Monday, August 31, 2015

Give your heart to Jesus

Sermon for Pentecost 14, Proper 17B, preached on Sunday, August 30, 2015.

    How comfortable we have become with the language of evangelicalism!  Why even staid, dry, dull, old Lutheran folk talk about giving their hearts to Jesus.  But we are not always sure why Jesus wants our hearts or what it all means.  Do we give them to Jesus because they are precious and pure or do we give them to Jesus because they stinking cesspools of death and decay that need to be made clean?  Do we give them to Jesus because He wants them or because we can't stand to live with them any longer?
    Jesus answers the question for us. Our hearts are worthless – filled with the stench of sin and the stink of death.  We want to believe that down deep we are better inside than we are on the outside but it is just the opposite.  We clean up nice on the outside but terrible sin lurks in our hearts.  We are worse than we look.  And unless our hearts are daily killed by repentance and faith, they will kill us – just like gangrenous limps will kill the whole body unless they are cut off, removed, and destroyed.
    What does Jesus say?  Out of the heart of man comes all kinds of evil.  Not hidden goodness, but hidden evil.  Evil thoughts to infect the mind, sexual immorality to turn love into something cheap and tawdry, deceit where truth ought to live... Lying lips that should speak praise, killing words and actions, hearts that love pleasure at all costs, enviousness that the fire of jealousy hot within us, wickedness that shames us, vulgar speech whose words make life cheap and nasty, gossip that delights in other's hurts, pride that refuses to admit sin, foolishness that parades as arrogance... did Jesus miss anything?
    Nope, we do not need to be taught how to sin.  It comes naturally to us.  So we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean.  But righteousness, well that we have to be taught and goodness and holiness.  These we do not know unless and until the Holy Spirit instructs us with the goal of the law. 
     So give your hearts to Jesus people.  And He will take them – right to the cross.  He will take your hearts and kill them.  He cannot rehabilitate them.  They are too far gone.  They must be killed.  Drowned just like Mitchell in the baptism this morning.  But it does not end there.  No, the mercy of God is too wonderful for that.  It is not just about death but about new life.
    He will give you new hearts, created in Christ Jesus for new life and good works.  He will create in you a willing spirit and restore to you the joy of your salvation.  He will bring forth a new person from the baptismal water – a child of God who is not alone to face the last gasps of sin's death in us.  Christ raises you up covered with His blood that cleanses you from all sin.
    Do not give your hearts to Jesus because they are good or decent or noble or valuable.  Give your hearts to Jesus so that He can destroy those wretched, stinking, decaying, fountains of sin and create in you a new heart, clean and pure, created in Christ Jesus for good works.  One that will delight in the Law of God and love what the Lord loves.
    Today we drop all pretenses and presumption of righteousness.  God knows the score.  We are the ones in the dark.  He sent His Son to die for you even though this heart of death is what He saw in you.  He loved us when we were unlovable.  He claimed the sin in us and made us new to live new lives in Him.  This is why we cannot stand our sin and why we refuse to walk in the ways of sin any longer.  This is why we cry out for new and clean hearts.  This is why we endeavor as  St. Paul urges us to walk worthy of our calling, to live sober, upright and holy lives, and to be the people we claim we are with our words.  This is why the Lord arms us with His armor so that we may not be weak or the victims of sin’s temptation any longer. 
    The romance of the heart beckons us but we have the truth.  We know that when a man and woman stand before the Lord they must do more than pledge their hearts to one another – they must pledge their wills, their strength, their commitment, and their resolve when their hearts are no longer in it.  For the heart that leads husband and wife to love each other can easily discard this love on a whim.  No, just as husband and wife need more than romance, so do Christians need more than the romance of hearts for Jesus.  We need a God who loves us as sinners but refuses to leave us there, a Savior who pays the whole cost of our redemption, and a Spirit who makes us new, to love and desire God and His goodness.
    As King David once prayed when his heart of sin became his undoing, so does our prayer remains:  Have mercy on me, blot out my transgressions, wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, cleanse me from my sin, hide Your face from my sin, blot out all my iniquities, create in me a clean heart, renew a right spirit within me, restore to me the joy of Your salvation, uphold me with Your free Spirit, deliver me from my blood guiltiness, do good in Your good pleasure to Your people, O Lord, and my mouth shall show forth Your praise.  Amen.

Lipstick on a pig. . .

We do a fine job of putting make up on evil, lipstick on a pig, so to speak, that masks and hides the true nature of the evil that is present.  We do this for a variety of reasons.  Few of us really wants to believe that evil is truly evil (we prefer to think of it as ignorance awaiting enlightenment or error awaiting correction).  We also want to believe Satan's lie that down deep we are good, those around us are good, and even our enemies are good.  Since Star Wars we are tempted to believe that the dark side is really a wrong choice that can be undone (if not easily than with some serious work).

That is what we want to believe.  But it is not the truth.  For example, Planned Parenthood has been exposed over and over again for its callous talk of selling the body parts of aborted babies and yet many -- too many -- are intent to believe that this is not as bad as its sounds.  When we watch the gay pride parades with their focus on the flamboyant and erotic, we should believe that same sex marriage is more about changing marriage than opening its societal and governmental benefits to same sex couples who want a traditional marriage.  When we shrug our shoulders at the rise of cohabitation and its acceptability in modern society, we want to believe that these are good people who are just trying to save money or plan for the wedding of their dreams.  When we hear all sorts and kinds of talk about tolerance among the various religions of the world we think it is about the laudable goal of reducing inflammatory rhetoric or getting us to be good neighbors but then we discover its real intent is to rob truth of its truthfulness and leave us with competing private sentiments buried too deeply inside the individual to affect the direction of the community or nation. We want to believe that a little instruction or correction will deal with these evils.  That is not true.

There is evil in this world that does not want anything but to destroy God and His people, to tear down the fragile fabric of our morality and to expose the deceitful lusts of the heart to the light of day with the freedom to do evil without consequence, guilt, or shame.  Evil wears masks, make up, and hides in respectability but this is exactly what makes it so dangerous.

A million years ago The Exorcist thrust upon the scene with its horrific portrayal of demon possession.  We rested somewhat secure in our beliefs that evil revealed itself to us in unmistakable shapes and forms.  It was a lie.  The devil never unmasks himself.  He must be unmasked by the Truth.  In confronting demons, Jesus first acted by exposing them, calling them forth from their hiding places, and forcing their darkness into the light.  That is the thing we need to do in His name in our own age and time.

Pray that we will not lose our nerve.  Pray that we will have the courage to confront darkness and expose evil for what it is.  For if we fail, many more will be taken in by its rotting heart hidden in the face of our own wants and desires.  Christ has not only unmasked evil but given us the Word of Truth so He might continue to unmask and expose evil in our own age and time.  The folks who are taken in by evil might be mistaken or naive but the evil that entices them and us is not simply mistaken or naive.  It is the enemy of God and His people roaring about like a lion seeking whom he may devour. 

Thoughts in the struggle. . .

Our identity as Christians never was tied to a flag, but always and exclusively to the Cross. It always was the case that here on earth we have no continuing city and that our citizenship is in heaven.  We are never content with the pilgrim character of the faith and we refuse to think of this earthly tent as a temporary home or of the Church has having a nomadic existence here on earth.  But that is the truth.

Our Christian weakness has always been to succumb to equating a flag with the Kingdom of God, an empire with the Church of Christ, and patriotism with faithfulness to God.  Where Christians have given into the temptation, the dark side of our nature has usually triumphed and we have wielded the sword in less than salutary ways.  Even popes have fancied themselves as kings or knights, doing battle literally with the enemies of Christ and His kingdom.  But the sword we are given and the only effective means against the enemies of our Lord and of His Church is the Word.  It is slow.  It is deliberate.  It appears weak.  It seems outgunned.  But the Word of the Lord endures forever.

Kingdoms and even church structures come and go.  I believe it was about 1969 that Fr. Ratzinger (before he was Pope Benedict XVI) suggested that the Church may well shrink and end up abandoning the great edifices of her prosperity but the Kingdom of God will endure.  Whether we are Americans or citizens of any other great power, we want to think God is with us, He is on our side, and He loves us more than others.  It is, however, more important that we are with God, that we are on His side, and that we love others as He has loved us.  As insignificant as these seem, they are the means by which the Kingdom comes and the Kingdom will prevail.

