Friday, September 30, 2016

Is being moderate the same as being lukewarm?

Lutherans are of all people those who value moderation.  We do not like extremists.  We believe that most all things are good in moderation and most all things are bad in excess -- including religion.  Garrison Keillor has made a career about poking fun at moderate Lutherans and the high value they attach to be unexceptional.  As with much humor, there is usually some truth underneath it all.  This is the stuff that is not so funny.

I come from the generation that promoted moderation to its fullest degree.  Work but do not work too much.  That is bad.  This was a cut against my parents whose generation worked too much (at least that is what we thought).  Enjoy life in moderation.  Drink but don't drink too much.  Drink but don't waste too much money on expensive beer and liquor.  Moderately priced booze is just fine.   Drive a middle class car but don't spend too much money on a vehicle or your clothes.  Go to church but not too much and do not appear to enjoy it.  Treat the faith moderately.  Be interested but certainly do not be extreme in matters of doctrine and faith and practice.  That is always bad.  The worship service should not go on too long; neither the sermon.  Bible study is fine but if there is something good on TV, well, we all understand.  A little sex and vulgar language is okay but not too much.  That is bad.  A few children are good.  Too many children and that is not so good.  Live moderately and make a moderate carbon print upon the environment.  Recycle?  Yes.  Live off the grid.  No.  Moderation.  We visit churches in search of the one that fits us -- not too much nor too little but just right.  And then we attend moderately lest anyone get the idea that somehow or another we are radical.

Lutherans were born to take a prudent, cautious, middle-of-the-road approach to contested or divisive issues.  We really don't get why people could be against us since we are so moderate in our approach to people. The media do not like immoderate people who take immoderate positions on issues of religious and moral significance.  In fact, the media believes that the best Muslims are those who are too Muslim and the best Roman Catholics are those who are not too Roman Catholic.  Lutherans, too.  Moderation means thinking for yourself, picking and choose from the smorgasbord of doctrine, faith, and practice.  Lock step is bad.  A little independence and distance is good.  Especially for religion. Compromise is good and if you have to negotiate away some of your beliefs or principles in order to appear united, well, that is also good.

I must admit that my kids are not moderate at all.  My kids have a uniform disdain for contemporary worship, touchy feely stuff that substitutes for doctrine and truth, and happy clappy songs that take the place of real hymns.  I am not so sure how we did it, but we raised immoderate children who have little time for half-baked politics, religion, and interest.  I guess I failed as a Lutheran.  Moderation is not the sacred value for my children that it is for most folks of my own generation.

The reality is that moderation is a malicious myth.  We don't need moderates and God doesn't need them either.  We don't need Christians or Lutherans in name only, who feed only moderately from the grand buffet of doctrine and truth.  We don't need people who think for themselves enough to distance them from Scripture and that which has always been believed, taught, and confessed.  We don't need a moderation which seeks to be less than fully the new person Christ has raised us to be out of the waters of baptism.  Moderate subordinate their faith and morality to our secular culture and feel free to dissent from the words of Jesus and the creeds of Christendom and still be good Christians, good Lutherans.  We don't need moderates who make your own morality apart from Christ and who are pro-life for themselves but leave everything else up to the individual conscience or the will of the majority or the courts to decide.  Nope, lets face it.  Being moderate is a lot like being lukewarm and unless I remember wrongly God is going to chew up and spit out the lukewarm moderates who run neither hot nor cold about anything -- even the cross.  Moderates are immoderate when it comes to the one thing that remains when heaven and earth pass away and that alone ought to make us suspicious of something we once thought was our cardinal virtue.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

How politically incorrect. . .

Comedians Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan announced on Monday they are ending The Jim Gaffigan Show after two seasons. On his Facebook page, Jim Gaffigan explained that he and his wife felt the show took too much time away from their “most important project” — their five children. . . .
The couple has expressed their faith publicly numerous times, most recently at The Catholic University of America’s 2016 Commencement. During their commencement speech, Jeannie and Jim discussed what it was that made them successful.
“Neither of us could’ve had these accomplishments by ourselves,” said Jim. Jeannie added, “We needed each other, we needed our family, we needed our friends and we needed God.”
We live in an age in which children are like distractions from our higher pursuits.  We have children and then assign day care or extended family to "raise" them.  We have children because we want them like toys or trophies and turn to reproductive technology to deliver them to us when we find it convenient to have them.  We have children as the just fruits of the equality of every gender identity and life choice and not as the fruit of a long, enduring, and faithful marriage between a man and a woman.  We have children as private decisions and choices and not because they are intrinsic to marriage itself or the society to which we belong.

Jim Gaffigan has violated the cardinal rule of modernity.  He has elevated children higher than career or compensation and had the nerve to describe them as the most important project of he and his wife, Jeannie.  More than this, he cloaked it all in the fabric of faith and of the God whom they needed and before whom they and their children live.  The world around us can stomach the idea of vocation in terms of career but it bristles at the idea of marriage between a man and woman being the most central vocation of the husband and wife and their vocation together as parents to their children.  Worse than making children and marriage an equivalent to career, the Gaffigans have raised their home and family above the sacred markers of success and meaning with which we value our lives as modern people.

