Monday, October 19, 2020

Malpractice insurance. . .

After another inevitable insurance review of our parish's coverage and needs, we were told again of the importance of pastoral malpractice insurance.  Who knows who might take something wrongly that was said in counseling or misinterpret a touch?  Who knows if a teacher or youth worker or pastor may actually have become physically or sexually abusive of someone in the parish or school?  We will need to be covered, of course, to protect the church's assets against those who might sue.  Yes, we all know that.

There is, however, another kind of malpractice for which no insurance is offered.  I am speaking of the malpractice of pastors who come to a solidly Lutheran parish and lead them to institute evangelical style worship in place of the Divine Service.  Or of the pastoral malpractice of those who replace the sturdy hymns of old for the current beat of contemporary Christian music.  Or of the pastoral malpractice of those who put in place another book besides the catechism to teach the children and those new to Lutheranism.  Or of the pastoral malpractice of those who hand out hermetically sealed bits of juice and cracker and have the folks place them in front of their screens at home to take communion.  Or of the pastoral malpractice of those who no longer preach sin and forgiveness, law and Gospel, but instead preach self-fulfillment, paths to happiness, and ways to success.

They offer plenty of coverage for those who abuse children and adults in other ways but none for those who abuse the Church and her people with every latest fad or whim in place of the truth that endures forever.  But isn't that why we have bishops (or district presidents)?  Are they not supposed to be our providers of pastoral malpractice insurance?  After all, they are the ones charged with the supervision of doctrine and practice, are they not?  Funny how we talk of electing episcopoi who are good administrators or good leaders but we do not think how they will do to make sure that the Gospel is preserved in an age of decay or hold the pastors accountable to their ordination vows and promises.

The weakness of congregationalists is that they are islands unto themselves.  Some among us seem to delight in telling that nobody can tell them what to do or not to do.  They flaunt the boundaries of faithful preaching, teaching, and pastoral practice -- preferring to live on the fringes of the church's life.  They refuse everything from hymnals to vestments, liturgy to catechism, in order to re-invent a faith.  They are pathfinders and pointes who have shed not merely the name Lutheran but the confession.  They work at leadership and snicker at the faithful pastors of smaller parishes who still use the liturgy and sing the faithful hymns of old.  They are the first to embrace technology and they conference with like-minded folks who have put their trust in change more than the changeless Christ.  They disdain religion and glory in relationship and prefer to pack people in rather than teach them a Gospel which will surely offend their modern sensibilities.

But let me call it what it is.  It is malpractice.  The people of God and the parishes of the Church suffer under the weight of those who would rather be leaders than pastors.  They would rather cast visions and invent new paradigms while looking askance at those who keep their ordination vows.  We need real leaders who will serve as malpractice insurers for the Synod for this oversight of doctrine and practice is the only thing keeping the church from becoming a sect or a cult of personality.  I appeal to those so elected and charged with this supervision responsibility -- tend the flock and the shepherds and hold them accountable.  You are either the strength of the anchor to or the weakest link in the chain of succession from the apostles and prophets.  Hire someone to be a manger but you alone are responsible to the wider church and to the individual congregations and pastors to hold us accountable to the faith once confessed.  We need you even more desperately now than ever.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

The world I was trained for. . .

By now it is old news.  We live in a changing world and face a changing culture.  The changes are coming faster than ever.  And just as predictable?  The world I was trained for is gone.  What am I going to do now?

If you are a computer programmer who cut his teeth on Fortran, Cobol, or C++ or the like and have not moved on, you are in trouble.  If you are an auto mechanic who has never used the computer in the vehicle to find out what is wrong and right with the car, you are probably in trouble.  If you are an oncologist who is still using the drugs and treatment regimens for cancer routinely used in the 1970s, 1980s, or even 1990s, your patients are in trouble.  But if you are a musician who plays an instrument, the techniques are pretty much the same and much of the music is from long before you were born.  And if you are a pastor, the world may have changed but the problems of sin and death remain the same problems since Eden and the solution of the cross has remained the same for 2,000 years.

Every time I read a pastor who laments that he was not trained for the world in which he finds himself, I wonder who trained him or what kind of ministry he has in mind.  We are not and should not be trained for the moment but steeped in Christian theology, history, liturgy, and preaching.  While there have certainly been changes, they have been incremental -- unless you start our by ignoring or rejecting everything of the past!  The ministry has not changed.  People sin, the Word calls them to repentance, the Spirit engenders faith, and the heart made new rejoices in the forgiveness, life, and salvation that comes through the Gospel.  That has not changed -- except for those churches who no longer call sins sin or who have made their peace with death or who have adopted the therapeutic gospel of self-affirmation.  For those, the Gospel has not changed but they have surely rejected the one eternal Gospel of Revelation.

I am not a complete idiot.  I know the world has changed.  I know culture has changed.  But our job is not to keep up.  Our job is to proclaim the unchanging Christ to a changing world.  That was once our slogan.  Now, some believe it is our failing.  We are told all the time that the church is dying and unless we change, the church will be buried on our watch.  I agree some churches are in trouble but those in most trouble are the ones who have changed to keep up with the pace of the world and the shifts of culture.  These churches have not stayed the course but have zigzagged across the page in pursuit of relevance judged by those who do not believe.  Their buildings are as empty as their theology!  

So I challenge you as pastors and the people in your care.  Do not lament that you are not keeping up.  Pursue faithfulness and God will never judge you irrelevant.  Proclaim the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen and that preaching will call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify a new generation of people for the Kingdom.  Call the sinners to the cleansing waters of baptism where they are united with Christ into His death and raised with Him to new life and the future will not be dim.  Speak forth the absolution to the baptized who come shamed with failure and overwhelmed with guilt and they will not be lost.  Feed the hungry and give the thirsty to drink of the body and blood of Christ and their strength will not waver nor will they grow weary.

The best way to empty the pews is to empty the Gospel, distracting people with inspiration aims that promise happiness or success or fulfillment.  The best way to render the Church non-essential is to believe that the Gospel of Christ crucified is out of date and must be freshened up for a new generation.  The best way to kill what God is doing is to individualize the truth and glorify the whim of passion, desire, or feeling.  For every good program that might offer a little help to you, there are a million who will only confuse and confound you and the people of God.  It is not about you.  It is about Jesus.  It is about the means of grace.  It is about the efficacious Word.  It is about the promise forged in blood on the cross.

I was sitting in a catechism class and behind the kids was a stack of old phones being replaced by our new phone system.  A couple of the kids were laughing at the phones in comparison to their smart phone.  I asked them how often they actually called someone on their phone.  They seldom spoke to anyone on that phone.  They used it as a screen and as an internet device.  I reminded them that the phones behind them still worked.  They made calls and accepted calls.  You picked up and you heard a voice.  No, you did not go to social media or play games or watch videos on them.  They did something even better.  They connected you to a real person.  Our technology and our fascination with the changing world around us has made us forget that what is most real is the voice -- the voice of God speaking and preaching, absolving and baptizing, feeding and equipping His people with grace sufficient to wipe away their sin and answer the threat of death.  The Gospel may seem as old fashioned as those phones but it works.  The problem is not with the Gospel but with the changing world which wants to play a game more than it wants to hear the voice of life. 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Late but still interesting. . .

Reading up on some things I had bookmarked, I came across this discussion of the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary.  Normally on the church calendar we observe deaths, not births.  Except of course for the Nativity of St. John the Baptist and, as we all know, the Nativity of Our Lord.  It was one of those things I knew about but had never thought about.  The blog fills in a few gaps:

The Byzantine tradition distinguishes twelve feasts, eight of Our Lord and four of Our Lady, as “Great Feasts”, with Easter in a category of its own as the Feast of Feasts. Whether by design or coincidence, the first of these in the liturgical year is also the first chronologically, the Nativity of the Virgin on September 8th. This event does not of course occur in the Bible, but is first mentioned in the popular apocryphal work known as the Protoevangelium of James. The precise origin of the feast is a matter of speculation, and the reason for the choice of date is unknown. It was celebrated at Constantinople by the 530s, when St Romanus the Melodist composed a hymn for it; by the seventh century, it had passed to the West, and Pope St Sergius I (687-701) decreed that it be should celebrated with a procession from the church of St Adrian (who shares his feast day with the Birth of the Virgin) to St Mary Major. It would seem, however, that it was rather slower to be accepted than the other early Marian feasts, the Purification, Annunciation and Assumption, since it is not mentioned in some important early liturgical books. Thus we find it included in the oldest manuscript of the Gelasian Sacramentary in roughly 750 A.D., but missing from the calendar in some later books.

