Tuesday, October 16, 2018

I-dolatry. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 21, Proper 23B, preached on Sunday, October 14, 2018.

   St. Mark tells us that Jesus was setting out on His journey.  What journey might that be?  Read a few verses further and you find Jesus saying, “See, we are going to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be delivered over the to the chief priests and the scribes to be condemned to death, mocked and flogged and crucified by the Gentiles, and after three days rise again. . .” Oh, that journey. 

    For that journey, Jesus packed no suitcase full of extra clothes and shoes and toiletries.  He did not put in an extra cloak or steal away some cash just in case.  This is the Lord who has no place to call home though birds have nests and foxes have holes.  This is Jesus who brings to Jerusalem the only thing needful – His blood to cleanse us from all sin.

    Perhaps the man did not know Jesus was heading out on a trip.  It is likely he had no idea that Jesus was headed to the cross where He would suffer and die to redeem a world lost in sin, death, and error.  But the man ran up and knelt before Jesus.  “Good Teacher,” he said.  It is an awkward form in Hebrew.  Rabbi is good teacher so he is saying “Very good teacher.” We  might call it sucking up or another even more obvious but less nice term.

    Jesus immediately calls him on it.  You cannot suck up to God.  Nobody but God is good.  Jesus is fishing in the man’s soul.  Are you calling me good because you are calling me God?  It is but a hint left hanging out there so the man might redeem himself.  Just in case. 

    “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  There for all to see is the I in IDOLATRY.  What must I do?  The man was less interested in Jesus than in himself.  Aren’t we all?  It is, after all, the mark of the sinful heart.  It is the I that is like a log in our eyes and a shibboleth by which we reveal our hearts, no matter how hard we have worked to cover them up with the thin veneer of righteousness.  What must I do indeed!

    You know the commandments.  Of course, he does.  They were written into his heart just like they have been inscribed into yours and mind.  In addition, he has sat in the Temple and in the synagogue.  He may be a fool but he is not ignorant.  Jesus gives him the chance to redeem himself again.  The commandments are great and only a perfect man could keep them.  What does the man think of himself?

    Note the word good is dropped.  Geez, teacher.  I know thaaat.  I have kept these since I was a kid.  Let me put it in Lutheran terms.  Geez, Pastor, I went through catechism when I was 12.  I think I know what it means to be Lutheran.  All those I’s.  Idolatry is all about the I’s.  So Jesus looked at him again.  Notice what St. Mark has written.  Jesus loved him.  Our Lord did not hate the man nor was He bothered by him.  Jesus loved him.  He loved him enough to strip away thin veneer of righteousness and show him his sin.

    “Go, and sell all you have and give to the poor for you have treasure enough in heaven.  And then come and follow Me. . .”  Ouch.  Why does money always have to get into the way?  Just like sex, money is the thing that exposes our weakness and sin.  So it does here.  And the man walked away disheartened because he really wanted to inherit eternal life; he just did not want to give up everything else for this greatest treasure.

    Is that not the problem?  We want to be good, we just don’t want to give up sinning to be good.  We want to be holy, we just don’t want to give up our fun little pleasures to be holy. We want the heavenly treasure, we just don’t want to give up every other treasure to possess it.  We want it all.  We want to be bad and get away with it and to be good but never have to work at it.  We are this man.  Each of us.  We have been busy for God, we have tried hard, we have given up a lot, we have risked a lot.  What more could God want from us?

    Jesus loves us even as He asks for all of us.  He will not settle for 10% of our money or all of our Sundays.  He has laid claim to everything we are and everything we have.  He paid for us with His holy and precious blood shed in suffering on the cross.  He kept the Law so that the commandments could no longer accuse us.  He has covered our sin with His righteousness.  He has given us new birth in Holy Baptism and He feeds and nourishes this new life in us with His flesh and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar.  He has done everything to save us and He refuses to be a God only of our hearts or our heads; He is Savior of all of us.

    Such love can be positively scarey.  We are not used to this kind of love.  We are used to jobs that take part of our time and leave the rest to us, of families that demand a great deal but allow us time for ourselves, of commitments that can be rescheduled when we feel too busy or overwhelmed.  It can be frightening to meet the kind of love that completely empties itself for you in order that you might belong to it wholly and completely.  It is not the cost of redemption that we must pay that is so scarey but the cost He has paid.  For if Jesus has paid for us by giving Himself up completely, how can we possibly withhold anything from Him?

    Jesus was calling the man to repentance.  He gave him several opportunities to speak with the voice of contrition and sorrow.  Teacher, you are good, the only good, because you are God in flesh.  I have not kept the commandments with my whole heart, mind, body and strength.  Lord, I have nothing to offer you.  Can you still love me though I can give you nothing in return for all Your love has accomplished for me?

    Jesus is calling you to repentance.  He gives us the opportunity to confess Him as Lord and Savior.  He gives you the chance to reflect upon your life in the mirror of the holy Law that detects every failing and evil.  He loves you enough to ask you to surrender your most sacred treasures in order that His treasure may fill you completely.  He calls you to follow Him, where He had led the way, receiving from Him grace upon grace, mercy beyond measure, love without end, redemption that requires nothing for you to finish, and hope big enough to carry you through the darkest days.  Come, follow Me. . . he says.

    Our hearts are filled with the Idolatry of all that I have done, all that I think I know, and all that I am willing to do to get what I want.  But there is no room for I in the redemption of Jesus.  There is only room for Him.  He has looked upon you in love, seen the weakness of all that are your sacred things, paid for all your sins – both the secret ones and the obvious ones, and He has given you the full fruits of His atoning work on the cross.  He asks you simply to trust Him and He promises that this mercy will remake you anew.

    The only room for the I word in Christ, is “Lord, I believe. . .”   “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof but only say the word and I shall be healed. . .”  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  In every other context, the I is short for idolatry and our hearts unable and unwilling to give up control, to give up our treasures, and to give up our desires in order to be saved.

    There is a choice.  This account can either be about money, about the Law and its requirements, and about salvation by works; or, we can listen to Jesus who gently but bluntly schooled a young ruler of the synagogue in love and who gently but bluntly schools us in the same love that offers heaven to us through His own obedient life, His life-giving suffering and death on the cross, and His resurrection which prefigures our own resurrection to eternal life. 

    Just remember the I in IDOLATRY.  It is what gets us into trouble every time.  It is what steals our joy, empties our hope, and leaves us with uncertainty where Christ wants us to be confident.  There is only one who is good, good enough to keep the Law for a world of sinners.  There is only one who loves, loves us enough to stand in our place in suffering and to die the death we earned by our sins.  There is only one cross, one cross that speaks hope to the sinner and life to the world.  Let us not be disheartened by the words of the Lord.  We have our treasure in heaven, we do not need to hold onto the treasures of this world in fear, and set free in Christ, let us follow Him.

    On this day when we recall the good work of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League, we survey the quilts laid out before us, and we see the waste of it all.  All this time and effort for a people who do not even know or appreciate the sacrifice.  But that is the point.  Our Lord stretched out His arms upon the cross for a world that did not understand or appreciate the gift He was giving, solely out of His great love for us.  Even quilts can give a small witness to this abundant and profound love in Christ. 

     As we consider the commitment banquet for our Blessed, Chosen Generation campaign only now weeks away, we will point to the Lord and His goodness, to faith and its hope, to grace and its sufficiency, and to the work of the Lord and its great reward.  A time when we remember Him who labored for us before we knew or understood the treasure of His great love for us.  We will pray then for courage and strength, to let go of the treasures of this life that seem so precious and to hold onto and hold up the priceless treasure of His salvation given to us freely.  To receive the gift that He has given, to let go of those things not eternal, and to let go for His purpose and glory those things that He has entrusted to us.  To rejoice in the gift that will never be taken from us and to willingly surrender the things that were never ours in the first place.   Amen.

