Monday, November 12, 2018

What are God's promises worth?

Sermon preached for Pentecost 25, Proper 27B, on Sunday, November 11, 2018, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    We judge the value of things in terms of dollars and cents.  The amount of money in our wallets and our bank accounts make a lot of decisions for us.  Should we upgrade to that new phone?  Check the bank balance.  Should we take that mini vacation?  Check the bank balance.  Should we increase our offering this week?  Double check the bank balance.  We look at price tags and costs, we look at what we have, and we ask ourselves, “Is it worth it?”  So, let me ask you, WHAT ARE GOD’S PROMISES WORTH? 
    God has given you many promises.  In the waters of Baptism He has promised that you’re His child, and that He is and will always be your Father, your heavenly Father that gives you life. 
This life is an earthly life.  None of us would be alive if it wasn’t for the Lord who knitted us together in our mother’s womb (Ps 139:13).  As our Father, He promises to care for us, to provide us with the things we need, our daily bread as Luther put it.  This is what Jesus talked about in His Sermon on the Mount when He said don’t be anxious about what we’ll eat and wear.  The Lord knows our needs and He’ll provide. 
We see this provision in a miraculous way in the OT reading.  During a great drought, the Lord sent Elijah to a widow in Zarephath to care for him.  Meeting this woman Elijah told her to make some food for him, but she explained that all she had was enough for her and her son’s last meal.  But then Elijah spoke the promise of the Lord, “Do not fear....The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain.” (1 Ki 1713, 14).  Hearing this promise, the woman responded in faith.  She gave all that she had, because that’s what the promises of God are worth. 
We see this same faith displayed by the widow in the Gospel reading.  Sitting across from the temple offering box Jesus watched as people brought their tithes and offerings to the Lord.  Those with a lot of money put in a lot.  But a poor widow came and put two small coins in, all that she had.  Seeing this Jesus said, “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing...For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had…” (Mk 12:43, 44).  Why would she do this?  Because that’s what the promises of God are worth.  This widow knew and trusted in the promise of God’s care, in His promise of life, not just her earthly life, but her everlasting life. 
God’s number one promise has always been everlasting life.  This is a promise to overcome sin and death.  This is a promise to defeat our great enemy Satan.  The everlasting life that God promises is the life that is lived in His presence, in peace and communion with Him, where there’s no longer pain and suffering, where there’s no need of any kind, no sickness and disease, no tears or mourning, no sin...no death.  What is this life worth?  It’s worth all that we have: all our money; all our time; even our very selves.
God’s promises are worth everything, but is that how we respond?   Do respond to the God’s promises with faith like the widows, giving everything, even out of our poverty?  Or, are we like those who only give out of our abundance? 
What’s our motivation in giving to the Lord?  How do we determine what we put in the plate to support the proclamation of His promises here on earth?  Do we look at our bank balance and what’s in our wallet?  Do we add up all our bills and the money we need for entertainment and then whatever extra we have from our paycheck, that’s what we put in the plate?  How do we decide how much time to give?  Do we give ourselves to work, sports, leisure, and other activities first and then if there’s any time left over and we’re not too tired we might consider coming to worship and Bible Study?  Does God get our leftovers, or does He get our first fruits, our very selves? 
The promises of God are worth everything, all that we have and more.  And with faith, that’s how we should respond to them.  God shouldn’t get our leftovers.  Think about that.  The very Creator of everything, your heavenly Father who’s given you life, you give Him your leftovers.  What’s that say about how you view Him; what you think about Him; what you believe about Him? 
God’s promises are worth our first fruits.  God’s promises are worth all that we have: our money, our time, and our very selves.  So with faith, that’s what we give.  We give these things because the promises of the Lord are worth that.  But we don’t give them to buy His promises.
    The widow of Zarephath and the widow at the temple didn’t give all they had to purchase God’s promises.  No, those promises came first; they were already spoken.  Their actions were faithful responses to what their heavenly Father promised.  And that’s what our giving to the Lord is. 
    We give back to the Lord in thanksgiving for what He’s given to us and in response to the promises He’s spoken to us.  Our tithes and offerings, our giving of time and our very selves, it’s not about planting financial seeds expecting God to give us a return on our investment.  It’s not about paying a down payment in order to reserve our spot in heaven.  No, we give all that we have because He’s already spoken those promises to us; because that’s what the promises of God are worth. 
    The promises of God, the promise of everlasting life with Him is worth everything.  It’s even worth God’s only begotten Son. 
    There is a price, a cost, associated with God’s promised everlasting life, but we can’t pay it.  Only God can, and He did, by giving His Son, Jesus Christ.  In order for God to give us the life He promises, He had to buy us back from our sin and death.  This cost couldn’t be paid with all the money in the world.  It had to be paid with blood, with the sacrifice of Christ.  Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, willingly, graciously, and mercifully gave up is life in exchange for yours.  God the Father gave all that He had for you, because that’s what His promise is worth.  His promise to save you from your sin and death and to give you everlasting life is worth His Son’s life, so He paid it.  That’s the depth of love your Father has for you. 
God’s promises are worth everything.  His promise of earthly life is worth all our time and money.  His promise of everlasting life is worth our very selves, and even more.  But we can’t buy this promise.  God doesn’t deliver on His promise because we met the cost.  We can’t.  God delivers on His promises because He has met the cost.  His promise of everlasting life is worth everything to Him, even His only begotten Son.  And this He has given, so that He might have you, so that you might have His everlasting life.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

The limits of inclusivity. . .

We all know that the Boy Scouts caved on everything from gay scouts and scout leaders to admitting girls to the formerly all boy program.  Perhaps we all thought that this was a great egalitarian effort to erase distinctions and embrace diversity.  Maybe not.  It appears that the Boy Scouts may have done this with a market strategy to trounce their Girl Scout organization counterpart in the great marketplace of youth organizations.  Not so fast, say the Girl Scouts.

