermon in a Roman Mass actually being long enough to be noticed!  In any case, here are his words:
The homily . . . should be brief and avoid taking on the semblance of a speech or a lecture. A preacher may be able to hold the attention of his listeners for a whole hour, but in this case his words become more important than the celebration of faith. If the homily goes on too long, it will affect two characteristic elements of the liturgical celebration: its balance and its rhythm. . . . The words of the preacher must be measured, so that the Lord, more than his minister, will be the centre of attention. (Evangelii Gaudium, 138)

I think we Lutherans would agree that the sermon should not take on the semblance of a speech or a lecture.  I am not so sure we would agree that it is possible for a preacher to hold the attention of his hearers for an hour, but I will grant the Pope that anyhow.  What Lutherans probably quibble with is the idea that a homily which is too long detracts from the balance and rhythm of the liturgy and steals the attention away from the rightful peaks of the Gospel read and the Sacrament administered.  We shouldn't.

As I mentioned in beginning, one of the complaints of the Divine Service is that it takes too long.  The appeal to the "dry mass" that ends at the offertory is that it is shorter -- significantly so.  It allows the preacher additional time to preach while getting everything within the magical framework of under 60 minutes.  So, the old saw goes, if you have Holy Communion, something else has to be omitted to come in on target so that the worship service is not too long.  The parts of the liturgy are the prime candidates for omission.  And who would miss them?  (tongue in cheek here)

Unfortunately, it requires major surgery on the Divine Service to make for a meaningful reduction in time.  Most of the sung responses are so short that omitting them all saves you only moments.  Even the longer sung portions of the liturgy are short enough so that together they represent may 5-10 minutes of real saving.  And what is that -- a 10% saving??? 

Perhaps Francis is on to something worth noticing for Lutherans as well.  First of all, time and the typical ideal of 59 1/2 minutes are not relevant to the worship of God's House.  We live by His time and not by the ticking of a clock.  Where do we have to go and what is so important on our agenda that saving a dozen minutes is of supreme importance on Sunday morning?

Secondly, it may well be that Francis has heard more than Roman preachers and that he is correct in saying that sermons do not necessarily gain anything substantial from added length.  They might.  But that is not guaranteed.  The preacher should be careful about the time allotted to him and owes his hearers not to waste their time.  What I mean is that the sermon is not the central point in the Divine Service for which the liturgy is merely prelude and postlude.  The preacher needs to preach faithfully, carefully distinguishing Law and Gospel, and to carefully use the text but he need not require an abundance of time to do this.  I am not advocating for short sermons here.  I am only suggesting that the sermon is not the tail that wags the liturgy.  Rather, all the parts of the Divine Service (including sermon) work together and do not compete -- either for attention or for time.

Finally, I advocate for the two minute warning.  Saving two minutes by omitting this part of the Divine Service or that is not worth it.  The worship of God's people takes as long as it takes.  In addition, if you need to save a few minutes, tighten up the sermon a bit and see if you can say the same thing in fewer words.  Nothing is more shocking to the folks in the pew than when the preacher stops leaving them hungry for more.  As preachers we might try it once in a while.  As hearers we need to be less conscious of time over all.  As liturgists we need to cut back on the announcements and commentary and let the liturgy sing unhindered by our ad lib.  As worship planners we need to pay less attention to saving a minute here or there and making sure that we weave together the pericopes, the liturgical options, the seasonal direction, and the ordinary in such a way that they flow seamlessly and wonderfully toward the fruitful goal of having met the Lord in His House where He promised to be -- in Word and Sacrament.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A helpful word. . .

Not a few folks winced when John Paul II kissed the Quran.  Not a few folks were made anxious when in Lumen Gentium it appeared to relax the unique character of the Christian Gospel and suggest that God made save others apart from faith in Christ alone.  Not a few nervous heads shook and continue to shake every time the Vatican uses diplomatic language that softens the distance between, for example, Christians and Muslims.  Not only Lutherans were ill at ease whenever Christians participate in pan-religious events that seems to imply either that all religions are essentially the same (morality) or that no religion has a corner on the truth of God and of salvation (essentially universalism).  So it was encouraging for this reader to encounter a much clearer, much more orthodox tone and character to the relationship of Christians to other religions and of the essentially evangelistic nature of the Christian faith that refuses to surrender the mission of Christ to the altar of expediency or political correctness.  You read it. . .

The Only Basis of the Christian Missionary Effort and Dialogue: Jesus Christ as the One Savior of the World

by Inos Biffi
L'Osservatore Romano, August 8, 2014

That the Church not only prays for but also dedicates her total commitment to the conversion of all men to Christ is part of her essential mission.  After his Resurrection Christ entrusted to his Church a precise command:  “All power in heaven and earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

This  Christian discipleship, evangelization in every place, of “all peoples” and of all creatures, this is the mindful intention of Christ, and in fact from her very beginnings the Church has understood herself in terms of this radical missionary effort.

This permanent and universal mission to the world is part of the Church’s very nature.  If this were in any way diminished, she would no longer be the Church of Christ.  To announce the Gospel means to proclaim that only in the Gospel message and its acceptance is it possible for one to be saved.  The words of Jesus are peremptory:  “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16, 16).  To affirm that someone in good faith who adheres to a religion can be saved means instead to recognize that the will to universal salvation operates in the life of those who carry out the good by heeding  an upright and clear conscience.

Whatever truth or holiness there is in every religion is objectively the imprint of Christ and a desire for Him.  Therefore this shows how misleading it is to hold , in order to show respect to all religions, that one must avoid the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the only Savior, and, if anything, one need only to see to it that someone remain in a full and coherent fidelity to his own “credo”.

