Saturday, October 31, 2015

New Website of the LCMS toward the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

What’s the Reformation all about? It’s still all about Jesus. It’s that simple. Not Martin Luther. Not Philip Melanchthon. Not the name “Lutheran,” to which we gladly cling as a distinctive and clarifying label. It’s all about Jesus — not merely as example but as Savior, the Father’s only provision for sin.

Melanchthon crystallizes the pressing issue of the Reformation clearly in the Apology (XXVII), where suddenly, in the middle of his writing, he erupts with a petition to Jesus:

O Christ, how long will you endure these insults which our enemies heap upon your gospel! In the [Augsburg] Confession we said that the forgiveness of sins is received freely on account of Christ through faith. If this is not the very voice of the gospel, if it is not the statement of the eternal Father, which you, who are “close to the Father’s heart” (John 1:18), have revealed to the world, then the charge against us is true. But your death is a witness, your resurrection is a witness, the Holy Spirit is a witness ...

The Reformation is about the sweet Gospel in Christ — a free, clear gift, apart from any human effort.
Plan now to join the celebration of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary.

Please visit the newly launched website. There, you’ll find free downloadable resources, a hymn competition and more. Additional resources are on the way.

The work of the Spirit. . .

In the Decrees of the First Vatican Council (1870) one finds this sentence: "Neque enim Petri successoribus Spiritus Sanctus promissus est, ut eo revelante novam doctrinam patefacerent, sed ut, eo assistente, traditam per Apostolos revelationem seu fidei depositum sancte custodirent et fideliter exponerent." [The Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter in order that, by his revelation, they might disclose new teaching, but so that, by his assistance, they might devoutly guard the revelation handed down through the Apostles, the Deposit of Faith, and might faithfully set it forth.]

For Lutherans it is Reformation Day so why on earth would a Lutheran begin the day with a quote from the First Vatican Council?  The reason is simple.  We live in an age of invention.  The Spirit is doing all sorts of new things (it is claimed).  Unfortunately, many of these new things are in direct conflict with the Word of God and with apostolic teaching.  From dogma to morality, the Spirit (it is claims) is busy like a bee spreading all sorts of new pollen to bring forth the bud of a radically different church and a new face of Christianity.  From the Synod in Rome that has only recently concluded its work on marriage and family to the purveyors of the new ethic that welcomes GLBT with open arms to family, church, and the office of the ministry, we hear claims of the Spirit and His new work all the time.  Heirs of the Reformation often describe that great movement as a breath of fresh air into a stale, old, sick church.

Few would discount the dismal condition of Christianity at the time of Luther.  Even Rome was compelled to shore things up and called the Council of Trent to counter the Reformation.  Yet the claim of the Reformation reads much like the statement that began this post.  The Spirit is not given to disclose new teaching but so that by His assistance the revelation handed down through the Apostles, the Deposit of Faith, might be guarded, defended, and promoted.  In this respect, there was too much fresh air entering the church at the time of Luther and what the church needed most was not to breathe in more of the air of the moment but the so-called stale air of Scripture and apostolic tradition.

As we Lutherans begin our Reformation Day, we find ourselves rather sad heirs of the great Reformation tradition.  Some Lutherans have discarded the faith of our fathers and the clear voice of Scripture in order to embrace new teaching under the guise of the Spirit doing new things or the Gospel trumping even the explicit Word of Scripture.  Some Lutherans have lost confidence in the Word and Sacraments and have embraced a marketing style perspective on church and worship, giving the religious consumer what appeals to his or her ever changing preferences and taste.  Some Lutherans have turn the Reformation into the repudiation of all that went before and look and act and sound more like Radical Reformers than the heirs of the conservation reformation of Luther.

Most troublesome to me is the Lutheran tendency to breathe in the air of the moment.  There was a time when we we became strangers to the vibrant Eucharistic tradition and life that our Confessions insisted was the hallmark of Lutheran identity and teaching.  There was a time when the Sacrament was an add on to the Word (and a largely unnecessary one in the view of most Lutherans) and a day when we had a high sacramental theology that only occasionally was practiced (quarterly or at best monthly).  There was a time when we became embarrassed by our liturgical identity and shaped our churches and our worship more like the Protestant landscape of America.  There was a time when we were strangers to our choral tradition and hymnody (choosing the songs of the revival or the camp meeting over the great witnesses of Gerhardt or Bach).  There was a time when we decided that numbers spoke more profoundly than faithfulness and we began to explore how much we could borrow from others and still be worthy of the name Lutheran.  Of course, that time continues and we wrestle with the same things over and over again.

As we prepare to celebrate the date of the Reformation, it would be good for Lutherans of all stripes to read again at least the seminal document of history (the Augsburg Confession) and look at ourselves again to make sure we bear any resemblance to the church and the faith so boldly attested there by the fathers of our church.  We do not need those who think they have swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all and can now discern the new things God is doing to replace what He said in His Word.  Neither do we need to rehash the leftover liturgical, evangelistic, and doctrinal trash of others who have no confessional history or identity and who move from program to program as if nothing were true or certain except the need to change.  What we need are people intent upon being the church our forefathers lived and died for -- one renewed not by what is new but by what is faithful, apostolic, catholic, and Scriptural.  What we need are people not guided by personal preferences but by the Word of God and our Lutheran Confessions (even when that might lead us where we loathe to go and force us to live distinct from the cultural winds of the moment).  What we need is a renewed confidence that if the Word of God is taught and proclaimed faithfully and forcefully and the Sacraments administered faithfully as Christ intended, the church will not only endure but she will grow (by God's own promise).  What we need is a renewed Lutheran identity rooted and formed by catholic doctrine and practice and not be evangelical fervor.

The Reformation was no breath of fresh air but the release of the ancient air of Scripture and faithful catholic tradition at a time when invention had all but buried the voice of the Gospel.  We may not face the same problems today but we are in need of the same remedy -- the stale and ancient air of Scripture and faithful catholic tradition and practice.  What we will find is that this old, stale air is neither old nor stale but fresh with hope, life, and promise.  That is the Lutheranism I hope for and that is the Reformation celebration I long to see.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Does going to church make you Christian?

