Thursday, April 27, 2017

Essentials for congregational change. . .

So, I opened up my email and found this in one of them.  I was told that every day leaders wake up knowing that their congregation must navigate change or. . . the congregation will distance itself from being a vibrant community with wider influence.  And the problem is:  Inertia. . . that wakes up even earlier every day and has already resolved itself to fend off any feeble attempts at desperately needed change that would challenge status quo.

I guess this is an email for me -- since we use the hymnal, have a tradition and foster a sense of continuity, preach rather traditionally, teach the catechism, and, well, look like your grandpa's church.  Inertia looks like my parish.  All around me are big box evangelicals and Southern Baptists who look like them and they have bought into everything from screens to vision casting to the last words of any dying congregation -- we've never done it that way before.  But not Grace.  We have not moved the cheese and it is still where it always was (Word and Sacrament).  Our liturgy clearly ties us to the once and ancient church and to our Confessions.  The last trend we embraced was to have soup and bread on our Lenten and Advent schedules.
So, here are 3 essentials the leader(s) must deliver for congregational change!

Give people an inspiring, motivating, uplifting vision that’s big enough to overcome the “just stay here” status quo. People are afraid to try new things…afraid they’ll fail…afraid it won’t work. Give them a picture of what could be.

Clarify why we can’t stay on the present path. Name reality. Don’t make excuses. Don’t call it something that it’s not. People need to have a burning conviction that it would be unconscionable for us to do nothing and to be content with status quo.

Clearly articulate the first few steps down the path from “here,” where it would be unconscionable to stay, to “there,” the vision of a new and different reality.

So for congregational leaders this is not easy. You need…

  • Clarity around your own identity and purpose.
  • A God-inspired sense of vision or direction…not a used, borrowed one from another congregation.
  • A team of leaders…the board, the staff, the ad hoc committee that can straighten their backs and summon courage and resolve to lead together.

Church members want stability, especially when the world around them is unpredictable and unstable. (Some of the others became frustrated and discouraged and have already left your church.) They’ll pursue status quo until they die, never realizing that status quo is killing them…until they die.

  • Initial, emotional resistance causes most leaders to flinch before a thoughtful consideration of facts can be made.
  • It’s more difficult than you think…some days gaining ground, other days slipping backwards.
  • These are areas that should have been resolved a few years ago. There are other areas that have emerged that you as leaders don’t want to admit even exist.
But. . .

The miracle is we are growing.  Like 6 7 baptisms during the Easter Vigil (pretty old school service) and most of our members join through adult confirmation and we have loads of young people -- both young families and young singles.  We wear vestments (pretty traditionally styled) and we sing to the sound of a pipe organ and we have a weekly Eucharist.  And the people keep coming.  The status quo is not killing us -- it is part of the reason we grow!!

No, we are not perfect and we have oodles of problems.  We screw up and fail at things all the time.  But our people are friendly and welcoming and the Divine Service is tied to the pursuit of our best for His glory (in everything from music to preaching to liturgy and facility).  We are not all that we could be or should be.  But the growth is the fruit of the Word proclaimed faithfully and the Sacraments administered according to Christ's institution.  We do what we can do but we trust the Lord to do what only He can do and what He alone has promised to do.

There are contemporary congregations that are dead and traditional congregations that are dead but that death is awakened to life by the Word.  Know who you are and be who you are.  That is my plea to Lutherans from a Lutheran who struggles every day with just that.  Don't be spending all your time looking over the fence to see what others are doing in their back yards.  Do what the Lord has called you to do and be faithful in that calling -- from pulpit to pew and back again.  Parents teach your children well, husbands and wives love and serve one another, be friendly to the stranger, and serve your neighbor in need.  Yes.  But be faithful in worship, hear the Word of the Lord (and pastor, preach it!), and receive the Lord's Supper with a repentant heart believing in the promise.  It is one package.  Do it all and if you grow, God is the reason and if you are not growing, do not give up and lose heart.  The Word will not return to Him empty handed.  We say it.  Lets act like we believe it in the Church.  I am not sure the Church needs leaders but I am very confident the Church needs pastors who faithfully fulfill their calling and people in the pews who faithfully fulfill their baptismal vocations.  And those who do this are the leaders God calls and the world needs.  The Spirit is the change agent of God and the means of grace are how the Spirit works.  Leaders maybe we are but to be sure we must first be the led!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

No honor among. . . academics. . .

Whether you agree with him or not, it would be difficult to deny not only the parish success but the great influence of Tim Keller -- an influence well beyond his own smaller denomination!  He is someone Lutherans listen to as well as evangelicals across the board.  It is a no brainer to acknowledge the long shadow Keller has cast over Christianity in the past two decades.  He is not only well known but well published as well.  So when Princeton Theological Seminary decided to honor him with the annual Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness (named after a famous Dutch neo-Calvinist theologian), it was also a no brainer.

Then Princeton Theological Seminary reversed course and said Keller will not receive the honor after all.  In an email to faculty and students on March 22, the president of the once conservative and now liberal mainline Protestant seminary, the Rev. Craig Barnes, was backtracking all the while insisting that Princeton and he remain committed to academic freedom and “the critical inquiry and theological diversity of our community.”  Well, to a point, it seems.  Barnes wanted to distance Princeton from Keller lest the award “imply an endorsement” of Keller’s views against the ordination of women and LGBTQ people.  Lord knows, we can offend conservative Christians all we want but no one dare challenge the sacred cows of women's ordination and the LGBTQ agenda.

“We are a community that does not silence voices in the church,” Barnes wrote. “In this spirit we are a school that can welcome a church leader to address one of its centers about his subject, even if we strongly disagree with his theology on ordination to ministry. Reverend Keller will be lecturing on Lesslie Newbigin and the mission of the church – not on ordination.”  No, Princeton may not silence voices but they do everything in their power to discredit them and to deny them -- even one as significant as Tim Keller.  Keller was gracious enough to agree to offer the lecture even without the award but this is about much more than that.  Can a Christian theological seminary, much less a university of any stripe, accept the viewpoints of those who were once mainstream only a decade or so ago but have now quickly been sidestepped by the new intolerance of feminism and gay rights?  That is the issue.  Increasingly the answer is "no."  The views that were once mainstream Christian doctrine and practice a decade or so ago have now become a pariah on secular university campuses and even those of so-called liberal Christian universities and seminaries.  So quickly and deeply have these become the litmus tests of new orthodoxy that no one may be allowed to offend.  That is the intolerance of the tolerant.

Just in case you do not know who Tim Keller is, look at his book credits below. . .

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Seeing is not believing -- hearing is!

