Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Save a used book store today. . .

Got this news. . . .
We are Loome Theological Booksellers, as far as we know, the world's oldest theological bookstore.

You can find us on Main street in historic downtown Stillwater, the birthplace of Minnesota, on the beautiful St. Croix River and WE NEED YOUR HELP TO KEEP US HERE!

Back in the 1970s, our founder, Doctor of Theology and college professor, Thomas Loome began rescuing books from dying libraries, monasteries, seminaries.  He gathered them from all over North America and England into our first brick and mortar location in the Old Swedish Covenant Church, also in Stillwater.  From there, year after year, he gave these books new lives by getting them into the hands, and then the hearts and minds of the thousands of visitors to his bookstore.  They came, and still do, from all over the world.  But only if YOU help....

I have purchased books from Loome though I have not visited.  I hope that this difficult stretch will be overcome and his business continue.  A number of wonderful old haunts have come and gone and I miss pouring over bulging bookshelves of dusty volumes that probably had not been the subject of people's interest for a long time.  I don't know how you feel about a used book store and particularly a theological book shop but I feel a rather sacred bond with them.  So if you can do nothing else, please pray for the good folks there.  They seem to me rather like family.

Voting for or against the Will of God. . .

The Irish will have had the unique opportunity to vote for God or against Him in no less than two referendums -- one on abortion and one on same sex marriage.  In America, we have followed the lead of the Supreme Court in determining whether or not these are constitutional.  Well, let me put it another way.  The SCOTUS has determined these to be the law of the land but has had to invent rights not explicit in the Constitution or Bill of Rights to do so.  Original intent has long been lost on these issues.  Though it is conceivable that votes could here be taken in some way on these issues, it is not quite the same as voting them in or out as do the Irish.
What is the meaning of such a vote?  Well, that depends.  In one sense it is a vote to distance the received tradition of law, society, and morality from modern day wants and desires.  There is certainly no absolute need to allow abortion or to sanction same sex marriage.  It is a desire to make the law fit the mood of the people at this moment, laws that give a snapshot into the state of things both moral and religious.  No one in their right mind would argue that all law, common, moral, and religious, has been on the side of preventing abortion and prohibiting same sex marriage.  Yet that is the point.  The votes are to distance not only religion but the received tradition from the present moment.

One thing that the vote does NOT do is overturn the will of God.  It cannot change the Word that endures forever.  Whether that vote takes place in Ireland or in church assembly, we cannot change the Scriptures by vote.  Democracy may be a messy but decent form of government (as many have said) but it has no place before the revealed will and word of God.  We may choose to diverge from it and disregard it but we cannot change it.  It is not within our power.

But there is another thing the vote does not do (neither the vote of SCOTUS nor the votes taken by the Irish).  Conflict and dispute cannot be voted away or ended by legality.  These are essentially values issues and votes do not change values.  That is why they remain disputed.  The law has been changed but the changing of that law and indeed its very moral base is what is in dispute.  The law can force upon us a rule that is unjust before the Word of God and the conscience informed by that Word but it cannot force us to approve of the injustice.  In this respect the votes in Ireland no more settle the issue than the votes of the SCOTUS have for America.

Common values have always been the cornerstone of any democracy.  That is perhaps why it has not worked as we hoped when we have attempted to export democracy to places where values are in dispute.  But it is certainly the glue that has bound our nation.  Not so much a common religion (for Christian expressions have been so varied and so diverse as to be different as night and day and yet democracy has flourished because of those common values).  Diversity can exist only within the tension of common values.  Once that diversity transgresses common values, the very fabric of the democracy is at stake.

America shows no signs of resolving the great divide over abortion or same sex marriage.  Indeed, other issues only magnify that divide -- assisted suicide, euthanasia, transgender. . .   The horizon is filled with other issues that will surely only magnify and expand our great divide and the reason for that is that a change in the law cannot change the moral conscience.  Maybe the Irish will find that out as well.  Divisions so entrenched, without an obvious means to bridge them, will be their own issues for the future . . . both here and in Ireland.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Between Lust and Righteousness. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 8, Proper 10B, preached on Sunday, July 15, 2018.

    We live in a liberated day.  Sex is just sex.  It does not have to mean anything.  It does not necessarily mean love and it certainly does not mean children.  It means desire and in our age desire rules the roost.  Those who object to our pandering to desire are called prudes or narrow minded and judgmental people.  It is said that they are unhappy and so they try to make the rest of us share in their own unhappiness.  The only voice of conscience that we pay any attention to is the one that says, “Go ahead and do what you want.”  Our world cannot conceive of anything consensual being wrong.

    In many ways, Herod the Tetrarch was more moral than we are.  He was a man of lust who lived in an incestuous marriage and seemed filled with desire for his wife’s daughter as well.  How lurid is it when a step dad has his teenage daughter do an erotic dance for the benefit of the perverted eyes of his friends!  His immoral life was public knowledge and St. John the Forerunner had publicly held him accountable.  Yet, Herod had a conscience.  He knew John was a righteous and holy man and he protected John even against Herodias, his brother’s wife whom he took as his wife, who wanted John silenced permanently.  Though he was perplexed by John’s call to repentance, he heard John’s preaching of the kingdom gladly.

