Sunday, February 16, 2020

How to define catholicity. . .

Over at another forum there is an ongoing discussion of evangelical catholicity, a topic of which I have some interest.  What I found most interesting in this discussion is that one of the marks of such evangelical catholicity is listed is a church open to the integration of all peoples.  In other words, one of the marks of catholicity, evangelical or otherwise, is the diversity of the people within the community (from ethnicity to race).  Now while it would be hard to argue against a multiplicity of races and ethnic backgrounds in any church that truly seeks to be a church, I am not at all sure that this is historically what catholic meant or should mean.

Truth be told, I write this from the vantage point of a church body nearly 95% white and (mostly northern) European.  Perhaps the only major Lutheran Church in the US more white than my own Synod is the ELCA, a denomination which has the most organized effort to be multi-ethnic and diverse.  I am not unaware of the difficulty of this in a nation in which the white majority has given way to the white minority.  I am also not without sympathy for the cause of reaching beyond those like me in seeking to grow the church.  All of this is important and with merit as an intentional act of any church but particularly one like mine.  It should be noted, however, that the mission efforts of the LCMS have manifested themselves in partner churches independent of this church body and that this statistic would look radically different if we had, like the United Methodists, remained as one church body instead of many.  I say this only to show that the lily white face of the Missouri Synod in America has not been without significant mission work, and successful mission work, among those who do not look like us or share our ethnic heritage.

Back to my main point, the catholicity of any church is less about the diversity of the peoples who are members of that church than it does the apostolicity of that church's creed, confession, and liturgy.  Catholicity flows from the consistent Scriptural witness lived out within a liturgical shape that values tradition over innovation.  Universality and wholeness will certainly include a diversity of people, races and ethnicities included, but it does not flow from that.  It flows from what is believed, confessed, and lived out before the Lord and in the world.  So καθολικότητα της εκκλησίας, "catholicity of the church," pertains to beliefs and practices.  It can be a lily white church or a black church or any color in between but those churches will have in common the Scriptures and tradition, means of grace and liturgy.  Catholicity has more to do with the hermeneutic of continuity than it does with the results or fruits of its evangelical mission.  This does not at all diminish the value of a racial and ethnic diversity but presumes that this will, indeed, be the fruit of a church that lives in harmony with her past and consistent in doctrine and liturgy with that past. 

This is in part related to the position of the churches toward the first and great ecumenical councils of the church, to be sure, but in an even greater sense to the creeds that have come to define the boundaries of orthodox belief about God.  This is also the fruit of taking seriously the Scriptures as the living Word and voice of God still speaking, yesterday, today, and forever, the same Gospel that is eternal.  Evangelical as a modifier of catholicity will certainly suggest the focus of this catholicity in the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen by which sinners are reconciled to the Father and restored to their place as the children of God destined for the future He has prepared.  But evangelical does not restrict catholicity for there is no catholicity at all that is not evangelical in the classic sense of that word.

It seems that some churches have forgotten this.  They presume that to be catholic is to be open and tolerant to all people more so than to be faithful to His Word and the living tradition of the faith and faithful that live because of that Word and the Spirit working through it.  So there is the strange circumstance of churches that never intend to be catholic in the sense of doctrine who wish to be catholic in the sense of diversity, churches that refuse to use the word catholic that nonetheless are more catholic that those who use the term freely, and churches that insist they are both evangelical and catholic but openly admit to departing from the faith of their fathers and rejecting both the Scriptures and the tradition that does not agree with the culture of the moment.  Even though this is most certainly true, it must not be allowed to rob catholicity of it first and foremost meaning -- a unity of belief from the earliest of Christian times that both honors the Scriptures as the unique Word of God that endures forever and affirms the apostolic tradition that both guards and witnesses to this once and eternal faith.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Lord, teach us to pray. . .

While reading a piece by John Kleinig, I was struck by something I had not payed all that much attention to before.  Dr. Kleinig said the obvious.  When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, Jesus gave them His prayer, that is, the prayer He prays.  How profound that insight is!  Jesus is not simply giving us a form or even a methodology but has invited us to join our voices with His in praying as He prays.  This is one way in which we manifest our lives in Christ by baptism and faith.  We speak with Christ in one voice the prayer that He prays that has now become our own prayer.

There was a time when the faithful prayed the Our Father many times a day.  Even with the loss of the rosary, Luther urged us to pray the Our Father, the Creed, the Commandments, and his own meager contribution of the morning and evening prayers at the start of the day and at the end of the day.  Today it is highly possible and perhaps even likely that the faithful pray the Our Father only once a day or even less.  That does not mean we pray but that we pray either in our own words or the prayers of others more than we pray the prayer our Savior gave us.  I worry about this.

The presumption that prayers of the heart, extemporaneous prayers, are some how qualitatively better than prayers we learn from others or even the prayer our Savior taught us is rather arrogant.  Jesus is not giving us not simply the right to pray but inviting us to pray as He prays -- a gift even greater than the simple access to the Father.  Have we forgotten this?  Do we pay attention to this?  Does it even matter to us?

Some months ago after we had used Divine Service 3, a member left upset because the pastor had sung the Our Father we had deprived this individual of the prayer.  While this is not true and the history of this liturgy from The Lutheran Hymnal always had the pastor speak or pray the Our Father with the congregation responding with the doxology, it was telling.  On one hand I reminded the individual that this had been the practice of the church as they grew up but on the other hand I felt sympathy.  The Our Father, prayed together with many voices on one set of words that the Lord taught us, is an amazing thing.  Perhaps this person got it -- the people of God are not praying a prayer meant to be an example for our prayers but rather being invited to pray as Jesus Himself prays, saying, Our Father who art in heaven. . . 

We have gone through a period of time in which book prayers, even including the Our Father, have been laid aside as if they were not prayer at all -- at least not in the way the spontaneous outpouring of the heart is prayer.  It is never a good thing for the people of God to presume their own words count more than the words Jesus taught us -- words that He is even now still praying for us and even with us.  So Kleinig's reminder is timely, indeed.  We do not need new prayer books or new methods of prayer to rejuvenate our lives of prayer but simply the reminder of the gift Christ has given us when His disciples asked Him to teach them to pray and He allowed them to know and pray with Him as He Himself prays, saying. . .

Lord, teach us to pray this way always.  Amen.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Saint or St.

Did Geoffrey Chaucer invent Valentine’s Day? Perhaps.  St Valentine’s Day has been marked in liturgical calendars for centuries. As a Christian feast day, Valentine’s Day actually commemorates two Saint Valentines: Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. (The Catholic Encyclopedia even speaks of a third Saint Valentine, who was martyred in Africa, but little else is known about him.)

But Valentine’s Day seems to have became associated with romantic love during the late fourteenth century, when Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400), author of The Canterbury Tales, made the association in his poem ‘The Parlement of Foules’, written some time in the 1380s, possibly in 1382. The poem features a parliament, or assembly, of birds, which have gathered together in order to choose their mates. As Chaucer’s narrator remarks, ‘For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.’ However, several of Chaucer’s contemporaries also wrote poems about Valentine’s Day as a day for lovers, among them John Gower (author of the colossal Confessio Amantis), John Clanvowe, and Oton de Grandson. Chaucer was perhaps merely the poet who popularized the notion, although there is some evidence to suggest that Chaucer was probably writing slightly earlier than these three other poets.  In any event, the date was probably not associated with February 14 but early May.

Whether we can blame Chaucer for those chubby little cherubs shooting arrows of love, wine, roses, and besotted men and smitten women, well, who knows.  But the point is this.  It does not have much to do with Saint Valentine at all, none of them.  Saint Valentine was a widely recognized 3rd-century Roman saint, generally commemorated in Christianity on February 14. From the High Middle Ages his Saints' Day is associated with a tradition of courtly love.  In actuality, there are two different Saints' Lives for a St Valentine on February 14, but they could be the same man. Saint Valentine was a clergyman – either a priest or a bishop – in the Roman Empire who ministered to persecuted Christians. He was martyred and his body buried at a Christian cemetery on the Via Flaminia close to the Ponte Milvio to the north of Rome, on February 14, which has been observed as the Feast of Saint Valentine (Saint Valentine's Day) since 496 AD.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Slow down. . .