The Protoevanglium of James is, of course, the source for the names of the Virgin’s parents, Joachim and Anna.  This caused one pope to suppress the feast and one of his successors to restore it because of its popularity. 

Even more curious is how a papal conclave added to the feast. It is said that at the Papal conclave of 1241, where cardinals were locked in a dilapidated building by one attempting to direct them to elect his candidate, the cardinals promised to honor the feast of the Virgin Mary’s Nativity by granting it an octave, if She might intervene to guide their election.  The man elected, Celestine IV, died after a reign of two-and-a-half weeks.  A great hint of irony upon the papacy and this feast day.

Ah, you say, of what does this have to do with us Lutherans.  Therein lies the point.  We hint at apocryphal details in various ways, perhaps even giving a tentative nod to the name of the Blessed Virgin's parents.  But here we refuse to go beyond Scripture.  No, there is no date given in the Bible for the birthday of Jesus or of St. John the Forerunner but Scripture is replete about the details of their births.  Not in the case of Blessed Mary.  Why is it so tempting to go beyond Scripture and invent details that would justify what we want to do?  For this is not about commemorations on a church calendar at all but the stark reality that this is what we attempt to do all day long about so many things.  I have probably said it and I know I have heard it said often, if it isn't in the Bible, it should be.  And what is so different from the invention of a holy day to be commemorated from presuming upon Scripture what has not been said in Scripture?

The point of tradition is not to add to Scripture or fill in details about which Scripture is silent.  The tradition that counts is the tradition into which Scripture speaks its life-giving voice and ears hear and believe.  Tradition's most important role is to reflect what Scripture says and how it has been heard and heeded in the life of the faithful.  But for some that is not enough.  Scripture is good enough for what it says but when it does not say enough, other sources of doctrine must be found to fill in the details.  But there is no end to the details we clamor to know and, if allowed, these would overshadow what Scripture speaks as the center of God's self-revelation.

It is probably no big deal if some want to remember the birthday of Blessed Mary.  She certainly deserves it.  But she herself has focused the attention not upon herself but upon the Father who chose her to be the mother of His only Son and of the Son that is her Redeemer and ours.  For this all generations shall call her blessed.  She would choose to be remembered not apart from her Son but in His shadow as one of the faithful, pondering in her heart what the angel said and what happened along the way to the cross.  The most faithful honor of this blessed woman of faith is to follow the Bearer of the Eternal Word in praise of Him who has highly regarded our low degree and saved us by His grace and favor.  This is enough.  But to do less or to ignore her role is our own poverty of fear and pride.

Of course, Luther kept until death as his pious opinion but not doctrine the Immaculate Conception of Mary.  In 1544, Luther said: 'God has formed the soul and body of the Virgin Mary full of the Holy Spirit, so that she is without all sins, for she has conceived and borne the Lord Jesus.'  Elsewhere, "All seed except Mary was vitiated [by original sin]." When concentrating specifically on Mary herself as the Mother of God, Luther acknowledges God's singular action in bringing her into the world, but in making general comments about the universality of human sinfulness, he includes her among all the rest of humanity.

Mother Mary, like us, was born in sin of sinful parents, but the Holy Spirit covered her, sanctified and purified her so that this child was born of flesh and blood, but not with sinful flesh and blood. The Holy Spirit permitted the Virgin Mary to remain a true, natural human being of flesh and blood, just as we. However, he warded off sin from her flesh and blood so that she became the mother of a pure child, not poisoned by sin as we are. For in that moment when she conceived, she was a holy mother filled with the Holy Spirit and her fruit is a holy pure fruit, at once God and truly man, in one person."  (WA, 39, II:107; and Sermons of Luther, Ed. Lenker, 1996)

But I have found no evidence that the Nativity was kept by Luther or later Lutherans.



Friday, October 16, 2020

As I experience it, say it, or as it is revealed. . .

While perusing other blogs, I see that there is a little discussion of the various ways to view doctrine -- from the propositional truths we are accustomed to in creed and confession to the experienced truth of the individual to the linguistic expression of a culture or people.  This is very interesting.  While the first order of doctrine as propositional truth built upon the source of all Truth, the Scriptures, the more modern versions tend more toward experiential or linguistic understandings of doctrine.  In fact, you find a host of different theologians operating with different definitions of doctrine even within the same church body!

If you are interested in this, you might want to read Jack Kilcrease's work The Doctrine of the Atonement from Luther to Forde.  Though its frame of reference is decidedly Lutheran, on the issue of doctrine and its definition it addresses viewpoints across the spectrum and theologians in other church bodies as well.

So what is it?  Is doctrine cognitive or propositional?  Does our doctrines point to and flow from realities outside themselves?  Are they objective truths -- true for everyone, every time, in every culture, and in every language?  Or is doctrine experienced -- with different religions as well as different denominations have differing experiences of roughly the same truth?  Or is doctrine language specific -- that is, is it specific to the formulations of that doctrine within a church body, a family of churches, a theological system, or a specific language and culture?

You see the mess we make.  If doctrine is experiential, it is pretty difficult to call something false.  It is like the conundrum of those who are offended by what is said when in reality they are offended by how they take it.  If doctrine is how you take it, where is the offense, the stumbling block?  It is all good, just different.  If doctrine is linguistic, then who knows what anyone is saying.  If words, like Humpty Dumpty said, mean what people want them to mean and nothing more or less, then who is to know what truth is at all.  But, of course, that is the point here -- it is the conversation that is important and not who is right or who is wrong.

Which leads me to another blog and another post.  In it one of Francis' papal advisors unpacks the papacy of Francis and attempts to give explanation or context to its many seeming contradictions.  According to Spadaro, governing and reforming the Church are matters of “discernment,” “self-emptying” and “conversion” rather than imposing “pre-packaged ideas.”  The goal of Francis is to create the “structural conditions” for a supposed “real and open dialogue” rather than resolving “who is right and who is wrong.”  Well, that makes it clear where this Pope stands on doctrine.  He clearly leans either to experience or language as the keys and not to propositional truth or rights and wrongs.  In this lens, it is easy to see why Rome is in such a mess.  Nobody knows whether anyone using the right words is meaning the right things by them and everyone is hesitant to challenge the primacy of experience.

It is the Protestant dilemma.  If we defer to gender as how a person experiences gender or expresses it, then gender is no longer any real construct.  But if we jump in this rabbit hole about gender or sexual expression, then we will have a hard time holding to any orthodoxy regarding Scripture or the teachings of Scripture (from sin to our Savior!).  And that is exactly where the path leads us when experience governs truth or language is allowed to mean what we choose it to mean.  

So, perhaps Rome is becoming Protestant in this matter.  After all it is led by a man who has decided that Jesus did not mean what He said when He taught us to pray Lead us not into temptation and therefore has had to fix Jesus' words so that they express what He thinks Jesus meant.  Isn't that where all of Christianity seems to have gone?  True to me, truth in words that do not necessarily mean what they say, and truth that lasts a moment.  How far will that get you?

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Certainties and uncertainties. . .

According to sources, here are the causes and numbers of deaths in America attributed to those causes:

  • Heart disease: 647,457
  • Cancer: 599,108
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 169,936
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 160,201
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 146,383
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 121,404
  • Diabetes: 83,564
  • Influenza and pneumonia: 55,672
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 50,633
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 47,173

When I wrote this, about 217,000 will have died of COVID 19, at least as they choose to record those deaths.  Some of them were surely also from causes from the above list.  But lets just leave that go for now.

Heart disease kills four times the number the corona virus has killed this far.  Yet we still eat processed and fatty foods and smoke and vape and do all the other things that we know contribute to heart disease.  Cancer kills just a little less and we routinely ignore the warning signs and make no adjustments in our lifestyles that might curtail these cancers.  Accidents kill about the same number as this pandemic has so far and we still enjoy living on the wild side, driving too fast and distracted, and the like.  I could go on.  You get my drift.  But these are deaths attributable to known causes.  COVID represents an unknown threat.  Our heightened fears are due, at least in part, to what we do not know about this virus as much as what we do know.

Check out that number for influenza and pneumonia -- two causes that parallel this viral threat.  Yet we have vaccines for both.  And many choose not to avail themselves of the flu shot or pneumonia shots.  On TV it was recorded that more than half of Americans are unsure about getting the shot for COVID when it finally comes out.  I find this so interesting.

We say we want a risk free life and are willing to mask up, shut down the economy, and dramatically change our lives and the lives of our children -- at least until we think the virus is under control.  Yet we seem to live with all sorts of risk in other aspects of our lives and this does not seem to bother us a bit.  Is the threat from COVID 19 so much worse or is it because we have become accustomed to the other threats?