    Even the mighty Herod was convicted by his own conscience and by John, the prophet of God.  He is just as evil as his father who had killed the boy babies of Bethlehem in pursuit of Jesus but he was constrained both by the high esteem John had with the people and his own conscience.  At least until Herodias  found a way to tie Herod’s conscience in a web of deceit. She coaxed her daughter in the art of seduction until Herod lost his mind in the desire of his loins.  In a spontaneous act of stupidity and indulgence, he offered Salome anything she wanted up to half his kingdom.  In front of the assembled guests, his offer became a public promise he had to keep or risk being seen as a fool.

    Moved by her mother, she asked not for riches or property but for the head of St. John on a platter.  Here was Herod’s ego served up on a tray bearing the head of the righteous man who he knew was a prophet sent from God.  It is bloody and gory and yet it is not far from the things we see every day when conscience is beaten down by desire, lust rules the hearts of both men and women, and immorality is called good often enough so that we begin to believe our own deception and lies.  Such is the fate of a righteous man or woman still.

    The world hates righteousness.  It hates the law of God that holds up the standards of righteousness.  It hates the Son of God who alone is righteous and keeps that unflinching law.  It hates the prophets who come to preach repentance and the return to righteousness.  It hates the Lamb of God whose righteous death saves a guilty world.  It hates the people clothed with that righteousness before the world, a righteousness by grace and not works.  So the world hates preachers who preach righteousness and people who come hearing and repenting of sin.

    The most truth you ever say is when you kneel here in the house of the Lord and admit that you are sinful by nature, that you have sinned in thought, word, and deed, and that you have sinned by the evil you have done and by the good you have not done.  What brings you to this truth is nothing less than the Holy Spirit and the same Spirit works in you repentance so that your confession is not just words but the voice of a contrite heart begging to be remade and reborn clean, whole, and righteous.

    And that is what Jesus does.  With the voice of absolution, He makes not only your sins go away but He works on your sinful desire.  He strengthens the voice of the conscience within you so that God may guide you to avoid evil and do good.  He transforms your heart so that you may learn to see that the Law of God is good and right and true and He makes you want what is good and right and true.  He clothes you with His own righteousness just as He pays once for all the impossible debt your sins have accrued.  He delivers you from the just punishment you deserve by carrying it on His own shoulders on the cross.  He sends you forth with a clear conscience and with a heart that hears the voice of the Spirit and the Word of God even though you will not always heed it.

    The world hates you.  And if you make peace with the world, you lose the gift of a clear conscience and you surrender the gift God gave you in your baptism.  You may fear the world but do not forget or discount the power of God.  A wounded animal is the most dangerous one.  The world hates you and seeks your destruction because the world is still suffering under the wounded devil who lost but is still grabbing as many as he can taken down with him.  The world hates you and mocks the Christian values you hold and delights in calling you a hypocrite and gloating over your every fall and failure.

    But Jesus is with you and He is more powerful than the world and the devil.  He can harm us none.  He’s judged.  The deed is done. Or so we sing in the A Mighty Fortress.  We belong to Him.  He will not surrender us to any power under heaven and on earth or of the devil.  He holds us in the palm of His name.  The only freedom that is real is the freedom to live without fear in the Christ who lived and died and rose for you and now clothes you in righteousness as His own.  Do not lose heart.  Evil is powerful and real but the cross more powerful and even more real because it bestows an eternal victory upon us.

    We pray the Lord to grant us strength.  We pray that the courage of our convictions may be granted to us in the trials, troubles, and temptations of this world.  We pray for the courage of John who refused to surrender truth to lies or accept immorality as good.  We pray for the faith not to fear the power of the world but to rejoice in the power of our Savior.  We pray for the witness of John to guide us to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and for the example of John to endure under persecution and suffering.  We pray the peace of God that John knew in prison and even before the executioner’s blade.  We pray for those who still surrender their lives rather than renounce Jesus Christ and who are faithful even to death so that they may receive the crown of everlasting life.

    Friends, do not be fooled.  We live in tough times.  Not only is the Word of God under assault but our culture works so very hard to silence the voice of our conscience to make us immune to guilt and to prevent us from repentance.  We live in dark times when immorality is held up as good and truth is bent by desire.  We live in difficult days when being a Christian forces us to make hard choices between faithlessness and faithfulness all the day long.  But in the midst of all of this God is at work.  His sword is His Word, His power is the cross, and His goal is not our condemnation but our salvation.  We have no perfection to prove we are good but only the cross and we have no righteousness of our own to wear but the righteousness of Christ.  And yet this is enough – enough to sustain us to the end.

