Friday, September 24, 2021

Even death. . .

Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death?
    I do, by the grace of God.
Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?
    I do, by the grace of God.

With these words, the Church asks and the youthful confirmand makes the most solemn promises anyone can make.  Perhaps it is foolish of us to presume that a youth between 10 and 14 would be in a position to make such bold statement in front of all those in the pews.  If that is true, then it is even more presumptuous for us to ask them to make such a pledge before God. Yet, that is exactly what we do.  And it is what we have done for about as long as there has been the Rite of Confirmation.

My point is not to debate the wisdom of asking youth to make such promises but to ask if we as adults have offered to our youth a good example of what it means to value the Kingdom of God above all things and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from this Kingdom and faith.

When we make worship optional and do not lead our families by example in being in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day, we teach our children that other things can come ahead of faith and its practice.  When we leave our Bibles to gather dust and tuck our children in without praying with them, we teach our children that other things can come ahead of faith and its practice.  When we mirror the values of the world around us instead of the values of the Kingdom, we teach our children that other things can come ahead of faith and its practice.  When we search in our wallets for the smaller bill to place in the offering plate or skip the tithes and offerings altogether, we teach our children that other things can come ahead of faith and its practice.  When we allow ourselves to be captive to fear under the threat of a pandemic, we teach our children that other things can come ahead of faith and its practice.

For too long we have stood on the sidelines while puffing out our chests while our children follow their ancestors in making saying these bold words.  But this was not a photo op nor was it merely a symbolic act.  This was and is a solemn and vow and promise.  If we ask our youth to make these pledges, the least we can do is to support and encourage them by keeping the promises ourselves.  If no one believes that these promises are worth taking seriously, why do we bother with them at all?  

We have made our way almost through a pandemic in which we operated more on fear than faith.  Our willingness to close the doors to the churches and to rush to replace our in person meeting with online substitutes only reinforced to our children and to those outside the faith that this faith is not worth risking your personal safety or your life for.  And that, my friends, is the exact opposite of what those Confirmation promises say.


Thursday, September 23, 2021

Isolation. . .

Jesus often spoke of friendship and of the greater love His friendship with us has given and its fruits of redemption.  He does not diminish friendship by suggesting that it is something incidental to life but elevates the gift and blessing of this relationship to its highest level.  Yet the reality is that friendship is one thing we struggle with today.  Despite all our technology and social media, Americans appear to be rather lonely and isolated.  Most Americans cannot name more than a couple of friends and those friendships are being stretched thin by the many things that pull us apart and divide us.  What impacts us as a nation and as a people will certainly impact us as a church and Christians.

According to the Survey Center on American Life:

Many Americans do not have a large number of close friends. Close to half (49 percent) of Americans report having three or fewer. More than one-third (36 percent) of Americans report having several close friends—between four and nine. Thirteen percent of Americans say they have 10 or more close friends, which is roughly the same proportion of the public that has no close friends (12 percent).

The Church not only presumes but fosters friendship at its most profound level -- our common life together at the altar rail.  We are baptized as individuals but through that baptism connected not only to Christ the head but to the whole body, the Church.  We meet together not as individuals but as an assembly of those whom the Lord has called and gathered by the Spirit through the Word.  We pray not as solitary petitioners but as a people whose voices are one, saying Our Father who art in heaven.  We come not as strangers to the Table of the Lord but as a family united by the blood of Christ beyond preference or interest.  We live this life of faith not as lone rangers but as a people who bear one another's burdens, who share from abundance to need, and who walk toward a future and a destiny prepared for us by Christ.  Friendship and fellowship are important elements of our mission to the world.

It was sin that turned man against woman until they could not even look at each other without guilt and shame.  It was sin that built distrust between people and between the Lord and all He had made.  It was sin tarnished love with fear and self-interest.  It was sin that fragmented the world and left us not merely foreigners to each other but competitors and enemies.  To restore friendship with God and to build anew the friendship between people took nothing less than the incarnation of our Lord and the sacrifice of His very life on the cross to restore what sin had stolen from us.

Even our very progress has become the enemy of this friendship.  We are mobile people whose roots are shallow and weak in the cities and communities where we live.  It affects also the congregations and parishes where we gather.  The online presence we thought was so important is also a tool in the isolation that leaves us lonely and alone.  The screen has become the substitute for the touch of a hand, the voice in the ear, and the taste of bread.  Technology was born with such promise for our benefit but it has also extracted a cost to the kind of relationships that mark us a human and the fellowship in Christ that reflects our lives together as the people of God.

