Saturday, February 28, 2015

A legacy of political correctness that is hard to shake. . .

One of the richest legacies of the modern movement for politically correct ideology and conversation is that dogma is not worth conflict, that difference does not mean right or wrong, and that heresy is too strong a word for those who reject parts of Scripture and the Christian faith.  Even in the Church we see this lasting influence of politically correct thinking -- even within conservative churches where doctrine is still believed, confessed, and taught.  I think of two of many examples:  Rome and St. Louis (the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod for those who might have missed the identification).

Playing out in Rome today is the idea that relationships are more important than doctrines.  So there are those who say that sincere people should be given a place at the Table of the Lord even though they were divorced or divorced and remarried or cohabiting.  There are also those who think that marriage might be a benefit for the gay and lesbian Christians and that an ordered disorder is better than a disordered one.  In addition, we have witnessed no less than Francis enter the fray of the debate of science and Scripture with respect to creation and a shrug of the shoulders over the rejection of the Biblical word as mere symbolism or mythology.  Finally, the Roman Catholic Church is struggling today over the idea of truth itself, more than mere loyalty to an individual or an institution.  The witness of popes praying at mosques and non-Christian religious folks being invited to days of prayer in Christian sanctuaries raises the inevitable question of whether the truth of Christ is for all and over all or merely one version among many coequal truths.

Playing out in Lutheranism today is the question of doctrinal integrity.  Some in Missouri believe that the fuss over doctrine and life is much ado about nothing -- that we already possess a greater measure of doctrinal unity than nearly all Protestant churches and that this ought to be enough.  Others are insisting that there are many things that could and ought to be ditched in favor of the higher and nobler goal of winning people for Jesus -- such things as sacramental identity, the liturgy, and the music of worship.  Hidden underneath it all is the idea that such things are not worthy the fight and the consequences of fighting over them are worse than the diversity that may test the limits of unity and order. 

On the other hand, when the ELCA adopted its opening to gay and lesbian clergy and marriage in 2009, it began with a conscience clause the appeared to allow congregations and clergy to dissent from this decision.  Now, almost six years later, it appears that in the ELCA you can deny the Virgin Birth of Jesus, doubt the physical resurrection of Jesus, disagree with the historicity of and the historical integrity of the Biblical accounts for just about everything but you may not disagree with the GLBT decisions of the ELCA.

The question remains:  what is so important it is worth fighting for?  What doctrinal truth, what practices reflect that truth, and what diversity from the confessional position of the church transcends the boundaries of unity?  Is the witness of Scripture clear or muddled?  Can we be certain enough of our faith to disapprove of that which contradicts that faith?  What deviation from the confessional position of the church breaks that confession and fractures our unity at the altar rail?

Obviously I am not going to solve those questions here.  Let me say, however, that the reason we fight is not because we are narrow minded, controlling, obsessive, etc...  The reason we fight is because we take the Scriptures, our Confessions, and our life together seriously -- so seriously, in fact, that we risk being misunderstood by the world around us when we dispute, contest, and even refute false teaching and unfaithful practice.  What is at work here is not some idyllic desire for lock step uniformity or some deluded idea of a pristine, golden age without dispute.  No, what we face is the very integrity of the faith we confess and the salvation in which we hope.  Our unity is not formed by common speculation but by common conviction -- Scripture teaches, catholic tradition affirms, our confessions declare, and we act in accord with them.

Missourians may seem to be a culture of infighting to those outside us.  Rome may appear to be a few old, angry, white haired men resisting modernity to those outside her.  Such a stereotype is convenient but inaccurate.  Of course there are those who simply cannot tolerate any diversity and who would insist that everything is church dividing.  Just as there are those who believe nothing is so important we should fight over it.  But every age and every generation has been tested and tried and now it is time for us to come down on the side of Scripture, catholic tradition, evangelical confession, and faithful practice.  The risk of losing the faith is worth it.  Certainty in what we believe, confess, and teach is worth it.  Integrity of confession and life together are worth it. Here we stand.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Some things are just not funny. . .

I have been tempted to comment and then thought better of it but in the end decided that something should be said. 

First Things recorded that the “Director of Civil and Human Rights” for the United Methodist Church, Bill Mefford, posted a picture to Twitter yesterday mocking the pro-life marchers. Mefford, who works for the church’s lobby arm, the General Board of Church and Society, ridiculed the marchers by posting a picture of himself standing before them with a sign saying “I march for sandwiches.”

Paul Stallsworth, himself a UMC pastor, wrote in First Things of his own sorrow over that sign.  You can read him here. . .

While we adamantly disagree with the pro-choice position, the worst thing of all in this debate that has divided America since 1973 is that we trivialize either position or the debate as a whole.  Surely the stakes of this issue are too high to allow us to mock what has caused hurt, consternation, division, and passion to several generations of Americans.  Mr. Mefford may have thought he was being cute, even witty.  In the end he showed himself to be the joke.  I hope and pray that all sides in this debate are serious about the issues, serious about the consequences, and serious about the stakes of our choice as a nation to permit the life of children in the womb to be ended at the will of the mother.  Whether you are pro-choice or pro-life, this is not funny, not in the least, and not at all. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Good Lent. . .

Okay it is a good week into Lent. . . How is your Lent going?  I draw your attention to an article by George Wiegel in First Things about the journey part of keeping Lent.  I would also remind you of the article I penned for the great Seminary publication, For the Life of the World, on keeping a "good" Lent.

In addition to what we omit, Lent is also distinguished by what we add.  With those words I tried to draw attention to the fact that Lent is not merely about self-denial, about the giving up of favorite activities or foods.  It is about the addition of a focus and perspective.  We refocus ourselves and the worship of Sunday morning (and Wednesday evening) to the cross.  We refocus ourselves and our lives around the call to repentance -- the daily repentance in which the Holy Spirit works in us to meet our Lord at the foot of the cross, to leave behind there the sins, guilt, shame, and despair for which He died, and to rise up the creatures of His making in baptism.  We refocus ourselves toward the goal of our earthly lives and the outcome of our faith, the resurrection and eternal life to which all things in this present moment point.  We refocus ourselves on the good works that contribute nothing at all to our salvation but demonstrate the Spirit's life within us and mark us as God's own in the world.  We refocus ourselves on the Gospel -- that the Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of sinners, suffer and die upon the cross, and on the third day rise again and that the forgiveness of sins be preached in His name from this place and time for all times and to the ends of the earth.

So at the risk of being misunderstood, let me say it again.  Good Lent.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The rotting foundation of Europe. . .

It has been said by others before and said better than I can say it.  Europe has a rotting foundation.  The whole of the culture, erudition, arts, and tradition of Europe has faded and beneath its great tourist facade lies its decaying structure of faith and values.  The once noble Christian character that fueled learning, the cause of women, the end to slavery, and caused the fine arts to flourish has been replaced by skepticism, boredom, and immorality.  Some places have been slower to manifest the decline than others and some places are precursors of the future for the rest of the West -- should we fail to heed its warning.

I write this with a great deal of sadness.  And for the example of what will be without repentance, a renewal of the faith, and a resurgence of the Christian piety and life, I point you to Belgium.  Yes, Belgium.  As one writer had dubbed it: Belgistan.  You take an affluent, self-centered, morally adrift and bored people accustomed to ease, entertainment, socialism, and faith left to the very fringes of life, and you end up with modern day Belgium.  It is a country that has been ripe for the pickings of Islam.

Brussels was imagined as one of the great cities of Europe, like London, Paris.  The European Union thrust Belgium to new found prominence with the national governmental agencies of the Common Market and the primacy of banking and finance.  What should have been a rebirth became a fatal illness.

Belgium doesn’t only hold the record for jihadists in Europe, it is also the European country with the highest suicide rate. The most notorious suicide is the Nobel Prize laureate in Medicine, Christian de Duve, who, two years ago, killed himself in front of his four children.

