Thursday, July 18, 2019

There can be no remorse from those not responsible. . .

Repentance is universally understood as the only fitting response to the Word of God proclaimed but repentance is impossible for those who believe they are not responsible for their thoughts, words, and deeds.  Indeed, in a victim culture, no one is responsible (except the privileged white male).  Everyone else has an out.  It is not their fault.  They had no other choice, their upbringing left them wounded or scarred, or they did not know better.  In any case, remorse can come only from those who believe that they are responsible for their thoughts, words, and deeds.

In the same way, repentance cannot come from those who do not believe in sin or who do not believe that they sin.  So when we see sin defined as good or evil praised, the end result is that repentance is made more difficult.  Although it is always true that faith under the guidance of the Spirit opens the eyes of the heart and the guilt of the sinner to more and worse sins than they ever imagined, without this guidance and under the delusion of a society in which there is no shame, there can be no remorse or repentance.

This is the struggle not against earthly enemies and powers but the spiritual blindness that works against repentance and therefore against the God who meets repentance with forgiveness and restoration.  The Christian lives within the tension of being in the world but not of the world and part of this conflict is the great temptation of irresponsibility either due to their status as victims or to the failure of the wrongs to be defined as sins.

So we live in a world in which to proclaim the Law is to risk the label of hate speech.  To challenge the victimhood of those who had the terrible misfortune of having wants denied or having been told to deny the wills and desires of part of their sinful selves is cruelty beyond measure.  To label the natural wants or desires of the heart as sin is to deny the goodness of the self and the God who made the person (warts and all).

We must begin to see the consequences of living in a culture of victimhood and the absence of any real sin except the denial of individual desire.  Remorse and repentance are not possible from those who believe they are not responsible or their thoughts, words, and deeds are not sinful.  And these are becoming the twin polarities of our modern world in which Christianity must live.  Because of this faithfulness is needed now more than ever, strength and boldness before those who challenge the preaching of the Law, and courage to give the true freedom of the Gospel to those whom the Law has convicted.  Now more than ever. . .

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Sad to report. . .

After years of strong growth, total charitable giving rose just 0.7% in 2018, according to a new report on philanthropy by Giving USA. When adjusted for inflation, total giving declined 1.7%.  Last year was the first time the impact of the new tax law, which eliminated or sharply reduced the benefits of charitable giving for many would-be donors, could be measured.  Altogether, individuals, bequests, foundations and corporations donated an estimated $427.71 billion to U.S. charities in 2018, Giving USA said. But giving by individuals fell, while contributions from foundations and corporations rose.

Under the new law, total itemized deductions must exceed $12,000, the new standard deduction, up from the former $6,350 standard deduction, for single people. Married couples need deductions exceeding $24,000, up from $12,700.  As a result, fewer people itemize, which means many don’t reap the tax benefits of their charitable contributions.

That is the report. . . you can read more at the link.

What does this mean?  I wish I knew.  It might mean that some of the heavy hitters are waiting to see how things pan out under tax law changes.  It might mean that some folks who would have gained a deduction under the old system are now waiting to see, perhaps combining their donations to one year for the most benefit.  It might mean that other charities have suffered more than churches.  It might mean that Americans are spending more on themselves.  What does this mean?  Who knows?

But the sad reality is that stewardship is the Achilles' heel of Christianity.  We have some very generous and good givers whose faithfulness is amazing.  But we also have many for whom stewardship is largely unknown, whose giving is occasional and not regular, and whose motivation for giving is more for a cause than out of a thankful heart for all of God's goodness.  Those whose giving might be more impacted by tax law changes are those for whom stewardship represents more of a bill or cost than grateful heart and the opportunity to participate in the work of God's Kingdom.

As we struggle to meet the challenges of congregations who are finding the cost of a full-time pastor greater than they are willing or able to meet, we find ourselves addressing again the issue of stewardship.  As we look as the financial health of our church institutions and of the national structures, we meet the challenges of funding things not easy to warm up to (administrative costs) vs giving toward specific and more public causes (building buildings or missionary support).  Everyone wants to fund these things but few are interested in the support of nuts and bolts costs (from heat and AC to paper and paperclips).  Yet these too are items vitally important to the work of the church and to the fulfillment of God's mission locally in the parish and all the way down the chain to national church structures.

Big News Little Debt. . .

