Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Focus on Jesus

Sermon for Pentecost 10, Proper 14A, preached on Sunday, August 9, 2020.

     You have to have a little sympathy for St. Peter.  Sure, he shots himself in the foot most of the time.  He speaks when he should have been silent and stands silent when called to speak.  But we get that.  We feel the same way.  In hindsight we can always think of what we should have said and regretted what we did say.  But you still have to give it to St. Peter.  After all he asked Jesus to call Him out.  The rest of the disciples were terrified and perhaps St. Peter was as well but it was St. Peter, after all, who said, “Lord, if it is YOU, command ME to come to You on the water.”  Yes, you have to hand it to this apostle.  He asked to be called out on the water and took steps on the water that none of the other disciples could even dream.

    That said, when you step out on the water you find yourself at risk.  “What did get myself into?”  was going through St. Peter’s head.  And we are sympathetic as well.  We have all, as my grandmother used to say, written checks with our mouths that we did not want to cash.  Yes, the Lord had told him to come out on the water but then the reality of it all cam crashing down upon St. Peter and the water proved to be less sturdy than it was in the first step or two.  Yet, this too we understand.  We have all been there.

    St. Peter looked at Jesus but he would not help looking at all the chaos and turmoil around him.  The wind blew ever more fierce.  The waves proved larger and larger.  In the end it became a test.  How much do you trust Jesus?  In his mind’s eye, the storm was more threatening than Jesus comforting, the storm more of a threat than Jesus a Savior, and the challenges before him more profound than the Jesus who stood before Him.  Turning to the threat around him required him to look away from Jesus and as soon as that happened poor old St. Peter began to sink.

    Even in this moment of uncertainty when the dangers he faced seem more powerful than the Jesus who was with him, Jesus did not do what you might expect.  He did not leave St. Peter to his own fears.  St. Peter was not left with his own weakness of faith.  No, indeed, Jesus intervened and sustained St. Peter from the doubts that threatened to swallow up his life in Christ.  And this, God does not only for St. Peter but for all who cry to Him in their need and who find their faith eroded by the power of doubt and the threat of failure.  For as much as we want to make this about St. Peter, it is really about the Lord.  He who calls you is faithful; He will do it.  Says the Scriptures.

    Though the great temptation may be to despair and fear, the Lord has not turned away from you or abandoned you.  In the moments of your greatest failure, God is there to rescue you from judgement with His blood and restore you as His own child by faith.
Faith cries out when all the props have fallen down and you find yourself exposed, vulnerable, and losing hope – “Lord, save me.”  The disciples retreated into the prison of their fears and wondered if Jesus was a ghost but no ghost could save St. Peter and no ghost could calm the storm and quiet the wind.  Only Jesus.

    You are not much different.  You come to church every Sunday and you bring your fears with you – fears from COVID to the normal stuff.  When life confronts you with challenge and struggle, you dismiss what Scripture says and wonder if God is with you or has abandoned you.  When you test the waters and begin to sink into failure, you call out to God as if He were the cause of that failure instead of the Savior who rescues you. No brothers and sisters, we are just like the disciples and just like St. Peter.  But Jesus is the same, yesterday with the disciples on the stormy water in the night, today in the midst of a world of change, and forever into the future none of us can predict.

    Here is the Gospel.  Not that St. Peter tried and failed or even that Jesus consoled him in his failure.  The Gospel is that Jesus came to St. Peter, came to the apostles, made His way to them caught up in the storms of life and the dark clouds of fear.  Jesus came to them and rescued them from the superstitions that held them captive and from the weak faith that struggled to keep eyes on Jesus as feet tip toed across the deep.  Here is the Gospel.  Jesus comes for YOU.  Jesus comes to YOU.  Now, in the midst of the storm, when battered about by the winds of change and chance, bruised by the hurts of so many disappointments, and scared as much of the light as of the dark.  Jesus is Your Savior.  Believe in Him.  Repent of your doubts.  Cling to Him in trouble.  Fix your gaze upon Him when storm and wind and change threaten, and you will not sink, you will not be defeated, you will not die.     

    Do your fears rule you or does faith rule you?   Nobody is saying that things like the corona virus are not threats.  But the question hanging in the air is whether your faith makes any difference to you or what you do or how you find a way through the things that test your fears – like COVID 19?  Close to a third of our congregation believes that it is dangerous to be together in the Lord’s House on the Lord’s Day.  Maybe some of you are not so sure it is safe either.  What difference does faith make on how you approach something like coming to Church?  Receiving Holy Communion?  Could it be that we were walking on water until COVID 19 drew our attention away from Jesus?

    St. Peter heard the Word of the Lord.  He stepped out of the boat and onto the water.  As long as He was in the Lord, the Lord was in Him and he walked upon the water.  On his own he was nothing.  He sunk into the abyss of his own doubts and fears and shame.  But in Christ he walked on the water.  
Friends, by your presence here today you have called to the Lord.  “Lord bid me come!”  
And the Lord has heard the sound of your cry.  He has bidden you “Come.”  Come and wash your sins away in the healing word of absolution.  Come and renew your identity as a child of God by recalling the promises the Lord made to you in that water.  Come and hear the Word of the Lord that is your strength and your shield.  Come and eat and drink the bread of heaven and life forever.

