Friday, July 31, 2015

Busy Work. . .

The soft underbelly of much of the liturgical reform of the 1960s and 1970s was the mistaken assumption that lay people were not doing enough in the liturgy.  They had to be kept busy either to satisfy them or to satisfy some strange egalitarian ideal of common work.  So it became one of the assumptions driving liturgical renewal that the parts belonging to the pastor had to divvied  up and distributed so that each person in the pew could fulfill his or her own ministry.  Sunday morning became a variety show in which we all got to do our things and the liturgy was supposed to have benefited from this variety.  Some believed that people were not getting enough from the worship service because they were not doing enough to keep them occupied.

Before I go any further let me begin by saying I am NOT one of those who presumes that everything in the liturgy must be done by the pastor.  We use assisting ministers, lectors, a full complement of acolytes, cantors, choir, etc... almost every Sunday morning.  But this is not done to divide up the pastor's part of the liturgy and disperse it all out.  This is done in acknowledgement of the roles of deacon and sub-deacon in the liturgy and the use of qualified and trained elders and lay people to fulfill some of these duties.  Nevertheless, it is not the right of anyone to demand a place or a part in the liturgy. Historically, we know that church had assistants who were both trained and given regular place in the Divine Service.  Again, this is not done with a nod to everyone getting their chance to do their thing but is driven by and informed by the liturgy itself and the historical practice of the church through the ages.

Nevertheless, there are those who pay little attention to the liturgy except to see it as a loose framework to hold together a venue in which the talented get to showcase their talents and in which the entertainment or captive interest of the rest of the folks in the pew is the goal.  That is my point.  Whether we think we must give folks their moment in the spotlight or whether we think the people in the pew either desire or benefit from being kept busy or entertained, we proceed from the wrong starting point.  Even liturgical ceremony can be used to entertain people in much the same way people are entertained by musical acts in non-liturgical services.  The point here is not to keep people busy or to entertain them.  The point here is to let the Word speak and the Sacraments communicate their grace to the people as God desires.  Even if we have a full complement of lay or minor clergy orders assisting, the focus is not on them but on the Lord working through the means of grace.

Active participation does NOT mean people must be doing something.  The highest worship is faith and faith is the active participation both expected and given by the Lord so that the gifts He gives may be received with joy and thanksgiving.  Much of what ends up being done when the liturgy becomes raw material in the hands of planners who want to make things better is but busy work to keep people occupied.  This is a terrible lie to and demeaning presupposition of those who sit in the pew.  The faithful are not children who must be kept busy or occupied so that they will be quiet!  Indeed, even the children are engaged by the Word and Spirit of the Lord and on every level are given and receive by faith the grace of forgiveness, life, and salvation.  Silence is itself a component of the Divine Service.  Faithful liturgical leadership does not cover every quiet moment with words or music or actions lest people be left without something to do or occupy themselves.

The liturgy is not busy work nor are any of its components to distract or occupy the wandering minds of the people.  The liturgy exists solely for and in service to the Lord who meets us upon the holy ground of His Word and Sacraments and it is the Spirit who equips us with faith to acknowledge His gifts, to believe in them for our salvation, to receive them for our benefit, to rejoice in their grace and blessing, and to be equipped by them for the faithful service of witness, prayer, mercy, and service to neighbor and world.  By the way, a danger to the faithful also lies when we are be too busy in the liturgy -- too busy doing things to have time to appreciate the mystery, the majesty, and the might of God who stoops low to us with grace sufficient for our every need and draws us into Himself that we may be made ready to follow Him and serve Him in the willing and joyful obedience of faith.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Prayers PLEASE. . .

Please pray to our Merciful God on behalf of Pres. Matt Harrison and his family.  They suffered a house fire yesterday.  It appears that all the family is okay, dog was hurt, but the house was a total loss.  They are in a hotel right now.  Please lift your prayers to the Lord in thanksgiving for their safety and His grace to surround and strengthen them in their loss.  Yesterday was the last day of his vacation.

Almighty God, merciful Father, Your thoughts are not our thoughts, Your ways are not our ways. In Your wisdom You have permitted fire to destroy the home of the Harrison family.  We implore You, let not the hearts of Your people despair nor their faith fail them, but sustain and comfort both the Pres. Harrison and his family. Direct all efforts to attend to them, supplying all their needs in Christ Jesus. All this we ask for your mercy's sake.  Amen.

Loss of confidence. . .

Americans have less confidence in organized religion today than ever measured before — a sign that the church could be "losing its footing as a pillar of moral leadership in the nation's culture," a new Gallup survey finds.  "In the '80s the church and organized religion were the No. 1″ in Gallup's annual look at confidence in institutions, said Lydia Saad, author of the report released Wednesday.  Confidence, she said, "is a value judgment on how the institution is perceived, a mark of the amount of respect it is due." A slight upsurge for Catholic confidence, for example, parallels the 2013 election and immense popularity of Pope Francis.

Overall, church and organized religion is now ranked in fourth place in the Gallup survey — behind the military, small business and the police — while still ahead of the medical system, Congress and the media, among 15 institutions measured.  "Almost all organizations are down but the picture for religion is particularly bleak," said Saad. In the mid-'70s, nearly 7 in 10 Americans said they had "a great deal or quite a lot" of confidence in the church or organized religion. That has bobbled downward decade by decade to a new low of just 42%, according to the report.  However, the most significant influence on the religion statistic is the high number of Americans disconnected from organized religion and likely to have little or no confidence in it, Saad said.

You can read the whole USA TODAY story here.  I suppose I should be upset by this. Try as I might, I just cannot get too excited by such stories.  I am not sure that the Church ever really benefited by the culture around us having great confidence in our institutional life.  I am even less certain that such confidence in the Church and organized religion has really contributed all that much to real church growth.  I am probably wrong in this but I am stubbornly right in asserting that "faith comes by hearing the Word of God" and the only "no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit." 