On another forum, the idea that marriage and singleness (as a choice and not as charism) were not equivalents and equals both in status and morality was attacked as the rudest and most primitive of attacks on the freedom of choice.  What a world we have come to in which we must defend marriage and then defend the priority of marriage over singleness.  Is it permissible not to marry?  According to Luther, it is not a matter of what is permissible but what is good and what is better.  If you have the supernatural gift and grace not just to be celibate but to be chaste in thought, word and deed then singleness is good. It is not good to choose singleness as a means of avoiding marriage (but not avoiding sex) in order to free up your time and resources for your self.  The gift of celibacy is to enable you better to serve the world and the Lord unencumbered by familial duties that can and should come first. This is not a legitimate choice for the Christian to free you up for a life of career, travel, pleasure, things, and self-fulfillment.  Marriage is always better than singleness (apart from the gift of singleness and its accompaniment of chastity and purity without burning with desire).  Read Luther on the 4th Commandment writing in the Large Catechism.  Read St. Paul.

We push college on our children as a better choice.  In fact, most Americans today view higher education as a sacred value.  Luther said marriage and children should be this sacred value. We value higher education because we are sure it is a means to self-improvement, to higher earnings, to better jobs (meaning those without menial labor), and because we think it will make us more productive and help us achieve more success.  We drill this into our children even at a young age.  We understand when marriage is deferred for the sake of education and we even understand when personal goals of earthly success, accomplishment, and education substitute for marriage and family.  Luther certainly valued education but he constantly pushed us to a higher value and would insist that replacing marriage with singleness and family with education or career success and self-interest indicates our priorities are way out of whack.   Dare we say it -- sinful???

Clearly this is a subject for some considered debate and discussion.  What happened to make marriage merely one of many lifestyle choices and family a decision second or third in priority to pursuit of those other things one wants or desires?  How did it end up that this became the normal in our thinking and marriage the exception?  What happened to remove this whole issue from the realm of what is good and what is better, what is faithful and what is true for the Christian captive to God's Word?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

On the way. . .

Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist , is a declaration of the consensus achieved by Lutherans and Catholics on the topics of church, ministry and Eucharist as the result of ecumenical dialogue between the two communions since 1965. It is a consensus “on the way” (in via), because dialogue has not yet resolved all the church-dividing differences on these topics. Nevertheless, at this time of important benchmarks in the relationship between Lutherans and Catholics, including both the anniversary of 50 years of dialogue in 2015 and also the 500th commemoration of the Reformation in 2017, it is good to review the path traveled together and to enumerate the many points of agreement between Lutherans and Catholics on these subjects. This review can help both communities to affirm the agreements they have reached together. More importantly, it can encourage them to look for the next steps toward Christian unity.

Lutherans and Roman Catholics in the USA have been in conversation for more than 50 years.  It has been a fruitful conversation.  Lutherans have learned something of themselves and perhaps the same could be said of Roman Catholics.  Certainly we have learned things of each other that are part of the fruitful conversation we have had for these many years.  That conversation has been interrupted by and shaped by Lutheran divisions (from its sanction in LCUSA to its de-evolution to a two sided conversation with one side of Lutheranism).  Actions by some Lutherans have further complicated this conversation (particularly the decisions to ordain women and to adopt the GLBTQ agenda with respect to marriage and qualifications for ordination).  Just as these have reshaped the relationships between Lutherans and distanced those churches from each other, so have these had an impact upon the conversation with Rome.

That there is value in these conversations is without dispute.  That these conversations will result in some form of official fellowship or even unity is a hope among some but hardly a reality.  We are as nice as we can be when we sit down and talk but the conversations have suffered from language that was not as precise as it could be and with agreement in peripheral areas while the substantive issues that separate us remain the elephants in the room.  We have not made as much progress there as we might and it does not appear that we will soon resolve the mountain of divisions that keep us distant from the hope and dream of one ministry and one communion.

By demonstrating how far Lutherans and Catholics have come together on three crucial topics, the Declaration indicates much ground that need not be retraced again, and it offers these Agreements to the churches to be received into their common life.  In this way it helps inspire continuing work toward the visible Christian unity, which is Christ’s prayer.
Unofficially, there is ground that will of necessity need to be retraced.  The church bodies are not the same as the ones who initially agreed to these dialogs.  They have taken positions at odds with what they said they believed when those dialogs were first published.  The world has changed.  We can build on the conversations but some of those conversations will need to be had again and again, if we take seriously a positive unity of full doctrinal agreement and common confession.

But therein lies the rub.  In viewing the picture of the presiding bishop of the ELCA, a woman, and the Roman Catholic bishop, a man, you get the visual image of the great disconnect between the forgers of this declaration.  When conversations began this picture would not have been possible.  Rome is nowhere close to affirming a female diaconate much less priesthood and episcopacy.  The ELCA has long since settled this in its own mind and moved on to the full legitimization of all gender identities within the clergy family of that body.  And this is the tip of the iceberg.

It is a good thing to talk but a better thing to talk substantively and to hold yourselves accountable to what you say.  When that happens, these may move from being conversations into real steps on the way to something more.  For now, I am afraid, it is more photo op for a big anniversary with each party going back to do business as usual.  That will not lead us very far on the way to anything.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Who will beg?

Sermon for Pentecost 19, Proper 21C, preached on Sunday, September 25, 2016.

Dontcha just love it when the rich get it in the end?!  What a royal pleasure it is when their money cannot buy their way out of trouble, their powerful friends cannot rescue them, and they fall from their high place to a dull thud on the ground!  Do I hear an “Amen!”  Of course you love it.  We all do.  How many movies have used this as their premise in addition to the stories of real life?  We all love this kind of retribution and justice to right a wrong but that is not what this parable is about.  The difference between Lazarus and the rich man without a name is not the amount of riches but the riches they trusted.  It is not the promise of justice that Jesus teaches here but of mercy.