The LCMS, like many denominations, has struggled financially in its national offices while money to individual Districts has remained relatively unchanged and money that remains with the congregation steadily has risen.  In fact, the real money given to our national church budget by congregations and sent through districts has declined since its highest point int he 1970s.  It is a battle for our church body and for many to remain solvent and still fulfill the core mission and meet the responsibilities assigned to the national offices.  Part of the problem has been debt.

The LCMS has accumulated debt from its colleges and their expansion as universities as well as from income shortfalls.  All of this has happened while giving to national causes (everything from disaster relief to personalize mission support) has done much better.  The numbers crunch has been a chief topic of debate for our Synod's Board of Directors and one of the most difficult tasks of our LCMS Chief Financial Officer.

But that task has been made much easier!
By action of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) Board of Directors (BOD) at its May 17 meeting in St. Louis, the generations-old “historic debt” of the Concordia University System (CUS) — and of its predecessor, the Board for Higher Education — has been retired. The arrangements to bring an end to the debt, requiring a number of steps over many months, were finalized June 19.

To cover the $13 million outstanding balance — accumulated operating deficits and capital-related debt at the schools — plus a $2 million line of credit extended to Concordia College Alabama in Selma before it closed last year, the BOD used a portion of the income from three sources, all in Asia: (1) the $2.2 million repayment of a startup loan by Concordia International School Hanoi, (2) a $4 million dividend from Concordia International School Shanghai, and (3) a combined $22 million from the sale of three properties in Hong Kong.

From the outset of its discussions on how to use the Asia funds, the BOD has stipulated that none of the sales proceeds would go toward day-to-day operating expenses and budget purposes. Rather, the money first would apply to retiring the CUS debt, with the remaining funds allocated for strategic programs, to be designated by the Board, in consultation with its Audit Committee and the Synod’s Operations Team.   With the cloud of debt cleared from the skies, the Synod will save $1.4 million a year in principal and interest payments. This is the first time in living memory that all Synod indebtedness to external entities stands at zero.
What this means is financial relief from the extreme pressure on the budget but what it does NOT mean is that we are now flush with funds or that we are no longer in the midst of a financial crunch.  “This is a milestone achievement,” said BOD Chairman Rev. Dr. Michael L. Kumm, “because paying off the historic debt will free up millions of dollars in mission and ministry funds for years to come.
“The Board is grateful to all who played a part in bringing this to fruition. It is a very good day for the church — a great blessing from the Lord.”  Dr. Kumm is correct in this but nobody in the parish should be sighing with relief and thinking about withholding money from the general Synod coffers.  Now more than ever we need to capitalize upon the moment and renew our support for our work in common -- including but not limited to international missions and training church workers and pastors.

“For the first time in many decades, perhaps in a century, the LCMS has no external debt,” said LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison.  The late Rev. Dr. William F. Meyer chronicled the origin of this debt, much of it during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s  when “the majority of [our] colleges migrated from junior-college to senior-college status (Seward and River Forest were the senior colleges that received students from the junior colleges).”

Several financial campaigns were aimed at this problem -- “Forward in Remembrance” (1979) then “Alive in Christ” (1983).  But neither campaign was able to compete with the growth of that debt -- reaching $78 million in 1992(about $142 million in today’s dollars).  Some help came from other land sales (asset rich in some cases while being cash poor) and Synod kept paying down on the debt until the end of FY2011, when it was $20 million. By 2014, it was $13 million, only to be increased $3 million in a failed attempt to save Concordia, Selma.  Another nearly $3 million was spend before Ann Arbor was merged with Mequon in 2012.

Three Hong Kong properties were sold, considered excess when a move was made to Taiwan.  “Look,” President Harrison said, “the Synod bought the Hong Kong four-plex [one of the three Hong Kong properties sold] years ago for $800,000. We just sold it for $17 million. That’s a great investment, and paying off debt is good stewardship of the dollars entrusted to us.”  All of this without harming our work in Asia and China.  Other Hong Kong properties once owned by the LCMS have been deeded over to the Hong Kong Synod.

Good news, indeed!  But don't let it go to your head.  We need to fund the full mission of Synod.  Our headquarters has laid off people and is down to a remnant of its once large numbers of employees.  We are about as frugal as we can be while doing what our congregations expect the national church to do.  And we should do more.  So don't give up or forget the cause.  This is great news but now more than ever we need to pull together.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Love hits the eye first. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 5, Proper 10C, preached on Sunday, July 14, 2019.