No less than the great theologian Justin Bieber has weighed in on this question of the ages:  Does going to church make you Christian.  In an interview, Bieber talked about his newly found Evangelical Christian faith. Bieber said that he loves Jesus and wants to be like him (Jesus, that is) but complains that Christians have left “a bad taste in people’s mouths” by being “overly pushy with the subject, overly churchy and religious.” Nothing new here.  It is a common complaint.  Religion, after all, and especially Christianity should be private and not public.  Then Bieber said, “It doesn’t make you a Christian just by going to church.”  The analogy Bieber uses for this wisdom?  “You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. If you go to Taco Bell that doesn’t make you a taco.”

If it is important for you to read up on what the Biebs said, well, here is the link:

So what about the question of Bieber (and others)?  “Does going to church make you Christian?”   Since we are not given the privilege of looking into the heart and discerning the faith as only God can do, what are we left with?  Words?  Well, yes.  Words count; your confession of faith counts.  But even more than words count, worship does count.  Jesus own example shows the importance of Temple and synagogue.  As was His habit, He went to church.  There is not much disagreement in this.  And so did His disciples.  In fact, it was universally regarded that failure to go to Temple and synagogue was in itself a sinful act, a repudiation of the third commandment.  Luther certainly picked up on this by tying the failure and refusal to worship to the act of despising the Word of God.  Not all that long ago it was expected that if you belonged, you went to church.  Period.

Our Lord promised that where two or there were gathered in His name, there He was in their midst.  He taught us to pray Our Father.  These are both liturgical statements that bespeak liturgical acts of one within the community of those whose common confession and life flow through the means of grace.  It was not controversial until more modern times.  Now it is offensive to suggest that if you believe, you will be in church on Sunday morning (unless illness, work, or other major impediment prevent it).

Hebrews gives us a hint that although the expectation was always there in the beginning, Christians did need prompting less they neglect the meeting together (Christian assembly) as some are wont to do.  The problem now is that most Christians who say they believe are wont to stay at home and worship privately (at least that is what they claim).  Faith without works is dead said St. James and the commandments, the practice of Jews and Christians, and the theology of the New Testament presumes that the minimal work of faith is to get yourself to church on Sunday morning.  Period.

Some do not like such blunt talk.  I am sure our Lord can abide the fuzzy and casual way we practice faith and how we make the worship of the Lord's day in the Lord's House around the Word and Table of the Lord optional and non-essential to the faith we claim lives deep down in our hearts.  You are not given the option to go to church when you want to or when you feel like it.  Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.  It is a command.  Let me be even more blunt.  It is a sin which must be confessed and repented of to miss worship.  The repeated missing of worship is, as Luther suggests, a hint that the one who misses does not really believe what he claims and may actually despise the Lord and His Word.

Does going to church make you a Christian?  Well, it may not make you a saint but it puts you where the Word and Spirit of the Lord are at work to make you Christian and keep you one.  Going to church may not make you a saint but I would say that it is a pretty darn good indicator that you seek to be one (by God's grace and favor and not of works).  The opposite could be said.  Does not going to church make you Christian?  Well, it is a pretty darn good indicator you are not one!  And it is a good way to distance yourself both from the faith and the faithful.  Moral of the story:  Go to church!  There is hardly a reason worth considering why you should miss the Lord's House on the Lord's Day and the gracious fellowship of the Lord's Word and Table. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

What do they need?

“Help us meet people and find out what they need.”  So went a story about a new church plant written by a new church planter.  It could have been written about many new church plants and by many new church planters.  It is a common strategy -- find a need and meet it.  I do not challenge that it is a good thing to do.  I do wonder, however, if it is what the Church is supposed to be doing.  In some respects I would consider this work to be domain of the individual within the community, the good works of those who belong to the Lord as they live out their lives within the neighborhoods and communities around them.  But the primary calling of the Church is to preach and teach Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

I will certainly acknowledge that the churches have become better members of their communities than they once were and that many good things are being done (feeding the hungry, helping those in need, improving the character of the lives of the people around them, etc...).  When I was growing up, the focus of the congregation was much more internally focused -- upon the members and upon preaching and teaching the faith.  But I do wonder how well we are focused on the unique responsibilities and tasks assigned to the Church AND focus on the felt needs of the people who have not yet heard the Word of the Lord proclaimed to them.

It occurs to me that most congregations have limited resources and limited attention spans.  It is not bad to focus on the community and their needs but it is not good if we do this to the exclusion of what is uniquely ours to do -- preach and teach the Kingdom of God.  It is not a choice -- preach the Word or practice mercy.  But neither does mercy does not substitute for the formal proclamation of sin and repentance, grace and mercy, forgiveness and life.

I guess my problem lies with the fact that some of the churches that are great at finding needs and meeting them are not so good at speaking the language of God's Word, of calling people to repentance, of urging confession, of speaking bluntly of the cross and the sacrifice made there so that we might be forgiven, and of the call to go and sin no more (to live out the righteousness of Christ in your daily life).  We must do better.  The witness of the church must be deliberate and forthright, it must convict people as to sin and comfort the repentant sinner with the mercy of God in Christ.

Though some people think it is easier to preach and teach Christ than to get involved in the neighborhood and address the needs of people around us, I think it is just the opposite.  I fear that we have taken to heart the manifold criticisms of the spiritual but not religious and we in the Church find it very difficult, even arrogant, to address people with the full counsel of God's Word -- Law and Gospel.  I fear that making an impact in the neighborhood or community is deemed a credible substitute for the harder task of preaching the Law with the full force of its condemnation and the Gospel with its sweet gift and blessing.

