Wednesday, November 25, 2020

One last look at the Church Year past . . .


Not safe. . .

Catching up on my reading (I am always behind), I encountered the interesting article from the FIRST THINGS blog called, Morbid Safetyism

You can read the whole thing but I must admit that I was captivated by the title and loved the final two paragraphs:

. . .how much “life” we are willing to give up for the sake of secondary goods. These secondary goods, like health and safety, undoubtedly make life better, but certainly don’t define it, not even in the abstract. A good life isn’t just an additive bundle of all the secondary goods. It isn’t worth more if we are healthy, or able-bodied. And anything truly great requires real risks.

A morbid obsession with safety jettisons life in order to preserve life. (As I have six sons, this is a lesson I have to learn over and over again!) I hope that the political realignments of our time will include serious pushback against the notion that policy and class preferences for eliminating risk have moved us closer to the good life, or even to the good society. A sanitized life is no way to live.
Interesting questions.  When did the safety of life begin to be at odds with such things as having a child or going to work or, shall I say it, going to church?  Health and safety make our lives better -- who can argue with that -- but they are not ends in and of themselves.  At least they were not until COVID 19 came along and people began to look at anyone and everything as a threat.

I do recall Dr. Fauci, ever present voice of the corona virus pandemic, who said that he did not expect to see or hold a new grandchild or shake hands or spend holidays with the larger family.  In other words, he was willing to change his life and give up some of the things that were once prime indicators of what a good life well lived was about (children, meeting people, making friends, and celebrating occasions) in order to prevent getting that dreaded virus.  But what kind of life is a sanitized life in which we peer into the nursing home through an exterior window to see loved ones isolated there or content ourselves with Facetime with the grandkids or keep our distance from those who might prove to be our best friends or to give up church (and its foretaste of eternal life) for a safer life now (not better though it might be safer)?

A bubble wrapped existence is not life -- real life has hardship, risk, threat, and blessing that must be held in tension.  No one is suggesting that we flaunt every safeguard but to give up what were once the very marks of a rich life for a sanitized one leaves us poor and alone.  Maybe you are willing to live such a life.  I am not.  And I do not believe a Christian can live such a life either.  The sanitized life would have left Jesus distant from the lepers, the needs of people, and the sinner's shame.  There can be no Good Samaritan in a sanitized life (or one who merely thinks good thoughts as he passes by on the other side).  St. Paul's analogy of the Church as the Body of Christs implies that we are connected in more than a mental or spiritual way.  The bread broken and cup shared exemplify this unity in time that we confess exists also beyond the reach of clock or calendar.  

This sanitized life is the same sort of screwed up stuff that comes from those who insist you must love yourself first or you cannot love your neighbor.  This sanitized life sees faith as a solitary endeavor, a life lived outside the pale of human connection, and without incurring any cost or risk.  That life may be what folks want but it is not the life that Jesus lived or the life that He calls us to -- take up the cross and follow Me (especially when that cross may be the morbid concern for safety that threatens our community in Christ and our own faith.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Architecture that shows where we are headed and not where we are. . .

The problem with newer church buildings generally is that they focus on where we are and not where we are headed.  Even the ubiquitous A-frame of the 1950s and 1960s had a definite peak pointed beyond those gathered in its aisles.  It may not have been all that pretty and it was certainly cheap to build but its intention was still to point us to that which was to come.  The buildings formed from industrial materials with warehouse or retail style focus fail miserably in this regard.  Some of them have black painted ceilings to hide the exposed mechanicals and to keep the eye focused on the stage.  Some buildings have such low roofs as to make the room seem like folks are squeezed into a shoe box -- no matter how large the physical size -- and the end result is an uncomfortable closeness with those around you without the intentional discomfort of your smallness before the Mighty God.

I suppose the architecture only follows the focus of what happens inside and when the focus from the stage or lectern is on improving the present moment, that is what the room will echo.  That is, of course, the modern foible.  Too many churches seem intent upon helping people find happiness or success in the present moment but seem unprepared or unwilling to be ready for what is to come -- much less anticipate that awesome fulfillment.  We were well on our way toward this goal of focusing almost exclusively on the present before COVID came along and helped to steal our attention on the preservation of this life rather than the preparation for the life to come.  But modern Christianity has gone even further in this direction and is now even more distant from the themes of Jesus' preaching.

Architecture of old was an aid to keeping the attention of God's people and those who serve them where that attention belongs.  Repentance, readiness, and rejoicing in the promise being fulfilled as we speak.  There is less talk of repentance today perhaps because of less talk of sin.  There is less talk of readiness for the kingdom of God perhaps because we either no longer care about it or are so sure of it (cheap grace) that it does not matter to us all that much.  And there is less rejoicing in the promise because we have so much to rejoice in now -- our vast technology, our entertainment culture, our preoccupation with feelings, and our abundance of free time.

The architecture of old intended to make us seem small.  Because we are.  We are not demigods nor are we gods.  We are sinful people, marked for death, and without hope in ourselves.  That message is not popular but it is the only way that the cross makes sense.  Without an acknowledgement of our sinful smallness, the cross ends up being some ill-conceived attempt to inspire selflessness.  All well and good if Jesus dies but not so good if we are the ones dying!  As St. Paul reminds us, it is hard enough to find folks to die for a good cause much less for an uncertain or less than noble one.  Sitting in church is meant to remind us that God is great, mighty, and a force to be reckoned with.  It is meant to confront us with the unpleasant prospect of meeting this God alone.  It is also to point us to where this God has met us -- in the promise laid down from the beginning of the ages, fulfilled in Christ's flesh and blood, revealed in His suffering and death, and triumphant in the resurrection from the dead.  The building was both the place where we met the stark reminded of what sin did and our helplessness to repair it and what God has done and the hope of a future far beyond this present reality.

What happens in worship is the same.  We begin with the general confession which is sort of a hit in the gut before we ever approach God.  But God's response is to absolve the penitent and give us a place in His presence.  The liturgy rehearses the works of God in saving us and delivers to us the fruits of that redeeming work in the Word that gives life and the Body and Blood of Christ that feeds us this life as the foretaste of the eternal which is to come.  We leave having had our focus turned from the present and all of its evil and disappointment to the future and all of its promise.  Hope restored, we walk forth into the world as agents of this future destiny, doing the good works that display in a moment in time the eternal love that has redeemed us and paid for the sin of the whole world.  Architecture can either aid in this task or fight against it.  It is never neutral.  Just like the music in the Divine Service, it either complements the Gospel or contradicts or conflicts with it.

So I would gladly prefer an old A-frame to the metal skinned warehouses or low roof living rooms that too often are what passes as space for worship.  It is not preference but it is about that which echoes the Gospel in turning us from ourselves to Him in whom we have forgiveness, life, salvation, and an eternal future.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Sheep and goats

Sermon for Pentecost Last, the reign of Christ the King, preached on Sunday, November 22, 2020.

     Reading through this parable of judgment, it occurred to me that the Lord has it all backwards.  He should have begun not with the sheep but with the goats.  Apparently our Lord did not attend a sermon class at a Lutheran seminary or He would have known the Law comes before the Gospel, not after it.  But alas, He is the Lord and so He violates all the good little rules we have established to box God in and to define who God is and what He says.  That said, this is only a hint of the surprise we find in this story of judgment.  Part of it rests with who are the sheep and who are the goats.

    Although Jesus does not follow the Lutheran rules, we do so let us begin with the goats, with the Law.  It is our common presumption that these are terrible people.  They do not put cans of corn in bags for the food pantry or take care of their yards.  They are not good parents and their children end up good for nothing kids without education or employment.  Of course, the big sinners are numbered here – everyone from Hitler to terrorists to mass shooters.  But with them we tend to lump all the people we do not like.  From neighbor to co-worker to stranger across the globe, the goats are bad people and the sheep are good people.  But that is not what Jesus said.

    The goats probably were good people in the eyes of the world.  They were not druggies or irresponsible or poor parents or on the welfare rolls.  I suspect that they were Christians who went to Church and gave money to the poor and dropped off clothes to Good Will and took care of neighbors in distress and made sure their kids when to the good colleges and got good jobs.  For what is contrasted here are not works but faith.  That is why Jesus puts the sheep first.  He is commending faith.  From Hebrews we know that without faith it is impossible to please God.  Jesus is not in conflict with the author of Hebrews.  It is the same message.  The central point in it all is faith.  What marks the difference between sheep and goats is faith, faith, and only faith.

