Tuesday, August 16, 2022

A new Reformation?

At the ELCA Churchwide Assembly August 8-12, 2022, in Columbus, OH, Presiding Bishop Eaton mused Is it time for another Reformation?  Perhaps she is correct but the reformation she envisions is not a true reformation of the faith, a return to the sources, a new commitment to orthodoxy.  No, what she is talking about is restructuring the way the ELCA governs itself.  In other words, shuffling the deck chairs on a sinking ship.  The root problems of the ELCA have ended up being expressed in a strange structure but that is not where they started.  The reformation that matters will not happen by tinkering with bylaws and a constitutional amended here and there.  It requires nothing less that a review of all that has been said and done since 1988 and squaring that with Scripture, repenting where it has violated Scripture's clear Word.  If that were to happen, there just might be hope for the ELCA.  But it won't.

The ELCA has structured itself not simply with synods and bishops and assemblies and rules.  It has structured itself so that it no longer lives by the Word of the Lord as the sword of truth and life.  Instead, the ELCA has time and time again replaced the clear Word of God with positions that accord with the prevailing views of liberal Christianity and a progressive culture embarrassed about talk of sin and redemption.  So what will happen?  The structure designed for a church body nearly twice its current size will be thinned out and flattened but you can be sure that the sacred minorities will retain both their influence and their bureaucracy while the rest of the church's mission will be rearranged around these essential causes (sex, gender, race, social justice, and climate change).  And the bleeding will continue until another reformation is required because even that structure is too cumbersome for those who will be left in a graying and white church body that so desperately wants to be seen as relevant by everyone except the God whose judgment matters.

Lessons learned here about but chief among them is that the renewal of the faith begins with the Word of God, with creeds and confessions faithfully written, and with an urgent commitment to uphold them when unpopular and rejected by the world around them.  The Church is not failing for lack of accommodation but precisely because the causes du jour of culture and society have replaced the Gospel as the beating heart of Christian truth and life.  Jesus is not an idea and love is not a concept and this life is not our primary focus.  Learn that and any apostate church just may have a future but cling to these ideas and there is no tomorrow except a continual downsizing and reformation of form instead of faith.   If you embody the Word, you don't need to listen to it, apparently.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Word like fire. . .

Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15C, preached on Sunday, August 14, 2022.

When Jesus stood in the Jordan River to be baptized by John, it did not seem right  to the Forerunner.  At first he demurred.  Better Jesus to baptize him than he to baptize Jesus.  But Jesus would have none of it.  It must be done to fulfill all righteousness.  Before the cross, Jesus would see John the Baptist beheaded and the mighty voice crying in the wilderness silenced by death.

James and John were not above asking Jesus for the privilege of place, sitting at His right and left when He came into His glory.  Jesus asked them if they were able to be baptized with the baptism with which He was to be baptized.  Of course, came their answer.  James was the first of the apostles to die a martyr’s death but not the last.  His brother John watched as they all were killed for the sake of the Kingdom.  Who is in a hurry to die?  Are you?  Of course not!  Think how hard we all tried to keep death at bay during the Covid pandemic.  Nobody wants to die.

Jesus finds no pleasure in death but He is ready and waiting for the death that He came to endure.  He is itching to light the fire of His own demise because of what that death will accomplish.  His soul is ravaged by the distress of one who does not wish to die but who does wish to see the fruits of His death accomplished for sinners great and small.  Jesus will not be waylaid from His walk to the cross, will not be distracted from the purpose of His incarnation and life, and will not hide in fear of the terrible cost that bears such wondrous fruit in your salvation and mine.

Our Lord knows that His death is a stumbling block for many and source of division for even more.  How many people are broken on the rock of doubt and fear, grasping so hard onto this life that they have nothing left to hold onto eternity?   What our Lord has accomplished for is done.  The cross will hold no more victims.  The only victim whose blood can cleanse us from all sin has already been crucified there for you and me.  Our believing adds nothing to what He has done, nor does our unbelief take away from what His death has done.  But without faith to grasp hold of this miracle, its benefits, fruits, and blessings are not ours.