Maybe I am colorblind to all of this because I have not been in a congregation that was unmotivated to make an impact in the community but I have had countless discussions with people who felt our doctrinal stance was too rigid and unbending -- that doctrine was even an impediment to ministry and works of mercy.  All I am saying is that it does not need to be and it should never be.  However, I will admit that it is much more difficult to preach forthrightly the Word that no one wants to hear than it is to find out what people want or need and see if we can supply it.  Finally, it forgets that the primary need of rich and poor, oppressed and oppressor alike, is the Law to bring us to our knees and the Gospel to raise us up on eagles' wings.  That is the need the Church is uniquely structured to meet and we dare not forget it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Who are Luther's sons and daughters?

Sermon preached for Reformation observed and Confirmation Day, on Sunday, October 25, 2015.

    Go to Wittenberg today and walk the places of the Reformation and you find not a flourishing community of faith endeavoring to live the legacy of Luther but tourist attractions.  There is plenty of room in the pews for visitors but there are few faithful left in the city that epitomizes the Reformation.  People go to walk where Luther walked, talked, drank, and even sat on the toilet.  But where are those who contend with Luther’s faith?  Who fight for the Gospel?  Who risk their life to be faithful to Christ as he did?
    Some of Luther’s heirs have sought greener pastures in other faiths or confessions but most have  forgotten God entirely.  They have turned a very public Reformation into a private faith that never sees the light of day or darkens the door to a church.  Many who wear Luther's name have chosen to be entertained rather than convicted as to sin and righteousness, elected for the gospel of creature comforts from Joel Osteen over the Word of the cross.
    Every year as we celebrate Reformation comes the question: Who are Luther’s sons and daughters.  We dare not claim the legacy of Luther and the Reformers unless we are willing to contend for the faith, live in faithfulness to the true Gospel of Christ crucified, seek to live holy lives as His baptized children, and come regularly at His altar for His flesh and blood.  For Luther's legacy is not a memory but a vibrant community of faith preserving and proclaiming the Gospel and rejoicing in the means of grace through which we receive forgiveness, life, and salvation.
    Jesus said, “Abide in My word and you are truly my disciples.”  The key here is not appreciation or respect for the Word but to abide in, live in, dwell in, tabernacle in that Word.  What counts for faith are not your good or gut feelings or your strongly held opinions but the Word of the Lord that endures forever and hearts that believe that Word by the power of the Spirit.
    Sincerity is good but it is not faith.  Sincerity matters only if you sincerely believe the Gospel and live in its light.  Discipleship does not mean looking where Jesus might be but where He is – in His Word and Sacraments.  It means not walking with Jesus but walking behind Him, following where He has led the way.  Jesus cares little for admirers but calls us to faith in Him and to walk where He has led the way.
    Jesus said, “Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”  As the baptismal liturgy says: you are a slave to sin, death, and the devil until Christ sets you free.  Christ sets you free not by judicial edict but by the power of His sacrificial death.  He has put Himself in your place on the cross, to die for your sin, and to pay the debt of sin that you could not and would not pay.
    But this freedom won for you is yours only so long as you stand in Christ.  You are free only as long as you have faith in Christ, live in daily repentance, and seek by the grace of the Holy Spirit to live holy, upright, and godly lives.  You are not given this precious freedom to simply to indulge yourselves or squander it on selfish living but to live in service to Christ, as a servant of the Gospel, and as God’s own child.
    Today we will confirm nine youth. We will ask them to recall their baptism, to give voice to their faith, and to give promises of their faithfulness.  Who in their right mind would ask youth so young to make such a bold confession and promise?  But it is the Spirit at work here and not youth answering on their own. This rite confirms their inward faith, prompted and planted by the Spirit.  Their promises are not to an human institution but to Christ Himself.  Lutheran is not a qualifier distinct from Christian but the word that points to the very place where we live out our faith under the cross, around this Word and Table, speaking with those who have gone before, We believe, teach, and confess.
    Lutheranism is not a theory but a practice – where the voice of the Word with its condemning Law and life-giving Gospel speaks to us and where we are washed in baptismal water and fed the holy food of Christ’s flesh and blood.  But Lutheran heritage means nothing unless we are willing to stand with Luther under the cross...  to confess with Him that there is only one Triune God whom we know through the one Christ who gives us the one and only salvation by the one cross. 
    On this day we must not only ask ourselves if we are Luther’s sons and daughters but what it means to be Luther’s sons and daughters.  If you stand with Luther, your glory is the cross, your faith trusts in Christ’s death there for your sins, and your peace is knowing that you belong to the Lord by baptism and faith.  Anything less is merely talk or sentiment.  This may be a touching day for those who witness these youth confirmed but this is not a day of sentiment.  It is about truth, the truth that saves, and the Spirit who opens us to believe it and rejoice in its promise, now and forever.
    It is sad to go to the places where the Reformation was born only to find empty churches and absent faith.  The Reformation was and is still all about Jesus.  It is a movement of renewal, raising up the cross and testifying to the Word that sets you free.  But it also about the use of that freedom to worship God in spirit and truth, to serve the Lord with glad hearts, to do the good works of Him who called us from darkness into His marvelous light, and to live or die by this faith alone.
    Luther’s warning for us is Christ's word of promise: Abide in Christ’s Word and you are truly His disciples and the truth will set you free.  Lord, give us grace to abide in You through Your Word and Sacraments and to live Your gift of freedom loving you and serving our neighbor.  Amen.

We tasted it and we detest its taste. . .

No one less than Robert Louis Wilken (an acquaintance of mine) was asked how modern culture and ancient Roman culture presented similar challenges to the Church.  He wrote: In some ways [they are similiar], yes: this culture is no longer our culture. It still has many Christian elements in it: the calendar (with major holidays like Christmas and Easter—though even they have been denuded), church architecture, choral music (much of which is Christian), art, and the like. But with the passing of each generation, the sensibility of the culture is less Christian. The feeling of being a distinct minority was very much the experience of early Christians.  But our situations are different in one key respect: today we in the West live in a post-Christian world, in an aggressive secular culture. This culture has known Christianity, and it is bitter toward Christianity; the culture is in revolt against what existed before. Ancient paganism did not have that kind of bitterness. It was curious about Christianity, even incredulous.  (Emphasis added)

There are many who have lip synced the common assertion that we are facing the same kind of challenges today that Christianity once faced in its earliest life.  While there are certainly commonalities between the positions, there is one unique difference.  Paganism had never even heard of Christianity and found itself curiously attracted to the claims of this new faith.  As antagonistic as Roman and pagan culture was to Christian faith and preaching, it was also drawn to the ideas that formed the core of the kerygma.  What drew their interest was the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and the consequences of this resurrection for those who believe in Him.  In other words, the whole idea of new and everlasting life stood in stark contrast to the limits of the moment and it piqued their curiosity about this new faith.  They were hungry for the prospect of life beyond death.