The Girl Scouts are suing the Boy Scouts and charge the organization’s inclusive rebranding effort as a purposeful endeavor to blur distinctions and make people think either the groups have merged or the Boy Scouts has taken over the Girl Scouts.  They sued for trademark infringement hoping to prevent the inadvertent or intentional uncertainty.

Though the two separate youth organizations had long coexisted and even complemented each other,
problems arose when “core gender distinction” was altered by the Boy Scouts of America when they announced in October 2017  the doors were now open to girls.  All of this has taken on a sense of urgency since the doors open in 2019.  Earlier this year, the Boy Scouts unveiled new marketing campaign to back their efforts to include girls with a tagline “Scout Me In.”  The Girl Scouts’ lawsuit said the Boy Scouts of America had no right under New York State and federal law to use words like “scouts” or “scouting” by themselves “in connection with services offered to girls, or to rebrand itself as ‘the Scouts. ’”

Hmmmm. . .  this inclusivity and  diversity thing works fine until it impedes the marketplace.  Then it is every man er woman er person for themselves, himself, herself, person self. . .   Wow. . . I am getting to old for this. . .

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Self-importance. . .

The real danger to bishops and priests, to district presidents and pastors, to clergy and lay is an inflated sense of self-importance.  Even though I have little interest in them and have not sought them out, my email box is filled with vain words from individuals and organizations promising to equip me to be a great leader, a mover of men, and a voice for the ages.  The appeal is to my vanity, to my desire to be the fixer of that which is broken, the healer of the wounded, and the savior of that which is lost.  I would be wrong if I did not admit being tempted by it all.  Is there a pastor worth his salt who does not want to be an agent of healing, hope, and renewal?  If there is, I am not sure he is worthy of being a pastor.  But the issue here is not the desire to repair what is broken or renew what is failing or direct what has lost its purpose.  No, indeed, the issue is who is doing it and how.  The One who is working in us that which is well pleasing to God is Christ and the means of grace remain His even when they are administered through the voice and hands of the man set apart for this service by Word and prayer and the laying on of hands.

I wrote a while ago of the good sense and sound advice one of my mentors gave me.  Pastor Charles Evanson warned over and over again not to take yourself too seriously but not to take lightly the Word and Sacraments through which God is at work in us and through you.  It is advice and counsel that I think about daily and with even more urgency than every before.

We live in a time when there are those who see themselves and those who are glad to see them as the saviors of a lost and broken Christianity.  Instead of custodians of the sacred deposit and stewards of the mysteries, they are the commanders who presume to know what God should be doing and who will do it even if God is not.  They have abandoned the Scriptures as the one true voice of life and hope for a world in death and despair.  They approach the Word of God with skepticism and speak it apologetically to a world in love with self-proclaimed truths and embarrassed by this God and His works and ways.  They have turned the Church into a marketplace providing what the consumer desires and they measure success the same way business does -- with market share.  They have no core values except the need to succeed, to build ever bigger monuments to their all surpassing greatness.  They offer the world a new and improved gospel designed to provide happiness for the heart and desire without the messy business of morality -- certainly without the condemnation of sin!

We live at a time when truth is adjustable on the sliding scale of what people want, what they will flock to, and what they will support with their $$$.  If people will not hear the Word of God, then they might listen to self-improvement plans designed to help them get what they desire without judgment.  So church buildings are filled with people and programs that have less to do with the Word of the Cross than meeting the perceived needs of people.  We tell them what they want to hear and we keep them from hearing the one thing needful -- the call to repentance and the message of the Gospel to redeem their lost and condemned souls.  If the building is bustling on Monday but empty on Sunday we console ourselves by saying we are meeting the needs of our neighborhood.  We say that this will lead them into the place where altar, pulpit, and font are center but even some of the greats of the evangelical miracle temples admit that it has not led to this.  Still we drink the koolaid and look everywhere but to the Word of God to figure out who we are and why we are here and what we should be doing.

Even mighty Rome is not immune to this.  They have a pope who enjoys the limelight and who wants to be liked more than he wants to be faithful.  He seems willing to throw many things under the bus in order make the Church and its Gospel more palatable to a world convinced that if God loves the sinner, He must also love or tolerate the sin.  He is accompanied by bishops who wear the purple and cardinals who wear the red but who resist holding those over whom they watch accountable or themselves accountable.  They have decided that building a better world is more important than conveying the sacramental mysteries that build the Kingdom of God.  Under those bishops serve priests who do cute things and ad lib the liturgy to make it more personal and at the same time less Christ-centered, who diminish the good and pious devotions of the faithful by treating the things of God as if they were ordinary.

George Wiegel put it this way in First Things:
A priest or bishop who messes with the Missal and re-writes it to his taste as he celebrates Mass is a narcissist. The priest or bishop who rambles on aimlessly during a daily Mass homily, abusing the time of his people, is a narcissist. A bishop who behaves as if he were hereditary nobility, but absent the gentlemanly noblesse oblige that characterizes the truly noble man, is a narcissist. And Catholics are fed up with clerical narcissism. The angers of the present have been stoked by that narcissism for decades; the deadly combination of McCarrick and Josh Shapiro blew the boiler’s lid off. Anyone who doesn’t recognize this is not going to be much help in fixing what’s broken.
Lutherans should not snicker.  We have our own porn priestesses like Nadia Bolz Weber.  We have our own entrepreneurs who do church the way they think it will work because they have lost confidence in the God who works through His Word and Sacraments.  We have our own pastors who wink at the historicity of the Scriptures, at the doctrine of Creed and Symbol, and at the practice of what we confess in those Creeds and Symbols.  We have our own struggles to preach as faithfully the call to holiness and to delight in the Law as guide as to preach justification alone.  We have those who insist that it is not your grandfather's church but they need to be reminded that neither is it your church to do with as you please.  It is the great temptation to believe in one's self-importance but it is nothing more or less than narcissism -- the same one that led Israel to make a god instead of worshiping the One who delivered them from Egypt and gave them the land of promise.  These are the sins that never go out of style and they are the reasons why churches grow smaller and the number of nones continues to increase.  Perhaps they see through smokescreen of relevance and see what is really being offered -- the glorified me.  Who needs religion for that?  It is the thing that comes entirely natural to our sinful hearts.

