Tuesday, March 19, 2019

How oft would I have gathered you. . .

Sermon for Lent 2C, preached on Sunday, March 17, 2018.

    If I were a prophet of Israel, I would have a tee shirt made that said “don’t shoot me, I’m only the messenger.”  When Jezebel destroyed the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah hid a hundred of them in caves.  Amos was tortured and killed.  Jonah ran from the Lord’s call.  Habbakuk was stoned.  Jeremiah was stoned.  Ezekiel died at the hands of those to whom he was sent to prophesy.  Ahijah was killed by a lion.  Zechariah was slain by Joash at the altar.  It was hard to get life insurance if you were a prophet of God sent to Israel.  No wonder prophets could not be recruited but had to be called by God.  It was not the prophets themselves whom the people hated but the message the Lord sent the prophets to proclaim.  Yes it was judgment but it was judgment that came with a call to repentance, to return to the Lord.

    Now Jesus Himself felt the sting of rejection.  Herod wanted to kill Him and the leaders of the Temple were plotting His demise.  The people who had once flocked to Him were drifting away.  His disciples found His teachings hard to understand and hard to believe.  Jesus went to far as to ask them if they were ready to take a hike as well.  Now Jesus puts it out where we see it clearly.  We complain that God has rejected us but the rejection is not His, it is ours.  God spoke the promise of redemption first to Adam and Eve in the Garden.  God sent forth patriarch and prophet to keep this hope alive until it would be made flesh in Christ.  God called the sinner back when he departed from the faith and God called all people to repentance and faith.           

    Though we find it convenient to blame a God who refuses to budge from His insistence upon holiness, it is our refusal to be covered by His mercy and redeemed by His blood that convicts us.  Compare Jesus’ words with the Lenten theme verse:  return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger but abounding in steadfast love.  The message of the prophets was not a gloom and doom but this tender call to return to the gracious God who delights in showing mercy to His people.  This is the message of Jesus.  God would but you would not.  God is merciful but you reject His  mercy.  The Lord kept hope alive but you killed it with your refusal to believe it.

    As we make our way through Lent, we come face to face with this truth.  God is not our enemy.  We are our own worst enemies.  The Lord has not rejected us but offered us the way by the truth of His Word into the everlasting life of His Son.  The story of God’s love is the story of a relentless love that called His people back when left Him and called His people to repentance when they rejected His ways and delivered His people in mercy when they deserved nothing but judgment.  The love of God is relentless.  He goes even to the cross and dies that we might be forgiven and life.

    Maybe some of you have learned the joy of the Baby Bum videos.  Now that we have a granddaughter I have encountered these nursery rhymes for kids.  One of them is Five Little Ducks.   Four little ducks went swimming one day, over the hill and far away and each time she called them back but one less duck came back until finally she was all alone.  What a sad nursery rhyme this is!  Why would we tell our kids stories of babies who abandoned their moms and of moms who did not do everything in their power to find their lost children?  In the end, of course, they do come back – at least in the nursery rhyme.  But in the reality of life they do not.

    The great sadness of this story is nothing compared to the great tragedy of the Word of the Lord that calls in every age and time, through patriarchs, prophets, and pastors, and the people who refuse His call.  The Lord is relentless in His pursuit of those who leave but there not always a happy ending.  There is the sadness of the Lord who sought out sinners and those who refused Him, who called the lost to repentance and the lost denied Him, who loved the unlovable when they loved Him not.  Jesus tells us this sad story so we will hear His voice, and hearing may believe His Word, and believing may have forgiveness and life in His name.  His is not the fickle heart that refuses but the heart filled with mercy and love that redeems, restores, and forgives.

    In Matthew’s gospel, these words of Jesus are placed near His crucifixion.  For there is no more unmistakable context for the steadfast love of the Lord than the cross. There is the mercy that a world mired in sin and its death needs.  There is the grace that beckons to the guilty and bids the wounded come.  There is the love that is relentless in pursuit of the lost.  There is hope for the hopeless.  The prophets of old were messengers of this Word.  The pastors who stand in this pulpit are the messengers of the same Word.  The Scriptures are this Word and baptism washes this Word and the Holy Communion feeds this Word, the steadfast love of the Lord for you endures forever.

    Love calls you here.  Do not run from it but run to it.  Return to this Lord.  Do not run from Him but to Him.  Let your questions and your doubts drive you into the Word and let your pride melt before this relentless love for God does not seek your destruction but your life, not to judge you but to save you, and not to wound you but to heal you.  For surely there will be days when you are tempted to think God your enemy and there will be times when it seems He has abandoned you.  There will be days when troubles will seem impossible and solutions will escape you.  There will be times when it seems you do not need God and God does not want you.  There will be excuses you use to justify your sins and your will plead that it is not your fault.  But God cares for none of this.  He wants only YOU.  He has loved you from before you were born.  He sent His Son to suffer in your place and die your death. There is no doubt about His love for you.

    You do not have a God problem, you have a sin problem and a death problem.  You have a fear problem and a pride problem.  You do not have a God problem.  You have an enemy who pumps up your ego and feeds you lies as truth.  You do not have a God problem.  The Lord is on YOUR side.  From the first promise given to Adam and Eve in the Garden to the deliverance of His people from their enemies to the voices of the prophets through the generations to the angel who spoke and Jesus became flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary to His miracles and message, until on the cross it was made unmistakable, God is merciful and He seeks your salvation.

    Return to the Lord your God for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  How oft would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood. . .  This is the same love and the same Gospel and the same truth.  It points you to the cross where love is not a word but a selfless act of sacrifice.  It calls you to a life lived not in fear by yourself but in confidence that the Lord is on your side.  Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom the Lord loves and longs for, His joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord as His beloved children, hide in the shelter of His saving wings, and treasure the love that would suffer all to redeem you, a lost and condemned sinner.

    In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Living Lutheran. . .

Having a few moments, I turned to the pile of journals and magazines on my coffee table and began to survey the offerings.  It did not take too long to pick up the February Issue of Living Lutheran, the official periodical of the ELCA.  It also did not take too long to find out what the ELCA is focused upon and how the Gospel and grace are defined among them.

In "Grace and God's Welcome" the reader was treated to poignant stories of gay and lesbian folks who thought God was not happy with their attractions until they encountered grace without bounds and then ended up pastors in the ELCA.  It was a focused call to see the GLBTQ agenda as one of the primary agendas of that church body and, despite nearly wide open doors, how this must be reaffirmed lest someone be denied the desires of the heart simply for such a trivial thing as God's Word.

In the next article, "We're On the Move," a celebration of the election of several bishops of African descent, decried racism and called the ELCA to depart from its eurocentricity.  This is interesting because the ELCA is like 95% white and to have 2 of 65 bishops of African descent is not just a start but way above the proportion of its membership.  It is a good thing when race and color fade and qualifications raise up leaders.  What is curious, however, is that one of the installations began with the singing of Ain't No Stoppin Us Now.  Spontaneous or not, this is hardly more than an R & B tune and certainly not a hymn of faith.  The song is less about faith than getting your foot in the door.
The energy in that space told us we weren’t alone—we were surrounded by the great cloud of  witnesses. We were wombed together in that crowded space, united in solidarity and celebration. God, as midwife, birthed in us something ancient yet altogether new. I was ancestor and infant. The spirit from that processional leads me to now ask where we go from here. Where is God calling the ELCA?  To achieve lasting transformation,
the ELCA must continue to wrest our congregations from the grip of racism and   Eurocentricity. The bishop elections of 2018 have set us on a path toward greater understanding, greater equity and greater freedom. It is my hope that we will continue to honor our Reformation heritage by acting as an agent of change in an unjust world. I am hopeful for the future of the ELCA.
While I can understand her excitement, I wonder if others are wondering for very different reasons Where is God calling the ELCA?  Nothing there about Christ's freedom in that most central of Lutheran proclamations -- justification by grace through faith in Christ or freedom from sin and its death or salvation freely offer for its cost paid in full in Christ Jesus.  Is the trajectory of the Reformation really acting as an agent of change in an unjust world?  I wonder if Luther might find this a surprise -- I know a great many Lutherans would.