Six suicides a day. With a suicide rate estimated at more than 20 per 100,000 inhabitants, Belgium breaks all records in Western Europe. The world average is 14.5 per 100,000 inhabitants. Suicide is indeed the first cause of mortality among Belgians between 25-44 and the second leading cause, after vehicle accidents, between 15-24.  The tragic statistic would grow if we counted the thousands of deaths that occur under the law of euthanasia, with six deaths per day. Belgium is also the site of the first “supermarket of death.”
Belgium is a country dominated by nihilism, where Islam is already the first religion. In the schools of the capital of Europe, the teaching of the Muslim religion has exceeded that of students of Catholic faith. A full 43 percent is studying Islam, and the same figure stood at 41.4 in high schools; 27.9 percent are following courses of “secular morality” (atheism), and only 23.3 percent opted for studies in the Catholic faith.  Already today, in Brussels, one in three people is Muslim, the most common name is Mohammed, and by 2035 it will be a city with a Muslim majority.

The great moments of life, such as baptisms, weddings and funerals in Belgium are no longer tied to Christianity, this in a country whose symbols have long been the cathedral of Antwerp, the dog of St. Hubert and the University of Leuven (founded by Pope Martin V).  In Brussels today only 7.2 percent of marriages are Catholic, only 14.8 percent of children are baptized, and there only 22.6 percent of funerals were Catholic. Read more here. . .

The end of Catholicism and Christianity in Belgium is being overseen by some of the most liberal bishops in the Roman Catholic hierarchy and, sadly, Francis is known to favor at least one of them, the fellow likely to become the primate of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium.

I write this only to show that people are spiritually hungry but the empty faith of liberal Christianity has little or nothing to offer.  In contrast, Islam does have something to offer -- conviction and obedience.  These are the very things that liberal and social Christianity have forgotten most of all.  We surrender our conviction to our feelings and the Scriptures to modern social trend.  We give up certainty over a wishful thinking that is powerless to grasp us from the abyss of our despair.  And then we give up obedience to the god of our feelings and desires so that nothing is really wrong except self-denial in any form.  The culture of me thrives only because it allows us to ignore our despair, it distracts us from the hopelessness so many feel in the midst of all that modern life has to offer, and it keeps us secure in our skepticism and doubt of anything objectively true -- until it all comes crashing down on us.  Then we are left with the struggle to find hope.  Islam does not offer much in terms of hope but it does offer order, conviction, and obedience.

If Christianity is to offer anything, it has to be a vibrant Christianity, replete with conviction and confidence, and strong enough to call us not only to repentance but to the obedience of faith.  During our time, we must not surrender the vital church of our ancestors to the spiritual and material decadence of the day or the rotting foundation of the West will only be hastened toward its final demise.  God will not surrender His Church to the gates of hell.  Neither should we.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Lead us not into temptation. . .

Sermon for Lent 1B, preached on Sunday, February 22, 2015.

    We pray over and over again, “Lead us not into temptation.” Who wants to be tempted with sin and evil?  But God is not our tempter, says the Scripture.  We have trouble believing it.  Sin has rooted in us the idea that God is out to get us and that He sets traps to try and trip us up – that we are earnest people just trying to be good and God is luring us into being bad. What could be further from the truth!
    We don’t need God to lead us into temptation. We find that all by ourselves.  We are not tempted by God but tempted as people in but not of the world.  We were born into temptation and we live in a world filled with temptation.  Even good things become our temptation and we abuse the good all the time.
    We find temptation all by ourselves without any help but God did thrust Jesus into temptation.  God does not tempt us but Mark tells us that the Spirit literally drove Jesus right from His baptism into the desolation of the wilderness and into the waiting arms of the devil.  Jesus must undo what was done in Eden.
    We face temptation because we are sinful people living in a sinful world but Jesus endured temptation  not as a sinner but as the Sinless One to redeem sinners.  The Lord of creation who spoke and all things came to be is now weak, hungry, and a vulnerable target for the allure of the devil. The Lord of truth is tempted to trade piety for desire, a common barter for us. 
    The Lord of all good is asked to do evil as a means to an end, getting back the sinners whom the devil has in his pocket simply by giving up a little worship to the prince of lies and darkness.  It seems an easy trade and every one of us would have made the exchange to avoid the pain and suffering of the cross - not Jesus.
    Jesus resists not as example to us so that we can do what He did but as the One who must undo what Adam and Eve did. It is a dangerous idea to make Jesus the coach who tries to get us to believe we can and then to do what He does. Jesus is tempted to undo the fruits of temptation to which Adam and Eve succumbed. Our first parents chose temptation and we have suffered from their choice since the beginning.  Jesus chooses righteousness so that His obedience can undo the disobedience of Adam and His righteousness be the covering for all those born in sin because of Adam and Eve's temptation and fall.
    The Lord’s obedience becomes our own – and we who are disobedient are counted with Christ’s perfect obedience simply by the obedience of faith that trusts in what He has done.  The Lord is faithful and now we unfaithful are declared faithful in Christ whose “yes” to God and “no” to Satan counts for us.
    The Lord trusts for you and me, for the skeptics and doubters who are sure God is out to get us.  The Lord’s perfect trust in the will of His Father in heaven wins the day – for you and for me.  We are declared righteous simply by believing in Jesus Christ.  If God tests anything it is our faith, like Abraham found when asked to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Isaac was always key to the Lord's plan of salvation and the Lord never intended to take his life but Abraham's faith in God's plan was key.When Abraham found God can be trusted and that trust becomes our delight and our joy, laid down a legacy for all those whose faith will be credited as righteousness.  Christ suffers so that you and I might be counted holy by faith.
    We look at this all wrong.  Jesus did not go into the wilderness of temptation to show us the secret way to undoing temptation.  He is there to undo Eden.  Where Adam and Eve ate and sinned, Jesus fasts and feeds.  Where Adam and Eve trusted in the lies of Satan, Jesus is the truth to untie the knots of Satan’s lies that hold us.  Where Adam and Eve surrendered their souls and their children for a fake glory and a false image of freedom, Jesus surrenders His freedom and glory to rescue Adam and Eve and all their children – right down to you and me.  That is what happens in the few short sentences that St. Mark devotes to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
    Let me say one thing more.  Satan always breaks his tools when he is finished with them.  The perfect love of Adam and Eve was marred by impure desire and love required constant labor just like life.  Their sons became mortal enemies and conflict has tested every home since.  The ground refused to give up its bounty without the hardest work and now our backs ache and our minds are weary.  And the grave claimed our worn and tied bodies before we are ready to let go of them.  Satan always breaks his tools when he is finished with them.  Temptation is not some small thing but the path of sin and despair.
    Satan breaks his tools but not Jesus.  Jesus reclaims, restores, and renews us by the grace of forgiveness so that even when temptation snares us Christ overcomes it still.  Yes, we benefit from fasting, prayer, and the knowledge of God’s Word.  Remember that on Ash Wednesday Jesus did not say IF you fast but WHEN.  Yet none of us ever stands where Adam and Even or Jesus stood.  God does not tempt us and He takes no joy in our trials.  But He thrust Jesus into the hard place for us to undo what temptation had done to Adam and Eve and us.  Because Christ stood firm, we stand upright in Him. The grace of forgiveness enables us to stand even when we fall.  Amen.

Problems with new pastors. . .

Newly minted pastors are often problems for old parishes.  Right now you are probably thinking that the direction I am going with this will end up talking about a lack of experience, failure to build relationships before making changes, etc...  Those are problems some people might identify (and maybe truthfully) but there are other problems.

New pastors come with enthusiasm.  Old parishes (like old pastors) often grow tired and lazy about things.  Perhaps there is a good side of complacency but I have yet to find it.  We who have been in the pews and in the pulpits a while have seen many things come and go.  The upside of this is that we know things will endure and we are not the saviors of the moment.  The downside of this is that we no longer get excited about much of anything -- certainly not church.  A new pastor comes along and he can hardly sleep Saturday night because he is so excited thinking about Sunday morning.

New pastors have dreams.  Old parishes tend to fade away in part because the people have stopped dreaming.  We have grown too accustomed to disappointment.  We have seen the peeling paint and ceiling cracks for so long, we don't notice these things anymore.  New pastors come along and they dream about addressing problems and fixing things we long time folks did not even know needed attention.