The invitation to dialog. . .

Bizarro has it about perfect, don't you think?
Those who are of, well, shall we say, the more progressive wing of Christianity are always talking about talking.  Dialog is good.  Conversation is great.  We should always talk.  That is the line, anyway.  Yet those who want us to talk do not seem to want to listen.

I have heard it over and over again that the, well, shall we say, conservatives do not want to talk.  Actually, I think most conservatives are rather chatty.  They seem to welcome any and every opportunity to make their case for the faith once delivered to the saints and now preserved in creed, catechism, and confession.  They tend to talk all the time about what Scripture says, what the Confessions say, what the creed confesses, and what the Confessions confess.  But it seems that this is generally not what the more progressive wing wants to talk about. Perhaps that is the core and center of the problem.

It shows up here, for example.  If I post something about ceremonies in the Church, someone always reminds me that the Confessions do indeed allow for some diversity in ceremony.  And that is true.  But it never gets to the meat of the issue which is diversity in what -- ceremony, liturgy (or not), music, creed, etc...  Just throwing out the point about not requiring uniformity in ceremony does little to address those Lutherans who do not follow any real liturgy, whose worship is virtually synonymous with generic evangelicals, and whose music represents the playlist of popular contemporary Christian music.  As soon as you want to unpack what the Confessions say beyond the old saw about uniformity of ceremony not being necessary, the conversation seems to come to an end.  Let me contrast that with the conservatives (bad terms, I know) who seem to talk all the time about what this means and does not mean and even disagree about it without the dialog evolving into silence.

Perhaps that is the problem.  Most of us want to talk but we are not sure we want to listen.  For what it is worth, the side of things where I usually fall does not want to talk so much about opinions or feelings or even what works but they want to talk about what the Scriptures say, what our Confessions proclaim, what our creed confesses, what our tradition has bequeathed to us, and what is best to add to it.  I will admit that I don't want to listen to conversations that have no basis in Scripture, no connection to Confession, creed, or catechism, and no cause consistent with the catholic faith.  I fear that conversation is really a code word for convincing me to ignore what Scripture says, what our Confessions proclaim, what we learned from the catechism, what we confess in the creed, how we sing and speak in the liturgy, and what we sing in the great hymns of the faith.  Maybe I am a little touchy on this subject but I tend to think I am more right than wrong in this.  Of course, that does not mean all that much.  I have been more right than wrong about a lot of things and still way off base.  In the end, however, when we speak it ought to flow from and back to Scripture as the source and norm, Confession as faithful exposition of that Scripture, creed as summary of what Scripture says, catechism as instructional book of doctrine and Scripture, and liturgy as prayed Scripture.  If it doesn't, the talking, however nice, will be rather fruitless.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Non-Methodists Leaving?

The congregation:
Glide United Methodist Church in San Francisco, California, is Methodist in name only, having deliberately and systematically distanced itself from the governance and theological beliefs held by the UMC even while clinging to the name United Methodist.  Its mission statement fails to even mention God or Christ: GLIDE Memorial Church believes in a radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization.  Its name is from Lizzie Glide, who in 1930 called the church to be “A house of prayer for all people.” The Glide Foundation and Glide Memorial United Methodist Church were established by Lizzie GLIDE in honor of her late husband, Joseph, as an outlet for her spirituality and to demonstrate her commitment to those in need.

The Church and Foundation was transformed in the 1960s with the arrival of the Rev. Cecil Williams, Janice Mirikitani and the changing community.  The times were reflective of the spirit at Glide then and it continues to be a congregation on the edge to this day.  For some 80 years, the congregation has fostered an identity as a spiritual home and refuge for people from many diverse backgrounds and spiritual traditions and a provider of social services -- funded by the Glide Foundation -- to the people of the Tenderloin and San Francisco.

The leadership connection:

What is interesting is that Karen Oliveto was senior pastor of Glide from 2008 until 2016, when the Western Jurisdiction UMC elected her as a bishop for their region -- despite her being an openly partnered lesbian activist -- a flagrant violation of the UMC’s ban on ordaining “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” Many have questioned the legitimacy of Oliveto’s election and her status as but her election played upon her time as senior pastor of Glide.  Interestingly enough, there was a  decline of more than 1/3 in attendance while membership numbers claimed to have increased from nearly 12,000 to over 13,000 during Oliveto’s tenure, actual attendance dropped from 3,000 to 1,899.

There are theological issues:

UMC Bishop Carcaño addressed an open letter to the California-Nevada Conference, outlining the theological issues within Glide she found to be troubling. She described Glide’s “Sunday Celebrations” as “uplifting concerts,” which “lack the fundamentals of Christian worship.” She went on to write that the congregants don’t want the church to be United Methodist or Christian in its practices. According to her, baptisms are performed “in the name of the people rather than from a Christian understanding of Baptism” and Holy Communion was abandoned for a number of years before being reintroduced, “with much resistance,” but only outside of the Sunday Celebrations.

There are funding questions:

Bishop Carcaño said Williams keeps control through his handpicked selection of individuals serving on the Glide Foundation board. The foundation, running on a $12 million budget, provides social services such as meals, healthcare, support for single mothers, and training for unemployed adults. These are indubitably good things, but these works have eclipsed theological teaching. According to Jenny Strasburg, a writer for SF Gate, the “Glide Foundation runs the church.
I might add that foundations in effectively control many religious institutions, even, perhaps, some Lutheran institutions, since they have the financial assets and control funding decisions.  He who rules the purse rules its owner.  Surely there is room to question how the influence of money has affected decisions in the Church.  In this case even the secular media can see that the church is but the front for a foundation that has all the cash.

So..... will they stay or will they go?  Some may not want to see high profile congregations like this one leave or be kicked out -- bad PR to be sure -- but I wonder what the damage is to the integrity of the confession of faith when denominations allow or refuse to discipline such egregious offenders to the creedal and liturgical identity of their church.  Could it be that any church body would be worse off with those who flaunted their disagreement than they would be without such groups?  Something to ponder. . .  In any case, this congregation has long ago banished anything but a nominal identity as United Methodist.  As troubling as that is, it is even more troubling when a denomination chooses its higher leaders from such groups on the fringes of their identity.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Some spirit is up to something but it is not the Holy Spirit. . .

https://www.fulcrumgallery.com/product-images/P693691-10/white-dove-escaping-from-a-birdcage.jpgA recent Religion Service News interview, conducted by Emily McFarlan Miller, with six new female ELCA bishops shows that they are far from the center of Lutheranism or even perhaps the ELCA.  They signal the tone and direction for the ELCA and it suggests that the decline suffered over the last 25 years will not be abated but even exacerbated by this path.  In truth, if the ELCA continues its current rate of decline, it will cease to exist in 30 years.  Yet the cost of such liberalism seems unknown to those who have been chosen its newest crop of leaders.

Lutheran laity are undoubtedly more conservative politically and theologically than their leaders, especially nationally.  However, as these ELCA note, this church body's future is tied firmly to the Religious Left.  Bishop Briner does admit that this future is not without conflict, or, as she put it, “We’re becoming bolder with our public witness, and I really appreciate that. And it’s not without a cost. If you look at our synods, we have a variety of political persuasions that sit in our pews, and so we recognize every time something like this happens, there’s going to be conversation about it, and it may not always be pleasant conversation.”  Apparently not unpleasant enough to slow the pace of decline!
Bishop Susan Briner of Southwestern Texas Synod declared: “Because I’m telling you what, the Spirit is up to something …”  

And the other bishops responded: “Amen. Yes, she is.”

And Briner said: “… if we would just let her out.”

The bishops then responded: “Let her out. Get out of her way.”

Then Briner said: “Open the doors and let her out.”

