Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Reward of Eternal Life

Sermon for Pentecost 18, Proper 21B, by the Rev. Daniel Ulrich, Associate Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, on Sunday, September 27, 2015.

          Today’s Gospel reading is an interesting one.  There’s a lot going on in just 13 verses.  Jesus rebukes John and the disciples for trying to stop a man who was casting out demons in Christ’s name.  Jesus talks about losing a reward, causing little ones to sin and being violently drowned for it.  He talks about cutting off limbs and tearing out eyes.  He talks about worms, fire, and salt.  Jesus talks about a lot of stuff in these verses, and none of it seems to fit together.  But it all does.  Everything that Jesus says in the Gospel reading today teaches us an important fact: WE WILL NEVER LOSE OUR REWARD OF ETERNAL LIFE BY SERVING OTHERS IN CHRIST.

I.        Rewards are given to people who earn them.  Trophies and rings are awarded to athletes who win championships.  Bonuses are given to the most productive workers in the office.  A+’s are handed out to those students who study and ace their exams. 

          Believers in Christ also are given a reward.  Christians receive the reward of eternal life.  You have been given eternal life, and just like all other rewards, this one is earned, but not by you.  Only Christ has earned this reward.   

          To earn eternal life, we must be perfect and follow God’s Law perfectly.  Of course, we know we don’t do this, we know we can’t do this.  Looking at our lives we have to confess that we daily sin much in thought, word, and deed.  When we compare our lives to God’s commands, we plainly see that we’ve broken each and every one of them time and time again.  There is no way we could possibly earn eternal life. 

But Christ did.  Jesus, true God and true man, lived a perfect life.  He always followed the commands of God in thought, word, and deed.  He only did what His Father willed, and because of this, He rightly earned eternal life.  But He didn’t do this for Himself.  He earned it for you.  Christ lived and sacrificed His perfect life on the cross to pay for your sins so that God could forgive you.  He suffered all the wrath of of God so that you could be given the reward of eternal life.    

II.       Receiving a rewards makes us feel good and we take pride in receiving them.  This is even the case with the reward of eternal life.  God has blessed us in His grace and mercy and it is right for us to feel good and overjoyed in this.  We should have a sense of Christian pride, continually thanking God for this gift. 

          Unfortunately, our sinful nature turns our godly Christian pride into sinful, selfish pride, pride that leads us to cause others to sin, to stumble in their faith.  This is exactly what happened with John and the other disciples.  “John said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us’” (Mk 9:38).  John and the other disciples suffered from sinful pride.  They enjoyed a special place as the Twelve and they took pride in that place.  This pride compelled them to stop a man from helping others.  They didn’t want him to do this miraculous thing because he wasn’t one of them. 

          Without hesitation, Jesus rebuked the disciples by saying, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  For the one who is not against us is for us.  For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward” (Mk 9:39-41).  Jesus rebuked the disciples because this man was part of the group that followed Jesus.  He may not have been part of the Twelve, but he was a follower of Christ.  He was a believer and he was serving others in Christ’s name.  The simple fact that this man was able to cast out demons in Jesus’ name showed that he was a believer.  He was showing his faith by serving those in need and proclaiming Jesus’ name.  Because of his faith, he would not lose his reward of eternal life. 

          After speaking well of this man, Jesus described how we can lose our reward of eternal life.  We can lose it by causing others to sin, to stumble in their faith.  “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mk 9:42).  At this point, Jesus pointed to a young child.  However, the “little ones” Jesus is speaking of isn’t limited just to children.  All believers are “little ones” because all believers have a childlike faith.  They trust in God their Father and His salvation, just as little children trust their in parents.   

          When we cause others to sin, to stumble, we show that we don’t have faith and that we reject the reward of eternal life.  Just as the disciples’ sinful pride led them to cause another to stumble, so too our pride cause others to stumble.  Full of pride, we refuse to repent of sin towards other because we don’t want to tarnish our name and admit we’re wrong.  Full of pride, refuse to forgive others when they have sinned against because they’ve sinned just a little too much.  Full of pride, we become self-righteous and judge others for their sin, speaking ill of them, all the while we ignore our sin.  In all of this, we cause others to stumble, we make a mockery of the faith Christ has given us. When we continue in this pride, when we don’t repent, we lose the reward of eternal life. 

          Jesus tells us what must happen to that which causes us to sin: it must be cast out.  Speaking figuratively He says, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off….  And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off….  And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out.  It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mk 9:43-48).  Our sinful pride must be cut off and torn out by confession.  We must repent of our pride and turn to God our Father, asking for grace and mercy, praying for His forgiveness. 

          And He answers this prayer.  God graciously forgives your sinful pride.  He forgives you when you cause others to stumble.  Christ sacrificed His perfect life on Calvary to forgive all of your sins, to earn you the reward of eternal life.  And God promises to preserve you in this reward through His Word. 