    When the sheep are confronted with the works of faith, they do not see them.  When did we do these, Lord?  They do not see because faith focuses not on our works but on the saving work of God in Christ.  Faith is fixed upon the death and resurrection of Jesus.  That is all faith sees and it is the only thing that matters.  Their surprise to the notice of the Lord is because they cannot count their good works.  They can only count the great good work of God who sent His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  They are not surprised that they are sheep.  They know they are and believe they are.  That is because they see the cross and believe in His saving death and cleansing blood.  They believe in their baptism.  They believe in the Word preached and the creed confessed.  They believe in Communion.

    The goats have all the outward marks to show the world they are good people but the one thing that they lack is faith.  “When did we see you, Jesus?”  They did not see Jesus but they did see what they did or did not do that they thought was worthy of notice.  They saw how hard they tried to be good people but they did not see their great need to be saved.  They saw every opportunity to do the right thing but they did not see what Jesus did to be the only thing by which they were saved.  They did everything right but they did not have faith.  They did not see Jesus.  Not in baptismal water giving them a life they did not deserve, not in the voice of absolution forgiving them of sins worthy of death, not in the Word of God speaking eternal truth, and not in the bread and wine that is His flesh and blood.  The sheep see only Jesus but the goats do not see Him at all.

    This is not a parable about works at all.  This is a parable about faith.  The sheep ask when DID we do these works of faith, Lord.  They do not count their works to earn them anything nor do they expect their works to be noticed or rewarded.  But the goats see only their works.  When did we NOT see you or NOT do these things?  You may have read this parable for years and presumed that Jesus was telling you the bottom line of judgment is works but what Jesus is pointing to is the bottom line of faith.  The great difference between the sheep and the goats is not what they did or did not do but faith.  How they saw themselves and how they saw Jesus was the mark of distinction that Jesus is pointing us to see.

    By the way, this is not a parable of judgment but rather a sentencing hearing.  The judgment has already been rendered.  This judgment does not take place at the last day but on the day when our Lord mounted the altar of the cross, when He paid the price for your sin and mine, when He died to deliver us from Satan and from the destiny of Satan and his ilk, and when the Father accepted this sacrifice and counted it on behalf of you and me and all the elect.  That was judgment day – Good Friday.  What Jesus is talking about is sentencing day.  When Good Friday is applied.

    At sentencing day, the verdict of the judgment already rendered is put into force, for all eternity.  The sheep hear the sentence they will suffer for all eternity.  “Come, ye blessed of My Father,” says Jesus.  “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you.”  Nobody earns a kingdom or an inheritance.  It is yours only by gift.  That is the judgment we shall suffer.  “Come, and get all that I have prepared for YOU.”  Who would live in fear of such a sentence?  The sentence is not a surprise to us for this is the very promise of Jesus.  This is why He was incarnate into the womb of Blessed Mary, why He was born in flesh, why He lived a holy and righteous life of perfect obedience, why He manifested the Kingdom in words and works, why He willingly offered Himself to the cross, why He suffered and died there, and why He rose on the third day never to die again.

    But the goats will be surprised.  They were watching themselves and looking for God to watch them as well.  They thought they were doing okay.  They loved Jesus not as Savior or Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world but as Rabbi and teacher and example to follow.  They saw love not as a gift in the cross but as a command to be fulfilled.  They will be shocked when the sentence comes down.  Enter straight away to eternal punishment.  Do not pass go.  Do not collect $200.  Only punishment!

    The goats thought works were essential and sincerity mattered but faith was flexible.  The sheep knew that faith was essential and works and sincerity mattered only because of faith.  Without faith it is impossible to please God.  That is what they knew so they did not bother to keep track on a spreadsheet all their tiny good works but kept their focus on the great work of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.  They rejoiced to be relieved of the burden of works to live in joy of grace, gift, and mercy.  They willing surrendered their good works to be forgotten so that they might remember only Jesus and what He did to deliver them from sin, death, and everlasting condemnation.

    Friends, we keep trying to make religion about works.  This is not a small problem but the greatest problem of all.  The works we take seriously only belong to Christ.  Our works may help our neighbor but they cannot advance our cause with God.  God has already rendered the judgment that counts.  He counted Jesus guilty so that we might be counted just.  He put all of our sins on Jesus so that we might be forgiven.  He gave to us the reward that Jesus earned for His holy living and life-giving death and now we look forward not to limbo or uncertainty but eternal life in the presence of God, with all the saints, and the fullness of joy that knows no end.

    You are the sheep.  Don’t act like goats.  This is even more important in times like these when you are tested by uncertainty and tried by fear.  Faith first.  That is your highest priority.  Faith first in your time and talent and treasure – being in God’s House, receiving His gifts, and responding with voices in praise and prayer, and lives of sacrifice and service to His glory.  That is all that matters.  Not the troubles you endure or the works of your hands but only Christ and only what He has done to save and only faith to trust in Him.  Everything else will pass away and only what is in Christ will endure.  You are in Christ.  Live in this faith.  Amen.

Some clarity and hope for a Lutheran university. . .

As we all know, the Lutheran university is facing a host of challenges -- indeed the very idea of a Christian university is under assault.  We are facing the demise of such schools due to their indistinguishable identity from secular institutions, the press of culture to define what is taught, learned, tolerated, and approved on our campuses, and the financial cost of such schools.  I have written often about this challenge.  I point you to one refreshing bit of candor from the new President of Concordia University Chicago and some hope for the goal of recapturing the whole idea of a Lutheran university.



Sunday, November 22, 2020

Where are we getting it?

According to the Wall Street Journal, German authorities say they don’t know where 75% of people who currently test positive for the coronavirus got it. In Austria, the figure stands at 77%. In Spain, the health ministry said that it was able to identify the origin of only 7% of infections registered in the last week of October. In France and Italy, only some 20% of new cases have been linked to people who previously tested positive.  Lest we presume this is due to European ineptness,  “The vast majority of the remainder [of the new cases in NYC] —somewhere probably around 50% or more—we don’t have a way to directly attribute their source of infection,” Mr. Varma [Senior Advisor for Public Health for the Mayor's Office]  said. “And that’s a concern.”

Because we do not know where the infections are coming from, the blame game is up again.  In Europe it is pointed toward restaurants.  Researchers from Stanford University and Northwestern University have used the mobile-phone data of 98 million Americans to model how the virus spread during the first wave of Covid-19 in the spring.  The study, published in journal Nature this past week, showed that restaurants, gyms, hotels, cafes and religious organizations carried the biggest risk of spreading infections.  This is because the virus tends to spread fastest in closed, poorly ventilated and crowded spaces.  Apparently these researches have not been in any churches over the past six to eight months!

Churches are a convenient scapegoat for the increasing uncertainty about where people are getting this pernicious virus.  They are convenient because churches tend to be independent and to lack the financial resources and media access to combat the charges laid against them.  They are a scapegoat because religion is no longer the paragon of virtue and the necessity to life it once was.  In fact, most Americans tend to believe that the best adherents are those who are skeptical about the religious claims of their faith and who pick and choose from doctrine the way people once made their way through a buffet line (before they became passe).  The reality is this.  Churches, at least most of them, have neither been full or poorly ventilated for a very long time.  About the last thing people will economize on is their comfort that this applies to churches (most generally very well cooled and heated and cleaned).  They are closed in one sense -- they have doors -- but they are not closed in.  Most churches have high ceilings and a great volume and quantity of space per worshiper present -- more so than just about anywhere!  You are more likely to be distant from folks in a church building than you are at Wal-Mart and yet people have not stopped shopping!

My complaint here is that this is shoddy reporting and shallow research.  Instead of relying upon anecdotal evidence, they need to show up on a Sunday morning and see.  Our building has every other pew roped off, individual seats spread out, and people are in close proximity to each other for barely a few moments during the worship time.  We have four HVAC units going constantly in a building with a 37 foot high ceiling, wider than it is deep, and with 40% or more of our people wearing masks.  If everyplace Americans went was as socially distant, clean, and well-ventilated as our church building, perhaps we would not be seeing such spikes.  Outside of a few crackpot pastors and odd congregations here and there, everyone I know is doing everything possible to keep their members safe while they are in church on Sunday morning.  Given the shrinking size of most congregations, I don't know of one pastor who is willing to write off any regular worshiper for the sake of making some kind of political statement.  Not to mention the shortage of good givers!