As much as we hate to say it, the truest words for every bishop and priest, district president and pastor, clergy and layman are the words of John the Forerunner:  He must increase; I must decrease. This is the work of God alone for no one chooses this path without the Spirit.  I cannot by my own reason or strength, said Luther and he hit is square on.  At best the clergy are temporary custodians of the eternal Word and the blessed Sacraments that do what they say and deliver what they sign.  If only we were content in this perhaps the Church would fare better in this world.  I know one thing that is my confidence and foundation -- Jesus does not need me to save His Church.  He has already guaranteed that hell itself will not prevail.  Every day I serve, I try to remember that fact.  Some days I do better than others.  It is our common lot as people on both sides of the rail to remember that and to find comfort and peace in this.  It is enough simply for us to be faithful.  God will do the rest.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Preaching FAIL. . .

There is a sermon, prominently featured by the Lutheran School of Theology on their web page and Facebook, which illustrates the great fail of preaching.  You can listen to it or read it (https://www.facebook.com/LSTChicago/ - see October 9 posting)  or "Soundcloud" under "LSTCChicago" (see: this audio version: https://soundcloud.com/lstc-chicago/sermon-by-elle-dowd-1082018?fbclid=IwAR1lSYwiTrfm_gSPEzpcLT2HjDC9ADPJy-DwLacdlQlTWJHHjOMRHNlDCrc). 

I could spend much time criticizing the preacher but the point I want to make is less about this sermon and this preacher than what happens when sermons fail, when preaching does not deliver its promise, when causes display the Gospel of Christ crucified, and when this Gospel is reduced to a cause.  It is not just that such preaching is unfaithful to Scripture but that it is unfaithful to the very cause of the Word -- the gift of gracious freedom through the forgiveness of the sins.  When advocacy for a cause -- any cause no matter how good -- replaces the preaching of the one and only Word that brings hope and life to those laboring under despair and death, the hearer is left in his or her sins, left under the judgment of guilt, and left under the doom of death.  When sin escapes our vocabulary in the pulpit and when affirmation replaces absolution as the great and wondrous gift of God, it is not simply a failure but a condemnation in which the hearer is left without hope.

There is also another problem.  That problem is when agencies of the Church (seminaries) fail to call out the problems with such preaching failures, when the hearers remain silent while the Word of Life is left silent, and when the Gospel becomes simply a word without the cross behind it.  For the hearer also has a responsibility to insist that the fake gospel is no Gospel, that passionate and pious words are not a substitute for the life-giving Word of the cross, and when advocacy for causes is not the domain or duty of the pulpit. 

Preaching fails for many reasons but preaching that abuses the text and commandeers the Word of God to be used for another purpose than to redeem is the preaching fail that cannot be tolerated.  I have heard countless sermons and most of which I cannot recall even a word but the ones that I cannot forget are when the preachers words masked and detoured the Word of God and left me without the comfort of God's grace to forgive me, a sinner, and the hope of God's grace to redeem me, a lost and condemned sinner, from death to everlasting life.  I hope that if you listened to this sermon, you will not forget it.  It is not that I want you to remember the preacher of this sermon but to remember how preaching fails God and fails the hearer.  And if you are in the pulpit, listen up and make sure you do not do the same thing.  And if you are in the pew, don't tolerate such preaching failures.  Get up and leave.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Toward a Chinese Christianity. . .



Apparently the Chinese government is moving ahead on the heels of their success with the Vatican.  This time, apparently, they are moving to transform Christianity IN China to a Chinese VERSION of Christianity, more friendly to socialism and one that has incorporated some of the wisdom of Chairman Mao into the Scriptures.  This is more than a Bible with some added material but a material revision of Christianity.

The Chinese have a plan called Sinicization with the goal of transforming the heart and soul of Christian theology and re-translating the Bible or revising biblical commentaries.  This would actually involving summarizing the Old Testament with some Buddhist additions and Confucian teachings and new commentary for the New Testament.  The five-year plan appears to be expansive, even  incorporating Chinese elements into church worship services, hymns and songs, clergy attire, and the architectural style of church buildings.  Everyone knows that between 4,000 to 6,000 crosses of state-sanctioned churches have been torn down but the churches that do have crucifixes on the inside must put up pictures of Chairman Mao and Chairman Xi [Jinping] on either side of the crucifix.  Music that begins worship will include the revolutionary songs of communist China.  In addition the state will seek to close or merge many of the state-sanctioned churches as well as step up efforts to close the more than 20,000 house churches not sanctioned by the state. 


In many ways, this is even more overt and profound than the attempt of Nazis to define Christianity in a way that was friendly to Hitler and to find accommodation within Scripture for the Nazi ideology.  While hundreds of Christian leaders have condemned the effort, it remains to be seen if they will be more successful than the churches of Germany were in resisting the state sponsored control of Christian dogma, worship, and piety.  What is clear, however, is that Pope Francis recent accord with the Chinese in allowing them a role in naming bishops and exercising certain authority over Chinese Roman Catholics appears now to have been a real sell out and an encouragement to the emboldened efforts of China to do more than control the churches and to undertake an actual remake of the Christian message and identity within their borders.  All of this comes at a time when it is clear, that despite appearances, China is closing doors rather than opening them to freedom and to the West.  It also appears to justify those who suggest that our dependence upon the Chinese is providing the financial cover for their consolidation of power within their borders and their moves to strengthen their position within the world.

