Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Growing Up Classical. . .

If you ask anyone of my generation, they learned their music from the cartoons.  And the music they learned from those cartoons was in great measure classical or opera.  Who can forget Bugs and Elmer Fudd while the Barber of Seville played a supporting role in the humor?  Who can forget Bugs at the piano playing Liszt?  It all reached its zenith in Disney's magnificent Fantasia but that work hardly stands alone in the history of cartoons and classical music.  It was the way we learned it without even thinking about the music itself.  The scores became ingrained into our minds and we were attracted to it immediately.  The love stayed as we grew up and listened to classical radio stations (usually public) on our car radios.  But, as you might have noticed, it is not the same today.  Not only do the cartoons use contemporary sounding commercial music but the radio stations have not so slowly disappeared from the radio dials across America.

One place where you continue to hear classical music is the movie theater.  Some of the most poignant moments in cinema history have been accompanied by the classical greats.  From the opening of Strauss in 2001 A Space Odyssey to the stark battlefield scene in Platoon with Barber right down to the classical pieces composed for the screen by such as John Williams, music is not background but part of the script and a key player in the end result.  They are vastly different in style and sound -- from Raging Bull - Intermezzo from Cavelleria Rusticana (Pietro Mascagni) to There Will Be Blood - Violin Concerto in D major (Johannes Brahms) to Apocalypse Now - Flight Of The Valkyries (Richard Wagner) to Five Easy Pieces - Prelude in E minor, Op. 28 No. 4 (Frédéric Chopin) to Philadelphia - La Mamma Morta, from Andrea Chénier (Umberto Giordano) to Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation - Turandot (Giacomo Puccini) -- and that is a very short list from the top of my memory.  

Alas, classical music is disappearing from the ears of our children, youth, and young adults.  It has been replaced by an ever changing sound track that will probably not endure as these musical giants from the past (and present) have provided a music that spans the generations.  I lament the loss not for myself but for those who come after me.  It is not a matter of appreciation as much as it is exposure.  Sometimes, however, I wonder if we are even listening anymore and the muzak has become merely background noise.  That which can and does and should enliven and ennoble us leaves more than silence in its loss.  We are the poorer.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Stoic Humanity. . .

At the end of the movie Moonstruck there is a view of the house and a focus on the ancestors whose photos hang on the dining room wall.  They look like a hardened people.  They do not look happy.  They look almost angry.  But they are not.  They are stoic people who lived through the turmoil of war, the pain of want, the constant threat of death, and with an understanding of how fragile life really is.  You look at the photo for yourself.  If you old enough, like me, you knew people like this and not from a photo.

I think of my Aunt Anna and Uncle Hieronymus.  They were a stoic people whose faces seemed upset but they were not.  They had gone through a hard life and had learned that to endure was its own victory.  They did not search for things to give meaning to their lives nor did they instinctively judge their lives by what made them happy or sad in a moment.  As a child growing up I wondered why they were hard but I have since learned that their stoic lives did not prevent them from being kind, loving, and generous.  My Uncle Roney made sausage that we called Roney Bologna.  Long after Uncle Roney died, we picked up Aunt Anna for church every Sunday.  She suffered through my loud mouth and my driving -- neither of which she truly appreciated.  I was not sure she even liked me.  Then one Sunday she asked me to come into the house with her after Church and she handed me a small package of Roney Bologna that she had found cleaning out her freezer.  It was the last tie to Uncle Roney and his beloved sausage.  She knew how much I loved that Roney Bologna and it was her joy to give that last sausages to me.  I was overjoyed but also deeply touched.  Her face seldom broke into a smile but her heart was generous and giving and she expressed a kindness and love I surely did not deserve.

At the time I thought she needed to lighten up, to chill out, and let go.  All the Uncle Roneys and Aunt Annas just needed to to get in touch with their feelings and they would be happier and their lives better.  How wrong I was!  I should have learned to be more like them.  We all should.  We live in a world where people are so in touch with their feelings that these feelings are like a prison holding them captive to every wind of change -- happy or sad, angry or chilled.  We have lost touch with the kind of stoic endurance which once marked the shape of people and kept them going in times of trouble and trial.  Instead we are always upset, always offended, always fearful, always angry, and always impatient.  We judge everything by the moment and we are never as happy, healthy, wealthy, or excited as we want to be.  We are forever fighting boredom or anxiety or want as if these were the worst things that we could ever endure in life.  