All depends upon faith.  Faith by which Abraham when He was tested was willing to give up His only son Isaac.  Faith by which Jacob blest his sons as he lay dying. Faith by which Joseph passed on the legacy of God’s acts on behalf of His people even as he made provision for the place where his bones would lie.
Faith by which Moses led a fledgling people from slavery to the land of promise, forsaking all privilege in order to stand with the people of God.  Faith by which the Passover first was kept and kept still until Jesus fulfilled its promise with His own body and blood.  Faith by which the people of God passed through the sea on dry ground while their enemies were swallowed up by the water.  Faith in the persons of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel.  People who stopped the mouths of lions, quenched fire, escaped the sword, became mighty in battle, received their dead back, suffering torture, mockery, chains, and prison.

All of these received what they were promised.  So what about you?  Is the kingdom the urgent cause of your living and the hope of your dying?  Surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, will you not also cast off every hindrance and weight and sin to run with endurance the race set before you?  Looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, will you turn away from every tempting allure and every challenging obstacle in order to follow Jesus?  

Jesus was ready to rain down fire because He was so passionate for you and for the salvation He would accomplish by His death and resurrection.  For the joy that was set before Him in YOUR salvation, He endured the cross, despised the shame of the world, and ascended in glory to the right hand of the Father.  Will you now grow weary of the burden of faith in a faithfulness world?  Will you exchange His gift of eternity for the passing pleasure of a moment?  Will you hide your sins from His cleansing blood or risk the shame of confessing them so that they might be forever gone?  Will you become fainthearted for the fight the first time it costs you something because you stand with Christ, in Christ, spattered with His blood, that cleanses you from sin and becomes the clothing of your righteousness?

The cause of Christ has never suffered an abundance of people willing to endure whatever comes because they have been forgiven their sins and long to live with Christ the life Christ has prepared.  No, the cause of Christ falters from a people who are not sure that giving up anything of this moment is worth holding onto eternity, not convinced that their sins require a Savior who must suffer and die, and not willing to risk any of the world’s disdain in order to die with Christ and life with Him forevermore.  Considered Him who endured from sinners such hostility so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted but run with endurance the race of faith before you.  Jesus is right.  We spend more time talking about the weather than about Him or the forgiveness, life, and salvation He has won for us.
It is to our shame that we let so much come between us and the salvation that God has freely given even though it cost our Lord everything in suffering and death.  But worse than this shame is our loss.  By our fear of standing in Christ and with Him, by our willingness to surrender our faith to fear, and by our judgment that the way of Christ is too hard or costs us too much, we cast aside what Christ suffered to give us freely, in love, to save us.  

Will we pass on to our children a fragile faith that gives up in the face of any opposition or will we give to them the legacy of the faith, the saints, the martyrs who were willing to shed their blood for the sake of Him who shed His blood once for all on the cross?  Children are crying to know that faith is worth dying for as well as worth living for.  Will we teach them this by example or only by words?

Jesus is a stumbling block, obstacle, and scandal.  Either He will set us free forever or the weight of His suffering will come down upon us and crush us for our unbelief, doubt, and fear.  My friends, I do not say this because I like speaking in this way.  I say this because we must hear it.  It is every bit as much the message of Scripture as the comforting passages we long to hear.  And the object of both is nothing less and nothing more than your salvation, the forgiveness of your sins, the rescue of your lost life, and the resurrection of your body dead in trespasses and sins to the life that sin, shame, and death can no more touch.  Long for this gift and yearn for this grace for this is the only thing that you can possess and enjoy in death.  Jesus lives to bestow upon You all that He has won.  Live to grasp hold of this blessing and it will be your joy in sorrow, your presence in loneliness, your hope in the face of trouble, and your life in the face of death.

In the holy name of Jesus.  Amen.

Couldn't have said it better and not even as good...

“Smells, BELLS, and Yells”…oh my

William Weedon 

That’s usually the derogatory way of referring to a given pastor’s or parish’s appreciation for three specific church ceremonies: incense, the use of a sanctus or sacring bell, and chanting. On the second item in the list, it may indeed come as a surprise to many modern day Lutherans to learn that our spiritual forebears frequently retained the use of the sacring bell during the consecration, the chanting of the Words of Institution, in the Divine Service.

