Tuesday, March 19, 2019

How oft would I have gathered you. . .

Sermon for Lent 2C, preached on Sunday, March 17, 2018.

    If I were a prophet of Israel, I would have a tee shirt made that said “don’t shoot me, I’m only the messenger.”  When Jezebel destroyed the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah hid a hundred of them in caves.  Amos was tortured and killed.  Jonah ran from the Lord’s call.  Habbakuk was stoned.  Jeremiah was stoned.  Ezekiel died at the hands of those to whom he was sent to prophesy.  Ahijah was killed by a lion.  Zechariah was slain by Joash at the altar.  It was hard to get life insurance if you were a prophet of God sent to Israel.  No wonder prophets could not be recruited but had to be called by God.  It was not the prophets themselves whom the people hated but the message the Lord sent the prophets to proclaim.  Yes it was judgment but it was judgment that came with a call to repentance, to return to the Lord.

    Now Jesus Himself felt the sting of rejection.  Herod wanted to kill Him and the leaders of the Temple were plotting His demise.  The people who had once flocked to Him were drifting away.  His disciples found His teachings hard to understand and hard to believe.  Jesus went to far as to ask them if they were ready to take a hike as well.  Now Jesus puts it out where we see it clearly.  We complain that God has rejected us but the rejection is not His, it is ours.  God spoke the promise of redemption first to Adam and Eve in the Garden.  God sent forth patriarch and prophet to keep this hope alive until it would be made flesh in Christ.  God called the sinner back when he departed from the faith and God called all people to repentance and faith.           

    Though we find it convenient to blame a God who refuses to budge from His insistence upon holiness, it is our refusal to be covered by His mercy and redeemed by His blood that convicts us.  Compare Jesus’ words with the Lenten theme verse:  return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger but abounding in steadfast love.  The message of the prophets was not a gloom and doom but this tender call to return to the gracious God who delights in showing mercy to His people.  This is the message of Jesus.  God would but you would not.  God is merciful but you reject His  mercy.  The Lord kept hope alive but you killed it with your refusal to believe it.

    As we make our way through Lent, we come face to face with this truth.  God is not our enemy.  We are our own worst enemies.  The Lord has not rejected us but offered us the way by the truth of His Word into the everlasting life of His Son.  The story of God’s love is the story of a relentless love that called His people back when left Him and called His people to repentance when they rejected His ways and delivered His people in mercy when they deserved nothing but judgment.  The love of God is relentless.  He goes even to the cross and dies that we might be forgiven and life.

    Maybe some of you have learned the joy of the Baby Bum videos.  Now that we have a granddaughter I have encountered these nursery rhymes for kids.  One of them is Five Little Ducks.   Four little ducks went swimming one day, over the hill and far away and each time she called them back but one less duck came back until finally she was all alone.  What a sad nursery rhyme this is!  Why would we tell our kids stories of babies who abandoned their moms and of moms who did not do everything in their power to find their lost children?  In the end, of course, they do come back – at least in the nursery rhyme.  But in the reality of life they do not.

    The great sadness of this story is nothing compared to the great tragedy of the Word of the Lord that calls in every age and time, through patriarchs, prophets, and pastors, and the people who refuse His call.  The Lord is relentless in His pursuit of those who leave but there not always a happy ending.  There is the sadness of the Lord who sought out sinners and those who refused Him, who called the lost to repentance and the lost denied Him, who loved the unlovable when they loved Him not.  Jesus tells us this sad story so we will hear His voice, and hearing may believe His Word, and believing may have forgiveness and life in His name.  His is not the fickle heart that refuses but the heart filled with mercy and love that redeems, restores, and forgives.

    In Matthew’s gospel, these words of Jesus are placed near His crucifixion.  For there is no more unmistakable context for the steadfast love of the Lord than the cross. There is the mercy that a world mired in sin and its death needs.  There is the grace that beckons to the guilty and bids the wounded come.  There is the love that is relentless in pursuit of the lost.  There is hope for the hopeless.  The prophets of old were messengers of this Word.  The pastors who stand in this pulpit are the messengers of the same Word.  The Scriptures are this Word and baptism washes this Word and the Holy Communion feeds this Word, the steadfast love of the Lord for you endures forever.