I for one do not want to think this way and I suspect you do not either.  But the chances of the aims of church and state paralleling or intersecting are fewer than their courses diverging and their aims conflicting.  This is not the oddity but the norm, according to the Lord Himself.  That Christians will face a hostile environment is not the exception but the rule.  Jesus insisted that we would not find it easier than He found it and promised to reward not our success but our faithfulness. Conflict with the state, persecution by word and deed, the rejection of the Divine Word, and the fight to remain faithful in an ever more faithless world was never the oddity but the norm,  What does Jesus say: “If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20). “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). When we look upon the persecution of the first three centuries of the Church’s existence, we often shudder to think how it was.  But it was not anything strange or foreign.  Such persecution and challenge was and is the default mode for Christians living in but not of the world, living in the moment but for eternity.

You will see signs and rumors of more signs but do not lose heart. . . He who endures to the end WILL be saved.  You see, we know the outcome, the end of the story, and so, with Jesus, we struggle through.  We resist temptation and renounce the flesh and reject the false values of the fake kingdom.  They can harm us none.  He's judged.  The deed is done.  One little word can fell him.  This is our real and powerful hope and the foundation for the struggle.  Easter does not begin the fight but signals the end.  Until then we wait, we endure, refuse to give in.  Nor will we exchange the symbols of an eternal kingdom to be satisfied by what happens in the ballot box or the courtroom. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

No one but. . .

Justin Martyr, Apology I:66:

"And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh."
Having been reminded of this great quote of Justin Martyr (HT John Stephenson), we find again the great body of evidence that says that the only communion hospitality worth anything is that which proceeds from the common faith of those who discern Christ's body and blood, who live in repentant faith as the baptized, seeking to live the new life declared to them in that baptism by the Holy Spirit.  Anything less than this unity of faith and common life flowing form the font only betrays the meal and the Lord who is host and food.  It is not our supper or the Church's meal but Christ's table.  It is His witness and words that tell us who is welcome and who is not -- less to exclude some than to prevent those not of the same faith from receiving to their harm the presence of Christ (meant sacramentally but which can surely also be judgment against the communicant when faith in these words is not present).

Interestingly, I have found it more common that people from other churches (non-sacramental) are more likely to tell me that this is indeed what they believe.  To wit I must ask "Then why do you belong to a church that does not believe and teach thusly?"  And therein lies the rub.  Many pious Christians take the Word at its face value but belong to churches wherein that Word is denied.  Now they do so for a variety of reasons but perhaps the hardest is to admit that the presence of Christ in the Supper is itself a doctrinal issue of the first part.  So the challenge to them is not only why are in a church that does not confess and teach faithfully as you yourself acknowledge and why do you not condemn the error?  Perhaps the typical answer is that we believe that the Lord's Supper is portable, that is, it is what I think it is and not what my present church home might believe.  So what becomes operative here is the faith of the individual.  They are less forthcoming at how it is possible for two people to be together at the rail and one receive the Body of Christ and the other merely bread.  Lest we Lutherans think to highly of ourselves, this is the receptionist error that remains hidden among us as well.  The presence of Christ is conditional upon the throat and faith of the believer or else Christ does not come.  I do not understand how it is possible to hold onto such contradictory views but we as people are nothing if we are not inconsistent and fraught with contradiction.  I am sure that I have my own inconsistencies as well.  Which all the more points to the need for us to research what churches believe, confess, and teach and to be captive to the Word within the faithful confession.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

News from Down Under. . .

The truth is that most Lutherans in America know little about the Lutheran Church in Australia.  If we know anyone there, it is probably through their writings (Drs John Kleinig and Greg Lockwood have authored commentaries in the Concordia Series, for example).  Yet if you know anything of Herman Sasse, you should know a bit about the LCA.  Why does this small body matter?  It matters for many reasons but chief among them is the partnership between the LCA and the LCMS for many years.  Joined through a carefully negotiated confession and articles of agreement, two Australian Lutheran bodies (one with ties to the LCMS and one with ties to the old ALC [American Lutheran Church - now ELCA]) demonstrated great dedication in crafting a merger in which they agreed NOT to ordain women.  In the intervening years, some, perhaps many, have attempted to revisit the issue and this year is no different.

For the first time in LCA history, General Pastors Conference has been held several months before General Convention of Synod. The ordination question is considered so important that church leaders wanted pastors to have opportunity to properly explore the proposals coming to Convention and to give Synod ample time to consider their theological advice. General Synod will meet in convention from 29 September to 4 October.
The meeting of some 280 pastors was devoted almost completely to discussing the proposals to General Convention relating to ‘Women and the Call to the Office of the Public Ministry’ (‘ordination of women’). Fourteen proposals supported the ordination of women and two asking Convention to affirm the current teaching of the LCA not to ordain. There was no formal vote on the proposal but they did agree to frame debate on the issue on the St Peters Indooroopilly, Queensland, proposal in support of the ordination of women.  Immediately following the GPC, the College of Bishops of the LCA met.  The Bishops met more for active listening on the subject rather than to debate the ordination of women. A website, Ordination:  We're Listening has been a feature of the discussion and the whole issue of the ordination of women.

So what will happen? On day 4 of the LCA Convention, Friday, October 2, the entire agenda is given over the discussion of the ordination of women. I am personally concerned because Bishop Henderson's report specifically indicates he is directing this issue away from a pro vs con discussion to focus on personal stories and small group discussion.  He believes that this will enable everyone to consider the issue openly, apart from the influence of strong personalities and views.  He wrote:  As Christians we have the benefit of having Jesus join in our conversation, sometimes unrecognised, much as he did with the two disciples as they walked to Emmaus after the resurrection.  [I do not have a clue what that is supposed to mean.  Would Jesus say something different than what Scripture says and the tradition of the church has maintained without break to the most modern of times?]

We already know that Bishop Henderson favors the ordination of women.  It is significant that 14 of the 16 proposals to the Convention were in favor of ordaining women.  The call and ordination of women to the ministry is contrary to LCA’s Theses of Agreement, which the two former Lutheran Churches in Australia adopted in 1956 as the basis for the union ten years later. Since thesis 11 of the ‘Theses on the Office of the Ministry’ prohibits women from becoming pastors in the LCA on scriptural grounds, it means that the call and ordination of women in the LCA is a doctrinal issue and not just a matter of practice. Therefore, if women are to be ordained, this thesis would first have to be rescinded by the Church according to the procedures laid down in the constitution.  Those in favor of the ordination of women are openly parting ways with the formers of their church body and insist that this is not a doctrinal issue but a cultural one.  This is an issue whose time may well have come and the LCA may adopt to betray its founding fathers and agree that culture and practice are divorced from doctrine on the issue of the ordination of women, that the decision not to ordain in the past was a cultural one and that since the culture has changed, the decision may also change.

It should be noted that there is hope.  On the one hand we would do well to remember that any decision to ordain women would be to change current doctrine and teaching.  So that onus rests with those who want to change the status quo and such a vote would require a clear 2/3 majority of all registered delegates.  In addition, though perhaps Bp Henderson feared that a more formal debate would highlight personalities instead of the issues, this format actually encouraged the very kind of doctrinal conversation needed to consider the Biblical and catholic witness and the consequences of such a change among the pastors of the GPC.  Finally, I am told that, like the current situation in Missouri, younger pastors in the LCA seem to be more inclined not to change and to hold to the historic stance of their church with respect to the ordination of women.  I am also told that the GPC addressed the issue without the characteristic divisiveness so easily a part of doctrinal discussions on hot button issues such as this (from both sides, I might add).  If there is a real concern to dampen our hopes that the LCA will not change its doctrine and practice on the ordination of women, it is the fact that their convention is 2/3 lay and only 1/3 clergy.  But we must also trust the Lord of the Church and not discount the persuasive power of the Word that endures forever.

I would be happy to hear from folks down under but it is something I look at with great concern.  Pray for our brothers and sisters in the Lutheran Church of Australia.  You need only peruse a few of those voices in favor of the ordination of women to know why I am concerned.  Lift up this church in prayer.   We know that there are voices of faithfulness who do not wish to see the LCA change its doctrine.  The LCA was home for many years to a teacher and friend, Kurt Marquart, and it has long been a partner of the LCMS.  Pray that this will continue. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Only two kinds of people in the world. . .

In the city where I live there is a college building housing math and computer science.  It is not notable except that as you drive by you note that there is writing on the building.  It is a series of 1s and 0s.  Someone thought to put the ordinary inscription not on a cornerstone but near the top of the building and to enshrine the information in binary.  It is a curiosity that often leads to a smile when you realize what has been done.  On another forum a poster signs himself with the words, There are only two kinds of people in the world: 1s and 0s.  And we snicker.  But it is true.

