Saturday, January 19, 2019

More Roman Goofiness . . .

Just to show that the GLBTQ agenda is embraced by more than liberal Lutherans and others and to show that goofiness in Mass happens as frequently as goofiness parading as the Divine Service among Lutherans. . . and that Lutherans are not the only ones to flaunt the teachings of their church. . . watch and pray. . .

Can the church become a sect. . .

Watching another blog, a questioner was quite concerned with the state of affairs within the Roman Catholic Church and wondered it if was the same Church or had betrayed its identity.  The responder wrote:  . . .the Church cannot become something that she isn’t.  An acorn cannot become a giraffe and the Catholic Church cannot become some sect. . .  As it is written, the statement is true.  The Catholic Church cannot become a sect because God has p[laced His promise upon her.  But if Catholic has become a mere synonym for the Roman Catholic Church, then the statement is not a fact but a supposition of those who hold it.  The Roman Catholic Church can become a sect and, in fact, that is the very present danger given the theological and moral climate within Rome now (just as was the contention of Luther in the 16th century).  When any orthodox Christian community turns its back upon the Word of God or trades the True Gospel for a false gospel, that community has forsaken its claims of truth, fidelity, and authenticity.  Even the Orthodox Church admits that fidelity is the source of authenticity and not a particular office or the claims of those office holders.

To be sure, Luther was no radical reformer who insisted that the Church had died in the darkness and could not be reformed and had to be reconstituted.  Luther insisted that where the Word was proclaimed faithfully and the Sacraments administered faithfully, there was Christ and there was His Church.  Luther saw the Church as reformable.  Luther said the Roman Catholic Church had lived in darkness when the Gospel did not predominate and where the Scriptures were not the authority but it was not complete darkness.  The Church never ceased to exist but Rome has ceased to be that Church and had, indeed, become sectarian because of its condemnation of justification by grace through faith alone and by its substitution of man-made doctrines for the doctrine of the Scriptures -- not to mention the placing of pope, council, and teaching magisterium above the Word of God as source and norm of all that is believed and confessed.

According to the responder, the Catholic Church has been abused by her custodians.  They have dressed her up in false colors and made her to dance to dreadful tunes, on display for the world.You get no argument from me on this point.  Yet it is not simply that Rome's leaders have abused their role as custodians of the sacred deposit, they have also forsaken their right to exclusive claim of that deposit.  For the faith is not entrusted to an institution but to a community of believers, to the baptized born anew by water and the Spirit, hearing and believing and following the voice of the Good Shepherd speaking through His Word, and gathered at His bidding to receive the gift of Himself in the blessed Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood.  When that community forsakes the Word, they lose its promise and their identity as the people of that promise and their leaders as custodians of it.

Lutherans believe in apostolic succession but not in a continuous mechanical succession of hands.  Rather Lutherans insist that there must be a succession of ministers AND a succession of faithful.  We joyfully affirm that the office of the Holy Ministry is one of the marks of that true Church but not the sole mark.  It exists with a community of hearers and believers, of people washed and cleansed, attentive to the voice of the Word, and gathered at His bidding to receive what His own Word promises in the blessed Supper of the Lamb (first here and then in eternity).  An episcopal office alone cannot guarantee this fidelity and authenticity nor can the so-called Petrine office alone be this guarantor of the Church.  It is an all or nothing sort of approach that Lutherans insist upon -- the faithful pastors and the faithful hearers together in complementary relationship. 

Friday, January 18, 2019

Toxic thoughts on toxic masculinity. . .

We live in a time when, if it is not a sin to be male, it is at least suspect.  From the #METOO movement to radical feminism that has transformed male and female to the gender identity movement that has become the avant garde social cause of the day, the least and the most lost among all people is the man.  Even the folks who sell us razors to shave our beards and scents to cover up our manly odor have jumped on the bandwagon to warn of men being manly as if it were a disease.  Masculinity itself is under siege and has been marked as toxic to men, women, and children.

In reality, of course, there is no such things as toxic masculinity -- only males who behave as children and are not masculine at all.  If anything, masculinity is not something pervading boys in their journey to maturity or our society as a whole.  It is in short supply.  We live in a woman's world in which women do not need men to support them, defend them, give them children, or even be friends.  The only good man today is one who does not think like, speak like, or act like a man.  Boys in school are treated with drugs and discipline for their failure to be like girls.  Universities have become places where ideas too strong to face are relegated to a prison of thoughts and both men and women given safe places where they can find a refuge from things they find offensive.  The media seems to suggest that most straight men are either homophobic or closeted gay and the only good men are those who are fully in touch with their feminine side.

Maybe it was a man's world and there were certainly many men behaving badly but masculinity is not the some toxic force that must be hidden away or treated as something dangerous.  It is the gift, the gift of complementarity created by God, a gift not only needed because we see the wisdom of it all but the very design that under girds all of creation.  The most dangerous things to our culture is not masculinity but a lack of it, in which men have no role or purpose or dignity to aspire to and to live out in concert with women.

If there is a problem with masculinity, could it be that too many homes have an absent father or never had one at all?  Could it be that painting all of men as toxic, sexist, abusive, and threatening has consigned them to the fringes of our society where it is more likely for them to become toxic, sexist, abusive, or threatening?  Could it be that some arenas of the church have actually adopted this idea and created a false Christianity in which the first sin men must confess is being a man?

As the father of two young men and a young woman and the grandfather of one young girl, I live in fear for a world in which gender is divorced from anatomy, questions replace statements in the values and the roles in which we work together for the common good, and one gender is presumed to be suspect at best or toxic at worst.  The family is already under too much pressure to survive the generic condemnation of one its constituent parts.  The church is a community already threatened by a loss of the divine reality with skepticism toward the Word of God now to blame God for the sins of some and to confuse His order with the infusion of prevailing politically correct ideas that contradict that Word. 

So thank you but no, I refuse to confess that being masculine is toxic.  I refuse not because of my self-esteem but purely out of my respect for God and His order, no matter how badly we have abused His gift or distorted His creative intent.  I refuse to believe that to tell a boy to be a man is a bad thing. 

The shape of a counciliar church. . .

On October 11, 1962, when Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II into session, something like 2,200 bishops walked in the procession (out of a total of perhaps 3,000) and perhaps 2,600 attended the some of the sessions.  This was huge comparison to Vatican I when some 744 were at some point in attendance but votes on various issues number in the 500s.  Attendance was about 25-30% less than the total due to illness, circumstance, death, and a host of other reasons.  Still and all, Vatican II was a behemoth of a gathering.

There are those who wonder if there can ever be another universal council in the future?  To put things into perspective, a future Vatican III would be gigantic -- on a scale almost impossible to imagine.  If such a council were to be convened today, the number of bishops who could have a place and a voice would dwarf even Vatican II and could be as high as 5300!!  Compare this to 250-300 or so participated at Nicea in 318.  Even the USCCB held in November, one national conference, numbered about the same attendees as Nicea.

By now you are wondering why a Lutheran is spitting out attendance numbers at Roman Catholic councils.  First of all the point is to suggest that a deliberative council on such a scale is hardly possible and, if technologically possible, hardly workable.  The time in which a gathering of any church group on such a scale can actually debate and deliberate has come and gone.  Such large gatherings become the domain of the few who actually prepare for the meeting, control its agenda, and direct its outcome.  Rome or St. Louis, the address does not matter.  How does a room of 1,000 or more prayerfully consider and deliberate anything anywhere?

Some have suggested that such a form of synodality ought to be the shape of the new Rome.  I am not so sure that is even possible much less desirable.  Some have suggested the same thing for Lutheran gatherings even on a smaller scale.  Again, I am not at all sure that such a thing would be desirable even if it were possible.  The reality of the deal is that such large groups rarely are capable of doing the kind of theological reflection and discernment to make even routine decisions, much less the difficult choices in time of conflict.  Our own LCMS finds itself stymied by the clock or the short attention span of the delegates or the constant call of the question just when discussion begins to get good.  We have made far reaching decisions at such gatherings and then found ourselves struggling to put the pieces together after the delegates have gone home (think here of the LCMS restructuring that took place at the same convention in which the Rev. Matthew Harrison was elected Synod President).  One need only hearken back to a convention in which at the same time the Synod moved to adopt fellowship with a church body that was on the verge of ordaining women while unelecting the Synod President who had led them toward that end and electing one far more conservative (LCMS 1969).  Who can make sense of it all?