I am not exactly sure when the sacring bell began to be used, but it has biblical precedents. We might recall that in the Old Testament, the garment of the high priest had bells on it (cf. Ex. 28:33-35). It “tinkled” when he was performing his service. So when our great High Priest, Jesus Christ, comes among His own to serve them His body and His blood, it might have been almost instinctive for bells to be likewise sounded.

Luther said of this custom: "The priest's elevation of the sacrament together with the ringing of the bells, has no other purpose than to remind us of the words of Christ. It is as if the priest and the bell-ringer were saying to us all, 'Listen, you Christians, and see, and take and eat, take and drink, etc.’" AE 42:173,4. To the great Reformer, clearly, the bells chief function was to focus attention on the Words of Institution, (which words, recall, were recited sub voce in the Roman rite at the time). In the Lutheran service they are trumpeted forth and are to be pronounced laut und deutlich.

The south German, Musculus, relates his experience of the way the Saxons worshipped at the Mass he attended in Wittenberg during the meeting that produced the Wittenberg Concord in 1536: “The communion followed, which the minister began with the Lord’s Prayer sung in German. Then he sang the words of the supper, and these in German with his back turned toward the people, first those of the bread, which, when the words had been offered, he then elevated to the sounding of bells; likewise with the chalice, which he also elevated to the sounding of bells.” (Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism, p. 195).

Walter Zeeden, in his wonderful monograph Faith and Act: The Survival of Medieval Ceremonies in the Lutheran Reformation (1:100f.) specifically notes the continuation of the bells during the elevation (p. 33) among the ceremonies that Lutherans had a tendency to keep from earlier centuries in various places.

Still, one largely searches in vain for any specific mention of this ceremony’s survival in the Church Orders. Yet the very words of the Augustana about how we celebrate the Mass would lead one to expect it: “Nearly all the usual ceremonies also are preserved”(AC XXIV:2); a protestation repeated in Apology XXIV:1.

Given that, we shouldn’t be surprised by the long continuance of the custom, as witnessed by Christian Gerber in his Church Ceremonies of Saxony. Even though clearly no fan of the custom, he writes of it: “At the Consecration a small bell is rung somewhat loudly, first at the blessing of the bread, then at the blessing of the wine. This ringing has surely been retained from the Papacy. As to its purpose, that I don’t know.…” This was published in 1732, so you can see the bells persisted for quite some time in many places in Saxony, though their use as described by Luther had apparently been forgotten. (A translation of portions of Gerber’s work is available here in English: http://www.luthermem.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/history-of-church-ceremonies-in-saxony-bengtson.pdf)

Several modern “recreations” of Lutheran Masses include the bell at the consecration. You can hear it, for instance, in Paul McCreesh’s Bach Epiphany Mass, ringing out precisely as the words in German corresponding to “this is My body” and “My blood” are sung.

I assume, but cannot be sure, that Johann Gerhard has reference to the sacring bell when he wrote of ceremonies that, in his opinion, served little to no purpose for edification, mentioning specifically: “the priest’s lifting up the chasuble and ringing a bell under it” (see A Comprehensive Explanation of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, p. 477). However, I think the fact that he mentions it at all serves as a witness to the practice’s continuance in certain areas.

Dr. Piepkorn in his little monograph Conduct of the Service, notes: “It was anciently customary to ring the bell in the church tower a total of seven strokes, the first at the beginning of the consecration, three strokes at the consecration of the hosts, and three more at the consecration of the chalice. Later, with the multiplication of masses, hand bells were substituted. The widespread custom in the Church of the Augsburg Confession of ringing the church bell during the singing of the Our Father is a survival of this ancient custom, transferred to another element in the Service after the custom of a celebration of Holy Communion every Sunday and major Holy Day unhappily fell into desuetude.” (p. 28)

Thus, the use of bells during the consecration is a free ceremony that has Luther’s approbation, is evidenced in Lutheran practice throughout the age of Orthodoxy, and particularly in Saxony, which is the primary heritage of our Synod, and serves to invite the attention of the people to those most beautiful and important words: “My body…My blood…for you, for the remission of sins.” That Rome also rings bells during the consecration should deter us no more from this practice than from praying the Lord’s Prayer (after all, Roman Christians do that as well!).