When Adam went out to name all that God had made, he encountered just just a binary shape of all creation.  We call them male and female.  Jesus affirms this shape of creation in Matthew 19.  Male and female He created them...  Despite all out attempts to redefine or differentiate or parse the shape of God's good creation, the most basic shape of all human existence is binary – male or female.  Though we have tried to run from this form or pattern of God's creative work, we cannot avoid its pivotal significance.  Though we have quibbled with the arbitrary nature of such a shape in a world that loves nuance, this is the pattern not simply for humanity but for nature.  Truly Adam saw it clearest when he looked around and saw there was no one comparable to him.  He was alone in a binary world.  But this was not to last.  God in His foreknowledge designed the moment of Adam's self revelation so that it would be accompanied by the complement to his very existence, a woman made from him, distinct from him, to complement and complete him.  And so it has been ever since.

Salvation history is no different.  Mary is the new Eve, the new mother of all the living, and Christ is the new Adam, to undo Adam's curse.  After the Reformation it could be said that Mary was minimized and the parallels forgotten.  She became merely a pipe through which the Son of God flowed and this flawed soteriology was no less a problem than the flawed mariolatry that the Protestants condemned.  Lutherans, too, forgot the richness of this language and gave up the piety but not the orthodox doctrine.  Such gave birth to the flawed sacramental character of baptism and Holy Communion among the Protestants.  Having forgotten what it meant to take from Mary His flesh and from the Father His divinity into one person, one man, it did not take long to empty the water of its saving power and turn the sign of bread into even less than it signed.

Gender has become the creature of our sinful desire to choose (as if we could forgot the tainted legacy of  our first choice).  Desire became the ruling authority that dare not be denied.  Our value was assigned a dollar sign.  Our identity was captive to accomplishment, recognition, or pleasure.  Our technology took the mess away from reproduction and allowed us further opportunity to exercise choice where life was once only God's domain.  Our second thought allowed regret to kill the unborn and perhaps soon enough the child.  Our good stewardship taught us to evaluate a quality of life in which hastening its end is noble and exiting by physician assisted means a right.  In the end, turning our back on this binary shape of creation has left us without a working understanding of who we are or what our purpose is.  Religion, sadly, has become for too many Christians merely the co-dependent of our unnatural natural desire to love self, pleasure, and happiness at all costs.  So we seek a faith that can help us live our best life now and allow us to define the shape of that life, its morality, its purpose, and its success.

Marriage was given to us that we might learn to know God and His nature, love and its sacrificial shape, the creative potential of this love in children, the home wherein its father and mother mirror the love of the Father and the humility of Mary who consents to a will and purpose larger than herself, and the Christ and His love for His bride, the Church.  In rejecting the binary shape of creation and the gift of marriage, the world has slowly but surely cast us all adrift on a sea of whims good only for the moment and pleasure seeking in which denial is the unforgivable sin.  Marriage, even after the Fall, rooted us in the uncomfortable but essential character of God's mercy and grace.  Now, to reject it is also to reject the shape of that mercy and grace incarnate in His Son, Jesus Christ.  No, one might still be saved without a Biblical perspective of marriage but, yes, such knowledge of salvation is made infinitely more difficult without such a divine pattern to guide and unfold the story of Christ.

Just as male and female are the divinely intended normative expressions of our humanity, so does its rejection distance us from God's self-disclosure even more and distort the very essence of what it means to be human.  Yes, the Fall has distorted and fractured this shape but the gift of God is not the rejection of it.  No, salvation is instead the restoration of what we lost in the Fall.  We see this in the commandments and their male/female pattern.  After the Law laid down its framework to protect us and accused us before the mirror of God's holiness, it now leads us to know and desire and seek after this godly purpose and life in which male and female are not transcended but restored and we are given the will and desire, by the Spirit, to seek after this creative design with all our mind, heart, body, strength, and will.

It is surely unpopular to say and it will offend some, but the truth remains.  There are only two kinds of people in this world -- male and female -- and this binary shape of our creation is key to knowing who we are and what God has done.  It is for this reason that Churches cannot forsake truth and go along with the misguided and self-destructive path of society (both on a popular level and on a legal level).

Thursday, August 27, 2015

What impact on the liturgy?

We are probably all familiar in some way with the effects of rationalism and pietism upon the Christian faith.  That said, it is not always easy to identify practically how these pivotal movements in Christian history have affected what happens on Sunday morning.  Recently I was reading an article when a great brief summary statement jumped out at me.

The churches tend to make concessions to Rationalism by excluding silence and reducing the complexity of the ceremonial or completely eliminating parts of it from the liturgy.  On the other hand, the churches tended to make concessions to Pietism and Romanticism by promoting informality and spontaneity and minimizing formal liturgical formularies and prayers.  In this way the two great slave-drivers behind the liturgical reform have had their diverse impact upon the shape of the liturgy illustrated so that we understand more fully why we have the liturgy and the worship wars of today.

Rationalism cracks the whip and shouts: “No silence! Everything must be SAID and UNDERSTOOD! No complexity! Stop all that intricate symbolic stuff! Stop all that lugubrious chanting! Modern man has no patience, no time, no ability, no need for it! It promotes an aristocracy of clerics! Let the light of objective reason shine!” But then Romanticism [Pietism] sneaks in, elbows an unsuspecting Rationalism aside, and, with a voice all the more poisonous for seeming friendly: “Relax! Go with the flow! You are too formal, uptight, rigid, and cerebral! Let go of the rubrics, find your inner child, feel it in your bones, be yourself! Everything’s about YOU, your feelings, your neediness — this is your moment!” Each struggles for supremacy; in a weird sort of way, they are codependent and collaborative. They stop at nothing to eviscerate the tradition that precedes them, until all that is left is a disembodied reason of empty structures and a derationalized self-indulgent sentimentalism.  

There is no way to avoid the present tension between head and heart; we still are caught between rationalism and romanticism/pietism but the surprising reality of the future is that the newer generations are less naïvely optimistic about the power of human reason and and less convinced by the power of sincere feelings to lead us into an idyllic New Eden wherein our full human potential is realized and exploited.  The generations reaching adulthood and younger adults are more likely to search for that which is neither the expression of head or heart but what transcends both.  They are looking for mystery (not the unexplained but that which is beyond explanation -- the transcendent God who attaches Himself to earthly form and element and is present there with the fullness of His gifts and graces. 

I certainly know the tensions of those who plead for simple liturgy, plain ceremonial, and an appealing rationality in which things have explanation and are understandable and those who plead for the freedom of love, the spontaneity of the moment divorced from page or form.  But I continue to be impressed by those who come Sunday after Sunday seeking neither a rational lens for God and the universe nor a love affair with the moment but a true path to the transcendent through the means of grace.  This is what gives me hope that perhaps we can progress past those who want logical answers and those who want to explore their happy feelings.  God can work as He will in whatever circumstance the world finds itself.  This I do not doubt.  Yet, it is hopeful to think that there are still people looking beyond themselves for the eternal and the divine known only in Jesus Christ whom the Father has sent and in the Spirit who reveals Him.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Whose traditions of men is Jesus complaining about?

Sermon preached for Pentecost 13, Proper 16B, preached on Sunday, August 23, 2015