    Do not give into the power of your fears, into the terrors of the devil, into the threats of the world, or into your own unsanctified thoughts, words, and deeds.  Do not presume that you are strong enough to walk on your own above the churning waters of conflict and upset, of sin and its death.  Do not give into the pride that thinks you do not need to be where the people of God gather at His call.  Do not give into the illusion that you have learned enough of His Word to justify your absence from the preaching of the Church and the teaching of God’s Word.  Do not glance around at the allure of the world and think that you can afford to indulge yourself in a free hidden moment and still endure.  Keep your eyes focused upon Jesus, your hearts rooted and planted in His Word, your minds focused upon the cross, and your body fed and nourished at His table.

    Take courage, my friends, and do not be afraid.  St. Peter was sinking but the Lord rescued him and that same Lord will not allow anyone or anything to snatch you from His hand.  The Lord is here, in this place, with His gifts of grace and His power of life.  So rejoice with St. Peter and with the disciples in the boat and confess the name of the Lord in your moments of greatest terror and fear:  Truly, Jesus, You are the Son of God and You are my Savior.  Amen

Lord, Support Us All Day Long. . .

A prayer assembled by George W. Douglas from sermons of Cardinal John Henry Newman is the source of it but the author of the hymn version is an old friend, Pastor Stephen Starke.  The hymn is, like the original prayer, a timeless and profound expression of the hope of the faithful as the daylight fades and night comes.  The hymn has been one of my favorite Starke texts for a long time but as I looked at the origin of the phrases the hymn has only increased in meaning and significance. 

The Prayer:

O Lord, support us all the day long,
until the shadows lengthen,
and the evening comes,
and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then in your mercy,
grant us a safe lodging and a holy rest,
and peace at the last.  Amen.

The Hymn:

1 Lord, support us all day long,
    Guide and strengthen.
Evening comes, the world is hushed,
    Shadows lengthen,
Work is done, life’s fevered pace
    Now has ended;
Christ, to You, our final rest
    Is commended.

2 Be our light in darkness, Lord,    Our defender;
In Your presence perils all
    Must surrender.
Drive all dark satanic snares
    From each dwelling;
Then, at peace, our hearts Your praise
    Will be telling.

3 With Your presence, Lord, draw near
    Those who labor
Through the nighttime on behalf
    Of their neighbor.
Grant them courage for each fear,
    Faithful caring:
Your compassion and Your love
    Truly sharing.

4 Gracious Lord, we give You thanks,
    Praise and bless You,
As the giver of all good
    We confess You.
This past day we now commit
    To Your keeping
And entrust to You the hours
    Of our sleeping.
In Lutheran Service Book this hymn text is set to Joseph Jones wonderful tune, Gwalchmai, and makes for a wonderful new evening hymn to stand with old favorites like Abide with Me or All Praise to Thee, My God, this Night.  I have found these evening hymns to be a marvelous blessing to a mind crowded with thoughts or a heart wearied by worry or a life burdened by anxiety.  In our search for rest for the body and for the mind, it is good for us to sing and pray our way into the restful sleep that comes from a clear conscience through forgiveness and a future that is in God's merciful hands.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Interesting. . .

When the conflict between St. Thomas a Becket and his once-close friend King Henry II culminated into burning anger, King Henry II uttered the famous phrase – 'Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?'   That led directly to Becket's murder at the hands of the king's own knights  -- right in Becket's cathedral in 1170.  

Now, some 800 years since Thomas Becket's body was moved from a tomb in the crypt of the cathedral into a glittering shrine – July 7,
1220, that shrine has been digitally recreated.  It had been destroyed in 1538 when Henry VIII's dispute with the papacy caused the destruction and looting of many churches and monasteries.  This digital reconstruction is the first to be based upon surviving fragments of the shrine discovered in and around Canterbury Cathedral since the 19th century.  It combines information from eye-witness accounts, theories from past historians, date of construction, materials used, details on accessibility, and its location to recreate how the shrine would have looked.

The team's model is based upon how the shrine would have looked in 1408, a time when Canterbury was visited by up to 100,000 pilgrims a year.  The scientists behind the reconstruction argue that the shrine was created much earlier, between 1180 and 1220, and would have likely taken more than 30 years to build and ornament.
The model includes a sturdy marble base and iron grilles, not featured in previous reconstructions, that enclosed the shrine.  The grilles 'would serve to enhance a sense of mystery' for visitors to the candle-lit shrine during its heyday.

For students of history, this is fascinating.  For those who enjoy a good story, it is a great plot with many sub-plots.  For those who don't know what I am talking about, try watching the famous Richard Burton adaptation of the history in the movie Becket. 

In October, the British Museum has planned (who knows if the pandemic will allow) to host a n exhibition devoted to the life, martyrdom, and legacy of Thomas Becket.  Some 800 years of popular mythologizing (much of it apocryphal) has only increased the interest in and the image of Thomas  a Becke among Anglicans, Catholics, Hollywood and even New Age faith types. “His story has all the hallmarks of a Game of Thrones plot,” says Naomi Speakman, co-curator of the exhibition. “There’s drama, fame, royalty, power, envy, retribution, and ultimately a brutal murder that shocked Europe. These events has repercussions that have echoed throughout time.”

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Without risk or safe. . .

As with most pastors, I am still trying to get a handle on how life in the Church will look post-COVID 19 or even mid-COVID 19.  I expect that most congregations have a contingent of folks who have not returned to the Divine Service.  We do.  It is not a question of matching the pre-corona numbers but rather figuring out how to meet those with uncertainties and anxieties about meeting together in the Lord's House.

From the beginning I have asked what will it take for you to feel safe?  Sadly, there is no answer to that question.  It is not a question of masks or sanitizer or distance or even vaccine.  It is the fact that the Church seems to be held to a higher standard than just about any and every other place where people can or must go.  While this began with governmental overreach and with the imposition of restrictions upon the Church that were not placed on essential retail and other business, it has not stopped there.

