Friday, January 22, 2021

The Commemoration of St. Timothy

Sermon preached on the Commemoration of St. Timothy, Pastor and Confessor, observed on Thursday, January 21, 2021.

When St. Paul urged young Timothy to fight the good fight, he was not primarily talking about battles in congregations or with obstinate members or even with the powers of the world around us.  Not that there would not be battles of this kind.  There were and there are.  No congregation is without its conflicts and no parish is without those who resist the voice of Scripture and no church is without those difficult members who make it harder to love your brother than to love your enemy.  Of course, these battles were and are and will continue to afflict the church until Christ comes again in His glory.  But the fight St. Paul refers to is personal.

The good fight is that which takes place within you.  St. Paul knows this only too well.  He was a persecutor of the Church before he was ever an apostle to the Gentiles.  He held the coats of the people in whom he had aroused the tempting scent of murder.  He was still a difficult person to get along with.  Ask only Silas, Barnabas, Luke, and, yes, Timothy.  They all felt the barbs of St. Paul’s words and actions when something went wrong.  St. Paul daily fought against the powers of anger and discontent and pride and arrogance.  Some days, he lost that fight and the power of ego lived larger in him than the power of Christ.

We would like to believe that our pastors are like Nathanael or Bartholomew – people of such single-minded hearts that it could be said of us as it was of him that there was no guile of deceit in him.  We would like to believe that our pastors are holy all the time, that they wear this holiness like the rest of us wear clothing.  We would like to believe that temptation is easy for the men of cloth – perhaps we want to believe this because we find it so hard to resist the advances of the devil, the deceitful words of evil, and the tempting, well worn paths of sin.  Just maybe if our pastor has learned not to have such a problem with sin, we too might learn how to be holy.

Pastors would like to believe the same thing.  They would like to believe that for the pastor marriage and family are not difficult relationships, that for the pastor there is never any temptation to want or steal or lash out in anger or speak lies instead of truth or lust in the shadows of the heart while appearing so decent on the outside.  Pastors would love to think that sin was no longer a problem, that they had dealt with the dark side enough to know how to resist and fight off its influence.  But every day proves that every pastor is a sinner like every Christian.

The faith is a fight.  The life of the faithful is a fight.  It is not a lost cause.  No, we do not fight with human weapons but with the whole armor of God.  With the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the feet shod with peace, the shield of faith held up with the hand, the helmet of salvation to guard the mind, and the sword of the Spirit to wield against our enemies, we fight.  Even when the enemy is within us, we fight with the same weapons and are guarded by the same armor.

Yes, we fight, but no, we do not fight alone.  Christ is fighting in us and through us the great enemies of the faith that capture our hearts with that which has no value and deceive us from the true treasure with cheap trinkets of the moment.  Christ is fighting in us and through us those who whine and moan and complain about how hard it is to live by faith and how difficult it is to resist temptation.  Christ is fighting in us and through us the complacency that would put off the things of God and the laziness that would surrender every virtue every time it seemed that we might have to work to keep what God freely gave.

As pastors and people, St. Paul bids us fight – waging war against the old Adam and its voice of defeat and against the world and the devil working all around us to steal our hearts away from God.  But fight is what we do.  With weapons of the Spirit we fight against haughty pride and learn humility.  With the training of the Spirit we fight against the sins that stain our consciences and confess them to the Lord.  With the wisdom of the Spirit we fight against the rush to judge or speak and learn to put the best construction on everything.  With the vision of the Spirit we fight against the disappointment of eyes that see only wrong and learn to see with the eyes of faith the promises of God that will not let us down.  With the truth of the Spirit we fight against hearts that know the cost of everything but the value of nothing, especially life given by God.  With the heart of the Spirit we fight against in the safe space in which the hurts of others are theirs and never ours – unlike the mercy of God which bore the weight of sins and sorrows which were never God’s but are always ours.

Though devils all the world should fill and hearts too quickly surrender to the old Adam and his ways, we will not give in and we will not give up.  None other than Christ Himself fights for us.  Every day He works to reclaim us as His own people and restore us by the power of His grace.  Every day He speaks with the voice of His Word to make us wise unto salvation and every day He washes us with the once and forever baptismal water.  Every day He feeds us the taste of heaven in His body broken for us and His blood poured out for us.  Every day He sends us back home minus the sins we came here with and with a strong hope to replace our fading strength.  My friends, there is no rest for us but only the battle for our lives that takes place in us every bit as much as it takes place outside of us in the world.  But do not lose heart, we fight as victors to keep what Christ has won.  

Do not lose heart, the devil and our own sinful flesh and the world around us cannot win without our own surrender of the good and precious mercy that first made us Christ’s own and still keeps us as His own.  That was the comfort to St. Timothy.  That is the comfort of those who dare to pastor as he once did.  That is the comfort of those who hear the Word and receive its sacramental grace in water, bread, and wine.  It is a fight, but we do not fight alone.  It is a fight against enemies outside of us but they are already defeated.  It is a fight inside our hearts and minds but the Spirit is working to transform our minds and make our hearts His temple.  It is a fight, but it is the good fight of the redeemed to lay hold of the redemption which is ours in Christ Jesus.  May God fill us with boldness, equip us with courage, strengthen our faith, and support our hope, until that day when at last we shall surrender the weapons and rejoice to live in the victory of Christ forevermore.  Amen.

Funny how we just realized death was real. . .

It seems that COVID has awakened the national conscience to the reality of death.  But did death just suddenly appear?  Are we just now realizing that people die?  Did we not pay attention to this sooner?

Why was death not an issue for the nearly 50 years of legal killing of the unborn?  Why does the death of someone diagnosed with COVID 19 (either as primary or a secondary cause of death) suddenly warrant shutting down the nation, closing businesses, masking everyone, and keeping distant?  It would take a couple of three COVID 19 years of death to equal one year's worth of killed babies and yet abortion is deemed a social issue?

Why was death not an issue for the elderly or infirm or those who simply decide life is not worth living?  We work to preserve life at great cost all the while making it legal for people to decide for themselves or others when they can check out with the aid of drugs that guarantee a painless death (for everyone except those on death row, it would seem)?  So abortion is merely a health care decision but the corona virus is an existential threat?  

I am not being insensitive to those who died during this pandemic.  I am wondering why we suddenly have decided that their deaths are worth so much more than the death of the unborn, the aged, the infirm, or those who just want to die?

Either death is real and bad for all or it is for none.  Death is, after all, no respecter of persons.  It kills every age, every race, every economic status, and every person deemed worthy or not.  Why is it okay to kill some and have the government pay the cost of this death and why is it okay to spend untold trillions and change our lives to protect others?  Why do we think we are morally superior to those who before us endorsed slavery when we routinely kill thousands of babies each and every day (and call it a protected right)?

I wish someone would explain this to me. . . and to folks who presume it is entirely logical to work so hard to protect some life and not to bat an eye at taking others.  Perhaps the Supreme Court could venture to explain what they began with their legalization of this murder.  It cannot be about the rights of one set of people against another unless we are willing to grant that some lives matter more than others.

These are the things I think about on a day like this when the anniversary of a SCOTUS decision hangs in the air like the stink of death.  I can only hope it causes other to ask the same questions.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The depth of misunderstanding. . .

There are those who are insisting that the children of Trump supporters be sent to re-education camps or that the Congressmen and Senators who objected to the electoral vote be censured or worse or that the Trump voters be somehow prevented from voting again.  It is bizarre.  Biden talks unity but speaks with a forked tongue.  The enemies of Trump who have objected to his presidency from the very beginning have four years of pent up anger which they are now unleashing.  But along with this vindictive bent is something even more disconcerting.  These supporters of Biden and his liberal agenda seem to have little real understanding of the great issues that divide our nation.  They cannot conceive of what would move any thinking individual to support Trump.  The Trump voters are, in the words of Hillary Clinton, the deplorables who must be rejected, punished, and prevented from power.

