Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Gloom, despair, and agony on me. . .

I hear the moans and sighs of those who look at the state of things and lament gloom, despair, and agony on me...  Sometimes I am one of those voices.  Okay, more than sometimes.  But under the gloom, despair, and agony there is a basic truth we cannot avoid.

We have the ability to ensure that our churches will be there for our children and grandchildren.  We have the ability to make sure that pastors will be there to faithfully preach and teach the Word of God and administer the sacraments of life and worship to those yet to come.  We have the ability to increase the presence of people, churches, and the witness of the cross in our own neighborhoods and communities as well as to assist others throughout the world.  It is not rocket science!  It is basic, common sense -- the basic common sense of faith!

So, you have looked at the pews and notice that there are fewer folks in the pews this week than last.  Okay, that is a real phenomenon is many places.  But there is another side to this.  What have you done to call the absent back to the Lord's House?  You might be surprised at how much more effective a phone call from a friend is than a phone call from the pastor encouraging an absent brother or sister to renewed faithfulness in attendance.  But why start with them?  Have you noticed that the new normal is not weekly worship attendance but monthly?  Don't let it happen to you.  If it is the Lord's Day and you are not deathly ill or required to work, YOU make it your business to be in the Lord's House around the Word and Table of the Lord.  It starts with the man or woman in the mirror.  Don't let any excuse keep you from the Lord's House.  Not even what you consider to be a bad pastor.  If the Word and Sacraments are there, then Christ is there -- good pastor or bad.  And as easy as it is to complain, try building up the church and your pastor and see if it produces better results than commiserating.

So, you have noticed that there are not as many babies around you in church as there once were.  Okay, that is a real challenge and sad truth for many.  But there is something you can do.  Call on those in the parish who have small children and let them know you are praying for them and for their children.  Encourage them to come to church even though their children are not cooperative and it is a struggle.  Sit with them and help them with their children to ease the burden (especially for the single parents who sit in the pews either because they are alone or their spouse does not attend).  Don't wag your head and look angry every time a baby cries or a child drops a hymnal.  Honestly, sometimes it is a wonder any children attend when the adults around them have so little patience with them and so little encouragement for them to hang in there and keep up the struggle.  You can help.  You raised your own children and perhaps you have helped grandchildren grow up in the faith.  Now you have another to help and make sure that they too grow up in the church.

So you fear that if things remain the way they are, the parish you are in will not be able to support a full-time pastor.  Okay, that is a real fear in many places.  But lets counter that fear with other reality.  Most Christians return something less than 2% of their incomes to the Lord.  What might that parish's resources look like if this were doubled or tripled or raised to the Old Testament minimum of 10%?  Would it still be impossible for your congregation to support a full-time pastor?  God will provide.  Indeed, He already has.  He has put the resources into your pocket so that you may in good stewardship and from the view of a grateful faith supply those resources for the work of His kingdom.  Folks, churches aren’t free!  Churches and pastors have bills to pay just like you do.  If you want your church to stay open, support it.  The Democrats raised $90+ Million and the Republicans $82+ Million in July.  Most of it in small donations ($100 or less).  What would happen if we in the LCMS tried a month of sacrificial giving across the board?  We just might provide funds to keep the church open, provide for a full-time pastor, and help pay the cost of training new pastors.

So you fear that your pastor is heading toward retirement and the seminary classes small and wonder where your next pastor will come from.  Okay, that is a real worry.  Churches will more likely stay open if there are pastors to serve them.  If you want your church to stay open, pray for an increase of vocations to the pastoral ministry, build up the office before young men in your congregation, encourage them to consider the ministry, support your pastor, and support the seminary that trains him.  We already know that something like 40% of our active pastors in the LCMS will retire before the end of this generation, mostly sooner than later.  Now a word to the retirees.  Don't jump on the retirement band wagon and run from the church like your pastoral work was some terrible burden you are glad to ditch.  There are tons of places for retirees to serve -- short term missionaries, small congregations, assisting full-time pastors with visitation, etc... or making sure that the pastor has someone to cover for him when he is gone.  If your ministry was important before retirement, make just as important in retirement.  Different venue but the same man and the same calling!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The BEST Seat. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 15, Proper 17C, preached by the Rev. Daniel Ulrich on Sunday, August 28, 2016.