New pastors take faith and the church seriously.  Old parishes (like old pastors) are too likely to live and let live.  Doctrine, worship, and piety are old news.  A new pastor shows up and he actually believes every word in the creed (even to kneel or genuflect at the incarnation).  A new pastor expects people to pay attention to the Word and actually confess the confessions of the Church when, the truth is, we have come to take these things with a grain of salt, so to speak.

New pastors are interested in new people.  Old parishes (like old pastors) often seem to have made their peace with the fact that few new people come through the doors on Sunday.  In contrast to that, new pastors are often excited by apologetics (not saying I am sorry but rather defending the faith in a winsome manner).  They want to seek out people -- even the dead wood on the membership rolls -- and welcome them (back).

New pastors believe in the Church.  Old parishes (like old pastors) take the Church seriously, believe the Church is essential to the faith and the faithful and relevant to the age.  They expect great things from the Church and those who are her members.  A new pastor thinks that the Church is a good thing while many of those who have been around for a while think it is at best a necessary thing.

Wait, come to think of it, new pastors and new members are very much alike in this regard.  Maybe that is why we prepare ourselves for a new pastor and cannot wait when new members become as complacent and lazy as us old ones. 

Speaking personally here, I wish we could all remain new, fresh, with big expectations and big hopes and dreams for life together as the Church.  Being new is not so much a chronological thing as it is an attitudinal thing.  I love it when people wonder "why not" instead of shrugging it off with a "why would anyone want to..."  We need a mix of perspectives in the Church.  Too often we have too many who have gotten tired of doing thing, weary of disappointment when things do not go as planned, and adjusted their hopes and expectations too low to make it easier and easier to deal with their disappointments.  Church growth gurus are always telling us how excited and effective folks are when a mission is still a mission and how things tend to get old when the parish gets old (saddled with a building, debts, and an institutional memory).  It does not have to be that way.

There are folks in my parish who are old in age but new in attitude.  They are constantly looking hopefully at the future and expectantly at the Church.  Sometimes I am one of those people.  That is why I like about new pastors, freshly minted from seminary with the new pastor smell of a recent ordination.  They challenge me and the churches in ways we need to be challenged.  They tend to take the faith seriously, take the Church seriously, and take the work of the Kingdom seriously.

In my parish, we have folks who look at us and the Kingdom with fresh eyes.  We need that.  Buildings need to be freshened every now and then and so do our attitudes.  The folks operating in international and national mission in Synod are like new pastors -- they are excited, enthusiastic, and expectant.  They actually believe the Word of the Lord will accomplish God's purpose in sending it forth and that it will not fail.  When we catch this vision, things do happen -- not because we make them happen but because we are more likely to believe, confess, and teach boldly.  Yep, there will be disappointments and struggles and failures.  Everyone knows this -- even new pastors and new members.  But those who refuse to let these things dampen their hopes, dreams, and expectations of Christ working by His Spirit through the means of grace will also see accomplishments, victories, and successes (great and small).

As my friend Will Weedon so often says, we have not tried Lutheranism and found it wanting.  We have not yet tried Lutheranism.  New pastors and new members are ready and waiting to try Lutheranism while some of us who have been around a while think we have and things did not go so well.  We need each other -- some wisdom from age and experience and some excitement and enthusiasm about actually being Lutherans!

Monday, February 23, 2015

The soft underbelly of theological education in the LCMS

Seminaries begging for money all the time... students borrowing money for undergraduate and seminary cost.... Dwindling numbers of residential students at our sems....  is there a common thread for all of this?  Watch and weep...

Now do something about it.  Contribute to Concordia Theological Seminary, to Concordia Seminary or to the Joint Seminary Fund.  Do it.  Do it now.  Do it generously.  Do it joyfully.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

What is happening with ISIS, Islam, and the war in the Middle East. . .

Having listened to President Obama walk on egg shells to avoid admitting that there is any religious dimension to ISIS, ISIL, and the violence in the Middle East and Europe. . .  Having listened to pundits explain that religious terrorists are hijacking a noble and ancient faith. . .  Having listened to conservative talking heads bash Obama without adding much more than heat and certainly little light to the situation. . . I read what has to be one of the most powerful, profound, and professional assessments of ISIS and what this groups wants.

It was published in The Atlantic and you can read it online here. . .

Far from being the rag tag band of misfits that we usually encounter, this enemy is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. That ought to be enough to perk your interest. . .

The Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. . . The caliphate is not just a political entity but also a vehicle for salvation.. . . The Islamic State differs from nearly every other current jihadist movement in believing that it is written into God’s script as a central character. . .

Below are two videos from Lutheran Hour Ministries on the Quran and Islam:

Challenge of Islam (Promo) from Lutheran Hour Ministries on Vimeo.

Challenge of Islam (Pt2): Defending the Christian Faith - Promo from Lutheran Hour Ministries on Vimeo.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Re-Posting for Another Audience. . .

A little while ago the President of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the Rev. Matthew Harrison, wrote a candid Facebook reflection of his perspective on the Synod, the office he holds, and his general hopefulness for the future of the LCMS. . .  It is posted below in its entirety. . .

Reflections of a Synod President.

“How ya doing?” I’ve been getting that question a great deal lately for some reason. And my response is almost always the same: “I’m doing marvelously. Truly blessed.” And I am. It’s a small handful who have some idea of what it’s like to be president of the LCMS. Four of them are living and breathing on this earth. The LCMS is a very large organization. Its operations and internal relationships are carefully (not perfectly!) governed by its constitution and bylaws. These documents are an imperfect human attempt of a church body with a confession to govern itself according to Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. I’ve often quipped that some historical critic needs to do a formgeschichtliche analysis of the byaws of the Missouri Synod, which would demonstrate the history and polarities at the time of their convention adoption. It would not be difficult to demonstrate that ostensible reasons for their adoption were only half the real story of what was going on behind the scenes. I’ve tried to be honest about what I’m for and why, and will continue to do so.

What’s it like to be president of this great – often unwieldy – church body? First, it’s an enormously humbling reality. It takes a daily emotional, spiritual and physical stamina that pushes one to the limits and beyond. But I must be quick to add, I feel little different than I did struggling with challenging situations in my first little parish in Westgate, Iowa 25 years ago. Whether a portion of the locals are riled up over a pastor’s practice of close(d) communion, or detractors are trying to make national political hay and stir up opposition out of some issue, the stress level is virtually the same. The LCMS is just one big congregation, and with a very large voters' assembly e very three years! No pastor can please everyone. I approach all issues pastorally. I am to the core of my being a pastor. I try not to act rashly. I almost never act without some significant forethought and counsel. When I have or do, I make mistakes. When I make mistakes, I own them and apologize for them. Mistakes in this life are inevitable. I am not Jesus. To act pastorally means that change takes time and teaching. I have not been able to teach as much as I had preferred but I am taking steps to change this.

When I moved into the president’s office in the LCMS International Center, I moved most of my books and belongings myself. IC staff were distressed seeing this on several occasions, but I reassured them that I was doing this quite by intention. Some day I and all my books and “stuff” will be rolled out of that office, and it will be quite o.k. God is the one carrying the Missouri Synod, and more often in spite of us than through us! And I don’t need to be President of the LCMS to be Matt Harrison. At some point the LCMS will get along quite famously without yours truly.

Joys abound, truly. I love what I do. I am THRILLED that we are approaching now doubling the number of called international missionaries. And we won’t stop there. We may have to slow a bit in a few months, to make sure our systems of missionary care are in place, but Lord willing, we will continue to add men and women, lay and clergy to our worldwide mission team. If this Synod actually focuses on this international work, giving it some priority or simply equal status with all the other mission trips, and dozens if not hundreds of other organizations our congregations support (some good, some less so), we can blow the lid off our all-time-high missionary number. A shout out to the LWML for providing so much help financially, as well as prayers and encouragement, and to CPH for being a marvelous partner in Mission.