III.      Jesus ends His teaching in our Gospel today by talking about salt.  He says, “For everyone will be salted with fire.  Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (Mk 9:49-50).  Salt is a preservative, keeping food good and free from contamination.  Jesus said we will be salted with fire; that is, we will be preserved by fire.  This fire isn’t the hell fire that He spoke of earlier.  It is a purifying fire; a fire that burns off all impurities and contamination, like our sinful pride.  This fire is the Word of God that proclaims Christ crucified for us. 

          God’s Word preserves us, it strengthens our faith and trust in the Lord.  Having been purified of our sinful, selfish pride, being preserved in faith by God’s Word, we are filled with love towards others.  This love is expressed in service to others in Christ, it is shown by proclaiming Christ, just as the man did when he cast out demons in Jesus’ name.  This love brings peace, peace within us and peace with others.  When we serve others in Christ’s name, we won’t lose our eternal life.    

          Jesus spoke about a lot in these verses, but He was teaching us one important fact: WE WILL NOT LOSE OUR REWARD OF ETERNAL LIFE BY SERVING OTHERS IN CHRIST.  When you put others above yourself and serve them with love in Christ, you are at peace and you won’t cause others to stumble.  You show that you are thankful for Christ’s reward given to you.  Praise God for always for this reward and thank Him from preserving you in it through His Word.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Misunderstanding original sin. . .

In Romans we hear St. Paul contrast perspectives on the commandments.  The old man in us is blunt and clear.  I don't want to keep them.  I don't want to trust God.  I don't want to worship God.  I don't want to serve God.  I don't want to love my neighbor.  And I won't unless you make it worth my while but my heart will never be in it.  Eve, however, was not a basically good person who slipped up.  She was boldly rejecting God, His Word, and His will.  Her sin was disobedience but this disobedience proceeded from unbelief.  All sin does.  Taking the forbidden fruit of itself the fruit of the rejection of her heart and her refusal to let God be God.

That is how we misunderstand original sin.  We want to think that original sin means the potential to evil or even perhaps the fact that we are prone to it.  We want to believe that down deep we are better people than we appear on the outside.  Sure, we screw up now and then and think and say and do evil but we are also good enough to recognize it and generally to regret and repent of it.  But Scripture speaks about this ancestral sin in much bolder terms.  The heart is worse than our worst thought, word, or deed.  (Matthew 15)  It is the source of it all.  We do not learn it from others but it become the stain on our nature that is the source of all kinds of evil we prefer not to admit to ourselves, much less God and others.  Sin is the refusal to let God be God, the rejection of our role as creature to our Creator.

But dang it God insists upon loving us no matter the cost.  He insists upon sending His Son to be our sacrificial offering to pay sin's price.  He insists upon forsaking His one and only Son to redeem His enemies.  The righteousness we refused to work for and could not become, He gives to us freely, declaring us to be what we are not.  How great is the love of God!!

Faith is not only the "aha" moment occasioned by the Spirit that makes us aware of what Christ has done, it is is the freedom to begin to become what God says we are.  Christ alone can do what must be done but He has done it for me so that I can do what I was created to do.  Christ kept the commandments for us.  He fulfilled all the Father's saving will for us.  He died for all -- the good and the bad, the believer and the unbeliever, once for all the world.  To continue to try and do what Christ has already done is to reject what He has done.  What we ought to be focusing on is not repeating or replacing what Christ alone can do and has already done but doing what remains our vocation in creation.

Somehow or other, it is too easy for Christ's I have already done it to mean oh, I guess that means we don't have anything left to do.  So we act as if our lives have been given back to us to do fulfill the willful and selfish desires of the old man.  I don't have to go to Church to be a Christian.  I don't have to be faithful to my spouse when I don't feel like it.  I don't have to give to support the Church when my heart is not in it.  I don't have to sing the hymns on Sunday morning if I don't like them.  I don't have to kneel or bow or do any of the ceremonies of the liturgy if I don't find them meaningful.  But how is this different from the very attitude of Adam and Eve that got us into trouble in the first place?

We are now alive in Christ -- the new man cooperating with the Holy Spirit to daily kill the old man by contrition and repentance.  We are made brand new in Christ but the old man is still active.  So I still need the instruction of the Law.  The Spirit is at work in me not only through the Gospel but in the Law as well. 

There is no tension between the Law and Gospel in God -- He is not schizophrenic.  The tension lies in us.  The Christian, with the old nature still refusing and the new person created in Christ Jesus.  As long as we are this side of glory, we need both the Law and the Gospel.  Thanks be to God the Lord knows this -- even if we don't.  And if the preacher is faithful, we will hear this from the pulpit and in the classroom it will be taught.  Don't look to your heart to guide you.  Don't be true to yourself.  This sounds wonderful but it only locks us into the very prison from which Christ has sprung us.  Listen to the Law -- this is God's good will.  Be true to Christ and to the new life you live in Him. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

From objective to subjective. . .

