Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Fear not. . . Gen Z is coming and they are so much better than the Millenials. . .

A long article in the WSJ outlines the Generation Z folks who have come of age and are entering the workforce.  So who are they and what can we see in them that might project into the future?
About 17 million members of Generation Z are now adults and starting to enter the U.S. workforce, and employers haven’t seen a generation like this since the Great Depression. They came of age during recessions, financial crises, war, terror threats, school shootings and under the constant glare of technology and social media. The broad result is a scarred generation, cautious and hardened by economic and social turbulence.

Gen Z totals about 67 million, including those born roughly beginning in 1997 up until a few years ago. Its members are more eager to get rich than the past three generations but are less interested in owning their own businesses, according to surveys. As teenagers many postponed risk-taking rites of passage such as sex, drinking and getting driver’s licenses. Now they are eschewing student debt, having seen prior generations drive it to records, and trying to forge careers that can withstand economic crisis.

Early signs suggest Gen Z workers are more competitive and pragmatic, but also more anxious and reserved, than millennials, the generation of 72 million born from 1981 to 1996, according to executives, managers, generational consultants and multidecade studies of young people. Gen Zers are also the most racially diverse generation in American history: Almost half are a race other than non-Hispanic white.
Gen Z is reporting higher levels of anxiety and depression as teens and young adults than previous generations. About one in eight college freshmen felt depressed frequently in 2016, the highest level since UCLA began tracking it more than three decades ago.  Smartphones may be partly to blame. Much of Gen Z’s socializing takes place via text messages and social media platforms—a shift that has eroded natural interactions and allowed bullying to play out in front of wider audiences.
I am not sure what to think.  But when it comes to the Church, there are both openings and challenges facing the way we reach this generation.  The anxious character of this group may be a profound opening for the Gospel.  The changeless Christ in a changing world has never gone out of style but at some points in time this is a clearer opening than others.  The fact that they have been hardened by so much economic and social upheaval may mean that this group is harder to reach, harder to break through so that they can believe and rejoice.  The media nature of both life and friendship presents typical challenges for a Gospel that is Word (largely oral) and worship that is as sensual as the splash of water and the taste of bread and wine.  But the same could be said in varying degrees to most generations today.  They are adverse to risk and it may seem to some that faith is simply too big a risk to take and at the same time the depression so common within this group may compel them to find peace outside themselves.

I cannot predict the future and I have serious doubts the WSJ can either.  But I do know that God will continue to work through the means of grace, that the Holy Spirit is a match for all the adversities and adverse conditions we suffer, and that there is no other way than to faithful preach and teach this Gospel.  If there is one thing this generation can smell, it is a phoney -- people who say one thing and act like another.  Perhaps this may mean they will find entertainment worship a bore and look for something truly transcendent and for a hope that is bigger than getting a good life now.  In any case, as much as it is good to know who they are, we do not change the message for the sake of the hearer.  We proclaim Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  To whom else can we go?  He has the Word of eternal life and He alone.

Monday, November 12, 2018

What are God's promises worth?

