Thursday, December 1, 2022

In the cold of winter. . .

Once we spent hours out of doors because we had to -- the old days when homes were not filled with screens and bins of toys.  The children spent much of their free time outside -- from the chores that were their duty to the leisure that they pursued as soon as jobs were done.  Now we have the situation in which people, especially children, are spending more and more time indoors and alone.  This is the fruit of another era -- the age of the pandemic when the outdoors were safer than indoor gatherings.  Winter was an age of cold, of snow, of steamy breath, and rushed feet.  Now it is an age of cold in another way.  People seem consumed by anger and the atmosphere of home, workplace, neighborhood, and community has cooled over the years to the point where rage seems epidemic.

As a pastor I know of and have experienced AND hear from our people the phenomenon of anger and rage as a new norm for adults but also for children.  Our sons and daughters seem consumed by rage and the news seems to support this conclusion.  Shootings or attempted shootings, assaults in the safe places such as schools, and the lack of targets or reasons for the violence all point to the increase of anger and bitterness that children and young adults seem unable to deal with all attest to this reality.  

Sadly, even congregations are not immune from conflict, anger, and dispute.  So many pastors and other church workers find themselves tested, burn out, and empty because of all the anger and rage that is in society at large but also seems to be typical in congregations as well.  Ask any District President and they will tell you the significant amount of time they spend trying to put out fires in congregations in their Districts.  Some find the congregation a safe place to vent -- since they probably won't ask you to leave no matter how outrageous you are and they tend to bend over backwards to make you happy.

Homes are not the safe places of acceptance and forgiveness they should be.  In our age, it is considered hypocrisy for husbands and wives who are parents to hide their own disputes and disagreements from their children.  Instead, we feel bound to be transparent to our children and let it all hang out -- no matter how harmful that is to children and their development.  How much of our own discontent and rage do we end up passing onto our children because we do not know how to deal with it?  For the Christian, this is the failure of repentance and the lack of clear focus on absolution.

Rage, anger, dispute, contentiousness, and the like are the natural fruits of sin -- sin unabated by either a civil righteousness that offers a veneer of public politeness and decorum OR untouched by the blood of Christ that forgives sin and reconciles sinners.  We have seen a lot of this.  It was there before Trump and will be there long after his name is forgotten.  You cannot blame the lack of civility and common courtesy upon any one individual but it is the certain outcome of a sinful humanity unhitched by anything that would restrain the rage or resolve it by Christ's own work of absolution and reconciliation.  The cold of winter is less about the temperature or the weather but about the cold character of humanity in the winter of our discontent -- without a sense of public face to restrain us or the blood of Christ to contain that anger and deliver peace.  Get ready for things going south even further in this area....

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

People look East. . .

"For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man.” — Matthew 24:27

People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.
by Eleanor Farjeon; stanza one

It is St. Andrew's Day, the day that triggers the start of Advent.  Advent, if it is anything, is an eastward facing season.  There have been a lot of opinions rendered about facing East.  We have all heard the real estate mantra, Location, Location, Location!  Well, what about where the altar is located and how the people face?

Traditionally, churches should face east.  We all know some of the reasoning -- East is the direction of prayer and Christ will come from the East when He comes in His glory.  Well, there are others but those depend upon where you are Eden's Paradise was believed to be in the east and Jerusalem lies in the east.  So it was natural that Christians would face both East and Christ as they faced the Altar.  Before I launch into this, it should be noted that the term ad orientem itself means to the east.  So the orienting of the church building to the east become the very word for how a building is sited or oriented.  The goal in this orienting is to see the sun rise through the windows during the mass.

However, the earliest Christian churches in the Holy Land did not face east but Jerusalem, the city of the Messiah and where He was crucified and rose.  When blessed Saint Helena made her famous pilgrimage to the Holy Land and talked her son Constantine into building the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the building did not face east but the apse and the anastasis, the chapel with the empty tomb, was in the west the very same orientation as the Temple of Solomon whose front door faced east.  Maybe there was some intended symbolism here the Christian altar seen as the fulfillment of the ark of the covenant in the west part of the Temple.