What we need is a way to distinguish living without risk from being safe.  Strangely enough, people already do this in a host of places.  We purchase and consume meat wrapped in plastic without thinking whose hands cut the chop or roast or ground the hamburger and who wrapped the meat in its familiar styrofoam tray and plastic wrap.  We purchase and consume fruits and vegetables picked with hands and washed and packaged and then unpacked and laid out in inviting display in the produce section of our stores.  We purchase and consume baked goods somebody mixed and baked and set out for our purchase.  Even if we do not sit in the restaurant, we purchase and consume carry out food prepared by hands we do not know or see and packed up for us to eat within the confines of our homes or workplaces.  Perhaps even more odd is that we let others put together our grocery lists, pack them up, drop them off at car or door, and then consume what we have purchased without much thought to it all -- even though everyone who served was a stranger and unknown to us.

When it comes to sitting in the pews (even with recommended distance) and coming to the Lord's Table, we establish an exceptionally high burden for the Church to observe before we show up.  Why?  We daily live with acceptable risk -- even in times of COVID 19.  We see the doctor if we need to and have our prescriptions filled and get gas for our vehicles.  We know that there is risk in all of this but we have judged the risk acceptable in comparison to our need and have deemed the whole process relatively safe.  We may not like facing it, but we do because we know we need to face it.

Could it be that this is less about the great fear of assembling together in the Lord's House and more about the fact that we have, as a whole, have come to believe that worship is non-essential and, at least, not worthy the risk -- any risk!  When the day comes that we have decided it may be time to return to Church, will we have lost the habit and have to relearn the routines to get up, get dressed, and ready to walk through the door to meet the Lord around His means of grace?  What expectations will we place on the preacher or communion after so long a wait and will we be disappointed that returning to the Lord's House was not the mountain top experience we had hoped it would be?  Will we view our neighbors in the pews as continued threats to us and to our well-being instead of our family in Christ?  Will the once familiar shared cups of coffee or pot lucks become distant memories of a time no longer desired? 

In the end, this is less about the virus than it is about us.  Who we are and whose we are?  Is the faith on the fringes of our lives and something willingly surrendered to fear in time of threat or at the core and center of our being?  Do we desire above all the things of God, the gifts of His grace, and the life together within His body, the Church, or do we fear for our safety and security most of all?  Do we long for the courts of the Lord's House on high and for the life without sin and its death or do we live more for the next moment and next day of this mortal life?  COVID 19 has done one thing for sure.  It has exposed the fact that too many Christians see the faith as a little extra in their lives instead of the one thing needful and have used this whole pandemic to practice this little secret more openly.  And that means the Church and every pastor has an urgent calling to catechize more fully and to preach more faithfully and forcefully the eternal Gospel that is our only and everlasting hope.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

What a difference 6 months makes. . .

In February life seemed relatively normal.  Corona was a beer.  China was the place where a small virus was causing a small stir.  We were planning Lent and looking forward to planning Holy Week and Easter.  And then it all came tumbling down.  Our hopes and dreams were dashed in a sea of shut downs, closures, masks, and social distancing.  About the time we began to hope again, the news predicted a spike in cases and things faced restrictions again.  In the midst of all of this you had some folks rejoicing that the church was freed from its captivity to become a personal force and an internet presence.  Some gloated over the numbers and presumed that they were being more successful during the closure than they were while fully open.  And some of us struggled simply to keep the doors open and to operate under guidelines designed, it would seem, to prevent in person worship.

Six months ago we were a generally hopeful lot.  Some of us had pinned our hopes on waking the sleeping giant of a church body and others prayed and worked for renewal of the existing structures.  It was the worst of times and the best of times.  But it was an illusion.  Those who predict success through change were talking through their heads, dreaming of relevance and acceptance in a world which long ago proved unfriendly to Christ and to those who followed Him.  None of that seems credible now.  The struggles have just begun.

I have quoted before this reflection from Josef Ratzinger aka Benedict XVI:
She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members....

It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek . . . The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain . . . But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man's home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.
Perhaps the COVID 19 threat is an instrument of the devil in helping to make this reflection come to pass or perhaps it is simply an inevitable consequence of a world in decline because of sin or perhaps it is the judgment of God against the pride of man who still thinks the world can live just fine without Him.  I do not know.  But these words from "The church will become small." from Faith and the Future (note first published in 1969!!!) have come to my mind again.

There are those who have said something similar.  Even in our own Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (hardly a group to hang on the words of a man who would become pope) there are those who have said our church body will become smaller, not larger. Yet no one could have foreseen the impact of this virus in hastening the outcome.  But that is surely what will be the outcome.  Fear and threat and panic have proven too much for the skeptics and for those on the fringes of the faith they are a formidable enemy to faith.

Maybe that is exactly what we need.  Maybe this is just the kick in the pants to relieve us of the grand illusions that we are primarily a social service agency and that the Gospel can be summarized simply as love your neighbor.  Maybe this will finally get us to evaluate all the programs that too often consume more energy than our core calling of worship and witness.  Maybe this will challenge the weak catechesis that has too often passed for instruction in the faith.  Maybe this will make us finally realize that our responsibility is not to make the world a better place but to preach and teach Jesus Christ.  Maybe six months of being declared non-essential will be the catalyst for the Church doing what IS essential.  Or maybe I am an optimist or simply as delusional as those who think that the last six months have been the shining hour of Christianity's triumph.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Hopeless. . .