The Old Testament and the wisdom of the Apocrypha are replete with references both to the need and blessing of friendship:

  1. Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Ecclesiastes 4:11).
  2. Let your acquaintances be many, but your advisers one in a thousand (Sirach 6:5-6).
  3. A faithful friend is a sure shelter, whoever finds one has found a rare treasure. A faithful friend is something beyond price, there is no measuring his worth. A faithful friend is the elixir of life, and those who fear the Lord will find one. Whoever fears the Lord makes true friends, for as a man is, so is his friend (Sirach 6:14-17).
  4. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy (Prov 27:6)
  5. A true friend loves at all times, And a brother is born for adversity (Prov 17:17).
  6. A man of too many friends comes to ruin, But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Prov 18:24).
  7. Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away (Prov 27:10).
  8. Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
  9. For it is not an enemy who taunts me— then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me— then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to take sweet counsel together; within God's house we walked in the throng.(Psalm 55:12)

But this is not simply a pithy saying from sage sources.  Friendship is key to the encouragement of the faithful, the support of the troubled, and spurring on to good works.  Friendship with the world is poison but friendship with God is the sweetest fruit of life.  Our Lord Jesus has come to manifest this friendship to us and to extend to us the right hand of fellowship that rescues us from sin and delivers us from death.  He continues to do this through the voice of His Word, the reconciliation that flows from His absolution of the sinner, and the call to come to our appointed place in the blessed fellowship of His Table.  We tend to trivialize friendship or diminish it -- equating it with a Facebook connection.  Jesus does just the opposite.  He strengthens our life together and builds us up as one body the Church.  The world is doing a very good job of isolating us but part of the work of the Church is to reconnect us and this is, at its most profound nature, what the sharing of peace is.  God help us in this effort and may our lives together be strengthened in the bonds of fellowship and friendship that Christ has made possible.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you."  John 15:12-15

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

But do you love Jesus?

Not everyone who cries out "Lord, Lord," will be saved.  I do not know about you but I have often struggled with that.  What does it mean to cry out "Lord, Lord" except to call upon the holy name of Jesus in faith, trusting in all that He has accomplished?  Does the Lord know something I do not (well, duh, of course!)?  I wonder if there is more to this than the hidden heart revealed to the Lord.

Living in the cusp of the Bible belt, you often hear the expression "Do you love Jesus?"  I hear it at least weekly as I shop in a store or fill up with gas or visit the Post Office with my clerical collar on.  Folks are generally pretty friendly and they cannot help but notice that either I have a very small neck brace or I am a minister of the Gospel.  And they want me to know that they get it.  So they either tell me they love Jesus or ask me if I love Jesus.  Amen.  I do.  But it is a love I struggle with and I suspect every honest Christian will admit to the same struggle.  It is one thing to confess what I believe but I am not always in love with that belief.

When what I confess causes me to see the darkness in my heart more clearly, it is hard to admit that I love the Jesus who shines light on what I would rather have hidden.  When I am confronted with the inconsistency between my faith confessed and my words spoken, the thoughts of my mind, or the manner of my life, it is hard to admit that I love the Jesus who exposes this disconnect.  When I am faced with a choice between what I want and what I know is good and right and true according to God's wisdom, it is hard to admit that I love the Jesus who calls me to go against what is easy and comfortable to choose the right path.  When I am caught up in my desires and want nothing more than to pursue them with abandon, I will admit that it is hard to love the Jesus who calls me to live a self-controlled, upright, and godly life.  I think you get where I am going.

I fear it is too easy a thing to say "I love Jesus" and to let that suffice for the confession of an informed faith prompted by the Spirit and given shape in the creed or to let it stand while the struggle within the heart pushing back against Jesus and His way, truth, and life is left unsaid.  Jesus warned us over and over against an easy faith which is a veneer on our lives.  It is for this reason that we daily meet Him on the ground of repentance when absolution restores us to Him over and over again.  Daily we wrestle to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and to live captive to His Word.  It might be more than we are capable to love Him all the while.