       It’s happened to all of us before.  You get to church a few minutes late and your seat is taken.  Someone is sitting in your pew!  So, what do you do?  You get upset, of course, and your “me monster” comes out.  You think to yourself, “How dare they sit in my pew?”.  But not wanting to make a scene, you quietly sit somewhere else, all the while you're fuming inside, distracted the whole service, giving the evil eye to the back of their head. 
          We joke about this, but in reality, this isn’t a joking matter, because what’s behind this frustration, this anger, isn’t a joking matter.  We get mad when someone is in our seat because of our selfish, sinful, ungodly pride, and sin is never funny.  
          Our sinful pride tells us to exalt ourselves over others.  It tells us that we deserve what we want and that we should get what we want, and we want the best of everything, the top of the line, the admiration of others.  We want the best seats, and we’ll do anything to get them. 
This is what Jesus witnessed at a Sabbath dinner.  All of the guest jockeyed for the best seats.  They all wanted to sit in the places of honor, the seats near the head of the table closest to the host and other prominent guests.
Seeing all of this, Jesus spoke a parable: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place.  But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.”  Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 14:8-11). 
This Sabbath dinner party was a lot like a high school cafeteria.  All cafeterias have a hierarchy of seats.  The best seats in my school were those in front of the big window that overlooked the football field.  These tables offered the most room to stretch out and socialize, and only seniors and other popular kids were allowed to sit there.  These seats were the center of social life and everyone wanted to sit there.  I can remember times when freshmen would try to sit at these tables, thinking they could up their status, only to be gently removed to the back of the cafeteria. 
The guests at this Sabbath dinner were acting like these freshmen.  They sought after the best seats because they wanted the honor that came with them.  They were exalting themselves.  Their sinful pride told them they deserved these seats and all the praise and admiration that came with them.  Their “me monsters” came out seeking to satisfy its wants and desires above everyone else. 
  We are these dinner guests, wanting the best seats, wanting honor and praise.  All of us have exalted ourselves over others.  All of us have thought we’re better than someone else.  All of us have jockeyed for the places of honor.  Maybe it’s at work when you’ve sought after promotions because you wanted to be the boss, to be in charge so that you could order others around.  Maybe it’s at school when you tried out for a team or club because you knew this would impress you classmates.  Or maybe it’s when you sought after some leadership position, not because you wanted to serve but because you wanted title and praise. 
          Our sinful pride tells us to seek out honored positions because we like the praise.  It feels good to have people look up to us.  It feels good to be admired by family and friends.  But our sinful pride can quickly turn into false security, making us feel invincible.  We can start to believe that we’ll always be in exalted positions forever, which in turn increases our sinful pride even more. 
          But isn’t it always the case that something brings us down, knocking us off our pedestals?  In Christ’s parable, this happened when the host of the wedding feast told the self-exalting guest to give up his seat to a more distinguished guest.  This guest was shamed because the host said he didn’t deserve the honored seat.
          At some point, something will knock us off our pedestals.  Maybe it’ll be not getting that promotion, or even worse, being let go.  Maybe it’ll be not making the team or club.  Or maybe it’ll be having to be a follower instead of a leader.  Whatever, it is, the shame we feel from losing honored positions comes from the same place that drove us to seek it out.  We feel this shame because our sinful pride has been hurt.  We see someone else is sitting in our seat.
          Jesus’ parable gives us excellent advice on how to navigate social situations.  It shows that our pride fails before others.  But this parable isn’t just about pride before men.  It’s about our sinful pride before God. 
          When we come before God, our sinful pride gets in the way.  It tells us we deserve to stand before Him.  We exalt ourselves and put ourselves on pedestals built on our good works.  We go to church every Sunday; we tithe and give generous offerings.  We volunteer our free time to help out around church and in service to others in need.  We pray and study our Bibles.  We do everything that good Christians are supposed to do.  And looking at all this, our sinful pride tells us we’re good before God, that we should be honored and praised.  But these acts don’t make us good before God, and we certainly don’t deserve honor and praise because of them, because none of them cover up the shame of our sin. 
          We’re shamed because our sin is exposed.  God’s Word shows us that we don’t deserve to stand before God.  His Law is a mirror that shows us that we’re sinners.  It reflects back to us all of our sin.  And because of our sin, we don’t deserve exaltation and praise; we don’t deserve the honored and best seat.  Instead we rightly deserve the lowest of the low, eternal damnation in hell, everlasting death. 
          But in love that we can’t explain, God rescues us from what we deserve.  He wants to exalt us, He wants us to be in glory and honor forever, and because of this, He calls us to humble ourselves, to come before Him on our knees with repentant and contrite hearts, calling on Him to raise us up through the humbling of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, true God of true God, the only Man to ever walk on this earth who had the right to exalt Himself, humbled Himself, for you and me.  Jesus gave up His rightful place of honor to become an obedient servant, to die for your sins.  St. Paul writes, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking a form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name” (Phil 2:5-9).
By willingly dying on the cross, Jesus paid for all your sin, including your sinful pride.  By giving up His honored place and dying the death that you and I deserve, He became your servant and saved you from everlasting damnation.  Because of this, God the Father has exalted Christ and given Him the name that is above every name.  Christ’s exalted name has been placed on you.  In your Baptism God put Jesus’ name on you and He promises to exalt you, to give you a place in heaven forever. 
We’ll always have to contend with our sinful pride, to fight our “me monster.”  It’s hard to look in the mirror and see the shameful sinner looking back at us.  But God’s Word has shown us our Savior, Christ Jesus, who humbled Himself for you.  Because of Christ's humiliation, you’re forgiven your sinful pride, your “me monster” is killed.  Because of Christ’s humiliation, God looks at you and says, “Friend, move up higher.”  Because of Christ’s humiliation, God gives you the best seat, a seat at His everlasting feast.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

The Pope is still subject to the Word of God. . .