Of course, liberals will insist that those who cry foul are overreacting and that the same kind of cultural appropriation of the Christian faith has been done in many other places.  For the orthodox Christian community concerned about doctrinal integrity even more than personal freedom, this is very ominous.  That said, freedom is just a word unless it is accompanied by the protections of law which not only give liberty to the churches but to every believer to confess and teach without control or interference from the government -- whether in China or in the enlightened West.

Some more fruits of a Chinese Christianity and the Vatican accords. . .


Chinese authorities destroy two Marian shrines despite Vatican-China agreement by Mary Rezac/CNA  posted Saturday, 27 Oct 2018
Government forces destroyed the shrines of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows in Dongergou (Shanxi), and Our Lady of Bliss in Anlong (Guizhou)  As part of an ongoing crackdown on religious practice in the country, Chinese authorities demolished two Catholic Marian shrines this week. The move comes just one month after the Chinese government signed an agreement with the Vatican regarding the appointment of bishops.  According to reports from AsiaNews, government authorities destroyed the Marian shrines of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows in Dongergou (Shanxi), and Our Lady of Bliss, also known as Our Lady of the Mountain, in Anlong (Guizhou).  The shrines were pilgrimage sites for both the official Chinese Catholic Church and the “underground” Catholic Church in China.  Authorities claim that the shrine in Anlong was destroyed because it lacked the necessary building permits. Local Catholics told AsiaNews that they believe the demolitions were part of the so-called “Sinicization” efforts of the Communist Party to bring the Catholic Church more in-line with the government’s understanding of Chinese culture, society and politics.  Last month, the Holy See announced that Pope Francis had signed an agreement with the Chinese government intended to normalize the situation of China’s Catholics.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Give Satan no help. . .

It is clear that Satan has delighted in some recent victories.  He has scandalized Christian morality with the constant news of sexual abuse within the churches and covered up or ignored by those charged with ecclesiastical supervision.  He has marginalized orthodox Christianity as an offensive voice which modern culture finds intolerable and therefore limited to the private sphere of what happens inside the worship service alone.  He has stolen the cause of virtue from Christ and the Gospel and made it the domain of the individual and his or her own preference, consent being the primary operative.  He has shown the leaders of the churches to be flawed people whose sinful desires and actions have used good office as cover or advantage for the pursuit of their lust.  All of this is true and with good cause gives people inside the church and outside some pause to reconsider the claims of Christianity and the essential character of the church as an institution.  Yet, we should give Satan no help.

It is our duty, though without any delight, to hold church leaders to the high standards of their offices but it is not our duty or domain to abandon the good offices of the pastoral ministry or dismiss those who faithfully preach the Word and administer the Sacraments of Christ to His people.  We should not fall victim to the temptation to add our voices to the voices outside the church who mock God's kingdom and work because of its fallen and sinful clergy.  We dare not suggest that morality is in the eye of the beholder nor should we consider the sins of the moment to be greater than the silent sins no longer condemned.  We have no cause from God to abandon the worship of God's people gathered around His Word and Table and those whom He has charged to deliver these means of grace to the people.  We can be shocked and offended, morally outraged and demanding of better supervision and more transparency, but we dare not offend the Lord by treating the church for whom Christ died and the public life of that church gathered around His Word and Table as something less than worthy or noble.  We are to give Satan no help and aid in tearing down what Christ has established!

Think about this when you speak about your leaders (Hebrews 13:17; Ecclesiastes 10:20; 1 Timothy 5:17; Romans 13:1, among others).  It is certainly not wrong to criticize wrong, especially when that wrong is not being noted by others.  But it is certainly and truly wrong to foster an attitude of criticism, to delight in that wrong, and to focus only upon the wrong and those who perpetuate that wrong.  We are not to give Satan aid and comfort in his quest to tear down what God has made.  That does not mean we are to remain silent but it does mean that we have a solemn responsibility in the manner in which we speak of one another and how we address things within our common life as Christian people.  To do otherwise is to aid Satan and become one of his own minions against the Lord and His work and kingdom. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Are they related?

The story generally is that the ordination of women is unrelated to the adoption of same sex marriage and the ordination of the great variety of GLBTQ+, etc...  So the folks who have left the ELCA or the Episcopal Church over the issue of same sex marriage and its consequences for who should be ordained think that they are quite happy to retain the ordination of women but to draw the line there.  That far and no further.

The reality is that the two may not be related in the minds of those people who left but they are surely related for the church bodies in question.  Take the Lutherans, for example.  There is no Lutheran body which ordains only men but also accepts same sex marriage and ordains men of other sexual identities.  On the other hand, based on 2014 data supplied by the Lutheran World Federation, 96.5% of Lutherans in Europe and North America that ordain women also support same-sex lifestyles and their full incorporation into the life of the church -- at all levels.  The numbers of Lutherans who ordain women but do not ordain practicing homosexuals, approve gay marriage, and approve of the variety of claimed sexual identities and genders is small and getting smaller every day.

If for this reality only, Lutherans who are not willing to fully incorporate the full dimension of sexual identities and genders into the life of the Church and give full approval to them, should pause to reconsider the ordination of women -- if they currently do ordain women or are contemplating it.  It is probably not politically correct to say this and I am sure that the people involved do not want to hear it, but this is the reality among Lutherans (and Episcopalians).

According to the LWF, the cause is “to make the issue of women in the ordained ministry explicit in order to embrace the full and equitable representation of women and men in leadership. This would be a sign of the continuous reformation and transformation of the church. It is not only about women, it is about the church, what kind of church do we want to witness in the on-going reformation.”  This is clearly the direction of the LWF with respect to GLBTQ+ as well.  In fact, it is generally a short period of time between the choice to ordain women and the acceptance of GLBTQ+ marriage and clergy.  In most of these churches, it is the span of a generation or two.  In some, it is much shorter.