Sermon preached for Easter IIA on Sunday, April 23, 2017, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    Of the five senses that God’s given us, the one we trust the most is our sight.  Sure, we use all our senses to gather information, but there’s just something about seeing with our own two eyes that gives us a sense of truly knowing.  When we hear about something that seems just a bit too outrageous, we respond with a sarcastic “I’ll believe it when I see it.”  When we witness something amazing we say, “I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it myself.”  Having a photo or seeing a video gives us trust beyond doubt.  For us, seeing is believing.  But is this true when it comes to our faith?  When it comes to trusting in Jesus Christ, our risen Lord and Savior, IS SEEING BELIEVING?
    For the disciples, especially Thomas, seeing was believing.  They trusted in what they saw, and what they saw was an empty tomb.  When the women told the disciples about Jesus’ resurrection, they didn’t believe their words, they seemed like a tall tale.  But Peter and John ran to the tomb wanting to see for themselves, and they saw it empty, but they didn’t understand. 
    The tomb was empty and the women told the disciples why: Jesus rose from the dead.  This should’ve been joyous news.  Their teacher, their leader, their friend was alive, but the disciples were afraid.  They feared the Jews and locked themselves in a room.  Why?  Why were they afraid?  Because they saw an empty tomb.  They feared the Jewish authorities would come and arrest them for supporting Jesus.  They feared they’d be brought before the Romans and falsely accused of stealing Jesus’ body.  They feared for their lives.  But that fear went away when Jesus appeared.
    Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered the room and physically stood in the midst of the disciples and said “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19).  He showed them His hands and His side, the holes of the nails and the gash of the spear.  Seeing Jesus, their fear disappeared and they were glad, and they went and told Thomas, the one disciple who wasn’t there to witness the resurrected Lord. 
    Thomas heard the news, but he didn’t share the gladness of the others, he didn’t believe.  Like us he said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”  He needed physical evidence he could see, he needed physical evidence he could touch. 
    Like Thomas, we want to see evidence before we believe.  We want the assurance of our eyes.  Our whole legal system is based on this, and this is a good thing.  Someone charged with murder isn’t sentenced to life in prison or executed based on the word of one or two witnesses.  There has to be physical evidence.  Likewise the field of science requires evidence.  We need to study measureable data.  And this too is a good thing.  Great leaps have been made in technology and medicine because we’ve search for physical proof.  God’s given us our sight to help us navigate and find truth in this earthly life.  It’s a gift.  But our sight can become a problem when we rely on it for faith. 
    Thomas needed to see and feel Jesus before he’d believe He was risen from the dead, and so do we.  We want to see Jesus.  We want Him to appear in our midst and show us His hands and side.  We want to feel Christ’s presence in our heart.  We want to feel His love.  We want Him to perform miracles in our lives that we can see.  We want a photo and video of it.  But this isn’t how faith works, this isn’t how trust in Christ works, and that’s a good thing.
    If we can only trust in Christ and His salvation if we see Him then we’d never have faith.  If we can only trust in Christ when we see great miracles, what happens when we see bad things happening?  If we only have faith when we feel the love of God in our heart, what happens when we don’t feel good?  Does this mean that Christ didn’t die on the cross for your forgiveness and rise from the tomb for your life?  Absolutely not!  Our sight doesn’t produce faith.  Seeing isn’t believing...hearing is.  Hearing the Good News of Christ dying and rising for you produces faith.
    The author of Hebrews writes, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).  The things hoped for and the things not seen are God’s gifts of forgiveness and everlasting life, given to you for the sake of Christ who died on the cross and rose from the dead.  You can’t see God’s forgiveness, you don’t see everlasting life.  But these things are there and true, and we know they are there and true because God has said so.  He’s promised them in His unchanging Word. 
    At the end of the Gospel reading, John tells us why he wrote what he wrote.  He said, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (Jn 20:30-31).  Scripture is written so that you can hear the Gospel of Christ and believe.  The Spirit produces faith in you through God’s Word: His Word read, His Word preached, His Word of Absolution, and his Word in the Sacraments. 
    Faith comes from hearing God’s Word and He’s given us men, pastors in the Office of the Ministry to speak that Word.  When Jesus appeared to the disciples He said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”  Then He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Jn 20:21-23).  Here is the institution of the Office of the Ministry.  Christ sent out His disciples to speak His Word of Absolution and to proclaim His life and death, and God continues to send out men to do this, so that you might receive the gift of faith, faith that trusts in Christ your Savior. 
    God’s pastors speak to you His Word.  They read the Scriptures and preach the Good News of Christ, and the Holy Spirit works through this.  As you hear Christ crucified and risen for you, the Spirit gives you faith, faith that trusts in Christ, faith that receives God’s promised gifts of forgiveness and everlasting life.  These gifts that are unseen God gives to you in the Sacraments: in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Here the Lord has tied His promises and gifts to the visible: water, bread, and wine.  These are God’s Word made visible, administered by His pastors, delivering to you His gifts, gifts received in faith. 
    One week after Jesus appeared to His disciples in the locked room, all the disciples gathered again, and this time Thomas was with them.  And again Christ miraculously appeared in their midst.  Jesus greeted them all with peace and said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side.  Do not disbelieve, but believe.”  Thomas saw the risen Lord, and he heard His Word and said, “My Lord and my God.”  Jesus replied, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet believed” (Jn 20:26-29).
    Like Thomas and the other disciples, we live in an unbelieving age.  We require physical proof, a photo or a video.  The attitude of “I’ll believe it when I see it,” is alive and in control.  This is well good when it comes to this world, to science and the legal system, but when it comes to faith, seeing isn’t believing, hearing is.  Trust in Christ, trust in His saving death and resurrection, comes from hearing God’s Word; that’s why He had His prophets and apostles write it down, that’s why He’s given you pastors; that’s why He’s given you the Sacraments, so that you would hear and believe.  Blessed are you who haven’t seen and yet believe, for you’ve been given everlasting life.

Have you decided to attend yet???

Monday, April 24, 2017

Whigs and Tories. . .

I love the old terms Whig and Tory.  Whig and Tory came about in 18th century England.  Opposing views on the succession of the monarchy gave birth to two opposing political parties in England.  But before they were politically correct terms to describe parties, they were terms of abuse and derision introduced in 1679 amid the heated struggle over a move to exclude James, duke of York (afterward James II), from succession to the throne. Whig—it was an originally a Scottish Gaelic term—seemed to have meant a horse thief.  Never without a religious application, it later applied to Scottish Presbyterians, non-conformists who claimed the power to exclude the heir from the throne. Tory came from Ireland where it meant something of a papist outlaw and it applied to those who supported the hereditary right of James -- in spite of his Roman Catholic faith.  Ahhh, England!

Whig and Tory do not quite mean what they did.  The agreement upon a constitutional monarchy seemed to salve over the wound of succession.  For a while the Whigs were aristocracy and the Tories were Anglicans.  Then there were the new Tory and Whig parties in the late 1700s.  Now the Whigs seem to be but a memory and the Conservative Party has often used the moniker Tory (though without much precision as to why and what it means).  But it was good while it lasted.   Even Americans used those terms (at least around the time of the Revolution).

Our terms today are less descriptive and much more pedestrian.  Liberal and conservative dominate the political discussion.  Traditional and modernist seem to describe our cultural divide.  Confessional and moderate are used for Lutheran distinctions within my own church body.  What ever happened to good words like Whig and Tory?  Why can't we invent better terms to describe ourselves and our opponents (never mind the venue) than relative terms?  Liberal and conservative are almost meaningless (hence our flirtation with populist, progressive, and libertarian).  Traditional and modernist may hint at the great differences here but they do not help to identify them clearly.  In the Missouri Synod moderates insist they are confessional and confessionals are, to some degree, at war with each other as much as the, well, moderates.

So my challenge for a while is to invent better terms, short concise but descriptive terms to be used in our political debate, in our culture conflicts, and especially within my own Missouri domain.  If you can help me, send me your best alternatives.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Lutheran Worship: another view. . .

The March 2017 Forum Letter (why don't you subscribe?) features 8 pages from an old voice complaining about the more liturgical face of Lutheranism.  In it, David S. Luecke provides a predictable review of his previously published critiques of liturgical renewal along with some interesting tidbits sure to evoke the ire of many in the LCMS and encourage others.

His first point is that the liturgical movement was a fringe movement that became dominant in Missouri (something he finds incredulous).  Although he claims to have done extensive research to bolster his position, Luecke apparently has not delved back much into Lutheran history and worship or he would recognize that what he calls liturgical renewal is in reality a restoration of what was normal and normative Lutheran worship practice from the earliest days until the end of the 18th century.  His complaint that liturgical renewal substituted for the needed spiritual renewal seems to distance the Spirit and God's work from the Word and Sacraments from which spiritual renewal proceeds (perhaps he should read Bo Giertz on the topic of Liturgy and Spiritual Awakening).