Yes, it is an awful thing that the moral failings of church leaders has so prominently figured in the bad publicity about the Church.  Yes, it is an awful thing that most of our members who sit in the pew are not moral role models of righteousness as they should be.  Yes, it is an awful thing that the public witness of the Church to the world has been fraught with contentious talk and accusations that shed more heat than light.  That said, I fail to see where Jesus commanded righteousness as an evangelism tool to the unchurched or that the folks in the pew were anything but sinners who remain in need of forgiveness or that church leaders shed their sinful humanity upon assuming ecclesiastical office or that the righteousness of the leaders was the key to sacramental efficacy or effective evangelization or that doctrinal ambiguity was a key component to church growth.

If Christians in pulpit and pew speak the Word of the cross, faithfully come to the services of God's house, raise their children in the faith, pray, love their neighbors within the bonds of their human frailty, God has promised to do the rest.  The Church is not some school of moral perfection but a hospital for sinners and a school to teach righteousness to the unrighteous.  It is not a museum of saintly people but a hospital for the sick with sin who believe Christ forgives them and saves them.  It is not a gas station to fill up the empty for the next leg of their journey but the House of God where He reveals Himself in Word and Sacrament and makes Himself accessible to us that we may know Him, receive Him, and live in Him. 

No, I remain hard to convince that the Church is really aided in her mission by people having confidence in institutional structures.  As far as the complaint against organized religion, I have been a pastor long enough to know that organized religion is not a label authentic to most congregations and nearly all jurisdictions.  I feel fairly comfortable in saying that if organized religion is not your thing, Lutherans are the church for you.  Now, don't get me wrong, I am NOT saying we should settle for unrighteousness or immorality or anything of the like but neither should we presume that this is why people become Christian or not.  It is the work of the Spirit that any and all are saved who will be saved.  Period.

The Lord of Creation is in charge. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 9, Proper 12B, preached by The Rev. Daniel Ulrich on Sunday, July 26, 2015.

Today, we once again hear the account of Jesus walking on water. This is a story that most of us know very well. We’ve heard it many times and we’ve seen it illustrated in numerous works of art. Just Google Jesus walking on water and countless images pop up on your screen. When we see these images we remember Jesus’ encouraging words. We can hear Him say to His frightened disciples, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” In this miracle we see the Lord of creation in control, coming to His people; coming to sustain them; coming to save them.

I. The events of today’s Gospel are a continuation from last week when Jesus fed 5,000 with just 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. In this amazing feeding we see Christ’s care and compassion for His people. We also see that He is the Lord of creation. He’s in control of all things; something that He shows again today.

After everyone had their fill of bread and fish, and after 12 large baskets of left-overs were collected, Jesus sent His disciples out on their own. He made them get into the boat and sent them to the village of Bethsaida across the sea. Then, Jesus dismissed the crowd and went up on a nearby mountain pray (Mk 6:45-46). The fact that Jesus sent the disciples out on their own ahead of Him is an important detail in this story. This detail tells us that Jesus was responsible for the disciples’ struggle. In His divine foreknowledge, He knew what the disciples were getting into. He knew that they would struggle in their endeavor to cross the sea.

Sometimes, we too encounter struggles in our endeavors because of Christ. Our culture today is quite obviously against our Savior and all who follow Him. But this shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us, because Jesus warned us of this. In Matthew 10:22 Christ said, “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” As Christians we are hated because of Christ. This hate affects us in many ways. For example, it has broken up family and friends. No, Jesus never said that following Him would be easy or that our lives would be smooth sailing after Baptism. Like all people we still suffer from hate and the curse of sin.

Going back to the Gospel reading, we see that the disciples and Jesus were separated for some time. Evening had come upon them and Jesus was still on the land while the disciples were out on the sea (Mk 6:47-48a). The disciples had battled against the wind and waves all night in the darkness. It wasn’t until early the next morning that Jesus came to His disciples, walking on the wind tossed waves (Mk 6:48b).

Mark includes another important detail at this point in the story. He tells us that “[Jesus] meant to pass by [the disciples] (Mk 6:48c). This detail tells us that they disciples weren’t in any significant danger. Even though the winds were strong, they were still safe in the boat; even though the disciples felt differently.

The disciples had no control of what was going on and they feared for their lives. This fear took control of their thoughts. They couldn’t think straight. Seeing Jesus walking on the water towards them should have been a welcomed sight; but it wasn’t. Instead, the disciples, in fear, thought Jesus was a ghost, and they all cried out in terror, thinking their lives were over (Mk 6:49-50a).

At times, we know the fear that the disciples felt that night. Not having control is a scary thing. Just think about a time when you didn’t have control of a situation. How did you feel? What did you do? When I think about being out of control, I immediately think about being a passenger in the car of a not so good driver. They take corners too fast, they text and drive, and they always wait till the very last minute to slam on the brakes. When I ride with these kind of drivers, I constantly find myself stepping hard on the imaginary brake pedal in front of me. But of course this does no good. No matter how many times I slam on that wished for brake pedal, nothing happens. I’m completely out of control, and I’m overcome with fear.

There are many many scary times in our lives when we have no control over what is happening. The times when the phone rings and it is our doctor with positive test results. The times we get called into the boss’s office and due to cutbacks, we no longer have a job on Monday morning. The times when the command has come down from above and we’ve been transferred to another post, another country. At these times and in many others we are paralyzed with fear, and all we can do is cry out, just as the disciples did. And just like when the disciples cried out, your Savior hears you, and He comes to you.

II. There was no delay in Christ’s response to His disciples. Listen again to what Mark wrote, “But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. do not be afraid” (Mk 6:50). Christ didn’t leave the disciples in their fear. Hearing their cry, right away He come to them. He came to them speaking encouraging words, embolding words. “Take heart,” “have courage,” “be strong,” “Trust in me, your Savior.” These encouraging words weren’t empty platitudes, spoken by someone who had no idea what else to say. These words were spoken by God Himself.

When Jesus identified himself by saying, “it is I,” He wasn’t just saying “Hey guys, it’s me, Jesus, the man you’ve been following.” No, with these words, Jesus announced that He was God. He revealed Himself as the great “I AM” who spoke to Moses from the burning bush (Ex 3:13-14). Jesus is true God, He is the Creator of all things incarnate, and He is in control of His creation. Jesus’ divinity is seen in all His miracles, the feeding of the 5,000 and the calming of the winds.