Sermon preached for Pentecost 25, Proper 27B, on Sunday, November 11, 2018, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    We judge the value of things in terms of dollars and cents.  The amount of money in our wallets and our bank accounts make a lot of decisions for us.  Should we upgrade to that new phone?  Check the bank balance.  Should we take that mini vacation?  Check the bank balance.  Should we increase our offering this week?  Double check the bank balance.  We look at price tags and costs, we look at what we have, and we ask ourselves, “Is it worth it?”  So, let me ask you, WHAT ARE GOD’S PROMISES WORTH? 
    God has given you many promises.  In the waters of Baptism He has promised that you’re His child, and that He is and will always be your Father, your heavenly Father that gives you life. 
This life is an earthly life.  None of us would be alive if it wasn’t for the Lord who knitted us together in our mother’s womb (Ps 139:13).  As our Father, He promises to care for us, to provide us with the things we need, our daily bread as Luther put it.  This is what Jesus talked about in His Sermon on the Mount when He said don’t be anxious about what we’ll eat and wear.  The Lord knows our needs and He’ll provide. 
We see this provision in a miraculous way in the OT reading.  During a great drought, the Lord sent Elijah to a widow in Zarephath to care for him.  Meeting this woman Elijah told her to make some food for him, but she explained that all she had was enough for her and her son’s last meal.  But then Elijah spoke the promise of the Lord, “Do not fear....The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain.” (1 Ki 1713, 14).  Hearing this promise, the woman responded in faith.  She gave all that she had, because that’s what the promises of God are worth. 
We see this same faith displayed by the widow in the Gospel reading.  Sitting across from the temple offering box Jesus watched as people brought their tithes and offerings to the Lord.  Those with a lot of money put in a lot.  But a poor widow came and put two small coins in, all that she had.  Seeing this Jesus said, “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing...For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had…” (Mk 12:43, 44).  Why would she do this?  Because that’s what the promises of God are worth.  This widow knew and trusted in the promise of God’s care, in His promise of life, not just her earthly life, but her everlasting life. 
God’s number one promise has always been everlasting life.  This is a promise to overcome sin and death.  This is a promise to defeat our great enemy Satan.  The everlasting life that God promises is the life that is lived in His presence, in peace and communion with Him, where there’s no longer pain and suffering, where there’s no need of any kind, no sickness and disease, no tears or mourning, no sin...no death.  What is this life worth?  It’s worth all that we have: all our money; all our time; even our very selves.
God’s promises are worth everything, but is that how we respond?   Do respond to the God’s promises with faith like the widows, giving everything, even out of our poverty?  Or, are we like those who only give out of our abundance? 
What’s our motivation in giving to the Lord?  How do we determine what we put in the plate to support the proclamation of His promises here on earth?  Do we look at our bank balance and what’s in our wallet?  Do we add up all our bills and the money we need for entertainment and then whatever extra we have from our paycheck, that’s what we put in the plate?  How do we decide how much time to give?  Do we give ourselves to work, sports, leisure, and other activities first and then if there’s any time left over and we’re not too tired we might consider coming to worship and Bible Study?  Does God get our leftovers, or does He get our first fruits, our very selves? 
The promises of God are worth everything, all that we have and more.  And with faith, that’s how we should respond to them.  God shouldn’t get our leftovers.  Think about that.  The very Creator of everything, your heavenly Father who’s given you life, you give Him your leftovers.  What’s that say about how you view Him; what you think about Him; what you believe about Him? 
God’s promises are worth our first fruits.  God’s promises are worth all that we have: our money, our time, and our very selves.  So with faith, that’s what we give.  We give these things because the promises of the Lord are worth that.  But we don’t give them to buy His promises.
    The widow of Zarephath and the widow at the temple didn’t give all they had to purchase God’s promises.  No, those promises came first; they were already spoken.  Their actions were faithful responses to what their heavenly Father promised.  And that’s what our giving to the Lord is. 
    We give back to the Lord in thanksgiving for what He’s given to us and in response to the promises He’s spoken to us.  Our tithes and offerings, our giving of time and our very selves, it’s not about planting financial seeds expecting God to give us a return on our investment.  It’s not about paying a down payment in order to reserve our spot in heaven.  No, we give all that we have because He’s already spoken those promises to us; because that’s what the promises of God are worth. 
    The promises of God, the promise of everlasting life with Him is worth everything.  It’s even worth God’s only begotten Son. 
    There is a price, a cost, associated with God’s promised everlasting life, but we can’t pay it.  Only God can, and He did, by giving His Son, Jesus Christ.  In order for God to give us the life He promises, He had to buy us back from our sin and death.  This cost couldn’t be paid with all the money in the world.  It had to be paid with blood, with the sacrifice of Christ.  Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, willingly, graciously, and mercifully gave up is life in exchange for yours.  God the Father gave all that He had for you, because that’s what His promise is worth.  His promise to save you from your sin and death and to give you everlasting life is worth His Son’s life, so He paid it.  That’s the depth of love your Father has for you. 
God’s promises are worth everything.  His promise of earthly life is worth all our time and money.  His promise of everlasting life is worth our very selves, and even more.  But we can’t buy this promise.  God doesn’t deliver on His promise because we met the cost.  We can’t.  God delivers on His promises because He has met the cost.  His promise of everlasting life is worth everything to Him, even His only begotten Son.  And this He has given, so that He might have you, so that you might have His everlasting life.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

The limits of inclusivity. . .

We all know that the Boy Scouts caved on everything from gay scouts and scout leaders to admitting girls to the formerly all boy program.  Perhaps we all thought that this was a great egalitarian effort to erase distinctions and embrace diversity.  Maybe not.  It appears that the Boy Scouts may have done this with a market strategy to trounce their Girl Scout organization counterpart in the great marketplace of youth organizations.  Not so fast, say the Girl Scouts.