Father Hunwicke, always a good read, has written that even the Roman Pontiff is subject to the Word of God.  Now there is something not often said out loud.  As good as it is, it does seem to make me vaguely recall a 16th Century Movement sometimes called the Reformation that presumed to make exactly that point.  Popes can err.  Councils can be wrong.  The Word of the Lord endures forever -- it does not change nor can it speak one message to one people and another message to another.

The problem of the papacy is not the idea of such an office but the practice in which popes become elevated above Scripture or presume to possess revelation that can trump Scripture.  This is a basic principle of Catholic Theology. Joseph Ratzinger memorably asserted "The Pope's authority is bound to the Tradition of Faith ... [it] is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition". This chimes with the teaching of Vatican I, that the Holy Spirit was not given to popes to proclaim new doctrine, but to defend and to put forth the Deposit of Faith, the Tradition received through the Apostles.  (Italics refer to Fr. Hunwicke)

The Lutheran Reformation was at its heart a conflict over authority -- the authority of God's Word to norm popes, bishops, councils, etc...  It was certainly over justification by grace through faith but the real issue at the heart of it all was what truth was trustworthy and true, strong enough on which to hang the hope of redemption.  What Word did not lie or deceive or change or adapt.  What Word was the norming norm of all that the Church believed, taught, and confessed.

If what we believe, confess, and teach has no basis in Scripture -- no foundation in the Word of the Lord that endures forever -- then by what right do we preach it and teach it?  How can we bind the conscience of man to that which is not eternally and everywhere true?

In essence, the Reformation has become an even more urgent cause in a day when Popes seem to flirt with doctrine as if it were all the prerogative of his office and culture considers feelings to be more certain and true than the Word of the Lord endures forever.  In the end what the Reformation was about is the eternal question.  Lord, where can we go to hear the Word of eternal life but to You, to the Word that endures forever, and to the one constant in a world of change?  Christ alone has the words of eternal life, so said Peter so long ago, and so do we struggle to say it today.  

Much has been made of the idea that were it not for the authority of the Catholic Church I would not have believed (so said St. Augustine) but the authority of the Catholic Church is not an authority apart from or in contradistinction to the authority of the Word that endures forever.  Indeed, this Word is the only real authority.  Augustine can equally be quoted to affirm that it is the Word that gives to the Church her authority to act and speak and apart from the Word.

“The Fathers of the Church, St. Augustine above all, themselves practiced that devotion derived from Scripture, whose ideal the Protestants steadily upheld; they hardly knew any other. No doubt they were much more careful than many Protestants not to isolate the Word of God in its settled form of Scripture from its living form in the Church, particularly in the liturgy. But, this reserve apart…they were no less enthusiastic, or insistent, or formal, in recommending this use of Scripture and in actually promoting it. Particularly from St. John Chrysostom, one might assemble exhortations and injunctions couched in the most forcible terms; they have often been recalled by those Protestants, from the sixteenth century onwards, the best grounded in Christian antiquity. It would be impossible to find, even among Protestants, statements more sweeping than those in which St. Jerome abounds: Ignoratio scripturarum, ignoratio Christi is doubtless the most lapidary, but not necessarily the most explicit. What is more, in this case just as when the authority of Scripture is viewed as the foundation of theology, the constant practice of the Church, in the Middle Ages as well as in the patristic times, is a more eloquent witness than all the doctors…For them, it was not simply one source among others, but the source par excellence, in a sense the only one.”

         -Louis Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1964), pp. 132-133. Translated by A.V. Littledale. First published by Les Editions du Cerf, Paris, 1954.


Monday, August 29, 2016

The role of the academy. . .

On one hand the purpose of the academy was to equip the individual with the skills (linguistic and otherwise) to read the Scriptures, preach them, and teach them.  At some point in time, the academic perspective was disjointed from this purpose and became a pursuit in and of itself.  This is the ultimate sin of the historical-critical methodology which treats Scripture as any book, presumes that what the words mean is different from what they say, and treats the message as secondary to the literary history of that Word.  In other words, the academy has offered very little to the preacher and teacher except a vague moralism and some serious doubts about this thing called the Bible.

I am not the first nor the only one to have noticed this.  Better thinkers than Larry Peters have decided that the critical process has lost its way and no longer deals with the text as we have it or the Word on the page.  So the preacher is left with little from the academic to help him express anything but uncertainty and the conclusion that even the uncertainty itself makes no difference since the message is largely symbolic.  Think here of Brevard Childs and his so-called canonical criticism that insists the text must be dealt with as a text to heal the breach between biblical criticism and theology.  The goal and intent is to place the Scriptures where they belong -- within the communities of faith where people gather at its call and hear it proclaimed to them as a means of grace.

