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. . .


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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.
LifeChurch.tv, 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.



https://www.lcms.org/image/what-we-do/disaster-response/Web-banner-Hurricane-Irma-General-9-11-17-1280x560.jpg

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. . .


http://elca.org/~/media/Images/Faith/Declaration_on_the_Way_cover_sm.ashxA 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.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Lovers or fighters. . .

Nearly everyone knows that Missouri is known more for fighting than loving.  While this is a typical characterization, it is not always accurate.  Besides, what may characterize a church body on a national level is not necessarily reflective of the individual congregations.  But I will not deny that Missourians seem to relish a good fight.  Apparently, we are not the only ones.

It seems that Francis has brought out the worst in Rome.  He has bypassed the people he has put in charge, hired and fired right out from under those who were supposed to be in charge, raised trial balloons about everything from reconciling divorced to welcoming LGBTQ to intercommunion with Lutherans -- only to distance himself from things when they seem to get too controversial.  He has said strange things to stranger individuals (via phone calls and interviews) while trying to master the photo op and the impromptu press briefing.  He has challenged capitalism and remained mute before the sins of socialist or fascist economies.  He has sent an olive branch to Muslims while condemning his own curia in very harsh terms.

Now it seems that he has taken after Protestants and some fairly big guns in American Roman Catholicism as extremists who seem to cater to hate and division.  In the Jesuit newspaper La Civiltà Cattolica (sometimes called a ghost voice for the Vatican) Francis seems to have used other voices as a proxy for his own opinions, in this case written by the editor in chief, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, and Argentinean edition editor Rev. Marcelo Figueroa.  Their article, “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism” is an untypical rant of changes and unfounded characterizations laced with contempt. It yokes both Protestant and Roman Catholic support for American conservatism has little more than an “ecumenism of hate.”  Strong words for a Vatican accustomed to dealing with the art of diplomatic nuance.

In any case, it appears that this pope has added fuel to the fires burning in Rome and wherever Roman Catholics are battling over worship, economics, sexual politics, and more.  Francis has proven not to be a uniter.  In fact, just the opposite, he has drawn otherwise rather dull and staid Roman Catholic institutions into the fray.  Who knows where it will end.  In America we have bishops across the Hudson River taking markedly different positions on the question of the proper attitude of Rome to the whole sex, gender, and preference debate.

Maybe Missouri will have to surrender our title as the fighting church to Rome.  In everything from female acolytes to which side the altar the priest stands to the rather predictable sex issues, Rome is gearing up for a fight and at this point in time I have no idea how it will end.  The longer Francis remains, the more likely the progressive side may prevail.  I guess it is a wait and see proposition.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

What kind of whitewashed truth do you want?

I have not watched Dr. Who for a while but my daughter is a faithful viewer.  So it was with some interest that I heard it announced with great fanfare that the next Dr. Who will be a woman.  Many pundits thought it was about time.  I really do not get the whole craze to fill traditionally male roles with women.  It drives me crazy.

When will it be Jane Bond 007 or Mrs. Poirot or Mother Brown?  Shall we have Churchill played by Maggie Smith?  Honestly, if that is what equality means, we are in a sad state.  If in order to be equal we rewrite history or transform great literary characters of old to be female, what kind of sad equality is that?  Perhaps the most foolish was the recent warning by Brian Truitt of USA reviewing the historical drama Dunkirk:
The trio of timelines can be jarring as you figure out how they all fit, and the fact that there are only a couple of women and no lead actors of color may rub some the wrong way.
Uh, duh.  It was Dunkirk.  The French and English soldiers were male and were rescued by men.  It was not a sexist act and the story is not sexist either.  It is history.  You do not rewrite history to meet modern politically correct ideals.  Really?!  If we take it upon ourselves to impose upon the past the prejudices of the present, we will have a distorted future or worse, a future in which we repeat the travesties of our past because we forgot them.

Lets do a biopic on Cleopatra in which she is now a Latino gay man or make Harriet Tubman into a Viking sailor man.  Why not?  It is only history.  Could it be that we do not know history or do not  believe history is true -- because that would account for our willingness to reflect modern ideals upon the past.  Or is it that we are so self-centered that we cannot conceive of a time or a story in which the character is no modern and progressive?

Religion is by no means immune from this ridiculousness.  We enlarge certain female characters in Scripture to give them equal status with the chief male cast.  It is not only inaccurate but it is condescending to women!  Jesus was not born a person but a man.  This is not an incidental fact but an essential one.  To ignore this is to ignore history and to sacrifice the truth to fit modern prejudice.  Is it prejudice to reflect accurately history and truth?

We have become so captive to modern viewpoints and so fragile that we much remake the past in the image of the present that we cannot even face reality and truth.  How on earth can we ever expect to deal honestly with our sins?  What kind of whitewashed history will we settle for in our pursuit of a progressive ideal?

Friday, September 8, 2017

Beer and Lutheran Pastors go together. . .

