Friday, March 1, 2024

Controvered articles of faith eventually find solutions. . .

Bishop David Preus (of the then American Lutheran Church) said that "there will always be some issues arising to the surface that will require serious, open theological debate. . . The history of our churches indicate that such controverted articles generally find solutions. . . We  think the same will happen with . . . the doctrine of inerrancy, women's ordination, and membership in ecumenical organizations."  That was in 1981.  Although it could hardly be called revolutionary, his wisdom has largely proven correct.

The solution for the doctrine of inerrancy is to have a Scripture which is supposedly true with regard to matters of our salvation but filled with myths, legends, falsehoods, and errors about other things.  In the end you have a Bible in which we are left to decide each for ourselves what is truth and what is not.  The problem with this is that the marker varies by the individual and the times.  Eventually, hardly anything will be left of the truth of Scripture except the most minimal and common wisdom that is not unique to Scripture at all.  That is certainly the position of liberal Christendom.

The solution for women's ordination is for everyone to adopt it -- either by having their own female pastors or by making it no barrier to altar and pulpit fellowship.  The end result is to have no real standards for who is a pastor and who is not.  Effectively that is what has happened to generic and mainline denominations so far.  Within the ELCA you cannot even hold to fidelity to the spouse (gay or not) since cohabitation and non-marital relationships are not condemned.  In the end, the door to the ordination of women has either by default or intrinsically allowed the removal of nearly every standard of morality that the Scriptures held as requirements for those to be ordained.  And conservative churches have their own history in this by lessening the stigma attached to divorce and remarriage of those who are not LGBTQ+.

The solution to the ecumenical question has been to presume that common associations do not quite extend to every association.  In other words, if you are in fellowship with a church that is in fellowship with another church you are not, this has no real consequence or meaning for you.  But how that can this be?  In the end, everyone regards every association with the meaning they wish it to have and thus no association means the same thing to everyone.  For the ELCA this has meant the denomination is more comfortable with non-Lutherans than it is with Lutherans with whom they disagree.  What a strange circumstance!

I guess what Bishop Preus meant was that everything is moving on a path toward liberalism and it just takes some longer than others to get there.  While that is certainly of no comfort to Missouri Lutherans, it is certainly the reality of Protestantism as a whole.  Sadly, even Rome is not far behind.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

The hidden losses. . .

According to reports the once United Methodist Church has lost about 25% of its congregations and members since 2019.  While it is easier to trace where the congregations ended up, it is more difficult to sort out what happened to the people in them.  Here is the graph of the congregations:

You can see that, predictably, the highest number of congregations leaving is in the South.  All of this is interesting, perhaps most interesting is that the disafilliating congregations have a 5% higher median worship attendance.  This should be enough to refute the idea that those leaving are mostly small congregations.

Hidden in the stats is the rather alarming realization that people are also leaving and many of them not for another Christian congregation.  This is what happened when the the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America all adopted more aggressively liberal and intolerant social postures -- especially with regard to the LGBTQ+ agenda.  The numbers of congregations that broke away was smaller than expected but the numbers within the congregations that stayed and those that left diminished.  In fact, just looking at the ELCA alone, you have witnessed the numbers drop from a reported high of 5.2M members down to less than 3.5M members yet you find that the actual numbers reported by the LCMC or NALC denominations formed by those departing cannot account for much more than 500K of those.  So what happened?

The dropouts from American churches probably outnumber those who show up.  While Missouri certainly felt the loss of some 120K folks who established the AELC (which later merged into the ELCA), those numbers did not really show up for years.  Once they did, they were accompanied by an even larger contingent of people who simply stopped coming.  The gulf between those who claim membership and those who attend has widened in Missouri just as it has within the more liberal denominations bleeding off members and people (though not quite as dramatic).

The reality is that we are not doing a very good job of keeping the folks we have.  Or, might it be that we really did not have them in the first place?  Certainly this is true of youth.  Those who were counted but whose family attendance was spotty found it easier to drop out than those whose attendance was vigorous.  That is the other side of things.  Have we lost faithful members or fringe members?  We should be sad about both but it might help us stave off the losses if we discern the difference here.  The reality is that those who are fully onboard with the church's confession and teaching and actively and regularly participate in the life of the congregation assembled around Word and Sacrament and who are involved in the congregation's life of catechesis and service are so much less likely to drop out than those who are not.  Rigorous catechesis is important but so is regular encouragement to faithful weekly worship and to participation in some avenue of the Church's life beyond Sunday morning.