His personal view is, of course, that Lutherans took a wrong term.  He blames the precipitous decline of Lutheranism in America on liturgical renewal and claims it violates the Pauline dictum of all things to all people.  He quotes Epitome, Formula of Concord X to claim that every church in every locality has the authority to change ceremonies (but fails to note that this does not, in context, mean individual congregation but refers instead to church in the larger sense of jurisdiction).  No one has ever claimed otherwise.  Yet he fails to note the manifold other places in which those same Confessions insist that worship is not a thing indifferent and ceremonies teach and confess in themselves.
We on our part also retain many ceremonies and traditions (such as the liturgy of the Mass and various canticles, festivals, and the like) which serve to preserve order in the church. (Augsburg Confession XXVI:40 [German])

We are unjustly accused of having abolished the Mass. Without boasting, it is manifest that the Mass is observed among us with greater devotion and more earnestness than among our opponents. (Augsburg Confession XXIV:9 [German])

We are perfectly willing for the Mass to be understood as a daily sacrifice, provided this means the whole Mass, the ceremony and also the proclamation of the Gospel, faith, prayer, and thanksgiving. Taken together, these are the daily sacrifice of the New Testament; the ceremony was instituted because of them and ought not be separated from them. Therefore Paul says (I Cor. 11:26), “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death.” (Apology XXIV:35)
From this description of the state of our churches it is evident that we diligently maintain church discipline, pious ceremonies, and the good customs of the church. (Apology XV:4)

We gladly keep the old traditions set up in the church because they are useful and promote tranquillity, and we interpret them in an evangelical way, excluding the opinion that they justify. Our enemies falsely accuse us of abolishing good ordinances and church discipline. We can truthfully claim that in our churches the public liturgy is more decent than in theirs, and if you look at it correctly we are more faithful to the canons than our opponents are. (Apology XV:38-39)

On holy days, and at other times when communicants are present, Mass is held and those who desire it are communicated. Thus the Mass is preserved among us in its proper use, the use which was formerly observed in the church and which can be proved by St. Paul’s statement in I Cor. 11:20 ff. and by many statements of the Fathers. (Augsburg Confession XXIV:34-35 [German]) Since, therefore, the Mass among us is supported by the example of the church as seen from the Scriptures and the Fathers, we are confident that it cannot be disapproved, especially since the customary public ceremonies are for the most part retained. (Augsburg Confession XXIV:40 [Latin])
He also has a big thing against the word "liturgy" and says that the Lutheran term is "mass" (which he defines as something other than "liturgy" and certainly not Introit, Gloria, Creed, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Dismissal -- which begs me to ask if that is not "mass" what is)?  He presumes to know the mind of Luther and insist that Luther preferred a simple preaching service but was reined in by the ignorance of the peasant folk and, well, had bigger fish to fry anyway.  Curious, indeed!  Even more curious since the kind of service Luecke prefers has a praise band, a host of sound engineers and lighting specialists, performers to entertain, and everything from parking lot attendants to coffee baristas to serve up the sacred brew!

His claim that in Saxony there were 75 different church orders presumes that any difference, however slight, constitutes a "different order" when the reality is that they, while different in nuance, were remarkably consistent -- not only in Saxony but throughout Lutheranism.

Of course, it did not take long for vestments to enter his discussion.  He longs for the Geneva gown (black in winter and white in summer, fall and spring depend upon the weather, I guess).  Never mind that art shows us Luther in eucharistic vestments and the early Lutherans retaining such vestments.  The truth is that eucharistic vestments never disappeared from Lutheranism even though they may have disappeared from specific places.

Luecke does not care much for the early church, specifically the time of the church following the legalization of Christianity.  Strangely, his description of words used for worship in the New Testament involves posture -- bowing and kneeling -- something he thought Article X of the Epitome declared unimportant.

But the last part of his article is the most interesting.  Bowing down is for Luecke a euphemism for contemporary worship and music -- singing the Word in "rhythms and tunes heard on the radio, often now in Country and Western style... [and] singing a love relationship with God" with a "spirit" bowed down before His majesty.  This is meaningful to him but not so much the rites and rituals of the mass.  The pathways that should define worship, he suggests, are best described by Gary Thomas in Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul's Path to God.  He believes these God-given temperaments to be equally valid and that the job of the Lutheran service is to appeal to those temperaments.  Hmmmm.  That is something out of left field for a church that insists God comes to us not where and how we desire but where He has promised (Word and Sacrament).   According to Luecke, we need to open ourselves up to the Spirit (closer to what the first Christians did) and live more in the spirit world between God in heaven.

It is a good thing to read Luecke's words because so often it is easy to think that the worship wars were and are merely arguments over taste and preference.  Clearly they are about much more.  What is at stake in these disputes is not merely what appeals to whom but how God works, the mark of faithfulness through the ages, and the worship consistent with and flowing form our confession of faith.  I have heard David Luecke speak and read his books.  It is hard to reconcile his perspective to the Lutheran Confessions or to history of how Lutherans have worshiped in the Divine Service from Luther's day to the present moment.  If anything, Luecke's point of view represents the fringe of Lutheran identity and practice.  I only wish it were a smaller fringe.  Lutheran angst and insecurity have left us vulnerable to the next wind blowing through the Christian landscape and too many Lutherans have found the breeze hard to resist.  If Lutherans are all over the page on Sunday morning, it is not a good thing.  In fact, it is one of the things that we will someday soon have to resolve if being Lutheran is to mean more than theory.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Who owns the Church?

Have you ever noticed that when you approve of something the parish or denomination says or does, it is "my" church.  But when you disapprove of something the parish says or does, then it is "their" church.  We struggle with this idea of identity on many levels.  People in my own tradition love to castigate the "purple palace" (euphemism for our headquarters building) just the way some love to talk about "Rome" or the "pope" or the "bishop" -- these are used to distance the individual or even the congregation from the larger church.  In the parish, people love to blame the pastor or parish leaders and distance themselves from things they disagree with.  The "pastor" runs the church or this family or that group.  We all know it and have heard it before.

Though we in the Missouri Synod have had our own epiphany about episcopal structure through the faults and failings of Bishop Stephan, prior to coming to America much of what people complain about in the congregation was decided at a level higher than the parish.  In Germany jurisdictions took responsibility for many of the things that local congregations now decide (or their pastors) and it was also cozy and comfortable with the government itself.  This is what Luther knew.  He was hardly the congregational spokesman we try to make him out to be.

America and its experiment with democracy had profound impact upon institutions -- even churches.  Those churches with episcopal structures have seen their authority question and even challenged.  Who can forget the millions upon millions spent by the national church and diocese of the Episcopal Church to prevent individual congregations from seceding from the church with its bank accounts and property in tact.  In Roman Catholic America we saw the invention of parish councils and lay boards where once the priest made all the decisions (except those the bishop made).  Born in the 19th century,  “lay trustees”— the system of lay boards that owned or controlled parish property and even claimed authority over the appointment and dismissal of pastors—was a major problem for Roman Catholic bishops as well as their Protestant cousins.

Who owns the Church?  It remains a rather significant question even today.  Mega churches and media giants are often family owned and operated enterprises with self-sustaining boards of directors that make all the decisions without much input or review from those who sit in their theater seats sipping Starbucks during worship.  Lutherans try to divide authority and responsibility but not always without some confusion and messes.  Those with episcopal structures have tried to minimize the idea of centralized control and flirt with local input and direction.  All of this has to do with important issues of property, tax exemption, etc...  but I wonder if our pursuit of this side of things has not allowed us to forget that we do not own the Church.  Christ owns His Church.

