Monday, September 25, 2017

What it takes to get disciplined in the Episcopal Church. . .

I have written earlier about the rather tawdry story of the dealings of LA Bishop J. Jon Bruno in trying to take away land and buildings from St. James the Great Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, CA.  Short hand version:  The Bishop went to court to get the property away from the congregation when it voted to break away, gave the property to those remaining with TEC, and then tried to sell it out from underneath them -- all without requisite approvals and in a rather high handed manner.  Great sums were spent on litigation.  Well, now finally, Bishop Bruno has been handed a 3 year suspension from the high court of TEC for his actions in the whole sad affair. 

While some might cheer the fact that justice has been done, of sorts, I am saddened by the fact that you can get a bishop disciplined in TEC for a matter such as this but not for immoral living, not for denying the creed, not for violations of the Prayerbook and the 39 Articles, and not for heresy against Scripture.  In other words, you can tread all over the faith and still be okay in this denomination (denying everything from the Virgin Birth to the physical resurrection of Jesus, for example) but if you fail to get approval for real estate transactions, you will be held accountable.

But before the rest of us get too smug in our condemnations of the remnant of a once great church, we just might find that we are in a similar boat.  Oh, to be sure, conservative churches are typically very hard on immorality but it can be nigh unto impossible to get even conservative churches to do much more than stand and complain on their soap box about basic denials of doctrine and breeches of practice against their confessional standard.  We live in such an age of relative truth that we hardly know how to identity and label heresy and apostasy anymore.  And we appear to be comforted by the fact that, at least for now, it may not quite be in our own backyards. 

I certainly do not countenance a purity cult in which one is guilty until proven innocent and the manifold acronyms of splinter groups who insist upon starting new rather than finding another to join.  Nope, you will not get a pass from me on the sin of schism that insists upon agreement on everything under the sun.  But neither will you find me comforted by the fact that at least immorality and financial issues will rouse the sleeping church.  Somewhere we need to figure out again the path between a narrow truth and path that finds doctrinal fellowship with hardly anyone and one so wide there is not real truth left at all.  The most conservative groups among us fight as much with each other as anyone else and it has not borne any good fruit and the liberal churches know how to fight only about things unrelated to the faith and its poisoned fruit is equally as evident.  God help us!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Pope Receives Correction from 62 Roman Catholic Scholars. . .

After being delivered on August 11, 2017, and without a response, the 62 signers of the letter of filial correction to the Pope made their 25 page document public today.  Interestingly, one of the charges against the Pope is that he appears to view marriage like Luther.  No similar action has taken place within the Catholic Church since the Middle Ages, when Pope John XXII was admonished for errors which he later recanted on his deathbed. More to come. . . “profound grief” and “filial devotion,” Catholic clergy and lay scholars from around the world have issued what they are calling a “Filial Correction” to Pope Francis for “propagating heresy.”

The Filial Correction, in the form of a 25-page letter, bears the signatures of sixty-two Catholic academics, researchers, and scholars in various fields from twenty countries. They assert that Pope Francis has supported heretical positions about marriage, the moral life, and the Eucharist that are causing a host of “heresies and other errors” to spread throughout the Catholic Church.

The correction was delivered to the Pope at his Santa Marta residence on August 11, 2017. No similar action has taken place within the Catholic Church since the Middle Ages, when Pope John XXII was admonished for errors which he later recanted on his deathbed.

“With profound grief, but moved by fidelity to our Lord Jesus Christ, by love for the Church and for the papacy, and by filial devotion toward yourself, we are compelled to address a correction to Your Holiness on account of the propagation of heresies effected by the apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia and by other words, deeds and omissions of Your Holiness,” the signers write in the letter.
“As subjects, we do not have the right to issue to Your Holiness that form of correction by which a superior coerces those subject to him with the threat or administration of punishment,” they state.
“We issue this correction, rather, to protect our fellow Catholics — and those outside the Church, from whom the key of knowledge must not be taken away — hoping to prevent the further spread of doctrines which tend of themselves to the profaning of all the sacraments and the subversion of the Law of God,” they add.

The signers respectfully insist that Pope Francis condemn the heresies that he has “directly or indirectly upheld,” and that he teach the truth of the Catholic faith in its integrity.
They say that they make “no judgment” about the Pope’s culpability in propagating the seven heresies they list. They add that it is not their task to “judge whether the sin of heresy has been committed” whereby a person “departs from the faith by doubting or denying some revealed truth with a full choice of the will.”

The letter was made public today, six weeks after the signers received no response from the Pope.
 UPDATE. . .
The Secretariat for Communications of the Holy See has blocked access to the web page that adheres to an initiative that accuses the Pope of here, connected to what he wrote in “Amorislaetitia”.  From the Vatican’s computers you can no longer go to the page in question, in any language.  Outside the Vatican, however, the page is accessible.

“Access to the web page that you are trying to visit has been blocked in accord with institutional security policies.”

We give You thanks. . .

An interesting tidbit from Fr. Hunwicke.  I have copied the whole of his post for August 3.  It is interesting but more than that raises questions worth pondering.
There appears to be a consensus that there is no evidence for the Our Father being in the Mass anywhere in Christendom before about 350. Before that, it was a non-liturgical prayer used, perhaps several times a day, either privately or among groups of the Faithful. And the evidence is that during this period, when Christians shared the Our Father, they concluded it with a kiss of peace. The earliest evidence I know for this is in Tertullian (c160-225; see de Oratione PL 1 1176-9). A custom had grown up of people omitting the Peace after the Our Father when they had been fasting. Tertullian disapproves of it because it includes an inclination to boast publicly about fasting, contrary to Matth 6:16. He calls the kiss the signaculum orationis; the sealing (as a document might be sealed) or finishing-off of the prayer. Rhetorically, he asks: 'What prayer is complete when the holy kiss has been torn from it? Whom does the Peace impede as he is doing his duty towards the Lord? What sort of sacrifice is it, from which people go away without the Peace?' And a couple of paragraphs earlier, speaking about the ending of the prayer, he uses the phrase assignata oratione; 'when the prayer has been sealed'. Similarly, Origen (c185-254) , commenting on the Kiss of Peace referred to by S Paul in Romans 16 and elsewhere, describes it as happening 'after the prayers' (PG 14 1282). Since S Paul never specifies where the kiss is to be given, Origen's 'after the prayers' presumably reflects the usage of his own time.

It seems highly likely that what happened is this. When the Our Father was introduced into the Mass, it brought with it its concluding signaculum, the Kiss of Peace. Thus the Pax in the Liturgy is not, in itself, a reconciliatory preparation for Communion, but a 'signing off' from the Our Father and the Eucharistic Prayer. We find this situation reflected in the Letter of Pope S Innocent I to the Bishop of Gubbio in 416 (PL 56 515). Troublemakers in Gubbio had been saying that it was better to follow the custom of another Church as to the position of the Peace rather than that of Rome; the Pope responds ' the Pax has to be done after all the things which I'm not allowed to mention to show that the people have given their consent to everything which is done in the mysteries and celebrated in Church, and to demonstrate that they are finished by the signaculum of the concluding Pax'. The fact that he employs the very term signaculum which had been used by Tertullian suggests that we are dealing with conventional usage widespread enough to be common to Rome and North Africa and over a period of at least two centuries.

Thus the Roman position of the Peace appears to have a meaning and logic which go even beyond the introduction of the Our Father into the Mass, back to those early days when Christians met in little groups to say the Lord's Prayer together. That logic was the communal and corporate assent of God's People to the Lord's own Prayer. Of course, this does not exclude the notion of the Peace as a gesture of reconciliation among those who, as one Body, are just about to receive in the Eucharist the one Body and the one Cup of the Blood of the Redeemer. That theme is itself suggested by the last few clauses of the prayer, concerning mutual forgiveness.

But I wonder if there is a slightly different alternative narrative which might be valid here. Might the passage I have quoted from Tertullian relate not to the extraliturgical use of the Lord's Prayer among Christians, but to its use within the Mass? He does seem to be talking about something more corporate than merely a semiprivate prayergroup. And note the phrase 'What sort of sacrifice ...?' And there is a paragraph nearby where he criticises the habit of sitting down after the Peace; if the Peace simply concludes a little prayer meeting, why should the participants not be allowed to sit down once it was over?

