Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A race to the bottom. . .

I must admit some glaring ignorance about the ordinary liturgical practices of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.  Since they used the same hymnal as the LCMS for many years, I had assumed that the liturgical practices were fairly consistent between the LCMS and WELS.  When their Christian Worship: A  Lutheran Hymnal came out in 1993, I found it odd and curious in different ways but not entirely unrecognizable within the TLH tradition.  That all changed when current and former WELS members began talking to me about the inherent bias in the WELS against liturgical things (everything from making the sign of the cross to chanting to more frequent celebrations of the Eucharist).  It prompted me to take a second look at that hymnal.

The Common Service claims to be a version of the history liturgy of the Christian church and a revision of The Order of the Holy Communion from TLH.  I began to notice the absence of rubrics (directions) and realized that in the Invocation there is no symbol of the cross to indicate that the sign of the cross may be made.  It turned out that this was a sign of things to come.  Though the cross symbol appears in the absolution, there is no direction to indicate what it means.    As expected the word "catholic" was not present in either the Nicene Creed or the Apostles' Creed but it turns out it was omitted from the Athanasian Creed as well (where it was retained in TLH).

Unlike LSB which presumes that the full Eucharist is the norm (If there is no communion), CW presumes that this is ordinary (when there is no communion).  Even more odd is the absence of the Our Father from the canon and its placement at the prayers.  While I have always resisted the Lutheran innovation of the Our Father prior to the Verba, the connection between the Verba and the Our Father is most ancient and it represents a clear departure from catholic practice to omit the Our Father here.

It is not at all obvious that the pastor's portion of the liturgy could or should be chanted.  In fact, it is pretty clear from the pew book that the expectation is that the pastor will NOT chant, that chanting is an exception and, perhaps, an unwelcome one.  Even if the notes are in the pastor's book (or altar book), it certainly makes it appear that neither the publishers nor the folks in the pew expect the pastor to chant.

The sign of the cross is also conspicuously absent with respect to the morning and evening prayers of Luther and his bidding to make the sign of the cross at the invocation and how to pray.

One subtle hint lies in the fact that the clerical collar is a rarity among Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod clergy.  What you wear is not the primary thing but what you refuse to wear just may hint at your bias. All of this combined with the legendary affection WELS has with the Geneva Gown instead of the historic vesture of the pastor, leaves me with but one conclusion.  Perhaps those former and current WELS complainers are absolutely correct.  WELS does have a liturgical style and it is decidedly low church, a race to the bottom of the liturgical ladder, if you will, in which ceremony, vestments, and catholic tradition are suspect and unwelcome in the parishes of this church body.

How sad it is that a Lutheran body once captive to the liberal view could recapture its more orthodox theological underpinnings and then eschew the liturgical shape of that orthodox doctrine on Sunday morning.  It remains a problem for more the WELS.  Even in Missouri we have many who would find Luther's liturgical practice too shockingly katholisch to be tolerated in a Lutheran parish today.  How strange it is that some Lutherans today would be uncomfortable with the Lutheran praxis of Martin Luther, the second Martin (Chemnitz), the orthodox Lutheran fathers, or our most famous church musician, J. S. Bach!!

Addendum from Fr. Hollywood in 2009 RE Wisconsin Synod practice:

According to this Q&A from the WELS's own website, there have been at least two instances where laywomen in the WELS have said the Lord' Words of Institution over bread and wine and served it, claiming that it was the body and blood of the Lord. The practice was in no way condemned by the WELS hierarchy, but rather, the practice is current under a "moratorium" in order to "keep from offending our brothers."

This error has come about by the intersection of an error on the doctrine of the ministry combined with a legalistic view of the role of women.

First, WELS does not believe the pastoral office has been divinely established, and further teaches that "The Bible establishes all of public gospel ministry but does not establish a pastoral office as such or vest certain duties exclusive to that office" (Emphasis added).

From this starting point, WELS adds the next premise that the differences between male and female are limited to a legalistic "thou shalt not," as the article puts it:
"Since the Bible does not assign specific duties to the pastor, WELS approaches the matter of women communing women from Scripture's man and women role relationship principle. WELS doctrinal statements on the role of man and woman say that a woman may have any part in public ministry that does not assume teaching authority over a man. That, of course, would include women communing women" (emphasis added).
And this has moved beyond the theoretical into the practical: "WELS has had only two instances of women communing women, and our Conference of Presidents has since issued an indefinite moratorium on such practice to keep from offending our brothers until the matter is mutually resolved" (emphasis added).

My Comments:

As you can tell from the Q & A quoted from the WELS website, our Lutheran kin are in a race to the bottom in other ways as well -- functional understanding of the office of pastor and the distinction of that office and its functions to prevent women from serving ONLY when it places them in authority over men.  Odd, yes!  Lutheran, no!

Monday, June 29, 2015

The mighty 1%

Pastors hear a great many excuses.  Take a gander at the inactives and begin asking people why they are not in church on Sunday morning and you hear a heap of excuses.  Why it is downright exorbitant of God to expect us to give up our Sunday morning when that is the only time we have to sleep in, do the laundry, weed the garden, play golf, watch TV, do the food shopping, etc...  What kind of God would demand so much from us when He surely knows how valuable our time is?!

Of the total 10,080 minutes available per week, we typically spend about 120 minutes at church (worship and Bible study) or a whopping 1% or more of the total time available to us each week.   As one who does not pay much attention to the clock in worship, I find it humorous but sad that the clock watchers on Sunday morning think that a 75 minute service is bordering on scandalous.  What does God think of us that we are so jealous of the little time we spend together around the Word and Table of the Lord?  What should He think of our insistence that even 1% is too much?

At the very same time, we are quick to excuse habits and activities that take a great deal more than 1% of our time as worthy pursuits.  It takes more than 2 hours to play 18 holes of golf or travel to a movie theater and watch the current flick or even to wash, dry, hang up, and put away the laundry.  But that is not too much time if we want to do it or believe it has to be done.  On the other hand, worship is optional.  It just goes to show you how nearly everything that is wrong is a first commandment issue.  We don't want a god, we want to be THE god.

The big sins are not the sexy ones with all the juicy details or the scandalous ones with all their public shame and humiliation.  Nope, the biggest sins are the first commandment ones.  We reject the Lord not because we prefer another deity but because we want to be the deity.  God is on the clock but we do not time the things that we want to do.  God must face a nervous foot and an obvious glance at the watch but time is suspended when we are doing what we want to do when we want to do it.  No, the big sins have no shocking details of perverted behavior -- only a heart so perverse that it presumes it is a better god than God.  We may not have substituted any popular wannabes for the Lord's place in our lives but even God runs second to me, myself, and I.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Do not give into bitterness, hate, or judgment. . .

On Friday, the Supreme Court struck down every state law that prohibited same sex couples to marry.  It came as no real surprise but signals the great divide among the peoples of America.  In a division that mirrors the legalization of abortion some 40 years ago, Americans stand bitterly divided. 

As we consider what this will mean for Churches who confess marriage as God’s design of man and woman, it is important that we not rush either to fear or to bitterness.  God’s people were never going to triumph at the ballot box or in the courtroom but by the bold proclamation of God’s Word, the Law and the Gospel.  This is our strength and this is our power. God has promised the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church. 

In addition, the world expects Christians to be angry and bitter.  Now is not the time to rage but to show the face of Christ, to speak not simply with the voice of no but the positive description of the relationship God designed and man and woman before the Lord, living in fidelity, mirroring His creative love with the gift of children, raising their families to know and love the Lord through His Church, and committed to love their neighbors with Christ’s all surpassing love.

We must also acknowledge that we live in a new social climate in which the values of God and His kingdom are increasingly in conflict with the values of a world clearly headed its own way.  Yet with this conflict comes the real opportunity to explain what we believe, to give reason for the hope that is within us, to teach God’s purpose in creation and redemption, and to show forth the power of His redeeming love in our own lives and our lives together as the Church.

We will face great pressure to conform, to be unfairly labeled and criticized, and to be persecuted for the sake of righteousness.  But do not be afraid.  God has not given us over to the enemies of His Word and God has given us all the resources of His grace to endure the day of trouble, to proclaim the Gospel without fear, and to live boldly the love of Christ.  Our calling is not to win popularity contests or to embrace every detour of culture but to be steadfast and faithful to Christ and receive the crown of glory that does not fade.

verbum dei manet aeternum -- The Word of the Lord endures forever.

The season of my discontent. . .