Plus, how many people have been in church lately?  A quick survey of the blogosphere shows that most Protestant congregations have a significant number of their people worshiping online.  Those who have primarily inperson worship have had reduced numbers in the building.  Lets be honest here.  Churches are easy targets for explaining the unknown of COVID infections.  But easy and convenient may not be accurate. 

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Have we become wimps?

A few weeks ago I looked across the church, spread out because of every other pew roped off, and was even more conscious of the people who were not there than those who were.  I suppose it is a shepherd's habit to notice more the ones missing than the ones present.  But in this case it was not a simple matter of counting noses.  It was a growing sense that perhaps those absent now will remain absent in the days to come -- that there might be nothing I can do or anyone can to get them back (except the Lord, of course).  It made me think.

I thought of the old advice -- a home going pastor makes for a church going people.  I wish that were true.  Well, no, I don't.  Of all the things I dislike about being a pastor, one of them I detest most is the idea that my job is to be the conscience of God's people and that I am responsible for their failure to hear and heed the call of God.  I do go after folks and remind them of their place around the Word and Table of the Lord -- with the rest of God's people in this place.  When people see me and they have not been in church for a while, I hear excuse after excuse as it I were the one they needed to mollify with their good and legitimate reasons for missing.  But it is not me to whom they must answer.  I will preach pointedly and bluntly the Word of the Lord and will admonish the erring from their ways but it is the Lord's Church and the people of God are accountable to HIM.  Pastors sometimes forget this.  People, too.

It occurs to me that we have it so much easier than those who went before us.  Too easy?  We have too many distractions, too many things competing for our time and interest, and too many choices.  I grew up in one of those homes where I knew that unless my parents encountered a cold dead body in the bed on Sunday morning, I knew where I would be.  My brother knew it as well.  It was in the DNA.  We went when the pavement was icy, when snow blew across the gravel road, when it seemed like the rain would wash us away, and when we were holding back the sniffles of a coming cold.  But we had it easier than those who went before us.  They encountered a cold church and waiting for heat in the winter and put up with noisy fans circulating the heat in the summer.  All while wearing suits and ties and dresses considered worthy of God's House!  

The pandemic has given us an excuse to give into our fears, to be sure, but it has also allowed us to surrender to a whole lot of other things.  If we can watch church on TV in our pjs and sip coffee along with listening to the hymns and sermons of online services, we have the ultimate choice.  The appeal of the virtual church will not soon go away because we are ever more susceptible to our weaknesses.  We have become wimps.  We will not put up with much to go to church on Sunday morning.  We won't tolerate inconvenience, we will not turn down a more interesting or pleasurable alternative, and we won't allow ourselves to be bored.  If the pastor is not on his game, we will find something else to do.  If the facilities are not up to snuff, we will find some place better.  If the coffee does not suit us, we will hold it against God.  Our expectations are greater than ever and our patience has worn ever so thin.  We are not simply picky.  We are wimps.

Prosperity is a tool of the devil because it makes us soft.  We live in a world of choice and preference and high definition life.  We will not long tolerate a church that does not live up to expectations.  It is not because we are erudite and educated.  We are soft.  We have become accustomed to people, business, and religion than panders to us.  The devil must be laughing at how easy it is to use our abundance against us.  And it must grieve the Lord that He has given us so much and we are not willing to give up anything or risk anything or put ourselves out for anything in return.

Suffering is not in our vocabulary anymore.  Your body hurts, take a pill.  Your life is not what you want it to be, make it over.  Your marriage is not giving you what you think you deserve, end it and find somebody better.  We unfriend, block, and report everyone and everything that does not live up to our picky expectations and God gets treated like everything and everyone else.  What do we have in common with Christians who lived under constant threat and uncertainty?  What do we have in common with churches suffering persecution simply for believing and worshiping according to Scripture?  We are wimps.

We would rather pray for God to deliver us from unpleasantness than to endure troubles, trials, or temptations.  We would rather find a way around the mountains in our path than climb over them.  But Scripture reminds us that those who endure to the end will be saved.  God is our hiding place and He is our refuge but in His wisdom He will not deliver us from every little thing and even some very big ones we are sure we would be better off without.  We all have thorns in the flesh that are meant to drive us into the arms of Christ, to stand in the strength of Christ, and to depend less upon our own strength, wisdom, or cleverness and more upon the steadfast love of the Lord.  We are wimps.  

Pray that God will make us more than weak and cowardly people.  Pray that He will enable us to endure to the day of His coming and find in Him grace sufficient for each day's trouble and mercy new every morning.  Pray that the cross will shine forth to us as well as through us so that we know the cost of our salvation and can bear our daily crosses without complaint.  The world is not improving.  Things are not getting better and better.  With every technological advance comes untold consequences not so delightful.  And we find it harder to trust in the Lord.  But as dark as it can get, as prone as we might be to despair, as short as our tempers may grow, God will grant us all we need to endure.  And he who endures to the end will be saved.  God will make something of us yet.  If we only let Him.

Friday, November 20, 2020

God ordains men; be one. . .

I have seen it around the blogosphere and I am sure you have as well.  “God ordains men; be one,” urged the sainted Rev. Dr. Kenneth Korby to us pastors.  It is interesting that some of the folks who have quoted Korby did not know the man.  More importantly, they did not know the opposition faced by this man and the times in which he issued that famous call.  The problem is not simply that pastors have no backbones and they constantly check the pulse of their popularity or the will and desire of the people they serve.  Yes, this is a problem.  But even more so is the problem in the pews.  Pastors were not castrated at their behest.  They were forced to it.  They were pressured by congregations who wanted a pastor who would do what the people wanted, by district presidents who wanted pastors to do what people wanted (and what would make the congregation happy), by statistics which constantly measured the success of a pastor and the parish solely in terms of attendance and money, and by a world which believed and still believes that the best religions are those that are flexible and the best religious people are those who don't pay all that much attention to the orthodoxy of doctrine and practice.

You may have forgotten that Korby was not a district president, was not a voice sought out by the leaders of our church, and was not a theologian recognized or welcomed by his own church.  He was not a lone voice but he was among the lonely who advocated for such things as eucharistic integrity in the life of the Church, private confession, and, yes, pastoral integrity.  His gravely voice agitated at a time when the Lutheran Church was fighting battles on many fronts and did not want or think it needed another cause.  He was absolutely correct in his estimation of what was wrong among us but we as a church were not willing to hear or heed his voice in correcting that wrong.  

Kenneth Frederick Korby was ordained on the Feast of St. James the Elder in 1948 at Redeemer Lutheran Church, St. Paul, Minn., where he served as Assistant Pastor under another notorious name in Missouri, Herbert Lindemann.  He grew up during the Great Depression, living a simple life on a farm where the simple piety of Bible, catechism, and hymnal instilled in him a frame for his faith that never left him.  He carried this with him to Medford, Oregon -- hardly the rich ground of Lutheranism even then, and then went to Valpo (yes, that pariah of schools among LCMSers) where he stayed from 1958-1980.  He was the first celebrant in the magnificent chapel that dominates the skyline of the campus.  He spent 9 years at Chatham Fields Lutheran Church, a largely African-American congregation on the southside of Chicago.   His degrees were from Concordia Seminary, Yale, and Seminex (yes, Seminex).  Dr. Korby led no charmed life.  Those who would heed his words must also prepare to live something less than a charmed life.

I knew Dr. Korby, listened to him speak, and revered him as a prophet and pastor -- but the picture of a pastor and the shape of the kind of ministry encouraged by this sainted pastor both attracted and frightened me.  It should.  We should all want to be the kind of man Pastor Kenneth Korby was but we should do so with no illusions.  Our congregations do not want a man who holds forth the witness of our Confessions as the holy ground on which we stand and that which shapes our doctrine and practice.  It is a dangerous road for those whose weakness is wanting to be liked and loved.  We have lived too long in a culture of go along and get along.  To be a man, as Dr. Korby calls us, is to risk comfort in order to be faithful.  You may opine at length about the state of things in our Synod and the treatment of pastors by congregations and DPs who prefer those moderate in faith and practice but you must also look at the ranks of those who have battle scars and checkered resumes to evidence the cost of faithfulness.