One of the things this COVID 19 business has done is shake our unwavering confidence in technology, science, and our own reason.  The ups and downs of an unpredictable virus coupled with a predictable resistance to changing our behaviors has left us with shut downs and openings that repeat in pursuit of a fine balance between liberty and lockdown.  On top of that, we spent more hours on our screens than most would have thought possible and we discovered that, like TV, you have access to a million choices and still be bored.

It is all a very fitting place to bring up St. Augustine who famously said that his soul, and, presumably ours, cannot find rest until it rests in God.  When technology, science, and reason seem to fail us, there is only one who does not change, who is yesterday, today, and forever the same, but whose mercies are new every morning.

As good as this is, there is another Augustine quote worth considering:
Let us never assume that if we live good lives we will be without sin; our lives should be praised only when we continue to beg for pardon. But men are hopeless creatures, and the less they concentrate on their own sins, the more interested they become in the sins of others. They seek to criticize, not to correct. Unable to excuse themselves, they are ready to accuse others. This was not the way that David showed us how to pray and make amends to God, when he said: I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. He did not concentrate on others’ sins; he turned his thoughts on himself. He did not merely stroke the surface, but he plunged inside and went deep down within himself. He did not spare himself, and therefore was not impudent (rude) in asking to be spared. (Serm. 19,2-3: CCL 41, 252-254)
Where do you begin to unpack such a full paragraph?  We are to be praised only when we beg for pardon and mercy and not for our works.  We are hopeless creatures who cannot see the log in our eyes while we insist we see clearly enough to point out the speck in the eyes of another.  We love to sit in judgment but find it hard to teach, correct, and restore.  We love to hold others accountable but we refuse to give up hiding behind our justifications and contexts -- all designed to make everyone a victim and none responsible or accountable.  Think, for example, how much easier it is to accuse racism infecting systems than it is to look into the eyes of another and disarm personal prejudice.

Faith shows itself when it admits and confesses culpability and responsibility for sin.  David is no example of moral purity but when admonished, he confesses.  Perhaps we will learn someday to follow David's example but it seems for now things are headed in the opposite direction -- ultimate victimhood in which even the guilty is absolved of responsibility for wrong and the blame is placed upon others.  If we can unlearn this pattern, it may not come until there is no one left to blame accept self.  In that case, we can only hope that the day comes sooner rather than later.  The Gospel makes no sense and offers no guilt except to the guilty who have only their shame.  But to the sinner who brings his sin to Jesus, there is mercy beyond belief and grace beyond imagination.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

New Blogger. . .

Check out this addition to the blogging world.  It is by the folks at The Lutheran Witness.  I expect there will be some good stuff.  Stay tuned.

The Lutheran Witness has for some time been a shining star in the LCMS media.  Magazines may not be the most current technology but the folks at the TLW have done an exceptional job of capitalizing on all that a print can be.  Now they are exporting some of that great content to a digital forum (with other stuff as well).  Good Job!

Check it out!

Party spirit. . .

We have watched over the course of the last few months as America solidified its divisions even more than before.  Not only were the ordinary divisions of political party, political philosophy, economics, race, sex/gender, and education there to pit citizen against citizen but we added new barriers to our unity.  Some trusted the science of COVID 19 and others ridiculed it.  Some wore/wear masks and others not.  Some were willing to suffer whatever financial cost to protect themselves and loved ones and others feared the cost was too great to surrender everything to a virus.  In our streets we saw protests become riots and then protests again as people were divided over how far and how fast old prejudices should or could change.  At two of our nations most important holidays, our citizens were either huddling inside without remembrance of our war dead or blowing off steam and blowing off things without concern to the precious gift of liberty bequeathed to us by those who went before -- yes, those flawed leaders whose statues wore being torn down even as the night sky shuttered with noise and bright flashes.  We are so deeply divided and the political process of electing our leaders has grown captive to those divisions, hardening them rather than bridging them.

It is reminiscent of Iraq after the Saddam had been toppled.  We Americans presumed that democracy would run through the land like the sacred rivers of old and people would warm to national unity and to a spirit of cooperation and compromise.  It did not happen.  Our soldiers fought and died and came home wounded fearing that it was all a failure as militias fought and tribal conflicts increased and religious wars were brutally fought.  Democracy failed in large measure because there was no common loyalty.  Their armies were loyal to their commanders but not to the state and when they could not fight against a common enemy, they fought against one another with enthusiasm.  Even now we watch as the peoples within the boundaries carved out to be called Iraq struggle to discover a common national identity and unity.  Perhaps it will not come soon or never come.  And in the midst of it all, the Christians who had long lived in this region were attacked by all comers and banished like refugees from their homes and businesses.

It may not happen like that here but the seeds are in place.  We have an America in which people hold more loyalty to their tribal leaders of politics and social justice movements than they do to their nation.  At a time when we might have seen a wave of new faces, the old faces and old men who lead their causes reveal how hard it is to find consensus and build a coalition broader than your base.  We have become a nation of divided people who have chosen to follow their commanders with greater fealty than the good of their land or the cause of liberty we only just celebrated.  And in the midst of it all, Christians are being banished from the public square, labeled as purveyors of hate speech, and their religious images treated as icons of prejudice.  Unless the churches are willing to be bought and sold for the political vision of the progressives, they are under attack as intolerable intolerant institutions.  Who can see where this may be headed?

We have lost our national unity in great measure because we have lost our sense of loyalty to anything bigger than self-interest or the moment.  We ought to fear -- not because there is something here so sacred that it cannot die but because we have squandered our birth right and surrendered the legacy passed down to us and for what?  Party spirit has begun to tear down each institution individually even as it has eroded the roots of our national identity and threatens our what it means to be America.  The Church cannot be a political player to rescue us from ourselves but she might be a means to restoring our national soul.  Not all that is possible is beneficial.  We have forgotten this truth and given up the idea that anything is worth sacrificing self.  Until we rediscover both, it will be harder and harder for Americans to find a political consensus and to restore the shine to the corroded city on a hill.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Problems of a Prooftexted Faith...