The problem of hidden losses is not unique to the progressive side of Christianity even though it is more likely to be manifest to those who have lowered their standards of membership and who do not regularly review who are members.  In this we all need to repent of our failures to keep tabs of those who once were faithful -- both pastors and parish leaders, to be sure, but especially their brothers and sisters in the pew.  Back door losses are the bane of Christianity (and that includes all flavors!).  If we receive new people without addresses such losses, we are not being faithful.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

A word no one uses. . .

In the Scriptures using older translations you might encounter the word withered to describe a crop or a plant or a limb or a spirit or even a life.   Some 50+ times the Bible uses a variation of the word wither.  We have outgrown that usage and replace it with what we consider to be kinder and more sympathetic terms.  I wish we would go back.

According to the dictionary, wither means to become dry and sapless, as in to shrivel from or as if from loss of bodily moisture OR to lose vitality, force, or freshness as in the public support for the bill is withering.  It is from the Middle English widren; perhaps akin to Middle English weder weather.  It is not the oldest of words but it is freighted with context that is helpful to us and our understanding.

Sin has caused us and our lives to wither.  We have become dry.  We have lost the vitality of life and now live in the shadow of death.  Our lives are not fresh but have an expiration date on them.  We are like the plant that withers without moisture and so we are from birth drying up until only the dust from which we came will remain.  In Mark's Gospel, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand.  The hand becomes the mark of evil or sin.  Having such a withered hand would disqualify the man from certain vocations (especially that of a priest).  Jesus acts then in mercy not merely restoring the hand but the life of the man and thus removes the mark of evil from him.  It is a miracle of restoration.  What happens outwardly to the hand, happens also inwardly to the heart as faith replaces unbelief and trust overcomes suspicion and doubt.  This was no accidental encounter but the revelation of the Kingdom and of who are Lord is and why He has come.

In so many ways we live in a time when things have withered even more.  The dry and shriveled lives we live despite our vast technology are increasingly obvious.  We are isolated and alone.  We have knowledge but without real understanding.  We have potential but more often it is wasted or abused in evil.  Think here of the stain of pornography, vulgarity, and hate that almost consumes the internet.  We have become content to manage symptoms without ever considering that there might be something more.  Witness the way we medicate ourselves instead of rooting out the causes of depression or mental illness.  It is a therapeutic process which allows us the false idea that managing the symptoms is the same as healing.  A pain killer may indeed dull the pain but it does not end the cause of it.  So the end result of our withered lives is that we content ourselves with distraction that would make us forget our disability or entertainment which would give us some laughs to balance out the loss or we make withered the norm and wholeness the exception.
As we make our way through Lent, one of the things we need to confront is this ability to become comfortable with our misery and thus embrace what is withered as the best we can expect and all for which we dare hope.  It is easy to forget that Jesus has come for all that has been withered by sin.  He has come to restore what has been left dry and empty.  He has come to restore that which is no longer vital or powerful or fresh.  We do not need to settle for accepting sin as the default or defining away our pet sins as normal and even virtuous.  Christ has come to reach out and touch what is withered and dying.  He has come with grace sufficient and mercy abundant.  No one in their right mind would hide their withered hand or limb from the One who had the power to make it whole.  So we do not hide our sins but admit and confess them.  We own them all so that He can restore us through the grace of absolution.  But it all begins with the admission that we are withered, dry, dying, and dead in trespasses and sin.  Lent is not about getting by or finding a way through but bringing our withered bodies, minds, and spirits out into the open where Christ is.  We cannot surprise Him.  For such withered people and their lives He has come.  But He can surprise us.  We extend to Him withered souls and bodies robbed of the vitality God intended and marked for death and He does the unthinkable.  He gives them back to us whole and with them a future without end.  If we would think like this, perhaps we would not find Lent such a somber season after all.  For hidden in the confession is the affirmation of faith that knows what God does with our sins.  He forgives them and restores to us a clean and clear conscience that we might fulfill His purpose and bidding.  This is why for Christians, such repentance and forgiveness is not merely a season of forty days but the daily cycle of our Christian lives.  God is good.


Tuesday, February 27, 2024

No shortage of hubris. . .

There seems to be no shortage of and no end to the hubris that presumes we are so much smarter and well-informed today that we cannot possible hold to what those who went before us thought and believed about the world, where we came from, and what is true.  In this context, these things are no longer anchors but boats moving to and fro on a current of change.  In another conversation the statement was made by one Lutheran to another that the strides made linguistically, culturally, and historically within the last couple of centuries require us to change our understanding of who we are, where we came from, and what is true.  While this is especially true with regard to the Bible, it is no less true of just about anything and everything else.