Certainly religions are to be respected. No one can be forced to believe in the Gospel.  God Himself is the safe-keeper of interior religious freedom.  But this does not entail making all religions equivalent to the Gospel or the obfuscation of Christ as the only Savior for all time and for everyone. 

The passionate desire of the heart of Christ was that the sons of Abraham would welcome Him as the Messiah.  In fact Christianity is founded on the faith of the Jews who did believe in Christ, as his mother, Mary, Joseph, Zachery, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Simeon and Anna, the Apostles and the whole Church of God, (Galatians 1,13), from the beginning, those who saw in Jesus the fulfillment and the telos of the Law (Romans 10,4).  All too often we forget that this “Church of God” is born from the faith of Jews who believed in Christ,  and that these are not limited to Paul alone. If they had not welcomed Jesus as the Messiah, Christianity would have been extinguished at the very beginning.

And we see here  the reason for which the relationship between Christianity and Judaism is not comparable to the relationship of Christianity with other religions.  The God of the Christians is the same God of Genesis, who “in the beginning created heaven and earth”(Genesis 1,1) and who in Jesus has been revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And He is the God that the Church proclaims to all men, preaching Jesus, the only-begotten Son, the one Savior of all.  In this proclamation the Church follows the same mission of Christ and therefore the deep purpose of Revelation begun with Genesis.  She has the awareness that, if she were to admit other saviors along side with Christ, she would be placing her own faith in idols; and that if she turned her back on the full revelation of God who created heaven and earth in the Trinity shown forth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, she would reject God the Creator himself.  The origin, cause and the content of the missionary purpose of the Church came about in this way.  And the Church is called to answer only to Jesus Christ, and to share with him the work of evangelization.

This does not mean that the Church rejects “dialogue” with religions.  Whatever the purpose of this dialogue is, it will never be able to destroy the belief of the Church that only in the Gospel, in the same way for all, is there salvation.; that the command received from Christ is to proclaim the Gospel as necessary and not prescindable for every man. Nor can it ever be put into doubt that the Church herself in every time and place must use all of her strength to make all men disciples of the Lord.  Moreover, this is how it has always been from the very beginning of the life of the Church.

If a “weak” proclamation of the Gospel had prevailed; or if Christians had worked to help the building of pagan temples with their gods; or if they had been satisfied to seek out what united them at a minimalistic level with other religions without a clear stress on the “differentness” of being a Christian, we would not have had the witness of the martyrs. Dialogue does not entail the risk of martyrdom, which, surely, is always in its own way a tragic instance.  But together with this we would no longer have either the Faith nor the Church, if she were to water down the Faith and become a mere ghost of herself in an act that leads to death,  when the missionary effort that is at the heart of her life becomes exhausted,  when her missionary effort becomes a source of anxiety, when she loses that certainty that there is “only one God” in confronting those who say that there is space for many gods who are in the end just idols, when she falters in proclaiming that there is “only one Lord”, the Son of God, who the Church in her very being is called to preach to the whole world.

Translated by Rorate's Father Richard G. Cipolla

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Who is the star of your story?

Sermon for St. Matthew's Day, preached on Sunday, September 21, 2014.

    So what do you want on your tombstone?  Or better, what do you want said in your obituary?  Few of us get the privilege of writing about how we shall be remembered.  And what would we write if we did?  Would we whitewash our stories, erasing the bad, the embarrassing, and the shameful, to focus upon the good, the noble, and the shining moments of our triumphs?
    In the Gospel reading for today, St. Matthew had the rare privilege of telling his own story.  But he did not tell the story in order to favor himself.  Matthew made sure the story was the truth – the truth of his sin and of Jesus' grace.  In Matthew's story, the one who looks good is Jesus.
    Matthew (or shall we call him Levi) calls himself a tax collector.  Unlike today where tax collection is a distasteful but essential evil, Levi is speaking of disreputable vocation.  It was inherently dishonest.  Tax collectors were cheats, thieves, and liars who manipulated the system to line their own pockets. They worked on commission and charged not what was fair but what the market could bear, literally taking food from the table.
    Matthew calls himself a sinner.  In other words, he knew better.  He knew the law of God.  He knew the difference between evil and righteousness and he chose evil.  He chose evil for his own selfish gain.  The only time he felt bad about it was others condemned him but even then he had learned to ignore their accusations and complaints.  He was a sinner secure in the grasp of sin and it did not bother him much anymore.
    The name Levi means joined to another and Matthew had joined himself to his sinful occupation, without much remorse or second guessing of the wrongs he had done.  His friends were tax collectors and sinners like himself; nobody else wanted to hang around with him.  But this Levi was about to become Matthew – the name that means gift of God.
    It is the mystery of grace that Jesus ate and drank with sinners.  We still rejoice that He dines and drinks with sinners or we would be simply telling a story instead of hearing good news meant for us.  Grace finds itself where sinners are, the dirty, the shameful, the wicked, and the self-centered.  It happened for Matthew long ago and it happens for us today.
    Those who know their need are those who welcome the gift of grace.  When we stop denying our sins, justifying our evil, and excusing our wickedness, then God is already at work in us and among us.  When we come admitting and confessing who we are, God meets us not with the condemnation we expect but with the gift of grace and the blessing of mercy.
    When we come as those who not only know but lament our sinful condition, God is already at work turning us into gifts of God.  That is what repentance is – the God who opens our eyes to see what we are and who makes this vision hurt enough for us to desire to be something more than we are.
    And there is Jesus.  Right there.  He comes to our hearts shamed by our sins and He comes to our wounded egos bruised by our iniquities.  When we stand like publicans fearful of His gaze, He lifts our eyes to see mercy where condemnation is expected, grace where judgment is feared.
    We are the Matthews of our own day.  If we tell our stories right, we will not sugarcoat the details.  We call a sin a sin and we call grace the best surprise of all.  Jesus eats and drinks with sinners.  Still.   Each of us has betrayed our identity and soiled our righteousness until we wheeze with sickness of death.  We don't need to be coddled and we don't need lies.  We need a real dose of truth, no matter how painful – a truth that has the power to transform.
    Faith makes honest people of us.  Like it did of Matthew.  Faith seeks the Lord not for His approval but for His mercy, not to get what we deserve but the grace none of us dare ask, and not for justice but for the scandal of the cross.  There is where we are born again from above, there is where we discover who we can be, and there is where we become useful to God.  For the story of Matthew does not end with his conversion; it is the prelude to a life of sacrificial service that mirrors our Lord’s pursuit of righteousness and love at the same time.
    Lets be honest here.  You do not go to church to hear something new or experience something unique.  You come here because there is a word that endures forever, a word that has the power to cut through lies with the truth, a word that brings the mercy of God to sinners and a word that speaks life to the dying. 
    I am not here to say something you have never heard before but to speak to you the same old truth to a people who come with the same tired old problems and sins.  I am here to coax you out of the darkness of sin's lies and into the light of Christ's truth.  I am here to lead you to your knees before the Lord so that in the surrender of your sins and self-righteousness, God may do for you what He did for Matthew of old.  I am here to remind you that it is God’s baptismal grace that has made you a gift of God and to call you to live as His gift every day and in every place of your lives.  I am here to remind you that Christ is the star of your story, as He was for Matthew, and to let go of the illusions of life’s treasures to hold onto the true treasure that bestows eternal life – Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Why chant?