Is there something better?  I am not sure.  Perhaps we could conceive of a structure in which solid deliberation could take place and wise decisions carefully determined by majority vote.  I am not at all saying it could not happen.  But in place of it all, perhaps the Synod Convention ought to begin our conversation rather than end it and do this by providing solid Biblical and doctrinal essays to delegates summoned to hear the Word of the Lord.  Perhaps this could proceed from the Synod Convention into the Districts and winkels and forums of our church body and only then return to the level of the Synod Convention to resolve.  It often seems like these gatherings spend more time in PR moves and in voting on the obvious than they should.  How bad could it be if these celebratory moments took a backseat to honest, deliberate, and confessional studies on the subjects and doctrines in the news or being challenged (even outside the Church)?

Though I know it is a dangerous thing, I was just thinking. . .

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Is Evolution the end of Christianity. . .

What I couldn't really resolve was this evolution issue. When I arrived on campus at Princeton, I was still a young-earth creationist. I believed that if one ceased to be a young-earth creationist, one would cease to be a Christian. It had always been presented to me that way: Believe this or cease to believe at all. Slowly I began to let go of that.  So records the doubts, fears, and movement of one evangelical into Rome.  Rome solved the problem of Scripture and of evolution.  Scripture was true because Rome said it was (except where Rome determined it never intended to present fact) and evolution could be compatible with Christian faith (perhaps to be seen in relation to the previous parenthesis).

The problem with hitching the reliability of Scripture to a church, council, or pope, is that it elevates whoever guarantees Scripture above Scripture.  This is the inherent issue underlying the whole of the Reformation -- the problem of authority.  I struggle to see how the reliability (infallibility) of Scripture, one of the most ancient orthodox Christian truths and dogmas, can be hinged upon such recognition either by a church structure or by individual reason or any other thing.  Scripture is true and reliable and without error because it is the Word of God and it claims for itself that which cannot be claimed for any other -- not even the Pope (at least in the early Church and from Scripture itself).

The problem with evolution is tied to the reliability of Scripture.  While some make it out to be a simple exegetical problem dealing with the meaning of day, it is not quite that neat and clean.  The problem also lies with Jesus and St. Paul who refer to Adam not in some symbolic way but as a real man, in time, in history.  It is not a Genesis problem but a Scripture problem.  If creation is a symbolic account in Scripture and not a historical one, then how is it that Jesus references Adam as an historic person -- and St. Paul as well?  It is also a problem because one has to wait until more modern times before it is possible to find much justification for anything but a historical understanding of the Genesis account of creation.  No one in their right mind is saying that there are not symbolic overtones to what took place OR that the Genesis account is full and complete (and therefore satisfactory for the curious mind).  That does not translate into the fact that Genesis, indeed, the whole of the Old Testament, and the words of Jesus and St. Paul are merely mythological.  There is plenty of symbolism to factual things -- from the Temple and its sacrificial center to Calvary and Christ's once for all suffering and death.

While I am not at all ready to say that evolution is a disqualifier for heaven -- only God will decide who enters and who does not and it will be solely because of the merits and mercies of Christ alone -- the idea that evolution can exist quite comfortably within the framework of a reliable Scripture is a step too far.  The Church cannot speak where she has no authority and yet she must speak and contend for that which has been revealed.  That God created, that the creation account of Genesis is history (if not complete in every detail), that Jesus witnessed to the existence of Adam as historical man, and that St. Paul did as well, cannot be ignored or set aside in favor of some scientific view of history (one which remains a theory since nothing in evolutionary thought has been seen or replicated or witnessed except the changes within species themselves).  We have a mess of archeological evidence and though science may have put its best guess as to how to read it all, even this is not unequivocal and does not end the conflict between our estimation of what we see and what God has said.

But that is the issue.  If council, teaching magisterium, and pope sit above Scripture, then there is no need to hold on to Scripture's reliability.  It is nice enough but not essential if God has placed others above the Word.  In a sense, this goes back to Erasmus and Luther.  Luther held that the doctrine of Scripture was plain enough to be known and believed (that is not to say there is no need of theologian) but Erasmus believed the Scripture (at least the doctrinal part of it) was too confused and dark to be known easily or clearly and that was why the moral level was the realm at which most people encountered the Word of God.  That is perhaps simplistic but not far from the truth.  Luther had some admiration for Erasmus that man but could not be reconciled to his thought.  While some thought that Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched, it is perhaps the other way around.  Erasmus was the one who pushed past Scripture as revealer of doctrinal truth and it was Luther who was more akin to medieval theologians who saw Scripture as a Word to be preached and that Word preached was about nothing less than doctrine and truth.  That is where we end.  Scripture is reliable not simply as ethical lamp to light the feet but as the beacon Light of God who speaks truth, revelation, doctrine, and moral guidance to the Church and the world.  Those who find it easy to pass up creation and Adam as less than historical tend to emphasize morality above all.  As a Lutheran, true to form, that is not a place where we can go -- our DNA and the DNA of our Symbols is doctrine and truth or nothing.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Some thoughts on a few phrases. . .

The Roman Canon begins:

Te ígitur, clementíssime Pater, per Iesum Christum, Fílium tuum, Dóminum nostrum, súpplices rogámus ac pétimus: uti accépta hábeas, et benedícas hæc + dona, hæc + múnera, hæc sancta + sacrifícia illibáta: in primis quæ tibi offérimus pro Ecclésia tua sancta cathólica; quam pacificáre, custodíre, adunáre, et régere dignéris toto orbe terrárum… 
We humbly pray and beseech Thee, most merciful Father, through Jesus Christ Thy Son, Our Lord, to receive and to bless these gifts, these presents, these holy unspotted sacrifices, which we offer up to Thee, in the first place, for Thy holy Catholic Church, that it may please Thee to grant her peace, to guard, unite, and guide her, throughout the world…
While Lutherans rightly bristle at these words that announce what is happening at the hand of the priest, there is another dimension in which the offering is true -- the mistake lies in the one doing the offering.  It is not we who offer to the Father the sacrifice, unspotted and holy, but Christ who offers Himself on our behalf -- the once for all sacrifice now made present for us as the holy food of the baptized.  Any Lutheran knows this.  But there is something here we often miss.  The sacrifice of Christ once offered continues to plead for us and Christ continues to point to what He has accomplished to the Father, on behalf of His Church.  The Church remembers this and rejoices at the Word and the Meal in which the offering becomes the voice in our ear bestowing that which is spoken of and the food upon our lips bestowing the flesh and blood of the sacrifice with all its fruits.

Lutherans are rightfully wary of the idea that we are the offerers and Lutherans are rightfully wary of that the force of this offering is heavenward to the Father instead of directed to us but we should not fear and ought to rejoice that the bread we eat is His sacrificial flesh and the cup we drink is His sacrificial blood and that by this blessed communion we are swept up by Christ to the Father to be received by God as His own baptized, believing, restored, forgiven, and declared righteous children.  We are being offered; we are not doing the offering.  Christ is presenting us as those who for the joy set before Him He endured the cross and scorned its shame and in whom the Father, because of Christ, is well pleased.

Later is another truth so sorely missed in our own day and time.  That is, how this canon defines the Church.
…una cum fámulo tuo Papa nostro N., et Antístite nostro N., et ómnibus orthodóxis, atque cathólicæ et apostólicæ fídei cultóribus.
…in union with Thy servant N., our Pope, and N., our Bishop, and with all orthodox men: indeed, with those who cultivate the Catholic and apostolic faith.
Orthodox doctrine is not incidental to the church nor to the faith itself.  Indeed, this emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy is central to the church.  Our social media world is filled with pious platitudes that disdain the church and worship and emphasize moral behavior.  Now far be it from me to suggest that moral behavior is not a good thing.  But the central focus of the faith lies in confessing and worshiping rightly who God is and what God has done (the Athanasian Creed gets it just right in its first words).  The central focus here is does the person confess to the true faith -- not is that person nice, does he pay his taxes, care for his neighbor, and is he a credit to himself, his family, and his community.  None of those things are bad nor should we distance ourselves from them but communion with the church is communion in the faith -- doctrine confessed and lived out in the worship life of the baptized gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.  What we need to be concerned about is whether the person professes the catholic {universal} and apostolic faith, born of the Scriptures and faithfully bestowed as the sacred deposit from the Apostles?  True charity does not exist apart from this orthodoxy nor in opposition to it -- not even in competition with it.