Those who supported Trump had other things in mind other than the flawed man himself.  They were fighting for things that progressives had long ago given up.  If they were like me, they did not love Trump but they feared those who would cast aside the valued treasures of morality and liberty and believed (in most cases rightly so) that Trump would protect them.  Here I am speaking of great issues that have divided our land for some time and will continue to be the source of conflict among us.  Issues such as abortion and the cause of life cut deep into our national identity.  Euthanasia and assisted suicide are other sides of the same pro-life positions openly attacked and mocked by Biden and his supporters but held sacred and precious by most of those who elected Trump once and voted for him again.

The pro-life issue is pivotal but it is not the only area of difference.  Privacy is also a profound issue of disagreement.  Some would gladly surrender any personal liberty and privacy for the sake of a better sense of security but many, if not most, of those who supported Trump are deeply concerned for the loss of personal liberty and privacy that has accelerated in the years sin 9-11.  While we joke about Siri or Alexa listening in or the cloud mining of personal information that has become normal, this is one of the great divides among us.  Perhaps half our nation is willing to surrender privacy and personal liberty for convenience or security, the rest of us are fearful of the technological big brother that watches what we do and listens in to our conversations.

Another area of division revolves around personal responsibility.  Many today have surrendered personal responsibility and accountability for victimhood in which your wrongs are caused by others and you bear little consequence for your actions.  In this culture of rights, the privilege being sought is right not be at fault for anything.  Along with personal liberty and privacy, those who seek a government solution for every problem seek a nanny state in which we are treated like children.  Some of us find it impossible to reconcile the gift of liberty for the pursuit of a victim culture.  Guaranteed income, relief from debt, free education, and government provided health care all relieve the person of any responsibility but at what cost?  Biden and his followers stand for the unfettered expansion of government and the restriction of personal liberty and privacy.

Freedom is not just a word.  The shocking shut down of free speech by social media platforms who claim to exist to foster conversation and the free exchange of ideas will not quickly be forgotten.  When an industry bills itself as the primary conduit of information and dialog, defends itself against those who want free speech moderated, and then, sensing a change of public opinion, silences that debate, we see the true colors of progressivism.  Some of us know that when their ideas can no longer be credibly defended, the response is to silence their opponents.  That is exactly what we have seen happen.  Biden and his liberal supporters are welcome to debate ideas but debate is not what is happening.  Instead they are shutting down venues of honest debate.  It is no wonder that some have become advocates of a vast conspiracy theory.

Freedom of religious expression is not merely the right to private belief or even private worship but the right for that faith to inform the conscience, influence politics, and address the public arena.  Without this guarantee, such freedom is shallow and empty.  Nobody gains from the religious whose belief is hidden deep down inside and kept from influencing public speech and public action.  What good is it for Biden to promote his Roman Catholic affiliation if he insists that his faith either does not influence his public policy or he disagrees with the basic tenets of that faith?    Religious conservatives expect that those who wear the name confess the truth.  Even more so, religious conservatives expect that this truth is deeper and wider than the individual and the moment.  Biden and his administration have already signaled their objection to a religious order maintaining their beliefs against insurance regulations and this is but the start of a concerted effort to allow free access only to those churches willing to change their doctrine.

Education does not flourish in the protected environment that the university has become.  Instead of challenging ideas and providing a venue for debate, conversation, and dialog, the university has become intolerant of any ideas except those sanctioned by that university.  A university which refuses to allow a diversity of ideas is no university at all.  The politically correct have taken hold of most of the colleges and universities in America and especially the graduate schools.  By shutting down debate before it begins, the great universities have surrendered themselves to the power of fear and to the dominance of the moment.  Trump's disdain for the liberal elite universities tapped into psyche of many Americans who have been ridiculed by those elite as hillbillies or hicks for a very long time.

I could go on.  The change in presidents is more than the difference between men.  It is the start of an effort to radically reshape America.  From personal freedom to access to free speech forums to religious freedom to abortion to liberal education to victimhood to governmental intrusions into every aspect of our lives, we find ourselves at a crossroads.  It could be that the men are less significant than what they stand for or stand against.  Those who voted for Biden voted for this radical change and those who voted for Trump were voting against it.  In the end it may not have that much to do with Democrats and Republicans as it does with these competing visions of what our national identity is to be about.  In this some of Trump's supporters fear that the old party designations no longer apply and that both parties are securely in the hands of progressivism -- their only difference is in degree and pace.  

Although not a supporter of Trump the man, many found him to be less threatening to America's future than those who believe we must radically re-invent ourselves and make a clear break with our past.  That is one profound area which most of the pundits have either dismissed outright or refused to discuss at all.  What happened January 6 was shocking to us all.  There is no justification for such violence.  Indeed, the violence stole the thunder from any debate that might have been held.  It may have made it more difficult for any real conversation to begin.  Whether we were talking rioting in Kenosha or Minneapolis or Portland or Seattle or Washington, DC, these distract us from something we need to talk about openly and honestly before it is too late.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Simple Word, Great Revelation

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany B, on Sunday, January 17, 2021, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich. 

    It’s our habit as modern people to question simple things.  Our world has gotten so complex that we overlook simple things, we don’t think too much about them.  Simple things are unremarkable.  Instead, we want and trust in elaborate and sophisticated things.  It’s the amazing and even the miraculous that we want.  Simple just doesn’t cut it, and yet, there’s that old saying: Keep It Simple Stupid. We question the simple, but it’s exactly through the simple Word of God that He reveals Himself to you and gives you salvation.
    The Lord always revealed Himself through His Word, His Word spoken and written.  We see this in the call of Samuel.  Young Samuel, lying in bed, heard the voice of God calling to him.  Hearing his name from a distant voice, he got up and ran to the priest Eli, thinking he was the one calling.  Even in the middle of the night,  Samuel was ready to serve when called. 
    Finally, Eli figured out what was going on.  He realized it was the voice of God that Samuel heard, and he told him what to do.  And just as Samuel was willing to serve Eli at all times, he was willing to serve the Lord.  Hearing God call again, Samuel said, “Speak, LORD, your servant hears” (1 Sam 3:10). 
   At that time, Scripture says Samuel didn’t know the Lord, that is, he didn’t know the Lord’s voice.  He never heard God audibly speak to him before.  But Samuel surely knew God.  He knew Him by faith.  Serving in the temple, he heard the words of Scripture.  Through simple words written and proclaimed by Eli and other teachers, Samuel knew God, even before he heard God’s voice.  Through simple words written in Scripture, Samuel was given faith...and so are you.  You know the Lord because He’s revealed Himself to you in His Word written by the prophets and evangelists.  
   We live in a similar time as young Samuel.  The Bible says that at that time the word of the LORD was rare; that there was no vision.  God wasn’t directly revealing Himself and His Word to any prophet.  And that’s how it is today, and it will continue to be until Christ comes again.  
   Ever since Christ, there’s been no prophet like the prophets of old.  The writer of Hebrews says, “In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old by the prophets, but now in these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son” (Heb 1:1-2).  The time of direct revelation is over.  Now we know the Lord through the Word of Scripture.  But many of us still desire to have the miracle experience of direct revelation.  
   We want to audibly hear the voice of God.  We want to feel Him talking to us in our hearts.  We want this because we think our belief will be stronger because of that experience, that we can know for sure that God’s there, caring for us, loving us.  We want this because we’re sinners that don’t trust the simple Word of God, just as Nathanael didn’t trust the simple.
    After John the Baptist pointed to Christ and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29), and after Jesus had called Andrew and Peter to be His disciples, He went to Galilee and told Philip to follow Him.  Hearing Jesus’ simple words, Philip followed, and then he went and told his brother, Nathanael.  He said, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (Jn 1:45).  But instead of hearing that the Messiah had come, Nathanael only heard the Nazareth.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46).  Can anything good come from a small, insignificant town nowhere mentioned in the Scriptures?  Can anything good come from a place that’s simply a wide spot in the road?  Nathanael doubted the Good News his brother shared because Nazareth was so simple and unremarkable. 
    But, giving in, Nathanael followed, and as he was approaching Jesus, Christ identified him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit” (Jn 1:47).  Nathanael was taken aback.  How did Jesus know him?  And then Christ revealed who He was in a miraculous way, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (Jn 1:48).  Jesus displayed His omniscience.  He revealed something that only Nathanael would know, and hearing this, Nathanael believed.  He confessed Jesus to be the Son of God, the King of Israel. 
    Nathanael wanted the remarkable.  The simplicity of Nazareth was a stumbling block for him, just as the simplicity of God’s written and preached Word can be a stumbling block for us.  We want to see the miraculous.  And yet, the miracle Christ performed for Nathanael was nothing compared to what he would see.  He would see all the prophecies of old fulfilled, the Son of God walking among His people.  He would see salvation won in an unlikely way with Jesus’ death on the cross.  He would see the risen Lord ascend into heaven.  And he would see thousands upon thousands of people come to faith through the simple Word of Christ proclaimed.  
     Nathanael relied on the miracle, but Jesus was revealed long before that through the simple words of Scripture.  Philip said they’d found the Christ that Moses and the prophets wrote about.  And Jesus, after His resurrection showed His disciples that truth.  It’s all there, in black and white.  It’s all there in the simple Words of Scripture: Christ revealed, His saving work revealed.  It’s all revealed and given to you.  
    We may not think too much about God’s Word written and proclaimed.  We might think too much about the simplicity of water and bread and wine.  These simple things don’t impress us.  We want to hear and see greater things.  We want to audibly hear the voice of God like Samuel did.  We want to witness miracles like Nathanael did.  But in the simple Word we hear and see greater things.  We see new life given in the waters of baptism.  We see sins removed by the word of God’s forgiveness.  We see our Savior among us as He feeding us His body and blood.  We may not think too much about these simple things, but it’s exactly through the simple Word of our Lord that we receive the not so simple: forgiveness, life, and salvation.  So hear the simple Word of God, and with faith, respond like Nathanael, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God, the King of Israel,” respond like Samuel, “Speak, Lord, your servant listens.”  Hear the Word, know your Savior, and have everlasting life in Him.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.  
 