Nothing short of incense seems to raise the hairs on the back of some Lutheran's heads more than chanting.  I have personally known situations in which congregations have organized their opposition and brought up motions to the voters assemblies to formally request their pastor NOT chant -- not quite an order but pretty darn close.  Chant is certainly outside the musical mainstream of today.  Sure, there are folks who do like to listen to chant and the CDs still sell well but why bother when it seems so many are so opposed to it?

Chant marks the space for the holy work of worship.  Even more than architectural design or visual cues, chant has the power to mark the boundaries of sacred space.  It is a marker which is not laid down to be seen by the eye but heard with the ear.  I think of how it works in my own parish.  We share the peace immediately after the absolution -- connecting this peace of the Lord received in absolution with our peace one toward another as the people of God in this place.  I have written about that before.  As the peace is being passed -- always and noisy and disorganized movement of people in and out of the pews -- the organ intones the Entrance Rite (Introit, Entrance Hymn, or Kyrie).  In the waning din of the peace being passed, the sound of a single voice chanting breaks through the activity and signals very clearly that the peace is over and we are now into the Liturgy of the Word.  Without a single direction or announcement from the presiding minister, the whole congregation is brought together to the same page, the same moment, and the same purpose.  Such is the power of chant to mark a space.

Chant marks the text for the holy work of worship.  The spoken liturgy sounds the same -- subject to the particular inflection of the voice or reading skill of the one leading it.  Chant marks the text as sacred, taking the text out of the realm of casual conversation or lecture and marking it for the holy purpose of worship.  The differences in tone and chant communicate a great deal to the people.  So, for example, one of Luther's reforms that we miss entirely today was the direction to chant the Words of Institution to the same tone as the Gospel was chanted.  This musical notation was not without significant impact upon the hearer who immediately identified the Words of Institution with the voice of Christ in the Gospel and the Sacrament of the Altar as Gospel itself.  In the same way, chant takes text and marks its identity and purpose within the sacred context of the liturgy.

Chant teaches through repetition.  Just as rituals become ingrained in us through repetition, so does the chanted word become a vehicle.  The ritual bond between text and tone is not insignificant in the impression of our memory what is said and what it means.  Chant is essentially a ritual bond between the words and their tone or music.

Chant marks the action of the words. Just as the tone has movement, so does that movement both mirror and describe the movement within the text.  Again, note how in Luther's setting of the Verba the chant clearly distinguishes the description of the action of the Upper Room from the very Words of Christ -- giving attention to Christ's voice and His words as that which is the center of the liturgical action.   In another way, the joyful setting of the Alleluia Verse stands in contrast to the Lenten Verse and so the chant itself works with the text so that both delineate the nature of what is being sung.

Chant is not music to entertain.  Perhaps this is why chant is so misunderstood.  We lump chant in with all over musical tastes and preferences as if it is merely a matter of what touches you on this emotional plane or that.  Chant is not music to entertain.  It is music to communicate.  It aids the actual text both in projecting the voice so that many may be heard and setting aside that voice from the text so that the focus is not on the singer, so to speak, but upon what is sung.  Chant is the voice of worship -- indeed it made it possible for people to learn to sing together so that the many voices may be one and it still sacralizes what is sung, setting apart the word from the casual conversation of the people.  Perhaps no one has fully comprehended the significance upon worship for this movement from largely chanted liturgy to spoken liturgy but the outcome has not been positive for the reverential character of the liturgy.

Monday, September 22, 2014

In conflict with the faith, creed, and doctrine of the Church of Sweden

Swedish minister defrocked over anti-women priest sermon

The Church of Sweden has deposed a priest for having told his congregation in a sermon that those who support the ordination of women to the clergy will not be saved.

On 19 September 2014 the Bishop of Gothenburg, the Rt. Rev. Per Eckerdal, (pictured) released a statement saying that after listening to a recording of an August 2013 sermon by the Rev. Olle Fogelqvist, the cathedral chapter voted to remove him from the ordained ministry for teaching doctrines contrary to those upheld by the Church of Sweden.