There was a time, even for me, when it seemed the Church was moving too slowly, that things were too much the same.  I yearned for change but it was more the youthful rebellion so common to many than it was the fruit of a considered review of what the Church taught or how she worshiped.  But it was also the times.  We lived in slow times, or should I say slower.  There was change, to be sure, but it was incremental.  At least until the 1960s, especially toward the end, when it seemed that change was coming too fast and was threatening.  If that was true then, then how much is change threatening today, if for no other reason than its rapid pace!  But it is not only the timing of things, change has come to the most basic institutions and, indeed, to the very fabric of our ordinary lives.  It has come with such frequency and in such radical form that we know not what to expect anymore.  The fake news that would yesterday have been laughed off is now taken much more seriously because we really do not know that it could not happen.

In the face of this, I often seem rather out of touch.  I carry a fountain pen and still write out most things in longhand (the dreaded cursive).  I have a smart phone and up to date computer and occasionally visit the requisite social media sites but not as one who is married to the technology or to its contribution to the pace of change.  I am more a watcher than a participant in the crowd of movers and shakers who are moving and shaking our culture to the core.

The Church is often urged to be on the forefront of this change but I think it is wrongheaded in so many ways.  Slowness is not always bad.  In fact, in this case, I think it is quite good.  The churches which have jumped on the bandwagon of change are not faring so well.  In fact, those more wedded to the past than to the future seem to be doing somewhat better in the sea of change.  The Church is like comfort food.  When you want meatloaf and mashed potatoes you do not want new recipes.  That destroys the comfort these foods signify.  You want the familiar smell and taste of yesterday, a retreat from the things that are moving too fast all around you.  The Church is best when she heralds a future written not by hands or whims of society but of God and calls on the people of God to wait for the vision to unfold.  This is, after all, the wait of faith.  We are not left without resources -- we have the Word that is His living voice and the Sacraments that bestow what they sign (even anticipating what they promise).  But life on earth is a waiting game.  We await the work of our gracious God while it is still the day of salvation.  After that, our waiting will end and we will behold with our own eyes the wonder and majesty of God face to face.  But until then, it is best if we preserve and conserve in preparation for God's unfolding of the future He has prepared.

I have learned that change is not the panacea of hope for a Church that too often finds itself struggling.  Instead, faith, faithfulness, and waiting upon the Lord are the circles of our lives.  From repentance to forgiveness to repentance and forgiveness again.  That is our rhythm.  And the Divine Service is the venue where this rhythm is lived out.  The sooner we content ourselves with this, the better. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Shine in our hearts, Lord Jesus.

Sermon for Epiphany 5A, preached on Sunday, February 9, 2020.

    Most of us realize we are not all that important – well maybe we are important to our husband or wife or children but not much further.  If I left tomorrow, somebody else would replace me.  We may want to think that we are vitally important and that many would remember us but that is an illusion.  Last year I ran across the obituary of a woman whose life and gifts have had a huge impact upon our church body, our colleges, music, and the arts.  Her obituary was painfully brief.  She was old and soon forgotten except to the small circle of her family and friends.  Even the buildings and endowed chairs with her name on them will soon become nothing more than mere curiosity.  We are of momentary significance in this world, at best. . . or are we?

    Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and your good works points to the eternal and living God.”  Jesus insists that we are not insignificant and forgettable creatures at all but those through whom God works and reveals His glory – in other words, you have cosmic significance.  It may seem like you do not matter but you matter most of all to the Lord who has moved heaven and earth to make you His own and to your neighbor to whom you show God’s love and to the darkened world in which You shine with God’s unquenchable light.  Now, think about that the next time you fear nothing you are and nothing you do really matters!

    Notice that the Lord does ask if you want to be the light of the world nor does He suggest that you could be the light of the world if you tried hard enough.  His is a declaration.  You ARE the light of the world.  This is not a possible outcome but the very nature of who you are and what you do as a child of God by baptism and faith.  Yes, we have this treasure in earthen vessels, says St. Paul.  We are not the perfect but we reflect the perfect that is Christ alone.  We are not sources but mirrors of His holiness, righteousness, and light to the world. 

    Imagine that.  Those words were spoken to Peter and the disciples who could not even keep their eyes open while Jesus went off and prayed in Gethsemane.  These are the same disciples who seemed so clueless to what Jesus was doing.  These are the same disciples who ran when the temple guard came to arrest Jesus.  Yet Jesus calls them salt and light.  You have trouble making it through church without drifting off to sleep and you cannot pray without being distracted and you daydream about the very things that Christ warned you against, yet these words are spoken to you as well.  You are heirs of the saints, who were every bit as weak and foolish and fearful as you are but who with you bear the title salt and light.

    How on earth does this work?  What is Jesus talking about?  We are not lights or salt.  Our faith is fragile and our good works are few.  We deny the Lord and run from the crosses He has called us to bear.  We make friends with the world and act like we don’t even know Jesus in front of friends and neighbors and strangers.  So how can we be considered salt and light?

    This is the nature of grace.  God does not pick through the bin to find the best people to call His people but takes us sins and all, washes us clean in the blood of the Lamb, covers us with Christ’s own holiness, and endows us with the Holy Spirit so that we learn to say yes to His work within us.  It has been on a thousand church marquees but that does not make it less true:  The Lord does not call the gifted but gifts the called.  This is the nature of how His grace works and has always worked. 

    These words come from the same Lord who eats and drinks with sinners, who pays the same wage to laborers in His vineyard, who feeds the hungry with the Bread of Life, and who forgives the sinner over and over and over again.  This is the same Lord who leaves the 99 to find the one lost lamb and who rejoices over one coin found.  This is the nature of His grace.  He takes those who have grown comfortable with darkness and makes them light, the light of the world.  He takes those whose saltiness has long ago been diluted away and He sends them forth with the Gospel that preserves us from death.  He is used to disciples who hem and haw about how they are not smart enough, gifted enough, strong enough, bold enough to do His bidding and still He calls them salt and light.

    You don’t look much like light to me and I don’t look much like salt to you but this is not about how we see each other or how we see ourselves but how the Lord sees us.  You are His own children.  He has died for you that you might live.  He has given you the new birth of water and the Spirit so that you are not the same person you were.  He has spoken into your ears the word of absolution and all your sins have fallen away.  He has placed upon your lips His own precious body and blood.  He has declared you to be holy as He is holy, righteous with His own righteousness, and called you His own brothers and sisters.  So are you surprised that He calls you salt and light and sends you forth in the world to rejoice with the Gospel and speak the Word that calls others to Him and to faith?  You should not be.

    The Lord is not waiting for just the right person to come along.  He has chosen YOU.  Because you live in Him by baptism and faith, you are what He is.  He is the Light of the world and so you are Light in Christ.  He is the salt of the earth and so you are Salt in Christ.  Your vocation is not some job of your choosing but the new identity Christ has given you and the new path on which He has called you to walk.  And did not you just sing:  “I want to walk as a child of the Light?”

    Your service is even more glorious than the works of Moses and the patriarchs, more profound than the works of the prophets.  He has planted His life in you, placed His Word upon your lips, and covered you with His holiness.  And only then does He send you forth in the world and declare you to be salt and light.  Your light was meant not to be hidden but to shine.  It gives light to the world because it does not draw attention to you but to Christ.  It preserves the world from decay and death because it is not your power at work but Christ’s power.  Your light is Christ and He lives in you and because of that you cannot help but shine.  Shine in our hearts, Lord Jesus.

