Sunday, February 18, 2018

Calling God a liar. . .

Philip Cary wrote in First Things for the November issue an article entitled Luther at 500.  In it he explains the challenge of Luther and the Reformation to both Protestants (which he considers the greater challenge) and to Roman Catholics.  There is enough Luther for all labels but Cary clearly sees the Catholic Luther -- not the one rebelling against sacramental Christianity but the one who sees everything through this sacramental lens, even justification by faith itself.  It is a great read and I urge you to go for it.

In it Cary speaks bluntly about Luther and the Word of God.  Cary insists that everything hinges upon the Word and not the Word in some theoretical sense but the Word heard in the ear.  Faith comes by hearing, said St. Paul to the Romans, and Luther was listening.  According to Cary everything depends upon God being true to His Word and the whole perspective of faith is holding onto and holding God to His promises. 

In sacramental terms it is simple.  It does not matter what you see in the water or feel or think.  The baptism lies in the promise Christ has placed in that water.  To refuse or to discount this promise is nothing less than calling God a liar.  Strong words.  Our confidence before God is likewise placed in His Word.  God says we are clothed with Christ's righteousness.  Our unity with Christ is not the fruit of our yearning or our decision or even our desire but the blessed fruit of Christ's promise placed upon us in that baptismal water and faith flows from that baptismal encounter.  The Holy Spirit is at work.  We decide nothing of consequence and everything rests upon Christ alone. 

All that we struggle with is, in itself, unbelief.  Of course, faith generates good feelings and produces good works and directs our heart to love the voice of God (in the Law) but none of this provides any foundation solid enough for us to trust our salvation.  So instead of asking if we are saved and having to search the heart for desire or the mind for a choice, we answer with Luther, "Yes, I am baptized."

When it comes to the sacramental system of Rome, Luther's problem was not that he did not believed in it but he believed it too deeply.  He took the words and promises of Christ at face value.  So the Sacraments must have Christ's promise attached to the element or they have nothing to hold onto.  It does not mean they are not godly or beneficial.  It means that the sacraments with the promise are the chief focus of the faith.  Christ alone.  That is key.  The Gospel is THE sacrament and it works in the external means of grace to deliver what it promises.  The job of the preacher is not to dispense wisdom or to serve as the conscience promoting morality but rather to give the people Christ.

Cary's point in all of this is that this is not a simple challenge to pope or council but to all of Christianity.  Rome may be less challenged by this than Protestantism which has effectively tamed the Word, run it through the sieve of reason, and turned faith into assent to certain propositions (or a personal decision).  In effect, the result is that Christ is not alone and distance is created between Christ and the Gospel, between the Gospel and the means of grace, and between the promise and faith.  In the end we are left with a good question.  Are we Christians because we have made a choice to believe or because we have had a religious experience of God or we have comprehended God, His works and His ways. . . OR because Christ says we are in our baptism.  Clearly there is enough here to make all a little uncomfortable with the Luther we love to remake in our own image.  Cary may not be right on every count but he has Luther better than many, dare I say most, Lutherans.

As I sit down with folks in the South, a region permeated by decision theology, entertainment worship, and at least the idea of Biblical authority, I find clear application of Cary's words.  How many folks (including Lutherans) paint a picture of Luther which looks remarkable like their own biases?  One of the most profound is the fact that we take the Word of God literally except those parts our reason insists cannot be literal.  Strangely, those things that suffer most under such a lens are the very things that give us the most comfort and hope -- the sacraments (promises attached to means or should I say the Gospel attached to means or might I say Christ coming through means).  Perhaps the worst culprits in all of this are the largest Lutheran church -- those who used to be Lutheran and now belong to some form of Protestantism.  They more than most do not want to hear anything of baptismal water or bread and wine or even the Word that is more than water, more than bread and grape juice, and more than words (to be processed like any other word).  This group more than most is offended by a Luther who finds "I am baptized" more profound than "I am saved" and who can dismiss Transubstantiation as an unnecessary explanation but not a big problem.  Yup, when the real Luther stands up, there is plenty of discomfort all around.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Misspelled but still true. . .

Some typos say it all.  Sorry that it did not post on Ash Wednesday.

Not the problem. . .

Apparently when Pope Francis speaks, France’s bishops are listening.  When he suggested that the Our Father had been poorly translated and was confusing to the people praying it, those French bishops responded by changing the offending words. So, a few months ago, the folks attending Mass in France no longer pray ne nous soumets pas √† la tentation (“do not subject us to temptation”) but the papal more enlightened version, ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation (“do not let us go into temptation”).  It might all be something of a joke or humorous irony except that under it all is the strange presumption that people are stupid, the Bible is unclear or wrong, and we know better.
Anthony Esolen has written that “lead us not” is, in fact, a pretty faithful translation, not only of the Latin (the bottom line for Roman Catholics) but also of the Greek.  The Vulgate has either ne inducas nos or ne nos inducas; the Greek me eisenenkeis hemas eis peirasmon.  Both are accurately translated by the traditional wording, Lead us not into temptation.

It is not unusual or atypical for us to look in the wrong places for the problem.  Lead us not into temptation is not the problem.  People are not stupid.  They get it.  They understand what they are praying.  We presume that if only people understood it better, then they would pray more, pray better, and heed what they are praying.  Therein lies the problem.  People already understand what they are praying; they just prefer to live in the shadows of temptation to the light of Christ.  It is original sin, after all.  We do not need to learn it.  We know it.  We know it all too well.   

Francis is trying to fix the wrong thing.  That is the problem when we try to equate faith with understanding and when we presume that knowledge will create the proper will and desire.  We are obsessed with the mind.  Perhaps that is because if we focus upon the mind, we can get away from the idea that anything else needs to change -- besides the mind.

Francis thinks that if you fix the little problem of divorce, people will flock to mass and will seek after all things good.  Francis thinks that if people pray the Our Father differently, they will get temptation and will be more moral and ethical people, as well as more genuinely repentant.  Francis thinks that if the people outside the Church think that the people inside are nicer, less judgmental, more tolerant, and more understanding, the people outside the Church will want to come inside.  I wish that were the case.  

The problem is not understanding.  The problem is faith.  We do not need more information or more comprehension of God and His ways but the Holy Spirit to teach us faith.  We know temptation very well without any guidance or assistance but the ways of holiness, righteousness, and godliness must be learned from the Holy Spirit and by His prompting and power.  What the Church needs is not a redefinition but a renewed confidence in the Spirit, working through the Word, and a renewed boldness by that same Spirit to address the world with the Word of the Gospel.  This is not only the solution for those outside but for those inside. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

The posture of love. . .

I love that scene from Moonstruck.  Yet, even though I love the scene, the truth is that it is far from ordinary practice.  We treat the food of God with much less care than this script places on the value of the home cooked food from Rose Castorini's table.  It is a crying shame.

We Lutherans do not have rubrics with teeth to say how the elements of the Lord's Supper ought to be treated.  Perhaps we should.  But even rules cannot form piety.  They can only hold in check the excesses of impiety.

How we treat the bread that is Christ's flesh and the cup of His blood is not a matter of rules but a mark of the measure of our faith.  In the same way, how we treat the reliquae (what remains from that Supper) is telling.  Four years ago I wrote: "Perhaps the most honest expression of what we believe about the Lord’s Supper comes from the way we treat the reliquae (that which remains after the distribution).  For what we truly believe is often hidden in the way we handle the things of God when no one is looking, when the Divine Service is over, and we are left alone with our consciences.”  Those words remain the truth and betray the dark secret that we treat the things of God far too casually for our own good.

It is impossible to hold to a doctrine and at the same time to tolerate practices at odds with what we say we confess.  So the problem is not theoretical but eminently practical.  It is faced weekly in most Lutheran congregations.  Sadly, too many Lutheran pastors treat the issue of how we treat the elements as irrelevant to the doctrine and nonsense in the face of what they consider to be more pressing parish realities.  In reality, people are noticing.  Those being catechized notice.  The people who hold the Word of God in great esteem can see the disconnect between what we say and do.

I have seen it too often.  Far too many hosts are consecrated and the "leftovers" are either tossed out like yesterday's leftover meatloaf or put back into the original container as if the Words of Christ meant nothing at all when spoken over the hosts.  The same is true of the cup.  We discard the leftover individual cups with cleansing them of the blood of Christ that remains and we routinely set out far more than we can expect to use.  It creates a circumstance in which the doctrine we hold is abrogated by a practice in conflict with that doctrine.