    Lutherans approach the Gospel for today with the same apprehension and fear of a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.  We are self-conscious of what happens on Sunday morning and instinctively fear that Jesus is talking about us when He speaks of man made tradition that displaces the Word of the Lord.
    It does not help that with some regularity somebody will remind me that all of this stuff is not essential. Altars, pipe organs, stained glass, kneeling, standing, crossing yourself, bowing, genuflecting, even going to church.  These are the traditions of men, not the requirements of God.  Right?  Or is it that simple?
    How odd it is to read through Leviticus and see how rigid God was in shaping the building, the vestments of the priests, and the worship life of the temple and then figure that today God is happy enough if we are doing what we want, what we find meaningful, and if we are doing it all sincerely!
    Some think that Jesus’ words in the Gospel for today are directed against ceremonies or rituals in worship but this is a great lie.  Jesus does not offer us a choice between sincerity of heart and outward actions.  In fact, Jesus insists upon both.  His anger is reserved for those who choose one over the other – who are content with sincerity of heart but refuse the outward actions of piety or those who choose the outward actions of piety but whose hearts are empty of faith and trust.
    Where do you find Jesus ever challenging the exacting and demanding requirements of the Law with respect to the worship of the temple?  Where does He say ritual or ceremony is bad?  What Jesus condemns is phoney law that substitutes keeping rules for having faith or phoney faith that lives so deeply down in the heart that it does not affect who people are or what they do and refuses to adhere to any tradition.
    Jesus never accuses the Pharisees of misreading the requirements of the Law but of substituting their ideas of its fulfillment with God's Law and being so satisfied by their keeping of these rules that they lacked faith and trust in God’s mercy.  Jesus insists they have corrupted the Law by using to justify self-righteous sinners in their sins.  The Law always accuses us and never justifies us.  This is what they missed and why they were not so sure they needed saving or a Savior.
    Jesus called the Pharisees the feel-good religion of the day.  The Law which should have condemned sinners and used their guilt and shame to point them to Christ their Savior, became a feel good law that justified their works.  It told them that their best was good enough for God. In the end there is nothing different between the Pharisees who told people to trust in their works and modern day religion which tells people to trust their feelings.  In the end the same thing results – evil becomes good and good becomes evil.
    Real Law is from God to protect us from the ravages of sin unbridled by fear of punishment.  Real Law always accuses us of our sin and of our helplessness without a Savior.  Real Law always accuses us but it does not only accuse – it also directs the saved on whom God has had mercy how to live as God’s own child and do His bidding.
    Real Law is not window dressing but has the power to convict us sinners as to sin and direct us helpless to Jesus Christ our Help and our Savior.  That is what our Lord found missing then and what we run the risk of endangering today.  When we are no longer called to repentance and pointed to Christ, it does not matter what rituals we do or how sincere we are – we are dead in trespasses and sin and unable to save ourselves.
    This is not a choice between rituals and ceremonies and faith but the proper union of both.  Here hearts are reborn by the Spirit to love what the Lord loves and to seek to please the Lord inwardly with faith and outwardly with faithful words and  actions.  The God of Leviticus did not become schizophrenic and develop a different personality in the New Testament.  It is the same God.  In fact, we are the schizophrenics who are forget what sin has done and who no longer hear the Law as the convicting Word of the Lord.  But God has sent us His Son, given us His Spirit, called us to repentance empowered by that Spirit, and healed us that His mercy may have its way with us and our hearts trust in His grace.
    There is no place where Jesus condemns the rituals or ceremonies of the Temple. Jesus does condemn those who do them without faith and then are proud of their works.  Repentance is not merely an inward admission of our sin and guilt but the acknowledgment that works can never save us.  Emptied of all our illusions, we are pointed to the only one who can save us.  When we pray God to create in us clean hearts, we are praying also for clean hands, that we may worship Him with our lips and with our words and actions shaped by faith.  There is no disconnect between hearts of faith and the delight in God's commands.  In worship they come together and we gladly surrender personal preference and the pride of works to rejoice in the mercy that forgives our sins and makes our hearts new again.  Our prayer today is that with pure hearts we may trust and with pure lips, hands, and bodies we may do the work of those whom God has called from darkness into light.  Amen

Canadian Conundrum. . .

For the uninitiated in Canadian churches, the United Church of Canada is the largest Protestant Christian denomination in Canada (second largest church after the Roman Catholic). It was a merger of four Protestant church bodies in 1925:  the Methodist Church of Canada, the Congregational Union of Ontario and Quebec, 2/3 or so of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and the Association of Local Union Churches (which I know nothing about). In 1968 the Canadian Conference of the Evangelical United Brethren Church also joined.

As is the case with many, if not most mergers, the resulting church was more a mixture of minimums than maximums of doctrine and practice.  The fruits of that are now being realized as it must figure out what to do with an ordained United Church minister who believes not in God nor in the Scriptures but who is unwilling to go quietly.

At her West Hill church, Rev. Gretta Vosper believes, and her congregation supports her, that how you live is more important than what you believe in.  She was ordained in 1993 and believes that most church doctrine is the result of an outmoded world view.  She believes that Christianity has betrayed its beginnings and built a doctrinal system on mythology -- minimizing the most important things of changed behavior and love.

In 2008 she did away with the Lord's Prayer and lost two thirds of her congregants.  This year she pushed her denomination's leadership when she equated the Muslim extremist attack on Charlie Hebdo with the same kind of misguided actions done in the name of the Christian God.  The problem?  The UCC had never investigated a minister before.  They had no idea how to review whether or not Vosper was failing her ordination vows affirming faith in the God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  More than this, the UCC has always priced itself on tolerance, diversity, and inclusiveness.  How far can a minister go and still be considered within the pale of UCC teaching?  For her part, Vosper is intent upon forcing the denomination to act and insists that if they are no longer welcome within the church, it is because they have "defined us out of it and not because we have defined ourselves out of it."

Furthermore, Vosper is concerned that the process defined by General Secretary Sanders puts any minister at risk of being judged and found wanting.  Well, duh.  Every minister is at risk of being judged and found wanting UNLESS the minister is faithful to the doctrine and practice of the church into which the minister was ordained.  You don't have to be a rocket science to get this.

And that is the point.  We ARE accountable.  Those in the pew and those in the pulpit.  The baptized to their baptismal creed and faith, the confirmed to their vows and promises (to suffer all even death rather than fall away from it), and the ordained to the confessional standard, doctrine, and practice of their church.  It is precisely this accountability which we fear today -- both those exercising oversight and those under their supervision.  But this is in essence the core and foundation of our life together.  Without this, there is nothing to bind us more than sentiment and feelings.  Am I my brother's keeper?  You bet you are.  If you love your brother or sister, you will call them to account -- not as an act of judgment but as an act of the highest form of love.  As a father disciplines his children, so the Lord chastens those whom we love.  This is not the realm of our own arrogance but the very nature of our life together and the test of true love.  Pastors will welcome this and the people of God will likewise rejoice in such love as a mark of the true church and not simply a fellowship of diversity, tolerance, and sentiment which too many churches have become.

I have no idea how the Canadians will do.  I know that my own LCMS has held one of our pastors accountable and it has caused ripples among us.  Failure to act is equally as dangerous as acting arbitrarily or unfaithfully in the role of supervision and oversight.  Until we learn this, our churches will bleed truth until there is nothing left worth believing.  I fear that the United Church of Canada may already be there.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

But it's Biblical. . .

Well, if Biblical means it is mentioned in the Bible or the Lord tolerated the aberration for whatever His beneficent purpose was, or the Lord condemned it. . . yes, many things that are abhorrent, evil, a compromise of His good and gracious will, and wrong are mentioned in the Bible. . . 

In the press for same-sex marriage (claimed by some that faithful, same sex relationships are not mentioned in Scripture and therefore okay), we find ourselves bombarded by the next wave of polyamorous relationships that seek legal status as well.  Among them is polygamy.  Utah already had their statute struck down by the court to pave the way for legalization.  And then there are those who claim, Polygamy is Biblical...  Well, if you mean it can be found in the Bible, then yes, it is.  But that does not say much.

Homosexual acts (unequivocally condemned in Old and New Testament Scripture) are not at all uncertain within the Biblical record. Polygamy, well, that is a different story.  Certainly this was not part of God's creative design or intent for marriage, but it does appear that He tolerated the practice. Some of the greatest biblical patriarchs had numerous wives. God does not appear to punish them for this alone but seems to work within the circumstance for the larger benefit of His people Israel.

The Scriptures do teach against polygamy but less in the clear language of law that prohibits than the comparative view that displays positively what marriage is as God has given it in creation and how man's attempts to improve or alter man's design have produced consequences less than salutary for man or woman.  Polygamy does not have a great track record and has lead to serious trouble God's leaders and His people. Departing from God’s plan and purpose always leads to trouble and this is even more true when we consider the subject of marriage.

God said, It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper comparable to him (Gen 2:18). Though it hardly needs to be pointed out, “helper” is singular, not plural, and the clearest statement of God's intention is one man and one woman. After sending forth Adam to name the animals and thus teaching the man that animals are not suitable companions and he is, indeed, alone, God puts Adam into a deep sleep and fashions Eve from his rib (cf Gen 2:21).    Scripture tells us that a man shall “cling”  or cleave (Hebrew = דָּבַק  = dabaq) to his wife (singular, not plural), and the two (not two because there were only two but because the design of marriage was for two -- not three, four, or more) of them shall become one flesh (Gen 2:24). God then bestowed on them the character of His own love and gave to their life together the potential to create (in the same way God's love is creative) and then commended them to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28).