    In the end, it does not matter if anyone sees or notices.  That is not your worry.  You do not have to deal with the rejection or the rejoicing – that remains Christ’s domain.  All you do is shine.  And the Word that goes forth from you will not return to Him empty.  When you are speaking in your home to your spouse or teaching it to your children or teaching Sunday school at church or working in the food pantry or visiting the sick or consoling the grieving, that Word will not fail to do what God has determined it will do.  But the outcome is not yours to gloat about or yours to fret about.  You are not judges who must define success.  You are lights to shine and salt to preserve.  And you do it by keeping God’s Word in you by faith and living it out before others.  And that is enough.  Shine in our hearts, Lord Jesus.

    My friends, the Lord is calling you to be what you are and to do what He has called you to do.  It is just that simple.  Being salt and light is not some great mystery to be unpacked.  It is to live in Christ the life He has given you, where He has placed you, within the context of the relationships you have, not for any other glory than to be the people God has declared you to be.  Now of course this is easy when the world likes the light and it is pleasant when people share your values.  But it is much more difficult when the world is against you, when you are persecuted or reviled because you belong to Christ, and when belonging to Christ marks you by a world which has rejected Christ and His message of grace and rejected grace bearers like you.  Shine in our hearts, Lord Jesus.

    But do not lose heart.  God has declared you to be salt and light, He has given you grace in which to stand before the world in this holy faith and fear.  It is His Word on your lips and His grace you manifest through words and works.  It does not matter if you see the fruits of this with your eyes.  Be who you are and do what God has given you to do – do it especially when nobody seems to care.  For God is watching and God will bring to fruition all that you begin in His name, and though the world may not notice, the angels on high are rejoicing in you and cheering you on.  You are salt and light in Christ.  Amen.

Looking for growth in all the wrong places. . .

There are not a few who look back to the glory days of Missouri's growth and who look for ways to replicate that growth now, in our own time. Many of them complain that Missouri has become monolithic, moribund, and mono-ethnic. Some of them have found the very confessional cause for which the Synod was begun an anchor on its outreach. A few have come up with ideas on how to fix what is wrong with Missouri's outreach and reverse the decline that has become the normative pattern since the 1970s.

•Action One: 20% of LCMS Congregations Team Up to Plant Churches.

One author has suggested that the first plan of action be for 20% of Missouri congregations to team up to plant new churches. It is not a radical idea but an old one resurrected from our past when mission was not the business of district or synod but individual congregation. Although this may seem radical given the landscape of Christianity in America, it is still being done. In fact, it is still being done in many places. Districts long ago found the money train was no longer running as regularly as it once was and Synod is almost on life support when it comes to congregational and district funding. So what is keeping this from being done? Perhaps the complaint is that the cost of seminary trained clergy is too great (and it is a burden) and therefore they do not have the personnel to plant these missions. With so many avenues toward ordination in the LCMS, I find this complaint less than legitimate. That said, however, it is a struggle to find pastors to plant mission congregations. Perhaps it is even more difficult to find mission congregations that want to be Lutheran. For how will it help reverse our decline if we plant missions that do not share our Confession and whose people cannot find a home in another LCMS congregation if needed? I suggest that Action One should be a no-brainer for most of us. But I also suggest that we are doing no one any favors by starting mission congregations offended by what Lutherans teach and confess and how Lutherans historically have worshiped.

•Action Two: The LCMS Starts a New Church Body in the Third Largest Mission Field in the World.

Another suggestion from the same author is to look around at our partner churches and remember what it was like when we began those partner churches and helped them survive and thrive. It is a good memory but in this case the partner church would be operating in the same zip codes and neighborhoods as our current congregations. Unencumbered by all that things of church and fired up for mission, the author suggests that it would be easier to plant a new church body in our back yard than it would be to transform the mindset and structures of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod as a whole. While this is most certainly true, it is not beneficial overall. For us to daughter a church body that would end up challenging what it is what we believe, teach, and confess would not help the parent. Now it may not be necessary to help the parent and no one has suggested that the survival of the Missouri Synod is essential to God's purpose and plan. However, we cannot say the same about the faith that we confess. That must endure even if, for whatever reason, the structure of our Synod does not. So I am not at all sure that there is great benefit in starting a Lutheran lite denomination in our own back yard that will ultimately compete against our own congregations.

Both of these comes from a self-identified missional mindset in our Synod. What I find most interesting is that there are some on the opposite side who suggest the same thing. Start another church body for the missionals so that we confessionals can continue unhindered by the conflict and strife the two parties have caused each other over the years. And it does not help that all of this is happening right in the midst of a public divorce within the not-so-United Methodist Church. Some of those conservatives have lamented that we have a Synod within a Synod now -- those with confessional and liturgical identity that is in conflict with an evangelical and free worship identity. But I fail to be convinced by either side that division or subtraction can lead to multiplication or addition. I remain suspicious of those on either side who would suggest that all our problems would be solved if the other side were gone. I do not understand this to be a legitimate path to renewal. You may disagree but I think that statistics are on my side.

The ELCA shows no sign of growth even though it has hemorrhaged two denominations. In fact the numbers of those who have dropped out of the ELCA is several times larger than the combined membership of the split offs. Now I know that the two circumstances are not the same but I think they are enough the same to suggest that division and subtraction only diminish, they do not enhance. And this is what I predict for the UMC (by the way, one of the ELCA communion partners!).

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Pastor, what can I do?

Every now and then, not as often as I would like but often enough to encourage me, people will ask earnestly, "Pastor, what can I do?"  They have heard the Word and been convicted in their hearts and truly desire to aid and assist the work of the Kingdom.  They are not trying to replace God's good work in His Son with their good works but simply seek to respond to the good news of the Gospel with hearts and lives that delight in doing the good works of Him who has called them from darkness into His everlasting light. 

Every pastor is encouraged by such questions from sincere folks.  I know that I am.  And yet too often we have nothing concrete to say to them except to pray for us and pray for the work of the Church.  Now there is nothing wrong with this.  In fact, there is everything right with this.  It is the noble vocation of the baptized to come before the Lord's throne of grace on behalf of themselves, their pastors, their lay leaders, their church, those in need, the dying, and the grieving.  It is part of our duty and should be our delight to pray for our government, to petition the Lord on behalf of the causes of peace and justice in the world, and to pray for those suffering from man-made or natural disaster.  We should pray and to pray is not to do nothing but to do a mighty work.  However, there is more than can and should be done.  As pastors, we ought to be ready to direct our people in these other things.

“What can I do?”  Well, let me give you a specific answer.  Over the course of the next year, speak to at least five or six folks who have dropped out of church and invite them back.  That is concrete and specific.  And it is a noble work.  All around us are disaffected Christians who have abandoned the church and, perhaps, the faith.  In some cases, they have been wounded by pastors or people in the pew (in nearly all cases without the intention to hurt or harm) and have left to nurse their tears.  Perhaps their pastors or church has reached out to them but wounds and hurts and offenses fester over time and tend to distance folks from the very place where they need to be.  Perhaps they went through a very rough patch in life and instead of seeking the Lord's grace and mercy have either blamed the Lord or rejected His aid and comfort.  When those who sit with them in the pew reach out to them and call them back, it represents a window of opportunity to put the hurt or offense behind them and restore them to a place within the household of God's family.

“What can I do?”  Well, look around you.  On the cul de sac where I live, hardly any other families get in their cars and head out to church on Sunday morning.  I suspect it is true where most of us live.  In the county where I live, less than half the population goes to church, any church, on Sunday morning.  It is probably not any different where you live.  Invite one person with whom you have a relationship to come with you to church.  Don't just invite them but offer to pick them up and take the time to prepare them for what they will find there.  Tell them why you attend.  Speak the Gospel to them in the direct words of Scripture and in the paraphrase of your own words.  Share a catechism with them to help them with their questions and to find answers supported by Scripture.  And when they decide to attend (which is the way most folks who are not raised in the faith come to faith), walk with them as they make their way through the service and talk them through it.  In my parish we have a left column with notes, Scripture references, and explanations that help to direct the person (appreciated as much by lifelong Lutherans as those new to our parish).  Use these to help the person find their way through the liturgy.  Do not forget to address the issue of Holy Communion and do not presume that if they are they, they should commune.  No one benefits from Holy Communion without faith to discern the Lord's presence in the Sacrament and to receive His gifts.  But encourage them to come forward with you to receive a blessing.  They understand blessings.