No one would deny that when it comes to matters of faith, we have seen the pendulum swing back and forth between the head and the heart.  Whether you give it a name and make it an ism or not, this swing back and forth has had devastating effects upon the life of the Church and the vitality of the faith.  In modern times, we have seen this most evident in the fruits of the post-Vatican II liturgical movement.

Liturgy since Vatican II (for most all liturgical churches) has emphasized a sense of community, encouraged an outward warmth, attempted to foster a deliberate character of welcome, with a high value given to inclusivity and accessibility.  At the same time, there has been an emphasis upon being clearly understood and the language of the liturgy has become less technical and more pedestrian. The end result is that the folks in the pew are highly encouraged to greet those around them, to give expression to the horizontal relationships of the assembled body, and to get to know the stranger.  The exchange of peace has become a central part of the liturgy and some places encourage people to hold hands during the times of prayer and have the people join in to what was in the past the priest's part in praying (both the collect of the day and the prayers of the church).  The music of the liturgy has become more deliberately emotive (both in text and melody) and hymnody has become more lyrical and less governed by rigid demands of meter and rhyme.  The tunes have deliberately been set in a lower range to encourage this congregational song.  Indeed, the subject matter of the hymns and liturgical texts has tacitly if not overtly emphasized the themes of welcome, intimacy with God, personal relationship among the people of God, reconciliation and unity among the people, love and joy.  No would argue that all of this is bad.  But there have been consequences.

Some would call this a feminization of the church and worship.  I think there is truth to this but it is also much more than this.  There is an agenda at work (whether deliberate or accidental).  The strong virtues of duty, responsibility, calling, honor, awe, reverence, respect, obedience, transcendence, sacrifice, glory, victory, spiritual warfare, and the fight struggle against evil have not been so emphasized.  In some places hymns that spoke of the fight of faith and the spiritual battle of good and evil in such militant terms have been rejected from the song books of the churches.  In other cases they have merely been forgotten.  With all of this has come a corresponding departure of some men from the Sunday gathering and from the Church in general.  Are they connected?  Are they related by cause and effect?

At the same time, preaching has focused more on relational aspects of faith and less on doctrinal.  This is surely a parallel to the modern distaste for doctrinal things in general as being rigid, divisive, and judgmental but it is also more.  When preaching turned more relationship and personal (the inidividual's life and spirituality), it is clear that the more reflective and introspective tone of some preaching and the focus on love and acceptance in other preaching has also been simultaneous with the departure of men from the liturgy and from the life of the Church.  Are they connected?  Are they related by cause and effect?

What I am trying to say is that as we have emphasized more and more the subjective over the objective in liturgy, hymnody, and preaching, men have found life in the Church less compelling, women have complained about men who remain boys and have not grown up to should their responsibilities and lead, and the sheer numbers of men have declined.  I am not necessarily willing to make one the cause of the other but I would suggest that the Church has delayed the pendulum too long on the side of feelings and it is high time that we balance this out with strong preaching and teaching and liturgy that emphasizes the themes of transcendence and the more formal character of traditional liturgical order. 

No one is saying that the stereotypes of males and females should dominate but in general we have lacked a balance and this balance has taken its toll upon men and women in the life of the Church.  Strangely, where this is not the case in the local congregation it is generally because liturgical service predominates, solid Law Gospel preaching is heard from the pulpit, the people of God are bidden to repentance and encouraged in their duty and in the obedience of the faith, and the reality of the struggle we face is reflected in the call to fight the good fight with all your might.  Also strange are those churches who seek to reach out to the single male but who then attempt to remake that guy into a male copy of feminine spirituality with formal preaching and teaching that emphasizes the subjective over all and in worship in which liturgical song is replaced with an almost erotic love ballad to Jesus.  Clearly we have our work cut out for us. . .

Monday, September 28, 2015

Every sin in the world is present in the pews. . .

Much to the disappointment of many, the Church is filled with sinners.  They are not the kind of sinners who once dabbled in sin yesterday but have come to their senses and learned their lesson and sin no more.  No, the sinners in the pews do not differ much from the sinners in the world who would never venture into the church (except perhaps in the sin of unbelief).  Pastors hear all the time the frustration from our people that this should not be this way.  They are correct.  It should not be this way but it is.  The Fall does not cease in its effect upon us once we come to the knowledge of His Son.  In fact, if we believe St. Paul, we become more aware of our fallenness, more humbled by our sinfulness, and more in awe of God's righteousness once the Spirit intervenes to teach our fearful hearts to believe.

Every sin in the world is present in the pews (like every heresy).  Even in the pulpits of those churches.  We are sinners.  We do not toy around with sin but are sinful by nature and unclean in heart.  Within us lies a deep cesspool of dark, stinking, death causing sin that has been forgiven by the blood of Christ but which remains to afflict us, tempt us, and taunt us until we shed this mortal flesh and Christ's work in us is completed.