In contrast today, our culture has adopted the idea that everyone will live after death -- some vague spiritual existence maybe, but some sort of existence, nonetheless.  They don't hunger for this nor do they need a faith to introduce this idea.  They expect a spiritual existence to transcend death and no one seems to live in much fear that such an existence might not be all that fulfilling (they have little real fear of hell or some sort of equivalence).  Since our people today expect that some sort of spiritualized life will continue past death, they no longer need to focus upon this or shape their lives in anticipation of this and are thus free to indulge fully and freely into everything this present moment offers (emphasis here upon pleasure).

A second difference is the attention the early Christian martyrs drew to Christianity.  Theirs was a faith that could not be compromised and compelled them to risk all and even death in order to be faithful to its doctrine and life.  In contrast to this unbending commitment to the truth that is Jesus Christ, Christianity today is soft and flexible, easily bended and shaped by the culture and quick to jettison its most basic tenants and longest held convictions in the face of question or challenge.  Look, for example, at how quickly many Christians adopted a cultural shape of worship that fully embraced the moden penchant for technology, video, and entertainment or how quickly many Christians changed their minds about such things as abortion, same sex relationships and marriage, etc...  They ditched the long held positions of the church before them in order to adopt positions more friendly to the move of modern culture.  Sure, there are many people still dying for the faith (look at the Middle East) but it seems modern Christianity is not willing to risk even a hangnail for the sake of Christ and the faith yesterday, today, and forever the same.

Finally Wilken reminds us that the church in its earliest days had full confidence in their leaders.  They not only paid attention to their leaders but they followed them much more willingly than the average Christians will hear and heed their leaders today.  In fact, we tend to view the leaders of the church with the same disdain and suspicion we view our political leaders in Washington.  There is, thus, little discipline of the faith and of the faithful.  Each person ends up being the arbiter of what will be believed and lived out in the name of Christianity.  The stance of the church is questioned first by the faithful even before those outside the faith have had their two cents worth at what is believed, taught, and confessed.

Modern culture is not curious about Christianity but has tasted it and spit it out.  Modern culture detests the taste of doctrine and truth, of disciplined confession and practice, of public piety and faithfulness.  We live in a world unfriendly to Christianity -- not because it has never encountered it -- no, modern culture presumes it knows all about Christianity and has decided that Christianity was found wanting, offensive, and objectionable.  It has rejected the faith.  And now its goal is to marginalize the faith, the faithful, and the church.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The many flavors of Orthodoxy. . .

I will not rehearse the history here but it is safe to say that America presented a problem for Orthodox ecclesiology.  What should have been one jurisdiction in the new land has become geography with many jurisdictions and some have not played well together over the years.  There have been attempts to revisit the matter and create a more clearly defined jurisdiction for all Orthodox here but such has not borne significant fruit.  So Orthodoxy in the US has ended up with a web of overlapping (dare I say competing?) Orthodox “jurisdictions.” This is clearly an exception to Orthodox practice and in some larger American cities there may be as many as eight different bishops claiming jurisdiction --  the Greek parishes under a Greek bishop; the Serbians under a Serb; the Russians under a Russian, etc... 

What everyone once agreed should have been a temporary anomaly has become established practice not so easily ended.  Now it seems that voices are being raised to find a means of justifying the maintenance of distinctive liturgical, theological, and spiritual traditions that once gave birth to the problem of overlapping jurisdictions.   In effect, there is a growing consensus that the status quo of overlapping jurisdictions throughout the world should be maintained, that Orthodox communities need to be served in such manner as is required by the distinctive ethnic, liturgical, spiritual, and liturgical traditions of those communities.

What this means is that Orthodoxy has come to see itself somewhat like Baskin-Robbins -- a church of many flavors.  Whichever flavor do you like best is the particular jurisdiction to which you may choose to belong.  It has also come to acknowledge that serving different particular communitites represents a distinctly different situation than the early church from which the rules of jurisdiction came.

There was once broad agreement to this understanding among the Lutherans who emigrated into the New World from various and sundry locals.  This existed for a time but it was always conceived as a temporary situation that would better resolve in the development of mergers (or at least councils or conferences in which unity would be expressed even within the strictures of diverse structures, offices, and officers).  Now Lutherans look back almost with a mixture of contempt and longing when their church bodies represented shared ethnicity, language, liturgical, theological, and spiritual traditions.  What we have today is decidedly not the case.  We have deliberately worked to transcend these old divisions but this has resulted in new divisions somewhat less salutary than the old ones.  Lutheran jurisdictions today are divided not among ethnic or even liturgical lines but upon theological ones.  Even within each jurisdiction there is a diversity of theological expression and a breadth that severely tests the boundaries of unity. One can only wonder if the same thing will eventually afflict the Orthodox who have agreed to keep, for the time, different jurisdictions in the same place -- divided almost exclusively along the lines of ethnicity and liturgical and spiritual traditions.

Personally, I am not sure that much has been gained by the disdain we have shown our once clear divisions due largely to language and culture.  We are aligned in fewer denominational structures but they seem both less uniform and united than ever before and less vigorous than was evident when the ethnic divisions predominated.  In my home town a once vibrant Augustana Synod parish has become a casualty of all that is wrong with the ELCA -- ambiguous theology, uncertain identity, acceptance of just about everything, and an unwillingness to condemn anything but intolerance.  This same group that once proudly insisted it would never accept a woman pastor would probably accept a gay one without the bat of an eye.  They have become part of the legacy Lutherans more in tune with modernity than their theological forbears.  The Missouri parish in which I grew up has remained smaller in numbers but retains a much clearer sense of its theological identity and has remained more consistent with its founding doctrinal confession.