The difference between Lazarus and the unnamed rich man appears to be their treasure.  Sure, one has a fat wallet.  But the other one has a greater treasure.  Moses and the prophets have provided a hope for Lazarus and his victory in death.  They both had eyes but those eyes saw things very differently.  One saw what he wanted to see – a life of ease, of pleasure, of satisfaction, and of happiness.  The other saw through poverty and scabs and the companionship of dogs to a hope beyond his vision.  They both had hearts but the heart of one longed only for today and was satisfied with the joys of the day.  Lazarus longed for a tomorrow beyond the present day’s sorrows, pains, and disappointments.  In his heart, he longed for what this world could not provide – perfect peace, contentment, and rest.

We look at these characters too shallowly – seeing only what is externally different between them when they were very different but in ways you have to look deeply at in order to appreciate.  There are poor who are as lost as the rich man without a name and there are rich who know the limits of their earthly treasures and who hear the voice of Moses and prophets.  It is not simply the riches that distinguish them but their faith or their lack of faith in wealth and in poverty.  Though we might want this to be a simple story about a rich man who got his downfall and the underdog poor man who won, it is about the triumph of faith and the trust in God’s mercy.  That is where it hits you and me – not the divide of riches but of faith, not for the cause of justice but of mercy.

We don't like to think of ourselves as beggars even before God and yet this is exactly what Lazarus teaches us.  High or low, rich or poor, great or anonymous, we are beggars before the mercy of God and if we refuse to be beggars and claim some privilege or merit in ourselves, we receive nothing from God but the justice we think we want.

Luther’s death showed the character of this faith.  He was ailing and had probably suffered a heart attack or two prior to this.  Yet he had been asked to come and settle a dispute tween the Mansfield counts.  So he set off on his last trip, heading to Eisleben on January 17, 1546.  He worked to resolve the dispute and he extracted from the royals a promise to support a school for boys and girls.  He ended his time with them by preaching on Matthew 11:25-30 - “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

In the middle of the sermon, he overcome with weakness, apologized, quickly ended it.  He went to bed.  He was watched by friends but his condition did not seem to worsen.    The papers were signed and again Luther took to the bed.  Count Albrecht brought in his personal physician and Luther felt better.  At 1 am he awoke and called out: “Oh, hear Lord God!  My pain is so great.  I am certain I will remain here in Eisleben where I was born and baptized.”  Friends and co-workers tried to console him and Luther kept repeated John 3:16.  Dr. Jonas asked Luther if he was ready to die in the doctrine he taught.  “Ja.” was the simple reply and he died of a massive heart attack.  In cleaning his room and going through his pockets, they found the last words Luther had written: “We are beggars.  This is true.”  

Luther the great heroic figure of the Reformation dies as a beggar before the mercy of God.  Like Lazarus, he was content to beg God's mercy rather than claim privilege or merit.  

Here was have no abiding city.  Whether are rich and your life easy or in wretched poverty of spirit or life, it does not matter.  Here is not our eternity.  Neither for good or for ill.  Heaven is our home.  There is only one treasure and one riches that can buy the kingdom and it does not come from your pocket.  These are the riches of another who pays for your salvation in full with His suffering, blood, and death.  Christ must purchase the kingdom or rich and poor will be forever on the outside.  Only Christ and Christ for all, for those the world calls good or bad, rich or poor, once He paid for all.

Your abiding treasure is not in the now but in this eternity Christ has won for you.  Your hope lies not in a better or easier or fairer today but in the paradise prepared for you by Him who went before to prepare your way.  Salvation is by grace through faith and not of works or wealth or accomplishment or achievement or piety or moral perfection.  Before the Lord we are not rich or poor.  As Luther wrote before he died, we are all beggars.  This is true.

Lazarus was not too proud to beg.  Are you?  This is the perspective of faith.  Faith never forgets that we are not the entitled but the beggars who have no right to the mercy of the Lord but who beg for God to give us what He has promised and provided.  Faith begs the Lord to do for us what He has promised  – to deliver us both from the joys of this world that do not last and the trials of this world that seem never to end.  What distinguished Lazarus from the rich man not named was not the earthly treasures but the heavenly one.

This is what Mary sang of in the Magnificat.  You have sung those words, too.  Of Him who has scattered the proud in the imagination of their minds and put down the mighty from their thrones and sent the rich empty away only to exalt the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, remember the low estate of His servants with eternal mercy. The riches that leave us empty are those which distract us from Christ’s treasure, teach us to trust in ourselves, and tempt us to believe that we can have our best life now and get all that we desire.  In contrast to this is the beggar who comes in faith with nothing to offer God at all and whose only hope is Christ alone. 

The truth is we want this story to be about the justice of God in cutting down the rich and haughty and giving the poor a break.  But this story is not about that at all.  It is not about justice but about mercy, not about the rich but God’s riches that save the lost and forgive the sinner and raise up the dead.  We are the beggars whom come pleading the mercy of God alone.  We are those whose only promise is the compassion of a God who does not deal with us justly but in mercy.  We are those who come not for a happy life but an eternal home in which both life’s joys and its sorrows fade from our memory in the face of unimaginable joy.

The rich man has no name but the beggar God cannot forget.  He calls him by name. That is the message of mercy, the story of hope for the hopeless.  The living turn out to be forever dead and the dead who live forever.  Because of this, St. Peter can say once you were nobody but now you belong to Christs.  Mary rejoices in being a beggar who claims God’s mercy alone.  Luther died in this blessed hope.  Today we pray that we may all beggars who have been made eternally rich by the mercy of God, forgiving our sins and bestowing upon us the life which shall not disappoint us.  Amen.

Teaching the faith. . . on Sunday morning. . .