Some women may think it unfair to lump together the issues of same sex marriage and homosexual clergy with the ordination of women, but it is the inevitable conclusion of a church once that church body has decided to ignore the unbroken history, tradition, theological rationale, and Scripture passages that attest to the ordination of men only.  After setting aside Scriptural and confession reasons for maintaining the prohibition against the ordination of women, it is much easier to set them aside for other causes and other reasons.  Call it the Domino Theory or not but that has proven to be the case for those churches who have ordained women. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

I believe in the resurrection of the body. . .

Sermon for All Saints (Observed) preached on Sunday, November 4, 2018.

     It is a small but important thing that we confess in the baptismal creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”  This is an important point.  The Nicene Creed says “the resurrection of the dead” but it is narrowed and made more specific by the Apostles’ Creed where this resurrection of the dead is rendered with unmistakable clarity.  “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” 

    The first Christians stood amid a world in which flesh was merely a container.  The soul was the important thing and the body was disposable.  No big deal.  The pagans believed in death as the final freedom of the spirit from its fleshly prison.  They believed that the spirit was pure and so death was the final step toward pure spiritual freedom.  They burned the body on a pyre and were happy to do so.  It was just a container.  The real person is now free.

    Strangely enough, Christians now talk like this.  Christians have adopted the vocabulary of pagans and treat the body as if it had no meaning or value – only the spirit. This is no small part of the equation of religion with spirituality.  The spiritual but not religious still believe that the flesh is merely mortal clothing, gladly shed as freely as we take off our work clothes when we get home at night.  Even more, our age treats the body as if it primarily an avenue for self-expression.  We paint and do plastic surgery on the body as if it were but a canvas.  It is no big deal – it will pass away but you, the spiritual you, will endure.

    We forget that Christians have no smug disdain for flesh.  We confess the God who came in flesh and blood, who did not spurn the Virgin’s Womb to be fit with a body like our own but without sin.  We confess the God who redeems us soul AND body from sin and its death.  He does not cast off our flesh as if it were no consequence but honors it with new life in baptism even as we are pledged everlasting life to come.  Our bodies are made the temples of the Holy Spirit by baptism.  God does not raise us to some spiritual plane but descends to flesh in His Son and the flesh and blood of this Supper we shall soon eat.

    Our Lord does not dismiss the flesh but feeds the hungry on the miracle bread of loaves multiplied and fish expanded for thousands.  He heals the withered limbs of the disabled and  the diseases of the afflicted and says this as the very mark of the Messianic age.  Go and tell John what you see and hear.  That the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the mute speak, and the dead are raised!  This was the promise of Isaiah fulfilled in Him who was the long promised Savior from God.

    On Easter Sunday our Lord does not fly away as the captive spirit set free from its bodily prison.  No, He rises and wears the new flesh death cannot touch.  This body can be touched and Jesus eats bread and fish to show He is no spirit and no ghost but whole. His Easter miracle is the first fruits of many who will follow, the first born of the dead.  Today we remember those joined to Christ’s death and resurrection by the splash of water with the Word on their sinful flesh and who, though dead, still live in Him.  We look forward to our own joyful resurrection with Christ to dwell in Christ forever.  We hope not for a spiritual life but the full promise of a new flesh and blood we wear for all eternity.

    In Revelation, the vision God gave to John and to the people in his care who wrestled with persecution and trial, the dead are never described as mere spirits.  They are tribes and peoples and speakers of language.  They wear the white robes as the uniform of heaven and they hold in their hands palm branches.  They fall down on their faces and cry out to the Lord with loud voices.  “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.”  This is not a metaphor.  This is a vision, a picture of how it is and will be.

    The saints are not free spirits but the bodies marked with sin and carrying in them the frailties of mortality who were washed in the blood of the Lamb.  These saints who once hungered and thirsted for more than this life could deliver have no want or need in their new and glorious flesh and blood.  Their eyes too full of tears no long weep for loss but are filled with the heavenly reality unimaginable here on earth.

    We do not believe in A resurrection.  We believe in THE resurrection of the body, the resurrection of Christ who is the first of those to come.  We confess that on the last day our Lord shall stand upon the earth to end the ticking clock of our mortal limitations.  He will reach His hands into the earth and bring forth the dead to be raised as He is raised with new and everlasting flesh.  He will call to the sea to release its dead and He will restore those whose remains have been lost.  I believe in the resurrection of the body.

    Those who have died in Christ will be raised, the perishable will put on the imperishable, the mortal will put on immortality.  It will happen suddenly.  In contrast to the slow passing of the ages, in the twinkling of an eye, the dead shall be raised incorruptible.  They will live not some virtual or imaginary or fake lives but real lives – real lives absent the sin and death that have characterized this life and stolen our joy.  On this mountain the veil that is cast over all people will be lifted and death will be no more.

    On All Saints Sunday we groan in expectation of such a victory.  We lament the cost sin has extracted from us.  We ache because of the death under which we live and because of the dead who have gone before us.  We come as the people whom God has claimed as His own in baptism to be fed and nourished in the Holy Communion.  We refuse to settle for anything less than the full promise of Jesus, both for our loved ones and for ourselves.  We look for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.

    Like John we walk around in a world we can scarcely recognize anymore.  We are afraid to turn on the news because of the violence, we sit in wonder at the next perversion called normal, we lament our failure to love children enough not to kill them, and then we worry if we are safe.  We may wring our hands about the future of this world but Christ has promised a new world, a new body, and a new and eternal reality.  We have cried too many tears for what was and for what was not to be to simply make our peace with death.  We need a Savior stronger than death who can truly offer us hope.