I cannot but snicker that the Orthodox have decided to let jurisdictional practice idle while they accommodate the many flavors of Orthodoxy in the same community, perhaps the same street in America.  But I only wonder if it might not have been better for Lutherans to have done the same.

Monday, October 26, 2015


It seems hard to find people in the middle when it comes to music in the service, specifically to hymnody.  One either thoroughly loves hymns or one finds them a nuisance.  I have folks in my parish who positively swoon over hymns and others who would be extremely happy if there were no hymns and no singing whatsoever.  I once thought it had to do with singing ability but I am not sure that is the full explanation for it.  Surely people who love to sing are more likely to love the hymn more than those who do not sing but there are really very few people who never sing.  Listen into the shower songs belted out or the sound of the back up singers driving down the road to the radio and you find that even people who cannot sing, sing.

Some of my Roman Catholic friends think that hymns are overstated and should be reserved for the offices and eliminated entirely from the Mass.  Of course, many of these are the same folks who idealize the Latin Mass wherein the hymn is, if anything, something out of place.  The Roman pericopes include appointed texts for things that Lutheran typically fill in with hymns or sung parts of the ordinary.  These folks really do not get my appreciation for the hymn.  It is for them a tolerated thing and not really something of great affection.

Other of my friends think that a hymn or two and a few well chosen stanzas are well enough for the non-Roman traditions and they positively cringe at the good Lutheran chorales and their 20 or 30 stanzas.  They shake their heads in disbelief when I suggest that you cannot even get warmed up until you plow through 6 or 8 stanzas.  Sadly, many of my own members sympathize with these folks and I hear an audible groan when they turn the page to the hymn on Sunday morning and see it spill over two pages with many stanzas.

You have probably heard the old saying that if you really want to know what your people believe, find out what is their favorite hymn.  It may be more than you bargained for... the popularity of In the Garden and Amazing Grace and The Old Rugged Cross seems to transcend the fact that many of such songs are not even in Lutheran hymnals (or have been slightly altered for theological purposes, in the case of Amazing Grace.  I know that there is truth to this.  Hymns are the theology we sing -- except when we love to sing bad theology and then these hymns become like guilty pleasures.

I have found it useful to find out what hymns are more typically sung in a parish as a good barometer of their theology and identity.  Shockingly to me, but perhaps not to you, many parishes sing the same hymns over and over again.  Look at the worn pages in the hymn section and you may be surprised at how small the hymn repertoire of many parishes truly is.  I wear it as a badge of pride that we completed Lutheran Worship and our transition to Lutheran Service Book with only a dozen or so hymns of LW that we had not attempted.  We sang All Who Would Valiant Be to both tunes and even though we are predominantly white, we sing with gusto Lift Every Voice and Sing.  We do this along with the great Lutheran chorales of Gerhardt and so many others.

Some are rather snobbish about hymns -- the hymns we all love to trash -- but I will admit to my own guilty pleasures.  I do sing Earth and All Stars and Father Welcomes All His Children and continue to hum their melodies throughout the week.  At the same time I love to encounter hymns that have laid forgotten along the side of the aisle -- the kind of texts the Matthew Carver at Hymnoglypt is do adept at finding and translating.  I love hymns, love to sing them, and find them some of the most effective means of teaching and expressing the faith.

As I sing Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart I cannot but remember the many with whom I sat and prayed the commendation of the dying, some of whom heard the final stanza as their last words this side of glory -- including my own father.  The tune may be part of it but the text is the central element of my love and affection.  I am in awe of the craftsmen who have taken pen to paper and created hymns that have been sung for generation after generation -- each one learning to know, love, and pass on these confessions in song.  I must admit that many of the more modern attempts will surely wear out their appeal long before the people stop singing Now Thank We All Our God

Nothing profound today -- just some thoughts about the hymns I love to sing!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

We don't worship Luther. . .

Lutherans are often quick to accuse Roman Catholics of choosing to pray to Mary and worship the Pope while Roman Catholics are often quick in their retort that Lutherans hang on every crazy word Luther said or wrote.  What would we do without stereotypes?

The truth is that Lutherans do not worship Luther.  Sometimes we are embarrassed by what he said or wrote.  Most of the time we find in Luther a real person of faith, who loved the Church, and who was willing to risk all to restore Christ to the center of all things.  Luther did not throw any books from the canon (although he did pull out the Apocrypha and bunch the books and pieces of books together between the testaments (pretty much like St. Jerome).  He did complain about a few things in James (haven't we all) but he did not suggest it ought to be excised (though James has always had its critics).

Luther did complain about good works mixing in with the free gift of God in justification but he did not shrink from urging the people of God to do them as a fruit of God's life in them.  Read Luther's sermons and you find in them a great deal of law, a great call to live holy, righteous, and upright lives.  In fact, Luther preaches less Gospel in his surviving sermon corpus than most Lutherans are comfortable with -- try preaching one of Luther's Christmas sermons and see how many people complain you ruined Christmas for them!  Nope, Luther wanted no talk of good works to tarnish the shine on what is Christ's work alone but he was pretty strident on the good works that flow from faith and prove that faith is genuine.

Luther did not reject statues or stained glass or ceremonies or ritual or elevation (within the Mass) or the Real Presence...  and I could go on here.  He was a conservative reformer who retained what the radical reformers refused to keep.  He was a catholic man not particularly happy with the Roman stewardship of things.  Luther was surely a man with faults, foibles, and failings.  Many of them!  But he was also a man who believed piously, lived sacrificially, and worshiped joyfully in Christ.

