Monday, February 20, 2017

All in . . .

I don't play much poker, well, I don't play it at all.  Every now and then I watch the pros play poker on TV.  I realize it is not for real money -- the consequences are too high.  But it does put the game into perspective. Whenever you watch poker on TV, chances are it’s a no-limit Hold'em game.  That just means that there is no ceiling on the amount you can bet.  If you are bold enough, you may just push all your chips into the center of the table and go "all in."  All in means you hold nothing in reserve.  You have not hedged your bet.  You have taken the ultimate risk with all your resources.

The move is a game changer.  If made the wrong choice, you have lost everything.  If you are bluffing, then you really do have nerves of steel.  If you have surveyed the competition and know your hand, you have probably already won.

Once you are all in, there is no going back.  It is too late to decide that maybe another player had a better hand than you thought or there were too many cards missing to have brought the game to a quick end.  As Kenny Rogers sang, you got know when to hold em and know when to fold em. . . .

When you teach children the faith, you do not teach them to hedge their bets.  You teach them an all in faith -- Jesus Christ alone has salvation and there is no other.  You teach them that God hears their prayers and they can always pray.  You teach them God is the glue that holds everything together.  You teach them they are not accidents of nature but fearfully and wonderfully made.  You teach them that God forgives every repentant sinner -- no matter how far they have fallen.  You teach them that death is not the end and heaven is real.  The problem is that adults are more likely to hedge their bets and mix their faith with reason, science, and culture.  We have trouble being all in.  We have trouble because we know if you put all your cards on this bet, there is nothing else on which to fall back.

Converts to Lutheranism tend to be all in.  They ask me questions and want to know with Blessed Mary, "how can this be?" but they do not question or challenge what I teach them.  In many respects they are like sponges soaking up water for the first time.  They were not raised Lutheran and they may a choice to become Lutheran and they are not going to Lutheran Lite or half baked Lutherans.  They are determined to be "all in."

Some of the rest of us Lutherans, the lifers who have always been Lutheran for as long as we can remember, are less likely to invest everything in what Lutherans believe, confess, and teach.  We are forever telling people that Lutherans are like ____________ [you fill in the blank with the kind of Protestant you would be if you were not Lutheran!] and above all Lutherans are not Catholic!  Gosh no. . .   Ceremonies, ritual, liturgy, and a sacramentally ordered piety are often deal breakers for us.  We are forever wedded to the kind of Lutheranism we saw in the last or most revered pastor.  Sure, Lutherans can do those things but, well, who would want to?  Lutherans are not scary -- they are normal.  We lifers tend to like the Lutheranism we met growing up (especially in catechism class) and are deeply suspicious of those who suggest that we may not know as much about Lutheranism as we thought,  We may be all in to the version of Lutheranism that we like but we are not so sure we want to know about the Confessions and about anything that might challenge what we think we know about Lutherans.

So we a little excited when a novice Lutheran begins telling us stuff about Lutherans that we did not want to know.  And we think it rude for a Lutheran born on a mission field to presume to tell us that Lutheran Lite is not a legitimate form of Lutheranism.  But most of all, we fear putting too much on stuff we thought was not supposed to be important at all (adiaphora anyone!).  We like moderation and we are suspicious of extremists -- even Lutherans who are too Lutheran!  Let us be reasonable, now.  Let us be moderate.  Let us not get too wound up about anything. 

Worse than converts telling us what Lutherans really believe, confess, and teach, we don't like young pastors, pastors new to the ministry, all in our faces and excited about things we don't think any normal Lutheran should get excited about.  Newfangled Lutheranism is just as questionable as Lutheranism which digs too deep into the soil of our confessions, doctrine, and practice.  We make small bets so that we can afford to lose here and there.  We would never go all in!

But that is precisely what we need -- Lutherans who are all in.  Lutherans who believe that tradition may even be more important than spontaneity.    Lutherans who believe that Sunday morning ought to look more like what we say in our Confessions than what we in the pews find reasonable, comfortable, and normal.  Lutherans who risk it all on the only One worth the risk -- Jesus Christ our Lord.  The world cares little for Lutherans unsure of their Lutheranism.  The world wants to believe that there are true believers out there.  The world is enamored of those who fear God more than death and who are determined to be the Lutherans our books define us to be.

Lutheranism will not be saved by Lutheranism Lite.  Lutheranism will not be reborn by becoming somebody else on Sunday morning.  Lutheranism will not be made relevant by diluting our Lutheran identity, doctrine, and confession.  Lutheranism lives or dies as an all in faith.  Really, if you are not ready to go all in for your Lutheran-ness, why bother?

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Pastors and Pedestals. . .

There are not a few folks who think I run the congregation where I serve.  From their perspective, I suppose that is how it seems.  I am in my 25th year here.  I have become the pastor, the only pastor, the vast majority of my people have known (except for a visitation pastor and now an associate approaching the end of his second year here).  I am the keeper of the corporate memory.  I can remember how we did this what that happened and how we that when this happened.  I know where papers are stored, where the Christmas decorations are kept, how to renew the non-profit corporate status, how to renew the tax exempt status, when the voters meetings are held, and how many folks to expect when Christmas Eve falls on a Tuesday and Christmas Day on a Wednesday. . . I seem to be the voice of caution when new things are planned and the voice of change when the predictable is chosen yet again.  I remind them who we are, why we are here, what worship is and is not, and what a pastor is (and is not).  So, because they think I am almost as old as God, I must run the show.

The truth is I often wish I did.  I wish I could substitute my opinion for the will and desire of others (except, of course when neither of us wins and only God does!).  It would be easier not to have to coax reluctant leaders through the hard decisions and to simply make them myself.  Since I will probably be blamed if it does not work right, it would be easier if I could decide what course we shall pursue.  I do not know a pastor who does not think this way.  It is not because we are prone to arrogance or control freaks.  It is because we are here nearly every day of the week, every week of the year, for as long as it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.  For me, as for most pastors I would assume, it is not simply a job but a vocation, not simply a congregation but a family, and not simply a range of choices but the best option.

Although some folks probably wish that the pastor was not so intimately identified with everything, they also want it just this way.  They don’t want to get involved to the level of the pastor (and they complain that they cannot be expected to abandon jobs and family to do that).  They don’t want to give up their time, talents, and treasures if it might mean somebody might suffer (aren't we all that way?). They know that if pastor does it, they won't have to do it and that is often too attractive for their own good.  The pastor wants it because so much of his calling involved intangible things that every pastor likes to be able to point to something concrete and real and say "I did that."  Every pastor has a little desire to be father to their people (and more people than who would admit it also want the pastor to act like dad and remind them of the things they know they ought to do).  Many folks always feel a little uncomfortable with the pastor and his family so it does not bother them to keep them at a distance (even if that distance ends up putting the man on small pedestal).  So we feed off each other in the foibles of pastors too involved for their own good and people who want their pastors to be holy.

Everyone really knows that the pastor is not large and in charge.  They know that because they have dumped many problems into the lap of the pastor and the family was still broken, the child still rebellious, the money still tight at home, and the sick still died.  Part of the reason we want pastors to be on a small pedestal is the hope that he will come through every now and then with the miracle we do not think we can do or get or deserve on our own.  We all know it helps to have an ace in your hand.  So we ask the pastor to pray for us and to intervene in family wars, to speak to the errant child, to reconcile angry spouses, and to generally follow us around to clean up our messes.  No pastor I know would deny wanting to be able to do just that -- except that we can't and are mere mortals.

Pastors dream of self-sufficient congregations where the ordained need not know how to use a toilet plunger or repair the copier or fix a computer that refuses to boot up.  But we also yearn to be loved, respected, admired, and heeded and so it does not hurt too much when do what is no pastor's job description.  We want everyone to get along, for the church to prosper, and for God and everyone we serve to be happy (especially with us).  So it is okay if the pastor is a bit more invested in things at church and if the folks in the pew count on him.  What is not okay is if the pastor takes over and the people let him or want him to  -- we have different roles but we ought to be equally invested in and working toward God's purpose.

Some people think I run things but don't think I should.  Unfortunately, those are the same people who expect others to step up and do what is really theirs to do.  Some people think I run things and that is how it ought to be.  Unfortunately, there are both folks therein who just want to avoid having to be responsible and others who want me to be happy and think being CEO will make me happy.  So I guess it will always appear to some that I am in control and to some that this is okay as long as things keep going well.  In the end, it is my job to hold them accountable for what is theirs even as it is their job to hold me accountable for what is mine.  Our vocations do not replace each other but complement each other.  As hard as it is to explain, it is wonderful when it works.  As hard as it is to repair when it is broken, it is wonderful when, in spite of ourselves, it finds the sweet spot.   I have erred on both sides over the years and my people have forgiven me and I have forgiven them.  2017 is one more chance to try and get it right. . . again!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Remember him?