An uneasy peace. . . or not

It is common for Christians and those outside the faith to believe that the world is a neutral place, a place receptive to ideas and religion if proclaimed in winsomely.  Christians often are confused because they assume that there is something wrong with the message (out of date or irrelevant to modern society) and it needs adjusting or wrong with the medium (preaching is old fashioned and worship needs to be updated) to explain the empty pews.  Even at the worst, those inside and outside the Church have figured upon an uneasy peace between the world and the faith -- albeit one occasionally breached by crazies on one side or another.  After all, we live in America don't we?

However, the uneasy peace, if it ever was, has long ago given way to a conflicted relationship.  It is not because the Church has become more rigid (in fact, the Christmas message has become almost unrecognizably broad and open among many Christians).  It is because mankind, the very jewel of God’s work of creation, is at war with God its Creator.  Though we are loathe to admit this or to say it publicly, this is the condition we live in -- even in America!  The Church is caught in the cross hairs of a world at odds with its Creator, rejecting that Creator now every bit as much as in Eden, and therefore rejecting the Church -- her message and her people.

I grew up in a time when it was easy to forget this, when it was almost presumed that Church and society were partners working toward common goals of morality, harmony, virtue, goodness, generosity, compassion, and excellence.  But it was never the easy relationship that is often presumed.  In fact, to believe in the 1950s was to believe in a church that did not even exist -- except in the imagination.  There was no unanimity, no common community and life, and no formal compact to frame out goals and purposes of either or of both.  Perhaps the 1960s came along as the imagined cooperation was coming undone.  In any case, by the 1970s it was clear that things were not what we thought.

Jump ahead 40-50 years and you see the reality no longer hidden by artificial structures of obscured by manufactured images.  The words of Christ are now must easier to understand.  As the world hated Me, so it will hate you.  You will be delivered over to persecutor, judge, and death for My sake.  No more can we get by with an assumption of either an easy peace or an uneasy one.  There is war against creedal and confessional Christianity -- except in those churches that have abandoned creed and confession for accommodation to the prevailing mood and surrender of all ideas to the social constructs deemed good, right, and salutary in this moment.

Surely this will become clearer as we see political leaders readily and with impunity rejecting the doctrinal and moral stands of their own churches.  In this new world, what God thinks is not nearly as important or relevant as what we think -- or more importantly -- what we feel.  It is no secret that the Roman Catholics who are the most visible and prominent political leaders present a problem for Rome.  They have long ago rejected the most sacred tenets of the faith in favor of a humanistic religion of preference and individual conscience.  Abortion is the most public of the many stands violated by these individuals but it is not nearly the only one.  It is but the most prominent tip of a large iceberg.  And Rome is not alone in having folks who wear the colors of their churches while picking and choosing what they believe on the basis of political expediency.

It is better for us to admit the tension and to deal openly with the heightened conflict between orthodox Christianity and the world around us -- not quite so far advanced as Europe or even Canada but still very real.  We all know that to be acceptable in modern society any Christian must reject most of what orthodox Christianity confesses and Scripture teaches.  So if the Church must grow smaller in order to be more faithful, we must be willing to accept this.  But we accept this with regret, lamenting that the enmity between the world and the Church has too long gone hidden or unnoticed.  We were always in the world but not of it.  Perhaps the world knew this but we did not.  Now it cannot escape our notice.  And it will be upon us to choose to whom we will be faithful.  It should not be as difficult a choice as it will be and the pain will not last only a moment.  To surrender the idea that we are all kind of in this together, though coming at it from different sides, is a cost many are not yet willing to pay.  But pay we must if we are to be true to Christ, to His Word, and to the orthodox tradition of belief and life in Christ.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

When shepherds won't shepherd. . .

Already some folks have nodded their head at the headline.  Yes, we know of shepherds like that.  The presumption is that the shepherds who will not shepherd are those who are not friendly, winsome, welcoming, and gabby -- the kind who seem to do everything well except glad hand the masses.  As annoying as it might be when your pastor is more of an introvert or not adept at mingling with folks, this is not the big problem.  The big problem is when shepherd's don't shepherd -- not when they fail to make the small talk with their sheep and strangers.  That is not shepherding -- as nice as it is when a pastor is able to and feels comfortable doing the casual conversations with folks known and unknown.  Shepherding is preaching the whole counsel of God's Word, baptizing and then catechizing the baptized, hearing confession and speaking absolution to the penitent, presiding at the Lord's Table, visiting the sick and housebound, addressing the erring with God's Word, burying the dead, and consoling the grieving with the hope that is in Christ.  This is shepherding.  The other stuff, as much as you like it and as helpful as it might be to winning over the hearts of the sheep, is not the essential work of the shepherd.

The truth is that there are pastors (shepherds) who are stars at the small talk, friendly with strangers, and gifted with the gift of gab.  But if they are not preaching faithfully Law and Gospel, baptizing, teaching, absolving, presiding at the Eucharist, calling the fallen to repentance, burying the dead, and giving the grieving the real hope of a blest reunion with all who have died in the faith, he is not shepherding.  We have become too willing to accept lapses in the essential duties of the shepherd in Christ because the man may be popular and loved for the other stuff.  Now we should not have to choose between the qualities of our pastors (shepherds) but at minimum we should expect faithfulness to the real tasks and purposes of the ministry.  If I have said it once, I have said it a hundred times to people who complain to me about their pastors.  If they preach faithfully the Word of God and administer the Sacraments faithfully, teach the faith to young and old, visit the sick, bury the dead, etc..., then you have a good pastor.  Strangely enough, I hardly ever get a complaint from people that their pastors fail to do these essential things but I heard complaints all the time about the other stuff when the shepherd is not adept at these things.  Are we satisfied for our shepherd to be friendly even if his sermons are empty of the Truth that endures forever?  Is it okay to have a shepherd who does not preach and teach so the the hunger for the Lord's body and blood is not awakened?  Is it okay to have a shepherd who does not proclaim baptism and catechize the baptized so that they know truth from error?  You get my drift.

The reason Lutheranism is in decline is not because our shepherds have been too faithful in preaching and teaching the faith, too encouraging to the baptized to receive absolution or the heavenly food of Christ's Table, too faithful in calling the erring to repentance, and too faithful in providing the pastoral care of God's Word to the sick, suffering, grieving, and dying.  Lutheranism is in decline because we have too many shepherds who do not do these things.  Friendliness is no substitute for faithfulness.  The shepherd is is good at everything but actually being a shepherd is doing no service to the people in his charge, the congregation in his care, and the faith that is supposed to be his primary domain.  As we begin a new year, it might not be a bad time to think on these things.