The response of the disciples after witnessing the Lord of creation at work is telling. We are told that they “were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mk 6:51b-52). The disciples shouldn’t have been surprised, they should’ve known that Jesus had everything under control, but they didn’t. They didn’t because their hearts were hardened, hardened with sin and self trust

Because of their sin, they couldn’t understand what had just happened. They had a hard time of letting go of control. They trusted in themselves, thinking that they had to do it all on their own. And once they realized that they had no control, they were seized with fear.

Often, the fear we experience during tough and struggling times is because we sinfully trust in ourselves. We desire to be in control, when in reality, we aren’t. We want to do everything ourselves. We want to be in charge. We want to determine how our lives will turn out, according to our plans. We don’t always trust that God has our best interest at heart, even though He does. And when we realize that we aren’t in control, it’s tough, it’s humbling.

Our Lord uses these times to discipline us, to call us back to Him. He calls us to trust in Him above all things. Through the Holy Spirit working in God’s Word, we are confronted with our sin, and we cry out in repentance, and our Lord hears us and comes to us without delay.

Our Savior, the Lord of creation, came to us and walked on this earth. He walked to the cross, carrying our sin, and there He suffered and died for us. He suffered the punishment for our sin. And then He came to us again from the grave, defeating death and sin for us. With this victory, Jesus showed that He is in control. He has redeemed His creation, He has redeemed you. You are His, and He will never leave you alone. When you cry out, He is there, coming to you in His Word, assuring you He is in control. Through His Word, He reminds you that He has overcome sin and death and He promises to preserve you. Through His Word and Sacrament, He strengthens your faith, your trust in Him. You are never alone in this life. Christ is with you. He isn’t a ghost. In sickness, in life changes, in all sorts of difficulties, He is still in control, preserving you and sustaining you to everlasting life.

Although we and all of creation suffer under the curse of sin, the Lord preserves and orders His creation according to His good will, for the benefit of His Church, for the benefit of you, His saints. At times it can feel as though you’re alone, striving against the winds of this broken, fallen, sinful life all by yourself. But you’re not. Your Savior is with you, and He is in complete control. He doesn’t leave you alone in your fear. He comes to you in your time of need and saves you. Thanks be to God that Jesus Christ, the Lord of creation is always with you, strengthening you, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” In Jesus name...Amen.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Third and worst Planned Parenthood video. . .

You can watch it here but I could not get through the first few seconds. . .

The latest sting video from the “Human Capital” documentary web series produced by the Center for Medical Progress is the most disturbing one yet. The horrific footage includes technicians picking over aborted baby parts, and is being described by horrified viewers on Twitter as “Godless,” “evil,” and “demonic.” The video also includes new admissions from Planned Parenthood leadership about the illicit pricing structure.

Without the Eucharist, we cannot exist. . .

In A.D. 303, the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered the destruction of Christian places of worship throughout his empire and forbade any kind of Christian assembly. In fact, Diocletian was convinced, after ruling the Empire for nineteen years, that an extermination of Christians was the only way to restore internal order and pagan religious rites. During this time churches in Abilinitina, North Africa, continued to gather for worship, which resulted in the arrest of the entire church. The Roman officials asked the Christians, “Why did you do this?” And the Christians responded: “Without the Sunday Eucharist we do not exist.” Consequently, the entire congregation was given to martyrdom.  The early Christians understood their relationship with their Lord Jesus Christ to be fulfilled at the Eucharistic Supper each week.

I picked up this from an Orthodox parish newsletter.   In it the priest was decrying the fact that too many of his parishioners moseyed on into the Divine Liturgy whenever they chose and often left early, seemingly oblivious to what was happening in that Divine Liturgy.  He also complained about the many who received the Body and Blood of the Lord only a couple of times a year.  He could certainly be speaking for the average Roman Catholic priest or Lutheran pastor. 

There are too many who come and go throughout the Divine Service as if they were somehow or other disconnected with what is happening there.  Nobody who paid good money to go to a concert would give into such distractions and yet the Lord gives us this treasure freely in Christ who paid for it with His suffering and death upon the cross and some of us act as if it were no big deal.  In other cases, the pastors and elders have to practically plead with inactive members (who claim to believe and who desire to remain on the membership roster) to actually come regularly and faithfully to receive the blessed Sacrament of our Lord's Body and Blood.  It is as if they were doing us a favor by gracing us with the gift of their presence when the focus is on Christ whose presence in Word and Meal bestows forgiveness, life, and salvation, to all believers who participate in the means of grace.

Without food our bodies die.  Without the food of Christ's Word and Supper, our spirits die and we become empty shells.  It does not matter how healthy our bodies are or how happy we think we are, we are the walking dead without the gracious presence and gifts of Christ.  We cannot exist without the sustenance of the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation.  It is not a choice or even a preference.  It is our need.

At the same time, it is also our identity.  We are the body of Christ, the Church, gathered to receive the Body of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.  Here in the great mystery of the body that receives the Body, the Church is given her identity and the fullness of Christ's life and blessing.

In the same newsletter the priest closes with solemn words of warning -- words too often ignored or disregarded by those who claim to be of the faith and who insist they still desire to be part of the church:

The Holy Scriptures record the angel writing to the Church at Laodicea saying, “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot ... So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth” (Revelation 3:15,16)  This judgement comes not from the church or the clergy or other Christians but from God Himself. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Vanity of vanities. . .

The ultimate vanity of our sinful nature is that we truly believe it is all about me.  We may learn to cover this narcissism because when it is too obvious it is not flattering but it is always there.  In the Garden it was this temptation to which Adam and Eve succumbed -- that they could trust themselves, their feelings, and their desires more than the Word of the Lord.  Vanity is still the character of our sinful nature even when we wear masks to cover it up.