I become rather agitated and adamant about this time every three years.  It is the silly season of District Conventions in which the business of the church is scheduled during Sunday morning when pastors should NOT be at conventions but SHOULD be in their parishes with their people!!

So whatever business is held on Sunday morning of the District Convention schedule will be done without me in attendance.  I will drive the four hours back home on Saturday night so that I will be in the pulpit and at the altar with my people on Sunday morning.  Probably not very many folks in the parish have any appreciation for my little rebellious act but that does not matter.  No church meeting is so important it should be scheduled over a Sunday morning and take the majority of pastors away from their place among their people to sit around tables.  The truth is that too much of what happens at church conventions is less business than it is cheerleading time.  I am not opposed to rallying people for the cause but whatever time we have allotted the convention we will fill -- even if some of it is fluff and it consumes time we should be using to debate the serious business of the Kingdom.

So, on this Sunday, while most of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastors of my district are in Memphis, I will be back in Clarksville. . . my own little protest.  One day by sheer force of character, we shall prevail. . . at least that is my hope!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

A birthday boy!

Sermon preached for the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist (observed), on Thursday, June 25, 2015.

There are not many birthdays on the church calendar.  St. John the Baptist is one of the few, with Jesus, whose nativity we note with a special day.  Saints are remembered on the day of their death; unlike the way we think of things in which birth is everything, the saints are remembered in the context of God's promise of the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.

We find John an odd figure perhaps because John was a bridge between two worlds – on the one hand he was a prophet of the Old Testament calling people to repentance but on the other hand he was the last of those prophets and a voice to point to the one who comes to fulfill the prophetic promise of old.

I do not think we would be friends with John.  We live a world of creature comforts and John was a man driven to cut through the niceties to speak pointedly of Him who was to come.  John wears shocking clothing even for the time in which he lived and he came with a shocking message: The Kingdom of God is at hand.

John was not a man of pleasantries and his voice sounds brash to our ears even more than it did so long ago.  John will not waste our time with casual talk but cuts to the core.  He worries little about our feelings and less about our comfort.  God is coming and that is all we need to know.  Repent is his message and believe for God is fulfilling His ancient promise now.  Pay attention or the saving moment will pass you by.  No wonder John had enemies.  It is blunt truth often deemed to pleasant for a people accustomed to the lies of sin.

Now to be sure, John is not simply a fire and brimstone preacher.  For he calls us not to the Law and to a repentance born of human deeds of righteousness.  John is a preacher of the Gospel.  The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.  God is coming.  God will deliver His people.  God is acting to keep His promise.  The wilderness echoes with the some of a promise enfleshed in the One who was and who now is.  Pay attention.  The day of salvation is here.

You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God,  whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,  to guide our feet into the way of peace.  So sang Zechariah when he got his voice back.  John was not to fit in but to stand out and in standing out to point not to Himself but to Jesus. 

God raised up a prophet to go before His Son, to prepare His way, to give knowledge of salvation to His people, by the forgiveness of their sins, all because of the tender mercy of God and not out of His desire to condemn us.  We who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death have been brought to the light of life.  What is left for us except to repent, believe, and rejoice.  Yes, and one more thing.  For we are not called not to fit in but to stand out, pointing not to our righteousness but the righteousness of Christ we wear by baptism, and to speak, not the voice of condemnation or fear, but of hope.  Repent, for the Kingdom of God is here!

Stretching the boundaries. . .

It is easy to shoot for what is familiar and safe.  Too often that is all we aim for.  I have been in congregations where the same couple of dozen hymns were sung over and over again.  The rationale was often put in the context of that is what people like, that is about all we can handle musically, or that is what is easiest.  None of these is a particularly good reason for choosing the hymns of the service.

I know that there are people in my parish who do not like that we sing as many hymns from the hymnal as we can through a given year.  I know that there are those who would be happy as a clam if we sang the same couple of dozen hymns they like -- the only problem is getting everyone to agree on which couple of dozen they like!  I know that some people groan when they turn in the hymnal and find out it is a two page hymn or one with a gazillion stanzas.  I don't choose the hymns to make people angry but because it is a good thing to know the whole hymnal, hymns are chosen for text and with the three year series we have a lot of texts to connect with in choosing hymns for the day, and because we need to learn a new hymn every couple of weeks to expand the realm of the familiar (if only by baby steps).

There are pastors who complain that not all hymns in Lutheran Service Book are of great quality.  I suppose that this is true.  I am not as bothered by the use of hymns less compelling than others -- at least not as bothered as some folks who regularly vent their frustration on the internet.  We even sing "Earth and All Stars" every now and then.  No, you will not get me to say you should narrow the numbers of hymns you choose and sing on Sunday morning.  Naturally we do have an affinity for Lutheran hymns -- if we don't sing the great chorales, who will???  But that is not all we sing.  We regularly add hymns not in LSB (including some that did not make the cut from either TLH or LW) as well as newer hymns not even written when LSB was published!  I have written some hymns (not nearly as easy a task as some might make it out to be). Singing requires effort and voices need to be stretched -- and our repertoire needs expanding as well.  This is a not a bad thing.

The same is true of the choir.  Too often Lutheran choirs never even venture to sing the compositions of great Lutheran composers of the past or present.  Too often Lutheran choirs sing what is easy and popular (way too much contemporary sounding stuff that is more at home in another denomination than our own).  Yes the choir is a volunteer group and they do not all read music and some of them complain loudly when asked to work a little harder than they would like.  But go for it!  Our choir is a group of about 30-35 folks of varying musical ability and yet they regularly sing the great music of the masters (the old ones and the modern folks -- from Rutter to K. Lee Scott).  They regularly surprise themselves by doing a credible job with music that IS difficult to sing.  Our best for His glory, that is the point.

I will admit to some frustration that Lutherans tend to be infatuated more with the music of other traditions.  Why does the church that produced Bach find itself loving spirituals and American Gospel songs more than the great Lutheran chorales????  

When our new Associate Pastor is installed, the choir will sing Parry's "I Was Glad" (Psalm 122), Mendelssohn's "How Lovely Are the Messengers" and a Rutter piece as well.  We will find the money for some strings and brass players to make sure this is a blessed occasion in which the various components of the liturgy are up to the glorious event that is taking place.  And we will do it in mid-July, to boot!!

If you are doing worship planning, stretch the boundaries.  Do not skip the hymns with challenging melodies and thoughtful texts to find those which are easy and popular choices.  Do not presume that your people are incapable of doing more challenging music.  Give your people the chance -- in the pew and in the choir.  We can only do what we are challenged to do.  Stretch the boundaries!!!  But do so in the pursuit of that which has some theological and musical integrity and not because it is trendy, faddish, or cool.  You might just be surprised!!!

Friday, June 26, 2015

The snakes return to Ireland. . .

Long after Patrick sent them packing the snakes have returned to Ireland.  Where there was once a country in which divorce was illegal, where mass attendance was among the highest in Europe, and the Irish were traditional in most ways, now we have the first democratic vote to reject marriage between a man and a woman and to define it as a relationship without distinction as to sex.

How did this happen?

Some will say money helped -- the money from the left leaning agencies especially across the Atlantic.  Yes, I suppose that did help.  Some will say lack of any political will or opposition helped -- the politicians certainly abandoned traditional marriage from the Prime Minister all the way on down with but a few lone voices to reject the change.

But how could a country with so many people raised Roman Catholic, catechized in the faith and more practicing that faith than other nations of Europe, suddenly vote by more than 60% to reject church teaching?  There can be only one answer.  Catechesis was not effective, the faith was not really taught, and the people were left without much of a moral compass either by the teachers of the faith or by the leaders of the church in Ireland.

This is a warning shot across the bow of those who would teach the faith to children.  You cannot half-halfheartedly teach the faith, allow "conscience" to trump the Word of God, and leave it up to the people to figure out on their own what is right and wrong and then end up with any semblance of orthodoxy.  Teaching the faith means teaching the faith.  Teaching the faith means addressing Scripture as the highest truth that not even conscience can deny or dispute.  Teaching the faith means insisting that conscience calls us to affirm the Word of the Lord and not deny its teaching.

Wherever you find people falling away, you can almost always find a failure of teaching.  Whether you call it catechesis or not, whether it happens in the home or in the church, without faithful teaching the faith will not be faithful.  We do not do anyone much service by teaching them our own doubts or struggles as a substitute for Thus saith the Lord.  Nor do we provide any benefit to the student by suggesting that what we believe, confess, and teach is anything less most certainly true.