St. Peter famously got irritated when Jesus asked him if he loved Him.  I suspect the apostle knew the struggle.  After all, when Jesus asked him and the rest of the apostles if they, too, were going to abandon Him, St. Peter did not exactly respond with a glowing answer of confidence.  "Where else can we go?"  Indeed, that is the dilemma.  Where else?  Who else has forgiveness for our sin sick souls or hope in the midst of despair or life in the midst of death?  It is not that we love Jesus or are in love with Him or think He and His was are simply wonderful.  We have no real choice.  As hard as the way of Christ is, it is the only way.  As hard as the truth of Christ is, it is the only truth.  As hard as the life of Christ is, it is the only life.

Do I love Jesus?  Some days.  Some days I am not so sure.  Most days it is enough for me to muster with the saints of old, "Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief."  How about you?

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Ask and receive as children. . .

Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20B, preached on Sunday, September 19, 2021, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    We begin our daily prayers saying, “Our Father who art in heaven.”  That’s how Jesus taught us to pray, and Luther explains what this means.  We call God Father because He invites us to.  He is our true Father, giving us physical life.  He’s our true Father giving us everlasting life through His Son.  He’s our true Father adopting us in the waters of Baptism.  And because He’s our true Father that means we’re His true children.  Therefore, it’s right for us to do what children do.  Children ask questions.  They ask of their father, and so do we.  We humbly come before God, ask of Him, and receive all good things from Him. 
    We see in the Gospel reading today a time when the disciples didn’t ask.  They were afraid to ask.  Jesus was teaching His disciples specifically about His death and resurrection.  He said, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him.  And when he is killed, after three days he will rise” (Mk 9:31).  For us who are post resurrection, we know the rest of the story.  We understand what Jesus was saying.  But His disciples didn’t, so they should’ve asked. 
    Being a disciple means being a student, and part of being a good student is asking questions when you don’t understand.  And in general, the disciples were good about asking questions.  Last week we heard them ask Jesus why they couldn’t cast out a demon, but He could.  And when Jesus began teaching in parables, they asked Him why and what was the meaning of those parables.  Asking questions wasn’t something that was foreign to the disciples.  But this time they didn’t ask.  And they didn’t ask because they were afraid. 
    Why were they afraid?  Were they afraid of being reprimanded by Christ?  Were they afraid He’d be mad if they showed ignorance?  Or were they afraid of finding out the truth, afraid of talking about death?  Or maybe were they afraid of looking foolish for in front of each other for not understanding?  Maybe they didn’t ask Jesus because they wanted to look smart...after all, at that same time they were arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest. 
    You see in that argument a lack of humility.  Each disciple was trying to put himself above the others.  That’s not what humility does.  Humility doesn’t think about self.  Humility doesn’t seek out greatness.  Humility doesn’t desire to be number one.  No, humility recognizes insufficiency.  It sees all our faults and failings.  It sees our utter need for help.  And there’s no better picture of humility than a child. 
    Children may not know what the word “humility” means, but they know what it is, because they know their need.  They’re constantly asking for things; not just their wants, but also their needs.  When a kid gets hungry, they ask for food.  They know they can’t provide for themselves, so they seek help from mom and dad. 
    But it’s just not physical needs that kids ask for.  They also ask for information.  Every parent knows the stage when their child’s favorite word is “Why?”  It can be exhausting to have to answer that question over and over and over again, especially when we don’t know why.  But in that question humility is revealed.  The child is showing their need.  They don’t know why things are the way they are.  They don’t know why life is the way it is, so they need help understanding life.  And they need help living life too.  And that never changes, no matter how old you get.
    Jesus used a child to teach the disciples.  “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all. … Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mk 9:35, 37).  None of us is sufficient in life.  All of us needs help, and that’s exactly what the Lord has given us to do. 
People all the time want to know “What’s God’s purpose for me in life?”  We think this is a difficult question, but the answer is pretty simple: love God and love others.  
    Loving God means receiving Him and His Son with faith.  Loving God means humbly coming before the Lord as His baptized child, recognizing your insufficiencies, seeing all your faults and failing, confessing your sin, repenting of them.  Loving God means recognizing you can’t earn His forgiveness or salvation.  Loving God means trusting in the death of the Son of Man, trusting in Christ’s cross as payment for your sin.  Loving God means looking to Jesus’ resurrection as the source of your life and your own resurrection.  And loving God means loving others, those whom God has given into your life, humbly serving them because Christ has served you.  
    Life as a baptized child of God is a life of service, and there’s no better place to start serving than with your family, the very people who are the closest to you.  They are a gift from God.  So parents, serve your children.  Answer them when they ask.  Children serve your parents.  Honor and obey them, recognizing that God has given them to you to take care of you.  Siblings, humbly serve each other.  It’s not all about “what’s mine” or “fairness.”    
    But don’t just think of your family as those who live under the same roof, because your family is more than that.  Your family is all of God’s children.  Your family is all of your brothers and sisters in Christ.  And you’re called to humbly serve them as well, especially your youngest brothers and sisters, the ones who run through the halls of the church building, the ones who cry during sermons, the ones who drop their crayons and Cheerios on the ground.  And one of the best ways to serve them, is to be an example of faith to them.
    Teach them the faith.  Answer their questions.  Show them how to humbly receive all good things from the Lord.  Show them by regularly coming to this place confessing your sin and then receiving God’s absolution through Word and Sacrament.  Show them by asking of your Father in heaven, praying for your needs, praying for the good things He has taught us to pray for.  When you gather in worship with your brothers and sisters, you are serving them, and you receive service from your Lord.  
    The disciples were afraid to ask Jesus.  Maybe it was because they didn’t want their ignorance to show.  Maybe they were more concerned with their greatness.  But none of us is the greatest.  We’re all humble servants, called to love and serve our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We’re humble children, not meriting anything from God our Father, but receiving all good things through His Son.  He’s the greatest, for He humbly served us with His death on the cross.  So come as God’s children.  Come with humility and ask of your Father in prayer.  Come to His table and receive all good things.  Come and receive everlasting life from Him.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.  