The Church is not ours either to own or to control; the Church belongs Christ’s. We did not create the Church and we say that the Spirit is her life.  As Luther put it so well paraphrasing Christ  (“You did not choose me, but I chose you”), the Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the Church.  No earthly power, no marketing schemes, and no individual effort creates the Church.  She is Christ's bride and she belongs only to Christ. The Church was established by Christ Jesus and washed and cleansed by His blood.  We put blood, sweat, tears, money, and time into her but because we are part of her and not because she belongs to us. So the Church is not ours to “take back,” and it is not ours to "lose" because she was never ours to “own.” As soon as make the Church our own, we betray the Lord whose Church it is.

So worship is never a preference or choice made for what works or what people like.  It is and must always be the domain of Christ, the Word and the Sacraments, and in this the voice of the living is not louder or stronger than the voice of the dead who passed to us the best of the past.  So doctrine is never about what fits with culture, the prevailing world view, the particular trend of science, what seems reasonable, or what will sell.  No, it is and must be the Word of the Lord which endures forever and the truth that does not change but is yesterday, today, and forever the same.  We will admit no novelty nor will we tolerate the loss of what was believed, confessed, and taught.  We conserve and preserve (the Reformation principle).

Building ownership is important and decisions about budgets and spending plans are nothing to sneeze at but this is not really where the Church lives.  We live in and by the means of grace.  These belong to Christ and our only authority is to see that these remain the center and foundation of all we are, think, and do.  Who owns the Church is a question fraught with problems.  But when we are all working as best we can with the resources God has supplied to do His bidding faithfully and vibrantly, the question of ownership is really not so important at all.  In congregations where a lay structure exists and works well, they do not forget this.  In congregations where conflicts lie or where structures are failing, it is usually because they have forgotten this.

Friday, April 21, 2017

If invited. . .

Barna says 47 percent of unchurched would come if invited.  That is surely a judgment designed to elicit a sigh from folks who have grown wary of inviting because they have been turned down so many times or because they have encountered hostility to the invitation.  But if Barna is correct (and his organization is so full of statistics that this is not always an easy assumption), half of the folks around us who do not attend church would be open to an invitation from YOU.

Symbolism is important.  When I first came to my present parish, it did not seem unusual that there was no door facing what was, by all accounts, one of the busiest roads in the city.  After all, there was no parking that faced the busy street and the entrance to the building was amply identified from the parking lot.  A few years after we built on and put up a steeple and a door (though to the offices) and a small parking lot that faced the busy thoroughfare, a longtime resident of the city talked to me about it.  He said that to the folks driving by, the lack of an identifiable entrance seemed to say that this was a closed church -- closed to outsiders and open only to insiders who knew the code, namely, where to enter.  I had never thought of it before but was glad we had decided to make a clear statement of an entrance when adding onto the facility.

Even people who do not think they ever want to attend, want to know that they could if they wanted to.  I had never thought about it before but it is certainly true of the invitation.  It may well be that those we invite do not become regular attenders or members but they want to know that they could if they desired.

Another story.  A neighbor family beside where we lived finally showed up one Sunday to see what kind of church this was and what kind of pastor I was.  Neighbors joke and wave and do neighborly things and they were not sure what kind of person I would be in church.  They came and found out that the reverence of the Divine Service and the presence of God within His Word and Sacrament proved to be a very different kind of church and a very different kind of clergy than they had ever experienced before or expected from me and the parish I served.  They moved and years passed and guess what -- this family was catechized and received into a Lutheran church.  It was a spark that went on to ignite a faith, a seed planted that bore fruit.  I would have never expected it of them, but, as they say in Mayberry, "surprise, Surprise, surprise!" Barna's 47% may not immediately translate into folks showing up in droves but how shall they hear if no one tells them and how shall they respond if no one invites?

One more thing, people will invite more freely when what they are confident and proud of their church.  This means that the little things that may not mean much to insiders, count to the outsiders.  Maintain the facility.  Be sure to extend a friendly welcome.  Do the best you can do (those in the chancel and those outside).  Follow up.  Remember the name.  These are the little things we can do.  God does the heavy lifting.  He speaks the living Word and bestows the Spirit to bring those to faith who believe and He has promised that His Word will not return to Him empty.  It will accomplish His purpose.  We don't do the big stuff but we can and must take care of the little things.  An invitation.  A welcome.  An invited facility.  An effort in pulpit, at the altar, and on the organ bench.  It is not rocket science.  This is the stuff we can do and should do.  And if we do this and the congregation does not grow, leave it to the Lord.  But if we won't do at least this, perhaps we might be part of the problem in churches that do not grow.

Barna is full of stats but this one seems designed to encourage reticent Lutherans.  Perhaps half of those who you meet without a church home would be interested in your invitation.  All of those who hear the Word meet the Lord and His Spirit working for the sake of their faith and salvation.  A potent combination, indeed.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Change or die. . . but keep doing the things you do well?

Thom Rainer, the change or die guru of church growth, recently wrote about the five things that traditional churches (those that don't change) do well.  He vows never to stop saying "change or die" but he does acknowledge that traditional churches do certain things well.
  1. The members have a deep love and concern for one another. Go into many traditional churches and you will see members caring for one another, taking meals to each other, and praying consistently for one another.
  2. They are loyal to the institution. I have argued in other articles that institutional loyalty taken to an extreme is unhealthy. But the inverse is true as well. Members with no institutional loyalty will move from one church to another with little concern. Traditional church members tend to be fiercely loyal to the churches where they are members.
  3. They are passionate about giving to missions. It seems to be in the congregational DNA of many traditional churches. If there is a mission cause put before the church, these members often give abundantly.
  4. They offer stability to the congregation. Because of their loyalty and devotion to their church, traditional church members offer stability and steadiness to local congregations. They will continue to give, to serve, and to care for others even in challenging times in the church.
  5. The members have a historical perspective that can be healthy for the church. Many of them have seen the best of times and the worst of times. The traditional church member has a healthy perspective that realizes God is above the crisis or the situation of the moment. Sometimes just hearing from these members about how the church survived a crisis in the past can be encouragement for the congregation to move to the future.
What he lauds should have been obvious, but it is not as obvious to Rainer or to those quick to write off the traditional church.  Traditional congregations are better at their love and support for one another but this is also not something automatic to traditional vs contemporary and this is something fostered by the shape of these congregations but also perhaps encouraged by their smaller size. 

I would suggest that institutional loyalty needs to be unpacked.  Yes, these congregations are more identified with the larger denomination and they are very loyal to their local church.  This is not something blind but an informed loyalty.  They identify with their church's confessions and they are generally more convinced of their doctrinal stance than those who are attracted to contemporary churches (mega, large, or small).  It is a loyalty not simply to the building or the people but to the faith.

Strange how often I have found that small, generally rural congregations have produced many pastors, missionaries and church workers -- well beyond their proportionate size.  My own congregation has never had an a regular attendance over a hundred and now is about half that size and yet they have produced  dozens of pastors, teachers, and other church workers.  In addition, they are passionate about the support of those preparing for the Lord's service.  They supported me every year of college and seminary and paid for the material costs of a full set of eucharistic vestments (all colors) when I was ordained.  They take their mission support seriously and the proportion of their budget sent to the work of the kingdom beyond their locale is generally much higher than larger churches.