Four years ago we reduced staffing in the IC by 70. Today we are doing more with less. I am thrilled with what is coming for the Office of National Mission. We are full steam ahead developing the resources, training etc., for a LARGE national effort at rejuvenating congregations (locally led) and evangelizing the communities around us. We have commissioned the most extensive demographic studies ever done on the LCMS so that we have a precise understanding of our context(s) and how best to respond to our domestic challenges. I am enjoying this to the hilt. A very significant evangelism tool is now in process and will help unleash the infinite potential of our marvelous laymen and women. Keep your eyes on Bart Day and the ONM!

Finances are always a challenge, but have also been a blessing. We’ve had the smallest reductions in unrestricted (plate to district to Synod) funding in decades. And as folks are realizing that silly rumors about us dismantling world mission etc., are just that, giving just keeps coming and increasing.Thank you!

The Synod will continue to struggle with issues of doctrine and practice. Given the tumultuous events of the 60’s and 70’s, it’s frankly amazing we are as united as we are. And things will become calmer still as 1974 fades into the past. I believe a consensus is emerging on issues of worship (though challenges remain to be sure). The penetration of LSB to 95% of our congregations is a great sign. There is a consensus emerging too that while specific instrumentation is not commanded or forbidden, and a range of music may be acceptable (with appropriate Christological, sacramental provisos) the ordo (order) of the divine service should not be messed with. Confession and absolution should not be ditched. The creed should not be altered. The Lord’s words of institution are his not ours to do with as we please. And we must have improved and improving preaching (more on that soon). If one speaks to a number of men involved in local koinonia projects, one will find that some amazing quiet stuff is going on. We are at the tip of a new culture where we humbly discuss our differences, seeking truth in Christ and his word. God help us. We have a long way to go.

Two years ago I requested of the CTCR a document to assist congregations in evaluating and improving their communion statements. We will release that very soon. We all recognize that there is “pastoral discretion” in communion practice. That is discretion in communing individuals from time to time who for a variety of reasons may not be official members of an LCMS congregation or that of one of our partner churches. Explaining the Lutheran teaching in a bulletin statement and inviting all who believe this to commune without respect to church affiliation, is not consistent with the stated and re-stated position of the Synod. I invite you to read, for instance, Dr. Walthers, “The Church and the Office of the Ministry,” especially thesis VIII on the Church. This is the official doctrinal statement of the Synod. I have been encouraging District Presidents and pastors/congregations to make sure their communion statements at the least require a person to speak with a pastor or elder prior to communing.

Since the restructuring of the Synod narrowly adopted in 2010 (which I had opposed, ironically), the president has had responsibility for some 50 million dollars of people and program. That on top of our aggressive effort to seriously visit every district headquarters, board of directors, staff, and circuit counselors forum, has meant that staff is stretched. But it’s good. The visitations have really allowed me to get to know local challenges and people. What great folks we have! Daily we struggle with schedules. I have to turn down 98% of preaching/speaking requests. But we laugh daily. We laugh at ourselves. We laugh at the “crazy stuff” in Synod at times. And we marvel at the blessings all around.

The international moment unfolding worldwide for the LCMS is astounding, and I won’t rehearse it here. Suffice it to say, requests for our faithful seminary profs, and other assistance are expanding exponentially. Lord help us! Dr.Collver has so many requests from church bodies around the world he can't keep track of himself!

What is absolutely necessary for us is to continue to get our house in order. We have reduced internal borrowing for operations from some 16 million four years ago to just over 4 million today. We must get to zero. And we have achieved a three-month cash reserve for operations, the minimum for a responsible non-profit. We must revise our system of ecclesiastical supervision and adjudication. A church, which holds to the inerrant scriptures and a quia subscription to the Book of Concord, CANNOT have public teachers for decade after decade openly rejecting the church’s teachings and or acting against them. There are church bodies where women are pastors, the bible is not regarded as infallible, sexual preferences are optional, etc. etc. But this is not the LCMS, and to the extent I have anything to say about it, won’t be the LCMS. We must come to reasonable resolution of the issue of licensed lay deacons, which has caused so very much dissention among us. Larry Vogel of the CTCR and a small task force has been working very hard on this issue, and there is light breaking at the end of the tunnel.

Well, this little communication written on a cold morning from Bread Co in Ballwin, Missouri in the early hours of a day off, has gone on long enough.

Thank you! Thank you for your fidelity! Thank you for loving your pastors and people! Thank you for generosity! Thank you for the privilege of serving you!
I covet your prayers, and promise you mine.

Matt Harrison
Feb. 6, 2015

Friday, February 20, 2015

Material people in a material world. . .

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, preached on Wednesday, February 18, 2015.

    No less a prophet than Madonna, the singer not the Blessed Virgin, reminds us that we are material boys and girls living in a material world.  And it all seems good when material things are what we want and need. But what happens when they fail us?  Under it all we find a hidden truth none wants to admit - being material means we are flesh and blood.  We are dust and to dust we shall return.
    Even if it does not bother us to die, it bothers us when our loved ones mortality lies naked and exposed.  Tonight we come to the Lord as mortals who are dust.  Though we have struggled to make peace with our mortality and we will settle for a long and full life, God has made no peace with death.  It bothers Him even more than it bothers us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. 
    As good as it is, the material world is temporary.  Every moment in time lasts but for a moment. The Psalmist says that the water in the stream is always moving.  So it is for us and our lives. We do not stop but move day by day from birth to death, without pause.
    The material treasures of this world are consumed by moth, destroyed by rust, and stolen by thieves.  The rulers and kingdoms and powers of this mortal world ebb and flow.  The Psalmist warns us against trusting in them because they will all disappoint us in our hour of need.  We will all die.  It is not if but when.  Sooner or later is little consolation.  If we squeeze another day or week or year, we gain only weakness and not the strength of eternity.  Ashes and dust we are.
    The Lord is eternal.  His Word is eternal.  It is the voice of eternity.  But we who come here tonight come because the eternal flesh for us.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, as one of us.  God became dust so that the eternal Lord might die.
    Now there is a mouthful.  The eternal became flesh to embrace what we run from – death.  Because He became flesh for us, He is able to speak rescue to the sinner and hope to those mired in the darkness of sin and the shadow of death.
    The Word endures because death could not hold Him.  So all who trust in the treasure of the Word will not be disappointed by life too short or death too soon.  The Lord became flesh to die so that those mired in death might be free for eternal life.
    This Word will not fail us.  The God who raised His only Son from death to life will not fail to raise those who live in Christ from death to everlasting life.  This is why we come tonight, amid snow, cold, and weakness.  We come as sinners and dust seeking life and hope.
    We wear on our foreheads the ashes of our mortality.  All things will die.  We will die.  But in the midst of death, Christ is still Lord and His Word gives hope to those marked by sin for death.  This gift of life begins by remembering and confessing the somber truth of our mortality.  It is called repentance.  Admitting who we are so that we might receive the favor of God’s forgiveness and new life.
    No, ashes are not sacramental.  They are not a sign from God but our sign to God.  We wear on our foreheads what we admit in our hearts.  We are mortal.  We are sinful.  We are the dead, who came from dust and who will return to dust.  But from the dust we await the promise of the Savior who wore our flesh with us, who died, and who rose where death cannot go.
    He will dig down into the dust of the earth, breathe in us the breath of life, and raise up the dead and buried to eternal life.  Then, when these mortal shall put on immortality, then shall come to pass the prophecy: O death, where is Your sting? O grave, where is your victory.
    Now is the day of repentance when ashes are signs of faith and repentance.  When we admit we know who we are, who Christ is, and that our only future is the one He has prepared.  Return to the Lord Your God for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.   You will not be disappointed.  Even in ashes, God has placed hope.  The sign of the cross.  Amen.

Christian history is filled with hypocrisy. . .

Hypocrisy:  the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one's own behavior does not conform. . .