    To us the Scriptures speak today.  Rejoice and be glad.  For great is your reward in heaven.  God will not give you some vague rendition of life but new flesh and new blood.  He will raise you from this body of death to dwell with Him in the place of eternal light and life.  He will set you in the place of honor prepared for you for the heavenly banquet of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb which has no end.  He will place upon you the wedding garment which will not wear out.  He will deliver you from all that death has stolen from you, you and all the dead in Christ, and will raise you up eternal, immortal, and imperishable.

    On this day we speak forth in tears the names of the dead from our congregation and we lift in our own voices the names of our loved ones whom we still grieve.  But we do this not in despair but in the hope of the resurrection of the BODY.  God will raise you up and all the dead in Christ, and give to you and all who believe in Him the new and everlasting bodies He has promised.  He will replace this heaven and earth already passing away with the new heavens and the new earth that will never pass away.  This He has promised.

    In a few hours we will gather over dinner to pledge toward that future Christ promised.  Money for mission while the Lord is patient so that those who hear may believe in Him.  A secure house and finances for the future so we will not pass on a maintenance list to our kids and distract them from the holy cause of mission and witness.  A day to rejoice in a heritage but also a future, a people blessed by God, chosen to be His own, and living out this faith in this time, in this generation.  What fear cannot steal, we gladly surrender to the cause and purpose of the Lord believing His cause is our highest and most noble purpose.

    And by these gifts, we will confess our faith:  I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.  Hold on to this.  This is what we speak in witness to a world which treats the body as if it did not matter or as if it alone mattered.  We have seen the future God has prepared for us in the risen Christ.  In our loss, this is our comfort.  In our frailty, this is our strength. In our death, this is our hope.  In our witness, this is our message.  Nothing less than the full promise – a new and everlasting body so that we may dwell with Christ and He with us forevermore.  Amen.

Is this the best we can do. . .

Christian funerals are much like non-Christian ones and their cemeteries much like non-Christians ones.  In some respects, we have become merely one of the many marketers of services to people seeking a product -- mostly a cheap but meaningful funeral to send the dead on to whatever future there is. We have the same music and we have the same eulogies -- heavy on sentiment and not much more.  The bodies are painted up to look nice and they rest in the same boxes.  Maybe a cross might mark the Christian one but even those outside the faith are not immune to symbols -- whether or not those symbols have much meaning.  We say the same pious platitudes about how the dead are in a better place and we console ourselves with the same curious thoughts of what the dead may have wanted or did not want.  How sad it is that this has become the state of things.

How did this happen?  How did we go from the death that kills death to death that is the end?  When did we surrender the cosmic dimension of Christ's resurrection to an individualistic sentiment.  When did we try to imagine the life that Scripture says is hidden with God and when did we content ourselves more with this imagination than the unimaginable that St. Paul says awaits us.  When did we begin to think that death could be tamed or neutralized or humanized by something other than Christ and His empty tomb?  When did we begin to think of life after death as ours and not life with Christ and in Him?

Before coffins were invented, the body was washed by the family and a bed laid out for it even at the altar.  Death could not be masked by make up and the machinations of man.  Yet the Church did not have a rite bequeathed to them and in persecution found it to mark death in any way different from the pagan surroundings.  It was a gradual development and many days passed before a procession would cry out Alleluia or the Psalms of death be repeated out loud and in public as they made their way to the grave.

Strangely, when we look at the art of the catacombs we see that the art displays a baptismal theme.  The funerary art of the caves is oddly not about death at all but about the sacrament of life.  Here is the promise.  We are baptized out of death and into new life in Christ -- the life where death cannot reign or even intrude.  So writes St. Paul:  For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  To die is gain and the final enemy to be destroyed is death.  

It seems at every funeral there is something new that has been added ygwzand at the same time an abridgement of what was.  So the Psalms are reduced to one and that one, especially Psalm 118, to but a few verses.  Is it because we are no longer sure what to do with the Word of God or is it that find more comfort in things of our own making than in the Word that endures forever?  I wish I could say.  In any case, the liturgical elements of the faith have been forced to make room for the very things that confuse our hope and distract us from Christ, whose resurrection is our life and our hope.  The last things we pay attention to are not the things of Christ but the sentimental details that mark our final moments in this mortal life.  

I have found some Christians resistant at the prospect of a church funeral because they do not want to mark the place of faith with the memory of the dead.  In reality, it is the place where we are closest to those who have gone before.  Therefore, with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven. . .  I can think of one family that has hardly been in church since the death of mother and grandmother.  It is too painful, they say.  It is easier to stay home and live within the memories.  Is that what we have come to?  Are we such strangers to our hope?  Have we forgotten the death that gives us life?  

Our cause as Christians is two fold.  On the one hand it is the rediscovery of death as tragedy.  We  must learn to say defiantly against those who would befriend it that death is the enemy.  Death reigns because of sin.  There is no escape.  Because all have sinned.  All die.  Yet at the same time we must also rediscover the death that is victory.  Christ's death that has met our enemy and killed him once for all.  Christ who has met our sin with the grace of forgiveness.  Christ who lay in the belly of the earth and yet death could not contain him nor the grave silence His voice.  Christ whose resurrection is so profound and powerful that it is the rescue for a people marked for death.  Our hope is not for some somewhat out there but life with Christ because we are in Christ.  If we learn again the voice of this hope, we may be able to rescue our people from the abyss of despair and from the false comfort of a yesterday which can never return.  And then the world may just find cause to look and to listen.  When our weekly Divine Services are once again endowed with the same urgency and anticipation of the future, then maybe our funerals will once again be marked by the hope and expectation of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.  When our preaching and teaching is once again about the death of Christ for sin and the gift of Christ in the resurrection, perhaps our people will learn that their best life is not now nor the future a consolation prize for the crap they have suffered (mostly of not getting what they wanted out of life).

Monday, November 5, 2018

A bishop must know his flock. . .