Another And ... Having criticised his fellow Christians for witholding the Kiss so as publicly to flaunt the fact that they had been fasting, he goes on ' ... on the day of the Pasch, on which there is a rule of fasting which is common to all and as it were public, we rightly drop the kiss, because we don't care about hiding the thing [i.e. fasting] which we are doing with everybody else'. Those familiar with the traditional Roman Rite will recall that, to this day, we do not exchange the Sign of Peace at the Good Friday Mass of the Presanctified, nor at the Mass of the Easter Vigil (even though the celebrant has said the words). This is because we are all deemed to have been fasting.

Questions arise: if the Our Father was within the Mass as early as the time of Tertullian, what does this do to our understanding of the early history of the Liturgy? How are we to fit in the apparently second century evidence for the Peace coming at an earlier point in the Mass? Why should those fasting consider it appropriate to withold the Kiss? What is the relevance of all this to the Eucharistic Fast, first witnessed in North Africa at the end of the fourth century? And does the evidence we have considered derive support from Dom Gregory Dix's compelling theory about the Mass of the Presanctified (i.e., that the third century practice of Christians communicating themselves privately on weekdays from the Host which they had reserved at the Sunday Mass, and blessing by the recitation of the Lord's Prayer and then drinking a cup of wine as an 'antitype' of the Blood of Christ, is found as the Communion Rite of the traditional Roman Good Friday liturgy, simply transferred from the private to the communal context)?
I must admit I find this all fascinating.  We have many questions.  Why do some rites omit the Our Father?  When was the Our Father an essential part of the rite?  Of course, we may not ever answer these questions.  I have little confidence of a red thread to chart the course of liturgical development -- certainly not one that makes sense of it all or explains everything to our liking.  There do seem to be some things that are always present.  The Eucharistic Prayer, for example.  Whether flexible and fluid (bishop praying as best he is able and at some length) or neatly nailed down by Pope or Council, the form is present even when the words are not yet uniform.

Perhaps the best beef Lutherans have with the Roman Canon is not simply the sacrificial language that Luther found so objectionable but the nature of that sacrificial language.  It is not Eucharistic at all!  In our journey of discovery, it is not only a search to uncover the missing links that connect the medieval Roman anaphora with earlier ones but a rediscovery of Eucharistic prayers -- not petitions that ask of God or tell God what we have done but real Eucharistic prayers that recount, give thanks, and rejoice over what God has done and the effects of His creative, saving, and sanctifying grace upon us.  It is not simply about form but about content.  Whether the Our Father and what if the Verba Christi were not present are interesting but largely curious only to the few.  Eucharistic praying is the domain of all the faithful.  The biggest thing missing from Lutheran canons and from Rome's is this Eucharistic praying, the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that does not presume to replace or add to what Christ has done but gives context and supreme place to what Christ alone has done.  That is the most relevant liturgical curiosity for the folks in the pew -- especially in a world in which we have increasingly become satisfied with what we can do and have done.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The pressure of the therapeutic Gospel. . .

Longer ago than I would care to admit, while on a vicarage (internship) within a then very large congregation, I served under a pastor who saw one of the most significant roles of the pastor as counselor.  Indeed, he came to the parish after I arrived and immediately began seeing individuals and families as a Christian therapist.  It took up a great deal of his time and I was not privy to who or what went on (as it should be).  But this was a parish of some 700 people in worship over 5 services a week, with over 100 in each catechism class, 200 or more in the preschool, and with a full-time staff of only a pastor, vicar, secretary, and custodian (with some part-time preschool staff, organists, and a choir director).  For good or for ill, it made a big impact on me.  On the one hand it appeared to me that people were hungry for this and in need of good, Christian counseling.  On the other, it frightened me since I knew little to nothing about how to do it -- just enough to be dangerous.

A couple of stints with the proverbial dysfunctional family systems you find all over the place and in the church as well and I found myself doing a fair bit of counseling.  Though to be fair, I was never sure of my role or skill or whether this is what I ought to be doing.  Then a wise older member came to me in private to talk.  He said in the gentlest of terms that I was not called to be chaplain to families but as pastor and he reminded me that my primary roles were preaching and teaching the Word, catechizing young and old, baptizing, presiding at the Lord's Table, absolving the penitent and admonishing the impenitent. . . you know the stuff printed on most Lutheran call documents.  I listened in awe both at his ability to describe, from the perspective of the pew, who the pastor is and what he is to do and how it cut against what I had been gradually easing into.  I remain forever grateful to him for his kind, wise, and sage words.  I have not forgotten them.

As modernity has pushed the church to the margins and fringes and Christians both lament their diminishing place and are frustrated by what is happening, the Church and her ministers have searched for ways to make a difference.  In the press of it all, both pastors and the Christians themselves have forgotten what the church is for, what the teachings of Jesus Christ require, and, indeed who the Church is.  So, on the one hand, both clergy and lay have been attracted to the appearance of meaningful and relevant place, purpose, and position -- from the gurus of self-help to people seeking everything from happiness to ease to the entertainment which distracts us from the things we cannot change.  But the Church cannot be the Church nor can she recover her rightful place and purpose until her people abandon their complacency and their timidity and confront the world and the direction of culture.  It is the requirement that the Church not become mere apologist (meaning "I am sorry") for God or for the appearance of irrelevance nor succumb to the temptation to find relevance in a therapeutic chaplaincy to the prevailing liberal order (justifying the progressive viewpoint on everything from sex to marriage to the environment to technology).

Listen to the prescient words of an Episcopalian sage speaking to a the role of Church in the world some 75 years ago: 
When the Church at last comes out from the valley of a deserved humiliation, it will find that it is held in small esteem, that it is poor and despised; but such an approach to a worldly world is the only one by which to persuade that world that there are better things to live for than the current wisdom has revealed. Such humiliation, embraced and not resented, is required if one is to draw mankind to God. That is the meaning of the crucifix, whereon hangs One whom Christians are at least supposed to worship. He died for truth, for God, to rise again in power. In the end men listen to Him, understand, worship Him; but to bring that about in the world of tomorrow Christians, like Christ, must again be willing to lay down their lives in defiance of the mores of the world. The future of the Church, under God, lies in no other hands than its own.
In every generation the saints, believing the demand to be from God, have devoted their lives to renouncing and denouncing, as basic poisons, those things upon which mankind today would feed. The Church, these later years, has forgotten how to renounce and denounce them. Instead it has sought to soothe a sick mankind with ointment of sentimental piety plus injections of a superficially optimistic geniality. 
The prophetic role has not gone away but it has chosen to speak the word that mirrors its surroundings and offers, at best, feelings, instead of the Word of God that speaks forgiveness to the sinner, new hearts to evil, and life to the dead.  There is little prophetic value in listening to the complaints of a people whose biggest gripe is that they are not happy -- unless it is to convict them with the Word of God and offer an answer to the guilty conscience and the constant pursuit of feelings over truth.  I am not despairing of real therapy but only of those who presume that this is the real domain of the Church and the pursuit of her ministers.  We are preachers and teachers, priests and intercessors, confessors and catechetical instructors and, when the Church realizes this, the Church no longer can be cowered into the fringes or edges of the world but can speak with confidence the only Word that does what it promises.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Whose debt is greater?

Sermon for Pentecost 15, Proper 19A, preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Union City, TN, by the Rev. Larry A. Peters

When I lived in New York we would often travel on a toll road. Sometimes we would recognize the people in the car behind us and pay their toll for them as a surprise.  They would pay the toll of the car behind them until it became a chain of unexpected payments.  But it was a game, almost a joke.

Today the Gospel talks about accounts being settled but there is no joke and it is no game.  It is the most real of real life situations.  And it all starts, as Jesus’ parables often do, with an innocent question, “How many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me?”  And in typical form, Jesus does not answer Peter’s question with an easy or even a direct answer.

There was a King who wished to settle accounts; an audit, if you will.  This man is in business.  He is no philanthropist.  He keeps track of what is owed.  Debts were matters of law, after all.  So he calls them in and reads off the debt.  10,000 talents.  How much?  A talent is a month’s wages so it is a staggering debt of 10,000 months wages – in other words it was a debt that no man could pay in his whole lifetime.  There was no possibility of paying back this debt even if the King were patient and extended the terms.  It is like the high interest credit card that accrues interest faster than you can pay.  So the man was blowing smoke by asking for more time to pay it off.