It is not just that pastors need to be men but congregations need to want and welcome and listen to them.  The Church cannot survive against the pressures of the devil and the world and give into the darker voices in us that demand a relative truth, a flexible faith, and a compromised practice.  The LCMS is not the ELCA but we are not without those who wish we were closer to them than to the kind of Lutherans who say what they mean and mean what they say.  Pastors need to be there for the long haul to make a difference and willing to put up with a great many things to lead a congregation to become more Lutheran in identity as well as in confession and practice.

I have served two parishes (not much experience there!) but neither parish was confessional in faith nor did either parish have a history or strong identity in the Divine Service, catechism, and creed.  One did not even use a Lutheran hymnal and the other had lay people doing most of the liturgy so that the pastor was there only for essentials.  Both places took time to begin to make a difference.  I made so many mistakes that it is a wonder anything good came of it all.  Both parishes still have those who would rather appeal to broad minimums of practice and belief and both parishes are but a half of a generation from bowing the pressure to root faith in feelings, worship in what is fun and meaningful, and parish life in what will appeal to outsiders.  Private confession is still a practice in its infancy here but it is growing up slowly.  There are naysayers who always challenge with "that is not how I was taught" or "that is not what I like" and there will always be.  COVID has exposed all the cracks in our foundation and threatens to make us all smaller unless we are willing to grant a digital church legitimacy.

So, quote Korby, by all means, but quote him knowing that the path he lived and his legacy is not without challenge.  In the end you will be tested and tried.  It may not be so much how manly you are as how much you are willing to put up with and for how long before the churches we speak of in theory become close to the churches we have in fact.  But faithfulness is not about what you judge to be worth the fight.  It is always about what God calls, what our heroes in the faith have stood for, and whether we will follow in their train.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Old devotional books. . .

Old devotional books and prayerbooks were more blunt in their assessment of the need and even more blunt in their calls to repentance and faith.  I wonder if we are too soft.  A while ago we used a prayer from Starck's Prayerbook for epidemic and pandemic.  It included lines that called us to remember that we are not innocent victims of wrong but, due to sin, its willing participants.  It called us to repent and to trust in God's gracious will.  It prayed for God to cast aside the terrible affliction, not because we deserved it but because God is merciful.

Some folks did not like that prayer.  It offended them.  They had done nothing to invite the terrible curse of COVID 19 and they wanted it known that they were victims.  Sin always has victims but seldom has sinners behind the sin.  We do not want answers from God; we want comfort and that comfort begins by telling us we did nothing to bring upon ourselves the pain we are suffering.  We do not want explanations from God; we want God to take away the pain and promise never to allow it again.  We do not want God's presence; either God acts to insulate us from affliction or else He can go back to where He came from.  

I was looking up something else and came across these words written 70 years ago.  The author was Bishop Fulton Scheen.  He could have been one of a thousand authors from times before when the goal of the devotion or prayer was not therapeutic but to call us to repentance and faith.  I remember his TV program from my youth and could well imagine him saying those words he wrote long before he was a media personality.  Read them, if you desire, but they will not be easy.  We do not need understanding when our hearts have succumbed to fear and we live panicked lives.  We need voices to tell us the score, to call us to repentance, and to invite us to trust in the Lord.  Seen or not, God is still there.

Written in 1950 but appropriate to the present:  Millions of men and women today lead what has been called “lives of quiet desperation.” They are panicky, worried, neurotic, fearful, and, above all, frustrated souls. 

When Job suffered, he posed questions to God: why was he born, and why was he suffering? God appeared to him, but instead of answering Job’s questions, He began to ask Job to answer some of the larger questions about the universe. When the Creator had finished pouring queries into the head of the creature, Job realized that the questions of God were wiser than the answers of men. Because God’s ways are not our ways—because the salvation of a soul is more important than all material values – because Divine Wisdom can draw good out of evil—the human mind must develop acceptance of the Now, no matter how hard it may be for us to understand its freight of pain. We do not walk out of a theater because the hero is shot in the first act; we give the dramatist credit for having a plot in his mind; so the soul does not walk out on the first act of God’s drama of salvation—it is the last act that is to crown the play. The things that happen to us are not always susceptible to our minds’ comprehension or wills’ conquering; but they are always within the capacity of our Faith to accept and of our wills’ submission.
And, another. . .
It is the modern pagan who is the victim of circumstance, and not its master. Such a man, having no practical knowledge of God, no trust in His Providence, no assurance of His Love, lacks the shock absorber of Faith and Hope and Love when difficult days come to him. His mind is caught within the pincers of a past he regrets or resents and a future he is afraid he cannot control. Being thus squeezed, his nature is in pain. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The hegemony of China. . .

Frankly, I do not get why China gets such a pass when it comes to religion.  It is as if the news media and the whole of the rest of the world has amnesia or conveniently has chosen to forget the terrible treatment of the pious in China (of all religions).   Where is the media?  Where are the voices of politicians and jurists?  Where is the outrage?  There are plenty of examples for every religion.

Where has been the outcry against China's brutal suppression of the 12 million Uyghurs.  Officially they are recognized as native to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China but that has not stopped China from taking children from families, sending people into detention camps for re-education, and preventing these Muslim people from living out their faith or passing it on to their children.  Where has the media been in the campaign of China against the Mongols and the preservation of their culture and religion?  Recently the Chinese government decided to limit the use of their native language in schools.  Supposedly, this is an autonomous region -- the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region -- but that has not stopped the Chinese from working very hard to relocate Chinese into the region and devalue the Mongol language and culture.

Where is the outcry against the strange and complicit relationship between the Vatican and China -- one that effectively places Roman Catholic Christians and their faith under the control of the Chinese government?  There are some 12 million Roman Catholics in China and the Pope sold them out for an agreement the persecuted hierarchy of that Roman Catholic Church protested as not in the best interest of the people or the church.  Even Cardinal Zen has protested but it seems that his standing is not enough to convince the Pope that the recent accord is not in the best interest of their congregants or the Vatican.

Where is the outcry against the government controlled Protestant Christian Church in China?  Though supposedly protected by China, these state run congregations have suffered the loss of buildings and property that effectively prevents them from worshiping together.  Where have you heard about this?  Who will tell the story of Christians where whole congregations have been threatened with arrest for standing in the way of the government?  What about the crackdown on the house churches in China?  Does anyone really know what is happening there?

Google the stories.  They are there.  But nobody in the mainstream media is telling the terrible tale.  The government rewrites the Bibles that are allowed, controls the freedom to worship, and threatens Christians (and other religions) routinely.  Oh, I guess I know the reason why.  Because as long as people can privately believe what they want, religion is protected.  And, in case you are wondering, this is exactly where things are headed in America.  

No longer is there a freedom to assemble for worship but a freedom of private belief -- emphasis on private.  Biden's own campaign people decry the official positions of Roman Catholics, Orthodox Judaism, and Muslims.  Despite his claim to be a practicing Roman Catholic, he vowed to pursue the Little Sisters of the Poor.  During the Obama administration effort was given to reduce the freedoms accorded churches and their affiliated agencies, especially with regard to health care coverage.  The mantra of the present age is about private faith absent from the public square.  Perhaps that is why we have not heard all that much about what is happening in China.  It could portend the governmental control of religion in places where the free exercise of religion is supposed to be a guaranteed right.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Cost of Covid. . .

I am sure I am not alone.  Every pastor has a similar story.  A parishioner is in a nursing home, gets Covid, and ends up in hospice care.  The person is dying.  But the nursing home has a strict policy against visitors.  So the spouse cannot visit.  The spouse can wave at the outside window to a patient lying in bed who cannot see the window.  And of course the pastor cannot visit either.  Maybe when the patient is actively dying -- whatever in the world that means!  So after 27 phone calls on behalf of the spouse and pastor, the best we get is that somebody will get back to us.  Nevermind that the pastor has visited patients in isolation before, gowned up, wore a mask, hair cover, shoe covers, gloves, etc... that is not good enough.  Covid has its own protocols. There won't be any exceptions.  So, at this point the patient is dying alone when the patient might have had a visit or two from the spouse, received the Sacrament, and been given the assurance of the forgiveness of his sins.

That is what Covid has taken from us -- not simply the symptoms or the complications but our very humanity.  Perhaps we have contributed to this by acting foolishly, recklessly, and carelessly.  Perhaps more masks might have helped or will help in slowing things down.  But we were and are so quick to surrender our humanity to our fears that it just might be time to ask ourselves what kind of lives we are saving and what cost we are willing to pay for those lives.