A Lutheran once said boldly, "If it isn't in the Bible, I don't believe it."  It sounds pious but it is not Lutheran.  The Reformed might gravitate toward such a perspective.  Not Lutherans.  "If it's in the Bible, it's in. If it isn't, it isn't" sounds so good to ears tuned to Protestantism and fundamentalism.  Lutherans are in the camp of saying "If it CONTRADICTS the Bible, it's a no-no."  Now to be sure, this is not an easy path nor is it without its messes along the way but Lutherans have not raised up proof texting to be the preferred dogmatic methodology.

Show me where that is in the Bible?  Why, if that were the BIG or the ONLY question, we might end up worshiping on Saturday or refusing the use of instruments in worship or a host of other detours which have already been asked and answered along the way.  Living in the South, the Bible belt, I get a little touchy when we might be tempted to follow a "God said, I believe it, and that makes it so" approach to Scripture and the faith.  My agreement does not add to the truth of God's Word nor does my disagreement detract from it.  That is the character of the Word and I cannot bolster the Word or weaken it by my agreement or disagreement with it.

I am NOT saying our faith is not Scriptural or that we have raised up or used tradition in place of Scripture.  We have not.  We stand as heirs to the great tradition, to the creeds and councils, who, though not inerrant, have faithfully delivered to us the sacred deposit.  We have not judged the Church so corrupt that we must start her over again and disregard everything that happened from the book of Acts to whatever point in history you believe things went downhill.  As Lutherans we insist that where the Word is, God is at work building and making His Church fruitful for His glory.  Yet that is not the same as prooftexting your way to orthodoxy and reducing the Scriptures to a source book from which truth may be drawn..

In fact, some of the more egregious errors along the way have happened when tradition departed from Scripture and when Scripture was mined for texts that were in the Bible but no longer recognizably Biblical when glued and pasted together into something the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and evangelists would no longer recognize.

Some Lutherans might suggest that these are odd things to say from a church body that publishes a catechism filled with passages from Scripture in support of what that Catechism says.  Prooftexting, however, is not what those passages are there for.  The passages are there to show that the faith within that Catechism is the faith once delivered to the saints and that these Scriptures are not simply facts or truths but the revelation of the only true God and the living voice of this God speaking to His people.  And that is where prooftexting fails.  It treats the Word of God as if it were merely a book of facts or doctrines and not the living voice of God who speaks and works through that speaking.  This is something that both Rome and Geneva too often miss.  Rome forgets that the primary sacrament of the Church IS the Word and Geneva forgets that the Word does not speak to set forth propositions or even positions but so that from the hearing faith may result under the power of the Spirit.  That Word continues to speak to nurture the faith created and direct the believer to the baptismal water, the absolution, and the bread and wine of His Table where grace is received not in competition with that Word but in fulfillment of its own promise.

The other problem with prooftexting as a methodology is that it presumes that people can be argued into the Kingdom or taught to believe as if the purpose of the Word were to instruct the mind to reach the correct decision.  The faith is not a series of truth propositions that you must agree with and doctrine is not a checklist.  Perhaps I am being too simplistic for some or too narrow for others but I fear the idea that the Scriptures are raw material for outlines and that prooftexting is an adequate methodology for exegesis or confession.  In the end the fatal flaw of this method is that it places the prooftexter above the Word and gives him the power to decide what it says.  The catholic faith does not place the individual above the Word.  Luther's point is just the opposite.  To be captive to the Word of God is to know that Word as God's living voice through which He is doing His bidding.  Of course, neither Luther nor any individual is immune from error and not even Luther would claim that privilege.  But the Word, received by and lived out within the company of the faithful in accord with the saints who have gone before is not simply without error but, more importantly, is the means of grace and the power through which God works among us.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Gracious Giving, Thankful Obedience

Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13A, preach on Sunday, August 2, 2020, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    We make sure to teach our kids to say it.  Whenever they get a gift, we remind them to say “Thank you.”  This is a good habit to start in our younger years.  It’s part of living in polite society, and so we too, as adults, we need to be reminded to say “Thank you.”  It’s important for us to respond to people’s generosity with gratitude.  But do we do this with God’s generosity?  Do we thank Him for all He’s graciously given to us, or do we respond with greed, always wanting more, expecting more, thinking we’re owed more? 
    With faith, it’s right for us to understand and recognize that everything we have is a gift.  Our homes are a gift.  The food on our tables is a gift.  Even our friends and families, they’re gifts.  So too are the non-tangible things in our lives like our reputation and talents and time, they’re gifts.  All of it is a gift from God.  But this faithful understanding of God’s gifts goes completely against the old-school American way and also the current culture of entitlement.
    The old-school American way of life isn’t one that seeks out gifts.  Instead it’s all about working hard for everything you have, claiming it as your own.  The material things we have we have because we’ve worked for them.  The family and friends that we have we have because we’ve built those relationships.  We see a direct connection between what we’ve done and the things we have, and so we give ourselves the credit.  And yet, the credit doesn’t belong to us, but to God.
    In a similar way, our current culture of entitlement doesn’t look at what we have as God’s gracious giving, but instead it’s what’s owed to us.  We think we deserve things, we think we’re owed in some way, simply because we’re breathing.  We think it’s our inalienable right to have the latest technology, to eat whatever we want, to live in the exact home that we want.  We demand these things and more, and never once are we grateful for what we have. 
    In both cases we fail to thank God.    In both cases gratitude is absent.  In both cases we refuse to see the Lord’s generosity.  In both cases our greedy sinfulness raises its selfish head.        
    The collect for today is a very pointed one, cutting right through our sinful greed.  Again, we prayed, Heavenly Father, though we do not deserve Your goodness, still You provide for all our needs of body and soul.  Grant us Your Holy Spirit that we may acknowledge Your gifts, give thanks for all Your benefits, and serve You in willing obedience.  Did you hear the first part of that prayer?  We don’t deserve God’s goodness.  What a radical truth for today’s entitled world.  What a radical truth for people who think they’ve earned everything. 
    We don’t deserve God’s goodness.  God owes us nothing.  We’re sinners, enemies of God.  We’ve rebelled against Him, and continue to rebel every time we disregard His Word and listen instead to Satan’s temptations and our own sinful wishes.  We take and take and take, never once stopping to acknowledge how gracious God is.  We take and take and take, never once stopping to see how even though we deserve death, God graciously gives us life. 
    None of us would be breathing today if it wasn’t for God giving us the breath of life.  He created our first parents in the Garden, and through our parents, He’s created each and everyone one of us.  This is what we confess in the Creed when we say “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”  As we say those words we’re confessing that God has made each and everyone one of us specifically, and that He continues to care for each and every one of us.  Out of fatherly divine goodness and mercy, God continues to care for us.  He gives us what we need.  He gives us food for our bodies, our daily bread. 
    Jesus did this in a miraculous way in the Gospel.  He had compassion on that crowd of 5,000, taking just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, He prepared a meal for everyone, with more than enough left-overs.  But notice how He delivered this daily bread to the people...through the hands of His disciples.  The disciples served the people the food.  And in the same way, God provides your daily bread by the hands of others. 
    We may not think of it as miraculous as the feeding of the 5,000, but our Lord still provides us with the food we need by the hands of others; whether it be from the farmers who grow and raise our food, the stockers at Kroger who fill the shelves, our employers who pay us for our work so we can buy our food, or the teenagers behind the counter at Chick-fil-a who make our food, by all of these hands, the Lord provides for us.  And the same can be said about everything else we need and have. 
    But the Lord’s compassionate and gracious care doesn’t just stop there.  Jesus didn’t just give the crowd food for their bodies; He gave them food for their souls.  He gave them the Bread of Life, the Word of God, the life-giving Good News of salvation in Him.  And He continues to do the same for you.  And this is a greater miracle than the feeding of the 5,000.
    In a miraculous way, through the Word of Christ and Him crucified, God brings us to everlasting life.  His Word of forgiveness overcomes our sin.  Our selfishness and greed is washed away through the waters of Baptism, and we’re clothed with Christ’s righteousness.  He takes bread and wine and through it physically feeds us His very body and blood, feeding our faith and bodies unto everlasting life.  And again, He does it all through the hands of others, men He’s called to proclaim His Word and administer His Sacraments.  All of this is a gift.  All of this is God’s gracious giving.  And in faithful response we rightly say “Thanks.” 
    In one of the post-communion canticles we sing, “Thank the Lord and sing His praise; tell everyone what He has done.  Let everyone who seeks the Lord rejoice and proudly bear His name.”  In response to receiving food for our souls, we can’t help but give to God thanks.  We literally sing “Thank you.” 
    We praise Him for His graciousness and we share that thanks and praise we others.  We do this with our words and we do this with our obedience.  What better way is there to say thank you to our Lord for the everlasting life He’s given to us then to live it out?  What better way is there to say thank you than to show forth the righteousness of Christ that we’ve received?  What better way is there to say thank you than to be a servant of the Lord, being the hands through which He provides daily bread for others?  There is no better way. 
    Our Lord graciously gives us all that we need: food for our bodies and food for our souls.  And as we faithful receive all these gifts, we give Him thanks: thanks of proclamation, proclaiming the goodness of the Lord, and thanks of obedience, living the life we’re called to live.  So today, and every day, give thanks to the Lord, for He graciously gives all we need.

An important VBS. . .

We were not sure if a Vacation Bible School would be possible in an age of masks, social distancing, hand sanitizer, and fears.  We were not sure if any families would be ready to bring their children to the church after having them sent home from school, the fear of God placed in them by media, and the uncertainty over what safety meant.  But we wanted to try.  Surprisingly, the young families decided they were ready. We were not quite ready to open it up to everyone and we did not think large group events, typical of VBS, would be possible so we put our heads together and came up with a plan.

We kept the classes small (10 or less), kept the students in their classroom (except for recreation), and brought the opening, music, craft, and lesson to them in their classroom.  Though we had a meal in the past, this time we had packaged snacks for the parents to give to their children on the way home.  There were some stumbles and some learning curves but in the end it worked.  We averaged between 40-50 kids each night, 25-35 adults doing various things, and it ended up being a pretty decent VBS.  If you have read my blog in the past, you might expect a comment from me on the shallow content typical of most VBS curricula and missed opportunities for Lutheran kids to learn the Lutheran faith.  Yes, we found some issues with that -- things too generic, not quite age appropriate, etc., but we made it work.

As you know VBS was and usually is more about outreach than anything else.  In a typical year we might have a third to a half our attendance (usually larger) from unchurched folks or folks with only a nominal association with a church.  To many the attraction is babysitting and we gladly have taken advantage of that desire to teach Jesus Christ to their children.  This year there was another need.  After children being apart for so long, there was a need to bring children of the church together with their Christian friends to learn again what it means to gather in the Lord's name.  Some churches in our community were only just starting up their Sunday services and most of them had no intention of even trying VBS.  But we thought there might be an even more urgent need this year.