Then comes the clincher.  This debt, so great as to be impossible to repay, is forgiven.  It is forgiven not because the debtor was worthy or because he was a good cause or because it was a hardship case.  It was solely out of the compassion and mercy of the King that this debt was marked paid.

Then the same servant went to a co-worker who owed him 3 months wages, choking him, having no mercy, and putting him in debtor’s prison until every penny was repaid.  This did not go unnoticed.  It was not an injustice – the man owed the money – but it was inconsistent with the mercy the man had been shown for his large debt.  In the end, his huge debt was re-instated, he was thrown in prison without hope of ever escaping his debt impossible to repay.  Then Jesus turned to Peter and said, “If you will not forgive your brother from your heart, my heavenly Father will do this to you.”

God does not shrug His shoulders and forget our sins.  The debt must be paid.  Jesus has paid the debt.  Our account is settled.  We are forgiven.  That is not in dispute.  Peter’s question and ours is the same.  But what does God’s forgiveness have to do with my dealings with other people?  Give Peter some credit.  He knows that the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  He know the Lord is merciful.  He remembers the Day of Atonement and the forgiveness in the blood that covered his sins.  He just wants to know how far mercy goes.  He is suggesting 7 times.  This is no small offer. 

Think of it this way.  Your deadbeat brother    who does not work and his wife who shops like a pro, rack up credit card debt that threatens their house.  Would you give them the money to repay the debt and keep their house?  If you looked into the eyes of their innocent children, would you?  Some of us would.  But how many of you would do it 7 times?  No, Peter is not being stingy.  But neither does Peter grasp the depth of God’s mercy.  Peter is as shocked by Jesus’ answer of 77 times; so are we.  Who does that?

Only God. That is the answer.  Only God has such extravagant mercy.  Only God forgives like that.  The problem lies in the fact that we know how much the Lord forgives others.  We see the specks in their eyes so clearly.  But we do not see the log in our own eyes.  We do not believe that we are the debtor who could not possibly repay what he owes.  We would rather be the King who forgives than the spiritually bankrupt soul who can do nothing but beg for the Lord’s mercy.

Jesus is telling Peter and each one of us that we are debtors whose debt has been forgiven.  That our sins are great and the mercy of God greater still.  That we are the guilty beggars who were dead in trespasses and sins until someone gave us new life.  That we were ones so buried in debt, guilt, and shame that somebody had to dig us out.  We were not forgiven little but much – so much that our hearts and minds cannot even accurately recall or confess how many and how great are our sins.  In order to accept this mercy, we must admit our guilt.
Sheriff Arpayo, the Arizona lawman whom President Trump pardoned, must acknowledge his guilt in order to benefit from the pardon.  You must acknowledge your guilt in order for you to benefit from God’s forgiveness.  The innocent are not pardoned and those who owe nothing cannot have their debts forgiven.  This parable is first about you and your guilt and then about God and His mercy.  But it does not end there.

The wicked debtor is condemned because he did not get that he was guilty or what mercy was.  You cannot be forgiven the mountain of your debt because of sin and then hold back the same mercy who committed small sins against you.  And compared to the sins we have committed against God, every sin someone has committed against you is a pittance.

After the parable Peter realized that this whole discussion about forgiveness was volatile.  It was more than he bargained for.  If you refuse to forgive others, you are insisting that you have no sins that need forgiving.  The big issue here is not how many times your brother sins against you but how great is your sin, how great is God’s compassion and mercy to forgive you, and whether or not you own up to those sins and that debt to mercy.

And, by the way, on our journey to the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, we are reminded that this whole thing was not about ceremonies or vestments or personalities or anything else but about grace, about mercy, and about forgiveness.  The Reformation was about the cross where our accounts were settled, where the guilty were met by the blood of Christ that cleanses all our sins, and where those dead in trespasses and sins were made alive in Christ to do the good works of Him who called us from darkness into His marvelous light. 

You do not forgive your brother because he deserves it. You did not deserve it.  It is pure grace and mercy in Christ.  You were not forgiven because you deserved it.  It was pure grace and mercy in Christ.  You do not place limits on forgiveness for others because no such limits were placed upon you.  To refuse forgiveness or limit it only shows you do not get sin or your guilt.
To forgive your brother shows that you get it, by faith, through grace. Amen

Fighting over real estate. . .

So often we adopt the world's standards to judge effectiveness and success.  Drive through my city and you would at once identify First Baptist Church as the model of achievement.  It has a sprawling campus that took over a once important side street.  It includes huge buildings for such things as a gym and fitness center as well as worship space.  It has abundant parking.  It has a staff of many full and part time people, most specialists in one area or another.  It has a full fledged cafeteria.  It has ATM machines located throughout the complex.  It has non-English congregations and satellites with edgy names to attract people who don't want to go to church.  To the naked eye, FBC is the biggest, baddest, and best church in town.

Drive down the street a bit and you encounter a rather small and very old chapel.  It looks as if it is surrounded by a fellowship or educational structure and has another building across a small parking lot.  No one would realize that this is, in reality, the largest church in town.  It is Roman Catholic.  The chapel is used during the week and on weekends the rather nondescript structure is filled with people for mass (the fellowship hall was long ago converted into a sanctuary).  It hardly seems right but this parish has almost as many families as the Baptist has members.  It is not unusual for Roman Catholics to be somewhat under the radar in the South but it is also a clear statement against the idea that the Church is about real estate.

The national as well as diocesan Episcopal Church jurisdictions have spent untold millions over real estate.  In the ELCA we also have a legal trail in an effort to hold onto buildings and property.  We have created church banks to finance real estate and construction costs.  Many congregations spend the majority of their income paying off the mortgages and not a few have gone broke trying.  Sadly, in many of these facilities, the space devoted to worship is secondary to all sorts and kinds of other activities much less important than worship.  I fear we have given into the illusion of success size offers and we think that facilities are one of the chief definitions of that success.

Don't get me wrong.  I am not at all suggesting that we be cheap with structures built to house the worship of God or that we abandon the witness of a house of the Lord dedicated to His Word and Sacraments.  What I am suggesting is that we build buildings to house many things that are not necessarily bad but they have nothing whatsoever to do with the worship of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We drive by the solitary chapel with nary a fellowship hall, classroom addition, gym space, or recreational center and we think "how sad."  Perhaps it is the other way around.  Maybe we should be driving past the mega campuses with all their non-essential amenities and shake our heads in sorrow that it has all come down to real estate.  And this from a God who had no place to lay His head and even had to borrow a tomb from another!  Birds have nests, foxes have holes, and churches have loads of geography and buildings.  We need to remember the Kingdom of God is not of this world and this world's marks of success and accomplishment should not be used to define that Kingdom.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

If only funeral homes served liquor. . .

If you have read here much at all you already know my complaint about the turning of the funeral into a celebration of joy life.  I will not rehash my litany of the wrongs this has done to the way we view death and our need for and expectation of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. I am sure you will all breathe a sigh of relief about that.  But several conversations of late have helped me understand it all a bit more.

The funeral has become the wake!  Why did I miss that?  We have not turned the funeral into a celebration of life, we have confused the wake with the funeral.  We don't have wakes anymore.  Why?  Because nothing we do is located into the home anymore.  The traditional (Irish) wake has a long and storied history. Some still practice the traditional wake but many, if not most, have come around to the more staid idea of a time of visitation. The wake was, in part, utilitarian.  Death was not so easily certified and the wake was to see if the body was, indeed, dead.  The wake was a watch over the deceased.  But it was also born of the need to have people remain with the body until burial.

The time of waiting for the person to “wake” began to be accompanied by more people, some food, and much drink until the mourners and family came together as much to remember, tell stories, and reflect upon the life of the deceased as much as any other reason. The wake became a party but the guest of honor did not eat or drink and resided in a box.  Of course, there was a religious side of it and a prayer vigil was certainly part of it, as well. When all of this moved from the home to the funeral home, the food may have gone along for the ride but somebody forgot the booze.  It was often a social rite that highlighted the loss is one of a social group and how it affected the whole group.

Traditionally, the body would be prepared by the family and laid out in a designated room at the family home. The body would never be left unattended, just in case the deceased did “wake.”  The length of the wake depended upon the funeral. The wake would begin as soon as the body could be prepared and it would continue until all left for the Church. All the clocks in the house would be stopped at the time of death as a sign of respect for the deceased.  Mirrors would be turned around or covered. Candles would be lit and placed around the deceased.  The Rosary would be said at midnight and most left, leaving only the closest family members to watch through the night.  It was part of the healing process for family and friends left behind -- time filled with tears, laughter, and memories -- not to replace the Christian hope but because of it.