This is one pastor who is not giving up but who does not have much hope of prevailing so that a nursing home working by the book might actually look into the face of this dying person and show a little compassion.  After all, the spouse and pastor would follow all the precautions the people follow who are caring for this dear soul.  If they had the chance.

Of course, people have died without spouses near or pastors visiting before.  And still.  But they do not have to die alone.  At least not now and not this time. 

Monday, November 16, 2020

When the prophetic conflicts with the pastoral. . .

Over at the GetReligion web site I read a piece on the disappearing mainline Protestant churches of America.  In the article, the author referred to a 1969 book by Jeffery Hadden (The Gathering Storm in the Churches) among others.  I found it most interesting.  He was drawing on old data that showed the decline among the mainline churches was not simply the erosion of doctrinal truth and confidence in the facts of the Scriptures (as espoused by the clergy) but also the conflict between the prophetic voices of those preachers and the desire of the people to be comforted and encouraged in their faith.

If you recall, this was an era in which many of those mainline churches had pulpits that were talking more about Viet Nam and civil rights than about the death and resurrection of Jesus (though, for example, only 49% of Methodist clergy then believed that Jesus' resurrection was an objective, historical fact).

Clergy revisionism on doctrine was strongly associated with devotion to liberal politics, but not so with lay members. Clergy did not mostly suffer hostility from members over their liberal views as such, Hadden explained. Rather, the problem was that the typical lay member “seeks comfort and escape from the world in the sanctuary of God” and doesn’t understand why ministers do not focus concern on their own congregations.

The author, Richard Ostling, maintains that the clergy of these mainline churches were on a collision course with the wants and needs of their people.  The doubts raised about the facts of their faith were accompanied by a different view of the Church -- one that saw the primary purpose of the Church and preaching to shape society rather than call people to faith and repentance of their sins, comfort and encourage them with the forgiveness made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and direct them to the future and eternal life promised to them by their risen Savior. 

In other words, people were coming to their church homes to find refuge from the turmoil and upset in the news and instead found themselves either berated or their country condemned for the failure to promote world peace, confront world hunger, eliminate poverty, end racism, and create a more egalitarian society.  The world of the mainline churches then was shaped by a liberal social activism and crowding out what Christianity was really about, what Christians were looking for and desired from their congregations and clergy.

Today we find ourselves at a similar juncture.  I know of people who have drifted away from mainline churches because they have tired of the constant drumbeat of the liberal and progressive social agenda replacing the call to faith, the call to repentance, the comfort of the absolution, and the grace of Word and Sacrament to grow our faith and equip us to endure to the day of Christ's coming.  So the mainline churches continue their decline for many of the same reasons.

Could it be, however, that conservative churches might also suffer the same outcome when and if the core of the preaching and teaching moves from Christ to the ills and dangers of a liberal and progressive culture?  Could it be that conservative churches which grew while mainline were bleeding off people are themselves in danger by becoming so immersed in political and social activism that they fail to provide the comfort, grace, and encouragement of Christ and Him crucified to their people?  That is the warning of another book from generations ago, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (1972) by the Rev. Dean M. Kelley.  I think it would be wise to pay attention to his warning.

Being prophetic toward a society drifting from traditional moral norms and values or trying to create a better society can conflict with the primary and pastoral purpose of the Church -- preaching and teaching Jesus Christ and bring the fruits of His redeeming work to the people of God through the means of grace.  It happened to the social activists on the liberal side.  It could happen to more conservative churches as well if we forget why the Church exists and why people come inside its walls.  Just a few thoughts. . .

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Jesus the Tweeter. . .

As I was listening to the radio while driving to the Church, there came the unusual religion story in the news.  This was about the 30% and more of those who have not returned to in person worship and who, it looks like, maybe never will.  There were obligatory quotes from pastors about the resulting consequences of losing such a large chunk of people.  But there was also this.  One pastor of a very large Baptist congregation said that this was, as I am tired of hearing, the new normal and maybe it is also a good thing.  He went on to talk about engaging people digitally, welcoming people who would never darken the door to a church building, and all the usual hoopla about technology that either supplements or even replaces the brick and mortar church.

All of this is well and good, I suppose, but only to a point.  What would Jesus do with technology?  I could only imagine and so could you but the reality is that hardly anything Jesus said and did would be translatable to a screen, would fit the limitations of digital engagement, or would be replaced with virtual meetings.  Indeed, Jesus did everything in His power to engage people personally.  The miracles of food for thousands, of healing for the sick, of freedom for those captive to demons, and of life to the dead cannot and would not have taken place on the screen.  The Sermon on the Mount cannot be made to fit the parameters of Twitter, the teachings of Jesus do not convey on Instagram, nor does the presence of Christ transfer to Facebook (or, for that matter, following Christ!).  

I am not saying that the Church should abandon the platforms by which we reach out to people digitally.  We have a robust presence on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Vimeo.  What I am saying is that we must recognize the limitations of these social media.  What they provide does not at all replace in person worship, preaching, and teaching.  They may be an effective way to meet people where they are at but, as we know from Jesus, it does not serve them or the Church to leave them where they are.  They must be engaged to bring them out from the isolation of self, screen, and social media and brought into the rich presence of the God who meets them in the living voice of His Word and the Sacraments that deliver what they sign.

Can you imagine Jesus tweeting?  or Instagramming?   Or Facebooking?  Or Zooming His teaching time with His disciples?  I can't.  I have no doubt that St. Paul might have had more use for technology than Jesus but I also have no doubt that St. Paul might have written a third or fourth letter to any Corinthians who were replacing the meeting together around the Word and Table of the Lord for an online connection to the Body of Christ.  It would not have been a pleasant piece of correspondence.  So I think the good pastor was mistaken.  COVID did not teach the Church a good lesson in utilizing social media to replace in person worship.  It created a tempting lie that too many have bought into -- hook, line, and sinker.  And with that lie will come the emptying not only of the building but the Church of any real faith, worship, and discipleship.  We are not being freed from our bondage to a building but simply trading one sort of captivity for another.  The difference being that in the building we are at least personally engaged, not simply individuals in front of our screens in our comfortable chair and comfortable clothes, but a gathered people around the gathering Word and gifting Sacraments by which the Spirit works, yes, here it comes, personally.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Some theological problems. . .

For much of Christianity, theology does not pay all that much attention to Scripture.  In fact, there are many so-called theologians who are almost strangers to the Word of God.  When the Scriptures are used, their words become mere proof-texts for the support of a theological stance or system. Many a modern  theologian would be offended at the idea of having to write a commentary on a book of the Bible and many a commentator has turned their commentary into an exploration of just about anything but what the Biblical writer wrote. For too much of Christianity and for too many theologians, real exegesis is simply ignored or rejected. Even worse, what too often passes for commentaries fails to aid in the primary task of the Scriptures -- preaching!  If it won't preach, then it cannot be faithful and good commentary.

It is sad that many journals involved in the pursuit of the Biblical literature treat the Bible as they would any book or, worse, they subject the Scriptures to scrutiny and skepticism they place against few other works.  They treat the text as if its origins were more important than its message and they presume that the history of the books and authors themselves as well as the message have been colored by others, distorted from their original words and meaning, and conflated with myth and legend to the point of being almost undecipherable.  It could be said that for many of these journals and their authors, what is said is not as important as reconstructing the original context and thereby they give birth to their own set of myths, legends, and postulates that end up being more important than the text and replacing what has been written and past down through the ages.

Scripture has become a riddle and the modern exegetes riddlers who seek to unravel the mystery.  Perhaps we inherited some of this from the layers of rabbinical teaching that accompanied the Old Testament through the ages but the science of Scripture has become the tail that wags the dog, so to speak.  There are not many commentaries that I would suggest to the preacher.  Some of the finer commentaries that actually aid in the teaching of the Bible and the preaching of the Kingdom are those produced by the Concordia Commentary series.  I must confess that I found it easy to read Tom Winger's Ephesians and John Kleinig's Hebrews from beginning to end instead of as a reference work (the way I usually read through a commentary).  The most profound commentaries will point us to Christ who is the Word in the word, whose voice speaks through every speaker, whose blood permeates through every page, and whose power is at work in every sentence accomplishing His purpose.

