Friday, February 22, 2019

Something to look forward to. . .

In the technology support department at the Vatican Museums, Villanova University student Justin Myers is spending a semester creating virtual tours of galleries, part of a larger project to make the museums accessible to everyone.

While the Vatican Museums website has some tours already available for individual parts of the museum, such as the Sistine Chapel, a seamless virtual walk-through tour is in the works, according to Myers, who has been developing and editing tours for nearly four months.

The idea is to create something that joins all the separate rooms together “so you can virtually walk through the entire museum,” said the 20-year-old computer science student from St. Peter Parish in Olney, Maryland.

“Almost all the rooms are done now that I’m finishing up my projects for the semester. Now we just have to link it all together, but that’s a huge project,” he told Catholic News Service Dec. 13.

The Vatican houses all sorts of treasures that too many of us never see.  Now perhaps we have a chance to visit without actually going there. . .

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Things are not always as they seem. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 6C, preached on Sunday, February 17, 2019, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    We trust our eyes the most; that’s just who we are.  We want visual proof.  We want to see the truth.  But our eyes can’t see everything.  Our eyes can be fooled; after all, that’s how magicians make their living.  We can see one thing, but reality can be something completely different.  Things aren’t always as they seem, especially when it comes to our lives of faith. 
     Today we heard Jesus speak His Beatitudes, and every time we hear these “blesseds” they sound like complete nonsense.  Jesus’ words don’t fit with how the world works.  They don’t line up with what we see.  “Blessed are you who are poor….Blessed are you who are hungry now….Blessed are you who weep now….Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil,” (Lk 6:20-22).  This makes no.  Looking at our world, we’d never say these people are blessed.  Driving by those who stand on the corner with signs saying “Will work for food,” we don’t say to ourselves, “Hey look, that’s one blessed guy.”  No, we think of them as unlucky at best and swindlers at worst.  Hearing about people who are bullied and persecuted, those who are being sued because they’ve try to live and work by their faith, we don’t think they’re blessed.  No, we view them as victims.  Nothing we see about these people and their circumstances ever suggest they’re blessed. 
After this Jesus continued to speak more nonsensical words.  “Woe to you who are rich….Woe to you who are full now….Woe to you who laugh now….Woe to you, when all people speak well of you,” (Lk 6:24-26).  Again, this is backwards.  This isn’t what we see.  Those who have money, those who have all their needs met, those who appear to have a happy life, those who have a good reputation, we don’t consider them cursed or woeful individuals.  No, we say they're blessed, that they’ve been given all the good stuff.  We envy them.  We want to be blessed like them. 
Christ’s words are completely counter-cultural and counter-experience.  We just don’t see it.  We don’t understand what He’s saying.  How can those who have nothing be blessed and those with everything be cursed? 
The truth of Christ’s words here aren’t based on what we see though; it’s not grounded in the world around us.  Instead, Jesus is speaking about faith, about the life of faith, about what and who we trust in. 
Jeremiah spoke similar words in the OT reading.  “Cursed is the man who trust in man and makes flesh his strength….Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD” (Jer 17:5, 7).  Jeremiah calls those who trust in man cursed because man will fail.  And this is why Jesus speaks His woes as well. 
Christ doesn’t speak His woes simply to those who have, but those who trust in the earthly things they have.  Man, others, ourselves, our strength, the things of this world like money, power, and reputation, all of these will fail.  People betray us.  Our health and strength gives way to disease and weakness.  We never have enough money and it only takes one slip up to ruin our reputation.  These things don’t last, and they can’t give us what we truly need.  These things can’t give us life.  Even though we look at them and see what they can give us in the here and now, they can’t provide us with the everlasting life we need.  By trusting in these things, we’re like a shrub in the desert with no water to survive.  We have no hope at all.  But trusting in the Lord, we’re like a tree planted by the water, remaining green forever.  We have what we need, and in that, we’re blessed. 
    Jesus spoke His Beatitudes after people came to see Him, the very type of people He called blessed: those with diseases, those troubled with unclean spirits, and those who were in need.  These were the outcasts of the society; men and women and children that no one wanted around.  And yet, that’s not how Jesus saw them.  They were blessed in their need because in Christ their need was met.  He healed them, He cleansed them of their unclean spirits, and He proclaimed the everlasting life of God’s kingdom. 
    When you hear Jesus speak His Beatitudes, He explains why the blessed are blessed.  It’s not because of the condition that they’re in, but in what will be.  They’re blessed because their need is fulfilled in Christ!  “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.  Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!  Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven” (Lk 6:20-23).  The people who came to see Jesus were blessed because they trusted in Him and He gave them what they needed.  He healed them and He brought them into His kingdom.  And this is exactly how we are blessed too.
    When we come before our Lord, trusting in His grace and mercy, recognizing our woeful and shameful condition; confessing our sin, knowing that He alone can meet our need with His forgiveness and His life, we are blessed; you are blessed. 
    Our Lord never fails, and He’ll keep His promises.  That’s what the Beatitudes are, promises.  Yours is the kingdom of God.  By His grace and mercy, because of what Christ has done for you with His death on the cross, atoning for your sin, and with His resurrection from the dead, overcoming death, you receive everlasting life.  This is a certainty, even when what you see with your eyes looks completely different.
    You and me, we’re the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and those who are reviled.  We go through life and have to endure all sorts of struggles, pain, and strife.  We appear to be pitiful and woeful individuals, but with faith in Christ, we’re not.  Trusting in the Lord, Your Savior, you are blessed because He gives you all that you need: forgiveness, life, and everlasting salvation.  In Jesus’ name…Amen.

The function of the catechism. . .

Some have suggested that there comes a time for a new catechism or at least a revision.  It is at one and the same time a curious statement.  I wonder if it just might forget the real purpose and value of a catechism.  The catechism is not a tool to be used to reflect change but rather one that promotes consistency and continuity, thus preserving the faith by passing on the sacred deposit faithfully.

A catechism is not, and has never been in history, seen as, an instrument for introducing new doctrine.  In Roman terms this would mean that a catechism is not a tool for the “development of doctrine” but is, in effect, just the opposite.  When a catechism is used to advance change, even rather deliberate change, the catechism betrays its purpose and history.  Although some would describe the catechism’s function as humble, that is, to pass on, simply and accurately, the pre-existing teaching of the Church, this is in reality not a humble task at all. To pass on the faith is the most basic and essential function of the faithful and the catechism is a tool of this noble purpose.

For Lutherans, the Small Catechism of Martin Luther has been the glue that binds the generations together and the common identity that spans geography as well.  Given that we live at a time when confirmation instruction is more varied and diverse than ever before and the very purpose and goal of this instruction is often up for debate, the Small Catechism has been a very effective agent in slowing the progress of change and transcending the diversity of method and content of confirmation instruction.  That is why the role of the Small Catechism at the center of the curriculum is so important and the abandonment of the Small Catechism in favor of other curricular material is so profound.

In the same way, periods of confessional and liturgical renewal have always come as the fruit of a time of catechetical renewal.  The catechism actually does function just as it is intended.  It preserves the faith and in this work of preservation sparks a renewal of that faith as the people of God are confronted with what was believed, confessed, and taught as a living voice and even a corrective one.  But increasingly the Church has grown restless with the past and impatient with the work of God and has determined to use the catechism for an alien work of introducing change and a disconnect with the past.

While this is certainly obviously truth with Rome as it struggles with the CCC and what to do with its words on homosexuality and the death penalty at a time when the public mood has moved away from the old positions (born of Scripture and tradition).  Not incidental is the role of Pope Francis to bring question if not disdain for those positions.  At the very least, this has introduced confusion -- something the catechism was designed to confront and resolve.  In this Lutherans should be paying attention.  Changing the catechism IS changing the faith.  It is one thing to make linguistic changes that reflect the change in vocabulary but it is quite another to change words because the intent is to change the meaning.

Some words to consider as we survey the chaos that appears to be the catechetical tradition of a church once united as much by that catechism as by the Lutheran symbols.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Sobering Statistics. . .

I have no more reliable statistics to point out the decline in American Christianity than the numbers of Roman Catholic churches that have closed.  According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the number of parishes in the United States fell sharply from 2000 to 2017, from 19,236 to 17,156, a drop of 2,080, compared to a decline of just eight parishes from 1985 to 2000.  This is such a big issue that a while back Rome actually had a conference on what to do with buildings once sacred but now unused or deconsecrated.  Beyond Rome the stats are sketchy. 