Grab your pint glasses and phone your Fathers! Next Saturday, September 9, is International Buy a priest a beer day (Lutheran version, Buy a pastor a beer day)!

Not just an old fashioned love song. . .

So I was reading some rather dull statistics when this jumped out at me:
Back in 2011, Albany psychology professor Gordon Gallup and student Dawn R. Hobbs published a study in Evolutionary Psychology showing that 92 percent of the 174 songs that made it into the Billboard Top 10 sometime during 2009 contained what they hilariously dubbed “reproductive messages,” including references to “sex appeal,” “arousal,” and “genitalia.”  Billboard reports that lyrical occurrences of the actual word “sex,” have surged relative to “love,” which peaked in 1988 and has plummeted since. “Sex” peaked in 2009 with Ciara’s “Love Sex Magic,” and Jeremih’s “Birthday Sex,” both of which hit the top 10. And while it’s still going strong, artists today seem to prefer other, often more explicit terms.
That was 6 years ago.  So do you suppose that things have reversed direction?
These lucky scientists had to listen to 1,250 pop songs from 1960-2008 and found a surge in sexual themes by artists of both genders, but especially men. Among female performers, references to sex climbed from 6 percent of songs in the 1960s to 21 percent by 2000. Among male performers, songs with sexual subject matter went from a mere 7 percent in the 1960s to 40 percent in the 2000s.
Now lets put it all in a little context.  In the same time we have seen the same sort of erotic trend among praise and worship songs.  The chaste "Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart" seems like a hopelessly sanitized love compared to Kari Jobe's "The More I Seek You."  In fact, some of the worship songs sing so intimately that it is not clear whether Jesus is your best friend, boyfriend or Savior.  Of course, there have always been songs or hymns that bordered on bad taste with lyrics that were, at best hokey, but, at worst, in appropriate.
He touched me. Oh, he touched me.
And oh, the joy that floods my soul!
Something happened, and now I know!
He touched and made me whole. –He Touched Me
Our culture is clearly over sexed but this is clearly one trend that should not be followed in the Church.  The shape of God's love, according to Scripture, cruciform and that love is revealed most profoundly by sacrifice.  Our love, in response to His, should not be shaped any different.




Thursday, September 7, 2017

Glory in the Cross. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 13, Proper 17A, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich, on Sunday, September 3, 2017.

    Last week was a mountain top experience.  Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God.  Jesus blessed Peter for this confession and promised the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against His Church.  With Peter’s great confession and Jesus’ victorious promise, it was now time to bask in glory...at least until Jesus brought the mood down talking about suffering and being killed.  This sounds nothing like glory, but Jesus’ cross is His glory. 
    From the time of Peter’s confession, Jesus began to explain what it meant that He was the Christ.  Being the Christ means Jesus was the promised Savior, it means He had to go to Jerusalem and suffer at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, it means Jesus had to be killed, it means He had to die on the cross….But it also means He’d rise on the third day.  Peter didn’t hear this last part though.  He heard Jesus talking about suffering and being killed and he couldn’t get past that. 
    For Peter, being the Christ, the Son of the living God, meant Jesus would be strong.  It meant He’d be worshiped and adored, that nothing bad would ever happen to Him, that He’d never suffer and most certainly He’d never be killed.  Peter was so certain of this he pulled Jesus aside and began to rebuke the Lord: “Far be it from you, Lord!  This shall never happen to you” (Matt 16:22).  Peter didn’t want a Jesus on the cross.  Peter wanted a glorious and strong Jesus, and so do we. 
    If we were really honest with ourselves and could choose, we’d want to get rid of Christ on the cross because that Jesus is weak.  The Jesus beaten and bloodied, with nails hammered in His hands and feet, with thorns piercing His brow, this Jesus is humiliating.  The Jesus we want is strong and battle victorious, flexing His muscles. We want the Jesus arrayed in splendor and glory; the Jesus that overcomes suffering, not the suffering Jesus.   We want this Christ because that’s what we want for ourselves.
We want to be strong and powerful.  We want Jesus to give us glory, give us success, wealth, health, and happiness.  We want to overcome suffering, never to suffer again: never to suffer illness, debt, and relationship strife; never to suffer sadness, the feeling of loss, or anxiety.  For us, suffering is bad, it’s painful and humiliating.  It’s degrading.  In fact, we believe suffering is so bad that we’d rather die than suffer.
    The desire for an earthly strong, powerful, glorious Jesus; the idea that suffering is bad; this is called a theology of glory, and it’s satanic because it leads us away from Christ, away from the salvation He won for us through His suffering on the cross.  When Peter rebuked Jesus, Christ said: Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me.  For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matt 16:23).  Peter was trying to prevent Jesus from going to the cross, the very reason why Jesus became incarnate.  Satan tried the very same thing in the desert as He tempted Christ to turn from God’s will. 
Satan used the things of man, a theology of glory in his temptations.  He tempted Jesus to turn rocks into bread to end His hunger suffering.  Satan tempted Jesus to jump from the temple to test God’s promised care.  Satan even tempted Jesus with earthly glory and power if He’d only bow down to Satan.  But Jesus resisted these temptations.  He endured them and stayed faithful to God’s will, because He was the Christ...and it was necessary for Him to suffer these things.
    It was necessary for Jesus to suffer, because in His suffering He was fulfilling God’s plan of salvation for you.  This is called the theology of the cross.  Christ came to suffer and die so that you would live.  This is what Jesus was trying to explain to the disciples.  He had to suffer at the hands of His enemies.  He had to be betrayed, beaten, mocked, and nailed to the cross.  Jesus had to be killed so that you could live. 
     In God’s righteousness, He couldn’t let your sin go unpunished.  The wages of sin is death, everlasting death in the fires of hell.  That’s what your sin earns you.  That’s what you deserve.  But God the Father in His infinite grace and mercy keeps you from this death.  Instead, He sent His Son to suffer and die in your place.  Christ gave up His life for you.  His suffering and death fulfilled God’s plan of salvation.  This is Jesus’ glory.  Honor and praise are due to Him because He died on the cross to save you.  Christ’s sacrificial death paid for your sins, and His resurrection three days later won for you everlasting life, an everlasting life basking in Christ’s glory.  This glory will be full revealed on the Last Day when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead.  But until then, until our Lord calls us home, we have crosses to bear.  We still endure suffering. 
     A theology of glory says we shouldn’t suffer, but the theology of the cross says we’ve been saved through Christ’s suffering, and He said all who follow Him will endure suffering as well.  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24).
Our lives are filled with suffering.  We suffer from illness and disease.  We suffer when sin enters our relationships and drives a wedge between husband and wife, parent and child, between close friends.  We suffer at the hands of the weather, suffering the people of Houston and the Gulf Coast know all too well. Our lives are filled with suffering, with crosses that we have to bear.  And we faithfully take up these crosses and follow our Lord, because in the midst of suffering, Christ’s glory is shown. 
We don’t go out looking for crosses to bear.  Suffering will come to us.  But we endure all of this with faith, with the certainty of Jesus’ cross and resurrection.  We look to the cross of Christ, where our Savior suffered so that we’d be forgiven.  We look to Jesus, who rose from the dead, defeating our death.  This is Jesus’ glory and we rejoice in it.  We’re patient and remain constant in prayer during tribulation and suffering because we know we share in Christ’s glory.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