Perhaps the biggest problem liberal churches face is that they have bought into the academy lock, stock, and barrel and no longer know what Scriptures says without the prompting of those who spend most of their time avoiding its plain sense and skeptical of its own history.  While conservative are by no means immune from the pressure of the academic to interpret Scripture for the common man, they are better placed to believe that Scripture speaks plainly enough for us to know and understand what it says and means (and not as if those two are constantly at odds with one another).

My friend Pastor Chris Esget wrote of a conversation in which an ELCA pastor mades an interesting statement there about Holy Scripture: “The academy is necessary to help us understand the meaning of the texts, which can be different from what they say.” Granted that he’s talking about the importance of understanding Scripture in context, I find this notion deeply troubling, and perhaps the single greatest difference between our church bodies. One of my axioms is if you have to add words to Scripture to explain why it doesn’t mean what it clearly sounds like, you’ve got the wrong interpretation.

Pastor Esget is rightly suspicious of a tendency more common to liberal churches but not entirely lost upon conservative ones and that it the idea that special expertise must be used to distinguish between what Scripture says and what it means.  There are, of course, times when it may be more difficult in this regard but in most cases the plain meaning of the words is there divinely intended meaning - given the importance of discerning the context and the Lutheran concern for distinguishing Law and Gospel!

Esget then quotes Luther:  [The Bible] is the book that makes all wise and clever people into fools and can only be understood by fools and simpletons. That is why you should let go of your arrogance and other false attitudes and hold this book in high regard: as the highest and noblest sacred object, as if it were the riches treasure trove that can never be emptied or exhausted. Many years ago I read the whole Bible twice and if it were to be compared to a tall sturdy tree and if all the words were branches and twigs, I have in effect shaken all these branches, curious to know what was hanging on them and what they had to offer and each time I was able to knock down a few more little apples or pears. [p217]

Is that not the promise of God who makes foolish the wisdom of men and speaks to the minds of the simple believer the great wisdom of eternity?  No one is saying that the role of the academic is superfluous to the life of the church or that the insight of the theologian and exegete is necessary.  Of course they are important and essential but both serve a common purpose and are not at odds with each other.  The most common purpose is to equip the preacher to preach the Word within the community of the baptized, to teach the faith to those within and outside the household of the faith, and to use that Word as healing balm within the realm of pastoral care.  Once these purposes are no longer central to the study of the Scriptures, the Word will no longer be plain, clear, or simple.  Once they no longer lead us with confidence to the Christ who saves, the Scriptures will be a closed book whose message is dark and uncertain.

That brings to mind the catholic principle that pervades the Lutheran Confessions.  We are not innovators or speculators but deal always within the realm of the certain and sure -- the Word of God that endures forever and that which has always been believed, taught, confessed, and practiced.  The penchant for novelty has become the hallmark of the academy.  The pursuit of what might be has replaced the love of what is.  Each mark of separation from the life of the assembled church on Sunday morning leaves the academic with little more than novelty which erodes the eternal and urgent message of the kingdom to be preached in Christ crucified and risen, the fulfillment of the whole of the Divine Word.  Speculative concerns make for interesting conversation but poor theology and even poorer help for the task of preaching and teaching that Word to people.  If there is one thing that ought to raise a warning bell within the academy it is the delight in that which is new or novel for Scripture also teaches us that there is nothing new under the sun -- especially not when it comes to the elevation of reason over Scripture and the relegation of tradition to the past.

One last thing.  It is a terrible thing to have a skeptical mind and a sentimental heart.  (Naguib Mahfouz)  A skeptical mind has left us with little confidence in the Word of God that promises salvation to all who believe and absent that confidence (faith) belief erodes into mere sentiment and feeling defined by individual preference and what makes the person feel better.  The academy has not turned us all into professors but left us all to the rule of our hearts unleashed from every constraint.  So what does Scripture say?  Everyone did what was right in their own minds (hearts) -- because they had no Word left to direct them otherwise!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A loss of shame. . .

Perhaps one of the most significant developments of the modern age is our utter lack of shame (except, of course, the enforced shame of political correctness which acts as the voice of conscience that appears to be mute in us as individuals).  Shame once defined us as much as virtue.  We could put it into religious language and call shame sin and virtue righteousness but it was not merely religion.  The common understanding of what shamed us as well as what honored us was key to the assimilation of folks from other cultures and religions.  We were able to mesh together because the common values of right and wrong, virtue and shame, righteousness and sin transcended our differences.