“What can I do?”  You can see needs all around you.  If you desire to serve in the church, there are so many places where a person can serve.  We are constantly seeking people to serve as Sunday school teachers or aides, people to sing in the choir, volunteers for everything from set up and clean up for coffee hour to putting up information on the marquee.  It is not hard to find a place to serve.  And if you wish to serve, be faithful in that service.  Don't just serve when it is convenient for you but serve when the need is there (even if that comes at an inconvenient time for you).  We have literally a hundred people serving in some way for Sunday morning to happen -- in duties from the altar guild to ushers to greeters to choir to folders and more.  There are plenty of places.  Pick one and be faithful in serving.  And if there is no place to serve within the church sphere, look around you in your community.  Visit the sick, the aged, the infirm.  Work for the Red Cross.  Look for a food pantry or place where meals are served to those in need.  Read to children in school.  And the list could go on and on.  . .

Monday, February 10, 2020

Forbidden Statistics. . .

Violence is no stranger to life.  We live in fear and have normalized so many things put in place because of our fear of violence, random or targeted.  We search for meaning to understand violence, from the rationale of the mass shooter to the causes that fuel terrorism.  Breaking news warns us of another incident, another cause for tears, and another reason to fear.

One of the statistics from 2019 that you probably did not hear is that more people died due to abortion than any other single cause.  Some 42 million lives were lost not to the random acts of violence that shape our fears or the mystery of the terrorist whose cause is death but the simple choice, mostly legal, to end the life growing within the womb.

We do not hear of this statistic because it is one of the sacred rights to be preserved and protected, the so-called right of choice.  In reality the choice has inevitably already been made.  Most abortions are chosen not for the health of the mother or because of the deformity or genetic abnormality of the child or even because of rape or incest.  Most abortions, perhaps in the upper 90% of all abortions, are chosen simply because it has been determined the child is not convenient or wanted or welcome.  It is, in the minds of many, no different than ignoring your ringing cell phone or watching people at your door through your video doorbell but not answering its call.  It is a choice, we are told over and over again.  But the choice is more than a choice.  It is the mark of our callous society so indifferent to the consequences of our choices and presuming that if you refuse to call the child in the womb a life, it is not a life.  It is the fruit of a selfish and self-centered world in which the individual reigns supreme and even the life of the unborn must succumb to the desire of the woman (whether alone or in concert with her doctors or her family).

It is as if every year another country with a population even larger than the size of Canada simply disappears.  And with it, our dignity.  Quite apart from religious arguments against abortion, the stain it casts over our nobility as a race cannot be denied.  Though we often consider the opposition to abortion largely religious and largely confined to Roman Catholics, some Lutherans, some Baptists, and some Orthodox, the reality is that this is not simply a religious issue.  Some, who do not share religious convictions with us, have admitted that the scandal of abortion casts a long and dark shadow over the presumed sophistication and dignity we want to believe belongs to us as a race.

Just something to think about as we find ourselves only weeks away from the American anniversary of a choice to legalize and protect the right to take the life of the child in the womb.  And to consider the urgency of the cause to undo our twisted view of rights and privilege.  And to restore the dignity and value due every life -- from conception to natural end.  How can we claim to be a moral people and allow this scandal?  How can we justify the loss of so many lives while at the same time claiming to be offended by the violence of war, terrorism, and mass murderers?

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The only relevant question. . .

Recently I read a piece by a Roman Catholic priest who quoted Dietrich von Hildebrand, a theologian I have not read much of, who wrote: “With a religion the only question that can matter is whether or not it is true. The question of whether or not it fits into the mentality of an epoch cannot play any role in the acceptance or the rejection of a religion without betraying the very essence of religion.”  Those are good words and especially considering they were written in 1967 -- the time when some so-called Christian theologians were exploring the fringes of Christianity while dismissing the historicity and truthfulness of the basic claims of the faith.

Von Hildebrand continues:  “Even the earnest atheist recognizes this. He will not say that today we can no longer believe in God; he will say that God is and always was a mere illusion.”  The most central attack on the faith is its truth and historicity.  The most basic claim of the Christian faith is that it is true for all people and for all time.  It is no coincidence that the claim of the Scriptures and the assertion of our Lord is that the Word of the Lord endures forever even while heaven and earth may pass away.

Again, von Hildebrand: “Enamored of our present epoch, blind to all its characteristic dangers, intoxicated with everything modern, there are many Catholics who no longer ask whether something is true, or whether it is good and beautiful, or whether it has intrinsic value: they ask only whether it is up-to-date, suitable to ‘modern man’ and the technological age, whether it is challenging, dynamic, audacious, progressive.”  How apropos to the present!  We have endured ages of theologians who would suggest that the truthfulness of the claims of Christ and the words of Scripture are of little consequence to the spiritual importance of its moralism.  Yet authentic Christianity refuses to be reduced to a morality or ethic.  It is not that these are not important but unless they flow from that which is true objectively and eternally, they are little more than thoughts and suggestions that come and go as the wind.

What is surprising to me is that Rome has embraced the skepticism of the scientific approach to Scripture and the claims of Christ more than some and earlier than other churches.  Yet in Rome this dismissal of truth coexists with theologians who insist that Scripture is not myth or legend.  In Lutheranism we have wrestled with the same skepticism about truth and the same dead end that would suggest fact is not important with respect to the keryma.  And where has such skepticism left us?  It is not simply that truth is rejected but that the individual has become the arbiter of truth and even reason must give way to preference and the feeling of the moment.  That this has happened within churches that value truth admits how easily we are tempted by the father of lies.  That this happens inside churches confirms the reality that the greater threats are not from those outside but from those within God's House who claim to speak for Him.

Protestantism has pretty much given up on the idea of truth larger than the individual and the moment.  By and large most denominations have willingly sacrificed what they once believed, taught, and confessed on the altar of relevance.  Even once stalwart enemies of a changing truth find themselves caught up in the pressure of the moment more to be relevant than faithful.  So it is within my own church body where the fight continues against the fear that if we preserve the faith we will not grow it.  Maintenance fights against mission and liturgy against outreach as false contradictions are invented and straw men do battle over and over again.  In the meantime, von Hildebrand reminds us that truth is the only relevant issue both to faithfulness and to outreach. 

Saturday, February 8, 2020

I wish we could do more. . .

According to the first constitution of the Missouri Synod, part of the rationale for a Synod was: The unified spread of the kingdom of God and to make possible the promotion of special church projects.(Seminary, agenda, hymnal, Book of Concord, schoolbooks, Bible distribution, mission projects within and outside the Church.) [Article I].  Now it would seem that diversity has nearly overtaken us and we are about anything but unity.  Some congregations (and Districts) would prefer to make the Synod over into a federation of semi-autonomous units which are free to do whatever is right in their own eyes in pursuit of a common goal but not necessarily by common means or effort.

Likewise, this unity was manifest in the desire to be as uniform in rites and ceremonies as is possible, though not by legal requirement but the love of unity among the brotherhood.  Hence, To strive after the greatest possible uniformity in ceremonies [Article IV] in the same constitution.  Yet we no longer strive for unity or uniformity of rite and ceremony and instead celebrate the diversity in which we all can do what is right in our own eyes.  Thus it is not a matter of even a unified core from which more or less elaboration is localized but the loss even of that once proudly celebrated common basic rite and the ceremonies at least of the printed rubrics.  The realm of worship has become the proverbial menu of one from column A, two from column B, and a side of column C thrown in.  Only in this case we are not even reading from the same menu anymore.