Visible women and invisible men. . .

Reading through a number of traditional Roman Catholic bloggers you find a common correlation between the lack of priests and the visible role of women (and girls) in the chancel.  Actually it is more than that.  It is the blaming of girl acolytes and women reading lessons and acting as extraordinary Eucharistic ministers as the reason for an absence of men in the priesthood and in the pews.

While I am not justifying in any way Rome's choices or practices, it is naive and simplistic to assume that the presence of these women is the reason for the absence of men.  Are they related?  Of course they are.  But not in a simple causal way.  While it is true that some women have pushed and shoved their way into the chancel (radical equality and feminism are not without voice or influence), the source of the problem lies not with women but with men.

A long time before women showed up routinely as acolytes or in the extraordinary roles invented because of the shortage of priests, men began to absent themselves from the church and from their roles as the spiritual leaders of their families.  This had profound impact upon vocations to the priesthood for Rome.  It left a void that would inevitably be filled by well-meaning women.  The Church sought to deal with the need more by widening the services women could provide within the chancel rather than dealing with the elephant in the room -- renewing the role of men as husbands, fathers, spiritual leaders in the home, and spiritual leaders in the church.  It is far too easy to think that girl acolytes and women serving in assisting roles to a declining number of priests is the primary problem.  It is a symptom of a larger problem and it parallels the greater issue but it is not a simple cause and effect.

So I disagree with the post below.  The source is a Roman Catholic blogger.
Growing number of women in the sanctuary.  Shrinking number of ordinations to the priesthood. Is there a correlation?  Sure there is. It is not just the presence of the women, it’s the womanish attitude of the clergy which repulses young men who would otherwise consider priesthood.

There are legitimate concerns being raised but to read this as women bullying men out of their roles as leaders of the home and of the church would be simplistic and wrong.  Everyone knows Christianity went through a period of "feminization" in which feelings trumped doctrine and truth, emotion was mistaken for faith, and the focus of the faith was horizontal instead of vertical.  Were these contributing factors?  Yes, they were.  Were they causal.  Probably not.  Men did not step up to their roles in the home and in the church.  This is the problem, then and now.  Where men attend faithfully and frequently, where husbands are the spiritual leaders of their families, where fathers offer their sons and daughters a good example of faith, the children have a very high probability of keeping the faith and being active Christians throughout their lives.  That was and is the real issue.

Rome not only needs to remember this.  Lutherans do as well.