 Polygamy was a common thing in the Old Testament, at least among the kings and patriarchs.  There is no record that this was the widespread or even occasional practice among ordinary folks in the Old Testament. Another blogger has conveniently listed the occurances:
  1. Lamech (a descendant of Cain) practiced polygamy (Genesis 4:19).
  2. Abraham had more than one wife (Genesis 16:3-4; 25:6, some are called concubines).
  3. Nahor, Abraham’s brother, had both a wife and a concubine (Genesis 11:29; 22:20-24).
  4. Jacob was tricked into polygamy (Genesis 29:20-30) and later he received two additional wives, making a grand total of four wives (Genesis 30:4, 9).
  5. Esau took on a third wife to please his father Isaac (Genesis 28:6-9).
  6. Ashur had two wives (1 Chronicles 4:5).
  7. Obadiah, Joel, Ishiah, and those with them “had many wives” (1 Chronicles 7:3-4).
  8. Shaharaim had at least four wives, two of which he “sent away” (1 Chronicles 8:8-11).
  9. Caleb had two wives (1 Chronicles 2:18) and two concubines (1 Chronicles 2:46, 48).
  10. Gideon had many wives (Judges 8:30).
  11. Elkanah is recorded as having two wives, one of which was the godly woman Hannah (1 Samuel 1:1-2, 8-2:10).
  12. David, had at least 8 wives and 10 concubines (1 Chronicles 1:1-9; 2 Samuel 6:23; 20:3).
  13. Solomon, who breached both Deuteronomy 7:1-4 and 17:14-17, had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:1-6).
  14. Rehoboam had eighteen wives and sixty concubines (2 Chronicles 11:21), and sought many wives for his sons (1 Chronicles 11:23).
  15. Abijah had fourteen wives (2 Chronicles 13:21).
  16. Ahab had more than one wife (1 Kings 20:7).
  17. Jehoram had multiple wives (2 Chronicles 21:17).
  18. Jehoiada, the priest, gave king Joash two wives (2 Chronicles 24:1-3).
  19. Jehoiachin had more than one wife (2 Kings 24:15).
God's silence against the practice of polygamy can hardly be equated with His approval.  Consider the example of Jacob.  Jacob loved his four wives unequally: Leah (with whom he felt “stuck” and whom he considered unattractive), Rachel (his first love), Bilnah (Rachel’s maid), and Zilpah (Leah’s maid). Leah bore him six sons and a daughter (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulan, and Dinah). Rachel finally bore him Joseph and Benjamin. Bilnah bore him Naphtali and Dan, and Zilpah bore him Gad and Asher. Gideon had many wives (Jud 8:30) who bore him many sons whose competition, bitterness, strife, conflict, and violence resulted in death. One need look no further than Abraham, Sarah, Issac, Hagar, and Ishmael to see the rivalry that undercut the family of God's intention (Gen 21).  Trouble erupted in the most famous “blended” family -- that of David -- when Absalom (the third son of David through his mother Maacah) decided to topple the line of succession and make himself king. The shameful story of Absalom and his half-brother Amnon ended up with Amnon raping Absalom’s sister Tamar, and Absalom later had Amnon murdered for it (cf 2 Sam 13).  Solomon, man of a thousand wives saw them get the best of him.   As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord (1 Kings 11:1-6).

So, is polygamy Biblical?  Yes.  It is mentioned.  It was tolerated.  It was a dysfunctional sidetrack of God's orderly plan.  It spawned violence, resentment, hate, apostasy, and even murder.  Was it God's plan?  No. For Jesus recounts the hardness of the heart that gave birth to another aberration not part of God's creative intention, divorce, and gives us both God's design and God's allowance of that which resulted from the hardness of man's heart.  Have you not read, that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate (Matt 19:4-6).

Monday, August 24, 2015

15 year olds deciding for state paid sex change survery. . .

Just in. . .  From Fox News via a reader of this blog:

The list of things 15-year-olds are not legally allowed to do in Oregon is long: Drive, smoke, donate blood, get a tattoo—even go to a tanning bed.

But, under a first-in-the-nation policy quietly enacted in January that many parents are only now finding out about, 15-year-olds are now allowed to get a sex-change operation. Many residents are stunned to learn they can do it without parental notification—and the state will even pay for it through its Medicaid program, the Oregon Health Plan.

In a statement, Oregon Health Authority spokeswoman Susan Wickstrom explained it this way: “Age of medical consent varies by state. Oregon law—which applies to both Medicaid and non-Medicaid Oregonians—states that the age of medical consent is 15.”

While 15 is the medical age of consent in the state, the decision to cover sex-change operations specifically was made by the Health Evidence Review Commission (HERC).

Members are appointed by the governor and paid by the state of Oregon. With no public debate, HERC changed its policy to include cross-sex hormone therapy, puberty-suppressing drugs and gender-reassignment surgery as covered treatments for people with gender dysphoria, formally known as gender identity disorder. 

Let me get this right.  A 15 year old is not mature enough to put a permanent mark (tattoo) on his or her body but he or she is mature enough to decide to remove or remodel his or her sex organs -- permanently -- and have the taxpayer of Oregon pay for the surgery?!?!?  And this at a time when people are beginning to wonder of sex reassignment surgery is ever the right treatment for those who believe their gender identity and their body's gender are in conflict...  Oregon believes that this will not be a dramatic burden to the taxpayer ($150K annually or so) for the surgery but what about the lifetime of therapy to deal with either the surgery itself or the continuing psychological problems of which their gender dysphoria is generally but one.

The point of this is that we seem to be ready to allow our children and youth to be anything and everything but children and youth.  We dress young children up as adults and allow them to watch adult themed movies and TV and free access to an internet filled with pornographic and violent images.  We are getting to the point where pedophilia is beginning to be see a different order rather than a disorder and so we expect that they might be able to interact consensually with adults.  We allow them to have free access to contraceptives, birth control, and abortion services.  We want them to pick an adult career and college major in preschool.  But they dare not act like children or be given an opportunity to live without the adult cares and distractions of life.  So we think that early on they will have to pick a gender and decide what is right for them without being encumbered by anatomy.   What part of parenting have we missed?  The state wants to by-pass the mom and dad and the world wants to dress up kids like adults and we as parents seem destined to follow the wisdom of government and culture.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Mine outward vesture be. . .

Let holy charity mine outward vesture be,
and lowliness become mine inner clothing;
true lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part, and o'er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

 In the words of the great hymn, Come Down, O Love Divine, we sing of the shape of our outward vesture, our clothing.  In the hymn we sing the prayer of a people who pray that externally we manifest holy charity or love and inwardly humility that weeps with shame at our shortcomings.  Good words.  Worth more than an occasional sing to be sure.  But do we intend them to be more than words.

We live in an age in which we demand, even flaunt, our personal choice and desires.  We expect to dress in ways that showcase our assets (to put it kindly) or for the sake of our comfort.  If someone else is offended or it seems inappropriate, that is not our problem.  Once in the blue moon I have watched that program in which designers teach someone to dress less like a bum or a harlot and more like a person whose dress expects them to be taken seriously and respected.  I must admit that I am less shocked by those who dress in ways too casual than those who dress to shock or offend, often screaming their sexuality or their desire to step outside the mainstream.  I have been told that there is a web site with actual people shopping at Wal-Mart and it is, as I have come to understood, a sight to be behold.  I would suggest that the same kind of surprise might be found in a typical church on Sunday morning.

BEFORE YOU GET ANGRY, I am not suggesting that a coat and tie, dress and full compliment of accessories is required.  What I am talking about is modesty first of all and respect for the place where you are.  It is a shame that we must raise the issue of modesty in church but we must.  It is not only a gender issue but it is primarily one.  The church is not the place to showcase your assets.  It may not feel out of place to you, but consider those around you.  Consider the setting.  Our attention is to be upon the Word and Table of the Lord and not on our own different self-expressions.  Women and men, girls and boys, need to reflect more humility and less sensuality in their dress in general and especially in church.

Second here is the extremely casual nature of most church attire.  We all want to be comfortable but what is comfortable is not always appropriate.  Here again the point is not to impose a dress code but to ask everyone to see if their dress is a fair reflection of the inward shape of their heart -- especially on Sunday morning. What might be appropriate for a BBQ or jogging or trip to the beach is not appropriate to the Lord's House.  No, you do not have a dress code but you surely know when your dress is in conflict with the rightful attitude of the heart of a people who come to the Lord's House at His bidding.

Finally, the principle here is love.  Love for God and love for neighbor.  Love that sacrifices preference and comfort for what outwardly befits the inward heart of a people whom the Lord has suffered, died, and rose again to save.God does care when the outward vesture is in conflict with the rightful attitude of the heart or when our dress treats the things of God as casual and ordinary.  Adore the Lord in holy attire (Psalm 96:9; Ps 29:2). Do you recall how Moses was told to remove his shoes for he stood on holy ground?

Again, I am not advocating a dress code but some honest reflection as we stare into the mirror before we head to the house of the Lord.  Let our outward vesture be a faithful reflection of our inward hearts.  Let humility and charity reign.  Amen!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Whispers in the Nave. . .

We have a very liturgical service.  To some people that means formal.  Well, we certainly do follow a form but it is not stiff.  For one thing we have many children.  Some of them are a nervous parent's dream.  They seem to take the cue of organ and pastor to fall soundly asleep for the morning nap.  Most of them are not like that.  They are normal children. The key here is normal.  Kids make noise and move around and sometimes need a parent's attention.  But that is FINE.  That is how kids are.