So, quite apart from the content of what was said, the venue of a recent ELCA bishop's coming out sermon cannot be avoided.  At least in the pulpit it should be about the Word of the Lord but it seems even there some of us preachers cannot avoid making it all about me.  At the ELCA National Youth Gathering on Saturday, July 18, Bishop Kanouse was preaching to the North Texas and North Louisiana youth and adult leaders gathered there (approximately 400 or so).  In the midst of a sermon on Jesus healing a paralytic, Bishop Kanouse turned the sermon into a coming out address and admitted that he had been a closeted homosexual for 40 years.

Later Kanouse recounted the experience in a letter to his synod in which he wrote that after hearing the emotional stories recounted by young people at the conference, concerning the role of God in their lives, he was “Holy Spirit-moved to tell my own story publicly, for the first time.”  As a young man, Kanouse said he knew he was gay but “buried it deep” because of the antigay bigotry and the idea that “homosexuality was a sin” from his conservative upbringing in Pennsylvania.

“I learned early on that I had to hide my true nature ... especially because I wanted to be a pastor and serve in the church,” he said. “After all, pastors could not be gay and serve Jesus.”  His experience as a closeted gay man and Lutheran pastor was liberating and stifling, according to Kanouse.  It should be noted that is married to his wife of over 40 years and the father of two sons.

Whether or not you find the Bishop's admission heroic or disgusting, the point here is the venue.  In a sermon the Bishop turned the attention away from Jesus and onto himself.  He became the one and only thing that anyone will remember about his preaching.  He was a closeted gay man who deceived his wife and his church and everyone else for more than 40 years.  But instead of repenting of his stealing of the pulpit for his own purpose, the Bishop repented of voting against the homosexual policies of the ELCA recognizing same sex relationships, marriage, and clergy.  Again, he made it all about himself.  Perhaps some will think this noble of him but I am shocked and saddened every time the pulpit is hijacked for another purpose than speaking the Word of the Lord to the people of God.  Perhaps we have become so accustomed to this that we no longer notice when the word of man is substituted for the Word of the Lord, when the Law and Gospel are sidelined from the sermon, and when preacher and people would rather hear a compelling personal story than the story of the cross and empty tomb.  But that does not make it right.

According to the Bishop:  I was moved to share my journey with the youth because I know many are struggling with these and other issues of self-esteem, rejection, and self-loathing.  I wanted to instill the hope of the Gospel among youth who are defining themselves. In these two sentences the Bishop has hit upon the crux of the matter.  who define themselves.  We do NOT define ourselves but God defines us.  He has placed His Word within us in the voice of our conscience.  He has connected us to Christ, to His cross, and to His death so that we are new people in baptism, created in Christ Jesus for good works.  We do not define ourselves but come to know who we are by what God has done.  He is the one who enables us to renounce sin and unrighteousness even when its voice and desire are more familiar to us than the voice of God and the new desire born of our baptismal death and resurrection with Christ and into Christ. 

My journey, the Bishop's journey, and the journey of our youth are not the subject of faithful preaching but the object.  Christ is the subject and the object is lives of faith, obedience, and holiness in response to this Gospel and under the power of the Spirit.  The Bishop may have had noble intention but no intention can justify the misuse of the pulpit and the sidetracking of the faithful proclamation of Jesus Christ and Him crucified by our own stories (no matter how compelling or interesting or heart wrenching).  Preaching is where the church first begins to fail, where our stories are equated with THE story of Christ, where opinion trumps fact and truth, and where we are set adrift on a sea of sentiment.  So preaching must be held to the highest standards and the preacher judged according to this high standard.  Words come and go and stories are told and forgotten but the Word of the Lord endures forever.  The Bishop's story was no substitute for faithful preaching of the Word.  He became the center of his sermon and that is a fail on every scale of faithfulness.

Always sad. . .

When the membership of the former Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Maywood dwindled to about a dozen worshipers, there appeared to be a higher calling.  "That we would very much like to sell it to another congregation so that it would always be a church," said Susan Nelson-Colaneri, pastor.  The sanctuary, a school and the property sold for about $1.2 million and that's when church officials said the real missionary work began.  "We sat down and did the joyful work of deciding who was going to share the rest of our legacy," Nelson-Colaneri said.  She is also the pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in nearby Hasbrouck Heights. She and other members chose eight different non-profit charities and two churches.

Watch the news report here. . . and read about the news story. . .

It is always sad when a church closes its doors but it is even more sad when the dispersal of funds from its sale is seen as the real missionary work.  I do not at all mean to disparage the use of these funds for the poor and other causes consistent with the identity and mission of that congregation but to suggest that the real missionary work of the church is not alleviating poverty or supporting good causes but doing what ONLY the church can do -- speak the saving message of Christ crucified and risen to a world captive to sin and its death.  All of the other things a church does are peripheral or flow out of this one essential calling and purpose and are not substitutes for preaching the good news of the Kingdom.  We can do all the good we can in the world but unless we proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in Christ's name we are not being faithful and the good we do will not have lasting benefit or fruit by God's design and purpose.

How many congregations close their doors because the Word has ceased to be the center of their life together, the witness to Christ's death and resurrection has fallen to the fringes of their identity and purpose, and they have used their voices for nearly anything and everything but speaking repentance and forgiveness in Christ's name?  This is the pivotal work and the unique calling of Christians in but not of the world.  This is our real missionary work.  We had better not forget it or we will be closing and selling a whole lot more church buildings and shutting down a host of congregations.  Just sayin. . .

Monday, July 27, 2015

Problems with identity. . .

Bruce Jenner insists he is and has always been a woman.  Rachel Dolezal insists that she identifies as a a black woman.  We seem, for the first time in history, to be facing a crisis of identity.  The burning question of our age seems to be "Who am I?"  The places you normally went to answer those questions (family, ancestry, the mirror, etc...) no longer are believed to provide reliable answers.  Therefore there is but one place left to go -- how do I feel.  Feelings are among the least reliable sources to answer the vexing questions we face as children, adolescents, teenagers, and adults.  In fact, I would posit that our feelings are the worst place for us to go to answer the weighty questions of life.