Bishop Eckerdal stated Mr. Fogelqvist’s comments were “extremely injudicious,” adding that “just the thought that the sex of a priest would be decisive for salvation was startling.”

A curate at the parish church of Löftadalens in Kungsbacka Municipality, Mr. Fogelqvist argued that it was an ontological impossibility for women to be priests. Those who relied upon the efficacy of the sacraments offered by women priests were endangering their souls, he said, because those sacraments were void ab initio.

Women clergy were first ordained by the Church of Sweden in 1958 and the current archbishop of Uppsala is a woman.

Bishop Eckerdal stated that Mr. Fogelqvist had no authority to promulgate from the pulpit views contrary to the received teachings of the Church of Sweden. His false teachings, the bishop said, were compounded by his foreknowledge that two women priests were soon to join the team ministry where he served. Not only had he made statements inconsistent with the “faith, creed, and doctrine” of the Church of Sweden, he had undermined his colleagues before the start of their ministry.

Mr. Fogelqvist has the right to appeal the decision.

My Comments:

Mr. Fogelqvist was certainly intemperate in his remarks but often the truth is.  I might suggest that his issue is not simply with the ordination of women but from the implications of a secularized church which, in many respects, the Church of Sweden has become -- but that would be putting words into his mouth.

What else you might glean from this comes from the Bishop's statement that the ordination of women has become one of the essential characteristics of the "faith, creed, and doctrine" of the Church of Sweden.  And this is the rub.  Churches that ordain women have made the ordination of women part of their confession, sometimes so essential to their confession that it seems to exclude orthodox Christianity itself.  For example, I wonder what might have happened if the same priest had suggested that Jesus' resurrection was a pious myth or legend or that sin was not the reason for our Lord's sacrificial suffering or that each person had to work out his own salvation with good works...  Certainly these would be an even greater assault on the character of Christianity and the Lutheran Confession of which the Church of Sweden claims to confess and yet, my fear is that these would be overlooked or treated less seriously than this man's rather strident objection to the ordination of women.  BTW one can only wonder when the ordination of gays/lesbians will become the same essential core teaching of the "faith, creed, and doctrine" of those Lutheran churches who have headed down that road. . . OR are they already?!?

As one person put it:  At least the Church of Sweden has its priorities, even if its beliefs are unclear:   In June 2011, in contrast to this case, the Church of Sweden decided not to defrock Ulla Karlsson, a female pastor who had published a column in the Church of Sweden newspaper during Lent. The column directly attacked basic Christian doctrine, declaring inter alia  There is no fallen creation and therefore the whole doctrine of the atonement is irrational! Throw out all the talk about sin, guilt, shame, blood, slaughtered lambs and other horrors! It has no place in modern times, among enlightened people!   The Consistory placed this pastor on probation, but did not find her to have committed a serious “breach of ordination vows” or to be “in conflict with the Church of Sweden’s faith, confession and doctrine."

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The power of labels. . .

The sting of sin is in the label.  No longer were Adam and Eve simply Adam and Eve.  They were sinners.  They wore their sins like labels shouting to the world.  Some of the labels they wore against their will -- the epithets others placed upon them.  Other labels they wore in pride -- oblivious to the stain and stigma their prideful wills proclaimed.  And we join them.  From the first gasp of breath to breathe into our lungs until it ends in our final exhale, we wear labels and they define us.  Some of them follow us like a rude odor and no matter how hard we try, we cannot shake them.  Others we gladly wear thinking that they are the real "me" and so we lift them up to the world as the proud badges of our true identities.

Time has not been kind to us.  The number of labels has grown exponentially.  Some of them are the labels of our own choosing and some chosen for us.  We are conservatives and liberals and moderates.  We are straight, gay, bi, lesbian, transgendered and how many variations in between.  We are Yankees and Southerners.  We claim a class in a society which is supposed to eschew classes.  We are what we do for a living, what we do in our free time, what we wear on our backs, what we wear in our ears, what we carry in our wallets, what we listen to on our ear buds, and a thousand other seemingly benign identities.

We are single or married or in a relationship.  We are mom or dad to some and kid to others.  We are boss to some and servants to others.  We are alumni of some schools, natives of this place or that, and willing or unwilling citizens of this locale or another.  We are black, white, brown, yellow, olive, red, and a thousand other variations of color.  Sometimes we complain that our whole identity is reduced to this or that label and others we make this label or that what it is that defines us above all things.

We are sinners.  We idol worshipers, ingrates, selfish, prurient, deviant, murderers, gossips, liars, cheaters, gossips, and all the other classic terms for sinners.  We are also fags, sluts, posers, rejects, jerks, addicts, drunks, bigots, and all the other hip terms for the same old dirty sins.  Labels.  Labels of our own choosing in which we scream who we are.  Labels chosen by others that we cannot escape.

But there is one thing we are that is not a label.  In fact, it is the end of all labels.  It is THE identity that now defines us -- even amid our failure to be what God has declared us to be.  We are the baptized, the children of God by His gracious favor.  We wear Christ's righteousness not as a badge but as the clothing He put upon us when into the water we drowned and out of the water came up a new creature.  The word Christian is not a label.  Christian is an identity that transcends our choice and comes from the work of the Spirit.  Christian is not a path we choose to follow or a series of truths we choose to believe.  Christian is God's making.  He takes us with all the labels that others have placed upon us and those we have chosen for ourselves, and He strips us naked and afraid before Him.  Where we expect condemnation, we find instead mercy and grace -- the surprise of a people who have learned to fear the worst and you will not be disappointed.  He washes us not as a symbol but with the cleansing water empowered by the Word..  He drags us down until every proud and self-centered breath has left us and raises up the lifeless to life, the sinner to redemption, and the lost by grace found.