This faithful and orthodox confession lies not simply in checking off doctrinal boxes (okay, yeah, I believe in God, that He made all things, in original sin, in Christ my Savior, etc...).  Doctrine and practice are not different things joined together but different sides of one thing.  Rome seems to have forgotten this (perhaps because the Roman Canon is largely forgotten in favor of other options) and Lutherans, among others, are also tempted to disconnect them.   No one can love what he or she does not know.  To love God is to love the only God as He has made Himself known—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — if you do not believe in the Most Holy Trinity.  Again, the Athanasian Creed puts it right -- whoever desires to be saved must confess the Trinity and worship the Trinity aright.  In a small but profound phrase the Roman Canon emphasizes orthodoxy as the basic condition of Church membership.  This is not only something we can and should affirm but this is the cause which must be recovered not only in Rome but among us Lutherans as well. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The triumph of the subjective. . .

There is no doubt that we live in a time in which the subjective as ascended and the objective has descended in priority and importance.  All around us is a world filled with the definition of preference -- from the way we set up our smart phones to the way we shop to the way we see ourselves and even define gender.  Marriages tend to fail not because of great moral failure as much as people who simply tire of being married (it is not fun anymore).  The married choose not to have children because they fear children will be more work than fun (got that right) and they don't want to impede their happiness -- even with children.  We go to work where work is fun and we look for another job when work is no longer fun (God forbid we might have to work simply for the paycheck).  We wait our whole lives for the moment when we can retire and live only for ourselves (as if we have lived solely for others before we retire).  Yet, for all the so-called happiness we live for and for the heavy focus on what we want and like, we seem to be less happy than those who had big families, worked far harder and longer than we, and lived lives more defined by others than themselves.  We are depressed and find it hard to want to do anything.

I was reading the story of one person's battle with depression and he insisted that one of the paths to his healing was to distrust his subjective experience -- to dethrone the god of pleasure, want, and desire. After all, in the life he was living, nothing ever “sounded like fun” (that’s the nature of depression) and so he began to look beyond what things sounded like and past his immediate wants or desires and force himself to do things he did not want to do.  In the end, he discovered that looking beyond the realm of his subjective experience and desire was the release to the prison of depression that had even cause his hospitalization.

In another article, the author said that depression tended to be shown in an abundance of sentences that began with I think, I feel, or I want (or do not want).  This author, a therapeutic counselor to those depressed, also noticed an abundance of expressions that included words like never or always.  These absolutes tended to inflate and exaggerate the negative feelings and only compound their impact in stealing ever semblance of joy or contentment.

The life turned inward is not a full or free life but one in which bondage to feelings and the search for happiness empties the soul and does not fill it.  Yet this is the epidemic we face as a world abandons an external and objective truth in favor of feelings and desires and a flexible value systems that does not filter or judge either except to excuse, justify, and elevate them as the supreme focus of life.

This is not without application to the faith.  Christian faith which turns from the objective of Christ incarnate, crucified, and risen and to the realm of feelings and experience is a faith emptied of its power and promise to the hurting and to those living in the shadow of death.  If faith is to offer our world any real hope, it must begin with the confrontation of the subjective and the affirmation of the objective, with the surrender of our lives and our stories to the one life and one story that has the power to redeem our lost lives and restore the right relationship with our blessed Creator through the merits and mercies of His Son, our Savior.  This work is the work of the Spirit, to make Christ known and to teach our fearful hearts to turn away from the dead end of introspection and to the path of trust in Christ alone.

Christianity does not begin nor does it end with the preoccupation with of the inner life. The Christian faith begins with the objective truth of the death and resurrection of Christ. That transcendent reality is both a point in history and time attested to by the testimony of witnesses and the point of faith born of the witness of the Spirit to things we have not seen and yet believe. Regardless of our subjective questions, feelings, and experience, the concrete reality of Christ’s death and resurrection remains.  This is where hope and healing begin.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Not simply like you but for you. . .

Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord, preached on Sunday, January 13, 2019.

    One of the terrible things we do is compare our lives to others – even Jesus.  We presume that Jesus is like us and so that is why so many things in His life compare with our own lives.  Jesus spends nine months in the womb – like most of us.  Jesus is born to tears and cries of both mother and child – like most of us.  Jesus grows up and matures as most of us do, trading the childish things St. Paul talks about for adult things.  Jesus gets frustrated – don’t we all?  Jesus gets angry and curses a fig tree – like we get angry and take it out on whoever happens to be near.  Jesus gets left behind by His family – just like we have felt forgotten and alone in the face of those who are supposed to care about us.  Jesus eats like us, drinks like us, and is baptized like us. 

    Everything our Lord does is like us – well, except suffering and dying on a cross. Right?  Wrong!  Everything our Lord does is not simply like us but for us.  All that Jesus does, He does for us, to save us.  Everything Jesus does is for us – the Savior who fulfills all things so that we might be counted obedient and righteous and holy.  We are fixated on how Jesus is like us.  How He laughs and cries, laments and gets angry, struggles and fights within Himself the things He should want to do but does not and the things He should not want to do but does.  For this is how we live.  But Jesus is not given simply to be like us, all that Jesus says and does is for us to save us.

    Jesus is incarnate for us.  Jesus is holy for us.  Jesus is circumcised for us.  Jesus keeps the Law for us.  Jesus denies Himself for us.  Jesus offers Himself up for us.  Jesus goes to the cross for us.  Jesus is baptized for us.  Standing in the river Jordan, our Lord feels the water splash over Him at the hand of John but it is not the clean water that makes clean.  No, it is the dirty water of sinners who have bathed but are still filthy and who cannot make themselves clean – no matter how much they scrub.  Jesus is there not because He needs to hear the prophet’s voice and offer to God a repentant heart.  No, Jesus is there to make the great exchange and to become dirty by us to save us.  This water cannot clean Him but it can only make Him dirty.  He does this not to stand in solidarity with sinners but to be made sin for us that we might be saved.

    That is why we pay so much attention the life of Christ.  In it we see not simply the assurance that Jesus is really human but the assurance that Jesus is really our Savior.  He has not come for any other purpose than to save sinners from their sins and render them holy by judgment who cannot make themselves holy by effort.  He has not come to cut you loose but to secure you firmly within the grasp of grace.  He has not come to release you from the Law but so that you may learn to delight in it and delight doing it.  He has not come to show you up but to do for you what none of us can do for ourselves.
This is the great and grand mystery of baptism.  Jesus went down into the waters good and holy and came out stinking of our sin and stained with our evil.  He wore this sin even to the cross in order that we might go down in the water dirty and come up clean.

    Jesus has not come to be like us – to play that game of humility that the rich and powerful play when they say they are just like us ordinary folk.  This is not an act.  He has come to take our place in sin, on the cross, and in the grave.  He has come to do for us what none of us can do for ourselves.  He is not first judge but savior, not first Lord but servant, even to death upon the cross.  He is not first the example for us to follow but Savior and Redeemer who gives us His holiness as our new clothing in baptism and bestows upon us a new life to be lived for Him and in Him.

    St. Paul says it right.  He died for all that those who live should not live for themselves but for Him who died for them.  Your baptism is not an event in the past but the present reality of a people redeemed, restored, and forgiven.  The Lord has looked upon Jesus and declared you to be His beloved sons and daughters.  The Lord has looked upon Jesus and insists that you are not well pleasing in His sight.  The Lord has looked upon Jesus and called you priests and prophets who will have the vocation and calling to live as His own people.  The Lord has looked upon Jesus and insists that there is a place at the table for you.  That is the reality of Christ’s baptismal gift for you and me.  Your identity is not rooted in your sexuality, your job, or your desires but in Christ.

    We judge all things by feelings.  How we feel is about the most important thing to us.  When you go to your doctor he asks how much pain you are in.  When you buy a trinket from Amazon, they want to know if you are happy with it.  We are swelled up with feelings that come and go as we burn hot and cold for everything from our lives to our families.  We judge all things by feelings and somehow we get the idea that it is cool that Jesus is like us, that He feels like we do in all the range of our feelings, and He acts like we act in all the range of our actions.  We are consumed by our feelings of pride and our lack of self-esteem, by our victories and our defeats.  But none of that matters a whit.  Jesus has not come to be like you but has come for you to save you.