And her fellow bishops concluded: “She’s out! She is loose!”
The feminine pronoun for the Holy Spirit is certainly troubling but even more shocking is the whole idea that the future lies with a radical disconnect from the past, not only in method but in doctrine and theology.  In this respect, the ELCA is no different than any of the mainline Protestant liberal bodies also facing distance between pew and pulpit, decline in numbers, and an unfeigned alignment with the progressive and liberal wing of nearly everything.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Thoughts on Being Prophetic. . .

The world is replete with examples of prophets, people who saw the future before it fully unfolded.  Perhaps they rode the tide to financial success on an unexpected stock rise or maybe they predicted a trend before the world got wind of it and rode the wind into the ground.  In any case, being prophetic has come to mean seeing the future before it happens.  There are those who might be able to sense where things are headed and I suppose we should give them their due but the real prophet is the one who speaks truth, unpleasant truth, to power.  That is the prophetic history of Israel, the prophetic heritage of the New Testament, and the Christian definition of prophecy.  That is the hardest job of all.  Think how the prophets of old turned out and then you get my drift.  It is not so risky to try and predict the future but it is painfully risky to speak truth to power and to speak unwelcome truth to those who do not wish to hear it.

Maybe your mind is immediately drawn to the political dimensions of speaking truth to power.  Probably that is the first image that we think of in this regard but it is not the primary.  Surely it is necessary to have those who can speak unflinchingly before the powerful on behalf of the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the suffering, etc...  But the more profound arena for true prophecy is speaking truth that people have dismissed as falsehood and condemning the lies that pass as truth.  This is the shape of Biblical prophecy.  People who have grown comfortable doing what is right in their own eyes and who do not wish to hear the truth of God and His Word are the hard nuts to crack.

Ask the prophets of old.  The prophets were clearly identified as those who stood outside the streets of fashion, trend, fad, and popular truth.

Jeremiah buried his underwear, dug it up, and put it on again (Jer 13:1-11); John the Baptist let his hair grow, and Ezekiel shaved his head (Ezek 5:1); John wore camel skins, and Isaiah wandered around naked and barefoot for three years (Mt 3:4, Isa 20).  Even their eating habits also left something to be desired: Ezekiel ate books (Ezek 3:3) or bread cooked on a fire fueled by human waste (Ezek 4:12); Elijah was fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:1-5); Daniel eschewed all rich food (Dan 1); and John was into the paleo diet (Mt 3:4). Their activities were unpredictable: Jeremiah smashed pottery and pretended to be a dumb animal, wearing a cattle yoke (Jer 19, 27, 28); he remained celibate, whereas Hosea married a notorious prostitute (Jer 16, Hos 1:2); and Ezekiel lay on his side for more than a year, went into trances, and talked to mountains or dead bones (Ezek 3:24; 4:4-6; 6:2; 8:1-3; 35-37).
The Biblical prophets were simply counter-cultural as if this were itself a fad or trend.  No, they spoke for God and their words carried the most solemn authority Thus saith the Lord.  They did not simply tell people off but called people to account, publicly addressed their secret sins, exposed the comfortable lies that covered those sins, and called them to nothing less than full repentance.

Today the churches are more comfortable speaking truth to political power than speaking unpleasant truth to people.  We have no shortage of bishop's letters or official church pronouncements on the cause of the poor, the immigrants, the disenfranchised, and a host of other advocacy causes.  I am not saying we should not speak where we must but this has become the substitute for speaking truth to the lies that have become cultural icon and polling positions.  Abortion, contraception, homosexuality, gender identity, radical feminism, reproductive technology, marriage redefinition, and the like have found not words of prophecy but words of welcome in too many churches -- things that Scripture has spoken clearly against and against which tradition has an unwavering witness.  The churches of modernity have too quickly traded in their roles as Biblical prophets to become mere mimics of what is thought or felt or heralded as the latest and greatest cause celebre.  

Where are the prophets in our day?  Where are the people who will speak truth to the powerful or the weak when they advance lies disguised as truth or positions at odds with the Lord in His Word.  I am not saying we need to be hard, calloused, or indifferent to the suffering of people, especially those whose suffering has its source in the acceptance of such falsehoods as truth.  What I am saying is that the greatest love of all and the first word of mercy to such people is to speak the truth in love, without diminishing the Word of the Lord and without speaking in smug judgment of those we love to hate.   This is Biblical prophecy and these kinds of Biblical prophets are in short supply today.  Pray the Lord that He may raise up those whose voices will challenge our pet sins and our favorite falsehoods and bring the truth that saves to bear upon our comfortable lies.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Fake Freedom. . .

Many were told that contraception was the gift of freedom -- no longer would sex be captive to procreation.  In the end, it was not freedom that contraception bore but death.  The death of love and fidelity, the death of family and the goodness of having children, and the death of sex that meant something more than the moment of pleasure it accorded.  Not to mention the death of any real value assigned to life, any preciousness or sense of duty to protect it until its natural end.

Many were told that abortion was the gift of freedom -- no longer would a woman be captive to the child growing within her and she could choose to let the life live or kill the life in her womb.  In the end it was not freedom that abortion gave but death.  The death of the millions upon millions of children whose lives were swept away in a moment of decision, the death of any sacredness to life and any real responsibility to protect and defend it at all costs, and the death of two parties bearing equal duty to the act through which that life was created and to its fruit in the child.

Many were told that feminism was the gift of freedom -- no longer would a woman be captive to a man, to less pay, to the home, to the family, or to a vocation without choice.  In the end, it was not freedom that feminism gave but death.  Women now suffer equally the impact of stress, of coronary disease, of a life defined by a paycheck, and of the competition for dominance in the marketplace.  The death of the family came when it became the best choice for both parents to pursue careers, to work to achieve their financial dreams, and the children were relegated to the care of relatives of a business specializing in child care.  The #metoo movement has proven that women are just as vulnerable as before and maybe more so since often they find obstacles to their success in the form of brutes who exploit them using their power in cruel and shameful ways.

Many were told that sexual identity was a choice, a flexible and fluid choice, and that consent was what defined something as good, right, moral, and beautiful  -- no longer would the world be ruled by prudes who believed that sex was wrong that did not conform to antiquated patterns and ideas.  In the end, it was not freedom that casting off all restraint has borne but death -- the death of marriage as an enduring relationship built upon a sacrificial love that did not end in times in the worse or poorer or sickness.  Those who marry have not been changed -- marriage has been changed and with it family so that the once solid relationship on which all of society was built has become fragile, weak, and subject to the constant evaluation of happiness.  We found out that those once excluded from marriage did not want to be married but to change the institution forever, retaining the name but not the idea of a lifelong sacrificial love lived out in fidelity with the hope and expectation of children as the fruit of that love.

Many were told that religion was a crutch at best and bondage at worst -- cast off the constraints of the old morality of control and people would find real happiness and pleasure in their lives.  In the end, it was not happiness and pleasure that have flourished but loneliness, depression, and fear that have come to replace the void created when faith was vacated from our lives.  We spend more money on pain relievers, mood altering drugs, and legal/illegal cannabis than we just about anything else and it has not given us what we sought.  The "we" of our culture has succeeded in making religion not only optional but foolish but it has given little of value to replace what was lost when we chose to believe in ourselves instead of God.  Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, the consequence was not apparent until it is too late.

The Church remains a lighthouse shining Christ in the darkness and in that light is the one hope for a world determined to undo itself.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Help from Early Church Fathers. . .

Often it appears to the Christian that all is against us.  We seem to have lost the war over abortion, new definitions of marriage, homosexuality, evolution, and on and on.  To many Christians, we are left with a fragile truth filled with holes, myth, legend, and falsehoods.  In the end, it may seem that faith is hope against reality and not simply hope against hope.  But we would be wrong. . .

Biblical scholarship works like detectives sifting through evidence, archeology, and sources outside the Bible itself.  The faithful scholarship finds more to bolster the claims of Scripture than to destroy them.  Like a detective sorting through clues, such faithful scholars find surprising evidence not only to the early dating of the New Testament but to the canon of the New Testament and to its truthfulness (it is what it claims to be and it says what it claims to say).