    What is our prayer?  May the Lord who began this good work in us bring us to completion on the day when He comes in His glory.  That is our prayer.  Finish in us, O Lord, Your new creation.  Keep your people holy and blameless through absolution.  Strengthen Your people with the food of Your flesh and blood.  Guide Your people with the living voice of Your Word.  Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  Some of us may be spared but some of us may suffer the same fate as John.  We have already witnessed the martyrs whose white robes endure the threats of the enemy all around the world.  Truly the blood of the martyrs is the seed of church.  And what is planted in suffering will be raised in glory, what is planted in weakness will be raised in strength, and what is planted in death will bear the fruit of eternal life.  God grant it in Jesus name.  Amen.

No silent protest. . .

I was reminded again of a old friend, a poem written by William Carlos Williams.  Called "The Catholic Bells," it speaks of the witness of bells of a church that sound into the silence of an empty world or even the noise of a world against its witness.  You can listen to an old recording of the author reading his own poem here.

I grew up with church bells though among them was not the bell of my home parish, some miles out into the country.  Yet there the bell sounded to call the faithful from farm and home to worship and tolled itself again during the Words of Institution and the Our Father (seven times).  Neither were there Catholic Bells as in the poem but Swedish Lutheran bells and a Methodist bell thrown in as well.

My first parish did not have a bell or a tower but a family gave an electronic carillon in memory of a loved one and it served as a substitute.  My current parish also did not have a bell but now we have two.  One grand cast iron bell that weighs perhaps a half a ton and a smaller school bell size one.  But were given by faithful folks in the parish and members of the parish saw to it that a low tower was raised and the bells now sound forth to call us again to worship and prayer.

The bells speak even to those whose ears are otherwise closed to our witness.  They remind neighborhoods and communities of the presence of the Church, of the place where the Gospel is preached, of the Holy Sacraments that deliver to us Christ and His gifts, and of the faithful gathered in response to God's beckoning.  It is a small witness but one similar to the witness made when neighbors look out their windows or walk out to get their Sunday paper and see the people of God in their cars, dressed for worship and headed to the Church.  It may not be much but it is not as small as we might think, this witness that sounds into the ear or fills the eye.

Perhaps it is time to remember how profoundly these things speak in a world committed to silence the explicit witness to Christ and His death and resurrection.  I am not at all suggesting that we leave it to that or abandon our words and works.  I am only saying that we are left with more than the option of a silent protest before a world intent upon silencing our voice.  No silent protest here -- bells that sound and people on their way to the Divine Service.  A voice and a visual!  God bless them!

Tho' I'm no Catholic
I listen hard when the bells
in the yellow-brick tower
of their new church

ring down the leaves
ring in the frost upon them
and the death of the flowers
ring out the grackle

toward the south, the sky
darkened by them, ring in
the new baby of Mr. and Mrs.
Krantz which cannot

for the fat of its cheeks
open well its eyes, ring out
the parrot under its hood
jealous of the child

ring in Sunday morning
and old age which adds as it
takes away. Let them ring
only ring! over the oil

painting of a young priest
on the church wall advertisng
last week's Novena to St.
Anthony, ring for the lame

young man in black with
gaunt cheeks and wearing a 
Derby hat, who is hurrying
to 11 o'clock Mass (the

grapes still hanging to
the vines along the nearby
Concordia Halle like broken
teeth in the head of an

old man) Let them ring
for the eyes and ring for
the hands and ring for 
the children of my friend

who no longer hears
them ring but with a smile
and in a low voice speaks
of the decisions of her

daughter and the proposals 
and betrayals of her
husband's friends. O bells
ring for the ringing!

the beginning and the end
of th ringing! Ring ring 
ring ring ring ring ring!
Catholic bells-!

Monday, July 16, 2018

Magnificently unoriginal. . . a marvelous term!  Magnificently unoriginal. . .  At a time in which innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box, starting from scratch, and the like are prized among all other things, the key value in the Church is continuity.  We do not create but commend what has been commended to us, the sacred deposit, the holy tradition, that which was delivered to us by the prophets and apostles.  Yet too many have forgotten this and even now the Church is often belittled from within as much as without for NOT innovating, creating, thinking outside the box, starting from scratch, etc...  The Church suffers less from those who preserve even within some frailty than it does from those who seek a do-over, a chance to re-invent and re-create after having judged the past a failure.

Holding firmly to what has been given us, mining through the wisdom of the fathers who went before, and making consistent witness to the unchanging truth of God's Word, we are placed here as anchors against a flood of change that no generation can stop.  It is not like we have had calm or peace and lost it but we have faced an ebb and flow of a rather constant movement throughout history to extend the distance created in Eden when Adam and Eve discovered guilt in their sin and thought it could be answered by running away. We constantly complain that the the Church is in danger of being judged irrelevant or left behind by a people who have moved on but the real danger before us is holding the anchor to God's Word, to the catholic and apostolic tradition, and to the unchanging doctrine once delivered to the saints.