The soft underbelly of modern Christianity and current Lutheranism is the lack of teaching.  You can call it catechesis or Bible study or whatever you want, but the reality is that our people recognize less and less the allusions and references to the great people of faith in Scripture and the mighty stories of God's redemptive work.  While this is true for Scripture, it is also true for the liturgy.  Absent such teaching about the liturgy to understand, recognize, and reference the events and Scriptures alluded to in the grammar and vocabulary of the Divine Service words and the prayers, the people are either left to their own explanations or miss out on the references entirely.  Where the guided “spiritual” interpretations of the liturgy are missing, the faithful in the pews will develop their own, subjective, interpretation of the liturgy, infusing their own spiritual needs with what may (or may not) be conveyed in the texts themselves and/or placing it all in the context of what seems reasonable or logical.

Having spent a month discussing in the Sunday Bible class the vestments, vessels, ceremonies, and celebrations of the liturgy, feast, festival, and season, I know how many struggle to find meaning to what they see routinely on Sunday morning and what they read and pray and sing in the liturgy.  And this is in a place where we have multiple opportunities to deliberately explain and place into context what happens in the Divine Service!  What happens in those places where worship is barely touched upon in youth catechesis, adult information classes, or thereafter?  It is no wonder that our people do not get why we Lutherans have some strange attachment to the hymnal or why that hymnal can be ditched when it does not seem to be relevant or effective for the folks on Sunday morning.  We have developed a Lutheranism in theory which has no particular face on Sundays and therefore inadvertently told our people that Lutheranism is about what you believe and not how you worship.

The people are generally hungry, full of questions, and desire to know the "why" of what we do as Lutheran people in the Lutheran service of Word and Sacrament.  By failing to deliver to them the background to the Sunday morning story, they are left to develop on their own explanation, understanding, context, and meaning.  This too often relegates the Divine Service to the very realm of feeling, felt needs, and spiritual relevance that the concrete symbols and sacramental means of Word and Table are there to combat.

Some years ago, a generation after the introduction of LBW and LW, a Lutheran pastor whom I had grown to know and respect said that he understood the hymn of praise to vary depending upon whether or not the service included Holy Communion or was the old dry mass.  In other words, sing This Is the Feast if there is a feast and Glory to God in the Highest if there isn't.  While this is certainly a small thing it is but the tip of the iceberg in mistaken understandings of what the liturgy is and what it means.  If this happens among the clergy, how much more does it happen among lay folks who have been failed by the pastors and have not been catechized into the liturgy, the liturgical year, and sacramental piety of Lutheran Christians?

Teaching the liturgy is eminently practical -- teaching people what they will use every Sunday morning and equipping them to teach their children and the stranger who shows up with them in the pew.  I am not at all suggesting that we fail to teach the Catechism or minimize Bible study but that in addition to these we add an annual review of some basic liturgical theology, a run through the Divine Service, a review of why vestments and rituals, and the Church Year.  We know what has happened by our failure to catechize folks into the liturgy.  We may be pleasantly surprised by what happens when we begin to do just that!

Monday, September 26, 2016

SCOTUS to decide Trinity vs Pauley (Missouri). . .

The issue is whether the exclusion of churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses when the state has no valid Establishment Clause concern.  Read the SCOTUS Blog here.

Trinity Lutheran Church applied for Missouri's Scrap Tire Grant Program so that it could provide a safer playground for children who attend its daycare and for neighborhood children who use the playground after hours--a purely secular matter. But the state denied Trinity's application solely because it is a church. The Eighth Circuit affirmed that denial by equating a grant to resurface Trinity's playground using scrap tire material with funding the devotional training of clergy. The Eighth Circuit's decision was not faithful to this Court's ruling in Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004), and deepened an existing circuit conflict. Three lower courts--two courts of appeals and one state supreme court--interpret Locke as justifying the exclusion of religion from a neutral aid program where no valid Establishment Clause concern exists. In contrast, two courts of appeals remain faithful to Locke and the unique historical concerns on which it relied.

According to the court filings, the Missouri DNR had ranked the Trinity proposal as fifth best out of 44 applications. The state rejected the application solely because the applicant is a church. That creates the kind of clean factual record that the Supreme Court likes.

This is from Missouri's brief opposing Supreme Court review:  "Although on other criteria Trinity Lutheran ranked high among the 44 applicants, the Department declined to award a grant to Trinity Lutheran because the grant would have been 'money ... taken from the public treasury ... in aid of [a] church.'"   In other words, the application was denied solely because the applicant was a church.

The Court took this case in part because there was a split in the circuit court rulings -- different appellate courts ruled differently to apply the standard. It could just be that the Court took this case to overturn the ruling below.

One more thing is worth noting.  Although Missouri is defending its law, the state may not be adverse to losing this case. The state will receive needed clarity regarding the law in either case. Further, the fact that the state told the congregation that it was being excluded for no reason other than its being a church is significant and made it easy for the church to bring a clean constitutional challenge. The state could have clouded its decision and refrained from admitting that the denial was due to the fact that the applicant was a church and that the state was so frank in its admission indicates perhaps the state is open to an interpretation of the law more friendly to churches.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Collecting books is not hoarding. . .

"Let books be your dining table, 
And you shall be full of delights. 
Let them be your mattress,
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

There was a time when books were a treasure, something almost sacred and too valuable to be treated casually.  They were hand tooled in calligraphy and art, hand stitched, and elaborately bound with covers of finest leather. Today books are cheap and easy -- Wal-Mart sells and Amazon and you can easily find old and out of print books for next to nothing on the Internet.  Every year hundreds of books are published devoted to all topics and interests.  This is also true of the Church.  We have print on demand technology to aid the publishing house in keeping old titles still in print.  We have publishing houses (I think here of Concordia Publishing House) who do a bang up job of providing the good, the old, and the new to the Church.  You can find all things Christian between the covers of paper or book board --  theology, exegesis, liturgy, history, iconography, art, architecture, music, hymnals, catechisms, etc...  Additionally, hundreds of books are published each year simply because we can translate what was never before available in English.

