Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Because it is living. . .

I was reading a piece that suggested that the world changed when music ceased to be live and was experienced mostly through recordings.  I had not really thought about it like that.  The author questioned why with so many more people in the world there seemed to be fewer child prodigies.  He suggests that the fact that most music is no longer experienced live but through recordings has changed more than we can know.  Not being an expert in the field, I would not venture to suggest why.  I only know that it has changed and there is no way to turn the clock back.

But at least within the domain of the Church, I am prepared to comment.  For too long we have paid lip service to Luther's grand statement that music is the servant of the Word and then treated the music of the Divine Service as if it were something even less than a soundtrack to the words.  We have boxed up CDs of music to be used within the Divine Service, arranged according to taste and preference.  We have organ for those who like it and contemporary Christian songs and sounds for those who like it.  Not to mention spoken masses for those who don't care to sing or are not moved by music (at least they claim not to be).  We spend our money on audio equipment to play what we want and how we want it rather than spending our money on instruments and people who can play them.  We no longer believe in live music -- in real organs and organists.  Maybe the pop songs that masquerade as worship music like live music and praise bands but they also like synthesizers and mixers to change what it sounds like so that it sounds like what they want -- even if playing or singing  it did not achieve that goal.

Why not, people ask.  Why can't we have recorded music at worship?  Interesting that the same question comes from folks who either cannot or will not pay for real musicians playing real organs as well as folks who just want Sunday morning to sound like their playlist.  The point that both sides have in common is that music is merely a tool and why would purists presume to tell us what tool to use.  I am not really sure either side wants to sing.  Some want to be entertained by song and some want the illusion of a cathedral but not the bill for it.  So both come together around the audio system that delivers both.

It is the same idea that gave birth to online worship which is the perfect substitute for in person services or virtual communions that replace the need for the assembly.  Technology is not our answer.  It will not rescue us.  The Church must awaken to this and be prepared to provide the instruments worthy of worship and those to play them. The Divine Service is a living thing.  The living Word and the Bread of Life are its center, the font and source of life that death cannot overcome.  The focus is not on us or what we do but upon Christ who bestows His Spirit, delivers His gifts, forgives our sins, and transforms us from the dead into the living who can never die.  Ours is but the response of faith and praise but that it is but a response does not diminish it in any way. Rather, it does just the opposite.  It ennobles our words and song.  But pressing play on a piece of technology is not the same as the offering of voices in song, hands and feet moved by the skills and talents of a musician, and the sacrifice of time, energy, and money to make it happen.

We will have learned a terrible lesson from this pandemic if we have learned that virtual worship is the same as being there, if we have learned that there is no difference between canned music and live, and if we have turned the Divine Service into something cheap and easy.  God knows the difference between live and Memorex even if we do not.


Monday, July 13, 2020

Religious signs without religious meaning. . .

There are religious overtones to the recent protests in the wake of George Floyd's murder that are not easy to talk about.  I am not the first to point his out and I am sure I will not be the last.  But it is a troubling view of the relationship between religion and politics, church and state, faith and the public life.  On the one hand, there are those who have taken up an adversarial relationship against certain religion.  There is no doubt, for example, that the particular rules laid upon churches restricting their assembly but relieved of those who wish to protest is a sign and mark of this disdain for religion.  I wrote before of Governor Cuomo's proud statement that God did not beat back the COVID menace but people did (translation he did).  Yet at the same time, the kinship of some with the protests and protesters has the mark of religion all over it.

Reading from Matt Taibbi (someone with Rolling Stone press credentials):
“Each passing day sees more scenes that recall something closer to cult religion than politics. White protesters in Floyd’s Houston hometown kneeling and praying to black residents for “forgiveness… for years and years of racism” are one thing, but what are we to make of white police in Cary, North Carolina, kneeling and washing the feet of Black pastors? What about Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer kneeling while dressed in “African kente cloth scarves”?
There is symbolism here that goes beyond frustration with police or even with racism: these are orgiastic, quasi-religious, and most of all, deeply weird scenes, and the press is too paralyzed to wonder at it. In a business where the first job requirement was once the willingness to ask tough questions, we’ve become afraid to ask obvious ones.”
The issue here is not the persecution of religion but the hijacking of religion for political purpose.  Pelosi the nominal Roman Catholic and Schumer the nominal Jew seem to have little affection for the doctrine and piety of their faiths except to claim that they are in good standing even when they offend those faiths with their practice or politics.  Neither of them is about to change their politics for the sake of religion but politicians are more likely to use the faith for political purposes.  Yet even this is not quite the same as what we have seen in the protests.