Every sin in the world is present in the pews.  Those are words that none of us wants to hear but we know the truth of those words even though we regret admitting them.  The Church is not made up of sinners who commit the safe, understandable, and acceptable sins we feel comfortable with -- no sirree!!  The Church is made up of people who are tempted to, taunted by, and troubled with every sin in the world.  And who do those sins -- sometimes without shame but mostly with guilt, remorse, embarrassment, and fear of what others will think of them.  And sometimes with despair worried that the sin they harbor in their heart is too big or too bad for Christ to forgive.

The challenge in preaching and the challenge to the sinful preacher is to preach the force of the law on this but without so wounding the hearer that they cannot hear the Gospel.  For as terrible as the sins are that live in the hearts and lives of God's people, Christ is also at work in them.  He who redeemed them once from sin and its death by the power of His suffering and death will not willingly relinquish them to Satan or to his voice either justifying and excusing those sins or making them more than the injured soul can bear.

As a pastor I have been called to jails, kitchen tables, hospital rooms, coffee shops, and offices to sit down with people whose secret sins have hit the papers or been revealed to family members in such way that they have no place to turn and no one else to which to turn. . . except Christ and His blood that cleanses us from all sin.  I know my own heart and that is hard enough for me to reconcile to the person Christ claims me to be in baptism.  I do not even need to hear all the details to know how sin destroys, tears down, and wounds us sinners.  Sin is dangerous.  Satan is dangerous.  But we are not alone.  Every sin in the world is present in the pews and the story would end right there were it not for Christ who is wounded with us, for us, and to redeem us.  All our shame, our regret, our fear, our darkness He has borne in love for us to redeems us that sin's prison may not keep us.  Part of the great fear for the sinner is having these sins dragged into the light but unless they are brought from their hiding places into the presence of Him who is the Light, they will choke off faith, condemn us beyond hope, and seal us into death forevermore.

Every sin in the world is present in the pews. . . but Christ is there.  He stands with us sinners in our sins to reclaim us by the power of His blood. . . to forgive us of those sins. . . to break sin's chains that hold us in the prison of death. . . and to restore us.  No, the earthly consequences of our sins do not magically disappear when we make the good confession but even there Christ is with us and works for us.

Every sin in the world is present in the pews. . . but we better work to make sure that preaching this truth does not lead these sinners to believe that there is no room for them under the cross, no blood strong enough to pay their cost, and no mercy powerful enough to rescue them.  For it is precisely God's rescue that we speak to sinners in the pews and to those not yet of the Kingdom.  If there is one man, woman, or child who hears the preaching of the Law and despairs that they do not belong, we have done something wrong.  For Christ came for sinners.  For safe sins the world does not notice and the terrible sins that make it so hard to love the sinner at all. 

At the same time, we bid them not to sin but to struggle against sin and to live as those who wear Christ's righteous by baptism.  For Christ's rescue is not license to live without shame or regret in our old sinful prison but to use His gift of freedom to love righteousness, to seek goodness, and to live holy. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The purpose of youth ministry. . .

Funny how youth programs have increased in size, budget, scope, and intensity at the same time the percentage of youth dropping out of church has ballooned.  As was already said, we are entertaining our youth to death and that is especially true of much of what passes for youth ministry (even in otherwise orthodox Christian congregations).  We seem intent upon the idea that pandering to our youth will keep them in church.  As we all know this has not worked.  Unlike the federal government, churches do not have the resources to keep throwing more and more money at the problem.  So maybe it is high time for us to think critically about youth ministry, its purpose and its design.

Why do we even have youth ministry?  Perhaps there are good and not so good answers to that question.  We have youth ministry for noble purposes like reinforcing the faith at the very time when rebellion and independence accompany the teen age years.  We have youth ministry to equip our youth to serve their neighbors and witness to their peers.  We have youth ministry to prepare them to be the church when they enter adulthood (a common if not mistaken idea of youth and the Church).  We have youth ministry to build relationships (both with God and with their fellow Christian brothers and sisters).  But we also have youth ministry to fix problem kids, to get them out of parents' hair, to entertain them and therefore distract them from real problems, questions, and challenges, and a host of other less than noble reasons.

I would suggest that the primary and exclusive reason for youth ministry is to prepare and equip them to keep the faith the rest of their lives.  Period.  Youth ministry is primarily to the already baptized and catechized (at least in my denomination).  We will certainly witness to those not yet converted and the Spirit will work through the Word as He certainly will to make Christians some who are not, but that is not the primary purpose of youth ministry.  It is not an outreach or an evangelism program.  We will certainly build relationships with God and with their Christian peers but youth ministry is not primarily social.  We will certainly teach but youth ministry is not primarily educational.  We will certainly encourage and enable them to serve their neighbors but youth ministry is not mercy work.