So the point is not even our lack of unity in mission or our refusal to observe our common rites with at least an expectation of minimal rubrics being followed.  No, it is much more than this.  Without a common mission supported by common endeavor and without common rites and basic ceremonies, what is the justification for having a Synod?  In the end we may need the institution for cover more than leadership or accountability.  What this means is that we depend upon the institution to provide the freedom we desire and the cover of unity that suits our purpose when the individuals end up driving the boat instead of something deeper or more profound.

As for most church bodies, the time has come not so much to reinvigorate the unity and fellowship once taken for granted as much as it is justifying the basic commonalities required to support a major scaffolding of diversity.  To put it more plainly, it is more important for the unity of the church to protect the individual freedoms and license of the local unit than it is to slice this thing so that real unity and uniformity may prevail.  To put it bluntly, we are even less united in our belief that a Synod is a good thing than we are united in the justifications for and rationale for that Synod.  This is much more than a liturgical problem and it will not be solved by liturgical answers.

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has not been greatly successful in keeping the genie of individualism, personal preference, and diversity in the bottle.  Oh, to be sure, we are slower than most churches to give into the surrounding cultural movement that idealizes, or should I say idolizes, these values.  We may not have preserved the points of our Synodical establishment in practice but we have retained them in theory at least.  We have preserved the idea of Synod while functioning too long with the practical reality of districts that do as they please and congregations that do as they please (all the while mirroring the appropriate shibboleths of adiaphora, expediency, and autonomy).  While officially we do not even grant to Synod the status of church, in practice we functioned that way.  At least until more modern times.  Now we have given up even the pretense of that and about the only thing we can say good about the Synod is that it cannot legislate or coerce its members.  And that is not a good thing to say even though it is true (in one sense). 

So we will preserve the idea of Synod all the while watching it slip away in practice.  Perhaps that is the best we can do for now.  I wish we could do more. 

Friday, February 7, 2020

The choice to be lazy. . .

For a long time we have printed out the liturgy weekly.  In part this is due to the fact that the liturgical options are not quite obvious in any hymnal -- especially to those new to Lutheranism or liturgical worship.  It is not quite my preference but I understand it and consider it a small price to pay to make the liturgy more accessible to those new to Lutheranism or liturgical worship or the faith in general (and we have a number of those!).

That said, along the way I began to notice that when we asked people to use the hymnal, there were still a number who did not bother to pick up or open the book.  I also noticed that some were standing idly by without bothering to open the printed liturgy we had worked so hard to make accessible and easy.

I have been hesitant to say it but I think part of it is simple laziness masquerading as either preference (I don't like singing, for example) or as rebellion (I am Lutheran so I will go to this church but I will not sing or participate except in the obvious parts like the Our Father).  In either case, it is being lazy.  I cannot say this about those newer to the faith or Lutheranism or liturgical worship because they do seem more likely to participate and pay attention to the sources (worship folder or hymnal).  Perhaps it is the rejection of any book that was not the book they grew up with (at least in the case of those raised Lutheran).  Perhaps there are other reasons.  In any case, it is laziness.

I also believe that this is not simply about the book or worship folder but that this laziness is the reason why so many Lutherans are also susceptible to contemporary worship and contemporary Christian music.  Both are appealing to the lazy because they ask nothing from the spectator except to watch and listen and enjoy it.  Whether it is rebellion or simple laziness, the refusal to participate in the liturgy or hymns of the Divine Service is really quite arrogant. It presumes that God is not worth the effort.  While it might be more pointedly revealed in the refusal to pick up the book or open the worship folder and open the mouth, it is also part of the reason why we come to worship dressed down and casual. 

I do not have a solution.  Perhaps there is none.  It certainly will not be solved by more rules.  Rules cannot change a heart.  God has told us that.  In reality, it is not simply worship about which we are so casual but God.  And more than God, but sin and death.  This laziness has at its root a lack of concern for the reality of sin and what it has done and an uneasy friendship with death so long as death obeys the rules and plays our game.  So what can we do?  Preach the Word.  In season and out.  When itchy ears want to listen to other things, we speak the Word and the Holy Spirit will change what will be changed and the rest is His concern anyway.  But it will not hurt to confront the issue head on instead of trying to dance around it.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

The Church's Business. . .

Although I have been on the ELCA email publicity list for some time, I have not received many messages of late.  Yet this one came into my email box a month or so ago.  Interesting for what it covers, interesting for what is glossed over at the end of the press release, and interesting for what it does not discuss.  Apparently in the ELCA this is what passes for the church's business. . . 

CHICAGO — The Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) met at the Lutheran Center in Chicago, Nov. 7-10. Twenty-three new members, elected by the 2019 Churchwide Assembly, were welcomed. The council serves as the ELCA's board of directors and interim legislative authority between meetings of the Churchwide Assembly.

The council took the following key actions:

  • Authorized use of ministry rites for pastors and deacons in response to constitutional changes by the 2019 Churchwide Assembly that identified ordination as the entrance rite for ministers of Word and Service. The ministry rites for ordination to the ministry of Word and Service, ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, installation of a deacon and installation of a pastor will be effective Jan. 1, 2020.
  • Created an advisory team to receive updates, track progress and provide periodic reports on the "Strategy Toward Authentic Diversity in the ELCA," adopted by the 2019 Churchwide Assembly.
  • Adopted a continuing resolution authorizing the creation of a resource development committee of the council to continue developing strategies related to funding initiatives and future churchwide appeals.
  • Adopted the "Memorandum of Mutual Recognition of Relations of Full Communion" among The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and the ELCA as a way to strengthen ties among the two U.S. and two Canadian churches.
  • Authorized development of a social message on the vocation of citizenship, civic engagement, and church and state, as requested by the 2019 Churchwide Assembly.
  • Received the final report of its Theological Education Advisory Committee, approved the committee's recommended transition plan and thanked the committee members for their service.
  • Approved a 2020 spending authorization of $67,666,652 for the churchwide organization and $21,596,595 for ELCA World Hunger.
  • Received an update on development of the resource "Trustworthy Servants of the People of God," the replacement for "Vision and Expectations," which articulates the church's hopes and expectations for its rostered ministers.
  • Adopted the Reference and Counsel Committee recommendations regarding unfinished business from the 2019 Churchwide Assembly.
  • Referred to the Domestic Mission unit the Conference of Bishops recommendation that the unit give top priority to this church's response to the global crisis of climate change.
  • Thanked the Rev. Wyvetta Bullock for her faithful service as executive for administration and her many years of service to this church. Bullock will retire Jan. 30, 2020.
In a special order of the day, the council received a greeting from Ms. Rose Simmons, whose father, the Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr., was one of the nine congregants martyred in June 2015 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

The council also received reports from the church's presiding bishop, treasurer, secretary and vice president, from the ELCA Conference of Bishops, and from the ELCA's separately incorporated ministries. They also received greetings from ecumenical partners.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Jolly old Padre Peters. . .

In case you missed it on this blog, I enjoy a good joke.  Laughter is a gift from God -- unless it is from vulgarity or an attempt to injure.  We should not take ourselves too seriously.  But we ought to at least take God and the things of God seriously.

My growing concern is that there is less and less of the kind of solemnity associated with the House of God and the things of worship than ever before.  It is not just that sermons are sometimes a string of stories designed to bring a smile to our lips or laughter to our hearts -- that is bad enough -- but that the liturgy itself is one big happy fest in which God is happy to have us there and we are happy to be there.  Note here that I am not at all suggesting that we need to be sad or unduly somber but I do think we need to be serious about the God in whose presence we come and the gifts of God that may be free to us but come at the cost of the greatest sacrifice of all.  Reverence is not an enemy to faith but its companion. Awe does not deprive us of God our Father but places His fatherly gift and grace in context that only magnifies what it means to be loved by Him.  Worship flows out of this reverence and awe as we acknowledge with grateful hearts what He and he alone has accomplished to make us His own people again.