    Love calls you here.  Do not run from it but run to it.  Return to this Lord.  Do not run from Him but to Him.  Let your questions and your doubts drive you into the Word and let your pride melt before this relentless love for God does not seek your destruction but your life, not to judge you but to save you, and not to wound you but to heal you.  For surely there will be days when you are tempted to think God your enemy and there will be times when it seems He has abandoned you.  There will be days when troubles will seem impossible and solutions will escape you.  There will be times when it seems you do not need God and God does not want you.  There will be excuses you use to justify your sins and your will plead that it is not your fault.  But God cares for none of this.  He wants only YOU.  He has loved you from before you were born.  He sent His Son to suffer in your place and die your death. There is no doubt about His love for you.

    You do not have a God problem, you have a sin problem and a death problem.  You have a fear problem and a pride problem.  You do not have a God problem.  You have an enemy who pumps up your ego and feeds you lies as truth.  You do not have a God problem.  The Lord is on YOUR side.  From the first promise given to Adam and Eve in the Garden to the deliverance of His people from their enemies to the voices of the prophets through the generations to the angel who spoke and Jesus became flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary to His miracles and message, until on the cross it was made unmistakable, God is merciful and He seeks your salvation.

    Return to the Lord your God for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  How oft would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood. . .  This is the same love and the same Gospel and the same truth.  It points you to the cross where love is not a word but a selfless act of sacrifice.  It calls you to a life lived not in fear by yourself but in confidence that the Lord is on your side.  Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom the Lord loves and longs for, His joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord as His beloved children, hide in the shelter of His saving wings, and treasure the love that would suffer all to redeem you, a lost and condemned sinner.

    In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Living Lutheran. . .

Having a few moments, I turned to the pile of journals and magazines on my coffee table and began to survey the offerings.  It did not take too long to pick up the February Issue of Living Lutheran, the official periodical of the ELCA.  It also did not take too long to find out what the ELCA is focused upon and how the Gospel and grace are defined among them.

In "Grace and God's Welcome" the reader was treated to poignant stories of gay and lesbian folks who thought God was not happy with their attractions until they encountered grace without bounds and then ended up pastors in the ELCA.  It was a focused call to see the GLBTQ agenda as one of the primary agendas of that church body and, despite nearly wide open doors, how this must be reaffirmed lest someone be denied the desires of the heart simply for such a trivial thing as God's Word.

In the next article, "We're On the Move," a celebration of the election of several bishops of African descent, decried racism and called the ELCA to depart from its eurocentricity.  This is interesting because the ELCA is like 95% white and to have 2 of 65 bishops of African descent is not just a start but way above the proportion of its membership.  It is a good thing when race and color fade and qualifications raise up leaders.  What is curious, however, is that one of the installations began with the singing of Ain't No Stoppin Us Now.  Spontaneous or not, this is hardly more than an R & B tune and certainly not a hymn of faith.  The song is less about faith than getting your foot in the door.
The energy in that space told us we weren’t alone—we were surrounded by the great cloud of  witnesses. We were wombed together in that crowded space, united in solidarity and celebration. God, as midwife, birthed in us something ancient yet altogether new. I was ancestor and infant. The spirit from that processional leads me to now ask where we go from here. Where is God calling the ELCA?  To achieve lasting transformation,
the ELCA must continue to wrest our congregations from the grip of racism and   Eurocentricity. The bishop elections of 2018 have set us on a path toward greater understanding, greater equity and greater freedom. It is my hope that we will continue to honor our Reformation heritage by acting as an agent of change in an unjust world. I am hopeful for the future of the ELCA.
While I can understand her excitement, I wonder if others are wondering for very different reasons Where is God calling the ELCA?  Nothing there about Christ's freedom in that most central of Lutheran proclamations -- justification by grace through faith in Christ or freedom from sin and its death or salvation freely offer for its cost paid in full in Christ Jesus.  Is the trajectory of the Reformation really acting as an agent of change in an unjust world?  I wonder if Luther might find this a surprise -- I know a great many Lutherans would.

