Monday, June 14, 2021

Where are all the people?

If you are a Lutheran like me, you sometimes wonder where are all the people?  After all, Lutheranism has managed to retain its catholicity of doctrine and practice and keep its familiar confession and worship identity better than just about any other group outside of Rome.  It is serious about theology, deliberate in its focus on the work of the Kingdom, and offers a profound and vibrant understanding of the means of grace.  So where are all the people who should be attracted by these things?

On the one hand, you can blame the lunatic fringes of Lutheranism.  There are those who are, for all intents and purposes, fundamentalists who have a strong confession of the Word of God but who treat that Word less as a living voice than a book of facts, rules, and information.  They are like fancy Baptists who have a peculiar way of worship.  On the other hand, there are Lutherans who are, for all intents and purposes, Unitarians who use the Nicene Creed.  They like the form but struggle with the content and so they are as comfortable in the clothing of the historic liturgy as they are the embrace of modern oddities of sexual identity and gender constructs.  It is as if there are no other Lutherans -- at least that is how it appears.

The reality is that most Lutheran congregations are pretty conservative on Sunday mornings.  Yes, there may be more Lutherans who attend the fewer congregations who are not so, well, Lutheran on Sunday morning but most Lutherans follow the book, sing hymns from the book, and, while not exactly high church, are not exactly evangelicals either.  I have struggled in my mind to figure out the great disconnect between Lutheranism the ideal and Lutheranism the reality, between those who are Lutheran because that is who they are and those who should be Lutheran because it is, in my view, the best catholic and evangelical option out there.  The fear I have is that too many dismiss Lutheranism as a stopover and not a destination.  When they awaken to the emptiness of what passes as mainline or even evangelical Christianity, they decide not to stop until they hit land -- crossing the Tiber or the Bosporous to find a lasting home (not without problems but a bit more permanent on the outside than the rest of the choices).

It reminded me of something I read not long ago.  “To the shame of our damaged Protestantism, popery remains, in some essential respects, more faithful to God’s truth than its rival.” This was the judgment of the great Presbyterian divine -- not mostly forgotten -- a Southern Presbyterian theologian, Confederate army chaplain, and virulent anti-Catholic by the name of Robert Lewis Dabney.  He was more anti-Catholic than just about anyone else but he grudgingly admitted that in comparison to what is there, Roman Catholicism looks better than most choices.  He said this 150 years ago.  If it was true then, it is even more true today: “When they tire of the banality of modern evangelicalism, North Americans will become the ripest of prey for Romish ritualism.”  Again:  “Rome proposes herself as the stable advocate of obedience, order, and permanent authority throughout the ages.” 

Lutheranism, at least the kind practiced in America today, is not sure what it wants to be.  And that is the problem.  What we say in our Confessions has become something that gets lip service but not exactly wholehearted agreement and certainly not unashamed practice.  Rome is not any better but they do have antiquity.  We could have antiquity as well but it is hard to claim catholicity and apostolicity when you have Pastor Friendly sitting in a polo behind a plexiglass podium behind a plexiglass enclosed drum set behind screens in front of designer coffee sniffing comfy chair people tapping their feet to the rhythm of the beat.  Rome claims an antiquity it does not deserve and we refuse an antiquity which is the epitome of our confessional logic.  Go figure.

I understand the frustration of our old Presbyterian Chaplain who was on the wrong side of the War between the States and slavery and probably a few other things.  He looked around and saw both what was Rome's weakness and yet its attraction.  Looking around these many decades later, he was probably on to something.  Part of me keeps hoping for a Lutheranism that is happy being who it is.  Part of me fears that after liberalism and relativism and entertainmentism have taken their toll, there may not be much of Lutheranism left to echo the confessional claim to catholicity in doctrine and practice.  But I plug away at it.  Hoping against hope, as they say, that Lutherans will wake up one day and say, "Geez, we need to be who we say we are."  If that day does come, Rome may be in real trouble.  If it does not come, Rome will probably be there to pick up the slack -- even given the screwiness of Francis and those who think like him.  I just wish we would give them a real run for their money and act like the people who once refused to cower before an emperor or a pope.  Until then, it is hard to tell people this is what a Lutheran really is without adding an asterisk and it is hard to say that Lutheranism looks like us on Sunday morning without a caveat.  