Yet we are not yet complete.  We have a part of us that still views the world with labels and is not so sure we should give up the ones we think should fit us still.  He cannot redeem us and walk away or we will be lost to the same dead ends and detours that kept us captive to evil before our baptism into Christ.  So every day the Spirit has to work to teach us to lay aside the labels we toss at others and the labels we still claim to define ourselves.  Every day the Spirit has to teach us anew to say the word, the one word, that is not a label but an identity:  God's own child I gladly say it.  I am baptized into Christ.  This is why I must go to Church every Sunday.  The power of labels still haunts me and its familiar old ways still beckon me.  I would go their in a minute and be lost forever unless the Lord stood guard over me, reminded me that I am His own baptized child, restored me from my fall before sin and temptation, and renewed my soul with the grace that comes down from heaven.  Without Him I am a prisoner to the labels of my own choosing and those that others have chosen to mark me.  In Him I am reborn, stripped of the labels, and given a brand new identity.  That is where I fight the good fight of faith... where do you?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Punching, clawing, kicking, and beating your way into the hearts of men. . .

Pastor With a Punch from The New York Times - Video on Vimeo.

“Can you love your neighbor as yourself and at the same time knee him in the face as hard as you can?”  So wondered Pastor Paul Burress, as we interviewed him about his “fight ministry,” which he started to bring his take on Christianity to more people in Rochester, N.Y. For Mr. Burress and his ministry, the answer is yes — members of his congregation fight one another in church on a regular basis.

Mr. Burress is one of a growing number of pastors who incorporate mixed martial arts (M.M.A.), a violent sport also known as cage fighting that embraces kickboxing and wrestling, into their parishes. Pastors like him feel that the church’s traditional evangelizing is not resonating with young men anymore, and they are resolved to change that. They justify their unorthodox approach by arguing that many of the Bible’s core tenets involve fighting: for freedom, for one’s beliefs, and for Jesus, too.

Though it was banned in nearly every state a decade ago, M.M.A. is now one of the fastest-growing sports in the country. (Mr. Burress is a retired M.M.A. fighter; New York State prohibits professional M.M.A.) Churches like Mr. Burress’s integrate fighting into many elements of their worship, which they supplement with M.M.A. viewing parties and even, in Mr. Burress’s case, live fighting events (Several pastors have estimated that 700 churches have incorporated M.M.A. into their ministries).
From the New York Times. . .

Friday, September 19, 2014

Suicide of a Church?

Borrowed from the Bonfire of the Vanities:

‘Gay marriage’ is church suicide

Give into the Zeitgeist? Not a plan of success:

Episcopal Church:           -18% (2002-2012)
United Church of Christ:  -20% (2005-2012)
Presbyterian (USA):        -22% (2006-2012)
Evangelical Lutheran        -12% (2009-2012)

Of course, the declines are likely explained by many other factors; many, if not all, these denominations were already on a downward trajectory, as their liberalizing trends didn’t begin with endorsing a redefinition of marriage.

What’s more, Catholics and others committed to an orthodox understanding of morality and marriage in particular should not take comfort too easily. When our Lord walked the earth, people walked away from him because of things he taught, and in the end, the crowd chanted “crucify him” instead of “my Lord and my God.” So we should not expect to be popular when we offer the Lord’s message.  But embracing an “evolution” of marriage didn’t help, and almost certainly accelerated the decline.

My Comments:

Diversity which stands for nothing except tolerance, liberalism which abandons truth to the altar of expediency, and morality which becomes everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes has only one outcome -- death by irrelevance!  Those in pursuit of the ultimate relevance have made themselves irrelevant by standing for nothing except the freedom to believe or dismiss belief all in the name of being true to self.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Obsessed with a theme. . .

One of the modern day obsessions in worship, preaching, and, it seems, life itself is the penchant for the thematic.  We have thematic worship services, sermons, sermon series, etc...  It is as if we were acting by the twitter rules requiring that everything be distilled into 140 characters or less.  We have thematic liturgies (especially in Roman Catholicism) and thematic sermons in which the goal is to reduce everything to a words or a few words -- a synopsis of the whole that tends to dominate everything else.

What danger we do to the liturgy and preaching when we attempt to summarize, condense, and caricature the Christian faith and worship into soundbites!  I blame it in part to the PowerPoint culture of few words and few images to illustrate and define the most difficult and complex concepts.  Truth to be told, PowerPoint did not invent our fascination with thematic worship -- it only raised it to a much higher level.

Of course, there is a legitimate thematic character to the pericopes for the day.  In the lectionary we find the lessons pointing (generally) to the Gospel and the Gospel is supported by a collect of the day and by hymns chosen to coordinate with the thrust of the readings.  I am not talking about this.  I am talking about Sundays defined by groups (LWML Sunday), causes (Malaria Sunday), or issues (Marriage Sunday).  There would be no need of the church year at all if we used all the thematic suggestions by church related organizations, causes, and issues.  That is exactly what some have done.  The liturgical year has been shifted to revolve around the named Sundays and their causes or sublet to a preaching series of 117 sermons on how to raise better children.