Less than a week after one of the Queen’s Chaplains spoke out against an Islamic Prayer denying the divinity of Jesus Christ being read out in a Scottish Cathedral, the senior churchman has tendered his resignation from that office. Former Chaplain to Her Majesty the Reverend Gavin Ashenden announced his resignation on his personal blog on Saturday night, anticipating that a BBC Radio 4 segment on him and the controversy surrounding the Quranic readings in a Scottish Cathedral to be broadcast on Sunday morning would reveal his resignation despite his requests to the contrary. Remarking that the decision to step down was “the most honourable course of action” and had come after years of “attempts to silence or defenestrate me”, Rev. Ashenden said he had spoken out in the past on controversial matters as a “matter of integrity and responsibility”.

How sad it is that when a Christian clergyman speaks in his role as priest, chaplain, and defender of the faith, he is being political and must resign being a chaplain to the Queen who is, by the way, the defender of the faith. I had reported on this originally but had failed to report on the consequence.  Sad.  But not unexpected.

A photo of reality. . .

Stock photos are like actors who portray a role for a commercial but then it is all diluted when a tag line admits that the people who provide the visual image do not suffer from the malady for which this medicine works or use whatever product is being hawked.  Somehow or other, when the tag line says that the folks whose faces you see are not actors but real life clients, there is a credibility which is missing in other circumstances.

I will admit that stock photos are unavoidable.  I use some of them on this blog (although I really do try to make the image fit what I am writing about).  That said, things become real when the faces are the familiar ones of those whom you know and love, when the situation is what you are facing right now, and when the generic becomes personal.

That happened for me in a very new way when I saw photos of the grandchild in my daughter-in-law's womb.  The whole issue of life and its protection became personal in a new way when I saw the unmistakable form of a child, currently biding the days awaiting the magic moment when the careful environment of the womb will be exchanged for the more uncertain surroundings of the world around us all.  It is one thing to think about the pro-life cause in a general way and quite another when presented when an image of the very real child moving and growing within the womb of mom.

Don't get me wrong.  This is no position change.  I was and remain adamantly pro-life.  I am against abortion and against the callous disregard for the person waiting to be born.  That said, it has been made ever more personal when that child whose image I see is my own grandchild, one who will wear my name and who shares my own genes.

Abortion is generally argued on the level of theory -- right and wrong that has no personal face.  All the images we use are good enough but to the people to whom they are directed, they are like stock photos who could be anyone.  When you look at what our modern day technology can show of fingers and toes, eyes and ears, arms and legs, and a beating heart, well, this is no stock photo that could be anyone, this is someone.

The pro-life cause is more easily argued when the womb belongs to someone we know and love, when the child within is someone we will know and love, and when the whole framework of the argument becomes personal.  As I look out on our congregation, I see many babies -- some of them determined to be heard amid the sound of organ, choir, chanting, and preaching.  I see some moms still awaiting the birth of their children.  I have held many of them in my arms over the water of baptism and will hold more soon enough.  The pro-life cause is best a personal one, in which we are invested in the lives and futures of those children waiting to be born.  But even when they are just names and faces to us, the cause is personal to the Lord who knit them together in their mother's womb, fearfully and wonderfully fashioning them and giving them life.

It is a good thing to move beyond the theoretical and into the tangible and personal.  For the issue of abortion, it is essential.  It has often been said that we have lost as many lives to abortion as there are people in countries like Italy, South Africa, or Tanzania.  I cannot wrap my head around the reality of that many people being gone in the blink of an eye.  But I tell you what I can imagine and what I cannot forget and that is the picture of the child who will become the newest member of my family!

Friday, February 17, 2017

A new editor. . . surprising choice. . .

"L'Osservatore Romano" (The Roman Observer) is the daily semi-official newspaper of the Vatican.  It does not merely cover religious news, which it does but also political and cultural.  It is not exactly the chief venue through which the Pope speaks but it does carry the Pope’s discourses, reports on the Holy See, and reports on events within the Church at Rome and the Roman Catholic community throughout the world. It is a semi-official newspaper of the Holy See, not an official organ for the Pope's views.  It does serve as a propaganda arm for the Pope even if it does not publish his encyclicals or allocutions.  It has published things which have not necessarily reflected the views of official Rome or the Pope.  But it is very significant.

With the new year, “L'Osservatore Romano” will be turning over a new leaf. It seems that Pope Francis was not at all satisfied with the weekly Spanish edition edited by the Argentine Silvina Pérez.  So the Pope has prevailed with a new edition just for Argentina and a new editor, Marcelo Figueroa.The big news here is that Figueroa is not Roman Catholic but Protestant, specifically a pastor of the Presbyterian Church.  He has also been the director of the Argentine Biblical Society for some 25 years.  But his chief qualification seems to be that he has been a longstanding friend of Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis).

So what does it mean that the editor of the unofficial, semi-official, daily newspaper for the Vatican published for Argentina, will be a Presbyterian?  Now that is the question.  While it is certainly usual for leaders to place into positions of influence people of their own viewpoint and to reward friends, what stands out here is that this man is not Roman Catholic.  How will it work that the almost official organ of Roman Catholics will be edited by a Protestant?  For that, we will wait to see.

It does bring up a question and an issue with which nearly all church journals or periodicals have been forced to wrestle.  Is this press objective or is this a house organ that speaks on behalf of the church's leaders?

While The Living Lutheran, for example, is the official periodical of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, its history has been to agitate and advocate for things under debate and not yet fully settled for the ELCA.  So in preparation for the CWA that would adopt sweeping changes for the ELCA in the way it dealt with same sex marriage and homosexuality among the clergy, the official organ of the ELCA was out in front championing the cause with pieces friendly to the change.  It has taken the official stance of minimizing the troubles the church has experienced since that eventful choice -- even when those repercussions threatened the very life of the ELCA (both in membership and finances!).

On the other hand, The Lutheran Witness has been much more in line with the official doctrinal stance of the LCMS and as an advocate of the practice that doctrine expects.  It has unfailingly tackled difficult subjects in order to speak what the LCMS has said, consistent with Synod resolution and our doctrinal confession.  It has done so with an unapologetic stance to defend the stance of the LCMS and to explain it for members as well as those outside the church body.  I cannot recall an article in which The Lutheran Witness advocated for something not already part of our convention resolutions or consistent with who we are and what we have taught as the LCMS.  That is not to say, however, that it has not also mirrored the particular emphases of the Synod President and administration.  But the LCMS does not expect that the two would be different.

I for one believe that the official periodical of the church should reflect what that churches believes, teaches, and confesses.  I further believe the function of this official organ is to teach the faithful every bit as much as it is to witness this doctrine to the world.  So I would suggest that there is a catechetical dimension to the work of an editor and the authors employed.  While I cannot speak for Rome, I find it hard to believe that the best editor for a church's media (official or unofficial) would be someone who believes and confesses differently than that church.  We have had a long run with a very successful editor of The Lutheran Witness, Adriane Dorr Heins, and our official periodical has shone brightly under her stewardship.  She will soon be replaced (at her own request) and the new person will have big shoes to fill.  I have no idea who that person will be but I know that person will be LCMS, fully committed to the doctrine of our Confessions, to the stance of the LCMS, and to its faithful practice.  I can conceive of no other possibility.  Though it may not be politic to say so, no Presbyterians need apply -- no matter what our fearless leader might think or who his friends might be.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Agenda driven Christianity. . .

According to the RNS:
A New York-based advocacy group called Parity is asking Christians who favor LGBT equality  — “queer positive Christians,” in their parlance — to show their support by wearing “glitter ash” on their foreheads to mark Ash Wednesday (March 1).

Ash Wednesday kicks off the six-week somber season called Lent that leads to Easter, and is usually marked in churches with the color purple. Traditionally, plain gray ashes, blessed by a minister or priest, are smeared on the foreheads of Christians to symbolize repentance.
“This is a way for queer Christians and queer-positive persons of faith to say ‘We are here,'” said Marian Edmonds-Allen, Parity’s executive director. “It is also a way for other people to be a witness to that and be in solidarity with them.”
Instead of repentance, flaunt it.  While it is hard to see that this will catch on among the churches that do apply ashes, it is not impossible to imagine that some Lutherans might exchange the solemn ritual for such comedic shtick.  Think her Her Church, anyone?  How sad.  Although it is impossible to predict what will be, truth is always stranger than fiction. . .

The Pope's Choir. . . the parish choir. . .