Take, for example, the case of Justin Martyr, one of the early Christian writers typically called the Apostolic Fathers. He lived from 100-160 AD -- barely a hundred years after the death of Jesus. We know something of this fellow.  He was a convert who wrote apologetic works defending the Christian faith.  Part of his importance to us is the earliness of his writing as well as the region form which he wrote -- from the area of Samaria, between Judea and Galilee.

According to Justin Martyr,“It is said that he [Jesus] changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and it is written in his memoirs that he changed the names of others, two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means ‘sons of thunder’….”

You might also note the reference to St. Peter’s “memoirs.”  No this is not the so-called Gospel of Peter which dates from much later and is not authentic.  In fact, it is the Gospel of St. Mark and from this and other clues we have come to recognize that John Mark, the author of the Gospel, was the companion, translator and scribe for Peter and the recorder of St. Peter's memoirs.  If you think this a stretch, how about the fact that only in the Gospel of St. Mark are James and John referred to as “Boanerges" or Sons of Thunder.
Skeptics try to distance the New Testament from the actual time and even geography of our Lord and His life.  They would suggest that the text is not accurate, mythology has been mixed with fact, and legend reported as history.  These voices of doom and gloom, think here Bart Ehrman, have long ago given up the faith and seem to be on a crusade to persuade us of their doubts that they pass off as facts.  If, however, the early church fathers give witness to the reliability of the New Testament and to the early character of its witness, we have something to counter their speculation.  If Justin Martyr could speak of Peter’s “memoirs” and mention a detail found only in the Gospel of St. Mark, then it gives credibility to the accuracy both of the account and the timetable of the New Testament witness.

So what am I trying to say?  That you do not need faith -- that we have enough evidence to silence the loudest skeptic?  No, only this.  The claims of Scripture are not fanciful but reasonable.  The Word of the Lord is not myth or legend but the reports of witnesses on the ground who were guided in their witness by the Spirit.  It takes as much faith to invent ways not to take Scripture at its word as it does to believe what it says and to trust that it does what it promises.  We are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition and not a people with meager resources to support the claims of Scripture. Before you abdicate your faith to the loud protests of the skeptics, read a little more.  Like Luther wrote and we sing, The Word they still shall yet remain. . . the Kingdom ours remaineth.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Sounds of Heaven. . .

One of the things about contemporary Christian music (CCM) is that it sounds like most other music folks listen to.  It has the sound of pop, rock and roll, folk, or even bluegrass music.  What distinguishes it are the lyrics (not that you can always make them out).  The sound, the rhythm, and the feeling of the music are all pretty indistinguishable from their secular counterparts.

What struck me in this old clip from Chicago in 1934 is the sound.  You have the church bells that sound like no other sounds on the street and the sound of the chant coming from the church -- again, sound like nothing heard on the radios of the passing cars or in the pubs down the street or in the dance hall on the corner.  It is the sound of heaven because it is heard ONLY in the church.

I wonder if the growing secularization of our culture and the way the church seems to fade into the background is not due, at least in part, to the fact that many have attempted to mirror the world around them instead of being distinctive.  Architecture, art, music, vocabulary, and even language were once things in which the church presented to the world something not found anywhere else.  That has certainly changed.  Roman Catholics as well as the non-Roman liturgical churches have all experimented with buildings, visual images, music, vocabulary, and language that is common, ordinary, and even casual.  Things are changing in some parts of Christendom but in large measure only the Orthodox have retained much of their distinctiveness.  It does not seem to be hurting their witness to younger folks.  Maybe we should look and learn.

You are free to disagree and probably will but when watching a bit of this clip, I heard how the sights and sounds of a Roman Catholic Church more than 80 years ago clearly signaled the presence of a heavenly reality.  I fear that this is not the intention of many Christian communities today and, in fact, this would be considered passe at best or contrary to the Gospel at worst -- at least by those in the church more than those outside.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Family is a blessing, not a curse. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 20, Proper 22B, preached on Sunday, October 7, 2018 by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    It’s the way of our sinful world and our sinful nature to turn God’s blessings into curses.  We take what He’s called good and we call it bad.  The gifts He gives for our benefit, we abuse and destroy.  We twist them and make them fit our own selfish wants and desires.  Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in our family lives.  Our culture calls family, spouse and children, a curse...but God calls them good.  He calls them blessings. 
    There’s the common joke we all know of how men refer to their wife as a ball and chain.  And women, I’m sure there’s a joke that floats around in your circles that describe your husbands as immature boys. These ideas get played out in our culture.  Just look at popular TV.  How is the husband and dad portrayed?  He’s usually a bumbling idiot.  And how about the wife and mom?  She’s in control with a “my way or the highway” attitude.  These jokes, which we all chuckle at, actually hurt the way we look at marriage.  Husbands come to think of their wives as a dictator, someone to rebel against.  Wives come to see their husbands as grown children who can’t take care of themselves.  These views get passed on through the generations, and they end up destroying the good estate of marriage that God has created. 
    Marriage also gets turned into that storybook ending.  It’s all about finding your prince charming and beautiful princess; and once that soulmate is found, then you can live happily-ever-after.  This might sound like a positive view of marriage, encouraging young men and young women to seek out husbands and wives.  However, this idea of marriage becomes a curse, because what happens when it’s not happily-ever-after?  What happens when we find out prince charming isn’t so charming?  What happens when the beautiful princess isn’t as beautiful as the one at work? 
    Because of these views, we think marriage is a burden and curse.  It’s a burden because we have to care for others, putting their needs before our wants.  It’s a curse because of the lofty expectations we place on it.  So what do we do with this burden and curse?  We get rid of it; we destroy it.  We break God’s estate of marriage with divorce. 
    The Pharisees in our Gospel tested Jesus with divorce.  They wanted to see if He really knew the Law, so they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mk 10:2).  Christ pointed them back to Moses who delivered God’s law; and the Pharisees confirmed, yes, Moses did allow a man to divorce his wife.  However, this law of Moses didn’t permit or establish divorce, it was there to control it.  Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.  But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’  ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’  So they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mk 10:5-9).  Divorce was never part of God’s plan for marriage.  From the very beginning, God planned for marriage to be between one man and one woman until death parts them.  The only reason why Moses gave Israel this law at all was so that divorce wouldn’t run rampant.  It was meant to protect marriage, not destroy it. 
    In the beginning, God said it wasn’t good for man to be alone.  It wasn’t good for Adam to be by himself, so God created woman.  With Eve, Adam was complete, and God joined them in marriage.  He blessed them, just as He continues to bless all those men and women He joins in marriage. 
    One of the great blessings of marriage is children.  Kids are a living expression of the one flesh union between husbands and wives.  They’re the result of the coming together of their parents, a visible picture of mom and dad.  Through parents, God gives life.  This is a wonderful and miraculous thing, and yet, just as we think of marriage as a burden, we view children in the same way.
    It’s easy to understand how children can be a burden.  They can’t survive on their own.  Without care from mom and dad a newborn will die quickly.  Kids need constant care, care that continues for almost a two decades, if not longer.  They require food and clothing and shelter.  They need to be taught how to live, how to feed themselves, how to clothe themselves, how to speak and read.  They require a lot of time and energy, and money.  The older they get, the more money they consume from sports and club fees, to technology and clothing, to larger and larger grocery bills; the list could go on and on.
    Today, children are viewed not as a blessing, but an extreme curse.  They’re seen as a hindrance to a self-fulfilling life.  We think of them as a nuisance, much like how the disciples viewed them.  But instead of just shooing them away, we get rid of our kids.  Hundreds of thousands of babies are aborted every year.  They’re killed, torn from their mothers because they’re seen as an extreme burden and curse.  But again, the Lord has called children good.  They’re a blessing of the Lord. 
    Marriage and children are far from the curses we make them out to be.  They’re gifts from God, blessings.  To be certain, they’re work.  No marriage is ever happily-ever-after.  No parent and child get along every second of every day.  All of us brings our sin into our relationships.  This sin puts us first.  We’d rather do what we want then what our spouse needs.  We get tired of tending to our child’s every need.  Sometimes we just want a minute to ourselves.  We don’t want to listen to mom and dad because they said no, denying us happiness and joy in that moment.  All of this causes strife and conflict.  And unfortunately, sometimes our family life is the greatest cause of strife and conflict in our lives.  And yet, family is still a blessing, because it’s a gift from God, a place where we get to give and receive love. 
    This love isn’t just the warm fuzzy feelings that we often think about when we think of love.  This love is shown in action.  It’s a giving up of oneself for another.  When the Lord created Adam, He said it wasn’t good for him to be alone.  This was because he wasn’t complete without a helper fit for him.  God designed us to be in relationships.  He made us to live together, men, women, and children.  He made us to live in peace with one another, just as we were to live in peace with Him. 
    God not only created Adam and Eve to live together, He made them to live with Him.  God made us so that we’d be with Him, so that we could have everlasting life with Him.  The plan for creation was for us to live in peace with God and one another, to be a big happy family.  However, our sin destroyed that, and God knew that it would.  God knew before He ever formed Adam that we’d sin, that our first parents would give into Satan’s temptation, and break that peace.  God knew that the only way to overcome that sin, to bring us back into His family, was to sacrifice His only Son.  He knew all of this from the very beginning, and yet, because of His love for you, He still created us.
    We call God our Father, because His Son died on the cross for us.  Baptized into His name, we’re adopted by God, we’re His children, inheriting His everlasting life.  Baptized into Christ, we’re part of the Church, Christ’s Bride.  Because our Savior’s love for us, He gave Himself up, so that He might cleanse us of our sin and make us holy.  All this He did so that we might be His.  Never will Christ divorce His Bride.  Never will God abandon His children.  Forever, we’ll be His, receiving His love. 
This is the blessing of family, giving and receiving love.  God has loved us in Christ, and nothing will separate us from that.  Because of His love, He sacrificed His Son to forgive all our sin, even our sin that destroys and abuses the blessing of spouse and children, even our divorce and abortion.  The love of God forgives because Christ shed His blood.
This is the blessing of family, the blessing of being in God’s family.  Thank the Lord for His forgiveness.  Thank the Lord for His love.  Thank the Lord for His family.  Thank the Lord for your family.  They’re not curse.  They’re blessing, a blessing for giving and receiving Christ’s love.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