Some have claimed that between 6,000 and 10,000 churches in the U.S. are dying each year. That means around 100-200 churches will close this week (including all denominations and non-denominational as well).  n estimated 30,000 congregations shut their doors in the United States from 2006 to 2012. Yet a recent study finds good news for churches overall—including the lowest closure rate of any American institution.

According to a recent paper published by sociologist Simon Brauer in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the number of religious congregations in the United States has increased by almost 50,000 since 1998. A key reason: growth in nondenominational churches.  Using the National Congregations Study (NCS) conducted in 2006 and 2012, he estimates the number of congregations in the US increased from 336,000 in 1998 to a peak of 414,000 in 2006, but then leveled off at 384,000 in 2012.  In other words, Protestant congregations appear to die at the same time new open -- a far different scenario than Rome.  However, it is worth noting that denominational churches are the ones closing at a faster rate than non-denominational churches and more of the new ones opening are non-denominational.

The point is this -- there is a lot of real estate out there that was once considered sacred but now sits largely unused, empty, or has been repurposed for another but secular use.  Now if that building is a warehouse style structure like many newer non-denominational buildings and even denominational ones, who cares?  But what do you do with sacred art that cannot be taken down or all that stained glass or chancel appointments not likely to be reused?  Look on eBay.  They are for sale there -- at least a few of them.  It creates a confusion and certainly a disappointment for the faithful when they see a church building decaying and empty or what was clearly a church used for secular, even profane, purpose.  My sense of things is that this is but the tip of the iceberg.  There is more to come.  

While many of the buildings are in urban settings, many are also in rural settings.  As a child my family and I drove past a sister church building, an old wooden structure with a steeple, that had been sold at auction and was used as a hog house on a farm.  The steeple had been cut off but the line of the windows and the structure under what had been the steeple made it clear what it was before it was used for such an ignoble purpose.

But it does not have to be.  While Rome has priestly scandals and a shortage of priests that drive some of their numbers, many of the other situations happen in neighborhoods and settings where the majority of the population does NOT affiliate with any church at all.  I believe Jesus said something about the harvest being ripe.  Think about it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Being blessed. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 6C, preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Hopkinsville, KY, on Sunday, February 17, 2019

In the Gospel for today we encounter part of the Sermon on the Mount, specifically the Beatitudes – though something we normally hear from St. Matthew.  They are lovely words and we all love to hear them but they are hard words to keep.  The poor who see beyond their poverty to rejoice in the Kingdom, the hungry who are satisfied not by this food but the food of eternal life, the weeping who will laugh someday, the hated, reviled, and persecuted whose reward is not here but in heaven.  I mean really – who wants to settle for delayed rewards when you suffer present day hurt?

It does not get better.  Woe to the rich for this is as good as it gets, woe to the full who will learn hunger, woe to those who laugh because tears are coming, and woe to those of good reputation because the voices will turn on you – wait and see!  Who is comforted by such words?

When we die we will give up the pods the pigs eat for the Lamb in the Marriage Feast appointed on high.  When we die we will no longer have to war against desire and instinct in order to be holy.  When we die, the enemies so fierce in this mortal life will fade from sight and memory.  But what about now?  How do we escape the trials and troubles, sorrows and sighs, disappointments and death of this mortal life?  Where is our hope now?  Where is our joy today?  Is our only future a stiff upper lip in the face of a world falling apart in the hope of something better to come?

It may seem like Jesus is telling us to keep control of our feelings, not to give up, not to grow weary, and not to lose sight of the goal but that is not His message.  Jesus is contrasting the passions of the moment that will consume us for the passion that saves us – HIS passion.  Jesus has passion but it is not like ours.  He does not yearn for food for the body but the Bread of every Word from God’s mouth.  He does not seek riches that moth and rust destroy but the eternal treasure of love that does not fade away.  He does not give into His tears – which He does have – but for the joy set before Him endures the cross and scorns its shame.  He does not pander to people in order for people to like Him but endures the slings and arrows confident of the Father’s great love for Him.  Jesus is not filled with passion for Himself for His passion is for YOU and me.

Jesus will suffer and He will die and He will be laid in the grave – all the while enduring not only the rejection of those He came to save but the abandonment of the Father when on the cross He cries out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  Jesus is not without passion but His passion is for you and for me.  He will eat with sinners and die for them and cleanse them with His blood.

We are here today not because we hope God loves us but because we have seen that love in Christ.  The Savior who was baptized into our sin so we might be baptized into His righteousness.  The Lord who heals the sick to show He will heal the world by His death and resurrection.  The God who comes not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.  The Christ who stretches out His arms on the cross to set you free – the sinner who should suffer and die.  We do not live in doubt or fear of what God thinks of us.  We know.  We know His love in Christ.  And we know we don’t deserve it.  And this love has given us new life.

So the words here direct us first to Jesus whose passion fulfills these words for you and for me.  But they are also directed at us.  Where is the focus of our passion?  Where is the desire of our hearts?  Because we are not who we were but by baptism have been born again, our passion is directed not on the things of this moment or even on ourselves but upon Jesus.  Because we know the power of God’s love, the desire of our hearts is not on the passing treasures of this moment but upon the eternal treasure of God’s love.

And what does it look like?  It looks like this.  We are not defeated and even in our weakest moments we are conquerors in Christ.  We are not the tired and weary who give up the fight, but we shall fight the good fight with all our might to belong to Christ and live in Him by His Word and Sacraments.  We are not the people whose passions rule our minds but the people whose minds are transformed by the Spirit to rule our hearts with self-control.  We are not the people who see with our eyes but who see by faith what our eyes cannot yet see.  God is with us, God has saved us, and God will deliver us to everlasting life.

What does it look like to belong to Christ?  We delight in His commandments and desire to be holy as Christ is holy and to be righteous as He is righteous.  We will live this out in our homes as husbands love and care for their wives and as wives love and care for their husbands.  We will live this out by loving our children and caring for them, not only in the needs of this life but by bringing them to Jesus in baptism and teaching them the faith at home.  We will live out this faith by hearing the call of God to come together in the Lord’s House, on the Lord’s Day, around the Lord’s Word and Table – not as a people who must convince ourselves we have to but because this is who we are.  We are the Lord’s and this is where God calls us to be.  We will give as generously as the Lord has given us to make sure this church endures, a pastor will be called, and a place will survive us – to care for our children, our grandchildren, and for the strangers we have not yet met who will come to Christ and meet here in this house of the Lord for prayer and praise.  We will serve our neighbors not because we like them or they are nice but because this is who we are and this is what Christ has done for us.

Dear friends, now is not the time to live in doubt or fear.  Now is the time to fear and love God, to learn passion for the things of God and His House.  For God has revealed to you the depths of His heart through His Son, Jesus Christ.  He has loved you with the everlasting love strong enough to endure the cross and grave and to rise again so that you might be His own and live under Him in His eternal kingdom.  Be of good cheer.  Rejoice and leap for joy, for your reward is great in heaven.  You are not the first to whom this call to faith and life in Christ is given and you will not be the last.

You may not be great or famous or live a fairy tale life but the Lord calls you blessed.  You are blessed not because you are poor but because Christ was made poor for you.  You are not blessed because you are hungry but because your hunger is satisfied by the Word of God.  You are not blessed because you weep but because His joy will erase all tears and sorrows.  You are not blessed because the world hates you but because God loves you.  So do not lose heart and do not be afraid.  You belong to the Lord by baptism and you live in Him by faith.  He will not allow your enemies to triumph over you but will deliver you from all your enemies and bring you into His everlasting presence in Christ.  And until that day, this is our consolation, this is our hope, this is our joy, and this is our peace that passes understanding.  Amen.

Whose failure?

The USA Today story on the parent's reaction to the priest's homily at the funeral of their teenage son who took his own life has gotten a life of its own.  You can read the actual homily here.  You can read their comments, well, just about anywhere.  Their complaint is that the priest did not use the homily to celebrate the life of their son, tow their son lived and not how he died, and certainly no calling their son a sinner or mentioning suicide (6 times).

The question in my mind has less to do with the priest than it does with the family and the church and preaching as a whole.  If this family was active in their church and did not just seek out a church for the sake of the funeral, and I am not saying that they did, either this family had not been listening to Scripture or preaching OR the priests had not been faithful to the Scriptures and preaching faithfully the whole counsel of God's Word.  For the issue is not whether the words of the priest were hurtful or not (when your teenage son takes his own life, just about any words you hear are hurtful in some way) but whether or not the people had failed to listen or the church had failed to preach.  Perhaps both.