Now we have only visitation.  A long or short line (depending upon how well know and beloved the individual), the signing of the guest book, a few moments before an open casket, a few words exchanged with the family of the deceased, a few moments before the revolving picture book showing highlights of the individual's life, and you can be home in about 15-20 minutes.  Or, if that is too much, you can view online, sign the guestbook, and not have to bother with personal contact.  Our lack of having a real wake has left us with the desire to convert the funeral into one (minus the booze, of course).

Here is my radical thought.  Serve booze at the funeral home.  Go back to the wake instead of the staid, chaste, pious, and brief visitation.  Eat, drink, tell stories, laugh, cry, and sing.  And then we can meet death in the funeral and face its sting with the cross and empty tomb.  Then we can let the funeral be about Christ because the wake was about the dead.  What do you think?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Value of Forgiveness. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 15, Proper 19A, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, September 17, 2017.

    Every now and then it sounds odd to end the Gospel reading by saying, “The Gospel of the Lord.”  Today is one of those times.  The reading ends with Jesus saying, “And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.  So also my heavenly Father will do to everyone one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt 18:34-35).  This doesn’t sound like the good news of the Gospel...and it’s not.  This is Law, it’s all Law.  It’s the command of the Lord to whole heartedly forgive those who sin against you.  This you must do.  It’s not an option.  So, where’s the Gospel, the good news?  It’s in the forgiveness: the forgiveness you receive from Christ that enables you to forgive others. 
    These Law words come at the end of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, the story of a servant whose mountain of debt was forgiven and yet he refused to forgive a fellow servant’s tiny debt.  Jesus told this story in answer to a question from Peter: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?  As many as seven times?” (Matt 18:21).  To our ears, this sounds pretty generous.  Just think about.  Your brother, your wife, your friend, they sin against you.  The first time you forgive them.  Then, a week later, they sin against you again in the very same way.  This time you’re a little more hesitant, but again you forgive them.  Then the very next day they do it again.  No way you forgive them now; three strikes and you’re out. 
    We can’t image forgiving someone seven times.  It’s nonsense.  It’s not fair to us.  It makes us look like a fool.  But Jesus says our forgiveness is to be greater than seven times.  He answered Peter, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matt 18:22).  Jesus isn’t putting a limit to forgiveness, capping it at 490 times.  Jesus is saying forgiveness is to be limitless, and He illustrates this with the parable.
The king was settling his debts and a servant was brought to him who owed ten thousand talents.  This amount of debt is unheard off.  It could never be paid off.  Even if the servant’s salary was extraordinarily high and he never had a day off, this mountain of debt would ensure imprisonment for 1,000 years or more.  This is physically impossible; there’s no way the servant could pay it back.  But what does he do?  He falls on his knees and pleads with the king for more time to pay it off.
This servant had to of known it was impossible to pay this debt and yet he still wanted to try.  He convinced himself he could work hard enough to pay it off.  From our seats this sounds illogical and foolish, and yet we do the very same thing.  We know we’re sinners.  We know our sin debt is so large there’s no way we can pay it off, but like this servant we convince ourselves we can.
How many times to we sin against friends and say, “I’ll make it up to you.”?  Or you husbands, after you and your wife have a fight don’t you try to win back her affection with flowers and a nice dinner?  As children and teens, after we got in trouble, didn’t we then behave, didn’t we clean our room and take out the trash without being asked hoping to get back in our parents’ good graces?  Our natural inclination is to do good work in order to make up for our sin. 
We want to earn our forgiveness.  We think it’s the only way.  We sin against God in thought, word, and deed and the only logical way to make up for this is to do good in thought, word, and deed.  And when we do this good, we feel good about it.  It makes us proud and we convince ourselves we’re alright with God.  But we’re not alright with God because our good works don’t make up for our sin, because even our good works are tainted with sin. 
The reason why we convince ourselves our good works can pay off our debt is because we want the glory of saving ourselves.  We want to do it all; to be our own savior.  This is a trust in our abilities, in our power, in ourselves, and this is idolatry with us as our idol, our god.  But no matter how hard we try, we can’t free ourselves from our unpayable sin debt.  It’s impossible, just like the servant couldn’t pay off his. 
Knowing the servant couldn’t pay off his debt, the king had pity on him, not because he deserved it, not because the king expected the servant to work extra hard, not because he was a talented beggar, but because the king was gracious and merciful.  The king released the servant from all his debt, he forgave him.  The king declared him debt free, just as your King forgives you and declares you debt free. 
Only God’s grace and mercy releases you from your sin debt.  God forgives you, not because you deserve it, not because you work extra hard and promise to do better, but because Christ paid your debt by dying on the cross.  God forgives you for His sake, because Jesus took your sin upon Himself and paid it off with His precious blood and innocent suffering and death.  There’s no way you could pay this debt, no matter how hard and long you work, not even for a thousand years.  Only Christ could, and thanks be to God that He has.  
    The forgiveness of the king in the parable illustrates the magnitude of God’s forgiveness.  He’s forgiven your mountain range of sin debt because of Christ and His cross.  This is the good news of the Gospel...but the parable doesn’t end there. 
    The now debt free servant left the king’s presence and found a fellow servant who owed him one hundred denarii.  This debt was miniscule in size compared to the debt he was just released from.  It could’ve been paid off in less than a year.  But this servant showed no pity on his fellow servant.  He seized him and choked him, demanding payment.  You would think he’d be more gracious, that he’d pay forward the forgiveness of the king, but he didn’t.  Hearing about this servant’s unwillingness to forgive, the king delivered the servant to the jailers until he paid his debt.  This means the servant was imprison for life. 
The unforgiving servant’s refusal to be gracious and forgive his fellow servant showed he didn’t value the king’s forgiveness.  Likewise when you refuse to forgive those who trespass against you, it shows you don’t value God’s forgiveness.  It shows you don’t want it, that you think you don’t need it.  If you don’t want God’s forgiveness, He won’t force it on you.  But without His forgiveness, you’ll forever be imprisoned to sin. 
The forgiveness of your sin debt is more valuable than anything you could ever earn.  It’s more valuable than any other gift you’ve ever received; and you show how much you value this forgiveness by sharing it with others.  Like Joseph, who forgave his brothers who sold him into slavery, you are to graciously forgive your brothers, no matter how many times they sin against you, no matter how big their sin against you is.  Whatever sin it is, it’s miniscule compared to your sin before God.  Having been forgiven much you forgive much, and you do it gladly. 
The Lord calls you to forgive from your heart.  This means you completely release your brother from their sin debt.  To forgive from your heart means to never bring it up again.  When you forgive from your heart you don’t expect payment in the future.  Even if your brother sins against you 490 times the same sin, you gladly forgive with no strings attached, because you’ve been forgiven. 
We forgive those who sin against us not to earn God’s forgiveness, but to show forth Christ’s love and to show we value His forgiveness.  Valuing God’s forgiveness, we forgive others.  We forgive without limit because we’ve been forgiven without limit.  God our King has canceled our sin debt, a debt we could never pay back.  Christ’s atoning death on the cross, the sacrifice of His perfect life paid the price of our sin.  It’s this forgiveness that we trust in, not our works.  And it’s this same forgiveness that we wholeheartedly share with others.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.

Childless leaders. . .

A mention in First Things (print edition) brought to light the fact that with the election of President Macron of France, the leaders of Europe's biggest members of the G7 are childless.  Angela Merkel (Germany), Theresa May (Britain), Paolo Gentiloni (Italy), Leo Varadkar (Ireland), and now Macron join the Dutch Mark Rutte and Luxembourg Xavier Bettel.  Should we be concerned?  Is this something significant?  The larger meaning in all of this is that the leaders reflect something of the constituencies they serve.  Add this to a recent Canadian Broadcasting System's recent public service announcement in which a woman texting is interrupted by an impetuous little girl, a red head no less. The announcement ends with the warning:  Don't let yourself get sucked into the dead end of motherhood.