The generations of those who went before us may not have left us a legacy of smiling faces but they surely left us an example of what it means to endure through real problems, challenges, and trials.  I wonder what Uncle Roney or Aunt Anna might think if they saw how upset people today get when they are addressed with the wrong pronoun or angry over the slowness of the internet or fixated by the screen instead of the person.  The pollsters tell us how depressed we are and how we struggle to find the strength and courage to endure the news on TV or the unfriendly words of our social media friends.  We are a mess and but the mess is largely of our own making and it is made worse by how deeply we are in touch with our every feeling and emotion.  Not even God is immune from our impatience or boredom or desire to make Him conform to our preference.

I have been thinking a lot of Uncle Roney and Aunt Anna.  I think I need to be more like them and less like the generations around me.  Maybe we all do.  For all the time and effort we spend getting in touch with our feelings, it has not helped the quality of our lives all that much.  Feelings are not all they are cracked up to be.  There is something to be said about endurance, the stoic endurance of those who know their lives are not the sum of what has or will happen to them but defined by the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus and the eternal future He has prepared.  It should not be a surprise to us that as Christianity has become less and less a part of our identities and lives, we have not found happiness, contentment, and peace but just the opposite.  Uncle Roney and Aunt Anna were, if anything, faithful Christian people and this was the key to their endurance and their peace.


Monday, September 25, 2023

Focus on the wage and not the labor. . .

Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20A, preached on Sunday, September 24, 2023.

What gets us in this parable is the obvious injustice of how long the laborers worked and how much they were paid.  Sure, the Lord said the parable but that does not mean we have to like it.  And that is the problem.  We focus on the labor and God focuses upon the wage.  Because the wage is the same, it is inevitable that the hours spent in labor do not matter.  That is what gets us most.  We believe the hours spent in labor should matter and they should matter in the size of the paycheck.  Anything else is just plain wrong to us.

Lets unpack this a bit.  We generally see ourselves as those who enter the work force in the morning hours – who labor in the cool of the morning and throughout the heat of the day right down to the end of that work day.  Is there anyone in this congregation today who would admit to not being a hard worker?  Everyone of us presumes that we have worked harder and longer than everyone else in God’s vineyard.  But have we?  Is our presumption correct or is it false?

In Jesus’ estimation of things, those who have labored longest in the vineyard are the Jews.  They have the history, the law, and they prophets.  The Jews agreed with Jesus.  You are right.  We have been here the longest and deserve more than anyone else.  If you want to find yourself in this parable, you are the johnny come lately workers who enter the field when the day is nearly done.  Gentiles all are the latecomers to the Kingdom of God and those who have labored the least in the vineyard.  The Jews would agree.  Gentiles are the last and the least of those in the kingdom of God.  Unless I am mistaken, and since I am related to most of you, that means you and me.  We are the last and the least in the kingdom of God.

We focus on the labor.  We live in a capitalist society.  It is a principle of our economy that those who work hardest and longest get more than those who work less.  That is the theory at least.  And how is it working?  You tell me.  Do the ones who work hardest and longest always get ahead of everyone else?  Is the economy fair to those who work hard and long?  Some of those who work hardest and longest end up with nothing at all.  You know this is true.

God however focuses not on the labor but on the wages.  This is not because God does not care how hard or how little we work.  It is because works cannot purchase salvation.  No one gets into heaven because of works – not the laborers who were there from the beginning and not the ones who came last into the workforce.  God did not save you because of what you did or what you could have done or what you would do for Him later.  The labor does not matter – well, except for the labor of Christ in His obedient life, life-giving death, and glorious resurrection.  His is the only labor that counts.  Your labor cannot purchase your salvation.  The only thing it can do is help your neighbor.  We focus on the work but God focuses on the wage.