At the end of the publication, the Presiding Bishop asks What is God up to?  After a sobering assessment of where the ELCA is demographically, she asks if this is a problem needing a solution or trust to follow God in whatever new thing he God is doing in the ELCA (remember that male pronouns referring to God are not popular in this crowd).
What is to be done? Our congregations are growing older and smaller. At least 40 percent of our congregations have an average weekly worship attendance of 50 or less. ELCA membership decreases by 70,000 people a year, or roughly the loss of a synod per year. Clergy retirements outnumber new candidates for ministry. Financial pressures and building maintenance create stress. There is a dearth of people in their 20s and 30s in our pews. How do we change this? How do we reverse the trends? I think we are asking the wrong questions. . . The questions we are asking have to do about us: “What can we do?” They express loss and grief and fear—loss and grief for what we were and fear about what we will become. Not only do these questions not lead to productive answers, they also don’t point to hope. It’s as if the church’s one foundation rests on us and our efforts. I think we need to ask: “What is God up to?”
I wonder if it might not surprise God to find out that the decline in the birth rate, the aging of the population, the seeming impossibility of the ELCA to actually reflect in numbers the diversity it proclaims in print, and the decline of the family are God's doing.  Perhaps Bishop Eaton is channeling Pope Francis in suggesting that our problems just may be God willed and we need to just learn to live with it and go with the flow, so to speak. 

Hmmmmm.  Well, this is certainly a different take on what it means to live Lutheran.  It makes me thankful for the somewhat hum drum world of the LCMS The Lutheran Witness.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Purgatory: What does this mean?

An explanation of Purgatory. . . and a reason for the Reformation. . . complements of another author writing to clarify the Roman Catholic teaching of Purgatory.  You read and tell me what you think:

To begin with, purgatory exists for two reasons: one, to punish sins for which reparation has not been done on earth. For example, if a person stole money and was not able to pay it back, that sum would have to be “repaired” before the soul enters heaven. All sin must be settled, in the course of justice. If a person was a bad example at parties, flirting or drinking too much, even if that person confessed those sins, because the damage is done, reparation cannot be made. Therefore, purgatory is a time for suffering to make up for those consequences of sins. There is something called the “effects of sin” also called the “matter of sin.” The effects of sins remain in the person—weakened conscience, weakened ability to deal with the passions, and so on. These imperfections must be gone before the person enters heaven, as only the perfect enter heaven. All dispositions which lead one to sin, all tendencies, must be rooted out and few people do this in their lifetime. All venial sins unconfessed before death also cause the suffering of purgatory, as one must be cleansed, therefore, for the effects of sin, the tendencies, the disposition, and the venial sins.

Forgiven mortal sins need reparation, and that is done in purgatory, if those sins were confessed and absolved. In addition, each person has a predominant fault, that fault which causes most of the sin in his life. This root fault rests in self-love and created disordered desires, “cupiditas,” which leads to rebellion in one’s soul. Rebellion towards God is called “superb.”

Unless one allows God to take one through the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the spirit, where such spiritual infirmities and flaws are rooted out, one must go to purgatory.

Those in purgatory rejoice, embrace this suffering, this satispassion, because they increase in the love of God as they are purified. However, they cannot gain merit. The ability to gain merit for heaven ends with death. However, their love and virtue increase as they are cleansed of all flaws. One of the great sadnesses of those in purgatory, and for those in hell, an eternal gnawing, is the realisation of how high they would have been in the levels of holiness in heaven but for ignoring grace. This suffering turns to gratitude in purgatory as the souls see more clearly the mercy of God, as they now see the justice of God.

Second is the consideration of time in purgatory. Two types of time must be defined in order to understand the real time in purgatory. It is not like our time. There has been confusion about this in the past, as people think that when they make an indulgence which merits 30 days, that means 30 days off of purgatory—not so. It means that the prayer is equal to a physical penance which should last 30 days, as in the old times, when priests would give a 30 day pilgrimage as a penance, or 30 days without meat. The indulgence takes the place and is equal by the merit of the Church to those physical punishments.

Purgation takes time, so the time in purgatory is not short, unless one has made the Five First Saturdays, for example, or gained other purgatorial indulgences, such as the Divine Mercy indulgence. However, those indulgences take away the punishment due to sin, but not the effects of sin or the evil dispositions. Thus, one needs purgation, either in this world or the next. Apparently, St. Theresa of Lisieux was told by God that of all the persons she knew who has died In the convent, over all the years she lived there, only three had gone straight to heaven.

Theologians in Catholic teaching shows one that there are two types of time regarding purgatory. The first is “eviternity,” which means eternal duration or eternal existence. It is not the same as “eternal time,” which is the experience in heaven or hell. Eviternity is an in-between concept, between time as we know it by minutes, hours, days and years, and eternal time, both of which we understand. Eviternity has a beginning, so it is not eternal. Garrigou-Lagrange calls it “the perpetual present,” and we can understand that—a present moment which lasts a long, long time.

Discontinuous time is the time experienced by true mystics in ecstasy and the angels. Such persons can have a thought which lasts hours, but is only one spiritual instant. Both eviternity and discontinuous time are what the soul in purgatory experiences. All of us live in continuous time. God and the saints in heaven live in eternal time. The souls in purgatory live in eviternity and discontinuous time.

However, one can judge how long a soul may be in purgatory in terms of earthly time. I read one author which stated that the ordinary Catholic will experience purgatory for 40 years. If a person has held a high office, states Garrioug-Lagrange, referring to private revelations, that soul could be in purgatory for three or four centuries. One time, I asked God to release through my prayers, the forgotten soul who had been in purgatory the longest. A face and body came into my mind, that of a Conquistador of the 16th century. If this discernment was true, I was praying for a man who died as long ago as the 1500s—500 years ago! I did not doubt that some people, especially those who had death-bed conversions from lives of serious sin could be in purgatory for a very long time.

Sort of makes you long for the good old days when a dying penitent sinner heard "Today you shall be with Me in Paradise."  And then there are those who insist that what Lutherans teach of the atonement and of justification is an invention foisted upon Scripture.  Hmmmmm.  Very interesting.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A lack of hearing. . .

Where once it might have been said that the Word suffered from a lack of sources, today it suffers from a lack of hearers.  Oh, to be sure, we have the Word all around us but it has become captive to nearly everything else we filter into our ears through personal preference and our impatience that reads faster on the page than our ears can hear.  In the confusion of it all, we have forgotten what it means to hear, to listen.

While I understand why we do it, printing out the readings for the Divine Service (or, for that matter having Bibles in the pews for folks to turn to). distracts us from hearing the Word.  Remember that until modern times, the people of God encountered His Word not as a page in their hands but as a voice in their ear.  This is doubtless the expectation of St. Paul (Faith comes by hearing).  It was and is the history of Old and New Testament until the advent of modern education gave to all the ability to read and write and modern printing made the cost of such books accessible.

Now, lest you think I have gone off my rocker, I am not advocating for an end or even a restriction of books.  Look at the walls of my office.  Lord knows, I love books.  But I am advocating for hearing the Word, for the aural Word that enters our hearts and minds not through the eye but through the ear.  I grew up back when teachers spent part of their time with elementary age students reading to the class the great books and stories of old.  I still recall the sound of a teacher's voice reading Mr. Poppers Penguins (and, by the way, was most disappointed by the more recent movie of the same name).  Back in the dark ages when I was in Sunday school, the teacher began by simply reading the Bible story of the day.

Nowadays when we do hear the Bible read, it is in brief installments (called pericopes) at the weekly liturgy where we follow along on an insert or in the worship folder or Sunday bulletin or in the missalettes.  We seem unable to sit and listen without having something to focus our eye upon.  For us the Word of God is more typically a word on a page and not the oral Word.  On top of that, sustained reading aloud is rare -- whether of Scripture or anything else.  Most of our reading is individual, silent, and somewhat abstract.  We read and pause and daydream or think upon a word or phrase and in it all we are the ones in control of the process.  

Yet reading out loud is completely different. It is by nature a social act and not individual.  The words incarnate in us very differently through the eye and the mind than through the ear.  To be sure, there are imaginary faces that I have put with particular voices because of how I heard things read out loud.  For a time I enjoyed listening in my car to books aloud (not the kind you pick up at Cracker Barrel but through NPR and the voice of Dick Estell).  

When we hear the Bible read, the Word is literally enfleshed in a voice and a person.  It is not reading for entertainment or even for information but sacramental reading, the voice that reads is reading a Word that does what it says through the reading and hearing of that Word.  Literally God is at work in the reading and the hearer is not simply incorporating information into the mind but receiving the Word and the Spirit acting through that Word.

When we listen to the Bible at home, it has a similar effect.  Parents read the Bible stories to their  children not simply as reading to entertain but in their parental vocation to teach the faith to their children. Although we may surely listen while we do other things (like driving), it is quite another thing to sit and devote the fullness of one's attention to what speaks into the ear.  Multi-tasking has let us think that we are giving due attention to all things but there is something quite shocking when the Scriptures become mere background sounds, the way a TV, radio, I-Pod or other device provides a constant soundtrack in the background of our lives. The aural Bible ought to have the dignity of our full attention and not compete for it the way other things must constantly beg to be heard.