Of course, we are not alone in such arrogance and pride.  It is the failure of every generation to defer to the past any authority and to insist that newer is better, that we are more educated and erudite than our forbearers.  While it is certainly true that our knowledge has expanded, the implicit conclusion of such hubris is to believe that this expansion negates and omits what went before.  Among some this could be applied to arguments in which some would insist that you believe the science while at the same time positing the science to a momentary postulation and ignoring the weight of evidence of history.  Among others it is the constant attention to exception and the substitute of exception for the rule or norm of a time or position.  Among Christians, it is the common fallacy that we know more about God's Word than those who went before us and therefore cannot be bothered by the statements of Scripture except, perhaps, those directly related to matters of salvation.  Neatly dividing the Word of Truth is no longer then about Law or Gospel but about sorting out the myth, legend, poetry, and falsehoods from the one truth.  But that is the point, isn't it.  Who gets to decide which are the myths, legends, poetry, falsehoods, and truth in the Scriptures?  Who decides which words belong to God and which belong to man?

The goal and end result is then not to better understand or know the Scriptures but to be able to omit or erase or diminish portions of those Scriptures that offend against modern sensibility or individual conscience or conviction.  Thus the goal of such hubris all around is to elevate the individual, the reason of the individual, the feelings of the individual, and the moment of the individual above anything and everything else.  And how is that working for us?  Well, look around.  With churches arguing over which words we ought to pay attention to and which words do not belong in the mouth of God, Scripture is left with little authority and even less power.  It is what we make it to be.  The same can be said for history, science, and every other division of human knowledge and culture.  Nothing is what it is -- everything is what we make it to be.  And if we do not make it to be anything, then it is nothing.  The only problem with this is that eventually it comes right back to us.  And the nothing ends up being me. 

Monday, February 26, 2024

Get behind me, Satan

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent (B), preached on Sunday, Februar7 25, 2024.

The famous Peter principle is that everyone will rise to the level of their incompetence.  It is a terrible truth that admits that when we are at our glory, we are also the most vulnerable.  For this reason then, the failure of Peter and the occasion for the Lord’s most biting condemnation is very bit as important as what Peter got right by claiming Jesus is the Son of the Living God.

Jesus warned Peter and His disciples of this before.  You have your minds on the things of men and not on the things of God.  That describes Peter to a T.  Maybe even everyone in this room.  The things of man are the things on which we plan and connive.  The things of man are the things that well up inside of us and begin to define who we are despite our good words about belonging to the Lord.  The things of man are the things the world also values just as the world does not leave much room for the things of God so our hearts have small space for the things of God and plenty of room for our wants and desires.

Peter is no fool.  He heard the Lord.  The Son of Man shall suffer many things, be rejected, crucified, die, and on the third day rise again.  Peter knew that what was the future for Jesus was probably his own future as well.  Who wants that?  But before you condemn Peter, look into the mirror of your own soul.  You don’t want that either.  No student is above His teacher.  Peter could read the writing on the wall.  He may have thought he was protecting Jesus but he was also protecting himself and his life from the pain and suffering that Jesus seemed entirely too comfortable with.  Set up a tent on the mountain top but do not venture in the valley of the shadow.  Is there anyone here who does not get this?  Of course not.

Peter is looking for an easier way.  So are you.  So am I.  None of us wants pain or suffering or sacrifice.  None of us is good with loss.  We are really good at pretend – at playing the game of life more with the what ifs than what is.  We are really good at playing at happiness.  The purpose driven lives we live are driven purposefully at avoiding what happened to Jesus happening to you and me.  That is why the Christian life is hard.  We value our happiness more than holiness.  We want pleasure more than faithfulness.  We want a God who understands even more than a God who forgives.  We want to hold onto our bitterness and anger rather than forgive.  We want to increase the distance between our enemies rather than forgive them as God has forgiven us.  We want the bird in the hand of a good life now even more than we want a perfect eternal life.

We think that the purpose of this life is to get what we want.  Like Peter, we are not quite ready to risk all trusting Jesus.  Meanwhile the Holy Spirit is working in us to see the cross as the path for our own lives, to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, to repent of our sin and to forgive as we have been forgiven, and, most of all, to live in fellowship with our Father through His Son.

Jesus’ life is no tragic opera.  He does not lose anything.  Instead He gains everything.  The Gospel is not some fairy tale but the love of God exposed for the world to see and the call for the loved by God to love God as He has loved us.  In the end, Peter would drink the cup of suffering and be baptized into a painful death.  What Peter did not see was that God would raise him up to everlasting life and that the moment of suffering would give way to an eternity of peace.

Jesus is happy to go to the cross not because He likes suffering but because He loves you and me.  Having been given faith by the Spirit working through the Word and baptized into Christ, He gives to each of us the opportunity to know and to return such love.  To love Him back with all our mind, body, soul, and all that we have.  Don’t be afraid.  The Lord is committed to us no matter what the cost.  Let us rejoice in this but let us also learn to be steadfast in Him, fearing not what the world can take from us but trusting in what only God can give to us.