    In all the movies, love begins with a look.  The eyes meet in a magic moment and love is born.  Before you know a name or anything else, love is seen with the eye.  Maybe it was like that for you in real life.  Love was born through a glance, a look, a vision – whether pretend or real, whether actual or imagined.  Love begins with a look.  So in the parable the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side.  They wanted to avoid seeing the wounded and bleeding man.  If they did not see him, they would not feel for him compassion or feel any guilt in walking around him on their way.

    It has been that way all through Scripture.  Remember Jesus story of the rich man and Lazarus?  The rich man did not see the pauper at his gate.  The rich man figured if he did not see the man in need, he was not really there.  It is a game learned in childhood – a bigger version of hide and seek except here the goal is not to find problems, not to find needs, not to find duty or responsibility for another.  The winner is not the one who hides but the one who refuses to look and see.  It is the pretend world that thinks that bad things will go away if you just ignore them.

    I don’t think anyone of us wants to see our neighbor in need.  If you see him, you feel guilty for not helping him.  If you help him, it might cost you time or effort or money and still he may be fixed.  The safest thing of all is to pass by on the other side, to walk around the people who are wounded and bleeding, sorrowful and suffering, hungry and thirsty.  The priest and the Levite had good reason not to look and not to see the neighbor in need.  Just like the reasons you tell yourself why the hungry are somebody else’s responsibility and why you cannot help people who refuse to help themselves.  We cannot even look into the face of need for either it will evoke guilt for our failure to help or it will move us to bleed with those who bleed and suffer with those who suffer.  So the safe path is to walk around, to give wide berth to suffering.

    This is what God should have done.  God had every reason to ignore our suffering. We were only getting what we chose and suffering what we deserved for our sins.  God had every right to consign us to the fate Adam and Eve first chose in Eden and every one of us has chosen by our own sins of thought, word, and deed, by the good left undone and the evil done all so willingly.  Love always begins with a look and the first words of the Gospel are that God saw us in our need.  He saw us in our sin.  He saw us not as a people who were getting what they deserved but as a people who He had the power to redeem – not with any self-help program but with His own blood shed and His body offered to death on the tree of the cross and His own life laid in the darkness of the grave so that we might have hope. 

    This parable certainly has something to tell us about our own pretend world in which we hide ourselves from seeing the suffering around us but first of all it points us to the God who saw us in our need and whose heart was filled with mercy and who delivered up His only Son that we might be forgiven and have everlasting life.  This parable first points us to what God has done and it all began with a look.  The Lord looked into the future and knew that Adam and Eve would squander their birthright for a pot of lies and still He made them.  The Lord looked at the spectacle of men doing what is right in their own eyes all the while murdering with words and weapons, lusting with desire and act, lying until they could not recognize the truth, and making their peace with death.  The Lord looked and saw it all and still He loved us and promised to become our Savior.

    Who is my neighbor?  Words used to justify our blindness now become the first question of which the answer is Jesus.  Who is my neighbor?  We do not see because we choose not to look but God could not look away.  Jesus tells us not a story with a lesson or moral but a story to describe the Gospel of the One who looked and saw and carried the burden of humanity’s sin as His own and who paid the price to save what was left for death.  Jesus tells us what it is that will earn eternal life and then give it away to a people who do not deserve it for that is the Gospel.  Jesus gives us the preview to the cross in this story.  We were the ones who were robbed of what God intended and we were the ones who were beaten down by life and its trials and its death.  We were the ones left on the side of the road.  God saw us and love looked on us and mercy saved us.  And now who are we?  We are His own children.

    Who is my neighbor?  Be careful what you ask for the answer may not be what you want.  Your neighbor?  The one in need.  The one you do not want to see.  The one you want to pass by and give wide berth.  See him as God has seen you and love him as God has loved you and carry his burdens as God carried yours.  Go and do likewise.  For those who have been seen by the merciful God learn by His Spirit to see.  They see themselves not as the innocent but as the guilty and they address the Lord in words and in tears of repentance.  They see that it was no small thing to save them but the greatest of sacrifices and they rejoice that God loved them so much.  They see a world in need not as a burden upon them but as a field in which to plant this Gospel see in words and works of love, in the hopes that many will hear and believe. 

    If you came today like the lawyer hoping to be justified, you may have pled your obvious sins and explained away the big ones.  They are always somebody else’s fault.  But you got more than you bargained for. The Lord has laid bare your heart and called you to repentance.  The Lord gave you mercy beyond your worth.  The Lord saved you not because you were worth saving but because He looked at you and could not look away.  That is the real look of love.