The wages of sin is death.  That is what we earned.  Those who worked in the kingdom of God from the beginning and those who slipped in just before the whistle blew to end the day.  Our labors have earned only one thing – death.  None of us have any right to pride in the kingdom of God for we have nothing to be proud of.  The only thing we contributed to our salvation was the sin for which Christ paid with His life and the death which He died so that we might live.  There are no bragging rights in the kingdom of God.    It is always and only grace.  By grace you have been saved.  Grace does not come in different sizes.  It is one size fits all.  It is always bigger than our sins and more than we deserve.  The fruits of the cross do not some in different portions but the same for all – the Jew who was in it from the beginning and the Gentile showing up just before quitting time.  One denarius.  One grace – big enough to cover every sin and big enough to rescue every one dead in trespasses and sins from the grave.   We focus on the labor but God focuses on the wage – the gracious and generous wage of forgiveness, life, and salvation.

But there are some other things we ought to notice.  Everyone works.  Whether early or late, everyone works.  God does not countenance laziness.  Work is a joy.  The work of God’s kingdom is joyful.  The good works you do for your neighbor are a source of joy for you and for your neighbor.  You do not do them to earn your salvation but that does not mean they are not important.  Yes, you will labor in the heat of the day and work will cost you pain and suffering.  So what?  Those will not work will not eat the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.  
So do not presume that because Christ’s work has worked your salvation that you can be lazy and slack off in the kingdom of God.  You work not to earn y our salvation but because Christ worked to save you and if you are grateful to Him, you will join Him in the labors of the kingdom – mercy, compassion, service, sacrifice, intercession, and witness.

Second, do not compare yourself to anyone else.  You are not righteous because you may not be quite as bad as somebody else.  Righteousness is not relative – because sin has passed to all, no one looks better or worse than another.  We are all sinful by nature, in thought word and deed, by the evil we have done and by the good we have not done.  The earthly treasures that moth, rust, and inflation destroy are but temporary treasures.  Those who end their lives with the most stuff still die.  So what does it matter?  Learn like St. Paul the contentment with much or little – you know, the contentment of faith.  If you compare your lives and lot with others, only discontent will result and it will kill your faith, rob you of your joy, and embitter your heart to the grave.

Each of you will give account before God.  God will not ask you what your neighbor did or did not do or how much more or how much less you had than your neighbor.  He will ask only one thing.  What did you do with what you were given?  Though we immediately think that this is a question about money and things, it is not.  God has given you a treasure far more valuable than money and stuff – that is the forgiveness, life, and salvation purchased and won not with silver or gold but with the holy and precious body of Christ in suffering on the cross and His blood shed for your sin.  What are you doing with THIS treasure?

Jesus has called us to work in a vineyard not a factory or a shop.  Vineyards tend grapes to produce wine – the wine that gladdens the hearts of people.  The wine that gladdens our hearts is not the stuff that comes in a brown paper bag but in the silver cup with the words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.”  You cannot possibly earn this reward no matter how hard you labor but God gives you this gift that you could not possibly earn out of pure love.  By grace you are saved.  Stop looking at yourself and keep your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our salvation.   Amen.

A curiosity. . .

Though the bishop in the Roman Catholic Church is supposed to occupy an office of some stature, the odd thing is that it has become merely a subservient office to the pope.  It has become more politicized than ever in part because this pope (along with some help with those before him) have undermined the episcopal office and turned it into a mere franchise manager on behalf of the big guy in Rome.  It is one of the reasons why Rome is in trouble, I think.

Consider the age thing.  It is presumed that bishops can no longer function after age 75 as if some sort of physical or mental impairment happens about that time in his life.  So, it is presumed in the Roman Catholic Church that such a bishop, upon reaching the age of 75, is compelled to offer his resignation to the pope.  It is up to the pope, who in nearly every case is much older than 75, gets to decide then if the guy has the mojo to go on.  Or, in more realistic terms, if the pope wants to appoint a new guy who will be more beholden to the theological and social leanings of the appointer.  That is the big rub.  The pope can go on until he dies or, in the case of Benedict, resigns, but the bishops who administer a much smaller chunk of the pie are past it at age 75. 

I am told that there is a little fuzziness in the rubric requiring the offering of the resignation.  It may be that he is compelled only to consider it.  I do not know the canon law but have read different takes on the rule.  In any case, if a bishop were to think about resigning and decide against it, that he had more years of service in him, what would the pope do?  I suspect the current pope would call him in and give him a dressing down and even have a prepared resignation letter for him to sign before he leaves.  In other words, the bishop has become in Rome a mere figurehead for the pope.