For too long we have been more interested in whether people liked us than they believed in the unchanging truth of God's Word faithfully confessed in every generation.  And what we ended up with is a cultural Christianity which finds little contradiction between voting for marriage without distinction as to sex and thinking themselves faithful Christian folk.

Better a smaller church in which people know and believe and confess the yesterday, today, and forever faith than a bigger church in which we pick and choose what we will believe as if doctrine were a smorgasbord and the biggest factor was personal preference.

The snakes have returned to Ireland and they will not be far behind in other places unless we teach our children well. . .

Thursday, June 25, 2015

June 25, 1530. . .

Our Churches, with common consent, do teach. . . Only those things have been recounted whereof we thought that it was necessary to speak, in order that it might be understood that in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic. For it is manifest that we have taken most diligent care that no new and ungodly doctrine should creep into our churches. 

 The Augsburg Confession confesses, “Ecclesiae magno consensu apud nos docent,” that is, “The churches among us with great consensus teach.” This is an ecumenical statement that the Augsburg Confession is a universal creed, that correctly expounds the Scriptures and believed by all Christians. On this Dr. Charles Arand writes, “And so in the Augustana they proclaim, “This is the one holy catholic and apostolic faith” which is proclaimed among us. Therefore the one holy Christian church exists among us in its fullness. In this claim of catholicity the confessors issue a call, inviting others to confess their catholicity by confessing the Gospel as it is set forth in the twenty-eight articles of the Augustana. And then they issue a bit of a challenge: And we hope that it exists among you.” (Arand, Charles P. “The Future of Church Fellowship : A Confessional Proposal.” Concordia Journal (July 1999), 248-249.)

Read the Augsburg Confession here. . .

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The quality of the relationship?!?

As Rome prepares to write another chapter in the continuing Synod on Marriage drama, we find that Pope Francis has appointed people who seriously disagree with the Roman Catholic stance as well as those who fall in line with the traditional teaching of Rome with respect to marriage, same sex marriage, and the communion of divorced.  One of the more prominent voices disagreeing with traditional teaching from Rome has been Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp.

“Personally, I find that in the Church, more space must be given to acknowledge the actual quality of gay and lesbian couples; and such a form of shared life should meet the same criteria as found in an ecclesiastical marriage,” he said. “We have to acknowledge that such criteria can be found in a diversity of relationships, and one needs to search for various models to give form to those relationships.”

What is most interesting about Bonny's point is his insistence that the quality of the gay and lesbian relationships be a contributing factor in the blessing of the church and the definition of ecclesiastical marriage.  As far as I know this would represent the first time the quality of a relationship was a deciding factor in its status in the church.  Bad marriages are still marriages and good relationships are not marriages (unless the man and woman choose to marry).  What this fellow is doing is blurring the distinctions between marriage and relationships.  As far as I know, the Scriptures do not address with any sort of standing or approval adult, consensual, sexual relationships of any kind EXCEPT the marriage of a man to a woman. 

This is, by the way, the same tack as those who believe in assisted suicide and even active euthanasia.  Quality of life becomes the defining issue over the value of the life itself just as here the quality of the relationship is what would signal its ecclesiastical approval.  This is a slippery slope, to be sure.

I have no doubt that there are gay and lesbian couples who have a better relationship between them than many heterosexual marriages.  But the quality of the relationship is not what gives marriage its legitimacy.  Flawed and even failing marriages are still marriages and excellent relationships of gay and lesbian couples are still not marriage.  Once the quality of the relationship becomes the deciding factor in the church's approval, the church has been given a far different task than to officiate at the blessing of those to be married according to God's design, witnessing their pledges and vows of faithfulness, equipping them with the grace of forgiveness to keep those vows and promises, and holding them accountable when the marriage is no longer easy, happy, or satisfying.

Bonny is sounding the typical party line of modernity but it has no place in the deliberations of the Church, Roman or otherwise.  Marriage is what it is because of God's design and the man and woman who, though living within the boundaries of human frailty, seek to live out their life together as God has willed and purposed.  Marriage is not what it is because those in the relationship think it works or is satisfying to them.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Looking for rest in a restless world. . .

    How many of you have trouble sleeping?  Do you toss and turn?  Do you lie restless begging for rest?  Do you minds run wild while your body aches to sleep?  If that describes you, then you are not alone.  Over the counter sleep aids are some of the most commonly purchased items in the pharmacy aisle and prescription sleep medicines are a billion dollar industry.  Sleep clinics look for disrupted sleep patterns or breathing issues.  We are not alone in wanting rest but finding none.
    But it seems that Jesus knows nothing of your problem.  According to the Gospel reading, He slept through a storm while lying in near the transom of a small boat while it was riding out a fierce storm.  His disciples watched in wonder as Jesus slept and were not a little angry that He could lay there and sleep while they feared for their very lives.  Why can’t we rest like that?  What can we do to find such restful and peaceful sleep?
    Whether you want to admit it or not, sin is the great sleep stealer.  It raises storms within our minds and hearts that keep us awake and consume our attention when all we want is rest.  Sin teaches us guilt and guilt keeps us awake in search of a clear conscience.  The need for a clear conscience is epidemic and we even try calling sin good to make us feel better about it all.
    If guilt does not trouble us, fear does.  We are afraid to close our eyes because we see danger all around us.  Fed by a 24 hour news cycle of bad news, we do not feel secure in our homes or secure in our lives.  PTSD may be the fancy name for it but in many small ways we are all prisoners of guilt, fear, and stress.
    These threat become nightmares in which our fears take on shapes and wear faces.  Our fears are personified in our dreams and the end result is that we are tortured during our sleep by the things that afflict us during the day.  And in it all we just want a little rest, some peace, quiet, and sleep.
    Jesus is our rest.  Don’t laugh.  I mean it.  Jesus is the calm in the storms of our lives, the forgiveness for our tortured souls, the hope for our fearful hearts, and the peace for our panicked minds.  If we would know real rest at all, that rest comes from Jesus.
    Jesus may seem distant to us in our need but He is not unconcerned.  We are overly fearful.  We discount the meaning of God’s presence and overestimate the power of our enemies.  Greater is He who is in You than he who is in the world.  Christ challenges what panics us with the life strong enough to face all our enemies, even death.  Our hearts will not rest until they rest in Jesus.  Augustine said that 1600 years ago and it is still as true as when he first said it.  Jesus is our peace and our rest.
    Jesus does the right thing – not what we want or desire or think we need but what is right for us.  The call of faith is to trust in Jesus – to trust His will, His grace, His power, and His love.  That is the daily struggle that afflicts our lives and that is what haunts us in our restless nights.  Do you trust God’s good and gracious will in Christ?
    The call of God to His people is “where is your faith?”  And that is the crux of our problems with guilty consciences, fearful hearts, and over stressed minds.  We discount God and we over estimate the power of our enemies.  We do not turn our sins to Jesus so we carry guilt or think we can handle their poison.  We focus only on our fears and forget the promises of God that we should also pray as we tell God what troubles us.  We deal with the panic of the present as if we did not know where tomorrow was leading or the future God has already prepared for us.
    Jesus sleeps because He has no guilt, no shame, no worries, and no fears.  He is perfectly at peace with the Father’s will.  God it not like us – hallelujah!  We don’t need a panic button; we need a faith button.  Not a God who jumps at our command but ears to hear His still small voice in life’s storms.  We do not need explanations we can understand but faith to trust the Lord.  The cross tells us everything we need to know of God’s good and gracious will.
    Dad’s if you’re listening, teach this to your kids.  Teach your children to know Him who forgives our sins, protects us from our enemies, and sustains us in the day of trouble.  Dad’s, if you do this, you will have done something worthy and eternal for your children.  Tell them that they can rest in Jesus and then show them by your own example.  Faith keeps us from terror, not because it is hopeful, and not because it is soothing, but because Jesus is God and He has triumphed over all our enemies.
    Now is up to us to repent of our lack of faith, to repent over our sins so that our consciences can be clear, to believe in His promise more than we believe in the power of our enemies, and to rest in the gracious and eternal future He has prepared for us.  Then, just maybe, we will learn to sleep like a baby. . . or even better to sleep like Jesus because we rest in Him.  Amen.

What a difference 50 years makes. . .

Missouri after fifty years. . . 
 Year     Pastors   Churches   Members
1959     5,398       5,109       2,304,962
2009     9,357       6,178       2,312,111

In 2009 we were roughly the same size we were in 1959 (membership) but in 2009 we had 3,200 more Pastors than we did congregations while fifty years earlier we had but 200 pastors more than congregations.