My own Cantor has had little good to say about the Choir of the Sistine Chapel.  Historically, he is correct.  They have been a collection of screechers and operatic voices that did not blend well into a choir.  This is one of the oldest choirs in the world and this choir is a professional choir, quite unlike the choirs of most churches which are made up of volunteers -- some of whom can barely read music at all!  That said, its professional cadre of singers have not been without complaint in modern times.  Who can forget the Midnight Masses of John Paul II and the screamers who seemed at one and the same time amateurish and a group of egos -- each making sure that their own voices were heard.

60 Minutes did a story on the Pope's Choir and did not shrink from the criticism that so many had heaped upon the Choir in the past.  But all that began to change in 2010 with a change in leadership.  Maestro Massimo Palombella was determined to prepare a choir worthy of the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's.  They began intensive rehearsals and practiced basic skills under the heavy hand of a choir director determined to offer the Lord nothing but the best from himself and all his singers.  Click on the link and watch the 60 Minutes episode for free.  Even better, click afterwards on the link for the online additional footage not aired on the broadcast.  It is worth your time (though it may take a moment to load).

Popes historically were not chosen for their ability to chant or sing.  Often it has been rather painful to listen to popes and bishops attempt to sing the liturgy.  Not so with this choir.  Now the auditions and requirements are arduous.  Only a few are admitted each year.  Boys and men both have to justify their place within the choir -- so great is this newfound commitment to excellence.  The current Pope is not known for the quality of his own voice and yet he seems an enthusiastic supporter of the new voice of what has been called "his" choir.

I think it is absolutely wonderful to have a such "professional" choirs  — not only the Pope's Choir but the choir school voices of Kings College.  I love listening to the pop and more classical acapella groups from Pentatonix to Straight No Chaser to Voices 8 to Cantus to Chanticleer and many others.  I really do love listening to the well crafted harmonies and trained voices of such "professionals". At the same time, we must all acknowledge that this is neither the norm nor a possibility for 99% of all churches.  Every church choir will be made up of volunteers of unequal ability -- all striving for the best.  This is the 30-35 voice choir that I enjoy hearing in the Divine Service in my parish.  This is not merely what we must make do with but, if sacred music is to survive, it will be because of these choirs.  It is surely easier to conduct a choir of professionals who read music and know their own voices but there is profound magic in hearing a church choir like the one in our parish and reach for the stars.

There is too great a temptation and excuse to suggest that sacred choral music requires professional voices.  It is surely more difficult and taxing upon both choir and director, but the church music can not only survive but it can thrive in a parish with limited resources of people and funds.  All that is required are the dedication and commitment of the people (leaders and singers!).  It can be done.  Even when many do not read music.  On Christmas morning we heard Vivaldi's Gloria from a choir down some voices (due to the Christmas season) but faithfully offering their best to God's glory.  And the best part is that the rest of us get to listen in each week as they sing for God's ear.

We have no Pope's Choir here, no cadre of trained professionals, and no magic to make it happen.  Only a choir of faithful and committed folks with a talented and good humored director who make it all happen Sunday after Sunday and in all the special feasts and festivals.  As much as I love hearing good professional choirs and enjoying their improvement, nothing matches what I hear every Sunday from a wonderful group of dedicated singers and our Cantor.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The wrong kind of apologetics. . .

Apologetics is supposed to be a defense of the faith.  It is for some, however, an apology for the faith, an "I'm sorry" Christianity goes against your reason, your science, your desire, or your purpose but just maybe you ought to pause before ditching it entirely...  We need defenders of the faith who will engage the skeptics, agnostics, and atheists of the world.  We do not need apologists who agree that Christianity does not seem plausible or reasonable or relevant in our scientific world but believe anyway.

Andy Stanley has been a phenomenon since he was a little boy.  The son of famous Southern Baptist pastor and onetime denomination leader Charles Stanley, he has had an on and off again relationship with his dad, his dad's theology, and his dad's church.  It led to a very public split and Andy starting his own mega franchise (without the Southern Baptist logo).  His dad was and is a fairly predictable and reliable Southern Baptist.  Andy, not so much so.  In fact, Andy has determined to craft a Christianity in which Scripture and the Virgin Birth, among other things, need not be impediments for those who find Scripture not credible and the Virgin Birth, well, kooky.  Therein lies the rub.

“So I need you to listen really, really carefully and the reason is this: Perhaps you were taught, as I was taught, ‘Jesus loves me. This I know’ – and let’s all  finish it together – ‘for the Bible tells me so.’ This is where our trouble began. . . ”  so preached Andy in August of this year.  It was followed up by a Dec. 4 Christmas themed sermon in which he reached, among other things “In fact, you should know that Christianity doesn’t hinge on the truth or even the stories around the birth of Jesus. It really hinges on the resurrection of Jesus.”

I understand what Stanley is trying to do but he is not doing his skeptical hearers any favor.  Peeling back layers of the faith to get at the core of what must be believed is never a process that has an ending point.  The whole rise of religious skepticism that became normative in the late 20th century was surely no more than an attempt to do what Stanley was doing -- deal with the contradictions between "science" and faith, reason and faith.  The problem was that an opening never remains the small hole intended to allow the skeptic in and nearly always becomes a giant means of escape in which the tenets of orthodox Christianity begin disappearing from creed and confession until there is nothing left but a spiritual Jesus endeavoring to make people spiritual (without being religious).

Apologetics is surely not my area of expertise but it is the call of duty for ever pastor.  Christianity is under siege in the university and among the elites, to be sure, but the faith is under no less of an assault by folks on Main Street as well.  This is exactly where the parish pastor lives -- defending the truth of Scripture and the claims of creed and confession to a people for whom "Thus saith the Lord" is no longer enough.  We do this best not by abandoning the Scriptures nor by admitting that there is a conflict between the "spiritual" truth of the Bible and the "real" truth of science.  This is merely a rabbit hole that leads away from the faith and into a wonderland in which reason is presumed to be the most secure and reliable truth of all.  No good is served for the faith or the faithful by peeling away the layers of the incredible to get to the core.  Christianity is by nature incredible to the ordinary human mind -- apart from the work of the Spirit.  Foolishness is always the judgement of the world against the Wisdom of God -- especially when that Wisdom is made flesh of a Virgin by the Holy Spirit to carry the weight of the world's sin into His death and rise with the hope of the resurrection to new and everlasting life!

Stanley is surely winsome and he has all the tools to make his case convincing.  And I am sympathetic to his point.  "If the Bible goes, so goes our faith. . ."  We do face a danger of a Biblicism which bolsters the faith by treating the faith as something fragile that must be protected instead of a sturdy truth that can and does confront the emptiness of the world.  That, however, is a position that has been retreating from churches and people for a very long time.  It has been replaced with a far more nefarious enemy.  This enemy says that perhaps, maybe even probably, much of the Scripture is not true (Jericho's walls did not fall, the sea did not part, the six days were euphemisms for long epochs of history and evolution, the Virgin Birth is pious myth, etc...).  That does not matter, says the enemy.  Spiritual truth remains. 

Our bones will remain in the ground but we will live a spiritual life.  Jesus was born of a woman who could have been a young woman raped by a soldier or the victim of a insincere boyfriend, most of the miraculous stories of the Bible are myths -- but do not despair, we will rise and live like Jesus and with Jesus in some spiritualized version of life.  Andy Stanley is not the first to suggest that there is a division between the credible truths of the faith that must be believed and the whole of the Scriptures which can be taken with a grain of salt.  But he is no apologist in the classic sense of that term.  His is the house of cards that offers little or nothing to those who would gladly strip away layers of myth to get at what might be real.

Faith is not bolstered by those willing to admit that the Word of God is legend or myth or fabrication or even that the Bible is both words of man (which may not be true) and Word of God (which probably is).  Lutherans are not Biblicists and our faith is not a weak and fragile truth that must be protected at all costs.  We know a Word of God which is powerful and efficacious.  Its power lies not in that it is true (which it is) but in that it is the breath of God, the voice of God, and power of God to deliver what He has done to a people living in rags of unrighteousness and ashes of death.  Our people need defenders of the truth and not negotiators will to admit the enemy's most powerful lies.  Stanley thinks he knows what he is doing but he has tossed out the baby with the bathwater and eventually nothing will be left to preach but the here and now (aka Joel Osteen).  That is not Christianity and that is no faith worth settling for. . .

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

All men are liars. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 6A, preached on Sunday, February 12, 2017.