As we get on with Reformation this year, we Lutherans must admit that we are often less comfortable with Luther than some of our Roman cousins and that Luther has been blamed and credited for things he did not really say or do.  But, all in all, I cannot even conceive what might have happened to the Church had not a voice arisen in the wilderness calling us to preach again Christ and Him crucified.   Clearly the Church had come to a point where it could not muddle along as it had.  Even Rome tacitly acknowledged this by calling the Council of Trent (not that this addressed every issue raised by Luther).  Furthermore, there were certainly less churchly and less catholic voices for reform as we have seen within the Radical Reformation.  Though Luther is blamed for them by those who believe if there had never been a Luther there would never have been a Karlstadt or Zwingli or Calvin, such is not certain or even likely.  Finally, though Luther is the larger figure among the many reformers, the path to reform was complicated by the political structures and the strengths or weaknesses of the leaders within those structures.

Lutherans could do worse than to work through the churchly and catholic character of Luther and rediscover their own identity as we make our way to the 31st of October.  I write this on the Sunday that most Lutherans will designate for the observance of the Reformation.  For my part, we connect the catechumenate and our somewhat ambiguous Rite of Confirmation to this sturdy holy day as a way of reminding us of the penitential character of faith itself and that the renewal of the faith should not wait for a giant to come along once in a blue moon and we ought to be concerned for this every year as we honor the legacy and pass it on.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Keep us this day without sin. . .

Praying the prayers of the offices is a wonderful activity.  We pray there some of the most earthly and earthy prayers of the Christian in the Christian life under the cross.  I marvel in them every time I pray them.

In Matins we pray:
O Lord, our heavenly Father, almighty and everlasting God, You have safely brought us to the beginning of this day. Defend us in the same with Your mighty power and grant that this day we fall into no sin, neither run into any kind of danger, but that all our doings, being ordered by Your governance, may be righteous in Your sight; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen

Morning Prayer has us pray:
Almighty God, merciful Father, who created and completed all things, on this day when the work of our calling begins anew, we implore You to create its beginning, direct its continuance, and bless its end, that our doings may be preserved from sin, our life sanctified, and our work this day be well pleasing to You; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

At Noontime we pray:

Heavenly Father, send Your Holy Spirit into our hearts to direct and rule us according to Your will, to comfort us in all our afflictions, to defend us from all error, and to lead us into all truth; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen

Finally in Vespers and in Evening Prayer we pray:
O God, from whom come all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works, give to us, Your servants, that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be set to obey Your commandments and also that we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may live in peace and quietness; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen

In all these prayers we see the overt reference to living this day without sin, as the righteous people of God.  We pray that we may be preserved from sin, our lives sanctified, and all we do well pleasing to the Lord.  We pray to be defended from all error and led into the truth.  We pray to live in peace and quietness, a people who obey the commandments of the Lord.  The prayers are nice but the point of them is not just nice.  They set before us sin and righteousness and ask us as the children of God by baptism and faith:  how then shall we live?  This is no small matter and it implies that we shall struggle against sin, strive to keep ourselves faithful amid temptation, and fight against the inclination to sin and the natural (since the fall) tendency to judge by what we see and not with eyes of faith.

In other words, there is a lot of sanctification in these prayers.  They remind us what Luther once wrote:

This life is not godliness, but growth in godliness;
not health, but healing;
not being, but becoming;
not rest, but exercise.
We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way;
the process is not yet finished, but it has begun;
this is not the goal, but it is road;
at present all does not gleam and glitter, but everything is being purified.

 - Martin Luther, A Defense and Explanation of All Articles (AE 32:24)

And these collects would turn Luther's statement into a prayer.  Pretty good stuff, indeed!

Friday, October 23, 2015

The scandal of Christianity. . .

Sermon for St. James of Jerusalem, Bishop and Brother of Our Lord.

It is always tempting to think that people need a reason to reject Jesus.  In the Gospel for this day, Jesus came to His home town and the people who supposedly knew Him best, rejected Him and His message.  We extrapolate the idea the familiarity breeds contempt.  Maybe it does.  But the people did not need a reason to reject Jesus.  They needed one to receive Him.

None of us needs a reason to reject Jesus.  We have sinful hearts, fearful of God or of anything and anyone we cannot control.  God is shocking to us and to our lives.  A God who wears human flesh and blood, born of a Virgin, to suffer, die, and rise – well that God is even more shocking to us.  Just as it was to the people Jesus encountered so long ago.

The miracles of Jesus were beyond dispute.  The teachings of Jesus were pure and holy.  His life was not hypocritical or a sham.  He was the real thing.  The only thing they can charge is that Jesus was one of them.  Indeed, He was and is.  Our Lord is not ashamed to wear the clothing of our humanity, to suffer in our place on the cross, and to die our death for sin. But we are ashamed of Him for doing so.

God is man.  Jesus is Lord.  This is the scandal of Christianity, then and now.  The Greco-Roman gods could imitate humanity and seduce people for fun but Jesus comes as one of us in truth to save us and carry the guilt, pain, and shame of our sin to the cross.  Jesus is still a scandal.  The surprise is not that people disbelieve but that they do believe.  Only the Spirit can break down the walls of the heart and bring the skeptic and doubter to faith.

Today we honor James of Jerusalem, Bishop and, by the way, brother of our Lord.  He was not beyond the doubt, fear, and rejection of Jesus.  But into the darkness of doubt, our Lord shone the Light of His grace, the Spirit worked, and James the skeptic became James the Bishop who would unit a church divided among Jewish Christians and Gentile ones.  And when he went home at night, could it be that people said of him what they said of Jesus his brother?  He is just like us.

Even when people reject the Lord, Jesus does not turn His back on them.  Or us.  We have found the favor of God in the Son of God who is like us.  He turns us skeptics into brothers and sisters of Christ, teaching us to pray together with Him, “Our Father,” and to walk in the way of trust.  Every time it happens, every time one person comes to faith in the God-man Jesus Christ, every time forgiveness clothes the guilty, every time grace comes to the unworthy, every time life comes to the dying... every time it is the miracle of grace and no boast of human decision and choice.