Now if you wish to argue, consider the state of those bishops who have pushed back against Francis.  Some of them are facing episcopal reviews of them and their service and may well be forced out.  Though in some cases it might be due to incompetence, the majority are reflective of a pope and papal machinery that cannot countenance disagreement -- even one in which the previous position of Rome is what they are holding.  Such is certainly the case with the Latin Mass.  Again, I have no horse in this race, but it certainly seems odd that not only did the pope decide to restrict the Latin Mass more but took some of the form and privilege of deciding when and where away from the diocesan bishop and reserved it either to himself or those in Rome who do his bidding.

That is not the kind of bishop any Lutheran longs for.  It is certainly not the kind of bishop that reflects history.  It is once more an evidence of a corporate structure instead of an ecclesiastical one.  For what it is worth, in this respect the authority given to District Presidents in Missouri's version of Lutheran jurisdiction is actually closer to the early church than Rome's practice today.  Now to be sure, we do not elect those charged with ecclesiastical supervision for life but vote every three years on them and some of our districts choose to have term limits but it would be hard to categorize our DPs as lackies of the Synod President (presiding bishop, if you will).  I would never suggest that our system is perfect but only that the evolving system in Rome continues to diminish the bishop in stature and authority in ways that increasingly make him a mere functionary of the pope.  The Orthodox ought to have problems with this and so should any thinking Lutheran.  This is exactly the reason why Luther found the papal office as it was and as it is to be suspect.  It certainly does not encourage anyone to think more highly of bishops and ends up doing the exact opposite.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

The focus of preaching. . .

One of the strengths of the historic, one year lectionary was how it brought the important doctrines of the faith before preacher so that he might bring them before the hearers.  Now, to be sure, this was not simply something in the lectionary but the focus of preaching in general.  It was doctrinal.  It was not academic nor was it an exposition of something theoretical but doctrine in the sense of what we believe, teach, confess, and live.  Doctrinal preaching is sometimes like catechetical preaching except that the guiding light for that preaching is not a topic but a text.

When the three year lectionary was introduced, part of the impetus was to expose people to a broader perspective of Scripture.  It was and is a laudable goal.  While some texts were chosen either because of the lectio continua (as in the case of Epistles) and some were simply different accounts of the same miracles, sermons, or teaching of Jesus, others were chosen because of the world in which we live.  In a less than salutary way, this might mean political and social movements to be addressed.  In the Revised Common Lectionary this is more of a problem than it is in the version in Lutheran Service Book.  However, it is not the calendar that has shifted the doctrinal preaching to textual exposition.  It is the perspective of the preacher and the hearer that has reduced the doctrinal content of what goes forth from the pulpit.  This has had disastrous consequences in the life of the Church.

I would posit the thesis that the reason why the people in conservative churches are also enticed by the gender, sexual desire, equity, justice, inclusiveness, and climate debates of our age is because we have not preached doctrinally.  To preach doctrinally is to approach the texts in terms of doctrine.  It is not simply what the text says but what it teaches.  This does not put any constraint upon the text nor does it impose any blinders upon the preacher.  It simply asks the question:  What is our Lord teaching here?  The doctrines of the Church are not subject to change even though they are certainly ever being applied and sharpened upon the iron of challenge and controversy.  The question can never be what is Jesus saying to us today but what did Jesus say and still says and how does this impact what we believe and how we then live?  

If we have problems with such things as closed communion, for example, it is because we have suffered a dearth of real doctrinal preaching on the Sacrament of the Altar.  The texts of both the historic and three year lectionary offer us ample opportunity to address this so we cannot fault either for this.  We can only fault ourselves as preachers and as hearers.  We are less interested in doctrine and it shows.  When the faithful positions of the Church are affirmed by a nominal majority in convention or passed overwhelmingly only to be ignored in practice, part of the reason has to be that we have not preached the Word as we should.  We have not preached doctrinally.  