But that is the issue, isn't it?  How we view children has changed.  God's command to be fruitful and multiply has become a burden on women, indeed, on us all.  Children are not helpful to careers, they are not friendly to the environment, and they cost too much of us (dreams, money, time, and energy). Maybe it is simply a coincidence that the leaders of Europe are childless.  Maybe I am overreacting.  Maybe it is all a momentary phase, a fad, and a trend.  I doubt it.  I wish there was nothing to be concerned about.  But I think you and I know better.

The absence of children is telling.  Walk into any congregation where there is no child fidgeting in the pew or whimpering baby and you can feel the emptiness.  Look across the landscape at cities with empty school buildings and you can see the impact of a lack of children on any community.  Watch as people show intolerance and frustration with a child at a restaurant and you get the sense of how profound the impact of fewer children is upon us all.

Life has become only and always about the individual.  The freedom of the individual seems to triumph over all other things.  We do not produce but consume -- even when it comes to house, home, and family.  We have invested our future not in our children but in our technology.  Our hopes lie not in those who wear our name and carry on our faith and values but in silicon valley and its latest and greatest gadgets.  That is the poverty of our present day culture.  But it has not been thrust upon us.  We have fully embraced it ourselves -- much the way the forbidden fruit of Eden was gladly chosen and willingly eaten.  The struggle of the faith is not only for God the Redeemer of His people but for His creative will and intent.  Strangely, the fruit of sin is that we no longer even yearn to be creators or equals with God as did Adam and Even.  No, we are content to die as long as we can consume all we want before death comes.  Will there be anyone left to mourn our passing?

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Lutheran Amnesia. . .

When I was growing up and Holy Communion was four times a year (whether you needed it or not), the preparation for the Sacrament was a Corporate Confession and Absolution service, held a few days before the Sacrament was to be offered.  The service was on page 47 in The Lutheran Hymnal.  It included an Exhortation, the familiar words of confession, and a choice between a short question pointedly asking the sincerity of what was confessed OR a longer form with five questions complete with an even more pointed response (Verily, you should. . . ).  Then the absolution was declared.

There was no rite for individual confession.  In fact, the Small Catechism that I was taught included no rite either.  It was as if the whole thing had been erased from Lutheran memory.  And it had.  So, as Pastor Mark Surburg put it, "from 1856 to 1982 there wasn’t a rite for it in the hymnals published by the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (one did appear for the first time in the Worship Supplement of 1969). From 1943 to 1986 the description in the Small Catechism of how confession is done wasn’t included in the English translation used by the LCMS. From 1943 to 1991 the description in the Small Catechism of how confession is done wasn’t included in the Explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism used for catechesis in the LCMS. If you don’t read and speak German, and you received catechesis and Confirmation between 1943 and 1991 it is almost certain that you never learned about private confession, much less how it is done."  There is the shocking statement.  Even though the Confessions not only mention but commend individual or private confession and absolution, most Lutherans had no clue that there was such a thing.  Either because they were not taught faithfully or the rites were suppressed, Lutherans developed a clear case of amnesia regarding private or individual confession.

The first official sign of change came in the Worship Supplement 1969 but the big splash came when Lutheran Worship 1982 finally included a rite.  Sadly, there was not much catechesis about the restoration of that rite and so it was a big splash that was later forgotten and the status quo of silence continued even to the present day.  When a young pastor shows up right out of seminary, having been taught about the value of private confession from pastoral practice, liturgics, and Confessions classes, to address the topic of private confession, people immediately are suspect of him.  Does he lean toward Rome?  It is not their fault, of course, because they were not properly taught and their church had suffered amnesia with regard to this blessed and wonderful sacramental rite and its gift to the penitent.  But it does explain why so many are so confused about what Lutherans believe, confess, and teach with regard to private or individual confession and absolution.

So now we have the rite restored to both hymnal (LSB) and catechism and there are more pastors now willing to teach this wonderul gift with which Christ has blessed His Church, but are we willing to receive it?  It will be a long time before we find ourselves in accord with the Apology or with practice Bach knew in which additional times and additional pastors had to be assigned for the many desiring confession or even the time of Loehe when he found the burden so great that it was permissible for the pastor to sit on a chair while handling the great number of confessing people.

It is well known that we have so explained and extolled the benefit of absolution and the power of the keys that many troubled consciences have received consolation from our teaching. They have heard that it is a command of God—indeed, the very voice of the gospel—so that we may believe the absolution and regard as certain that the forgiveness of sins is given to us freely on account of Christ and that we should maintain that we are truly reconciled to God by this faith. (Ap. XI.2).

Monday, September 18, 2017

I think he is on to something. . .

Image may contain: 1 person, text

Have you noticed. . .

Have you noticed that every advance in technology (specifically the smart phone kind) seems to be countered by a decline in civility and politeness?  Technology began with great promise but we have not handled well its gift.  We know how to press buttons and swipe screens but we have forgotten how to say "Hello" and how to have a meaningful conversation.  We look at the screens in our lives all the time but find it hard to look into the faces and eyes of others.  We have turned avoiding people into an art on the internet and social media but we have forgotten the art of simple conversation that once began great friendships.  The truth is that these small screens have radically altered our lives and not necessarily for any good purpose or outcome.

Sherry Turkle wrote Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other.  Her story is a sad reflection upon the basic premise of technology as a means to improve our lives.  The improvement has led to fewer facts and more feelings, less objective reporting and more fake news, the blurred line between self-promotion and media, and, the incredible loneliness for people who would seem on the outside to be connected more than ever before.

This is not simply about smart phones although they have increasingly become the center of our lives.  Our children have had their brains rewired by their connections to social media and the internet.  Games have taken on a larger than life role and this technology makes it harder and harder for people to distinguish fact from fiction, the virtual from the real, and digital connections and real friendship.  How we meet and where we meet has been completely transformed.  It is not always bad but the bad seems to outweigh the good.  After all, the media fosters lies and deception and there is no greater lie or deception than how we present ourselves to people who have little chance of every getting to know us face to face.

We shop online, work online, have sex online, pursue hobbies online, and hear our news online.  What need have we of personal contact?  In fact, human contact has become a type of interference with our digital world and its digital lies.  The worst is when we make our smallest children addicts to technology and use the screens to keep them quiet and occupied while we focus on our screens.  The smart screen has made it harder for us to learn, to read, to retain what we read, and to think.  Worse, the smart screen has made it harder to justify the waste of mind and body on pursuits that are "better" done digitally.

When people turn to technology as the wisdom to rescue them from loneliness or from despair, we know we have gone the wrong direction.  When we saturate worship with the lessons we learned from that smallest of screens, we confound and confused others and ourselves.  The screen has become more than our weakness but the places of our secret pleasures and self-indulgent lives.  But it is not the screen or smart phone that is the problem -- it is how we use this technology and the values we attach to it and to its particular perspective on us and our world.

Truth is the first but not the last casualty and yet the Church seems addicted to the idea that technology is not the problem but the answer.  It can help, of course, but its help can be and too often is a source of tension for us and our lives.  Friends become the digitally likeminded people and what happens on the web is treated as the glowing reality that we seek and not the dull shine we have learned to live without.  Technology begs to be used responsibly but instead we text and drive, surf and do not part, and then look surprised because we missed something or missed seeming something.

Lord, rescue us from the prisons and captivities we have placed upon ourselves and give us clear and true vision of what You count as real so that we may survive a digital identity and rekindle with others the grace upon which we stand.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The role of the faithful. . .

We often are deluded into thinking that the essence of liturgical change is about producing words and notes on a page.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The true and essential vision of the liturgical movement could not be satisfied simply with rites and rubrics.  The center of it all was and remains the faithful, their lives flowing from and back to the means of grace within the Divine Service.  They are not simply those who are directed by the change but also those who will decide the fruitfulness of that change.

For this reason, it can never simply be about rites and rubrics, about the purity of the form or the care with which the form is utilized.  It has also to be about the catechesis which allows the faithful to live out their faith within the rite and about the fruitfulness of the rite in supporting the faithful and their life centered in the Word and Table of the Lord.  The fruitfulness of it all is judged not by its perfection of form or of practice but must also include the faithful who live within that rite.  So for this reason, the best liturgical development is deliberate, slow, and incremental.  Abrupt, quick, and radical change alienates the people from their liturgical home and distances them from the very place where their faith is born, fed, and nurtured.