The last two go together.  These churches are stable but it is because they have a perspective on history and themselves that seems designed to avoid the quick and easy judgements that characterize other churches.  Folks in the pew have learned to quickly lose interest or enthusiasm of contemporary churches that take a back seat to whatever cutting edge trend moves through evangelical Christianity.  In the same way, church leaders there tend to be less wedded to tradition, to doctrine, and to stability in the pursuit of what is new, relevant, and attractive.  It does not help that a significant number of those who do not attend traditional congregations move rather freely from one big box church to another and these have a bigger segment of revolving door attenders than traditionals do.  But underneath all of this is the fact that traditional congregations and churches do talk about membership and commitment while larger and contemporary churches tend to talk about attenders.  Membership and commitment fosters stability in the pew and in the pulpit and reminds both that the church was there before they were and, if they have not screwed it up, it will probably be there long after they leave.  Roots are important for us as people and for our faith.  Traditional churches foster this sense of rootedness both in the denominational history and in the congregation itself.

Although generalizations can be dangerous, the kind of churches that listen to Thom Rainer tend to be those who value spirituality over doctrine, relevance above truth, and people getting what they want over faithfulness in confession and practice.  They also tend to be quick to adopt whatever somebody else is doing that appears to work and re-invent themselves regularly.  In contrast, the traditional church says the dreaded words "this is the way we have always done it" -- words that cause some to shudder and others to rejoice that we do not have to invent the wheel every time we want to drive the car.  Creed, confession, catechism, hymnal, and history all are important to traditional churches while they are not even found in the other kind.  Finally, I wonder if it might also be fair to say that traditional churches tend to focus on the kingdom while the non-trads seem to focus more on the individual.  At least that has been my experience.  All in all, change or die may not be the mantra found in traditional churches and this is not a bad thing.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Time like a rolling stream. . .

Today my dad would have been 90.  He died two years ago last month, a month shy of 88.  I never thought of my dad as old.  He went to work every day of his life, except for the last few weeks of that life.  He was alert and seemed to know more than a little about a lot.  He was never fragile or weak in my mind (though he was hesitant to charge much for the work he did and that was one the drags on his business that we saw clearly in retrospect).  And I am over 60 (look at the side of this blog where it says I have been a pastor for more than 36 years!).   I like to be busy (perhaps too busy).  Time has passed quickly and I have no clue where it went.  Like a rolling brook, time as moved quickly by and now suddenly I realize how old my father was and how old I am getting.  But I am not going to waste time in deep introspection.  Only a few words to acknowledge that time, even a long life, is brief and too quickly passes away.

This past month my wife got out all our kids baby toys (yes, we will become grandparents soon) and in the blink of an eye I remembered when our children played with those baby toys and wondered why I had not noticed how quickly that time had come and gone.  The children who once required everything from parents, now grown up, married (two of them, anyway), and expecting a child (one of them).  Wow.  When did that happen?  Where was I?  I still feel like the 26 year old who showed up newly married, without children, and with only enough furniture for a few rooms into the parsonage of my first parish.  I guess those days are gone.

Life can sometimes trick us into thinking that everything will stay the same.  It is an illusion.  Perhaps delusion is a better term.  The clock is ticking.  We are not permanent.  We have no abiding home here.  We come and we go.  Time passes by and passes us by.  Though we were designed for eternity, the eternal is not today.  Redemption does not band-aid the temporary but bestows the surprise of the eternal to a people caught in time.  Time passes.  Not aimlessly but toward the goal God has assigned.  In Christ, we have more than regrets over a past too quickly gone, we have hope for an eternal future.  I miss him, to be sure, but I expect to see him when I behold Christ face to face.

1 O God, our help in ages past,
    Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
    And our eternal home:

2 Under the shadow of Thy throne
    Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
    And our defense is sure.

3 Before the hills in order stood
    Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
    To endless years the same.

4 A thousand ages in Thy sight
    Are like an evening gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night
    Before the rising sun.

5 Thy word commands our flesh to dust:
    "Return, ye sons of men!"
All nations rose from earth at first
    And turn to earth again.

6 Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
    Soon bears us all away;
We fly forgotten as a dream
    Dies at the op'ning day.

7 Like flow'ry fields the nations stand,
    Pleased with the morning light;
The flow'rs beneath the mower's hand
    Lie with'ring ere 'tis night.

6 O God, our help in ages past,
    Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last
    And our eternal home.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

I am avant garde. . .

All things are new again, from skinny neck ties to long play records.  So I was watching the Synod's video on preaching, aptly called Preach the Word, when I noticed that the high tech video and graphics were using an image of a dusty chalkboard and a font designed to look like the uneven lines of chalk on a chalkboard.  At that point I lost touch with the speaker.  I grew up with black chalkboards, the real ones made of slate.  I remember when we graduated to the green boards that were almost like chalk boards.  I recall when big newsprint (later white paper) sheets came in giant tablets and you could rip them off and mask tape them to the walls.  I remember when the first white board showed up.  I recall seeing the first digital white board that printed a copy of what you wrote or emailed it to the folks you wanted to see it.  I recall when PowerPoint was fresh and new and not the tired, predictable, old format we now accompany with a yawn.  So, when I saw that video and saw that the digital imagery had drawn deeply into the past to the old black, dusty chalkboard, then I knew the future had circled all the way back to the past.

But that is exactly how it goes. What is old and forgotten becomes new again.  Just wait long enough and you will see it all again.

Pietism and Rationalism came along and robbed us Lutherans of our identity on Sunday morning, shifting our attention from the Means of Grace to our feelings and redefining faith as knowledge instead of trust.  Lutherans became embarrassed over their liturgical identity and looked longingly to the Christians around them (first the mainline and then the evangelicals).  We are still fighting the age old battles against a head faith that looks for reasoned explanations and the heart faith which wants to feel good.  But in the mean time, we have left ourselves confused and a mess on Sunday morning.  Nobody knows what they will find in a Lutheran congregation on a Sunday morning.  And the people who call for a restoration of the Divine Service are called radicals and the people who think contemporary music means singing the sounds of Peter, Paul, and Mary find themselves as dated (and stale) as yesterday's news.  Non-liturgical churches are finding ways to act liturgical at the same time some folks among Lutheranism are trying their darnedest to act as if Lutheranism were not liturgical.

Chalkboards are in again. . . 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Do not fear!

Sermon for Easter Late Service preached on Sunday, April 16, 2017.

Fifty years ago a survey of children's fears listed the things of which they are most afraid: animal attack, alone in the dark, high places, strangers, and loud noises. Most of them would prompt a parental hug with the words, "There is nothing to fear. Mom or dad is here." Today's children were also surveyed and their greatest fears were: the divorce of their parents, terrorism, cancer, global warming, being mugged, kidnaped or assaulted. No parent can address that list and say "Nothing to be afraid of."

We live in a world of fears and our children have the same adult sized fears the rest of us have. Terrorism, job security, politics, taxes, health care, drugs, violence, family break up — these are giant size enemies to a people who really do have something to fear. But the angel at the tomb and the risen Savior tell us the same thing: "Do not be afraid!" Why not?

The guards around the tomb of Christ trembled. And well they should have. The death of Jesus focused the fears and beliefs of a people who might rise up in revolt over a slain leader. The calm of Jesus in accepting His unjust fate was itself eery and ominous. The sun and sky went dark when He died. Some of the saints walked out of their graves alive. A great earthquake shook the earth and their hearts. An angel sitting in glory on the stone which was rolled away from the grave. We would have trembled, too.

Who is this Jesus? What does this mean? What to make of His innocent suffering and death and the empty tomb and His resurrection? Without faith, there is only fear. The enemies are always real but without faith there are only the enemies and the threats, only our fears and their worries, only uncertainty except for the certainty of death. The guards who watched over Jesus' tomb had a great deal to fear and so do our children and we as adults. Our enemies are real and the threats are not make believe.