But among us. . .

Augustana XXI says, in part, among us, in large part, the ancient rites are diligently observed. 8 For it is a false and malicious charge that all the ceremonies, all the things instituted of old, are abolished in our churches.

The article has to do with, primarily, the worship of the saints.  It occurs to me that the condemnations of Rome here are rather mild and are specifically directed to what happens in Church more than in the individual piety and devotion of the faithful.  The rejection here is for the sake of Christ -- it is a practice without Scriptural warrant or command and it is not neutral since it detracts from Christ as the Mediator, Propitiation, High Priest, and Intercessor.  But hidden herein is this statement about rites and ceremonies.  It is a disagreement about certain practices which entered into the life of the Church without rightful authority -- that is, without the command and promise of Scripture.  Furthermore, the presence of this practice contends not for but against the claims of catholicity by Rome.  In contrast, the Lutherans confess:  This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in which, as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers. This being the case, they judge harshly who insist that our teachers be regarded as heretics.  Indeed, the claim of the Reformers is that Rome itself is being untrue to its own heritage of saints and faithful voices in presuming this later practice unknown to Scripture or the Church Catholic as being universal and essential.  The Lutherans affirmed that it has been not unusual but a common complaint that some abuses were connected with the ordinary rites and that the situation cried out for correction -- to which the Reformers stepped up to the plate and corrected what was in error.

Note well the connection between prayer and faith, worship and confession.  Here is clearly revealed that the Lutherans not only knew of but were motivated by concern for lex orandi les credendi.  Everyone could and must agree to the first statement of the article:   the memory of saints may be set before us, that we may follow their faith and good works, according to our calling.  There is no dispute here.  But it is interesting how the dispute is liturgical -- related to rites and ceremonies and not simply to statements.  We are our rites.

That is the whole point of this blog and my own meager contributions to the state of things among Lutherans today.  We are our rites and our ceremonies.  They are not adiaphora in the sense that they are things indifferent or that do not matter but only that strict uniformity cannot be legislated and the conscience cannot be bound by them.  There are matters of great concern and significance.  Our rites and ceremonies are our faith -- prayed on Sunday morning, confessed before the world as they are prayed, and taught as the truth that endures forever in the praying and confession.  This is why it matters what we do on Sunday morning.  We cannot simply punt to adiaphora every time somebody gets a wild hair to do something meaningful or relevant.  What makes our rites and ceremonies meaningful and relevant is not how we see them but how they confess and what faith they display to us and to the watching world.