Shift this a bit.  We live with all kinds of uncertainties in life but death is no uncertainty.  It will come to us all, sooner or later.  Although it is easy to say we do not believe that death is much more than sleep, we also want to believe that at some point we will awaken from it.  If only for a spiritual existence and a union with nature and the forces of the world, we hope we will find some sort of peace.  We are willing to risk it without so much as a doctrine or promise attached to this vague spiritual identity that will transcend death.  Yet most Americans are not ready to believe in God or to believe in the God who has literally moved time and eternity in order to rescue us from this uncertainty and to give us a real promise of real life that death cannot overcome.

We as people are an odd lot.  We want to be all scientific and such, insisting upon evidence and proof before risking faith.  Yet we are willing to risk some sort of life after death on little more than a whim.  All of this in the face of the real promise God would bestow upon us, written and sealed in the blood of Christ.  For whatever reason, we find it hard to believe this but not so hard to believe whatever imaginary life we presume will follow death.  And there are those who think that the primary problem of sin is living an immoral life!  

Could it be that the most dangerous thing that sin has done to us is taught us to risk everything for nothing and to believe nothing even though it comes with the promise of everything?  Surely the Scriptures have it just right when they pin down this unbelief as a hardened heart of pride and arrogance.  Why, anyone of us might as well write off the whole human race.  But not our Heavenly Father.  No, He does the inexplicable and gives up His only begotten Son while we were still enemies and skeptics and doubters and fools.  Lord, grant us the Spirit of wisdom that we may believe what we have not seen but what we have, indeed, heard in the voice of the Gospel!

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

What makes it great. . .

It is a celebrated legacy that perhaps defines how most know Justice Potter Stewart.  He could not define pornography but he insisted "I know it when I see it."  There are many things like this, although I hesitate to begin a post on good music with a point to porn.  Hardly anyone can actually say what it is about the music they like or even dislike.  We know it without being able to describe it.  And we cling to our opinions as good as fact!

What makes music great is hard to answer.  Was it Liszt who said, “It is easy to say that you like a piece of music, but very difficult to explain why a piece of music is great.”  If it  is difficult for a composer with more than a passing knowledge of the notes on the page, it is even more difficult for those unschooled in musical theory to say what it is that makes one piece of music appealing and another offensive.  But that has not stopped us from prevailing upon others with our opinions as to the greatness of one piece of music and what lacks in others.

Some have tried to explain musical greatness but their explanations tell more about the author than about what it is that makes music great music.  We all know that some compositions and some composers are not long remembered and others not easily forgotten.  For every one whose name we know, there are dozens whose names nobody knows -- even if they were considered great in their own time!  

If you shift this slightly to the subject of hymn tunes, it becomes even more difficult.  Though some would suggest that the easier the tune, the more beloved it is, the fact is not easily established.  Some of those hymn tunes that are most beloved are also most difficult to sing.  On the other hand, there are many easier tunes that nobody cares for.  I might suggest that it seems that the more a hymn tune is tied to a musical style in vogue for a time, the more likely it is to be forgotten as tastes move on.  But there are tunes, very well connected to the moment in which they were composed, and yet they pass from generation to generation with great affection and are sung with great gusto.

Of course, all of it is clouded by the words.  Hymn tunes survive in our memories and become beloved because of the words we sing to them.  Take Silent Night, for example.  Who can separate the tune from the words?  Can it be done?  I pray that it will never.  Yet some tunes steal away the original words they were meant for and become wedded in our minds to another set of words.  Some tunes start out with one set of words and then take on a different meaning with a new set of words later.  Here I think of the hymn tune Ebenezer and how it has come to be associated with the great Franzmann text "Thy Strong Word."  Others are so attached to a person or moment in history (think here "A Mighty Fortress" that it is hard to conceive of another text which might fit the wonderful melodies (isometric and rhythmic).

It is probably not a good place to start by telling folks why their favorite hymns are lousy choices.  In fact, it is probably a good place to start a war by denigrating the hymns beloved to one generation or ethnicity or family.  But it might be good to explain why good hymn texts and good hymn tunes have the magic of developing a single identity, message, and persona so that we cannot think about the one without the other.  A love for hymn singing, however, is something that does not require great musical expertise to teach or learn and it is with you for a lifetime.  While some might think that hymns detract from the faith, I rather think that hymns keep the faith alive as the tune causes the words to form in our minds and upon our lips as an almost unconscious act of faith, worship, and praise. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

God does not need you but He wants you. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 19, Proper 23A, preached on Sunday, October 11, 2020.

     Most of us are universalists at heart.  We think that if God can forgive, He ought to and everyone should have their slate wiped clean – well everyone except the worst sinners.  We might reserve hell for child molesters and mass murderers and those guilty of heinous crimes.  But regular sinners we are not ready to consign to hell nor do we understand why God would condemn them either.  But Jesus is no universalist.  He dies for all but in order to be saved, faith is required.  Jesus blood can cleanse all sinners from their sins, no matter how terrible they may be, but Jesus will not coerce us into the Kingdom nor will He compel us to be saved.  He bids and invites and grants the Holy Spirit so that our feeble hearts may trust in His incredibly generous mercy.

    Though our hearts understand the Law better – an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth – we have lived too long in a kingdom of cheap grace to give up the secret wish that in the end God will shrug His shoulders and open heaven to anyone and everyone.  Grace has become comfortable to us.  We have drunk the poisoned koolaid of easy grace and have come to believe that just as it is God’s job to forgive, it is our job to give Him something to forgive.  And then all is as it should be.  At least until we hear the Gospel appointed for this Sunday.  What does it mean that the invited were unworthy or that it matters whether or not you are clothed with the right wedding garments?

    This parable is pointed and hits hard.  For most of us in this congregation do just what the folks in the story did.  We tell God that we have other things to do on Sunday morning.  We have family responsibilities, household chores, events to attend, and often we just plain don’t feel like coming.  The invitation has long ago been issued and Sunday is the appointed day of our Lord’s resurrection when the people of God are bidden to come and hear, come and be washed clean, come and eat.  But the pews are empty every week and half our congregation misses on a given Sunday.  How can God hold this against us?  Doesn’t He know how busy we are and how hard it is for us to balance all the things that fill our days and satisfy the desires of our hearts?

    How is it then that God would write off the invited to go after those clearly unworthy of His invitation?  It just does not seem right, does it?  That is the first challenge of this text.  But God who has given us everything in His Son refuses to be just one of our many appointments or one of the may responsibilities we balance in our busy lives.  He insists upon being everything to us as He has given everything for us to save us.  That may seem as if God is jealous but is He not jealous with good right?  After all, the salvation that is free to us cost His Son everything.  Jesus suffered in our place for our sin and died the death we should have died. His grace is free but not cheap.

    His perfect love reconciled all the world to Himself.  His Son was the Lamb of God whose offering atoned for the sins of the whole world whether or not we benefit from His sacrifice.  But God will not drag us into His Kingdom kicking and screaming.  He will not force His forgiveness on us.  Jesus watched the Jews reject Him even as He mounted the altar of the cross.  The reasons did not matter.  They made perfect sense to the people rejecting but not to God.  They justified their rejection with fake offense that God thought they really needed His charity or mercy.  From the cross the Lord saw those who would reject His blood to cleanse them from all sin, who would refuse His gift of the water of life, who would be offended that He thought them sinners in need of forgiveness or hungry in need of His flesh and blood.

    He came to His own and they knew Him not but to all who received Him He gave the right to be called the children of God.  In spite of what He knew and saw, Jesus did not waver with His gift of mercy.  Why do you?  Why do you find it so hard to forgive when He has forgiven you?  C. S. Lewis once said that if you cannot forgive the inexcusable in others, God cannot forgive the inexcusable in you.  Was he right?  You see, this parable is not mean to explain why some are not saved or to comfort you with some reasonable truth.  This is a parable of warning.  Do not take God’s mercy for granted or become complacent about the grace im which you stand.  For God does not need you but He does want you.  

    And then there is the man who snuck in without the right clothing.  What is up with that?  Why does it matter what you wear?  But it does.  Stand in your own righteousness and you stand on a lie but wear the righteousness of Christ and all your sin is covered.  Not everyone who calls Lord, Lord will be saved.  Not everyone who comes to church and sits in God’s banquet hall will be saved.  Not everyone who enters will be saved.  Only those who wear the clothing God has appointed and who trust in the mercy that covers all their sin with the blood of Christ and Christ’s righteousness.