Every now and then people will smile at something I say in the pulpit but it is not scripted -- not like a monologue written to set people at ease and entertain through humor.  Preaching is not the place for me to shine but for the Word to be front and center.  The best preaching is that in which the preacher is lost to the hearer and Christ is central.  Neither is the sermon a place to treat the subjects of God's Word as something lighthearted and casual.  Indeed, the things which are our focus are the most serious of matters.  We dare not make light of sin and death nor should we presume to make light of what it cost our Lord to answer our enemies and rescue us from the darkness of sin and the shadow of death.  The sermon does best which addresses these serious subjects seriously but no less seriously the remedy God has supplied in His Son, the joy and comfort which this medicine supplies to the sin sick soul dying, and how this new life and hope may be lived out today.

That is part of my concern for stories in sermons.  Stories can easily take on a life of their own -- one that detracts from instead of points to the Word.  I doubt that there is a preacher who cannot relate an account of a story that cannot become bigger than the sermon and the Word.  I know I can.  It has made me wary of telling stories.  The best illustrations are those that come from Scripture and from the text used for the sermon.  But the temptation is great to entertain or to tell stories so that people get it.  The only problem is that in getting it they may miss the Gospel entirely.

I have heard complaints from people that sermons are boring but if the preacher is faithfully preaching the Word of God and the people want more, there is something more wrong than the sermon.  We have to admit that our itchy ears have made preaching much more difficult.  That said, this is not about the blame game but about the preacher focusing upon the Word and the hearer listening for it -- and, I might add, trusting the Spirit to work through this encounter.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The sacrifice of a child. . .

Sermon for the Presentation of Our Lord and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary preached on Sunday, February 2, 2020.

    Though you might not come to this conclusion by looking around us this morning, we live in an age in which children are not seen as a gift or blessing of the Lord but burdens we are not sure we want to bear.  Our congregation is an anomaly.  In most places the number of children is shrinking.  While for some this is a problem conceiving, for nearly all the rest it is a choice made.  They have decided children are not necessary, not good, and not morally responsible anymore.  Okay, maybe you can justify one child, but many secretly harbor the fear that some of our presidential candidates openly admit – who would bring a child into a world like ours?  They have decided that children are not simply a burden to their parents but a burden to a world of climate change and carbon footprints.  They have decided that the sacrifice of parenthood is not worth it and better to keep your money and time for yourself than to give it over to your children.

    We live in an age in which children are treated as accessories to our lives, toys that we purchase when we can afford them and when we have fulfilled all our other desires of wealth, experience, and accomplishment.  When we are ready and have done all that we want to do, then we may consider having a child.  When we want a child, we will turn to reproductive technology to produce a poster child of all the qualities we desire without any risk of defect.  Until that day when the child we prize is produced in the lab, children are expendable to us, to the tune of 62 million.  As a culture we have decided we will end pregnancy on the government’s dime because now is not a good time, as if there is ever is a good time to have a child.  Birth control freed sex from the possibility of children, divorced sex from love, and took from love the expectation of marriage.

    That is not the world of Hannah who yearned for a child and prayed for a son.  That is not the state of affairs in which Hannah went up to Shiloh to offer Him a sacrifice of a bull, flour, and wine when finally her son was born and weaned.  That is not the case for this woman who was desperate to have this child and then offered Samuel, her Son, to the Lord for as long as he would live.  That is not the case for Joseph and Mary who were given not the son of their choice but the Child of the most High God.  That is not the world in which Mary who birthed the Son of God was still considered ritually unclean and hid away at home until she was purified in the Temple with the offerings required by the Law.  That is not how it was when even the Son of God in human flesh and blood had to be presented to the Lord, the first born son of  Mary’s womb who was offered to the Lord to be holy and righteous.

    What has happened to us that we no longer value or desire children, that we no longer consider them gifts of God, and that we no longer presume that life is sacred?  This day is a day out of step with the world around us and a stark reminder that the values of the Kingdom of God are not the values of the world.  Maybe they are not even our own values since the reality is that Christians seem to learn their morality less from Scripture than from the world around, from the media, and from a radical individualism which equates marriage with slavery and children as not worth the sacrifice. 

    On this day we remember that the Lord has come to His Temple, but not as the mighty God who sits on high.  No, He has come as the God in flesh to fulfill the promise of salvation, to offer Himself as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and to rise up to bestow upon a people marked for death the gift of eternal life.  Wow, I bet nobody saw that coming when Mary and Joseph slipped into the Temple to do for Mary and Joseph what every Jew did when a child was born.  Oh, wait, somebody did see it coming.  Simeon saw it coming.  He was a righteous man, a devout and pious Jew, who was waiting for the consolation of Israel and on whom the Holy Spirit rested.  He saw it coming.  This was not an ordinary family doing the usual thing but extraordinary.

    This stranger to Mary and Joseph grabbed the baby in their arms and raised Jesus to the Lord and began to sing.  Lord, now You let Your servant go in peace, according to Your Word. . .  Mary and Joseph may have thought they were there to offer the sacrifice the Law required but Simeon reminded them that this child was not theirs but the Lord’s own anointed Savior.  He was come to enlighten the Gentiles from the darkness of their unbelief and to fulfill the promise of glory to Israel.  But this was no golden boy who was born with a silver spoon in His mouth.  No, Simeon was solemn.  He shall see to the risen and falling of many.  He shall be a sign opposed.  He shall piece Mary’s heart with sorrow.  He shall expose the sinful hearts of men in order to redeem them.

    As if this were not enough, an aged prophetess named Anna showed up.  She took one look at Jesus and shouted in thanksgiving to God for Jerusalem’s waiting was over.  The Savior had come whom God had promised.  Again, you might think that Mary and Joseph would have fallen over in shock but this was the same Mary who receive visits from angels and pondered all things in her heart.  This was the same Joseph who got his own visit from angels and who believed the most important thing of his life was taking care of this child.  They finished doing what the Law required and headed back to Galilee where Jesus grew, became strong, and manifested the favor of God.
    The Lord has come to His Temple.  He came as a child born of Mary, to be set apart for the Lord’s will and purpose, saving us by His obedient life, life-giving death, and mighty resurrection.  Mary and Joseph thought they were offering God a sacrifice but God was preparing His one and only Son to be the sacrifice that takes away our sin. As parents, we often think that ours is the sacrifice, the many things we give up in order to provide for our children.  But we are doing nothing that God has not done for us in an even greater way.  The family is not incidental to God but His gift in creation and the most basic place where we learn His goodness and live out His kindness one to another. The home is not just some place where we hang our hat but the place where we live out our baptismal vocation – husband to wife and wife to husband.  Children are not burdens God places upon us but gifts and blessings from the Lord.  They are given to us as sacred trust and responsibility, that we may bring them up to know the God who came to us as a child and whose sacrificial death has brought us forgiveness and life.

    Our calling is to do no less for our children than God did for His only Son.  Have you ever wondered what it was that set apart Mary to be the Mother of our Lord and Joseph to be His guardian?  The only qualification noted about them is that they were people of faith, who treasured the Word of the Lord, who knew the House of God as their familiar home, who trusted God’s promises when the world seemed to them a confusing mess, and who would raise their children in this holy faith and fear of the Lord.  Mary and Joseph did for Jesus and for themselves what God in His Word called them to do.  And in that blessed encounter, the identity and purpose of Christ and His life was revealed to them.

    Though we live in a world where children are no longer seen as blessings and gifts, you as parents are called to do for Your children nothing less than that which the Word of the Lord requires.  You are to bring them up to know the Lord, to know as familiar home the Lord’s House, to see their Pastors as the voices through whom God speaks His Word, to enjoy the means of grace as the vehicles by which we are made and kept the children of God, and to know what is good and right and do what is good and right – even when it is not popular.  This calling of parenthood is not a sacrifice we must bear but our vocation as God’s people, as husbands and wives set apart for His purpose, as godly families to show forth to the world the goodness of the Lord, and as those who know that who we are is not defined by what we do but what God has done for us.