Certain growth. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 3, Proper 6B, preached on Sunday, June 13, 2021, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    We are impatient people.  We don’t like to wait.  We want what we want and we want it now.  We’re a fast-food, high speed, immediate gratification culture.  And we’re not impressed with the small and mundane.  Super-sized and extraordinary, that’s what we want.  And this can be a problem for our faith, because faith, because God’s kingdom slowly grows from what seem to be tiny and unimpressive things. 
    Jesus’ two parables this morning begin with tiny and unimpressive things: seeds.  Seeds are boring.  Seeds are mundane.  Of course, we know seeds are important.  Without them we wouldn’t have beautiful flowers in our gardens or fruits or vegetables to eat.  Farmers’ livelihoods rely on seeds.  But to look at a handful of seeds is unimpressive.  We don’t put much value on seeds.  You can go to Lowe’s and buy a package of vegetable or flower seeds for $2.50 or less. 
Seeds seem insignificant.  And they’re slow.  I’ve never been one for gardening and one of the reasons is because it takes too long.  For example, like most children, my school had a science fair every year, and like most children, my science fair project often involved growing lima beans in cups filled with different soils.  This project took forever.  You couldn’t do it in a day or even a week.  For 2-3 weeks, every day, I had to observe and measure.  It was tedious and boring.  But that’s the nature of growth.  Growth takes time.  
    No matter what it is, seeds growing into plants, or babies growing into children, then teenagers, then young adults, and then older adults, it takes time.  It takes time to grow physically; to grow in maturity; grow in expertise and knowledge.  It takes time to grow in faith.  But growth is certain. 
    In Jesus’ first parable He talked about a man who scattered seed, who then waited patiently for it to grow.  And it did, not because of anything he did, but because that’s what the seed does.  From the seed, the earth produced by itself.  And after the seed was fully grown into ripe grain, the man harvested it.  That was the purpose of the seed, to produce grain to eat and to plant again to produce more growth.  It took time, but the seed did what it was supposed to do. 
    This is exactly how it works with the growth of faith and the growth of God’s kingdom.  It takes time, but it will grow.
    How many of you would dare to say that your faith hasn’t grown?  Our faith is always growing.  It never stays the same.  For those who were raised in the church, the faith you have today isn’t the same faith that you had as children.  Yes, it’s the same confession.  Yes, Christ continues to be the object of that faith.  But how your faith informs your lives and how you think about the world around you, it’s different from when you were a child.  And the same is said for those who were called to the faith later on in life.  You didn’t go through instruction and then all of the sudden know everything.  No, your faith continues to grow. 
This growing in faith is certain.  It will happen, because that’s what God promises.  He promises to produce growth through seeds that seem to be insignificant and unimpressive.  
    The seeds that grow faith, the seeds that grow God’s kingdom, are nothing else than His Word: His Word heard and His Word seen in the Sacraments.  God promises that His Word will produce.  Through the prophet Isaiah He says: For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is 55:10-11).  And again Jesus, in His famous parable about the sower who scatters seeds on all kinds of soil, He explained that the seed was God’s Word, and that seed produced growth. 
    Growth comes from God’s Word, but for us, this seems unimpressive.  Hearing the pastor read Scripture aloud, well, there’s nothing exciting about that.  We think listening to a sermon preached can be boring (not mine or Pastor Peters’ of course).  But seriously, how many times have we made jokes about a sermon being too long?  We say it’s a joke, but behind every joke is a little bit of truth.  We’re willing to listen for 10-12 minutes...maybe 15, but if the sermon goes longer, we dread it.  If we truly believed that God, through His Word read and proclaimed in the sermon was growing our faith, shouldn’t we be excited to hear?  Shouldn’t we be glad to hear?  And the same is true for His Sacraments.
    Too often we think too little about God’s Sacraments.  They don’t seem impressive.  A little water poured over our head...that’s common place, happens every day in the shower.  There’s nothing awe inspiring about hearing Christ’s Absolution spoken by the pastor.  For most of us, we don’t feel an emotional charge hearing our sins are forgiven.  And the Bread and Wine of Christ’s Supper, that doesn’t seem to be a big deal either, just a little bite and a little sip. 
This is how we view God’s gifts.  This is how we view the seeds by which God gives and grows saving faith.  And it’s sinful.  We need to repent of our oh-hum attitude that we have before God.  We need to repent of our boredom when it comes to His Means of Grace.  We need to realize that it’s by these very things that we’re saved; by these very things we receive Christ’s gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation that were won on His tree.    
    The cross of Christ is the tree under which God gathers all He’s people, from every nation, just as the prophecy of Ezekiel and the parable of Christ says.  The cross of Christ is the tree of life by which we have life.  The cross of Christ covers all of God’s kingdom, a kingdom that is ever growing. 
In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that God’s kingdom will come.  This isn’t a prayer of uncertainty.  God’s kingdom will certainly come, because He’s the one who grows it.  “God’s kingdom comes when [He] gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His Holy Word.” (Martin Luther, Small Catechism).  With every person baptized: infant, child, or adult; God increases His kingdom.  And He keeps and sustains His kingdom by His Word.  This is sure and certain, but we must be faithfully patient to see it fulfilled.
It often doesn’t look like God’s kingdom has come in Christ, and it doesn’t look like it’s growing either.  Every year reports come out saying more and more people are leaving the Church.  Pews remain empty in churches everywhere.  And seeing this, we can become greatly discouraged.  We can begin to doubt the seeds of God’s Word and Sacrament.  But these aren’t the problem.  God’s Word and Sacraments have never been the problem.  And we mustn’t think that we can better grow God’s Church by changing them.  It’s God’s kingdom, not ours, and He has promised to grow it.  He has promised to care for it.  And with faith, that’s what we believe.    
Seeds are tiny and unimpressive, and it takes forever for them to produce.  We wait, wondering if anything will ever grow, and they do.  The largest plant can come from the smallest seed.  And the same is true for God’s kingdom.  Grown from seemingly tiny and unimpressive Word and Sacraments, we wonder if God’s kingdom will ever come to fulfillment.  It will.  That’s God’s promise.  He will do it.  And in His kingdom, you and all His saints will have a place under Christ’s tree of life.  In Jesus’ name…Amen.  