We call it progress that a woman can choose and become judge and executioner to the child in her womb but it is no improvement.  Rather it has shown how we have devolved into a horde, an untamed brood who refuse to be ruled by laws greater than whim or by an interest greater than self-interest.  When we redefine marriage and family we think we are unleashing the constraints of age and prejudice but in reality we are tearing at the very foundations of both church and state, the too often fragile structures on which life in the Church and life together in community are built.  We have not cast off the chains of bigotry but merely substituted one form of bigotry for another and this one at odds with the natural law written into heart and soul.  How can we find peace when we forge a future that digresses into the worst of our faults, failings, and flaws?

So often it is said that the Church only says "No!" and I suppose that it sounds exactly that way.  But in order to be faithful to God's "Yes!" we must not shy away from His "No!"  When the very fabric of our society is at stack and the Church seems to have given up on her truth, this is not the time to fear that "No!" is not enough.  It has gone far enough in some traditions that no one knows how to argue for the Church’s teaching any longer. Instead we are left with theological clich├ęs and moralisms which pit doctrine against feelings in such way that doctrine will always lose.  We have surrendered moral law to the same vagaries which rule theological truth until we are left in a state of utter confusion. We have judged truth to be unrealistic or harsh and have pleaded for situations, circumstances, and feelings to decide how to choose and what to choose when people must make a decision.  We speak confidently under the guise of the Gospel in presuming that nobody needs to be guided -- only to be set free to do what is right in their eyes.  We have turned a theory for the creation of the universe into the rationale for everything until even truth evolves, contracts itself, and disconnects from the past -- yet we see no contradiction.  We have created bureaucratic structures instead of teaching magisteriums and they have effectively cast doubt not only on creed and confession but upon the Scriptures themselves.  In the face of this, there is nothing so deep, so profound, or so sensible than when the Church musters up the courage and strength to say just that:  "NO!"

Of course, there are times when we must restore what has been lost and to some it will seem and sound as if this is innovation.  This is a danger in every reform.  But the goal of reform is to reclaim our catholic past and restore the central voice of God's Word to the cacophony of voices that threaten to drown His voice out.  It will always sound like something new to those who have forgotten there was a past before yesterday but this is a risk we must take.  It was Luther's quest in his age and it is our own holy cause today -- both for the same and for different reasons.  The test is not whether it works or even whether it makes sense but whether it is faithful.  The best reformers are those who are magnificently unoriginal -- who restore what has been lost in such way that it may sound fresh but it is the unchanging Word, the unchanging truth, and the unchanging liturgy by which God has addressed a fallen world with hope and answered sin with mercy and bestowed unearned grace upon an unworthy people.

We can do far worse than to be unfailingly determined to be magnificently unoriginal in preaching, teaching, and catechesis.  And the world can find infinitely worse than the one eternal Gospel which is preached and taught as if it were brand new this morning.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Re-imagining the Future. . .

"A church which is rooted in scripture and tradition but not afraid to reimagine the future. This is the sort of church and community that I believe the Lord has called me to assist in fostering, here in this Diocese. Will you join me?
With those words calling on the people to join her in  writing a new future, The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Dame Sarah Mullally was installed as the 133rd and first female Bishop of London at St Paul’s Cathedral May 12th.   She quoted Augustine, John Donne, and spoke about Florence Nightingale, among others.  Before her ordination Bishop Sarah was Chief Nursing Officer in the Department of Health. She trained for the ministry at the South East Institute for Theologian Education and served her first curacy at Battersea Fields in Southwark Diocese from 2001 to 2006. She was Canon Residentiary and Canon Treasurer at Salisbury Cathedral before taking up her current role in 2015 as Suffragan Bishop of Crediton in the Diocese of Exeter.

Mullally, not only the first female bishop of London, will also become the first bishop of London to ordain male and female priests since her predecessor, Richard Chartres, declined to ordain either in order to avoid a backlash from anyone.  She hopes to focus on three areas: London issues, health and nursing, and “speaking up for marginalised groups: women, the homeless, young people – it’s a tough world for them.”  She added: “I hope to give a voice to women who, for whatever reason, feel marginalised. And to ask what I can do to encourage and empower women to do the best they can.”

She hopes that her appointment is part of a continuing process of women taking more leadership roles in the church – perhaps also as archbishops when those positions become vacant.  “The challenge is that people often think that, once you’ve appointed a woman, you’ve dealt with the issue. You haven’t.  In London we still have a job to do, to enable women to lead big churches, become area deans and archdeacons. There’s still work to do around how you change the culture.”

Ahhhh. . . Now that should help the precipitous decline of the Church of England -- London issues, health, and nursing. . . and, of course, the addition of more females to visible positions of leadership.  I have never met her and presume she is as well qualified as one needs to be to be chosen to fill the number three leadership role in the CofE but. . . clearly, the CofE is becoming less of a church and more of a society for the preservation of historic religious structures and ceremonies on behalf of quaint English history than it is a functioning church body.  Female or not, the bishop will have to look past her three target areas and figure out how not only to rekindle the faith but to restore it to a church body and diocese in which that faith has largely been judged either irrelevant or unnecessary by a host of people who once were active Christians.  I am sure it was a grand 90 minute show but that is, I fear, about all it was. . .