One of the worst things a parent can do is let a boisterous child or a fussy toddler be the excuse for not attending the Divine Service.  Children need to be in the Lord's House with their parents.  Sadly, some adults are just like Jesus' own disciples -- they hinder the children.  They stare at every noise, shake their head in disgust, and make the parents even more uncomfortable.  Jesus welcomed the children and those who love Jesus will take their lead from Him and welcome children to the worship service.

Author Mary J. Moerbe with pictures by Martha Aviles have created a resource for such children and parents.  Entitled Whisper, Whisper, the book treats children in the Divine Service as a teaching moment.  In other words, the children need more than our attention to keep them occupied.  They need to be taught so that they can participate as they are able.  Children learn by repetition and nothing helps more than a form or liturgy, repeated weekly.  Help them mirror the participation of adults and treat them as they are also part of what is happening.  This is the advice of Mary Moerbe.

In a delightful little book, we find little boxes outlining the teaching moment that is the subject of that page.  The pictures are well done and the lessons outline the liturgy for little ears.  The author makes things simple and plain for the children to understand without succumbing to the temptation to dumb down the service.  A rhyming text helps reinforce to the child's memory the words and lessons.  At the end are In Sanctuary Tips that summarize what has been said all along so that parents can learn how to guide their children in worship just as the children are learning to worship.

If you are a parent of a child from birth to age 4-5, don't be intimidated by the thought of a child acting up in worship.  Your children take their cues from you.  If you act like this is normal and natural they will learn the routine, be part of the liturgy, and do it naturally.  Use a book like this or quiet bags like our congregation provides with books such as this, paper, crayons, and other resources to direct their attention back into the service.  Sit near the front so your child has something more to see than the rear ends of the folks in front of them (not all that interesting).  And don;t forget to pray for them and with them!  If this is not what Proverbs means when it says train up a child in the way he should go, then I don't know what it means!  Hang in there.  Take a deep breath.  You can do it.

If you are a frustrated adult who finds children distracting, cut the family a little slack.  You are the adult.  Be the adult.  Demonstrate your attention on the Word and Sacrament and not on a child's misbehavior.  Don't put even more pressure on the parents but try to alleviate the fears of a busy child in the arms of a nervous mom or dad.  Model the best attention and behavior.  It does work.  We had a grandmother who first brought her grandson a couple of years ago.  He was rambunctious and grandma was often at her wits end.  She was nervous enough to end the experiment right then and there.  Guess what, her grandson learned and he grew up in the liturgy -- literally!  Her fellow pewsitters and her pastor insisted she should not give up and she did not -- and we are all the better for it!

Honest and sincere. . .

“I believe that Jesus would approve of gay marriage, but I’m not– that’s just my own personal belief,” former President Carter concluded. “I think Jesus would approve of any love affair that was honest and sincere, and was not damaging to anyone else. And I don’t think that gay marriage damages anyone else.

Such is the wisdom of former President Jimmy Carter, erstwhile Baptist, Sunday School teacher, and all around moral conscience against the malaise of America.  Carter espouses the same kind of non-textual, anecdotal, sentimental ideas of gay marriage and sexuality in general that have harmed and distracted the discussion of what marriage is and whether or not it should be redefined to include same sex or other forms of it.  According to Carter, it has already been redefined.

Listen again:  I think Jesus would approve of any love affair that was honest and sincere, and was not damaging to anyone else.  First of all, Carter was not merely speaking about marriage but about any love affair that was honest, sincere, and did not damage others.  Second, he was defining the morality of it by whether or not it was honest and sincere and did not damage others.  Finally, he is saying that Jesus would not merely tolerate it but give His approval, His sanction, and His blessing to such.

Before we go running directly to same sex relationships, Carter is speaking on behalf of all love affairs.  Did you notice what was missing here?  No mention of commitment, no sense of time or length, no mention of fidelity, no mention of children, and no mention of any previous love affairs or current that might impact things here other than damage others.  In other words, love affairs (not marriages) are not only okay but good, even great, if we enter them honestly, if we act sincerely, and if we do not end up damaging (perhaps different from hurting) others in the process.  I think this pretty much allows us to do whatever we want.

As long as I have been a Pastor I have never had someone say to me that they had an affair that they did not see as an honest and sincere expression of love and, if it had not been found out, they believed it would have hurt or damaged no one.  What an extension of the right of privacy this is!  We can do what we think is right for the moment, as long as we mean well, and as long as we do not intend to damage others.  That pretty much allows the door to swing wide open to indulging many if not most of the desires of our hearts.  While that is well and good for the desires of the heart, it is not so good for the emotional and spiritual welfare of the people, for the long term strength and security of marriage, and for the children who are inherent to any Biblical definition of marriage.  It stands in stark contrast to Jesus' admonition to the woman caught in adultery to Go and sin no more... but if it feels good, and you really want it, it is consensual, and it does not damage others, well, Jimmy says go for it and Jesus will cheer you on.

Quite apart from the same sex marriage debate, such a quote only raises further reasons why many Americans are wondering if they must have slept through something only to wake up in the midst of a nightmare.  Rights and wrongs, morality and ethics, good and bad -- these are all changing rapidly and the criteria for their judgment is leaving us spinning.  What has happened to the moral and social fabric of America?

Friday, August 21, 2015

A dirty word. . .

Catching up on some reading, I read the brief column by my esteemed Canadian Lutheran friend, the Rev. Dr. John Stephenson, on the evolution of our view of the word inerrancy.  It is an interesting read.  (BTW if you do not subscribe to Logia, this is one journal to which you need to subscribe and read.)  He begins, of all places with the Roman Catholic Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) and its own quote from Vatican II's Dei Verbum.  It is a wonderful place to begin:
"The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ." (#66)
The subtitle before it says simply There will be no further revelation.  St. John of the Cross comments on Hebrews 1:1-2: In giving us his Son, his only Word (for he possesses no other), he spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word - and he has no more to say.

Dr. Stephenson well reminds us that there was a day when Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Lutherans were more or less united in such a statement but no longer.  Rather than herald such convictions, statements such as these have become embarrassments of many of their modern day heirs and require some level of explanation and redirection to allow them to stand at all.  In the Roman Catholic Church, in most of Protestantism, in much of Evangelicalism, and in continental and ELCA Lutheranism, such a view of Scripture is regarded as foolishly naive.  We have become to sophisticated to espouse such doctrine.  So far has liberalism ingrained itself into Christianity that we are no longer sure the Word of God belongs to the Lord, that the Word we have now is anything remotely like it was originally, or that it is anything but a plastic text that evolves, changes, and speaks differently to different people and different times.

Dr. Stephenson chronicles the history and he does it far better than I am able so I will not comment there except to say read his words!  What I will commend on is how things have changed.  Many Christians are no longer comfortable with the very word inerrancy.  While it might have a more recent pedigree among us as Lutherans, it is still a good word and it speaks solidly of our conviction and the reality of Scripture, the written Word of God. 

While it might be said by some that Scripture's history and reliability is questionable, this is a modern view that stands in stark contrast with the majority of Christian doctrine and teaching only 50-75 years ago.  It reflects the imposition of doubt upon something that no one doubted from the earliest of times.  Scripture was merely accepted for what it was and is -- the infallible Word of God.  Now the Bible is under assault from within and from without.  Historicity is considered an antiquated concept and we are assured by many teachers today that it does not matter if the Scriptures are true in the sense of fact, their truth is an article of faith divorced form factuality or historicity.  Such a view is not only foreign to the Church prior to the 19th century, it is alien to St. Paul who insists that Christ's resurrection from the dead cannot be myth and salvation remain standing.

You can argue all you want over the word inerrancy but the catholic doctrine and treatment of Scripture affirms the truthfulness, factual basis of, and historicity of Scripture (unless it clearly tells us otherwise).  It may be quaint to speak of Adam and Eve as historical people but it is the company of Christ Himself and His disciples to believe, confess, and teach this.  It is neither fundamentalistic nor sectarian to acknowledge Scripture with terms such as inerrant or infallible.  This is the way every authentic Christian understood the Word of God until at least the 19th century.  We will be held accountable with whom we choose to stand -- with Jesus and His Church consistently through the ages or with modernity and its allergic reaction to the very idea of truth and fact and history.  Dr. Stephenson is right to remind us, inerrancy was once not a dirty word but a word we shared in common as we together acclaimed the Bible to be true and without error, trustworthy and reliable.