Monday, January 18, 2021

New life for blogs?

I got into blogging after many others and most who once blogged have stopped.  Every now and then I make my way through the blog roll I keep for personal use and find more and more of those addresses are no longer active.  I understand.  I am kind of a dinosaur.  But I tend to stick with things and so I have stuck with this forum.  Over time some changes have been made, though not many.  One is the switch to moderated comments.  It a pain for me; the comments awaiting moderation do not get looked over regularly or often and sometimes I just plain forget to publish them.  But the numbers of robo commenters increases as people try to ply their wares masquerading as commenters.  On top of that, those who comment with the same predictable comments on the same predictable topics -- less to comment on what was posted than to promote their own idiosyncrasies -- have become very tiresome.  Sadly the number of comments and commenters has dropped precipitously since the comments are now moderated.  I regret that since some strings of comments were very informative.

All that said, I wonder if maybe the dinosaurs may again roam the interwebs.  With Facebook becoming more and more persnickety about what is put on their platform and the ubiquitous fact checkers looking over everything, people maybe looking for another venue for commentary.  I am not all that sure about Parler and what its future might be and it is still in its infancy anyhow.  It seems that whatever platforms there are, the same problems will surface.  We seem to have rather thin skins and do not tolerate a vigorous discussion.  We live in a world of echo chambers and we each love the sound of our own voice most of all.  I am certainly no different.  

There was a time when blogs were the forums for opinion and for discussion.  This meager blog still gets more than its fair amount of attention -- usually some 60,000 folks a month venture over to see what thoughts are meandering from my brain.  Some come for the sermons (God bless you) and others to see if the old man is still cooking.  I suggest that blogs could see a resurgence but I have no way of knowing.  At least in the blogger end of things, something other than the party line might be allowed and, if people are polite and spammers do not bother too much, we might enjoy a decent debate.

Earlier this month the ALPB Forum banned anonymous posters and has undertaken a few other measures to try and pour a little oil on the troubled waters.  That forum was once much more vigorous and is now an argument that can be had without even the arguers being present.  I come and go from it but have become rather picky about the threads I will survey.

So we will see if 2021 sees the blog format and perhaps this blogger decline a bit or if the whole form sees a bit of a second wind.  In any case, I guess you will have me here, for good or for ill, until I find I have nothing to say.  Ask my family and the folks in my parish, that might be a long time!

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Today we receive new members. . .

Just when we thought our life under COVID would diminish the prospect of new faces in the old crowd, we are receiving new members.  Some of them went through instruction (not an easy thing to traverse in a pandemic) and some are transferring from other LCMS parishes, but the end result is that some 30 new people are becoming a part of the Grace Lutheran family of faith.

I am especially happy to see among the number not only new faces but young ones!  In one case, the couple moved into our city on a Wednesday and found their way to our congregation on Sunday.  Now that is dedication and loyalty.  The way things looked last March and April when the shut-down hit everyone hard, I would not have predicted so many folks and so many new folks.  God bless you!

We are told so often that Lutheranism is dying (and perhaps the jurisdictional structures are not so healthy) but the places where the baptized still gather around the Word and Table of the Lord are healthy.  They are in good shape not because of the programs or because of the pastors or people in those parishes.  No, they are in good shaped because Christ lives in their midst.  He is still hearing the confession and absolving the sinner.  He is still speaking through the voice of His Word.  He is still preaching from the pulpit through the mouth of the pastor.  And He is still setting His Table in the presence of our enemies and delivering to us His own flesh for food and His own blood for drink.  People bidden by the Lord's Word and gathered by the Spirit still confess the creed in steadfastness with the faithful who went before and in bold witness before the world.  Voices are still raised in speech and song, saying back to God what He has first spoken to us.  Where this is happening, Lutheranism is anything but dying.  We forget this.

I believe that structures may evolve and die but the faith confessed once and still from Augsburg throughout the world will not die.  Unless we are willing to admit that we are a sect and that our faith is but a sectarian confession, we are not strictly a human institution at all.  God is the builder and we are now being built into His temple, the living stones fit together by God's design and at God's direction.  Unless the words of the Augustana are hyperbole or a joke, we are still evangelical catholics, in solidarity with the faithful who went before us and living out in our own time the faith once delivered to the saints of old.  The whole of the Reformation was to make the Church more catholic, not less.  We may be and have been distracted from that goal but the Lord seems to raise up the right people to remind us who we are and what we confess.

So we will celebrate today that amid viral threats and virtual church, there are still people being called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified by the Word of the Lord.  Even in our broken and divided world, folks are still coming together at the beck and call of the Spirit to be the Church, the body of Christ.  Though all around us there are fake churches preaching fake gospels, there are also faithful folks who have heard the truth and who intend, by the grace of God, to live in the way of that truth.  We have weathered many storms and there are many storms to weather, but thanks be to God that the seed is still being sown and faithful plants be set in the good soil of the Gospel to bear the fruit God has appointed.

Welcome to Grace Lutheran Church.  We have been waiting for you.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Too much tolerance?

We live in an age in which the cardinal virtue appears to be tolerance.  In reality, the tolerant are not so tolerant that they would allow disagreement to stand with whatever is presumed to be the truth of the moment.  Of this there is no such tolerance and, in fact, the most rigorous enforcement of the truth du jour.  But there is tolerance of sin, of error, and of wrong.  There is so much tolerance of this that there is no more any right or any way of attesting to the truth.  Several lifetimes ago, Fulton Sheen wrote:

America, it is said, is suffering from intolerance. It is not. It is suffering from tolerance: tolerance of right and wrong, truth and error, virtue and evil, Christ and chaos. Our country is not nearly so much overrun with the bigoted as it is overrun with the broadminded. The man who can make up his mind in an orderly way, as a man might make up his bed, is called a bigot; but a man who cannot make up his mind, any more than he can make up for lost time, is called tolerant and broadminded. A bigoted man is one who refuses to accept a reason for anything; a broadminded man is one who will accept anything for a reason—providing it is not a good reason. It is true that there is a demand for precision, exactness, and definiteness, but it is only for precision in scientific measurement, not in logic. The breakdown that has produced this unnatural broadmindedness is mental, not moral. The evidence for this statement is threefold: the tendency to settle issues not by arguments but by words, the unqualified willingness to accept the authority of anyone on the subject of religion, and, lastly, the love of novelty.

Those words were written in 1931!  America was trying to find its way out of a devastating depression.  The seeds of war were being sown in Europe.  But the charge laid against the emerging political structures and religious authorities of the day was a caution against the temptation to dismiss truth as opinion and to herald tolerance of error as virtue.  What words would have been written if its author had lived to see what is unfolding among us today?

The academic world has forsaken truth for the felt imagination of the moment and our institutions of higher learning are hopelessly tolerant of everything except the favorite cause of social justice or progressivism.  We presume that the taught should judge the teacher and that the teaching should not offend the taught.  This has become the hallmark of a liberal education in America but it is no education of all.  The intolerance of any competing ideas or truths on any given college campus is shocking -- to the point where some schools have set aside safe spaces where people can go when their views are challenged, their values offended, or they feel unsafe from the onslaught of ideas different from their own.

Yet the presumption is that the bigots are at fault.  The typical approach to the problem of division in America is that those secure in their values and who hold to a truth bigger than themselves are the fault for distrust and division among us.  Churches have bought into this and do their own job of providing safe spaces where people will not be assaulted by notions of right and wrong, virtue and sin, truth and error.  It is the emptiness of modern Protestantism that the old truths on which these movements were born have given way to new truths that shift with the moment and have only a bare, passing resemblance to anything in the Scriptures.  But the allies of this liberalism and its progressive view of history find common cause in liberal Christianity and common enemy in creedal and confessional Christianity.