But the message of Easter is also real. "Do not be afraid! Do not fear!" From the angel to the women and disciples who first came to the empty tomb to the people who met the surprise of the risen Lord, the same words. "Do not be afraid!" The crucified Lord is now risen and in the greatest of all turnabout surprises, death is held captive by the power of the Risen Savior. The life of Christ cannot be threatened by the grave any longer and neither can the lives of those who believe in Him. Death's back is broken when Jesus' body is planted like a seed in the ground to bring forth the fruit of life and the resurrection of the dead for you, me, and all believers. The invitation that led the fearful women and disciples to enter the grave is what brought you here today: "Come and see what the Lord has done!" Come and see what death was and what it is no longer. Easter rings with the sound of hope and victory to a people who have grown accustomed to being victims, held captive by real enemies and real fears.

Come and see. Come and see for the Lord is the first born of many to follow — including you and me and those who died in Christ. Come and see that the very real enemies have more than a match in the Risen Savior who has vanquished the ultimate enemy of death and who shows the triumph of His life to over 500 witnesses. Come and see is the bidding of the heavenly Father who laid down this plan before sin even had a chance to tarnish His creation and steal us away from Him. Come and see is the promise of the Word that touches our ears with news too good to be true.

Come and see becomes go and meet the Lord where He has promised to be. The empty tomb alone proves nothing but the testimony of the witnesses who saw Him, touched Him, and heard His voice tells us that this is not too good to be true but is the truth which makes life good. Go and meet the Lord where He has promised to be. Not where you think He ought to be or where you think He might be or where it seems logical to find Him. Go and meet Him where He has promised to be. That is why we are gathered here today around the Word and Table of the Lord. The risen Lord is not some dream or feeling but the promise attached to water that washes clean and bread and wine that feeds eternal life. Here is the answer to our fears. We are not alone, the Risen Savior is with us. We know where we are going, He has paved the way for our own joyful resurrection. The old life will no longer suffice. We must have the new life the Risen Lord gives. Yes, we live in a world of fears. Only a fool would tell you we have nothing to fear. But the Risen Lord and the angel at the tomb are not saying your enemies are not real. They are announcing the reality of a power stronger than death, a righteousness that covers the worst of our sins, and the hope which allows us to life a confident life in an uncertain world. Death is the final enemy. If death is done, nothing else can win. The grave has lost and Satan is defeated. Sin has been nailed to the cross and it cannot come back to haunt you — so great is the power of His blood to cleanse us from all sin. The Lord is with you. He is stuck to you. He will not abandon you. He has born your sin and suffered your death and gives you His forgiveness and life. Do not be afraid. You stand now in Christ as His new creation. You have met the crucified and risen Lord where He has promised to be. Here in Church He is. He speaks His living voice through the mouth of the pastor and addresses you with His absolution. His Word is living and active and bestows that which is speaks. The Eucharist is His supper and He feeds us His own flesh for the life of the world and your life and His blood that cleanses us from all sins. He is where He has promised to be and He continues to speak the word of comfort: "Do not be afraid! I am here!" Death lies broken and defeated. And now you get to decide whether the rest of your troubles, the worst of your fears, and the greatest of your anxieties for this mortal life are worth your worries, whether their terror can live up to their claims, and whether these should be your focus or Christ and His resurrection.

Jesus' resurrection IS the earthquake that has changed the playing field of all life. Because He lives, you shall live also. Nothing in heaven and nothing in hell, no power or dominion or principality or enemy can come between you and Christ who died for your sins and rose to give you new life. When our Lord says "Do not be afraid" He is addressing you with the power of His own resurrection. He calls to you in your fears. He invites you to find refuge and hope in His death and resurrection. And He promises you that He will not leave you nor abandon you to any enemy. Living in the light of our Lord's resurrection, we can say today: "I am not afraid. Christ is with me. All things work together for my good because I live in Him by baptism and faith. I shall not die but live, free today, and for eternity.

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Alleluia!

What I hope your Easter was not. . .

Published March 29, 2017, this video is of a 2013 Easter celebration, at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, VB, VA.  Why not a Rap Mass?  Why not a Heavy Metal liturgy?  We already have the U2charist, why stop at Bono or Peter, Paul and Mary or Jazz?  Can we baptize such genres of music into the service of the Lord without also incorporating all the identities and associations that end up competing with Christ?

Music is not a neutral form in which expressions are all equally able to convey equal content.  If this were true, there would not be so many forms of music.  But the key to this all is that when the form is so fully associated with one thing, it is impossible to create a different identity.  What could we sing to "Silent Night" that would not compete with its association with that carol?  What could we sing to "Jingle Bells" that would not compete with its identity?  Not only specific melodies have identities so married to their words and occasion that it is near impossible to dislodge them from that association.  It is also true of musical genres.  Watch the video and tell me that the music is not more central than the occasion -- mass in the Lord's House in celebration of His Resurrection???

Magic bullets. . .

Over in Rome, the Pope is wondering if married priests might be a magic bullet to fix the problem of too few priests to meet the need of a church whose resources are being stretched thin.  And, of course, he is still tinkering with the communion of the divorced and the divorced and remarried as a mans of restoring some of those who have fallen away from the church.

Over in Wheaton, there are actually evangelicals wondering if the liturgy might be the magic bullet to remaining cutting edge congregations who will be all things to all people.

Over in England, there are those who wonder if the magic bullet to renewing the church there might just be complete surrender to the culture and complete abandonment of the Scriptures and the apostolic tradition.

Over in St. Louis, there are those who wonder if Lutheranism's magic bullet to a new future lies with being less and less Lutheran and more and more like the evangelicals we really want to be.

I could go on but it is already depressing me.  Magic bullets are never what they are cracked up to be and this is even more true in the Church and about the faith.  Short cuts are called short cuts for a reason.  They imply bypassing the ordinary path and they infer taking liberties with values and truth for the sake of results.  But there are consequences from taking short cuts and choosing magic bullets.  And the consequences are not good.

I will admit that as a pastor I am attracted to short cuts and want to find the magic bullets that will skip the ordinary work of catechesis, faithful preaching, catholic liturgy, and honest welcome.  Of course I read all the foolish stuff that comes in the mail and email promising ways to fill the pews by emptying the pulpit of doctrine and faithfulness.  It is tempting because every pastor wants to see results (and not just because he is vain but also because he really wants the church to grow).  I suspect I am not alone among pastors.  Sadly, there is no such thing as a short cut around the often rather tedious and deliberate work of faithful preaching, solid catechesis, and worship that both fits our confession and honors our catholic identity and past.

If you are tempted as I am, then find a friend who will speak the truth to you in love and rid you of the folly of a magic bullet.  Rome's problems with a clergy shortage are deeper than adding a wedding ring.  The folks who are staying away from mass are staying away for more reasons than that they fear for their soul because they divorced and married outside the church.  Evangelicals have become ADHD Christians who flit from one thing to another in pursuit of the newest, the most cutting edge, and ahead of the curve methods of growing their empires.  England has sentenced some street preachers to a fine for preaching salvation exclusive to Christ alone and then people actually wonder why those wonderful English buildings are so empty.  St. Louis needs to try being Lutheran (who we are actually) instead of looking so enviously over the fences of every other church body in pursuit of a strategy that works.  Real Lutherans are fewer and farther in between.

You want to give up something for Lent, give it up for Easter as well.  Give up the daydreams and the pursuit of magic bullets and the penchant for short cuts.  Do the real pastoral work.  Do the real work of your baptismal vocation.  Keep the faith and doctrine of the Scriptures with practices consistent with that confession.  Let God do the rest.  It is His Word.  It will not return to Him empty.  So why not try trusting in the Word and doing what God has called us to do?  Who knows?  It just might work better than all the marketing tools, visions cast, and new paradigms have done.  In fact, I am positive it will.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Just the way things were. . .