I am accustomed to having those who think themselves very fine Christians who do not need the Church remind me of the many hypocrites in the Church and the history of hypocrisy in Christendom.  I have had to listen to people presume that all religion is the source of violence, hatred, and hypocrisy and that Christianity is no different.  I refuse to remain silent in the face of an American President who presumes moral equivalence between Christianity and those who have used it as a cause for hate, violence, and war and Islam in which the actual texts of the Quran not only justify but compel such actions.
“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history,” Obama told the group, speaking of the tension between the compassionate and murderous acts religion can inspire. “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

The issue here is not one of moral equivalence but of truth.  Strangely, those who feel they must apologize for the failures of Christians imply that such hypocrisy is inherent in Christendom but exceptional among Islam. That is the great lie that feeds such perceptions that Christianity is equally at fault with Islam for fostering such hatred, violence, and injustice and then acting hypocritically to condemn the sins of others while remaining quiet about their own sins.  That is a terrible falsehood and a downright lie.

Inherent in Christianity is the call to daily repentance.  The regular appraisal of one's life, confession of sins, and absolution do not simply wipe the old slate clean but call the Christian to "go and sin no more."  The Spirit working within the Church calls out with the voice of Christ to break down the barriers of the heart self-justified in its hatred, violence, and prejudice.  Yes, there are too many Christian hypocrites but Christianity is not a hypocrisy.  Just the opposite.

The Christians who are so broadly painted with the brush of hypocrisy are also those who feed millions upon millions every day, quietly and faithfully.  They treat the illnesses of strangers without discrimination.  They rescue orphans.  They school boys and girls and adults and not just in the tenants of their religion.  They run social service agencies that loom large in the good that is done everywhere in the world.  They give unselfishly to good causes well beyond their local communities or comfort zones -- in higher proportion than those who claim no Christian faith and substantially greater than any other faith group across the world.  They advocate for the cause of those with malaria to aids.  No, it does not matter who you are, if you want to cast stones at the errors of Christian history you had better remember the good that has been done in the name of Christ by those hypocrites you love to disdain.  Christian help toward Islam is far beyond the kindness Islam has shown to those outside its religious umbrella and even to those denominations within Islam.

So what is the greater hypocrisy?  I am not sure it matters.  Does it really matter whose sins are worse when all sins condemn us?  But I will tell you what does matter.  Look at the track records.  Where Christianity has come to nations and people, good follows -- the plight of woman and children, sick and aged, unborn and terminally ill, economic benefit, education, and every other measure for the quality of life has improved.  Before people begin to suggest that Christians are all hypocrites or that all religions share the same moral equivalence of wrong and good, they had better look at the facts.  If they cannot or refuse to see this, they lose the right to complain.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Not just playing church but practicing the faith. . .

Had to share this video of Russian children mirroring what they have obviously seen and heard regularly at the Divine Liturgy.  It is a testament to what children see, hear, and learn.  It is a testament to faithful parenting.  It is a testament faith in the heart of the home.  It is an example for the rest of us.  If our children are not practicing the faith like this, we may not be doing something right.

Growing up I recall many occasions when I dressed up as a pastor, got out the Hymnal 1941, and presided at the funerals of turtles, the baptism of puppies, and the Holy Communion.  I like to think my parents and my home church had something to do with this and with the practicing that eventually led me to ordination.  Parents, raise up your children in the ways of the church and they will have them planted deep inside of them to support and encourage their faith when it becomes a challenge...

BTW. . . did you see the hats?  did you see the Eastern vestments?  did you see the thurible?  did you see the asperges?  did you see the Gospel book?  Precious indeed!

And now you hear some children singing the farewell to Alleluia. . . Latin rite of course!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ashes to Ashes. . .

The sacrifices of God are a broken | spirit;*
     a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will | not despise.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your | steadfast love;*
     according to your abundant mercy blot out my trans- | gressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my in- | iquity,*
     and cleanse me | from my sin!
For I know my trans- | gressions,*
     and my sin is ever be- | fore me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil | in your sight,*
     so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your | judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in in- | iquity,*
     and in sin did my mother con- | ceive me.
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward | being,*
     and you teach me wisdom in the | secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I | shall be clean;*
     wash me, and I shall be whit- | er than snow.
Let me hear joy and | gladness;*
     let the bones that you have bro- | ken rejoice.
Hide your face | from my sins,*
     and blot out all my in- | iquities.
Create in me a clean heart, | O God,*
     and renew a right spirit with- | in me.
Cast me not away from your | presence,*
     and take not your Holy Spirit | from me.
Restore to me the joy of your sal- | vation,*
     and uphold me with a willing | spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors | your ways,*
     and sinners will re- | turn to you.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my sal- | vation,*
     and my tongue will sing aloud of your | righteousness.
O Lord, open | my lips,*
     and my mouth will de- | clare your praise.
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would | give it;*
     you will not be pleased with a burnt | offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken | spirit;*
     a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will | not despise.
Do good to Zion in your good | pleasure;*
     build up the walls of Je- | rusalem;
then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt | offerings;*
     then bulls will be offered on your | altar.
Glory be to the Father and | to the Son*
     and to the Holy | Spirit;
as it was in the be- | ginning,*
     is now, and will be forever. | Amen.
The sacrifices of God are a broken | spirit;*    
     a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will | not despise.

Almighty and everlasting God, You despise nothing You have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create in us new and contrite hearts that lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness we may receive from You full pardon and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

How dare you! He says to God. . . .

Being somewhat of an anglophile, I have encountered Stephen Fry many times in movies and TV from the great land of Downton Abbey.  That said, there is an arrogance of Fry's atheism that seems convincing but which is in reality a lot of bluster.

Fry claims that God is the problem, that He created such misery that is "not our fault" and that this God is hardly worthy of any respect or even belief for creating a world so filled with injustice and pain.  Really.  I thought that Scripture had a pretty good explanation of why things are the way they are.  Read Genesis 1-3 and see how things that were very good ended up with death reigning in and through them all.

Fry would not want to get into heaven on God's terms.  They are wrong in his estimation.  He will not bow down to such a cruel and capricious God.  No sir. 

Fry finds the Greco-Roman mythology far more acceptable because their gods did not pretend to be different from humans but were merely larger versions of the good and band in humanity.  If God is God, he is, in Fry's estimation, a complete and utter maniac, selfish, and a monster who deserves no respect at all.

The trouble with all of this is that I once rather enjoyed Fry's acting and humor (think of him as the bumbling police inspector in the movie Gosford Park).  But wait, perhaps that is the point.  Atheists the likes of Fry are intellectually as bumblers as his character there -- they ignore the evidence, discount the truth, and prefer to live in the world of their own opinions.

Well, I guess I will just have to focus on the parts he plays and try to forget his blasphemous and foolish attempt to disgrace God.  In the end, the only one diminished by Fry's words were, well, Fry.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Terrified. . .

Sermon preached for the Transfiguration of Our Lord, Sunday, February 15, 2015.