The Girl Scouts are suing the Boy Scouts and charge the organization’s inclusive rebranding effort as a purposeful endeavor to blur distinctions and make people think either the groups have merged or the Boy Scouts has taken over the Girl Scouts.  They sued for trademark infringement hoping to prevent the inadvertent or intentional uncertainty.

Though the two separate youth organizations had long coexisted and even complemented each other,
problems arose when “core gender distinction” was altered by the Boy Scouts of America when they announced in October 2017  the doors were now open to girls.  All of this has taken on a sense of urgency since the doors open in 2019.  Earlier this year, the Boy Scouts unveiled new marketing campaign to back their efforts to include girls with a tagline “Scout Me In.”  The Girl Scouts’ lawsuit said the Boy Scouts of America had no right under New York State and federal law to use words like “scouts” or “scouting” by themselves “in connection with services offered to girls, or to rebrand itself as ‘the Scouts. ’”

Hmmmm. . .  this inclusivity and  diversity thing works fine until it impedes the marketplace.  Then it is every man er woman er person for themselves, himself, herself, person self. . .   Wow. . . I am getting to old for this. . .

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Self-importance. . .

The real danger to bishops and priests, to district presidents and pastors, to clergy and lay is an inflated sense of self-importance.  Even though I have little interest in them and have not sought them out, my email box is filled with vain words from individuals and organizations promising to equip me to be a great leader, a mover of men, and a voice for the ages.  The appeal is to my vanity, to my desire to be the fixer of that which is broken, the healer of the wounded, and the savior of that which is lost.  I would be wrong if I did not admit being tempted by it all.  Is there a pastor worth his salt who does not want to be an agent of healing, hope, and renewal?  If there is, I am not sure he is worthy of being a pastor.  But the issue here is not the desire to repair what is broken or renew what is failing or direct what has lost its purpose.  No, indeed, the issue is who is doing it and how.  The One who is working in us that which is well pleasing to God is Christ and the means of grace remain His even when they are administered through the voice and hands of the man set apart for this service by Word and prayer and the laying on of hands.

I wrote a while ago of the good sense and sound advice one of my mentors gave me.  Pastor Charles Evanson warned over and over again not to take yourself too seriously but not to take lightly the Word and Sacraments through which God is at work in us and through you.  It is advice and counsel that I think about daily and with even more urgency than every before.

We live in a time when there are those who see themselves and those who are glad to see them as the saviors of a lost and broken Christianity.  Instead of custodians of the sacred deposit and stewards of the mysteries, they are the commanders who presume to know what God should be doing and who will do it even if God is not.  They have abandoned the Scriptures as the one true voice of life and hope for a world in death and despair.  They approach the Word of God with skepticism and speak it apologetically to a world in love with self-proclaimed truths and embarrassed by this God and His works and ways.  They have turned the Church into a marketplace providing what the consumer desires and they measure success the same way business does -- with market share.  They have no core values except the need to succeed, to build ever bigger monuments to their all surpassing greatness.  They offer the world a new and improved gospel designed to provide happiness for the heart and desire without the messy business of morality -- certainly without the condemnation of sin!

We live at a time when truth is adjustable on the sliding scale of what people want, what they will flock to, and what they will support with their $$$.  If people will not hear the Word of God, then they might listen to self-improvement plans designed to help them get what they desire without judgment.  So church buildings are filled with people and programs that have less to do with the Word of the Cross than meeting the perceived needs of people.  We tell them what they want to hear and we keep them from hearing the one thing needful -- the call to repentance and the message of the Gospel to redeem their lost and condemned souls.  If the building is bustling on Monday but empty on Sunday we console ourselves by saying we are meeting the needs of our neighborhood.  We say that this will lead them into the place where altar, pulpit, and font are center but even some of the greats of the evangelical miracle temples admit that it has not led to this.  Still we drink the koolaid and look everywhere but to the Word of God to figure out who we are and why we are here and what we should be doing.

Even mighty Rome is not immune to this.  They have a pope who enjoys the limelight and who wants to be liked more than he wants to be faithful.  He seems willing to throw many things under the bus in order make the Church and its Gospel more palatable to a world convinced that if God loves the sinner, He must also love or tolerate the sin.  He is accompanied by bishops who wear the purple and cardinals who wear the red but who resist holding those over whom they watch accountable or themselves accountable.  They have decided that building a better world is more important than conveying the sacramental mysteries that build the Kingdom of God.  Under those bishops serve priests who do cute things and ad lib the liturgy to make it more personal and at the same time less Christ-centered, who diminish the good and pious devotions of the faithful by treating the things of God as if they were ordinary.