Youth ministry begins at home -- with moms and dads who are their children's primary role models and mentors of faith, piety, and worship. The Church does not replace the home but assists the family in the work that begins at home with the teaching of Christian parents, their own example of faithfulness in worship and piety, and their own living out of the values of the kingdom.  We might have to do more with families no longer in tact due to one or many factors but we ought to do no less than supporting parents and home as the primary places where the faith is first learned, where prayers are first prayed, where forgiveness is first given and received, and where love for neighbor is first modeled.

Christian youth are extremely vulnerable to the secular and post-Christian character of high school and college education, to the influence and pressure of an understanding of sexuality, gender, and family which is at odds with anything remotely resembling the Biblical order and catholic teaching, and to an understanding of the purpose of life which is largely self-centered and narcissistic.  How will they find their way through this without the help of the Church?

The first purpose of youth ministry should be to strengthen their faith and that implies the means of grace.  Good youth ministry is sacramental -- it encourages confidence in the Word of God which endures forever, the efficacy of the Word and Sacraments, and the shape of piety and Christian life that flows from this center in the Divine Service.  The liturgy is source and summit of the Christian life for young, for youth, for adults, and for the aged precisely because it is the arena of the Word and Sacraments.  We do not go to church for what we get out of it but because Christ is there with His gifts.  Period.

Within that first purpose, comes the growing understanding and acceptance of our Christian vocation.  We are who we and where we are by God's design and it is here that we first are called to serve the Lord with gladness -- as children to our parents, within the framework of the Christian family and home, in but not of the world and all its institutions, for the purpose of fulfilling not only the first great commission (Matthew 28) but the very first great commission (Genesis 1-3) to be fruitful, multiply, and exercise dominion over all God's creation.  Vocation does not begin with the choice of a career and the training that leads to that job.  It begins with Christ restoring to us what was lost to us (by our own willful refusal).

We are sending our children to increasingly unfriendly places -- from the schools they attend during the week to the media that occupies their leisure to the colleges and universities that give them the almighty degree to the values of a fallen world that loves a moment of pleasure more than an eternity with God.  Youth ministry had better acknowledge and incorporate into its design the reality of this changing world or our youth will continue to find faith untenable in their world increasingly at odds with that faith.  I believe we are losing more of our youth because they have not been well catechized and prepared more than because they are bored or disenchanted with the shape of the liturgy on Sunday morning.  A focus on entertainment ensures they will stay as long as they are having fun but, as we all know, life is not always fun and neither is church.  What is left for them when the fun activities are over?  In too many cases, not much.

I believe that our youth want to be engaged, want to understand the deeper questions of calling and purpose, the shape of life in creation and its restoration in Christ, the life we live now and the future prepared for us.  I believe that for too long we have used youth ministry to warn them about the dangers of sex, drugs, and rock and roll while failing to tell them in positive terms God's gift of marriage and family, the real danger of those things that addict, abuse, and then abandon us, and the music the mirrors values at odds with our baptismal life and vocation as the children of God.  Youth ministry has become another venue of the same social engineering mantle being forced upon schools -- fix our broken kids who come from broken homes.  The sad truth is we just might do this if we drew them into the sacramental life of the Church (baptism, private confession and absolution, and the Sacrament of the Altar).

Certainly there is no reason you cannot have fun while doing this but having fun is not and should not be the primary purpose or modus operandi of youth ministry.  We have too much more of substance to offer them and this is what they want and need as they move more and more into a secular arena whose core and center are diametrically opposed to what we believe, confess, and teach.  All across America youth ministry is in high gear (with its piggybacking of the school year start up).  What are doing and why are we doing it?  The keys here are in two words -- rooted and planted.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The new marginalized. . .

Once it might have been said that non-Christians, homosexuals, singles, married who chose to be childless, etc... were marginalized and lived at the fringes of American life.  I am not sure that this was ever as true as some make it out to be (we all prefer our own mythology to the possible truths of others) but I will go for it.  Judging by the family shows of the 1950s in which moms, dads, children, and even extended family lived together, facing together the troubles and trials of the major crises of life (adolescence, puberty, dating, finding a spouse, work, etc...), America looked pretty conventional from the outside.  It is not surprising.  The goal of secular culture to that day mirrored religious culture in seeking stable marriages, stable families, productive lives, citizen involvement, and social responsibility.  At least there was an appearance of a convergence.

Jump ahead 50-60 years and we find a radically different landscape.  The new marginalized are those same stable families: dad, mom, and their children.  The churches who were once willing or at least tacit partners in this endeavor are more and more sidelined from the public square, the object of ridicule in the media, and persecuted for stances that conflict with the current version of political correctness.  Nearly everything around us has been transformed to fit the minorities (not thinking here of minority in the traditional sense of that term).  At one time Blacks, Hispanics, Latinos, Asians, and nearly every other minority joined the majority in desiring and working toward solid, enduring families in which to raise productive successful children.  Now those same minorities find their traditional moralities challenged just as powerfully as the old majority.