I have also seen it when there is no clear consecration of hosts or wine added because the supply of consecrated has run out.  Without a clear connection between the Word of the Lord and the elements distributed, how can the people leave the Lord's table with confidence?  It has the practical effect of telling the people there is no substantial difference between the elements set apart by the Word of Christ and the extras hauled out from the sacristy when needed.  Is this what we believe?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The question asked was first planted. . .

So, a new study ULCA study has concluded that some 27 percent of California youth between 12 and 17 say that their peers have judged them gender ‘nonconforming” at school. The margin of error is said to be about 6 persent and, the study reached its conclusions on the basis of two questions in the California Health Interview Survey asked of 1,594 California youth between 12 and 17.

They were asked  “Are you male or female?” and then asked how people around them at school would describe them (five choices instead of simply male or female).  "The data show that more than one in four California youth express their gender in ways that go against the dominant stereotypes,” said the study’s lead author Bianca D.M. Wilson of the Williams Institute. “However, the heightened psychological distress we see among gender nonconforming youth indicates that we must continue to educate parents, schools and communities on the mental health needs of these young people and reduce known risk factors, such as bullying and bias.”

Okay.  Should it surprise you to note that California was the first state to adopt the LGBT rights agenda formally into its public schools, reaching children as young as second grade.  Aha!  In other words, before the question was asked of the youth, a question was planted into their minds about their level of gender "comfort" by a curriculum designed to do just that.

The whole point of the GLBTQ agenda is to raise questions about gender so that people, especially children, will begin to ask themselves about their gender.  The sad state of affairs in all of this is that by raising questions we literally steal away these children's youth and make them into little adults complete with adult size inadequacies.  And this is supposedly progress?!?

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Swedish Ash Wednesday. . .

Happy Valentine's Day

What an odd juxtaposition -- Valentine's Day with its nod to faux love that is all about lust, desire, attraction, and seduction and Ash Wednesday which is about the shocking love that calls the sinner to repentance and promises not judgment but forgiveness in response!  Wow!

Suffice it to say Valentine's Day has been muted by the preponderance of stories of sexual harassment and abuse from the powerful and the confusion left in the wake of it all over where to draw the line.  How do you have Valentiine's Day when some, perhaps many, consider it abusive and unacceptable to compliment a woman on her looks or dress?  In the same vein, considering Oprah's speech and the example of black but still seductive dress at the Golden Globes, it appears we are all somewhat confused.  Is harassment and abuse something so hard to define that you can only know it when you see it?  I wish I had some wisdom here.  But I will leave that sit for you to ponder.

In the midst of all of this comes the call of the Lord to return to Him with humility, prayer, fasting, confession, repentance, and faith.  Why?  Because the hammer is about to drop?  No, because He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  Not the self-serving or self-seeking love that passes for affection too often in our day.  Not the manipulative love that has an agenda, a hidden agenda, to use or even exploit.  Not the love that fills the moment but only the moment and neither begins nor ends with fidelity, commitment, or sacrifice.  Nope.  None of these.  This is the love of arms outstretched in suffering upon the cross, the innocent suffering in the place of and for the benefit of the guilty.  This is the love that does not confront sin with the shrug of shoulders but calls it what it is and calls the sinner to repentance.  This is the love that does not ask you to ascend to its place but comes low to where we live, for us and for our salvation becoming incarnate -- like us in every way but sin.  This is the love that tells the sinner there is something bigger than his or her sins and it is the power of mercy given to those who neither merit it nor have the right to ask for it.

Tonight you have a choice.  Take your significant other to a restaurant, put a rose on her plate, maybe some piece of jewelry, and look alluringly into the eyes across the table with a wink in the hopes you may get luck later. . . Or take your significant other to the place where we come in ashes to be washed clean and adorned with a righteousness not our own, to hear in our ears the life-giving Word of rescue, renewal, and redemption, to taste upon our lips the sacrificial love that feeds, nourishes, and nurtures those whom He has reborn in baptism, and to leave, with the aid of the Spirit, endeavoring to live out in holiness the new life so graciously granted to you.  AND then from this love. . . husbands learn to love your wives as Christ has loved the Church and wives learn to love your husbands as God's man in your home and the result will be peace and contentment beyond understanding (no matter the ups and downs of this mortal life). . . for with God on our side, who can be against us?

I say this not because I don't think much of romance.  I am a romantic at heart.  But I cannot abide the confusion of romance with love, lust and desire with love, and the fullness of a moment for a lifetime of loving service.  Love is not made better or easier or more rewarding by making it smaller.  It is in the appreciation of love's greatness manifested in Jesus Christ that our own love for one another is made more noble, more profound, and, yes, more rewarding.

Will we see you in Church tonight?

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Lifetime of a Theory. . .

A theory has only a limited lifetime.  It must move past the theoretical stage and become accepted as  the norm or it will be forgotten, lying upon the dunghill of other forgotten ideas that lived and died.  But when a theory becomes normative, it is impossible to kill -- not even the truth can do it in.

So it was in college in 1973 that I first met up with Joseph Fletcher through his 1966 work Situation Ethics: The New Morality.  It was a game changer.  Fletcher, then an Episcopal priest, proposed a radical new shape of morality that would directly challenge the Judeo-Christian ethic.  In Fletcher's world, ethics were not absolutes but relatives.  The issue of choice or decision-making was not formed by fixed values or laws or rules or presuppositions but were to be based upon the particular  circumstances of a particular situation.  Love was absolute, the motive behind the decision or choice, but not values or rules or laws or presuppositions.  If love was the intention, then the outcome, the decision, was beyond challenge.  Love was the only absolute and it was the end that justifies the means.

What began with faith, a reaction to the Scriptural statement "God is love," eventually went beyond faith as Fletcher acknowledged he no longer believed in God but defended his situational ethics as still true.  In the end, however, this would be the most effective counter to sacred character of life that was the hallmark of the Judeo-Christian ethic.  In the end, it was an informative force in supporting the wave of pro-choice and anti-life measures that began with the legalization of abortion.   Fletcher ended up being a leading academic proponent of the potential benefits and therefore the absolute value of abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, eugenics, and cloning.

Fletcher had no trouble in suggesting that some human lives were more human than others, some life was more valuable than other, and that all life must be judged by some 15 indicators of real humanity (which he proposed).  Among them was the judgment of life by intelligence, self-awareness, memory, communication, and a real and substantive future.  In other words, life was not sacred or special in any way except by the judgment of others.  It is no surprise, therefore, that the child in the womb was not accorded any special protection and it is no shock that Fletcher accorded the aged and infirm with only a relative value easily removed by the judgment of others.

I have no illusions about the role Fletcher played in the direction of society and culture, here and throughout the world.  He is not responsible for anything more than giving our callous disregard for the value of human life an academic and moral framework to support it.  Yet that is exactly where we are now.  Procreation is viewed by most folks increasingly in technological terms, abortion has been the law for 45 years here and is considered to be the minimum of all developed nations, assisted suicide has found a sympathetic hearing, and health care is routinely rationed against those considered too old (here as well as in countries with socialized medicine).  The guilt and shame are ours.  We have created a morality that puts us in charge of what is good, right, and salutary and we have created an intellectual and moral foundation to justify our bias against the special character of life.

Now we live in a culture in which situational ethics is normative for those who consider themselves religious as it is for those who have no religion.  Fletcher died in 1991 but I wonder what he would think if he surveyed the fruits of his position.  While I can hope he would live to regret and repent of all that he did, I suspect he would be happy for the assist his intellectual and moral theory has given to the morality in which the best and highest is everyone doing what is right in their own minds.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The shape of glory. . .

Sermon for Transfiguration B, preached on Sunday, February 11, 2018.

    Jump back a few verses in Mark’s Gospel, you will find that just prior to the Transfiguration, the Lord Jesus had been telling His disciples how He would “suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.”  Mark insists that Jesus spoke plainly and not in parables or images.  Peter insisted that this was not going to happen as Jesus had said. Jesus had to rebuke Peter and insisted Peter’s mind was not on the things of God but the things of man.

    Then our Lord calls His disciples and the crowd to their own cruciform shape of life, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for me sake and the gospel’s will save it.”  So it is no wonder that Peter said “It is good that we are here” – of course the mountaintop is better than the cross.  Both for Jesus and for Him, at least in Peter’s mind. He was terrified of that future and wanted an escape.  His mind was not on the things of God but on him alone.