What does this mean?  I can only hazard a guess.  We had more retired pastors in 2009 than we did in 1959, to be sure.  We had more pastors serving in non-congregational positions than we did in 1959 (a time when even District Presidents were part-time District Officers while serving their own parishes).  We had more large staff congregations in 2009 than we did in 1959.  All of these are probably true but not necessarily the whole picture.

One thing that has changed in fifty years is what people expect of the church and of their pastor.  In 1959 (sadly, I am old enough to remember that year), many churches had only worship space (back then we called it a sanctuary).  Now the facilities sport gyms and school rooms and parlors and all sorts and kinds of space and programs that fill it up during the week.  Church buildings are not dark between Sundays.  This is good and bad but it means that pastors and staff manage more programs and staff than they did in 1959.  Pastors have blogs and tweet and do email and podcasts and livestream sermons and worship services, etc...  Many congregations expect and staff specialized positions with pastors who have obtained specialized training or degrees (from counseling to family life ministry -- things unimagined in 1959).

One other thing that has changed in fifty years is the fact that more people than ever come to the church with little or nothing in background, not knowing Jesus from Moses, and without even a rudimentary understanding of the Bible's big stories.  I don't know about other pastors, but I spend an increasing amount of my time trying to fill in the gaps that new folks come with as they hope to enter the church -- gaps in knowledge, in understanding, in Christian culture, etc...  Receiving new members is as much about enculturating as it is taking someone through a class.  Because our people are much more mobile than they were in 1959, it means doing this over and over and over again and not necessarily seeing the statistical growth you might have expected fifty years ago.

I am not at all sure that it is a good thing that we have so many more pastors than we do congregations.  I am not at all sure that it is necessarily a bad thing either.  What I am concerned about are the increasing numbers of congregations in which the common thought is that we cannot afford a full-time pastor or a pastor of our own.  That is one big difference between 1959 and 2009 that does not even show up on these statistics.  Almost every parish in our church body in 1959 expected and had its own pastor or shared a pastor with a neighboring parish.  Now we have increasing numbers of parishes in which there is no expectation of having a pastor in the foreseeable future and, sadly, some of them don't miss having one either.

I have no solutions here but only raise the issue.  What do you think are some of the reasons for the distinct difference between these few statistics from 1959 and 2009?

Monday, June 22, 2015

The first thing to remember. . .

Twenty years ago or more I got a note from Fr. Richard John Neuhaus telling me about the launch of a new journal, First Things.  In the first editorial of the first issue Neuhaus wrote:  The first thing to remember about politics is that politics is not the first thing.  You could always count on him to write a memorable phrase.  Others have taken up on that theme and I will not duplicate their efforts here.  What I would do is to see how that sentence applies beyond the realm of politics.

The first thing about _______ is that ________ is not the first thing.  You can fill in the blank with the specific area in which what usually claims primacy is, in fact, not the first nor the highest priority.  If we apply this to the same sex marriage debate, it would remind us that marriage does not begin with nor is it defined by two people who desire to be married.  That is the great fallacy of the modern debate.  We have quickly skipped over too many things to end up with simply the desires of the two (could there be more than two?) who desire to be married.  If we begin and end with those who desire to be married, then the end of the debate is already near and there is no conspicuous reason why any and all who possess the desire should not be given their justice and allowed to marry.  And that is the point.  Marriage does not begin nor does it end with those who desire to be married.  It begins with the will of the Creator, with the shape of male and female, with the social order of the family, with love that is not mere sentiment or feeling, and with sex that is not merely the legalized lust of the pleasure seeker.

The first thing about _______ is that ________ is not the first thing.  In the debate over right and wrong in the shape of desire, we too often begin with the desire itself.  We have surrendered the moral high ground to instinct or passion and we are left only with the people and what turns their cranks.  In doing so we Christians have forgotten that sex is given not for pleasure but for reproduction.  In ancient days in school we learned about the reproductive system -- perhaps the only system of the body that is not required to function to sustain the individual's life.  Even in raw definition the system had a different purpose than mere pleasure and the instinct was governed and controlled by will.  I wonder what they call it today in biology?  For in practice sex is not about anything but sex, pleasure its main goal, and love and marriage but mere antiquated arenas no longer required of the modern and the free.

The first thing about _______ is that ________ is not the first thing.   In worship we have begun with what people want, what works (packs them in), and what pays the bills.  Once addicted to the reinvention of worship week after week, we cannot afford to disappoint the people who may stop showing up if we stop providing them with the entertainment they seek or fail to inspire them to get what they want out of this life.  We easily forget that it is entirely possible to be successful with the masses and an abysmal failure with God on Sunday morning.  Since God's approval does not easily equate to full pews (pardon me, chairs) or full offering baskets, you can guess whose vote counts most.

In the end this is the domain of the Spirit (remember Pentecost).  He brings to remembrance all that Jesus said and did so that we are not captive to the moment or to desire or to the flow of culture.  He anchors us in Christ whose death and resurrection has become our new starting point.  And then He directs us to the future that none of us counted on -- the life that is beyond death's grasp or the power of the gave.  Just as we are anchored in a past that changes everything, so we are directed to a future unknown and unknowable apart from Christ whose death and resurrection have made it possible.  We are not who we were, we are not our own, we were bought with a price, we belong to Him.  How many times and in how many different ways does Paul make this statement?  The role and work of the Spirit is to bring to remembrance the past that Christ has done so that we can be directed to and even begin to anticipate the future Christ has made possible.

The first thing about today is that today is not the first thing.  This is the core of it all.  Sin has left us with a past we either run from or a past we seek to prolong or recreate.  In either case, it is impossible for us to escape from or repristinate yesterday.  That is our prison.  That is the lens through which we see today and it is always less than we want.  But the past that the Spirit makes known is the past that enables us to confront yesterday's darkness and to see beyond yesterday's glory.  That is Christ's death and resurrection.  At the same time, we meet a new future none of us dared imagine or could hope for unless and until Christ forged this tomorrow for us.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Strange Bedfellows. . .

They say that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  I guess that would make the friend of my enemy also my enemy.  We live in a polarized world (look only so far as the legislative and executive branches of our national government).  Though we tend to focus on what divides us, those of a more liberal bent seem less willing to parse the nuances of difference from their liberality while those of a more conservative bent seem intent upon ever narrowing the hoop through which you must pass to wear the name conservative.  Yet there are things that tend to unite us and in strange ways to encourage us to look beyond our differences.

In the pro-life movement we see a strange coalition of Roman Catholics, Lutherans (Missouri, anyway), fundamentalists, and even some evangelical types.  Added into that are some others (Orthodox, conservative Anglican types along with a smattering of others on the conservative end of Protestantism).  It has always seemed odd to have Lutherans marching with Roman Catholics given the fact that the Lutheran Confessions called the papacy and any of its occupants who refused to allow the Gospel to be preached the antichrist.  That has not stopped us from marching arm in arm against those who believe the killing of a baby is a mother's divine right.

The opposition to same sex marriage has strengthened the pro-life coalition and given it new ties to bind the often disparate groups together.  Social issues have proven to be a boon to ecumenism and it does not appear that the causes for traditional marriage, the family, etc... will wind down anytime soon.  It is true that some evangelicals and mainline folks may peel off the parade on the GLBT issues and the SCOTUS decision will surely have great impact but these groups and their common stance seem strong enough to endure.

The liturgical movement also brought together people of common interest and expertise to open an ecumenical door.  Lutherans and Roman Catholics have a natural affinity when it comes to things of worship (notwithstanding their strong disagreement over the focus of the mass as re-presentation of the once for all sacrificial body and blood of Jesus and the transubstantiation definition).  For a time it seemed that the liturgical movement was also going to bring together more liberal Protestants as well as the traditionally liturgical denominations but it seems as Rome has become more circumspect over the radical changes introduced in the wake of Vatican II, the liberal Protestants have become more radical.  I do not think that the liturgical movement will endure the rupture of those who rename God, who use the guise of the liturgy to incorporate pagan spirituality and natural religious elements into Christianity.  The once unstoppable fervor of the liturgical movement as an ecumenical force has waned and new coalitions will be formed around those who want to slow down liturgical innovation and those who are ready to abandon the catholic tradition in favor of every new fad.