It is killing the church and the people of the church.  We are all caused out.  We have become blinded to the faith by the stead stream of themes and foci that compete with the Divine Service and Christ's presence in the Word and Sacraments.  It needs to stop.  One of these days we will wake up to shark week in church and no one will find it strange.  The wisdom of an ordered church year will have given way to the strange, the titillating, and the exotic.  Our people will come not for the gifts of God in the means of grace but to find out what the pastor is going to do this week that could possibly outdo last week.  The Gospel is not a cause.  Faith should not be treated like a fad.  Soundbites should not define what we believe, what we hear, or what we confess.  The preacher of Ecclesiastes (12:12-14) calls us to simplicity but warns against trivializing the faith and what happens on Sunday morning.  I fear the prophet's words of gloom and doom, while appropriate to the church today, are falling on deaf ears.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.  So says the preacher.  I fear that the worst condemnation of all is the God who will ask us why we have fashioned faith as triviality and made the Lord Himself into merely an idea for the moment.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Not something to be admired or protected but lived. . .

Sermon for Holy Cross Day, preached on Sunday, September 14, 2014.

    Like other women of her age, my mom picked out a pattern of fine china when she married my father.  It is very thin and fragile.  While growing up we were cautioned about horsing around in the dining room – you know, the museum room of many homes where you look at the fine china you never eat on.  At some point in time, my mom decided her fine china was too precious NOT to use.  I could not tell you when but it began showing up on the table and the dining room was used.
    As Christians we are gravely tempted to think of the faith and the Gospel as a treasure like precious china – too precious to be used and so they end up being guarded or admired.  Indeed the origin of Holy Cross Day was when Constantine's mother thought she had found part of Jesus’ cross and it became a relic to be admired and preserved.  But we are not protectors of the faith or the cross.  God does not need us to protect Him.  God called us to proclaim the cross and to boldly speak His gospel before the world.
    Ours is not the charge to guard the faith as if it were some inaccessible treasure but to use it, to raise up the cross before the world, to proclaim the message of the cross for the saving of many, and to live out this faith by taking up our cross and carrying it out in the high and holy calling of daily life.  We are not curators of some museum or the security guards of some treasure.   No, the cross is too precious to be hidden away.  It is given to us to believe, to live, and to proclaim.
    Once the cross lifted Christ.  Were it not for the cross, Jesus would be indistinguishable from the hoards of rabbis and teachers who said this is I think the Scripture means.  But the whole focus of Jesus' ministry was the cross.  The hour had come – Jesus did not run from, attempt to escape from, or deny the cross.  It is for this reason He was born.  So in the Gospel for today we saw Him embrace the cross and His saving destiny as Redeemer of you, me and the world.
    The cross is not where we admire Jesus but where we meet the judgment of God.  The judgment of God on the world is not what we expect – not condemnation but mercy.  The cross is what reveals this.  In the face of God's Son in suffering and in His outstretched arms on the cross is written mercy, forgiveness, and hope.  This cross is then the very means through which the Lord draws all people unto Himself.  It is through the cross He reveals Himself as the Savior who has come for sinners, the sacrificial victim who pays for their sin, and the One whose death gives birth to life.
    The cross lifted Christ for the world to see the judgment of God in mercy upon the sinner.  Now the Church lifts the cross before the world so that Christ may continue to draw sinners to Himself and make know the glory of His mercy.  This is our hour.  We cannot shrink from the call to raise up the cross and boldly speak this Gospel.  This is our hour, not to hide away the cross as a relic but to confront the world with the preaching of Christ crucified where forgiveness, life and salvation are to be found.
    The world has already been judged in Christ, the sins of all the world have been paid in full by the blood of Christ.  But who will know God’s rescue or the verdict against sin born of Christ’s blood?  The cross must be lifted up, carried in faith, for us who are being saved and for those who do not yet know and rejoice in what Christ has done.  The only way the world will be rescued, the sinner redeemed, the dead find life, and despairing find hope is through the proclamation of the cross.  There is no other way that any will be saved except through Jesus Christ and Him crucified. 
    Churches and Christians are known for many things by the world around us.  Are we known as the people who speak Christ crucified and as the Church where the Gospel is proclaimed in all its truth and purity?  We do not have the luxury of pursuing other agendas or talking about things other than sin and redemption.  The Church is the means through which Christ will be proclaimed and His Gospel raised up.  God has determined to work through the Church.
    The world does not know what it wants or needs.  The world would never come to know that it needs the cross, grace, and mercy except God tell them.  So then it is by preaching God's Word, proclaiming the Law and the Gospel, that sinners are awakened to their hopeless condition and directed to the one place where hope is found.  We are in possession of the greatest treasure on earth – one that does what it says and delivers what it promises – grace and mercy!
    The world does not know what it needs or wants but every thing the world needs is found in Christ.  This Jesus whom we proclaim is the Christ of the cross.  This is not legend or myth or even pious hope.  It is, as St. Paul insists, the power of God to salvation for all who believe.
    We Christians sometimes think of the Gospel as fine china - for special occasions, too precious to be used, a treasure to be guarded.  But God has given us this treasure precisely so that we may use it, lift the cross high, and speak the living voice of His Word in our daily vocations of husband to wife, wife to husband, parent to child, child to parent, neighbor, co-worker, and even to the stranger on the corner.
    Holy Cross Day began when St. Helena, mother of Constantine, raised a pagan temple so that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher might be built.   They thought they found Jesus' cross on and this was treated as a relic to be guarded.  The true meaning of the Holy Cross is not found in a relic to be guarded.  The true meaning of the Holy Cross lies in the Gospel proclaimed, the Sacraments administered, and people who by the Holy Spirit believe it’s promise.  God has planted this cross in the water that cleans us and clothes us with Christ’s righteousness, in the living voice of absolution that reclaims us from temptation and sin, in the bread and wine that feeds the dying with the bread of life.  We are those who know the glorious gift that the preaching of this cross has given.  But there are many more who have not heard.  So we believe for ourselves and proclaim and live this Gospel for the sake of those for whom Christ also died.  In this way the cross is exalted just as God intended.  May the cross be lifted high and may it be raised in word and action by us, the baptized who have been born anew by its power and gift.  Amen.