George Wiegel put it this way in First Things:
A priest or bishop who messes with the Missal and re-writes it to his taste as he celebrates Mass is a narcissist. The priest or bishop who rambles on aimlessly during a daily Mass homily, abusing the time of his people, is a narcissist. A bishop who behaves as if he were hereditary nobility, but absent the gentlemanly noblesse oblige that characterizes the truly noble man, is a narcissist. And Catholics are fed up with clerical narcissism. The angers of the present have been stoked by that narcissism for decades; the deadly combination of McCarrick and Josh Shapiro blew the boiler’s lid off. Anyone who doesn’t recognize this is not going to be much help in fixing what’s broken.
Lutherans should not snicker.  We have our own porn priestesses like Nadia Bolz Weber.  We have our own entrepreneurs who do church the way they think it will work because they have lost confidence in the God who works through His Word and Sacraments.  We have our own pastors who wink at the historicity of the Scriptures, at the doctrine of Creed and Symbol, and at the practice of what we confess in those Creeds and Symbols.  We have our own struggles to preach as faithfully the call to holiness and to delight in the Law as guide as to preach justification alone.  We have those who insist that it is not your grandfather's church but they need to be reminded that neither is it your church to do with as you please.  It is the great temptation to believe in one's self-importance but it is nothing more or less than narcissism -- the same one that led Israel to make a god instead of worshiping the One who delivered them from Egypt and gave them the land of promise.  These are the sins that never go out of style and they are the reasons why churches grow smaller and the number of nones continues to increase.  Perhaps they see through smokescreen of relevance and see what is really being offered -- the glorified me.  Who needs religion for that?  It is the thing that comes entirely natural to our sinful hearts.

As much as we hate to say it, the truest words for every bishop and priest, district president and pastor, clergy and layman are the words of John the Forerunner:  He must increase; I must decrease. This is the work of God alone for no one chooses this path without the Spirit.  I cannot by my own reason or strength, said Luther and he hit is square on.  At best the clergy are temporary custodians of the eternal Word and the blessed Sacraments that do what they say and deliver what they sign.  If only we were content in this perhaps the Church would fare better in this world.  I know one thing that is my confidence and foundation -- Jesus does not need me to save His Church.  He has already guaranteed that hell itself will not prevail.  Every day I serve, I try to remember that fact.  Some days I do better than others.  It is our common lot as people on both sides of the rail to remember that and to find comfort and peace in this.  It is enough simply for us to be faithful.  God will do the rest.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Preaching FAIL. . .

There is a sermon, prominently featured by the Lutheran School of Theology on their web page and Facebook, which illustrates the great fail of preaching.  You can listen to it or read it (https://www.facebook.com/LSTChicago/ - see October 9 posting)  or "Soundcloud" under "LSTCChicago" (see: this audio version: https://soundcloud.com/lstc-chicago/sermon-by-elle-dowd-1082018?fbclid=IwAR1lSYwiTrfm_gSPEzpcLT2HjDC9ADPJy-DwLacdlQlTWJHHjOMRHNlDCrc). 

I could spend much time criticizing the preacher but the point I want to make is less about this sermon and this preacher than what happens when sermons fail, when preaching does not deliver its promise, when causes display the Gospel of Christ crucified, and when this Gospel is reduced to a cause.  It is not just that such preaching is unfaithful to Scripture but that it is unfaithful to the very cause of the Word -- the gift of gracious freedom through the forgiveness of the sins.  When advocacy for a cause -- any cause no matter how good -- replaces the preaching of the one and only Word that brings hope and life to those laboring under despair and death, the hearer is left in his or her sins, left under the judgment of guilt, and left under the doom of death.  When sin escapes our vocabulary in the pulpit and when affirmation replaces absolution as the great and wondrous gift of God, it is not simply a failure but a condemnation in which the hearer is left without hope.

There is also another problem.  That problem is when agencies of the Church (seminaries) fail to call out the problems with such preaching failures, when the hearers remain silent while the Word of Life is left silent, and when the Gospel becomes simply a word without the cross behind it.  For the hearer also has a responsibility to insist that the fake gospel is no Gospel, that passionate and pious words are not a substitute for the life-giving Word of the cross, and when advocacy for causes is not the domain or duty of the pulpit. 