The new marginalized are the marrieds who stay married through thick and thin, who have children and raise them up with faith and values, who pass on the virtue of hard work, who take their children with them to church on Sunday morning and take just as big an interest in their religious life and education as their soccer and dance interests.  The new marginalized are the once stable and enduring families who cared for aged parents and grandparents so they could live within their communities and not be shipped off to nursing homes or assisted living centers (unless absolutely necessary).  The new marginalized are those who prefer a polite speech which is mostly free of vulgarity over the more honest speech which says what the people think without deleting the expletives or cleaning up the vocabulary.

If you are reading this blog, you are probably part of those newly marginalized, punted to the fringes of our American life (in public if not in private).  You are those who might be accused of hate speech for not championing same sex marriage or of polluting the good earth for not limiting the size of your family to reduce the carbon imprint of your presence or of being stupid and naive for valuing family as high as career or of being anti-intellectual for dressing up for church on Sunday morning or of being abusive for believing in and teaching your children the value of honest hard work.

Now we can complain about this all day long -- but it will do nothing except mark us as whiners.  What we can do is build a new culture from the fringes.  Our fascination with narcissistic and self-absorbed lives cannot endure -- it is economically unsustainable.  So if we concern ourselves with a robust apologetic to those who challenge while at the same time making sure that we endeavor with all our might to strengthen families, restore God's purpose and order to marriage, have children and raise them up solidly in the faith, and practice responsible citizenship by example and by ballot, the day will come when the broken shards of civilization will look to us to rebuild what was broken by excess and short-sighted self-indulgence.  Or maybe not and Christ will come to make it all irrelevant.  In either case, God's will shall be done.  Thanks be to God!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Convenience store mentality?

I read one author describing the problem of the church acting like a convenience store and Christians acting like customers at a convenience store instead of the Church and the members of Christ's body, the Church.  It is interesting.

...a customer drives to a convenience store, gets what he wants (gasoline, soda, cigarettes, etc.) and drives off as quickly as possible. That’s the whole point of a convenience store, isn’t it—to be convenient? Fill up as effortlessly as possible, and move on to what is really important.

Sadly, there is much truth that many believe the Church is there to serve them, to arrange worship times and other activities when it is deemed convenient for their schedule, and not to delay them unduly from their other activities (such as the proverbial 59.5 minute worship service that has become a sacred cow among some).

What would you do if at the convenience store, the clerk asked you to help stock the shelves, sweep the floor, take your turn at the register, open up in the morning or lock up at night, etc. Couldn’t you easily imagine yourself sputtering and say, “That’s not my job! That’s what I pay you for!” Then imagine that the clerk asks you to help promote that particular convenience store as well as the home office of the franchise. The clerk asks that you identify yourself to all the world as a proud devotee and ardent advocate of this convenience store brand. Would it be hard for you to imagine yourself running away from that shop and its crazy clerk? Would it be hard for you to imagine yourself bringing your business to a different store or even a different franchise, one that was less demanding? After all, the convenience store is meant be a convenience for you, not the center of your life!

Indeed, that is how many folks who think themselves Christian actually view the Church -- it is there for them but they take offense at the idea they have any real duty or obligation back.  The offering is often framed as payment for services rather than the acknowledgment that everything really belongs to God and that He is due the tithes and offerings of a grateful faith.  In the same analogy, the Pastor becomes the branch manager, to whom you owe complaints when things do not measure up and whose duty it is to serve you at your convenience.

We might spend a great deal of time exploring this perception of the Church as religious convenience store but I want to spend time on the role of the Pastor in all of this.  Nothing wearies and embitters clergy more than those who view the Church as convenience store.  Most pastors want to please people.  Most pastors want to accommodate people (as much as possible, anyway).  But it often seems like the more you do for the folks in your care, the more likely they are to view the whole thing in the one sided lens of a convenience store in which they are religious consumers.

I say this because part of the duty of the Pastor to the people of God is to challenge this idea -- as much for the benefit of God's people as for the health and well being of the clergy.  Our desire to be loved is often at the root of our willingness to abide the consumer mentality rather than challenge it.  The truth is we pastors often do not get why our people insist upon framing things in this way but we might very well carry part of the blame.  If our people are not catechized correctly, this consumer mentality will be the default position in how they view the Church and their part in it. 