The Post-Covid Agenda. . .

Of the many things we have learned during COVID, one of them must surely be that we thought our people were better catechized into the faith than they were or are.  The mere fact that our people fell for the dubious promise of virtual communion online is testament enough to the fact that we have not done our best for the folks in our care.  I am speaking to pastors now.  Given the pressures of government and media, it might have been too much to presume that the Church had kept her integrity during the months of uncertainty when worship was deemed less essential than a frozen pizza at Wal-Mart.  But the rear view mirror does not show the Church at her best and she failed to provide the best leadership to her people.  At best we got a soft echo of what was being bantered about as real science and at worst we got all sorts of things best left unmentioned and forgotten.  So what shall we do now that things might have half a chance of returning to some sense of normalcy?

Lets start with catechesis.  Though the temptation is therapeutic care for the wounded, the more urgent and essential need is solid catechesis.  Maybe we ought to start with the creed and unpack again what it was and is that we confess every week.  Maybe we ought to continue with the Catechism itself and what it is that we claimed to know when we were taught the faith as a youth or taught the faith as an adult entering the Church's life.  Maybe we ought to check the theology of the hymns we sing and teach our people to understand what our hymns confess and why that matters.  Maybe we ought to review the Divine Service and remind people why we have the liturgy we do and why it matters.  Number one our to do list ought to be making sure our people are well catechized.  If not now, when?

We could continue this by remembering again what the Church is and what the Church is not.  Perhaps this would help us understand why online preaching and the Eucharist cannot replace in person participation in the Word and Table of the Lord.  Could it be that our people have either forgotten why or were never taught why a sacramental Church requires us to be present in person and why we need what only an in person experience can offer.  Frankly, I am sick and tired of those who think that the pandemic taught us how to get beyond in person and to capitalize upon technology.  Technology will be our undoing and the undoing of the people of God if they cannot distinguish why we must be present and what is offered to us when we are present that cannot be supplanted by digital, virtual, or online versions.

It is time to end live streaming anything.  While it might have seemed a good idea when we thought we had no choice, live streaming early on into the pandemic outlived its usefulness.  Live streaming gives the impression that listening in and watching on a screen is like being there.  It is not.  It cannot be.  The whole idea of video needs to be reviewed and some solid discussion on how it can serve the Church and how it cannot.  Certainly, it has value for showing people who we are (when they thought Lutherans were simply Baptists or Evangelicals with a different order of worship).  It may be a way for those who cannot be present to feel a deeper connection to the Church (military deployed apart from any local option to attend or shut-ins whose sacramental participation comes with a pastoral visit but who want to see and hear what is going on in their church).

Zoom was not and is not a replacement for in person meetings.  Even conference calls are difficult.  So lets leave the Zoom for the occasional time when someone cannot be present due to illness, weather and travel issues, etc., and lets meet in person if it is important enough for us to meet at all.  Consider this an extension of the above bullet point.

For a long time we have presumed that the people knew where to park, where the restrooms are, and the like.  Perhaps now is the time to look at our buildings from the vantage point of those who are not intimately familiar with our facilities.  We need to pay attention to where people enter and how they leave and do a more deliberative job of both welcoming them and giving them a clear pathway to where the action takes place.  And, by the way, make sure the building is clean and well kept.  Cleanliness may be next to Godliness when it comes to telling people that they are not only welcome but we have prepared the place for them.