Pope Francis published last month a tribute to St. Jerome, the patron saint of the Scriptures.  Often called one of the most important doctors of the Church, Jerome's focus was primarily on the Word of God.  However, Francis suggested that Scripture is a dark and murky mystery without the aid of scholars to enlighten us.  

Many, even among practising Christians, say openly that they are not able to read it (cf. Is 29:12), not because of illiteracy, but because they are unprepared for the biblical language, its modes of expression and its ancient cultural traditions. As a result the biblical text becomes indecipherable, as if it were written in an unknown alphabet and an esoteric tongue.

Coming from one of the few church bodies where the Biblical languages still are required of those in Seminary, I hesitate to challenge the idea that mastery of the Biblical languages is not essential.  However, Francis has given us a false impression of the Scriptures.  The text is not indecipherable and our Lord Himself suggested that the child can see and know the Word of God and meet Christ on its page.  He is not at all suggesting that the Scriptures are simplistic but that the primary requirement of any interpreter is faith.  And this is exactly what seems to be missing from the pens of those who produce many of the commentaries published today.  It would seem they know everything about the Scriptures except Jesus Christ, its author.  

St. Jerome would remind us that the primary job of the pastor or priest is to bring the Scriptures to the people through preaching and teaching.  He would have harsh things to say to those who succeed in every task but these.

“. . . the word of the priest must be flavoured by the reading of Scripture. I do not wish that you be a disclaimer or charlatan of many words, but one who understands the sacred doctrine (mysterii) and knows deeply the teachings (sacramentorum) of your God. It is typical of the ignorant to play around with words and to garner the admiration of inexpert people by speaking quickly. Those who are shameless often explain that which they do not know and pretend to be a great expert only because they succeed in persuading others”.

And that is where I would end this little meandering thought.  The Scriptures are meant to be preached.  Commentaries have as their primary function to aid the preacher in his task.  To that end, let us treat the Scriptures as the voice of God and make our own mouths accessible to Him so that the Word of God may be proclaimed into the ears, minds, and hearts of the hearer and the Spirit bring forth the response of faith. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Supplement to ELW. . .

I have posted before on the progress of the WELS on their new hymnal.  Now I found that the ELCA publishing house has put together a supplement to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, published in 2006.  As if 564 hymns and 10 settings of Holy Communion and several daily offices were not enough, this book adds another 200 hymns and songs, 2 more settings of Holy Communion, a Word and Prayer service and 75 new prayers and liturgical formulations.  Hymns, liturgies, and prayers all follow the now established pattern of ELCA worship materials in de-emphasizing male pronouns (also with reference to God) and offer some bilingual help (Spanish) for services.  Two-thirds of the hymn texts and half of the tunes are new to the ELCA, at least officially.  The emphasis is clearly on what has happened since ELW was published.  The official date of release is November 17 of this year for those itching to purchase.

A quick look at the accompaniments suggests that this resource is targeted for non-organ instrumentation, probably for piano and praise bands.  That is not surprising.  The claim is that All Creation Sings brings together "a wide range of cultural, ethnic, generational, and theological perspectives, all faithfully Lutheran -- of course -- though I am sure some might disagree.  The hymns and songs are more likely to be short, ritual songs -- now more in vogue than the longer stanzas typical of older hymns.  There are many hymns and songs from Africa, the Caribbean, and other regions.  You find some familiar names among the authors and composers but also many new ones.  Even a Luther hymn is included as new -- well, at least new to those using ELW -- In the Midst of Early Life.  Marty Haugen is well represented.  Diversity is clearly one of the operating rules for this resource, as it is for nearly all of the ELCA.  

While I think supplements can be very good, I worry about those which only include new hymns and fail to restore to the use of the congregation faithful old hymns which were not included in hymnals (whether because of a shortage of space or preferences for new resources).  That is certainly a direction I wish the LCMS would pursue and make available many of the hymns from TLH and LW which were not included in LSB.  For example, I have a fondness for Henry Letterman's The Lord's My Shepherd Leading Me and Martin Franzmann's O Kingly Love.  We should have these hymns even if some choose not to use them and a supplement is the best place.  At least they could be added to the electronic resource, Lutheran Service Builder.

A new supplement is often a prelude to work on a new hymnal (With One Voice and Hymnal Supplement 98 both served this purpose).  But I wonder if there is much interest in or stomach for a new hymnal.  We will wait and see.  Some have already decided that the hymnal is an antiquated resource in our digital world.  I have grave reservations about that conclusion.  You may decide to purchase a copy but after reviewing the PR I am thinking this is one hymn volume that will probably not find its way to my shelves.  So I am not promoting this book but wondering whether or not it will lead to another hymnal project down the road.  Time will tell. . . 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Armistice Day. . . now Veteran's Day

Living in a city with such a huge presence of active duty, former military, and retired military has left me with renewed awe and appreciation for those who have defended our nation, fought to protect our liberty, and gone the world over in the cause of American interests.  The numbers of those dead and wounded over the years is too great a number for me to imagine.  On Sunday morning I see the faces of so many young and middle aged folks who may be there in civilian clothing but who are always "on duty."  We have had colonels and the lowest of the enlisted ranks, helicopter pilots and mechanics, paratroopers and chaplains, special forces and regular army.  They are tall and short, men and women, from cities and rural areas, but they share in common a remarkable sense of duty that makes me feel safe and secure.  More than this, it makes me feel a deep and abiding sense of gratitude toward those who have served and now serve.

On this day, first called Armistice Day, now Veteran's Day (Remembrance Day in Canada and UK), we take a moment to remember and give thanks to those whose daily duty is to protect our freedom and defend our liberty against any and all enemies. For nearly 17 years now I have been Pastor of a congregation in the city that forms the southern and eastern boundary of Fort Campbell (KY), one of the largest military posts in the US. This is the closest I have ever been to what is a very large community of active duty, retired, and former military folks and it has been an eye opener.

Many of them are very young and underpaid by every reasonable standard. They have served and continue to serve here and throughout the world, many of them in the fourth or fifth deployment to the Middle East and Afghanistan. Many of them are young officers and enlisted men and women who have re-enlisted even in the face of very difficult and dangerous duty that has kept them far from home, far from family, and far from normal life (in peacetime, anyway). Some of them are senior offices and enlisted folks who have seen duty going back to the Balkans, Africa, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so many other hot spots and fields of battle.

What amazes me are the single young men and women who show up in a Lutheran church every Sunday morning (when you know they could be sleeping in). I am mightily amazed at these fine young men and women who are a regular part of our congregation. What amazes me are the families who somehow pull it all together when mom or dad is in the field, at a school, or deployed. They make a great sacrifice and one often unheralded by the nation. What amazes me is the grace that these military men and women show, respectful, honorable, and dedicated -- younger, young, and older... they are an amazing representation of our country and for our country. What amazes me are the wounded warriors within this group -- those with battlefield injuries and those injured in training -- almost to a person their interest is in healing up as fast as they can so that they can return to their units and to their jobs.

Today their honored place in the limelight is tarnished by the cowardly act of one soldier at Fort Hood. It is sad that on this day when we recall the present day members of our armed forces and those who served so faithfully in the past, that they would have to share the public eye with one who stood in their midst, wore their uniform, and defamed every principle and cause for which men and women wear those uniforms. I won't say any more lest his betrayal take more of this day away from those who deserve our prayers, our encouragement and support every day.

My father and father-in-law served in WWII and Korea and we have relatives who fought in WWI as well.  My wife has a longer history of those who stepped up for duty going all the way back to the American Revolution.  Hats off to you  --- those who served, who are now serving, and who died in service to your country. Those now serving are in my daily prayers, in the prayers at the Altar each Sunday, and in the hearts of those within our congregation. God bless you and God bless the good work you do on our behalf. May your bravery, service, and sacrifice be remembered always, not just on one day in the year.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Curiosity kills more than cats. . .

Curiosity is often seen as a virtue but it is a mixed one at best.  Curious for what their lives might be like apart from the constraints God had placed upon them, Adam and Eve found the hidden to be something less than salutary when they found it.  From Babel to the Ark of Noah, curiosity even with respect to God has not turned out well for man.  Curiosity can be a definite vice when it is a relentless rejection of the way things are in pursuit of something new and different.  Curiosity has brought invasive species to places where they have overgrown and taken over in the absence of natural enemies.  Curiosity has led us to create all sorts of things that proved to be more than we could handle or contain.  This is no less true when it comes to Scripture.