In any case, playing lip service to the roots of the faith in Scripture and tradition seems little in the face of a grand desire to re-imagine the church and its future, while relegating these roots to a mere legacy.  The Church of England seems to have lost the battle for the mind of its people and has certainly lost the fight on Sunday morning.  On the whole, being the first female bishop of London may not mean all that much if she is the last bishop of London.  And that is not an outlandish possibility.  At age 56, she could have a decade or more to see the numbers of Anglicans in church drop even more and the number of Anglicans who believe a semblance of the 39 articles disappear almost entirely. Re-imagining the future away from Scripture and tradition is the worst of dead ends.  While it might not have to mean that direction, I fear the future has already been written for the Church of England with a long history of hollow sounding references to what has been confessed, taught, and witnessed in the past but not so much now.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The power of the elite. . .

When the Mormon church announced it was severing all ties with the Boy Scouts of America by the end of 2019, this represented an astonishing 1 of every 5 boys in the organization.  Some 185,000 boys are already out and this moves the final 425,000 into its own faith-based youth program.  A relationship that has stood for nearly a century was ended pretty much when the Scouts made their decision to welcome gay scouts and gay leaders and then to open the doors to females.  Now, to be sure, the Boy Scouts are practically an automatic organization for Mormon boys and the Mormon Church has long been the biggest sponsor of Boy Scout troops in the United States. we wait to hear what the other big presence in Scouts, the Southern Baptist Convention, will do and whether or not they will follow the Mormon lead.  It has been known for a long time that the Baptists are unhappy with the direction the Boy Scouts has taken.  That would mean a drop of some 100,000 more from an organization already declining significantly since the sex decisions of 2014.  Not to mention the fact that the Girl Scouts are unhappy with the decision of the Boy Scouts to become coed.  Add to that is the uncertainty about how long Roman Catholics can continue to support Scout troops.  The National Catholic Committee on Scouting announced that the changes to scouting will have little impact on the operations and programs in Catholic-chartered units.  The NCCS, a committee of Catholic laity and clergy that serves as an advisory body to the Boy Scouts of America, said the Boy Scouts stipulated that religious partners will continue “to have the right to make decisions for their units based on their religious beliefs.”  The Roman Catholic committee explained that scouting serves the Roman Catholic Church through a charter concept, similar to a franchise, so that a Boy Scout troop chartered to a Catholic parish is owned by the parish and, for now has the right to uphold their own moral standards within the units they charter.  How long this can continue to exist given the changes elsewhere is uncertain.

 At an organizational meeting in 2013 in Nashville, Bill Bunkley, one of the group’s leaders, said, “We’re here to honor the legacy of the Boy Scouts of America but now, quite frankly, we are called in a new direction.”  In other words, this ain't your grandpa's scouting troop anymore.  What is fascinating, however, is how the Scouts have chosen to embrace rather cutting edge positions on sex and rushed to redefine themselves -- knowing that this would cost them perhaps a third of all boys!  Clearly this reveals that the influence lies not with those who have traditionally sponsored troops or been heavily invested in the BSA for a very long time.  In fact, the BSA organization is doing everything in its power to reshape its organization, purpose, and identity to fit the pattern of those who have small numbers of boys invested in the program but have a larger than life mouthpiece in the media.  For a time it seemed the BSA was running scared.  Now it appears at least some of the leaders have drunk the koolaid of modernity and decided to honor the Scouting legacy by abandoning much of it.

My point in writing this is simple.  We are so often told that Christians need to participate in endeavors like this in order to provide an alternative voice.  But it is clear that with Scouting that voice is being muzzled and the only voice that counts is the one that heralds the GLBTQ agenda.  Perhaps this will signal the end for any traditional and orthodox Christian churches to support an organization like Scouting that is intent upon adopting a purpose, plan, and program at odds with that traditional and orthodox Christian identity.  Yet the decline in numbers does not seem to have slowed the passage of the BSA into an organization that has fully adopted and implemented some of the most modern ideas of gender, sexuality, and diversity.  If Christians, who have in the past had a big stake in Scouting, cannot make their weight known to slow or stall or eliminate the drift of the BSA away from its historic purpose and identity, who is able to?

The numbers of Trail Life boys swelled instantly when the Scouts first announced their decision several years ago.  Perhaps this group, very small in comparison to the BSA, will gain some ground on their competition.  If you have boys in Scouting, now is the time to consider which organization is best for your boy and your faith. . .