What is remarkable is that despite 28 editions of the Nestle text of the Greek New Testament and the remarkable find of the Dead Sea Scrolls and their confirmation of the Old Testament, scholars seem fascinated by the miniscule number of words in dispute over a text, a history, and a content that remains surprisingly consistent, despite generations of hand copying, the advent of the publishing industry and its desire to put to press new and different, and even the internet age in which no text is immune from the tinkering of scholar or amateur.  We do not have a text which causes us to doubt or fear, we have fears and doubts in search of legitimacy.  So deeply have we marked our departure from the saints before us that we snicker at the idea that the Bible is inerrant or infallible.  Perhaps because we have already decided God is neither of these, we are sure that His Word must not be either.  And God laughs at our haughty pride.  For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And the discernment of the discerning will I bring to nought.  I Corinthians 1:9.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Absent Saints. . .

Listening to a few things on the background, I had to stop when Iowa East District President (the one whom this geographical area of the LCMS has elected to exercise episcope over them) Brian Saunders made an offhand comment about ending the use of the term delinquent members.  He briefly but forcefully called to account those in the pews who dismiss the folks who have been absent from the Lord's House, the Lord's Word, and the Lord's Table.  He spoke again of the need for the congregation to engage these people and not ignore them.  Then he spoke on how we react and respond to those who absent themselves from the Lord's House. 

I will admit that I am not always the most charitable in my own reactions to those who choose to absent themselves from the Lord's House.  I find it impossible to imagine myself surviving being away from the Lord's Word and Table and the assembly of the baptized.  I know that there are those who have disputes with the congregation, with the leaders, and with the pastor(s).  It should not be surprising that every pastor preaches to, teaches, serves, and communes people that he does not always like, some of whom have offended and wounded him or his family, yet, as difficult as this is, this is his calling.  Some pastors do better at this than others.  If the pastor can separate feelings for the person from the ministry to that person, then I often wonder why the people in the pew cannot separate these things from their place within the fellowship of the baptized.  But that is a topic for another time. 

Saunders has urged both pastor and people to take a hard look at the way they look at these absent members.  He reminds us that we are not the ones given to judgment and we must assume that these are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  They have been baptized.  They belong to the Lord.  Whatever the reason or reasons for their absence, it is not given to us to sit in judgment of their hearts.  It is given to us to speak the Gospel to them, to seek them out as brothers and sisters in Christ, and to pray for them with the longing of a family missing family members from the family gathering or reunion.  They are the saints with us, absent, but still the saints and there is something wrong with us when we so casually and easily shrug off their absence or forget their place among us.  He indicates that he believes this is a flaw and failing not simply for pastors or elders or parish leaders but for all the folks in the pew.

I found it hard not to be at one and the same time convicted by his words and convinced that he was right.  The sad truth is that most of us do not lament those who have gone astray, do not carry in us the burden of their absence, and do not express this to those who are missing from action on Sunday morning.  Those are hard but truthful words.  I am humbled by his words and his witness and I hope the people of God in the pews will be as well.  No, it is not necessary our fault that they have left but it is our responsibility to miss them, to lament their absence, to pray earnestly for them, and to seek them out in the hope and prayer that our missing members will be restored to the Lord's House, the Lord's Word, and the Lord's Table.

In a typical congregation, you do not have to look far to find the places where some of the folks we knew once sat, to recall those who once labored with us in the vineyard, or to remember the absent saints.  None of us know them all but all of us know some of them.  The real question then comes down to whether or not we love them enough to seek them out, care enough for them to not ignore their absence, and feel responsible enough to hold them accountable for their loss and ours.  If our hearts do not burn within us for those who were once numbered among us on Sunday morning but now are gone, how can we expect to receive new people into the fellowship and care for them as fellow members of the Body of Christ and fellow partners with us in the work of the kingdom?

I will make this part of ministry a renewed priority for me and for our elders over the coming months.  I cannot make the folks in the pew take up again this cause but I will not let them forget their responsibility to the absent saints of Grace Lutheran Church.  And I encourage you to take up this cause anew.  No, you do not have to argue them back into church nor should you.  But you need to express to them they are missed (even if it has been a very long time since they were once numbered with us).  And you ought to pray for our absent brothers and sisters with the same earnestness we pray for the new folks in the Kingdom.  If we are praying neither for the absent saints or for those who will hear and believe through us and be assembled with us, then this is another matter worthy of some honest repentance and forgiveness.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Fearful beginning. . .

There were some of my friends who said explicitly that when they left the ELCA they were looking to established a church body which would be just like the ELCA but prior to the CWA 2009 decisions on sexuality.  I had initially given the NALC the benefit of the doubt but it seems that it is less a church body that exists for positive cause than a church body of people who wish the ELCA had not made its fateful choices in August 2009 and so have developed a church that mirrors the ELCA prior to those choices to accept same sex marriage.  In other words, it was all about sex.

There are some of my friends in the ACNA (Anglican Church in North America) who have urged me to consider this a truly catholic version of Anglicanism, a prayer book worshiping 39 Articles believing, conservative church body.  I want to believe that as well.  However, I beginning to wonder if the ACNA is not in many ways like the NALC -- a body formed to roll back the clock somewhat but not necessarily to be all that the name implies.

After four meetings the ACNA Task Force on Holy Orders has not gotten further than an introductory paragraph. The pivotal words of that update say: It remains to be seen whether or not the issue of women’s ordination can be resolved in any direction beyond the status quo, apart from making judgments about these divergent views, thereby further defining holy orders for the whole church. The bishops and church will need to consider the tension between the values of liberty and unity in this regard.
In other words, certain things remain effectively off the table, among them the ordination of women, and it may well be that the members will disagree and have to live with this tension.  In other words, it is like the Episcopal Church except before it took its wayward steps into the sexuality abyss -- an ECUSA without Gene Robinson or his kind and hopefully forgetful of John Shelby Spong and his kind.  It only seems to confirm the fear that it was all about sex.

If the NALC for Lutherans and the ACNA for Anglicans/Episcopalians are to effectively become a new and positive church bodies formed to express the catholic identity they claim for their traditions, they must not rubber stamp the positions of their former church bodies except to a point.  They must be willing to address and either defend theologically or abandon the practices that violate the catholic principle of doctrine and practice that was, is, and everywhere remains the same.  They must be willing to put the ordination of women on the table.  There has been a woeful lack of theological underpinnings for this nouveau practice among the Lutherans and, I believe, the Anglicans.  Either you defend it or you abandon it but you don't merely keep it because the predecessor bodies had done it or it is a can of worms you would rather not open.

I do not say this out of anger but disappointment.  If the NALC and ACNA are churches who will live up to their promise, they must be prepared to face a review of something that challenges their claims to be the rightful successors of their theological forbears.

After I wrote this piece, I read of a challenge to the ordination of women by none other than CoE Bishop Nazir-Ali (who might have been Archbishop of Canterbury) who at least raised the issue while speaking to the International Catholic Congress of Anglicans in the US last month.  It is not much but it is surprising that someone would challenge what has become a holy grail of the disenchanted Anglicans and ELCA Lutherans.  

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

This is hard. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 12, Proper 15B, preached on Sunday, August 16, 2015.

    Husbands have roaming eyes. Wives dream of picture perfect husbands.  Children wish for better parents.  Parents wish for better children.  People look for better pastors.  We all shop for happiness that comes like a dream in a box.  Sin has given us longing eyes but not wise ones.  We want what we do not have, what is easy, what meets our wants, what satisfies our desires.  It is no different when it comes to matters of faith. We shop for religion the way we shop for everything else.
    We fear the Lord’s way is too hard.  We are not wrong.  In the Gospel those closest to Jesus grumbled just the way we do.  This is too hard!  Who can accept it?  Who can believe it?  You want an easy faith with all the right answers.  That is what I want too.  But you will not find it here.  Jesus gives us no easy faith with easy answers but the hard truth of sin and its death, of salvation purchased with blood.  But where else can we do?
    Faith is too hard.  Of course it is.  Any time we surrender control and will to God we run the risk of disappointment, of prayers not answered, and of sins that still have consequences. But faith has no other way than the hard path of trust, of repentance, of the mystery of water, bread, and wine, and of the promise of life not yet seen, held or touched.
    Doctrine is too complicated.  Of course it is.  Not all churches offer the same Gospel.  Most are manufactured hopes crafted by the words, wisdom, and dreams of men.  Christ gives us truth.  His truth is the Word made flesh, the Son of God who comes as the Son of Man, of righteousness given instead of earned, and of salvation purchased in suffering and death.  The creed confesses this hard truth but does not explain it.  We come as those informed by the Word confessing our faith in it.
    Truth is too offensive.  Of course it is.  We want some generic truth that everyone can tailor for personal preference. We want a broad truth that is like an umbrella to cover all our mistaken ideas of God.  Instead we get exclusive truth that is inclusive for all people, of all time, of all places.  Every one of us wants an easier faith, an easier Savior, and easier church.
    But where else can you go?  The wisdom of man cannot purchase salvation or cleanse the guilty or tame the wandering desires within.  Peter wanted to go somewhere else – anywhere else!  But there was no place where sin was paid, where death was defeated, where sacramental food tasted of heaven’s eternity.  Where else can we go?  You alone have the words of eternal life.  We sing with Peter – where else can we go?
    You, Lord, alone have the bread to satisfy our hunger for ever.  To feed us now and feed us eternity.  To restore the fallen. To rescue the lost.  To forgive the biggest sin.  To give hope to our despair.  To heal our wounds.  To kill death and bestow the life that cannot die.  Where else can we go?
    As hard as it is, Jesus it the only God we can know, the cross is the only place where sins are forgive, and His salvation is the only hope to live beyond death. Once the Jews grumbled against Jesus, His own disciples were ready to bolt, and the crowds that had come to feed their bellies at Jesus’ expense were not sure they needed or wanted anything more than a quick meal.  But where else can we go?
    So come. Eat. Drink.  What eating once cursed, this eating redeems.  Here is the mystery none can explain.  His flesh is real food; His blood is real drink.  Here is grace bigger than your sins, life bigger than your death, hope bigger than your fear, promise that will not disappoint.  Look carefully how you walk.  Walk not as the unwise who reject the promise because it is hard on the mind or the will. Walk as the wise.  Be not foolish but wise in faith.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the Holy One of God is insight.
    It is hard but it offers us the only outcome and answer for our sin, our guilt, our despair, and our death.  Lord, where else can we go.  You alone have the words of eternal life.  Jesus is the Holy One of God.  Lord, give us faith that we may endure.  Amen