    In our previous hymnal was a wonderful hymn based upon this text.  The refrain was more than profound.  I miss it.  “The feast is ready, come to the feast, the good and the bad, come and be glad, come to the feast...”  To the sinners who come without good works to earn their salvation, to the lost who have had the light of Christ shine into their darkness, to those who have no pedigree or place, to those who do not belong, God is waiting with open arms.  The marriage feast of the Lamb is set on the high mountain, where the veil is lifted and death is no more.  There a feast of finest food and drink is laid out for you and for all for whom it has been appointed.  And until that day, here is the foretaste of that feast to come.  Here is the body of Christ that feeds us the bread of heaven.  Here is the blood of Christ that satisfies our thirst forever.  Here is Christ.

    Some of you are here because of the accident of your birth.  Some of you immigrated out of desire.  But there are no accidents in God’s Kingdom nor are there people who are here because they chose.  God is the one who chooses.  God is the one who invites.  God is the one who sets the table and appoints the date.  God is the one who provides the wedding clothing.  God is the one who makes us equal by giving to us the same grace of forgiveness and the same clothing of righteousness and the same faith to rejoice in His gift and blessing.  God does not need you but He wants you.  You did not choose Him but He chose you and appointed you to be His own and to bear the good fruit of His Kingdom forevermore.  Come to Him.

    Repent and stop looking at yourself as if there were something in your that made you worthy of His gift and grace.  Repent and stop looking at those around you as if they really did not belong.  Repent and stop looking at the things that seem so darn important now but count for nothing in eternity.  Repent and look at Jesus.  Hear His voice.  Believe in His promise.  Rejoice in His salvation.  He loved you when you were not worth loving, invited you when you deserved no place, and has saved you because of His love, purchased and won you not with silver or gold but with the holy and precious blood of Jesus shed for you.

    Is it so hard to hear this Word?  Is it too difficult to accept the mercy God has shown to you?  Is it too much to ask for you to be here in His House, hearing His Word and receiving His Holy body and blood every Sunday?  Think about it.  And while you do recall that hymn refrain: The feast is ready, come to the feast, the good and the bad, come and be glad, come to the feast.  That is what Jesus is saying to you and warning you.  Don’t take His grace and favor for granted.  Amen.

Where we agree and where we do not. . .

 I did not say it.  I wish I had.  But it is a more than a pithy saying.  It embodies great truth. It is not possible to be Catholic without being catholic.  We Lutherans are not afraid of such a statement.  Catholicity is not simply an occasional virtue of the faith but an essential characteristic.  Indeed, we confess at the end of our most primal confession, the Augustana, that Only those things have been recounted whereof we thought that it was necessary to speak, in order that it might be understood that in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic. For it is manifest that we have taken most diligent care that no new and ungodly doctrine should creep into our churches. Unlike reformers who viewed the past with suspicion, the Lutherans rejoiced to affirm the faith of our fathers with at least as much zeal as they did to affirm their faith was Biblical.  Rome and Lutherans both agree with the basic truth that it is not possible to be Catholic without being catholic.  Where we disagree is when this statement is reversed.  

Rome's contention is that it is not possible to be catholic without be [Roman] Catholic.  For whatever friendly advances Rome has made in the past years since Vatican II, the basic position of Rome has not changed much.  Rome is the true visible Church on earth.  Period.  While it might be true that there are Christians outside of Rome, they rush to be in communion with the Pope once they realize their faith.  Now someone will surely bring up the Orthodox, but Rome has an uneasy theological relationship with the Eastern churches and one that is beyond the purview of this particular meandering thought.  Lutherans worth their salt do not surrender their claim to catholicity but they dispute to their very core the idea that this catholicity implies or requires reunion with Rome.

From Newman's suggestion that to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant to the strange looks of those who encounter Lutheran claims to catholicity, the presumption is that being catholic automatically leads to being Roman Catholic.  In this, both Rome and some Lutherans agree.  For Lutherans who remind their peers that Lutherans are not sectarian nor are they Protestant are often quickly dismissed as Romanizers readying themselves to swim the Tiber.  This is an inherent weakness of Lutheranism that taking our confessional, theological, liturgical, and sacramental identity seriously often raises the ire of those who are more content to see Lutheranism as the first Protestant sect.  If you don't believe me, read some of the comments on my blog every time I mention things catholic.

Before the Church was “Catholic” she was already “catholic.  Well of course this is true.  But the contention of the Reformation is that the catholicity of the [Roman] Catholic was surrendered to novelties that were not and are not either catholic or ancient.  Over and over again the Lutherans insisted that the articles of the faith in dispute were later additions and could not nor should they be allowed to bind the conscience of the believer.  Whether or not you agree with the Lutherans, it has long been admitted that at best some of these doctrines existed as pious opinions along the way but became ordinary much later -- many perfected in medieval times.  At worst, they were inventions that proceeded from and existed to support papal supremacy.  Lutherans insist that the papacy is not central to catholicity (and may destroy catholicity) and in this the Orthodox readily agree.

Indeed, the challenge raised by the Lutherans is that what is essentially Roman is troublesome or worse for what is essentially catholic.  Our complaint is not that the Roman Church is too catholic or Catholic but not Catholic or catholic enough.  In this, the current occupant of the Chair of St. Peter seems intent upon proving our point for us.  Far from being close to the charge of being Lutheran, Francis shows that what has become the center of Rome (instead of doctrine and practice) is submission to papal authority.  This is what agitates against Rome's claim that to be catholic is to be [Roman] Catholic.  For only in mythology can it be held that the papal office as it is defined and practiced today is supported by the ancient church.  It is not even the development of a doctrine which is rooted in Scripture and tradition but the innovation of something neither Scripture nor the early church ever imagined.

There are many popes we might admire and many whose theological testament we would support but, for the Lutheran, it is a surrender of catholicity to admit that at the helm of the Church catholic lies the Pope. I wish, sometimes, we had a single voice to speak for us and a man to hold us as Lutherans accountable for what we confess and how we would practice that confession.  But we do not.  We have individuals to exercise the episcopal ministry among us (oversight of doctrine and practice) but we do not have an equivalent of the papal office.  The Church is Catholic and catholic not because of the complexion of her many and diverse people but because she holds unwaveringly to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith.

Monday, October 12, 2020

The New Reformation. . .

There are those who view the interruption of the COVID shut down of churches and church life to be a positive thing, overall.  It is, in their estimation, a wake up call against those who have been doing church like it has always been done -- like your grandfather's church.  So for them, this is viewed as a reformation of sorts.  It is an opportunity to re-imagine what church looks like and what it does.  For those quick to embrace this notion of more than an interruption and a new birth, the key to the future is online and the exploiting the technology to move the church from reality to a virtual reality that has a web address more than a physical address.

Read here one story of a church that thinks it has seen the future and is embracing it.  They are doing for the church what my own local school system has attempted to do -- to set up two realities.  The one will have a geographical address and meet in a building like it always has but the more important one will be a strictly online presence.  It will have its own structure and staff.  This is not a temporary measure designed to get the church through the pandemic but a permanent new future.  It is also not what most churches are already doing -- using technology to broadcast livestream or delayed video content that looks like what has traditionally happened in a building.  No, indeed, these churches are attempting to replace the in person physical structure with a completely different entity in which preaching, teaching, and even the ordinances will be provided digitally to homes in their city and states far away.  It involves creating a small group ministry that is only online and does not expect or provide for in person groups.

This idea that a church with in person worship, education, and fellowship is replaced by an online entity is acceptable because they believe that this shift will allow them “to reach as many people as possible.”  While something like this could possibly be conceived by those who have no sacramental understanding, such a thing would be impossible for Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and Lutherans whose worship is tied to a liturgical setting, who see the means of grace as the primary center and focus of the worship life of the people of God, and whose ecclesiology expects a gathered presence. You cannot receive Holy Communion online unless it is merely a symbol and nothing is conveyed except the taste of food and drink.  If the churches who hold to a real presence of Christ continue with their doctrine, they are faced with a brick wall at any attempt to transform the church to a virtual gathering.

Can it be that church life is merely about the reception of information about Jesus Christ and/or the Bible and how you might react to this information and choose to live in response to it?  Can it be that the faith is more or less morality and not so much doctrine at all?  Can it be that this is less about being the church and more about finding a way to institutionalize your own values and preferences?  Can it be that this will happen not by debate and vote but simply as one by one individual churches remake themselves in this manner because they are convinced that they have no real choice nor any real future apart from the online identity being promoted?