    Baptism reveals this objective truth so easily overshadowed by feelings.  You bet there are bad things in the world, things that frighten you, things that shock you, things that try your patience, and things that shame you.  Tragedies and triumphs galore, pain and suffering without end.  But what does Jesus say.  Let not your hearts be troubled.  Do not give in to the prison of your feelings.  Do not judge yourselves or God on the basis of you feel or how He makes you feel.  Feelings come and go but what Jesus has done remains yesterday, today, and forever the same – Christ forever, for you forever.
    And what has He done?  He came for you before you even knew enough to ask for Him to come.  He lived the holy life you find impossible to live.  He plunged under the baptismal waters to wear all your sin.  He was righteous when you wanted to be bad.  He suffered for you when all you wanted was to escape suffering.  He died for you when all you wanted was a decent life and then you would live with death’s end.  He rose for you when you would have settled for a memory of a past and He wrote for you a future you cannot even yet imagine.

    This is what your baptism is about.  It does not matter how it makes you feel for your feelings are not what your hope rests upon.  Your hope rests upon Jesus who died and rose for you and in whom you have died and risen with Him. Put not your trust in earthly rulers or kingdoms, says the Psalmist.  We might add to that, do not trust your feelings either.  Instead, on this day when we acknowledge not only the Lord’s baptism for you but your baptism in Him, trust the Word that was spoken with water.  Trust the promise revealed to you when the Spirit put the breath of eternal life into this font.

Trust the future God has written for you whether you see it unfold around you or not.  Trust the blood that was shed for you to cleanse you from all your sin.  Trust the righteousness of Christ you wear as your new baptismal clothing.  Trust the covenant of life in which you live now and which will deliver to us everlasting life before death can claim you.  Trust the voice that says to everyone of your sins “I forgive you.”  Trust the guidance of that Word which will not tell you what you want to hear but will tell you what you must hear in order to live.  Trust the bread of His body and the cup of His blood which feeds you mortals with immortality.

    Jesus did not come to be like us.  We have been betrayed by a thousand fake heros who said one thing and did another.  We have been victims of a thousand lies from people who told us no truth.  We have lied to ourselves and trusted in the shifting sands of our feelings more than we can count.  Jesus has not come to be like us in this mess of life but to give Himself for us that we might be His own by baptism and faith and live under Him in His kingdom both now and forever.  Jesus has given us the rock of His Word, the power of His blood, and the hope of this baptismal water that we may not be victims of lies told to us or by us anymore.  Jesus has met us in the water and brought us forth as new people, created in Christ Jesus for good works that endure.  He is with us and will not forsake us.  Our feelings will betray us even more often than fake people but Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  As you met Him in this water, now live in Him by faith.  For He will not disappoint you nor will He speak false promises or fake comfort to your aching hearts.  You are His and He is yours.  In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Confused by politics. . .

I was a radical conservative, or so I thought, when I was a child.  My political career began in 1964 by plastering Goldwater stickers on cars parked on the main drag in my small town -- mostly to the chagrin of those who owned the cars.  I was forced to be apologetic but I was unrepentant for my actions.  In the end I found myself confused by conservatives who were conservative economically but not uniformly conservative in other ways.  I am not a libertarian.  I am a fiscal and a moral conservative and that means treading where libertarians choose not to go.  I do not believe the government is a substitute for religion in the cause of morality but I do believe that government should praise virtue and punish wrong.  I think my rebellious years came to rather quick halt in college when abortion was legalized and I had to come to grips with the idea that certain kinds of murder was not only legally tolerated but heralded by some, perhaps even many, in our land.  I will credit abortion for being the social issue that crystallized my evolution from being an economic conservative to a social conservative.  Because of this, I am seen by some of my old friends as a regressive soul in comparison to their progressive development into democratic socialists.  They remain sometimes open and painful wounds of division.

Though I was neither a never Trumper or a Trumper forever individual, and still am not, I do understand his appeal.  It is not as some in the left would characterize it.  It is not a resurgence of prejudice, racism, misogyny, fascism, or any form of totalitarianism.  It is the fact that many have awoken to find that the values of family, truth, justice, and life have faded from the scene to be replaced by other values that seem foreign to them.  Individual expression, personal happiness/fulfillment, diversity, advocacy, and self-definition (even of gender) have eclipsed the values of personal responsibility, common sacrifice, religion, and tradition.  These last two election cycles have shown the great divide between urban/suburban and rural, between progressive and traditional, between religious and not so, between the college educated and the working class (is there still such a thing?). . .  Some believe that this transcendence is inevitable and that those hold outs are relics of a long past era.  I don't think so.  I know that those who survey what passes as progress are not ready to say that they are merely hold outs.

Furthermore, I do not believe that our move from religion with a more commonly held system of values and truth is unrelated to the coarseness of our vocabulary, the vulgarity that passes as art and media, and the divisions that distance us from one another.  I am not at all saying that a religious revival would solve our problems in this regard but I do think that having a common value system and set of truths did much to prevent some of those ills that now befuddle our political, religious, and social leaders.  Social media has not made for more pleasant conversation about the things that divide us but seems to have entrenched the sides and embittered them even more.  The pace of change is too rapid for us to assimilate without casualties -- thinking here of technological, moral, and social change!  At least some of those who commit heinous violence appeared to have been ordinary folks until something clicked in them.  Not all of this can be attributed to a lunatic fringe or haters.

So in one sense I think Trump has brought this growing divide front and center.  Now it is up to us to decide what to do about it, who we are as a nation, and what are the primary and core values that unite us as a people in this place.  I am not sure we are yet having this conversation but it needs to begin soon.  It won't be satisfied by tweets -- no matter who the tweeter is -- and it cannot be said by proxies or substitutes.  It has to take place in honest, local conversation before it happens on the national scene.  Conservatives like me cannot simply dismiss the media, the elites across the land, and the liberals and they cannot cannot simply dismiss me and folks like me.  I wish I could say I was hopeful.  Honestly, things were easier when I was a child but now that I have a grandchild it does not matter how hard it is, the conversation has to begin or her world will be colored by even more of what none of us wants.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

By all means, be pastoral. . .

I have alluded several times to the evolving meaning of that pesky word pastoral.  Once it was a strong word that meant something profound.  To be pastoral was to be a faithful shepherd, true to the sheep's real needs with the real resources of God's Word and Sacraments.  Pastoral was the word used to describe a priest who was able to speak the truth in love, seeking not to condemn or offend but to call to repentance and absolve the sinner in the Lord's name.  Somewhere along the way this word took on a new meaning.

As the meaning evolved, the emphasis shifted a bit from being strong and true to God's Word like a shepherd who watches over and wisely leads his sheep to being tactful and gentle in the application of words the sinner did not want to hear.  Pastoral was the word that used to describe him who could be faithful without being perceived as offensive.  That shift was not nearly as significant as the change in meaning that is now reflective of what it means to be pastoral.

Now the word pastoral has come to mean the one who affirms, supports, and encourage people in their own perception.  So it means being understanding of the sinner and aiding the sinner in the excuse of and the justification for their sins.  It means being chiefly concerned with the feelings of those in his care, making sure that people feel good about themselves, feel good about church, and feel good about their choices.  It means being more concerned with people than with the Word of God and choosing to ignore that Word in favor of being seen as warm and welcoming to those in your care.  Of course this is applicable to the sex wars over GLBTQ issues but it is not exclusively so.  Worship preferences, feel good sermons, foot tapping music, an emphasis upon personal happiness and fulfillment all are arenas in which the term pastoral may be applied.  In my own church body, some of ratings of pastors asks of the man is rigid or pastoral in various areas of his ministry -- obviously the term rigid is the kiss of death for someone looking for a call.

The worst outcome of the evolution of the term is that it no longer has much to do with being faithful to God's Word, living within a hermeutic of continuity with respect to catholic doctrine and practice, and calling people to repentance form their favorite sins.  Thus the final stage of being pastoral may be to be merely an echo of people's preferences and desires and powerless to do anything other than welcome and encourage unconditionally people and their sins.  Failure to welcome and encourage unconditionally the sinner will become the chief betrayal of the gospel -- a word which itself has been distanced form its original meaning of the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and risen and now simply means to love in a non-judgmental way.  The pastoral priest or minister is the one whose chief concern is not God and His Word but the wishes of the people.  Thus the church becomes something like a favorite stuffed animal -- something inanimate but endowed with sentimental meaning and value. The church and her ministers are not free to speak clearly or boldly or faithfully God's Word but the people in the pew are apparently free to impose conditions upon the church.