For a time it seemed that Biblical scholarship was an ecumenical paradise but only for those who regarded the Biblical text as hardly different from any other mythology to be debunked.  Finally Rome seemed to begin to put brakes on higher criticism as a movement that has grown out of touch with the church and the faith.  I am not exactly sure how vibrant this movement will be over the long haul but B16 long advocated against a Biblical scholarship which failed to address the text as we have it and equip the church to witness and teach the faith on the basis of a text we trust.  For this reason, Missouri Lutherans have (at least since the 1970s) stood apart from the departments of religion and divinity schools and their view of Scripture which was skeptical of every fact, suspicious of every claim, and certain that the Jesus of history and the Jesus of Scripture were two very different people.  Maybe there could be a new ecumenism based on this more conservative view of Scripture and its truthfulness but it is too soon to tell and the Bart Ehrman's of this world are too loud to hear much else.

Strangely, one might expect ecumenism to begin with the creeds but it has been largely silent on the basis of creedal witness.  One might suspect that both the Apostles' and Athanasian Creeds have a distinctly greater role in the West than in the East but even the Nicene Creed has not proven to be a rallying call for those churches and Christians who confess it.  Perhaps too many speak its words without believing what they say to allow the Creed to become more than a symbolic point of unity.  In my own version of Lutheranism, we intend to fulfill the Augustana insistence that we have not departed from catholic doctrine and practice but we have people who remain afraid of the word "catholic".  On the other hand, we have groups who use that word without hesitation but who do not intend to be "catholic" in doctrine or practice.  This is indeed sad.  The creed carefully crafted and confidently confessed was once the powerful voice of unity for orthodox Christianity.

So there it is. . . what has forged a common cause have been threats to life, family, and marriage. . . while the greater causes of Scripture, creed, and liturgy seem not to have had much power in bringing us to the table to talk.  Strange bedfellows, to be sure!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Silencing the sound of of the language Jesus spoke . . .

Another result of the upheaval and violence of the Middle East is that those who speak Aramaic are being forcibly removed from their homelands and Aramaic is in danger as a language. . .

Pope Francis in The Encyclical. . .

Okay, just laugh. . . and then maybe wonder if there is any truth to it all. . .

Ecology is not a theology. . .

Pope Francis’ long anticipated encyclical on ecology and the use of the earth and its resources is at one and the same time a work of promise and peril. There are many who have already rejected it before seeing it and others who will reject it if it does not fit their own preconceived conclusions.  Some are concerned by the Pope's seeming hostility to capitalism and others are fearful of the Pope's friendliness with socialism.  Still others believe whatever he says, it will be the wrong thing.  He is not the first to tread where the brave dare not necessarily go. . .

What the Church has to say on political subjects is always a study in temptation and danger.  The temptation is to take sides in political struggles and the danger is to presume to give blessing to one side in a political battle or to the other.  Since there are disputes about the settled science of global warming and the green perspective on things, it will be difficult for the Pope to speak with consensus.  Since there is clear evidence of the poor stewardship of the earth by capitalist, communist, and socialist governments, it is hardly a subject to be ignored or avoided.  Yet popes and churches speak best when they address the individual even though they want to address the halls of power.

At best, the Church can and should raise up the cause of personal responsibility in the role of every person as a custodian and steward over a creation ours to use but not to abuse.  At worst, the Church will sound pompous, arrogant, and misinformed if it chooses one economic system over another to address the greater issue.  We have short memories but if we will go back a generation or two we may see some things more clearly.  It does not take long to look over the poor record of the Soviet stewardship of the earth to see what damage can be done.It can raise consciousness of humans as stewards of creation.Yes, but capitalists are not exactly without dirty hands in all of this as well.  So again, the most noble perspective here, it seems to me, is to address the personal responsibility of each individual to use without abusing and to steward without destroying the marvelously rich treasure of the earth and all of its fullness which God deemed very good.

Ecology is not theology.  It seems many liberal Christians have forgotten this.  From media to enlightened church consciences, there is a considered movement to treat man as the primary danger to the earth and to resent any and every impact made upon the face of God's creation.  But such forgets that man was created to exercise dominion over all God made and creation was not to be the master but the treasure used for God's glory and noble purpose yet without destroying His gift.  It became inherently more difficult after the Fall but God was not the one who made it harder.  We screwed it up and all the while we screwed it up God still sent the rain, grew the seed, and the earth delivered up its bounty for us.

I am greatly troubled by those who would transform the message of the Church into an adaptation of the Avatar movie theme in which the goal of our stewardship is some mystical union with nature.  The circle of life sings well but it is poor theology.  No ecology is good theology but the best theology the Church can offer the world is to address the individual, wherever he or she is, and call them to repentance over their failings and to renewed faithfulness in godly use and holy stewardship over all that God made.  We will be held accountable whether we believe in God or not and even if we believe in Him but do whatever we darn please.  Yet the most effective voice we have always had is to call people to take up personal responsibility, to act faithfully, and, as much as is possible, to use God's gift wisely.  The earth is already passing away and no amount of green will prevent it but neither is it our job to hasten its demise.

Pope Francis and everyone else who attempts to address an issue like ecology is speaking on a subject fraught with temptation and foolishness almost designed to infuriate and alienate no matter what is said.  Let us pray that patient and wise heads prevail among every Christian jurisdiction and leader who presumes to address such a subject and we speak where we speak best -- calling the unfaithful to repentance, forgiving the penitent, and reminding all that they serve God first before self or ideology.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Meeting people where they are; leading people to where they are not yet.

Meeting people where they are; leading people to where they are not yet. . .

It is ordination time.  Seminarians who have spent years preparing for this day will in one moment be conferred with the authority of the keys, the authority to preach the Word, the authority to administer the Sacraments, and be given responsibility for the various tasks that belong to the ordained.  It is a grand and wonderful time of year.  To think that throughout our church body perhaps a hundred of these take place in June and July!  It is an occasion for joy and hope for all pastors and people, not just those wherein the church has placed a candidate!

There is much advice given to those newly ordained men.  Not a little of it will come in the form of ordination sermons that seek to speak freshly the sage advice of old.  Never having been called to preach at an ordination, I cannot speak from experience here but if I had been so requested to preach, I would hope to avoid the typical fare so often heard.

No pastor is given the authority or the responsibility for redefining the ministry or growing the church.  Yet that is our grave temptation which, if we fail into it, we do both God and His people a great disservice.  The ministry is not ours to define but that which defines us.  We take our place in the long train of those upon whose shoulders the stole (yoke) of ministry has been placed.  They can teach us if we will let them -- both by their shining successes and their terrible failures.  And if we are faithful, we will have something to pass on to those who come after us.

Pastors do not grow churches.  Only God grows them.  He gives us partnership in this task but never ownership of it.  If we are faithful in preaching the Word of the Lord and administering the Sacraments as Christ instituted them, whatever fruit is born will be born by God and for His own purpose and glory.  Perhaps the gravest of sins by preachers at ordinations is to give the ordinand either the false hope or the deceptive burden of thinking that they are the ones who grow the church.  We are not entrepreneurs who have received a franchise to sell the Gospel product and increase market share for God.  We are shepherds who are called to love and feed the sheep (not necessarily to like them) and to lead and guide them to the good, green pastures of God's Word, the still, quiet waters of His water, and to feed them in the table set in the presence of enemies.

We meet people where they are, this is true.  But we lead then to where they are not yet.  This is also true.  And we do so not with our wit or wisdom, not with our poise or personality, and not with our strength or skills.  Nope, we do it by faithfully speaking the Word of God and administering the Sacraments of Christ.  The temptation is to meet people where they are and leave them there -- feeling better to be sure but still the prisoners of sin, marked for death, and disappointed that life is not more.  We meet them where they are but we dare not leave them there.  Yet we do not lead them where we want them to go.  We leave them to the future Christ has appointed.  We bring them to anticipate the marriage feast of the Lamb in the blessed meal of the Eucharist.  We bring them to the well done of the Father by calling them to do the good works of Him who has called them from darkness into His marvelous light.  We bring to eternal joy that does not disappoint them nor does it abandon them in the struggles and sorrows of this mortal life.  We bring them to know and live out their vocation as the baptized people of God, living under Christ in His kingdom now and His who will live with Him in His kingdom forever.  We bring them through the means of grace.

If I were to preach at an ordination, I would hope to remind the ordinand that this is an impossible task unless God is doing it and that at best we offer Him but a voice with which to speak and the hands with which to bestow His grace.  And if we do that, then we will be faithful and we will be found faithful. . . and that is enough.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Not a fish bowl but a desert island. . .