More alike than we knew. . .

Contrary to Protestant imagination, the usual mass familiar to most Roman Catholics prior to Vatican II was not the high mass with deacon, sub-deacon, and choir but the low mass with spoken liturgy and a priest assisted by a single boy server.  It would take about 45 minutes (not counting the sermon) and the congregation might have knelt for most of the liturgy.  The homily may have been the only part in the vernacular.  The congregation's participation was mainly through interior prayer and the actual reception of communion.  In some places organ music and a few popular hymns might have been included.

The ritual of the low mass was largely limited to the part of the priest.  The low mass was mostly restrained in character and the expression of the people focused more upon the rituals apart from the actual mass itself -- namely upon the Rosary.  Extra services such as the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament or the Stations of the Cross were often a strong focus of their piety.  The character of the low mass was more penitential than celebratory -- much more than is usual today.  The priest spoke into the silence in generally muted and deliberate tones.  This is certainly a far cry from the more folksy style of many masses after the reforms that came in the wake of Vatican II.

In other words, the liturgical setting of a typical Roman Catholic parish prior to Vatican II did not look all that much different from a typical Lutheran parish of the same era (if you closed your ears to the obvious difference in language).  The mood among Lutherans was similarly somber, the focus penitential, and the attitude of the Divine Service reverential.  There was little ad lib insertion of commentary or even the pastor's personality into the service.  The pastor, for his part, led the worship without revealing much of himself (except perhaps during the sermon).  So there was much that Roman Catholics and Lutherans had in common on Sunday morning.

In the same way, in the post-Vatican II reform of the mass and Lutheran liturgical experimentation and change of the Divine Service, we moved in parallel fashion.  For both of us the service was shifted in tone from the reverential and penitential character that once dominated it to the more folksy, personal, and casual style of the present age -- so much so that for Roman Catholics and Lutherans alike the parishes that mirror the earlier setting of the mass or Divine Service stick out as being exceptions rather than the norm.

Nowhere is this more true than the stereotypes.  Lutheran people complain about chanting as being too Catholic when Roman Catholics have for generation after generation seen chanting as exceptional rather than ordinary.  Lutheran folks assume that Rome is still the same stalwart home of highly stylized ritual in which the distance between priest and people predominates when Roman Catholics have been subjected to every kind of pastoral hijacking of the liturgy that Lutherans also have suffered since the early 1970s.  The strange reality is that the Lutherans who complain about liturgy being taken too seriously and who desire a more folksy kind of Divine Service are more in step with the typical Roman parish today than those who are generally accused of being pseudo-Catholics!!  Even incense has largely disappeared from the ordinary church life of a Roman Catholic so that they find it just as strange as Lutherans!!  The more we try to be different, the more like Rome we became -- and not in a good way!!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

More than liturgy. . .

The strange modern phenomenon of Evangelicals embracing liturgical worship in an effort to reach out to those Gen Xers and such who seemed to be attracted by it stands in stark contrast to the Lutherans who have chosen to abandon the liturgy for the very same reason -- appeal to younger people.  "No so fast..." insists liturgical Christians to their Evangelical copycats.  You can read the well reasoned and thorough response of one liturgical Christian to the borrowings of Evangelicals here.  There is too much for me to cut and paste the article in snippets here so I urge you to read it.  My take is slightly different.  It is the reverse.  Just as this article notes how liturgical worship is the rage among many Evangelicals but suggests toying with forms is not enough to pass muster, so do I content that it is equally ineffective and quite deceitful to toy with Evangelical forms and attempt to retain a Lutheran theology.

The liturgical author is saying that it is not a "style" or a "form" that attracts the folks and therefore one cannot merely keep the same content and borrow an inauthentic "style" to reach out to those who find the liturgy welcoming and not offensive.  What I am saying is that it is equally not a matter of "style" or "form" when Lutherans (liturgical Christians) ditch the appearance in order to mimic Evangelicals and insist that they are still authentic Lutherans and that their faith has not changed.  When you worship like an Evangelical, you will believe like one.  When you believe like a liturgical, sacramental Christian, you cannot worship like an Evangelical.  The doctrinal content and practical face of Sunday morning cannot be at war with each other. 

Those who seem to be attracted the liturgy are smart enough to sniff out preaching and faith that does not flow from and back to the altar, font, and pulpit in a way that is authentic and true.  In the same way, those who seem to be attracted to praise bands, spectator services, entertainment style worship, and preaching that focuses on the immediate more than the eternal can sniff out a lie equally as well.  They will find the discrepancy between their evangelicalism and Lutheran confessional theology and liturgical practice equally disconcerting.

Honestly, sometimes I think we Lutherans are idiots.  We think that borrowing from the Evangelicals who are borrowing from us will somehow not be noticed as antithetical to what we believe, confess, and teach.  Of course we are assured all the time that the people leaning toward evangelicalism have not at all surrendered their doctrine to the altar of expediency -- only their Sunday morning practice.  Again, who are we fooling?  I would suggest we are fooling no one at all.

The folks we are trying attract will not be attracted by evangelical wannabes when they have the real thing available just down the block.  What may be the real problem is that these Lutherans are no longer evangelical wannabes.  They have sold their souls to their worship "style" and have, for all practical purposes, begun to believe like the evangelicals they want to look like. 