    Mary and Joseph stood for all parents when they brought Jesus into the Temple to do for Him what the Word of God required.  Now is your time to stand with them in acknowledging the goodness of God, the gift of children, your responsibility to bring them up to know the Lord, and to know most of God, that God came as a child under the Law to fulfill the Law for us, to offer Himself upon the wood of the cross that we might be saved, and to rise on Easter morning with healing and hope for everyone captive to sin and its death.  This is YOUR witness before the world and this is your vocation as people of faith.  In the Name of Jesus.  Amen.

Cause, Effect, or Relationship?

According to the Pew Research Study, as of 2019:
  • nine-in-ten U.S. adults say they go online, 
  • 81% say they own a smartphone and 
  • 72% say they use social media.
Although we may be reaching a saturation point and growth in some technologies and their use may be slowing a bit, the reason is that there are few non-users left.  For example, 93% of Millennials (ages 23 to 38 in 2019) own smartphones, and nearly 100% say they use the internet.  Evidence of the profound impact of this move is shown by the fact that social media has become the go to source for just about everything from news to products.  Social media surpassed print news in 2018.  One-in-five adults said they often get news from social media, slightly higher than the share who often did so from print newspapers (16%).  Among social media sites, Facebook dominates in terms of news consumption:  Around half of all U.S. adults (52%) now say they get news there. 

At the same time, the decline in church attendance has occurred.  Is there a connection?  Is it cause, effect, or related at all?

In the end it both confirms and encourages the very things that discourage attendance at worship.  One is the idea of truth, objective truth that exists for all people and all places and all times.  The fast pace of change and the focus on consumer preference and desire agitate against the idea that such a truth exists or that it matters at all.

Another is the idea of passive consumerism.  In other words, consumption of social media is largely passive -- it does not promote or require action or even thinking.  It is designed not to change minds as much as appeal to minds made up.  What kind of faith exists in an environment in which the mind is set and nothing is allowed to challenge or, perhaps, even intrude upon what is believed or felt?

Another area is individualism.  What need is there for or relevance from community when the focus is so exclusively upon the individual?  The unique character of the Nicea (we believe) has become secondary to the singular and individual (I believe) and the sources of that belief no long flow out of communities of faith but are largely individualistic.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Whose immorality is worse. . .

In one of the oddest quirks of fate, the Church, usually a fairly reliable voice on morality, is in danger of being declared immoral by the society (Western, and in this case British).  Or so said a bishop soon to be an archbishop in the Church of England.  Stephen Cottrell, presently Bishop of Chelmsford soon to be Archbishop of York, warned the CoE of such in an address in 2017:
Cottrell warned of the "missiological damage that is done when that which is held to be morally normative and desirable by much of society, and by what seems to be a significant number of Anglican Christian people in this country, is deemed morally unacceptable by the Church…And, though I am proud to confirm that all of us, whatever our views on this matter, are united in our condemnation of homophobia, we must also acknowledge that it is of little comfort to young gay or lesbian members of our Church to know that while prejudice against them is abhorred, any committed faithful sexual expression of their love for another is forbidden. . . Our ambivalence and opposition to faithful and permanent same-sex relationships can legitimise homophobia in others.”
In other words, sometimes you have to take an immoral position with respect to Scripture and tradition in order to be seen as moral by the society at large.  Well that makes sense.  It makes perfect sense, right?
“I am not sure the church has ever before had to face the challenge of being seen as immoral by the culture in which it is set.”
In what can only be described as an amazing statement, we wonder how an educated, respected, and soon to be elevated member of the clergy could say such a thing with a straight face!  Is the Church of England without shame or embarrassment?  And where are the voices to challenge such a bold statement and to question such a shocking conclusion about the shape and direction of the witness of Christianity?

But of course he is not alone.  The mere fact that somebody like him can say such a things is ample evidence that the greater concern among progressive and liberal Christianity is not faithfulness under fire but the ease and comfort afforded those who adjust their morality and their theology to adapt to the changing whims of the society around them. 

I have often said to my people that the greater danger to Christianity comes not from those outside the Church imposing their will upon us but the Church acquiescing to the pressure of the world.  What has not forced change upon us, we have willingly adapted and in doing so have left the Christian witness damaged and the world confused about what we believe, teach, and confess.  What is happening in England is already happening in the former Colonies and among Lutherans.  Be warned, my friends.  This is not simply about sex but about truth.  The LGBTQ+ lobby has done a profoundly effective job in making Christians shiver in the boots at the prospect of being called immoral or labeled hate speakers.  If only we could be as concerned with what God thinks of us!

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The details of the apocrypha. . .

While we insist that the apocrypha is not Scripture, that does not mean it has not influenced us greatly.  Take for example the scene at the Nativity of our Lord.  The Infancy Gospel of St. James, never anyone's part of the canon of Scripture, has had great influence upon how we see some things.  For example, one of the most enduring images of Christmas involves a detail omitted in Scripture but reported by the Infancy Gospel of St. James -- the ox and the ass at the manger.

The Presentation of Mary at the Temple, not the one known as Candlemas, is one of those details.  In that story, the child Mary is presented by her parents (another detail is that here her father was named a Levitical priest).  It was, as it were, the return of the lost Ark to the Temple.  Israel suffered no devastation greater than the capture and loss of the Ark of the Covenant to their enemies.  In one, by the Philistines, the consequences were like a Steven Spielburg movie script.  Plagues began to afflict the Philistines until they begged Israel to come and get the Ark.  Its return was heralded by a great celebration in Israel.  When it arrived in Jerusalem, King David took to naked dancing in the streets!  You may remember the story.  What a wonderful event it was when the Ark came home.

Later the Ark was lost again.  This time the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and took off with the Ark.  That is about the last we heard of it.  You may have heard the story that some Ethiopians claim to have it in the village of Aksum.  The story is plausible but without any proof that it is indeed there, it is still but a guess.  It was not this Ark, however, that returned to the Temple but Mary, blessed virgin, whose womb would bear the presence of God with His people and whose Son would redeem God's people from all their sins, once for all.

While I am not at all suggesting that the Infancy Gospel of St. James be given credibility here, the Presentation of our Lord and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin are, in a great sense, the return of the Ark to the Temple.  In it as an infant Jesus is laying claim to His Father's house and Mary's role in this is attested by none other than the prophet Simeon.

The Virgin is the true Ark of God -- not of precious metal but of flesh that bears God's presence to us and opens the Holy of Holies.  In the accounts of the dedication of the original Tabernacle of Moses and the First Temple of Solomon, the glory of God takes prominent place.  When the Second Temple was dedicated there was instead a dire warning connected to the prophecy of 1 Sam. 4:21, when the daughter-in-law of the priest, Eli, died giving birth to a son.  With her last breath, she named him “Ichabod” (“the glory has departed”).

According to the apocryphal account, when the child Mary enters the Temple in which the glory of God has departed, she restores that glory -- though without notice or fanfare.  The Infancy Gospel of James describes her being taken into the Holy of Holies by Zachariah, her kinsman, whom we know only too well as the father of St. John the Forerunner.

The glory had departed until Jesus restored it, even at the cost of His own blood.  The role of the Blessed Virgin in all of this remains prominent.  What more can we say than Simeon said, longing for the consolation of Israel and the restoration of its glory, Now I can depart in peace for my eyes have seen thy glory. . .

Saturday, February 1, 2020

What is our mission?

There is such a quandary over why the Church exists and what is our mission as the Church.  Some of the confusion rests over the conflict between what we want to do or think we should be doing and what the Lord has set out in His Word.  We know that we are to save something but we are not sure what it is we are to save.  Are we to save society or the environment or souls? 