All men are liars. It is not just that men lie, lie sometimes, or lie often, but they are liars; lies are not their occasional companions but their lifelong friends.  It is not my judgment; God says it in Psalm 116.  Before I get an amen from the women here, lying is equal opportunity.  All women and even children are liars. Even pastors.  I am a liar, too.  The lies I have told you are bad but I have told worse to myself.  But nothing can compare to the lies I have told God.  Don’t be so shocked.  You know the truth of it.  Because you are also a liar.  And the lies condemn us.  Big lies.  Small lies.  White lies.  Evil lies.  They all damn us.  Don’t hide in lies.  Cling to the truth.

You, me, and all of us are liars.  That is what sin has done to us.  Sin has turned us into liars.  The greatest of those lies is that we deny our sins.  Oh, sure, we gladly admit we are not perfect but we also believe we are no worse than others and better than many.  And our sins are not that bad.  If we did sin, these sins are not big ones or bad ones.  They are just sins -- common, ordinary, garden variety.  If we tried hard enough, we could shake those sins and make up for them.  Maybe someday we will.  At least those are the lies we tell ourselves, others, and God.

Someday we will give up those sins.  The pet sins that we commit without thinking, the accidental sins that really don’t count, and the enjoyable sins that ought not to be called sins at all.  Such are the lies we tell ourselves, we tell others, and we tell God.

Our lies are not only in our denials but in our justification of those sins, our excuses for sinning, and our protests that surely others are far worse than we are.  There is no comfort in lies and no safety, either.  Our lies are like a house of cards ever waiting to make our lives come crashing down.  Yet sin has so stained our reason and our instincts that we will do anything to protect our lies – even running from the light and the truth.

Jesus confronts our lies.  “You have heard it said. . . But I say to you!”  You can murder with words.  Don’t bring a gift to the altar without reconciling with your brother.  Don’t run from your debts and obligations but face up to them and do what is right.  Don’t think that your thoughts are secret for the Lord knows the lust in your heart and in your eyes before it turns into adultery.  Don’t presume that sin lives on the outside of your lives and you can hide from evil – the evil that condemns you hides in your own hearts and minds.  Don’t trade your marriage for dreams presuming that your happiness justifies it all.  Don’t swear before God because it only confirms the lies in your heart.

Our God is a God of truth.  He strips away the layers of our lives until truth condemns us.  He exposes what we hide, remembers what we forget, and silences all our protests.  But He does not do so to condemn or to ridicule us.  No, my friends, our Lord Jesus rats us out so that His mercy can save us, His truth rescue us, and His blood cleanse us -- wretched liars and sinners though we are.  Jesus has not come to tell the well they are fine or to pat the righteous on their backs.  No, He has come for sinners, cutting through the smokescreen of our lies so that He might rescue us, His blood pay for our sin, and His death end our captivity to death. 

Sunday morning is truth time for liars.  Grace comes for sinners.  Mercy comes for those who are unworthy.  Righteousness clothes the wicked.  That is the message of the cross.  That is the redemption born of a holy Savior who dies for sinners.  And that is what the Spirit is coaxing into your reluctant hearts. 

So lay down your false pride.  Jesus gives us the true humility of repentance and faith.  Forget the useless competition of which lies are worse or better and confess them all.  Repent to your God.  Repent to your brother and sister. Repent to the Lord who knows all the evil hiding in you and repent to those who have no idea what lives in your heart.  It is hard and it is humiliating but there is no cover in lies and no future.  Only the blood of Christ can save us and only the righteousness of Christ can cover up our sin.

Christ has born your shame and your sin.  Jesus stood alone on the cross while all humanity hid in the shadows.  Alone and wounded on the cross it seemed safe to us to hide in our lies.  But His cross means you are not alone. You have hope for something better than a relative righteous which says you may be better than some.  His cross shines light on you to save you.  And now there is something better than lies to hold onto – the truth!  You have Christ and Him crucified.  He is your hope and your redemption.  He has has been planted in you by baptism.  The old and comfortable ways ways of sin are even now, by the power of the Spirit, giving way to the new ways of life in the Kingdom of God, living in the truth.

Since the Law cannot condemn you in Christ, it has become the lamp to your feet and the light to your path that God intends.  Since Christ lives in you, He is even now teaching you to love the light, to seek what is good and right, and to do them not out of fear but out of love.  Because you are not who you were, and even though you are not yet who you shall be, you are His, bought with a price and His own possession to walk in Him and glorify God with your good works.  And in Him you learn in the Spirit to leave behind the ways of anger, lust, jealousy, greed, pride, and hypocrisy that Jesus condemns so clearly and so completely.

You were born into lies and you learned to lie with the best of them but you have been born again into the truth that is Christ Jesus.  He is your truth and His truth  rescues, redeems, restores, and renews.  Lies shield us from grace but the truth has salvation big enough for us all.  Christ knows all our lies and loves us still.  And now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have come to know Christ and to love the truth and live in it.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Dreams worth sacrifice. . .

Just after Christmas my wife and I ventured into a theater to watch Rogue One.  It was 39 years ago, on a date, that we say the first film of the Star Wars franchise and walked away as people who have never seen anything like it before.  We felt very much the same after Rogue One.  We gasped when the hooded figure turned around in the end of the movie -- only days after Carrie Fisher died suddenly and then her mother Debbie Reynolds.  Our eyes were not dry for the scenes that gave visual shape to what were words across the screen at the beginning of that first Star Wars movie so long ago.  It is a profound legacy for all those who worked on the films and for the story George Lucas created that will become part of the very fabric of our identity for a very long time to come. 

Hidden in that movie is a hard truth.  Dreams are wonderful things but dreams require the sacrifice of those who are determined that the dreams are worth it.  These movies offer no magical short cut to the hopeful future.  They insist upon taking the viewer through defeat, loss, suffering, and even death upon the way.  It is not a sacrifice of the mind but of the heart and body and life.  The scars are carried along (like the mechanical hand of Luke).  This genre of literature and film is always one ripe with applications to faith, to the battle with evil, to the temptation of darkness, and to the triumph of light at the hands of a messianic figure who saves at great personal cost.  I think sci-fi is instructive and intuitively adaptable as a medium for Christians. 

I will not quickly forget the wonder I felt when I read C. S. Lewis' The Space Trilogy or The Chronicles of Narnia (too quickly written off as children's literature!).  I think it is a good thing when our children read such novels or view such movies.  They are fun but they remind us of honor and integrity as virtues of the faithful, of the struggle and sacrifice that the fight against evil requires, of the personal cost we must endure, of the force beyond us (God Himself) who holds the key to our victory, and of the promised future in the life to come.  They draw attention to the Savior who must do for the whole world what none can do alone and what all of them cannot do together.  I am not at all suggesting that the Christian Gospel is fiction but that this genre of fiction is particularly friendly to the fact and truth of Jesus Christ.

We have reduced nobility to an antiquated virtue and we have left ourselves without an idea of virtue or the stories of the saints to encourage us toward such virtue.  We have come up with a love that is fragile and weak and fickle -- unable to forgive the sins of those whom you love and unwilling to sacrifice to make it work when the loved disappoints the lover.  We have lived too much in the moment of romance that briefly shows itself and indulges itself but cannot sustain the love when tragedy and sorrow come near.  It is no wonder we do not get God or His love.  We think love means being nice and getting something out of it and we stand in confused awe before love that dies for the dream and turns the hope into reality.  It is this wonder which is missing from too much of our lives.

We kneel down at the manger and are content to ooh and aah at a baby without seeing in this infant flesh the face of God and prostrating before the awe-full mystery.  We pack away Christmas as if it were ornaments and gifts and have no wonder left to meet the sinless Son of God in the dirty water of the Jordan meant for sinners who have heard the call to repentance.  We treat the miracles of the season of Epiphany as if they were isolated and random acts of kindness and not the revelation of the God who delivers up His own Son to be our Savior.  So when we get to the Transfiguration, we are just as confused as the disciples who thought it possible to remain in the clouds instead of heading down into the valley of the shadow.  And then when Lent leads us step by step to the cross, we shudder to think that it could have all been about this -- Love was born to suffer and die!  And like Mary Magdalene was want to hug Jesus and go back home to the old ways and expectations of life while Jesus is burning into our hearts what Love has done and how there is no more yesterday but only the today that anticipates an eternal tomorrow.

On this Valentine's Day we celebrate love and yet too many of us have absolutely no idea what love really is.  Men tend to think that a little gift and some nice words will ensure that we are lucky at the end of the evening and women think that a little gift and some nice words are probably the best they can hope for.  No wonder the stats on marriage are so dismal.  Love was born to suffer and die for the unworthy and undeserving, those still enemies of the Lover.  When we learn this and strive to manifest a glimpse of this love between husband and wife, then perhaps we will also learn that life is more than a moment and sacrifice worth the dream.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Solid food. . .