Peter is not such a bad guy.  Neither are you.  We are human.  More than that, we are sinners.  But God loves sinners.  He loves them not with the weak love that would do anything to preserve Himself but with the strong love that would pay any price and do any work that would save you and me and deliver us to everlasting life.  He will not betray us even though we betray Him over and over again.  Sometimes that means even calling us Satan and telling us to get behind Him.  But you can be sure of this.  The Lord is not acting out of spite but purely out of love when He calls us to surrender our attachment to the moment in order to hold on to eternity by faith.

When Jesus recounted how He was to be betrayed into the hands of sinners, suffer, die, and on the third day rise again, He was not speaking a lament.  Instead if was the most profound love story of all.  The God who inhabits our flesh in order to die for our sins, who cleanses the temple so that it might cleanse sinners, and to lay Himself upon the altar of the cross without any thought of a ram to rescue Him.  This God fulfills all that was demanded of us so we might be declared holy.

Satan’s problem with Jesus is not that He is the Son of God or righteous or  incarnate or willing to die on the cross.  His problem is that Jesus does all of these things out of pure love for sinners.  The very same sinners the devil had counted on as his own.  Jesus problem with Peter is that Peter was not willing to be saved if saving him meant the suffering and death of Jesus.  But without this suffering and death, Peter would belong to Satan.

In the end we are in the same dilemma.  Part of us is embarrassed by a Gospel that is born of suffering and death and yet without it we would not be saved.  What ties all of this together is this.  Those who are ashamed of Christ and of His Word in this life will find that Jesus is ashamed to call them His in the life to come.  So, what will it be?

Like Peter, we are tempted to believe that sin is not so bad that it would require a Savior to die but Jesus insists it is either a Savior who dies or we have no Savior at all.  The world is evil and dying and so are you.  Jesus refuses to mince words over a bruised ego.  We need to be just as resolute.  The cross is the most profound statement of God’s love for sinners.  In order to benefit from that cross, we must admit we are sinners.  Without the cross, there is nothing and we still belong to Satan. Which Christ do you confess?  

To cease to be Protestant. . .

There is a line penned by St. John Henry Newman which is often quoted against Protestants: “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”  It might seem a no brainer.  After all who wants to belong to a church that is not deep in history but invented sometime much later along the way?  I don't.  Therein lies the fallacies that make this quote less than a deal breaker.

The first fallacy is the presumption that the Roman Catholic Church has existed continuously in time since the first days of the Church.  Indeed, it is the conflation of the Roman Church with the Catholic Church that is both the contention of Rome but the refusal of Lutheranism.  Only a fool would insist that the Roman Church as we know it now and have known it since the Council of Trent is exactly the same Church as the Church in Rome of the early Church era or even well into early medieval times.  Certainly the Eastern Church refuses this arrogant presumption that Rome today is the Catholic Church.  Lutherans are also those who refuse and refute this erroneous claim.  In fact, the claim of the Lutheran Confessions is that those who subscribe are holding to the Catholic doctrine and practice which, except you believe, teach, and confess, you will not be saved.  Rome claims to be the Catholic Church as an institution and this is an unprovable claim but Lutheranism claims to be the Catholic Church in doctrine and practice which is provable.  Every claim of Lutheranism against Rome refers to later practices and doctrines which developed and were insisted upon later in time and not early in the history of the Church.

The second fallacy is the term Protestant itself.  The Lutherans are not Protestants in the sense that this term is used by Newman and most others.  We may have once been labeled as such but the label no longer fits.  Protestants are of the insistence that they were established and begun at a moment in time corresponding to the Reformation or some time in the wake of that pivotal movement.  That is not the Lutheran claim.  Protestant has become synonymous with a time or origin in the 16th century of later but Lutheranism refuses this date.  We do so because it was never the intent nor the outcome to depart from that which has always been believed and always been practiced but to challenge those things which had been written back in time from a later era to distort the clear teaching of Scripture and the plain witness of the apostles.

I will certainly agree with Newman.  Protestants do not and cannot make the claim that Lutheranism does.  They are shallow in history and happy to do so.  Think of it this way.  To the Protestants which do not baptize infants and children, when was the first credible challenge to the catholic practice and theology of baptism?  After the Reformation is when these churches began.  To the Protestants who receive only a sip of juice and a piece of cracker as they piously recall Jesus, when was the first credible challenge to the words of Jesus and their plain meaning?  After the Reformation is when these churches began.  I could go on but two significant examples are enough for now.  All I am saying is this.  Newman did not either know of or pay any attention to the claims of Lutheranism when he wrote his famous words and, if he had, he would have had to clarify what the word Protestant means because it does not mean Lutheran.