Friday, July 13, 2018

Andy Stanley says out loud what Christians think. . . course you had to have been living under a rock not to hear about Andy Stanley’s sermon on what the Old Testament has to do with the life of modern day Christians. Ostensibly basing his sermon on the apostolic council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, Stanley declared, “Here’s what the Jerusalem Council was saying to the Gentiles: ‘You are not accountable to the Ten Commandments.’” 

Stanley’s goal is not entirely out of line.  He wants to meet those who have lost their faith in a maze of rules and regulations (which he places in the Old Testament) and set them free in Jesus.  Who can blame him?  After all Christians routinely wonder what the nice, compassionate, non-judgmental Jesus has to do with the arbitrary, legalistic, judgmental, and, mostly, angry God of the Old Testament.  The downside in this, of course, is that ditching the Old Testament is flirting with the ancient heresy called Marcionism—basically the denial that the Old Testament has any authority for Christian doctrine and morals.

Stanley insists the Gospel “is completely detached … from everything that came before.”   So according to Stanley “God has done something through the Jews for the world” [given them the Law].   “But the ‘through the Jews’ part of the story is over, and now something new and better and inclusive has come.”  According to Francis Watson, modern day Marcionism is more about “Christian unease about the status and function of the Old Testament” and therefore the conclusion that “the Old Testament is not to be regarded as part of Christian scripture.”  But Stanley is quite careful here.  He insists he believes the Old Testament is “divinely inspired,” yet Stanley claims the Old Testament is no longer authoritative for the Christian life.  
This was a general call to avoid immoral behavior[,] but not immoral behavior as defined by the Old Testament … [rather,] as defined by the apostle Paul. … The apostle Paul was explicit and specific about sexual immorality but he did not tie it to the Old Testament. … The old covenant, law of Moses, was not the go-to source regarding sexual behavior for the church. … The Old Testament was not the go-to source regarding any behavior for the church.
What Andy Stanley says out loud is what some Christians, even some Lutherans think.  The antinomnians do not believe the Law has any place in the Christian life and the Gospel is all that is needed.  Preach the Gospel and leave it up to the Gospel to work to transform behavior.  We don't need to mess with the law.  There is no third use or third function or any use or function of the Law except a generic curb for the general population and a mirror to point us to the need for that Gospel.

What Andy Stanley says out loud is what some Christians, even Lutherans think.  There are many stories in the Bible and they are meant for different people and different times but only the story of Jesus is for all.  In this view Jesus is merely a subplot of the Old Testament and not the central focus and narrative of both OT and NT.  So there is little need to spend time in it -- except for a few passages we like to hear at Christmas or a few Psalms so familiar and meaningful.  Indeed, many Christians act like Marcionites even if they don't really believe like them.

Of course, even if people are clapping their hands that Andy Stanley finally said out loud what they have been thinking all along, that does not make it right.  Andy is wrong.  Dead wrong.  He is deceiving people with a Gospel less than Christian and one certainly unworthy of Jesus.  Don't by into his lies and don't end up with his conclusions.  Scripture is all about Jesus.  We heard that from the mouth of Jesus at Ascension Day, when, just before fading into the clouds, our Lord opened the minds of His disciples to see how all the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms testify of Him.   Do I hear an Amen?

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Methodists Divided. . . fault lines of the divisions within Methodism are not hard to see.  They do not simply revolve around the familiar themes of sex and marriage.  They are not new.  They are not local but global.  And they have caused a hemorrhage within the church body that was once one of America's largest denominations.  Desperately in search of someone or something to stave off the seemingly inevitable split or spiral into irrelevance, the Methodists have issued a study.

FAULTLINES: Holy Conversations about Human Sexuality and The United Methodist Church is the name of it.  You can review a 81 page sampler here.  The Table of Contents says it all. . .

Introduction Letter from Brian K. Milford; Authors and Contributors; Book Samples
Living Faithfully  - Alex Joyner, David L. Jr. Barnhart, Jill M. Johnson, Rebekah Jordan Gienapp
Is It Time? - Adolf Hansen
Holy Contradictions - Brian K. Milford, editor
The Marks of Hope - Matt Rawle, Juan Huertas, Katie McKay Simpson
Are We Really Better Together? - Rob Renfroe, Walter Fenton
The Fight for Marriage - Phillip F. Cramer, William L. Harbison
Our Strangely Warmed Hearts - Karen P. Oliveto
A New Church and a New Seminary - David McAllister-Wilson
The 19: Questions to Kindle a Wesleyan Spirit - Carolyn Moore
Our Purpose Is Love - David N. Field

So. . . Is it time?   Is it time to stop using the word homosexuality without defining it? Is it time to stop confusing homosexual attraction with homosexual behavior? Is it time to stop interpreting the Bible as a static rather than a developing understanding of God’s revelation? Is it time to stop calling homosexuality a sin without clarifying what we mean? Is it time to stop fearing persons who have a sexual orientation or gender identity different from our own? Is it time to start expending our full energy on the mission of The United Methodist Church: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (instead of arguing about stuff like this)?