We may not have all practiced it, but we understood fidelity to spouse and infidelity shamed us.  It was not spoken of out loud or in mixed company but in whispers and with care to see who was listening.  Marriage between husband and wife was epitomized by the self-denial of sexual urge apart from this relationship.  Religion encouraged this but so did the state which had a vested interest in shame and virtue as well as faith.  Stable homes, good families, and moral, productive children were the ingredients to the American dream every bit as much as the pursuit of happiness.  Freedom was not license but the encouragement toward good unconstrained by fear.

One of the casualties of our modern era in addition to the common virtue of fidelity in marriage or even marriage itself is the whole idea that certain things can and should and do shame us.  Our conversation has become ever so tolerant of vulgarity.  We are content with a coarseness of language that would not have been tolerated by politeness long ago.  Some call it prudish but it was not naivete -- no, it was not that they did not know the words but the knew enough not to speak them in certain contexts.

In addition to the salty conversations that now delight in saying out loud what was once only whispered is our penchant for leaving nothing to the imagination.  I am not only speaking here of sexual images but the graphic images of violence and horror that were once suggested but left to the imagination and not to the eye.  Now we are accustomed to seeing nudity and graphic violence on TV and in the movie theater and video games thrive on these images once thought too much to be shown openly or without constraint.

Many were once prodded to become productive citizens by less than virtuous motive.  Boys became men because of their desire for love and sex.  Girls became women for some of the same reasons.  Now it seems that more and more boys are choosing a prolonged adolescence with the virtual reality of the video game and pornography over work, wife, children, family, and community.  Almost as many 18-30 year old boys who have not completed college live at home as they do with spouse or significant other.  That is a statistic few of us saw coming.  There seems to be little shame in failing to board the engine of work and responsibility and find it no big deal to be taken care of (when a generation or so ago independence and self-sufficiency were driving forces to move out).

My point in saying this is not to condemn everyone who is not old.  I will have plenty of time to do that in a few years when I retire.  It is great sport.  At this point my concern is more about the Gospel and how to speak to a people who seem to have no shame -- about anything!  The Gospel of Christ crucified presumes shame -- the shame of sin and the awareness of its death that chains down hope of the future to its terrible anchor of death.  The Gospel speaks to people who know shame, who lament their sin, and who seek not only forgiveness but new life.  What does it have to say to people who have no shame?

Sure, someone will say that this is why we preach the Law but preaching the Law to a people who have no shame sounds simply like prudes complaining that they are not free enough to indulge themselves like the people they condemn.  It only feeds the notion that the church is basically a bunch of naysayers who do not want people to be happy, to have fun, to fulfill their wants and desires, and to enjoy themselves doing so.

My point is this.  How do we speak the Gospel outside the framework of sin and shame?  I wish I had the answer.  My fear is that we in the Church are proceeding like people in the dark trying to find their way by feeling along the wall.  I am not at all suggesting that we need a strategy or program but how do we preach to people who have learned not to feel shame?  How do we speak the faith to folks who use their feelings to define everything from gender to happiness, right and wrong?  I know that the Spirit will work through the Word even when we speak awkwardly or hesitantly but I also know that we can learn to speak it better so that our speaking itself is not an impediment.

These are the kinds of things I ruminate on day and restless night.  Perhaps I need to trust God more.  I am sure I do.  But as someone who regularly preaches to the products of our modern world and who weekly teaches them, I want to be a more effective spokesman of the Gospel to those who hear it -- all ages for sure but especially to those who will replace me and my generation as we age.

I am not at all convinced that mirroring the culture or trying to duplicate the ambiance of their technological and entertainment oriented lives will do anything but render the church an orphan in the next generation.  Such is the future for those who marry the spirit of the age.  So I am not talking about redefining the church or re-imagining what it means to worship.  I want to be a more faithful and effective preacher and teacher for the sake of Christ and His cross.  In this, I expect many are in the same place I am.  So, you tell me what you think?

Friday, August 26, 2016

A House of Cards. . .

Liberalism tends to regard anything else as a weak and fragile construction of faith and piety in conflict with reason and common sense.  So the conservative is seen as someone who requires something extra to justify and bolster a faith that cannot stand on its own merits of reason and fact and science.  Think especially of those who ridicule the whole idea that God could or would create all things ex nihilo in six days or that Mary was truly Virgin Mother in fact as well as spirit or that the miracles of Jesus displaced the rules and laws of science.  How can it be?

How interesting then when one of those liberals with all the requisite credentials of academia and scholarship awakens to the fact that it is liberalism that is a house of cards, disconnected from the catholic history of Christendom, and wavering precariously on every whim of science and bowing before the altar of reason (and the idea of human progressive understanding)!

Thomas C. Oden is a is an American United Methodist theologian and religious author who was Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University from 1980 - 2004.  He is a prolific author who was once a prominent practitioner of the kind of liberal, modernist theology modern Methodism is known for.  Then something happened.  He began an exhaustive reading of the  Church Fathers and realized that his faith represented a clear disconnect with the faith they confessed.  Far from following the path of a typical liberal in discounting what he read, Oden did an about face.  He began to embrace orthodox, historical Christianity.  His story is told in A Change of Heart:  A Personal and Theological Memoir.