The celebration of life mentality has no room for such things as sin and death.  It consoles with the hollow hope of a happy story, a rich memory, and a funny joke.  The fact that we as people have allowed things to get to this point, is testament to our own failure to know the Word of God and heed its truth and wisdom.  Redemption does not celebrate or complete the past and the funeral certainly does not canonize the dead.  Redemption answers sin with the blood of Christ that cleanses us from sin, rescues us from God's punishment for sin by bearing its full weight upon the shoulders of our Savior, and answers death's reign with the triumph of the resurrection.  At the time of death our hope lies not in what we remember about the dead but the promises made in baptism, affirmed in faith, lived out at the altar rail, and sealed in the death that is not death anymore.  The funeral, like the Mass or Divine Service, nurtures us in this faith by recalling our baptismal gift, rehearsing the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, feeding us upon the body and blood of our Lord, and teaching us how to live out this new identity as the people of God now, in preparation for everlasting life.

Who failed this family?  If their church was not preaching and teaching this Gospel, the church failed them long before the funeral.  If this was the preaching and teaching of the church but they refused to hear or failed to listen or chose the empty comfort of a life celebrated rather than the resurrection of the dead, then the family bears the responsibility.  This is exactly why preaching matters, why teaching is so important, why knowing the Word of God is key, and why we grieve not as the ignorant who have no hope, only a memory.

Could the priest have done better?  Of course.  But what he said was not the biggest problem.  When the churches fail to preach this Word of God or the people whose to listen to other voices, there is nothing to console our grief, heal our woulds, instill hope in our despair.  We are all sinners.  Nothing new here.  Our hope rests not in a memory but in the fact of Christ crucified and risen.  Our life is hidden with Christ, first through baptism and finally in death.  It is Christ who is at the core and center and it is Christ who gives us a future.  Any words you say other than this are just words but this Word (Christ) has the power to rescue us from the worst moments this life can offer.  I am sad for the family who did not hear this and even sadder for churches where this is not preaching and taught.  God will have something to say to those who refuse to hear but He will also have something to say to unfaithful shepherds who preach no Word or any words in place of the Word made flesh, suffered, died, and rose again.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The New Puritans. . .

Conservatives are usually the ones accused of being control freaks.  They are the big bad oppressive collective conscience sneaking into the bedrooms of America.  In reality, it is just the opposite. Oh, it is true that conservatives do not to promote the collective morality of right and wrong but they have little interest in being thought police or monitoring the bedrooms of the world.  They do believe that what is promoted in the media should not be the base and vulgar character of who we are but our better face, our nobler identity, and the virtuous over either the mundane or the evil.

No, the conservatives are not the new Puritans.  It is another movement for which the desire is to control not only what is said in public but what is thought.  No one must be allowed to say or even to think (if that thinking might influence action) anything contrary to what political correct thinking has determined is good, right, and true.  Take the whole idea of transgender and the great debate of which bathroom should be used.  Take the whole idea of the #metoo movement for which guilt need not be judged by any court for the individual to be condemned.  Take the "Baby, Its Cold Outside" Christmas song objections that cause some radio stations to pull a staple from their playlist.  The list keeps getting longer.  In fact, this group had to invent a new term (intersectionality) to figure out the ranking when the same individual has conflicting identities (a white gay male who is two strikes the oppressor for being white and male but gets one strike subtracted for being an oppressed identity as a gay white male).  Wow.  The lengths some will go to tell you how to map out the world according to the new standards -- not of right or wrong but of what is tolerated and what is not.

These postmodern Puritans not only want to control what appears in social media, what can be said on air, what music can be played, and what cannot be tolerated.  No, indeed, these Grinches get to decide what the standards are and change them at will.  So, returning to the Christmas playlist scandal, White Christmas is inherently racist -- even though it is about snow!  So the morality of  1940s America and Baby, Its Cold Outside does not matter but in a rape culture of the 21st century the police can change the laws to decide what is allowed and what is too abhorrent to be tolerated.  The creche is out, the burka is in.  Go figure.  The Christians are the oppressors and those without any real convictions are the victims.  Truth is determined by the feeling or the moment or the subjective judgment of the individual.  In the end, it is about control.  Conservatives want to conserve values that have stood the test of time and believe in what Benedict XVI defined as a hermeneutic of continuity.  Not so the post-modern purveyors of truth in a can, drink it up, pee it out and toss away the can (oops, recycle -- make the truth into something more usable!).

The Church must do more than simply survive, she must unmask these lies as often and as much as she is able.  This starts less with the public war of words than it does faithful teaching in the home.  This is what I get from the Benedict Option.  Not so much a disengagement as much as a doubling down to make sure that Christianity is believed and lived where it is supposed to be -- first in the home, then in the relationship to neighbor, and finally in the good citizenship that honors the rule of law as long as God's Law will allow.  It is not a fight for control but for the freedom to be who we are -- something the Bill of Rights was thought to have guaranteed but maybe not so much now.  It is not simply a freedom to believe as you choose or to worship whom you choose but to live out this faith.  If it is guaranteed for the Nones but forbidden for those who confess the Nicene Creed, then we have a constitutional problem.  Again, the Church is not the oppressor, the new force of Puritanism.  That role has already been claimed by those who drew a line in the sand and then keep on drawing the line wherever they choose.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sometimes great. . . always sturdy and solid

My wife and I enjoy visiting flea markets and antique malls (often it is hard to distinguish which is which).  We stroll down the aisles like a walk down memory lane, looking at things of our childhood now either considered junk or quaint antiques.  But the remarkable thing is how often we encounter good, solid wood, well crafted furniture that goes for a song.  They style does not fit the modern look we are going for and it is certainly not trendy.  But it is sturdy, solid, and good furniture.

We often joke that we could furnish someone's home or apartment for a grand and they would end up with solid wood, sturdy, and good furniture -- even if it did not quite look like it came from the latest furniture sale circular offering the appearance of wood, sturdy for now, and honestly rather fragile furniture, no money down and interest free financing so you can pay for it in installments, only to find it needs to be replaced about the same time it is really yours!

Even the "junk" furniture from olden times is not junky so much as it is well worn and well used.  Even then, it is prized now less for its shininess than for its patina (a nice term for the wrinkles that adorn our aged faces).  But I am not talking about stuff that looks like it was used over and over again, I am talking about the well crafted furniture when people did the work instead of machines and they used real wood.  In my neck of the woods that means mahogany or cherry or walnut or maple furniture with labels like Tell City in the drawers. 

When you think of hand-crafted furniture, you think of sturdy and solid stuff.  Occasionally, it is the great stuff that hits Antiques Roadshow and surprises us all with its pricey value. Mostly it is simply good, solid, sturdy, and well built furniture.  The kind that required skill and craftsmanship so that it would not fall apart in a day -- which folks back then would not have allowed or purchased!  Lets be honest.  The reason we have junky furniture today is because we have the technology to mass produce in wood look material made more of plastic and resin than anything else but its beauty is only skin deep and it will not survive the decade, much less the century!  The other reason we have junky furniture is because we can afford to replace as often as styles change the cheap, rickety, tasteless, and junky stuff that passes for furniture.  Even worse, they come in pieces with the benefit of dovetail and mortise that made for a tight fit that would last.

Now, while this image is still in your mind, think of how it might apply to such things as church
buildings, church furnishings, church art, hymns, church music, and the like.  I have a prie dieu in my office that is marvelous -- and over 100 years old.  Too many knees to count have prayed on it before I got it.  More knees will pray on it after I am gone.  It is sturdy, solid, and good furniture.  We are so intent upon building for the moment that we end up with junk in service to God.  Sadly, I bought that kneeler at a flea market for a song.  If this happens to the good furnishings of old, what happens to the cheap crap we pass off on God and the faithful?  It never even makes it to the antique store.  It is thrown into the garbage -- trash for the trash heap.  Let us make sure we do not make more trash for God or treat the things of God as cheap, mass produced junk -- here today and thrown away tomorrow.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

With friends like these. . .