Theology has become therapy and this triumph of the “pastoral” replaces the cross with a therapeutic deism requiring the ministers and the church itself to abandon its calling to be faithful to the Lord and to abdicate its role as theologians in favor of psychologists.Some denominations are taking the lead in the revision of what it means to be pastoral -- think ELCA and the Episcopal Church -- but it would be wrong to think that other church bodies are not also influenced by the changing definitions and expectations of church and clergy.  Some may be ahead of others but all of us are under the gun here and the pressure is on.  This is a battle which we must win -- not for the sake of winning but for the sake of the world for whom Christ died and the repentance and faith that receive and rejoice in this redemptive work.  Finally, it will not take long for the world to figure out that the church has become  rather pathetic in her craving for the attention and affection of people and will do whatever is necessary to receive them.  At that point the world will move on and find something else to replace the church and provide the affirmation, encouragement, and support the world seeks.  At that point the impotent church will be of little use to God she has long ago abandoned or to the people by whom she so desperately wants to be noticed.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Not a ceremony to be delayed. . .

The Sacrament of Baptism is often treated as a ceremony, an event for spectators and an occasion for a party.  Typically, it is scheduled not as a great need nor of great urgency but according to family schedules and with a certain casualness about when it all takes place.   There was a time when baptism was once thought so important, so essential, and so urgent that parents gave no thought to postponing baptism.  Sometimes even the mother was unable to attend the baptism of their children if complications from delivery prevented. Within a day or two after birth the godparents (with the father and mother if able) headed to the church with the child for the baptism.

They had been taught that baptism was so important that it was their most solemn and urgent duty to bring their child to the healing waters where the new born would receive new birth.  They believed that original sin had left the child in such dire and urgent need that only the healing power of Jesus could answer.  In the water their child would receiving the washing away of sin that would make their child a child of God, a temple of the Holy Spirit, and would literally transfer him from kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of Light. The mother, if she could not be there for the baptism, received her own welcome after her recovery, forty days later, through the now seemingly forgotten liturgical rite known as the “Churching of Women.”

Today baptism is not seen as either that urgent or that important -- it is too often delayed until the large cast of important people among family and friends can be assembled. More important than what takes place is who is there to watch it.  Maybe the lower mortality rates of children has dulled our senses to the reality of death or it could be that we no longer listen when the liturgy of Baptism reminds us that the child is dead in trespasses in sin until God intervenes to give that child life and reclaim the baby from the domain of satan and death.

Holy Baptism is a sacrament not a ceremony.  It is not about a party or even about family but about the Word and promise of the Lord. St. Paul says that prior to baptism we are dead in our sins ( Eph. 2:1). St. Peter says, “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).  Baptism should take place as soon as possible after birth. Cyprian was surprised when someone wrote asking if baptism could or should be delayed to the eighth day after birth (with obvious reference to circumcision. Cyprian's response:
But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man (Epistle 58.2, to Fidus).

Today baptism is delayed sometimes months or even years waiting for the magic moment when the people they would like to be there to watch, can be there to see it.  In addition, it is not uncommon for baptism to be regularly done outside the Divine Service so that many people cannot even recall the last time a baptism took place in the chief Sunday morning service.  If there is any delay justified, it is more so that the baptism can take place within the Divine Service and within the gathered community of the baptized.  Baptism's power lies not in the experience or in witnessing it but in the promise of God's Word which He has placed in the water.  It is an urgent promise because the need is urgent and the gifts too wonderful to be put off until a right time. 

So listen to your pastor.  Bring your children to baptism as soon as possible.  Do not delay.  Do not wait until every odd aunt and uncle can be present for the event.  Do not confuse the Sacrament with the ceremonies that accompany it.  It is not a show.  It is God acting upon His promise and delivering the child from sin and death with the water of life that connects us to Christ's own death and resurrection. 

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Mission Betrayal. . .

We are always hearing from nearly every quarter of the Church about the need to do mission, to plant churches, to bring the Gospel to those who have not yet heard.  Yet as liberalism increasingly takes hold of the West, it raises a mission question.  Why would you plant a mission if you did not believe the Gospel was literally true and the Scriptures the faithful Word that speaks God's voice of mercy?  In the history of churches, you find that once some of those churches now identified with the liberal or progressive edge of Christianity were once vibrant sources of mission, sending out people to speak the Gospel and plant the Church where none existed before.  Those mission fields have proven fruitful beyond anyone's wildest expectation.  Africa, in particular, is an example of a mission field that has grown to dwarf in size and vitality the churches who planted the mission there a century or more ago.  In fact, Peter Leithart has suggested that the Church is growing so rapidly in Africa (and in Asia and Latin America) that in 30 years the world will have 3 billion Christians, only one-fifth of whom will be non-Hispanic Whites.  This is a stunning prediction, not because it lacks credibility, but because it comes at a time when Christianity in the West appears in a irreversible decline!

Yet the call to the West from Africa (as well as Asia and Latin America) is why did you bother to plant a church if you no longer believe its truth?  This is the distance between some of the mother churches and their daughters throughout the world.  You have given us a Gospel you no longer believe, a Scripture you no longer trust, and a Savior from things you no longer call sin.  While there are some rather smug liberals and progressives who presume it is merely a time lag and that Africa and other mission churches that have come of age will eventually go through their own rationalism and develop a skepticism about the Bible's history and a relativism about what it calls sin.  All of this, they hope, will bring Africa to the same place Western Christianity has long been headed -- therapeutic, moralistic, deism in which the gospel is advocacy for the causes of the day.  Leithart does not believe that this is the direction of the missions that are not outgrowing their parents.  Instead he believes Africans are closer to the Biblical world than post-Enlightenment Westerners are, that they have not gone through the detestation of rationalism like the West has, and they are not at all embarrassed by the worldview of the Scriptures -- especially with its presumption of evil and supernatural.

“If you don’t believe the Scripture, why did you bring it us in the first place?”  That is the question that should haunt those who have moved on and no longer trust the Word of God nor preach the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen.  That is the question that should be at the forefront of those confessing churches who still send missionaries who believe that Word.  You cannot give people the Bible in their own language and then suggest to them that it is merely a book, a hopeless interweaving of myth and legend with fact and truth, and that the whole story of Christ can be reduced to a moralism designed to excuse and justify the natural and sinful desires of the heart.

Certainly the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion finds this tension between the mission churches who refuse to follow the lead of their liberal and progressive parents but it is no less true of the European churches (especially Lutheran) who were once prolific sources of mission support and missionaries.  Whether in Africa or other parts of the world where the Gospel is producing rich and abundant fruit, the churches that were born from the mission sources generations ago refuse to be silent in the face of the hollow and empty Christianity that is abundant in the West.  Just maybe, they have the wherewithal to slow or begin a reversal of the sad decline of Christianity in Europe and North America.  If so, it will be God's ultimate joke in turning the parent into the child so that the mother may be schooled by her children in the Word of the Lord and the precious Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.  But for those who take seriously the Word of the Lord, this is exactly what we should be praying for. . .

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Tone Deaf. . .

I was talking to a Roman Catholic priest acquaintance who had been overseas working for his job and who came home wondering what all the fuss was about amid the sexual abuse scandals and the complicity of Roman Catholic bishops in all of this.  In the midst of the conversation, he exclaimed that there had always been moral failures and corruption and that this was nothing new and Rome endured.  It occurred to me that he was tone deaf both to the impact of these scandals and to the attitude of folks in the pews who are so tired of it all they will do anything to escape it -- apparently, some even checking out the Lutheran parish where I serve!

Could it be typical of many, dare I say most, Roman Catholic clergy?  There is a real tone deafness to the impact of these scandals not simply with regard to their affection laity have for their church but the embarrassment of having this all play out in the news -- something Roman Catholics in a Southern City feel even without the news headlines of bishops and beach houses and priests and altar boys.  Nobody wants to attend a church that they feel they must constantly defend or explain especially when the issues are about immorality. 

You have come to expect such headlines when it is about Hollywood stars or pop musicians or even politicians.  They do not lay much claim to moral authority.  But when it happens in the Church and particularly when it happens with the seeming complicity of Roman bishops who are there to supervise such people and hold them accountable quickly for their failures, then there is a problem of some magnitude.  The abusive situations are not the only or the primary locus of the scandal but the failure of the bishops.  That they either deliberately ignored, did not know or pay attention to, or did not deem the problem sufficiently important to deal with is the larger issue and it will surely spill over into the papal court if there is anything to show that Francis was also one of the see no evil monkeys who twiddled their thumbs while the Church was burning down.