Where the Great Reformation was once about doctrine, i.e.  justification, this new Reformation is about meeting people where they are.  It has less to do with doctrinal challenge or reform than it does with practice.  But what is impossible to deny is that such practice will inevitably lead to a dramatic doctrinal shift.  It is impossible to simply move the church online -- even for evangelicals and Protestants without a fully developed sacramental theology.  Instead, what is being spoken about is the radical redefinition of what preaching is, of what teaching is, of what worship is, and of what the church is.  In this respect, the beginnings of a new and deep division in Christianity is certain to take place -- those who have a virtual church and those who have a gathered church.  It may be that some denominations are further along than others in this change.  But it will be hastened among those reluctant to make the shift in practice because of declining numbers and the high cost of doing church as it had been done before.  For those who are looking for church on a reasonable budget, the online option may be the only one they can afford.  It all sounds interesting and dynamic but the soft underbelly of it all will be whether or not those who are reached online and live in a virtual church are really Christians and whether the digital church is really any sort of church at all.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Who for. . .

A million years ago when I was off to one conference or meeting, I came home with a pocket full of goodies.  Pens, pencils, pads, candies, trinkets of all kinds were the bounty of the trip.  And when I got home, I emptied my pockets and brief case.  The kids had the same question:  who is that for?

It is one of the things I miss in the Apostles' Creed.   The Nicene makes it clear.  Who for us men and for our salvation . . . came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man. . .   Those who benefit from the benefices of the Lord are us.  He saved us because we could not save ourselves.  He offered Himself on our behalf, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Christ did not benefit Himself from all that He did.  But we have benefited.  He did it for us.  But He did not do it simply a sign or symbol or kind gesture.  He did it for our salvation.

Christ's liturgical work did not take place in a clean and orderly building but upon the bloody cross and amid the chaos of a people who cheered on His death and authorities who thought they were in charge.  But Christ's liturgical work did not end there.  It is repeatedly made available to us in the Divine Liturgy or Service.  It is a curious thing that this word liturgy comes to us not from context of worship but of the polis -- the city and its political structure.  The administrator of government is a liturgist.  On the one hand, he governs on behalf of another, the emperor of Rome.  On the other hand, he governs on behalf of the people. At least that is our hope.  None other than St. Paul sees it this way.  He reminds us that there is no authority but God and no authority except that which comes from God.  Even ungodly rulers are God's servants for our good.  It is His liturgy.  God will hold Him accountable but He serves on our behalf.  (Romans 13) 

We call it the Divine Service because God is at work in us serving us with His gifts.  Jesus is both liturgist and victim or offering. He does not offer what is not His but He offers all that is His -- Himself. The promises of God are better than the promises of men and the liturgy of God is better than the liturgy of men.  He does not serve us merely as advocate but as the one who takes upon Himself what is destined for us.  Unlike the priests of the Old Covenant, He does not simply take what is ours and place it before the Father.  He offers Himself -- a sacrifice beyond us -- and He presents Himself to the Father on our behalf. But again, He does even more.  He cleans us up, clothes us with His own holiness and righteousness, and then offers us to the Father -- those whom He has purchased and won.  That is also His liturgy.  It is also a work on behalf of the people.

For this reason, the Divine Service can never be claimed as ours nor dare we suggest that the work is ours.  Even the ministers of the Divine Service are but mouths and hands used by Him who does His work through us but never so that we can claim it to be our own.  We offer God nothing except that which is His and there is nothing in this for which we should claim credit or expect reward.  Tithes are not taxes and offerings are not bribes.  Either they are gifts of gratitude or they are nothing.  No, we are not there to do something but to receive.  The receiving is the work for which we were destined and in this receiving the Holy Spirit is given us so that we might discern the body, confess its sufficiency, and rejoice in its blessing.  Faith is what recognizes and receives what the Lord has accomplished for us.  So the liturgy is not the work of the people but Christ's work for the people.  If we have a liturgy at all, it is the liturgy or work of faith, prompted by the Holy Spirit, to hear with our ears and taste upon our lips the gift and blessing of the Lord's self-offering.

It could be that this is not enough for those who think they have something worthy to offer the Lord.  But it will reveal and suffer them their poverty to reject the Lord's own liturgy and substitute in its place their own.  

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Not one of many. . .

During this election season there have been many who insisted they could not bring themselves to approve of Trump the man even though they were approving of his stands, especially in regard to life.  Others insisted that abortion and the cause of life could not be the pivotal issue but must be seen as one of many -- sort of like the old seamless garment stuff of Joseph Cardinal Bernadin (and his current set of allies).  In this view, abortion is important but not so important that it weighs more than these other issues (everything from climate change to transgender issues to capital punishment -- depending on who you talk to).  

However, there is an inherent difference here between some issues and others.  No one is advocating killing people with whom you disagree but that is exactly what lies in balance for the unborn treated as another choice -- hardly different than what you want to eat for breakfast or if you will get a flu shot this year.  It is not that lives hang in balance -- they do for many issues.  It is that this is itself life -- life flushed away, brutally ripped from the womb, treated as nothing of value unless you attach value to it.  Every day in America more lives are lost to abortion than to any other cause.  Added up since the Supreme Court decided abortion was a private matter and not one of morality or law, whole nations would have disappeared from the earth.  And this is only in the USA!

Abortion and the pro-life cause can never be one of many issues.  It is the issue.  If you stand on the wrong side of this issue, it does not matter how many right sides on which you stand.  If you get this wrong, it does not matter whether you are correct on other things.  You cannot be for preserving the environment, caring for the quality of people's lives, or for freedom with responsibility and then give a pass to the killing of the unborn.  That is where those who advocate for a seamless garment have it wrong.  Look at the numbers.  Capital punishment, the lives lost to climate change, those who lose or take their lives because of the lack of approval or acceptance of the full spectrum of genders and orientations, and everything else wrapped up in this garment are so few in comparison to the killing machine that goes on as an essential business of America that is laughable to lump them together and make them all equal.

No, I am not saying you ignore the consequences of our rape of the good earth that God gave us to steward or that individuals whose sexual preference or gender (as fluid as they might think it to be) do not deserve the full array of rights protected by our Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  But what I am saying is that killing the unborn is nowhere a right accorded to anyone.  It happened before it was legal.  Sure.  So do many things still immoral and scandalous.  It will happen after it is made illegal.  Sure.  So do many things still immoral and scandalous.  But to lump abortion and the protection of life from its natural beginning to its natural end as just another value to be considered when going to the polling place is to lack all perspective and to delude yourself about what is really at stake.

I will not tell you who to vote for but I must tell you that you cannot vote to continue the murder of the unborn under the protection of law and be immune from the moral consequences of your choice.  It is not about who decides to have it done or does the procedure or writes the prescription for the pill or pulls the body parts from the womb, it is about the complicity of Christians who think that this is just one of many issues to be considered and not something unique.

Friday, October 9, 2020

We will never die. . .

In conversation with a small parish growing smaller, I suggested that the parish was dying and the day might come someone will turn out the lights, shut the door, and lock it for the last time.  At the end of my speech (not about changing but about embracing new people), I was told.  "We will never die."  Why not?  "Because we have $2.7 Million in our endowment fund and this will guarantee that our church will never shuts its doors."

Indeed, the most important parish meeting there was the annual meeting to review the earnings on their endowment and to decide how the interest was to be spent.  It was nearly always on some building repair.  The most predictable thing about this parish was that the building needs would be taken care of above all else.  On one hand it was laudable how committed they were even if it was sad that the thing they were committed to most of all was brick and stone, wood and glass.

I well recall another parish, fairly large and with a school, that ran deficits, large deficits, but financed their deficits with a very large endowment fund.  In fact, at one point taking $400K to pay off bills and bring their books into balance.  How long had they been doing this?  Long enough so that no one could answer my question.  It had become their normal practice. 

In my hometown is a parish that has had a very large endowment from a frugal brother and sister and even though the parish is dwindling in size, nearly every part of their building has been remodeled, air conditioned, and they even have a cappuccino machine in the Fellowship Hall.

It all leads me to my mixed feelings about endowments.  Perhaps I should admit that I hope we have one some day.  But I wonder sometimes if they are worth the trouble.  I do know that the costs of maintaining wonderful but aged structures is great and the largess of the dead helps the living handle the legacy of those who have gone before.  But I wonder what it all does to the living.

We complain that bishops have become managers and in part it is because dioceses have assets to be managed and people to manage.  They are corporate structures with financial needs, financial responsibilities, and financial trusts.  Yes, they need cash flow and they need people to make sure the cash flows where it needs to go.  So, it would seem, along with being good pastors, good bishops are also financial whizkids who can keep the flow moving in the right direction.  Sometimes that happens in the parish.  Parishes have assets and responsibilities and costs and the duty to keep things going and how often it steals the attention away from what it means to be the Church.