Oden's journey is remarkable since he began as an enthusiast of Bultmann and his demythologizing -- even writing a volume on Bultmann's ethics!  Though Oden hung out with Bultmann, Hans Gadamer, and Wolfhart Pannenberg, he was conversant with and an early proponent of a Christianizing of psychoanalysis and of group therapy within pastoral care.  Oden's popularity and influence was to suffer a severe blow when a challenge by Jewish historian Wil Herberg forced him to find out what Christianity was and is from its historical practice in early Christendom.  This became his own personal reformation and with it came a new path of life and a new career -- even a new set of friends!  He wrote of this in part in a book called After Modernity... What?  

This journey reminds us that one cannot be Christian with any authenticity and believe and live in conflict with doctrine and practice of historic and orthodox Christianity.  While I would not yet call Oden a Lutheran, it is an illustrative look at the fragile construction of modern liberal theology, how this has captured the identity of most mainline denominations, and how it is possible to rediscover the faith from the writings of the Church Fathers.  Remember what Hermann Sasse said: 
"It is always a sign of deep spiritual sickness when a church forgets its fathers."  (From Fathers of the Church, German original in Lutherische Blaetter 6:36 (May 10, 1954) pp58-69.)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The narrow door. . .

Sermon preached for Pentecost 14, Proper 16C, on August 21, 2016.

    We want to know what we want to know.  How many will be saved?  The disciples then looked around and saw what we see. They lamented empty pews and hard hearts, people caught up in the moment who rejected the call to faith and disciples who had lost their way.  Will those who are saved be few?  Is it not our curiosity as well?  Even Jesus had His critics.  Those who are saved are the Lord’s business – not ours.  Though we want to know how and why, we are not given this to know.
    What is our business?  Our business is the strive to eneter by the narrow door.  In other words, our business is faith.  Our business is to live this faith our daily before the Lord and before the world, living in hope and as witnesses of this hope, rejoicing in the comfort of the cross and telling its story to all around us.
    That is probably not what we want to hear but it is the truth. Strive to enter by the narrow door.  Those are hard words for a people seeking easy street.  To strive means that faith does not come naturally to our hearts sinful by nature.  Faith cannot be taken for granted but must be constantly nurtured by the means of grace.  Faith comes not by hearing once but by living where the Word of God is spoken.  Faith lives by daily repentance that is the fruit of our baptismal new life.

    Strive means that life in the Kingdom is not easy but hard. We have heard it – persecution by a world that hated Jesus and hates those who belong to Jesus.  Tribulation in a world where the easy way is nearly always the wrong way and to stand up for Jesus is to stand out from the crowd.
    Life in the Kingdom is not a path of moral perfection but of daily repentance.  We live in this daily repentance by the power of forgiveness as the Spirit works to dailiy reclaim us from our pride and from our weakness both at the same time.  Strive means that we work at this, working out our salvation by the power of the Holy Spirit.
    Strive to enter by the NARROW DOOR.  That again is not what we want to hear.  We want to believe that the way of salvation is a broad boulevard but it is a narrow path.  We want to think of it as a grand entrance but it is a narrow door.  Christ is the way the truth and the life and no man comes to the Father but by Him.  Sincerity does not save but faith in Christ does.
    The narrow way is truth – not good feelings or noble intentions but solid doctrine formed from Scripture and normed by that Word.  The narrow way is creed that confesses with specificity who Jesus is, from whence He has come, and what He has come to do.  The narrow way is confession of this faith boldly before a world that may or may not hear.
    The narrow way is the life of faith – life in the Spirit, life lived by faith and not by sight.  The Christian life is our concern – not who will be saved but the Christian life born of baptismal rebirth, nourished by the Word and Supper of the Lord, lived in tension with the world, confessed without fear by those who would persecute us, and lived confidently even in the faith of death. 
    Have you read how many hymns in our hymnal sing of the glory of a faithful death or pray for the same?  These words have nothing to do with whether or not that death is painful or it comes at the end of a long life.  No the faithful death is the Christian who dies in faith no matter the circumstance, confident that they will rise with Christ to everlasting life.
    You have probably noticed this is no pep talk to try harder for Jesus.  No, this is the unpleasant truth of false prophets, of hypocrites, of lies that damn, of true alone that saves, and of the vanity of sincerity without the narrow faith in the one and only Christ.  We may be curious about what belongs to God but it is God's to decide and ours to believe.  Instead of trying to know what is not ours to know, He has called us to do what does belong to us.  Strive to live by faith, to walk the narrow path of salvation by grace alone for the sake of Christ alone, and our own entrance into eternal life through Him who is the way, the truth, and the life.  So strive for this.  Work for it.  Live for it.  Die in it.
    The narrow way is Christ alone – exclusive for there is salvation in no other but inclusive because everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.  The hypocrisy of good works and dead hearts is exposed.  The arrogance of sincerity which believes everything in general but not in specifically in Christ is laid bare. Repent. Believe. Strive to live in Christ alone.  This is our only peace and comfort.  Amen.