Thanks be to God.  James the skeptic became James the believer.  Not all of Nazareth came to know God in the flesh of His Son, Jesus, but James did.  And you did.  And I did.  And in each and every case, grace triumphed.  It is a miracle.  Not that people reject Jesus – that never needs explaining but that people hear and believe, believe and live, live and rejoice... that is beyond explanation or reason. . . it is an act of grace.  Thanks be to God!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Confirmation is adiaphora; catechesis is not. . .

Benedictine monk, author, scholar, and teacher at Yale, Aidan Kavanagh  once famously suggested that confirmation is a rite in search of a theology.  I do not know of nor can I speak to the situation in Rome with regard to confirmation.  As a Lutheran I resonate to his remark as an apt description of confirmation's status and checkered history.

Luther famously want to ditch confirmation entirely.  His chief focus was not on the teaching but on the elaborate rite which presumed to add something to baptism that baptism missed.  Luther never argued against the instructional need (hence the Small and Large Catechisms) nor upon the confession and absolution that was inherent in the whole idea.  What he railed against most of all were the "monkey business" ceremonial aspects of the rite that seemed to give spiritual priority to something absent the Lord's explicit command and promise.

But that is not where most of the problems have come for Lutherans.  Not in the least.  We have restored some of the ceremonies but there is little danger from the confirmation as much as there is from the goal or intent of the things itself.  Luther's Small Catechism was once the sine qua non of Lutheran identity.  Whether cradled into Lutheranism or a convert, the Small Catechism was the basic shape of the instructional endeavor to prepare the individual for life together in the Church.  Now the Catechism competes with all sorts of other curricula and has become an also ran among the myriad of choices available to Lutheran students and teachers.  In effect, the question asked of catechumens young and old has become largely irrelevant.  Do you confess the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church Church, drawn from the Scriptures, as you have learned to know it from the Small Catechism, to be faithful and true?

The formation of the faithful into the faith has been psychologized by those who see it as a spiritual journey and sentimentalized by those who deposit more weight to the rite than to the instruction.  In effect, we have shortchanged our children and guaranteed that they will not have credible Lutheran answers to the many questions life will surely thrust upon them in the teenage and young adult years.  Could this be a reason why so many fall away during that same time frame?

In addition we have fixed attention to First Communion without much real preparation so that getting them to the altar as quickly and easily as possible has become a higher priority than instructing them in the faith.  Clearly we should not have to choose between a poorly prepared communicant and a well catechized confirmand (or visa versa) but it seems we have doomed ourselves to such a choice between disappointing alternatives.  No one seems ready to postpone first communion until confirmation any more (especially if it means early into the high school years) and no one seems happy about memorization of the catechism as the primary focus of the instruction.  Worse, the church competes with parents, school activities, dance class, music, athletics, and technological distractions that make it easier for parents and students to complain that catechism is just too hard, too long, and too demanding.

The actual rite of confirmation is an adiaphoron (a may or may not rubric)  the catechesis has the full weight of the Lord's mandate yet in practice we treat the rite as the more significant of the two and console ourselves by suggesting that catechesis is a lifelong endeavor of which confirmation is but a brief portion.  Therein lies the problem, the lifelong part is conditioned upon what we do with the youth while we have them (both at home and in the church).  I wonder if this is not precisely the reason why such groups as Higher Things have gotten some traction -- not wanting to entertain our children to death we insist upon beefing up their diet with somethings more meaty and solid.

So my point is this -- we are pretty well down the road of a non-dogmatic Lutheranism and what we are doing in catechism instruction is only hastening our pace to an outcome which has the potential to end Lutheranism and confessional Christianity entirely.  It does not have to be this way.  I have found that the majority of our children want to know more than we teach them and are, in fact, hungry for the Word of God as a powerful Word and objective truth yesterday, today, and forever the same.  They do want to know the facts but they also want us to help them with the facts of the faith so that they are well equipped to grapple with the questions and deal with the issues the world is and will continue to throw at them.  If we fail in our purpose to equip them faithfully, we rob them of the chance to be faithful.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

How the mighty have fallen. . .

For the first time in its history, Harvard University, which had been founded for religious purposes and named for a minister of the Gospel, has admitted a freshman class in which atheists and agnostics outnumber professed Christians and Jews.  To be honest, I was shocked that a majority of previous classes had more Christians and Jews than atheists or agnostics!  Too long ago I had given up on the idea that a Christian could do more than survive the once hallowed halls of Harvard or any Ivy League school.  Perhaps I was too quick to write off the school in Cambridge everyone knows.  Or maybe not. . .

Harvard, like most institutions and especially like most upper crust schools, has long since escaped its original boundaries so captive to Christianity or religion in general to become a place most comfortable with the skeptic -- the person who disbelieves nearly all of what he hears or sees.  Harvard may toy with those who wish to be spiritual but not religious but its hard has long ago been won over by the scientific and the liberal, humanistic point of view.  Not a few of my acquaintances are graduates of Harvard and nearly all of them assure me that it is the name of that school that opens its doors more than what happens in the classroom.  Who am I to disagree?

Indeed, Harvard is not unique (much as they would hate to hear me say it).  It is exclusive in terms of cost but not in terms of its philosophy.  Harvard allows and even encourages just about any amount of skepticism, doubt, and disdain for things deliberately Christian.  I suppose I should be okay with that for the alternative would be to give credence and authority to Harvard as a distinctly religious and/or Christian institution.  Sure, it has a divinity school but that has not kept the heart of the school true to its founding.

The sad truth is that nearly every university with its pricey cost of education is decidedly unfriendly to orthodox Christianity of creed and confession.  It toys with spirituality but it us unwilling to give support for any idea that there is truth that does not change and exclusive revelation in Christ for an inclusive world of sinners, mired in their sins and death.