If our goal is to save society, then much of what is distinctive in the Christian message is largely irrelevant to that purpose.  Do we need an incarnate Savior to save society?  Do we need an atonement for sin to save society?  Do we need the resurrection to save society?  Much of Christianity has decided that doctrine is either unnecessary or it gets in the way of the task of preserving society and its worthy institutions.

If our task is to preserve the world made by the Creator, how much of Scripture is applicable to that task?  Stewardship and the preservation of a more pristine environment against the onslaught of man and climate change do not require a Messiah, a cross, or an empty tomb.  In fact, all of these are not only irrelevant to this task but actually serve as enemies of this cause.  Much of Christianity has decided that preserving the world and our environment does not need distinctly Christian doctrine or perspective.

The only things that require an incarnate Savior, an atoning work, and a resurrection is the saving of people from sin, from death, and from alienation from our God.  I am not at all saying that Christians should be oblivious to what is going on in the world around them or inconsiderate of their role as stewards of God's good creation but the Church of Jesus Christ exists for one exclusive purpose -- to save people through the redeeming work of God in His Son.  To that end, we confess the creed and pray.  To this cause we baptize, absolve, and commune upon these mysteries given by God to bring the unbelieving to faith, to justify them in Christ, and to sanctify them in preparation for their entrance into the world to come.  Why is this controversial?

It is controversial because the unique purpose of God in establishing the Church through the atoning work of His Son and calling sinners to life in His name actually means confronting sin and death -- something that is seldom popular or welcome in a world which would rather redefine sin into virtue and make friends with death.  It is controversial because the world gladly welcomes the partnership of doctrineless Christians in pursuit of the cause of the moment but it is has no room or place for the hate speech that would challenge the primacy of feelings and desire.  It is controversial because we in the Church often feel like we are not making any real difference unless we are attacking a physical problem with a physical solution that will do something in the moment.  We have, in the Church, given up on the idea that the eternal outweighs the present and so the evangelization of the world is a less urgent and a less relevant cause to many than mirroring the labors of the secular world to build a better today (that is, one in which feeling and preference reign supreme) and preserving our environment by reducing man's footprint globally.

I will admit that too long I feared that unless I could provide help to every family in need, answer every urgent call for money, food, medicine, shelter, and want, I was not doing much of anything.  And then I began to discover the fact that the unique message of the Church is doctrinal and the unique purpose of the Church is to proclaim the Kingdom of God through the Word and Sacraments.  Therein lies the one and only holy purpose of the Church's existence and of my ministry.  It is not exclusive in that I am blind to or unconcerned by my neighbor's need but it is the recognition that improving the world or society, however laudable, is neither the sole nor the primary purpose for which Christ established His Church or set apart the Ministry.  What is required to evangelize and to serve our neighbor is to teach the faith faithfully and live out the truths that we confess in response to this eternal Gospel.  Apparently this is rather controversial.  It should not be. 

I cannot love my neighbor into the Kingdom of God.  Only God can do this and He loves us into His Kingdom by the proclamation of His Word through which the Spirit is at work.  Because I am in the Kingdom of God, I will endeavor to love my neighbor as Christ has loved me and my neighbor will benefit as will the greater world around me but as important as this is, faith comes by hearing the Word of God. 

Friday, January 31, 2020

While I am at it. . .

I have always been curious about the colors of vestments among Roman Catholics.  There are those voices that are vehement in their disdain for blue for Advent, for example, but then you see three priests and a deacon wearing green (in the photo to the left) and others wearing white.  What is it with that?

This is not the only example.  I could should hundreds of pictures of masses (Latin or Novus Ordo) with priests and deacons wearing different colors while serving at the same altar (especially concelebrations).  Did they run out of one color and let people pick their choice?  Did they run short and use the only color they had for the remaining priests (perhaps those who were late to the Sacristy that day)?  Is there a reason for this?

Orthodox and Eastern Rite Roman Catholics have a somewhat different approach to the color of the season -- even within themselves much less in contrast to the West.  So I would expect it there but why does it seem to happen so often among Roman Catholics -- even in papal masses?  I wish someone would enlighten me as to where there is rhyme or reason to this or mere accident without any rationale.  The Orthodox can often look like a cornucopia of color when they gather for festive services.  Is there a hidden Roman rubric for this?

Colors are more recognizable at Lutheran altars because it is more likely that Lutherans use paraments.  Many (dare I say most) Roman altars have no frontal whatsoever and the vestments of the priest(s) is the only clue to the color of the day and the season.  Is there are reason for this?  Are Lutherans and Anglicans the only ones who properly dress the altar?  I wish someone had an explanation for this.  It seems like many Roman altars are not works of art that deserve to be left uncovered and yet they are.  I might understand it if the altar itself were a sculpted wonder of wood or stone.  But the rest?

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Snicker, Snicker. . . Pastor wears a dress. . .

I am confident that no pastor or priest has not heard the snicker of a child pointing at the dress that pastor wears.  We expect it from a child who knows no better than to make fun of what he does not understand.  What is unexpected is when Lutherans who supposed to be adults can do no better than laugh at the old joke and when they have no words to answer the curiosity of the child about vestments.  What is downright foolish is when Lutheran pastors know no better than to call vestments robes and to reveal how uncomfortable they are wearing them while vested for service.  Yet that is exactly what we see far more often than anyone would care to admit.

I suspect such discomfort is for several reasons.  One of them might be to let folks know how awkward these men of God feel in these vestments, how they wish they did not have to wear them, and how foolish they think the whole matter of wearing vestments really is.  Another might be that they don't want folks to think that maybe they like wearing the dress and so they put out the unmistakable signal to all who see them that this is not their style or preference.  But I fear a worse reason.  I fear that the discomfort with vestments is really about the discomfort of hiding away the man and living out the office before God's people.  Nobody likes to wear a uniform that might just be stronger than one's own personality and clothing certainly are a primary expression of taste as well as being an extension of how we see ourselves.  The truth is that too often those pastors who find it hard to wear vestments also find it hard to be a pastor.  This is where the joke ends, by the way.

No where is the pastor more invisible as a man and no where is his role more profoundly noted than when the man sets aside personal taste and preference and dons the historic vestments of the Church (at least in the West) to speak in His name the Word of life, lead God's people in praise of Him whose salvation is revealed in Christ, and to administer His gifts of grace to them.  Nobody cares if Larry Peters forgives their sins but time and eternity hinge upon God's forgiveness.  The names we place upon our children are sometimes foolish and mostly temporary but when God names us as His own in the waters of baptism this is both a great mystery and delight with eternal consequence.  The food we eat is a matter of taste and preference except when the Lord sets His table in the midst of our enemies and delivers to us nothing less than heaven's bread and salvation's cup, the flesh of Christ and the blood of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins and the assurance that we are His and He is ours.

How odd it is that we would presume to dress ourselves for such an office and for such a ministry!  How reasonable it is that we would be dressed apart from the world's fashion and from all that vesture reflects to wear a dress, to be yoked with a stole, to be girded with a rope, and to be covered with a type of seamless robe.  For then it is clearly revealed to all who see us that we are not our own men.  We belong to the Lord, more particularly to HIS service.  The words we speak are not our own but His Word.  The actions which we take are not our own but the actions of His own direction in which His promise is manifest.  It is so much easier to be me than to be God's.  That is the reality.  But the pastor cannot afford to be me when it comes at the cost of God's purpose.  Even when we are not at ease with being God's man in this calling, it is important for God's people to know what this means and for us to be at peace with it.

So laugh with the child who says pastor is wearing a dress but teach the people well what it means to be vested for His service.  For how else will they understand and learn to live out their own place and vocation as the people of God vested with the peculiar clothing of Christ's righteousness?  Ahhh, that is the irony.  Pastors are not the only ones who wear the clothing of another.  All those who are baptized do the very same thing!