Grant then, O God, Your will be done,
That, when the church bells are ringing,
Many in saving faith may come
Where Christ His message is bringing:
“I know My own; My own know Me.
You, not the world, My face shall see.
My peace I leave with you. Amen.”


Sunday, August 14, 2022

What should catechesis do?

As someone who had not taught catechism class to youth for seven years and now finds himself back in that role, I have more questions than I once had over what catechesis can or should do.  As I have said before, when I went through catechism class more than half a century ago, the main object was to memorize the catechism.  It was explained in class (2 hours on a Saturday morning for two years) but the explanation was more a reiteration of what had been memorized and a review of the Bible passages listed in the Catechism (1941 version) than it was designed to impart understanding.  It culminated in the storied question and answer period before the congregation (six in my class so plenty of answers and Bible passages to memorize!).  It was as if the whole purpose was to regurgitate what I had memorized at the appropriate moment.  I do not blame anyone for this -- it was the same for my dad and his dad before him.  But I did begin my pastoral work with the desire to impart something more than just knowledge -- knowledge being not a bad start.

Through the nearly 40 years I taught every year, I had mixed success.  Some youth from solid church families seemed to dig into the catechism with questions and observations that were remarkably profound but the majority sat and listened as I had done before them.  I do not discount the good of memorization or of listening to the text explained and I am sure many of them continue to be shaped by and with the catechesis that took place in those classes.  What must be admitted, however, is that those who remain active in the Christian faith (particularly the Lutherans) were aided not simply by what I did in that class but by the example of their parents (and grandparents) and solid foundation of the faith in the home.  I am hesitant to take much credit for anything in their catechesis or in their continued life within the Church.

If knowledge is the thing, the later age for catechesis seems more and more questionable.  Would we not want to impart this knowledge as young as possible so that these same youth have a solid foundation on which to endure the turbulent teenage years -- especially in view of how much change and how fast change has come for all of us but particularly for youth?  In Luther's day, youth catechesis was in the home and the examination took place before the pastor and youth were admitted to the Sacrament much earlier than is probably typical among us today.  That said, when you are trying to impart understanding of often abstract concepts, a later age brings with it a certain measure of maturity in thought that aids that goal.

In the end, the biggest problem I see is not with the Catechism (although I do not believe we solve anything by making the book longer and longer).  The biggest problem lies with what is going on in the youth and the home.  Nearly everything that influences the life of our youth has a competing vision of what is good and right and salutary.  Nearly everything that equips our youth to define themselves and their place in the world is born of a competing worldview in direct conflict with the Scripture and the faith.  Nearly everything in their lives puts faith as one of many influences and values and not the primary influence or value.  It seems to me that this is where catechesis for our youth has to begin.  We can impart all the knowledge in the world to them but until they see themselves and the world around them through the lens of Scripture and faith defines their answers, we have merely compartmentalized Christianity as one of many influences upon them.  This leaves them to choose which fits which part of their lives and which they use to meet the challenges, questions, and issues they face within those lives.

It seems to me that perhaps we may have to forego some of the knowledge in order to begin with something that helps them know and confess a Biblical, Christian, and Lutheran worldview or else we will continue to lose so many of those who might have been raised in the Church but were never really defined by their faith.  In this endeavor, the creed takes on an even more strategic role as the confession of this worldview and not simply of their individual faith.  And those are some of my thoughts as I get back into the role of exclusive teacher of the catechism to our youth once again. . .

Saturday, August 13, 2022

The dead live. . .

In our maudlin pursuit of the dead but without the hope and confidence of the resurrection to eternal life in Christ, it appears there is no end to what we will do to have technology substitute for the Crucified and Risen Lord.