Some of these are published by scholarly presses in conjunction with dissertations submitted and approved.  Others are published by popular book publishers.  Still others provided by those publishers who serve the discretion and pleasure of a particular denomination.  Some are the products of the so-called vanity presses who do not really promote the vain but more often what is not necessarily commercially viable for other concerns.

If I have a little extra money, I eat.  Otherwise I buy books.  Many books do not a hoarder make; instead a collector of words and pages preserves the past while investigation the future on behalf of those who have little time or inclination to do either.  So do not condemn me for my books.  Neither ask me to give up any of them.  I have retrieved them from yard sales, garbage cans, broken shelves, businesses going out of business, book sellers and internet sources of new and old.  If I read it in a book, I can probably find it again without too much trouble.  If I read it on a screen, good luck in me finding it again.  No, there is just something about holding a book in your hand, turning the page, smelling the pages, and putting it back on the shelf when you are finished.

Yes... I fancy books and fountain pens and lots of stuff on my walls.  But I am not a hoarder.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Born or Made. . . Perhaps there is an answer

A fairly definitive word to date has been issued specifically on the question of whether GLBTQ people are born this way or made this way (choice or environment).  It is about 140 pages long and yet worth your consideration.

Is gender identity (if we use this term at all) a matter of biology that is already fixed in the person by birth or is it a matter of decision or choice that can be affected by environment, upbringing, or individual decision?  Lady Gaga says she was made that way and this point of view has challenged the assumptions of many who would suggest that the myriad of identities could be assigned a hierarchy or value (good or not good).  Born must mean God had something to do with it, right?  I am not one who believes that this has much impact upon whether GLBTQ is morally the equivalent of the male/female marriage.  But.  But there are those whose whole perspective changes if they believe GLBTQ folk are born that way.  So when a study challenges the idea that GLBTQ folks are born that way, it does affect how many judge the moral value assigned to these relationships.

Some prominent scholars at Johns Hopkins University released a new in depth study that argues that there is not sufficient evidence to support the conclusion that lesbian, gay, or transgender people are born with this sexual orientation or gender identity.

Lawrence Mayer, a co-author of the report, told The Christian Post, "There are probably some people that identify as heterosexual that then later on identified as homosexual, so it goes both ways. The importance there is the fluidity and flexibility that these things change in time."  In other words, it is a disposition that is affected by external factors and individual choice and not simply the natural and inborn desire or identity that cannot be influenced or changed. This has profound significance for both those who believe that natural is normal and for those who believe that desire cannot be changed. 

Of course, the authors of this study are taking a position of grave risk to their credibility and stature in the academic community -- a community which is decidedly not neutral or easily influenced by fact in this subject.  Yet it is a sign of hope that we can and ought to reconsider what has become, in short time, an incontrovertible yet unsubstantiated fact for many.  For too long Christians who do not accept GLBTQ behavior as normal or moral have been accused of not being open to reality.  Now we might see whether the other side is open to a dose of reality.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The end of beige Catholicism. . .

Msgr. Charles Pope has hit it out of the ballpark with this one. . . 
There is a growing consternation among some Catholics that the Church, at least in her leadership, is living in the past. It seems there is no awareness that we are at war and that Catholics need to be summoned to sobriety, increasing separation from the wider culture, courageous witness and increasing martyrdom.

It is long past dark in our culture, but in most parishes and dioceses it is business as usual and there is anything but the sober alarm that is really necessary in times like these.

Scripture says, Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle (Psalm 144:1). Preparing people for war — a moral and spiritual war, not a shooting war — should include a clear setting forth of the errors of our time, and a clear and loving application of the truth to error and light to darkness.

But there is little such training evident in Catholic circles today where, in the average parish, there exists a sort of shy and quiet atmosphere — a fear of addressing “controversial” issues lest someone be offended, or the parish be perceived as “unwelcoming.”
But, if there ever was a time to wear soft garments, it is not now.

The Church of the 1970s-1990s was surely well described as the era of “beige Catholicism” (a term coined by Bishop Robert Barron, and not by way of flattery either). Those of us who lived through that era, especially in the 1970s, remember it as a time when many parish signs beckoned people to “come and experience our welcoming and warm Catholic community.” Our most evident desire was to fit in and be thought of as “normal.” Yes, Catholics were just like everyone else; and we had been working very hard to do that, at least since the early 1960s when John F. Kennedy was elected. Catholics had finally “made it” into the mainstream; we had been accepted by the culture.
Church architecture and interiors became minimalist and non-descript. Music and language in the liturgy became folksy. Marian processions, Corpus Christi processions, many things of distinctive and colorful Catholicism all but disappeared. Even our crucifixes disappeared, to be replaced by floating “resurrection Jesus” images. The emphasis was on blending in, speaking to things that made people feel comfortable, and affirming rather than challenging. If there was to be any challenge at all it would be on “safe” exhortations such as not abusing the environment or polluting, not judging or being intolerant, and so forth.