Rome has had voices who invested everything in the reform and other voices who invested everything in the undoing of the reform.  So there is a war between those who believe rites are constantly evolving and this change is shaped by and informed by goals and outcomes AND those who believe the rites should be fairly static and shaped by and informed by only the past.  In other words, we have the proverbial missal war between Paul VI and John Paul XXIII.  Both really believe that the triumph of one missal will settle the issue and solve the problem.

Both sides have forgotten that while the ink was still drying on the Vatican Council documents and the liturgical reforms produced in the wake of Vatican II, Father Romano Guardini, a pioneer of the pre-conciliar liturgical reform, wrote in 1964 that if the faithful were not equipped and receptive to liturgical transformation, “reforms of rites and texts will not help much.”   What many have forgotten (on both sides) is what both the Council and Fr. Guardini concluded, the faithful, not the rubrics,  determine the fruitfulness of a liturgy.

Lutherans would do well to listen to this conversation.  We followed Rome in deciding that liturgical change should begin anew and disconnect the past and the present.  We produced a hymnal which had little except a nod to those who went before (LBW and, to a lesser extent, LW).   It was surely not the contradiction Rome experienced between Novus Ordo and the Extraordinary Form (Latin) but it was enough to make it hard to transition to a new book, nonetheless.  We were in love with forms and legislated the change by rubric, forgetting that the faithful vote on the fruitfulness of the change by their attendance and by the piety born of those rites.

Now Lutherans are in worse shape than Rome.  We have institutionalized the changes and the diversity of rites by forcing them to live together on the pages of the book and, to some extent, in the pews also.  It has not been pretty.  We have a plethora or rites and musical settings that have left us more and more divided on Sunday morning (by preference) and more and more diverse as Lutherans to the point where we are no longer all that sure what Lutheran worship looks or sounds like anymore.  We have been judged already by the faithful but this judgment was hindered by the fact that we did not teach the changes well and so our people were not well equipped to weather the change and to judge the fruifulness of that change.

Now some 40 years later we see the consequences of such a radical diversity (fueled even more by the creativity, borrowing, and publishing of rites that are as local as one parish alone).  Let me note that this is not simply about ceremonial but about the shape of our liturgical identity and that life that flows from such identity.  Look at LSB and ELW as books of the church and you see the width and breadth of the diversity that has left worship local, congregational, and pastoral with little to rein in the growing gulf between those who claim to be Lutheran.

What might have happened if the pace of change had been slower and more deliberate, if the past was as represented in the liturgical section of the book as the future, and if diversity were not the primary indicator of goodness?  I cannot tell.  I do not know.  But what I do that we can hardly afford more polarization, more diversity for the sake of diversity, and the local options that threaten to betray us.  Note that I am not really talking about liturgical or ceremonial additions to the Divine Service as much as I am talking about rites that compete and are so different from each other that it is hard to see the family line at all.

The faithful still have a great deal to do with the fruitfulness of the changes we promote.  Nothing has changed there.  How many of our back door losses represent votes by those disenchanted by the liturgical changes of the late 1970s and  early 1980s?  How much of our inability to get along has been fueled by the possibility of local adaptation and change that seems to glorify personal preference over everything else? 

We cannot turn the clock back so our age will require that our catechesis pick up where our liturgical changes have failed us.  The only success that endures is the fruitfulness of liturgical change and the folks in the pew have a lot to say about that.   We better do everything we can to give them instruction and preparation so that it does not come down simply to what we like or do not like.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Minor orders and major issues. . .

From the beginning of about the 3rd century there is evidence in the West for some four minor orders in the Church (acolytes, exorcists, doorkeepers and readers). In addition, mention is made of cantors and, as odd as it sounds,  fossores (tomb diggers!). Of these, the overwhelming evidence favors the office of reader as the earliest. There is also evidence that, at least in the West, there was some sort of investiture rite, sometimes called an ordination, in which hands were laid and the individuals were given the instruments of their offices.  It must be said, however, that none of these offices were seen as part of or similar to the the major order of deacon or the highest order of priest and bishop.  It was clearly held that none of these minor orders originated with Jesus or the apostles.  This is likely the structure Luther would have known.  See the chart below.

The Secular religious hierarchy in medieval times

This hierarchy is explained below in descending order. Take a look:
  • The Pope – Head of the medieval era religious hierarchy.
  • Archbishops – They worked according to the instructions of the Pope.
  • Major Orders – This social group incorporated three more sub groups acting on the command of the archbishops. These were –
    • Bishops
    • Priests
    • Deacon
    • Minor Orders – This group formulated the lowest level of Secular religious hierarchy in medieval times. These were of four sub divisions described as below –
      • Acolytes
      • Lectors
      • Doorkeepers
      • Men studying at the Church Schools

The Monastic religious hierarchy in medieval times

This hierarchy is also described below in a systematic descending order. Have a look –
  • The Pope – The head of all religious activities in the medieval period.
  • Nunneries – These directed according to the guidelines of the Pope.
  • Abbot – They performed spiritual rituals for the kingdom but only after having considerations form either Pope or nunneries.
  • Prior – A prior always followed abbess for every action.
  • Monks – These were the holy priests
  • Obedientaries – These were lower level monks. These were further categorized as below –
    • Cellarer
    • Infirmerer
    • Hospitaller
    • Sacrist
    • Novices – They were quite more like lay brothers but quite more seniors.
    • Lay Brother – After completion of monastic schools, the children became lay brothers.
    • Oblates – These were children attending monastic schools.
But in both the hierarchies, every one of these above people, from Pope to doorkeeper, were required to have their hair of head shorn in the Roman tonsure. This was done in a systematic manner. The crown of the head was completely shaved while leaving a small ring of hair unshaved around the head. But nuns normally had their hair cut very petite under their covering.

 As to the liturgical functions attached to the various minor orders, they are really but a participation, originally rather indefinite, in the liturgical ministry formerly administered entirely by deacons. This explains why minor orders differ in the Latin Church and in the various Eastern Churches.  This earlier discipline, however, no longer reflects modern custom and law.  In 1972, Pope Paul VI replaced the term "minor orders" with that of "ministries". Two of what were called minor orders, the reader and acolyte, were kept though national episcopal conferences were free to use the term "subdeacon" in place of that of "acolyte".  Candidates for the diaconate and for priesthood were required to have received both ministries and exercise them for some time before receiving holy orders.

Okay, my point in this rather long post.  After the Reformation, we forgot all about these minor orders or ministries.  Maybe it is time for us to reconsider.  No, I am not advocating for changing the Lutheran history of one ordination to one office, the office of pastor, nor am I advocating that we willy nilly jump in and begin it all anew.  What I am suggesting is that we can create and define offices, not really clergy but not really lay, to fulfill specific functions, not to compete with the Office of the Pastor, not to substitute for the Pastor, and not responsible for those things for which only a Pastor is authorized.  Perhaps the issues of lay assistants at the altar, lay readers, etc., could best be solved with such ecclesiastical offices, endowed with limited authority and responsibility, requiring adequate training and preparation, and conferred in some churchly way (a consecration with the symbols of that responsibility, for example).  Okay, lets get talking. . .

Friday, September 15, 2017

In case you missed it. . .

Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World. . .

Click here. . . 

MEGA Churches. . .

In one of many media reports on the data of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, we find some surprises and some rather predictable facts.  You can read some of it here.
One striking aspect of megas is that 40 percent are “non-denominational” and totally self-governing. Those formally affiliated with denominations usually have only loose involvement with others in their church body. In fact, 13 percent have considered quitting their denominations over the past decade and half have done so.
The list of the 15 biggest (meaning over 20K in attendance at one or a number of satellites) includes:

Lakewood Church, Houston, Texas
North Point Community Church, Alpharetta, Ga., Edmond, Okla.
Gateway Church, Southlake, Texas
Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, Ill.
Fellowship Church, Grapevine, Texas
Christ’s Church of the Valley, Peoria, Ariz.
NewSpring Church, Anderson, S.C.
Elevation Church, Mathews, N.C.
Church of the Highlands, Birmingham, Ala.
Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, Calif.
Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Ky.
Central Christian Church, Henderson, Nev.
Phoenix First Assembly of God, Phoenix, Ariz.
Second Baptist Church, Houston, Texas
Of course, this does not include any Roman Catholic parishes who might otherwise fit the size requirements.  Need I say the obvious -- not many Lutherans are on the list.