The danger to religion is not so much that it will become captive to politics but that it will cease to mean much of anything.  When those outside the faith and those on the fringes of that faith use religious symbols for political purpose, they do more than offend.  They weaken those symbols so that they become meaningless.  While some might celebrate that the courts allow nativity scenes, when that permission comes at the expense of what that symbol means, nothing is gained and everything is lost.  This is also true when political scenes take on religious signs and symbols.  The politics gain is religion's loss.  In the end it is more than weird but worrisome.  We should be noticing and, more than that, we should be objecting.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Ministers and the Ministry. . .

Article 13 of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession says,“If ordination is understood as carrying out the ministry of the Word, we are willing to call ordination a sacrament” (Ap 13:9). And a little further on the Latin text continues: “For the Church has the command to appoint ministers, which should be most pleasing to us, because we know that God approves this ministry and is present in this ministry.” 
Article VIII has been approved entirely, in which we confess ... Ministers act in Christ’s place and do not represent their own persons,according to Luke 10:16. Ungodly teachers are to be deserted because they no longer act in Christ’s place, but are anti-christs. [quia ministri funguntur vice Christi, non repraesentant suam personam]. (Apology 7:47)

The apostolic ministry is bound to certain persons and is not simply theory. Christ did not institute abstract functions of a ministry, but He has called concrete people into this concrete ministry.  One of the greater dangers to the Church today is to create a divide between the functions and the office in such way that the functions are important but the office is not.  Christ Himself has not only authorized this office but is present in this office.  He is the One acting through the ministry of those He has called, authorized and sent and they do not exist or act apart from His own authority and promise.  Therefore any who would mandate the functions without the office, that is, what the ministry does apart from the ministers, is in violation not only of the Lutheran Confessions but of Scripture itself.  There is no purely functional understanding of the Ministerial Office or ministry in theory, since “publicly teaching, preaching and distributing the sacraments” (CA XIV) always the charge of given to concrete people and on behalf of concrete people who receive them.  Let us be blunt here.  
To speak of the presence of Christ in the Word, in the sacraments, in the Church within the scope of confessional Lutheranism is not possible without at the same time speaking of the presence of Christ in the ordained Pastoral Office.  [Lutheran Theological Review, Lutheran faculties of the Seminaries of the Lutheran Church-Canada 2013]
How strange it is that in our day we are so quick to pass off on certain things as merely apostolic custom.  If anything, to cite apostolic custom is not to be dismissive but to elevate what has the authority of apostolic custom to a level whereby the Church must take it seriously and cannot afford to disregard it as something unimportant or even adiaphora.  The Office of the Ministry does not exist because apostolic precedence or for the sake of good order.  The Office of the Ministry exists by virtue of Christ’s will and for the sake of the salvation of sinners and therefore the Lutheran Confessions locate this office within the God's plan of salvation.  What it is that confers the authority of this office is itself not unimportant or trivial but of the greatest seriousness.  It is for this reason that the Confessions were willing to call ordination a sacrament.  It has nothing to do with an ontological change in the ordained but reverence and devotion to Christ's saving will and purpose and the most devout and solemn attention to that Office for what Christ says it is and not for what we esteem it to be.  In nearly every case over history and in our present day, when the holders of that Office are diminished, the Office suffers and when the Office suffers those who are served by that Office suffer and therefore the work of God suffers.  When we honor those who deliver to us the means of grace, we are not elevating them above others in some hierarchical fashion but remembering with thanksgiving our Lord Jesus Christ and His saving will and purpose in accomplishing salvation for us and then delivering that saving grace to sinners to forgive their sins and to those marked for death to give them life.  There are those who love to forget this just as there are pastors who hate to remember the true nature and gift of this Office.




Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Church MILITANT. . .

On March 22 of this year, as the corona virus pandemic was ramping up and churches were ramping down, I preached at the ordination and installation of the Rev. Richard Neely Owen.  In the sermon I mentioned the rather unsettling circumstances with which his ministry was beginning.  The service itself had been scheduled for the parish he is now serving but when the Kentucky governor closed down that venue, we shifted it about thirty miles south, across the border in Tennessee, where I serve.  So I was a little exuberant about this and proudly proclaimed that the Church here on earth was always the Church Militant, that persecutions and threats and enemies were the norm for our life together and a pastor's service to his people, and that while a pandemic was exceptional, the battle mode of the faith was the norm.  After saying his first mass here at Grace, it would be weeks and and months before he would regularly offer the Lord's body and blood to the people of the parish he was called to serve.

Now some have been unusually at ease with the shut down of the Church.  Rome quickly cancelled Easter and the bishops fell all over themselves trying to outdo what could not be done in the Lord's House.  Baptists in my neck of the woods are only weeks into resuming in person worship.  Big box evangelicals seem to be pretty happy with their online stuff.  Lutherans, a mixed bag in the best of circumstances, have continued to bicker about who is wise, who is faithful, what is the threat, and why their response is the only reasonable response.  The reality, of course, is that America is not the same everywhere and the threat from this virus is not the same everywhere.  I understand that even if some do not.  There may be places where there was no choice but to close the doors.  However, I believe those places are fewer rather than larger in number and, given Lutheranism's rural tilt, it would and should have been possible for more churches to find ways to continue rather than simply shutter the doors and send people home to watch the screens.

That brings up a point which, now that we are freed from some of the most urgent matters of survival, we could and ought discuss.  What does it mean to be the Church Militant?  Well, let us begin with the foundation for that question.  Who is the Lord?  The Psalmist has a pretty good answer:  Who is this King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle!  Because the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love does NOT mean He is milquetoast.  Our God is not schizophrenic -- a mild mannered Clark Kent at some times and a powerful Superman at others.  He does not vacillate between naughty and nice.  He is always the Lord, strong and mighty, and no stronger or mightier than when He meets our death, pays the price for our sin, and suffers for the punishment due us all.  Hidden in the guise of weakness is the Lord strong and mighty and we dare never forget it.  His surrender to be the Victim for our sin was not the act of a weak God or a fearful man.  He is the God-man whose strength is revealed on the cross and not just in the empty tomb.

Strange how it is, then, that the Church seems to muster her strength more to fight on behalf of people and causes other than the faith itself.  Some churches will issue ultimatums and protest the unjust treatment of gay, lesbian, transgender, queer, and every other stab at a gender and identity other than the one you are born with BUT will not fight for the truth of God's Word or over doctrine the Lord warns us against changing.  Some churches will risk dividing people over screens and praise bands but not over the dogmas confessed in the creeds or their own historic confessions.  Some churches will reserve their right to sit in judgment over this president or that or this law or that or this SCOTUS opinion or that but then fall into lock step with the edicts of politicians over what they may do and when they may do it.

IF we are the Church Militant, we should at least remember what it is we are most militant about.  That does not diminish the cause of the poor and the oppressed but it does recall that there is but one institution established by God to preserve and promote the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We are it; we are her.  The Church Militant is a blowhard and a fool if she takes up fighting words at every cause well funded and well articulated by media and culture but stumbles, hems, and haws at confessing the simple creed without caveat and equivocation.  Pardon me for saying this but the GLBTQ+ does not need the Church to plead their cause -- they have the voice of the media, the resources to survive, and, apparently, the SCOTUS to come to their aid.  The unborn do not.  The Gospel does not.  The Church Militant about everything else but the cause of life and the Gospel is not the Church at all.  She is not Militant but passive, empty, foolish, and a sham.  She will never hope to see the Church Triumphant, much less become her, but will be chewed up and spit out by the Lord who loves the sinner but cannot stand the lukewarm.

Friday, July 10, 2020

From the point of view of the fish. . .

Sermon for Trinity 5, preached on Thursday, July 9, 2020.