Preaching fails for many reasons but preaching that abuses the text and commandeers the Word of God to be used for another purpose than to redeem is the preaching fail that cannot be tolerated.  I have heard countless sermons and most of which I cannot recall even a word but the ones that I cannot forget are when the preachers words masked and detoured the Word of God and left me without the comfort of God's grace to forgive me, a sinner, and the hope of God's grace to redeem me, a lost and condemned sinner, from death to everlasting life.  I hope that if you listened to this sermon, you will not forget it.  It is not that I want you to remember the preacher of this sermon but to remember how preaching fails God and fails the hearer.  And if you are in the pulpit, listen up and make sure you do not do the same thing.  And if you are in the pew, don't tolerate such preaching failures.  Get up and leave.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Toward a Chinese Christianity. . .

Apparently the Chinese government is moving ahead on the heels of their success with the Vatican.  This time, apparently, they are moving to transform Christianity IN China to a Chinese VERSION of Christianity, more friendly to socialism and one that has incorporated some of the wisdom of Chairman Mao into the Scriptures.  This is more than a Bible with some added material but a material revision of Christianity.

The Chinese have a plan called Sinicization with the goal of transforming the heart and soul of Christian theology and re-translating the Bible or revising biblical commentaries.  This would actually involving summarizing the Old Testament with some Buddhist additions and Confucian teachings and new commentary for the New Testament.  The five-year plan appears to be expansive, even  incorporating Chinese elements into church worship services, hymns and songs, clergy attire, and the architectural style of church buildings.  Everyone knows that between 4,000 to 6,000 crosses of state-sanctioned churches have been torn down but the churches that do have crucifixes on the inside must put up pictures of Chairman Mao and Chairman Xi [Jinping] on either side of the crucifix.  Music that begins worship will include the revolutionary songs of communist China.  In addition the state will seek to close or merge many of the state-sanctioned churches as well as step up efforts to close the more than 20,000 house churches not sanctioned by the state. 

In many ways, this is even more overt and profound than the attempt of Nazis to define Christianity in a way that was friendly to Hitler and to find accommodation within Scripture for the Nazi ideology.  While hundreds of Christian leaders have condemned the effort, it remains to be seen if they will be more successful than the churches of Germany were in resisting the state sponsored control of Christian dogma, worship, and piety.  What is clear, however, is that Pope Francis recent accord with the Chinese in allowing them a role in naming bishops and exercising certain authority over Chinese Roman Catholics appears now to have been a real sell out and an encouragement to the emboldened efforts of China to do more than control the churches and to undertake an actual remake of the Christian message and identity within their borders.  All of this comes at a time when it is clear, that despite appearances, China is closing doors rather than opening them to freedom and to the West.  It also appears to justify those who suggest that our dependence upon the Chinese is providing the financial cover for their consolidation of power within their borders and their moves to strengthen their position within the world.

Of course, liberals will insist that those who cry foul are overreacting and that the same kind of cultural appropriation of the Christian faith has been done in many other places.  For the orthodox Christian community concerned about doctrinal integrity even more than personal freedom, this is very ominous.  That said, freedom is just a word unless it is accompanied by the protections of law which not only give liberty to the churches but to every believer to confess and teach without control or interference from the government -- whether in China or in the enlightened West.

Some more fruits of a Chinese Christianity and the Vatican accords. . .

Chinese authorities destroy two Marian shrines despite Vatican-China agreement by Mary Rezac/CNA  posted Saturday, 27 Oct 2018
Government forces destroyed the shrines of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows in Dongergou (Shanxi), and Our Lady of Bliss in Anlong (Guizhou)  As part of an ongoing crackdown on religious practice in the country, Chinese authorities demolished two Catholic Marian shrines this week. The move comes just one month after the Chinese government signed an agreement with the Vatican regarding the appointment of bishops.  According to reports from AsiaNews, government authorities destroyed the Marian shrines of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows in Dongergou (Shanxi), and Our Lady of Bliss, also known as Our Lady of the Mountain, in Anlong (Guizhou).  The shrines were pilgrimage sites for both the official Chinese Catholic Church and the “underground” Catholic Church in China.  Authorities claim that the shrine in Anlong was destroyed because it lacked the necessary building permits. Local Catholics told AsiaNews that they believe the demolitions were part of the so-called “Sinicization” efforts of the Communist Party to bring the Catholic Church more in-line with the government’s understanding of Chinese culture, society and politics.  Last month, the Holy See announced that Pope Francis had signed an agreement with the Chinese government intended to normalize the situation of China’s Catholics.