For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Heb 5:13-14)

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (Cor 3:1-3)

Scripture says not everyone is ready for “solid food.” Few of us would admit that this verse is talking about us.  It is always others who not ready for solid food, for the deeper truths, for the secret knowledge.  That is the thing about knowledge.  Knowledge separates us.  That is why we love secrets.  Some of us know them and most of do not.  To be in the know is what we want.  Insider knowledge that is limited to a few is our goal.  We want to be on ten inside of the circle, so to speak.

We approach Scripture in the same way.  We think it is filled with secrets.  We want to know the secrets but they are no longer valuable if everyone knows them.  Knowledge is what sets us apart from others.  We like the dream of knowledge being equally applied so that all know all -- but the reality is not like the dream.  It is the dream of gnosticism that temps us all.   

The problem is that we tend to treat knowledge as something that does not necessarily affect us.  We have grown accustomed to the wisdom of the internet that seems unlimited and we have learned to mine its secrets and information more to answer our curiosity than to give us something to use.  That has become the same way we approach the Word of God.  We are curious but we tend to treat the information itself as the end.  It is information but it does not necessarily direct us in any way.  We want to know because we want to know not because we have an idea what to do with the knowledge.  Too much of what we call Bible study is the pursuit of information before which we are passive.  It does not even inform much less direct us.

I am not at all suggesting that it is better to be in the dark, not to know.  That said, it is better to know what we know well than to know very little about very much.  That is why Luther wrote the catechism.  It was written so that we would know what we know well -- so well it would become a part of us, inform who we are, and direct what we do.  The sad reality is that we treat the catechism as if it were child's play and we presume that we are ready for the solid food of the Word.  But unless we know well the catechism, we are not well equipped for the Word.  It sounds like a sacrilege to say this but it is true.  We are not all ready for solid food.  We are all ready the catechism.  Let us begin there and make sure we master it well.  It will serve us well as we prepare to feast upon the solid food.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The appeal of prayer. . .

Prayer is a wonderful gift but used wrongly it is actually a curse.  I have written before of those churches without sacraments and of the temptation to turn prayer into a sacrament.  That is not the only temptation.  Though prayer is to proceed from confidence in God's grace, the truth is that some of our prayers proceed from just the opposite.  We have no confidence in God's grace so we must attempt to manipulate, direct, and control Him.  Without the assurance that God knows what is best for us and without confidence that God will do what is best, prayer is like wrangling a reluctant God into giving to us what we want but what He does not want to give.

It shows up in what we pray, what we say.  It seems spiritual maturity to think that the Our Father that our Lord taught us is a nice enough prayer but it cannot possibly cover all the bases of what we think we need, what we want, and how to get God to deliver these things to us.  Yet the opposite is true.  The Our Father is not some child's prayer which we will grow out of and be able to pray better on our own.  No indeed.  The Our Father is both starting point and ending point in prayer.  We pray it both to learn what it is what we need, what we ought to want, and how we know that God will deliver this to us according to His promise AND to pray what we have learned.  In the same way, the simple prayer "Lord, have mercy" is much more profound and has great depth even though our human wisdom seems to think simplistic.

We presume that spiritual maturity leads us past the "simple" words of Jesus and allows us to pray our own, deeper words.  We presume that the Our Father is a good starting point but once we attain a certain level of spiritual maturity we grow beyond the Lord's words and grow into our own.  What an arrogant presumption!

I recall once being asked by a person involved in the Charismatic Movement if I did not want to know more, to attain a deeper level of maturity, if I did not believe that there was something more than what I knew, if I did not want to communicate directly with God, spirit to Spirit.  In my youth I knew instinctively of the dangerous desire to go beyond what God Himself had provided.  It was not wisdom but good catechesis that led me to say "no" to the prospect of moving beyond the Word of God and the Sacraments and into some mysterious level of spiritual reality.  Now about 36 years later, I see the wisdom of denying and rejecting what appeared to be spiritual immaturity to those who wanted to explore beyond the seemingly rudimentary means of grace.  The same is true of prayer.

It may seem the mark of spiritual maturity to pray on a deeper, more mature level than the Our Father but this is the deceptive voice of the sinful self still presuming to know better than God.  We dare not follow this voice or we will be led from the rich and lush garden of God's promises in Word and Sacrament into the desert of idolatry and pride.  Of course we can and should pray other prayers in addition to the Our Father but the Our Father is font and source of these prayers.  In addition, these prayers always lead us back to what Jesus taught us to pray.  The line in that priceless treasure that stands out in this regard is "Thy will be done."  Just as we pray as Jesus taught, in the faith that leads us to believe, trust, and count on God's good and gracious will, so do our prayers strengthen our conviction that God's good and gracious will is all we need.  We are not settling for anything when we pray as Jesus taught but we are expressing as best we are able on earth the fullness of the divine confidence we see expressed in everything Jesus said and did -- right up to His death once for all on the cross.

Do not get caught up in the appearance of spiritual maturity which is, in reality, immaturity.  The Our Father is both where we start and where we return.  To pray as Jesus taught is not simply to mouth the words He said but to believe those words with all our heart, body, mind, and strength.  As we pray the Spirit works to lead us to the place where Jesus is, to full confidence in the good and gracious will of our Father in heave.  Do not be intimidated.  Prayer is not a riddle.  Neither is prayer a ladder to ascend.  It is simply faith at work.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Art that is written. . .

Apparently some among the Orthodox are in a war of words over what exactly iconography means.  The words, in Greek eikonographia and in Slavonic ikonopisanie, speak in broader terms than simply writing (any manner of depicting, really) but there is merit to the idea of icon writing.  Icons are not simply art.  Indeed, the religious art of the West is not merely art.  This is not the kind of art that appeals to taste or preference but to the thing itself being depicted.  This is art that is words that do not have alphabet but form and shape.  It is a good thing to remember.  This art is not for appreciation but to speak the Word to us, to address us with the Word spoken not with voice or pen but with paint and brush.

Like it or not, the art in service to the Church has a nobler purpose than to appeal to taste or preference.  It's purpose is much more than an appeal to feelings or sentiment.  It exists to represent in form what the Word says.  The artist may use all of his or her creative skills in the process but in the end it is not about the artist either.  It is about the Word depicted.  In this respect it is appropriate -- even better -- to speak of such art in the Church being written rather than simply painted.  For it is all about the Word.

Icons make this even more clear since the artist does not attempt to represent the figures in a photographic manner or to be accurate or proportional.  The artist here understands that it is not about how real the image looks but about the Word being depicted.  For this reason, modern art does not really work in service to the Word.  We don't need to see what the artist saw or felt but what the Word says.  Sure the artist is involved and his talent and skill is part of the process but the success of religious art comes not in our awe at the artist but our faith kindled, instructed, and encouraged.

The blank canvas of so many churches almost suggests that we have nothing to say EXCEPT in words that are spoken.  On the other hand, the rich imagery of stained glass, carving, metal work, painting, etc... insists that not only do we have something to say but what we say is not limited only to the benefit of the ear but also visual, taste, texture, and smell.  This is not invented by us to explain why we have art but is essential to the Gospel itself.  Sacraments are visible Word -- they convey to the eye, the touch, the nose, and the mouth the Word that also comes to us by the ear.  Sacramental theology is by nature a theology that expects and even demands art.

Lutherans have always been people who understood the role of art and music with preaching and teaching.  We are the Church of Johann Gottfried Walter, of Johann Pachelbel, of Johann Sebastian Bach.  But we are also the Church of Albrecht Durer and the Cranachs.  We are incarnational and because we are incarnational, we are sacramental; because we are sacramental, we employ the full resources of art and music in service to the Word.  There is a deep and abiding connection here which too many Lutherans fail to see and leave the whole thing up to personal appeal, taste, and preference.  If that is all that religious art is, then by all means leave it in the museum.  But because it is not merely an appeal to taste, preference, and feelings, religious art is not a maybe but a must have for us Lutherans.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The prison of the temporary. . . was surely a gasp among the people of Israel.  David, coming near the end of his reign and life, had stood before the people and with him, Solomon, his son and successor.  David had wanted to build a house for God but it was not given to him.  Nevertheless, that did not keep David from designating the treasury of Israel and his own personal fortune for the cause that eluded him.  He acknowledged that Solomon was young and inexperienced and would need the help of the people of God even with the help of the Lord Himself.  Then David prayed:

“Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of Israel our father, forever and ever. [11] Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. [12] Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. [13] And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name.