Years ago the point was often made that a pastor and his family lived in a fish bowl, that is, their lives were lived on display before the congregation.  People from the pew were interested, watching, evaluating, and judging what went on in the parsonage.  I recall hearing this perspective often as I began my service as a pastor some 35 years ago.  It was probably true then, though always more true for Midwestern parishes and more true for smaller parishes.  Now it is probably not so much the case.

As a fresh, new, untried pastor in my first parish, I was invited often into the homes of members for social purposes and had to turn down some of them because there were too many to accept.  No holiday came without an abundance of invitations for me and my family to join in the families of the parish, understanding our own families were far away at the very seasons when family normally draws near.

That has changed.  People do not invite folks into their homes like they once did and this is very true for pastors and their families.  I seldom get invitations into the homes of my people and I do not invite people into our home like we once did.  Homes have become less places to entertain and more a refuge from the hustle and bustle of crowded lives and over burdened schedules.

In a parish with two services, the pastor's family are often strangers to half the parish.  My family normally attended the early service and the Sunday school hour and those who did not attend the educational activities of Sunday morning and only attended late service would not even regularly see my family.  While the beginning of your ministry might expect the family to attend all services, such expectation cannot continue without a strain upon the family.  It is also not good to bounce around from service to service since the pastor's family deserves to have their own routines (sans dad) just like other families do.

In the end the pastor and his family no longer live in the fish bowl where everyone is interested, watching, evaluating, and judging.  People are too self-absorbed or too busy on their own to pay all that much attention to the pastor and what happens in the parsonage.  In fact, just the opposite.  People in the pew do not even care all that much about the pastor and his family -- at least personally.  I do not mean to imply that they are mean or rude or uncaring people.  It is more a reflection of our times and our lifestyles than intention.  That said, the pastor and his family are less likely to complain that their lives are lived out in a fish bowl before the congregation than they are to lament that they are lonely and their lives lived out in the isolation of a desert island.

Loneliness always was a component of life within the parish for both the pastor and his family.  What was once a small cost has become a huge issue.  Pastors feel more alone now than ever.  Pastor's families feel even more this isolation.  It drives pastor's families to socialize outside the parish, usually through the natural connections of their children and their children's friends.  This is not all bad but the loneliness of pastor's study and pastor's home is critical and having a big impact upon the health and the faithfulness of our clergy.

This is especially true where the fellowship of other clergy, especially within the circuit or Synod, is lacking.  Distance (I am 45-90 minutes away from my brothers in the LCMS) is one factor.  The growing tendency of the parish and its pastor to function almost completely in isolation from other congregations and pastors of their own church bodies is another factor (especially true in the LCMS since the 1970s).  One more factor is the way we have filled our children's schedules to the point where we have little time for anything other than work or home responsibilities.

As we send out new pastors into the field, I would urge parishes to pay attention to the men and their families.  Don't let the pastor's home be a desert island any more than you make it into a fish bowl.  But make sure that your pastor and his family do not find themselves so alone that they must bear the burdens of parish and parsonage all by themselves.  Support them with prayer.  Invite them to meals or fun events (especially at the beginning of their ministries but especially at holiday times).  Too many pastors and their families find themselves hurt, lonely, and disillusioned at the very start of their calling.  This is an impossible burden for them and a ripe opportunity for the devil's work. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Who would have believed it?

A couple of generations ago who would have believed that something like this.  Today it has become sadly predictable.  Accommodation to the culture knows no limits and once you have headed down this path, there is no retreat.  So goes the once noble Church of England. . . Great buildings, great figures in history, great liturgy (especially collects) and now great apostasy. 

Read it in The GuardianChurch of England to consider transgender naming ceremony

The Church of England is to debate plans to introduce a ceremony akin to a baptism to mark the new identities of Christians who undergo gender transition.

The Rev Chris Newlands, the vicar of Lancaster Priory, has proposed a motion to the General Synod to debate the issue, after he was approached by a young transgender person seeking to be “re-baptised” in his new identity.

The motion, which was passed by Blackburn Diocese last month, calls on the House of Bishops to consider whether it should introduce a new service to mark the milestone in the life of a trans person. A spokesperson for the Archbishops’ Council confirmed that the motion had been received, but said it would not be debated imminently.

Newlands urged the church to take the lead on welcoming a group that suffered high levels of discrimination.
He said he knew a number of trans people though his work with LGBT organisations. “It’s an absolute trauma to go through this, with the surgery, as people get a lot of transphobic bullying. The church needs to take a lead and be much more proactive to make sure they are given a warm welcome.”

The motion had “captured people’s imagination”, he said, and already gathered a large amount of support. It has been passed by the parochial church council, the Deanery Synod and the Blackburn Diocese, which covers Lancashire.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The faith of a mustard seed. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 3, Proper 6B, preached on Sunday, June 14, 2015.

    The farmer scatters the seed, lays his tired body in the bed, and rises to see that it has sprouted and grown.  But that is not enough for us.  We began to think that God created us to make better what He made, not to preserve it.  Since Eden, we have used our technology to improve God’s design and control everything.  Science’s great lie is that if we can predict it, we can control it, and if we can control it, we must master it.  So we improve the seed to produce heartier plants and more yield, we irrigate so we do not need rain, and we use pesticide to prevent damage to the crops.
    We complain now at all the science in our food but it is our own fault.  We wanted a bionic world under our design and calling. We wanted cheap food where everything is in season.  We wanted replacement parts to our broken bodies.  We think that God has given us this world to make it better, raw material for us to experiment upon and improve.  Think how those Native Americans presented their small and half empty ears of corn to the Pilgrims and then think of the mighty hybrid ears of corn we genetically engineered to improve upon God's design.  But that is not our calling; God did not create us to fix what He made but to preserve it and His Word in lives of faith and trust. If only we had faith the size of a mustard seed. . .
    We think that God made us because He needed us, and that He still needs us.  God does not need us but wants us.  On the other hand, because of sin, we do not want God but need Him.  Since the Fall we wonder where would God be without us?!  God is not self-sufficient in our eyes but we are.  We do not need Him but He needs us – our money, smarts, time, labor, etc...  In truth the opposite is the case.  God does not need us but we need Him.   We do not understand God or His Kingdom or His nature but God does get us, our wants and our needs.  If only we had faith the size of the mustard seed.
    From the Garden of Eden we have sought to control God instead of trust in Him or delight in His mercy, love and grace.  We have sought our own purposes and desires and pulled God along to bless them so we can do what we want without guilt.  And look how it has turned out?  Without the Spirit we are left only to our broken creation, sin-filled lives, prideful sense of control, and hopeless end.  If only we had faith the size of a mustard seed.
    God does not need you or me but He wants us.  We do not want Him but we need Him.  He does not need us and yet in His grace He created us to exercise dominion over all He had made.  He does not need us and yet in His grace He has chosen to work in us, among us, and through us.  We are partners in the Gospel not because of our will and desire but because of His mercy and grace.  The Word is the means of grace and the Spirit its power to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify a people who are God's alone by faith.  If only we had faith the size of a mustard seed.
    God will do all things to save us and asks of us only repentance and faith.  Yet He has also promised to remember and reward every small and forgettable good work we do.  Such is the nature of His great mercy and love!  God does not seek our advice or counsel but counsels us with His Word and Spirit and promises never to forget us and never to renege on His promises to us in Jesus Christ His Son.
    The grace of forgiveness is not freedom to do as we please but to live lives of faith, trusting in God’s abundant grace and serving Him without fear.  Yet we have turned this grace of forgiveness into mere license to do what we desire without fear or shame. God’s business is to forgive and ours to give Him some thing to forgive. If only we had faith the size of a mustard seed.
    No where is this more true than when it comes to the church.  We think it is our job to make it bigger and better, to remodel God’s house so that it fits the times and adjust His Word to meet the moment.  But all we have done is sacrifice His eternal truth for the present tense lies that leave us without comfort or hope.  We took His world and taught it sin, poverty, war, violence, and hate.  Then we blame God when things went sour and acted as if we had no part in it.  If only we had faith the size of a mustard seed.
    God will not put heaven on earth but He grows His kingdom as wheat among weeds until He declares the harvest.  He does not build His kingdom by fiat but by using our feeble works of love and witness to make known His grace and favor.  It is slow and deliberate. It is inefficient and plodding.  No pastor is content to wait upon God anymore than you are to wait upon Him for your own life.  We are all impatient and frustrated yet our way is not the way of judgement but the way of trust.  We would exchange all our waiting and trusting for a bandaid to get us through another day or a quick fix to last a moment.  Instead, God is delivering to us an eternity.  If only we had faith the size of a mustard seed.
    And this is how that kingdom comes.  Grace to forgive the sinner, love to find the lost, hope to raise the dead, and peace to comfort the despairing. . . through the means of grace wherein the Holy Spirit is at work in us and through us.  It is not enough for us but it is all we need.  If only we had faith like a mustard seed, we would see it.  The way of the kingdom is faith, trust in God’s mercy for all things, patience in adversity and pain, grace to forgive and restore the unworthy and undeserving, hope to sustain the disappointed and broken, and peace that passes understanding.  We think we need the faith of a giant oak tree but in reality all we need is faith the size of a mustard seed and it would be enough for us. . . to endure, to do what God has given us to do, to find joy and peace in each day, and to be found blameless when He comes again in His glory. Amen.