I must also admit that I have been in a parish that did not have the money to pay the bills and it can become and equal diversion from the things of the Kingdom.  Everyone who has been in a poor parish knows how much time and attention is given to fundraising to keep the lights on!  So it is not only the rich who have a focus on material wealth.  It is also the poor.

It all means that buildings and property are a mixed blessing.  Yes, as Churchill said, we shape buildings and then they shape us.  He could have just as well said that buildings steal our attention.  But it is not only buildings.  Much of our property has little really to do with being the Church and much of our attention is given to justifying our campuses and inventing programs to make sure our facilities are in constant use (that wears them and requires our attention down the road).

Endowments help pay those bills but they can easily presume to us a security which is meant to come with God's promise and not with dollars and cents.  It is an effort on the part of the Church to keep the money flowing where it needs to go without this being our mission and to encourage the legacy of the faithful in endowing for the future without using these endowments as a replacement for our own faithfulness.

So you got hardly any wisdom today but a few meandering thoughts from a pastor who probably thinks too much. . .

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Never met a Baptist. . .

No less than Dr. Albert Mohler confirmed it.   Luther ever encountered a Baptist.  I wish he had.  Unfortunately, Luther was too early and the Baptists too late to have crossed paths.  Yet, living as I am, a Lutheran in the heart of Southern Baptist territory, it would have been helpful to have had Luther say something about the Baptists -- which he did not except, perhaps, indirectly.

Writing in First Things, Mohler suggests that the principle the underlies the Baptists lies in the phrase not far enough.  He says that Baptists do not believe that Luther took things far enough, nor the Calvinists, nor the English Puritans, nor the Separatists. . .  And the Baptists have been arguing about it every since.  Which makes me think that perhaps Lutherans and the Baptists have something in common after all.  For Lutherans have been arguing about what it means to be Lutheran even longer than the Baptists have been arguing about what it means to be Baptist!  But, of course, they did not benefit from a Formula of Concord, as if that solved all our Lutheran issues!

It would seem that the Baptists claim the classical Christian tradition of doctrine but that they, in the words of Mohler, were united in perplexity over the fact that other Protestants seemed reluctant to follow the logic of the Reformation to its conclusion. In that, perhaps, is another area of agreement.  Some Lutherans are intent upon interpreting Luther and the Lutheran symbols in ways that emphasize a Reformation Church in opposition to what is catholic.  I could name plenty of Lutherans who are not sure that Luther and the Reformers took the Reformation to its logical conclusion.

In 1646, Baptist churches in London defined saving faith in these terms:

Faith is the gift of God, wrought in the hearts of the elect by the Spirit of God; by which faith they come to know and believe the truth of the Scriptures, and the excellency of them above all other writings, and all things in the world, as they hold forth the glory of God in his attributes, the excellency of Christ in his nature and offices, and of the power and fulness of the Spirit in his workings and operations; and so are enabled to cast their souls upon this truth thus believed.

Lutherans might find much to agree with here.  Except that, living in the South, I am not so sure that many Baptists believe or find the first sentence (up to the semi-colon) to be far enough.  Preaching for conversion, the Baptist central unifying theme, presumes a decision or choice on the part of the hearer and this has become, if not the formal, the informal definition of faith for Baptists.

Furthermore, that Christ’s church . . . comprises the twice-born, regenerate believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, who have individually professed their belief in Christ and demonstrated their regeneration through obedience to Christ and his commands has seemingly pushed through the idea of faith as a gift and made it a practical work on the part of the elect.  Therein lies a conflict between Lutherans and Baptists that neither side fully comprehends.

The real heart of the disagreement has to do with the name.  Baptists.  It is not that Baptists and Lutherans disagree over baptism.  They do.  It is that what Lutherans call baptism is no baptism for the Baptist.  Baptists insist that they do not “rebaptize” anyone.  Instead, they baptize the unbaptized (including Lutherans!).  Lutherans in the pews do not get this and presume it is a matter of form that is being argued about -- the age of the candidate or the amount of water.  But under it all is something much more -- or should I say, much less.  What Lutherans insist is there, Baptists insist cannot be there.

Lutherans have confidence in the words of Christ and the promise of Scripture that the Gospel is also encountered in baptismal water, in sacramental absolution, and in the bread of Christ's flesh and the cup of His blood.  Lutherans take the Word of God so seriously that it delivers what it promises.  Within the splash of water and the Triune name of God, there is the connection to Christ's crucified death and His life-giving resurrection.  Within the voice of absolution in Christ's name, heaven moves with earth to wipe away sin.  Within the bread and wine set apart with the words of Christ's testament, what is signed is present to be eaten and drunk for the forgiveness of sins.

Mohler reminds us that although [t]he Baptists did not invent Congregationalism, . . . they made it central to their ecclesiology.  And therein lies another difference.  The Church is only one congregation deep and wide for the Baptists.  But for Lutherans it is not the same.  First of all, we are bound to each other not through voluntary association but common confession.  Our Lutheran Symbols are not quaint words but the focal point of our unity in the written confession of what Scripture teaches.  Lutherans are congregational in that we believe the fullness of the Church is present locally where two or three are gathered around the Word and Sacraments of Christ but we are not congregational in believing that this is the only form or the full extent of the Church.  The LCMS comes closest but we have never said the Lutherans who are episcopal in structure are any less Lutheran than those who have a more democratic form of church government and one in which the local congregation is free to order its affairs (except its doctrine) as it sees fit and still be one of us.

What I find most amusing and somewhat frustrating are the Lutherans who suggest that if we just cut the Baptists some slack, we would find them good friends and brothers and sisters in Christ.  What is so humorous about this is that it is the Baptists who cut us no slack and what is so frustrating is that the Lutherans have somehow forgotten that nearly all of us cannot be counted as Christians in any real sense without first confessing their faith as the true one and then being baptized according to their rules.  Last time I checked, the Lutherans were not nearly so strict.  But then again, as Mohler has said, we Lutherans do not go far enough.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Rejection Overcome. . .

Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22A, preached on Sunday, October 4, 2020, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