Living together without benefit of marriage. . .

Though you might think I am referencing the rampant cohabitation of those not married, my concern here is not with people but with Church and the churches that share the same name but not the same faith.  It is not merely true of Protestants whose liberal and conservative factions have their own leaders, their own publishers, their own colleges and universities, and even, perhaps, their own seminaries.  No, it is also true of Lutherans and of Roman Catholics.  We have cohabited as liberals and conservatives (for lack of a more precise definition) for some time but the days of this shacking up are numbered and it is not because of someone in power trying to force folks out.  It is because the inherent weaknesses of our cohabitation are becoming unbearable by both sides.

For Protestants this has resulted in, as one example, a Good News movement within Methodism.  Though the control of the national church structure is clearly in other hands, the more conservative forces have for some time organized for theology and mission.  It has happened in other churches as well but the Methodists provide a prime example.  The differences are not nuance but deep and profound in who Jesus was and is, what the Scriptures teach and confess, and what the Church is called to be.  The time is coming when Methodism will no longer be able to bridge the great divide of the conservative, more orthodox side (including those outside the US) and those intent upon transforming their church body into a mirror of the culture and values around it.

For Roman Catholics it has been somewhat hidden by the tribalism of Rome's ethnic construction.  The Irish are Roman Catholic.  Period.  And because they are Irish, the divide between the shapes of Irish Roman Catholicism is masked.  Though not for long.  Catholic tribalism has worked to preserve Rome as a unit in the last fifty years since the close of the second Vatican Council.  But while it has continued on paper as one church, the great divide between “Liberal” and “Conservative,” ad orientem and versus populum, Francis and Benedict, etc... has widened in North America and Europe.  Yes, the liberal Roman Catholics have their own publishing houses, colleges, religious orders and members of the hierarchy; the same for the  conservative Roman Catholics.

Under the appearance of unity, the reality of two churches under the same roof has become ever mor obvious. It is not merely cultural but theological and ontological.  On one side are those who believe the Church must adapt, inculturate, and change to survive and on the other are those who believe that such will be the death of the faith itself.  Now it appears to be less tenable to maintain this separate existence and perhaps we can credit Francis for bring this to the forefront.

Among Lutherans the same divide is becoming ever more untenable.  For us it has shown itself in the form of worship wars and mission differences.  Some among us believe that worship must adapt to technology, culture, and personal preference to provide an atmosphere amenable to those not yet of the Kingdom.  Others believe that the liturgy is its own culture and that the abandonment of our liturgical tradition and identity is a surrender of the faith itself.  In mission there are those who believe that the most important thing is to share Jesus and others who insist that in addition to speaking the Gospel we must actually plant congregations where the means of grace can feed and nourish those who believe.  In crass form, the argument has been framed between missional and maintenance.  But under the worship wars and the mission distinctions lie other more significant differences.  The public wars are really about the great divide between those who see the Church in militant posture against an ever more antagonistic world and those who believe the Church must be more friendly toward the world and make accommodation with the changes in culture and society.

Perhaps we Lutherans (here speaking of the LCMS) have been less successful in giving the overall appearance of unity since we do not have a papacy to provide symbolic unity but I think many who are on both sides of this debate are finding the twin poles increasingly difficult to manage under one  structure.  What we face may well be a different kind of realignment -- between those who wish to see our Synod as a confederation of semi-autonomous districts and those who do not believe the Church is a representative democracy.  Where this will pan out is hard to say.

In all of the examples, one key ingredient has been what happens in Seminary and the kind of clergy being provided for the churches.  Where the seminaries have come down on one side and provide candidates for ordination who stand solidly with their perspective, the church body has tilted to that side.  In the end, this is a battle of seminaries and a war waged one candidate and one ordination at a time.  Whether accurate or not, this is how the two seminaries of the LCMS have been painted.  It is the great divide between diocesan seminaries of Rome.  And it has surely been fostered in other churches by the direction taken by their own seminaries.

It is true that it is ever more difficult for the sides to be comfortable with each other, the jockeying for place and prominence does not serve the mission well, and the unifying factors are becoming weaker than the divisions.  We will see how Missouri, Rome, and the rest of the churches fare in maintaining their unity and sustaining the tense appearance of unanimity.  Some believe this is a boomer issue and the retirement of a generation of leaders and pastors will also shape the face of the churches.  I am not so inclined to believe it will all go away once this large contingent of leaders and pastors fades away.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Where is Charles Martel when you need him?