Sermon preached for Easter First Service on Sunday, April 16, 2017.

You get back from vacation and you want things to go back to normal. You recover from illness and you hope that things will go back to the way they were. You suffer a death in your family, and you long for the days as they were, the old ways, the normal that now seems so wonderful in retrospect. So, when Mary Magdalene finally recognized Jesus, it is no wonder they she was hoping things would finally go back to the way they
But that was not to be. Jesus pushed her away when she sought to touch Him. It was not that Jesus was untouchable.  Thomas and the rest of the disciples would touch His wounds.  No, it was what was behind the touch that caused Jesus to push away blessed Mary. She was happy to have Jesus back. She was looking not to the future, but for a restoration of yesterday.

We can be exactly the same way. We expect from God a return to what was, more than the gift of what was not. We dream of heaven in ways that look a lot like what we do today. We define our heavenly lives in earthly terms. But there is a danger in this. Jesus has not some to restore our past but to deliver us a new future - one in which sin no longer holds us captive and death no longer threatens us.

Today we come to meet that new future. Before we can begin to embrace this new future, our Lord has to push aside all our narrow expectations shaped more by our yesterdays than His tomorrow. And key to all of this is our baptism into the new life of our Risen Savior.

Long ago the Israelites passed through the Red Sea under the mighty intervention of God. Yet they had to wait for those who remembered Egypt and thought maybe it was not so bad after all. Before they could enter the new land, God has to disavow all memory of their yesterday. God was not giving them back a past but giving them a future

So it is for us in our passage through the waters of baptism. We are tempted to believe it is the same old life but only better.  Nothing could be future from the truth. God has not rescued us in Christ to restore to us the old ways of sin, doubt, and fear.

No, God has delivered to us a new future, a new life, and a new destiny that we might no longer live as the sinful comfortable in our sins but as the redeemed who love holiness and righteousness.
God has given us the new life in which we no longer live in terror of God but we know the fulness of His heart in the mercy shown to us on the cross. In this new life God wants us as uncomfortable with the old ways of sin and its death as He is. Think about that. God wants us as uncomfortable with death as He is. He has given us not a rescue and a return but redemption and a bold new future. We do not belong to the past alone, we belong to the future God has prepared for those who love Him.
We may be tempted to think of the resurrection as a restoration of what was, but Jesus points us to something far grander. We died in Christ in our baptism so that death can no longer claim us. It surrender's its power and becomes merely a door to the new flesh and blood and eternal life Christ has prepared for us. Sin must also surrender its power to forgiveness and to the Holy Spirit who lives in us. The Spirit teaches us to love the Law that once could only accuse us, and to walk in its ways where once we could only sin.

Today is the dawn not of a return but of a future, a whole new future for you and for me. On Easter, we do not watch what happens to Jesus. We stand at the door of our own future, all wrapped up in His death and resurrection, a new and eternal dwelling place that death cannot steal, and a life without any of the weakness of this mortal life.

The worst things we can do on Easter is to settle for less than God desires to give. That was Mary's desire and Jesus would have none of it. Let us have none of it also. All of Easter and its new life and nothing else. Christ is Risen!

Christ Is Risen!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

It is finished. . .

Sermon preached on Good Friday Evening 2017 by the Rev. Larry A. Peters

It is finished.  That is what Jesus said.  It is finished.  The devil’s dance over our grave, the power of sin to shame us, the reign of guilt over our consciences, the disappointed struggle to find a way around the elephant in the room. . . it is finished.  That is what He said.  It is done.  And it is.  The whole point of Good Friday is to confront us with what we could not do if we wanted to and none of us even want to.  Not simply the last sigh of a life but the whole work of salvation.

It is finished.  The Law’s bite and our foolish and failed attempts to be as holy as God is holy.  It is finished.  The deluded idea that the commandments were accessible and that they might have provided us a real hope for a salvation that we could take credit for.  It is finished.  The idea that we could run away from sin or make our peace with death.  That foolishness is over and done.  It is finished.

It is finished.  On a personal level, that meant the suffering that left Him in agony and the slow, labored death that crucifixion causes. It is finished.  He has completed that for which He was born, He has fulfilled the destiny of the Father for which He was willing to be betrayed into the hands of sinners and give Himself into our death and wear our sin to its grave.  It is finished.  He dies never to die again and His suffering is complete.  It is finished.
    But it is not simply the end.  It is the beginning.  His death is the beginning of hope for a hopeless people, the beginning of forgiveness for a people too used to sin, and the beginning of life for a people who figured their best bet was to make their peace with death. 
It is the beginning for you and for me, for a new life that death cannot end.  For a righteousness that we claim by faith to replace the soiled attempts of our holiness.  It is the beginning of comfort that appeals not to feelings or desire but the blood that cleanses us from all our sins.  It is the beginning of a life no longer defined by death.  A life of real freedom to live as God’s own knowing that death has become a pawn in the hand of God.

It is the beginning of fear’s end, of an end to the despair that grips our world, of the injustice that makes us wonder whether it is worth trying to be good at all.  It is the beginning of faith that is not weak or powerless but strong and mighty.  It is the beginning of courage to live a real life set free from the power of fear and the threat of the devil.

It is the beginning of a whole new world that looks nothing like the world Jesus came to – no longer a world in which the rich triumph and the poor suffer.  It is the beginning of a new world in which the the faithful know that today is a brief moment in comparison with the wonderful eternity prepared for us by Him who died that we might live.  It is the beginning of a life of joy that sorrow cannot steal, of contentment that replaces the false dream of happiness, and of  peace that does not depend upon the circumstances in our lives.

It is finished for Christ and it has begun for you and me.  We have been given what we neither deserve nor merit and it’s gift will seal for us a whole new identity, rooted in Christ’s death & resurrection. God refuses to allow death to get the last word.  It is about the Lord whose sorrow and grief for us and our plight moved Him to do the unthinkable.  To take our place in suffering and to die the death that was ours to die.
    We talk about God’s love as if it were something weak and fragile but it is a love strong enough to weep for us, strong enough to grieve over us, strong enough to walk the lonely road to the cross, strong enough to cry out in loneliness – forsaken by the Father for our sin, and then to surrender His life to death.  There is no greater love than this.  What Christ has finished has become YOUR new beginning.  So do not surrender to fear the joyful future God has provided you through the death of His Son.

Where they lay Him. . .

You are looking down into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  When workers used a pulley to slide open the marble slab, in hopes of reaching the burial surface, they were moving a slab that hadn't been removed since 1550.  Underneath the marble was a layer of debris. But after removing the debris, they found something they did not expect: another marble slab.  The second slab, grey with a small etching of a cross, dates to the 12th century.  Underneath, they found yet another marble slab that appears to date from the 4th century, the time Constantine’s mother Helena built the first shrine there.  The site will be accessible to more since a window was into the marble slabs to expose the bare rock where Jesus’ body lay before His resurrection.  The site also encloses six other rock tombs, showing that itwas, in fact, a Jewish cemetery at the time of Jesus.

Friends, this adds nothing to the faith but it does serve as a powerful and profound reminder that what we believe is founded on fact and not fiction,  facts that archeology supports and does not contradict. This is where they lay Him but this tomb could not hold Him.  Thanks be to God!

Where He came from. . . Where He was going. . .

Sermon preached for Good Friday Noon by the Rev. Larry A. Peters

In John 13, not part of the Passion, but rather, part of the Maundy Thursday foot washing, a line stuck out at me.  Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hand, that He had come from God and was going back to God. . . It is exactly this confidence that emboldened Jesus to do what no flesh and blood person would do without fear – suffer and die in our place upon the cross.