The customer base has been dwindling year by year for decades. The last thing he needs is some upstart assistant manager to alienate the remaining customer base.  This is the problem with some denominational leaders.  We live in such fear of no clients or customers that we put pressure on the Pastor to do whatever the people think they need or want in order to satisfy the few who remain.  We stop preaching the Law and we stop teaching the inconvenient truth of faithful discipleship.  We mirror the world around us and watch other franchises to see what they are doing instead of paying attention to what the Lord would have us do.  In the end we end up all selling the same homogenized version of spiritual sentimentality and customer service instead of truth becomes the defining characteristic of success.

The Church will grow as God gives the growth as long as we are faithful in preaching, in teaching, and in administering the sacraments.  The people of God will discover discipleship when we stop confusing busyness with success (or faithfulness).  We do not need more full-service churches to meet the consumer needs of a convenience oriented culture.  We need more pastors and parishes who will worship faithfully, preach the truth of God's Word, teach doctrine, and love their neighbor honestly.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Real Men Love Babies. . .

An honest, sometimes irreverent look at men, husbands, and dads. . .

Let me whet your appetite. . .

When my son was born, my old life died. I had to get a “real job.” My record collection collected dust, the books on the bottom of my bookshelves were boxed, my cupboards were childproofed, and my cool apartment slowly morphed into a nursery. My wife became his mother. My library became his bedroom. My free time became baby time. My extra cash became the diaper and clothing fund. Even my sleep went the way of the buffalo…

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade fatherhood for a thousand bachelor pads. But now I better understand why babies can be so scary: babies threaten a man’s other ambitions. A guy with a baby is forced to be responsible in a way that his friends do not. He can’t just drop everything and run to the nearest happy hour or sailboat, or risk his life in heroic quests, or get lost in distraction after distraction. He is now responsible for one woman and their children.

Read the Catholic Gentleman and see if it isn't some of the best, most honest, stuff you have ever read about guys, the prospect of growing up, the fear of commitment, and the joy that ends up coming from being husband, father, and responsible person...  It is GOOD stuff. . .

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The curse of indifference. . .

Another gem from Fulton Sheen:

“In religious matters, the modern world believes in indifference. Very simply, this means it has no great loves and no great hates; no causes worth living for and no causes worth dying for. It counts its virtues by the vices from which it abstains, asks that religion be easy and pleasant,…dislikes enthusiasm and loves benevolence, makes elegance the test of virtue and hygiene the test of morality, believes that one may be too religious but never too refined. It holds that no one ever loses his soul, except for some great and foul crime such as murder. Briefly, the indifference of the world includes no true fear of God, no fervent zeal for His honor, no deep hatred of sin, and no great concern for eternal salvation.” 

Though we fear opposition and persecution for our beliefs, the bigger challenge facing the Christian Church is less the vocal enemies out to kill us or shut us up than the indifferent who just don't care.  When Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk. 18:8), was the Lord referring to the possible triumph of His enemies or the indifference of His own?  Most of the nones WERE Christians, or at least nominally so, but have shrugged off the few vestiges of the faith that were left.  Likewise, the world is filled with people who once attended, albeit irregularly, but now do not bother at all.  How many of those we write off the membership roles every year are people who were either barely catechized or not at all?

We have pretty much decided that God is weak and impotent and cannot say "no" to us or is so dependent upon us to keep Him alive that He will not say "no" to us.  The great God of Abraham, Moses, and Elijah has become the tame, docile, and dependent deity who lives more in our imagination than in reality.  Like the Greco-Roman gods who died only when they stopped being relevant to people, faith is more likely to die of neglect than heresy today.

Without the categories of sin and righteousness to frame our lives, we are left to the prison of our desires and to the shifting structure of our whims.  Individuals and families all suffer the same lack of a foundation that does not slide with every poll or fad.  We need to hear the Law.  We need an anchor.  We need to know the boundaries.  Indifference is not generally the fruit of a rigorous and robust church life but the result of a casual and unconcerned attitude toward God, virtue, righteousness, and guilt.

People are ever afraid what will happen to the Church if she does not modernize, move with the times, adjust to fit the moment, and remodel her doctrine, values, and truth.  We ought to fear what will happen if we do.  Indifference is less the consequence of faithful law and gospel preaching and traditional liturgy than it is relevant sermons set in worship that entertains.  

What a novelty it is in this world today when a church takes its confession seriously enough to hold pastor and people accountable for what they said the believed, confessed, and taught!  Imagine that.  People who believe what they say and say what they believe!  Is there a reason why the first whom the Lord will chew up and spew from His mouth are the lukewarm? (Revelation 3:17)

We dare not be hateful, we cannot afford to be judgmental, and we should not be rude but we ought to be faithful and passionate enough about the faith to speak it in love, in season and out, when people want to hear it and when they can abide it no longer.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Crazy Talk

Preached for Pentecost 17, Proper 20B, on Sunday, September 20, 2015.