[14] “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. [15] For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding. [16] O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own. [17] I know, my God, that you test the heart and have pleasure in uprightness. In the uprightness of my heart I have freely offered all these things, and now I have seen your people, who are present here, offering freely and joyously to you. [18] O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, our fathers, keep forever such purposes and thoughts in the hearts of your people, and direct their hearts toward you. [19] Grant to Solomon my son a whole heart that he may keep your commandments, your testimonies, and your statutes, performing all, and that he may build the palace for which I have made provision.”   (1 Chronicles 29:10-19 ESV)
And then David died, Solomon sitting in his place upon the throne, to fulfill what David did not live to see -- the building of the Temple.

It is strange that our temporary nature more typically moves us not to give but to spend what we have in pursuit of bucket lists, wishes, dreams, and things designed to give us a full and rich life (or at least the illusion of one).  David was confronted with his death, with the fragile character of this mortal life, and it moved him not for himself but for the Lord and for the Temple that would live on until it was replaced by the Temple of Christ's own incarnate flesh.  The people of God followed his lead and they gave without regret or fear or hesitation.
[20] Then David said to all the assembly, “Bless the Lord your God.” And all the assembly blessed the Lord, the God of their fathers, and bowed their heads and paid homage to the Lord and to the king. [21] And they offered sacrifices to the Lord, and on the next day offered burnt offerings to the Lord, 1,000 bulls, 1,000 rams, and 1,000 lambs, with their drink offerings, and sacrifices in abundance for all Israel. [22] And they ate and drank before the Lord on that day with great gladness. (1 Chronicles 29:20-22a)
Giving problems are seldom problems with a lack of resources (think of the widow and her mite).  Giving problems are always faith problems.  We do not believe.  We do not believe that God will supply our need.  We do not believe that the future prepared for us will be greater than the one we can fashion for ourselves with money, dreams, and time.  We do not believe that the life God has prepared for us can make us forget what we will leave behind upon this earth (and so we are determined to leave nothing behind).

If our resources belong to the Lord, if they can are temporary in the face of His eternity, then what keeps us from giving generously, willingly, cheerfully, and regularly to the cause of the Church, toward the work of the Kingdom, and to accomplish eternal purpose with temporal resources?  It appears to me that giving, as always, is a faith issue and not a monetary one.  When we begin to learn this, just perhaps we may find our way out of the prison of self and things to serve the Lord with all our mind, body, strength, will, and resources!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A wonderful life. . .

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you need to know that I am no saint (at least by any reasonable human estimation).  I brood and gripe and lament too much.  I am too absorbed in myself and in the pastoral vocation (and my wife and family have certainly suffered more than me from this affliction).  I am proud and arrogant and too quick to judge.  I am hard to live with and hard on the people who work with me and for me.  I use that pronoun I too much.  I could go on but I suspect you get the picture.

One of the privileges of the pastoral office is that I meet people in the unlikely places of their best and worst moments -- from weddings to baptisms to funerals and everything in between.  Like every pastor, I have witnessed those who curse the darkness while refusing the Light.  I have met those who find a dark cloud around every silver lining.  The whining regularly bend my ear and I have learned to bristle when someone assures me that he or she is a Christian, but. . .  Yet there are those whom God has sent to shame my sinful heart and instruct me in the ways of peace and contentment.

Like Blanche Devareaux said in A Streetcar Named Desire, "Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."  Unlike the Tennessee Williams iconic character, the kindness upon which I have depended came not from strangers but from those who have lived near to me -- whose words and lives have regularly intersected my own.  They stand like beacons of sense amid my senseless complaints, like towers of grace amid my bumbling bitterness, and like refuges of mercy for unworthy and undeserving sinners like me.

My maternal grandmother lived a very hard life.  Her mother died when she had just entered her teenage years and left her to care for a grieving husband and father and a little girl who would never know another mother.  She married a good man who came from a hard home in which the father regularly intimidated his children -- even well into adulthood!  She lived through the dust bowl years and the Great Depression.  She cared for her father to the end of his life, sharing her home and time with him without question.  She suffered breast cancer and a heart attack before succumbing to death.  I could go on.  You get the picture.  You might expect her to be bitter but she was nothing like that.  She was just the opposite.  She was ever grateful for the joys she knew in life, cherished the best moments and forgot and forgave the worst of times.  She was a godly woman of faith who seldom dared to speak anything but good about others and about whom no one could speak badly.  She believed that life was wonderful, made wonderful in every circumstance by the gracious God who had delivered up His only Son.  She filled her day with hymns hummed, sang, played on her old upright piano, or prayed in her mind.

When her heart gave out, she was at the hospital with my mom and my brother.  I was thirty hours away serving as a pastor in the Catskills of New York.  When the call came I wanted to be with her, to soak in just one more little bit of her courage and kindness, compassion and grace.  I did not make it.  She prayed the Our Father with my mom and my brother and whispered that she had enjoyed a wonderful life and then she feel asleep in the arms of her Savior -- to awaken in blest reunion with her own mother, her husband (my grandpa), and a host of those whom she had buried along the way.  

Her words were a lie from every human estimation of such sentiment -- it was NOT a wonderful life.  But her faithful heart saw beyond circumstance, disappointment, and sorrow and she spoke truthfully when she said "I had a wonderful life..."  There is not a day in my life I do not pray for her faith and disposition to color my own black and white and gray.  She was one of the five smooth stones I carried to battle my own demons and darkness.  Though she has been dead for many years, she is still with me.

My mother-in-law was cut from the same cloth as my grandmother.  She grew up in hard times and was left a widow with four young children when her husband died suddenly.  She made do when things were scarce, when money was tight, and when sorrows tested her faith.  She married a man with five children of his own whose grief and loss of their own mother to breast cancer was still tender and hurting.  It was a trial by fire to unite these two families with their wounds and grief, their anger and hurt, but she was patient and she persevered.  She married my father-in-law the same year my wife and I married.  Now my wife has known her longer than she knew her own mother and she has been the only mother-in-law I have known, the only grandmother on that side of the family that my kids have known.  When things were supposed to be golden and retirement filled with time for what you wanted, my father-in-law began his journey with Alzheimers (one he shared with his brothers).  They watched together as one by one the memories left them strangers to the people closest to them -- all the while knowing what they witnessed would happen to them.  When my father-in-law was buried, we looked down a row and over a stone or two to see the tombstone of her first husband and remembered the circle of her grief.  She has watched her siblings suffer and die and just turned 90.  While she was with us, she saw a trinket in a store where my daughter works.  It said "It's a wonderful life."  She picked it up and smiled.  "And it IS!"

It was not a wonderful life by our judgment but this woman saw through the pain and into the heart of God.  It was a wonderful life.  It is a wonderful life.  She had made it wonderful by forgetting and forgiving the pain and the people who caused it and the hurts caused by no one and she was content with her family, her memories, her hope, and her faith.  I marvel at her kindness and wish I had some of it.  I am amazed at her grace under pressure and her hopeful heart and wish I could be more like that.  She has lived a long life with much pain and many sorrows and yet she chooses still to live each day in confidence of a gracious future in the arms of God -- one so strong that it has softened and rounded the rough edges of her yesterdays so that she can remember the good better than the bad.

I am not my grandmother and I am not my mother-in-law.  But their gracious lives have intersected my own to teach me to aspire to the faith and kindness I have known through them.  I hope that there are people like these two women in your life.  Maybe we cannot be like them, but that should not keep us from trying.  In hope, in love, and in faith. . . it is a wonderful life.  We talk about the moment when she saw that line (obvious reference to the movie) and we smile.  Lord, teach me to have this kind of heart and this kind of faith.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Epiphany and a Pair of Doxas. . .

Lutherans are not very good at systematic theology.  I am afraid our theology is sort of like my desktop.  It is a mess -- a mess of contractions and paradoxes that we make little attempt to reconcile or resolve.  But that is the theology of Scripture.  God does not give us neat little packages, all sorted out and wrapped and adorned with ribbon.  God gives us glimpses that tempt the reason but do not conform to it.  He manifests Himself not in the expected but in the surprise of what does not fit, what seems out of place, and what we must deem impossible.

If you want neat and tidy theology, better track down a good Calvinist Church (if you can find a real Calvinist anymore).  Or even dally a bit with St. Thomas Aquinas.  But in Luther and those who walk with him you will not find God all wrapped up in a box.  We live with the pain of contraction and conflict, with paradoxes that provide us with the δόξα (glory) God alone defines and delivers. 