In 1950, the Roman Catholic diocese of Los Angeles numbered 832,375. In 2016, the same diocese had a population of 4,392,000.  Italy, with a total population of 60M in just over 115K square miles, has 227 diocese.  The US, with a population of more than 325M and nearly 3.8M square miles, in contrast has 167 dioceses.  The top four dioceses in the US have populations of 4.2M, 2.5M, 2.4M, and 2.1M.  Could it be that their sheer size has contributed to the numbers of priests who strayed from their vows and heaped terrible sexual abuse on so many?  Could it be that these mega-dioceses have contributed to the decline in the numbers of people actually in the pews on Sunday morning?

Of course, that is Rome's problem.  Rome will have to sort it out. But it would be foolish for us not to learn something from all of this.  There was a suggestion of a plan to have an LCMS made up of districts of 60 or so congregations, led by a part-time district president (bishop) to exercise ecclesiastical supervision, with most of the other district responsibilities being distributed to either national or regional resources.  It was worth more discussion than it got and perhaps we are too wedded to what we have to think in such radical terms but no one can deny that distance from clergy and parishes is a problem (no, I do not mean simply geographical distance).  Consider that Rome has archdioceses twice as large as the LCMS!  If we struggle with ecclesiastical supervision of 300 congregations and the numbers of ordained and commissioned church workers associated with such a size, can you imagine how difficult it is for the bishop of Los Angeles?  Why do we presume that economy comes with size or efficiency requires size.  I believe that in the church, economy and efficiency with respect to doctrinal oversight is the least of our concerns.

Remember how exhausted Moses was overseeing some 400,000 Israelites under his pastoral care and supervision?  Do you recall how his father-in-law Jethro watched this and called out Moses with the plan to break up this large responsibility into smaller units?  Why do we think we can do what Moses could not?  To be sure, no mega Protestant churches intend to provide the same kind of pastoral care a liturgical congregation and its people expect.  They have replaced pastoral care with care from laity, devoid of a sacramental character, and still they have broken up the large group into units.

If a bishop had 100 clergy and 100,000 people under his care, that might just be manageable.  You want my view?  60 congregations per bishop (and before someone in particular gets on his high horse about that Biblical term, that is the historical and Biblical term for the person who exercises ecclesiastical supervision (even if your constitutional documents call him something else).  We can call the man a grand poobah but Scripture says the episcopus watching over doctrine and practice is doing the work of a bishop.  But don't miss the forest for the trees.  Rome is suffering because of dioceses way too large (indeed, the smaller ones tend to do better at everything from supervision to recruitment of church workers).  We need to heed the lesson and take the time to have a real discussion about what is best, not whether or not it is politically expedient in the climate of our church body today.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

He brings heaven to us, we do not lift ourselves to heaven. . .

The history of worship in Israel was one defined by distance, distance which was traversed only upon the invitation of God.  Indeed, every encounter with God's presence came at the bidding of God and under His terms or the severest consequences resulted -- death.

Both in the Tabernacle and the Temple of Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies was set apart, a place distinct from the rest of the space and its surrounding courtyards.  There were degrees of access.  The numbers of those who could proceed all the way to the Holy of Holies was small and then only according to the rules God set and under the conditions He set.  It was all about the mystery contained within that Holy of Holies.  There was the presence of God, there was the mercy seat, and there was the altar where the covenant in blood was sealed. Out of fear and reverence for the Lord, Israel observed these boundaries as an act of faith.  No laymen, male or female, and no lower ranks of priests and Levites dare to transgress the borders and enter the Holy of Holies. This was left only to the high priest, only under the precise conditions set by the Lord, and for the purpose the Lord gave entrance -- the incense of his prayers on behalf of the people and the sacrificial blood required by the Lord.  This was the defining character of God and His people.  Even when it had been ritualized and emptied of faith, the rules stood and the order God established prevailed.

We often forget these rubrics and the solemnity with which the children of Israel approached the Lord and their joy at even this access that was provided them.  Christians have a bad memory when it comes to this and generally presume that all of this was swept away in one fell swoop of God's work so that it was all rendered meaningless and a mere footnote in history, without impact or influence upon the shape of God's people who came after them, their faith or their worship.  That is a fallacy that must not be left unchallenged.  To understand the impact of all of this upon the life of the Christian Church, one need only read carefully the Book of Hebrews.  This is not quaint or out of date but has a design forged not in a past to be forgotten but a future to be anticipated in the Divine Service.

When Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, pierced the veil and entered into the true tabernacle not made with human hands, He made ready the way for us to follow.  This includes the wondrous gift of His Holy Supper, wherein we receive, in anticipation of the eternal banquet and marriage feast of the Lamb, His most precious Body and Blood.  By this communion, we are made sharers of the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation, and the medicine of immortality.

Somehow, we have confused the gift of this mean and the gift of His sacrificial suffering and death and the blessing of His resurrection as an end to what came before and not its fulfillment.  The once unapproachable God has been remade into some casual deity who comes at our beck and call and delivers to us grace as we request.  Of course, this communion affords us the greatest intimacy with our Savior and Redeemer but we must remember that because of His gift and fulfillment of the Tabernacle and Temple he is no less the Sovereign High and Holy Priest than He was before His saving work.  He is no less crowned with glory and He is no less the Most High Jesus Christ, as we sing in the Gloria in Excelsis.  And that means we are no less His lowly servants, no less indebted to His grace, no less in awe of His gracious favor, and no less a people standing on the holy ground of His gracious presence.  When this aspect disappears from our worship, it is inevitably replaced by a casual presence of a Lord who is more like an old friend than God in flesh and who is feared little even though He is Lord and Judge of all.  The holiness of God still causes us pause -- even though we know also His mercy and favor.  The earthly temple, then and now, is no less the House of God and we His invited guests simply because the promise of the old has been now fulfilled in Him.