Expect visitors.  Yes, you heard me right.  After a time like the pandemic, there are people who have awakened to the need for assurance more than science can provide and for a hope that does not have an expiration date.  This is your time to shine.  Proclaim the wisdom and mercy of God and let the strangers in your midst know that they are not only welcome but God has been expecting them.  Make sure they know that the Church is not simply an echo of culture, civil religion, and what people think but rooted and planted by God on the soil of His grace and favor.  This will certainly coordinate with the need to catechize the folks already there.  Teach them well.

The post-covid agenda will require us to give up somethings, relearn what we thought we knew, and prepare to welcome our familiar folks and the new faces into God's House again.  But then that is what we need to do all the time, is it not?

Sunday, June 13, 2021

How to grow the Church. . .

Churches are in tough shape, to be sure.  No one here has any room to gloat or boast.  We have all done an abysmal job of faithfully carrying out the Lord's will and purpose.  That said, none of us should take comfort from the fact that all of us are struggling and none of us is doing very well. 

The truth is that the churches are not only wringing their hands over this situation.  They are trying all kinds of things to reverse the decline.  They have transformed the doctrine and practice of the faith to meet the ever changing mood of the world around us.  They have used every manner of technology to introduce themselves, address the world with a welcoming face, and provided comment on just about everything.  They have restructured worship to provide services for every preference of time, music, form, and content.  There is not much that has not been tried in the name of growing God's Church.

It is easy to forget in the face of so much change and possibility that the keys to growing the Church are not all that unusual or extraordinary.  In fact, they are relatively common and every period of the Church's growth have been marked by the same things.  Th Church as grown or not lost members largely by the growth and stability of the family and the faithfulness of the preaching and teaching.  So if our members are having children, doing a decent job of raising their children in the faith, working to retain those who were baptized and raised in the faith, and winning converts from among their friends and contacts, the Church will grow or at least will not decline.  By the way, the key to winning converts is not discarding the faith of our fathers but an evangelistic continuity built upon doctrine and practice the are faithful and remain faithful.

Some may chuckle now that I am suggesting having children and raising them in the faith is so important.  The statistics show that Christians are not having many children and not doing a great job of raising them in the faith.  How can this not contribute to our decline or at least our stagnation?  Church going parents raising church growing children is always going to be an integral part of the growth of the Church.  It has been since Jesus told them to let the children come to Him, do not prevent them, and blessed them.  Why do some find this funny or odd?

Strong families reaching out to other families is also key.  Pastors contribute little toward outreach (except to make sure that there is a faithful church for people to live in and be attracted to).  Christians have always brought their friends, their children's friends, co-workers, and neighbors to the Church with them on Sunday morning.  It should not be surprising to admit that families reaching out to unchurched families is important to the growth and stability of the Church.

The other part of this is the work of the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes, as in Acts on Pentecost, the results are immediate and easy to see.  Other times they are slow and more hidden.  But the Holy Spirit has promised to work through the preaching and teaching of the Church and who are we to question when and where the Spirit is working.  This part is an object of faith and trust on our part.  The Word will not return empty but will accomplish His purpose in sending it.  

Evangelism is not rocket science.  We are not boldly to go where no one has gone before but more to walk in the footsteps of the faithful who went before  us.  Sometimes we need to be reminded of this.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Celebration of Hubris. . .

On Facebook some wag asked which month do the rest of the seven deadly sins get.  I hear him.  From HGTV (my personal weakness) to every business where I shop to the obligatory pronouncements from churches friendly to the movement, this is PRIDE month and they are in solidarity with their PRIDE friends.  Really?  

The reality is that this is the month of hubris -- when a very distinct but small and powerfully connected minority takes over to announce that it is out and proud and does not care what anyone else thinks.  Can this be good for us?  Is the celebration of hubris really something that needed in our culture preoccupied with what others think (that is sarcasm, in case you missed it)?  The movement fits in every nicely in a society in which personal feelings dictate reality, personal offense rewrites history, and personal desire defines identity.  But in my mind, more pride is about the last thing we need.  Ours is not an age known for great sacrifice or generosity.  Ours is not a time in which concern and compassion are overly in abundance.  Just the opposite.  We have contempt for everyone and we are not afraid to show it.  Read what passes for commentary on the social media or listen to the voices of people proclaiming loudly and proudly every hidden detail of their lives.  Are we somehow lacking so in hubris that we need a month to teach us how to bear our souls and our bodies and parade ourselves down the streets into a party of self-indulgence?  Do we need a month of Mardi Gras because we have had too little time to express our wants, desires, preferences, and self-centeredness?