You do not have to be Bruce Jenner or Rachel Dolezal to be in this dilemma. Where do we go for answers to the questions that haunt us?  Conscience and moral values were once reliable voices to address the debate within our souls but now they take second place to our feelings.  Science was once considered reliable (and still is when its answers suit us) but as Rachel Dolezal has said there is no biological proof she is her parents' child.  Last time I checked science thought it was pretty good at DNA tests.  But even science can be discarded when it conflicts with feelings.

Feelings are a prison as much as a gift -- that is the fruit of the Fall and Adam and Eve's terrible legacy to us.  We cannot trust them and we cannot control them.  They lead us where we should not go and leave alone with our guilt and shame when darkness gives up its secrets to the light.  They prey upon our weakness and cast off the very restraint that is God's noble work in us.  They are temporary and volatile, burning hot until they consume us or others and then as cold as ice.  The wonderful gift that feelings were has been forever marred by sin and now we must listen to a more reliable voice in happiness and in sorrow -- the voice of the Spirit working through the Word.

There is no identity crisis.  What there remains is a vulnerability through our feelings to the things that can destroy us as easily as they can satisfy us.  Feelings are as much as quest as an answer -- and the endless pursuit of that which satisfies us and makes us feel good is the most fruitless journey a life can take.  The Caitlyn Jenners of this world and the Rachel Dolezals do not need time or understanding.  They need to be set free from the oppressive reign and rule of their feelings that cannot and will not be satisfied.  Identity is the gift God gave us in creating us and in redeeming us.  We know who we are.  We are His.  Not by our choice or desire but by His divine act of love in reaching into the abyss of our sinful wants and desires and loosening the chains of our endless pursuit of feelings that satisfy.  He died on the cross to end this death and rose to bestow on us eternal life.  And in baptism He killed what was already filled with death that He might make us alive with the life death can no longer touch.  When we begin to see how our identity flows from and is rooted in Christ, then we will know peace.  But until then, our feelings will rule our hearts and we will know everything but peace.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A little too exubrant. . .

It is typical for us to confuse exuberance with truth, as if shouting something makes it more true than speaking it in a normal tone of voice.  We often substitute volume for reason, shouts for piety, and enthusiasm for faith.  Now there is nothing wrong with these but it is a great temptation to confuse the work of the Spirit with things ecstatic or a people out of control, noisy, and long winded.  This is not a new problem.

Cyprian wrote about it as well: 
Let our speech and our petition be kept under discipline when we pray, and let us preserve quietness and modesty–for, remember, we are standing in God’s sight. We must please God’s eyes both with the movements of our body and with the way we use our voices. For just as a shameless man will be noisy with his cries, so it is fitting for the modest to pray in a moderate way. …

When we meet together with the brethren in one place, and celebrate divine sacrifices with God’s priest, we should remember our modesty and discipline, not to broadcast our prayers at the tops of our voices, nor to throw before God, with undisciplined long-windedness, a petition that would be better made with more modesty: for after all God does not listen to the voice but to the heart, and he who sees our thoughts should not be pestered by our voices … And we read in the Psalms: Speak in your hearts and in your beds, and be pierced. Again, the Holy Spirit teaches the same things through Jeremiah, saying: But it is in the heart that you should be worshiped, O Lord.
Beloved brethren, let the worshiper not forget how the publican prayed with the Pharisee in the temple–not with his eyes boldly raised up to heaven, nor with hands held up in pride; but beating his breast and confessing the sins within, he implored the help of the divine mercy. … and he who pardons the humble heard his prayer.

                                                                   (from the Commentary on the Our Father by St. Cyprian)

It is easy to confuse many words with great piety.  Indeed, I often wonder if the liturgy is not too wordy.  An economy of words is the result of attention to what is said and how it is said.  It is easy and lazy to make up for a lack of this attention to what is said and how it is said by adding words.  Nothing makes this more apparent that when we add running commentary to the liturgy.  It is not uncommon for the individual parts of the service to be introduced with more words than are included in the actual part of the ordinary.  An example of this lies in the many words necessary to unpack the few words of the Kyrie:  Lord, have mercy.  Good hymns are just as concise and compact as the language of good liturgy.

We are very impressed with enthusiasm.  Think of the often raucous demeanor of a crowd at a sports event or high school graduation.  Air horns, shouts, chants, loud music, and catcalls signal the involvement of the crowd in what is happening on the field or on the stage.  That said, how many events are ruined because of enthusiasm that has run a muck, turning the event into a spectacle and robbing the spectators of the ability to listen and see what is really happening.

Worship, however, is meant by God to  be done decently and with reverent order.  Now this solemnity does not preclude enthusiasm but directs the hearts and mouths of the people to orderly response, said or sung.  God is not a God of chaos but a God of order.  Reverence is not formality or stiffness but an attention to order which allows all the people to participate together both in receiving God's gifts and responding to them with prayers, praise, and thanksgiving.

Silence has become awkward time instead of the quiet moment in which we have the opportunity both to reflect upon and process what has been said or sung or what we have received.  Our great temptation is to replace silence with noise, with words or music as a cover for the silence.  Often this is done because we refuse to be silent and the organization of words to be said or the cover of music played distracts us from the background noise of a people who cannot shut-up and be quiet.  Indeed, the greater offenders here in most worship services are not children but adults.  We text, talk, whisper, and comment out loud on everything that is going on as if everything required a response from us or our feelings compelled us to make them known.

Finally, how easy it is for us to confuse noise with eloquence!  If we attend a worship service which has quiet dignity, organized response, and moments for silent reflection, we assume that it is dull or unexciting -- especially in comparison to the spontaneous and disorderly appearance of pentecostal services.  Yet under it all is the confusion of whose voice is the one that needs to be heard.  We speak because we think we have something to say and a right to be heard or to self-expression when we are hear primarily to listen, to hear the Word of the Lord, to believe it, and to be instructed by it through the ministry of the Spirit.  As in the classroom, we have mistaken inclusion to mean we can say and do what we want, when we want.  Even on Pentecost, the myriad of languages was in essence one voice:  everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.   