How far and foolish we have come to think that we can adopt another identity on Sunday morning than the one we confess as the faith yesterday and forever the same!  It is as if we have gender dysphoria of the liturgical kind.  We play at these as if they were mere whims to be played with instead of true and profound confessions of faith -- in our rites and in our ceremonies.  We may have forgotten this but the Augustana has not.  We would do well to pay attention to what we say we believe, teach, and confess instead of paying lip service to it so that we can whatever we please in the Lord's House on the Lord's day.  

Monday, September 20, 2021

Not who we are. . .

I recently read a criticism of The Lutheran Witness by some wag who thought the official periodical of the LCMS did not accurately portray our Synod as we are.  This person thought the art work was not even of Lutheran congregations and complained that the journal was skewed toward a high church viewpoint.  I suppose you could argue.  We could go back over the last year and debate how many photos or graphics would fit a more liturgical lens and how many pastors were photographed in Eucharistic vestments or how many an elegant reredos or crucifix was shown.  I am not sure that would get us anywhere.  For what it is worth, I can well recall when I first saw a chasuble on a pastor in an official LCMS publication.  But I am old.  It was a long time ago -- more than a couple generations!  That said, this post is not about what you will or will not see on the pages of The Lutheran Witness or any LCMS periodical.  It is about the role of these publications.

There is really not much value in showing us as we are.  We are not always that great.  What gain have we of displaying what might be essentially our mediocrity?  A great number of years ago our Synod published a book with photos that depicted one day in the life of the LCMS.  It was but a snapshot in time of a church body that is not stuck in time.  We are ever breathing the air of the Spirit who works through the Word of the Lord to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We are ever becoming more and more the new person in Christ who rose up from those baptismal waters to wear Christ's righteousness before the world.  We are ever growing and being grown by this Spirit through the food of Christ's flesh and the drink of His blood.  We are ever maturing and growing stronger in the faith as the Spirit brings us to repentance and then leads us to the comforting and consoling word of Christ's absolution.

The role of our official church publications should not be to give an accurate view of who we are at any given moment but those periodicals should be aspirational -- they should challenge us to become the people we confess we are and the church we confess we are.  It is more the function of an ELCA publication to portray their church body as they are -- every fringe and stray thread of a loosely woven fabric in which other things seem to come before faithfulness.  It is not the function of an LCMS publication to celebrate who we are but to give the best witness of what it means to be Lutheran to those inside our church body and to the world watching from the outside.  We need to be on those pages the best of who we are in theology, confession, witness, service, worship, art, beauty, and rite.  Kudos to those who make sure that what we read in that monthly journal is a call to be our best self, our best church, and to best practices -- consistent with the Word of God and reflective of our Lutheran Confessions.

It is tiresome to constantly try to reflect the accuracy of adiaphora and its diversity of those who love to deviate from our Confessional goal only for the sake of being different.  Yes, there are pastors who wear polos and khakis or tees and jeans in warehouse buildings devoid of the ordinary accoutrements of chancel and nave and who try to turn technology into a sacramental grace.  There are too many.  But do we need to display them in our official publications and promote this face of the LCMS?  I don't.  I expect that just about any moderate to low church LCMS pastor or congregation in black gown, cassock surplice and stole or alb and stole would feel a deeper kinship with their high church counterpart more than with these evangelical style big box non-denominational wannabes.  And they should.  The battle here is not with those who would encourage a richer ceremonial, architecture, or liturgical life but with those who strip away these markers of our identity in what they claim is a pursuit of mission.  Perhaps our church is in the fight for its life over how little you can look like a Lutheran on Sunday morning and still get away with it but that tragic conflict will do little good for us displayed upon the pages of our Synod's periodicals.

From mission to worship, from confession to congregation, from parochial school to seminary, we ought to be striving for more and not settling for less.  And the pages of our periodicals ought to encourage this aspiration and not derail it by attempting to portray every attempt to flaunt our tradition.  We are not iconoclasts.  We are not opposed to art and beauty in service to the Gospel.  We are not a people who allow a few odd folks who love more while striving for less over all.  Thanks be to God that our editors and contributors have worked so tirelessly and well to encourage the best from us.  I say to Roy Askins and those who went before him and their whole crew, you are doing a fine job!  Keep up the good work!  And for all those out there who do not get what I am talking about, subscribe today for the bargain of the year!