So my first appeal is to let go of that paper in your hand on Sunday morning and listen to hear the voice of God speak through His Word.  And listen in your own time to more extended portions of the Scripture.  And read it to your children.  Amazon Audible has versions but they are also available in various places.  Hear the Word of God. . . and keep it.  God's Word does not need to be animated by our imagination, it is animated by the Spirit. 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Not imaginary. . .

The charge often laid against Luther and his spiritual heirs is that such talk of an invisible church is really an imaginary church -- something that does not have earthly reality but is only spiritual.  Others complain that this sets up a distinction between two churches -- one apparent where the Word is preached purely and faithfully and the Sacraments administered according to Christ's intention and the other one which is simply out there somewhere, inaccessible to eye or touch.  While it is true that later Lutheran dogmaticians made more of the terms visible and invisible than did Luther or can be explicitly found in the Lutheran Confessions, the roots of this distinction are ultimately Biblical and not Luther's.

The hidden or invisible church is a doctrine of comfort that acknowledges one cannot see the fullness of the church with the eye, nor can one separate the faithful from the hypocrite.  This emphasizes the expanse of the church throughout the world, among all nations, peoples, races, and jurisdictions but also beyond the scope of time and place and it acknowledges that until the Lord separates, these remain together in the visible assembly.  This church is one, one in Christ and one through Christ and not through human intention, work, or agreement.  Yet this una sancta is united with the visible church where the marks or signs are present.

The visible church is where the Word and the Sacraments are, where there are people who hear and believe the Gospel, where there are pulpit, font, and table.  Luther put it this way: “Not Rome or this or that place, but baptism, the sacraments, and the gospel are the signs by which the existence of the church in the world can be noticed externally. Wherever there is baptism and the gospel no one should doubt the presence of saints—even if they were only children in the cradle.” Against, from Luther:  “And even if there were no other sign than this alone, it would still suffice to prove that a Christian, holy people must exist there, for God’s word cannot be without God’s people, and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word.”  “Nor indeed are we dreaming about some platonic republic, as some have slanderously alleged. Instead, we teach that this church truly exists, consisting of true believing and righteous people scattered through the entire world. And we add its marks: the pure teaching of the gospel and the sacraments” (Ap VII:20).

Luther insists that this distinction is one that comes from the Lord Himself:  “The Lord Christ commands us not to embrace the false church and he himself distinguishes between two churches, a true one and a false one, in Matthew 7:15: ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing,’ etc. Where there are prophets, there are churches in which they teach. If the prophets are false, so also are the churches that believe and follow them.”

Luther appeals to the early church and insists that the confessors [the Lutherans] had the same baptism, sacrament, keys, preaching office, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, etc. as the ancient church. and concludes “Thus we have proved that we are the true, ancient church, one body and one communion of saints with the holy, universal, Christian church.”  What Luther and the Lutherans who are his heirs have refused to say is what Rome insists:  that outside this visible fellowship there is not salvation.

Part of the marks of the Church is not only adhering to the true doctrine (catholic) but also condemning false doctrine (heresy).  In contrast to other reformers, Luther does not equate purity of life with a sign or mark of the church.  The life of the church may leave much to be desired but the doctrine must not be sinful or reproachable.  Among the Pietists, this emphasis is reversed; the holiness of life is held perhaps even higher than pure or true doctrine and they held the visible and outward body to be less important and more subjective than did Luther.  The church is never invisible because the Word and Sacraments are never invisible though her boundaries may remain hidden and until Christ returns in His glory.

Rome and its defenders begin with the presumption that the church is only rightly visible and that its borders (visible or hidden) are coterminous with those in communion with the Pope.  They leave a small crack in the door that those outside the true visible church of Rome might be saved.  Some of Luther's spiritual heirs have wrongly overemphasized the hidden or invisible church to the point where the visible church is somewhat of an afterthought or secondary.  That is an abuse not only of Luther but especially against the Confessions which do not explicitly use either term.  In essence, if the church is everywhere it is nowhere.  And to those who follow this dead end, the invisible church is imaginary and there is no compelling move to live beyond this hidden kingdom.  For Luther and his rightful heirs, the church is where Christ is -- where His Word speaks, where He absolves, where He baptizes, and where He feeds us His body and blood.  We posit the church in the means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments with the pastoral office that preaches this Word and administers these Sacraments, and not an office alone (the papacy) or a man (the pope).

Chemnitz, the second Martin, spends a great deal of ink on the terms visible and invisible.  “The church is the assembly of men who have been called and gathered through the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments out of the world to the kingdom of God. In this assembly the elect according to the foreknowledge of the Father are found, namely, those who truly and perseveringly believe in Christ, among whom are mingled the nonsaints, who nevertheless profess the same doctrine.”  In other words, this helpful distinction acknowledges that it is God's eye and His judgment that alone discerns the heart and that it is not our duty to harvest the wheat or, as our Lord warns, we would be unable to distinguish them and end up tearing up the wheat with the tares.  This distinction is temporary until the Lord would send His reapers into the harvest and separate the wheat from the chaff.  So, as I began, speaking of the hidden or invisible church is a doctrine of comfort, like election, and not something which places duty or responsibility upon those who see the church where Christ means her to be seen -- around His Word and Sacraments.

Christians rejoice that wherever the gospel is found, there is the Church. “God be praised,” writes Luther, “a seven-year-old child knows what the church is: holy believers and ‘the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd’ [John 10:3]” (SA III:12, 2). In a very real sense and not in some abstract or imaginary sense, then, the church enjoys this complete and perfect unity wherever anyone hears the voice of Christ, even if we rarely see or experience this unity here in time.

Friday, March 15, 2019

And Jesus wept. . .

Do you want to know why people are fleeing the Church?  Take a gander at the goofiness that passes for, yeah, there it is, Gottesdienst.  But before you gloat, know that there are just as many goofy things that pass for church here, we just don't have all the video.  The enemies of the faith are not out there somewhere, they are among us in the form of shock value that substitutes for dignity and avant garde that passes for tradition.  Now if you might be tempted to think it could never happen here or among us, think of those voices who say, But Pastor, it's all just adiaphora!

If you can stomach it, here is the whole thing. . .

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Outcome Was Never in Doubt. . .

Sermon for Lent 1C, preached to the saints at Faith Lutheran Church, Hopkinsville, TN, on Sunday, March 10, 2019.

The battle of temptation fought between Jesus and the devil in the wilderness was no suspense thriller.  You did not need to hang on the edge of your seat. Jesus was not going to lose.  Jesus was never going to lose. Because Jesus is sinless.  Jesus is sinless not because He tries harder than you or I try to be holy but because He is the Son of God.  While we try to point out the similarities between Jesus and Adam or Jesus and us, it is more a study in contrasts.  Adam could sin – the question was whether he would or not.  Jesus cannot sin – the issue is not if He could but why He cannot.

The devil is always in a losing position with regard to God.  He did not have a chance in hell, so to speak, to overcome the angels in the battle for heaven told in Revelation.  He did not have a chance in hell to overcome the Son of God in the battle for earth.  It was never a dramatic version of what you and I face but the unique battle between the Son of God and the devil.  It was not even close.  And it was never a fair fight.

When the devil tempted Adam in the garden, he was still licking his wounds from being banished from heaven in the unsurprising defeat of the devil and his angels by the mighty forces of God.  When he came to earth, the devil found himself in a better position.  Though Adam could have resisted the devil, he did not.  He was not hungry like Jesus or even weary like Jesus.  He had heard the voice of God.  But Adam had already failed by the time the fruit was eaten.

He had not loved God above all things or loved Eve as himself.  He has not faithfully spoken the Word of God to the woman whom God had given Him and so he failed not only Eve but the Lord and himself.  He was seduced not by weakness but by delusions of grandeur – dreams of being like God.  In the end he became like the devil.  And in the end, he lost everything.  He lost the loving wife God had given him, the garden in which to fulfill his creative purpose, and the God who had made and preserved him.  All for a lie.  In the end, Adam was a hollow man, one who did not know who he was or why he lived.  He knew guilt that he was not created to know and he knew death that he was not created to experience.

So he gathered up the woman and ran to hide from the God who had given him life.  He was sure God would destroy him and did not even realized that he had already done it to himself.  So when Jesus was tempted by Satan, it was not a battle of wits but the triumph of truth and life over lies and death.  God was not about to let the devil win.  Jesus had come to fulfill the promise of God that Adam had all but forgotten – the promise of mercy and forgiveness and life.  The first step was to meet Satan on his own turf and steal from the devil his bragging rights.  God had come in Jesus Christ to take back Adam and all his heirs – back from sin and its guilt, back from death and its grave, and back to life and the triumph of hope.