The word paradox comes from the Greek para (beside, off to the side, or above) and dokein (to think or to seem). You may notice that doxa or glory is not far from this.  In fact, doxa proceeds from the root of dokein.  A paradox is that which is  “off to the side” or "beside" the reasonable, normal, or expected way of seeing, understanding, and thinking of the thing. To Job of old God spoke to all humanity.  "My ways are not your ways..."  "My ways are beyond you..."  "Who do you think you are?  Where were you to advise Me when I laid the foundation of the world..."  Theology which is true to God's self-disclosure and faithful to His Word will face many paradoxes in which He has placed (hidden) Himself and His glory.  God's ways, His purpose, and His will defies all our wisdom and understanding.  We are the folly of those who presume to be wise and who judge the wisdom of God to be foolish.  God is filled with the surprise of mercy that comes wrapped up in the contradiction of God made flesh, the righteous for the wicked, the holy for the unclean, the innocent for the guilty, the sinless for the sinful, the Word of life for those who chose death. . .  That does not mean to say that God is irrational or schizophrenic but that He acts outside the box of our prediction and control, apart from our expectations, but is consistent in mercy and grace.

Some of our Christmas hymns and carols have captured this well.  The great exchange of the Son of God for the sinful creation is surely front and center in all of this but John's Gospel leaves us with the stark reality of the Word made flesh, through whom all things came to be, which neither recognized its Lord nor welcomed Him who came to display the glory of God in mercy for unworthy and undeserving.  All of Epiphany reveals this.  Magi who do not belong and yet bring gifts of faith and worship. . . Jordan's river where John meets Jesus amid the hesitation of his own certainty that Jesus does not belong there with the sinners. . . The Lamb of God who walks on two feet and calls the most unlikely of disciples to follow Him. . . The Lord of creation who makes fishermen into fishers of men. . . The Beatitudes who speak of the Blessed but do not say if it is Jesus or us. . . The Light and Salt that shines and preserves. . . the Law and Prophets not abrogated but fulfilled in the flesh and blood of God incarnate. . . Reconciliation which is more urgent than sacrificial offering. . . And Love which refuses retribution and chooses mercy. . .

Truly as St. Paul has said, this is not a wisdom of this age or of the earthly wise but a secret and hidden, paradoxical wisdom of God, decreed before the ages and made known in the flesh and blood of the Son of God.  Nature does not lead us here and reason does not make sense of it all.  The doxa of this paradox is known only by faith prompted by the Spirit.  Systematic theology is sort of like a cleaning lady who tries to straighten up God's mess.  The Lord does not ask us to help Him out in this way but merely to believe in Him as He has made Himself known.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Let your good works shine!

Sermon for Epiphany 5A, preached on Sunday, February 5, 2017, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

In Christ’s day, the scribes and the Pharisees were believed to be the most righteous of all the people.  They were those really really good guys in the church.  They knew the Scriptures and followed God’s Laws, living outward godly lives, doing what they were supposed to do and not doing what they weren’t supposed to do.  They were the faithful of the faithful, the truly righteous ones of God.  Certainly they would enter heaven...or would they?

At the end of the Gospel reading Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20).  These words of our Lord say that not even the seemingly great righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is enough to earn heaven.  In order to work your way inside those gates, your righteousness has to exceed theirs, it has to be greater.  But how?  The scribes and the Pharisees were the most righteous.  They devoted their whole lives to God, studying His Word; trying to fulfill His Law.  Who can do more?  Who can be saved?  Only One.  Christ Jesus Himself. 

Christ’s righteousness is the only exceeding righteousness because He’s the only One who is righteous, free from guilt.  The scribes and Pharisees appeared to be righteous, but they weren’t.  They were still guilty of transgressing against God’s Law, if not in deed, then in word, and if not in word, then in thought.  No one is righteous; all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rm 3:23) because all of us are sinners, born with original sin, that fatal character flaw that affects everything we think, say, and do.

But Christ Jesus, He has no sin, original or actual.  He’s the perfect Son of God, righteous, free from guilt.  He fulfilled God’s Law, accomplishing all of it, being completely obedient to the Father’s will. 

Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17).  Christ actively accomplished every iota and dot of the Law, every letter.  He fulfilled all of its requirements.  He was circumcised on the eighth day and presented to God at the Temple after 40 days.  He observed all the required feasts and festivals.  He kept all of the 10 Commandments, not just outwardly, but also in His heart.  He was baptized by John to fulfill all righteousness and He withstood all of Satan’s temptations.  Christ was perfect, doing everything that the scribes and Pharisees couldn’t, doing everything that you and I can’t because of our sin.  

Christ was righteous, but His righteousness extends beyond what He did, it also includes what He endured, dying on the cross for the sins of the world.  This is what Scripture is all about, this is what the Law and Prophets are about, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born to die for your sins. 

It wasn’t an easy thing for Jesus to die on the cross.  In the Garden we see our Savior struggling in prayer: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39).  Christ knew what was coming; the torture and torment He’d endure, and yet He endure it because that was the Father’s will.

Christ could’ve easily saved Himself from the cross.  He could’ve come down from that tree or prevented His arrest, but He didn’t.  He remained obedient, He remained righteous, not for His sake, but for yours. 

Christ went to the cross on your behalf, for your salvation.  You’re not righteous, you’re guilty, you’re a sinner and you deserve the sentence of death.  That’s justice.  But God, in His love and mercy, has saved you from that death sentence by giving up His Son in your place.  In the great exchange, Christ takes your guilt and sin and gives you His righteousness.  When the Father looks at you He sees His Son’s righteousness. 

This is a free gift.  There’s nothing you do to earn it.  Instead, you receive receive it by grace through God’s Word and Sacraments.  You receive it in your Baptism.

In those waters, your guilty Old Adam is drowned, and the Lord raises up a new creation, a new man having been given the righteousness of Christ.  That’s what the white “garment” we give the newly baptized represents, that they’ve been clothed with Christ’s righteousness, the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.  Having received this great righteousness, in faith, you have the confident hope of the kingdom of heaven....But that’s not the end of Christ’s righteousness.   

Thanks be to God that He has graciously given you His Son’s righteousness, but we don’t keep this hidden.  We don’t receive this gift and then wait to enter the kingdom of heaven.  No, we’re called to let the light of Jesus’ righteousness shine in the world. 

Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is heaven” (Mt 5:14-16). 

Christ calls you to be a light of good works, to be the city on the hill that others look to.  You’re to be righteous just as your Savior is righteous.  You’re to live out His righteousness, fulfilling God’s Law, performing acts of love and service to your neighbor.

You do this by obeying the 10 Commandments, by fulfilling your vocations.  As parents, you live out Christ’s righteousness as you care for your children, providing them with their physical needs and raising them up in the faith.  Children, you live out Christ’s righteousness as you honor your parents and others in authority, obeying them.  As citizens we live out Christ’s righteousness as we care for those in our community who are in need, as we obey the laws of the land, and as we speak well of everyone, treating all with the love of God.  You’ve been given Christ’s righteousness, so show it. 

People look at what we do.  They say actions speak louder than words, so we proclaim Christ’s love and righteousness by doing what we’ve been created to do, serving our neighbor.  We do good works not for our benefit, not even for God’s benefit, but for our neighbors’.  And in these good works, we proclaim Christ. 

Our actions are a confession of faith.  Everything we do should rightly point to our Savior showing forth His righteousness and love. We shouldn’t be a stumbling block to those outside the faith.  We shouldn’t give them a reason to deny our Savior because of our actions.  Everything we do should speak well of our Lord.  Good works do that, obeying God’s 10 Commandments does this.  And our Lord promises that when others witness these works, they’ll give glory to God. 

There’s only One whose righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, and that’s Jesus Christ your Savior.  He lived the perfect life that you and I can’t and He sacrificed this life on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins.  All this He did so that in your Baptism you would be given His righteousness.  When you stand before God in faith, trusting in your Savior, you’re covered with Christ’s righteousness, declared not guilty.  This righteousness is the light you’re called to shine forth today through your good works, through your acts of love and service towards your neighbor.  CHRIST’S RIGHTEOUSNESS IS THE ONLY EXCEEDING RIGHTEOUSNESS AND YOU’VE RECEIVED THIS RIGHTEOUSNESS...SO SHOW IT!

The smell of God. . .

All of us grew up with not only the sights and sounds of home but also the smell.  I can well recall the smell of home, of familiar foods cooking, of the familiar cleaning products used by my mother, and of the smell of my family at work and play.  I am sure that you have not only sights and sounds of home in your mind but also the smell.

We are not long from the last days of Christmas and before that Thanksgiving and each of those holidays are replete with sights, sounds, and, of course, smells.  It nearly kills me to smell the turkey roasting, a pumpkin pie baking, and all the other familiar and telltale scents of Thanksgiving.  At Christmas the sweet smells of cookies baking, of candies making, and of the Christmas day ham are a very important part of the whole identity of Christmas.