Again, if there ever was a time to wear soft garments, it is not now. It is zero-dark-thirty in our post-Christian culture. And while we may wish to blame any number of factors for the collapse, we cannot exclude ourselves. We who are supposed to be the light of the world, with Christ shining in us, have preferred to hide our light under a basket and lay low. The ruins of our families and culture are testimony to the triumph of error and the suppression of the truth.
But what Msgr. Pope has said about Roman Catholics is surely true about Lutherans as well.  We have lived in the era of a generic Christianity, a beige faith, that is bland and inoffensive but weak and shallow.  Lutherans have been as guilty of this as Roman Catholics -- treating the faith minimally instead of maximally.  We have attempted to save Lutheranism by killing it and making it as indistinct and pale as it can be -- a Lutheranism which knows little of its own Confessions and is embarrassed by what it does know. . . a Lutheranism which is ashamed of its own identity on Sunday morning and is content to wear a mask that distorts its face to the very people seeking truth, authenticity, and integrity. . . and a Lutheranism that tries to convince by offering nothing to challenge or offend and therefore is unfaithful to the Scriptures it claims to own.

Christianity will not survive by blending in or erasing anything that some might find offensive and why would God be pleased with a church that survives without its soul or heart.  Jesus wondered if there would be faith on earth when He comes again and the people asked Him if the number of those who would be saved would be few.  We seem intent upon making sure that He does not find faith on earth and that the numbers to be saved are few and we do so not by failing to teach but by teaching and passing off as Christian what are lies and half-truths.  We seem bound and determined to succeed by fostering a diversity which betrays any distinctive Lutheran identity and by promoting a faith that listens more to the pulse of the people than it does to the voice of the Good Shepherd.

From St. Peter to Constantine there were 33 Popes. Thirty of them were martyred and two died in exile. Countless clergy and lay people too were martyred. It is hard to imagine the Church in the decadent West being willing to suffer so. Surely our brethren in many less affluent parts of the world are dying in large numbers. But I wonder: After all these years of “comfort Catholicism”, would the average American parishioner or clergyman be willing or able to endure such loss?
I hear complaints from people in the pews who say that their pastors are too rigid, too insistent upon knowing and believing the faith, too stuck in the hymnal, and too focused on doctrine.  God bless them if they get such a pastor.  We have tried an ambiguous Christianity in place of a vibrant Lutheran identity and all that has done is bled off members since 1970.  If your Lutheran pastor are too rigid, too doctrinal, and too liturgical, you should be thankful for such a pastor who will not dilute the faith until it is unrecognizable nor smooth the rough edges of the faith until no one finds anything objectionable except Jesus.  We have gotten so accustomed to such a broad and bland faith that doctrine frightens us, the liturgy is strange to us, and a steadfast pastor is naive or hard or both.

I do not want to frighten anyone but, folks, the writing is on the wall.  Our culture has drawn lines in the sand and dared us to cross them.  Our government is promoting a diversity which has not tolerance for truth that will not be compromised and doctrine that will not be adjusted to fit the times.  We may not shed blood but we will certainly pay the cost of faithfulness in other ways.  What scares me most is not the cost of discipleship amid a world so unfriendly to Christ and the Scriptures but a church that will trade away faithfulness for comfort, ease, and compromise.  The creed will soon be much more than a mere confession of faith; it will soon become the hill on which we will sacrifice some of our affluence and complacency or the mound that marks the grave of a church that gave up Christ to be an inoffensive Christian.  What will is be?  You and I will answer in ways more profound than words.  Pray that we may be faithful!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Father Z Needs to Do Some Research

Father Z, noted Roman Catholic blogger and advocate for reverent worship and the Latin Mass, keep knocking Luther for things that Luther did not say or mean or even imply. 
Luther (failed priest and heretic) didn’t, in fact, write that every man is his own priest, but that phrase summarizes both his view and that of most of the writers of the National Schismatic Reporter (aka Fishwrap) and probably also the LCWR.  His radical view of the priesthood of all believers effectively reduces ordained priesthood to a role that community gives to him to do various things.  This is what modernists such as Edward Schillebeeckx wrote, which infected a generation of seminary profs and, hence, priests and, subsequently, people in the pews.
He got it right that Luther did not, in fact, write that every man is his own priest.  But Father Z got it entirely wrong when he said that phrase summarizes his view and he has radically reduced the priesthood to its functions and derived from the royal priesthood.  Anybody with a mind can read Luther and find that this is not the case.  But it is hard to blame Fr. Z since even some Lutherans have got it wrong (WELS has a functional view of the office - holding that the functions are divinely mandated but not the office itself).

Read the Augustana and tell me where there is a functional understanding of the Divine Office?  Luther's opinions are not binding upon Lutherans but our Confessions are.  In fact, the Roman Catholics were not all that concerned about what Lutherans had to say about the pastoral office because they believed there were differences of nuance but not substance when it came to the pastoral office.  Perhaps that was naive but the Lutherans had a high view of the office (at least until they suffered the encroaches of pietism and rationalism).

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Shrewd Trust

Sermon for Pentecost18, Proper 20C, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, September 18, 2016.

Trust is very important to us. It’s part of who we are as human beings. All of us we’re born trusting. We trusted in our parents to feed us, to clothe us, to change us, to keep us safe and alive. As we grew, we continued to trust, but the older we got, the more difficult trusting in others became. Now trust is something people have to earn, we don’t just give it out to anyone. As our trust in others has decreased, trust in ourselves has increased. It’s very easy to trust in ourselves: in our abilities and in our possessions; but God calls us not to trust in these things, in “unrighteous” wealth. Instead, we need to trust in Him, in our Master’s mercy.

In Jesus’ parable, the manager trusted in “unrighteous” wealth, in his position and in the money he was in charge of. He felt secure in these things and he took them for granted, he abused his position. He wasn’t a faithful manager. He mishandled his master’s money, and when this wastefulness was brought to his boss’s attention, he lost his job.

At this point, the manager’s “unrighteous” wealth failed him. He no longer had the security of his job and title. He no longer had the financial means to survive. The master took everything back, and there was nothing the manager could do. He was alone and out in the cold.