At the end of the publication, the Presiding Bishop asks What is God up to?  After a sobering assessment of where the ELCA is demographically, she asks if this is a problem needing a solution or trust to follow God in whatever new thing he God is doing in the ELCA (remember that male pronouns referring to God are not popular in this crowd).
What is to be done? Our congregations are growing older and smaller. At least 40 percent of our congregations have an average weekly worship attendance of 50 or less. ELCA membership decreases by 70,000 people a year, or roughly the loss of a synod per year. Clergy retirements outnumber new candidates for ministry. Financial pressures and building maintenance create stress. There is a dearth of people in their 20s and 30s in our pews. How do we change this? How do we reverse the trends? I think we are asking the wrong questions. . . The questions we are asking have to do about us: “What can we do?” They express loss and grief and fear—loss and grief for what we were and fear about what we will become. Not only do these questions not lead to productive answers, they also don’t point to hope. It’s as if the church’s one foundation rests on us and our efforts. I think we need to ask: “What is God up to?”
I wonder if it might not surprise God to find out that the decline in the birth rate, the aging of the population, the seeming impossibility of the ELCA to actually reflect in numbers the diversity it proclaims in print, and the decline of the family are God's doing.  Perhaps Bishop Eaton is channeling Pope Francis in suggesting that our problems just may be God willed and we need to just learn to live with it and go with the flow, so to speak. 

Hmmmmm.  Well, this is certainly a different take on what it means to live Lutheran.  It makes me thankful for the somewhat hum drum world of the LCMS The Lutheran Witness.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Purgatory: What does this mean?

An explanation of Purgatory. . . and a reason for the Reformation. . . complements of another author writing to clarify the Roman Catholic teaching of Purgatory.  You read and tell me what you think:

To begin with, purgatory exists for two reasons: one, to punish sins for which reparation has not been done on earth. For example, if a person stole money and was not able to pay it back, that sum would have to be “repaired” before the soul enters heaven. All sin must be settled, in the course of justice. If a person was a bad example at parties, flirting or drinking too much, even if that person confessed those sins, because the damage is done, reparation cannot be made. Therefore, purgatory is a time for suffering to make up for those consequences of sins. There is something called the “effects of sin” also called the “matter of sin.” The effects of sins remain in the person—weakened conscience, weakened ability to deal with the passions, and so on. These imperfections must be gone before the person enters heaven, as only the perfect enter heaven. All dispositions which lead one to sin, all tendencies, must be rooted out and few people do this in their lifetime. All venial sins unconfessed before death also cause the suffering of purgatory, as one must be cleansed, therefore, for the effects of sin, the tendencies, the disposition, and the venial sins.

Forgiven mortal sins need reparation, and that is done in purgatory, if those sins were confessed and absolved. In addition, each person has a predominant fault, that fault which causes most of the sin in his life. This root fault rests in self-love and created disordered desires, “cupiditas,” which leads to rebellion in one’s soul. Rebellion towards God is called “superb.”

Unless one allows God to take one through the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the spirit, where such spiritual infirmities and flaws are rooted out, one must go to purgatory.

Those in purgatory rejoice, embrace this suffering, this satispassion, because they increase in the love of God as they are purified. However, they cannot gain merit. The ability to gain merit for heaven ends with death. However, their love and virtue increase as they are cleansed of all flaws. One of the great sadnesses of those in purgatory, and for those in hell, an eternal gnawing, is the realisation of how high they would have been in the levels of holiness in heaven but for ignoring grace. This suffering turns to gratitude in purgatory as the souls see more clearly the mercy of God, as they now see the justice of God.