Not too. . .

Perhaps the saddest thing surrounding the election of John F. Kennedy was his need to suggest to some fearful in the electorate that he was not that Catholic and so it was safe to vote for him.  Some Roman Catholics have complained that it seemed to be a similar undertone in the wake of Vatican II -- yes we are Catholic but we are not that Catholic.  It is certainly one of the complaints against Pope Francis -- sort of like he is apologizing for being Roman Catholic and justifies it all by insisting he is not that Roman Catholic.

This is surely nothing new.  Protestants have been doing this for centuries.  Presbyterians uncomfortable with predestination have been long suggesting that they are not that Presbyterians -- almost to the point of Arminianism is just as Presbyterian as Calvinism.  Methodists have ditched much of the method that once made them distinctive and they have become #metoo Protestants and Evangelicals.  They not that Methodist but have open minds and open doors and open questions.

Even among Lutherans it has become a popular thought that the means to revitalizing the denominations that claim Luther's legacy is to distance themselves from it and embrace something more, well, American.  So the ELCA has insisted it is not that Lutheran -- at least when it comes to who communes, male and female identity, same sex marriage, etc...   They at least are honest in saying that they are departing from historic Lutheran faith and practice -- even though they do so claiming a higher Lutheran principle, the Gospel.  Their Gospel affirms anything and everything, it seems.  And those on the other side have also been doing it.  They insist that on Sunday morning you can do whatever you want, whatever feels good, and whatever is meaningful and forget the Confessions and liturgies and hymnals.  They are Lutheran, that they insist, but not that Lutheran that they wear dresses, sing in funny ways, practice irrelevant rituals, talk like folks in Shakespeare's time, pray from a book, and put all that much stock into water or bread or wine.

Why is it that we always assume that the promise is being faithful and if you dilute it, distance yourself from it, keep it in substance but not in style, or conveniently not talk about it anymore the people will clamor into our empty buildings?  Kennedy did himself and us no favors by suggesting he was not a good Catholic.  Vatican II did not get it if they though the Latin was the problem or the outdated music.  Francis is befuddled if he thinks heading down the route of separating style and substance will help rescue Rome or the declining clergy numbers.  Protestants are fools if they think that becoming a generic, deistic, therapeutic, moralistic faith will fill the void.  Evangelicals are being idiots if they think they can keep the name Christian and gut its doctrinal baggage.  Same for Presbyterians and Methodists.  And for Lutherans.  Who in their right mind wants to join a Lutheran church because it is not that Lutheran????

Monday, October 8, 2018

The extremes. . .

Liturgical imagery must rise above both the saccharine, porcelain-doll portraits of the 19th century holy cards and the hyper-realistic and overly optimistic imagery of Christ as a chummy first century Mediterranean blessing our children [and hugging us on judgment day] ….Dennis McNamara, p. 75, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy.

Bingo.  The art of the Church, whether permanent in painting or statuary or temporary in print, has too often been victim of extremes.  A couple of hundred years ago we surrendered reality to an idealized portraiture of Jesus and the saints, what McNamara calls the porcelain-doll imagery that distanced the things of God from people and their everyday lives.  Now we live in the opposite extreme.  We like the images of the laughing Jesus or the smiling Christ who is not so much God in flesh as your buddy, even your best buddy.  But both extremes offer the same problem.  Jesus is not very threatening in either picture -- not the idealized (feminized) porcelain doll image or the chummy Jesus who sits with us on our couches and throws back a couple of brewskis.  And that is the goal of such art -- to remove anything threatening from Jesus and to make Him out to be fragile on one side or just one of the guys on the other.

Strangely, we seem to prefer a God who commiserates with us rather than a God who can do something about that misery or a God who may not have much to offer in terms of hope but neither does He threaten us any with holiness, judgment, or power.  We have done a fairly good job of emasculating Jesus in the past and making Him untouchable.  But we have also done a credible job today of making Jesus less God and more friend, making Him touchable but no more powerful than we are to effect any change or transformation in us or our lives.

I grew up with an idealized picture of Jesus, blondish brown hair, Scandinavian characteristics, tall and lanky, in His white robe.  Perhaps it is a good thing for us to see Jesus with our own racial or ethnic identities but it is not a bad thing to have an idealized Jesus, almost feminized Lord, who is like grandmother's fragile glass figurines that dare not be touched.  Such a Jesus not only observes from afar but is observed from afar.  My grandchildren will be tempted by images of Jesus in which His ethnic characteristics are more prominent but He just may be wearing a team jersey, holding a craft beer in his hand, and alternately laughing or cursing a blue streak.  I am not sure which is more dangerous -- a distant God who may be powerful but who would not want to get His hands dirty or a God who gets His hands dirty but is not powerful.  In any case, Satan has worked even in imagery to keep us from the honest portrait of our Lord in Scripture.

Ours is a God who bleeds and hurts but who bleeds and hurts for us.  He is not some weak deity who leaves the heavy lifting to others but who takes upon Himself every great weight and burden we cannot bear.  He is not some plastic or porcelain God who is fragile and must be protected from our sins but the God who knows our sin better than we know them and who is determined to be scarred by them even to death upon a cross.  He is not some God who watches everything from a heavenly box seat but the God with us, Emmanuel, even in the earthy elements of water, bread, and wine. 