    St. Peter is no different than you or me.  He wants to live.  He hopes to live an easy life, a happy life, and long and well-lived life.  He has hopes and dreams for himself and his family and he is not sure he wants to give these up in favor of a cross shaped future.  You are just like him.  I am as well.  We do not want to follow Jesus.  We want Jesus to follow us.  We do not want the future Christ has prepared.  We want Christ to make possible the future we have envisioned.  We are not ready to lose our lives – not for Jesus and not for any cause – and we are not so confident in the future that God has prepared that we are ready to exchange what we want for what Christ promises.

    Peter is uncomfortable with the prospect of the future Jesus spoke plainly of.  Even the vision of Christ’s unveiled glory does not ease the doubts of the disciple.  In his shock, the voice from heaven speaks directly to Peter: “Listen to Jesus, My beloved Son.”

    Peter was not ready to surrender Jesus to the future of the cross and he was not ready to follow Jesus in that future, but Elijah and Moses were not so hesitant.  They had been chomping at the bit waiting for the one who would fulfill the future they had prophesied.  They did not shed tears for the cross that was before Jesus nor did they shrink back from its consequences.  Though Elijah wrote not a word in Scripture but his whole life was a prophetic testament that pointed to this Jesus and to this future.  No prophet would hold Jesus back.  They pointed Jesus to the future they had proclaimed by the power of the Spirit.

    Moses, who wrote a third of the Old Testament, was also not going to hold Jesus back.  He had waited with anticipation for the One to whom all the Law looked to fulfill that Law and release humanity from an expectation they could not fulfill.  It was now or never in their book.  Jesus had come for this moment, for this cross.

    Peter and James and John may not have been ready but Elijah was and so was Moses and so was Jesus.  He had come for this, to fulfill His Father’s saving will.  And the Father urged the disciples to look away from everything else and look only to Jesus.  Only then would their fears subside.  And so it is for you and for me.

    “This is My beloved Son. Listen to Him.”  It was another rebuke to St. Peter.  “Stop listening to the voice of your fears and listen to Jesus.”  Stop listening to men and listen to God.  As long as Jesus was merely flesh and blood, the disciples were comforted.  But the prospect of the unveiled glory was not comforting at all.  We understand this well.  As long as religion is predictable and reasonable we get it.  Shape up your lives.  Be a better person.  Try harder.  We all get that.  We have heard it from our moms growing up.  But the prospect of radical grace is shocking.  What kind of love would suffer for sinners? What kind of God would save those who had rejected Him?  What kind of glory is revealed on a cross?

    It may seem odd that Jesus warned them not to tell anyone what they had seen.  Why wouldn’t Jesus have them talk about what they had seen?  But what they had seen was only one part of the glory of God.  The rest was yet to come.  They would see God suffer and bleed, cry out and die, and in this terrible moment, the world is redeemed.  We are always more comfortable with the glory of the mountain than we are the glory of suffering and death. But the mountain is not the full revelation of the glory of God.  Good Friday is.  Easter is foolishness unless Christ has died.  It does not erase His suffering but delivers the consequences of that suffering to a people who have grown far too comfortable with death.

    The Transfiguration of our Lord reminds us that God’s glory is accessible only in Jesus and in the places where He makes Himself accessible to us.  We do not ascend to that glory but God descends to us.  He reveals that glory not in an escape from a cruel life but in the determined march down the mountain, into the valley of the shadow, where He is raised up on a cross to draw all men to Himself.  The cross is not a detour.  It is the destination.

    You and I are much like Peter.  We are weary saints who have tasted too much suffering and who just want an escape.  We think that the glory of God is to find us a way around the troubles and trials of this mortal life.  Instead Jesus has forged a path right through it.  And He bids us follow Him.  Come to the mountain and walk into the valley.  Set your minds on the things of God and not on the things of man.  Do not try to protect your life from suffering but empty that life into the suffering of Christ and you will find it.  Such a future is so fearful that only the Spirit can lead us to the cross and see God’s glory and only the Spirit can guide us to a cross shaped life of loving God and loving our neighbor.
    This is not some happy movie script in which everything works out in the end.  This is not about working out our problems and overcoming the obstacles in our lives.  No, indeed.
This is about the Law that hangs on us like an impossible burden and about the sins which weigh us down even more.  This is about the hope and promise of the prophets who were persecuted and even killed so that we would not walk in darkness but in the Light of the Lord.  This is not about a virtual life or a dream world but a real life and an honest world in which threats stir up fear and sin stings and death brings sorrow.  It is about life lived in the valley.  But not alone.

    Listen to Him.  These are the words directed to St. Peter and to each of us.  Do not listen to the false promises of the world or the lies of the devil.  Do not listen to the feelings inside you for they ebb and flow and do not remain the same.  Do not listen to the opinions of those who think they know better than you.  Listen to the voice of God in His Word and meet Him in the glory of His Supper.  This is the voice that will not abandon you.  This is the voice that will not lose you to the endless maze of detours and dead ends.  Listen to Him.

    On Wednesday we will leave the high mountain of Transfiguration and go down into the low valley of Lent.  We will walk with Jesus to the cross where He will be betrayed into the hands of sinners, suffer in our place for our sins, and die for us that we may live.  This is the glory of the Kingdom of God.  The Lord dies for sinners.  From the Transfiguration on, the disciples will behold Jesus as He is, the Son of the Father, begotten and not made, who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit. . . to fulfill all the Law with a righteousness big enough to cover every sinner and to die on the cross to end the terrible reign of death.  They saw Jesus as He was and is, as He would be on Good Friday and as He is on Easter Sunday.

    The Transfiguration is not an alternative glory to balance out the cross but the once and eternal glory of God.  In a split second, the unveiled glory is glimpsed by mortals and in it they see the cross.  It is the unchanging vision which the Holy Spirit holds before us all the days of our lives, until we see Him as He is, face to face.  Listen to Him.  Set your minds on the things of God.  Live the holy life God has made possible by your new birth of water and the Word.  Strive after all that is good and right and holy and blessed, made known by His Word.  Do not disdain the way of the cross but live its pattern in your life.  For you have now become the beloved of the Father because you live in Christ by baptism and faith.  Amen.

Sitting on a fortune. . .

According to an investigation by the German newspaper Handelsblatt, the Roman Catholic Church in Germany collected (mostly through the nation's church tax) a record €6 billion ($7.1 billion) in 2017, and the 27 German dioceses are sitting on something like €26 billion ($31.2 billion).

Of course, though the financial picture is rosy, the health of the church is not.  Worship attendance continues to fall, some 2.2 million have de-registered since 2000, and the reputation of the church among the people is not good. The report indicates the Church’s fortune is tied up in fixed assets ($24 billion in mostly real estate) and financial investments ($18.1 billion).

According to the newspaper, the German Roman Catholic Church provides “a generous fund for pensions, reserved for higher-ranking ecclesiastical dignitaries, to the tune of €5 billion ($6 billion), but that number could also be higher as several of the bishoprics’ business reports didn’t provide exact information.”

Every baptized German working adult (who has not de-registered) is required to pay a tax of 8 to 9 percent on their income, depending on the state.  It is an arrangement dating back to the 1919 Weimar Constitution and adopted by the current constitution after World War II.  If German citizens wish to stop paying the tax, they must de-register but, if they do, they are denied Holy Communion or other religious services, according to the German Bishops’ Conference.

How often don't we dream of what we might do if only we had the money?  It is the dream that keeps lotteries alive and flourishing in America.  Some of those in American churches (of various stripes) think that money is the key to vitality.  The state of affairs in the German Roman Catholic churches shows that money is not a panacea.  True vitality is measured more by attendance and confidence in what is believed.  Perhaps there is a lesson here for congregations and pastors and even denominations.  Concentrate more on faithful preaching and teaching and less upon fund raising.  Yet at the same time, it cannot be denied that if we are to take advantage of the opportunities to share the Gospel, funds are not incidental to the provision for missionaries at home and abroad.  It is something to think about. . .

Sunday, February 11, 2018

An email haunting me. . .

It was an email generated from a computer designed to find the right recipient.  It was written by a person who struggles with you, the pastor, in carrying the burdens of leadership.  It acknowledges all the changes that we have seen in the last year, decade, and generation that have added to this burden.  It lamented the difficulty in being a church leader at this time, trying to balance the need for change with the congregation content to live only within its comfort zone.  It offered help to frazzled and frustrated leaders (pastors) who are trying to do the right thing amid people not so sure it is right and pretty sure it is not what they want -- even if it is the right thing. . . Perhaps you have gotten those emails as well.