Move to Rome and the four of the most ancient and most important basilicas of Rome, Saint John Lateran (AD 324), Saint Peter’s (AD 330), Saint Sebastian’s (AD 330), and Saint Mary Major (AD 432), are not east facing but have their altars in the west. These were built by some impressive figures Constantine and the popes.  Did they build them backwards?  Or think of the great churches of Florence, arranged not to face east but in a circle around the great Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in the city center.

The orientation of the church building, no matter what direction it faces, is always east liturgical east.  Just as the direction the people face is always east — liturgical east.  Advent reminds us of this.  It is not a geographical point that east makes but a theological one.  In an ideal world they might always be the same but every church structure must be conceived of in reference to the site and other buildings around it.  The lesson here is not good geography but good theology where we face is defined not but bricks and mortar on the ground but the direction of our hope.  Perhaps we might remember this more often as we find Christianity failing not because our buildings are backwards or whatever but because our theology no longer flows from Christ or leads to Christ which is the point of it, isn't it?

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Not nostalgia. . .

Much of what passes for argument in what should or should not be done in worship is accused of being nostalgic for another age -- older folks who can remember TLH and the liturgical and doctrinal uniformity imagined in the 1950s and before.  Of course, this is foolish.  The only nostalgic folks in this are those who grew up as rock and roll unfolded into full bloom and who think that they should hear the sounds of soft rock in church on Sunday morning -- the ballads of the folk side of this genre or the music with a beat that you can dance to.  In either case, it is the nostalgia for a time in which truth began to surrender to feeling, morality to what feels good in the moment, and faith to feelings.  It was probably inevitable that in this view, Jesus would become a boyfriend or BFF rather than the mighty Word that spoken creation into being now incarnate and certainly rather than the Savior who pays for the sins of the world.

Strangely, those who are not old enough to have lived when TLH was in its prime are the ones who seem most nostalgic for its heyday.  I have written before that because they did not grow up or live as adults in the era when TLH was the hymnal for our Synod and the Common Service more common among all Lutherans, they do not realize the inadequacies and lacking of that era.  Clearly, however, the push to recover a common liturgy and common doctrine is not nostalgia -- the boomers who can recall these days tend, as a group, to be moving in an opposite direction.  Neither is it quite nostalgia among those who cannot recall the origins but who can appreciate the blessings of unity in liturgy and dogma.  What might be more appropriate is a deep sense of reverence, even awe, for the presence of God and the things of God.

Admittedly, it does not quite work to make TLH casual.  Forms had to be invented to supplant that book if a casual, God my buddy style of worship and music was desired.  Unfortunately, all the sins of this perspective get blamed upon the modern liturgical movement.  That is not quite true, either.  While it is fair to say that diversity and an embrace of local culture and the domain of preference left the door open for the worship band and diva and the love songs that imagine Jesus who is no longer present sacramentally, neither Vatican II nor the modern liturgical movement that attracted Lutheranism was about abandoning reverence.  It was more about making the forms more accessible, to be sure, and more united (all in one book for Lutherans), but it was also about restoring a profound sense of baptismal life and identity, a hunger and yearning for a Sacrament that then was celebrated monthly or less, and the rediscovery of the sacrament of absolution within the life and piety of the people and their pastors.  The problem for Rome was that Vatican II's direction was replaced by the personal goals of Annibale Bugnini and a distracted Pope Paul VI who rubber stamped his radical reforms.  The problem for Lutherans was far different.  The work of the liturgical movement and a common hymnal got hijacked by the radical cultural shift within America, the battle for the Bible, and the maturation of a thoroughly American form of Lutheranism more at ease with itself than it had ever been.  Put that all together and it is rather remarkable that the worship reforms of the mass were as tame as they ended up being -- certainly more moderate than some of Missouri's own experimenting in Worship Supplement (1969) and the first editions of the ILCW trial offerings.  In fact, looking at ELW and what happens among the evangelical wannabes of Lutheranism, even LBW seems thoroughly serviceable in hindsight.  But when they appeared and later LW, the break with our past dominated and, at least for Missouri, created a window for TLH to live on in practice but most of all in our dream of a more pristine and ordered past.