Second is the consideration of time in purgatory. Two types of time must be defined in order to understand the real time in purgatory. It is not like our time. There has been confusion about this in the past, as people think that when they make an indulgence which merits 30 days, that means 30 days off of purgatory—not so. It means that the prayer is equal to a physical penance which should last 30 days, as in the old times, when priests would give a 30 day pilgrimage as a penance, or 30 days without meat. The indulgence takes the place and is equal by the merit of the Church to those physical punishments.

Purgation takes time, so the time in purgatory is not short, unless one has made the Five First Saturdays, for example, or gained other purgatorial indulgences, such as the Divine Mercy indulgence. However, those indulgences take away the punishment due to sin, but not the effects of sin or the evil dispositions. Thus, one needs purgation, either in this world or the next. Apparently, St. Theresa of Lisieux was told by God that of all the persons she knew who has died In the convent, over all the years she lived there, only three had gone straight to heaven.

Theologians in Catholic teaching shows one that there are two types of time regarding purgatory. The first is “eviternity,” which means eternal duration or eternal existence. It is not the same as “eternal time,” which is the experience in heaven or hell. Eviternity is an in-between concept, between time as we know it by minutes, hours, days and years, and eternal time, both of which we understand. Eviternity has a beginning, so it is not eternal. Garrigou-Lagrange calls it “the perpetual present,” and we can understand that—a present moment which lasts a long, long time.

Discontinuous time is the time experienced by true mystics in ecstasy and the angels. Such persons can have a thought which lasts hours, but is only one spiritual instant. Both eviternity and discontinuous time are what the soul in purgatory experiences. All of us live in continuous time. God and the saints in heaven live in eternal time. The souls in purgatory live in eviternity and discontinuous time.

However, one can judge how long a soul may be in purgatory in terms of earthly time. I read one author which stated that the ordinary Catholic will experience purgatory for 40 years. If a person has held a high office, states Garrioug-Lagrange, referring to private revelations, that soul could be in purgatory for three or four centuries. One time, I asked God to release through my prayers, the forgotten soul who had been in purgatory the longest. A face and body came into my mind, that of a Conquistador of the 16th century. If this discernment was true, I was praying for a man who died as long ago as the 1500s—500 years ago! I did not doubt that some people, especially those who had death-bed conversions from lives of serious sin could be in purgatory for a very long time.

Sort of makes you long for the good old days when a dying penitent sinner heard "Today you shall be with Me in Paradise."  And then there are those who insist that what Lutherans teach of the atonement and of justification is an invention foisted upon Scripture.  Hmmmmm.  Very interesting.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A lack of hearing. . .

Where once it might have been said that the Word suffered from a lack of sources, today it suffers from a lack of hearers.  Oh, to be sure, we have the Word all around us but it has become captive to nearly everything else we filter into our ears through personal preference and our impatience that reads faster on the page than our ears can hear.  In the confusion of it all, we have forgotten what it means to hear, to listen.

While I understand why we do it, printing out the readings for the Divine Service (or, for that matter having Bibles in the pews for folks to turn to). distracts us from hearing the Word.  Remember that until modern times, the people of God encountered His Word not as a page in their hands but as a voice in their ear.  This is doubtless the expectation of St. Paul (Faith comes by hearing).  It was and is the history of Old and New Testament until the advent of modern education gave to all the ability to read and write and modern printing made the cost of such books accessible.

Now, lest you think I have gone off my rocker, I am not advocating for an end or even a restriction of books.  Look at the walls of my office.  Lord knows, I love books.  But I am advocating for hearing the Word, for the aural Word that enters our hearts and minds not through the eye but through the ear.  I grew up back when teachers spent part of their time with elementary age students reading to the class the great books and stories of old.  I still recall the sound of a teacher's voice reading Mr. Poppers Penguins (and, by the way, was most disappointed by the more recent movie of the same name).  Back in the dark ages when I was in Sunday school, the teacher began by simply reading the Bible story of the day.