The email hits the Achilles' heel  of every pastor.  I do not know of a pastor who does not want their congregation to grow, to find an end to conflict if there is conflict, to do a better job of reaching out with the Gospel in words and in deeds, to do a better job teaching the faith, to better encourage husbands, wives, children, families, singles, middle-aged, and elderly. . . and I could go on.  I honestly know of no pastor who does not want to see the congregation and their life together around the means of grace flourish and prosper inwardly and outwardly.

But I can also say I really do not know of any congregation which is not set upon the same goals of growth inwardly and outwardly, of better efforts at evangelism and outreach, of better works of love in the community, of better efforts at education, catechesis, and encouragement across the board. . . and I could go on.  I honestly know of no congregation resistant to growth in the person and their faith and in the congregation and its numbers and effectiveness.  Pastors and congregations sometimes have differing ideas about how to go about this -- don't we all -- but the desire to grow exists on both sides of the pulpit.

The email hits pastors where they live.  But the temptation to make leadership about taking resistant congregations where they must but do not want to go is a false temptation.  The people are not the enemies of the pastor as he "leads" the congregation in his care.  If we start there, we will inevitably end with good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, those who are right and those who are wrong.

I can understand why people are resistant to change.  Change and decay, all around I see. . . so we sing.  And it is true.  The breadth and pace of change is ripping the fabric of our society into shreds and the church is caught in the tensions as well.  In a very short period of time we have seen gender definitions explode, long time media and political faces disappear in disgrace, the world threatened by nations and terrorist leaders who a generation ago could not even feed their people. . . and the list goes on.  When people walk in the door of the church, they are seeking a refuge from this rapid pace of change and from the fears and threats all around them.  When in that church pastors or experts tell them that the things they learned from their parents and grandparents must give way to a new kind of church, it is hurtful.  Toss out hymnals and hymns, liturgy and the pipe organ, pews and pulpits and altars and it seems like the refuge of the Gospel goes with it all.  What is left?

I can understand why pastors think some things need changing.  Numbers have dropped, pews are empty, Sunday school rooms are dark, money is tight, the world is unfriendly to the church, and the Gospel itself is viewed with uncertainty as good news worth believing. . . and the list goes on.  Hymnals, hymns, liturgy, organs, pews, and pulpits are easy targets because we have had them so long and it is tempting to make them the reasons why things are not better.  But if these had been the problems, we would see growth and vitality in all the congregations that don't have them and the truth is that all Christian churches are struggling no matter what they do on Sunday morning.  Sure, a few of the mega stars put on the appearance of great success but they are more adept at moving people around that really making a dent in the numbers of the unchurched.  Furthermore, there are serious questions about the gospel that they preach and whether or not those who come for the show leave with anything remotely similar to the Gospel.

In the end Satan has done well.  He has turned congregations and pastors against each other, defined leadership as taking people where they don't want to go, and put the blame on the past for the problems of the present and the future.  Worse than all of this, he has been quite successful in robbing us of our confidence in the Word and Sacraments to the point where we are focused on gimmicks, techniques, and programs more than anything else.

My suggestions are simple.  Trust the Word and Sacraments of the Lord.  Teach them and do them well.  Keep the focus upon the Lord and His means of grace and off of ourselves (thoughts, feelings, preferences, fears, anxieties, and worries).  Pray the promises.  Live lives that reflect what we confess with our lips.  Go to church every Sunday, bring the family, invest fully in the educational ministries of the parish for every family member, and find a place to serve.  If we are faithful in preaching and teaching the faith, administering the sacraments, welcoming the stranger, serving the neighbor, and showing forth the good works of Him who called us from darkness into His marvelous light, the rest is God's to do.  One thing is sure.  The gates of hell will not prevail.  Unless we surrender them.  This is the real leadership of church and home.  Maybe it is time we tried these instead of sticking our fingers into the wind so we can see where we ought to be going. . .

Saturday, February 10, 2018

A worthy post passed on . . .

Concerning the Six-Day Creation

by Matthew C. Harrison
Creation is a mystery. Just as science will forever have a problem with Jesus being God and man, with His virgin birth, or with His resurrection, so science will forever scoff at or, at best, view the creation account in Genesis as mythology. Though I’m no scientist, I’ve had challenges myself believing that the creation accounts are history. When will a talking snake appear believable to reason? How, in the face of the dominant theory of evolution, will the special creation of Adam out of dust and in a flash appear reasonable? And what of Eve from a rib? How can I possibly hold to an actual creation of all things in six natural days?

The LCMS’s classic statement on creation was made a long time ago in the Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod (1932), and it still holds today:
We teach that God has created heaven and earth, and that in the manner and in the space of time recorded in the Holy Scriptures, especially Gen. 1 and 2, namely, by His almighty creative word, and in six days. We reject every doctrine which denies or limits the work of creation as taught in Scripture. In our days it is denied or limited by those who assert, ostensibly in deference to science, that the world came into existence through a process of evolution; that is, that it has, in immense periods of time, developed more or less of itself. Since no man was present when it pleased God to create the world, we must look for a reliable account of creation to God’s own record, found in God’s own book, the Bible. We accept God’s own record with full confidence and confess with Luther’s Catechism: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures.”

Over the centuries, there have been a plethora of attempts to alleviate the “scandal” of the creation accounts and to understand them in a way that is less offensive to human reason. Although it is true that the Synod has not defined as biblical doctrine a specific age of the earth, attempts to alleviate the scandal of the creation accounts by suggesting that the earth is somehow millions or billions of years old actually compound the scandal in my view. Can we somehow stretch the meaning of a “day” in Genesis 1 into an eon or long period of time? If so, then how is it that light is created prior to the sun? How is it that vegetation is created before the sun? How is it that God creates fish and birds prior to the other animals?

You simply cannot stretch the days of Genesis 1 into eons in order to somehow accommodate science or evolutionary theory (or even some version of Old Earth Creationism based on a non-literal understanding of a “day”) in any meaningful or coherent way. Either the account in Genesis 1–2 is myth, or it is history — albeit, history written in a profoundly simple way to express profound truths. There is no middle ground. And if humankind is the result of some evolutionary process, then death was built into creation from the beginning — a view that the Scriptures categorically reject. In the end, there can be no historical Adam and Eve in a mythical Garden of Eden. So-called “Old Earth Creationism” largely runs aground.

Why do I believe that the creation accounts are historical? I believe them because I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior. And I hear in the words of Jesus that He himself believes the creation accounts are historical. (See MATT. 19:3–9.) I hear in the words of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, the voice of my Savior. And both He and the Scriptures bear witness to their absolute inerrancy and infallibility. With Luther, when I come to passages that are hard to believe, “I doff my hat to the Holy Spirit and figure that He is wiser than I am.” Or as Luther said elsewhere regarding Genesis 1: “We assert that Moses spoke in the literal sense, not allegorically or figuratively, i.e., that the world, with all its creatures, was created within six days, as the words read. If we do not comprehend the reason for this, let us remain pupils and leave the job of teacher to the Holy Spirit” (Luther’s Works, vol. 1, page 5).

What about our faithful scientists and others who struggle with these issues? There will always be a struggle between faith and reason. In matters of clear teaching of the Bible, I must hold to the Scriptures. However, there are many disciplines that operate under the category of reason, e.g., the scientific method, etc. And many Christian scientists have and will continue to make arguments based upon their best scientific inquiry to defend the historicity or the very reasonable possibility of the Bible’s accounts being true. That’s called apologetics. More power to them. As Lutherans, we are not anti-science. Nevertheless, the truths of Holy Scripture — and that includes God’s creation of everything ex nihilo (“out of nothing) — are most often well beyond human reason.

Despite scientism and evolutionary philosophy, the advances of science (far from disproving God) have only demonstrated a deeply complex and amazing universe. A recent study of the human genome concluded, by tracing markers on the male chromosome, that all human beings have one common male ancestor. That’s phenomenal to consider! Christians should not be against science, but only against philosophies which would eliminate God from creation, deny His existence or attack the veracity of His Word.