    And in response to what He has done for you, you may promise to be better, to look more and notice more the poor and wounded around you and may be even toss a can of soup in the food pantry cart.  But what Jesus wants is for you to see that you are the wounded, left for dead, who was healed and saved by the Savior who became your neighbor, no matter what the cost. The point remains what do you see?  Now if the Lord tells us this parable only so that we might see the neighbor in need, help and serve that neighbor in need, and then be justified by the keeping the Law, this is a story without any happy ending.  For if our Lord tells us this story only to point us back to the Law in the hopes that we will try harder and do better at keeping the commandments, we remain lost and condemned.  No, the point here is not to tell us to do better at loving our neighbor but to keep our eyes upon Him.  For if we see Christ as our Good Samaritan, Him who looks and sees us in our need and who offers Himself up for our redemption, then we will see everything differently – including and especially our neighbor in need.

    If we could have done this by ourselves, we would not need a Savior.  If the Law could justify us we would not need Jesus at all.  The Law cannot save us.  Only Christ can.  His compassion and mercy are what redeems us from our lost condition.  Jesus is not telling us to look for people to help and to help them, Jesus is telling us to keep our eyes on Him.  For if we see ourselves as the people who cannot save ourselves and if we see Jesus as Savior and Redeemer, then we will see everything differently.  The Scriptures  are all about Jesus and the goal of our lives is to live as the new people we are in Christ and part of that means giving up the idea we can fix what is wrong or do what is needed to make things right.  And from that, comes the fruits of this new life in good works for our neighbor that do nothing to purchase our salvation but show to the world who we are and to whom we belong.

    The key to this parable is Jesus’ question:  Who is my neighbor?  Jesus is our neighbor.  He refused to leave us for dead but died that we might live.  He healed us with the mercy of forgiveness so that no sin could condemn us.  He wrapped our wounds in His righteousness and placed His own holiness upon as our new clothing in baptism.  He is not telling us to be like Him but to be the new people He has made us to be by baptism and faith, to keep our eyes on Jesus, for in Him good works are good. In Him we have been transformed and in Him we have something to offer a world in need.  Help for today and the Gospel that redeems them for all eternity.  So keep your eyes on this mercy and it will bring to fruition the good works that glorify God and show you as His own children.

    God did not have to save you.  He did not have to look upon your needs and claim your weakness for Himself.  He did not have to send forth His one and only Son to be your Savior.  He did not have to suffer what was necessary to pay sin’s awful price.  But those whose eyes which are fixed upon the mercy God has shown you will see the places to do good and will desire to do good – because they have been saved, because the Spirit is at work in them bearing in their lives the good fruits of the Kingdom.

    This story does not tell you what you must do to be saved.  It tells you what He has done to save you.  And it calls you to live as the saved, the loved by the Lord, who see Christ and see their neighbor and love them as Christ has loved you.  Where we look, we will see the people of God’s compassion.  This is not a call to be nice or to be better people.  This is the story of what God has done.  If the cross is in your view, the fruits of that cross will show forth in your life.  But if the Law is in your view, the pursuit of self-justification will never get past the question – who is my neighbor.  Christ gets you past the question by showing you the answer – in His arms outstretched in suffering and His life planted in the grave.  He is your neighbor.  That is the lens through which all of life is seen differently.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

The mouth that roared. . .

Even President Trump's most ardent supporters cringe at his self-serving bravado and his mouth that seems miles ahead of his head or his heart.  There have been moments when I have been pleasantly surprised by what he has accomplished but I had to wince at his words on the way to getting there.  On the other hand, without an ideology to drive him, I live in fear of what he will say.  He is undisciplined and inconsistent and he says whatever comes into his head.  But he is not alone.

It appears that Pope Francis is cut from the same cloth.  He is self-serving, his mouth is way ahead of his head, you have to wince at his words more often than not, he seems less ideological than reactive, and nobody know what might come out of his mouth.  In the end, his inconsistency and lack of discipline make him the worst kind of leader.  But he is the Pope Rome has to live with.  Sadly, it is impossible for any other Christian to completely distance himself from the impact of Pope Francis.  Even a Lutheran like me and a Lutheran like some of those who comment on this blog cannot avoid the collateral damage a Pope like Francis incurs.

I believe that Trump owes America better than what he is giving us.  I know that Christianity deserves more careful leaders. We have enough enemies outside.  We cannot afford to have those who lead us inflicting as much damage as they are.  Politics or church, we face daunting challenges and great problems.  From our leaders we expect nothing less than faithful stewardship.  Grand ideas and great courage would be great but at the core we need those who will conserve and care for what has been entrusted to them and those who can deliver faithfully it to those who would come after them.