I admit to have mixed feelings about some of what goes on in Bible study.  Some are determined to treat the Scriptures as details and trivia about which there is no lack of curiosity.  Not satisfied for what the text says, they dig like Gnostics to find hidden meanings and treat the Bible as if it must be decoded (and not simply by faith!).  Not satisfied with what they eye sees or the ear hears, we dig into the words of God as if they did not mean what they say or do what they promise.  We end up with divine suggestions instead of commands and promises from a beneficent God.  There is only one purpose to Bible study -- to know Christ -- and it does not strengthen our faith or equip us for His purpose to treat the things of God as details about which we are curious or have a passing interest. 

Herod was curious about the things of God and a possible miracle sighting.  Great numbers of those who followed Christ were less than interested in Him as Messiah but they were certainly curious about miracle food or healing or a possible resurrection.  We, like them, seem very interested in new things God might be doing but seem to shrug our shoulders at the work of God of old that led to the supreme revelation of Christ upon the cross.  In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old by the prophets but now, in these last ages, He has spoken through His Son -- but don't stop looking cause He just might add something to Christ or do something different.  Could our curiosity be borne of our own flightiness and fickle character?  What do we do with a God who is yesterday, today, and forever the same?

Even when people are curious about the faith, it does not necessarily translate into an openness to believing.  Faith comes by hearing, as St. Paul said, but the hearing as well as the speaking are under the power of the Holy Spirit.  Apart from the Spirit, curiosity is just, well, curiosity.  I am ever so glad people are curious about the church or the faith but it is ever so disappointing when it is only curiosity and when the accumulation of knowledge leads them nowhere.  But that is exactly how we treat knowledge today -- curiosity to be satisfied.  The ever present internet and our portable screens mean that we can seemingly satisfy our curiosity endlessly.  But, as St. Augustine reminds us, such curiosity is an endless pursuit until it rests in Christ.  Christ is the end to our curiosity and the beginning of our true learning from the Lord of truth whose Word is truth.  Sanctify us in this truth, we pray.  Don't just fill our minds with tidbits of facts and information but use this truth to make us holy.

Monday, November 9, 2020

It IS midnight. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 23, Proper 27A, preached on Sunday, November 8, 2020.

     Sometimes we must unlearn the Scriptures we think we understand so that we might hear them correctly.  The parable of the virgins is not a story of the difference between believers and unbelievers.  This is a parable about the Church.  All the virgins are the same and have the same lamps.  This is not about good or bad virgins but about wise and foolish ones.  This is not a parable about morality.  All the virgins are sinners.  None is holy.  On top of this all of them fall asleep and none of them watches for the bridegroom.  I am not sure that any of us could tell the difference between the five wise or the five foolish by looking at them.  To us they would look the same.

    This is a parable about faith, the oil in the lamps.  There were five virgins who believed the Word of the Lord.  They had oil for their lamps.  Sure, they fell asleep and had to be awakened when the moment came but they believed the moment would come. The other five had no oil for their lamps.  They not only fell asleep like the wise but they were not sure the bridegroom would ever come.  They had no faith in the promise.  So when He did come, they were caught unawares.  They wanted to borrow oil or faith from others but faith cannot be borrowed.  They had to seek out the dealers and get it for themselves.  Heads up, here.  The oil dealers are the Church, those who fuel the lamps with the means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments.

    So now you have a glimpse into what is going on in this parable.  But why did Jesus tell it?  This parable is like a warning alarm or wake up call.  The Lord is calling to the wise to be alert.  This is the mission of the Church.  To the world in every age, to the  people of God who have fallen asleep, and to those awakened and ready the same warning call goes out.  Repent, confess your sins, be absolved, hear the Word of the Lord, receive the Sacrament of His body and blood, pray, and serve.  For Day of the Lord is nearer today than it was yesterday.  Did you hear that?  The Day of the Lord is nearer today than it was yesterday.  The Church is not some doomsday prophet saying the end is near but the voice of God calling to say Christ is coming as Judge and King.

    So let me say it bluntly and clearly right now.  It is midnight.  The cry goes out to wake up.  Do not be sleepy.   Do not hit the snooze button.  Do not presume that God is not going to finish His new creation as He has promised and Christ come in His glory. The voice of the Lord addresses the faithful within and those not yet of the kingdom out side with the same call.  Wake up.  The Lord is coming.  To those outside the Church, it is a voice calling to a world that all accounts will be audited.  To those within the Church, it is the voice of God shaking the faithful awake and pointing them to the means of grace where they will be readied for the great and awesome Day of the Lord.
    Do not lie to God.  Do not pretend you have not been asleep.  But at the same time, do not forget that God is gracious.  He forgives all our sins and restores us when we fall and cleans our robes of righteousness with the blood of Christ.  Keep your lamps trimmed and burning and when they run out, make them burn again with hope that God will keep His promise and deliver His people from this mortal life to life everlasting.

    Be wise.  Don’t be foolish.  The foolish pretended everything was okay until they had no choice but to find oil for their lamps.  They did not seek the Lord’s mercy for their sin.  Like the rich man crying from hell for a drop of water for his burning tongue, the foolish cried for oil, for faith, to make up for the hope that had been lost and the faith that had grown cold and dead within them.  It sounds harsh but this warning is sent in love.  The Lord would have all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth in Christ.  He is faithful and He will do it.  But we are not.  We are lazy and complacent and doubting.  We put off what is urgent and we busy ourselves with what does not matter.  Hear the Word of the Lord.

    The cry goes forth from this pulpit every Sunday.  Wake, awake, for night is flying.  Your pastors are the watchmen whom the Lord has placed in your midst because He loves you.  The Lord is good and His steadfast love endures forever.  He chastens and disciplines us because He loves us.  He goes after the one lost sheep and buys a worthless field for a pearl hidden in it.  He pays all the workers the same wages.  He feeds the hungry with miracle bread.  He welcomes back the prodigal with all that He has.  He gives even dogs the crumbs from His table.  Wake, awake, for night is flying.  The Lord has born your sin and taken away all your iniquity.  He has washed you in living waters and given you the new birth of water and the Spirit.  He sends forth His Spirit into your heart so that you hear His Good Shepherd’s voice.  He bids you sinner come up to the honored place at His Table.  He gives Himself to you as food and drink.  He receives your worn out body in His arms and clothes you with new flesh and blood.

    Wake, awake, for night is flying.  Faith cannot afford to sleep, cannot succumb to pride, cannot give into despair, and cannot doubt the Lord’s Word and promise.  Our Lord is merciful beyond measure.  Here in His House He fills your lamps with the oil of His mercy.  Here He feeds you His flesh for bread and His blood for drink.  Here His Word is preached  even when you don’t want to hear what it says.  He loves you.  Listen.  Repent.  Rejoice.   Pandemic or not.  Listen.  Repent.  Rejoice.

    Don’t be the foolish who presume their sins do not matter or God will shrug off their faithlessness and open the gate to them.  Do not presume sincerity is faith for to be wise means to know whom you believe and why you believe Him.  Do not live as if you belonged to the world and expect God to claim you as His own.  Do not be a stranger to His House on Sunday morning and expect to have your own room in the mansions above.  Do not let bitterness steal your love or disappointment steal your hope.  God is even now working to bring that final day to its perfect fruition whether our eyes see evidence of it or not.  That is what His Word promises.

    The danger is never that we will take God too seriously.  The danger is always the opposite.  That we will not take Him seriously at all.  So wake up.  Teach your children. Bring them to the services of His House.  Instill the catechism in their heart so that they know the truth from lies.  Teach them to pray so that they may pray God’s promises as earnestly as they pray their needs.  Open their voices to sing the story of God’s mighty acts of deliverance.  Model before them the healing power of forgiveness as you forgive one another as God has forgiven you.  Do not be foolish but be wise and watchful.  This pandemic has created anxiety, fear, and stress but it has not created a hunger for faith or the things of God.  Listen.  Repent.  Rejoice.

    This parable is for the people of God and is about the Church.  Do not belong to or attend a Church where the Word of God is not preached faithfully or the Sacraments of God are not taught and done according to His promise.  Wake up.  Here are the dealers to not only have the oil of God’s mercy but give it away Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.  But this parable warns us that soon the time will end and the dealers will have nothing to give and the day of judgment will come for all people everywhere.  Wake up.  Be alert.  Listen.  Repent.  Rejoice.  For the Lord is coming and He wants YOU to be ready.  Amen.