Like this dishonest manager, our first trust is often in “unrighteous” wealth, in the things of this world. We trust in our health. The world today is filled with all sorts of fitness crazes and different diets that promise to produce long, healthy, vigorous lives. So, we eat right and exercise because we all know that it’s good for us. However, it doesn’t matter how many hours a week we spend trying to achieve the healthiest body, our health still fails. All of us have been sick, some more than others. Cancers and heart disease attack marathon runners and iron men. No one is immune to the common cold. And nothing, absolutely nothing can keep death away for ever. Our health fails us.

So we trust in our possessions and money. We work and work and work to acquire all that we can, to get the stuff that will make our lives enjoyable and carefree. We think to ourselves, “If I just had that new iphone 7 everything would be great,” “If we just lived in that new house life would be so much nicer,” “If my bank account had that much money in it then life would be easy.” But of course, all this fails. We never have enough and we’re never happy with what we have. New technologies come out every year. All our homes need repaired, and no matter how much money we have, there’s always another bill around the corner that needs to be paid. Our possessions and money fail us.

So we trust in our relationships, in our family and friends. We rely on loved ones to be there for us, to build us up, to take care of us when we’re in need. We expect them to be faithful, trustworthy, and true. But even those closest to us fail us. Family members let us down, friends crack jokes about us behind our backs, those we trust betray us. Our relationships fail.

And so we’re left trusting in ourselves, in our abilities. We do all that we can. We try hard to live godly lives according to God’s will. We want to be worthy of our heavenly Father’s gifts and graces. But we fail in this endeavor, because we’re sinners. We’re born sinners and sin is what we do. We can’t trust in ourselves and in our abilities because there’s absolutely nothing we can do to make us worthy before God, there’s nothing we can do that guarantees us life.

The worldly things that we put our trust in: our health, our money, our relationships, our own abilities; all these fail us. None of them provide us with the life we need. When our “unrighteous” wealth fails us, and it will fail us, all we can do is turn to Christ. All we can do is look to our Lord and Master, trusting in His mercy.

The dishonest manager realized this. When his position and wealth failed him, he had to trust in his master’s mercy. As he stood before his master, he didn’t try to justify himself. He knew he was caught, there was nothing he could say or do to get out of it. He was at the mercy of his master. The boss he’d been cheating would decide his fate.

It should be pointed out here that the master didn’t throw this dishonest manager into jail, even though that was well within his rights. Instead, the master had mercy on him, letting him go free, and in this, we see the true character of the master. He was merciful.

When the dishonest manager contemplated what he would do; he recognized his master’s mercy. He knew his master was a gracious, and he used this to his advantage. Before it was made known that the manager had lost his job, he called in the master’s debtors and reduced their bills knowing that because of who his master was, he would honor this reduction. The manager exploited the master’s mercifulness in order to secure himself a place among the debtors. It’s because of this shrewd and wise trust that the dishonest manager is commended. The master didn’t commend him for his deceitful business practices, but because this manager realized who the master was, trusting in his merciful character.

It’s at this point that Jesus explains this confusing parable. He said, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Lk 16:8b). What Jesus is saying is that unbelievers know how to play the game. They can use the system, the ways of this world, and they trust them to work. The dishonest manager trusted that the master would honor the reduction of the bills. However, believers, Christians, you and me, we don’t always trust in our Master and in His merciful character. We trust in everything else but Him, we trust in “unrighteous” wealth. It’s not until we’re at the end of our ropes, when everything else has failed that we come to Him. It’s only in the hospital rooms that we seek Him. It’s only when the bank balance reaches single digits that we call on Him. It’s only when we feel all alone that we reach for Him.

And thanks be to God, at these times, our Master is merciful, hearing us and coming to us. Our Master is merciful and gracious. Instead of punishing us for our sin like we deserve, He gave His only Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross so that we might be forgiven, so that we might have the promise of everlasting life. Christ our Lord and Master is there when all else fails...He’s there before everything fails. He’s there in mercy, calling us to repent, calling us to shrewdly and wisely trust in Him, because He’s the one thing that we can trust in, He’s the one thing that can’t fail.

Even though we constantly, and sinfully, put our trust in “unrighteous” wealth, our Master is merciful. He forgives us for Christ’s sake. His mercy and forgiveness never fail, and this is what we trust in. We trust in Christ’s saving death and resurrection for our life, for that is the only place in which everlasting life is found. So we daily pray for the Holy Spirit to keep us in this faith, to keep us trusting in God’s mercy, to keep us trusting in our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ name...Amen.

Some sobering thoughts. . .

I was tossing out some papers from the pile on my desk (that seems to multiply beyond my control) when a sheet of paper from a free magazine (so you know it was worthwhile) dropped out into my lap.  It was a publication from an evangelical generic source that tells you what you need to know to grow your church.  This was the introduction to an article on Growth Strategies to use to maximize your congregation.
  • White people are dying faster than they are being born
  • Whites make up 62% of the population but they account for 78% of the deaths
  • All minorities are growing but the non-Hispanic White population is declining
  • While the pace of US population growth is slowing, it continues to become more diverse
  • Non-Hispanic Whites were the only segment with a higher death rate than birth rate
  • Minority population gains account for 95% of the US population increase (due to Asian and Hispanic immigration and birth rate)
  • Millenials make up the biggest generation (those born 1982-2000) - 83.1 Million or 25% of the population; outnumbering the Boomers by 8 Million
  • For the first time in US history, Whites are a minority among those under age 5
  • Since 2010 the overall ages of those under 20 is declining while the numbers of seniors increase as well as those of working age
  • From 2015-2060 we will lose something like 23 Million US born Whites and gain 118 Million racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants
  • In 2060 non-Hispanic Whites born in the US will account for 40% of the population
  • Foreign born Americans will rise from 13% in 2015 to 19% in 2060
  • About 2040 or before native-born Whites will become a minority
For a long time now President Harrison has been preaching to the LCMS the changing demographics while people snicker about him saying all we need is to have more babies.  I am not ready to say we should not have more babies but clearly he is not pulling the statistics out of his ear.  The LCMS is about 93% White (the ELCA is even more White) and the statistical declines in numbers of children baptized and confirmed as well as the declining numbers of those marrying or sitting in the pews has something to do with numbers and a population trend such as this.