What those under 40 are looking for is radically different than their parents and grandparents imagined from the liturgical reforms of the 1960s-1970s.  They are not nostalgic as much as they are panicked by a piety that seems plastic and worship that is self-serving and self-referenced.  They are looking not for something from the past but something in a continuum with that past, a deliberate reform that marked a hermeneutic of continuity that has made even more attractive the Latin Mass among Romans and the Divine Service out of the Common Service tradition among Lutherans.  They are searching for authenticity, reverence, transcendence, and, most of all, integrity among the preaching and the liturgy.  You cannot blame them for nostalgia but you can blame those who used the moment of reform to introduce an alien spirit into the Divine Service, stripping it of all that had made worship distinctive and therefore God's work.  The nostalgia of those for folk rock and soft rock has taught their children and grandchildren to look for something different than their families desired and this has led them to look all the way back to 1941 in Lutheranism and the 1950s in Rome.  

Monday, November 28, 2022

Hosanna! He comes!

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent (A), preached on Sunday, November 27, 2022.

It is but the First Sunday in Advent and already we are tired of Christmas.  While the Church ushers in a slow and deliberate unfolding of God’s promise, the world has already rushed already to the end.  We will today put up and set out the hallmarks of our hope in the hanging of the greens, the creche, the wreaths, and soon the tree with its white ornaments of faith.  The world has already broken the plastic trinkets and cheap knickknacks that were purchased in August.  What a beginning!

We think we know everything but it is clear that if we did know it, we have forgotten it.  More likely, we never knew it but were merely faking it.  It is no wonder that we are approaching a season of great loneliness, dissatisfaction, conflict, and disappointment.  We think a plastic holiday will suffice but the Church calls forth the voice of repentance and heralds the world to prepare the way for the Lord and shout “Hosanna” to the One who comes.

The reality is that our world is changing much too quickly.  We are more vulnerable now than in the past.  We struggle to keep up with it all.  Life is not getting easier or better and, since Covid, is shorter than it once was.  My friends, we need a real Savior now more than ever.  We are a people captive to our fears, our inner turmoil, our uncertainty, and our hurts.  We need a real Savior now more than ever.  We are a people who cannot bear to watch the terrible things that are called news but we cannot stop ourselves from screening through things important and trivial in our search for a distraction.  We need a real Savior now more than ever.

And so the Church calls out to us and calls us out.  We are coaxed from our homes and our convenient lives to take stock of ourselves and the world.  We are warned against the rose colored glasses of false hopes and dreams to survey the only real hope and honest dream there is.  We are warned against becoming too comfortable with death and taking too casually our sin.  We are bidden to repent and acknowledge that we are sinners who cannot save ourselves.  We are confronted with a Savior who came not because we called but because He loved us more than life itself.  We are comforted not by human progress but by the God who meets us in our failures with forgiveness and restores us when we fall.
The modern world has not helped us.  We have grown soft on the good lives that demand little from us except acquiescence.  Where other generations fought wars, we surrender our freedom any time it might cost us something.  Where other ages endured hardship and suffering as routine, we refuse to accept any pain or to deny ourselves any happiness.  Where has that gotten us?  As a people we wrestle daily with depression in our minds, despair in our hearts, and comorbities in our bodies.  We live unhealthy lives and we delight in unhealthy pursuits.  None of this can be fixed by merely by developing more self-control or self-discipline.  All of this requires a Savior to do the heavy lifting for us.

That is why we cry out today “Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.”  Ours is not a hope of what might happen but the hope built upon what did happen.  God made Himself one of us that we might be made one with Him.  In Bethlehem a Virgin gave birth.  In Nazareth the Son of God grew up.  In Jerusalem the Savior died upon a cross.  And from Judea to the ends of the world, the message of our crucified and risen Savior has brought real hope to a plastic world and a people who might have been satisfied with mere sentiment over real truth and real history.

We are not trying to re-enact the life of Christ in the Church Year.  We are trying to remember the life He lived, the life He surrendered upon the cross, the life that could not be held captive in the grave, and the life that means you and I have a future and not just a past.  We begin Advent not as if Jesus had never lived but because He did live, as one of us in flesh and blood yet without sin.  We begin Advent not as if Jesus life were a mystery but because His life is the Gospel of hope to a people longing for hope.  We begin Advent not to make it to the manger but to make it to the cross where life overcome death, righteousness overcame sin, and peace still passes understanding.