Liturgy can do the same thing.  It can make Jesus inaccessible and fragile or it can make Jesus so immanent that the things eternal are neither spoken of nor acknowledged.  The Latin Mass surely emphasized this holy God, somewhat distant to us, but the Novus Ordo gives us the opposite picture of God and the Church.  Yet if I had to choose, I would rather have a powerful God who may appear distant instead of a God who is near but impotent to answer my need.  Hymnody has also fallen victim of both extremes.  On the one hand, it has sung of God and the things of God in idealized and distant terms.  On the other it has forgotten the transcendent at all and made it appear Jesus' primary role was to inspire us, encourage us, and cheer us on to achieve our goals.  So in the arts and music we must tread carefully.  The reality that we know from Scripture is infinitely better than our idealized Lord or our casual buddy.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The problem of proof. . .

In the worship wars the ammunition is largely anecdotal.  One side inside this kind of worship works and the other side insist that kind of worship works.  The problem is one of evidence.  Few if any studies of the relationship between worship format and church growth have large enough samples to support any real generalized conclusions.  In fact, we have hardly any studies on the matter at all.  What we do have are polls that ask people what they think (at that moment and according to how the question may have been asked) and we have stories (this is what worked for me).  I have read these stories until I am sick of reading any more of them as one side or the other pits their truth against someone else's truth (meaning mostly anecdotal truth).

This war cannot be won on the basis of what works because not only do we have scant evidence to support broad and generalized conclusions, we cannot even agree on what it means that it works or it doesn't work.  Furthermore, geography, culture, race, and age are all factors that affect not only the evidence but the conclusions.  It is time we stop listening to polls and stop giving weight to one experience and stop trusting anecdotal evidence and stories as gospel truth.  It is time we talked about this strictly in terms of theology.  We ought to be especially adept at this as Lutherans since we are always about the big question:  what does this mean?

The truth is that I do not have much hope that we can set aside personal preference, personal experience, and personal history long enough to thoughtfully consider the theology of worship but it will not stop me from pleading for an end to the disastrous dead end plaguing us about what happens on Sunday morning.  We have listened too long to the social scientists (who have their own problems of evidence, replication of results, and truth).  We have listened too long to the wants and desires of those in the pews (a group divided about what they want and like and who find it difficult to even define it).  We have listened too long to the mega churches and those without a formal confession who view worship as a program to be judged by the pews filled and the money flowing in.  We have listened too long to those who insist that we live in a new and different world in which the old ways will not work (even when they are the ways of God that endure forever).

We need to pay attention to Scripture.  Saying back to God what He has said to us is the most sure and certain thing we can say and do in worship.  I think I read that somewhere.  We need to pay attention to history.  Every age and generation is not given a blank slate to create worship but they are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition.  We need to pay attention to creed and confession.  What we do on Sunday morning must be more than consistent with what we say we believe -- it must be an accurate reflection of what we say we believe -- prayed dogma!  We need to pay attention to what is new not as determinative but as a contribution to a catholic past and a catholic future.  Not everything new is evil but we must carefully discern what is good, right, true, beautiful, faithful, and worthy from our own age and generation.  We need to pay attention to language.  Words flow in and out of our vocabularies and they change in meaning but this must be held in tension with the vocabulary of Scripture and tradition and words that mean what God says they mean.  We need to pay attention to excellence.  Having a script on Sunday morning (either in pulpit or at the altar) does not relieve us of the call to do well what we do -- to do our best, our utmost for His highest (read that somewhere, too).  Finally, we need to pay attention to priority.  They say you can tell what is important to people by what they spend their money on and the sad reality is that if you look at many of our churches we spend next to nothing on Sunday morning -- not preparation, not effort, and not money.  We cheap out on instruments to support singing and expect talented musicians to work for little or nothing and act like the only thing important is the sermon.  And it shows.

There.  I feel better.  Do you?

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Hot News. . . From Down Under

Synod says ‘no’ to ordination of women

General Synod has again said ‘no’ to the ordination of women in the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA).

This evening, Friday 5 October, LCA Bishop John Henderson declared the result of the secret ballot. Of the delegates registered at Convention, 161 voted against the resolution to ordain both men and women; 240 supported it. The Constitution of the LCA requires a two-thirds majority of registered delegates to bring about a change in matters of a theological or confessional nature.

The vote followed a number of sessions of presentations and debate among the delegates, supported by prayer. More than delegates spoke to the proposal.

General Synod has voted on the ordination of women three times before (2000, 2006 and 2015). Each time the proposal to ordain women was lost.

Hear an interview from a pastor in the Lutheran Church in Australia being interviewed by the Rev. Todd Wilken on Issues, Etc.

Emboldened. . .

Apparently Pope Francis has emboldened those who are ready to make a great leap to the new beyond of welcoming for GLBTQ folks, women to the priesthood, and communion to anyone and everyone.  Consider, for example, this certain German Cardinal.


Infant Baptism. . . conceding the point. . .

Looking at some statistics, in particular infant baptisms in the Episcopal Church but not only there, it seems as if the whole debate of infant baptism may be surrendered by some churches once accustomed to baptizing them.  This is not because of an accommodation to the world or a rejection of the theology but simply the fact that there are  fewer and fewer small children presented for baptism.  It is as if the point is being conceded simply by statistic and nothing else.

There was a time, in fact when I first entered the parish ministry, when the unchurched were presumedly those who had been baptized as infants or small children, fallen away during the young adult years, and would probably show up again when they married and had children to present at the font.  That is exactly the scenario that was often discussed when considering how to reach the younger generation.  But times have changed.

As fewer infants and small children are brought to the font, it means that the unchurched are more likely those who have seldom darkened the door to a church building, probably never attended Sunday school or VBS, never sat through a catechism class, but thought they knew what Christianity was from characterization in media or from friends who grew up and grew distant from the faith as they did.  In other words, we have not quite a blank slate but one that has never been washed yet one on which a stereotypical or shallow or perhaps even heretical version of Christian faith has been written on and erased -- a rejection of an idea without having encountered the real faith.

All of this is rather sad.  I was brought to baptism by my parents within weeks of my birth.  There was not a Sunday that I recall missing worship or Sunday school.  I cannot remember not being at VBS or catechism class.  My faith was formed in the home and by church going parents who made me a church going young adult.  My wife was raised the same way.  So were my children.  That is increasingly the exception rather than the rule.  Those whom we encounter in the world do not need to have either faith or an experience renewed or re-awakened.  It is much more complex.  They need to have the false characterization of the faith excised from their minds and hearts and then brought to the faith through catechesis that results in baptism.  The process will surely mirror that of the early church period but the candidates are decidedly different.  They are not quite pagans in that they think they know what Christianity is and have already rejected it (or at least its exclusivity) but they are still far from having heard or knowing the Gospel.

This comes with some other baggage.  They have been well catechized in the ways of the world in which the greatest sin of all is refusing desire, in which nothing consensual is wrong, and everything is what you decide it is -- good, bad, male, female, whatever.  They have an idea of objective truth but probably are not sure there is such a thing -- only truths that change and are relative to the individual and to the time.  They believe they are moral but do not acknowledge moral truth bigger than self (except for some well publicized cases such as #metoo).  They believe not simply in equality but in equivalence in which maleness and femaleness are not all that important and gender is judged on a sliding scale.  It is more likely that they will fit God into the small spaces of their particular world view than shaping their world view around God.