We celebrated St. Bart's day only a month ago.  In the Gospel for that day our Lord saw into the heart of this man and found him without deceit.  He was even honest enough to diss the hometown of the Lord.  Would that we had such honesty today.  If there are those Lutherans who do not want to be Lutheran in practice as well as in doctrine, let us be honest and admit it.  If there are Evangelicals who do not want to be Evangelical in practice as well as in doctrine, let them be honest and admit it.  Perhaps we could make a few trades along the way and everyone will be happier.

I once had a family visit our parish after being catechized and a member of one of our LCMS big box evangelical style congregations for a decade or so.  This family found our congregation a great disappointment.  They just did not get how Lutherans could use a liturgy, sing hymns, have a weekly Eucharist, chant the liturgy, baptize infants, etc....  I politely informed them that their issue was not with us but with Lutheranism for they had been sold a bill of goods about what Lutherans are and what they believe.  They promptly ditched us for a big box evangelical place down the road.  But the problem remained, what were they told about Lutheranism in their catechesis and life within the church and did what they were told have a shred of integrity with what our Confessions.  This is my problem.  If Evangelicals want to be Lutherans, I would be happy to catechize them.  But if Lutherans want to be Evangelicals, I would be sad but know we would all be happier if parted company in honesty.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Postures of Praise and Prayer. . .

It should be fairly obvious that standing and kneeling form the two most prominent postures of praise and prayer.  Until the 1400s pews or seats were uncommon in churches so sitting was not a routine posture in worship.  The presence of pews, chairs, and fixed seating is due in large measure to the renewal of preaching that began even prior to the Reformation.  But sitting became the central posture of worship when the focus of worship among most Protestants after the Reformation was the preached Word.

As Aidan Kavanaugh noted, the shift to fixed seating defined worship away from liturgy and ritual to "a preachment perpetrated upon the seated."  The other major effect of fixed seating was to limit the ritual of the liturgy to the clergy who were less bound by furniture and then to further liimit the people's participation to one spot.  Eventually their participation ended up being mostly kneeling (which became more prominent than either standing or sitting for Western medieval Christianity). Obviously standing as the ordinary posture of worship had implications for the length of sermons that a seated congregation would not find so burdensome.

Today the seating is also governed by additional desires.  In our age of personal space, individual seats tend to predominate in new construction.  In the non-sacramental churches, these seats take on the character of movie seating, designed for comfort more than anything else.  It is the expectation of most Protestants that they will enter the church to be seated for the duration of the worship service and that the bulk of that worship service will find them hears or spectators to actions done mostly by others for their benefit (or entertainment).  With the usual adornment of large video screens, the comfortable seating of the theater is even more appropriate to the setting than ever before.

In contrast to the verbs of Scripture that describe the nature of worship in active terms, worship has become for many Christians a purely passive endeavor.  The exuberance of the Psalms stands in start contrast to the setting of worship and the way we read and even sing the very texts of those Psalms.  The same Psalms that command nature and inanimate parts of creation to praise the Lord are somehow rendered impotent when it comes to a people who come to sit, watch, and listen.  Our muted expressions of gratitude to the Lord, spoken in almost a frighteningly casual and conversational manner illustrate how little the typical worshiper expects to do on Sunday morning.

Absent the ordinary means of ritual, posture, and ceremony, the liturgy has become the domain of words only.  The way we treat the Word of the Lord (without seriously expecting or anticipating its efficacious character) leaves us with only a manufactured and artificial sentimentality as a definition of faith and piety.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Close(d) Communion

Augustana XXV...  In defense of what has come to be called either closed or close communion, the Lutheran Reformers insisted in the Augustana that they retained the apostolic "custom" of examination and confession [and absolution] before the communicant is given the body and blood of the Lord.  As solemnly as this Confessions insist that the Lutherans teach this "with the greatest assiduity," Lutherans today largely ignore their own Concordia.

A million years ago when I went off to college 450 miles away from home, my pastor gave me a communion card for my wallet -- to be presented wherever I might go to commune to show that I was indeed a member in good standing at an LCMS congregation.  Never mind the obvious incongruity of sending a college student out to an 18 age drinking state for college and still remaining in "good standing," the intent was pious and salutary.  I used the card often (though the norm then was no more than a monthly celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar so it was not used as often as one might think).  Nearly all our LCMS parishes (and many other Lutherans as well) practiced the discipline of the Lord's table.

The inherent weakness of the communion card was the fact that closed communion never was predicated upon membership but on faith and confession.  In other words, closed communion was never about a membership card but about examination and confession and absolution.  We still struggle with this disconnect from the practice assumed by our Confessions.  We speak of closed communion in terms of which church bodies we are in fellowship with (not that this is, in and of itself, bad) but not in terms of the communicant being examined, his confession heard, and absolution rendered.  We commune those from congregations with whom we are in formal altar and public fellowship and not communing those from heterodox churches -- and so we should -- but this is not what the Confessions have in mind.  This is not the same as examining and absolving those who desire to receive the Lord's body and blood. A side benefit of this was that the Pastor knew how many hosts to put out because he knew how many he had examined and absolved before the mass. 

I honestly grow weary of the way close(d) communion is debated today.  It is a fools errand on both sides to move the fence in or out (or as the ELCA is doing, remove it all together).  It ought to focus upon the communicant, upon examination of the communicant, the confession of the communicant, and absolution of the communicant.  Until this happens the whole darn debate will sound like the rudeness of some to exclude and the lack of love on others to include those who cannot receive it to their benefit (no baptism or faith).  It trivializes what St. Paul speaks so solemnly of in discerning and recognizing the body of Christ.  I honestly wish that the whole focus of this debate were framed back where our Confessions insist it ought to be -- on the examination and confession [and absolution] before the communicant is given the body and blood of the Lord.  Apart from this context, the whole thing is just plain obtuse to most of us.