The Word of God calls us to look and see Jesus.  The Spirit of God teaches us to cry out “Hosanna.”  The Word of God tells us Jesus is the long promised Savior who will redeem us lost and condemned sinners.  The Spirit of God teaches us to say “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.”  The Word of God says this is His body give for you and this is His blood shed for you.  The Spirit of God teaches us to sing “Hosanna in the Highest!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.”  And as we eat and drink in faith, the Spirit teaches us to say Amen.

The Psalmist is painfully correct.  Put not your trust in earthly rulers or kingdoms.  The preacher of Ecclesiastes is sadly on target.  All is vanity.  But the promise of Advent is still true and this hope will not disappoint.  God is here.  Not to judge but to save.  Not to condemn but to heal.  Not to placate but to satisfy.  Not to distract but to transform.  Not to surrender to despair but to overcome that despair with Christ’s once for all victory.

We are not optimists.  We know our enemies.  We know our trials.  We know the obstacles before us.  We know the temptations all around us.  But we know something more.  We know that Jesus was born of the Virgin by the power of the Spirit, that He suffered in our place the death of sin, that He rose for us that we might live no more in death’s shadow, and that love won so that love might win now in your life and in mine.

The world puts all sorts of doubt and fears before us, taunting us with our sins and dampening our hopes with the worst of news.  And what do we say?  Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.  The world says marriage and family and children cost you too much and better to take care of yourself instead of your husband or wife or babies or teens.  And what do we say?  Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.  The world says facts cannot save you and feelings are all that matter.  And what do we say?  Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.  The world says make your best life now and than make your peace with death.  And what do we say?  Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.  The world says a plastic holiday is the best you can expect.  And what do we say?  Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.  

A blessed Advent to you, my brothers and sisters.  God is with us now and the future is better than any of us could envision or dare expect – not because things are getting better but because Christ has come.  In the holy Name of Jesus.  Amen.

Not just knowing something but doing it. . .

We have watched as faith has turned into something personal but also private.  It has become largely a matter of what you know and of your consent to that knowledge to make it your own.  There is dispute about what informs what you know (is it feelings or experience or reason or revelation) and although faith has become a more experience or emotion centered reality, it is the reality you know or choose or perceive or have manifested.  Faith has also become a domain in which what you know is also personal -- less objective than subjective and truth that is the defined by the individual.  Truth itself is not a common possession but an individual determination.  It has come to the point where the things we once argued were not true for me have become the dominant expression of everything we consider real.  It is only true it if is true for me (facts become an invention of the individual and not the domain of community, history, or society).

But faith is not merely a matter of what we know.  It is also what we do.  Piety is not an enemy of the faith but its expression.  At some point of time we forgot it.  We got so angry with the pietist that we tarred and feathered piety.  The problem is that in making faith merely a matter of what you know, we have distorted what it means to have faith.  The pietist was wrong in making the experience the only realm of faith but in our pendulum move against pietism we erred in making knowledge the only domain of faith.  Walther once famously complained upon surveying the state of Lutheran Christianity and Protestant Christianity as a whole that it had exchanged the church or temple for the lecture hall.  He was quick to defend the ceremonial of the old Lutherans who had come to a new land.  Today we struggle to know what to do with piety because for some a doctrine light piety is the only religion.

That is clearly expressed in those (even Roman Catholics and Lutherans among them) who do not believe you need church to be a good Christian.  This is a confusion both of those who make reason the domain of faith and those who make emotion its home.  How did we get the idea that faith does not need church or worship?  How did we end up with the idea that believing does not mean praying or reading the Scriptures or serving the neighbor?  How did we get the idea that ritual or ceremonies are fine for the odd ones who like them but almost alien and foreign to the whole idea of believing?  How did we get the idea that watching worship as spectators without opening our mouths to speak or sing is what it means to praise the Lord?  How did we get the idea that Bible study primarily imparts knowledge instead of growing our faith so that we might live it out in our daily lives?  How did we get the idea that sacraments were meant for te individual and could be handled in some form online or at home?