It was my wife (attending every night with first time VBSer our grand-daughter, not quite 3) who noticed it.  The kids were a little tentative in the beginning, perhaps unfamiliar with the idea of being around a few other children much less so many.  In the end, perhaps the best thing our kids experienced was their Christian comradery.  They sat together, sang together, learned together, and, not insignificantly, they played together outside -- having the time of their lives! 

Sure there were a few comments from busybodies wondering why not everyone was in a mask or why a kid was too close to another one.  Thank you so much for your interest and willingness to critique!  But they were not local folks and did not represent any of the families involved.  So thanks go to the whole VBS crew and the parents (and grandparents) who brought their children (and grandchildren) and to the kids.  God bless you and glad you came!

Monday, August 3, 2020

The next conclave. . .

Though we have no smoke to signal the outcome, there is something similar between the election of a Synod President and the convention that follows and the conclave to elect a Pope and the flurry of activity that accompanies such an election.  Both generally are longer term outcomes.  Few popes are elected with the suspicion or hope that they will live for but a few years and few Synod elections intend or desire to see a President elected for one term.  Both have great hopes for longevity in part because in both elections there is the desire to see someone arise who will repair what is broken in the churches, heal what is divided, and give order to what is confused.  We do the same thing when we elect folks to positions of leadership in city councils, mayoral contest, governors, state legislators, Congress, and the White House.  Why would it change in the Church?

Yet there is a grave fallacy to our penchant for finding leaders who can fix us.  The fix comes from the bottom up and not from the top down.  There are no guarantees that the cream rises to the top in politics -- not in church politics or in secular politics.  While some have suggested that the Holy Spirit is guiding the hands of those who write the names on the ballots in the Sistine Chapel, Benedict XVI once suggested that the work of the Spirit is not to pick the right man but to keep the wrong one from being elected.  Congregations calling a pastor and a Lutheran Synod electing a President seek to find the godly man who will fix all that is broken and in disrepair but there is no flesh and blood that can do this (except Jesus!).  For a thousand years we have laughed at the joke that if St. Paul's credentials were presented to any call meeting or Synod nomination form, he would be the first name eliminated from the list!

We cannot afford the luxury of waiting for the perfect man to serve as pastor, bishop, pope or president.  We must take the initiative of confessing and living out as faithfully as this frail humanity may the faith where we are at.  Parishes are not saved by those elected to national or international leadership but by faithful pastors and the faithful baptized intent upon being who God has declared them to be and living out faithfully this vocation where they are right now.  That is not some hidden wisdom recently unearthed but the way it has always been.

In the wake of the confusion over two popes and the disappointment over the one who signs the documents, some Roman Catholics are beginning to look to the next conclave for a leader who can bring unity and unanimity to their church.  At best, the next pope will do no harm.  It is time to stop looking for white smoke to signal a rebirth and to work for that with the tools Christ has given in His Word and Sacraments.  Missouri Synod Lutherans need to stop beating the bushes for the right guy who will bring unity and unanimity to their church and instead for every pastor and the people in the pew to do God's bidding where they are with the resources of the means of grace God has supplied. 

And while we are at it, we need to pay less attention to parachurch organizations, self-promoting gurus of growth and success, and institutes with keys to our future. 

The Church is not a social organization defined by its members, governed by its elected leaders, and united by the interests, preferences, and desires of its people.  The Church exists because the Holy Spirit has called her, gathered her, enlightened her, and sanctified her through the voice of Christ's Word and the grace of His Sacraments.  We deal with sins through confession and absolution.  We are led not by the voice of reason or consensus but by the Word of God.  We are accountable to one another not because we want to be but because this is how God has ordained it.  We are not a diversity of churches each doing our own thing but one Church united by the Word, by our Symbols, by our liturgy, and by our order (especially in terms of the training, calling, ordaining, and installing of pastors). 

We do not need to sit on our hands waiting for the next great demi-god who is dropped from the sky to work toward the renewal of our tired structures and relationships.  We have the resources God has supplied with His promise to work through them.  What we lack is probably what we need most of all -- confidence in the means of grace and the steadfast faith that God is at work doing what He has promised to do, according to His own timing.  So we substitute either the perfect man for the moment or our own meager efforts to grow, govern, and guide His Church and look where that has got us.  So it is time to rejoice when the white smoke signals a leader who is not the wrong man but it is also time to take up the call and do God's bidding where we are -- in the church, home, neighborhood, circuit, and district.  Then, surprise, surprise, the national church may actually improve as well.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

The threat to the soul. . .

At some point in time even Christians began to doubt Jesus' words about fearing not the one who can destroy the body but fearing the One who can destroy body and soul.  At some point even Christians decided that the cost to values, to identity, and to faith was a small price to pay to give us another day, week, month, year, decade, or whatever.  At some point even Christians decided that the assurance of eternal life was not as precious as the possession of this life (even though today can only be lived out one day at a time).  And so we ended up not merely with a COVID 19 threat to the body but a threat to the soul.  This threat can do and has done even more damage that was done to our livelihoods and lives.

Now Christians have learned that to fear their brothers and sisters in the faith.  This is not simply sitting six feet away in the pews or wearing a mask but looking at those around you as a threat to your very existence.  Some Christians have decided that this threat is so great they will stay away from the Lord's House as long as this feeling of being unsafe exists and until guarantees can be given that there is no possible threat to being together in the Lord's House.  So great is the power of fear! 