By now you have heard that Amazon has revealed an experimental Alexa feature that allows the AI assistant to mimic the voices of users’ dead relatives.  While this might be merely an odd curiosity for the adult, it is a particular danger to the child.  The company demoed the feature at its annual MARS conference, showing a video in which a child asks Alexa to read a bedtime story in the voice of his dead grandmother.  So to the child, hearing grandma speak through Alexa, grandma lives not by divine will and purpose but by the mystery of technology that lives in a box.  “As you saw in this experience, instead of Alexa’s voice reading the book, it’s the kid’s grandma’s voice,” said Rohit Prasad, Amazon’s head scientist for Alexa AI. Prasad introduced the clip by saying that adding “human attributes” to AI systems was increasingly important “in these times of the ongoing pandemic, when so many of us have lost someone we love.”  “While AI can’t eliminate that pain of loss, it can definitely make their memories last,” said Prasad.  

Well, isn't that just wonderful.  The loss of loved ones is appeased and broken hearts repaired through algorithms and computer chips that give us what we really want -- not a genuine eternal life but the appearance of still being among us in some vague spiritual, technological manner.  Once again we have proved how foolish we are to trade the reality that God offers in Christ for a sham and a fake truth that can console our feelings for the moment but offers nothing really to hold onto for tomorrow.

Friday, August 12, 2022

No accidents. . .

Accidents are unintended -- whether the sound of metal with the crash of a car or the food that inadvertently gets altered by the addition or omission of an ingredient from the recipe.  Some accidents are pleasant -- like when you stumble upon a wonderful restaurant behind a less than inviting building facade.  Some are terrible -- like when a gun goes off without intent and a body stiffens in pain.  In between are a thousand other variations of good and bad.  But they are all accidents.  Nobody saw it coming until it was there.

A life is no accident -- at least to God.  While we may be surprised when a sexual encounter results in pregnancy, we should not be.  Though sometimes parents speak of an unplanned pregnancy as an accident, it is not.  Life is not ours to control, not ours to create, and not ours to prevent.  It is the domain of God.  I think we have forgotten that.  We have coined terms that make it seem like life is within our reach -- an extension of our technological skill in the realm of reproduction.  It sounds so scientific but the words that we use from everything from in vitro to abort make it seem like it is controllable and we can be in charge.  That is the lie we have taught ourselves -- life is an accident and we can deal with this accident the way we might deal with any accident.  We can fix it so that it never happened or deal with it on its own terms.  What fools we have been.  Life is not an accident.

No human being is an accident, no conception a surprise or inconvenience to God -- though we might describe it as such from our perspective.  God is not some spectator who watches us decide, define, and delineate life.  The promise of sex is not revealed in pleasure but in the potential for life -- a potential we defer to God to define.  For the great mystery of life is that He knows what we do not.  He knows us before anyone else does.  He loves us when we were not even known to our mother or father.  That is the message of the great prophet:  Before I ever formed you in the womb I knew you (Jer 1:4).  The Lord created our being, knit us together in our mother’s womb, and breathed into us the breath of life.   When we give thanks to God for all the wonder of our being, only then can we begin to discover the full measure of this mystery.  He know our soul and body before we know ourselves.  He wrote into us all that we would be before we knew it.  We can have no secret from Him.  All of this is a wonder worthy of our meditation and appreciation and it begets a reverence for life that is profound.  Read Psalm 139. 

It is often a mystery to us why human life is conceived for some or at some times and not for others or at other times.  Hidden in that mystery is the realization that not every child in the womb is welcome, why some are born into terrible circumstance, poverty, disability, disadvantage, or unwanted.  To admit that the answer lies within the domain of sin does not make it logical to us or reason our way out of the pain of it all.  Faith is not built upon nice, neat little answers but upon the mystery revered and honored and believed.  We want to make it all simple and plain, logical and reasonable.  We want to believe that life can be controlled, prevented, or make possible at will.  To believe these things is to admit a lie which does nothing to honor life but everything to diminish it and turn it into something cheap.  Life is not cheap.  Not the child who miscarries in the womb and not the child who is killed in that same womb for the sake of inconvenience.  Life is precious.  We will not build anything lasting or good by diminishing life or by treating it as if it were nothing special.  It will only come back on us when our own lives can no longer be judged worth living or in pain we would do anything to keep from living another day.  The only surrender that matters is the one that trusts in the Word of the Lord and judges life not by what we see or want or desire but by God's will and purpose.