    Have you ever noticed how in every disaster movie, someone is always telling people to "Calm down" – but it never works.  People may often seem stupid but they know when to panic.  When we face the strange, the unknown, the threatening we know two things – be afraid and panic.
    Sadly, we have much to fear.  We live in a fearful world.  Though we do not always acknowledge it, God's holiness ranks right up there with the devil, the terrors of the world, and death in our list of fears.  We tend to act as if it were no big deal but guilt is the soft underbelly that feeds all our fears.
    Christ is the answer to our fears.  He does not lead us to calm – He literally IS our calm.  Look at the Gospel for today.  The disciples were terrified.  They thought they knew Jesus and then there He was with Moses and Elijah and His face shown like the brightness of the sun.  They had never seen this before. Who was this Jesus?  Did they ever really know Him?
    His glory and majesty had been hidden in flesh and blood that seemed so darned ordinary.  Yes He could do miracles but others seemed to perform miracles before.  They had to think all the way back to Moses on Sinai to recall somebody whose shown with the brightness of God's unveiled glory. They wanted to run. They wanted Jesus to cover it all up.  The presence of those long dead [Moses and Elijah] in the midst of the living did not help.  This was its own form of terror.  Despite Peter's suggestion that it was good to be there, nobody wanted to be there.  It was pure terror.
    If we are honest, we admit to the same kind of fears.  We are terrified much of the time.  We are fearful of earthly threats.  The news is abuzz with global warming, the terrible acts of terrorists, the lack of jobs, the broken character of the American family, and children who die of cancer.  There is plenty to give us pause and to feed our fears.
    We are fearful of God.  We lie that things are fine but under it all we are broken, hurting, and scared to death.  We have guilty consciences we hide behind the lies of being pretty good people.  We stare into the face of death far too often and live with the threat of our mortality and those whom we love.  How often are we asked how we are doing in the face of illness or grief or death and we say through the plastic smile: “I am okay.”  But the truth is we are terrified.
    We are afraid of life and afraid of death.  How then can we live?  The glory of God seems to be its own terror.  That is until Jesus shows His glory – not just the glory of the mountaintop but the glory of the valley of the shadow.  Until Jesus reveals that He is born to die, to carry the full weight of our sins, and to battle evil to the death, His glory is one more fear.
    It was a profound moment when Moses handed off the Law to Jesus.  It tells us much.  The Law was not some impossible burden laid on us simply to make us feel bad.  It was for Jesus to fulfill so that His obedience and righteousness could cover all of us.  It was the same moment when Elijah pointed to Jesus.  Elijah was the prophet of the end.  How many Passover’s were set for an empty place for Elijah but now he came – not to usher in the terror of the unknown but to point to the One who will prepare our future so that we will be with Him and He with us forever.
    You know what else I noticed in the Gospel reading?  The only point when terror lessened is when everyone and everything else was gone and there was only Jesus.  Their terrors, the terror of Moses and that unbending law, and the terror of Elijah and the great and awful day of the Lord – they all were gone and only Jesus remained.  Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus. . .
    And then there was the voice.  "Listen to Him."  Jesus is truth to the lies, forgiveness to sin, life to death.  Don't listen to the liar and his lies, to the guilt and shame of sin, or to the unknown threat of death.  Listen to Jesus.  He is the answer to the lies, the answer to guilt, the answer to shame, the answer to death.  Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus!
    Heaven is filled with terrified people who no longer are afraid.  People who, like us, were held captive by stresses, pressures, doubts, fears, sins, and the shadow of death.  The real miracle here is not that Christ is Lord of the mountaintop but that He is also Lord of the valley.  Because that is where we live.  In the valley.  Come to Jesus with your terrors and fears, with your doubts and worries, with your ills and death.  Come to Him whose glory it is to carry them all for us and carry us to heaven.  He bids not to scale the mountain but has come to our valley and our shadows and that is where we meet the glory of Christ in the cross.
    Listen to Him. . . and follow Him. . .  We think God needs to listen to us.  He knows us better than we know ourselves.  He knows fear first hand, and death, and illness.  We do not need a God who listens to us.  We need ears to hear God, who is Lord of our wounds, our fears, our shame, and our death.  We don't need a God who does what we ask but a God strong enough for us to follow Him. . . through all our terrors to His perfect peace.  Amen.

We are not afraid of what archeology will find. . .

The exhibition is based on more than 100 cuneiform tablets, each no bigger than an adult's palm, that detail transactions and contracts between Judeans driven from, or convinced to move from, Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar around 600 BC.  Archaeologists got their first chance to see the tablets -- acquired by a wealthy London-based Israeli collector -- barely two years ago. They were blown away.  "It was like hitting the jackpot," said Filip Vukosavovic, an expert in ancient Babylonia, Sumeria and Assyria who curated the exhibition at Jerusalem's Bible Lands Museum.  "We started reading the tablets and within minutes we were absolutely stunned. It fills in a critical gap in understanding of what was going on in the life of Judeans in Babylonia more than 2,500 years ago."  So begins a Reuters story about 2,500 year old Jewish tablets from the era when the Jews lived in exile in Babylon.

The story here is that there is no story.  In other words, what was not found was evidence to contradict the Biblical account.  What was found accords with the Scriptures and gives evidence to the names, places, and descriptions in the Bible of the time of exile during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar.

There are those who threaten us that the Biblical witness cannot stand up to scrutiny, that the historical record does not accord with the Biblical witness, and that archeology will undo our confidence in the Word of God.  Well, as Dr. Paul Maier loves to say, archeology is the best friend to the Bible.  The more we dig up and discover, the better the Bible looks under a scientific examination.

We are not afraid.  The truth can stand the test.  Scripture is reliable.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Stupid sinners. . .

Sermon preached for the Circuit Winkel, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015.

Sin makes us stupid.  I read that on the internet so it must be true.  Brian Williams proves my point.  At the apex of his career with all the world watching, he invents some truth.  The stupidity of sin is that we think we can get away with it.  Worse, we believe our own lies and we cannot distinguish truth from error anymore.

One of the biggest of those lies is the idea of moral progress.  I am getting better and better.  It is getting easier and easier to be a Christian.  I am learning to resist temptation.  I don’t get angry.  Loving God above all things and loving my neighbor as myself are not so difficult anymore.  I don’t make bad choices or have as many regrets.  Sin makes us stupid. The truth is that I am like an alcoholic teetering on the brink of a bender but my inclination is to lie about that to you, to God, and even to myself.  Occasionally, in moments of rare Spirit-filled candor, I confess to this truth.

We want to believe we are getting better and that this proves God is real, Christianity is right, and I am saved.  St. Paul insisted that being saved only made him more aware of his own sin.  In fact he goes to far as to say He did not even know sin until He knew Him who died for that sin.  St. Paul did not stumble across that on his own – the Spirit had to reveal this.  Sin makes us stupid and nothing is stupider than to be the victim of our own lies.

Jesus did not come to teach us how to be holy.  “If I can do it, you can too!”  Nope.  Jesus came to expose the lies.  Jesus came to call us from our fears.  Jesus came to call us to repentance.  Jesus came to fulfill all righteousness for us (remember how Epiphany began).  Jesus came to redeem the wicked, to save the lost, to give life to the dead, and to give us confidence in the mercy of God which is His greatest glory.  He did not come to pat the backs of those doing just fine.

Sin makes us stupid.  We lie because we are afraid of the truth.  We lie because we want to believe we are better than we are.  We lie because we are afraid people won’t like us or love us if they knew who we really were.  We lie because fear leaves us no choice – afraid of God, our sin, and being held accountable.  Satan, the father of lies, tells us what we want to hear and whispers our lies right back into our willing ears until we have no choice but to lie more and more and more.

In the Transfiguration Gospel, Peter was terrified.  When you stand in the glory of God all your lies are exposed and you are left with only your fears.  Peter did not know what to say.  He was lying about wanting to stay there.  He did not want to be there at all.  None of the disciples was comfortable with Jesus when His glory was not hidden.  So Peter lies.  “Lets just all stay here and be happy as equals on the mountain” – the lie that they were all good and things were fine.

Then the voice came.  It was not about Peter or his lies.  It was not about how stupid sin makes you.  The truth of God was not the terrible truth of their fears but the saving truth of God’s gracious surprise.  Jesus is the answer to fear, the truth to end all lies.  Moses gives up the law and hands it to Jesus to whom it belongs.  It is not ours to keep but His.  His obedience is our hope not ours.  Elijah hands over the promise of the prophets.  There no future other than the future that is Jesus, whose death and resurrection define tomorrow.  Just when they were most afraid, everybody is gone.  Just Jesus is left.  Only Jesus.  So they head back down the mountain into the valley with Jesus. 

Heaven is filled with stupid people and liars just like me and you.  So we admit it.  We are sinners.  Sin has made us stupid.  It has filled our minds with lies about moral improvement.  We have believed these lies in our hearts and spread with with our lips.  But do not fear.  Jesus is here.  His cross is truth for sinners – truth that saves.  His blood was shed for people who keep finding out how rotten their hearts are.  Repent.  Confess to Him your sins. He will not leave you alone to your fears.  He will always be with you.  He will save you.  And in the end you will see only Jesus, too.  And that is what we hope and dream for!  Amen.

Just down the road a piece. . .

TIME magazine reporter Elizabeth Dias wrote of another formerly-large church that has embraced “gay Christianity”. The church is GracePointe Church of Franklin, Tennessee. It is literally just down the road a piece from Clarksville and, of course, right in the heart of the Bible belt.