Infant baptism and children raised in the faith and in the church provides a long term shaping of the heart, mind, and will.  Even when they depart from this faith, part of it is still resident in conscience, memory, and desire.  But when we surrender infant baptism, we also surrender a life spent literally growing up into Christ in the faith and among the faithful.  How do you replace what was shaped over 15-20 years with a few classes or a couple of books or some deep conversations?  I wish I knew.  Those we bring into the Church and to whom we teach the faith are busy people with varied interest and yet the workload in bringing them on board is bigger than it once was.  It is a conundrum.  I began to notice this when adults we brought into the Church would look with surprise at infant baptisms as something completely outside their experience.  It was radically new.  Some of them are not completely certain of it since it deprives them of what they have been taught is the most sacred right of all -- choice.  They are a gift and a task to pastors and to congregations.  But they are also a stark reminder that it may be your grandfather's church though it is probably not theirs. . . and it is not your grandfather's world or theirs but this is where we begin today with the Word of the Lord that endures forever.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Interesting choice of. . . ah. . . staff

So what kind of ah. . . staff. . . would you say this is?

Hymns, Psalms, and Spiritual Songs. . .

From Anthony Esolen:
I have read and taught poetry all my adult life. This is one curse. I know English grammar. That is a second curse. My family and I are versed in the long tradition of Christian hymnody; we collect hymnals from all traditions, and we have sung one or two thousand of them, sometimes in languages other than English. This is a third and most terrible curse. And we know our Scripture. Cursed a fourth time, cursed and damned to writhe in eternal pain. Well, not eternal. The pain is transient but real—pain mingled with frustration and disappointment, that well-meaning people should give their talents and energies to stuff that is so worthless, and sometimes worse than worthless. For sometimes it is flat-out heresy.

Well, I won’t sing heresy, and I won’t sing chloroform for the brain, and this means that I hardly ever sing at such Masses. (I say a quiet prayer of gratitude for the goodwill of the singers instead.) No need here to bring up, like ill-digested onions, the specifics. What strikes me, though, is the general liturgical lassitude. I don’t mean that there is not often a lot of energy, with drums, verses projected on the wall, and sometimes applause. I mean that there’s no plan to it, no aim. You are as likely to sing the peculiarly awful “Gather Us In”—well, that’s an onion, sorry—during Advent as in the middle of the summer, and if the choristers, or the lady at the piano, or the tenor at the organ likes it, you may be singing it twenty times a year. The hymns are chosen by the musicians for the same reason as the cartoon-like banners on the wall. Somebody who has wangled his way into the works likes them.

If you go to Mass every Sunday and every holy day during the year, and if four hymns are sung at each Mass, this gives you the opportunity to sing over two hundred different hymns. Need I say that, outside of the Christmas carols and three or four old Easter hymns, the typical Novus Quodlibet church boasts a repertoire of eight or nine? The same, the same, the same, like the drip, drip, drip of cold rain, without meaning, without artistic coherence, and without any feint toward the whole of the liturgical year and the history of salvation.
Esolen's dilemma is one that we often find among Lutherans, as well.  We have an opportunity to sing many hymns on a Sunday morning but the typical congregation sings from a rather narrow repertoire, repeating favorites that tend to be drawn from a generic list of American hymn choices that could be sung in any church using hymns rather than the hymns of their own tradition.  Whether because of musical leadership in the parish or laziness on the part of those planning worship or ignorance or complacency, the typical congregation sings but a small proportion of the hymns in their worship books and tends to sing hymns based upon commonality more than content.

When we retired Lutheran Worship from the pews in 2006, I saw that in the time I spent here in the parish we had sung all but about 12 hymns in that book, though many of them far more frequently than others.  We had made our way across nearly every page in the hymn section though the marks on the edges showed some were used many times more than others, and a few had been sung only once.

I have a rule when picking hymns.  Whenever it fits, always sing Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart and sing the great Lutheran chorales more frequently than the typical choices common to most American hymnody (Amazing Grace, for example).  We have a wonderful resources that gives the person choosing the hymns a myriad of choices, marked with the lessons that connect to the content of those hymns, and with enough variety to make it possible to use many hymns from the book in nearly every setting and to fit every musical ability or leadership issue.  But the sad truth is that many of us are lazy.  We pick and choose hymns like we would foods from a menu -- what do I feel like eating at the moment?  When we are unsure, we tend to stick with familiar hymns (whether or not they fit the lectionary or are better examples of hymnody than other choices also available to us).  Worst of all we often act like hymns don't matter.  A grave mistake.  For a person's favorite hymn will tell you much about that person's theology.  Truth be told, this is probably more information than any pastor wants to know about his people (or visa versa).

I also make sure that there is generally only one newer hymn (say from the last century or so) and only one hymn that may be new to the congregation (no matter its vintage).  It is not a good thing to sing too many hymns that were written yesterday although it is equally a bad thing to sing no hymns written recently.  The weight rests upon those hymns that have proven the test of time.  They have endured.  They are worth our efforts.

In the end I find it hard to say which hymn is my favorite.  It may well be the last one I have sung since it is still fresh in my mind and its tune on my lips.  But the nod will generally go to those hymns that have wedded good words to a good tune so that the music and the text seem to be one form.  Some of the best hymns are those we cannot conceive of singing to any other tune -- they just fit.  And the greatest compliment I can receive on Sunday morning is when people notice that all the hymns, the lection, the sermon, and prayers all just fit.  It just does not get better than that.  So I feel for Dr. Esolen and know that not such good music is more often the norm for Roman parishes as it is for many others.  God help the folks who must suffer this burden and may the Lord awaken within us the will and desire to do better by them, for the sake of the Lord!

Thursday, October 4, 2018

What you cannot find in a book. . .

I wish some things were found in books, things that are not found in books even though books may speak about them.  Holiness, for example.  Would that I could find the right book to make me holy, a sort of how to for sanctity and piety.  While it is absolutely true that God's Word is just such a book, it does not work on us magically to make holiness appear out of nowhere.  Instead, holiness is the fruit of patient struggle.  God justifies us in a moment but the sanctification of that which He has declared just takes a lifetime and we never approach the end until the end.

Reading about prayer is always easier than praying -- the uncomfortable and often terrifying moments of silence in which you are so painfully aware of your sinfulness and the fearsome holiness of God.  Reading about piety is so much easier than trying to be honestly pious.  You know what I mean.  We want a short cut, a YouTube video guide to being good and righteous and holy or a list of bullet points (a short list) to get us from point A to point B and the wonderful satisfaction that we have arrived.  But there is no such plateau of perfection to be had or known this side of glory.  Instead God gives us the patient struggle of a sinner redeemed and guided by the Holy Spirit working through the means of grace to make the person what God has already declared the person to be.

I say with the Psalmist that I love His law but that is not a statement of fact.  Part of me hates the law and views it as the ultimate fence keeping me from my meadow of unrestrained happiness.  But I pray with the Psalmist that I love the law of God and I say with the Psalmist as the means by which slowly, almost imperceptibly to me anyway, God will make the words true.  The truth is I am always on the lookout for short cuts to prayer and piety, to wholeness and holiness, to goodness and godliness.  A part of me would gladly exchange the Word of God for a condensed version guaranteed to give me what I long for -- an end to the evil desires that bring not happiness but guilt and shame and an end to the mouth that speaks when it should be silent and an end to the mind whose thoughts I hope and pray no one can read.  But there is no shorthand or short cuts.  There is only the Word and the Spirit, the means of grace and prayer, and patient struggle.  Every day I pray that this is enough to keep me from shrinking from the future God has prepared for me.  Maybe you are in the same boat?

It is our great temptation to bring our consumer mentality to the faith, whether deliberately or  unconsciously.  It is our great temptation to believe that holiness, like happiness, is attainable with just one more book, one more how to guide, one more conversation with someone who appears holy, one more prayer carefully repeated, or a hundred other quick and easy ways to replace a lifetime effort.  Lord, I believe.... help Thou my unbelief. . .  Finish in me Your new creation.  Bring to completion what You have begun in me. . . this is my prayer and for this I work as best I am able, a willing spirit created within me to perhaps cooperate with the Spirit but at least not to stand in His way. . .