So maybe I should take back all the things I have been whispering about Harvard for a while now.  Officially, they were premature.  Well, until now.  Now it is safe to say that those entering this bastion
of wealth and power are largely absent of theological underpinnings to fence in their educational curiosity to the solid ground of revelation, doctrine, and truth that endures forever.  It is a lot of money to spend to have your faith ridiculed, your intellect challenges, and your values snickered at -- but that is why we invented money... to waste it. It is a long way for a school to fall - especially one whose motto is truth.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Lord sends; we pray

Sermon for St. Luke, Evangelist, preached by the Rev. Daniel Ulrich on Sunday, October 18, 2015.

Today is the Festival of St. Luke, and therefore, it’s only appropriate that I begin with some basic information about the man we commemorate. According to tradition, Luke was a physician and an artist. We know from Scripture that he was a travel companion of St. Paul. Of course, Luke is most widely known as an evangelist, a proclaimer of God’s Good News through the gospel that bears his name.

Luke’s Gospel is one of the three Synoptic Gospels, the other two being Matthew and Mark. These gospels are called synoptics because they record the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in a similar way. All three retell some of the same events in Jesus’ life, but there are some differences. One of these is the sending out of the 72. Only Luke records this event.

I. After Jesus taught about the cost of following Him, He sent 72 men out ahead of Him in pairs to each of the towns that He would stop at as He made His way to Jerusalem for the last time. He sent them out with several instructions. They weren’t supposed to take with them a money bag, a knapsack, or an extra pair of sandals. They weren’t supposed to stop on the road and great people. These instructions showed the urgency that these men were to perform their task with. They weren’t supposed to worry about the things of this world, the things that distract us. The message they were to speak was too important to stop and greet people, it was too important to get side tracked with material gain.

This message was the message of God’s peace and the coming of His kingdom. When they came to a house, they were to say, “Peace be to this house!” (Lk 10:5). They were told to heal the sick and say, “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Lk 10:9). These words are nothing else but the declaration of God’s Gospel, the Good News of His salvation. The kingdom of God, His rule and reign, had come to the people in Christ Jesus, and these 72 disciples were announcing His coming. They were proclaiming God’s salvation in Christ.

The work and message of the 72 wasn’t anything new. God has always appointed and sent men to announce His Words and salvation. In the Old Testament, He sent prophets to call His people back in repentance and to herald His forgiveness and mercy. This is exactly what the prophet Isaiah proclaimed. The healing of the blind, deaf, lame, and mute; the renewal of the land is the pronouncement of God’s salvation in Christ.

Likewise, Jesus’ apostles spoke these same words. Jesus sent His disciples out to the nations to baptize and teach them all that He said. St. Paul only proclaimed Christ and Him crucified on his travels and in his epistles.

When Jesus sent out the 72, He warned them that their task would not be an easy one. They were being sent “out as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Lk 10:3). There would be times when these messengers would be rejected. Their peace would be returned, unwanted. People would hear of the coming of God’s kingdom and not want anything to do with it. They would respond in anger and violence. This rejection and violence also was nothing new for God’s messengers. His prophets were persecuted and killed, and Jesus’ apostles suffered oppression and mistreatment. Paul was imprisoned and suffered numerous times for the Gospel.

II. God sent His prophets, apostles, and the 72 out to speak the message of Christ, and He continues to send His laborers out with the same purpose. Just as God called and sent His prophets, just as Jesus appointed and sent the 72, just as He sent His apostles to the nations, the Lord calls and sends pastors today to His people. He sends them out with the same message, the message of repentance, the message of God’s peace, the message of His kingdom.

We need to hear this message each and every day because we are sinners. We constantly go our own way, turning our backs on God, ignoring Him and His Word. We constantly put other things before Him, including ourselves. Because of this, we need God’s pastors to speak His Law to us. We need to hear that we’re poor miserable sinners, even though we think we’re not. We need to hear that we fail in living the life God commands. We need to be reminded of the damnation in hell that awaits us when we don’t repent.

But we also need God’s pastors to proclaim His Gospel to us. We need to hear His absolution when we repent and confess our sin. We need to receive the new life in the waters of Baptism that are joined to God’s promise of salvation. We need to be fed with Christ’s body and blood which were given and shed on the cross for us for the forgiveness of sins. We need to hear and receive God’s peace, graciously given to us.

We need to hear this message of God so much that He not only sends His pastors, but He also sends His saints, and this includes you. He sends you, His forgiven child, to share His peace and kingdom to others in your vocation, in words and deeds. Parents: you do this when you bring your children up in the faith; bringing them to the waters of Baptism; bringing them to church and reading scripture to them at home; when you live out God’s forgiveness in your lives, forgiving your children and forgiving your spouses. Children: you do this when you forgive others, your friends and your parents; when you share your faith, when invite your friends to church. You do this when you tell others about Jesus and how He died for them to take away their sins. And all of us together, as God’s saints, do this through the support of the church; when we bring our tithes and offerings, when we speak about our faith with family, friends, and neighbors, and when we join and help different organizations in the church, like LWML, as they help in different ways to spread God’s Gospel.

Of course, this isn’t always easy. Just as it was difficult for God’s prophets, the 72, and Jesus’ apostles, it is still difficult today. God’s messengers and saints are still being rejected. We’re still sent out as lambs in the midst wolves. The Christian message of salvation in Christ is still attacked. People lash out and respond in violence. It seems like every day a new story is reported about the persecution and killing of Christians throughout the world, sometimes in very gruesome ways. Because of this persecution, we often avoid sharing the saving message of Christ to others. We don’t want to suffer, so we cower and keep silent.

III. Therefore we must pray. We must pray for the Lord to continue sending His laborers. We must pray for the help of the Holy Spirit to strengthen our faith so that we can share it with others. We can’t reap the harvest on our own. We can’t make people believe, we can’t put faith in Christ in people’s hearts. Only God can do this. And He does it through the work of His laborers. God promises to create saving faith in people through the proclamation of His Word. He has done this through His prophets and apostles. He has done this through His evangelists like Luke. He does this through pastors and through you His saints.

THE LORD SENDS OUT HIS LABORERS AND WE PRAY that God will continue to send His laborers, so that we, and others, will continually hear the saving message of His peace and kingdom in Christ. In Jesus’ name...Amen.