As a Lutheran this whole thing is not without its teaching moment for those not Roman Catholic but who also have a structure in place and people endowed with the authority of supervision of doctrine and practice.  Lutherans sometimes act as if we are so congregational that the larger structures of the Church are optional and not essential.  In fact, as essential as the local administration of the Word and Sacraments are, so also is the supervision of doctrine and practice essential to maintain not only its integrity but the very assurance of the truth to those who hear and receive its grace.  Rome's failures are not simply the failures of what is still a small number of priests to gross immorality but the larger failure of those set apart for this oversight. 

The problems in Lutheranism, from the outrageous Nadia Bolz-Webers of this world to those who deny the basic affirmations of the Creed, stem from a similar failure to hold accountable those ordained and to hold accountable those congregations who join a church body to the doctrine and practice of that church body.  Until we fix the problems of doctrinal supervision and oversight of practice (that which is episcopus), we will continue simply to put out fires and remain tone deaf to the impact of those fires upon the faithful in the pews and those who only know us by the odd fringes so endearing to social media.  Some fear the heavy hand of the Law from those who have been charged with this episcopal oversight.  I fear more the loose grip of a Gospel which finds it hard to hold any accountable to the Truth.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

No hands are clean. . .

There are some, not a few, who fear that the unfolding drama of clergy abuse and episcopal incompetence in Rome will signal the end of that church.  Who, after all, would be drawn to a church so filled with dirty hands, secrets, and lies and who will believe a gospel spoken with sinful voices?  Add to that the fear that those already in the church will abandon such a rusty hulk so filled with the stench of failure.  They may well be true.  Rome may be dealt a terrible blow by all of this and those now in the pews may gradually fall away because of the failings of their priests and bishops.  I cannot see the future.  I do not know what the people will do.

There are some, not a few, who look at the filled seats of churches devoted to good theater more than good theology, who have abandoned their creed and confession, and whose liturgy is more the celebration of self and moment than Christ and who fear the end of Christianity.  Who, after all would be drawn to a church whose best is to echo what people think and whose promise is only today?  Add to that the fear that those already in such a church will realize the tepid gospel spoken by those who think that today is or should be enough for anybody.  They may well be true.  Evangelicalism has sent forth its shoots into every Protestant Church and even liturgical churches like Lutheranism are not immune from their influence.  I do not know what the future will hold.

But this I know, the fact that no hands are clean does not drive me from the Church.  The stains of sin on the leaders and those who sit in the pews is scandal to be sure but it is no more scandal than the sins which inhabit my heart and mind.  Their sins, as evil as they truly are, bear no greater guilt or punishment than my own.  That no hands are clean may come as great disappointment to some but for me this is the solemn admission that we all need what only Christ can give, that we have no boast but Christ and His cross, and no hope but the future Christ Himself prepared by His resurrection.   The fact that no hands are clean does not diminish that mine are dirty as well nor can they obscure the only grace that offers hope to the dirty, the guilty, and the dead.

I do not at all mean to suggest that our leaders should strive to be mediocre or moderate in either sin or holiness.  I do not at all support the idea that our pastors and bishops should be men of ordinary character or that they need not be exemplary in their desire for and their pursuit of the things of God.  But the power of God does not hinge upon the holiness of His ministers nor does the grace of God depend upon the righteousness of those who dispense His Sacraments and preach His Word.  I do not live in fear that a man with unholy hands could render the promise of God moot.  I do not wrestle with the doubts of those who look to the dirty hands of the pastor before them and turn away from the unchanging truth of the Gospel proclaimed by His voice and the Sacraments administered by His hands.  In fact, I am greatly comforted by the fact that those who minister the means of grace are in the same desperate need of His ministrations as those who receive them.  I am encouraged by the reality of a voice that needs to hear this Word even more than he is compelled to speak it to me.  I am in hopes that I am not alone.

If individual churches have a future, it is known only to God and it is in His hands.  The Gospel itself will compel such a future for Christianity.  It will come in spite of the faults and failings of those on either side of the altar rail.  For the Lord has chosen to build His kingdom on earth through those who have no clean hands.  It is a mystery to me why He has chosen such.  But I am confident that He who moved time and eternity to mount the cross for me, will not now abandon His work to sinful people or hell's minions.  I hope you are confident of this as well.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Light to Find the Savior

Sermon for the Epiphany of Our Lord, preached on Sunday, January 6, 2019, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.
    Ever since our first parents sinned and were banished from the Garden, people have been trying to find their way back to God.  We go looking for Him, and because of our sin, we look for Him where we think He should be, where we want Him to be.  There are countless ways we’ve tried to find and reach God.  Over the centuries, countless religions have popped up claiming to have the right path to God, or to some sort of god they’ve made up.  But none of these are true.  None lead to our Savior.  Only the light of God’s Word can direct us to Him.  He’s only found where He promises to be. 
    Today is Epiphany and we remember the Wise Men, the Magi, who came seeking Jesus, the newborn King.  We don’t know a whole lot about these men.  We don’t know where they came from, only that they came from the east.  We don’t know how many there were.  We say there were three, but that’s only because they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  The only thing we know for certain is that they saw a star and they knew it meant the King of the Jews was born. 
    They knew this because somehow they knew OT prophecy.  Nu 24:17 says: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.  How they came to know and understand this Scripture, we don’t know.  Matthew only tells us that they came looking for the King, to bring Him gifts and to worship Him. 
    The magi went to where they expected a king to be, the palace in Jerusalem.  This where a king should be.  A king should be born in a palace.  He should be in the place where his throne is; a place of grandeur and wealth; a place of power.  This makes sense.  If you and I wanted to see the Queen of England, we’d go to Buckingham Palace, not some small apartment in London.  But the newborn King was to be found in the palace.   
    Like the Wise Men, we search for God, we search for Christ where we expect Him to be, where we want Him to be.  We want Him to be in a place of grandeur and power, and so that’s where we look.  We’ve searched for Him in our culture and material things.  We hope to find peace in these.  If we just follow in the footsteps of the world around us, keeping in-line with its ideologies, claiming all religions are equal and the same, letting everyone do and believe as they want without saying a word, then at least we’ll be okay.  We can go through life without any trouble, without suffering any sort of persecution for our faith.  If we just have the right technologies, the right career, the right home, the right amount of money, then everything will be fine.  We’ll be able to live a pleasant life without any need.  We’ll be happy…and ultimately, that’s where we want God to be. 
    We want God to be in our happiness.  We want Christ to make us feel good, to give us an easy life here on earth.  That’s where we want to find Him, because that’s all we really want. 
    We want a Savior who rescues us from the mundane.  We want a Savior who lifts us up from the low points, the valleys of life and brings us to the mountaintop, who makes us feel good all the time.  We want a Savior who lets us do what makes us happy, even if that happiness comes from sin.  But this isn’t the Savior we need.  This isn’t the Savior that Jesus is.  He isn’t a therapist whose goal is to make us feel good.  He doesn’t save us from unhappiness, He saves us from sin and death. 
    When the Wise Men came to the palace, Herod called in the chief priests and scribes and asked them where the Christ was to be born.  These men searched the Scripture.  The prophet Micah proclaimed the birth place of our Savior: But you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Mt 2:6; cf Mic 5:2).  Bethlehem, that small town just a few miles south of Jerusalem, was the place of the King’s birth.  This was an unexpected place to find a king, but it was the promised place. 
The Wise Men left Herod and followed the Scripture and star, and they found Jesus where God promised He would be.  They found Him in a house in Bethlehem with Mary and they worshipped Him, giving Him gifts fit for a king.  
    The Wise Men had to be directed to this unexpected place to find Jesus.  If they were left to their own devices, they’d never have found the Lord.  God had to reveal Him to them.  He had to direct them, by the light of the star, by the light of Scripture.  And this is the same for you and me.
    We’d be lost without the light of Scripture.  Without the Holy Spirit, we’d never find our Savior or believe in Him.  We’d continue to look for Him in all the wrong places.  We’d continue to search for Him in our culture and material things.  We’d continue to look for Him inside ourselves, in our feelings of happiness.  But all of this searching will fail.  It’s only by the light of God’s Word that we know where our Savior is, where He has promised to be.
     He is here, in this place, in His Church, where His Word is spoken by His pastors.  He is here, in this place, in His Church, where ordinary looking water washes away your sins.  He is here, in this place, in His Church, feeding you a foretaste of the feast to come in the bread and wine that are His body and blood.  He is here, in this place, in His Church, giving you the everlasting life He won on the cross.  Christ is exactly where He promises to be.  We don’t have to go searching for Him, for He has come to us, He has come to you, to save you. 
    Christ didn’t come with the grandeur of a king.  He came to you in a lowly manner, born in a humble stable so that He might do what needed to be done to save you, not from unhappiness, but from sin and death.  In an unexpected way, Jesus rescues you from sin and death with His death on the cross.  And the salvation He won for you there, He gives to you here.  It may not look spectacular or kingly as we think, but it is His promise.  Here in this place, your King comes to you. 
    The magi went looking for Jesus where they thought a king should be found, in a palace.  But the Word of God directed them to the right place.  We too look for God, we look for Christ where we think He should be, where we want Him to be.  We want Him to be in grandeur.  We want Him to be in earthly happiness, but we won’t find Him there, because that’s not where He promised to be.  Your King has promised to be where His Word is proclaim and His Sacraments given.  So come here to this place.  Come here and worship Him.  Come here and receive your King.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