In the sea of darkness that identifies as light, the true Light has gotten lost.  When preaching the whole counsel of God's Word has become grounds for being charged with hate speech, what will survive?  There is no Gospel to be spoken without the Law to expose the sin and there is no sin to be exposed if there is no Law, no moral truth and conviction.  Without the enemies of sin and death, who is Christ and what has He come to accomplish?  Without acknowledging sin and error as the enemies, what has Christ won and what does His victory mean for anyone?

We are told over and over again that we need leaders who will bring Americans together and unite America as one nation and one people.  How will that happen as long as the lie of abortion is allowed to be the one moral truth that dare not be challenged?  How will that happen as long as life hangs in the balance and has value only to those who can keep it or let it die (at any age)?  How will that happen as long as the best Americans are those who surrender religious truth for the sake of tolerance of anything and everything that happens to be expressed in the moment?

We don't need more nice words.  Our society is struggling because we no longer rest on the foundation of truth, on the structure of a common identity, ideals, and values, or on a willingness to sacrifice something of the self for the sake of the whole.  We have succumbed to the prison of victimhood and from it we demand our rights over everything else.  If Fulton Sheen saw it 1931, why can't we see it 70 years later?

Friday, January 15, 2021

Whom do you trust?

It appears that Americans are much less trustworthy of people than they were.  In 1968, over half of Americans (56%) believed that generally most folks can be trusted.  Fifty years later, in 2018, they told surveys something different.  It appears that less than one-third (31.5%) believed that most people can be trusted. Of course, this comes as no surprise to anyone.  What is a surprise is that another difference between the surveys is that Americans routinely trust online businesses with their most intimate details and financial information.  We go to online doctors and tell them private information.  We purchase medicines from online suppliers and visit patient portals without a thought to their security.  We leave our credit cards, debit cards, and account information on file all over -- for the sake of easier ordering and bill paying.

We may not trust folks in general or the news media in particular but we seem to be fine letting social media broadcast the most personal details of our lives -- from marital disputes and divorces to our most private feelings.  In addition, we tell people when we are home and when we are gone -- without a thought to who all might be listening.  We use fairly predictable and common passwords for ease of remembering and we have all had some business or medical provider tell us that our information may have been accessed illegally.  Yet we seem fine with this -- better with trusting the unknown of online business and social media than we do the folks we meet in person.

We do not seem to trust police or politicians or clergy as much as we trust those whose online presence asks from us all sorts of personal information and expects us to cough up some money for the privilege of their friendship.  How strange it is that we are so trusting of some whose faces we never ever see and so resistant to trusting those with whom we interact on a regular basis!  The older you are, the more likely you are to be trusting (among Americans over 65, only 29% said that most people can’t be trusted).  On the other hand, the young, Americans aged 18 to 29, by more than 60% believe most people can’t be trusted.

Some blame Trump.  Some blame politics.  Could it be that social media is contributing to our mistrust of others?  After all, most of us are rather social isolated online -- hanging around with like-minded people while decrying those with whom we disagree.  Could social media be the culprit here -- magnifying disagreements and providing a forum for our skepticism to dominate the community?  You tell me.  My suspicion is that social media has not helped us as much as it has helped social media -- while at the same time allowing us to so very anti-social in our dealings with others.

On the road to doubt. . .

So often sola Scriptura ends up being questioned and challenged by the folks who grew up in denominations in which it was preached and taught.  It is as if these folks got off the farm and went into the city and got a little taste of modern education and values and then ended up looking back at sola Scriptura as if it were the creation of small minds and the heralded doctrine of the uninformed and superstitious.  So the story goes, the one day Bible critic was brought up in conservative, fundamentalist, Bible believing church and Sunday school.  Then education and more knowledge from the skeptics caused the belief in a literal, inerrant Scripture to fade away until hardly anything in the Bible was considered literal and historical and everything was symbolic, mythological, and moralistic -- true in its application but not in its words.  Like the Bart Ehrman story.

Certainly the roots of Biblical criticism and challenges to the historicity of the Bible have come more recently (1700s on) and more typically from Protestants.  There are many stories like Ehrman's story and many who followed the path from the Scriptures are true to the Scriptures are symbolic stories without much historical truth in them.  But Rome has its own history in this.  Oddly enough, the higher criticism that was challenged by Protestant conservatives in the various Battles for the Bible has become normative in Roman academic settings and among doctrinal theologians.  

So one Roman Catholic convert and blogger wrote:  

that sola Scriptura created an atmosphere in which the Bible was the only authority in all matters. One went to the Bible to find the answers. If it was in the Bible it had to be 100% true, word for word, no room for human error, mistakes or historical discrepant

He not only credits sola Scriptura with the cause of Biblical skepticism that leads to discounting any history in the Bible, he makes it antithetical to the very message of the Scriptures:

sola Scriptura is a false, man made doctrine that has done more harm to the true interpretation of Scripture over the last 500 years than anything else. Second, if this is true, then while we hold to the canon of Scripture as the rule for doctrine and authoritative liturgy, we also read with interest all the other literature from the early church. Third, we assume that the earlier the literature–canonical and non-canonical–is the more it is in touch with the historical foundation of the stories being told. Fourth, although we assume there is a historical foundation to the stories we needn’t take a strictly fundamentalist, word for word accuracy for the stories. We can allow for human error in transmission. We can allow for elaboration of the stories over time. We can allow for theological agendas to have informed the selection of the stories and the way the stories are related.ancies. Sola Scriptura became a monolithic, all encompassing worldview. It had to be watertight and defended rigorously or the whole house of cards would come tumbling down.

What is so strange is that the very thing he discredits with regard to Scripture, he and all Roman Catholics accord to a man, or should I say a succession of men -- the occupants of the Chair of St. Peter over the years.  Papal infallibility is essential dogma in the Roman Catholic Church, in which, it is claimed, in virtue of the promise of Jesus to Peter, the pope, when appealing to his highest authority, is preserved from the possibility of error on doctrine "initially given to the apostolic Church and handed down in Scripture and tradition".  And the sufficiency of the Pope, any Pope, to guarantee and to elucidate that faith goes with it. 

According to Catholic Answers:

infallibility also belongs to the body of bishops as a whole, when, in doctrinal unity with the pope, they solemnly teach a doctrine as true. We have this from Jesus himself, who promised the apostles and their successors the bishops, the magisterium of the Church: “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16).

Infallibility belongs in a special way to the pope as head of the bishops (Matt. 16:17–19; John 21:15–17). As Vatican II remarked, it is a charism the pope “enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (Luke 22:32), he proclaims by a definitive act some doctrine of faith or morals. Therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly held irreformable, for they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, an assistance promised to him in blessed Peter.”

Let me be more specific.  This dogma was proclaimed by the first Vatican council in 1870, where it was affirmed that the Pope cannot err or teach error when he speaks on matters of faith and morals ex cathedra, or “from the chair” of the Apostle St. Peter.  However, Rome is very careful to suggest that:

The infallibility of the pope is not a doctrine that suddenly appeared in Church teaching; rather, it is a doctrine that was implicit in the early Church. It is only our understanding of infallibility that has developed and been more clearly understood over time. In fact, the doctrine of infallibility is implicit in these Petrine texts: John 21:15–17 (“Feed my sheep . . . ”), Luke 22:32 (“I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail”), and Matthew 16:18 (“You are Peter . . . ”).

My point is this.  Is it less of a stretch to believe that Jesus who affirms the unchanging message of the Law, the Prophets, and the writings, who insists the Word of the Lord endures forever, and the witness of St. Paul and St. Peter that this Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness than it is to believe that the Pope, any Pope, when he speaks from the authority of his office is inerrant or infallible?

And then there is this.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats the affirmation of Vatican II:

The inspired books teach the truth. “Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures” (CCC 107, quoting the Vatican II document Dei Verbum 11).