The Hartford team's data shows that these mega churches are Protestant, they are characterized by a specific identity and culture, their worship is entertaining, and they are adept at using the best of the best state-of-the-art sound systems, visual projection, and popular contemporary music. They draw from unusually large geographic areas, they offer a diverse schedule of programs on a seven-day basis, are located on huge campuses (with requisite parking lots), and tend to be located in suburban or exurban settings.

What the Hartford team has not noted is that these mega churches and all they do are the envy of most denominations.  Though these denominations are generally not as quick to adapt to trend or make those trends, they tend to follow where the leaders have led.  In the heart of many small congregations lie the dreams of becoming a mega church or, as perhaps they ought to be calls, a mini-denomination.  But this is not where we ought to be spending our money, time, or daydreams.  The call of the Gospel is faithfulness and the only measurement we need to be worried about is faithfulness.  As we heard a month ago, the seed is the Lords and the results are the Lords and even when weeds seem to fill the field, it is not ours to second guess the Lord but to trust in His timing, His gracious will, and His power to accomplish that will through His appointed means.  We cannot afford to be less than welcoming but it is not the welcome of God's people that will grow the Church -- it is the Spirit working through the means of grace.  Nothing more and nothing less.  I do not expect the non-denominationals to remember this but Lutherans dare not forget it.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Lutheran Disaster Relief. . .

Contrary to what people think, most disaster relief is faith based, from organizations set up by churches and funded by Christians, in love for their neighbors in need.  They may not be on the ground as quick as FEMA but they are there long after the news media has moved on and covered the next big story and long after the disaster agencies have packed up for the next great storm or flood or tornado or hurricane.

Give.  Give generously.  Give now.

Have to laugh. . .

I am so tired of converts telling us that the pope is not Catholic.  So complained a cradle Roman Catholic about those who take seriously the doctrine, liturgy, and life of their newly found faith.  There are, apparently, many who take more seriously than "cradle Catholics" (his term) what the Roman Catholic teaches and the mass by which it lives.  But the whole discussion brought a smile to my mouth.  Why?  Because I hear the same thing from LUTHERANS!

In the same way, many Lutherans who were born into the Lutheran Church tend to forget or simply have chosen to ignore what Lutherans believe, confess, and teach.  But not the converts.  Those who grew up in churches in which the faith was diluted or hijacked are happy to find a church where the Confessions replace feelings and opinions or the latest cultural trends.  Those who grew up without a faith are thrilled to find a God who does what He says, keeps His promises, and is present where He has said He will be to bestow what He has pledged.  Those who come with guilty conscience are drawn to Him who absolves the sinner by the blood of Christ.

In my own parish, with so many converts, there is real excitement from those converts to be in a confessional Lutheran congregation and to worship with the richness of the historic liturgy, hymns that speak the Gospel, and reverence the present God. They hunger to know the Scriptures because they speak of Christ and to learn the doctrine of the faith (that does not change).  Yet, sadly, it is not always the case for those who have always been Lutheran.  I do not mean to diminish them or anyone.  I am a cradle Lutheran.  But what you have always had, you do not always appreciate.  One of the great gifts of converts is that the draw our attention to that which we knew but have either forgotten or grown complacent about.  God bless them.

Under it all, it is easy to forget that ours is, after all, a missionary faith.  Lutheranism is not just for Lutherans only.  We are happy to hold babies in our arms over the font and to teach them the faith in Sunday school and catechism class and to watch them become adults.  Absolutely!  But we are just as happy to welcome those who grew up in another church or who grew up with no church at all.  Remember the story of the employer who sent out laborers into the vineyard at different hours?  This was not just words.  The Church welcomes people at different points in their lives but the point is the welcome of the Gospel and not who was first and who came late.

Some want only converts and others want only the cradle kind.  I want them all because God wants them all.  It is a marvelous thing when those experienced in the faith offer to the converts the example of their patient endurance and it is a wonderful thing when converts offer to the cradle Christians their confident enthusiasm.  It is always a problem when we forget this and much choose between them.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The nones, the nons, and their pastors. . .

It is hardly a secret that American Christians appear ever more interested in non-denominational churches.  An increasing number of Christians are attending non-denominational churches -- one out of six Americans to be precise.  Today, only 30% of Americans belong to a Protestant denomination, down dramatically from 50% before 2000.  Yet there is more to this picture than simply laity who are attracted to non-denominational churches.  It is also about the pastors of these churches.

To new pastors with an idealized perspective on church work and disdain for denominational structures as impediments to their ministry and its success, non-denominational churches are also very attractive.  So they come straight out of seminary or Bible college, filled with dreams of making a big difference and reaching the unreached and many run head long into the brick wall -- a church structure with lines of authority, requirements of accountability, doctrinal oversight, and traditions and it all seems worthless and unnecessary to out the hoops of a church planting bureaucracy.

The truth is that in many denominations there are more than a few pastors who attempt to act like those who are non-denominational.  Congregational denominations, like the LCMS, seem particularly susceptible to the entrepreneurial pastors.  And the truth is that many in such churches, such as the LCMS, are attracted to and even foster such pastors.  Perhaps it is in the hope that new methods will reverse the membership decline or it could be that we Lutherans are not thoroughly convinced that the means of grace will work or are enough to do what we think God wants done.

Strange how easy it is for Lutherans to cast aside or forget such things as baptismal regeneration or the real presence in the Eucharist or the familiar clothing of the liturgy.  But that is exactly the point.  It is not simply a matter of casting aside these things as if they were out of style clothing but casting aside the God who works through means, who has bestowed upon His Church the riches of the means of grace as the vehicles both of His presence and of delivering the fruits of that presence, and whose Word is not a stagnant fact nor a mere historical record but living voice.  It is also amazing to me how easily it is to trade off the liturgy and its richness of God's Word said and sung for a worship format in which Scripture is given in dribs and drabs as it is much be rationed.

I have no doubt that the penchant for non-denominational churches will continue, at least for a time.  Americans have a fascination for things new and it will not be any different when it comes to religion.  At some point one might hope that Americans would wake up to the emptiness and shallowness that passes for Christianity today.  But it is foolishness to wait for that moment to happen.  Instead, we cannot look to those who refuse the truth of His Word for guidance or for inspiration.  Our future lies, at least in part, with our willingness to acknowledge the past, to live as the continuation of the faithful tradition, and to stand with those in our past who risked all to proclaim the truth.

This 500th Reformation Anniversary year is as much about the future as it is the past and about how that past shapes our future.  We have nothing to run from except pompous chest beating and instead need to rekindle the confidence in the Word that fired up a reform and renewal even Rome had to acknowledge.  We need to run from the false characterizations that predominate -- of  a Lutheranism that is a new Protestant denomination --and admit what the Augustana insists -- we are catholic in doctrine and practice.  And with it must come a renewed sense of the benefits that come with structures, accountability, responsibility, supervision, and doctrinal integrity.  Without them there is no sustainable Christian identity or witness.  These things come with problems to be sure but their benefits outweigh their drawbacks.

The nones and the nons may dominate the headlines within American Christianity but the future of authentic Christianity lies with neither.  Entrepreneurial pastors opening the latest and greatest fad brand or non-brand of Christianity is a marketing scheme and a dream (or better a nightmare) and the future of Christianity cannot be carried on the backs of the next trend to come along.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Age and youth. . . together in faith. . .

Sermon preached for Pentecost 14, Proper 18A, on Sunday, September 10, 2017.