The old expression says with friends like these, who needs enemies.  That becomes particularly apropos when those challenging doctrine and practice do so from the inside, in this case, inside the inside.  Professor Marie-Jo Thiel, whom Pope Francis appointed as a new member of the revamped Pontifical Academy for Life, recently advocated for a thoroughgoing reconsideration of the Church's teaching on sexuality and family.  According to Thiel, the Church’s teachings on sexuality have been a “complete failure.”  In view of the fact that these teachings have been undermined by the sexual abuse scandals and sometimes ignored by the faithful, Thiel said the Church’s teaching that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and can never be approved must be rejected, along with the ban on contraception.  And this from a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life supposedly to defend and advocate for these teachings on homosexuality and contraception, to name but a few.

Thiel appeals to the idea of a decentralized, regional or geographical approach to what should or should not be taught and, of course, to the traditional liberal ideas:  a sense of self-determination and the individual conscience.  That is often the case with those who oppose doctrine.  They describe the ecclesiastical supervision that holds pastors and teachers accountable as some obtrusive and oppressive mechanism that violates the idea of individual freedom and conscience.  There are not a few Lutherans who have the same sort of ideas.  They question both the authority and the role of a church in protecting and defending doctrinal integrity and practice which conforms to that doctrine.  They speak of a fresh air in newly liberated lungs that breathe with the times and are closer to the people in the pews.  It is an appealing idea but its real purpose and result is to eliminate the idea of objective truth and to leave it subjectively to the beholder.  Again, it sounds appealing but the world does not need a church that is empty of truth or a church that echoes the familiar refrain of personal desire and preference and feeling in place of the Word of the Lord that endures forever.

Don't fall into the trap.  This is the familiar back door entry of error and falsehood into the life of the church.  What cannot be confronted or changed directly is left hanging on the tentative hook of popular appeal, personal freedom, and individual truth.  What has not worked, must not be true and what is not true must be changed.  This is the mantra of so many who decry your grandfather's church and promote a relevant church, zeroed in on the moment without the baggage of history or the chains of continuity challenges what feels good or seems good to us now.  Contrary to those who agitate for such a false gospel, this will not grow the numbers of the faithful but will stifle such growth and end up killing the church from the inside, like a cancer.  With friends like these, who needs enemies?  Indeed, the devil need not say a word when those within the structures of Christendom so openly and brazenly erode away the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone.  Wake up, people.  It is happening in Rome, in Wittenberg, and in Geneva.  The same progressive voices from different lips whose words are an affront to the truth and a false gospel, bowing to a false god.

Friday, February 15, 2019

A great line. . .

From Dom Gregory Dix:  Old men in a hurry to realize their dearest dreams can be very short-sighted.

Yes, it is true.  In fact, I do plead guilty.  While it is usually the young who fall victim to impatience, it is not exclusively their domain.  With age and a growing realization that your time frame is coming to an end on this good earth, there is a tendency to be rather reckless in pursuit of dreams that have failed to come true.  While this is dangerous in every profession, it is even more dangerous for those in the Church.  Legacy hangs over the heads of those who approach the day of retirement or even that day when you first begin to realize that are not immortal on this earth.  And the view toward finishing this legacy becomes its own great temptation and weakness.

Youth is not quite ready to believe that God does not want things to change as quickly and as radically as youth believes things must and age wants to second guess God and clean up all the messes and tie up all the loose ends so that those who follow will judge them kindly.  In both cases the need is the same -- to admit and confess that the Church is the Lord's, the timing is His, and the completion is His.  Ours is the duty of faithfulness for the time that we are given to be part of and even to be responsible for the Church.  That does not seem like enough to youth, hell bent on making up for lost time, and it surely does not seem like enough for old age, when time is short.  We want to see with our eyes and experience for ourselves the first bright lights of the completion of all that Christ has begun.  But, as St. Paul insists, we are given a role (plant, tend, water, or harvest) recalling all the while that it is God's garden and that we will only be judged on our faithfulness for the time given to us and the responsibilities entrusted to us.

I will admit that sometimes this is the last thing a pastor wants to hear.  But it needs to be heard and to be believed regularly, even daily, within the devotional life of those called and ordained.  I was once young and somebody suggested that I seemed like the speeding locomotive and the congregation like a herd of cows that misses the train by the time they stop eating, raise their heads, and look in the direction of the noise.  I laughed then and now I repent of my youthful self-importance.  But the danger I face is different.  That is the great temptation to continue to fuss about the little things while missing the grand picture and seeing the fruits of the Lord's work already.  I need to learn to repent of such short-shortsightedness and look upon God as author and completed and not me.

There is, in my extended family, the wonderful story of a couple who had the radio on when War of the Worlds was broadcast.  It was 1938, the Great Depression was not yet fully over and war was hanging in the future.  They heard the radio and did not hear the disclaimer.  Orson Wells was good at his craft and soon they were caught up in it all.  They thought that if the world was ending, they ought to at least die with family.  Starting up the car, they realized that there was no water in the radiator.  What did that matter since the world was coming to an end?  So they drove without radiator fluid to the parents' home, ruining a perfectly good engine.  When they got there, nobody seemed upset and only later realized that whole thing was a radio drama, a radio drama too good for its own good.  But they were still left with a seized up engine.  So much for the end of the world, their own meager world sat frozen in time in a car no longer able to take them anywhere.

Dix was wise in many ways and unwise in many others and, for good or for ill, his impact upon the churches and how we worship can hardly be overestimated.  We don't get to judge ourselves.  That is left to those who come after us.  Just as we judge Dix.

So, let us be patient youth and wise aged souls as we jointly remember, it is the Lord's Church, the Lord's timing, and the Lord's power.  If we are merely faithful instruments during the time the Lord gives us, we have done a mighty work, indeed. 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

If the church ain’t cryin’, the church is dyin’.

I will gladly admit that our Sunday liturgies are filled with the sounds of children fidgeting, talking, and often enough crying.  They distract some who believe that the liturgy should be a refuge of silence.  But there is a difference between the noise of adults who cannot keep their mouths shut and small children who are being, well, kids.  Sometimes we forget that.

Oh, sure, there are times when a parent has forgotten that discretion is the better part of valor and waited too long to take out an uncooperative child for a little pep talk or to be able to find out what is wrong without involving the rest of the congregation.  I get that.  But I will gladly cut any parent the slack they need.  Having kids with you in the pew is not the stuff for cowards or the faint of heart.  In the past it was rather common for the folks around a struggling parent (especially a parent who is in church alone with his or her children) to give them a helping hand.  Today it is often feared that there is an agenda at work here.  It should not be.  Would that we could gladly extend a bit of help to a parent or parents struggling with an unhappy child and it would be seen as a gracious thing and not one of judgment or fear!

The truth is that sometimes such young families have things that cause them to be late.  An unexpected diaper change or wardrobe malfunction or the like.  It is not that they intend to be late but sometimes they are.  I, for one, am happy that they chose to be late rather than not to come at all.  Maybe there are those who get frustrated but, hey, what is the goal here?  To have pews with children of all ages AS WELL AS adults.  So count me happy to see them when I am sure there is a story to tell about everything that went wrong in their attempt to make it on time.  The sad fact is that we have adults who are habitually late as well but because they have the advantage of being more discreet, they can get away with it without the raised eyebrow or wagging head of those who want the family to know "Hey, you're late!"

I also realize that kids move around.  That's okay.  In my family my wife (a single parent in the pew anyway) was quite adept at handling three small children with a variety of Cheerios or books or a quiet toy while I was blissfully ignorant up there in the chancel.  She did a yeoman's job of making sure our kids were dressed and in church.  It can be done.  Kids are kids so cut them so slack.  She knew when the movement was too much and when they were being kids.  The parents need to know that we understand.  Hey, I have had a quick footed child wander away and into the chancel.  The roof did not cave in and, though the parent was dying of embarrassment, I wasn't. 

Kids are sponges.  They learn by watching and listening.  Don't stick a small child in the back pew where an odd assortment of behinds are the only things to see and where they can sometimes miss what is being said.  Give them a good seat, up front, so they can watch and listen. . . and learn the liturgy.  My kids were singing the liturgy with all their hearts and all the volume their lungs could muster -- often on long car trips!  They learned by doing and by hearing.  St. Paul had something to say about that.  Kids will learn anyway so why not give them the Divine Service to learn???

Finally, pray for the kids.  Pray for their parents.  Pray for the families.  Pray and pray some more.  And let them know every once in a while you are glad they are bringing their children to Jesus.  It would not offend them to let them know you are so happy that they are bringing their children to church, that you are praying for them.  God bless you for doing so.