It was not that the devil did not really tempt Jesus.  The temptation was real.  But Jesus was not Adam.  Jesus is pure and holy.  He seeks not Himself or His own way or His own glory.  Jesus is not deluded by imagination but is directed by truth.  He will not participate in the devil’s conversations.  In every case, Jesus ends the devil’s dialogue with the Word of the Lord that endures forever.  Jesus does not speak this Word like someone who has memorized it (like we do) but as the author of that Word who speaks what He knows to be true forever.

The devil cannot win but he does not know this.  So he tries and fails.  And he goes home with a chip on his shoulders.  What once worked in Eden does not work any longer.  So all the devil will do is to try to extract a cost from Jesus.  He will haunt Jesus and threaten Jesus so that the Lord of life cannot forget that He must suffer in order to redeem the fallen world.  The devil thinks He can tempt Jesus away from His saving purpose but Jesus is in it for the outcome, for the salvation of our souls.

So this is not about what Jesus might do but what God cannot.  God cannot forget YOU.  He cannot forget that sin tore you from Him.  He cannot forget the death that claims you.  He cannot forget what His love promised Adam and Eve in the garden so long ago.  And in the great surprise, the devil has unwittingly become a pawn in God’s plan of salvation.  The tempter has become the tempted.  The manipulator has been manipulated.  The liar has been cornered by the truth.  Jesus is still tired, still weary, and still hungry but the devil is lost.  Like an animal in pain, he will lash out to hurt anyone in his path but the outcome of it all is not and was never in doubt.

Therein lies the miracle.  Jesus suffers and you are relieved.  Jesus aches and you are healed.  Jesus dies and you are given life.  Jesus does not lose His righteousness but you are made righteous in Him.  This was the first battle in the great war of Your redemption and you are already the winner.  And at the end, it is the devil who limps away and Jesus who remains. 

The angels come to Him and for Him because God has appointed them for this service.  And because they come to Him, they come for us, doing the Father’s bidding in us and for us.  And you and I discover that man does not live by bread alone but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.  You and I discover that the Lord’s love cannot be tested and it cannot be lost.  You and I discover that the cost of salvation is free but only because Jesus paid it for us.  That is what we learn from all of this.  The devil knows God’s Word but when he speaks that Word it is twisted and turned upside down.  When Jesus speaks that Word it speaks clearly, bluntly, and directly to seek and save those who are lost.

Jesus is tempted like us to show He is not us.  He is the holy and righteous One, the Son of God long promised, the voice who speaks the Father’s Word, the God who fulfills that Word, and the Savior who suffers to give life and hope to the sons and daughters of Adam.  We stand in awe not that Jesus did not sin but that God has loved us with such a love, saves us despite knowing our sin, and will not be distracted from His saving purpose.

And now, what about you?  Will you stand in Christ and with Him?  Will you give up the false misleading dream for the reality of the God who loves and saves you?  Will you rejoice that the Lord has done all things well for you, to save you?  Will hope in Him who gave His life for you and calls you now to live in Him?  The devil will tempt but Christ will still be there for you.  And when the devil is gone, no one is left to accuse you.  The only one left is the One who died for you.  And He who spared not His own Son but willingly gave Him up for us all, will He not now give us all things in Christ?  That is what we learn today.  He has given us all things and He will give us all things.  That was never in doubt.  Amen.

That you may have confidence. . .

Christians have become accustomed to the fact that welfare is an agency of the state, that the care of the widowed, orphaned, disabled, and ill is a function exclusively of the state, and that the only place for churches in these causes is to cast aside overt Christian witness, accept state money, and simply provide a place for the state's work to be done.  This has become, in the mantra of many, the ministry of love -- loving your neighbor into the Kingdom of God if you cannot preach them into it.  All of it sounds wonderful since this relieves the Church of having to find the money for such costly endeavors, fills up empty spaces in our many buildings, and makes us feel better about the little we think we can do.  This is especially true when Christians no longer have confidence that God's Word is a power, that His is the living voice that speaks and faith is born, and that we can do much of anything to halt the force of secularism except comfort folks on their way to death.

So we have ended up at the place where the Church is loathe to criticize the politicians who govern when their governance conflicts with God's Word and will.  We have ended up in the place where freedom of religion has become freedom from religion, consigning the Christians to a right of private worship but attempting to silence them in the public square.  We have ended up at the place where we are so dependent upon tax exemption for our property, sales tax exemption for our work, and charitable exemptions for our workers and our people's contributions that we are easily bullied into silence by the threat of their removal.

In all of this we face a real decline of warm bodies in the pews, of families and children, of church work vocations, of financial viability for many congregations, and of a real sense of purpose and hope.  But most of all, we face a crisis of confidence.  In our lack of confidence we have borrowed business models based upon consumer preference and satisfaction over preaching the Word in season and out and looking like the Church on Sunday morning.  In our lack of confidence, we have accepted the conclusion that it is really all about money and we don't have enough.  In our lack of confidence we have accepted a destiny in which survival depends upon our silence in the face of the acceptance of sin and immorality and it is a cost too many are willing to pay.

In the beginning of Luke's Gospel he gives the purpose for his writing.  It seemed good to me, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.  Luke understands his is not the first written witness.  He purposefully directs his readers to the issue of an orderly account (not meaning here neat and tidy but chronologically ordered).  But the key is in two words.  One is certainty (or confidence) from the Greek asphaleia (ἀσφάλεια).  It means firmness, stability, certainty, undoubted truth, and security and safety from enemies and danger.  I have no crystal ball to see what will happen in the next ten minutes, much less ten years, but what I do have and what you do have is confidence -- not as a personality trait but confidence in the catechesis or teachings of the Word of God.  That is the second word, κατήχησις, which means instruction by word of mouth.  Here it is good to remember that nowhere in the New Testament did the apostolic writers envision their words to be read alone apart from the company of the faithful nor did they conceive of it being a private word or a word for the eye.  It was a preached and taught Word of God that they understood they were delivering upon a page and they fully expected people to hear that Word in the ear and, by the Holy Spirit, to be brought to faith and confidence in the things written for their instruction.

Before the folks in the pews can have this confidence and act upon it, they must have leaders in the Church who act as though they have confidence -- even amid their own personal doubts and struggles.  Theirs is a ministry of a certain trumpet.  They are to lead with confidence not only in the church’s teachings, drawn from the Word of God, but in the capacity of the Church even in this present age of skepticism and indifference to witness and vindicate those teachings before threat and under persecution -- especially from a hostile culture, a government, or political leaders.  Confidence alone is surely not all we need for this day but it must be precondition for the rebirth of the Church from the chains of doubt and fear.

As a sideline, several readers have sent me links to the visions of Our Lady at Fatima.  Rome has always had a fascination about the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima.  Much of this is cloaked in mysterious prophecies.  According to some, then Cardinal Pacelli (later Pius XII) is said to have hinted at some of the content to one of his closest friends, Count Galeazzi.  While granting no weight to the Fatima oracles, what is hinted at does not need much vision to see and predict.  A reported English translation says:

     “Suppose, dear friend, that Communism is the most visible among the organs of subversion against the Church and the Tradition of Divine Revelation. Thus, we will witness the invasion of everything that is spiritual: philosophy, science, law, teaching, the arts, the media, literature, theater, and religion.
     I am concerned about the confidences of the Virgin to the little Lucia of Fatima. This persistence of the Good Lady in face of the danger that threatens the Church is a divine warning against the suicide that the alteration of the Faith, in its liturgy, its theology, and its soul, would represent.
    I hear around me innovators who wish to dismantle the Sacred Chapel, destroy the universal flame of the Church, reject her ornaments, and make her remorseful for her historical past. Well, my dear friend, I am convinced that the Church of Peter must affirm her past, or else she will dig her own grave.
     I will fight this battle with the greatest energy on the inside of the Church, just as outside of it, even if the forces of evil may one day take advantage of my person, my actions, or my writings, as they try today to deform the history of the Church. All human heresies which alter the word of God are so that a greater light might appear.
     These underdeveloped peoples will save the Church, Eminence. A day will come when the civilized world will deny its God, when the Church will doubt as Peter doubted. She will be tempted to believe that man has become God, that His Son is only a symbol, a philosophy like so many others. And in churches, Christians will search for the red lamp where Jesus awaits them, like the sinful woman crying out before the empty tomb: ‘Where have they taken Him?’
     Then, priests will rise up from Africa, from Asia, from America, formed here in this seminary of the Missions, who will say and who will proclaim that the ‘bread of life’ is not ordinary bread, that the mother of the God-man is not a mother like others. And they will be cut to pieces to testify that Christianity is not a religion like others, since her head is the Son of God, and the Church is His Church.”