Sola Scriptura may be hijacked by certain people on a mission and those who oppose it may hijack the same thing on their mission.  The end result is the same.  Instead of trusting the Word to say what it means and do what it says, somebody ends up saying they know better and just trust them.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

The strangeness of Hanukkah

It has become fashionable by some religious leaders to claim we are all Jews -- at the high holy days or when remembering the Holocaust, for example.  I understand the sentiment but wonder about it.  Somebody said to me that I should stop referencing the Judeo-Christian tradition since Adam and Eve were, by the faith in the promise, the first Christians.  Yes, in one sense we are all children of Abraham as the New Testament makes abundantly clear.  But the roots of Christianity are not found in Judaism.  Christianity is already there at Genesis 3:15.  In one sense it is correct to say we share a common history but I am not sure it can be said we share a common faith.

Way back in December my wife and I had a discussion Hanukkah and Hanukkah greetings extended to Jews by Christians, I began thinking about this a bit more.  How strange it is that Hanukkah has become such a big deal or that Christians are tempted to focus on a few parallels to judge it Jewish Christmas! This feast is almost an also ran in Jewish holy days.  It commemorates events recorded in the books of First and Second Maccabees -- books are not found in the Hebrew Bible (or in most Christian Bibles!).  Rome calls them Scripture while the Orthodox (though there is some diversity in Orthodoxy) and Lutherans value them -- just not as the Word of God. 

Perhaps in our enthusiasm for something that reduces all religion to the same faith, Christians have tended to make Hanukkah a “Jewish Christmas”—complete with all kinds of things that mirror what Christians do -- from lighting candles on the menorah to singing holiday songs to exchanging gifts. The things done on Hanukkah often seem in conflict with the Maccabees struggle as Jewish resistance fights against a much larger force.

In the fourth century B.C., Israel watched as Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) made himself God, murdered the High Priest and 40,000 Jews and then turning another 40,000 into slavery. To make matters worse he desecrated the Temple, dedicated it to Zeus, plundering its treasures, and sacrificed pigs on its altar. That does not even mention what he did to mothers, their circumcised boys, and their families.

The Jews revolted and Antiochus went after them with an army of 65,000 against Judah’s 10,000.  Israel regained its independence (until Rome's occupation) Before the engagement, Judah and his army prayed fervently to God for Israel’s deliverance. Their prayers were answered and the Maccabees roundly defeated the superior Hellenist forces. Although some fighting continued, that battle freed Israel, which would remain independent until occupied by the Romans a century later.

In their victory, they rushed to purify the desecrated Temple and rededicate it to God. (“Hanukkah” means “dedication”).  Tradition says one day’s supply of consecrated oil lit the Menorah for eight days until the oil could be replenished -- hence the 8 day celebration and a candle for each day.

It is a great story but not Christmas.  The victory lasted only about a century until Rome conquered them (something Jesus painfully reminded them about in John 8).  I can understand why it would be remembered but that does not even come close to Christmas.  We come to manger to see the face of God, to rejoice in an eternal victory over sin and death, and the reconciliation not of a tribe but of all people to God through the blood of His Son.  No, it is not Jewish Christmas.  And it would be better if we carefully distinguished these holidays -- no matter how close in time they fall.

It may be polite to extend Hanukkah greetings to Jews but it may also promote the popular myth that these two days are somehow equivalent or the same.  They are not.  To distinguish them is not to offend Jews but to honor the two days for what they are -- very, very different.  We get a bigger miracle than 7 extra days of oil -- we meet on the holy ground of God's presence to behold the Savior who is Christ the Lord.  I should have remembered this and, happily, my wife forced me to think it over again.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Lamenting the cost of safety. . .

Now that 2021 has begun, the hope we all have is that we can begin to set aside the new normal and find a way to live in community once again.  Though the cost of the attempts to prevent the virus were measured most profoundly in terms of the number of deaths and the numbers entering poverty and the numbers of businesses shuttered for good, there were other costs.

I think of my friend of more than 40 years and my age who retired after serving so faithfully only to die months after his retirement.  The loss was compounded by the fact that at his funeral, the people of the parish viewed the body from a sort of drive through visitation before only a couple of siblings, a niece, another pastor or two and a handful from the parish were there for the Requiem Divine Service.  And then it was over.

I think of another pastor who preached his final sermon to an empty church as technology carried his words to his scattered flock -- only to have him die within six months and seventeen to sit in the funeral, remembering his life with thanksgiving, and turning to the Lord for the comfort of His Word.  Again, technology sent the service out to those not present.

I think of the many in my parish who were isolated in assisted living centers and nursing homes while the doors were closed to family and clergy and how many of them fell into decline while living in the solitude of their rooms -- without stimulation, company, or the community of friends and family.  Not to mention those who died alone in those rooms -- victims of COVID whether they had it or not -- and their families who could not say good bye or hold their hands.  These losses were not only in the parish but across the nation in our families.

I think of the personal side of so many services so to accommodate the many in shortened liturgies with smaller attendance -- not to mention of my wife who practically wore out a pair of shoes rushing between chapel and main sanctuary as the services went on and on and on.  And the Cantor who rushed between organs and locations so that we might sing a hymn.  And the preacher who preached his sermon over and over and over again until he wished never to hear it again.

I think of my 90 year old mother who spent so many months without leaving her home and her fears less of getting the disease than loved ones getting it and not recovering.  I think of the distance that had to accompany the joyful welcome of a new grandchild and of the hopeful moments spent in waiting to actually see him face to face.  I think of the stress I brought home to my wife and of her patience as I ranted away my frustration at trying to be a pastor in such times like these.  I think of our own family, our own health and of our own personal comorbidities (how I have come to hate that word) that could affect our ability to survive infection.

And then there are the other things.  Vacations set aside, visits postponed, trips not taken, and simple excursions locally that turn into something big as you constantly weigh the cost of going out.  Or the hugs you would have given to the family mourning a loss, or the people sharing good news, or the greetings given to people you have not seen for a while.  The authorities have told us we had to give up these things and in the grand scheme of things they seem like little things.  But are they?

In the strange world where being social means being distant, millions have longed for contact -- any sort of contact -- with another person.  Waiting to give and receive a hug from children, grandchildren, and friends is not a small thing or incidental or non-essential -- it is what we were created to know and redeemed to do.  Frankly, I am sick and tired of being told by a talking face on the screen that if we really loved our loved ones we would give up loving them to save them.  For what kind of life?

I wonder how many people's lives were hastened to decline and death by the restrictions of COVID, how many people died of something other than COVID but who died alone because of the restrictions of COVID, and how many people whose mental health has been severely altered because of the restrictions of COVID.  No, we cannot bring back those who died but the living will carry the weight of living with the restrictions every bit as much as they will carry the memory of those whose death ended up increasing the totals reported to us as breaking news for 9 months.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Just be the Church. . .

So a news release from the Vatican says:

Vatican Launches Education Collaboration with UN to Promote Sustainability and Gender Equality

Former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the economist Jeffrey Sachs, and the director general of UNESCO are among those speaking at the little-publicized launch of a Vatican-U.N. collaboration aimed at educating the world in sustainable lifestyles, gender equality and a culture of peace and nonviolence.

The Dec. 16-17 Vatican Youth Symposium, hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, is serving as the launch for a collaboration between Pope Francis’ Global Compact on Education initiative, which invites a new humanism based on a global change of mentality, and Mission 4.7, a U.N.-backed advisory group of civil and political leaders aiming to meet the educational target (numbered 4.7) of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The Vatican said the symposium is focusing in particular on the need to promote a new kind of education, “one that will overcome the current globalization of indifference and the culture of waste.”

And in that gobblygook lies what is at the heart of Christianity's decline.  Churches that are doing just about everything but being the Church.  Now this happened Dec. 16-17 -- and a week later the Pope led Christmas masses from an empty St. Peter's.  Apparently it is too dangerous to be in person for worship but not so dangerous that the mission of Christ cannot be blurred and confused with a collaborative effort toward the current sacred cows of gender fluidity, climate change, anti-capitalism, and all the other related paraphernalia.  Wow.  It is no wonder that people are confounded about what Christianity is and what the Church is!

Even conservative churches are tempted by the desire to dabble in the politics of race, gender, sexuality, climate change, economic justice, and a host of other causes -- not all of them bad, mind you, but none of them what the Gospel is about.  What kind of Church is willing to lose its soul to gain a few better moments on an earth that God has already consigned to destruction?  Now, I am not at all suggesting that we should rape creation or ignore our responsibility as stewards of God's gifts or be indifferent to the plight of the suffering.  But I am saying that there a plenty of well funded (usually liberal) foundations who can carry the weight here.  The Church does not need to dip its fingers in the water of relevance.  As long as people sin and die we have the ultimate relevance.  But we seem to have forgotten that.