Evolutionary thought. . .

Part of the legacy of Darwinism is the unmistakable idea of evolutionary change.  While it is often seen almost exclusively in terms of scientific thought and human origins, it is a principle applied to thought, to morality, and to theology also.  The parallel of evolutionary theory in science and the origins of life have their parallel in the evolution of truth and dogma. What happened along the way was the gradual shift from truth that does not change to a truth that can and must change and evolve.  The new theologians extended this principle to our understanding of God, denying to the Biblical revelation and truth its universal and eternal character. The new moralists extended this principle to the domain of morality and ethics, denying the existence of an absolute and immutable natural law in favor of a situational morality and ethical truth tied to the moment and circumstance.

This revolutionary evolution shifted the locus of truth from the eternal to the moment, the source of morality to the subjective decision of the person, and the universality of dogma to the whim of personal judgment and preference.  Just as individual conscience became the sovereign norm of morality, so individual judgment became the sovereign norm of truth, and individual preference became the sovereign norm of belief.  Things change, they evolve, and nothing can stop it.

Today we have come to accept the premise that evolution is not merely about human origins but about every aspect of life.  In the Church we have come to see the Scriptures as an evolutionary book in which God does not present us with unchanging truth but a general blueprint in which love is at work changing and evolving us -- lifting us from the dead letter of the page.  Scripture no longer settles anything even when its clear words is without confusion.  Within much of modern Christianity, a higher plane exists hidden behind the Word itself and this is the Spirit, not bound to the Word alone, acting according to the principle of love to expand and even contradict the Word with a still more excellent way.

Dogma evolves in the minds of many.  If Scripture evolves then certainly the truth of Scripture must also change, grow, and turn.  Doctrine is no longer settled.  It is an open question.  When Scripture has spoken and when the Church has confessed it, that no longer means the answer is a given.  Both Scripture and creed can change in meaning if not in words and confession marks a moment in time but not a statement meant for more than the moment.  So we find that many confessional churches have relegated their confessions to the realm of historical documents rather than definitive documents of doctrine and truth.

Liturgy evolves in the minds of many.  The worship life of God's people is not a pattern or an order or even specific words but a matter of principles to be followed in which words may come to mean different things and the shape as well as the content transform. The Spirit must be allowed to do a new thing.

Morality evolves in the minds of many.  What was once settled and clearly marked as right or wrong must now be re-evaluated according to the individual's own circumstance, judgment, subjective feeling, and preference.  The same circumstance may provoke different responses all of which may be moral and good even though they contradict one another.  Right is a judgment only as wide and deep as the individual, the choices available to that person, and th decision rendered on the basis of the situation.  There is no natural law nor is they any moral law that transcends the moment -- only principles to guide the judgment of the person who must render a decision or make a choice.

The greatest impact of evolutionary theory has not been in terms of the isolated question of man's origin but on the whole nature of truth, judgment, dogma, and faith.  It is as if we set ourselves up to end in a place where Scripture no longer speaks with one voice and if it did its voice would not be pivotal upon the question of truth.  Or that the dogma drawn from that Word of God is true beyond the moment or beyond the person.  Or that moral truth is anything more than the judgment and choice rendered by the individual in the face of a set of circumstances.  When we began thinking of the evolutionary character of truth, morality, doctrine, and liturgy, we left ourselves little room for a future that is anything but a question mark.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Is the choice of a single life or deliberate childless marriage an equal choice with marriage and children?

Meghan Daum, writer and editor of the new essay collection Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, insists that those who choose not to have children are not being selfish or greedy or signalling an end to life as we know it.  No, the child-free life, as she and her other authors argue, is just as honorable and virtuous a choice as those who do have children.  Consider this fact:  19% of women today manage to make it through their fertile years without delivering a child -- up from 10% thirty or forty years ago. “There’s more than one way to be a responsible, productive—and even happy—adult in the world,” she writes, and “it’s about time the taboo of choosing a life other than parenthood was publicly challenged by people who’ve thought beyond the Porsche in the driveway or the Manolos in the closet.”

The problem here is that more and more Christians are echoing this sentiment and choosing to go childless or even spouseless while believing that these choices are just as noble and virtuous and godly as the choice to marry and have children.  Unless you live under a rock you noticed that the birth rate and marriage rate is also dropping among Christians.  The unbelieving single individual and the childless couple are not alone -- they have friends in the pews.

Is the single life by God's design or is it the frustrating result of a world marred by sin?  The first job of Adam in the garden was to discover that he was alone and that this alone-ness was different from God's design for all other things in creation.  From that Adam exclaims to the Lord when Eve is brought to him:  This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.  Adam finds his purpose and his completion in the woman whom the Father has made from his rib.  The first order of creation is marriage.  There is no single life in Eden.

But there are people who do not find a spouse or who never have opportunity to marry and for whom the single life is not their choice but their burden (don't get me wrong here, marriage is also a burden since the fall and it is no magical relationship but one of work in which the hardest labor is confessing wrong to and forgiving wrong from your spouse).

The mark of our fallen natures is also revealed in the fact that the order or design of God in creation remains broken and difficult.  We were created from the unique community of family and from family we are meant to learn of God and learn of life together here on earth.  Sin has taught us that marriage and family are hard work and require sacrifice.  This is the unpleasant truth of love.  It hurts.  It gives.  It surrenders.  It dies.  All by giving up right for the sake of service.  Only God can engender such love and He has become the refuge for those who struggle under its burdensome expectation.  But it is not only burden and service.  It is also blessing -- not the kind you tally up on the balance scale but the joy of giving which we discover is our noblest purpose.

I think it is high time we stopped allowing the illusion of singleness and childless choice as equal to the covenanted love of marriage and the openness to children.  The Church must begin to remind people that marriage is not choice but order, that family is not an economic benefit but the design of God from the beginning (be fruitful and multiply), and that children are not choices either but the fruit of God's ordered life by His design.  Even celibacy is not the choice of a single life but love covenanted to God and neighbor at least as deeply in intent as love covenanted to spouse and children.

There is no moral equivalency to marriage and family for those who seek the single life or a childless marriage by choice.  It is for the disappointed who long for marriage and children the painful shape of our lives since the fall and it is for those who seek to avoid marriage and children one more mark of just how disordered our lives have become since Eden.  And for those who marry and find out it is hard and costly to you, you have discovered that sin's disorder is not without consequence even when we do marry and have many children.  Our joy lies in the Lord and our delight in His service -- no matter in what estate we find ourselves.

For those tempted to justify their choice of no marriage or a childless one, perhaps the best condemnation is the extreme of the green perspective which suggests the world would be a better place if there were no people at all in it.

Edit:  For those who are complaining, this was NOT directed at those who choose to be chaste as a gift of celibacy nor at those who are unable to conceive or adopt.  It was directed at those Christians who have adopted the non-Christian idea that life is for me, may be better lived as a single uninhibited from the unrestrained pursuit of personal desire OR as a childless couple who do not want their neat lives messed by children or their pursuit of self hindered by the reality of the demands of children and family.  It was the suggestion, as at least a few of you might have gotten, that to say "no" to marriage or children because we fear giving up something is not a godly option for the faithful.  To those offended by what I wrote, read it again.  I think some of you are inferring things into the text that I did not intend or write.