In the 1970s, some thought that if one only believed the Gospel, other issues taught by Scripture were up for grabs. In response, Synod adopted A Statement of Biblical and Confessional Principles (1973), which clarified Synod’s teaching on the Scriptures:
Since the saving work of Jesus Christ was accomplished through His personal entrance into our history and His genuinely historical life, death and resurrection, we acknowledge that the recognition of the soteriological purpose of Scripture in no sense permits us to call into question or deny the historicity or factuality of matters recorded in the Bible.
We therefore reject the following views …

That recognition of the primary purpose of Scripture makes it irrelevant whether such questions of fact as the following are answered in the affirmative: Were Adam and Eve real historical individuals? Did Israel cross the Red Sea on dry land? Did the brazen serpent miracle actually take place? Was Jesus really born of a virgin? Did Jesus perform all the miracles attributed to Him? Did Jesus’ resurrection actually involve the return to life of His dead body?

In short, I believe in the Gospel of free forgiveness, made incarnate in history — in the conception, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the God-man. Because I believe the Gospel, I recognize the words of my shepherd, Jesus, in Holy Scripture. If I reject what Scripture teaches as history about creation, why should I not then reject everything else (including the resurrection itself) that appears contrary to reason?

Even as we say “I believe; help my unbelief” (MARK 9:24), we should be very humble as we approach this mystery of creation, and humble and kind to those who struggle with the issue. It’s a cross that many of us will bear in this life, until we see Him “face to face” (1 COR. 13:12).
God help us.
                                                         – Pastor Harrison

The Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison is president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Just life. . .

In an age when some nations have eliminated Down's Syndrome by abortion and where in many places life is without the protections due its sacred character, you find this.  And you sigh.  It is about life, folks.  Life which is precious and sacred.  Life given by God and ours to protect, defend, and care for. . . until its natural end.  Life which is judged not by its value to us but its gift of the Creator.  Life which compels us not to despair but to joy and hope.  Who cannot watch and rejoice?

Days and months and seasons. . .

Roman Calendar
An early Roman Calendar
I was reminded that church calendars are human institutions and, as the person reminding me put it, they offer no special commendation for use or reason not to ignore entirely.  After all, was not the whole Jewish calendar (its own church year) fulfilled and abrogated so that the ceremonial law is nothing to us whatsoever.  At least, that is how it was put to me.  One day is as good as the next.  After all, is this not the point of Galatians 4:10 and Paul's insistence that one day is as good as the next and no special meaning should or must be attached to any.

Except the fact that the church year is of early origin, an evolution to be sure but still present in rudimentary form from the earliest days of Christianity.  So what was Paul referring to when he complained about the Galatians  who were “observing days and months and seasons and years.” Surely there was a context.  When the Galatians were pagans did they not live according to the Roman calendar?  Indeed, the Roman calendar was filled with pagan commemorations and holidays -- to the point that about only 240 days were officially clear for government business!

Was it that in rejecting their pagan calendar, they had looked around for one to replace it and had been content to substitute the Jewish holy days in place of the Roman calendar?  Indeed this section does come with the introduction of Paul that to return to slavery is antithetical to the Gospel that had been preached to them.  It could very well be that that they were substituting the Jewish calendar of holy days but with this calendar had come also a life defined by the ceremonial law.  Certainly, Paul is treating this as a present itch toward a legalistic framework (you are observing... you are turning away).  It might seem that Paul's reference to the calendar here is shorthand for the whole idea that the sacrificial life and death of Jesus must be supplemented in some way by their own faithful observance of the ceremonial law (even circumcision).  Paul fears for them that they are sliding back under the law and rendering his whole service of the Gospel to them "to no avail."

The Roman calendar was filled with superstition, with days of festivals and games as well as unlucky days in which certain activities were best avoided.  The underworld was opened at certain points and ghosts were let loose on others and the days when historical disaster struck or military defeats were remembered posed ominously over decisions and activities -- even entertainment.  At these times public festivities were banned and it was best simply to hide away until the time passed.  Certain days were so important that everyone got a day off of work -- Saturnalia in December and later Compitalia.

Paul treated this subject with the Romans as well (14:5) and seemed to dismiss any and all calendars.  Yet there is a big difference between the Roman calendar and its pagan commemorations and superstitions and even the Jewish calendar with its legal requirements of observance for righteousness' sake AND the Church Year with its focus on the events in the life of the Lord (the Festival Half) and the teaching of the Lord (the non-festival half).  Clearly those who wish to dismiss any and all remembrances of days, events, and seasons are stretching in their comparison of the Church Year and either the Jewish calendar and the Roman (or other pagan) calendar.  One brings with it duties and obligations and the other delivers the joyful remembrance of the promise of God fulfilled in Christ and its unfolding to the supreme revelation of His glory on the cross and in the empty tomb.  Paul is surely correct in distinguishing those events which require us to add to what God has done by our observance and those that recall with joy what God has done -- the kind of teaching remembrance which not only recalls but confesses these saving actions of God.  Yet, I remain unconvinced that Paul's words could in any way be directed against the Church Year -- even one with traditions of observance associated with it (such as fasting and almsgiving, for example).

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Christian character does count . .

What can I do?  So come the questions from those who look in dismay at the mountain of wrongs in the world at large, in their communities, in their neighborhoods and workplaces, and in their homes.  What can I do?  How tempting it is to suggest that Christians must find refuge away from it all while they watch as the world disintegrates into suspicion, fear, self-interest, and deception.  How tempting it is to live behind the facade that no one person can make a difference so why try.

Christian character counts.  It must be said again.  Christian character counts.  Whether or not you see any difference, Christian character counts.  Whether or not you believe it is even noticed or generally ignored, Christian character counts.  As we make our way into a new year fraught with the same old problems, the call to us who live from the baptismal font to the table by the calling of the Word:  Christian character counts.

Virtue is not old fashioned or out of date or ineffectual.  Virtue, Christian character, and the noble calling of our Christian lives matters.  It matters whether we see it or not.  If no one else is watching, God is.  Part of the wonderful surprise of baptism and its life of faith flowing from that font is the realization that God is watching -- not only to condemn what is wrong but to look for what is good and right and holy.  Sanctification is not some discipline that steals our joy and shackles our freedom but it is the joyful embrace of the values of the Kingdom and the full exercise of that wonderful gift of liberty -- including our release from the captivity of self-interest!

I spend a lot of digital ink on the idea that doctrine is important and that practices consistent with that doctrine are important.  But Christian character is also important.  In the home as husband and wife live together in the holy estate of marriage, Christian character supports, encourages, and brings wonderful joy to the fullness of their life together.  As father and mother rejoice in the sacred trust of a child and seek to teach the faith by example as well as word, Christian character becomes the incubator of faith in the lives of their children.  In the neighborhood and community, Christians lives not in hiding but holding up the light, high, so that it enlightens everyone.  This happens not only in words of explicit witness but in lives of holy charity, honor, virtue, and holiness.  In the workplace, we manifest the character of our faith by working to the glory of God, exhibiting the character of our Christian faith and identity even if we are limited by what our words can say about the Gospel.  How we work as employees and how we lead as employers is as important to the Christian witness of our lives as the explicit witness to Jesus' incarnation, obedient life, life-giving death, and resurrection never to die again.

We Lutherans do not talk as much about sanctification as we ought.  We sometimes give the false impression that Christian life is about the God who forgives and we who give Him something to forgive.  While there is nothing we can do to cooperate in our salvation, in our sanctification the Holy Spirit does not take over our wills but teaches us to love what is holy and good and to seek after it, and, by the grace of God, to accomplish it, as the fruit of that justification and new life.  So let me not get too far into 2018 without the reminder that Christian character counts.  Walk worthy of the life that has been given you in your baptism and seek to be and do the things of God within the domain of your daily life.  Fear not the judgment of others but neither despair of who you and what you can do.  Christian character counts.  In the home, in the neighborhood, in the workplace, in the community, and, yes, in the congregation.  Christian character counts.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Silence gives way to speech. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 5B preached on Sunday, February 4, 2018.

    Donald Trump is famous for saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity.  Perhaps he has re-thought that idea now that he is in the White House.  It has always struck me as odd that Jesus told so many to shut up about the things they knew of Him.  Why is Jesus shy about free publicity?  Even His disciples were told not to speak of some of the things they had seen and heard in Jesus.  The demons, who know exactly who Jesus is, even better than His disciples, are commended with even greater authority to be quiet.  Mark says that Jesus would not permit the demons to speak BECAUSE they knew Him.