In fact, St. Paul reminds us that the language of worship and its reverence and order exist to make it possible for each and all to add their "amen" to the praise and prayers.  I am not at all suggesting that we should substitute boredom for enthusiasm but to remember that just because things seem to be hoppin in our minds does not mean that they are faithful.  The truth remains the truth whether it is shouted or prayed quietly.  Pep rallies and political arenas often substitute what is loud for what is profound.  Let us make sure that we do not do the same thing in worship.  Some settings for worship have become as much a threat to the ear as to the heart when what we do and say puts us in the limelight more than God and His mighty acts of deliverance that gives us forgiveness and life.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Tears. . .

Midweek Commemoration of St. Mary Magdalene, preached on July 23, 2015.

    Today we commemorate Mary of Magdala, about whom we know something and of whom much more has been speculated over history.  Sometime in the 4th century Mary Magdalene was equated with the sinful woman, the prostitute, who anointed Jesus’ feet, in Luke 7 and Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, who also anointed Jesus’ feet as John 11 tells us.  This added to how Scripture describes her by name as the woman whom Jesus delivered from demons (Luke 8 and Mark 16). 
    Other modern voices have gone much further, describing Mary as the lover or even wife of Jesus who bore Him the holy grail, a daughter named Sarah.  One wag even thinks Mary is the beloved disciple.  So who is Mary?  The East rejected such characterizations.  It is best if we left her as Scripture declared her, the woman relieved of her demons whose tears graced both the crucifixion and death of Jesus and the resurrection encounter with our Lord whom she mistook at first as merely a gardener.  She is named a dozen or so times in Scripture making her a prominent character in the story of the Gospel.
    There is no need to enlarge her in death.  Her story is compelling enough as it is.  She was present at the beginning of Christ’s ministry.  What compels us most of all were her tears.  Mary followed Jesus to the cross and her tears fell as He bore the sins of the world alone, her sins, too.  She shed her tears at the suffering beyond agony and then at the death which might have appeared to her to have been merciful, a quick end to His pain.  But her tears led her to the Garden of the Tomb and to the missing body of Jesus which only magnified her sorrow.
    Then when tears of sorrow had already swelled her eyes and left her body to ache in the pain of Christ’s loss, she cried anew at the voice that called her by name and surprised her with the resurrection.  She might not have thought she had tears left until Jesus showed Himself to her and sent her forth, forgiven and charged as witness to salvation.  For she met in Jesus the One who loved her enough to save her, who kept His promises to her, and taught her to love Him.
    So it is for us.  You cannot love Jesus with tears of joy until you shed the tears of sorrow over His death for your sins.  It is the pattern of repentance that gives birth to hope.  We despair of our sin until we cannot live with them any longer.  Jesus takes those sins and cleanses us from them with His own shed blood.  And then when we think we can shed no more tears, He teaches us tears of joy.  He died for you and bore your sins on the cross.  He laid in the cold dark grave for you.  He marched into hell to proclaim His victory for you.  He rose again that you might rise from regret to rejoice in the new life now yours by grace.
    Mary’s tears signal the path of repentance and faith.  In loss and in hope, from sin to righteousness, to death and for life.  Christ lived and died and rose for you.  Not for humanity in general but for you, for your sins, for your redemption, and for your eternal life.  Not for principle or ideology but for your face, sinner, and for your grave, walking dead, and for your life, O born again. 
     Today we pray that God may teach us the tears of Mary in repentance over sin, in awe of the love strong enough to die for ornery sinners, and in the joy of eternal life that allows us to flaunt death, to triumph over the grave, and to live forever.  Weep for your sins in repentance and weep for joy that Christ has born your sins and delivered you from death.  Lord, teach us the tears of faith, that like Mary, we may follow You to the cross for sin and to the empty tomb of everlasting life.  Amen.

Not wanting marriage but wanting to redefine it. . .

I have said for a long time that the issue in same sex marriage is NOT equality -- GLBT folks wanting to marry with the same definition of marriage as has been operative for all of history.  It is rather the desire to remake marriage itself and those who are pushing for same sex marriage are intent upon reshaping nearly everything that has to do with marriage (from fidelity to the number of partners).

Look at the figures from this survey.  From porn to premarital sex and from extra-marital sex to abortion, you can see that there is a dramatic difference between those opposing and those in favor of same sex marriage.  It only escalates as you move right along the columns.

Read here for the full report.   Churchgoers who oppose same-sex marriage sense that they are out of step with the rest of the nation about sex and relationships.

Let me make my point again, the GLBT push for the right to be married is not a desire to be assumed into the definition of marriage that has been normative for all of time but a conscious effort to reshape and redefine marriage for EVERYONE who gets married.  The values to which this group adheres are not compatible with the old model of marriage and the intent here is to change marriage for everyone who gets married.  It may not happen overnight but it will happen. . .

Friday, July 24, 2015

Me thinks thou dost protest too much. . .

Planned Parenthood is hit with a second video that flies square in the face of their denial of selling the body parts of aborted children.  This time we even hear price haggling.  Truly the saddest turn in the unfolding drama of what to do in the wake of the abortion decision of January 1973.  Though it was once said that Americans generally agreed that abortion should at least be safe, free, and rare, we find the economic incentive has turned the debate to a new chapter in which the safety may be given but the rarity conflicts with fetal organs as a growth industry and the free cost is countered by the financial windfall of the sale of body parts of aborted children.  How could it get much worse?  But, of course, we know it can and it will.  When we devalue life and place ourselves in control of it, the outcome is never salutary.

Uncomfortable Scripture. . .

If there are verses I wish had not been written (not necessarily because I disagree with them but because they have been so abused and misunderstood), I would put two of them pretty high on the list of verses to be avoided as churches consider strategies for outreach and evangelization.

One often hears St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:22 used to justify every stupid, foolish, and heretical thing known to churches.  After all, we were simply becoming “all things to all people that [we] might by all means save some.”  So we have ended up replacing Sacraments that have Christ's institution and promise replaced with gimmicks and with things that pander to people.  The end result of Paul's statement (taken out of context to be sure) is a church absent of doctrine and liturgy, except what people currently think and the whim of what they want now.  Such a church is inherently deceptive -- we hook them with things they either were not expecting only to reel them in and have them find out that is not who we really are.