If the church ain't cryin', the church is dyin'.  I read that somewhere.  Now surely we are just as glad over a 99 year old in church (and we have 'em) as we are a 9 year old or a 9 month old.  Nobody is picking one group over the other.  The best congregation is when there is a mix of those with years of faith and those new to it -- together in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day!  There is nothing sadder than a church without kids.  Believe me.  I have been there.  I have been the youngest person in the congregation at age, well, over 50, shall we say.  Most of those grey, white, and no haired folks would have rejoiced to see the face of a child.  Don't stick them away in children's church either.  Nurseries are there for the odd emergencies and not for normal Sundays.  And, if you will let him, let your pastor give them a hug or a tickle on their side so that they learn that this guy is their pastor just as he is their parents.  Oh. . . and Happy Valentie's Day!

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Is it the Tower of Babel all over again. . .

Early on in Genesis is the story of a people who built themselves towers into the heavens so that they could be like God.  You know the outcome of it.  Not only the towers came down but the confusion of the tongues left us with a world without a universal language until Christ came.  Perhaps the towers were too obvious.  Perhaps God is not in the heavens. 

Modern man has decided that the place to find God and be gods is inside, specifically in the DNA that defines us as people.  The path to the divine then is not in the control of the heavens but the ability to manipulate our DNA.  In theory, man can now edit the genes of any child at will to create  babies to order with specific characteristics and traits considered desirable by the parents.  It began with reproductive technology that took the whole thing from husband and wife and placed it into a lab and a dish.  It led to the divorce of children from marriage and then sex from love until these things became ends in and of themselves -- not related parts to a whole but bits and pieces shaped by desire and want on the part of people.  Spouses were no longer essential to having a child anymore than marriage was essential to adulthood and life.  Children optional led to children shopped for and created by whim through the miracle of modern technology.  Where is God in all of this?  Have we not become gods who can command life and design it?

The first and most important ethical principle of medicine is Primum non nocere.  First, do no harm.  That lies pretty much forgotten on the trash heap of a world in which life is not sacred but a commodity.  It is not enough to prevent the conception, we must be free to wash away the baby from the womb and, if that will not do, cut up the remains and kill the child so that it can be flushed away.  It is not enough that we no longer value age.  We must be free to decide for ourselves when life is no longer worth living and when the lives of others are not worth keeping.  We have lied to ourselves often enough that we truly do believe that there are some lives not worth living, that there are things worse than death, and a life unwanted is better prevented or ended.  Do no harm.  Indeed.  We have convinced ourselves that we are not doing harm but have a higher good that forces us to let go of past understandings of right and wrong and to silence the voices of those who try to hold us accountable to the ancient wisdom.

How are we not like the people of Babel?  How are we not like those who find God a mystery to be cracked so that we can displace the Lord of Creation and become Him?  And what was God's response to some buildings that betrayed an ego out of control?  Can we look forward to such judgment now?  These are questions not be pondered by those who insist we have the technology, we can make and do things better, and we really do know what we are doing. 

I look at my granddaughter, fearfully and wonderfully made and I cannot help but wonder whether we have a clue what the ethical parameters are for this penchant to tinker with the lifeblood of those who come after us?  Is it not enough for us to care for them faithfully?  Must we condemn our children and grandchildren to suffer the indignity of being tailored to the fashion du jour?  Who are we to have the power and use it without much thought as change the genes of future generations of persons -- literally once for all?   Has love become so fragile and weak that we will only love those whom we design?  Are we so fearful of that we cannot control that we will risk everything to make the child we want instead of the child God gives?

We cannot create social media that will not spill our information to whomever wants it and we cannot figure out how to make such a platform work without exposing the vulgar, ugly, and hateful things within us.  Who will keep the people in line who work the magic that fixes the things we find problematic in our kids?  I love technology but I fear it more because I know who runs the machines and makes the decisions about what we will do with what we are able to do.  More than this, I fear God.  Not because God will want to punish our pride (though He should) but because it is His track record and duty to save people from themselves.  Lord, have mercy.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Throw out the fish. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 5C, preached on Sunday, February 10, 2019.

     Have you ever read something so often and then suddenly read it like you had never read it before?  This text jumped out me with a detail that I had missed so many times before.  You know the story.  The disciples had fished all night with nothing to show for all their efforts.  Jesus, the carpenter and not the fisherman like Peter and Andrew and James and John, tells them to put out the nets one more time.  You can positively hear the frustration in Peter’s voice.  “I would not do it for anybody but You, Jesus.”  They put down the nets waiting to be disappointed when the nets began to break under the weight of so many fish.  They called to their partners in the other boat to come and help them.  Instead of helping, both boats were so overloaded with fish that they began to sink.  And then what happened?  What does Peter say?

    Peter does not order the fishermen to throw back the fish to save themselves. Peter tells the Lord to get out of the boat.  Depart from me, he says.  Peter does not see the fish as the problem but Jesus.  It was instinct that led Peter to see things this way but it is the same instinct we have.  The things of this life we get, understand, and desire but the things of God seem foreign or less essential to us; the fish are not the problem.  Jesus is the problem.  In the fear of that moment, St. Peter reveals the instinct of the sinful heart.  Given a choice between your best life now and eternal life to come, we all chose our best lives now.  In the panic of the moment, St. Peter is faced with a choice and will give up Jesus before he gives up the fish.  Isn’t that you? I know it’s me!

    None of us wants to give up anything for Jesus.  Instead we are ready to give up Jesus every time something shocking or hurtful or painful or disappointing happens.  I cannot count the number of people who have left the church because somebody has hurt them or because their lives are too full of other things or because they were shocked to find sinful pastors in the pulpit and sinful people in the pews.  We look for every excuse to tell the world how disappointed we are in God, in the Church, in pastors, in Christian people.  We are ready at a moment’s notice to blame God for every bad thing that happens and when everything falls apart, we kick Jesus out of our boats.  The problem is never the fish – the good things in this life – the problem is always God, the Church, and those who call themselves Christians.

    But guess what?  The fish cannot save you.  It does not matter how full your boat, how well lived your life, how much you have, or even how much you have suffered, none of these things can save you.  Your best moments in life cannot save you nor can your worst moments in life kill you.  The storms of life can sink you but they cannot save you; that requires letting go of the things of this life and do the unthinkable! Hold onto Jesus and throw back the fish.  Your hope does not lie with earthly justice or the recognition of people or good politicians or a smart retirement plan or a lifetime of good memories.  Your hope rests with Jesus.  Cast your lives upon His mercy.  He is the only one who can save you – even if it might mean throwing back the fish or even jumping off the boat. 

    What does the Lord say to us more than anything else?  Do not be afraid.  It was the first word the angel spoke to Mary and it has been the most frequent word the prophets delivered to God’s people.  It is the word Jesus spoke more than any other word and it is the word He now speaks to you.  Do not be afraid.  Do not panic.  Do not lose your head and throw out Jesus thinking that you can save your board or yourself.  Do not give up heaven for a better today.  Do not give into temptation because you may never get the chance to sin again.  Do not blame God when you boat is sinking.  And do not send God packing when faith becomes complicated or life a struggle.  Do not be afraid. 

    The ridiculous thing is that it sounds reasonable to give up hope in order to save it.  We make it sound logical that God is at fault for the bad things we think, say, and do but we reserve credit for all the good.  We believe the most sane thing is to keep the fish and stay in the sinking boat rather than trust in God. I cannot tell you how many people have told me that they had to exit the church to save their faith.  It is the biggest lie of all but still we believe it – as if leaving the faith will save you or leaving the church will renew your faith.  We forget that panicked people say and do stupid and life threatening things that they would say and do only because they live in fear and have surrendered to panic.

    If God be for us, who can be against us?  That is what St. Paul presses home to a people who want to blame God for all they did wrong or judge God by the sinful ways of the world.  The answer is to throw the fish back and look at the cross.  Let go of all that seems so valuable but will be consumed by moth, rust, and inflation.  Throw the fish back.  Let go of the bitter complaints that so easily roll off your lips and learn instead to speak honest confession of your sins to God who already knows them – but wonders if you do.  Let go of your rash judgments about how you can’t take any more, your are at the end of your rope, and look to the cross.  Stop trying to find fault with God and the Church, look in the mirror, confess your sin, and rejoice in the God who forgives you in Christ.  Let go of your fake dignity and your fake integrity and admit to the Lord what He already knows – you are weak, you are sinful, you are unclean, you are fearful, you are a liar, you are prideful, you are arrogant, and you are so attached to the things of this life that you would give up eternal life for just one more great day.  At the end of the day, it is not about these things or even about you but God and what He has done in Christ to save you from sin and its death.