Maybe we should declare July the month of repentance for our pride on overload -- oh, but wait, that is the month we celebrate a freedom we make cheap by turning the liberty for which our forefathers and mothers died into license to, yes, you guessed it, to do whatever we damn well please.  Repentance will have to wait.  But it always does.  Repentance is like the family dog who waits for adults preoccupied with work and leisure and the kids preoccupied with play and leisure -- both in front of a screen.  The dog waits for the day when someone will have time to throw a ball or a stick or take a walk.  Repentance has become that waiting faithful friend -- that which means more than we give it credit and we once loved but now find simply too much trouble.

Pastors are afraid to call their people to repentance and churches are afraid to call the world to repentance.  Nobody wants to rain on our parade.  So we continue along in our months of hubris and pride, announcing in public what was once private, flaunting the desires that were once kept hidden, and releasing from shame and guilt that which was once thought to be wrong or sin.  It is a great day for the liberation of our souls from every constraint of decency, politeness, decorum, and respect.  Pride month.  Can't wait until next year!!!

Friday, June 11, 2021

Retiring bishop. . .

Friends in Australia have pointed me to the announcement that Bishop John Henderson of the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA) has announced that he will not seek reelection at the church’s Convention of General Synod later this year and, in fact, will retire from active ministry at the same time.

Bishop Henderson was first elected to head the LCA in April 2013. It was a difficult time in which there were many who were trying to persuade the Australian Lutherans to ordain women.  While this resolution gained a majority, it was not a sufficient majority to be enacted.  Although things have been quiet on the front, the work continues -- especially among those of a certain age and mindset -- to make sure that the Aussies join those of the other more liberal Lutherans in opening the ministerium to women (and, as it has been showed repeatedly to be the case among those who ordained women, from women to all genders and sexual identities).

Bishop Henderson has had a long career in the LCA, serving as Vice President of the LCA 2006-2011, as a member of the General Church Council from 2003-2011, and Principal of Australian Lutheran Council from 2009 until his election as bishop.

So, will Austrailian Lutherans choose a bishop who will push for the ordination of women or will they take a pause in this pursuit.  Who knows? The delegates to the General Synod will elect the new churchwide bishop.  Pastors at General Pastors Conference in July will hold a nominating ballot to select the nominees for the position of LCA bishop. Those names will be presented to General Synod and those receiving at least 25% of votes will be on the final electoral ballot at Convention of General Synod.  In the past there have surfaced two or three candidates from this process.  Although there is a special provision for delegates at General Synod to nominate further candidates from the floor, it has rarely been used and would be unlikely to reflect a groundswell of support necessary to elect.

We in the LCMS have enjoyed a great relationship with the Aussies and have been especially blessed with the wisdom and teaching of people like Dr. John Kleinig.  While the LCA is not a large church body, it has consistently produced great pastors, theologians, and exegetes who have served the wider church (people like Gregory Lockwood and his Concordia Commentary comes to mind).  Pray for our brothers and sisters down under and for the course to be steered clearly on the side of confessional, liturgical, and catholic Lutheranism.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Children do what they know. . .

Play is not without educational merit.  Children practice at things and, though they might call it play (and so might we), it is so much more.  They are expressing what they know and what is important to them.  They are also rehearsing for their future as husbands, wives, employees, employers, and, yes, Christians who worship the Lord on the Lord's day in the Lord's House.

Children do what they know.  If your children are not play acting church or mimicking what they experience in worship, could it be that they do not know the things of God and His house well enough for them to rehearse them in play?  I well recall my children belting out the ordinary of the Divine Service while we would drive on long trips or hymn stanzas they knew (I Am Jesus Little Lamb) and speaking the parts of the Divine Service (even the parts reserved for the pastor).  It was because they knew them.  I did not intend for them to do this or even ask them to but it was natural.  They were in the Lord's House so often that the words that came easiest to their hearts and minds were the words of the liturgy and the prayers of the faithful.  God bless them.

I certainly do not hold myself up as a perfect parent and, truth to be told, while they were in the pew it was their mother who sat with them while I was in the chancel.  But I am proud of the fact that they knew the things of God and His house so well that they were embedded in their hearts and minds and these became the songs they turned to for comfort and in joy as well as the familiar routines of the liturgy their play.  Would that it could be said of all children that they knew the things of God and His house so well, they rehearsed them in play in preparation for the day they would stand before the Lord with the rest of the baptized!  Children do what they know.  Pray that they know well enough the things of God and His house so that they will do it at home and wherever they are!