I have always felt that Lutheran attempts to mirror the current evangelism strategies of the day (Evangelism Explosion, to name one) was such a deception.  We hooked people with lines from an evangelical or fundamentalist script only to reel them into a church catholic in doctrine and practice (unless, of course, we do not intend to be faithful to our Confessions).  It is exactly the same when we take our cue from current evangelical strategies (from Willow Creek to Saddleback to Mars Hill to whatever) because we think these things work and the means of grace is not working (or not working fast enough for our taste).  We look like any other big box evangelical church on Sunday morning and expect somehow the inherent Lutheran-ness of our preaching to win the day and hope that eventually the people will identify with the Lutheranism we have worked so hard to hide from them.  I know of Lutheran Churches that have sponsored everything from mixed marshal arts programs to rock concerts (the list, unfortunately goes on and on, even stranger) thinking that this will appeal to folks that the church does not normally appeal to and win them over for the kingdom.  How sad it is that we have exchanged that which has Christ's promise with the expectation of blood and guts!

The other passage which is also misused is “Compel them to come in” (Luke 14:23)  Those who appeal to this passage presume that Jesus was giving the church carte blanche to our imaginations.  In other words, we are free to come up with whatever is strange, laughable, odd, even morbidly curious, in order to compel the unwilling to take a gander at the Gospel.  Jesus, of course, did not countenance this imagination which substitutes truth for a sideshow mentality.  Compel means to speak the Word, which is the only compelling thing the church has with which to address an unbelieving world.  We speak the Word and we act upon it to give shape to its truth.  But Jesus surely did not have in mind turning churches into gymnastics arenas or martial arts exhibition halls or dance studios or even concert halls in place of the Word spoken and the Sacraments administered.  Yet when we despair of the means of grace or dispose of them theologically, we are left with only the strange, curious, odd, and often shocking.  The sad truth is that some churches have become like venues for the kind of stuff that usually ends up on YouTube channels of things gone terribly wrong.

Gimmicks have no place in the church.  We are of all people to be thoroughly transparent before the world.  We speak the Word of the Lord, we act out that Word in mercy and service, and we gladly testify to what we are not but Christ is. We refuse to confuse commercial success with faithfulness and are prepared to trust in the Lord when our faithfulness of proclamation and diaconal service fails to produce tangible growth to satisfy our statistical expectations.  I am not saying we should not venture outside the context of the faithful with the Gospel or that we should not sponsor good and wholesome events to publicize who we are.  These are not gimmicks because we are not substituting these for the Word proclaimed.  What I am saying is that these should not and cannot become substitutes for the spoken Word and our confidence in the Spirit to act through it and for our trust in the means of God and our certainty that despite what our eyes may see, God is doing what He has promised.  No amount of creative prooftexting can put lipstick on this pig.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Not enough for so many. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 8, Proper 11B, preached on Sunday, July 19, 2015

    The truth is that the disciples found the crowds that followed Jesus a bother and a burden – somewhat like the little children who kept showing up where Jesus was.  They thought like we think – you take care of yourself.  First of all the crowd had intruded upon the quiet time Jesus and the disciples had sought.  Their hunger was their problem.  They said to Jesus, “Just send them away.”  The disciples looked at the crowd the way we look at the world’s problems – we have neither the desire nor the resources to make much of difference.
    But not Jesus.  No, Jesus refused to ignore the people and their needs.  He looked on them with compassion.  He ached in His belly for their hunger and pain.  He saw them as sheep with out a shepherd, easy prey and easy victims of those who would wound and hurt them more.  And it was a teaching moment.
    “You give them something to eat,” Jesus urged His disciples.  They were quick with excuses and reasons why not.  We would be right there with them.  Give loaves and 2 small fish are nothing to such a huge crowd.  We have no place to purchase food and no money if we did.  God refuses excuses but He welcomes our nothings and turns them into the something that accomplishes His purpose.  That was the teaching moment.
    Look at history.  Israel was nothing but a rag tag band of slaves until God intervened and they became a mighty nation of promise not even Pharaoh could kill.  A solitary Lamb of God carries the sin of an entire guilty world and makes forgiveness for all the guilty who will stand under the banner of His blood.  5 loaves and 2 fish are multiplied with leftovers enough to prove the mercy, grace, and generosity of God.
    We never see clearly how God will accomplish His purpose or keep His promise.  But we see clearly our fears, limits, and all our reasons and excuses why we can nothing about it and why God needs to send the problems away.  The poor are too many!  What can we do?  The sinners are too evil?  What can we do?  The need is too great!  What can we do?  The cost is too high!  What can we do?  Ahhh but that is the point.  God is not interested in excuses.  Give Him our resources and He will do it.
    With man it is impossible.  But not with God.  All of history is the mark of God doing what people found impossible.  From Israel to Judah’s blessed son Jesus, from sinners in love with evil to the righteousness that declares us all just, from people with little in the face of a world in need of much, God is at work taking our nothings and making them something.
    Look around you.  There was a time when people said we could not possibly see a building like this and God took all our nothings and made it this grand something.  Look around you.  There was a time when people insisted we could not afford and maybe did not need a second pastor.  And God took all our nothings and made it something.  Look around you.  Before you are quick to insist we cannot do this, do not underestimate God or His grace.  Man cannot, but God can and God does!
    Apart from Him we are nothing but in Christ we can do all things through Him who strengthens me.  God does not want our whining or our excuses or our regrets.  What He asks of us is faith, trust in His mercy, confidence in His promises.  And that begins with the resources He has provided for this body and this life.  And it surely includes our bidding for His kingdom, our tithes and offerings that support His work, and our stewardship of time and talents to be and do His will.
    Look around you and now look in the mirror.  You were a sinner condemned by your sins.  And God forgave you in Christ.  You were a broken person.  And God has made you whole in Christ.  You were the living dead waiting to die and God gave you life in Christ beyond the grave.  You were hungry and He gave You Christ’s body and blood to feed you eternal life.  You had a past and present and He gave you a future in Christ.  All around you is the record and testament to God’s mercy.  Yet still we fear God’s grace is enough.