Christianity is not simply about what is believed but what is confessed in actions and lived out in daily life.  You cannot say that you hold the Holy Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood in high regard and not hunger to receive it every time it is offered (even when conscience might preclude such communion).  You cannot say that you hold the Scriptures to be the Word of God and be more concerned about protecting its infallibility than receiving its efficacious power to do what it speaks.  You cannot say that you hold the office of the pastor in high regard and treat him like a hired hand, a budgetary expense, or a functionary who does what every can (and maybe should) do.  You cannot say that you love God and fail to love your brother in need (whether that need is to be forgiven and restored or food or clothing or shelter or job, etc.).  I think I might have read that last one somewhere -- oh, yeah, the Bible??!!  It is the whole deal.  It is discipleship and not membership, doctrine and practice, faith and piety, belief and life.  God does not redeem parts but the whole of us -- our full embodied selves and how that self lives even as what that self believes.

The great legacy of the information and internet age is that we treat information as personal and we are passive before it.  We hear it when it interests us or we have a personal need but most of the time we just squirrel it away in an information vault.  Because of that, we still treat God's house as not our own home, the things of God as His things more than ours, and the work of the Kingdom for those who want to do it or are paid to do it. 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Advent Hymns Are the Best

I clicked on a list of the best Advent hymns and that list included only Christmas carols and a few old Christmas hymns.  The reality is that the world does not seem to know or care much about Advent.  This is surely shown by the fact that, outside of Lutheranism, few can even name an Advent hymn.  How sad!  Advent hymns are the best!  I will admit to a certain fondness for the Scandinavian texts and tunes of Advent -- perhaps the long dark winter caused them to produce some of the brightest and best of the poets and melodies of the entire church year.  Who could be said in the dark of winter while singing "Rejoice, Rejoice Believers?" 

Many years ago a follower of this blog who converted to Orthodoxy say that he missed the loss of Advent and the beautiful Lutheran Advent hymns most of all.  While I am not sure I would have put it quite like that, I get it.  In his own words:   What I miss most about Lutheranism are the Advent hymns, esp. Wachtet auf [Wake Awake, for Night Is Flying], Macht hoch die Tuer [Lift Up Your Heads or Fling Wide the Gates], and Nun kommt der Heiden Heiland {Savior of the Nations, Come] (among others) and a magnificent pipe organ to sing them with.

Let me add to his list of those wonderful Advent hymns:

Once He Came in Blessing
O Lord, How Shall I Meet Thee
O Bride of Christ, Rejoice
The Night Will Soon Be Ending
Prepare the Royal Highway
On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry
When All the World Was Cursed
Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People
Come, Thou Precious Ransom, Come
Let the Earth Now Praise the Lord
Arise, O Christian People
O Savior, Rend the Heavens' Wide
Rejoice, Rejoice Believers and Let Your Lights Appear

While the world is singing “You better watch out!  You better not cry. You better not doubt, I’m telling you why…”  we are singing "O Lord, How Shall I Meet You."

O Lord, how shall I meet You,

    How welcome You aright?
Your people long to greet You,
    My hope, my heart’s delight!
O kindle, Lord most holy,
    Your lamp within my breast
To do in spirit lowly
    All that may please You best.
Your Zion strews before You
    Green boughs and fairest palms;
And I too will adore You
    With joyous songs and psalms.
My heart shall bloom forever
    For You with praises new
And from Your name shall never
    Withhold the honor due.
I lay in fetters, groaning;
    You came to set me free.
I stood, my shame bemoaning;
    You came to honor me.
A glorious crown You give me,
    A treasure safe on high
That will not fail or leave me
    As earthly riches fly.
Love caused Your incarnation;
    Love brought You down to me.
Your thirst for my salvation
    Procured my liberty.
Oh, love beyond all telling,
    That led You to embrace
In love, all love excelling,
    Our lost and fallen race.
Sin’s debt, that fearful burden,
    Cannot His love erase;
Your guilt the Lord will pardon
    And cover by His grace.
He comes, for you procuring
    The peace of sin forgiv’n,
His children thus securing
    Eternal life in heav’n.
He comes to judge the nations,
    A terror to His foes,
A light of consolations
    And bless├Ęd hope to those
Who love the Lord’s appearing.
    O glorious Sun, now come,
Send forth Your beams so cheering,
    And guide us safely home.

It is no sacrifice to withhold the Christmas hymns and carols until the Eve or the Nativity of our Lord and its twelve days.  In fact, some of the most noble text and tunes in our hymnal are reserved for one of the shortest seasons of the Church year.  Some of those beloved Christmas carols cannot hold a candle to these mighty Advent texts and tunes!  Have a blessed Advent singing them!