And with this are the requisite stories -- we all have people like we are talking about in our families and our congregations and we all know they are not so different and not so bad.  Anecdotal evidence abounds that, despite what the Word of God says, such things are definitely not bad and may be good for Methodists.  There is the requisite call for patience, understanding, and dialogue (all code words for the change is coming and once a few people shut up, leave, or die, we won't have to bother explaining ourselves).

Curiously, this sentence stuck out at me. How many times do you think that “Hope” is mentioned in the Gospels? You might be surprised that Jesus mentions hope only once (Luke 6:34). So that it about how much hope such a study as this will reconcile the differences and unite a people into a common confession and life.  It is one more example of studying an issue until we get the answer we want -- no matter if it is not God's answer.

There is precious little in here about sin and forgiveness but a whole lot about justice.  One line that I read that seems to say it all is this:  The eucharist is the medicine that allows us to develop a justice imagination.  If only Jesus had known this He just might have mentioned justice in the Words of Institution instead of the forgiveness of sins.  Yup, pretty predictable and pretty sad. . . as Methodism continues its institutional decline here. . . while Methodists in Africa, especially, resist the decay. . .

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Continuous repentance and forgiveness...

Sermon for Pentecost 7, Proper 9B, preached on Sunday, July 8, 2018, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

It’s been said by some that Christians don’t need repentance.  Once a person becomes a “true” Christian they sin no more, or at least they don’t need to repent anymore because they’ve already been forgiven.  Well, I’m going to be frank: this is wrong!!!  It’s wrong to think Christians don’t sin.  It’s wrong to think we don’t need repentance.  This ignores the fact that we’re at the same time saints & sinners.  This ignores the fact that the Lord’s Prayer, the very prayer Jesus gave His followers, asks for forgiveness.  The truth is repentance is a very Christian thing.  The Lord continually calls us to repent because we continually turn from Him.  We sin and we need His forgiveness.
            We see this need of repentance in the people of Israel.  A quick look at their history reveals they repeatedly turned away from the Lord.  There’s not a time in their history in which they didn’t rebel.  In the book of Judges there’s a constant refrain that can be heard: “And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” (Jgs 3:7, etc).  This refrain could be sung in every generation of Israel; from their grumblings in the Exodus after God freed them from slavery, to the time of the divided kingdom when many worship false gods; from their exile when they were forced from the Promised Land, to their return and the rebuilding of the Temple.  Even when Jesus, the Son of God walked among them, they still did what was evil in the Lord’s sight, rejecting the promised Messiah. 
Throughout this history, God had every chance, every right, to leave His people, but He didn’t.  Over and over and over again God showed them grace and mercy.  Over and over and over again He rescued them.  Even though Israel repeatedly turned their back on God, He never turn His back on them.  He continually sent His prophets to call them back. 
He sent Ezekiel saying: “I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me.  They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day.  The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them and you shall say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD’” (Ezk 2:3-4).  God couldn’t turn His back on Israel.  Even though they were impudent and stubborn, continually transgressing against His Law, doing what was “right in their eyes,” (Jgs 21:25) and “evil in the sight of the LORD,” (Jgs 3:7, etc) God loved them.  He sent men to call them back so they might receive His great and merciful blessings.
The words of the Lord that Ezekiel proclaimed was both Law and Gospel.  He spoke out against their sin, warning them of the just punishment they deserved.  But He also spoke God’s promises.  About halfway through Ezekiel’s book, we hear God say: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked,..., and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?...For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, turn, and live” (Ezk 18:23, 32).  God’s desire isn’t to punish people for their sin.  His desire is for people to repent, to turn from sin and death and receive His forgiveness and life.  This is why He sent His prophets.  This is why Jesus sent out the twelve.  And this is why He continues to send His pastors today, to proclaim repentance to His rebellious people.
We are a rebellious people.  We’ve stubbornly transgressed against God’s Law.  Each and every one of us, Christians born to new life in Baptism, we turn from God to sin.  Looking at God’s Law, who of us can say that we’ve kept it perfectly?  Who of us can say that we haven’t willingly transgressed it?  We know God’s Word.  We know what sin is and when we’re tempted to sin, and yet we give in to that temptation.  We continue to sin our pet sins willingly.  What is this if not stubbornness?  We need to repent of this, just as Israel did.  We need to turn from sin to God; to come before Him in faith, confessing our sin so that we might receive His forgiveness. 
  It’s not easy to repent and confess our sins.  This requires us to admit our guilt and just condemnation.  Because of this we dread repentance and struggle to confess, to name our sin before God, His pastors, and each other.  But this shouldn’t be the case.  Confession instead should be a joy because of the forgiveness we receive. 
            The idea that Christians don’t need to repent because they’ve already been forgiven once denies God from continuing to pour out His grace on His people.  God’s forgiveness isn’t a onetime thing.  It’s God’s desire to forgive.  Look again at Israel’s history.  Every time they repented, the Lord was there with His forgiveness.  The OT is filled with examples of how God met the repentance of His people with His forgiveness, and the same is true for you.
            Every time you repent, the Lord is there with His forgiveness.  He’s there to release you from the condemnation of sin.  This is the whole point of repentance and confession.  This is why confession is a joy, because God is there answering your repentance with forgiveness. 
            We’re familiar with Peter’s question to Jesus, asking how many times he’s to forgive his brother.  Jesus’ answer: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22).  Seventy times seven is symbolic speaking to the limitless amount of forgiveness.  If we’re always to forgive, will not God?  God’s forgiveness is limitless, always there.  And His promise to you is that He’ll answer your repentance and confession with His life giving forgiveness. 
            This isn’t because your repentance is a good work that earns forgiveness, it’s because Christ died for you.  It’s for Jesus’ sake that you’re forgiven.  It’s out of God’s grace and mercy that you’re forgiven.  Your repentance doesn’t deserve forgiveness.  Forgiveness is a gift and no gift is ever deserved or earned.  But God graciously answers your confession with His forgiveness because Christ Jesus took the punishment of your sin upon Himself.  God’s Son willingly and lovingly suffered the punishment of your sin.  He suffered the wrath of God on the cross, being your substitute, so that you might receive His life and His forgiveness.  This forgiveness God delivers to you in the waters of Baptism.  This forgiveness He gives to you every time you hear His word of Absolution.  And this forgiveness He gives to you every time you partake of His Holy Supper.  There’s no end to His forgiveness. 
The people of Israel constantly needed to repent.  They turned from sin only to fall back into it again.  God sent His prophets to proclaim repentance, and God continues to make this proclamation.  He continually calls us to repent, and we need to hear this call.  Like Israel, we repeatedly give in to sin so we continually need His forgiveness.  We need to answer God’s call of repentance with faith, trusting in God’s promises, trusting in His desire for us to live, and trusting in Christ Jesus’ cross.  Thanks be to God that He’s always there with mercy, forgiving our sin.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