    Luther once said everyone becomes ugly when they get old.  He was not judging others, just looking in the mirror.  The ravages of age to body and beauty are not pretty.  Nobody knows that more than we do.  In our youth culture, old age is offensive.  The only good old people are those who do not act or look old.  People try to look and act like kids no matter what their ages. 
    Contrary to what it appears, this is not what Jesus meant when He said “except you become like a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven” or “ do not despise the little ones.”  In Jesus’ day, age was esteemed and children were best not seen and not heard.  Yet Jesus is not taking sides here between youth or old age.  He is calling people to humble faith.
    No matter what people say, the old are not automatically wiser than the young.  Age does not bring wisdom but it surely does teach skepticism.  Longevity buries hope under a lifetime of disappointment.  Old age has discovered that the world is full of liars and all their lies. Don’t believe what people tell you.  The old prefer the past because they don’t know or cannot control the future.
    Jesus condemns the elders in the faith because they should have known better than anyone the Law and the Prophets but in the end, they did not get them and could not recognized Jesus.  So what does it mean then that Jesus says become like a little child (little -- meaning very small, infant and toddler)?  Would a child have known the Law and the Prophets to recognize Jesus? No, our Lord is not pitting one group against another.  He is holding up faith and appealing to trust in a world skeptical and suspicious of words.  He is talking to you and to me.
    The little child is born to trust, having not yet had his trust disappointed over and over again.  The little child believes the word and does not doubt it right away.  The little child wants to believe and wants to trust.  Little children believe their parents are the wisest people they know and they believe all people are generally good.  As they grow they will learn that neither is all that true.  And with this knowledge, faith becomes harder.  We all know that.
    To the child the promise is real.  If mom says it or dad says it or God says it, it is real and true and you can count on it.  That is what Jesus is talking about.  Age makes some of us wise but it makes all of us suspicious and skeptical.  Israel taught its children the saving acts of God and they believed them.  But the same people who taught them the great stories of God’s deliverance, doubted the Word of the Lord and forgot what God had done when their faith was put to the test.  So Jesus holds up the faith of a child and asks those of every age to believe as simply, humbly, and absolutely as the child believes the Lord.
    As old age comes to me, I am not sure Luther was wrong.  Hair grows where it shouldn’t and doesn’t grow where it should. Ears grow and noses and with them aches and pains.  Living to old age may mean that the world finds us ugly or a burden or useless.  Neither age nor youth commends us to the Lord.  Only faith.  The Lord calls us all to faith.  The instinctive faith of a little child has not been worn down by a lifetime of struggle and sorrow, disappointment and dampened hopes.  But children have much to learn from the elderly whose faith has endured test and struggle, for the children are the flowers whose bloom has not yet been tested and tried. Both the aged and the youth meet on the same holy ground – faith.
    Age has knowledge on its side but not always wisdom.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  This wisdom is the path of faith.  God’s ways are not our ways.  His mercy is shockingly illogical.  Who loves and values those who can do nothing for them and who cost them everything?  Only God.  Who leaves the 99 to find the one lost sheep?  Only God.  Who bothers with someone who has sinned against you once and will do it again and again and again?  Only God.
    This is the power of faith and the power of forgiveness. Our God loves the same – the child in the womb, the youth in his glory, those in the middle of their lives, and those near the end.  How much does He love us?  Enough to suffer for our sins, die the death we should have died, and then to rise to freely bestow upon us His salvation.  The old have heard it all before but they need to hear it like the child who has heard it for the first time.  The child, yet untested by the hardness of this mortal life, needs to learn endurance from those who have been sustained by grace through it all.  Together we are the 2 or 3 into which Jesus comes to manifest His grace, to bestow upon us His gifts, and to lead us through death to everlasting life.
    So repent you who are old.  Repent of our doubts and your suspicion and your skepticism.  Believe.  And repent you children, so full of yourselves, for you depend upon God for all things.  Young and old together meet the Lord on the holy ground of His amazing grace.  Salvation is by grace and faith grasps hold of the rich promise and never lets go.  May God grant this faith to our children and grandchildren, whose futures no one knows.  May God grant it to our parents and grandparents, whose lives this side of glory are already mostly lived.  And may God grant it to us all in between.      Amen

It just seems right. . .

In another insightful post, Carl Trueman wrote about the campuses of America as the places where the cultural Waterloo will happen.  He is absolutely correct about the role of government in applying Title IX to require the schools to accept the LBGTQ agenda as condition of support, of the role of groups such as NCAA to require those same schools to accept the LBGTQ agenda if they want to participate in intercollegiate sports (and reap the financial payoffs of those sports and media deals), and of the faculties who have made any hesitance or rejection of that LBGTQ agenda impossible for colleague or student.  But his best line was "Will and Grace carried more weight than any church catechism or tome of moral philosophy."

We have entered a time in which not only is there a wholesale rejection of the Judeo-Christian ethic but it has been replaced by the most authoritative moral compass of all -- it just does not seem right to me.  In other words, any external or objective moral conscience has been replaced not by another informed rule or guide but by what feels right.  Such feelings are by and large not to the domain of principle or belief but of culture and media.  I write this as Will and Grace is headed back to the air.  The media have not merely replaced one set of moral values for another but have taught us well in something far more difficult to engage in debate and far more destructive -- what feels right to me (the me whose mind is shaped by the world around me).

So, for example, the whole issue of sexuality is treated exactly the same way as issues of life.  The Charlie Gard affair, with a family willing to pay for treatment that government (or insurance) refused to cover, was not allowed to proceed simply because the government (or insurance) could not allow this life to be valued.  In fact, here human life is seen precisely within the context of the value of the life of a pet.  Who among us has not had to "put down a pet" and found that the more humane path than prolonging suffering or the inevitable?  Again, the problem is that this debate is impossible without moral principle to address and since no moral principle applies except it does or does not seem right, there can be no real debate.

Our children, and our adults as well, have had their minds and their consciences shaped less by moral principle, less by Scripture and catechism, and less by liturgy and faith than by the free wheeling arena of feelings, intuition, a personal sense of justice, and the factors that shape or define those feelings.  This is the problem.  Having lost control of our schools, we send our children onto the school bus not merely to be taught reading, writing, and arithmetic but what is right and wrong and how right and wrong are defined.  As long as they come home with good grades and do not fight too hard about going to church, we parents have assumed all is well.  It is not.

This is the reason for the rise of home schooling.  It is not primarily that the home is a better arena for learning but that home is about the only place left where learning takes place within the framework of an informed, principled, and external morality and an ethic not fueled by news, entertainment, or a progressive ideal that is intolerant of disagreement. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

I said we agree and therefore we do agree. . . year ago the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted overwhelmingly to approve a declaration of unity with the Roman Catholic Church in an endeavor to “enumerate the many points of agreement between Lutherans and Catholics.”  The “Declaration on the Way” received nearly unanimous approval (931-9) during their church wide assembly in New Orleans. According to an official press release by the ELCA, after the vote the delegates stood and applauded happily.  Among other things, the declaration “seeks to make more visible the unity we share by gathering together agreements reached on issues of church, Eucharist and ministry.”  However, the agreements are not yet complete and so it is called “on the way” because “dialogue has not yet resolved all the church-dividing differences on these topics.”  Roman Catholic Bishop Denis Madden of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, co-chair of the group that mined the half century of theological dialogues, said the agreements clearly pointed to a time when there could be approval of Lutherans and Roman Catholics sharing communion together.

I know, it is old news.  But it is old news that has continued the myth that agreeing to disagree is an agreement and that it is enough of an agreement to share Holy Communion, anyway.  While we are busying ourselves with the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, at least the ELCA is extending its ecumenical olive branch and trying to single-handedly heal breach and rush our footsteps to the altar.  That there are Roman Catholics who are interested in this creative approach to disagreement is no surprise.  Pope Francis himself has encouraged such a path, at least with his off hand comments.  Yet the issues that divide Rome and Wittenberg will not be resolved by ignoring them nor will any resulting unity be strong enough to do anything more than dilute what it means to be Roman Catholic or Lutheran.

Some believe that the Missouri Synod is not interested in dialogue or in ecumenism.  That is probably true of some within the LCMS but Missouri remains committed to a different understanding of unity -- one in which differences are not ignored or glossed over but faced head on, dealt with in substantive theological conversation in which there is real unity.  This means more than simply using the same vocabulary but actually meaning the same thing by using common terminology.  It is slow and it means figuring out what to do with not only past statements but past condemnations.   It will result not in a weak unity in which people accept differences but decide they are not church dividing but a strong unity in which we stand together and affirm "This we believe, confess, and teach."

To those who are attracted by this pale unity and who ache for the great divisions within Christendom to be repaired, I urge patience.  The divisions happened a long time ago and have been in place across Christianity for centuries.  It will take more than the last 50 years of ecumenical dialog to treat and resolve those divergent theologies and come to common confession.  But do not give up.  The work is even now being done.  It is slow and sometimes we must take a few steps backward before we can take one baby step forward.  But progress will only come as we are the best Lutherans we can be and our ecumenical partners bring their own best to the table.  And the best is definitely better than accepting differences and simply deciding they don't matter all that much anymore.  In fact, what that really means is that doctrine doesn't matter anymore.  If we get to that place, there is no need for ecumenical dialog at all, or even for Church.