Now I have no idea what to make of these words and do not quote them to lend legitimacy to the visions but it does not seem to me that anyone would need a revelation from God for Christians to see this same future predicted -- that the greater enemy to the faith is not from those outside but from those inside, tinkering with the truth, turning worship away from God to self, forgetting the witness of history and tradition, believing that man is the only real deity, and embarrassed by the Scriptures.  The last line is one of the things now almost universally accepted by the more progressive wing of Christianity, a sell out of objective truth to subjective feelings.  You and I have seen the witness of Africa and Asia and their resistance to the decadence and emptiness of the West.  And all of this rings true the question of Jesus when He returns, will He find faith?  No, in our day we need less people of vision than leaders who have confidence in the things into which they were catechized so that they might lead the people in the pews to believe and trust the Word of God now more than ever.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The key. . .

It might surprise the folks who delight in separating style from substance but I think a good case can be made when the liturgy is lost or degraded, doctrinal fidelity is either in danger or itself lost.  It may come as a surprise to many Lutherans, who love to talk about things indifferent (adiaphora), but one of the keys to the Reformation was liturgical.  It was in the mass and its sacrificial language that Luther saw clearly the connection between what was prayed and what was believed.  In his conservative reform of the mass, there was no wholesale reinvention of the liturgy but a liturgy carefully excised of those offending parts -- so careful, in fact, that the folks in the nave saw little distinct change in the mass except for the tenor and tone of the sermon.

If a case can be made that the liturgy is key to understanding error in the church -- especially the loss of the liturgy and the use of worship forms that either conflict with or distract form the confession of the faith -- then it will be the restoration of the liturgy which will be key to the rebirth of the faith as a whole.  Let me say that again.  Far from being something indifferent, it was in liturgical loss that the decline of the faith began, then and now, and it will be in the recovery of the liturgy that the renewal of the faith will begin (as it did then, so now). 

I have made the case before that liturgical change must be incremental and deliberate.  Certainly, the changes that were the fruit of the liturgical movement now 50 years ago or more may not have been intended to engender a breach but they did.  Even when the changes were less radical than Rome, say in the liturgical changes that affected Lutherans, a distinct change was soon followed by radical change.  Among some Lutherans, the words of the liturgy (including the creed) became tradition unconnected to what is believed and among others the liturgy itself was seen as an impediment to outreach to the dechurched or unchurched who had no preference for it.  In both cases, the distance from the liturgy and the faith believed, taught, and confessed has been a disaster for every church body. 

Just as liturgical change accompanied, even if it did not cause, the rupture between the two lexi of credendi and orandi, the recovery of the liturgy will be the key to the restoration of the integral connection and its life lived out among the faithful on Sunday morning.  It is not simply a matter or recovering doctrinal integrity but of recovering how it is that this doctrine is confessed and lived out within the life of the church for the faithful -- the liturgy.  The liturgy is not and can never be itself a thing indifferent.  The elaborate or simple ceremonial that accompanies it can rightly be called adiaphora -- not something indifferent but simply that which cannot bind the conscience -- but not the liturgy itself.  We certainly do confess the faith but we also pray it on Sunday morning -- as a people who believe that God's Word and Sacraments deliver to us more than symbolism but efficaciously deliver what they sign and say to the people.

The liturgy is not a matter of personal taste but of the integrity of doctrine and life.  Without such a deep and profound connection, the faith becomes cerebral and worship merely a matter of the heart.  This is disaster.  So, if I may, let me suggest that any renewal of the faith is inherently a renewal of worship, of the liturgy.  If we got into our mess, at least in part, by introducing forms or an absence of forms in order to appeal to preference, then we will get out of this mess by restoring the form, the liturgy, and learning again to pray its words as well as believe and confess them.  If the faith is the coffee, the liturgy is the cup from which we drink it.  When the cup leaks, the faith will be lost.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Lead us not into temptation. . .

Sermon for Lent 1C, preached on Sunday, March 10, 2019, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich

“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil.” (Lk 4:1)
    We pray it every Sunday, “lead us not into temptation.”  With this petition we ask God to grant us divine protection and to guard us against the devil and all his schemes to get us to sin.  But why do we need to pray this way?  Hasn’t God defeated Satan?  Hasn’t He already given us salvation in Christ?  Yes He has, but Satan isn’t one to give up easily.  He’s still on the prowl looking to devour us (1 Pt 5:8). 
    The temptation of Christ is always the Gospel reading for this first Sunday in Lent, so we’re familiar with it.  Jesus was in the wilderness, fasting for 40 days.  And the devil comes to Him, tempting Him to turn stones into bread.  But Jesus resisted, quoting Scripture: “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Lk 4:4; Dt 8:3).  The devil’s second temptation promised Jesus all the glories and all the authority of all the earthly kingdoms if He would just bow down to Satan.  Again, Jesus resisted, quoting Scripture: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Lk 4:8; Dt 6:13).  Finally, Satan took Christ to the top of the temple, telling Him to jump because God promises in His Word that no harm will come to His people.  But again, Jesus resisted, quoting Scripture: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Lk 4:12; Dt 6:16). 
    We know this story.  We know all the temptations that Satan threw Jesus’ way.  But do we really think of these as temptations, temptations like the ones we face?  After all, it’s Jesus, the Son of God; of course He would resist Satan.  Of course He wouldn’t give in.  He saw the tempter right there in front of Him.  If we too could see Satan, then we’d also be able to easily resist him...right?  Wrong. 
    Satan’s crafty.  He hides himself in his temptations.  He covers up his true intentions, his desire to take you away from God.  Satan is the great deceiver, the father of lies (Jn 8:44); and he dresses up his temptations to make them look good. 
First, he appealed to Jesus’ hunger.  Christ was without food for 40 days.  Just imagine how hungry you are after 1 day of not eating.  The temptation to satisfy this hunger was real.  The temptation for Christ to use His divine power to satisfy His hunger was real.  But when you look at this temptation, it doesn’t really look like temptation.  Food isn’t bad.  Eating isn’t bad.  It’s how God made us.  And Satan telling Jesus to eat is a normal thing.  It looks like a good thing; and that’s the first way that he dresses up temptation; he makes it look good. 
He did this in the Garden with Adam and Eve.  He convinced them that eating the fruit which the Lord had forbidden was actually a good thing.  Satan does this with us.  The lust of our heart he makes look good by convincing us that we’re being true to our heart.  The hurtful words we say he makes look good by convincing us we need to share our feelings.  The neglect of helping those around us, like our family and friends, he makes look good by convincing us we need to take time for ourselves. 
The second way Satan dresses up his temptations is that he appeal to our wants and desires.  Again, he did this with Christ.  He promised Jesus all the glory and all the authority of the all the kingdoms on earth.  Who wouldn’t want that?  He did this with Adam and Eve, appealing to a desire to be like God.  And he does this with us.  We’ll do just about anything if it will give us what we want, even if it only promises to give us what we want.  The temptation to join in on gossip promises us friends.  The temptation to withhold our offerings from the Lord promises us more money in our pockets. 
Finally, the devil dresses up his temptations with God’s Word.  He twists it.  This happens when Scripture is taken out of context.  The devil loves this because it keeps us from knowing the truth.  “Judge not” (Mt 7:1-3) turns into “Don’t talk about sin.”  “Work out your own salvation” (Phil 2:12) turns into “If you try hard to be a good person, that’s good enough.”  “Worshipers must worship in the Spirit” (Jn 4:21-24) turns into “I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian.”  All of these lies are disguised as God’s Word, and the devil loves it because it leads us away from God and the truth of His Word. 
These are hard temptations to resist.  Every day we encounter them.  Every day the devil comes at us.  Every day he tries to pull us into sin and death.  Therefore we must be vigilant.  We need to be aware of Satan’s temptations, and we must continually pray for the Lord to deliver us from these temptations, because on our own, we’d give in to them every time. 
    When Christ was tempted by Satan, He faced real temptations, but the outcome was never in question.  Christ was going to overcome them, because that’s what had to happen.  It’s interesting that in all the accounts of Jesus’ temptations, the evangelists say that it was the Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted.  It was according to God’s plan of salvation that Christ be tempted, not to give you an example of how to overcome the devils entrapments on your own, but to overcome them for you. 
    Jesus endured these temptations for you.  He overcome them for you, so that He could rescue you from the death of your sin; so you could be forgiven when you give into temptations.  Adam in the Garden listened to the devil’s lie, plunging the whole world into death.  Jesus, the second Adam, did what our first parents couldn’t, He did what we can’t.  Jesus resisted all the devil’s temptations so that He might be sinless, so that He could be the perfect sacrifice, and through His sacrifice give you life. 
    Christ has overcome.  The devil’s been defeated, and Jesus gives you the spoils of that victory.  Our sin plunges us into death, but Christ brings you to life.  He undoes everything that Satan did.  He redeems you and gives you the everlasting life that was always God’s plan for you. 
    Christ has defeated Satan and promises you salvation.  This salvation is freedom from sin and death, but not freedom from temptation.  Satan still comes after us, and he comes hard.  Therefore, we must stand firm, with the Word of the Lord in our hearts and on our lips.  We must prayer for Christ’s protection, “lead us not into temptation.”  Jesus endured Satan’s temptation.  He overcame them for you, so that you might be saved from.  So when you feel the crafty pulling’s of the devil, say with confidence, “Be gone devil, for I am a redeemed child of God, and in Jesus I have salvation.”  In His name...Amen. 