    If it takes sinking your boat to save you, that is what God will do.  He will do it not because He delights in your suffering but because sometimes the only way you will see the truth is to have the lies stripped painfully away from your life.  Thanks be to God we have such a Savior.  Thanks be to God we have such a God who will kill us to make us alive forevermore.  For that is exactly what happened in baptism.  A new you sprang forth from those baptismal waters. That new creation still must wrestle with the old instincts and the old ways for now.  The new you created in Christ Jesus must fight the temptation to ditch Jesus in order to hold on to the present – no matter how foolish or stupid that is.  The new you created in Christ Jesus must daily battle the fears that would direct you away from God and His eternal kingdom.  Look not at the fish or the boat but at Jesus.

    Fear kills the mind, kills the heart, and kills the soul.  It will be your undoing and mine – just as it was the undoing of Peter who was faced with a choice between a boat full of fish or Jesus.  In the end, when the boat was safe ashore and they had a minute to survey all that had transpired, Jesus says it again.  “Do not be afraid.”  Then He bids them to follow Him.  “From now on, you will catch men.”  At that moment, when faced with what God had done in their midst, the fish did not seem so important after all.  Their fears could not keep them for the unknown future that awaited them following Jesus.  They left everything.  For then they saw that there was only Jesus.

    Come, beloved children of God.  Surrender your fears upon this altar.  Leave your sins at the foot of the cross.  Cast aside your best life now for the life death cannot overcome.  Give up the hope of a well lived life for a life that will not end.  There is only one thing that is forever.  That is the mercy of God in Christ, the steadfast love of God that died for you so you might life and now lives in you that you might never die.  Don’t throw Jesus out of your boat.  Leave the fish behind.  Follow Him.  He sinks the boat so that you will trust only Him, then He takes your hand and leads you past your regrets into the future He has prepared and into the perfect peace that passes all understanding.

    In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Dogs channeling Lutherans . .

Borrowing from another source, this video finds a remarkable similarity between dogs and their baths and Lutherans and private confession.  It might seem that Lutherans love the absolution but most Lutherans are not prepared to go through individual confession to get there. . .We say we have not abandoned individual confession but for all intents and purposes we have. 

Like the dogs in this video who will do just about anything to avoid  bath time, Lutherans will play dead, run away, or hide just to avoid private confession.  But just as a dog running away does not negate the need, so it is important for the Lutheran pastor to hold out confession and absolution to the reluctant congregation, anyway.


Monday, February 11, 2019

All is vanity. . .

In a recent interview, Cardinal Gerhard Müller described the chaos in which the Roman Catholic Church in Germany has found itself by slavishly following the a progressivist agenda of liberalism, laxity, and relativism since the 1970s. According to Müller, this progressivism has rendered the Church in Germany “nearly meaningless” and irrelevant.  It has nothing to say, nothing to offer, and nothing to compel the people because it has become an echo of the culture itself.  Why would people go to church or pay attention to its preaching and teaching if it says nothing but what the people, the culture, the zeitgeist, and the government are already saying?

Vanity, vanity.  All is vanity, says the preacher.  Another word for vanity is meaningless.  The tepid talk of sin, the failure to call folks to repentance, the ambivalence with regard to truth, the skepticism with which Scripture is addressed, and the treatment of the liturgical and doctrinal texts as mythology, legend, or symbolic language leaves the Church with little to say, little to offer, and little reason to be taken seriously.  It is not that the need has changed or that the world has achieved utopia but that in the face of sin, death, injustice, poverty, narcissism, subjectivity, and despair, all the progressive voices can do is to advocate for those who feel the pain -- they have nothing to say to them, no hope to give, and no answer.  Absent the voice of the Church to speak, God is rendered mute and presumed to be as impotent as the Church itself.

The Church may give lip service to the ancient creeds and confessions but when the Church no longer takes such seriously as words of truth, the people learn quickly that the Church is the biggest hypocrite in the room and they dismiss the Church as hollow, empty, and a mere artifact of the past.  Reform is often bantered about as if it really were something different than a return to Scripture, a restoration of the vibrant faith of confessors and martyrs who refused to back away from the truth that endures forever.  In this respect, the remedy for Rome and all of European Christianity is the same as it was in the time of the Reformation.  The answer is nothing less than a wholesale return to the Scriptures as the Word of God, to faith that speaks what God has spoken, to creeds and confessions that mean what they say and say what they mean, and to the liturgy which bestows that which is signed in the sacramental life of the Church.

According to Müller, however, that is not exactly what is happening.  The progressive wing of Christianity is fueled with money (especially from the German church tax), has great allies in the progressive media willing to use the Church to promote its own agenda, and finds its purpose in  trying to keep up with where the world is going.  At some point, perhaps, someone will realize that the world is heading to its own destruction.  When that happens, if there are any voices of faith left within the echoes of the empty church buildings, maybe renewal will come.  Until then, European Christianity is on a self-destructive path that is moving faster than North America but not in a different direction.  Far from being a battle about sexual abuse, this is shaping up to be a battle for the soul of Christianity.  Either we believe the Word of God or we don't.  Those who don't owe it to the rest to vacate the premises and allow us to focus our energy and resources on the authentic renewal that always begins with the Word of God read, preached, taught, and believed.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Sometimes you just gotta laugh. . .

Religion at the center of life. . .

While talking to my brother back in Nebraska, he told me the story of a family in town that had decided to move away.  The reason for the move was not job or housing or shopping or anything like that.  The husband would keep his job and commute 45 minutes.  They were perfectly happy in their home.  This sacrifice was being made so that their children might attend parochial school.  Without one any closer, this family was choosing to disrupt everything so that their children might attend a Lutheran school, a Wisconsin Synod one to be precise.

My brother said you had to respect people whose faith and church were such the center of their lives that they would be willing to make such sacrifices for the sake of instilling this faith in their children through the ministry of the Lutheran school.  Given that many Lutheran schools are closing because Lutheran parents are not prepared to pay tuition and make such sacrifice or there is simply a paucity of Lutheran children from which to recruit, this story is rather noteworthy.

According to survey data compiled by political scientist John Green, only about 18 percent of Americans today place religion somewhere near the center of their lives. Religion at the center of life does not mean some sort of extraordinary saintly person or family.  This is not the rare instance of a family whose character mirrors Mother Theresa or even the separate existence of the Amish. This is the story of solidly ordinary people whose faith lives not at the fringes of their lives but at the core and center of their existence.  These are values voters who vote not their pocketbook but their morals.  These are the folks whose religious commitment is enough to keep them out of step with the world around them.  This data from John Green actually fits well with a recent Pew Center poll which found that only 20 percent of Americans look to religion to provide meaning in their lives.  Faith is no longer part of the essential recipe but a condiment, something served on the side.

There was a time when fifty people on Sunday morning would be more than enough to support a congregation, building and pastor.  Now we are told that this is not enough.  Is it that the costs have escalated so high or that the commitment has waned?  We hear regularly that Christians give less than 2% of their incomes and that this 2% is often divvied up between church and charities.  It is no wonder then that small congregations are struggling. 

There was a time when regular church attendance meant every Sunday but typically once or month or twice a month is now considered normal and regular.  It seems people have options and choices and these options and choices make church compete with leisure activities, children's sports and other activities, and, often, just plain laziness.  It is no wonder that pews are empty.

There was a time when there were more folks willing than there were jobs in a typical congregation, when Sunday schools and Vacation Bible Schools did not worry about recruiting teachers and aides, and when nominating committees found plenty of folks willing to serve in the various offices of a typical congregation or civic organization.  Those are not the days in which we live today.  Warm bodies have replaced the best people and governance and service now have to offer something back to the folks serving.  The care and feeding of volunteers has become a science.

This has become personal in seeing my home congregation connect with another small Lutheran church to become a dual parish -- less because there are no people than the people whose names are on the books are not there in the pews.  This is a sad chapter of a congregation that once expected 80% of the membership there on any given Sunday morning.

The reason for this has less to do with anything else except the fact that religion and faith are no longer at the center of the lives of Christian individuals and families.  This is not a good thing -- certainly not for the churches but even more problematic for those who say the faith is very important to them.  Clearly we have our work cut out for us when nearly twice as many identify as nones as do those who say their faith is at the center of their lives.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

The welcoming church. . .