According to the article, the pastor, Stan Mitchell, likened the change to an "epiphany" from the Lord and seemed pretty proud of himself for having caught the divine wind of change.  Indeed, he has addressed this as a prophetic issue and a civil rights issue on the same level as the great cause led by Martin Luther King and the lightening rod events of Selma.  The video is here. . .

One blogger put it this wayThe move that Mitchell is making is not a heroic one. It is a cowardly one. It doesn’t cause true believers any trepidation. It deserves no applause. It merits no commendation. This is a moment of shame for this pastor, not a moment of acclaim.  

I believe she is absolutely correct.  This is not some heroic or prophetic stand.  It is cowardly and merely conforms to the prevailing mood of change with regard to sexuality and marriage that has overtaken all sense and sensibility in our land.  

Her pointed conclusion is worth sharing:  If you fear man, God will become small to you. The approval of fellow sinners will matter more to you than obeying God by the witness of his Word.

When we fear more the approval of others than to be commended before God by faithfulness, God is small and we are large.  It is the root of sin --- the desire to be larger than life and to bring God down to size.  Many have presumed that God is someone you can sit down and discuss things with and negotiate truth.  Jesus insists that this is the ultimate dead end.  "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me..."  When we exchange such fidelity with our own elevated opinions and selves, there can be only one conclusions -- we no longer seek to know the Father or come to Him and Jesus has ceased to be Savior and Redeemer and is merely a voice of inspiration (one among many).

Sunday, February 15, 2015

No. not in the Bible. . .

Everyone surely has heard or seen the video of the objection raised by The Reverend Paul Williamson, rector of St. George’s Church Hanworth, to the consecration of Libby Lane as the first female Bishop of the Church of England.  If not, watch below. . .

It was impressive if seemingly merely symbolic to have a priest wearing cope to rise up and raise objection to the first female bishop of the Church of England.  Why did he do it?  In his own words, here, he explains. . . .

God the Holy Spirit inspired the writing of the New Testament in the Bible. How can we now say that God got it wrong ? How can we claim that the Holy Spirit now tells us that women are to become bishops and priests when it could just as well be said that the Holy Spirit at one time guided the Church to keep a male ministry of Bishops, priests, and deacons? How can we credit such a reversal to a God who is described as eternal and unchanging, and the Son of God who is described as the same yesterday, today, and forever?
Some seem to believe God is doing some new things in His Church.  The only problem with that is the new things they claim he is doing contradict what He has done and what He has said in His Word.  It may not be popular or fashionable but there is but one word that endures forever and only one word in which salvation is to be found.  That is the unchanging Word of the Lord.  The Spirit, if it does anything at all, moves us to live in faithfulness to that Word yesterday, today, and forever the same.  Anything else claimed by the Spirit is false and misleading and unworthy of those who bear the name of Christ.  Why do we care more about how what we believe is seen by the world when it is how God sees it that makes the difference?  While I applaud the effort of Fr. Williamson, I believe that for the Church of England, and, sadly, most Anglicans, it is too late to set the anchor in the Word of God.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A very fine issue of The Lutheran Witness. . .

in-witness-INOnce again Adriane Heins and her crew have delivered a wonderful issue of The Lutheran Witness.  You should be a subscriber.  If you are not, call 1-800-325-3040 and sign up today for what has become the premier denominational publication and the finest monthly magazine of the faith.  And it costs a pittance -- a dollar or two a month to have it delivered right to your mailbox!  Or click here to be taken right to the webpage.  How appropriate for Valentine's Day!

As the world moves toward Valentine’s Day, the February issue of The Lutheran Witness looks at a topic the Church is sometimes reticent to discuss: sexuality.

In “Love among the Ruins,” the Rev. Dr. Harold Senkbeil encourages Christians to speak confidently and joyfully about God’s gift of sex, while in “A Way of Escape,” Deaconess Jeni Miller interviews an LCMS member previously involved in a homosexual lifestyle, who talks firsthand about the way in which the Lord delivered her from it.

In “It’s Just Sex” by the Rev. Craig Donofrio, college students learn why promiscuity hurts and how God’s love makes all things new, and the Rev. Andrew Kennell’s “A Beautiful Inheritance” encourages those hurt by the world’s understanding of sexuality to take comfort in the fact that Jesus’ “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

“Explicit Parenting for Explicit Times,” by the Rev. Dr. Lucas Woodford, explains how families can talk about the uniqueness of males and females, even when children are young, paving the way for Dr. Beverly Yahnke’s “Their Way, Their Rules, Their Ruin?” which unpacks the Millennials’ understanding of cohabiting, uncoupling and sex as sport.

Questions about pornography, virginity and even older couples living together outside of marriage are answered in “The Smoldering Wick” by the Rev. Jon Olson, even as the Rev. Tom Eckstein’s “How Do I Help Them?” explains how to speak the truth in love to those who may be struggling with or supporting same-sex attraction.

Finally, the Rev. Theodore Cook offers a brief primer on the Sixth Commandment in “Sin-Corrupted Sex,” encouraging repentance and reminding readers of Christ’s forgiveness.

It can often be difficult and uncomfortable for Christians to discuss sexuality, but Senkbeil notes, “Christ Jesus has paid for all your sins in full — including your sexual sins — ‘not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death’ (Luther’s Small Catechism). By faith, your sins are erased and you’re covered in Christ’s perfect innocence and holiness.”

Or check it out on Facebook. . .  Or here for some web exclusive content. . .

Love's Discipline. . .

There are many who turn up their noses at church politics and lament the worldliness of the church -- as if it were merely a matter of people learning to get along.  Love is paraded as the ultimate cause of the Gospel but the love that is spoken of here is a weak and fragile love, without boundaries or discipline.  It is, in reality, not love at all.  So it is with a great deal of sadness that I admit many well meaning but wrong headed folks in our church body have thrown up their hands at matters of false teaching and written the whole issue off as sour grapes, unloving doctrinal rigidity, and the dirty business of power politics.

Surely there are those who think themselves the consciences of the churches and the enforcers of a mindless uniformity -- even where Scripture and the Confessions allow room for difference.  But there are far more of those who hide their heads in the local congregation, try to ignore what is going on in St. Louis and the larger church, and who wish we could all just get along and overlook such unpleasantness.  There are those who seem to test every rule, throw doubt on every certainty, raise questions that have already been answered, and who do so under the guise of gospel freedom or faithfulness to something larger than a church body, a confession, and a constitution.  And then there are a few who risk being misunderstood and unfairly characterized in order to hold the churches and her ministers accountable, to challenge divergence that departs from Scripture and the Confessions, and to call to repentance those who enter into error or call error truth. 

I do not intend to defend the thought police. I do not desire to let the false charge of politics to stain those or their efforts to hold us all accountable.  I will not allow the congregations and clergy of our church to bury our heads in the sand while our confession and doctrinal integrity is rendered weak and impotent by our unwillingness to deal with this thorny and messy problem.  I am ashamed of those who believe that in the name of truth they would ask us to depart from every truth we have believed, confessed, and taught in accord with Scripture since our Synod's founding.  I will publicly support those who, in true love of Christ and their brothers and sisters, practice doctrinal supervision and the ecclesiastical discipline.  I hope and pray you will join me in this cause.

The Rev. John Pless has written well of the consequences of failing to practice this supervision of doctrine and practice and ecclesiastical discipline.  Read all his words here.  I quote a paragraph below.
The office of the ministry is not an entitlement but carries with it accountability to the public standards of Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. It is far more than adhering to humanly-devised bylaws and legal procedures; it requires fidelity to the teachings of Holy Scriptures and an unqualified commitment to the Book of Concord. Werner Elert’s words are to the point: “Because evangelical Lutheran confession accords with Scripture, it is intolerable for an entity not bound by this confession to have jurisdiction in the realm of doctrinal matters.”
He warns us well.  We who serve the Church as her ministers have not been given free rein to doubt or challenge the faith once delivered to the saints and faithfully confessed.  This is not politics or matters of mere constitutional article or by-law provision.  This is about the certainty our people may have with the doctrine in which they have been catechized (Luke 1:4).  Just as we dare not raise false charge, we dare not fail to hold accountable those who violate Scripture and the Confessions and the public witness of our Synod.  Such a failure does nothing less than rob Christ’s people of the truth of the saving Gospel.