Lord, have mercy!

Some years ago I recall reading a parish pastor describe what his church's minimum expectations of him and his duties was each week:
  • Prayer at the church: 14 hours
  • Sermon preparation: 18 hours
  • Outreach and evangelism: 10 hours
  • Counseling: 10 hours
  • Hospital and home visits: 15 hours
  • Administrative functions: 18 hours
  • Community involvement: 5 hours
  • Denominational involvement: 5 hours
  • Church meetings: 5 hours
  • Worship services/preaching: 4 hours
  • Other: 10 hours
Total: 114 hours/week

In the article the pastor laments that meeting just these minimums would require him to work between 16 - 19 hours per day (depending upon whether or not he took a day off).  But these expectations do not include emergencies and urgencies which cannot be predicted (except to know they will happen) or managed.  One of the reasons why I began writing sermons so far in advance is because experience soon taught me that I could not predict or manage what would happen during the week, or, typically, at the end of the week when it seems many pastors write their sermons.  That said, it does point out the discrepancy between what is expected and what can possibly be accomplished by any pastor. Now I am sure that a survey of my own parish might reveal different expectations but I am not so sure it would add up to less hours per week.  But on top of this is, of course, the expectation that the pastor will be a good family man, who will model not only quality time but actual time with family.  In other words, add in another 40 hours or so.

What is interesting is what people might be willing to forego and what they would not.  I fear that people might forgive a pastor for not praying but they expect administrative duties to be met on time or would suggest that less time be spent on the sermon (and, it would seem, preaching it) and more time spent on other things not so directly addressed by call and ordination (at least in the Lutheran tradition).  What might also be interesting is how this list has been revised by those who add social ministry presence, podcasting, vision casting, and leadership training as essentials to any modern pastor's list of duties.  What I found surprising is the lack of any direct time allotment for teaching -- teaching the young (catechism), teaching Bible study, and teaching the faith to those who are new to the faith.  If I added this to the list, it would amount to a healthy number (including prep work for this teaching).  Not to mention the other duties as assigned that seems to be the caveat at the end of every job description.

No pastor can live up to such expectations and no pastor's family can survive such expectations either.  At the same time, what I also find concerning is that there are no solid corresponding time expectations of those who sit in the pews or of the lay leaders of a congregation.  Pastors are certainly responsible for what is given pastors to do but so are the laity responsible for what is theirs to do.  Other than this I have no great wisdom expect Kyrie eleison.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The paradox of death. . .

Death is increasingly the mark of our culture -- be it the funeral industry which has reshaped our practices to reflect the glory of personal preference or the abortion industry that insists that the first mark of love is not life or the self-inflicted or imposed choice of death for those whose life is not worth living or the violence that seems to mark every news cycle.  Death is the mark of our culture though we claim to promote a nobility of life.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, the head of the Vatican office for worship, once wrote that “postmodern civilization denies death, causes it, and paradoxically unceasingly exalts it.”  It is a perceptive summary of the way we deal with and fail to deal with death today.  I am sure that he would have some words for the current penchant away from the funeral and toward the celebration of the life of the deceased -- complete with humorous stories that either dismiss or do away with the reality of grief.

Certainly even Christians have adopted a pagan dualism in which the spirit is good and the body is merely a container that can be cast aside and should be so that the real me is free from all constraints.  A pleasant sentiment but that is all it is.  Like the greetings on cards or the sentimental fodder on social media, it comforts without hope and without healing balm for the wounded and broken heart.  Sadly, pastors have fed this distortion.  When was the last funeral you went to where the resurrection of the body was front and central?  Instead, even Christian clergy dance around death and its pain with the suggestion that the people are in a better place or that death has been kind in relieving their earthly sufferings or that they are surely kicking butt in heaven -- laugh, laugh, laugh.  Just as we so often fail to use the word to admit that people die (instead they “pass away, pass on,” or just “pass”), so do we fail to speak clearly the hope that we confess in the Creeds -- "the resurrection of the dead" or "the resurrection of the body."  

Think of the paradox of death.  We live in a culture of death but deny the reality of death by ignoring it and its consequences. We fear the dead and silence the history that offends us, treating the past as if it were not real without our admission.  We spend all the money in the world to find the technology to prevent death and at the same time have deemed it a “human right” to euthanize and to be euthanized (a terrible word that refuses to even admit that it is about death!).  We lament the miscarriage of a child in the womb as a tragedy but promote the murder of millions of children in the womb as the first and primary right of the woman who owns the womb.  We have legalized the rental of the womb to those who want to have a child and protected with law not only the right to abort the child or prevent the pregnancy but have made everyone complicit in paying for it all - so much for the primacy of preference of values!

If we cannot deal with death and its reality, how can we speak of life and hope?  That is another paradox.  The silence that accompanies death means that about all Christianity has to offer the world is the justification and legitimization of desire and the promotion of the life you want to lead (unless it conflicts with the elite judgments of liberalism).  And so we succumb to the eulogy in place of the sermon, extolling the virtues of the dead instead of speaking clearly the promise of the resurrection of the dead that is ours in Christ, first by baptism, then in faith, feasted in foretaste at the Holy Communion, and the seal of our hope laid upon us when our breath returns to God our Maker.

The loss of the sanctoral calendar is another way that we have avoided death.  The souls of the faithful departed are not forgotten and we remember them among the saints' days and commemorations and so they become part of the liturgical and private prayer life of the Church and the faithful. So this loss is not merely a loss of a day or a story from the past but another way in which we conveniently forget that Christianity does not ignore death but meets it head on in the resurrection of Christ -- not as spirit or ghost but as the first whole man whose glorious flesh prefigures our own resurrection of the body and grand reunion with those who have gone before with the sign of faith.  A funeral is not a celebration of the life of the dead but the hope and promise that death is not what it was since Christ was raised, the first fruits of them that sleep.  We do not commend the souls to a body-less existence finally free but to the God who came in flesh to wear our sin and meet our death in our place upon the cross.  His resurrection from the dead, never to die again, is the shape of our lives and our hope and it is the comfort we have to offer a world that can little with death except normalize it or ignore it or promote it for its own ends.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The blinding Light. . .

It is a funny thing.  When you are in darkness, even a small light stands out and it draws you from the darkness toward it.  But when you are in darkness and someone floods the place with sudden light, it does not draw you but blinds you and, even, drives you away.  In some respects the Light of Christ is both.

Like the Magi of old, the Light of Christ is a small light.  It does not completely enlighten the darkness but it does stand out and becomes a magnet for those far off to come near.  Guided by the light of the Natal Star, the seasoned travelers set forth on a journey that led them to the Christ.  Hidden in infant flesh, they saw the Light not in the sky but in the promise of the ages now kept in the Son of God.  They knelt in adoration, offered gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  They returned transformed by the Light of Christ and, though no star is mentioned in their return trip, the Light of Christ accompanied them on their journey home and they were not the same.