Jesus has said nothing for a moment that He has not said for eternity.  His Word endures forever -- every jot and tittle.  His Word is not new because it has never been said before but because it is the Word of life that speaks life to our death and hope to our despair.  We do not make that Word new but the Spirit does.  When we speak that Word faithfully and address the hearers with what the Lord teaches in that Word, the Church is built up and the hearer edified.  More than this, we are equipped to stand upon the Word amid the challenges and disputes of culture, society, and even government.  Without this, the Word of Jesus is merely a momentary voice that has no roots in the past or power to address the future.  It is captive to the moment and so powerless to address us except in the realm of our feelings.  When the preacher approaches the text asking what is Jesus saying to us today, doctrine is cast aside in favor of novelty.  Strange, given that the Lord insists His Words are not His but the Fathers and the Spirit insists the only agenda at work is to bring to our recollection what our Lord said.  We strive for novelty while the Lord is working toward consistency and constancy.  This is the realm of doctrine and it is the fruit of doctrinal preaching.

I hope and pray that we as preachers remember that we are not approaching a new text looking for a new way of preaching it but addressing the familiar words of Scripture, hearing the familiar voice of the Good Shepherd, and preaching the faith that does not change but will always endure.  Our people deserve such attentiveness to doctrine so that they may be rooted and planted in the Word of God and not left without anchor amid the winds of change and chance.  This is how what happens in the Divine Service is catechesis as well as the service of God's gifts to His people.  They happen at the very same time.  

The charge laid against the evangelical preachers of today as well as the moralistic preachers of today and other eras is not what was said only but what was not said.  To preach as the Osteens of the age preach or to preach moralistic sermons that are about behavior is to strip the text of doctrine and to make it about me and what I am doing and what I am feeling in the moment.  Worse, it is to deprive the people of God with the anchor in His Word and truth and to leave them exposed to the exploitation of wolves within the flock as well as the enemies without.  To preach the faith is to preach doctrine.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

The change in the skyline. . .

The city where I live is know for the spires that dot the downtown.  We had for many years a Rivers and Spires summer festival.  We are not a village but the 5th largest city in the state and moving toward taking out Chattanooga at some point.  The skylines of the two cities are very different.  We have no skyscrapers or buildings higher than 4 or 5 stories.  Our skyline has a distinctly horizontal look to it -- except for the spires of churches and a building or two on the Austin Peay campus.  Chattanooga and the other larger cities in Tennessee have skylines that look like what we have come to think of for modern cities and the spires that are there are hidden or so small that they are not noticeable in comparison. 

A few months ago a windstorm (I am not sure it was finally qualified as a tornado) took out a steeple in my hometown of 700 or so people.  It had stood since the early 1900s on top of the Swedish Lutheran congregation, on hill, above nearly everything else in town.  When it fell, there was some concern that it might not be able to be rebuilt -- you know how building standards have changed since it was first erected.  I hear that they are, indeed, planning to restore it.  Another spire will rise again.  Even Notre Dame will get its spire back (even if the interior will look like a slug!).

All of this made me think how different the skylines of cities are today than many years ago.  Before the advent of the skyscraper and modern building technology, what dominated the city skyline of nearly every city in the Western world were spires.  At that age and time, the faith was as dominant as the spire across the cityscape.  Everyone saw life through religious eyes -- Christian eyes.  The change in the skylines of our cities and towns reflects another change.  Religion and specifically Christianity, have been moved to the fringes of life in general.  The spires no longer dominate the skyline and Christianity no longer dominates our culture and society.  In fact, it is often viewed as an enemy of humanity and the illusion of progress we perpetuate.  Which are the dark ages?  The ones in which the footings and foundations were laid so that steeples and spires might rise over the grand cathedrals of the cities or the cities of today with their bland concrete, glass, and steel boxes?

The modern skyline may impress us with our might but it can hardly be called beautiful.  So often the beauty has to be searched out in the shadows of these mighty structures we have erected to become the mundane prisons of home and work.  You can find them by looking down instead of up.  Strangely, it was once just the opposite.  You had to look up to see beauty reign over the ordinary and harsh reality of life.  Now it is the opposite.  Boxes upon boxes cut up into boxes inside -- no, give me a spire and steeple and an interesting building holding them up.  Any day of the week!  These reflect hope and beauty into the city and that is certainly a commodity in short supply today.  Perhaps the change in the skylines and the banishment of Christian truth to the fringes are not unrelated.  The next time you survey the skyline where you live or work, how many steeples and spires do you see?  And what does it mean?