    It must have been a very long walk for Jesus and the disciples through Galilee to Capernaum - not so much the distance but the awkward silence.  You have been on long trips when conversations flourish and sometimes things get quiet.  Sometimes people say profound things and sometimes people say such crazy things it brings everything to a grinding halt.  Crazy talk. That is what shut up the disciples; Jesus talk about His betrayal, suffering, death, resurrection...
    They did not know what to say so they let it pass.  This was a place none of them dared to go.  But Jesus was not about to let it drop.  In the midst of the awkward silence, Jesus asks His disciples.  “So what were YOU talking about that was so important?”  Probably their conversation was not so different from our own.
    They talked about the weather – don’t we all.  They talked of politics – how the debate turned out.  They talked of family and friends, of YouTube and Facebook.  But they also talked about the important things that consume our attention -- the subtle competitions in a game of life that has winners and losers and people trying to stay ahead of others.  Perhaps it was not overt but there was a quality to such talk realizing that to succeed often means someone else must fail.
    We want to succeed, to have money for a comfortable life, to care for home and family with something leftover for me, to be happy, to be content.  And we want to squeeze all we can out of our lives – travels, experiences, leisure, fun, and culture.  We want to make sure that death does not find us with a full bucket list.  These are important things that we think about, dream about, talk about, and worry about – then and now.  We are not much different than the disciples in their normal talk.
    But this is not what Jesus was talking about.  He was talking crazy - about the betrayal from one of His own that would turn Him over to suffering and even death upon a cross.  The disciples were not talking about this and neither do we.  Yet Jesus insists that this is the important stuff, this the stuff of greatness.
    Jesus came to invest His life in suffering that will relieve our pain, in the cross that will carry the full weight of our sins, and in the death that will kill death once for all.  This is what Jesus accomplishes and what He invites us to live.  He bids us walk in His way of greatness and not just watch it like a spectator.  For if we believe what Christ has done for us, our lives cannot continue in their old ways of sin, self-centeredness, and pleasure.  Those who live in Christ by baptism and faith lead cross shaped lives, defined by the new values of the kingdom.
    Losing is winning. The very means by which His life is taken from Him becomes the means by which our lost lives are reclaimed to eternal life. Such is the power of the cross. His victory becomes our own victory. In Him we do not fear losing -- as the world describes it.  Greatness is not how many serve you but the freedom in Christ to serve others, to love your neighbor as Christ has loved us.  This putting others before self even to death is the radical definition of marriage, of family, and of life together in parish and neighborhood.
    The radical nature of Jesus’ words is hidden in the simple statement made about children.  When Jesus was speaking children were largely unseen and unheard.  It was not that they were not valued but they were valued for what they would become and not what they were. Today we live in a world even more unfriendly to children than Jesus world.  But Jesus insists that even a child matters and that the true nature of the Kingdom is shown by the way we treat children -- those who can do nothing for us but take from us.  Children are like leaches to their parents -- not because they are bad but because they require so much from parents for so long.  We all did.  Nobody should have a child because of what the child might do for them -- only because they love giving and sacrificing.     
    These words of Jesus bite us at a time when Planned Parenthood videos talk casually about harvesting organs from unborn infants.  In a world in which abortion is legal and children are considered second to career, desire, and personal happiness, we have much to learn about greatness.  We live in a world in which children are unnecessary appendages to people who value their freedom to do as they please most of all.
    So here you are at church today and perhaps you hoped maybe to hear about some important stuff like how to get ahead at work, earn more money, make your marriage happier, make family life easier, make your life fuller, or improve yourself.  But what you heard was crazy talk like sin and forgiveness, repentance and good works, love that serves, and sacrificial lives.
    That is the struggle we face everyday.  The world is great at distracting us with things that do not matter from the things that matter most.  Our sinful hearts like what the world says. And every week God must recall us to that which matters most – even though our great temptation is to write it all off as crazy talk.  What Christ has done to redeem us and how we live as the redeemed in the world.
    Crazy talk!  Like confessing you are a loser in a world where only winners count.  Crazy talk!  Like greatness measured by the weight of a cross.  Crazy talk!  Like a child that matters as much as I matter.  Crazy talk!  Like trusting in the promise that we know through a cross of death and a grave that delivers life.  Today we come to meet the Lord where He is to be found – in the crazy places of water that kills and gives life, of words that deliver what they promise, and of bread and wine that tastes of Christ’s flesh for the life of the world.
    What is important?  What matters most?  Don't listen to the world.  Listen to Jesus.  Repent of your old ways and heed the call of the Gospel.  Believe in Christ and live the new life that is marked by certain persecution by an unfriendly world.  Do the good works that cost you something but give evidence of the kingdom of God.  Love your neighbor as Christ has loved you.  Live out your life in the pattern of the cross where Your redemption was born.  Sing the songs of faith and life and hope.  The world calls it crazy talk.  We call it the Word of life and the Voice of God.  Oh, Lord, please give us ears to hear and hearts to believe.  Amen.