    Jesus will not be rushed in His path to the ultimate self-revelation of the cross and empty tomb.  In fact, Jesus will not turn over the agenda to anyone but carefully and deliberately reveals Himself deliberately, almost painfully slow.  The Kingdom of God cannot be rushed.  In a world where fast food is king, where you do all your business online to avoid waiting, where medicine promises immediate relief, and where time is money, Jesus breaks all the rules.  He is too slow to get to the punch line.

    They had been at the synagogue.  It was Jesus’ practice to be at the synagogue.  Let me put it into modern terms – Jesus did not miss church for any reason.  He left the synagogue with James and John and they went to the home of Simon and Andrew.  Simon’s mother-in-law was ill with a fever.  Jesus risked all propriety and went over the to the sick woman, even taking her by hand, and lifting her up.  And in doing so, her fever left her and she immediately returned to her vocation – she served Jesus and His disciples.  She fed them and waited table on them.  There are those who would make this out to be somewhat demeaning to women but it is not.  This was her vocation.  Jesus removed what kept her from her vocation.  And that is exactly what He does for us.

    The news spread.  By evening the whole city was literally at their door.  Everyone who was sick and everyone who was oppressed by a demon was waiting outside the door for Jesus to do His stuff.  And Jesus did His stuff.  The miracles that so fascinate us and the demons cast out and commanded to be silent. 

    To us these things seem like side shows.  We make distinctions between the miracles and the casting out of the demons and the preaching of the Gospel.  But not Jesus.  All of these are the preaching of the Gospel.  After a long night, Jesus took off early in the morning while it was still dark.  He went to a desolate place to pray.  But the side show had not stopped.  Simon scolded Jesus.  “Everyone is looking for you.”  It is as if he is saying, “You brought this on yourself – all this grandiose business of healing the sick and casting out of demons.”  Peter finds this a distraction, just like we do.  But not Jesus.  They are all one in the same – this is all the preaching of the Kingdom of God.

    Jesus is resting up because He must go on to the next town and the one after that.  He has a ministry and purpose to fulfill.  He is come to preach and this preaching is also healing the sick and casing out the demons.  Jesus has come just for this.  There are no distractions from this purpose and no demons will be allowed to sidetrack Jesus from His purpose.

    The demons knew who Jesus was and is but they did not see it coming what Jesus was to do to silence them once and for all.  The demons were reliable witnesses for who Jesus was and is but they did not see coming what Jesus had come to do.  The demons were still in the dark with respect to the cross.  They did not realize that Jesus had come exactly for that cross. In their eyes the cross was the end, the silencing of Jesus once for all and the death of the Son of God and of any hope for redemption for any.

    Jesus silenced them because He would not be distracted from the purpose for which He had come.  The cross was certainly in the cross hairs of the future that was to come but before He would meet the cross, Jesus had the kingdom to preach.  He preached the kingdom with the words of His mouth and with the actions of healing and casting out demons.  By both the actions and words, Jesus reveals Himself as the Lord who comes down from heaven in order to deliver His people from their enemies.  It will happen on the cross but when the Lord determines the moment is right.

    We live in a world that loves demons in the movies but is not so sure they exist anywhere else.  At the same time, we see a world wrestling with evil that we cannot control and groaning at every new horror of breaking news that shakes our comfortable worlds.  We don’t want to believe they are real but we suspect that they are whether we want to admit it or not.  How can people do such evil things?  Terrorists cannot simply be driven by ideology; they must also be driven by demons.  The new illnesses that arise just when we seem to get the old ones under control cannot simply be accidents; they must be gifts of the evil ones.  The shock of a society in which children in their mother’s wombs can be discarded like trash and aged can be given drugs to hasten their death and put us out of our misery of waiting for them to die cannot be progress; it must be a sign that demons are real and all around us.

    We know where demons are.  What we need to learn is where they are not.  Demons cannot exist where Christ is.  They cannot exercise power over Christ nor can they exercise power over those who belong to Christ.  With Luther we sing, “though devils all the world should fill all eager to devour us, we tremble not, we fear no ill, they shall not overpower us.  This world’s prince may still scowl fierce as he will, he can harm us none.  He’s judged the deed is done.  One little Word can fell him.

    We know where demons are.  What we need to learn is where they are not.  Where Christ is, sins are forgiven and the chains of a shameful past are broken.  Where Christ is, the ills of this body and this world are undone by the eternal healing not even death can touch.  Where Christ is, demons tremble and they are not permitted to speak.  Only one Word is said.  The Word that is Christ, the Word made flesh, whose living voice still calls them to silence.

    I have come to preach, says Jesus.  This is why I am here.  And still He preaches.  He preaches in baptismal water.  The first thing in the baptismal rite is the casting out of the devil from the one to be baptized and the marking with the sign of the cross over heart and head.  Jesus is still casting out demons and His Word prevents them from saying or doing anything against His own children by baptism and faith.   The demons are silenced in Christ
    I have come to preach, says Jesus.  This is why I am here.  And still He preaches.  He preaches in the voice of absolution that undoes all the knots of our past and releases us from all the chains of our failures.  Where Christ is, sin can no more accuse us and we wear the righteousness that no sin can spoil or spot.

    I have come to preach, says Jesus.  This is why I am here.  And still He preaches.  He preaches in the gift of bread that is His body and of wine that is His blood.  Here we meet the medicine of immortality.  Illness and affliction can trouble us but they cannot steal the life that Christ has prepared where illness, affliction, and death have no place or power.

    I have come to preach, says Jesus.  This is why I am here.  And still He preaches.  He preaches the new found purpose of our lives, lived not to satisfy the whims of the moment or a heart of sin but the noble vocation of husband serving your wife and wife serving your husband.  He preaches the vocation of family and of the noble service of parent to your child and of children to their parents, that makes the house the domain of the Lord and a place of blessing and love.  He preaches the vocation of love for neighbor not because you like them but because God was your neighbor in love who rescued you and bound your wounds.

    And now you preach.  In your homes and where you work, in your neighborhoods and the communities where you live.  You preach the Word that silences the demons and sets us free to fulfill God’s bidding.  You preach Jesus Christ not as you feel Him or imagine Him but as He has revealed Himself at the manger and in the cross, Christ and Him crucified.  You preach Jesus Christ in words of faith that pray and witness and in lives that mirror this self-same Gospel.  Where once Jesus commanded silence, now He commands us to speak of Him.  Of His cross.  Of His salvation.  Of hope that cannot be silenced anymore.

    We know where the demons are, alright.  And we know what ills trouble our fragile bodies and frail minds and hearts.  But we also know where Christ is, in Word and Sacrament.  And where Christ is, the Spirit is at work for us, preserving us in faith and keeping us in Christ.  Where Christ is and the Spirit is at work, demons are silent, sins are forgiven, the sick are healed to eternal life, and the dead are raised never to die again.  In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Progressive damage. . .

This from a Canadian author who claims the trifecta of defects, white, male, and Catholic:
Two things I miss from my Anglican days: the King James Version, and the Book of Common Prayer. My friends who remained Anglican also miss them, for both have been removed from church services by the Anglican bureaucracy. As the priest who received me into the Roman Church said, Anglicans make ideal converts. We already know at first hand what happens when liturgical, scriptural, and other received norms are “progressively” abandoned: the church itself disintegrates.
The sad truth is that he is correct.  Those who head to other churches swimming one river or another are often those who have watched as their own churches abandoned their liturgical identity, treated the creeds and confessions as descriptive and not prescriptive, and were embarrassed by the Word of God, or at least those who take it seriously.

The liturgical changes that have touched all liturgical churches have left us detached from our own history.  Indeed, the Lutheran Service Book is distinctive for retaining nearly everything of the chief service of its most popular predecessor hymnal, The Lutheran Hymnal, after the intermediate book had almost rendered that service unrecognizable.  In that same vein, the LSB also retained the one year historic lectionary.

This was not the case for the ELCA, whose predecessor bodies had a worthy hymnal in the Service Book and Hymnal whose liturgical legacy was forgotten when Lutheran Book of Worship was published in 1978.  The Anglicans also did their worst to the 1928 Prayer Book and others have also followed. It took Benedict XVI to intervene and restore the Latin Mass to more universal accessibility -- though this is not without its powerful detractors.