Last Sunday we heard the gentle call of Jesus “come to Me and I will give you rest.”  We might be tempted to see today’s Gospel in the same romantic and soft terms.  But we would be wrong.  Though we typically see the call of Peter and his fishermen partners as something wonderful, it all depends upon your perspective.

Unless I am mistaken, fish do not want to be caught.  And the only fish that jump in a boat are those Asian Carp that nobody wants.  From the fish’s point of view, fishing is brutal and violent.  The hook cuts into the mouth of the fish and pulls him from the water.  The fish knows this and fights against the pull of the line with all his might.  We call it sport but it is a struggle of life and death for the fish.

It is no less brutal and violent when fishing with a net.  The net is thrust into the water and pulls many fish from their calm and familiar lives in the water to the boat and an uncertain future.  The fish show their desperation with mouths opening and closing and bodies wriggling to return to the water and to their normal lives.  We never think about it that much because we like fish and some of us like fishing.

In Luke 5, this brutal and violent enterprise is compared to the Kingdom of God.  God fishes for men with nets, ripping them from all that was familiar and routine into the unknown that requires absolute faith.  The Lord does not ask for reasoned consent but the Holy Spirit is the great disrupter of lives that have become very  comfortable – even without the confines of sin and its death.  In case you have not noticed, people are not flocking into the Church.  They weren’t before this pandemic and even now some of the baptized are fearful of coming back to the Lord’s House. 

We call the Church on earth the Church Militant – the Church fighting and at war.  But we are not merely at war with the devil, we are in a battle with the world and its allure and with our sinful selves that loved the life we were ripped from in baptism.  God cannot separate us from this world without pain.  Luther once suggested that if the baby knew what was happening in his baptism, he would cry out even louder against it.  For in baptism God is literally ripping the person out of one life and planting that person anew in a life that is strange and unfamiliar and can only be lived by faith and trust.

We are the fish in the net.  We come kicking and screaming, scratching and fighting against the work of God to save us.  We do not jump into the net.  God must rip us from our old but familiar lives and steal us to Himself.  Baptism gives life but not before first killing the old life in us.  That old life does not want to die.  The Church is not militant simply because we have enemies on the outside.  The Church is militant because we are fighting against God and His purpose and grace every day of this mortal life until the old Adam is fully dead in us and only Christ lives in us.

For all his bravado, Peter got this and was a coward in the face of God’s call.  He says to Jesus Depart from me for I am a sinful man.  Hidden in those words is St. Peter admitting that he wants to stay a sinful man rather than surrender to the new and uncertain life to which Jesus was calling him.  So Jesus’ response is not to explain the kingdom to Simon Peter but to comfort him.  Do not be afraid.  Jesus is promising a new life beyond St. Peter’s imagination but it is a new life that must be lived by faith and not by sight.  No reasoned mind will trade the old life which you know for this new life that rips you from everything familiar.  No, only the Holy Spirit can intervene to lead the fish to leave behind the water of their death for the water of life.

And so the Church continues to do violence to the fish living blindly in the water of death.  The Church reaches out with the net of the Word to call, gather, and enlighten the fish and mark them for the new life that God gives in Christ.  This new life is not easy or painless but hard and filled with sacrifice.  We bristle against the net of God’s Word and promise and we find ourselves suffocating like the fish lying on the deck of the fishing boat.  Every day we want to jump back into the old water that hides death and every day God’s Spirit must work in us to keep us in the new water of our baptism and in the new life we live by faith.


Remember how Israel complained that Moses had led them by God’s call away from Egypt.  How quickly they forgot their slavery and how easily they remembered the onions and garlic of their past.  They would have returned to it in a minute except for God’s power and grace.  Are we any different?  People do not come to Church because they love it so but because, like St. Peter admitted, we have no other place to go.  There is life only here and only in Christ.  There is forgiveness only here and only in Christ.  The net of God’s grace chafes against us because the old Adam still lives within, the old desires are hard to kill, and the old life is hard to forget.


There is not a husband or wife who has not from time to time wondered what possessed them to marry.  There have not been parents who have not wondered if their lives would have been easier without children.  Is it no wonder than that our old Adam still fights against our new lives in Christ and tempts us with regret when life presents its disappointments and trusting the Lord is put to the test?