When the Light of Christ was more profoundly displayed, on the Mount of Transfiguration for example, it did little to comfort those who saw it but it blinded them.  Peter muttered words that seemed out of place and odd but he did not know what to say.  It appears the other disciples with him did not say a word.  This is not unlike the Old Testament incidents in which God displayed some of His fuller glory to those who were not quite prepared to see it.

On Epiphany we come, drawn to the Light of Christ and by His Spirit.  We come as those in darkness who have lights and still live in shadows and darkness.  We come as those bidden by the Light of Christ to behold His glory -- yet it is a hidden glory in the splash of baptismal water, in the voice of absolution, in the words of the Gospel preached, and in the taste of bread and wine.  We think we are ready for the full Light and we sometimes lament that do not have more, a more profound experience of the glory of God.  Sometimes we are blunt with God and wonder if that is all there is to it?  We hope and expect awesome glory, blinding light, and the shock and awe of the Mighty God in our midst.  Instead He has come as a child from the womb of blessed Mary, as the man standing in the Jordan River, as the teacher not of pithy wisdom but the fear of the Lord that is true wisdom, and as the God who suffers for His people.

Where we lived in New York there were far fewer people and city lights.  You could stand outside and see the full display of the night sky with stars and planets and moon.  Now we live in a more crowded city so many times bigger than the mountain village then.  We stand outside in the evening and night hours and stare at a sky which seems pale and its lights hidden because the glow of the bustling city with its neon, its street lights, its moving lights of cars and trucks, and too many porch lights and the glow of the windows to see much of anything.

Perhaps the star that led the Magi was not all that bright.  Perhaps it did not need to be.  Darkness was hard to overcome then.  Now we think that we are in control of the night.  Could it be that the Light of Christ is no dimmer than it ever was but that we are distracted by the light we claim as our own?  Could it be that the light of man blinds us so that the Light of Christ is more difficult to see?  I suppose we could pray for God to make the Light of Christ glow brighter . . . or we could pray the Lord that the light of men might be dimmed. 

Saturday, January 5, 2019

The state of the Church at Luther's "revolt"

Perhaps now that the full 500th year of the Anniversary of the 95 Theses is over, some of the hyped rhetoric will also wane.  It is good for Lutherans to remember that the good Doctor was no perfect saint in flesh but the beggar and sinner He admitted and confessed over and over again.  Hero worship is not the best way to remember Luther and he himself would be offended by the way some have made him out to be.  At the same time, his was not some revolt, some tearing away at a perfectly good structure and church, and he is not responsible for what Protestantism has become -- both the empty truth of liberal Protestantism skeptical of the Word and those who use the Gospel to legitimize every sin but those of straight white males.  Hidden in there is a truth Rome sometimes concedes and Lutherans often never knew.  The Church into which Luther was ordained was a shaky shoppe of inconsistencies, immorality, corruption, and broken promises.  The naive Luther sought to bring a rebirth of Scripture which he thought would rally the people and repair the structure.  I cannot fault him for his diagnosis although I wish I were naive as he was in presuming that a turn to the Word would erase all the ills of his day and mine.  In the end, some have counted perhaps 12 million Europeans who left Rome, more later, in what was a very huge breach and yet not all were devotees of Luther.

Luther did not break up the medieval Church -- it was ripe with rift, suffering schisms, and a bleeding body before Luther opened his mouth. In the wake of the so-called Dark Ages, Christianity found itself with a Church in turmoil and scandal on the inside and shockingly woven into the political and royal life of politics and rule on the outside.

The state of the clergy was awful.  Absentee bishops and priests ignored their pastoral responsibilities.  Rich families collected parishes, monasteries, and church offices like we would put together a stock portfolio or real estate empire.  They doled out these to their sons who were ordained but seldom functioned as religious clergy -- preferring to delegate the actual church work to underlings.  In fact it was rare for bishops of the larger cosmopolitan dioceses to be present in their dioceses, much less serve in any pastoral capacity there. These prominent sees were too often benefices for the rich families who owned them and whose sons merely collected the not unsubstantial income.  The average priest was poorly trained, knew little of the Latin of the doctrinal teachers of the Church and nothing of the Greek or Hebrew of the Scriptures.  They preached poor and mostly moralistic sermons, catechized poorly the youth, charged for sacraments, and spent the offerings of the people on themselves.  The faith suffered even with the Church and, though there had been many voices calling for reform, the faithful were poorly served and this served as a catalyst for a reformer (Luther) who could escape being burned at the stake for challenging the status quo.

In the wake of Luther and others, no one in Rome could ignore the crisis.  When the Council of Trent was convened, some hoped for an internal reform to legitimize Luther's complaints.  While the Council met only sporadically between 1545 and 1563, its reform largely too the shape of a consolidation of Roman and papal power and centralized even more the shape of the those now more accurately ROMAN Catholic.  Its decrees were not universally heralded or applied but over the years Trent would consolidate Roman identity while ignoring many of the abuses and the calls of the Reformers for a catholic renewal flowing from a Scriptural renewal.

To be sure, millions left Rome and not simply for Luther but because of this corrupt reality that challenged the Scriptural vision of the Kingdom.  Luther is the convenient target to blame and his role is easy to call a revolt, but it is not without the dream of what might have been if the Church had been renewed through the Scriptures, regained her voice to preach the Gospel, returned to the sacraments as means of grace, and taught the priests and the faithful more deliberately.  When we look at the time of the Reformation and Luther, we almost find ourselves looking at the present situation.  We have payday preachers who hawk the grace of God as if it were a product and who deliver hope with a fee.  We have scandals in which priests and bishops have ignored or covered up great immorality.  We have churches with the Gospel lite who have traded doctrinal certainty for the whim of feeling and desire.  We have a morality which moves like a barometer following the cultural direction of the moment.  We have confusion about what it means to be Christian and confusion about what it means to be the Church.  Perhaps it is time for another revolt, a synthesis of Christians who want to hear the Word and keep it, to come together from various homes around the Word that endures forever and doctrine that does not change according to poll or preference and truth that actually has power to call us to repentance and remake us into His image and likeness.  Perhaps we do need another Luther.  Like some who surveyed the situation in Luther's day, could it get much worse?

Friday, January 4, 2019

Rebranding. . .
You can see in the photo, the rebranding of one of our larger LCMS congregations is complete and the new name is Pathfinder Church.  It is the second iteration, the first one simply being the decision to drop the name Lutheran and keep the generic St. John Church.  The pastor is quite excited about the name change for the church.  I found it interesting that the votes totaled 431, a rather small number for a congregation that posts its membership as 5,000 and change.  I admit to snickering that the new brand is an old name, the Adventist scouting alternative and a fairly popular Nissan product!  But I find it even more curious that a name change matters all that much.  I venture to say that most folks in the market served by the St. John brand already know who this congregation is and will now have to relearn who it is and associate a new name with the same location and, we are told, the same congregation and ministry.  So what is the benefit of rebranding?  It is a rhetorical question and if you can inform me, I am waiting to hear and understand.

Rebranding is usually a move that signals either discontinuity with its past or an attempt to refresh a tired old brand in decline.  So I am confused.  Either the rebranding means that there is going to be a clear disconnect with its past or it is suggesting that it is in decline and is trying to project a new image for an old entity.  Neither option would be admitted in this case.  And who am I to know better.

There are some who say that Lutherans need to be rebranded.  The old one no longer positively identifies us (if it ever did) and people are confused by it (of course they are since people are more inclined to a generic name like Pathfinder).  Who knows, if it works for Ellisville, perhaps we could be the Pathfinder Church body?!  Of course, by now you know that I am not so much in favor of a rebrand.  It is not that I like the brand Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.  I don't.  I would much rather be known as the Church of the Augsburg Confession or the Evangelical Catholic Church.  That rebrand would never sell, of course, and it would present serious problems for many of our folks, especially those who like names like Pathfinder Church.  It is just that while rebranding presumes that you get a fresh start, the reality is you begin by alienating a core group within and wasting the money spent developing the original brand (do you recall a tr-color burgundy cross or perhaps its bluish iteration?)

Perhaps an odd name is a blessing in disguise!  If that is the case, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is a name worth its weight in gold.  At least no one would ever confuse us with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of North America or the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod or a host of other names.  Oh well, its our oddball name and we don't have the spare cash to come up with a new one anyway so I guess we will keep it.  I probably am able to convince a goodly number of LCMSers to retain the strange old name but I doubt I will have much success getting the edgy folks in our Synod to take back St. John Church.