Too many have tried to disparage the idea of fear and simply suggest that some respect is enough.  Yet the worship in the New Covenant is no less the worship of those who have a holy fear before the Lord, not because we cannot control Him or know what He might do but precisely because we know what He has done in Christ.  For generations this was one of the profound truths underlying everything from the shape of the Divine Service to the shape of the building in which the Divine Service takes place.  In art, furnishings, vestments, and vessels, we do not forget that all mortal flesh must keep silence and bend the knee (not simply symbolically) in honor of His who brings the Father's Word and Love to an unworthy and undeserving people.  There is no justification for the dismissal of the Holy Lord who has become our Savior in favor of some gladhanding God who is just like us.  Traditionally, it was in the sanctuary, the domain of Christ the High Priest, Lord, Savior, and King, where we continued the humble awe and deep and profound reverence for the God who comes to us in flesh to wear our sin and save us sinners and then feeds us the taste of eternity in His body and blood, as the preview of the eternal.  Read over Revelation and its picture of the heavenly liturgy and tell me that this bears any resemblance to what passes for worship in too many Lutheran churches and in generic Protestantism.  Tell me about images of the Holy City where the Lamb is light and center and of the worship which anticipates this heavenly revelation and how this is reflected by a people who have come to worship to have a good time with Jesus to some toe-tapping music while sipping our Starbucks as we are entertained to death?

Friday, November 2, 2018

Just a regular guy. . .

In the silly season now almost over for a time, politicians in Tennessee leave behind their tailored suits and custom fit shirts and their Italian shoes in favor of flannel shirts.  Some of them leave the German or Japanese vehicles in the garage and drive around the countryside in a older model pick up, one that comes pre-dirtied with some splatters of Tennessee clay.  All of this is, of course, designed to make people believe that the folks running for office are good old boys.  Strangely, women seem less inclined to wear the same ill fitting costumes -- though that may be due less to their desire to be seen as ordinary and folksy people than it is the fact that a woman in a shapeless flannel shirt and overalls in a aged pick up occasions more laughter than anything else.  Apparently, the pollsters tell those running for office that we are so naive in Tennessee that we actually believe the hype and drink the koolaid of the lie that these are just regular folk.

If politicians are inclined to this deception, then the second group of people so tempted has to be pastors.  Of all the yearnings known to men of God, the most dangerous is the desire to be seen as just a regular guy.  Pastors wear their hole-y jeans or khakis, their Tees or polos, their sneakers or deck shoes or boots, and they think that they are helping people by appearing to be nobody special.  The pastors who offend this by wearing clericals or a suit or vestments are ridiculed as men who are not comfortable in their own skin.  They are not regular guys at all.  Watch out for them.

Way too many pastors covet the reputation of being a “regular guy” and spend much of their time trying to be ordinary.  I can tell you that the pursuit of ordinariness does not require all that much effort.  Most of us are born to it and grow into it without much help.  Even when we do wear vestments or a clerical collar, we work to make sure that people know we don't feel comfortable in these things and if we had our druthers we would ditch it all in a minute.  We wear them not because we like them but because we are good people and feel a sense of duty to tradition (as useless as those traditions of peculiar clothing and vestments might be).  We want not to be special but to be regular guys and so we diminish our calling and in the process we make it ordinary and regular as well.  Then we cannot figure out why people no longer respect their pastors as men of God, why it is so difficult to get young men to consider the pastoral vocation, and why people are not scandalized by the fact that we make our pastors pay mightily for the education we require to be pastors.

But we just want to be regular guys. . .

Well, I am here to tell you that God doesn't want regular guys and the Church doesn't need them either.  The folks in the pews who are comforted by the fact that their pastors are ordinary men don't think that the means of grace which are conferred upon pastors are all that special either.  And this is the source of the problem.  For what makes a pastor NOT a regular guy is not whether or not he wears flannel shirts or drives an old pickup but that he is called by God and this call is affirmed by the Church and he has been set apart by Word and prayer for an office that is by nature not regular but set apart.  The man may not be holy but the office and the calling is.  We are not benefited in the least by men who make the pastoral office ordinary in the pursuit of being seen like regular guys.  The people of God are not being well served by pastors who make the pulpit the podium of a jokester, who gives more time to relevant stories at the expense of preaching the Law and Gospel faithfully, and who are as comfortable telling an off color story as they are encouraging the faithful to good works that glorify God.

The liturgy is not the domain of regular folks doing ordinary things but the place where the extraordinary God does the extraordinary things of His promise -- through the power of His Word.  The pulpit is not a place for a monologue or comedic wit but the most serious business of preaching the Law to unsettle the sinners in their sins and the Gospel to comfort those who come in the despair of God's all-seeing eye.  Those who lead the people of God need to decrease their personality and increase the focus upon the Christ they preach, the water of Christ they splash, and the body and blood of Christ they distribute.

I am not a regular guy -- a sinner to be sure and filled with obvious and hidden flaws and failings but the office to which I am called is anything but ordinary and regular and the Gospel that I preach is anything but routine and nothing special and the Sacraments which I administer are anything but casual encounters of a close kind.  God is here.  God Himself is present.  God speaking through His Word and in the voice of the pastor.  God delivering the things Christ died to earn and rose to bestow upon a Church that is not His head but His body.  Where the head is, the body will soon follow.  That is something we too often forget.  We do not lead Christ but He leads us and nobody should know this better than the pastor who spends his whole life knowing that he is doing things for which He is unworthy and ill-prepared for a people who do not deserve this grace and who struggle to know what it is and believe it.  But that is how the Kingdom works.  So if you desire to be a regular guy but you have a call from God through the Church, give it up and do what God has called you to do and be who God has called you to be.  That is what I struggle to do -- some days better than others.  God help me.  God help all pastors.