    Did you notice that Jesus did not ask the disciples for their bread or fish?  He took them after the disciples had insisted they were not enough.  But the Lord returned to them enough to satisfy their hunger and baskets of leftovers to carry home.  You look at your incomes or your talents or your abilities and you insist you do not have enough for yourself much less for the Lord and His kingdom.  But I am telling you, God will take them and multiply them so that His work will prosper and you will be satisfied and receive the leftovers of His grace to teach you that God is trustworthy, He is faithful, and He will do it.
    God does not ask for your excuses.  God asks for your trust. What you have is enough for God to use to provide for your needs and to do His bidding.  All God asks from you is trust.  At times, the truth is, we would rather pay God off to avoid trusting in Him.  But all of our resources have meaning and power only in the hands of God.  Trust the Lord.  You will not be disappointed.  Amen.

What do we say to the unbroken?

Several have taken up the challenge of suggesting what we as Christians have to say to those who are not broken, weak, wounded, or fearful.  Indeed, they are surely correct in suggesting that our problem as a culture today is not how to nurse the guilty conscience or heal the broken body or answer the fearful heart but what to say to those who believe they are strong, self-sufficient, and happy.  You can read my fellow Lutheran Pastor Tapani Simojoki here or another Lutheran, Anthony Sacramone here.  There are other voices to suggest the limits of preaching only to those in pain but these are two of the best.  In light of what they have already written, I am hesitant to add my own meager contributions but that has never stopped my big mouth before...

In a simplistic way, I learned that my job as preacher was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  This worked out practically in preaching the Law with all its force to break down and wound the conscience of the proud, the strong, and the secure while preaching the Gospel in all its sweetness to those already broken down, wounded, suffering, or sore.  I will have to admit that this was exactly the approach I took early on in my ministry.  While I still preach to the suffering, I try not only to preach to them.  But instead of merely breaking the back of the strong with the blunt force of the Law, I have learned to address those who are not suffering, wounded, or sore in other ways.

One way is the appeal to beauty.  We live in a world with trash as art, one hit wonders as the pop artists of the day, clothing budgets keyed to the ins and outs of style that changes minute by minute, and technology which requires our full time attention just to keep abreast of.  But what is largely missing in our world is beauty.  We have surrendered nearly everything in art to the erotic or the shocking.  The graceful nudity of art that once honored the form God made has been replaced by the erotic which plays on our every prurient desire.  It has become so familiar that it no longer shocks us and those who work in media have to reach ever deeper into the darkness to make us notice them.

One thing the Church once offered and can still offer is the truth that is displayed in beauty.  Though their lives were not nearly in sync with their music, the great masters left us a timeless tribute to art and skill that still reawakens in us the stirrings of the eternal.  It is the same with great art.  It rekindles within us the hunger for something beyond the ken of today.  The Church in preaching, teaching, and in worship needs to rediscover the call to the noble character of beauty, of talent and skill that reflects God's nature and not our own fallen one.  That is one thing we should offer to those who feel themselves not wounded or suffering but rather happily strong.

The second appeal of good preaching and liturgy is to the eternal.  This is related to beauty but not quite the same.  If all the Church can offer the strong and secure is something to compete with the offerings of modern media and entertainment, we rather impoverished in our ability to address them.  But if we take up again the call to the eternal, we have something profound and powerful to say to those who are accustomed to living for the moment.  The success of movies in which the hero figure sacrifices the moment for the larger cause of that which is beyond himself only shows to us that desire for the eternal lies dormant within all of us.  Let the Church be the voice that reawakens this latent desire with the call of the Word and the power of the Spirit to address more than today, more than me.  It seems we have presumed that our only choice is to forget the eternal and preach only to the present in order to appeal to the modern mind and the emerging generations.  That is itself a lie of our own creation.  God has planted eternity within us and even if we have buried or dulled our awareness of this, God can and will reawaken in us the dawn of the eternal day for which we were redeemed in Christ.

The final point, perhaps the strongest, is that we need to re-frame the shape of things.  Once all the world, strong and weak alike, saw things through the lens of sin and righteousness.  Now, at best, we see things through the lens of sin and forgiveness but not necessarily righteousness.  We have addressed things wrong with grace but have we really engaged our hearers to seek after that which is righteous?  Here I feel the burden especially upon me as a preacher.  It is not enough to speak grace to the penitent and condemnation to the proud.  We must also speak of righteousness, of that which is good, holy, right, true, and eternal.  This is not knowledge we come to on our own but only by God's revelation.  The Christian faith is also a path, a way though narrow that leads us to live beyond ourselves.

It seems to me that the Church has learned to be pragmatic in the worst sense of that term.  We have become more enamored with what works than we are with what is right, good, holy, and true.  We cannot have a worship services which has married the spirit of the moment and then think we are faithfully proclaiming the mystery once hidden and now revealed in Christ.  In the same way, we cannot let our lives revolve simply around what works when that betrays what is wholesome and good, right and true.  The Church's call to the strong is a call not simply to surrender their strength but to use it for godly purpose.  We are to seek out that which is costly and eternal and pursue these with all our strength, mind, and heart.

I can only speak for myself but I know this is a struggle for me -- in teaching as well as preaching.  Suffering is the shape of Christian life in a world at odds with our God and His gracious will but we do not always suffer.  Yet in suffering and in strength we seek the higher and more noble character of righteousness.  The nature of the Kingdom is righteousness, peace, and joy.  It is not merely the sacrifice of peace for the everlasting struggle or joy for the wounds of a world too filled with pain.  It is also the direction of our strength for godly purpose and His gracious will.  It matters not if you are strong if that strength is born of a pragmatic realism that seeks only to satisfy desire without hurting too many people in the process.  Strength is a gift with a conscience and calling and that is to seek to live as those who are righteous in a world either confused by or which rejects such righteousness.

Just a few thoughts to add to the larger conversation. . .