The Battle of Tours (10 October 732) took place between the cities of Poitiers and Tours, in north-central France, close to the border between the Frankish kingdom and then-independent Aquitaine. It pitted Frankish and Burgundian forces under Charles Martel against a much larger army of the Umayyad Caliphate led by 'Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi.

Surprisingly, the Franks were victorious. 'Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi was killed, and Charles began to extend his authority and begin uniting a European kingdom that would withstand the challenge of Islamic military forces to the present day.

Some saw this as divine judgment in favor of Charles, nicknamed Martellus ("The Hammer"). Later , Charles Martel would be praised as the champion of Christianity, seeing the battle as the decisive turning point against the powerful Islamic empire.

The Battle of Tours came after two decades of Umayyad conquests in Europe beginning with the invasion of the Christian Kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula in 711 and seemingly unstoppable military expeditions into Gaul (the former province of the Roman Empire).  The Islamic army had reached as far northward as Aquitaine, Burgundy, and Bordeaux. Charles's victory came when Muslim rule was overrunning the old Roman and Persian Empires.

Charles surprised the Islamic forces who did not expect to find a large and well organized enemy.  For a full week they skirmished awaiting the arrival of the full Umayyad forces.  It gave Charles Martel time to organize and concentrate his forces for the battle plan.  Perhaps the most decisive maneuver was Charles raid on the Umayyad base camp threatening the bounty the army had accumulated in previous battles.  Charles so rattled the Umayyad forces that they left their tents standing and ran with whatever loot they could carry.

The army retreated over the Pyrenees.  In 735 another forey by the Islamic forces was repelled by Charles, putting an end to any of the Muslim hopes beyond the Iberian peninsula.  Charles’ grandson, Charlemagne, became the first Christian ruler of a mostly united Christian Europe.

Now here we are some thirteen centuries later, after Luther himself had wrote against the invading Muslim armies of the Turkish advance, and after terrorism has spilled over into the cities of Europe and the United States.  Here we are after a priest was murdered in his own parish church by an enemy more devious than the multinational, multilingual Ottoman empire and even more brutal.  Where are the voices of Luther in our day to rally us to organize together against our common enemy?  Where is the next Charles Martel who will face down the armies seeking to build a new caliphate more by terrorism than open conquest?  Where are those who both recognize and acknowledge that this is no mere threat to religion, though it is certainly that, but also a threat to the West as a whole and to freedom itself?

Luther initially feared that the Turkish invasion was a scourge from God against the sins of the Christians.  In 1528 Luther changes his mind and encouraged Charles V and all the German people to resist the invasion.  I am not prepared to say that the success so far of the jihadists is not in part due to the way we in the West have abused our freedom as license to cover our decadence, immorality, and licentiousness but we must battle on both fronts – fighting the common enemy and fighting for virtue, goodness, and truth in our exercise of the gift of freedom.  Where is the leader who can rally us to both?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The oldest, most complete Gospel book is in Ethiopia. . .

The oldest known bound, complete, and illustrated copy of the Gospels, the so-called Garima Gospels, has actually been kept safe and secure for centuries in a remote Ethiopian monastery.  The Garima Gospels are believed to be the earliest surviving example of book binding still attached to the original pages.

The volume is astonishingly beautiful.  They were named after a monk, Abba Garima, who arrived in Ethiopia in 494, from Constantinople. The story goes that he copied the Gospels in just one day when God delayed the sun from setting so the monk had time to finish his work. Whatever the legend, the truth of this incredible relic has lain upon the shelves of the Garima Monastery, near Adwa, in northern Ethiopia at 7,000 feet, ever since!

The books survival is most impressive when one considers that throughout its history, the country has suffered invasion after invasions and the monastery itself suffered a devastating fire in 1930 that destroyed the monastery’s chapel.  The carbon tests upon the paper in the book have given a date somewhere between 330 and 650, a date which fits with the time when Abba Garima arrived in Ethiopia.

Now this text is not a new discovery.  Travelers to the monastery mentioned this volume often -- even some well connected folks. But the date was wrong and most suspected this manuscript to have dated from the 11th century, at the earliest, and not as early as the mid-fourth century as carbon dating has posited.

So why does this matter?  Because the claim of the so-called scholars is often that the canon of the New Testament was not a given but the result of a conspiracy of folks from Constantine on to put a political and theological agenda above the truth.  These skeptics have suggested so often that the Jesus of history is far removed from the Christ of the Gospels to the point where many wonder if
we can have any confidence in the New Testament and in the Gospels in particular.  Every time we discover something new, rather something old, the evidence points not in favor of the skeptic but in favor of the claims of the New Testament itself.  Since everyone is prone to talk about the things which support this conspiracy theory and the idea that we can never know much about the real Jesus, it is important for us to herald and acknowledge such things that point us with confidence to the truthfulness of the Biblical record.  Besides, the volume is simply beautiful to the eye!  This is its own testament to the value placed by the monks upon the written Word of Christ.