Leaving the political aspect aside, I wonder if we do not expect too much from our leaders.  We want a savior when what we need is steward.  We want someone to work miracles when what we need is someone to work hard.  We want someone with all the answers when what we need is one who knows the difference between truth and falsehood.  We want a great manager when what we need is a prophet who will speak forth the Word of God.  We want someone who can read the times like tea leaves in the bottom of a cup when what we need is someone who can read the Word of God and address us with that Word.  We want a great orator when what we need is voice who speaks Jesus to us -- simply, boldly, and faithfully.

Lutherans do not have popes.  Some even insist that we don't have bishops.  Whatever you call them, we need leaders who are, simply speaking, men of the Word.  We need men who can discern truth from error, who can preach and teach Christ, and who will help us to be who we are as Lutherans in order that we might be better Lutherans.  I expect that this is what Rome had hoped for as well.  When you find it, stick with the one who exemplifies this faithfulness. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace

In a few short days the delegates will come together at a convention center in Tampa, Florida, to do the business of the church.  Their purpose is a holy one but it will be hard to tell this group from any other group of conventioneers gathered in an off season location.  They will sit at tables aimed at a stage with all the technological toys to keep our eyes up front and on the podium.  The leaders will follow Robert's Rules of Order and keep us on task as the clock ticks down (it costs money for every hour we are in that convention center).  We will take time out for devotion and prayer, for preaching and singing, and the appropriate images will flash on the screen.  We will hear stories of success and tales of trouble and be presented with resolutions designed to help us repeat the good news and repair the causes of the bad news.  It will be dignified but not without jokes or humor.  There will be a giant room of vendors with all the freebies conventioneers love and a bookstore in which to purchase the latest offerings from our church press.  There will be rushes to lunches and lines at the restrooms and calls to order and questions called and then the same people will board the transportation modes that brought them there to return home.

But we dare not forget that this is not a business, not a corporation, not a cause, and not a rally.  It is the work of the CHURCH we are doing.  Under it all we have an agenda not set by a president's office or floor committees but by God.  It will be our task through it all to remember this when it will seem like this is either fun and games or political drama.  Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace -- that is why we are here.  We are not here to invent new doctrines or to latch on to quirky or novel interpretations of Scripture or to leave behind the sacred deposit for the promise of something new or different.  We are not here to exercise political muscle.  We are not here to raise up a purpose or a cause different from the one the Lord has given.  Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, that is enough of an agenda in a world growing ever unfriendly to the cause of Christ and ever more difficult for the baptized as they live out their vocation of new life in Christ.  That is enough of an agenda as we face the prospect of the mother church of far off places being dwarfed by the Gospel success there and our own decline.  That is enough of an agenda as we are tempted to mimic the entrepreneur style evangelicals in their successful work building little kingdoms on earth.  That is enough of an agenda as we recall with nostalgia the past that seemed so much easier and more friendly.  That is enough of an agenda as the LCMS gathers.

Maintain. . . if we do this, we have done enough.  If we maintain the unity of the Spirit not through vaguely worded motions that mean what we think they mean but through holding onto the faith and holding it up in our own day, that is enough.  If we maintain the unity of the Spirit through the refreshment of the Word of God, through the common voices raised in prayer, and through the many voices joined as one in song, that is enough.  If we maintain the unity of the Spirit and can do it in the bond of peace, as brothers and sisters in Christ through the grace of our common life born in baptism and our life refreshed through confession and absolution, that is enough.

I do not have huge expectations for Tampa and I hope few are so tempted to pin their hopes and dreams on one convention and a few votes.  Yes, they mean something and yes we must do the church's business but we are not a business or a political party or conventioneers.  We are God's people, representing God's parishes, here to remember that in all we say and do.  It is God's own enterprise and His Word will not return to Him empty.  It is enough that we send it by speaking it to those inside the room and before the world outside.  Maintain.  Maintain our doctrinal integrity, our confidence in the efficacious Word of God, our conviction that the Sacraments bestow what they sign, our joy that the Spirit is at work in the means of grace, and that no one and nothing can deter God's purpose or prevent His Kingdom from its appointed destiny or steal us unwillingly from His flock.  If we can go to a church convention and then return home again without having lost anything of our doctrine and truth, piety and practice, worship and witness, then I call that a success.  Maybe I am old or cynical but I think I have come to trust less in princes and dominions and more in God's providence and purpose.  So if we can simply maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace in our convention and bring home the same, I call that a good year for our church body.