  Rejection is a painful thing.  There are very few things more painful.  It cuts us to the heart.  It rocks us to our core.  When a child rejects a parent’s love, love shown through years of care and self-sacrifice, it’s devastating.  When a parent rejects a child’s love, that child can suffer greatly, having low self-esteem and trouble forming other relationships.  This can last for many many years, well into adulthood.  The rejection of love is painful, earth shattering, and in response, many of us just give up.  We stop loving.  But not God.
    St. John in his 1st letter says “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8).  God is love.  That’s who He is.  Love defines Him.  He has to love.  But the love of God, it isn’t just some philosophical ideal.  It isn’t generic.  It isn’t aimless love.  God’s love has a direction, it has an object, and that object is His creation, that object is you.
    God’s love drove Him to create.  We often wonder why God created the world, why He made Adam and Eve, even though with His omniscience He knew they were going to reject Him and choose instead Satan’s temptation and lies, sinning, plunging all life into death.   It’s because God is love.  He had to create.  He had to give life, otherwise, there’d be no love.  God is love, and He will continue to love, even when that love is rejected, over and over again.  
    It was rejected by His people of Israel.  With poetic language, the prophet Isaiah described God’s love.  It’s like a man who put his heart and soul into a vineyard.  That vineyard was a labor of love.  He chose the best spot for it.  He worked the land, clearing all the stones, planting just the right vines to produce just the right grapes.  He did everything he could to make that vineyard the perfect vineyard.  But, when the time came, the vines didn’t produce the right grapes, only wild and useless ones.  
    This vineyard imagery represents God’s people of Israel.  God did everything for them.  He freed them from slavery in Egypt.  He gave them the Promised Land, and land flowing with milk and honey.  He established the kingdom of Israel and prospered it through King David.  All of this He did by grace.  Israel did nothing to deserve it.  It was all a labor of love, God’s love.  But that love was rejected, repeatedly.  Over and over again the people of Israel turned from the Lord, worshiping false gods.  Just like the useless wild grapes that grew instead of choice ones, instead of faith, justice, and righteousness, Israel produced bloodshed, outcry, and unbelief.  
That violent rejection Jesus pointed to in His parable about a vineyard.  Similarly to Isaiah’s words, Jesus tells the story of a man, a master, who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a winepress, built a tower, and then gave the vineyard to tenants to watch over it.  It was the ideal vineyard, and the tenants did nothing to establish the vineyard; and yet, the master willingly promised them it’s yield.  The master would receive his portion, and then the rest would go to them.  So when the time came, the master sent servants to collect.  But instead of being faithful tenants, giving the master his own, the tenants seized the servants.  They beat one, killed another, and stoned the third.  Instead of giving the master the blood of his grapes, they gave him the blood of his servants.  Out of nowhere, the tenants violently rejected the master.    
Hearing this we’d assume that the master would respond in kind, but he didn’t.  Instead, he sent more servants, and they too suffered the same fate.  Surely now, after a second time, the master would come in with swords drawn.  But again he doesn’t.  Instead, he sends his own son.  Foolishly, we’d say, he sends his heir, thinking the tenants would respect him, but of course they don’t.  Seeing the son coming, they plotted to kill him as well.  They thought they’d be able to keep the vineyard for themselves.  They thought they could steal what belonged to the master by killing his son.  And so they do.  
There seems to be no explanation for the evil of the tenants.  Reasonable people don’t behave that way.  Their violence and wickedness can only be explained by complete and utter hatred of the master, a complete and utter rejection of him.  Their violence shows just how deep and evil humanity’s sin is.  Even though he willingly gave them everything, they showed no respect, no love, only rejection.  
Jesus doesn’t tell us what happened to those wicked tenants.  He simply ends the parable by asking the chief priest and elders what the master will do, and they obviously say he will kill the tenants and give the vineyard to faithful ones.  After all, that’s what they deserved.  But Jesus doesn’t say how the parable ends.  Instead He speaks words of Scripture.  He quotes Psalm 118 (22,23): “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”  With these words, Jesus condemned the rejection of the chief priests and other religious authorities.  He is the Son that the Master sent.  He is the cornerstone of God’s kingdom.  
The tenants rejected the master, and they rejected the son.  They rejected them thinking they could get what belonged to the master by another way.  They didn’t want to receive the gifts of the master on his terms, but on their own.  In the same way, the religious elite rejected Christ.  They didn’t want to receive God’s gifts through Christ.  Instead, they sought it another way.  They rejected the Son, and in so doing, they rejected God’s love.  Is that how we treat God’s love?  Do we reject His gifts and try to get them another away?  Do we receive the Son with faith?
In the rite of private confession, the penitent says, “I, a poor sinner, plead guilty before God of all sins.  I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most.  My Lord’s name I have not honored as I should: my worship and prayers have faltered.  I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed.”  We haven’t let God’s love have its way with us.  We’ve rejected it.  Like our first parents, like the Israelites, like the tenants, the chief priests and the elders, we’ve rejected God’s love.  We refuse to listen to His Word.  Instead, we choose the word of Satan and the word of the world around us.  We give in to their temptations.  We choose sin.  Over and over again, we choose sin.  And because of that, we rightly deserve to be killed, just like those wicked tenants.  But even in the midst of all our rejection, God still loves, and it’s because of that love that He sent His Son.
    Because of God’s love, He sent His Son in response to our rejection, in response to our sin.  How crazy is that!?  What sense does that make!?  We reject God the Father, and in response He sends His Son.  He sends His Son to overcome our rejection, through His rejection.  
    Through Christ’s rejection on the cross, He overcomes ours.  On cross, the Son took our sin and rejection upon Himself.  Even though He was without sin, He became sin for us (2 Cor 5:21).  And in that, the Father rejected Him, so that our rejection and sin would be forgiven.  From the cross, our Savior cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matt 27:46).  On the cross, God the Father forsook His Son so that He could have you.  So that you’d be a part of His kingdom.  That’s the love of God.  That’s the love of God that He has for you.  
    Christ Jesus is the cornerstone of God’s kingdom.  Through Him the Lord builds a kingdom that will never be overcome.  Through the waters of Baptism that joins you to the death and resurrection of your Lord, through the words of Absolution that gives to you the forgiveness of your sins and rejection, through the Body and Blood of Christ that gives to you life, God brings you into His kingdom.  He makes you His own.  
    The Lord knows what it is to have His love rejected.  From the very beginning, His love drove Him to give life: in creation, in establishing Israel, and in giving each and everyone of us life.  And yet, that love is answered by rejection.  Let us repent of that.  Let us turn from our rejection and with faith embrace the Son the Master has sent.  The Lord never stops loving.  Because of His love for you He sent His Son to suffer rejection on the cross so that you’d be forgiven.  And receiving that forgiveness and love, you are brought into His kingdom, forever.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.  

Lost cause prayers. . .

Though sometimes people say that even this or that is too much for God, the business of prayer is the speaking of lost causes in the Name of Jesus.  It is not magic but it is better than magic.  It is grace sufficient for all our needs and mercy greater than every need.  God is in the business of lost causes.  He lives to tackle the impossible.  That is the cornerstone of our prayers.

Jesus tells us of camels through the heads of needles, of those things impossible for man but easy stuff for God, and of promises that will not be forgotten.  Israel had long presumed, like Abraham before them, that God had forgotten or gotten too busy or never intended to keep His promises.  It is no wonder that Jesus became an inconvenient surprise to a people who grown too comfortable waiting for what they did not think was coming.

The challenge then, as now, is to believe that God not only hears our petitions for lost causes and impossible answers but acts upon them. A great book title once insisted Your God Is Too Small --a God made small not because He has limits but because we have limited Him.  Because we have no confidence in His power or inclination to do the impossible, we trust Him with but the trivial and easy.  But to look into our reflection in baptismal water or to taste the bread and cup of the Sacrament of the Altar is to look face to face at the impossible which comes to us with the promise of God attached to the ordinary element.  For those who have no sacraments, prayer must suffice but to those who know the sacramental grace of God, prayer flows from these impossible encounters with the Divine Goodness.

If our prayers do not work is it because we have prayed fervently trusting in the Lord's gracious favor to give answer or is it because we have not trusted Him with much at all.  If our prayers are weak and ineffective, could it be that our prayer life is too possible or shallow. Could it be that we ask for too little rather than too much?  The too little are the earthly things that fill the moment but have nothing of eternity.  We pray for the things that seem so urgent in the present but are yesterday forgotten.  They are foolish and petty prayers. Should we not rather pray for the impossible?  Is not the bold prayer life that which prays for things that are impossible, for that which is beyond our imagination and control?  When we pray for workers for the harvest or for the blind to see or the deaf to hear or the mute to sing or for our enemies to come to faith or to learn to forgive as we have been forgiven, these are the great prayers the test not simply our trust in God but reveal the true treasure of our hearts.0

Prayer is a privilege that compels us, as a people who live, love, and have life and breath because of power beyond ourselves, to pray with great expectation that those marked for death may live, those who know not hope may love, and those whose breath exhales their lives to know the life that death cannot touch.  If we are going to pray, let us dare to pray for the great causes, the seemingly lost causes, the impossible.  Let us dare to pray for salvation, for repentance, for healing of the broken heart, for restoration of the lost life, for forgiveness for the many sins, for us to forgive as we have been forgiven, and for the perfect rest and peace of the soul.  For whatever we pray thus in the name of Christ, God has promised to hear and answer.  If we believe anything of His Word, let us at least believe that He will hearken to such prayers and open the storehouse of His mercy and grace for their lost cause.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Holiness as positive force. . .

Holiness is more typically defined in terms of what you do not do.  Holy people do not. . . well, you fill in the blank since that is what has happened over the years.  The easier word to use to fill in the blank is the simple word sin.  Holy people do not sin.  Which is fine in theory but does not work so well in practice for a people who are born sinful, born into sin, born into a sinful world, etc...  Unless holiness is simply an unapproachable or unreachable goal, holiness has to be more than not sinning.  It also must be more than something negative -- the stuff you do not do -- and must be something positive.

Luther in the Small Catechism keys in on this, whether by accident or design I cannot tell.  But it is there.  The explanations to the Commandments are less about what we should not do but what we are to do.  It is not running away from sin that holiness is about but embracing godliness.  The Lord says no god but Him.  Luther says We are to fear, love, and trust.  The commandment says do not abuse the name of the Lord your God.  Luther says we should bear and love God. . .[and] call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.  The Lord commands us to sanctify the holy day.  Luther says We should fear and love God . . . [and] hold [preaching and His Word] sacred and gladly hear and learn it.  Luther does not forget to emphasize what is not to be done but neither does he forget to emphasize what is to be done.  