I watched as a child how animals identity each other by scent.  Who among us has not witnessed the ritual of two dogs meeting on the street?  Even people have smells.  We recognize the familiar scent of perfumes, colognes, and after shaves.  Even the soaps that we use mark us.

Not all scents are pleasant.  Some are odors.  They stink.  I imagine that the scent of God incarnate of the Virgin was not some sweet or clean smell of a hospital but the earthy stink of the farm, of farm animals, of hay, and of excrement.  Growing up on a farm I remember an uncle calling it the smell of money.  We knew better.  It was the stink of pig and cow manure (though that was not the word we used).  My wife grew up in the city and she found the smell of farm and ranch something less than welcome when we drove through the odorous cloud.  Jesus was born amid the unpleasant but ordinary stink of a stable -- the very scent of a world filled with the manure of sin and its death.  That was Jesus' first experience of humanity -- the pungent odor of hay, grain, animals, and manure.

So what does God smell like?  If you ask most folks, they would probably say coffee.  God smells like coffee.  After all, that is the predominant scent of most congregations on Sunday morning.  The coffee pots are prepared and plugged in and the pleasant aroma of our favorite brew begins to make its way throughout the building.  Or perhaps there is a pot luck and the lasagna in the oven or a tuna and noodle casserole gives the house of God a different scent.  But that is not the smell of God.  It is our smell.  The smell of what we want to eat and drink.

Perhaps it is the smell of Easter Sunday with all the lilies and the almost over bearing odor of flowers.  Some find it very pleasant, indeed, but others do not welcome the smell of those flowers.  It is a bit like an overbearing odor of too much perfume or cologne -- what might have been pleasant became obnoxious when too much entered the nostrils.  So does God only smell once a year?

For the people of Israel throughout the centuries the smell of God was the smell of incense -- the scent prescribed by the God who ordered what kind of incense to be burned, where it would be burned, and when it would be burned.  This was the smell that Zechariah associated with God when he went mute while serving in the Temple.  This is still the smell of heaven according to the Revelation of St. John the Divine.  But for many folks, for too many, incense is not what they associate with the smell of God or His sacred space.  I wonder if it is not to our poverty that the smells we associate with God and His house are more the scents of ourselves, our foods and drinks, and the flowers we connect with a particular holy day.  Wouldn't it be better to connect the smell of God with the smell that has marked His presence nearly since the beginning of time?

Lutherans have a problem with this.  Not all, but most Lutherans act as if incense were toxic to them and their idea of God.  Some couch it in language of health issues and dangers but I suspect that most of it (nearly all of it) is actually a matter of preference.  I had a woman tell me once that it made her gasp at the odor of the wine when the elements were uncovered during the Offertory.  She was not suggesting this was pleasing but too much for her to take in.  Could it be that this is exactly what we feel about incense?  Too much!!  But why is this?  Why do we feel more comfortable with our smells than with the scent of God that was decreed by the Lord Himself?

Could the problem lie with us?  Could it be that liking our own smells and feeling comfortable with the scents we choose is another way that sin has manifest its stubborn will against the Lord?  Rejecting incense may be a health issue for a few but for most of us we just plain don't like the idea that the space is God's, the agenda is God's, and the grace is God's.  We prefer to ask Jesus to come and be our guest but we are still uncomfortable with the fact that we are His guests, standing on the sacred ground of His domain, and there only because mercy has invited us, the unworthy. 

I think God smells like frankincense.  I have come to associate this with God's sacred space and His gracious presence.  I did not make this association, He did.  He designed the smell that would and should be associated with Him.  It is as one and the same time the fearful smell of a place where we must be bidden and wherein we are always guests and also the comfortable smell of the place where we know God dwells, where mercy rules, where grace is delivered, and where the Most High has become incarnate for us and our salvation.  What about you?

Monday, February 6, 2017

When the halo began to disappear. . .

From Peter Burfeind in The Federalist. . . 

Art has always been a harbinger of historical trends, especially in the West. As declining religion gave way to proxies—political religions, new-age kookery, myopic scientism, and sacralized hedonism—art heralded the way.

If you’re surprised at how we ended up in the philosophical rabbit hole we live in today, you haven’t been paying attention to the licentious parade of agitprop, erotica, and narcissistic art populating the artistic imagination for the past 60 years. It’s not unrelated that an Impressionistic movement fuzzifying the borders of objective reality birthed a reaction 200 years later in Donald Trump’s beautiful wall.

This being so, examining the history of western art yields fruitful cultural self-reflection. So let’s do a little thought experiment on the man of the hour, Jesus, focusing on his gravitational pull on culture and art, as a philosophical totem signaling an attitude toward reality. What did artistic renderings of him mean for culture and subsequent history? And what did the loss of halos on Jesus portend for western history?
The halo, borrowed from pagan art, endowed a subject with divinity. Early Christian iconographers haloed Christ to affirm his divinity, as the “Logos made flesh.” The concept of Logos is critical, because arguably the loss of a logo-centric cosmic architecture explains the decline of the West. How so?

The Greek word Logos means word, reason, or rationality. Logos is the basis of communication, by which two people commune with an objective quantum of conceptual stuff. Logoi (words) are what exist in an objective, material world of distinct and defined things, and Logos is their animating principle. In your mind, as your thoughts go from one communicable concept defined by clear, objective parameters (and a name) to the next, Logos is at work.

Logos is arguably the secret sauce of the West, leading to its quest for universal and objective truths that are accessible to all peoples equally, through the medium of human language. Logos trumps opinion, culture, myth, tradition, and idiosyncrasy. Logos is how reality can be knowable and communicable.
Our age, however, posits the ultimate plasticity and un-communicableness (save through math) of reality. Atoms and void alone are real and work in their weird ways to generate an ever-changing cosmos of evolving beings. As the deconstructionists taught us, any pretense to eternality is nothing more than human projection. Any culture, custom, or ethic is as valid as it is idiosyncratic. This pierces everything Logos stands for.

In this matrix comes Christ, declared by his followers to be the incarnate Logos, the primary, eternal Word through which all other beings come into being. With Christ’s resurrection and session to God’s right hand, a new reality is in play: something has defeated flux. Christ’s advent planted a rallying flag for subsequent Western thought: Here within the boundaries of this man’s flesh and blood is the very communication of Eternal Truth into our world. In this ever-changing world of flux, there is one material thing (the flesh and blood Jesus) that cannot and will not change. This sets the foundation for seeking fixed truth as such, as well as the premise for multiple cultures to communicate mutually accessible truths.
It is a good essay and speaks profoundly of the connection between the values of the heart and the values painted upon canvas or carved upon wood.  If you, like me, long for the days when the halo mattered as an expression of the creative will subservient to the Divine Revelation, then perhaps this is just for you.  But the halo has not merely disappeared from art, it has disappeared from life.

We live in an age when vulgarity is the norm.  Our speech is not lofty or noble but earthy for the sake of being earthy -- without an ounce of eloquence intended.  We watch televisions that spend more time on the benefits of a little blue pill to make sex possible whenever you desire -- while at the same time warning of an erection that lasts for more than four hours.  We are reminded of the unpleasant odor of the "devil's donuts" you leave in the toilet and of an oily scent that can confine the stench to under the toilet lid.  We hear the F-bomb so often that it has lost nearly all the shock value it once had and people keep searching for even more deplorable words.  Locker room talk has become so mainstream that public figures regularly revert to it without repercussion (except for Billy Bush).  The halo disappeared from art and from us.  We put on the horns of the devil and delight in flaunting our freedom to debase ourselves.

Like Burfeind I bemoan the stark, ugliness of art that tries to offend rather than uplift but as much as it is missing from art, the absence of the halo from the ordinary life of those who claim to be spiritual (if not religious) is even more noticeable.  When did we begin to think that the best use of freedom was to draw attention to the basest and crudest aspects of our lives?  When did we forget the notion of shame or embarrassment?  When did we begin to think that striving for good is not a worthwhile endeavor?  The cleverness we presume is nothing more than the immaturity of a small child who has learned to cuss and swear like the older kids and who thinks this is what makes you big.

I am no fan of pastors with salty vocabularies -- not because I am a prude but because I think it is childish and worse, wrong!  I am no fan of art that brings us down to our most basic and animalistic desires.  I am no fan of movies that exploit sex because they lack real dialogue, plot, camera work, or character development.  I am no fan of commercials that push products designed to exploit our ability to act from mere desire rather than virtue.  It is not because I am a prude or think myself better than anyone else.  I know my weakness and do not need encouragement in this area.  I do, however, need people wearing a halo around me and I do need to be urged toward holiness of speech, conduct, and life.  Once you could count on art to do that.  Once you could even count on Grandma to encourage this.  Now it seems we like rolling in the mud more than trying to stay clean.