Outside the Body of Christ. . .

Creeds and confessions are marvelous things and even more so when we say what we mean and mean what we say.  So when a church says something and then couches the harder word in softer ones, we need to hear what is really said and not what we want to hear.

Rome for many years lived both by the promise and threat that its judgment was the judgment of God and that to offend Rome was to suffer the possibility of being removed from the Body of Christ and booted from the Kingdom of God, now and forever.  In the mid to late 20th century these words were softened.  Christians outside of Rome were talked of as separated brethren (and, we presume, sistren, to be politically correct).  It was a seeming admission that it could be more than a felicitous inconsistency that the Spirit might bring about saving faith outside the structures of the Roman Church.  That evolved into the idea of ecclesial communities -- now, not churches, mind you, but the semblance of church and, it appeared, more than merely separated brethren.  Then there was Pope Francis admission that God willed a diversity of religions (read here back in February).  Certainly if God willed a diversity of religions (not simply versions of Christianity) that ought to give some stature to those creedal and confessional non-Roman Christians, right?  You might think so.  But perhaps not so much.

Catching up on the gossip about Rome, I came across a blogger who began his post with these words:  I do not enable comments which claim, for whatever reason , that PF is not (or might not be) the true Bishop of Rome. I do not wish, on the Day of Judgement, to have to explain my collusion in encouraging souls for whom Christ died to separate themselves from His Body the Church.  That makes it a bit clearer. As a confessional Lutheran, certainly a profound distinctive in the plethora of churches that are nominally bunched under the term Protestant, I stand out (for good or for ill).  It is clear when you come to my parish or hear me preach or read this blog that I am not of the stripe that disavows objective truth or disdains orthodoxy or promotes personal truth or suggests feelings can stand in for faith believed and confessed.  Yet, when push comes to shove, my life is outside the life of the one true church and I live, as it were, outside the Body of Christ -- simply because I am not in communion with the Bishop of Rome.  Think about this.

There are those who love to call me a Romanist or a closet Roman Catholic (for I have done nothing to hide my claim to be catholic and apostolic as the Augustana claims as well).  They love to joke about chancel prancing or an inordinate love of vestments and ceremonies.  If you think this is what Rome is and this is her central truth, you are a greatly mistaken.  Do not be foolish.  Luther's quarrel with Rome had nothing to do with a chasuble, chanting, or ceremony.  It has everything to do with the central question of authority and whether that authority is posited in Rome, in the Chair of St. Peter, in its current occupant, and in the teaching magisterium and conciliar structures that both express and support Rome's claim to be the exclusive Body of Christ.  Of course, it may be a bit muddier when it comes to the Eastern Church, but make no mistake, if you are not in Rome, you are not in the Body of Christ -- at least as Rome sees it.

I have many friends in Rome, some of them former Lutherans.  They always assure me that this is but a technicality, this exclusive claim to be in communion with Christ and to be His very Body on earth but every now and then it comes home.  Under the niceties and softer language of the modern era, the truth about Rome is that Rome is exclusively the Body of Christ and those of us who live outside its communion live in something more than a fractured state with God but under the threat of eternal damnation.  If you are a Lutheran who thinks Lutheranism is fighting about what vestment to wear or whether or not to use incense or to chant, you need to wake up.  The issues that divide us rest upon the central foundation of authority -- the Word of the Lord (not according to personal reason or individual magisterium but in the greatest sense of the catholic always and everywhere) or a papacy and its structures that ultimately sit above the Word, may add to what is in that Word, and have an undefectible truth that does not depend upon that Word.

Monday, March 11, 2019

The threat is real. . .

‘Total Liquidation Sale! Everything Must Go!” the signs screamed. Which was odd, because this wasn’t a furniture store or a carpet warehouse. It was Concordia College, a small historically black private college in Selma, Ala., and it was selling office equipment, classroom articles and athletic apparatus.
So began a Wall Street Journal article on the threat to America's colleges, especially those smaller, poorer, and religious schools who are finding competition from online degree programs a hefty challenge.  Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School thinks that half of America’s colleges will close due to the same threat  Guelzo, author of the WSJ article, thinks America’s 1,800 private colleges are especially vulnerable.  In the case of Selma, the student body dropped by 43%, the school was deep in debt, and it became no longer financial viable.  In other words, it was bankrupt.  It may be the tip of a growing trend.

Of course, there are many threats -- online degree programs, cheap state schools, state programs to reduce tuition cost or even make it free, and the lack of big endowments.  But Guelzo said the threat may be much simpler -- demographics. The sagging birth rates reduce potential applicants (he says 450,000 during the 2020s) mean that competition for the remaining pool of candidates will be fierce and the big schools are in a much better position to weather the shrinking population and have a diverse income stream to support their efforts.  On the other hand, private colleges must raise money through tuition increases that will effectively price them out of the market.  Tax dollars that support public universities mean that the student population does not have to bear the entire cost as they do in private schools.  Plus the drumbeat of free college for all indicates the threat is not only real but is moving quickly to hamstring the recruitment at the vast majority of private colleges.

So the threat that forced the closure of Concordia College, Selma, was not unique to that school and is a very real threat to most of our Missouri Synod Concordias.  While some (Mequon) have done an effective job of adding programs and recruiting students, it also has (apart from the Ann Arbor campus) a very small population of those training for church work vocations.  So it is succeeding by inventing a purpose different from what it was created by the church to do.  Unfortunately, the other Concordias are not as well positioned, have smaller student bodies, and are much more vulnerable to the threats faced by all private and especially religious colleges and universities.

In the LCMS there is a very strong desire to see our Concordias prosper and to find a way to reinvigorate their role as trainers for the church workers of our future.  That said, it is by all accounts an uphill battle.  Some will inevitably have to close and others will perhaps find ways to build programs and recruit students to a more diverse campus and all of them will have to figure out what to do to compete with other online degree programs.  The Synod has already seen this threat and is working on it but it may not be possible to maneuver around the obstacles in their path and leave these decisions to a triennial convention cycle.  I wish I had a crystal ball to see into the future but all I have is a basic understanding of the potholes facing those Concordias and the church body that has always seen these institutions are auxiliaries to the primary mission of the LCMS.  In any event, it will not be a simple matter for our leaders to work through and it will require us to make some hard decisions -- sooner rather than later.

As a product of the LCMS system of junior colleges, a senior college, and seminaries, I am convinced of the value.  But I fear it is a jewel too pricey for us to keep in anything at all resembling what I knew or even what we see in place right now.  This is a time of prayer and angst and yet we meet it with the confidence that God will work among us to find the right way and to make the hard decisions.  The last thing we need is politicking that polarizes the state of the church that must make such decisions.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Voices of death. . .

Honestly, I really do not know what to say in the wake of those who claim to be Christian and defend and promote abortion in the latest stages of pregnancy or those who would fight against any and all restrictions upon the right of the mother to take the life of her unborn child.  Maybe it is true that the whole issue of pro-choice or pro-life has become a political football in a game that has less to do with the essential position itself than it does political power and control, however, when the points in the game are human lives, how can we continue to play it?

It is clear that the Democrats have become the party of choice -- a sacred tenet in their game plan to regain the White House and Senate and control the destiny of our nation.  It is also clear that the Republicans are the part of life -- a sacred plank in the platform that appeals to their base and to their vision of regaining the House and keeping the Senate and White House.  But somewhere under this all I am abhorred by the way we argue and talk as if this were all theoretical and not about actual children, killed in the womb, for the same of something as difficult to nail down concretely as the mental or physical health of the woman.

How far will such a future take us?  Where will it end?  As I have said before, we have lived with the horror of safe, legal, and free abortion long enough to end the lives of one and half the times the population of Canada and it is clear that the longer this continues, the harder it is to turn it back.  It has, much to my regret, become the norm for most Americans.  While it is easy to see how someone can support something in theory, it is a grave shock to see how people can support in specific detail how a child might be killed moments prior to birth or moments after (if the mother has a change of heart).

We cry out that guns are killing our kids but guns have killed very few in comparison to the many who are routinely taken from life and consigned to death either by medical procedure or pill.  In fact, many of the same voices crying out against the school shootings are crying out for the right to killing the unborn to continue without any kind of restriction.