It is almost impossible to enter a church without being welcomed.  Oh, sure, there are those isolated congregations so unfriendly as to leave the visitor on his own until he wishes to be recognized but such are even more rare these days.  The internet and nearly every help offered for a church no longer growing or even declining spends much of the time attacking the unwelcoming behaviors of the typical congregation.

We have developed a science of buildings and properties in which the location of the front door, exterior signage, interior signage, and the whole master plan of the facility is designed to be welcoming.  Usually this translates into the slavish copying of the typical mall or public space.  The digital presence of the congregation also comes in for review (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and phone).  Churches need to spend more time on their electronic face to the world, it is said. 

Worship itself is the topic of much ink, printed and digital.  From making sure there is welcoming time to the shape of the liturgy itself, the presumption is that the church will grow if we design everything for the newbie who just walked through the door for the first time.  Success means that individual feels at once at home.  Sermons seem to hit the same buttons except that here success is defined as that which illuminates in a non-threatening and entertaining way (so omit any talk of sin and repentance).

Surprising then, that Lutheran churches are not growing -- even those who have mastered the art of welcoming, effected a winsome digital presence, and made sure that a good time was had by all before they all left to be scattered to the winds after it ended.

Maybe I am just a contrarian but I am tired of it all.  I am certainly not advocating that the church be unfriendly or that we ignore those new to God's House.  Only suggesting that the welcome is not the first nor the prime measure of a congregation.  In fact, I wish we did more unwelcoming things.  I wish we respected the holy space with some holy behavior.  I wish we spent as much time cultivating respect for the holy as we did trying to act casual about God and what happens in His presence.

Let the oratory be what its name implies, and let nothing else be done or kept there. When the Work of God is finished, let all go out in deep silence, and let reverence for God be observed, so that any brother who may wish to pray privately be not hindered by another’s misbehavior. And at other times also, if anyone wish to pray secretly, let him just go in and pray: not in a loud voice, but with tears and fervor of heart. He, therefore, who does not behave so, shall not be permitted to remain in the oratory when the Work of God is ended, lest he should, as we have said, be a hindrance to another.
With these words St. Benedict suggests that friendliness may get in the way of the very purpose for God's House and what God has ordained to go on in that house.  "Let us then consider how we ought to behave ourselves in the presence of God and his angels, and so sing the psalms that mind and voice may be in harmony."  Behave?  Hmmmmmm now that is a word not usually found in welcoming manuals.
[The church] is, indeed, a sacred place; the modulated light, the gleaming tapers, the tombs of the faithful, the various altars, the venerable images of the just, — all conspire to fill the mind with veneration, and to impress it with the sublimity of Christian worship. And when the deep intonations of the bells from the lofty campaniles, which summon the people to the house of prayer, have ceased, and the solemn chant of the choir swells through the vast edifice — cold, indeed, must be the heart of that man who does not cry out with the Psalmist, Domine, dilexi decorem domus tuae, et locum habitationis gloriae tuae.
Sacred space?  Another concept not usually found in discussions of how to make us more friendly to those outside the faith.  The failure to communicate the strong sense of the holy is a problem among us.  When we enter a church, we are passing from one domain to another.  We are, in effect, leaving the world (to some extent) and entering a the temple of God and gate to heaven.  We may not ascend to Him but God has descended to dwell among us through the means of grace and where we forget that we are on holy ground we fail to honor Him and His purpose is being present among us.  When we fail to honor this distinction and the holy place where God comes to meet His people, we fail in the first and most important purpose for which God has established His house on earth and called us to meet Him there.

The house of God either says: “This is the House of God where you meet Him where He has chosen to be found and honor this place for this reason" OR it says "this is just a space, a building, a place where nothing special happens so go right on surfing the web, texting your buddies, stretching out, sipping on your Starbucks, dozing off, or fidgeting away what you find boring because nothing all that important is going on here."  Frankly, I would rather risk being found unfriendly than to fail in presenting the holiness of this place where God comes to deliver His gifts to His people and to call them to repentance and holiness of life in response.

Friday, February 8, 2019

God willed diversity. . .

Once again what comes from Rome continues to mystify and, more significantly, incite the faithful.  Those in Rome and those outside should sit up and take notice what happened when Pope Frank and his buddy, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahamad al-Tayyib, signed a common statement entitled “Fratellanza Umana per la Pace Mondiale e la convivenza comune… Human Fraternity for world peace and living together”.

While there is much in that statement, the following paragraph is the most interesting one:
Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept. . .
So, diversity is not simply a symptom of a sinful and fallen world but God's secret plan after all?!?  This is not simply a nod to the human rights of people but an admission that Christ is not an exclusive Savior in whom is found the true inclusivity of God's grace and mercy.  It is God's wisdom that has not simply allowed but willed the existence of many religions as well as the other distinctives of race, ethnicity, language, and gender.  Wow.  Bet you never thought you would hear the leader of the majority of the world's Christians make that statement.

Rome is imploding under the weight of a pope who does not even understand his own faith or hear the voice of Scripture.  He represents a rupture in Benedict's hermeneutic of continuity and he may well lead the Roman Catholic Church to becoming the true visible sect on earth -- unless there are those who are willing to challenge him and incur his substantive wrath to undo what he has done to Rome's faith and structures designed to preserve it.

Since, as the saying goes, when Rome sneezes, the rest of us catch a cold, it will be interesting to see how his concordat with the Imam, Islam, and a progressive world view sits with those outside of Rome.  If we hear nothing, then we have heard all we need to hear.  In my previous post on the lie of dialogue I posited a Peters' Law that suggested the best we could do in the world was to slow or hold the growth of the progressive movement but then, and only then, at a cost of constant vigilance.  Friends, this is one such moment not to sit idly by while the exclusive claims of Christ to be Savior of all are undermined by the suggestion that our pluralistic and diverse religious world is God willed.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

What works and what does not. . .

Some things just should not be done.  A crocheted stole is one of those things.

I do not fault the intent of the one who desired to use her talent for this purpose but to remind the church and her clergy that not everything is suitable for church usage.  It is not a matter of snobbery but of suitability.  Compare this with the previous post on beauty and you see not simply a difference in medium but in form, witness, craft, and, well, beauty.  By the way, you can purchase equally unsuitable things from professional sources.  The problem is not that it is, as they say, homemade, but that the medium is not suited to its purpose.

No need of God. . .

If you have been here before, you have heard me rail against celebrations of life that have replaced funerals and how we have exchanged the blessed hope of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting for the notion of a well lived life here below.  So I will not repeat myself but focus on a nuance of this whole phenomenon.

It is as if we no longer need God in the face of death.  When the tears of real grief become the sharing of funny story (usually at the expense of the dead), death is no longer something that requires divine intervention.  We have it in check.  We do not need to call upon God in our sorrows but only to wash away the pain only to be consoled by the knowledge of what the dead might have wanted (quick and easy death without pain).  If that better death did not come, the even more death is welcomed as the most merciful of mercies in relieving the suffering of their pain (suffering and pain being worse than death itself).  Again no need of God here.  In fact, when God does not intervene, we can and will with drugs that seem quite effective at providing a painless and quick and easy death (suicide or euthanasia) though curiously somehow ineffective when it comes to the execution of prisoners (odd, isn't it).  Death is just death and God does not need to concern Himself.  We have got it.

All of this seems to have been aided and abetted by the liturgical movement.  In contrast to the dark and solemn colors, sounds, and character of the old funeral requiem, the liturgical movement gave us white and tuned the funeral into a liturgy of joy.  In effect, the liturgical movement converted the solemnity of the funeral rite into an informal beatification in which we celebrated the presumption that the heart of the dead is known to us and they are not in the better place (probably with God) thaqt escaped them on earth.  In some cases, it was hard to escape the gleeful singing of the alleluia for the dead as if it were not such a big deal.  But it is what we wanted to believe after all.  Faith or not, good works or not, evidence or not, we want to believe that heaven is full and hell is empty -- especially when it comes to the old curmudgeon we loved to hate in life but not enough to wish into hell.

Again, God is almost superfluous to the whole thing and Christ has become merely the elevator operator who lifts the dead to their glory, to the good things they must deserve, and to the end of the end of the hopes and dreams the living had for them.  It is surely what the dead would have wanted had the dead been religious at all!