Keepin the audience but losing the church

I was speaking with an acquaintance who is a Roman Catholic priest serving a large (aren't they all) parish.  He was gone for a few weeks and I asked him who filled in for him.  He said no one but other priests came  to say Mass.  It was a very different feeling than you get when a Lutheran is gone from the parish and has someone fill in for him.  This priest was unconcerned about things.  The mass would be said, confessions would be heard, life would go on. . .

It is not quite this simple for a Lutheran pastor -- no matter how large or small the parish.  We literally have to find someone to "fill in."  What this means is to find someone whose liturgical leadership of Sunday morning will not stand at odds with the ordinary custom of the pastor and parish.  Since Lutheran pastors are literally all over the page when it comes to high church, low church, broad church, no church, anti-church, etc., you only create problems by failing to act with discernment and scheduling someone to fill in your place who is at odds with your own confessional identity and liturgical practice. 

Because a Lutheran parish and one should expect Lutheran pastors to hold the sermon in higher place than a typical Roman Catholic and his or her parish, it matters who you get to "fill in" for you.  Almost any Lutheran pastor can tell you war stories of someone who came in and either announced his doubts from the pulpit or preached a gospel so narrow it would seem no one can squeak through to be saved or to preach only Law (or only Gospel) or, worse, to preach nothing but stories, anecdotes, and experiences spiced with typical pious moralisms.

Because Lutherans are divided by more than jurisdiction, it means that often the best Lutheran pastor to fill in for you also happens to belong to a Lutheran Synod or Lutheran church body not in formal fellowship with you.  In other words, Lutherans often find themselves closer in theology and practice to people outside their formal boundaries of altar and pulpit fellowship than some of those supposedly within the boundaries of fellowship.  This is also a complication.

Finally, the idiosyncrasies of local Lutheran Eucharistic practice also complicate things.  How many of us have heard:  That is not how we do things here.  In other words, we do not observe rubric or missal and we do our own thing completely (not simply the addition of ceremonies but rearranging the order to highlight the sermon or shorten the service, etc...).

I won't even mention that fact that until we receive our new Associate Pastor, I have had to get pastors from between  1 3/4 and 3 hours away to make sure that someone is here for both services and a Bible study in between.  Most of the retired guys I have asked told me that they retired, i. e., they retired so that they did not have to work that hard (two services and a Bible study).

Just thought I would through in a few surprising factors any Lutheran pastor must consider when looking for someone to "fill in" for him while he is away.  Summer is coming and you who are on the other side of the pulpit might not realize that this is not simply a slam dunk.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Pet Peeves. .

The former President of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has written:

Here are a few of my Ecclesiastical Pet Peeves:

Outside and in the parking lot:
  • Un-mowed grass, un-trimmed bushes, outdated church sign, poorly maintained facilities
  • Non-existent or unclear directions for visiting, elderly or physically challenged worshipers to convenient parking spots
  • Poorly marked parking spaces or spaces too narrow for the average vehicle
  • No parking lot attendants to provide information and assistance, especially for seniors and in times of inclement weather
In the worship service:
  • Absence of friendly, outgoing, well-groomed, trained greeters to welcome worshipers
  • Lack of properly trained ushers to assist latecomers in finding a seat in the sanctuary or to invite latecomers to wait in the narthex until a natural and appropriate time to enter
  • Printed orders of confession of sin that put what may not be accurately self-descriptive words in the mouths of worshipers
  • Responsive readings that are pedantic and unrelated to the life experience of worshipers expected to speak those words
  • Selection of hymns or songs that are very difficult, if not nearly impossible to sing
  • Projecting on a screen the words of unfamiliar hymns or songs without the musical score
  • Requiring worshipers to stand and sit, stand and sit, repetitively or unnecessarily—three times in one worship service should be sufficient
  • Requiring worshipers to stand during a several minute prayer or for an unusually lengthy Scripture reading, even if it is the gospel lesson for the day—I can listen or pray to our Lord with greater devotion while remaining comfortably seated than if having to stand again after being seated only moments or sometimes even seconds earlier
In speaking or preaching:
  • Absence of a friendly word of welcome by the pastor or other church leader that briefly explains the reason for worship and the central theme of the day’s worship service
  • Reading of Scripture lessons by the pastor or other person without clear and distinct pronunciation or without the emotion demanded by the text itself
  • Service leaders who pay little if any attention to personal appearance
    • Shoes freshly shined
    • Hair neatly trimmed
    • Face cleanly shaved or, if you insist, beard/goatee/mustache neatly trimmed—Note to clergy and other public worship leaders: Compare the most recent photo of the motorcycle shooting participants in Waco or Mexican drug cartel leaders with a photo of the Fortune 500 CEOs or all but nine of the 44 U.S. presidents and see which group you most nearly resemble—I’m just sayin’ …
  • Lack of explanation regarding the reason and purpose for gathering of offerings
  • Non-existent practice of explaining in simple, evangelical and understandable words the reason for the sacrament of Holy Communion and what the Bible says about proper reception of this wonderful means of God’s grace
  • Speaking or preaching in a manner that makes it difficult for people of all ages to hear and understand what is being said
    • Slow down, you speak too fast
    • Speed it up, you talk too slow
    • Speak up, don’t whisper, we can’t hear you, you’re speaking to a crowd, not an individual
    • Speak naturally, lose the pulpit tone 
My Comments. . .

While I do actually agree with a few of them, what I am shocked by is how shallow most of them are.  Really?  This is what bugs you most when you visit a church?  Well, I would put up with all of them as long as the Gospel was proclaimed faithfully, the Sacrament offered as Christ intended, and the liturgy observed reverently.  I am often accused (falsely, of course) of being curmudgeonly but in comparison to this partial list of his pet peeves, I am as soft and cuddly as a Teddy Bear.  There are few non-negotiables in my book.  I do not complain about vestments or their lack, about pipe organs or other instruments or their lack, about hospitality or its lack.  I do complain about unfaithful and lackluster preaching, without doctrinal substance and that fails to call me to repentance, to comfort me with the cross, and to send me forth to amend my sinful life by the power of the Spirit.  I do complain about the liturgy led irreverently in which pastors insert too much of themselves and detract from Christ.  I do complain when our catholic and evangelical identity so clear in the Confessions is absent from who we are on Sunday morning.  But I will put up with almost everything else when these things are in place -- from a gathering of few to a packed cathedral.  And I would hope the rest of us would as well.  Don't use this list to choose a church -- listen, hear, and look.  Is the Gospel being faithfully proclaimed, are you being called to repentance, is the Sacrament reverently and faithfully observed, and are you sent forth with a call to live as the righteous God has declared you to be?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

God in every syllable. . .

In a wonderful tribute to Luther's translation of the New Testament into German in a short 10 weeks, author James Reston, Jr., has written us a wonderful piece to look at both the who and the how of this amazing work of Luther.  It is even more remarkable in comparison to the number of scholars and the length of time taken to produce other translations (from the King James of old to the modern versions).

A taste:

One can only imagine the spare look of Luther’s cell as he settled into his monumental task of translating the New Testament. With only his Greek and Hebrew texts as physical references, and no library to consult or clutter, delay or confuse his labor, his concentration was total. It would be easy to romanticize the process. But a more realistic vision involves sweat and frustration, long hours, and a feeling of being overwhelmed. He approached the assignment with awe. Later, he would call it “a great and worthy undertaking” and say that, given the unsatisfactory Bibles then available to the common person, “the people require it.” But the language of the Bible dazzled him.

He truly believed that he was dealing with the very words of God.