Honestly, Rome and Francis seem to have taken their direction from liberal Protestantism and the future they have chosen will probably end up where the progressive and liberal Christians are -- empty churches and a betrayal of the Gospel.  It is as if Rome is good if they have the mass and nobody came but everybody knows where the Pope stands on social justice and climate and gender issues.  What kind of church is that?  Not the Church established by Jesus Christ for His purpose.  So wake up and smell the roses folks.  The Church can be political and faithful but she cannot be both.  Whatever happened to in but not of the world?

 

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Great Exchange. . .

Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord, the First Sunday after the Epiphany, preached on Sunday, January 10, 2021.

The appearance of John the Forerunner in the wilderness began a life and a work that is fulfilled when Jesus stands with John in the water of the Jordan.  Every baptism that John did looked to this moment and to this unlikely baptism of Jesus.  Every sermon John preached is fulfilled when Jesus comes to be baptized at the hand of John.  John’s duty was always to anoint the Anointed One of God and it happens not in regal courts or comfortable glory but in the stale and dirty water of our sin.  When faced with the duty for which he was born, John finds himself strangely unsure.  John knows he should be baptized by Jesus instead of the other way around.

How often haven’t people frozen in the crunch time, hesitated at the very moment when they should have been bold, uncertain when they should have been most confident!  I know I have.  John’s whole life pointed to this moment and indeed after Jesus’ baptism, John fades away as a force and a part of the story.  Forever John had been saying, “after me comes He who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.  I have baptized you with water but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  Now when the hand off comes, John wavers.  When the great exchange is set to happen, John does not seem up to it.  Jesus has to help John face this moment.

It is not hard to see why there are conflicting emotions in John.  Jesus was not a sinner whom John had called to repentance.  Jesus was not covered with dirt waiting for the mercy of God to wash Him clean.  Jesus was not being given a new start and a fresh identity in this miracle of water.  No, indeed.  Jesus was clean and holy and righteous and was going down in the churning, dirty, and filthy water of our sins.  Every sin in that putrid water was going to stick to Jesus.  And because He who knew no sin would become sin for us, Jesus would rise from that water marked for death.  And not just any death but the cruelest of deaths in the agony of the cross when death was deliberately slowed so that the suffering could be extended.  If John had a hint that this was the future awaiting Jesus from this baptism, it is no wonder John hesitated.  But Jesus did not hesitate.  “It must be so that I may fulfill all righteousness.”  The baptism went on.

When Jesus came out of the water, the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended upon Him like a dove.  A voice came booming from heaven:  “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  John may have been uncertain but Jesus was not and neither was the Father.  The plot hatched in the heart of God before the foundation of the world had come down to this moment.  Jesus is inaugurated into His public ministry by going down into the deep waters of our sin and rising up with all those sins stuck to Him like glue.  He will wear them righteously in a life of holy obedience and will die for them in a death of holy obedience.  No one had ever been baptized like this before and no one since.  But the promise of God depended upon this moment and the pledge God made in YOUR baptism was dependent upon this event.

Today we recall how Jesus went down into the filthy stream of our sin to do what only He could do and what must be done to save us.  It was not that the river itself was dirty, as Naaman had complained, or that there were not other rivers and better rivers in Israel.  It was that whatever water into which Christ was baptized would be the water of our sin, churning with the stain of our rebuke toward God in Eden and darkened with every sin we have added to that rebellion since.

At that moment John was never more fully aware of his unworthiness, of the irony of the only innocent man standing in the water there to take upon Himself the full weight of John’s sins, of the sins of all of Israel, and, indeed, of the whole world.  John’s instinct was to protect Jesus and prevent Jesus from what was there in that water, the certain death for sin that alone would release righteousness for sinners.  But Jesus insists that this great exchange is not a choice for John but the saving will of the Father to which Jesus was fully and finally committed.  From this moment John, his preaching and his baptism would fade away, for the One whose way he proclaimed had come.

None of us goes to baptism as Jesus did.  None of us brings righteousness to that water.  We bring only sin – the sin of Adam into which we were born and the sins we have added to the guilt of Eden.  We go down into that water dirty and come up clean just as Jesus went in clean and came out dirty.  Connected to His own death and resurrection, covered in His righteousness, born anew not of flesh but of the Spirit, we become the sons and daughters of God.  Our identity and life is sealed in that water just as Jesus identity and life was sealed in the waters of His baptism.  John could not make Jesus the Messiah but the Messiah can make of sinners the children of God.  It happened to you.  It happens among us with some regularity.  It is the miracle of water and the Word.

In some baptismal fonts, at the bottom of the bowl, permanently resting in baptismal water, is a crucifix.  It is there to remind us that the power of baptism is the Word of God and the gift of baptism is born of Jesus’ baptism.  Christ is in that water still, taking from us our sin, and covering us with His righteousness.  He takes what is ours and we receive what is His alone and by this miracle of water and the Spirit, we are made the children of God.  The words once spoken to Jesus are now directed to those whom Jesus has cleansed and given new birth.  You are My beloved sons and daughters.  With you I am well pleased.  

In the womb of Blessed Mary and laid in the manger, Christ honored us by taking on our flesh and blood.  In the womb of this font and presented at this altar, Christ has done us the honor of giving us His own name, His own identity as God’s son, His righteousness as our clothing, and His resurrection as our future.  So this baptism is not some item on the checklist of salvation that we can cross off and forget but the single most important event in our lives.  From this baptismal encounter the Holy Spirit teaches us faith, sanctifies and guides us that we may follow Christ, and delivers us to the fulfillment of that baptismal promise when we rise from the grave to awaken to eternal life.  

Along the way the same Lord Jesus assigns angels to minister and protect us, opens our deaf ears to hear the voice of God in His Word and recognize it as our Good Shepherd, emboldens us to confess our sins and forgives those sins, gives us a place at His table so that we may eat of His flesh and drink of His blood, and works in us that we may be more like Christ less like Adam, until the good work He began in us is complete and we are delivered from all that is temporary to that which is eternal, in God’s Kingdom without end.

Making you better, meant making Jesus worse.  Making you clean, meant making Jesus dirty.  Making you whole, meant making Jesus broken.  Making you live, meant making Jesus die.  It is no shock that we want what baptism offers – that we want a better life, to be clean and whole, and to live through death to eternity.  What is shocking to us is that Jesus welcomes this great exchange.  He comes willingly – the worst of us to bear, the dirt on us to wear, the wounds in us He bleeds, and the death in us He dies.

Satan once owned us and our future.  We surrendered ourselves to Him when we chose to trust the devil’s lies and the deceptions of our own sinful hearts.  But now we are owned by God, set apart for His holy purpose, now and forever.  We have been bought with a price, and we belong to Him.  Sin cannot shame us, Satan cannot deceive us, trials cannot overcome us, and death cannot claim us.  We belong to the Lord.  Because the Lord chose to step into that river of sin and death, we step into the still, quiet waters of forgiveness, life, and salvation.  In the Name of Jesus.  Amen.

Teach the parents well. . .


If you are of a certain age, you probably recall that poignant line from a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song "teach your children well."  Graham Nash began writing that song even before the group existed (I believe about 1968).  He was looking a historical photos when the song coalesced into the hit and he enshrined those words into a song played out against a difficult couple of decades.  We all know the wisdom of those words.  But you may have forgotten a later line in the same song.  "Teach your parents well."  That does not quite stick in the mind like the first line but it is even more important.

I believe it was Harry Wendt who once contrasted our modern age with Jesus by saying that Jesus blessed the children and taught the adults while we today teach the children and entertain the parents.  And it is true.  So much of what we do in the Church is directed toward children.  We have Sunday school, Vacation Bible, catechism class, youth group, youth events, etc...  Ask for anything in any congregation and tell the people it is for the kids and you will have no shortage of money.  We are geared for this and it is in our DNA -- everything for the kids.  But. . .