Holiness is not the striving against evil alone but the striving for that which is good, right, holy, true, and beautiful.  To strive for the holy life is not to look down to avoid the dog poo and mud puddles in your path and walk about them -- rejoicing at your success when you get home and your soles are clean.  No, holiness is to look to Jesus, to the things of God, to the Kingdom of Heaven, and walking through the poo and puddles and rejoicing that through the blood of Christ you are clean at home -- clean souls through the grace and mercy of God alone.  The first type of holiness is intent upon marking and witnessing progress on the ladder of godliness but the other view sees no progress nor does it seek signs of progress for it is transfixed upon Christ alone.

So Luther in the commandments does not ignore what must be forbidden and condemned but he also does not fail to hold before us the goal -- fearing and loving God above all things and. . . honor, serve, obey, love and cherish our parents and other authorities and helping and supporting our neighbor in every physical need and husband and wife loving and honoring each other and helping our neighbor improve and protect his things and defending, speaking well of, and putting the best construction on everything and helping and serving our neighbor so that he may keep what is his and urging those who are our neighbor's to do their duty.

Holiness is not a mere matter of what you give up but what you seek.  We seek to be those who have no guile in our hearts, to be a people transparent in hope and love, moved and directed by the Spirit for the things of the Spirit, and living through the means of grace the eternal life (already ours but not yet completed in us).  You cannot do this by looking down or looking at yourself.  Holiness asks us to look beyond ourselves and the world around us to Jesus, the author and perfector.  He is the power to teach us to forgive, to forsake ungodliness and self-indulgence, and to strive after self-control not as a straight jacket constraining us against our wills but as wills born anew in baptism to seek after the things of God.

Holiness remains an admired virtue but a distant one in a world in which the interior voice of desire is the most trustworthy voice you can hear.  The voice you always listen to is the voice you value most of all.  For our culture that is not the voice of God, perhaps not even for many within the Church.  We hear other voices and listen to them first and foremost.  Perhaps that is why we admire holiness without actually seeking to be holy, why we love being spiritual but eschew the religious things of worship and piety and doctrine, and why we resort to commands to define what we should and should not do instead of to the voice of the Spirit living in us, new people by baptism and faith.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Exceptional and therefore intolerable. . .

The assault on the family is well documented and needs no explanation or outline from me.  It may be focused on the definition of who may marry but it began long before that.  The traditional family has come to mean husband and wife and their children but in an age of gender confusion and the reshaping of marriage, the traditional marriage has become a problem.  Given the rise of multiple marriages, of children living with a single or no parent, of the non-binary claim to family made possible by reproductive technology, and the particular ruins of the family among certain minorities, the traditional family has now become a manifestation of white supremacy or some other accusation.

Though everyone insists they are for strong families, the reality is that this is largely a theoretical position for many.  Celebrating the homes with two moms or two dads or with but one parent or with extended family has become more important than supporting the traditional family.  As fewer and fewer families fit the definition of traditional, the very term becomes offensive to those who have no traditional family.  Though it is universally accepted that a strong and traditional family is an important factor in the formation of strong adults, people grounded in morality and committed to responsibility, capable of not only being productive members of society but also individuals who work to improve that society, the attack on this kind of family has begun.  You see it in the attack on home schooling, on the insistence of parents not only being informed of but involved in the educational of their children, and in the increasing distance between the values taught and exhibited in school settings and those that once reflected the universal values of a nation (no matter the race or economic status).  Indeed, the job of the family is to raise strong, thinking, and moral children who are resistant to deception and manipulation by others).  The healthy family remains an anchor for the whole of society and for the promise of a nation's future. 

So over time the center of the family's life and future, child-bearing and parenthood, has come under fire from those who find parental sacrifice unreasonable, repressive, and restricting.  Children have become ornaments to those who want them after career, travel, accomplishment, and self-fulfillment goals are met.  Raising children has become the domain of the childless expert and may soon become the domain of the state as it increases its reach in the requirement of child care and preschool (both well regulated by the government).  This manifests itself in the desire to reshape the tax code to remove the so-called family privilege and the benefits accorded having children because these are judged unfair and inequitable to those who choose neither spouse nor child.  Even more dangerous is the attempt to label the traditional family as the very source of sexist, racist, anti-scientific, prejudicial, and homophobic ideas.  This is exactly the charge from some in the Ivy League against home-schooling.  So the norm of a family with mom, dad, and children has become that which is at best suspect and at worst not to be tolerated.

The sad reality is that all this may be much ado about nothing since the traditional family keeps shrinking in size in proportion to the rest of the population.  And perhaps we in the Church have contributed to this by suggesting to those in our pews that you decide how many children to have like you decide how many items to order from Amazon, that there is nothing exceptional about the choice not to have children, that cohabitation is virtually the same as marriage anyway, and self-fulfillment is the real goal of Christianity.  

Once the traditional family becomes exceptional and is no longer near the norm, it will cease also to become the goal and, if the campaign to stain the traditional family is successful, it will no longer be tolerable in our intolerant world.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

If you don't know Scripture, the liturgy is a foreign language

Part of the reason that the liturgy has fallen into disfavor among some who, by their tradition, should be liturgical, is that ignorance of the Scripture has grown.  Where ignorance of the Scripture grow, the liturgy becomes strange and alien.  Indeed, if you do not know the Scriptures, the liturgy is like a foreign language to you.  I wish I could claim credit for this astute observation but it goes back at least to St. Jerome who claimed that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of the liturgy.  Yet that is exactly the situation we face -- not among the many outside the Church for whom ignorance of Scripture might be expected but from those who sit in the pews!

This is true not because of the obvious.  Of course, Scripture is read and preached every Sunday in the pericopes for the day.  This is not the whole of Scripture in the liturgy.  In fact, the liturgy is, in truth, prayed Scripture.  From the invocation to the benediction, one is immersed in Scripture through the words, chants, and songs of the liturgy.  From the ordinary and its weekly rhythm to the pericopes and their weekly (even daily) focus, to be in the liturgy is to be almost drowned in Scripture.  For so many Christians, accustomed to a snippet of Scripture that forms the basis for the sermon, this is often overwhelming.  For too many Christians, even the sermon is shrouded in mystery because it echoes the Scriptures.  The greatest of sermons are those in which the words of the Lord and the words of the preacher are seamless but known to the hearer because they know God's Word.

It is the same for the collects and prayers of the Church.  These are not simply wonderful creations of skilled wordsmiths but the voices of people whose prayers are drawn from the very Word of God.  It amazes me how many times I hear the echo of the readings in the collect and the prayers present me with the Scriptural word that becomes the ground of my praying and the fruitful soil that grows the petitions of my heart.  I expect that this is true for more than me.  And this is, as well, part of the reason why knowing the Word of God means knowing the liturgy and knowing how to pray and for what to pray.

The first job of the parent is to initiate the child into the language of the Scriptures so that the child hears the liturgy as the voice of God to him or her and learns to speak back to God what God has first spoken along with the Amen of faith.  From this the child learns to pray and how to pray and for what to pray.  When Jesus is asked to teach His disciples to pray, He does not respond with a formula or method but with specific words and a specific prayer.  This prayer is the heart and soul of all our prayers.  As Jesus prays, we learn to pray from Him and with Him and in His name.

It is strange that we live at a time when we could encounter Scripture more than ever and yet there is an abysmal ignorance of God's Word.  It allows for the plethora of non-denominational churches without any real confession and without a people grounded enough in God's Word to know when they are being fed food without substance.  It is not merely a matter of lies that parade as God's Word to people who don't know the difference but gobbledygook that passes for wisdom and words of substance.  Some say God laughs.  I fear He weeps at what fools we have become.  Even in confessional churches, ignorance of their own symbols and creeds along with their Scriptural illiteracy has left them a shell and a sham of their former selves.  We wear our labels as external clothing but they no longer are borne of knowledge, understanding, and conviction.  As true as this is of the Protestant and evangelical side of Christianity, it is also what makes sacramental and liturgical Christians sitting ducks for every kind of foolishness and heresy.

When people come into a liturgical church and are bidden by the words of the Divine Service to pray, praise, and give thanks, it is not simply that they have never encountered the liturgy before.  They are estranged from Scripture and its vocabulary and truth and so the liturgy becomes a new world to them -- strange to some and strangely enticing to others.  If you know Scripture, you will be liturgical.  If you do not know Scripture, the liturgy will be like a foreign language to you.  If this was true in the past, it is even more true today for the urgent issue before us is our ignorance of God's Word and our callous indifference to the cost of such ignorance.  It is not knowledge for knowledge sake but knowledge that teaches us how to worship, how to pray, and how to live as the children of God we are by baptism and faith.  There will be only a bumpy road ahead for Christianity until we learn this truth and learn again to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd speaking to His sheep and to respond as He has spoken with faith in His words.