Christians have learned to be suspicious of touching other people or the things other people have touched.  From offering plates to chalices to altar rails to hymnals, some Christians look askance at these things as threats to their well-being, contaminated by the touch of others.  This, of course, among those who celebrate the healing touch of our Lord Jesus who was willing to bridge all sorts of cultural, medical, and economic gaps and was labeled for doing so.

No, the worst that COVID 19 has done to the Church and to Christians is not threaten their bodies but fill their souls with fear and suspicion that is a very threat to their faith and to the life of the Church.  If faith was in danger of being too individualized and governed by personal preference and taste before all of this, it is certainly in greater danger now when the only people any of us fully trust is ourselves (and maybe a spouse).  Even grandparents and aunts and uncles have been kept at distance because of this fear.  It is no wonder then that we would stiffen up in the pew if someone sits too close to us and keep our mouths shut instead of singing and skip the chalice or even go without the Sacrament at all instead of risk catching something that can only harm the body but not the soul.

This is also the threat to us as a nation.  Though some blame the political authorities and their leadership, the real cause is fear.  We fear not having work and going back to work.  We fear not having toilet paper and other necessities of this mortal life and those hoarding them.  We fear what the medical authorities tell us and we fear they are not telling us everything.  We have become a people governed by our fears and this fear has birthed an irrational anger in which every figure from our past is suspect, tainted, and abhorred.  Voices are raised not for reform but for a rebirth of our nation that sets aside the very liberties for which we were born.  People march not for so much for solutions to the problems we face but in anger over everything and everyone that has disappointed them.  We have watched Memorial Day and the Fourth of July go by and with each patriotic holiday our national unity has fragmented even more.  The best our leaders can do is blame others or make lame promises about how this would not have happened if they had been in charge.  Well, they are.  Trump is President and the combined years in office for people like Biden, Pelosi, Schumer, McConnell and others is a number bigger than the life of our republic.  Few seem willing to sacrifice for the sake of another but many have placed unconditional demands upon their fellow citizens that pose even greater threats to our national unity.  Social media is increasingly unsocial and the platforms have become beacons of our intolerance and contempt.

All of this is the fruit of fearing more the loss of body, health, and happiness over the soul and our eternal lives.  Jesus hit us where we live with His words and He alone can offer healing and hope to our fearful and divided churches and nation.  If we let Him.  If we are willing to quiet our voices and listen to Him.  He has the power to destroy soul and body in hell but He has not come to condemn the world but to save it by His blood.  Where pride falls away and humility confesses sin, Jesus is there with absolution and a clear conscience.  Where love of the moment gives way to the desire to live past death, Jesus is there to clothe us with immortality.  Where honesty admits the flaws and failings of this mortal flesh, Jesus is there with the new birth to everlasting life.  Where despair over the failed experiments to redeem ourselves admits defeat, Jesus is there to save us by His own innocent and sacrificial death.  The Church is not primarily an agent of rescue for a broken today but the herald of a whole tomorrow.  We do good not because we believe the day will come when we will no longer have the problem of poverty but because Jesus has saved us unworthy and undeserving sinners through the grace of His obedient life, life-giving death, and triumphant resurrection.  Because He has given us eternity, we are no longer bound to live in fear of what threatens in the moment.  He has set us free to love as He has loved us.  There is no such thing as the social Gospel or an unsocial one.  There is only the cross and empty tomb.  Only this Gospel can give meaning to this life or it is at best an empty and temporary pursuit doomed to end in dust and death.

We have worried too much about the things that can kill the body.  We have not rejoiced enough in Him who has saved us by His grace.  We have not had the holy fear of faith to acknowledge Him who can destroy body and soul.  And it shows.  In the Church.  In the neighborhood.  In the nation.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

No question. . .

While reading some of the back and forth on the singing and its role in passing the corona virus, I was struck by a sentence in the conclusion to one of the paragraphs.
“There’s no question that, for the foreseeable future, we are going to have to do things differently...” “But that’s a very different proposition from singing itself occupying some unique status as a dangerous activity.”
While the statement was in direct connection to singing in worship, the statement itself could have referred to worship in general.  There is a big difference between worship as a dangerous activity (that must be regulated or restricted) and churches having to do things somewhat differently in the wake of COVID 19.

That has been the point all along.  It is a false and misleading conclusion to suggest that corporate worship itself is a dangerous activity which must be curtailed and carefully controlled because it is inherently dangerous.  Have you been in most churches lately?  A church is not like a crowded bar or restaurant or concert venue.  In most church buildings, physical distancing is not the problem.  The problem is that the few folks there are spread out too far.  Congregational singing is not the same as a choir rehearsal with a large group of singers in a small space doing intensive singing together for an hour or more.  In most of our churches the singers are already well dispersed and whatever threat singing adds to the spread of the virus is negligible.

The issue was never that the worship or singing or Holy Communion had no threat whatsoever to the transmission of this or any other virus but that the threat was manageable and that there were things that the churches could and should and would do differently to deal with any possible threat.  I have never met a pastor nor do I know of any congregation that would not have been willing to make changes that would have effectively dealt with the concerns of a pandemic.  It was a fool's choice to pit love for neighbor against love for God and it was surely possible to respect the concern for the neighbor while continuing to worship the Lord around His Word and Table.  But, as I have complained before, we were never given the chance.  On the one hand the government and medical authorities treated the churches as enemies of their task to protect the populace and the churches retreated too quickly from pursuing a path of being good neighbors and keeping the doors open at the same time.  Apparently even Einstein knew that.