“One should tremble before each letter of the Bible, more than before the whole world!” he would say later. “God is in every syllable. No iota is in vain.”

Indeed, the great accomplishment of Luther is not simply the German New Testament but the premise which began his work -- God is in every syllable.  I wonder if that is not part of the problem today.  Both translators and readers are more inclined to say that God's Word is in the Bible but not nearly as willing to say with Luther that God Himself is in every syllable.
There is a dynamism in Luther's translation that some attribute to his mastery of rendering the sense of the original into the sense of the German of his day.  That is surely so but it is not the real source of the power of his words.  In fact, Luther can be down right crude and spare in his translation compared with those that render the words poetic with complex sentences.  No, Luther's dynamism springs from his absolute conviction that the Word of God (the Bible) is God's living and active Word, a performative Word that does what it says and an efficacious Word that delivers what it promises.  God IS in every syllable.

In contrast to the ways that Scripture is used as a springboard for sermons and teachings that are mostly about the preacher or the hearer, Lutherans are heirs to this dynamic understanding of God's Word and speak of God's Word as sacramental and a means of grace.  In contrast to those who use Scripture as a book of rules or laws which must still be followed, if not to earn salvation then to make God do what you want, Luther is captive to the text, captive to the Word itself.  In contrast to those who use Scripture as a road map to earthly happiness or success, Luther meets in the Word the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, who accomplished salvation and now delivers that salvation to the hearer by the Spirit's power.

We can win all the battles over inerrancy we want but unless and until we recapture this dynamic sense of God in every syllable, Lutherans will remain distant heirs from the Reformer and Translator whose name we claim.  We need a renewal in the pulpit and pew to recover the truth of it, the joy of it, and the power of seeing God in every syllable.  Perhaps then the preacher will gain renewed enthusiasm for the preaching task and the hearer will stop fidgeting and clock watching during the sermon.  When both preacher and hearer hang upon the Word expecting to meet Christ, hear Christ, and receive Christ's blessings, then a renewal of preaching will happen among us.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Come to the feast. . .

Sermon for Trinity 2 (one year series) preached midweek at Grace Lutheran Church.

There is something rather shocking and and even foreboding about the Gospel's invitation.  That is the fact that people reject it and that rejection has consequences.  It does not matter why they reject the invitation of the Lord but it does matter that they do.  We Christians tend to be kind of defensive here.  They are not necessarily bad people and some of them are friends, neighbors and family members.  They reject the Lord’s invitation and we hope that they have not rejected the Lord.  Such a fine distinction may make us sleep better at night but it is hardly implied in the text.

God invites and people give their regrets, their excuses, and their good reasons why now is not a good time or they have prior engagements or they are interested in other things. But God gets angry and insists that none of those invited shall ever taste His banquet.  Their place will be take by others.  It sounds so harsh.  We want to apologize for God but God will have none of it.  There are two kinds of people.  Those who pray “Thy will be done” and those whom God will allow to suffer the consequences of their own wills being done.  At least that is how CS Lewis put it.

To refuse to love the light is to love the darkness.  To reject God’s invitation is to reject Him and all His kingdom.  That is the hard side of the truth and it must be said in order to speak faithfully God’s truth.  Our hearts go out to those who have no time for God now or who have been hurt by the church in some way or who think the church is optional to the faith.  They are not bad people and certainly no worse than we are.  But it is God’s way or no way.

As much as we would apologize for God in this or seek to change God’s mind, our focus is not meant for those who reject God’s invitation.  The focus of our faith and our lives is the fact that God does invite – the unworthy, the broken, the sinner.  God invites us all.  He loves us so much that He invites us all and treats us as if we were better than we are.  God is loving and merciful.  But God is also jealous.  He will not have half of us or even most of us.  He will not share our priorities or our lives with another god.  He claims us – all of us – even our sins with the blood of Christ that cleanses us from all sins.

God is nothing less than kind and generous but He refuses to spend the precious life of His one and only Son for merely part of us.  He bids us come, He cleanses us from our sins, He gives us new birth, He feeds us to everlasting life.  We tend to think that God’s gifts are only for those who deserve them but even our sins cannot stand in the way of His love.  Yet our pride and arrogance do stand in the way of His love.  And this is what God will not abide. 

So what shall we do?  We can fret that some will not come or we can delight that we have been called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified.  We can let our joy in the kingdom be diminished by the fear that some invited will not come or we can rejoice in those who do.  We can focus on the excuses or speak the invitation of God over and over and over again, trusting that the Spirit works through the Word.  We can survey why people do not come and tinker with the facility, the music, or the style or we can trust that the Spirit is at work still -- calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying the Church and put our energies into this gracious Word.  We can apologize for God or challenge the world with a love so strong it refuses to be divided among competing priorities or loyalties.

Remember how this story began.  Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God.  This is not some theoretical bread but the bread which is Christ’s body, His flesh for the life of the world.  He has set His table in the presence of our enemies.  His flesh is real food and His blood real drink.  We are not worthy of His grace but it is His mercy to invite us, to set us honored place, and to feed us eternal life.  Why on earth would we say no?  Come to the feast, the good and the bad, come and be glad, come to the feast.  Amen

You are not doing God a favor by going to church

One of the most screwed up ideas we have gotten is that somehow or other we are doing God a big favor by going to church on Sunday morning.  It is as if God is the one who chiefly benefits from our presence (probably by getting our money in the offering).  What a terribly backwards view of things!

We don’t go to church to do God a favor; rather, we go to church to receive the favor of God. We go to church to receive Christ and His gifts.  God serves us with the favor of His grace.  We do not serve Him with the favor of our attendance, the offering of our time, and the sacrifice of our desires to do something else with the couple of hours we spend in church on a Sunday morning.

Nor do we go to church to serve God. It is God who serves us and without this service of God we can do nothing at all. We need Jesus. We need His gifts. We cannot begin to serve Jesus until He first serves us with His Word and Sacraments. Only Him whose humble obedience to the Father has procured our salvation can present us to the Father as His own and send us forth in His name with His Word.

Our Protestant cousins are all agreed -- from the Calvinists and their predestination to the Pentecostals and their spiritual gifts to the Evangelicals and their feel good focus. God does not act to give to His people the forgiveness of sins, salvation from hell, and eternal life by means of the speaking of a man (pastor) or the earthly elements of water, bread, and wine. Lutherans insist our Protestant cousins are wrong. It is our belief and teaching that the man who wears the stole speaks for Jesus Christ Himself to forgive our sins -- as sure and certain as if it does not look or sound like our pastor but Christ Himself.  God does not borrow the mouth of this man because of the pastor's personal piety or righteousness.  He is himself a sinner whom God has redeemed and has no claim to the authority of the Word because of his personal holiness.  He may be flawed and his faults obvious to us -- remember how God spoke through Balaam’s ass and the flaws and failings of the patriarchs and prophets. Our confidence lies in the means of grace. When this mere man we call a pastor baptizes, absolves, preaches, and administers the Lord’s Supper, there is God at work through the Spirit to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify the whole Christian Church on earth and each of us as individual members of it.  God's Word declares it.  It not a choice -- the church and the ministry or not.  It is where and how God has chosen to work.  Period.

We go to church because God is there, doing what He has promised through the means of grace He has appointed.  Period.  Church shopping should consist only of finding a place where the Word of Truth is taught in all its purity and the Sacraments administered as Christ intended.  We do not hop around trying to find a church that fits but a place where the voice of Christ speaks and the hands of Christ deliver to us His grace in the sacraments -- all through the intermediary or instrument of the ordained pastor.  If we judge a church on other merits or another basis, we miss the forest for the trees.  Personal preference, a place that fits me like a glove, a place where I can do my thing for Jesus, etc... these only distract us from the one thing needful -- Christ working through His Word and Sacraments. 

We have confused going to church with eating out and seeing a movie.  We go to the place that fits our taste, peruse the menu to order what meets our desire du jour, eat to our enjoyment, pay the bill and look for the entertainment to cap the evening.  We are starving ourselves to death while right in front of us God is delivering the feast of His riches in the Gospel and the Sacraments -- for which we cannot pay but may respond with thankful gifts and which are not the domain of a gifted entertainer whom we enjoy but the pastor whom God has appointed to speak the truth in season and out (when we want to hear it and when we don't).  Such is the sorry state of Christianity in America when we think we are doing God a favor to show up on Sunday morning and figure He owes us at least a good time for all our trouble.

So what will you be doing tomorrow morning and why?