God has fished us by the net of His grace for a new life we live by faith, fed and nourished by His Word and Table, destined for the future He has prepared in Jesus.  The Church cannot bait and switch people into God’s Kingdom.  You cannot lie them into that Kingdom by telling them it is painless and easy.  You cannot make them jump into the net.  Only God can call and gather us.  And that is exactly what He does.  The big and small, the fighting predators and the lazy bottom feeders, the fish the world has deemed valuable and those the world would throw away.  God nets them all, you and me, by His grace and favor.  The old flesh senses a trap and rightfully so but we are being trapped not by for harm but for salvation, not for condemnation but forgiveness, not for destruction but for everlasting life.

It is no wonder the world hates Jesus and hates Jesus’ fishermen.  My friends, let us not be foolish but wise in faith, acknowledging that caught up in the net of God’s grace means a daily battle, not only with the powers out there but with the desires in our hearts.  We hold onto the future God has prepared not with eyes that see but with hearts that believe.  We are kept in this faith not by reasoned argument or rich and rewarding experiences but by the voice of absolution that forgives our sins, the words of the God who continues to speak His Word into our ears, minds, and hearts, and by His flesh hidden in bread and His blood hidden in wine, that we the baptized might do His bidding today and dwell with Him eternally.  Amen.

The Great Revealer. . .

Nearly everyone on every theological side there can be presumes that Jesus came to reveal God to us – even those who do not believe Jesus is the Son of God!  Of course, the words to support this tenet of faith come from Jesus Himself.  He insists that He has come to make known the Father, that those who have seen and heard Him, have seen and heard the Father.  He does so not in arrogance but as the perfect servant whose own will is fully in accord with the will of Him who sent Him.  Jesus insists He does not speak His own words or do His own works but the words of the Father and the works of the Father.  It is explicit in His conversation with Thomas and Philip, among the rest of the apostles, and His insistence that He is in the Father and the Father is in Him.

But there is another side to this.  Before he was Pope John Paul II, he wrote that Christ came into the world to reveal man more fully to himself.  In other words, sin not only obscured our view of God or our understanding of who God is and what His will and purpose are, it also obscured our understanding of who we are and what our purpose is.  In restoring to us the God hidden to us because of sin, our Lord was also restoring to us the deep and profound sense of who we are, what our purpose is, why we are here at all, and what we are to do.

Without the revelation of Christ, we do not know who we are or why we are here.  We are like those who grope through darkness toward something they cannot see and will never see.  It does not mean we will live depraved lives or be diabolic or evil.  We may be fully good and righteous in the civil sense of this righteousness but all of this is temporary and outside the realm of God’s saving grace.  God’s revelation is not merely the light to shine on who we are and why we are here for this life, but who we are and what is the eternal shape of our lives.  Because we know the outcome of our lives, we are free to live this life without fear.  Because we know whose we are, we know who we are and live under Christ in His kingdom forevermore.  

This is also made known in another text from the Easter season periscopes.  If you love Me, keep my commandments.  In other words, the fruit of our encounter with the living God whom we meet in baptismal water and in the voice of His Word and in the bread and cup of His altar does not end with forgiveness.  Forgiveness of our sins has to happen before we are able, with clear conscience, to see who we are in Christ and what we are to be about.  Forgiveness must take place before our sinful hearts are able, under the power of the Spirit, to know and desire the things of God (His commandments).  Forgiveness must take place before our wills are set free to seek after the things of God (His commandments). 

Obedience was not dispensed with because of justification; obedience was made possible by justification.  This obedience of faith is sanctification.  It does not earn or merit anything special from God nor does this obedience contribute anything to what Christ has done to save us.  But it is the fruit of Christ’s saving work in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We cannot cooperate with God in our salvation but by the Holy Spirit’s work we can cooperate with God in His work of sanctification.  For us as Lutherans, this has often been a difficult thing for us to talk about, especially from the pulpit.  But sermons must not only preach our justification.  They must preach sanctification so that we may be guided by God’s Word to live the new life ours in Christ.