The primary teachers of the faith to our children are the adults and that is where the whole thing falls flat.  The average congregation has a smaller percentage of folks in Bible study and adult catechesis than it does children in the children's ministries.  In effect, the adults have decided that it is enough to learn the faith from the Church as a child and that this is sufficient for most of your life.  But is it?  Is it enough to defer to the ministries of the Church to replace the parental role and leadership of teaching the faith to the children and are those parents sufficiently catechized to teach the faith well to their children?

We live in a world of choice in which people are less concerned about and less informed of what churches believe, confess, and teach and more concerned and informed by things like amenities, entertainment value, personal preferences for music or style, perceived welcome, etc...  Can our parents defend such things as infant baptism or teach this cardinal doctrine in a world in which sermons are less doctrinal than ever before and teaching less dogmatic than ever before?  Can our parents address questions and concerns about Biblical truth, historicity, authenticity, etc...?  Can our parents explain the liturgy, the church year, why hymns are used and other songs not, etc...?  Can our parents explain why we hold to marriage of one man and one woman, why we cannot normalize a gender fluid understanding of sexual identity, and why we are against cohabitation, abortion, etc...?  Can our parents explain the essential truth of being saved by grace and not by works or confess faithfully the Trinity?

That is why teaching the parents well will help teach the children.  It occasionally happens that the interest of a child will spark the interest of a parent to things religious but it is a regular occurrence that the faith convictions or doubts or disinterest of the parents will color the child for most of his or her adult life.  In an age of relativism it is even more important for parents to know well the faith, to know well the catechism, to know the liturgy and hymnody of the faith, and to know what their congregation believes, confesses, and teaches.  If we expect our children to be taught well, we will need to begin with the adults and not get around to adult catechesis when we have a spare moment.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The cost of ugliness. . .

Los Angeles is home to the $250 million (the cost at completion in 2002) eyesore that serves as the Roman Catholic cathedral in this large city diocese.  It seats some 3,000 people although I cannot imagine why anyone would want to worship in such a monstrosity.   Even the angels (its name) are probably not comfortable in it.  The hard exterior belies and equally hard, stark, raw, and blunt interior.  You be the judge.

It is a structure with edges and angles but without much welcome or sense of angels.  It is a building that fits a moment but stands in contrast with the church of the ages.

The interior is as bland and flat in color and tone as the outside and draws more attention to itself than what is supposed to go on inside of it.

But it cost a quarter of a billion dollars so it must be great architecture, right?

You don't have to go far to visit another timely structure.  At $175 million, it is almost a bargain when compared with LA's cathedral.  Built from 2005 and 2008, Oakland’s Cathedral of Light which seats 1,300 which puts the cost per person significantly higher.  So what did the extra money go for?  Windows, apparently!

It is a silvery curve that betrays little of its purpose in arising out of the ground but it does stand out against the structures around it.  Whether that is good or bad depends upon your perspective.

The interior is like worshiping inside an upside down basket and a floating, ghostly image of Jesus in the chancel is about the only clue to tell you what this building was built for and what is supposed to take place inside it.  

If you think it is successful, it is probably because it is odd, unusual, interesting even, but beautiful?  I am not so sure and friendly to the liturgy and to the worship of God?  Well, again, I am not so sure.

In contrast to these, there is a cathedral size church going up, in of all places Kansas.  It is paid for and the cost is, I am told, about $30 million (probably less than what some of these other buildings spent on architectural and engineering fees).

It is not avant garde or ground breaking in design.  In fact, it lends its origins to the tried and tested rules of the past to provide space befitting the purpose of worship and focusing attention less on itself than on the God who is being worshiped.  Well, again, you be the judge.

With the money already been raised ( 3//4 from its own parish community), it will be home to a parish of some 4,000 people and seats about 1,500.  Here are architect’s renderings.  My only point is to suggest that those who design church buildings would do well to remember that they are for worship, that the generations that come after will have to live with the artistic creations of their genius, and that if it is not clear from inside or out that the glory goes to God, something is wrong.


Saturday, January 9, 2021

Shifting shape of Christianity. . .

According to a Barna survey, between April and May, 32% of practicing Christians disclosed not going to church in person or online. Eighteen percent are donating less to their places of worship. Though the recent Supreme Court ruling insisting that churches not be treated differently than other public venues is an affirmation of sorts, it was not a unanimous opinion and it may not adjust the suspicion with which some inside and outside the church view worship.  Many of those have still not returned.  Many congregations face uncertainties about what is allowed and what is not.  Many judicatory officials have been hesitant to speak out in favor of the opening of the churches.  Many pastors and parish leaders live in the limbo of quickly changing rules and fear of media scrutiny.  All of this is no small problem for the greater landscape of American churches -- the lack of confidence with respect to in person worship and the reticence of parish and judicatory leaders to respond robustly to the challenges to in person worship.

The more I read from sources like Barna, the more I am convinced that the reshaping of Christianity will occur and is now occurring not on the basis of doctrine or belief but on the ability of the screen to replace in person worship.  For most of Protestantism and Evangelicalism, the screen works well as a surrogate for in person worship -- perhaps too well.  For many of those who once attended these churches in person, the screen has become the norm.  In these churches, the worshipers may well go an entire year without having worshiped in person and have learned that there may not be a compelling need to be there in person.  On the other hand, those churches with a sacramental life that compels the people to be in person are much less likely to find the screen a suitable substitute.

Many of those churches without a sacramental life that expects in person participation have for a long time been shifting to a more digital presence.  In one sense, it could be said that social media have become the sacrament of life and worship for these churches.  With a vibrant presence on the various platforms and boasting a large following, it is easy to see how the once huge campuses may give way to slimmed down physical facilities in favor of a beefed up online presence.  It will certainly be less expensive to these churches and will, in the end, require fewer and different kinds of staff than what had been normal for them in the past.  It is appealing also because these churches are always on the prowl for things new and delight in living on the cutting edge of change and technology.  This shift would allow them to focus their resources more on adaptation -- something more difficult and costly to do with brick and mortar facilities.  Quite like the expanded online options the major retailers are now employing, these churches are marketing themselves to take advantage of the new patterns and assumptions of a post-covid life in which the home and the screen are the center of everything.  I am certainly not the first to suggest this.  

The problems lie for the liturgical and sacramental churches -- they have split personalities and some of them want to live in the same world as those congregations spoken about above while at the same time trying to maintain a healthy and vibrant in person life.  This is precisely where Lutherans live.  We are caught between our instinct to follow the next best thing that we see happening in the Evangelicals and our confessional and sacramental identity rooted in a community physically gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.  We want both but we cannot have it.  I am of the opinion that this will be the showdown moment without our churches -- both locally and nationally.  There are those who find few theological problems and many benefits to online communion and worship before a screen.  After all, what is the difference between going to a building to watch things happen on a screen or staying at home and watching the same things happen on a screen?  Some of these people have already been using online and at home or drive by settings for the Eucharist, so what will keep them from expanding this kind of so-called virtual church?  I am not sure that there is much a denomination can do except show these churches the door.  But do we have the backbone to say to those who have such an opinion that they are not one with us?  Where it will all come down is a mystery to me and I have no ability to predict the response but I fear the day of reckoning is coming.  As usual, the shift will happen less on the basis of doctrines in dispute but practices in conflict -- although, as you already know, I believe that practice is doctrine in action so they are both intertwined.

2021 will be an interesting year for a variety of reasons.  A Biden administration will slow down pro-life efforts on a variety of fronts.  The viability of Christian colleges and universities will become an even more critical question as moves are in place to force compliance with social justice stances through the use of government funding or guarantees.  Congregations and denominations will become effectively smaller as those who have been away stay away.  Vaccines may ease the pandemic concerns or expose even more fully how politicized and with what suspicion people view the medicine of it all.  And some of us -- Lutherans, for my part -- will have to decide whether social media platforms can be surrogates and substitutes for in person gatherings.  I, for one, am not sure that our online video will continue as it has been -- in part because I do not want to give our people the choice between being present and watching those who are.  We will see what happens. . .