Demographics cannot solve the problem but it can tell us where not to spin our wheels. Of course the solution is not simply to have more babies (but where might we be if we had not adopted birth control as the norm, taken marriage out the realm of love and sex, and legalized abortion?).  But before we go beating ourselves up and saying that the reasons for our decline has to do with failing to be current, relevant, and contemporary (especially in worship), maybe we need to think about this a bit more.  The biggest church in the US (and the world) uses a liturgy very similar to ours, their priests wear vestments, and they have sacraments but they are growing.  Could it be that the problem is less about Sunday morning and more about our failure to speak the Gospel to those who do not look like us?  I am not talking here about foreign missions but the mission to the neighbor across the street who is not attending any church.  Could it be that we need to adapt ourselves less to the individual or group cultures of the unchurched and assimilate them into the culture of the faith -- speaking the Gospel, showing to them Christ's love, and being an example of faith and faithfulness?

The best cross cultural outreach is one which does not choose one culture over another but brings to people of every culture the transcendent culture of heaven on earth -- the Divine Service -- and proclaims the glimpse of heaven that is in our midst every Sunday morning.  How might things be different for us if we really believed this?  The Gospel is not simply cross-cultural but has its own culture that addresses every race and ethnicity.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Our country needs us. . .

Ever the good source for quotable quotes, Richard John Neuhaus often opined that “Politics is chiefly a function of culture, at the heart of culture is morality, and at the heart of morality is religion.”  It is typical Neuhaus but it is also essentially true.

The heart of America's success was not never a homogenized culture but a common sense of right and wrong, of good and evil, of morality and ethics, of virtue and vice.  People who came here did not quickly abandon their ethnic or racial identities but retained them along with a strong sense of the very things that hallmark America:  equal access to the marketplace, equal status before the law, the great freedoms of speech, religion, and property with the freedoms from want or fear.  Implicit in this was also the goal of hard work, personal improvement, and personal responsibility.

But America has lost its soul.  It has become a largely secular culture in which suspicion of religion and the celebration of conflicting diversity and unrestrained desire have left us without a common sense of values and without a foundation upon which our culture and political system can build.  More than anything else, this has resulted in the mind bending success of a Donald Trump in the face of so many other Republican challengers and a Bernie Sanders in the face of Hillary Clinton assuming the primaries would be a coronation.

It is conviction that has the power to establish and sustain a free society.  Diversity, pluralism,  tolerance, and respect for rights are not enough to established a culture, to frame enduring political structures, and maintain a free society.  America was once bound together in the fabric of faith -- faith that has more and more been marginalized to the confines of a sanctuary and from the sphere of the public square.  Yet without this fabric of faith, we face the confusion of conflicting moralities in which pleasure pursuits reign over personal responsibility, fidelity, and family.

David Brooks lamented once that when we no longer framed things in terms of righteousness and virtue against sin and evil, we lost something of our national soul.  He maintained that even when people were not religious, they still held to the “biblical metaphysic.” They had the categories of Christianity and Judaism in their heads. Categories like sin, redemption, the soul, virtue, and grace. They knew the words.  This was key to American identity and our success as a nation.  He complains that we have today a false and narcissistic sense of self that too easily claims the role of victim, blames others for his or her own flaws, and does not value or desire the path of self-improvement or see the value in humility.

Robert Reno has more recently taken up the call, rehearsing the life and role of Richard John Neuhaus, but also making the point again.  I recognize the fact that in our pluralistic society, many questions are open, and I cherish aspects of the culture of freedom our age has encouraged. All the more reason to emphasize the upward thrust of transcendence and its commanding power. True liberality in the conversation that is public life requires a spirit of humility before God, which is quite different from a humility that stems from relativism or the conviction that there are not moral truths to be loyal to. It also requires a willingness to be surprised, even to the point of being converted. There are surely some special people who come by these qualities naturally. But for most of us, they are nurtured by the life of faith. 

For survival, those of us who claim orthodox Christianity may be tempted to depart the public square and to hide from the encroachment of a illiberal liberalism that threatens not only the freedom of our religion but the very possibility of being religious.  Yet for the sake of this country, we cannot simply run and hide and hope that we can sneak under the radar.  The very fabric of our culture depends upon people of faith and good will.  If not for our sakes, at least for the sake of our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren we must have the courage of our convictions.  Europe has almost completely lost its soul with a secularism and an amoral identity that cannot withstand the onslaught of Muslims who are not so shy about their convictions.  Even more so, this shallow and eroding religious identity cannot sustain the culture or the political structures even without the press of an alien faith.

We cannot cut our losses and run.  We must stand and fight through the ballot box and by adding our voices to the public square but most of all by a personal witness of humility, a strong sense of right and wrong, mercy to redeem the sinner and love the neighbor, and the desire to amend the sinful life.  These remain the most effective tools in our arsenal as we effectively resist the tearing down of a once great culture and society by its aversion to religion and faith and its celebration of the idea of me.