Paradigm shifts and other dead ends. . .

Whenever we want to change what we believe or how we practice the faith, we decide it is time for a paradigm shift.  Perhaps we fear admitting that we do not really want a paradigm shift but wholesale change.  And in most cases, it is God we want to change and not simply the Church. is not into paradigm shifts.  The whole of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, is but one narrative.  This comes as a surprise to many who have come to see the Scripture as a collection of stories, mostly with morals to them or lessons to be learned.  In this even the story of Christ is but one story, maybe the most important one but certainly not the exclusive one.  Yet this is a flawed way to view the Scriptures and it leaves us open to the idea that the Word of the Lord is not forever but just for now.

As a little boy in Sunday school I was convinced that God was a reactor -- He was constantly upgrading and changing His game to meet the needs on the ground.  Okay, so sin entered the world and screwed things up.  God gave His Law and this was supposed to fix things on earth and give us an outline or pattern of what we needed to do to be right by Him.  Okay, so that did not work.  Sin was not contained and we did not become righteous.  So God needed another option (a paradigm shift?) and He came up with sending His Son.  Plan B or Option B worked.  It all seemed so reasonable and normal because this is exactly how we work.

Except for one thing.  God's ways are not like our ways.  God knows what we do not.  He did not shift gears or make a paradigm shift or change His plan.  His plan was always Jesus.  Even the Law points to Jesus.  Before the foundation of the world, it was all about Jesus.  He was and is and always will be the focus of God's saving will and purpose.

We like paradigm shifts.  We look with the short view of a moment, a decade, a lifetime.  We want to see what we cannot.  We want physical assurances and signs.  We don't want faith.  We want proof.  We want formulas and recipes for success (to get the outcomes we desire). 

Okay.  Same sex marriage and the embrace of all the gender identity stuff seems pretty solidly rooted.  If we cannot change it and it seems our people are more and more under the sway of these changes to the fabric of society, we make a paradigm shift.  It was bad but not it may not be.  Pretty soon we have abandoned God and bought into lie that things change and God changes too.  And it happens with all sorts of other things as well.  We feel boxed into a corner and are not sure the truth is tenable any longer and so that truth changes.  Abortion, evolution, homosexuality, etc...  it is all about a disconnect between Scripture and our past.

The cost of paradigm shifts is that we lose the Gospel.  If the Gospel is no longer about sin atoned for by the death of Jesus and about death overcome by His resurrection, then it is not the Gospel.  If the Gospel is reduced to a pathetic and powerless love that can only accept, condone, and approve of what we want, then it is no Gospel at all.  Paradigm shifts steal our hope and replace it with a feel good moment that will wear away and have to be re-established again as the world around us changes.  We have lost our anchor and with it our hope and confidence.

Beware those who insist that in order to survive or in order to thrive, we must adopt a few paradigm shifts. . . this is not about fringe issues but about the Gospel itself.  In the end we are left with a constantly moving target and a God who plays us.  This is not the cross and empty tomb.