Nowadays when we do hear the Bible read, it is in brief installments (called pericopes) at the weekly liturgy where we follow along on an insert or in the worship folder or Sunday bulletin or in the missalettes.  We seem unable to sit and listen without having something to focus our eye upon.  For us the Word of God is more typically a word on a page and not the oral Word.  On top of that, sustained reading aloud is rare -- whether of Scripture or anything else.  Most of our reading is individual, silent, and somewhat abstract.  We read and pause and daydream or think upon a word or phrase and in it all we are the ones in control of the process.  

Yet reading out loud is completely different. It is by nature a social act and not individual.  The words incarnate in us very differently through the eye and the mind than through the ear.  To be sure, there are imaginary faces that I have put with particular voices because of how I heard things read out loud.  For a time I enjoyed listening in my car to books aloud (not the kind you pick up at Cracker Barrel but through NPR and the voice of Dick Estell).  

When we hear the Bible read, the Word is literally enfleshed in a voice and a person.  It is not reading for entertainment or even for information but sacramental reading, the voice that reads is reading a Word that does what it says through the reading and hearing of that Word.  Literally God is at work in the reading and the hearer is not simply incorporating information into the mind but receiving the Word and the Spirit acting through that Word.

When we listen to the Bible at home, it has a similar effect.  Parents read the Bible stories to their  children not simply as reading to entertain but in their parental vocation to teach the faith to their children. Although we may surely listen while we do other things (like driving), it is quite another thing to sit and devote the fullness of one's attention to what speaks into the ear.  Multi-tasking has let us think that we are giving due attention to all things but there is something quite shocking when the Scriptures become mere background sounds, the way a TV, radio, I-Pod or other device provides a constant soundtrack in the background of our lives. The aural Bible ought to have the dignity of our full attention and not compete for it the way other things must constantly beg to be heard.

So my first appeal is to let go of that paper in your hand on Sunday morning and listen to hear the voice of God speak through His Word.  And listen in your own time to more extended portions of the Scripture.  And read it to your children.  Amazon Audible has versions but they are also available in various places.  Hear the Word of God. . . and keep it.  God's Word does not need to be animated by our imagination, it is animated by the Spirit. 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Not imaginary. . .

The charge often laid against Luther and his spiritual heirs is that such talk of an invisible church is really an imaginary church -- something that does not have earthly reality but is only spiritual.  Others complain that this sets up a distinction between two churches -- one apparent where the Word is preached purely and faithfully and the Sacraments administered according to Christ's intention and the other one which is simply out there somewhere, inaccessible to eye or touch.  While it is true that later Lutheran dogmaticians made more of the terms visible and invisible than did Luther or can be explicitly found in the Lutheran Confessions, the roots of this distinction are ultimately Biblical and not Luther's.

The hidden or invisible church is a doctrine of comfort that acknowledges one cannot see the fullness of the church with the eye, nor can one separate the faithful from the hypocrite.  This emphasizes the expanse of the church throughout the world, among all nations, peoples, races, and jurisdictions but also beyond the scope of time and place and it acknowledges that until the Lord separates, these remain together in the visible assembly.  This church is one, one in Christ and one through Christ and not through human intention, work, or agreement.  Yet this una sancta is united with the visible church where the marks or signs are present.

The visible church is where the Word and the Sacraments are, where there are people who hear and believe the Gospel, where there are pulpit, font, and table.  Luther put it this way: “Not Rome or this or that place, but baptism, the sacraments, and the gospel are the signs by which the existence of the church in the world can be noticed externally. Wherever there is baptism and the gospel no one should doubt the presence of saints—even if they were only children in the cradle.” Against, from Luther:  “And even if there were no other sign than this alone, it would still suffice to prove that a Christian, holy people must exist there, for God’s word cannot be without God’s people, and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word.”  “Nor indeed are we dreaming about some platonic republic, as some have slanderously alleged. Instead, we teach that this church truly exists, consisting of true believing and righteous people scattered through the entire world. And we add its marks: the pure teaching of the gospel and the sacraments” (Ap VII:20).