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Luther and Calvin in America

I often wonder why Lutherans felt and perhaps still feel so threatened by the Reformed.  The truth is that Lutherans far outnumber Calvinists - at least in the United States. For example, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is still about 4 times larger than the mainline Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. – roughly 3.7 million compared to less than 1 million. Compare Missouri Synod Lutherans to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and they are almost 80 times larger than the OPC – 2.3 million vs 30,000. Even the small Wisconsin Synod is substantially larger than the Presbyterian Church in America, a denomination that seemed poised to transform urban America into Presbyterians thanks to Tim Keller; the WELS has roughly 400,000 members and the PCA has only 300,000.  So even though the Presbyterians may be better known and understood among Americans, they are a shadow of the size of Lutherans and this does not even count those who see themselves as Lutheran but do not belong to a Lutheran congregation!

That said, sometimes we act as if Calvinism was a real threat to us still.  The reality is that Calvinists are not all that Calvinist anymore.  But then I probably should say that there are a number of Lutherans who are not Lutheran anymore, either.  And perhaps that is the problem.  The old polemics do not fit in a world where Lutherans are no longer defined by their confessional documents and Calvinists are not longer defined by their characteristic TULIP doctrinal flower.  In fact, the sad truth is that we don't even speak doctrinally anymore.  Dogma has become secondary to feelings and truth is subject to preference and desire takes precedence over everything.

Some insist that the playing field of Christianity has changed so much that we are more like the situation the first Christians faced.  That might be true except that the people around us think they know Christianity and have rejected it -- a far different landscape than early Christianity in which the Gospel was brand new and people had never heard or seen anything like it.  It was virgin ground then but not now.  Now we face a world which believes it knows Christianity and has judged it false or irrelevant or contrary to reason or experience.  Part of the task today is to replace the false characterizations of the faith with the real deal, speaking the Word clearly to those who are not really listening because they think they have heard it all before.  But it is not simply argument or evidence but the Holy Spirit who works the work that brings faith to the skeptical or fearful heart.  Maybe once we realize this we might just try the Word and let God do what He has promised.  It could not do any worse than our feeble attempts to try and frame modern settings into the same old landscapes of the past or to reduce objections by offering a lite version of Christian with half the truth and less flavor.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Live Lives of Encouragement, Don’t be a Stumbling Block

Sermon for Pentecost 19, Proper 21B, preached on Sunday, September 30, 2018, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.
               “Do as I say and not as I do!”  Parents say this all the time because we want to teach our children to live right, to make good and wise decisions, to develop good habits, but this rings hollow if mom and dad aren’t doing these things.  Even at a very young age, we understand that actions speak louder than words.  People don’t just listen to what we say, they look at what we do, and if the two don’t agree, then our words fall flat.  This is how it is with our Christian lives.  We can confess the Gospel with complete purity and orthodoxy, and yet, if our lives contradict what we say, we become a stumbling block.  Instead of encouraging others in the faith, we cause them to sin.
               Jesus talked about this in our Gospel reading.  The disciples came to Jesus and said they saw a man casting out demons in His name.  Now you think this would be a good thing.  This man was helping others in Jesus’ name.  But the disciples tried to stop him, because he wasn’t part of the “group,” he wasn’t one of the Twelve.  But Jesus rebuked them.  He said don’t stop this man, “for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  For the one who is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:39-40).  Jesus explained to His disciples that what this man was doing, it wasn’t in conflict or competition with Christ.  It was in agreement with Him, it was a work of God.  Just because he wasn’t part of the Twelve doesn’t mean He wasn’t one of God’s own.  By God’s grace, He used this man to help others.  By God’s grace, He chose him to do mighty works in Jesus’ name, just as Christ chose the Twelve to follow Him by grace.
               This is who we are.  We’ve been chosen to follow Christ by God’s grace.  We did nothing to deserve the name Christian.  God has given this name to us.  He has chosen us.  The Holy Spirit has called us by the Gospel; through the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us, for the forgiveness of our sins.  In the waters of Baptism, we’re clothed in Christ’s righteousness, we’re made God’s children.  And as His faithful children we live out this righteousness, encouraging God’s other children, encouraging other little ones, encouraging all God’s people in the faith. 
               Jesus continued saying, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mk 9:42).  When Matthew recorded these words, Jesus actually called a young child to Him and placed him in the midst of the disciples.  There’s no way around Jesus’ words.  He’s saying that it would be better for us to die a watery death than for us to cause a child to sin.  Think on the seriousness of that.  Death, drowning, is better than causing a child to sin.  And not just a child, but all people. 
               God’s children aren’t just those who are 12 and younger.  God’s children are all who have faith.  And God has called us to encourage one another; to build one another up in the faith.  So how do we do that?  How do we encourage?  How do we build one another up?  By God’s grace, doing the things the Lord has given us to do.  I’m talking about the Law.
               We often think the Law is bad, because salvation doesn’t come from the Law.  We often think the Law is behind us because we’ve received the Gospel.  But that’s not true.  God’s Law isn’t bad, it’s not behind us.  God’s Law is good and He’s given it to us for our benefit. 
               Think back on your catechism instruction.  What are the three uses of the Law?  What functions does it do?  First, it’s a curb, to stop anarchy, to protect us from rampant evil.  Second, it’s a mirror that shows us our sin, shows us that we need a Savior.  These two uses are for all people, whether they’re of the faith or not.  But the third, that’s just for you and me, for God’s children.  The third use is as a guide, leading us through life, showing us what good works in God’s eyes are, showing us how we live as His children.  
               The works the Lord has given us are those actions and words that benefit others, actions and words that show the love of Christ.  The whole second table of the 10 Commandments describe these acts.  For example, instead of engaging in gossip and talking negatively behind people’s back, we should stand up for them, putting the best construction on everything.  You see, by engaging in gossip, we not only hurt the person we’re talking about, but we’re causing those we’re gossiping with to sin.  We’ve become a stumbling block for them. 
               The first table of the 10 Commandments also gives us actions and words that specifically and directly encourages others in the faith.  If you’re a parent, you encourage your children by living out the faith.  For sure, this means coming to church and bringing your child to Sunday school and Catechism class and Youth Group and VBS.  But it also means living the faith out at home through prayers and family devotions.  It means prioritizing worship over other things.  The biggest influence on our faith is our parents.  This has been proven.  When faith is lived out in the home, our children are more likely to continue in that faith. 
This is also how we encourage and build each another up in the faith.  When you come to church, you’re encouraging your brothers and sisters in Christ.  When others see you here, they see the importance of being where the Lord comes in Word and Sacrament.  It encourages them to be in this place.  Just think about how you’re encouraged when you walk into this sanctuary and you see your fellow siblings in Christ.  When we confess the Creed and sing our hymns, we proclaim what our Lord has done for us.  All of this is encouragement and a building up in the faith.
               We build one another up when we follow God’s Law.  When we strive to obey His commands, we’re less likely to be a stumbling block.  When our actions agree with our words, we honor our Lord’s name.  For sure we won’t do it perfectly.  We’ll stumble and cause others to stumble.  We’ll still sin.  But with faith, we repent of that sin and we want to do what the Lord has given us to do.  And by grace, He blesses this. 
               He blesses us and those we serve.  Through our hands, He helps those in need.  Through our words, He speaks His Word.  His everlasting life is proclaimed to all as we live in the everlasting life He’s given to us.  He brings about peace between His children as we forgive one another, just as He’s forgiven us.  He builds all of us up in the faith, strengthening our trust in our Savior.
By God’s grace, He’s chosen us to be His people.  Out of unending mercy, He sent Jesus to redeem you and me from sin and death.  By the cross, by the blood of Christ, by the waters of Baptism, God has made us His children, and calls us to act as such.  Our words and our actions should match.  We should be at peace with one another.  We should encourage and build one another up instead of being a stumbling block.  Our lives should speak well of our Savior, showing forth His love.  And through this, our Lord bless us, and others, in this generation, and in all future ones.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.