Sadly, the media is against any honesty in this discussion and many churches would prefer the whole thing would just go away rather than take a stand.  The fear of offending people has become the more powerful motivator over the fear of offending God.  We are surrounded by voices of death shouting down every reasoned argument or rational defense of life.  We will not debate our way through this and we will most certainly resist exile from the public square and persecution from those who control official media and social media but the cause is more urgent now than ever.

It is probably going to offend many when I say that abortion will need to become not one of many but the signal issue and the single issue for those who defend life.  There are few elections in the near future but we must begin now raising up the cause of life as the ONLY issue about which we cannot compromise -- whether in the election of those who serve and lead us or in the legislation passed and enforced by those who serve and lead us.  Do we really want to be on the same side as North Korea and China and Herod of old when it comes to our appreciation for life?

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Coming out for all the wrong reasons. . .

The New York Times wrote a piece on closeted gay priests and the prison in which they live.  You can read it here. 
The closet of the Roman Catholic Church hinges on an impossible contradiction. For years, church leaders have driven gay congregants away in shame and insisted that “homosexual tendencies” are “disordered.” And yet, thousands of the church’s priests are gay.

Fewer than about 10 priests in the United States have dared to come out publicly. But gay men probably make up at least 30 to 40 percent of the American Catholic clergy, according to dozens of estimates from gay priests themselves and researchers. Some priests say the number is closer to 75 percent. One priest in Wisconsin said he assumed every priest was gay unless he knows for a fact he is not. A priest in Florida put it this way: “A third are gay, a third are straight and a third don’t know what the hell they are.”
NBC has the story of one of the sources of that article and how he came out to his parish.

"I am Greg. I am a Roman Catholic priest. And, yes, I am gay!"  A Roman Catholic priest in Milwaukee has come out as gay, writing that he will no longer live in the shadows of secrecy and plans to be authentic to his gay self.

The Rev. Gregory Greiten first disclosed his sexual orientation publicly on Sunday to the St. Bernadette Parish and was greeted with a standing ovation from his parishioners, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. He also wrote a column that was published Monday in the National Catholic Reporter.
The stories describe poignantly the painful accounts of priests who feel they must live a lie.  It might seem callous then for me, who is neither Roman Catholic nor gay, to challenge the whole idea of coming out.  But that is what I am doing.  I challenge the idea that a priest or anyone's first duty is to be authentic according to their sexual desire.  I challenge the idea that sexual desire is primary or even among the most important things that define people.  I certainly challenge the idea that it is so for one who claims to be Christian, much less for one who claims to be Christian within a church that listens to the voice of Scripture in defining this as disordered desire unsanctioned by God.  Honestly, it would be better for those who feel compelled to come out to resign from the priesthood instead of presuming that it is possible to come out while living faithfully the vocation of the priesthood.

Fr. Greiten wrote: "I will embrace the person that God created me to be. In my priestly life and ministry, I, too, will help you, whether you are gay or straight, bisexual or transgendered, to be your authentic self — to be fully alive living in your image and likeness of God."  In other words, this is not about coming out at all but about a radical transformation of the ethical imperatives and moral identity shaped by Scripture and expressed in nearly 2,000 years of unbroken witness.  Fr. Greiten is not simply in search of honesty or integrity but wants orthodox Christianity to change -- to radically change -- its doctrine and piety.  That is why coming out as a Roman Catholic priest is not freedom but simply the shifting of the burden of fidelity from the priest to those in his care.  Fr. Greiten and those like him are not searching for understanding but acceptance, not for love but for the approval of a desire the CCC says is disordered and the practice sinful.  He says he feels like a new person for coming out.  Would that he felt like a new person because of the gift of a new identity in baptism, of a new direction for piety shaped not by the glorification of desire but by its self-control.  Could it be that Fr. Greiten and those like him are not looking to have their identity transformed but approved by a God whose job it is to make them feel good about themselves and their desires more than make them new people, created with new hearts, and with a love and desire to keep the will of the Lord according to His commandments?  If a priest is striving to live a holy life, he needs to get on with his priesthood and stop complaining about a God and a church that does not sanction his desire over his baptismal identity and priestly calling.  Finally, that priest needs to stop rubbing his plight in people’s faces and making it their problem instead of his.  If he cannot do this, he must resign.

This has become local since the Roman Catholic parish down the road heard its pastor announce to the congregation he was gay but closeted no more.   His past and current bishops knew but did nothing.  It has scandalized the parish -- Roman Catholics, though the largest congregation in town, try not to be too conspicuous in a city well within the Bible Belt.  What’s the big fuss about Fr. Wolf? Maybe it’s his vanity-press booklet “Gay Respect in the Good News.” Maybe it’s his association with dissenting Catholic groups like New Ways Ministry. Fortunate Families, and Equally Blessed, or with other non-Catholic groups like “PFLAG” and the active LGBT agenda-pushers in the heart of the Bible-Belt community of Clarksville. Maybe it’s the fact that, despite claiming to a parishioner that he thinks he was “born gay,” it wasn’t until he “discovered” he was “gay” at age 33 that Wolf decided to enter the seminary. Maybe it’s the fact that Wolf led a retreat for self-identifying “gay” clergy in 2017, ironically titled “Following Jesus in Holy Honesty.”

No priest should announce he is gay or straight or anything in between or several identities simultaneously.  This is not supposed to be what defines us and God has not saved us in order to glorify our desires but to reshape them so that they may be for Him.  This is not about repressing desire but reordering it, not about hiding sexual identity but transcending it, and not about seeking to live first in accord with desire but first in accord with Christ and the new life of His kingdom.  How can a priest who does not get this help the people in his care to do this in their daily lives?  What is it that St. Paul is directing us to when he calls upon us to live upright and self-controlled lives?
But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us. Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior. For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
The world will surely not get it but those within the household of faith ought to and surely one who is ordained and set apart to be priest and pastor to the people of God should be expected to get it.  I have no doubt that a person who has homosexual desires can serve faithfully by controlling those desires and putting baptismal identity and priestly calling over and above them.  This is not the path of the world but it is and has always been the path of life within orthodox Christianity.  Yes, I know, we Lutherans have other issues with the priesthood (such as the requirement to be celibate) but in this instance, we stand together in saying that disordered desires should not be celebrated as gifts of God nor should the burden of living with them (or without them) be dumped upon the faithful in the pews. We have a higher identity and calling than the glorification of desire (whatever that desire is) and everyone, single or married, is to live pure and chaste lives within their calling.  We do not give an out to straight people who come to find marriage a burden or who have tired of the one to whom they promised faithfulness before God and His church and we do not give to those outside of marriage a choice on how to fulfill sexual desire with impunity.  This is not about us.  It is about the Lord, about His Word, and about the shape of new hearts created in Christ Jesus not for self but for Him.  On this Lutherans and Roman Catholics ought to agree.

Spiritual uncles instead of spiritual fathers. . .

Remember that old John Candy movie Uncle Buck?  You know, the proverbial story of the, well, less than reliable and responsible uncle who has to take charge of his nieces and nephews in emergency and who screws up magnificently -- until he grows up and steps up?  Think how that might apply to the church and then continue perusing the post.

While reading, always a dangerous thing to do, I came across a great line.  The complaint being made against Roman Catholic bishops (indeed it might be worth considering for all bishops) is that they tend to be or want to be more spiritual uncles than spiritual fathers.  Wow.  Great line.  Of course Rome will think of Theodore non-Cardinal McCarrick who once went by the nickname Uncle Ted.  As if what you do with Uncle Ted stays with Uncle Ted (to paraphrase the Las Vegas slogan).

Yet it is hard not to see the same charge laid before a Timothy Cardinal Dolan who is always smiling and good for a media shot as a happy, winsome, non-judgmental, and slightly rotund uncle rather than a spiritual father with the gravitas to stand up to would be Roman Catholics on the vanguard of pro-choice legislation and causes.

Or, if you have a long memory like me, the kind of spiritual uncles who could not muster the voice or votes to condemn their brother bishop John Shelby Spong or James Pike or Gene Robinson or a host of other Episcopalians who lived beyond the fringes of moral integrity or outside the circle of doctrinal orthodoxy.

And, if you want to be personal, Lutherans who have the title (ELCA) or not (LCMS) who either refuse to hold errant or vulgar folks acountable (Her Church or Nadia Bolz-Weber) or those who either publicly or quietly ignore all semblance of close(d) communion or liturgical integrity or a God who actually creates instead of simply getting the ball rolling to step aside and watch it all unfold (as is charged by so many in Missouri).

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’”  If you want, simply change the terms and apply the same criticism to bishops (those who exercise ecclesiastical supervision) and who want to be liked (like you happy go luck Uncle Buck of John Candy movie fame) or who have to be discrete in what they say and do in order to get re-elected.