My point in all of this is simply to say that we too easily forget that when we abandon our liturgical history and form on Sunday morning, it has profound consequences for the faith itself.  When we stop worshiping like Lutherans, it is a short jaunt to believing like those whose worship identity we have borrowed.  None of the progressive attempts to remake our liturgical identity have helped stem the tide of membership losses.  I am not sure if they are causal or coincidental but the wholesale transformation of many liturgical churches on Sunday morning has left us with more empty pews than ever.  Name me one church in which the abandonment of historic liturgical forms and texts has helped that church grow?

There are many things for which we ought to be grateful as we survey the liturgical movement.  For Lutherans, this means the restoration to a more frequent Communion, even weekly (as our Confessions presume).   I am more than happy about this.  Yet at the same time, the numbers of folks gathered in the pews for those more frequent celebrations of the Lord's Supper is undeniably less than it was before the liturgical movement.  Surely some of this is due to flawed and failed catechesis, pressures and influences from society at large, and a host of other changes in the fabric of our everyday lives but it is foolish not to admit that ditching our history and identity on Sunday morning has not also contributed to our decline.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Pursuit of Happiness. . .

When reading The Christian Post a while ago I realized that the article I was perusing was a reprint of one I had read ages ago.  You can read it here as it was originally posted.  Ken Myers takes on the whole issue of happiness and how the word and the concept have changed from the day when our forefathers used the word and Jefferson enshrined it forever as an inalienable right.  The pursuit of happiness has come to mean the freedom to do as I please when I am pleased to do it. . . or think it. . . or say it.  Perhaps even more crassly, happiness has become the equivalent of having fun -- the opposite of being bored (the ultimate sin and suffering!).  Myers reminds us that the way we use the word happiness today would make little sense to the folks who founded this nation but even less sense to the ways in which happiness was viewed in ancient Greek or Hebrew culture.

Happiness is roughly synonymous with the biblical idea of “blessedness.” In classical and medieval Christian ethics happiness referred to a state of human flourishing or well-being that aligned the life of a person with the truest good. Actions, thoughts, desires, and ambitions had to be ordered in light of the proper end of mankind for a person to be truly happy. Happiness was thus an ethical, not a psychological project. To pursue happiness was to pursue the whole reason for one’s being, but that meant recognizing that one’s desires and actions were in need of correction. It meant accounting for the fact that human beings did not instinctively pursue the truest good, that some very attractive pleasures were not truly in keeping with the most essential contours of our nature. In Christian terms, the pursuit of happiness meant recognizing that God had created us to flourish in the context of obedience to Him so that our image-bearing nature might display His glory. Since our sin and consequent waywardness alienated us from our deepest, truest identity, the pursuit of happiness was only possible by grace, since we cannot by our own strength resist the disordering effects of sin in our lives.
Therein lies the problem.  The happiness we seek and the happiness we claim as our right today is not a contentment flowing from our sense of purpose and identity as one who was created for and lives within the boundaries of place within the Divine Order.  The sad truth is that as a culture we don't care what God intended or what He created or what He desired or still desires.  God is absent from our discussion of life and gender and happiness and desire -- except, of course, when we can use Him to justify and authenticate our misappropriation of that once more noble term.  We believe that this self-absorbed and self-defined happiness is the sole purpose and reason for our existence and anything and everything which infringes upon this happiness is our enemy.  So morality that in any way encumbers our free choice is deemed obtrusive and domineering just as those who would have the nerve to tell us we cannot or should not do this or that.

Good is only as deep and wide as the individual who seeks it and defines it.  The individualism that has come to characterize everything from culture to politics to religion to truth is the ultimate flourishing of the more modern definition of happiness.  So nations struggle because one of the primary threads in our fabric of identity and unity is the fact that we have a shared value system.  Yet it is only one value that we share -- the value of me.  Ultimate good is a foreign and alien concept to our culture today.  So we live in a culture of death where people have value and their lives are held sacred only if they do not inconvenience me or infringe upon my freedom to pursue my own happiness.  In the same way, if I determine that my life has become a burden to me, I demand the freedom to end my life, painlessly, of course, when I choose to (or so say those who believe assisted suicide is the most humane choice of all -- the choice not to live).

I will have to admit that when the Jerusalem Bible began to translate "Blesseds" of the Beatitudes with the word "Happy" I belittled the choice of words as a cop out.  Like Gene Veith, I see now that this was not as foolish a choice as I had thought but surely one that is even more misunderstood than the familiar word "Blessed."

Happiness will be our undoing.  We discard spouses and children and jobs as well as things when they no longer make us happy.  But in doing so we are not happier at all.  We live in a nation of people who try retail therapy, video game diversions, opioid pain relief, recreational marijuana, prozac and its kin, and everything else we can do to satisfy the itch within and yet we are among the most unhappy people in history.  Our children suffer the burdens of this angst too early in their childhood years and as adults we seem never to find the Nirvana we are searching for.  It seems we are not only unhappy, we are not blessed.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The problem with symbolism. . .

Symbols effectively communicate except to those who do not know them.  I well recall many years ago visiting a Lutheran Church on Long Island that had a very strange facade.  It was an outline of a fish, an appropriate and age old Christian symbol, but that outline was only really seen from the air.  So on the ground it was a symbol not easily identified even though it was familiar.  On the other side of the coin are symbols defined by those who design them.  Their meaning may be obvious to those who formed them but they must be taught to those who don't get it -- so symbols end up being like the game where someone is drawing something and everyone must guess what it is that he or she is drawing.

I was once enamored of such modern pursuit as the creation of new symbols for a new time.  Now I am less enthused.  The old symbols are not taught or identified as much precisely because they have given way to new ones that hardly anyone gets.  Visit any modern church built in the 1950s-1970s and you will know what I mean.  Traditional church architecture and traditional symbolism have given way to a free for all that leaves nearly all of us confused.

Take the font, for example.  I grew up with a traditional, eight sided font of quartersawn oak, probably similar to many of that era.  It was explained that the eight sides symbolized the 8th Day, the new creation, born of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I was told that you were being baptized into that death and resurrection (as St. Paul says) and that the font symbolized the beginning of this new creation.  So the shape of the font deepened this theological connection and gave shape to the faith we believe.

Of course, this symbolism was not new or unique to this congregation or even to Lutheranism but was part of a long history.  The early Christians believed that the resurrection and ascension of Christ was the start of the renewal of creation so that the day on which God accomplished this, the Resurrection of our Lord, was a day analogous to the first day of creation.  This was not limited to baptism but connected to the Lord's Day when Christians came together around the Word and Table of the Lord.  It all pointed to Christ, who has ushered in the dawn of a whole new era, a brand new day when sin and death were not the end and when God had the last Word through the redemption accomplished by His Son.  The shape of the font was one of the symbols that pointed to this. 

Symbols only have meaning and power when we teach them.  It is surely easier to recall the symbols of old, that have stood for generation after generation, than it is to introduce new symbols without the kind of heritage and history that makes them universal.  Perhaps the eight sided font means nothing to you.  That is not the fault of the font but of the teaching which has failed.  But it is something easily rectifiable by teaching again not only the symbolism of that font but the whole idea associated with the eighth day.  Some may find it difficult to bring back what was lost but it is much easier than trying to create tradition and symbolism anew.  Further, it is testament to our universal history and to the character of the catholic tradition that the ancient symbols are not sectarian or unique to one moment in time but transcend time and even denominational barriers.

Some of us have the tradition of Chrismons on the Christmas Tree.  This is a highly symbolic tradition and yet it has meaning only if we teach what the symbols mean.  The symbols on those trees were not invented for the moment but represent a long history and their meaning is nearly universal.  Symbols are great teaching tools but they lose the meaning when we forget to teach them and when we invent symbols to replace them we have an inherently greater task than remembering what we forgot.

We live in an iconic age.  Our children and our culture instinctively are drawn to symbols, logos, and signs that are shortcuts to everything from information to locations to programs.  We in the Church could do well to remember how important symbolism is and to remember our own great history of symbols and their meanings and how they can teach the faith.  But for them to work, we must actually teach them.  I venture to say that if you looked around any church building you would find a host of symbols embedded in everything from paraments to stained glass.  Ask what they are and what they mean and use them to teach the faith to your children.  It is a marvelously enriching experience.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Not so human humanities. . .