Friday, February 13, 2015

A weekday sermon. . .

I was asked to post a weekday sermon or two from the last few weeks. . .  Here are a couple. . .

 Septuagesima. . .

GK Chesterton once wrote:  Don’t be proud of the fact that your grandma would be shocked by things you find indifferent. 

In other words, we think of ourselves too sophisticated to be upset by immoral things.  We are too wise and to educated to be caught up in mere matters of immorality.  At least that is the way it seems in the world around us.  Nobody gets excited about adultery or fornication or pornography or any other sexual predilection.  There are bigger fish to fry.

One of those fish is our culture of rights.  We are big on the things we think we are owed, the things we think we are deserved, and the things we believe we are entitled to...  We live in an age of entitlement.  I read of a fellow in India who walked off the job in 1990 never to return and he was paid for 25 years because the labor laws there prevented him from being fired – until now.

In contrast to this is what we heard in the Gospel lesson for today.  An employer pays the same to workers who begin their labors all throughout the day.  We would certainly cry foul and so did a few of those who worked the longest and the hardest.  It is not fair.  But God is not fair.  God is generous.

This is the language of grace.  Grace does not speak of rights or fairness or equality or egalitarianism.  Grace speaks of the undeserving receiving what they did not merit.  And so the Lord tells a story to illustrate the shocking unfairness of grace and then shocks us even more by saying this is how God works.

Every good and perfect gift comes from God.  God does not bestow His gifts on the unworthy or there would be no gifts given.  It is His gracious nature to bestow His gifts on the unworthy and this gives us a shot at that grace.  It rains upon the just and the unjust, upon the righteous and the wicked alike.  Grace gives to those who do not deserve it what they did not earn or work for.  Unlike the entitlement age in which we treat the government as Robin Hood who takes from the rich to give to the poor, God sees no rich, no deserving, no righteous.  Only sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God.  By our works we get hell.  The fair wage of sin earns death.  Period.

But there is more.  We are not merely overpaid and undeserving.  We are not mere laborers who are treated nicely.  The surprise of grace goes much deeper.  We are made the sons and daughters of God by grace in the water of baptism.  Baptism has given us what we did not deserve and dare not ask – the right to become the children of God is grace.  That is who we are. 

The cost of God’s generosity is not free or cheap; But its cost was not borne by us; Jesus bore it for us.  It is not free nor was it ever free.  Grace is not free.  It is just that you do not pay for it.  Christ pays for it for you, by becoming like you in flesh and blood except without sin, and taking your place upon the Christ, to labor unto death for you and your salvation.

This is the shock and scandal of the Kingdom of God.  It is grace.  God gives us what we don’t deserve and that for which Christ paid with His life in suffering and in death upon the cross.  You cannot shrug your shoulders at that.  Well, I suppose you can.  The workers in the parable did.  But they did not receive the kingdom.  They got what they bargained for and then complained it was not enough.  For us it is always enough.  Christ is sufficient.  Grace is sufficient.  It is all we need.  Christ’s body for the life of the world and our food, right now, to the undeserving.  Amen.

And  Sexagesima. . .

Let us strive to enter God’s rest. . . from Hebrews. . .

On the seventh day God rested from all the things He had done in creation.  It might seem an incidental detail.  Surely God does not tire like we do.  Scripture tells us He neither slumbers nor sleeps.  So He does not require rest the way our bodies cry out for a good night’s sleep.  But, of course, this is not about rest simply for the body.  This is about Sabbath rest.

We seek to rest as God did, to enter not a pause of human activity but the positive rest or peace that comes from resting our souls, our bodies, and our lives in the hands of Him who made and redeemed us.  We dare not be satisfied with a good night's sleep.  Our rest requires more than this.  Our rest requires the healing of the breach between the God who made us and who we have become.  The opposite of entering into this rest is disobedience – disobedience to God and disobedience to His Word.  Rest then is born of the obedience of faith, to use a Pauline term.

There remains a rest for those wearied not simply by the changes and chances of this mortal life but also wearied by the pressure to be holy in sinful bodies governed by sinful hearts and minds.  There remains a rest for the those wearied by the prospect of death and its cold loneliness.  There remains a rest for those wearied by hearts that carry our burdens and the burdens of those whom we love without the capability of preventing their harm or keeping them from being hurt or wounded in body or spirit.  There remains a rest for those wearied by consciences too full of guilt and lives too marked by the shame of our desires we cannot even control.

This is what God offers.  Not some perfect world where things always go our way, where hardship must never be endured, where justice rules, and where everyone gets what they merit.  Who wants that?  The greatest problems in my life have come precisely when I have gotten my way, when I chose the easy path around struggle, and when justice came home to rest on me, my thoughts, my words, and my deeds.  No, we need more than this kind of rest.  We need the will of God which is best for all people, all times, and in all things.  We need the rescue of God whose favor is grace and whose character is mercy.  We need the promise of life in spite of death, in the midst of death, and beyond the pale of death’s reach.  We need to enter a rest big enough to carry the water of our discontent, our guilt, our sin, and our death.

Christ is that rest.  Too often we assume Jesus is merely the conveyer of gifts.  Jesus is the gift.  He is our Sabbath rest.  The people of God have hope both because of Christ and in Christ.  He is Lord of the Sabbath who proved up to the task of living holy as we do not and dying righteously as none of us die.  He is the Lord of death and the Lord of life in whom and to whom all things living depend.  He is Lord of second chances and third chances and twenty-third changes as absolution raises us from the death of sin over and over again so that we might be His own and live under Him in His kingdom forevermore.

He will demand an account one day and He will provide us the measure to balance the books of our lives.  His blood cleanses us from all our sin.  His death ends death’s reign.  His life we live forever.  The rest we need is a clear conscience, peace with God, the end of fear's reign of terror through guilt and shame, and an end to death's threat.  Christ does not merely give us these things -- He is the gift.

Now in a few minutes we will enter His rest as we feast upon the bread that is Christ’s flesh for the life of the world and drink His blood shed for us and the forgiveness of our sins.  The world will still be a hard place.  We will still be sinners.  But Christ will be in us.  By baptism we wear His mark.  In the Word we recognize the voice of our Good Shepherd.  At His table we feast upon Him who is both host and food.  And the fruit of it all is the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. Amen

Our Church ought to be proud and humbled. . .

Having spent a couple of days at both seminaries of our Lutheran Church Missouri Synod interviewing candidates for Associate Pastor at my parish, my two lay leaders and I were consistently impressed with the caliber, high calling, and faithful men we spoke with.  We spoke to ten candidates and were amazed that all ten were so dedicated, well-spoken, polished, and dedicated men of faith.  We know that any one of them would be a credit to the Lord, to the schools in which they were formed for the pastoral ministry, and our congregation.  All this is despite the fact that our Synod has chosen to finance the cost of pastoral education on the backs of seminary administrations and students.  I have written about the fact that this model is completely untenable and that something will have to change and soon in this regard.  That said, it has not in any way diminished the character and dedication of those with whom we spoke.

There are problems in seminary education.  There are problems with the SMP program.  There are problems with lay people (so-called deacons) who are authorized for Word and Sacrament ministry in our church body.  There are problems with a fear of Lutheran worship that practices on Sunday morning Lutheran theology confessed in our Concordia.  There are problems with doctrinal integrity and unity in our Synod.  Yes, we all know about these and should rightly be concerned.  What we may not realize is that hidden in all of this are faithful, talented, dedicated men and their families who have heard the Lord's call, who have paid the price of residential seminary education in move and money, and who have shown themselves to honor both the Lord and his church by their commitment. 

God bless them!  God bless the seminaries that formed them for the pastoral office.  God bless the congregations that will call them.  God bless the placement process that will put them into the right locale.  God bless their work when the stole is laid upon them and they are charged to be faithful over the flocks which the Lord has entrusted to their care.