What love is this that our Lord should suffer in our place and die the death that was ours to die and then freely give us all the fruits of His righteous living, righteous dying, and righteous eternity?  That is the question that plagues us.  Here on earth we do not know this kind of love except in books and dreams.  That is, until Jesus gives this love a face, a shape, and a heart. 

But underneath this love is what Jesus knew as He was preparing to be betrayed into the hands of sinners, suffer, and die for us.  He knew the Father had given Him all things and that He came from God the Father and would return to the right hand of the Father.  This was His confidence and it led Him to the obedient suffering that gave us new and everlasting life, freed from the guilt and shame of our sins, and clothed in the gift of a righteousness that belongs to another.

But even as we acknowledge this about Jesus, we who sit here at noon on the Friday we call Good, cannot help but see the parallel for our own lives.  For we are not as the spectators who did not know or understand what was happening.  The Spirit has taught us to see Jesus, to trust in Him, to have faith.  The same Spirit has led us to repentance and given us grace to release our sins to the blood that cleanses us.  And with this has come new knowledge to sustain us in a topsy turvy world where wickedness wins and righteousness loses. 

The Father has given all things to us.  Did you hear that?  Because of Christ, we have been given all things in Christ.  This is the fruitful suffering that paid the price of sin, that delivered us from its punishment, that set us free from our captivity to the devil, and that released us from the weight of guilt that held us down.

The Father has given us all things in Christ.  We did not earn it or merit it or deserve it but this love born of the cross delivers the unworthy and undeserving, who have only their sins and no righteousness of their own.  We have been gifted into salvation, gifted with the forgiveness of sins, and gifted with the life death cannot undo.

We knew we came from God.  Everyone knows this – from the denying atheist to the indifferent agnostic.  Our souls were created to know God from whom we come.
And those souls will not rest until we invent a fake god to satisfy us for a time or until we know the real God who bestows upon us eternity.  Man is doomed to invent fake religions to satisfy the heart created to know God until God revealed Himself fully and finally to us.  That is the fruit of this Friday we call Good.  We knew we came from God and now the God from whom we come reveals His face to us – the face of mercy for those who do not deserve it and grace to those too shamed to ask for it.  This is the power of the cross.  It shows us the face of the God who made us and this face is love.

And we know we are going back to God.  Now we do.  Because of Good Friday we do.  Before the sacrifice was paid, the debt of sin erased, and the path of salvation paved in blood, we might hope for an eternal home for God but we could not know it for sure.  Now in Christ we know it.  Sin cannot separate us from the love of God and neither can death.  That is what Christ has done.  He has given us the assurance we longed for and the confidence of that we do not see.  We came from God and now, in the wake of the cross, we are going back to God.

Christ is the author and pioneer, who has cut the trail through life and death into the presence of the Father.  That is what Good Friday tells us.  Christ knew that the Father had given Him all things, that He came from the Father and that He would return to the right hand of the Father.  And for the joy set before Him He endured the cross and scorned its shame.  He knew the outcome, the end.

Well, dear friends in Christ, the Father has given all things to YOU in Christ.  You came from the Father and now Christ has paved the way for you to return to the Father.  And for the joy set before you, what are YOU willing to endure?  We are not the weak who must be placated nor are we the fragile who must be sheltered.  We belong to Christ.  In His weakness we are strong.  His righteousness covers us.  He shows us who we are and who we will be.  He is with us now in this life and forever in the life to come.

So do not cower in fear or surrender to the power of terror.  Do not give into the temptation of doubt or the despair of sorrow.  You belong to the Lord.  For that is also the message of Good Friday.  The God who has moved heaven and earth for you will not now surrender you to your enemies or abandon you in the face of trouble.  Even in the hour of your death, God is with you, bringing you to be with Jesus and delivering to you the fulfillment of His promise of today, of eternity, of joy, and of perfect peace.

Christian, do not be afraid.  The Father has given you all things in Christ.
He has assured you that you were made in His image and created for His glory.  When sin deprived you of this gift, He sent His one and only Son to suffer and die to pay for your sin and to give you life that death cannot steal.  You are His and He will take you to be where He is that you may be His own forever.

Just last Sunday the Coptic Christians in Egypt has their Palm Sunday shattered by the violence of terrorists who destroyed churches and killed more than 50.  Do you know where those Copts are today and and where they will be tomorrow, and Easter Sunday?  They will be in Church.  They will leave their homes in the face of the threats against them and they will gather in the name of the crucified Lord to rejoice in what His death has accomplished.

So you who live in so much better circumstances, do not let threats steal your confidence, fears steal your hope, or troubles dampen your joy.  The Father has given you all things in Christ.  You came from Him and He brings you through sin to forgiveness, covers you with Christ’s own righteousness, and in Him you will pass through death to everlasting life.  This is why we are here.  May this hope not only inform our hearts and strengthen our faith but instill in us courage for the journey.  Our comfort lies not in feelings but in blood shed and death killed.  This is what Christ has done for us.  Amen.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Read, listen, and pray. . .

John 18-19 (ESV)

Betrayal and Arrest of Jesus

18 When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.”[a] Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus[b] said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. So he asked them again, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.” This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken: “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one.” 10 Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's servant[c] and cut off his right ear. (The servant's name was Malchus.) 11 So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

Jesus Faces Annas and Caiaphas

12 So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews[d] arrested Jesus and bound him. 13 First they led him to Annas, for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. 14 It was Caiaphas who had advised the Jews that it would be expedient that one man should die for the people.

Peter Denies Jesus

15 Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. 17 The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man's disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the servants[e] and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.

The High Priest Questions Jesus

19 The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. 20 Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said.” 22 When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” 24 Annas then sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.

Peter Denies Jesus Again

25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” 26 One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed.

Jesus Before Pilate

28 Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor's headquarters.[f] It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor's headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” 30 They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” 31 Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” 32 This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

My Kingdom Is Not of This World

33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. 39 But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” 40 They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber.[g]

Jesus Delivered to Be Crucified

19 Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands. Pilate went out again and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!” When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.” The Jews[h] answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. 10 So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”
12 From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” 13 So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic[i] Gabbatha. 14 Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour.[j] He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” 15 They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” 16 So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.

The Crucifixion

So they took Jesus, 17 and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. 19 Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. 21 So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” 22 Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”
23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic.[k] But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, 24 so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says,
“They divided my garments among them,
    and for my clothing they cast lots.”
So the soldiers did these things, 25 but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.

The Death of Jesus

28 After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” 29 A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Jesus' Side Is Pierced

31 Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. 32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. 35 He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. 36 For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” 37 And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.”

Jesus Is Buried

38 After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. 39 Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus[l] by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds[m] in weight. 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 42 So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.


  1. John 18:5 Greek I am; also verses 6, 8
  2. John 18:6 Greek he
  3. John 18:10 Or bondservant; twice in this verse
  4. John 18:12 Greek Ioudaioi probably refers here to Jewish religious leaders, and others under their influence, in that time; also verses 14, 31, 36, 38
  5. John 18:18 Or bondservants; also verse 26
  6. John 18:28 Greek the praetorium
  7. John 18:40 Or an insurrectionist
  8. John 19:7 Greek Ioudaioi probably refers here to Jewish religious leaders, and others under their influence, in that time; also verses 12, 14, 31, 38
  9. John 19:13 Or Hebrew; also verses 17, 20
  10. John 19:14 That is, about noon
  11. John 19:23 Greek chiton, a long garment worn under the cloak next to the skin
  12. John 19:39 Greek him
  13. John 19:39 Greek one hundred litras; a litra (or Roman pound) was equal to about 11 1/2 ounces or 327 grams
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.