We judge the great bishops and pastors largely by statistics (attendance, money raised, etc.) rather than by faithfulness (too often a lonely path in a world that loves diversity but abhors objective truth).  We as pastors (and as bishops) have a craving for affection that is our weakness and makes it easier to play the happy uncle (a little naughty but fun) instead the spiritual father (who must say no and enforce it for our good and the good of the family that is the church).  I know this is what I fight against every day and I would suspect every honest pastor or bishop has the same secret flaw.

Judge not lest ye be judged has become the motto of too many of those whose good offices in the church expect and require them to judge truth from error and integrity from immorality lest we fail in St. Paul's expectation that those who desire the office be of good repute and those whose confession is orthodox.  Spiritual uncles are a luxury that might be afforded when things are going well within the household of God but when threatened within and without, we need spiritual fathers.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Emocracy. . .

We no longer live in a democracy. We live in an “emocracy”, where emotions rather than majorities rule and feelings matter more than reason. The stronger your feelings — the better you are at working yourself into a fit of indignation — the more influence you have. And never use words where emojis will do.

On target!  We have become a nation of people in search of good feelings and one intent upon demonizing those who would deny us our good feelings.  What was meant as a gift has become a curse as feelings have grown out of control and now dominate nearly everything.  From truth to leisure, feelings define us.  From gender and identity to reality and religion, feelings decide our truth. 

How does the Church function in a world in which fact and truth mean less than perception and feeling?  How does the Gospel of Christ crucified for us sinners fly in a world which needs no Redeemer since sin has been redefined and good news conditional upon what we want to  hear?

This is certainly a religious crisis but it goes far deeper than faith alone.  It is what has fueled our appetite for an unsocial social media and what has created barriers and divisions that make it hard to establish any real sense of community or friendship.  In the end, we are left in the solitude and prison of our feelings -- something that is confirmed by the shocking increase of depression and despair.

In the Church, some have embraced the move away from fact and truth to emotion and emoji and turned worship away from the Word of the Lord that endures forever to the whim of the moment.  In so may ways, we have loosened our moorings to the foundation of facts and the temple of truth that had kept us secure and even conservative churches find themselves hard pressed to do much more than slow the pace of this progressive idea which is really a throw back to Eden and its rebellion.  What is true is up for debate and so what is right is equally up for grabs.  Without fact and truth, we can have no common values and no common morality to inform and shape our lives together.

So God's gift of emotion now out of control has become a curse that threatens to undo us every bit as much as Adam and Eve's rebellion resulted in the loss of paradise for the prison of feelings.  While there may not be much we can do for what happens in the world around us, the outpost of the Christian Church must not capitulate and must risk all in order to be faithful to the Scriptures and people of the Word in a world skeptical of those Scriptures where words mean nothing at all but what we choose them to mean at the moment.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

The big thing. . .

Sermon for Ash Wednesday (C) preached on Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019.

Sermon for Ash Wednesday C, preached on Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019.

    I do not know why just these verses were chosen from Matthew 6.  It used to be all 21 verses and not a few verses picked from the beginning and the ending.  Originally it included the giving of the Our Father and the call to forgive.  Because they were omitted, it ends up sounding like the big things to be concerned about are how we give instead of whether we give, how we pray instead of praying, and how we fast instead of tasting.  That is not Jesus point.  In fact we miss what He is saying entirely if we concentrate on giving so no one notices or praying without looking like we are praying or fasting while we look like we just got done pigging out at Golden Coral.  That is the easy stuff.  Just about anyone can do that.  After all, we love rules because we know exactly where we stand before rules.  Tell us what we should do, and we will do it.

    Jesus is not laying down rules for us to follow.  He is exposing the weakness of a heart empty of faith, a heart that has forgotten that God’s greatest gift is His mercy. For if justice were the bigger thing, none of us would even be here.  Justice would mean the Lord would abandon us to the sin and death chosen in Eden.  Justice would mean that the only reward in this life was the passing notoriety of having our good deeds lauded before we die.  Jesus has come not for judgment of those who deserve it but for mercy.  He has come to call sinners to repentance and to pronounce forgiveness upon them.  This is the big thing.  Repentance and forgiveness within the mercy of God.

    In verses 14-15 Jesus makes this plain.  If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will forgive you but if you don’t forgive others their sins, neither will your Father in heaven forgive yours.  You see, the big thing is sin and the only thing bigger than sin is the mercy of God that endures forever.  This forgiveness is God’s gift to us because of Christ.  It is a transformative gift which does not merely remove something from the exterior of our lives but changes the way we deal with one another.  If God does not count our sins but forgives us, how can we justify remembering and holding the sins of others against them.  Even worse is when we lie and say we forgive but we delight in remembering and resenting both sin and sinner who commits it.

    Some wonder what ashes have to do with all of this.  Ashes is not how we judge the authenticity of the confession.  We love tears, we love the emotional display of sorrow, and we love the earnest promises never to do it again.  We have turned repentance into an acting lesson.  We act it out before God in hopes that He will judge our show worthy.  We do not do this only for confession, we also do this when we announce the good works we do for others and when we pray with great show before those who are listening.  We love emotion but repentance is not about emotion.  It is about something far more real that feelings.  It is about mercy.

    David wore ashes when the secret sins of Bathsheba and her husband could no more be hidden.  Tamar, daughter of David put ashes on her head after her brother deceived her and violated her.  Mordecai and all the Jews wore ashes before their Persian oppressors.  Job sat in ashes.  The King of Nineveh too.  Jeremiah the prophet calls us to sit in ashes before the Lord.  These ashes are the public admission of our disgrace.  We wear them not to tell the Lord we are sorry but to own the consequence of our sin, without blaming the devil or excusing them because of circumstance  Confession is not about how sorry you are or about all your promises never to do it again.  Confession is simply about owning your sin.

    Absolution is not about saying your sin was not so bad or not to worry about it or it is no worse than others or that you will make up for it.  Your sin has killed you.  Your primary concern should be about the death you wear in your body because of sin and not whether or not you are better or worse off than others.  Absolution does not mean God has shrugged off your sin or decided you are worth forgiving.  God has taken the sin you owned away from you and made it His.  Your sin now belongs to Jesus and to the cleansing power of His blood.  What you admitted, He has borne even to the suffering and death of the cross.  He died for the guilty so that you might be declared just and holy and forgiven.  He died for those unworthy of being forgiven.  That is the big thing.

    God lifts the needy from the ash heap, says the Psalmist.  He does not do so because He has judged them worthy or they made a good show of their contrition.  He forgives because it is His will and purpose in Christ.  You own your sin so that Christ may own and restore you to the Father.  Ashes are not meant to look pretty.  They are dirty.  Because your sins are dirty.  Because you are dirty.  But those ashes look like a cross.  Because God lifts the needy from the ash heap by the cross.  He has forgiven you.  Now, forgive others in His name.

    Do not take back your sins from Jesus and wear them back home tonight. But neither do you get to judge what is sin and whether the sinner is worthy of forgiveness.  The power that God has given to you is to the power to forgive one another in His name and not to judge each other.  It happens here in Church when the Pastor speaks in the name of Christ and absolves you.  It happens in behind a closed door when the guilt cripples your life and you seek confession and absolution from your Pastor’s hand.  It happens in the hope when husbands forgive their wives and wives forgive their husbands and parents forgive their children and children forgive their parents and all of them forgive neighbor, co-worker, and even stranger.  Not because they have convinced you they deserve this forgiveness or have suffered long enough or done something to convince you that they are contrite and worth forgiving.  You forgive simply because God lifted you from the ash heap by the cross and turned this cross into your calling, so that you may forgive others as you have been forgiven.

    Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.  The Law is not concerned with emotion but with truth – the raw and blunt truth of your guilty heart.  Neither is the Gospel concerned with emotion but with truth – the raw and blunt truth that you are forgiven in Christ, through the blood of the cross, because of His righteousness.  You are judged holy in Christ and the most holy thing that you can do is to forgive others in His name.  This is not some painful duty God has afflicted you with in exchange for His forgiveness but the fruit of hearts redeemed, restored, and forgiven.  God has lifted you from the ash heap and now you actually get to lift others from the ash heap of sin by speaking to them Christ’s forgiveness.

    You may have thought that the big thing was making sure you were humble when you helped the needy or that you prayed secretly or smiled like you pigged out a the buffet when your belly ached from your fast.  Those are the easy things.  The hard thing is this.  To admit and confess your sin.  To wear it before the world.  To repent not as a show but as people who own the truth of their and admit their lives are an ash heaps.  For God lifts sinners from the ash heap all the time. And this is His gift to you.  That you may forgive others as you have been forgiven.  Not as the small print you hate to read in an otherwise glorious contract of grace but as the fruit of the forgiven who know that mercy is bigger than justice, mercy is better than justice, and mercy endures while justice is forgotten.
    God help us to do this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.