Luther insists that this distinction is one that comes from the Lord Himself:  “The Lord Christ commands us not to embrace the false church and he himself distinguishes between two churches, a true one and a false one, in Matthew 7:15: ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing,’ etc. Where there are prophets, there are churches in which they teach. If the prophets are false, so also are the churches that believe and follow them.”

Luther appeals to the early church and insists that the confessors [the Lutherans] had the same baptism, sacrament, keys, preaching office, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, etc. as the ancient church. and concludes “Thus we have proved that we are the true, ancient church, one body and one communion of saints with the holy, universal, Christian church.”  What Luther and the Lutherans who are his heirs have refused to say is what Rome insists:  that outside this visible fellowship there is not salvation.

Part of the marks of the Church is not only adhering to the true doctrine (catholic) but also condemning false doctrine (heresy).  In contrast to other reformers, Luther does not equate purity of life with a sign or mark of the church.  The life of the church may leave much to be desired but the doctrine must not be sinful or reproachable.  Among the Pietists, this emphasis is reversed; the holiness of life is held perhaps even higher than pure or true doctrine and they held the visible and outward body to be less important and more subjective than did Luther.  The church is never invisible because the Word and Sacraments are never invisible though her boundaries may remain hidden and until Christ returns in His glory.

Rome and its defenders begin with the presumption that the church is only rightly visible and that its borders (visible or hidden) are coterminous with those in communion with the Pope.  They leave a small crack in the door that those outside the true visible church of Rome might be saved.  Some of Luther's spiritual heirs have wrongly overemphasized the hidden or invisible church to the point where the visible church is somewhat of an afterthought or secondary.  That is an abuse not only of Luther but especially against the Confessions which do not explicitly use either term.  In essence, if the church is everywhere it is nowhere.  And to those who follow this dead end, the invisible church is imaginary and there is no compelling move to live beyond this hidden kingdom.  For Luther and his rightful heirs, the church is where Christ is -- where His Word speaks, where He absolves, where He baptizes, and where He feeds us His body and blood.  We posit the church in the means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments with the pastoral office that preaches this Word and administers these Sacraments, and not an office alone (the papacy) or a man (the pope).

Chemnitz, the second Martin, spends a great deal of ink on the terms visible and invisible.  “The church is the assembly of men who have been called and gathered through the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments out of the world to the kingdom of God. In this assembly the elect according to the foreknowledge of the Father are found, namely, those who truly and perseveringly believe in Christ, among whom are mingled the nonsaints, who nevertheless profess the same doctrine.”  In other words, this helpful distinction acknowledges that it is God's eye and His judgment that alone discerns the heart and that it is not our duty to harvest the wheat or, as our Lord warns, we would be unable to distinguish them and end up tearing up the wheat with the tares.  This distinction is temporary until the Lord would send His reapers into the harvest and separate the wheat from the chaff.  So, as I began, speaking of the hidden or invisible church is a doctrine of comfort, like election, and not something which places duty or responsibility upon those who see the church where Christ means her to be seen -- around His Word and Sacraments.

Christians rejoice that wherever the gospel is found, there is the Church. “God be praised,” writes Luther, “a seven-year-old child knows what the church is: holy believers and ‘the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd’ [John 10:3]” (SA III:12, 2). In a very real sense and not in some abstract or imaginary sense, then, the church enjoys this complete and perfect unity wherever anyone hears the voice of Christ, even if we rarely see or experience this unity here in time.

Friday, March 15, 2019

And Jesus wept. . .

Do you want to know why people are fleeing the Church?  Take a gander at the goofiness that passes for, yeah, there it is, Gottesdienst.  But before you gloat, know that there are just as many goofy things that pass for church here, we just don't have all the video.  The enemies of the faith are not out there somewhere, they are among us in the form of shock value that substitutes for dignity and avant garde that passes for tradition.  Now if you might be tempted to think it could never happen here or among us, think of those voices who say, But Pastor, it's all just adiaphora!

If you can stomach it, here is the whole thing. . .