If the Church fails to witness to the horror of death, then she fails to witness to the wondrous mystery of the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.  If death is a big deal, then we need a real Savior, God in flesh, to rescue and redeem us from the death that was the side dish in our buffet of choice in which we were gods being served up nothing less than our desires.  So the last thing the Church ought to do is make nice with death and treat it as if it were not such a bad thing, even normal and often welcome, and leave God to the sidelines as we content ourselves with the story of the life of the dead and a few hearty laughs at their expense.

We cannot forget that the one and only ultimate end of man is the beatific vision, seeing God face to face and not in some spiritual vision with our own eyes. Job has it just right.  I know that my Redeemer liveth.  I shall see Him face to face, in my own [new] flesh.  If someone attains this end, he has attained the purpose for which he was created and redeemed in Christ Jesus. If someone fails to attain this, then his whole purpose has been left incomplete and empty. Our final condition is either total victory with God in heaven or total failure without Him in torment.  We either win it all in Christ or lose it all without Him. There is nothing in between, no option for the weak at heart or the hesitant to commit or the spiritual but not religious. The only “happy ending” for the dead is heaven, and the only “tragedy” of death is hell. All the rest is relative.

I do not say this to wound but to remind those for whom God is optional in death that our hope does not lie with us nor does our comfort come from a long or well-lived or happy life.  Christ alone is our comfort.  When Christians begin to suggest that there might be worse things than death, then they usher God to the sideline not only in death but in life.  To preach the horror of death is to acknowledge that though we can try and make our peace with the last enemy to be destroyed, God cannot.  His ache for our need sent forth His one and only Son to be born of a Virgin to die in our place, to suffer for the guilty so that they might be declared righteous, and to rise to bestow upon the dead what they have no right to hope for apart from Christ.

Be careful with the way we approach death for it is a grave temptation for the Christian to treat death in such a way that Christ and His resurrection are more afterthought than central truth and hope.  Thanks be to God that the Most High was not willing to settle for this life only and had the strength of love and the courage of heart to do whatever was necessary to rescue and redeem the dead.  If you do not hear that at the funeral of a Christian, you have not heard the Gospel.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Word is Your Power and Peace. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 4C, preached on Sunday, February 3, 2019, to the people of Faith Lutheran Church, Hopkinsville, on the first Sunday after their Pastor accepted a call to another congregation.

It is a standard joke to poke fun at sermons and those who preach them.  If somebody came to a Christian Church from somewhere out there in space, he might get the impression that God’s people don’t like sermons and those who preach them.  We talk as if we tolerate them but the ones we tolerate best are short, interesting, and funny.  I am sorry that today you got me because I do not preach short sermons nor do I tell jokes but I do try to be interesting.

In the Gospel reading for today people tried to keep Jesus from leaving town and going on to another place.  It was not because they liked sermons any better than you do or because they were so much more pious than you are.  They had heard more than sermons in Jesus.  They had seen demons cast out and the sick healed.  Maybe none of them could remember anything Jesus had said, but they could sure recall His conversation with demons right in the synagogue.

Yet when Jesus insists upon leaving, He does not focus upon the miracles that accompanied His preaching as signs of the Kingdom.  No, Jesus gives full attention to the Gospel, the Good News of the Kingdom, and to the revelation and preaching of this Gospel which was His purpose in being sent from the Father.

It might help to fill the pews if we had a miracle or two each month, a demon cast out or the sick healed or the lame walk.  God knows that there are empty pews throughout the land in search of willing bodies.  But God has not given us the ministry of miracles.  He has given us the ministry of His Word.

Just last week you said farewell and bid Godspeed to Pastor – who over his time here preached hundreds and hundreds of sermons.  Some of you liked his preaching and perhaps some of you did not.  A few of you can remember his sermons but most of you, even though it has only been a week, would have trouble recalling much of what he said from this pulpit.  And sometime soon you will welcome another Pastor and you will sit in these pews keenly interested in what kind of preacher he will be.  Funny how that is that we judge pastors on the basis of their sermons but we often have trouble remembering what those sermons are.

Jesus refused to stay, however.  Capernaum had heard the Word of the Lord from the mouth of its author and now Jesus had to head on to other towns and villages throughout Judea.  He is come to suffer the cross and empty the tomb and this is the Word that went before and after this saving act of mercy.  Jesus was sent to preach.

That ought to tell you something.  Church is more about the Word of God than anything else.  And it is about the visible Word called the Sacraments.  Jesus did many impressive things but His Word heard in the ear, felt in the splash of baptismal water, and eaten and drink in Holy Communion is how He is known and how He is made known to those who do not know Him.  Jesus comes to us, as John says, the Word made flesh.  He preaches His saving work before He dies and rises again and He preaches it for forty days after Easter and He sets apart a Church and a ministry to preach this Gospel to the ends of the earth.

It might seem that preaching is the big thing but we dare not forget that listening is part of preaching.  Faith comes by hearing the Word of God, says St. Paul in Romans 10.  The Spirit is in the Word and works through the Word to enliven the dead hearts of the hearers and bring them to faith.  The Spirit is in the Word that is planted in baptismal water so that this is no symbolic act but the very means of grace through which those dead in trespasses and sins are raised to new and eternal life in Christ.  The Spirit is in the Word that sets apart bread to be Christ’s body and the wine set apart to be His blood so that we might eat and drink His forgiveness, life, and salvation.  All of these expect and anticipate hearers who rejoice to believe what is preached, who rejoice to be raised in Christ as His own brothers and sisters by baptism, and who rejoice to eat here the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.

You may think that it is in the pulpit where the focus is but if the focus is in the pulpit, it must also be in the pew, where you hear the Word of God and by the grace of the Spirit seek to keep it.  So for now, you are borrowing preachers until that day comes when you will have your own again.  The face and voice of the preacher change.  But the part that does not change is your role as hearers of the Word of God, as the baptized people of God marked with the cross of Christ, and those for whom God has set a place as His table, to eat and drink His salvation.

I say to you now, more than any other time, now is the time to be diligent in hearing God’s Word, in discerning His path, in keeping the faith, and in doing the work God has given YOU to do in this place – the baptismal work of worship, witness, prayer, acts of mercy, and faithful support of the work of the kingdom.  Now is not the time to wait and see.  Now is the time to hear and believe, to believe and live, to live and serve the God who works through His Word.

Isaiah said so long ago that God’s Word will not return to Him empty handed.  It will accomplish His purpose in sending it.

So while the temptation may be on biding your time, waiting for a new shepherd, and slacking off, do not give in.  While the temptation may be to despair and wonder if there is a future or fear the shaped of that future, do not give in.  While the temptation may be to survey your options, do not give in.  Now is the time when this congregation needs you most, when the Lord is in Your midst through His Word, and He will not disappoint you nor will He forsake you.

You have His Word.  This Word is your strength and your foundation, your hope and your promise, your comfort and your encouragement.  The Spirit will work among you through this Gospel still preached and taught and in the hearts of those who hear, believe, rejoice, and keep the faith.  So keep your eyes upon Jesus, your focus upon the promises of His Word, and do not give into temptation or despair. 

The Lord has invested too much in you to abandon you or to leave your future to a whim.  God has prepared you for this moment, He has blessed Your with His Gospel to forgive your sins, He is washed you in the blood of Christ in your baptism, and He continues to feed you the flesh and blood of our Savior from this altar.

When Jesus insisted upon leaving Capernaum and heading to other towns, many of the people did not want to let go.  But this was not out of strength or confidence that they wanted to hold on to Jesus.  They took their comfort from the miracles they saw and from the power that overcame even demons.  Jesus pointed them not to the signs of the Kingdom which would come and go but to the Word that endures forever, to the living voice that speaks forgiveness to the sinner, to the Gospel that will not disappoint them but does what it says, to the Spirit of God who acts through this speaking to accomplish God’s purpose.

So now I point you to the very same thing.  The good news will still be preached and the Gospel will still be the focus and the sacraments still administered in Christ’s name and for His purpose, and the Kingdom of God will not depart from this place.  Be of good cheer.  The Holy One of God is still in this place.  He was sent by the Father for YOU and He will not leave you until He has finished His work and brought to completion that which He began in you and in this place when first His Word was planted here in pulpit, font, and altar.

As once He spoke to Jeremiah, now He speaks to you.  Do you be afraid, I am with you and I have put my words in Your mouth.  Amen.