An inconvenient truth. . .

From Rome to St. Louis the customary way to deal with errant clergy is to laicize them, or, in the case of Lutherans, to remove them from the roster.  In some cases these sometime pastors and priests deserve nothing less than removal.  We all know the horror stories of the predator priests and abusing ministers who have used their good offices for harm.  Yet at the same time, laicization is not strictly punishment or else being laity would itself be something less than good.  Who in their right minds would say that?  Of course, they cannot continue to serve and cannot bear the authority once entrusted to them.  But, too often, this is the end of it all.  You strip the faculties and office and remove from the roster and then set them free.  But is that all we can and should do?  It cannot be simply a question of what is good or best for the Church or for the people these men once served but we must also ask if we are doing our best for those who once served us in Christ's name?

We live in an age of accusation.  Every pastor knows this and so does everyone in the pew.  Social media has only encouraged the unsocial practice of finding fault, complaining, whining, and insulting.  It might be somewhat justified if the rationale were doctrine or truth but it usually is about nothing more than preference, like, taste, and feeling.  No, I am not addressing the horrid and terrible things that pastors and priests have done to young boys and girls or to adults -- using their office and authority for lurid purpose and leaving a wake of wound, pain, and terror that follows them the rest of their lives.  But that is not the only complaint, is it?  More often than not, pastors and priests are moved around and removed for less serious infractions.  More often than not, congregations (or at least some within those congregations) are agitating against a pastor because of personality issues, because they do not think the pastor is doing enough to grow the congregation, because he is holding truth to the faith of creed, confession, and catechism, or because he has made choices they did not like.  Though pastors and priests are supposed to be protected and removed only for cause, we all know that bishops and district presidents often call for a resignation because it is easier to deal with one individual than with a group or whole congregation.  And then the problem goes away.  Or does it?

It is no wonder that we have trouble recruiting men for the ministry.  We say one thing about this office but then act as if a pastor were a mere hireling, someone to be engaged and dismissed at will.  Even worse, someone to blame when things do not go well or when doctrine conflicts with our own opinions and desires.  Every pastor and priest and every congregant knows exactly what I am talking about.  The days when the minister stood on a pedestal are long gone, when the pastor was the most highly educated individual in the congregation and people deferred to his opinion, and when the matter was settled because the pastor said so.  Congregations are not much in danger of tyrants (at least those in Lutheranism) but they are in great danger of being without pastors and without pastors of noble character and good preparation.  Unless we figure out what to do with the way we deal with such conflicts, pastors will continue to be scapegoats, seminaries will be empty, and the numbers of those who once were pastors will continue to swell.

As a Church we dare not forget that they are not priests or pastors merely until they become inconvenient or troublesome or make a mistake or misspeak.  We need to reconsider how we use resignations to solve pastoral problems that may not only be pastoral.  We need to consider anew what is our duty and responsibility to those who once held what we all agree (at least on paper) is the highest office.  That may require a sea change in the way we deal with things locally and in districts and dioceses and as bishops and district presidents.  Those who are to administer the ecclesiastical supervision so essential to the life of the Church bear a heavy responsibility and may be beleaguered and besieged by the weight of it all.  However, they have more duties than to simply help the congregation find a tolerable way to get rid of their pastors so that these same men can be ignored and forgotten once they are out of the picture.

I am not one of those who carry this responsibility but I know many -- too many -- pastors who have been told by those who do that the better part of valor is to resign and the to see them linger in this terrible limbo without hope of anything more.  I know that pastors make mistakes.  I make more than more, I am sure!  But in more than 40 years of ministry I have known many who left in anger or who continue to voice bitterness and complaint even though the rest of the congregation does not share their complaint or their concern.  Like any pastor, I have had people talk to me in hushed voices about the many who are upset with me or the direction of the congregation or this practice or that and are about to take their pocketbook and leave.  Like every pastor I have received anonymous comments, scribbled notes without signatures, or second hand complaints.  And, like them, I have struggled to know what to do with those whose who are upset but are nameless and faceless.  To many of them I owe an apology and some of them owe me one but no one should be keeping score.  What is at stake is too great.

Things are not getting better for these situations.  In fact, they are getting worse.  We want to blame seminaries for letting the bad apples get through.  We want to blame the pastors but there are congregations who have long lists of men who have served them briefly and left for one reason or another and the problems continue.  We want to blame congregations yet some pastors seem to take their troubles with them from congregation to congregation.  We want to be blame somebody but blame seldom contributes much to repairing what has gone wrong.  When you face a problem, blame does not solve it (as our recent national election shows!).  And the issues upon which we dismiss a pastor or tear up a congregation had better have some substance to them and not be a matter of feelings (bruised, hurt, or not).  In the end, I would urge us to slow down a bit.  Yes, there are cases where we must act quickly and decisively to protect people but for the rest of them, we need to calm down, dial down the rhetoric, and stop adding fuel to the fires that are burning down some congregations and pastors.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

The new cubit. . .

There are some 100 Bible passages in many books that mention or presume the measurement of the cubit.  Among them:  Genesis 6:16; Exodus 16:26; Exodus 25:10, 17, & 23; Exodus 26:13 & 16; Exodus 36:21; Exodus 37:1, 6, 10, & 25; Deuteronomy 3:11; 1 Samuel 17:4; Judges 3:16; 1 Kings 7:24, 31, 32, & 35; 2 Chronicles 4:3; Ezekiel 40:5, 12, &42; Ezekiel 42:2; Ezekiel 43:13, 14, & 17; Matthew 6:27; and Luke 12:25.  These passage reference some of the most important things in Scripture -- from the size of Noah's Ark to the building of the Ark of the Covenant and the Temple, to the size of Goliath, and a memorable passage from Jesus about adding to your stature.  The cubit is used to measure everything from a Sabbath day's journey under the Law to the sacred dimensions of the place of God's presence.  

The word cubit (′kyü-bǝt) in English appears derived from the Latin cubitum for elbow. It was πήχυς (pay′-kus) in Greek. It measured the length of the forearm from the tip of the middle finger to the end of the elbow.  While not a uniform span in people, it was generally about 18 inches.  We got the measurement of the foot and inch also from the body and the cubit is no different.  Most folks have heard of the cubit even if they have no idea how it compares to more modern spans.  Yet the cubit was indispensable in Hebrew life and not just to carpenters.

We have replaced the cubit with another measurement that has also become associated with worship.  The appropriate social distance of about 6 feet.  The new standard for closeness to God and God's people is four times the cubit (on average).  We have all sorts of questions about the cubit but we have accepted almost without a whimper the new standard distance between people in the House of God.  Funny, when you think about it.  But not so funny.

There was a day when the church was a place for personal connection, where hugs and handshakes were the routine, and where welcome was expressed not in the nod of a masked head but in arms extended in embrace.  I am not at all sure that we will return to those days.  The fears once planted will not soon be cast aside even after a vaccine is in place.  To be fair, this was not simply the result of a virus and the pandemic only accelerated the process of isolation and distance already on the horizon.  I understand the fears and I sympathize with those who feel they have no choice but to isolate and keep their distance.  But. . . I also worry about the shape of things to come.

When we look at those around us with fear in our heart, it will have a deep and abiding impact on the shape of things to come.  When instinct has been taught to shrink from personal contact, it will color the life of the church for a long time.  We are already suffering from deep political and cultural divisions and now the religious institutions which once were meeting places have been tainted -- at least according to the constant drumbeat of the media fueling those fears and divisions.  

This is not about the survival of the greeting of peace or pot lucks but our life together around the Word and Table of the Lord.  This is not about a sentimental view of the past but about a social media and online form of worship which cannot possibly replace our meeting together in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day.  This is not about meeting preferences or satisfying what we think people want but being true to who we are as the baptized people of God.

By many accounts a congregation is doing well to have 65-70% of the people who were in church prior to mid-March back in the pews.  What will the churches look like if 10% never come back or 15% or more decide that in person worship is not worth it?  The impact upon the churches will be felt well into the future.  These are the kind of things I wonder about.  It is not that I am distressed by them because I have confidence in the Lord's promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail.  But I do wonder constantly whether I am doing what I need to be doing as a pastor to encourage our people to return to the Lord's House and Sunday school and Bible study and support the work of the kingdom.  I hope that these thoughts are in the minds of most pastors and that none of us are willing to accept the status quo as the final word on our future.