Of course we have all heard of the foolishness which passes for university classwork -- everything from a semester surfing the internet to reading things that should have never been published and have nothing to do with the subject at hand.  It would be funny if it were not so sad.  Yet the worst of it all is how anti-human the humanities have become.  In too many progressive and liberal institutions said to be focused on higher education, man itself is treated with obvious and distinct contempt.  He is treated as an alien to a world which would live in pristine harmony except for the intrusion of humans.  His life is treated as an expendable quantity, without anything to distinguish it or qualify it for protection in the womb and without any nobility to justify any protection of it in old age.

The arts have become brutal and hard.  Spatters of paint and sharp metal edges compete with the likes of Botticelli and Rafael and Michelangelo and da Vinci.  Self expression is promoted over the image and its fruit has been remarkable vulgar and harsh.  Where once the canvas, the musical staff, and stone were employed to ennoble mankind and promote the cause of virtue, it is now employed to display our baser desires and to laud ugliness.  The great wordsmiths of old were lauded for their ability to put a whole conversation in a few rich words, for their ability to flesh out characters and make them at least as interesting as the plot, and for their ability to make us want to be better than we are.  Now it seems that authors delight in the expos√© --finding and informing the general public of the worst we can think or know about a people or a time.

John Milton once said that education existed for the most part “to repair the ruins of our first parents.” Certainly that is the focus of the Biblical story.  "The truth shall set you free," said Jesus.  Not generic truth but the truth that does not change and the truth that endures forever -- the saving truth of the Word of the Lord.  So once the humanities were built upon one unending divine revelation to which were added the best endeavors of the arts to know our broken condition and discover its repair.  Perhaps the decline of the humanities is parallel to the disdain with which our world looks upon unchanging divine revelation and, specifically, the revelation of the Son of God (this is Epiphany, after all).  I am not sure that the decline of those choosing the humanities is due to the lack of humanity found there, the difficulty in translating such a major into a decent job and income, or the despair that seems to have framed our whole educational endeavor when it comes to humanity and the future.

As a proud liberal arts graduate, it is to my great sorrow that the humanities have become not so human and the arts are seen as non-essential luxuries in a world more focused on practical progress and more enamored with technology.  Literature, history, philosophy, the arts, rhetoric, religion, and languages may not be easily marketable as a major or as a high income producing vocation but once they formed us as a more noble people by teaching us to pursue something better, something bigger than self, and something that honored our Creator.  The day may never come when we recapture this but I live in hope that the light will not be totally extinguished and will still shine through the winds of change that dominate the times.  It will have to begin by remembering that the word human is what informs humanities.  I am not so much looking for a softer, kinder, gentler approach as one that is, at least to my mind, more honest.  The truth continues to set us free. . . if we let it. . .

Friday, February 2, 2018

Lent to the Lord

A requested repost. . .
Sermon for the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord, first preached on Sunday, February 2, 2014.

    There isn't a one of who has not loaned something to someone that never came back.  We make fun of borrowing a kleenex or piece of gum - we know they won't be returned.  This is no joke today.  In the first lesson we heard about Hannah who had waited a very long time and prayed mightily for a child.  Her many prayers were answered with a son, Samuel.  It might seem like she had it all now but this very same son whom the Lord had given, she lent back to Him for His saving purpose.
    Hannah foreshadows Blessed Mary who likewise loans her son to the Lord for His saving purpose.  However, the greater image here is the God who lent His Son to us, the Son who was incarnate of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, to be our Savior and Redeemer.  This was a loan which not redeemed; our Lord continues and remains to all eternity the Savior of His people and the Redeemer who purchased back the people lost to sin and death.
    Hannah came to the House of the Lord at Shiloh.  Her husband had already come and gone but she waited until her son was weaned.  Then she went, the same woman who had once stood before the Lord begging for this child, now packs him up to lend him to the Lord for as long as he lived.  Her sacrificial offering was not the child whom the Lord had given but the desires of her own heart and the surrender to His will.  She came with the gratitude of faith, trusting the Lord's will.
    It is a story of faith that makes us pale before her.  It is not simply that she gives up her child but she gives up her life and future for the higher purpose of God's good and gracious will.  We live in a world where we are taught never to surrender our wants or desires – not even to God.  Indeed we manipulate our prayer conversations with God to try and convince Him to give us what we want.  But inherent in faith is trust in God's good and gracious will.  This is Hannah's example, the shadow of Mary's greater sacrifice, but both point to Jesus’ sacrifice for us.
    Today is the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Presentation of our Lord.  The Law of God required that a mother stay at home with her child, ceremonially unclean for forty days after birth.  Today we might call it bonding time but the Lord insisted that the child was the mother's sole focus until she would come to the temple to give thanks for the child the Lord gave her and for His own grace preserving her from the perils of childbirth.  This is what Mary did.
    In addition, she brought her son.  In one sense, God was restoring the ark of His presence to His people since the rebuilt temple after its destruction in 587 BC put back everything except the ark of the covenant, which had disappeared.  Jesus is the one who restores God’s presence in the temple.Jesus had been circumcised on the eighth day and was already part of the covenant people of God.  But on this day He was presented to the Lord His Father, the first born, holy to God.  This was not about child sacrifice; the normal practice was for the father of the child to redeem or buy back the child with a payment to the priest of the temple.  But not Samuel.  Anc certainly not Jesus. Jesus is not bought back.  In the ultimate twist, we are bought back.  We are redeemed by Him who gives as payment His own blood for His people captive to sin and death.
    Nehemiah describes how this obligation to bring to the house of the Lord the first born son.  It was normal.  Everyone in Judaism knew this.  So no attention was drawn to Mary and Joseph and Jesus on this day.  It was so routine as to be invisible.  What no one saw that day was that this was no family presenting their child to the Lord but the Lord lending His Son to us to be our Savior – the sacrificial offering is the Son who as a man would suffer and die on the altar of the cross.  He comes to a grateful people and from a thankful mother who pondered all this in her heart of faith, trusting in the Lord when everything before said impossible.
    It might have gone forgotten and remained invisible but for an old man who asked to hold the child.  In the revelation of the Spirit, Simeon sees what is hidden in this infant flesh and breaks out into song, singing the future of this Son who the Father has lent to redeem His people. He will be set for the fall and rising of many.  Simeon turned this ordinary moment into an extraordinary moment of revelation.
    Lord, now You let Your servant go in peace (not go back home but to DIE) according to Your Word for my own eyes have seen Your salvation,, prepared in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.  Jesus is still lent to us as our Savior and we still echo the words of old Simeon.  We have seen our salvation and it is the face of Jesus. His light shines in our darkness and His darkness has not overcome it.  Our only glory is the glory of Him who died that we might live and who lives that we might not die.
    Lest we think this was an anomaly Simeon was not alone.  Anna was there too, an ancient woman who had lived alone her whole life, whose whole life was the Lord.  She waited week after week for the sign of the Lord that He would now redeem Jerusalem.  Mary was purified and Jesus presented as a simple act of keeping the Law only to have this moment disclosed as God fulfilling the ancient promise and coming to save His people.
    In a real sense, every Sunday is like this.  God continues to lend to us His Son.  He lends to us His righteousness because we have none.  He lends to us His life because we are dying.  He lends to us His hope because we live in despair.  And it might all seem rather ordinary except that in the liturgy we sing with Simeon what God has revealed.  We are not giving God anything but He is giving us everything.
    There is little in the Divine Service that is really Lutheran except this addition of the Nunc Dimittis as our post-communion song.  How easy it is for us to be blind to what God does in our midst!  We think of the liturgy as the same old thing and we shrug our shoulders at the Eucharist but Simeon's song confronts us with the miracle and mystery of His presence hidden in bread and wine.  There is nothing ordinary about our Lord who comes to us, the Son of God whom the Father has lent to us to be our Savior and Redeemer.
    So after our communion when our hearts burn and our minds are opened in this breaking of the bread, we break out into Simeon’s song.  We see with his eyes of faith what God is doing in our midst.  What more can we do but sing with Simeon:  "Lord, I am ready to die, for my own eyes have seen my salvation..."   We have met the Lord here, Him whom the Father has lent to us as our Savior and Lord.  We have the taste of eternity is on our tongue, we smell in this bread and cup the scent of heaven in our noses and we hear in our ears the voice of glory.  Just like the anonymous routines of old were broken by Jesus entering the temple so long ago, the Spirit breaks into our ordinary with the extraordinary means of grace.  What more can we say but “Lord, I am ready for death, ready for life, ready for all things in Christ, who has redeemed me a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me with His holy and precious body and blood...” In the name of Jesus.  Amen.